By Chris Gilman & Jimmy Lawhon
The year is 2141, the time 05:30, and the place is a secret base on Mars. Two very unusual figures walk across the landing bay towards a large streamlined spaceship almost a hundred meters long.
These two would stand out in any crowd, but in far more ways then one.
One is a cougar who stands seven feet six inches tall. Tan fur almost entirely covers him except for the white patch that starts at the tip of his muzzle, goes down his chest and belly, and disappears into his pants only to re-appear on the inside of his thighs. His long thick tan tail has a dark brown tip on it and bobs as he walks on his digitigrade feet, aiding in his balance. His blue eyes stare out from under his unruly brown hair which is mostly tied back behind him, where it falls to the middle of his back in a loose ponytail. A name appears to be almost tattooed on the fur of his right bicep in large black letters, Goliath-46972.
The other morph is a panther that stands about six feet two inches. Though tall, he is dwarfed by the proximity of his larger partner. His fur is completely silver except for his hair which is a midnight black so dark it resembles the darkness of a black hole. He too wears his hair in a loose ponytail that hangs as far down his back as the bigger cat’s hair does. His golden eyes catch every movement around him as they dart from one thing to another. A long thick silver tail waves behind him as he walks on his digitigrade feet. A name is also tattooed across his right bicep just like the cougar, Saber-46975.
Their clothing is very simple. Both wear only a pair of grey shorts that stop mid thigh. No shoes and no shirts. The right legs of their shorts bear symbols that could be best described as rank insignias. There is also a patch at the right hip that reads, ‘Mars Morph Corps’.
When they get to the ship they are met by the human ground crew. “Hi Saber, Goliath, the ship is ready for lift off. She’s fully fueled and you should like this baby’s new toys. Hope you guys have a great flight.” The two morphs glare at the crew as they walk up to the ship and start up the ramp into its bowels.
They walk in without a word and close the door, the ramp slowly retracting. Soon they are strapping into their seats on the flight deck and within minutes of entering they are starting the pre-flight sequence. The hum of the reactor can be clearly heard in the landing bay as they bring it online. The ground crew quickly finishes their assignments and run for the doors out of the bay as red lights around the landing bay start to flash in warning.
Saber watches out the front view-ports as the ground crew clears the landing bay then turns back to his console. “Hey Goliath, why do you think they gave us this new ship for this supply run instead of the old rattle trap we’ve been using?”
The cougar shrugs as he continues to punch commands into his console with a powerful hand. “I don’t know, but I bet they got some kind of new engine in this baby and they want us to try it out. Why would they risk a human’s life just to see if it works or not?” he gives a soft guffaw. “After all, who would care if a couple more morphs get killed flying this ship. They can always just get someone else to take our place and try again.” He looks up at the panther and frowns, “How many other morphs and friends have we seen get killed testing these devices?”
Saber shakes his head, “More then I care to remember.”
“Just because we got some damn nanites in us that help us heal, it doesn’t mean we’re immortal.” He slams his hand down hard on a bank of buttons harder then he had to and Saber looks over at him, seeing the few tears that drip along his muzzle. “We were once human, but they don’t care about us anymore.”
The silver panther nods his head as he turns back to watch the readouts change as the bay depressurizes and the floor under them starts to rise. “Those nanites they injected into us a few months ago to change us can allow us to survive more injuries then an unaltered human. But we’re still susceptible to such things as this ship blowing up with us inside it.” He finishes his warm-up routine and looks over at the co-pilot’s seat. “Well, enough talking, we might as well fire this baby up and see what happens.”
The cougar comes out of his dour mood and laughs. Looking over at Saber with a grin as he holds up his crossed fingers, “Sure thing. Let’s light a fire under this baby and launch.”
With a wide grin on his muzzle Saber changes to the tower frequency and activates the radio. “Mars-One to Control, do you read me? Over.”
“Read you loud and clear Mars-one. Stand by. The commander wants to talk to you two before you power up the anti-grav engines and launch.”
A grimace crosses both of their muzzles as they hear those words, knowing exactly what is coming. “Roger that Control. We’re all ears here.”
“Saber, Goliath, this is Commander Parsons. I just want to remind you two what will happen if you try to run with that ship. We have planted enough explosives on that ship to blast it into so many pieces that they will be picking you up with a sponge. So, no bright ideas of running with my new toy, am I clear?” He gives a chuckle, “Besides, we want that ship back in one piece.”
Saber grimaces at the thought and nods his head, even if the person on the other side can’t see him. “Yeah, we read you all right. Mars-One, out.”
Goliath looks over at him with a frown. “You think they don't trust us?”
