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Wheel In The Sky (Episode 5 of Jack The Space Brat)

                                                              WHEEL IN THE SKY
                                             Jack The Space Brat: episode 5
                                                                        Chapter I
                                                                     STICKY BUNS
Stardate: 0199.5
       Captain Parbit Elsinore-Ansun Rahjers exited a turbolift onto level B3 of star base 11. Had anyone been watching at that moment they would have seen a lean slightly taller than average human male of bronzed skin tone with short curly black hair and expressive black eyes flecked with gold. In fact, someone did notice him. A statuesque green haired Andorian woman in a Star Fleet Captain’s uniform spotted his familiar figure from just around the curve of the central sphere and increased her pace to intercept him. Here Parbit paused for a moment to take in the view. As indicated by the meter high letters rising from the floor on the opposite wall this was the headquarters of Star Fleet Transport Command in this sector.  Above was a three-meter high holo enhanced mural of a Ptolemy class transport starship hauling into warp, not the usual one, or the occasional two, but three full size transport containers. This of course, commemorated the galaxy famous record setting flight of the ship then know as the Hevelius. For the hundredth time he wondered about that mysterious flight. Every Star Fleet engineer he’d ever asked, had maintained that Ptolemy class ships simply didn’t make enough power to put that much mass inside a warp field, even with empty containers.
       He then stepped over to the clear aluminum rail that separated the deck from the central open sphere beyond. Even here, three levels below the main concourse, the distance across to the other side was an easy one hundred and fifty meters. Humanoids had never lost their need for open spaces, and the five decks above him were lined with shops, bars, cafes, and diversions of every description. Small floating fountains and islands of greenery from a dozen worlds drifted lazily about the sphere. It was easily one of the most popular waypoints for starships in the sector. Without warning the 3-minute alert on his wrist communicator beeped and a heavy sigh deflated his chest. Silently he promised himself that he would find the time to see this again before the next mission, knowing full well that it would probably not happen. Sometimes he felt that if he had known going in what starship command was really like, he would have chosen to be a farmer.  
     “Captain.”  A familiar velvety female voice penetrated the fog of his thoughts, and he turned around. Recognition was instant and his breath caught in his throat. Instinctively he reached out and touched the Andorian woman on the shoulder.
    “Carise, you’re here.”
    “In the flesh”, she replied with a smile.
      A shiver ran through him, “Please don’t say that again,” he begged.  “I’ll forget my name if you
do. I swear I will.”
     Impish delight flashed in her auburn eyes. “That’s good to know.” Then with greater urgency, “what’s your ship and how long are you here?”
     “It’s the PROUD MARY and we’re in bay 22.”
      His wrist alarm beeped sixty seconds, and he stared at it in disgust. “I’m late for a briefing with the Admiral”
      She reached out; gently caressed an ear and trailed her fingertips slowly down the side of his neck.
“Well you’d better go.”  
       “Meet me at THE OFFICER’S SHILLELAGH on main at twenty hundred,” he replied starting to move.
     “Of course I will. In fact, if you’re not there, I’m going to come looking for you.”
     Forty seconds later he was standing in Admiral Dienkota’s outer office surreptitiously admiring the Admiral’s notably female young secretary. The nerve endings in his neck still tingled from Carise’s touch and at that moment he felt more alive than he had in a very long time. At precisely 0700 station time the door to the Admirals office slid open and a deep resonant voice boomed forth.
        “J’selle, send in Captain Rahjers please.”
         In he went and stood to attention before the Admirals desk. “Rahjers reporting sir.”
       Admiral Alexasher Dienkota was, as he always had been, a curious sight. While 99.4% of Alpha Centaurians looked indistinguishable from Terran humans, he was of the rare genetic variant known as O Alphan. Head, eyes, shoulders, and hands were all larger than the human norm. Not by a lot though; in a crowd he’d be unnoticed. Up close the effect was commanding.
     Standing, he came around the desk and grabbed Parbit’s hand with a firm shake.
     “Parb you old starduster, it is good to see you again. Come, come,” he said inclining his black bearded leonine head towards the doorway to the next room. “You know how I like to do business.”
      Stepping through, Parbit’s eyes confirmed what his nose had already told him. Breakfast was served. As a convoy leader and Captain of the destroyer TAMERLANE, Alex Dienkota had become renowned for his lavish fresh food breakfast briefings. They had made him both liked and remembered by those he served with, and commanded.
       Forty minutes later they had stuffed themselves on fluffy scrambled eggs with kersal cheese, crisp Katarian bacon, fresh Gra melon, sweet rolls, genuine Columbian coffee, and a faintly citrus beverage Alex called wicka juice, all the while reminiscing and enjoying the floor to ceiling window view of the arc of docking ring below.  As the last morsal sacrificed itself for the good of the Federation, Parbit pushed back his chair and loosened the waistband of his uniform. The Admiral passed a napkin over his trim beard, cocked a big green eye at Parbit and his voice grew serious.
      “Down to business my friend. First, how went the inflight ship name and registry change?
     “Flawless so far. We put out a remote to catch some before and after pics. It wasn’t just the name and number that changed. Hull color, and several minor details did as well. It actually looks like a different ship. It’s a pretty tech trick.  My question is, is it working?”
     The Admiral laced his fingers together under his broad chin. “We have seen a drop in Orion intercepts, but it’s to soon to tell what the real cause is, also it does nothing to help us find our leak. Anyway, for now we stay with it. “
     “Next item: I have a high priority mission for you. Forty head of livestock going to Albus IV”
     “Livestock, as in live animals?”
     “Yes, horses to be specific.”
     “Why not the usual methods; sperm and ovum in stasis, or DNA in a fetal matrix?”
     “The answer to that involves a lot of politics and money. Do you know how many worlds in this sector have applied for Federation membership in the past year?”
     “Several have been admitted I know.”
     “Six are in, ten more pending, and they all want the same thing: protection from Orion piracy. Commercial traffic is up 19% in the past six solar months and the Federation council is viewing this entire sector as an economic engine that could dramatically boost our Gross Galactic Product, if we can knock the syndicates back.”
     “What about an escort?”
     The Admiral pursed his lips. “Well the Ptolemy’s, as you know, were built to hold their own in a fight without one. Yes, I know, the Orion’s are always upping their game. As far as a destroyer goes, it will be at least sixteen hours after you depart before I can free one up. Assuming they can reach maximum warp they’ll catch you up about midway. I’m sorry but the contract is specific about a delivery time. You can’t delay departure for any reason. However, I’ve got something up my sleeve that may help. Let’s beam over to drydock zero and I’ll show you.
   As they passed through the outer office The Admiral said, “J’selle please call Captain Kincaid and Chief Custis and tell them we’re on our way over.”
   “Huh,” mused Rahjers. “I wondered where my engineer had got to.”
                                                                                 * * * *
        The next morning Parbit awoke slowly, suffused with the warmth and utter contentment of having the notably naked Carise tightly spooned against him. Shortly she awoke as well and without a word, as lovers will do, they picked up where they’d left off the night before. Later, when passion had ebbed, Parbit checked the time and sighed. Simultaneously they both rolled out of bed and stood looking. Carise came around and they shared one last embrace and a soft lingering kiss.
      Parbit had to force himself to let go. “Where are my clothes, he demanded?  “You’d better get dressed too.”
     “Ha,” replied Carise. “Look around cowboy. These are my quarters. You’re the one whose ship is parked halfway around the station.”
     “Oh crap,” was all he said. Within seconds he was dressed and headed for the door.
     “Meet me at 1900 hours,” he called over his shoulder. Then with a whoosh of door servos he was gone, running for the nearest transporter pad.
                                                                           Chapter II 
Stardate: 0208.7
     Jack lay in his bare sleeping alcove on the slave deck of the Orion frigate KORGOT. He shared the meager quarters with Katyn, a girl of about his own age. Their room was divided in two by a wall that reached just above head high but not to the ceiling. Jack had occasionally speculated on the Orion mind that had thought up this peculiar arrangement, but it worked well enough as he and Kaytn often talked long after lights out and had become quite close friends. More than friends in fact, at least to him. Of how Katyn felt about the matter, he was unsure, but he did not think his imagination had led him astray without cause. Kaytn however, did not come. The hour being late, and Jack tired, he eventually fell asleep. When he was wakened by the alarm he knew right away that Kaytn was not in the room. He pulled a small shipping container from his closet and stood on it to look over the wall. Her bed was unslept in.
     Quickly Jack dressed and went out into the corridor. Jana, the older woman from the room next door was just there.
      “Jana, Kaytn didn’t come home last night. Do you know where she is?”
      Jana gave him a look that said many things, most of which Jack did not want to think about.
    “I will try to find out. Come to me at the evening meal.”
