by Allen Kitchen
Text ©2006 Allen Kitchen; illustration ©2006 Cubist

Home -=- #5 -=- ANTHRO #5 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   “Mommy, my hands hurt,” the little girl wept as she held onto the knees of her mother sitting next to me.
   The golden-furred feline-hybrid woman (puma, by the look of her face and tail) started to pick up her young child. She winced at the pain from her own bandaged hands and stopped short of lifting the little gold and black child into her lap.
   “I’m sorry, cub,” she said sadly as she pulled her hands back into her own lap. “My hands hurt too.” She cast a worried glance at me and smiled weakly down at her little girl.
   I’d been ignoring the other refugees lounging around the airport—there were so many of them. The lucky ones were sitting in the scarce chairs; most were standing though. Some lacked limbs; some wore slings or other types of bandages. Every one of them had bandages on their hands, stained red and brown with dried blood.
   But I couldn’t help but notice the little girl and her mother beside me. It wasn’t just the girl’s painful whimpering or her attempts to get into her mother’s lap. Nor was it the saddened look on her mother’s face as she was unable to give her daughter some comfort. I looked down at my own pair of hands, bandaged in exactly the same way.
   I thought about how much pain there was when the humans tore my claws out—the sheer misery as they were ripped from my body without anesthetic or painkiller, not so much as an aspirin. There had been many terrors this past year, many things that no child should have to witness. But none of the things I could think of came close to imagining that innocent little girl being mutilated like the rest of us.
   I stood up and reached my own, bandaged hands underneath her armpits. She let out a little squeal of protest but was too weak or hurt to offer any real resistance. I turned around and set her down in my seat next to her mother. Mother and child wrapped their arms around one another and stared at me in some surprise.
   “A gentleman always gives his seat to a lady,” I said. Then I gave a tiny nod of the head to the child and a small disarming smile. “Even a little lady,” I added.
   The mother smiled at me and hugged her daughter tighter still. “God bless you, sir,” she said.
   A sadistic chuckle from behind me made me spin about. I was still dizzy from the blood loss and from the pain coursing through my body, but I knew better than to ignore the sound of that kind of voice behind me—a mean-spirited voice. A human voice!
   Coming toward me were three army men dressed in standard urban gray combat fatigues. Two Hispanic corporals carrying Hyperkinetic fletchette rifles were on the left and the right of a black-skinned officer. The captain had an ancient Colt 1945 semiautomatic pistol on his side and some kind of computer tablet on his left arm.
   “A black leopard giving up his seat for a puma,” the captain chuckled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you had feelings toward them. But animals like you aren’t capable of such feelings that I know of.”
   I scowled and looked him up and down, from his bald head to his spit-shined leather boots. “Didn’t anyone tell you that it’s dangerous to tease the animals?” I finally told him. “Especially out of their cages?”
   Captain Jayce (according to the nametag sewn onto his uniform) just snorted. “You think I need to show you some kind of courtesy?” He tapped at the tablet on his arm for a minute. His eyes furrowed as the display showed him something he didn’t like. “You don’t have any ID tags in you,” he said.
   I noticed both corporals tensing up at the captain’s discovery and gripping their weapons tighter. I crossed my arms in front of my chest, partly in protest and partly to make it clear that I wasn’t about to jump them.
   “I was a combat pilot in the Middle East war,” I explained. “We were prohibited from having the standard ID chips all the other human-animal hybrid soldiers got—the radio in it would ruin the stealth of the ground attack strike craft.”
   “Oh really? An A-22 pilot, eh?”
   “A-25, actually. And my name, since that’s what you are concerned about, is Thomas Hamilton. Warrant Officer Hamilton, 235th Air Assault Force.”
   Captain Jayce nodded and scrawled some figures across the display on his arm. “235th,” he echoed lowly. “It’s too bad you and the rest of your squadron killed General Malov and his staff a couple of years ago. You and all the rest of you genetically engineered mistakes wouldn’t be shipped off to your doom if you hadn’t attacked the hand that fed you.”
   I made sure to keep my arms where they were. The last thing I wanted was for the captain’s two goons to get nervous and start pumping clouds of Mach 4 tungsten darts into the waiting room. They made a mess out of any flesh they encountered, combatant or not.
   “It’s too bad that General Malov tried to massacre all the hybrid soldiers at Fort Negra,” I replied. “He drew first blood, not us.”
   Captain Jayce frowned, lowered his arm and then stepped forward, standing nose to nose with me. It was supposed to be intimidating. “None of you were supposed to be able to breed!” he snapped. We both turned automatically and looked at the little gold child on the seat behind me. She clutched at her mother’s arm in alarm at the sudden attention. “You were all supposed to be perfect little soldiers, coming out of the artificial wombs and fighting where it’s too dangerous for regular soldiers to go. This,” he said hooking a thumb at the frightened child, “wasn’t supposed to happen!”
   “But it did,” I grumbled. “So that bastard Malov used nerve gas on his own soldiers. And those of us who survived took measures to make certain he’d never kill another American soldier—human or hybrid—again.”
   I grinned, deliberately showing my teeth. Jayce’s eyes widened and he backed away. Like I said, his standing nose to nose with me was supposed to be intimidating. But it’s really tough to pull that off when the guy you’re going up against has sharp, pointy teeth. And I have lots of sharp, pointy teeth. He wasn’t the first asshole who’d tried to pull that old chestnut on me, but in Jayce’s favor, at least he didn’t wet himself as he backed off. That’s happened to me a couple of times.
   “Meaning you fragged a general officer in a war zone,” Jayce said. “Call it what it is.”
   “And I’d do it again.” I put my arms to my side and growled. Guards be damned, I wasn’t going to let myself be stared down by some little bald academy punk who clearly never saw combat! “But if you want to make something personal out of it, tell your trigger monkeys here to put down their guns and let’s go outside.” I smiled more broadly. “I’ll even take you all on, 3 on 1. But not in here, where innocent folks can get hurt and the decorations can get scratched.”
   Every sound in the airport stopped. I could almost feel several hundred people take a breath and hold it. Jayce stood his ground for a moment. I’ll give him credit for that. But he finally took another step back and looked at the display on his arm again.
   “What’s the point in that?” he calmly said. “All of you are going into exile. You and all the rest of you untrustworthy monsters are going to the Moon. You’re going to be really busy, mining and building and just trying to stay alive up where there won’t be any people to turn on.” He gave me a victorious smirk. “So why should I want to fight you, Thomas Hamilton? I’m going to do much worse than kill you—I am going to send you to a prison where you’ll never escape or threaten another human being. How does all that grab you?”
   I nodded sagely and crossed my arms again. “Coward,” I called him.
   “Now, now, Warrant Officer,” he condescendingly said to me. “It wouldn’t serve any purpose for us to kill you here and now. You have work to do up on the Moon, the lot of you. Sorry that we had to take your claws away,” he sneered as he pointed to the bandages on my hands. “But you are all a lot safer to work with without them. And you’ll be easier for the security folks upstairs to handle as well.”

   I’ve never been one for long plane rides. So you can imagine how happy I was with taking a lunar shuttle trip to the Moon. It was crowded with men and women of both canine and feline hybridization. There was even one Vulpine sitting in the very front, though I didn’t see much of him—he stayed put except while using the zero-gee toilet at the back, which was fine by me. I wasn’t on the shuttle to make friends or start up polite conversation.
   For that matter, neither was anyone else on the trip. Outcasts and exiles, each and every one of us, I thought as I looked the crowd over. 100 former soldiers and special operations experts, all crammed into a sardine can floating in space and heading for an airless, lifeless rock orbiting our home. The sobbing and cries of pain as people changed the bandages  on their hands. made the trip seem less a voyage to the Moon than a trip into Dante’s Inferno.
   I was quite surprised when we landed on the Moon. A one-way trip to lunar orbit took 4 days, from what I’d read—but we hadn’t even been in null gee for 12 hours before setting down in the less than usual gravity there. The main doorway opened with a hiss and my ears popped as the pressure equalized.
   A moment later, I saw a clouded leopard dressed in grungy coveralls step into the aisle. He carried a simple clipboard and pencil, in stark contrast to the high-tech gadgetry I’d seen half a day earlier on Captain Jayce (may he find an itchy spot in Hell.) The only thing the gray-and-black feline had in the way of technology was a battered, obsolete 2-way walkie talkie clipped to his web-belt.
   Alongside the spotty one, in walked a pair of buff lads wearing the latest in German Shepherd attire. That is to say, he was escorted in by two German Shepherd-shaped soldiers. They didn’t have any weapons on them that I could see, but there’s no mistaking the arrogant swagger of an armed soldier standing around a group of unarmed civilians. The only group that looks more predatory are politicians, and all of those were left back out on Earth—I guess there was a silver lining to this whole mess after all. Both doggies wore clean and pressed regular army issue pants, no shirts. And they also had white gloves on, which puzzled me.
   “May I have your attention, please!” the clouded leopard called aloud. “Everyone, please, quiet down? Thank you. My name is Leonid Anatalov, and I’m the assistant facilities manager here on Luna 3.
   “For those of you who don’t know, we’ve all been condemned to exile from the planet Earth.” He shrugged. “The humans made us to fight their damned wars for them because it was too dangerous for them to do it themselves. And once they got scared of us as well, they shipped us out here to work for them.
   “But I digress. Luna 3 is a mining and research center. Luna 2 is to the north of us, and Luna 1 is down at the ice farms in the craters on the southern pole.
   “Now I know this has been a trying time for all of you. I would like to tell you that we’ll make every effort to make you comfortable, but I can’t. Up here, there’s very little in the way of comfort for any of us. We are currently in a construction mode, expanding all our facilities so we can accommodate all 40,000 or so hybrids that are destined to come here. The work is hard, nasty, and sometimes dangerous. But if we all pull together and work as a team like we had to do in the wars, then we will all get through this. We’ve been through worse, right?” The 100 beings in their seats murmured their agreement.
   “Then relax and stay in your seats until your names are called. You will then leave the ship one at a time and report to your work and dorm sections.” He glanced at his clipboard. “Thomas Hamilton?” he called out. “Where are you?”
   I must have looked quite surprised when he called my name first. It didn’t take the guards but a couple of seconds to spot my shocked face and walk down the aisle to fetch me.
   “You will come with us,” the bigger of the two said as he undid my seat restraints. I was going to get up myself, but he pulled me by my shirt and half lifted, half drug me out of the seat and into the aisle. It was about that time I realized that 1/6 regular gravity would allow for some surprising abilities and feats of strength.
   That’s also when I felt something jab through the cotton gloves into my back. I turned my head to whisper behind me: “I thought everyone had their claws taken out.”
   The German Shepherd gave a wicked chuckle that made the fur on my neck stand up. “Only trusted security forces still have them,” he said. “We make sure nobody gets out of line or causes any trouble, so the humans let us keep our claws.” He jabbed them harder into my back to make me move faster. “But don’t worry, Kitty-cat,” he sneered. “I’m sure we aren’t going to have any trouble with you. You’ll never even know we still have ours or miss your own, you’ll see.”
   I arrived at the end of the aisle with my rather gruff escort. I looked the leopard square in the eyes, my green slits locking onto his. I don’t know what I was expecting to see in that face. Rage, perhaps. There was plenty to be enraged about. Disgust maybe, since his crew had to absorb a fresh load of green troops whether he wanted them or not.
   Instead, what met my eyes was a look of exhaustion with a hint of sadness behind it. “You are Thomas Hamilton?” he asked me politely. “The pilot?”
   I nodded.
   “Good. We need pilots.” He handed his clipboard to the smaller guard and turned to him. “See to it that the rest are processed correctly and get them into their dorm areas,” he directed. “I want this ship refueled and loaded with cargo for a return trip within 8 hours. And if the ship commander bitches any about flight regulations and needing 12 hours of rest, bite him!” The guard nodded and the clouded leopard turned to me once again. “This way Mr. Hamilton, if you would please.” Leonid gestured out the door.
   I gave him a nervous glance but went where he directed me. I ended up standing on a gantry that was butted up against the body of the shuttle. The seals must not have been perfect because I could hear the air hissing and sputtering out into vacuum from the interface as I stepped onto the walkway. Leonid stepped out right behind me.
   “We’re really short on pilots right now,” he announced as he fell into step right behind me. We both walked straight ahead into the aluminum cylinder. The only illumination was from 3 dull red lamps along the wall. “You say you flew A-25s in the war?”
   I nodded again.
   “And did you have anything to do with General Malov’s death at the tail end of the war?”
   “If he didn’t want to end up a casualty, he shouldn’t have murdered so many of his own soldiers,” I spat.
   Leonid didn’t look impressed. “You didn’t answer my question,” he noted. “That’s fine; it’s not important. But if you have skill enough to fly one of those fat, ugly pieces of crap…”
   “Careful how you talk about my planes, now,” I cautioned him.
   His ears sagged. “Sorry. If you have skill enough to fly one of those svelte, gorgeous pieces of crap…” He turned to look at me with a weak grin. “Better?” he inquired.
   “Better,” I said with a thumbs up.
   “Good. Since you already know the basics about low-level flight and how to properly gauge distances, we have a job for you. We’ll instruct you on the particular points that you don’t know. And yes, there will be lots of those.”
   I paused as we reached the closed pressure door at the end of the hall. “Why do you need new pilots?” I asked. “I didn’t hear any advertisements for an airshow around Mare Tranquilitis or anything.”
   Leonid tapped a code into the white, glowing 10 key pad in the door. “You’ll see,” he said matter-of-factly. “We also need someone to assist our chief engineer and scientist, Dr. Anatalov, with fixing some problems with the shuttles so we don’t lose any more crewmen or craft.” He frowned at me as the door slid aside with a hiss. “And yes, we are related.” He stepped inside the station.
   Related? I kept asking myself. How can that be? How can any two creatures born in an artificial womb be related? That would be one of the first questions I’d ask the doc when I met him, I promised myself.

   Confined areas? I like ’em just fine. Hell, I’ve been an assault aircraft pilot and had to create temporary quarters in the Middle Eastern deserts out of a piano crate and an old parachute. And while the piano crate was smaller (though I never did learn what they shipped in it—I couldn’t see why anyone would need a piano out where I was), at least it wasn’t also home to hundreds of others.
   The base was built as a set of interlocking cylinders about 150 feet long and 30 feet or so in diameter. They connected together in an economy-sized jigsaw puzzle, with the ends of the cylinders connecting into the wall of the next one, the whole thing laid out at 90-degree angles. I could see the logic of the layout; no single air leak in one cylinder could not completely isolate anyone—there were at least 2 ways out of any place, no matter what.
   The cylinders had false flooring to give a flat surface to walk on. Aluminum sheet over my head made a second floor, for the space overhead. This particular cylinder had several desks and monitors scattered about. Presumably it was the flight ops control room; I’ve seen command posts often enough to recognize one on sight. But this was the first control room of any sort I’ve encountered that looked like its staff lived in it.
   “What’s with the cots and improvised curtains?” I asked Leonid as we walked past the console operators, who were too busy monitoring their duties to pay any attention to me or to the myriad camping supplies and scavenged living quarters scattered about. “You mean to tell me that these folks live and work here at the same time?”
   Leonid nodded. “We are short on space, as you might guess,” he explained. “A small manufacturing colony suddenly gets thousands of refugees thrown on its doorstep—things are crowded.”
   “Is that all?”
   “No. We are also short on oxygen, food, water, medicine, hydroponics space to generate food and air…”
   I groaned. “Hydroponics? Does that mean I have to become a vegetarian?” That would be a real problem, since being part-feline meant I was still pretty set to eat meat.
   “Yes and no,” Leonid said. “We raise rabbits as well. Combined with soy and a bit of seasoning, you’ll never know that it was 84% vegetable matter.”
   “I’ll have to take your word for it.” My stomach growled, almost in protest to the idea of having to eat soyburgers again.
   “Food isn’t the half of it, though. Since an average person consumes 53 liters of oxygen an hour, and I have some 6000 people living in these tight, little quarters, life support is a high priority for us all. Water and oxygen are constantly in short supply.”
   “Ah,” I said. “What about metals and power? You don’t seem to be short on those.”
   Leonid opened the oval hatch at the far end of the chamber. “Power comes from the sun and from our nuclear furnaces,” he explained. “Our oxygen systems take sunlight from mirrors and distribute it evenly across shelves covered with dense plantlife. This keeps the number of windows to a minimum.”
   I thought for a moment. “Because they mess with structural integrity.”
   “Yes,” he said, apparently surprised that I had a brain. “Any hole in a cylinder wall is a potential problem.”
   I stepped through the hatch and looked around; we were in an airlock. Both of us walked to the opposite door. “And the rest of the colony?” I asked. “How does it survive meteor strikes?”
   “One, most of the colony is underground. The lunar soil also keeps radiation to a minimum. And two, the cylinders are surrounded by shred.”
   I blinked, mulling the word over and over in my head. I’m familiar with some terminology of the aerospace world. Heck, you can’t fly without learning at least a couple of things. But that was a word I’d never heard of. “What is…” I began.
   Leonid opened the door impatiently and cut me off. “Shred is a layered set of tiles outside the cylinder walls,” he explained, holding the door open and expecting me to pass through. “The outermost level is silicon carbide, the hardest material we can manufacture. That vaporizes any particle that strikes, and the layers of graphite and aerogel that follow absorb the kinetic energy of the particles that remain while also insulating the colony from the cold of space.” He gestured his head toward the door. “Do you mind?” he urged. “I do have other things to do.”
   I stepped through the door and into another world. This place wasn’t the lunar colonies as I had been led to believe they were; this was a camp full of refugees, people torn from their lives so fast that most of them barely had more than the clothes on their backs. Canines, Felines, Vulpines, all huddled on improvised cots along every free space of the cylinder.
   They were too tired and worn out to even sob anymore. They were covered in a fine, gray dust. I wrinkled my nose. What didn’t stink of unwashed sweat and urine, reeked of mold and some stench I’ve never encountered before. The door clanged shut behind me and Leonid brushed past me to lead the way again.
   Most of these people wasted their time drowsing life away on their cots. A couple of more-clever folks played a game of cards close to one of the light clusters. I could see as I passed that the cards were improvised bits of stamped metal with the card symbols upon them. I finally realized that they’d made a deck of cards out of military dogtags!
   Row after row, I passed person after person. Some were missing arms or hands, some were now blind and wearing rags over their eyes. But none of them, not a soul bothered to look up at me as I passed. It was like walking past the living dead.
   “So sad,” I muttered. “Look at these folks.”
   “I don’t have to,” Leonid replied. “I’ve been up here building this base together with my sister for 6 years now.” He looked over his shoulder at me. “Every one of these people is a warrior for the United States Alternative Forces. Every one is a soldier or an airman in some capacity or another. After all, the government needed people to fight, and you can’t expect them to send their own human sons and daughters into harm’s way—it’s too dangerous!
   “So they created us, the newest slave class in the long, bloody book that is human history. The humans created us to be the perfect fighting machines. Smart, clever, fearless, dangerous to the other side. Everything a general could want in a soldier.”
   Leonid stopped and turned around. He angrily stabbed a clawless finger at my chest. “Then some assholes went and blew away a general!” he accused. “Blew away someone that the money men who really run things had groomed to be the next president, fresh from victory in the middle east!”
   I narrowed my eyes at him. “That’s not how I remember it at all, Leonid. As I recall, that butcher, Malov, wasn’t content with killing the fighters and civilians on the other side. He decided that he didn’t like the unexpected fact that we could breed on our own rather than have to be created in a factory like so many jeep parts. So he took it upon himself to kill all the hybrid soldiers himself. Every man, woman, and especially child.
   “He gassed our base! Our own fighters came up from the south and did it. We didn’t even know what was happening at first. If we weren’t always on guard for a chemical attack, things would have been a lot worse. As it was we lost 250 people that day. Good people. Honest and dedicated soldiers, some of whom were personal friends of mine.
   “And what did they get for their dedication to their leaders and loyalty?” I spread my arms wide to everyone in the module. “What did we all get? Either killed on the spot by some lunatic, or sent to our deaths on some airless rock a quarter-million miles from home? That’s what we get for risking our lives for our country—treatment worse than people give their damned pets!”
   Leonid withdrew his hand slowly. But his angry face and blazing eyes made it clear that he didn’t buy the argument.
   “So one monster goes and kills a few hundred of his own soldiers, and you and your buddies think that makes it okay for you to go and do the same thing?” He spat at my feet. “Let me tell you something, Thomas. This was supposed to be a research facility, plain and simple. None of the Moon colonies was set up to be a refugee camp. We were put here to assemble space vehicles, since the metals are abundant and it takes less energy to leave the Moon than it does the Earth.
   “And now, because of you bastards and your need for revenge, I’m having to build shuttlecraft and big cylinders to house all the people being exiled from Earth! Instead of playing Captain Kirk, I’m having to play babysitter, and all because a few dumb sons of bitches figured that they could lick the entire human race with their tails tied to their backs.”
   I didn’t get angry, though deep down I could feel the blood start to boil. He wasn’t there, I reasoned. There’s no way he could understand how it felt, then and there… Then again, there was no way I could understand what he and everyone else who had been building up here for years had gone through either.
   “When someone is trying to kill you,” I calmly explained, “every creature has the God-given right to defend itself. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. General Malov was the lowest form of life—he betrayed and murdered his own soldiers! If we’d left him alone, he’d face a court martial for his betrayal. Of course you and I wouldn’t be alive to see it, as we’d all be dead if Malov’s notions spread outside of his little sphere of influence. Which they undoubtedly did, considering how all these folks ended up.
   “No, it isn’t fair what happened to you. But it wasn’t fair what happened to us, either. All of this came about because of one asshole, and no, that asshole wasn’t me.” I leaned closer, putting my nose against his. It’s far more intimidating when I do it. “So don’t you stand there and tell me that all this shit is anyone’s fault but Malov’s. You got me? You dare to suggest that anyone deserves to be condemned to this vacuum-sealed sardine-like life, and I’ll have your ears on a necklace. Understand?”
   Leonid stood his ground and crossed his arms, brushing them against my chest as he did so. “I can see that you and I aren’t going to get along at all,” he growled. “Fine by me. I’m an engineer and a scientist, not a soldier. But I will tell you this.” He whispered. “If you threaten me or anyone I know ever again, I’ll tell the police dogs to tear your throat out and toss you into the nearest airlock. If I’m in a good mood that day, I’ll let the air out all at once so you won’t suffer. If I’m feeling sadistic, I’ll do it slowly, so that your blood boils in your veins and you scream in agony for the rest of your miserable life. Do you understand me?”
   I stood still for a second, but only for a second. Then I backed away, splaying my ears in defeat. Leonid may have been smaller than me and untrained, but this was his home territory, and he had the command of God knew how many soldiers. Hybrid soldiers, our own kind. This was his world and I was just a new arrival within it. So long as I had a job to do and didn’t make too many waves, he would tolerate me. But the instant I became more trouble than I was worth, his cold logic would have no difficulty at all in ordering my removal from his equations.
   “Yes sir,” I slowly told him in formal tone.
   He snorted. “My name is Leonid,” he snapped. “Call me sir again, and you’ll be cleaning the communal latrines with your tongue for a week. Trust me, you’d prefer the air lock. Now if you are finished playing your macho games with me, let’s get a move on. Tanya is waiting for us.”

