— by Ted R. Blasingame
Aramis looked up at the sound of laughter. He took a sip of his morning coffee and listened to the giggles and screams of children splashing and playing in the swimming pool outside the bay window of his suite. He sat lengthwise along the comfortable couch, his head propped up on one of its arms and his knees bent to provide his book something to rest upon while he read the now-dry pages. He was not yet dressed for the day, lounging instead in a pair of dark blue walking shorts and a white tank top.
He smiled at the childish giggles and set his coffee cup on the floor beside the couch before he resumed reading. He had been up for an hour and had just finished the breakfast he had ordered from room service. He'd checked on the condition of his book almost as soon as he had gotten out of bed and was pleased to know that, although wrinkled, the pages had dried out well enough to read without fear of the paper dissolving beneath his fingers.
As told the previous night, the chapter inside Spirits of the Sea and Sky didn't contain much personal information about Captain A. A. Thorne. It was a generalized account concerning his notoriety with the people of Castelrosso, but that fame didn't seem to extend beyond the Brandtian islands of the Herdantian Sea. According to the article, Captain Thorne's biggest claim to local fame was his arrogance and short temper, as well as an appreciation for spicy food, antiques and histories of all the worlds of the Planetary Alignment. He was a skilled fighter, and had little patience with those who irritated him, but had never been known to kill anyone outright, although he had been in many fights.
It was said that he had personally modified the LightDrive engines of his Myotis-class cruiser after obtaining Silloni plans for a faster prototype engine not yet available to the market. The Silverthorne had been a legitimate business with ship and crew for hire, but it was rumored that Captain Thorne often entertained jobs of piracy and other covert operations under the table, although this had never been confirmed. While it was believed that Thorne had also been involved in acts of industrial and political sabotage, there had never been any proof to convict him of anything. Although he was an arrogant individual, the legitimate business of the Silverthorne had never failed in a job it was hired to do, whether escorting personalities of importance as protection, shipping goods from one world to another or performing manual labor for jobs no one else wanted. His fees were high, but he always seemed to maintain a clientele.
There was little of the chapter that meant much to him, but one thing of interest was that the Silverthorne had operated from Platform 61 of the Minniti Spaceport until the ship mysteriously exploded just after takeoff, not more than two months ago. Wreckage from the blast fell into Castle Bay, and the only survivor of the eight-person crew was Captain Thorne himself. When questioned during the investigation, it got out that he and his vessel had been hired to escort a small political transport to Ganis. There had been no warning before an explosion within the engine pod reduced the Silverthorne to scrap metal. Three hours later, the Alabaster fell to a similar disaster as it left the mainland. Several Brandtian and Ganisan dignitaries were lost in the destruction of the small transport the Silverthorne had been hired to protect. Sabotage was blamed in both cases, although no one claimed responsibility.
Little was seen of Thorne after the loss of the Silverthorne, but the word on the street was that he had allied himself with known pirate Zef Randon in a search for some archeological discovery at the behest of a dealer in antiquities. It was believed that Randon's resources combined with Thorne's historical knowledge provided a partnership that increased the chances of their objective being found.
As early as a week before the publication of the book, rumors of Thorne's demise at the hands of Randon's crew due to a dispute spread around Castelrosso amidst claims that the lost city of Hoenix had been discovered. Its location had always been rumored to be nearby, but no one had ever been able to locate it. Captain Randon refused all attempts to interview him over the matter, so there had been no proof to substantiate either of these reports.
The book had given him a few tidbits to think about, but as a whole, there wasn't very much information for him to go on. Aramis closed his eyes and draped an arm across his forehead. Despite the clear photograph that identified himself to the Captain Thorne in the book, he still wondered if he really was Aramis Thorne. An arrogant, short-tempered bully? While it was true that he could fight well, he certainly didn't feel like someone who went out of his way to cause others distress. No wonder the people at the bank and antique shop seemed to fear him at first nod.
The wolf let out a loud sigh and shook his head beneath his arm. This Randon was supposedly a business partner. He still couldn't picture this person in his mind, nor did he specifically remember anything about working with him. However, he suspected that the Hoenix gold he had found in a secret cache might have had something to do with the rumored dispute. There had been enough gold in the antechamber to provide a substantial fortune to its possessor.
He had looked up Zef Randon in the book's index, but there was nothing more than the short reference in the chapter that focused on himself. Aramis set the book on the floor and stretched. Some of his muscles were still a little stiff and sore from his ordeal, and he knew if he didn't exercise, they would give him trouble. He got up, went to the poolside door, and opened it to a cool breeze. He stepped out into the sun and looked around.
There were four youngsters playing at the shallow end of the pool, a canine, two cats and a rotund little panda. The kittens huddled near the water's edge as if afraid to go in, but clearly wanting to be a part of the play. The parents of the children were scattered around the poolside, most drowsing from sun-warmed fur. The father of the panda cub looked up at the wolf when he emerged from his room and watched him closely.
Thorne gave him a pleasant nod in greeting and then picked out a place away from everyone else. He began to stretch his arms and legs to loosen them up. He pushed and pulled his muscles against one another and worked the kinks out of his neck and shoulders. The panda continued to watch him, as if afraid the large wolf might go for the children in the pool, but Aramis paid them all little attention.
