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HOENIX

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 9
 

The stone walls of a high-ceiling chamber were adorned with relief carvings of ancient canine kings. A shaft of light from a circular hole in the ceiling fell parallel to a falling river of sand. Standing in the sand beside the river was a lovely red female wolf in an elegant red and white outfit with a scarlet scarf tied gently around her neck. She looked at Aramis with gentle eyes, and as he looked up at her in longing, the woman put one hand over her heart and raised the other toward him. Her soft voice filled the cavernous chamber and Aramis half-closed his eyes as she sang to him in wordless song. 

Knock, knock, knock.

Aramis opened his eyes abruptly and the dream evaporated.

Knock, knock, knock.

He blinked several times in an effort to reorient himself to where he was, and then shook his head with a growl. “What is it?” he shouted angrily at the door to his cabin. He rolled over onto his back and wiped a hand across the fur around his eyes.

“Captain, it's Jason,” said the first officer's voice through the closed panel. “May I speak with you now?”

Thorne didn't answer immediately, but let the other wolf wait until he had composed himself. “All right, Mr. Talos,” he said at last. “Come in.” He turned on the lamp at the head of his bed and considered putting on a shirt for his guest, but then decided he didn't have to.

The door opened inward and the black wolf stepped inside. He closed the panel behind him and then turned to face his captain, who remained reclined on his bunk. There were no other chairs in the small cabin, so he leaned back against the wall and stuck his hands into the pockets of his tan work pants.

“What can I do for you?” the captain asked irritably. He knew Jason couldn't have known anything about his dream, but he was still annoyed at having lost it to this interruption. The first officer frowned at his tone and cleared his throat.

“Sir,” he said in a quiet voice so not to let his words carry outside the small room, “I would like to know if there is a reason why you haven't acknowledged me and Cinjin.”

Aramis looked at him quietly as a cold feeling trickled down his spine, but he had no reply for his officer. He'd suspected that he was supposed to remember the two other wolves, but his memories were still elusive. He had felt a familiarity with both of them without actually remembering them. Had he misplayed his hand by not acknowledging them?

Jason swallowed and wondered what thoughts were behind his captain's piercing stare. “I see,” he said with a nod. “You must have a plan and don't want anyone to know of our association.” There was a brief look of uncertainty in Thorne's expression and the black wolf actually felt encouraged by what he saw. He leaned forward and lowered his voice to a whisper. “There is someone on board you don't trust. Who is it?”

Aramis resisted a nervous swallow. Even if he'd known who he was, he still didn't know how far he could trust the other wolf with the truth. He made a silent resolve to have Ringo investigate Jason and Cinjin's backgrounds to see if anything might shed some light on the shadows of his memories. For the time, he decided to continue to act as if he knew more than he did.

“You're correct in that I have a plan,” he said in a whisper of his own, “but I don't wish to discuss it under these conditions. This vessel is small and there are many ears on board.” He sat up on his bed and leaned against the paneled wall. “I would prefer news of our association not get out just yet. When I feel the time is right, I will —”

A deep horn suddenly blared throughout the ship, startling both wolves. Before either of them could reach out for the intercom microphone hanging on the wall, Farrell Lightner's voice issued from speakers on all decks.

“All hands, this is an Alert! Another vessel is on an intercept course. Captain, please come to the bridge! Repeat, all hands, this is an Alert!”

The wolves exchanged a brief look of surprise and then Jason bolted out the door for the bridge. Aramis grabbed his gun and holster in one hand and a tan shirt from the end of his bed with the other. He darted out the door, shrugging into the shirt as he made his way through the narrow corridor.

He had to dodge other crew bodies on his way to the command center, as the alert had stirred up everyone, but luckily the bridge was not far from his personal quarters. They reached it within a moment. The primary bridge crew was back at all their stations when the two wolves stepped onto the deck.

“Report,” Aramis said to Farrell as he strapped his gun and holster in place.

The greyhound looked up at him and pulled one earpiece of his headset away from his head. “Sensors picked up another ship in the vicinity ten minutes ago,” he replied in a rush. “Four minutes ago, we tracked their heading and discovered they were on an intercept course, coming at us head-on.”

“Identification?”

“I got their transponder ID just as you walked in the door, sir. It's a Carico-class freighter, Registry PA39564, SS Guarana.”