   “Ah, the man of the hour!” Tanya excitedly met Leonid and me at the door to her work center. Unlike the rest of the complex which was buried under lunar soil, dimly lit and crammed full of exiles, Tanya’s hanger was spacious, well-lit and had next to nobody within it. The hanger was much larger than the other cylinders, built so that the farthest end could be removed and the spacecraft that was being built within could be taken outside.
   Tanya herself was quite different than the rest of the people in the base. Where they looked like they’d come straight from a war zone, Tanya looked as if she’d just stepped out of a college campus. She had a pad of paper in one hand and a pencil tucked behind her right, fluffy ear. She wore a spotless white lab coat, which stood out in stark contrast against the gray-and-black-spotted fur that was still visible on her arms.
   And she was smiling. In spite of everything happening around her, she was smiling!
   “You’ve met my brother, I see,” she said pleasantly. “I hope you didn’t let him scare the fuzz off of you—it really isn’t as bad as he makes it seem.”
   Leonid gave a frustrated huff and closed the hatch behind him with a metallic clang. “Mr. Hamilton, my sister, Tanya Anatalov,” he said with an equally metallic voice. “She’s in charge of all spaceflight projects on the Moon, and she has the final say on who gets to be a pilot.”
   Tanya waved her hand dismissively and walked over to her brother. “I swear, Leonid, it’s sometimes hard to believe that we are related,” she cooed as she took his clipboard from him. “If your ass was any tighter, we could tighten pressure fittings with it. Go away and find someone else to scare; I need to ask Mr. Hamilton here a few questions and give him the nickel tour.”
   Leonid put a clawless hand on my shoulder. I met his cold eyes and clearly saw the warning implied within. “As you wish, sister dear,” he growled. “But I’m going to check up on you in a short while.” He squeezed my shoulder tighter, enough to make me wince. The leopard might not have claws, but he had the kind of grip that only manual labor can create. Plus, he knew a pressure point or two. I grunted in the sudden flood of pain, which vanished just as quickly. I put my hand on my shoulder and watched in bewilderment as he opened the hatch and left, slamming it noisily behind him.
   “Does he strike you as someone who found half a worm in the apple he was eating?” Tanya said with a little chuckle and walked around me towards her desk. She stroked my free arm with her tail as she passed, beckoning me to follow her. Dutifully I did so. She walked around an old metal cabinet that looked like it had been made in the war—World War One, that is—and sat down behind it. I automatically took the chair on the opposite side of the desk, tucked my tail between the uprights and sat down.
   “How is it possible for you two to be brother and sister?” I asked.
   “A simple little miscalculation at the birthing plant—they created two of us in one artificial womb. And since we were both designed for high IQ and were badly needed for the war effort, they brought us to term just like everyone else. So he and I are brother and sister, even if we probably don’t have anything in common genetically.” She looked at a computer tablet on her desk and drew a figure on its display with a fingertip.
   I nodded. “I was wondering about that,” I said.
   She ignored my words. “I see by your records that you flew air assault,” she said. “I’ve found that air assault pilots make the best shuttle pilots.”
   My jaw hung open for a second. She didn’t just say what I think she just said..! “You… you mean you want me to fly spaceships?” I gasped.
   “What else would we want you to fly? There’s no air out there for a plane, you know.”
   “You want to turn me into a flea-dipping astronaut?” I pulled my jaw closed again, still not quite believing what I was hearing. I was exiled to this rock and the sky, and suddenly I was going to become an astronaut? A space hero?
   “A bus driver is more like it,” she replied, just a hint of disappointment in her voice. She closed the file and looked out a small window behind her, out into the assembly bay. “You see, when the humans created the lunar colonies, they needed a better launch vehicle to reach it. You noticed that the flight was only 12 hours, didn’t you?”
   I nodded. “Yes, I was wondering how that was possible, too.”
   “It’s possible by using a little trick of quantum mechanics,” she said. She turned to face me again. “How much do you know about how metals were created?”
   I shrugged. “Same as everyone else, I guess. The raw ores are melted and heavier metals sink to the bottom…”
   “No,” she interrupted. “That’s how metals are forged. But not how they were created to begin with. You see, when you fuse hydrogen together to form helium, the resulting matter weighs a little bit less than the two hydrogens that made it up. The loss of mass is released as energy. And when you fuse heliums together, you again release energy, although less of it.
   “Once you start fusing anything with atomic number 27 or greater, however, it doesn’t release energy; it absorbs it. When a star reaches this stage it no longer has any thermal energy to keep it together. All its mass implodes and then explodes outwards in a great big nova. And the heavier particles in the universe, from iron up, are created in that cataclysm.
   “So you see, you, me, and everything we can touch is the bloody remains of a dead star, gone some 5 or 6 billion years now. But there is plenty of energy locked away deep inside the core of the nucleus. All we have to do is weaken the strong nuclear force and we split ordinary metals just like we split heavy atoms. But without all that nasty radioactive debris.”
   My jaw opened again. “Fission without radiation?” I said, feeling very stupid at the moment. I had never heard of such a thing before.
   “Kind of. We call it light fission,” she went on. “We take a fine nickel wire and put it into the field surrounded by a stream of liquid nitrogen as our working fluid. The nickel atoms break in two, releasing over a trillion joules of energy for every mole of nickel used. And nickel is quite a dense metal; you get lots of moles in a single spool of it.”
   “Well, yeah, I guess!” Things were happening so fast. One moment I was on the Earth and the next I’m on the Moon. And then I’m told that I flew up here on a nuclear powered engine? “But what about exhausts and byproducts?” I asked. “It has to exhaust something!”
   “Nickel splits evenly in two to create silicon,” she answered me. “With a tiny amount of phosphorus and aluminum as side products. And what little silicon also splits in two becomes nothing but nitrogen. But the nitrogen pumped into the reaction chamber becomes so very hot that it forms a plasma, and a fast moving plasma at that. This jet of silicon and nitrogen superhot gas is what drives our spacecraft around. The exhausts are harmless; in fact, you’ll step on tons of it anytime you go to the beach. Sand is nothing but silicon dioxide—the world is covered in it. But it only takes less than a ton of nitrogen and nickel to fully fuel a spacecraft.”
   “Then… then we have the power to reach the outer planets and more!” I cried out.
   “Eventually, yes.” Tanya looked sad for the first time. I suddenly hated myself, hated that anything I did or said made her sweet face frown like that. “We were originally put here to develop the engine, build the ships and mine for the metals and other materials the base would need. But with all the extra mouths to feed and work to be done…” She looked outside into her hanger once more and sighed heavily. “Now it’s all we can do to build the machines and use them to ferry people and supplies up while sending back rare metals and impossible light-heavy alloys we make in freefall while orbiting the Moon.”
   She turned to look at me. I swear her eyes looked as if they were seeing straight through my body and into my very soul. “But the one thing we can’t manufacture, for all our technology and power, is skilled pilots. We can try to teach and train, but there’s no substitute for experience. And while flying a shuttle is different than a plane, it’s still flying and the skills necessary are mostly the same.”
   I leaned back against a stained metal wall and stared at her in amazement. “You… are planning to make me an astronaut?” I managed to stammer out.
   “You are already an astronaut,” she sighed. “Look around you. Despite the darkness and dirt, this isn’t Detroit, you know. Thousands of hybrid soldiers have been sent here before you in the past year, and thousands more will come after you.” She turned and walked back to her desk. “Compare that to the 13 humans who have come here in the last half century, if you want to.”
   I blinked and stood up straight. “Ms. Anatalov,” I began.
   “Call me Tanya,” she interrupted.
   “Tanya, I may not be a history expert, but I do remember that there were only 12 astronauts sent to the Moon, not 13.”
   “Is this the new pilot you said you wanted for your special project?” another voice said behind me.
   I jumped at the unexpected voice and backed up to the wall reflexively. Coming into the room through the only door at the end of the brown cylinder were two canine soldiers wearing light tactical armor and ear-communicators. German Shepherds, both of them, just like back at the landing pad. The pair looked the room over as they came in, as if expecting trouble. They strutted about like they owned the place.
   Walking between the two guards was a bald headed human. He wore a black eye-patch over his right eye and some scars were still visible on his right cheek. He was so small that he didn’t need to duck as he came through the hatchway. His guards towered over him.
   He wore a gray jumpsuit with a single patch on his left shoulder. A black utility belt carrying radios and portable computer links was the only other adornment.
   “Governor Moriarty,” Tanya formally greeted the newcomer without a smile. “To what do I owe this unexpected visit?”
   Moriarty snorted derisively and turned to stare at me with his one good eye. He came closer, giving me a good look at his scarred face. I had to admit, between the eyepatch and the fact that he looked like he shaved with a cheese grater, he was quite an imposing figure. I instinctively cringed back from him.
   “I always meet with pilots when they come into my facility,” he haughtily replied. “I feel that it’s important that they know their place in our little world away from the world.” He glanced down at my bandaged hands. “They are healing well, I trust?”
   I held my hands up so he could see. “Considering the surgery was hardly consensual, I’m doing all right,” I grumbled.
   “Well, we are in very tight quarters here, as you no doubt have seen. We can’t have everyone walking around with claws; you brutes would kill each other.” He gestured to his guards. Both security canines walked confidently so that they were on both sides of me. Then they grabbed both my arms and pushed me against the wall.
   I snarled and tried to fight them off. I bared my teeth and snapped at one of them. They likewise bared their fangs and growled, leaning forward to trap me against the wall. I couldn’t reach either of them with my teeth and let’s face it, I’m a pilot—I’m light and agile rather than strong. I could hold my own against one of these bulky monsters in a hand to hand fight, but not two of them.
   “I wouldn’t suggest kicking or biting,” Moriarty told me. He slowly walked towards me, taking off his black leather gloves as he eased closer. “As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, only my loyal security forces have claws, which are the only weapons of any sort on this station. Piss any of them off and they’ll gut you like a fish and throw your carcass out the airlock to be flash-desiccated in the vacuum of space.”
   “Governor Moriarty! Stop it!” Tanya cried.
   “Why, I’m just introducing myself to my new pilot, here, Doctor Anatalov,” he chuckled. “You, Mr. Hamilton, may call me sir whenever you meet me. You will fly the translunar shuttles down with rare metals and special machines that you traitors manufacture here. You will return with more exiles, and life support supplies as needed.
   “And in addition to your regular duties, Miss Anatalov is working on a special project and needs a pilot to be at her beck and call.” He grinned wickedly. “It’s a somewhat risky project. The chances are pretty good that you’ll get blown up on one of her little test flights.” I turned to look at Tanya. The fur on the back of her neck was puffed out and her ears were flat against her head. “She’s a genius, but she’s far from perfect,” the man continued.
   “All of which brings me to the reason I came all this way, Mr. Hamilton; to welcome you to my little abode.” He lunged forward faster than I could see, and considering I’m a feline, that’s fast. His fist plunged hard into my solar plexus and I automatically doubled over, coughing. The two dogs dropped my arms and let me fall to the floor. I clutched my stomach and tried not to retch. I slowly looked up at the governor’s face.
   Moriarty was smiling, putting his gloves back on. “Welcome to the Moon,” he sourly said as he turned towards the hatchway with both guards flanking him once more.
   I coughed and lay down on the textured aluminum floor. Its cold pierced my thin black fur. I coughed again and watched as the blood-splattered spittle flew much further than I would have expected. The lower gravity, I reminded myself. One of a number of differences I’ll have to get used to.
   Tanya knelt next to me and pulled me up to a sitting position. She looked worriedly at me, taking my pulse at the neck. “That bastard,” she complained as she reached into a left chest pocket and pulled out a scrap of cloth. “Only one slot up here to fly the flag of humanity, and they had to send him.”
   I coughed again, catching the flotsam in the cloth that was held to my muzzle. “I guess that guy’s the 13th human on the Moon, as you were saying,” I said in a ragged voice.
   Tanya nodded while still watching my face intently. “Yes. He’s the governor of all the lunar bases and represents all of humankind out here.”
   “Oh, he’s a perfect representative of the species all right; cowardly and more than willing to let others take the risks for him while he himself enjoys the profits of the effort.”
   Tanya looked a little surprised as she dabbed at my muzzle. “Don’t think that all human beings are like him,” she pointed out in a quiet voice.
   I winced. “Couldn’t prove it by me,” I coughed. Tanya shrugged and helped me up. I let out a groan and forced myself to my feet.
   “Do you need to go to medical?” she asked me. She sounded more than a little worried.
   I shook my head. “Not for a mere punch in the stomach, no,” I told her. I gave her a weak smile.
   She returned it with a smile of her own. The pain in my gut almost melted away in the brightness and joy of her smile. “Are you sure?” she said softly. “I can’t have the pilot for my special project dying his first day here, you know.”
   “Trust me, lady. I’ve had a lot worse than a sock in the belly.” I walked uncertainly back into middle of the cylinder. “But would this be a bad time to ask you about this special project?”
   She let out a small chuckle. “Sorry, Buck Rogers. But you’re going to have to master the shuttles first before you get to move on to other things. Crawl before you run, Thomas.”
   “I’ll settle for walking after the crawling today, if that’s all right with you. But your point is taken—one step at a time.”
   She nodded. “Yes,” she said softly. “Let’s take things one step at a time.”

   “What do you mean, my entry was too steep!?” I roared over the intercom. I was uncomfortably ensconced in a modified red pressure suit with an oversized acrylic helmet over my head. The half-sphere of plastic was to accommodate my oversized muzzle; I’d asked why such a large sphere was necessary when a simple oval would do. After trying on the oval prototype and seeing for myself how distorted my vision became, I didn’t complain about it again. Flying a spacecraft turned out to require considerable reliance on instruments and the ability to see them.
   The simulator in which I was sitting was an exact replica of a lunar shuttle cockpit. All the instruments were the same as the ones on a real vehicle, including the one I currently pointed to. “Do you see the velocity curve on monitor 4? I burned extra fuel to decelerate to the correct speed.”
   “But check your entry angle chart,” the feminine voice over the speakers clipped to my ears replied. Dutifully I tapped at the icon on the top of the plasma display to bring up the requested data. It showed a set of green, yellow and red lines marking the maximum allowable velocity versus height. And racing across them was the white line that showed the position and speed of my vehicle. It went across the red line because it started at the yellow one.
   “Crap. Traveling faster en route meant that I arrived early and came in steeper,” I sighed.
   “Right. And coming in at a steeper angle not only caused you to generate too much heat, but it also placed too great a stress load on the vehicle’s wings—they snapped off at around 200k feet or so.”
   “I’m never going to get the hang of this,” I complained as I flipped my visor up and away from my face. “So far, I’ve lost 15 ships in various reentry mishaps and fuel consumption errors.”
   Tanya laughed out loud at me through the intercom. For some reason, it didn’t bother me at all. “There’s only so much fuel on any vehicle, Thomas. We can generate tremendous energies with the light fission reactors. But heat doesn’t move things; expanding gasses do that. And there’s only so much liquid nitrogen on board. Use that all up by accelerating and decelerating harder in order to make your trip quicker, and you’ll become a spectacular, if short-lived, shooting star when you hit the atmosphere.”
   “Yeah, I know.” I was really starting to dislike this whole spaceflight thing. I didn’t know why they bothered giving the job to a pilot like me—so far, everything I’ve learned was completely different than flying. It was totally alien. Space piloting was to air piloting what running a nuclear power plant was to running a neighborhood bar.
   “Let’s try it again, Thomas,” Tanya’s voice chimed through the intercom. “And this time, remember that if you exceed your preplanned speed, you’ll arrive early and that means a sharper entry angle. Okay? Can you at least try to master the preplanned flight before learning how to hot dog it?”
   “Right. And I’ll try not to make any wise cracks about the term ‘entry angle’ while I’m at it.”
   There was an uncomfortable moment of silence on the intercom. I was just beginning to wonder if I’d offended her when I heard her stifle a laugh. “You’ll have to buy me dinner before you get to make jokes like that, fly boy,” she teased.
   I felt my ears perk up alertly. “Oh really?” I said quickly. “How about we grab some grub after I get out of this simulator?”
   “I’m not fond of grubs,” she pointed out. “And we can talk about dinner after you get back from your first shuttle trip to the Earth. It’s coming up in just 2 weeks, so you’d better get your mind back on the job or you aren’t going to make it back here to talk about anything.”
   “All these damned preplanned directions, accelerations and decelerations,” I growled as I reset all the switches to the proper configuration for launch from the lunar surface near Luna3. The velocity curve display and orientation guide jumped back to the way they would look while sitting and waiting for the lunar ascent. “This isn’t piloting; it’s Calculus class without the benefit of a textbook!”
   “Poor baby,” Tanya crooned. “Okay, I need to get some work done on the big super-secret project while you practice. So I’m going to leave my brother in charge of the simulator for a while. You take care and try not to incinerate yourself too often, okay?”
   “Huh? What?” I called for her through the intercom. “Tanya, are you there?”
   “She has more important things to do than to wipe your chin, Thomas,” Leonid replied instead. Even through the static of the intercom, the dislike in his voice came through like a wave of cold air. “Besides, you’re delusional.”
   I straightened my earpiece. “What makes you say that?” I asked.
   “Asking her out to dinner? You must be nuts.”
   I took a breath. “I’ll admit that there’s not much room or decent food to offer up here on the Moon,” I said.
   “Or intelligent conversation, if she’s with you,” came the gruff response.
   I frowned “Hey now, you can call me a lot of things. Forward, perhaps, maybe even aggressive. It comes with the pilot wings, you know. But one thing you can’t call me is stupid.”
   I heard Leonid let out a wicked chortle. “How smart can you be, when you’re hitting on the sister of the guy who’s currently in control of your flight simulator?” he asked.
   Oh, shit. I swallowed nervously as I realized my predicament, and flipped the visor on my helmet down again.
   “Okay, let’s get to work,” Leonid announced. “In this simulation, you’ll be dealing with a runaway reactor combined with the loss of your liquid nitrogen tanks in the upper aft section. This will create very strong inertial forces on you and the ship.” He chuckled again; I suddenly realized that it was far less pleasant than when Tanya did it. “I hope you took your motion sickness pills earlier, because pilots are required to clean up their own suits.”
   I was about to mention that the dispensary was all out of motion sickness pills, but the simulator began vibrating around me and I had to concentrate on the displays and controls in front of me.

