Flight of the Phoenix
Chapter 5 Plague Plot
By Bernard Doove © 2012
Captain Yote called the crew together for his customary pre-flight meeting a little earlier than usual. He took their reports, happy with their normal efficiency. There was an air of expectancy when the last of them had reported.
Martin finished off his coffee first before calling for their attention. "Most of you already know most of what I’m about to say, but I’ll sum it up so that everybody knows where we stand. The recent unpleasantness with regards to Penny’s father is still having repercussions as he uses his influence to inflict his displeasure upon us."
Penny snorted a humourless laugh. "If by displeasure you mean that he’s as pissed off as a rattlesnake that’s been trod on, you might be close."
"We get the idea, Penny. Anyway, many of the freight consignments that we were due to pick up were either cancelled or delayed beyond our departure date. Fortunately my father was able to pull strings of his own, and we have some replacement cargo. The bad news is that there are still far fewer consignments. The good news is that they are generally of higher value. Nevertheless they didn’t quite bring us to the break-even point, so I had to take on a couple of extra jobs that I would rather have preferred not to."
Martin paused and looked regretfully at his empty coffee mug.
"Let me refill that for you, Captain," Hotfoot volunteered.
"Thanks, Hotfoot. Anyhow, the bad news is that I’ve accepted a re-supply job to Winchester Way-station."
There were a few groans from those familiar with the destination.
"Yes, I’m afraid that’s about the right reaction. For those who don’t know about Winchester, it’s a private enterprise that has gone sour. It’s an unpleasant place – run-down and full of shady characters. However, even they need occasional legitimate supply runs, and we’re it. I’m recommending that no one takes shore leave there, and anyone who does go, does so in groups of no less than three. More on that when we get there. Before that though, we have one other destination that people avoid like the plague – literally."
Hotfoot handed Martin a fresh brew, and he paused to take a swig from his refilled mug. "How many of you have heard of the colony planet Asahikawa?
Bethany put up her hand, as did R'Murran. Martin knew that Bethany was already aware of their destination, but had not known if any of the other crew had heard of it.
R'Murran said, "Isn’t that the world that they call the Planet of the Herms? I thought that was totally quarantined?"
There were a few murmurs amongst the crew when the Caitian mentioned that it was quarantined.
"Even I hadn’t heard of it until I was approached to take some passengers from there to Earth. I must admit that I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but it pays very well, and I have been assured that it’s perfectly safe."
"Safe?" Heywood frowned. "You’re talking about a quarantined world and bringing people from it. That doesn’t sound safe to me. And why is it called the planet of the herms? Was it colonised by herms only?"
Martin shook his head. "No, they only had a handful of herms amongst the colonists who settled there. However, every one of those colonists is now a herm."
"What!" Burningbright exclaimed. "How did that happen? Is there something in the environment that changes them?"
"Yes and no. It wasn’t there when they colonised the planet. The truth is a long story."
Heywood said, "I’m sure that we would all like to hear about it so that we know exactly what we’re getting into."
"Hence why I called this meeting early." Martin took another drink of his coffee before continuing. "Asahikawa was colonised by a Japanese contingent who basically wanted to start a new Japan with its traditional culture. It consisted of about half humans and half morphs of various kinds, and aside from their cultural goals, was much like most new colony groups. Amongst their number, they considered themselves extremely fortunate to have the services of an expert genetic engineer by the name of Dr Osamu Hiro. Normally colonies just have gene techs to help deal with problems, adapting animals and plants, and coping with potential new diseases. To get someone of his skills was a real coup for the colony."
"I can sense a big ‘however’ coming," commented M'Rarrtikar.
"And you would be right," Martin conceded. "Hiro had taken the position because he had been fired from several reputable genetic engineering firms for misuse of company resources and unauthorised research. You see, he was pursuing a personal agenda, and the colony position put him in charge of the division with little oversight, and freedom to pursue his personal goal – he wanted to be a fully functional hermaphrodite."
"Wait – haven’t the gene techs been able to change people’s sex for decades?" objected Burningbright.
"Yes and no. They’ve been able to remodel bodies to be indistinguishable for a long time, but not fully functional. Being able to reproduce as the opposite sex is a relatively recent accomplishment, and this incident took place 34 years ago. Besides, it’s a hideously expensive process, something that only the very rich could afford, and Hiro wasn’t that rich. Anyway, he managed to achieve this years before they did back on Earth. Unfortunately, although he was undeniably brilliant, he was also sloppy and careless. He modified a symbiont that he discovered on Asahikawa as his means of reprogramming his body’s entire genetic code, and it worked excellently. It took several weeks to make the complete change, but he – now shi – was now a perfect fully-functional hermaphrodite human. Disastrously though, that symbiont was also very contagious, just like a virus, and Hiro had done little to isolate hirself during the change, and not at all afterwards as shi showed off hir accomplishment. Everyone who came in contact with Hiro also contracted the symbiont, and everyone who came in contact with them also got it. Because it took a little while for the effects to become noticeable, and because the colony was still so small, soon every man, woman, and child, human and morph, and even some farm animals and pets, had contracted the symbiont, and all of them were turning into herms also."
"It’s really that contagious?" Penny asked.
"Unfortunately, yes. The only thing that saved the rest of the Federation was that Asahikawa being such a young colony world, it rarely got visits from starships, and by the time one did come along, they had slapped a class one quarantine on the world."
"So tell us why in Heaven’s name are we picking up passengers from there?" Heywood asked belligerently. "No offence meant to the herms in this crew, but I have no desire to be one."
"Nor do I," Martin agreed. "Star Fleet maintains the quarantine very diligently for that very reason. However, they also inform me that they found a way to deactivate the symbiont, and the people we are scheduled to pick up I am assured will be totally safe."
"Then why aren’t Fleet transporting them to Earth?"
"Because while maintaining the quarantine is extremely vital, providing a taxi service for a handful of relatively unimportant people isn’t, so they foist that kind of thing onto civilian sub-contractors. And due to the unpopularity of the place, there aren’t many who will take the job except those who are rather desperate for work – like us."
"If they can deactivate the symbiont, why don’t they do that for everyone on Asahikawa?" Penny asked.
Martin shrugged. "I don’t know every detail. I suppose you can ask our passengers when they come aboard. I was only told enough to explain the situation we would be going into. I’m passing it on so that none of you will be going into this blindly, but the decision has been made, and we will be taking this job however you feel about it. If you reckon that you cannot deal with the situation, then you are welcome to leave the crew without prejudice. We won’t be picking them up until the return leg of our voyage, so you’ll have plenty of time to think about it."
"Well I don’t need more time to think about it," declared Penny. "I know that you wouldn’t deliberately put us in any danger, so I’m not worried at all. In fact, I’m looking forward to meeting these people. I’ve got a thousand questions that I’d like to ask them."
The rest of the crew joined in an affirmation of their faith in their captain, some perhaps a little less enthusiastically like Heywood, but none objected.
