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HOENIX

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 6
 

Aramis Thorne sat on a wooden bench beneath an old tree with wide branches and stared out across Castle Bay. He was on top of the mountain cliffs that towered above the sea cavern that contained the old submarine starship. After leaving the cave, he had followed a paved road up to a small scenic lookout at the mountain's flat crest, and had parked his motorcycle beside a curb that served as a divider between the lot and a small park. Bench seats, large boulders, and a historical marker decorated the place. A small, parked car was nearby, but its owner was absent. Its windows down, it was dusty inside and out and looked as if it might have been there for some time.

This mountaintop was hardly the highest vantage point over Castelrosso, but it gave a nice view of the city, the bay and a long distance out to sea. The wolf sat close the sloping edge of the cliff near a rusted metal railing that looked decades old. If he cared to test the strength of the railing by leaning over the edge, he would have seen jagged rocks battered by the surf near the entrance to the sea cavern far below.

The sky had grown dark with roiling clouds coming in from the west, and the wind had picked up in the half hour he had been there. A storm would be there soon, but as yet there had been no rain. Sea gulls hovered in the air just below the cliff edge and a few had come up to see if he had had any handouts for them, but most left him alone when they decided he had no food.

Aramis bided his time on the park bench thinking about the things he had discovered about himself since that day in the sacrificial pit.  He didn't feel it was much to go on, but more memories were coming back to him a little quicker, though everything he did remember seemed to be of trivial nature.  Why couldn't he remember the details of things that should have been of importance to his brain?  He sincerely hoped it would all fully come back to him. He disliked being in the dark about his own past. Perhaps it was time to employ some help in the matter.

He turned and looked toward the parking lot when he heard the sound of tires on pavement.  A tiny, two-seat electric ground car with faded red paint pulled up next to his motorcycle. Aramis smiled when the door opened and a short beagle tripped over his own feet getting out. Ringo managed to right himself before falling to the ground, but he let out a yelp when he caught his elbow on the door handle.  The canine looked over the handful of park benches and then smiled when he saw Thorne wave to him from his seat beside a tree.

“Heyo, Cap'n!” he said as he rubbed his sore elbow. “I came as quickly as I could. Mr. Mohan wouldn't let me leave until I restocked the bulk freezer from our shipping truck. Matt was out sick today, so I had to do it all myself.”

“Have a seat,” the wolf told him with a cursory examination of the brightly flowered shirt the beagle wore.

Ringo sat down on the opposite end of the bench and then peered over the edge of the cliff just a few feet away. “What can I do for you?” he asked. “I assume it's something hush-hush, since we're meeting here.”

Thorne fixed him with a steady stare for a moment and then nodded. “You did something for me the other night that's had me doing some deep thinking.”

“I did that?” the canine asked with wide eyes. “I don't think anyone has ever given me much thought before.  What did I do?”

“You tested my drink for me, even though you knew it could have been poisoned by my enemies. You and I barely know one another, yet you potentially risked your life for me.  Why?”

Tyler shrugged his shoulders, but then realized how flippant it must have looked.  “I've heard a lot about you,” he explained, “and although you have a rough reputation in Castelrosso, I also know that you value loyalty and reward those you trust.”

“A reward… is that what this is about?  You want some of my gold?”

Tyler shook his head quickly. “No sir. That's not what I meant. I didn't know your drink wasn't poisoned. Gold would have done me no good if someone had slipped something into it and I'd died.  The reward I'm looking for is trust.”  He looked out to sea and fixed his attention on a fishing boat riding the rough water. “I'm not a leader, Captain. I'm a follower.  I need someone to follow, but I won't submit myself to anyone who doesn't trust me.”

He glanced back at the wolf and sighed audibly. “I am not a very good employee if I know someone doesn't trust me, and there haven't been many folks I've worked for who deserved my trust. I'm usually pretty good assessing how trustworthy people are and that's the way I feel about you. I would like to earn your trust, sir.”

The beagle fell silent under Thorne's steady gaze, and for a long moment, neither of them said anything.  Finally, Aramis shifted in his seat and then looked over the rusted railing to the water below.  He cleared his throat and then began speaking without looking back at his companion.

“Because of what you've done for me, I do trust you, Tyler,” he said slowly. “In fact, I need to trust you, because I am in over my head and I need your help.”

“Over your head?” Tyler asked in surprise. “I appreciate your trust, Captain, and you can depend on me to help you out of whatever trouble you're in.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Yes, sir,” the beagle replied without hesitation.

Aramis nodded and looked at the canine once again. “I have a secret that I have been trying to keep from everyone since I arrived in Castelrosso.”

“Everyone has secrets. Sometimes it's best to keep them quiet.”

“True enough,” replied the wolf, “but there are times when they must be told.  I want to share mine with you, but you must swear that you won't divulge what I tell you to anyone.  That is the trust I must have from you.”

Tyler swallowed and nodded. “I swear my silence, Captain. I'm afraid I probably won't be very strong under torture, but I won't let anything out otherwise.”

“That will have to be good enough,” Aramis said with an upraised eyebrow. “I am hoping the secrecy won't be required for much longer, but for now it is best no one else knows.”

“Anything you tell me will stay with me until you tell me otherwise.”

Thorne looked up at the dark sky when it started to rumble with feeling. “I don't know who I am, Tyler,” he said cryptically.  The beagle tilted his head, but remained quiet to allow his captain the opportunity to voice his thoughts at his own pace. He had enough patience be a good listener.

“Several days ago, I woke up in the city of Hoenix… with no memory of how I got there, or why I was beaten and lying at the bottom of a stone pit with a skeleton.”

“Wow! …Hoenix! …and a skeleton! Randon must have really hit you hard if you don't remember!”

“That's what I have gathered, but it's worse than that, Tyler.  I don't remember anything prior to waking up in Hoenix… I don't even know who I am.”

The canine cook stared at him with an open mouth. “You're Captain Thorne!” he exclaimed.

Aramis looked at him in amusement. “Yeah, that's what everyone keeps telling me,” he said, “but I really don't remember him at all.  Everything I know about Thorne is what I have read or what someone else has told me since I got into town.”

“You don't remember anything?”

“Very little,” he admitted. “A few trivial memories have come back to me and I can almost remember some things, but for the most part I am still a blank. If not for a photograph I've seen of Thorne that looks like me, I might have believed the skeleton I woke up with was him and not me.” A finger of lightning connected the middle of Castle Bay to the overhead clouds with a crack that rattled the flimsy railing beside them. Echoes of thunder bounced off the surrounding hills and the airborne sea gulls dropped out of sight to seek shelter among the crevices of the cliff.

Mindful that they probably didn't have much time before it began to rain, Aramis told him about the events that had happened to him since waking up without his memories. He omitted some details, like the secret passage that led through the antechamber filled with bags of gold coins and the woman's body he had crawled over, but was straightforward in everything else he detailed.  Tyler sat in silence without interrupting and was acutely aware of the implications of what the wolf told him could mean.  Despite this, he was especially intrigued with the ship offered to the captain earlier that day.

“Have you decided whether or not to take up the ship's engineer on his deal?” he asked. “It seems like good timing for this ship to be available when you need one.”

Aramis flicked his right ear when a leaf blew into it. “It almost strikes me as being a little too convenient, but maybe that's just my suspicious nature. I had them give me a thorough tour of the ship and I even poked my nose into some of the engine pods.  The interior is rather cramped, but I have to admit that it's built solid. I am not as optimistic about the onboard systems as Colfax is, but if he thinks he can keep them running, it may do the job – especially with the weapons systems I want installed.”

He looked up at another peal of thunder. “I can pay Colfax his price, but I will need more credits than what I have on hand.  I have more of the Hoenix gold coins to trade, but I doubt Mr. Tavish has the kind of cash I need to front the money for repairs to the ship and hire a crew.  He says he knows someone who is a collector of anything relating to Hoenix and should be interested in more of the coins I may happen across.”  He looked over at the beagle as a few drops of rain spattered around them. They both got to their feet.

