TALES OF THE FOLLY
Book One – The Curse
Part 2: Parakit and Beyond

Chapter 1: Inbound
Chapter 2: A bridge over troubled waters
Chapter 3: Meeting the locals
Chapter 4: Taking a ride
Chapter 5: Lunchtime
Chapter 6: ET phone home
Chapter 7: The start of a new day
Chapter 8: Problems and solutions
Chapter 9: From bad to worse
Chapter 10: Dancing with the devil
Chapter 11: Aftermath
Chapter 12: Home is where you lay your head
Chapter 13: In for a penny, in for a pound
Chapter 14: If you don't follow the news, you're uninformed; if you follow the news, you're only misinformed
Chapter 15: Meanwhile back on the Folly
Chapter 16: Of guns and roses
Chapter 17: Outbound and down
Chapter 18: For Profit
Chapter 19: 4854786G76
Chapter 20: Seeking a new path
Chapter 21: Playing the Game


 
Day 009, Folly
(July 27, 2331 Old Earth)

Inbound

Eight days, the captain of the freighter he had jokingly named Folly silently reflected from the Flight Operations command chair on the main bridge as his ship came out of warp still several light-hours shy of the planet Parakit. Eight days ago he had warped out of Bright Hope under the curse from a so-called-friend that he should live in ‘interesting times’, only to discover he’d somehow failed to detect a not-so-minor infestation of not one but two sets of unintentional stowaways. Seven days ago he’d allowed himself to be tricked into adopting all of them – rather than just the two that had actually needed a new and most likely very temporary parental unit during their travels. Six days ago he’d started most of them on the hopeful conversion from extra mouths to feed to possibly useful crewmembers for however long they stayed aboard. Five days ago he’d even ‘beaten’ one of his new crewmembers to convince her that she was not only allowed but required to hit back. Four days ago he’d finally had what he hoped was enough information on them to start their rather informal formal ship handling training. And a mere two days ago his new and still slightly damaged denmate had decided to have her kit over a week sooner than she had warned him could be her earliest possible due date.

As curses went, he figured he’d seen worse – though he was willing to admit (at least to himself) not in the last several decades.

Neal was sitting in and overseeing the Flight Ops section as that section boasted a full two dozen workstations to handle all the many comings and goings of a busy station. However this wasn’t a ‘station’ just yet, merely the forward section of his Folly, and its seating just happened to easily hold his current ‘crew’.

Debris screens flickered as they pushed aside dust and micrometeoroids as the ship drifted towards the planet at almost three quarters the speed of light. The twelve teens of the crew were each trying to figure out the proper approaches to bringing the ship into orbit around Parakit, while the younger three were deep in lessons; one in space navigation and the youngest pair in microcontroller theory.

On the Flight Ops sub-command bench, his second in command was also busy, nursing her now two-day-old kit.

Weaver turned from nuzzling Starblazer to look up and over at her denmate and said, “I know you told the kids this earlier, but why do you have us going so fast but not at warp?”

Neal smiled. “Several reasons actually, some of which I have control over and some of which I do not.”

“Wait – are you saying you’re not in control of things?”

“No, I’m saying I can’t change basic physics. Stars and planets are gravity wells and the deeper you are into a gravity well, the steeper the gradient and the harder it can be to maintain a proper warp bubble. So we can only get so close before a ship will ‘fall out’ of warp and – trust me on this – a controlled drop from warp is much easier on the ship and crew than an uncontrolled one.”

“And our current speed?”

“Two reasons. The first is it was discovered that ‘how’ a warp field collapsed could give an exiting ship some control over how fast and in what direction it was going at sub-light speeds without needing to use up a lot of reaction mass, and you can be much deeper in a gravity well and still be able to bring the warp bubble up just long enough to cause a course change or adjustment. So we can spend minutes and hours instead of days or even weeks getting to or from where we can use warp to being in orbit.”

“And the second?”

“Time does pass a little differently at different speeds. Planet time is moving right along, while for us it’s dragging just a tiny bit. While it won’t make all that much difference, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to time-shift us a tad. It’ll still be well after our lunchtime to just past their breakfast, but we were going to have a very long day no matter how fast or slow we headed in.”

They continued towards the planet, the warp drives momentarily flaring to action twice more to reduce their momentum before more conventional thrusters finished settling them into a high orbit over Parakit's equator.

* * *

A short translift ride deposited them on a level Tess had yet to allow the teens ready access to. Walking through several sets of airlocks and a boarding tube found them in one of Neal’s shuttles. The room was slightly long versus wide with panels lining the walls and rails and hold-down clamps built into the deck. There were additional hatches forward and to each side. While there were no windows, there was a series of fold-down monitors that could be used in their place.

“Welcome to Folly Heavy Alpha,” Neal told them. “Because he’s made for getting the large cargo pods on and off a planet’s surface, he lacks somewhat in the on-board carrying department. Though with a little work we should be able to find enough seats for everyone.”

Opening a panel, he pulled out two thin things seemingly composed of nothing more than poles and webbing. Going to what appeared to be the front of the shuttle, he set one against the wall before snapping the other into a pair of deck hold-down clamps. Unfolding it to snap two more legs into their clamps revealed the device to be a biped type webbed seat complete with seatbelts. How it was snapped in and adjusted would allow it to handle anything from the small Caitians to the much larger Rakshani. The second seat was snapped down just as quickly and Neal opened a second panel and started removing larger assemblies of poles and webbing, which turned into taur web seats with backrests and straps for securing the passenger. After watching him set up the first two taur seats, the teens started stepping forward to get and set up their own.

“Why did you call the shuttle a ‘he’?” Roseberry asked as shi snapped hir seat into position.

“The ships are the ladies that take us between the stars,” Neal told hir, “These little runts get stuck with all the grunt work.”

Weaver raised an eyebrow when she noticed Neal had offered up one taur seat less than there happened to be taurs.

Seeing her look, Neal said, “I thought I’d give you a front row seat this time around. The others can have their turns on other trips.”

He led her through a side hatch and onto the flight deck, which was a small windowless room of its own. He disabled the engineering and co-pilot consoles before helping her adjust the co-pilot’s seat from biped to taur, a basket hooked neatly to the side for little Starblazer.

A view screen let the kids see a little of what was going on, the hangar doors opening and the shuttle slipping out. Their first views of the outside of their new home were limited to watching one of the spheres drift by before passing over the secondary hull, rings of rows of cargo pods before slowing to hover over one. The ship actually released it and the pod seemed to simply float up and in between the shuttle’s legs.

 

 


 

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

 

“Parakit Space Control, this is Folly Heavy Alpha, requesting landing clearance. Be advised we will be landing at Tootles Port and will be needing ready access for Class Five Star-Rigs,” Neal said once he had a connection with the station that managed the majority of the landings and takeoffs for Parakit.

“Confirm clearance to land Tootles Port, Folly Alpha. Your landing pad is E13,” a rather cheerful weasel morph told him.

“Boss, E13 is in a corner next to the port’s fence. There’s no safe or easy way to properly maneuver Class Fives around that pad,” Tess warned him.

Neal frowned before saying, “Parakit Space Control, please confirm E13, the load will require Class Five access.”

Folly Alpha. Your landing pad is confirmed as E13. E13 has adequate access for all your needs. In fact any time the Folly lands at Tootles Port it will always be assigned E13,” the weasel’s cheerfulness having actually increased.

Having known him just over a week now, Weaver didn’t like the expression on Neal’s face as he said, “Roger that Parakit Space Control, E13 it is and will always be. Folly Heavy Alpha, out.”

“Boss, I’m telling you there’s no good way to get those big rigs back in there,” Tess insisted.

“Agreed, someone thinks they’re playing a cute little game,” Neal agreed. “Now, what do you think I’m going to do about it?”

The speaker crackled with Tess’ laughter. “Knowing you like I do, you’re about to get by with a little help from your friends.”

Neal just smiled. “And as this pod has loads for three different companies, why don’t you let each of them know that getting to their cargo has been made a little more difficult by our friends at Space Control.”

“They’re not going to like it, Boss,” Tess pointed out.

“Oh, I think between us we can find a way to let the proper parties know of our displeasure,” Neal replied. He then keyed in a new channel. “Tootles Port, this is Folly Heavy Alpha, I understand we’ve been given pad E13 for our visit.”

“So I’ve been told,” a canine sounding voice replied. “Would you like me to see if I can change their minds?”

“No, let’s let them have their little victory. Or at least what they think is a victory.”

“Roger Folly Alpha, there’s nothing in your way out there and no other traffic scheduled at this time.”

“I don’t understand,” Weaver said from the co-pilot seat. “I’d think you’d be more upset that they’re making it harder for you to unload your cargo.”

“Normally I would be,” Neal allowed. “But because of you and Star, I just happen to be a couple of weeks early – which means I’m not the one that’s going to be in a rush, but those people eager for the cargos I’m shipping for them might be.”

“Ah, Boss? I’ve got all three of them on different lines – and from the sounds I’m picking up, they’ve already got a three-way conference call going in the background. For added fun, all three are not quite demanding to talk to you.”

“That’s fine, Tess. Ask them if they wouldn’t mind being linked so I can deal with all three of them at the same time.”

They must have all agreed, because a minute later Neal had three heads occupying a small section of his screen.

“Gentlemen and Shir Thumper, what can I do for you three on this fine morning?” he cheerfully asked.

The tan and gold chakat in the middle scowled as shi said, “You can land somewhere other than E13 and we can help you argue with the port and Space Control after you’re down.”

“Not happening, kitten. They want me to park my butt on E13, the pad closest to where the main road parallels the river, and I will,” Neal said with a grin. “In fact I was told that was my Folly’s new reserved spot. And I see there’s a new residential development that’s been added since my last visit; this is going to get interesting.”

“What’s your load-out?” the wolf morph in the top screen asked.

“About a quarter of each of your shipments,” Neal said with a friendlier smile. “This way you all get a little something, and none of you have to rent more rigs or run your rig drivers ragged trying to transfer cargo faster than they should.”

“My outbound loads aren’t anywhere near ready yet,” the wolf warned. “You are just a bit early.”

“Not a problem, Tommy.”

“So about three-fifty of mine?” the human in the lowest window asked.

“Well under four full Class Five trailered loads,” Neal agreed. “The problem will be getting any Class Fives – much less them dragging their trailers – into that corner.”

“How much of a hurry you in?” Tommy wondered.

“I’m not – in fact I might even be here a whole week,” Neal assured them.

“Even with a week to do it, I’m not putting up with the games they’re playing,” he growled, then he noticed the other human on the line starting to grin. “What are you thinking, Sam?” he demanded.

“Well,” Sam said as his grin turned into a leer. “We’ve all hated the way they mapped out those new roads around the port anyway, never mind the tolls they have on those roads – and then there’s this chakat we all know and love that’s always claiming shi can slap a new path down anywhere and in no time flat …”

The chakat in question was now looking thoughtful. “Hmmm, I’ll check, but I think the bank still owns that strip of land the river runs through, as no one would come up with more funds after the way the rules were gamed to put in that damn toll road. I’d be needing you guys to pick up my first load or two then, as I’ll need all of my rigs set up for the equipment and materials.”

“You’ve got it, kitten,” Sam said as the wolf nodded his agreement. “In fact I’ll bet we can each send you a rig or two to help carry supplies. You going to just cut us a single lane access in and out?”

“Hell no, full dual lane access so we can pull and load from both sides of his pod at once,” shi countered. “Proper ramps on and off the main road as there’s already a turn around on both sides, so there’s no problems getting in or out. While I’m at it, I’ll also plan the route for easy access to the rest of the port. It’ll take me a little longer as this won’t be no temporary goat path.”

“Might as well be hung for a goat as a kid,” the wolf agreed. “Sam and I’ll get some of our rigs rolling on the toll road and snarl the port traffic and send you a couple more to help carry your supplies.”

“That’ll work, Tommy, and with Foster’s pod stuck way out on E13 we won’t even have to fake the confusion,” Sam laughed.

“If they’re getting there early, warn them to wear eye and ear protection,” Neal advised them.

“Oh?”

“I’ll be dropping the counter-grav about halfway down and be coming in mostly ‘thrusters only’ until right before touchdown,” Neal informed them.

The two males burst out laughing as Thumper’s eyes grew wide. “Angry thunder from the sky gods indeed! Yeah, so many people are going to be so happy Space Control parked you as close to those homes as they did,” shi snickered.

Neal just smiled. “I just figured a bunch of noise complaints jamming their call center might keep them from getting any word of what Thumper’s about to do – at least until it’s too late for them to try to stop hir.”

Sam was looking thoughtful. “This is going to cost a small pile of credits you know.”

Thumper nodded. “Short term, yeah, but I’m sure you guys will help me balance the books.”

Tommy just smirked. “Set up donation stations inbound and out and I’m sure we won’t be the only ones thanking you for building an easy bypass to that toll road,” he told hir.

“And certain others will not,” Sam added. “Heck, no tollgates, no gatehouse or weigh stations, you are going to be one popular kitty in some circles.”

“Oh, I’ll plan for proper gatehouses for the port authorities, no need to get them too upset with us,” Thumper said. “At least we won’t have to be dealing with the toll road crews’ hijinks after this!”

Neal nodded. “Oh, and Thumper? Bring a tanker with you if you don’t mind. While I should have enough reaction mass to reach orbit even if the port doesn’t want to refuel me after all this, it never hurts to have a little extra.”

“How pure do you need it?” shi asked.

“Anything better than pond scum should be fine, this beast has a set of brand new fresh water filters on him.”

“Oh, I think I can do better than that for you,” shi chuckled. “Okay, I’ve got crews to get moving, see ya’ll in a bit.”

“Later,” Sam agreed and the wolf just nodded before the connections were dropped.

“Tess? Contact our local rep and see if they can’t tie that property down for us. No need to let someone else up and buy it once it’s been improved.”

“Already have them on it, Boss. Thirteen Star Bank still owned the land, and any developments required the river not being blocked or diverted excessively. No commerce shipping on it, so it just needs to be high enough for small craft. As the port’s on a bit of a hill anyway, I wouldn’t expect hir to have any problems with it.”

“Drop a note to Thumper on it; and have hir and the other two marked as part owners. We’ll settle accounts later. Any restrictions on use of the river water?”

“No. In fact the port draws on it to replenish ships just downriver.”

“Heh, suggest to Thumper that shi bring a pump and hose and shi won’t need the tanker.”

“You’re getting slow, Boss. From what I can see already being shifted at hir construction site, shi’s bringing you a couple of large, in-ground tanks.”

“Then I’ll shut up and let you guys play while I land this beast where they will no longer want me to,” Neal said with a smile. “Since I’m planning on being noisy, we should be down in under fifteen minutes.”

“I’ll warn the crews. From up here it looks like E13 hasn’t been used in a while, you’ll want to blow all the crap off your landing spot before setting down.”

“Dust the seat before I go and plant my butt in it, got it, Tess.”

“Did I hear that right?” Weaver wondered. “Did you have Tess buy that land for you just now?”

Neal smiled as he said, “Why the surprise? Haven’t you ever seen light-speed banking before?”

“But why did you want to buy it? It’s not like you can load it up and sell it someplace else.”

“True, but as a long term investment it should pay me back adequately enough – heck, even in the short term I expect it to pay me some very nice dividends.”

Weaver’s frown told him she wasn’t buying it.

Looking away from his still fairly new denmate, Neal made a couple of adjustments to their course before continuing.

“I was last here about three years ago and those serviced by Tootles Port were not very happy campers. It seems a couple of years before, a group had pushed hard to improve the roads leading to the port, but it wasn’t until the permits were in place and the old road destroyed that they bothered to mention that it was going to be a toll road. And a very aggressively tolled road it turned out to be, not only with high fees just to use the road, but charges on cargo in or out paid by the ton. It was just barely cheaper than unloading at the more northern port of Frostpoint and transporting everything south.”

“And you can just build your own road?”

“The port itself belongs to the community, and there was already a request for a non-toll – or at least cheaper – road if anyone could scrape up the funds for it. Though I’ll admit parking me where they did was a slight incentive for me to do it as well.”

“And how will this road make you any credits?”

“For one thing, it will reduce the cost I pay getting cargo where it’s needed, so I’m not wasting any credits there. With lower transport costs, others can afford to buy more of my cargo and I can afford to buy more of theirs with the credits I save bypassing that toll road. Then there’s all the good will of the community. Thumper’s little road will not only make E13 easily accessible, but the rest of the port as well.”

“The toll road owners won’t like what you’re doing,” Weaver pointed out.

“No, they won’t,” Neal agreed with a smirk. “But the same rules and laws that let them put in their toll road allows others to play that game too. Though whoever thought parking me out in the boondocks probably wasn’t expecting quite this extreme a solution. It should be fun to see who howls first and how loudly.”

The shuttle had been rapidly dropping towards Parakit as they spoke. Neal’s fingers were busy as he changed a few things before opening the mike to the cargo/crew/passenger section next door. “Attention crew, this be your captain speaking. Due to someone deciding to inconvenience us, we will be going in a little differently than you may have expected. As I know Tess suggested that you carry your ear protection with you at all times, now would be a good time to don them. While not quite the same, you’re about to get a taste of how the old chemical rockets took off – though we’ll be going the other direction.”

“But what about Star?” Weaver protested.

Neal smiled. “The flight deck is better insulated than the cargo area, we’ll be fine,” he told her. “And away we go!” he said as Weaver felt the artificial gravity shift and there was a sudden roar that was felt more than it was heard.

Outside the shuttle, a thruster at each of the shuttle’s four ‘feet’ went from a small flare to something rivaling an engine from one of the ancient Saturn Vs that had taken man to the moon. Along with being so bright they cast their own shadows in the morning sun, the roar could be heard for kilometers.

“Won’t all the shaking damage the cargo?” Weaver asked over the noise as she comforted Starblazer.

“Nah, the pod’s wrapped in a stasis field so nothing gets dinged in case of a problem or a rough landing,” Neal explained. “I do it on every load, which is why the teens never felt the pod lifting off Bright Hope. Their first clue something had changed was when the stasis dropped after I connected their pod to the Folly.”

Neal was making adjustments as they thundered down, slowing them as they descended. Cameras arranged around the shuttle allowed Weaver and the kids to see what they were heading for. The port was a series of landing pads built to accommodate a variety of traffic. A row of fifteen two hundred meter diameter pads with deflector walls made up the ‘A’ section. The ‘B’ section was a trio of four hundred by eight hundred meter pads, while ‘C’ and ‘D’ were dual slots of eight hundred by twelve hundred meters for the most massive ships that could safely land on the surface of a planet. The ‘E’ row consisted of thirteen more of the two hundred meter diameter pads to handle any overflow from ‘A’, with the last couple actually sticking out a bit past the edge of the ‘D’ pad. A road could be seen that connected to the port between the first ‘A’ and ‘B’ pads. Only three of the ‘A’s and one of the ‘B’s currently had ships or shuttles parked on them. Still five kilometers up, Neal dialed back up the counter-gravity systems and reduced the roar of the thrusters back to a mere whisper. At a hundred meters he seemed to ‘balance’ the shuttle on just one leg and slowly rotated the shuttle, blowing away all the accumulated debris from the landing pad before straightening up and gently setting down on the now cleared and lightly scorched pad.

Neal smiled at a light on his panel that had started flashing when they were only halfway down on thrusters. As it had indicated a non-priority comm call, he had ignored it while he was busy landing his craft. “I wonder who’s been trying to talk to us,” he chuckled as he touched the accept key.

“– A7, damn you! Folly Alpha! Land on pad A7!” a voice was frantically screaming.

“This is Folly Heavy Alpha,” Neal drawled out, “Who are you again?”

“This is Parakit Space Control! You are to land at A7 at once, Folly Alpha.”

“Sorry, but I already had some weasel – who also claimed to be Parakit Space Control – demand I use pad E13. Why don’t you guys figure it out and get back to me once you’ve come to an agreement,” Neal suggested as he started the shuttle’s post-flight sequence.

Folly Alpha, we need you on A7. Now.”

“Parakit Space Control, due to a slight problem that forced me to do a rather heavy burn on my main thrusters, I will not be moving from E13 until they’ve had time to cool and I’ve done a thorough inspection on them and the rest of my shuttle.”

“Slight problem?” Weaver half asked off mike.

“Having to land on E13,” Neal also replied off mike. “And now people higher up the food chain are starting to demand answers – answers that the tricksters could fudge so much better if I wasn’t already parked where they told me to.”

“So why are we still sitting here?”

“The ground is still a bit warm from our landing, and I wasn’t lying about wanting to inspect things – but that’s standard – you always want to do post and preflight inspections.”

“Your inspection be damned! You are hereby ordered to rise to a thousand meters and move your shuttle to A7!” the speaker suddenly blared.

Neal’s smile looked a little grim as he keyed his mike. “Sure, Parakit Space Control, I can forego my safety inspections if it’s an emergency – is Parakit Space Control at this time declaring that me moving my shuttle and its load from where I was told by Parakit Space Control to park it to where you now claim you want me to be an emergency?”

Neal grinned more naturally into the new silence. At Weaver’s curious look, he said, “You don’t want to know of the mountains of paperwork that has to be filed each time there’s an ‘emergency’ declared. So many recordings and so much data is gathered and saved that it’s almost impossible to hide who did what leading up to whatever cause the emergency to be declared.”

“So if they claim an emergency to move you, the review of the emergency will damn them anyway,” Weaver surmised.

“Just so,” Neal admitted before saying, “Tess? See if you can get through their public facing systems to log a noise complaint.”

“I’ve been testing them the whole time, Boss. You weren’t a third of the way down before their switchboard did a meltdown under the incoming call volume. Which works out pretty good for you because someone’s already unloading hir gear.”

Two of Neal’s screens flickered and changed, one to a satellite view of the area while the other switched to one of the external cameras mounted high on the shuttle.

Beyond a short fence and a medium size river, a dozen of the long Class Five Star-Rigs had pulled themselves and their trailers just off the road. Diggers and earthmovers were already tearing up the edge of the road to better blend in a new off ramp, while behind them the loads of several trailers were being combined into one very large machine. Further back were still more trailers loaded with piers, bridge supports, and roadway segments; as well as the underground tanks Tess had seen heading their way.

Pipes were quickly being laid to replace a section of the ditch that had run along the side of the road, and the first piers were being set in the soft ground to handle the weight of the expected traffic.

The now finished bridge building machine pulled itself up to and then onto the freshly set piers before moving over them, some of the building supplies already loaded on its aft end to act as counterweights. Half its length from the first piers it planted a second set of piers before climbing onto them. Supported now at both ends, the first set of piers were trimmed to the proper lengths, bridge supports attached, and bridge spans and roadway placed before the machine shifted forward to set the next set of piers.

“Seven minutes per span,” Neal commented as they watched the machine move forward again. “Since Parakit uses a hundred minute hour, they’ll have us a usable road in less than two of their hours.”

“And maybe another two to have a path back to the main road, Boss,” Tess reminded him.

“Considering the fun backing each of those Class Fives into this corner would have been?” Neal countered. “This one little road will be the rock that will knock so many fat and sassy little birds off their accustomed perches.”

“Speaking of rocks and birds, Captain, I think I have one twittering in my ear right now,” Tess informed him.

“Oh? Did someone notice Thumper’s work already?” Neal wondered.

“Only if they’re an A5 astral-projector, Boss, as this call is coming all the way from Bright Hope. And it’s well past midnight for Astra City.”

“Whoever they are, they either have great timing or someone local warned them I was here,” he agreed. “Put them through.”

Neal didn’t know the neatly dressed young human that appeared on his display, but before he could ask the other simply nodded and said, “One moment, sir.” And the screen changed to someone he sadly knew better than he wanted to.

“Good morning, Captain Foster,” Courtney Tung didn’t quite sneer at him. “You won’t be able to cut me off by taking your ship to warp this time!” the rather aggressive-looking wolf morph snapped at him.

“Ah, but I can still hit the disconnect button if you start boring me again,” Neal countered, sounding like he was already bored with her. “So, what pray tell got you out of bed at this hour? Deities know you need your beauty sleep.”

“I warned you that I could and would influence you and your ship,” she snarled.

“Oh? So, by chance did you have a hand in getting me in this fine parking space?” Neal asked with the beginnings of a smile.

“And I’ve heard you protested it rather loudly!” she countered.

“Really? They thought that little bit of noise was in protest?” Neal openly laughed at her. “It was more in jubilation, oh silly one.”

“Jubilation my tail,” Courtney snapped back. “You can’t possibly unload your cargo from there and the locals will be all over you about the noise you made going in!”

“Sorry, but I checked before starting my descent. The Tootles Port noise ordinances still allow for ships and shuttles coming in under full thrust during daylight hours,” Neal told her. “As for me not being able to unload …” Neal flipped the view going to Bright Hope from him to the camera watching the bridge building machine moving forward yet again.

As he hadn’t changed his own displays, Neal and Weaver got to watch as the wolf frowned as she tried to figure out what was going on – and why Captain Foster was bothering to show it to her.

It took over a local minute, but then the penny finally dropped, as did Tung’s jaw. Neal flipped her view back to his own grinning mug before saying, “A mere four hour delay in unloading wasn’t at all what I had expected from someone with your connections trying to ‘influence’ my day, but I – and I’m sure others – will thank you for giving me an excuse to cut the local toll road out of the loop. And I’m sure they’ll be happy beyond words with you when they find out just who they have to thank for it. Goodbye, Ms. Tung, and may your next bit of ‘influence’ be as profitable to me as this one will be.”

Neal released the connection before Tung could sputter a response. “So much for that loose end,” he muttered. “Now all I should have to worry about are any local issues that might crop up.”

“Who was that?” Weaver wanted to know, just as Neal was keying the intercom.

“Kids, you can get up and move about if you like, but we’ve got a small wait before we can head into town. The aft airlock now opens over the pod. You can get a little fresh air but I’d suggest not getting too close to the edge – it’s a long ways down.”

Turning to Weaver he said, “That bit of noise owns a company that among other things likes to ‘invest’ in shipping. Sadly they also like grabbing all the profits while running the ships financially into the ground. Ms. Tung has been wooing my Folly for a while now. Sadly for her, I knew one of the ships her direct actions have ‘killed’ in the past, so I have very little interest in letting her try to do the same to me.”

“What did she mean about you cutting her off?”

“Her people were late in warning her, or she’d miss-guessed how long it was going to be before I left Bright Hope. Either way, she had some local cops on her payroll try to get me to return to Bright Hope hours after I’d left – and just minutes from me being far enough out of the system to be able to go to warp.”

Weaver was quiet for a moment before asking, “Was that why you didn’t just take us back?”

“Partly,” Neal admitted. “Tess and I debated about whether Tung knew about the teens when we first found them, but there were so many quiet and not so quiet ways she could have told me if she had somehow known the kids were there. With what she’d already tried with no legal reason, she could have milked me ‘abducting’ the kids – and you – for months, and while I have room in my schedule for week delays here and there, I didn’t dare risk a kangaroo court in which she owned the judge. So despite you being injured and about to pop, I kept going.”

They sat in the silence; one screen showing the bridge building machine was already halfway across the river and moving forward yet again.

Looking down at Starblazer, Weaver finally said, “We forgive you – this time. Try not to make a habit of it.”

Neal snorted. “Yes, my dear fool. Though do try to keep an open mind. There will be times you might not be able to see the method for the madness.”

“Ha, says the idiot that’s running in a brand new road because he didn’t like his parking spot!” Weaver huffed.

“Remember that idiot and his road when it’s time for us to go,” Neal suggested as they got up for a little fresh air as the road slowly but steadily came to them.

 

 


 

Meeting the Locals

 

While it had been late spring in Astra City when they left Bright Hope, this area of Parakit was already well into their autumn, with some of the local and Earth plants already showing off their fall colors. The breeze was a bit brisk, but of no real concern for those with natural fur coats.

Neal opened one of the panels near the hatch and pulled out a windbreaker for himself and a similar piece of fabric to help protect Starblazer. Weaver placed her hand on the panel to keep him from closing it. As well as another windbreaker, there appeared to be several weights of coats as well as heavy pants and boots to one side. On the other side she found lighter shirts and shorts, caps, shoes and even flip-flops.

“So you’re always ready for any weather?” she asked with a grin.

“I try to be,” Neal said as he opened the next panel, a ‘skin’ space suit was in front of a heavier, armored-looking one and different types of tools and thruster packs lined the walls.

Closing both panels securely, Neal followed Weaver out the hatch and into the stiff morning breeze.

“We’re attracting some attention,” Chakat Roseberry commented as Weaver and Neal stepped out.

Stepping closer to the edge, they could now see several PTVs parked just off E13’s apron. Two had the markings of the port’s shuttle service, while the third was a standard-looking PTV often used for local taxi services.

Indicating the taxi, Neal said, “What’s your feeling of whoever’s in that one?”

Roseberry concentrated for a moment before saying, “Female feline amusement. I think she’s afraid she might giggle in your face about something.”

“And the other two?”

“Four in one, six in the other; all human I think, males, anger, determination, some fear. They don’t like something, and I think a couple of them might be wondering if they’ve gotten into something that’s over their heads.”

“Tess, full deep scans, weapons,” Neal quietly said.

“Define weapons,” Tess replied though their comm badges. “Your girlfriend has the phaser she always carries as well as her other toys – and she detected at least some of my scan and she just gave us a little wave. While I’m detecting two phasers in each of the other two, there are also things that could be used as clubs and what might be a homemade bomb with an electronic fuse.”

“Leave her as is, disable what you can of the others.”

“Bringing Alpha back up enough for the power requirements,” Tess replied as the shuttle hummed behind them.

Weaver frowned. “Every time I think you’ve told me everything, you or Tess pull another new surprise out of your back pocket,” she complained.

Neal shrugged. “Since the kids had already found out, I thought you might have learned of it too. To discover more than just what Tess was admitting to having, the kids have been trying to find ways around her. One way was to ask to see the power distribution points and feeds throughout the ship. One of the heavier feeds they were allowed to chase down led them to what turned out to be one of several transporter rooms. Alpha happens to have a single transporter pad as well, and Tess is going to use it to disable those phasers and that bomb for us.”

How?” Weaver insisted.

“As easily as your right saddlebag now has that doll you forgot to take with you for Star,” Tess told her.

Weaver turned and opened the bag, only to find the silk doll Nightsky had made for her daughter – which she knew she had accidentally left in their bedroom.

“I can beam little things in or out if the target isn’t being moved around a lot,” Tess told her as Starblazer tried to hug the doll when her mother pressed it against her. “In this case I’ll simply crack their phaser emitters and remove the power from their bomb trigger.”

“I would have thought transporters would have been too expensive an option for most freighters – much less having one on a shuttle!” Weaver commented.

“All things are relative – but not always to each other,” Neal quipped, but did not explain further.

“Ground’s cooled off enough to not be too much of an issue,” Tess told them.

“Then it’s time for the fun part,” Neal muttered. “All right, everyone back in the shuttle,” he told the others.

Once they were all inside he said, “Okay, Mike, you follow me, the rest of you stay in here and watch the monitors.”

Mike followed him through (for a large equitaur) a rather narrow passageway leading to one of the shuttle’s legs. Once there, Neal opened a hatch that had blocked access to a deep pit – a ladder-looking device to one side.

“This was mainly designed for bipeds, but taurs can use it if they’re careful enough,” Neal told him. “Notice how each set of rungs has a pair of little buckets hanging under them? That’s where your hooves will go. Grab on, plant your front hooves, in the middle of the hand-bar there’s an up and down rocker switch, push the top and you’ll rise so you can plant your hind legs. Push the down and it’ll take you down. Once you’re close to the bottom you can dangle a hind leg to feel the deck come up, just free your other leg and walk backwards. Go ahead and leave the inner airlock open when you go through and be sure your phaser is set to medium stun before you open the outer hatch. While I don’t expect them to get pushy until they see me, I don’t see any reason to take any more chances than we need to.”

Mike nodded and reached for a rung before planting his forward hooves. As advertised, the rocker-up raised him, but it took a couple of tries to find the buckets with his hind legs. Going down the vertical escalator wasn’t too bad, but he stumbled a little getting all four feet planted firmly on the deck. Looking up the way he’d come, he could see the three foxtaur vixens already on their way down. As there wouldn’t be enough room on the lower deck for all of them at once, he opened the airlock and dogged it open as he’d been told before stepping in. Checking and then re-holstering his phaser, he then opened the outer airlock hatch and stepped down the short ramp that had unfolded as the airlock opened.

Staying on the end of the ramp because the ground was still radiating a bit of heat that he hadn’t noticed while sixty meters up, Mike looked around as the other teens joined him. Next came the younger three, excited about yet another ‘neat’ new thing to tell their friends back home about. Weaver was next, followed by Neal – who was carrying his denmate’s saddlebags with Starblazer still in them.

“Quit your frowning,” Neal was telling her. “I’ve got a bit more experience carrying things up and down that powered ladder than you do,” he reminded her as he settled the saddlebags and kit back on her mother’s lower torso.

A growling whine started up to one side of them; the still approaching bridge building machine was using its presser beams to drive yet another set of piers deep into the ground.

“Any change in those waiting for us?” Neal asked Roseberry.

Closing hir eyes shi said, “The one is laughing her tail off about us – why I can’t tell. There’s more worry in the other two and I think they’re talking to someone else.”

“They are,” Tess agreed. “They’re using a secure comm and encryption, one that I may or may not be able to crack in time to be of any use to us.”

“Start extending your network, we might need an early warning if things try to get any more interesting on us,” Neal told her.

“Of course, Boss.”

The kids were watching as a long crane on the bridge-builder swung a digger and an earthmover across the gap and over the low port fence to set them on the edge of the pad. They then quickly knocked down several sections of fencing before starting to prepare the edge of the pad for the new road.

“Incoming,” Tess said through their comm badges as the two vehicles of thugs began climbing out of their PTVs. While most were now carrying the makeshift clubs, one was holding the suspected bomb and one carried nothing visibly but Tess quietly confirmed that he had one of the now damaged phasers.

The humans had stopped dead in their tracks when the three youngest furs pulled their stunners out of their belt pouches. With her weapon still pointing at the ground as she had been taught, Quickdash seemed overly eager as shi asked, “Can I shoot them now?”

Standing beside hir with hir own stunner also out but not yet aimed at the group approaching them, Shadowcrest replied, “Not until they do something threatening. If they try to hurt us, then we get to shoot them.”

With some of the teenage furs with their hands also in their belt pouches, the humans looked like they were no longer sure advancing on this larger group in a threatening manner was such a good idea. Their leader apparently figured out that his little show of force wasn’t going to work as planned and he came forward alone.

“You were told to move to A7, Captain Foster!” he called out as he stopped five meters from Neal’s group.

Neal smiled. “Parakit Space Control dictated I land here. As they also told me this is my permanent parking spot, I see no reason to move. If your bosses were worried about me not being able to unload, that solution is almost upon us.”

As if to reiterate his words, the bridge builder was whining as it pressed down on the last set of piers needed to connect the new roadway to the edge of the apron.

“There are security concerns with you parking out here,” the man protested.

“Really?” Neal replied. “You mean we have to worry about things worse than a handful of thugs with sticks, phasers, and bombs threatening us?”

“We’re not thugs!” the man that had yet to identify himself protested.

“You’re not in port services or security uniforms, and you come as if ready for a rough and tumble,” Neal countered. “What else could you be but thugs?” Looking over at the one still carrying the bomb, Neal added, “Why don’t you set that bomb down a little ways away from your friends?”

“It’s not a bomb!” their leader protested as the bomb carrier started to move.

“Of course not, it’s a ‘welcome to Parakit gift basket’,” Neal replied. “Shall I see if a phaser blast will set it off?”

The bomb carrier was no longer waiting for his leader’s permission and quickly carried the bomb away from his group before gently setting it down and scurrying back towards their PTV, the others quickly following him. Seeing his backup deserting him, their leader turned and ran for the PTVs as well.

“Looks like a rather nasty shaped charge,” Neal commented after looking over what Tess was showing him in his glasses. “Nice toy. Kids, full eye and ear protection. Weaver, don yours and I’ll tell you when to shield Star. Tess, spread that thing out, I want it to look like a very thin pizza topping.”

“Can do, Captain,” Tess said as a tractor beam from the shuttle started pushing the bomb at an angle to the tough landing pad. It held for a moment, but beams strong enough to push and pull loaded pods quickly turned it into a rapidly growing smear, all three PTVs moving away from it, two back towards the main port entrance, the other around to the side of the pod.

“Half a millimeter,” Tess finally reported. “Shouldn’t do any real damage, but it’ll be plenty bright and more than a bit warm. I’d suggest at least standing in the shadow of the shuttle leg for safety.”

“Warn Thumper’s crews,” Neal told her as they all walked around the shuttle’s leg and he pulled a silvery cloth out of his pocket and wrapped it around his hand and arm.

“They’re already ducking for cover, Boss. You’ll have a clean field momentarily and I assume you’ll want your targeting view?”

“Please, and advise when the range is completely clear,” Neal said as he placed his phaser in his now protected hand and adjusted its settings.

“The range is clear, you may fire when ready.”

“Weaver, while I know she’s too young to properly enjoy it yet, give Star a good ‘boob hat’ with her facing you in 3 – 2 – 1 –” Neal counted down as he extended just his arm around the shuttle’s leg before turning his wrist and firing a short pulse on the phaser’s highest setting.

There was a sizzling crack and even through their protection they all felt as if a lightning bolt had struck right in front of them – dazzling their eyes and ringing their ears.

“Yeah, that weren’t no bomb,” Neal muttered, unwrapping the now slightly warm cloth from his arm.

“That was easily viewable from space,” Tess informed him. “Calls are starting back up for the port’s switchboard.”

“Heh, send the local news feeds the highlights of the thugs in port shuttles bringing us a bomb for some reason – and my way of ‘disposing’ of it.”

“I’ll include my mug shots of all the delivery boys,” Tess agreed.

“How could you see to aim?” Mike wondered.

“You remember those gun sight cameras I used to point out your aiming errors? There’s nothing to keep Tess from feeding my phaser’s camera images to my glasses. Heck, there was one time I ended up temporarily blinded and Tess was my eyes, and telling me which way to aim and when to hold or fire.”

“A lot of the phasers I’ve seen don’t have cameras,” Graysocks pointed out.

“True, but you’ll find most of mine do.”

“Why?”

Neal smiled a little. “It can come in handy sometimes, having a recording of what you were aiming at when you fired. Your comm badges also contain cameras.”

“So you always know what we’re doing?” she asked.

Neal laughed. “I only have so many hours in my day, not enough to try to keep an eye on each and every one of you. Now Tess on the other hand has lots of clock cycles to spend watching things. And she’s probably thrilled that she’s no longer stuck with just watching me doing the same old things over and over.”

“Well, it has been more entertaining,” Tess admitted. “And I’m learning a lot more of the current youth slang, never mind a couple of positions I hadn’t thought were even possible!”

“Tess!” Morningmist gasped, hir ears down and hir tail going down and under as if to protect or hide certain things.

Neal just smiled and shook his head. “And I didn’t know a thing about it until you told on yourself, though Tess should know by now that you chakitties are quite flexible.”

By now the occupant of the third PTV had decided that most of the excitement should finally be over and that it might now be safe to get out and say hello.

Casual business dressed, the rather tall and curvy calico cat morph gave the kids and Weaver the once over before she latched onto Neal and gave him a bit more than a ‘we’re just good friends’ hug. “Tess tells me you’re done making loud noises for the moment, and I thought maybe we’d better start cleaning things up a bit before your next stunt. I brought you a ride, though I wasn’t expecting you to have company.”

Extracting himself from the calico’s cleavage, Neal muttered, “About that. I somehow ended up with a couple of stowaways at my last stop.”

“More than a couple and more than stowaways as I see you’ve gone and armed them,” she replied.

“That too,” Neal admitted as he steered her towards Weaver. “Brajet Wallsom, may I present Weaver Shortgrass and Starblazer, my denmate and daughter.”

Brajet’s eyes had widened at their relationships with Neal, but then she got a rather crafty look in her eye. “Cradle-rob much? Isn’t she a bit young for you? I mean, it’s nice that you went and adopted her mother and all, but still …” she commented with an evil grin.

“Ha – ha,” Neal dryly replied. “I see you’re still practicing your wit on others. Keep at it; you’re nearly halfway there.”

Weaver also frowned up at the calico. “So, it’s true when they say that sailors have one in every port?”

Brajet just grinned at her. “You don’t know the half of it, honey – I’m just the fill-in – as in his main Parakit squeeze is busy right now!”

“And just where is she?” Neal asked.

Brajet frowned at him before saying, “Trying to clean up some of the messes you’ve been making – again! Some of the harvests that you’re supposed to be taking have just been started – never mind the prep work and packaging. You’d told us three weeks, not one!”

“Would it help if I said I could hang around for a week?” Neal asked.

