Seated directly below the large curving glassteel window occupying the forward wall of the Blue Horizon’s new bridge, Renny and Jerry were at the astrogation and helm stations respectively. The cheetah was engaged in navigational calculations for their mission, while the red fox monitored the interstellar traffic orbiting the moon of Dennier below as he guided the new freighter past it on a course set for deep space.
Although there were no overhead lights in the small compartment, the instrumentation covering most of the walls and low ceiling provided ample illumination from backlit dials and control touch pads. Behind the two forward pilot stations were four smaller consoles and seats arranged in a semicircle. Seated at the communication station, Taro tapped out commands on the terminal in front of her as she listened and spoke through a small wire headset.
The preceding three hours had consisted of a test flight around the local planetary body, preparing its crew for the first mission of their new Silloni-made vessel. All systems seemed to be working as designed and each member of the flight team on the bridge and in the engine room were satisfied with the handling of the controls.
Taro sat back in her seat and rubbed her eyes, but her respite didn’t last. A chirp from her board heralded an intercom call, but it took her a moment to find the right control to answer it. The Silloni engineers that designed this new vessel had not adopted the standard layout that most of the Planetary Alignment used, so she was still learning where things were located on her console.
“This is the captain,” she said at last into the small boom microphone that rested in front of her lips.
“…and this is your illustrious chief engineer,” drawled the responding voice. “The checklists are checked and the lights are lit – all green. We’ve performed all designated tests prior to first flight and things are running satisfactory. Suzuko concurs that we may begin as soon as you are ready.”
“Thank you,” the Hestran red fox replied. “Course to destination is still in calculation. Stand by.”
Renny looked up from his board. “Astrogation is ready,” he announced at the same time he transferred figures to Jerry’s terminal. “These coordinates will take us to a relatively empty area I’ve selected north of the ecliptic, estimated time of arrival in forty-five minutes. We don’t want to make our Hyld jump within interstellar traffic, so we will engage the system at that point. I’ll have the coordinates to Se’rei ready for you by the time we get there.”
“Aye to that,” Jerry responded automatically, programming in the data he had been given. They still had to cross commercial shipping lanes to reach their jump point, so the next three quarters of an hour would require a close eye on the surrounding traffic. It had been tricky filing a flight plan that did not include the route to Se’rei, but with luck their instant flight out there and back would circumvent any close monitoring.
Once they began to rise above the current plane of the ecliptic, the traffic should thin out and then they could depart without running over anyone — in spite of Suzuko’s assurances that the Hyld jump would take the ship outside of normal space and that they wouldn’t be running over anybody. Nevertheless, Taro didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances.
“Helm is ready,” Jerry announced a moment later.
“Good, let’s get going,” Taro told him. She looked over her board and then tapped the control for ship-wide intercom with the tip of a claw.
“All hands, all hands,” she broadcast throughout the ship, “Initial company testing of the Blue Horizon has been completed and we are now on our way to our jump point; ETA is approximately forty-five minutes. This is it, boys and girls — we’re on our way. If all goes according to plan with the Hyld jump, we should be near the Se’rei system in about an hour.”
Renny looked back and gave her a thumbs-up sign. The vixen closed the intercom and then looked at her flight team at the stations in front of her. “Well, guys,” she said with a smile, “I’ve enjoyed our time with Merlin and Samantha, but I’m ready to get back to work. This may be a new ship, but we’re all familiar with the business. Hopefully our stop will be short and sweet so we can be on our way.”
“You know things are never that simple for us,” Renny said over his shoulder with a smirk, “but perhaps we’ll get lucky this time.”
“All hands, all hands, prepare for Hyld jump,” Taro announced throughout the ship. “Get into your harnesses. We’ve already covered this in our staff meeting, but as a reminder to those who have never experienced a Hyld jump before, the sensation will make you feel a little ill but only for just a moment. At the jump, hold your breath, close your eyes and tense up. This will help mask the effects to get you through it; I’m told this will become routine as you get used to it with several jumps, but the first time can be a shock, so prepare yourselves.”
The vixen closed the intercom and waited. Jerry reached out to his console with one hand, held down three spring-resistant buttons simultaneously until a diode went from amber to green, and then with his other hand, he flipped a single toggle before releasing them. He looked over his shoulder at Taro and gave her a silent nod, holding his finger ready above a green switch.
Taro reopened the intercom. “Engineering, prepare for Hyld activation,” she announced.
“Engine room is ready,” replied Pockets’ voice over the open circuit. “Safety monitor is green.”
“We are go for Hyld jump in Five… Four… Three… Two… One!”
Jerry quickly closed his eyes, tensed up, held his breath and then stabbed the green switch.
Outside the freighter, a ring of blue-white flame encompassed the entire vessel for a brief instant, and then the ship and the ring vanished from visible space.
Although he’d been through this before, Jerry felt as if his stomach was about to heave violently, but then it was gone just as quickly. He opened his eyes feeling disoriented, and looked around panting; Taro and Renny both still had their eyes clenched, each with pained expressions on their faces. He glanced at the system clock on his console and confirmed that only a moment had passed.
When he looked back over at Renny, the tip of the cheetah’s tongue was sticking out between his lips. “Are you okay?” the fox asked in a raspy voice.
Renny pulled his tongue back in and swallowed. “Yeah,” the feline replied after a moment. “I am now.”
“I don’t care what anybody says,” Taro gasped behind them, “I can’t see how I’ll ever get used to that feeling.” The queasiness may have already gone, but the memory was still fresh. The vixen looked up at the forward windows and saw only distant stars. “Did we make it?” she asked.
Renny checked his terminal and nodded almost immediately. “Right on target,” he told his companions. “As with our first visit, we’re above the galactic plane, but this time the planet is right below us to the starboard.”
“How did you get so precise?” Jerry asked in amazement. “When we were here before, we weren’t on the planet long enough for you to learn its orbital speed. How did you know it wouldn’t be on the other side of its sun by now?”
Renny grinned at him. “I didn’t. The first time we were here, we were still a day’s travel away from where we emerged from the jump. For this trip, I used the stellar coordinates I’d calculated last time using the sextant, so we’ve arrived at virtually the same area we did before. As you’ve noted, I had no way of knowing where the planet would be in its orbit around the sun, and I certainly didn’t know we’d come out almost on top of the one we wanted. Thankfully, the navigation system on this ship was sensitive enough that we braked right when we were supposed to.”
Jerry shook his head in wonder, looking back at his captain. “Maybe this is a good sign that the rest of this visit will be as lucky.” Taro shrugged, but was delighted with the outcome of their first Hyld jump in the new Silloni freighter. Renny looked insufferably pleased with himself.
The male fox turned in his seat and went to work with the controls to reorient the ship while Taro opened the intercom.
“Attention please – our brief, gut-wrenching journey was a success,” she said with a smile on her muzzle. “We have arrived. Renny put us almost on top of Se’rei and we’ll be assuming planetary orbit shortly. We will be scanning for the landing beacon, and once we’ve established ground-based coordinates, we’ll be descending into the atmosphere. For the moment, it would be best if you remained in your seat harnesses until we have landed.”
She closed the circuit and then turned to the communications console to begin her scan of the planet’s frequencies below. Despite the captain’s edict to remain seated, Renny would be free of duty for a few moments, so he unbuckled his harness and moved to the engineering station.
He tapped in a command and the small screen built into the console panel played back a recording of the jump from one of the forward mounted cameras. The star field was normal with the sound of the captain’s voice counting down, but at the moment of the Hyld jump, the forward view was simply replaced by a new pattern of stars from one second to the next. There was no flash, no blackout or streaks of stars.
“Hmm,” he muttered. “That was unimpressive.”
“Jumping instantly across numerous light years in just a moment wasn’t impressive?” Taro asked, keeping her focus on her monitors.
“Visually,” the cheetah responded. “I expected more special effects from our point of view.”
Taro chuckled. “You’ve been watching too many movies, Ren-Ren.”
The navigator snorted, moving back to the chair he’d previously occupied. He didn’t sit down, however, but leaned over his console, gazing out through the forward windows.
The nearby star was known only as TES.84497 on Planetary Alignment stellar charts, and although a published study had never been done by PA astronomers of this particular distant star, the Blue Horizon had been there once before right after they’d begun taking on passengers through a Space Available program. An initial scan of the solar system on their previous visit had recorded five orbiting planets; one was a methane gas giant, two were small dwarf planets, and the other two were respectably similar in size to those typically populated within the Planetary Alignment, only one of which was within the habitable Goldilocks Zone. The world known as Se’rei by its inhabitants was the fourth from its sun; it had a breathable atmosphere with acceptable pressure and solar protection and had an abundance of life.
Pip… pip… pip… pip… pip…
“I’ve got the landing beacon,” Taro announced. “It’s weak, but we’re picking it up. All other local com channels are clear.” The console before her let out a small chirp. “Okay, we’ve got the coordinates and it looks like it’s in the right place — wooded area with large nearby fields, some highlands close by and snow-capped mountains farther out. The scanners don’t detect any structures, though – metal, wooden or otherwise.”
“I think Lori mentioned that the lapin community built their homes into the sides of hills,” Jerry remarked. “The scanners wouldn’t pick up underground warrens.”
“Probably true,” Taro replied, transferring the landing coordinates to the helm station. “The beacon is all we have to go on, so we’ll try to put down in the same wheat-like field as before.”
Renny studied the coordinates from his console. “We can make standard orbit in twelve minutes from our current location, but then we’ll need at least three revolutions for optimum insertion into the atmosphere.”
“Aye-yi,” Jerry acknowledged.
“Actually,” Taro interjected, “can we put the ship on automatic pilot once we get into standard orbit?”
“Sure,” Renny answered, “the autopilot can handle the necessary three orbits. What did you have in mind?”
“I want to meet with everyone assembled in the Rec Room before we land.”
“In that case, you can let everyone out of their harnesses now,” the cheetah replied. “Jerry and I will be there as soon as we establish our orbit and get everything locked down.”
“Thanks, guys,” Taro said. She turned back to the intercom to make the announcement.
Taro stood with her hands behind her, in front of the large vidscreen that dominated one wall. Her feet were bare, toes dug into the soft, dark earth-tone carpet and her thick brush of a tail swayed gently from side to side behind her. The bulk of her crew had already gathered on the two long curving sofas in front of her and all seemed engaged in animated conversations about the world displayed on that screen. It wasn’t often they got to see a virginal untouched world. The vulpine captain allowed her mind to wander as they all awaited the bridge crew. It only took a few more minutes before the red fox tod and his feline companion entered the room. The couches were full, so they took up positions behind them and stood there relaxed.
Not knowing what to do with her hands while she spoke, Taro put them behind her back again and then looked over at each face before she began.
“I know that this will be the first visit to Se’rei for some of you,” she said, “so let me reiterate a few of the facts with a little conjecture. A little research while we were at Merlin’s place has dug up a name that may correspond to this place. One of the earliest colonies of Earth was established upon a far, distant world that took them over a year to reach using the FTL engines of the time. While there are no surviving records naming the planet or even the star they went to, we have learned that the name of one such colony was called Surrey in English, due to the large number of four wheeled covered carriages pulled by horses they’d taken along for transportation. Sometime over the long years following the Great Abandonment, the colonists may have forgotten their homeworld and reverted to a simpler life without technology; perhaps the tech they had stopped working over time and they didn’t have the skills to repair them.
“It’s possible that Se’rei is an approximation of the Surrey name that’s been a little twisted over the past three hundred years, but we have no concrete proof it’s the same group. There’s no other records specifying what Fur species made up the colony, but it may have been anthrolapins as we’ve discovered. Due to the extreme distance, it would be no wonder that contact was never reestablished. Even at today’s top LightDrive speeds, a one-way trip here would take approximately six months, about twice the distance from Dennier to Sillon. That’s not too bad where interstellar distances are concerned, but it was hardly close enough for a trade route.
“Standard is apparently no longer spoken by the inhabitants, but there is one individual among them who still remembers the common language of the Planetary Alignment. Known as K’lssi to the inhabitants, Calissa Thalia was a former lapin crew member of the Lady of Dreams who stayed behind after Captain Khasho’s ship stumbled across the planet during their initial testing of her now-infamous Particle Vault system – a system along similar lines of what the Silloni have developed as the Hyper-LightDrive engine that we are now testing for them in real-world use.
“Although we are cargo-movers, the purpose of this first voyage has nothing to do with shipping freight, even though we are not flying empty. The crates within our hold contain hand tools, clothing, seeds and other oddments that a simple village like the one we’re visiting could use. Our primary purpose for returning to Se’rei is to encourage Ms. Thalia to provide a little engineering information about Natasha’s Vault system that can also be applied to the Hyld in order to increase the safety factors in Hyld jumps.
“Now, I must warn you that the locals are all rabbits and are unfamiliar with the mixed species of the Planetary Alignment. I want to keep contact with our crew strictly limited to the non-predator types so we don’t frighten them. Although several of us have met Ms. Thalia in person, this is only because she came to us aboard our ship. Lori is the only one among us who has actually been to the lapin village. Because of this, she will be our liaison with the locals, and through her, we hope to get the information we need.
“If all goes well, we should have what we came for and can be on our way to our first real job in two or three days. For optimum landing, we’ll need to make three full orbits before we can descend and we are already within the first.” She looked at a dainty timepiece on her wrist. “This means we’ll have about four hours before we begin our landing sequence, so for now you’re free to make yourselves at home and move around the ship. Lori has volunteered to prepare a light meal before we land so we won’t have to worry about our bellies once we get down there. I’ll make an announcement about ten minutes prior to our drop from orbit, and then a countdown to the drop itself. That’s all I have.”
The sleek form of the Blue Horizon slipped through light, wispy cirrus clouds over the continent of its target destination as it descended. Though still far below, the ground terrain seemed to rush by while Renny maneuvered the unfamiliar ship into a series of turns across the sky to throw off excess speed gained from atmospheric entry. Unspoiled country stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction, dotted by natural lakes, forests, valleys, open plains and a snow-capped mountain range that was reduced to mere highlands at its southern tip. The constant pip-pip-pip of the landing beacon directed the ship’s course to a land of trees and gently rolling hills near the highlands.
“There’s the wheat field,” Jerry announced to his companions on the bridge.
“I see it,” Taro confirmed. “Let’s set down roughly in the same area where we came down before. It’s been months since we were here, but I think I can still see the shape of the old Blue Horizon where we crushed the wheat stalks. It’s grown back in, but the new growth hasn’t matched the old.”
