com badge From the log of USS ARTEMIS (NCC-69069)

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 Chapter 4

For information about the Captain and Officers of USS ARTEMIS
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It had been a hectic week.  The only thing that had ever come close in Angie's experience was "Hell Week" at the Academy, the seven days of rigid discipline and physical and mental stress that began every Starfleet Cadet's experience on the San Francisco campus.  Everyone on ARTEMIS was great, including the senior officers.  The Middies had been accepted as shipmates from day one, but...

LT Basán was putting them through a rigorous and demanding series of evaluations, including:

Physical Fitness—tests of their body strength and stamina;
Unarmed Combat—in standard-gee, lo-gee, hi-gee, and zero-gee—in duty uniforms and armored spacesuits;
Marksmanship—with hand-phasers and phaser-rifles—at static and moving targets and on the combat range (where the targets shot back);
Shipboard Fire-control—managing the targeting computers of the main phaser banks and photon torpedo tubes.

Both Middies had passed every test, but their Department Head hadn't exactly showered them with praise.  She'd made it abundantly clear that simple proficiency might satisfy an Academy instructor, but LT Olena Basán expected her Security personnel to excel in the required skill sets, and as far as she was concerned, both Middies needed work.

Angie and Lyra knew what was going on.  Olena was being the "Designated Hard-Ass", and they were being stress-tested to see how they'd adapt to the shipboard environment.

At the moment, they were in the middle of a tactical exercise.  Angie was in a concealed position overlooking a jungle trail.  Off to her right, a Carmow warrior was crouched behind a fallen log.  The Scatara autochton had gray-striped fur that reminded Angie of Cuddle-Kitty, a childhood pet, but there was nothing cuddly about this particular feloid.  Dressed in knee-boots, kilt, and a vest-like top, all of dark brown leather, she was armed with boot-daggers, a machete-like sword, and a unique Carmow weapon, the m'rrtu or staff-bow. 

The m'rrtu was a combination bow, quarterstaff, club, and stabbing-spear.  It could be used to bludgeon with the weighted knob at one end, stab with the steel lance-point at the other, or parry with the shaft in between.  In addition, it could be grasped in the middle and an arrow nocked to the string running in a groove along its entire length.  As the arrow was drawn, two narrow staves of laminated hardwood and animal horn lifted free of the shaft, bending like the limbs of a typical bow.  When the arrow was released, the staves snapped back into the shaft and the missile was propelled to its target.  Compared to a dedicated bow, the m'rrtu was weak and short-ranged, but the design made for a good ambush weapon, well-suited to the close quarters of jungle fighting.

And ambush was the order of the day.

Angie knew other Carmow warriors were positioned on either side of the trail, but "Gray-stripe" was the only one she could see.  Angie suspected she was there to protect and keep an eye on the "Starrrfleet Hoomahn Kitten", as the Carmow warriors called her, as much as to participate in the attack.

The Carmow swiveled her head towards Angie and flattened her pointed, furry ears.  She held up her left hand and made a series of gestures with her claw-tipped fingers.

"Two enemies and three [something]," was the message, and Angie nodded her understanding.  Their target was approaching.  Carmow sign language, or "claw-speak", had a vocabulary of more than two hundred words, of which Angie had only had time to learn a few.  She checked that her hand-phaser was set on "stun", then smiled at her Carmow ally, very carefully keeping her lips tightly together.

The Carmow smiled back, also in a tight-lipped manner.  She then faced the trail and her smile broadened, baring the sharp points of her teeth.  This was a hostile display, intended for their approaching enemies.  She fitted an arrow to her m'rrtu, then froze in place.

Seconds passed...  then, the foliage shook and an Andorian pirate came into view.  Only about fifteen meters from Angie's position, she was picking her way down the trail, focusing both on the path immediately before her booted feet and on the more distant jungle on her flanks and farther ahead.  Her blue head was "on the swivel", as Olena put it, alert for tripwires and other dangers.