The panther’s response is a shrug. “Well, here we go.” He starts flipping toggles and punching buttons almost at random, “Power to main anti-grav generator. How are the readings?”
Goliath studies his board and nods. “They look fine and are well within specs. Only one small power surge when you first powered them up, but it was within specs. They’re fine now, and ready for you to engage.”
Saber nods to him and once again engages the radio as they start to approach the surface of mars and the still closed bay doors. “Mars-One to control, we are ready for lift off.”
“Roger that, every thing looks fine here Mars-One,” the control tower responds.
“Roger, how about you open the bay door Hal before we get squished against it?”
There is a laugh from the other side of the radio and the controller comes back, “Now cut that out Saber. Bay doors opening. See you when you guys get back.”
“Roger that, Control,” he replies as the doors open and they exit the tunnel of the landing bay and are now sitting on the surface of the red planet.
Saber pushes the power control handle to full and the ship gently leaves the pad. He can hear the slight hum of the anti-grav generators through the hull as the ship passes from the shadow of the bay doors and out into the early morning sunrise. When the ship is clear and up about a mile, the doors shut and in moments you could never tell that there is a base hidden there.
Saber lets his mind wander as he feels the main engines engage and they punch through the atmosphere like a bullet. He relishes the pulse of the power through the frame of the craft and can feel the air currents flow around its skin. He almost feels like he is the ship.
Goliath’s hand is shaking him as he turns and his eyes focus on the cougar. “Saber! Saber, did you hear me? We’re in orbit.”
He blinks a few times and shakes his head to clear it. “Hmm? Oh, sorry, I got lost in thought. You know me. I always like to fly in space.” He looks out the windows with a calm expression and a feeling of calm. “It’s so quite and peaceful out here. I sometimes just zone out like that and forget the hell we’re leaving behind, or returning to.”
Goliath just turns back to his console and checks his readouts. “So, ready to try the new warp-drive in this baby?”
Saber chuckles to himself, “Sure, why not? What do we have to lose?”
His friend lets out a nervous laugh himself. “Just our lives, that’s all.”
“Aw, shut up,” Saber says as he swats his friend on the shoulder.
“Turn off the in-system drives and stand by for warp travel,” says Goliath as he starts to enter commands into his console.
“Wow! You’re not going to believe this. This thing can go to warp five,” says Saber as he examines the warp section of the control panel.
“You’re kidding, right?” Goliath asks as he looks over at Saber.
“No, I’m not,” answers Saber as he takes hold of the controls.
Goliath whistles to himself in amazement. “No wonder they warned us not to run with this ship. It’s probably a prototype and we could go a long distance with a ship this fast.”
A grin crosses Saber’s muzzle as the thoughts of what he can do with this ship pass through his mind. “This could be fun, man. The old rattletrap we were flying could only go warp point-five and it took us hours to get to Earth. With this ship it should take us mere minutes to get there.”
“So, what are you waiting for? Let’s go!” says Goliath with a wide grin that shows off his teeth.
Letting out a deep breath Saber pushes the control handle to warp one. When nothing bad happens and the ship is still accelerating he pushes it slowly upward to two, then three, four, and finally to warp five. The ship is speeding along, still accelerating, when all of a sudden there are alarms blaring and lights flashing everywhere. Saber and Goliath began throwing switches and pushing buttons to try to fix the problem, but they just can not find it. Not even the emergency overrides are working. They can’t stop. The readouts are off the gauge and every indicator is in the red.
Then space seems to shift around them. A tunnel of light slowly seems to form from the starlight outside the view-ports. They can hear a high pitched tearing sound that gets higher and higher until neither of them can stand it any more and both press their hands to their ears which are already folded back against their heads. With roars of pure agony they both pass out for the audio pain that assaults their ears.
Meanwhile, back on Mars...
The human wearing the commander’s tabs is screaming at his sensor techs. “What do you mean they just disappeared from your scope? They were only just out of orbit.” He turns to the radio operator and glares, “And what was all that screaming about a hole in front of them? And why didn't the auto shut down just kick in and stop them?” He turns with fire to his eyes to glare at the ferret morph seated at the main sensor control. “I want answers now, mister!”
Hal can only shrug his shoulders as he turns back to his screens and tries to find out what happened to Mars-One. “Sir, there’s no trace of them out there, not even wreckage.”
The commander smacks his right hand into his left, “Damn!” He turns to look at the main screen of the Ops center and frowns. “Declare them as lost in action and tell the scientists their new ship disappeared without a sign. We’ll need a new pilot and co-pilot team as well as prepping their old ship.”
Hal looks up at the screens again and says a silent prayer to his friends. Wherever they are now, it has to be better then here.