“That’s a prime example of an alien crop circle,” Renny remarked.
“True, but splashing water on us will only get our fur wet,” Jerry responded in reference to an old movie they had watched while at Merlin and Samantha’s place. “Besides, we weren’t here to harvest the locals for food either.”
“Three minutes until full shutdown,” Renny reported. “Let’s just hope we don’t frighten everybody with our return – after all, we aren’t even in the same ship they saw us leave in, so they might think we’re someone else.”
“We’ll send Lori out to their village first with a letter I’ve written explaining to Calissa why we’ve returned,” Taro said. “I don’t want the lot of us out tromping through their woods without letting them know we’re here and only want their help. We’ve too many predator types on board that would scare them needlessly.”
“Coming over the field now,” Renny informed them. “Slowing to hover, activating landing thrusters.” The forward windows only showed the clouds and the peaks of the nearby mountains, but smaller vidscreens tied to recessed cameras along the bottom of the craft showed the landing spot and the caterpillar treads as they locked into place. Within a moment, clouds of dust and chaff filled the air around the vessel.
Wearing a bright orange tee-shirt and a pair of tan shorts, Lorelei stepped out through the wheat field just as she’d done once before. She crossed over halfway between the ship and trees and stopped to listen, looking up at the blue, partly cloudy afternoon sky. She closed her eyes for a moment and then squatted down amongst the wheat stalks, listening for any sign that her lapin friends were nearby.
She waited for several long minutes, but she heard nothing but birdsong, the clicks of insects and soft pings as the metal of the ship cooled. There were no giggles of small bunnies and no one reached out to take her by the arm. It seemed she was quite alone this time. Even the air was still and there were no new scents in the air.
The white rabbit slowly stood up and looked back at the Blue Horizon. How strange it was to see this new vessel design and think of it as her ship. The name and color might be the same, but it looked nothing like the old freighter she had called home. She felt a small surge of nostalgia, but then remembered why she was here. The airlock had closed behind her, but she was sure that someone on board was keeping tabs on her.
There was no sense of danger, just the feeling of being alone. She couldn’t expect her friend N’iik to visit the field with the village children he watched over every day, so she wasn’t really surprised that they were not there now; she had merely hoped that he was.
She smiled to herself at the thought of the broad-shouldered white male rabbit who had invited her to stay and be his mate despite only knowing her a few hours, even though he had been unable to understand anything she’d told him besides her name. While she had been intrigued and even a little tempted by the invitation, she knew her place was with her crew aboard the Blue Horizon. Even if the offer was repeated on this visit, she would be unable to consider it due to the fresh new contract she had just signed with the company.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to indulge in the fantasy of a simpler life in a village of nothing but other rabbits for a few hours. She was hopeful to spend some time with N’iik, but she found she was looking forward to her time with K’lssi even more. The older lapin female known as Calissa Thalia in a previous life had been a relatable delight during her earlier visit. Both she and her mate N’maa had been the best of hosts in their home and their children took to Lori as if she was a beloved aunt.
When she reached the cover of shade, she looked around until she recognized a particular old gnarled tree with broad leaves that were green on one side and yellow on the other, remembering it as the start of the path that would take her to the village. She glanced back at the ship, waved to whoever might be watching, and then boldly walked into the forest.
“It’s been an hour since she left,” Mark Littlefeather mused, looking out across the field with binoculars. The forward cargo bay door was open to the fresh air and the human sat comfortably in a lawn chair at the edge of the opening. It was his first time to Se’rei, but no one besides Lorelei had been allowed off the ship, so he was sitting as close to outside as he could get. His cargo bay still smelled of its newness, and while there was nothing wrong with that, the man preferred the fresh fragrances of the countryside.
It didn’t matter that the world and its plant life was all alien to what he was familiar with on other planets, but the similarities were comfortable. No matter where they went, grass was grass, trees were trees and birds were birds, even if Mother Nature’s designs were different from place to place. Although his nose may not be as sensitive as those of his furman associates, he still preferred the outdoor scents to the recycled air of a space ship. With the cargo door open, he was hoping that some of the aromas would take up residence inside.
Had Taro known of this, she might have ordered him to close the door at once, for although Jerry and Amanda had tested the soil and atmosphere samples on their previous visit, it was still a new world with an ecosystem of its own. There was no way of knowing what airborne agents might be on the local air that was now inside the vessel.
The captain, however, was on the bridge engaged in tachyon burst communication with the home office, giving a full report on the new vessel’s performance thus far, unaware of her cargo master’s actions. It was unlikely that anyone else would report the faux pas, as several of them had just gathered at the lower level to do much the same.
Pockets sat down upon the edge of the ramp that extended from the ship down to the field. The raccoon adjusted his tail behind him and then looked down at a small green and yellow bird that alighted near his feet. The avian creature looked back at him for a moment, a high topknot of feathers on its head quivering with its movement and then flew off across the field.
“How far is it to the village?” Suzuko asked. “It might take her a while to find the place again and then find the right rabbit to talk to.”
“I wish we could have gone with her,” Max remarked. “We’re going to be really busy soon and a quiet walk through the woods would be nice.”
“Better enjoy the unpolluted countryside now any way you can,” Justy recommended, taking a seat on the floor at the German shepherd’s feet.
“We’ve just had extended downtime due to Merlin and Samantha’s pups, but I like this fresh air,” Pockets agreed. “There are scents I don’t recognize, but they’re all nice.”
The door between the cargo bay and the forward corridor opened, but no one bothered to look back until they heard hurried steps across the cargo bay floor. “Hey boss,” Mark said when the vixen stopped beside his lawn chair.
The gamut of emotions playing across her face was a mixture of annoyance, fear and impatience.
“Has anyone seen Renny?” she asked in a hurried breath.
“I think he was going to see Jerry,” Max replied. “He said something about inoculations.”
“Is there something we can help you with, Captain?” Suzuko asked.
Taro shook her head, but then changed her mind. “Yes, get everyone down here at once,” she replied. “Make sure you all have your walking shoes on and everyone has a DataCom.”
“What’s going on?” Mark asked, getting up from his chair.
“Renny’s got the codes to the armory lock-up and I need everyone armed before we head out to the rabbit village.” She turned back toward the corridor and then said over her shoulder to the human, “Get this bay door shut by the time I get back down here. I want the ship locked down tight when we go.”
“Armed and under lockdown?” Max repeated, suddenly exchanging looks with his human crewmate. “Why are we going to the rabbits? I thought we were going to stay away.”
“I just got a panicked call from Lori,” Taro explained. “She’s frantic, saying that everyone in the village is dead and there’s fresh blood all over the place.”
Amanda walked along a forest path beside Jerry, completely ill at ease holding a Binfurr stun gun in her hands, its barrel pointed carefully at the ground beside her. Others in the crew were armed with standard firearms, but she had never felt comfortable with a regular gun and had tried to refuse to carry one. The captain was adamant about everyone being protected against a potential threat, so the shy coyote had agreed to only to carry a stunner. She was unsure that she would be able to use even that if the situation turned ugly, but Taro’s orders were immutable; they had no idea what they might be up against. She wasn’t alone, however; at his own request, Max also carried a stunner.
Mark led the way, although none of them had ever been to the lapin village. The human had grown up in central North America on Earth and had spent much of his youth tracking animals to learn the skill. If pressured to confess, he might have pleaded guilty to hunting for food and sport, but surrounded by a crew of sentient and anthropomorphic animal types, Mark had wisely kept this part of his personal history to himself. Later in life, he had used these same skills in a small war between countries, and it was due to this knowledge that Taro had asked him to track Lorelei’s recent passage through the forest. He might not have the sensitive olfactory senses of his companions, but his other skills more than made up for it.
The seven who followed him moved quietly, whispering only when necessary. All were nervous; Lori’s frantic message had given no real details other than finding bloody bodies throughout the village and that she had found no one alive. She was frightened and fearful that whatever had decimated the local population might still be in the area. She had not wanted to wait for her crewmates to come for her, but was afraid to go back into the forest alone. Taro had instructed her to find a deep warren tunnel or a tall tree to hide in, and that they would find their way there as quickly as they could.
Although there was a sense of urgency in their steps, Mark took care in studying their surroundings. Whereas others might have missed the signs, a few thin, freshly broken branches in the underbrush here and a small tuft of white rabbit fur on a bush there showed the human where Lori had likely passed. The forest floor was covered in leaves and pine-like needles which didn’t retain footprints very well, but in places where the debris had been scuffed or shuffled aside to bare the rich soil beneath, he found a familiar shoe print. Although Lorelei had often shopped throughout the Planetary Alignment for shoes to fit her large rabbit feet, he suspected that the local lapin inhabitants would not be as well-shod.
Mark led his entourage up a slight hill and then discovered a well-used path across a rocky area that had been worn virtually smooth in places from ages of travel. Over the crest of the hill, the underbrush thinned out and the tree trunks were farther apart. The tracker saw signs of recent passage that he doubted were caused by his white-furred crewmate and knew they were heading in the right direction.
Taro was impatient to get to the village, but it was taking all of her own attention to keep those behind her from rushing forward. With emotions high and the uncertainty of what they would find, she was afraid of itchy trigger fingers on the weapons they carried.
She had just shushed a discussion between Justy and Max from getting too loud when Mark tapped her on the wrist. Startled, the vixen jerked her hand up away from him, but then sighed heavily when she realized that he simply wanted her attention.
He leveled an arm and pointed through the trees to the edge of a clearing at an old, rusted pipe of a hand-cranked water pump. Its design was crude but proved that the lapin residents possessed some mechanical and metalworking knowledge. Water dripped from the faucet into a wooden trough, but there was no one else in the vicinity.
“Okay, we’re nearing the village,” Taro said in a voice barely above a whisper to those behind her. “We don’t know what happened or what we’re facing yet, so I want everyone to stay alert. Be careful with your firearms; I don’t want any of you to shoot one another by accident – or any survivors we may find – but keep an eye out for potential danger. I don’t want to draw any undue attention to ourselves, so stay quiet unless you need to sound an alarm.”
She glanced over at Renny and nodded quietly. The cheetah stepped up beside Mark and gave him a few quiet instructions. The pair of them held their handguns ready and walked forward together. Jerry began to follow, but Taro stretched out her arm to stop him.
“Let them go first,” she whispered. “No need to have us all grouped together out in the open where an enemy could take us out all at once.”
Once Mark and Renny reached the edge of the clearing, the human squatted down beside the wooden trough. There was only a thin layer of water on the bottom, but nothing else to indicate how long ago it had been used. Renny grabbed the handle and gave the pump a few heaves. The metal squeaked a little, but water rushed out of the faucet into the trough.
Mark let the cold well water run over his fingers beneath the faucet and then lifted them to his nose. It smelled no different than regular spring water, so he put a damp finger to his tongue; the water droplet had a metallic taste to it, but otherwise seemed fine. He didn’t suspect the water supply as the cause of deaths, especially with Lori’s report of fresh blood, but he didn’t want to discount anything.
He stood up, nodded quietly to his companion, and then the two of them continued on. Taro patted Jerry’s arm, giving silent permission to move forward. She waved everyone on in pairs, and then followed up behind everyone to watch their backs. She’d tried to reach Lori on her DataCom, but there had been no reply. She was either somewhere trying to remain hidden and quiet – or she had suffered the same fate as those in the village; it was not a thought she wanted to entertain, but she had to be realistic.
Although Mark’s human nose was not as sensitive as his crewmates, even he could smell the blood before they reached the village proper. He didn’t smell rotting meat from the lapin bodies lying out in the sun throughout the clearing, so he suspected the carnage was recent, possibly within mere hours.
Jerry knelt next to the first body he came upon, an older rabbit female with brown and white fur, frowning at the damage to her throat and belly. The bloody flesh was ragged and the vulpine physician suspected that it had been rent by powerful teeth. Other wounds upon the body appeared to be caused by large, sharp claws due to deep gouges that penetrated deep into the body cavity. The internal organs were missing, having been torn out by the rabbit’s assailant and partially eaten on the spot.
Max stood behind him, one hand over his mouth and the other holding his pistol flat up against his stomach in an attempt to keep his last meal down. Tearing his eyes away from the woman, the young mechanic looked out across the clearing of the lapin village. The area was covered in a lush green grass, though travel paths had been worn down to the dirt. Rabbit bodies were scattered about and he swallowed involuntarily. What had happened here?
The clearing was ringed by a rise of low hills dotted with openings that he assumed were doorways into the warrens, the humble homes of the inhabitants. Split curtains hung from carved wooden sticks fitted tightly into the openings, providing a simple door cover.
Mark approached one such door and gently pulled aside one of the draperies of a rough-weave cloth. He peered into the darkness beyond, but hesitated at the entrance. Renny stepped up beside him and the two of them exchanged a quiet nod before he pushed in through the pale green curtains.
He took two steps inside and then stopped to let his eyes adjust to the gloom within. The place was a disaster. He didn’t know what a Se’rei lapin warren home was supposed to look like, but he seriously doubted it typically looked anything like this. The room he entered looked as if a mad bull had rampaged through it all. The floor was littered with the broken debris of anything that might have once been in larger pieces, there were shreds of cloth hanging from various spots on the walls and there were grisly splotches on the fabric of woven pillows and blankets throughout the stuff on the floor. Amidst the iron smell of blood was the hint of incense.
Mark stepped in behind him and held open the curtain for some light. He gasped and swallowed hard when the cheetah knelt down and reached for a tan-furred hand that stuck out from beneath floor detritus near a rustic fireplace. Renny brushed aside three wooden bangles to feel for a pulse. Without looking at his companion, he shook his head sadly and then pushed away some of the debris to get a look at the body – only there wasn’t one. The hand and arm up to the elbow was all that remained of the rabbit who had once lived in this place. He gently set the grisly limb onto a pillow and then sighed inwardly, wondering if there were more body parts under the debris covering the floor.
Renny’s ears suddenly twitched and he stood up quickly, nearly knocking Mark over as he held his handgun pointed back into the recesses of a dark passage leading away from the main room.
“What is it?” Mark whispered.
“Movement,” Renny replied quietly, gesturing with the gun. “Back there.”
The human looked around and spied a small wooden bowl of fat with a burned wick, instantly recognizing it as a handmade candle. He fished a small lighter from the pocket of his shirt and then picked up the candle bowl to light it; he was not a smoker, but the cargo master always carried one with him for situations such as this one.
Renny’s eyes narrowed in the sudden light, but he caught the glimpse of red eye-shine from the back tunnel before it blinked and disappeared.
