Book 1 Chapter 4
I caught a deadhead on the shuttle up to the station, and went straight to the ship. There was a message on the bridge door that said Lossp, the navigator was staying in a cabin on the station, and to contact him there if anyone else checked in before tomorrow. I dropped off my bag, and wandered back into the station to the cabin number he had left. It was on the inner side of the cylinder, and had almost imperceptible gravity. Holding onto a handhold, I scratched on the door.
"Is that room service?" , I heard Lossp say.
Thinking quickly, I replied, "Room Service, sir."
"Leave it outside!"
"You’ll have to initial the receipt," I said.
"Oh, All right." He opened the door about six inches. I shoved it open the rest of the way, pushing him free of the strap he was holding.
"Surprise!" He caromed slowly off the opposite wall, and around the room, and looking up, I found myself eye to tail with his wife, Klassti. She was an extremely large woman, a mother of four, and totally naked. She yipped, clutching a hand towel, and I apologized, backing out of the room as quickly as I could.
"Mitzep! I’ll get you, you…" I closed the door, and turned around, to see room service approaching me from down the hall.
"Just leave it here."
"But, you’ll have to initial-" I cut him off, and scribbled on the receipt. I escaped back to the ship.
I spent the rest of the day checking the supplies the station had delivered. I saw a notation concerning "special cargo, to be signed for by the captain only’, but no description. Our heavy hydrogen for the in-system drive had been delivered, and the food looked sufficient, if not appetizing. Lossp left a curt message that he would be in once he had put his wife onto the shuttle, and that he had already checked off the navigation department.
I went back to the shuttle, and ran the systems checks. Dave had left that damn evergreen air freshener hanging from the top of the viewscreen, and the smell seemed permanent. I flushed the cabin to vacuum twice, trying to get rid of it.
When I returned forward, I heard the sounds of footsteps on the bridge. I stuck my head around the corner, expecting to see Lossp. Instead, it was a giant golden brown cat. I froze in the door. Diyim’yi have an instinctive fear of big cats, especially after the two generation long war and occupation by the Jaguar. While from the color this could not be a Jaguar, and not discounting the fact that they were effectively extinct, the fear was still there. I could not make any sounds other than a gurgle. The cat saw my reflection in the main viewscreen, and whirled around to face me. She was wearing a neck collar which had the insignia of a Lieutenant Commander in the Exploration Corps.
"It works much better if you breathe, Ensign. I would hate to have one of my junior officers expire right here on the bridge." She sat in one of the bridge chairs and watched me. Her tail tip was twitching.
I took a deep breath. "I’m Ensign Mitzep, ship’s shuttle pilot," I managed to stammer.
"That’s good. See that wasn’t so hard, now was it?" She smiled, showing a mouthful of large teeth. "I’m glad to meet you. I am H’raawl-Hrkh, your new second officer. Captain Chopka said you were a good pilot, and had your preliminary engineering qualifications completed. I think we will have a fine cruise together."
I figured I had better ask now, rather than later. "Commander, I didn’t realize there were any, oh, I don’t know how to say this right, cats, in the Corps. I mean, I knew there were aliens, of course, but…"
"Fair enough. We are rare. I was the first m’raenn to complete the course, five years ago. I’ve been ferrying asteroid miners back and forth in my home system ever since. The council offered me this assignment because I could not get a promotion without exploration experience. Captain Chopka approved my assignment because he remembered me from the academy. I don’t recall meeting him, though."
"Now, I understand that the navigator is on the station. Have him report when he comes aboard. The Captain will be arriving with our passengers tomorrow. I want to be ready to depart immediately." She turned back to her console. I assumed I was dismissed.
Lossp came aboard later that shift, drawn and visibly shaking. I understood now why he did not visit his family more frequently when in port. I assumed that a fifth little one was effectively launched. He did not try to retaliate against me, just mentioned that Klassti had thought I looked ‘good enough to eat.’ I left that one lay. I told him about the new second officer. He grunted, and said that she had been a year behind him at the academy, and that he thought she was a good officer, but politics had kept her out of the exploration fleet. He brushed back his thinning fur, and went to report in.
Doctor Plaksa came aboard that night, and I helped her stow about a ton of scientific materials, and the emergency medical supplies. It was eerie, wheeling the cryogenic tanks with cloned replacement bodies and parts for the landing party. From the labels, I saw that two copies of Chessec’s body were loaded. "Chessec and Marie," she said. My own clone seemed more like an old piece of luggage, which accompanied me every time I boarded the ship.