Walking behind the pirate came three bound, gagged, and naked prisoners: two Carmow and Lyra D'varas.  Angie's roommate and her fellow captives had their arms folded and lashed behind their backs, with bands of ice-spider silk rope pinning their arms to their sides—classic box-ties.  The pirates had wrapped the feloids hands in rags as a precaution against them using their claws to whittle the ropes, but Lyra's hands were free.  More rags were stuffed in all three captives' mouths and held in place with more rope.  Finally, they were coffled together, neck-to-neck.

The Carmow were young, barely adults.  One had gold and brown spots, like an earthly leopard, and the other was a calico, her fur in mottled patches of gray, tan, and brown.  If Angie was reading their body language correctly, their long, twitching, prehensile tails signaled anger and anxiety.  Understandable.

Lyra gave every sign of being exhausted and resigned to her fate, but Angie could tell her friend was only feigning defeat.  She knew what Lyra looked like when she was exhausted.  Tree Frog was being cagey.

Bringing up the rear was a second Andorian.  Both simulated pirates were dressed, armed, and equipped like the pair that had captured the Middies in this same simulated jungle the day they reported to ARTEMIS.

Angie had no idea how the Carmow coordinated their attack, but sudden, simultaneous whistles sounded from the jungle, ahead and behind the group on the trail.  The lead Andorian crouched into combat stance, her disruptor-pistol at the ready, and the second pirate did the same.

Not that it did them any good.

Arrows flitted from the foliage, from both sides of the little column, and all of them found their marks.  Both Andorians fired their disruptors, but they were wild shots.  Their trigger fingers had twitched in reflex.  They collapsed to the forest floor, each with a half-dozen arrows protruding from their necks and torsos.  Their antennae twitched, and then they were still.

The Carmow war party emerged from their positions.  Several growled and stabbed the Andorians with the spear-points of their m'rrtus.  If the pirates hadn't been dead before, they certainly were now.  Others untied the Carmow captives, and there was a great deal of laughing, purring, and hugging.

Angie grinned and holstered her phaser as she strolled towards Lyra.  She then stepped behind the green captive and untied her gag.

"My hero!" Lyra gushed as the rag was pulled from her mouth.

"I didn't even fire my phaser, smartypants," Angie muttered.  She made no move to untie her friend.

"And why not?" Olena demanded.  The Lieutenant seemed to materialize from the green shadows, although a few fluttering leaves suggested she'd simply stepped from hiding.  Her phaser was in its holster.

"Phaser fire might register on passive sensors in the pirates' main camp," Angie explained, "or on an orbiting ship."  She smiled.  "Besides, the Carmow know their business.  They didn't need my help."

"Anything else?" Olena asked.

"I didn't fire, but the pirates did," Angie said.  "We should clear the area immediately, in case the remaining pirates send a patrol to investigate."

Olena nodded, then, for the first time in days, she favored Angie with a smile.  "Very good."  She turned to Lyra.  "And what did you learn?"

Lyra smiled.  "Uh, not to volunteer for prisoner duty during tactical simulations?"

"I don't recall asking for volunteers," Olena said, evenly.

"Oh, that's right.  Anyway..."  Lyra's smile faded.  "The pirates search their captives very thoroughly.  They found all the escape and tracking aids I'd hidden on my uniform and about my person.  Also, they don't like Orions."

"I'm sure it's more than simple xenophobia," Olena shrugged.  "The renegades think of all 'green-skins' as... business rivals."

"Now that you mention it," Lyra purred, "I have been thinking about setting up a franchise on ARTEMIS."

"You are a smartypants," Olena chuckled, "even without pants.  Computer, arch!" she commanded, and the control arch materialized.  "Delete computer generated characters," she said, and the still celebrating Carmow and the pirate corpses disappeared.  "Door."  The door to the corridor materialized in the arch and hissed open.  "It's still an hour 'til lunch.  Make your way back to the Carmow hunting camp, then call the arch.  Final away mission briefing will commence at sixteen-hundred hours."  She strode through the door and the door and arch dematerialized.

