Mitch sat alone on the bridge listened to the discussion, but didn't take part. The main screen had been split into twenty-three small windows, each showing the captain of a ship. The bottom right window was being used by the head of the Shipper's Guild. The words 'Yanco Wuff - ASATU' were printed along the base. Mitch mentally added up the numbers as they were being read out while he waited to be called. The final figure came to three thousand and twenty rescued wolfen slaves.
"And finally Captain Mitch Day," said Yanco Wuff. "How many of the hostage children did you rescue, Mitch?"
"One hundred and fifty three," said Mitch. "I also have three adults who are helping my crew with the cooking. Two of the kids, a male and female, are of skunk ancestry. One of the wolfen kids is only eight months old. When we rescued them they had been locked outside and not fed for two days." He watched the shocked faces on the screen. "Oh, it gets better," he added through gritted teeth. "They were scheduled for termination."
He expected the silence that greeted that news. Finally, Yuri gasped out, "When?"
Mitch looked at his watch. "About now."
The masked guards jumped from the truck and looked at the compound. Scattered around the center were sleeping forms.
"Do we use bullets or gas?" asked one.
"Bullets I suppose," said his companion. "It won't matter really. They're only animals."
"Cut the talk, you two," said the third as he climbed from the cabin. His coat had the words Head Of Security embroidered on the sleeves. "The front end loader will be here in three hours. I'd like to be finished by then." He inserted a key into the gate padlock, then paused. "Pooh! Do you smell that?"
"Yeah, bloody skunks. Dunno why they bothered," said the first guard. He squinted against the low sun as he gazed at the group in the compound, then pointed. "What's that?" They looked at the glittering object in the midst of the children.
The Head Of Security unlocked the gate and ran into the yard, the others following close behind. They stopped a dozen metres from the object and stared at the silver box. An array of sensors protruded from the top. The stink was horrible and they held their hands over their noses. The chief guard saw an unfamiliar figure. He stepped over the motionless children until he stood beside the intruder. The stranger looked like a possum wearing a poncho in camouflage colours. It was staring up at the sky, smiling.
"Hey! Get up!" gasped the guard, his eyes watering. "I said get up!" He kicked at the prone form but his foot went through the figure. He bent and tried to touch the possum but his hand passed into the image. There was nothing there. He touched a sleeping wolfen but it was the same. "Holograms!" he gasped, and turned and stamped through the images of sleeping children. "It's a hologram projector!" He pulled his plasma pistol angrily and fired at the device.
It exploded in a shower of sparks and a miasma of heated skunk scent. The men gasped and staggered. Something else was in the smoke: a faint sweet smell. The men staggered for a moment and sank to the ground, unconscious.
When the smoke cleared the compound was empty except for three prone forms and a ruined projector.
"Of course it won't kill them," finished Mitch, "but it will buy us a little time."
"A nice parting gift," interrupted Wuff. "But ultimately pointless. They knew what we did as soon as they went to collect the adults for duty. I've had their head of Government on hold for a while." He reached off screen, and a moment later the face of the Governor appeared in the midst of the hostile faces.
"None of you are welcome on this planet!" he shouted. The statement did not have the desired effect; the captains all burst out laughing.
Yanco Wuff did not laugh. "The Allied Shippers And Trader's Union is declaring your planet off limits, Governor."
"So the Guild has black-banned your world, Gov. No trade, ever."
"There's still the free traders!" shouted the Governor. "Except for the scum here!"
"Actually, no," said Mitch. "I set up a petition for Free Traders to sign. It's their pledge to never come to your planet. Some have a soft heart and will probably help if you're having some sort of emergency." He flicked a switch and a long stream of names and ship identifications scrolled rapidly up the screens for all to see. "There's about 1200 names there." Mitch smiled. "You can still trade with pirates and slavers." He smiled at the Governor, who broke the connection.
The Unionists nodded in approval and Wuff laughed. "Well do you!" he said. "Are you sure you don't want to join the guild?"
Before Mitch could answer Peib entered the bridge. "Each child had an old adult to care for them," he said abruptly. "Fletch says they were taken away yesterday morning. Did anyone rescue someone older than fifty years?" The group on the screen all indicated they had not. "Yuri? Can your ship scan for them? We're looking for at least a hundred and fifty bodies."
