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Angel’s Fear–Chapter 2

The metal floor rumbled, sent an empty plastic barrel rolling slowly into Anidev Saschin’s left side. He opened his eyes against the sudden suction of an outer dock bay door opening, and he instinctively grabbed for a handhold that wasn’t there. He squinted through the blue gloom of the little alcove where he lay, and realized the door was sealed, and he was in no danger of being sucked into space, so he relaxed. Somewhere on the other side of the door, a heavy buzzer sounded, acknowledging the departing ship as she was released from her berth. The buzz deepened to a growl, when the dock bay door began its slow closing. The noise ended with a metallic thud, and then hissing silence, as the pressure on the dock normalized.

Finally, Ani lifted his head, aware of the pain and swelling in his face, tasting the blood in his mouth and smelling it as it congealed in tiny pools beneath him. He pushed himself up, allowed himself a small moan, and rested against the dirty wall, tried to let his head stop spinning and his belly stop convulsing. As bad as he felt, he was glad to be on Kharasi Station, glad to be alive, glad to be free. He huffed a laugh, and spat blood on the floor.

He realized that he was hungry, desperately hungry. He didn’t know how long it had been since he had last eaten, but his stomach protested the fast with alternating waves of nausea and growling. As he rubbed at his belly, he noticed that his ID bracelet was missing. With a start, he searched the floor around him, checked his bag, looked everywhere he could get to, but it was simply gone. He sighed, spat again, fell back against the wall, and shook his head, rage building up in his gut. Without the ID tag in that bracelet, he had no identity. And no money. That meant no place to stay, and no food.

He punched the metal wall with the back of his fist, angry that he had felt surprised that he would be left without the one thing he needed to get by on a starstation. No crewmember in his memory had been marooned like this, so he had no experience with it, to know what would be done to the offending crewman. Still, he chided himself for not expecting it. Kaipoori cruelty was legend, and it was rare that a captain would just put someone out, and not rip him to shreds or space him. It was crueller, though, to leave him alive, with no identity, penniless, and in an automatically illegal situation. Axsher Saschin was nothing if not cunningly cruel. Anidev cursed himself, under his breath, in any wise, as there was no one else around to curse. He’d just have to figure out how to get a new identity tag. Surely, one of the skeezy establishments on this old ringpole would have someone who dealt in fake IDs. And to get one, he’d have to come up with a good deal of money. Easy enough, if he could sell one or all of his gold chains. He did a quick check of his bag, and found the chains still there. One good thing, at least. But food had to come first, and no food vendor would accept gold as payment. He’d just have to scavenge, as his head wouldn’t stop spinning on its own. A big cat needed to eat, and eat big.

By then, his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and he found the door controls easily enough. He listened at the door for some time, first, and heard no footfalls or wheels or robots in the area. A swipe of his hand over the control brought the door up, and he slipped out, trying to stay in the darkened parts of the dock and to avoid the security cameras. He moved into another alcove, rummaged around and found a dockworker’s jacket. His claws extended and worked the name patch loose, left the jacket breast intact. Painfully, he eased himself into the jacket, pulled it on right over his family jacket, and found it was still too big. He didn’t care, just rolled up the sleeves a few turns, took off his belt and put it back on over the new jacket to hold it closed. Now, at least, he wouldn’t look like a marooned pirate. He knew there would be a lot of Kaipoori spacers on this station, and he also knew that, to Humans and Oron’Qai, all the cats looked alike, a fact that would allow him to lose himself more easily than a humanoid could. Another Kaipoori might recognize him, if they bothered to give him a second look, but even if they did, it was unlikely that they would involve themselves in his dilemma, unless they thought there would be money in it.

He left the alcove and began slowly moving toward the lifts, knowing full well that he’d not be able to get in one, without ID. However, no ID would be necessary to get on one, if he could find some way into the shaft. He decided he didn’t have the energy to try to get through the wall and into the shaft, thought he’d be better off to just whack somebody on the head and take their ID, then dispose of it, once he was on a useful level. With this in mind, he stepped out of the shadows and purposefully walked over to a dormant robot forklift and took the control pad out of its seat. He then looked “official,” and could take his time, find a suitable victim and make his theft.

Nearly fifteen minutes had passed when he came upon a man who wasn’t in a group of other workers. He wasn’t sure if the man was Human or Oron’Qai, and he didn’t really care. He was tall and blonde and soft looking. An easy target. Anidev’s hunger had reached the point of making this plump, slow-moving man look delicious, and he had to fight the ancient instinct to leap onto the fellow and bite through his throat, then rip his tender sinews and organs out and feast upon them. But even if he wanted to follow that instinct, he no longer had the teeth for it. Surely, he still had long canines, but generations of genetic manipulation had left the Kaipoori with smaller mouths and teeth than their ancestors had had, and the ability to speak had brought with it a slightly longer neck and a lower larynx that wouldn’t let them swallow huge chunks of meat any more. Ani could still eat a man or a large animal, but he’d have to use a knife and fork to do it, now — or, at the least, rip the meat up into manageable, small bites with his claws, or risk choking to death. And where would the fun be in that? All that vicious instinct, to have to daintily eat his prey! He sighed, shook the thoughts out of his head, and focused upon the task at hand.