“Yeah, it would,” Brajet admitted as she pulled a small PADD out of a pocket and typed furiously on it for a moment. “There, that should help remove a bit of the crush, but some of the fruits aren’t even ripe enough to be picked.”

“Can’t be helped, I’ll load what’s ready while I’m here and a later ship can pick up the other stuff.”

“Hold that thought,” Brajet said as she touched a hardly noticeable plug in her left ear. “Go ahead,” she said to a third party. “… Not yet … Why am I not surprised? At least it’s him and not you-know-who … I can ask,” she said as she raised an eyebrow at Neal. “If you don’t mind, one of the local police captains would like to have a little chat with you. He’s not a bad sort as canine cops go, better than some of the others I’ve had to deal with in fact.”

Neal shrugged. “We have been stirring things up a little. Will a comm call do or does he require a face-to-face?”

“She’s asking … a call will do for now.”

Tess spoke from Neal’s comm badge: “I’m ringing his line now and I’ll link when connected.”

“Captain Muelsfell,” a rather gruff voice said a moment later.

“Captain Foster. I heard you’d like to speak to me, Captain.”

“News travels fast around you it seems.”

“That can happen when someone I’m with and someone you’re talking to are related,” Neal offered.

“That it can, and I thank you for not making me chase you down. I’ve had two reports I’d like to ask you about. The first is that rather noisy way you came in.”

“Which is still allowed under the port rules, though I think they were written up before that newest subdivision was added,” Neal pointed out.

“Something for the council to consider correcting the next time they’re in session,” the officer agreed. “The second was reports of some type of bomb going off?”

“Yeah, some of the local thugs brought one with them to see if they could convince me to see things their way. Rather than let them keep their toy of rather messy destruction, I destroyed it myself.”

“From what I’m hearing, it was a bit more than a hatch breaching charge.”

“I’m guessing it could have been used to tear a leg off my shuttle or destroy the pod and a good percentage of its contents. I wasn’t going to leave those idiots running around with something that dangerous.”

“I think I can understand your reluctance to wait for someone else to deal with it.”

“Like the starships that land here, my shuttle’s main power source is antimatter, and there’s enough onboard to do a lot of damage if containment is lost. Every time and every place I land I have to protect not only my shuttle, but those it in turn might harm.”

Muelsfell was silent for a moment before shifting the topic slightly. “You didn’t by chance get any pictures or IDs on those ‘thugs’, did you?”

“Tess? Send him what we got, if you would please.”

“I can do better than that, Boss. It seems the company that runs that toll road closed off all access to the port seven weeks ago so all their employees could attend a little party. They were kind enough to post a group photo on their company page and all ten of those goons are in it. I’m sending our data and the links to your cop friend now.”

“And how did you just happen to know my private email address, Ms. Tess?” Muelsfell asked less than a minute later.

“Your friend, Tiffany, was kind enough to link our transfer,” Tess replied.

“And Brajet's here with me,” Neal added. “There used to be a joke about there being at most six points of separation between any two people, and even with space flight and other species thrown in, I’m not really sure we’re up to seven yet.”

“In my line of work who connects to whom and why can be an important piece to many of the calls and cases we handle,” Muelsfell admitted. “And it’s Jeff by the way.”

“Neal,” he replied, as a flicker in his glasses told him Tess wanted to bring something to his attention. “Ah, looks like port security is finally taking an official notice of things out here,” he said as a PTV with security markings pulled into the far side of the apron.

The PTV waited as the bridge building machine made its way across the apron to start building a lane to exit the port. One of the Class 5s waited in turn for the PTV to pass before continuing on behind the builder.

A middle-aged chakat climbed out of the PTV, followed by a much younger female human.

Looking over at the bridge builder, the chakat remarked, “Well, Captain Foster, I guess I don’t need to ask why you allowed them to park you way out here.” At Neal’s lopsided grin shi added, “And it also helps explain you getting our neighbors mad at us.”

“In for a penny, in for a pound, my dear Shir Flashpoint. And what happened to your old partner? It seems you have a new one every time I pay you a visit.”

Flashpoint frowned a little. “You know very well that I’m the one that gets to break in each of our new security personnel.”

“At least this one should be safe from you knocking her up and having her join your clan – well, I guess she could still join if she’s crazy enough,” Neal countered.

“That only happened once!” Flashpoint protested.

“But you keep trying!” Neal laughed.

“He’s got you there,” Brajet admitted. “Give it up, Flash, you’ll never win an argument with him.”

“And you have?” shi asked.

“Only when he lets me,” she admitted.

“Oh, I’m wrong every now and again,” Neal told the two of them with a grin, “and I think we’ve spent enough time ignoring hir latest partner in crime.”

“Patricia Moore, Sir. And I’d just as soon stay being ignored if half of what my supervisor has said about you the last couple of hours is true,” the short little brunette told him.

“Oh? Anything worth sharing?” Neal hinted. “I’m willing to trade info, like how Flashy there earned hir adult name.”

“I’ve already heard that story.”

“Did the one you hear involve a chakat’s backside and a fire-hose?” Neal asked with a grin.

“Noooo,” she admitted as she raised an eyebrow at her boss.

“You two can swap lies later,” Flashpoint muttered. “For right now let’s see how much trouble we can clean up before things get too official. While it’s not their jurisdiction, I’m sure the local cops will be on us about Captain Foster’s entrance – and that little flash-bang he set off.”

“Captain Muelsfell is already with us in spirit if not physically,” Neal said, indicating his badge.

“And I haven’t heard the fire-hose one either,” Jeff’s voice told them. “Captain Foster and I have discussed his noise issues and I see no need for us to get involved – other than gathering and questioning the ones that brought him the bomb.”

“Really?” Flashpoint asked. “We’d had reports of a convertible PTV with police lights on it coming in from the toll road a couple of minutes ago. Even with those rigs slowing traffic, it shouldn’t take them much longer to get here.”

“Damn,” Jeff muttered. “The only ‘convertible’ I can think of that would be dumb enough to have police lights on it would belong to our not-so-good Sergeant Perry. He’s been told before he can’t pass off his personal PTV as an official vehicle.”

“The rigs are slowing access between the ‘C’ and ‘D’ pass-throughs, but they won’t be able to block your sergeant forever,” Patricia said, having accessed the port data on her PADD.

“Sergeant Potter,” they heard Jeff saying, “recall Sergeant Perry to the office. He is to do nothing with or to anyone or anything at the port.”

“No can do, Cap,” a new voice reported a moment later. “Sergeant Perry’s comm dropped its ID and GPS status as soon as I tried to place the call – and his partner’s comm just went silent too.”

“In other words,” Flashpoint said, “you’re saying whatever he’s up to isn’t sanctioned by your department?”

“Not only that,” Jeff informed hir, “but I wouldn’t mind at all if you have to arrest him for exceeding his authority – if it comes to that of course.”

“Of course, but it’s nice to have everyone on the same page,” Flashpoint agreed.

“And one of the rigs coming this way left them just enough of a gap to slip through,” Patricia warned them.

Strobing lights and a wailing siren soon sped towards – and then past the shuttle and PTVs parked on E13, as the not-really-a-police-PTV headed towards the still working bridge builder and its support rigs.

Two figures got out of the convertible, one using some type of loudhailer to demand that the bridge builder stop all actions at once.

Whether they just couldn’t hear them – or perhaps because Tess had already warned them – the bridge builder continued building its next segment.

The figure using the loudhailer seemed to be getting more frantic and was jumping up and down while they screamed, when their partner pulled out their phaser and fired at one of the bridge builder’s control cabs.

This did get them a reaction from the bridge builder, but they probably hadn’t expected the crane operator to drop the end of the loader arm on the front half of their ride. Once the front end of the convertible was reduced to scrap, the ‘claw’ of the loader tightened, further crushing it and the arm then dragged the wreckage towards the officers. Using the convertible’s remains like a broom, it chased them forward until they literally ran out of road. Luckily for them, the bridge currently happened to end over a deeper section of the river.

The arm held the convertible out over the river for almost a minute before moving to one side a little and dropping it in. Another arm placed a pier onto the same spot and began to press down.

Those on pad E13 had watched the proceedings in silence. Shir Thumper’s voice broke that silence with: “I don’t like being shot at.”

“Can’t blame you, Thumper,” Neal agreed. “You let them off easy I see.”

“Tess had advised me that they had no jurisdiction and that their boss had tried to call them off. I only hit the front of the PTV because Tess said her scans showed the rear had another flash-bang like the one you took apart – as well as other hardware more appropriate for a SWAT team than a cop on the beat. She beamed the gear away before I sank it under a pier so they’ll never know what was discovered – much less recovered.”

“While all this happened out of my jurisdiction, I would like a list of what they had and any markings on them,” Jeff dryly commented.

“To try and track his sources?” Tess asked. “I can do that for you, Captain Muelsfell.”

“Many thanks, Tess,” Jeff replied. “As the river’s current should soon drift them back into my jurisdiction, I’d better send someone to fish them out and drag them back to the station.”

“You can also task them for losing their issued personal police property,” Tess chimed in. “They had to ditch a lot of their gear to not be dragged to the bottom by it.”

Brajet shook her head. “Not even lunchtime and you’ve already got some of the local cops mad at you. Why do I have the bad feeling that this will be one of your more interesting visits?”

Neal grinned. “I have no idea what you’re talking about; it’s just another day in the life for me.”

Looking at his young ‘crew’, Brajet muttered, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Jeff was the next to chime in. “If you guys are done making noise, I’ve got work to do. Just email me what you find if you would please, Tess.”

“Will do, Captain Muelsfell,” Tess assured him.

“Let’s go, Pat,” Flashpoint said. “Before the good captain here causes any more of a commotion.”

“Nice meeting you, Captain,” Patricia said as she followed her partner to their PTV.

“So, Captain, shall I call up a few more PTVs for your crew?” Brajet asked.

“No need,” Neal informed her as he pulled a remote out of a pocket. “You do know I try to plan ahead when I can.”

Pressing a button on the remote caused a series of clanks and pops on the side of the pod as one of the main hatches began releasing its seals. The ramp unfolded and the hatch then moved inward before sliding up, revealing stacks of containers.

Neal walked up the ramp and opened one of the containers that had its doors facing the hatch. Opening the doors wide, Neal stepped to the side as a PTV rolled out, followed by second one.

Two more containers and four more PTVs and Neal came back down the ramp.

“Weaver, if you would pick one to take you and Star in for a checkup at a clinic – Tess has the maps updated and will take care of getting you there. Mike, I’d like you, Calmmeadow, Holly and Quickdash to escort them if you would please. The rest of us will meet up with you later.”

Brajet had been watching the bridge builder. “I’d estimate another half hour or so – unless you planned on taking the toll road?”

“Nah, I don’t plan on giving them a credit if I can avoid it. But I figured everyone might prefer sitting comfortably to having to stand around waiting.”

“That, and you and I can go over a few things while we wait,” Brajet suggested rather coyly.

As each of Neal’s PTVs could comfortably handle up to six taurs, two were left empty as the others found places to ride, while Neal joined Brajet in her PTV.

 

 


 

Taking a Ride

 

“I didn’t really need an escort,” Weaver said as Mike and the others clambered aboard the first PTV with her.

“That wasn’t your denmate with a request,” Mike told her.

“No,” Calmmeadow agreed. “That was the captain with a politely phrased order.”

“And with the greetings we’ve been getting so far, it might be a good idea to not travel alone,” Mike added.

“He does seem to like rubbing some people the wrong way,” Weaver allowed, “but if you two are my escort, why Holly and Quickdash?”

“Well, for one no one would realize they might be our backup,” Calmmeadow pointed out. “Two, how much more worried would you be if you didn’t know where they were – or what might be happening to them?”

Weaver frowned before saying, “You’re both right, but is it going to be like this every place we visit?” Mike snorted rather noisily. “Somehow I can’t see him waking everybody up and cutting new roads every time he visits a place, but he did here and some people like those two cops might take offense.”

* * *

“Wonder what they’re talking about,” Graysocks commented as Brajet’s PTV closed up behind her and Neal.

“Hey – he’s male and has gone a whole week without,” Beechwood laughed. “What else might he be wanting from her?” the foxtaur vixen asked with a leer.

“That’s not the vibes I’m picking up,” Roseberry told them. Concentrating, shi said, “I still can’t get real good reads off Neal, but she’s gotten a lot more serious now that they’re alone.”

* * *

“So, mate and adopted kids?”

“Until I scare them off,” Neal said as he operated the PTV’s controls to move them slowly around the shuttle and the pod it was hunched over.

“Are you going to?”

“Depends on them and their options,” Neal admitted as he set his glasses to a scan mode and started examining his craft.

“Well, as Tess requested, I checked for possible flights and the Cha-Ching is scheduled to arrive in three days and will leave in six with Bright Hope as her next planned stop. Next known ship taking passengers heading that way from here is at least six weeks away.”

Neal nodded. “Good thing I was early then, otherwise they wouldn’t have had an option this soon.”

“Can they even afford the tickets?”

“I was thinking of ‘advancing’ them each enough so they can bail if they really want to.”

“Do you think that wise?”

“I don’t want them if they don’t want to be here. They’ve been making the best of it, but this is the first time they’ve had any real chance or choice to escape me if they really wanted to.”

“It’d probably be easier to just ship them home you know.”

“It would have been, but I got a little silly and gave them my word.”

Brajet gave him a funny look as she said, “You could have gone your whole visit without telling me that. And that means you won’t be letting me use any of my more devious methods to send them home.”

“Nope, you’ll have to play nice with them.”

“But not the whole nine yards as you like to say.”

“No, just what’s in plain view – at least for now. Though the kids are getting rather nosy.”

“Have they found any of your ‘good stuff’ yet?”

“Just the fancy ‘bridge’ and that I have transporters; they don’t have free access to everything just yet.”

“Is there a chance they will have full access at some point?”

“You know, I think they just might, a couple of them have already managed to impress me. But I thought it best to give them at least one chance to escape before throwing them in the deep end.”

“Okay, I can make sure the berths are available. When are you going to offer them a way home?”

“Tomorrow morning. They’re going to have a long day today as it’s already getting towards evening ship’s time.”

“I’ll be ready. One problem with you being this early is the bank hasn’t closed down the Brinkly clan yet.”

“Damn, with everything else I’d forgotten all about that they’d still have a leg to stand on.”

“Yeah, and that was one of their sons Thumper swept into the river. Jeff would have them both off the force, but politically he’s hog-tied where they’re concerned. And if you’ll recall, you putting in a new road was to be the final straw – not the opening shot.”

“When was their bank date?”

“Tomorrow.”

Neal smiled. “Tomorrow is shaping up to be a very busy day.”

“Every day is a busy day when you’re here to help stir the pot!” Brajet growled at him.

“Ah well, at least it helps keep you guys occupied and out of trouble,” Neal pointed out as they came around the last shuttle leg and could see the other PTVs still waiting for the new road to open.

“We could delay things until you’ve lifted,” she suggested.

“No, delaying will hurt our cause more than it would help it. The date was set a couple of years ago; I just wished there’d been a good reason to do it sooner, before they’d gotten quite so built up and full of themselves –”

“Thumper to Foster,” came from the PTV’s comm system.

“Go ahead, Thumper,” Neal replied.

“I’ve got a single lane out rough finished. If you’ll come up our left side. Oh, and Tommy’ll be keeping an eye on your gear while you’re gone – they should have the pod unloaded and your reaction mass topped off before nightfall.”

“Tell him to take his time unloading, Tess’ll crank up the anti-grav and assist with the tractor beams. Single lane, port side, copy. Tess, if you’ll get us moving please?”

“Updating the PTV maps, you’re on your way,” Tess said as the lead PTV started to move with the others lining up behind it.

* * *

They traveled in a convoy for a while, past a couple of small communities before entering what looked like a small town where Weaver’s PTV peeled off from the others to head for a nearby clinic.

The rest ended up at a rather large warehouse building. The kids waited as Brajet gave Neal a quite ‘improper’ goodbye before she headed out on errands of her own. Once inside, Neal gave each of the kids a list of one-of-a-kind items he needed or wanted them to hunt down while he plugged a chit with a few larger orders into one of the consoles.

“Okay,” Neal told them. “The checkout system has my ship-card information for payment, just load the gear into our extra PTVs and they’ll take them back to the shuttle. I’ve got a little chore to do and will return shortly.”

“You’re leaving us unsupervised?” Nightsky asked in surprise.

“No, I’m leaving poor Tess watching over you guys; do try to stay out of trouble,” Neal said with a grin as he left.

“He doesn’t really trust us,” Brighteyes complained.

“At least he trusts us this much,” Roseberry replied. “We’ll have to earn more by proving we can be trusted.”

“There’s a snack bar over there – good of a place as any to meet up at when we’re done collecting,” Morningmist suggested.

Meanwhile, the PTV Neal had climbed into hadn’t gone anywhere – but he was no longer in it.

* * *

“Parakit Space Control, this be Folly Heavy Baker, I be needin’ landin’ clearance for Frostpoint an’ we’ll be needin’ a pad them Class Fives won’t be havin’ no problems with.”

“Parakit Space Control confirms your clearance to land at Frostpoint Port, Folly Baker. Your landing pad is A2,” a pleasant sounding raccoon morph told him.

“Thank ya, missy, I’d been half ’fraid you guys’d have me setting down in some poor farmer’s field after that business with me captain earlier.”

The raccoon’s smile might have been a little forced, but it was still a smile as she said, “Small chance of that; your captain’s reply to that last little joke went all the way to the top of the food chain over here.”

“Yeah, he can be that way if ya go an’ get his dander up. A2 it tis an’ you be havin’ yourselves a good shift. Folly Heavy Baker clear.”

“Parakit Space Control out.”

“Frostpoint, this be Folly Heavy Baker inbound fer yer pad A2.”

“Welcome Folly Baker, we have a shuttle scheduled to take off in seven minutes from A7, but no other traffic for you to worry about.”

“Thanky Frostpoint, we should be down in ’bout twenty. Folly Heavy Baker clear.” Folly Heavy Baker settled onto the A2 pad with a lot less fanfare than Alpha had and was greeted by a single two-seat PTV, whose door opened at the same time as the outer hatch on the shuttle’s leg did.

With the ground still quite warm from the landing, the figure hurrying across the ramp wasted no time getting into the PTV and closing the door.

“Heard you were stirring things up early at Tootles,” a male hyena morph chuckled as the PTV moved away from the landing pad.

“A bit,” the captain of the Folly admitted. “Will that be an issue for your teams?”

“Nah, a couple of double shifts will smooth things out, and I know a few people that will be happy to see the extra income. What do you need from me?”

“Load teams and visible security. I need to somehow be two places at once this time around.”

“Yeah, Tiffany’s already warned us that you’re already up to your old tricks. We can cover this end of things for you with Tess telling us what you need where and when.”

“Thanks, Howey. Oh, you don’t by chance have someone that needs to clock some shuttle command time do you? While I could keep transporting all over the place, it gets to be a pain.”

“And Space Control hates it when you just set the auto-pilot or fly them remotely,” Howey agreed. “I think I can scare up a pilot or two for when you need them.”

“Thanks again, and I think I’d better go see what my ‘crew’ is up to,” Neal said as he tapped his comm badge. “Tess, what’s our status?”

“Weaver’s done at the clinic. Mother and daughter have been given thorough examinations and pronounced to be in good health and they agreed with my scans that Weaver’s injuries are almost completely healed. They’re still en route to join the others, most of which are having a snack while they wait for you to return.”

“All right. Beam me someplace quiet, no need to be showy.”

“Will do, Boss,” Tess said as Neal was transported away.

 

 


 

Lunchtime

 

Neal found himself back in the PTV he’d ‘left’ in, still sitting in the parking area. Getting out, he made his way into the warehouse to hunt down his crew. He ran into the foxtaurs Redtail and Graysocks carrying out the last of their assignments.

As they loaded their paraphernalia into one of the PTVs, Neal brought out the rest of the kids and joined them in one of the vehicles.

“At least you guys had time for a snack,” Redtail was complaining as she got in.

“No, they just spoiled their dinner,” Neal told her, “as in our next stop just happens to be a place to eat.”

Letting the PTV autopilot itself to their next stop, Neal said, “Tess, audio link to the other PTVs, please. This is your captain speaking, next stop is for food. While I know most of you are in a hurry to ‘phone home’, it’s still not quite breakfast time for your folks. So we’ll eat and then do a few more chores before we try to give them a call.”

Tess had helped adjust everyone’s travel times so that Weaver and company were pulling up just as Neal’s bunch were opening their doors.

The eatery wasn’t what the kids were expecting as it was actually a place to buy the very same ‘ready meals’ they had been learning to despise.

Neal noted the frowns as they filed in, but ignored them. “Seventeen for your cafeteria,” he told the sales representative.

“Right this way then,” the deer morph told him before leading them to a set of doors. “Pardon me saying this, but the others don’t seem too keen on having a meal with us,” she said as she opened the doors.

“That’s because they’ve been stuck with eating just what I happen to like,” Neal informed her. “I’m hoping seeing more of your selections might improve their thoughts on the matter.”

“Ah, I think we can manage that,” she said with a small laugh as some of the teens were losing their frowns as they saw the large selections of food around the room. “If you will each pick up a badge by the door, it will track your selections while you’re here. Tap the key of anything you see that you want – and double tap anything you really want. You may pick up a tray and sample as many of our foods as you like.”

“Don’t some of you wish you hadn’t had that snack earlier?” Neal asked them with a grin as the kids split up to see what kind of new choices they were being offered. Mike headed for the fresh and packaged fruits and vegetables while most of the others headed for the meat counter.

Smiling at the doe, Neal handed her a memory chit as he said, “These are my requirements. Give us about a four months’ supply of whatever they tap.”

“It’ll be that long before your next stop?” she asked in surprise as she pulled a small PADD out of her pocket and inserted the memory chit.

“No, as this is their first time to a place like this so I expect some of them to not click on everything they’d actually like and have to mooch off the ones that did,” he replied.

“And I see from your list you’ve shopped with us before,” she said with a smile.

“Oh, I buy and sell with you guys all the time, in fact your head office has a standing bid in on any extra Caitian spices I may be willing to part with.”

“W-Wait – you’re that guy? But I thought –” the deer stammered, her eyes wide in surprise.

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Neal admitted. “Calm down, I’m just another captain getting rations for his crew,” he told her.

Sure you are,” she muttered, but she appeared at least outwardly more relaxed.

“Sure I am,” he agreed with a grin before picking up one of the trays and gathering a few of the samples for his meal.

“What was that all about?” Brighteyes wondered, watching the human and deer. “He just gave her a fright of some type.”

“About like when Graysocks realized she was talking to the captain and not just one of the crew,” Roseberry agreed. “That doe almost jumped back and saluted him.”

“Why? It’s not like either of them are in the military,” Brighteyes protested.

“No, but it seems our captain’s a bigger fish than she thought he was,” Roseberry agreed. “She’s calming down, but she’s a lot more wary of him now.” Returning hir attention to the table in front of hir, shi then said, “You're doing it again, Graysocks.”

“Doing what?” asked Brighteyes. Upon seeing the foxtaur's tray, the chakat went, “Ew! How can you stand that?”

Graysocks paused in dipping a half-eaten skinny meat sausage into a spicy-smelling sauce to say, “It's good.”

“You'll be tasting that stuff for an hour. And feeling it on the toilet tomorrow.”

“That's how you know it's good,” said Graysocks, grinning. She proceeded to put the now fiery sausage into her mouth and chewed with obvious delight.

“You should have seen her at R’skeller’s,” Roseberry said. “She ordered their hottest beef bowl and the staff asked if she'd been raised on Cait.”

While several just snacked as they sampled the offerings, the majority loaded trays for a full and proper meal. Weaver was busy with Starblazer and her own meal, while Neal carefully ignored the minor fact that the youngest two of his crew were gorging themselves on the desserts.

With his family fed, or in a few cases stuffed, it was time to pile back into the PTVs and head for another store; Neal joining Weaver and her ‘crew’.

“My tummies hurt,” Quickdash complained once they were moving.

“I know that can’t possibly have had anything to do with you and Holly pigging out on all those treats back there,” Neal commented without looking back at them. “I have two choices; treat you two like responsible youths – or irresponsible ones. The responsible ones Weaver and I won’t have to watch like hawks because they know better than to do things they know will get them in trouble. The non-responsible ones I’ll most likely have to put in baby harnesses and keep them leashed to one of their older siblings. Irresponsible youths I also can’t leave unsupervised in the electronics lab.” He let that dangle for a bit before adding, “So, which are you two?”

“We can be responsible!” Holly quickly said, Quickdash nodding in agreement.

“We’ll see,” Neal replied, noting the small smile on his denmate’s muzzle.

While there was still a little moaning coming from the back of the PTV, there were no more complaints.

* * *

The next stop was more a general store; Neal sending his crew in to find all those little ‘needed’ things they’d been missing since finding themselves stuck on his Folly. Combs, brushes, their preferred soaps and fur conditioners were quickly gathered – though Weaver noted but pretended not to notice her youngest pair purchasing and quickly sharing some antacids.

Nightsky had also been busy. After finding a personal grooming and trim kit shi liked, shi discovered that the store sold several types of fabrics and shi had ordered what shi thought would be enough to make ship uniforms for everyone.

Piling his crew back into their PTVs once more, Neal headed them back to Tootles Port and their waiting shuttle.

Returning, they found that there was now a wide exit ramp that split into two before passing the new prefab gatehouse, where the security fur just waved them through.

“I thought they’d stop us to see what we might be carrying,” Mike commented.

Neal smiled. “The PTVs are squawking codes which identify them as belonging to a shuttle on the port, so security knows we have a reason to be here.”

“I just thought with all the earlier excitement they’d be watching out more.”

“They know all those earlier problems came from those tied to the toll road. You can bet they’ll be searching those guys very carefully after their previous stunts.”

“That, and they already know you can handle more than they want to dish out?” Calmmeadow asked with a grin.

“I go to many places,” Neal told hir. “Some are tightly controlled, while others have no control whatsoever. There’s a couple of places I’ll hit where I comm their city or town hall to let them know to clear the kids off the playing fields because I’m coming down. Even had a couple of people try to hijack my cargo once I was down.”

“Did you and Tess show them the errors of their ways?” shi asked with a laugh.

“Well, you do remember that tractor beam making a mess of their little bomb? Think of that same force being applied to a PTV, or any weapon …”

“Or to a warm body that won’t let go of their weapon?” Mike added.

“I’ve been forced to do that a time or three,” Neal admitted. “Some people just don’t know when they’re out-gunned by the guy that doesn’t seem to be carrying one.”

They had rolled onto pad E13; the pod was closed but the ramp was still down, as was the shuttle. As the PTVs came to a halt the hatch on the shuttle cycled open, as did the pod’s cargo hatch.

“Teens out, the rest of you can sit a bit longer if you’d like,” Neal said as he climbed out as well.

Weaver was actually the only one that stayed in her PTV; the rest piled out and were quickly put to work unloading all their purchases from the PTVs. With several teens in the base of the leg and several more in the shuttle proper, a bucket brigade quickly hooked packages to the vertical escalator where they were moved up and into the passenger area while Neal did his preflight checks. Weaver was not amused that Starblazer was treated as ‘just’ another package, though Shadowcrest did ride up with the kit.

Once unloaded, the PTVs parked themselves in their containers, which were the only containers still left in the large pod.

“Unless you’d like the co-pilot seat again?” Neal asked Weaver. At her headshake he said, “We’ll be making enough trips that everyone will have a chance, but for now I just want two of you.”

Chakats Dusk and Morningmist were the first two to call out, so they ‘rode’ the co-pilot and engineering seats as Neal did his preflight checks.

“Hey, Boss,” Tess said as Neal finished his checklist. “Thought you’d like to know that the Voxxan registered Rolling Thunder is almost in orbit.”

“Aww, I haven’t teased those mutts in quite a while now,” Neal chuckled. “See if they’ll take a hail.”

“Foolish one!” a happy sounding vulpine voice howled at them a moment later.

“Hay, Thunder-butt!” Neal replied. “Long time no harass.”

“Been busy – you?”

“Same ol’ same ol’. Hey, do you still trust me?”

“After last time? Rakshan deities NO!”

“Good. You hitting Tootles?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Tell Parakit Space Control you want to park your shuttle somewhere in the high E’s.”

After a moment the canine growled, “Like hell!”

“E row. Trust me,” Neal laughed as he dropped that connection and made another. “Tootles Port, this is Folly Heavy Alpha, shuttle preparing to depart.”

“Roger Folly Alpha, there’s no other traffic at this time.”

“Tootles, do me a favor if you would please?”

“What might that be, Folly?”

“If Rolling Thunder gets an ‘A’ row pad, ask them if they’re really sure they don’t want somewhere on the E row.”

Tootles Port’s answer was a snicker before saying, “We can do that little thing. Just so long as you don’t bring us any more excitement!”

“Oh, come on. I just played a little bridge; it’s the toll road crew that brought the party favors.”

“Yeah, security’s all over them – now that they can’t block our only way on or off the port. I even heard a rumor that Shir Flashpoint strip-searched the last pair that tried to walk in like they owned the place.”

“Poor Flashy, shi does get a little huffy when you tread on hir tail a few too many times.”

“Well, that and everything coming in on the toll road is being checked a little more closely.”

“Tootle-loo Tootles, we’ll be back,” Neal said as he changed a setting on his board and Alpha started to rise.

“We lost the pod!” Dusk exclaimed when cameras showed that the pod wasn’t starting to lift with the shuttle.

“No, we’re leaving the pod,” Neal replied. “It’s empty; no need to drag it back up until it has something worth lifting.”

“I’d think moving the shuttle just for us would be a waste of fuel,” Morningmist wondered.

“Heh, let me let you in on a little secret. It’d cost me more in fuel and power to use the transporters to beam all eighteen of us – and all the stuff we bought – up to Folly than it would for me to take Alpha up and bring down another loaded pod.”

“So why use transporters at all?” Morningmist asked.

“Time. Time and sometimes space, as I could transport you straight to your room if I wanted to, but this shuttle won’t quite fit through the ship’s corridors. Of course it also depends on having the power, which is why you still walk or ride a PTV to school; so long as a starship has sufficient antimatter it has the power, but antimatter on the surface makes some people nervous.”

Dusk frowned a little. “Then why would anyone land an antimatter vessel on a planet?”

“Power again; clean and simple, antimatter gives us the most energy per mass than any other fuel. Why land one? Sometimes it’s cheaper to land the whole ship than to make lots of shuttle runs.”

“But aren’t they dangerous?”

“Sure they are, but so’s crossing the street, one of those speeding PTVs might have a failing sensor and not swerve to miss you. We do what we can to reduce the dangers; the port’s on a hill away from any large populations – which makes me wonder how they managed to get that one community built so close to Tootles.”

“So why didn’t you just land Folly?”

Neal let out a bark of laughter before saying, “You should already know some of the answers to that!” Keying the intercom on, he said, “Okay class, the question asked was why I didn’t just land Folly to save all these trips. Any ideas?”

“Not designed to be landed,” Mike pointed out. “I’m not even sure the pod section wouldn’t collapse under its own weight if you tried.”

“Even if she could land, she’s too big for any of the landing pads!” Holly called out.

“Station ‘down’ is along the primary line of thrust, so you’d have to either land her on her tail or not be able to move around without keeping the artificial gravity going,” Alex added.

“All good reasons,” Neal agreed. “But yet another is the actual mass needing to be transferred. I may move anywhere between twelve and sixteen pods while I’m here. As impressively large as that may sound, it’s still just a tiny fraction of Folly’s total mass and it’s not worth dragging the whole ship into and out of a gravity well for that little bit.”

“Is that why Folly’s in a high orbit?” Holly asked.

“That, and so she’s always in sight,” Neal agreed.

“Why always in sight? Are you afraid Tess will sneak off and leave you behind?” Quickdash snickered.

“No, not really,” Neal said with a chuckle. “But the more direct link I can get the better I like it. Relying on someone else for your links means they can cut off or intercept your communications.”

“Our comm badges have been working okay,” Holly insisted.

“Your badges are adaptive. When no other connections are available, everyone will hear everybody else unless you set up private channels. Those PTVs were acting as repeaters and have enough brains that your calls were going where you told them to go. The PTVs also link to the shuttle which in turn links to the Folly.”

“You mean these badges can’t reach Folly by themselves?”

“They can, but they’d run out of charge very quickly that way – that is if Folly’s even in range and not on the other side of the planet.”

“So why are we going back up?”

“So you can sleep in your own beds tonight – and so I can have you all in one spot for your first call home. Tomorrow I’ll give you all ‘shore leave’ and you’ll have a few days to look around before the next leg in our journeys.”

Rather than park the shuttle back in his bay, Neal settled him over the pod that was scheduled to go down next. His ‘crew’ was then trained on leaving through the leg in zero G, much to the entertainment of some.

Of the new crew the chakats were having the easiest time of it, four gripping limbs and their prehensile tails giving them more ways to latch onto and push off of the things around them while the foxtaurs seemed to be having the most trouble with just two hands with which to manage their taur bodies. Mike did a little better, being used to having to be careful with his extra mass. A hatch in the ‘floor’ at the bottom of the foot gave them access to an airlock that mated to a small personnel tube and hatch built into the ship itself.

At Neal’s suggestion a new bucket brigade was started to get their purchases off the shuttle and into the ship where Tess could get her tractor beams on them.

“I could have gotten the gear,” Tess whispered in Neal’s ears as the teens got their possessions moving.

“I know,” Neal murmured back, “but this gives them more practice and a bit of team building.”

“And they’ll be tired when greeting their freshly up parents.”

“That too, I ain’t running some summer vacation camp. Should be interesting to see how their parents react to them.”

“You keep telling me there was once a book titled ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People’. I think you’re reading it upside down and backwards again,” Tess informed him.

“Perhaps,” Neal allowed, “but only trotting their kids out when they’re fresh and happy might send their parents the wrong signals too.”

As the teens followed the last of the packages out of the shuttle leg, Neal said, “All hands, this be your captain speaking. You have thirty minutes to clean up and refresh yourselves before we see how well your parents are surviving without you.”

 

 


 

ET Phone Home

 

Tess had multiple FTL lines open as she sent a request to ‘Tanner, Stripes and Star’ for the parents’ contact requests, as well as to give them her current open lines. While the law firm tied up one of her lines with a data transfer, another gave a quick answer to her request. Tess was only slightly surprised that there was only one contact number for all of the kids and Weaver, and that this time it matched one of the numbers she had for one of their homes.

At twenty minutes, Neal was the last and latest person on the ship to make it to the main lounge. Fortunately his crew had saved him a seat and Tess placed the call.

The screen lit to show the great room of the Shadowspirit and Goldenmist household, crowded with a few dozen furs, some still hurrying to get settled.

“There shi is!” called out one Chakat Smokingcoals on seeing hir sister Brighteyes. “Your chores are piling up!” shi happily informed hir older sister.

“And their schoolwork!” another chakat teen laughed.

“Actually, Orchestra, we’re doing more schoolwork here than we were doing at home, though more of it pertains to surviving in space,” Calmmeadow told hir slightly older sister.

“Alex looks tired,” a small cat morph stated.

“It’s been a long and busy day for me, Corolla,” Alex told his little sister. “It’s a bit past midnight ship time.”

Fernando had been carefully examining the body languages of all of them. “Eager but tired, the lot of them. Where’s your shotgun, Captain? I know you’re using more than a whip and a chair to keep that bunch in line.”

Neal smiled. “Oh, I have my little ways to ‘encourage’ them to behave,” he told him.

“Are you going to be letting them off your ship, Captain?” Chakat Shortdash growled.

“If they so desire,” Neal replied. “Anyone want to abandon ship?” he asked his crew. All shook their heads but the chakat was still glaring as hir daughter Quickdash moved closer to Holly and Weaver.

Neal frowned slightly before saying, “For those that fear your children aren’t speaking up because I’m right here, they’ll all be planet-side tomorrow and out of my reach if they so desire. I’ll ensure that they each have enough funds to phone home without me being able to monitor or otherwise interfere with your conversations.”

“Lighten up, Shorty, before your cub runs from the room in embarrassment,” Fernando muttered loudly enough for all to hear. “When this all started, you and your mate were looking into ways of getting your cub back that weren’t worse than leaving hir where shi was. So, did you two find a choice that didn’t just take your cub off the grill and toss hir into the fire?”

Shortdash switched hir glare to the cat, whom it didn’t seem to affect in the slightest. “No, we didn’t find any friends or family that could link up and get hir,” shi snapped at him.

“We’ll be here a local week,” Neal commented. “I could stay an extra day or so if that would give you enough time.”

“No!” Quickdash blurted out before realizing shi’d said it in front of hir parents.

“I’d call that an up-vote for the good captain,” Fernando pointed out, several of the other parents nodding in agreement.

“Has my daughter been behaving hirself?” Chakat Starfrost asked.

Neal snorted, “Heck no, shi’s been sewing up a storm, something about them thinking all humans have these silly nudity taboos.”

“Funny, we never see you trotting around without any clothes on,” Beechwood snickered.

“It’s a bit chilly in here for me to do that as I turned down the thermostat a bit for your comfort,” Neal grumbled back at her. “Nor do I have fur or sheath to help protect my dangly bits, unlike certain others.”

“But he sleeps nude,” Shadowcrest protested before shi thought it through and then looked to see how hir parents had handled that little piece of information.

“It’s nice to know you’re looking after them as if they were your own,” Chakat Shadowspirit said with a smile for the human currently stuck with hir daughter.

Neal shrugged. “They’re not so bad for a brat-pack.”

Every furry ear in both rooms twitched.

Brat pack?” Quickwind finally said for both groups.

“Yup, a pack of dang furball brats,” Neal agreed with a growing grin. “Which places your little brat in pretty good company,” he told hir.

“Arthur’s called Mike worse,” Cathleen said with a little nicker.

“Alex has deserved far worse,” Fernando agreed.

“If the name fits,” Essence Blackforest said as Graysocks’ ears drooped.

“Oh,” Goldenmist said, deciding it was time to change the subject. “We apologize to Cindy, but her father wasn’t actually notified of this little gathering.”

“I understand,” Cindy replied. “And actually you were doing me a favor by not including him.”

“You’ll have to face him sometime,” shi softly said. “He is your father.”

“Only by the accident of birth,” Cindy told hir. “To him I’m just a way to the inheritance my grandmother left my mother and me. With any luck I won’t see him again until I’m of age and he can’t force me to do things anymore!”

“It takes more than just age to be able to stand on your own feet,” Fernando pointed out.

“I know, and your son is helping me with that,” she told him.

Fernando looked to his son with a barely raised eyebrow and was rewarded with an almost unnoticeable nod. A slight tilt of the head returned a partial smirk. “Well, so long as he’s not causing too much trouble.”

“No, none of them have been too much trouble as yet, merely a general nuisance,” Neal told them.

“Yet you’re keeping them,” Shortdash pointed out.

Neal frowned slightly before saying, “Tell you what. Tomorrow morning for us will still be your guys’ ‘today’ but very late evening. I’ll get them down at local first light and drop the lot of them off in front of the police station. Those that wish to can drop their Folly comm badges in the trashcan by the door and get police protection from me if they think they need it. I understand there’s a ship named Cha-Ching scheduled to arrive in another three days with Bright Hope listed as her next port of call. If they so desire, your kids can spend the next couple of nights dirt side and not have to ever see me again.”

“That wasn’t the deal you gave us,” Mike pointed out.

“No, it isn’t,” Neal agreed, dropping the frown. “Next door to the station there’s a rather nice bakery and diner that I happen to know has an excellent breakfast menu. Since we’ll be going down early, I thought that’d make a good way to start the day. Those that wish to escape my clutches can do so before or after breakfast, the rest of us will continue on from there.”

“What’s the catch?” Shortdash demanded.

“From me? None. For them? Their parents convincing them that they need to jump ship. For hir? The same one I started with, hir age and trying to travel without a guardian.”

Mike smiled at his mother as he said, “I have no issues with your comm gear or Tess hearing whatever I might tell my folks. Unless my mom and dad desperately need me home, I’m hanging around.” His mother merely smiled back and nodded.

Locking eyes with his father, Alex said, “I’m good.”

Not having anyone she needed to convince, Cindy simply nodded as well.

Several of the teens were now watching their parents more closely; some pleadingly, some semi-defiantly.

“Weaver can bring Quickdash with her when she and her daughters return home,” Shortdash told him.

“Tess? Has Weaver started packing her few bags yet?” Neal asked.

“No, and Holly and Quickdash both have unfinished projects in the electronics lab.”

“Longsock and I will be discussing that later,” Weaver told Shortdash in a tone that said hir input was neither wanted nor welcome. Neal raised an eyebrow but remained silent, Shortdash did not.

“Our daughter is very important to us,” shi told Weaver.

“As mine and yours are to me,” Weaver replied. “As I said, Longsock and I will have a lot to talk about.”

