This is the story of the intrepid captain of the Inquisitive Tamandua (see what I did there? It's a curious anteater! Only more flowery), Russell Fisk, and what happens to him when he takes on a rather unusual job smuggling a pack of hunting dogs to a guy in desperate need of them before the neighbors have his head because of the rabbit problem he's caused. Fair warning, this did appear many years ago in much altered form as a Firefly story, but I've cut down my crew and added aliens. And a subplot.
So, I will shut up and get out of the way of the story.
by Julie Frost
Captain Russell Fisk slouched into the co-pilot's chair of his battered interplanetary tramp freighter, the Inquisitive Tamandua, running a hand through his graying hair. "Take us off-world, Mandy. We've got work, finally." He crossed an ankle over his leg and tapped his boot on the floor with a distracted air.
His twenty-two-year-old daughter flipped some switches and began her takeoff sequence. "Neat. It's been awhile, and I'd kind of like to eat sometime this week." She noticed Russell's expression. "Um, Dad, you usually look happier when we have a job. Something about this one making you itch?"
"Why, no. You know how much I enjoy smuggling animals," he said dryly, as they broke free of the planet's gravity well. "I'm thrilled, ecstatic even. Really. But, hey. Work."
"Animals?" She grinned, pushing a lock of long brown hair behind her ear. "What kind?"
Russ leaned his head back against the chair. "Beagles, of all things."
"We're smuggling Beagles?" Amanda lifted her eyebrows. "What for?"
"Some idiot--I mean, Ben Foster, our esteemed client on Epsilon Three, that border planet they've just opened up?" At her nod, he continued. "He decided he wanted a wild game hunting preserve for small predators. Wolves and groompahs and servals and critters like that." Russ tugged at his beard. "Well, those things eat rabbits, so he imported a bunch of them. He assured the locals that nothing would get through his fences, but I've never yet seen a fence that'll keep a rabbit from going where it wants to."
"So, some of the rabbits got out and started multiplying like...rabbits," Amanda said.
"And now they're eating the grass that belongs to the cattle, and the ranchers are a bit hot under the collar about it. So Foster, in an effort to smooth things over, is holding a bunny roundup. Using Beagles." He pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. "Which have apparently been bred for the job for hundreds of years. As to the smuggling part, this thing got put together in a hurry, so he didn't have time for all the permits and stuff to import the dogs to a whole new planet. You know how long that sort of red tape can take."
"Shyeah, no kidding. What a lovely government we have, protecting us from ourselves. Your seat belt fastened? I'd hate to get pulled over." She furrowed her brow, turning serious. "So, does this mean we're going to be able to pay Marsden off? He's been breathing down our necks pretty fierce lately. I don't mind saying he's just a little bit scary."
"This job goes well, we can not only pay him what we owe him, we can actually eat for a month or so." He leaned over and ruffled her hair.
"A meal ticket of illegal Beagles. Neat."
Mandy's hazel eyes sparkled like a kid's at Christmas, Russ noted sourly, as he and their big blond mechanic, Charlie Crane, used the antigrav forklifts to maneuver ten sizable crates holding six Beagles apiece onboard. The crates took up a good portion of the cargo hold, but food and water for all of them didn't use as much space as he thought it would. They were small dogs; maybe they wouldn't be as much trouble as he'd feared. Any job was a good one, especially now. Their luck in finding work had been mostly bad lately.
Mandy knelt next to the last of the crates and stuck her hand in. Six tail-wagging canines immediately mobbed it. She grinned in delight up at her father, but her expression changed when she caught sight of something behind him. She hastily withdrew her arm and stood up. Russ turned around to see what had taken her attention from the dogs.
The tall man walking up the cargo ramp, wearing an expensive suit, was the last person Russ wanted to see. Furthermore, Russ knew he knew it, and that he didn't care. "Fisk," the visitor said. He didn't look armed. He didn't need to be. One casual word from him could ruin--or end--a life. He was also the sort of man who didn't use minions to do his dirty work for him; his philosophy was that he didn't want to pay people to do things he could do himself...things he enjoyed doing anyway.
"Marsden." Russ planted himself in front of their creditor, blocking his access to the interior of the ship. "What do you want?"
"Payment would be nice."
"We've got work. I'll be able to pay you at the end of this job." Russ could feel himself radiating tension, and he clenched his fists. He had no desire for a confrontation with this guy.
Marsden looked over Russ's shoulder. "Hauling dogs?" He snorted. "Doesn't seem like much of a job to me."
