Tales of the Foxtaur Clans #18: Brier Patch
By Bernard Doove © 2010


E'Tina te Janera

Alandri ne Kanawa was having a good day. At first the Voxxan mel had been annoyed when he had been informed that he would have to spend the afternoon with the new crewmember doing indoctrination and familiarisation procedures – that is until he found out that that new crew was a pretty young fem named E'Tina te Janera. She had been attentive to everything he had said, but seemed even more interested in him. When they were done, she had suggested that they could go to one of the local Terran coffee clubs that had sprung up in the Voxxan city, and he was quick to agree. One thing had led to another, and they were now back at his dorm. His eyes roved over her curvaceous form and she smiled at him encouragingly. He admired her fine narrow vulpine muzzle, the delicately patterned fur that highlighted her features, and the gorgeous platinum hair that framed her face. She had dressed in a skirt with a plunging neckline that accentuated her medium-sized but very perky breasts, and her shapely legs had their fur immaculately groomed. When she was sure he'd had gazed long enough, she opened a bottle of Jandesian mead that she had brought along as he fetched a pair of glasses, and she poured them both a generous amount.

Handing Alandri one of the glasses, she said, "Will you make the toast?"

Alandri was amused by her formality but complied. He kept it simple. "To good health and good fortune on our voyage."

E'Tina smiled with a hint of secret amusement. "Yes, good fortune indeed."

They took a sip of the exotic mead and the stimulating thrill it gave him heightened his expectations. Yes, this evening was looking very promising.

Captain E'Larra

Captain E'Larra te Kanawa shut off the comm with a mixture of concern and annoyance. Their freight and logistics company was largely a family business, and a major proportion of the staff and ship’s crew was related in some way. Her grandson, Alandri, was not given any favouritism though, any more than any of her other children or grandchildren. He was a very competent crewmember and filled an important position on the ship, one that should not be handled by just one person on a long-term basis. E'Larra had been glad to find him a back-up, but now it seemed that the new hire was going to have to take on the full workload.

E'Larra wondered what had brought on the sudden illness that had landed Alandri in hospital, and whether it might affect any of the other crewmembers. The medtech she had talked to had been unhelpful in that they had yet to identify the cause of his illness. Whatever the reason was though, he would not be in any shape to go on this delivery run for a long while, and there was no way that their contract would allow any delay of this important shipment, even just a day. She sighed. She did not even have time to visit him in the hospital.

Pressing the internal comm button, E'Larra said, "Specialist E'Tina te Janera – report to the bridge immediately."

The fem arrived in less than a hannit, dressed smartly in her new ship’s uniform. "You wished to see me, Captain?" she asked.

"Yes, Specialist Janera. You will be taking first watch instead of Specialist Kanawa who has taken ill."

"Aye, Captain!" "Janera replied and headed for her station.

The captain consulted her status board and saw that the cargo had been listed as secured and hatches were shut. "Status report!" she demanded of the bridge crew in general.

The crew reported that all departments were ready and the ship was good for departure.

E'Larra tapped the PA button and announced, "All hands prepare for immediate take-off," and then she tapped the external comm button. "Galaya Tower, this is Kanawa’s Pride. We are ready for an on-time departure for scheduled lift-off. Requesting clearance for departure."

"Kanawa’s Pride, you are clear for take-off on vector Alpha Seven at 0715," came back the reply.

"Thank you, Galaya Tower. Kanawa’s Pride out." E'Larra switched off the comm and said, "Power up the contra-grav."

The helmsman activated the contra-grav controls and they all felt the deep hum of the unit build until it reached its peak. At that point, their massive megaton freighter weighed only a fraction of its normal amount, and stabilisers were needed to counter the gusty winds that were pushing against the large surface area of the freighter.

Kanawa's Pride

"Contra-grav at full operational level. Inertial dampers on," announced the helmsman.

On the dot of 0715, E'Larra said, "Thrusters on!"

Powerful thrusters lifted the massive ship from its docking cradle with ease. Without the contra-grav, the ship wouldn't have budged, but instead the Kanawa’s Pride flew up into the atmosphere with speed and grace that defied its lumbering looks. Once they passed through the stratosphere and slipped out of the grasp of Voxxa’s gravity, the power-hungry contra-grav units were shut down. The helmsman set course on a vector to get them out of the planet’s gravity well as quickly as possible.

When they were safely out of Voxxa’s reach, he announced, "Ready for warp, Captain."

"Set course for Arisia."

"Course plotted and laid in."

"Engage Lightspeed 5."

"Aye, Captain."

Just before the freighter slipped into warp though, a very brief directed beam message was sent, completely unnoticed by any of the crew except for the one who had sent it.

Once the course was set and they were under way to the Arisia system, there was little for the bridge crew to do besides routine monitoring and scheduled diagnostics. Halfway into the shift, the captain handed the bridge off to her second-in-command and left to do some inspections. E'Tina was busier than most however, but not all of it was anything that the rest of the crew would have approved of. Surreptitiously plugging in a data crystal, she downloaded several programs into the computer. Each program was extremely sophisticated, avoiding the monitor programs and fooling the authentication routines. When the last of the programs was installed, E'Tina nodded in satisfaction. She checked the chronometer and set a timer to trigger the programs. Then she hid all the evidence of her tampering and continued on with normal bridge operations.

Captain E'Larra returned before the end of the shift and resumed the captain’s chair. Fifteen hannits later, the second shift started arriving and relieving the bridge crew. Another young female approached E'Tina’s station and said, "I relieve you, Specialist."

E'Tina nodded and signed off. She got up and said, "The station is yours." She then left the bridge and headed for her quarters. Once inside, she quickly changed out of her ship’s uniform and opened her kit bag. From it she extracted parts that she assembled into an energy weapon. It hadn't been easy getting that aboard, but anything was possible if you knew how. She made a few other preparations before settling down on her bunk to wait for the designated time.

With just one hannit to go, E'Tina got up and opened her door. A passing crewmember frowned in puzzlement at her strange attire but continued on. She headed in the direction of the number two airlock and reached it moments before the critical time.

Exactly at the programmed time, the warp engines shut down. Consternation broke out on the bridge, and the captain demanded an explanation.

"Sorry, captain," the helmsperson said. "I don't know. My panel says that we're still at warp five and nothing I'm doing is making any difference.

With a growl, E'Larra stabbed the comm button. "Engineering! What's happening down there? Why have we stopped?"

After a moment, the chief engineer’s voice replied. "Captain, it looks like a forced shut-down. I'm trying to find out why but our diagnostics panels are lying to us. It could be…."

Just then the lights died and the comm fell silent. Only the main view screen remained active to illuminate the bridge. One by one, the crew reported that their stations were unresponsive.

"Sandok! Go to engineering and find out what's going on," E'Larra ordered.

Sandok got up from his station and headed for the main door. It refused to open. He tried a secondary door but it was equally unresponsive. "Captain, the doors are sealed," he replied.

E'Larra frowned. That didn't sound like a breakdown to her. Doors like those were supposed to be fail-safe. "Use an emergency hatch. Do anything that you can, but get me some information."

Sandok nodded, but as he headed for the nearest manually operated emergency hatch, another crewmember said, "Captain! Look at the view screen – bottom right corner."

E'Larra saw what had caught the crewmember’s attention. "A ship. Can we zoom in on that?"

The crewmember tried various things but nothing happened. "Sorry, Captain, those controls seem to be disabled also. The screen is stuck on its last setting."

They watched as the ship rapidly grew in size on an obvious rendezvous with the stricken freighter.

"How in Varhak did that ship get so close without our sensors detecting it?" E'Larra demanded. Given the short time that they had been disabled, it was still well within the sensor range of their instruments.

The First Officer replied, "I'm guessing sabotage, Captain. What else explains what has happened?"

E'Larra nodded reluctantly. She had suspected as much already, but now it had a dread finality. "Everyone, prepare for hostilities. Sandok, keep trying to get to Engineering, but spread the alarm to everyone on the way. T'Landri, go with him. Everyone else, arm yourselves from the weapons locker and then try your best to get your stations activated again. If this is sabotage, then there may be a way to reverse it."

Sandok and T'Landri armed themselves before making their way to the service tunnel hatch and starting their climb down to the lower levels of the ship through the narrow tunnel that was dimly lit only by emergency lamps. T'Landri took an exit almost immediately. "I'll start warning everyone on this level and work my way down. You better make engineering your priority."

Sandok nodded agreement and continued on down.

T'Landri encountered only a few crewmembers however and soon discovered why. The bridge doors weren't the only ones stuck closed, and most of the crew were trapped in whatever rooms they were in when the blackout began. It didn't take a very large crew to run the ship either, so he was only able to able to find those few who had been travelling along the corridors. He sent them to do the same as he was doing on other decks. Once he encountered banging coming from a translift door but he was unable to do anything for those trapped within. He finally reached the airlock level and saw someone by the door controls.

"Hey! What are you doing? The captain wants everyone prepared for a pirate attack," he told her.

E'Tina smiled and said, "Oh, I'm already prepared. See?" She raised the stunner that she had concealed in one hand and shot him. T'Landri slumped to the floor, deeply unconscious. "It seems that you weren't as prepared though. The captain will be so disappointed in you… if she survives," she added maliciously.

Back on the bridge, E'Larra watched the ship rapidly grow on the screen. Still partially obscured by being half off-screen, it took longer to identify it. Finally she was able to discern that it was an oddball kludge of various starship equipment that had apparently been salvaged… or plundered… from several types of ships. She recognised warp nacelles from a fast cruiser, sensor systems from long-range scout-ships, and reaction engines from yet another source.

