This is my first Sci-Fi work ever. It's part of an ongoing work that I've been fiddling with for a while now. This is the epilogue and first chapter, and with luck new chapters will come one every now and then. Please let me know what you think. Enjoy!

EPILOGUE

27 August 2282, Common Date

"Frontier command, this is Group Commander Nigel Wallace. Do you copy?"

Commander Banks, a strongly-built wolf of a dark complexion, waited patiently beside his communications officer. An ensign walked up to the Commander, his boots thumping dully on the polished fiber flooring of the bridge, and handed Wallace a report on a computer tablet. The Commander scanned it quickly and with a node remarked, "Very good, ensign. Send a recon team to the planet and send the reports to me as soon as they are available. Make it clear that they are not to make contact with the beings of any kind."

"Aye, sir."

He took his time to adjust the high collar of his pure white fleet uniform, staring patiently at the comms computer. Wallace knew full well that with the great distance of space a response would not be expected for more than forty seconds. Assuming they responded immediately, that is; but Commander Wallace had every reason to believe they would.

In less than a minute and audio reply rang out clearly over the comms computer. "Group Commander, this is Frontier Command reading you. Go ahead."

The grey wolf cleared his throat. "Put me in touch with Admiral Kent, please. Priority code zeta-five-delta."

"Zeta-five-delta" was a coded designation for mission success. It was sure to grab the admiral's attention and, as the commander hoped, speed up the orders process.

Before long a familiar, gruff voice broke the silence. "Nigel, it's good to hear from you. It's been too long."

Nigel Wallace allowed himself to smile briefly. Too long indeed. Five months drifting in the blackness of space had become a taxing burden for himself and his crew.

The transmission continued without pause. "I trust you've found something interesting, or you wouldn't have given me zeta at this hour. Give me your full report at one time, Commander. I hate waiting for responses."

Commander Banks tapped a claw to the screen on the tablet he held, ensuring he outlining the points he wished to make and little more. "Sir, we will be sending you a full report in just a few minutes, and as future ones are made available. However, I knew you'd want to hear this as soon as possible, and I will be brief. We've discovered that planet NM453 is a class three world home to a sentient race of canine that is physically similar to our own. They appear to be populating two of ten continents on the planet's surface and our preliminary estimates place their numbers at no more than 1.4 million in total. They are relatively advanced technologically, with flight-capable vehicles. None capable of leaving their atmosphere, however. There is no explanation yet as to why their population is so limited. We have not made contact with these creatures yet, but our research teams are studying them continuously. More importantly, sir, mineral, acid, and alkaline testing of the unpopulated continents has indicated that this planet is more than sufficient to support substantial agriculture. Is that a good copy, sir?"

The climate-controlled air on the science-class cruiser felt thicker somehow through the silence that followed his brief. All around the grey wolf his crew busied themselves with their assigned tasks. Commander Wallace's crew was the best there was in military intelligence and procurement, and the reason the Imperial Council had chosen him by name to head this mission. His crew—his extended family—was the best trained, and he had trained them.

"That's excellent to hear, commander." The admiral sounded genuinely encouraged. "Continue with what you're going and send me reports as often as you deem necessary. You are also authorized to make contact with these beings as you see fit, though command advises you to act with the utmost digression. Your report will be examined by the Council in detail. I look forward to hearing from you in the near future. Admiral Kent out."

The comms computer flashed once then dimmed. "That's all there is, sir," said the comms officer, a young arctic wolf. "It seems the admiral did not want to wait for further transmissions."

"No," sighed Wallace. He had no doubt that news of mission success would be enough to prompt an emergence meeting of the Imperial Council, even in the dead of night. He passed the comms officer the computer tablet. "Send this to Frontier Command. Priority level urgent."

"Yes, sir."

Group Commander Wallace silently wished he could have seen a video feed as well. He wanted to see the admiral's face so he could better gauge the old wolf's mood more easily. But a video transmission was impractical when transmitting over twelve light-years of space. He paced the flight bridge with a deliberate stride, checking in with each of the deck crew as he took the long way around the deck to the commander's station. As he passed he mentally assessed his staff. Ensign Glenn Madras operated the biometrics controls, his first duty assignment as a young officer, though he was skilled beyond his youth. At weapons control sat Lieutenant John Hunt. Commander Wallace had served with his father as a junior officer in years passed, but because John Hunt was a proud young officer determined to make a name for himself, he hated to be reminded of his father's legacy. Wallace knew that the weapons officer was less than thrilled to be floating through space on a non-combat related mission like this. Lieutenant Carter worked the helm; his mate was waiting at home with a young pup, with another expected soon. Ensign Scott operated the bridge's engineering station.