“Did you see that?” Mark whispered. Renny nodded, but didn’t otherwise reply. He held his gun ready in front of him and advanced slowly, taking careful steps around the things on the ground. Mark took a tentative step to the side with his firearm raised to cover him.
“Hello?” Renny called out in what he hoped was a friendly voice, even though he knew the locals didn’t speak Standard. “We’re here to help you.”
There was a rustle of movement, a whimpered sob, and then a white figure rushed out and jumped for him. Renny pulled his gun up just in time to keep from shooting the lapin female and Mark was almost a heartbeat behind of firing his own.
“Renny!” Lorelei cried out, wrapping her arms tightly around the cheetah. She clung to him and started bawling onto his shoulder.
Mark wiped the sweat from his brow and grinned nervously while Renny tried to console the trembling rabbit. After several long moments, Lori looked up at him with tear streaks soaking the fur of her cheeks.
“Are you okay?” Renny asked quietly. “Are you hurt?”
Lori nodded to the first question and then shook her head to the second, but her throat was still too tight to answer verbally.
“Did you find Calissa?” Mark asked from behind them, glad to see his shipmate was okay.
With a trembling hand, Lori pointed toward the fireplace hearth. Lying on the pillow where Renny had set it was the tan-furred arm and hand with the wooden bangles. The cheetah wrapped his arm around his shipmate and held her close. Lori did her best not to cry again, but tears still leaked onto her cheek fur.
“Nobody’s alive!” she gasped at last, voice cracking. “I was so afraid!”
“You found no one?” Mark asked quietly. “What about your friend Nick?”
She bowed her head. “No one.”
“You checked all the homes?” Renny asked.
Lori started to nod, but then shook her head. “Only a few,” she admitted. “When I f-found Calissa… I fainted. Then… then I thought I saw something outside s-stalking me from the s-shadows, so I… I hid.”
“What it the same thing that killed everyone else?” Renny asked.
“I don’t know, but it was big. I heard it panting, but didn’t get a l-look at it. Didn’t w-want to.”
“We should check the other homes,” Mark suggested.
Renny took Lori by the hand and led her around the debris to the doorway. Before going through, however, he checked his firearm and held it ready. He pushed the curtains apart and then stepped out into the sun. The rabbit continued clinging to one arm and Mark flanked her other side, his eyes alert for trouble.
The only movement they saw across the village was from the other Blue Horizon personnel combing the area. Each doorway was being checked, and Taro was picking up the remains of the dead left behind and setting them gently beside one another beneath a large tree near the center of the clearing. Her normally tidy clothing was stained by the blood of the victims and the expression on her face had hardened against the deeds that had taken their lives.
There were no complete bodies. All had been partially eaten, their internal organs gone, and the local variety of flies and gnats had already begun to gather around them. The incident with the Walkabout still haunting his memories, Max had elected to dig graves for the dead instead of helping search for survivors. He tried not to focus upon the remains, but concentrated solely upon his physical task.
Taro looked up when the trio approached her. The captain knelt beside the body of a female about her own age with a frozen expression of terror upon her face. Something had taken her down with a ripping bite to the throat, but then it had fed on her as it had on everyone else.
Mark knelt down to look at a track print the size of his hand in the dust of a trail when the vixen looked up at Lori. Seeing her distress, Taro stood up and took the rabbit’s hands in her own.
“Are you all right?” she asked quietly.
Lori swallowed with difficulty, but managed to nod. She parted her lips to say something, but a high-pitched shriek filled the air. Fearful that one of her crew had just been attacked by the same thing that had slaughtered the villagers, Taro took off running toward the source of the scream, followed closely by her first officer.
Others of her crew had already gathered outside a set of powder blue curtains separating them from the interior, but it seemed no one really wanted to go in.
“Who screamed?” Renny demanded, preparing to jump inside.
“Mandy went in this one to look for survivors,” Pockets answered, “but I don’t think that was her.”
Renny moved forward, but Taro stopped him with a touch. She took his place at the curtains, though she didn’t enter.
“Mandy?” she called out. “Are you okay in there?” There was a moment of eerie silence and Taro was about to repeat herself when the coyote’s demure voice called out.
“I’m okay,” Amanda said from the interior, “but I think I scared someone in the back.”
“Come on out,” Taro instructed. “These people have never seen sentients besides other rabbits, so you might have been seen as another predator.”
There was a shuffle inside and then the coyote poked her nose through the curtain, her stunner gun clutched to her chest. Amanda saw Lori and then rushed forward to embrace her crewmate.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she told her. “I was afraid something had gotten you too!”
“I’m okay,” Lorelei assured her. “I’m just frightened out of my wits.”
Taro put a hand on the rabbit’s shoulder. “Lori, I need you to go inside and see if you can coax whoever’s in there to come out with you. I know you don’t know their language, but perhaps because you’re another rabbit that this one will be more comforted by your presence. You may have to try hard to convince him or her that we aren’t another threat, but we’ll back away from the door to give you room to come out.”
Lorelei nodded and wiped her eyes again. She hadn’t met everyone in the village during her previous visit, but she hoped it might be someone who recognized her. Whoever it was, she was thankful there was someone who had survived the decimation of the lapin people.
“Hello?” she called out softly, moving toward the back of the abode. She reached for a shelf on the wall that was surprisingly untouched and picked up a small candle bowl. There was a striker of some kind with it, but it only took a moment to figure out how it worked. She snapped two bits of hinged metal together and a small flame came out of one end. Not devoting any time to figure out how it performed its task, she used it to light the candle and then put the striker back on the shelf. Instead of using one of the bright flashlight torches from the ship, the doe figured whoever it was back there might be a little more comforted by one of the local candles instead.
“Hello?” she repeated in a soft voice. “Please come out. We won’t hurt you.” As she moved farther back into the narrow corridor, she could hear a whimper and someone shuffling. A moment later, there were two points of eye-shine reflecting back at her. From the muffled sound and limited movement of air, it was apparent this was the end of this particular passageway; the refugee couldn’t back up any farther.
Lorelei knelt down slowly and set the candle on the floor beside her. Then she opened her arms wide and then nodded to the individual she faced. It only took a moment before the person rushed forward into her arms and began crying. It was a young girl, an adolescent dressed in only her honey-gold fur, and she clung desperately to the older rabbit.
Lorelei held her tight with one arm and then gently rubbed the young girl’s back while cooing in a soothing voice. After a few quiet moments, she heard Taro’s voice call out.
“Lori? Are you okay?”
“We’re okay,” she replied in a soft voice as so not to startle the female. “I’ve found a teenage girl and I’m trying to calm her down a little; she just needs some arms around her at the moment. I’ll try to bring her out.”
At Lorelei’s words, the young girl looked up at her in the candlelight. She reached up and lightly touched Lori’s lips, clearly puzzled by her foreign words.
Remembering her earlier visit, Lorelei put the back of one hand up against her forehead and introduced herself. “L’ree.”
The girl swallowed and put a shaking hand up to her own forehead. “Nay’ha.”
“Nay’ha,” Lorelei repeated with a nod. She took both of her hands and began to stand up with her. Nay’ha stopped her long enough to pick up the candle bowl and then held it up to peer behind the white doe. Seeing no one else, she stood up and then walked hand-in-hand with Lorelei back out to the front room, her eyes searching everywhere and her nose twitching constantly. She didn’t understand some of the scents she picked up, but there was no one else in sight.
Lorelei saw something on the floor and bent to pick it up. She handed it to the girl, who swiftly donned a long shirt-like garment that hung to her knees without question.
They moved together to the front curtain, but then Lori stopped. She didn’t know if it would be wise to lead her out where her people still lay where they’d died. Then, there were a few more shouts of alarm. Lorelei gestured to Nay’ha to wait and then she left through the curtain.
She’d expected the same crowd outside this dwelling as she’d gone in, but instead they’d all scattered across the village, apparently shooed away by their captain. However, there were now several running toward another curtained doorway, but this time the situation was different.
A white-furred male rabbit with broad shoulders and thick arms was standing just outside one of the homes, brandishing a two-pronged spear tipped with what looked like deer antler points. He wore nothing but a loose pair of dusty brown shorts and a simple pendant made from a polished amber stone upon his chest. There were the stains of blood smeared over places of his exposed fur, but it was unknown whether any of it was his own.
His face was a mixture of fear and anger, and his blue-gray eyes kept darting from one person to another as he held the spear before him. Jerry and Taro were backing away from the buck with the weapons in their hands raised and pointing toward the sky; Renny had one hand extended to the male, attempting to talk to him in a calming voice.
Lorelei had been trotting across the village clearing toward them, but when she recognized the male, she ran to him as fast as she could.
“N’iik!” she called, rushing past Renny.
The buck looked up in surprise and then moved the spear aside just before she jumped into his arms. The matched pair of all-white rabbits clutched one another in a fierce embrace, and once again, Lorelei began sobbing.
Taro led her people away to look into other homes, but then the three of them stopped and held still. The adolescent female that Lorelei had left behind had followed the white rabbit timidly across the clearing. Fear in her eyes of the other alien species roaming around her village was almost petrifying, but she didn’t want to be left alone. Somehow, she made it past predators that were not attacking so she could join N’iik and L’ree. When she touched the buck’s arm, he looked up at her with relief that she still lived spread across his face. He pulled her and Lori together in a group hug, speaking lowly.
After several long moments, N’iik put his arm around Nay’ha’s shoulders and then pointed straight at Renny with another few words to her. N’iik gestured to the cheetah for him to come closer, but Renny was hesitant. Without a word, Lorelei copied the motion and then the navigator came forward slowly. The girl shrank back when the cheetah grew closer, but N’iik kept her right beside him.
Renny stopped a few steps away and then the white buck said to the girl, “R’nee.”
Nay’ha swallowed with difficulty. She looked at N’iik, then she looked at L’ree. Both nodded with confident smiles. She looked back at the feline, and with some hesitation, raised the back of her hand to her forehead.
“N… Nay’ha…” she said in a trembling voice.
The cheetah mimicked the action. “R’nee,” he said. He smiled without showing his teeth and extended his hand toward her, palm up. She looked at his semi-retractable claws with fear, but then N’iik took her hand gently and placed it palm down upon the navigator’s hand. Renny held her hand gently and without pressure.
N’iik hadn’t recognized the cheetah at first, but with Lorelei’s appearance, he remembered him now. Their first meeting had unnerved him, but through Calissa’s patient explanation, he came to know that the strange spotted cat and the others were somehow a part of L’ree’s extended “family”. The cougar that had accompanied them last time, however, had resembled the great feral cats of the highlands too much and N’iik had then left the newcomers alone, visiting only with L’ree until she’d left after only a few days. He didn’t know why they’d all returned, but the timing couldn’t have been any more wrong.
Renny gripped Nay’ha’s hand very gently and then dipped his head before releasing her. He wanted her to know that she was in no danger from him. When she drew her hand back to her bosom, she looked at him in wonder, but then averted her eyes timidly.
N’iik looked over at Lorelei and stared into her bright blue eyes. “Glad see you again,” he said in a fair approximation of Standard. “Why here now?”
Everyone looked back at him in surprise. The last time they’d met, he couldn’t understand a word of Standard.
Lorelei recovered first and placed a hand on his chest over his heart. “I am glad to see you again too,” she said. “We came back to see K’lssi, but we’re too late.”
“Too late?” the buck repeated. “She here somewhere.”
Lorelei shook her head. “We found her… arm,” she whispered, moisture returning to her eyes. “Nothing more.” N’iik looked stricken and Nay’ha asked him quietly. He responded and then she clung to him to cry again.
“N’iik,” Taro said in a quiet voice, “how is it you can understand us now?”
He looked over at the vixen, but seemed unwilling to speak to her. Remembering her manners, she put the back of her hand up to her forehead and said, “Taro”.
“Ter-ro,” the white-furred male repeated. “K’lssi teach words after L’ree did leave. Not many good, but understand some.”
“What happened here?” Renny asked. “We just found it like this.”
N’iik swallowed with difficulty. “Poor hunting high lands, great cats come down here to eat today,” he explained. “Many died, some hide, some gone other villages.” He saw that Lorelei’s other friends were taking the remains of the dead and laying them quietly beneath the large tree in the central clearing. He noted the reverent respect they gave them, even though they were of different species, including that the predators among them were not feasting upon the kills. K’lssi had told him of faraway lands where peoples of all kinds worked together as friends. It had seemed like little bunny tales to him at the time, but now he saw that she’d given him the truth.
There was a sound from within the home behind him and N’iik’s ears twitched. He looked at Lorelei. “Is safe now?”
“We believe so,” she answered. “We’ve not seen any of the great cats since we got here.”
The buck looked relieved and relayed the message to Nay’ha. “Waits,” he said to Lorelei and the others. He ducked back into the home through the split curtain and Nay’ha suddenly felt exposed. Despite N’iik’s assurances that these strangers were safe, she stood close beside Lorelei. Lori put an arm around the girl automatically.
Renny spoke to Jerry and Taro in quiet words for a moment and then he and the doctor left to continue their search for other survivors. Taro kept a watch around the village, but the only movements she saw were by her own people and by a gathering of large birds with scarlet feathers in the trees, no doubt scavengers that had been drawn in by the smell of blood on the breeze.
When N’iik emerged again moments later, a crowd of small bunnies trailed after him, all looking frightened and unwilling to leave the vicinity of his legs. Lorelei remembered that he had been a teacher of small children and figured that they must have been in his company when the feral cats attacked. There had been an even dozen of them before, but now there were nine. She knelt down beside them and several immediately gravitated toward her arms.
Taro watched the display silently for a moment, but then Pockets called out for her from across the clearing. She excused herself and left Lorelei with the survivors. She approached the frowning raccoon. He brushed a hand across his face and looked hesitant.
“What’s up?” Taro asked.
“I heard Renny telling others that Calissa was killed in the attack.”
Taro nodded with an audible sigh. “A piece of her was found that was identifiable,” she admitted quietly. “We were too late. Maybe we could have stopped this slaughter if we’d been here sooner, maybe not.”
“That means the knowledge of her vault monitor’s been lost.”
“The knowledge… and her life,” she reminded him.
“What do we do now? Are we going to go back?”
The vixen looked around. “We’ll help them bury their dead before we go. That’s the decent thing to do.”
“What about the cargo we brought for them?”
She thought about it for a moment. Merlin had purchased the seeds, clothing, hand tools and other things they thought the rabbits of Se’rei might find useful, primarily as a bargaining chip to use with Calissa for her knowledge, but there would be no purpose in returning them either. It was doubtful that Merlin could sell them back to the vendors he’d bought them from.
