The conference room was well-appointed with wood paneling, a suitably large table, and comfortable chairs … all intended to communicate a certain amount of economic and political power.
At the center of one side of the conference room table sat a high-ranking Cratif naval officer. At his right, a tailless, white-furred wolf wearing an elegant suit that reminded Bren of clothes his fathers might wear on important state occasions: Consul Gormarkin. To his left, Chief Dundee stood behind his chair. A dark-furred wolf in a cheap business suit of recent enough galactic style sat next to him.
Captain Lupindo, Bren, Fox, and Garwulf took seats on the other side of the table, Bren next to Fox.
“Captain Lupindo,” said Dundee, “This is Captain MacKenzie, Wolfheim Consul Gormarkin, and Ralf Wolfenbittel, proprietor of the Tiff and Fox.”
Lupindo and MacKenzie looked at each other; Lupindo nodded.
“Captain MacKenzie. It is good to see you again. Congratulations.”
“Captain Lupindo. Thank you. You’re looking well. Staying out of trouble, I assume?”
Dundee asked, “You know this wolf?”
“Indeed I do. He has a reputation.”
Lupindo momentarily furrowed his brow. He nodded to the others each in turn.
“Consul, Mister Wolfenbittel. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Captain Timberwoof Lupindo. These are my officers: Commander Fox and Commander Garwulf. This is Bren Feltwig … who needs your assistance.”
“Captain, Commanders, and Bren,” said MacKenzie. “Please be seated. Well. This should not take long. Let’s begin with a review of the facts. Mister Wolfenbittel. Please tell your story.”
“These, uh, gentlemen,” Wolfenbittel said, indicating Lupindo and his officers, “came to my restaurant, threatened me, took one of my employees, and attempted to bribe me with a keg of beer. I think they’re planning to sell him to slavers. That one I’m sure has shady connections. I don’t like the look of his fur.”
Fox and Garwulf tried to control their irritation. Lupindo said nothing. Bren looked up at him and furrowed his brow.
“Mister Wolfenbittel,” said Gormarkin. “Tell us how Mister Feltwig came to your restaurant.”
“Yes, Consul. About three weeks ago, I found young Bren behind the restaurant. He was cold and hungry, so I took him inside and gave him a meal to eat.”
“That’s wrong,” said Bren. “He’s lying!”
“Bren,” said MacKenzie. “Please stay silent while Mister Wolfenbittel speaks.”
“Captain,” asked Lupindo. “Shouldn’t Bren have legal representation?”
“Uh … Yes. I can’t ask…”
“Consul,” said Lupindo. “You’re familiar with local law and with Wolf customs. Why don’t you insure that this Wolfheim citizen’s rights are upheld?”
Gormarkin looked at Lupindo as though surprised … then frustrated.
MacKenzie seemed to think about it for a moment, then nodded.
“Yes, of course, Captain,” said Gormarkin. “Mister Feltwig, please sit here.” He indicated the empty seat next to him.
Fox rolled her eyes. She nodded to Bren, who reluctantly went over there.
“Mister Wolfenbittel,” said MacKenzie. “Please continue.”
“In exchange for room and board, I let Bren work in the kitchen. I stayed within child labor laws and paid him a fair salary.”
“He’s lying again!” said Bren. “You never paid me!”
“I beg forgiveness, Captain MacKenzie,” said Gormarkin. “Mister Feltwig, it’s Wolfenbittel’s turn to speak. You will have your turn. Ah. Here. Here’s a note pad. Uh.”
The Consul whispered into Bren’s ears. “Every time anyone lies, write it down.”
“I’m on your side, Bren.”
Gormarkin looked up.
MacKenzie sighed. “Mister Wolfenbittel, please continue.”
“I made sure he worked only reasonable hours, and I made sure he kept up with his studies. He got along very well with the other employees. He’s one of my better workers.
“And then these … gentlemen … showed up and tried to bribe me with a keg of beer. They asked me if the Arshast had made any offers for him, and said they’d double any offer they had made. Naturally I was shocked, but they coerced me into taking their bribe.”
Bren’s eyes went wide. He opened his mouth to speak, but poked Consul Gormarkin in the ribs and scribbled furiously on the note pad.
Lupindo, Fox, and Garwulf glared but kept silent … and scribbled furiously on theirs.
“I see,” said MacKenzie. “That’s a … shocking story. Captain Lupindo?”
Lupindo glanced over at what Fox and Garwulf had written.
“I have not met Mister Wolfenbittel, though I may have caught a glimpse of him when I visited the Tiff and Fox the other day. I was not present when this event occurred and I resent his implications. Captain, if you agree, I will allow Commander Garwulf to tell his story, and then I will conclude.”