He exercised vigorously for another twenty minutes before he felt he had done enough. He panted lightly in the morning sun and looked at the pool with a smile. He pulled off his shirt and dropped it onto a chair. He walked to the deep end of the pool and dove in, slipping into the water at such an angle as to barely cause a splash. He went straight to the bottom and then turned a slow somersault before breaking for the surface. He smiled as he took in some air and then swam to the far end of the pool with powerful strokes. Without looking at him, Aramis was aware of the adult panda's apprehension at his proximity to the children, so he turned and swam back to the deep end without breaking his stride.
Once back at his starting point, the wolf closed his eyes and floated on his back, enjoying the water and the sun with a satisfied smile. He lay there floating for some time and felt his hand bump the side of the pool. Without opening his eyes, he lazily grasped the edge to keep himself in place. A moment later, he heard running feet and a sudden voice call out in apparent distress.
There was a simultaneous splash and thud. Something landed in the middle of Thorne's chest and drove him partially under. He opened his eyes beneath the water and he coughed and sputtered for air when his nose broke the surface again. He was still floating on his back somewhat, but there was now a young white and tan Sheltie sitting on his chest. The boy looked no older than five or six and was grinning down at the wolf's face.
“Hello there,” Aramis said with a gasp of air. “You must be Kevin.”
The pup nodded at him and then looked up when his father appeared at the side of the pool near them. “The woof floats, papa!” the boy said with a giggle at the elder canine. The look on the adult's face was one of cold fear.
“I-I am sorry, Captain,” the dog said biting his bottom lip. He looked as if he wanted to pluck his son out of the water, but was hesitant to get near the wolf. “He does th-that with everybody.”
Aramis gave him an amused smile. “It's okay,” he assured the father. “He didn't hurt me.” He looked back at the boy and asked, “Are you all right?” The boy nodded again, but the adult didn't look convinced. Aramis sighed inwardly. He reached up and grabbed the child gently before upending himself in the pool. He clung to the side with one hand and held the boy up against his chest as he pulled himself to the water ladder.
He handed the child up to his father when he had gained the bottom rung and the adult canine took him gladly. “I'm sorry he b-bothered you,” he said.
Aramis climbed from the water and held up a hand to dismiss his words. “It's okay,” he repeated, strongly resisting the urge to shake the water from his fur. “No harm done to either of us.”
The Sheltie looked unconvinced. “Really?” he asked. “You aren't mad?”
Aramis chuckled. “No, sir,” he replied with a smile. “You can take it easy and go relax in your chair. I didn't bring a towel out with me, so I will be going back to my room now.”
“You can use mine,” said a familiar voice from behind him. The Sheltie nodded appreciatively and then took his son back to the other side of the pool.
Aramis turned around and saw the smiling, blue-eyed husky holding out a large green towel toward him. She wore a loose-fitting, pale blue tank top with matching jogging shorts. He took her towel with a smirk and then she followed him back to the lounger where he had dropped his shirt. “Thank you,” he said as he rubbed the cloth over his face.
Crandall took a chair from a nearby umbrella table and set it next to his while he moved his shirt to a dry spot on the ground. They sat down together and the husky merely watched him until he had dried off the excess pool water to satisfaction.
“After last night, I was surprised how well you reacted to getting jumped on in the water just now,” the husky said when he finally reclined back in the lounger.
Aramis draped the green towel across the back of his chair and then stared out toward the ships in the distant bay for a moment before he looked over at her with a shrug. “I'm in a better mood,” he replied.
“I am glad to know Captain Thorne has a good mood. Your temper is well known,” she added. “Even that boy's father knows about it.”
The wolf looked at her and let a smile slip across his lips. “Captain Thorne is dead, Crandall — everyone knows that. I'm only a decoy… a doppelganger.”
“Nice try, but I know better than that,” she said with a grin. “You may not remember me, but we've met before and I recognize your fur pattern. No double could copy you that well.”
The smile disappeared from the wolf's face. “We have met before?” he asked her. “I'm sorry, but should I remember you?”
Karla laughed and her eyes crinkled. “No, Captain, I wouldn't expect you to remember me. I am not a lover that you've forgotten, if that's what you're wondering.” Despite his attempt to cover up his reaction, she could tell she'd hit the mark from the relieved look in his eyes. “First of all,” she told him, “I have no use for lovers. I think it's all a colossal waste of time and energy, so I warn you not to attempt anything with me.”
“You're warning me?” he asked with a dark look.
Crandall nodded, but didn't lose her smile. “That's right, Captain. I respect you and I know your reputation, but I have my personal boundaries.”
“Fair enough,” Thorne said with a nod.
“In answer to your question, we met last year when you crashed a party I was holding down by the shore. You roughed up one guy, but got the information you were after and left without breaking his legs. Tinsel made a poor informer. No one was surprised when he gave it up amidst threats and left Castelrosso a few months later. That locked you into my memory.”