"It's enough to pay you off and feed my crew. Right now, that's all I need." Russ crossed his arms. "Is there anything you actually want? Or are you just letting me know that you're still around?"
Marsden bared his teeth in a gesture that wasn't a smile and leaned in close to Russ, whispering in his ear. "You've owed me for a long time. I've been very patient, mostly because I like you, Fisk. But you will pay me after this job." He gripped Russ's bicep. "Or I'll take it out of your hide. Or maybe your daughter's."
Russ jerked his arm away, itching for the weapon he wasn't carrying right now. "You touch a hair on her head--"
"And you'll do absolutely nothing but watch. Do we understand each other?"
"Perfectly." Russ took a step back. "Now get off my ship and let me go to work. We're not making any of your precious money sitting on the ground."
Marsden gave him a mock salute and turned to go. "I won't be far off when you finish this job."
Breathing heavily, Russ watched him get into a car and drive off. "I hate that guy."
Mandy walked up behind him. "He should grow a big black mustache so he can twirl it. You can feel the evil coming off him in waves."
"Remind me again why I ever got a loan from him?"
"We were hungry and he was the only one who'd help us? 'Help' being another term for 'suck us dry and spit out the husk.'"
"Oh, yeah. That." Russ closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, bleeding off stress. "Well. After this job, we'll be shut of him for good."
Mandy wrapped her arm around his waist. "It'll be okay."
Charlie came up. "I've got the food and water for the dogs stowed, Cap'n." He stared out the door. "What in the blue blazes is that?"
Russ gave Charlie a sharp glance; normally the mechanic would've used more profanity. Then he noticed that Charlie was standing closer than was really necessary to Mandy, and he sighed internally. The guy was a genius with machines, couldn't be beaten for that, but dimmer than a neutron star when it came to anything else. Russ mumbled a few incoherent swear words to himself. She was going to have to shoot him down. Again. He just loved domestic problems aboard his ship.
He followed Charlie's gaze and saw a four-foot-tall reptilian alien dressed in a green robe approaching. It stopped at the bottom of the cargo ramp and rested backwards on its tail, which looked about twice its body length. "Captain Russsel Fissk?" it asked.
Russ stepped forward. "That's me."
It bowed, making a complicated gesture with all four of its hands that ended with it tenting its sixteen fingers together. "I am Gr'aschtu." ("Bless you," Mandy said under her breath to Charlie, who snickered. Russ elbowed her.) "I am a mysstic of Lacerta, and I undersstand that you are going to Epssilon Three. I wissh to book passsage for mysself, iff I may."
"Come on aboard." As the creature came up the ramp, Russ hastened to say, "We can get you where you're going, as long as you're not too particular about the accommodations. Simple, but clean."
It licked a lidless eye with a fat forked tongue and wound its tail around his wrist. "I require little in the way of luxuriess."
"Then I think we can do business."
"I am mosst grateful. Thiss sshould cover my passsage, I believe."
It handed him a bag that clinked. He looked inside, gulped a little, and said, "Oh, yes, that'll do nicely."
After they got their passenger shown to its room and squared away, Charlie asked, "Hey, Cap'n? Is that mystic lizard-thing male or female?"
"Why do you expect me to know a thing like that?" Russ shrugged. "I just hope it doesn't try to eat the damn dogs."
When howls awakened him in the middle of the sleep cycle, he changed his mind and hoped that Gr'aschtu would eat the damn dogs. Jamming his pillow over his head in a vain attempt to drown out the cacophony, he cursed to himself and swore that never again would they carry live cargo. At least, not live cargo that made noise. He finally flung his pillow across the room. Barefoot in his pajama bottoms, he tugged a shirt on, climbed out of his bunk, and headed down to the hold to see what was happening.
He was flummoxed to see Gr'aschtu lying coiled on the floor, its twelve-foot length creating a sort of living bed for a half-dozen Beagles, and its scales taking on the black, white, and tan coloration of the dogs. As he was taking in this sight, Gr'aschtu lifted its head and made an ear-splitting, high-pitched noise, which Russ could only describe as the sound a snake would make if it howled, toward the ceiling. All the dogs followed suit, including the ones still in the crates.
"Gr'aschtu!" he said after the chorus died down. "What the he--" He stopped short, biting back his anger. The Lacertan was a paying passenger, after all, and swearing at it would be bad for business. "What are you doing?"
"Baying," it said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, like he was the crazy one for asking.