   By the time I landed my shuttle on the runway in Florida, the entire flight was almost routine. Countless practice sessions and fiery deaths had beaten the barnstorming urge out of me. I had learned to give up trying to fly the shuttle by instinct and instead trusted the charts and displays surrounding me. It was less like flying and more like autocross driving, trying to keep the vehicle moving at the right speed and in the right place at the right time. Once I figured that out, things worked out much better.
   My stepping through the thick, circular hatchway and outside for the first time in months was proof of my new competence.
   I took a deep breath. The morning air was heavy with moisture and scents of every sort. Clean scents, not like the ever-present stink of thousands of folks crammed into tin cans on the Moon where water is a precious commodity and everyone gets a bath once a month whether they need it or not. I breathed deeply and closed my eyes, holding onto the rails in the strangely strong gravity—odd, how once-familiar things become distant and alien when they aren’t around all the time. Coming back from the Moon, I now felt like I weighed a ton.
   “Don’t get too comfortable, pussy cat.” I opened my eyes again and saw three army security guards stepping up the gantry toward me, shouldering their way past the white-suited ground crews that were offloading boxes and bags of material brought down from the Moon. I recognized the one in the lead and I grinned at him.
   “Well, well, if it isn’t Captain Jayce,” I said over the hum of the trucks surrounding my ship. “Bet you never expected to see me again, did you?”
   Jayce stopped in his tracks and looked up at me in surprise. “Jesus Christ, it’s you again!” he announced. “Can’t say as I’m glad to see you here, even if you did bring a load of osmium and raw beryllium-tungsten alloy down. I was just telling the brothers here how much we were saving on Tender Vittles now that the biggest pussy in town was gone.”
   The guards flanking him were carrying the same Hyperkinetic fletchette rifles as before, although they weren’t the same enlisted men as before. This time Jayce’s fellow soldiers were both black and wore the rank of Sergeant on their collars. They smirked at their leader’s comment and the group resumed its climb. I kept my grin up and sang a little to them as they continued up the ramp.
   “Yeah, but look how big the rats are getting nowdays. Why, I’ve heard stories that one of them got promoted all the way to captain!”
   The guards chuckled aloud, though Jayce didn’t.
   “Still got that smart mouth, I see,” he snorted. “One of these days someone’s gonna shut it for you.”
   “Maybe.” I leaned nonchalantly against the railing and studied the clouds beyond the tail of my ship. “But it won’t be now, and it sure as hell won’t be you doing the honors.” I turned and stuck my tongue out at him, making him turn crimson on top of his black skin. “So don’t waste my time with your mindless chit-chat. You guys are here to take me to the temporary quarters while the shuttle gets refueled and reloaded. Right?”
   Jayce nodded, too angry to talk.
   I nodded back and walked past them, heading down the stairs. “Good. Just don’t bore me while we’re at it. Mindless prattle from cannon-fodder isn’t my idea of a good time.”
   Jayce fell in step behind me. “Yeah?” he snapped back.
   “Oh, that’s a quick and clever response. Thought that one up all by yourself, did you?”
   “At least I don’t have to go back to the Moon,” he shot back.
   I stopped, turned and locked eyes with the little man. Instantly the other two had their weapons trained on me.
   The captain didn’t back up an inch. He also didn’t give any clue that he was the slightest bit scared of me.
   “Go ahead,” he said lowly, “Touch me once, you freak, and my men will reduce you to the consistency of jello. They’ll have to bury you in a paper towel.”
   I didn’t flinch. I kept my eyes locked on his.
   “Kill me, Jayce, and your superiors will see to it you end up in the Russian rental-prison complex in Siberia,” I replied in a soft, threatening growl. “You’ll have to explain why you blew away one of the few people in the universe who can fly the spacecraft that bring you humans your space-made trinkets and take the other hybrids out of your line of sight.
   “You’re not going to do shit, Jayce. And neither am I. So stop trying to puff yourself up into something you aren’t and do your job escorting me to my temporary quarters. Or do I have to wander around and find it for myself?”
   Jayce glared fiercely at me. I just stared right back. I could see him clutching for his pistol, just to let it go again. We both knew the score: Exile or not, I was worth a lot to the humans. I was able to do what they were afraid to do and to go where they didn’t have the guts to go. That made me valuable in some twisted sort of way. And the Powers That Be wouldn’t appreciate one of their over-rated cops making my replacement necessary.
   “The day I let one of you monsters just walk around the place like you own it…” he finally said in a gravelly voice. “We’ll escort you to your dorm where you’ll spend the night, resting up for tomorrow’s flight out of here. You take off at dawn, freak.”
   Then in a move that was so quick I barely registered it (which is really fast, considering I’m a leopard and all) he reached up and grabbed my right ear in his fist. I jumped at the surprise, and curled my lips back angrily. Captain Jayce then pulled my head lower, closer to his mouth so he could whisper to me.
   “But if you screw up or do something that’ll give me an excuse to vaporize your ass, I’ll welcome it,” he hissed. “Go on, do something stupid like try to escape or hurt someone. Please.” He smiled unpleasantly at me. “If life on the Moon is too tough for you, I’ll be more than happy to put you out of your misery.”
   It was then and there that I felt my heart harden against these people. Not just Jayce, but all of them. I suddenly felt the weight of the world lift away and a sudden burst of something I hadn’t felt in quite a long time.
   I felt proud!
   “Like I’d ever let a little coward like you decide something as important as my life,” I said back. My voice was as flat and cold as aluminum sheeting. “You know the real reason you want to kill me, don’t you? It’s not that you don’t like hybrids or what we represent. It’s not that you care who’s breathing your air.
   “No, your hangup is that you’re scared that my cohorts and I are tougher than you are. You and the rest of your kind can’t hack it out in space any more than you can hack it on the battlefield. That’s why you don’t like me: Because I can do what you can’t or won’t even try to do!”
   His face reddened even further. He gritted his teeth so hard I could hear the enamel crack. His grip on my ear tightened, which was a good thing really, seeing as he couldn’t go for his gun and hold my ear at the same time.
   I leaned closer, letting my teeth and my hot breath play against his throat “That’s what really gets at you, isn’t it?” I whispered evilly. “That I and the rest of us ‘mistakes’ are now astronauts, dancing on the Moon while you squat here, doing the same lame stuff your granddaddy did! That’s what really pisses you off the most, isn’t it?”
   Jayce stood there for several moments, trembling. Just trembling. I could feel his heart racing, the pulse a steady machine gun through the veins in his throat. For several seconds I thought he would drop my ear and grab for his gun to shoot me, even though he knew I’d tear his throat out before his palm reached his holster. For a split-second there it looked like he was so intent on killing me that dying himself didn’t bother him.
   It’s strange what goes through your mind at the moment of truth. Ask anyone who has gone through it sometime, and they’ll all tell you the same thing. Oh sure, the stories all tell about men thinking of their lady friends or families. Or about doing as much damage as possible before getting taken out. You’ve probably heard dozens of such tales.
   But what the people who have actually stared down old painless will reluctantly admit, after you give them enough liquor, is that such things aren’t what they thought of in that split-second when all hope fled and the end looked certain. Propaganda aside, what people think about at that last instant can be completely random. I know, I’ve talked with plenty of pilots in my outfit and others who thought they were goners for one reason or another. One pilot said his dying thought was wondering if he’d be responsible for late charges on any library books he couldn’t return on account of being dead. As I said, what goes through the conscious mind in that final split second when you think you are about to die can be quite random.
   I wondered if Heaven had a ‘No Pets’ rule in effect that would keep me out. Funny, that.
   But Captain Jayce seemed to calm down again and slowly, very slowly so as not to panic me, pulled his right hand off my ear and backed away. I tried to lock eyes with him once again. He wouldn’t look at me. He turned to the side, looking toward the buildings in the distance.
   “At least I don’t have to drink my own recycled piss,” he said, quieter this time. The anger was still there in his voice. But the sharpness had gone out of him. He turned to his escorts. “Walk this cat to his dorm room rather than getting a vehicle for him. We’ll see how tough the kitty is after a nice, long hike through Florida’s lovely summer conditions while decked nose to tail in black fur.”
   His two armed cohorts looked unhappy. “But captain, it’s more than a mile back to the base,” one of them complained.
   “Are you saying that this cat-thing is tougher than you are?!” he roared, grateful for someone to vent his rage on who wouldn’t fight back. “Are you telling me that this pussy here is stronger than the pride of humanity? Are you standing there in your uniform and saying that you are lower than an animal?”
   Both enlisted men shook their heads and stood at attention. “No, captain!” they barked out in unison.
   “Good!” Captain Jayce snapped back. “This is a cushy assignment you two have. I’d hate to have to loan you both Civil Engineering where you’d get to dump latrines all day!”

   “Hello everyone! I’m home!” My voice rang through the metal walls of the module, barely touched by the sound-dampening foam laid all over the ceiling. I closed the hatch to the R&D section where Tanya worked and called again. “Anybody here?”
   “Welcome back, Thomas,” Tanya called from behind some equipment panels on the far end of the cylinder. “Congratulations on making your first flight. What is it that you pilots say about someone when they make their first solo trip?”
   I felt my cheeks get hotter and was suddenly glad she was where she couldn’t see me. I tugged at the collar of my dirty coveralls. “I’m not sure that’s a nice thing to talk about with a nice lady like you,” I managed to struggle out.
   Tanya walked around the panels and put both hands on the table in the middle of the room. She winked knowingly at me.
   “You know, I’ve been hanging around pilots since I was 10,” she said in a pleasant tone. “I know the lingo quite well, thank you, and I’ve long since gotten past the point where some of the talk embarrasses me. But thank you for thinking of my feelings, anyway.”
   “Uh, sure. No problem.”
   “So how was the flight? Any malfunctions I need to know about?”
   “None but the heat in my lap.”
   She looked suddenly concerned. “Is hot air blowing onto your lap?” She thought for a second. “There are no environment systems anywhere near there. So I can’t think what…”
   I held up my hand to stop her from winding herself up too tightly. “Relax, Tanya. There’s nothing wrong with the shuttle. But while I was downstairs I remembered what you said earlier.”
   Now she looked confused. “What I said?” she echoed. “And what was that?”
   “You said that when I made the flight and survived, that you’d have dinner with me. Remember that? So…” I pulled my other arm and the bags they held from behind my back and held them up where she could see. “Dinner is served!”
   Tanya stared at the bags for a moment. Then she turned to me again. “You brought dinner up with you from the planet’s surface?” she said incredulously. “But where did you put it? How… how in the world did you get it?”
   “I borrowed a cell phone off one of the ground crew just 2 hours before liftoff and ordered a couple of pizzas delivered to me. You know, my bank account down there is still active? Anyways, after I got a couple of pizzas I flew up with them in my lap. That’s why I was complaining about the heat there. Now, the food has probably gotten cold by now, but…”
   Tanya burst out laughing and made several spaces clean on the burnished stainless steel table. “Oh my goodness!” she laughed. “Do you know how long it has been since I had some pizza? What kind did you get?”
   I walked to the table and put the bag and the two boxes it contained on the table. “Meat lover’s pizza, of course,” I told her. “The works! Only the best for you!”
   Tanya turned back to the panels she’d been working behind. “Leonid!” she called. “The very clever and resourceful Thomas brought us pizza for dinner!”
   Leonid came from around the panels, wiping the grease from his hands onto a scrap of cloth. It was difficult to tell whether he was getting his hands clean or dirty, as filthy as the cloth was. His blue jumpsuit wasn’t much cleaner than the cloth. Apparently he and his sister had been repairing some equipment in the back of the module.
   “Made it back in one piece, I see,” he grumbled. “You’d better not have scratched the paint—it’ll be awhile before I can whip up a fresh can of titanium white.”
   I sighed softly. “Nothing but the best for you, and your brother,” I amended.
   “Now, now,” Tanya gently admonished both of us. “You two be on your best behavior. After all, how often do we get fresh, honest to gosh pizza up here? We are a little out of the usual delivery area.”
   Leonid blinked, then his eyes softened. “I guess you’re right,” he finally said. He turned to face me. “Sorry about that, Thomas. It has been a long day.”
   I blew a puff of air. “Don’t sweat it,” I told him. “And sharing dinner with you will be fine. I brought lots.” With a flourish I reached forward and flipped open the lid to the first of the two boxes.
   Inside was a misshapen mass of bread, red, various kinds of meat, all swimming in a slick of oil and crushed to the back half of the box.
   Leonid leaned forward and took an experimental sniff. “Yeah,” he said, amused. “But lots of what?”
   I looked closer at the twisted wreckage of dinner, and my heart sank. “It… was pizza,” I said. “I don’t know what could have happened to it. I was careful to keep it flat on my lap the whole way. I even used bungee cords to hold it in place.”
   Tanya put one hand on her left hip and regarded me thoughtfully. “Was it still flat in your lap when you reached zero gee and then accelerated to lunar rendezvous?” she asked, also amused.
   “Yes, of course. Where else could I have put it?”
   “Then the pizza floated around in the box, and when you headed for the Moon, the entire thing was smashed against the side, just like if you’d put it on its end here or on the Earth.”
   I shook my head sadly. “So much for dinner,” I moped. “I’ve ruined it.”
   “Nonsense!” Tanya brightly said as she reached for a blob of pizza. “Are you kidding? This was very clever, and very sweet of you. Thank you!” She scooped a mass of bread and goop with her fingers and stuck it into her muzzle. She smacked at it noisily and drops of tomato sauce stained her whiskers.
   “Mmm! Delicious!” she announced. “A bit cold, though.”
   “No tip for the delivery boy, then,” Leonid said with a good natured snort, then dug in himself.
   I let myself grin weakly and reached for a bite myself. “The company is compensation enough,” I said as I scraped my fingertips on the cardboard box and pulled up a doughy, red wad of what was once a large pizza from a major chain. “No real way to tell where the slices are, is there?”
   “Next time, buy calzones,” Leonid said, licking his muzzle. “They’ll travel better.”
   “Good idea,” Tanya said, already reaching for another bite. “We’ll think up a few things that we can have delivered to the KSC strip that won’t get ruined inflight.”
   “How about fried chicken? Does that chicken place deliver?” I asked them.
   Both Leonid and Tanya looked at me. “What chicken place?” Tanya finally asked aloud, glancing at her brother.
   “You know…” I grinned. “The KFC by the KSC?”
   There was a moment of complete silence. It was followed a couple of seconds later by the roaring laughter of three feline voices.

   I’d love to be able to say that that night was the beginning of a fun and happy life for me. I would really like to say that, but it just isn’t true. Have you ever lived in a small house, and more and more people come to stay with you? That was what life was like on Luna3 shortly after that.
   We had more and more people coming up on each flight, which meant less and less oxygen being shipped. And all the new people had nowhere to go, so everyone was crammed tighter and tighter into the existing modules. Leonid was making more facilities as fast as he could, but the inflow was still almost 50% greater than he was able to build for.
   I don’t think I need to point out that since we were on the Moon, and recycling almost everything, the life support systems were strained. Very strained. Water and oxygen from the hydroponics was barely keeping everyone alive. Carbon-dioxide poisoning was beginning to become a problem in places. The soy and algae systems that converted the sewage back into air and food were becoming overwhelmed with waste. We began cutting back on food rations, to reduce the amount of sewage and to also increase the number of soy plants that created oxygen for us.
   Things finally got so bad that several newcomers ended up in my tiny corner of the dorms. Thus, I ended up sleeping in the R&D cylinder, tossing a sleeping cot in an isolated corner of the lab to make room for more refugees. Tanya and Leonid ended up moving into the lab themselves soon after. As Leonid sourly put it, either they could move into the lab or the swarms of newcomers could do it instead. Better them than who-knows-who so we ended up an odd threesome in the lab/quarters. A sheet isolated each of our own tiny territories from the rest of the lab, giving each of us a small bit of privacy. Not that it was a lot of privacy since the lab was rarely quiet. And Tanya had taken to working many more hours than she normally did.
   Leonid had noticed that himself. “She’s going to drive herself into an early grave,” he said as he handed me a weak cup of coffee. I was sitting at a side table, studying the manifests of the last 6 months of flights on my scratched-up computer tablet.
   “She works like a woman possessed,” I said, breathing somewhat heavier in the thinner atmosphere. With lower oxygen levels, even little efforts got tiring. “I don’t know why she’s going at it so hard.”
   “She thinks she can save us all with her new drive,” Leonid said.
   “It’ll take more than a new propulsion system to fix things here,” I replied. “Look at these manifests. We’re bringing in more and more people without any new support for them. Where are they supposed to live? What are they supposed to breathe? What are the people down on Earth thinking?”
   Leonid shrugged sadly and sipped at his own weak brew. “They are thinking that the sooner they get us off their planet, the better,” he said resignedly. “They probably believe that if we all die up here, building their stepping stones to space, then it’s no big loss and that’s just so much blood that humankind won’t need to spill to reach for the stars.”
   “Pretty chicken-shit way of heading to space if you ask me,” I grumbled. “Sending your refuseniks out to colonize for you—what ever happened to new frontiers being forged by people with gumption and guts?”
   “They found a group to do their dirty work for them. Or created them, one.”
   “Well, there won’t be any forging of the brave frontier if we all suffocate. We need more oxygen, more water—hell, more everything. And we need to stop flying more folks up here for a bit. Life support can’t handle the people we have, much less more of them.”
   Leonid snorted. “You can tell that to the governor. But you’ll have more of a response if you tell it to the walls. He’ll never go along with a pause in moving people up here.”
   I scratched my head in frustration. “That’s true,” I admitted. “He’ll never go along with a voluntary stop in operations.” I sighed and looked at the manifests of our 14 shuttles again.
   Then I got an idea! My ears shot up and I turned excitedly to Leonid. “What if it’s not voluntary?” I exclaimed.
   Leonid looked confused and sipped his coffee again. “What are you talking about now?” he asked.
   “All the ships are way past due for safety inspections of the main reactor, right? We just stop flying to the Earth until we’ve done them all and made sure all the ships are certified flight-worthy. Simple.”
   “Too simple,” Leonid said with a shake of his head. “Do you really think the Governor is just going to let us stop flying for a couple of months?”
   “Sure he will—if no pilots are willing to fly the shuttles in that time.”
   “Ah. Now it’s starting to sound like a mutiny.”
   “Only long enough for you and your crews to build a few more modules and more life-support systems.” I put my cup down and stared at Leonid’s glaring face. “Come on Leo , you just need a little time to get caught up again. This little trick can buy us that time.”
   “He’s right, you know.” Tanya came from around a group of overfilled bookshelves to lean wearily on the table. “No matter how you look at it, we need more supplies and if not fewer consumers, at least no more than we have now. We need to stop flying back down to Earth for a little bit and quit bringing more people up with us.”
   “We’ll lose our shipments of oxygen!”
   “Which we aren’t getting any more because the ships are crammed full of people instead of supplies,” Tanya softly replied.
   “You’ll never get the governor to go along with it.”
   “The governor will have no choice,” I added. “Unless he’s got a secret squadron of trained shuttle pilots complete with shuttles who’ll fly for him when the rest of us won’t. And besides, when we all choke to death from lack of oxygen, so will he.”
   “Which is exactly what I’m going to tell the pharaoh,” Tanya said with a sigh. “Don’t worry about him, Leonid. Even the most twisted creature understands self-preservation. He’ll be happy to have more air to breathe, and he’ll make our cover story work with the bosses downstairs.”
   I watched the two lock eyes for a moment. I watched his angry glare latch with her soft, green eyes. The two couldn’t be more different—where he was a pessimist, she was an optimist. He saw himself trying to keep from getting buried under his responsibilities; she simply did her job, no worries, as if it was her reason for waking in the morning.
   I’ll never know what the two communicated between themselves as they stared at each other. But after a moment, Leonid looked away and walked away from the table toward the hatchway.
   “Well, if I’m going to have a short break to build more cylinders, I guess I’d better grab a few hundred bodies around me and get to work.” He keyed the hatch open and half stepped through before turning back to look at his gray and black sister. “You’d better be right about this,” he said. “We aren’t going to get a second chance.” With that he turned and closed the hatch behind him with a metallic clank!
   I stared at Tanya for a moment. “Maybe we need to build a still instead of more oxygen generators,” I said, hoping a bit of humor would help her mood. “There’s only one other person on the Moon who needs a shot of whiskey worse than your brother.”
   Tanya smirked faintly. “Me?” she guessed.
   “Hell no! If anyone else is getting a shot of genuine Moon-made moonshine around here, it’s me!”
   She smiled wider, and I grinned back. It made me feel warmer than any booze ever could. Or did.
   “We don’t have the resources right now,” she said. “But in a week or two, we just may.”
   I laughed out loud. “Oh?” I said unconcernedly. “You know where to get us a few metric tons of water?”
   My smile froze onto my face and my breath caught in my throat. There was something in her voice that disturbed me. It was the same tone in my commander’s voice when he told me and the rest of the squadron that we were attacking the one who had just attempted to murder us. It was a calm voice. It was a certain voice.
   And something told me that the voice I just heard was going to throw me into certain danger, just like the previous one did.