Wallace noted with regret that he knew each of them better than he knew his own son, now thirteen years old and home with his mother. But as quick as his regret had surfaced, it was buried once more.

As he neared his command station he changed course, passing his executive officer. "Michael, I'll need a word with you. In my office."

"Aye, sir. Lieutenant Hunt, you have control of the bridge."

"Yes, sir."

Commander Wallace's office adjoined the flight bridge and was small but convenient. As he entered he bade his XO to take a seat after closing the door.

Lieutenant Commander Michael Shae followed his senior into the small room and pressed a paw to the controls. The door slid closed on a cushion of air. He waited for his commander to take his seat before following suit.

"Mike? Can you keep a secret?" Commander Wallace asked, and as an afterthought added, "Permission to speak freely."

The XO's tall ears perked. "Sir, I'd certainly like to think so. It's been my job for eleven years."

The older of the two wolves pinched the bridge of his snout and glared at the tablets that had been dropped on his wide desk, probably by his personal aide. It was more busywork to attend to and much of what compelled him to speak so frankly with his second in command. "I've been asking myself for months now why exactly I agreed to command this mission."

Shae's brow furrowed with concern, but his superior continued without allowing comment.

"Please don't get me wrong, this crew is the best in the Intelligence Corps, and it has been an honor serving with them." Wallace's tired eyes trailed across his desk to a photo he kept propped at the far corner. His wife and son were smiling with him in that picture; his arm was wrapped caringly around her, his other paw resting on his son's shoulder. But that wolf he knew to be himself seemed foreign somehow: younger, happier, vaguely familiar—like a very good friend. He sighed. "But I'm beginning to think that this was the worst mistake of my career. My son will be thirteen years old tomorrow, and I've come to regret every day that I am away."

Shae himself did not have a mate or a child waiting for his return. But he nodded his understanding. "Sir, I know I speak for the crew when I say we are all better for it."

"Well, be that as it may it will soon be your crew, Commander."

Shae looked confused. "Sir?"

Commander Wallace allowed himself to smirk despite himself. "I submitted my request for retirement to the admiralty shortly after leaving. With this mission successful I see no reason why it will not be granted. I specifically requested that you replace me."

Commander Shae's eyes raised in surprise, but the way he straightened his posture in his chair betrayed his obvious pride. "Thank you, sir. We had best make sure that this mission is as successful as possible."

This time Group Commander Nigel Wallace grinned openly. "Exactly, Mike. Now, please inform Doctor Banks that I need to speak with him in private."

The younger of the wolves stood crisply from his seek and rendered a sharp salute. "Yes, sir," he barked and promptly left the Commander's office to seek out the civilian agriculturalist.

CHAPTER 1

19 May 2404, Common Date

"I don't understand why it should just die on us. It was working perfectly fine yesterday—and the day before."

Scott Banks' brow was damp with sweat under the late spring sun, and he wiped it off with a paw. This was followed by a growl of frustration when the grey-furred wolf realized his paw—and now his forehead—was still covered in axel grease.

John smirked a little and looked down at the silver hulk of a machine, now crippled by a failing propulsion system. The X Series Grain Harvester was old—it was used when his father worked it—and was, in his opinion, best left for the trash compactor. John would have a hard time convincing his master of that, however.

"Well, John," groaned the wolf to his fox companion. "Do you think you could do something for it? It's only the fiftieth time or so it's done this on us."

The red fox frowned expressively. "Sir, you know as well as I do that it needs to be replaced. I might be able to fix it for now, but I can almost guarantee that it'll do this again and again. It's simply too old."

On most any other farm on the planet Triticum, a fox slave would have been beaten for failing to exercise the utmost courtesy when addressing a creature of superior make, whether the wolf was his legal master or not. But Scott failed to take offense, just as John knew he would.

The wolf pondered this advice for several long moments. Reason in this wolf was at war with stubbornness, and the fox hoped that reason would finally win out. All it needed was a little support: "The harvest must be finished by the end of this month if we're going to make the deadline for planting for the new season," John dared to venture. "We still have another thirty thousand acres to go in ten days."

And that was the icing on the cake. Scott threw up his paws in defeat. "Alright, alright. We'll get a new harvester already. You're the expert on these things. We'll order one latter today."

John swished his long bushy tail with satisfaction and smiled broadly. "Glad I could have been of help."