“I want you to go to Mr. Tavish and see if you can arrange a communication with his associate so I can discuss selling off my coins,” he said to Tyler as they started back toward the parking lot.

“I'll get on it right away.”

“When you've done this, I would like you to do some research into who I used to be.  Find out anything you can, no matter if you think it is trivial.  I now know I am Aramis Thorne, but still can't remember much prior to Hoenix.  The memories coming back to me are in bits and pieces, but not enough to be helpful.  I seem to have developed a following despite my memory loss and I will need to know what these people expect by working for me.”

“You can depend on me,” Tyler replied. “Thank you for trusting me, sir.  I'll do everything I can.”

“Thank you.  Also, see what you can find out about this Randon,” Thorne said with a frown. “I have no memories of him either – not even his species. If I am going up against him, I would–”

“Randon?  He's a cougar,” Tyler replied with a finger at his chin. “I don't know all that much about him, but his ship is called the Cliffhanger and it has an all-feline crew.”

Lightning connected the clouds with a spot near the edge of the city below with a deafening crack and Ringo jumped. He cast a nervous glance back up at the wolf and Thorne nodded as the wind picked up. Before either of them could say another word, it began to rain harder. The sky was growing so dark that it was becoming harder to see, and a single street lamp over the parking lot flickered to life. Aramis gathered his cloak around him, and they quickened their pace toward the vehicles, but a movement in the darkness to their left made them both stop.

A spotted leopard dressed in a tan blouse and yellow shorts emerged from behind a boulder near the bench where they'd been sitting. She slipped on the wet rock and fell into a growing puddle. She looked up in alarm as they ran to her, and from the look of panic on her face, they knew that she had overheard their conversation.

Aramis reached out and grabbed her by the wrist as she got to her feet. She hissed at him with bared teeth, and tried to scratch his face with her free hand, but the wolf managed to snare it as well.

“Randon will have your head, Thorne! Let me go!” she exclaimed over another peal of thunder. Aramis hadn't done anything against felines personally, but Ringo had just told him that Randon's crew had all been cats. He pulled her closer and stared at her with a snarl.

“Why didn't you leave with your boss?” he growled at her. “Were you ordered to stay behind and watch for me?”

“That's right,” she admitted haughtily, “and once he knows you have his gold, he'll have a new rug for his cabin with your face on it!” She kicked him in the shin and simultaneously butted his snout with the top of her head. Thorne reeled from the impact and lost his grip on one of her wrists.  She bit his other hand and then darted away.

Tyler jumped for her, but only managed to offset her balance when he tripped over the uneven ground and merely bumped into her legs. She stumbled and slipped again on the wet rock beneath her. The wind blew harder and driven raindrops stung her eyes as she got back to her feet and ran.

Though dazed, Thorne took out after her in the pouring rain. If she was able to get to a transmitter and inform Random what she had overheard him confessing to Tyler, he would lose whatever element of surprise he might have when his former partner returned to Brandt. It could be even worse if Randon was aware of Thorne's memory loss. The bare rock beneath his feet and the rain-heavy cloak made him stumble, the hard wind in his face making it hard to see.

The woman ran blindly into a tree and tripped over its roots. She fell against a park bench and landed hard on her right ankle with a cry of pain. Lightning lit up the dark sky, and in its brief illumination, she saw the wolf standing over her with a hand reaching out for her.

She scrambled frantically backward and suddenly the ground sloped out from under her. She slid beneath a weathered guardrail and cracked the back of her head on a support post as she dropped over the rain-slick edge. Thorne dove for her disappearing hands, but he missed her fingers by inches and only grasped empty air.

His momentum threatened to carry him right behind her, but he snared the support post of the railing and clung to it in the wind and driving rain. More lightning lit up the sky and he peered over the edge of the rock to find her staring back up at him with wide, frightened eyes. She clung frantically to a small scrub brush with nothing beneath her but the stormy sea crashing torrentially on jagged rocks far below.

“Don't kill me, please!” she shrieked at him.

Aramis reached out to grab her by the arm, but she was hysterical and tried to swat his hand away. The scrub brush had clung tenaciously to the rock face in its struggle to survive in an unlikely place, but its root system didn't have much of a purchase. Part of it ripped out from the cracks in the stone and the woman screamed in terror.

“Take my hand!” Thorne shouted above the rain as he felt Ringo grab his legs to help anchor him to the mountaintop. “I will not kill you!”

More roots of the bush pulled free of the cliff and the woman found that her fright wouldn't make herself let go in order to reach for the wolf's proffered hand. “Help me!” she screamed in mortal terror. “I don't want to die!” She struggled to find something beneath her feet to stand upon, but there was nothing but empty air below her.

Thorne reached out quickly and grabbed her closest arm, but the wind, the falling rain and her struggling made it hard to get a good grip on her. With Tyler's help, he was able to scoot out a little farther and get one hand hooked under her arm. He still clung to the guardrail post with his other hand and he pulled with all his might.

Inch by inch, the leopard began to rise, and in desperation, she made herself let go of the bush and cling to his arm as he pulled her closer to safety. Aramis felt as if both his arms were on fire as he strained to pull her closer toward the railing, but the effort was paying off.  Another three inches and she would be able to hold onto the post beside him, and then he could grab the waistband of her shorts to pull her up to the park bench.

A bolt of lightning struck the tree behind them with a deafening blast, and in the resulting concussion, the woman released his arm in a blind reaction to shield her face. Thorne scrambled to hold her, but he lost his grip on her rain-slick fur and she slid back over the edge. She screamed as she grabbed for the scrub brush, but this time the weakened plant broke free of the rock beneath her full weight.

“No!” the wolf shouted with an outstretched hand. He swallowed and wrapped both arms around the metal post, but he could do nothing more than watch in the illumination of lightning as the terrified leopard fell to the rocks below. She hit the jagged edge of a crag and bounced sideways, but came to rest only for a moment before the crashing surf washed her body up against more rocks and then dragged her out into the sea. She disappeared under the swell of the current, only to reemerge a moment later to pound against the rocks yet again.

Aramis watched mutely for a moment before Ringo tugged on his legs to pull him back away from the slick edge. He swallowed his horror and edged his way backward among splintered wood, letting the beagle help him to the park bench.

The storm raged on around them, oblivious to the life it had claimed; the remaining two knew that they should find shelter before more fingers of sky-fire found the mountaintop park. Tyler grabbed Thorne's arm and led him away from the edge toward the parking lot, and despite what had just happened, the thought occurred to him that if one of Randon's spies had found them out, there could be others. 

*** 

“Well, what do you think?” Miklos asked as he scrapped grease from beneath his fingernails with the thin blade of a small pocketknife.

“I'm not sure it's him,” Argus muttered. He pulled a stale sandwich from a wrapper and took a bite out of it. He made a face at the taste, but continued to chew on it anyway.  The two of them sat in webbed lawn chairs near the back of the cavern. They'd been at the entrance near the water, but the approaching storm had chased them further inside to escape the driven rain. The wind howled through the opening and bits of paper packing swirled around the cave floor. Two other mechanics had arrived with a needed engine part and Colfax had gone with them to prepare it for installation, leaving Miklos and Argus to eat their late lunch.

“Why?” the terrier asked and rubbed his jaw where Thorne had slugged him. “That temper of his sure convinced me…”

“I dunno, Mik. I was willing enough to approach him about the ship, but now there's just something about him that seems like an act to me.  I need something more to convince me it's really him.”

“That's the way Aramis Thorne is,” said a new voice. “From what Errol told me, I'd wager it is him.”

The vulpine mechanic looked up at a large black wolf in a pair of greasy trousers and a white muscle shirt with a frown. “What makes you think that, Jason?”

The wolf started to say something, but then appeared to change his mind. “Let's just say that I know what Captain Thorne is like and leave it at that.”