“I agree,” MacKenzie said.
Commander Garwulf narrated.
“Commander Fox, two lieutenants, and myself were eating at the Tiff and Fox when this pup—Bren—came up to us. He was agitated and looked tired. I asked him what was the matter and he said, ‘I’m lost. I’m a slave here, please take me with you.’
It was Wolfenbittel’s turn to want to object. Garwulf went on.
“I made him explain. He said he lost his pack three weeks ago and had no way to get back home. He said he had tried everything.”
Garwulf looked at Consul Gormarkin.
“He said he wasn’t getting paid and that the old wolf had threatened to sell him into slavery if he didn’t do his chores. So we b- I mean we took him with us in exchange for a keg of beer. We were taking him back to our ship when we discovered he has no identity documents.”
Garwulf looked to the captain, who nodded and took up the narration.
“Commander Garwulf reported to me what had happened. I immediately called Consul.”
“Thank you, Captain. Bren?”
“Will you tell us, in your own words, what happened to you?”
Bren looked across the table at Fox, who nodded to him.
“Well, I got lost here three weeks ago. I couldn’t find my pack. I tried everything. They wouldn’t help me at the space port. The ship, the Tarkel’s Glory, had already left. Eventually I found the restaurant, and he made me do chores. He said if I didn’t do them, he’d sell me to the Arshast.”
“I said no such thing! Bren, don’t tell tales.”
“Mister Wolfenbittel,” said MacKenzie. “Let Bren speak.”
“He did, too!” said Bren. “He said that. Anyway, these wolf spacers came into the restaurant. So I went to their table and asked them to take me with them. They told me to keep quiet. Then some people from their ship delivered a keg of beer. The spacers had an argument with the old wolf—I mean Mister Wolfenbittel, and they took me to the ship. Now I’m here. What’s going to happen to me?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out,” said MacKenzie.
“Am I going to prison?”
“No, Bren. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
MacKenzie looked over his notes. He turned to Wolfenbittel.
“There seems to be some disagreement over the nature of Bren’s employment. Mister Wolfenbittel, did you pay Bren?”
“He got room and board.”
“Did you pay him?” asked MacKenzie.
“I can’t afford to pay him a salary,” said Wolfenbittel. “I was doing him a favor! He had room and board until he found passage home.”
“That’s not what you said earlier. Did you threaten to sell him into slavery?”
“Uh-huh! You did too!”
“Bren, keep quiet,” said Gormarkin. “You’ll get your turn to speak.”
“He’s a liar.”
Bren pointed his ears at Wolfenbittel.
Commander Fox gestured to Bren to keep silent. Bren snarled at Wolfenbittel, folded his arms, set his jaw, and stared straight ahead.
“Did you threaten to sell him into slavery?” MacKenzie repeated.
“I’m not answering any more questions. This is an outrage. I have my rights.”
“Right. Commander Garwulf. When you offered to compensate Mister Wolfenbittel for taking his … slave … did occur to you that your transaction may have been in violation of laws against involuntary servitude?”
“No Sir! We only wanted to get him out of that situation and into one where he’d be properly cared for.”
“But you paid for him with a keg of beer.”
“We only wanted to reduce friction with Mister Wolfenbittel. And we reported it immediately to our captain.”
“Captain Lupindo, were you aware that your officers’ transaction may have been illegal?”
“Captain MacKenzie. Yes, I was … and I knew that they were acting in Bren’s best interests. That is why I called Consul. I want to make sure that what we did will not be taken the wrong way, and to assure you and Consul Gormarkin that we want to properly care for young Bren until we can bring him home.”
“Captain Lupindo,” said Consul Gormarkin. “When you informed me of the nature of your call, I was obliged to call MacKenzie. Involuntary servitude is serious business, illegal in both our jurisdictions. It’s especially serious when it involves a minor. I hope you understand that it is my duty and desire to keep relations between Wolfheim and Outba on a friendly and civilized basis.”
“Captain,” said MacKenzie. “Are you familiar with the laws against trafficking in slaves, and the special conditions attached to trafficking in underaged slaves?”
Lupindo glared at MacKenzie.
“Yes, Captain, I am, which is why I brought this to your attention in the first place.”
“The penalties are quite severe. Given your history, you may not receive a sympathetic ear in a Cratif court.”
“My history,” said Lupindo, raking back his bright blue and black striped fur. “Wrongfully accused of piracy, imprisoned by the R’shast, exonerated in a Cratif court. Now why would I not receive a fair hearing? … But this is not about me. This is about young Bren.”