Meanwhile on the dark side of the moon, a wormhole opens up depositing a certain ship into the quiet of space. There is no movement, no sound or light from the warp drives, not even a hum of a reactor. The only sign of life is the flicker of emergency lights in the control room of the ship visible through the windows at the bow.
Slowly, very slowly, the crew on the flight deck are coming back to life and starting to stir. The panther rubs the back of his neck to loosen up his muscles there that tensed up when he passed out across his console. “Man, what hit us?” He looks over to the co-pilot’s seat and the cougar still bent over his console. “Goliath, are you OK?”
The cougar coughs and slowly sits up from being slumped over the console. “Yeah, I think I’ll live. But next time, warn me about that first step. It was a lulu.” He starts to rub his head and then cradles it carefully in his hands, “Could you tell that man on my head to stop using it for a drum?”
Saber starts to massage his temples too as a headache flares up from nowhere. “I have two on mine.”
“Where are we, and is the ship still operational?” asks Goliath as he tries to focus on his readouts that are blinking in front of him.
“One, if I can believe my instruments, we are right behind the moon on the dark side. And two, the warp drive and reactor are down. We are on minimal life support and emergency batteries, no gravity or main lighting. We will have to go down to the engine room and check it out,” answers Saber as he un-straps from his jump seat and grabs the flashlight from next to his seat. “Until we do, I don't want to try to move the ship an inch. Those emergency batteries wouldn’t even get us to Earth from here.”
“Okay, let’s move like we have a purpose,” Goliath says with a grin as he too un-straps and grabs his light. Together they float towards the rear hatch from the flight deck.
Saber just has to laugh, “Hahahaha, okay funny cougar, let’s go.”
Both float through the hatch and head for engineering down the hallway. As they reach the end they slide through the tube that normally they would have to climb down to reach the lower deck. There they exit to cross the cargo bay and reach the door to engineering. When they finally get there they can smell burnt wires and melted plastics. The air is thick with smoke and half the engine room is covered in fire retardant foam.
“Whoa, not good,” says Saber as he looks over the mess. Waving his light through the smoke like a laser, he surveys the damage and frowns.
Most of the warp drive’s access panels are open and smoke is still pouring from them. Goliath grabs a fire extinguisher and puts out the remaining fires. He sticks his head into a few of the panels and checks the damage over. The frown already on his face deepens as he pulls his head out of the drive.
“The whole thing is trashed. We’re not going anywhere with this hunk of junk for a drive.” He pounds one massive hand against the housing to emphasize his point.
Together they turn to get a close look at the reactor and Goliath starts to shake his head in sorrow. “This isn’t happening.”
“Unfortunately, it is,” replies Saber as he shines his light over Goliath’s shoulder and onto the reactor, or what’s left of it.
The casing of the main reactor is warped and there are multiple ruptures in several hoses. Water slowly drips out of them to pool and hang in the air. Goliath groans in dismay as he reaches over and inspects the hoses, one coming apart in his hand. “Looks like this was our trouble, the hoses leading in and out of the reactor must have come loose or ruptured. The compartment flooded with hydrogen and a stray spark must have set it off. The initial fireball would have given the drives a brief boost as all the stored hydrogen somehow got injected into the reactor, before it blew like a small bomb.”
Saber grabs a hand hold and pulls himself closer to look over the damage. “I think most of this can be replaced with what we have on board, at least the reactor can be fixed enough to give us some power and give sufficient power to the main drives. The rest will have to wait till we arrive at the space station and can dry dock. We will have to go in on conventional drives, but that should be no problem this close to Earth. Thank god they set those in a room farther aft behind a fireproof bulkhead. Maybe they foresaw something like this happening.” He gives a shrug of his shoulders, “Anyway, life support is ok, and so is communications since both of those are housed in the forward avionics compartment under the flight deck. Looks like we got off lightly, don't you think?”
“Yeah, let’s get to work,” answers Goliath as he floats over to the tool chest strapped to the wall and pops it open, extracting a tool belt that he straps on. “We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he mumbles as he floats back to the reactor and starts working.
About five hours later they are ready to try to move the ship. Goliath’s fur is covered in oil, grease, and soot as he activates the reactor from the engineering control panel; which still shows signs of scorches from the fire that washed over it.
He activates the in ship com, “Okay, power up the systems one by one and watch out for power spikes. Don’t want to strain the patches we made. I don’t want this thing blowing again while I’m in here.”