"Thank you everyone," Martin said with a relieved grin. "We lift in twelve minutes – final preparations and report readiness!"
The crew scattered to their posts, leaving Martin and Bethany to make their way to the bridge together.
"That went better than I had feared," Martin commented.
"I wish that I had as much faith in Star Fleet as I used to," Bethany said. "However, I don’t think that they’d let something that dangerous get out, so I’d say that we have nothing to worry about."
"Considering how many that I’m told didn’t survive the transformation, I fervently hope so."
The outbound leg of their voyage was basically uneventful. They had their quota of goods to deliver or pick up from various space stations and worlds. Martin was relieved to be able to pick up some extra consignments along the way that would help their books nudge further into the black. Their halfway point was T'Karr Paradisio, a world jointly colonised by Caitians and Terrans in a cooperative effort soon after formalising relations between their worlds. It was also the crew’s last opportunity to have a relaxing shore leave before having to face the less pleasant aspects of this voyage.
After all the shipments had been dealt with, R'Murran and his wives took one shuttle down to Arrartenen, a city located on the hot, dry plains that were so similar to the savannahs of Cait. The Faleshkarti elected to join them. Martin chose to go down to the other major city, Hartsburg, which was located in a more temperate and wetter climate. The rest of the crew came with him – all except Ceres who had drawn the short straw and was left to keep watch on Phoenix. Shi consoled hirself by switching off the artificial gravity and having some freefall fun.
Despite the naming of the cities, each had both species living, working, and socialising together, although climate preference did mean that more Caitians lived in Arrartenen, while more Terrans made Hartsburg their home. The planet had been colonised by idealists who saw a great future on a new world, working alongside an alien race. It had been a remarkable success, and it showed in the melding of cultures. Each world had contributed the best it had to offer, and from that grew new and unique arts and crafts. It was not unusual for Caitians and Humans to be mated, and that had led to the creation of new customs and laws. Very often, a cross species couple would seek out another, only with sexes reversed, in order to have children. Sometimes those families would remain together in a loose bond, and the children would have three parents – their mother, their father, and their sire. It all worked so well that their world was often held up as a shining example of interspecies cooperation, and T'Karr Paradisio remained an extremely popular place to immigrate.
It was also a great place for tourists, and had the crew of the Phoenix not been trying to keep a tight budget, they would have quickly spent their wages on its many attractions. It was a tired but very happy bunch of people who returned to the ship two days later. Martin was fresh as a daisy though because he had swapped out with Ceres after the first day to give the Starwalker a day’s shore leave also. He used the time to catch up on both paperwork and sleep. He made a point of talking loudly and jovially around those of his crew who came back with hangovers just to make a point, then sent them off to their cabins to sleep it off until second watch. As none of the crew had had second thoughts about going to Winchester and Asahikawa, the Phoenix left with a full complement, although the crew was quieter than normal as they approached the planet of the herms.
They were halfway into the star system when they were hailed. "This is Star Fleet patrol ship Esperance – you are entering a restricted zone. Bring your ship to a halt for identification procedures. I repeat – you will bring your ship to an immediate halt for identification."
Warned that this would happen, Martin ordered an immediate full stop to all drives, and they coasted at relatively trivial sub-light speeds. He keyed the comm and replied, "This is the commercial trader, Phoenix for a scheduled pick-up of four passengers from Asahikawa. Authorisation code Gamma Zeta 710239."
"Confirmed," came the reply. "We are sending you a flight plan. Follow it precisely and without deviation."
Martin could hear the unspoken ‘or else’ in the person’s voice. "Acknowledged, Esperance." After Heywood nodded to him to indicate that the flight plan had been received, he continued, "Will comply."
Phoenix dutifully followed the flight plan, shadowed by the wary Fleet patrol ship. They docked at a rather small space station that was orbiting Asahikawa.
"I wonder why they have such a small station?" Heywood commented.
Ceres replied, "Probably because they aborted plans to expand upon the original module due to the quarantine, and now they just use it as a base for the Star Fleet patrol ships."
"Makes sense," Heywood conceded.
The comm came to life again. "Commander Hasluck to Phoenix."
"Captain Yote here, Commander."
"Captain – you and your First Officer may now proceed to my office. All other crew members are to remain aboard your ship. Do not attempt to use any Transporter devices."
"On our way, Commander. No worries about using a Transporter because we aren’t rich enough to afford one."
They were met at the airlock by a morph with whose species Martin was unfamiliar, but was later informed was a quoll. She smiled a friendly but toothy carnivore’s smile and introduced herself.
"My name is Lieutenant Stone, and I am the Commander’s executive assistant. Follow me and I will take you to see him." The trio moved off, and she continued, "Sorry if people have been a bit terse, but we take our duty very seriously here. This isn’t the kind of job where near enough is good enough."
"I quite understand, Lieutenant, and I’ve been quite happy to stick to the letter of the instructions."
Lieutenant Stone showed them into the Commander’s office without the need to announce themselves first. Behind the desk was seated a male human, while seated on one side of the room were two more humans, and on the other side two fox morphs. The Commander got up and came around his desk to meet Martin and Bethany.
"Welcome to Asahikawa Patrol Base, Captain Yote, Commander Oakwood," he began with a serious but not unfriendly demeanour. "Thank you for accepting this assignment. I know that you must be uncomfortable with this – heaven knows we live with it for months at a stretch. However, once again I reassure you that there is no danger involved. Let me introduce you to your passengers."
He turned to the humans, and Martin was able to look them over more carefully. They were both of Asian descent – unsurprising considering that it was basically a Japanese colony. One was about Martin’s height and looked like an effeminate male, although D-cup breasts ensured that shi would never be mistaken as such. The other was several centimetres shorter and looked like a butch female, but with exceptionally large breasts that looked far too big on hir. Asian people weren’t generally known to be very busty, and Martin wondered about that. They were both dressed in clothing that Martin could only describe as modern traditional Japanese style.
Commander Hasluck said, "These are Akira and Hikaru Yamato, a married couple who were two of the original colonists, and are the appointed representatives of the Asahikawan council. Gentles shirs, this is Captain Martin Yote and Commander Bethany Oakwood of the Phoenix, who will be taking you to Earth on your mission."
Original colonists? Martin was puzzled – the herm plague started over thirty years ago, yet neither of this couple looked that old. It was a mystery to be solved later though.
The couple bowed to him, and Akira said, "It is an honour to meet you, Captain san. We look forward to an interesting journey with you."
Martin tried to return the bow, and while it was a little clumsy, the couple seemed satisfied with the result. "We too anticipate a good voyage, but be prepared to answer a lot of questions. My crew are very curious about you."
Akira smiled. "Most understandable, and we welcome your curiosity. Our mission is to raise awareness of our world and society so as to improve our colony despite the unfortunate barrier between us."
Hasluck then directed their attention to the fox morphs. Now that they were standing up, Martin noticed something that had not been obvious when he had entered the office – they both had two tails. A memory tickled the back of Martin’s mind – kitsune. That made sense; the Japanese gene engineers would have been likely to make morphs based on their own folklore.