“I’ll explain to Nick what we have and I’ll offer to let them have them. Maybe they can still use them after all this.”
“Do you think Lori’s friend will understand? We can’t speak one another’s language.”
Taro shook her head. “We just found out Calissa taught him some Standard after our last visit. I think he knows enough that he’ll understand, but we may just have to unload it in the field. None of them may want to come near the ship to get it, so they can pick through it later.”
She looked around the small village and her gaze came to rest upon Justy kneeling in the lush grass beside one of the bodies he’d just placed beside the others. It was too small.
Without speaking, she began walking toward the koala, a growing unease within her; Pockets followed quietly. When they stopped beside Justy, he looked up at the vixen with sorrowful eyes. Beside him was the half-eaten body of a toddler. The expression frozen upon the small face made Taro’s insides twist and she clutched at her belly, looking away.
“Such indiscriminate death,” Justy whispered. “Young and old alike. Even the babies.”
Taro looked back at the child and something snapped within her. A growl issued low in her throat and her two crewmates looked at her in surprise. She clenched her fists and the expression upon her face grew darker by the moment.
“Inexcusable,” she muttered. “Unforgivable.”
“Really sad,” Justy remarked.
“Destroy them,” she hissed with sudden ferocity.
“Huh?” Pockets asked. “Taro, whu—?”
“We are going to hunt down the feral cats and kill every last one of them!” she said through clenched teeth.
“Taro…” Justy said in a quiet voice. “This is the natural course of things, a potential danger to anyone in a setting like this.”
Her eyes shifted to look at him, but then went right back to the child’s body. “Yes, and my natural reaction is to kill them all so that it doesn’t happen again!” she exclaimed. She stood upright and then pulled the DC from her belt clip. She tapped its transmitter to go out to all the units carried by her crew and then lifted it up to her mouth.
“I want all Blue Horizon personnel to gather to me in the clearing. Right now.” She clicked it off and then motioned Pockets and Justy to follow her away from the bodies lined up in a row. It took about ten minutes for everyone to congregate together, but Taro refused to say anything until the last of them were present. Unwilling to be left alone, even N’iik, Nay’ha and the bunny children came out to see what was going on, though the rabbits still kept some distance from the other predator types. Lorelei remained with them to help keep the youngsters all together.
“Folks, listen up,” Taro said in a voice loud enough to carry to everyone. “We cannot do anything for those who lost their lives this morning beyond giving them a respectful burial. However, what we can do is prevent it from happening again, at least in this region.”
“What do you mean?” Renny asked. He was usually aware of anything she might announce to the crew ahead of time, but he was just as in the dark about her words as the rest of them.
“I want Jerry, Mark, Max and Renny to join me on a hunt,” she said with both hands upon her hips. “We will load up with all the guns and ammo we can carry. I want to the rest of you to continue the work here, but stay armed in case the murderers come back.”
“What’s going on?” Suzuko asked. She didn’t know Taro as well as the others and hadn’t followed her line of thought.
“Those of us on the hunt are going to track down and kill the feral cats that decimated this village,” Taro replied with an edge to her voice. “As long as a rabbit community exists here, they will be in danger from the cats anytime their food source in the highlands is scarce.”
“That’s going to be awfully dangerous,” Pockets remarked.
N’iik handed a small bunny in his arms over to Nay’ha and then stepped forward. “No need,” he said in halting Standard.
“Why not?” Taro asked incredulously.
“Cats always come,” he said. “You kill some maybe, not all. Many, many.”
From her experience, Taro knew that rabbits as a species across the PA were usually passive and N’iik wasn’t acting any different. She swept a hand across the clearing with a snarl. “Doesn’t it bother you that your friends and family died today?”
N’iik nodded with a frown. “Yes, too many,” he said. “Sorrow.”
“If we kill the cats, they won’t be able to harm you here again!”
The buck shook his head. “Lost too many to stay,” he said. “We go.”
“I can’t believe you’re just going to let them drive you away from your homes!”
“Taro,” Justy spoke up from the front of the group. “Look how small the number of survivors are. There are only eleven left of a whole community and most are very young children.”
“That’s not enough to rebuild a village,” Suzuko added.
“Truth,” N’iik said, following the discussion well enough to understand. “We leave, go other warrens to, uh… north and east. Two walk days.”
Taro gritted her teeth. “Then you’re letting the cats win,” she grumbled.
N’iik shrugged his shoulders. “If not here, cats starve on own.”
The vixen wiped a palm across her face, trying hard to quell the anger within her. “Don’t you even want revenge against the murder they’ve done to your people?”
“Revenge?” N’iik seemed genuinely puzzled. Taro didn’t know if he was unfamiliar with the concept or if he just didn’t know the word in Standard. Before she could ask, however, he shook his head, making his long ears wave above him. “No mur-der. Is nature, cats feed on others. Was our turn.”
Taro clenched her fists so hard that her claws pricked the palms of her hands. She looked around at her people and the miniscule amount of survivors beside them. She saw many different expressions. There were some that mirrored her own disgust, but others looked as if they agreed with the rabbit. It was their lives and their kin that had been destroyed, but as Taro looked around at the village itself, noting the bodies, the smell of fresh blood and the scavenger birds gathering in the trees, she could feel the anger rebuilding within her.
She looked at N’iik, Nay’ha and the bunnies, with Lorelei standing among them as a kindred species. After a long moment, a dark resolve crossed her face.
“So be it,” she said unkindly. “You’re so few that all you think you can do is run and hide in another warren, but the feral cats might also follow to get the rest of you!” N’iik looked stricken, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him.
“Go ahead and run away, leaving the cats triumphant in their slaughter,” Taro continued. “You have a responsibility to protect the children left parentless and you can best do that in another warren, but I don’t intend to let the cats have the rest of you.”
She turned back to her crew. “Renny, Mark, Jerry and Max – we are going to hunt down and destroy every feral cat we can find so there’s no chance they’ll ever go after these when they leave.”
“All of them?” Max asked with wide eyes. “Everywhere on the whole planet?”
“That would be impossible,” Jerry said.
“Just the ones in the highlands,” Taro clarified. “The ones responsible for today!”
“Captain,” Amanda said meekly, “Is that really necessary? What if we just accompany Nick and his kids to the new village, making sure they get there safely?”
“Because the cats might follow the food source!” Taro shot back. “With our backs to this place, we might not see them coming – and they may even try to take us down with them!”
“No!” Taro exclaimed hotly. “The longer we wait, the cats could be gathering for a return meal. The five of us will track down and slaughter them before they have a chance to return. The rest of you get back to work. If you finish before we return, get everyone back inside the ship for protection, including the rabbits. It’ll be safer there.”
Lorelei raised her hand, but Taro brushed her off. “We’re going back to the Horizon to get what we need. We don’t have a lot of the day left, so I want to finish this before dark.”
Without waiting for more distractions, the vixen stormed off across the clearing in the direction of the ship, expecting her orders to be carried out. Renny and Jerry had a quiet conversation before they began moving, and continued it in low voices. Max followed behind meekly, looking back at the others left behind. Mark remained in his spot for a moment, watching after his captain in concern, and the rest began discussions of their own.
Lorelei put the two bunnies she’d had in her lap in the grass beside Nay’ha and then moved to stand in front of N’iik. They faced one another in silence for a moment and she could tell he wasn’t pleased with her captain’s plans. She stepped closer and put a hand upon his chest fur beside his amber pendant, looking up into his eyes.
N’iik studied her and then put his arms around her shoulders, drawing her chin up beneath his. She rubbed her forehead against him for a moment and they both sighed.
She pulled back and swallowed with difficulty, her thoughts anything but still. Without a word, she nodded almost to herself, picked up the pendant from his chest and then drew it over his head. N’iik looked at her in shock, but then dipped his head so she could get it past his ears. With no further hesitation, she put the woven string of the amulet over her head and let the polished stone rest upon her bosom in the middle of her bright orange tee-shirt.
When she looked up at him, she moved only her eyes, almost afraid to see his reaction in the symbolism of her action.
The vixen turned to look at the white doe running after her, but she didn’t stop. She and the four males of her party were halfway back to the Blue Horizon. Taro frowned at Lorelei, certain the rabbit was going to try to talk her out of the hunt.
“What is it, Lori?” she asked guardedly.
Lorelei drew up beside her and matched her pace walking along the trail out to the wheat field. “May I talk to you for a moment, please?” she asked.
Taro shook her head. “If you’re going to talk me out of—”
“No, this is something else. Something important.”
“If you can talk while we walk, go ahead.”
“Thank you.” Lorelei put her hands together down in front of her and considered her next words. The guys were several steps behind them, so she spoke in a low voice.
“Captain…” she started. She stopped, sighed audibly and began again. “Taro… Please don’t be mad at me, but I would like you to… to break my new contract.”
This time, Taro did stop. “Huh? Why?”
The rabbit lowered her chin, unable to meet the vixen’s eyes. “I… I want to stay here,” she admitted. “As you said, the orphan bunnies need N’iik to care for them and keep them safe. That’s not a task he can do alone, so I would like to stay and help him.”
Renny stepped up beside her. “What about the other girl? I think her name was Nay’ha. Wouldn’t she be there to help him? They’re from the same village, so he might take her as his mate.”
“She’s too young,” Lorelei informed him with a frown. “Even if they made it to the other lapin village okay, she would probably be taken in to be raised by another family. There, she won’t be permitted the responsibilities of raising bunnies until she’s considered an adult.” She gave Renny an embarrassed smirk. “She’s also his cousin, and even for them, a mating is out of the question.”
“Lori, consider what you’re asking,” Taro said, resuming her walk. “This is a primitive culture. You’ll have none of the things you’re used to and life will be a lot harder than you think, including dangers like today’s! This other village may not even accept you since you’re not really one of them. You can’t speak their language and you don’t know their customs.”
“Taro, I can already speak a half dozen languages passably due to all the places my family lived while I was growing up. My father was in the military and we moved around a lot. With N’iik’s help, this will be just another language for me to learn, and he will also help me with the customs. Calissa did the same thing six years ago and she loved her life here.”
“You barely know him,” Jerry reminded her. “What if we leave you behind and then you find you two can’t stand one another after a week or a month? You won’t be able to come back! Without Calissa’s help, we can’t build the safety box for other Hyld ships and we probably won’t even be allowed to use the one she did build for us. No one from the Planetary Alignment will ever be back this way again in your lifetime. He’s fascinated with you now, but how do you know he’d even want you as his mate?”
“Despite what you think of my species, the rabbits here are monogamous and mate for life,” Lorelei told him. “By accepting me as his mate, there is no divorce or separation for as long as we both live.” Renny chuckled. “What’s so funny about that?” she asked in an offended tone.
“Lori, no malice intended,” the cheetah explained, “but you and monogamous have never gone together. I’ve lost count of how many beds you’ve shared since I’ve known you.”
The doe tilted her head. “Have you ever known me to share my bed with another rabbit?”
“Hmm, no – now that I think about it, I can’t recall that you have.”
“That’s because there’s no danger of pregnancy with species other than my own. I’ve been free to play as much and as often as I please, but I’d never be that careless with someone I could produce children with. That’s a lifetime commitment, Renny.”
She turned back to Jerry and then put a hand upon the polished amber stone of the amulet pendant she now wore. “As for N’iik, he has already accepted me as his mate. That’s what this represents. All I have to do is stay.”
Taro had been watching the white doe while she’d been talking. In all the time she’d known Lori, she’d never seen her so serious-minded before. The rabbit had always been happy, carefree and even a little ditzy at times, but that was almost another person now. Lorelei had changed in just the short time they’d been here, no doubt due to the carnage she’d seen in the village.
“Lori…” she said. “I will consider your request, but I won’t give you an answer right away.” The rabbit began to speak, but the captain held up a hand to silence her. “While the guys and I are away, think about what you’ve asked. Don’t make a spur of the moment decision. I want you to realize exactly what it would mean to leave behind your whole life. Think about your family and friends back home, and all that you’ve accomplished. As Jerry said, if we leave you here, it’s permanent.”
Lorelei sighed, but nodded. “I will give your arguments some thought while you’re away,” she said, “but please be careful when you go. I don’t want to lose any of you before it’s just a decision to make.”
The vixen nodded in relief. “Thank you, Lori. We’ll be as careful as we can be, but we will do this thing. I appreciate that you haven’t tried to talk us out of it.”
“Taro, I won’t pretend to believe you’re doing the right thing with this hunt, but I know you think you’re doing what’s best.” The rabbit looked at the ones the captain had chosen to go. “This isn’t your fight, but please come back alive. All of you.”
They’d reached the edge of the wheat field, but Lorelei didn’t follow them to the ship. She watched them for a moment and then turned back to return to the village.
The hunting party pushed through the wheat stalks, but before they reached the airlock of the Horizon, Renny looked over at the vixen who walked beside him.
“Taro,” he said quietly, “I don’t think this is a good idea. We should just get the survivors out of here as quickly as possible.” She turned and gave him a dark look, but he continued before she could interrupt him. “They probably won’t like riding in the Horizon, but if we can coax them on board, we can fly them most of the way to the other village. The cats would never be able to follow us.”
“That’s right,” Jerry added. “We don’t have to go all the way to the other warrens, just drop them off far enough away they can walk in on their own without us frightening more rabbits with our flying ship.”
Taro flipped open the recessed control panel beside the ship’s hatch and angrily punched in the security code without a word. She waited until the panels pulled into the hull and then slid aside. She stormed inside through the open pressurization chamber and into the azure corridor beyond as the overhead light panels turned on automatically.
After they’d all stepped into the ship, she turned on them abruptly. “Stop trying to change my mind!” she said in a huff. “I am your captain and you are contracted to do as I say!”
There were expressions of surprise on all the guys’ faces, but then Jerry stepped forward. “Captain,” he said, stressing the title, “I think you’ve been infected by the same bacteria that got you the last time we were here.”
“Just what are you insinuating, Doctor?” she hissed, balling her fists.
“No insinuations. I’m telling you outright that you have no control over your temper right now and it’s affecting your judgment. You are making decisions you should not be commanding under this condition.”
The vixen stared at him incredulously for a moment, but then she narrowed her eyes at him. “Go back to the village,” she growled. “If you’re going to drag your heels and give me nothing but resistance, you’re only going to get in my way. Go gather bodies with the rest of the pacifists, Doctor!”
Jerry crossed his arms defiantly. “I think I’d better go along,” he retorted boldly. “In your current frame of mind, you may be more of a danger to your hunters than you will be to the cats.”