   “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, save it for a rainy day.” I couldn’t help singing; it kept my nerves stable. It was that or cry out in terror. I’d gotten used to flying my routine missions to the planet and back. But this—this took the cake.
   I was sitting on a comet that was streaking past relatively close to the Earth and Moon. My mission: Land on the ice-ball, capture as much water from it as my tanks could handle, then fly back to the Moon again. It was definitely a different sort of trip.
   For one thing, I used up almost all of my nitrogen just getting to the comet and synchronizing orbits with it. When I pointed that problem out to Tanya, she just shrugged and pointed out that I’d be using some of the comet-water as reaction fluid for the trip back. I had to admit, it was a pretty slick plan.
   It would be slicker if I wasn’t squatting on an orbiting snowball several million miles from home, however. Landing wasn’t all that difficult, though I had to use the dorsal thrusters more than I expected to counter the outflow of water vapor from the comet’s surface. I was on a rough, black and white world that was covered in a gauzy haze as the surface evaporated off into space.
   “What is your status, Molniya?” the radio chirped. It was Tanya, back on the Moon some 7 million miles away. I reached forward, careful not to move too quickly in the zero gravity, and keyed the talk-switch for the open cockpit mike.
   “The ship is still on the surface of the comet. I’ve got the choppers collecting ice for the lunar stations as we speak. I expect I’ll be bringing back the full load of 8 tons of partially processed water as planned.” I double-checked my hastily-assembled mission computer beside me; meaning I looked at the laptop that was velcroed down in the copilot seat.
   “Analysis shows the comet to be about 41% rocky stone, a bit more than we expected. That means it’ll take a little more time to fill the tanks. But I’m ahead of schedule otherwise. Molniya, out.” I keyed off the mike and hoped that the soft whir of the cockpit’s life-support and avionics systems hadn’t ruined the connection. Out here, with 35 light-seconds of distance between me and the Moon, it’d take more than a minute of round-trip signal time for me to hear Tanya asking me to put my helmet on and switch to the suit’s comm system.
   I leaned back in the captain’s chair and nervously sighed. I hoped I didn’t have to put on the helmet again; it was uncomfortable enough wearing the red, rubber spacesuit for days on end. This trip to a comet that swung by relatively close was as high-risk as missions came—anything could go wrong at any time and for any reason. Nobody had ever even set a spacecraft down on a comet before, much less mined it for ice.
   Normally I wouldn’t have touched a mission like this with a ten-foot pole. But we desperately needed the water, and this snowball in space just happened to pass by close enough that a hastily assembled and modified shuttle could go out and get it. 10 tons of water came to about 8 tons of oxygen, and that was enough to last us a long time. I told myself that I’d either come back as a hero or I wouldn’t come back at all. Either way, I’d come out ahead of the game.
   I glanced at the load meters. The tanks were just about full—2,400 gallons of not-quite-potable water in the internal and external tanks—which would bring the ship to its maximum weight. I smirked when I thought about how funny the machine had to look from the outside, with both wings removed and long cylindrical tanks welded on in their place.
   Most likely, the humans would be furious when they found out about the hack job we’d done to one of their shuttles. Frankly, I didn’t see how the humans could claim ownership of any of the spaceships; we forged the metals on the Moon, constructed them on the Moon, and flew them from the Moon. Nitrogen and computers were the only thing needed from the Earth nowadays. At least, that was the only thing they’d give us. Not more food or air or anything like that.
   “Acknowledged, Molniya,” Tanya’s reply finally came back. “Understand you are almost out of nitrogen. Go ahead and exhaust that before switching and using the water as your reaction fluid. By my calculations, a week-long trip back to Luna will consume about 2 tons of water. That leaves 8 tons you are bringing in. Good job. Note your new acceleration and speed versus distance curves on display 2. Luna, out.”
   I double-checked the load and the tanks: They were full. I pressed the sequence of keys that jettisoned the choppers and scoopers from the bottom of the vehicle. I grinned as I visualized Leonid’s furious face. He’d asked me to try to come back with the rig if at all possible because it had taken some work to build it, but I’d never intended to do that—my ship was heavy enough as it was. Any additional mass (like useless wings and now useless ice-cutters) was dead weight as far as I was concerned, and needed to be tossed at the first opportunity.
   The ship jolted and shuddered as the explosive bolts separated the cutters. I stopped applying dorsal thrust and sat back in my seat. The breeze of the evaporating water leaping into space pushed me away from the comet, quickly at first, but more and more gently as I got further and further from its surface.
   After a moment I used the automatic guidance system to orient the ship toward where the Moon would be in 7 days. 7 long days in this space suit… I squirmed in my seat. Like the past week-plus-change wasn’t bad enough, now I had another week of it to go through. Swell, just swell. I watched the stars swirl around slowly outside the window as the heavy vehicle dutifully changed direction.
   The ground crew better have thought far enough ahead to install the extra large baggies in the poop catcher, or this suit’s going to be right nasty when I get back… Once the ship’s course and velocity were set up and pointed someplace other than oblivion, I powered up the main reactor from stationkeeping mode and back to flight mode again. I could feel the rumble in every fiber in my body as the unbelievable energies of the cosmos were unleashed behind me. The ship vibrated and shuddered, and then the reaction fuel began pumping into the chamber.
   The ship groaned. I was pressed back into my seat by the almost quarter of a G of thrust. I watched the lines on my display; acceleration was right on the money, as were velocity and position. The orientation display showed me to be right on course as well.
   I watched the nitrogen level indicator drop down almost to zero. I smiled and decided that the mission was going to be a long cakewalk after all. I closed the valve to the nitrogen system and opened the flow valves to the water tanks to run on water for the rest of the voyage.
   That was when all hell broke loose.
   It started gently. Must people probably wouldn’t have noticed the change in pitch from the engines. But I did. If my helmet had been on I probably wouldn’t have detected it so early. My smile vanished and my ears were instantly alert, listening to the changing noise from the three engines as they ran out of their regular fuel and switched to something new.
   The quiet, almost imperceptible random changing in pitch from one engine grew louder. Then the sound was joined by a similar warbling from the other two engines as well. It grew louder. So did the pulse suddenly pounding in my throat.
   Then the course changes started. The course cursor on my display was going crazy, jumping all around the monitor as the ship yawed first one way, then the other. I grabbed my helmet reflexively and snapped it on. Whatever was going on, I couldn’t fix it if I died from a sudden loss of cabin pressure.
   I could feel the ship jerking left and then right again, over and over. The motions were random. But what was the cause? Were the computers malfunctioning? Did a gimbal assembly on one of the motors fail? I tapped up a data screen and tried not to think about the sweat on my forehead. The gimbals were all dancing like drunken fruit flies, bouncing to and fro. But why? Could’ve been computer failure—but if that was the case, the ship would have been unstable from the start of the return flight back to the Moon.
   That was when it hit me. A cold icicle of terror stabbed through my back as I realized that the problem hadn’t come up until I turned off the nitrogen and started using the water as reaction fuel. I quickly reached up and turned off the flow of water and throttled the reactor back to station-keeping once more.
   The wild, bouncing ride came to a stop.
   I looked at my displays again. The acceleration curve was already falling away, as was the position/velocity line. I was drifting when I was supposed to be accelerating fairly hard. I swallowed, knowing full well what would happen if I fell too far out of those calculated lines; I’d died often enough on the simulators, after all. But this was no simulation. This, I reminded myself, was as real as real could get.
   I took a couple of quick, deep breaths and forced my wildly flailing mind back under control again. Plenty of time to panic after the emergency is over, I told myself. But panic now, and I’m dead. Can’t panic now, space will eat me… A short time later I had my anxiety attack reasonably damped down and I considered what was happening.
   That wasn’t just water I had in my tanks, I decided. Sure, the rocks and stones from the comet were filtered out with screens. But what else was in that ice besides water and very small bits of stone? Frozen methane? Molecular iron? Bits of frozen fish sticks? Who knew?
   But one thing I did know was that the fuel was contaminated, and that the thrust it produced would be random. That was a big problem because as the two side engines lost and then regained power again, the ship would be turned back and forth, back and forth. I’d never be pointed in the correct direction. The ship would fly like it was drunk; which it was, in a matter of speaking.
   Molniya, this is Luna,” Tanya’s voice broke my concentration. It was a welcome distraction. “Your thrust has stopped, and we saw a lot of shaking just before engine cutoff. What’s wrong?” I could have sworn her voice sounded worried. Good, I thought, that makes two of us!
   “This is Molniya!” I realized I was breathing fast. Hell, if they couldn’t understand that under the circumstances, screw them! “It’s the fuel—the water is contaminated or something. It’s causing random lateral thrust, burning differently in the side engines. Is there any way I can make it back on only the center engine where the variable thrust problem won’t throw me in random directions? Over.”
   I looked from display to display, praying that something would somehow show me a way to get out of this. Not that I was really expecting anything to appear. I was 7 million miles from the lifeless rock I called home, which was orbiting another rock that itself orbited the sun at 93 million miles. I was so far out that even at the speed of light, just talking with someone took over a minute. Getting home would take time and precision navigation, not to mention engines that thrusted properly when they were told to.
   Molniya, Luna,” Tanya’s worried voice finally came back. “No, you can’t get home on a single engine. There isn’t enough thrust in it and your ship is very heavy right now. You need all three motors at nearly full power to get home.”
   I took a deep breath and pressed the TALK button.
   “Luna, Molniya. Understand last statement. Do you have any ideas that can get me home? And the water as well? Over.” I turned off the mike and waited for the signal to weave its way around Albert Einstein to get to Tanya and back. I rested my head on the back of the seat and tried not to think about what she might say.
   The radio came alive. There was a pregnant pause where her mike was active, but there was no sound. Nothing but the sound of her breathing. I could almost imagine her clutching the microphone, desperate for something to say. Desperate for anything that could save me.
   She didn’t have an answer for me. She didn’t know how to get me home anymore than I did myself. I held my breath and listened to the almost silent radio and the volumes it spoke to me.
   I realized that the nearly empty carrier wave from the Moon, my home, meant that I was on my own again. It was like it was back in the assault planes. I leaned back in my grav seat and finally exhaled. There was no one in the universe who could help me right now; not Tanya, not Leonid, not the entirety of humanity and all its computing and engineering prowess. Nobody.
   I looked at my hands, my red rubber encapsulated hands, snug in their pressurized gloves. Then I looked outside the windows again. The carrier wave from the Moon finally cut off as Tanya let go of the transmit button. I could have sworn I heard a small sob just before the radio went dead. But the fact of the matter was the only hands that could get me home… were mine.
   The big question was, how?
   I thought about the problem for several minutes, pointedly avoiding the displays. Reading them only made me more nervous without giving me any ideas, so why bother. I ran the problem through my head, over and over again, all to no avail. There was just no way for me to get the acceleration I needed to get home without using all three engines, and with the damned impurities in the fuel, there was no way to use them all without pointing everywhere in the sky except where I wanted to go.
   Jettison the side water tanks? Not possible. There hadn’t been time to install such a system before the mission. Besides, that still left the internal tanks to deal with. And without any water, there was no fuel to return on, so it was back to square one…
   In spite of what I wanted, I thought a second about what it would be like to be stranded out here. Eventually I’d use up all my oxygen, and there was no electrolysis system on board to make any from the water. Maybe I could improvise something from Molniya’s electrical systems—no, scratch that. I’d only starve after I ran out of food. And the Earth and her Moon would zoom on in their 93-million-mile orbit around the sun, not to pass this way again for another year. And by then, I’d be a frozen asphyxiated corpse in a ceramic and magnesium casket. Frankly, the thought scared the hell out of me!
   Several minutes passed. I closed my eyes and thought about just putting a bullet in my head instead rather than dying slowly in the depths of space. I shuddered as I imagined the bullet leaving the barrel and shattering my helmet before taking me to glory. Not that there was any way of making it a reality—there were no weapons on the ship that I knew of.
   Then my eyes widened. As I imagined the bullet spinning, coming out of the barrel, I imagined the ship spinning the same way, heading back to the Moon! It would work—gyroscopic stabilization, by God, just the same as what keeps a bullet flying straight and true!
   I set my jaw and gripped the orientation controls. I positioned the machine so that that the moving target reticle would be lined up in about 5 minutes. Gritting my teeth and saying a small prayer, I threw the roll thrusters to full on and put Molniya into a spin.
   The hull passed the sound from the small orientation motors to the flight deck. The attenuated hissing sound merged with the drone of the life support systems and my rapid breathing. It seemed to take forever, although I knew logically it only took a couple of moments for the constant thrusting to get a decent roll started. A couple of degrees per second at first, but finally a full quarter of a rotation per second.
   I powered up the reactor once more and watched the orientation display again, staring fiercely at the image. The spinning cursor got closer to the center of the display. I put my thumb on the THRUST button and my palm on the thrust control. Second after second went by, with the reticle circling the screen’s origin, closer and closer and closer.
   The circles and lines crossed each other perfectly on the screen. I turned the fuel on and slammed the throttle to full!
   The ship shuddered and bounced. I was pressed flat against the cushions of my flight seat. The jerking from side to side was much less pronounced this time since the ship’s spinning mass stabilized it from momentary side thrusts. It was working!
   I forced air into my lungs and concentrated on getting the vibrating ship back onto the velocity/position curve again. My stomach growled from being twisted about. Plus I felt like I was about to throw up, a consequence of the head and stomach moving at different speeds. I swallowed hard and keyed my suit’s mike.
   “Luna… this is Molniya,” I said, feeling queasy. “Have the motion sickness pills ready for when I get back. It’s going to be a rough trip home… but I’ll be back as scheduled. Molniya out.”

   If anyone asks you how long a person can survive without food, I can tell you from experience that the answer is somewhat greater than 7 days. That’s how long it was that I flew the spinning and vomit-inducing Molniya back. I tried to eat more than a dozen times on the flight home, but very little of it stayed down.
   There’s little worse than bodily fluids floating around loose in zero gravity. Fortunately for me the spinning ship made the puke fly up and pool on the control panel above me. That was good; it meant the stuff wouldn’t get into the air system and clog up the works, leaving me gagging for breath in the last tortured minutes of my life.
   The bad part was that I had to operate those buttons and circuit breakers. The spacesuit’s gloves made that a bit more tolerable. Of course, I still had to smell everything, and it didn’t take but a couple of days to make the puke really ripe. I could have worn my helmet the whole time, but then, one barf and I’d be swimming in it rather than having it centripetally held to the ceiling. So I left it off and suffered the odor.
   And to make things nastier, I had to decelerate the ship and stop the spin to land on the Moon. And coming down on the Moon, a vile rain showered down upon my head. If I had been thinking more clearly I’d have put my helmet back on first. But a solid week of spin-induced vertigo made me feel more than halfway dead, so I guess such a small oversight is understandable.
   I managed to land on the Moon in one piece within reasonable distance of the landing pad. It only took the ground crew an hour to position the ship so that it was within range of the extensible concourse. And in that hour, I ate every bit of food still on board the ship.
   The hatch opened and I was suddenly a hero. Several dozen voices of every imaginable species let out a Hooray!!! as I stepped onto the passageway and promptly fell flat on my nose. I’d brought in much needed supplies to the lunar bases, though it would need quite a bit of processing to make it potable or breathable. I’d brought a fighting chance for life to the exiles from the Earth, even if I couldn’t bring them their liberty.
   That’s what I was thinking about as they carried me out on a gurney. Like I’ve said before, it’s strange what passes through your mind at times. I mean, with Tanya rushing up to me and kissing me on the side of the muzzle, you’d think that I could have imagined a hundred other things right then. But I didn’t.
   “We gave you up for dead!” Tanya sobbed. Her gray and black cheeks were streaked with moisture. She clutched at my right hand and pulled the filth-encrusted glove off. Then she gestured for others to help undo the spacesuit and unclicked the retaining clips that held the bottom half and the top half of the suit together. “I’m certain you’re anxious to get out of that suit as fast as possible,” she told.
   I smiled weakly and blew her a little kiss, wishing I were stronger. Okay, so not every thought going through my mind right then was all that strange…

   A few days later found me back at my usual bunk in the research area again. Medical had used what precious vitamins and salines were available to get me back on my feet again. We hadn’t resumed flights back to the Earth yet, so there weren’t any more exiles coming in. But we still had way too many people up here. Resources were limited and would only become more so once the next batch of expatriates arrived. Nobody knew when that would be, but it would be soon.
   I pulled aside the blankets I’d rigged up around my bed for privacy. You’d think I would have noticed the cot put next to mine; I didn’t. I wasn’t really all that sick or malnourished any more so I don’t have that excuse. And my nightvision is superior, one of the traits the genetic engineers designed into me. I really don’t know why I didn’t see the cot pulled together with mine and the cover pulled over both of them. To my eyes, it just looked like one cot, I guess. One large cot with a new sheet tossed over it.
   And a lovely spaceship designer dressed in nothing but her gray and black fur under the covers, waiting for me.
   I dropped the small vial of vitamins and stood there motionless, staring at her. It took longer for them to hit the floor than I expected and I jumped at the noise when they finally hit the ground.
   “Has medical cleared you for action, hero?” she whispered. “I wouldn’t want to do anything that might injure you.” She sat up slowly, letting the cover fall from her chest. She turned her head and looked at the space beside her, then turned back to me and smiled seductively.
   I think I stood there in stunned silence for too long. Her smile faded and she gave me a confused look. “Are you all right, Thomas?” she asked.
   I nodded and bent down to pick up the vitamins. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I managed to get out. “Just a little surprised, is all.” I walked over to my cot and stood beside it, looking down on Tanya’s beautiful body. “But aren’t there lots of ears here in the same room as us?”
   She smiled again and lay back with her hands behind her head. She draped her thick, warm tail out from under the bed and laid it on the other side of the bed. The tail twitched once. Twice. I stared at the tail while Tanya stared up affectionately at me.
   “So let them hear,” she whispered. She ended her sentence in a tiny trill that sent shivers of excitement up and down my spine.
   I swallowed. Then I began to unzip my blue overalls down the front. Slowly, of course. “And your brother?” I asked quietly.
   “Leonid? He is working on the Grom for the rest of the night.”
   “The Grom?”
   “It’s Russian for ‘thunder’, just like Molniya is Russian for ‘lightning’. After the lightning, molniya, comes thunder, grom, yes?”
   “Oh. I just thought you’d give it a sexier name, is all.”
   She sat up again and came toward me on all fours. The sheets flowed off her furry body like water off of silk. “Right now, I can’t think of anything sexier than you, Thomas,” she purred.
   Every curve and line on her body was exposed. She was luscious, even in the dim light of the research module. Her human-shaped breasts hung beneath her as she came seductively toward me. I noticed that each areola had a perfectly circular black rose around it.
   Have you ever seen a cat stalking prey through the grass? I swear that image was what first went through my mind. I saw that hungry green gleam in her eyes and suddenly knew what a mouse felt like. And strangely enough, I didn’t seem to mind!
   She sat up and took my hands into hers. She let out a low, churring sound, then she pushed my hands away from the zipper. Tanya then began pulling it down herself, cutting the silence with the scissoring links as she eased it past my chest. Then past my abdomen. Finally, she got to my groin area, where she stopped upon bumping an obstruction.
   Tanya chuckled faintly, like water on glass. “Maybe you’d better do the rest,” she whispered, leaning back again. “I’d hate to hurt you, especially after everything you’ve been through to get this far.”
   I swallowed again and took her hands in mine. They were shivering, and not from cold. I think she noticed. I pulled the fabric and her gentle hands and took the zipper to its end. Then I released her hands and reached up to my shoulders, pulling the garment off. I stepped back a foot from Tanya and wriggled my way out of the uniform, kicking it underneath the cot.
   I looked her over from top to bottom. Her eyes sparkled eagerly in the dark, shining starkly on her gray fur. Every detail of her body was visible as she sat there in the nude—save one. Her tail was now draped over her lap, hiding her private parts from view. She flicked her tailtip again and leaned forward, putting her hands on my hips and my briefs.
   “Do you like what you see?” she teased.
   Hell, yes! I nodded quickly.
   “Aren’t you the least bit curious to see if my pubic hair is as black as my roses?” she asked.
   I nodded again.
   “Then Thomas, you’re going to have to lose the underwear.”
   “Did our roles get swapped while I was gone?” I sighed. “I thought I was supposed to be chasing you.”
   Tanya let her hand slowly glide down my thigh. “We are all barely staying alive up here,” she said softly. “And I almost lost you once already; you very nearly didn’t make it back alive. When you were out there and I thought you weren’t coming back, a part of me felt as cold as space itself. I thought about all the things I wouldn’t get to do with you.
   “Life is fragile and we don’t know how long we have left to us. So Thomas, I’m through playing games and being the tease—we don’t have the time for it. We could die in 50 seconds or in 50 years. Who knows? But if I’m going to feel pain when you are gone, then I should be allowed to feel joy when you are here.”
   She looked up eagerly at me. “I know I seem forward all of a sudden, and if that bothers you then I’m sorry. But tomorrow may never come so I’m not waiting any longer. Now, are you going to take those shorts off or am I going to have to do it for you?”
   She didn’t have to ask me twice. Hell, after seeing her in my bed stark naked and waiting for me, I was more than ready already. I bent over and pushed my underwear down to my ankles. Doing so, I was nose to nose with Tanya.
   Tanya reached a hand around my head, and caressed the back of my head for a second, sniffing me. I sniffed her as well, taking in the scents of her and the rest of the lab. Her strong feminine scents mingled with the astringent odors of cutting oil and ozone. The very faint aroma of delicate perfume hidden somewhere on her body mixed in a tantalizing bouquet with pheromones coming presumably from some other currently hidden part of her body.
   She gingerly brought my lips to hers. I stepped out of my underwear and then let myself fall the rest of the way into her embrace. She gripped me more tightly and pulled me onto her, breathing faster. I let out a small growl of delight as her legs and tail wrapped around my waist, clutching me tighter still.
   I learned three very important things that night. One, I learned how to fuck in a roomful of people without making enough of a racket to disturb everyone else around me. Two, I learned that her pubic hair wasn’t black at all, but just a darker shade of gray. And three, I learned that danger is a big turn on, for me as well as for her. There’s nothing like a little narrowly escaped death to get the old libido going at a fevered pitch.
   The vitamins came in handy.