"They are hhoundss. It iss what they do. They hhunt their prey beneathh the moonss and sstarss and are as much a part of the night as the sshadowss thrown by firelight. Their ssong makes the foresst come alive." It licked its middle eye and bared pointy teeth in what Russ supposed was a smile down at the Beagles.
"Well, that's nice and poetic, but it's three in the ship's morning, and they're loud enough to wake the dead, for sure. Can you at least play with them when everyone's not trying to sleep?"
"It iss not the ssame in the daytime. Then they are jusst dogss."
Russell's brain hurt. He could swear there was actual physical pain. These mystic reptiles certainly saw the universe differently. Knowing that, however, was not getting him any closer to a good night's rest. "Gr'aschtu, please..."
"I undersstand." It rose gracefully to its feet and made a motion to the dogs. Russ blinked as they jumped into their crate.
It'd be nice if my crew was that obedient, he thought. "Thanks very much."
And this, Russell reflected, was just the first night. He had the feeling it was going to be a long four days.
Russ woke up to the sounds of a dogfight the next morning. "What has my idiot crew done now?" He threw some clothes on and raced down to the hold to find Mandy glowering furiously at a shamefaced Charlie. They had a Beagle apiece; the one Mandy held sported a red gash across its nose, while the ear of Charlie's dog was slit down the center and leaking blood all over the floor. Four others sat in a semi-circle a little ways away, watching the proceedings with cocked heads.
"Someone want to tell me why my valuable cargo is bleeding?" Russ said, hands on hips.
Mandy hugged her Beagle and glared at Charlie. "Go on, tell him."
"Well, I didn't mean nothin' by it. We was lettin' this bunch out for a little exercise, and I had some leftover bacon from breakfast. I tossed it onto the floor, and next thing we knew, these two was goin' at one another somethin' fierce." The big mechanic hung his head a bit and scraped the floor with the toe of his boot. "They's such mild little things, I didn't think they'd fight."
"Do the instructions "Feed Separately" ring any kind of bell in that thick skull of yours?" Russ demanded.
"Well, they do now. Won't happen again." Charlie scratched his Beagle behind its uninjured ear, and it licked him on the chin. "Honest, Cap'n, I like dogs. I wouldn't make 'em fight on purpose."
Charlie seemed distressed enough that Russ believed him. "Why don't you take them up to sick bay and have the Doc have a look? They don't seem hurt too badly, but it's best not to take any chances."
The ship's doctor snapped her mandibles and waved her antennae irritably. "Top five percent of my class. What am I now? Nursemaid to a bunch of Rr!skv-bedamned dogs," Ss!kct mumbled, as she sprayed tissue sealant over the wounded ear with one hand while holding it together with her other three. "Keep an eye on him; make sure he doesn't shake his head too much for the next couple of hours. He'll split it right open again if he does."
"How'm I supposed to do that?" Charlie frowned. "Keep it in my bunk in the engine room while I work on the grav coupling?"
"I thought you liked dogs?" Mandy hadn't stopped glaring at Charlie.
"I do. Doesn't mean I want fleas in my bed."
"They don't have fleas!" Mandy kissed her dog on top of his head. "Did that beastly man just insult you, baby? He's one to talk about fleas--"
"Hey!" Charlie protested.
Ss!kct had had enough. Her orange multifaceted eyes glittered. "You two, out of my infirmary with those animals. And if they need medical help, I'll go to them." She waved her antennae threateningly. "Don't bring them in here again."
"They're cleaner than some humans I could name," Mandy said, shooting Charlie a nasty look.
"Get. Out," Ss!kct said between clenched mandibles.
"Oh, fine," Mandy huffed. Still bickering, she and Charlie left.
"How much longer?" Ss!kct asked the ceiling. Then she skittered about her infirmary, spraying disinfectant everywhere.
Between feeding, cleaning, and exercising them all, the crew had their hands full taking care of the dogs. Even Ss!kct was press-ganged into helping, and it was she who noticed something odd about one of the dogs.
"Captain? Why didn't you tell me that this one is pregnant?"
"Preg--What?" Russ swore. "All I did was check to see if they had cold noses. Pregnant? You sure?"
"Yes, sir. And not only that, but from the way she's lying there and panting, I'd say she's about ready to deliver." The anxious mother-to-be looked up at Ss!kct with a pleading expression.