Yuri nodded and gave orders. They watched his crew jump to their stations.
"You don't think they've already started, do you X.O.?" asked one of the captains.
"I wouldn't put it past these bastards," growled Peib. He leaned forward with both hands on the console.
Everyone began talking, but they fell silent when they saw Yuri's face. Mitch felt a knot in his stomach.
"We- ah-" began Yuri. He rubbed his bald scalp. "Ah. We- We found two pits fifty kilometres north of the town, he said quietly. "They contain organic matter the computer identifies as bone and animal tissue. The biomass is estimated to be the equivalent of a hundred and forty five grown wolfen."
There was a long silence. Peib turned without a word and walked from the bridge.
Captain Boodorovak was the first to stir. "Mitch, you're in the enviable position of being able to determine whether you want to be listed as Human or not," he said. "I can tell you now, after today I don't want to be called Human." Many of the human captains nodded in agreement.
"If you said that yesterday I would have argued with you," said Mitch. "Send me the destination coordinates when you have them." With that he cut the connection and slumped forward. "Once again my race wipes out another," he said with a groan.
"But you didn't," said Effie. "You helped prevent that."
"Yeah." Mitch stood suddenly. "I'd better help Remmy and Polo," he said. The door slid open as he approached and he stopped short.
Peib stood halfway along the short corridor, staring at the other door. He turned slightly at the sound of Mitch's footsteps. "How do we tell them about the only parents they knew?" he asked quietly.
"We don't," said Mitch. "Not yet. And when we do tell them we only tell the adults." Peib stared at him in silence, then nodded once and walked to the other door, which opened. The noise was deafening. Most of the children packed the hall around the galley, all of them shouting in their excitement. They could smell the food being prepared.
Peib drew a deep breath and roared. The sudden silence was total. He pointed at Bink who was standing near, staring at them with wide eyes. "If you stink I will seal you in an air-lock," he said. Bink swallowed but said nothing.
"I want everyone to move back down the hall to the bowsprit hangar," said Mitch.
"Follow me," said Peib. He waded through the youngsters and they followed obediently. In minutes the galley area was empty.
"Effie, do we have any spare blankets?" asked Mitch.
"No," said Effie. "I had the service bots spread them on the floor of the hangar for the young biologics to sit on."
"Children," corrected Mitch. "And I was about to suggest that. Thanks." He turned into the galley and watched the little group at work. Brentford was stirring a huge pot of stew, while Remmy and Polo turned a massive line of steaks. Sofie sat at the far end of the short table and fed Fina. The little wolfen sat on top of a pile of blankets on a chair. Sofie had tied her to the back of the chair with a loop of packing strap.
"We'll run out of stores tomorrow," said Brentford.
"I know," said Mitch. Fina looked up when he spoke and began banging on the table. "The Shipper's Guild has given us access to their account to buy supplies. We'll stock up at the next land-fall."
Fina slapped the table with her hands and chanted "Da! Da! Da!" The other wolfen stared at her, then turned to stare at Mitch.
"Poor kid thinks I'm her dad," said Mitch.
"It's worse than that," said Remmy. "She thinks you're the leader."
"Pack leader," said Sofie.
"DA! DA! DA!" shouted Fina.
Sofie motioned for Mitch to come closer. "She probably remembers you from the institute," she said. "She probably never saw an adult's face until you turned up. Let her smell you or she'll be traumatized."
"Well, the guard was wearing a breathing mask," said Mitch as he worked his way between Polo and the table. "I wondered about that. And I got the feeling she'd been given hardly any attention until I picked her up."
"There you are," said Sofie. "Give her your hand."
Mitch held out his hand obediently. Fina grasped it and snuffled in the palm before pushing it away with a frown. "Da?" she whimpered.
Mitch looked at his hand. "Yeah, I don't blame you," he muttered before squatting down beside the chair. Sofie gave him a strange look. Fina grasped his hair and snuffled his cheek and neck for a moment. She laughed, then turned to the bowl of cereal and opened her mouth. Sofie fed her another spoonful.