He followed the man toward the restrooms, went in behind him and instantly whacked him on the head with the heavy control pad. That didn’t put the man out, and Ani found himself struggling with a humanoid who was at least a head and a half taller than he was. Ani was, however, much stronger and more fierce. He headbutted the fellow in the chest, to stop him from crying out, and then shoved the man into the metal wall and repeatedly smacked his head into it, until he lost consciousness. Anidev stood over him, panting and snorting and chuffing, tail whipping like mad, his claws still buried in the man’s jacket. He settled down quickly, released the body and took the ID bracelet from it. He made sure the man was still alive, then he rushed out of the restroom and toward the nearest lift.

He had to stand back and look busy, until the lift had no one waiting to get on it. Every moment he had to wait only increased his hunger and his agitation, as well as the likelihood of his victim coming to and crying foul, so when he finally saw his chance, he raced into the lift as if he was being chased by a demon. The lift door slid shut, closed him, alone, into the capsule. He selected the Promenade deck, as he remembered that level having a lot of bars, restaurants, lodging, and entertainment establishments. Surely, he’d be able to scrounge some kind of food there, even if it meant checking garbage chutes for scraps, and he’d be able to find somewhere to hide, when he needed to.

The lift belched him up to his chosen level, and he shoved out before the door had finished opening, hurried away from the lift and stopped near some potted trees, where he deftly deposited the stolen ID. He knew it would be worse to be caught with that than to be caught with no ID, at all, and he couldn’t buy food with it, without having his face caught on camera. He straightened himself up a bit, and began to stroll about the deck, relaxing as his adrenaline rush spent itself. He stopped at another restroom and relieved himself, took a moment to wash up his face and check his teeth. None were broken or loose, and he was grateful for that. He did still have some swelling beneath his left eye, but it wasn’t bad. He combed his dark brown mane and arranged it in its usual fashion, then returned to the quest for food.

He walked and walked, looking into restaurants with a searching eye, until he finally came upon a cafe with tables out on the lane. He looked over all the patrons, chose his mark, and focused upon him. The man at the table had barely touched his steaks, had his entire attention on the palm computer in his hand. Anidev confidently walked toward him, pretending to try and read the menu board, and bumped heartily into the man, causing him to drop the computer.

“Oh, excuse me! I’m so sorry,” Anidev muttered in Standard, as the man grumbled and bent over to retrieve his computer. Ani waited until his head was below the table level, and then he snatched both steaks and took off with them. He had already run out of sight, by the time the man realized what had happened and called over the waiter to complain.

Anidev lost himself in a crowd of spectators who were engrossed in a wrestling match between two grey-ruffed Maqat males. He stopped to watch, and happily chewed on his steaks, wishing he’d had some money to put on the meaner-eyed of the two apes. As it turned out, he would have lost his bet. He grunted when the softer-eyed Maqat flipped the other one onto his ridged back and held him down for the count, hooting and screaming his victory. Ani licked his lips, savoring the taste of the steak, but wishing the man had ordered it rare instead of medium.

Once the crowd thinned out around the makeshift fighting arena, he moved on with the larger group of pedestrians, took his time in surreptitiously looking around, taking in as much detail as he could. He finished the last bite of steak, licked the juices off his hand, and then ducked his head. Across the lane, ambling out of the nasty GoGozeNe bar, was his father’s chief rival, Captain Star. If anyone would recognize a Saschini kit, it would be him. Anidev puffed out his cheeks and kept his head down, watching Star with a sidelong glare, as he swaggered about with his well-armed cousins making a ring around him.

Star was one of the mountain Kaipoori, with long white fur that had silver tips on each hair, crystal blue eyes, and a longer snout than the lowland cats, like the Saschini were. His looks were more like those of the lowland females, and many made fun of that fact, both secretly and not so secretly. He had tried, once or twice, to convince Axsher Saschin to let him take Nadi, Anidev’s only sister, as a mate, but Nadi wouldn’t have him, referring to him as “that hairy bastard.” Star’s pride had been badly wounded by her rejection, but he still carried a torch for the girl. Ani was glad to see the captain swish on his way, jewelry jingling and silken trousers shining in the bright lights of the main lane.

He turned his attention then to GoGozeNe. Any bar that Star came out of had to be full of sneaky types, perhaps one of whom could get him that coveted fake ID. He couldn’t just walk in and ask, though. It would be a delicate affair, requiring a lot more finesse than he could muster up, at the moment. The two steaks he had stolen were a decent nibble, but he still needed to feed, to get his energy back up and pump up his brain to a conniving level. He marked the location of the bar in his mind, and set about trying to find another source of food. His continued hunger and focus upon finding food kept him from noticing the Human female leaning against the wall outside the bar, who was studying him with great interest. He set off on his feeding quest, unaware of the woman carefully following him.