The kitsune were of similar size and build, both with D-cup breasts, but of significantly different fur patterns. The first was a typical red fox, and shi was dressed in what Martin guessed was a modern samurai outfit, complete with katana, but with a holster on the other hip for some kind of energy weapon. The other kitsune was a silver fox, and shi wore a traditional kimono dress.
"This is Shintaro, the Yamatos’ bodyguard, and Kiku, their personal assistant. They will be coordinating with the Federation officials when you get to Earth, and seeing to the Yamatos’ particular needs throughout their mission."
The kitsunes both bowed, much lower than the Yamatos had. Martin returned the bow again, although not as low as he had with the humans, suspecting that it was best due to their relative ranks.
Neither kitsune said anything at that particular point, and Hasluck continued, "I’m officially passing responsibility for these four onto you now, Captain. All their documentation is on this data chip, and the rest of your instructions remain unchanged from when you accepted the job. Now I would like to invite you to a meal, but this is a military base, and we don’t do social events here, so I will hasten you on your way. I wish you all a safe journey and a successful mission."
"Thank you, Commander," Martin replied.
"We thank you also for your efforts over these past weeks," Hikaru said, and all four herms bowed to Hasluck.
"Lieutenant Stone – please see our guests to the airlock."
"Yes sir. Follow me please, gentle beings."
They were soon all aboard Phoenix, and Martin handed off the care of their guests to M’Resk who informed him that their personal belongings had been transferred while he had been with Hasluck. Before the Yamatos left though, he said, "We have planned a formal meal for your benefit to be held once we leave the star system. I’d like to introduce you to the rest of the crew then, if that is to your satisfaction?"
"That would be most enjoyable," Hikaru replied.
"Excellent! I will see you there then. M'Resk will fill in the details for you."
Martin left for the bridge, and Phoenix departed the space station, following the same type of rigid flight plans to leave that star system behind.
The meal was preceded with refreshments and appetisers, giving the crew a chance to mingle with their guests, with Martin giving formal introductions. Some had to stay on duty, of course, but Martin kept a comm line open so that they could listen in on the conversations. Once the formalities were out of the way, the Yamatos relaxed into quite genial guests. Shintaro was polite and not unfriendly, but clearly regarded hirself as being on duty still, and so did not totally relax. Kiku was quiet – almost shy – and remained attentive to the humans. The Yamatos however were quite forthcoming, especially Akira.
"Knowing Star Fleet, you are probably short on details of our world. In the interests of better understanding each other, I invite you to ask whatever you like of us, and we will endeavour to answer your questions as completely as possible."
Heywood had been waiting for the opportunity to talk. The herm humans made him feel uncomfortable, and while he had no problem with other species being hermaphrodites, for humans to be dual sexed seemed too unnatural. He practically jumped at the chance to ask some questions.
"If Fleet knows how to neutralise the symbiont that makes people into herms, why don’t they do that for everyone on the planet?"
"That is a more complex question than you seem to realise, young man. The simple answer though is that it’s an impossible task. The symbiont doesn’t just affect people – it has spread to every Terran mammalian species that is on Asahikawa, right down to lowly vermin. Neutralising of the symbiont does not make you immune to it, and re-exposure brings you right back to where you were before the neutralising. If only one insignificant mouse was to be missed, it would re-infect everyone again, whether by direct contact, or indirectly, such as a cat catching the mouse, then that cat coming into contact with someone. In all of humanity’s existence, no one has ever totally eliminated vermin from any major settlement, not even space ships like this."
"Then remove the people a few at a time, cure them like you, and then re-settle them elsewhere."
Akira smiled benignly. "That assumes that we want to be cured."
That confounded Heywood. "But… surely…."
"I said that this was more complex than you realised. Bear with me while I elaborate. When the plague hit the colony, it caused enormous disruption. Many died during the transformation because it is so stressful on the body, and because virtually everybody went through it at the same time, there was no one in condition to look after the worst affected while it happened. Of those that recovered, some could not cope with the change, and they suicided. Some tried surgical removal of the unwanted genitalia, only to find that it all grew back again. The symbiont has a template that it imposes on the body, so if something tries to change it, the symbiont restores it. However, that is true of the entire body, not just the new genitalia. If I was to lose a hand, it would grow back again, and faster than it does for chakats. In fact, to do its job, the symbiont actually took over the immune system. None of us has been sick since we recovered from the transformation. How old would you say that I am, Mr Baxter?"
"You look to be in your early thirties, although the way you talk implies that you were an adult when the plague hit."
"You are correct. I am 65, and my wife is 63. We have not visibly aged since the plague. The symbiont preserves us, keeps us totally healthy, and repairs major injuries. The majority of the survivors mentally adapted to being hermaphrodites, and those born since have always been herm. To take this so-called ‘cure’ would be considered a major disaster to most of us now."
"And yet you took it to make this trip," Martin pointed out.
"Our cause is more important than the sacrifice. It is imperative that Asahikawa gets access to the rest of the Federation again, especially for trade. It is our goal to facilitate this somehow. And of course, once we have finished our mission, we intend to rejoin our Asahikawan brethren and regain our abilities. With the aid of the herm symbiont, we expect to live double, maybe triple the normal human lifespan, and perhaps even longer. It is too soon yet to know the full ramifications of our nature."
"Wow, I would never have imagined that," Penny said. "You really do seem a step up from the rest of us. Mind if I ask a more personal question though?"
"I said to ask what you will, and I meant it," Akira assured her.
"Okay. You have quite a full bust, but Hikaru has breasts that are excessive for hir body type. Is that an effect of the symbiont too?"
Hikaru answered, "You have noticed one of the few failings of the transformation. Doctor Hiro wanted D-cup breasts, so the symbiont was programmed to give him them. All males like my husband ended up with D-cup breasts, but unfortunately for the females, this was imposed on top of what they already had. Before the change, I already had fairly large breasts, but the symbiont made them so much larger. And like those who tried surgical removal of genitalia, breast reduction surgery did not work – they grew back to their new size. More former females have cursed these oversized breasts than the additional genitalia. They are very heavy, and cause us frequent back aches. Fortunately for the new generation, all grow to a D-cup and no bigger."
M'Rarrtikar spoke up. "I notice that you still call each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. If you have adapted to being herms, why not call yourselves ‘mates’?"
Akira answered. "We have adapted. I have even borne two children sired by my wife. However, aside from such things, our relationship has stayed basically the same, and we have seen no reason to redefine it. Some have chosen to use the term ‘mate’, while others have used neutral terms such as ‘partner’ and ‘spouse’. A few even resort to calling each other ‘wife’ because they see our universal ability to bear children as a feminine aspect. Our society is still feeling its way in some matters such as this."
Valentina got in the next question. "Did you already have any herms amongst morph colonists, and if so, how were they affected?"
