Tanj cursed and dragged herself out of the access duct. The flow controller for the port APU had gone down again, and it had been a scramble to get it replaced before the fusion reactor shut itself down. It'd been the last spare too. She gathered her tools, and the overalls she'd removed, to keep from getting them snagged on the rough insides of the access duct, and headed for the Wardroom. It wasn't like the rest of the crew hadn't seen her in just her fur before.
Benny, an Otter-morph, and the ship's "purser" looked up from a cup of coffee and his ever-present data padd as the Cheetah fem slouched into the Wardroom. "got it fixed again, Tanj?" he said with a look of concern on his face. Tanj nodded, dumped her tools on a countertop and went to get herself a cup of coffee. "Yeah, it'll hold together for a little while, until the harmonics blow that one too. We need a major overhaul; this bucket is being held together by baling wire, duct tape, and the sheer force of my will. Benny nodded; "well, if we pull this one off, we should have enough to keep us going for a while. I hope. All we have to do is to get past the pirates......."
The S.V. Lost Cause was an old tramp freighter, of the Provider class. Her Captain, Joshua "Squint" Matthews, an Ursoid (bear-morph), was also the majority stockholder, but the other three members of the crew also held a share. In fact, that'd been about all Squint had been able to pay them with, for some time, an ever increasing share of an antique ship about to fall apart. In addition to Benny and Tanj, Samantha Pettigrew, a Lepine (rabbit-morph) filled the slot of "First Officer". She and Squint had been together in the military, decades before, and the "Lost Cause" was a sort of second career for them. Tanj was the youngest of the crew, more or less fresh out of Tech school, holding her Second Engineer's license, and she was sure that both Sam's and Squint's pensions were all that kept the Lost Cause moving, and the crew together.
"I tell you, Benny", whatever it is we have in the hold'd better pay out, or we're never going to get this tub away from the dock again." Tanj said between sips of her coffee. "We're pretty much at the end of our rope". Benny nodded and looked at his PADD; "Weeeeeellll, I've seen what the skipper set up on this one, and if we can deliver it to Elysium, we shouldn't have to worry". Tanj sighed and shook her head. Draining her cup she placed it in the sink (the recycler was down too), gathered up her tools and her overall, and headed out with a silent wave.
She was just stepping out of a nice hot shower heading for the dryer, when the alarms went off. "ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS!" thundered through the ship. As Tanj dashed for Engineering, Squint came on the Intercom; "we've got Pirates inbound; all hands stand by for evasive maneuvering!" Tanj moaned as she dropped into a station chair at the main power distribution console, and struggled to fasten her harness; "NOOOOOOO!" she thought to herself; "there's no way the inertial dampers will take the strain!" Sure enough, as she felt the ship start a turn to the left, she heard a snap as a breaker blew, and gravity tugged at her hard! No impressive display of pyrotechnics, the inertial dampening system gave up the ghost with a whimper. Tanj watched aghast as indicators went dead all through the ship. "Engineering to Bridge! We've lost the Inertial Dampening System! Mind how you throw us around, or we'll loose the rest!" After a moment she heard Sam respond; "Bridge to Engineering, yeah, we kinda noticed. Got the pirates closing fast. Cut life support and throw everything you can to aft shields and to the drives. Never mind the guns, they'd be useless against shields like that pirate's got." Tanj sweated over her board, doing what she could to urge the last erg of power out of the tortured system, knowing it was a fart in a windstorm.
The ship shuddered into another sudden turn, and Tanj watched aghast as more systems failed. She heard Sam's voice from the bridge yell "we're being scanned!" and then the intercom died. Amazingly, at that point the Intership comm system came on, and she heard a stranger laughing; "You guys aren't worth boarding! Geez, what a piece of junk!" Tanj felt the fur at the back of her neck stand on end; Dammit, this ship might not be much, but it was HERS (at least partly), and it wasn't THAT bad..... "Oh, by the way" the voice continued "Did you know you had a fire on Deck 3?" Tanj sighed. "There goes the inverter in the air recycling system. again." As she unsnapped her restraints, she heard Squint announce "secure from battle stations; they're gone", and felt the harmonics of the ship's drive decrease through the floor plates. Trotting off, still dripping from her shower, she went to fight again one of her most persistent problems.