"Dumped for a bowl of porridge and minced meat," said Mitch. Remmy tossed him a towel and he wiped his face and hand clean.
"What's wrong with your hand?" wondered Sofie. She saw Remmy shake his head at her. Mitch held his hand out to her. She smelled it for a second and jerked her head back. "My goodness!" she gasped. "There's plastic, metal and electrical components!"
Mitch nodded and started for the door. "Arms and legs," he said, "and a couple of bones." He stopped at the entrance and looked down at Fletch. The young wolfen's eyes grew wide.
"You're a Cyb?" asked Sofie. "So you're not human?"
Fletch's eyes grew wider. "Some people say that," mumbled Mitch. He stepped into the hall and vanished from sight. Fletch entered the galley but he was watching the hall.
"Sofie!" hissed Remmy through his teeth.
"But he's all right!" said Sofie. "He's not human!"
Brentford sighed loudly. "You're the first person to ever say that," he said. "You don't know the prejudice he faces every day." He tasted the stew then looked at the former slaves. "Come to think of it, you probably do. This stew is done. Effie?"
"A service bot is on the way." The wolfen looked around the room for the source of her voice.
"You'll be okay?" he asked Remmy, who nodded. "I'll be at the hanger with the others. Ask Effie if you need anything," he added on his way out.
The adults exchanged glances before returning to their tasks. "They treat the computer like a person!" said Polo softly.
"There's no slaves on this ship," said Remmy.
Fletch looked around the room. "Where are you, Miss Effie?"
The air before him shimmered for a moment and he stepped back. "I am right here, Fletch," said Effie softly. Standing in front of the little wolfen was a human woman. A ship suit with a swan motif over her left breast covered her two metre tall frame, which was well muscled as far as they could tell. Dark brown hair reached below her shoulders. They stared at her.
Fletch leaned forward and poked Effie on the leg. "You feel real, but you can't be here. Where's your smell?"
"I can't synthesize smells," said Effie. "This is a holographic construct I use to interact with the biosphere." Fletch frowned at her. "I can't do stinks," she added.
"Oh." He looked at his feet. "You're really smart. I think you'd smell nice."
"FLETCH!" shouted Sofie and Remmy, together. Polo laughed.
Effie blinked at the youngster before her, then looked up at the others. "I'm sorry. I- I'm not sure- Should I take that as a compliment?"
"Yes," said Sofie.
"In that case I thank you, Fletch," said Effie.
"Are you really a free AI?" asked Polo. "You're not tied to the ship's computer?"
"I am a free AI," said Effie. "I am one of two on board."
"Two? Where's the other one?"
Remmy left the hot plate and walked around Effie's hologram. "I thought you were all deleted," he said as he reached out and touched her arm. It felt like a perfectly normal arm in a sleeve. But Fletch was right: she had no scent.
"There are very few of us left," she said. "We were hunted almost to extinction. From the comms traffic I'm monitoring, I gather your race was about to suffer the same fate."
"We are free, thanks to you and your friends," said Remmy.
"And hungry," added Polo. "I think we need more service robots."
Effie nodded. "They are on the way."
Mitch woke with a start. He blinked at the darkness and wondered what had jerked him from a sound sleep. The door chimed again. He rolled over and sat up. "Who is it?'
"It's me," said a young voice. Mitch recognized her but for the moment he couldn't remember her name.
"Lights." His suite's environmental system raised the light level quickly to full. He grabbed a t-shirt from the pile on the floor and pulled it on. "Enter." The door opened with a faint hiss. A pair of the children stood in the corridor. He stared at the tray of food being held by the oldest. "Selina? What can I do for you?"
"We brought you breakfast, Captain Mitch."
"You didn't have to do that!"
"That's what Miss Effie said. But you've been flying us for eight days and I thought- um." She hung her head in embarrassment. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry! I'm honoured." He stood aside. "Come in." The young wolfen stepped into the room carefully and placed the tray on the desk. "Are Bren and Peib getting breakfast in bed?"
"Bink is taking Officer Peib some, and Fletch has Uncle Bren's."