"Yes, we did have a few herm species. You are probably familiar with the problems of a lot of the early herm creations; not all were as successful as yours. Some had male physiques that were unsuited to childbirth, for example. Others had hormonal troubles. Some didn’t even always breed herm children because the trait was a very weak recessive. The symbiont fixed all that, and they are happier and healthier for it… with the obvious exception of breast size. I feel sympathy for those who were already very well endowed before the change."
"What about chakats?" Burningbright asked. "Were they affected? If you had any, of course."
"We do have two extended family groups, and you have hit on the only time that the symbiont has failed. Because your species was engineered specifically to be explorers resistant to injury and alien disease, they were the only ones who were immune to the herm symbiont. We also had some foxtaurs who were starting a new clan. None of them survived the changes that were being forced upon them. Unfortunately for the chakats though, like Typhoid Mary, while immune to the symbiont, they are nevertheless carriers, and can no more leave the planet than we can without the neutralising treatment. Nor can they have more of their kind join them while the quarantine is in place. Those two families were going to establish a community which was going to be the starting point of an influx of their clan members. Those hopes and dreams have been put on hold for over three decades."
M'Resk took her turn asking a question. "What about non-Terran species? Does the symbiont affect Caitians, or Voxxans, or Rakshani?"
"I must admit that I do not know the answer to that. We have no non-Terran species in our colony, and I have not heard if the Federation scientists have tested to see if the symbiont would affect them. I’m fairly sure though that because we can share environments and even most foods, you could at least be carriers of the herm plague."
"What happened to Doctor Hiro?" enquired Risha.
"Shi is currently serving a life sentence for hir crimes. Shi was convicted on hundreds of counts of criminal negligence resulting in death, and breaking various colonial laws. Rather than execution or imprisonment, shi is required to work for the colony for no personal gain. Shi worked with Star Fleet to find a way to neutralise the symbiont so that we could travel. Shi is also barred from any personal relationships, so that shi’s denied much of what shi hoped to have as a herm. Shi is guarded every moment of the day by several people who lost close relatives, and so have no sympathy towards hir. The people of Asahikawa will make sure that the doctor will know their displeasure for the rest of hir very long life."
M'Lertiña asked, "Going back to what you said about herms whose physiques weren’t suitable for child-bearing, the same could be said of all males. I notice that your hips are quite wide – I assume your pelvis got restructured? What was it like?"
"Yes, our pelvises were restructured, and it was the most painful part of the transformation. I could not walk for days, and I had to learn to walk a little differently after the change was complete. Doctor Hiro got that part right though – no one on Asahikawa has problems birthing a child due to narrow hips."
"I hear a lot about physical changes," Bethany observed, "but what about social ones? You set out to create a more traditional Japanese culture on Asahikawa – how has that changed?"
Akira grimaced. "A lot. Some things in traditional Japanese culture simply do not translate into a herm society. Gender roles have virtually been eliminated since the new generation started exerting its influence on those of us who clung to our former values. We now concentrate mostly on those things that are not tied to gender – arts in particular. However, we have not made as great strides as we had originally planned due to the plague and our isolation. We have been undermanned and under-resourced for three decades. That is what our mission seeks to correct. We are hoping to persuade the Federation Council to find ways not only to safely trade with us, but also allow more immigrants."
"What!" exclaimed Heywood. "But they’d also get the herm symbiont!"
"Of course," Akira replied with equanimity. "However, I think you underestimate the number of people who would be prepared to undergo that transformation in exchange for perfect health and very long life."
The crew were all a little stunned as they pondered that. Hotfoot spoke up into the silence. "The main course is ready. I suggest that we all be seated for the meal and continue discussion then."
There was a murmur of agreement, and everyone took their places at the table. As they did so, Kannekin asked, "What about you, Shir Shintaro? How did the plague affect you?"
Shintaro smiled at the young Caitian boy. "I was born after the plague, young one. I have never known what it is to be like other than a herm. My mother, however, was a former male who was quick to embrace hir new sex, but still raised me in the tradition of the samurai warrior. It is my honour and duty to serve the Yamato family."
"I would like to see those skills demonstrated," Anastasiya commented. "Would you do me pleasure of sparring match?"
Shintaro inclined hir head. "It would be my honour, Anastasiya-san. With weapons or unarmed?"
"Both. My Aunt Svetlana had me study several disciplines. I expect that you will be far superior with sword, but should be interesting anyway."
Hotfoot served up the meal with the assistance of Menalippe. As shi did so, shi passed next to Hikaru. "Your husband said shi had two children since the change – what about you? How many have you had?" shi asked curiously.
"I bore my husband three children before the change. I have not felt the need to do so again since."
The chakat sensed an odd negative reaction to hir question, so shi decided not to pursue the subject.
Aside from that incident, the meal went well, with pleasant conversation as the crew learnt more of the little details of an all-herm society.
So what’s your opinion of our Asahikawan guests?" Martin asked Bethany later in his office.
"Not what I originally thought. The kitsunes are okay – much as I expected them to be like, if just a touch servile, but the humans come across as a bit intense. They have a certain fervour about the change that I find unsettling."
"They do have a point though – there are a lot of advantages to what they have become."
"I don’t mind that, and I suppose that if Asahikawa is going to send representatives, they would be particularly enthusiastic ones. I just can’t help the feeling that there’s something not quite right though."
"Oh? What makes you feel that?"
"It’s what happened when Hotfoot asked Hikaru about how many children shi’s borne since the change. Did you notice Akira’s reaction?"
"No – I was paying attention to Hikaru."
Bethany hesitated. "I’m not really sure, but shi looked dismayed for a moment."
"So? It might be a touchy subject that’s none of our business."
"Why? They unhesitatingly talked about everything from breast size to suicide. Why would a question about babies be such a touchy subject?"
Martin had no answer for that.
Bethany continued. "I don’t believe that their relationship has remained the same as Akira said. From what I recall of traditional Japanese society, like many old societies, the females were very subordinate to the males. Now suddenly Hikaru is just as male as Akira and shi feels empowered, while Akira is now just as female as Hikaru and feels equally disempowered. Akira readily had two babies despite being male all hir previous life while Hikaru chose not to. It’s easy to see who is now the dominant one in that relationship."
"Okay – so what’s your point?"
"If they’re lying about that, what else are they lying about?"
Martin considered the question, then shrugged. "Maybe they’re just politicians – willing to say anything to sell their view."
The vixen nodded. "Could be. I hope so. A politician’s empty words I can live with, but not a deliberate attempt to deceive." She got up from her chair. "I’m going to sleep on it. Goodnight, Captain."
The fact that she did not correct him to say ‘Commander’ instead told him how preoccupied she was with the humans’ motives.
The next day, Martin approached Burningbright.
"Good morning, 'Bright."
"Good morning, Captain. Is there anything that I can do for you?"
"Maybe. Last night at dinner, did you get any sense that the Yamatos were lying to us at all?"
