The intake bay lay silent as the stricken ship docked against the massive airlock. Behind D'vork, the Quastorians waited in strict formation, their ambassador almost hidden in their midst, his vestments sparkling with gold and jewels. On D'vork's left, Tadik hovered close by in his chair, ready to verify what he had seen on the screen. All round them, all available crew stood in lines supposedly to offer tribute to the Quastorian guests. Behind the crew, the human prisoners stood to attention, ready to do their bit as volunteers to go aboard the stricken ship.
"Captain?" Tadik's soft whisper came into D'vork's mind. He turned to face his lover but Tadik's mouth did not move.
"What is it, Tadik?" he thought back.
"There is something else on that ship; something dangerous, uncontrollable. I can't make it out but it isn't human or Quastorian. Be careful if you have to go aboard."
D'vork nodded as the massive lock hissed open. The visiting captain, a towering man in a full dress uniform that didn't fit too well, came through onto the flight deck and paused, deep set eyes sweeping the welcome party. After him came his men, wearing uniforms that had seen better days.
"D'vork, it's coming closer." D'vork glanced down at Tadik and found him staring at the emerging troops, the colour draining from his face.
D'vork examined them with an experienced eye as they formed up in ranks of ten behind their leader. Big mistake, D'vork thought. So much better to do a head count that way; but he could not see anything unusually threatening. He signalled for Tadik and the leader of the Quastorian delegation to step forward with him to officially greet the new arrivals. As he covered the last twenty feet to where the visiting captain stood, D'vork watched his eyes narrow as he switched his gaze to the Quastorian leader. "Captain Tyzank, welcome aboard my ship The Drock. May I introduce, Plumser Otrall, Quastorian Ambassador to Earth and returning to Quastor for a much needed rest?"Plumser stepped forward to offer his own greeting. They conversed for a few moments before Plumser stepped back with a slight shake of his head; the prearranged signal to D'vork that the man was a fake.
D'vork continued. "Captain, with your permission, I have a fully qualified team of engineers ready to go aboard your ship and deal with whatever problem you may have."He waved his hand towards the human prisoners standing to attention.
"Indeed, I thank you."Tyzank smiled and nodded towards the humans, who, true to their promise to D'vork to play their parts to the full, moved not a muscle in response. Someone barked an order and the humans marched towards the airlock.
Once they had disappeared and the massive door closed, D'vork signalled for Tadik to come closer. "Captain, may I present my friend and companion, Tadik Versont."
By this time Tadik's face had turned ashen white. He and Tyzank nodded to each other and Tadik said, "Captain, please beg my impertinence, but I am interested in the beautiful medallion you are wearing round your neck. May I ask where you acquired it?"
Tyzank's eyes narrowed for a second before he lifted the jewel to look at it. "This? It's just a bauble I picked up on my travels."
"Really?"Tadik smiled as he studied the captain. "I suppose there wouldn't be another like it in this universe, would there? In fact I can guarantee there isn't. I can even tell you what is inscribed on the back of it, without looking at it. It says, "To my father from his loving son; physically apart but always together in spirit."
Realising he was in trouble, Tyzank bellowed and said, "Now how would you know what is inscribed on it?"
Tadik remained calm, as he gazed up into the Tyzank's eyes, but D'vork was aware that something about Tyzank had scared him. "I know, Captain, because I made that medallion and inscribed it myself. The last time I saw that was when I placed it round the neck of my own father, Tadikon Versont."
That was the signal for U'lac and the crew to spring into action. Before Tyzank's men could move, they found themselves facing an armed force with enough weapons to render them helpless. They looked to Tyzank for orders but the captain himself found D'vork's phaser aimed at his head. "If you so much as twitch your ears, Captain Tyzank, I will happily fry your brain; that's if you have one. Now, you are wearing Tadikon Versont's medallion so you must know where he is, and it would be in your own interest, and that of your men, to tell me where we may find him. If we find him, and he is unharmed, I might treat you leniently, unless his son has other plans for you."
Tyzank's face had slowly paled from a ruddy, drink blotched, purple to a sickly yellow, but then he thought of something and smiled. "You forget, Captain D'vork, I have your engineers aboard my ship, and under guard by now, and they will die unless you turn your ship over to me."
D'vork smiled back at him. "Allow me to put you straight, Captain. I think I have the upper hand. Captain A'bant can you hear me?"
Through the all ship's loud hailers, A'bant's cheerful voice was heard to say, "All buttoned up, Captain. Twenty five prisoners and no casualties to us; but there is some kind of animal on board this ship. It's a nasty thing, about the size of a Terran donkey but with the head of a Towdak. It's roaming the ship like he owns the place and we haven't been able to catch it. Our men are a bit scared to go near it, and I don't blame them."
