Den (dewhitton) wrote,
Den
dewhitton

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Story Time

While writing the second half of this story I realised some of you might not know who the main characters are, or the next lot of characters.

So here's another of their stories.



Seconds

Den Whitton - 1999

    Peib sighed and pushed the plate away. "I think I'm full." He pulled his sunglasses from a pocket and put them on.
     "That was only five kilos of steak," said Brentford as he examined the pile of bones. "Are you not well?"
     "Ho ho. Your sarcasm has no effect."
     "You'll get fat," said Mitch.
     "You'll get a smack around the head if you try to spoil this feed," said Peib lightly.
    Mitch pushed his own plate away and sat back with his hands behind his head. "That made a nice change from ship rations," he said with a sigh. "How does he cook steak so well?"
     "Peib's steak wasn't cooked!" said Brentford. "I've seen cows injured worse than that and recover."
    Mitch leaned forward so he could look around Peib "I think he gave it a five minute warm in the sun," he said.
     "The Bren And Mitch Show. Ha ha ha," said Peib "Here comes Remmy with the coffee. Who ordered it?"
    The trio looked at each other and shrugged, then turned to watch their wolf-like host weave his way expertly through the maze of tables, the tray floating smoothly through air as it rested lightly on the tips of his fingers. He halted at their table. "Iced coffee for the large, white-furred Executive Officer," he said as he set a glass before Peib. "One cappuccino in a large mug for the medium-sized un-furred Captain-"
     "Oh! Big!" said Mitch.
     "-and a hot chocolate for the short, dark brown furred, caffeine-intolerant Science Officer," he finished as he placed a mug before Brentford. "May I join you?"
     "Of course you may, Remmy!" said Mitch.
     "One café latte for the medium sized grey-furred proprietor," finished Remmy. He removed his apron and threw it carelessly over the back of his chair. The wolfen wore a plain brown kilt, but apart from that he was naked except for his fur. He sat down with his cup. "How was your meal?"
     "It was all right," said Mitch with a non-committal shrug.
     "Ok, I suppose," mumbled Peib.
    Brentford reached up smacked Peib lightly on the side of the head. "It was wonderful," he said. "Their steaks were perfect. My crayfish was brilliant."
    Remmy beamed at them. "I had my most trusted chef prepare your food," he said.
     "So, Remmy, What do you want?" asked Mitch abruptly.
    The wolfen frowned. "Who said I wanted anything?"
     "Personal service," said Peib.
     "Anticipated coffee," said Mitch.
    Remmy smiled. "Yes. You're leaving tomorrow for the next run. I'd like you to bring me some pots," he said as he unfolded a piece of paper. "They must be cast iron, not steel, and definitely not aluminium. Here are the sizes." He handed the paper to Peib.
     "Good grief! The quality you're after will cost," said Peib.
     "I know," said Remmy with a nod.
     "That's 300 talers," said Mitch, looking at the page. "Plus freight."
     "If you're worried about the initial cost, the owner will pay. I guarantee she will."
     "'She?'"
     "You mean you're not the owner?" asked Peib.
    Remmy stared at the table as he ran one hand through the thick grey fur of his other arm. "I'm not permitted to own property," he said quietly. He looked up at the three friends frowning and squinting at him. "None of the Second Population are."
     "But it's your world!" grumbled Peib. "When the humans landed-"
    Remmy raised his hand to cut him off. "You got it wrong! The humans were here first. That's why they're called First Population."
     "Jeez! I'm sorry, Remmy," said Mitch. "We jump from system to system, and I thought-"
     "Hang on," said Peib. "Where did your people come from?"
     "I thought you knew." Remmy took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. "When the colonists arrived seventy years ago," he said eventually, "they needed a workforce to do the mundane jobs while they got on with building a world. So they got some of the local wild wolves, and- and-" His voice trailed off.
     "Genetically engineered a workforce," said Brentford. The others looked at the little scientist. He was sitting back in the chair, staring at the lattice ceiling. "Slaves," he whispered. Remmy nodded slightly.