   “It looks like we’ll be resuming flights to the Earth in 13 days,” Leonid announced, putting down the notebook he’d been reading from. “During the pause, we’ve managed to build the largest chamber yet for more newcomers. We also got some new hydroponics running in the western corridor. But we lost 8 people in the construction and now we have 8 vacuum suits out of commission. Together with earlier losses, material usage and consumables, we need to use half of the next 16 flights for cargo and material rather than passengers.”
   I yawned and leaned forward over the table. “Oh, I just bet the humans are going to love that,” I muttered. I took another bite of my soy/rabbit nutrient patty and tried not to wince. Over the past few months I’d gotten somewhat tolerant of the taste. Which is not to say I liked it, only that I could eat it without spitting it out in disgust. I almost looked forward to flying back again, just so I could get a bit of real food.
   Leonid stared at the notebook. “Well, if they want to have a concentration camp on the Moon to banish us, then they are going to have to deal with a few realities.”
   “They haven’t been dealing with reality thus far. Hell, the instant we became inconvenient, they shuffled us all to the Moon rather than deal with the reality of what they created.”
   “You tell me nothing I don’t already know,” he grumbled. “Personally, I’d love to make a few dedicated flights for materials and nothing but, but there’s no chance in hell of my getting that. A few 50/50 flights though, I have some chance of getting.”
   Tanya yawned herself and leaned back, stretching. I glanced aside and noticed that her jumpsuit wasn’t zipped up fully. I got a good look at her cleavage. I grinned at her and she smiled back before winking at me.
   “I’ll have to write up a schedule for all the pilots, then,” she said while straightening up again. She turned to face me. “Excluding you, of course.”
   My ears perked up in surprise. “I’m off the roster?” I exclaimed. I was puzzled. The only real reason I could think of for that would be an exemption by the flight surgeon for my bit of malnourishment earlier. But he would have told me something if that was the case. Or at least have documented it in my record.
   Leonid scowled. “Well! Isn’t that just great!” he fumed, throwing his pen forcefully onto the table. It bounced at least four feet into the air and soared across the room—the wonders of 1/6 gravity. “You find yourself a bunk buddy, and suddenly we are down one pilot? That’s wonderful, just fucking wonderful.”
   I blinked in astonishment at his sudden temper flare-up.
   Tanya’s ears flattened back straight on her head and she stood up, leaning far over the table. She angrily stared Leonid right in the eye.
   “You have something to say, brother dearest?” she snarled. “Flight and research are my domain, not yours. So what’s your fucking problem?”
   Leonid stabbed an index finger toward me and bared his teeth. “Your fucking is my problem,” he snapped. “In every sense possible! He’s got to pull his weight around here just like everybody else. He doesn’t get a free pass from work just because he’s keeping you warm at night.”
   Tanya and I both narrowed our eyes. But I didn’t get to say anything—she beat me to it.
   “If anyone else had said that to me,” she hissed, “they’d be watching me tear their guts out a foot at a time to feed it to them! How dare you!”
   Leonid leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “I just call them like I see them,” he stated flatly. “He’s got regular duties to perform in addition to helping you get your rocks off, you know.”
   “You goddamned bastard!” I yelled, finally standing up. “If this was a different place and time, I’d challenge you to a duel! You take that back before I cram it sideways up your ass!”
   “I’m not taking it back because I’m right.”
   “You’re wrong, Leonid!” Tanya spat in his eye. “The reason he’s not flying the regular milkrun to Earth is because he’s going to be flying the Molniya for me when we take the Grom out for test flights, you arrogant piece of shit! I need the best we’ve got for the development missions and you know it!”
   Leonid wiped his eyes but looked unconvinced. “And how do you know he’s the best?” he said sourly. “Been sleeping with the entire flight staff without my knowing?”
   I gasped in shock. Tanya’s tail frizzed. I could tell that the fur on the back of her neck was standing straight up. Hell, I could feel my own hackles rising, I was so mad. Tanya was trembling with fury and I thought she might jump across the table and throttle him. I gripped her tail and held her back, watching her bare her fangs at him and loudly growling.
   Finally, she backed away from the table. I let go of her tail and looked at her. She took a quick breath and ran a hand over her hair and neck, smoothing it and trying to regain her composure.
   “As long as we are baring our souls here, you could stand a good roll in the hay yourself,” Tanya huffed. “It would do wonders for your temperament. I’d love to be able to tell you to go get fucked. But since you don’t have anyone and probably couldn’t catch a woman with a trap, I guess I’ll just have to tell you to go fuck yourself instead!” With that she spun on her heel and stormed out of the research module. The eyes of the miscellaneous people huddling in their blankets along the wall by the hatch watched in idle curiosity as she walked by and slammed the door closed behind her.
   “Whew,” Leonid said after a quiet moment. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, they say.” He shook his head and looked like none of it mattered to him.
   I was still pissed. I clutched the edge of the table and glared savagely at him. “It’s too bad we don’t have our claws anymore, Leonid, or I’d take your tail off and throttle you with it.”
   Leonid looked bemused. “Oh, the big bad pussycat is going to stop screwing my sister long enough to kick my ass? My, my. I’d better start shaking in fear then, hadn’t I?” He leaned forward. “Big words, Thomas. Really big words, since we both know you don’t have to back them up.”
   At this point, I had an insane brainstorm. “Bets on that?” I grabbed the pen and paper and made a quick sketch. I then stuck the drawing in front of his face. He regarded the paper for a moment, then looked astonished.
   “You’re kidding,” he gasped.
   “Oh, no,” I growled. “I’m very serious. Do you know what this is? Can you make two of them? One for you and one for me?”
   Leonid bit his lip thoughtfully. “Not without getting into a lot of trouble,” he said. “If security found out…”
   “Oh, so now who is afraid to put their actions where their words are? Can you make a pair of these things or not? Answer me, yes or no!”
   Leonid locked eyes with me. We both stood there, glaring at each other for over a minute, daring each other to blink first.
   “I can make them,” he said quietly so that only I could hear him. His voice was still angry though. “It’ll take a week or so to do them in secret.” He moved forward so that his nose was against mine. “So what do you say, fly boy?” I felt his hot breath on my muzzle. “The ball is in your court again. You still want to go one on one with me?”
   I nodded. “You bet your ass,” I said firmly. “And you will, literally.”
   “To defend your lady’s honor?”
   “I have to, since her brother is the one attacking it!”
   That took him aback a bit. He stood up straight again, but looked rather disconcerted about my last statement.
   “I’ll get back to you,” he said uncomfortably. “Like I said, it’ll take some time to make them… Maybe… we’ll reconsider in the meantime.” He picked up his notebook and walked away from the table, stopping only to pick up his pen that he’d thrown earlier.
   “I wouldn’t count on it, asshole,” I quietly fumed behind him. “The humans don’t seem to be the only ones having trouble dealing with reality around here.”

   I pressed the internal monitor button on the video select panel and looked once more at the view of the hastily assembled cargo bay of the Molniya. “Have I told you how ugly that thing is, Tanya?” I said aloud to Tanya, who was sitting in the copilot seat beside me.
   We were about a day’s flight away from the Moon. Tanya and I were here to launch her pride and joy, the super-secret and mysterious Grom. And after seeing it, I could see why it was kept a secret for so long. It wasn’t just that the thing was so large that the entire passenger section of the Molniya was removed to make room for it. And it wasn’t just that the thing weighed more than the rest of the Molniya. No, the thing was ugly; isotopically pure ugly.
   The Grom didn’t even look like a spaceship. There were no reaction jets that I make out, and not so much as a single rocket anywhere. No bells, no linear spikes or oval ram engines anywhere that I could see. Nothing but struts sticking out at bizarre angles and bulbous projections extruded from what looked like random positions to me.
   Tanya squirmed in her red rubber spacesuit, trying to get comfortable. “Not in the last hour, no,” she replied. She kept reviewing data on the old laptop she brought with her and held in place above the controls with pieces of Velcro. Her concentration kept jumping back and forth between her computer and the position data on my displays. Both of our helmets were on so we were talking via the intercom. “I can see now why you don’t like to wear the helmet anymore than you have to,” she added. “It’s like living in a tiny aquarium.”
   “Yeah, but without the little treasure chest in the corner.” I replied. “You can always take it off if you want.”
   Tanya shook her head. “Nothing doing,” she said firmly. “And you aren’t either. This test flight is about as dangerous as dangerous can get.”
   I pressed a button on the display selector to get a picture from the back of the machine. Yep, it was still there, and still as ugly as any nightmare ever dreamed up by Giger. “I don’t see what’s so dangerous about this,” I commented, turning the display back to ship’s status. “We aren’t going to be aboard the Grom.”
   “Certainly not.”
   “Then what’s the danger?”
   Tanya thought carefully for a second and then turned to look at me. I turned to face her.
   “The danger is that I’m not 100% certain that it’ll do what I expect it to do,” she quietly explained. “What the ship is programmed to do is fly for 10 seconds, figure out where it is, and then fly back the exact same distance in the opposite direction which should put it back where it started.”
   I shrugged. “Seems harmless,” I said.
   “Yes, on the surface, it does. But the Grom is going to be traveling faster than anything else ever created. See, it takes advantage of a couple of recently-found loopholes in quantum physics that allows matter to tunnel through the cosmos without violating any Einsteinian laws. Do you understand?”
   I shook my head.
   “Look. In our universe, nothing can go faster than the speed of light, yes? That’s proven. But this universe isn’t the only one, and these three dimensions aren’t the only dimensions in reality! They are just the only ones that we can sense directly. And the Grom is an experimental vehicle that takes advantage of those tunneling effects I spoke of.”
   My eyes opened wide. “Meaning the ship can travel…” I asked.
   “At the speed of light itself,” Tanya said. “If we can get the bugs out of the engine system and extend the runtime to more than 10 seconds, we’ll be able to fly to the moons of Jupiter for water, nitrogen, air, and anything else we need in the future—we’ll just jump in a ship, zoom on over and pick up our shopping list, then zoom on back.”
   I just sat there with my mouth gaping open. An old song echoed through my head: In ten seconds flat, she does zero to light; check my custom machine… “That monstrosity can hit light speed?” I said, incredulous.
   “For 10-second shots, yes.”
   “Why only for 10 seconds?”
   “Matter doesn’t stay stable in that dimension we travel in—the laws of physics are so different that atoms tend to just boil away with nothing to hold their nuclei together any more. It takes about 15 seconds for the strong nuclear force to begin to ‘evaporate’, so flights at 1 c can’t be longer than 10 seconds.”
   “And that’s why you put a couple of rabbits and soy plants on board? To see if living things would be adversely affected by the trip?”
   “Exactly.” She looked at her old laptop again. “We are ready to begin the experiment. Are we in position?”
   I doublechecked all the displays and nodded. “We’re exactly where you wanted us to be,” I said. “Ready to deploy at your word.”
   She flipped a couple of circuit breakers off above her head. “Okay, Grom’s systems now operating independently. Umbilicals removed and clamps released.” She turned to me. “Move us down by 40 meters then move ahead about 2 kilometers.”
   I gripped the controls and nudged the orientation thrusters. I lifted up in my seat from the small acceleration. There were a few bumps and thumps as the Grom came out of its moorings as we fell away from it. But otherwise, the maneuver went off without a hitch.
   “Z axis, minus 40 meters,” I announced as I turned on the main thrusters. “Now setting X axis for plus 2000 meters. Stand by for thrust.”
   I gently pushed the ship forward. She responded much faster than I expected. Missing so much mass, the ship was suddenly light and would move differently than I was used to, I realized. I rotated the ship 180 degrees and gave the exact same thrust for the exact same amount of time.
   “We’re at 2400 meters,” I said. I looked across at Tanya. “Sorry about that. Weight loss caught me by surprise.”
   “It’s not a problem.”
   “Do you need me to move closer?”
   “No. No, I can still control the Grom from here. Everything’s fine.” She tapped a few keystrokes on her laptop and leaned back against the grav-cushioning of her seat. “And now, here we go. In four, three, two…”
   I switched to the external tracking camera that was watching the Grom. The damn thing looked like a green turd in space.
   “One!” Tanya cried.
   There was a glimmer of what looked like static electricity around the Grom for a split second. Then, nothing. Nothing at all. The Grom wasn’t there any more! I blinked and glanced out the windshield to where the Grom was—had been—sitting and scanned for anything resembling a glowing contrail. There was nothing in the starry sky except us, and the Earth and Moon in the far distance of the background.
   “And off she goes,” Tanya said, noticeably tensing up. “Now she’ll fly for 10 seconds, figure out where she is and then fly right back again. The whole thing shouldn’t take 15 minutes to complete. Here’s where the really hazardous part begins.”
   I was puzzled. “And what’s so dangerous about this?” I asked. “Isn’t the hazardous part the launch? What’s so bad about waiting for the Grom to return?”
   She turned and looked worriedly at me. “We are waiting for something traveling in a different dimension with no way of avoiding us when it comes back into our universe,” she said. Her voice held a real tremor. “If it’s just the slightest bit off course or at the wrong time, it’ll hit us!”
   I felt a cold sweat burst out of my forehead. This was the first I’d heard of that.
   “What happens if it passes through us in that other dimension?” I asked her. I took my hands off the controls because they were trembling.
   “Nothing—it won’t be in normal space so it won’t affect us at all.”
   “You are certain of that?”
   Tanya bit her lip. “Reasonably certain,” she replied.
   “Reasonably? Tanya, how can you be only reasonably certain of any of this?”
   She sighed, turned to face her instruments and leaned back in her chair once more. “Thomas, it’s not like there are textbooks to refer to for any of this, you know. This is something that nobody has ever attempted before; we are learning as we go. So I have my educated guesses and logical extrapolations of the facts. But I do not have facts themselves—not yet. But I will!”
   I chuckled. “If I wanted a solid, factual and unconfusing life, I never would have gotten a girlfriend in the first place.”
   She turned and glared at me for a second. Then her features softened and she broke out in a smile.
   “I only love you for your car,” she teased. She pressed a button again and brought up the radar display to see the Grom when it reappeared.
   “Well, that sucks,” I played back. “After all, you built it. Maybe I should open the moonroof so you and I can have a romantic moment in the moonlight.”
   Tanya let out a good-natured snort. “One, we don’t have a moonroof,” she said. “Two, we are in moonlight all the time—it’s hardly a novelty. And three, I think having a makeout session in these spacesuits might be less than exciting.”
   “Yeah, that would definitely be safe sex.” I joked.
   “With full-body condoms!”
   “Guaranteed to prevent the spread of any kind of disease, even a cold.”
   “Ribbed, for her comfort.” She flexed her arm and the bellowed red rubber skin of her suit’s elbow for effect.
   “Guaranteed not to slip.” I tugged at the seat’s restraints.
   “Oh, so we are going to get into bondage now?” She laughed aloud. “Not on the second date, you aren’t!”
   Now I was laughing too. “So which date, then? The third or the fourth?” We both broke up and held our sides for several minutes.
   Time went by. We kept our spirits up and our worries down by making small, aside comments as the minutes ticked by. Little jibes about scheduling downtime or who can tell who’s on top in zero gravity kept us from being nervous about what we were doing.
   However, after 20 minutes, Tanya’s participation in the little battle of wits slowed, finally stopping altogether at the 40 minute mark. I leaned to the side and watched her radar display with concern.
   “Shouldn’t it be back by now?” I asked.
   She nodded her agreement, but said nothing.
   “Could it have come into a radar shadow underneath the ship?”
   She shook her head and looked glumly at her displays. “It’s programmed to announce its arrival via the radio and the digital communications link,” she said. “Yes, it could be in our radar shadow, but we would still know that the Grom had returned.” She checked the ship’s chronometer and slowly leaned back into her seat, disappointed.
   Another 15 minutes went by without another sound in the cockpit, except for the gentle drone of the ship’s environmental systems and the avionics’ cooling fans. I glanced across to the copilot seat to check on Tanya. She just sat there, staring at the radar image with her arms crossed, almost as if she was trying to bring the Grom back through force of will alone.
   “Something must have gone wrong,” I noted.
   Tanya nodded sullenly. “Looks like it,” she said.
   “10 seconds at light speed… didn’t the ship have a flight recorder that we detect with its radio beacon? Something to record data so we can see what worked and what failed during the test?”
   “Yes,” she faintly said. “But that doesn’t do any good if something fails during the 10 second flight and the flight recorder is destroyed along with the ship.” She pressed a couple of keys and checked her radio spectrum display again. It was the 10th time I’d seen her do that. “And I’m not picking up anything on the data recorder’s waveband. So either everything arrived intact at the destination but just can’t return, or the ship is destroyed at some point in its travels.”
   “What if it’s just lost and popped back in someplace further away?” I was hoping to raise her spirits some by offering a chance for her to salvage her project.
   She sighed aloud. “Even if it was at triple the distance off course somehow,” she said, “we would have picked up its radio signal within 30 seconds. We’re now well beyond that.” She put her hand on her helmet as if she was going to hold her head. “It’s time to face the facts,” she mumbled. “The Grom is gone.”
   I turned and looked at her. Her dejected face was plain to see, even half turned from me it was easy to tell how upset she was about the loss of her ship. It made my heart sink. I would have given anything to make that frown go away.
   “We could stay here for a while longer,” I offered, hoping it would help.
   She shook her head. “No,” she sadly said. “There’s no point. Go ahead and set course for Luna3 again.” She flicked a few buttons and turned her displays all off. “All we are doing out here is wasting time.”
   “Oh?” I began powering up the reactor and slowly turning the Molniya around. “You have something important to do back at the base?” I meant it as a joke, but after I said it, I thought it didn’t sound nearly as funny as I thought it would.
   She didn’t seem to notice. Or care. “Yes,” she said with a small nod. “I have to inform Governor Moriarty that the experiment was a failure and that his ship is lost.”

   Tanya propped her head on her hands on top of my bare chest. The sheets from our bed were down to her buttocks. I rested my hand on the small of her back and looked at her. “Penny for your thoughts,” I told her.
   “What makes you think I’m thinking anything?”
   “You don’t seem exactly eager to get on with things.” I ran my hand slowly down her back, stroking her soft fur. “It’s cool with me if you don’t want to have sex tonight. But you could tell me what’s on your mind, at least.”
   She ran a finger in a circle over my chest. “I’m just thinking about the future,” she said.
   “The future?” I didn’t like the sound of that.
   “Yes, the future. Think about it, we are on the Moon. We’re having a rough time of it right now, but that won’t last forever. One day, we’ll have enough food and room to grow and expand all over this rock. We’ll build cities the likes of which those on Earth have never even dreamed. We’ll spread out through the solar system, snagging ice from the seas of Titan and nitrogen from the skies of Jupiter.
   “But you know, we aren’t going to live forever. At some point in the future, we’ll all need to have children to live in the cities we’ll build and the ships we’re going to fly. There’ll need to be kids to carry on for us when we are gone.” She looked deeply into my eyes. “I just wondered what kittens would look like. Our kittens…”
   It was quite a bit of time before I could even breathe again much less answer. We laid there together for what seemed like an eternity, she on top of me and looking at me as if she was expecting some kind of an answer from me. She’d caught me completely by surprise asking me a question like that.
   “I imagine they would have very dark features.” I was doubly surprised to hear that! Those words in my own voice!
   Tanya smirked and crawled a little further up my chest and put her hands on my shoulders. “A nice dark black leopard and a clouded leopard?” she said quietly. “Black on black? Sounds positively gothic if you ask me.” She then laid her head against my neck. “And yes, it sounds lovely.”
   “Yes, it does.”
   “You think you are up to it, Tom?”
   I thought about that for a couple of seconds. “Well,” I began, “it’s natural. Everyone gets a chance to reproduce. And we aren’t exactly in a situation where we can expect a very long life expectancy. Hell, I’ve been in wars before and now I’m a refugee a quarter million miles from Earth. If I don’t start thinking about a family soon then I’m not going to have one.”
   “You don’t think this is a good time, do you?”
   I shook my head. “Not really,” I said back. “But I can’t think of any time that would be a good time. Sometimes… sometimes you just have to do what needs to be done and make the rest of the world work around it.”
   She sat up and grinned at me. “Well, lover, if that’s the way you really feel…” I felt her straddle my waist. “You do realize that there are some things we have to do first. Call it tradition.”
   “Or science.”
   “Pooh. Science is for out there in the lab, not in my bed.” She squirmed, gyrating her hips on mine.
   “Speaking of the lab, what’s that beeping sound coming from the consoles?” I asked, pivoting my ears sideways. “Did you leave something in the microwave or something?”
   Tanya stopped rubbing herself against me and sat up, ears perked. “What beeping?” she insisted, suddenly very alert.
   Just then another quiet chirp wafted through the metal chamber, reverberating faintly in the enclosed case.
   “That one,” I said.
   Tanya leaped off of me and ripped down the blanket that we’d put around the cots to give us some privacy. I let out a surprised yelp at her sudden action, grabbing the pillow and using it to cover up my very aroused manhood.
   “Who the hell turned the volume down on the Grom’s comm panel?” she angrily demanded as she dashed across the lab, covering herself with the blanket as she ran.
   I sat up, pillow in my lap. “What comm panel?” I asked disconcertedly. “What are you talking about, Tanya?”
   “It’s tuned to the radio frequency that the Grom was supposed to transmit on when it returned!” she shouted, turning up the level of the beeping sound. “That’s it! That’s the Grom! It’s back!” She spun about and shouted across the lab. “Leonid! Leonid, wake up! We have work to do!”
   There was a groan and a slow padding of bare feet on the steel floor. “Who can sleep with all the screaming cats?” he grumbled as he walked out in nothing but a pair of jockey shorts. He got a good look at Tanya standing there at the control panel wearing only a blanket and his eyes shot up in surprise. He then turned to look at me, saw me wearing nothing but a pillow and he frowned.
   “It’s close,” she announced, looking at a display while holding the blanket to her neck with one hand. That did nothing to keep the blanket on her back though—her tail, legs and back were exposed. “We only have a couple of hours to catch it before it crashes into the Moon.”
   I stood up and strode over to where Tanya was standing. I pushed one of the rolling chairs out of the way and stood beside her, examining the radar display and the equations it displayed of the one signal it was receiving. “I thought the Grom was supposed to return to where it launched from,” I said aloud.
   “It did!” Tanya replied excitedly. “The Moon and the Earth have moved in their orbits, is all. We have to get the Molniya up there and catch it, fast!” She spun to her brother. “Leonid! Get her ready for flight, now!”
   She then turned to me. “And you!” she said, stabbing a finger at me and dropping her blanket at the same time. “I want to see you in a pressure suit immediately.” She ran through the lab toward the hatchway, stark naked. There was a tantalizing glimpse of fur as she bent over to open the hatchway and a loud bang of metal upon metal as the door swung open. Tanya dashed through the opening, presumably to get a vacuum suit.
   I turned back to Leonid, who was glowering at me and my state of undress. I shrugged. “You know better than to keep a lady waiting,” I told him with a wry smirk. “Better do what she says and get the Molniya ready while I change into something less comfortable.”