Chopka, Chessec, Marie, Dave and the dog came aboard during the morning watch. Except for Hobo, they all looked rested and fresh. Liftoff had not agreed with him, he was never going to be a space traveler. The captain went to meet his new second officer, and I helped the rest store their gear. Dave had brought back his as yet unemployed weapons collection, and I shifted them aft to the shuttle. Chessec told me the basics about the family’s business, and informed me of Amkro’s ascension as first wife. She explained that she felt sure that on our return, Chopka would be married off to one of her step-sisters, either Ammis or Amkit.
"He seemed to like both of them about equally well," She said as an aside. "Better not mention that to either of them, though."
I asked her how her trip home had been. I have always been strongly attracted to her, but now that she was my step-sister, too, I would have to forget that notion. She didn’t give any details about her activities, but I caught a smile in her eyes that said something had happened.
"Lieutenant Chessec report to the bridge. Passengers and crew please assemble in the lounge in fifteen minutes," came commander H’raawl-Hrkh’s voice from the intercom. I went to help Dave finish unpacking.
When we were all gathered in the lounge, the Captain introduced the second officer. Even Dave was impressed. At 300 pounds, and seven and a half feet from nose to tail, she was the biggest sentient being he had met (me too!). The only problem was with Hobo. His dog brain was convinced that she was a cat, and it didn’t matter how big she was, he wanted a piece. Dave was holding him by the collar, and it looked like Hobo’s free ranging days on shipboard were over, when Marie had an idea. She walked over to H’raawl-Hrkh and motioned her to bend over, and whispered something in her ear. She looked dubious, but agreed.
"Let him go, Dave," Marie said.
"He’ll bite her," he replied.
"I don’t think so."
He released the dog, and we all watched as he leaped across the intervening distance, jaws open. H’raawl-Hrkh stood her ground, blocked his charge with a the pad of one paw against his chest, and reached out with her other claw extended and lightly raked it across his muzzle, simultaneously hissing a yell that brought the hair up on everyone in the room, including Dave. Hobo immediately yelped, reversed himself in midflight, and ran into the kitchen.
Marie commented, "He may not love her now, but at least he’ll fear her in the future. Dave, go comfort your dog."
Chopka continued with his briefing. He gave the same speech Amkro had used, but added that, since we had all served together before, to please extend a hand of friendship and assistance to the new Second. He gave out the initial duty assignments as well. Marie and Chessec were to assist Plaksa in the lab, while he wanted Dave and I to alternate between navigation, with Lossp, and engineering, with H’raawl-Hrkh. He hoped that by the time we arrived at earth, Dave could better understand our flavor of computers. Dave snorted. With that, he announced that, as was tradition, the junior crew member (me) would take first shift as cook. Through the ritual groans, Marie offered to help, and I quickly accepted.
An hour before launch, the station announced that the ‘special cargo’ had arrived. Chopka signed for a dolly cart full of small gold ingots. Dave helped me store it in the cargo hold.
He noted, "This is going to be more trouble than it’s worth, I’m afraid." I asked what he meant. "It’s almost harder to pass gold in any quantity, than counterfeit money, on my planet. We’ll all go to jail."
By the time we were finished, It was time to sail. I went up to the bridge. H’raawl-Hrkh had the watch, although the captain was on the bridge. Breaking free of the station was incredibly smooth, and we were soon headed out system. I guess it stood to reason, since as a freighter pilot, she had probably more in-system time than all of us together. As soon as we were clear of local traffic, the captain went to his day cabin, and I went to the galley. Marie helped me make a soup and sandwiches, and I went to my bunk. We made the jump to hyperspace while I was asleep. I prefer it that way.
Next shift, I was paired with Lossp, and Dave was down in engineering. Lossp showed me how to compare the three navigation computers for errors, and refreshed my memory of my hyperspace navigation class. (If you did your work right before you jumped, you’ll come out OK, maybe. If you made a mistake, you’re screwed. If something else goes wrong, you’re still screwed.) By the end of shift, I had reaffirmed my decision not to become a navigator.
Unlike to homeward voyage, the outbound leg had much more ship-related business to take care of. It always seems that each time we leave the space station, our instruments need to be recalibrated. I mentioned this to Dave, whose first remark was that with junk like this, it was a wonder it even worked at all. He thought a while, though, and did some checking. It seemed that the navigation system automatically re-zeroed itself whenever it attached to the docking lines on the station, and that when the ship was powered back up, it essentially started from scratch. As the cruise proceeded, the instruments were able to build a longer baseline, and more accurately calculate the ship’s present position. By the end of my second shift, I had reaffirmed my decision not to even admit I knew what navigation was.