*****

Anidev Saschin’s vision began to tunnel, his mind focused more and more upon food, and his predator’s eyes darted from person to person, as he ambled through the promenade. He passed a man with a small child on his back, who stood at the end of a queue, and noticed the kid had a kebab of some sort. He looped back, came by once more, and quickly snatched the tidbit off its stick with his teeth, before running away, again, leaving the child crying and the man looking confused. That morsel was tasty, very tender meat, but was barely a bite for him. His rumbling stomach reminded him that it was a good way from being filled. Still, it was another twenty minutes before he found one more possible bit of a meal. An Oron’Qai noble sat near the door in one restaurant, his plate piled high with leftovers of meatloaf, vegetables, bread, and sauce. Nothing caught Ani’s eye but the meatloaf. He went inside, walked around as if checking the place out, then suddenly ran at the well-fed fellow with long blonde curls and velvet waistcoat, deftly scooped up the meatloaf and let out a half roar that startled the man so badly that his chair fell backward and onto the floor, with him still in it.

Anidev ran, again, but this time, a Maqat diner leapt from his seat and gave chase, bellowing in a deep, grumbling voice. “Come back here, you thief! How dare you interrupt the doctor’s meal!”

Ani didn’t slow down, just stuffed the meat into his mouth and chewed for all he was worth, easily outrunning the gangly ape and throwing himself beneath some dense shrubbery at the edge of the walking park. He crouched there, eyes darting back and forth, lungs panting, muscles poised for another sprint, but the need never came. He settled down, finished swallowing the last of the meatloaf, and decided that would be enough food to get him by for the night. He would find a hiding place to nap in, then get up and start on his quest to obtain his fake ID. Likely, someone would happiy give him some credits for his chains, and he could use that to pay for the tags. He peered through the dark green leaves to make certain the coast was clear, then crawled out of the bushes and casually walked through the perfectly pruned trees until he came upon an exterior ventilation unit on the side of a hotel block. He climbed in behind the box and curled up against the vibrating unit, let himself quickly sink into a deep sleep.

*****

Freika Larn followed the sprinting Kaipoori as best she could, but damn, he was fast! She didn’t know Maragoni cats could run that fast on only two legs. She huffed and puffed in trying to keep his pace, and had to stop for breath when she saw him leap into some shrubbery at the park. He didn’t immediately emerge, so she took her time in approaching the bush, hung back, but stayed close enough that she could see bits of his yellow jacket and a small piece of his fluffy tail sticking out of the brush, and she pretended to not be looking in his direction. She was glad the big Maqat had given up the chase, and that he hadn’t seemed to realize that she was chasing, too. The Maqat was one of the very few gen-altered beasts on the station who could hold his own and even stand a chance at killing a full-grown Kaipoori. As big and burly as that ape was, she figured kitty man wouldn’t stand a chance against him, if he got himself caught. But he didn’t get caught. At least, he didn’t get caught by the Maqat. She smirked, thinking about how much more humiliating it would be for him to get caught by a mere Human female. She desperately wanted to catch him, no matter the risk. So she straightened up her shorts, wriggled each of her legs, and waited for him to come out of hiding.

When he finally emerged, he wasn’t running. He looked calm and collected, no meatloaf in sight, and he held his beautiful tail confidently at attention. He was a fine looking cat, in Freika’s estimation, with his luxurious dark brown mane, soft folded ears, velvety looking golden body fur, huge tiger eyes, and muscular build. He was at least a head shorter than she was, but he just oozed what she thought was tomcat allure and strength, and his presence occupied a great deal more space than his physical body did. She hadn’t realized until then that she wanted to lay claim to him in more ways than one.

He moved slowly through the park, taking things in, familiarizing himself with the territory, and Freika followed, far enough back to not be noticed, but close enough to keep him in easy sight. She watched him climb behind a ventilation box and settle in, saw him curl up there and tuck his head into his arms, like a housecat curling into himself for a nap. She waited until he seemed to be deeply asleep before she quietly climbed into the space with him, sat down in front of him, and just watched him sleep. Her deepest desire, at that moment, was to reach out and stroke his silky mane, to play with his delicate ear flap, but she rather liked having her hands intact. Kaipoori all kept their claws, and many of them were enhanced with metal. Even three inches of natural claw could rip her hand clean off, so she refrained from touching him.

Anidev’s nose twitched, caught her scent, and he thrust himself upright, claws extended and ready to kill. Freika sat absolutely still, her bright blue eyes open wide. Anidev took only a moment to scan his hunter’s eyes up and down her tall, slender frame, noting her large bosom, pretty face, and chopped blonde hair. Then the blue patch on her breast that read “Daphne’s Dream,” twined around the silhouette of a woman with flowing blue hair that made up the outer circle of the patch.

“Who are you?” he growled.

“Um, I’m Freika,” she breathed. “Freika Larn. Who are you?”

He ignored her question. “What are you doing here?”

She visibly relaxed. “I could ask you the same question, but you’d probably ignore it, like you just ignored my first one.”

Ani kept his guard up. “What do you want?”

She walled her eyes and snorted. “You, obviously. Why else would I sit down next to a sleeping cat who could rip my arm off if he wanted to?”

Tch!” he spat, and stood up. “Can’t even get a nap around here.”

She reached out and grabbed his sleeve. “Wait! Can you run calcs?”

“What?!”

“Can…you…run…cal…cu…la…tions?”

His eyes narrowed. “Why are you speaking like that?”

“Oh. I thought you couldn’t understand Standard slang. Or my Cassarean accent confused you.”

