THE BALL OF YARN INCIDENT By Rory Steves
“According to reports from our INTEL department, the Feline Federation have been developing an additional new weapons system.”
Admiral Fido paused to scratch behind his ear.
Lieutenant Bogey wondered at that; there couldn’t possibly be any fleas aboard Station Frisbee. Bogey paid close attention as the admiral continued.
“Most officers still shudder at the horrific attack by the Felines against Station Knotted Rope. The station was totally destroyed by the bombardment it received from six Feline Battleships equipped with the new Scratching Post cannons. And we had thought nothing could be worse than the Hairball Cannons the Felines have used for so long. It was a terrible defeat for us.”
Bogey knew the horror of that attack still produced nightmares among his crew. They had managed, barely, to pull two damaged cruisers away from the station before it blew. While he waited, he wondered why he, a mere lieutenant, was at the admiral’s briefing. His ship wouldn’t be considered dangerous even by kittens.
A quick ear scratch and the admiral continued.
“The Felines’ latest weapon is called the Screech. Good news; reports indicate they only have one working prototype.”
A few hopeful barks and tail wags followed the remark.
“Bad news; the prototype has been installed on the Feline command ship Ball of Yarn.”
Frustrated whines and a few muted growls followed the admiral’s news. The Ball of Yarn, commanded by Commodore Fluffy, was the most powerful, and the most hated, ship in the Feline Fleet. The Ball of Yarn had led the attack on Knotted Rope.
“We do not yet possess shields capable of deflecting this weapon, nor weapons to match it. Our weapons development team tells us the Howler is at least six months away from completion, and the Muzzle even longer.”
Canine officers sniffed each other; how could they hope to defend the Canine Republic when they were so heavily outmatched?
Admiral Fido waited for his officers to calm down, then continued.
“We cannot depend on technology to counter this new threat. Instead, we must rely on the two greatest strengths the heavens have bestowed upon the Canines; courage and dedication.”
Most of the officers present sniffed the air; the scent of danger floated around the room. And bacon.
“I’m sending our bravest captain and crew on a vital mission, one with almost no chance of success. This officer will have a single directive; to fetch the Ball of Yarn.”
Nearly every Canine officer present looked either at Captain Rover, commanding the Tug of War, or at Captain Spot, commanding the Spiked Collar. The Collar and the Tug were the two greatest battle cruisers in the Canine Fleet. Both captains stood waiting, pride in their very posture, tails held high.
Lieutenant Bogey worked hard at being as invisible as possible. Unfortunately, invisibility was a skill Canines did not possess. He settled for keeping a couple of bigger dogs in front of him. The terms “courage” and “dedication” had been used several times in speeches by admirals when Bogey was awarded the Golden Collar with Tag for the rescue efforts he and his crew during the attack on Station Knotted Rope.
“Lieutenant Bogey, step up here, please,” Fido ordered, his right paw pointing to the space next to him.
Head and tail held high, Bogey marched up to stand before his admiral. They sniffed each other’s noses and butts, then stood facing each other.
“Most tugboat officers would have been lucky to have pulled a single ship safely away from that disaster. But you and your gallant crew did twice that,” the Admiral said.
“You are hereby promoted to captain. Congratulations,” Fido said.
“Three cheers for Captain Bogey!” Captain Rover led the cheers.
Barks and howls filled the room, and everyone wanted to sniff the new captain. His fellow captains were both proud of the fine young officer and relieved they hadn’t caught the assignment themselves.
“See me in my office after the briefing and we’ll get your ship provisioned,” Fido said, waving Bogey and those who had come up to sniff him back to their seats.
As the admiral handed out assignments to the other captains, Bogey mused about his own mission.
Fetch the Ball of Yarn? They’d be blown to pieces long before they could even deploy their leash. Admiral Fido was getting more than a little grey around the muzzle; was he becoming senile?
The Squeaky Toy was a border patrol tugboat. She was designed neither for speed nor stealth, and would never win a beauty pageant. The Squeak’s main duty was border interdiction, and towing damaged ships to port. For the Squeak to take on the Ball of Yarn was like a Chihuahua facing off against a tiger.
The word entrée kept running through his mind.
Then he smiled as a crazy idea drifted into his thoughts. He sniffed the idea from many angles. It just might work. How does a male beagle mate with a female Doberman?
Very, very carefully.
“Does the Squeaky Toy need any repairs before you leave?” Admiral Fido asked, in a tone that said “no” was the correct answer.
“No, sir,” Bogey answered. “We just completed a refit and replenishment. However, I do have a couple of requests to help assure success.”
“What do you need, Captain?”
“The Ball of Yarn is a mighty big ship. I’d like Fleet Engineering to install a second leash in the Squeaky Toy, and a boost to our shield capacity.”
“Consider it done,” Fido said.
“My other requests involve items from Restricted Tech and Seized Contraband, sir.”
Bogey briefly outlined his plan.
Fido scratched his ear again.
“You have my authorization. When can you leave?”
“As soon as Engineering is finished, sir,” Bogey answered. “I’d estimate two or three days.”
