The Search For Cuteness: Part 6
Open the Pod bay doors Hal...
"Access Denied. This account has been frozen under Code 587, Article 34 of the Intergalactic Alliance Trading Act. If you have received this message in error, please contact the station supervisor at-"
"Damn!" Squeaks yelled, pounding the machine's console. The intergalactic 'ATM' beeped in response, its screen flickering, but the message it displayed did not change. "Locked!"
"Don't tell me you didn't realize your accounts had been sealed, Ace," Drake ventured, watching as his friend continued to glare at the offending screen. "That was the first thing the Alliance did when they heard the news."
"Couldn't just have kept your beaks shut about that news, could you?" Ferdia growled at the Duck, "Save everyone a hell of a lot of trouble all around, but *no*, -"
"And lie to our allies? When rumors if nothing else would eventually reach them anyway, and ruin our association with them altogether once they verified those rumors? Our entire Empire would've suffered!"
"At least it's locked and not seized," Squeaks muttered.
"Why's that?" Drake queried.
"A seized account no longer exists. A locked account is still accessible," he shrugged, "if you know how to 'pick' the lock."
"Ace, please don't tell me you know how to do that."
Squeaks shrugged, casting a glance up and down the corridor before turning back to the console, "It's not that hard. Especially on a machine this old and out-of-date."
"I don't believe this!" Drake yelped.
"All you have to do is slip in through the machine's default admin code, and you can transfer the balance."
"I can't hear this!"
Squeaks cocked his head. "I take it that means you don't want me to put the funds in your account?" he asked innocently.
"No! Absolutely not!"
Squeaks smirked. "Too bad. It's the only active account we have access to - a new one with a sudden, large transfer would set off warnings and get locked almost immediately."
Drake looked aghast. He turned to Ferdia for support. "You're not about to let him do this, are you? Back me up here!"
Ferdia shrugged. "It's fine with me."
He couldn't believe his ears. "You're going along with this?!? It's wrong!"
"How is it wrong?"
Ferdia gave him a disbelieving look. "It's his money. How is it stealing?"
"It's breaking and entering, then! Electronic sabotage! Illegal use of facilities! Anything! Come on, you're supposed to be an officer of the law, how can you stand there and watch as he hacks into this machine's system?!?"
"That you offering the use of your funds, Drake?" Squeaks interrupted.
Drake paused. "Well
The mouse grinned. "Then I really have no other options. We have nothing to sell or barter, and we need money to get a ship, since you won't lend us your transport. I should have more than enough for the variety they'll have here, so unless you have any other ideas
" Drake sputtered, "I need my money! Unlike you, I still live and work near Alliance territory - and people will wonder what happened to six years' of savings if they just disappear. And Mallard will kill me if I lose a Duck runabout in pirate-infested territory such as this. Think of it - pirates with cloaking devices. I'd be basted in honey and thrown to a pack of furbies once the Council found out." He paused. "But I still don't agree with breaking into the system."
"Then just pretend you don't know about it," Ferdia advised. "Turn a blind eye to it. You're not here, after all. Not a party to any of this in any way, shape, or form. It shouldn't bother you."
"But," Drake turned his attention back to Squeaks, only to find the mouse scrolling through an administration menu, removing the restrictions on his accounts and transferring funds to a new entity. "You're shattering my illusions of you, Ace," he sighed. "Where did you learn to do that, anyway?"
Squeaks looked up from the screen, meeting first Ferdia's eyes, then Drake's. "Honestly, old friend?" he began, ears tucked back and a vaguely regretful look on his face, "You don't want to know."
"Oh yes I do," Drake countered. He'd caught the glance between mouse and bird. If Squeaks planned on telling her, then he had better believe he was going to tell him now.
Squeaks sighed, shaking his head. "I picked it up from some
a while ago. Their accounts had been frozen, and they needed the money to buy a transport ship and safe passage."
Drake could hardly speak. "You
"Only these, and only once." Squeaks shrugged. "There were whole families aboard, and all they wanted was to escape their pursuers. They were bound for deep space - it's not as if they were about to return and pillage the shipping lanes."
"You sympathized with them?" Drake was shocked. "Mind telling me who they were?"
"Not today," Squeaks replied, as the machine beeped, its transfers complete. "We've got other things to do."
"You say you are looking to buy a ship?" the merchant asked, his eyes brightening, "Well, you've come to the right place. Honest Abel, that's me. Best ship-dealer on this station."