He shook his head in amazement. “And speaking in drawn-out syllables would make a difference in either? Tch!”

“Wow, you’re an angry little kitty, aren’t you?”

“I’m not a little kitty!”

She squealed with delight. “Oh, yes you are, you growly-wowly, purry-wurry, pretty little furry kitty!” Her hand lashed out and instantly started to scratch behind his folded ear. He flinched, but didn’t move out of reach. A faint purr started in his breast, but then he slapped her hand away.

“Stop that! I am not a lap cat! I am a Kaipoori! I am Anidev Saschin, the eldest son of Axsher Saschin, the greatest pirate this system has ever, or will ever, know! I am not a pet!”

You? Axsher Saschin’s kitten? No, sir! I’ve seen his wanted posters. You’re way too cute to be related to him.” She interrupted him just as he appeared to be about to launch into a rant. “Besides, Ebony Angel and Terreos aren’t in dock, here. I mean, I think I heard them come in for refuel, but they’ve been gone for a long time. Why would they leave you behind, if you’re the captain’s kid?” She suddenly grinned. “Unless you did something wrong! What did you do that was bad enough for a pirate to kick you off the ship? And your own daddy, at that!”

“That is none of your business!”

“Sure it is! I want to know all about it.”

Ani turned to walk away. “Leave me alone.”

She held onto his sleeve and shook it a little. “Look, Anidev, you’re hungry, right? I mean, you were scarfing down leftover station meatloaf, so you have to be hungry. Nobody with half a set of tastebuds eats that garbage willingly. Plus, you have no money, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been snatching leftovers off some fat Oron’Qai’s plate.” She scooted closer, and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial tone. “That’s why I asked if you can run calcs. See, our number one and number two got themselves inconveniently stowed in the station’s morgue. I’m not fully qualified to run numbers, yet, so we need a good pilot. I heard lots of Kaipoori spacers are good at numbers. Are you?”

His spine stiffened and added a few inches to his height. “Yes. I am. I was captain of Terreos. Until recently.”

She let go of him and cupped her mouth with one hand. “Oh my God! They beached you?! What the hell did you do?!”

“That is none of your business!”

“You keep saying that, like it’s going to make me stop asking.”

“You might as well stop asking, because I’m not going to tell you.”

“What if I feed you? I mean really feed you, something delectable, instead of rancid meatloaf? Piles and piles of deliciousness! What do Kaipoori like to eat, anyway?”

His eyes slitted. “Nosy little girls.”

“Ha!” She grabbed his sleeve and pulled him closer, almost right against her. “Oh, I’m going to like you.”

He pushed away from her. “Well, I don’t like you, so leave me alone!”

She held on, looking down at him with one eyebrow cocked. “You don’t like me? What kind of rude crap is that? Here I am, offering you food, all the food you can eat, for absolutely free, and I’m also offering you a job, which you damn well know you can’t get anywhere else, without any ID.” His eyes widened, and she nodded. “Ja. I noticed your bracelet is gone. If you still had it, you wouldn’t need to steal food or sleep behind machinery.” She kept hold of his sleeve, despite his offended chuffing, and gave him another little shake. “So, what’ll it be, pussy cat? Try to buy yourself a fake ID and end up in the pound, or come with me for a chance at glory, fame, and good food?”

He pushed her hand off his sleeve, but his eyes never left hers and never blinked. “Where are you docked?”

*****

Angel’s Fear–Chapter 1

ANGEL’S FEAR

Axsher Saschin looked upon the spray of debris drifting before Ebony Angel’s elegant black bow, satisfied that he had left no survivors from the Ardoan convoy that he and his family had just relieved of their cargo. He purred, a deep, rumbling vibration that urged his large golden eyes into a half-closed state of contentment. The purr stopped, when he noticed that there was one Human ship remaining, which had been out of his scanner’s view, until just now. He grunted a half growl and slapped a claw into his comm board, hailing the captain of his secondary ship, Terreos.

“Anidev! Why is that ship still intact? Are your guns defective?”

A long pause preceded his eldest son’s answer, and when it came, it was not the answer that Axsher had wanted to hear. Not again. “No, sir. My guns are fine.” Anidev Saschin’s quietly purring voice turned subtly from respectful to almost accusing. “I simply don’t see the point in blowing up the entire convoy. Wouldn’t it make more sense to let them go, and just hit them, again, later? Ardoco ships make this run every few months. We could even make a kind of contract with them. It seems to me we’d be able to take more from them, that way, and it would be a lot easier than…”

Easy?!” Axsher’s roar shook the entire bridge, and sent all his bridge crew’s ears backward and down with the intimidation of its violence. His fangs bared with his rage, and his voice snarled into the comm. “We are not traders, whelp! Forty-four unbroken generations of Saschini captains, the most ruthless and successful pirating kast in the history of this system, our pride strong and pure throughout the ages agone, and this is what we come to, now?! A coward Kaipoori who cannot even draw the blood of his prey?!” When no reply came from Terreos, he lowered his voice to a fearsome deep-throated growl. “You worthless, lazy whelp! I overlooked your previous offenses, because you were my favorite son, and I expected that you would learn from your mistakes. I expected you to purge yourself of that despicable Human compassion, as you were purged of their inane company. But you have not. And I will no longer tolerate this willful weakness. You’re no Saschini. You’re not even Kaipoori. You’re an ape-loving lap cat, and no kit of mine!”