The fire was finally out; this one had been more persistent than usual. Over the years there'd been an amazing buildup of dust, grease and hair in the air recycler ducts, and when the inverter on the main air handler overheated, it tended to touch off a smoldering, smoky, STINKING fire. The ducts needed to be cleaned bad. As she moved back towards her quarters, wondering if another shower would be bad for her fur, she passed through the cargo hold. The charter cargo, sealed in special boxes, occupied center stage. Whatever that was, the pirates hadn't picked it up on their scans, as advertised. Tanj idly wondered what could be so important, but then dismissed the thought. "As long as it pays the bills" she told herself firmly.
It was thirty hours later that they entered the Elysium inner system. Tanj sat in the Wardroom, drinking coffee as she listened to Squint on the Bridge, argue with InSystem Traffic Control. "YES we're EXPECTED! Just ask Jones, of the Cartel! We've got a Charter cargo! I don't give a Crap what we look like, we got in past the Pirates, didn't we?" Tanj hoped that Squint was talking to them on a tight beam; if the pirates found out they'd been fooled, there might be hell to pay on the outbound leg. Finally Squint calmed down, and Tanj assumed InSys had finally given them a docking assignment.
Tanj was disappointed when they were vectored to the orbiting space station. She'd hoped to be able to completely shut the powerplant down, dirtside, for some repairs and adjustments. Given their financial status, dockside power was NOT an option. Still, when the bridge signaled "Done with Engines", she powered down what she could, and looked over her "to do" list. She was dimly aware of Squint leaving the ship, as he headed to talk to the station folks about delivering the cargo. Her attention was wholly consumed by the mess that was the Inertial Damper System. She was about half-way into the job when she heard the rumbles and clangs through the ship that signaled the cargo airlock being opened, and droids moving into the ship to carry off the cargo.
After doing what she could with the system, restoring it to about 37% of its rated capacity, Tanj looked at her chrono and was amazed to see it'd been 31 hours! No wonder she was exhausted! "Cuppa coffee, and then a shower, and BED" she promised herself as she put away her tools. But as she entered the wardroom, the looks on Sam and Benny's faces brought her instantly awake. "What'd I miss?" she yawned. Sam looked up from her coffee mug; "The Captain's not back yet". If she was using his title, it must be grim, Tanj thought. "when was the last time you heard from him?" "When he left to go check in with the dockmaster" Benny replied in a quiet voice. "Yes, I've called over there. Repeatedly. Getting a Class A runaround. Something's wrong. MAJOR wrong!" Tanj could only nod in agreement. "What do you think we should do about it?" Tanj asked. Sam just shrugged; "we certainly can't stage a commando raid on the station to rescue the Captain. In the first place, this place is just shady enough to have massive security; there aren't enough of us. In the second place, we don't know that he's in that kinda trouble (although I can't imagine him wandering off and getting drunk, and not telling us, or even finding a long lost love, or whatever, and being so preoccupied he wouldn't think to call in.....). Things were discussed for a while, as they so often are, going round and round in circles. Eventually they came to the conclusion they HAD to go look for him. Each departed to change, to make themselves as presentable as possible before leaving the ship.
Tanj returned to her quarters and laid out her best jumpsuit. She brushed her hair, and tied it back with a ribbon, got dressed and with a last look around to make sure all was in order, left to meet her crewmates at the airlock.
Benny, not uncharacteristically, was the last to arrive, not looking significantly different than when they'd left the wardroom. The three cycled through the personnel airlock, and were just closing the door when a half dozen station police entered the gangway. Sam looked at them, and then nodded; "you've found our Captain, then?" The sergeant in charge nodded; "Oh, yeah, we found him all right. He's in custody". Benny sighed; "And what, officer, is the charge?" The Sergeant smirked; "Failure to pay Docking and Entry fees, Assaulting an Elysium citizen, and then we found out the cargo was "contraband". Benny snorted; "there's no such thing in this system! Everyone knows that you can get _anything_ in Elysium! One of the cops growled back; "Shut your mouth, you; if _WE_ say its contraband, then its contraband! We're here to impound your ship as evidence". Tanj thought her jaw was going to hit the floor. This couldn't be true! Sam's eyes narrowed; "when's his arraignment?" One of the cops chuckled; 'all ready been done; he's been bound over for trial. 'Course that'll probably be in about 15 months, the backlog being what it is and all......" Sam growled; "Do you mean to tell me that our ship will be impounded until the trial, _FIFTEEN_MONTHS_FROM_NOW?" The cops just beamed and nodded. "Uh, well, ah, we don't want any trouble, officers, just let us get our personal stuff out of the ship and we'll get out of your way" Tanj said. "Can't let you do that, SweetCakes", the Sergeant said; "Ship's sealed as of now; NO tampering with the evidence. "Not even if one of you were to escort us, VIDEOTAPE us, as we get our stuff?" Benny asked. "Nope; got our rules, we do. NO one goes in that ship until the forensics team arrives, and NO ONE after that until the trial!" "Well, can we see him? Talk to him?" Sam asked, a stony look on her face. The cops just grinned and shook their heads no. "Go on, you bilgerats, get out of here now, and DON'T let me catch you loitering around here. This ship will be guarded, and we'll shoot trespassers!