"Okay, people, there's no doubt now that we're getting a visit from pirates. Don't underestimate them – they've obviously put a lot of planning into capturing our ship without our being able to fight back, so we're not up against fools. Use the weapons to defend yourselves as best you can, but don't take needless risks. With a bit of luck, we may get out of this with only the loss of our cargo. I don't want to preside over any funerals – understood?"

"Yes, Captain!"

Unexpectedly, the comm burst into life. "Kanawa’s Pride, this is Ganthak’s Claw. Prepare to be boarded. If you know what's good for you, you'll lay down your weapons and cooperate. Give us any trouble and suffer the consequences."

"E'Larra hit the comm button savagely and snarled, "Go to Pardrak, you misbegotten offspring of a stench-worm!"

The only reply was a nasty laugh.

E'Larra said softly, "May A'Bati, the Blessed Lady of Light, look after us in our time of need."

There were murmurs of "Amen" from all the bridge crew.

As E'Larra fumed in anger and frustration, she realised with certainty that their breakdown in the close proximity of the pirate ship was no coincidence. Not only was it sabotage, but it was extremely well executed, certainly an inside job, and seeing as she trusted the family members implicitly, that narrowed it down to a very few people. Belatedly she realised that poor Alandri’s sudden illness had to be one part of the plot.

"If anyone sees E'Tina te Janera, I want you to shoot her without hesitation. If we survive this, we can question her later, but for now she is to be considered as big a threat as that ship out there."

"There were a few surprised looks, but most caught on immediately.

"Yes, Captain!" came a chorus of replies.

Sandok reached Main Engineering to find a scene of frantic activity. He quickly found Chief Engineer Mayondar and asked for a report.

"Report? Everything's dead! It doesn't take an engineer to see that," the irritated Voxxan mel replied.

Sandok was used to the irascible engineer’s manner though, and so he persisted. "Can I tell the captain what you are trying to do about that?"

Mayondar may have been a grumpy mel, but that didn't mean that he wasn't trying his best. "It's obviously computer sabotage. If it had been a total power loss, we would have lost anti-matter containment and died instantaneously. No, this is a very sophisticated attack on the ship’s control systems, so there's no point in looking for failed equipment. Our best bet is to wipe the main computer and re-install from the secure back-ups, and that will remove any malicious instructions. The good news is that it's virtually 100% certain to cure our problems. The bad news is that it's going to take some time as we need to bypass some stuff before we can even begin the reinstallation. That's what we're doing right now. Then it will take fifteen or twenty hannit for the process to complete."

"I don't think we have that much time. We have a pirate ship closing in on us right now."

"You think I didn't guess that? Go back and tell the captain to try to hold out for as long as possible, but praying to A'Bati for a miracle won't hurt either.

Sandok nodded and hastened back in the direction of the bridge. He had not gotten past two decks before he felt the unmistakeable shudder of a ship docking with theirs. "Crap! Looks like we're not going to be getting any miracles today."

He raced as fast as he could towards the bridge once realisation set in, the urgency of the situation lending him new speed. He realised too late he should have been more cautious. Ahead of him was a throng of the boarders who had been let aboard by the traitorous E'Tina, and they showed no signs of stopping for him as they marched up the corridor, brandishing their weapons. Sandok managed to stop in time to raise his hands in surrender, opening his mouth to speak, but it was hopeless. One of the band, gave a confident sneer, raised his rifle and fired before Sandok could utter a word.

Defending the ship was as near to futile as possible under those conditions. The boarding party was armoured against any small arms that the freighter carried. Their progress was virtually unhindered as E'Tina provided the override codes to the frozen doors. The engineering crew tried to barricade themselves in, Mayondar urging them on to greater speed even as he was welding a steel bar across the doors. A heavy-duty beam-cutter suddenly sliced through the obstruction, catching the unfortunate Chief Engineer by surprise and killing him instantly, to the horror of the others.

When the pirates reached the bridge, they were met with a mixture of beam weapons and slug throwers, but they were as ineffective as all other efforts. E'Larra ordered a ceasefire when she realised that the only effect that they were having was causing damage to their own ship. Even then she might have fought on except that she realised that the pirates were only using stun beams and not anything more lethal.

Holding up her hands and making a show of dropping her weapon, E'Larra said, "We surrender. Please don't harm any of my crew."

One of the pirates stepped up to her and lifted the visor, revealing a male Voxxan inside. "Now why would I want to harm any of your crew? The Black Colonies have no use for dead or injured workers."

E'Larra went cold with shock. The Black Colonies were half-legendary unauthorised Voxxan settlements in unknown star systems that were reputed to sustain themselves through a mixture of piracy and slave labour. She now wished that she hadn't surrendered. Better a chance of death than a lifetime of servitude – a pretty short lifetime if half the rumours were true.

"A'Bati curse you!" she spat at him.

The only response was derisive laughter.

Eclipse in charge

Eclipse watched the work crews through the bank of monitors with a touch of envy as they manoeuvred the first of the massive power cores through the skeleton structure of what would be Arisia Gateway’s main power and engineering sphere. The huge primary core and the smaller secondary core had recently arrived from the Luna Power Systems factory, and they marked the near-completion of the primary stage of the space station that would serve the needs of the new colony on the world below. Eclipse very much wanted to be directly involved with the installation of those units which would bring the station up to its full operating capacity, but instead shi was relegated to watching hir space-suited family while she monitored operations and communications from inside the completed Control Centre.

Eclipse stretched hir limber body, the raven-black fur rippling lustrously. Being stuck inside with its artificial gravity field was tiring, and shi wished shi could be in freefall with the others. However, while the Starwalker breed Stellar Foxtaur was physically near identical to the rest of the crew who were also hir family, hir exceptional skills had earned hir promotion to chief of staff plus a privilege. That privilege was currently playing with the three other kits that had been permitted to be conceived early in the project. Eclipse gave Crescent a fond smile. Yes, shi was worth having to stay inside most of the time.

Crescent was also virtually identical to hir kin, but shi stood out by hir attitude. Shi was a cheeky kit, and often made the family laugh. Right now shi was behaving hirself, but shi was nevertheless confined to the playpen in the corner of the control room with the others to prevent hir from getting into mischief. Eclipse watched hir for a few moments before turning hir attention back to the monitors.

The main anti-matter power core massed several hundred tonnes, and it was being very slowly and carefully inched into place with tractor beams operated by hir most skilled kin, while the rest swarmed about it, watching carefully for the slightest problem, and radioing corrections. Although the Starwalkers were bred for living and working in space, they were no less careful than any other spacefarer. There had never been even a modestly serious accident during the entire construction, and they were determined that they would keep that record. Besides, the power cores were the most valuable equipment yet to go into the gateway station, and they commanded the utmost tender loving care.

Arisia Gateway under construction

"Umbra to Eclipse," came a call over the comm.

"Eclipse here. What's up, Umbra?"

"We've reached the halfway point. Everything's going smoothly," Umbra reported.

Eclipse glanced at the clock. "Exactly to schedule, I notice. That's what I like to see."

"Any sign of Kanawa’s Pride yet?"

"No, but if they want their bonus, they will be here on schedule, and that's not due for a couple of hours yet."

"Knowing Captain E'Larra, I'm surprised that she hasn't turned up already to guarantee that bonus."

"That's true, but delays happen. I'll let you know when they make contact."

"OK. Umbra out."

Eclipse pondered what had just been said. Yes, delays did happen, but E'Larra had a faultless record for delivering safely and on time, which is why her shipping company had been contracted for the job. It was most unlike her to be pushing this close to the deadline.

Another hour and a half of nerve-wracking delicate manoeuvring had brought the power core into place before a blip appeared on the 3D display of the station and its surrounds. The computer identified its transponder as belonging to Kanawa’s Pride and Eclipse smiled. On time again. The captain’s record would remain intact even though she would be pushing it very close.

Activating the comm, Eclipse said, "This is Arisia Gateway calling Kanawa’s Pride. Over."

After a moment, the reply came. "This is Kanawa’s Pride, E'Tina speaking. Captain E'Larra sends her regards. Over."

"Thank the captain for me, E'Tina. I don't recall your name. Where's Gallart, the usual comms officer?"

"I'm new as of this voyage. Gallart is off-watch, so you get to talk to me instead. Anyway, what's our approach vector?"

"The vector is the same as all the previous deliveries. Park your ship and await my crew."

"Pardon a newcomer for wanting to do this by the book, but could you transmit the vectors, please?"

Eclipse chuckled. "Gotta look good for the captain, eh? I can appreciate that. Transmitting vectors now."

"Vectors received, thanks. I'll talk to you again on final approach. Over."

"Acknowledged. Arisia Gateway out."

Eclipse toggled the comm again. "Eclipse to Umbra."

"Umbra here."

"Kanawa’s Pride is in system."

"Excellent timing! That'll give the crew time for a break before we need to unload their cargo. Then we can relieve them of some cash too."

"Do you think we could have dinner before your poker game?" Eclipse asked drily.

"Well, if you insist."

"Oh, I do – and I believe the rest of our kin do also."

"There came a chorus of agreements over the common band.

"OK! OK! I get the hint," Umbra conceded.

Eclipse shook hir head. It was hard to believe sometimes that hir one-track minded mate was actually an excellent maintenance chief.