     "Bastards!" breathed Mitch. He drained the last of his coffee and slammed the cup down. Peib growled deep in his throat.
     "Oh, I don't know!" said Remmy brightly. "I wouldn't be here otherwise, sitting in my café and drinking coffee with my friends." He looked at Bren and saw wet fur at the corners of his eyes. "Or hot chocolate, with my friends." He held out his hand to Mitch. "Do we have a deal with the pots?" Mitch grasped the hand and nodded. Remmy felt his knuckles crack and winced. "That reminds me, can you wear gloves when you're handling the pots. The plastic smell takes ages to remove." He saw Mitch and Peib's expressions change and immediately regretted saying that. "I'm sorry! I forgot! It's just that we don't see many- many- um."
     "Cyborgs?" said Mitch. "I'd be worried if you did," he added as he stood. He mumbled a good-bye and walked away, head down and hands in pockets.
     "I'd better make sure he doesn't smash anything," said Peib as he got to his feet. "Your food was as superb as ever, Remmy. See you in a few weeks."
    Brentford and the wolfen watch the pair wander up the street. Neither spoke until the others turned a distant corner.
     "I shouldn't have said that," muttered Remmy.
     "They'll cope," said Brentford. "They have in the past," he added as he also stood. "I'd better make sure they don't cope by smashing things." And with a wave he was gone.
    Remmy slumped forward until his head rested on the table. Someone stood beside him and a second later he recognized the scent of his assistant.
     "What's wrong?" she asked, placing a hand on Remmy's shoulder.
     "I think I just upset some friends," said Remmy without looking up, "and one, Polo, is one of the few humans I respect."
     "Captain Day?" said Polo. "He's ok for a human."


    Brentford snored softly and Mitch shook his head. "How does he do that? How does he sleep anywhere?" He put on a comms headset and adjusted the microphone.
     "Why don't you wake him and ask," said Peib as he arranged some mattresses on the floor. The beds of this hotel were too small for him.
     "You must be kidding!" muttered Mitch. "He's sleeping with his staff." He pointed a remote at the television and turned up the volume. "Do you have that translation table, Effie?" he asked. After a few seconds he nodded. "Good. The news is on." He turned to Peib and held out a spare headset. "Do you want to listen?"
     "I think I'll try to get some sleep," said Peib as he laid back. "And you didn't."
     "I did."
     "Didn't."
     "Did." Mitch sat back and watched the news in silence while Effie sent the translated broadcast to his earpiece. Fifteen minutes later he sat upright and muted the TV. "Did you translate that right?" he asked. Peib opened one eye and looked at him. Mitch winced. "I don't doubt your abilities! Effie… Effie… Just shut up for a minute. Play that last item back for Peib." He tossed the spare headset over to Peib, who put it against his ear.
     "The item was as follows," said Effie. "'The progress council has declared phase three of the colonization is complete. Production of population two units ceased some months ago. Excess units will be removed from the pool. Active units will remain until no longer required or until they are lost through natural attrition.' I do not understand the significance of this article," she added.
    Peib felt a cold hand clutch his stomach. "I don't like the sound of that!"
     "No, neither do I," said Mitch. He scowled at the television. "They wouldn't. Would they?"
     "What are you talking about?" asked Effie.
     "It sounds like the colonists are going to wipe out the wolfen people," said Peib. There was a long silence from the headsets. "Did you hear me, Effie?"
    The silence dragged on then Effie said "Yes." Her voice was faint. Mitch and Peib were always surprised when the AI in the ship's computer showed emotion, but this time they were not. Mitch knew Effie was one of the last free AIs; the others had been hunted down and deleted.
     "How many passengers can we carry?" wondered Peib.
     "Fifty," said Effie. "More if we crowd them. I will have the service bots start constructing temporary beds."
     "We can't take them all," said Mitch. "There's over three thousand."