"I think she likes us," Lyra stated.

"Lucky us," Angie sighed, then took out her tricorder and set it in tactical mode.  A map appeared on its tiny screen.  "The camp is a little over three kilometers—"   She nodded to the north.  "That way."

"Well, untie me and let's get started," Lyra said.

Angie returned the tricorder to its pouch on her equipment harness, crossed her arms under her breasts, and smiled.  "Untie you?

Lyra favored her friend with her most cajoling, dimpled pout.  "You aren't still mad about that meditation thing in the Captain's quarters, are you?"

Angie retrieved the end of the rope leash still tied around Lyra's throat.  "Mad?  Who, me?  Certainly not."  Smiling, she stepped back and let the strand of soft, braided, ice-spider silk trail through her fingers.  She reached the end of the leash, took a firm grip, then turned and started jogging through the jungle.

The rope snapped taut and Lyra scrambled after her companion.  "Kipper!" she complained, "I'll get you for this!"

"Shut-up and meditate, Tree Frog," Angie chuckled.
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 Chapter 4
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Angie concentrated on the task at hand, monitoring the passive scanners of the cutter's weapons console.  Lyra was at the engineering station and LT Dax was manning science/communications and scanning the planet below.  The Science Officer's immediate task was cataloging energy sources and concentrations of lifeforms on the surface.  Angie's focus was on the surrounding space.  She was on the lookout for incoming pirates.

ATALANTA was one of ARTEMIS' two assault-cutters.  They were of a new class, based on the design of the famous DELTA-FLYER created by the crew of VOYAGER.  Slightly longer than the original, they were fast, well-armed, and had long legs.  In short, they were designed for independent operation in hostile space.  They were not designed for comfort.

By Starfleet standards, the interior was cramped and spartan, although, to the Klingons, ATALANTA would be a pleasure yacht.  The bridge had four stations: pilot/command, copilot/weapons, engineering, and communications/science.  Behind an airtight bulkhead was the combination crews' quarters, work area, cargo bay, and EVA deployment bay.  The crew slept in hammocks, which were stored when not in use.  All furnishings, tables, chairs, and workstations could be quickly folded and unfolded from bulkhead cabinets.  All cargo was containerized and stowed against the aft bulkhead.

Limiting the available space even further, four armored spacesuits were stored in the overhead and under the deck.  One of the possible missions of an assault-cutter was to transport up to a dozen Security personnel in EVA combat suits and deploy them through twin, quick-acting hatches.  Starfleet boarding tactics favored the use of the transporter, but EVA assaults were a common practice of space pirates.

Direct boarding had the advantage of not requiring the target ship's shields to be down.  The pirates would match course with the prey vessel, cross the intervening space in suits, force one of the hatches, and subdue the crew.  Such an attempt would be very iffy against any Starfleet vessels larger than a shuttle or runabout, but could be highly effective against bulk freighters, commercial star-liners, and civilian yachts.  Flipping the coin, while pirate ships were always fast and well-armed, they also tended to be small.  Therefore, they themselves were vulnerable to the tactic.

"Is ARTEMIS still in scanner range?" Olena inquired from the pilot/command station.

Angie shifted the display mode of her console.  "ARTEMIS is just leaving extreme sensor range.  Course and speed unchanged."

ARTEMIS would be spending the next twelve days seeding a network of sensor-buoys in this quadrant of the Expanse.  The automated sentinels would monitor the surrounding space for warp signatures and subspace communications.  They were stealthy and difficult to detect, and even if they didn't detect pirate activity, negative intelligence had its own value.

ATALANTA's crew were on a dual mission: (1) reestablish contact with the Carmow clan that had befriended Gwen during her previous visit to the Expanse, and (2) gather intelligence on any pirate activity in the area.

The door to the aft bulkhead hissed open and Gwen entered the bridge.  "Are we there, yet?" she sighed.

