Ishtarek’s claws curled over the smooth handle of a silver canister that resembled a miniature coffin. His light-green facial scales appeared dull, his tongue tasted like copper, and his thin body felt ravenous. However, he rejected standard fare offered in the crew mess; he preferred to complete his task before he indulged a large appetite.
He wondered why he should feel fatigued after sleeping for months during the voyage. His dry eyeballs itched and his brain felt groggy, byproducts of the deep-sleep meds no doubt. Deep sleep was required for a passenger who traveled through space on a slow cargo freighter. The hyper-jumps that enabled faster-than-light travel were too expensive for shippers that carried ordinary goods, but no one expected a ship’s captain to travel in a unwieldy old vessel. Or would they?
Ishtarek scowled as he inspected the busy dock. Short spikes down the ridge of his back prickled, but he perceived no apparent danger. Would Institute enemies track him to Space Station Kubrick? It was an unlikely destination for a Gronklein warrior. The official ship’s records would not list him on the manifest, just a shipment of non-specific cargo to be offloaded at this destination.
The scant list of human friends who still supported Ishtarek risked their military careers to plant false trails across the galaxy. Ishtarek still felt uneasy about the success of the subterfuge and planned to disappear after the package was delivered. He knew that a particular Gronklein cruiser waited for his coded signal, hidden in the shadow of a neighboring planet. A stop at the Kubrick was foolhardy, but he made a promise, and a Gronk always kept his word regardless of danger to his own hide.
He slid the tip of his claw across complex utility belt controls to activate the magnetic boots needed to move across the metal decking. Once engaged he released the safety strap that kept him from floating in the zero-gravity of the cargo bay. It took little effort to propel the silver canister forward. He smoothly established a steady walking pace as his boots engaged magnetic pulses that matched his long stride.
Tendons stretched down the back of his legs, a pleasant sensation after idle months in deep sleep. Artificial muscle stimulation programs seldom maintained perfect condition in a reptilian body, and now the exercise helped his foggy mind clear as ichor circulated through his veins. His crest bristled at a metallic clatter and his claws twitched. The sound appeared to be normal, but he maintained vigilance while moving through unfamiliar territory. His free claws hovered over the handle of his weapon until he halted before a communicator station.
He gazed at a screen designed to accept human-sized handprints and snarled with frustration. Jabbing the call button with a claw, he waited. “How may we help you?” a female voice purred over the microphone.
“Captain Ishtarek requests immediate transportation to control central,” he hissed. “I bring a valuable gift for Dr. Hartman directly from Dr. Alexander.” He released the comm button and listened to static.
The sultry voice replied, “We could send a robotic collector for the package if you prefer to board a connecting ship.”
How did she know about his ship?
“No!” His voice boomed and his scales darkened to a deeper green as anger coursed through his system. Nearby workers paused to stare at the angry Gronk, and Ishtarek forced himself to assume a calm state before explaining, “My instructions were to deliver the package directly into Dr. Hartman’s hands. I also carry a private message from Dr. Alexander.”
Moments passed as she checked with Hartman. Ishtarek tried to remain patient until the voice announced, “A tram is dispatched to your location. Please to stand behind blue line for proper boarding of vehicle.” Although he could not see the speaker, the purr of her voice gave the impression that she was a member of a feline species.
Stepping behind the blue line, he watched a yellow tram bullet down the dock on rails embedded in the plascrete flooring. His gills quivered at the screech of the brakes, but Ishtarek flattened his crest to avoid confrontation with the creature who occupied the driver’s seat.
Doors slid open and a simian dressed in green coveralls peered at him. Recognizing the gold uniform of a captain, the ape quickly unclicked a seat restraint and swung toward the door across overhead rings. He stretched out a long, hairy arm and chattered.
Cocking his head, Ishtarek stared at the ape. The creature touched a pin at his throat and said, “Sorry, Captain! I listen to data-stream from home planet and forget to activate universal translator. Let me stow your cargo. You fasten body into seat, please.” He pointed a hairy finger at the cushioned bank of platifoam seats along the far side of the vehicle and pushed the coffin into nearby webbing.
The doors whooshed shut and the simian swung into the driver’s seat. “We not get many Gronks on this station.” He craned his neck to eye the gold uniform once again. “Not many captains of your species travel without guards to watch you back.”
