— by Ted R. Blasingame
“Captain, I'm getting something on the sensors,” Farrell reported. Thorne looked up from the chart table where he studied a report display. They were currently moving slowly over the top of the Dorian Shelf at periscope depth.
“Can you make it out?” he asked with interest. He moved to the com-sensor station and leaned against the back of greyhound's chair.
“Our sensors aren't too sophisticated,” Farrell said, “but I can make out a large metallic mass at a depth of eighty feet with smaller fragments scattered over a wide area.”
Aramis smiled and patted Lightner's shoulder. “Good work,” he said as he straightened up. “Please give those coordinates to Mr. Novak.”
The captain moved to Mik's side and then said in a calm voice, “Position the Hoenix over the coordinates, bring us to a full stop, and then surface the ship.”
“Do we have any undersea probes we can send down?” Aramis asked Jason.
“I'm afraid not, Captain. Although the Hoenix can operate under water, we prepped the ship primarily for space travel.”
“I see. Do we have pressure suits rated for that depth?”
The black wolf raised an eyebrow. “Yes sir. Are we planning a salvage operation?”
“Sir, I have identification on the wreckage according to the coordinates in the Harbor Patrol database.”
Aramis looked over at the greyhound. “Go on,” he prompted.
“It's what's left of a Myotis-class cruiser that crashed a little over two months ago,” Farrell reported. “The report names it the Silverthorne, PA registry number 65559. Her captain was…” the greyhound's voice faltered and Aramis looked at him in amusement, “…you, sir.”
Jason Talos looked at Thorne with a strange expression. “You were looking for the Silverthorne? Why? What's there?”
Aramis raised his eyebrows and gave him a mischievous grin. “One of the secrets on my hidden agenda,” he said, quoting what the black wolf had said to him on their first meeting. Instead of responding with a smile at the in-joke, Talos fixed him with a suspicious stare. Aramis chuckled and shook his head. “Nothing to worry about, my friend. We will be on our way to orbit shortly, but I want to have a look at my old ship before we leave it behind.”
“Let me go with you,” Jason said quietly.
“No,” said the captain. “As the first officer, I need you to stay with the ship. I won't be gone long.”
Talos fixed him with a steady stare for a moment, but then he finally nodded. “As the ship's captain, you shouldn't go alone. Take Cinjin with you.”
Thorne tilted his head and swished his tail. Cinjin, again. He was getting awfully suspicious of Talos and Cinjin. Was it because they were the only other wolves in his group, or was it something else? He knew he had seen Cinjin somewhere before, that much of his memory was certain, but he was still unable to pinpoint just how he knew him. He had been so busy the past two weeks getting the Hoenix operational that he hadn't spent more than a moment or two concerned about his forgotten past.
Thorne shook his head and turned toward the exit. “No, I won't need a supply clerk. I will go alone as planned.”
“I insist,” Talos said in a low voice intended for the captain's ears alone.
Thorne turned and his expression darkened. “That was an order,” he said dangerously.
Jason sighed audibly, not even caring if his captain heard him, but he lowered his ears submissively.
Thorne turned back toward the exit. “You have the bridge until I return, Mr. Talos,” he said in a tone that broadcast a clear message that the conversation was at an end. He didn't wait for a reply and disappeared through the hatchway.
As soon as he was sure the captain was out of earshot, Jason turned to Farrell and said, “Track his progress with his pressure suit's transponder. I want to know where he is at all times. It wouldn't do to lose sight of our captain.”
Lightner nodded his head. “Aye sir.”
Jason moved forward and looked up at the vidscreen that showed an image from the periscope angle. “We have reached the coordinates,” Miklos reported.
“All stop, Mr. Harada,” Jason ordered. “Prepare to surface.”
“All stop, aye.”