Scott, easily the larger of the two, laughed cynically at the fox's words. "You want to be of help? Tell me how we're gonna pay for it?"

The irony of his master's statement was not lost on John. He knew perfectly well that law forbade a fox from owning money. He also knew perfectly well that money was not the issue: It was his master's wounded pride. It wasn't so much needing to buy a new machine as it was somehow abandoning what he saw as a perfectly good tool.

But John had known the wolf long enough to know how to ease the transition. "It certainly lasted a long time, didn't it," the fox offered to the brooding wolf. "You'll be lucky to find a new one that will last half as long." He tapped a blunt claw on the shimmering chrome hull. The seven ton machine was easily the size of a small house and shaped not unlike a beetle. A very large, very shinny…and very sick beetle.

Scott shook his head. "No, the key is having a brilliant engineer around to keep it alive," he said to his friend, and the fox blushed at receiving such a complement. "Come on, John. Let's go into town before I change my mind."

Grey Haven was hardly a 'town' with over half a million souls calling it home, being the center of the Greywind clan. Greywinds were historically farmers, a tradition that Scott's forefathers were loath to break, and Grey Haven was the very center of Lupine agriculture. Nearly half of all grain-related foodstuffs consumed in the whole of the Lupine Empire—and nearly all of that eaten on the home world—first passed through Grey Haven. The Ministry of Agriculture was located—naturally—in Grey Haven. The Minister of Agriculture was—naturally—an elder in the Greywind clan. And, holding true to the inescapable laws of economics, the Greywind clan was important, powerful, and influential. They oversaw two and a half billion acres of fertile farmland and controlled the galactic trade of wheat, barley, oats, and a dozen other cash crops. Seventeen of the fifty members of the Lupine High Council were Greywinds. There influence was so great in fact, that the Balance of Power Imperial Mandate of 2357 specifically forbade a Greywind from ever sitting upon the imperial throne.

Scott Banks, however, was none of these influential wolves. The Banks pack was of the Greywind clan, yes; but while other packs administered the crops, his provided them.

A small transport zipped at high speeds over an endless sea of grain. From the ground the mid-sized Bullet Z350 was just that: a five meter long silver bullet racing across the sky at just under the speed of sound. Scott would have pushed it over mach one if he wasn't so worried that Transport Control would impound them. And city business was what he preferred to do on a get-in get-out basis only.

"One hundred kilometers to destination," sang the navigation computer, a soft-voiced female.

"Thanks, Ginger." The grey wolf smiled every time he said the little pet name. And unlike most other females in his life, Ginger never talked back to him.

John sat in the copilot's seat as he always did. A fox slave was never permitted to drive such a vehicle unless it was somehow necessary to save a wolf's life or limb. He therefore made himself content to watch the world below as it raced by. The steel collar he wore around his neck itched badly and the fox was forced to constantly scratch at the fur underneath. John hated wearing the thing. It was uncomfortable, heavy, let out an irritating beep constantly, and was humiliating besides.

"Stop scratching at it, John. It's just gonna get worse."

The red fox growled low in his throat. "Yeah, but I can't help it."

Scott could only frown. He assumed that John would have little reason to scratch if he would only have the fox wear it more often. But he could never bring himself to doing that. Off the farm, any and all slaves were required to wear the control collars. They were part ID tag, part tracking device, and part control mechanism. It would come off only with a swipe of Scott's paw across a biometrics display, and was equipped with an electrode to shock an unruly slave into submission, though Scott had never used it—he had never needed to either. It even came with a mild explosive charge if lethal force was needed. Scott had disabled this feature years before: something his father had taught him.

"It'll only be for an hour or two," he said finally. "I promise."

John turned to his master and nodded silently, glad that he was fortunate enough to have a wolf master that never required him to wear it at home, like most did.

"You have reached the city of Grey Haven," Ginger soothed on cue, as wheat gave way to concrete below them. "Benny's Barn Emporium seven kilometers to the east."

"Now sir, this particular model is one of our best selling models," said the saleswolf, a young and lanky grey that, by Scott's estimation, was barely old enough to drive much less give him a detailed review of such a machine. "This harvester comes complete with the latest in global positioning and navigation and is completely paws-free. You could program it in the morning and forget about it until it brings itself back to the barn at nightfall!"