Neal didn’t bother hiding his yawn before saying, “Those that want private chats with your kids tonight go ahead and give Tess the comm codes and she’ll link you, those that don’t, give the codes to your kids and they can call you back in our ‘morning’.”

“We have two other terminals here,” Shadowspirit told them.

“And your sound system has excellent separation,” Tess told them. “Unless someone wants or needs total privacy, I can give you up to six conversation zones without too much bleed-through from just your main console.”

There was a little dickering about who got what where and Longsock soon found himself in a small but well-appointed home office and Weaver had moved to one of the consoles in the lounge.

“You’re staying,” he quietly told her. “I could tell by the way you cut hir off.”

Weaver nodded. “Unless you think you can’t handle missing us that long, yes.”

“Any reason in particular?”

“A dozen or more, in fact. Unless their parents do some very convincing remote arm-twisting, the teens are staying. The other two have the same problem Neal stated to Shortdash, too young to travel by themselves.”

“And Holly?”

“Wasn’t really enjoying that new school after our last job move.”

“The only real problem with my job,” he reminded her.

“I know. And if we stay this course she’ll see more places than you in the next two years and yet still be able to sleep in the same bed each night.”

“Yeah, you three are on one heck of a walkabout. What’s he like?”

“I’m still finding out. It’s only been a week and we’ve been busy settling in.”

“But all positive so far?”

“No, he’s no more perfect than you or I, but nothing yet that really worries me.”

“How’s he treating the kids?”

“Like young adults for the most part – including letting Holly and Quickdash eat themselves sick on treats earlier before he rubbed it in!”

“I remember my dad doing that to me, much more effective than Mom telling me not to,” he said with a smile.

“And Tess seems to be the perfect teacher and child watcher.”

“Who’s Tess?”

“She’s a ship AI that has to be seen to be believed, one of the teens actually thought she was really a brain running the ship.”

“Aren’t many of those around in the first place.”

“And you should have heard Neal laugh at the idea that he was her ‘keeper’.”

“So – you think you guys will be all right?”

“I think so.”

“Wish I’d ended up with you.”

“Me too. Don’t forget your ‘Obligation’ in three weeks with the local foxtaur clan.”

“You’re always so cheerful whenever I got stuck with that little task.”

“It’s how we were introduced after all, if my younger sister hadn’t dragged you home that night we might never have met,” she reminded him while trying to hide a yawn.

“And it always makes me so glad to come home to you. Rest now, you look like you’ve had a long day.”

“I’ll call you again later. Love you.”

“I love you too,” Longsock was saying when a message flashed on his screen telling him not to go anywhere. Weaver disappeared to be replaced by Neal.

“Were you listening in, Captain?” Longsock wondered.

“No, Tess was kind enough to let me know when you two were wrapping things up.”

“Did you already know she was staying?”

“No, but I know most of the teens would like to if their parents don’t yell too loudly at them about it.”

“My job means we travel a lot, uprooting Holly from one school to the next.”

“I see. How long is your current one to last?”

“This was to be one of the longer ones with another thirty Earth weeks. Why?”

“I think I can keep them busy that long. How’d you like to join them once you’re free?”

“How?”

“I move things, and I know a few other people that move things as well as people. Let me know when you’re ready to go and I’ll see what little I can do.”

“Why?”

“Why not? We’re co-mates, not competitors, my friend. I know they miss you at least as much as you’re missing them.”

“Then you ‘could’ just send them back.”

“I ‘could’,” Neal agreed. “But only if they really want to go. I got a little silly when adopting the younger ones and gave my ‘word’ on certain things. You’ll find I don’t like breaking my word without one hell of a good reason.”

Longsock smiled a little more openly. “Yeah, we all saw your little adoption ceremony, my poor Weaver.”

“She didn’t have to say yes,” Neal pointed out. “Though Holly did blindside her pretty good.”

“No,” Longsock told him. “You blindsided her, and there was no way she could say no, not to Holly and not to watching over the other kids; you should know her better than that by now.”

“I’m still learning,” Neal admitted, “but I was dealing with a rather limited set of options at the time and I needed a firm yet legal hook on Shadowcrest and Quickdash.”

Longsock nodded. “And everyone here understands why you did it – not that Shir Shortdash likes it!” he half laughed.

“Hir mate doesn’t seem to be too keen on me either,” Neal commented.

“Shi’s not, though I think shi knows it’s the best of a bad deal.”

Neal let his chair recline as he muttered, “Damn it, I need them pulling with me – not against. Quickdash doesn’t need to see us fighting over and about hir.”

“I can try to put in a good word for you,” Longsock half joked. “After all, you’ve got three of mine to one of theirs.”

Ours, Longsock, ours. Until they get fed up and tell me to go to hell, they are mine just as much as they are yours. So until you can get your tail out here and claim your share of them, I’ll do what I can to fill in for you.”

“Thus the offer to get me out there.”

“Thus,” Neal agreed. “I’m not mentioning this to them to avoid getting their hopes up, just a little surprise from their mates and fathers if you will.”

“And so they don’t spend the whole time clockwatching,” Longsock agreed. “How do I contact you when I’m ready?”

“That law firm, I’ll drop them a note to keep you updated on things.”

“Does that mean not everybody is getting everything?” Longsock asked with a raised eyebrow.

Neal frowned a little before saying, “I’m not going to keep the kids from calling home as often as they can and want, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let the parents hound their kids across the stars.”

“There’s more.”

“There is. I’m a businessman after all. Not all my stops are quick and easy – nor are they all completely safe. That said, you’ll find I take very good care of my own. As you are also Weaver’s mate and the father of her kits, I consider you too to be someone I should be taking an active interest in.”

“Why does that make me more nervous rather than less?” Longsock asked with a grin.

“Because you don’t know me well enough just yet,” Neal said with an answering grin. “Give me time and I’ll get you to the proper level of terrified!”

“Am I going to be hearing about how terrified they are of you?”

“Doubtful, Holly’s having way too much fun at this point. Weaver looks concerned every now and then, but I can’t tell how much of that is thinking of you.”

“I heard someone named Tess say something about Holly has a project?”

“Yeah, she and Quick were bored so Tess started them on making squirt guns and water toys. When I hinted that they might be able to play with electricity and electronics, they literally pounced on it.”

“What about her schooling?”

“Tess tested all of them to find their current curriculum levels and has continued on from there. Four hours a day of schooling, four of whatever training they’d like, four of chores, the rest is up to them – though they have to keep on the schooling part to play in the labs.”

“Labs? As in more than one?”

“Heh, I have a little of everything up here, it’s not like there’s always a store just a few minutes away. As well as the two youngest getting into the roots of computers, I have one teen that seems to be sewing every chance shi gets, and another that’s proving shi does indeed have green thumbs. Most of the rest are seeing what they can learn about running a starship.”

“Makes me wonder what they haven’t found yet.”

“Anything you might need for a good sized town I probably have tucked away in here somewhere.”

After a moment of silence, Longsock asked, “Can I see her again? If only to watch them sleep?”

“To see if she murmurs your name or mine in her sleep?” Neal countered. “The night she slept with me it was still yours, my friend.”

“I didn’t mean –”

“I know very well what you mean,” Neal chuckled. “Tess? Hook him up if you would, please.”

Neal’s image faded without a goodbye to be replaced by a bedroom with a low bed big enough for a pair of taurs, four if they were ‘friendly’. Pillows or some other lumps made a low walled crib in which Starblazer lay, twitching slightly. Her mother lay within arm’s reach, already snoring softly and quite dead to the world.

“Where’s Holly?” he softly asked.

“First of all,” a new voice told him, “you don’t need to whisper as I wasn’t going to send any audio to the room and wake them. Second, I’m Tess and I’m your main link to anything to do with the Folly. Third, your daughter does sleep with her mother on occasion, but she really prefers her new friend.”

Weaver faded to be replaced by another room with an equally large bed. This one contained one medium-large lump in the middle, and if they hadn’t had different fur patterns and colors Longsock never would have guessed where Quickdash ended and Holly started.

Very good friends I see,” Longsock commented with a slight smile.

“Since day one,” Tess agreed. “Hir parents aren’t anywhere near as happy as you that they’re friends.”

“Oh?”

“I think they want to be more in control of their cub’s life. Weaver – and I’m assuming you – are used to letting Holly explore and get into a certain amount of trouble.”

“Why do you assume that?”

“Because of the way Weaver’s letting Neal let Holly get away with things – up to a point. It’s funny, but I can’t tell yet which of them would shut her down first if she really needed it, they’re so evenly matched so far.”

“And Quickdash?”

“Is being a little rebellious on occasion, but I’m wondering if that’s just hir way of testing hir new boundaries.”

“And you’re there to watch over them.”

“That too,” Tess agreed. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“If we won’t be running up your FTL charges too badly, could I watch Weaver sleep a little longer?”

“Of course,” Tess agreed as the view shifted back to his out-of-reach but never out of mind mate and new daughter.

* * *

Night had come to Tootles Port, and high above the crew of the Folly slept; but that didn’t mean all was quiet on board.

The packages brought up were broken down and repackaged as to what went where for whom, all part of the reason Tess watched everything during their little shopping trip. The rearranged packages were held in a small room and her bots would move the personal items to the proper locations once the others were awake.

As with any port of call, Tess read all the local ‘news’ as well as saving any data that she thought might look ‘interesting’ and compared it to data from their last visit for any changes. A copy of the news report showing the thugs delivering their bomb and Neal disposing of it was saved, as were the comments and not a few protests that the news feed had included close-ups of all those involved. She also fielded calls while her captain and crew slept.

“I’d like to speak to Captain Foster,” the voice said, Tess’ systems identifying the voice as human/male before the voiceprint came up a positive match for one she already had in her files.

“The captain is resting at this time, could I perhaps assist you?” Tess asked.

“No. It is a matter of some urgency and requires your captain in person.”

“Concerning?”

“I’m not allowed to discuss it with anyone but Captain Foster.”

“Very well. As you don’t deem it important enough to tell me, you can tell your Ms. Tung that Captain Foster should be up in another six Earth hours or so. Whether he’ll actually be interested in hearing what your boss has to say will have to wait until then,” she told him.

“You are aware that my boss can make things difficult for your captain?” he half asked.

You are aware that her first shot across his bow turned into more a plop than a bang – and his countermove managed to leave her speechless, right?” Tess sternly countered.

There was a sigh from the other end before he said, “This hasn’t ended.”

Changing her tone, Tess cheerfully told him “Oh, I would certainly hope not!”

“What do you mean by that?” he asked in surprise.

“My captain does better with a few outside issues to keep him from worrying too much about any inside ones. Keep them coming, though do ask your boss to try to up her game and be a little more challenging next time. Folly out,” she added before dropping the connection. She added the sound bites to her files under Tung for future reference and went back to her other tasks.

It was a little over an hour later that another message came from Bright Hope. This one though had the charges reversed; the sender expecting the recipient to pay the FTL costs for it. Tess noted the base info before rejecting it – if Cindy’s father wished to bother them, he could at least pay for the privilege.

 

 


 

The Start of a New Day

 

Morning came early to the crew of the Folly; most of whom were still trying to rub the sleep from their eyes as they boarded the shuttle and most dozed as they headed down, Quickdash and Holly the only two awake enough to show any interest in watching Neal fly a pod down to land on pad E12.

Weaver half glared at Neal as they boarded one of the PTVs that were already waiting at the end of the ramp so her footpads never touched the still quite warm landing pad.

“How are you looking so chipper after so little sleep?” she growled at him.

Neal grinned as he’d already discovered that his denmate wasn’t always a ‘morning’ person. “Some of us have learned to get by on what sleep we can get – when we can get sleep,” he half teased her.

Ears perked and noses wiggled as they filed into the bakery. While the scents of the baked goods were tantalizing, it was the diner side that was fully waking them up and making their mouths water.

Being right next to the police station, it was no surprise that a number of police officers were already there enjoying their meals.

“Trust,” Neal quietly said to Weaver as he steered her away from the table the youngest three had already chosen. Weaver frowned but allowed herself to be seated at another table facing away from the youths.

It seemed to have been shift change or maybe mealtime for the station as there was a pretty regular flow of officers into and out of the diner area. While most merely glanced at the large group, one pair made it a point to stop at Neal’s table.

“This is our favorite table, you need to move,” a uniformed lab/hyena mixed morph growled at him.

“Plenty of other tables, and you might even find the change of scenery to be good for you,” Neal replied without looking up, Tess having already told him who these two happened to be.

“Slow learner,” the other, a full hyena morph, growled as he placed his hand on his holstered phaser.

“Yes, you are,” Neal agreed. “Or wasn’t yesterday’s swimming lesson enough to prove that you’re playing outside of your weight class? You do remember what happened the last time you drew your phaser – right? Your ride suffered just a bit.”

The rest of Neal’s group had remained silent during the exchange, but several of the other officers present had chuckled at the reminder of the two very wet hyenas being dragged into the office the day before.

“You can’t threaten us!” the first one exclaimed.

“That wasn’t a threat,” Neal told him, “that was more along the lines of a promise that if your fellow officers don’t put leashes on you two, I can and will.”

“You two are already on probation,” a feline officer commented from behind them. “It wouldn’t be wise to make the captain take it to the next step,” he added.

“Stay out of this!” the hyena still fondling his phaser snapped at him without taking his eyes off of Neal.

“Oh, I am staying out of it,” the feline laughed. “I can’t wait to see what this guy does to you next.”

I’m not the one that chased them into the river,” Neal pointed out with a smile.

“No,” the feline agreed, “but you are the one that in less than a day got a road put in that puts an end to all the tolls their clan has been collecting.”

“Eh, that was just because of the crappy parking spot I got from their friends at Space Control,” Neal said with a smile. “Though I hear the locals sure are using the heck out of it – even for the ‘A’ row loads.”

“Yeah, funny how that happens when there’s a free route suddenly competing with an overcharged one.”

“That road is illegal and it will be closed,” the first morph growled.

Neal’s grin was not a pleasant one. “If that road was actually illegal, I would have expected Captain Muelsfell or Tootles Security to have already closed it. As they haven’t as yet, I’ll have to assume you’re the one that’s out of line, officer.”

The phaser was just starting to slip from its holster when a voice behind them growled, “Perry, Brinkly, get your tails back to the office. Now.”

“B-But we haven’t eaten yet, Captain,” the first one whined as the second quickly took his hand away from his phaser.

“You should have thought of that before you started harassing people. Get out!” Captain Muelsfell snarled.

As the two troublesome morphs left, Neal stood and extended his hand to Muelsfell. “Nice to be able to put a muzzle to the voice from yesterday, Jeff” he said.

“Likewise, Neal,” Muelsfell agreed. At Neal’s half wave of invitation, he joined them at their table.

“And this is Weaver and Starblazer,” Neal said. “They try to keep me out of trouble.”

Muelsfell snorted. “Why do I think they’re in over their heads?” he asked with a grin.

The tall puma morph waitress had just poured Captain Muelsfell a cup of coffee when Neal’s comm badge chimed.

“Captain Muelsfell?” Tess’ voice asked. “I thought you might like to know that the two you just sent back to the office with their tails between their legs are currently trying to commandeer one of our privately owned PTVs.”

Muelsfell let out a snarl of anger, but before he could rise Neal had removed his comm badge and held it out to him.

“Tess, please relay any of Jeff’s words to his problem children,” Neal suggested.

“I said office – not joyride!” Muelsfell snarled into the badge with a tight grin on his muzzle.

“I SAID OFFICE – NOT JOYRIDE!” was loudly heard in the diner, and was close to ear shattering for anyone too close to the PTV it had come from.

“That did it,” Tess happily told them. “Though I think one of them needs to change his pants.”

“Those looked like standard PTVs,” Muelsfell commented, having noticed them when he had come in.

“They are for the most part,” Neal agreed. “But I added a few bells and whistles for some of the more interesting stops I have to make. Sometimes a little excess light or sound is preferred to having to use stunners or phasers on the unruly.”

“Does that happen often?” Muelsfell asked, an eyebrow rising slightly.

“Enough times even on what are considered established worlds that I’ve gotten into the habit of always trying to have an extra trick or two up my sleeves,” Neal admitted.

Frowning slightly the canine cop said, “Why do I have this sneaking suspicion that you’ve blasted police with your sound system before?”

“Probably because your IQ is higher than my shoe size,” Neal replied. “Imagine an entire force consisting of the likes of those two.”

“Point taken. I do hope you don’t feel the need to use it against my people.”

“You mean again?” Neal asked with a grin as Muelsfell’s food arrived.

They ate in a companionable silence where surprisingly good food outweighed the need for idle conversation.

Refueled and ready to take on a new day, Neal’s crew went out to wait with the PTVs, though with most stopping in the bakery section to buy snacks for later.

Neal and Weaver were the last ones out after saying goodbye to Jeff, Neal having everyone gather around the lead PTV.

Neal started by handing out credit chits to each and every one of them.

“Each of these has enough for an economy room for a couple of nights and a berth on the Cha-Ching to get you back to Bright Hope. You can always upgrade your accommodations by taking on a roommate and sharing the costs between you.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Alex told him, and he wasn’t the only one offering Neal their chits back.

“Keep them,” Neal said. “You won’t be getting any more credits from me until you earn them. If all you do is general housekeeping you’ll never earn what’s on those chits. On the other hand, a fully trained bridge operator working full shifts can earn that and more every four standard weeks. As I don’t know which if any of you will make the grade, spend those wisely. That said; I want those of you not heading for the police station to stay in groups of three or more. The library just down the street has plenty of study nooks that can double as private comm rooms for those that would like – or need – to call home. Thirteen Star Bank is across the street for those in need of their services.”

* * *

Cindy hung back as the others headed for the library. On noticing this; Alex hung back as well, but gave them some space. “Please take this back,” she insisted, offering her credit chit to Neal.

Neal took it, but offered her another. “I had a funny feeling you might say that. This one has just three hundred credits on it, enough to buy a few things or stay a few nights somewhere, but nowhere near enough to get you on a ship.”

“Thank you,” she said, taking the chit but not yet putting it in her belt pouch. Looking at Neal and then looking away again she softly said, “Would you help me with something else?”

“What might that be?” Neal asked.

“Dealing with the bank?” she half pleaded.

“I can do that for you,” Neal agreed, giving her a small hand wave that she could precede him with Alex bringing up the rear.

“Don’t you have a call to make?” Neal asked him.

“Dad’s a night owl, so there’s no hurry,” Alex told him. “And the captain did say parties of three or more,” he reminded said captain.

“Do be warned that the captain thinks he’s often an exception to those sometimes silly rules he makes up,” Neal said as they crossed the street.

“I’m sure he’ll let me know when that happens,” Alex said with a smile as they approached the bank.

Once inside Alex sat down at one of the information stations to check on his own credit availability while Cindy waited for a representative to assist her.

“Can I help you, sir?” a fox morph asked Neal.

Neal smiled and said, “The little lady here is the one seeking help; I’m just a little moral support or backup as needed.”

“Very good. I’m Thomas. If you’ll come this way, miss?” he asked Cindy, Neal bringing up the rear.

After inputting her data and allowing the system to do a DNA authentication on her, Cindy said, “I’d like to start with information of just how much my father’s taken out of my accounts since my mother died.”

Thomas was silent for a few minutes as he placed the request. “Sent, Ms. Grayson. It should take us just a minute or two for it to go out the FTL comms, be processed, and come back to us. While we’re waiting, was there anything else I could assist you with?”

“Could you make it where he can’t take any more of my inheritance?”

“I would think that he would be required to have you co-sign any withdrawals as it is,” Thomas told her.

“Years ago he made me sign a paper giving him access whether I was with him or not,” Cindy explained.

That we should be able to kill with a little help from the Bright Hope branch – ah, and here’s our request,” Thomas said as the screen in front of Cindy lit up with rows of figures.

Cindy’s muzzle slowly dropped open as she read. “So much? He’s taken over a third of it already …” she murmured as she seemed to shrink in on herself and looked ready to cry.

A hand gently settled on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Would you like a little help with this?” Neal softly asked.

“P-Please.”

Reaching past her, Neal inserted one of his cards into the slot and keyed in a code. Thomas looked up in surprise with what had flashed across his screen but kept his muzzle shut as several more screens and FTL access requests flashed by. A raccoon morph soon appeared on their screens.

“Tanner, Stripes and Star – oh, good evening Captain Foster! How might I be of service – or do you need Robin?”

“You’ll do for now, Eddie,” Neal told him. “I’m sending you a Thirteen Star account; I want you to get it locked down – hard.”

“You don’t want much,” Eddie muttered as he looked over the details. “I can already see that there are maintenance and utility contracts for the properties of the estate that will need to be covered,” he warned.

“Confirm them and draw the funds from my account for now, Cindy and I can settle our accounting once things settle down a bit,” Neal told him.

Any account access then?”

“Only Cindy and then only in person.”

“And you?” Eddie asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Lock me out as well,” Neal instructed him.

“Very well. Anything else?”

“Yeah, put Snooper on it. See how much we can get back from her father – if that’s what Cindy wants. Cindy?”

“Only thought he’d taken a little of it,” she softly told him. “There was enough in there to keep the estate running for decades without me needing to add more. He even stole from my education funds …”

“Cut his tail off and feed it to him, Eddie; tell Robin to send me the bill.”

Eddie was still running over the data he could access. “Any of his Thirteen Star accounts shouldn’t be a problem, but if he’s transferred any of those credits elsewhere ...”

“That’s why I called you guys, lawyers can be like sharks when there’s blood or money in the water,” Neal told him.

“I’m telling Robin you compared her to a mere shark,” Eddie threatened. “Anything else?”

“It’s a start,” Neal told him. “More as we find it.”

“We sent Tess that data dump you requested. Your other projects are on track.”

“Good enough, Foster clear.”

Eddie nodded and the screens reverted to the account details.

Now a little ill at ease, Thomas said, “Would you like a drawing account set up, Ms. Grayson?”

At Neal’s half headshake, Cindy said, “Not at this time, thank you.”

* * *

Alex joined them as they left the bank. “Just another freighter captain,” he half muttered loud enough that Neal couldn’t miss it and Cindy’s ears perked up as well.

“One that causes billions of credits to flow through that bank,” Neal countered. “Tell me you don’t hop-to just a bit more if it might make the difference of your dad losing an important client.”

Alex shrugged. “Okay, but what about that law firm? They’re hopping-to for you as well.”

“Same difference, I send them a lot of work and they make sure my contracts are airtight.”

“You mean like your adoption script?” Alex asked with a laugh.

“What part of it looked like it had a loophole in it?” Neal asked with a half-smile.

“You adopted us.”

“And?”

“We now have the rights of your sons and daughters.”

“And who determines what those rights are?”

“You do.”

“And if you don’t like what I decide those rights might be, I was kind enough to leave you a loophole to bail,” Neal finished.

“But now you can’t get rid of us,” Alex countered.

“Oh, I think I could drive you away if push came to shove, but all of you teens asked to be adopted.”

“But how did you know it would work?” Cindy asked.

“I didn’t and I still don’t,” Neal confessed. “We’re only ten days in with hundreds left of this trip, a lot can happen in that time.”

“You didn’t say the trip ended the adoption,” she half asked.

“No, but by then you guys will probably be sick of seeing my ugly mug anyway and will be looking forward to other adventures,” Neal said as they neared the library.

“Why, are we going to be seeing your ‘wild man’ side again?” Alex laughed.

“He’ll come out often enough,” Neal agreed. “There are many times I need him to go where the good captain can’t; just one of the many caps I have to wear.”

“Have to – or like to?” Alex asked, though his eyes were on a threesome of male hyena morphs preceding a fourth, all four of whom seemed to be glaring angrily at Cindy.

“Maybe a bit of both – and keep moving – even they aren’t stupid enough to try anything right next door to the police station,” Neal told him.

“Who were they?” Alex half demanded once they had entered the library. “I had a very bad feeling about them.”

“Keep trustin’ your feelings,” Neal said more in the voice of the bearded man they’d first met. “I had my phaser out in my hand away from them just in case.”

“So you knew them already. Who were they?” Alex repeated.

“I know of them. The one bringing up the rear is the head of the Brinkly clan; the others are some of his sons for show and for muscle as needed. Too bad for them they’re about to have a very bad banking day.”

“Oh?”

“Tess pulls up all kinds of ‘open to the public’ records,” Neal said in a more normal voice. “The Brinkly clan took out a sizable loan to build that toll road to Tootles Port just over five years ago, but they’ve barely kept up with the interest, and haven’t paid back a credit on the principal. They’ve asked for and gotten two extensions, but I don’t see them getting a third.”

“I’m smelling a whiff of bullshit,” Alex muttered. “Banks don’t give out that type of info.”

“No, but they do send out quarterly reports of profits and losses to their shareholders and that’s a rather large and noticeable sum,” Neal pointed out. “Go make your call,” he suggested.

“And you’re a shareholder,” Alex muttered as he went in search of an empty study nook.

At Cindy’s questioning look, Neal softly said, “Yeah, I am.”

“How much of one?” she quietly asked.

“Enough of one that I think I can handle anything you or the others might throw at me,” he replied. “That’s why I thought it best to lock down your accounts for now, your needs are little more than a drop in the bucket on the type of money I have to deal with at most stops.”

“So there wasn’t really a risk of you billing our parents like that lawyer threatened my father?”

“If your father tries anything I’ll have Tess whip up a detailed bill that’ll make him wish he’d kept his big mouth shut – not that I don’t think we did that at the bank a minute ago. While I normally stay out of the bank’s business, you’re now my daughter so you are my business. The others? No, they’re safe enough.”

“Maybe the threat would get Quickdash’s parents off your back,” she suggested.

“No, I don’t think money is the issue with those two, it’s their cub. Why it’s so strong is what I don’t know.”

“I thought all chakats were kind of overprotective of their cubs.”

“Oh, they are. But those two are going overboard, even for chakats.”

“What are you going to do about it?” she softly asked.

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “Yet,” he added with a grin as others finally noticed them.

Roseberry was the first to approach them. “The ‘daddy’ of the ship is needed,” shi informed them.

“Oh?” Neal asked.

“First they ordered Holly out of the nook so they could talk to their daughter ‘privately’, then they upset hir so badly shi left them hanging and now shi won’t let go of Holly.”

“Are they still on the line?” Neal asked in a tone that gave the chakat a shiver.

“They were, fourth nook,” shi said, not liking the feelings shi was getting off him.

The two chakats on the screen looked angry, Shortdash more than hir mate.

“Where’s Quickdash?” Shortdash demanded.

“Where you can’t upset hir further,” Neal snapped back at hir. “Why don’t you tell me why you felt the need to distress hir badly enough to make hir run?”

“This doesn’t concern you!” shi didn’t quite scream at him.

“The hell it doesn’t!” he replied matching hir tone if not hir volume. In an only slightly quieter tone he added, “You do realize that I’m not going to force hir to put up with whatever it was you just did to hir, right? Keep pushing hir and shi might just stop calling you altogether.”

“You don’t understand –” Quickwind started.

“Then make me understand!” Neal snapped at hir. “Please explain how two supposedly loving parents can chase their cub out of the room like that.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” shi told him.

Try me.”

But they wouldn’t, just glaring at him from the screen.

“Fine,” he finally said. “I’ll figure it out on my own and deal with it and hir in my own way. Comm off,” he ordered before they could protest. “Tess? Is there anything at all special you’ve noticed with Quickdash?” he asked.

“Shi’s careful to hide it from Holly and the others, but shi seems to be having bouts of depression, frustration or possibly anger, Boss. And they’re slowly but steadily growing in strength and duration.”

“Hmmm, so it’s not just hir parents winding hir up. Thank you, Tess,” Neal said before going to do a little damage control. He found his target just a few study nooks away. Weaver was talking to Longsock on the screen, Starblazer fussing slightly in her arms, Holly holding a quietly sobbing Quickdash a little to the side and behind.

“Mind if I borrow these two?” he gently asked. Weaver turned to give him a smile as Longsock nodded from the screen.

Leading them away from the nook Quickdash had used, he found an empty one and led them into it.

An adjustment of the seating soon had the two young taurs with their rumps in seats on either side with their front ends in Neal’s lap, hugging each other and Neal hugging them.

“Want to talk about it?” Neal asked after a few minutes of silence.

Quickdash just hugged Holly tighter and shook hir head.

“Not a problem,” Neal gently told hir. “We have plenty of time.”

* * *

Alex had missed the small drama going on with the youths, having already gotten a connection home.

Tom says he’s ready for a rescue attempt if you’re in need of one,” his father was telling him.

“Tell him I said if he tries, I’ll put a knot in his tail he’ll never get out!” Alex said with a laugh. “And then I’ll knot your tail for letting him.”

“Hardly a week and you’re already getting cocky,” his father retorted. “We might need a special session or two once we do get you home.”

Alex grinned. “I’ll have close to two years without you knowing what tricks I’m picking up; don’t expect me to slow down just because you’re not there to coach me.”

Fernando’s eyes narrowed slightly as he said, “And you’re really teaching that foxy little lady – or was that just fluff?”

Alex lost most of his grin as he said, “As much as she can take. I’m half tempted to ask you to pay her father a little visit; it seems he’s been stealing quite a chunk of her inheritance.”

“That’s not our way, son.”

“I know; that’s why I said half. Right now she isn’t thinking revenge or anything; she just wants it and him to stop. I’m just going to make sure she can back up a ‘no’ if and when she has to.”

“I see you’re still wearing that comm badge.”

“And I will continue to unless he kicks me off his ship or things get a hell of a lot scarier. He handed each of us a credit chit with enough on it to get us home if that’s what we truly wish.”

“Any takers?”

“None that I’ve seen, right now everyone’s over here saying ‘hi’ rather than at the police station next door.”

“Did he tie any strings to those credit chits?”

“No and yes. If we don’t want to be here he sees it as a cheap and easy way to get us out of his hair. If we stay, that’s all we get until we’ve ‘earned’ it and more; and he’s hinted that he pays ‘trained’ crew pretty well.”

“A ‘carrot’ for you guys to keep up with your studies,” Fernando agreed. “Any ‘stick’ to go with it?”

“Not being able to ‘play’ with his toys is the main one, but we know he can lock us down as hard as he feels a need to.”

“And that doesn’t worry you?”

“No, he’s had plenty of time to show any mean streaks, and while he may have one, I think you have to do something really special to trigger it.”

“Hmmm, I would ask for you to not try to find out what happens when he does go off.”

“No worries on that, we already know he can put us in our places if he feels the need to. We’re still gaining his trust in letting us know and do more – I don’t think any of us want to lose what we’ve gotten so far.”

“Just checking. I know how you sometimes liked to see just how much I’d let you get away with.”

You were easy, it was Mom that I had to watch out for,” Alex chuckled.

“So you’re good?”

“Yeah. I even checked my bank account, no problem getting at my funds if I happen to need them.”

“Keep in touch, Son.”

“I will, Dad. Give everyone my love.”

Alex exited the study nook and found most everybody else done and just waiting for the stragglers.

“Mom’s worried more about my career path than shi is about me,” Nightsky was complaining to some of the other teens.

“Well, you always seem to have clothing and designs on your mind,” Brighteyes reminded hir.

“Well yeah, but there weren’t all that many choices on Bright Hope,” Nightsky insisted.

“Maybe not in Astra City, but surely there was something for you on Bright Hope,” Brighteyes countered as Weaver joined them.

“And now we aren’t limited to just Bright Hope,” Calmmeadow pointed out. “We’re going on a tour of the Federation, there’s no telling what all we might see.”

Weaver smiled. “Your poor parents have no idea the trouble they’ll have with you guys once you’ve seen how much more there is to see and do out here.”

“Is that why you’re staying?” Redtail asked.

“Partly,” Weaver agreed. “And partly because this will help broaden Holly’s horizons as well.”

Having been warned by Tess that the others were finishing up or already done, Neal had Holly and Quickdash out as the last stragglers were joining the group.

“Alright,” Neal told them once they were all together. “I’ve got some good news and some bad. The good news is today’s an ‘off’ day for the crew, no studies or chores are on the schedule. The bad news is the captain expects you guys to stay in groups of three or more when not on the ship. More good news is that we have six PTVs, so you aren’t all stuck going to the same place.”

“Any restrictions?” Alex asked.

Neal snorted. “Try to use a little common sense. When in doubt, ask Tess.”

“And will you be doing the three together?”

“Until I’m needed elsewhere,” Neal allowed. “And then Tess has my back.”

“Does she have ours?” Weaver asked.

“Always,” Neal told her. “But you guys still have a bit of a learning curve on how to best use her as backup just yet.”

“No time like the present to learn,” Mike suggested.

Neal smiled. “If you feel you’re up to it. Go ahead and put your earplugs in. Not only do they reduce loud noises, but they can enhance small ones, and of course Tess can whisper in your ears without others hearing her.”

“And this is good timing,” Tess was saying as those that hadn’t already slipped in their earplugs did so. “I’ve reset everyone’s phaser to heavy stun as we have a very upset group of hyenas leaving the bank and heading your way.”

“They were eyeing Cindy on their way in,” Alex told the other teens as he moved to place himself between the others and the approaching hyenas.

The lead three looked like they intended to walk right over the smaller cat morph, but then Mike stepped up to stand next to Alex. Calmmeadow stepped up to his other side, the rest of the taur teens forming a wall between the hyenas and the rest of their group.

An angrily hissed word from behind them kept the hyenas from testing their luck with the larger group and they turned to go back across the street.

“Couple of pissed off cops watching,” Beechwood commented.

“Yeah, the same pair that bothered us at breakfast and went swimming yesterday,” Graysocks agreed. “Any bets they were hoping for a reason to arrest us?”

“No bet,” Mike muttered. “Tess? Any way you could keep an eye on those two and warn us when they’re near?”

“I can watch all publicly accessible cameras as well as whatever my PTVs might see,” she told them. “I can also have them doing sweeps around town while you guys aren’t using them.”

“So,” Neal said, “decide who’s interested in looking for what and form your groups.”

“What about you?” Weaver asked. “What are you going to go look for?”

“Oh, just boring ship stuff, half of which I could probably do online anyway,” Neal assured her. “This is old hat for me, so I thought I’d see what you guys might find interesting.”

“Is there a chance we could get some real cooking gear – rather than being limited to those ready-meal things between ports?” Beechwood half suggested.

“I don’t see why not,” Neal agreed. “Do you have a list of everything you’ll need?”

“I think so,” the vixentaur said, sounding a little unsure if she really had a complete list or not.

“Then grab a couple of likeminded friends and go hunting,” Neal said with a grin. “Figure on there being two styles of cooking being done; test samples or a snack or meal for one, or that you might want to make something big enough to share. Once you’ve ordered the hardware I’ll know what fittings we’ll need to hook it all up,” he suggested.

“And I’m going clothing shopping!” Nightsky declared.

That split the group into three. Most were heading out with Nightsky to help expand their wardrobes, while Mike, Alex, and Weaver joined Beechwood. That somehow left Neal stuck with Holly and Quickdash.

“Are you two sure you wouldn’t like some new tops?” Neal asked them with a half grin.

Quickdash just shook hir head while Holly made a face at him. “We want to see where you’re going!” she insisted.

“Just to get some bits for the ship,” he warned them – which sadly did not dissuade them in the least.

A short trip later had them in front of yet another storefront. On entering, Neal glanced at a few overhead signs before pointing and saying, “Toys are that way; you two have a three hundred credit limit.”

“Each or both?” Holly started to ask but Quickdash hushed her.

“Easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” shi told her. “That’s what my mom always says when shi’s about to do something shi knows hir bosses won’t like.”

“Does shi get in trouble when shi does?”

“Na, shi’s just following the spirit of hir orders instead of the letter of them – or so dad claims,” Quickdash said with a grin. “Besides,” shi added, “we have these,” pulling the credit chit Neal had given hir half out of hir hip pouch.

“Mom took mine,” Holly grumbled.

“I’ll share,” Quickdash promised her as they headed in the direction Neal had indicated.

“Little robots,” Holly muttered a minute later. “Why did he think we were interested in these things?”

“That one looks like one of Tess’ floor cleaners,” Quickdash pointed out. “And that one’s for running and repairing cabling in small access-ways. Ah!” shi exclaimed as they reached the next isle. “Kits! And all the pieces we need to build our own!”

One quickly procured shopping cart later and the two of them were happily filling it with their ideas of ‘toys’.

“Now you two can put it all back,” Tess’ voice told them when they’d almost overloaded their cart.

“I’m paying for it!” Quickdash insisted.

“You really don’t want me to disturb the captain right now,” Tess told hir. “Besides, I’ve got better junk than this in my onboard ship stores.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Holly demanded.

“Well, I first had to know what you two were looking for. And a few of the things you picked out you’re not ready for. Would you two prefer to learn as you go – or ruin half this stuff because you don’t understand it yet?”

“But what about when we are ready for it? Can we get it now so we’ll have it?” Quickdash begged.

“You will have it when you’re ready,” Tess said. “I can match or beat the specs on everything you have in that basket. Tell you what, I’ll make a list of what all you have in the cart and move my equivalents to the lab.”

“So we don’t need to buy any of this?” Holly half muttered.

“You can always pick up the instruction and programming guides,” Tess suggested. “Who knows, they might even have some ideas or suggestions I haven’t seen or tried before.”

Instead of an overflowing cart they carried a double handful of data chits to the auto-checkout register.

“Wow, we still have fifty credits to spend,” Quickdash chuckled.

“We might need them if he takes us someplace else,” Holly warned hir.

“Maybe,” Quickdash allowed as they went looking for Neal.

They found him filling out a form on a computer screen, several odd-shaped objects on the table beside him.

“What do those do?” Quickdash asked.

Smiling without looking up, Neal said, “You’ll find out soon enough if you stick to your studies.”

“More work or chores?” Holly wondered.

“Only if you want to,” Neal replied. “I know you’d rather be busy putting together your bots.”

“You knew we were getting all that stuff?” she asked in surprise.

“Tess kindly advised me when your cart rocketed past the four thousand credit mark,” he admitted.

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh,” Neal agreed. “Then there was the little matter of Quick’s credit chit. The credits are pulled from my ship account. Had shi been buying a ticket home, shi’d have had access to the full amount. Since Tess had heard me state your limit, you would have been slightly embarrassed at the register.”

This time it was Quickdash that let out a little, “Oh.”

Hitting ‘done’ on the screen, Neal smirked as he shook his head before looking down at his two young charges. “I’ve been doing this a heck of a lot longer than you two have been alive. You’re going to have to work a bit harder than that to fool me.” Cocking his head at them a little, he added, “And you two might want to think real hard about whether or not you really ‘want’ to get one over me.”

“You’ll punish us,” Quickdash mumbled.

Much worse than that, kitten,” Neal sadly informed hir. “Depending on what you do and how you do it, I might have to stop trusting you.”

Holly took a half-step back, but Quickdash’s only reaction was to bare hir claws as shi glared back up at him. At Neal’s raised eyebrow shi shook hir head a little and stepped back, hir claws slowly siding back into their sheaths.

Pretending to ignore most of Quickdash’s reaction, Neal tapped his comm badge. “Tess? How are the others doing?”

“Pretty good, actually. I added a few needful things to the kitchen-hunting list, but they picked out some fairly decent gear. Your other team found the clothing district and Nightsky’s in hir element. I expect them to discover the food court at the far end right around lunchtime if you’d like to join them there?” Tess hinted.

A couple of growling stomachs warned Neal that he’d best take the hint, so he quickly herded them back to the PTV.

 

 


 

Problems and Solutions

 

“Shit,” Neal muttered to himself, unheard by anyone but Tess as the youngsters had run ahead to find the teens.

Boss?” she cautiously asked.

“Hir growing depression, frustration and anger. Add to it that glare shi gave me back at the store; we’ve seen it all in a chakat youth before. Though you’ll have to go back in your memories half a century to spot it,” he advised her.

“Boss, shi wasn’t as in control of hirself anywhere near as much as Quickdash is. Are you sure?”

“No, damn it. And there’s a very easy way to find out. If I’m wrong, no harm done. But if I’m right, I could be lighting a very short fuse.”

“Dare I ask when you’re going to test your hypothesis?”

“The sooner the better,” Neal said. “We don’t know at what stage shi’s at or what it might take to set hir off.”

“Holly’s at the greatest risk,” Tess reminded him.

“That’s why I need to do it soon,” Neal agreed. “I’ll find a reason to separate them after lunch,” he decided. “Not that a full stomach will slow hir down any.”

* * *

Weaver’s group turned out to be only a few minutes behind Neal and they caught up with him just before they all reached the food court.

While the food court offered a wide variety of foods, it was the hotdog and sausage wrap vendor in one corner that received most of the group’s business.

“It’s the spices!” the small Caitian proclaimed with a laugh at the way the kids were waiting a little impatiently for their turns.

“They’re great!” Graysocks proclaimed as she took another large bite of her wrapped sausage.