When Aramis dropped from the side of the ship's upper deck, he did a silent pirouette to orient himself, and then he glanced at a small device mounted to the left arm of his bright yellow pressure suit. He made note of the time and of the oxygen levels of his tanks, and then began to swim downward. The water of Castle Bay was clear and the sunlight from above penetrated the sea almost to its depths in this area. He had no trouble distinguishing the metallic wreckage below him and made a straight path for it. Colorful fish swam past him in iridescent schools but gave him no attention. A small, wedge-nosed shark barely longer than his arm passed close enough that the wolf could have touched it had he tried. It swam on, uninterested in the yellow visitor to its realm.
As he descended, he noted that although the ship had been submerged for two months, very little sea life had yet claimed it. He could see twisted lumps of metal scattered about the shadowy seabed over a wide area, but only gave them a cursory glance. His goal was the main fuselage.
The Silverthorne looked nothing like the photos in the book he had seen, but the explosion and its plunge into the sea had mangled it so badly that the shape of its remains was hard to distinguish. It really was a miracle that he'd survived the destruction that took the lives of the rest of his crew. How had he done it?
Aramis tried hard to remember the ship and had fleeting feelings of familiarity. He could almost remember its primary floor plan, but it was like trying to recall the remnant wisps of a dream. He hoped to trigger more memories from his grasping mind by visiting a relic of his past life. He couldn't tell Jason this without revealing his amnesia, but he was not yet ready to trust the black wolf with such sensitive information. Talos was suspicious of him, that much was certain, and until Aramis could discern more of his past, he didn't intend to share his motives with the first officer.
Aramis slowed as he reached the broken starship and set a foot on its exterior. It held solid and he discovered that the surface beneath him was transparent in the glare of the lamps mounted on either side of his helmet. He knelt as well as he could in the suit and realized he had come down on a pane of glassteel, likely a window. He tilted his light at an angle and saw the reflections of tiny circuits within the glass. It was a vidscreen panel in surprisingly good condition, but that was to be expected with glassteel.
He pushed off and glided over the surface until he came to a charred and twisted section of the outer hull. When he shined his lamps inside, he could see walls of teal. At first, he thought it was just a refraction of the light from the sea, but at closer inspection, he realized it was a painted surface. The hole was large enough for him to pass through, so he eased himself inside. The floor was at an angle, but there were wooden handrails mounted to the walls that seemed to be there just for this purpose.
He made his way along whatever corridor he had let himself into, but it was not easy going. Walls pushed in toward one another and the floor and ceiling twisted into odd angles that he was barely able to push his way past. Heavy debris lay scattered about and lighter debris floated through the water as if the currents outside had never touched them. A scrap of paper floated before his helmet and he snared it gently. When he brought it up to the glass of his helmet, he found himself looking at a creased and faded photograph. He caught his breath and felt his head swim.
It was her… the red wolf from his dreams. She stood next to a younger version of himself and they were in what looked like a park with a wolf cub standing between them. He swallowed hard and tried to smooth out the crease, but the water-saturated photo paper came apart in his gloved hands. He let out a small cry of anguish as her face dissolved before his eyes and the remaining bits of the photograph drifted away.
He stood there for a long moment, trying to memorize the details of the picture, but he found it hard to concentrate with a salty burning in his eyes. He blinked several times, cleared his throat and then heaved a heavy sigh.
The Silverthorne had been known to hold a crew of eight. Was this woman one of the crew who had died in the fiery explosion, or was she someone still waiting for his return somewhere? “Branson… Ginger… Duster… Foster… Chance… Edward… Haworth… Ivanovich…” The names that Tyler had discovered in his research were all familiar to him, but as Aramis whispered the names aloud to himself, none of them triggered a specific memory associated with the red female wolf.
He gave the remnants of the photo a mournful glance and then resumed his investigation of the ship. He came upon an open doorway on his left and he peered inside. It was a cabin, but there was little inside. The bunk bolted to the deck had been stripped of bedding and there seemed to be no personal effects lying about. He moved further into the room and floated toward the closet. As with the rest of the room, it was empty. There were no pictures on the walls, no lamp on the desk or clothes in the closet.