Tanj hooked claws into her crewmate's clothes and used the grip to tug them down the companionway; "we can't do anything _now_, there are too many of them! Lets see if we can find a lawyer or something!" As they moved slowly away from their ship, their home, and just about everything they had in the universe, they saw the airlock sealed, and guards, live and electronic, posted.
When they'd moved into the station proper, Benny pulled them into a huddle; "before we left, how much money did you bring with you?" Tanj snorted; "Hell, Benny, I brought every credit I've got to my name; about enough for a decent meal! Its been a LONG time since our last paycheck, ya know!" Benny just nodded sadly; "I've got about forty credits; Sam?" Sam sighed and said; "I've got about two hundred. I'd been saving it for a disaster, and I guess this qualifies. Thought we might need a bribe or something. Never expected _this_!" "O.K." Benny said; "First things first. Lets see if we can find out what really happened, and then see if we can find a lawyer. One who'll take a case on "speculation"......
A trip to the Station business office got them cold stares from the staff, and the suggestion that they inquire at the police station. Trudging half way around the station to the central police station left them exhausted, but was cheaper than the public transportation (let alone a cab). There, they received more frosty stares, and were informed that the report was not yet complete, and they should check back in three days. Leaving, they decided to pursue other avenues of information (hopefully ones that wouldn't be quite so openly hostile). It shouldn't have surprised them how much a public terminal cost. Grumbling they rented one for an hour, and started searching for records of what had happened to their Captain. The police database showed no information beyond what they'd been told. It also showed that despite the fact that the space station was the size of a small city, there were no attorneys in private practice! They found several dirtside, but none of them were willing to take a case, no matter what the situation, on speculation. The cheapest one they could find wanted 1,000 credits just to review the situation! Finally they gave up, and Sam tried to use the terminal to send a message to some old friends, to see if they could forward some cash to her. The three crewmates blinked in amazement as the terminal informed them that they had to apply for permission to send an interstellar message! Of course, by this time, the government offices they had to go to were closed for the day!. Benny tried to use the terminal to access what meager accounts the ship had in its "home port" system, only to be told that currency transfers of that sort were prohibited by the Elysium government. Sinking back in his seat, Benny looked at his crewmates; "I think they've got us screwed. I think they've stacked the deck against ANYONE in our situation. In fact, I'd suspect the whole thing was a set-up from the start. What was in those containers, or at least what was SUPPOSED to be in those containers was NOT contraband. Valuable, yes, but NOT contraband. I think the customers have bribed the government offices here to screw us. Probably with OUR ship as "payment"....... "So what do we do?" Tanj asked. "We won't get very far on what money we have; we can't seem to get more, either, and I have the nasty suspicion that this place does NOT take kindly to broke spacers....." Sam nodded; "we'll pursue getting an SOS to some of my friends tomorrow, when the communications office opens. If we can get enough money to hire that lawyer, maybe we can turn this around. Right now, I'd settle for just getting our ship back and getting the hell outta here!". The others just nodded.
They found that all the lodgings on the station were beyond their financial resources. They also found out that loitering was not permitted. It seemed they "strolled" the station, all night long, a patrolman a discrete distance behind them. Finally, it was "morning" and the station offices were opening. They looked a little scruffy, having been up all night, as they stood in line at the Comm office. Directed from line to line, they went through an amazing bureaucracy as they filled out form after form, and paid fee after fee. "They HAVE to be doing this just to irritate people" Benny snarled, sotto-voice. Tanj could only nod. Finally they'd completed all the paperwork, and Sam submitted three "letters" for transmission to old friends, asking for help. That done, there was nothing to do but wait. As they left the Comm offices they missed the knowing smirks among the workers there, or the sight of the office supervisor calmly throwing the "letters" into the recycler.
