— by Ted R. Blasingame
Aramis awoke with a start when the door to his cabin opened and light from the corridor filtered in across his face. Someone opened the door wide and then shut it again after slipping inside without turning on the cabin lamp.
The wolf's pistol was immediately in hand. “Identify,” he said.
“It's Dallas,” said the Papillion's voice. “I brought you breakfast.”
Aramis set the pistol back on the bedside table and turned on the lamp. He rubbed his eyes as Dallas set a covered tray of food on the foot of his bed. She wore a red cotton robe, the same one she had on the previous night. He sighed when he saw her.
“Don't be alarmed,” the nurse said with a smile when she realized his train of thought. “I'm not here to warm your bed, only to feed you. This is just what I had on when I went down to the galley for my own breakfast.”
Thorne cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes again. He looked at a wall clock and realized that he had been asleep for nearly ten hours. Sore muscles complained when he sat up and looked over at the tray, suddenly feeling hungry.
“Thank you,” he said in a hoarse voice. Dallas uncovered the tray and revealed beefsteak cooked rare, two hard-boiled eggs, buttered toast and black coffee. Beside the plate was a small bottle of hot sauce. He managed a smile and picked up the coffee.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” he asked after taking a sip. He rarely found coffee to taste as rich as it smelled, but Ringo had a special blend that was perfect.
“Mr. Colfax ordered that both you and Mr. Talos were to be left alone to rest for eight hours,” she explained. “Tyler knew you would both be hungry when you woke up, so he prepared breakfast for you. I volunteered to bring yours to you and he took a tray to Jason.”
Thorne looked at her sideways. “After the way I've snapped at you lately, I wouldn't have thought you would grace my cabin again unless I called for you.”
The small canine gave him a crooked smile. “From what I've heard others say about you, snapping at people is normal for you.” Thorne raised an eyebrow at her as he took a bite of his toast. “Anyway,” she continued, “I wanted to check up on your health. How are you feeling?”
Aramis took a drink of his coffee and did a mental inventory of his aches and pains. “I'm sore,” he admitted, “but that goes with the choices I made. My shoulders are awfully tight. I should have asked you for a muscle-relaxer.”
Dallas crawled onto the bed, mindful not to upset the tray of food, and moved behind the captain. She stood up on her knees and then lightly massaged his shoulders. Thorne held his coffee cup in his lap and closed his eyes.
“My shoulders are so sore...” he murmured.
“Do you want me to stop?”
“No… I need it. Please continue.”
Dallas smiled and kneaded the muscles along his neck and shoulders. She could feel the tightness begin to relax after a few minutes and he leaned back against her. Her experienced fingers dug down in through his double layers of fur and found all the little knots to work on.
“Thank you,” he said after a little while.
The Papillion rested her hands on his back and replied in a quiet voice, “You're welcome. Is there anything else I can do for you, Captain?”
Aramis didn't reply immediately, but then he opened his eyes and reached for the bottle of hot sauce. “No,” he said as he dribbled the thick, red liquid over his beefsteak. “Thank you.”
Dallas nodded and then moved back around to the edge of the bed to sit down next to him. She put her hands in her lap and sat quietly, her eyes staring off into infinity. Thorne ate the rest of his breakfast in quiet contemplation before he realized she was still beside him.
“Dallas?” he asked.
The nurse shook her head, as if to rouse herself from a daze. “Yes, Captain?”
“Is there something on your mind?”
She looked up at him and nodded. “May I ask you a personal question, sir?”
“What is it?” Aramis looked at her in simple curiosity. She saw no anger at an invasion of privacy and felt encouraged enough to go ahead with her question.
“Sir,” she said, “I've heard rumors that you have a son on board the ship. Is this true?”
Aramis chuckled and answered, “Yes, Dallas, it's Cinjin Thorne, our supply clerk.”
“I never knew his family name. Why didn't you tell anyone?”
The wolf looked at her in amusement. “It was no secret,” he said. “If Cinjin chose not to tell anyone, that was his decision, not mine. He doesn't get any special treatment for being on board.”
“I see,” Dallas said quietly.
“I told you I had a mate,” Aramis reminded her. “Wolves mate for life and we honor the concept of family. It was only natural that we would have pups.”
Dallas smiled and felt embarrassed. “Yes, I should have realized that. Does Cinjin have any siblings?”