He left the room quietly and found several others in the same condition. The wreckage appeared to have been picked over, either by the authorities investigating the crash or by other divers seeking treasure. One thing missed was a sign affixed to part of a mangled wall. He could see Engine Room etched into a brass plate. On it, an arrow pointed aft toward a burned bulkhead hatch door twisted in its own steel frame. There would be no further progress in that direction, so he turned around and made his way forward, bypassing the crew quarters he had already seen.
Unfortunately, he was unable to go far before the single corridor ended in coral-encrusted rocks and the sandy seabed that the vessel had come to rest in. Aramis felt a strong sense of disappointment that he hadn't found anything else of importance. He wished he could have retained the photograph, but he was amazed that it had held together long enough for him to see what it was. He looked at his surroundings for another moment, and then decided it was time to return to the Hoenix. There was nothing more to see here.
As Aramis floated back down the tilted corridor, he saw a cabin he had missed earlier. His first thought was to ignore it, as it was probably in the same condition as the rest, but a partial nameplate beside the door stopped him. “Captain Ar—”
Thorne felt his heart rate increase as he pushed his way past a skewed door panel. He had to kick it in somewhat to make enough room for him and his oxygen tanks to pass, but when he made it inside, his heart sank. The room had been picked over as well. He shined his lamps around the dark cabin and tried to imagine living there. How many times had he slept on that bed? What pictures or paintings had decorated its walls? He sighed. This was getting him nowhere and he knew that Talos would be edgy awaiting his return.
He turned to leave, but when his light flashed around the room, something caught his eye. It was barely visible, almost imperceptible, but there was a slight depression near the base of the wall beside the bed. With the general condition of the ship as it was, it would have been easy to mistake it for another buckling of the bulkhead, but something in Thorne's mind told him it was there on purpose.
He knelt down on the tilted floor and put a hand up to the depression. He pushed against it hard, but nothing happened. Unconvinced, the wolf banged at it with a fist for a moment. He felt ready to give up when the depression moved, tripped by a spring-loaded mechanism inside. A small panel shifted in, and then up. A large bubble of trapped air gurgled out of the new opening and he saw a metal box lying on its side. Excitedly, he pulled it from the alcove and marveled at its weight. The black-painted container was twice the size of a shoebox with its hinged lid locked with a standard padlock. He didn't have time to open it there, and if it had been hidden away in an oxygen-filled compartment, he knew he didn't want to open it under the Bay either. He didn't want to ruin anything inside and repeat the demise of the photograph, so he tucked it under his arm. He inspected the small alcove closely to see if anything else was inside, but the box had been its sole occupant.
Encouraged by this find, Thorne made his way back out of the Silverthorne and was soon rising slowly back toward the Hoenix. He looked up at the bulk of his ship and grinned within his helmet when he realized just how much more like a submarine the vessel appeared in the water. When he finally broke the surface of the Bay, there was an inflatable raft tethered near the boat with two suited divers preparing to descend. They saw him and gestured in his direction, and it was only then that Aramis turned on his suit's com signal. Jason's voice filled his helmet immediately.
“Yes, I'm here, Mr. Talos,” he replied as he swam to the raft. “You can call off the search party.” When he looked up into the faceplates of the two divers, he saw Jason and Harada staring back at him.
“You never reported in, sir,” Goro's voice said. “We thought something had happened to you!”
The two divers helped Aramis into the raft, and when he sat down on its inflated side, he set the black box across his knees. “It took me a while to retrieve my personal effects,” he said as his two companions removed their helmets. He released the clasps of his own helmet and twisted it a half turn to pull it free from his shoulders.
“What's in there?” Jason said at last, a crease of disapproval creasing his brow.
The lupine captain looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. “Personal effects…” he repeated in a tone that denoted that the topic was to be dropped. Talos set his jaw in defiance, but said nothing more.
“Are you finished here, sir?” Goro asked.
Thorne nodded to the pilot and said, “Quite finished. Let's get back aboard and begin preparations for spatial orbit.”