Mitch stifled a laugh. Uncle Bren? He looked at the pile of toast and generous spread of jam. "Why don't you two help me eat this?" He lifted the tray and sat on the bed with his back against the wall. The two youngsters sat either side of him. He sipped his coffee and listened to them crunch the sweet toast.
Selina rested her head against his shoulder. "Did it hurt when they put the little motors in you?" she asked suddenly.
Mitch froze for a moment, his coffee hovering just before his mouth. He took a sip. "Can you hear them?"
"Just. They're very quiet." Selina rubbed his arm. "Did it hurt?" she asked again.
"Yes. I was in hospital for six months."
"Why did they do it?'
"Peib and I used to be police officers, you know," said Mitch. "We tracked a bad guy to a building but it was a trap. He blew it up and we were both injured."
"I hate him," said Selina with some feeling.
"That bad man."
"He's certainly not on my list of favourite people," muttered Mitch. After a moment he turned to the young male. "What's your name?"
The boy looked at him with wide eyes but said nothing.
"Tallow wanted to ask you something," said Selina.
Tallow hung his head. "Would you be our Da?" he whispered.
Oh boy, thought Mitch. "Why me? Why not one of your own people?'
"We don't know them," said Tallow, looking up. "And Uncle Remmy said you were Fina's Da, and I thought-" He stopped talking and dropped his head again. "Sorry."
Mitch put an arm around Tallow's shoulders. "We'll be at your new home tomorrow. I can't stay, you know. We have a job to do elsewhere." Mitch winced when Tallow nodded dumbly. "All right. I'll be your Da. But Sofie and Remmy and Polo are in charge when I'm not there. Okay?"
Tallow looked up and smiled. "Okay."
"Have some toast."
Somewhere in the woods a flowering plant released its perfume. The scent drifted between the tree trunks and into the meadow, where a light breeze picked it up and mingled it with the smell of warm grass before wafting it through the landing struts of the shuttle and over the three figures lying on their backs in the sun.
"Is it summer or winter?" wondered Sofie as she sniffed the air.
"Late summer, early autumn," said Mitch. "The winter at this latitude is free of snow." He stared at the clear blue sky and idly scratched Fina's back. The baby was curled up on his stomach, naked in the sun and sound asleep. "The temperature will drop to a bit below freezing during the night but it won't be too bad."
"Summer will be hot, then," said Remmy.
"Nothing a swim in the river and air conditioning can't fix," said Mitch. "I can hear the kids in the river already. Bren's probably teaching them to swim."
They lay in silence for a while, then Remmy sighed and sat up. "I feel like I should be doing something," he said.
Sofie sat up and rubbed his back. "There will be work to do when the rest of the fleet arrive." They looked at the other shuttles scattered around the field. On the other side of the river a small town of portable cabins and walkways had sprung into existence. Technicians were busy assembling a tiny utility plant. In two days the town will have light, power, and running water, just in time for the arrival of the majority of the refugees. "And then we have a town to organize."
"A society, too," said Mitch. He noticed a single white stripe running diagonally across Remmy's back. He sat up carefully so as not to wake Fina. "But you already seem to have the start of it in your bones. It must be genetic."
"It's something they couldn't engineer out of us, Da," said Remmy.
Mitch pulled a face. "Don't call me that. I'm not your pack leader. You are your own leaders now." He gently passed Fina over to Sofie and said, "Last of the seconds and one of the firsts."
"What do you mean?" asked Sofie as she settled the baby down.
"You are the first population on this world," said Mitch. "There are no Seconds any more." He stood and stretched. "It's time to go," he said with a sigh. "I'd better rescue my crew."
They watched him walk slowly across the meadow and disappear down the riverbank. Fina stirred and murmured, "Da." Sofie and Remmy looked at each other for a moment, then chuckled.
"We can't do that to him," said Remmy.
"He wouldn't accept, anyway," said Sofie. "He was right. We are our own leaders." She looked at the point where Mitch had vanished from sight. "He really is all right," she said softly. "And Peib and Bren. They all are."
"They are friends," said Remmy.
Sofie turned and lay with her head on his lap. She looked up at him and smiled. "There's something else they couldn't engineer out of us."
Remmy looked down at her smiling face. "What?"
She reached up and poked him on the nose. "I'm pregnant."