Crest spikes flared in a corona over Ishtarek’s head, making the ape quickly avert his gaze. The vehicle sped down the circular cargo deck, banked around the far curve, and soon spiraled toward the center of the station. Ishtarek remained silent. Soon the ape clicked a sensor on the console and simian chattering vibrated through the vehicle during the trip.
Ishtarek allowed himself to relax, settling into the contours of the plastifoam seat as the rumble of the vehicle lulled him. Nictitating membranes flicked over his eyeballs, spreading welcome moisture over the orbs as he dosed.
The abrupt screech of brakes jolted Ishtarek awake as the tram halted. The simian unhooked the coffin from its webbing and said, “We be at control central. There be gravity here so no need for magnet-boots, sir.” He swung the coffin into Ishtarek’s claws as the reptile left the vehicle. “You wish wheels for cargo?” the ape asked.
“No. I’ll manage on my own.” It felt good to flex the muscles in his arms although the weight of the silver container was relatively light. He deactivated his boots and marched toward pressurized doors.
Cool air caressed his scales as the doors slid apart. He noticed a more suitable blend of humidity in the air and inhaled deeply as he entered reception. A lovely chameleon sat at the desk. Her presence surprised him, and Ishtarek exhaled a loud hiss that startled the delicate creature. Shades of magenta spread rapidly up her willowy neck, and soon her face mimicked the color of the wall behind her desk.
“So sorry, miss,” he said, executing a courtly bow. “The voice on the comm sounded feline, therefore, your lovely aspect took me by surprise. Please accept my profound apologies for frightening you.”
With a tentative smile, she regained a lovely shade of lime that complimented her golden eyes. “You spoke to Felicity on the comm, and she is indeed a feline creature. No need to apologize. I’ll advise the Director that you arrived with a delivery.” She eyed the silver coffin as her slender claws stroked the desk surface. She read the reply and gestured toward another set of doors. “You will find Felicity those doors, and she’ll guide you to the Director’s office.”
As the set of pressurized doors disappeared into the wall, a lanky feline stood waiting for Ishtarek. Dressed in billowing black pants and matching vest, the color accented her golden fur and jet-black stripes. Her perky ears rotated forward, and her amber-colored eyes narrowed at the sight of the massive reptile.
“Follow me this way, sir.” Felicity’s silken voice matched the purring tone he’d heard over the comm, but her piercing gaze didn’t look friendly. Ishtarek followed the lithe feline down the corridor. Although he wasn’t attracted to a cat, the rhythmic swish of a supple tale made him anxious to reconnect with his wives.
Doors opened automatically as they moved into the core of the space station. Finally an opening revealed a slender man sporting shoulder-length black hair watching a vid-screen filled with scenes of Ishtarek’s recent trial.
He grinned, displaying brilliant white teeth, as he turned off the screen. “You put on quite a show for the entire galaxy, Captain. Preston Hartman at your service.” He offered a large, calloused hand and stepped forward to greet his guest. He wore a white silk shirt and tight-fitting black pants tucked into knee-high boots, looking like a pirate from old adventure vids.
Ishtarek smirked, realizing that the man was indeed a pirate, the modern version, who traded legal commodities and illegal. The Kubrick was located beyond the borders of civilized space, just inside the Dark Zone, and frequented by renegade vessels that docked for repairs and to trade in contraband.
As Ishtarek gently wrapped his claws around the human’s appendage, he felt the man’s strong muscles that belied a soft life. Preston Harman was not afraid of hard labor, getting his hands dirty alongside ordinary workmen. Ishtarek immediately liked the human.
“So, Alex sent me a gift?” Hartman eyed the silver coffin with open curiosity.
“Yes. Dr. Alexander was quite anxious that I deliver this cargo directly into your hands. He claims it filled a long-standing order.” Ishtarek set the coffin atop the desk, and his claws clicked a long set of numbers into the combination lock. Silently the lid opened and curious eyes peered inside the cavity. Felicity gazed in wonder at the sparkling crystals inside the container, but Hartman clapped his hands with delight.
Hartman declared, “Treated mendilium crystals! There’s enough here to keep our Transfer chamber in business for several spans. I never thought we’d see the like again.” He shut the lid, having already memorized the combination, and turned to Ishtarek. “We heard that you nearly blasted Drako to kingdom-come! We wondered who the Institute wanted so much that they’d threaten an entire planet. Now I know were the Zebulon landed.”