"If you mean are we in orbit," Olena muttered, "yes, we are."

"I've checked and rechecked my medical supplies," Gwen stated.  "Can we please beam down to the surface?"

"Not until Midshipman Goodnight completes her scans of the system," Olena responded.

"Scan's complete, Lieutenant," Angie said.

"We'll wait 'til all the planets, planetoids, and moons have completed at least one rotation, each," Olena growled.  "I want a passive scan of the entire surface of every object big enough to harbor a pirate base."

Gwen sighed, again.  "Perhaps you'd like to land on every moon and asteroid and look under all the rocks."

"And perhaps you'd like me to order Midshipman D'varas to strap you into your hammock so we can get some work done," Olena countered.

Gwen and Lyra exchanged a grin.

"Lieutenant," Angie said to Olena, "I had ARTEMIS beam us their data stream as they left the system.  We already have full coverage."  She tapped a series of touch-pads.  "In fact, we have one-hundred eighty-nine percent coverage.  Unless the pirates have Klingon or Romulan cloaking technology, or have all their systems, including life-support, powered down, or are buried under at least a kilometer of rock, we're alone."

"Good initiative," Olena said, then stood and motioned to Ezri.  "You have the con."  She stepped aside as Ezri moved from the engineering station to the command chair.  "Get ready for transport," she announced.

"Yes, O fearless leader," Gwen muttered, and opened the aft door.  "I've been ready for two hours."

Angie chuckled as she rose from the copilot's chair.  "I'll relieve you in eighteen hours," she said to Lyra as the grinning Orion took her place.

"Lucky quastraad," Lyra mumbled, referring to the Orion equivalent of a sewer rat.

Angie shrugged.  She knew her friend was kidding.  "Don't worry, there will still be plenty of jungle for you to play in."

Olena leaned close and placed a hand on Ezri's right shoulder.  "Stay alert, and keep the automatic evasion routines online.  Some of the larger pirate ships have fighters, and they can zip up on you faster than you can blink."

Ezri looked back over her shoulder and favored Olena with a dimpled smile.  "Are you familiar with the quaint Earth expression regarding the inadvisability of teaching one's grandmother to suck eggs?"

Olena laughed.  "Sorry.  Sometimes your sweet, girlish face makes me forget that Dax was serving in Starfleet when my grandmother was in diapers."

"No problem," Ezri chuckled.  "Neither of us are offended."  She was referring to her symbiont, of course.

Olena and Angie left the bridge and the door hissed closed.

Lyra grinned at Ezri.  "What you want for lunch?" she asked.

Ezri's smile broadened.  "Ever try gagh?"

Lyra's smile disappeared and she shuddered.  "Live Klingon serpent worms?  Are you kidding?"

Still smiling, Ezri shrugged.  "It's an acquired taste.  My last husband was Klingon."  She focused on the piloting console.  Symbols and numbers were appearing on a side-screen, evidence that Olena was already setting up the coordinates for the transport to the surface.  "The replicator won't produce live, wiggling gagh, of course, but the texture and taste are more-or-less authentic."

"You were married to a Klingon?" Lyra demanded, an expression of awe on her green face.

Ezri chuckled.  "Something for us to talk about," she purred.  "Set up an automated passive scan of the outer system, would you please?"

"Yes, Lieutenant," Lyra responded, and began tapping her station's touch-pads.  A Klingon! she marveled.  She's so... tiny!
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 Chapter 4
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The dominant Carmow culture was semi-nomadic, but every clan had a permanently occupied "clan-town", with satellite farms and/or fishing hamlets, and all were walled fortresses.  Inter-clan strife was an exceedingly rare event and generally took the form of something closer to ritualized sport than bloody warfare, but defenses were maintained, nonetheless.