With the power core’s main attachment points fastened, it was time for the whole crew to come in and take a break until Kanawa’s Pride docked. Aster, the second in charge and mother of one of Crescent’s playmates, came to let Eclipse have a break also, and thus shi was on duty when the freighter contacted them for final approach. If Eclipse had been on watch, shi might have wondered why the normally flawless docking procedure was far from E'Larra’s standard, but Aster was not as familiar with the ship and its crew. Nevertheless the ship mated with the main cargo port without undue incident.

"Permission to come aboard?" E'Tina asked.

"Permission granted. Welcome to Arisia Gateway," Aster told her.

"Thank you, Arisia Gateway. You won't believe how eagerly I've been awaiting this. Kanawa’s Pride out."

Aster watched on the monitor as the cargo bay door soon opened and a small party of Voxxans emerged and headed for the personnel transport. That was normal procedure as there was ‘paperwork’ to be done, not to mention an informal meeting between the captain and the chief of staff. While the Starwalkers were on their break, no cargo would be unloaded anyway. Shi noted when the personnel transport reached the administrative sphere and was ready to admit the party when they sought to enter the office.

Three Voxxans entered, although shi had seen five emerge from the ship and shi briefly wondered about that. They were all dressed in flight suits which wasn't unusual, but up close shi could now see that they covered some armouring, which stirred a sense of uneasiness in hir. The male who was in the lead lacked a tail, and shi didn't much like his smile. Nevertheless shi maintained a sense of professionalism and smiled cordially.

"Welcome again to Arisia Gateway. My name is Aster, and if you will give me your manifest and shipping licence, I'll get the bureaucratic stuff out of the way. We'll be ready to unload you as soon as the others finish their meal break."

"A slight change of plans," the tailless one responded. "We'll be taking instead of bringing."

"Wha… what are you talking about?" Aster asked, taking a step back nervously.

He drew a weapon from a leg pouch, closely followed by the male and female accompanying him. "I mean that we'll be relieving you of those power cores. Now step away from that comms panel or you're going to be short one limb."

"You're a pirate!" exclaimed Aster.

"More than just any pirate; you're talking to Kaldarr the Tailless, and if you know what's good for you, you won't give me any trouble."

Aster did as shi was told and moved over to where the kits were playing, worried about what the pirates might do to them.

"Well, isn't that nice?" E'Tina said. "You've got the kits here. How convenient."

Aster and kit

"You keep away from them!" Aster said with hir hackles raising.

Kaldarr laughed unpleasantly. "Don't worry – we won't hurt them, just as long as you all cooperate."

Aster didn't need to be told what might happen if shi didn't cooperate. Shi growled angrily but backed off.

Kaldarr went to the comms panel and changed the settings, then hit the transmit button. "Kaldarr to Ganthak’s Claw. Bring the ship in."

A voice quickly responded. "Yes, Captain. Did they give you any trouble?"

Kaldarr smiled maliciously. "No. In fact I was given a pleasant welcome. However, for some reason they didn't like my change of plans."

There was a bark of laughter from the other end. "They never do. Ganthak’s Claw out."

Kaldarr then made another call. "Kaldarr to Kanawa’s Pride."

"Kanawa’s Pride here," came the prompt reply.

"We're in luck – the whole crew is inside for their meal break. Set up just a basic guard outside, and the rest take up positions as planned."

"Will do, Captain. Kanawa’s Pride out."

Aster watched the monitor as dozens of pirates suddenly flooded out of the cargo bay hatch, armed with rifles and stunners. They obviously knew where they were headed as groups peeled off to different destinations. Shi cursed hirself for letting the pirates simply walk right in, despite the uncommissioned station simply not needing the extra security as yet. If they survived this, that would definitely have to change!

Down in the mess hall, most of the Starwalkers were in the middle of their meal, eating with a well-earned appetite. Due to the time and difficulty involved in getting in and out of their spacesuits, the ones who were going back outside were still wearing theirs, albeit without the helmet and gloves. The others who were needed to help with the unloading of the control equipment from Kanawa’s Pride had taken theirs off however, and had begun their meal a little later.

There was not a single one prepared for the sight of Voxxans in battle gear pouring into the mess hall, nor was there the slightest chance of resistance. The few staff still at duty stations had no warning whatsoever and were quickly rounded up. Eclipse, who was returning with a tray of food for the kits, didn't even notice the situation in the control room until too late. Within a matter of minutes, Arisia Gateway station was under the complete control of the pirates without a shot being fired.

Eclipse stared defiantly at Kaldarr and said, "So what happens now?"

"Are you in charge here?" Kaldarr asked.

"Yes, I am," Eclipse replied.

"Then you will tell everyone to suit up and load the power cores onto my ship, of course," Kaldarr replied as if it should be perfectly obvious.

"Your ship? Kanawa’s Pride isn't yours. Besides it isn't built for transporting those kind of things."

"I'm not talking about that ship." Kaldarr changed the view on the screen to show another ship approaching. "That's my ship, and the Claw can handle anything."

"And what if we don't cooperate?"

"Then my colleague will start shooting your dear kits one at a time until you do."

E'Tina backed up Kaldarr’s words by grabbing the nearest kit and putting hir weapon up to hir head. Crescent whimpered in distress.

"Bastard!" Eclipse snarled as shi leaped up to punch him on the snout.

The third pirate grabbed Eclipse’s arms and restrained hir. Kaldarr rubbed his abused muzzle and sneered at hir. "You get that one for free. Next time you die! Now you two will join the other four-legged freaks and organise getting those power cores onto my ship quickly. We don't want anyone down on the planet to notice that it's gotten quiet up here and get curious."

At their prodding, Eclipse and Aster started out of the office, followed closely by Kaldarr and E'Tina. They noticed that the third pirate stayed with the children though. Neither of them had any idea how long the kits would stay safe, but for now they would do as they were told.

Eclipse said, "It took us hours to get the main core into place. It won't be any quicker getting it out."

"Don't get smart. I know that you put in a big safety margin. You're going to get that core out in half the time, or else!"

Eclipse didn't need to be reminded what the ‘or else’ was.

Eclipse and Aster were brought to the mess hall where everyone had been detained. A quick head count told Eclipse that aside from the children, the pirates had found every member of the crew. There didn't seem to be anything that shi could do besides play along… for now.

Kaldarr frowned as he looked at the crowd. "How in Pardrak do you tell yourselves apart?" he asked irritably.

The pirate had a point. Unlike the Voxxans with their varied fur colours and patterns, the Starwalkers were uniformly black and of very similar build. Aster and Eclipse had been wearing slightly different uniform tops, but the majority of the crew wore either the spacesuits or the same basic top with comm badge. "By scent and voice," Eclipse replied. "We have no trouble telling each other apart."

"Does that different uniform show that you're the one in charge?" Kaldarr asked.

"Yes it does."

"You will keep that uniform on so that I can keep track of you. Try to take it off and you will be punished. Now instruct your crew to start loading the cores into my ship."

"Understood," Eclipse said sourly. Shi reared up to put hir forelegs up on a table and called for attention, then proceeded to explain the situation. "The pirates have got complete control of the station. They also have our children, and their safety depends on our total cooperation."

There was an angry rumble at that announcement. Although they numbered three dozen, they were far more than just co-workers. They were a clan – a single family unit, and while very few were actual mothers or sires as yet, the children were regarded as belonging to all, and everyone participated in the care and raising of the kits. To threaten any kit was to anger every Starwalker in the clan.

Eclipse continued, "Both power cores are to be loaded onto the pirates’ ship and in the fastest possible time. It has been made very clear to me what the consequences will be if we delay. We will work in two teams. Umbra – you will take two thirds of the crew to remove the main power core. Meteor – you're in charge of the second team to get the auxiliary core loaded, then help the first team when you're done. Let's move fast on this, and we should all come through okay." Privately shi thought, ‘At least I hope so.

There were looks of doubt and concern on everyone’s faces as they moved to comply. Eclipse didn't need to ask to know that they were all wondering what exactly was going to happen when they completed their tasks, but being outnumbered by pirates didn't give them any options.

Eclipse caught Albedo’s eye and gave hir a discreet sign.

{Yes, Eclipse?} came Albedo’s voice in hir mind.

Just as with most other morph species, the Starwalkers had the potential for the rare random psionic Talent to pop up unexpectedly, and Albedo was theirs. Hir telepathic ability was rated at only T2.8 which was very limited, but shi could mentally ‘talk’ to any member of the clan in the immediate area of the station, and partially to non-family when touching them, which was pretty useless just about anywhere except the vacuum of space.

Eclipse sub-vocalised hir reply, which was the best way of making hir thoughts clear enough for Albedo to ‘read’. {I want you to contact everyone and let them know to look out for opportunities to overturn this situation. However, I don't want anyone to take any action without my approval, and no unnecessary risks are to be taken. There aren't any guarantees, but we might get through this unscathed if we don't make any trouble.}

Eclipse saw Albedo nod. {Understood,} shi replied.

When the last of the crew filed out under the watchful gaze of the guards, Kaldarr roughly jabbed Eclipse with his weapon and said, "Back to the control room. We're going to watch your people very carefully."

As they walked, Eclipse asked, "What happened to the crew of Kanawa’s Pride? Did you kill them?"

Kaldarr grinned nastily. "Only two who made the mistake of trying to fight back. The rest are locked up."

"And what will happen to them?"

"None of your business. You just make sure that your people don't try anything foolish like they did."

"When they got to the control room, they found all the kits crying and the pirate left guarding them yelling at them to shut up.

"Stop it!" Eclipse said and began to move towards the children, only to be held back by E'Tina. Eclipse glared at her and gestured at the abandoned tray of food. "They're hungry and upset. Unless you like listening to this, you'd better let me feed and comfort them."