“Da…”

“I am no longer your da! Surrender your bridge to Arin, and come to me, right now. We will be done with this foolishness, tonight!”

*****

The bridge of Terreos remained quiet, her crew holding their collective eyes on their humiliated captain’s back, awaiting his reaction to his father’s command. Anidev didn’t move, even to blink his huge tiger eyes. His velvety folded ears were turned backward and laid flat against his dark brown mane in shame and anger, but his expression showed no emotion, whatsoever. He just sat staring into the glowing readouts before him, as still as death, even when his younger brother, Arin, stepped into his peripheral vision, wearing the ugliest sneer he could muster up.

“You heard him, brother. Get off my bridge.”

Before Anidev could comply, he saw the monster cannons of his father’s carrier blow the poor little Ardoan merchant ship into so much space junk. He gave a small, sad shake of his head, then thrust himself out of the bowl chair and right into Arin’s scowling face. The younger cat flinched, halfway backed up a step, tail flipping defensively around his thighs, and Anidev smiled, a lopsided grin that exposed one upper fang. “Enjoy your little taste of Da’s affection, Arin. It won’t last.”

Arin’s fluffy tail slapped hard into the comm cabinet, and he let out a little hiss at his sibling. “I don’t need his affection.”

“Continue to believe so.” Anidev turned away from him and marched past his former crew, all of them his relatives. Their hard eyes followed him to the exit, not one of them showing even a drop of empathy for him.

He emerged into a corridor and started straight for the lifts. Rode down to the residence level and retrieved his few belongings. Everything fit into one small bag, which he tied to the belt at his waist. Unlike their Human and Oron’Qai counterparts, the Kaipoori spacers didn’t carry keepsakes, or personal items beyond those they absolutely needed: clothing, a few grooming items, weapons. Some had jewelry, most did not. Anidev Saschin liked gold things, and had a handful of chains that he sometimes wore about his neck, but he didn’t bother with the jangly earrings or bracelets that some of the more outlandish cats liked. He rarely wore his chains, and, when he did wear them, it was usually because a female was involved. He had no clothing beyond the tunic, breeches, ID bracelet, and boots that he was wearing, so his bag was filled with chains, a watch, an extra belt, a comb, and a pulse pistol.

Once he had bagged his belongings, he didn’t spend any time looking about his quarters, or feeling sorry for himself. Just stepped right out and headed down to the boarding tube, which he knew would be ready and waiting for him by the time he reached it. The Kaipoori were nothing if not efficient at culling their “defective” members, and Ani fully expected to be killed by his father’s own hands, or spaced, for covenience. No blood to clean up, that way. If he could have a choice in the matter, he’d prefer the direct killing, as spacing seemed rather cruel to him — another anomaly in his personality. Most Kaipoori pirates reveled in the cruel side of their nature.

He passed through the last corridor and saw his younger sister, Nadi, leaning against the curved wall, glaring at him. She was the only female Kaipoori on board who kept her long white fur shaved close to her skin, except for a strip of thick mane that curved over the top of her head and hung down her spine. It was a hard look for a hard personality, and the cool blue of her eyes did nothing to soften it. Anidev didn’t speak to her, but he heard her hiss “Idiot” at his back. He half expected her to attack him, but for some reason, she didn’t. He figured she probably just didn’t want to sully her pristine white claws with cowardly flesh.

Likewise, when he passed some of his cousins at the boarding tube, he expected one of them to at least take a swipe at him, but none of them did. They all looked coldly at him and kept their distance and their silence, as if he wasn’t even worth the effort of a sneer. He would have preferred a swipe or two. Their silence was much more painful.

*****

As he awaited his errant son’s arrival on the bridge of Ebony Angel, Captain Axsher Saschin quietly summoned the ship’s physician, Yurssa, and instructed him to bring his bag, but kept him in the dark about his plan. He knew the old cat would likely protest, and he wanted to make sure that Yurssa could see that he was in a position to be judged by the other senior officers on the bridge, should he fail to comply with his captain’s command. He also knew that Yurssa’s honor wouldn’t allow him to make a shameful choice, even if he protested Axsher’s command, at first. He certainly would not fully rebel in front of the others.

He turned then to his pilot, Kurna. “Set course for Kharasi, and bring Terreos into the hold. We move as soon as she is secured.”

“Aye, sir.”

He switched his viewscreen to a shot of Terreos, its boarding tube floating between it and Ebony Angel like a bright yellow umbilical cord. His wild golden eyes admired the form of the older ship, and the sight brought up a rare wave of nostalgia in his soul. Terreos was a sleek ship, her hull long and sinuously curved in a graceful, horizontal spiral. Her once brilliant gold skin bore the wounds of countless violent journeys, though the scrapes and dents and hazy patterns of energy-weapons fire splattered over her body took nothing away from the beauty of her architecture. The three quarters of her length devoted to hyperdrives left no question about her occupation: She was a hunter. A predator, just like the race who had envisioned her design. Fast. Agile. Deadly.

