— by Ted R. Blasingame
Captain Thorne looked over his assembled crew and stuck his hands into the pockets of his navy blue trousers. Everyone gathered on the cavern floor beside the Hoenix, and twenty-two pairs of eyes looked up at the wolf that stood on top of a boulder beside the ship. It had taken two full weeks of round-the-clock repairs with the installation of new weapon systems to get the old vessel operational. Now completed, there was a sense of anticipation in the air.
A warm breeze blew through the cavern and the sunlight of late morning streamed in through the entrance near the sea. Water lapped at the sides of the natural canal that took up half of the cave area, with all the scaffolding and workbenches stowed against the back wall.
The grey wolf gave his crew a nod of approval and then cleared his throat. “Mr. Colfax has assured me that everything is ready,” he said. “All onboard systems show operational and ready in simulation, but the real test will have to come from an actual launch.”
He pulled a hand from his pocket and gestured toward the ship that sat quietly on a set of tracks that led laterally to the water. “We will launch at 1400 hours today and take a leisurely cruise beneath Castle Bay to test the undersea systems. Once we're convinced things are functioning properly, we will launch into orbit and then set a course for Quet.”
“Why Quet?” asked a Dachshund near the front. “That dump isn't where I would choose to go!”
Aramis nodded. “Quet is only thirty-six hours away right now, Mr. Lawrence. That's a decent test-ride to make sure our spatial systems work well enough before we set out against a real target. This ship has been out of commission for a while and we want to be sure we can rely on her.”
Robin Lawrence tilted his head to the left. “Oh…” the mechanic muttered.
“Anyway,” Thorne continued, “before we load up and begin preparations for our tests, I have made arrangements at Shenanigan's Reef to feed the lot of us on my credits as a thank-you for your work.”
“Shenanigan's Reef!” exclaimed Harada. “I heard that place is hard to get into!”
“Why? Is it swanky?” Miklos asked.
“No, flybait, but it's so popular there's always a line waiting to get in,” Goro answered. “Not terribly expensive, but it has a solid reputation for good food and live musical entertainment.”
“If you will all meet me there in a half hour,” Thorne said with a voice raised above the conversations that had begun, “we can get an early start on lunch.” Two or three of the crewmembers cheered, but the majority of the group began moving toward the elevator, talking among themselves. Tyler Ringo made his way toward the captain as Aramis hopped off the boulder.
“Good move, Cap'n,” he said in a low voice. “This will put them in good spirits when we launch.”
“That's the idea,” Aramis replied. “Besides, I don't want to hear anyone complaining of being hungry and bothering you for food while we're testing the ship. It will take a bit of concentration on everyone's part to monitor all the systems and hatchways when we're submerged.”
“Do you think submerging is such a good idea?” Ringo asked as he glanced out the cave opening at the ocean beyond. “What if we spring a leak?”
“Better to find out when we can resurface than to wait until we're out in space, right?”
Ringo nodded. “Yeah, I suppose that would be better.”
“It will take a few trips of the elevator to get everyone topside,” Thorne mused. “You go ahead and get in with the rest of them. I'm going to shut everything down and then will meet the lot of you shortly.”
“Aye, Cap'n. See you there.”
”Have you noticed how much bigger the captain's cabin is compared to the rest of ours?” Mik asked. He unlocked the main hatch of the ship and pushed it inside. Several hours had passed, and despite the amount of food and drink he consumed at the restaurant, his thoughts kept returning to the situation with the Hoenix.
“Yes, but I suppose you haven't noticed that his cabin is barely bigger, flybait,” Goro replied. “It's not much larger than a booth.”
“Mine is barely bigger than a coffin,” complained the navigator.
“Yeah, and mine is the same size as yours. You may as well stop bellyaching and get used to it,” the coyote said as he stepped into the hold. He reached a breaker-box near the hatch and turned on the overhead lights in the chamber. “We'll be launching shortly.”
“Hold on…” Miklos said suddenly.
Goro stopped and stared across the cargo bay. “What is it?”
“Potential trouble,” Mik answered.
The coyote followed him across hold toward an open pressure door on the aft end of the compartment. Miklos peered into the darkened passageway, sniffed the air, and tilted his head.
“See anything?” Goro asked.