E'Tina glanced at Kaldarr who nodded. She let the foxtaur go and Eclipse hastened over to the penned-off area to cuddle hir daughter. The other kits joined in the huddle to share in the comfort, and they quickly quietened. Then Eclipse retrieved the food and passed it around. The youngest was still being weaned, but Eclipse was no longer lactating, so shi couldn't do more for the child than to feed hir the mush that Aster had brought along to supplement hir milk. Thankfully it seemed to be enough for the moment. Eclipse dreaded to think how the pirates might react to a constantly complaining infant.

Kaldarr sat down at the controller’s desk on a crate that had been stacked aside. "Damn four-leggers don't even have some decent chairs," he grumbled.

Eclipse didn't bother informing him of the chairs that had been stored in the adjacent room against the time when the control room would be fully operational and run by a mixture of species. Shi did notice that despite the discomfort, his eyes never left the various screens that monitored what was happening all over the station. Once he instructed Eclipse to adjust some monitors to cover his ship and the progress that was being made in moving the cores.

Eclipse stressed over the dangerous speed at which they were working, but was proud of hir kin’s flawless performance despite that. At least Kaldarr seemed satisfied with the rate of progress. Despite hirself, Eclipse also had to admire the pirates’ ruthless efficiency. They had obviously planned this minutely and the various members knew exactly what they had to do, which left no opportunities to fight back. Albedo occasionally contacted Eclipse to let hir know that the situation was unchanged. Shi was a little disheartened by that, but unsurprised. Shi still held out hope that the Starwalkers’ good performance might win Kaldarr’s favour.

The kits behaved themselves mostly, perhaps sensing the seriousness of the situation. Two took naps, and Eclipse kept the other two amused as best as shi could. E'Tina grew bored of watching over them and grumbled to Kaldarr who told her to shut up. Once though when a kit moved out of Eclipse’s reach, whining and complaining, E'Tina gave hir a swift kick, causing hir to yelp and start crying. Eclipse gathered up the hurt kit, snarling at the cruel Voxxan.

Eventually the Starwalkers completed transfer of the cores, and they all started heading for the cargo bay airlock to come back inside. Kaldarr stood up and ordered Eclipse to go to the airlock with him.

"What about the kits?" shi asked.

"Forget them for now. Move!"

Eclipse reluctantly obeyed, and they made their way to the cargo bay. There shi found all hir kin standing around with their helmets off, but otherwise waiting for further instructions from their pirate guards.

"I want six people to carry goods into Kanawa’s Pride," Kaldarr said.

Eclipse selected six and their Voxxan captors led them off to the goods that they wanted loaded. As soon as they were out of sight, Eclipse asked, "Now that we've done what you've asked, can you let the mothers go to their kits?" Shi had deliberately withheld them from the selection in that hope.

"I don't think so," Kaldarr replied. "I don't trust you, and I don't really need you any more anyway."

"What do you mean by that?" Eclipse asked with a sinking heart.

"I mean that you're a liability to me. The crew of Kanawa’s Pride will make good workers that I can sell to the Black Colonies, but they won't accept freaks like you. You're not built for planet-side labour anyway."

Eclipse’s worst fears were being realised. This pirate seemed utterly without mercy. Shi had one last desperate idea though, and shi needed to try to manoeuvre Kaldarr into it. "Then if you leave us behind, you know that we're going to get Star Fleet onto you as soon as possible, and we can identify you."

Kaldarr’s nasty grin never faded. "Do you know why almost nobody knows my name?"

Eclipse shook hir head. "No, I don't."

"Because I don't leave witnesses."

"So what are you going to do," shi said fearfully. "Shove us out the airlock?" Eclipse noticed a few startled looks from the other Starwalkers.

"That seems like an excellent suggestion to me. No one I've ever sent out on a space walk without a pressure suit has ever given me a moment’s trouble." Kaldarr seemed to be enjoying making them anticipate their fate.

"You slimy son of a bitch! Are you going to do the same to innocent kits also?"

"No, I was thinking that they'd make nice pets with the right training. Good toys for the crew’s amusement."

Eclipse was livid with fury, and the growls of the others showed that they felt likewise. "I'm going to make you pay for that," shi promised.

Kaldarr, E'Tina and pirates

Kaldarr laughed uproariously. "Oh, you are amusing. I'll have to look out for your ghost." His expression changed abruptly and he faced the guards. "Put them all in the airlock, and make sure none of them has a helmet or other breathing apparatus."

The guards started shoving the Starwalkers into the airlock. The foxtaurs snapped at any hand that came near, but a few whacks from the butt of a rifle persuaded them to keep going.

E'Tina was the one who pushed the button to close the airlock’s inner door. Once closed, it blocked all sound except a few muffled thumps on the door, but Kaldarr and E'Tina could still see the Starwalkers through the adjacent observation port. They were panicking as the moment of truth approached, some of them pounding futilely on the door while others clung to their kin in fear.

"Let me do it, Kaldarr," E'Tina asked.

"You are getting a little too vicious, my dear. You won't be as useful to me as a saboteur if you can't keep that under control."

"You know you like it though," she said as she pressed her body up against his.

"I do indeed," he replied as he fondled her briefly. Then he said, "Do it!"

E'Tina grinned and hit the button to open the outer airlock door. An alarm sounded to warn that the air had not been cycled out of the airlock as yet, but she overrode it. The artificial gravity turned off and the door began opening.

The fear on the foxtaurs’ faces turned to utter panic as the air rushed out. They hung onto whatever they could to try to avoid being blown out. A couple of them weren't so lucky and were sent whirling out of the door and into the void. The outrushing air dragged a few more over the rim, and then they were gone. Just a few were left desperately hanging on when the last of the air was sucked out into space.

Kaldarr said, "Looks like some might be thinking of trying to hang on and survive for long enough to try sneaking back in when we leave. You stay here and make sure they are good and dead."

"Right, Kaldarr dear," E'Tina replied, but her eyes were still on the death struggles though.

He continued, "If any remain in the airlock, I want you to go in there and shove them out. We don't want to leave any evidence of what happened here. Besides, we don't want the last six to panic when we get rid of them also. They might try something stupid if they see the corpses."

"I'm not your lackey," grumbled E'Tina, her eyes never leaving the window.

"You take the bad with the good, my dear. I'll be watching the others to make sure they don't get carried away. We need to be moving off soon."

E'Tina reluctantly conceded and Kaldarr walked off chuckling. That one was going to bear watching.

Drifting in space

E'Tina watched with evil satisfaction as the last of them stopped struggling and drifted inertly. They had lasted much longer than anticipated, which only gave her more of a thrill at snuffing out their lives. Then she grunted with annoyance as she realised that several of them weren't going to drift out of the airlock. She picked up her helmet and locked it into place, checked the pressure gauges on her sleeve, and then stepped into the adjacent personnel airlock. She cycled the air and the artificial gravity automatically switched off. She opened the outer door, located a tether just outside, and secured herself with a line. She then pushed herself off in the direction of the nearest body. She grabbed an arm in passing and allowed her momentum to pull them both towards the wall of the cargo bay where she could brace herself to shove the corpse into space. At least, that was her intention.

Suddenly the corpse came alive and its hands grabbed her arms. Then it pulled itself closer and grasped her spacesuit with dexterous pawhands also. E'Tina gasped in shock as she gazed into the eyes of the supposedly dead foxtaur. Instead of the normal yellow iris and black pupil, solid gold orbs riveted her gaze, and her victim grinned nastily at her.

{Let's see how long you can breathe vacuum,} Albedo's voice seemed to say in her head. Then the foxtaur swung a heavy spanner that shi had taken from hir toolbelt and smashed it through the Voxxan's visor. Momentum slammed it into her muzzle and blood spurted out. The air pressure blew the shards and gobs of blood out of the helmet and it spattered on Albedo's black fur. E'Tina felt the air ripped from her lungs as she struggled to free herself from this impossible situation. Her mind could not accept that the Starwalker could be still be alive and fighting despite being naked to the vacuum of space, and she died never knowing the truth.

Albedo felt a tap on hir arm and turned to see Eclipse next to hir. Shi had drifted close enough to a wall to a wall to shove off to come help Albedo if needed. Shi tapped hir head and Albedo opened hir mind to hir.

{Take her weapons,} Eclipse instructed.

Shi did so, and Eclipse shoved the Voxxan’s body out of the bay with immense satisfaction.

{What now?} Albedo asked as shi handed one of the guns to Eclipse.

{First call the others back.}

Albedo sent out a mental call, and soon all the foxtaurs were regrouping, none the worse for being out in the harsh environment of space. Eclipse was relieved that hir gambit had worked. When it became obvious that they were going to be killed, shi had had to try to manipulate Kaldarr to kill them hir way, gambling on the Voxxan not knowing that the Starwalkers were especially bred to survive exposure to space. All their orifices automatically sealed at the drop of pressure, a radiation reflective golden third eyelid protected the vulnerable eyes, and their tough hide easily retained internal pressure. The black pigment of their fur blocked solar emissions, and a large oxygen reserve allowed them to cope with the harsh conditions outside of the station for about an hour, more or less, depending on how active they were. Now it was time to use that advantage plus surprise to turn the tables on the pirates.

Those Starwalkers who had made a show of struggling not to be blown out into space had actually let themselves be pushed over the rim of the cargo bay door where they swung themselves out of sight, hanging onto the numerous handholds there until they were called back. The ones in the helmetless spacesuits who had been sent whirling out into space, drew themselves back on safety lines that they had secretly attached while pretending to panic. Soon they were all gathered again.