The third shift, I went down to engineering to report to the Second Officer. She was sitting in the small engineer’s office, looking at the engine spec diagrams. The office was small, and she was sitting in a chair, with her hind legs up on the small desk, with the chair halfway out the door. She looked over her shoulder as I came in.
"Hello, Ensign. I left my glasses back in my cabin. I have to prop this book about four feet from my eyes to focus on it, and by that time the type is too small. I’d get up, but if I move, I’ll probably flip this tiny chair over. What I want you to do is go to my cabin and get them. That way, when I do fall flat on the floor, you won’t be here to see me. Go on, hurry!"
With, that I left at a run. Her cabin was practically bare of personal effects, except for a picture of a male of her species, with the distinctive broad mane in darker brown fur. I found her glasses beside her bunk, and rushed back. When I returned to engineering, she was walking around the main drive access panels, holding a spec sheet at arms’ length. I handed her the glasses, which looked incongruous parked on the top of her broad muzzle. She blinked a few times, and shifted her gaze full on me.
"Much better. Come over here by this panel. Tell me what this is." I read the label, which said ‘Secondary Systems Alternate Data Bus-NLS’ I elaborated that NLS meant ‘Not Life Support,’ meaning that loss of the bus would not kill us. She said, "I can read that, what I want to know is, what does it do?" I confessed I didn’t know.
"There, that’s what I thought. What we’re going to do during the next week is track down exactly what these do, and what controls them. Dave’s been giving me an earful about how poor a control system this is, and I don’t know if he is right or not. I mean, it’s not like his kind are zipping around in hyperspace, now, are they?" I nodded. "OK, go ahead and turn that thing off, and let’s find out." I did. About two minutes later, the bridge intercom came on.
"Engineering, this is the bridge. We have a flashing light on our electrical board. Is anything wrong?"
She responded, "Just testing. Is anything malfunctioning?"
"Negative." She motioned to me to turn it back on. "Engineering, the light’s off, now."
"Roger." She concluded. "That’s what Dave said. All the NLS systems have double redundancy, while all the drive and life support are triple. So, here’s the book, let’s start checking circuits. Oh, and DON’T turn any more off. We will assume the lights on the bridge are all right.
We spent the rest of that shift running down the connections from ship’s systems to their control and power sources, and had just barely begun by the time shift ended. By then, I was not flinching away every time she moved too quickly. H’raawl-Hrkh noticed this, and as I was closing the last access panel, reached across and clapped her paw across my shoulders. I froze again.
"And I thought you were cured of that, Ensign. Now I ask you, when was the last time one of your superior officers removed any of your hide, except metaphorically? You’ve just got to relax." I nodded, ears flat. "Really. You have been an exemplary crew member all cruise. Calm down." She took her paw away, and left the room. I stood and thought for a long time before I followed.
The third night was Marie’s turn in the galley. This had become a favorite of mine, because unlike the rest of us, she could actually cook. I asked her if she had ever worked as a chef, and she made some remark about sexual stereotypes. I apologized, saying I hoped what I had said had not been misinterpreted as a sexual advance, and she laughed, and explained the term. "It’s not than human males can’t cook, it’s just that they deliberately do so poorly, insuring that we don’t ask them to again." She cocked her head toward me, "Hmmm.. On the other hand, maybe that was a sexual come-on. Come here, little boy, and take this apron." She advanced, and I fled.
Feeling put-upon by a ship full of aggressive females, yet still a masochistic glutton for punishment, I went to the gym and sought out my former sort-of cousin and now step-sister, Chessec. She talked for a while, and I found that I could now more easily think brotherly thoughts about her. She told me a little about her brief affair, but did not mention any names or details. She only said that he would not have been a suitable addition to the family, and smiled at the thought of Candroc meeting him. She mentioned that Marie thought that I was much more quiet than I had been last cruise. I told her about my hunting trip, and that I had had some time to think, and decided that I was in fact living the life I had dreamed about in school. "But with fewer willing young women," I concluded.
She agreed. "Not a lot of candidates in deep space, are there, younger ‘brother’? Let’s see: Me - your dearest ‘sister’, Plaksa and Marie- both married to jealous husbands. I guess that leaves H’raawl-Hrkh, doesn’t it?"