Aramis frowned and picked up his coffee cup. He drained its contents and then stared into its empty depths. “He had a brother and two sisters in his litter, but all were stillborn. Cinjin was the smallest, the runt of his litter, but he was the only one to survive. We had another litter a couple years later, but none of them survived. Scarlet and I stopped trying, deciding it was best not to create and kill any more pups.”
“That's awful!” Dallas said in a whisper.
Thorne looked over at her and nodded. “We assumed there was a medical reason our pups had a high mortality rate, but we never bothered to research it further. It wasn't long after when we moved from Dennier to Brandt, seeking our fortune in Siilv. Of course, that was also about the time that Brandt's Siilv deposits dried up and the economy fell out from under the whole planet.”
“Is that why you became a pirate?” Dallas asked hesitantly.
Aramis chuckled. “Not right away, but I suppose it played a part later on. With the Silverthorne and my crew, I did maintain a legitimate business, but small pirating forays were made later only to supplement the income so I could experiment and improve the LightDrive systems of the ship. During those times, I was more interested in the technologies I could acquire from other ships than I was in the money.” He smiled and added, “That's what happens when an engineer gets obsessed with his vessel. I was really distraught when I lost the Silverthorne. I'd put a lot of work into that ship.”
“Did you ever find out who did it?”
The wolf nodded. “I did, but someone else got to them before I could do anything with the information. I assume retaliation was taken by the government of the officials we were supposed to escort that day.”
He glanced over at his clock and realized just how much he'd been talking. He set his cup down on the meal tray. “Do I have your permission to return to duty?”
The Papillion nodded and stood up in front of him. “Let me change your bandages first, and then I will let you go back to your bridge.”
“Fair enough,” the captain replied. “What is our operational status?”
Dallas reached up and began to remove the bandage wrap from his head. “We're currently docked at Basil Station over Quet,” she replied, “but the place is deserted. Errol found it still operational, the systems in standby mode. His team got the place powered up and they're using it as a base for the repair work.”
“Very good,” Thorne replied. “How are the repairs going?”
The last of the bandages came free in the nurse's hands and she set them on the bed beside her. “You'll have to talk to your engineer about that,” she said as she examined his head wound, “but I heard one of the mechanics on break in the galley mention that the external damage was not as bad as they'd thought. This is a tough ship.”
She pulled a small tube of ointment from the pocket of her robe and applied a bit of it to the cut on his head. She then produced a bandage roll and began to redress his wound. As she worked, the sash of her robe fell away and the garment opened fully. Beneath it, she wore a pair of dainty pink panties and nothing else. With her hands busy on his head, she clucked her tongue, unable to close the robe. Aramis didn't turn away, but kept his hands to himself. After a moment, he became lost in thought, not even looking at the display before him.
Dallas finished with the bandage and retied her robe, studying the vacant expression on his face.
“Hmm?” he responded quietly before he glanced up at her.
“What do we do now?”
“What do you mean?”
“You told everyone we would have a test flight to Quet before we got down to the business of this vessel. Now that we have arrived, what now?”
“I was just thinking about that,” Aramis admitted to her. “There is something that's been on my mind lately that could affect our course of action, but I need to talk to someone first.”
Thorne shook his head and then stood up. “Cinjin.”
The planet Quet sat like a lifeless grey pearl in space. Even on the sunlit side of the small, moonless world, the terrain stretched on like a featureless blank. Pollution-saturated clouds swirled across its surface and even the planet's brown oceans reflected little light of the sun from the distance of spatial orbit. Nicknamed the Dump, Quet was the poorest of the Planetary Alignment worlds. Decades ago, an environmental disaster destroyed most life on the planet and left the atmosphere mildly toxic, though breathable. Quet's only remaining asset to the Alignment was its abundant source of micronite, used in the containment shielding in LightDrive engines.
“Cinjin Thorne, report to the captain's quarters.”
The young grey wolf took his eyes from the vidscreen and looked up in surprise at the overhead intercom speaker. He hadn't expected an audience with the captain.
As he moved through the corridors, Cinjin could feel curious eyes upon him as he passed by. It appeared he had made a mistake in admitting his relation to their captain to Crandall, because now it was all over the ship. It had never really been a secret, but now that it had been brought to their attention, the crew was now looking at him differently and Farrell's summons over the ship-wide intercom system made the situation more uneasy.