“Roger that, and everything looks go from here.” Saber looks over the readouts on his console. Slowly he moves his hands to bring the systems up. Life support being first, then gravity. He sighs as he feels his own weight again and hears a curse from engineering on the com. He grins as continues to the lighting and other systems. Soon all the systems are up and running and Goliath returns from engineering to plop down in the co-pilot seat mopping some of the grease from his face with a work towel.
“Thanks for the warning before you turned on the gravity,” he growls to Saber.
Saber gives him a brief nod as he gently grips the power control. “You’re alive.” Gently he slides it up to the first mark and the ship begins to move out from the backside of the moon as the main conventional drives engage.
“When we get past the moon’s shadow, contact Delta-Four space station and tell them to get ready for an emergency docking and repairs,” Saber tells Goliath as they both seem to relax now that they are moving again.
“Got you and will do,” he answers as he fiddles with his console.
As they clear the dark side of the moon and see the Earth enter their view Goliath starts to transmit. “Space station Delta-Four, this Mars-One, do you read me, over?” He waits for a replay then tries again. “Delta-Four, this is Mars-One, do you read me, over.”
He turns his head to glance at his friend, the worry clear on his face, “No response from the station on the main frequency, not even static or their nav-beacon.”
“Try a different channel,” suggests Saber.
Goliath switches channels and speaks again, “Delta-Four, this is Mars-One, calling on emergency channel one, please respond, over.”
There is some static and then an unfamiliar voice finally answers, “Unidentified ship this is Flinders Station. Please give your name and planet of origin.”
“Unidentified? Flinders Station?” Both of the felines say at the same time as they pass confused looks between each other as they hear the hail.
“I think we’re in trouble,” says Goliath as he starts an active scan of the system and finds far more traffic then there should be. And many vessels that make their hundred yard long ‘big’ transport look so small.
“That’s an understatement,” replies Saber, the sarcasm heavy in his voice. “What’s going on? Where’s Delta-Four?”
“I don’t know, but I think we’re going to find out real soon,” Goliath answers as he keys the radio again. “Flinders Station, this is Mars-One, could you please tell us where is U.E.F. space station Delta-Four, over.”
“U.E.F. huh?” can be heard over the speakers. “Flinders Station to Mars-One, there is no such station. What dose U.E.F. stand for?”
Saber growls as he plugs his headset into the com-port on his console, “Mars-One to Flinders Station. It stands for United Earth Federation.” He violently gives the cord a jerk and it pops out again, leaving only Goliath tied into the com-link. Good thing too with the words he is almost screaming.
Finally he calms down and looks over at the cougar in the copilot’s seat. “That should get them thinking and maybe get us some answers.”
“I hope so buddy. We may have a hard time explaining ourselves. How many people do you think know about us? I mean there can’t be that many talking cougars or panthers on Earth, can there? Especially if as I am beginning to suspect this isn’t our Earth.”
Saber gives him a worried glance as he runs a quick check of what they can do. “No, I doubt there is.”
“Flinders Station to Mars-One, there is no such federation. This is Star Corps Flinders Station. So you want to try the truth now?”
Goliath growls briefly in agitation and the fur on the back of his neck bristles. “Mars-One to Flinders Station, we told you the truth. We are U.E.F space ship Mars-One on routine cargo pick-up from space station Delta-Four to Mars base Morph-One.”
There is a heavy pause on the radio before they receive an answer from the unknown station. “Mars-One, continue on course and come within tractor range. Once docked, prepare to be escorted off by security personnel.”
“Roger Flinders Station. Mars-One on its way. Over and out.” Goliath toggles off the radio and slumps back in his chair in resignation.
“Is that the station?” asks Saber as he points out the window.
Goliath nods, “Looks like that’s where the transmission was coming from according to the scanners.”
Saber whistles in amazement, “Thing’s big. Bigger then Delta-Four by about double the size, and probably triple the mass at least.”
“We’re in for it now. Man, are they going to be surprised when they come on board and find us.” says Goliath as he sighs and Saber starts to ease them towards the large station that is now coming into view as they approach Earth.
Saber sighs as they near the huge station, “No choice. We can’t run with the warp engines scrap and our fast repairs to the reactor might not hold together long enough to get back to Mars on conventional power.” He shrugs, “Besides, where would we go?”
“I know but I’m just worried about what they are going to do to us when they see us. I don’t want to get shot just because some young fool gets scared and starts shooting before he asks questions, that’s all.”
“Same here big fellow, same here,” replies Saber as he watches the station in worry growing bigger in their view-port. “Maybe we will have to try out those nanites they injected into us. They’re supposed to aid in healing the same why they changed us to morphs from humans.”
The cougar grimaces, “I’d rather not, I still remember the feeling of the one time they fixed me from that cut I received when I was attacked by that asshole anti-morph who was a member of the base personnel. It’s a strange and unnerving feeling.”