       The shift passed slowly and heavily for Jack. His mind was on Kaytn, and he scarcely noted what he was doing or even the occasional cuff or harsh word from one of the crew. As soon as it was over, he hurried to the slave’s mess hall. He wanted to rush up to Jana and demand answers, but she signaled him to wait. Eventually her companion, a muscular man known as Ox, finished eating, and drawing his modest ration of synthahol, joined friends at the well-worn game table in the corner. Jana motioned Jack over.
      “One of the bridge crew wanted me to read the cards for him, he said she is listed as transferred to one of the escort ships” (The KORGOTrarely travelled alone.)
      Jack stared at Jana. “Her things are still in her room.”
    “Well, you know the Master, he’s done that before.”
   “I think he killed her” whispered Jack harshly, “I think he killed her beamed her body into space.. She told me she was afraid. She’d refused his sexual advances and she was afraid of what he’d do.”
Jana said nothing. Jack could well be right, but he didn’t need to hear it from her. Eventually she said,
“If you could access the transporter logs, you’d know where she went.”
   Jack’s almond eyes unfocused for a few moments, then a faint smile creased his lean young face.
   “Of course,” he mused, “the transporter logs. Thank you Jana.”
   And then, as was customary among slaves who had no means of exchange except their labor, He said
   “And what can I do for you.”
   The grim look on her face softened. “Survive Jack, you were meant for a better life. Escape and survive.”
     It did not take Jack long to figure out how he could access the transporter log. Transporter duty was a boring nonevent when the ship was on the move. At such times it was often given to an older slave who had earned the trust of the Master or his officers. Gart was the particular slave who was often given this duty. Jack did not know him well, but he did know that Gart had a weakness for Romulan ale. Jack of course, had no Romulan ale, but he knew where it was stored onboard. He also knew how to steal.
                                                               Chapter III
                                                        ROLLING ON THE RIVER
Stardate: 0209.1
     Captain Rahjers found himself seated in his command chair on the PROUD MARY without clearly remembering the walk from the transporter room where he’d said goodbye to Carise. Three glorious nights together had him dwelling on the thought that he might very well have some real feelings for that woman, and it was proving hard to put her out of his mind.
     A bridge inspection would snap him out it. He stood and cast a critical eye about. The bridge of a Ptolemy class was similar to the mockups he’d seen of the now building Constitution Class though with some noticeable differences. To his right, communications and science were at the same station both manned by the communications officer (Ptolemys were transports not explorers) beyond that was the cargo masters station. On his left engineering, and in front of him was the helm. The difference was that the second station at the helm was another engineering console, not weapons. This was because all Ptolemy’s built so far were pre-Duotronic and a second engineer was required to achieve and maintain balance between the two warp engine fields across a much wider range of ships mass and its distribution that was typically seen on other ships of the line.
   “Engineering report.” He barked.
   “Systems nominal sir. Thrusters, impulse, and warp drives all available at your command.”
   “All checks complete. Mains and backups are operational to full power if needed.”
   “Cargo secure and ready to travel. Container secure and ready to travel.”
   “Positive feedback on all links sir. We are ready to navigate.”
   “Very good, now…”
   “Query from the Harbor Master sir” spoke up Lieutenant Sears St. James at communications, “Are we ready for a countdown?”
   “Very good Lieutenant.” Then punching the intercom button, “All hands this is the Captain. Departure in five minutes, secure for travel.” Then, “Lieutenant please tell the Harbor Master to begin the countdown, and then put it on split screen ship wide when he does.”
   “Split screen aye sir.”
   Again he circled the bridge this time paying more attention to the crew than the screens.  At engineering was Chief Brenee Custis, a middle-aged woman with a classic figure, straight brown hair, and deep brown eyes. Her quiet beauty and demeanor hid one of the best problem-solving minds he had ever worked with. She gave him a brief happy smile without interrupting what she was doing. Briefly he wondered if Captain Kincaid had had anything to do with that.  At the helm engineering station sat the diminutive Ensign Theresa Gorizynsky, fresh out of the academy. Rahjers had not had a chance to interview her yet but had accepted Chief Custis’ recommendation that she was alpha shift ready. The helm of course was occupied by Lieutenant Commander Walker Southwalker. A woolly haired native Australian with a quick mind, a ready sense of humor, and a keen desire to learn everything he could about starship operations he was, in Rahjer’s mind, already marking himself as a budding tactical officer and future Captain. Drifting to the other side of the bridge he nodded to Lieutenant Sears St. James whose red hair, baby face and touch of naïveté belied his efficiency at his work. Lastly he stopped at the Cargo Master’s station occupied by Commander Javika Thorenson his first officer, friend, sometimes lover, drinking buddy, and unofficial ship’s counselor. He never tired of the way her black and blond streaked hair, violet eyes, and gold uniform failed to clash with her dusky Indian complexion. It’s a good thing she’s real he reflected for the hundredth time. I could never have imagined her in a thousand years. Javika gazed at him appraisingly for a few moments, then taking up her pad typed briefly on it and handed it to him. It said,
   “You’re glowing! Talk later?”
   He took the pad, typed the word “Yes”, handed it back to her with a small nod, and returned to his seat.
   Here his continued reverie was interrupted by the Aboriginal baritone of Lt. Commander Southwalker.
   “Coming up on T- 30 seconds Captain.”
   “Thank you Lt. Commander.” He punched the intercom button again. “All hands this is the captain. Departure in thirty seconds. Stand by.”
   At T-15 he spoke again, “Release docking clamps Mr. Southwalker, energize thrusters, set power level at ten percent, prepare to burn on my mark.”
   “Clamps off, thrusters on, ten percent power aye.”
   At T-0 he took a deep breath and gave the command, “Burn thrusters Mr. Southwalker.”
   “Burn thrusters aye sir.”
   With a barely perceptible jolt the PROUD MARY began to move.
Fifteen seconds later Lieutenant St. James broke the silence. “Harbor Master orders all stop sir.”
“All stop aye,” replied Southwalker.
Some Captains might have been offended at being cut out of the loop in this fashion, but Parbit Rahjers like most good Captains, took a secret pride in watching his crew function like a well-oiled machine. It was a good omen for the voyage ahead.
“Harbor Master orders Z minus 500 meters sir,” said St. James.
“Z minus 500 aye,” replied Southwalker.
When the PROUD MARY reached the designated altitude below the stations equator she stopped and hung in space with her nav lights blinking.
“Harbor Master is handing us off to traffic control sir. He sends Godspeed.”
“Thank you Lieutenant. While we’re waiting please put the local traffic on the big screen for us.”
When it came up he was intrigued to see that a D’boan trader was already descending towards bay twenty-two from Its holding position five hundred meters above the station’s equator. Arrivals and departures moving in the same direction was a hallmark of a busy station as it prevented a lot of near misses and love taps, and Star Fleet for some reason, was picky about the appearance of its great white ships.
                                                                  Chapter IV
                                                            THE DARKEST HOUR
   Stardate: 0218.4
                 As Jack stood motionless before the transporter console, a sinking feeling began to settle in his stomach. Gart had given him ten minutes access to the logs in exchange for the Romulan ale he’d offered. It had taken him five to learn that only one beam out had occurred on the night Kaytn disappeared. The beam had been set for open space wide dispersion. The note bore the master’s authorization and said simply Disposal. No one had beamed over to one of the escorts that night, or during the two shifts before or after. The sick feeling grew, and he simply stood there not knowing what else to do. When Gart returned he could sense, even through the rising glow of the ale, that something was wrong. When he asked, Jack didn’t answer, but simply looked at him with eyes full of misery before bolting out the door.
   A while later he found himself alone in the dark of his room. He vaguely remembered running through the corridors. He guessed that everyone, both slave and crew, on this level had been at dinner. He’d been lucky he supposed, as slaves were often beaten for any behavior seen as less than servile. He lay down on his bunk and did something he hadn’t done since he’d been told of his father’s death seven years before. He cried. When that was done he thought at first that he was empty, but then something else from the past announced itself. A hard knot of fear and anger now burned in his belly. More anger than fear he suspected. For the first time in his life Jack seriously considered of the idea of killing another human being. He knew he could kill the master. He was sure he could find a way. The problem was of course, he himself would certainly be killed for doing it.
   For the next two days Jack was in a daze. He spent every waking moment trying to think of ways to cause a fatal accident for the master. The problem was that slaves had no access to weapons, or tools, or computers, or much of anything that could be used to cause trouble or damage on board. On the third day he was called to main engineering to help move a heavy control console that had failed and was being replaced.