“Aye sir,” the coyote said with a smile. “I think everyone is itching to get airborne.”
Several crewmembers on the upper deck helped them on board and then worked swiftly to deflate the raft. Aramis saw the ship's cook standing just inside an open hatch and motioned for him. The beagle stepped out into the late afternoon sunlight and shielded his eyes. When he stopped beside the wolf, Aramis handed the black box to him.
Tyler grimaced at the amount of water that dripped from the box onto his cooking apron and grunted under the weight of the container. Before he could ask about it, Thorne leaned in close to one of his ears and said, “Lock this up in my cabin. Let no one else touch it.”
“Aye-aye, Cap'n,” Ringo replied with a nod of understanding.
When the beagle toddled off with the box, Jason walked over to him and glared hard. He pointed at the retreating cook's backside and said, “What was that all about? I could have secured it for you.”
Thorne narrowed his eyes and returned the glare. “Don't question my reasons, Mr. Talos,” he warned. “As the captain of this crew, I don't have to explain myself to anyone.”
Jason bit back a salty reply and lowered his ears as he looked toward the deck. “Sir, you chose me as your first officer,” he said in a low voice. “How am I supposed to earn your trust if you don't give me the chance and trust me with anything of importance?”
“Excellent question,” Thorne replied as he began to take apart the sections of his pressure suit. “You have shown me nothing but suspicion since I took command. If you stop trying to second-guess everyorder I give, we're likely to get along, Mr. Talos.”
Jason looked up at him with an odd look. “May I have permission to speak to you in private, sir?” he asked as he struggled out of his own suit.
“It will have to wait,” the captain said as he glanced at the others stowing the deflated raft in an external storage hatch. “We will be launching soon and –”
“Sir,” the black wolf interrupted boldly, “this is exactly why I have a problem with you.” Thorne's hackles rose at his tenacity, but Jason pressed on. “You brush me off every time I request a private meeting! A first officer should have the privilege of a secure conversation with his commander.”
Thorne opened his mouth in anger, but then snapped it shut again. He forced air through his nostrils and then he nodded. “All right, Mr. Talos,” he said tersely. “Once we're in orbit and all systems check out, I will give you some of my time. Right now, you and I are both needed for pre-flight.”
Jason looked relieved that the captain hadn't struck him down for speaking out of turn, but that could still come later. Before he could say anything more, Thorne turned and motioned toward a Dalmatian who stood nearby staring out to sea.
“Yes sir?” said the canine as he rushed to the captain.
“Mr. Talos and I are needed on the bridge. Please see that our pressure suits are put away properly.”
“Aye-aye, sir. Right away!”
Captain Thorne turned and moved toward the upper deck's main hatch without a second look at his officer. Jason sighed and followed him inside.
When the two wolves walked into the command center together, Thorne gave the room a quick glance and noted with satisfaction that the bridge crew was already present and everyone was at their stations. As before, a gunner was unnecessary at this time, but Karla sat ready at her console, everything primed to show her own readiness. Only the engineering station was vacant as everyone associated with the ship's systems were down below.
“Mr. Lightner,” Aramis said as he walked straight to the chart table, “get my engineer on the horn.”
Jason moved to a small station near the forward vidscreen and began looking over the onboard systems. He picked up a microphone headset, put it on over his ears, and then began to check in with the various compartments.
The intercom chirped and the captain picked up the intercom microphone from a nearby hook on the wall. “Bridge,” he said.
“Colfax here, Captain,” replied the Labrador's voice.
“Prepare the atmospheric engines for imminent take off. We will be launching from Castle Bay.”
“AGR systems for atmospheric lift are already primed and ready at your command, sir.”
Thorne smiled and nodded silently. “Very good, Mr. Colfax. Stand by your systems. We will be departing shortly.”
“Captain,” Miklos reported, “I have a course and trajectory to spatial orbit calculated if you wish to review it, sir.”