"Captain – people tell little white lies all the time. They are the lubrication of a properly functioning polite society. I don’t ‘listen’ out for deliberate attempts to deceive unless I have cause to do so."
Martin sighed. "Nuts! Could you do so in the future when you’re in the presence of the Yamatos. Bethany has gotten some misgivings about them, and I’d like to clear this up one way or the other."
Despite the Commander’s suspicions, the rest of the day proceeded without any unusual incident. Anastasiya arranged a time with Shintaro to have their match-up, and several of the off-duty crew members came to watch.
The pair started with unarmed combat. Both were highly trained, and despite hir greater strength and reach, the tiger had a difficult time defeating hir opponent three falls out of five. You would not have known that the kitsune had lost by the pleasure that shi took in the skilful bouts. After a break to recuperate, they then matched their abilities with swords – wooden practice ones replacing the real thing. Despite their disparate styles, it was clear who was the superior swordsperson, with Shintaro disarming Anastasiya rapidly and frequently.
Eventually Anastasiya laughed and said, "Enough! Is clear that I’m overmatched. I bow to your skills, my friend." The tiger matched word with deed.
Shintaro bowed in return, a soft smile on hir face. "It was a pleasure to fight you. I think that you have the potential to do much better."
"Thank you, but I know amount of time and effort needed to truly master sword, and I don’t have that much to spare."
"A few lessons, perhaps? I would be willing to teach you."
"You want to be my sensei?" Anastasiya grinned. "I might take you up on that."
The tiger did take lessons over the several days that it took to get to Winchester Way-station. During that time, a camaraderie grew between the two, both skilled in what they did and proud of their work. For all the uneasiness that the humans engendered, the kitsune by comparison were open, honest, and quite likeable. When they arrived at the station though, Shintaro immediately became business-like again, and Martin could hardly blame hir. As a precaution, he forbade any of the Asahikawans to disembark there, much to the relief of Shintaro.
Martin wondered why the Yamatos would want to visit Winchester in spite of being informed of the rough nature of the place. He could only assume that after being confined to their world for 34 years, any new place seemed attractive. Business dealings forced him to visit in person, but he went armed, and with Anastasiya along as a bodyguard. The Amur Tiger would make anyone but a Rakshani think twice. His loadmaster, Zelkie, was instructed to stay with the shuttle at all times and keep hir comm open. Bethany rode with hir, armed and watching the chakat’s back while shi was distracted with the unloading. None of the rest of the crew felt any inclination to visit the rundown station, much to Martin’s relief. He concluded his business there as fast as possible, then headed back to the Phoenix with a small consignment to take back to Earth.
Martin docked his shuttle without incident and said, "I want you to do extra thorough security scans on that load before letting Valentina stow it."
Anastasiya nodded. "Was already going to do that."
It seemed anticlimactic when they departed and nothing untoward happened, but Martin put that down to good preparedness as much as luck. All that remained to do was a very ordinary supplies delivery to a mining outpost, and a milk-run to a Star Corps research station, then back to Earth.
The Yamatos continued to be persons of interest during the journey. Akira surprised them with a demonstration of sleight of hand, flawlessly performing various magic tricks with the panache of a professional. Shi demonstrated various card tricks, and made objects disappear and reappear elsewhere, all without the Phoenix’s crew being able to see how shi did it.
Penny was enchanted. "Could you teach me how to do those tricks also?" shi asked Akira after one demonstration.
"It is not something that you can learn in a few days, Penny-san. This has been my hobby for over forty years, and I practice frequently. It takes much dedication."
"I’ll settle for being taught how to do a few of them, and practice those every day."
Akira smiled at the mouse’s enthusiasm. "Very well. If we can arrange to practice in privacy, I will show you some of my tricks."
Every day until they reached Pellucidar III mining outpost, Penny diligently practiced with Akira coaching her. However, the lessons were postponed upon arrival in orbit around the world. From there, the planet looked similar to Mars, although a little bigger than Venus in size. Despite having an atmosphere and being in the sweet zone where it got just the right amount of sunlight, the world had never developed life. Although people could walk around on the surface with just ordinary clothing, the air was poisonous, and anyone outside of the protective domes and huts had to wear breathing apparatus. Despite being so inhospitable, the population there was quite large because the mining corporations had discovered vast deposits of rare minerals, and they had established several highly profitable mine sites. The main settlement was inside a pressurised dome that contained housing, offices, shops, and an entertainment precinct. It even catered to the passing trade due to the large number of ships that constantly visited the world. And because it was a large, successful operation, it attracted the higher class of professionals, so Martin had no hesitation in authorising shore leave.
Zelkie and Martin took down most of the crew and all of their guests in the first trips down in the shuttles. While the two continued to shuttle freight back and forth, the rest went sightseeing. Not really being a tourist town, the Pellucidar settlement didn’t have much to offer besides a change from the boredom of ship life, but it did have one claim to fame – the Crystal Mountains. A restaurant had been built abutting the part of the dome that faced north-east, which gave a perfect view of the mountain range in whose foothills the settlement had been built. Natural crystal formations dominated the geology, and as the local star set, they glittered and glowed spectacularly.
Kiku was excited. Shi had spent some hours in the company of the two Faleshkarti, Ceres, and Penny, while hir mate was preoccupied with accompanying the Yamatos. Shi had come across a store that was selling souvenirs, amongst which shi had found some of the native crystal mounted in a representation of the Crystal Mountains. A concealed battery powered a UV light source that caused the crystal to glow a beautiful soft pink – the Lady Hikaru’s favourite colour. As shi knew that the Lady’s birthday was very soon, shi bought it with some of the money on the credit chit shi had been given by Star Fleet. When shi enquired, shi found out that the Yamatos had already returned to the Phoenix, so shi took the next shuttle back with Zelkie.
In hir haste and excitement to present the gift to Lady Hikaru, the kitsune forgot to announce hirself first, and shi entered their cabin unexpectedly. Shi bowed to the startled humans and said, "Forgive my intrusion, please, but I have brought you a gift, Honoured Lady."
She lifted her eyes, and only then noticed a small plastic box on the desk next to them. Hir eyes widened in surprise. "I do not understand – why do you have those here?"
Hikaru sighed regretfully. "Oh, Kiku – why did you have to come in without permission? Akira – you know what must be done."
Akira nodded and got up, a troubled look in hir eyes. Kiku backed away. "No – please… I am your faithful servant." Shi bowed deeply.
A moment later shi collapsed n the floor, and the crystal lamp slipped out of hir grasp and bounced on the floor, jolting the light to life.
Hikaru picked it up with a touch of sorrow. "Such a beautiful and thoughtful gift. I will always treasure it."
As people gathered for the evening meal, Shintaro asked, "Has anyone seen Kiku?"
Hikaru replied, "I have not seen Kiku-san since shi returned from sightseeing, and left me with a gift that shi had bought for me."
Nobody admitted to seeing hir since then, so Martin said, "Anastasiya, could you please trace hir."