As they get within a kilometer of the station, the ship lurches and Saber quickly runs his hands over his control panel and shuts the engines down to keep them from overheating or overloading the reactor. “Well, it’s out of my hands now.”
Goliath nods as they are guided into a spacious hanger. “Well, let’s see if we can keep from startling them for a few more minutes.” Before they land he flips a toggle on his console that closes a series of armored shutters over the front view-ports. He sits back as they finally settle down with a gentle tap on the deck.
Soon their heads turn to the sound of someone knocking on the hatch. They turn to look at each other, then slowly stand up and walk towards the cargo bay. They both stare at the hatch as the knocking comes again. With a nervous hand the cougar activates the cycle and the hatch opens.
Both of their jaws drop to the floor as they see the pair of security personnel waiting for them. Both are morphs.
One is a female felitaur holding some type of baton in her normal hands. She’s lightly tapping it against one hand as she looks them up and down. A device that is obviously meant to be another weapon from its shape is in a holster at her waist and their eyes flick to it out of habit before they focus on her again. The fact that she is female is evident by the way she fills out the front of her uniform, which is not anything like what a two legged fur would wear. While she wears a very normal looking shirt, that is almost it. Shin guards cover her forelegs and part of her back legs. But the horizontal torso is clearly visible showing her fur pattern.
Her fur though is an odd coloration, like no cat they can identify. A grey base with irregular brown splotches seems to cover her head to tail tip. Her hair is short and matches the brown splotches in her fur in coloration. She looks up at them as she is only about five foot six, but she easily masses at least as much as the larger cougar.
Behind her stands a large wolf. He’s about six foot with grey fur and hair. A patch of slightly lighter grey starts under his muzzle and disappears into his shirt. Unlike the felitaur, he is holding the pistol like weapon in his hand and his baton hangs from his belt. Both of the felines’ ears lay flat against their heads as they see the weapon drawn. It’s not pointing at either of them, but it is held in a way that means he won’t hesitate to fire if they give him a reason.
“Are you the only crew of this ship?” asks the felitaur in a purry voice that hints at a gentle personality, but also holds a tone that means she won’t take any nonsense, especially not from us.
They snap their heads back to her and their ears slightly perk up. Saber slowly nods his head and she motions for them to step out of the ship. “Are you carrying any weapons, knives, guns, stunners, clubs, or bazookas, anything not natural to your body?”
As they step off their ship Saber points at Goliath as he shakes his head no with a grin, “Only him.”
The felitaur looks to the cougar and flashes them a grin as she catches the joke. She turns and motions for them to follow her. “Come on, if you two behave and don’t cause trouble, I won’t even shackle you,” she says with another grin at the two large cats. They hesitate for a minute before they follow her, “Come on, I don’t bite.”
Numbly they leave their ship behind and follow the strange taur towards a side corridor out of the landing bay. The wolf with the weapon in his hand steps up behind them and takes the rear. Goliath eyes the weapon in suspicion, but the wolf is still not pointing it at either of them. He’s only holding it as a precaution it seems.
Saber rests his hand on his friend’s shoulder and quietly whispers to him. “Don’t worry. They’re just doing their jobs, just like we would be back on Mars.” He squeezes the shoulder confidently, “Just don’t make any hostile moves and they won’t shoot you. And most importantly, stay calm.”
Goliath gives his friend a nod as they leave the hanger. Saber just holds his hand there in a reassuring grip on his friend’s shoulder.
As they follow behind the felitaur they notice something after a short distance into the corridor that gives them another in a long line of shocks for the day. This four legged feline that they had assumed was female from the ample way she filled out her shirt has something that should not be coming off of any female. As she walks in front of them they pass right through the scent trail she leaves in her wake, and their eyes open wider in surprise. She’s giving off a male’s scent mixed with that of a female. It’s not possible.
They glance at each other in surprise and can tell that the other is slightly nervous at this unexpected complication to their encounter. They are not sure what to make of it.
Their escort seems to notice their distraction and stops to turn towards them. “Is something wrong boys?”
Goliath coughs and clears his throat before answering. “Um... Well... Are you a male or a female?”
A curious look crosses her face as the wolf that has been silent this whole time finally speaks up. “What? Never met a chakat before?”
“A what?!” asks Saber as he snaps his head back to stare at the wolf dumbfounded.
Goliath just stares at the taur as he runs this through his mind, “What is going on?”
Story and characters are © 2002 Christopher Gilman & Jimmy Lawhon.
Chakats are the creation of Bernard Doove.
To be continued in Part 2.
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