Taro snorted forcefully and then turned to glare at Renny. “What about you?” she spat. “Are you going to keep being a hindrance too?”
The cheetah swallowed, but said nothing. The vulpine captain gave each of the four males a hard look. “Come with me or go back to the village, all of you. I don’t care anymore. I’ll go hunt down the cats myself if I have to!” Without waiting for further argument, she turned her back on them and headed for the armory.
“She’ll get herself killed if we let her go alone,” Mark whispered. Without waiting for the others to say anything, he went after the vixen. Max didn’t look as if he felt very brave, but he followed the human anyway. Renny and Jerry exchanged looks and then joined the others.
An hour later, Taro and her hunting party arrived at the foothills of the highlands, a rise of terrain not high enough to be mountains, but serving as a stepping stone toward the range in the distance. The ascending ground was broken with numerous boulders, outcrops and capstone, festooned with scrubby vegetation that clung to minimal patches of soil. There were plenty of places to hide, so the five of them had to watch everywhere at once as they progressed.
They were equipped with rifles and pistols, each carrying extra clips of ammunition in small day-packs, in addition to stunners and hunting knives. No one knew where the knives had come from or why they’d been included in the ship’s armory, but they’d been stocked along with a few swords as well. This was likely Merlin’s doing, though they’d not brought the cumbersome swords along for this outing.
Mark led the party, checking their surroundings for the spoor of their quarry while Renny scanned the landscape with a thermal sensor. He found many small creatures hiding beneath brush or in the shadows of rocks in the late afternoon sun, but nothing large enough to have caused the decimation of the village.
N’iik had described the feral cats as resembling Rex Concolar, the Space Available passenger on their previous visit, but the local felines had tawny fur in splotches that made the others think of camouflage. That alone would likely make them hard to see in the light and shadows among rocks and brush, but they also had the advantage of knowing the lay of the land while the technological-minded Furs of the Horizon did not.
Taro kept watch around them while Mark had his attention focused upon tracking. It would be so easy for him to miss a living creature stalking him with his head down and absorbed with his task.
Jerry brought up the rear, his own attention sharply tuned to his surroundings, and Max was just up ahead. The youngster had grown up well with the crew of the Blue Horizon, but he was still inexperienced with many of life’s lessons. He carried one of the Binfurr stunners instead of a rifle; that way, if he accidentally shot one of his companions, it would only be a temporary setback. If he used it against one of the feral cats, someone else could dispatch the animal he’d stunned. This was a request he’d made on his own, but no one else had tried to change his mind; they’d all agreed this was the better course of action for their own sakes.
It was while Mark was on one knee examining an older cat print impressed in mud that had dried following a past rain when he saw something peculiar. A small item was out of place in this setting and he picked it up out of curiosity.
“Captain?” he whispered behind him. Taro approached him and then he handed something to her. “What do you make of this?” he asked.
At first, Taro thought he’d handed her a strangely formed stone, but as she examined it further, it took on a familiar shape. The object was obviously iron that was heavily rusted from having been exposed to the elements for ages, but the hills and valleys of threads were still discernible along the length of its two-inch shaft. She turned it over in her hands and looked closely at the six-sided head of the large bolt. Although heavily pitted, she could just make out a surface stamp printed in English. Portland Iron.
She looked up at the human in surprise. “How can this be?” she whispered. Renny abandoned his scanning for a moment to look at what had been found. She handed it to him and his eyes widened as well. In turn, he passed the iron bolt to Max and Jerry. The German shepherd didn’t understand its significance, but the doctor almost whistled at the find, only to catch himself in time.
They’d found numerous tools, pipes and other items made of metal in the lapin village, but they’d thought nothing of it at the time, all of them assuming that the primitive culture had discovered local ores to fashion their own items. This old iron bolt bearing an English stamp was beyond their make, however.
Taro looked at the human. “Anything else?” she asked quietly.
“Just that,” he replied. He looked up at the knoll ahead of them and saw a number of dark shadows in the rocks that could be shallow caves. The sight sent a ripple down his spine. He’d been so focused on subtle signs on the ground or bushes that he hadn’t even seen where he’d been headed.
“Up there, maybe,” he suggested. “Be on the lookout – possible cat den.”
With those words, the mystery of the Terran bolt was instantly forgotten. Jerry pocketed the rusty item and crept forward following the others up the rise. He held his rifle ready and made sure to look around at their sides and behind them too.
The human abandoned his tracking to focus on the hill side. As he suspected, there were hollows in the rock where wind and water had worn away the dirt and stone. It was a series of caves, though none appeared to go far back into the knoll, but most were large enough that the Furs could walk upright into them.
“Careful,” Taro whispered as Renny approached the nearest opening. Max felt a strong sense of curiosity, but at his captain’s instruction, he kept watch around them while the cheetah checked out the cave.
The navigator held his rifle ready before him, fully expecting a cat the size of himself to jump out at him. He knelt down to pick up a few stones from the ground at his feet, never taking his eyes off the dark opening. One at a time, he flipped the rocks into the shadows, his legs ready to propel him away if something came out after him, but there was no reaction.
He moved forward and then stood just inside the shadows of the cave, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom, but his other senses told him the place was empty. There were a multitude of tracks inside in the dirt, however. Renny didn’t need Mark’s expertise to know the cats had used this place to relax out of the sun.
He walked inside just to satisfy his curiosity, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. He examined the floor, the walls and the ceiling, but it was nothing more than a weathered blemish in the hillside.
“It’s empty,” he reported when he walked back out into the sun. “The others may not be, though.”
Keeping a close watch around them, the hunting party crept around the side of the hill to another opening. This one was larger, but before anyone could go inside, Renny made another discovery. Carved into the rock wall beside the opening was a shelf about shoulder-high to the cheetah, and upon the ledge was something that looked like a heavy glass bowl. It was cracked, dusty and filled with bits of dirt, grass, leaves and dust, but at the bottom was the remnant of a burned wick.
“Looks like the rabbits might have lived up here at one time,” Jerry observed. “This was probably the equivalent of a porch light for past inhabitants.”
Max looked at the old item with interest. “Maybe there’s more stuff inside,” he said. He started to walk right into the opening, but Mark put out a hand to stop him.
“Let’s make sure there’s nobody home first,” the human whispered. Just as Renny had done before, Mark lobbed a few rocks into the dark recesses of the cave. Everyone held their breath subconsciously, but as before there was no response from inside. Even that didn’t necessarily mean it was safe, so Mark stepped inside quietly with his rifle ready.
Taro and the others waited anxiously. The surrounding terrain was quiet but for the natural sounds of birds, insects and the little breeze that blew in off the plains. The human stepped back outside a few moments later. “It’s empty of cats,” he said with a raised eyebrow, “but the cave itself isn’t empty.”
“More stuff left behind by the rabbits?” Jerry asked.
“Probably, but I’d wager it’s been a long while ago.”
Taro stepped forward, but then stopped to look at the others behind her. “Check the other caves, but be careful,” she said. “We’re here to find the feral cats.”
Jerry, Max and Renny moved off as directed, but Taro joined Mark inside the dark cave. The sky outside provided a medium light so she could walk in without a lamp. When her vision adjusted, she saw that the inside of the cave was furnished, at least partially. There were three old wooden chairs near a far wall, none of which looked substantial enough to hold anyone’s weight anymore. A round-top table occupied a spot in the center of the small room. More carved shelves adorned the natural walls and there were a few oddments upon them, but everything looked ancient. This might have been someone’s home shelter at one time, or perhaps it had been a small meeting place. There was nothing like a bed or bedding, and if there had been any curtains or draperies, they were long gone.
Mark picked up a small tray from one shelf and examined it. It was made of some kind of metal that looked as if it had been stamped with intricate little designs and he wondered if there might have once been a more technological civilization on this world more advanced than the small village they’d visited.
Taro moved around the room with a growing sense of impatience. This was an interesting find, but they were losing time they could be hunting down the feral cats. They could be anywhere, she mused. These highlands went on for miles, so they would need to get back to tracking and leave this place behind.
She had been pacing around the perimeter of the room without really seeing anything of real interest, but her focus was upon her thoughts. She kept seeing the half-eaten remains of a toddler and her throat was tight. She was about to grab Mark and depart the old abode when she tripped on something in the dim light. She almost fell, but caught herself with a hand to the wall. Mark looked up at her muttered remark, but then stood up straight when he saw what she’d bumped into.
There was a small alcove cut into the rock at ground level and there was something protruding from it. Taro slung her rifle over a shoulder and then knelt down to reach for a dusty old blanket covering the object. The aged cloth fell apart beneath her fingers and she coughed at the sudden dust cloud. Revealed beneath the blanket was an old trunk made of wood and bound by thin metal bands; a hinged metal handle occupied the center of the box end.
Mark squatted down beside her and the two of them exchanged glances. Without a word, Taro grasped the handle and pulled the trunk out into the open. For all appearances, it looked to Mark as if it was on old treasure chest, and the spectacle was completed by the addition of a rusty padlock.
“Stranger and stranger,” he murmured. “I wonder if the key is on one of the shelves.”
Taro picked up the padlock and examined it. She didn’t often flaunt the strength of her Hestran-born muscles, but she could feel how pliable the metal felt between her fingers. She tightened her grip and twisted; the lock came apart in her hand. Mark gave her a smirk and shook his head.
“Who needs a key?” he quipped. There was a twinkle in the vixen’s eyes, but then she returned her attention to the trunk. It was only a foot high and thick, and two feet long. She hesitated only a moment and then raised the lid. The hinges were also rusted together, so their fasteners simply pulled loose from the old wood. Taro found herself holding the lid up by itself, so she set it aside on the ground beside her.
They both peered into the box, but the illumination was too dim to see much with their bodies blocking the light from the cave entrance. Mark was about to pull out his lighter, but Taro already had a small flashlight torch in her hand. She clicked it on and both of them suddenly squinted in the brilliance.
Taro chuckled nervously and then looked over into the trunk, Mark’s head right beside hers. Inside were several items of curiosity. The first thing they saw was an old ship’s sextant, it’s shape instantly recognizable; there was one of a similar design to this one inside a padded compartment on the bridge of the Blue Horizon herself. Mark picked it up gently, almost afraid that it would fall apart in his hands too. He hefted its weight and looked over at the vixen.
“Didn’t you say that Natasha Khasho came to this world?” he asked quietly. “Maybe this was from her ship.”
Taro shook her head. “That was only six years ago, according to Calissa, the one we came here to find. This couldn’t have been hers; this has been here much longer than that.”
The human brushed his jet-black bangs from his eyes and then set the sextant on the ground beside him. “Maybe another ship from the Planetary Alignment came here years ago,” he suggested. “Surely the distance involved didn’t appeal to anyone but deep-space explorers.”
The next thing Taro picked up from the box was even more out of place than the sextant. It was an electronic device of some kind made of molded plastic and metal, but any labels that might have adorned its surface had long since worn off. There were two plastic-coated wires plugged into a receptacle on one side, but they fell apart as soon as they were lifted out of the box.
“Definitely something from another world,” the human mused. “The people of this planet don’t have the capability to make anything like this.”
“Remember the rusty bolt we found outside?” Taro reminded him. “It had Terran writing on it.”
“Okay, it’s from Earth, then – from a long time ago. Anything else in the box?”
Taro aimed her torch inside and found a number of smaller items all made of cloth, but she assumed they would all fall apart if she tried to pick them up. Beneath them, however, was something shining back in the lamp light. She brushed away the cloth items to a resulting cloud of dust, but picked up the item beneath. It was a glass box several inches long and wide, but it seemed to be fitted together with some kind of rubber seal that appeared to have survived the years. Inside the clear container was a paper-leaf book in surprisingly good condition. Upon its cowhide cover were English words embossed in dull gold letters: Terran Colony Surrey, Planet Aphaea.
Mark’s eyes lit up. “Aphaea!” he exclaimed. “I remember reading something about the discovery of that planet as a habitable world. If memory serves, it was named after a Greek goddess having something to do with agriculture and fertility. That would be an appropriate place to populate with rabbit farmers, wouldn’t you say?”
“I was right…” Taro whispered, almost to herself. “I thought this might be Surrey.”
She looked back inside the trunk, but there was nothing more of interest inside. She held the box of thick glass in her lap, wondering if she should open it here. If it was indeed a leftover relic from a time three hundred years earlier, she was afraid the book might disintegrate as soon as she opened its container.
On the other hand, the book would never be read otherwise. If they were going to keep this world a secret from the rest of the Planetary Alignment, it could never be taken back where it could be opened and preserved in a sterile environment. If it fell apart here, no one would ever read it in the future anyway.
Taro decided to chance opening the container, so she sat down on the dirt cave floor and put the glass box in her lap. She looked at Mark, who nodded quietly, and then she grasped the lip of the top. The glass and its sealer was long stuck together and it took her special brand of strength before the layers finally began to separate. When the top finally came loose of the box, there was a sudden acrid smell that escaped. Even the human’s dull olfactory senses could smell it and he flinched, barely able to contain a sneeze.
“Gas?” he whispered. “A preservative, perhaps?”
Taro didn’t answer. She set the lid aside and then gingerly put a finger upon the book’s cover; it felt like Terran cowhide, but it held up against her touch. She eased her fingers around it and gently picked it up. So far, so good.
When she opened the cover, the yellowed pages within looked old, but didn’t seem to be in danger of disintegrating at her touch. The container had somehow preserved the old book as Mark conjectured. She opened to the first page and found a neat handwriting written in English. Fortunately for her, she’d learned to read that Terran language years ago, although it was the only one from that world she could understand. For the benefit of her companion, she read aloud.
First Day. Our fourteen-month journey to Aphaea came to an end with a rather rough landing due to unstable air over the mountains. Our mechanics will have to see if the thrusters will be capable of launching the ship again, but the engineer thinks the keel of the ship may have been damaged and too structurally unsound to support the weight of the ship in flight. Any such repairs will have to wait until a later time, however. For now, we’re celebrating our arrival and enjoying the relative spring-like weather we have today. We’ve rationed our food the past two months in space, but now that we’re here, I’ve authorized breaking into the stores for a feast.
I’m no scientist myself, but even I’m excited as the ones who are at just how Earth-like this place is. There are differences, to be sure, but as the old adage goes: Grass, trees and birds are grass, trees and birds no matter how nature has shaped them. Of course, we’ll have to analyze everything first before we start eating any of it. There may be no nutritional value to anything we ingest and it could be all poisonous, but at first glance, it could be a veritable Garden of Eden.