The first Kaipoori astronauts used ships of the humanoid Oron’Qai design, ships that were not only uncomfortable for feline bodies, but that were also impractical for their needs. Straight-backed chairs were meant for primate postures, and were hard on newly bipedal bodies. Bright white- or blue lights hurt sensitive, large-pupilled eyes. Comp boards, with their numerous little close-knit keys and switches and touch points, were laid out to accommodate long, thin fingers, and were a great challenge to thicker, stubbier, clawed ones. Smooth metal flooring gave no traction to bare, clawed feet.

So, in time, Chalan the Red (one of the first of the wildly famous Kaipoori pirates) devised a design for a spacecraft built entirely around Kaipoori physiology. The chairs became swivelling, cushioned bowls; the bunks either larger bowls (for officers) or hammocks made of claw-resistant fabrics. Lights were yellowed and dimmed. Some boards became scratch pads, and others had their keyboards resized and arranged to accommodate claws and thick fingerpads. Floors were covered with nubby wood or rubber panels, though most Kaipoori eventually relented to follow the Human habit of wearing shoes and boots. They did this, not because Humans did it, but because the extremely cold metal flooring of space station docks frost-burned the pads of their feet.

The Kaipoori ships’ galleys also reflected their unique culture. Large freezer compartments held flash-frozen, whole-body animals, fowl, and fish, which were thawed in an oven built specifically for the purpose of quickly bringing the meat back to its live temperature, without cooking it. This enabled the meat to be eaten as close to the natural way as was possible. The stores did not contain grains or vegetables or fruits, as Kaipoori were obligate carnivores. Water (and in some cases, alcohol) was the only other staple in the galley cupboard.

Showers dispensed no soap. The Kaipoori felt soaps were not only harmful to the fur, but also masked the scents they relied upon to determine the identities of friends and foes; the level of fear, excitement, illness or health, and truthfulness in others; and whether a female was in season or pregnant. No colognes or perfumes were used, for the same reasons.

Terreos was typical, in all these aspects, but atypical in that she had survived direct attack, more than once. Most Kaipoori ships were fast, agile, and extremely beautiful, but not very durable. The aesthetics and speed mattered more to many Kaipoori spacefarers than actual physical strength did. But Terreos had had her frame and hull strengthened with Torini metals, light and semi-rigid, yet stronger than any other metal available in Alliance space. Axsher’s great-grandfather, Mahras, spent nearly half of his family’s wealth to fortify their heritage ship, an act which gave them the longevity they needed to push themselves to the forefront of the Alliance piracy business.

Terreos was a survivor, like Axsher was. But Axsher never sat number one at the helm of the Saschini heritage ship. He couldn’t. Too many signs of the massacre at Trinidad Station remained there, in the forms of permanent blood stains and pulse-fire burns. Too many ghosts to torture him. Too many memories.

So he had taken the carrier, Ebony Angel, from the Maragoni Alliance forces, and had used her to blow up Trinidad Station in revenge for what the Alliance soldiers had done to his family. He made Angel his flagship, and he never again set foot inside Terreos. Other kast members cleaned the bridge and removed the Saschin dead from it. Others ran the boards, whilst Angel towed her away from dockside and guided her into the carrier’s enormous hold. Others took turns at her helm, until Anidev reached his sixteenth year and took her command.

Axsher let out a low growl, at the thought of his eldest son’s betrayal. In his mind, it was thoroughly and undoubtedly a betrayal, to cling to the ideals and ways of the Humans. He knew that most Humans and humanoids hated the Kaipoori, whether they were pirates, bounty hunters, or mercenaries, and he hated them for having infected his favorite son with their madness and weakness. He had hoped that removing Anidev from those influences would soon put him back on the proper track as a pirate and as a Kaipoori, but it had not. His anger at Anidev’s foolishness was matched only by his disappointment. He did not look forward to what he was about to do, but he knew that he had to do it. He could not possibly maintain control of the kast, were he to show leniency toward his son in a matter as important as this.

His rage revealed itself in his bushed-out tail, and in the line of brown hair along his spine that stood on end, as he watched Anidev enter the bridge at the same time that Yurssa, the physician, did. He watched Yurssa hesitate, glance at Anidev, and then at Axsher. The captain thought that Yurssa either had a good idea of what he was going to be asked to do, or he was worried that Anidev might suddenly go berzerk and attack everyone within claw’s reach. He knew which it was, when Yurssa gave him a sad look, and then turned his rheumy orange eyes away from his captain’s face.

Axsher looked upon him coldly. Yurssa was the oldest cat on board, though even he wasn’t sure just how old he was. His long spine had bent him forward over the years and stolen some of his height, and his once shiny golden body fur had dulled to a pale yellow that was heavily flecked with silver and grey. His muzzle had turned more white than gold, but his black mane had not lost any of its gloss or color. Axsher wondered how much longer Yurssa would live, and who he could possibly replace him with, once he finally died. The wondering was more of an annoyance than a worry, and the captain didn’t spend more than a few seconds on it before turning his full attention to his patiently waiting son.