   “Get under it!” Tanya yelled through the intercom as she turned her helmet to glare at me. “Get under it and catch it before it crashes on the Moon!”
   I felt the ship vibrating all around me. The control sticks, the seat, the restraints, everything was alive with the exertions of the Molniya’s orientation motors as I pushed them to do a job they had never been designed for.
   “To hell with the Grom!” I snapped back as I stared at the view from the dorsal camera. “You just make sure that we don’t end up as a crater ourselves! You’re supposed to be calling out the time till impact on the surface—what’s the latest figure?”
   Tanya whipped her head around to look at another display. “100 seconds,” she called out.
   I could feel the sweat on my forehead dripping up and running through my fur into the top of the helmet. A curious sensation, that. Kind of like being upside down inside a sauna. I pushed the upper thrusters a little harder, trying to force the Molniya to accelerate down a little quicker to try and intercept the rapidly descending Grom.
   “Damned thing drives like a pregnant whale,” I complained.
   Tanya was desperately tapping away at the keyboard on her mission computer. She didn’t look at me or reply. Her face was grim. “Come on, come on,” she growled. “Link up, baby. Link up. Tell your momma where you’ve been and what mischief you’ve been up to.”
   I checked the forward cameras again. They showed the Grom slipping from the top of the field of view and sliding above the Molniya. They also showed the sunlit sides of the Moon mountains coming into view from below.
   I glanced at the ventral display. I jumped at the image and turned it off again—that was not a pretty picture.
   “We’re getting dangerously close, Tanya!” I yelled. “Time?”
   “60 seconds. Come on, come on, catch the damned thing!”
   “It’s not as easy as you think—it’s in a slow, flat spin as well as falling…”
   “That machine represents years of research and work. Don’t you dare let it crash!”
   I gritted my teeth and clutched the controls more firmly. “Doing my best,” I said severely.
   “Your best isn’t good enough!”
   “Your mouth isn’t helping! Let me concentrate!” I flipped a button and changed the display on the third monitor to that of the cargo bay. I stabbed another button and the retaining clamps opened. I felt the vibration through the ship as they snapped into position, ready to accept the locking pegs of the Grom.
   I glanced at the dorsal camera again and frowned. “It’s tumbling now!” I called out.
   “45 seconds. I thought we took out all the rotations by remote control before we got here. What’s making it tumble again all of a sudden?”
   I looked at the bay cameras again. The Grom was coming into view again, tumbling in all axes at the same time. It spun about in every which way.
   “30 seconds!” Tanya called aloud. “What’s wrong with it?” she demanded.
   “There’s no way I’m going to be able to catch that in a few seconds, Tanya!” I flipped a lever on the controls and powered up the reactor to full once again.
   Tanya immediately noticed. She started to reach for the lever to turn if off. “No!” she yelled. “Don’t you…”
   Her words disappeared in a whoof of air as I powered up the main engines up to mid power. The Molniya leaped forward, leaving the tumbling Grom nothing but a glint of metal in the rear monitors. Tanya and I were pressed into our chairs by the 2-gravity acceleration. I could hear her grunt in surprise as the sudden force crammed her into her seat.
   But I wasn’t done. I nosed the ship up hard. I could feel the gimbals of the engines slap against their hard stops as the Molniya pointed away from the Moon and towards the heavens again. I pushed the engines up to maximum power and winced at the pain as the weight of my own body tried to crush me.
   Someone who weighs 120 pounds on Earth weighs only 20 pounds on the Moon. The gravity on the Moon is 1/6 that of Earth. But pushing the engines as hard as I was, the Molniya was pulling 5 gravities. I now weighed 600 pounds, and I felt every ounce of them. My heart pounded in my ears as it worked doubletime to force my heavy-as-lead blood through my granite body.
   The ship thrummed with power. The displays vibrated and became impossible to read, a blur of motion and color in front of me. My arms ached with the exertion of keeping grip on the control sticks. I groaned aloud as I strained to look at the rear view display again. I said a quick prayer for safety and hoped that the picture would show the surface falling away.
   It showed a couple of craters coming closer and closer. The acceleration still hadn’t overcome the velocity the ship had to begin with. We were a green-handled dagger of ultraviolet flame coming down fast on the lunar surface.
   “Tom…” Tanya gasped out my name and clutched the armrests with her red gloves. I could hear the fear in her voice.
   “I know,” I gasped. I felt the sweat on my forehead stream through my scalp and dampen the foam at the back of my helmet. I stared at the screen, watching in horror as the gray ground came closer and closer. I swallowed nervously against the gravity. The ship trembled and shuddered under the engine’s tremendous power.
   Several moments passed. The engine’s exhaust kicked up a cloud of dust. Then, just when I had about decided that Tanya and I were done for, the field of rocks and stones slowed down, stopped, and then pulled away at a dizzying speed.
   The Molniya rose up and away from the lunar surface. It climbed, climbed, climbed. I reduced the thrust to lower the g-forces on our bodies, now that the worst of the threat was passed. A couple of minutes later, I nosed the ship down and moved her towards a lunar orbit insertion.
   Once the orbit was established, I took a deep breath and let it out again. It had only been a few minutes but it felt like a year. I turned and looked at Tanya. She was looking somewhat ragged herself. She was trembling inside her suit. I could just see her hands twitching on the arm rests.
   “I’m sorry about your ship,” I said gently. “I know how hard you worked on it.”
   She sat there motionless for about a minute, breathing rapidly in and out again. I knew what it was—it was panic. I’d seen the face often enough before on the faces of the new pilots in my squadron back when I was still an attack pilot on Earth. New, young faces who never faced death before, coming back from their first combat runs with stone faces and frozen souls. Those of them that came back at all, that is.
   There was nothing I could do for her even if we weren’t both strapped to our seats in free fall. What could I do, slap her helmet? A fat lot of good that would do. I sat watching her while Tanya gasped for breath. This lasted for about a minute or two. Then, finally, she managed to come to her senses and controlled her breathing a little more regularly.
   “That was… close,” she managed to choke out.
   I nodded quickly. “Any closer, and they’d be naming a new crater for the two of us,” I said nervously.
   “We lost the Grom.” She slammed her fists into the arm rests, her panic giving way to anger. “Damn it, we almost had it!” She spun around and stared fiercely at me, those green eyes shooting fire, helmet or no helmet. “We stopped the tumbling long before we got the Molniya off the ground, Thomas. But when we approached, it went ape-shit again! Why?” she demanded.
   “I think the exhaust gases from the maneuvering jets blew it around, just like a fan blows a balloon about,” I said. Shaking my head I added, “I’m sorry, Tanya. I really tried to catch it. But there was just no way with what little time we had.”
   She stared at me for several seconds more. Then her face softened and she nodded to me. “I know,” she said, more quietly than before. “I know you did. You did everything short of putting on a catcher’s mitt and jumping out the hatch.” She then leaned back in her seat and let out a frustrated breath. “At least we know that the engine sort of works.”
   “Sort of works?”
   “It came back, didn’t it? Just not when we expected it to, is all.” She tapped a few instructions on her mission computer. “And I did manage to get a memory dump from the Grom’s computer before it crashed. I should be able to figure out something about what happened to it and why it took so long to return home from that.”
   I checked my ground track view on the navigation monitor. “We’re in a lousy orbit for returning to base,” I said. “It’ll be 5 days before we pass close by the base in our current one. Do you want me to move us to a quicker return path?”
   Tanya’s jaw hung open and she stared at her display.
   “Tanya?” I asked again.
   “Sweet mother of God,” she whispered. “There’s no way.”
   “Of course there is; we still have plenty of fuel. Moving to a better orbit won’t take us…”
   “Not that, Thomas!” Tanya pointed at some numbers and a photograph on her display. “That!”
   I shrugged and started computing the thrust vectors to move us from our current, randomly selected orbit and into one that would put us back at the base in less than an hour. “And what is that supposed to be?” I asked while I studied the numbers.
   “That’s data from the Grom,” she replied. Her voice was trembling, but suddenly held an edge of excitement. “Now I know why it took so long to return to its launching point as it was ordered to.”
   “Why’s that?”
   “It was supposed to fly in the quantum field for 10 seconds, figure out where it was and then fly the exact same route backwards again.” She excitedly pointed to the numbers and the picture. “It took the poor computer quite some time to figure out where it ended up, that’s all.”
   I nodded. “And it ended up 10 light-seconds from Earth?” I asked.
   “Light-seconds? Ha! Closer to 10 light-years, Thomas!”
   I blinked. There was no way I could have heard her right. “Say that again,” I prompted. “I don’t think I heard you correctly. Did you say that the Grom…”
   “Ended up so very far away that all the stars and constellations were shifted about!” She bounced excitedly in her seat, practically squealing for joy! “The tracking system finally resorted to locating several quasars in the galaxy, each with its own signature, and figuring it out from that!”
   She turned to me and smiled so broadly that her teeth showed. “We’ve done it!” she cried. “We’ve found the loophole in the laws of physics that will give us the stars!”
   My head began to swim with the enormity of what she was telling me. “And… the Einstein light-speed limit doesn’t apply because…”
   “We don’t move in Einsteinian space. We take advantage of the same quantum mechanism that allows for electron tunneling.” She reached to rub her chin thoughtfully but forgot about the helmet. “The 9th dimensional loops must be thousands of times longer than I thought. Just think, Thomas, we’ll be famous. We’re heroes! Why, once the scientists down on Earth hear about what we’ve done they’ll…”
   I held up my hand to stop her. “Wait,” I commanded. I felt my ears fold back, helmet or no. “You aren’t really going to tell the Earth people about all this, are you?”
   Tanya thought about it for a moment. Then she nodded. “Yes, that was my plan,” she said. “You and I will get to come back to the Earth as heroes.”
   “Heroes?” I wanted to spit, but thought better of it. The inside of my helmet was already wet enough. “Humans wouldn’t know a hero if he flew down wearing tights, a cape and a big, yellow ‘S’ on his chest. Screw them! Don’t tell them anything.”
   “You don’t think I should report on this discovery?”
   I scowled at her. “Report to who? Those warmongers who created us to fight their battles for them, then threw us out here to die when we outlived our usefulness? I think not.”
   Tanya nodded slowly and thoughtfully. “The technology has to be developed,” she said
   Cautiously, I nodded back and resumed correcting the ship’s orbit. “And it will be,” I replied. “But not by the damned humans.” I turned to face Tanya again. “Can you make another one?” I asked. “Do you have the plans?”
   She nodded. “Of course,” she said.
   “And nobody else anywhere knows about what happened and how far the Grom really went?”
   “The only ones who know about it are you and me, Thomas,” Tanya said. “And the only data we have is all here in this computer. The Grom itself was vaporized when it hit the Moon.”
   “So right now, only you have the secret to interstellar travel.” I looked levelly at her. “Do you really want to hand it over to the race responsible for tearing out our claws and stranding us on a lifeless rock with next to no support or assistance from them? Do you really owe them anything?”
   Tanya leaned back in her chair and thought carefully for several minutes before coming to a decision. “All right. I’ll encrypt all the data from the Grom,” she said, “and the blueprints at the base. The way I see it, if I’m wrong to withhold it, then I can always give the information up later. But if I’m wrong to give it out, then there’s no way I can take the data back again once it’s out of my paws.”
   I pursed my lips. “A logical and safe approach,” I said. “Make sure that nobody finds out about this. Not the governor, not your brother, nobody.” I turned back to my instruments. “We’ll just keep this our little secret for the time being.”
   “Well, you just make certain that our approach path to the base is just as logical and safe,” she grumbled. “We have the keys to the stars now, you and I. If we die in a crash and lose it all, I’ll be very cross with you.”