“He seemed like the genuine article to me,” Mik said again. “He had enough technical knowledge of the onboard systems when we gave him a tour that showed he has had plenty of experience in space. He was not familiar with the undersea Caterpillar systems, but that's not unusual for a star captain. He also made a suggestion about the starboard energy transducer that amazed even Errol.”

“Thorne was an engineer at one time, so that's not surprising,” Jason replied in a deep voice. “You don't get to be a captain if you don't have something of a working knowledge of your ship.”

Thunder shook the interior of the cave with deep rumbles and the entrance to the sea lit up in brilliant flashes.  Miklos watched the sheets of rain descend outside for a moment and then looked back up at the wolf.

“I couldn't tell if he liked the Finsternis or not,” he said as he put away his pocketknife. “But… if it is him, do you really think he has the money to hire us? Errol's price isn't bad for a starship, but not everyone has that kind of cash in reserve.”

“I hope so,” Argus added as he swallowed another bite of his lunch with a grimace. “I'm getting so low on credits that I can barely afford to eat anymore. Hugo's been generous sharing his lunches with us, but I don't think I can take much more of his peanut butter and onion sandwiches!”

Jason patted him on the shoulder with a smile. “I'm sure Captain Thorne has the financing he needs. It won't be long before we can get the Finsternis off the ground and leave Brandt behind.”

Mik looked up at him. “Which do you think we'll do first – plunder freighters or go up against Randon?”

The black wolf stroked the fur beneath his chin in thought as he looked up at the bulk of the submarine starship. “If I was going up in an old, untested ship like this, I'd want to see what she could do against lesser game before I went after the big guns.” He glanced down at the terrier and said, “My guess is that he would try a few simple freighter strikes first.”

“I just hope he doesn't get too nosey after taking command,” Argus said after taking a long drink from a canteen. “Errol's been good to work for, and I would probably follow him anywhere, but I don't know about this Thorne. He gets under my fur.”

All three of them looked up in unison when loud swearing issued from the scaffolding surrounding the portside engine pod of the ship.

“Uh oh,” Argus said with a frown. “It sounds like Hugo's broken another spanner. He'll be sending us out to get another one shortly.”

“If you would stop buying the cheapest ones you could find,” Jason said in a low voice, “you wouldn't have to keep replacing them.”

“With the budget Errol gives us?” Mik said with a sigh. “He's lucky to have what we can afford to get.”  

*** 

The pair of round-rimmed glasses on the badger's nose slipped down when he looked up at the small jingle bells that heralded the arrival of a customer. The proprietor glanced up from the box of new acquisitions he had been rooting through and saw a beagle standing just inside the door, his clothing and fur soaked from the rain outside.

“How may I help you on this wet evening?” he asked after pushing his glasses back into place with a finger.

Ringo looked embarrassed at the amount of water he was dripping on the polished hardwood floor and was hesitant to approach the counter where the elderly badger stood. “Hello,” he said from his spot near the door. “I am looking for Mr. Tavish.”

“You've found him,” the badger replied with a smile. “Come on in, my boy. It's only water and will mop up.”

“Thank you,” the beagle said. His shoes squished as he crossed the room. He stopped in front of the counter and noticed that he and Tavish were the same height. “I was sent here on an errand by Cap'n Thorne,” he told him.

Tavish raised an eyebrow and inclined his head. “Yes?”

“When the Cap'n was in here last, you told him that you knew someone who would have an interest in buying more Hoenix coins if he had them,” Ringo explained. “Cap'n Thorne has more and would like to arrange a deal with your friend.”

“Give me some kind of proof that you're actually working for Thorne,” Tavish said suspiciously, “and we will discuss it.”

The beagle grinned and reached into his pocket. He pulled out one of the Hoenix coins and then a throwing knife with an alabaster hilt and then set them both on top of the counter.  “The Cap'n thought you might say something like that.  My name is Ringo. He said to remind you that he sold you ten coins like this to you at ©950 each, and that he also bought this knife and its brother from you at ©500 each.”

“All correct, Mr. Ringo,” the badger said with a longing look at the gold piece.

“He also wanted me to mention that he tried on a naval captain's hat and said that he thought people who wore them looked stupid.”

Mr. Tavish smiled and nodded again. He picked up the dagger and handed it back to the beagle, but left the coin on the counter. “Okay, so you're his errand boy now. Before I contact my associate, I will need to know how many of the Hoenix coins he has to offer. I doubt you have them with you, but my master will wish to know what he is negotiating for.”

Tyler put the coin and knife back into one pocket and reached a hand into another one. He pulled out a soggy scrap of paper and squinted to make out the writing. “Counting the coin I just showed you,” he said, “Cap'n Thorne has thirty-two that he is willing to sell if your friend wants them.”

The badger's eyes grew wide at this. “Thirty-two!” he exclaimed.  “Where did he get that many Chaaq coins? They're extremely rare!”

“I have given you all the information he told me to tell you,” Ringo replied with a smile.

Mr. Tavish merely stared at him for a moment and then finally nodded.  “Wait here,” he said, “but don't touch anything.”  Without waiting for a reply, the proprietor walked to a corner of the room and disappeared through a brown split curtain that covered a doorway to the back.

Tyler stood beside the counter and continued to drip for a moment before a shiver ran through him. His clothes were wet and a slow moving ceiling fan created enough of a breeze to give him a chill.  Thunder continued to rumble, and although the rain hitting the street outside didn't seem to be falling as hard as it had earlier, he could see no sign that it would be letting up anytime soon. The beagle usually paid close attention to the weather forecast each day before he left his home, but he had been running late that morning when he departed for work and had missed it. He stared out through the storefront window and let his mind drift as he waited.

Ten minutes later, Mr. Tavish stepped out through the curtain and cleared his throat. He looked surprised, but in a good mood. Tyler walked back to the counter as the badger picked up a pencil and began writing on a notepad.

“I have been authorized to offer your captain fifteen hundred credits for each of the Chaaq coins,” he said. “A total of ©48,000 will be transferred directly into Thorne's account when the items are brought to me for examination and I have declared them to be genuine.”  He looked up at Ringo's look of astonishment with a smile and added, “I am getting a substantial commission out of this deal, so I am hoping all the coins are as real as the ones he brought to me earlier.”

Ringo could do nothing more than swallow and nod.  Mr. Tavish chuckled, but then looked serious.  “My master expressed a strong desire to meet with Captain Thorne to discuss the Chaaq coins – he is currently en route to Brandt on a business errand as we speak. Ask your captain if he would be willing to meet with his buyer when he gets to Castelrosso.”

Tyler found his voice and nodded again. “I will mention it to him,” he replied. “Who do I tell him is buying his coins?”

“A human from Earth.  His name is Victor Faltane.” 

*** 

Aramis Thorne closed the door to his hotel suite and stripped off his wet garments just inside the door. He resisted the urge to shake the water from his fur and trotted quickly to the washroom to get a towel instead.  He patted himself dry and then took another towel to the front room to wrap up his soaked clothing so as not to let them drip across the floor.  He took them back to the washroom and removed the contents of all the pockets before he squeezed the rainwater from them. He hung them up on the shower rod to dry and then walked into his bedroom.

He stretched out on the large bed on his back and put both hands beneath his head with closed eyes. He could still see the woman's face as he lost his grip on her arms and saw her look of terror. He knew there was nothing else he could have done for her, but he still maintained a feeling of helplessness. He had been truthful when he had told her he didn't intend to kill her, but wondered if her final thoughts had been that he had deliberately dropped her.

He opened his eyes and stared up at the slowly turning ceiling fan with a frown. Thunder continued to rumble and he could hear sheets of rain pelting the bay windows in the front room.  He glanced at the wall clock and then closed his eyes again as he tried to relax, despite the images that haunted him. He saw the leopard's face again as she plummeted to the rocks and surf below, but the face transformed into that of a lovely wolf with brownish-red fur. The she-wolf cried out in terror when she slipped from his grip and fell to the rocks, and Aramis shouted out his frustration as she dropped beyond his reach. His own body convulsed when she broke on the rocks, and then the alarm on the com handset beside the bed woke him with a start.