Standing at the end of the line, Neal was starting to wonder if the vendor would be sold out before he got a chance to sample her wares as the teen taurs were each buying three or more of the wraps at a time.

“Sorry, but I’m down to just the hotdogs,” he heard her telling Alex.

“All my taur siblings are pigs!” he loudly proclaimed, said siblings laughing at him.

“That’s okay, I can doctor these dogs up to taste even better than the sausages,” she promised him as she fitted one to a bun. “How hot would you like it?” she coyly asked.

“Burn his chest fur off from the inside!” Cindy laughed from behind him.

“And then make hers twice as hot,” Alex countered.

The Caitian smiled as Neal finally stepped up. “You do know that they were all saying the guy behind them was going to pay for their food – right?”

“I always pay in the end,” Neal said with a chuckle. “Somewhere in the middle ground for me, I don’t need you to set my hair on fire or anything.”

“You’re no fun,” she said with a teasing grin as she ‘doctored up’ his dogs.

Taking a bite out of the first hotdog she handed him, Neal chewed slowly before nodding. “It’s been a while since I’ve had this good a dog. Thank you.”

“Thank you for bringing in your hungry horde,” she countered. “I had to order a quick restock so I’ll have something to sell to my regular customers.”

In his earplug Tess added, “Her stand is part of a chain, from which I’ve just ordered enough for a surprise meal or three, depending on how starving your horde is of course.”

“Excellent,” Neal said to both of them as he offered his payment chit.

Fortified, and with an only slightly scorched tongue, he then went looking for one of his charges.

“I need to steal away your companion in crime,” he told Holly, who had been looking through their haul with Quickdash.

“Is shi in trouble?” Holly asked.

“Not yet – and not at all if I can help it,” he promised her. “Just a couple of thoughts that might help us better deal with hir parents.”

Past the food court the path ended at the entrance to a park. Neal noticed and waved off Alex and Mike when they’d moved to follow.

Finding a park bench, Neal sat down and Quickdash hopped up to join him.

They shared a quiet hug for a moment before Quickdash asked, “How are you going to make them stop being mad at you?”

“And overly worried about you?” he countered. “It depends on if I’m reading some of the signs right.” Looking thoughtful he added, “Let’s start things off with what we can do on our side. What did you understand of my little adoption ceremony?”

“That I’m your daughter and you can’t get rid of me!”

“But you can get rid of me,” Neal agreed. “Now for a little leap of faith on my part. Tess? Reload hir credit chit with hir escape fund.”

“Done,” Tess said seconds later.

“Now lock it. I can’t change it and neither can you without hir permission.”

“Done.”

Looking down at the now very surprised Quickdash, Neal said, “Now Tess and I can’t stop you from wasting your money – and I can’t stop you if you decide to run.”

“But why would I want to run?”

“Have your parents ever mentioned ‘mils’ to you?” Neal carefully asked. Not carefully enough it seemed because hir eyes widened and hir claws were through his shirt and digging into the skin a bit. “Yeah,” he dryly said, “that’s what I was afraid of. On your mom’s side I’d think?”

“Why hir?” shi asked, sounding angry.

“Because shi’s taking things much calmer that your sire is,” Neal pointed out. “And their greatest fear was that I would discover what you were.”

“Now what?” shi hissed at him.

“Now we sit here however long as you need to think things through.”

“You have to send me back,” shi said after several long minutes of silence, hir claws having retracted as shi thought.

“Only if you want me to,” he reminded hir. “You can have another adventure going home, or I could stuff you into a container with a stasis field generator. You’d see me wave goodbye as I closed the door and then a second later the door would reopen with your parents staring in at you.”

No,” shi said.

“Then, if you’re hanging around, I’m stuck with keeping you out of trouble,” Neal softly told hir. “May I ask what they used when they needed to punish you? And how long ago your last punishment was and the cause?”

“Pain stick. Eight weeks ago. I clawed a schoolyard bully who was hurting the little kids,” shi admitted.

Neal frowned. “I’d need more details, but that might have fallen under ‘justified’ in my book. If subjected to it often enough, even a regular chakat can get used to a pain stick.”

“Mom ramped it up.”

“Then I’ll have to go buy a couple and have you and Holly help me tweak them. We are going to let the others know – aren’t we?”

“Do we have to?” shi asked sounding worried.

“It would be best to tell them rather than letting them discover it the hard way. Especially Weaver and Holly.”

“What if they won’t want me anymore?” shi didn’t quite sob as shi tightened hir hug on him.

Quickdash quickly glared up at him when shi felt Neal snort at hir in amusement. “Fat chance,” he told hir. “They know ‘you’, a label won’t change what they know.”

“How can you be sure?” shi demanded.

“They’ve lived with you for a bit over a week now. Unless one or more of them have witnessed or been told something very scary on the subject of ’mils I think you should be just fine.”

“How will this help with my mom and dad?”

Neal’s smile wasn’t the nicest as he said, “If your little secret really was their main concern, then knowing it’s blown means they can’t use it as an excuse anymore. So, they’ll either have to find a new excuse or back down. Hmmm, I should do something to demonstrate to them that I’m not too soft to punish you when you need it. You up for that?”

“Do you have to?”

“Depends, do you want them to stop hounding you?”

“Okay.”

“Then I’ll just have to see what I can do,” Neal told hir with a chuckle as they got up to rejoin the others.

Whatever immediate plans Neal may have had in store for Quickdash were derailed by the arrival of Captain Muelsfell and a non-uniformed female panther morph they hadn’t seen before.

“Captain Foster, I’m here with a court order to remove Cindy Grayson from your custody.”

“May I ask from whom and for what reason?” Neal asked as Cindy stepped deeper back between the other teens.

“From a law firm representing Charles Grayson it says here,” Muelsfell told him. “And while they didn’t state it outright, they strongly hinted at her having been kidnapped.”

“Funny how they’d just hint if they actually thought it had been a kidnapping,” Neal dryly commented.

“Probably because that could be shot down in five minutes by hiring a good mind reader to prove things one way or the other, but just wanting his daughter back doesn’t require a judge here hearing a kidnapping case,” Muelsfell told him. “And what makes me think there’s something fishy going on is that I’m also supposed to order you to renounce your adopting her.”

“What if I state that I stowed away on his ship and I don’t want to go back?” Cindy asked from behind Mike and the others.

“As you’re not yet seen as an adult in the eyes of the courts, I still have to take you in, Miss Grayson,” Muelsfell said. “I’m sorry, but I do have to uphold the law. Captain Foster?”

Neal glared at him for a moment before his expression lightened. “With everyone present as witnesses, I hereby renounce my adopting of the fox-morph known as Cindy Grayson.”

You can’t do that!” Alex snarled at him.

Neal smiled. “No, I can’t, but I have now obeyed the letter of the orders Captain Muelsfell had to carry out. Good thing they screwed things up – isn’t it?”

“May I ask what ‘they screwed up’?” Captain Muelsfell asked.

“A loophole my good officer, a looped hole so large that I could fly my shuttle through it crossways without scraping any paint. But that’s none of your concern. I am tempted to ask just ‘how’ you’re supposed to hold her; she’s not under arrest for running away from home is she?”

“No, but we’re supposed to get her on a ship to take her home.”

“So they’ve already sent funds for her transport? I know it’s not coming out of your budget.”

“They said you would be helping with the funds,” he admitted.

“If she was my daughter and wanted to go, sure I would,” Neal agreed. “But for some random stowaway? Not happening, though I will be more than happy to send her father and that law firm a bill for all his little runaway has cost me to date.”

“I hate seeing a child being fought over,” Captain Muelsfell muttered.

“Me too,” Neal told him. “And I would be taking a much different approach if she wanted to go home, or if we hadn’t found proof that her father’s been stealing from an estate left to her by her mother.”

“True or not, I can’t act on that,” Jeff told him, but the thoughtful expression on the face of the pantheress standing to one side and behind Muelsfell suggested that she thought maybe she could, though she remained silent as she looked over the rest of the group as if assessing them.

“I know, Jeff. Go ahead and take her in while I see how fast my lawyers can beat the crap out of his lawyers. Cindy? As cops go this seems like one of the more reasonable of the species, go with him if you would please.”

“I do so under protest,” Cindy said as the teens opened a path for her.

“I know,” Neal agreed as she stepped forward.

“And I’ll have to relieve you of your weapon and communicator,” Captain Muelsfell warned her.

She turned before she removed her comm badge and phaser and handed them over to Alex. “I expect to get these back,” she told him.

“You’ll get them back,” Alex promised, glancing at but not about to mention her earplugs.

Alex waited until the cops and Cindy were out of sight and hearing before turning to glare at Neal. “Your word,” he snarled.

“My word,” Neal agreed, sounding more like a pissed off version of the shotgun brandishing human they’d first met. “Tess?”

“I’ve got Robin awake and on the line and I’ve been keeping her updated, Boss,” Tess’ voice informed them.

“He did an end run around us,” Tanner told them. “I’ve just managed to get a copy of the court order. ‘Hopkins and Sons’ is good, but they’re not that good. This may take some time depending on how hard they or her father drag their heels,” she warned.

“If they drag it too long I may have to leave without her, and I’d just as soon not do that,” Neal warned her, his voice roughening still more towards his alter ego.

“As fast as we can make the wheels of justice grind,” she promised him. “One thing we don’t know is just how much money her father has to throw into this. We were able to recover just under half of the missing credits, but that still leaves him with almost three million to work with.”

“No other signs of where it went or what he might have spent it on?” Neal wondered.

“Not that we’ve found as yet, though we do have Snooper digging deeper into his affairs.”

“Advise me when you have something we can work with. I’ll do what I can from this end.”

“Legally you can’t do a thing,” Tanner warned him.

“Captain Foster’s hands are legally tied, got it,” Neal growled before he dropped the connection.

“We’re not leaving her behind,” Alex angrily told him, a low growl from all around suggested the others were in agreement on this.

Neal frowned at the much younger cat, but there was a twinkle in his eye. He gave out a snort before saying, “Not out of sight five minutes and you’re already missing your little friend? Damn boy, that’s the worst case of blue-balls I’ve seen in a long while!”

What?” Alex sputtered, more than a little confused.

“Why don’t you take one of the PTVs for a drive around town and find yourself something cute to play with,” Neal continued. “And just so you know, going off species is an old spacer’s trick to prevent coming into port at a later date and discovering you’re now the not so proud ‘daddy’ of a brat you never knew existed. As you’re feline, I’d suggest hunting for something canine; I’ve seen some nice dogs and even a cute fox morph or two wandering around these parts.”

Several of the teens were openly grinning by this point, though Alex’s grin had hard corners on it.

“Neal?” Weaver asked.

“While I can’t legally just go steal her back no matter how much she’d like me to, that doesn’t mean I can’t make it as easy as I can for her to run back to us if she gets a chance. And you and I would be hard pressed to keep track of what any much less all of our other stowaways are doing on their day off,” he told her.

“We’ll take Shady to give us four sets of three,” Mike said. “With four PTVs we can spread out to be there when she’s ready for help.”

“Three sets of four,” Neal countered as he tapped his comm badge. “Tess, I want those specials out here ASAP.”

“Rolling, Boss. I also have one of the regulars staying in range of Cindy’s earplugs. That panther morph turns out to be from child services, and they’re still on their way to the police station.”

“It’ll take a while for them to file their reports and relax their watch on her,” Neal pointed out. “That should be more than enough time for you guys to finish up getting anything you think you can’t live without. If and when Alex finds himself a new playmate, I’d suggest you retire to the ship to reduce any chance meetings with the law hereabouts.”

“What about you?” Weaver asked. “You can’t manage all your shipping while hiding on the Folly.”

“Ah, but I won’t be hiding,” Neal told her. “I’ll be running my shuttle up and down, and Tess will be telling me not one word of what my crew has been up to or if there’s been any sightings of Cindy since she was taken from us.”

“And that will protect you?”

Neal smiled. “Even with a court appointed mind reader they can only go after facts that you know, not on what you think or hoped may or may not have happened. Will I know what happened to Cindy after they took her from us? No. Might I think I know what may have happened? Maybe, but that’s hearsay, which most courts have to throw out.”

“Then they’ll come after me or the kids,” she pointed out.

“Unless you ask, Tess isn’t going to be keeping you informed either. And there’s one other thing in our favor,” Neal told her. “Her father.”

“How is he in our favor?”

“When one side of a court challenge demands a mind reader, the other side is then free to also request that someone be read. That would mean if they were to demand that any of us be read, our lawyers would then demand that Cindy’s father be read as well. As we already have some proof of his misconduct, our side would actually have a better chance of having it granted than his.”

“But that doesn’t help us get her back.”

“No. That’s why I have Robin working on it from the legal end while we do everything we can at this end to give Cindy a chance to rescue herself. Tess, remind Robin to suggest to that other lawyer firm how much we’d love a mind reader picking out the truth from both sides. Her father hearing that should remove it as a possible threat.”

“Sent, Boss. You know how trouble seems to sometimes come in groups of three?” Tess asked him.

“I’d be surprised if you could top the first two,” Neal dryly said.

“Not of the same caliber, but trouble nonetheless,” Tess replied. “I know you were figuring on some kickback to putting in your own road, but it’s already over a third of our orders.”

Neal frowned slightly at the news. “Bad, but not as bad as it could have been,” he allowed. “Any patterns that you can make out?”

“Some are angry/mad with a couple of cases of rabid because of your new road, others seem sad or upset about having to do it.”

“Like a third party is twisting their arm?” Neal asked.

“Possible. They can’t buy or sell to us but they don’t want to make an enemy of you either. The angry/mad/rabid ones don’t care if they ever ship anything through you again.”

“Have Howey contact the sad ones and we’ll split the transportation charges for having to go through Frostpoint if they’re still interested. Any contracts with the mad ones?”

“Several.”

“File them with Robin, breach of contracts as applicable. Secondary notices that their breach releases us to buy or sell to whomever we’d like. A little more gently on the sad, but we can’t be seen to be playing too many favors.”

“Then there’s that pod we were to ship for delivery to the Brinkly clan without us inspecting the contents,” Tess reminded him.

“Ah yes, that pod. What about it?”

“It seems they now want it set down in a particular location on what they claim is part of their clan holdings and not at either port.”

“Have they paid to have it brought down?”

“COD. And for some strange reason they think they can get you to do it if I’d just get you on the line for them to reason with.”

“Not happening. I’ll abandon it in orbit before I bring it down for free.”

“They’re also demanding to inspect it before any payment.”

“Of course they are. Yet we weren’t allowed to inspect it, for all we’re supposed to know it’s full of sand or other junk. Denied.”

“Or contraband,” Tess added.

“Which was why they were going to have to open it on the port and have it inspected before taking it home with them,” Neal agreed. “Credits transferred before it’s brought down.”

“And the bank is refusing to extend their current loan, much less loan them still more,” Tess pointed out.

“Which should tie things up nicely,” Neal agreed. “It’s a good thing we didn’t get here any sooner, or they might have still had a legal leg to stand on.”

“They’re calling almost constantly now. Any suggestions?”

“Oh, I’m sure you can keep them entertained a while longer, and even if they scrape up the credits from somewhere, it’s getting dropped on a port and they can arrange further transport from there.”

“They’re not going to like it.”

“They’re already upset about my little road, they can’t get too much more worked up over my actions.”

“Be careful there, Boss. You’re tempting your old friend Murphy.”

“One of my many faults,” Neal admitted.

Weaver was slowly going from a frown to a glare as she said, “Is this something the rest of us should be concerned about?”

Looking over to where Holly and Quickdash were watching them, Neal said, “Quick I think I have a plan of attack for; Cindy you know what we’re trying to do; the third is a problem I had hoped would have been settled before I got here, but we were just a tad early. How much concern that is for the rest of you depends on if they decide that you can be used to ‘force’ me to do what they want, like closing that road and free deliveries.”

“Or dealing with the bank,” Alex tossed in. “If you have enough pull there to help Cindy, you could probably help them too.”

“Could, but no way in hell would I,” Neal told him with a tight grin. “They’re just not my kind of people.”

“A third of what?” Weaver asked; still not pleased with what she’d heard so far.

“A third of my pickups and deliveries on Parakit have already been cancelled,” Neal explained. “Most likely in retaliation for me killing off the clan’s toll road revenues. Some of those companies did it willingly, though Tess and I think some were forced to.”

“And who’s Howey?”

“A friend that’s helping me manage my shipments going through Frostpoint.”

“So you’ll need to make deliveries to Frostpoint too?”

“I will need to spend my time between both ports, yes.”

“You’re not telling me everything,” she growled.

Neal laughed at her scornful look. “Of course I’m not telling you everything! The data dump alone would take us longer than I’d plan to be here, never mind the back-story and history involved to help explain why I’m doing some of the things I need to do at this stop. And all this was planned out long before I discovered I had containers of furs on board.”

“How about a synopsis then?”

Neal snorted. “That would still take hours and there’s several things I need to get started now.” Looking down at Quickdash he said, “I’ve had Tess place the order for that little thing you and I need to deal with your folks. Why don’t you three go pick it up while I see about trying to get a couple of other little things back on track.”

“So you’re not going to tell me?” Weaver muttered.

“Not right this minute, but we might have some time tonight to discuss things,” Neal told her as one of Tess’ PTVs pulled up. “Away you go.”

As they pulled away, Neal said, “Is the head Brinkly still trying to yell at me?”

“I think he’s well past the yelling stage,” Tess replied, “though all that screaming has made him rather hoarse.”

“Good,” Neal told her as three more PTVs pulled up and he waved Shadowcrest and the teens at them. “Go ahead and put him on,” he requested.

“Live mike.”

“This is Foster. I understand you have a problem?”

“YOU BAS#$^& &^%$$^$–” a voice started screaming before Tess cut it off.

“It sounds like you can’t talk right now – not with what’s currently spewing out of your muzzle. Maybe if I were to give you a week or two to calm down,” Neal suggested.

“I. Am. Perfectly. Calm!”

“Good,” Neal replied. “Now all you have to do is stay that way. So, what is your problem?”

“You are to land our pod to the location you were given!”

“Ah, but my contract and payment only covered getting that pod into Parakit orbit, which I have done. So, for me to move it any further will cost you more credits. As I wasn’t allowed to inspect it, it has to be checked by either Parakit Space Control or by one of the ports before being moved elsewhere.”

“Unacceptable! You will be paid nothing until it is landed at the required location and inspected! You will do this in six hours’ time!”

“Oh, I can release it to your care this very minute. Folly Ops, this is the Captain. Release the Brinkly pod and push it clear of the ship at this time.”

“NO – DON’T YOU DAR–” was heard before Tess again cut him off.

“Folly Ops copies, Captain. Clamps released, tractor beams pushing the pod clear. Did the captain have a preference as to how far he wanted it from his ship?”

“WAIT – DON’T DO THI–”

“A hundred kilometers should be sufficient for now. The Brinkly clan will be making their own plans for recovering it.”

“One hundred klicks it is, Captain. It will be in position in ten minutes.”

“Thank you, Ops, Captain clear. There you go, Brinkly, you can now send someone up to inspect it and bring it down for you.”

“Unacceptable!”

“My contract is completed to the letter, the rest is up to you. Lots of people you can hire. Tess, if he’s interested you can give him our current rates. All payments in advance or fully in escrow with Thirteen Star Bank before we move on it.”

“Thanks a lot, Boss. He’s off to a bad start, his cussing just earned him a hour long time-out.”

“I know you can handle it. How is Alex handling his little case of blue-balls?”

“I’m picking up very little as the cops do like to shield their stations, but I think she still has her earplugs in and I’m sending suggestions that she might get hungry soon. I’m not trying to get them to reply as we don’t know how long their power cells have to last.”

“Just as well we not make Jeff have to discover some mysterious transmitters in his station. So long as everyone’s safe.”

“Safe, and the teens aren’t even bored yet,” Tess assured him.

* * *

“Is it just me, or does this thing have a little rougher of a ride?” Calmmeadow asked after they’d been riding in one of Neal’s ‘specials’ for a few minutes.

“It’s not you,” Mike told hir. “Wider and heavier wheels, and this frame belongs on a truck, not a people carrier. I wonder what other tricks this thing has?” he half asked.

Tess answered him. “This little brute is what Neal takes when he thinks things may not go according to plan. Speaking of which, please check your weapons.”

As she said that, the consoles running the length of the cab between each pair of seats opened. Inside were water bottles, snacks, extra PADDs and assorted weapons.

“Please trade out your phasers for the heavier ones that are blinking. Mike, you and Calmmeadow should be able to carry and use the heavier rifles, but they are for last resort and I actually have veto abilities which will render them useless if I think I need to,” Tess told them.

“Why does he even have these in here?” Alex asked when he noticed that there were projectile weapons as well.

“Because sometimes firing a device that delivers an eardrum-shattering noise and the smell of blood and gun powder can get the point across when dropping them with quiet little phaser or stunner shots doesn’t,” Tess told him. “And people trying to attack quietly hate it when the return fire can be clearly heard over a kilometer away.”

“So what do we do now?” Calmmeadow asked as shi worked hir way into the phaser rifle harness that would carry the heavy weapon down hir flank.

“We wait,” Tess told them. “A couple of my PTVs are parked near the police station. If Cindy gets a chance all she has to do is climb into one – but Neal would prefer we not have any shootouts with the cops over her.”

“Okay, we wait,” Alex agreed. “Two PTVs at the ready, the third off so people can eat or relieve themselves.”

“And even the ‘on’ crews should try to catch naps or study in their PTVs,” Tess suggested. “It may be hours before anything happens.”

* * *

“Why are we here?” Weaver wondered as she led Holly and Quickdash into what turned out to be a weapons outlet. Projectile and beam weapons, knives, darts and things she wasn’t sure what they were covered the walls, with cabinets of ammo and power packs scattered about.

All three stopped dead in their tracks when they realized that a massive Rakshani with dark green fur and black stripes was glaring over one of the counters at them. Standing a full two and a third meters tall, she was on the large side as Rakshani came, and she looked strong enough to lift Weaver with one massive hand.

Eyeing each of them in turn, her scowl lightened slightly when she saw the chakat youth.

“Chakat Quickdash, daughter of Quickwind and Shortdash and adopted daughter to that reprobate Foster. Step forward,” she commanded.

“How do you know who I am?” Quickdash demanded, forgetting to be awed by the much larger and more deadly looking Rakshan.

Liking the youngster’s spunk, the Rakshani ‘smiled’, showing off a lot of very sharp teeth. “I know of you because your Tess called ahead. I am Tani ap Horen na Meridian, and I welcome you to my humble shop. You do know what your adopted father sent you to bring home?”

“Yes,” Quickdash told her.

“Normally I would not hand something like this to one so young, but I know of your type, cub, and there can be honor enough in you to match any Rakshan. Don’t prove me, or him, wrong,” Tani said as she handed hir a long, thin and rather heavy package. “Two each as requested, and the extra power cells, all charged and ready for use.”

“Thank you,” Quickdash said, taking the package and turning to leave.

“That’s it?” Weaver wondered. “Why didn’t he just have it delivered?”

Tani’s grin wasn’t a nice one as she said, “Part of that honor is sometimes to be trusted enough to carry home your own punishment.”

“What? No! Shi’s never done anything that would require anything out of a place like this!” Weaver declared as she spun around. “Quickdash! Give whatever that is back to her right now!” But Quickdash was already well out the door with hir package.

With a confused Holly behind her, Weaver followed Quickdash out to the PTV. She would have moved faster, but having Starblazer in her saddlebag kept her from running.

On reaching the PTV, they found Quickdash already sitting in hir seat, the package slightly crushed by hir tight grip on it.

“Quick, honey, we can give that back to them; you don’t need it,” Weaver said, trying to sound calmer than she was feeling.

“Yes I do,” shi replied, not looking up from what shi was holding. “It’s this or he has to send me back.”

“Who? Neal? Why would he need to send you back without whatever that is? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“I – I can’t explain it,” shi said before tapping hir comm badge. “A little help – please?”

There was a long moment before there was a reply, and it was not Tess but Neal who answered.

“With Parakit having a longer day than Bright Hope, your folks will be up soon anyway. If they don’t mind, we’ll clue Holly and her mother in at the same time that we deal with your parents,” he told them. “The pod on E12 is almost fully reloaded; start heading back and we’ll all go up.”

“And just what kind of punishment do you get from a weapons dealer?” Weaver demanded, still upset about the whole thing.

“You’ll see when I show it to hir parents,” Neal promised her.

But he was wrong.

As the PTV headed back to the spaceport, Quickdash was staring out the side window to avoid Weaver’s questioning looks.

As they passed a gap between two buildings hir eyes widened as shi snapped out, “STOP!”

As the PTV lurched to a sudden stop, Weaver demanded, “What? What’s wrong?”

Quickdash already had the door opening as shi said, “Call the cops!” before shi slipped through the opening gap – leaving behind the now empty package, the extra power cells still on the seat.

With a forearm length wand in each hand, shi ran back towards the alley, a button touch and a flick extending them to their full two-meter lengths as shi came around the corner.

Five hyenas were in the alley; two holding one while the other two took turns punching their captive. The tips of the wands tapped the beaters, causing them to scream and double over in pain. The two holding dropped the third and tried to dodge the wands, but they were also dropped with quick flicks of hir wrists.

By the time Weaver and Holly joined hir, Quickdash had the four to one side of the alley and the fifth to the other.

“Any word on the cops?” shi asked as they came into view.

“No cops!” the fifth one moaned. “Brinkly and Perry will just help them kill me!”

It was Tess’ voice that answered. “I called Captain Muelsfell directly; we’ve already had run-ins with those two.”

“Did you let him know we have four males beating on a herm?” Quickdash asked, a wand tapping a male that had started to move.

“My uncle will get you for this insult to us!” one of the males hissed at them before one of the wands tapped him yet again.

“And my father can space you,” Quickdash calmly replied as if commenting that it might rain. “How long can you hold your breath while your eyes are popping out and you’re pissing blood?”

“Quickdash!” Weaver exclaimed.

It was Neal’s voice out of their comm badges that answered. “Shi is being kinder than I would have been. Had they been attacking one of mine, the cops would never find the bodies. Do we know the reason for the attack?”

“I’m a herm,” the fifth muttered. “That’s all the excuse those of the Brinkly sect need.”

“I was under the impression that the vast majority of hyena morphs were herm,” Neal commented.

“We are,” shi agreed. “And our genes were made to dominate, so any herm/non-herm couplings will always result in a herm child. But there are some clans of non-herms that deem us gene jokes and attack us when they can.”

“Knowing the local bad cops tells me you already knew of the Brinkly clan and their views. Why did you risk coming in range of them?” Neal’s voice asked.

“I have a female half-sister who thought she could safely visit a friend here. She hasn’t been seen in weeks.”

“I am sorry for your loss,” Neal told hir. “Would you like a ride to the hospital?”

“If I’m not here to press charges, the cops will just let them go.”

“I think you’ll find Captain Muelsfell is better than that,” Neal told hir. “Weaver, in your right saddlebag is a medical scanner. Please wave it over our new friend there.”

“What about the others?” Weaver asked.

“I can see through the gun cameras that Holly has her safety off, medium wide beam, heavy stun, so if Quick doesn’t nail them fast enough she will,” Neal said as Weaver did as he asked.

“I’m no doctor, I have no idea what these readings mean,” she warned him once the scans were complete.

“That’s okay, just like the gun cameras the data is being relayed to Tess, who is sending them back to me. Several broken ribs, a couple more of them cracked – shit. Weaver, I’m having Tess move the PTV closer, get hir into it as gently as you can.”

“Why?” the injured hyena hissed.

“Because a good hospital still might be able to save your unborn child,” Neal gently told hir. “Weaver – move,” he added when he noticed she wasn’t.

“Gene freaks!” one of the males muttered, only shutting up when Quickdash held the tip of one of hir wands over him.

“Quick,” Neal said once Weaver and her charge were in the PTV and moving. “Dial one of those wands up to seven and give that joker thirty seconds or so,” he suggested.

Gladly,” shi muttered before the wand tip came down and the troublesome male let out a bloodcurdling scream; a scream that only ended when he ran out of air to push out of his lungs, his body unable to pull in air for another scream.

Hir other wand wasn’t idle during this time, tapping the others as they tried to escape while they thought shi’d be busy with their friend.

“Why do they keep calling hir a gene freak?” Holly wanted to know.

“Jealousy mostly,” Neal’s voice told her. “They’re afraid shi and you two are better than they are.”

“Lies!” one of them hissed before Quickdash waved a wand tip over him.

“Truth,” Neal countered. “You guys are flat-footed, unlike that herm. Hir genes were designed later, when the designers knew more of what they were doing. And hir genes will always dominate yours, and you fear that your type will soon be no more.”

“All lies! We will dominate you!” the one yelled again as he and the males on either side of him grabbed the wand in the hopes of overloading it.

“Sorry punks,” Quickdash snorted as shi tapped the fourth with the other wand. “These are military grade pain sticks, not those puny little things the cops like to use. And I was turning it down before tapping you wimps, so you’re now getting a nine instead of the three I was giving you before.”

“Why don’t they just let go?” Holly wondered as they kept screaming and thrashing about.

“They can’t,” Quickdash told her. “The pain is locking their muscles,” shi added before squeezing a button and pulling the wand away from the now helpless trio. The fourth glared at hir, but didn’t try anything with the way shi was watching him.

“Do leave a little something for the police to take in,” Neal’s voice suggested.

“Do I have to?” Quickdash didn’t quite whine through hir wide grin.

“Handing over live bodies is less of our time and their paperwork than handing over dead bodies,” Neal reminded hir.

“Well, okay,” shi allowed as a police PTV pulled up.

* * *

“Tess! What are you doing?” Weaver demanded when a force field came up between her and the herm hyena.

“Standard emergency procedures, Weaver. With time as a factor I have placed hir in a stasis field. The fifty minutes to the hospital will be over in a second for hir.”

“The hospital’s not that far,” Weaver half protested.

“We’re going a couple of towns over to where hir ID says shi calls home,” Tess informed her. “And hopefully well out of range of the Brinkly clan.”

* * *

Captain Muelsfell frowned a little as he got out of his PTV. Tess had given him the video clips of what her PTV cameras had caught going past the alley and the recording from Quickdash’s comm badge as shi’d left the PTV and separated the attackers from their victim. He was no expert on reading medical scans, but what little he did know he hadn’t liked and he had no problems at all with them getting the victim some medical aid as quickly as possible.

He was bothered, though, that they’d left four large, strong, and very angry male hyenas in the care of a cub and kit that he guessed were all of six or maybe seven years old – not that they weren’t giving him the appearance of having things well at hand.

“Friendlies behind you,” he called out before he got too close; no need getting himself stunned surprising them.

“Tess warned us,” Holly called back without turning her head. “Come ahead.”

As Muelsfell and a fellow canine officer approached, one of the males tried to get up – and was quickly grounded by one of Quickdash’s pain sticks.

“Roll over,” Muelsfell commanded. “Muzzles to the ground, hands behind your backs.”

One of the hyenas spit at him, earning him another love tap from one of Quickdash’s wands.

“You guys really want these nice officers to take you in,” shi told them. “Because until you’re in their custody you’re mine to play with!” shi laughed, giving each of them another quick touch.

“I could stun them all,” Holly offered.

“Nah,” Quickdash told her, “then we’d have to carry them. Or if Jeff here will let us, I guess we could ankle drag them – facedown of course.”

“We don’t abuse prisoners,” Muelsfell told them.

“They’re not your prisoners yet,” Quickdash pointed out without taking hir eyes off her captives. “Roll over if you’d like to go with the nice policemen, please do anything else if you really want to stay and play with me!”

If looks could kill, the glares Quickdash was getting from the hyenas would have caused hir to spontaneously burst into flames. As it was, hir smile and just an extra close wave of hir wands had the hyenas quickly rolling over.

Starting away from Holly so as to not block her line of fire, the officers quickly cuffed each of the hyenas before pulling them to their feet.

One waited until his friends were between him and Holly before trying to make a run for it. It was hard to tell who brought him down, Holly sidestepping while narrowing her beam before firing, or Captain Muelsfell knocking one of the other hyenas down when he tried to run too before he drew and fired as well. Either way, the double hit caused the runner to bash himself into a wall before he crashed and tumbled to the ground.

“You sure we can’t ankle drag him?” Quickdash innocently asked. “It’s not like it’d do him any more damage.”

“You are one sick little kitten,” the other officer muttered.

“Mom always tells me I’m one mean little kitty because I don’t mind dishing back at them what they’ve been serving to others,” Quickdash sternly corrected him.

“These are from that ship you were telling us about?” the officer asked his boss.

“Yeah, Paul, two more of the Folly’s kids,” Muelsfell told him. “Aren’t you glad that fox vixen didn’t tear your muzzle off after that wisecrack you made about breastfeeding?”

“Shit, but she was acting more scared than pissed,” Paul pointed out.

“And these two were easily outnumbering four adult hyenas,” Muelsfell reminded him. “And there’s a dozen more of them by my count. This has all the makings of a long week.”

Quickdash just grinned at them as shi collapsed hir wands. “Like our captain and father says; don’t go around pushing our buttons, you may not like what some of them do.”

Holly kept hir stunner out until all the hyenas were secured in the PTV.

“You know they’ll be out just as soon as the judge sets bail,” Paul warned his supervisor.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Muelsfell replied, chuckling for the first time since they pulled up. “Before this call came in we had a little disturbance at one of the stores. It seems the Brinkly clan is so deep in debt with the bank that their bankcards are now being rejected. Like I said, we’re going to have a very long week ahead of us. You two need a ride anywhere?”

“Thanks but no. One of our PTVs is turning the corner behind you,” Quickdash said.

“All right then. Just do me a favor and try to stay out of trouble,” Jeff suggested as he climbed into the driver’s seat.

“Better that you tell trouble to try to stay away from me,” Quickdash quietly murmured with a grin as the police PTV pulled away.

“How did you know how to use those?” Holly asked.

“I’ll teach you,” Quickdash promised as shi clipped the pain sticks to the belt already holding hir pocket pouch. “Your mom or dad ever send you out to get a switch to spank you with for being bad?”

“A couple of times when I was little,” Holly allowed.

“These are my switches for when I’m bad. Mom has a set and now Neal will have one too for when he needs them.”

“Can’t you just be good?”

“We’ll see,” Quickdash said as one of the ‘specials’ stopped beside them.

Chakat Dusk and the three foxtaur vixens greeted them.

“Welcome aboard,” Dusk told them. “There’s some drinks and snacks in the center console.”

“Leave the weapons alone for now,” Beechwood added.

They next heard Tess’ voice saying, “Swap out your power cells, Holly. Quick, there should be charging cords for your wands as Weaver still has your spares.”

“Wands?” Redtail asked in surprise.

“Pain sticks,” Quickdash half corrected. “Two meter extenders, military grade.”

“Holy crap! Where’d you get those?” Graysocks demanded.

“Neal had me pick them up,” shi half answered.

“Why?”

“You’ll see soon enough,” shi said with a halfway sly grin.

“Shi took down four of those hyena guys with them – and then held them down for the cops to show up!” Holly proclaimed. “We caught them attacking a herm hyena.”

“Wow,” Dusk said. “What did the cops say about you ‘playing’ guardian?”

“It was Jeff and some other canine. Jeff didn’t seem real upset, but the other guy didn’t like how mean Quick was being to the hyenas. He said shi was a sick kitty.”

Dusk frowned. “It’s hard to be too mean when you get nailed by their emotional feedback.”

“Not a problem for me,” Quickdash told hir after capping hir drink.

“You’re still an E0 then, as in no detectable empathic ability?”

“No, I could feel them. It helped tell me where to set the wands so they couldn’t ignore the pain.”

“That is different,” Dusk admitted. “Any idea why?”

“Yeah – Neal said he’d explain it to everyone later,” Quickdash hedged.

“So, what are you guys doing?” Holly asked.

“We’re giving Cindy a way out if she can get clear of the cops,” Beechwood told her. “We’re trying to stay close without the cops noticing that we’re hanging around.”

“Alex and his team are having a snack where we all had breakfast in case they take her there for a meal,” Redtail added. “We and the spare PTVs are cruising or waiting nearby in the hopes one will ‘just happen’ to be where we want it when she comes out.”

“Where’s Mom?” Holly asked. “Did she have trouble at the hospital?”

“Weaver is still en route,” Tess’ voice told her. “To help protect the victim from another possible attack we’re taking hir to a hospital in the town shi lives in.”

“That’ll delay Neal calling my parents,” Quickdash murmured.

“Yes it will,” Tess agreed. “But maybe it’s just as well we give them a little more time to wake up.”

“Mom’s fully alert in seconds, my dad takes longer to wake up,” Quickdash allowed.

“Of course the rest of you can call your parents and friends whenever you like,” Tess told them.

“I don’t want to run up my FTL charges,” Dusk said.

“As I’m dealing with the legal services, I’m holding a steady link open to Bright Hope,” Tess informed them. “There’s plenty of room for an extra dozen comm calls between all my other traffic.”

“Are they all doing a big meet-up again?” Beechwood asked.

“It looks like it,” Tess said. “Several of them aren’t hiding the fact that they’re forwarding their calls to Shadowcrest’s home.”

“Mom wanted plenty of room to expand,” they heard Shadowcrest’s voice say.

“And even Cindy might be getting a call today,” Tess advised them.

“How come?” Redtail was the first to ask.

“That law firm her father hired demanded to speak to her. I informed them that she was in police custody and gave them the local number.”

“Not Jeff’s?” Holly asked.

“No, I thought it best if we not force Captain Muelsfell to have to wait on us for everything.”

“Can you tell if they are bothering Cindy?” Alex’s voice asked.

“No, because the police would most likely detect her earplugs transmitting, and I have no idea how long their charges will have to last. She’ll have to remove them once they do die, as even un-powered they were designed to protect your ears from loud noises.”

Neal cut in with, “You guys can phone home any time you like. I’m going to try to get Quick’s folks alone – at least for our first conversation.”

“You think they’ll react badly to whatever you’re up to?” Alex asked.

“People sometimes react badly when surprised, and I’m really going to be rubbing their muzzles in this one. I think it better to let them get over the first shock before they have to explain it to the rest of your parents.”

“This ‘big reveal’ thing is getting old,” Alex told him.

“One more hour,” Neal told him. “So we don’t have to cover the same ground five times.” In Quickdash’s ears his voice continued, “On a scale of one to ten, where ten you’re better than fine and one it’s too late – the claws are out and you’re a furry shredding machine – where are you right now?”

“Eight,” shi quietly replied after thinking about it for a moment.

“I was thinking you were closer to four or five when we had our little talk; did dealing with those four help that much?”

“It helped some, but it’s coming back up knowing I’ll be seeing them in an hour.”

We will be seeing them in an hour,” Neal corrected. “You will be right there beside me as I see what I can do to clear things up a bit.”

“How did that Rakshani know my name?”

“I know people all along my route; in fact I believe we have some containers of goodies destined for her shop. Perhaps you and Holly can deliver them.”

“By ourselves?”

“Three or more. Though you might end up with a dozen ‘thirds’ if they find out just what type of ‘toy store’ you’re going to be visiting.”

“Ah, Boss?” Tess cut in. “As you requested, I sent a note to Quickwind and Shortdash suggesting a secured comm line in an hour. Their reply was from Shadowspirit and Goldenmist’s line stating that whatever you’re up to isn’t going to be hidden from the others.”

“Damn,” Neal muttered. “Okay then, if they’re up and already that frisky I guess we should hit them head on. Weaver? Set Star in the seat next to yours and make sure all your feet and your tail are on or above your pad. Holly, Quick, same thing, feet and handpaws on the pad; Quick, unplug your wands. Tess, transport them when they’re ready.”

In one of Folly’s transporter rooms, a form came into being. Neal stepped off the transporter pad and moved over to the control console. He touched nothing, merely watching as the settings changed and a hum filled the room. Weaver appeared on one of the rear pads with Star’s carrier on the one next to her, while Holly and Quickdash took up two of the front pads.

“Take a pit stop if you need one, and Tess will direct you to where we’ll all meet up,” Neal told them.

“Why not the regular room?” Holly wondered.

“You’ll see soon enough,” Neal promised her.

It turned out to be a little conference room, more than large enough for their small group. They found Neal already there, removing the cover hiding some of the circuitry for the wall projector.

“Quick,” he said, “When I tell you to step forward, I want you to place your handpaws here and here, okay?”

“Why?”

“You’ll know when we get there. Tess, go ahead and connect us.”

“Calling now,” Tess said before the screen came on to show the same large room they’d seen the day before with most of the same furs, though not all were seated as last time.

Eyeing the two he really needed to have a quiet word with, Neal said, “Are you two sure we can’t cover a couple of things in private before we bring it out for everyone else?”

“There’s nothing you can say that they can’t hear,” Shortdash snarled at him.

