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!”
“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.”
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.