Thorne's eyes flashed open in panic. He sat upright in his bed before he realized that he was no longer hanging onto a guardrail at the edge of a rain-slick cliff. Panting lightly, he looked at the wall clock and realized that he had fallen asleep nearly two hours ago. The com unit continued to beep at him until he made himself reach over to it.

“Yes?” he asked hoarsely after running a hand over his eyes and brow.  He listened for a moment and then nodded subconsciously. “Very good, Ringo. I will visit Mr. Tavish shortly.”  He listened a moment more and then gave a few more words of instruction before he hung up the receiver.

Aramis briefly considered lying back down, but thought better of it.  He got to his feet and moved to the washroom to look at himself in the mirror.  He grimaced at his reflection and picked up a brush to groom his face fur. When he finally looked somewhat decent, he glanced up at the ceiling. He climbed up on the lid of the toilet and reached up for the air vent grating in the ceiling.  He worked it free and set it on the sink, and then he eased up until he could look into the rectangular duct.

His travel pack was undisturbed, waiting just inside where he had left it a couple days before. He pulled the heavy bundle out into his arms and then stepped down to the floor. He set the pack on the toilet lid and opened it. He pulled out a few provisions cached inside and then removed the Hoenix coins one by one.  He counted out thirty-one coins, set them aside, and then examined the remaining gold pieces. He would still have sixteen coins in reserve, and although he would likely wind up cashing them in as well, he wanted to retain them for now.

He put the provisions and the remaining coins back into the pack and then put it back into its hiding place. He replaced the grating carefully so that it wouldn't appear to have had any tampering, and then wrapped up the thirty-one coins in a white hand towel. He took them out to the bed and set them aside while he dressed. He walked into the other room and then to the bay window. He peered out through the vertical blinds and noted with satisfaction that although the sky was still dark, the late afternoon sky was now rain-free.

The wolf walked back to the kitchenette of his suite and began opening the cabinet doors. He searched through the items that had been pre-stocked until he found what he was looking for.  He pulled out a thermal canister and opened it. It had the faint smell of coffee, but was otherwise empty.  It appeared to be about the right size for what he needed.

He took the container back into the bedroom and then unfolded the hand towel lying on the bed.  He took each coin and dropped them one by one into the container until it was full. Three of the coins wouldn't fit with the canister's lid in place, so he dropped them into the pocket of his trousers.  He picked up the items he had removed from his pockets earlier and replaced them before he took the canister back into the front room. 

Aramis hesitated as he reached for the doorknob and then went back into the washroom to grab a towel; the seat of his cycle would be wet from the rain.  A moment later, he was out the door and on his way. 

*** 

When Thorne arrived at the Morrenbrook garage on the western perimeter of Castelrosso a little over an hour later, Tyler's small red car sat beside the mountain cliff next to the building. The beagle had the hood up and tinkered with something inside. Aramis pulled up next to him and then shut off the engine of his motorcycle.

“What's the trouble?” he asked when the short cook looked over at him with a grin.

“No problem, Cap'n,” he said cheerily. “I'm just tightening up a cable connector.”  He hopped down from the bumper and then shut the hood. He walked around to the passenger door and reached into the open window for a grease rag.  He dropped his wrench on the floorboard and then turned back to face the wolf as he wiped off his hands. “I take it everything went well with Mr. Tavish?” he asked.

Aramis nodded. “He examined each of the coins thoroughly and declared them all genuine.  His human associate had already authorized the transfer of credits to my account, so the whole process took less than a half hour. Mr. Faltane wants to talk with me when he gets here, but I am hoping to find some excuse not to meet him. I don't remember if I've ever met the man, but the name makes me feel suspicious. After I left Mr. Tavish, I contacted Dallas at the hospital to let her know I would need her services as Nurse sometime soon.”

“Excellent!” Ringo said as he tossed his rag back into his car. “I imagine she was happy to hear that.”

“Hopefully we won't need a medic for a while, so I'm also thinking of making her our Steward. I also got in touch with Harada,” Thorne said with a frown. “I had to strip him down for not following orders, but he still wants to crew with us as my primary pilot. I made him swear to keep his mouth shut on anything concerning me when talking to others.”

“Aww, Goro is okay,” Tyler said. “He just loves to visit with people.”

“If he wants a job on my ship, he'd better contain his conversations. After what happened this afternoon, I am sure Randon has others watching me. I don't want Harada to let anything slip out in a casual conversation,” he said as he started walking toward the weather-beaten building. Tyler followed him with a critical eye at the corroded metal walls with mildewed and rust-stained paint. “I also hired a husky I met at the Crusty Barnacle as my gunner,” Aramis added.

“You hired Karla?” the beagle asked.

“Yeah,” Aramis replied, not at all surprised that the cook would know more of the tenants of the hotel. He stopped in front of the entrance to the building and then punched in the combination of the cipher lock. When he turned the handle and opened the door, he put out a hand to stop Tyler from going in.  “Hold on, there is something I have to do first.”

“Make sure it's safe?” Ringo asked in a whisper.  The wolf only shook his head with a smile and then disappeared inside. A moment later, he stepped outside with a red bucket and Tyler curiously watched him scatter feed on the wet ground between the puddles near the garage building. Almost immediately, tropical birds flew out of the nearby trees as if they had been waiting for this, and landed to partake of Thorne's offering.  A large macaw swooped in close to the wolf as if to land on his shoulder, but it veered off suddenly when it didn't recognize him.  It landed with the others, but kept its head turned as if to keep an eye on him.

Ringo grinned widely and shook his head in amazement.  “Do they do that every time?” he asked.

“Apparently,” Thorne replied as he took the bucket back to the garage. The beagle followed him inside and shut the door behind them.  The interior was dark with only a few slivers of light filtering in through the window shutters. Aramis walked to where he remembered seeing the switch for the lights and tripped the single breaker when he found it. Four dim lights hanging from the ceiling came on, but one near the middle flared briefly with a quiet pop and went out.  Ringo blinked rapidly for a moment, and then peered across a garage that contained nothing more than an orange utility van.

“This place isn't much to look at, is it?” he quipped as he followed his captain across the floor.

“No, but I think that's the idea,” Aramis replied. He opened the double wooden doors when they reached the back of the room and then tapped out a few numbers on a keypad set in the left-hand panel.

“They gave you the combination already?”

“No,” the wolf replied as the elevator hummed in the shaft behind the panels. “I memorized the numbers Miklos put in when he brought me here.”

“You have good eyes,” Tyler said.  The humming grew slightly louder and a moment later, the elevator doors opened.  The beagle followed Thorne into the cage and stood to the back as the captain pulled the control lever down.  The cage dropped below the garage and Tyler watched the passing rock walls dully.

They started to drop past another door set into the side of the shaft, but Thorne suddenly brought the cage to a halt even with it.  “Is it in there?” Ringo asked curiously.

“No, the ship is well below us,” answered the wolf. He pointed at a standard padlock and then looked down at his friend.  “You said you had a knack for picking locks. Do you have any–”  Before he could finish his question, Tyler reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small, rolled-up pouch. He knelt on the floor and unrolled it to reveal several tiny instruments. He glanced at the padlock and then selected a tool near the center of the pouch.  The beagle worked on the lock only for a moment before the tumbler tripped and the shaft separated with an echoed click.

“Very good,” Thorne said approvingly.  Ringo put away his tools as the wolf slid the doors aside. 

A single light bulb came to life when they stepped out of the cage into a small room. Stacked up against the walls were boxes and crates with the word Binfurr Arms stamped in stylized gold letters. Leaning alongside the rock walls on top of the crates were rifles and other guns of various calibers. Large quantities of ammo boxes were stacked on the floor in front of them. Aramis picked up one of the rifles to examine it and Ringo looked at the boxes on the other side of the room.