"Well...make her stop!" Russell's face mirrored the dog's, and Ss!kct waved her pedipalps to keep from laughing out loud at him. Russ continued, "Bad enough having dogs on board. I don't want puppies too!"
Ss!kct squeezed out a laugh through her abdominal spicules. "Sir, if it's her time, it's her time. I can probably handle it, if need be; mammalian obstetrics is generally routine. Just give her some space. Maybe Gr'aschtu would like to hold her paw."
"Oh, sure, all we need is that weirdo lizard thinking it's a veterinarian." Russ threw up his hands and turned to his daughter, who'd watched the proceedings with a delighted grin. "Mandy, next time I even consider taking a job like this, hit me over the head until I come to my senses."
"Okay, Dad." However, her impish expression suggested that she wouldn't have missed this experience for the price of several worlds.
They moved the Beagle into the crew lounge where it was quieter. Amanda contributed a clean blanket from her room for the mother dog to lie on. Gr'aschtu, indeed, held her paw or rubbed her ears, which actually did seem to soothe her. Even Charlie stuck his head into the room every now and then to check on her, although he said the whole process was "unnatural." Ss!kct stayed and watched with clinical interest, taking notes.
Two puppies were born without incident, but the third presented only a rump and a tail to the universe. Russell's head swivelled from the mother dog, who was panting and whining in obvious distress rather than making normal birthing noise, to his ship's doctor, who was donning two pairs of gloves. "That doesn't look right. I thought you said it would be routine," he said.
"Well, sir, sometimes it's not." Ss!kct crouched beside the dog.
Russ hovered over her. "Can you fix it? Is she going to be okay?"
"If you'd get out of my light--" she snapped.
"Right, sorry, sorry." Russ moved out of the way and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Can this trip get any worse?"
An alarm blared, making them all jump, and the intercom squawked to life. "Attention, Inquisitive Tamandua. This is Commodore Isaac Benton aboard Federal Police Cruiser Eagle Talon. Have all your paperwork ready and prepare for boarding."
Mandy leaped to her feet and raced toward the cockpit, Russ right behind her. She slid into the pilot's chair, while he took the co-pilot's, slapping a button on the console. "Is there a problem, Commodore?" he asked into the communicator.
"Just a routine inspection."
"I have a pretty tight schedule to maintain," he said as calmly as he could. "Can't we do this some other time?"
"We're here, now. No time like the present."
For a brief, horrible instant, Russ considered spacing the dogs and running in the confusion that would create. He shoved the thought back ruthlessly, his mind racing. No doubt the Commodore had his registration information; he might be able to outrun the one cruiser, but staying ahead of a "Wanted" bulletin was quite another thing altogether. And fubaring this job would put them not only on the bad side of a client with their already tattered reputation further into the toilet, but also deeper in debt to Marsden, who was counting the hours until his payday.
Of course, if the Feds caught him with this particular cargo and no paperwork, they'd confiscate the Beagles and give him a whopping fine on top of it. That wouldn't help his cause either.
Mandy's expression was panicked. "What are we gonna do?"
He shook his head. "I'll meet them at the airlock, I guess."
The Commodore stepped into the cargo hold with a yapping terrier of a Lieutenant behind him holding a clipboard. Benton sniffed officiously; Russ hated them both on sight. He was just glad he'd sent Mandy back to the crew lounge. Situations like this weren't her strong suit. "I assume you have paperwork for all these dogs?" Benton asked.
"Well, it's like this--"
A screeching yelp from the direction of the crew lounge interrupted Russ before he could say any more, causing them all to jump. It trailed off and stopped with a whimper. "What is going on, here, Captain?"
Gr'aschtu chose that moment to join them, Russ noted with an inward groan. "Iss there a problem?" Its hands were covered in dog blood, which it proceeded to lick off, much to Russ's disgust.
Benton's expression was rather horrified. "Just a routine inspection. The Captain was getting ready to give me the paperwork on all these dogs."
"Paperwork?" Gr'aschtu licked its middle eye. "I wass not aware that my larder required paperwork."
The Lieutenant had turned an interesting shade of green. "L-larder?" he stuttered. "B-but they're dogs."
"Yess?" Gr'aschtu wrapped its tail around his wrist and spoke in confidential tones. "Very tassty, I might add. I can get you a reccipe, iff you like, although I mysself prefer them raw. However, some sspiccess work better than otherss to bring out the piquant flavor."
Russ nudged the Commodore. "This delay really isn't helping us much. The Lacertan doesn't have to eat very often, but when it does, it gets kind of messy. My crew is really on me to get this passenger off the ship as soon as possible. You know how it is."