Scott contemplated this for a moment. The big silver machine, shaped much like his old one, certainly had plenty of bells and whistles…and a very hefty price tag. "How efficient is it? I don't need it to be paws-free. I need it to be fast and reliable." From the corner of his eye he watched John as the fox stared at the machine and the display advertising its specifications. The fox stood within arms reach of his master at all times, his tail hanging motionless to the floor and his head slightly bowed as if in submission. He pretended to mind his own business as he listened intently

The employee gave the fox no mind. "Absolutely, sir! It's made to survive anything you can throw at it, and has an excellent warranty that covers all parts and services should it ever be found defective (nor will it, I assure you!) and includes comprehensive insurance…for a small fee."

John coughed—twice—and his master took the hint. "Don't be rude!" Scott chided the fox, and turning to the saleswolf continued with "It's not what I'm looking for."

The young wolf nodded agreeably, seemingly without suspecting his customer's fox slave was well versed in mechanics…or even literate, for that matter. "Very well, sir. Over here we have our more heavy-duty harvesters," he continued as he led the pair across the huge indoor showroom.

With the saleswolf's back turned Scott dared to share a knowing wink with John, the fox's muzzle breaking into a small smile, and his tail wagging behind him if only for a moment.

"Now this one is what I like to call "The Feeder of Nations." You'll notice how it's anti-grav emitters are supported by a double-fiber…"

To John, the trip home seemed to take ten times as long as the trip to Grey Haven. He sat fidgeting in his chair trying to hide his excitement. Though the Bullet was now seven tons heavier with its load securely stowed in the back, it sailed through the air with no less power than before. The fox couldn't understand why it felt so slow.

"I hope you're happy." Scott sneered without taking his eyes from the controls, knowing full well how excited the fox must be to go home with a new toy secured to the aft of the vehicle by energy couplings. It was ironic that although the harvester was for his crops, it was his slave that would take the most interest in it. "I better not catch you trying to take it apart."

John laughed. "Aww, come on, sir." He made a pouting face and crossed his arms over his chest like a little kit being scolded.

"Maybe…if you're a good boy." The wolf reached a paw over and unlocked the fox's collar.

John gleefully unclasped the oppressive thing and tossed it onto another seat behind him. "It's about dinner time. I'm sure Sarah is going to be unhappy waiting for us. You know how she is."

Scott smiled as he thought of the vixen, John's sister and the only other slave he owned. John was right in thinking she would be upset, as she always was when they were late for meals…and tonight proved no exception as all three of them sat down for their meal.

"The chicken was delicious tonight," ventured John as he pushed his plate away and patted his stomach with a paw.

His sister glared across the table at him, her muzzle purposefully chewing with an exaggerated energy. "It would have been hotter if you hadn't been late again." She pointed a fork at the fox, her gaze momentarily shifting to Scott.

The wolf smiled. "Well, hot or not it was still excellent, Sarah. And it wasn't your brother's fault we were late tonight."

The vixen's frown seemed to loosen as she regarded her master respectfully, but affixed John with another suspicious stare, not fully believing the wolf's words.

Then John chimed in again with, "Hey sis, what's for desert?"

"Caneberry pie," she said, her look distrustful. "It's in the refrigerator."

John smiled as he stood up. "Well, at least that was already cold before we got here," he said over his shoulder before he disappeared from the dining room.

Sarah growled and shook her head. Scott just smiled broadly at her, his kind eyes catching her deep blues for a long moment before John's hasty return took them away. The fox carefully plopped the pie on the table and served a thick slice to his master first, then his sister, before serving himself a generous helping.

"Mmm," he said around a mouthful. "Mom's very own recipe. The best! Now, if only you could manage another of Mom's famous recipes we'd be set."

The vixen's venomous glare returned. "I'm gonna kill you John, I swear," she threatened her twin brother, but it was hard for her to stifle a hearty laugh.

Scott ate leisurely, taking comfort in the familiar squabble between the two siblings. It was the closest to a family the wolf had since the death of his wife. At forty two years old he was seven years their senior. Although he was technically their master, it was hard not to imagine himself as an older brother of sorts. Their sires had been owned by his, and on down the line for several generations. He had grown up with them. They had played together as pups. They were his property, according to law, but he chose to see it as a matter of their safety and little more. If he didn't own them, someone else would. Someone who would abuse them.

Scott finished the last of his pie and gave a satisfied sigh. "I'm getting up early tomorrow. Give our new harvester a test run and see how she does." It came out more like a suggestion than a statement, and John's curiosity was thoroughly peeked.

"That's great!" he practically shouted. "I'll set my alarm an hour early."

Sarah grumbled something unintelligible under her breath. Grabbing a few of the uneaten portions of their meal she made her way to the kitchens. "Boys and their toys," she muttered, just laud enough for the other two to hear.