“Provisions… canned goods,” the beagle said in a quiet voice as he peered into the nearest one without a label.  He looked through another box and found universal pressure suits that would work under water or in a vacuum. Oxygen canisters filled another and then he found a hefty metal crate with a large padlock.

“These rifles have been cleaned and are well-oiled,” Thorne muttered. “They haven't been here long.” He put the weapon back where he had found it and turned to see Tyler picking another lock.

Ringo lifted the lid of the box after he set the padlock on the floor and returned the tool to its pouch. Aramis peered over his shoulder and in the dim light, he saw a number of glass jars cradled in heavily padded chambers inside the box. Thorne reached over, gently eased one of the jars up into the light, and examined the thick amber liquid inside. There was no label so he sniffed the lid. A sharp odor made his eyes water, but it was not a scent he could identify. Without a word, he set the jar carefully back into its cradle and then shut the lid of the box.  The beagle put the padlock back into place and was about to stand up again when his eyes fell upon a small, wooden chest next to his knee.

Inside was a small fortune of gold and silver trinkets with precious gems of all colors and sizes embedded into them. No doubt it was the booty of some knock-off job. A look of delight flashed across his face, but before he could pilfer anything from the treasure, Thorne shut the lid of the chest with a “tsk, tsk.

Ringo looked up at him with a shrug and then got to his feet. Without a word, they both turned back toward the lift, but before they reached it, the cage hummed to life and dropped into the depths of the shaft without them.

“Uh oh,” Tyler said. “Someone will be up shortly and see that we've found their arsenal.”

Aramis glanced around the room and then back to his friend. “I wouldn't be concerned,” he said with a slight smile as he put his hands into the pockets of his cloak. “As their new captain, I would have demanded to know what was in here anyway.  No one will be able to lie about it with me having seen it first.”

“Good point,” said the beagle.  “Should I get one of the guns and load it up… just in case?”

“No,” Thorne answered. “I am already armed.”

“I should have guessed,” Ringo replied with a smile.

A moment later, the cables of the lift in the center of the shaft came to a halt, only to reverse their direction seconds later.  The top of the elevator came into view shortly and then it rose up to their level.  Argus let out a quiet yelp of surprise and Miklos stared in at them with wide, round eyes. Mik stopped the lift and Thorne merely looked back at them calmly.

“What… what are you doing in there?” Argus asked hoarsely.

“We were on our way to see Colfax,” Thorne replied, “and thought I would stop to take a look at your storeroom.”

“Did you take …anything?” the fox asked suspiciously.

“Nothing, I assure you,” Thorne replied truthfully, as he stepped into the elevator cage.

“Who is he?” Argus asked, pointing at the beagle with a scowl.

The short canine smiled and held out a hand. “I am—”

“His name's Ringo,” Miklos replied in sudden recognition. He didn't take the beagle's offered hand, but merely looked at it as if it were filthy.  “I've seen him with Harada.”

“He will be our cook for the Hoenix,” Thorne replied as he closed the door panels to the storeroom and clicked the padlock shut. “So, you know Goro Harada, eh?”

“Uh, yeah, I've seen him around.” Mik replied warily when Ringo stuck his hands in his pockets and sighed. “If you've hired this little squint, I can assume you decided to accept Errol's offer?”

“Correct,” said the wolf as he reached past the terrier and activated the controls.  The lift began to rise back up to the garage.

“I thought you wanted to see Colfax…” Argus said as he noticed their upward motion.

“I do,” replied Thorne, “but as you two were already on the way up, I thought I would let you go on before I headed back to the cavern. Where were you two going?”

Argus exchanged glances with his associate and then looked back at the wolf. “We're going to pay a visit to an antique dealer,” he said quietly. “Personal business.”

Thorne raised an eyebrow. “Mr. Tavish?” he asked.  The look of surprise on both of their faces was a clear answer.

“How did you know who we—?”

Don't harass Mr. Tavish,” Thorne said in a sudden authoritative voice.

Argus knitted his brow and crossed his arms. “What business is it of yours?” he asked darkly.  The lift came to a stop and the doors opened to the garage, but no one got out.

Instead of answering in the manner expected, Thorne gave him a knowing smile and then asked, “How's the back of your head feeling?”

Miklos raised a hand to an area behind his left ear with wide eyes.  His mouth opened and then shut quickly.  “That was you!” he exclaimed.  Argus blinked and then looked at the wolf again.

“The briefcase you tried to steal from Tavish was mine…” Thorne answered dryly. “My business with him is not finished. If you give him further grief, it will interfere with my plans.”

“Our business with him isn't finished either,” Argus said in a low voice. “He cheated us on some goods we sold him.”

“How much?”

“It doesn't matter how much,” Argus replied irritably. “He needs a lesson.”

“Ahh,” Aramis said with a nod of his head. “If that is what it is, wait a week before you teach Mr. Tavish his little lesson. That should give me time to complete my business with him before you interfere.”

“Why would I want to do you any favors?” Argus sneered.

“If you have any intention of becoming a part of my crew, Mr. Roza, you will learn to follow orders.”  Thorne stared at him intently, but the fox held his gaze in defiance. Then, after a few heartbeats, Argus averted his eyes, unable to take the wolf's piercing directness.

“I don't care if you pay Colfax his price and call yourself a captain,” the fox muttered as he stepped past him to leave the elevator. “Errol is our true leader —”

Thorne reached out quickly and took the vulpine mechanic firmly by the throat with one hand. Argus instinctively threw a punch to the wolf's stomach; Aramis exhaled forcefully, but didn't falter; he added his other hand to the throat instead of releasing him.  Argus clawed at Thorne's fingers, but was unable to pry them from his neck. Aramis hadn't yet tightened his fingers, but merely held the fox in such a manner as to get his point across.

“Do you wish to challenge me, Mr. Roza?” Thorne asked him darkly. “I can assure you who the alpha is in this pack!”

Argus gurgled something and struggled to free himself, but to no avail. It was hard to swallow and his eyes began to water. Miklos and Ringo both watched with large eyes, but neither intervened. Thorne's eyebrows furrowed dangerously, but in a surprise to them all, he released the mechanic.

Argus fell to his knees and swallowed hard as he rubbed his throat. Thorne grimaced from his sore gut, but bent down and took the fox's elbow firmly without hurting him. Argus looked at him warily as the wolf helped him to his feet, and then he leaned on the wall next to the elevator door.

“I am capable of commanding my people,” Aramis said in a calmer tone, “but if you want to crew with me, you will follow my orders. However, if you want to have another go at me, you had better do it before I officially take charge of the vessel. If you try it under my command, I will consider it an act of mutiny and deal with you accordingly.”

Argus swallowed hard and then coughed as he raised a hand. “You have convinced me, Captain,” he said in a raspy voice.

“So what do you plan to do?”

The fox cleared his throat hoarsely and nodded to Miklos.  “We will leave Mr. Tavish alone,” he said.

“And?”

Argus closed his eyes for a moment and then replied, “I will follow your orders if you will let me join your crew.” He opened his eyes and looked back at the wolf. Thorne stared at him for a moment and then nodded.

“What about you, Mr. Novak?” he asked the terrier with a sideways glance. “Still coming along?”

Miklos raised his hands in submission and nodded his head. There was a fire in his eyes for what the wolf had done to his companion, but he practiced the better part of common sense. “Yes, sir,” he said. “At your orders.”

Thorne stepped back into the lift and allowed the terrier to get out next to his companion. “The next time you see me,” he said to them, “I will be in command of the Hoenix.  Once I find out what Mr. Colfax needs, I will have him get in touch with you on a repair schedule. Then, if I see you're still willing to work for me, I will grant you a paycard to operate from.”