"Aye, Captain." Anastasiya pulled out hir PADD and tapped it a few times. Shi frowned at what it displayed. "Excuse me, please. I must check this."
A few minutes later, Martin’s wrist comm vibrated to indicate a discreet call. He tapped it and held it to his ear. "Yote here," he murmured.
"Please to be coming to deck five, Captain." Anastasiya’s voice carried a sense of urgency.
"On my way." He tapped the comm off and stood up. "Excuse me, folks – I have to attend to something important."
Stepping out of the trans-lift at deck five, he found the tiger waiting for him. "What’s wrong, Ana?"
Without replying, Anastasiya pushed open the door to the adjacent stairwell. Near the bottom of the steps coming from the deck above lay Kiku, hir head bent at an impossible angle to hir body, hir eyes staring sightlessly.
"Oh hell! How did this happen? Why was shi using the stairs instead of the trans-lift?"
"Looks like shi was in hurry and had not patience to wait for trans-lift. Took stairs hastily, tripped on pretty dress, and broke neck."
Martin sighed. "I’m going to have to break the news to Shintaro and the Yamatos. Have you taken videos for the official report?" Anastasiya nodded. "Okay, then take hir up to sick bay for M'Lertiña to pronounce the official cause of death. I don’t want anyone to see hir like this – it’s a pretty upsetting sight, so try to make hir presentable."
Martin returned to the others and called for their attention. "I have some terrible news – there’s been an accident. Shintaro – could you please come with me."
Hikaru spoke up. "Captain – has something happened to Kiku?"
"Shi has had a bad fall, Lady Hikaru." Martin didn’t want to say more before giving Shintaro a chance to see hir.
"No!" exclaimed Shintaro. "Please, Captain-san, take me to Kiku quickly."
Martin did as he was asked, and he tried to forewarn the kitsune, but shi seemed utterly focused on getting to hir mate and did not appear to hear him. When shi saw Kiku’s body laying on the sick bay bed as if asleep, shi rushed over to hir. Shi picked up Kiku’s hand and called hir name, but of course there was no response.
Martin put his hand on Shintaro’s shoulder and said gently, "I regret to say that Kiku died as a consequence of hir fall. My condolences for your loss."
Tears were brimming in the kitsune’s eyes. "May I be alone with my beloved for a while, Captain-san?"
"Of course. Please let me know if there’s anything more that I can do for you."
Shintaro nodded, and Martin left the room to let hir mourn. He found Anastasiya standing outside the door. "Ana – could you stay here for now and keep an eye on Shintaro. If shi needs anything, try to help."
"Shintaro is my comrade – I will do whatever is needed."
"Thank you. And now I have to go back and tell the others that we lost Kiku today."
They made one more unexceptional stop – a routine re-supply job for a Star Corps research post – and they headed back to Earth. The mood was sombre for a few days. Shintaro maintained a stoic façade, but each evening shi stopped by the stasis capsule in which Kiku’s body was preserved until it could be properly dealt with. There shi placed flowers that shi had begged from Danson’s hydroponic garden and grieved for a while before going back to hir cabin for the evening.
Normal routine prevailed. While Kiku’s death was tragic, it did not affect the ship’s normal activities. Burningbright was doing a scheduled maintenance task on the environmental systems on the passenger cabin deck when a stray scent caught hir attention. Shi stopped what shi was doing and took a deep sniff. There it was again – extremely faint – so much so that only a chakat or a bloodhound might smell it.
"Damn it," shi murmured. Shi tapped hir comm. "Captain? I think we may have picked up some unwanted guests back at one of our ports of call."
"How so, 'Bright?"
"I am fairly certain that I can smell mice."
"I’m on the passenger deck at the moment."
"Oh great, of all the places…. Okay, see if you can confirm it, and then deal with it any way you can. The only mice that I want on my ship stand on just two legs."
"Understood, Captain." Shi tapped hir comm again. "Hotfoot – can you bring your talented nose down to the passenger deck, please."
"As long as I can bring the rest of me," came the amused reply.
Minutes later, the ship’s cook was using hir discerning nose to test the air. Used to dealing with subtleties of aromas in the kitchen, shi was able to easily pick out the offending smell. "Yep, that’s mouse scent. I don’t want those vermin finding my kitchen."
"Let’s see if we can narrow it down. We’ll check out the unoccupied cabins first, Don’t want to annoy our guests if it isn’t necessary."
Burningbright handed Hotfoot a scanner set to detect small life signs like mice, and they each took a room and started checking them out with both nose and device. When they both came up negative, they moved onto the next. Eventually they eliminated all the cabins except those of Shintaro and the Yamatos.
"I suppose that was inevitable," Burningbright sighed. "Oh well, let’s try Shintaro’s cabin first.
Shi touched the tone pad, and a moment later the kitsune answered the door. After explanations, shi willingly let the chakat scan the cabin.
"Clear," came the verdict. "And that just leaves just one place the bastards can be hiding. Looks like we’re going to have to bother the Yamatos."
"I will accompany you," Shintaro offered. "I will explain the necessity to them."
The kitsune and the chakats stopped outside the Yamatos’ cabin, and Shintaro used the door announcer. Moments later, Akira answered the door, and Shintaro bowed respectfully.
"Akira-sama, Burningbright-san requests permission to inspect your cabin. Shi has detected the presence of vermin, and it is hir task to find and remove them."
Akira looked at the chakats with a frown. "No, you may not come in and disturb my wife and I."
Shintaro was just as surprised as the chakats by the swift refusal. Burningbright stepped forward.
"Shir Akira, the health of the crew and the hygiene of this ship requires me to deal with these small problems before they become big ones. I must insist that we be allowed to scan your cabin."
"And I insist that our privacy be respected. I will say no more on this." Akira closed the door in hr face.
Shintaro shrugged apologetically. "Akira-sama has spoken. I am afraid that I must ask you to respect my lord’s wishes."
"With respect, Shintaro, they do not have that right. I’m going to call the captain about this."
Several minutes later, an irritated Martin met up with the chakats. "Right – let’s sort this out right now." He touched the tone pad. When there was no response, he tried again, but once more nobody answered. He then called out loudly. "Akira-san, Hikaru-san – this is Captain Yote. Please answer the door."
No one responded.
Martin was genuinely annoyed now. He tapped his comm. "Anastasiya, please report to the passenger deck immediately."
The tiger was there within a minute. "Yes, Captain – what do you need?"
"Override the lock on the Yamatos’ cabin, please."
Anastasiya tapped hir PADD, then nodded. "It is now unlocked, Captain."
Martin touched the door control, and the door slid open, to the startlement of Akira who was standing close by.
"What is the meaning of this, Captain? I specifically said that we do not wish to have your crew disturbing us."
"I’m afraid that I must demand that they be allowed access. Health and hygiene regulations demand that I deal with vermin as a priority." Actually it was not that urgent, but the Yamatos were really rubbing him the wrong way, and he was not in the mood to compromise.