“Can you access their manifest?”

“I'm working on that now, sir.”

Aramis patted the com officer on the shoulder. “Very good.” He walked over to the chart table and smoothed out the wrinkles of his shirt as he looked up at the vidscreen. A set of red and green running lights were near the center of the stars directly ahead of them. A brighter magnitude light was far behind them, the planet Quet.

“Why are they coming at us?” Goro wondered aloud.

Farrell whistled at the data that crossed his screen. Jason moved in to peer over his shoulder. “What is it?” he asked.

“I got the Guarana's manifest from the Quetian Flight Plan Database,” Farrell replied. “They're loaded down with micronite ore bound for Dennier, and —”

“Micronite!” Miklos exclaimed with a snort. “Why should that amaze you? Quet is where they mine the stuff!”

“It's not the micronite I was whistling at,” Farrell replied. “They're also carrying experimental power generators… and a crate of refined Siilv!”

“Siilv!” Mik repeated in surprise. His tail began wagging through the slot in the back of his chair.

Siilv was a highly conductive and extremely tough metal known to be found only on two worlds. It was first employed in the creation of LightDrive engines as the regulator in power cells for its tendency to reflect energy by swapping electrons with the fuel source instead of just converting the fuel from one form to another, so that power lasted many times longer than it ordinarily should.  In its refined form, it was also highly prized as a precious metal.

“The Siilv is to be delivered to Auron back on Brandt,” Farrell explained. “That's why they appear to be on a course directly for us.”

Karla Crandall looked over at Thorne and gave him a mischievous grin. “How about it?” she asked hopefully. The captain looked over at Jason, who had a similar look on his face. Thorne chuckled and gave him a nod.

“Mr. Talos, put together a boarding party in pressure suits,” he said. “The main hatch on a Carico freighter is on the nose just under its bridge. Have your group wait at the forward airlock, starboard number three. Forget the micronite, but get the Siilv and the power generators.”

“Why the generators?” Jason asked.

“Mr. Colfax might be able to use them,” Thorne replied. “With luck, they may be in better condition than what we're already using.”

“That's a thought…” The black wolf said with a smirk. He gave the captain a nod and then departed the bridge to carry out his orders.

“Mr. Lightner, send a signal to the Guarana. Tell them to stand down and prepare to be boarded,” Thorne commanded.

“Aye, sir,” the com officer replied.

“Mr. Harada, I want you to line up airlock number three with their main hatch after they have stopped. The position will have to be precise for the pressure tunnel to extend between the ships.”

“Aye, sir,” Goro replied. “That should be no problem.”

“Captain!” Farrell exclaimed, “No reply from the Guarana, but they're increasing their speed!”

“They're trying to make a run for it,” Mik said.

“Crandall, fire a warning shot across their bow,” the captain said calmly.

The husky looked up at him with a questioning look. “A warning shot?” she asked abruptly. “Why not just cripple their engines so they can't get away?”

Thorne gave her a dark look. “Repeat the order, Crandall,” he said tonelessly.

“Fire a warning shot across their bow,” she responded.  The gunner turned to her instruments without another word and calculated the approaching vessel's speed and trajectory. Without waiting for further orders or instruction, she thumbed the red fire control button when her settings were completed.

A single white beam of energy shot out from a recessed port in the nose of the Hoenix. It crackled with random sparks as it spiraled through space toward the freighter. The vidscreen showed no explosion in the distance, but Farrell gave a thumbs-up signal to the captain.

“That got their attention,” he said. “The shot narrowly missed their bridge. They have signaled their surrender and are slowing to stop.”

“Okay, Mr. Harada, take us in,” the wolf ordered. Goro nodded without a word and compared his instrument settings with those of the navigator's panel. Within a minute, the Guarana's bulk grew in size and they could see its shape. The freighter was a rectangular vessel with rounded corners at the top. Three large bay doors occupied its port side, and its aft end glowed blue from LightDrive energy. The nose of the vessel sported a slender horizontal window near the top, and the ship's golden brown paint had a scorch streak just above the bridge, evidence of Crandall's shot. The main hatch was located below the window in the center of the Guarana's flat nose. Goro slowed the Hoenix to a stop and then turned on its axis as it approached. He began his preparations to fire maneuvering thrusters, quietly humming to himself.