A mental laugh was followed by Albedo broadcasting, {Meteor says – ‘Don't throw us in the brier patch, Brer Fox!’}

Eclipse grinned, as did all the others who recognised the quote. Then shi turned serious again. {Albedo, tell Stardust, Neptune and Meteor to make teams. Stardust goes to the pirate ship, Neptune to Kanawa’s Pride, and Meteor to the engineering sphere. A fourth team will be going back inside with me.}

Albedo nodded and passed that on.

Eclipse continued, {Tell Meteor that hir task is to cut the gravity in the station, and all but the emergency lighting. Freefall and darkness are our allies.}

After a moment, Albedo telepathed, {Done.}

{OK. Tell the six inside to watch out for this and make a break if it's safe.}

After a longer moment, Albedo nodded. {Done.}

{Tell everyone not to take risks, but remember we might not have much more time before the pirates pack up and leave, and dispose of our kin.}

Albedo did so, and the others gestured acknowledgement and moved off on their assigned tasks.

{You're with me, Albedo,} Eclipse thought as shi moved towards the airlock.

{Right,} Albedo replied tiredly.

{Are you okay?}

{I'm not used to using my telepathy so much. It's really tiring me out.}

{Sorry about that, but your Talent is a badly needed advantage right now.}

{I know. I'll be alright.}

Eclipse could not see everywhere through the observation port, but the area seemed clear. Shi guessed that the pirates were all now busy with their looting, so shi felt reasonably confident that they could re-enter unnoticed.

The small personnel airlock had not been intended to be used by so many people at once, so they had to use it in two cycles. Once inside, their eyes returned to normal and they panted – not because they were stressed from being in vacuum, but to rapidly replenish their oxygen supply in case of the need to go back into space.

Glad to be able to speak again, Eclipse said, "Our first priority is to ensure the safety of the kits. Until we get them away from the pirates, they can be used as hostages. Unfortunately they're still in the control centre, which means that we will have to get past the looters. Fortunately we have the option of using service ducts and passageways that the pirates probably don't know about. Everybody find something to use as a weapon, but try to avoid engaging any of them until we have the kits.

The Starwalkers spread out, looking for weapons. They came back with a motley assortment of pipes, beam-cutters and other tools. Eclipse had E'Tina’s pistol while Albedo had the stunner. When everyone was armed, they set off on their rescue mission.

Starwalker entering airlock

The pirate crew was spread thin. Most were on the space station either looting or watching over the remaining foxtaurs. After the power cores had been secured in their hold, all but two of the crew had left to grab whatever valuables they could find to add to their personal stash. Asinok and N'Gandi were left on watch, which they were doing with ill grace. However, they had displeased Kaldarr, and this was their punishment. They both knew that the only thing that they had to do was monitor for communications or approaching starships that could mean trouble for the pirates, but that was all being done automatically anyway. Instead, Asinok was going through his porn collection while N'Gandi was stuffing his muzzle down in the galley. Neither therefore noticed an airlock being opened from the outside.

Stardust’s team of Starwalkers had a direct line-of-sight jump from the cargo bay to the pirate ship’s airlock, and they had no opposition when they entered. They were delighted to find a weapons locker directly adjacent and quickly armed themselves. Although none had ever taken weapons training, they didn't take long to figure out how to arm the weapons, and they went off on the hunt.

Starwalkers invade the pirate's bridge

The first Asinok knew that something was wrong was when Stardust shoved the barrel of hir rifle against his head. He'd heard the bridge door open, but thought that it was N'Gandi coming back and didn't even bother looking. Then he felt the cold barrel against his skull and an unfamiliar voice said, "Please give me an excuse to blow your brains out."

Asinok was a greedy, nasty pervert, but he was not stupid. He brought up his hands in surrender and slowly looked around to see several armed Starwalkers on the bridge.

"How many of you are on this ship right now?" Stardust asked.

Asinok didn't answer.

Stardust gave a weary sigh. "Let me put it this way, dickhead – your captain just sent most of my family to their deaths. Just because he didn't succeed doesn't mean I'm going to be any more lenient or any less pissed off. You can answer my questions or you can be shoved out an airlock. Both options appeal to me. Choose!"

Asinok could recognise a real threat when he heard one. He considered lying, but with only N'Gandi on board, the chances of turning the situation around were next to none. "Two including myself," he answered.

"Where's the other?"

"Not sure, but he might be in the galley."

"Which is where?"

"Three decks down."

Stardust sent most of the team down together, leaving only two others to help hir watch the Voxxan. "Bring that other pirate back here, then secure the ship. Go in groups of two or three at least. I don't want to find out the hard way that this prick is lying."

N'Gandi nearly choked to death on a Gurrunek sandwich when he was surprised by the Starwalkers. They stood by him without offering to help, half hoping that the food would do him in and save them the trouble of having to deal with another prisoner. However, he recovered and meekly followed their instructions.

Back on the bridge, Stardust received a report over the comm that N'Gandi had been captured. A few minutes later, Nebula also used the comm to tell Stardust some good news.

"Guess what we found?" Nebula said excitedly.

"More pirates?" guessed Stardust.

"Oh no, much better than that!"

Eclipse’s team had made good time using the service ducts and short cuts. As they had hoped, the pirates seemed unaware of them, a fact that they hoped to put good use liberating the six Starwalkers still being held. Shi told Albedo to pass on the good news.

Albedo nodded and did so, then wobbled slightly.

Eclipse put hir arm around Albedo and asked with great concern, "Are you okay? You look exhausted."

Albedo waved hir hand dismissively. "I'm just tired. I'll be alright."

"Do you want to rest for a few minutes?"

"No! The kits are far more important." Shi suddenly brightened a little. "I just got good news. Stardust has taken control of the pirates’ ship."

"Already? That was quick."

"Shi says that there were only two aboard. The others are on Kanawa’s Pride and the station." Shi seemed to listen a bit more, then shi grinned. "They've found the crew of Kanawa’s Pride. Most of them were in stasis, but Captain E'Larra and a few others were in the brig. They're manning the pirate ship as we speak." The news seemed to bolster the tired Starwalker.

"Excellent news. Ask Stardust to organise the Pride’s crew to back up Neptune’s team and re-take their ship, and let Neptune know that they're available.

Albedo did so, and hir grin faded. "That help may be badly needed," shi reported.

Neptune didn't need to be told that hir task was likely to be the hardest, hence why shi had the biggest team. With so many of the pirates on board Kanawa’s Pride or watching over their kin hauling loot into its cargo bay, there would be a lot of pairs of eyes that might potentially spot them. Shi had used signs to hir kin to indicate that shi wanted them to remove the useless spacesuits and to remove anything else that might attract attention. The only things they retained were objects that would be good makeshift weapons. Shi sent a pair of Starwalkers to the personnel airlock adjacent to the bay that Kanawa’s Pride’s docking tube was attached, but signalled that they were to wait there until the engineering team did its thing. Shi then took the others to the airlocks on the starship. This was a little trickier than negotiating the space station because the starship did not have the multiple handholds that the Starwalkers used regularly. Nevertheless a ship that is travelling through the frictionless vacuum of space normally has sensors and communication arrays extruded from the hull after leaving the atmosphere. The foxtaurs took advantage of all of them with uncanny skill to quickly and safely move into position.

At the first airlock, they spotted a Voxxan through the portal, so they moved on to the next. A careful look revealed nobody in sight, but Neptune waited a few minutes just to be on the safe side. When shi was fairly sure that the route was not being used, shi started getting hir team inside.

The first group stood guard and recharge panted while the next group entered. Then the third and final group squeezed into the airlock. Neptune fretted over the time spent doing three cycles. Shi knew that a status monitor on the bridge should show the airlock being used, but shi hoped that it would not be being watched at this time. When the third team got inside without incident, Neptune decided that their gamble had paid off.

Now that shi could breathe again, Neptune could also talk. While the Starwalkers had a fairly sophisticated system of signals that they used instead of unnecessarily cluttering up the radio band, it could not deal with subtleties. "Our first priority is to gain control of the bridge and main engineering. We must try to prevent communication with the pirates outside, so if any of us are spotted, they won't get forewarned. They outnumber us, and certainly have better weapons. Sputnik – you should know your way around the best because you've been on this ship and in main engineering before, so take half the team and secure it if possible. Cut the gravity and lights when the station does, if you can tell when it happens or get the message from Albedo."

Sputnik said, "Right!" and selected hir sub-team. Shi then led them down an access tube to do their assigned task.

Neptune then led the others over to the trans-lift and pushed the call button. While waiting for the lift, shi said, "Unfortunately I don't know any other way onto the bridge aside from the direct one, so we're going to have to rely on surprise rather than sneaking up on them. When the doors open, we…."

Just then the trans-lift doors opened to reveal one of the Voxxan pirates. He looked startled, then began to fumble for his weapon as he said, ""What in Pardrak are you doing here?"

Neptune lunged for the Voxxan, knocking his arm up and spoiling the shot that was fired. Shi struggled to get a hold to restrain him, but he was much stronger than hir, and he was regaining control of his weapon. Then suddenly he went limp and Neptune looked up to see a hammer buried in his skull. Looking around to see who had wielded it, shi saw Sunray looking at the bloody result with a mixture of revulsion and satisfaction. Sunray was the mother of one of the kits, so Neptune could hardly fault hir for extreme action. Nevertheless shi still felt a bit queasy at the thought of killing a sentient being. Shi made hirself focus on the task though, and said, "Take his weapon and put him in a room out of sight, then get back here quickly. We don't know if he'll be missed."