He turned a corner and ran head-on into Kio Kudara, the ship's secondary pilot. Goro had relieved her of duty and she had just left the bridge.
“Sorry,” the wolf muttered.
Kio grabbed him lightly by the arm and gave him a strange grin. “On your way to see your daddy, kiddo?” she teased.
Unperturbed, Cinjin merely raised an eyebrow and replied, “Yeah.”
Taken aback, Kio had expected a different response at her taunt so she released his arm and continued on her way with a frown. A thin smile appeared on Cinjin's face. He'd enjoyed stealing the thunder from her attempt to provoke him. He walked on to the captain's quarters and then knocked on the door.
“Identify,” stated a voice from the other side of the panel.
“Cinjin Thorne, reporting as ordered.”
The young wolf opened the door and saw Aramis sitting on the edge of his bunk, looking into the interior of a black box on his lap. He moved inside and shut the door behind him. There was no room for an extra chair, so he stood by the door and put his hands behind him.
“You wanted to see me?” he asked with lowered ears.
Aramis set his box aside and looked up at him. “Yes, son, I did.” Cinjin's eyes widened at that. It was the first time the captain had actually acknowledged him as his offspring in a long time. “Have a seat,” Aramis said with a gesture toward the other end of the bunk. Cinjin moved to the bed and sat down stiffly.
“I've not had any real time to visit with you since this ship came into the picture,” Aramis said, “but I've been busy.”
“As usual,” the younger wolf added.
Thorne raised an eyebrow at him, but let the comment slide. “How have you been?” he asked.
Cinjin opened his mouth and then closed it again. He thought for a moment and then tried once more. “It hasn't been easy,” he admitted. “I didn't know what happened to you after we got back from Hoenix. Even after I saw you in the cavern, neither you nor Mom came back home. I thought you might be on the run from someone, so I decided to vacate the house too.”
Aramis studied him for a moment, wondering if he should tell him about his amnesia. Cinjin would likely understand, but he was not ready to make that information public just yet, even to his own son. The knowledge could still be used against him.
“Yes, a lot has happened since we found the old city,” he said. “How did you get home?”
“The same way you did, on board the Cliffhanger, when we brought back all those artifacts.”
Aramis' expression grew dark. “I wasn't on the Cliffhanger when it left Hoenix,” he said. “Randon and I… had a falling out. He had his mob beat me and they left me for dead in the city.”
Cinjin looked shocked. “He left you for dead?” he asked incredulously. “You two have been best friends since before I was born!”
Aramis nodded. “Yes, we trusted one another completely, but then that trust was compromised when Faltane came onto the scene.”
“I'm sorry to hear that,” Cinjin said. “Randon met with Faltane's point of contact when we got back to Castelrosso, and sold him all the artifacts we brought back.”
“No, it was Wilcox.”
“Wilcox? The brown bear that manages the Minniti Spaceport operations?”
“Yeah, that's him.”
“That's interesting. How did they treat you on the Cliffhanger after you left the city?”
Cinjin raised both eyebrows. “I don't think any of them really saw me,” he said. “They were too busy partying for having found Hoenix. I shared a cabin with Astina and stayed in with her for the flight. I just assumed that you, Mom and Jenda were all somewhere on the ship, having a celebration with Randon.”
“I had to walk back to Castelrosso on my own,” Aramis told him with a growl. “Randon has since left Brandt, but will soon have to answer to me.”
“Is that why you put together a crew for this ship?” Cinjin asked. “I wondered why you would want an old clunker vessel like this, after how well Faltane paid for the stuff from Hoenix.”
“I'm sure the greater part of our share went into Randon's pockets,” Aramis growled. “None of it will come to me.”
The two wolves fell silent for several long moments, each lost in his thoughts. At the mention of Cinjin's cabin mate, Aramis recalled the spotted leopard that had fallen from the cliff in the rain. He hadn't remembered her name at the time, but it was Astina, one of Randon's crew. No longer haunted by her face in his dreams, he still regretted not being able to save her from slipping over the edge.
Interrupting his thoughts, the intercom chirped. The captain sighed and then reached over for the call switch. “Thorne here, what is it?”
“Sorry to bother you, sir,” Farrell's voice said from the overhead speaker, “but Cinjin is needed in the supply room to fill parts acquisitions for the repair work. He's used some kind of shorthand for the inventory that none of us can read.”