I protested, "She’s my boss. She treats me like a cadet! Besides, she outweighs me three to one. Not only that, I saw the picture of her mate in her cabin, and he’s twice her size."
"She has no mate. That’s a picture of her father. He was the ambassador to Diyim’yi before he died."
"Oh. I still don’t think she thinks of me that way."
"She might surprise you."
"That’s what I’m afraid of."
By day nine, we had finished tracing all the easily reached systems, and were deep in the access tunnels. Or rather, I was, because neither Dave no H’raawl-Hrkh would fit into some of the smaller spaces. Although the ship had been designed by the Jaguar, much of the later wiring had been done by their Diyim’yi or lynx slaves. The two of them were standing at either end of what Dave kept referring to as a ‘Jeffries tube,’ him holding a light, while she called out wiring codes from the other end. I was busy climbing from one to the other, looking for unmarked junctions and splices. After the hundredth trip, I lost my grip on a ladder rung, and bounced down about twenty feet, dropping out of the tunnel. She saw me coming, and caught me in her arms. She asked if I was OK, and set my carefully on my feet. "Are you sure, you took few good hits against those rungs." She called up to Dave," Knock it off for the day!" She told me, "Let’s go see the doctor." She supported me against her with one arm as we walked down the hall. I noticed I did not come up to her shoulder.
Doctor Plaksa checked me over, and announced I had no permanent injuries, but that I had let my electrolytes get depleted. She gave me a tablet and some water. She said, "H’raawl-Hrkh says you are working too hard. I find this hard to believe, personally, but there could be a first time for everything. I want you to rest during your next shift in your cabin; read a book. You will be flying the shuttle the next day, and you need to be rested."
I could not concentrate, however, and I settled for an uneasy sleep, with barely remembered dreams that faded as soon as I awoke. They seemed to involve being chased by something large.
Our return to earth went without incident. We met another of the sentient races of the Diyim’yi confederation, in the form of H’raawl-Hrkh, the newest member of the crew. She was a lion analogue, fully as large as her terrestrial namesake. She seemed much more serious about her job than our Diyim’yi friends, and did not socialize very well. She confessed to me after we had been working together alone for a while that she found the family relationships of our hosts too complicated for her to decipher, and added that while her own culture formed similar large, polygamous family groupings, they lacked the hierarchy displayed by the Diyim’yi. It was at this point that she asked if Marie and I would consider her for a temporary additional mate. I was not too shocked, as it was clear that she was sincere, but honestly unaware of our culture. I explained to her that Marie and I were in a monogamous relationship, and did not consider such a group arrangement something with which we could be comfortable.
I suggested that, as the ship was presently crewed, that both Chopka and Mitzep were unattached males, according to my understanding of their culture. She explained that Chopka had declared that he felt he could not be objective if he was sleeping with a crew member, and that she was worried that Mitzep’s fear of her prevented their becoming any closer. I suggested she discuss it with my wife. She agreed, and we moved on to business.
Although I am not either a trained computer hardware expert or software programmer, I have been involved with automated control systems for many years. I had become convinced that whoever built this ship was even less expert. What little I recalled of naval architecture, or could look up on the encyclopedia CD-ROM on my PC, convinced me of it. I persuaded her that if we studied how the ship had been built, and was now operating, we could improve it with some off-the-shelf technology from earth.
Except for the hyperdrive. As far as it was concerned, I was stumped. It was a classic ‘black box’ design. All the components outside the box delivered basic electrical current and magnetic fields. The box (really a cylinder) itself had a massive synthetic crystal at the end which protruded from the back of the hull, and when subjected to the proper radio frequency pulsed current, and encased in a mild magnetic field, caused the ship to depart from normal space and ‘jump.’ In other words: to me, it might as well be magic.
The in-system drives were ‘conventional’ fusion reaction systems, fast, efficient, and fairly dirty. Nobody went outside the ship when the drive was on. The shuttle was cleaner, but still had a significant danger zone beneath it. I was glad Mitzep had maneuvered near the house using the chemical thrusters, not the main drive. After a few days, I gave up on the drive system. I just lacked the expertise. The sensor suite was a different matter.
When we first left earth, I had asked Amkro how they avoided being detected. She said, "Luck, mainly." As I explored the sensor capability of the ship, I realized that she was telling the truth. The ship had a real-aperture imaging radar, slaved to a video camera looking through a two meter focal length folded optical lens. A high energy near-IR chemical laser provided additional illumination for the camera, as well as a backup ranging function. There was a broadband radio receiver suite, which scanned at a rate that I could have beat for $400 in any ham catalog. Plus, there were two stolen analog cell phones, whose accounts had doubtless now expired.