D'vork looked at Tadik. "Is that was you warned be about?"What crazy fool would be crazy enough to cross a Towdak with another species?
Tadik frowned. "What I feel is much closer; maybe there are two. I'm sorry I can't be more precise, Captain. I think you'd better move your men out of there. From what I remember about Towdaks, they only have one master and they'll die to protect him. It's probably roaming the ship trying to find its master, and it won't be long before he loses his patience and attacks anyone near enough to get his fangs into."
D'vork turned to Tyzank and said in a threatening voice, "Captain if that animal attacks any of my men-."
"Too late, Captain,"Tyzank laughed then roared out for all on his ship to hear, "CRREEGOMMM."Seconds later a hair-raising scream rang out of the speakers, and Tyzank rounded on Tadik as he drew a barred sword from under his cloak. "And this tasty little morsel will never see his father again."Before D'vork could activate his phaser, Tadik's chair shot forward and took Tyzank in the legs. The sword clattered to the deck and Tyzank landed heavily with Tadik spinning out of control and taking down several of Tyzank's men. D'vork drew his own sword and prepared to deal with the rogue captain when the air lock opened and the human prisoners poured out onto the deck, two of them holding bloody arms. Tadik had righted the chair and was now headed towards D'vork and safety. Behind the humans, a fearsome beast with a huge gaping mouth appeared, his head swinging from side to side, trying to find his master.
While an unholy battle began between the crew of The Drock and Tyzank's men, D'vork raised his sword to deal with Tyzank when suddenly the downed captain began to change shape, his head growing wider and his body ripping his uniform as it morphed into a hideous version of the Towdak. As the blade came down towards its head, it swatted it away like so much flotsam then sprang to its feet to attack D'vork who stepped back, startled, and lost his balance as the great jaws opened. There was no way he could get away from the beast as it pounced. He still had his phaser and it had a split second to raise it and fire. Not enough time. D'vork closed his eyes and waited for the end. Then there was an almighty roar, a loud thud, and the clang of something mettle hitting the deck.
D'vork opened his eyes and found Tadik and the beast rolling around, entangled in the wreckage of the chair, Tadik's right arm firmly wedged in the monster's jaws. D'vork launched himself towards the struggling mass and fired his phaser at point blank range at the back to the breast's head. Around them, the battle came to an untidy end as everyone gaped in horror as the monster's head exploded in a shower of dark green slime. The monster's body collapsed, burying Tadik as the second beast got the same treatment from several sources including a few of Tyzank's men. The battle died at last as many willing hands helped D'vork drag what had once been Tyzank, off the boy's still form. Then D'vork fell to his beside his lover, ignoring the green slime that covered him.
Blood pumped from the remains of the boy's right arm, and there were several bloody gashes on his face, and chest where the monster's claws had ripped his body suit and the flesh underneath. D'vork whipped off his own narrow belt and fastened it round the stump to halt the flow of blood. He felt Tadik's neck and found the pulse to be very weak and rapid. With tears flowing down his cheeks, and oblivious to the green slime he lifted Tadik in his arms and nodded to U'lac. His commander acknowledged his silent order for him to take command then D'vork closed his eyes and thought of the medical bay. Seconds later he appeared in the medical bay and let the medics take Tadik from him. They rushed the boy away and refused to allow D'vork to follow them into the operating theatre; even his rank of captain didn't get him anywhere. He sank down onto a chair, lowered his head to his hands, and sobbed his heart out till a medic ordered him to strip his slime covered uniform off and get into the showers as quickly as possible.
When he asked why, the medic said simply, "It's the slime, Sir. It's poisonous."First the medic hosed him down with an antiseptic power spray to make sure his was free of the slime itself, then came the painful scrubbing with a decontamination brush and soap. By the time they were finished, Inmahn had arrived with a fresh uniform.
"I'm sorry to hear about Tadik, Captain; I came as soon as I heard."
"Thank you, Inmahn. They won't let me near him; can you go in there and find out how he is for me?"
"I already have, sir; he's very poorly."
D'vork dropped the towel he had been using and grabbed his uniform as he tried to read Inmahn's features. "What are his chances?"
Inmahn shook his head. "At the moment, slim to fair."
"In that case, I want you to go in there and take over."
"But, sir, I-."
"Inmahn, you're the best there is on human resources, and your surgical skills are unsurpassed. I want you in there with my boy and no one else; Captain's orders."
The android nodded. "Very well, sir. I'll do my best."