"This isn't going to work, you know" Tanj said as they left the Comm offices. "There's going to be too long a lag before we hear a response. We'll be out of money long before anyone could come to our aid." Benny nodded; "the obvious solution is that we have to acquire more money. Has anyone seen any "help wanted" signs?" Thus began a search of the station, looking for work. Everywhere they went, the response was the same. No Elysium work card, no chance. None of the freighters in dock needed any crew, nor seemed to have any sympathy, either. Booking passage out of the system wasn't possible either, as the cost was far in excess of what money they had left. Security was too tight to stow away, either. A quick check at the station's employment office revealed that there was no way even one of them could afford the work permit application fee.
After three days, their money's all but gone. Standing in front of a storefront, exhausted and hungry, they counted their pocket change, seeing what they might buy to eat. "This ain't gonna make it, guys" Benny sighed. "Got enough for one pack of Twinkies, and then we're busted". With a shrug, he turned and went into the store to make the purchase. Returning a moment later, they split the contents. A few mouthfuls and it was gone. Sara sighed and looked at the time display in the store's window, her own chronograph long since sold off for a fraction of its value. She obviously was measuring the time to when help might arrive, not knowing it never would. Tanj tried hard to think of something encouraging to say, anything to say, when she heard a voice say "there they are". She turned just in time to see a squad of police descend on them. "You're under arrest for vagrancy" one of them smirked. Benny opened his mouth to say something, but never got a sound out before one of the cops hit him with a shock-stick. Sam moved towards Benny but found herself facing three menacing cops. Tanj just stared at her friend, as one of the cops handcuffed her paws behind her back and then roughly dragged her off and threw her into the back of a police vehicle. She never saw her crewmates again.
Events passed in a blur; her arrival at the police station, being roughly stripped naked and shoved into some sort of delousing chamber, being led down endless stainless steel corridors, locked in a bare steel cell smaller than her cabin on the Lost Cause. The light never went out. She had no idea how long she was in there, except that she knew it was WAY past a reasonable length of time to go without food or water. Or the use of restroom facilities.
When they came to get her, they were "enraged" at the mess she'd made. "What the HELL did you expect" she thought to herself as they dragged her out, and shoved her down the hall, still naked. Before she knew it she was standing in front of some sort of magistrate. When she tried to speak she was told to shut up; when she tried again, they gagged her! Obviously, they could care less about what had happened to her, and saw no need to inform her of the status of her crewmates. "Insufficient funds to pay the air tax?" the Judge finally asked of the bailiff. When the bailiff nodded, not even looking up, the Judge roared "Guilty". Tanj was then sentenced to be remanded to the state until such time as the fees, penalties and charges against her were paid. Oh, and the amount of the fees and penalties would increase at the standard 27% compounded semi-annually......... Before she could force an outraged noise from behind her gag, she was dragged off.
Tanj was roughly hauled through more endless corridors, dragged hither and yon, until she was put on a shuttle with others, headed down to the planet. Tanj looked around, trying to figure out what happened to her, where she's going, whats to become of her. Doing the numbers in her head as best possible, she calculated that if rescue didn't come soon, the price to pay off her fines would exceed the national debt of her home planet..... probably designed that way, she thought. The inmates on the shuttle whispered among themselves, as they waited for the shuttle to launch. Wild stories of what happens to lawbreakers here floated back and forth; from being dissected for transplants, to being used in genetic engineering experiments, to slave labor, to being disintegrated for their organic chemicals, to brood mares for clones for the elderly rich; the stories were each one more unbelievable than the last. Finally, with a lurch, the shuttle disengaged from the station and began its wild descent to the planet below.
At the starport, the shuttle's lock was opened and the prisoners herded out. Tanj looked longingly at the ships as she's bundled with the others into a nondescript windowless ground vehicle. "If I could just get inside one, I bet I could get it in the air in record time.... and then be blown out of the sky. (sigh). GOTTA be a way out of this" she thought.....
