D'vork nodded to A'bant as he entered the prison block. Much as he hated this daily inspection it had to be done, and at least A'bant made it as painless and quick as possible, knowing the captain was a busy man and had more important things to do. But today, A'bant looked worried as he studied the schedule in his hands.
"Good Morning A'bant."His crew had got used to their captain using human phrases, during their service aboard this aging ship. "You look worried, this morning."
"Yes Captain. We have one prisoner missing and one prisoner too many."
Thinking A'bant was going senile, D'vork gave his guard captain a look of confusion. "What are you talking about? How many prisoners were brought aboard?"
"And how many do we have in the pen?"
"Plus one in my quarters. That makes thirty; so what is the problem?"
"Sir, if I may explain."A'bant handed D'vork the schedule and pointed to one name on the list. "This one here is missing but the name of the prisoner in your quarters does not appear on the list. As you know, sir, we just counted heads on boarding due to us being late getting ready for take-off. What with the trouble last night, we didn't check the names till this morning."
"Okay, let's look at the data."D'vork led the way into the guard-room, where A'bant hurried over to the communications terminal. Sitting down, he brought the prison records on-line, scrolled down to yesterday's orders and clicked on the prison intake "There we are, sir, all thirty names. And there is the missing prisoner."
"Ajek Torm,"D'vork read the name. "Bring up his details."When the requested information came up on the screen, D'vork didn't wait for A'bant to read them out. "Ajek Torm five foot five, blonde shoulder length hair, blue eyes; convicted of multiple murders; first convicted when twelve years old; last murder victim, Quelina Torm, mother. I can see the similarities in the two boys but I doubt Tadik would have the bottle to kill his mother. The boy said something last night. He was upset and wailing that he was innocent and shouldn't be here."
"Could someone have switched the prisoners?"A'bant asked him. "It has been done before."
"Yes, I remember the universal incident it created. A Quastorian guard fell in love with a young human and smuggled him on board his ship, and persuaded one of his crew to stay behind. The Quastorians were accused of kidnapping the lad; especially as it turned out he was the son of the Human Ambassador to Gpuchk. Bring up his medical details."
"Here we are. Ajek Torm; Full health: Vision twenty-twenty. Birth mark on...ahm."
"It's all right, A'bant, no need to be embarrassed. I can read it myself. I'll go and have a look. If there is no birthmark, someone is going to be in a lot of trouble when I get back to earth. Send Percy a copy of all you have on both prisoners."He hurried up to his quarters where he found Tadik wearing a super-insulated jumpsuit and sitting Indian style on the bed. In front of him, on a tray, was a huge breakfast even D'vork could not have consumed. D'vork nodded to Inmahn and said, "Get the boy stripped."
'Oh, no! He's gonna rape me!' came the frantic thought.
D'vork stared down at the boy and saw the fear in his eyes as he froze, his breakfast forgotten. D'vork thought back, 'Don't be stupid; I just want to examine you. Inmahn will be a witness. Now get stripped.'
Tad relaxed and nodded to him, and allowed Inmahn to take the tray away. He watched Tadik climb off the bed and unzip the suit, and then stood, shivering, by the bed. Well isn't he what humans call a cute one! D'vork thought, and the boy blushed and lowered his gaze to stare at a point in front of D'vork's boots.
D'vork cleared his throat. "Lie on the bed and spread your legs."
Tadik's head shot up and his eyes widened for a moment, but he did as he was told, lay back and spread his legs. D'vork's eyes went straight to the boy's privates and felt a stirring in his own. He was looking at a perfect specimen of a human youth in all its innocent glory. Fighting to keep his thoughts from straying, D'vork beckoned Inmahn to come closer. "Bend your knees and hold them."Tadik's face bloomed a deep red, as he assumed the position that would normally precede a male sex act, and then he closed his eyes and turned his face away. D'vork stared at the boy's genitals, so tiny compared to his own, and almost hairless, and at the smooth skin of his thighs. Cute, or what! He suddenly realized he was staring, cleared his throat again, and lifted the slim penis and young scrotum, looked carefully at the perineum below. "Take a look, Inmahn, and tell me what you see."
Inmahn looked, frowned, and said, "I see nothing unusual, Captain."
"Exactly."D'vork let the boy's privates go and said, "You can get dressed now."
Walking into the lounge area of his quarters, he said, "Percy, bring up the records that Captain A'bant sent from the prison block."
