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Menagerie: Infiltration (part 2)

Previously, Menagerie: Infiltration (part 1).

Fleex sank back into his command chair and studied the static-filled viewscreens now showing the planetary body of Hydera at the edge of viewing range. Around that desolate rock spun a long-ago terraformed moon, now called The Watering Hole, its original name known only by dust-covered antiquarians.

His eyes narrowed. He hated calling in outside help, but whatever it was that held the “captured” shuttle—and his docking bay—was too much for his troops to handle. But he had at least one marker to call in here. Unfortunately, the Hole attracted more than its fair share of pirates and displaced (i.e., fired ignominiously) security types and as such he expected word to travel quickly once he touched down that he had something hot.

So, the idea was to get, get someone to flush out the docking bay, then be gone before anyone had the chance to act on that information. Now, where had Helm Spear gotten herself to?

**********

Spear ducked back into the crawl space emptying onto the docking bay floor. She rubbed her beak in irritation. Despite the chill air in the bay, the scent of dead flesh wafted to her, reminding her she hadn’t had anything since breakfast several hours earlier. She counted slowly to thirty and, when the vultures at the door poked their carbines into the room and began shooting, ran in a crouch toward the forward landing gear of the shuttle.

Whoever or whatever was in the shuttle didn’t appear. Didn’t rush out to slaughter those at the bay door. Didn’t seem to notice as she slipped into the shadows beneath the shuttle. She took a deep breath, trying to slow her racing heart, and gazed into the recess around the landing gear, wondering why she was doing this in the first place. She wasn’t a warrior. She wasn’t a spy, nor a sneak thief. She was an engineer and very good with tinkering, and she knew vehicle design.

The shuttle was a HorizaMax 2500, designed for half a dozen life forms not exceeding 500 kilograms in weight although, in a pinch, it could accept fewer, larger creatures with a downward adjustment in expected life support efficiency. She opened her beak in a silent laugh. The primary reason for the shuttle over the years had become one of convenience—star faring vessels required an escape pod, and the HorizaMax filled that requirement. Never mind the fact that little over one quarter of the life forms in this sector of space could actually fit aboard the shuttle. Laws were being re-written to make up for that mistake.

No time like the present, she thought, and pulled herself into the opening.

Menagerie: Infiltration (Part 1)

Previously, Menagerie: Caught (Part 3) and Menagerie: Coming Together.

 

Worms wriggled around in his skull. Split. Multiplied. Coursed through his veins. Worked their slithering way down his limbs, into his wings.

“Cracker,” Tax subvocalized, shaking the image from his mind. He wasn’t wormfood yet and didn’t plan to be for quite awhile. Then again, thought of worms set his stomach grumbling. The rations he’d snacked on while awaiting the pantera had long since vanished. The reconditioning dragged on for what seemed like days, but Tax knew was merely a few hours.

He wasn’t sure what the lozenge he’d swallowed had contained but it, along with a few tricks he’d learned toward the tail end of the war, seemed to have kept his faculties his own. He remained slack-jawed, staring at the blue-tinged light overhead when the lab techs loomed into view; otherwise, he wondered what his next steps would be. Once he was released from the reconditioning chambers—provided the charade worked—he’d likely find himself among other provisional recruits, assigned scut work around the ship until he proved himself worthy enough to be promoted. From what he could tell, the provisionals stayed outside the standard chain of command until they were “proven” under fire; then they would be accepted into the regular chain of command and had the same chance of promotion as any other.

The worms wiggled again, and Tax muttered, “Cracker.”

The word acted as a trigger to keep his sense of self grounded where it currently was. It was something he’d picked up from a bison or bovine of some sort he’d met at a bar on Tradosh while he was on leave. He’d been a junior officer in a vessel serving alongside the Pak navy and had done what any self-respecting military type did while on leave in his home port—headed straight to the nearest watering hole before having to face family and in-laws who would do nothing but complain about his being away all the time.