     "Let's contact the shipping union tomorrow," said Peib as he laid back and closed his eyes. "Until then I am going to sleep."
     "Good idea," said Mitch with a nod. "See what you can find out, Effie. Use the Max to hack the system if you have to. We'll talk tomorrow."


    A figure slipped into the room, hardly visible in the faint light from the hallway. The door closed silently and once more the room became nearly as dark as a cave. In the shadows a slightly blacker shadow moved, slinking along the floor between the wall and bed. The sleeper stirred. After many minutes the intruder moved forward again. A hand reached out toward the pistol on the bedside table.
    Mitch rolled out of bed and dragged the blankets with him. He landed on the intruder and swiftly had the would-be thief wrapped. He squeezed his arms around the prisoner's chest. "Stop struggling! Peib!"
    Peib sat upright and turned on the lights. He blinked at the empty bed. "What?"
     "Help!" gasped Mitch. His prisoner was struggling and swearing at him, her voice muffled by the blankets.
    Peib reached over and grasped the bundle around the shoulders with both hands. A muffled yelp came from within and the struggling stopped. "You do not want a bear hug," he hissed. "So stop it!"
    Mitch scrambled free and watched his friend lift the bundle over the bed and stand it upright in the middle of the room. Peib held tight as Mitch pulled the blankets away from the head. They were surprised to see their intruder was one of the slaves. She looked to be about the same age as Remmy, but her fur was a very dark grey. The wolfen glared at him.
     "Isn't there a curfew or something?"
     "My life is forfeit anyway," she spat. Somebody knocked on the door. Her look of anger change to fear.
     "Hide her!" hissed Mitch as he sprang for the door. Peib covered her head and laid the bundle on the floor out of sight of the door. Mitch waited until the intruder was hidden before he opened the door a fraction. He flung it open without warning, reached out and dragged the visitor inside before slamming the door. Remmy yelped as Mitch threw him on the bed. "What the hell is going on?" he hissed.
     "Two in one night!" said Peib.
     "Mitch! You have to help!" Remmy grasped Mitch's shirt with both hands and shook him. "They're going to kill us all!" He scrambled from the bed and stood near the door and shook. "We need weapons! No! We have to get away!" He paused and stared at Peib. "Two?" Peib lifted their prisoner to her feet and exposed her head. Remmy gaped at her. "Sofie?"
     "Hi Remmy."
    He shook his head. "What-?"
    Mitch picked up his pistol from the table. "I think she was after this."
     "You off-worlders are well armed," muttered Sofie. "And Remmy said you often had a side-arm."
     "I take it you know each other?" asked Peib. The two wolfen nodded and he unwrapped the prisoner. "Mates?"
     "If it was permitted," said Sofie bitterly as she rubbed her shoulders.
    Peib frowned and examined her back. "What are these white marks?"
    All four jumped as someone pounded on the door. "Captain Day! Open the door!"
     "Behind Bren's bed!" hissed Peib. Remmy and Sofie dropped to the floor on the far side of the bed. Peib threw the blankets over them.
    Once again Mitch opened the door a fraction and peered through the crack. "Yuri?" He opened the door to reveal a man the same height as Mitch but with a heavier build and bald. With him was another of the slaves. "Jeez Yuri! You scared us!" The new arrivals pushed past without a word. Mitch glanced up the corridor then shut the door.
     "Mitch, Peib," said Yuri quickly. "This is Allia. She just gave me some news you need to hear."
     "We already know," said Peib. He poked at something behind the far bed, and a pair of furry heads appeared.
     "Erm. Hello?" said Remmy.
    Yuri waved. "The unionists sent me to get you," he said to Mitch.
     "Why would the Allied Shippers And Traders send you to get us?"
     "So they don't have to deal with non-unionists," said Peib. "Yuri's ship is a science vessel. He doesn't trade so he's not beneath contempt."
     "Exactly!" said Yuri. "Uh… I mean… The first bit. Never mind. They're organizing a meeting to see if we can evacuate the second population. They want your crew to contact the other free-traders."