"More like the only ship-dealer on this station," Ferdia muttered. Drake nodded in agreement, looking at the grease-slicked weasel with a mixture of distrust and contempt.
If 'Honest Abel' heard them, however, he gave them no indication of it. Quickly scrambling to his feet, the portly weasel beckoned for Squeaks to follow him as he cleared a path to a set of doors. The doors slid open with the kind of labored screech that comes from age and poor maintenance, but the room they led to shined with bright lights and clean metal.
Most of the shuttle bay's metal floors and walls were rusted, true, and badly in need of a fresh coat of paint - but they were clean, and the bay doors were well-oiled and dent-free. Mechanics' benches and toolkits lay scattered about the bay as their caretakers worked on installing or repairing this or that device on various ships. The corner of the bay the weasel led them to was set up like a space-age showroom, with polished ships spaced and arranged just so. None were directly under the lights, and a second glance at them revealed why - they might be polished, but underneath the polish and a cheap coat of paint were countless dents, rust spots, and even poorly-patched hull tears.
Squeaks looked around at the selection, trying to keep the disapproval he felt from showing on his face. The ships were predominantly small, ancient fighters and battered personal transports. Most of the latter were most likely pirate-captured vessels, while most of the former were pirate cast-offs - ships pirates sold as soon as they had the credits to buy something bigger, faster, and more reliable. The fighters would doubtlessly be better armed and shielded than the personal carriers, and probably faster as well. They might be old, but if pirates had been using them, they probably had more engine tweaks and extensions than should have been physically possible. The fighters had most likely been built with the capability to reach Warp 4 or 5; it was fairly safe to assume the vast majority of them could now reach at least Warp 8. They were all small - designed for a crew of three to five, with their original ordinance bays almost entirely gutted to make room for booty.
He saw a shuttlecraft whose design would put it at nearly a century old, were it not for the two oddly-attached mini-nacelles jutting from its rear. The ship was marked 'Cheetah' - and while its stats claimed it to be the fastest ship of its size, Squeaks knew better than to ask about its shields. Shuttlecraft were never designed for battle, and its skids and underbelly proved this one was no different. They were scraped and burned, and its side was deeply gouged from a close encounter with phaser fire while its shields were low. The next ship resembled a flattened bit of pie dough - the saucer was oblong and flat. It also had weak shields, but it attempted to compensate for that with its slight profile - if you weren't aiming at it from above or below, your choices of hitting it weren't all that good. But while it traveled well in atmosphere, it could not top Warp 5. Which seemed far too slow when one thought of how far they were traveling. Another ship was small and white and somewhat triangularly-shaped - but, sadly, it could only travel an hour before its warp drives began to overheat and slow it down. And another was perfect - but could hold only two. And if they rescued Ferdie, Bob, Beak, and Iiwi only to find the four no longer had a ship, a two-seater could be a problem.
Squeaks began to worry. Surely there was something decent here! He walked around the flattened saucer. There! Off to the back was an old Vycerian military transport. He was familiar with those - well-shielded and quick, and capable of holding a few dozen soldiers. He started to walk over to it, only to realize half of one wing and most of its tail section had been blown off. True, the transport could probably still fly, but with damage like that
it would be wiser to invest in the shuttle.
"Hey, Squeaks!" Ferdia's voice cut in over his thoughts. He turned to locate her, but couldn't see her in the maze of battered ships before him. She called him again, louder this time, and he headed towards the other end of the bay, as her voice seemed to be coming from there.
Ever the patient one, she jogged into sight moments later, only to grab his arm and drag him after her. "I think I found something!" she explained, weaving through the ships. Stopping in front of a slim, rocket-like ship, she pointed up enthusiastically. "Look at this one!"
Squeaks looked - and grinned. An Arellian! And a Starchaser to boot! He chuckled, circling it slowly and taking stock of its condition. She was an old bird - his grandfather had flown one back when Arellia was at war with the Felids - but Arellian ships were built to last. The ship was no longer as sleek and trim as it once was - its hull and wings were peppered with small, shallow dents, and much of the front and sides were scorched black - but it seemed to be intact - no external patches or wields, no cracked portholes or jammed landing feet. He ducked under the ship's belly, feeling around for the ramp's manual release.
Ferdia watched him step up and peer inside the ship. "Well? Whatcha think?"
Squeaks shook his head, amused. "This is one of ours."