There are seventy-two colony Furs that include myself, and we’re all of anthrolapin genetic transformation. If all goes well and we can survive here, we may be the first of many to migrate to this world much like what happened with Kantus twenty years ago. I have more I could say on our first day here, but I need to put away this journal to help out with the feast preparations.
Jonas Kasseris, Surrey Colony Captain
“Sounds like a standard captain’s journal recording the first landing here,” Mark observed. “You might keep it in your library for night reading.” Taro nodded and flipped forward through the pages. She stopped at another entry at random and read a little more.
Although light years away, the conflicts on Earth affect us even here. The last data-burst we received contained distressing news. The anti-Fur organizations across the world are gaining strength and there’s talk of abandoning ALL the starter colonies that have been established, and this – of course - includes ourselves. We’ve been here a little over a year and are fairly self-sufficient for the most part, but we’d all hate to be completely cut off from home.
There’ve been reports of violence in some areas where the Fur laboratories have been burned to the ground and there have even been attacks upon the mission control centers for the colony launches. It’s terrible to think it’s come down to this. The reason Furs like us were created in the first place was to aid in the exploration and colonization of habitable planets to pave the way for new lands for an overcrowded Earth. The program has been successful so far, but pure-human groups don’t see this.
In a way, I’m glad we’re here on a world so far away that the violence can’t reach us from Earth, but the news of what’s going on is damaging enough. If we do get abandoned and cut off from home, I’m sure we’ll survive here well enough. Think of the future.
Jonas Kasseris, Surrey Colony Captain
At the time this journal was written, the events were still happening, but for Mark and Taro it was ancient history. The anti-Fur movements on Earth had indeed peaked with a complete abandonment of all Fur colonies for a period that lasted well over a hundred years. Generations later, however, the altered sons and daughters of Terra were remembered and emissaries were dispatched to reestablish contact with the orphaned worlds. Not all of the diplomats were welcomed with opened arms, the prolific Furs having had a century to nurture resentment over their past treatment.
Since many of the records of the furman colony program had been lost during the worldwide uprising on Earth, and enough time had passed that there was no one still living from that era, there were no surviving documents listing all of the colony worlds that had been established. Some were remembered, but others forgotten altogether; it appeared that Aphaea was one of the latter.
An influential woman named Noiré Mooncrest was at the head of the efforts to reestablish contact with Earth’s children and it was through her endeavors over a fifteen year period that saw the formation of the Planetary Alignment. During the period that had become known as the Great Abandonment, each of the colonies had become fully-fledged worlds with their own governments and societies. There were those that kept some of the customs and traditions from the areas of Earth where they’d originated, but others developed their own cultures, completely turning their backs on their heritage. As a result, there was almost as much variety on each of the PA worlds as there was on Earth.
Unfortunately, something happened here on Aphaea that stunted the cultural growth of the lapin society that had been abandoned here. Other worlds had nearly three hundred years of their own civilizations behind them now, but this place had regressed to a more primitive time. Was it by design or chance?
Perhaps that answer was contained with this journal, but there wasn’t time to read it all now. Taro flipped to the final entry in the book.
Surrey is finished. Jonas is dead, along with most of the colony, and the remaining survivors have taken what food and tools they can haul in their horse-drawn surreys to scatter to the four winds. There aren’t many of us left, and some of these balked at separating, but most have agreed that if we set up other camps instead of everyone staying together, the mountain lions can’t get us all.
Maybe it was a mistake to send rabbits to a world with so many predators. We’ve become the prey animals that our engineered genes came from and there will never be any help from that cursed planet Earth. Sure, we’ve survived well enough here in the highlands for the most part, but we don’t have the defenses necessary to fight off so many cats.
The rabbits of Earth have a long history of being fertile and prolific, but they can’t hold a candle to the mountain lions of this place. They’re everywhere, and now that they’ve discovered how tasty we are, they won’t leave us alone.
I’m with the last group to leave our colony home to find another place far from the highlands in hopes the cats won’t follow so far from their dens. There are other creatures here among the mountains they’ve preyed upon before we came along, so they’ll have to go back to eating them once we’ve gone.
There’s no one left alive with the knowledge to maintain or repair our electronic equipment and we may not even be able to use what mechanical items we have after they break down too. It’s possible we may have to live a simple life for a while. Maybe someone amongst us has the mechanical aptitude to figure out how to repair what we have in time, but for now, all we have left are farmers, ranchers and other common folk.
I am preserving this journal in a gas-filled box in hopes that a future generation may find this record of our beginnings here on Aphaea. Unable to repair it to flight status, our ship was salvaged for useable parts long ago; the land has overtaken what’s left of it and it wouldn’t be much shelter against the cats now anyway.
The Earth has disowned us, our technology has failed and the mountain lions are driving us away from our original colony site. This journal may never be found, but in case there are eyes from the future who can read my scrawling writing, this was our beginning. Please remember us.
Jo Erms, Colony Secretary
Taro closed the cover of the book and looked over at her companion. “Well,” she said, “now we know.”
“Now that we know, what do we do with this information?”
The vixen rubbed a hand over the exterior of the well-preserved book for a moment, but then pulled her pack around to place it inside. “I’ll give it to Merlin once we’ve returned to Dennier,” she said. “There would be far-reaching effects if word of Surrey’s existence got out to the public. Just as Calissa feared when we were here last, I’m sure someone would try to make the journey out here to exploit the planet. For now, you and I should just keep this between us. It’s probably best we leave this world to the rabbits from now on to make their own way.”
Mark looked at her. “After how long they’ve been abandoned, don’t you think the rabbits might be ready to go home?”
Taro shook her head. “If Nick’s people are typical of the Surrey descendants, none of them even remember the Earth after so long. To them, Se’rei is home. They have their own customs and even their own language now. Perhaps it didn’t turn out how the original designers of the program planned, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
With the exception of the journal, she returned the glass box and everything else she’d removed to the trunk and then put the broken lid back on top. Without the book, the trunk held no more value, but she pushed the box back into its alcove anyway.
Mark followed her back to the entrance of the cave, but when Taro stepped outside, she stopped and looked at the sky. The time was crawling into early evening and she didn’t know how long the days might be on this world. “That was certainly educational,” she muttered quietly, “but we need to get moving if we’re going to find the cats before dark.”
“We don’t have to look very far,” Mark whispered.
Two pair of golden yellow eyes peered at them from the shadows of the scrub brush directly across from the cave entrance, but the new arrivals didn’t bother to stay concealed. Both of the mountain cats stepped out into the sunlight, one with its head down, and it was then that Taro and Mark saw just how large these creatures were.
Down on four feet, the male was nearly four feet from the ground to its shoulder and its companion was only slightly smaller. Both had a head eerily reminiscent of the non-sentient mountain lions they were familiar with, and it was with an unnerving feeling that Taro could see the resemblance to the passenger she’d had on her ship months earlier. Their pelts were tawny brown with lighter and darker patches that could only be described as a camouflage pattern. Thick, non-retractable claws and powerful jaws open in excited panting completed the picture of danger.
Without preamble or ceremony, Taro drew the rifle from her shoulder sling, took aim and shot the larger male right between the eyes in one swift motion. As it dropped, the second one flinched in reaction to the loud report, but before she could bolt away, Taro plugged another bullet through her temple.
“Look at the size of that thing!” Renny exclaimed from an elevation somewhere a little higher. Jerry and Max also came running from the caves they’d been investigating. Until now, there had been no sign of the great cats other than shed fur and tracks in the dirt.
“Everybody on your toes and be on the alert,” Taro said, giving the dead animals no further attention. “There will be more coming to investigate, I’m sure. You are to shoot them on sight.” She turned a critical eye to the youngest member of her party and added, “If you shoot any with your stunner, Max, let one of us know so we can dispatch it for real before it can get back up.”
The German shepherd felt stung by her words, but he merely nodded to show obedience to his captain’s command.
“What do we do about those two?” Jerry asked, pointing to the dead cats.
Taro was about to wave them off as unimportant, but then changed her mind. She moved to the larger of the two and then knelt beside it. She pulled a large knife from her boot and then deeply cut its belly open in a wide swath. The ground flowed red at her feet and she backed away several steps.
“We’ll use them as bait,” she said as Max turned his head and the others looked on in horror. “The blood will draw others, so find yourself a safe place to wait and we’ll let them come to us.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Jerry muttered, but now that the deed was done, there surely would be others drawn to the scent; he quickly returned to a nearby shallow cave he’d just looked into and put his back to it. He didn’t really want to be cornered there if several of them rushed him, but it was preferable to leaving his tail unguarded.
It didn’t take long before several other mountain lions appeared, their noses to the air and twitching. Renny took aim at one, but hesitated. In that moment, another lion appeared on the hillside above him and the cheetah could feel a ridge raise along his back beneath his shirt.
The lioness saw him and drew her lips back into a snarl as she gathered her feet together. Renny didn’t hesitate this time and swung his rifle up toward her. He managed to squeeze off a shot before she could leap down at him, but it wasn’t a clean kill. The lioness dropped to her belly and began to convulse, kicking up dust and dirt, but Renny had to force himself to shoot again. This time she lay still and didn’t move again.
The Horizon’s navigator was unable to relax, however; others were now coming after him from the surrounding hills. In only a matter of seconds, the hunter had quickly become the hunted, and now the cheetah became focused to protect himself. There was no hesitation this time as he began shooting.
A short distance away, Jerry had his back to the wall with three of the feral mountain cats facing him. His rifle level and steady, he shot one through an eye, but another jumped for him before he could alter his aim. A young male landed right in front of him and slashed out with a massive paw. The fox slid sideways along the wall behind him and just managed to avoid being gutted by those razor sharp claws. He didn’t escape injury, however; part of his shirt was ripped into sudden shreds and several claw tips cut furrows into his side. Luckily for him, the cuts were shallow, but it was enough to incapacitate him.
The cat suddenly collapsed to the ground before it could strike again, however; it had been caught in Max’s invisible stunner beam. Spurred on by Jerry’s injury, the young mechanic rushed toward the other cats surging forward and sprayed his beam across them with gritted teeth. One dropped instantly, but the other charged toward him barely affected. It was larger than the other two and Max had to fire again, this time at point-blank range.
The animal dropped, though not before running headlong onto the German shepherd. The cat’s great weight pinned Max to the ground and he began struggling frantically to get out from beneath it before another of the feral felines discovered him. He also didn’t know how long the stunning effects would last, and he didn’t want to be around if this one woke up with its massive head in his lap.
He managed to wriggle free and then got up onto his feet. He limped on a bruised hip to Jerry and the fox looked up at him in pain.
“You’ve got to kill them,” Jerry gasped, holding his arms across his middle in an attempt to stop the flow of blood. “I can’t do it for you.”
Max swallowed with difficulty, but when the big cat at Jerry’s feet began to stir already, he knew he didn’t have a choice. He picked up the fox’s rifle and stood up. He aimed its barrel at the animal’s head and put his finger on the trigger.
“Do we have to do this?” he asked in a quiet voice.
Jerry looked up at him. “We’re in too deep, Max,” he said.
The lion opened its eyes and started to shake off the effects of the stun to its nervous system. The teenage canine braced for the recoil and pulled the trigger, killing the great cat instantly.
“Good man,” Jerry encouraged him. “Now the others.”
Steeling himself for the job at hand, Max moved to the other sleeping lions and then shot them all quickly before he could think himself out of it. Relatively safe for the moment, he moved back to Jerry to see if he could help with his injuries.
At another place upon the side of the hill, Mark ejected the clip from his rifle, shoved it into a pocket and then grabbed another from his back pack to reload. He’d been systematically shooting every mountain cat he saw, and there were considerably more of them than he’d hoped to see.
He’d sustained a few injuries of his own from felines that had gotten in too close, but all were superficial. He didn’t like killing the animals any more than the others had, but he was no stranger to the task and his frame of mind had moved into an automatic zone where he didn’t have to consciously think about what he was doing.
He didn’t stand still against the hillside waiting for the lions to come to him, but methodically sought them out on his own. He knew from the journal they’d found that these cats were more prolific than rabbits and there were likely to be many more amongst the highlands, though he tried not to think about the odds. Now that battle had been engaged and other cats were drawn to the noise and blood, he would likely run out of ammunition before they’d all been dispatched.
Elsewhere, in spite of the anger and rage within her, there was a part of Taro’s mind that realized for all the kills she and the others had made, there seemed to be no end to the large animals. Most she’d killed with bullets, but one had come at her from above and she’d had fight for her life when it went for her throat. She had claw marks across her back and shoulders from when it had taken her in a fierce offensive hug, but she’d managed to keep its jaws from tearing the life out of her. In the end, it had taken all the reserves of her Hestran strength to break its neck, and this had brought forth suppressed memories of her fight with another murderous feline, the pirate Sagan.
She heard movement behind her and she turned with wild eyes to kill another, but Renny raised his hands swiftly and grabbed the end of her rifle to keep it pointed away from him.
“It’s me!” he said with a gasp. Taro blinked in rapid succession and then exhaled strongly. She was so full of adrenaline that her eyes wouldn’t focus on him. She kept her attention on the hills and brush all around them. For the moment, however, it seemed they had a moment of respite.
“Taro,” Renny said firmly, “we’ve got to get out of here! There are too many!”
“Too many…” she growled. The cheetah shook her briefly and she finally looked at him with clearer eyes. Yes… you’re right, of course,” she acquiesced. “Let’s find the others and get out while we can.”
For the first time since they’d left the lapin village, Renny sighed in relief, but didn’t allow himself to relax; feline reinforcements could arrive at any moment. When they started stepping around the fallen mountain cats, Taro came out of her daze and her attention became sharply focused.
“Are you okay?” Renny asked, looking over the shredded back of her blouse.
“I’ll live. I can’t believe I thought we could get rid of them all,” she admitted to her first officer and best friend as they climbed to higher ground. They were looking for their fellow crewmates, but had to keep alert for more of the feral cats.
They found Max tending to Jerry. The young mechanic had pulled off his own shirt and cut it into strips with his knife to bind around the fox’s middle.
“How bad is it?” Taro asked, kneeling beside them.
“Superficial,” the vulpine doctor replied, “but it hurts just the same.”
“Can you travel? We’re getting out of here.”
“I can travel well enough to do that!” Jerry grumbled.
“What about you?” she asked Max.
“Just bruises,” he reported. “I’m okay, but has anyone seen Mark?”