Aramis closed his eyes and laid his head back against the chair. It was getting easier not to show surprise when he was told of something he couldn't remember. “Well, Crandall,” he said, “I still don't have a job for you. I don't know where you heard that I was actively looking for a crew, but –”
“Goro Harada told me you were back in town,” the husky replied. “He said –”
Thorne opened his eyes and looked at her furiously. “That coyote has no concept of following orders!” he growled as he got up from his chair. “I told him not to spread word that I —”
The canine woman stood up and waved her arms quickly. “Hold on, Captain,” she said in a rush. “Goro told me about you before you'd met him here at this hotel!”
Aramis looked at her in disbelief. “Then, how…?”
“He was piloting a private transport out on the plains when he stopped and picked up several fennec foxes who said that you had attacked them,” she explained. Aramis snorted, remembering Goro's recount of the fennec's tale, though he had omitted the fact that he had been the pilot.
“What makes everyone think I want a crew for a ship I don't have?” he asked in frustration.
“If you're out to repay Randon for trying to knock you off, you're going to need a crew and a ship.”
Thorne narrowed his eyes at her and crossed his arms. “Listen, Crandall, I don't —”
The panda across the pool suddenly turned up the volume on a small com unit he had on his umbrella table. Interrupted, Thorne and Crandall's ears perked up at the emergency news report.
“Hello, listeners, this is News Around the Alignment and I'm Holly Harken of the Interplanetary News Network. At the top of the news this hour, Planetary Alignment member Nalirra has been attacked by their neighboring, non-PA world, Oe'Tanata in a first strike that resulted in some eight thousand casualties. The sneak-attack by small, stealth Tanatan flyers were able to penetrate Nalirran space without prior detection and were able to cause devastation with never-before-seen weapons of destruction.
“Already under an alert for such an action by their neighbor, Nalirran General Duular of Kardon immediately launched a counterattack upon Oe'Tanata, using conventional fuel-air bombs over several major Tanatan cities. As INN has been unable to get anyone safely into Tanatan space, we have been unable to ascertain the death toll there.
“Fierce fighting has erupted upon the surface of both worlds and in the area of space in between. Nalirran officials have advised that all private and commercial spacecraft avoid the Roppa star system. Although well within their right to call upon other worlds of the Planetary Alignment to assist an ally in a time of war, Nalirra has not requested assistance, preferring instead to fight their own battle.
“Word has it that Nalirra had already been gearing up to draft thousands of off-world ex-military personnel for such an effort, but during the first-strike by Oe'Tanata, several key records facilities were destroyed before many recalls could be sent out.
“Nalirran Spokesman Messala Golgoh has asked us to announce that anyone with Nalirran military experience still capable of fighting should return at once to defend their homeworld.
“Not much else is known at this point, but Nalirran Command has promised the Legislature to keep the council abreast of conflict events. We at INN will relay what news we can, as we get it. You can count on Holly to keep you informed.”
“Well, that was certainly unexpected,” Crandall muttered. “I know some people from Nalirra.”
“Duster was from Nalirra,” Aramis replied without thinking. He gave a loud snort and then retrieved his shirt from the ground beside his chair. “Thanks for the loan of the towel,” he said as he gestured toward the back of his chair.
“Where are you going now?”
Thorne looked at her in annoyance. “Where I go is my business,” he growled as he stormed off. Crandall watched him until he disappeared into his suite and then silently shook her head at his attitude.
Aramis closed the door behind him and walked straight to his com unit. He didn't want to sit down until he had changed out of his wet walking shorts, so he leaned against the console while he thumbed the dial for the Operator.
“Red Castle Communications, how may I assist you?” said an electronically modulated voice.
“Connect me to Castelrosso 549,” he said, remembering the number from the thin book he had glanced through at the bookstore.
“One moment please.” He waited several seconds before the electronic voice spoke again. “We're sorry, but Castelrosso 549 is no longer a working connection.”
“Okay, thank you,” the wolf replied. He closed the call and then headed to the back room. After all that he had discovered since the previous night, he hadn't expected his old business number to be in service, but he wouldn't have been satisfied until he tried.
He undressed quickly and then stepped into the shower to wash out the pool chlorine. He wanted to look into a few things today and was ready to get started. Goro, Ringo and Dallas were all at their respective jobs, so he would have to find his way around town alone. He briefly considered hiring the husky to drive him to his destination, providing she had transportation, but he dismissed it quickly when another thought crossed his mind.
“Thank you for doing business with Clark Motors,” intoned a diminutive raccoon as he handed a set of silver keys to Thorne. Aramis took them and the sales receipt for his new motorcycle and gave the small fur a pleasant smile. He had seen the dealership during one of his outings the day before and decided a motorcycle would be an efficient transport around the city. He separated the keys, put two in separate pockets, and then hefted the remaining key in his hand.
The heavy Treyata was a sleek machine, sporting a quiet engine despite the power it promised. Its fairings were painted emerald green with lighter highlights, and the seat cushion was comfortable. It was not a unit equipped for antigrav travel, but relied upon standard rubberized wheels. It did come with an electronic mapping display to help him find his way around the city.
Thinking his old desert garments were more durable than those he had purchased, Thorne was in his tan shirt, breeches and dark grey cloak again. He straddled the heavy bike and plugged its electronic key into the ignition. The engine came to life and Thorne smiled in appreciation of its power. He consulted the map display for the coordinates he wanted and then pulled out a pair of lupine-designed sunglasses from a shirt pocket.