Without waiting for a reply, Aramis activated the controls to lower the cage and the doors to the lift closed. The elevator began moving and Ringo looked up at Thorne with hesitation.  There was a look of surprise on the wolf's face.

“Are you okay, Cap'n?” the beagle asked.

Aramis looked down at his friend. “I don't know why I reacted like that,” he said quietly. “I hadn't intended…”

“Whether or not you remember being Captain Thorne,” Tyler said quickly, “what you just did up there holds to what I have heard about you.  I suspect neither of them doubt who you're, although I think we're all surprised you didn't slug him.”

Aramis raised his eyebrows and gave him a thin smile. “I suppose I should be prepared to act impulsively like that, but somehow it just doesn't seem like me…”

“Cap'n, I won't presume to tell you how to conduct yourself,” the canine said with a mischievous grin, “but it's up to you to be who you are. If you try to put on an act, others will know it.  With the loss of your friends on the Silverthorne, I doubt there is anyone else who knows anything about you other than your public image. When you're among your own crew, don't worry about whether or not you match your reputation.  Just be yourself, however it is you feel yourself to be.”

The elevator slowed and came to a stop. Aramis chuckled and then shook his head. “You amaze me, Ringo,” he said. “For someone who trips over his own feet and looks as if he could be our comedy relief, you're awfully insightful.”

Tyler grinned and stepped out of the lift. “Well, it comes from—”  He stopped and his face went blank when he looked out into the cavern. “Uhm… is that the… uh… ship?”

“Yeah, that's it,” Thorne replied as the lift doors closed behind him. “Ghastly, isn't it?”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” Ringo said, “but it looks like cra—”

“Now, now, Tyler,” the wolf said with a chuckle. “Mr. Colfax assures me it is capable of doing what we require it to do.  It's not as sleek as the Silverthorne, but it should do the job with the proper repairs.”

“If you say so.”

Thorne looked down at him in amusement. “Having second thoughts about joining my cause?”

Ringo looked up at him and then shook his head after an imperceptible hesitation. “No second thoughts about you, sir, but of that thing, plenty of thoughts… none complimentary.”

Aramis laughed and slapped him on the back.  “Let's go deal with Mr. Colfax,” he said, “and then I will give you the grand tour.  Despite its exterior appearance, I think you'll be pleased with the galley.”

They began walking toward one of the workbenches, where a black wolf and a chocolate Labrador studied a questionable piece of mechanical equipment. “Who are they?” Ringo asked.

“The brown one is the engineer, Mr. Colfax,” Aramis replied. “I don't know the other one.”

The Labrador looked up as they approached. “Captain Thorne,” he said.  The black wolf beside him looked up and gave Aramis a smile of recognition.

“Errol Colfax,” Thorne replied, “I would like you to meet our new chef Tyler Ringo.”

The beagle stuck out his hand cheerily and Colfax shook it with an amused expression. “Pleased to meetcha!” Tyler said.

Colfax gave him a nod and then looked back to Thorne. “Our chef, eh?” he asked. “By that I assume you have accepted my offer?”

“That's right,” the grey wolf said. “I have the full amount ready to transfer to you. As soon as you can provide a bill of sale, I can get this thing registered.”

Colfax nodded and gestured toward the submarine starship. “I anticipated this, so I had it registered about an hour ago as the SS Hoenix, owned and commanded by Aramis A. Thorne.”

The lupine captain looked amazed. “What if I had decided not to go through with it?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

Colfax laughed in his deep voice. “You need a ship, and despite your misgivings, I saw the look in your eyes when we gave you the tour. I knew you would take it.”

Thorne chuckled and held up a hand in agreement. “I suppose it would take an engineer to recognize that look,” he said. “I was an engineer once myself.”

“I thought so,” replied the Labrador. “If you will follow me, I have a credicard scanner inside the ship. Once the funds are in my account, I will transfer command of the ship to you.”

“Very good,” Aramis replied. He looked over at the black wolf and then extended his hand. “Who might you be?”

A startled look crossed the wolf's features, but he took Thorne's hand in a firm grip. “You don't…?  Uhm, I'm Jason… Jason Talos, Captain Thorne,” he said with a slight accent.

Aramis tilted his head to the side and narrowed his eyes. Something was familiar about this black wolf, but he couldn't place what it might be. They were the same height and both had amber eyes, but there was something else. He then nodded and replied, “Nice to meet you, Jason. Do you also want a place on my crew?”

Jason hesitated briefly and then nodded. “Yes, sir,” he replied in a low voice.

“Very well, then. We will have a chance to talk later,” Thorne said before turning back to Colfax. “Let's get the transfer taken care of first, and then you can fill me in on what still needs to be done to this ship.”

Errol nodded, walked around the workbench and headed straight for the main ramp into the old vessel. Aramis followed him with more questions, but Tyler held out his hand to the black wolf. “Hi, Jason,” he said with a smile.

Talos stared after the captain with a dark look for a moment before the beagle tapped him on the wrist. He turned to Tyler and then shook his hand, his expression neutral. “Hello, Ringo,” he said. He leaned back against the workbench and then crossed his arms.  “You'll be cooking for us?” he asked.

“That's right,” Tyler said cheerily. “I can fix a wide variety of –”

“How long have you known Thorne?” Jason interrupted.

“Just a few days, really,” the beagle replied. “He's staying at the hotel where I've been working as a cook.”

“Do you trust him?”

Tyler looked at him in surprise. “Yes, I do,” he answered. “Why do you ask?”

“Something doesn't smell right,” Talos muttered with a glance back toward the ship. Tyler sniffed the air, but could only smell oil and degreaser from the workbenches, mixed with the salty flavor of the sea. “I don't know what Thorne actually has planned for this ship and crew,” the black wolf continued, “but I intend to find out.”

He didn't see Ringo bite his bottom lip, but when he turned back to the beagle, Tyler merely looked at him curiously. “Can you show me to the galley?” the short cook asked. “I would like to see where I will be working.”

Jason nodded and he looked as if his thoughts were back on track. “Sure,” he said. “It's probably the one compartment on the ship in the best shape. Come with me.”  Tyler walked beside him, but he stared up at the ship again with an uncertain expression on his face. It was clear he didn't think much of the vessel's outward appearance.

When they approached the entry ramp that extended down from the belly of the ship, Thorne and Colfax came out of the darker interior. “That was quick!” Ringo exclaimed.

“My desk is right inside,” Errol told him. “I had everything ready.”

“Mr. Talos,” Aramis said as he stepped down the ramp toward them, “Colfax has turned down the first officer's position, citing his duties as chief engineer.”

“I'm not surprised,” the black wolf replied. “He really likes those engines.”

“Yes, well, he's just given me a quick rundown of your abilities and I admit it sounds impressive.”  Thorne nodded quietly to Ringo and then looked back at Jason. “I know your talents are more geared toward piloting, but I would rather have you as my first officer.”

Jason's eyes grew wide for a second, but then he narrowed them quickly. “Usually a great deal of trust is shared by the captain and his first officer,” he replied. “Are you sure you can trust me with your secrets and hidden agendas?”

Thorne hesitated at the wolf's choice of words and pressed his lips together. “Mr. Talos,” he said in an even voice, “there are very few with whom I would trust with all my secrets. However, as my first officer, you will be responsible for making sure my orders are carried out to the fullest, so I am sure that you and I will come to an eventual understanding concerning my plans. Trust,” he added, “will develop as we get used to the way each other operates.”

“But you trust me well enough to offer this position.”

“Mr. Talos,” Thorne replied with an agitated swishing of his tail, “I will trust you to keep my ship and its crew in working order. Further trust will have to be earned. Do you want the job or not?”

Jason locked eyes with the captain for a long moment, but then looked away with lowered ears. “Aye sir, I do.”

Aramis responded with a nod and a softer expression as he walked down the ramp and held out his hand. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Talos. I will get with you and Mr. Colfax tomorrow morning on duty assignments. I have a few of my own choices, but I will need you to help me fill out the other needed positions in the crew.”  They shook hands and then Aramis yawned widely. It had been a long day. “I told Miklos that I would let him help me fill out crew positions, but I think –”

“May I make a suggestion?” Jason interrupted.