     "Why us?" asked Mitch again.
    Yuri looked from Mitch to Peib. "They respect you." He pointed at the sleeping form on the other bed. "You'd better wake your navigator. We need everyone." Remmy reached out to shake Brentford but Peib caught his hand.
     "Don't! I'll do this." Peib hissed. He waved everyone clear, then lightly brushed one of the whiskers around Brentford's nose. The navigator leapt to his feet, his staff whistling through the air. Peib caught the staff with his left hand and grabbed Brentford's throat with his right. His thumb and forefinger totally encircled the little neck. A thirty centimetre spike thrust from the end of the staff. "Bren!"
    Brentford blinked at him. "What?" He looked around the room and saw the visitors. "Hello!" he said cheerfully.
     "Pack your gear," said Mitch.


    The eight-wheeled vehicle sped through the night. It was last in the five-vehicle convoy, but unlike the vehicles in front it was almost invisible in the dark. No lights showed.
     "We can't go faster," said Peib. "We're already doing the speed limit."
     "It feels like we're crawling," grumbled Mitch.
     "Do you want to drive? Just kidding. The service bots are complaining about the repairs they have to do when you drive."
    Mitch scowled and stared at the dark countryside. After a moment he turned in his seat. "Hang on! They're not programmed to complain!"
    Remmy leaned across the narrow aisle and touched Brentford on the elbow. "Why is the steering column on the right-hand side?" he asked.
     "The world this comes from drives on the left hand side of the road," said Brentford.
     "But we don't," said Remmy. Peib moved the steering column slightly and the vehicle drifted back to the proper lane. "Do you want me to drive?"
     "Have you driven a P152 before?" asked Mitch.
     "No." The wolfen looked around the cabin with its arrays of screens and read-outs for the driver and co-driver, the constantly updating map showing their location, the comfy chairs. He bounced on his seat a couple of times then turned to Sofie beside him. "I've never been driven anywhere before!"
     "I've always been their driver," she said with a nod. "It feels strange to have one drive me somewhere." Sofie reached out and grasped her mate's hand. "I'm scared," she whispered. He nodded and they held each other tight.
     "There's the airfield," said Mitch suddenly. "Three minutes to the main gate."
    Sofie and Remmy gazed at the unfamiliar sight to their left. A heavy security fence ran along the road. On the other side was an open field filled with black shapes. In the dark they could make out the occasional tail plane and wingtip but nothing else. Somewhere close to the ground amidst the vessels a white light shone. It blinked as various landing struts blocked its glow but it did not illuminate the assembled shuttles and carry-alls.
    The convoy steered toward the light, winding its way around the parked shuttles until a woman in a fluorescent yellow vest waved them to a halt. She worked her way down the line, telling the drivers something and waving to a mass of parked vehicles. Mitch watched the others drive over to the parking area. She started towards them and he lowered the window.
     "Hello driver! Could you- uh. Oh." She blinked at Peib sitting on the other side of the vehicle. He waved at her. "Er, yeah. Could you-" She stopped again and stared at Mitch. "You're the crew of the Free Trader Ielfet? Good! Captain Boodorovak would like to talk to you about planning the evacuation, Captain Day." She stepped aside to let the doors open. "He will see you after the vote. I am Pamap Trim, first mate of the U.T. Encore and Union security for this meeting," she said as she shook Mitch's hand. "Are you the last of the free traders?"
     "Yes," said Mitch. "How many ships do we have?"
     "Twenty five," said Pamap. "It's enough."
     "Boodorovak!" hissed Sofie. Remmy put an arm around her.
     "This is my Executive Officer, Peib Dborch," said Mitch as he watched the wolfen pair. "Navigator and science officer Brentford, and my friends Remmy and Sofie. What's this about, Remmy?"
    Remmy pointed in the direction of the light. "That human made a pass at Sofie so she slapped him. And they gave her stripes."
     "Those marks on your back?" asked Peib. Sofie nodded.