   As he and two others were struggling to get the console onto a null grav sled, The master came in. Jack tensed up quite a bit, but knowing it was best not to look at the man, kept his eyes down. Fortunately this was the behavior expected of him. It also relieved him of having to directly feel the man’s grotesquely twisted personal energy. He’d been told once by another slave that all master’s were this way. A manifestation of this was the communicator the man wore on his belt. It provided a constant audio link to the bridge. Anywhere the Master went on board he could hear every word spoken there. Paranoia thy name is master, reflected Jack.
   It was this very paranoia that provided fate the opening it needed to change the course of Jack’s life. The bridge crew had been running weapons practice for the past hour or so and the peculiar hollow ringing booms of the main disruptors had everyone a little edgy. Suddenly the voice of the second in command came barking out of the master’s communicator.
   “All right you clotted sons of asteroid leavings. We’re about to go up against a Star Fleet ship with weapons powerful enough to take this bucket of stem bolts apart, and those guys almost never miss. You have one chance against a ship like that. If you can’t hit them hard with the first shot we will all be space dust before you get a second. Now watch your scopes and lead the damned target.”
   Jack was electrified. They were about to attack a Star Fleet vessel. From the sound of it, it wasn’t one the modest little SCRIBNER class freighters like the one they’d taken him from either. It sounded like he was talking about a ship of line. Jack had never been on one of those, but from what he’d heard the second was right. They were powerful enough, if properly handled, to be very dangerous to an Orion frigate like the KORGOT. Jana’s words came unbidden to his mind.
 “Survive Jack, escape and survive.”
      Slowly, through a fog of pain and misery some small unconquered part of Jack began to assert itself. Kaytn was dead, his father was dead, the crew of the HALF TWAIN were likely all dead. Everyone who had ever meant anything to him was dead. He couldn’t stay here anymore, he would either have to kill the master, or escape, or die trying.  Next he realized he needed a plan and quickly. At this juncture the master did Jack another favor by informing the crewman manning the transporter that all transporters both cargo and personnel were to be ready for fast work in three hours’ time. This was the key piece of information Jack needed. In three hours, the master expected to have attacked the Star Fleet ship, brought it’s shields down and be boarding her. Now all he needed was a way off the KORGOT. Beaming seemed easiest except for two things. One, all the transporters would be manned by pirate crew at that point, and two, Jack didn’t think that bringing down the shields of a Star Fleet ship of the line was going to be as easy as the master did.
   At this point they had exited main engineering and minus the tension in that room Jack was able to think a little clearer. The KORGOT carried a number of what were euphemistically known as delivery vehicles. These were commercially available sub light torpedos that could be rigged to deliver anything from trade goods to a small nuclear warhead. They could even be fitted with a twelve-hour life support module which technically qualified them as life boats. Jack had done maintenance on these, and he knew exactly how to fit them out. He also knew, from experience, that when the master was conducting boarding operations he tended to call all available crew for that purpose often leaving many stations, like the torpedo room, unmanned. Checking the time, he noted that two hours and forty-five minutes of the three were remaining. That meant that the attack would probably begin just after his shift ended in two hours. He’d have to be ready to move fast.
   When the shift finally ended Jack made his way to his room as quickly as possible. Here he retrieved two objects from under his mattress. One was a small medallion on a chain that Katyn had given him, the other appeared to be a book with it’s tattered cover zippered closed around the edges and the words HOLY BIBLE lettered on the front. The medallion went in a pocket and the “book” he stuffed in the back of his waistband. He then stepped up on the shipping crate and looked over the wall. He wanted to tell Kaytn goodbye, he wanted to tell her that he was going to be free, and to see the light in her eyes one more time, but Kaytn was not there. The room was silent and empty. Tears began to come to his eyes, but harshly he dug his knuckles in and forced them back.
   “No time for tears.” He said to himself. “No time for tears at all.”
                                                                      CHAPTER V
                                                        THUNDERBOLTS AND MUSTANGS
Stardate: 0211.5
   Captain Rahjers, one minute late for his own briefing, hurried into the conference room. Senior staff was already present and had distributed themselves randomly around the big table.
   “Gather at this end guys if you would, “he said.
   “Okay,” he continued, “As some of you already know we are on our way to planet Ched’Wyth to pick up some livestock. Specifically, forty horses which we will then deliver to Albus IV, a journey of sixteen-point two star dates or approximately six solar days at the planned velocity of warp five point five.”
   “Horses Captain?”
   “Yes Mr. St. James. Commander Thorenson,” he said looking at Javika, “would you elaborate please?”
   “According to the documentation provided they are purebred descendants of an Earth type known as Mustang. They are apparently quite valuable, and Star Fleet considers them a high priority cargo.”
   “If that’s true,” butted in Lt. Commander Southwalker, “Where’s our escort?”
   Rahjers punched the intercom. “Captain Kincaid, would you join us please.”
   The doors swooshed open and six people walked in. One wore command gold while the other five had tunics of teal green. The Captain’s bars were recognizable, as were those of the Lieutenant Commander. The rank insignia of the other four were not. Five of them sat down at the table, as did Captain Rahjers who then said,
   “Go ahead please Captain.”
   The other Captain stood for a moment as if posing for a picture. Indeed, his appearance was certainly worth one. A few centimeters taller than Captain Rahjers he was bald with a white fringe and matching close-cut beard. Combined with his deep-set piercing blue eyes, hook nose, and weathered café au lait complexion he looked as much eagle as man.
   “Ladies and gentlemen, I am Captain Lincoln Kincaid, commander of the 77th attack wing of Star Fleet Fighter Command.”
   This matter-of-fact statement created a buzz among the PROUD MARY’Sstaff which coalesced into Lt. St. James query of,
   “Star Fleet has fighters?”
      Captain Kincaid looked intently at Lt. St. James for a moment. Then the corners of his eyes started to curl up just a bit, and he replied in a stage whisper.
   “It’s a secret Lieutenant.”
   Parbit had to stuff his fist in his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. He’d only met Captain Kincaid a few days earlier but had instantly appreciated the man’s understated sense of humor.
   Sears sat back in his chair and looked both left and right as if he was not sure whether he’d been insulted or not.
   “Relax lieutenant”, continued Captain Kincaid with a disarming smile. “The reason you space sailors rarely know about us is because we are usually posted planet side or on a star base. The reason for that is our ships won’t keep up with yours. The A98 mark XVI Thunderbolt has a maximum speed of warp two point five for a duration of twenty-four solar hours or eight point eight star dates.”
   “How many and how armed?” This from Lt. Commander Southwalker.
   “Good question,” nodded Kincaid. “We have seven ships and twenty pilots total. The transport container has been modified to launch six at a time, the seventh being a spare. Pilots are on eight-hour shifts with two extra available. Weaponry as follows: Two type two phasers in the forward arc, one type IV point defense phaser with three sixty coverage, and four high sub light nuclear tipped anti-ship missiles. The type twos when fired together are fifty percent as powerful as one of the type ones you guys are packing.”
   Walker scratched his chin and looked out the window.
   “Pros and cons for sure,” he said thinking out loud. “Still, the extra firepower could tip the odds in our favor against an Orion ship.”
   “I’m glad you approve Mr. Southwalker,” replied Captain Rahjers with a straight face.
   “Captain, may we come and see your ships,” asked Chief Engineer Brenee Custis.”
    Rahjers was about to answer when he noticed she was looking at Kincaid, not him. Now that’s an odd question he thought. Those two worked together for six days back at star base to get the container modified for this and now she wants to see the ships. It’s not the ships she wants to see you dimwit, replied the little voice in his head. Oh.
   Kincaid gave a small almost courtly nod to Chief Custis. “I think that’s a good idea Chief. In fact I think it such a good idea that I’m declaring an open house for all officers and crew to come on their off shifts and meet the pilots and see the ships, assuming that’s okay with Captain Rahjers.”
   “I agree, that’s a good idea.” replied Rahjers. “In fact, I’ll mirror the invitation and invite your off-duty pilots to come up and learn about our ship as well.”
   There he thought, with both crews wandering all over the ship, no one should notice what those two are up to. Well done Rahjers you old goat.
   “Captain”, spoke up Javika turning to look at Rahjers. “Can we see the horses?”
   “That’s a good question Commander. They come with a dozen specially trained handlers, so when they’ve settled in I’ll see what can be arranged.”
   “Anybody else, questions? No. We are dismissed then, thank you all.”
    Twenty hours later the PROUD MARYwas orbiting Ched’Wyth. Beaming the horses and handlers aboard took a full eight hours but was otherwise accomplished without incident.
   Four hours out at the shift change from gamma to alpha, Chief Engineer Custis stood on the bridge behind Ensign Cai at main engine control, studying the logs.
   “Ensign is this correct, you’ve had to rebalance the warp fields three times in the past two hours?”
   “Yes sir, the problem seemed to start when we passed through warp five.”
   “Problem Chief?” Inquired Captain Rahjers joining the conversation.