“You are a disappointment, Anidev,” Axsher said, without a hint of emotion in his growly voice. “And I cannot allow you to waste our family name on any mentally defective kits you might produce.” He kept his eyes on Anidev’s rebellious face, as he spoke to his physician. “Yurssa, geld him.”

Anidev jerked two steps back in shock, but found himself quickly restrained by two of his cousins, who had leapt from their seats just to grab hold of him. The younger Saschin had come to his father’s bridge with the idea that he would be killed. The thought of gelding had never occurred to him, and he decided that it was a fate worse than death. He fought his cousins’ hold, but couldn’t get loose, just watched in panting horror as Yurssa padded closer with his syringe in hand.

But Axsher stopped him. “No anesthetic.”

Yurssa’s eyes betrayed his protest much louder than did his voice. “Captain…!”

Axsher held his glare firm. “You heard me. Throw him in the brig, when you’re done.” He spent half a glance at Anidev’s terrified face, then turned away, satisfied that his choice of punishment had been the correct one. He sat down in his chair and turned it toward the physician, watched him quietly put the syringe away and pull a laser scalpel from his bag.

Anidev fought harder, at the sight of the scalpel, but he couldn’t break his cousins’ hold. So he lashed out with his tongue, with the only weapon he had available to him. “What’s this foolishness, Da?! Have you gone soft?! Are you too squeamish to kill me?!”

The captain growled and leaned forward in his chair, whispered his words in a cloud of emotional ice. “You aren’t worth killing.”

“Da, no! No!” The next sounds Anidev uttered were screams of pain and rage.

*****

Several hours later, Anidev Saschin awoke to a quiet purr above him, and opened his eyes onto a cloud of sparkling, pure white fur. His mother, Namya, gently licked his face, and her crystal blue eyes looked upon him with love. He returned her purr, and unconsciously kneaded his fingers into her soft side. Her eyes half closed, and she licked him, again, nuzzled him with her cool pink nose. Her sweetly purring voice slithered into his folded ear, as she nuzzled him, there. “Dearest child, no matter what happens, remember that you are loved completely.”

He closed his eyes and snuggled against her, but she moved away, left him feeling adrift and disoriented. “I cannot stay,” she said. “Yurssa will keep my secret, but no one else must see that I have come to you. Be well, sweet kit.” She turned and quickly left the cell, did not look back as Yurssa closed the door behind her. The old physician peered in at Anidev with compassion, but he did not linger there, either. Then the corridor lights dimmed, and Anidev laid his head back on the metal floor.

His mind remained in shock, and he thought of nothing in particular, in spite of his trying to focus and come up with an escape plan. He couldn’t lock onto anything, at all. He had no idea what his father planned to do with him, anyway, so he had no basis for planning anything, himself. For the moment, he gave up trying to think, shifted onto one side, winced a bit at the sharp twinge in his groin. The pain of his castration had more or less faded to a few random stabs and a lingering dull ache, pains that he could bear, easily, but the pain in his heart would not die so easily, nor so quickly. Nor would the humiliation of having been gelded in front of the entire bridge crew. A flash of anger cleared his mind, for a few seconds, but it didn’t last. He was simply too tired and too much in shock to raise up much of anything in the way of feelings. He sighed, closed his eyes, and decided he’d just have to wait and see what happened next, then improvise a plan as best he could. For now, he would rest and gather his strength.

His sleep came hard and fast, and it lasted a long time. He knew that it must have been nearly an entire day, at least that long, because he could hear the engine noise dropping from the high whistle of translight speed to a deeper, choppier whine as Ebony Angel shifted into deceleration.

He snapped into full consciousness when he realized he was not secured, and he bolted upright to find something to tie himself down with, before his father began the hard braking process. He made it to the built-in bunk just as the first slam of braking occurred. His body smashed into the bunk wall, and he was grateful that he had been almost right against it, already. He would be bruised enough, just from that first impact. He didn’t wait for the second braking to let him slam into the wall, again. He found the bunk straps and netting and deftly secured himself just as the second V dump came.

The third velocity dump was much softer and smoother than the previous two had been, and Anidev breathed relief, knowing that the remaining deceleration would be kinder to the living bodies on board. He lay still in the bunk netting, wondering where they were. He figured it was probably Kharasi Starstation. Unless his father had turned the ship in another direction, Kharasi would have been the only destination possible, that would have required a TL jump to reach, from the ambush site. A quick refuel and resupply was likely the reason for this stop, too. He sighed, again, wishing he could manage to get onto the docks and just disappear into the hustle of the station, never have to look at another of his relatives, again. He had barely finished wishing, when the cell door yawned open and two of his brawnier cousins, Meran and Drahn, let themselves in and efficiently retrieved him from his netting.

“Uh?!” he grunted, as Drahn flipped the clips and let Meran snatch their quarry from the bunk. “Meran, what’s happening? Where are we? Drahn? What’s going on?” Neither of his cousins replied, just continued dragging him to his feet and toward the door. He struggled a bit, just because he knew it would be expected of him, and not because he really cared what they were planning to do with him.

They were halfway to the boarding airlock when he heard the ship-to-station communications over the intercom. Anidev heard his cousin Syrnan’s voice relay the standard incoming message when Kharasi’s buoy had assigned them a lane. “Kharasi, this is Ebony Angel, inbound assigned lane three-six-two, armaments are on safety, request temp dock and refuel services. Companion ship will remain outlane, no dock.”