“Very well,” Neal allowed. “Then to start things off – and in case some of the parents have never heard of them – why don’t we have Quickwind there tell us the history of Chakamils?”

Neal thought he saw understanding blossom in Fernando’s eyes, and a couple of the other chakats were suddenly more alert; but it was two in particular Neal was keeping his attention on.

Shortdash had let out a hiss of anger, but Quickwind had only placed hir hand on hir mate’s shoulder to keep hir from jumping up.

“Just what do you want to know, Captain?” shi asked, hir tone cold enough to be able to ice down his hot tea.

“Just hit the high points,” Neal replied. “As I doubt if too many in that room even knew that they actually existed.”

Quickwind frowned for a moment before giving a curt nod. “To explain the chakamil, you must first understand the chakats they were derived from,” shi started as if shi was lecturing a class. “The chakat species was created by Charles and Katherine Turner, working with and improving on what had already been learned during the Gene Wars. They wanted to create a creature that could not only survive the damage the wars had done to the Earth, but to flourish. To accomplish this, they started with a feline taur warbeast and added everything they could think of to help it survive; better immunity to poisons and illnesses, some regeneration abilities, even making them herms so all could bear and sire cubs were just a few of the many things they added to the chakat genome. One important thing though was they were not creating a warbeast. To achieve this effect, they managed to give them a strong empathic ability. It’s hard to hurt or cause harm to others when you have to endure it as well as your victim. After the chakats were proven viable other improvements were added, such as the second heart.”

Shi stopped for a moment to glare at Neal, who chuckled before saying, “And while they were working all their miracles, they forgot to lock down the chakat body and fur patterns. So a striped bobcat sized momma chakat can give birth to a spotted chakat that will have more a tiger’s size and build. It can make it impossible to know who’s related to whom without a scorecard. On to the ‘mils, kitten.”

Quickwind huffed, but then settled down. “Almost a hundred years later other groups were taking the chakat genome and trying to change it for their own purposes. Three firms were intent on making their own personal slaves out of the skunktaurs – which were in turn created with a lot of the chakat genome in them. The slaves were actually discovered and freed by a group of chakats. But at the same time the Federation military was once again thinking of warbeasts, and the chakat form would make a good base for one, just that troublesome empathy getting in the way of having an excellent soldier. So they tweaked and separated that little bit, and the chakamil was born. And at first it looked perfect for military needs, the empathic sense was still there, but it didn’t stop a ‘mil from doing whatever was needed, including interrogating prisoners and executing them if required to do so.”

“Makers …” someone softly murmured as if in prayer.

“Perfect soldiers – but only if they were raised from birth to be soldiers. As civilians – they can sometimes leave a lot to be desired,” Quickwind admitted, seeming to grind to a halt.

When shi didn’t continue, Neal took up the tale. “For the first year and a half to two years, any chakat kitten is little more than a feral beast anyway; shi learns mainly by a punishment and reward system. Shi bites or claws, shi gets a thump to convince hir that it’s a bad idea; shi’s cuddled and hugged for being a good little furball. Shi grows out of this as shi gets older and hir empathic sense starts to develop. The ’mils never have their empathy bother them, so if you don’t keep thumping them when they do wrong you can end up with a highly intelligent yet still quite feral warbeast on your hands.”

“And Quickdash –” Weaver started but couldn’t make herself continue.

“Gets it from hir mother,” Neal agreed. “But while a ’mil may have hir down sides, shi has hir up sides as well.”

“Such as?” Weaver asked from behind him.

Neal didn’t turn but continued to watch the two he needed to convince as he said, “One of a chakat’s greatest weaknesses is any threat to their cubs. A chakat can seem to go quite feral – and once shi goes, no mere words or actions will slow or stop hir until shi thinks shi’s saved hir cub.”

“He’s right,” Chakat Sweettoes said, hugging hir foxtaur mate to hir. “A wild boar almost got Dusk when shi was still quite little. I had a spear – hell, I even had a phaser! But I went after the damn thing with my bare hands, slashing it with my claws and trying to tear its throat out with my teeth!”

Sparrow hugged her mate back as she said, “Up till then, my family thought I’d mated quite the pacifist, but not after that day! That boar looked like it had been half fed to a wood chipper and Sweetie here looked like shi’d been rolling around in the blood.” She looked more somber for a moment before saying, “But the emotional crash when it was all over was hard on hir, on all of us really.”

Neal nodded. “A ’mil on the other hand can calmly and coolly decide what hir best course of action is, even if it means letting hir child die for some greater good.”

“What possible greater good could there be?” Chakat Riverfern angrily demanded.

It was Quickwind that answered hir. “When the choice is saving the many at the cost of the few, or the one. If rushing to save the cub puts not only yourself but the rest of your family in even greater danger. The chakat can’t not race in to save hir cub, but a ’mil can – no matter how much it might hurt hir.”

“And that’s the final redeeming grace of a chakamil,” Neal quietly told them. “Despite everything else that was done to them, they can still find it in themselves to love, and they can be loved.”

“That doesn’t solve our problem,” Shortdash pointed out.

“Ensuring that your daughter doesn’t grow up to be a feral warbeast?” Neal half asked. “I will admit that whatever you two have done to date has made hir a lot more stable than other ’mils I’ve seen at similar ages.”

“You’ve seen other ’mils?” Quickwind snapped.

“Your parent or parents weren’t the only ones the military missed in their sweeps to try and bury their seeming mistake. There are quite a few others out there, including a couple in Star Fleet itself – ’mils I’ve had to go nose to muzzle with a couple of times.”

“And you survived.”

“And I survived. Which is why I think I can handle one little ’mil – if shi wants me to handle hir. Quickdash?”

“Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“I want you to handle me.”

“That will include training and discipline.”

“Yes.”

“And caring comes with the package,” Neal softly added.

He held out his hand, and after a moment shi placed one of the pain sticks in it.

“Assume the position,” he told hir and shi slowly stepped to where he’d shown hir earlier.

“Remind them that despite their secrecy almost getting you into very serious trouble that you still love them,” Neal suggested.

Despite the transmissions being faster than light, there were minor delays going through relays and the light-speed limits from the satellite to the ground, so reactions were slower than they might have been.

“I,” shi said as Neal did something to the wand in his hand.

“Love.” And the wand was fully extended behind hir.

A full half of the chakats on the screen in front of hir were just beginning to react to something as shi said, “Yo–” And a shower of sparks erupted beside hir where the tip of the pain stick had discharged into the exposed circuitry.

“How was the light show from their end, Tess?” Neal asked as he shut down the wand and collapsed it.

“You made quite the mess,” Tess allowed. “Though if stirring them up was your plan, it went very well, Boss.”

“Audio,” he said, and they could now hear a dozen people angrily talking at once on the Bright Hope side.

One voice he could hear quite clearly over the others was Quickwind’s calmly but emphatically stating, “And I’m telling you he didn’t strike hir. If he had it wouldn’t have fried his console.”

“How right you are my dear ’mil,” Neal said, surprising and silencing those on the other side. “While you needn’t fear me sparing the rod and spoiling this child, I am not into random punishment – shi will have to earn it.”

“You bastard!” Shortdash snarled at him.

“And what a bastard I can be!” Neal laughed at hir. “I still have a couple of other things for you two concerning our daughter. Do you wish to view them privately or with the group?”

“Damn you – group, or they’ll spend forever wondering what could possibly be worse.”

“Not really worse, just a little tough love ’mil style. Tess, from the end of the food vendor on, following Quickdash.”

“Yes, Boss.”

“Audio off,” he said before grinning at Quickdash. “What did you think of my punishing your folks for hiding the ’mil in you?”

“Not many people can make Mom jump, but you sure did!” shi exclaimed.

“While I’m glad you liked the show, you also weren’t very forthcoming about the ’mil bit. So I see the need for a touch of punishment on your side too.” Neal let hir stew in hir worry for almost a minute before adding, “Your punishment is to fix that console I fried with your pain stick. Speaking of which,” he handed said stick back to hir, “place them both in one of the arms lockers for now, and then you can get to work. Holly can help you if she so desires.”

“If she so desires,” Weaver mimicked as they all left the conference room, she following Neal as the other two raced for the nearby weapons locker. “If you hadn’t let Holly play too, I’d have to ask why you were punishing her.”

“What? Are you saying I’m not being hard enough on hir?” Neal asked.

“That was a reward, and you know it,” she told him.

“Perhaps,” he allowed with a smile. “Shi did a good job spotting that attack and doing something about it.”

“Shouldn’t Tess have spotted them first?”

“Even Tess doesn’t have the power to watch every possible thing going on everywhere in real time. The PTVs do a record and store, and she goes over the recordings looking for any highlights before clearing the memory for the next day. She probably did a quick review the last several minutes when Quick told her to stop. She also most likely did a scan that didn’t bring up any weapons, so she let the kids handle it.”

“And if the kids couldn’t have handled it?” she asked.

“The roof of your PTV had a stun cannon hidden in it. A little ‘stun them all and we’ll sort them out later’ type device.”

“I wonder what Jeff would have thought if he’d found it.”

“He’d probably be thankful that we’re not his enemy,” Neal said with a grin. “It’s not what you have, it’s how, when and why you decide to use it. Those four goons were ‘unarmed’, but were working with their strength in numbers.”

“Speaking of goons, Boss, that clan you think so highly of now wants us to take some of their people up to inspect that pod.”

“Payment up front?” Neal asked.

“Grudgingly.”

“Did the deal include the type of craft we would transport them in?”

“No, they failed to lock that down, Boss.”

“Dare I ask how many?”

“Sixteen in fact,” Tess told him. “A bit much for a quick inspection, but they may have thought it a good number to overcome any crew and force the shuttle to land their pod for them. Oh, and they even claim each person they’re sending is fully space certified, though if you believe that one I’ll want to talk to you about a raise.”

“Prep Drop One, I’ll taxi them around in it,” Neal said with a grin.

“And what is a ‘drop one’? Weaver asked.

“An old assault shuttle, once used to get troops to the ground or an enemy station under combat conditions. I want it for this little chore because it can’t move a pod, and it has a full airlock between the flight deck and the troop area.”

“And if they try to force their way onto the flight deck he can just vent them all into space,” Tess added.

“That too,” Neal agreed.

“They want you to pick them up on pad A4.”

“I’ll have me a snack first. Tell them an hour, and remind them that their pod has no docking ports my shuttle can mate with, and so they will of course need a space suit for each person they have going up and enough air for however long their inspection takes. How long are they renting us for?”

“Four hours at the pod was the best deal I was able to get, they figured travel time to and from was your problem.”

Neal’s grin looked like it should have hurt. “Damn but it’s been a while since I’ve red-lined that little beast on takeoff.”

“You going to generate more noise complaints?” Tess wondered.

“No, but it will be going like a bat out of hell,” Neal promised. “Want to come along?” he asked Weaver.

“No, thanks. Star and I are due for a feeding and a nap.”

Neal nodded and they parted ways. “How’s Baker doing?” he asked.

“Better than I’d calculated,” Tess replied. “They’ve picked up enough extra business to make up for half of what we’ve lost because of the clan issues.”

“They overworking their crews any?”

“No, in fact the extra loads are letting their pilots get a little training done with some student drivers.”

“Good enough then,” Neal agreed.

“Oh, and be advised, the teens also wanted to see our little ’mil in action,” Tess warned him.

“It ought to give them some food for thought,” Neal agreed. “Let me know if you see any trouble brewing.”

“Will do, Boss.”

After his snack Neal took the express way aft, noting in passing several pod access hatches open with tractor beams pulling and pushing containers about. The large aft hatch leading to engineering remained closed, only a ‘small’ container sized opening appearing for him to sail through before it re-closed behind him. A tractor beam slowed his ‘fall’ and shifted his flight path to line up on an open airlock.

The other side of the airlock opened into a hangar with several small landing craft scattered about. Drop One was an ugly squat-looking vessel, heavily armored to be able to shrug off all but the heaviest of weapons while delivering up to forty troops in relative safety.

Neal did his preflight walk around before boarding and checking the troop section before heading to the flight deck. During his check, he disabled the safeties to several devices in the troop area before stepping onto the flight deck.

He let out a snort when he saw the co-pilot’s seat was occupied by one of his heavy armor spacesuits, opened and fastened to the seat while the weapons and engineering seats held an assortment of weapons webbed down but ready for use.

“Just in case – huh?” he asked with a grin.

“Better safe than sorry,” Tess replied.

“You do know that if it goes to hell that badly I’ll just have you beam me out – right?”

“Two strings to your bow,” she replied.

“Hi-ho hi-ho let’s go,” he agreed, starting the engines.

Lifting the craft just a few centimeters, Neal waited for the large hatch under his craft to open before allowing Drop One to settle into the space below, a force field keeping most of the air in the hangar. Once down, the hatch closed above him before the outer hatch began to cycle open.

Exiting between two of the Folly’s massive impulse engines, Neal rotated his craft and pushed it planet-ward.

“Parakit Space Control, this is Folly Drop One, I have a passenger pickup at Tootles Port pad A4. Bound for that pod the Brinkly clan has in orbit.”

Drop One, Parakit Control, you are clear for landing at Tootles Port pad A4.”

Drop One copies. See ya on the flip side,” Neal said before changing channels. “Tootles Port, this is Folly Drop One, I have a passenger pickup on pad A4.”

“Roger, Drop One, we have no other traffic at this time.”

Drop One copies. See ya in five.”

The trip was uneventful and quick, speed and maneuverability were two of the main reasons the landing craft had survived to be retired and sold into the civilian sector.

While nowhere near as sensitive as the larger shuttle or the Folly, the older craft’s updated sensors easily picked up the weapons and other things in the two PTVs waiting behind the blast fences around A4. And a minute later Tess confirmed they’d annoyed their paying customer.

“That wasn’t the shuttle they wanted you to bring,” Tess told him.

“Point out the bigger shuttle costs more to operate,” Neal replied. “And point out I’m here as requested, no refunds at this point. Remind them their clock is ticking, they have five minutes to board or I will leave and visit their pod without them.”

It was another two minutes before the PTVs finally headed for the shuttle, and it took another ten minutes for them to move and stow all the gear they were bringing onboard.

The first hyena in had then tried to force his way onto the flight deck, but was stopped by a force field covering the entire forward wall.

“I will direct you from up there!” he demanded.

“You can direct just as well from back there,” Neal easily replied. “If it wasn’t in the contract, you won’t be getting it,” he told him. “Please secure yourselves and your gear as we lift in five.”

That they had no idea how to secure things for space travel was apparent the moment Neal lifted his craft – and half the suits and two of the hyenas fell aft-ward. Four more of them lost their grips and fell aft when Neal kicked up the thrust.

“Your supposedly ‘fully space certified’ crew seems to have no idea what ‘secure for maneuvering’ means; shall I abort before you guys really hurt yourselves?” Neal asked.

“Keep – going!” the one that had tried to enter the flight deck angrily demanded through his gritted teeth.

“As you say,” Neal agreed before kicking things up yet another notch.

Ten minutes of Neal letting them enjoy anywhere between three and five gravities pulling at them had them parked a mere ten meters from the pod.

“Your four hours starts now,” Neal cheerfully informed them. “The airlock can hold two of you at a time, or you have the option of venting that section to space. If you do vent the section, it will not be re-aired until you are ready to return to Parakit.”

“Turn on the gravity!” one of them bellowed at him as half the hyenas became space-sick.

“There’s no gravity out there either, better they throw up now, rather than in their helmets later,” Neal pointed out. “Besides, gravity takes energy which in turn costs money,” he added as an afterthought. “If it’s too much for your boys to handle we can always abort your mission.”

“No. We will manage.”

“Very well.”

Watching them suit up, Neal though that just their leader might have had some limited space training; the rest of them obviously didn’t have a clue. He occupied his wasted time by marking off which ones he thought would die and how.

As it seemed that five of the hyenas were actually too injured to even get into their suits, the remainder would be forced to use the tiny two-man airlock.

* * *

Far below, things appeared to be looking up for Cindy.

Complaining that she was hungry, she was pleased to see the officers didn’t even assign an escort for her to go next door to eat. It might have had something to do with Captain Muelsfell being busy personally processing four angry hyenas – which had been strongly protested by Officer Brinkly and his sidekick.

Escape was only a few steps away, a PTV waited just up the street before the diner’s entrance; whether it was one of Tess’ or not was hardly a concern, either type would get her quickly away.

“Alex and the others are waiting for you at the diner,” Tess whispered in her ears.

Cindy nodded and continued past the PTV, only to have strong hands grab her arms from behind. The hands spun her around to where she could see that Officer Brinkly had followed her out and was already opening the doors to the waiting PTV. She was stuffed into the rear and the door almost slammed shut on her tail before the officers climbed into the forward seats.

Turning in his seat to face her, Officer Brinkly pointed a phaser at her. “That silk will look good on my sister,” he sneered at her as the other officer used his police override codes to get the PTV moving.

“That silk would make his sister look like an underdeveloped child,” Tess said in her ears. “Say: ‘Would you like to see a magic trick?’”

“Would you like to see a magic trick?” Cindy parroted, earning a scowl from Officer Brinkly – just before he and his partner seemed to freeze in place.

“Stasis fields,” Tess told her. “And since they’ve been kind enough to take you away from the office, we might as well make use of it. You were planning on sneaking away, weren’t you?”

“Oh yes,” Cindy agreed. “Now, how do we smuggle me back onboard the Folly?”

“Carefully, as we want to do it in such a way Neal doesn’t notice,” Tess agreed.

“Oh?”

“Like you stowing away the first time, Neal can’t be held responsible for what he doesn’t know.”

“So, what’s the plan?”

“One of my other PTVs is almost here. I’ll let you off and drive this one back to where it was when I enabled the stasis fields. One of them had his eyes on you, the other was trying to hack the controls, so there’s a good chance they’ll never realize they were frozen in time for a minute. I might even get to see where they thought they were going while you join the others.”

“Won’t they just yell at Neal?”

“Neal’s up in orbit and has no idea what just happened here; and any video from the cameras outside the police station with show these two stuffing you into a PTV and making off with you. They might have port security keep an eye out for you, so we may end up having to pull a fast one to get you home, but we will.”

“Thanks, Tess,” Cindy said as the PTV came to a stop and the door popped open.

Stepping out, Cindy barely had time to take a breath before the first PTV was gone and a second had pulled up. This one drove her around for a while before letting her off and a third stopped beside her.

“Hey cutie! Looking for a good time?” Alex called out as the door opened.

“As a matter of fact I am, handsome,” she replied as she climbed in. “What did you have in mind?”

“A four-way with the kid recording it!” he laughed. Once the door was closed he started acting a bit more serious. “I thought we’d head north for now, it seems the good captain is also moving freight through Frostpoint, so that may be a better way for us to sneak you back topside.”

“Don’t forget to warn her not to mess with Quickdash!” Shadowcrest laughed from behind him.

“Yeah, turns out Neal isn’t the only one keeping secrets,” Alex told her as he returned her comm badge and phaser. “Snacks and drinks are tucked in the center console. Tess, skipping the boring parts, please bring our dear sister up to speed.”

* * *

Most of Neal’s first hour was shot before his passengers thought they were ready, and the first two out did nothing to disappoint him. One had not properly secured his helmet, while the other had attached an oxygen bottle to his suit but had never opened the valve. He passed out while trying to get their first casualty out of the airlock.

More time was spent with them trying to not repeat their first blunders, but they lost three more to a damaged suit and incorrect procedures before those that could managed to egress.

Ten meters wasn’t all that far, unless you happened to have no idea what you’re doing. Their leader kicked gently off the shuttle to drift slowly towards his target, the next tried to follow but kicked off too hard; and the rest decided to try out their thruster packs – much to Neal’s amusement.

Four wildly corkscrewing forms rocketed away from the shuttle in different random directions. One stopped his mad ride by smashing helmet first into the side of the pod, while the others quickly flew out of non-aided visual range.

“Go get them!” the only one actually standing on the pod demanded. He was holding the second one – who was now screaming and flailing about.

“With what?” Neal countered. “There are no tractor beams on this beast, so you’d have to come along to haul them in. And that’s only after you haul in or otherwise secure your dead, they’ll scatter if I use my thrusters with them just drifting about like that.”

“You will pay for what you have done to us!”

“I’ve done nothing but let you kill yourselves in a manner of your own choosing. The contract your clan agreed to stated that you were only sending up able-bodied space-trained and certified inspectors,” Neal countered. “The recordings I have will show that you were the only one with even the slightest clue of how to react in zero gravity, much less know which end of a space suit your head was supposed to come out of. You’ve got less than two hours left of your four; your sixteen-man crew is down to two. Are you ever going to get around to your so-called inspection, or shall we start collecting your dead and call it a day?”

What Neal didn’t bother to mention was that a hundred kilometers was still well within easy reach of Folly’s tractor beams. The remains of the other three wild riders were already being gently nudged back towards his shuttle; one dead from snapping his neck by applying full thrust with his head turned, while the other two were currently choking to death trying to breathe their own vomit.

“Tess, save a recording of this fiasco to show our rather green crew. It might help them take the emergency and suit drills a little more seriously.”

“I think it’ll scare Weaver more than it will your crew,” Tess replied. “Most of which are on the road to Frostpoint, though they may stop somewhere midway for the night. I’ll also make copies of your space clown car of doom for Parakit Space Control and Jeff as both will be interested in why and how they died.”

“Hold off sending them as these two and their five friends aren’t on the ground yet,” Neal said just before an alarm went off on his panel. “Speak his name and the devil will appear,” he muttered. “It seems I now have those idiots firing phasers in the troop compartment.”

A second ragged volley of shots were fired by three of the injured hyenas.

“Put your weapons down or I will put you down,” Neal threatened them through the intercom system.

He was answered by a third set of shots.

“Very well,” he told them, “you now have fifty seconds to make peace with whatever god or goddess you believe in.” Switching to the radio, Neal said, “Hey, Brinkly in charge. You might want to tell your idiot relatives not to go firing off their weapons in my shuttle.”

“They just want you to stop wasting our time and go get your big shuttle to land this where you were told!” the one still trying to get the pod door open snapped at him. “And I need power from the shuttle to energize this door release!”

“Not in the contract and ain’t happening,” Neal replied as he watched the seconds tick down.

Both inner and outer airlock hatches cycled open together, a force field temporarily holding the atmosphere for the remaining seconds he had promised them.

One hyena finally saw the light and began begging to be allowed to surrender, but the other two continued firing. They even managed a few shots after the field collapsed and they discovered that they had indeed breathed their last.

Neal had lightly tapped the thrust controllers to keep the shuttle near the pod, but the out-rushing air had sent the loose bodies already floating outside tumbling away.

“Tess, since I’ve got the doors open anyway, go ahead and sweep the rest of the bodies in.”

“Can do, Boss. Those other two still trying to get that hatch open?”

“Yeah, with no luck it seems. You’d think the damn thing was welded shut or something.”

“Or something,” she agreed. “While Folly’s tractor beams can reach you, my precision won’t be what I’d like for things so small and soft, so I’m going to remote Echo out there to help you load your trash.”

“That’ll work,” Neal agreed. “Oh, and wheel a bot over to A4 when I get down to offload said trash.”

“It’ll be waiting for you,” Tess told him.

“Hey, Brinklys, those shots caused the shuttle’s hatches to open. You might as well start loading your dead – that’ll probably take you most of the time you have left anyway,” Neal told the remaining two.

The only ‘spacer’ of the bunch began to cuss at him, while the one that had been flailing about grabbed at his phaser. Not being able to properly feel it through his thick glove, he managed to fire the phaser while trying to draw it; slicing into his own leg just above the knee and cutting his foot and lower leg completely off.

And if his suit had had any compression seals to save his life by tightening around his thigh to help stop not only the blood loss but the air loss as well, they seemed to have failed, turning him into a spinning spraying pinwheel that the last remaining Brinkly couldn’t get a hold of.

“Damn, talk about thinning the idiocy from the local gene pool,” Neal muttered to himself.

But he was heard nonetheless.

“Any bets you end up with no one left to cart them home?” Tess asked.

“No bet,” Neal told her. “There’s still a risk he’ll do something to make me kill him. While suicide isn’t allowed in their religion, there’s a good chance he won’t want to report home after this rather stupid failure.”

“Do you think they may kill him for failing?”

“There are signs of it happening in the past, but I don’t know how many more ‘sons’ the clan can afford to lose in one day.”

Echo’s almost on top of you; if you’ll just roll your shuttle a little to make it easier for me to stuff them down your hatch?”

“So you don’t accidentally break off any of the arms, legs, or tails sticking out at odd angles? Sure, why not,” Neal said as he rotated his craft slightly to better align with where Echo was coming out from behind the pod’s bulk.

Where Alpha and Baker were massive four legged brutes, Echo was a much slimmer designed creature. Missing were the heavy thrusters at the end of each leg, as were the larger tanks to hold the reaction mass they would have used. As he wasn’t designed to land loads on planets, he didn’t need anywhere near the power of his big brothers, the antimatter containment and core systems were replaced by a much smaller fusion reactor.

One of Echo’s legs cast a shadow over the lone hyena as he continued his efforts to open the pod’s rather stubborn hatch.

“They’re here to help get your relatives back in my shuttle, not to give you or your pod a free ride,” Neal said on seeing the hyena abandon the pod and jet towards the shuttle. “Tess, tractor beam,” he added when the figure just increased his speed.

“Ah, but he’s already going fast enough that I don’t think he can stop without crashing into me,” Tess complained even as a tractor beam killed the hyena’s forward momentum and imparted some ‘spin’.

“He’s run out of time anyway; just stuff him in with the others,” Neal suggested.

“Can do,” Tess replied, a tractor beam grabbing the still flailing hyena and pushing him into the shuttle.

“No!” the last Brinkly screamed, shoving bodies out of his way to get back out, only to have another corpse pushed in to block his path.

“That’s the last of them, Boss. Close up before they try drifting back out.”

“Buttoning up now. Thanks, Tess,” Neal said as he closed the inner and outer airlock hatches. “I’m adding air back there,” he advised his only passenger, “though I’d stay suited up; some of your pals made quite the mess. Be advised I charge extra for cleaning up messes. Buckle up, we’re going down.”

Brinkly said nothing, but he wasn’t securing himself in a seat either.

Neal waited until the hyena almost had one of their boxes open before causing a shift in the gravity to hurl him across the compartment. “No bombs today, boy,” he remarked. “I was wondering whether that was for me or in case you had problems opening your pod.”

As before, Neal gave him a ride most theme parks charged extra for, forcing the hyena to hang on for dear life.

“End of the line, everyone out,” he finally said as the shuttle settled gently on its landing struts, the inner and outer hatches opening together.

Stumbling next to the inner hatch where the wild ride had left the box, Brinkly growled, “You will take us back up or I will kill us all!”

“You mean you will kill yourself,” Neal told him. “My force field is proof enough against your little bomb, and all your brothers are already quite dead. But if you still wish to commit suicide I will record your passing for the evening news reports.”

Whether the last Brinkly would have made good on his threat wasn’t to be learned at that time, as a mechanical arm reached in and grabbed his suit from behind. He was tossed roughly into one of the PTVs his group had come in, and another body landed on top of him before he could move, and another body after that.

“They take up less space if you stack them properly,” Tess told Neal as she remoted the robot to toss their gear in with them.

“And the corpses don’t complain very loudly,” Neal agreed. “Slap a scanner on it and send it home. No sense wasting the opportunity to learn.”

“I was going to anyway. I’m not getting the resolution I should be from my orbital scans, and what I’m able to get from other sources looks ‘wrong’ somehow.”

“Are you detecting active scramblers?” Neal asked.

“No, but I wouldn’t if they were good ones – which they shouldn’t have from the reports we were given.”

“No, and they’re getting way too frantic about having me land that pod for them.” Neal looked lost in thought for a minute as the last of the Brinkly gear was loaded and sent on its way. He finally said, “Tess, inventory. We’ve got loads to be delivered to a couple of Star Fleet bases; anything in there we might ‘borrow’ that will give us a better view of the area?”

“And ask permission later? Yeah, we’re carrying several sensor drone types, both air breathing and space. What were you thinking?”

“We can use the pod still sitting on E13 as a platform for those we want to launch from the ground. We’ll also drop a couple from orbit and then see how the data flows.”

“I’ll set some of them on E13, but Tootles isn’t going to like you buzzing drones in their airspace – and it would be a pretty clear indicator of who’s using them.”

“True, I take it you have a better suggestion?”

“Only that I take one of my PTVs out of town and use it as a launch platform. It can’t carry much, but we aren’t launching a lot,” Tess pointed out.

“And it won’t give anyone watching for such things a fixed launch point,” Neal agreed. “Start getting things in motion. How are the kids doing?”

“They’re still heading north. It sounds like they might soon look for a nice place to spend the night.”

“One less thing to worry about; how about Weaver and our younger two?”

“I think Weaver’s just starting to realize how quiet it can be up here with so few people onboard. She’s gone back twice to watch Holly and Quick puzzle out that mess you made for them.”

“Are they having fun?”

“I think so; they’re borrowing components from the offices next door for testing purposes. Okay, I have one of my remotes stealing us a few drone packs; from the dataset on them I won’t be able to use more than their basic functions without the security codes, but all we want is flight control and the scans anyway.”

“Launch a set and we’ll go from there,” Neal agreed. “Passive the first sweep as if we’re not even looking their way, if they react we can show more of an active interest in them.”

“And while this is going on, will you be bringing Drop One back up?”

“No, the pod on E12 is loaded, so I thought I’d switch it out.”

“You’ll want a ride I presume?”

“Eh, it’s not all that far, I’ll just ride the cart with your bot.”

The bot in fact was one of the cart’s seats, the bot folding its form and latching onto the cart’s frame.

 

 


 

From Bad to Worse

 

Neal was just docking the loaded pod to the Folly when Tess next spoke up.

“I have some good news and I have some bad news, which would you like first?” she asked.

“Bad?”

“I lost the drones.”

“And the good?”

“I know why I lost them, and that’s bad enough you’ll no longer care about me losing the drones.”

“Talk to me.”

“I was taking one up the toll road and well clear of their compound when someone EMP’ed it hard enough to knock out even these hardened drones Fleet likes to use.”

“And?”

“A second drone caught the action and changed course to investigate.”

“Standard Fleet response,” Neal agreed. “And?”

“It in turn was eaten by a plasma cannon.”

“That was stupid on someone’s part,” Neal commented. “They just went ahead and announced that there’s some heavy weapons out there.”

“It gets worse,” Tess told him, feeding his display shots from the drones and then enhancing them. “Another pair got these before they were destroyed. Those two large barns are really a pair of half-buried forty meter pods – just like the one they want you to land for them.”

“Distance and angle offsets?”

“They’re both on hills just over fifty-two and a third kilometers apart, with both faced twenty degrees away from a line connecting them.”

“So forty degrees from each other?”

“Yes.”

“Forty degrees into three-sixty is nine – a particular supposedly dead sect’s magic number. Map it out as if they were one and two of a ring of nine and tell me what you see.”

“Assuming even spacing, it gives you a ring of about a hundred and fifty kilometers across. The completed ring would enclose several of the towns as well as Tootles Port.”

“And the new town near the port?”

“Just inside the ring and less than a kilometer from one of the nine points. In fact the town’s power plant was installed just off what would be point six.”

“Which just happened to be where they wanted me to drop their newest toy. Want to bet the town has a setup team just waiting to hook it up and bring it online?”

“You were told that this was the first of these things, not that they already had two operational,” Tess reminded him.

“And that worries me because if those two have in them what ours did, then either of them could knock out ships in the lower orbits, and do serious damage to anything in their line of sight.”

“Do you want to change orbits?”

“No. For there to have been no word on the first two being installed someone on the station helped hide them landing those pods; and changing orbit now might warn them that we’ve learned something new. Spin the shield generators up and keep them in standby, if they do start firing on us rotate to give them just our nose to aim at, double shields forward.”

“I didn’t get a very good angle on it before I lost the drones, but I think I found out why they tried to semi-hire us to move the next one,” Tess said as his screen changed to a view of something next to one of the installed pods. Partially destroyed, it appeared to be the remains of a heavy lift shuttle. “Going on scale, I’d say that used to be a forty sized heavy lifter, but these pods are a lot denser than your standard forty sized pod load.”

“And they got lucky and managed it once but not twice,” Neal agreed. “Have we seen anyone currently here with that type of lifting power?”

“The station has a forty docked, and one of the freighters has another that looks like a forty, but we’re the only ones I’ve seen so far with anything heavier.”

“And they’ve already found out the hard way that a forty can’t properly handle the extra mass,” Neal said. “So they’re stuck with trying to get me to do it for them – and for free it seems.”

“You’re known to run solo,” Tess pointed out. “Could they have hired you to take over your ship to bring in the other six?”

“Possibly even to help finance their little project as well,” Neal agreed. “Never mind the cargo I have for our Star Fleet stops.”

“So, what do we do now?”

“What we can until we can get someone with bigger guns out here. Any Fleet ships in the area?”

“The closest one I know about is just over a day away if they push it. The problem would be giving them a reason to push it, and it’s just a destroyer class; not really made for a ground assault.”

“Get Tiffany, let’s see what her contacts can do,” Neal said as he left the shuttle parked over the pod.

* * *

“What in the hell did you do?” Tiffany’s far from sweet voice demanded before he even made it out of the secondary hull.

“To whom?” Neal replied, almost innocently.

“To that damn Brinkly clan! It’s like someone kicked over a fire ant mound.”

“Ah, well they did just lose fifteen of a sixteen man hijacking crew; that might be part of it,” Neal allowed. “Though there may be something else I had Tess do that also upset them.”

“Dare I guess?”

“They used EMPs and a plasma cannon to kill a couple of drones we sent for low fly-bys.”

“I thought we’d agreed to not let them know we were keeping tabs on them.”

“And I thought your data was worth a damn. Tess?”

As Neal headed for the bridge, a small window opened in his glasses and flickered through the scan data Tess was sending down. “It looks like they’ve had two of their toys for a while, their losing that shuttle forced them to find other means of getting the next one down.”

“I don’t understand, our people on the station –”

“Are blind or dare not speak – or both,” Neal told her. “That shuttle had to have burned each of the landing zones coming in – never mind the crash, but they’ve had plenty of time to grow back. Even if they planted trees to help hide the landings that ground’s had a couple of years at least to recover.”

“Three and a half years ago I lost all four of my station agents to a freak shuttle accident,” Tiffany admitted.

“Then it wasn’t an accident,” Neal told her.

“Pulling data,” they both heard Tess say, then new data started scrolling. “This is the orbital stuff from the standard planetary scans I took just under three years ago. A lot less buildup and you can see the changes in the greenery of the new versus old growth.” Highlighting an area she said, “This may be an awning or something they painted to help hide those shuttle remains. I only saw them this time around because the drone was coming in so low. And they have active sensor jamming already online, so getting more detailed information or using the transporters is out.”

“So what do we do?” Tiffany asked.

We get help,” Neal told her. “This is no longer just a bunch of nutcases, but nutcases with some very serious firepower. Get your Fleet friends and get them here as fast as they can – tell them to bring a couple of Marine detachments with heavy air and space support.”

“Couldn’t we be over-reacting – just a bit?” Tiffany wondered.

“Sure we could, but twenty minutes ago we didn’t even know they had already landed two of those beasts – and there was a reason you called me when you spotted this one coming in.”

“And you’re sure that one’s dead?”

“Quite sure, but they’ll know we’re on to them when they finally do get it open. When that happens they’ll know what they’ve got is all they’re going to get. Too bad they already have more than any of your plans called for.”

“A ground force could get in,” she insisted.

“On the clan’s home ground it could be quite costly,” Neal countered. “And then there’s the other problem that if they can no longer hide they can use the neighboring towns for hostages. None of the plans you showed me considered them having weapons of mass destruction, but that’s what those pods represent.”

“There’s your Folly.”

“Yeah. I have one unarmed, unarmored, oversized freighter. I guess I could go out and pick up some rocks to lob at them, though I’d need to throw them by the hundreds to counter how fast they’ll be able to shoot them down, and the towns nearby would suffer from the blasted rock and near misses.”

“I’ll contact my friends in Fleet, though I hope you’re wrong,” Tiffany said before disconnecting.

“I hope I’m wrong too,” Neal softly said.

“Are you going back down in Alpha?” Tess asked.

“No, remote him – wait. Top him off and load his internal storage with more of those drones. Add a bot or two to prep the drones dirt-side.”

“What about Baker? They’re ten minutes out with their latest load.”

“Warn them that things might be getting hot around here, top them off and we’ll let them go down and stay down until something changes.”

“Aye, Boss. And Drop One?”

“After Alpha’s down you can request a move to E11 or park him with the shuttle on E12.”

“You’re thinking of using him?”

“I’m thinking he’s the only thing I have already down there that might be able to dance fast enough to stay out of their targeting sights, that and the drones if we need them seeing and shooting at something else while we’re busy trying to be clever.”

* * *

Baker had come and gone, loaded with a few ‘extra’ of the drones, ‘just in case’ Tess had suggested, though their longer travel time made them a secondary thought for Neal. After a snack he had checked on Quickdash and Holly’s work; they had the console mostly back together and working, though the screen and audio weren’t quite up to spec yet.

While Quickdash could sense it, the other two also detected the change in Neal’s demeanor.

“Is it something I did?” Quickdash asked.

Neal snorted. “Sorry kiddo, but just being a fresh ‘out-of-the-closet’ ’mil doesn’t make you the reason for every little problem I have, in fact you’ve already helped deal with some of them.”

“The hyenas?” Holly guessed.

“Yeah, certain hyenas,” Neal agreed.

“But I thought they were in jail,” Weaver said.

“Those four are, but they’re not even the tip of the iceberg.”

“Tess said you took one of your little shuttles out,” Quickdash commented.

“I did. The Brinkly clan paid me to haul sixteen of their boys up to inspect that pod they’d paid to have brought out.”

“The one they also want you to land for them?”

“That’s why I took the little one, no way it could move the pod.”

“So why did they want you if they knew you couldn’t do what they wanted?” Holly asked.

“They were going to force him to go get a shuttle that could move it!” Quickdash told her.

“They thought they were,” Neal allowed. “But they made a mistake, they tried to do it on my home ground.”

“In your own shuttle,” Holly said.

“That, and in space; where there are many ways to kill yourself without even needing an enemy trying to help kill you too.”

“How many did you kill?” Quickdash asked, sounding fascinated. Weaver looked slightly sick, and Holly was somewhere in between.

“If you’re asking if I picked up a phaser and shot them, not a one,” Neal told them. “While I did open the hatch to let all the air out, it was to get them to quit firing their phasers at me. That killed five of them, ten others died because they couldn’t work their suits or space walk without doing themselves in.”

“So only one lived?”

“Only one, and he was busy threatening to blow up the shuttle as I brought them back down.”

“Won’t they leave you alone now that they know you can beat them?” Holly asked.

“No, because they think they still have the upper hand.”

“Is this all part of that data dump you didn’t think we had time for?” Weaver asked with a rather sour look on her muzzle.

“In part,” Neal admitted. “What I had been told was the troublemakers hadn’t gotten too far along and with a little help from me the locals could nip things in the bud. But a few things Tess has since turned up suggests they’re a hell of a lot further along than anyone suspected, and that can be very bad if they decide to let loose with everything they’ve got.”

“How bad?”

“A lot of people could get hurt, no matter what I do. I’ve warned who I can and we’re down to waiting to see if help gets here before or after they go crazy.”

“You mean like Quick’s parents were afraid shi’d go crazy on us?” Holly asked.

“First off, Quick isn’t going to go crazy on us. Shi might decide to start shredding anything that gets in hir way or on hir nerves, but shi’s not going crazy. But even if shi did, I think I can contain one crazy little ’mil, but this would be hundreds of bigger, badder, ’mil-like people with phasers, guns, bombs and rocket launchers going every which way and shooting anything and everything in sight. We thought they only had a few small arms, but it looks like they have heavier weapons as well.”

“And you can’t stop them?”

“It’s like killing ants, you might step on a few of them, but if someone just kicked over the mound there’s no way you can get them all.”

“So you need to stomp on them before they leave the mound,” Holly told him.

“If only I had a big enough foot,” Neal agreed with a small smile.

“We have a status change,” Tess informed them. “That other freighter, Poseidon, has released their heavy lifter, and it appears to be heading for our problem pod.”

“And if they can get it down without crashing we may have only hours before that mound gets kicked over,” Neal said.

“What will you do?” Quickdash asked.

Shi shivered slightly at the feelings shi was getting off him and the look in his eye as Neal told hir, “Whatever I can.”

* * *

“We’re thinking about stopping in the next town to eat and maybe play tourists for a bit before finding a place to sleep tonight,” Alex was telling Tess.

“Food and a quick rest break if you need it, the rest will have to wait as the captain would like you all at Frostpoint this evening,” Tess replied.