He’d met the bov after a short while, the latter’s partner having slipped into a back booth to deal with a client. They got to talking and soon had circled around to encounters with the enemy. That was when the bov gave a few tips on how to survive standard brainwashing techniques and keep your self together. Tax had figured at the time the bov was just yanking his wing feathers but had gone along good-naturedly (these were in the days before he had command and lost what little patience he had with those around him). Now, he was glad the information held true.

Then the drill came into view above him.

He cursed inwardly and kept thinking cracker as the point touched his forehead and started to turn.

Menagerie: Caught (Part 3)

Previously, Menagerie: Caught (part 2), Menagerie: Thoughts in Space and Menagerie: Watering Hole.

“Toss me that spanner,” Tariq called over the rumble of Hobbs and W.B. carting parts from the bridge toward the engine room.

Liishi looked through the case of tools, picked the most likely one, and underhanded it over the console to him. He yelped and sat up, rubbing the top of his head. “Sorry,” she said, then: “Isn’t your head harder than that?”

“Har har,” he muttered and leaned back over to the console’s innards.

“How much longer?” Liishi asked for—she knew and hated herself for it—the twentieth time in the last two days. All the sitting had worn a hole in her leathers. And she had punched a hole in the bag Tariq had kindly hung in the storage space she exercised in. Oh, she’d helped to the best of her knowledge, but when it came to shipboard work, her skill set was particularly limited.

In answer, Tariq tapped the com switch on the console. “Moe? How’s she looking?”

“All systems go down here, boss.”

Tariq smiled. “Fire it up.” He slipped into the pilot’s seat and flipped a few switches, adjusted a few dials. The whine of the engine dropped an octave, and the ship shuddered violently, then the shaking subsided. A look of concern passed his features, but he shook his head. “Good enough until Bilbao gets a look at it. Is anything down there redlining?”

“No. All looks good here,” W.B. replied. And Moe added, “It’ll do until we find Bil, sir.”

“Good.” Tariq glanced at the forward screens then back down at the boards. “There you are,” he said. “Let’s go get our engineer back.”

Menagerie: Caught (Part 2)

Previously, Menagerie: Caught (part 1) and Menagerie: On the Trail.

 

Commander Tax leaned back into the cushioning gel of his escape pod as it punched its way clear of the debris that remained of his ship. The sensors in the pod were limited to visual and auditory but that was enough for him to see the pantera ship wiping out the rest of the scav force, suffering quite a few severe hits itself during the battle.

He cackled bitterly to himself. Supreme Commander Faulk had led the scav fleet here based on information Tax had provided, that a large haul just happened to be moving through this sector. Faulk had jumped on the chance to prove himself to the other leaders and taken his entire flock with him. The information had been correct: the unidentified white ship did seem to be worth taking down, yet the true purpose was to place the flock in the direct path of a pantera ship that would be coming through.

Tax idly scratched his bald pate with one wing and picked a mite from his oily neck feathers. He couldn’t figure out how his contact had known a pantera ship would be here. The next step was in the lozenge that tax held in his other wing. When the pantera ship picked up his pod, he was to swallow the lozenge which would ensure his being able to mimic the reconditioning treatments that the pantera gave war criminals and prisoners. After that, work his way through the ranks of the recruits and get close to a particular lion, a high ranking member of the feyeed government. Once he found his target, he would receive further instructions. No word on what those instructions were, but Tax wasn’t stupid enough to think he’d be expected to live past that point.

He grunted and turned the lozenge over. It would go down. Not easily, but it would go down. He wasn’t concerned about that. He wondered if he would still control his actions or if taking this pill would lobotomize him just as much as the pantera conditioning would.

Whatever. At least he knew the funds transferred to his account on the moon of Tradosh would work their way back to his family if he didn’t survive this. But he planned to anyway just to anger his mysterious benefactor.

The pod rocked violently when the pantera ship snagged and pulled it into its hangar bay, and Tax muttered, “Come on, Pol, get this over with.” The he popped the lozenge in his beak and swallowed.

When the door of the pod opened to a unit of pantera troops leveling their weapons at him, he smiled, held out a pack of rations, and asked, “Want a cracker?”