Behind his desk, a part of the wall revolved into a computer screen with the records already on screen. "Come here, Inmahn."The android came out of the bedroom and stood beside D'vork. "Guard Captain A'bant spotted a problem with the prisoner intake. He reported one prisoner missing and one un-named extra."
"Which means he did not notice the problem till this morning,"Inmahn mused. He leaned forward and quickly changed the screen to the medical file. The pressing of another button split the screen and brought up a picture of Ajek Torm beside the record, and while he looked similar in appearance to Tadik, this boy had a definite shadow round his lower features and seemed broader shouldered than Tadik. D'vork had Inmahn read the medical evidence. "Oh, I see! Ajek Torm has a birth mark behind his scrotum."
"Who's Ajek Torm?"Tadik asked as he came into the lounge, fully suited up and eating a piece of toast from his breakfast.
"The prisoner whose place you seem to have taken."
"I knew I wasn't supposed to be here,"the boy gasped. "Can you take me back?"
Disappointment filled the boy's face. "But I have my appeal coming up soon. I have to be back for that."
D'vork shook his head. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, Tadik, but we are on a special mission to deliver our Quastorian guests to their home planet, as quickly as possible. My orders are specific; nothing short of a life threatening situation must impede the mission."
Tadik's swallowed hard. "How long will the mission take?"
"Five months to Quastor; another four to Gpuchk as the nearest base for refueling, then maybe I'll be free to take you home, after I have visited with my family."
"That's eighteen months! They'll never wait that long."
D'vork noticed the boy's panic. "Who won't wait?"
"The appeal lawyers; they'll find me missing and presume me dead, and they'll close the case."
D'vork understood. The laws governing appeals had been changed a few years go to give lawyers the right to close an appeal if the criminal disappeared, and was presumed dead. "Percy, make contact with Bodi and recover copies of the trial and sentence of Tadik. Also find me all the information about the appeal and who the lawyer is."
"Do I really have to talk to that useless bunch of rusty wires?"said a snooty English voice.
Inmahn gave the screen a few sharp raps. "Just do as you're told, you ancient box of parts. The captain needs the information now, not next month."
D'vork saw the boy's eyes grow huge at this exchange between computer and android, and winked at him. "When you two have finished your daily spat, there is work to do. Get on with it."He turned and walked back into the bedroom, pushing the boy gently ahead of him. "And Percy, get some more food. No human likes eating cold toast and drinking cold coffee."He led the boy to the bed and sat him down, then sat down beside him. Placing a friendly hand on the boy's shoulder, he said, "I know it sounds pretty tough but I promise, I'll do all I can to sort things out; Bodi is the best in the business for digging up the dirt."
"Yes; Business Operative Detection and Investigation service; pronounced Body. It's a computer, which Percy talks to when I need information that can't be accessed in the normal way. Most trial transcripts are sealed, but Body has a way of unsealing the deepest sealed stuff. Together, Percy and Bodi will analyze the evidence and tell me what went wrong. Meanwhile, this ship is full to capacity and there is nowhere else you can be kept, so, I suggest you make yourself as comfortable as you can in here."D'vork indicated the handcuffs still fastened to the wall above the bed. "Regulations say that a prisoner has to be restrained when out of the pen, but I won't chain you up if you promise not to try and escape. In here, you will be safe. Out in the rest of the ship, my crew will leave you alone, but you are fair game to my highly sexed guests who have the free run of the corridors. Their partners are five months away, and that's a long time to be without release. They are also not very pleasant people to deal with. Do you understand what I'm saying?"Tadik nodded. "Well, then, we'll start by issuing you with warmer clothes and something to keep you occupied. Do you read?"
"What do you read?"
"Twentieth and twenty-first century fiction, mostly, if I can get my hands on any."
"Any particular authors?"
"Terry Brooks, Raymond E. Fiest, Miguel Sanchez. E. Walk, and Clan Short Stories."
"So, you like what humans call sci-fi and gay fiction? Are you gay?"
Tadik blushed. "I don't really know."
D'vork stood up. "We don't have any hard copy books on board ship, but if you behave yourself and don't cause me any trouble, I'll allow you access to Percy. All reading matter is stored in the data files, and until we're out of communication range, you can access all libraries on Earth. What about your schooling?"
"I was an advance student, studying for my senior levels."
"A brain box! What are your desires regarding a career?"
"Well, I've always admired our ambassadors, especially the ones who traveled to other planets. If I can't be one I'd like to work as an aide to one."