     "What do you mean, stripes?" wondered Brentford. "They beat you?"
     "Who?" said Pamap. "Boodorovak?"
     "No, THEM," growled Remmy.
     "The colonists," explained Mitch. "When there's none around they are referred to in vague terms. Let's discuss this later," he added and pointed to the light. "We have a meeting to attend."
    The group turned and walked to the brightly lit gathering. Remmy looked up and saw the light came from flood lamps on the underside of a shuttle. He could see many of the people were not human, but nearly all of them wore the same badge as Pamap. At that moment there was a roar of approval from the assembled beings. A tall dark man stood on the boarding ramp. Remmy recognized him as Boodorovak. Pamap left them at the rear of the group and pushed her way through.
     "Are there any who say no?" called Boodorovak. No one answered. "I declare the resolution to rescue the hostages to be passed! We have enough of the freed hostages here to help us with details about the prisons."
    Mitch and the two wolfen stood on an empty cargo crate to see over the heads. Brentford scrambled up Peib's back and sat on his shoulders. They watched as Yuri and Allia pushed forward and an animated discussion broke out. They couldn't make out what was being said until Allia shouted, "You can't leave them!"
     "The children," gasped Sofie. "Oh Remmy! We have to take the children."
    Mitch frowned at her. "Of course! Bring them with you."
     "It's not that easy," said Remmy. "They're in a guarded security compound on the other side of the town."
    Mitch, Peib and Brentford exchanged a look. Brentford dug a headset from the depths of a pocket and put it on. "Effie? There's a job for you and the Max."
    Mitch turned his attention back to the argument. Some others had joined in. Finally Boodorovik shouted at them to be quiet. "It's unpleasant, I know," he said into the silence. "But none of us have experience in breaking into security areas."
    Mitch saw Yuri turn and look into the crowd. He knew his fellow captain was looking for him. Peib cleared his throat but said nothing. "I know. I know," muttered Mitch as he held a hand up high. "Excuse me!" he called. Everyone turned to face him. "That's not strictly true."


    The sign said SECOND POPULATION, and underneath was printed "Many hands make light work."
     "What a bunch of bastards," muttered Peib. The five of them were crouched in a darkened wood. Before them were fifty metres of cleared ground and a barbed wire fence. He, Remmy and Mitch examined the grey concrete buildings of the institute through the night-binoculars. They could see no movement. "Is the fence electrified?"
     "Yes," whispered Remmy. "High voltage, low amps. It hurt like hell but it didn't kill me."
     "How often did you try to climb it?'
     "Only once. I suppose that was the idea."
     "That compound is the day yard," said Sofie. "We were hunted inside at sunset." She sighed as she sat with her back against a tree. "That was all we saw until we were fifteen: the yard and living area."
     "They must have changed things," said Peib. "I count a hundred and fifty people lying on the ground." He heard Sofie jump to her feet. "They're not dead, if that's what you're worried about. They have an IR signature."
     "There will be at least that many again inside the building," said Remmy. "The old ones have their own rooms."
     "Old ones?" asked Mitch, lowering his binoculars.
     "The old people," said Remmy. "They're sent back here to help. Each young one has an old one as a teacher."
    "Three hundred," muttered Mitch. "There's no way we can house three hundred."
    "The other ships will take most of them," said Peib.
    "We'll have to be careful we don't split up pairs or the kids will be too upset." Mitch picked up a small stick and flicked it at Brentford. The navigator looked up. "What are Effie and Max up to?"
     "They're arguing," said Brentford.
     "Anything new?'
     "Max brought the security system down but it can't shut off the fence There's no net connection to the power line." Brentford shook his head. "Max was about to bring down the town's power grid but Effie stopped it. That's what they're arguing about."
    Peib lowered his binoculars and stared into the darkness. "Well, we did tell Max to kill the security system."
     "Yeah. Bren, tell Effie to upload Max," said Mitch as he stood. "We'll have to do this now. It's almost dawn."