   “Unknown sir,” she replied. Absentmindedly she tugged at her shoulder length brown hair then frowned when a grey one clung to a fingernail. “One rebalance going through five would be normal. Three is not.”
   “What do you think is causing it?
   “Unknown sir. There are several possibilities, none of which we are equipped to diagnose without a star base or drydock, but the way this ship is meant to work you just rebalance as necessary to stay ahead of it.
  “Could it slow us down?”
   “Yes sir, if it gets worse we’d have to reduce warp to avoid being pulled off course.”
     The permanent smile that had been on Parbit’s face since meeting Carise, suddenly became a frown.
   “Do the best you can Chief to keep us on schedule.”
   Over the next two days ship and crew fell into the routine that characterized much of shipboard life in Star Fleet. Warp field imbalance became less frequent though more random as Proud Mary maintained a steady warp six cruise. The captain had rotated most of his senior staff onto the beta and gamma shifts so he could work with some of the newer officers on alpha.
   During beta shift of the second day he and Javika had gone below to see the Thunderbolts and Mustangs. On the way back, as they stepped out of the turbolift on deck two, Parbit took a few steps towards his quarters then stopped and turned to Javika.
   “Somethings wrong,” he said.
   “What do you mean”, she asked?
   “Can’t you feel it?”
   “I feel the normal vibrations of the ship at warp.”
   “No, they’re not the same as when we went below.”
   Spying an intercom, he went to it and punched the button. “Rahjers to bridge. Report.”
   “Southwalker here Captain. We’re being pulled off course by a warp field imbalance. I’ve cut power down to warp four, but we still can’t hold our heading.”
   “Go to warp three Commander. I’m on my way.”
   “Javika, I hate to wake Chief Custis with a loud hail in the middle of her sleep shift. Would you go to her quarters and tell her she’s needed on the bridge?”
   “My Captain,” she replied in a low voice. “You are such a softy.”
   “Aye” He said with a shake of his head, “but I’m still the captain. Please go.”
   Javika lifted her arms over her head in a ballerina’s stance and went tripping lightly down the corridor singing softly,
   “The Captain is a softy, The Captain is a softy…”
   “Captain’s log”, said Rahjers under his breath. “The ship is falling apart and apparently so’s the crew.”
   Then, spotting the unmarked entrance to the officer’s bridge gangway, he sprinted taking the steps two at a time.
   Javika stopped outside Chief Custis’ door and rang the bell. After fifteen seconds or so she rang it again.
   “Who’s there,” came a sleepy voice from the speaker.
   “Brenee, it’s Javika. Can I come in?”
   After a few moments the door slid open.
   Brenee was sitting up in bed naked with her shoulder length hair askew and accusation in her big brown eyes. Captain Kincaid on the other hand was still asleep his bare muscular chest rising and falling in quiet rhythm.
   “Javika, do you know what time it is?”
   “Sorry love, the captain needs you on the bridge.”
   “Of course, he does. Did he say why?”
   “Trouble with the warp engines. We’re losing speed.”
   “That’s not good,” mused Brenee.”
   Then she elbowed Lincoln in the back, and he woke with a grunt.
   “Ms. Thorenson,” He said looking up at Javika a bit startled. “What’s up”, he then asked looking back and forth at the two women.
“I’ve got to go to the bridge” yawned Brenee. “Trouble with the warp drive.”
   He frowned for a moment. “I should probably get back to the flight deck as well,” he added to the conversation.
   Then he leaned over and kissed Brenee chastely on the cheek. “Thank you”, he said. “It was wonderful”.
   Brenee blushed.
   “You two are so cute together”, chuckled Javika.”
   On the bridge, Captain Rahjers had declared yellow alert and brought the ship out of warp. There was little choice as they were getting farther off course by the minute.
   “Lieutenant”, he said addressing St. James. “Send a coded message on the fleet channel advising our location and status. Ask for assistance from any Star Fleet ship.”
   When Chief Custis arrived, Southwalker was monitoring the non-warp engineering station and her two duty engineers had co-opted half the main screen and were running some sort of diagnostic. She relieved Walker, who went to the unmanned cargo station, then she set all functions for audible alert, and spent a few minutes checking the warp engine logs since her last shift. Finishing that she wandered down to the helm/engineering station and stood looking at the numbers running on the main screen.
   “Fyne sir, Joshua Fyne.”
   “Yes Lieutenant, what exactly are we doing here?”
   “We’re checking for phase variance stacking in the individual warp coils.”
   “That will take hours.”
   “Yes sir, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Standard diagnostics are giving us nothing.”
   She gazed thoughtfully into the young man’s clear blue eyes for perhaps a moment too long before looking away..
   “Shall I shut it down sir?”
   “No lieutenant, you are exactly right. When you haven’t got a clue, going outside the box is often a good place to start. Let it run and report anything unusual.”
   She went back to the engineering station and began to sift through the library computer. After a few minutes she stuffed a data chip in a slot and downloaded something onto it.
   “Captain.” She said standing up. “We need to reprogram the sensors.”
   “What are we looking for Chief?”
   “A micro singularity sir.”
    Rahjers gut clenched. “A black hole? You think we’re being pulled off course by a black hole?”
   “A small one, yes it’s a possibility.”
   “Buddah’s balls,” He swore under his breath. “But wait. Wouldn’t it be a steady pull?”
   “No necessarily sir,” spoke up Lt. St. James. “Research has only begun on this, but from what I’ve read the effect on a moving warp field would be like a child operating a yoyo while riding a bike in heavy traffic, only the yoyo outweighs the bike and rider.”
   “A yo what”, asked the captain?
   “Uh…a toy that spins on the end of a string sir.”
   “Okay, I got it, so this cosmic tail could be yanking our lady dog all over the sky?”
   “It is a possibility sir,” interjected the chief.”
   “Mr. St. James, I’m impressed that you know these things,” commented Rahjers.
   “I am the science officer sir.”

   “Kincaid to bridge”, interrupted the intercom.
   “Go ahead Captain,” responded Rahjers.
   “We’re on yellow alert and we’ve dropped out of warp, anything I can do?”
  “We’re having engine trouble, no sign of any Orions so far.”
   “Dead in the water is not a good place to be. I can launch a patrol in three minutes as discussed.”
   “I appreciate that Captain, however we’re preparing to run a localized high intensity sensor sweep and I need clear space for that. Keep everybody indoors if you would.”
   “Understood. Kincaid out.”
   Rahjers took the chip from the Chief’s hand and gave it to Sears. “Lieutenant if you would.”
   A minute later Sears spoke up, “Captain, this isn’t a normal sweep. This will take a least twenty minutes to run. We’ll be blind on long range sir.”
   “Mr. Southwalker” said the captain, “Configure a standard probe for long range sensor duty. Boost its power and override the thermal cutouts, we only need it to work for thirty minutes or so.”
   “Aye sir,” replied Walker”, looking at his screens. “I can launch in five minutes.”
   The next twenty-five minutes were long quiet ones on the bridge. Everyone there understood that if a micro singularity were to pass through the ship it could easily destroy them. At the fifteen-minute mark the captain looked a question his science officer, but Sears just shook his head.
   “Nothing yet sir.”
   When the clock ran out everyone looked at the captain, who said,
   “Well Mr. St. James?”
   “Results negative. No indications of a singularity.”
   The entire bridge crew started to breath again. The only one who didn’t look happy was Chief Custis.
   Before Rahjers could say anything however, Southwalker broke the spell,
   “Sensor contact Captain, extreme range, twenty degrees off our starboard bow.”
   “More Mr. Southwalker?”
   Walker adjusted his earbud and opened a new window in one the monitor screens.
   “Estimating mass at…sixty five percent of our own. Estimating speed at…warp five sir.”
   “That mass could be almost anything,” mused Rahjers aloud, “but at that speed its either military or Orion.”
   “I agree sir, very little commercial traffic moves that fast.”
   “Seventeen minutes,” replied Walker consulting a monitor.
   “Rajhers to Kincaid.”
   “Kincaid here.”
   “We’re about to have visitors Captain. Sensors make them as probably Orion. I want your squad on a thirty second countdown in fifteen minutes.”
   “It’ll be a pleasure Captain, may I suggest that since we are launching from both sides of the pod that we meet the threat head on if possible?”
   “An excellent suggestion Captain. I’ll make it so.”
   Then punching another button on his armrest. “Bridge to phaser control report.”
   “Weapons on standby, capacitors at fifty percent as per standard procedure sir.”
   “Very good. In fourteen minutes I want all banks at one hundred percent charge and linked to targeting control.”
   “Aye sir. We’ll be ready.”
“Helm, shields up, let’s see what we’ve got.”
   “Chief”, he queried?