Two decks below and nearly all the way forward on the starboard side of the ship, Jason and his team of five checked the seals on one another's pressure suits. Besides himself, there was Derek Ravenwood - a German shepherd, Brian Bova – a Doberman, Tirana Meers – a golden Retriever, Tommy Benz – a Dalmatian and Lanz Reese, a Schnauzer.

“Does everyone have their gear?” the wolf asked.

“My rifle is locked and loaded,” the Dalmatian said with a smile, “but I can't seem to find my anesthetic vials.”

“They're in the box behind you, Tommy,” Jason told him. The Dalmatian turned around and saw a hefty metal crate on the floor next to a bulkhead. Inside were a number of glass jars cradled in heavily padded chambers, each one filled with thick amber liquid. Resting on top of the jars was another padded box. Inside were smaller thin-walled vials capped with rubber stoppers, filled just prior to their launch from Castelrosso. Tommy picked up three of them and put them into an arm pouch.

“Exposure to the air won't activate the anesthetic into a gas,” Jason reminded him. “It takes a good, hard jolt. Be sure to throw them hard at the bulkheads or floors when any of the freighter crew comes near. That stuff will knock them out for a couple hours with only a great dark, pounding headache afterward for their trouble.”

“You seem familiar with that headache,” Tommy mused with a smile.

Jason grinned at him through his helmet and replied, “By accident I dropped one to the floor of the cavern a few days ago. Someone propped me up next to the degreaser vat out of everyone's way to let me sleep it off.  It won't affect you if the seals are good on your pressure suit, so you'll want to make sure you're good to go.”

“There's the freighter!” the German shepherd announced. He could see the bulk of the golden brown ship through the airlock view port as the Hoenix pulled up toward it.

“Okay, people, get ready,” Jason said. “Derek, unlock the ship-to-ship tunnel and prepare it for deployment.”

“Aye, sir.”

The golden Retriever took Derek's place at the view port and held her rifle ready. She tilted her head to the side and then said over her shoulder, “Sir? Just how close do we need to be to the other ship?”

Jason looked up after he fastened the final clip on his helmet. “About thirty meters, Tirana,” he replied. “No need to get any closer, since we —”

“Emergency!” Farrell's voice suddenly announced over the intercom. “The freighter's going to ram us! Clear the forward, starboard compartments!”

“Look out!” Jason exclaimed to his team. He reached out to grab Tirana's arm just as the blunt nose of the Guarana hit the very hatch where she stood. The woman was thrown across the small compartment and Jason flung himself backward as hard as he could. The hatch buckled inward and air surged outward in a rush of decompression. Stellar vacuum sucked loose articles out into space as the forward momentum of the cargo vessel pushed the very hull of the Hoenix inward. Several bottles of the anesthetic broke, but their yellowish gas fumes vented quickly out into space. Jason heard klaxons blaring just before his helmet bounced off a bulkhead. He blacked out for a split second and then scrambled to avoid a sharp scrap of metal piping shoved toward him.

Up on the bridge, Goro and Mik were thrown from of their seats into a heap on the floor. The captain tumbled backward over the chart table and Crandall was ejected from her seat when the arm supports collapsed. Only Farrell remained in his seat, buckled in by the harness he always wore when at his station. Thorne caught the upper corner of the chart table at the base of his skull and he bounced once before he hit the floor unconscious.

Battered by the Guarana's impact, the Hoenix listed toward the port as the cargo vessel pushed its way past them. Metal-on-metal screeching filled the air as the freighter cleared its attacker, its own nose damaged in the escape.

Crandall looked over to the captain, but realized he was out cold. She growled under her breath and forced herself back up to her station, her bruised ribs complaining. She made quick calculations for both moving ships and then punched the fire control button.

A shot streaked out toward the Guarana and caught it across its aft cargo bay door with a white explosion. Debris of micronite cases and shredded metal scattered out into space behind the vessel in a cloud of crystallized oxygen, but the freighter continued to pick up speed away from them.

“Goro!” She shouted as the coyote got up onto his knees, “After them!”

Harada looked up at her and raised a hand to the bump on his forehead. “You don't have the authority to give that order,” he replied.

“The captain's down and the first officer isn't present,” the husky complained over the klaxons. “Our prey's getting away!”

Miklos looked over at Thorne at her words and then crawled over to the prone wolf. “Captain?”