“Very good. Be sure to load a dozen extra cases of bacon and hotdogs for your crew, on my authority. Dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“They want us to do what?” wailed Butch, the Chief Bosun’s Mate aboard the Squeaky Toy. As Chief of the Boat, he was included in the officer’s briefing in the wardroom. The extra bacon and hotdogs made everyone’s tail wag, but their “go fetch” assignment stopped all the wagging.
Except Ensign Trixie, the little Pekinese’s tail wagged just as eagerly in response to bad news as good.
Bogey still remembered when he had been the young ensign aboard his first ship. He’d been just as nervous and eager to please as Trixie was now. She’d do fine.
For the next two and a half days, Bogey’s crew worked like, well, dogs. Together with engineering teams loaned from Station Frisbee, they installed the second leash, and the other modifications Bogey wanted.
Butch and his crew stowed the hundreds of sealed crates from Contraband in the Squeaky Toy’s cargo holds.
“Is this thing going to work?” Butch asked one of the engineers on loan from the station. He, like most of the canines, distrusted the new technology. It just smelled wrong.
“Jump in, and we’ll give it a try,” the engineer said. The device filled most of Cargo Hold Three.
“Not for all the hot dogs in the galaxy,” Butch answered.
“Just as well; it’s not designed for life-forms, just cargo,” the engineer said.
“I can’t figure why the Admiral is sending the Squeak on such a mission, instead of a Battle-cruiser,” Butch said. “No way Captain Bogey volunteered for this. And why did we load a Choke Chain aboard? We’re not part of Special Ops, I hope.”
“That’s what success gets you; more work,” the engineer said, happy he wasn’t going on this crazy assignment.
Fetch the Ball of Yarn? Preposterous.
“Oh, the Captain said to give you this.” Butch handed him a rolled message paper.
The canine read it, and then yelped.
“I didn’t volunteer! He can’t do this to me, the rotten mutt,” he said, indignant.
Butch read the note and barked with laughter.
It seemed the engineer and his teammates were now part of the mission.
“Name’s Butch, crewmate,” he held out his paw.
“Charlie,” the engineer said, and touched paws.
His team wasn’t any happier than he was.
Three days after the Admiral’s briefing, the Squeaky Toy was ready for her mission.
“Good hunting,” Departure Control said, releasing the leash that secured the ship.
Days later, the Squeaky Toy followed a curious zigzag course as first the port engines flared to full power, then died. Squeak would coast while repairs were made, then her crew would power-up the drives, only to have the starboard drives fail.
Captain Bogey dutifully transmitted full reports to Station Frisbee each time. After nearly three days of this, irritation began to show up in his reports.
On day six they were entering Feline space; now both drives failed. They still had systems power, so gravity and life support continued, despite their immobility.
Bogey now, as duty required, sent out the distress signal.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. Canine tug Squeaky Toy has lost motive power, request all assistance. Mayday, mayday, mayday.”
The message was repeated every hour, per regulations.
“Keep sensors on passive only. And use runners for messages, the Felines might be able to listen in.” Bogey ordered.
“Ought to rename us the Sitting Duck,” Butch complained.
A growl from his captain silenced him.
Two days later, a gentle, but excited, knocking on his door woke Captain Bogey from a very bad dream.
He hated dreaming about cats chasing him up trees.
It went against the natural order of things.
“Enter,” he said.
Trixie’s tail was wagging so fast she was creating a soft breeze.
“Sir, Captain,” Trixie said, her excitement obvious, “a ship is approaching!”
“Very good; please alert the rest of the senior staff. Have our guests prepare their device,” he ordered as he headed for the bridge.Bogey stopped and added, “Send a runner to engineering and have them give us a couple false starts on the drives and shields.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“They are still at extreme range, sir.” Lieutenant Dempsey reported from the sensor console. “The ship is definitely a Feline Battle-cruiser. We should know if it’s the Ball of Yarn in a few minutes.”
“Thank you, Dempsey,” Bogey said, taking his place on the bridge.
The decking shook and the lights flickered as engineering tried to restart the engines. Then the ship went dark when they attempted to raise the shields.
The lights flickered as they came back on.
As they did, Trixie relieved the midshipman who had been manning her post at communications.
“Trixie, send our distress signal. Include our attempted restart, and report that two of our engineers and myself have been incapacitated. Repeat every half hour.”
Without shields, it would only take a couple of blasts from a Feline warship to destroy them.
On the bridge, heads turned to glance at their captain, and to sniff the air.
No, their captain wasn’t afraid.
“Sir,” Dempsey said in a near whisper, “identification confirmed; it is the Ball of Yarn.”
Bogey nodded, and motioned his communications officer over.
“Ensign Trixie; the Feline Navy is very matriarchal in composition. As you are my only female officer, I need you to act as if you are in command. Your ship is defenseless, and you’re dealing with your enemies’ most feared warship. Act nervous, if possible act like you’re scared out of your wits.”
The Feline Battle-cruiser approached cautiously, and did a slow circle around the Squeaky Toy before taking position directly facing their bow.
Commodore Fluffy gave them a few minutes to look at how very large the Ball of Yarn was, and just how big her weapons were.
When Fluffy called them, Bogey remained out of sight.