“I’m here,” the human said, standing on the rise above the shallow cave where Jerry rested on the ground. “Just keeping an eye out for more. We seem to have a moment to catch our breath, but I wouldn’t let down my guard just yet.”
Max and Renny helped Jerry to his feet and Taro looked up at her cargo master. “Are you injured?” she asked.
“Yeah, but I can live with it until we get back to the ship. Lead on and I’ll watch our backs.”
The hunting party began moving around dead cats, rocks and brush down the hill, but they were still on the lookout. The could hear a feline shriek some distance away and they all assumed it was either a cat calling for more of its kind or it was mourning the loss of kin.
On the way back down to the plains with the forest of the rabbits in sight, Mark had to dispatch only two more of the feral mountain lions they encountered. They surmised that they had either managed to kill off all those in the immediate vicinity or the cats had pulled back to regroup in the face of such losses.
Taro felt that they’d been extremely lucky in that their own injuries were survivable. When they reached the flat wheat lands between the highlands and the forest without further battle, Taro felt the need to speak to the others as they walked.
“Guys,” she said quietly, “I’m sorry for this. I was blind with rage over what happened in the village, especially to the children, and I wouldn’t listen to reason. I… was wrong.” No one said anything and Max was the only one who would meet her eyes as she looked them over. Discouraged, the vixen fumbled for more words, but while she was momentarily quiet, Jerry cleared his throat.
“Captain,” he said, keeping his eyes straight ahead across the plains while Max and Renny continued to help keep him upright. “I mentioned this earlier, but I want you to remember our last visit here. You were infected by a local bacteria that affected your judgment and you were unable to stay in control of your anger for a while thereafter.”
“It seems to have affected you quicker this time around, probably because you’d caught it before, but instead of building up an immunity, you just became more susceptible.” He finally looked over at her, but his expression hadn’t really softened. “I don’t blame you for your convictions because of it,” he said, “but because you’re our captain, we had to follow your orders.”
“Yes, and I am really sorry,” Taro murmured. “I should have listened to the counsel given me, but I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“You seem okay now,” the teen canine observed quietly.
“I think I’m all used up, Max. I had so much anger and rage in a killing rage back there that I probably burned up the bacteria. Now I’m spent.”
“If I ever get to publish a paper about the bacteria,” Jerry said in a moment of levity despite his pain, “I’m going to name it after you, Taro.”
The vixen gave him a wan smile. “That can never happen, and you know it,” she responded, rubbing one of the scratches across her shoulder. “You’d have to reveal where the bacteria came from, and that would lead back here.”
Mark’s gun spat three staccato reports behind them and they all whirled around expecting more teeth and claws coming after them. The human lowered his rifle and looked back at Taro with a frown.
“We were being stalked,” he explained. “Hopefully those were just scouts. We’re losing daylight fast and I don’t guarantee that I’ll be able to see more of them once the sun goes down.”
“I lost my thermal scanner during the fight,” Renny mumbled, “so that’s no help.”
Taro nodded. “Once we get back to the village, I will apologize to everybody and then we’ll all need to abandon the site quickly in case the night brings the rest of the cats out to finish the job they started. We can hold up safely inside the Horizon, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to get the rabbits inside. They don’t understand our technology, and although we’ve proven they are under no threat by any of us, they may not feel safe enough inside the ship with our predators anyway. I’m not sure what to do about them.”
The hunting party returned to the decimated village just as the sun set beneath the western horizon. On a slight rise above the village proper, Renny stopped and turned back the way they’d just come. He peered behind them looking for movement, silently wishing for the thermal scanner. He and Mark had traded places helping Jerry on the way back, just as Taro and Max had swapped out.
Internally, he sighed with relief that his night vision found nothing larger than small nocturnal critters after several long minutes of meticulous searching. He finally turned and followed the others down toward a large bonfire that had been built in the center of the clearing. A slight evening breeze was sending the column of smoke toward the east.
Whether or not the hunting party had been successful in their task, N’iik had already determined that he and the survivors would be leaving this place to join another lapin community he knew of to the northeast. He had been there numerous times, familiar with the route and with several individuals living there.
Before abandoning a village, however, it was customary to burn the personal belongings of all the dwellings but one, and in that one would be stored an assortment of items representing the lives of those who had once lived there.
Unfortunately, no other survivors had been found, so N’iik and Nay’ha had already selected the largest abode, emptied it, and then gathered from the other homes what would be placed there. The Blue Horizon crew had then helped them bring out everything else to the central clearing to be burned to ash.
When Taro learned of this tradition, she asked that Calissa’s portable landing beacon be added to the fire, as it was unlikely they would ever have the opportunity to return to this world. It would also be unwise to announce their presence to any other vessels that might happen to come this way, whether from the Planetary Alignment worlds or elsewhere.
The bonfire would serve three purposes. The dead would first be placed in the center, and then the personal possessions stacked over them and piled high, so that the ritual burning of the belongings would also serve as a funeral pyre. The third purpose would help keep away any of the feral cats or other predators that might try to come back during the night.
Max had balked at this at first, as he had already dug several graves to bury the dead, but that was not the lapin way of this place. N’iik had patiently explained to the young canine that this would prevent scavengers from digging up the bodies.
They’d already driven off all the red-feathered scavenger birds that had gathered earlier, and now that night was falling, there may be more drawn to the smell of so much blood; the bodies may be consumed by the fire, but spilled blood still remained throughout the village. Once the deed was done, they would leave the village altogether, spending the night elsewhere before starting their two day journey the next morning.
Taro made a humble speech to the entire gathering, giving only a brief account of the siege against the feral highland cats, and then she offered a public apology for her actions and reactions.
“I have no excuse for what I’ve said and done,” she said to the crowd. “I can claim a sickness due to something here I alone seem to have no immunity against, but I’m still responsible for my actions. All I can do is say I am sorry and that I hope you all can forgive me.” She looked over at her bedraggled hunting party where Amanda and Suzuko were tending to their wounds using Jerry’s med kit. “I’ve caused injury to those who followed me into needless battle, and I could have easily lost any of them to the overwhelming odds we faced this evening.”
She looked down at her hands, her ears back and her tail hanging low. “When we get back to Dennier, I will tender my resignation as captain of the Blue Horizon and let Merlin choose someone else better suited to the responsibility.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Jerry said from the sidelines. Taro looked over at him as other voices began to raise in response to her declaration.
“No, you can’t resign!” Pockets wailed loudly. There were other similar sentiments, but it was the vulpine doctor that Taro’s attention went to. Jerry saw her focus and nodded toward her.
“Captain,” he said in a voice loud enough to be heard over the sudden din, “your judgment may or may not have been impaired by a sickness, but the fact remains that you were doing what you thought was necessary in light of what happened here this morning. There were so many deaths here that almost an entire village was decimated, and after what we five experienced tonight, it’s a wonder that there were any survivors among the rabbits at all. We may not have agreed with your methods, but I think we understand your motivations. That you realize what you’ve done and have apologized for it is good enough for me and I would prefer that you not resign.”
“Yeah, what he said!” Justy exclaimed. Again, there were more voices that backed up what the doctor expressed, and Taro’s eyes grew moist.
“Thank you,” she said when the noise died down. “That doesn’t excuse what I’ve done, but I appreciate your acceptance.” She looked over at N’iik, who hadn’t understood everything she’d said in the Standard language, but he’d relayed what he could to Nay’ha beside him.
The vixen approached him with her hands down and clasped together demurely. “I have done you a great wrong,” she told him quietly. “I hope you can one day forgive me.”
The white buck tilted his head at her words. “Forgived,” he said simply. “Understand you help us, but our way best.”
Taro nodded. “Yes, your way is best. You will find safety with other rabbits. I hope you, Nay’ha and the children will have long and prosperous lives.” She glanced at Lorelei and then back to N’iik. “Since I won’t be here to protect her, I will trust you to keep my L’ree safe at your side.”
The white doe’s eyes went wide. “You… mean you’ll let me stay?” she asked in a trembling voice.
Taro nodded. “For the sake of N’iik and these children, yes, I will honor your request. For the sake of those back home, you and I will need to sign a consent form legally breaking your contract and you’ll need to put together some kind of letter to your family to explain why they’ll never see you again - without revealing too much about this place, of course.”
Lorelei moved forward and enveloped the vixen in a warm embrace. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Taro gasped when the doe’s hands brushed her injuries and it was only then that she realized that she had been ignoring the stinging pain across her back and shoulders to make her public apologies. It all came rushing back to her and she suddenly felt light-headed.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Lorelei gasped when Taro wavered on her feet.
“Maybe I should sit down somewhere,” the captain murmured as she sank to her knees. N’iik and Nay’ha immediately knelt beside her and Lorelei went in search of something to treat the wounds with from Jerry’s med kit.
N’iik declined Taro’s offer to take the rabbits to a place near the next village in the ship so that they wouldn’t have to be concerned if the cats tried to follow them. He’d conveyed that the felines would likely be too gorged from eating the villagers and their own dead to come after them across the plains.
He also believed that the two-day travel would give them time to grieve over their losses and prepare to present themselves and the children to their new elders.
However, he did take her up on the offer of letting them spend the night in safety inside the “cavern” within the ship’s hold. N’iik and Nay’ha were fascinated by the giant blue sky-thing that L’ree had arrived in, neither of them understanding how it could happen, but accepting that it must be so. The young bunnies ran around inside the cavernous hold for a while, but eventually the lateness of the night wore them down and they all gathered back together in a sleepy pile near the adults.
Cushions, pillows and blankets had been provided for them to sleep on, but despite the events of the day, it was long into the night before anyone but the little bunnies could sleep. Taro had sent everyone but Lorelei and herself to the upper decks, and while they were alone, she had opened the cargo crates to let the adult rabbits pick through the contents so they could take anything they wanted and anything they thought they could use from the items that Merlin had sent.
There were a few small tools that N’iik thought could be handy, and they took all of the food seeds, but the most valuable objects among the crates were the most practical. Blankets and clothing along with the other oddments they’d chosen would be loaded into backpacks that the rabbits could take with them; heavier items would have to be left behind since they had nothing like cart or wagon to take them in. There were no more surreys, or horses either. Everything they took would have to be carried, and with nine bunny children along for the two-day trek to the closest village, they would need to travel light. The biggest concern would be food and water, and Taro had allowed Lori to take anything she thought they could use from the galley.
As for the rest of the cargo items the rabbits didn’t want or couldn’t carry, Taro was tempted to simply dump them out on the ground outside the ship for other rabbits to discover and go through, but there was no guarantees the stuff would be found anytime soon due to the distance to the nearest village. It seemed like such a waste, but the original purpose for them had also been overcome by events.
Instead, she decided to take them back to Merlin. Most of the items could be used in a garden setting and the wolf had often expressed a desire to grow his own vegetables, so perhaps he could use them himself.
Everyone exhausted from the ordeals of the day, they finally bid one another good night and they all settled down in their beds.
The next morning, Mark opened the forward cargo bay door to let in the sunshine and fresh spring air, impressing the rabbits that the whole side of their “cave” could swing outward at his command. The weather for the day looked to be calm and pleasant with only a gentle breeze; it was a perfect day for traveling. A report from the bridge confirmed that thermal scans in all directions found no awaiting mountain cats within range.
Taro and Lorelei had fulfilled the final requirements of her contract the night before, with a brief letter written for her family, so Lori now considered herself a new resident of Se’rei. The captain had not told her of the origins of the rabbits on this world that she and Mark had discovered, deeming it unnecessary to her lapin friend’s existence within her new life.
The rabbits had a long journey ahead of them, and hampered by a herd of children, the voyage would be slower, but the crew of the Blue Horizon was unwilling to let their former crewmate simply leave. With promises to keep it as short as possible, a small going-away party was given for Lori.
As expected, the native rabbits declined to delve deeper into the interior of the ship-cave, but they understood the need to allow L’ree to properly say goodbye to her extended family. N’iik and Nay’ha would be getting the children ready to travel, but neither complained about the burden the journey was apt to be. They all lived, and that was the only thing to remember.
On the deck above them, the recreational area was crowded with the crew all gathered around their former cook. Some of them had served with Lori for years, while others only knew her for a short while. When Justy had lamented the coming loss of her good cooking, Suzuko announced that she was willing to fill in to make sure nobody went hungry, herself an experienced cook in addition to being a great engineer. There were good-natured jokes at the unicorn’s expense on her modesty after that, but it was all taken with grace and humor.
There were hugs and teary farewells, but eventually things began to wind down simply due to the injured weariness of some and the need for the rabbits to begin on their way. Everyone accompanied Lori to the cargo bay, and there she joined her new mate with his cousin and the small bunnies that now depended upon them.
The dozen rabbits stood at the bottom of the cargo ramp and Lorelei grinned back at everyone. She’d taken only her most prized possessions from her quarters on the ship and those consisted merely of a few pretty trinkets she thought she could trade amongst the other rabbits she might encounter. She’d changed into locally-made clothing that Nay’ha had given her from the village before everything else had been burned, and she’d decided to leave behind all her brightly-dyed garments and fancy footwear, though she did keep one pair of simple sandals.
The pack and bedroll upon her back was full, but one small bunny sat on top of it and clung to the back of her neck while another tiny bunny rode in her arms. Only the smallest would be carried thusly by N’iik and Nay’ha too. The other children would have to walk. Most of them were too young to even remember the events of the previous day for long, though some would miss their parents for a while. All they knew now was the love and compassion of their teacher; the strange looking people in the big blue cave would also soon be forgotten.
The time finally came for them to leave. Taro walked down to the rabbits out in the field to give Lori a final hug and fond wish that she be forever happy, and then the travelers turned toward the northeast.
Amanda hadn’t known Lori for long, but there were tears streaming into her cheek fur as she watched them go. Pockets had known the rabbit far longer and wasn’t to be outdone by the simple coyote. He wiped his eyes on a the sleeve of his coveralls, only to have his eyes fill up again as sobs threatened to escape from his throat.
The rabbits stopped and Lorelei suddenly trotted back to the cargo ramp, holding onto her two squealing bunnies as she ran. Taro looked at her curiously as the white doe tried reaching one of her pockets. It was difficult with her arms full, but she finally managed to snare something that was inside.
“I almost forgot!” Lori exclaimed with a wide grin. “N’iik gave this to me, thinking it was mine.” What she handed the vixen was a small, brightly colored sheet of plastic. It was flat, rectangular and had words and numbers written across both sides in stylish Standard. A scrawling signature had also been penned in across one side of it.