“Nothing unusual.” More voices came in through the airlock hatch behind them and the two of them turned in unison to see a line of crewmembers moving toward the lift to the upper levels. Miklos closed the door and turned the wheel to seal its edges. “I wouldn't tell Colfax one of his new mechanics left this hatch open,” he whispered to his companion, “although I know he will double-check every hatch and panel inside and out before he lets the captain launch.”
“We'll be starting our pre-flight checklist soon,” Goro said as he looked at his watch. “I need to get to the head before I go up to the bridge.”
Miklos looked at the coyote with a concerned expression as they moved toward the group gathered at the main lift. “Do you really think this thing will get off the ground?” he asked.
“You don't think all the work we've done on it has been good enough?” Goro asked in a quiet voice.
“I'm more concerned with the cheap parts Errol bought,” the terrier replied in a whisper. “I think he's been skimming money off the bottom of what he told Captain Thorne he was going to use to buy parts. The fresh water distillation system that Hugo and I installed last week is substandard, and so is the hydrogen detection system. I swear that despite the money the captain put up for repairs, we haven't been getting good parts. I'm almost afraid to go out into space in this crate. I've heard others saying the same thing.”
Goro looked at him with a frown. “Has anyone brought this up to the captain?” he asked.
Mik shook his head. “I don't think anyone's brave enough to give him any bad news.”
“Well, if Errol himself is willing to fly in a ship that he's been buying low-budget parts for, I suppose we shouldn't be too worried.”
The terrier looked up at him and snorted. “I wouldn't be surprised if Errol found an excuse at the last minute to stay behind.”
Aramis watched the movement of the Hoenix in anticipation, but cringed with the continual barrage of noise that filled the cavern. With the exception of two people on the bridge of the ship to monitor the systems, the rest of the crew stood scattered about the cavern awaiting word to board her. The Hoenix moved inch-by-inch laterally toward the water trench on its starboard side; the nose of the vessel still pointed toward the back of the cavern. All airlocks, service hatches and portholes were sealed as the ship-mover crawled its way down the slope to the water. With only the landing claws extended, their hatches were tight against both pressure and vacuum. Unlike quick launches from dry land, the lowering of the ship was time-consuming. Most of the crew members were bored and impatient, and had begun card games or engaged in idle conversation, speaking in loud voices over the noise of the ship-moving equipment. Large coils of naval rope rested beside large bollards embedded in the cavern floor on both sides of the water trench.
Errol Colfax stood at the controls of the noisy ship-mover, his attention focused on the procedure. He had spent too many months and effort to repair the ship to let anyone else put the Hoenix into the water; everyone who knew him left the chief engineer to do as he wished. At the ship's current rate of movement, the Hoenix wouldn't be ready to board for another half hour.
“I guess it's coming down to the end, right, Cap'n?” Ringo said to the wolf. He was dressed in a set of dark orange hospital scrubs he had gotten from Dallas and had his arms folded across his chest.
Aramis looked down at him with an amused expression. “Not the end, Tyler. Think of it as a beginning. Mr. Colfax assures me the Hoenix is ready to fly.”
The short cook frowned as he watched the ship-mover finally reach the water. “It's not flying that concerns me right now, sir,” he said. “It's sinking.”
“How good a swimmer are you?” the wolf asked him with a wry smile.
Tyler gave him a worried look. “Uh, not very well, sir. Strange for someone who lives on an island, huh? I would rather not test my faltering skills anytime soon.”
Aramis just chuckled and glanced back toward the ship. “I have confidence the Hoenix will float just fine.” The beagle fell silent, unwilling to agree with the captain's sentiment. After a few minutes of watching the ship lower into the water, he looked back up at the wolf.
“Too bad we didn't have time to repaint it,” he said. “No matter if it works, it still looks like cra—”
“I know,” Aramis interrupted, “but Colfax didn't have enough of either red or white base primer to cover everything, and I was not about to mix them together and let a pink paintbrush touch that ship.”
Tyler snickered, but then fell instantly silent at his captain's scathing glance. Neither of them said anything more for several long minutes, but the beagle finally cleared his throat and looked up at Thorne once more.
“I'm sorry I wasn't able to find out more about your background,” he said in a hushed voice. “You apparently kept a low profile concerning your private life. I'm afraid the only people who knew you well either died with the Silverthorne or are on Randon's ship.”