“Very well, he's on his way,” Thorne replied with the hint of a smirk. He shut off the switch and shrugged. “We'll talk again later when there's time,” he said to the young wolf. “I need to go talk to Mr. Colfax, too.”
Cinjin gave him a small smile. “Duty calls for the both of us,” he agreed. “Thank you for inviting me here. I enjoy spending time with you, father.” With a nod, he turned and quickly left the cabin.
Aramis watched the door close and stared at it a long moment before he shook himself from his thoughts. He reached for his black box and took out the top group photo again. As he looked at it again, his eyes first went to Randon with a glare, but then he shifted his gaze to his life mate, Scarlet Thorne.
Where was she? he thought to himself. Cinjin had said that even after getting back to Castelrosso, she hadn't returned to their home either. His eyes moved back to the picture of Randon and his brow furrowed. If Randon had tried to kill him by having him beaten and then left for dead in the sacrificial pit, he may have done something similar with Scarlet.
Thorne's hand began to shake. Was Scarlet dead? He didn't think that Randon could have done anything like that to her, but then a memory came back to him that filled him with horror. When Aramis had escaped his prison through the hidden passageway, he had climbed over the body of a woman shot and placed in the burial vault. At the time, he hadn't taken a good look at her after he had crawled out. It had been dark and she had already been dead a while, but now he was almost certain that it was Scarlet.
The photo slipped from Thorne's fingers and he stared after it mutely, his throat tightening up and his eyes beginning to mist. He clenched his fists and violently cursed Randon's name loudly to the walls of his cabin before he fell to his knees, feeling hot and sick.
A while later, Thorne found Errol at his desk in the engineer's office located near the lower cargo hatch. Spread out over the Labrador's desk was a set printout of old structural schematics and he was taking down measurements for his mechanics. He looked up when the grey wolf darkened his doorway.
“Captain,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
Thorne had shed the head wrap that Dallas had put on him, but he could still feel tightness around the area. “Well enough to command,” he replied. “What is our status? How soon can we be away?”
Errol tapped the schematic with his pencil. “Give me another two hours and then we'll be ready to brave Quet's foul atmosphere. We're having trouble getting the replacement hatch to fit the damaged outer frame and are having to make a few modifications. It was an internal hatch for the airlock inside the landing claw compartment that wasn't designed to go where we're trying to put it, but it should work well enough with a little coaxing.”
“Can it be done in-flight?”
“Not on a descent into the atmosphere!”
“Forget Quet,” Thorne said with a shake of his head. “We're going back to Castelrosso. Immediately.”
Errol studied him for a moment and chewed on his bottom lip. “Two hours,” he repeated, “and we can go anywhere in the Planetary Alignment you want, Captain.”
“You didn't answer my question.”
“No, we can't finish the replacement of an external hatch while we're in flight,” the engineer replied with a deep frown. “I have Robin, Reese and Jody in EVA with two flobots working on it now. Uninterrupted, they should be finished in just under two hours. All of the internal work is complete.”
Thorne leaned on the door frame and nodded. “Understood,” he said in annoyance. “Two hours.” He started to turn away, but Colfax stopped him by clearing his throat. “Yes?” he growled.
“Sir,” Errol said in a low voice, “morale on board is still low after our defeat by a freighter. I would recommend going after another to boost their spirits before returning to home base.”
Thorne took a deep breath before he answered. “I am no longer concerned with a shakedown cruise for the ship and crew,” he said in irritation, “and I have something far more urgent and important than running down a cargo carrier.”
“Did you get wind of a payroll ship?” Errol asked with raised eyebrows.
“Nothing of the sort,” Thorne replied. “My wife is missing and I am going to find her.”
Errol leaned back in his chair. “Permission to speak freely?” he asked.
“Why not? Everyone else has been free to give me their opinions,” the wolf answered irritably. Colfax stared at him for a long minute. The captain seemed to be constantly annoyed lately and he hesitated to say what was on his mind after that last comment.
“Well?” Thorne prompted with an impatient wave of his hand.
Errol cleared his throat and met the wolf's amber eyes directly. He set his pencil down on the schematic and then leaned on the desk. “You're captain and can do anything you want,” he said quietly, “but if you don't give the crew anything to do besides running back and forth between Brandt and Quet, you may have a lot of disgruntled people on your hands. I don't think having a brawl on the cargo deck with each of them is in your best interest.”