At any one time, at least half the population would be away on hunting and trading expeditions, but at the moment this particular town held approximately three thousand Carmow of all ages.  It was situated on a hill near a bend in a wide, slow-moving river, and was surrounded by a stone wall and an abatis, a dense thicket of outward-facing, sharpened stakes.  The jungle loomed on all sides, excepting the riverfront, but was cleared back from the base of the wall a hundred meters or more.

Olena, Gwen, and Angie materialized just inside the jungle on one of the main trails leading into the town.  Preliminary scans had confirmed that no Carmow were nearby.  From their contact with the previous science expedition the natives were at least somewhat familiar with Starfleet technology, but there was no need to startle anyone.

Olena and Angie were dressed in camouflaged Security uniforms: boots, trousers, and tank-tops.  In addition, they wore equipment harnesses with survival supplies and rations, as well as tricorders, combat knives, hand-phasers, and phaser-rifles.  The tricorders and weapons were stowed, sheathed, holstered, and slung, respectively.

Gwen was barefoot and wearing a pair of black knee-pants and a tank-top in the teal-blue of a Starfleet Science/Medical specialist.  Like the others, she was wearing a harness with the same basic supplies; however, her only weapons were a sheathed knife and multi-tool and a holstered hand-phaser, and her tricorder was the specialized medical version.  She was also burdened by a heavy pack loaded with the medical supplies she would need to assist the local Carmow healers during the visit.  Finally, she was wearing a necklace of polished red stones and a single, snail-like shell.  It had been presented to her during her previous visit, and marked her among the Carmow as a "sacred healer".

"Let's go," Olena said, and they emerged from the jungle and made their way to a grassy clearing at the side of the main trail.  They were in clear view of the watchtowers of the city, and in only a few seconds the raucous clamor of an alarm gong began to sound.

"And now we wait," Angie stated.

"And now we wait," Gwen confirmed, then smiled at Olena.  "Ready to grovel?" she asked.

"Very funny," Olena huffed.

The gates of the town opened and a dozen Carmow warriors jogged towards the away team.  They were booted and fully armed, and were shaking their m'rrtu over their heads and chanting in unison, something between a growling roar and a mocking hoot.  As they drew near the waiting Humans they went dead-silent and their mouths opened in wide, toothy grins.  They formed an arc between the newcomers and the town and pointed the sharp ends of their m'rrtus towards the visitors.

As they'd been briefed, the Starfleet visitors kept their expressions carefully neutral and stood perfectly still.

PurrgatahOne of the Carmow stepped forward and shook her m'rrtu over her head.  She had dappled, reddish brown fur and striking gold eyes.  "I am Purrgatah, Warrior and Pathfinder of Bendwater," she growled.  "I have fought wars and fed my clan.  I protect Bendwater; clan, sisters, and kittens."

Olena drew her knife and dropped into fighting stance.  "I am Olena, Warrior of ARTEMIS," she stated.  "I have fought wars and fed my clan.  I protect ARTEMIS; clan, sisters, and kittens.  I protect this healer—"  She indicated Gwen with her free hand.  "—and would speak to Bendwater with the voice of a friend."

Purrgatah continued her scowling, tooth-baring grin for several long seconds—then let her features relax.  She tossed her m'rrtu to one of her companions, sat in the grass, and removed her boots.

Angie noted the steel claws attached to the boots' toes, and the string of pebble-sized beads around the ankles.  From her briefing she knew the beads were trophies, evidence that Purrgatah had "fought wars" as she claimed.  She also knew the title "Pathfinder" meant the now barefoot feloid was one of her clan's senior leaders.

Meanwhile, Olena had settled to the grass and was removing her boots and socks.  This variant of Starfleet uniform pants, camouflage aside, was unusual in that it was more a pair of thick tights with knee-pads and cargo pockets than conventional trousers.  The mottled fabric hugged Olena's legs like a second skin, much the way her camouflaged tank-top hugged the curves of her torso.

"You wait," Gwen whispered to Angie.

"I remember," Angie whispered back, mildly annoyed.  She might be inexperienced, but she could remember her part in a simple greeting ceremony.  She hadn't slept through the briefing.