“They're already gone,” Goro argued. “By the time Mik can get a fix on their new position—”

“Let them go…” the captain's voice said hoarsely.  “Someone silence that alarm.”

“Aye sir,” Farrell replied. The klaxons stopped and the bridge became eerily quiet.

“Let them go?” Karla said with clenched teeth. “You're just going to let them go? What kind of pirate are you?”

Miklos helped the wolf to his feet and then Thorne turned a dark look at the husky. He stepped toward her on unsteady legs, his eyes boring into hers, but she stared back at him defiantly. When he stopped in front of her, Thorne slapped her hard with the back of his hand. She stumbled back against her station, but kept her feet. She looked back at him with a shocked expression, having been forcefully reminded who it was before her, and put a hand to her face where he'd struck her.

“I am captain of this ship!” he bellowed at her. “Your insubordination won't be tolerated!”

The intercom chirped and Farrell tapped into its line. “Captain, Errol is on the horn,” he said after a brief hesitation.

Thorne turned his back on Crandall and moved to the chart table. He snatched up the microphone and tapped the button. “Damage report, Mr. Colfax,” he said in a strained voice.

“Hull breach in the number three starboard airlock and two adjacent compartments,” the engineer reported. “The boarding party was all in pressure suits, but several of them are in bad shape and are already en route to the infirmary. My mechanics are scrambling to get into their gear so we can further assess the damage.”

“Give me a report as soon as you have something,” Thorne replied.

“Aye sir, I will.”

Aramis hung up the microphone and then looked around at the expectant faces staring back at him. “Does anyone here need medical attention?” he asked wearily.

“I have bumps and bruises, but they're nothing Dallas needs to look at,” Harada replied. Mik and Farrell gave similar answers, but Crandall only sat down on her broken chair, unwilling to speak or look at anyone else.

Thorne reached to the back of his head where he had struck the chart table and felt of it gingerly. He felt a trickle of warm blood and he pulled his hand back stained in red.

“Stay on the alert and hold our current position,” he said to the bridge crew. “I'm going to the infirmary.”

“Aye sir,” Harada replied.

Aramis stumbled across the small bridge and then made his way through the narrow corridor. His vision was a little fuzzy and he rubbed his eyes with a free hand, unaware that he smeared blood across his face. When he walked into the infirmary, he found Dallas busy attending several injuries.

The Papillion looked up when he stopped in the doorway and frowned at the blood on his face and hand. “Get over here and sit down,” she said, patting an empty stool. He sat down next to a gurney occupied by an unconscious golden retriever stripped down to her skivvies and partially covered with a sheet.

Dallas said something to a German shepherd who sat in a chair with one leg wrapped up in a cast, and then she grabbed a medical kit from a countertop. The infirmary was equipped with five beds and three gurneys, and was probably the cleanest compartment on the ship, just ahead of Ringo's galley. The walls and ceiling were white panels and the floor tile was a smooth crème color. Bright light panels recessed into the walls illuminated everything without harsh shadows.

When she approached Aramis, the wolf looked up at her wearily. “Let's see how bad you are,” she said in a calming voice. She examined his face, but quickly surmised the blood didn't originate there. She moved around behind him and gingerly touched a spot on the back of his head. The captain winched with a quick intake of breath.

“A-ha,” the nurse said quietly. She opened a sterile package and applied an aromatic gauze cloth to the cut on the back of his head. “How do you feel?” she asked as she began to clean blood from his fur with her other hand.

“Woozy,” he replied quietly. “Glad I'm not standing up.”

“How is your eyesight?”

“A little fuzzy, but it's clearing. I hit the corner of the chart table.”

The Papillion muttered something too low for him to hear and then applied a salve to his wound that stung sharply. Aramis winced again and had to force himself not to bolt away from her. “Steady,” the nurse told him. “Did you lose consciousness?”

“Yeah, but only for a moment.”

She raised a finger and moved it around in front of his face, closely watching his eye movements. “I want to take a sensor scan to make sure you aren't bleeding internally,” she told him.

Aramis shook his head and instantly regretted it. “Not right now,” he said. “I need to get back up to the bridge after you get me patched up.”

Dallas gave him a stern look, but then sighed when he peered up at her with sad, puppy-dog eyes. “Promise me you'll come back for a proper examination after things have settled down. If not, you won't leave this room.”