"One of yours? Arellian?"
He nodded. "She's a Starchaser. I used to watch these fly at air shows when I was a kid." He ascended the stairs, taking a look around the cockpit and weapons bay. "She's an old fighter, but her previous owners took out most of the equipment racks, so we should be able to fit four or five people in the back. It wouldn't be the most comfortable of rides, but it would be possible."
"Is she fast enough? Her speed's not listed. She's got an impressive weapons array, though, and her shields look good."
"Gramps used to brag about topping Warp 8 with these things, but that was with pampered ships and new equipment. She should do 7 easy, maybe even 7.5 with no cargo, but that's probably the best she'll do. Anything more than that and we'll probably regret it." He climbed out of the cockpit, circling around the ship again. "You see a name on her?"
"The Scavenger. You can just barely make it out on the starboard side. Guess that makes her a pirate vessel." Ferdia grinned. "Although the first time I read it, I thought it said 'The Scorcher'. She doesn't seem any worse for the wear, though - the scorched hull's just as firm as the rest of her."
"You'd better believe it," Abel stated, making his way towards them as Drake followed behind. "She's an Arellian. Those things are built to last. You could fly her into a wall and make it out with only a few scratches." He sucked in a breath of his water-pipe, sizing up the prospective buyers. They were sold on this little ship - that much was obvious. The mouse looked like he was an Arellian, after all, and Arellians had more faith in their old designs than anyone else's new ones. Besides, the Starchaser was one of the best ships he had to offer. Which of course meant it was the most expensive. Why, he could probably get a good 23,000 credits for her - well, if he fixed her up, that is. But the mouse didn't need to know that last bit.
Squeaks watched the weasel mull over what to charge them. This was the part he looked forward to least - haggling. Well, what the heck, he had a life's savings to spend, and it needed to be done before someone noticed the dramatic increase in Drake's net worth and investigated it.
"I'm not in the mood to bargain," he announced, "I'll give you 20,000 credits for her. That's more than she's worth, and it's more than you'll get for her from anyone else. Of course," he added as the merchant started to object, "since no one else's here right now, we could always take it for a test drive and then discuss a price."
Abel was suddenly aware of the fact that all three 'buyers' were armed. He didn't recognize the weapons the mouse and blue bird carried, but he knew them for what they were. He sighed, sucking on the pipe as if he were still considering their price. He'd take it. It was more than he'd get from the pirates and gypsies that usually came around looking for ships, and he really did need to sell something soon - his debts were beginning to get to the pay-up-or-we'll-break-your-knees point of arbitration. Still. All three buyers were in uniforms of some sort, which he supposed made them officers of something or other. One would have thought they wouldn't stoop quite so low as the rest of the station's riffraff.
Unless they were running from something. The mouse had a SpaceFleet captain's insignia semi-hidden under a forehead of bangs, and the duck looked like a Platerian commander on shore leave. That put two ranking officers on a run-down, abandoned, pirate-plagued station in the middle of nowhere. Curious.
The way he figured it, the less he knew, the better. And since they had already expressed a willingness to, eh, appropriate the ship if their price didn't meet his standards, there really was no point in trying to ask for hush money. Never blackmail someone who's willing to kill you, he always said. So there really was only one thing left for him to say.
Krell looked up as three new patrons entered the bar. It was a habit with him - no eye contact, just a simple 'I'm the bartender and I see you, so watch yourself' glance in their direction. It reminded them that there was a huge, seven-foot-tall, three-hundred-fifty-pound ogre of a bear behind the counter, and that said bear was intent on maintaining an order of civility and a lack of property damage. Moreover, it gave him an idea of who was in his bar and what trouble they were likely to start.
When he saw these new arrivals, he nearly fainted.
A SpaceFleet captain, a Platyrian commander, and an Alliance MP had just walked into his bar. Which was currently packed to the gills with its usual crowd of pirates, gypsies, mercenaries, and assorted criminals. Most of whom were drunk, and all of whom were armed.
Perhaps he should just duck under the bar now, and pray no one had an ion cannon.
His curiosity got the best of him, though. After all, it was such an unusual way to commit suicide. If they kept their mouths shut and steered clear of everyone and everything, they might even still be alive five minutes from now.
Nope. Scratch that. They were headed for the bar. Which meant that someone would say something to them, and then all hell would break loose. Regulars were already moving away from the bar, giving them room to sit - and giving themselves a front-row seat for the upcoming slaughter.