“Two hundred miles, sir, with four revolutions to break orbit – unless you want to dock with the Bundine Station at one hundred fifty miles.”
“No, I'd rather not bother with a space station unless we run into trouble. Share your flight plans to Mr. Lightner. Farrell, contact Minniti Spaceport and file an immediate launch profile. We won't bother with standard routes, so we shouldn't affect their traffic.”
“What launch direction have you figured in?” Goro asked the navigator.
“Northwest,” Miklos replied. “There is no traffic in that area, so I assumed it would make for the best trajectory.”
“Good thinking,” Aramis said with a hand on the back of Goro's chair. “Come about fifteen degrees for northwest and proceed at fifteen knots.”
“One five degrees, aye. One five knots, aye.” The deck plates began a steady vibration and they could all hear the hydro systems engage.
“All hatches sealed,” Jason reported. “Internal pressurization complete and holding at optimum.”
“Thank you,” Thorne replied.
The bridge fell silent of talk, with the exception of Farrell's high voice as he chatted mechanically with the Castelrosso launch authority. He tapped in commands on his keyboard and then nodded to himself as he scribbled something on a generic notepad with a stubby pencil.
“Course holding steady at fifteen knots, sir,” Goro reported after a quick glance at his instruments.
Farrell looked over at the captain and gave him a thumbs-up signal. “Launch profile has been accepted, sir.”
“Very good.” Thorne brushed a few strands of shed fur from the front of his black shirt and then put both hands into the pockets of his tan trousers. “Mr. Harada, increase speed to thirty knots for AGR launch.”
“Thirty knots, aye sir.” The coyote turned a dial on his console with audible clicks and then grabbed the guidance shifts on both sides of his seat. He depressed two of the four pedals at his feet simultaneously and the ship vibrated with increased power. Land completely disappeared from view on the forward vidscreen and the ship bobbed slowly as it picked up speed across the top of the water. The nose of the ship gave a sudden lurch downward with a violent shudder, but then it smoothed out again. Faces around the bridge looked about in concern.
Thorne picked up the mike and thumbed the intercom panel. A moment later the speaker chirped.
“Status, Mr. Colfax?”
“One of the gyros in the aft AGR unit hiccupped and we lifted an extra five meters before it released. I have Brian and Tommy working on it now.”
Thorne looked over to Jason. “Time to launch speed?” he asked.
Talos glanced at his console and then reported, “Minute-thirty.”
“Mr. Colfax,” Aramis said into the mike, “you have just over a minute to have it ready.”
“Aye-aye, sir. I will make sure they… what? Okay, that's good. Sir, the system has just been reset and is now ready.”
“Excellent. Prepare for lift-off.”
Jason picked up a mike from his own console and triggered the ship-wide intercom. “All hands, all hands,” he broadcast. “Buckle in and hold on. We're go for launch.”
“Thirty knots, sir!” Goro announced.
“Engage anti-gravity repulsors,” Thorne said calmly. He unfolded a metal seat attached to the chart table on a swing-arm frame and then sat down on it. He buckled himself into the seat and then put a hand on a nearby station to keep him steady.
“Aye sir, AGR system activated!”
“Launching, aye!” Harada confirmed. He pulled his shifts back and then pressed the middle left foot pedal halfway to the floor. The Hoenix responded with a deep roar and the nose lifted from the water at a ten-degree angle. The sea disappeared from the forward view on the vidscreen, replaced by high-altitude clouds. The vessel vibrated harshly for a moment and then smoothed out as she shed her water and rose into the sky.
“Increase to orbital velocity,” Thorne commanded.
“Increasing speed to achieve orbit,” Harada confirmed. “Inertial dampers are online.”
The intercom chirped. Jason looked over at the captain and saw him poring over something on the chart table so he reached up and grabbed his mike. “Bridge,” he responded.
“Colfax, here,” said the Labrador's voice. “Gravity deck plating has been activated, but we have a problem area in the number two engine room.”
“What kind of problem?”