“Are we going back up that soon?” Cindy asked.

“No. We might have a bit of trouble brewing around the Tootles area and Neal would like to keep you guys well clear of it.”

“About Cindy?” Alex asked.

“No, no one’s even asked us about her yet.”

“Okay, Tess, drop the sugar coating and tell us how bitter this pill really is,” Mike requested.

Tess was silent far longer than the time delay required for ship to ground communication, but she finally said, “You already know that Neal’s annoyed that hyena clan with his road and a few other stunts. This was done under the assumption that we already knew what they could and could not do in retaliation. We’ve recently discovered our data to be faulty.”

How faulty?” Calmmeadow asked for all of them.

“We thought we were bringing them the first of some very heavy weapons, but it seems they’d had a delivery or two before ours.”

“How bad is it?” Alex asked. “I’ve got enough non-ship funds that we can go to ground for a bit.”

“Neal has friends he can trust at Frostpoint, and there shouldn’t be any problem with your Folly accounts, so save your personal funds for when you really need them,” Tess advised.

“How bad is it?” Mike repeated. “To run us out of the area like this.”

“There’s a very good chance they already have the ability to shoot down anything trying to take off or land at the Tootles port. The only thing that has kept them from using it as a threat was once it was known then all their other plans would be exposed.”

“Like someone with a gun or a bomb, people only start reacting once they know it’s there,” Alex said. “So Neal’s laying low?”

“Partly. We’re remoting the shuttle going to Tootles just in case they decide their cover’s blown early. The reason Neal wants you as far away as practical is because they found someone else to move that pod; and once they get inside it they’ll have no doubts at all that we’re on to them.”

“Break it good did you?” Mike asked.

“We’re not in the habit of breaking cargo entrusted to us, we did carefully follow all the requirements they did request,” Tess told him.

“What did they forget to request?” Cindy asked with a snicker.

“They said nothing at all about letting it get too close to a star …” Tess allowed.

“So it’s burnt toast,” Mike dryly said, to the snickers of several others. “If this was going to set them off anyway, wouldn’t it have been better to not mess with the thing?”

“This was a game-changer, Mike; we didn’t dare let them have any of them to play with, the risk was just too high.”

“But they have one anyway.”

“We believe they have two,” Tess stated. “And their only saving grace is that they’re near the clan’s compound and not right next to Tootles which is where they wanted this one.”

“How is that a good thing?”

“They now have to be removed as a threat one way or another,” Tess told them. “If this gets as messy as it might, we have to think along the lines of the possibility of very heavy collateral damage.”

“And Neal thinks it’s going to get bad,” Alex stated.

“The local cops and militia can’t touch this, they simply don’t have what it would take to neutralize the threat without losing too many of their own people; any Star Fleet assistance is at least a day away, and we may only have a couple of hours before the clan discovers there’s no longer any reason for them to hold back. We believe the space station is also compromised, not that they have any weapons that would make any difference in all this.”

“So what do we do?”

You will stay out of the way,” Neal’s voice suddenly and quite firmly told them. “The fewer friendlies I have to worry about the better.”

“What can you do? That’s a freighter – not a battleship,” Alex pointed out.

“Whatever I can,” Neal told them. “After all, a weapon is only a tool used a bit more aggressively – and I have lots of different tools at hand up here. One or more of them might just do the job.”

“What of Weaver and the little ones?” Dusk demanded.

“They’ll meet you at Frostpoint. In fact they’re launching as we speak.”

* * *

“Neat!” Quickdash proclaimed from the pilot’s bench as the small starship slipped from her berth. Holly sat next to hir on the navigator’s bench while Weaver looked worried from in front of the engineering panel. Charlie was a small warp-capable ship, tiny when compared to her mother ship, but unlike the Folly, she was designed to land on a planet and pick up or deliver up to three hundred standard containers. Folly’s bulk momentarily hid the smaller ship from the planet as she accelerated up and away to start her on a long elliptical that would see her touch down at Frostpoint; Neal having timed their departure for when the station’s orbit took it out of sight behind the planet.

“Why are we doing this again?” Weaver asked.

“So I don’t have all my eggs in one big basket for them to shoot at,” Neal replied.

“So why aren’t you here with us?”

“Then all my eggs would be in one little basket, and as I showed you, I do happen to have another ship just like that one if I feel I need it.”

* * *

“You could have gone with them, Boss,” Tess pointed out. “It’s not like the few seconds comm delay would make any difference.”

“It’s not quite time for me to abandon ship,” Neal told her. “If that was all that worried me, I’d just park you out of range of them.”

“Do you really think you can make a difference if they do start attacking the other towns?”

“I don’t know, but we’re the only real wild card Parakit has until Star Fleet shows up.”

“As you requested, I got a full inventory of what was destined for the Star Fleet bases. Phaser arrays and tons of missiles, none of which we can rig up to use in a couple of days, much less a few hours.”

“You can start pumping the air out of the secondary hull.”

“So we can use it to ‘fire’ things out the back end again?”

“Depends on what I can come up with,” Neal admitted. “We don’t have any way to outshoot them, so we’ll have to outsmart them.”

“That’s not what you were going to say,” Tess accused him.

Neal sighed a little before saying, “I don’t think we can dazzle them with our brilliance, so we’d best get ready to baffle them with plenty of bullshit.”

“That sounds more like you, now, what were you thinking?”

“Don’t we have some of those space construction rods in one of the pods?”

“We’ve got a pod and a half of the fifty meter rods, but they won’t make it through the atmosphere before disintegrating.”

“That’s actually a good thing as we don’t need one of those things veering off course and hitting a town,” Neal said. “And the dust from them disintegrating should help confuse any ground sensors and help foul their targeting systems.”

“And they’ll have to fire on them in case there are any that can hit them,” Tess agreed. “That might buy us an hour or two, but that won’t put them out of commission.”

“No, but it can give us a bit of a shield to hide behind while we’re trying something else.”

“I can rig some of Star Fleet’s space based drones to help block their scans while boosting our own.”

“Prep them; they’ll help with the baffling. Which still leaves us with burying them in shit, bull or otherwise.”

“Sorry, the only beef on board we have is in your ready meals.”

“Figuring the two down there are twins to the one going down, rate of fire?”

“If they have the power to burn and well trained crews, right at a dozen targets per second.”

“Then we need to deliver a dozen targets in less than a second with something mixed in that can take them out.”

“How? Even if you transported something right above their interference, it’d fall so slowly they’d easily pick them off.”

“How fast would that dozen need to be falling to not give them the second they need?”

“Just cracking the sound barrier; but the power you would need would be immense.”

“Like the power needed to shove four kilometers of freighter into warp?”

“Like that,” Tess allowed. “But the transporter circuits would never handle that kind of an overload. Besides, the heavy freight transporters in the secondary hull are off-line; one of those little things you were in the middle of when you accidentally picked up a few stowaways.”

“Nothing wrong with the ones in the primary hull.”

“Boss, while they’re heavier than Star Fleet standard, they’re even less likely to carry the load than the freight transporters.”

“Any port in a storm, and any trick that has at least a chance of working. Figure out how big a bullet we need doing mach that can crash through their shields if they have them up and still make a kill. Also figure our targets. The weapon pods of course, their power, their sensor and control networks if we can spot them, and maybe even a couple of shots at their compound itself. Depending on their programmed priorities, they may shoot down the ones aimed at the compound and give the others time to kill the guns.”

“Boss, this isn’t going to work.”

“Run the numbers and tell me by how much it won’t work,” Neal insisted.

“Oh, and the Poseidon shuttle just landed the pod, or I should say impacted, as it was a very hard landing. And I think they just broke another shuttle.”

“Keep an eye on it.”

“I will. I actually have a good view of it from Alpha’s cameras on pad E12 with it being on the hill behind that new town. I can see the access door and will let you know if and when they get it open.”

“What about those numbers?”

Charlie should be landing at Frostpoint in a few minutes.”

“Numbers?”

“First off, there’s no physical way to power all four transporter rooms at the same time, two would be barely within the power conduits’ limits.”

“So two rooms of six pads, there’s our dozen.”

“But the individual pads were never meant to handle the type of load you’re going to be asking of them. My numbers suggest a better than seventy percent failure rate.”

“But will they complete the transport before failing?”

“Unknown, the failure rate goes up the longer it takes, the more mass, and the speed through the atmosphere you’re trying for. The higher the speed the longer the containment window has to be and the more air it has to fight.”

“And the greater the speed the less of a missile we need,” Neal pointed out. “What’s the happiest middle ground?”

“There is no happy middle ground, Boss. But the best we can do will most likely be a ton and a half at close to twice the speed of sound. Anything less and we won’t knock them out, anything more and I can guarantee the transporters will burn out long before the transport is completed.”

“Have Howey’s team abandon Baker, and then see how close in we can get the shuttle without getting him in line-of-sight of those weapons pods.”

“I’ll try to not start too many forest fires.”

“Fires, damn. I have a couple of messages I should get fired off before we get too busy and I forget.”

* * *

“Boss? One of the PTVs I left in town just saw four police PTVs and a prisoner bus fly by heading in the direction of the Brinkly clan’s main compound.”

“Call Jeff and warn him off. There’s no way he and his people can do anything except get themselves killed.”

“He’s not answering. That’s odd, the network says his personal comm unit is still at the station. And no one’s answering on any of the regular police lines either.”

“Who do we know that’s closest to the station?”

“Brajet.”

“Send her over to find out what’s going on. Tell her to be careful.”

“And I’ll get a PTV over there as soon as I can.”

* * *

“It was a massacre,” Brajet reported a short time later. “Someone had come in early for their shift and found the station wide open and bodies everywhere. Emergency services were already here when I pulled up; they’re taking pictures and scans before they begin moving the dead.”

“Any survivors that can tell you what happened?”

“No, and the recording room was shot all to hell as well.”

“Was Jeff among the corpses?”

“No, half the shift seems to be missing though their weapons and communication gear is still here.”

“I’m going to make a wild guess now. Most if not all the bodies are non-canine and female or herm.”

“Two males, but unlike the others they look like they walked into it and went down fighting, but yeah. What are you thinking?”

“Tess said she saw police PTVs and their prisoner bus heading towards the compound. Canine female breeding stock – and male hostages.”

“They’re coming out now.”

“Ten years earlier than your mother’s earliest predictions,” Neal agreed. “The problem with secrecy is this is going to be hitting everybody else cold. Have Tiffany get the evacuations of all the towns in their range started. And I’d guess she’d best let the local governments and the planetary defense forces in on what’s been growing in their backyards.”

“Won’t that alert the clan that we’re on to them?”

“They’re already on alert and coming out now – thus your body count,” Neal reminded her. “I’m just thinking along the lines of reducing the number of possible hostages – and cutting down the numbers lost to possible friendly fire.”

“I thought you were unarmed.”

“I am. But that won’t stop this big ugly primate from chucking rocks and anything else I might get my hands on.”

“Can you – beat them I mean?”

“I don’t know, but if we’re going to have any chance at all, it will have to be before they’ve completely consolidated their position.”

“Good luck.”

“We’re going to need it – and so are you.”

* * *

“Boss, if I remote Echo and place him aft of Folly’s tail, I can ‘fire’ sets of those construction rods down and out and have Echo’s tractor beams pull them around in an arc to make it seem they were fired from a different location.”

“And if they get in a lucky shot it might hit Echo rather than us,” Neal agreed. “Top off his tanks and go ahead and launch him. Hold him in our shadow until we’ve clouded the upper atmosphere with the first of those rods, no need to give them any more hints than we need to.”

“Plus we don’t want them seeing us doing any ‘off-bore’ shots at them,” Tess agreed. “I’ll fire the first sets straight at them and as they cloud their own vision by shooting at them I’ll start moving us and off-boring to confuse their tracking.”

“Were you able to get any more out of those Fleet sensor arrays?”

“Sorry, Boss, but no. I can get the space based ones to do some jamming, but I lack the command and control codes to unlock their full potential.”

“What about the flyers?”

“About the same, though I also have limited ability to make them mimic other things.”

“How accurately do you think one of them could mimic Drop One?”

“Ninety-five percent or so, but only for a few minutes at those power settings before they burn out. Why?”

“Our own personal ground attack force units coming for them. If we have Drop One pop into sight coming over a hill and duck back down before they can get off a shot, then the fliers start appearing over other hills like so many pop-up targets.”

“Got it, Boss. And that could keep at least one of their big guns aimed low to try and pick them off.”

“One issue, we need to make sure our pop-ups targets don’t have any towns behind them.”

“Ouch, yes. That still gives us a couple of directions we can ‘attack’ from.”

“Reserve a dozen or so flyers for after the rocks – I’ll want to use them to make sure we knocked out their main guns.”

“How expendable do we consider Drop One to be?” Tess asked.

“Totally if we have to. It’s the only thing we have down there that can take even their small arms fire.”

“I have several bots on and in Alpha, I could load them into Drop One to help if we do make it into their compound.”

“Set up the drones for auto-launch on Alpha and do it,” Neal agreed. “We were supposed to be surprising them, not the other way around.”

“You’ve said often enough that plans don’t survive contact with the enemy – much less an overly helpful friend.”

“How are the evacuations going?”

“Just starting and slow, Boss. It’s hitting them all by surprise and there was no reason for them to expect a call to evacuate.”

“Any active scans coming from the compound?”

“Not yet. And I was able to sneak a couple of drones onto hills near the two pods, so I’ll be able to tell you if and when they decide to open for business.”

“We need more time, dammit. And we need them watching us and not thinking about those towns.”

“And not thinking about any hostages they already have?”

“That too,” Neal agreed, looking thoughtful. “A saint can’t save them – perhaps the devil can.”

“Boss, the devil can get kind of greedy,” Tess warned.

“Oh, he’ll get his kilo of flesh, but from whose carcass?” Neal countered.

“And how will that help us?”

“We make those cops their problem.”

“But will they fall for it?”

“If I seem to be thinking like they do, they just might.”

“I’m not sure I want you thinking like they do.”

“Depending on your point of view, Jeff kidnapped one of my kids. Thinking the way they do, might I want to deal with him personally?”

“If only to carve him into little pieces once you’ve gotten your hands on him? Yeah, they might believe that,” Tess allowed. “Poor Jeff isn’t going to know which way to jump.”

“He doesn’t have to. With luck one poor befuddled cop won’t mix things up too badly and I can keep the Brinklys from realizing the bluff. Oh, and have Howey ground all Frostpoint traffic and get me Shir Flashpoint and I’ll see if I can convince hir to do the same.”

But it was hir partner Patricia Moore he got.

“How can I help you, Captain Foster?” she politely asked.

“By getting me your partner,” Neal replied.

“Shi’s indisposed, you’re stuck with me,” she countered. “Is there a reason you can’t tell me?”

Neal frowned slightly as he said, “Is there a reason not to tell you? No. You’d probably be one of the first people shi would be telling this to. But shi knows me and knows when I’m joking around and when I’m dead serious about something. In this case I think it will soon be a matter of life and death. I need the port closed, but quietly. Nothing launches, nothing lands. Nothing gets in – especially not through that toll road.”

“And shi would believe you?” Patricia wondered.

“That shuttle hard landing that pod near your port was the signal gun going off. Tell hir now,” Neal said, “and tell hir I give hir my word.”

* * *

“Okay, Boss. I’ve got everything where we think we want it,” Tess reported. “I tractor-beamed the drones from Alpha over to the pod on E13 so we can launch the shuttle and drones without them getting in each other’s way. Baker is three hundred kilometers north of their gun pods, as close as I think we can safely get if their scanners are on par with their other gear. Orbital drones are in a low orbit and will be swinging between us and the clan compound in five minutes. The field I laid will give us about ten minutes of coverage – unless we move with them. With them well above the atmosphere I can slot our construction rods between them to give us your metallic smoke screen.”

“You did say our rock throwing odds would increase a bit if we were lower and closer to our targets,” Neal pointed out.

“All of five percent,” Tess reminded him. “And getting closer increases the odds of them getting off a lucky shot.”

“Every little bit helps, Tess. As for luck, let us see if we can’t make a little of our own. Warm up the air drones and let’s get the head Brinkly on the line. This little game starts now.”

* * *

Longsock’s eyebrow rose at a ping from his PTV’s computer warning that he had new mail. A key tap brought up a note from Captain Foster by way of ‘Tanner, Stripes and Star’: -------

Hey co-mate;

Just a little heads-up that you might be getting a call from our denmate in common. First; be advised that she and the kids are all on Parakit and should be well out of the way of anything too exciting. Second; if she seems a bit upset or distraught, remind her she’s sitting on a warp-capable ship that’s fueled and ready to go, and that she has more than enough funds to provision her and hire a crew to fly her.

Third; and the reason for this little note, is that some of my business here turned out to be rougher than I’d been told to expect. While I still think I have a winning game plan, I don’t know how badly the other side has rigged the game itself.

Don’t believe everything she tells you (because she doesn’t actually know everything!)

Neal -------

Longsock frowned at the screen for a minute before contacting the law office. Dash answered his call.

“Mister Shortgrass, how may I help you?” the Veldt breed Stellar Foxtaur asked with a professional smile.

“You can start by explaining this,” he replied as he forwarded hir Neal’s note.

Longsock could tell when the message got through, hir smile wavered before crashing all together.

Now wearing a frown to match Longsock’s, Dash quickly started tapping keys on hir console as shi said, “Robin, priority.”

“I’m in a meeting,” came the curt reply.

Dash growled before saying, “Your pet human just sent Longsock a little ‘Just in case I don’t make it’ letter.” Shi managed a weak smirk at Longsock as shi added, “Any bets she now can’t even remember what that meeting was supposed to be about?”

“Data?” Robin’s voice demanded over the link.

“Just now finding it. Your over-aged problem child sent it as a low priority – probably because he thought it would be too late for us to do anything that would make any difference.”

“Yeah, he has a tendency to only tell us what he thinks we need to know. Runelock, you spent some time in Star Fleet; what the heck is that thing?”

The growl the foxtaurs heard over the open line dropped their ears as their instincts told them that it was fight or flight time.

“That can’t be there!” Runelock’s voice insisted.

“What is it?” Robin’s voice countered.

It took Runelock a full minute to stop growling at whatever it was Robin had asked him about, but he finally calmed down enough to speak.

That,” he grumbled, “is a portable Star Fleet siege weapon, to be mounted on stations or capital ships in the event we ever found ourselves at war. It’s not even supposed to be possible for civilians to get their hands on them.” Almost as an afterthought he growled, “Nor would anyone but an idiot place one of them on the surface of a habitable planet!”

“Unpack it, Love,” Robin told him.

A little calmer, Runelock said, “If what he sent you is correct, that unit is a portable heavy phaser bank and shield assembly. Just feed them enough power and they can knock down anything they can see while shielding their base and surrounding area against all but the largest and heaviest of guns. But firing one into or out of an atmosphere would do damage to the planet’s ionosphere.”

“How would one go about stopping them?” Robin asked.

“With another one,” Runelock growled. “If you can get it in range without being destroyed first.”

“Robin,” Dash cut in, “the data says he thinks there are two active units on the planet. He’s hoping that they weren’t able to get antimatter power cores down there as well, but even if they’re limited to fusion that will only slow their rate of fire, not diminish the strength of their shots.”

“Limited power also means they’ll have to balance the load between their weapons and their shields,” Runelock pointed out.

“Except they may know that the only thing up there is an unarmed freighter,” Longsock muttered. “At least Neal got my mate and all the kids off.”

“Don’t count Neal out just yet,” Robin told him. “If he thought it was hopeless with what he had he would have run for help.”

“He may not have thought he had the time to run for help, Robin,” Dash told her. “It looked like things were already coming to a head as he sent this.”

“So what can he do?” Longsock asked.

“It looks like he intends to keep them busy watching him so they don’t think of using the neighboring populations as hostages,” Dash told him. “But whether he can keep them occupied until Star Fleet gets there? No idea.”

“It wouldn’t matter,” Runelock slowly said. “Star Fleet would have to show up in force to have any chance of knocking them out. And the longer the battle takes the more damage to the planet, and there would be no way to avoid friendly casualties within the first hundred to two hundred of your kilometers from those guns.”

“So what do we do?” Dash quietly asked.

“You mean, ‘what do we tell the parents’? I don’t know,” Robin admitted. “We know that they’re safe and he left them a way to get home whether he makes it or not.”

“I’ll tell them,” Longsock volunteered. “We were having a get together that starts in a few minutes anyway for a group call to Weaver and our kids.”

“Thank you, Longsock,” Robin replied. “I’ll light a few fires here, but it sounds like it might be more in the line of relief aid.”

“Who will you call?” Dash asked.

“Normally I’d be calling Neal!” Robin half laughed. “Except this time he’s the one most likely to be needing the relief!”

 

 


 

Dancing With the Devil

 

“Captain Foster,” the head of the Brinkly clan snarled with the video blanked, there was the sound of frantic activity in the background.

“That was dumb – even for you,” Neal sneered back at him.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You took something of mine, that wasn’t wise of you.”

“They lost the bitch.”

“Yeah, between those two acting as bad cops and the ones you sent me for that little ‘inspection’, I’m surprised your clan hasn’t imploded under the weight of its own stupidity. No, not your incompetent grab at my daughter; I want that idiot cop that made your failed grab possible in the first place. Imagine my displeasure on preparing to properly repay him – only to discover your idiots had gone and taken him along with the rest of his little force.”

There was no reply on the other end other than the background noise, then the video came up showing the bound and rather battered-looking Captain Muelsfell.

“I could kill him for you now if you’d like,” the head Brinkly offered from somewhere off camera.

“And let you take away my pleasure of doing it myself?” Neal scoffed. “I think not. Since it appears you already have him gift wrapped for me, I will send one of my PTVs and you will place him in it.”

I think not,” the hyena countered. “You will land your heavy lift shuttle where we tell you, and then we can discuss it.”

“And place myself in your hands? Not happening, mutt.”

“Then I will kill him.”

Neal snorted. “If you insist on watching him die, I guess I could kill him in front of you.”

“Your reach, no matter how long, does not extend into my compound.”

“You and yours are at the bottom of a gravity well, I’ll just drop something on him. After all, it’s what you would do if our roles were reversed,” Neal said with a grin. “Or does the good captain still not realize who his host really is?”

“Wha-?” Jeff managed weakly and Neal added a possible concussion to the officer’s list of injuries.

“Come on, pup,” Neal chided him. “As a cop, surely they spent some time teaching you a little history. A bit over a hundred and fifty years ago Star Fleet took down one of the worst sets of terrorists the Federation had ever known. Twenty years and three planets ruined to do it, but Star Fleet wiped them out. They just made one little mistake though; they ‘rescued’ some of the supposed victims, including several pregnant female hyenas.”

“You are clever for a human, Foster,” Brinkly allowed.

“Oh, I wasn’t the one that discovered your sect rebuilding your little power base,” Neal told him. “I’m just the one they called to deal with it and you.”

“And yet you bring us the final pieces we need.”

“Did I? I did notice you broke your friend’s shuttle getting it down. And you won’t be given enough time to get it online.”

“We will have your shuttle soon enough.”

Neal snorted in amusement. “It being on the ground, you having it, and you being able to fly it are three different things.”

Off-mike Tess reported, “The pods are opening.”

Freezing his outgoing video, Neal then keyed in a command as he told her, “Then let’s give them something other than us to shoot at.”

* * *

Night was falling, the local sun highlighting the undersides of a few clouds as three PTVs raced northward from the Tootles area.

“Those not wearing their eye or ear protection should don them now,” Tess’ voice warned those in the PTVs.

“What’s going on?” Calmmeadow asked as shi and the others put their ear buds and eye shields back on.

“We might be getting a little action soon,” Tess reported. “And considering what they might be throwing, the captain would prefer not having to report or explain any sudden blindness or deafness to your families.” “Phasers at any real distance shouldn’t be all that bright,” Alex commented even as he donned his eye protection.

“These will be when fired through an atmosphere,” Tess promised him. “And some of those beams might soon be shooting overhead.”

“Won’t they be aiming at you?” Cindy asked.

“We’ll be trying to give them several things to worry about at once,” Tess told them. “The better to keep them from actually hitting anything of value.”

“Like yourselves,” Mike softly said.

“And the neighboring towns,” Tess added. “We’re hoping the locals can get those towns evacuated while we hold the clan’s attention.”

“While you wait for Star Fleet to show up?”

“We do have one trick Neal wants to try, but if that fails all we’ll be left with is staying out of range of their weapons,” Tess allowed.

“And the ship Weaver is in if you fall,” Cindy said quietly.

“So much for our dinner plans,” Calmmeadow said as the PTVs all sped up.

* * *

High above Parakit in a geosynchronous orbit and with her stern now pointed at the planet, Folly’s aft cargo hatch opened. Large enough to swallow even her larger shuttles, the hatch had no trouble at all in ejecting two hundred fifty-meter long rods. Each rod had a hexagonal cross section a meter across and they had been designed on the principle that replicators were at their most efficient if you fed them the same elements as they were making. In this case it was a compressed mass of various metals, ceramics and plastics for building space stations and habitats. Hulls, struts, insulation, pipes, power and data cabling and connectors all from one chunk of material, material that was about to be ‘wasted’ by being turned into a semi-metallic dust cloud as it was torn apart when it entered the atmosphere.

Gravity generators pulled the rods down the length of the secondary hull while tractor beams at the hatch spread them and gave them a twisting spin. Another two hundred shot out, and another. Each set were fired slightly faster than the last, timed to all hit the edge of the atmosphere at roughly the same time.

Behind them came a string of much shorter rods of a tungsten steel alloy that wouldn’t burn up as quickly on reentry as the construction rods, and hint at an actual danger that they could breach the compound’s defenses. But it was only a hint, as Neal couldn’t afford even one of them going off course far enough to hit one of the towns.

Neal was frowning at Jeff’s image on his screen as he said, “I’d really prefer to do this face to face, but you know how it is when it comes to negotiating with terrorists.”

“Ya don’t negotiate,” Jeff half muttered back at him. “Kill ’em and be done with it – and me.”

“Ah, but I had such plans for you, Jeff,” Neal replied. “Party trinkets are on their way down, duck and cover if you can.”

High above the clouds appeared streaks of light, which drew spreading contrails of metallic smoke behind them as they came tumbling down. From the smoke’s center came a much brighter spark, a shooting star that seemed intent on reaching the surface of the planet itself. It had just reached the actual cloud layer when a beam of light connected it to the ground and the smoke cloud that had given birth to it. Before the light from the first beam had faded there was a second that hit a shooting star just coming out of the still growing smoke cloud.

Tess had timed the borrowed sensor jammers to kick in as the cloud started to form to help confuse anyone trying to see through it. As the first of the shooting stars entered the cloud she engaged the Folly’s warp engines. They ‘failed’ almost instantly, being far too deep in the planet’s gravity well to be maintained; but they did kick the Folly into a new course and speed just as the phaser cannons below fired a beam through the cloud and far too close to where they had once been.

The kick had sent the ship slightly ‘down’ and ‘forward’ more towards the center of the new artificial cloud, the Folly’s massive impulse engines coming to life to help change the ship’s new course. It wasn’t far, but then again they didn’t have enough drones or rocks to allow this to become a prolonged fight.

From just after Neal’s call to Patricia Moore, the ‘stay clear’ warning strobes had been flashing on the shuttles on E12. Drop One’s engines had come to life as the metallic cloud appeared, and it lifted off hard and fast as the first spears of light shot towards the heavens, a trail of drones chasing after it from the pod still sitting on pad E13.

* * *

Dazed and hurting from his injuries, Jeff wasn’t sure whether or not he’d really seen Neal wink at him just before the signal was lost amid alarms sounding off and the cries of ‘Incoming missiles!’ from the hyenas watching their scanners. Whatever the human was up to, it was focusing his captors’ attention on the Folly rather than him and his fellow officers, if only they could survive whatever Neal was up to. Hearing still higher levels of panic from his hosts, Jeff’s mind idly wondered what one called a person that seemed to be getting way too much enjoyment out of terrorizing terrorists?

* * *

Drop One flashed high over a hill as the last of the shooting stars was killed. While actually weaponless, it still had its old attack radars ‘locking on’ to targets in the compound before quickly diving out of sight just before one of the large guns fired, the gun catching two of the drones making their ‘attack runs’ right behind Drop One.

Following its programming, Drop One changed its IFF and radar frequencies to appear as a different attack shuttle before it did another pop-up – only to get clipped by the very edge of a beam as it dived back under the protective cover of the next hill.

* * *

Far above, the Folly continued to descend even as her impulse engines fought to lift her back up. Power was fed to a dozen transporter pads and they began their assigned tasks. The first steps were standard; locking onto a target, enclosing it in a containment field, freezing it in stasis field, and saving the pattern before converting it to the quasi-energetic state that could then be transmitted to the receiving location. Normally a containment field was then placed around the ‘landing’ location, and the pattern dictated how the quasi-energetic state material was converted back into matter. A dozen iron ‘rocks’ shimmered out of existence in one of the pods and it was done. Then came the part Tess had warned Neal wouldn’t work. In order to have them ‘moving’, the containment field had to contain the object the entire time it was being converted back into matter. Which meant the longer the transport took the longer/larger the containment field had to be and the more power it would require to hold them in place the needed seconds.

Thus it came to be that a dozen rather long containment fields appeared over different areas of the clan’s compound and surrounding area. As they weren’t in themselves a high order of threat, they were given a low priority by the computers, which the hyenas were ignoring for the incoming ground attacks.

And Tess had been correct, as two of the transporter systems failed and lost containment, the energy bleeding away as sun-bright flares spraying mostly towards the ground.

A new threat now recognized, one of the weapons systems was turned back to the skies while the other continued to try to kill off the still approaching ground attack forces.

And Neal had been correct, as the other ten ‘rocks’ formed before even more of the overtaxed transporter and power systems failed.

The already skyward aimed weapons had only the time and energy to kill two of them; the other never had a chance to take aim before the rocks reached their final destinations.

Tess had had only two firm targets, the weapons pods themselves. She’d had only poor scans to try to locate the partly buried power plants, sensors and the rest of the compound. She’d reserved two ‘shots’ for each pod, two more for each of their suspected power, and the rest where she thought the sensors and main compound buildings might be hidden.

One of the failed rocks had been targeted at a weapons pod and the wash of energy easily slipped through the weak shields that had been up and killed most of those in and around it without actually taking the unit out of commission. The other rock aimed at it was one of the two shot down, but both of the rocks aimed at its fusion reactor scored direct hits, rendering the pod relatively intact but useless.

The other pod didn’t fare quite as well; a near miss followed by a direct hit turned it into a gaping crater. The second fusion reactor was missed, but not its power distribution systems, plunging the clan’s nearby compounds into darkness.

It had taken less than a minute from the first eye searing shot at the heavens to the last, and it was over before most of the planet even knew there was a battle going on.

* * *

Up above, Neal was also sitting in darkness; the only light coming from the displays showing the damages he’d inflicted to his own ship. The entire primary hull was running on emergency battery backup as he’d not only destroyed both transporter rooms but also managed to damage large portions of the forward section’s primary power distribution system. While there was a secondary power distribution system, it too was offline until possible damage to it could be checked and resolved.

“I was able to vent both transporter rooms to space just before we lost main power,” Tess was telling him. “Most of the power busses should be fine – it’s just the power relays you cooked.”

“Leave the secondary power offline unless we see any movement from the clan,” Neal told her.

“So we appear worse off than we might be? It’ll cost you in heat buildup,” Tess warned him.

“An acceptable tradeoff. Anything from downside?” Neal asked; cameras from the secondary hull showing him streams of flame and some debris shooting out of two of the emergency exhaust ports on the primary hull.

“It may take me a few minutes to reestablish contact, we lost most of our command nodes to the jammers so I’m having to shut them down one at a time,” Tess informed him. “You could get some partial main power up by bringing Delta online and having her supply power from the midpoint; or I could bring in Echo, since we didn’t need him he’s still topped off,” she suggested.

“No, I made my bed, I’ll lay in it,” Neal muttered as he got up.

“You mean float over it until we have enough power to bring the gravity back up,” Tess reminded him as she turned up the emergency lighting so he could see where he was going.

“You’ll be giving me a little as we get back into position,” Neal told her, the thrust from the impulse engines giving him some limited gravity for the moment. “Any activity from the Poseidon?”

“Lots of frantic calls from the ship, no replies yet from the ground.”

“Keep an eye on them, I think they were the clan’s escape plan.”

“Will do, Boss. Good news, I can now receive and remote Alpha, having him launch the remaining drones.”

“Half active, half passive scan, if we didn’t get them both we’ll need all the data we can get for the locals; and see if Drop One survived,” Neal suggested as he climbed into a suit made for extreme conditions in space.

“And just where do you think you are going?” Tess asked him as he ran the suit’s self-tests.

“You did say my little trick pretty much slagged our main power distribution relays,” he reminded her. “So I thought I might want a bit more than an oven mitt for protection.”

“Primary feeds all the way from the cores to the transporter rooms. While I was able to vent the rooms to space, I didn’t have the power to shield the vents, so those will also need cleaning and testing once things have cooled down a bit.”

“Just how hot did the transporter rooms get?”

“Hot enough to melt and deform but not actually vaporize any of the Boronike.”

“Thank the deities for small favors,” Neal muttered, “I wasn’t looking forward to scraping every little particle from both the rooms and those exhaust vents.”

“Nor would I have liked the gaping holes in my sensors scans it would have produced,” Tess agreed. “But I can already tell you from what scans I can do that most if not all of them are no longer fit to be used in the transporter circuits.”

“Save the data on how they failed, it might come in handy the next redesign,” Neal suggested.

“So you can throw bigger rocks?”

“Hey, it worked, didn’t it?” Neal half laughed.

“Remains to be seen, though nothing’s shooting at our drones as yet.”

“Anything from Drop One?”

“Seems we almost lost it. Port main thruster and most of the armor above and around it appears to have been burned away, but it’s still fully functional on the belly thrusters. Main compartment and flight deck seem intact but life support looks very iffy, Boss,” Tess reported. “And with the clan’s jammers down I’m getting some very interesting readings from the drones. It seems at least half of the compound is actually deep underground. Mapping and looking for warm bodies as we speak.”

“So Jeff and company might have made it after all,” Neal quietly said. “Lift Alpha and Drop One and we’ll see if there’s anything left to recover.”

“I’ll move Alpha now, but I want my bots to check Drop One over a little more before we risk any lives to it. Our cloud is beginning to disperse, I’ll be able to get better landside links soon,” Tess told him.

“Oh, let Weaver and the kids know we’re okay, but that I have a few repairs to make – just minor stuff.”

“Right, Boss. So minor you’ll want them to stay down there tonight.”

“I should have the mains back up by morning, and the rest can wait if we have to,” Neal pointed out.

“And my bots can do some of the simpler ones that don’t require you rebuilding whole relay panels,” Tess countered.

“Then let’s get started,” Neal said as he locked his helmet down and tested his air supply.

* * *

“Alex to Folly, come in Folly. Come on, Tess, say something,” Alex requested yet again.

As Tess had warned them, the light show had been intense, temporarily knocking out the PTVs’ aft cameras and lighting the evening skies as bright – if not brighter – than day. But that had ended minutes ago and they still couldn’t raise the Folly.

Beside him Cindy was hunched down and shivering. Frowning, he changed tactics.

“Alex to Weaver,” he tried, hoping they were close enough to be picked up by the other ship, and hoping the PTV’s AI knew where Weaver should be.

“She’s feeding Star,” Holly’s voice told him. “We can’t get Neal or Tess to talk to us,” she added, sounding tearful.

Folly’s still up there,” Quickdash’s voice added. “We think Neal did something to make it harder for them to see him. There’s a strange cloud way up there and some kind of interference, or at least that’s what Charlie is reporting.”

“Can you tell if she was hit?” Mike asked.

“No, but Charlie’s sensors say Folly’s under power, so something up there is still working.”

“You’ve got the stronger transmitters,” Alex told them. “Keep trying to reach them. We should be there in another hour or so.”

“News reports are just starting to show up on the local net,” Calmmeadow commented. “Over half of them think a ship in orbit is firing on the planet, local militias are being called to report in.”

“We need an ‘in’,” Alex muttered. “We’re too much in the dark right now.”

“Neal’s girlfriend,” Shadowcrest reminded him. “Brajet.”

“If this thing has her comm code,” Alex agreed. “Call Brajet,” he ordered the PTV.

“Busy,” Brajet said a moment later, sounding rushed.

“We can’t reach Folly,” Alex told her.

“Neither can we,” she snapped back. “There’s some kind of jamming as well as that damn cloud he made. The cloud’s slowly dispersing, until then there’s no way to even see him.”

“Our ship at Frostpoint could see the Folly’s under power, but couldn’t establish a comm link,” Alex told her.

“My mom was yelling at some Star Fleet ensign when the clan fired those big guns,” Brajet told them. “Between those shots and whatever Neal did we’ve lost all links to the FTL relay, we’re cut off.”

“So any Fleet help is dependent on if some ensign tries to reconnect the call and discovers they can’t even reach Parakit?” Alex said.

Calmmeadow snickered. “Can you imagine them trying to tell their boss? ‘We just lost a whole planet!’”

“You’re taking all this well,” Mike commented.

“Just a feeling,” Calmmeadow admitted. “I wonder if he knew he’d draw more attention to Parakit by blocking the FTL when he did whatever it was he did.”

“Mom thinks it was to –” Brajet had started when she was cut off.

“All units,” Tess’ voice rang out with some distortion. “Regular communication should resume shortly. Local militias will be needed to finish cleaning up the Brinkly compound. We believe their heavy weapons have been neutralized, small to medium weapon status is unknown at this time.”

“How’s Neal?” Alex asked.

The delay was long enough that they were starting to wonder if the question hadn’t been heard when Tess finally replied. “The captain is still alive and quite busy. While we weren’t hit we did take some damage.”

“We can be up in a couple of hours to help,” Alex offered.

“Negative. You’ll be spending the night groundside.”

Mike snorted. “What aren’t you telling us?” he asked.

“Neal overloaded a few circuits playing his little trick on the clan. Primary hull is on emergency backup power until we can replace or repair damaged systems. So unless you really wanted to try using a zero-G toilet, I’d recommend you stay down there for the night.”

“And you don’t think we could help in any way?” Alex asked.

“Most of the areas that need the work have temperatures well above the comfort level.”

“So how’s Neal doing it?” Cindy asked.

“He’s currently clumping around in a space suit,” Tess admitted. “And it has a tendency to make him grumpy, so I find it best not to bother him while he’s working.”

“So leave him be for tonight. Got it,” Alex replied.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll have your PTVs go straight to the spaceport so you can pick up the others. You can then get a late meal and find a place to spend the night,” Tess suggested.

“How’s Weaver handling all this?” Alex asked.

“Better now that I was able to reestablish contact,” Tess told him.

* * *

Weaver watched the main screen with a feeling of dread, she knew in her head that the Folly had survived or there wouldn’t have been any Tess to talk to them, but Quickdash had demanded/begged Tess to show them what had happened and she wasn’t liking the results of the request.

Now armed with the records from the drones that had been previously blocked by the jammers, Tess had whipped up a little home movie of the fight; from Neal distracting the clan to the drone flyovers after the rocks came crashing down upon them.

“Is Jeff okay?” Holly quietly asked.

“We don’t know yet,” Tess admitted. “I’m looking for him now.”

“And Neal?” Quickdash wondered. “Is he mad?”

“He’s a little annoyed that his trick caused a bit of damage to his ship,” Tess told them. “He should have most of the more important stuff back up and running sometime tomorrow.”

“Can we help?” Holly asked, a little too eagerly for her mother’s peace of mind.

“You are helping,” Tess said. “For now staying out of the way and out of Neal’s hair is a big help.”

Weaver nodded but noted that that hadn’t been what the two youths had wanted to hear.

* * *

“I’ve got Alpha on a hill just overlooking their main compound with Drop One settling down nearby, the drones are still mapping the area, no shots being fired at this time,” Tess reported.

“Good,” Neal grunted as he braced himself to pry a partly melted transfer coupling from its mounting. “Any sign of Jeff and company?”

“Not yet. Once I have things better mapped I’m going to try transporting some of the drones into those underground spaces I’m finding.”

“Let me know when we find them.”

* * *

Chaos. Complete and utterly out of control chaos. Normally Captain Muelsfell didn’t approve of chaos, but he was finding himself warming to the idea.

Amid the screaming to ‘Kill that damn ship!’ and ‘Stop those missiles!’ there had been even more shouting about ground forces approaching, not that Jeff could think of where these forces had sprung up from – or how they had managed to mobilize so quickly.

Then had come an earthquake-like shaking and thunder that would have knocked him out of his chair if he hadn’t been so securely tied to it.

And with that had come the darkness. Not the quiet darkness of death, but the pandemonium of dozens of people running around in the dark screaming, some in anger but others in growing fear and panic.