"Your kitten-warrior may bare her feet now, if she wishes," Purrgatah chuckled, and her companions laughed.  She nodded over her shoulder and continued, "My kitten must retain her boots.  She's on gate watch until sundown."

"Pathfinder!" one of Carmow whined, and her furry friends howled with laughter.Zeeka

The complaining feloid was the shortest of the group, and she was rather kittenish in appearance.  Her short, fine, un-patterned fur was a tawny, slightly pinkish shade of tan, and the longer mop of hair atop her pouting head was blond, as was the tuft at the tip of her twitching tail.

The "kitten" and Angie exchanged a commiserating (tight-lipped) smile.  Good-natured harassment of junior warriors appeared to be a common trait of both their cultures.

Olena smiled and nodded, then turned to Angie.  "Do it," she ordered.

"Yes, ma'am," Angie sighed, sat, and removed her boots and socks.

"Bendwater welcomes you," Purrgatah said, and grasped Olena's right elbow in the Carmow's traditional forearm-to-forearm greeting.  She then embraced Gwen.  "Healer Grrren," she said, "it is good to see you again."

"And you, Purrgatah," Gwen responded.

The other Carmow came forward and greeted the Humans.

"Come," Purrgatah said, "the clan-council awaits."

Olena handed her boots to Angie, then followed the Pathfinder.

"I told you you'd be carrying her boots," Gwen chuckled, and followed.

Angie smiled and heaved a theatrical sigh (as was expected), then followed her superior officers.  The short, tawny Carmow fell in beside her.

"I am Zeeka," she introduced herself.

"Angeronia Goodnight," Angie answered, then shrugged, indicating her armload of boots.

"Here," Zeeka giggled, relieved Angie of a pair of boots, then extended her right arm.

Angie shifted the remaining pair under her left arm, and shook arms with her new friend.

"Angurrronia-goonigh," Zeeka repeated.  "A very long name."

Angie smiled.  "Please, call me Angie."

"Ahngie."  Zeeka nodded.  "I will do so."

The journey to the town gates continued.
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 Chapter 4
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An Orion female was staring at a three-dimensional chart of surrounding space projected in the holo-tank before her targeting station.  She zoomed the display and adjusted the focus.  "The Starfleet warship is leaving the system, Prime Suzerain," she announced.  "The shuttle remains in orbit over the cat-planet."

Marta CyrelleA strikingly beautiful Orion woman lounged in the command chair.  "Very well," she acknowledged.

She was Marta Cyrelle, STAR-MANTA's captain and the leader of a pirate band loosely affiliated with the Orion Syndicate.  Her followers and rivals referred to her as the "Ruby Queen" thanks to her very public fondness for the mineral carborundum.  Polished rubies dangled on delicate chains or gleamed from the silver mountings of the earrings, bracelets, the chain belt adorning her firm, athletic body.  The red jewel also flashed from the green leather holster of the disruptor pistol on her left hip, and from the pin clipped through her pierced navel.

She was wearing a skimpy, mottled, silk bikini in shades of green somewhat darker than her verdurous skin.  Tight, green leather thigh-boots hugged her feet and legs.  Her revealing, some would say provocative attire was far from unusual for an Orion, and her entire band was similarly clothed and armed, albeit in a variety of colors and with minor variations in footwear.

Her ship, STAR-MANTA, had begun life as a Tellerite freighter, but had been extensively modified after her capture.  She was very fast for her size, thanks to the thrusters and warp nacelles of a Klingon Bird-of-Prey that now augmented her original engines.  Her phasers, plasma-cannons, and defensive shields had also been upgraded, of course, and her forward cargo modules had been replaced by docking clamps that held four "Thruster-shark" fighters close against the hull.  The two-person craft didn't have warp drives, but were heavily armed.  More importantly, they were fast and agile enough to stand a good chance of evading even military-grade targeting systems.  In addition, STAR-MANTA's remaining cargo modules had been reconfigured to transport slaves and other booty.