“Well, you two were business partners. I would assume he knew you well enough.”
Aramis closed his eyes and raised his face toward the ceiling with a sigh. “Probably true,” he said. “Unfortunately, that means my enemy probably knows more about me than anyone else I could find.” He heard Tyler clear his throat twice and he opened his eyes to see Jason and Cinjin approach. The beagle excused himself and left as the two other wolves stopped beside the captain.
“It shouldn't be much longer,” Thorne said to them as he returned his attention to the slowly submerging ship.
“May we talk to you for a moment, sir?” Jason asked him. “In private?”
The captain glanced at the black wolf and felt a memory tingle at the back of his brain. There was something about these two that made him nervous anytime he was near either one of them, but now both wanted his attention at once. However, since Talos was the first officer and Cinjin was just their supply clerk, he thought there might have been some altercation where punishment was due.
“All right,” he said with a frown. “It's too noisy out here, so let's go up to the garage to talk.”
“I think that would be best,” Jason replied. Cinjin didn't do anything more than stare at the captain until he led the way back to the elevator. Talos thumbed the button for the cage return and moved his head in close Thorne. “We want to talk to you about the Silverthorne,” he said.
Aramis looked up at him in surprise and opened his mouth to reply when they heard a thunderous crash from the other side of the cavern. As one, the three of them turned toward the ship. Thorne felt queasy in the pit of his stomach at what he saw. The Hoenix tilted at a bad angle and listed to the port in the water trench. Scattered crewmembers moved en masse toward the old vessel. Thorne broke into a run, with Talos and Cinjin close on his heels.
The air groaned with the horrendous sound of metal-on-metal and then the Hoenix fell off the track completely with a splash that dowsed most of the congregated crew. Thorne swore beneath his breath when the displaced wave of water knocked his feet from under him and he found himself sprawled on top of Crandall. There was another deep crashing sound as the ship hit the side of trench. Without realizing who was on her, Karla shoved the wolf aside hard and then got to her hands and knees, sputtering and coughing up seawater. Thorne rolled over on his side and did some coughing of his own.
When he finally looked toward the ship, he only saw the top third of the old vessel sticking above the waterline, his soaked crew sprawled on the ground around him. A hand reached down to help him up and he took it gratefully. “Thanks,” he said to the Miniature Pincher. He got to his feet and the marksman looked up at him.
“What happened?” Chalmoy asked. “I had my back turned and didn't see it.”
“I don't know, Mr. Bleys,” Thorne replied, “but I'm about to find out!” He splashed through standing water as he made his way around sputtering people, and went directly for the control box for the ship-moving equipment. Errol sat completely soaked beside the terminal and looked as if he was going to be sick. He didn't bother to look up when Thorne stopped beside him. He already knew who it was.
“The railing buckled on the port side,” he coughed out in explanation. “The fore landing claw fell off the platform when the rails beneath them collapsed.”
Without saying a word, Aramis walked to the edge of the water trench and gazed out at his ship. The vessel bobbed slowly as the waves fought against themselves and began to cancel out one other. Thorne nodded silently to himself – at least it was floating, rather than sitting on the bottom of the trench. People began talking excitedly behind him and he finally turned back toward the engineer. He brushed dripping water from his face and then knelt down next to Colfax as Jason stopped beside them. Thorne picked up Errol's DataCom unit from the ground and shook the water from its case. He thumbed the call switch and then turned up its volume.
“Bridge,” said a rattled voice from the unit.
“Mr. Lightner, are you two okay up there?” Aramis asked. Colfax got to his feet silently and began shutting down his control terminal.
“We're pretty shaken and I think Argus may have a broken arm. What happened, sir?”
The captain cast a frustrated look at his first officer. “The equipment moving the Hoenix into the water collapsed beneath you,” he said. “Mr. Talos is going to assemble everyone out here into teams to assess the damage. Do what you can to stabilize the ship from up there, and then see if you can help Mr. Roza to the upper hatch. I will try to get Dallas across to tend to him.”
He gave Jason a nod and then the black wolf left to follow his orders. Aramis stood up and handed the DataCom back to the Labrador. “Let's get the ship secured to the bollards before it floats out to sea without us.”