A Felid stumbled into the Platyrian, spilling his drink onto the Duck's uniform. The Duck opened his beak to berate the drunken cat - at this the patrons all leaned forward in anticipation - only to have it clapped shut by the blue bird, who told him to keep his mouth shut if he wanted to continue living. Silently, the three took their seats at the bar.
By now, the patrons were getting curious. Which was of course to say, they were curious as to why no one had been killed yet. Krell supposed he should ask the trio if they had any last requests. Or if they wanted to order anything. But that would put him closer to ground zero, which was the absolute last place he wanted to be when the fighting broke out. So he continued to pretend he hadn't seen them and was busy.
All around, he could hear the hum as phasers powered up and built charges. The soft snikts of switchblades flicking open were nearly inaudible over the hum, but he knew he heard a few.
The SpaceFleet captain heard them, too. He was an Arellian, after all, and their hearing was supposed to be excellent. The mouse's ears flicked in the direction of every newly-opened blade, and he eventually turned to face the crowd. The others followed his example.
This was it, Krell thought. This was the part where they said something about looking for someone and leaving peacefully once they'd found them. Which was, of course, synonymous with saying this was where they got killed.
Squeaks paused, studying the bar patrons. The problem with this station was simply that it had no central marketplace - traders sold their wares wherever they went. And most maps of any value were exchanged in the bar. He was all too familiar with how stations like this worked - this was far from being his first map-hunt. The problem here - and it was a big one - was that neither he, nor Ferdia, nor Drake had any changes of clothes, which meant that anyone with even the slightest cognitive abilities knew they weren't your everyday travelers. His insignia and Drake's uniform gave them away, and simply the fact that Ferdia was with them and wearing a uniform similar to his marked her as 'the law' as well. And this was the last place 'the law' wanted to be.
What he needed was a fast way to convey to the patrons here that they were not there to bring anyone in. Or ask anyone about any criminal activities. Or do anything in any official capacities at all. Moreover, he needed a way of letting them know that, uniforms aside, they were more alike now than they wanted to believe - no one wanted any authorities showing up. The problem was, they were likely to simply open fire as soon as he said anything. Which made making any progress at all somewhat difficult.
Oddly enough, the solution to this problem presented itself in the form of a table-full of bounty-hunters and bandits at the back of the room. Noticing Squeaks and his companions for the first time, the drunks rose to their feet and approached the bar, as eager as anyone else to see what the fuss was going to be about. And then stunned to find they knew who the fuss was going to be about.
"Hey," one of them drawled, slowly pointing a finger at Squeaks, "I know you. Yer that SpaceFleet captain that helped those refugees a while back. Arc-somethin', right?" He scratched his head, thinking. "Yeah, Arcada-somethin'. Heard you was dead."
One of the slightly-less-drunk bounty hunters blinked in surprise. "Arcadia? As in, the Arcadia that's got the Alliance screamin' for his head 'cause he told 'em to shove off? That you?"
Ferdia tensed, ready to bolt, guns blazing, at the first opening this mob gave them. They had almost a clear shot to the door from here. Drake simply let his head sink to the bar with a muted "We're gonna die." Squeaks had to admit, the Duck was probably right at this point. Still, he had been asked a question.
Slowly, he nodded.
"Well, all right then!" the bounty hunter bellowed good-naturedly, breaking into a grin. He stepped forward, turning to address his fellows. "The way I see it, any enemy of the Alliance is a friend o' mine! Hell, and with a price on his head, he's pretty much one of us! What say you, brothers?"
A roar of assent echoed through the bar. There is nothing quite so sweet to a soldier as the knowledge that their enemy has lost one of their commanding officers - to the other side! And the only thing a pirate - drunk or not - enjoys more than a good fight is a rowdy celebration in honor of the humiliation of someone they do not care for. Instantly, Squeaks, Ferdia, and Drake had become part of the gang. Which made them family.
"Pour 'em a round, Krell!" someone yelled.
And families shared with one another. Weapons were offered, techniques shared, skills demonstrated - although Krell objected quite loudly when a group of sharpshooters set up an impromptu session of target practice - and advice given. And without even needing to ask, they were surrounded by grinning companions eager to compare star-maps and safehouse locations.
For his part, Drake decided the best thing for his sanity would be to drink himself into oblivion. And even then, there were dozens of friendly criminals who cheerfully joined him in that quest.
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