Jeff for the most part remained silent, only grunting softly the couple of times someone stumbled into him, or the one time he was struck – though he thought it only an accidental blow. This went on for a while, not that he had any way to mark time.

The first light he’d seen since the shakeup was from something being transported into the room with them. This drew phaser fire from his hosts, something he’d been worried about as any stray shots in the dark could have been deadly to him and his people.

* * *

“I’ve found Captain Muelsfell and at least some of his officers,” Tess reported.

“Beautiful – any easy way to get them out?” Neal asked.

“With all the armed hyenas running around, I’d prefer to just beam them into Drop One.”

“Do it,” Neal agreed as he completed a connection and another section of his ship came back to life.

* * *

Jeff thought he saw something just before his worldview froze, the next moment found him now sitting in what seemed to be a blindingly bright room.

“Lean forward,” a voice commanded as something pulled on his collar to force him to comply.

“Hold still,” they said, and Jeff heard something snap as he felt the binders holding his wrists release.

“Water and emergency rations to your left. If I’d known we’d be having guests over I’d have laid out a better spread.”

His eyes slowly adjusting to the light, Jeff could make out some sort of control panel in front of him and some type of semi-humanoid bot clipping the bindings off his legs. “Who?” he weakly managed.

“Just me, Jeff. Tess. We’ve spoken a couple of times online?” the bot said as it pushed him back and strapped him firmly into the seat.

“Where am I?”

“You’re on the flight deck of the slightly damaged Drop One, an old assault shuttle Neal picked up a while back. We dinged it up a bit coming to the rescue, but it’s still in good enough shape for us to transport you and your people over to the hospital.”

One of the screens came to life, showing him the craft’s troop section, several of his fellow officers had already been beamed aboard. As he watched another was transported in, a bot similar to the one in with him quickly releasing the officer’s bindings before strapping him into his seat.

“How are you doing this?” he asked after taking a much needed gulp of water.

Alpha’s less than a hundred meters from here, more than close enough for us to transport through a mere twenty meters of dirt and rock,” Tess told him. “He’s only got one transporter pad, so this will take us a little while – and I think we just found where they were keeping the ladies, so you’ll have some more company soon,” she added.

“Your boss sounded a little upset with me,” Jeff said before trying a bite of the ration bar. While rather bland, it did seem to help make him at least feel more alert.

“He couldn’t protect you as a friend, so he did so as a foe,” Tess told him. “It’s harder to use someone as a hostage if the other guy seems to want them dead even more than you do.”

“I was wondering,” Jeff admitted before he heard a noise behind him. Twisting around, he watched as the bot removed several weapons from one of the other seats.

“I was hoping to use the transporters to move everyone, but it looks like we’re going to have to rescue a couple of them the hard way,” she said.

“I can help,” he said, fumbling for the releases.

You can just sit there,” Tess ordered. “Between your concussion and other injuries you’d be more hindrance than help.”

“Then at least take some of my men!”

“Why would I do that when some of your police women are already on the scene?” Tess countered. “I’m just gathering a few toys for them in case someone tries to object to their leaving.”

The bot from the troop section also came forward to gather additional weapons before joining the first in the exit airlock.

Shots rang out as the outer hatch opened. They stopped quickly, but from the monitors Jeff could see that the bots weren’t the ones returning fire.

“We’re having a little friend or foe problem,” Tess told him from the console in front of him. “So we’re only responding when fired upon.”

“Just how are you responding? I didn’t hear or see any phaser fire from your bots.”

“Tractor beams from Alpha,” Tess told him. “I’m just pushing a few kilo-newtons of force a meter across on any weapon aimed or fired at us.”

“Crushing the weapon and the person holding it,” Jeff muttered. “How can you be sure they aren’t just mistaking you for the clan?”

“Unless they were already there for some other reason, the drones I’ve had in place since you were grabbed are showing me that no one else has entered or left the clan’s compounds. So it’s just Alpha, Drop One and my bots, them, and anyone they’ve managed to kidnap.”

* * *

“I can’t get through to the Folly,” Shadowspirit complained as they tried to find out if Longsock’s warning had any merit.

“Heck, I can’t even get into the Parakit web. It’s like the entire planet’s not there as far as the FTL relay is concerned,” Goldenmist added.

“Let me try,” Shortdash suggested. “With my Star Corps codes I should be able to find out if there’s a problem with the relay or if there’s something else going on.”

“Could those weapons Runelock mentioned disrupt communications?” Longsock asked, having told the others about Neal’s note and his call to the law firm.

“They could,” Quickwind agreed. “Depending on how much they were fired they could block our comms for hours.”

“The kids –” Honeycomb started to say, looking anxious.

“Should be fine,” Shortdash quickly cut in before the foxtaur vixen could get any more upset. “A thousand kilometers away should be well away from those weapons; in fact they should even be able to stay out of range and sight of them when they decide to leave Parakit.”

“You seem to know a lot about such things,” the foxtaur tod Lake commented.

“Fleet and Corps sometimes do joint exercises and one of them is getting people safely in and out of enemy held areas,” Quickwind told him. “In this case a simple polar liftoff avoids all the risks.”

“Okay,” Shortdash told them, “I’ve got the relay telemetry, there’s a great deal of interference preventing any links from forming with Parakit. Ha! There was an emergency call to Star Fleet that was dropped, but the connection information is still in the system. Let’s see what they can tell us.”

“Starbase Twelve, Ensign Martum, how may I help you?” a rather bored looking bulldog morph asked, his eyes on something below his screen.

“Chakat Shortdash, Star Corps. I’d like you to tell me about that emergency call you were on about five minutes ago?”

“It was nothing, Shir. Just a crank call and they disconnected,” the bulldog told hir.

“Disconnected or were cut off?” Shortdash didn’t quite snarl. “As I am currently unable to establish contact with the planet at all, I’d really like to know what’s going on.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing, Shir.”

“And I’m sure that this call and the last were recorded,” Shortdash snapped back. “I suggest you get me your supervisor. Now.”

The bulldog frowned and looked as if he wanted to protest, but instead he muttered, “One moment please.” And the screen changed to the Star Fleet emblem.

The raccoon morph that next appeared didn’t look bored at all. “Lieutenant Cambell, how may I assist you Shir Shortdash?” she asked.

“By confirming or denying that we’ve lost all contact with the planet Parakit,” shi told her.

“I take it from your actions that you think this isn’t just a normal piece of interference that we get from time to time?” she asked with her head cocked slightly to the side.

“Two things, well three now,” Shortdash told her. “A warning from a freighter in Parakit orbit, an emergency call to your starbase from Parakit that was cut off, and the not so minor fact that I can access the relay nearest the Parakit system, but not the planet itself. And most of the interference problems we usually get are between far-flung relays, not near-system relay to planet.”

“I would like to see that warning,” Lieutenant Cambell told hir. “And how would you have known about any emergency call?”

“Because the connection data and priority is still in the relay – or haven’t you been paying attention?” Shortdash growled, getting a little tired of not being taken seriously.

Lieutenant Cambell looked slightly taken aback by the chakat’s attitude, but tried to keep a professional face. “Shir Shortdash, I promise you that I will look into the matter and get back with you as soon as I have something,” she said before dropping the connection.

“Do you believe her?” Quickwind asked hir mate.

No,” was the reply. “But then again she didn’t try ordering me out of the relay either, so I can set up a little something to alert us if and when the connection comes back up.”

“What’s your daughter feeling?” Longsock asked their hostess.

“Relieved, I think,” Goldenmist replied. “I think something was worrying hir earlier, but whatever it was is over.”

“So whatever happened has happened already and all that’s left is seeing what’s left,” Fernando commented.

“Any bets some if not all the kids will want to come home now?” Honeycomb wondered.

“No bets from me,” Fernando said. “If he succeeded, they’ll want to stay even more; if he failed then they’ll have no other option but to return home.”

“He didn’t fail, or at least Shadowcrest doesn’t think he has,” Goldenmist told them.

* * *

“We know the thing’s supposed to be dead, but they may not want to surrender without a fight,” a voice called out over the local comm net.

With the local police force in shambles, those militia situated near Tootles had been tasked with securing the pod that had been crash-landed there and any of those working on or in it.

“Fire in some stun grenades; if they still want to play we can just reseal that hatch they had to cut open,” another voice suggested – just before they all had to duck for cover from the hail of phaser and gunfire coming from the open hatch.

“You sure we can’t just use a high explosives round instead?” someone asked as more shots were heard from within the pod – but these weren’t being fired out of the hatch. “Uh, guys? Am I seeing things – or is somebody waving a white flag out of the hatch in question?”

* * *

“Mercenaries,” Tess told Neal. “There were two hyenas in charge and the rest were part of a mercenary team being paid to set the pod up. It seems the hyenas wanted to fight it out, but the mercs weren’t going to just throw their lives away.”

“So they came out peacefully?” Neal asked.

“After the mercs shot both of the hyenas and tossed their bodies out, everyone was very peaceful,” Tess agreed. “And more good news, someone seems to have noticed Parakit going silent and boosted the relay’s signal to something I can now connect to.”

“Any priority calls?”

“Star Fleet seems rather frantic to talk to someone. It’s Tiffany’s code.”

“Plain or encrypted?”

“Plain, Boss. In fact someone’s hooked a side-link to the call.”

“How’s our link to Charlie?”

“Pretty good and getting better.”

“Call Tiffany and advise her that we can link her through to Fleet if she’d like.”

“Ha, it seems Brajet hadn’t mentioned speaking to us. Tiffany seems surprised we’re still up here to yell at and she would indeed like us to link her to Star Fleet.”

“Go ahead and link them up then, let Tiffany know you’re staying on the line in case she needs you for anything.”

“She’s already asked for an update and she’s directing someone to enter the compound as we speak.”

* * *

On Bright Hope the monitor Shortdash had left monitoring the Parakit FTL relay changed from data to a split screen. One side held the face of a rather annoyed looking calico cat morph, on the other was Lieutenant Cambell looking slightly more concerned than the last time they’d seen her.

“This is Tiffany Wallsom, how may I help you, Star Fleet?”

“Lieutenant Cambell, you had placed an emergency call to us?”

“Ah, I’m actually surprised you contacted me about that, I knew that ensign wasn’t going to file a report or escalate the call.”

Lieutenant Cambell frowned a little. “Can we get back to the nature of your emergency?”

Tiffany’s frown was replaced by pictures of the two pods opening and then firing into the heavens. “These were what I was calling about,” Tiffany’s voice told them. “Fortunately a visiting freighter was able to deal with them.” And the pictures were replaced by vegetation burning around a silent gun in one and a crater in the other. “As you might imagine, the battle raised havoc with our comm systems, but the freighter was also willing and able to relay your call, and our regular comms should be back up in the next few hours as the interference clears. With the big guns no longer a concern our planetary defense forces should be able to manage the rest of the cleanup, so I guess we could probably cancel my little emergency call.”

Lieutenant Cambell’s jaw had dropped lower and lower as Tiffany told her story. It now snapped shut before she said, “We’ll dispatch a ship as quickly as possible!” she promised.

“Just don’t let that ensign ‘file’ it,” Tiffany suggested. “Parakit out.” And the connection dropped.

Lieutenant Cambell’s hadn’t been the only jaw to drop.

“You know, I could have sworn someone told me our kids had stowed away on a freighter,” Fernando idly commented.

“Yeah,” Quickwind quietly agreed. “And everything we could dig up on her says the Folly’s unarmed.”

“Could they be hiding their weapons?” Graysocks’ mother Essence asked.

“The crater’s too small,” Shortdash muttered.

“What are you talking about?” Shadowspirit asked.

“If he had used similar weapons, that entire area should have been blasted all to hell, not just the weapons platform. Just what in the heck did he use on them?”

“Ask them,” Quickwind said. At hir mate’s dirty look shi added, “Wallsom said the freighter was relaying so the link should have included their codes.”

Shortdash snorted but quickly dug out and keyed in the codes.

As before, it took a minute but the connection was finally established.

Folly, Tess speaking – ah, so you guys were the side-link I detected. One moment.”

And then the screen split into four. Three were views from inside PTVs of Shadowcrest and the teens while the fourth showed Holly and Quickdash seated in front of some type of control consoles with Weaver and Starblazer behind them.

* * *

Both groups stared silently at each other for almost a minute before Alex finally said, “Gee, Tess, is there a reason for the static display?”

“That’s not a static display, that’s shock,” Mike corrected. “You think they know what was happening here ten minutes ago?”

“Nah, they’re not looking scared enough,” Alex quipped back.

“Behave, you two,” Weaver said with a growing smile from her screen at her denmate.

Longsock was smiling back at her. “I received a little ‘just in case’ note from my co-mate,” he explained.

“Warning that I might be in a panic?” Weaver asked. “We’re well past the panic stage and more into the ‘annoyed that he sent us to safety but stayed up there himself’ part.”

“What in the heck did he use on them?” Quickwind asked.

“We don’t know yet, but I fully intend to find out,” Weaver told hir. “Whatever it was broke something big because Neal wants a day to ‘fix’ things before he’ll let us go back up.”

“Are you sure you should be going back up?” Shortdash asked.

Weaver eyed hir carefully before saying, “He could have cut and run, you know. Maybe he should have. Leaving us behind or taking us with him, he didn’t need to stay and try to protect those at risk on the planet. Instead I understand he’s up there trying to get his ship put back together.”

“Maybe he’ll let us help with some of the easier and safer stuff,” Alex commented while keeping an eye on his father on his display. Said father gave a slight nod; message sent, received, and agreed with.

Holly and Quickdash wisely kept quiet though Weaver’s frown said she knew they wanted to ‘help’ too.

“So,” Chakat Sweettoes seemingly nonchalantly commented, “how many of you are ready to come home now?”

Hir daughter Dusk just grinned at hir, as did the rest of them.

“Seems that that wasn’t quite scary enough to make them come running home with their tails between their legs,” Chakat Applenose chuckled at hir daughter Calmmeadow.

“If that didn’t – what will?” hir mate Riverfern wondered.

“What if he can’t fix whatever it was he broke?” Nightsky’s mother, Starfrost asked. “Won’t you have no other choice but to come home?”

“There are more living quarters in the secondary hull,” Mike told them.

“And we could live in the ship Weaver has if we had to,” Calmmeadow added.

“And it seems there’s even a twin to this one if we needed it,” Weaver added. “For a guy that was running solo he has a lot of options to play with.”

“If he has other ships, why didn’t he just send you home in one of them?” Shortdash muttered.

“Crew,” hir mate answered for them. “He was the only one that could have piloted any of them. And now that he could hire a crew for one they don’t seem to want to leave.”

“This one has a very limited AI,” Weaver told hir. “I think Tess said you needed at least three trained crew to properly fly her.”

“So how did you get down?” Shortdash asked.

“Tess remoted her,” Weaver admitted.

“Which can’t be done at any real distance and not at all in warp,” Quickwind agreed.

“Tess? How are things looking up there?” Alex asked for all of them.

“So far so good; Neal thinks he’ll have all the important stuff done tomorrow afternoon or maybe a little later. Our cloud is still dispersing; regular comm traffic should resume in the next hour or two. With all that’s going on I’ve registered all of you for rooms at a nice looking place in Frostpoint.”

“Is it still that bad down near Tootles?” Mike asked.

“No,” Tess admitted, “but it’s a lot easier to start a stampede than it is to stop one, and quite a few of people are going to be sleeping far from home tonight.”

“How many bunks in Weaver’s little ship?” he asked.

“Twenty, but there’s not much else on board other than a few clothes for Neal.”

“So, little different from our first night on the Folly,” Mike pointed out. “Unless someone else wants to object, I’d say we can rough it for one night.”

Weaver shrugged. “I had time to grab what I needed for Star, so a bed is a bed.”

“And this time we have more than just what’s in our pouches,” said Nightsky as shi held up one of hir loaded saddlebags.

With all the others agreeing, Tess cancelled the rooms and their parents on Bright Hope left them to finish their little trip.

* * *

“Boss, I’m getting a status change on that other freighter, Poseidon, I’m detecting a transporter in use. Seems they’re beaming someone to or from the station.”

“They should know by now their shuttle won’t be coming back up,” Neal commented. “They’re going to grab what they can and make a run for it.”

“I can move us into Delta’s tractor beam range,” Tess offered.

“No, ‘we’ don’t have a reason or the rights to try to stop them – at least not yet. Are they still trying to contact the compound?”

“Yes, and they’ve added a coded pulse to their transmission.”

“Can you copy the pulse?” Neal asked.

“Easily.”

“Then have Alpha transmit it at a low power setting and let’s see if we can find what they’re hunting for.”

“Nine replies,” Tess said a minute later. “They seem to be personal ID/location markers embedded under the skin. Some limited biometrics, two appear to be dead.”

“Now that you know what to look for what else can you tell me?”

“All female. That’s odd, eight are hyena and the odd one out is a dead lab-husky mix.”

“Odd indeed if those are their inner circle of nine,” Neal agreed.

“Boss, I beamed one of the drones in with the husky. Someone very recently cut her arm where the marker is. It may have been after she died as there’s hardly any blood and no one bothered to dress the wound.”

“Now that opens up some possibilities – ouch!” Neal exclaimed as a tool he was using slipped. “Damnit. Warn the others to be on the lookout for a female hyena with a wound on her arm.”

“You think she’s trying to find a different way out?”

“If those are their nine, I think so. How’s the male in charge enjoying being stuck in the dark?”

“Not too well, in fact he’s been using your name in vain quite a bit since I put a drone in there with him and his boys.”

“Well, let’s stir that pot a little, perhaps some new data will boil to the top. Audio only.”

“Live mike,” Tess warned him.

“Hey, Brinkly!” Neal’s voice boomed into the pitch-black room. “Enjoying the peace and quiet of your crypt? I figured I’d just seal the tunnels and let you die down there in the dark.”

“You can’t do this! You-you have to arrest us!”

“If you wanted to be arrested, then you should have asked one of those nice police officers your boys kidnapped. As for me ‘not’ being able to kill you, I don’t have to. To kill you I need do nothing at all,” Neal informed him.

“And you claim to not be like us!”

“Oh, I can lower myself to your level of beliefs. Let’s see, you’re not my cousin and you’re definitely not my brother, which makes you an outsider. And I’ve seen how you prefer to treat outsiders. You know, you’re right; by your standards I’ve been much too kind to an outsider. Please allow me a moment to rectify my error. Tess?”

“Audio off, Boss. What would you like?”

“Does Alpha still have that bad-cop flash-bang?”

“Yes.”

“I want you to come up with a way to strap it to him so he can’t remove it. Add a trigger to blow it if he leaves the area of that drone. Oh, and pull the marker out of that dead hyena and embed it in him.”

“That could be painful, Boss.”

“He is not my brother, I care not about any pain he might suffer,” Neal told her. “But if someone’s trying to use those markers to find and recover the nine, I want him to take them a little going away present from me.”

“Okay, Boss. It’s done. Since you weren’t worried about pain levels I wrapped the straps to the flash-bang through his ribs so there’s no way to remove it without killing him. I’m assuming you didn’t want to say goodbye?”

“No. Their signals should start tripping those markers as our cloud dies off. See if you can’t make his the last one they can detect.”

“Can do, Boss. Oh, nag mode engaged. Eat something already, you’re planning on making a long night of it.”

“Disengage nag mode,” Neal muttered before taking a bite from the ration dispenser built into his suit.

“Disengaged until you start misbehaving again,” Tess allowed.

* * *

As with Tootles, their PTVs’ codes got them waved through the security gates of Frostpoint and Charlie’s main freight hatch was open for their PTVs to roll up and into the ship.

They all gathered in the galley, as it was the largest non-cargo room in the ship.

“Hmmm, looks like there used to be food replicators in here at one time,” Nightsky commented as shi peered into one of the large holes in the far wall.

“None on the Folly either,” Graysocks reminded hir. “Might be a story in that.”

Nightsky grinned at the foxtaur as shi said, “Well, we know it isn’t because he’s anti-tech.”

“Tess, just what are in these?” Weaver asked, looking at one of two boxes strapped to one of the tables.

“Emergency rations,” Tess replied. “We’ve actually ordered some better supplies, but they haven’t been transferred to the ships and shuttles yet.”

“Tess, we know Neal isn’t hard up for credit, why does it seem like he’s living as if he is?” Weaver asked.

“All things are relative, or so Neal keeps telling me,” Tess said. “If something happened that Neal had to take this ship out without time to properly supply or load her, then food will probably be the last thing on his mind. In that case food is just fuel to keep his body going, he won’t care what it is.”

“The last thing on his mind,” Roseberry repeated, looking thoughtful. “Tess, what did our captain have for dinner tonight?”

“I’ve managed to get him to take a bite of a ration bar,” Tess admitted. “It’s hard to get him to eat when there’s work that needs to be done.”

“That’s why he has you for a keeper,” shi softly said. “Someone to make sure he eats and takes care of himself.”

“We should be able to help more with that,” Morningmist said with a grin. “For one thing, we don’t have any override codes he can use to tell us to shut up!”

Several of them were now frowning, but it was Cindy that moved to open the box Weaver had been examining. “If they’re good enough for the captain,” she said as she extracted one of them.

Quickdash was next to move. A glance at hir partner in crime and shi flipped one at Holly before getting one for hirself.

“We can still go out and get you something else if you’d prefer,” Alex offered Weaver as he pulled one out.

“No,” she softly said. “I think one of these will do well enough for me as well.”

“Shouldn’t the taurs be having a couple of them?” Cindy asked.

“No,” Mike said as he read the label. “Each one is a full day’s calories and nutrients for an average human or biped morph. So you’re the one eating too much rather than me eating too little.”

“Not a problem,” Alex said. “I want her to build up some more muscle mass anyway.”

“Anything else while we’re all together?” Redtail asked with a yawn.

“Yeah, there is,” Shadowcrest said. Walking over so that shi stood in front of Quickdash, shi squatted down so they were more on the same level. Leaning forward so they were almost muzzle to muzzle shi snarled, “I don’t care that you’re a ’mil. I don’t care that you get mad or about your pain sticks. You are still my sister.”

There was a growl of agreement around the room as shi reached out to hug hir younger sister to hir, the others then taking their turns.

Quickdash’s chin was quivering a little as the last of the teens gave hir a hug. Calmmeadow snorted lightly in amusement. “You didn’t really think we’d reject you – did you?”

“It can be bad sometimes,” Quickdash softly said.

“I think we’ll manage,” hir older sister told hir. “Just let us know, okay?”

* * *

“Boss, it looks like the interference has dropped enough for the FTL relay to get through for regular connections.”

“How’s Poseidon’s search going?”

“They should start detecting the markers any time now. On a related note, I may have located the hyena that put her marker in the husky.”

“Oh?”

“I couldn’t use the transporters on some of the females because they were pregnant.”

“Understood, the transporter’s mind matrix has issues when there’s more than one mind in a body.”

“Well anyway, I had the bots heading for where I’d found the females being held when a hyena female tried to join the group being held. Several of the ones already in the holding block seemed to go crazy and they managed to beat her to death before I could get the bots in there. Her right arm had been recently bandaged.”

“The prisoners knew she wasn’t one of them,” Neal guessed.

“That was half the battle,” Tess told him. “The other half came after I got them to Drop One and airlifted to the local hospital. All those that had been held for more than a couple of hours are demanding abortions. The hospital’s doctors and councilors are trying to talk them out of it.”

“I would guess they’re having little luck on that line of reasoning,” Neal muttered.

“You’d guess right, they want those monsters – their words – out and destroyed.”

“And I don’t want the sect to have a rallying point, even mixed breed offshoots; so I’d agree with the girls.”

“Nothing we can do about it, Boss. A couple of them are already on suicide watches.”

“We can’t, but maybe we can. See if Tiffany will still speak to me.”

“How bad is it?” Tiffany asked a minute later.

“Bad, but it could have been much worse if any of their shots had actually hit us,” Neal replied.

“Star Fleet’s supposed to be sending a ship.”

“Unless they have something closer than we know of, we’ll have a day to get a few things straightened out before having to deal with them.”

“I don’t like the way you said that,” Tiffany told him.

“The rape victims want abortions,” Neal softly said.

“How the hell did you know that?” she demanded.

“Because they were demanding it from the moment they were rescued.”

“The doctors –”

“Are looking at the physical to the detriment of the mental. Those girls need to know it’s over, and not have a piece of it forever reminding them of their ordeal.”

“The councilors are trying to convince them to have the fetuses moved to incubators.”

Neal sighed. “Closure is knowing the monster is dead, not that it’s simply been hidden. They need to know that this won’t be coming back to haunt them. Give them that closure.”

“Or you will?” she asked.

“Please don’t make me do it.”

Tiffany frowned before saying, “And you will if you have to, I know. Hell, the whole planet knows by now that you’ll do whatever you think you have to.”

Neal snorted. “Yeah, I heard it was a toss-up on whether I was attacking or they were.”

“That at least has been dealt with,” Tiffany told him. “Some news crews are already near the compound and broadcasting the remains of those ‘smoking guns’.”

“I hate to cut in,” Tess told them, “but I thought you’d like to know that Poseidon has started beaming up those markers we’d detected.”

“What markers?” Tiffany asked.

Nine markers,” Neal informed her. “Embedded in the arms of nine people.”

“Can you stop them?”

“They seem to be ignoring the dead one,” Tess reported. “Ah, they picked up your little souvenir last, just as you wanted them to.”

“Souvenir?”

“I was having Tess return that flash-bang we pulled from that PTV in the river,” Neal clarified.

Tiffany’s eyes had just started to widen when Tess said, “Oh my, Poseidon is having something of a problem. My scans are showing they’ve had some type of engineering issue; their warp core is fluctuating all over the place, it could – excuse me, it seems they just lost containment.”

“Nice of them to go out with a bang for us,” Neal remarked, his comment barely readable on the ground because of the new interference source. “How are things looking at the compound?”

“Those still alive are doing that suicide by cop thing, shooting until someone puts them out of everyone’s misery,” Tess warned them. “I don’t think there’ll be any of the clan left by morning.”

“Just as well, less for Fleet to try to rehabilitate this time,” Neal said as Tiffany’s connection started to clear.

“Is there any way that blast could be connected to you?” Tiffany asked.

“No,” Tess replied. “All our transporting facilities are currently offline, and Alpha, Baker, Delta and Charlie don’t have the range from where they’re sitting. Whatever ‘happened’ they beamed it aboard themselves. Their transporter pad was in engineering, so a problem with one could affect the other.”

“The less lies I have to tell the better,” Tiffany reminded them.

“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,” Neal quipped. “And they can’t get you for making lucky guesses.”

“Great,” Tiffany growled. “More reports coming in from the latest ‘bang’.”

“The station was actually closer to them than we were,” Tess pointed out. “And their scans should show that the Poseidon was using her transporters prior to whatever happened.”

“That’ll help,” Tiffany allowed. “Anything you need from me?”

“Not that I can think of,” Neal said. “Tess? Anything Weaver or the kids need?”

“No, they’ve decided to rough it for tonight,” Tess said.

“What do you mean by ‘rough it’?” Tiffany asked before Neal could.

“When they found out Neal was going to be spending the night working they decided sleeping in Charlie one night wasn’t that much a hardship; and they decided if all the captain was getting to eat was a ration bar then that was good enough for them as well.”

Neal snorted. “I’m eating a rat bar so I don’t have to waste the time getting out of this suit just to dig up something else,” he muttered. “Remind me to load a few other edibles elsewhere after we’re done with our current crisis.”

“Yes, Boss.”

“So I think we’re done with you for now, Tiff,” Neal said.

“It’s still going to be a long night for a lot of us,” Tiffany agreed before the connection dropped.

“And how are we doing?” Neal asked as he closed the panel he had been working behind.

“I’ve got your supplies ready for your next three main junctions. From my testing on what we’ve fixed so far suggests a good number of the sub-junctions were damaged by feedback across them and may also need repairs.”

“Damn. How’s our heat problem?”

“Stabilized, though it’s starting to leak into the surrounding rooms and corridors. I can’t start cooling anything down until we have power to those areas.”

“Okay, have your bots do what they can with the substations while I get the main ones reconnected.”

“Of course, Boss. And you had me keep the secondaries offline for deniability.”

“If we didn’t have the power, we couldn’t have done it,” Neal agreed.

 

 


 

Aftermath

 

Morning came, and with it came peace, as the fighting at the compound seemed to be over.

As those of the Brinkly clan would give no quarter, they in turn were given none and died to the last being. A few more hostages and the clan’s children were found dead, killed when their captors realized that they weren’t going to win out in the end.

Above, Folly coasted again in her original orbit; Tess fielding a few calls and requests while she and Neal continued their repairs.

To the north, the temporary crew of Charlie woke to face a new day. An inventory of their meager belongings produced two toothbrushes and one hairbrush that were shared to get the group presentable before they went out for breakfast.

The diner they settled on was busy, but not so busy that they failed to take note of a hyena when he entered.

The hyena had started to walk over to their tables, only to stop when he saw how intently the teens were watching him. Smiling slightly at all the stares and glares he was getting, he pulled his vest back just enough to reveal a comm badge.

Tapping it, he said, “Tess, please introduce me before one of your crew does something foolish.”

“Like take a shot at you?” Tess’ voice replied. From the other badges she said, “Everyone relax, this hyena’s a friend of the captain.”

The hyena grinned as their expressions changed, though he wondered if he didn’t see a little disappointment in a couple of them. Stepping over to Weaver’s table, he gave her a small bow.

“You must be the Weaver Tess has warned me to behave myself around. I am Howey, a longtime associate of Neal’s.”

Weaver frowned slightly as she said, “It’s nice to meet you, but I’m afraid Neal’s a bit tied up at the moment.”

“As I am well aware,” Howey agreed. “And it is because he is ‘busy’ that I am here. While the ports and security forces were very happy to have had Neal’s help with the Brinkly clan, the emergency for the most part is now ‘over’ and they’d just as soon not have Tess remoting everything everywhere.”

“Meaning?” Weaver asked.

“Meaning I will be bringing you a flight crew later in the day when you’re ready to return to the Folly,” he explained.

“More proof we have a lot to learn,” Mike commented from a neighboring table, several of his siblings nodding in agreement.

Howey grinned at them. “Apply yourselves and you could have your basic flight licenses in a year,” he told them. “But I will give you one small word of advice. Your captain can be quite the taskmaster. If you pursue this endeavor, be very sure this is what you want before asking for his help with it.”

“Are you saying he goes overboard on the training?” Mike asked.

“I mean the more he cares the harder he’ll push,” Howey told them. “If he thinks you’re just ‘good enough’ he’ll force you to become better.”

“You sound like you know this from personal experience,” Weaver commented.

“You could say that,” Howey agreed. “He was once sent three pilots in training for evaluation. The two thought to be the better pilots he rejected after their very first runs. The third, which the other instructors had been ready to drop, he ‘borrowed’ for a month.” Howey snorted lightly, “Kid left a nervous wreck, came back with so much calm and so rock solid in flight they had him drug tested. It seemed that after whatever ‘Old Man Foster’ had done to him those other instructors just weren’t that scary to him anymore.”

“People actually call him that?” Alex asked.

Not often to his face,” Howey assured him. “And not unless they are very good friends indeed.”

“He doesn’t seem old enough to have earned that title,” Weaver commented.

Howey just grinned. “You’ll figure it out sooner or later,” he promised her. Giving her another small bow he said, “I understand we’ll be waiting on Tess to tell us when Neal’s ready for you to return, so you’re free to do a little shopping or sightseeing while you wait. Call on me if you need anything,” he added before he turned to go.

Chakat Roseberry waited until Howey had left before saying, “I didn’t feel any outright lies from him, but he was highly amused about something.”

“Brajet was too when she first saw us,” Graysocks reminded hir. “It’s almost like we’re too close to whatever the joke is to see it.”

“Something to do with Neal,” Calmmeadow agreed. “But how can we find out?”

“We could just ask him,” Mike said. “But for some reason I’m starting to think we won’t be getting a straight answer that way.” “Yeah,” Alex chuckled. “So far he’s been full of surprises.”

“Enough to scare anyone away?” Cindy wondered.

“Thinking of going home?” Weaver asked her.

“Oh, no,” Cindy told her. “He’ll have to get a lot scarier than this before I think Bright Hope looks better than the Folly, no matter what he broke up there.”

“Any bets that some of our parents are still freaking out?” Roseberry asked with a laugh.

“Maybe,” Dusk allowed, thinking of hir own parents. “Though they’ve had the night to get over it.”

“Or to wind them up even more,” Morningmist warned them. “We need to make sure we’re more upbeat on our next few calls.”

“Or maybe not,” Mike countered. “My mom knows me being too upbeat means I’m hiding how bad things really are from her.”

Alex nodded. “My dad’s the same way. Honesty’s the better policy.”

“So, are we going shopping or not?” Nightsky asked.

* * *

And shopping the crew did go. And they did lunch. And still more shopping. And even an evening meal before the call finally came that they could return to the Folly.

Throughout it all they didn’t go out of their way to admit they may or may not have been from the Folly, or that they might have known anything special about the previous evening’s events. Though it was sometimes hard with some of the rumors and speculations they heard making the rounds.

“They seem to think he’s twenty meters tall and eats a whole platoon of Rakshan Marines for breakfast!” Brighteyes laughed.

“Na, they only think he’s eighteen meters tall,” Alex corrected with a grin of his own.

“Any way you look at it, they think he’s larger than life,” Calmmeadow conceded. “The question is: what do we do about it?”

“I’d suggest not hiding in the bottom of the nest,” Mike said. “I’d hate to have to watch him beat up on poor Cindy again.”

“Just keep doing what you were doing,” Tess’ voice told them. “There will be parts of this mess you can help with, but your studies and training come first. As does your health. You won’t want him grounding you for overdoing it.”

“And you’ll tattle if we do,” Quickdash told her.

“Only if you force me to,” Tess told hir. “As he told you and Holly, much worse than any punishment he might decide on is the loss of trust. There’re too many things for even a hundred Neals to watch and maintain on a ship as large and complex as the Folly, and no way at all to fly her if he can’t trust the computers. So covering for something you did might force him to lower his trust in me and thus in us being able to make this run successfully.”

“I’ll try to be good,” shi quietly said.

“Try to be Quickdash instead,” Tess told hir. “You’re not our first run-in with a ’mil, and Neal thinks both you and he will survive the ordeal.”

“Easy for you to say, you know all his little quirks,” Alex pointed out. “We on the other hand don’t know what might set him off.”

“Alex – all of you – he didn’t change yesterday. He’s the same crazy nutcase that adopted you. He’s the one wanting you to do what you can and do it well,” Tess told them. “All you saw was what happens when someone hits said nutcase with a problem that has to be solved at all costs. If lives are at stake, he’ll pull out all the stops.”

“Even to destroying his ship?” Mike wondered.

“Damaged, and not really all that badly,” Tess corrected. “Let me see if I can get you to see it from our point of view. You’ve been on Parakit on and off for almost three days now. Have you seen a lot of people?”

“Sure,” Mike agreed.

“Pick one you remember.”

“Okay.”

“Now put a price on their head.”

“What?” he said in surprise.

“A price,” Tess repeated. “A value you would be willing to beg, borrow, cheat or steal if there was a chance it would save their life. And then multiply that by all those that were at risk of death or worse if Neal hadn’t crushed the clan before they could go fully on the offensive. I think that if you look at it that way you’ll see that we actually got off pretty cheaply. Neal seems to think so anyway.”

The silence was profound as the PTVs carried them to the port and up into Charlie’s cargo bay.

They had almost finished unloading their PTVs when another drove in. Howey and three other furs climbed out before it backed out and disappeared.

“Jack? Help them secure their gear and then you can join us on the bridge,” Howey told one of the two rabbit morphs.

“You got it,” Jack agreed as he headed for the teens and the other PTVs.

“You’re going to help take us up?” Alex asked as the rabbit grabbed one of the packages the teens had been unloading from the PTVs.

“That, and I’m also your loadmaster for this trip,” Jack told him. “The quicker we get you properly stowed away the quicker we can be off.”

As well as helping them move their packages, Jack explained as he secured them how and why he was tying down each item. The PTVs left once they were unloaded for their trips back to their storage containers back at Tootles.

As Charlie’s bridge was far too small for all the teens, much less all the kids and Howey’s flight crew, most watched from screens in the galley with just Weaver and Starblazer representing them on the bridge itself.

“Frostpoint Port, this is Charlie, ready to depart to dock at the Folly.”

Charlie, we have a shuttle launching in the next few minutes, you’re clear any time after that. Is that Chad I’m hearing?”

“Yeah, Suz, they’re letting me take her up.”

“Old Man Foster’s crazier than I thought if he’s letting a newbie like you fly one of his ships!”

“First off, I’ll have you know I was flying one of his heavy shuttles yesterday without any incidents. Second, I don’t think anyone’s bothered mentioning it to him,” Chad admitted.

“Ha!” Suz replied. “Just remember, going to warp while still in the atmosphere only works in the movies!”

“And only in really bad movies at that,” Chad agreed. “And there goes your shuttle. Starting my launch sequence.”

“Good flight, safe docking, Charlie. Frostpoint clear.”

Charlie clear and boosting,” Chad replied as Charlie began to lift off the pad.

Looking over at Howey, Weaver commented, “So, you saddled us with someone still learning how to fly?”

Howey grinned but didn’t look up from his control boards. “He’s not so bad. Besides, this beast is easier to launch off a pad than trying to launch Baker out of a heavily wooded area without starting any forest fires.”

“And just what is a ‘Baker’?” she wondered.

“Near twin to your Alpha, just another large scale heavy-lift shuttle,” Howey told her. “Good transition, kid,” he added to Chad as Charlie switched from belly thrusters to her aft ones. “I take it the good Captain Foster hasn’t been telling you every little thing,” he commented.

“No, he hasn’t,” Weaver agreed with a slight growl.

Howey chuckled. “Don’t feel too bad about it, he does the same thing to pretty much everyone.”

“If you don’t mind a question,” Mike’s voice said, “How did you get Baker ‘down’ without starting any fires?”

“No, I don’t mind your questions; Chad can handle things for a bit. Neal and Tess got him down without setting things on fire by heavy use of the anti-gravity systems and steam.”

“Steam?”

“You know we use water for our thrust mass. Most often we heat the water to the point we can ‘burn’ it for thrust. In this case Tess had Baker waste a lot of water just jetting steam out the thrusters after he got low enough that there was a risk of setting things on fire.”

“That would still kill most of the plants and any animals in those spots,” Mike commented.

“True,” Howey agreed, “but the death wouldn’t then spread like a fire could have. And as this was to have Baker nearby as another possible prong of Neal’s attack on the clan’s compound, we really didn’t want to be sending up any accidental smoke signals.”

“Why was it that Neal was attacking them in the first place?” Weaver asked.

Howey let out a long breath before replying. “Because the rest of us were caught out completely by surprise. We knew about the clan and we thought we had a handle on them. We called Neal in thinking we were closing them down once and for all, but we’d misjudged how far along they were in their own plans.”

“The bank and the road,” Alex’s voice said.

“And killing that weapons platform before they could get their hands on it,” Howey agreed. “We had no contingency plans in place that could handle them already having live ones.”

“Why not Star Fleet?” Weaver asked.

“We tried them, but they weren’t taking the threat seriously. Of course they might have if we’d had any proof the clan had those heavy weapons.”

Charlie was part of a link between a Tiffany Wallsom and a Lieutenant Cambell in Star Fleet, earlier,” she told him.

“And I’ll bet our dear Tiff skinned them with a very dull knife?” Howey guessed.

“They’re sending a ship,” she told him.

“Good thing Neal’s already done the hard part for them,” Howey said before touching his panel. “Folly, this is Charlie. Are you up to handling a student driver, or shall we let the automatics handle the docking?”

Charlie, this is Folly, I’m just finishing the resets on the docking and tractor beam systems now. Bay Two is opening for you guys. Bay Eight is already open for the heavies, Neal needs to check them over after their little excursions.”

“Thanks, Tess. How’s the old man holding up?”

“He’s holding – I just wouldn’t annoy him if you happen to see him holding anything heavy that might also be throw-able.”

“A little overtired is he?” Howey chuckled.

“He got up a bit early yesterday, and what a busy day it has been so far,” Tess reminded him.

“I’ll admit I did manage to get in a couple of hours of sleep,” Howey confessed.

“He allowed me to nag him to eat, but not to sleep just yet,” Tess told him. “But he’s reaching his limits.”

“No need to keep him up on our account.”

“Sadly the odds are poor for him getting any rest anytime soon. I spotted a Star Fleet vessel dropping out of warp, and they’ll be here in less than a local hour.”

“We could handle Fleet for him,” Howey suggested.

“No, they’ll want to speak to the captain, and it’ll be better if they face an overtired Neal than an overtired Neal they just made me wake up.”

“We can at least do the heavies for him, now that things are quieting down and there’s cargo to move,” Howey pointed out.