He looked at the raccoon again, saluted with a finger to his forehead, and then put the machine into motion. The midday traffic was heavy, but he jumped into the eastbound current with ease and then leaned into the bike to weave around the other vehicles.
Although the Spatial Police Force no longer had jurisdiction on the world of Brandt, and Castelrosso was known to harbor pirates and other criminal elements, local cops were still active to maintain a semblance of order. Aramis was mindful of safety and traffic laws, but pushed the speed envelope as closely as he could. His tail fluttered in the breeze behind him like a grey and white banner, and the ends of his cloak crackled and popped in the wind.
He kept an eye on the bay whenever it came into view. The winding route took him ever closer through business sections of the city full of office complexes, entertainment venues, and restaurants. An occasional aircraft or space transport launched into view over the buildings as he neared an open stretch of road. The traffic had grown lighter past the business district and he found himself increasing speed as the vehicles around him thinned out.
He glanced at a side mirror as the road skirted the edge of the mountains surrounding the bay, and he made note of an orange utility ground van that followed a quarter mile behind him. He had seen it earlier when he had left the Crusty Barnacle, and again near the dealership where he had purchased his motorcycle. Either the driver wanted notice or the individual was lousy at tailing a quarry.
Thorne smiled wryly and consulted his onboard mapping system. Despite being unfamiliar with the layout of the city, he had had no trouble getting around Castelrosso. The Minniti Spaceport was just ahead.
The wolf dropped his speed when traffic thickened again near the spaceport. To the side of the entrance was a sign that displayed a curvaceous pair of women, one canine and the other feline, beckoning travelers with coy smiles through large gates of granite pillars. Tropical trees lined the road, heavily laden with their fruit, as well as numerous non-sentient tropical birds of many colors. Vehicles congested the entrance and progress slowed to a crawl, but continued to move. Aramis kept a watch on the animated traffic signs that pointed the way to various concourses and saw the one he wanted after a few moments. He had to jockey for position over two lanes for his turnoff, and was satisfied when he saw that the van hadn't been able to follow.
Five minutes later, he pulled into a parking spot near a weathered rock building and then cut the ignition. A rusted sign at the corner of the structure read: Platform Master's Office, Launch pads 60-65. It was dark inside the quiet, air-conditioned office when he stepped through the door, despite having taken off his sunglasses. An aged cheetah looked up at him from behind one of five desks that filled the small room. The feline was the only individual in the place and wore eyeglasses with thick, round lenses that made his large yellow eyes appear to bulge. A nameplate on the desk identified him as Walker Pilke.
“What can I do for you?” he asked in a raspy voice. “Everyone is gone to lunch right now.”
“I just need to ask you a few questions,” Aramis replied as he sat down in a well-worn seat in front of the fellow's desk.
“You look familiar,” the cheetah said, leaning forward across the desk. “Do I know you?”
The cheetah nodded with a smile. “Yes, I know you. How is business – no, wait… I remember now. Something happened to the Silverthorne, didn't it? Tsk, unfortunate, that… lost all your friends on the crew… two months ago, was it?”
“That's right,” Aramis replied, for once happy to be recognized. “Is platform sixty-one still open?”
Mr. Pilke pulled off his glasses and rubbed the lenses with his shirttail. “No, I'm afraid not, Captain,” he said, shaking his head. “Launch pads are a premium here, so we had to rent it out to someone else when it was evident you wouldn't be bringing in another ship. The new renter fired the service crew and hired her own to maintain her ship. Do you need a platform for a new ship?”
“No, I just wanted to talk to my old service crew.”
“Sorry, Captain, but I don't have a way of knowing where they wound up taking work.”
The wolf nodded and stood up. “I am not really surprised,” he admitted. “Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Pilke.”
“Have a good day, Captain.”
Aramis gave him a nod and then exited the building. He reached into a pocket for his key, but then froze when he noticed the orange van parked beside his motorcycle. He moved his hand slowly from his pants pocket beneath the cloak and maneuvered it to one of his throwing knives at his belt. He pulled it from its sheath and then leaned up against the building. If there was someone waiting for him inside the van, he would make them come to him.
He didn't have long to wait. The driver and a passenger got out and looked at him uncertainly. He recognized both of them immediately. It was the red fox and the terrier that had tried to rob Mr. Tavish of his briefcase outside the bank. The terrier wore jeans and a loose-fitting orange shirt that matched the color of his van. The fox had on thin, powder blue trousers and a black vest. A gleaming wristwatch adorned his left wrist and glinted in the sun.
The terrier whispered something to the fox, and then both of them held up their hands to chest level to show him they were unarmed. Aramis steeled himself, prepared for a fight, and growled lowly as they approached.
“You have been following me all over town,” he stated with a penetrating gaze.
“You knew?” asked the terrier after a quick glance at his companion. He frowned and nodded. “Yeah,” he replied, “we've been looking for an opportunity to get you alone.”
Thorne's expression darkened. “You think the two of you can take me?” he asked menacingly.
The fox waved his hands in a disarming manner. “No! That's not what he meant!” he exclaimed. “We only wanted to talk to you, but not in a place where there were straining ears.” Thorne didn't move, but maintained his stance.