“Are you planning to lead a mutiny against me?” Thorne asked icily.
“No, sir,” Errol replied. “They all signed up with you for the money and maybe even a little adventure. If there's no profit in having them on board, they're likely to rebel.”
Thorne stared at him for a long moment, but then nodded his head with a softer expression. “You're right, of course,” he admitted in a casual tone. “Where's the nearest intercom?”
Errol pointed behind the wolf to a bulkhead just outside his office door. Next to a large manual fire extinguisher was a microphone and small panel of buttons. Thorne walked to it, picked up the mike, and thumbed the switch for ship-wide broadcast.
“All hands, this is the Captain. I need your attention for a moment.” He glanced back at Errol's look of curiosity and then continued. “I am sure many of you have heard recent rumors that the ancient city of Hoenix has been located on Castelrosso Island. I know this rumor to be true because I'm the one that helped find it, and this is why I named this very vessel after the fabled place. Captain Randon and his crew of the Cliffhanger have already looted much of the city, but I know there is a treasure trove there that he never found.
“Randon tried to kill me when I refused to give him its location, and I am sure that he will return at a later date to look for it, but I intend to get there first to retrieve it. It is from that treasure that I was able to finance the repairs and your contracts for this ship, so I can assure you of its existence. We will return to Brandt as soon as repairs are completed to our ship, and then I will give the coordinates of the city to our navigator. We may have failed in our attempt to take down a common freighter, but a ready treasure of Hoenix gold awaits us all.”
Errol and Thorne heard several voices cheer somewhere on the deck nearby and the wolf gave his engineer a nod and a smile. “Mr. Colfax has informed me that we should be able to get underway in approximately two hours,” the captain added to his broadcast. “Mr. Talos, I will need to meet with you in my cabin as soon as you are available to discuss our plans. Captain Thorne, out.”
He hung up the microphone and severed the connection. When he turned back toward Colfax, the engineer was looking at him with a mixed expression. The lab crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair again.
“In light of our conversation, I have to ask,” he said. “Do you really know where Hoenix and its gold are located, or are you just using that as a way to get the crew to go along with you?”
“The last time I saw my wife was in the city of Hoenix, Mr. Colfax, just before I found a hidden antechamber filled with King Chaaq's gold,” Aramis replied. “It was from this gold that I paid you for this ship, and there is a lot more to be had. I intend to return to Hoenix to look for my wife, and even if I have to use the promise of Hoenix gold to buy the crew's loyalty, I will get there.”
Errol nodded and leaned forward in his chair. “Sounds like you have it all under control,” he said approvingly. “I'm curious, however. If you knew where the city is located, why did we launch to Quet? For that matter, why did you bother to buy and repair this ship and hire a crew for it?”
Thorne chuckled at his engineer's questions. “There is more gold in Hoenix than I could carry out on horses, so I needed a ship. Randon left me for dead, so he's sure to come after me when he finds out I'm still alive and that I've gone back for the gold I refused him; this crew is going to get that adventure you said they wanted. It may come down to a fight between us to keep the treasure and I wanted to be sure this ship was capable of going up against the Cliffhanger. Do you think your ship will be up for that, Mr. Colfax?”
The Labrador's face lit up with a smile. “The Hoenix may be an old ship, but I'd stake my life on her chances against Captain Randon,” he said.
The intercom whistle chirped suddenly and Aramis moved back to the microphone. “This is the captain,” he said.
“Sir,” Farrell's voice said over the speaker, “Goro just reported that the Navigational systems have crashed.”
Thorne rolled his eyes and then cast a look back at the engineer. “How long will it take to get it operational?”
“Goro says he will first have to find the problem before he can fix it. It could be a number of things, sir.”
“Tell Mr. Harada that the longer we delay leaving for Brandt, he'll have the rest of an anxious crew of gold-hungry pirates breathing down his neck until his systems are working.”
“He says he understands, sir, and is already working on it.”
“Very good. Keep me posted.”
Thorne hung up the mike and turned toward Colfax. ”If you're going to stake your life on the capabilities of this ship, I would suggest you get somebody up there to give him a hand on the repairs.”
Errol stood up and grabbed a technical manual from a shelf over his desk. “I'll take care of it myself.”
“Keep me posted,” Aramis said.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.