"I know you will. Meanwhile, I have a situation to deal with in the intake bay. I'll be back as soon as I can but contact me the minute Tadik's condition changes, no matter what I'm doing."
Down in the intake bay, the stench of the Towdak still filled the air. A'bant's crew were busy clearing the place of the carnage and D'vork's eyebrows lifted in surprise as he noticed a good few of Tyzank's men working alongside them. A'bant saw him and hurried towards him, a big smile on his face. "I'll bet you never thought you'd see this, Captain. All Tyzank's men have surrendered unconditionally. It appeared they were all from ships Tyzank captured and were press-ganged into service. Those that didn't toe the line got a taste of the Towdak."
"So this Towdak is a shape changer."
"No, Captain."A'bant pointed to where Tyzank's headless body lay alongside the remains of the other dead Towdak. "Tyzank is of human origin crossed with a shape changing species. Your android will have to examine his DNA to know which species. He's been using his adaptability to create terror and mayhem among the galaxy."
"So he's the pirate we've been looking for? No wonder we couldn't trace him. Let's hope this is the end of this piracy."
A'bant shook his head. "According to his men, there is a whole family of them but he's the most hated."
"Do any of these men know what happened to Tadik's father?"
"Yes, Captain. Tyzank's base of operations is on a remote planet in our own galaxy. You've heard of the planet Craydon?"
D'vork stared at A'bant in disbelief. "That useless piece of rubbish; it's nothing but dust and rock."
"That's what Tyzank and his family would have us believe, Captain. If you check the records of all ships that have disappeared, they were nearly all carrying scientific researchers. Wanting somewhere to hide, Tyzank's family discovered that Craydon is a honeycomb of crystal bearing tunnels. The crystals are very similar in structure to our own, and they've been forcing captured scientists to turn them into fuel for their ships. I remember a report some time ago about debris from old ships floating around in that area of the galaxy. These men believe they are the remains of Tyzank's experiments."
"So what has this to do with Tadikon Versont?"
"Not only do they need the experts, they also need slaves to mine the crystals which are more toxic than our own, so the pirates need a steady supply of manpower; hence all the piracy and also the need to capture more ships to experiment on."
D'vork frowned as he watched the clean up in progress. "If that's the case, why did they leave Versont's ship where they attacked it?"
"Too small, Captain. They were after the bigger ships, like this one. By the way, the men are asking about Tadik. How is the boy?"
"Not good. Inmahn's with him."D'vork nodded towards a group of human prisoners about to dispose of Tyzank. "Tell those men they are no longer prisoners. Without their bravery we would be prisoners ourselves, which is more than can be said about our Quastorian guests."
A'bant nodded his agreement. "I did notice they were slow to react to the emergency. Typical Quastorians; last to go into battle but the first to claim the glory."
D'vork smiled at A'bant's cynicism. "See that the humans' quarters are made as comfortable as possible and keep them well fed. As soon as the cleanup is complete, put a skeleton crew on board the pirate ship and tell them to head for Quastor."
"Why don't we offer the job to the humans?"
"Can we trust them that much?"
"Just remind them of your promise to investigate their convictions on Earth. That and their freedom should keep them happy."
D'vork nodded. "Tell them to rendezvous with us on Quastor main space station. I'm going up to the bridge then I'll be in Medical if you need me. The sooner we reach Quastor the happier I'll be."
He tapped his left wrist and landed on the bridge where U'lac scowled at him. "What are you doing here, Captain? You should be down in Medical with Tadik. As of now I am relieving you of your duties; temporarily of course."D'vork bristled at this, but U'lac called Lieutenant Commander L'gia forward. "Lieutenant, please place the captain under arrest till further notice; until such time, the Captain is barred from the bridge."
D'vork started forward, intending to remonstrate with U'lac but several of the bridge crew took a step towards him, their agreement with the commander plain on their faces. Knowing he was outnumbered, he bowed to U'lac. "Thank you, Commander. Call me if you need me."Dispensing with the need for L'gia to escort him, he tapped his wrist and appeared in Medical. He spent the next three hours either sitting with his head in his hands or pacing the waiting room, trying to deal with the horrible thought that he might never see Tadik again, never to kiss his lip or caress his smooth human skin or gaze into those loving pools of blue. He had only spent a short time with the boy, but he had to admit he was hopelessly in love with him. He didn't think – no, he knew - he could not go on without him.
By the time Inmahn emerged from the operating theatre, D'vork's battle hardened nerves of steel were in shreds even a baby could break. The android slowly pulled off his mask and cap, and raised tired eyes to look at him, and a chill ran through D'vork. "Well?"
"I'm sorry, Captain, we did our best but we couldn't save-."
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