   “I’m going to make sure our little secret stays secret, Thomas.” Tanya pushed the hatchway open while still dressed in her red pressure suit. She’d left her helmet in the Molniya, but otherwise looked like she was ready to fly. I followed her through the hatchway into the lab. Like Tanya, I hadn’t bothered to get out of my pressure suit and looked like I was about to climb back into the cockpit.
   I put my helmet down on a table close to the hatchway. “I’ll be here,” I told her back. In a flash she ducked around some consoles and disappeared from sight.
   I glanced to the wall and something caught my attention. I turned and saw a bedraggled young fox woman. She clutched a worn blanket around her and shivered against the metal wall. She noticed me staring at her and her yellow eyes widened with fear and she clutched the blanket more tightly, as if afraid I would take it from her.
   She couldn’t have been older than 15 years old.
   I gave her a little smile and turned away so not to frighten her further. “Don’t worry, young lady,” I said quietly. “My friends and I are going to find a new home for us all very soon, don’t you worry.”
   A rough paw grabbed my shoulder from behind. I spun about and found myself staring whisker to whisker with Leonid. He had a worried look on his face. He gestured for me to be quiet and motioned for me to follow him.
   Had Tanya said something to him? I wondered. But no, that wasn’t possible; there hadn’t been enough time. And I’d been right next to her the entire flight back to base. The only one she talked with on the radio had been Moriarty himself, telling him that the Grom was a failure and that the machine had crashed on the surface and been destroyed. Was there some other way he could have found out about what had really happened and what it meant?
   Leonid stopped at the hatchway leading out and turned back to face me again. He looked very worried indeed. “We need to talk,” he whispered to me. “Someplace private.”
   That didn’t help my nerves any. He knows something, I decided. Somehow or other, he knows. I followed him out the hatchway and down corridors and through several other cramped and bustling cylinders. All the while I was trying to figure out what to do about him. What’s his game? Reveal our secret to Moriarty? Position himself for some kind of angle? Set himself up for a later grab at power or authority or power later? He certainly wouldn’t be the first to do that, I thought. Just look at the canines in security here on the Moon.
   We made our way down a flight of stairs into the noisy, humid bottom section of the cylinder. I wondered if he was deliberately taking me into hydroponics so he could kill me outright and then hide my body in the liquid. I pushed the thought out of my mind—it would take weeks for my body to decompose under those conditions and the pressure suit would be hard to hide.
   Of course, if it really came to that, Leonid wasn’t wearing such a rubber suit, I decided. I clenched my fists reflexively in the rubber gloves.
   He walked halfway down the racks of soy plants under the fans and lights before stopping. He reached down and picked up a denim satchel, turning and throwing it at my feet.
   “Be careful with it,” he said sadly. “That suit won’t be much protection against it.”
   Perplexed, I reached down and tugged at the zipper with one hand. The fabric parted to reveal a brown and silver gauntlet. A leather glove with four razor sharp blades over the fingers, linked together with hinges and linkages.
   A fighting hand, just like the one I sketched for him earlier.
   “So this is what you mean by talking.” I swallowed and started taking off my right glove, hoping that Leonid would allow me the couple of minutes necessary to get the pressure glove off. It took time under even ideal circumstances. This was anything but ideal. And if Leonid had another one and wore his before I could get my own gauntlet on…
   The first part of my question was answered when he lifted another bag just like mine up. He stared at me as I urgently struggled with my glove.
   But Leonid didn’t appear angry at all. If anything, he looked unhappy and frustrated rather than mad. Still, there was that gauntlet in his hands…
   “Built just the way you wanted,” he said. “And yes, if I really pushed it, I could have mine on and have your guts stretched throughout this level before you could get that glove off.” His fingers tightened on the handle of his bag.
   I narrowed my eyes. “I never figured you for a coward,” I growled. “Why not just stab me in my sleep? If you want to settle this in a fight, then do it right.”
   He made a sly smirk. In a quick move he unzipped the bag and reached into it, pulling out his own leather and steel set of artificial claws. In a near panic I struggled to tear the space suit’s glove off.
   Then, completely by surprise, he pushed the gauntlet back into its bag and tossed it into the soy plants at his left. I froze, staring at the spot in the crops where he’d discarded his weapon.
   My fingers finally found the last release clip and my glove came off. It slid off my hand and the metal retaining rings clattered against the corrugated floor. But I didn’t reach for my weapon. Instead, I stood there, staring at Leonid.
   “So we’re not going to fight?” I asked, somewhat puzzled.
   Leonid shook his head from side to side. “Not if I can avoid it,” he said.
   “Then what’s with the gauntlets?” I demanded, pointing to my bag. “Did you think I needed a backscratcher or something?”
   “Oh, I made them with every intention of you and I dueling with them, Thomas.” He glared unhappily at me. “But we’ll have to set that aside for awhile. There are more important things for us to do with them.”
   I cocked my head to the side. “Like what?” I cautiously asked.
   Leonid crossed his arms over his blue overalls. “I heard Tanya talking with you earlier, before you two jumped up and took off in the ship,” he said. “I heard her talking about the future, having kids, and all the rest.”
   “How long have you been listening to us?”
   He smirked and flicked an ear. “These things aren’t just for decoration,” he remarked. “Neither is my nose. What, did you think that no one else trying to sleep in the lab knew what you two were doing? Give me a break!
   “There have been times that I wanted to use your head as a hammer, Thomas.” He glowered a little bit. “I still don’t like you. Just so we are clear on that. But Thomas, killing you is now out of the question. It would make my sister, my loving sister, very unhappy. And that is the truth of the matter.”
   I nodded and crossed my arms as well. “I think I can live with that,” I grumbled. “But why bring me all this way if you just wanted to tell me that? What’s the real reason you brought me down here if not to fight?”
   He paused, then he reached up to a single 2-inch-diameter metal pipe on the roof above us. “You know what this is?” he asked, pointing to it.
   I nodded. “Green labeled pipes are clean water. Drinking water,” I told him.
   “Yes, recycled water coming out of the cleaning system to be pumped to all the rest of the base.” He took a couple of steps toward me and then tapped on a glass bell connected to the same line. “And this?” he asked. “Do you know what this is?”
   “What is this, remedial lunar base construction 101?”
   “Do you know what this is or not?” he insistently repeated.
   I shrugged. “It looks like an inline filter,” I ventured.
   “It’s birth control hormones,” Leonid announced.
   My jaw hung open for a moment. Of all the things I was expecting, that wasn’t one of them. “It’s what?” I stammered.
   “Female birth control hormones,” he sadly repeated. “Stored in clay pellets. Released over time into the water supply.”
   I stared at the dirty aluminum cylinder, slowly shaking my head. “But… why?” I whispered. “Why would they do such a thing?”
   “Because the humans think that we were a mistake; that they should never have created us to fight their wars for them in the first place. They expected that we would be controllable since we couldn’t reproduce. As soon as they lost that control over our numbers, we became a problem. And as soon as you and your fellow stick-jockeys killed a general on your own side, we became a threat.
   “So they sent us all out here to die. Oh, not all at once, no sir. And certainly not without us doing their dirty work, building a lunar base before passing. No, they expect us to softly fade away over a long period of time, sacrificing the inevitable number of lives as we do their hard work for them. And as long as we can’t reproduce, our numbers dwindle. And in the end, humankind will pick up pre-made lunar colony without having to lose one soul to make it.”
   “But that’s genocide!” I cried. My voice reverberated through the metal canister.
   “Oh?” Leonid gave a weak look of surprise. “And how many people will they have killed? Hmm? It isn’t organized genocide if nobody gets killed. Simply to ensure that a group cannot reproduce, that’s extermination, certainly. But it’s not genocide.”
   My nostrils flared with fury and I turned to glare at Leonid. “Fine!” I snapped. “Extermination then. I don’t give a piss what word you use—it’s wrong!” I stabbed a finger up toward the cylinder. “You built every single piece of gear up here on the Moon,” I accused him. “You put that there! Why the hell would you do such a thing?”
   He tucked his hands into his pockets and looked sadly down at my feet. “I… was forced to,” he slowly exclaimed. “I didn’t want to, believe me. But I’m the third person to hold this job. Security murdered the previous two when they refused to do what the humans wanted. Their desiccated bodies are underneath this very module as a matter of fact.”
   “I can’t see you caring if they threatened your life,” I growled.
   Leonid shrugged. “They didn’t. They threatened Tanya’s.” He pulled his hands out of his pockets and sank down on the ground, still looking forlorn. “They said they would kill her, very slow and terrible, if I didn’t cooperate. And then they said that they’d give her a fake job to do if I would just shut up and follow orders.” He looked up at me again with dead eyes. “She is always the dreamer—space flight and reaching for the stars,” he said with a sniffle. “So they put her in charge of spacecraft development in exchange for my cooperation. I do not think they expected her to accomplish anything.
   “I love my sister very much,” he said, quiet and plain. “I’d give the world to make her happy. As it stands,” he said, waving an arm about him, “all I was able to give her was the Moon. And a job that keeps her mind occupied and unaware of the horror going on all around her.” He glumly looked down at the floor once more.
   I have to say, I was surprised by his answer. I was expecting him to say that he was paid well or offered an escape from the Moon in exchange for his cooperation. But he wasn’t anywhere as self-centered as I thought—he didn’t do anything for himself. He didn’t build the base for himself. He didn’t struggle and slave to create a home from the most remote wilderness in history, no. He didn’t condemn all non-human sentients to the dustbin of history for himself.
   He did it for his sister. For love.
   My anger grew, deeper and hotter, as I glared down on Leonid. But it wasn’t directed at him; not any more. No, I was most righteously pissed off at the party responsible for our being here. For our horrors and our agony. Hell, for our very existence. Humankind, the mother-race itself!
   “Those bastards,” I hissed, folding my ears flat against my head. “They want us to do all their dangerous jobs for them, and then quietly disappear when we become inconvenient. And since they couldn’t find one of us who’d do what they said in exchange for their own life, they found someone they could get to cooperate by threatening another instead.” I stared at Leonid fiercely for a moment. “And why are you telling me all this now? I’d normally ask what’s in it for you, but I know better. What the hell’s your angle in all this?”
   Leonid toyed with the laces of his boot for a moment. “Like I said, I love my sister,” he quietly said. “I want her to be happy. And when this all started, her playing with her spaceships made her happy.” He looked up at me, a desperate sheen in his eyes.
   “Then you came along!” he yelled. “You came along and she suddenly had visions of having a regular life again. Of having a family! She imagines she can live the great American dream all the way out here, with a white picket fence and a robotic dog bouncing around in the lunar soil. She thinks she can have children with you. And she can’t, not with that thing installed in the water system.” He pointed at the cylinder above him.
   “But take that out, and there’s a chance for children,” he sighed. “A small chance, to be sure, but better than no chance at all, which is what we have right now.”
   I nodded and grabbed the cylinder with both hands. “Small is better than none,” I agreed. I gripped the metal surface tightly in both paws and turned as tightly as I could. My hands slipped on it s slick, slimy surface. “Give me a hand with this; I’m going to get rid of this thing,” I declared, setting a better grip on it.
   “No, I don’t think so,” came a canine voice behind me.
   Leonid jumped up in alarm. I spun about to face the voice behind me. But I already knew who it was. It was the voice of the German Shepherd who’d gotten me out of my seat in the shuttle half a year ago.
   I was correct. It was the same guy. I could tell from the color patterns in his facial fur. And he wasn’t alone, either. Another smaller Shepherd was walking right behind him in the narrow corridor between pallets of soy plants. Both of them were taking their gloves off as they came closer and closer. Their claws were polished and black.
   “I always knew you’d be trouble,” the bigger Shepherd chuckled aloud. “I knew I’d have to cut your throat someday. I gotta say that I’m surprised at you, though, Leonid.” He pointed to him. “I thought we had an understanding. You were supposed to keep this little bit a secret. No one else was supposed to know about the birth control hormones—you know that!
   “So. Now we have to kill you, the astro-kitty, here,” he said, pointing to me, “and then your dear sister later on.” The dog shook his head in disbelief as he stepped closer and closer. “All you had to do was keep the base growing and keep your mouth shut. And you couldn’t do it, could you? Pity.”
   “Why are you guys in on this?” I demanded. “You know what’s going on—the humans are going to let us die out here, slowly and deliberately, while they use us as slave labor to build their footholds into space. I know his reasons,” I said, hooking a thumb toward Leonid. “But what are yours? What do you get out of it?”
   The big dog chuckled even louder. “We’re in charge,” he said as flatly as if he was reporting on the weather back on Earth. “We get first dibs on food, the freshest water and a few other perks you don’t need to concern yourself with.”
   “But you’ll die out with the rest of us!”
   He shrugged. “So what?” he said. “Not like any of us really expected much of a future anyways. We can die like dogs down on some battlefield on Earth, or we can live like officers and be in command up here, living a good 30 years longer than we’d get otherwise.” He smiled and snapped his fingers, again drawing attention to his deadly claws. “Life up here or death down there? Talk about a no-brainer decision!”
   “Your whole species will die out! When you’re gone, there’ll be nothing left of your kind!”
   The dog shrugged. “We weren’t supposed to be able to reproduce anyway. What have we lost? Nothing.” His cohort kicked the bag that was in the walkway to the side.
   Oh hell! There goes my fighting hand! I watched the bag fall into the gooey sludge-filled catch-all depression which lay under the lowest pallet of plants and disappear under the green algae surface. I winced as it vanished from sight.
   “You get Leonid,” the bigger and presumably senior German Shepherd told the other. “I want Buck Rogers here for my own.” He turned and faced me again, standing side by side with the other guard. Both of them bared their teeth and growled for a second.
   Then they charged!
   The smaller one ran right past me. I didn’t have time to try and trip him because the big dog was on me a split second after. He leaped through the air a good 5 feet and hit me square in the chest.
   I fell on my back with the guard on top of me. I grimaced and reached up to hold the canine’s neck and keep his clawed hands away from my body. It didn’t work—his arms were longer than mine. He thrust down with both hands.
   And his claws bounced off my pressure suit!
   “What the…” he started to say. He was surprised to find his natural weapons unable to puncture the suit. So was I, but I didn’t waste any time analyzing the situation. I pulled both hands back and punched him as hard as I could in the solar plexus.
   He flew bodily off of my chest and landed a foot or so from my feet. He clutched at his chest and I could see he was having some trouble catching his breath. I did a quick cat-like flip and landed on my feet. From behind, I could hear Leonid cursing his attacker in Russian.
   The guard wasn’t out of action for more than two seconds. He jumped to his feet and rushed me. I automatically raked my hands across his muzzle. He didn’t even notice—damn, but I missed having claws! The dog grabbed me by the arms and lifted me off the ground like I was a toy.
   “So, you think that suit protects you from my claws, eh?” he growled. “Fine. Your head isn’t protected at all, pussycat. So I’ll just take my time in bashing your brains in!” With that he forcefully threw me headfirst against the metal wall of the cylinder.
   My vision exploded with light. The pain was incredible and my vision swam. I felt my body slowly flow like water down the curved side of the cylinder wall. I smelled and tasted blood.
   Dizzy and dazed, I still tried to get to my feet. To stand and fight. To defend myself. All I managed to do was get to my knees in front of my attacker.
   “Damned cat!” he spat. He grabbed me by the arms again and shook me like a rag-doll, snarling at me. “No sense of loyalty at all. No esprit d’corps!” With his last word he threw me bodily down the path between the crops.
   Dazed or not, I was still a cat. And some instincts die hard. I flipped and landed on my feet. I was wobbly and still half-way dazed, but I was on my feet again. I bared my fangs and hissed aloud at the enraged dog now running after me.
   I hoped that my instincts wouldn’t be the only thing that died hard this day. The guard rushed me with his right hand pulled back. I swung a savage uppercut at his head. It would have knocked him to the ceiling if I’d connected, but all I caught was the empty air beside his head as he ducked to the side.
   Then the now too–familiar sharp sting of the canine claws trying to cut through my pressure suit. The dog swung as hard as he could, but still couldn’t penetrate the suit. That’s not to say that I didn’t feel anything; I felt a rib crack and my legs lifted off the floor as he knocked me off the path and into the crops.
   I landed in the moist soil and rolled, crushing dozens of the vital soy plants as I did so. I turned and looked to where the guard was standing and cursing me.
   “If I have to choke you to death, Thomas, then that’s what I’ll do!” he spat.
   I swallowed and glanced around, trying to find a way out. The Air Force didn’t train stupid pilots; sometimes the odds are so heavily stacked against you that the only way to win is to drag the enemy away from where they have the advantage and to someplace where the odds are more in your favor. I realized with a sudden surge of fear that there was only one doorway down into these farms, and the poster-boy for Alpo was in my way.
   Quickly I scanned around for Leonid. If we were going to stand any chance at all, we had to cover each other’s back. Laying on my stomach in the soy patches I didn’t see him.
   But I did spot something else. A denim bag, just like the one that Leonid gave me. The one that he’d discarded a couple of minutes ago. His fighting hand!
   I crawled to the bag as quickly as I could. There was some smashing of plants to my side. It was the bigger guard, searching for me. My forehead burst out in sweat as I reached for the bag and wrapped my fingers around it. Time to turn the advantage around, I thought.
   “You don’t stand a chance, you pussy,” the German Shepherd taunted, looking the wrong way. His head scanned the plants, searching for me.
   I tore open the bag.
   His ears swiveled on the sound and his eyes followed a heartbeat after. He found me!
   I shoved my right hand into the bag.
   The guard howled with rage. He began to run toward me. I got up as far as my knees, facing him. He leaped toward me with both hands extended, aiming for my throat.
   With my left arm, I knocked his hands and arms up and away from me. Then I swung my right hand up.
   The four knives connected with a set of wet thumps! as they went through the dog’s blue jumpsuit and into his muscular abdomen. His howl shot up an octave from the pain and surprise, turning into an agonizing shriek. His momentum through the air was stopped, stopped by tearing flesh catching on steel.
   He stared in shock, looking down on me with wide eyes. “But… how?” he gasped, trying to force air back into his lungs.
   One nice thing about the Moon is that everything weighs 1/6 what it does on Earth. I frowned and stood up with the dog still stuck on my right hand. I reached straight up and pinned him bodily to the ceiling!
   “No sense of loyalty, eh?” I snarled up at him. “You’d have us just roll over and let the bastards slit our collective throats, and I’m ‘disloyal’? Well, fuck you! Fuck you, fuck your masters and fuck all their cowardice that you are so loyal to!”
   There was a crashing sound behind me. The other guard saw what was going on and was rushing to help his superior. The ‘statue of liberty’ play wasn’t too smart, I decided.
   I quickly jerked the knives out of his gut, pushing his body to the side. I then spun about, swinging wide with the fighting hand at the all-too-close noise. There was a split second where the knives connected with something soft and a gurgling sound.
   A second later the second Shepherd flew past my left, clutching at its throat. Red blood shot out of his throat. It shot far and wide across the plants, staining the leaves a deep burgundy.
   He thrashed about for a couple of seconds, trying to scream through his torn throat. After a moment the shock of blood loss and pain reached his brain and with a massive convulsion, he made a last clutching gasp for breath. Then he was still.
   I stood there for several moments, catching my breath. My feet were half sunk into the shit-and-soil compost; I stank of fear and excrement. My suit was stained with streaks of red, brown and green—some of it was crushed soy, I figured. I didn’t want to think too much about what the rest of it was. And on top of it all was the rusty smell of fresh blood everywhere.
   My muscles shook from adrenaline and exertion. I made my way down off the farming slat, down to where I’d thrown the big guard seconds ago. I found him laying against the wall, holding his stomach and grimacing in pain.
   And laying a few feet away from him, in almost the same position, was Leonid. My shaking got worse.
   “You’ll… pay for this,” the guard coughed. His muzzle wrinkled with agony.
   I clutched my left side and the cracked rib. Then I leaned down lower, putting the blades of the fighting hand on his throat. “If so,” I said, “then I’m going to get my money’s worth,” I calmly told him.
   His eyes widened as I drew the edges across and through his throat. Once more the air was filled with a fine red mist as the carotid arteries opened up to the air, losing their precious delivery of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. And like the canine before him, he lived only a short time after that.
   I stood over his body for a moment, holding my hurt side and catching my breath. A weak gasp from Leonid’s direction caught my attention. I turned and walked toward him. I winced as I bent over and pushed on his shoulder. He let out a whimper as he rolled over on his back—he was still alive!
   “Leonid…” I moaned. I looked him over from top to bottom. His jumpsuit was stained with blood from dozens and dozens of puncture wounds all over his body. Leonid coughed up a fresh patina of crimson over his chest.
   “Thomas.” He coughed again, weaker this time. His breathing became raspy and labored. “Promise me,” he said quietly.
   I leaned closer, ignoring the pain of my own side. I figured his pain was quite a bit greater than mine. “Promise you what?” I asked him.
   He winced again. But his eyes were fierce. He stared strongly at me, locking eyes with me as he spoke again. “Promise me. That. You’ll look after her,” he wheezed.
   I swallowed and nodded. He didn’t have long to live by the look of him. “I promise you, I’ll take good care of her,” I swore. “And if things go as I think they will, I’ll be taking her far away from this place soon. One day, I promise you that she and I will breath free air on a free world again.”
   His sardonic laugh almost instantly changed to a groan . “Don’t promise… what you can’t…” He coughed again. The blood was much brighter this time.
   I clutched his shoulder tightly with my left hand since the gauntlet was still on my right. “Leonid, her ship design worked better than she thought!” I hissed. “It went out beyond the stars and then came back. Tanya has the keys to countless worlds far, far away from here—free worlds with open skies and wide open lands. And I promise you something else; not only am I going to find a new planet for all of us to live on, but there won’t be any humans coming with us.”
   He blinked in pain. Or was it astonishment? “Bull,” he said.
   “I wouldn’t kid a man on his deathbed,” I said gently. I rubbed his shoulder. “The Grom went 10 light years in 10 seconds, and I’m taking Tanya and everyone else off this rock the second I can.”
   He looked amazed. “All?” he gasped in a gurgling whisper.
   I nodded. “Yes, every fuzzy one of us,” I replied
   Leonid nodded. He took a breath.
   “Good.” He gasped. “Take… the stars. For… Tanya. For your… children…” With that he trembled for a moment, eyes bulging. Then his head went slack against the wall and the fire went out of his eyes. His last breath escaped as a bubbling rattle.
   I closed my eyes for a moment. My eyes became moist with tears. For several moments we stayed like this, Finally I pulled his body up and held his head next to mine. I knew what Tanya would think when she found out that her brother was dead. I knew that the news was going to break her heart. And I knew that like Leonid, I’d give almost anything to shield her from the pain.
   “I will, Leonid. I promise,” I wept. “But before I can take the stars, I have to take the Moon.” Gently I lowered his body down to the floor again. I sniffled as I stood up and regarded him there. “Many more lives are going to be lost today, Leonid. More souls will join you in the hereafter to keep you company. I may very well be one of them before all is through.”
   I clutched my right hand in front of my face and frowned at it. The metal knives jutted forward ahead of the knuckles. They were wet with blood and the leather glove was stained brown with it as well.
   This glove will be dripping blood before this day is over, I told myself. I looked at the two dead guards. Then I looked at Leonid, imagining Tanya’s body laying on the mold-streaked floor and covered with puncture wounds. I let the anger build in me. I carefully stoked the fires of the hate inside me, reminding myself of the horrors I’d seen through the years. I thought of all the pain and suffering that we hybrids had suffered through.
   I recalled that little girl from the world below and how she’d had her claws torn out. My teeth gritted at the thought. Then I recalled all the atrocities that I’d committed through the years—that every hybrid had committed—all to please their creator, man!
   My head tilted back and a savage scream escaped my throat. The shriek was part human scream of pain, and part Leopard roar of rage. The feline war-cry was echoed through the module as I raced in a blind fury up the stairs, back into the occupied areas of the base!

   “Revolution!” My shout rang throughout the module, reverberating metallically from wall to wall. I rushed into the middle of the nearest group of people lounging against whatever space they could find. My heart pounded as I approached them with my gauntlet behind my back.
   I looked down on a tired-looking but otherwise strong bear hybrid, curled up in the green rags which still had some insignias from Special Forces on the shoulder. “Why are you just sitting there, brother bear?” I demanded. “There are great deeds to be done, and they must be done today.”
   The bear looked up at me and yawned widely. “Great deeds?” he said mockingly in his deep, bass voice. “Again with the great deeds. Bah! I’ve had my fill of great deeds, little leopard.”
   “What’s wrong with you? Has the world got you down?”
   “No, the world has got me up.” He smiled as his cohorts chuckled softly. I looked at them one at a time. There was another bear who was missing most of his muzzle, a one-armed raccoon, a cheetah with no legs and a wolf wearing an eye-patch. They all snickered along with their leader. “Way up; to the Moon in fact.”
   I nodded urgently. “Then how would you like a chance to breath real air again?” I asked. “To eat real food? To have families?”
   “Please,” he said. He dismissed my notions with a wave of his hand. “You think we haven’t heard speeches before?” He pointed to the four others, still sitting on the floor in their places. “We were all young and brave once. We all once thought that fighting for the causes put before us would bring us honor, glory and greatness. Our leaders told us that bringing freedom to lands that had never known it was a noble enterprise.”
   He gazed sadly at me. “Turns out we were just trading in an old set of despots for a newer set,” he sighed. “And when it was all said and done and the mission was accomplished, what was our reward? What did I get for my blood and effort? A set of rags to wear on my wounded back, a cold wall surrounded by vacuum, and a crypt built for a million, so far out that not even the historians will remember us.
   “We’ve all fought for enough great causes in our lives, thank you. We’ve seen what happens to those who fight them. And we don’t need any more trouble. So take your talk of revolution and throw it out the nearest airlock.” With that the bear crossed his arms and curled further against the wall, shivering.
   I thought a couple of moments about what I was going to say next. A group of raggedly-dressed refugees of all different species was starting to gather around me now, mumbling to themselves. They were trying to decide if I was a mad-man and needed to be spaced quickly, or a messiah who needed to be followed.
   I kneeled down in front of the bear and looked him straight in the eye. “The humans betrayed you and everything you fought for,” I said, sitting nose to nose. It was risky; the brute had the strength to crush me like a bug if it crossed his mind to do so. “Is that right?”
   He nodded disinterestedly. “They betrayed us all, once they had what they needed from us.”
   “Oh, but they aren’t through with us yet, friend. No. Before we die, they expect us to build them a bridge to the stars first. So why not take the advantage and take the stars away from them? Why should we struggle and die just to drop our prize into their waiting hands?”
   The brown bear shrugged. “Like I said, we’ve heard it all before,” he mumbled. “No more big dreams. No more trying to save the universe.”
   “So you’ll just sit there in the corner and die, then?”
   The bear started to look cross. “And what’s the alternative?”
   “You fight!” I told him fiercely. “You fight for what you’ve made and demand a future; for you and for everyone!”
   “And get thrown out to die in space?” He snorted. “Nothing doing.”
   “But this is our world!” I demanded. “Not the humans’, not the guards’, but ours! We built this with our blood, sweat and guts!”
   “And speaking of guts.” This was the one-armed raccoon. “How do you expect to defeat the security guards in the first place? They have claws and we don’t.”
   I gritted my teeth. “They have claws, yes,” I agreed. “But we have wrenches. Spanners. Cutting torches. Lasers. Hell, we’ll use electric toothbrushes if it comes to it. We outnumber them 40 to 1! Plus, we have pressure suits—their claws can’t penetrate the suits! Come on, you’ve been through worse than this and came out on top, I know you have!”
   The bear gestured around to his surroundings and I turned toward him again. “You call this coming out on top, do you?” he spat. “Shit, somedays I wish I’d died out in the deserts rather than ending up here. At least it would have been quicker.”
   “Death isn’t a bad thing if you make it count for something.” I quickly told him. “And dying quietly, sulking in your corner, doesn’t do anyone a damned bit of good.”
   “And dying for your cause is better?” the raccoon snidely added. “There are lots of ways to die up here. We could run out of oxygen. We could run out of food. A fire could fill the atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Why should any of us rush out and die for you and your ideas? What makes your way of dying—sooner rather than later—better than the others?”
   I stood up again and straightened my pressure suit. “Because your way, you’ll slowly rot right there where you sit,” I firmly told him. “You’ll grow old. You’ll never have a future or a chance to breathe clean air again. You’ll die alone. And every minute of every day, awake or asleep, you’ll be a slave!
   “At least my way, you have the chance to live as God intended—as a free man! And if you die here, tonight, you will still die as a free man; not some lowly peon that the nobles tired of and then threw away. You had the guts to fight for others once upon a time—don’t you have any balls to fight for yourselves anymore? Or have the humans crushed any sense of self-worth out of you?”
   The crowd murmured amongst themselves as my words sank in. Then a cry of alarm rang out from one side of it and the crowd parted. A trio of angry dogs charged through the opening, swinging their clawed hands to and fro!
   I spun about and faced them head on. Two of them came at me while the third hung back. I didn’t make any effort to hide the gauntlet now; I swung it downward at the guard on the right.
   The blades dug deep into the hybrid’s shoulder. But he didn’t make a single sound. It had to have hurt a great deal, but he lunged forward anyway. The two guards hit me side by side, knocking me to the ground.
   I crashed onto my back. Then I tried to pull my weapon out of the guard’s shoulder. I realized with a shock that the dog’s body was pinning my arm to my chest and that I couldn’t move it at all, much less free my weapon!
   I struggled and pushed to get his fat, hairy body off of mine. But I was caught fast. Both dogs kept one arm in their clutches and pinned me to the floor. The guard on my right began to growl under his breath at me, breathing hot against my muzzle. My nose twitched as I caught the smell of fresh blood on his breath. The blades must have cut through to the lungs, I figured. He’d be dead in under an hour if he didn’t get medical help.
   It was then that I saw the third guard walk purposefully up behind them, and I realized that I had far less than an hour myself unless I found some way to free my weapon!
   “That’s it,” he ordered, “hold him down! Keep that damned knife of his out of action so I can cut his carotid artery!” He flexed his right hand, claws and all, in clear view of me. “His suit doesn’t cover his neck and head. Just keep him down for a few more seconds.”
   Terror poured through my body. It lent me urgent strength. The leader of the guards leaned over me and I made a mighty shove, desperately trying to get free. But both guards gripped me tighter to themselves. I felt the one on my right shudder in agony as the knives plunged deeper still. He struggled with me in spite of the pain and likelihood of death. Desperate strength or not, I was still held tight.
   The third guard put his hand around my throat. He smiled wickedly at me as his fingers closed and cut off my air. He was enjoying this! I gasped for air and opened my jaws wide in an effort to bite him, to no avail.
   “Or should I just choke you to death for the next five minutes?” he said. He let out a sick laugh. “Might serve as a lesson to the others; teach them something.”
   “Oh, you’ve taught us something, all right.” A deep, bass voice came from behind the guards.
   Suddenly the iron grip on my neck was released. The hand and the guard flew backwards away from me with a yelp of surprise. He stopped, suspended a full foot above the floor and in the one-handed clutches of the bear from before.
   “You taught us that a foe can be defeated by simple numbers.” The bear turned to the wall, reached back and threw the guard hard against the metal wall. There was a sickening crunch as the head smashed forcefully into the steel. Then the body slowly fell to the ground again, leaving a reddish stain on the rough metallic surface.
   Then the other two guards were pulled off of me as well. The knives tore out of the one on the right as the crowd made up their minds and grabbed the guards en masse. Blood shot out several feet as the blades on the gauntlet cut an artery or something. He let out a frightened cry as he saw the fountain. Now you’re the one with a couple of minutes to live, I thought as I struggled to get back to my feet. Hope you like it.
   The bear crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. “You’re right,” he said, loud enough so that the entire crowd could here. “If we won’t fight for ourselves, who will?”
   I nodded. “I’m Thomas,” I announced. “And together, we can take this place.”
   “I’m Blue,” the bear said.
   I blinked. “Blue?” I repeated. “That’s your name?”
   “Yeah, it is. I guess the naming folks in the baby factory ran a little short on imagination when I came out.”
   “Or someone was fond of Canadian beer.” I held up my left hand. Blue clutched it with his right. “And at the first opportunity, I’m going to buy you and your comrades some to thank you for saving my life.”
   “That’s assuming we all survive the day.”
   The raccoon spoke up. He was clutching the head of the last surviving guard. The dog was struggling fiercely to get free, but the two people on each arm and the coon grabbing his ears would have none of it. “And what do we do with the guards?” he asked.
   I took my hand back and walked slowly toward the guard. I held out both hands toward the frightened hybrid.
   “One hand is offered in friendship,” I said aloud. “You take the left hand, and you surrender and sit out the fight in the farthest corner of the base. However, if you choose to fight, then you get the right hand.” I clinked the blades of the fighting hand together. “And you will die, then and there.” I narrowed my eyes and leaned forward to glare at him. “Do you understand?”
   He swallowed his fear and nodded that he understood.
   “Good.” I looked up at the raccoon. “Pass the word around. Those guards who surrender are not to be harmed; they’ll be needed in the future. Those that fight, die. Got it?”
   I turned to the rest of the crowd. I wiped the rubber sleeve against my cheek, smearing the blood instead of wiping it off. It would be some time before I could be free of the blood, I realized. And the faster we got it done, the sooner I could wash the sticky mess off of me. Raising my glove above my head I yelled out loud.
   “To the Governor’s chamber!” I cried.