“This is Commodore Fluffy, commanding the Feline Heavy Battle-cruiser Ball of Yarn. How may we be of assistance, Squeaky Toy?”
“I, I, I’m Ensign Trixie, communications officer. Our engines kept misfiring, then they just quit. I think maybe that’s what short-circuited our shields. We have life support, and, and gravity, but, but not much else.
“Could you maybe help fix our engines? Or tow us back to Canine space?”
Bogey would have given a case of hot dogs to see the look on Commodore Fluffy’s face at that request.
Trixie performed perfectly; just a timid little canine nearly scared out of her skin. She’d make lieutenant soon.
“You’ve got to be kidding. There is no way that I would ever order my engineers to step aboard a dog ship. It would be far beneath their dignity.
“Normally,” the Commodore continued, “I’d merely order my gunners to open fire and destroy you. But you’re just a tugboat, not a warship.”
She looked at something another feline showed her.
“Squeaky Toy; now I remember. You’re the tug that saved those two ships last week.”
“Yes, Ma’am, that, that was us,” Trixie said.
Bogey watched carefully; the next minute would decide their fate.
“It would be a waste to destroy such a brave pack of dogs,” said the Commodore. Condescension dripped from her voice.
“We will tow you back to the region of space that we allow you inbred wolves to play in. From there you’ll just have to wait for another dog ship to help you.”
“Thank, thank you, Ma’am, I, I mean, thank you Commodore, Ma’am.”
Trixie looked so nervous Bogey thought she might faint. Excellent acting job. He’d seen Pit Bulls back down before she would.
“Ball of Yarn, out.”
The comm screen darkened, and the Squeak lurched as the felines locked their tractor beam on them.
“Trixie, you were brilliant! Even I thought you were terrified. In fact, I’m putting you on the lieutenant’s list for the promotion board,” Bogey told her after the comm system was shut down.
“I was scared silly,” she said.
“Who wouldn’t be? You did great,” Bogey said. “You have the bridge, I’ll be in Cargo Hold Three.”
“They have their tractor beam locked on to us; have you matched frequencies yet?” Bogey asked Charlie as the engineer continued to adjust dozens of knobs on the device’s control board.
“Couple minutes yet, Captain,” Charlie said. “It’s got to be precise, or their sensors will identify our beam.”
Bogey nodded, and walked over to Butch and his crew of cargo handlers.
“As fast as you can, Butch. We’ll only have a few minutes before some dumb cat starts howling the alarm.”
“We’re ready, Captain,” Butch said, “I hope this works, sir.”
“It better, Butch,” said Bogey. “If it doesn’t, the Ball of Yarn will pound us into dust.”
Bogey looked over to the Jack Randall Terrier in charge of the boarding party. His parents must have been very unimaginative when it came to names for their pups.
“Jack, you’ll only have seconds to put the Choke Chain in place. Once done, get back here pronto.”
These were the canines that had the job of walking directly into the lion’s den.
The Choke Chain would lock out all controls aboard the Feline Battle-cruiser.
“Me and the lads will get it done sir, no worries,” Jack said.
“Ready, Captain,” Charlie said as Bogey returned to Cargo Hold Three. “How do you want it delivered?”
“Bridge, Weapons, and Engineering first. Then fill the whole ship. But faster than fast,” Bogey said.
“Coordinates locked in,” Charlie said.
“Begin digital transfer,” Bogey ordered.
“Bridge to Captain,” Trixie called over the comm a few minutes later.
“Sir, sensors show the cats running around like crazy over there. They’re jumping in the air, bumping into each other, even rolling on the floor.”
“Very good, keep an eye on them. I’ll be there shortly,” Bogey said.
“This is the last of it,” Butch said as his team hustled crates into the cargo bay, where engineers fed them into the digital transfer machine.
“Minimum depth is three inches throughout the ship. Critical areas are at six inches,” Charlie reported.
“Great job! Both of your teams go enjoy a case of bacon,” Bogey said, heading for the bridge.
“Each?” Butch asked.
“Share one,” Bogey called back, laughing to himself.
“Sir,” Trixie reported as Bogey returned to the bridge, “Jack reports the Choke-Chain is in place. His team is headed back now. In fact,” she looked at her computer, “the last one is now aboard and Jack reports we’re buttoned up.”
“Good job,” Bogey said, “Engineering, please.”
“Standing by, sir.”
“Engineering, deploy both leashes, and fire up our drives. Let’s bring the admiral his prize.”
“Aye, aye, sir. Leashes deployed and locked, beginning restart sequence,” engineering reported.
“Let’s go home,” Bogey said. “Bacon and hotdog dinners for everyone!”
“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it,” Admiral Fido said, gazing in wonder at the captured Ball of Yarn near Station Frisbee.
“The Felines have been removed,” reported Bogey. “And have been placed in holding cells. Commodore Fluffy wishes to lodge a complaint with you about our new secret weapon. According to her, we used biological weapons to subdue her crew.”
“Biological weapons?” Fido asked.
“Three tons of organic catnip, sir,” Bogey said, trying not to grin.
It took the admiral several minutes to stop laughing.