Ishtarek’s crest bristled but he nodded. “After the crisis was averted, Dr. Alexander signed a treaty agreeing to trade treated mendilium crystals for certain machinery. He was very anxious to make contact with you after the Institute discovered his location. He doesn’t believe the Institute will honor the treaty. I’m authorized to provide you with a means to establish secure communication.” He cast a serious glance toward Felicity. “I must deliver the information to you in private, Dr. Hartman.”
Laughing, the pirate spun on his heels and escorted his feline assistant to the door with a jaunty step. In a reassuring tone he said, “I’ll be safe with him. Gronks are honorable creatures.” She frowned and her eyes narrowed to suspicious slits as Hartman slid the doors shut. Hartman added, “I trust her with my life, but I understand about security measures. Please call me Preston.”
Ishtarek’s gills quivered with surprise. “Humans don’t usually use two names. Please explain.”
Preston grinned. “When I arrived on this station, running from Institute assassins, I felt it prudent to drop the title ‘doctor’ from my name. The act was mostly self-preservation, since I’d be dealing with many outlaws, but I also rebelled against Institute regulations by reclaiming my full name.
“Three of the inventors of Transfer were medical doctors—Jerome Kent, Stewart Duncan, and Alexander Rogers. I was the sole academic in the group, sporting a mere Ph.D. My doctorate in space engineering was a worthless title in Dark Space and easy to lose. I still work my craft without the fancy title but I wanted my birth name restored.”
Ishtarek shook his head. “We never heard that the four inventors of Transfer were threatened by the Institute. How did that transpire?”
Preston frowned and leaned against his desk. “We were four smart men that were incredibly stupid! To administrate demand for the Transfer process, we established the Institute as a business venture to run the operation. Eventually those savvy administrators stripped the inventors of true power, blocked us out of the business.
“Next they streamlined record-keeping by robbing individuals of their full legal names. The next time we used Transfer, we each registered one name and the Institute stuck on a number that branded us in their records. The other three doctors chose to use their first names for the archives, but I decided to retain my family surname. Later, it rankled that I lost my given name during the process.”
Ishtarek rubbed his chin scales with a long claw. “Gronklein heritage includes long names associated with each clan. I remember the anger I felt when the Institute shortened my name in their military records. Honor compelled me to obey the rules, but I plan to reclaim my full identity when I reach home.”
Preston gestured at the window that displayed a view of the myriad of levels on the space station. “I carved out a lucrative niche on this station, built a thriving business that equally services ships from all over the galaxy—the Institute be damned. Care to take a seat?”
Ishtarek examined the plastifoam seating in the office. The comfortable-looking chairs were fabricated with a single arm attached from a molded seat to the adjustable backrest. The design allowed creatures sporting tails to sit in comfort without bending the appendage out of shape. Ishtarek lowered his body into a chair, sliding his short tail through the ample opening.
Preston sat behind his desk and waited for the reptile to provide the secret information.
Ishtarek recited a communication address from memory, watching Preston’s face as the human memorized the data. The pirate stoked his desktop with long fingers and soon the surface glowed with stored messages.
He leaned back and grinned. “The portal is already live. I tagged the connection to my genetic markers and established a secure password. I’ll safely exchange private information with Alex from any portal.” His dark eyes sparkled as he blanked the screen with an elegant swipe. “I say this demands a drink to celebrate. Would you care for a glass of squelch to slake your thirst, Captain Ishtarek?”
“Squelch? Humans don’t normally trade in our Gronklein delicacy! It takes a savvy pirate to obtain a supply.” Ishtarek laughed at Preston’s sly grin and upraised eyebrow. “Securing squelch proves that you really are a pirate. I’d be honored to imbibe Squelch but doubt you’d survive the ingredients.”
“Too right. I’ll take a glass of Martian wine if you don’t mind.” Preston activated his comm to place an order for refreshments. “While we wait, please tell me more about that blasted trial. Televised reports were slanted to favor the Institute, no doubt.”
Ishtarek nodded, his scales turning emerald at the distasteful memory. “On Drako my crew of humans nearly mutinied. You see, Fremont ordered me to fire upon the planet, since secret orders from the Institute freed him to commit murder. As captain of the ship, I was obliged to obey direct orders. Luckily, Drako’s planetary defense team managed to shoot down our missiles in flight—although one missile exploded above a nuclear reactor. An ancient defense shield narrowly averted disaster.”