“Rex’s lottery ticket!” Taro exclaimed with a laugh. “I’ll bet it fell out of his shirt pocket when he ran out of the ship and tripped up in the wheat field!”
Lori nodded. “N’iik said he found it after we left last time. He didn’t know what it was, but kept it as a reminder of my visit. Can you make sure it gets back to Mr. Concolar, please?”
Taro laughed again and tickled the large bare feet of the bunny in the doe’s arms, making the little girl giggle. “By all means. He keeps contacting the home office about once a month hoping we’ve found it somewhere on the ship. We’ll all be glad to make sure it gets to him.”
Lori leaned forward, kissed her former captain on the cheek and then made sure she had a good hold on both little bunnies before she trotted back out to her waiting party.
Taro pocketed the lottery ticket carefully and then waved one last time. When she was sure that the rabbits were far enough away, she turned to Mark and nodded. “Time to close up and prep the ship for liftoff.”
Thirty minutes later, the Blue Horizon leapt straight up into the sky on full thrusters, flattening the wheat stalks beneath it in powerful hot winds. The lower cameras showed their departure angle on the vidscreens and anyone watching could see the small party of rabbits looking up and waving from a distance. The sight of the giant blue thing soaring up through the sky must have been awe-inspiring to the primitive lapin folk.
It didn’t take long for the ship to gain an altitude where the atmospheric engines could be engaged to increase velocity to get them up into orbit. A short while after that, the entire world could be seen below as a blue and green marble with patches and swirls of white.
Once the gravity deck plates were active and they were in a stable orbit, Pockets unfastened his harness and padded over to look at Calissa’s little black box. One diode was lit up brightly. He thumbed an intercom pad and gave a brief report.
“The Hyld system is fully charged and the safety light is green. We can jump any time you’re ready.”
“Aye to that,” Taro’s voice replied. “We’ll reach optimum orbital departure in twenty-three minutes, and approximately fifteen more to reach our jump point. Let us know if anything changes.”
“Aye-yi, will do.”
The Blue Horizon emerged from its jump at a distance of just half a day away on standard LightDrive velocities from Dennier. They were far enough outside the standard traffic lanes that there had been no danger of running into any other ships in the area.
Shaking off the ill effects of the jump, Renny immediately began calculating their route back to the nearby world, and while he was working, Suzuko guided the ship back down in line with the galactic plane, piloting the interstellar vessel with ease. Taro watched from the com station, pleased that the painted-pony unicorn had prior experience flying the Kirin-class freighter. With Jerry out of commission for a while and her own injuries limiting movement, Suzuko and Renny were the only other two on board who could currently fly the new ship design. This oversight would be corrected later as the other crewmembers got their chance to familiarize themselves with the ship and her controls.
Satisfied that Suzuko had control of things, Taro turned to the console beside her and slipped on a headset with a flexible arm to place the speaker bud within one of her high ears with the tiny microphone on a boom near her lips. She tuned into the local traffic and listened for a while, but was puzzled by some of the chatter she heard.
She switched over to StellarNet and tuned into INN to see if she could get a clearer picture of the news snippets she’d picked up. She listened for a good long time while her crewmates took care of getting them back to home port.
After Renny had finished his calculations and transferred the data to Suzuko’s panel, he turned in his seat to face the lithe unicorn lass beside him.
“What happens now?” he asked quietly. He could see Taro focused upon whatever it was she listened to, so he kept his voice low. Suzuko looked up at him after setting their course to match the figures he’d provided.
“What do you mean?”
The cheetah frowned. “The purpose of our first flight was to see if we could talk Natasha’s engineer into providing plans for the particle vault safety monitor so you could include them in future Hyld ships. Right now, we have only the one unit with no idea what it monitors or how to build more.”
Suzuko considered his words for a moment and then shook her head. “It’s likely that Master Tristen will take the device back to Sillon to see if they can figure it out, and that is if they can even determine what it is that it monitors and why. Calissa only hinted at dangers and Tristan seems to think this has bearing upon a few events that happened during our own initial testing.”
“Can we still use the Hyld jump system built into this ship for our testing phase?”
“I don’t see how we can,” she answered. “If we don’t have the monitor, Master Tristan is unlikely to allow us to use the system for safety reasons.”
Renny crossed his arms. “Does this mean our two-year contract is finished before it really begins?”
“Not necessarily. Before the Hyld package was included in the Kirin, this ship had already been equipped with the latest Silloni LightDrive propulsion system. It is point-seven-five percent faster than the current LD systems on the market today and point-five faster than Earth’s new Prime ships, so we’ll still have a slight edge on the competition.”
“We?” Renny asked. “Will you be staying with us even if we can’t use the Hyld? I thought that was the reason you’d joined the crew.”
The equine engineer smiled. “The Kirin is a prototype that needs to be tested before it goes on the market for mass production, so we all still have work to do here; the Hyld was only one system of the whole ship I was to look after. Besides, I’d already set my home affairs in order to be gone for two years before I left Sillon, so there’s no reason to leave you just yet.”
The navigator smiled. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “I was afraid you’d take this new ship away from us and Merlin would have to shop for another Horizon.”
“That’s not going to happen. I still have to prove to everyone that I’m a good cook, anyway. I can’t do that from Sillon.” She smiled and Renny grinned.
“I’m sure you’ve already heard about my appetite, so I hope you’re up to the challenge.”
At the com station, Taro pulled off the headset and set it down on her console. Renny looked over at her and saw the expression on her face. “What’s up?” he asked. “Looks like you got some bad news.” Suzuko looked over her shoulder at the vixen.
“Well, there is news,” said the captain, “but how you take it personally will be up to you.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“The news channels are all abuzz with the assassination of Earth’s Representative to the PA Legislature.”
“The Representative?” Suzuko repeated.
“That guy we met, Victor Faltane,” Renny guessed with raised eyebrows.
“The one and the same. You and I know him as Sagan’s master, but others thought of him as a successful businessman and a leader of men.”
“If he was assassinated,” Suzuko remarked, “I suppose that means he had enemies somewhere. That happens if you’ve stepped on the wrong people for your successes.”
Taro nodded. “The news reports say the identity of the murderer is unknown, but even in the early stages of the investigation, evidence has turned up that Faltane may have had plans to kidnap the Argeian Heir Apparent during the Siilv War to force some issue. Popular opinion is that a Kastan assassin caught up to him due to the way he died.”
“What happened?” Renny asked.
“Something tunneled into the back of his head and came out through the top, and then the skin of his face was surgically sheared away.”
“Ew!” Suzuko responded, sticking out her tongue.
Renny made a retching sound in his throat, but then shook his head. “I’ve heard rumors that the Commodore of the Kastan fleet wears a vest made of the faces of those he’s personally bested in combat. I don’t remember his name, but heard he could be brutal in battle.”
Taro nodded. “Commodore Blanc. His name came up in the new reports; it’s his style. alright, but I wouldn’t think he’d stoop to something he could hire an assassin to do.”
“Maybe someone’s mimicking his methods to make him look like the culprit,” Renny surmised.
“Earth was one of the worlds that tried to go up against Argeia, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that the Kastans would kill off their Representative to the Legislature,” Taro said, “but the Terrans are livid and are demanding answers. None of the news services have been able to get any response to this action from Argeia, and I don’t think they’ll get one anyhow. Argeia is off-limits to the PA worlds and the Kastans themselves have written off the PA anyway.”
Suzuko looked back down at a blip from her console and made a quick calculation. “We’re coming up on Dennieran traffic. We should be back in Grandstorm in about five hours.”
Bandaged and moving stiffly, Taro followed Merlin out to the workshop adjacent to his house so they could be alone together for a private conversation. The home office was locked up for the weekend, so she’d taken a cab to the Sinclair residence. She’d left her crew back at the spaceport with the ship so she could give the wolf a personal account of the trip to Se’rei and get their next assignment.
Secluded in Merlin’s little cubicle where they’d had a conversation about the new ship only days before, the wolf sat behind his desk and listened to the vixen’s story. He tried not to interrupt her so she could get everything off her chest, but there was a time or two he needed clarification on something.
When she finished, she opened the bag she’d brought with her and pulled out a cloth-wrapped object. She set it on the desk and then unfolded the cloth to reveal the old colony journal she and Mark had found. Beside it, she also placed the plastic lottery ticket, but neither of them were really interested in that right now.
Merlin lifted the book gently, as if afraid it might fall apart in his hands, but it felt just as solid as the journals he’d written in over the years while on board the Blue Horizon.
“So this is it,” he said quietly. “Historical proof on the life of another of the lost colonies, yet we can’t show it to anyone.”
“We’d be grilled day and night for information if our trip to Surrey ever went public,” Taro remarked. “I don’t think it’s right to keep something like this a secret, but we’d be ruining the lives of Lori and the way of life for the people she’s joined.”
“After the Great Abandonment,” Merlin said, flipping through the old pages of the book, “the colony worlds had to make their own way, developing at their own speeds and in the directions their societies went. It wasn’t up to Earth how another world governed itself or what cultures they produced, and it doesn’t matter if Surrey moved forward or regressed to a more primitive time. The rest of the PA doesn’t have the right to interfere with how they’ve lived for the past three centuries and I’m afraid if we divulged the location to anyone, irrevocable changes would take place.”
He hefted the book. “I’m sure this will be some very interesting reading, but I’m not sure I know what to do with it otherwise.”
Taro looked at him with a smile. “I’ve been thinking about that,” she said, “and I may have a solution.”
Master Tristan stood just inside the azure corridor of the Blue Horizon, waiting with the ship’s captain and her first officer. The wrappings on Taro’s shoulder stuck out from beneath the short sleeves of her white blouse, but she didn’t appear to be in any pain.
Several moments passed before the door to the cargo bay opened. Pockets, Max and Suzuko stepped inside and the shorter unicorn gave the larger a short bow of respect. The raccoon behind her looked gloomy, giving the box in Suzuko’s arms a furtive glance.
“Master,” Suzuko reported in a quiet voice. “It is done.”
“Thank you, dear. Would you deliver the package straight away to Stoyan aboard the Kokoro, please? We will be departing within the hour.”
“At once.” The painted-pony unicorn turned and was out the airlock quickly.
The larger black unicorn chuckled at the forlorn expressions on the mechanics’ faces. “Do not look so glum, gentlemen. This is for the best.”
Pockets looked up into the former Regent’s calm brown eyes. “You took away the best part of the ship!” he complained. “I miss it already!”
“I will have the top engineers of Sillon working to unlock the mystery of Ms. Calissa Thalia’s particle vault monitor. With luck, we will be able to determine its functionality and soon be able to create more to include on future Hyld vessels.”
“Yes, but did you have to take the key component from our Hyld system too?”
Taro put a hand on the raccoon’s shoulder. “Pockets, it’s for our own good. As long as we have a working system, we’d be tempted to use it despite the potential dangers, and you know it.”
“But what if we’re attacked by pirates again?” Max interjected. “You already told several organizations that we’d be testing the Hyld system and someone will probably come after us to get it – only we won’t have it to get away!”
“All good points, Mister Sinclair,” Tristan admitted, “but until we know what the danger might be using it under the wrong conditions, you will not take that chance. I will release a statement to the same scientific organization as before saying that an unforeseen situation arose after first use and that further research will have to be made before the system can be used publicly. This is not a lie, and hopefully word will circulate to those proverbial pirates you mentioned that you will no longer have jump capability. You should still be able to outrun any who come your way and this vessel is not without defenses at any case.”
“We’ll still be testing this new prototype ship and its new LightDrive engines for Sillon and Ryu,” Renny reminded them, “so our contracts are still valid. It’s just going to take us a little longer to get from place to place than we’d originally planned.”
“Yeah, I know,” Pockets acquiesced, “but now that we have a slower ship, we’re all going to have to listen to Jerry complain about the small size of his cabin on every trip we make!”
A month later, a human courier with tanned skin, short black hair and an angular jaw approached an office on the third floor of a building in the city of London on Earth. Dressed in a sharp uniform, the man stepped up to an open doorway and tapped lightly on the wooden panel identifying the office belonging to Director Leatherby.
A portly gentleman with thinning gray hair and a massive mustache looked up from a tablet upon his oak desk, his large eyes annoyed at having been interrupted.
“Yes, what is it?” Leatherby grumbled.
“I have package for you, sir. It was delivered to the main desk downstairs just a few minutes ago.”
“Very well, let me have it.”
The courier moved the desk and then pulled a common cardboard box from the pouch hanging from his right shoulder. It was not overly thick, but a moderate size book or computer tablet would fit into it neatly. He set it on the desk and then handed a slateboard datapak to the portly man. “Sign here, please.”
The man put his thumb print upon the screen and then handed the unit back to its owner. The courier thanked him and then quickly departed.
Rhys Leatherby examined the package for a moment. It was simply addressed to The Director of Colonization Antiquities with the address beneath it. There was no return label on the box, so he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a small pen knife.
He cut the strapping from the box lid and then opened the flaps carefully. Something inside was wrapped up in plastic, so he set the knife aside and then picked up the item. He pulled the sheeting apart and found an old book with a cowhide cover. The words Terran Colony Surrey, Planet Aphaea were embossed in faded gold-colored letters.
Leatherby’s heart thumped in his chest and his breathing became shallow when he realized what it must be. He set the book gently upon his desk blotter and then opened the cover, hardly able to contain his excitement.
He read the opening lines but then quickly shut the book. He rifled through the box it had come in, but there was no letter, note or data crystal to accompany it. He struggled to get his bulk out of the plush chair and then he rushed out of the office into the hall. He looked down the corridor and saw the courier at the far end approaching the staircase that led to the lower floors.
“You there!” he called, startling coworkers in nearby offices. “Please come back!”
The courier turned around at the man’s shout and nodded. He walked casually back to Leatherby and looked down at the shorter gentleman. “Yes sir?” he asked courteously.
“Excuse me,” said the portly man, “but did you see who delivered this package? There was no identification inside or out.”
“No sir,” the courier replied. “I had just arrived at the main desk and found this sitting upon the counter. The public doors had just opened, so it couldn’t have been there more than a few minutes at most.”
Leatherby pulled a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit and wiped it across his forehead. “You’re certain no one knows who left it?”
“Positive, sir. Is it important?”
Leatherby considered the question a moment and then pursed his lips. “Perhaps the delivery itself is not important, but the contents of the package is of great significance.” He patted the courier on the arm and gave him a smile. “Thank you, you may go now. I have an interesting book to begin reading this morning.”
“You are welcome, sir,” Mark Littlefeather replied. “Have a good day.”
— NEXT EPISODE —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.