The ground vehicle deposited them at the service entrance to a rather large and ugly building. Guards herded them inside, and separated them into groups by sex and age. Tanj's group was marched into a well lit area where three official looking types in a windowed booth looked over the group, obviously discussing each of the prisoners. Then, without explanation, they were marched out again. They stood for a while in a holding area, milling about, exchanging the same whispers over and over. After a while, the guards came again and formed them into a line. They were marched out, under very close scrutiny, to a long, narrow hall. One by one, the prisoners were passed through a door. When it came Tanj's turn, she was pushed rudely through the door and onto a small revolving platform under a spotlight. The platform turned for a few minutes as she squinted off into the surrounding dark, trying to make out what might be out there. Then, without preamble, a guard pushed her off the platform and out a far door, as another prisoner was admitted to the chamber, to take her place. In the next room, a guard applied a tag to her collar, and she's vectored off, led by a single guard down a maze of corridors. Bewildered, Tanj took a risk; "what was that all about" she asked the guard. He just chuckled in a bored manner; "you've just been sold. The State recouping its expenses in dealing with dangerous criminals like you....." Tanj was speechless! Sold? Sold to who? For what?
Tanj was shoved into a smaller ground vehicle with a half dozen others. As Tanj looked about she realized they're all fairly young, mostly females but with a few males (ones that under different circumstances she probably wouldn't have minded getting to know at all!). They were all dirty, all disheveled and subdued, but all reasonably good looking....... The hairs at the back of Tanj's neck tried to rise, as she got a VERY bad feeling about this......
After about a half hour, the vehicle stopped and Tanj's dragged out and into a courtyard; as she looked about hurriedly, she got the impression of high walls, glass smooth, with armored doors. The guards force all the prisoners to kneel, in a single line. After a few minutes, a Tigress, rather curiously dressed, and obviously in charge, enters the courtyard and announces that they've all been sold to the Academy, where they will be trained to provide a service to society, to pay off their debt, to make a positive contribution. As the Tigress talks, it becomes apparent that the "Academy" is a training center for sex slaves! Tanj's mind whirled as the implications sunk in, and the obviously memorized speech of the tigress turned into a droning in the background as Tanj fought down the urge to panic.
Suddenly there was silence, and commotion; the Tigress was exiting the courtyard, and the guards were making the prisoners (inmates? _slaves_?) stand up, turning them all front to back. One guard laid out two long chains, with fasteners every few feet and another guard started going down the line fastening ankle cuffs to their left legs. Another guard moved down the line, checking the collars they'd been fitted with by the police. Before she knew it, she was fastened to the slaves in front and behind at the left ankle and the neck. Having been fastened into a "coffle", the guards then took great amusement in teaching them to march in step. There was a lot of stumbling and some group-falls, like dominoes, much to the guards amusement, but eventually, they learned to move as a group. When the guards were satisfied (or maybe when they'd finished having their fun), they were marched to the baths area where they're cleaned, examined, fitted with what could only be considered permanent collars and wristlets (and a matching anklet), and to Tanj's absolute horror, for "better control", a nose-ring! Each of them was then gagged, the coffle reformed, and they were led to the kennels.
Tanj was surprised when the guard disconnected her from the coffle and
pushed her through the tiny door into a cell. She thought for sure she'd
have a cell mate, but it looked as if they were to be kept separate.
"To prevent escape conspiracies, or is there some other dark reason?" she
wondered to herself. The cell had bars down one side, and she could
see into a few other cells, but as the guard had neglected to remove the gag
(or unbind her paws still tied behind her back), communication with the other
slaves was limited to a few mostly meaningless facial expressions. Looking
about, Tanj figured that the cell wasn't quite tall enough for her to stand,
and was barely wide and long enough for her to lay down. A trench across
one end, with flowing water was obviously meant to be all the toilet facilities
the place had. At least the floor was thick with fresh straw, fairly
soft and comfortable....... even if it did make her feel like a common animal.
Finally, Tanj fell asleep on the straw (despite the dull ache from her poor,
tortured, _violated_ nose....), her mind turning over and over what had happened
to her. She wondered what happened to her Captain, and to her shipmates.
She wondered if anyone had ever escaped the system, or the "Academy", and
she vowed to herself to escape, to return and wreak her vengeance on those
that have done this to her and her shipmates!