Akira looked grossly offended. "We are the duly appointed representatives of Asahikawa, and as ambassadors, we demand privacy. Have you not got anything better to do with your time than to chase mice? You would be better off doing more worthwhile projects – repairing dangerous stairs comes to mind. Now leave us! Shintaro – guard the door and do not let these fools pass."
Shintaro pushed past Martin and Anastasiya, and took Akira’s place in the doorway. Shi laid one hand on hir katana, and the other on hir phaser pistol. Martin immediately regretted allowing the kitsune to retain hir weapon as part of hir bodyguard duties.
"My apologies, Captain-san, Anastasiya-san, but I cannot let you pass. My first duty is to my lord and lady, and their will is mine."
"No offence taken, Shintaro, but as captain of this ship, I am the absolute top authority aboard this ship, and my commands override theirs."
"Nevertheless I must obey my lord’s command, Captain-san."
Martin was flabbergasted. "This is crazy! Why so much reluctance to a trivial scan for vermin? Am I going to have to use force just to…." Martin’s voice trailed off as something suddenly clicked in his mind. "Akira – why do you think the inter-deck stairs need repairs?"
"What a foolish question! They are obviously unsafe, otherwise dear Kiku would be still with us."
"I told everyone that shi died in a fall. I had hir moved to sick bay so that the sight would not distress people. How did you know that shi died on the stairs?"
Akira look flustered for a moment, then said, "Shintaro must have mentioned it."
The kitsune was looking confused. "While I mourned the loss of my mate, I had no wish to talk about how shi died. I said nothing to you, my lord."
Martin said, "Only Anastasiya, M’Lertiña, and I knew exactly where shi was found dead. Again – how did you know?"
"Fool!" Hikaru shouted, coming into view for the first time to berate hir husband. "You never know when to shut up, and now you have jeopardised our mission."
Shintaro was looking stunned as the implications struck hir. Martin moved to push past the distracted kitsune, only to be brought to a halt once again as he saw Hikaru take a clear container out of the box that shi was holding. It contained two mice – the probable source of the scent that Burningbright had detected.
Hikaru held up the box and said, "If I drop this box, it will shatter, and then nothing can save you all from being infected by the herm symbiont that they carry. Now, withdraw from this room immediately. Shintaro – make everybody stay away from the door."
Shintaro made no move to obey. "You… killed Kiku? Why would you do such a thing?"
Hikaru frowned. "Your mate intruded upon us without permission and saw us tending to the mice. We could not trust that shi would not speak of it, so shi had to be silenced. Shi had failed in hir duty – do not fail in yours."
"No! You have betrayed my loyalty and destroyed my dreams. I cannot in all honour serve you any more, and my Kiku must be avenged." Shintaro drew hir katana and started advancing on the humans.
Akira produced a weapon from nowhere and shot the kitsune, who instantly collapsed on the deck.
"Martin was shocked. "Fuck! Where the hell did that come from. That wasn’t on the authorised list. Have you murdered another person, you bastards?" He felt ready to lunge at the humans right then despite the weapon now pointed his way.
Anastasiya restrained him, "Is stunner, Captain. Shintaro still lives."
Martin looked carefully and saw that shi was indeed still breathing. He glared at Akira anyway, then backed off as he calmed down.
Akira said, "My weapon can kill also. Please carefully disarm yourself, Anastasiya, so that I do not have to prove it."
Anastasiya did as shi was instructed, while Martin made a show of retreating. "Don’t let this door close, Ana," he instructed, then more quietly he discreetly told Burningbright, "Get Zelkie down here now."
He turned his attention back to the Yamatos. "Why are you doing this? Why do you want to bring disaster to Earth, and perhaps to the whole Federation?"
"Disaster, Captain? No, we bring a gift – the greatest gift bestowed upon humanity and its children in millennia. Look at us! We are healthier, stronger, and longer lived than the best of humanity, and even the morph species have gained nearly as much. We are your superiors in every way, but we are willing to share, to elevate you to our greatness also. But is our gift appreciated? No – we are treated with fear, and we are cut off from all other civilisation. Like the lepers of old, we are treated as unclean. So if you will not accept our gift with open arms, we will bestow it upon you anyway so that we may once again be part of the Federation, and mankind as a whole will take its next big evolutionary step!"
‘Oh great, they’re raving fanatics.’ Martin mentally groaned. "And what about all the people who die during the transformation? If you infect everyone virtually at once, there won’t be enough people to care for the one’s who have a worse time than the others, just as they did on Asahikawa."
"Those who die are obviously inferior, and are thus unworthy of being elevated to our greatness."
"And foxtaurs? Their genetics would seem to be incompatible with the herm symbiont template. You would kill an entire species?"
"You seek to sway me, Captain, but our destiny is clear even if some must die to see it realised. You will continue on to Earth and deliver us there If you still reject our gift, then you may leave without its blessing."
"I will not do that, Akira. I will not have the death of thousands, perhaps millions, on my head, all for a destiny that none will have chosen for themselves. You are possibly right in saying that many will choose to accept your gift – it is very tempting. You should give up on this mad plan and continue the mission as it was first explained to us."
"Our world would still be cut off from vital trade, and it would not fulfil our destiny. That is our foremost duty!"
Martin saw Zelkie arrive out of the corner of his eye, but he kept up the talk. "Then why didn’t you just let the mice loose on our ship before anyone caught wise instead of resorting to murder to keep your secret?"
Hikaru sneered as shi answered, "Do not pretend to be stupid, Captain. You know as well as we do that you would show symptoms of the symbiont long before we got to Earth, and no one would ever be allowed to leave the ship." Shi looked at Anastasiya. "You are already a herm, so the gift would be easy for you to accept. Help us to achieve our destiny and you will be so much greater than these others who would deny us our quest."
Anastasiya rolled hir eyes. "Who wants huge breasts?"
"Give it up," Martin insisted. "No one on this crew will willingly help you do this, and I cannot be coerced.
Hikaru looked at Akira who said, "Then we will kill members of your crew until you comply."
"I think not," Martin demurred. "Zelkie!"
The box of mice that Hikaru was still holding up to dash on the floor at a moment’s notice, suddenly wrenched out of hir hands and into Martin’s. At the same time, Akira’s weapon was wrested from hir grasp and into Anastasiya’s.
The humans were stunned for an instant, then Hikaru lunged for the box, only to be met by a tiger’s fist to hir nose. Shi fell to the floor, blood pouring profusely from the broken appendage.
"Superior humans bleed very well too," Anastasiya observed.
Martin examined the box – it was barely big enough for the mice. Space was taken up by an inbuilt water supply and a food cache that could be triggered to dispense pellets without having to open the box. A filter allowed air to be exchanged while stopping things like the symbiont – or at least Martin fervently hoped so. The filter also allowed a trace of the scent of the mice to escape – completely unnoticeable by the humans, but after accumulating for weeks, detectable by the sensitive noses of the chakats.