“Aye sir,” Errol said dully and without enthusiasm.
When everything seemed ready, Aramis picked up an intercom microphone from a hook on the port wall of the bridge. As he thumbed the call button for the engine room, he glanced around at the others who stood by awaiting his orders. Jason Talos waited near the vidscreen at the forward end of the room, his hand casually resting on one of the many conduits that lined nearly every available wall space on the bridge not occupied by monitors and control panels. He idly studied a pressure gauge, but he paid it no real attention as he simply waited. Miklos Novak and Goro Harada, the navigator and pilot, occupied two stations immediately aft of the vidscreen respectfully. Although it was doubtful there would be need for a gunner on a test run, Karla Crandall sat ready at her station. Hugo Sullivan stared morosely at a set of gauges above a chart table and he gave an overhead valve a partial turn to a low grunt.
There was a quiet hum on the bridge in addition to the occasional beep from Farrell Lightner's com panel, and there was a steady vibration in the deck plates beneath their feet. The lighting on the bridge was set to a medium level – the rest of the light coming in through the transparent vidscreen. Near-invisible circuitry in the glassteel window displayed a few readouts in the upper left corner. The chirp of the intercom connection suddenly broke the relative quiet of the bridge.
“Bridge,” Aramis said into the hand mike.
“This is the engine room,” replied Errol's voice. “All systems are set to go. We have green lights across the board.”
“Very good, Mr. Colfax. Prepare to get under way.”
“Aye sir. All mooring lines have just been released and we're floating free.”
Thorne replaced the mike to its hook and gave Talos a satisfied expression. “Okay Mr. Harada, take us…”
“Captain, we're receiving an external signal,” Farrell interrupted. He adjusted the headset around his canine ears and looked over his shoulder toward the wolf.
Thorne shook his head in disbelief. “I'm not expecting to hear from anyone outside of this vessel, Mr. Lightner,” he said. “Who is it?”
“He says his name is Tavish and – “
“Tavish?” Aramis sighed and nodded to the greyhound. He retrieved the hand mike and spoke into it. “Mr. Tavish,” he said in an annoyed tone, “I'm afraid this is not a good time to chat.”
“Captain Thorne,” replied the elderly badger's voice, “Mr. Faltane has just arrived and he is most adamant about meeting with you now.”
Aramis raised an eyebrow and frowned. “Please tell Mr. Faltane that I appreciate his business, but I am about to put his credits to work. My ship is ready to launch, so our meeting will have to wait until we have returned to Castelrosso.”
“Captain! This is serious! You must—”
“Good day, Mr. Tavish, but I must be going now.” He gave Farrell a cut-off signal and then hung up the microphone when the com officer gave him a return sign of acknowledgement. Jason's expression was one of surprise, but Thorne merely snorted and then looked back toward vidscreen. “Reverse image on the viewer,” he commanded. Miklos reached out and thumbed a switch on his station, and then the cavern entrance instantly showed on the screen.
“Mr. Harada,” said the wolf, “take us out at one-quarter reverse.”
“One-quarter reverse, aye,” the coyote repeated automatically. His hands moved over several controls and then he grasped large, L-shaped handles that mirrored one another on each side of his chair. The deck plates increased in vibration and they could hear the hydro systems engage. They could feel the ship move, and the mouth of the cavern begin to recede on the screen. Somewhere down one of the passageways on the ship, a crewmember howled his pleasure at the start of movement. Thorne and Talos exchanged faint smiles and then their eyes returned to the screen.
Despite the collapse of the railing during the move to the water trench, it had only taken four hours to determine that despite the accident, the damage had been light. There was a moderate dent on the port side from its impact with the trench, but the hardy construction of the vessel's outer hull had withstood a breach. NDI examination confirmed that it was merely dented and nothing more, although one landing claw had been damaged during the collapse.
The senior officers had discussed this at length and it came down to the captain making the decision to leave as planned. The Hoenix would launch into space following undersea tests, so the landing claws could retract into its belly during their voyage. Repairs would be made en route to Quet. Things had been shaken up inside the vessel, but the only real internal damage had been to Tyler's dishes in the Galley. Ringo had gone out shopping for new plates of plastic while repair teams checked over the ship and prepped it again for launch.