Timberwoof looked at Bren with what he hoped would be a kind look. Bren looked at him wide-eyed. Timberwoof went on.
“Is Bren going to receive a fair hearing? You didn’t even know he was here for three weeks. Or you didn’t do anything to help him. I’m the only one looking out for his interests.”
“Now look here, Lupindo,” said Gormarkin. “I’ll not have you speaking this way. This is a diplomatic situation; we have to deal with these things tactfully.”
MacKenzie said, “Consul Gormarkin, with all due respect. Lupindo may have a history here but he is a starship commander. I appreciate his honesty. Go on, Captain.”
Gormarkin furrowed his bow … and nodded.
“Thank you, Captain,” said Lupindo. “As I was saying, if I had brought this young wolf on board as a slave, my officers would have removed me as their captain, skinned me alive, and thrown me out of an airlock. If I was lucky they might have only thrown me out of an airlock.”
Fox and Garwulf nodded grimly. MacKenzie allowed himself a wry smile. Lupindo went on.
“So my motives are just: I am looking out for Bren’s best interests. You two”—Lupindo looked at MacKenzie and Gormarkin—“can turn this into an interstellar incident if you want to. But I’m sure you would prefer not to. You want to settle this situation legally and amicably, and look out for Bren’s best interests … without getting your superiors involved.”
“Now look here,” said Gormarkin.
Captain Lupindo looked at Gormarkin. Calmly he tapped his datapad and spoke to it.
“Trove Comm, Captain. Give us half an hour, please. If you haven’t heard from us, call the Wolfheim Embassy on the surface. Apprise them of the situation and ask for advice. Also send a message to LaFayette and let him know what’s up.”
“Captain, Comm. Half an hour, Wolfheim embassy and LaFayette, Aye.”
Lupindo looked at MacKenzie and Gormarkin, who were not pleased at this unsubtle blackmail.
“I’m not in the slave business,” said Captain Lupindo. He glared and pointed his ears at MacKenzie and at Gormarkin. “I brought this matter directly to your attention. If you want, I’ll walk out of this meeting right now and leave this young wolf in your paws to deal with.”
Bren folded his ears back and looked down. Timberwoof looked at Bren; he bit his lips, sighed, and folded his ears down as well. Commander Fox winked at Bren. Bren looked at her and tilted his head sideways. She winked and nodded, hoping he’d get it. Bren took a breath, sat up straight, and watched silently. MacKenzie and Gormarkin glared at Lupindo and furrowed their brows.
“You are a tough customer, Captain,” said MacKenzie. “I apologize for my implication. I can see that you do have Bren’s interests in mind. What is your plan for him?”
“Captain MacKenzie,” said Lupindo. “This just happened—”
“Captain, if I may,” said Garwulf.
“Yes, Commander Garwulf. Go ahead.”
“Captain MacKenzie, I know this station has bookstores that carry textbooks, and shops where we can acquire clothing. We can provide for all of Bren’s educational needs, and all the training he will need for life on a starship.”
“Just how long are you planning to keep him?”
“It will be about a year before we return to Wolfheim, sir.”
Bren’s eyes went wide. A year?! That’s almost forever!
“Captain,” said Consul Gormarkin. “You do realize that Bren will miss out on his schooling and his presentation to the Lady Tarkel.”
“Consul, my officers and I are graduates of the Wolfheim Space Academy. We are capable of teaching him everything in those textbooks. And we’re not convinced that him getting his tail cut off is in his best interests.”
“Tail cut off?” asked MacKenzie, eyes wide. Dundee was similarly alarmed.
“It is in the Tarkel tradition, and he will be missing that,” said Gormarkin.
“I don’t want to get my tail cut off!” said Bren.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” said Gormarkin.
“Fox! Tell them! I don’t want to get my tail cut off!” said Bren.
Commander Fox looked at Bren, nodded, and patted the table in front of her. Bren quieted down.
“Bren,” said Timberwoof, “If you come with us, I promise you, no one will cut your tail off. But you will not see home for a year.”
“A year. That’s a long time. Then what?” asked Bren.
“We will return to Wolfheim. Then you will be able to go home.”
“It’s something to consider, Bren,” said MacKenzie. “Consul, I’m sure you agree he can’t stay at the restaurant. Can he stay at the consulate?”
Consul Gormarkin shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Captain. This is not a service I can provide. There’s no telling when a ship will pass by here on its way back to Wolfheim. Could be days, could be weeks. And I have no educational staff or experience. And when he returns to Wolfheim, there’s an audience for him.”
“You mean an axe,” said Bren.