    Remmy stood with Mitch. "You speak of this Max as though he isn't a person," he whispered.
     "It's not. Max is a sub-AI we wrote to help with jobs like this." Mitch pushed the binoculars into his back-back then thrust his arms through the straps. He shrugged a couple of times to settle it on his back. "Let's go," he whispered.
    Peib picked up a silver box hidden under Brentford's camouflage cloak, and the five intruders sprinted across the open country. They fell to the ground at the base of the high fence. It was four metres high and topped with razor wire.
     "They're determined to keep people out," whispered Peib. He scanned the compound and buildings with his binoculars
     "In, not out," whispered Remmy. "How do we get over?"
     "We don't," whispered Mitch. He pulled a pair of wire cutters from his pocket.
     "No guards," said Peib.
     "But we've been seen!" hissed Brentford.
    They flattened themselves against the ground and watched as two small black figures run toward them and stop within an arm's length of the fence.
     "Go away!" hissed one. "We'll get into trouble!"
    Mitch turned a flashlight on them for a moment. The one who had spoken was a young wolfen with light grey fur. The other had pitch black fur with white markings. They recognized skunk ancestry in the young one. Peib growled deep in his throat.
     "If you don't go away I'll stink at you!" whispered the skunk.
     "We're here to get you out," said Mitch quietly.
     "Why don't you use the trucks?" asked the young wolfen.
     "Do you have food?" interrupted the skunk. "I'm hungry."
    Peib rose to a kneeling position. "When were you fed last?" he asked.
    The two young ones stared at him with wide eyes. The young skunk lifted his tail but the wolfen saw the movement, grabbed hold and pulled. "No Bink! Not now!"
     "Ow!" gasped the skunk. He tugged his tail out of the others grasp. "That hurts, Fletch!"
    Peib leant forward and grasped the fence. Sofie and Remmy gasped, while Bink and Fletch simply stared at his fingers. "When did you last eat?" he asked again.
     "Yesterday morning," whispered Fletch faintly. "When they took the old ones away in trucks."
     "They locked us out of our rooms," said Bink absently. "And the young ones were crying today. How do you do that?" he asked, pointing at Peib's hand. "The fence hurts!"
     "It can't hurt us," said Mitch. He had noticed the hair on his friend's head standing straight out, a sign of extreme agitation. He knew if guards showed now they would find themselves the focus of Peib's anger. In a minute he had cut a hole in the fence and pulled the wire away. Seconds later he was on the other side looking at Peib. "Stay on watch, and don't kill anyone." Peib said nothing. Mitch squatted and pulled the silver box through. Brentford, Sofie and Remmy squirmed through quickly.
    By now a crowd had gathered around the intruders. Remmy and Sofie had to keep shushing them to silence while Mitch and Brentford carried the silver box through the group. Small hands reached out to touch the two aliens. Moving forward became impossible so Brentford placed his end on the ground.
     "This will do," he said. Mitch dropped the other end. Brentford opened a panel to expose a keypad and entered a number. The top panel split in two and folded away, and an array of sensors and lenses rose on a telescoping rod to a height of one metre.
     "Brief the kids, Remmy," said Mitch. "I'll check out the interior. Fletch? Come with me."
     "Yes sir."
    Mitch stopped and looked down at the young wolfen. "Don't call me sir, ok? My name is Mitch. Or you can call me Captain Day, but don't call me sir." He waited until Fletch nodded. "Good. Now take me to the main door."
    The pair ran to the far corner of the building. On the other side, set in a deep recess, were a pair of heavy security doors. Mitch recognized a hand-scan operated lock, but the unit was dead. He ran a hand over the doors. "These are blast doors."
     "They're very heavy," said Fletch. "The men would put their hands on that thing and it would light up, and the door would unlock." He demonstrated with his own hand but the unit remained dark. "I think it's broken. They haven't fixed it yet"
     "I don't need it," said Mitch. "Watch this." He twisted his headset mike down to his mouth and said, "Effie? Main compound security door."