   “Shield strength at ninety seven percent on the primary hull, seventy percent at the front of the pod tapering to fifty percent at the rear,” she replied.
   “That seems low,” commented Southwalker.
   “It is low”, retorted the Chief with a frown. “They stole the EPS feeds from two of the six pod emitters to power the launch tubes.”
   “Shields down” ordered Rahjers. “Time Mr. Southwalker?”
   “eleven minutes thirty two sir, oh wait, the signals clearer now. I make one vessel at fifty percent our mass, and two smaller at seven point five percent. Captain they have to be”
   “An Orion frigate and two escorts”, interrupted Rahjers finishing the sentence.
   He keyed the intercom. “Rahjers to Kincaid.”
   “Kincaid here.”
   “Our sensor contact is now one frigate size vessel and two smaller escorts, almost certainly Orion. ETA eleven minutes zero two.” Remember, the two escorts will almost certainly try to flank us on one or both sides.”
   “Aye sir, as discussed we have a plan for that.”
   The bridge fell silent for a few minutes as each individual turned inward seeking strength, or perhaps composure for the battle soon to come.
   “Mr. Southwalker.”
   “A tactical query if I may.”
   “By all means.”
   “Would it not be better to launch our fighters before the Orions arrive?”
   “Most simulations would probably agree with that; however we have two things that the simulations don’t account for. One: The Orions aren’t going for a kill, their tactics are based on trying to intimidate a less powerful ship into standing down with minimum damage and being boarded. Two: No Star Fleet vessel has carried fighters since the end of the Romulan war, and as Orion crews are not trained to military standards, their responses to sudden changes in a tactical situation are often slow or erratic. In other words, we have the element of surprise against an enemy who doesn’t deal well with that.”
“Interesting, thank you for the insight sir,” responded Walker.”
   After this the mood on the bridge lightened up a bit. Apparently it had not occurred to some of the newer officers that the friendly and informal Captain Rahjers just might have some previous experience with Orion pirates.
   “Captain, we’re receiving a response to our coded message sir, announced Lt. St. James as he tuned his earbud. “From the destroyer TYGRESS, they’re coming up astern of us, they give an ETA of 2.1 hours.”
   “Well Buddha bless the Admiral”, exclaimed Rahjers. “He said he’d send one. TYGRESS, TYGRESS,” he muttered under his breath, “Why is that name familiar?” Who’s her commander Lieutenant?”
   Sears checked the message header. “Captain Carise Carane sir”
   “Ah.” Responded Rahjers try to sound casual.
   “Something else sir. I ran the Setok differential on her transmission and…”
   “The what Lieutenant?”
   “It’s a Vulcan equation sir. If a ship in warp is on a direct bearing to a fixed point and you know the speed at which she transmits a subspace signal, which we do because it’s a Star Fleet ship, then you can calculate her warp factor fairly accurately.”
   “What did you come up with?”
   “Seven point eight sir.”
   “Seven point eight? Nobody goes that fast.”
   “The ship is rated for warp eight sir.”
   “Yes, but without the speed of a duotronic computer to keep the dilithium crystals tuned nobody gets much past seven point two or thereabouts. You must have miscalculated. Check you figures Lieutenant.”
   “Aye sir.”
   “Time Mr. Southwalker?”
   “Five minutes thirteen sir.”
   “As Javika exited the turbolift onto what had become known as the ranch deck the yellow alert lights finally intruded on her consciousness. Focusing her attention on the vibrations of the ships warp engines she was startled to discover that there were none. Quickly she went to a computer terminal and logged in for a status report. Yikes, she thought upon reading it, I’d better arm the cowboys.
   A few minutes later she found the Alpha shift cowboys, including Justace Wyatt relaxing around a “campfire” after their evening meal.
   “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said hoisting the case she carried onto the dining table.
   “Commander Thorenson.” Replied Wyatt. “Is this business or pleasure?”
   “Both. How many of you know how to use a hand phaser?”
   “We use them back home to protect the horses from predators”, replied one of the hands.
   “What’s going on Commander” Interjected Justace. “We saw the yellow alert. I tried to call you with the communicator.”
   “I apologize for that. The com system gets a bit overloaded when we go on alert. Your guest communicators were probably assigned a low priority. Anyway, we are about to be intercepted by what the captain believes are Orion pirate vessels. I have six well-armed security persons on the way. You guys stay focused on keeping the horses calm and let them worry about boarding parties. On the other hand, if things get messy feel free to shoot anyone not wearing a Star Fleet uniform.”
   “This ship is armed is it not”, asked Justace.
   “Oh yes, more so than usual”, she replied with a quick Cheshire cat grin. “In addition, our dear Captain has dealt with pirates before, and in spite of his genial nature he can be quite a hard ass when necessary.”
   “There,” she said handing out the last phaser. “What else?”
   “You said there were two things, prompted Justace.”
   “Oh yes, walk with me Mr. Wyatt.”
Once out of earshot of the group she stopped. “Those horses are so beautiful. Would it be possible for me to ride one?”
   A slow smile came to Justace’s face. “Normally no, but for you I’ll make an exception.”
                                                                                   * * * *
       On the bridge:
     “Time Mr. Southwalker”, asked the Captain?
     “Forty five seconds Captain.”
     “Rahjers to Kincaid. Begin your countdown Captain. Hold at T minus 10 seconds.”
     “Copy that Bridge. We are counting down to T minus 10.”
     A small popup appeared in the lower left corner of the main screen showing the countdown.
   “Bridge to phaser control, status please?”
   “Phasers at one hundred seven percent charge, we are linked to target control, ready to fire sir.”
   “Helm, shields up.”
  “Mr. Southwalker?”
   “five seconds Captain, four, three, two, one, and there they are.”
   Three squat angular black ships filled the screen.
   “Ugly as always”, commented Rahjers under his breath.
   “Computer identifies them as a MEKORN class frigate and two ZIN class escorts. The frigate is armed with two Klingon D6 class disruptors and assorted commercial torpedos likely with low yield nukes. The Zins carry type two phasers believed to be Romulan war salvage.”
   “Thank you Mr. Southwalker.”
   “Captain we’re receiving a hail from the Orion vessel”, announced St. James
  “Put it through Lieutenant.”
   A thick menacing voice rolled out of the speakers,
   “Star Fleet vessel, this is the Orion syndicate cruiserKORGOT, stand down and prepare to be boarded.”
  “What is their range Mr. Southwalker,” queried the captain?
   “Maximum for their weapons, well within ours. I’d say they’re afraid to get any closer.”
   “Escorts are moving sir, attempting to flank us on the starboard side. ETA fifty-seven seconds.”
   “Thank you Mr. Southwalker. Helm confirm target lock on the KORGOT.”
   “Lock confirmed sir.”
   “Bridge to phaser control.”
  “Phasers aye sir.”
   The high-pitched whine of type one phasers coruscated through the PROUD MARY’s bones for long seconds. After a pause Mr. Southwalker’s voice followed.
   “Direct hit on their forward shield sir. Shield strength reduced by forty percent.”
   “Open a channel Lieutenant,” said the captain in a matter-of-fact tone.
   “Orion vessel, this is Captain Rahjers of the Federation vessel PROUD MARY. We did not receive your transmission clearly, could you please repeat your message?”
   “They are charging weapons sir,” advised Southwalker. “Firing in three,”
   “All hands this is the captain”
   “Brace for incoming fire.”
   A moment later the MARY bucked hard under the impact. Lights flickered and some failed. Below decks a hollow whispering sound echoed through the corridors as some disruptor energy leaked through and excited molecules in her atmosphere.
   Southwalker’s fingers flew over his control panel and data began to scroll on his monitors with impressive speed. Shortly he spoke.
   “Direct hit on our forward shield. Shield is stable at seventy percent power…turbolifts are offline on deck four…a food replicator malfunction is reported on deck six. No other damage sir.”
“Captain to phaser control. Give us a countdown on your recharge cycle please.”
   A small popup appeared on the main screen showing thirty-two seconds.
   “Captain, the escorts will be abeam of us in fifteen seconds,” advised Southwalker.
   “Rahjers to Kincaid. You are go for launch Captain. Resume your countdown.”
   “Kincaid here. Acknowledged. Launch in T-minus eight seconds.”
   For the next eight seconds they both watched the clock in companionable silence. When it reached zero the lights dimmed for a moment and a distant thump could be felt through the deck.
   “Fighters away sir,” reported Southwalker. “Captain! They went to warp the moment they cleared the tubes. Several strain alarms in the container sir.” He adjusted his earbud and scanned the monitors. “Damage appears superficial at this time sir.”
   “The Admiral will be delighted to hear that Mr. Southwalker. Now set your QR scanner to subspace sideband two two seven point seven.”