They quickly disposed of him while Neptune held the lift, then they crowded in and sent it on its way to the bridge.

"As I was saying, when we get on the bridge, everybody spread out and yell. We want to create as much confusion as possible for anybody on the bridge. And for the Makers’ sake, be like Sunray and don't hesitate to use your weapons, because they certainly won't."

Shi wanted to say more, but the trans-lift came to a halt and the doors opened. However, years as working as a family team coordinated their efforts almost as if they had rehearsed it. The three Voxxans on watch were taken by complete surprise, and the rapidly moving foxtaurs confused them long enough for the Starwalkers to close on their targets. Two were bludgeoned unconscious, while the third was accidentally killed with the liberated weapon being operated by inexperienced hands.

The Starwalkers stood around for a moment, their hearts racing from a mixture of exertion and fear. Neptune shook hirself and rapidly assessed the situation. "Sunray, you stand guard on the trans-lift doors, but keep an eye on the secondary doors too. Be prepared to shoot anyone who come up here. Everybody else – check out the status of the systems and see if you can ascertain where the pirates are on this ship. Also try to find out if Sputnik has gotten to Main Engineering yet, and if shi has, whether shi's gotten control."

Everyone set about their tasks while Sunray grimly stood guard.

Because of an exchange of engineering favours, Sputnik had had the chance to get partially familiar with the layout of Kanawa’s Pride. Shi therefore was able to take hir team by the most direct route, which meant using some of the maintenance passageways. However those could only take them part of the way. Inevitably they had to take a main corridor to get to engineering. As shi poked hir head out of the door, shi had the bad luck of being seen immediately.

"Hey! Come back here! Get back onto the station. You're not supposed to come up here. Where are your guards?"

The irate pirate had obviously mistaken hir for one of the six who had been conscripted to carry things. Shi closed the door quickly so that he wouldn't see the others, and made as if to comply. The pirate followed hir and did not notice the door re-open. Moments later, he was felled by a blow from a length of pipe, and for a moment Sputnik thought that they had gotten away with it without raising an alarm. Shi was quickly disabused of that notion.

Shouts came from the engineering room ahead. Sputnik was dismayed to see its heavy doors cut loose, leaving the corridor wide open to view by the occupants, one of whom had witnessed the attack.

"Everyone get them!" Sputnik shouted. "Don't let them raise the alarm!"

Sputnik attacks a pirate

Shi was already racing ahead as shi spoke. Shi immediately spotted two more Voxxans besides the one who had shouted. Despite that one already reacting, shi ignored her in favour of the one nearest the comm. He had already reached for it when Sputnik hurtled into him, hir vibe-knife plunging into his hand. Designed to cut metal, the vibe-knife was far less effective against soft organic materials, but it could still inflict terrible damage. The Voxxan screamed in agony, clutching the ruined hand to his chest. Sputnik hesitated – shi didn't have a way to restrain him, but shi did not want to kill him either. Just then another scream distracted hir, this one in a more familiar voice.

While Sputnik had been occupied, the others had charged in, their quick darting movements causing the Voxxan fem to miss her shots before being overwhelmed by several foxtaurs. However, the third Voxxan was furthest away, and he'd had more time to take aim. Luna was on the floor, bleeding profusely from a wound on hir upper foreleg. The other Starwalkers piled onto the Voxxan before he could target another victim.

The back of Sputnik’s head exploded with pain and shi staggered to the floor. Gritting hir teeth, shi looked around to see the Voxxan that shi had injured, dropping the piece of equipment that he had hit hir with, and attempting to reach the comm. Sputnik bucked and lashed out with both hind legs, hitting him squarely in the groin. Voxxan males shared a similar vulnerability to most Terran males, and he doubled over in disabling agony.

Despite what he did, Sputnik still could not kill the pirate in cold blood. Shi ordered that the three be locked away, and they managed to find some cables to use as improvised ropes. Now more of them were armed with real weapons, and they were going to need them. While rubbing hir pounding head, Sputnik examined the broken doors.

"No way we're going to be able to secure engineering with the doors in this condition," Titan observed.

Sputnik nodded. "We're going to have to stay alert and pretty much shoot on sight, or else we're going to be in big trouble. You and Io stand guard for now. We only won this fight because we caught the pirates off guard, so don't let that happen to us." Shi turned and saw Parsec tending to Luna. "How is shi?" Sputnik asked worriedly.

Parsec replied, "I think I've managed to stop the blood loss with this makeshift bandage, but we really need to get hir to sick bay as soon as possible."

"Yeah, but how? Look how much trouble we've had so far, and we don't even know how Neptune’s team is doing. I don't dare try calling the bridge. Damn, I'm sorry I ever teased Albedo about hir telepathy, because I sure could use it now."

"I suppose all we can do is what Neptune told us to do for now," Parsec commented.

Sputnik looked around some more and examined some of the equipment. "Looks like they've been repairing the damage that they did when breaking in." Shi tapped a few keys on a console. "Looks like everything is in good shape. Here are the controls for the gravity systems… and here are the lighting controls. Hmmm… Zenith – you better take the lighting and sort out what we can and cannot turn off. We want darkness, not pitch black."

Zenith stepped up to the adjacent console and Sputnik transferred the lighting controls over to it. Zenith started keying in some cut-offs to be triggered simultaneously on command.

Sputnik only had to prepare one thing – turning off the gravity plates ship-wide. As shi worked on that, Albedo finally contacted hir. Sputnik felt nearly giddy with relief when the good news was relayed to hir. Shi then replied, {We need to kill the lights and gravity as soon as possible because we're too vulnerable right now. How is Meteor’s team progressing?}

Meteor’s team had to travel the furthest to reach its destination. Normally a quick trip by the station’s internal transit, or a graceful jetpack flight outside, they instead had to cross to the opposite side of the circular structure entirely by moving from one handhold to the next. Even with paws that grasped as well as hands, it was a difficult task to traverse that distance without safety gear to fall back on, so they were far more cautious than normal. However, once they got to the open latticework that was half of the engineering sphere, they had plenty of options for entering. Many passageways that would in the future traverse the sphere were currently sealed off until the power cores were in place and the hull sealed off. However some passageways had temporary airlocks fitted to them, and they availed themselves of the one closest to their goal. As expected, none of the pirates were there as they were now only interested in looting from the administration & habitation sphere. Nevertheless they kept alert for the exception, but they ended up having no trouble accessing the Main Engineering.

"We need to isolate the Control Centre’s circuits first," Meteor instructed. "We don't want any pirates in there to see what we're doing or override our efforts."

They could not simply cut the circuits as that would sound an alarm. Once they had them bypassed though, it was simply a matter of waiting for the signal. While they waited however, they could look around and assess the situation in relative safety. Various monitors still showed their kin hauling loads from the station to the hijacked ship. They were tempted to look into the Control Centre also, but there was no safe way of doing so without alerting whoever was in there, so they refrained.

Having to wait was getting on their nerves, but at last Albedo made contact.

Eclipse carefully looked out of the access hatch. Spotting no one, shi beckoned to the others to follow hir out. They had to travel the last stretch in the open corridor. The Control Centre was designed to be a secure room, so there was only one way in, and no way to totally surprise anyone inside.

Eclipse frowned in regret. If they'd only had treated it as a secure room, the pirates would never have gotten total control over the station, nor have four Starwalker kits as hostages. No, because the Gateway station was not yet completed and open for business, they had been unconcerned about security. That would definitely have to change if they got through this okay.

"Albedo, can you tell if the kits are still in the Control Centre?" Eclipse asked.

Albedo concentrated, then nodded. "Yes, they are."

"Can you tell if there's more than one guard?"

Albedo tried. Shi shook hir head. "Sorry, I'm just not sensitive enough."

"Never mind," Eclipse said in an understanding tone. "We need a distraction. Is it possible to get the kits all start screaming and crying?"

"That much I think I can do. It feels as if they are halfway there already."

Albedo’s eyes lost focus as shi concentrated. Then shi said, "Now!"

Eclipse attacks a pirate

Eclipse keyed in hir code to open the Control Centre’s door and rushed inside, closely followed by the others. Shi immediately spotted the Voxxan guard that had been left there. He had a stranglehold on one of the kits, shaking hir and yelling at them all to shut up. Eclipse screamed in anger and hurled hirself at him, but shi didn't do it alone. The Voxxan barely had a moment to look startled before several foxtaurs crashed into him. Limbs flailed, punches flew, and then the struggling stopped. The Starwalkers carefully got off the fallen Voxxan, but quickly realised that he would not be giving them any more trouble. No one ever knew who landed the fatal blow, but all would be happy to claim credit later.

Comet was hugging and soothing the abused kit whom shi had sired. Shi tried to examine hir as best as shi could while soothing hir. Much to hir relief, little Sundog seemed to be okay, but shi intended to take hir to see a medic as soon as possible anyway.

Eclipse said, "Everybody focus! Secure the room, then take up positions at environmental control, security and communications. Albedo, let everyone know that the kits are safe and to prepare for zero gee. It's time to fight back on our terms!"

{Meteor – are you ready?}

{Just say the word, Albedo,} Meteor subvocalised to focus hir thoughts.