Preston chuckled. “Fremont was a real snake, and I’m glad to hear he met an untimely end for his treachery.”
The lizard’s lips curled into an eerie grin that exposed sharp fangs. “He made the fatal error of giving me written instructions to detonate explosives planted in cargo delivered to the planet. Although Fremont tried to countermand the orders verbally, a written order cannot be overruled. The scheme did not work out well for Fremont and his passenger, Jarrack.”
Preston’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “You got the assassin, Jarrack, in the same explosion? That’s capital news. Still and all, your crew filed charges when they returned to home base. I’d bet that rankled a captain of your stature.”
Ishtarek sighed and nodded. “I can’t blame the crew. Humans fail to understand the Gronklein code of honor. Should I disobey orders from a superior, I could never return in honor to my home world. My choice was simple, but I felt relieved that the planet survived our attack.”
“How did you manage to prevail during the trial?”
“I retained copies of every order Fremont issued. Those files caused the Institute prosecutor to turn a delicious shade of red when he heard the evidence in court. In addition, Dr. Alexander and King Donovan provided written accounts that helped me avoid a judgement of execution. In the end I agreed to surrender command of the Renaissance and fled with my hide intact. I don’t trust the Institute, therefore, I took evasive precautions during my travels and arrived here six cycles later.”
“You are welcome to stay on the Kubrick as long as you wish,” Preston announced.
Ishtarek’s gills quivered in a mild display of emotion. He said, “That won’t be necessary. I arranged for a Gronklein ship to dock upon my signal and transport me home.”
The doors to the office whooshed open. A large black leopard entered, carrying a silver tray filled with matching cups. The feline’s large paws, imposing size, and broad facial features marked him as a male of his species. He wore billowing silk pants and matching vest in a rich red color that contrasted against jet-black fur sprinkled with dark leopard splotches. His vivid green eyes scrutinized Ishtarek like good soldier evaluating the enemy.
Ishtarek noticed jagged scars on the giant cat’s nose and a half-bitten ear that drooped to one side of the rounded head. Although cosmetic surgeons could erase such marks, the warrior wore his scars with pride. Their eyes met and mutual understanding passed between the two soldiers.
Preston broke the silence. “Thanks for delivering our refreshments, Sinbad. It gives me the opportunity of introducing you to Captain Ishtarek, the recent commander of the battle drone Renaissance.”
“I heard about the Captain’s unjust trial and remember how often the good captain received medals of valor during the war.” Sinbad executed a respectful half-bow to the reptile and offered him the silver tray. “I would be honored to serve on your crew if ever you need me, Captain Ishtarek.”
“My crew would be well-served by your presence. As you heard from vid-news, I recently retired from duty and plan to peacefully spend my days sipping squelch surrounded by my six wives.” He took a silver cup from the tray and dipped his forked tongue into the steaming liquid. He sighed with pleasure, savoring the familiar taste.
Preston grinned as he accepted his own cup, filled with his favorite brand of wine. “I can’t imagine peace with a bevy of wives hanging about. What do you say, Sinbad? Would you retire to the jungle surrounded by six panther females?”
“I’d rather be roasted alive, sir. Our females prefer solitary lives without male interference unless they request a breeding rendezvous.” His eyes narrowed as he considered another idea. “I’ve heard that Gronklein females often serve as crew on battle drones. Perhaps your bevy of wives will lead a war party against Institute planets one day.”
“We never divulge our leaders’ future plans. If the Institute oversteps its authority, you can be sure Gronklein warriors will protect our planetary interests. Would you be opposed to a change of regime at headquarters?”
Preston and Sinbad exchanged meaningful glances but remained silent as they both sipped their respective drinks. Suddenly, the desk pulsed with a warning shade of red, and Preston swiped the surface as Felicity entered. She announced, “Sir, an Institute battle drone demands docking privileges and demands that we deliver Captain Ishtarek into their custody.”
Glancing first at Ishtarek and then at the mendilium crystals, Preston issued orders. “Sinbad, activate a team to handle slow-docking maneuvers. That should give us twenty minutes to spare. Felicity, help me empty this container and stow the valuable crystals into a tamper-proof safe.” He activated the comm and barked, “Send Cookie up here, pronto, with enough illicit delicacies to fill a container three-feet long by one-foot wide. Make sure the foodstuffs appeal to humans.”