   It took about 2 hours to cross the 6 modules to reach the command and control unit. The first unit was a snap since all the people there knew about the revolt and had already taken control of the cylinder, capturing the quite surprised half-dozen guards with little difficulty. By the time we got to the next one though, the security forces were aware that something was amiss and were taking steps to secure their areas.
   The guards started by closing the hatches between cylinders as if there was an air leak. In fact, that’s what they told the people in those modules. But they didn’t shut off the power or the communications. A flurry of messages reached those on the other side of the hatch. They then rose up and captured and killed the forces there and opened the hatch.
   Once we were within 2 modules of the governor, the fighting became more intense. All the people who lived in those areas were shoved into another cylinder and the hatch was locked shut. Then all the guards collected in the last module before the command unit and welded the hatchway shut behind them. That way, they reasoned, nobody could enter the module from the rest of the base. And if someone did break through, the narrow hatchway offered them an easily defensible chokepoint.
   So I gave the fighting glove to Blue, grabbed 11 others to put on pressure suits, put on my helmet and went outside through the airlock. About a dozen of us took to the lunar surface, walking around the sealed hatchway rather than trying to break through it.
   It only took a couple of minutes with a wrench to take off a section of shred. And just a couple of minutes more with a torch to punch a hole through the pressure vessel and let the atmosphere vent out into space. In just moments, the atmosphere inside the last cylinder was gone and all the guards inside were dead. Problem solved, quickly and cleanly.
   I wasn’t worried about the governor dying from the pressure leak. He was human, and not the type to die with his underlings (if he gave them a second thought, which I doubted.) As soon as Moriarty’s guards sealed one hatch, the odds were that he’d sealed his own hatch as well, just to be safe. The precaution backfired—now he was cornered with no other way out except for the pressure hatch to the Moon’s surface. More than likely, he’d never worn a pressure suit in his life. Not that there was any place else for him to retreat to in the first place. Suits had only a couple of hours worth of air, and even if he could contact another moonbase and summon help, it would be hours before anyone could reach him anyway. So the airlock wasn’t much use to him, except as a convenient way to execute people.
   Now, however, it provided an easy entrance for me and for the rest of my ‘Moon Marauders’.
   Three of us entered the airlock at the same time. It was the most people the small lock could hold at the same time. We had to push hard on the door to get it to open. Moriarty tried to keep the hatch closed by barricading it with various desks and chairs.
   He might as well have used bubble-gum. When we failed to force our way in with brute strength, we used our heads. All hatchway doors are designed so that they can’t open if vacuum exists outside that hatch. It’s a failsafe system. But if there’s greater pressure in the airlock than in the cylinder, the hatch flies open. We just pumped the airlock to one and a half normal atmospheres and let the wonders of air pressure do our hard work for us.
   My ears popped painfully when the hatch burst open, destroying whatever Moriarty had propped up behind it. The three of us grabbed the metal slab by the edge and shoved it to the open/locked position. It jammed halfway—there was broken wood and shattered furniture laying about and some chunks of it were undoubtedly caught in the door’s tracks. But the opening was big enough for us to get inside the module.
   As fast as I could, I released my bubble helmet and shut off the airflow from my life support module. I might need it later. The two others with me did the same and I realized with astonishment that I didn’t have the faintest idea who they were. The fox with the scar across his nose I had never seen before in my life. And the puma…
   You’ve heard of those lightning bolts out of the blue? When realization suddenly strikes you? This was one of those moments. As she took off her helmet and shut off the breathing gases, I knew where I had seen her before!
   “Where’s your daughter?” I asked the puma I had met so long ago at the spaceport before the flight up here.
   “She’s growing like a weed,” the mother said. “Which is an accomplishment in a place like this.”
   I nodded. “I understand,” I said. “And she’s the reason you’re here with me now. Correct?”
   She tossed her helmet to the ground and grabbed a broken leg from the shattered table. She held it like a club. “She doesn’t have any future with these gutless humans,” she announced with a growl. “Let’s see what the future can be without them.”
   I pointed to the last hatchway leading to the command module. “Ordinarily I’d say ‘ladies first’,” I said. “But…”
   I didn’t get the chance to finish my sentence. The lady puma stomped to the hatch and tapped the button to open. Quite naturally, nothing happened. Moriarty had locked the door’s combination.
   Then she did something I didn’t expect. She undid the torso clasps which held the two pieces of the pressure suit together, and began to take them off, then and there!
   “Um,” I mumbled, not certain what to make of her surprise strip show. “You may want to keep those on,” I told her, “just in case there are more guards in the next room.”
   She tossed the top of her suit to the side. I saw that she was wearing the standard liquid-cooled thermal underwear. And attached to the white undergarment, there beneath her breasts, were a couple of familiar-looking cubes and a familiar looking box and keypad.
   “Explosives?” I said out loud. My voice began to quiver. “You’ve carried a suitful of excavation explosives all this time?”
   She pushed her trowsers down, freeing her tawny tail from the confines of one of the legs of her suit. “You bet,” she said. “I figured they’d be useful at some point during the revolution.”
   “But we can’t use explosives in here!” I cried.
   “The shock will destroy both modules,” the fox added, shaking his head. “We’ll all die.”
   “You two can always hop back in your suits and get out again,” she said firmly. “I’ve been working with this stuff since I got marooned here—I don’t need any of your help to use it. I can place it and set it off myself.”
   “You could drag the detonation cord outside and fire it from there, where it’s safe!”
   She shook her head. “The pressure doors will cut the wire,” she said.
   “Well, we’ll use a timer so you can get outside to safety first.”
   She sadly smiled. “There aren’t many more places to hide things on me,” she tried to joke. Then she realized that her joke fell flat and she explained it to us more plainly. “I don’t have a timer. Sorry.”
   “Then we’ll go and get one!”
   “And give him a chance to escape somehow?”
   “Escape? How?”
   “Does he have a suit in there?” she asked. “Does he have a moon-buggy stashed away for a getaway to the landing pads, just in case?” She shook her head slowly. “I don’t know that. And neither do you. But scumbags like him always have some way of getting away when things get hot.” She turned and scowled at the door. “Not this time—not if I have anything to say about it!”
   I was shaking inside my suit. “But you’ll die…” I weakly said.
   “And so will that bastard, Moriarty.”
   “What about your daughter?”
   She paused. Then she took a deep breath and stared hard at me. “It is for her, that I’m going to do this,” she quietly announced.
   We regarded each other silently for several moments. While I couldn’t fault her logic or her courage, I couldn’t let such a person just toss their life away like this. It was a waste of material. Who knew what sort of trials we would face in the future? We’d need someone with the courage to make hard decisions in the days ahead, and right now, I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified to help get us out into space than this mother who was willing to do whatever it took to give her daughter a fighting chance for a future!
   “There may be a better way, you two,” the fox announced. “Look there.” He pointed to the far wall. I turned to follow his direction, and saw a standard monitoring camera mounted there. At first, I was less than impressed—all the modules had cameras. And there was no guarantee that Moriarty was looking here right now.
   Then I noticed the camera’s lens turn a little. It zoomed in on something. I turned to the side to see what the camera and Moriarty were looking at.
   It was zooming in on the lady, and her deadly bust enhancements.
   “Now that’s an idea!” I cried. I grabbed a cube off of the puma’s vest, ignoring her indignant protests and holding it up in front of me. The camera now followed my every move.
   “Moriarty!” I shouted. “You see this? Do you see what I’m carrying?”
   The camera toggled down then up again, locking onto my hands once more.
   “Good,” I lowly growled. “Now, listen carefully. We have the means to blow you to hell and back. And we certainly aren’t lacking in motive. We’ll do it, if we have to. If you don’t open that door right now and let us into the command center, the lady here,” I gestured to the puma, “is going to destroy this section of the base. You included.
   “Since you can hear me through the microphone, I’m certain you were listening in earlier. And you know just why she is willing to do this. And you also know that there will be no negotiating with her or talking her out of it. She’s going to kill you for the strongest reason of all—for love!”
   There was no sound anywhere. The camera didn’t move. The stillness made my spine shiver.
   “None of us are playing, Moriarty.” I tossed the bomb up gently, and caught it as it slowly fell into my hand again without looking away from the camera. “We’d rather not kill you if we don’t have to. But one way or another, in one piece or another, that door will open. Whether you’re still alive when it opens… is entirely up to you.”
   Another minute passed. Still nothing. Even the camera stopped moving and tracking me. I frowned and handed the blocks to the puma. “Go ahead and place them,” I sadly said. As she took the cube from my hands, I suddenly realized that I didn’t even know her name. And yet, with the shock of what was happening and the fact that she was going to kill herself in another moment, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know it in the first place.
   She walked to the door and slapped the cubes on the metal. The plastic outer shell cracked and the flash epoxy quickly cured the explosives to the door. She held the other cube and made ready to slam it against the opposite corner of the door.
   The door pulled back with a faint hiss and opened up. The puma tossed the cube over her shoulder; she gripped the door and mightily shoved it wide open. I caught the cube before it could hit anything, bounced off a wall with my shoulder, and jumped toward the open hatchway, followed by the third member of our team.
   I found Moriarty on the floor, with his bald head caught in a headlock. The puma had her arms wrapped around his neck. Her ears were flat against the top of her head as she throttled the man in the gray jumpsuit and her lips were curled in a silent snarl.
   His eyepatch had fallen off and he was clutching at the muscular, russet arms around his neck. His empty eyesocket was exposed. I shuddered at the sight of it. It wasn’t as bad as other things I’d witnessed in the past, but for some reason, at that moment, it was more ghastly than anything else I could imagine.
   “Don’t kill him,” I said, thinking that I really needed to get her name. Somehow, it just never seemed to be the right time to ask.
   She looked up at me and glared. “Give me one reason not to!” she growled.
   I stood up erect and stared coldly back at her. “Because I want to talk to him,” I said in a stone cold voice. “Also because, if anyone’s going to wring his neck around here, it’ll be me. Got it?”
   She glared silently at me for several seconds. But she finally released him and shoved him forward with a snort of disgust. “Here is your garbage!” she said. She spit on his back. “If you need someone to adjust his spine in places to jog his memory, just let me know.” She turned and walked further into the command cylinder, pretending to sample from the small table of fresh fruit on a little rollaway table.
   Moriarty rolled slowly over on his back and stared up at me. His one eye widened in shock and alarm as he recognized me. “You!” he gasped.
   I nodded. “You remember me? That’s good.” I frowned at him. “I sure remember you.”
   “So you’re the one behind all this; killing my guards and committing countless crimes against the station and its people!”
   “So now the station’s residents are ‘people’? We’re tired of being your slaves, Moriarty. We’re taking the station for our own, as is our right.”
   He spat to the side in disgust. “You freaks? Create your own place? Bullshit. You wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for us humans!”
   I stepped slowly toward him, flexing my hands and showing my fangs. “Mankind created us, yes,” I growled. “Then, after they got tired of us, they ripped our claws out and abandoned us here.” I shook my head. “Maybe you think that’s an acceptable way for parents to treat their children, but I sure as hell don’t.”
   “You are dangerous!” he yelled. “You are twisted, cruel and vicious!”
   I nodded again and stopped right in front of him. “Dangerous? Damned right we are,” I said. “Willing to kill? Cruel and vicious? You’d better believe it. We’re very dangerous. Hell, we might even be as bad as our creators in that way! What’s the matter—can’t stand to see yourself in a mirror? If we really are dangerous, don’t blame us; blame the ones who made us that way!
   “Oh! One more thing, Moriarty.” I balled my right hand into a fist. “I remember your welcoming me here. But I never got the chance to properly thank you for it.” With that I swung a fast undercut straight into the man’s solar plexus. “Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here!” I hissed.
   He clutched his stomach and collapsed to his knees, in slow motion of course. He heaved and gasped for several moments, puking once. I considered telling him that at least I didn’t hold him down like he had done with me. But honestly, watching the sour little bald man throwing up soy protein all over the corrugated metal, all I wanted to do was get away from him. I wrinkled my nose at the smell and left him there in the alcove. I went into the rest of the command center to find the radio to Earth.
   There were hundreds of panels and displays, showing everything from the Ph balance of different farm-trays to the oxygen content of every spacecraft and their location on the landing pads. I looked from section to section, baffled at the sheer number of lights and symbols, thinking that it would take me a week to find the radio in this; truly the tree was hidden by the forest in this instance.
   But the lady puma—who had taken off all of her explosives by this time, thank God—pointed to one of the plasma monitors. I walked to the display and tried to read it. It was in Russian. Terrific, I thought sourly to myself. Still, there was no mistaking the speaker grille and the hand-held microphone on the table. If I was on the wrong frequency or something else was amiss, I’d get Tanya in here to straighten it out for me. But there was no harm in trying the mike and trying it. I picked the black rectangle up, pulled it s cords out of the recess holding zone and pressed the TALK button.
   “This is Luna 3,” I announced. “Is anyone reading me? Over.” I released the button and waited, looking at the puma. She looked as apprehensive as I felt. What was I going to tell the people of Earth? What was I going to say? What long-term course would human history take because of the next couple of minutes?
   I swallowed nervously and wondered if I’d have to call for Tanya, when the speaker squawked into life.
   “Luna 3, this is Kennedy,” a male human voice said. “We weren’t expecting to hear from you for another hour. Do you have an update on the new flight schedule for us?”
   I keyed the mike and spoke slowly into the microphone. “There will be no more shuttle flights from the Moon,” I told him.
   There were several seconds of delay; partly because of the physics of radio, but mostly, the people on the other end were caught off guard by the answer. A moment later came their reply. “What do you mean by that?” he demanded in an authoritative voice. “And just who am I speaking to in the first place? You aren’t Governor Moriarty!”
   “There is no more Governor, here,” I explained. “And no, you aren’t talking to Moriarty, and you never will again.”
   “Who is this?” the voice insisted. “What have you done with Moriarty?”
   “For the moment, he’s fine.”
   “You killed him.”
   “No, not at all.” I glared behind me at the fat, little man, still heaving. “Not yet, anyway. He’s fine. But he’s no longer in charge of the lunar base, so don’t count on talking with him again.”
   “What, is this some sort of a revolt or something?”
   No shit, Sherlock. Good grasp of the obvious. I keyed the mike again.
   “It is a slave’s right to rebel,” I said. “You enslaved us to fight your wars for you. Then you threw us off the planet to do the deadly jobs needed to establish a foothold in space. And all the while, you were condemning every last one of us to death.”
   “If we wanted you all dead,” the voice warned, “we’d just nuke your lunar bases and be done with it.”
   I stabbed the TALK button forcefully. “With what?” I challenged. “Your missiles can’t get this far. You can’t get something as light as an astronaut into low earth orbit, much less loft 8 tons to the Moon; not without shuttlecraft. And guess where all the shuttles are parked right now?”
   “Don’t threaten me, whoever you are. We are your creators, and you will obey us!”
   You almost had to admire the chutzpah… I grinned faintly. “Come up here and make me,” I said with a snide tone.
   There were several moments of uncomfortable silence. Neither he nor I spoke. Finally, I broke the impasse.
   “Look, you’ve got no spacecraft,” I said. “You can’t make any; all the factories are up here. You don’t have any designers left; the last one shares my bed at night. Face it, you don’t have a chance of reaching the Moon! And you sure as hell aren’t about to nuke it, since you want it for yourselves once we’ve all died out.”
   “Now see here…” the voice said.
   You see here!” I yelled at the mike. “We didn’t ask to be your slaves! And we didn’t ask to be created. And we sure as hell didn’t ask to get thrown a quarter-million miles out into space to build your space colony, either! What’s the matter—don’t have the balls to live up to your own bloody history any more?”
   I heard the puma gasp as I released the microphone. I didn’t care. It felt like a ton of weight had been lifted from my soul. That had needed saying for a long time now. And I finally said it.
   “You were created to do our dirty work for us, it is true,” the voice on the radio replied. “You represent a tremendous investment in talent and materials. And a rational person expects to get something out of their investments. Don’t you agree?”
   I growled and keyed the mike again. “No, I do not agree!” I shouted. “We’re not pocket computers or obsolete music players—we’re intelligent, thinking beings!”
   “You are robots, plain and simple. You are living machines we built to do the hard jobs we’d prefer not to soil ourselves with anymore.”
   I took a deep breath before speaking again. “We are thinking, feeling sons and daughters of humanity,” I replied. “We are not robots; we’re your children! You created us to fight your wars for you because you didn’t want to spill your precious human blood. Then you sent us out to build your space program for you, so you wouldn’t have to lose any precious human lives in the effort.
   “Well guess what? We succeeded. We made this place on the Moon. We made it with our blood, our sweat and our lives. So it’s ours! We built it! Space belongs to us now. Mankind surrendered its rights to the stars when it sent its children into harm’s way in its stead. Now, now we’re taking your place in the universe. And there isn’t a damned thing any of you can do about it! You didn’t have the courage to come to the Moon before; I doubt you’ve got the courage now, and I know you don’t have the technology. And by the time you develop it—if you find a pair of balls someday—we’ll be long gone.”
   “Gone?” This time the voice held very genuine surprise. “Gone where?”
   I gritted my teeth. “None of your business,” I said sharply. “You want us out of your hair? Okay, we’re gone. And you’ll never know how we left and where we’ve gone to.”
   “Now, now. Let’s be reasonable about all this…”
   “Reasonable!” I snarled. “Alright. Here’s reasonable for you. You just crawl back to your cradle and hide under the sheets. That’s reasonable for anybody who doesn’t have what it takes to go out into space, isn’t it?” My voice dropped to a low growl. “Take a good, hard look at the stars, human. Odds are that sooner than you think, my people will be up there, looking back at you. We’ll tell legends of the powerful but timid race that sent their greatest creations out on the universe’s greatest adventure, simply because they were too damned scared to go.
   “Adventures aren’t safe,” I continued firmly. “And life isn’t safe. God help us all, the future isn’t safe! You humans could have had greatness… but no, you had to be safe,” I said, spitting out the final word. My hand trembled as I spoke into the microphone one last time. “Well, fine then. You want it, you’ve got it! You just stay down there in your little crib, all safe and secure, like the immature race that you are.
   My people are going to the stars!”

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