“Uh, right,” said the terrier. “This is Argus Roza and I'm Miklos Novak. You can just call me Mik.”
“What do you want, Mik?”
Mik glanced away from the wolf's stare. The terrier was a scrapper and feared few people, but the penetrating gaze from those amber eyes was unnerving. “We heard you may need some help in a fight against the Cliffhanger. We want to help.”
Aramis sighed inwardly. He stood up straight and leaned back against the wall, his knife still hidden in his hand. “Harada…” he muttered beneath his breath. He intended to have a talk with the coyote. If he had been telling more people…
“I think we could be of great assistance,” Argus added with a smile that Thorne distrusted instantly.
“Unless you're new to Castelrosso or are suffering amnesia,” Aramis said with an upraised eyebrow at his own choice of words, “you should know that the Silverthorne was destroyed. I don't have a ship, and so long as that remains the case, I don't need a crew!” He was getting awfully annoyed at all the offers to join his cause.
Miklos looked at Argus with a grin. “Now that is an area where we could help you,” he said brightly. Thorne blinked twice before the terrier's words registered. He didn't say anything for a long moment, unsure how to respond. Mik took his silence as disbelief and added, “We can take you to an available ship now, if you would like to discuss it.”
“An available ship? That's convenient… Who is the captain of this vessel?” Thorne asked lowly. “I don't intend to rent someone else's ship.”
“This vessel has no captain,” answered the fox. “She doesn't even have a crew.”
Aramis stared at him silently, immensely distrustful of Roza's words.
“She needs a captain, Captain,” added Miklos, “and we can help you assemble a ready crew.”
Aramis pointed a finger at each of them in turn and then said in an even voice, “I don't trust either of you.”
“You can come see the ship yourself,” Argus replied. “See that weren't lying about it and our intent to fight the Cliffhanger.”
“Why are you so adamant about fighting Randon?” the wolf asked. “Are you guys just looking for a job, or do you have a reason to fight?”
It was Mik's turn to growl under his breath. “Randon is the lowest kind of pirate,” the terrier answered. “Not only does he prey on passenger transports and freighters, he's been known to attack other pirates for their cargo. Argus and I have both served on vessels that Randon's attacked. We want a chance for payback.” The canine's glare faded and a tiny smile crept across his lips. “Of course, we could also do a little pirating on the side.”
“Ah, so that's it,” Aramis said with a knowing air, even though he had been completely unaware of his old business partner's tactics.
“You don't trust us,” Argus said as he swished his tail. “That's fair in this business, and we don't blame you. However, we know that nobody crosses Captain Thorne and we're on the level here. It's in our best interests to throw in our lot with you.”
“Right.” The wolf narrowed his eyes at them. “I think you're working for Randon,” he said coldly.
Argus scowled at the wolf and Mik's hackled raised instantly; his nose wrinkled and he curled back his lips with a growl. The terrier launched himself at Thorne, but the lupine captain was ready for him. He slugged the canine hard with his left fist before he could grab onto him. The terrier spun around once before he dropped to the ground at his feet. The fox looked as if he wanted to rush forward too, but he held his ground, his fists tight at his sides.
“Do we look like felines to you? We… aren't… with… Randon!” Argus said through clenched teeth. Without taking his eyes off the wolf, he squatted down next to his companion. Mik shook his head as if to clear out the cobwebs and rubbed his jaw with a hand. It didn't feel broken, but it would be sore for a while. His anger diffused, he looked up at Thorne and held up a hand.
“Captain…” he said in a strained voice, “Randon is not our ally.”
Aramis looked down at the two of them for a long moment and then sheathed his previously concealed knife in front of them to show he had been armed. Finally, he stretched out a hand to the terrier, though still on his guard. Mik took his hand and the wolf pulled him to his feet. Argus stood up next to him.
Thorne pulled his hands in beneath his cloak and said, “All right, let's go see this ship of yours.” Beneath the cloak, he flexed the fingers of his left hand, which were now sore from punching the terrier. He resolved silently that he would have to build up a resistance to such things if he was going to continue this lifestyle. He seemed to be doing a lot of fighting since he had arrived in Castelrosso.
Aramis Thorne followed the orange van across the length of Castelrosso on his motorcycle, his tail once again fluttering in the wind behind him. From the noisy atmosphere of the spaceport, they had taken a direct route along the avenue that bordered Castle Bay, passing sandy beaches framed with rustic boardwalks, restaurants and tourism-related businesses.
Massive, anvil-shaped thunderclouds loomed out to sea in the distance and a wind picked up in the warm afternoon. Traffic along the shore was light and the wolf had no trouble following the van as they neared the seaport on the western curve of the bay. Water vessels of all sizes were docked in marinas as they drew closer to a bank of sandstone cliffs. Everything from large tankers, a fishing fleet and down to small, private craft bobbed gently against their moorings.
The road curved gently to the north and took them right to the foot of the cliffs. Houses and other buildings were farther apart on this edge of town and it had more of a rural feel. The van swerved to miss a non-sentient deer as it exited from the main avenue onto a dusty gravel road that paralleled the mountain.