“I have a red light on the deck plating in the aft section of the room. It's not vital to ship's operation, but may make it dangerous to anyone who wanders in blindly.”
“You said engine room number two,” Jason said with a smirk. “That's Hugo's station.”
There was a chuckle from the speaker. “Yes, and he hates weightlessness. He's cussing up a blue streak right now.”
“Any other problems?”
“No sir, that's all, but I wanted to mention it before we reached orbit.”
“We're coming up on that now,” Jason said. “Keep us informed.”
A brief shudder rumbled beneath their feet and Thorne looked up from the chart table. “What was that?” he asked. The shudder repeated itself, though lasted a bit longer this time.
“Uh oh…” Harada said under his breath. Jason looked at him and saw the coyote fighting against the controls.
“The port lateral thrusters are firing on their own, sir!” he exclaimed. “Not my doing!”
Thorne looked up at the vidscreen and saw the first stars peeking in through the darkening sky. They were sliding toward the right, though one star stood out several magnitudes brighter than the rest. “Better get that under control, Mr. Harada,” the captain said with sudden realization.
“Sensors are picking up a com satellite directly in our new path!” Farrell reported.
Jason moved quickly to Goro's station. He reached across the helmsman, grabbed the left-hand guidance shift, and then lent his strength to help Harada pull it back into alignment. Both of them heaved and grunted, but the shuddering increased despite their efforts.
“Engine room!” Thorne shouted into his mike. “Port thrusters are—”
“Already on it!” Colfax reported in a harried voice. Thorne hung up his mike without another word. A protesting whine from the engines sounded throughout the entire ship as conflicting controls vied for dominance of the system.
“Distance to com-sat?” Aramis asked in a voice raised above the noise.
“Five kilometers and closing rapidly,” Farrell called back.
“I can shoot it out of our way!” Karla suggested. “One shot will remove it from our path.”
“No!” Goro shouted. “We…. We can avoid it… without doing… that!”
The bright star grew to a solid disc as they approached it at orbit-breaking speed. The thrusters continued to fire at random intervals, shaking the ship as the pilot and the first officer struggled to pull the vessel back to their planned flight path. The size of the satellite grew steadily.
“Target locked in and ready to fire, sir!” Karla reported, despite the coyote's assurances that they would miss the satellite. Her hand hovered over a large red button, her eyes seeking permission to punch it.
“Goro! Jason!” Miklos called out. “Don't fight it! Let the thrusters push us farther to the starboard.”
“What?” the two of them exclaimed in unison, their faces marked in disbelief.
“It will alter our trajectory,” the terrier explained. “We'll miss the satellite!”
“Do it!” Thorne commanded.
Goro and Jason exchanged dubious looks and then the black wolf released his helping grip on the shift. Harada maintained his hold as the vessel shuddered further, but relaxed enough to allow the thrusters to move them to the starboard. The communications satellite loomed large and looked as if the ship would slam into the antennae-spiked sphere nose-first, but as they drew nearer, the thrusters pushed them aside and they shot past the metal globe. There couldn't have been more than a few meters between the ship and the satellite when they passed.
Talos exhaled in relief, but the ship continued to shudder. Harada renewed his struggling against the controls and Jason realized that the problem still existed. He jumped forward to lend another hand when the thrusters suddenly ceased. The left-hand guidance shift offered no more resistance unexpectedly, causing Jason to stumble and fall across Goro's lap.
Goro pushed the first officer off him and then began checking his instruments. Without the scream and whine of conflicting propulsion systems, the bridge had grown eerily quiet. When the intercom chirped, everybody jumped.
“Bridge,” Thorne answered into his mike.
“Colfax here. Better make for orbit as quick as you can, Captain.”
“The firing relays in the port thruster control have burned out. We have spares and can replace them, but not until we're in a stable orbit and the system is shut down.”
“What caused the burnout?” Thorne asked.
“Cheap parts,” the Labrador replied after a brief hesitation.