 

Menagerie: Caught (Part 1)

Previously, Menagerie: Filch and Flee! (Part 2) and Menagerie: Unwanted Help.

Fleex approached the corridor outside the hangar bay. After a half dozen failed attempts, Carrion’s Delight had finally managed to overhaul and snag the errant escape pod. Spear had sent word a moment earlier that the cargo ship the pod came from had dropped into sub-light shortly after the escape pod had jettisoned. By the time the other ship righted its course and returned, the pod would be secure and the Delight would be back in hyperspace.

That was the plan, anyway. As time dragged by while the ship kept missing the pod (almost as if the thing had evasive maneuvers built into its programming, but no one ever did that with life pods), Fleex could feel the desire to strangle a subordinate rising in his chest, but being a good fleet commander (even if it was only one ship), he squelched the impulse and instead hurried (not too fast) down to the hangar when the pod was finally captured.

“Status,” he said to the volt standing outside the bay doors. A team of heavily armed avians stood nearby.

The volt, a bit shorter than Fleex, snapped to attention and saluted. “Sir! Detection systems unable to get a clear read inside the captured vessel. Life signs indicate one life form, then a moment later detect half a dozen. Then shortly afterward, no life signs appear.” The volt clicked his talons together smartly, then added, “Sir.”

Fleex tucked his wings behind his back and faced the bay doors. “Impossible,” he muttered. “One cannot get no life signs then up to half a dozen. Some sort of trick.” A trick he wouldn’t mind having the ability to pull off, he thought.

He paced the hall a moment then glanced at the scavs surrounding him. “Very well, enter and take the vessel. If there are occupants, take care not to harm them too much. We may need them alive to get information on the vessel’s capabilities. Good luck.”

Then he stepped back, allowing the security team to file past and into the hangar bay around the pod. One of the scavs stepped to the hatch with an explosive pack and was about the set the charge when the hatch opened and something came out.

Fleex couldn’t tell what it was, but it moved fast, and three scav warriors were down before the others even had the chance to react. Two fired their weapons wildly at the blur, one killing a comrade. Fleex didn’t wait to see the rest. He stepped back into the hallway and shut the door to the bay, yelling for more guards, and backpedaling to put as much distance between himself and whatever was inside his ship.

********

Menagerie: Filch and Flee! (Part 2)

Previously, Menagerie: Repairs and Menagerie: Filch and Flee! (part 1).

Bilbao forced himself into as small a ball as could in an as-out-of-the-way corner as could found inside the escape pod. Once he’d finished setting the engines on their trajectory toward the Feyeed capital, he’d slipped in here for an hour or two of shut-eye.

The next thing he’d known, the escape pod was filled with weasels and the locks clamping it to the Iron Hide had been blown, hurtling the pod deeper into hyperspace. The vessel wasn’t designed for hyperspace travel. Instead it relied on propulsion away from a dying larger vessel where it then would activate a secondary burn dropping it back into sub-light speeds and back out of hyperspace. At that point, a tracking beacon would activate. The pod had enough fuel and life support for several days and could, in a very limited fashion, be aimed toward large planetary bodies.

Bilbao didn’t know what, if any, planets would be in the area where they emerged, but he did know he needed to let the captain and the others know where he was. Fortunately, his people were accustomed to long periods of waiting.

*****

“Unexplained explosion five points starboard, sir,” Spear exclaimed. She fluttered her wings and tapped the console before her, trying to pull an image of that sector of space. She clicked her beak in frustration at the junior tech assigned to navigation as he began to sputter something about her doing his job.

Now-having-assumed-the-title Commander Fleex leaned forward in his chair. “Speak, Helm Spear, speak and be heard. What is the explosion?”

An image flickered to life on the main screen: a large blob of grayish light with a smaller, brighter dot arcing away in the fashion of an escape pod.

“Larger vessel still accelerating, sir,” the wet-feathered navigation chirped. “Should we pursue?”