Two smaller ships were keeping station with STAR-MANTA: LADY-WASP, a former Gorn corvette, and YES-PLEASE, a former Benzite frigate.  Both were crewed by Marta's Orion pirates, of course, their original captains having been persuaded to transfer ownership at the business ends of disruptor-pistols.  Like Marta's flagship, they had also been modified with looted upgrades, and each carried a pair of Thruster-sharks.

"How soon 'til RUSTY NEEDLE joins us?" Marta inquired.

"Seventeen hours," one of the bridge crew answered.  "They claim to have fixed the radiation leak."

Marta nodded.  RUSTY NEEDLE was a small freighter of Lurian construction, and was the fourth element of the Ruby Queen's ragtag fleet.  She added two more Thruster-sharks to Marta's fighter wing.

"Those relay buoys we purchased from that Ferengi were worth every credit," Marta purred.  The buoys in question were designed to monitor the starship traffic around planets the Ferengi considered to be their exclusive trading partners, to keep watch for "smugglers" (competitors), and they were extremely stealthy.  They could power-down in less than a nanosecond at the slightest hint of a scanning beam, and were virtually undetectable, even to the latest Starfleet technology.  At the moment, they were allowing the pirates to remain out of ARTEMIS' detection range while providing Marta a tactical plot of Scatara and the neighboring systems.

"What do you think the Feddies are up to?" one of her crew asked.  "Reading the Universal Declaration of Sentient Rights and handing out free quastraad snacks to the kittens?"

"We'll wait 'til their starship is farther away and they've had a chance to settle in with the cats," Marta answered, "then go down and ask."

The entire bridge crew chuckled.

Marta crossed her booted legs and propped them atop the command chair's footrest.

Chel ch'EcletThe footrest in question was Chel ch'Eclet, renegade Andorian pirate-slaver and Marta's arch rival in the Gian Expanse—or rather, Marta's former arch rival.

Two days earlier, the "blue-skin" had been negotiating with the natives of a nearby system, Zeptar-III, for the purchase of a shipload of war-captives.  The Zeptarians were lizard-women, but were unlike the Gorn.  Their features were only slightly reptilian and their bodies lithe and very graceful.  Their scales were tiny and smooth, and caused their smooth skins to glisten like oil on water.  Most races found Zeptar maidens to be quite attractive; but they were all formidable fighters. 

The major Zeptarian polities were in a nearly constant state of war, and the incessant raids and counter-raids made for a reliable supply of prisoners of war, all of whom were exotic merchandise to Chel's buyers outside the Expanse.  Her plan had been to make a deal with the queen of one of the stronger cities.

Unfortunately for Chel, the Ruby Queen had already negotiated a deal with that same queen.  The Andorian was taken prisoner by the lizard-women, and before her crew could rescue their captain, STAR-MANTA and LADY-WASP warped into the system.  Facing a superior force, the Andorians had little choice but to abandon Chel to her fate and flee.

At the moment, Chel was naked, bound, and gagged.  Her blue flesh glistened with sweat in the humid heat of the Orion ship as she squirmed and tested the red-dyed, ice-spider silk rope and cord binding her body.

Marta Cyrelle was not an aficionado of Kahl'vin.  Meditation held no interest for her.  However, she was a ranked Mistress of Dach'vin, the Orion art of slave-binding.  Dach'vin was an ancient discipline Federation scholars compared to Kinbaku-bi, the celebration of "the beauty of tight binding" practiced by the Japanese of pre-warp Earth.  The aesthetic goal was similar, to restrain a subject (prisoner, slave, sex-partner) in a manner that was elegant, visually pleasing, and inescapable.

Also, like Kinbaku-bi and its variants, Dach'vin techniques were used to torment and punish, and such was the case for the way Marta had bound her footstool.