At the end of a quarter-mile, they pulled up to an old building that could have been a maintenance garage at one time in the past. The corrugated metal sides were corroded and the once-white paint was stained with rust and mold. Unchecked weeds with tiny blue flowers grew tall next to the structure, and what had passed for windows were boarded up haphazardly with ill-fitting storm shutters. Large, faded letters that spelled out “Morrenbrook” were barely readable on the front of a large garage door.
Aramis gave the place a look of doubt, thinking that if there was a spaceship inside, it couldn't be larger than a private cruiser that might hold the three of them. He parked his motorcycle next to the van and shut off the engine. Argus stepped out of the van and grinned when he noticed the wolf's dubious expression.
“Don't let the condition of the place fool you,” he said. “It's deceptive.” Miklos walked to a smaller entrance beside the garage door and tapped in a combination in an old-style cipher-lock. Despite the apparent disrepair of the door, the panel opened easily on well-oiled hinges. Thorne took a step toward the building, but Argus held up a hand. “Just a minute,” he said.
Aramis waited and watched as Mik went inside the dark interior and then come back out with a small red bucket. The terrier walked over to the seaward side of the building and began scattering what looked like trail-mix onto the ground. Almost immediately, multicolored tropical birds seemed to appear from the sky out of nowhere and fly into the feeding ground to accept Mik's offering. Thorne watched in amazement as a large macaw landed on the terrier's shoulder and give him a playful bop on his cheek with the side of its beak before joining the other birds on the ground. Miklos gave Argus and Thorne a grin before taking his empty bucket back to the building. The fox motioned Thorne to follow him.
Aramis walked behind him toward the door. He was still not entirely convinced of their story and prepared himself for a fight. He had refrained from using his gun when they had been at the spaceport, but now that they were in a more secluded area, he removed his firearm from its holster hidden beneath the cloak.
Miklos reached a circuit box on a shadowed wall near the door and tripped a breaker. Four dim lights hanging from the ceiling came on, though the remaining two-dozen bulbs remained dark. He looked back toward Thorne and started when he saw the captain framed in the doorway holding his pistol ready. The wolf's golden eyes bore into him for a moment before scanning the interior of the building. His eyes adjusted quickly to the change in illumination.
In the dim light provided by the quartet of bulbs, Thorne saw nothing more than a half-dozen plastic crates stacked haphazardly in the middle of the otherwise-empty garage. Two of the crates were open, but whatever the contents might have been were gone. Packing material was scattered on the floor mixed in with dry leaves and looked as if it had all been there a while. Near the door was a bag of bird feed and the red bucket that Mik had used.
“Nice spaceship,” Thorne said dryly.
Argus chuckled, but then swallowed when he noticed the gun pointed at his middle. “Uhm, it's not in here,” he said in hesitation. “It's through there.” He gestured toward a set of double doors at the back of the garage. Mik nodded in agreement.
“This way, Captain,” the terrier said with a forced smile. He knew the wolf probably suspected an ambush and he couldn't blame Thorne for being cautious.
Aramis took a solitary step into the garage and then waved the barrel of his pistol at the fox. “Lead the way,” he told him. Argus nodded without a word and then turned toward his companion. He and Miklos walked toward the double doors without looking back, mindful not to make any sudden moves.
Thorne followed several steps behind the pair, but his eyes were all over the room. He scanned dark corners full of cobwebs and trash and noted sagging racks along the wall containing a few rusted paint canisters. Permanent stains covered the concrete floor from previous oil spills, paints and solvents, and sand covered the ground near the ill-covered windows where past storms had blown it in. A small, overhead crane on a track hung suspended with large lengths of chain. One of the crane tracks led to the double doors the terrier and fox approached.
Miklos reached the wooden doors and opened them. Inside was another set of doors made of tarnished metal with a keypad set into the middle of the left-hand panel. He tapped in several numbers and then a low hum emanated from the doors. He turned slowly to look at Thorne and was relieved to see the wolf had lowered his gun, although it was still in his hand with a finger near the trigger guard.
Aramis watched the door with interest as the humming grew slightly louder. A moment later, the metal panels slid apart to reveal the interior chamber of a musty-smelling antique elevator cage. A single bulb in its roof flickered to life beside a continuation of the crane track inside. Argus stepped in first and then Thorne got in beside him, mindful not to let his feet, tail or arms stick through the wrought-iron bars that made up the cage. Mik got in last and operated the controls, a single lever marked for Up and Down. The doors closed automatically when he pressed the lever downward and the elevator began to drop.
As soon as the cage dropped below the foundation of the garage, the shaft around them became pink-hued stone. Aramis couldn't tell if the square tube was natural or had been sentient-made. He couldn't see any blast marks, though the granite rock looked hard enough that nothing short of explosives would have carved it out. The elevator lamp made the quartz flecks in the granite glitter, and then the light flickered briefly when the cage dropped past another door.
“Where did that lead to?” Thorne asked curiously.
“Nowhere special,” Argus muttered as he pretended to check his watch. Thorne stared at him for a long moment. The fox fidgeted until the cage shook briefly and distracted the captain's attention.