“Yes, go ahead.”

“Sir, Miklos has contacts with experienced people who would jump at the chance to crew with you,” he said. “Let me work with him to get the people we need and who can be trusted.”

“Very well, then,” Thorne replied.  “I will leave that up to the two of you, but I will want to visit personally with everyone you select to make my own determination. That way it will be a double-screening.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Aramis nodded and then looked at his watch. He glanced back up the ramp at Colfax and said, “I don't know what kind of hours you have been keeping, but go ahead and take the rest of the evening off.  We'll get together tomorrow and then you can bring me up to date on the repairs and condition of the ship.”

“Aye sir. We'll see you then.” 

*** 

In the three days since Thorne took command of the Hoenix, repairs to the old vessel increased rapidly, although it would still take some time to complete them all. True to his word, Colfax used the money he had received to buy the tools, equipment and needed parts to get things functional. Everyone who had been helping the Labrador on a part-time basis was called in for an extensive schedule, as well as those whom Aramis had promised a place on his crew. Much to the displeasure of the manager of The Crusty Barnacle, Tyler Ringo had quit his job in the hotel's restaurant in order to feed the growing crew of Thorne's ship.

Likewise, Dallas had given up her moonlighting job at Cohan's Pub and had managed to get her duties at the local hospital dropped to an emergency on-call basis only. Per the captain's orders, she had begun giving everyone a complete physical. This hadn't set well with some, but Thorne wanted to make sure that when they were finally able to take off, they wouldn't be taking unknown afflictions along with them.

Karla Crandall had proven instrumental getting the new armaments Thorne wanted and proved herself quite capable in getting them installed.  Goro Harada spent most of his time running errands for the workers and getting extra parts and tools they needed for the various repair jobs.  Due to the prior work of the chief engineer, the AGR systems for atmospheric lift were now operational, as were the Falstar LightDrive engines, but Argus Roza was committed to the inner workings of the Squid undersea drive system with Colfax in order to get it functional as well.

Captain Thorne applied his own experience to the repairs, and was high up on the ship's narrow nose working on the fore sensor array with Farrell Lightner, a slender greyhound hired on as their communications and radar specialist. Aramis hadn't been able to coax much personal background out of the canine while they worked. The only thing Farrell would volunteer about himself was that he was not necessarily a pirate, but he had been out of work far too long, and the job market on Brandt was in such poor shape, that he had taken the position only for the pay. To him it was just another job and nothing more.

Reaching up out of the open panel he had squeezed inside, Farrell asked, “Can you hand me the voltmeter, Captain?” His voice was in the higher ranges, as if it had never changed with puberty.  Aramis reached out of an adjacent access compartment for their equipment bag and pulled out a small black box trailing red and black wire probes.  He handed this across to the greyhound and was about to drop back down when he noticed Miklos approaching them across the upper deck carrying a slateboard tablet.  The terrier took a nervous look over the nose of the ship to the floor of the cavern below and swallowed. He had a slight fear of heights, so he turned away and knelt down beside the tool bag.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Novak?” Aramis asked as he picked up a wire bundle attached to a cannon plug.

Mik glanced at his slateboard briefly and then said, “I have four more crew members for you to meet. Where do you want to see them?”

Thorne frowned and twitched his left ear. He was at a point in the repairs with Farrell that he didn't think he should leave just yet. “I'm rather busy at the moment,” he said. “Once I can find a stopping point –”

“Go ahead, Captain,” Farrell's voice said from the other compartment. “I can take care of the exciter unit now.  If these readings are correct, the bandpass filter should be ready to go online as soon as I get the shielding back into place.”

“Okay, Mr. Lightner. I will leave it to you after I reattach the modulator,” Aramis said with a nod he knew his companion couldn't see.  He worked the wire bundle in a tight area between two brackets and then clicked the cannon plug into place. He threaded the other end through a hole in the containment wall toward the greyhound.

“I have it,” Farrell said in a satisfied voice.

Thorne pulled himself out of the compartment up onto his knees, and then grabbed a fresh grease rag from a plastic sack beside the tool bag.  An unidentifiable green dust lightly covered his navy blue pants and black tee shirt. He brushed off as much of it as he could with the rag and then looked over at Miklos. “After you,” he said as he batted more of the dust from his tail.

The terrier turned without looking out over the edge and headed back toward the nearest hatch, a round hole in the upper deck with a thick pressure door that opened out. “I have them waiting in the galley, sir,” Mik said as he climbed down the metal rungs of a ladder to interior of the ship. “It seemed like the easiest place to put them until I knew where you wanted to talk.”

“The galley is fine,” Aramis replied. “I'm sure Ringo has already given them something to drink or to snack on.”  The two of them stepped off the ladder into a dimly lit corridor. Multiple pipes ran parallel overhead, and wire bundles and switches lined the walls.  As one of the taller individuals on board the old ship, Thorne had to watch his head constantly when walking through the narrow corridors. There were already several bumps between his ears to serve as a reminder to duck when going through bulkhead pressure doors.  Something was hissing in the third compartment they passed through; Aramis came to a stop and looked up into the overhead pipes.  He pulled a small notepad and a pencil out of the back pocket of his pants and then jotted down the bulkhead location.

“Gotta get somebody on that right away,” he muttered to himself.  He put the pad and pencil away and then motioned for Miklos to continue. A few moments later, they crossed into a room that was brighter, with the walls enclosed in light grey plastic panels to cover the inner workings behind them. At the other end of the room, a quiet humming issued from a large circular hole in the floor ringed with black and yellow striped paint. Miklos stopped beside it and waited for the open elevator to return to their level.

They didn't have to wait long before a lift platform without sides rose into view. The coyote on the dais smiled at them when his face appeared above the floor surface.  “Hi, Captain,” Goro said cheerfully. Then he looked at Miklos and frowned. “Hey, flybait,” he said sourly.

Mik snorted and waved with his slateboard. “Get off the lift, flea-trap, we need it!”

Goro stopped the elevator and stepped out beside the terrier. “Lucky for you I wanted off on this level,” he said with a sneer. Aramis shook his head in amusement when the coyote held up a box of light bulbs he had had tucked under one arm and then gave him a subtle wink. In the short time he had been on board, he had learned that Miklos and Goro had a long history of such exchanges, but Colfax had told him not to give it much thought. The two of them were actually good friends, but when listening to them hurl their barbs at one another, it was sometimes hard to remember. There were moments when they might seem on the verge of coming to blows, but anyone who knew them did their best to ignore them.

Goro gave the captain a casual salute and then started to move past them, but Thorne put up a hand.  “Just a minute,” he said as he ripped out a page from his notepad.  He handed it to the coyote and said, “There is a leak in one of the pipes at this location. Would you get on this as soon as you've finished with your lights?”

Goro looked at the location with a frown and then glanced up the passage where he was headed.  “Sure, I'll take care of it,” he replied.

“Thank you.”

Thorne and Miklos stepped into the lift as the coyote continued on his way.

“I don't know why you hired that guy,” Mik muttered as he activated the control. The elevator dropped to the next level and they stepped out onto the crew deck a moment later. They walked aft through several compartments occupied by small cabins. Each held a single bed, a closet, a small chest with drawers and a desk with a com unit. Officer cabins were on the deck above and were only slightly more spacious.  Only the captain's own quarters were larger, but not by much.

They reached the galley and when they stepped inside, four unfamiliar faces looked up at the wolf from their seats around one long table. “This is Captain Thorne,” Miklos told them. As the wolf suspected, Ringo had already served each of them something to drink.