“Mr. Colfax…” Aramis said with a sigh, “I seriously hope the more important components you used to repair this ship are more trustworthy.”
“I do too, sir,” the engineer agreed. The captain didn't feel encouraged by that response, and from the looks of those around him, neither did anyone else.
“Continue to orbital altitude,” he said to Harada. Then to the microphone he said, “How long will it take to replace the relays?”
“Get on it as soon as we reach a stable orbit.”
Captain Thorne glanced over at Crandall and motioned his hand downward with an open palm. “Stand down from the weapons,” he told her.
“Aye, sir,” the husky replied with a frown. She reached out and disengaged the firing control.
Aramis turned to Jason, who had regained his feet and was dusting off his trousers. “Time to orbit from our new heading?” he asked.
Miklos recalculated their trajectory and then looked up. “Seven minutes, sir.”
Thorne walked toward Jason's station and looked up at the vidscreen. A visage of stars showed no movement, although he knew they were actually commanding a high speed. “Mr. Talos,” he said in a calm voice. “Once we get into orbit, organize the crew into teams to check out the rest of the ship. If we have any other cheap systems about to go out on us, I would rather we find them now before we get underway.”
“Yes sir,” Jason replied. “I'll start assembling teams now.”
The captain turned toward the terrier and put both of his hands casually on the navigator's station. “Once we have finally assessed that we're good to go, plot a course for Quet.”
“Planet-side destination?” Miklos asked.
“We will land at Sabot in the Neeka Province. There's a starship repair depot there if we find we need to get more parts.”
Aramis looked around at the bridge and suddenly felt weary. “Maintain course and speed to spatial orbit,” he said as he brushed a hand across his face. “Mr. Talos, I am leaving you in command of the bridge. Once we have reached orbit, replace the bridge crew with another watch and let everyone relax a bit.”
Jason looked up at him with a frown, but he nodded his acceptance of the orders. “Aye sir.”
Aramis stretched his arms and felt tightness across his shoulders. He then turned and walked off the bridge, hoping there was nothing more that needed his attention for a while.
Aramis settled down on his bunk and kicked his boots off onto the floor after removing his holster and setting in on the nightstand. Although his cabin was the largest one on board, it wasn't much bigger than his walk-in closet at the Crusty Barnacle and it felt confining. Still, it was his own little sanctuary inside the Hoenix and he needed some time to think and reflect. He tried to will himself to relax, but couldn't shake the feeling that things were about to become extremely complicated. He had left Jason with the bridge, knowing well the black wolf was still waiting a chance to speak with him in private. Aramis had put off a solitary meeting as long as he could, but it looked as if he wouldn't be able to get away with it much longer. However, Talos would be on watch for another three hours, so that would give him a small bit of time to relax from the stress of the day.
He glanced around the wood-paneled room and his eyes fell upon the wooden walking staff he had brought with him out of the old city. It lay on the floor near the corner of the room beside his bunk, so he reached down and took it in his hand. He set one end of it against his legs and lowered its head down close to his nose. He studied the bared fangs in the wolf's head and wondered how it fit in with the city's past. However, its background was just as unknown to him as his own was. He probably should have picked up a book on Hoenix along with the others. He studied the staff for a moment and then set it up into the corner.
His eyes felt tired and he wondered if he could relax enough to take a nap. He reached toward his nightstand to turn out the light, but his eyes fell on his two throwing knives. He had set them on top of the black box Tyler had deposited beneath the lamp. He hadn't yet had time to examine the contents of the locked container. He would need the cook's lock picking abilities for that, so he decided to let it wait.
He picked up one of the knives and pulled it from its tooled leather scabbard. Its razor sharp Damarian blade was the length of his hand and its hilt was made of an ash-grey alabaster. He had never been able to make out a particular pattern in the tiny scrimshaw designs etched into the stone. The knife was perfectly balanced, and he was tempted to hurl it at the wooden wall of his cabin just to watch its flight through the air. He spied a knot in the wood grain on the wall near the door and then lifted the blade to line up his aim.