Chel was sitting on her rump and bent forward at the waist, with her legs crossed in a half-lotus.  Her ankles were bound to her thighs, and her arms were folded behind her back and bound in a tight, complex box-tie.  Her additional rope bonds consisted of three separate diamond-hitch harnesses.  The first encircled the Andorian's torso, the second bound her folded legs, and the third encompassed her entire body.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the captive pirate's bondage was the uniform, flesh-dimpling tightness of all of her bonds.  Every aspect of the prisoner's final condition had been crystal clear in Marta's mind as she applied the ropes, and while the initial bonds might have seemed overly tight here or loose and even sloppy there, they'd coalesced into a uniform, crushing web when Chel was forced into in her final pose and the various elements were hitched and cinched together.

All of this had been accomplished with red rope.

Thin red cord was next, and it was used to bind Chel's fingers, thumbs, and toes, and to lash a robotic vibrator against her crotch.  This particular model was sculpted of ruby-red, translucent plastic to resemble the Orion pest known as the "blood-mouse".  The rodent-like vermin in question would creep up on sleeping herd beasts, sink their fangs into the unfortunate animals' legs, and suck their blood.  This red, artificial mouse was not a bloodsucker.  It had other functions.

Finally, a wad of red silk had been stuffed into Chel's mouth and windings of thin, translucent red tape applied to cleave her mouth and keep it in place.  Then, tight bands of wider, matching tape were used to mummify her lower face.

"Prime Suzerain?" one of the crew asked.  "Why didn't you bind her wigglers?"

Marta smiled.  The "wigglers" in question were Chel's antennae.  Even though her footstool's gagged head was facing away, Marta could see the two slowly twisting, blue appendages poking through Chel's mop of white hair.  "It makes blue-skins nauseous if you mess with their feelers," Marta answered.  "I don't want anything to distract Captain c'Eclet from the bite of my ropes."

The questioner nodded, then quickly returned to her duties.  Like most of the crew, she had felt the "bite" of the Ruby Queen's ropes, either as punishment for a sloppily performed duty or simply because her captain wished to experiment.

A truly evil smile curled Marta's lips.  "And speaking of distractions..."  She tapped a button on the arm of the command chair and a small touchscreen rose from a slot and folded itself back to a convenient angle.  Marta's green fingers tapped the screen as she navigated her way through a menu.  Smiling down at her boots and the blue, rope-bound prisoner underneath, she tapped the screen a final time.

Chel flinched and moaned through her gag as the mouse against her crotch began to vibrate.  The plastic robot also extended its tongue and wiggled its head between the glistening blue folds of her labia and into her pussy.  Delicate tendrils of multicolored energy emanated from the mouse's body, bathing Chel's crotch and thighs in waves of teasing, rippling fire.  The tongue twisted and probed, sending more waves of the insidious radiance crawling across the interior of the bound captive's vagina.

Marta watched as Chel continued to writhe and struggle.  The Andorian beauty strained against the red ropes and cords.  The Ruby Queen knew the dancing energy wasn't painful or damaging, but the sensation was at once skin crawling torment and indescribable ecstasy.  Chel would cum, repeatedly, to the point of exhaustion—until she slumped forward in her bonds in the welcome, blessed oblivion of unconsciousness.

Marta's smile broadened, sending shivers up the spines of her watching crew (as well as through their moist pussies).  Marta Cyrelle's sexual pheromones permeated the atmosphere of her ship.  Her subordinates both dreaded and prayed for the summons that would send them to the captain's quarters, to feel the tight embrace of the Ruby Queen's ropes, and to use their tongues to give their captain a night of pleasure.

Marta shifted her gaze to the tactical display.  The icon representing ARTEMIS had disappeared from the far edge of the screen several minutes earlier, but the icon of the Federation shuttle remained in geosynchronous orbit over Scatara-IV.

The Ruby Queen began planning her attack—as well as the next Dach'vin ordeal she would visit upon her favorite Andorian—after Chel had a few hours to recuperate in one of the coffin-sized cells in the slave-pens.
 Chapter 4

Chapter 3
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Chapter 5