As the submarine starship slowly backed out of the cavern and into the sunlight, Jason moved to Thorne's side and lowered his voice to speak quietly. “Sir, you just cut off Victor Faltane's representative.”
Aramis looked at him in amusement. “His rep is nothing more than an antique dealer who helped me with some financing,” he replied. “This Faltane is no one of importance that I should worry about.”
Jason's mouth went suddenly dry and he lowered his ears. “No one of importance!” he repeated hoarsely. “Don't you remember when –?”
“Clearing the mouth of the cavern now, sir,” Goro reported.
“Split screen on the viewer,” Thorne ordered as he dismissed his first officer. “Fore and aft views.”
“Split screen. Aye sir,” Miklos replied. A dark blue divider appeared in the middle of the vidscreen, and the mouth of the cavern appeared on the left side as the rear angle receded to the right half. The sky was deep blue and the water around them dark green. A few clouds floated lazily above the Herdantian island and seagulls dotted the sky near the marinas of Castelrosso. The sea was relatively calm, though waves crashed upon the cliffs. To the left of the cavern were crags of sharply eroded rocks that Aramis recognized as the place where the female leopard's body had broken upon her drop from the park above. To his knowledge, either the woman was dragged out to sea, or her body had been hung up beneath the waves in some crevasse. Local news reports made no mention of finding her.
“All stop,” Thorne said after a quick look at the depth indicator.
“All stop,” Goro repeated.
“Mr. Novak, plot a course due east across the middle of Castle Bay, speed ten knots. Mr. Harada, execute new course as soon you have it. Mr. Lightner, recall the lookout on the upper deck to get below.”
“Aye sir,” all three said in unison.
The navigator and helmsman conversed several moments while the ship slowly turned beneath them.
“Normal view on the screen.”
“Returning screen to normal view, sir.”
Aramis looked up and saw the mouth of the cavern slip away off to the right. A moment later, Castelrosso slid into view as the ship turned toward its new heading.
Farrell nodded to something heard in his earphones and then he called aloud without turning around, “Captain, topside rigged for dive. Last one down.”
“Aye,” Thorne replied automatically as he watched the view. Moments later, they faced across the bay with open sea directly ahead.
“Course laid in, Captain.”
Farrell checked his instruments. “There are three small, private craft heading away from us toward the marinas, and one supertanker outbound off the starboard. Traffic directly ahead is null.”
“Thank you. All ahead two thirds.”
“Aye, sir. Ahead two thirds,” Goro repeated.
Jason looked up from the chart table and glanced at the forward screen. Water began to flow smoothly over the curvature of the ship's nose and then break evenly down both sides to form the waves of their passing wake.
“What is our sounding?” the first officer asked casually.
“Twelve hundred thirty-five and dropping,” Farrell reported.
“Aye sir. Ahead standard.”
Aramis snagged the intercom mike from its hook and held it up to his mouth. “All hands, this is the Captain. Before we attempt to leave the planet, we must test the integrity of the hull. The ship is old and has been out of service for a while. Prepare for dive test.” He hung up the mike and then moved to a point directly behind the navigator. He leaned over, gave the terrier instructions, and then walked back to his previous place.
A moment later, Miklos had made his calculations and announced, “Two minutes to the dive point.”
Jason nodded quietly and picked up the intercom microphone. “All hands. Secure all loose articles. Approaching dive point declination.”
“Mr. Talos, rig control for red,” Thorne said when the black wolf hung up the microphone.
Jason responded only with a nod and flipped a toggle on a panel near his left shoulder. The overhead white lights clicked off and red lamps came on in their place, bathing the bridge in crimson. There was a small beep on another terminal and the black wolf studied a reading.
“Captain,” he said.
“We're on course making one zero knots. The ship is rigged for dive and we're one minute from the dive point, sir. Internal navigation is tracking GPS satellites.”
“Very good, Mr. Talos,” Aramis said with his hands in his pockets. “Submerge the ship to one five zero.”
“Aye sir. Thirty seconds to the dive point.”
“Mark the dive point.”
“Mr. Harada,” Jason said with a smile, “submerge the Hoenix to one five zero feet.”