   “Tracking signals sir. Six of them, it’s the fighters, where did they…Oh, I see, they went vertical sir…turning now…making a run. Captain this is nuts, you can’t go in and out of warp at these close ranges they’re going to collide with the target.”
   A few seconds later six A98 Thunderbolt attack craft popped out of warp directly above the two Orion escorts at a range of slightly less than fifty kilometers. Carrying a low sub light velocity, they took time to establish a firm target lock before firing their twelve type II phasers at the one that had started to turn. A few seconds later the bridge of that unlucky ship exploded hurling molten flotsam. jetsam, and singed body parts into space. Gracelessly it began to tumble towards the galactic south thoughtfully removing itself from the path of Captain Kincaid’s six ships which then adjusted their course and flashed back into warp.
   “Captain! Did you see that,” exclaimed Southwalker unable to keep the excitement out of his voice. “They just blew that ship away!”
   “I saw Mr. Southwalker. I was a most gratifying display. I believe I owe Captain Kincaid a drink, providing he survives the day that is.”
   “Helm, confirm target lock on the KORGOT” he continued, spinning his chair around.
   “Lock confirmed sir.”
   The phaser clock reached zero.
   “Phaser control FIRE!”
   Again the bridge was filled with phaser song, and again when it ceased Lt. Commander Southwalker reported.
   “Direct hit on their forward shield sir, strength reduced to eighteen percent. Another hit like that and they’re history.”
  Seconds later an alarm sounded. “Phaser fire Captain, a clean miss, off our starboard beam, from the escort sir.”
   “Where are our fighters Mr. Southwalker?”
   It took Walker a few moments to re-acquire the signals.” Coming in from below sir, making their run now.
   Several heartbeats later six shiny arrowheads magically appeared out of nowhere hanging just below the Orion ship. The commander of this ship however was a little faster to react than other had been and managed to engage his maneuvering thrusters a split second before the fighters opened fire. This had the net effect of moving the phasers point of impact rearward from just below the bridge to just below the engine room where they promptly burned through the energy shield, the outer hull, and then the engine core itself. The resulting explosion not only vaporized the Orion ship it also quickly overwhelmed the meager forward shields of the Thunderbolts. For a few seconds before they went back into warp, the little ships took a punishing amount of radiation.
                                                                         CHAPTER VI
                                                                          RESCUE ME
Stardate: 0232.9
“Captain, they did it again…heavy radiation from the explosion… Starboard shields holding at fifty percent.”
“Thank you Mr. Southwalker. Please scan the KORGOT.”
    Walker adjusted the channel selector on his earbud and squinted at his monitor screens but said nothing.
   After a few minutes the captain spoke again. “Mr. Southwalker, are you with us?”
   “Ayr sir,” he replied in a distracted tone. “Captain their disruptors are offline. I’m reading a power coupling failure. Something else sir. They’ve launched a torpedo.”
   “A torpedo Mr. Southwalker, just one?”
   “Aye sir, a commercial model, slow and small.”
   “Helm, give me a target lock on that torpedo.”
   “Aye sir, acquiring target.”
   “Phaser control stand by.”
   “Well Mr. Southwalker. Is it a nuke?”
   “I don’t think so sir, but I’m not getting much of anything.”
   “Phaser control.”
   “Wait! Captain don’t shoot.” Walker cried out. “I’m getting a life sign.”
   “A life sign? From the torpedo?”
   “Yes sir. Human, male, on the young side, seventy four percent probability.”
   “Why would they…”
   “The Orions keep slaves sir.”
   The captain’s eyes got big. “Thank you for reminding me of that Mr. Southwalker. Is he within transporter range?”
   “Negative sir. Nine minutes out at present speed.”
   “Something else sir. Disruptors are still offline, but I’m reading a power buildup consistent with some type of weapon.”
   “Could you be a bit more specific Mr. Southwalker?”
   “It reads like a low powered laser sir.”
   “Why would they bother, that can’t hurt us?”
   “No sir, but it could fry that torpedo easily enough.”
   “Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Buddha, Muhammed, Abraham, and the Pointer sisters”, Rahjers swore under his breath. “They’re going to kill that kid.”
   “Helm, target lock the KORGOT please.”
   “I recommend against that sir.” Interrupted Southwalker. “The torpedo is almost in our line of fire.”
   Damn was not a word that passed Parbit Rahjers’ lips very often, but at the moment it seemed fully justified and he let it fly. Think you idiot, his mind screamed at him. You can’t let that kid die.
   Inspiration struck and his finger stabbed the intercom. “Rahjers to Kincaid…come in Captain I need you now.”
   When no response came, he looked over at communications.
   “The signal is getting through sir.” said Sears in response.
   “Kincaid this is Rahjers. Please respond.”
   After a few more moments, “Yes Captain. Kincaid here,” came his tired voice.
   “Captain, do you see that torpedo on your sensors?”
   “I have some sensor damage, but yes I see it.”
   “There’s a kid in that torpedo trying to escape slavery. We’ve knocked out their disruptors, but they’re powering up a laser turret. They’re going to try to kill that kid with it.  I can’t shoot because he’s in my line of fire. I need you to fly in there and take out that turret. Can you do it?”
   “Affirmative”, came back Kincaid’s voice stronger now. “I can and I will. Squirt me the exact position of that turret.”
   “Time Mr. Southwalker?”
   “Tracking signal is weak… there, I’ve got him. Three minutes sir.”
   It seemed like only one had passed when Southwalker spoke again.
   “He’s making his run sir.”
   “Moments later a lone somewhat scorched looking Thunderbolt appeared beneath the chin of the KORGOT. Twin phaser beams connected the two for several seconds, then, with agonizing slowness the little ship turned away and winked back into the shadows of subspace.
   “He’s done it sir,” exclaimed Southwalker exuberantly. “The laser is destroyed.”
   A chorus of half heard yesses echoed around the bridge, and Rahjers began to feel hopeful of success.
   “Where is the torpedo Mr. Southwalker?”
   “Transporter range in two minutes sir.”
   “Bridge to transporter room. Lock onto the life sign in that torpedo. I want that kid beamed out the moment he’s in range.”
   Rahjers sat bolt upright on the edge of his command chair for the next two minutes, trying not to let his tension show.
  “Transporter room to bridge. We got him sir. One human male alive and well.”
   A rousing cheer went around the bridge. In his excitement Rahjers stabbed the intercom button,
   “Kincaid, did you hear, we did it, we did it, I’m going to see you get a medal for this.”
   “You got the kid out? He’s alive?”
   “Yes, yes, alive and well.”
   “Well then it was worth it.”
   That was an odd thing to say thought Rahjers, but before he could ask Lt. St. James at communications interrupted.
   “Captain, sick bay reports they performed an emergency medical beam out of five fighter pilots suffering from heavy radiation exposure. They are in decontamination chambers, Dr. Chosky says they should all pull through.”
    Sudden dread flooded through Rahjers.
   “Kincaid report your status.”
  “Mission accomplished, heading home.”
  “Not the mission. Your status, have you taken radiation?”
 “Affirmative. Heavy radiation, systems failing.”
   “Yours’s or the ships?”
   “Damn you Kincaid. I am going to reprimand your backside to the Crab Nebula and back again for this. What made you think…
  “Listen to me”, overrode Kincaid with sudden strength in his voice.
   “No time to tell the whole story, but when I was a boy my life was saved by a Space Service officer. When I asked him how I could repay he said, You can’t, but some day, somewhere, someone will need you to save them. That’s when you pay it back. You tell that kid, make him understand. This one pays the debt and now he must pay it forward.”
   The bridge fell silent.
   “One more thing,” continued Kincaid, his raspy voice beginning to fail. “Tell Chief Custis, no tears. Remember me, but no tears.”
   All eyes went to the Chief. Seeing the silent tears rolling down her face they turned away, giving her what privacy they could.
   “Mr. Southwalker,” asked the captain.
   “No sir, not even close to transporter range.”
   “Kincaid I…Kincaid…”, but there was no response, and he could think of nothing else to say. He simply sat there in his genuine leather upholstered command chair as the taste of victory turned to ashes in his mouth.
   When Jack felt himself reassemble and take a breath the first thing he noticed was the that the two people at the transporter console both wore Star Fleet uniforms. The shock of this realization caused him to lose his balance and stumble down off the platform. The younger of the two, an Ensign, rushed over but Jack had caught himself on the handrail provided.
   “Is this…am I…What ship is this”, he finally got out.
   “You’re aboard the PROUD MARY son. I’m lieutenant Gerson, and this is Ensign Blackfeather. What’s your name?”
   “Jack, Jack Gavrial”, he replied.
   “Are you hungry Jack”, asked Ensign Blackfeather.
   Jack’s eyes got big. “Oh, some food would be great. The Orions don’t feed their slaves very well.”