"Well, I see no reason for you not to continue with your dream. Just tell Percy what level of studies you have attained in each subject and he will set you some work to do. He will check your work and bring you up to your next level, but I want you to promise not to mess about. Percy will be as good a tutor as you'll ever find on earth, but we don't tolerate time-wasters. Study hard and by the time you return to earth you will be more than ready to pass any of your exams."
The boy nodded, and shrugged his shoulders. "Eighteen months is a long time with nothing to do. Okay, I'll do it, as long as Percy and Body come up with the goods on my step father."
"You think he's behind your being here?"
"I'm sure of it. He introduced me to my girlfriend after we had an argument about me not dating anyone. There's something else as well."
"When I was put in jail I thought I recognized one of the prison guards. I remember seeing my stepfather talking with him in the park near our house a few weeks before I was arrested."
"Anything else I can do for you?"
Tadik smiled. "Could you turn up the heat a bit? It's like a fridge in here."
D'vork laughed as he rose to his feet. "I don't usually use my quarters during the day so I'll have the heating turned up for you. But at night, you'll have to use me as a blanket."He reached down and clutched the hem of his uniform, and pulled it up so Tadik could see his back and the long line of fur along his spine.
"Wow! That's not hair, that's....fur!"
D'vork let his uniform drop and turned to face the shocked boy. "Perhaps you don't know about the citizens of Gpuchk."D'vork sat down again and Tadik backed away to sit up against the bed head, his eyes wide with horror.
"Are you.....are you an animal or something?"
D'vork smiled softly. "Is that so terrible? Your very own Darwin thought you humans were descended from the apes. That theory is still being debated I believe. Perhaps if your human scientists researched my own species, they might not be so against the idea."
"But God made us on the sixth day."
"Ah, yes, but what did your God mean by a day? Doesn't your holy book say that to God a thousand years is but one day? Didn't it also say that God made the earth and everything in it?"
Tadik lowered his head as he thought about it, then he said, "Are you saying that the Gpuchkians are descended from animals?"
"Yes, we are, from an animal very similar to what you call bears. I'm half human so I only have fur down my spine, and these."He held out his hands for Tadik to look at. He flexed his fingers and short claws sprang out of the tips of his fingers.
Tadik's eyes widened further then he grinned nervously. "Do you purr when you're stroked?"
D'vork chuckled. "I don't remember. I haven't been stroked since I was a kid. Now these bear like creatures we call Rogoch in the human tongue, roam the planet of Gpuchk with no fear of my species, and we fight to protect them. In return, they provide us with meat, and warm fur, and protect us from other predatory animals indigenous to Gpuchk."
"They let you kill them for meat?"
"No, Tadik. They signal to us that one of their clan is sick or too badly injured to survive. We gather at the lair and do what we can, but if the bear dies, we get rid of the body in a way that is beneficial to both species. You see, as on Earth, a dead body attracts scavengers and disease. They have a clean lair and we have food and a warm cloak to help us cope with the harsh climate of Gpuchk. You humans are only just learning to live in harmony with your other indigenous species. On Gpuchk, one species is no more important that the rest, and we work together to conserve all. You humans have hunted or harvested so many species into extinction. You have so much yet to learn."
"But what makes you so huge? Our average height for a male is five, eleven."
"A lower force of gravity; we Gpuchkians are often glad to get off your planet; we find your gravity so tiring. Humans visiting Gpuchk often have to wear gravity boots till they accustom themselves to the difference. Everything is bigger on Gpuchk."Suddenly he had a feeling that Tadik didn't want him to leave. Whether it was the need to learn more about Gpuchk, or the need to know about D'vork, he didn't know, but it made D'vork feel uncomfortable. He glanced towards Tadik and found the boy watching him with thoughtful eyes. He cleared his throat and turned away. If he didn't get out of there now, he would be trapped. By what, he couldn't fathom. "Now, I have a ship to ru n; I will leave you in Inmahn's capable hands."D'vork walked out of the bedroom to find Inmahn and Percy still having their usual name calling while wading through the mountain of data Body had found. "Inmahn, I'm going back to the bridge. Call me when you've sorted things out with Percy."As Inmahn nodded, D'vork touched a tiny instrument on his left wrist and disappeared.
"Ooh!"Percy stared at the door. "He's in a hurry to leave."
"Never mind that, you silly robot. Take a look at what Body has just sent me."
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