“Yes, ma'am, I promise.”

She studied his eyes for a moment to make sure they were clear and then gave him a nod. “Come back if you feel unsteady on your feet.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

She picked up a small pair of scissors and then began to clip away a bit of fur from his wound. Satisfied the bleeding had stopped and there was a generous supply of salve on the cut, she picked up a roll of gauze and began to wrap it around the perimeter of his head and down to cover the area.

A moment later, she gestured for him to stand up. Aramis got to his feet and felt his balance hold, much to his relief. He gave her a smile of thanks and said, “You remind me of Ginger,” he said pleasantly. “She followed orders well enough, but whenever I got injured, she was stern and didn't care whether or not I was the captain.”

“I like this Ginger,” Dallas said with a smile. “Who is she?”

“A longtime friend who made herself a part of my crew on the Silverthorne without asking,” Aramis replied.

“Where is she now?”

“Dead… with just about the rest of my old crew.” The wolf fell silent and then looked over at the Papillion with a sad expression. “Thank you, Dallas. I'll let you know if I can't hold myself up.”

“Aye sir,” she replied quietly.

Aramis put a hand on her shoulder briefly and then walked out into the narrow corridor. He still felt a little dazed, but then a sudden realization coursed a chill up and down his spine and almost made his knees weak. He had told Dallas about Ginger without even thinking about it!

With that realization in mind, he found that he could remember a great many things that had been elusive to him just a short while ago.

He stopped next to a bulkhead, searched his memories for other things, and found that he could grasp everything that he sought after. He could remember! He remembered all the faces of his crew from the Silverthorne... the explosion and crash… the feelings of remorse on their deaths… and…. his partnership with Randon, a cougar he had known and trusted for years.

He stood up straight and set his jaw defiantly.  Randon.

The intercom suddenly chirped and he looked for the nearest microphone as Errol's voice announced over the ship-wide speakers, “Captain Thorne, please respond.”

Aramis spied a microphone and thumbed the call switch. “This is Thorne.”

“The damaged sections have been sealed off from the rest of the ship, but we will have to make repairs to the outer hull before we can enter a planet's atmosphere. The breach will tear us apart without the heat shields in place. Even if we can make decent repairs in space, I doubt we will ever be able to use that hatch again without a major overhaul. There was too much structural damage to the surrounding area.”

“How long will it take to be atmosphere-worthy again?” Thorne asked.

“With the materials we have on hand? Three days with the proper help.”

“Three days, eh?  Volunteer as many bodies as you need from the crew and get to it as soon as you can.”

“Aye, sir.”

Aramis hung up the microphone and continued toward the bridge. Now that his memories had returned, he found himself mulling over past events. He had only taken a few steps when he wondered, Where was Scarlet?

He neared the bridge and heard an argument in progress. Crandall's voice was raised in agitation, while Goro's replies were shouted back in clipped syllables.

“Just what do you think we're out here for?” Karla exclaimed. “I didn't sign up just for a cruise around the neighborhood!”

“Do you think the captain planned it to come out this way?” Goro shot back.

“What kind of threat is a warning shot? If he'd let me disable them, we wouldn't be the ones with a crippled ship!”

Thorne stepped onto the bridge and both of them fell quiet instantly. Crandall lowered her ears and her tail, sitting down upon her busted chair. Harada remained standing, his arms crossed and his feet wide apart.

“A warning shot is what I ordered,” he said in a low voice.

“Yes, but—”

“She's right, you know,” said another voice.

The captain turned and saw Talos leaning against the doorframe. He looked bruised and battered, and the look in his eyes was as dark as Thorne's.

“What was that?” Aramis growled.

“If you'd disabled the Guarana's engines as Karla recommended,” Jason said in an even voice, “I wouldn't have four of my team in the infirmary. That was careless, Captain.”

Thorne's hackles rose. “Duster, get off my bridge. Now!” he commanded with a menacing growl.

Jason's brow furrowed and he gritted his teeth with clenched fists. He turned on his heel and disappeared down the corridor without another word.

When Thorne turned around toward the others, he found the four of them staring back at him in surprise.  Farrell swallowed and made a quick glance toward the vacant doorway.

“Duster?” he asked in a quiet voice. “Jason… is Duster?”

NEXT CHAPTER

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