He turned around and handed the box carefully to Burningbright. "Here are your vermin. Take them to M'Lertiña and have her thoroughly scan and document them for evidence without removing them from the box, then have them ejected from the ship as soon as possible."
"Yes sir." Burningbright gingerly carried them away.
Martin then looked at Anastasiya. "Who wants huge breasts?" he repeated ironically.
Anastasiya shrugged. "You already said all best words."
Martin grinned and turned to Zelkie. "Please help Anastasiya take the Yamatos to their new accommodations in the brig."
"Delighted to do so, Captain."
"And thank you – you saved our hides once again. I don’t think I could have caught that box if Hikaru had tried to break it."
"You’re welcome, Captain. Just remember that when it comes to handing out bonuses."
Martin could feel hir empathically broadcasting hir pleasure. Since the episode with the hijackers, Martin had instructed the chakat to never use hir Talent around anyone who was not a crew member. Hir telekinetic ability would be their secret ace in the hole, and Zelkie had agreed. Getting hir young offspring to not carelessly show it had been a greater challenge, but they had made a game of it. They designated one of the crew to be the token ‘stranger’, and if they concealed their TK ability from that person all day, then they were rewarded with a special treat. Each day a different crew person wore the armband that indicated that they were the stranger, which forced the cubs to be diligent and observant in order to win the reward. The game had worked, and the Asahikawans never knew about the Talented chakats.
Hotfoot was the only one left, and Martin indicated Shintaro’s prone form on the floor. "Help me take Shintaro up to sick bay. Shi’s going to feel terrible when the stun wears off, and shi might even need more help as shi comes to terms with these events."
Hotfoot nodded, and they lifted the kitsune between them. As they carried hir away, shi said, "You know shi’s the real victim in all of this. Hir mate was murdered and hir loyalty betrayed. I wonder how shi’s going to cope?"
Martin wished he knew the answer to that.
A group of the off-duty crew were in the mess hall, drinking their favourite brews, and reviewing the recent events and speculating on how they came about. The Yamatos certainly weren’t going to enlighten them.
"I still don’t know how the Yamatos got that box of mice past Star Fleet," Martin admitted. "Although it’s small, it’s not something that is easily overlooked, and the staff at the station didn’t strike me as anything but diligent."
"It’s not so puzzling as you might think, Captain," Penny said.
Martin’s eyebrows raised. "Oh? How?"
Penny held out the toy that she used to practice the sleight of hand that she had been taught. Then with a flick of her hand, it was gone. "A little bit of magic. The art of the magician is misdirection, and Akira is an expert at that. Star Fleet was obviously not expecting a deliberate attempt to smuggle the symbiont, so they were able to be misled by Akira who probably put a lot of time and effort into the deception. Shi brought the box in right under their noses."
"Makes sense, I suppose," Martin admitted. "A procedural failure rather than carelessness. Commander Hasluck isn’t going to be happy when he finds out. Anyway, that’s as close as I ever want to get to a sex change."
"What do you suppose they’ll do with the Yamatos?" Hotfoot asked.
Bethany replied, "Most likely try them for terrorism, murder, and attempted hijacking."
"If I were sentencing them," Heywood said, ""I’d ban them permanently from returning to Asahikawa. Think about it – without the symbiont active in their bodies, they are just ordinary humans, except for being herms. No rapid healing, and no extended life span. Just imagine how those bastards will feel to be deprived of their precious ‘gift’ for the rest of their lives."
There was a murmur of agreement amongst the rest of the group.
Bethany said, "It seems to me that if they genuinely represented the people of Asahikawa, they may have seriously harmed their cause. I can see Star Fleet recommending to reject their appeal on the basis of the Yamatos’ actions. After all – where there are two fanatics, there are surely more."
"But there’s also likely to be far more who genuinely want what we were told they wanted to do," Penny replied. "After all, it is a very attractive incentive that they have to offer." At the looks that people gave her, she laughed. "I said it was attractive, not tempting. The price is way too high for me. However, I’m willing to bet that others will find it irresistible."
Just then, the discussion was interrupted by Shintaro entering the mess hall. Shi walked up to Martin and bowed deeply. "I most humbly beg forgiveness for drawing arms against you, Captain-san." Shi drew and held out hir katana to Martin. "I surrender my weapons and submit to your justice."
Martin waved it off. "Put back your sword, Shintaro. I cannot fault you for your loyalty, however misplaced it turned out to be."
Shintaro re-sheathed the katana gratefully.
"How are you coping, Shintaro? Your life must be turned upside down."
"I am adrift. My lifemate is dead, and I have turned against those I swore to serve. I have been dishonoured and lost face. I can never return to Asahikawa with that shame over my head."
"I don’t find it shameful to do the right thing in the end, but I don’t pretend to understand exactly how your society works. I’m more concerned about you though – what will you do without a mate or any others of your kind?"
"I will cope with the knowledge that part of Kiku lives on in me."
"Will that be enough to deal with the loneliness though?"
"You misunderstand, Captain. I am with child. I will never be alone."
"Oh! I hadn’t realised. Forgive me for the preconception, but I thought that Kiku would have been the far more likely mother of any child that you two might have."
"I begged Kiku’s indulgence. I was my mother’s firstborn, and I was the one that shi trained in the way of the samurai. I wished to do the same with my firstborn. Kiku impregnated me shortly before we left on our mission."
"That’s wonderful news in all this sadness, but what are you thinking of doing for the immediate future?"
Shintaro hesitated. "I cannot go back to Asahikawa, and I would feel out of place on Earth. I think that I would like to wander and find my place in the universe. To that end, I request that I may join your crew."
That startled Martin, and most of the others in the room. Martin frowned in concern. "Shintaro – I like you, but I really can’t afford to put you on the payroll at the moment."
"I have no need to be paid, Captain-san – I just desire meals and a place to sleep. Star Fleet gave us all credit chips to cover expenses while on our mission, and you are welcome to take that to cover my upkeep. I also have other skills to offer besides the obvious."
Martin was still undecided – Phoenix’s budget was terribly tight, and their future was still uncertain due to Windsor’s commercial sabotage. Then again, Penny had set a very positive precedent. His musings were interrupted by Anastasiya.
"Captain – I wish to support my comrade’s request."
A moment later, Loander added, "I think that our friend, Kiku, would be happy for Shintaro to join us," Presaith seconded Loander’s opinion.
"Shintaro belongs with us," Penny stated firmly.
Martin held his hands up in surrender. "Okay! Okay! I give up!" He turned back to the kitsune. "Shintaro – these people aren’t just crew, but more like family, and the family has spoken. Do you feel that you can fit in with us, not just do your job, but to take an active part in our lives?"
"I will do my humble best, Captain-san."
"M’Rarrtikar is going to kill me for this, but… welcome to the crew of the Phoenix!"
Continued in Chapter 6.
Characters and story copyright © 2012 Bernard Doove.
except Risha DeMar who was created by Chakat Fleetfoot and used with permission.
Art of Shintaro and Kiku by Mayra Boyle.
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