Gormarkin sighed. “An axe.”
“I’m not going.”
Gormarkin thought for a moment. He looked at MacKenzie.
“And I will not be party to pupnapping,” said Gormarkin. “He has stated quite clearly he does not want to return to Wolfheim.”
“I’m not getting my tail chopped off!”
Bren looked hopefully at the captain.
“Well,” Timberwoof said. “I did make the offer. Captain, Consul. If we’re all agreed, then Bren comes with us. We will provide room and board and education and a loving pack. Things he would not have had here.”
Captain Lupindo glared at the silent Wolfenbittel.
MacKenzie surveyed the people present. Gormarkin didn’t object. Wolfenbittel tried to be invisible. Bren was growing eager to go with his new pack. Captain Lupindo was relieved that no laws were broken.
“Well, then,” said MacKenzie. “It’s settled. I have one question for Bren.”
“Do you have any identification?”
“No. My sire kept all that.”
“Well. You’ll need identification papers. We’ll have to establish who you are.”
“I’m Bren Feltwig, of Tarkel City, Wolfheim.”
“Bren, we don’t have any evidence of that.”
“Captain,” said Dundee. “Hang on a moment. I may have a solution.”
Everybody turned to the security chief.
“I asked Sheila to scan recent arrival and departure records, to dig up any pictures from security cameras at Immigration.”
“Am I in trouble?” asked Bren.
“No, Bren,” said Dundee. “We’re working to get you out of trouble. You need to have identity documents. We’re trying to get them made for you.”
“Chief,” said Sheila over the intercom. “I have the results on that Wolfheim Cibosan. Bren Feltwig arrived three weeks ago on the Tarkel’s Glory. There’s no record of him being on that ship when it left three days later. We have a photo.”
“Put it up on the screen here, please.”
A picture appeared of a Wolf pack waiting at passport control. Several adults and a pawful of youngsters, all with white or light tan fur and old-fashioned clothes. One of the youngsters was clearly Bren.
Dundee looked at MacKenzie, who nodded.
“Sheila,” said Dundee. “I’m sending you Bren Feltwig. Please put together a dossier on him, all the information you have, and issue him an ID for this station.”
MacKenzie looked at Gormarkin, who nodded.
“I’ll issue him a passport and citizenship papers on that basis.”
“Then it’s all settled,” said MacKenzie. “Bren Feltwig, welcome to legality.”
“Uh, thank you.”
“Go with this officer to Sheila’s office. She’ll give you some documents. When you get them, come back here.”
Captain MacKenzie smiled.
Bren left the room with one of the assistants.
Timber furrowed his brow.
“Captain Lupindo, you seem troubled,” said MacKenzie.
“What will happen with Wolfenbittel?”
“Captain,” said Dundee. “We Cratif place as much importance on heathy employees and food preparation as you Cibosans do. I will have my health and sanitation inspectors keep a very close eye on the Tiff and Fox to make sure it maintains its reputation for fine food.”
They all looked at Wolfenbittel.
“I’m sure you understand, yes?” asked MacKenzie. “A very close eye.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Wolfenbittel, his ears folded down.
The door opened and Bren returned.
“Captain! I’m legal now!”
“Oh? Let’s see.”
Bren handed Timberwoof an ID card. Timberwoof compared it to Bren, nodded, and handed it back. Bren stood there and stared at him. Timberwoof blinked, not sure what to do next. Commander Fox poked the captain in the ribs and whispered in his ear.
“Give him a hug! He’s our wolf now.”
Timberwoof tentatively opened his arms to Bren. Bren rushed to him and hugged him. Timberwoof held him, felt his warmth and breathing … held him closer. He tried to think of something to say but the moment passed.
“Captain Lupindo,” said Gormarkin.
Lupindo looked up at him.
“I’ve sent instructions to my staff to issue a passport for Bren. Since he is a minor, I think it would be to everyone’s advantage to list you and your officers as his guardians. Do you approve?”
Captain Lupindo looked at his officers and at Bren. Bren looked at him with hopeful eyes.
“Yes, Consul. Make it so.”
Gormarkin nodded and poked at his datapad.
“I’ll have someone from my staff deliver it to your ship.”
“Very well,” said Lupindo. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” said Gormarkin.
MacKenzie nodded. “Yes. Captain Lupindo. Please understand that I was just—”
“I understand, Captain. We all have our duty.”
Lupindo and MacKenzie looked at one another. They slowly relaxed, then extended paws. They shook and smiled.
“Well, then,” said Lupindo. “I have a ship to prepare for departure.”
“Fare well, Captain,” said MacKenzie. “Safe journeys.”