{Neptune’s team is ready to coordinate with you. First I'll warn everyone else and then give you a countdown.} Albedo then switched to a broadcast that all the Starwalkers would ‘hear’. {Everyone – prepare for imminent gravity loss and emergency lighting only in five…four…three….}

Kaldarr was getting very irritated. Many months of planning, spying and bribing had gone into this two-stage venture. The hijacking of Kanawa’s Pride and the takeover of Arisia Gateway had gone off without a problem. They had their prizes – the secondary power core alone would reap a princely sum. The main core would make every crew member rich. They ought to be making a clean getaway right now. Instead, the majority of the crew were looting trinkets and toys. He sighed. The drawback of having a crew of pirates was the need to keep them constantly placated. In return for months of inactivity while Kaldarr and his aides had plotted, he had had to promise them the opportunity to add to their personal stashes. Kaldarr’s patience was wearing thin though.

He suddenly realised that E'Tina still had not rejoined with him. Even if she had needed to clear a few corpses as he had instructed, she still should have been done by now. He activated his comm and said, "Kaldarr to E'Tina. Where are you?" He waited for a response, but when he got none, he tried again. "Kaldarr to E'Tina. Answer me, girl!" There was nothing but silence. Kaldarr frowned. "That girl had better not be pulling one of her pranks now." He tried the comm once more. "Kaldarr to everybody – has anyone seen E'Tina?"

Again there was no response.

Kaldarr was beginning to get a bad feeling. "Kaldarr to Ganthak’s Claw – has E'Tina boarded the ship? … … Asinok, if you're goofing off again, I'll rip your fur off your hide! Answer me!"

On board the pirate ship, Stardust could only listen in trepidation. The cat was almost out of the bag, and the Starwalkers needed to act immediately. Shi hoped that their own preparations were ready.

Now Kaldarr was genuinely worried. Something was very wrong. He punched the comm button again. "Kaldarr to everybody. Drop whatever you're doing right now and head back to the ships. Shove those foxtaurs out of the airlock and prepare for departure. Move it!"

One of the Starwalkers was coming up the corridor as he finished, hastened along by hir Voxxan guards. Shi must have heard the comm announcement, but instead of being fearful of imminent death, shi gave him a malicious sneer. Just then his stomach lurched as the gravity failed. The lights all went off also except for the amber glow of the occasional emergency light. As if on cue, the Starwalker shoved off the floor and went hurtling down the corridor. Before any of the Voxxans could react, shi had shot off a wall and bounced around a corner out of sight and out of harm’s way.

The pirates were for the most part well trained in freefall manoeuvres, so they continued to head for the ships, albeit with a greater sense of urgency now that they realised that something was definitely wrong. Every Starwalker that had been toting goods or dismantling equipment for them had escaped their guards so swiftly that no one had time to react before they were out of reach.

Unfortunately for Tektite, hir escape route took hir past Kaldarr. The pirate captain saw hir coming down the corridor at great speed. He shoved off from a wall and just managed to snag Tektite’s hind leg. Shi yelped in surprise and pain as conservation of momentum swung hir head into a wall. Dazed from the impact, shi was helpless to resist being captured.

"What in Pardrak is going on here? Who cut the gravity and the lights?" Kaldarr roared at hir.

Tektite tried to shake off hir dizziness, but when shi didn't answer fast enough, Kaldarr dug his fingers painfully into hir arms. "Ghosts did it!" shi gasped.

That shook Kaldarr. Despite his intelligence and ferocity, he was also a little bit superstitious. He had laughed off Eclipse’s threat and said he'd watch out for hir ghost. Had shi really come back from the dead? No! There had to be a better explanation.

Kaldarr roughly dragged Tektite along with him. "We'll see what we can do about these ghosts of yours," he growled.

Meanwhile the pirates were either boarding Kanawa’s Pride or shuttles to take them over to Ganthak’s Claw. The ones who entered the hijacked ship were surprised to find the gravity and lights out there also. On guard, they proceeded with caution. Nevertheless they were still surprised when Voxxans started shooting at them. It took a few fatal moments for them to realise that they weren't fellow pirates, but members of the Pride’s crew who should have been safely incarcerated.

A Starwalker attacks a pirate

This time E'Larra and her crew were armed with weapons from the pirates’ own armoury, weapons that could deal with the armour that the pirates wore where their own small arms had been ineffective. Several pirates were downed before they regrouped and started to fight back. The Pride’s crew had the advantage of familiarity with their ship though, and they also had allies. A pitch black form would suddenly loom out of the shadows and strike out at a pirate, then disappear again into the gloom before they could be targeted.

From their initial foothold where they had docked their shuttles from the Claw, the crew of Kanawa’s Pride had quickly secured the decks from bridge to Main Engineering without raising an alarm, and now they were slowly winning back the rest of their ship. They did not have things all their own way however. Once they recovered from the surprise ambush, the pirates fought back fiercely, and with a little desperation.

N'Talan, Erton, and Gallundar had been on Kaldarr’s crew for years, and were best friends. They worked together, fought together, and got drunk together. Right now they were chasing down a Starwalker who had shot at them. Only luck and good armour had foiled the attempt. The trio wasn't about to give hir another chance. Erton had his suit lamps on and they were catching glimpses of the foxtaur as shi was retreating. The Voxxans were only just keeping up, but on a starship, there is only so far you can run. They caught up to hir, cornered in a shuttle bay. They took aim at the Starwalker who was bouncing madly around the bay in an attempt to avoid being hit. They were focused on their target, and too late did they realise that they had been led into a trap. Another Starwalker materialised out of the shadows and shot Erton. He collapsed, and then Gallundar was targeted.

N'Talan barely managed to throw himself out of the room before becoming a victim also. If he hadn't been braced up against a piece of equipment, he would never have been able to avoid being killed. Now he was furious. "You're going to pay for killing my friends, you black demons!" he shouted as he hit the button that sealed the doors to the shuttle bay, trapping the foxtaurs inside. He then activated the airlock which started pumping the air out of the bay. The airlock’s outer door opened automatically when the cycle was complete. N'Talan went over to the observation window to view the results… and froze with shock. Both foxtaurs were standing there, grinning in dark humour, their eyes glowing an eerie gold in the reflected emergency lights. One of them raised both hands with hir middle digits extended upwards, the other slapped hir bicep and pumped hir arm at him. Some insults transcend species, and N'Talan knew exactly what they meant. He did not know how they could still be alive in the vacuum, but he was going to get them and avenge his friends if it was the last thing he ever did!

N'Talan was sorely tempted to shoot the two through the window, but even if he succeeded getting through the tough material, he would be blown into space by the resulting explosive decompression. However, they could still be trapped in the bay. He hit the button to close the bay door, only to watch the two give him a cheeky wave and slip out before the ponderous door could shut. He screamed in rage and opened the door again. He took a helmet from the rack and locked it onto the universal fastener on his combat suit as he stepped into the personnel airlock. Although not designed for long-term use in space, the combat suit was capable of short-duration exposure under battle conditions. He cycled the airlock and recklessly hastened in pursuit.

Out on the hull, magnetic soles kept N'Talan attached to the ship and he walked in the direction that he'd seen the foxtaurs headed. He could not see them and guessed that they were out of sight around the curvature of the hull, but he figured they would be headed for the next nearest airlock. He moved fast, perilously close to losing contact with the ship, but he guessed that because the foxtaurs didn't have the magnetic grips, they would not be able to move very fast, although he still wondered how they could be moving at all. He spotted a black tail disappearing into the side of the ship. If he was quick enough, he could get to them before they could cycle through.

Retro comes out from the shadow

Most of N'Talan’s attention was focused on his goal, but he still scanned the area around him out of habit. However, the sensor block that was extruded from the ship’s hull cast a big shadow, and as they were facing away from the planet and the station, there was no reflected light to abate the darkness. Within the inky blackness, Retro waited in total concealment until the pirate had passed, then emerged with a precise push that brought hir directly behind N'Talan. With one vicious swipe with hir knife, shi ripped open the combat suit just below the helmet seal.

N'Talan never realised just what had happened. One moment he was almost about to reach the airlock, the next, decompression had fogged up his visor from condensation and he was asphyxiating.

Retro left the dying pirate still attached to the hull and joined hir mate in the airlock. With little more than a tinge of remorse, they made their way back inside to rejoin the fight.

Meanwhile Kaldarr was hearing reports over the comm that he could hardly credit. It seemed like a large number of Starwalkers had liberated the Pride’s crew and were inflicting heavy casualties.

"Captain! More Starwalkers! I thought you said you killed most of them?" his comm blurted.

He had! His intelligence was quite definite on the number of Starwalkers working here. And yet it couldn't be just the surviving six that his crew was seeing. Where did they come from? How did they get here? Whatever the answers, it was time to shift the odds. He activated his comm to the general band and said, "This is Kaldarr. Whoever is in charge of those resisting us, hear this – I have a gun pointed directly at one of these Starwalkers that I've caught, and if these attacks against me and my crew don't stop right now, I'm going to start shooting hir limbs off, one by one."

After a few moments a reply came. "You want to parlay with us, Kaldarr the Tailless? Do you think you will get away from our vengeance?"

"Who is this?" Kaldarr asked.

"Don't you recognise my voice? This is the ghost of Eclipse, and I am back to make you pay, just as I vowed to do."

Kaldarr did recognise hir voice – it was the one distinctive feature of the otherwise nearly identical foxtaurs. That renewed the thrill of fear that he had shoved into the back of his mind, but again he rejected it with bravado. "Come here and prove it, ghost! Come here, or this one will join you in the spirit world!"

"I'm coming, Kaldarr, but I would do nothing more to fan my anger if I were you."