   “How long were you a slave on that Orion ship,” asked Lt. Gerson.
   “Almost three years. Before that I was a cabin boy on the Star Fleet ship HALF TWAIN.”
   Blackfeather returned from the other side of the room. In his hands he held a tall tapered glass filled with root beer and vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream, nuts, and a cherry. Mutely he handed it to Jack whose mouth formed a perfect O, but no words came out. He looked at the two officers as if he did not believe it was real. Gerson laughed and said,
   “Dig in kid, it’s all yours.
                                                                        CHAPTER VII
                                                                A TURN OF THE WHEEL     
stardate: 0234.6
    Captain Carise Carane sat lightly, ankles crossed, in her command chair aboard the destroyer TYGRESS. Outwardly she appeared entranced by the stars rushing past on the main view screen at warp seven point eight. They had been setting speed records since they’d left star base eleven with a new experimental duotronic module installed to control the dilithium crystals. Her Chief engineer had given most of the credit to a young Terran ensign named Montgomery Scott, calling him gifted when it came to engines. She looked forward to meeting him. She had always found Terrans interesting, especially the men. Particularly especially one Captain Parbit Rahjers. Inwardly she sighed. It was an aspect of Star Fleet life that the recruiters never mentioned. Whether it was the real thing or just a bed warmer, duty or death had parted more lovers than anyone liked to talk about. Cheer upsaha she said to herself. You will see him again very shortly.
   “Anything new on sensors,” she asked her science officer.
   “No sir”, he replied. “Just what we already know. There’s been weapons fire. The PROUD MARY is intact, but she’s not moving.”
   “Wait, there is something else Captain. A small ship is approaching us at low warp.”
   “Collision course?”
   “No sir, she’ll pass off our port side at about two kilometers. No wait…she’s slowing captain. Rate of warp reduction reads like an autopilot shutdown. She’ll come out of warp just as she reaches us.”
   “Helm, bring us out of warp, put the shields up, standby for evasive maneuvers. Mr. Tarsus” she said addressing the science officer again. “I want a complete scan as soon as possible.”
   Twenty-seven minutes later: “I have her now Captain, she’s gone sub light. Putting it on the screen.” Then scanning his readouts. “It’s hot Captain, highly radioactive, no life signs. It’s out of fuel and most systems are burned out by radiation. It’s a ghost ship sir,” concluded Mr. Tarsus.
   “Whose ghost ship Mr. Tarsus?”
   “Ours sir. Computer identifies it as an A98 Mk.16. Thunderbolt, a short-range attack craft used for planetary and star base defense. It could not have got this far out on its own.
   “Time to the PROUD MARY?”
   “Twenty-nine minutes sir.”
   “Put a tractor beam on it Mr. Tarsus. Helm resume course and speed for the PROUD MARY.”
                                                                         * * * *
   Aboard the PROUD MARY Captains Rahjers and Carane walked with businesslike professionalism down a corridor. At least Rahjers hoped that’s what it looked like. They’d had a minute’s privacy in the turbolift, and his heart was still pounding from the urgency and unfettered desire of the kiss they’d shared.
   Arriving at the conference room without further incident Rahjers noted the presence of Lt. Commander Southwalker, Chief Engineer Custis, Nurse Ballou, and a thin young man whose face was unfamiliar to him. He went over to the young man,
   “You must be Jack Gavrial.”
   Jack stood up, looked the captain in the eye, and shook his outstretched hand. “Yes sir, thank you for rescuing me.”
   “It was a team effort Jack, but we’re all glad you made it. It took a lot of guts to do what you did.”
   Jack hesitated. He was not about to tell his story in front of strangers, but he felt the need to say something. “The situation was bad on that ship sir. It was time for me to go. One way or the other I had to leave there.”
   “Fair enough”, said Rahjers.” We can talk more later.”
   “Has anybody seen Commander Thorenson?”
   At that exact moment the doors flew open and she burst in, somewhat out of breath and looking not quite fully put together.
   “Sorry I’m late sir,” she said between breaths. “I was on the ranch deck when the shooting started. Horses don’t like being shot at sir. The cowboys had their hands full keeping them from injuring themselves. I slipped and fell in…something, and wound up smelling a lot more like horses than I wanted to. I had to wash up, that’s why I’m late.”
   “That’s okay Commander,” he replied trying not to smile. “I appreciate you taking the time to clean up. Please join us. This young man”, he continued, “Is Jack Gavrail. He came to us from the Orion ship by launching himself in a torpedo with a twelve hour life support system.”
   Javika’s jaw dropped, and she stared at Jack. “You did that”, she asked him in amazement.
   “It was the only way,” he replied. “I had to get off that ship.”
   Jack felt himself staring back. She was the most unusual looking, and prettiest woman he had ever seen.
   “Okay”, interrupted Captain Rahjers. “I called this briefing mostly for the benefit of Captain Carane of the destroyer TYGRESS who will be our escort for the rest of our trip. To recap; at the cost of six fighters and the life of one pilot we have successfully driven off the Orion attack. However, we still have the problem of the warp engine imbalance which stuck us here in the first place.”
   Something in that sentence triggered a memory for Jack. He stopped looking at Commander Thorenson and tried to access it.
   “Captain,” he interrupted after a minute, “did I hear correctly, you’re carrying horses?”
   “Yes that’s correct.”
   “About a year ago” continued Jack, the KORGOT picked up a group of marine creatures call Skrael. They look like the tiny sea horses we have on Earth, but they are the size of a real horse. They were in a big tank on the cargo deck. Shortly after we went into warp we came back out and the crew was talking about what you just said. They couldn’t get the warp engines balanced enough to keep the ship on course. We were dead in space for two days before they figured it out. The Skrael had herded themselves to one side of the ship and that was making the warp fields unbalanced. They solved the problem by putting sonic inducers on the sides of the tank which made them move.”
   Captain Rahjers, Chief Custis, and Commander Thorenson all looked at each other and said the same thing at the same time,
   “The horses.”
   Chief Custis was the first to hit the intercom. “Custis to bridge”.
   “Go ahead Chief”, came back the chipper voice of Lt. St. James.
   “Lieutenant I need an overhead visual feed of the ranch deck in real time and pipe it down here to the conference room.”
   “Aye sir, one moment please.”
   When the image came up they all studied it in silence for a few minutes.
   “It appears”, said Lt. Commander Southwalker, “That at present they are all fairly evenly distributed around the deck.”
   “Rahjers to sick bay, have you recovered Captain Kincaid’s body?”
   “Aye sir, it’s being decontaminated before going to the morgue.”
   “Carise” he said turning to Captain Carane,” We’re going to fire up the warp drive. Would you have the Tygress follow please.”
   Interesting thought Javika, when Captains call each other by their first names its usually because they’ve known each other for some time. When Parbit had told her he’d reconnected with an old flame on the station he hadn’t mentioned a name. Interesting indeed.
   “Javika”, said Rahjers, “please call whoever’s in charge of the horses and tell them what’s needed.”
   “Jack,” he said, if your theory’s right you may have just saved all our jobs. That however won’t save any of us if Star Fleet doesn’t get a complete report of your activities for the past three years. Go with Commander Thorenson, she will assign you quarters and help you with the report.”
   “Captain”, he said turning to Carise, “Would you join me on the bridge?”
  The love in her eyes when Parbit spoke was just a brief flash, but Javika caught it fully. Yep, she said to herself, that’s her all right.
   Fifteen minutes later the PROUD MARY was cruising at a comfortable warp six. The horses were cooperating with the cowboys, and Carise was trying to think of a plausible reason not to go back to the TYGRESS when Lt. Commander Southwalker spoke up.
   “Captain, I’ve run the numbers, we lost to much time back there. Even if we can get the MARY up to warp seven point two we will still be twelve hours late.”
   Rahjers’ face scrunched up in a frown.
   “Don’t you usually give a partial refund in such cases”, asked Carise.
   “Yes”, replied Rahjers. A prorated refund is typically offered for a late delivery. Admiral Dienkota was quite specific though that this delivery had to be made on time. So, Captain Carane, do tell us how the TYGRESS is able to reach a warp factor of seven point eight when the rest of us are lucky to get to seven point two?”
   “We have an experimental stand alone Duotronic control module installed in our warp drive that’s how,” she responded without missing a beat.
    Almost before she had finished speaking Chief Custis was standing next to them. “I don’t suppose you have a spare on board by any chance?”
   “No, but I’d be willing to loan you the one we have.”
   “Does it come with instructions?”
   “No, but the engineer who installed it is aboard the TYGRESS. I’ll loan him as well.”
   Southwalker’s face still wore a frown. “How long will it take,” he asked.
   Captain Carane looked thoughtful as she palmed her communicator.