The wolf sniffed the air and noted an increase of moisture in the shaft as the elevator began to slow. A moment later, the cage came to a stop in front of doors identical to those they had entered. As soon as Miklos removed his hand from the control lever, the panels slid aside to reveal an immense cavern beyond, partially illuminated by electric lights set up on tripods throughout the place. Air flowed out of the elevator shaft as if a vacuum activated. The terrier stepped out into the expanse and then stopped with his hands on his hips.
Thorne stepped out beside him, followed by the fox, and then stared at what he saw. The cave itself was unremarkable, save for its size; the ceiling towered nearly a hundred feet above them and was unadorned by stalactites or other noticeable formations. It was nearly two hundred yards from the elevator shaft to an entrance where a wide opening allowed the saltwater of the Herdantian Sea to flow partially into the cavern. Roughly half of the cave was filled with water in a deep natural trench. Like the ceiling above, there were no stalagmites or flowstone formations on the floor, but neither was it completely flat. Large blocks of stone that had once belonged to the ceiling lay broken and scattered about, though most looked as if they had been there for ages. However, it was not the cavern, the breakdown blocks, nor the opening to the sea that held Thorne's immediate attention.
He looked up at the port side of a long, thin vessel resting on hydraulic pedestals attached to a set of tracks that led laterally to the water. His eyes roved up its height and came to rest on a stubby conning tower rimmed forward with thick glass above a spatial airlock. Had it not been for the thrust ports high up on the craft's aft end, he would have thought it was an old-style submarine, though it was small enough that he doubted it would take no more than a crew of twenty to operate. Rows of portholes dotted the hydrodynamic sides, and bow planes jutted out from the nose like small wings.
The faded, dark green paint of the ship was streaked with watermarks down the sides, and the hull looked patched in places. Modular scaffolding surrounded the engine pods and several panels were off, exposing the structure and systems beneath. Four workbenches on the cavern floor beside a lower ramp hatch were covered with disassembled parts and degreaser vats. Three open rollaway toolboxes stood close to the ship, with the remains of cannibalized parts spread out on a stained, green tarp on the floor. A trash cart overflowing with packing material and fast food sacks smelled as it if hadn't been emptied in some time.
To Thorne's eyes, the vessel appeared to be a decades-old hulk in poor condition. He walked toward it in silence, his two companions following close behind. “What is this…. thing?” he scoffed.
Argus waved a casual hand at the craft and said with a smile, “That's the Finsternis. This is the ship we told you about.”
“Oh really?” He narrowed his eyes. “Do you think Randon is out floating on the ocean, waiting for us to sink him with torpedoes?”
“Despite its looks,” Miklos explained, “it has flown all around the Planetary Alignment.”
Thorne looked at him skeptically. “You want me to fly in that… It looks like one shot would finish it off. Even if this thing could leave the ground, there doesn't appear to be enough space inside for the cargo you might plunder from other ships.” He looked at Mik and Roza and gave them a sudden look of amusement. “What good is pirating freighters if you can't take their bounty?”
“Its looks are deceiving,” said another voice. Thorne looked up suspiciously when a tall, broad-shouldered chocolate Labrador dressed in burgundy work coveralls stepped out from behind one of the large breakdown blocks of stone that littered the cavern floor. “Its girth is wider than it appears from this angle, Captain; it has a decent holding capacity,” he said as he wiped his hands on a grease cloth.
Thorne appraised the canine and looked at him dubiously. “Are you her captain?” he asked.
“No, the Finsternis has had no captain for nearly three years,” the lab replied. “I was the chief engineer when she last flew, and one of the few who survived after a radiation leak killed everyone else. I'm Errol Colfax.”
“What caused the leak?”
“Battle damage,” answered the Labrador. “We were outgunned and our captain was an idiot. He tried to attack another ship that had just made a raid on a Siilv carrier. We were left for dead after the broadsides we got for our trouble.”
“How did you survive?” Argus asked. He'd never before heard the details of Errol's story and was intrigued.
“How did you get this heap back on land?” Thorne added.
The engineer looked up at the green ship and nodded. “Out of a crew of twenty-three, ten of us were still alive when the Basilisk left us in ruin.” Aramis tilted his head; the name of the other ship sounded familiar, but no associated memory surfaced to claim it. “The ten of us patched up the systems enough to limp back to Brandt,” the Lab continued, “but seven died from severe radiation exposure within a week of landing. Only three of us survived with no ill effects, though we were never sure why.”
“I suppose the remaining three of you have been repairing this ship of yours since you got back,” Thorne remarked, “and you think it's ready to fly again?”
Colfax nodded and glanced at the parts-laden workbenches. “Mostly,” he admitted. “There are a few secondary parts I am still struggling with, but the primary systems are in working order. I believe it is almost ready enough to launch, but without a full crew to operate it, here it sits. I can't test fly it by myself.”
Thorne glanced over at Argus and thumbed the safety on his pistol as he returned it to its holster. “How many times have you flown in this heap?” he asked.
“Me?” the fox replied, taken aback. “I never have been up in it. I've been helping Errol with repairs on the water propulsion engines only for the past two months.”
Thorne looked puzzled and then turned to Miklos. “You?”
The terrier shook his head. “Nope, I've never been up in it either. Like Argus, I've been helping Errol from time to time — mostly on the navigation equipment. You can say we're just paying off some old debts with him.”