Kaldarr had kept moving while talking, and just then he emerged into the cargo bay and witnessed a sight that shocked him to the core. The bodies of dead or unconscious pirates drifted aimlessly throughout the vast area. One lone group of pirates was still exchanging fire with others aboard the ship, but that meant that Kanawa’s Pride was probably lost to them. His one hope was to get on a shuttle back to his own ship. He could still get away with the big prize if he acted quickly and decisively. He coasted over to a far wall and brought himself to a stop beside a gantry that he could use for cover. Getting to the shuttle area would bring him into the line of fire from the Pride’s boarding tube which he could not risk. Here though, he could see and fire upon any threat well before they could get near him. He keyed his comm again. "Okay, ghost, I'm here at the dock. Where are you?"

"I'm here, Kaldarr. Look towards the transit entrance."

He looked, and sure enough there was a Starwalker there. He could not tell if that was who shi said shi was though. "He yelled, "Tell your friends to cease fire, or else!" He pulled Tektite closer, digging his weapon into hir arm for emphasis.

"I will, as long as your men do likewise," shi called back.

Eclipse’s voice was definitely coming from that foxtaur, impossible though that was. "Agreed!" He waited until he saw hir speak on the wrist comm before he did the same.

The sound of weapon fire died out, and there was a strange sense of anticipation in the silence.

"Now we parlay," Eclipse said.

"No, now you let me and my men go safely back to my ship."

"Release your hostage first."

"What kind of a fool do you take me for?"

"Then take me instead. Shi has a child who needs hir."

Kaldarr saw an opportunity. "Then come over here and you can take hir place." If that fool Starwalker came over, he would soon have two hostages.

Eclipse floats over to Kaldarr

"I'm coming over," Eclipse said, shoving off towards the captain.

"No weapons!" Kaldarr ordered.

Eclipse waved hir hands and paws to show that they were empty. "I'm only wearing my wrist comm."

Kaldarr watched hir approach, then was jolted by the sight of golden glowing eyes. Eclipse had deliberately closed hir third eyelids for effect and distraction. It worked as Kaldarr was disconcerted once again.

When shi was very close, Eclipse murmured, "Now!"

Albedo had been ‘listening’ for the cue and passed it on to Tektite whom shi had already briefed. Shi started struggling with Kaldarr who grunted in annoyance and sought to restrain hir better. For a critical moment, he was distracted.

Eclipse reached to hir side where a beam-cutter floated alongside hir, out of the view of the pirate. Because it was not touching hir, shi had not lied when shi told Kaldarr shi was unarmed. Shi whipped it up into position. A beam-cutter, although closely related to a phaser pistol, was fairly useless as a weapon. Its beam de-phased after only a few centimetres, and could do no harm after that aside from a small burn close to the terminus. However, as a cutting tool, it was unsurpassed. As Eclipse sliced the tool down, it cut through Kaldarr’s armour like a hot knife through butter. His arm drifted away, complete with the now-impotent weapon.

Kaldarr screamed with shock and pain, clutching at the stump of his arm which had been cauterised by the beam. Neither foxtaur gave him the slightest chance of striking back in any way though. They restrained him while Albedo shot out of cover and over to them. Shi then used hir stunner to send Kaldarr into deep unconsciousness. They had no intention of killing him – that was far too lenient a punishment for his crimes, and Eclipse had every intention of keeping hir promise to see him pay for them.

Eclipse took Kaldarr’s remaining arm and brought the comm up to hir muzzle. "This is Eclipse to all pirates. Kaldarr is now our prisoner. Many of your comrades are dead. If you don't wish to die, then surrender now. If you do not surrender, we will show no mercy to those who murder and enslave others. Do not look for help from your ship – that is under our control also."

That was not news to the pirates who had already shuttled over to the Claw. They had been met unexpectedly by both foxtaurs and Voxxans from Kanawa’s Pride with weapons pointed in their faces, and no opportunity to resist. They were now being introduced to their own prison facilities.

Of the remaining pirates, a few chose suicide than face Federation justice. The rest knew that they were defeated and surrendered. They were told to strip off their armour and were herded into a secure room and locked in until Star Fleet could take them off their hands. Then it was time to count the cost.

E'Larra gathered her crew together, and was distraught to learn that yet another of her family had been killed. Several others were injured but not critically. Their sick bay facilities were adequate to take care of them until they could be taken to better medical facilities.

Eclipse took stock of hir own family. A few reported various non-threatening injuries, and Mercury had broken hir jaw in a fight. However, Luna was in a critical condition. Shi had lost too much blood before they were able to get hir treatment. They were making arrangements to take hir down to Arisia port’s hospital when they were hailed by an incoming starship.

Eclipse was back in the Control Centre when the call came in. "This is F.S.S. Pegasus calling Arisia Gateway."

Eclipse hit the comm button hastily. "Pegasus, this is Arisia Gateway. Eclipse here. Am I ever glad to hear from you! How soon can you get here?"

"Eclipse, what's the situation like? When we got the message sent by Stardust, things sounded pretty grim."

Eclipse recognised Admiral Kline’s voice. "We have regained control of the station, and Captain E'Larra and her crew have taken back their ship. We have the remaining pirates locked up also. However, we are in extremely critical need of your medical facilities. Please get here as soon as possible, Admiral."

"We're already coming at top speed, Eclipse. Request permission for emergency close warp approach."

A state-of-the-art starship like the Pegasus was able to get far deeper into a gravity well while still under warp than most starships, but even it had to drop out of warp before being forced out, otherwise the resulting gravity shock waves could not only damage the ship, but anything nearby such as the space station. It was only ever attempted under emergency conditions. Eclipse didn't have to ponder the request at all.

"Permission granted, Pegasus. Use approach vector Zeta four niner. Please be ready to beam aboard a patient as soon as you have rendezvoused."

"We'll be ready. Pegasus out."

Every minute shi waited was an eternity to Eclipse, but the Federation starship was among the swiftest in the fleet. Almost as soon as it showed up on the long-range tracking, it had crossed the intervening distance and de-warped perilously close. Even as it manoeuvred under impulse engines, they were getting within beaming range.

"Pegasus to Arisia Gateway – permission to beam directly over to your sickbay?"

"Permission granted!" Eclipse exclaimed, then watched on a monitor to see two people materialise in the sickbay – a human and a Caitian. They wasted no time chatting with the Starwalker on duty there. They took a quick scan of Luna, placed a beaming locater on hir, then beamed back to their ship. Eclipse breathed a sigh of relief. The Pegasus’ medical facilities were exceeded only by specialist hospitals on the major Federation planets. Now that Luna was in their care, shi would survive.

There was much work to be done. The power cores would have to be retrieved from Ganthak’s Claw and installed – the main one for the second time. The Starwalkers’ looted belongings and Gateway equipment had to be returned to where it all belonged, and the original cargo of control equipment unloaded from Kanawa’s Pride. Damage from the fighting had to be repaired. All of it was put on hold though while the foxtaurs and Voxxans held a service for the victims of Kaldarr’s daring raid.

Admiral Kline and his Security Chief, Commander Midnight, came over to conduct an investigation into the events. Eclipse knew that the Starwalkers would be getting a reprimand for their lax security, but considered it far better than Kaldarr’s alternative fate for them. At least shi had had the pleasure of seeing him marched off with the surviving pirates by Midnight’s security team. Shi couldn't resist saying to him in passing, "I guess they're going to call you Kaldarr the Armless now." The look of pure hatred that he gave hir was worth it.

As Eclipse had expected, Midnight did not approve of the fight-back. The chakat turned to hir with a serious look that conveyed a mixture of worry, relief and admonishment. "You could have been killed, Eclipse. It was an admirable deed you did and I'm thankful that none of you died. However with kits present, and knowing how volatile these pirates are, this could have gone very badly indeed." Hir expression softened a little as hir gaze was met with Eclipse's determined and triumphant look. "But while it was dangerous, it was also commendable. At least we know the station is in competent hands."

Eclipse nodded and replied, "Thanks, but if we had simply hidden ourselves, then what would have happened to the kits? The pirates would have departed before you got here, and you know what Kaldarr had planned for them."

That struck Midnight like a hammer blow. When it came to it, chakats were even more protective of their young than Eclipse had been. Midnight didn't have an answer for that, so shi simply nodded and let the matter drop.

At the first full family gathering after things got back under control, Eclipse called Albedo to join hir, then said, "We all worked hard to win our home back and protect our children, but none gave more than Albedo did. While we may still have fought back, shi was key to our coordinated efforts. Some of us have made fun of hir Talent before now, but hir use of it enabled us to succeed where we may have otherwise failed. Shi drove hirself to the point of exhaustion, but never gave in. For this, our clan owes you the greatest thanks, Albedo."

There was much cheering, clapping and stamping of paws. Albedo grinned sheepishly but lapped it all up. Eclipse continued, "For hir efforts, we have a reward for hir. Shi has been given the right to be the mother of the next kit to be born into our clan."

In the strictly population-controlled Starwalker clans, this was a big honour. So far only four had been given that right in their clan, with four others being the lucky sires. Albedo was thrilled. "Thank you, Eclipse. I'm honoured by this, and I would like to ask you to be the sire. You steered us through all this, and I can't think of anyone more deserving of that task."

"I accept, Albedo," Eclipse said with a big smile. There was much applause and celebrating after that.

Alandri ne Kanawa had been annoyed when he had been informed that he would have to spend the afternoon with one of the new crewmembers who were replacing the deceased, doing indoctrination and familiarisation procedures. E'Lyss was a bright and capable young fem however, and the procedures went quickly. With a bit of time to spare, E'Lyss suggested that they visit one of the Terran coffee clubs.

Alandri said, "Pardrak, NO! Not again!" He then hastily departed, leaving the poor bewildered fem wondering what she had said wrong.


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