There was a quiet knock on his door and he looked over at it with a frown. “Come in,” he said. The doorknob turned and the panel moved inward just enough to reveal a brown eyeball staring in at him. Before he could repeat his permission to enter, Dallas moved into the room and closed the door behind her.
There were dainty red ribbons in the short Papillion's fur near her butterfly ears and she wore a matching thin cotton robe. She seemed embarrassed as she leaned back against the door with a smile.
“Good evening, Captain,” she said quietly.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, puzzled at her expression.
“Uhm… when I begged you to take me with you away from Brandt,” she said slowly in a voice barely above a whisper, “I told you I would do anything for you as payment. Now that we have left Brandt, I want to fulfill my word.” She untied her belt sash and pulled apart her robe for him to see that she wore nothing beneath the garment. She began to pull it off her shoulders, but Aramis held up a hand and cleared his throat.
“Put your clothes back on, Dallas,” he said. “I am not interested.”
The small canine's hands froze in position and the expression in her eyes looked hurt. “I-I am sorry,” she said after a hard swallow. “I thought –”
Aramis sighed and shook his head. “I appreciate your sincerity in fulfilling an obligation,” he said, “but your offer is not something I am really interested in.”
“I see…” Dallas said as she closed her robe and tied her sash. She looked up at him and bit her bottom lip as she turned back toward the door. “I'm sorry I am not desirable enough for you.”
Thunk! The nurse looked back suddenly and saw his throwing knife embedded in the wooden paneling of the wall, a foot to the right of her nose. Its tip had penetrated the exact center of a knot instead of bouncing off the harder wood. She looked at it in shock and then turned to him.
“Bring my knife to me,” Thorne said to her. His voice was stern, but the emotion in his eyes was unreadable. Dallas had to resist the urge to bolt out the door, but she made herself reach up for the blade and grasp the alabaster hilt. She struggled to free it from the wood, but it was deeply embedded. She worked the knife around until it finally came free and then she turned slowly to face her captain.
She stepped toward his bed and then held out her hand, the knife lying flat atop her open palm. Like many others in Castelrosso who had heard stories about Captain Thorne's temper, Dallas expected him to cut into a finger or something worse with the sharp blade for offending him. She closed her eyes and pressed her lips together in anticipation when he reached up and calmly took the knife by its hilt.
“Dallas,” he said in a softer voice, “look at me.” The small canine opened her eyes in fear, but the eyes that looked back at her were gentler now. “I think you're very pretty, but wolves mate for life and I have a mate,” he told her. “I neither need, nor desire, a playmate.”
Moisture appeared beneath the Papillion's eyes. “I thought… I assumed you accepted my offer when you agreed to let me join your crew,” she said.
“A medical officer is a must on every ship,” Aramis said as he sheathed the knife and set it on the nightstand. “It was for that I agreed to take you on. Nothing more.”
“I see…” the nurse replied in a quiet voice as she wiped her eyes with the edge of her robe. “Someone always wants something from me. I thought you were like all the others.”
“Dallas… All I want from you is to perform your assigned duties to your best ability. You owe me nothing else.”
The small canine nodded and became silent for a moment. Then she placed a hand over her heart and gave a short bow like she used in the restaurant as a waitress. “Forgive me for intruding, Captain. I will leave now.”
“Good night, Dallas.”
The Papillion gave him a wan smile and then departed quickly. Aramis heaved a sigh and shook his head. So much for relaxing, he thought to himself.
The wolf repositioned himself so that he was flat on his back, then reached to the nightstand and turned off the lamp. He closed his eyes and put his arms behind his head. As he lay there trying to relax, something occurred to him. Without thinking, he'd told Dallas that he had a mate. This was not something he had thought up at the spur of the moment, but it had come out as if he had spoken the truth. Nothing he had heard or read about himself mentioned a wife, but now the question strongly in his mind was did he have a mate? The photo he had seen down in the Silverthorne seemed to suggest so.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
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