I looked for any indication of a ‘stealth’ or cloaking function, but found only what I assumed was a radar warning receiver, slaved to a simple CW jammer. Lots of watts, but no subtlety. The instruments on board gave every indication that the ship was blind to any signal above about 12 Ghz. In other words, about good enough to have survived against NORAD back in the sixties. If we were lucky. The shuttle was worse. It had the radar cross section of a WWII heavy bomber. The radiation coming out the tailpipe was the best protection the shuttle had, as it would probably cause a missile to detonate early.
With all this good news, it was a good thing that not too many people were looking up. During the previous three years, the Diyim’yi had probably been detected many times, and dismissed as instrument error. Before we contacted any earth government, I wanted to fix this.
By the time we left hyperspace, our ship’s crew had settled into routine. The crew were busy rationalizing why none of them were having any sex, and Marie and I had cut back considerably out of consideration of Chessec, who, as Marie had previously confessed to me, was an involuntary telepathic participant in our bedroom exploits. I began to suspect that the true limit of the cruise duration for a Diyim’yi ship was the number of vibrator batteries aboard. H’raawl-Hrkh continued her slow stalk of our pilot, who remained oblivious. The older members of the crew, Chopka, Lossp and Plaksa, resumed their cutthroat poker tournament with a vengeance.
After I dropped off the landing party, I flew straight back to the ship. Time spent on ship while waiting for the contact team to produce results is some of the most boring duty the Corps has to offer. On our first trip, we had just orbited the planet, but once Dave explained the sophistication of earth’s sensors, we moved further out. Now, our ship’s standard technique was to establish a solar orbit ahead of the planet, and slightly off the ecliptic. Attitude thrusters maintained us in an unstable position, which was close enough to use the radio receivers to monitor earth communications, and to listen for any distress message from the surface. Every three days, I took the shuttle for a low pass in case they needed support.
Otherwise, we had nothing to do. Chopic established a minimum duty watch schedule, and a more elaborate meal schedule to pass the time. We left a viewscreen on earth television in the lounge, and watched a lot of that. Plaksa and Lossp were old crew mates, and had apparently been playing the same poker game for years. While we newer members occasionally sat in for a few hands, they were just too good, and it was rumored that the true value of the pot totaled thousands. The captain still was exercising frequently in the gym, and he persuaded me to join him for a friendly sparring match every once in a while. I am smaller than average, but have extremely fast reflexes, so I can usually outscore him on points while we’re both fresh, but usually lose if he can score a ‘lethal’ hit. He says, and I agree, that I don’t have the interest or discipline to pursue fighting as a serious contender. Still, it occupied some time, and took my mind off my one problem.
H’raawl-Hrkh. She is the most competent, efficient ship’s officer I have ever met, easily a match for my aunt, Amkro. She has taken her duty as my supervisor to train me for promotion to lieutenant, and every duty shift is like a classroom lesson. There are only two things about her: One, no matter how much I keep telling myself that she is M’raeenn, not jaguar, I have some bad memories from when I was kit, before the war ended. Our estate was occupied by the jaguar military, and their soldiers would use us smaller children as personal servants. It is hard to keep from flinching every time she touches me.
The second thing is compounded by the first. H’raawl-Hrkh is attracted to me. While she has been careful not to let it interfere with work, I can always see her watching me when she thinks I’m not looking. Marie and Chessec both have encouraged me to return her attention, but I’m not sure my ego is up to it. And I guess the worst part is, on some level, I’m attracted to her too.
It’s months like this that make me wish I was still the little savage I was back in my teens, before I started my education, back before I had to deal with all these confusing alien customs. Oh! I am about ready to kill everyone on board and take this ship back home to M’raeenn just to get laid. The worst part is, I can tell that every male on board wants to have me-they just won’t! Dave all but drools every time I twitch my tail. I understand intellectually that each one has a good reason to avoid me: Chopic, fearful of undermining his authority, Lossp and Dave, both married to jealous wives, and Mitzep… Well, I guess he is more afraid than attracted to me. I don’t know what the Jaguars did to him as a kit, but it makes him shiver any time I startle him.
It doesn’t help that I find myself stalking him through the ship. Marie has suggested just grabbing him and getting it over with, but I’m not that far gone yet. She promised to talk to him for me tonight-maybe there is hope. I don’t think I can make it for six months by myself.