Benton had deflated by several pounds per square inch. His aide was scrubbing at his wrist, which Gr'aschtu had released. "Oh, yes, I do, I do indeed," Benton said. Now they couldn't get off the ship fast enough. "Well. All seems in order here. Yes, yes, it does. Have a safe trip, Captain."
They practically fled from the cargo hold, and once they were aboard their own ship, they unhooked airlocks and peeled away a lot faster than seemed necessary.
Once they were gone, Russ allowed himself a sigh of relief and turned to Gr'aschtu. "Thanks a lot."
"It was my pleassure." It smiled as they walked back to the lounge.
Mandy jumped up. "Are we okay?"
"Better than okay," Russ replied. "Give her all the power she's got, Mandy. Sooner we're shut of this job, the better." She ran to the cockpit, and they were all pushed down just enough to be noticeable when she hit the afterburners.
In their absence, Ss!kct had delivered the breech puppy, and a fourth one was making its way into the world. "Everything all right?" Russ asked his doctor.
"Routine," she answered with a wave of her antennae.
There was that word again. He was getting tired of it. "You keep saying that."
"Because it's true. Did the police decide they had better things to do?" She took some notes as the dog bit through the umbilical cord and licked the pup dry. "I notice we're not all in handcuffs."
Russ clapped Gr'aschtu on the back. "Our passenger is a mystic of many talents. One of which includes lying to the cops."
It licked an eye and settled back beside the Beagle, curling its tail around itself. "Who ssayss I wass lying?"
"Wonderful." Russ plopped down into one of the chairs, and Mandy came back in and took a seat on the couch, tucking her legs underneath her.
Charlie, finally letting his curiosity get the better of him, wandered into the room and sat beside Mandy. She plucked his hand off her knee. "See, Dad? Nothing to it," she said, as the dog popped out her fifth puppy.
"Oh, nothing at all." Russ gestured around the room at his idle crew. "Other than the fact that my ship has come to a complete stop while we waited for a dog to give birth. Don't you people have work to do?"
"Engine's tip-top," Charlie said. "Not like I have to babysit it every second."
"We're still on schedule, Dad," Mandy assured him. "Maybe even a little ahead."
"Good. Sooner we're done with this, the better. Let me know if anything changes." Russ stomped in the direction of the bridge.
"He seems a little cranky." Ss!kct waved her pedipalps and twitched her antennae.
Mandy's shoulders shook with silent laughter. "You think?"
"Dad?" Mandy stuck her head into the cockpit, finding Russ looking out the window with his boots crossed on the console.
"Oh, God, what have they done now?" Russ pinched the bridge of his nose. Again. He was going to leave a permanent mark on it if this trip went on any longer...
Mandy came in and leaned on the instrument panel, twisting her fingers together. "Oh, they're all fine. The mama dog's doing really well, and all five babies seem healthy, even the one that was born backwards. Anyway..." She trailed off awkwardly, then took a deep breath, letting it out in a one-word sentence. "Can-we-keep-one?"
"Keep--?" Russ slammed his feet on the floor, nearly coming out of the chair. "No! We're contracted to deliver them all, Mandy, or had you forgotten that little detail?" He glared.
She shrank a little, but plowed ahead, meeting his eyes from under her bangs. "We're contracted to deliver sixty. We've got sixty-five now."
"We have to deliver all the adult dogs. You want to take away a little baby puppy from that brand new mother? You know how much trouble a puppy that age is to raise? And then it'd probably die anyway. Mandy..." She looked like she was about to cry, so he softened his expression. "This isn't any kind of life for a dog. Think about it. Half the time we don't have enough to eat ourselves. You want to add a Beagle to the crew? Really?"
She heaved out a big sigh. "I suppose not. But they sure are nice dogs."
Russ had to admit that was true. Other than the fight precipitated by Charlie's ill-advised attempt at giving them a treat, they were all quite friendly, both with the crew and each other. Facts were facts, though, and he was the Captain and had to make the hard-headed decisions. "As much as it hurts me to deny you, Mandy, the answer has to be no."
"All right." She sighed again and slumped out of the cockpit.
Russ wondered if he was going to have a mutiny. No one liked it when Mandy was sad. The stars mocked him through the window, and he swore at them. "Are we there yet?"
To Russell's utter relief, the rest of the trip was uneventful, and Mandy landed the Tamandua on Epsilon Three with her usual aplomb, just outside the monastery. They all accompanied Gr'aschtu to the gate to say goodbye.