    The lock clicked loudly. Fletch's ears twitched. "Wow!" he breathed. "Miss Effie must be really clever!"
    In his earpiece, Mitch heard Effie say, "That's a smart young biologic."
    He smirked. "She agrees with you."
     "Where is she hiding?" wondered Fletch. Mitch pointed straight up and Fletch's eyes grew wide. "In space?"
    Mitch nodded. "She is on my ship in orbit." He pushed on the doors. "Wait here, okay? I won't be long." With that he entered the darkened hall. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the faint light coming from the long, narrow windows in the wall to his left. On his right was a long series of doors, all propped open. Every room he passed was identical four bunk beds, and four small cupboards. He entered one room and opened cupboard. Empty. Room after room was the same. The only sign of the former occupants he found was a pair of old gold-rimmed spectacles. He put them in a pocket and continued on.
    The hall turned to the right. Once more in the right wall were the small rooms, but to the left was a large opening with a set of double doors. Mitch checked the small rooms but they also were empty. He went to the double doors and peer through the glass before pushing them open.
    The dormitory was long. A row of single beds ran along each wall, with a double row up the middle. Beside each bed was a tiny footlocker. Mitch opened one, and it too was empty. He straightened and looked along the room before turning to leave. Someone made a noise.
    Mitch froze. The faint noise came again. He crouched and silently ran the length of the aisle. At the far end, in a darkened corner beside a door, he saw a crib. Something moved. He stood and looked in the tiny cot. A tiny, black-furred baby wolfen stared at him. She looked like a shadow in a diaper.
     "Hullo!" he whispered. The little one opened her mouth in a toothless grin, toothless except for four tiny canines. She held her arms up to him, obviously wanting to be picked up, then her ears twitched and she looked at the door. Mitch turned and saw the beam of a flashlight flicker in the glass. He pressed against the wall and waited.
    The door opened and a security guard walked in. "What are you whining about now?" he said loudly as he shone the light at the cot. Mitch grabbed the out-stretched arm and swung the man against the wall, his free right hand pressed against the throat. He glared at the captive. The man wore a paper filter mask that covered his nose and mouth.
     "Who's having a whine?"
     "Who-" The guard gagged as Mitch pushed harder.
     "What's her name?" asked Mitch with a nod at the crib.
     "F- Fina!" gasped the man.
     "And how old is Fina?" Mitch let go of the arm, ripped the mask from the face.
     "Eight months." He gagged again as Mitch increased the pressure in his throat.
     "When is her termination scheduled?" Mitch growled as he put his free hand in his jacket pocket.
     "Tomorrow. GACK!"
    Mitch pulled a spray from his pocket and squirted the man in the face. The guard gasped and sank to his knees, then fell forward.
     "Is he dead?" asked Fletch.
    Mitch spun. "Jeez! Fletch! You scared me!" He knelt and pressed his fingers against the neck of the prone guard. "No, he's unconscious. This is good stuff," he added, looking at the can.
     "It stinks."
     "Yeah, but it works." Mitch shoved the canister back in his pocket, then lifted Fina from her bed. He winced as she reached around his neck with both arms and grasped the hair on the back of his head. "That spray makes bounty-hunting a lot easier. Let's get out of here." They ran through the short maze of corridors and back outside. Dawn was showing to the east as they entered the yard, which was empty except for Brentford, Bink and the silver box.
     "Are you ready?" asked Mitch as he trotted over.
     "In a minute," said Brentford. "You get going."
    Fletch whispered something in Bink's ear, and the pair giggled. Fletch turned and ran for the hole in the fence. Mitch trotted easily behind. He could see Remmy waiting for them.
    He stopped at the fence and turned to watch Brentford. The scientist started walking toward him, paused to look at Bink who stood with his back to the box, then turned and sprinted for the fence.
     "What's going on?" asked Remmy.
    Brentford dived at the hole and slid through in an instant. He ran a few paces then stopped and vomited. A second later a wave of stench drifted over them. Mitch and Remmy swore. Fina started crying.