Jason picked up a mike near his station and thumbed the ship-wide intercom. “Dive! Dive!” he announced as he reached up for the diving alarm. A deep horn blew on all decks, making some jump.
“Opening forward main ballast tank vents,” the first officer announced as he punched in some commands on a panel. In the vidscreen, several geysers of water shot up out of the ship's nose. “Venting forward.” A moment later and Jason said, “Venting aft.”
“Rigging out the bowplanes,” Goro intoned. A moment passed and then he spoke up again. “Bowplanes extended and locked.”
“All right,” Thorne said in a calm voice, “ten degree dive on the bowplanes.”
“Ten degree dive, aye. Bowplanes are down ten degrees.”
The nose of the bow burrowed deeper into the water and the waves rushed up toward the bridge. Nothing but frothing could be seen before them, but no one seemed concerned.
“Sternplanes to ten degree dive. Flooding depth control one to the halfway mark. Flooding commenced. Tank at six zero percent, hull valve shut and backup valve also shut,” Jason reported. The deck angled downward and the waves drew closer to the bridge. “Depth is six five feet.” The deck angled ever further and everything became steeper. Aramis reached out and grabbed a support strut beside him. “Five degrees down bubble.” The water crested over the bridge and suddenly the ship was completely submerged.
Thorne glanced over at the depth gauge and felt his boot slip just slightly on the angled deck. Something loose fell to the floor with a clatter behind him and Farrell muttered something beneath his breath. A moment later, the ship pulled out at one hundred fifty feet and the flooring became level once again.
“One five zero feet, Captain,” Harada announced. “Trimming to neutralize buoyancy.”
The bridge became quiet for several minutes before Farrell looked over his shoulder at the captain and said, “All departments have reported in and systems are showing green. Hatches are secure, nothing is leaking and everything seems to be in good order.”
“How soon before we can drop to test depth?” Thorne asked.
Crandall looked up at him with a surprised look on her face. “I thought this was test depth,” she admitted. Aramis gave her a pleasant smile and then shook his head gently.
“We can go to test depth at any time, sir,” Jason reported.
“Take her to test depth,” Thorne said in an even voice. “Steep angle.”
Jason nodded and turned to Goro and Miklos. “Helm, all ahead standard. Make dive depth one three hundred, twenty degrees down bubble.” He picked up his mike again and announced, “Rig for deep submergence, thirteen hundred feet, twenty degrees down angle. Rig for deep submergence!”
Harada pushed his shifts forward and the deck tilted downward to match. The change was dramatic and Aramis found he had to grip the wall support tightly to stay his ground. A coffee cup bounced down the deck and lodged beneath Mik's right foot. There was a sudden rumble and then a muffled whoom that everyone could feel just as much as they could hear.
“What was that?” Karla wanted to know. She was strapped into her seat, but she held onto the console in front of her with white knuckles.
“It's the hull,” Hugo replied, the first words he had spoken since they had submerged. “It's just adjusting to the depth pressure.” There was another sound this time, reminiscent of the low moan of a beast in pain. The ship creaked and groaned for another moment, and Karla's eyes remained wide the entire time. She expected klaxons to sound at a hull breach, but instead the deck grew steadily level as Goro adjusted their descent.
There were several more tense moments before Jason looked up and said, “Captain, the ship is rigged for deep submergence. Holding steady at one three zero zero feet.”
Aramis released the breath he had been holding and said, “Aye.”
Farrell listened to his headphones for several moments and scratched notes on a pad before he finally reported, “Captain, all departments report no flooding and no leaks. Everything is secure.”
Jason looked up at him with a nervous smile and said, “Captain, I recommend proceeding to five zero zero and follow our course at that depth. We're pretty much near the bottom of the Bay, but there is a shelf ahead that rises quickly.”
“Very well, Mr. Talos. Proceed to five hundred feet and maintain course,” Thorne said with a look of satisfaction. He looked up at the intercom panel beside him and thumbed one of the buttons. A moment later, the intercom chirped.
“Engine room,” Errol's voice said.
“How do things look down there?” Thorne wanted to know.
“Everything is running like a clock, Captain. The Squid drive is purring smoothly, and we have plenty of power generation.”
“Very good, Mr. Colfax. Extend my thanks to you and your people for a job well done.”
“Thank you, Captain. I will spread the word.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.