Commander Fleex shook his head. “No. Smaller target most likely contains the higher likelihood of greater gains. Set course for it. If it is an escape pod, it should leave hyperspace shortly. We can pick it up then.” He sat back, smoothing his feathers. “Good eye, Helm Spear. This will go in my report.”

Spear kept facing forward, stoically. But she puffed her chest as she did so.

*****

The ship rocked, and Tally clutched his sides again. He didn’t think he had anything left inside to expel but still felt the need. During what was referred to as sub-light travel, the ship had rocked some but hardly bothered him. The moment it had gone into “hyperspace” there had been the feeling of violent waves shaking the ship, trying to tear it apart. Throughout the time in this part of space, those same waves buffeted the ship. He glared at Cutter who just sat on his bunk, arms crossed behind his head, eyes half-closed.

He just wanted off this ship. Now.

Menagerie: Filch and Flee! (Part 1)

Previously, Menagerie: Deadweight.

 

The explosion rocked Liishi from a deep, troubling sleep.

She jerked awake and half slid from the cot, one hand going for her pistol, the other clutching the messenger pouch . . . which felt lighter than it had when she’d closed her eyes.

She ignored the sounds outside the room of boots slapping the metal corridor. She ignored Tariq’s yelling at whoever was tearing apart his ship. She ignored the continued snoring of her partner in the other bunk.

No. scratch that. She pulled open the messenger bag about the same time she crossed the small room and planted one foot in W.B.’s side and “Yeah, you could say that,” she spat and tossed the bag at him shoved. The shove didn’t work. W.B. just rolled over and mumbled something about tea in the morning. The flickering light in the room showed a metal box with a delicate grillwork on two opposite faces: part of a ship’s air scrubber.

Liishi shrieked and spat a curse of her own.

W.B. sat up and stared at her. “Problem?”

“Plenty,” she growled as she stomped into the corridor, nearly colliding with Tariq as he came down from the bridge.

He took one look at her, eyes sweeping past and noting she wasn’t lugging around a bag loaded with a box of hope, and said one word: “Weasels.”

Her claws flexed and she forced them back. “What else did they do?”

“What didn’t they do?” he muttered. “Somehow knocked us out, killed the sub-light systems, and blew out of here.”

“But how?”

About that time Hobbs emerged from the weasels’ room, toting an armload of parts for the air recycling system, just as W.B. stepped into the hall.

“Simple, Li, just take a sniff around you,” her partner said.

“Yeah, I don’t think your musky aroma is going to—” she shook her head and noticed the faint tickling scent of nuts and mint.

“What is it?” Tariq gestured at Hobbs to get the filters back in place.

“Julip flower,” she replied, “found in the jungles on Jhenos V.”

“Used by the natives to poison their weapons,” W.B. added. “In small doses it is a mild soporiphic. Too large a dose for a smaller creature could paralyze and possibly kill.”

“You mean, smaller creature like the size of my engineer?” Tariq shoved his way past the group, heading toward the engine room.

They were met by Moe coming the other way. The ursa shook his head. “Bil’s not there, Captain. Air scrubber’s a mess.” He glanced over Tariq’s shoulder and noticed Hobbs’ armload of gadgetry and rumbled, “That can be fixed.”

“The sub-lights?”

Moe took a deep breath and let it out with a grunt. “I can fix it. Bil would be a heck of a lot faster and more precise. He’s tweaked the engines so much they no longer fall anywhere inside manufacturing spec, but I can get us back up and running—and out of hyperspace—in about an hour or so.”

Tariq nodded, stared at the flooring a moment. “Moe, do your thing. Hobbs, go back to the bridge and look for tracks on the pod. Maybe we can follow it down.”

“Excuse me, Captain,” W.B. interrupted, “I served as general maintenance aboard a liner many years ago and keep myself as thoroughly informed of engineering—and weapons—as I am able these days. I might be of some assistance.”

“Accepted. Go help Moe,” Tariq responded and stepped aside to allow W.B. past. He then looked at Liishi. “I need to help get my ship back up and running, but first,” he said, stepping to the door of the weasels’ room, “we need to see if they left any clues why they were after that box of yours.”

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