     "Quick! Take her!" gasped Mitch, handing Fina through the hole. He followed her through as fast as possible. Brentford recovered and staggered for the trees with Mitch's help. Bink jogged up beside them.
    Mitch stopped at the edge of the woods. "Give me the remote."
     "I hope it works at this distance," gasped Brentford as he handed over the small black box.
     "So do I," muttered Mitch. He looked at the compound through his binoculars and pressed the button. "Good." He pushed the binoculars into Brentford's pack and patted his friend on the back. "How do you feel?"
    Brentford straightened and rubbed his eyes. "I'll survive." He looked at Bink, who stood there wringing his hands and watching them. "How about warning me next time."
    Bink hung his head and nodded. "Yes sir," he whispered. Mitch and Brentford winced.
     "What did Mitch tell you about calling us that?" asked Brentford. Bink nodded but said nothing. "Anyway," added Brentford, "that was a pretty neat trick." Bink's head jerked up and he smiled at the two off-worlders.
     "We are running out of time," said Mitch. "You'll have to talk as we run."
    They jogged along the narrow woodland path. Mitch dropped back and drew his pistol. He hoped he wouldn't need it. The other two chatted as they ran.
     "I tried to show Fletch how to do that, but he couldn't," said Bink.
     "How about we get Effie to examine you and find out why," puffed Brentford.
     "Effie?"
     "Yes."
     "MISS Effie?"
     "Yes."
    They ran in silence for a while, then Bink said softly, "Cool!"
    Teenagers, thought Mitch. They broke from cover and entered a small clearing that was filled by the shuttle, Cygnet. Peib waited at the base of the gangway. The vessel, which always looked tiny when parked beside other shuttles, looked enormous. Mitch's eye followed the line of the wings, folded in half for this landing. The shuttle looked like a giant white 'M'. As he gazed at the top line, Mitch noticed a faint reddish tinge. He bolted for the gangway and scrambled up the slope.
    Peib and Brentford were stuffing Brentford's clothes into an airtight canister. They looked up as Mitch halted at the top of the ramp and thumped the gangway controls. "Sun's rising," he said quickly. Peib went forward to the cabin. Brentford paused to seal the canister and followed.
    Mitch looked around the cargo hold while the long slit in the deck hissed shut and the locks banged into place. The children almost filled the hold. Some had scrambled onto the P152 and were watching from the roof. The young ones stared at the safety rail as it lowered silently into the deck. "Okay, listen up!" said Mitch loudly. "First, get off that vehicle, it's not safe. Second, my name is Captain Mitch. You're being taken to a place where there won't be electrified fences and men with guns. I want all of you to sit down while we take off." He watched as the children sat on the cold deck. At least the rubber non-slip coating would keep them off the bare metal.
    One of the older children raised her hand. "My name is Selina," she said. "We're hungry, Captain Mitch."
     "I know," said Mitch. "We'll get you something to eat when we dock at my ship." As he spoke he felt the faint movement of lift-off. The landing motors hummed softy. "It won't be long," he added and went forward.
    The flight deck was bustling with activity as Peib and Brentford steered the shuttle for orbit. Mitch sat at the navigation console and turned to Remmy and Sofie. Little Fina twisted in Sofie's embrace and held her arms out to him. "Those kids need an adult to be with them," he said. "They're frightened and hungry."
    Remmy and Sofie jumped to their feet. "You're right," said Sofie. "But I don't think now would be a good time to tell them why they were taken from the institute."
     "No," agreed Mitch. "Fletch and Bink may have guessed, and maybe Selina. Those three could probably help you calm the youngest." Sofie nodded and the pair left the flight deck.
     "Bink's last great act of defiance," muttered Brentford.
    Mitch laughed. "It'll take them a week to clear the compound."
     "What the hell did he do?" wondered Peib. "Your clothes smelt foul!"
    Brentford leaned back and put his hands behind his head. "Well. There's something you should know about skunks..."

ocntinued
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