   “Carane to Scott”
   “Aye sair, Scott here.”
   “Mr. Scott,” she said, “how long would it take you to remove the Duotronic module from the TYGRESS and install it in the PROUD MARY?”
   After a brief pause, “eight hours sair.”
   Southwalker shook his head. “He’d have to do it in six for us to regain schedule.”
   “Can you do it in six Mr. Scott,” queried Carise.
   “Aye Captain. I’d have to guess at the pulse width settings, but I can fine tune them once we’re back in warp. I take it there’s a need for speed?”
   “Yes Mr. Scott. The PROUD MARY needs to be at warp seven point eight as soon as possible.”
   “Understood sair. I’ll begin pulling the module as soon as we drop out of warp.”
                                                                          * * * *
   Captain’s Log:  “We have successfully defended ourselves against the Orion attack, and thanks to the insight of Jack Gavrial, the young man who escaped from the KORGOT during the attack, we have determined the cause of the warp field imbalances that had left the PROUD MARY dead in space. At present we are cruising at one quarter impulse while engineer Scott of the TYGRESS installs the experimental Duotronic module in our warp engines in the hope that we can then achieve sufficient speed to reach Albus IV on schedule.
   As for the services for Captain Kincaid…”
   Here Rahjers paused and listened. After a moment the door chime to his quarters rang again.
   “Come in”, he said to the door, and obediently it opened and admitted Javika.
   Uh oh, he thought to himself. She looks upset about something.
   Javika took a chair, pulled it up close to the Rahjers’ desk and sat down. She leaned forward and fixed him with an angry look.
   “I’ve been working with Jack. Captain that boy has been beaten.”
   “Doctor Chosky chose to share that with you?”
   “What? No he didn’t. I found out when I reached out to put my hand on Jack’s shoulder. It was an impulse and I guess I moved to quickly. He flinched back so hard he fell out of his chair, and then he just lay there on the floor with the most awful look on his face. When he was able to get up he told me that slaves on the KORGOT were beaten regularly, and he had learned that it would end sooner if he just lay on the floor rather than fight or run.”
   “Make sure that gets in the report.”
   “WHAT!” She shouted leaping to her feet and looking down at him with sparks in her eyes.
   “Sorry, that was a bit cold.” He replied. “Please sit down…Javika…please sit.”
   When she had, he continued, “Javika, when you first came on board my ship I was dead inside. Lenaya’s death had broken my heart and frozen the pieces shut. I was waiting to die. You came along, melted the ice, stitched the pieces back together, and poured love and passion on me until we both knew I’d be all right.”
   “You needed someone to do that. You were in bad shape.”
   “Yes I was, and you saved my life. Do you think you can save Jack?”
   “I don’t know whether to mother him or jump his bones.”
   “Trust me, mothering is not what he needs.”
   Javika jumped up, came around the desk, spun him in his chair, and kissed him full on the lips.
   “You have a big heart Parbit Rahjers.”
   “Go forth”, he replied, “and heal me a hero.”
                                                                      * * * *
   Seven hours later as the alpha shift was growing long Jack and Javika had been working steadily for two hours on his report.
   “Jack, I think we’ve done enough for today” she said stifling a yawn.
   Jack was glad to hear it. She’d been leaning over him or sitting next to him for most of the time and this nearness coupled with her perfume were driving him to distraction. He saved the report, stood up and stretched.
   “There is just one more thing we have to cover, “she said from across the room. She touched a switch, the lights dimmed, and soft samba music began to play. She reached behind her head and let down her hair.
   “Come here Jack.”
   When he did she came right up to him put her arms around his waist and pressed up against him. She looked in his eyes and said,
   “This is called slow dancing Jack.”
   Jack started to think what to say, but then decided to stop thinking and just go with the flow.
                                                                             * * * *
   Two hours later Justace Wyatt stood outside the door to Javika’s quarters. He’d rang the bell three times in the past ten minutes, and it was clear that she wasn’t home. He considered calling her on the communicator but decided against it. Either she was tied up on ships business or had just forgotten their date, it didn’t really matter which. Without looking he turned to go at the exact moment Chief Custis came around the corner. They collided and being the lighter of the two the Chief bounced back. Instinctively He reached out to steady her.
   “Chief, I beg your pardon. I did not see you. Are you okay?”
   “I’m not hurt”, she replied. Then seeing he was dressed up a bit, “May I ask what brings you here?”
   “I had a date with Commander Thorenson, but she seems to have forgotten it.”
   Brenee knew Javika had been spending a lot of time with Jack lately, but she wasn’t about to mention that to anyone.
   “Oh. I’m sorry. That’s not like her. She was probably called away on ship’s business.”
   “That’s kind of what I figured. I guess the horses will get over it.”
   “The horses”, she asked looking puzzled.
   “We were going riding”, he explained.
   “Oh, I didn’t know we could ride the horses”, she exclaimed with a wistful tone.
   “Well, I’m not supposed to let anyone ride them, but she asked, and I made an exception.”
   Inspiration struck Brenee. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to accept a substitute Mr. Wyatt.”
   A slow smile came to Justace’s face. “Why Ms. Custis, I’d be delighted to take you horseback riding.”
   “You’ll have to let go of my arm,” she replied in a stage whisper. “I’ll need to go get changed.”
                                                                            * * * *
   Javika awoke slowly, content to feel the rhythmic rise and fall of Jack’s breathing as she pressed against him. After a while Jack awoke as well. He felt like a different man that he had the night before, a wonderful warm feeling filled him from head to toe.  He looked into Javika’s amazing violet eyes and with a soft smile and said “Thank you.”
   “Oh,” she replied, “we’re not finished yet.”
   An hour later when they were, Jack sat on the edge of the bed looking thoughtful.
   “Javika, does this mean we should get married?”
   “Oh Jack, you are so sweet, but no it doesn’t. Marriage rarely works in Star Fleet, but since you’re thinking of the future you need to realize that the paths of our lives will soon uncross. You need to think about what you will do when you get back to Earth.”
“I suppose I’ll go see my mother.”
   “That’s fine, but you need to realize that your mother lost a fourteen year old boy who skipped school and ran away. She’ll be getting back a seventeen-year-old young man who has seen and survived scarier things than most men your age.”
   “Do you think I could be in Star Fleet?”
   “Life in Star Fleet can be very lonely Jack, but it can also be very rewarding. Three things are required, one is education, another is commitment, and another is a certain level of maturity. You have the commitment and maturity I’m pretty sure. You’re behind in education though. However, because your father was Star fleet, if it’s what you want to do, help can be provided with the education part.”
   Jack sat on the edge of the bed lost in thought.
   Javika was about to jump in the shower when the intercom interrupted her.
   “Rahjers to Thorenson.”
   “Thorenson here,” she replied.
   “Commander I want you and Jack to meet me in sick bay at ten hundred hours.”
   “Aye sir, we’ll be there.”
   At precisely zero nine hundred hours and fifty nine minutes Jack and Javika walked into sick bay and joined Captain Rahjers.
“Jack, good to see you. I’d like you to meet someone”, and so saying, Rahjers led them into the next room.
   The man in the transparent box on the table was clearly dead, and the instruments inside showed that he was still slightly radioactive.
   “Jack meet Captain Lincoln Kincaid, commander of the 77th Attack Wing of Star Fleet Fighter Command.”
   Jack studied the mans face for a minute or so.
   “This is the man who died fighting the Orions when you rescued me yes?”
   “Yes it is, and when he knew that he was dying he asked me to try to make you understand why he chose to do what he did, so let me tell you the story.”
   When the Captain was done. Jack walked over to the window and looked out at the stars streaking past the PROUD MARY at a full warp factor eight. When he came back he still didn’t speak.
   “Jack”, continued Rahjers, “do you know how your father died?”
   “They would never tell us,” replied Jack with a streak of old pain in his voice. “They said it was classified.”
   “It still is, but I have read the report, and I can tell you that the circumstances of your father’s death were similar to Captain Kincaid’s. They both died trying to save others whose lives were in danger.”
   “I owe somebody something don’t I.” said Jack.
   “That depends on how you feel about it,” Replied Rahjers. “Neither your father nor Captain Kincaid would want you to feel guilt simply because you are alive. This is not about guilt; this is about whether you understand the value of what you have been given.”
   Jack’s eyebrows shot up and he realized that he had been given many gifts in his life. He looked at Javika, she had given him the gift or her healing love. Katyn also had given him what she could of that life sustaining gift. Captain Appapis and the crew of theHALF TWAIN had given him many gifts during his time with them. The master of the KORGOT had tried to steal all those gifts from him and failed completely to do so. Suddenly he understood Captain Kincaid’s message and what he needed to do about it.
   He looked at Rahjers. “Captain, I would like to join Star Fleet.”

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