"I hhave very much enjoyed our journey, Captain," Gr'aschtu said. "Thhank you for your hosspitality."
"Wouldn't mind doing business another time, you ever need to go someplace else," Russ said, nodding. "It was our pleasure."
"May I give you a blesssing before we part wayss?"
It adjusted the cowl on its head, wrapped its tail around his wrist, and began chanting in Lacertan. Weaving its fingers through the air in a complicated dance, it ended with a four-handed clap. With a bow and a smile, it turned and left them standing there, open-mouthed.
"Okay, that was weird," Charlie said.
"Did you feel that?" Mandy asked, shivering.
Russ rubbed his wrist, following a tingle up his shoulder and massaging it for a moment. "Yeah."
Ss!kct waved her pedipalps. "I always got the impression that she wanted to eat me, but she was never rude or overt about it."
They all stared at her. "'She'?" Russ finally said.
"You didn't know?" Ss!kct's antennae twitched.
"How could you tell?" He crossed his arms. "And I sure wasn't going to ask."
"I'm a doctor. It's my job to know."
Russ pinched the bridge of his nose. "Let's get these dogs delivered."
They landed in a clearing on Foster's game ranch. Russ checked the blaster on his hip before squaring his shoulders and going out to meet their contact, hoping like hell that no one would shoot at them or try to cheat them out of more than their share. Nothing was a surety in their business, and this job had already given him plenty of disagreeable surprises.
However, Foster welcomed them with a cheerful hail-fellow-well-met attitude that was a pleasant change from their usual, more surly, business contacts. After inspecting the Beagles and finding them all healthy and happy, with five more than he'd actually paid for, the portly little man declared himself satisfied. "I'm in a really tight spot here, Fisk. Thanks for coming through for me."
"It was no problem. Everything went smoothly." Mandy choked on a giggle behind him, and he elbowed her.
"This payment should fulfill our contract." Foster smiled and handed him a thick envelope. "It includes a bonus for getting here early with all the dogs in good shape."
Russ blinked. A bonus? How often did that happen? He found himself shaking hands with Foster with a genuine grin on his face.
"Would you and your crew like to stay for dinner?" Foster asked. "My cook has discovered some really interesting things to do with rabbit."
Russ hoped he wasn't committing a social faux pas by refusing. "Sorry, but I have people to meet. You know how it is."
"I do indeed." Foster looked at something behind Russ and nodded. "Marsden's here."
Russ stiffened. "You know him?"
"Doesn't everyone?" Foster quirked an eyebrow. "He's got his hands in lots of pies in this system. If you change your mind about dinner, I'll be in the ranch house." He leaned a little closer and lowered his voice. "I really don't like him."
"Nobody does," Russ muttered as Foster scurried away. He turned to his crew. "You guys want to help get the dogs unloaded?"
While they did that, he met their creditor halfway between their ships. "Fisk."
"You have my money?"
So much for niceties. Russ opened the envelope and counted out what they owed him. "We done?" he said.
Marsden gave him the sort of smile a shark would give a wounded sea bass. "Until you need me again." Not bothering with a goodbye, he sauntered back to his ship.
Russ didn't let himself relax until Marsden was in the air. He turned to see Charlie, Ss!kct, and Mandy having a confab with Foster. He was a little suspicious when they all shook hands, and Mandy had that "kid at Christmas" look again.
He stopped Ss!kct on her way back into the ship. "Something going on I need to know about? I already told Mandy she couldn't keep one."
"And we would never overrule you, sir." Ss!kct waved her pedipalps. That made him even more distrustful, and he stopped and crossed his arms. He'd gotten skilled at reading her over the years.
"And you have but-face, bug-lady. So what's the 'but'?"
"Well, sir, the three of us got together and bought one anyway." She raised her antennae to stop his imminent explosion. "It will stay here until you either change your mind or she's in a position to keep it permanently."
He rubbed his beard, considering the ramifications. "And she's happy with this arrangement?"
"Yes, sir." Her mandibles clacked. "She considers it a good compromise."
"Well. Okay, then. Fine." He found himself grinning. All told, it hadn't really been a bad job.
Maybe they could do it again sometime.
Completely optional--tip the author:
And, if you feel like reading another adventure of the crew of the Inquisitive Tamandua, the sequel, "Affairs of Dragons," is available through Anthology Builder, and my author page is here.