“Welcome aboard,” Aramis said with a nod as he sat down on one of the generic bench seats bolted to the deck. There were some murmured hellos and then Mik took a seat opposite the captain.  He gestured toward a canine Chow seated closest to him and said, “This is Hugo Sullivan. He's already been working on the ship, but this is the first chance I've had to bring him up to meet you.  He's a mechanic with experience on older ships like this one.” The rotund Chow frowned deeply and looked as if he would rather be anywhere else.

“Mr. Sullivan,” the captain repeated.  The mechanic gave him a nod, but otherwise said nothing. Thorne remembered seeing him in the restaurant at his hotel and felt like he should say more, but the sullen expression on the guy's face put a damper on his thoughts.

“Well then,” Mik continued as he pointed to a female coyote seated across from Hugo, “this is Kio Kudara. She is our secondary pilot with some past experience with this ship class.”

“Hello, Captain,” Kio said pleasantly.

“Miss Kudara,” Aramis said with a nod. “Any other talents?”

“Several,” she answered with a smile, “but probably the one I'll be using the most when I am not flying the ship is cooking. I've already made a deal with Ringo to help out when he needs it. It wasn't easy, though – he's rather possessive of his kitchen.”

“I am sure he will welcome your help once we get underway.”

Miklos pointed out a young grey wolf with a grin and said, “Captain, I'm sure you won't mind having Cinjin along. He can handle our supplies.”

When Aramis looked at this newcomer, something clicked in the back of his mind. He knew this face, and the name sounded familiar, but he was unable to pin it down. “Mr. Cinjin,” he said, trying not to look as if he knew him. Until he could remember something, it would be better not to act as if he did. “I'm sure the supply room will be uneventful for you.”

Mister Cinjin?” the young wolf repeated with an expression that Aramis read as one of great disappointment and he knew instantly he'd executed a faux pas. It was as if he was expected to already know all wolves that he'd just met on board this vessel; Jason and now Cinjin.

“Uh, right.”  Aramis purposely looked away from the younger wolf and toward the last person seated at the table, a short Miniature Pincher.

“This is Chalmoy Bleys,” Miklos explained. “He's the best marksman around, so I'm sure he will be an asset when we catch up to the Cliffhanger. His primary assignment will be Secondary Gunner after Karla.”

Thorne nodded. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Bleys.  What was your first name again?  Cammo?”

The pincher looked as if he was used to this and replied in a quietly controlled voice. “Chalmoy,” he said. “I also respond to Cal.”

“Right – Cal.”  He then looked over the group and said again, “Welcome to the Hoenix. I'm sure you have all been informed what we're going to be doing, so I won't bore you with repeating it.”

“Actually,” Cinjin said quietly, “no one's given me any details.”

“Me neither,” Kio added. “I was just told there was an opening on your crew.”

Thorne looked over at the terrier with the slateboard. “You didn't tell them?” he asked.

Miklos shrugged his shoulders. “I didn't figure word should be spread around to just anyone,” he answered. “I assumed you would tell them once you hired them.”

Aramis nodded and then stood up. He put his hands inside his pockets and then looked back over the group. “Once this ship has been repaired to flight capability,” he said, “we will be going after an old acquaintance of mine who has caused me some grief.”

“Who would that be?” Cal asked.

“Zef Randon and his ship, the Cliffhanger.”

Cinjin's face lit up in recognition. “I knew it had something to do with him,” he said.

Kio's response was different, however. She stood up with a shocked expression. “Randon!” she said.

“Yes, Miss Kudara?” Thorne crossed his arms and looked at her. She sat back down and glanced around at the others.

“Sorry, sir,” she said.

“What is it?”

Kio looked at her hands for a moment and then returned her gaze to the wolf. “It's just that… I figured we were going to be pirating freighters or pleasure cruisers. I didn't know we were going to do something severely dangerous!”

Aramis put his foot up on the seat in front of him and then rested an elbow on his knee to look at her. “Facing Randon will be our ultimate goal,” he told her, “but I'm sure we will plunder other ships along the way. With this news, are you backing out?”

“No sir,” the coyote said after a brief hesitation, “but it does come as a surprise.”

“I won't be doing anyone's fighting for them,” Hugo said with a grumble, “but I'm sure you will keep me busy in repairs when the Cliffhanger starts shooting at us.”

“No doubt,” Thorne said with a frown.  He looked at each of them in turn and then stood up to his full height. “Do any of you wish to leave?”  No one responded to his question, but he looked up when Tyler stepped out of the kitchen a moment later, a white bag decorated in red and white squares tucked under one arm.

“I thought I heard your voice, Cap'n,” the beagle said with a grin. “You need anything?”

Thorne didn't answer him right away, but instead looked at those seated at the table.  “Do any of you have any more questions?”  Almost in unison, everyone shook their heads.  He looked up at Tyler and said, “These are our new crewmates,” he said. “Would you take them to Dallas to get checked in?”

“Right away, Cap'n.”  The beagle set his bag down on the table and then motioned toward the others with a dog biscuit in one hand. “Come with me,” he said with a smile.  The four newcomers got to their feet and followed the cook out into the corridor, but not before Cinjin cast another furtive glance at the captain. When they had all gone, Thorne turned back to Miklos and motioned for him to follow him out the door. He turned and headed back the way they had come in earlier.

“I notice you've hired all canine types, Mik,” Thorne said after they had walked through several compartments in silence. “Any particular reason?”

“Well, I assumed you wouldn't want any felines around because of Randon. I have more new-hires like these due to arrive later today.”

Because of Randon?”

“You know, because he and his mob are all feline!”

Aramis studied him for a moment and then nodded. “A mixed crew would have been more desirable, but so long as these people are hard workers, it shouldn't be a problem.”

“What's wrong with an all-canine crew?” Miklos asked. “When you're locked up in a ship together for long periods of time, doesn't it help for everyone to have a commonality?”

“Possibly on something like a freighter where everyone is inactive for long periods of time,” Thorne replied, “but a diversified crew helps in other areas, too.”

“How?”

“If I wanted to infiltrate Randon's people, would I be able to send anyone from this crew?”

“No, I suppose not,” the terrier said with a sarcastic tone. “However, you've already accepted our choices. You'd generate resentment if you got rid of some of them now just because of their species.”

Thorne's eyes darkened and he moved in so close to Miklos that the dog backed up quickly against the corridor wall next to an outcropping of pipes. “You would be advised not to cross me by trying to back me into a corner, Mr. Novak,” the wolf said with a growl in his throat. He braced his arms on the walls on both sides of the navigator, effectively trapping him. His penetrating amber eyes locked the terrier's attention and Miklos swallowed involuntarily.

“No… no sir,” he forced himself to say.

“If I deem them worthy, I will take those who have signed up,” Thorne said after a moment, “but if I decide to rid myself of anyone, you may well be the first to go. Do I make myself clear?”

Miklos averted his eyes and looked down at his feet. “Perfectly, sir.”

Thorne nodded and then stood up straight to give the terrier some breathing space. “Right, then get everyone squared away with a bunk when they have had their physicals, and then introduce them to the people in the sections where they will be working.”

“That's a steward's job,” Mik complained. “I'm the navigator.”

Thorne growled and leaned into the terrier's face again. “Dallas is doing physical examinations of the crew and you aren't navigating right now!  You accepted me as your captain, so now you're either going to follow my orders or you may find yourself navigating into a box. Got it?”

“Yessir,” Mik replied without hesitation.

Once again, Thorne stood up straight. “If this crew is going to work,” he said in a quieter tone, “everyone is going to have to help out in other areas when someone can't do their job. Right now, my steward is fulfilling her primary duty as the Medical officer, so I need your help by filling in as temporary steward – on my direct order.”

“Yessir,” Mik said again.

“Then get to it,” the wolf said. He let the terrier squeeze past him and the navigator quickly departed through an open pressure door mumbling something under his breath.  Thorne's sensitive ears picked up exactly what the short canine said about his captain's parentage, but he decided to let it go. Grumbling about the captain of a ship was practically a tradition.

NEXT CHAPTER

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