Aramis looked back at Colfax with a tilt of his head. “I thought these two were your crewmates — the ones who survived with you. Where are the others?”
“Dead,” replied the Labrador. “One died last year in a barroom brawl, and the other signed up for a ship that was later destroyed in a firefight with the SPF. I'm the only remaining survivor of Captain Morrenbrook's crew because I've kept my head down.”
“The radiation doesn't appear to have hurt you. How is your health?”
Colfax smiled, the first time since the trio had arrived. “Never better, Captain. I take pride in keeping myself fit.”
“How many other helpers do you have with this little hobby of yours?”
“Three others,” Colfax said, “all mechanics. Castelrosso has an excess of them, it seems.”
Thorne nodded and then walked over to one of the workbenches. He picked up a scorched power transfer box and examined it closely. It was an antiquated piece of equipment that looked as it if had been in service for decades.
“Just how old is this ship?” he asked when Colfax and the others took up sides around the table.
“Well,” the Lab replied as he rubbed the bottom of his chin with a hand, “the Finsternis was originally part of the first line of Fynian Altus-class cruisers after the prototype. That would make her close to fifty years old.”
“Fifty!” Thorne retorted as he held up the relay box. “How do you get the parts you need for something like this?”
“We trade for them,” Argus replied, “usually by providing labor for someone else.”
“Either that or we steal them from the rare Altus ships that happen to land at the spaceport,” Mik added. “This vessel has three separate engine systems, so we need…”
“Water propulsion, atmospheric flight, and spatial warp systems,” Colfax answered, “It's equipped with Falstar LightDrive engines – an old technology, but one that is still in use on Fynian starships.” The Labrador turned and gestured toward the vessel that towered over them. “The Finsternis was built solid – it had to be in order to stand up to the pressures of the Fynian oceans, as well as the vacuum of space.”
“What about armaments?”
“Standard pulse cannons, chemical rockets and torpedoes, plus a good arsenal of hand weapons and ammunition.”
Thorne studied him for a long time and then looked aft at the exposed engine pods. “Would you be willing to fly in it?” he asked as he set the relay box back on the workbench. “How reliable do you believe this ship to be?”
“The Finsternis is old and some systems would be likely to be temperamental,” Colfax answered, “but yes, I would go up in her. I would insist on going with you.”
Colfax nodded to him. “I can offer her to you for a reasonable price, Captain, providing you take me along.”
Thorne crossed his arms. “What is your price for this… ship?”
“Twenty thousand credits.”
Aramis raised his eyebrows. “Twenty thousand is not very much for a ship this size, even one this old,” he said in genuine surprise.
The engineer nodded. “That's right, Captain. Actually, I would have just turned over Captain Morrenbrook's ship to you since he is dead and the vessel needs a commander. However, I have put in a lot of time and effort to restore her and want a little compensation. Of that price, I would only take five thousand credits for myself.”
“And the other fifteen?”
Colfax picked up the scorched power relay box and hefted it in his hand. “That's how much I need to complete the repairs to the ship before it's ready to fly.”
“How long would it take to get it airborne with extra help and the parts you need?”
“A week and a half… two at the most. I'm that close.”
Thorne nodded and looked at both Argus and Miklos in turn. “Okay, I'm interested,” he admitted. “Show me the ship and detail its capabilities. If I like what you tell me, I will pay your price.”
“Excellent!” Mik replied with a wag of his tail. “We can help you set up the crew, too.”
“About that,” Thorne said with a glance at Colfax. “You could round up whomever you think would be an asset to this vessel, but I have final say if I don't think they can be trusted.”
“Fair enough,” the Labrador said. “You would be the captain in charge.”
“You said you didn't trust us,” Argus reminded him. “Does this mean you've changed your mind?”
Aramis twitched an ear and looked at the fox. “Not necessarily, Mr. Roza,” he said. “Trust is something you must earn from me, but for now you have the opportunity to stick around to prove it.”
“Fair enough,” Argus said, repeating Errol's earlier statement.
“Providing I make this decision,” Thorne added, “I want two changes.”
“What kind of changes?” Colfax asked suspiciously.
“I want better than standard weapons installed in this ship,” he said. “I can provide the funding for it, so that won't take away from your repair budget.”
“Okay, and the other change?”
“I don't like Finsternis,” Aramis replied. “If this thing has been brought back from the brink of death, it needs a new name.”
“That's understandable,” Argus agreed with a smile. “What do you think, Errol? You have been with this ship for ages.”
“I'm not sentimental about what the thing is called, if that's what you're concerned about,” he said. “Captain, if you want to change her name after you have bought her, then that's up to you.”
“Did you have something in mind?” Mik asked, looking over his shoulder at the vessel's conning tower above. “What would you name her?”
Aramis Thorne looked up at the ship as if in thought, but a name had already come to him. “Hee-nicks,” he said after a moment. “I would call her the Hoenix.”
“Hoenix?” Mik asked in surprise. “As in, the lost city of Hoenix?”
“Do you know what the name even means?” Argus asked with an amused look at Errol. “Hoenix was the –”
“Hoenix was called the City of Frustration,” Thorne finished without taking his eyes off the old vessel. “From the looks of this thing, it should be fitting.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.