Anidev smirked. So he has put Terreos out, to be his cover. Typical.

Affirmative, Ebony Angel,” came the trilling reply of a Flaetne comm operator. “You have berth 201-31-7, and refuel crews on dock. Proceed on auto.”

Anidev smirked, again, at the accuracy of his own prediction of where they were headed. Surely, he would be able to disappear on Kharasi, if he could just get free of his pesky cousins. Maybe they even meant to beach him, there. If that turned out to be the case, he figured he would have to act offended, not let on that he wanted to be left there. He could have been marooned in much worse places than Kharasi Starstation!

Kharasi was the biggest station in Alliance space, yet the one least used by Alliance traffic. Its position at the far edge of Maragoni space took it off the main lines of travel and trade, but it was a bustling place, nonetheless. Just over two million beings of many species made Kharasi their permanent home, though the population was heavily littered with Maragoni races and species, including those that the world’s dominant race, the Oron’Qai, had been genetically altering for millennia. The Kaipoori had been formed out of the multitudes of mountain- and lowland big cats; the Maqat out of large primates; the Flaetne out of forest creatures akin to Earth’s lemurs. Almost every halfway intelligent species on Maragon had fallen under the blade of Oron’Qai experimentation, and some of them had become extinct because of it. The ones who survived the tampering usually went on to some level of success in the larger environment of space, many of them ending up as crewmembers on Kharasi Starstation, where some positions had been held by members of the same families for generations upon generations. Turnover in station management was as low as the traffic was.

That low incoming traffic meant that the station’s economy relied heavily on internal trade, supply trade from the motherworld, and repair- and refuel business from pirates and smugglers and other criminal types. It was, in fact, one of only three Alliance starstations whereon such characters were not only allowed, but welcomed. The station was nothing, if not a sanctuary of sorts. It was old, as well, having been built eons before Humans ever dreamt of the skies, let alone, of space, and was now completely self-sufficient. Two of its nine massive rings were devoted to hydroponic farms, which not only produced food, but oxygen and other necessary gases. The largest ring held business- and industrial districts, entertainment areas, medical facilities, hotels, sports arenas, and warehouses, the last being attached directly to the expansive docks. The other six rings were devoted to residences and private offices.

Kharasi was unusual among Alliance starstations in that its docks were on a spinning ring, rather than on stationary spokes. The berths were canted spinward, so that ships joined the rotation and the station’s boom snaked out and towed them into dock, rather than the less-elegant and trickier solution of nose-diving under power into a hole on a motionless spoke. Undock was just as simple, as it only took a small burst of reverse thrust to push off from dock. Station spin then pulled the dock away from the departing ship, which only needed enough directional thrust to take its outbound lane.

Ebony Angel didn’t so much as tremble when Kharasi’s boom grabbed hold of her and sucked her toward the berth, but she did jerk a bit, when her black bow kissed the padded edge of the dock. Anidev and his cousins kept a sure footing in spite of the motion, as they stepped fully into the airlock. Neither Meran nor Drahn uttered a sound, so Anidev took it upon himself to get the game started, properly.

He threw a look of false horror at both of his escorts, and let out a small gasp, as if he suddenly realized what was up. “No…you’re not going to leave me here?!”

Drahn never blinked, but Meran turned his face away from Anidev, as if it bothered him just to be questioned about it. Anidev kept it up, trying hard to hide his glee at being set free. “You are! You are going to leave me here! You can’t!”

Drahn snorted. “Unlike some idiots we happen to know, we do as we are told. That keeps us from being thrown to the dogs like so much rotten meat.”

Meran simply nodded, still looking uncomfortable about the whole thing, which he hadn’t even given any thought to, until Anidev broke the silence with his infernal questions. “Yes. Just as he says. Yes. Rotten meat, tossed to dogs.”

The lock doors opened upon the cold dock, and Anidev resisted a little, when his cousins pulled him forward and through the door. He let his breath tremble, and continued to resist, just enough to keep them believing that he didn’t want to go. If either of them suspected that he was not truly upset, they never let on that they did. He didn’t have any idea what was about to be done to him, though, and if he had, he might have resisted for real.

Drahn lead them to a small alcove where some empty crates had been piled up, waiting for the recyclers to claim them. He quickly let go of Anidev’s arm and repeatedly punched him in the face and gut, until he knocked him clean out. He shoved at Meran’s arm, to urge him to let Anidev drop to the floor, and then he used one booted foot to push the body deeper into the alcove, well behind the pile of crates. He removed Anidev’s ID bracelet and pocketed it, hurriedly shoved the crates inside the door line, and pulled Meran out of the alcove. Then he pushed the button on the wall to close the seal between the alcove and the outer dock.

Meran stood stiff, frowning at the closing doors, so Drahn pushed him, again. “Don’t waste any worry on him, cousin. If he doesn’t wake up and leave on his own before we undock, the seal will keep him from being spaced, and somebody will find him, when they come for the crates. He is no longer our problem.” Meran grunted a half-hearted agreement, and followed his cousin back to their ship’s berth.

*****