“Go ahead and inspect the heavies for him; if he complains I’ll start nagging him again about it being well past his bedtime,” Tess agreed.

 

 


 

Home is Where You Lay Your Head

 

“Warm bodies incoming,” Tess warned him as he closed the latest panel he’d been working under.

“I think I left my happy face in my other suit,” Neal muttered as he popped his helmet and clipped it to his side.

In his hurry to get things done, and ignoring one too many of Tess’ little nag warnings, he’d let his suit batteries run a bit too low. As this had meant his cooling systems had died before he’d finished the job and recharged; Neal now looked like he’d been in a sauna too long, and smelled like he’d been living in the suit for a full week rather than just a day.

“I’m not so worried about your ‘happy’ face as I am that ‘urge to smash something’ face you’ve been wearing,” Tess informed him.

Neal gave her a smile that could be used to frighten small children and terrify older ones.

“Stop that,” Tess sternly told him. “They’ve been worried about you.”

“How many of them are coming back?” he wondered as he trudged towards the finally working translift.

“All of them.”

“All?”

“They’re willing to sleep in the secondary hull or in Charlie if they have to – and they want to help where they can.”

“Huh, I thought for sure the risk of getting shot at would have had at least some of them thinking ‘there’s no place like home’,” he muttered.

“You’ll just have to try harder if you really want to get rid of this bunch,” Tess teased him. “We’ll also have Howey’s crews up in the hangar bays. They’ll inspect Alpha and Baker before taking loads down.”

“Do a very close scan of Alpha, no telling what damage their small arms fire may have done to him.”

“I will, though the main damage seems to be the outer hatch on his leg – it’s not holding pressure. Oh, and Star Fleet will be here soon after Charlie docks. Do you want them on one of the external docking ports?”

“If they shuttle over, you can park them in Bay Eight, right next to wherever Drop One ends up.”

“So they can see it wasn’t all fun and games? I can do that.”

“Depending on who they sent, it might help to cool their jets a bit.”

“Random chance as they were in a rush to get ‘anything Fleet’ out here,” Tess reminded him.

“I know, hope for the best …”

“And have a counterattack ready for the worst,” Tess finished for him. “Charlie just docked, their student driver did a nice job of it.”

“Maybe I should put my helmet back on.”

“Boss …”

* * *

Weaver was the first out of Charlie, stopping dead in her tracks on seeing Neal. The suit may have helped hide some of his slouch, but his hair was matted to his scalp and he looked exhausted.

“And so my foolish fool foolishly returns,” he quipped, the tired smile he offered her much safer than the one he’d given Tess earlier.

“I just had to come back and see what my idiot has been up to while out of my sight,” she gently retorted, not liking how said idiot seemed ready to tip over and crash to the deck.

“Same old same old, I went and pushed something a little too hard and it went and broke on me,” he said.

“It looks like it tried to break you in the process,” she said as she came closer as the kids came out behind her. Giving him a hesitant lick-kiss, she added, “And you seem to be in need of another shower.”

“The advantage of having a mere human nose is I don’t smell anywhere near as bad to me as I do to you,” he half joked. “But I will hit the shower after I’ve dealt with our Star Fleet friends.”

She smiled and said nothing about the outside of his suit also smelling like it had been in a fire or something nearly as hot as one.

“Shuttles are docking,” Tess announced. “You wanted to see what was left of Drop One?” she reminded him.

“Local screen,” Neal requested.

Tractor beamed to Alpha for the flight up, Tess now used Folly’s tractor beams to move the small shuttle to one of the other docking ports. She rotated the craft so her cameras could pick up the damage done to it.

Frowning at the views, Neal said, “I take it the troop section didn’t hold its atmosphere?”

“No, Boss. Valves and ducting for that section were damaged when it was hit. I kept it low when moving Jeff and friends.”

“Anything we can’t replace out of stores?”

“We’ll have to replace both aft thrusters if you want a matched set, and the armor will have to be custom made unless you want me to go shopping for parts,” Tess warned him.

“It’s still too useful to toss. Make a start on the armor and gather the other toys we’ll need.”

“Fabricator and most of those parts are most of the way aft; shall I move Drop One back to the aft bay?”

“Maybe after Fleet has come and gone,” Neal suggested.

* * *

The Star Fleet destroyer Silent Lady had been on pirate hunting duties while breaking in a new crew and command team when the call had come in to investigate an attack on the planet Parakit. It hadn’t helped that follow-up information had left them with far more questions than answers.

Parking one hundred and fifty kilometers from the freighter their captain wanted to visit allowed ample room in case either ship found a sudden need to maneuver. A request for an unofficial visit had been made and granted, and a shuttle was soon dispatched.

The captain sat halfway down the shuttle. Through the open panels forward he could see his shuttle pilots getting him where he wanted to be while behind him sat his security team, a heavyset bear morph and a chakat, but it was his fellow officers that he was paying the most attention to.

His first officer, a chakat named ‘Thursday’ for some reason, had found something on the rapidly growing freighter to hold hir interest and shi had already made several requests back to their ship for information and of scans in addition to the ones shi was making from the shuttle.

His chief engineer on the other hand had found nothing of interest after his initial scan of the same freighter. The human sat now glaring at the approaching ship.

The ferret morph let out a silent sigh on how the one he would need the most for this little visit was currently giving him the least. On the other hand, his first officer might again surprise him with things he hadn’t even considered.

His first surprise though was not from his first officer but when his pilots aimed them for one of the freighter’s internal docking bays rather than one of the many external ports. The next was what was parked at the docking collars just above the one they’d been assigned.

“Somebody almost didn’t make it,” Shir Thursday remarked as shi ran a scan over the damaged drop shuttle.

“Probably bought it for scrap,” the human beside hir remarked.

“That armor damage is fresh,” shi countered. “Scans suggest maybe a day old.”

“Proves nothing,” the human muttered.

“It proves someone was firing a rather big gun, and this Captain Foster was in the thick of it,” shi countered. “I also picked up quite a bit of recent heat damage around some the Folly’s exhaust ports, the why of which we might also want to look into.”

As the docking port was aft in the shuttle, security exited first, the captain leading his officers while the pilots remained with their craft.

Still in his suit, Neal greeted his guests. “Captain White, long time no see,” Neal told the ferret.

“And you, Captain Foster. Why is it almost always when you’ve been up to something ‘interesting’?” the ferret replied with a slight grin.

While the captains exchanged light and apparently friendly jabs at each other, one of the lieutenants simply glared at them while the other noted Weaver and the teens watching the banter with some confusion. Shi also noted a chakat youth idly playing with some type of wand while the youth in turn glared at the glaring lieutenant.

“You’re like a bad penny while I’m no rest for the wicked?” Neal asked.

“That would explain you looking almost dead on your feet,” White agreed. “Was the inner dock so we could admire your slightly scorched shuttle?”

Neal snorted. “None of the forward docking ports had power an hour ago. As I needed some of the inner ones sooner, they’re the ones that we’ve just finished resetting. If you’d been just a little earlier you’d have been docking all the way aft.”

“Can’t we just skip the pleasantries and get on to your illegal weapons?” the Silent Lady’s chief engineer muttered at them.

Neal frowned slightly at Captain White as he said, “What weapons might those be, Ensign?”

“That’s Lieutenant to you, Captain,” he snarled.

“Ah, of course. An ensign would have known better than to interrupt his captain’s conversation,” Neal agreed.

“Lieutenant Moores hasn’t been with us very long,” Captain White allowed with a frown of his own.

“And wasn’t properly trained by those that came before you it seems,” Neal added, his frown deepening.

“Sir,” Moores said addressing the ferret, “we know he has weapons – it’s the only way he could have done what he did to the planet! Why are we pussy-footing around like this?”

“Maybe because he’s smarter than you are?” Neal said with a dangerous edge to his voice. “You want to see my ‘big guns’, little man? Follow me,” he said as he turned and stalked away, the others having to hurry to keep up with him.

Leading them to a translift, Neal mashed a command into the control panel rather than speaking out loud. The translift soon opened on a new corridor and Neal stomped out followed by Moores and the others, Chakat Thursday placing a hand on hir captain’s shoulder to slow him while signaling for the security team to drop back. While cool, the air here held a tint of scorch to it, as if something had gotten very hot very recently.

The reason for the scorched odor became apparent as they continued down the passageway, the wall to one side having had most of its finish blistered off and that side of the floor matting was actually crunching under their foot pads.

Neal came to a stop at the edge of a doorway that no longer said what it led to. “My big guns,” he said waving Moores forward. “They did get a bit warm firing this last time,” he added.

Moores almost walked into the doors – which hadn’t automatically opened for him. He turned to glare at Neal for the delay.

“They sometimes stick,” Neal said in a seemingly apologetic manner before stepping back and hitting the door release with his still gloved fist.

The doors opened to what looked like a glowing inferno; force fields kept the air from rushing in to restart the fires, but did nothing to stop the waves of heat radiating outward.

“Damn, even dumber than I thought,” Neal muttered as he hit the door control again to close them.

Moores hadn’t even tried to get away from the heat, only trying to cover his face with his hands as he screamed and his hair smoldered.

“Now, would the lieutenant like to see my other big guns? They’re only slightly warmer than these are,” Neal offered with the grin he’d given Tess earlier.

“I think the lieutenant has learned enough lessons for one day,” Captain White suggested. “He can only absorb knowledge so fast, you know.”

“I would say I’m sorry and it’s just me being overtired, but it’s not and I can’t,” Neal admitted as the bear half of the security team led the now very well scorched lieutenant away.

“I believe my first officer detected that you were about to give someone a very painful object lesson,” Captain White commented. “Now whether it sticks remains to be seen.”

“Still, I usually go a little easier on morons the first time around,” Neal muttered. “Must be more tired than I thought.”

“Or your subconscious picked up on something you didn’t,” Tess’ voice told them.

“Oh? And what would that be?” Neal asked.

“Only that this isn’t the first time you’ve had to deal with that particular moron. Think back just over twenty-three years ago, Star Fleet Academy had asked you to audit some of their classes while you were taking a break in playing freighter captain,” Tess suggested. “Think of a warp core class you attended where an instructor had over half his information dead wrong.”

“And kept flunking the kids who were getting the right answers in spite of him being wrong? I thought they’d run him all the way out of Fleet after that,” Neal half protested.

“It seems he had and still has some highly placed patrons,” Lieutenant Thursday said. “It’s taken them this long to try to ‘rehabilitate’ him after you shot him down so soundly.”

“And you guys got stuck with him? Who hates you that much?” he asked Captain White.

“It was a lesser of the evils type decision,” the ferret replied with a tight grin.

“Much as I noticed you seem to be running a crew – or a daycare center?” Thursday slyly commented.

“I’ll take them times a dozen rather than trying to put up with what you’re suffering through,” Neal countered.

Captain White smiled as he said, “You must be pretty tired to admit you actually like kids.”

Some kids, and yeah, I am,” Neal allowed.

“Go get some sleep, Neal. I’m sure your Tess can give us more than enough to keep us busy while you take some downtime,” the ferret kindly suggested.

“Download just waiting for your transfer authorization, Captain White.”

“You have it. And we can see ourselves out. Please put your captain to bed, Tess.”

“Thanks, Perry. I’m sure we’ll cross horns again before this is all over and done with,” Neal said as he turned to head back to the translifts.

The ferret and his chakats watched him shuffle out of sight before he said, “Is he going to be all right?”

“Yes, Captain White,” Tess replied. “Just dead on his feet, the why I think you’ll find in your download. A couple of those ‘kids’ are waiting by the translift door to peel him out of that suit and get him cleaned up before they drop him in his bed.”

“Thank you, Tess.”

“I take it you’ve dealt with Captain Foster and Tess before,” Chakat Thursday commented as they returned to their shuttle.

“A number of times,” the ferret admitted without saying more.

“Senior Academy forum,” shi said after a moment. “We were being ‘shipped out’ to a training area in a space habitat built into a forty-meter pod like those weapon platforms. A few of us thought we’d ‘explore’ the freighter they’d hired to move us. Fortunately, the ship’s captain was more amused than angry with us.”

The ferret’s smile was faint as he said, “I imagine you and your friends did not find it quite as amusing.”

“Not at the time, no sir,” shi agreed. “His cargo handling system is fully automated and anything that can handle loaded containers had no problem pushing around a few dozen cadets.”

“And what type of test did they give you?”

“Surviving a meteoroid strike,” the chakat quietly said as shi remembered it. “They kicked us out of the pod in suits and then several chunks of iron were shot through it to simulate a swarm. We weren’t allowed out of our suits until we had made it livable again.”

The ferret’s smile grew as he asked, “Did they include some micrometeorites to liven up your training?”

“Yeah,” shi muttered. “And one of them went right through the main computer module. Which meant along with everything else we had to manually monitor and control our air and waste filtering.”

“The sub-computers wouldn’t handle it?”

“The big rocks had ‘removed’ them from the equation.”

“Very devious of someone.”

“Yeah. We ‘lost’ half our group due to errors and cock-ups. Some of them more than once.”

“Looking back, was it good instruction?”

“Oh yes, I’m properly paranoid in the safety of my ship and crew.”

They met their security bear at the shuttle.

“I had Lieutenant Moores beamed back to the Lady, sir. He was starting to feel his ‘burn’.”

“Just as well,” White agreed. “We’ll pick up our engineering second and proceed to the planet.”

* * *

Neal remembered saying goodbye to Perry, but he remembered little after that. Someone inexperienced had tried to help him out of his suit – he’d barely stopped them from pulling it off in such a way that it would have yanked the ‘plumbing’ out of him in a rather painful manner. Then there was a shower, though he couldn’t remember if he’d been standing/sitting or just lying there as other hands had cleaned him up. He must have been fed something, as he didn’t wake feeling like he was starving, though again he had no recollection of it.

With sleep had come dreams – and nightmares. The clan’s weapon pods having still had a good enough sensor lock to hit the secondary hull with their first shot, leaving him no way to finish his attack before they finished off him and the remains of his ship. The clan not being fooled by his mock attacks and using their weapons on the closer towns before he could kill them. Charlie lifting, Weaver and the kids coming to help – and he hadn’t actually killed both pods.

But each of the nightmares had faded without waking him. His tired mind sensed others around him and they gave off a strong rebuttal to any of the nightmares that troubled his sleep. They held and comforted him as he recovered.

His wakeup call was a damp nose to his own nose. As this didn’t seem to be enough to get him moving, Starblazer licked it.

Grumbling, Neal rolled over, but then the back of his neck was now open to the lick attack. “I’m up – I’m up already,” he finally complained as he rolled into a sitting position on the bed.

“We were starting to wonder,” Weaver said from behind Starblazer. “You’ve been dead to the world for most of a day.”

Yawning, Neal muttered, “A lot happened ‘yesterday’. Tess, status?”

“Mostly where you left off, Boss,” she told him. “Though at their insistence, most of your crew is doing some of the smaller and safer projects needed to get us back to what passes for normal around here.”

“Anything more from Captain White?”

“Ah, yes, Star Fleet. Well, while still in charge of the investigation, Captain White is no longer the ranking Star Fleet representative in the system. In fact I think he’s actually the junior-most captain of the five Fleet ships currently in orbit. That includes an Admiral Kalren, a Voxxan by the way, on the Rakshan-built Bash. Like the ship, the Bash’s captain is also Rakshan.”

“I noticed I wasn’t rudely woken and dragged away in chains,” Neal commented as he dressed and Weaver tickled Starblazer before placing the kit in her saddlebag.

“No,” Tess agreed. “I understand they’re still reviewing data before having their little ‘board of inquiry’ and deciding what if anything they need to do about you and your actions.”

“How ‘hot’ are things up here?”

“Now that I have the power, the transporter rooms are cooling down. Shirtsleeves temperatures by tomorrow unless you want me to rush things?”

“Tomorrow’s soon enough,” Neal told her. “How are we doing on shipping – and Alpha?”

Alpha’s leak was a phaser strike crossing the outer door seals, a few other hits were inspected but no other repairs were needed. We’re actually a little ahead on our deliveries despite having picked up more orders than we’d lost because of the clan’s interference.”

“Any word or issues from those that appeared to be supporting the clans?”

“Very little,” Tess confessed. “Mostly cannon fodder it seems, no cousins and definitely no brothers.”

“And no sisters?” Neal asked.

“If those with the beacons really were the nine, then they’re all accounted for. I recorded seven of them being beamed to the other ship, the eighth and last to be transported was the beacon that we moved to their male head from the one that died from one of the rooms caving in at some point in your rock throwing, and the ninth died by the hands of her breeders. By the way, said breeders were all allowed to take something to induce labor and none of the fetuses survived. On a more positive note, one of those we rescued turned out to be the half-sister to the herm we took to the hospital.”

“One less worry,” Neal said. “I’ll eat and then see what trouble I can get into.”

“Can you eat and then not see what trouble you can get into?” Weaver asked. “I’d think you’d have enough to do without looking for more.”

Neal smiled as he said, “Like putting out a large fire, there may still be a couple of hot spots I need to either deal with or at least keep an eye on.”

“And there’s still to see if Star Fleet is going to sign off on our actions or want to press any charges,” Tess pointed out to her.

“Some deaths and a certain amount of destruction did occur by my hand,” Neal agreed. “It’s what happens next that could get interesting. Tess, any of those captains ones we’ve had run-ins with?”

“Captain White is the only one that you’ve had any direct contact with. From what I’ve been able to pick up there are some cautious tones out there, but not what I’d call strong negatives to your actions.”

“Thank you, Tess,” Neal said as he and Weaver entered the galley. Someone had thoughtfully set several of Neal’s meal packs near his place; he needed only to decide what type of meal he felt like.

Settling on some ham and eggs, Neal ate as his glasses flickered through the different things going on around the ship. “All the flooring?” he asked on seeing that Tess had marked all of the corridor flooring around the damaged transporter rooms for replacement.

“And those walls and ceilings will need to be resurfaced as well,” Tess added. “Unless you want it to smell like someone went and had a minor meltdown in there?”

“Welcome to hell, abandon any remaining hopes ye who have entered here. Yeah, I guess we should try to offer a slightly better first impression when we beam guests over,” Neal allowed.

“I’ve reduced the atmospheric pressure in the affected areas to help reduce the spread to the rest of the ship.”

“The kids are going to reek of it if they’re working in there,” he commented.

“Got them covered there, Boss; literally in fact. I whipped up some lightweight environmental suits for them and Nightsky is working on some heavier ones for when they enter the transporter rooms themselves.”

“Good enough then. Any issues with transporter rooms three and four?”

“They passed their self-tests and the calibration cubes all came through clear.”

“In that case I’ll spend a little time getting the ones in the secondary hull back online,” Neal said as he got up from the table. Placing the remains of his meal in the appropriate bin, he headed out to start his ‘day’. He hadn’t made it to the translift before he’d gained a pair of shadows.

“I’m not going to be doing anything really interesting,” Neal warned Holly and Quickdash as they joined him in the translift.

“We want to help,” Holly insisted, Quickdash nodding hir agreement.

“In that case you won’t be needing those,” Neal said, indicating the thin suits that covered all but their heads, their clear helmets flipped back.

The youths quickly helped each other out of their suits, revealing the cooling and air units strapped to their lower torsos, which were also removed.

The translift let them out at the primary/secondary hull junction, the hatches were open just wide enough for them to easily pass through and the guardrail was retracted. Dropping their rolled up gear on the bot patiently waiting for them, the youths jumped after Neal.

Their falls slowed as they neared the engineering section, a hatch opened not far from one of the sixteen catwalks that ringed the inside of the secondary hull.

“Main cargo transporters,” Neal told them as they stepped into the large room. “I was in the middle of recalibrating them when I got to Bright Hope and a couple of minor distractions have kept me from finishing up.”

“Can we help?” Quickdash asked.

“Maybe in a little while, but right now I’ll need you two to not bother me for a bit. There’s a set of terminals over there where you can do your lessons or play until I’m ready for assistance,” Neal suggested.

Though they had brought up their studies very little studying was actually accomplished as they spent most of their time watching Neal move between a control console and several transporter pads that each looked larger than the entire six pad set that they’d beamed onto in the primary hull.

After well over an hour fiddling around, Neal finally took notice of them, but only long enough to warn them that they would soon be in zero gravity.

Holly and Quickdash had just grinned at each other as they reached for their belt purses. From each purse they extracted one of the purchases they’d made while Neal had been otherwise occupied. They resembled eight adjustable rings bound together as a unit. Peeling one ring off, Quickdash reached back and slid it onto hir outermost toe on hir right hind foot and adjusted it for a firm but not too tight of a fit, the small ‘gem’ on the ring pointing down between hir footpads. Another on the innermost toe and there was a double-click sound as shi put hir foot back down on the deck. Shi repeated this with hir other foot and both handpaws as Holly did her own feet.

A minute later and they both felt their weights drop to nothing but they remained firmly attached to the deck. As Neal still didn’t seem to have any use for them, they practiced walking around on their magnetic rings.

Neal had simply twisted something on the heel of each of his shoes to get a grip of his own. While nowhere near as strong as regular hull walking magnetic shoes, they would help keep him from floating away yet make it easy to kick off to get where he wanted to be, in this case an access panel up on the high ceiling.

Hearing excessive clicking and giggling, Neal looked down to see what was up. He grinned at the youths’ antics of trying to walk with their new toys before saying, “I think you’ll find it works better if you scrunch your toes to break contact just before you try to lift your feet. Quick, turn your handpaw rings around and try knuckle walking, just roll your wrists to break free.”

“Feels weird, but it is easier,” Holly admitted after a minute.

“And I could be holding onto a tool or something and still walk,” Quickdash added as shi tried the knuckle down approach.

Pulling a set of rings out of his own pocket Neal said, “The heels and toes of my shoes have them built in and you guys should have bought the twelve ring sets to cover your hands as well.”

“Only babies walk on all sixes!” Quickdash complained.

“Babies and spacers, kiddo,” Neal corrected with a chuckle. “Watch them doing actual work sometime and you’ll see every limb is used. Heck, as a chakitten, that tail of yours will be more useful the longer it gets.”

“Until I’m a longtail,” shi said, referring to elderly chakats whose tails could reach several times their body lengths.

“Yeah, there can be issues with ending up with too much tail,” Neal agreed.

Tess took that moment to report, “Calibrations and self-tests complete.”

“Good,” Neal said. “If you two will go to the next room, locker 17B has some little cubes in it, bring me seven of them.”

The two in question hurried out with much clicking. They returned much slower as they tried not to lose any of the rather slippery feeling cubes.

“Something wrong with your tail?” he asked when he saw that Quickdash hadn’t tried to carry any with hirs.

Shi frowned at him, but shi did stop and try to wrap hir tail around one of the ten-centimeter cubes without losing any of the others.

Neal hid a smile at Holly also frowning at him. “You two told me that you wanted to learn,” he reminded them. “If you stick around and stick to your studies I’ll try to see that you learn every way to do just about everything.”

Neal then kicked off the ceiling and twisted to land on his feet in front of them. Taking the cubes two at a time, he placed one to float above each of the transporter pads.

Idly spinning the last cube in his hands Neal said, “Start test sequence.”

A low hum filled the room and the cubes disappeared, only to reappear exactly where they had been. They vanished again only to pop out a meter off the pads, then two meters up before all appearing on one pad. They then shifted from pad to pad until they’d gone around several times.

“Base physical tests complete, crystal structures intact,” Tess stated.

“It’s crystal?” Holly asked.

“Parts of it,” Neal said as he handed her the one he’d kept. Stepping over to the pad holding the six others he picked up and checked each one. “They’re common crystals, cheap to buy and easy to cut. But they’re also easy for a badly tuned transporter to screw up. We can allow for a small amount of error in a transport, but too much can become dangerous for cargo and passengers.”

“How can you tell?” Quickdash asked as shi watched Holly turn her cube around.

“You’ll notice how the fractal patterns on each side grow smaller in the corners?” Neal asked. “A bad transport will smear and blend the crystals together into a mess.” Stepping off the pad, Neal said, “Tess, give us some barely bad transports.”

The cubes again disappeared with a hum, only to return with each of them on a different pad and all but one now having a cloudy look that started at the corners to some point towards the center.

“Bring us up to one G please,” Neal said as he went around and gathered up the cubes, carrying them over to a portable table that had been anchored over on one side, Holly and Quickdash following with their cube. Setting the cubes in a row to one side, Neal took Holly’s and set it on its corner in the middle of the rubbery-looking tabletop.

“Okay,” Neal said. “This is our control, it wasn’t transported, and as we can see the crystals appear clean and sharp.” Taking a rod that had been held on the table by yet another magnet, Neal shattered the cube with a single easy blow. “And it breaks cleanly, no signs of the crystals clinging together.”

Using a small hand broom he swept the remains of the cube to the side before picking up the next cube. He then pointed out the degree of transport error by the amount of cloudiness and clinging each of the other cubes had before shattering them in turn.

“The first one was sent through each of the transporters several times, and as you can see it still looked and broke like our control. The next two,” he said in conclusion of their little lesson, “were within tolerance for a safe transport as far as the Federation regulations are concerned, the third was borderline, and the last two would most likely have killed or damaged anything ‘ported by them.”

“So these are ready for people?” Quickdash asked.

“Not so fast, kiddo, these have passed their tests for non-living cargo. There’s another test for living cargo. I just need something live that I don’t care if I kill to test it with,” he added with a grin at the chakamil youth.

Shi just stuck out hir tongue at him. “Is that why you have the birds?” shi asked after a moment.

“Nah, I like the birds too much for that, but I do have some burrowing slugs all the way from Raksha.”

“Why a slug?” Holly wondered.

“Not just any slug will do,” Neal told them. “This one reacts in a very particular way if it happens to lose its little mind.”

He then opened a sealed drawer under the table, releasing a rather earthy smell. A little gentle fishing around netted him a grub looking thing the size of his finger, which he placed on a disposable plate.

“Tess?” Neal said and the plate and its inhabitant were beamed away. The plate appeared on each of the platforms a number of times before returning to the table.

“So how can you tell if it’s alright?” Holly wanted to know.

“I’ll show you,” Neal replied. “Disable safeties, Tess. One point to point cargo transport please.”

Plate and slug vanished and then reappeared. The slug just sat there for a moment before spraying something nasty smelling across the plate and starting to roll around like crazy.

“And that’s what a mindless Rakshan desert slug looks like,” Neal said. “Some of us use them because they give such a showy reaction to losing all their little mental processes. Most critters just drop and twitch a bit, if that.”

“So what do you do with them?” she asked.

“Well, once you’ve purged the crap out of them, they’re considered a delicacy on more than a few planets,” Neal told them. “Want a taste?” he asked as he offered her the plate.

Holly quickly backed away wrinkling her muzzle, Quickdash was almost as fast.

“Oh well, more for me,” Neal said with a smile as he picked up the still thrashing grub and popped it in his mouth.

“But it smells bad,” Holly protested.

“No,” Neal said around his still squirming mouthful. “It’s what’s still on the plate that smells bad,” he added, offering the plate to them.

Halfway convinced he wasn’t actually eating something nasty, the two youths went back to the dirt drawer to fish out snacks for themselves.

Neal grinned and waited until Quickdash had a grub halfway to hir mouth before saying, “Stop!” At hir glare he said, “What did I do that you haven’t yet?”

The thought must have penetrated because shi made a face and shuddered before placing hir slug on the plate. “Kill it, Tess,” shi commanded.

“You don’t want her to kill it,” Neal said. “You want it to mindlessly eject its waste.”

Laying her grub next to Quickdash’s, Holly said, “Transport them without the brain thingy, please.”

“Without the mind matrix,” Neal corrected. “Go ahead, Tess.”

Fortunately for the youths, the grubs had been laid side by side so they didn’t spray their waste all over each other. Picking up the ones they had caught, the kids sniffed at them before giving the slugs a lick and then popping them in their mouths.

“Weird,” Holly muttered as she chewed on the still wiggling grub.

“Not too bad,” Quickdash allowed.

“And as you can guess, it’s a mean trick indeed to eat a purged one while offering a full of crap one to someone else,” Neal commented. “I’ll thank you not to play such a trick on any of your family members,” he warned.

Eyeing the nasty smelling plate, the youths quickly agreed.

Tess picked that moment to say, “I hate to disturb your bug snack break, Boss, but that little board of inquiry seems to be starting.”

“Have they asked for me?” Neal asked.

“Not yet, and they were kind enough to offer us a live connection to their debates.”

“I’ll head up in a moment then,” he told her.

* * *

“Did you get that data over to Admiral Kalren’s staff?” Captain White asked as his second in command entered the briefing room.

“Yes, Captain, and they in turn had some of the data I was looking for.”

“Oh?”

“On Folly’s transporters and the lack of any recorded Federation certificates on them.”

“I find that rather hard to imagine, as closely as the Federation guards the technology – especially the mind matrix portion of it.”

“Which is why I needed Bash’s help in hunting it down. It seems Captain Foster’s grandfather or maybe his great grandfather either assisted or was in parallel development of the transporters as we know them today. And he had quite the fight to get himself certified as the powers that be at the time wanted all transporter knowledge held tightly under their control.”

“They still do,” Captain White pointed out.

“To a point,” Lieutenant Thursday said with a grin. “It seems the older Foster sort of forced them to make an exception.”

“And how did he manage that not so minor miracle?”

“Well, reading between the lines of the documents from that time, they made him jump through all sorts of hoops before again denying him the rights to maintain his own homebuilt transporters. Reading between still more of those lines suggests they pushed him a little too far and he lost his patience with them.”

“And?”

“Remember this was still the early days and how much mass how far was much more limited. And this was before we knew how to use Boronike to extend the number of transports before they needed to be recalibrated. Well, after their last denial Foster transported himself out of and back into their office as proof he knew what he was doing. When that didn’t sway them, he started transporting them.”

“Oh hell.”

“Oh hell indeed as those transporters would be drifting further out of calibration with each and every transport. Still, there were no reports of any lives lost and he did get his certification,” Thursday said with a smile. “And for some reason the current Foster had no trouble passing his certification requirements.”

“A chip off the old block?”

“Or the testers are afraid to find out. Anyway, the transporters he used are actually closer to our cargo transporters, though they do have mind matrixes installed.”

“Could our transporters have matched what his did?”

“I asked that of our resident transporter expert. The reply was a very strongly worded no with threats of what she’d do to any officer that so much as suggested trying it. Captain Foster did heavy damage to his ship’s transporter and power distribution systems pulling that little stunt of his; we would destroy ours and most likely still not complete the transport.”

“That’s not going to sit well with some,” White commented.

Thursday’s smile wasn’t a pleasant one as shi said, “We’ll just give them the facts without the conjecture, Sir. Let their people tell them any possibly upsetting news – if they ever think to ask.”

White nodded. “A reasonable solution. By the way, communications reported an unauthorized transmission a little while ago,” he said with a raised eyebrow.

“That was one of the reasons I was running a little late. Lieutenant Moores seems to think you and I won’t treat Captain Foster as the ‘dangerously insane’ person that he really is ... in the Lieutenant's opinion anyway,” shi said with a small frown.

“So he went over our heads?”

“He tried. The admiral’s flag lieutenant called me to ask about it. I sent her our little meeting with Captain Foster to help her put whatever he sent in a more appropriate perspective.”

“Were you successful?”

“The way she was laughing at the end? I think Lieutenant Moores is in for a very rude wakeup call if the admiral ever sees his little note,” shi said with an evil grin.

“Anything about that other freighter that blew up for some reason a little after Folly took out the compound?”

Poseidon was the freighter’s name, belonged to that little band of mercenaries that were down there to help set up that third weapons system. Both Folly and the station scanners picked up transporter activity from them shortly before her core breached.”

“Any signs that Folly may have had something to do with it?”

“No, sir. Our scans coming in confirmed that Foster did quite a bit of damage to his ship when he pulled his little stunt, and there was lingering evidence of the damage to his power distribution systems. Enough that there’s no way he could have beamed anything over to Poseidon. The station scans showed the massive power spike when Foster did whatever he did just before total power loss in his forward section. It was clear that even though the cores were intact, the forward systems were running on emergency power.”

“His heavy shuttles have transporters – he used them getting some of those people out. Could they have reached Poseidon?”

“Once again, no, sir. Our scans suggest that their transporters are much shorter ranged than the Folly’s. Though it is possible they could have interfered with the Poseidon’s transport in some way.”

“Was Captain Foster forthcoming with the logs of his shuttles?”

“Yes, sir; he gave us the raw logs. Short transports around the compound, a couple of them seemed a little weird but might have been them beaming bots and drones into the underground compound, but nothing that looked like his transporter beams were tangling with Poseidon’s transports.”

“Very well, we’ll let that rest then. Anything else of interest about the mercenaries?”

“Only that they’re out of a job as most of their company went up with their ship. Unfortunately for us, the ones left didn’t know all that much about the clan; just the job they were paid for – which they won’t be getting paid for.”

“We’ll let the admiral decide what – if anything – to do with them then.”

The intercom on the table beeped just before their communications officer reported, “The conference is beginning, Captain.”

“Go ahead and link us at this time,” Captain White replied.

The room shifted as the holographic system activated and their conference table became part of a larger one. Across from them sat Admiral Kalren and her flag lieutenant, they were the only other ones currently present.

Admiral Kalren nodded at them before saying, “If you don’t mind, we’ll take care of a little side issue before the others join us, Captain White.”

“A side issue, Admiral?” Captain White asked as the door opened behind him to admit Lieutenant Moores.

Admiral Kalren smiled as she said, “Ah, Lieutenant Moores, just the person I was looking for. I have a question on the report you were so kind as to send me.”

Lieutenant Moores puffed up a little and smiled as he replied, “Always a pleasure to be of assistance, Admiral.”

“My question is on your statement that Captain Foster’s attack on the compound was unprovoked, Lieutenant,” the admiral almost casually asked.

“Well yes, Admiral, the compound was forced to protect itself when Foster attacked them.”

“Did Captain Foster open a dialog with the compound before attacking?”

“Yes Ma’am, he taunted them before he attacked.”

“Something about killing a police fur they were holding I think it was?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“A police fur from a station that Captain Foster had previously learned had been attacked and many of the police force had been killed?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“And you don’t see that in any way as a reason Captain Foster might have attacked the compound?”

“It wasn’t his place, Ma’am.”

“An interesting way of looking at things, Lieutenant. Had you been in his place, what would you have done, knowing they had already killed and taken hostages?”

“I would have withdrawn to a safe location and contacted Star Fleet.”

“Which as we now know was a least a day away and any possible first responders would have been totally inadequate to deal with the threat as he was aware of it,” Admiral Kalren commented. “I had my staff running simulations of ‘what might have been’ on Captain Foster’s choices, Lieutenant. The Folly just ‘running’ away was not a viable option because the compound’s guns had more than enough range and power to cripple or even destroy the Folly long before she could get out of their sights. Hiding and giving them something else to shoot at did allow Folly a chance to escape, but it also provided a clever captain with a very narrow window of opportunity in which to attempt an attack, an opportunity that wouldn’t come again.”

“I stand by my report, Ma’am.”

“Of course you do, Lieutenant. Captain White, what do you think of your engineering second?” Admiral Kalren asked.

“I have complete faith in my engineering second, Admiral,” Captain White replied, his engineering first now looking between them in confusion.

“Excellent, because Lieutenant Moores will be joining the Bash’s company. I find his ideas require a more in-depth study.”

“But Ma’am, I –” Lieutenant Moores started; only to be cut off by the admiral’s glare.

“You are an officer in Star Fleet, Lieutenant,” she sternly reminded him. “You will go where your superiors order you. Captain White, have one of your security teams escort Lieutenant Moores to his quarters to pack; one of Bash’s shuttles will be there to pick him up in fifteen minutes.”

“Yes, Admiral,” Captain White acknowledged as he tapped a key that would summon security.

They all waited in silence as Lieutenant Moores was led away to pack for his new assignment.

Admiral Kalren snorted lightly as the door slid closed behind the lieutenant, then she looked at Captain White and grinned. “I know who stuck you with him and why, Captain. I’m going to test his knowledge on the Rakshan-based systems for a bit; if he’s found wanting I’ll drop him off on Starbase Three for a little ‘retraining’.”

Lieutenant Thursday tried to not look too relieved while hir captain openly grinned.

Admiral Kalren smiled in return before saying, “One more thing before the meeting starts. While I know it’s a double step, I want you to promote your engineering second to full lieutenant and see that their pay reflects their status as your new chief engineer. I will of course endorse it.”

“Gladly,” Captain White acknowledged.

“Excellent, then let’s get this little board of inquiry out of the way, shall we?”

The room and table again shifted and expanded as the other four captains and selected members of their crews appeared. To the admiral’s right now sat her ship’s Rakshan captain and their Caitian chief engineer. Between those two sat a wide-eyed Rakshani cub around four or five of their years old.

Seeing his admiral’s raised eyebrow, the Rakshan captain muttered, “Her mother’s trying to take a nap.”

Her quite pregnant and often not in the best of moods right now mother. The admiral’s expression suggested that she knew and understood as she said nothing aloud about the cub’s attendance.

Looking around the table, Admiral Kalren said, “Before we invite Captain Foster to our meeting, was there anything anyone needed to bring up that wasn’t already on Captain White’s initial report on the events on Parakit?”

“Better him than me,” one of the other captains muttered.

“Explain if you would please, Captain Mulric,” the admiral requested.

Like the admiral, Captain Mulric of the Tuvoc was a Voxxan, and he gave the admiral a forced grin as he said, “I don’t know about anyone else’s crew, but mine is currently very annoyed that I asked them to solve what is in fact a no-win scenario. We concluded that the Folly only survived because the clan thought it was something of value that they could take over and use. That isn’t the case with five Star Fleet ships that can’t even get close enough to hit them without being blown apart first.”

Admiral Kalren asked, “Did anyone else have any of their teams do better?”

Further down the table the Caitian captain of the Knitted Brow gave them all a rueful grin. “We managed to disable one of them – but only at the total loss of all five ships and their personnel,” Captain ‘She-sees-far’ dryly stated. “And that was by ‘cheating’ a little and using as many of the space-side jammers as Foster used, which was just over three times what our five ships are actually carrying.”

“And they still picked you off?” Captain Mulric asked.

“There was nothing wrong with their optics,” She-sees-far muttered. “And we didn’t have a station worth of metal to make our own little clouds to hide behind.” She gave a little shrug and added, “Even if we had managed to kill them both the mission would still have been considered a failure for the number of friendly casualties both sides would have inflicted on Parakit.”

“So we would have been best off waiting around with our hands up our backsides for reinforcements to show up,” Captain Couth ap Tarn na Forthcourth idly commented.

His admiral looked sideways at him before saying, “Humans have an old saying about war and diplomacy: ‘If you’re not cheating you’re not trying hard enough’. I think we can all agree that the Folly’s captain believes in trying hard enough.”

“Never, ever underestimate the awesome destructive power of a drunk, belligerent, brute-force-loving, pissed-off engineer – or captain it seems,” Captain Mulric muttered. To the chuckles of several of those in attendance he added, “Not that I actually think the captain in question was drunk.”

Captain White cleared his throat before saying, “It is apparent that Captain Foster had at least some of the codes to the Star Fleet drones to do what he did with them. My first officer has suggested and I agree that it might be prudent to give him the full code sets.”

Admiral Kalren nodded. “Just in case? I don’t see why not, he’s proven he doesn’t use them without a strong need, and Star Fleet trusts him enough to carry them as well as some of our much more sensitive equipment. Remind me, and I’ll also sign off on Foster’s expenditure of Star Fleet materials for a good cause – in fact I know we expended more drones than that on our last set of mini war games. Anything else before we invite Captain Foster to join us?”

Captain Mulric raised a digit before saying, “I had a couple of questions about the FTL jamming and Foster somehow managing to transport through it, but my communications and transporter specialists explained it to me in words even a mere captain could understand.”

“Did they do such a good job that you could then explain it to a mere admiral?” Kalren asked with a sly smile.

“I think so,” Mulric replied. “The direct use of the jammers understandably blocked communication with the planet itself, but they and the shots fired from those weapon platforms also indirectly blocked the ships and station in orbit from the FTL relay. Think of a couple of kids with flashlights blinking messages back and forth in a fairly dark room. If you know where your party should be, you can focus the beam and use a smaller, dimmer light; that’s how the station, planet and FTL relay normally talk to each other; just enough power in their beams to be properly heard by the receiver.”

“And the shots and jammers?” Kalren asked.

“Were like turning on a very bright light, making it impossible to see the relatively weak flashlights. Until Starbase Twelve boosted the FTL relay’s output, even Folly’s full powered FTL systems couldn’t establish a connection.”

“And transporting through that mess?”

“Wasn’t affected because Folly wasn’t trying to see through the mess, just blindly push something through it, and they did it with more power than should have been possible.”

“It wasn’t really possible,” White injected, “or at least not for very long. As my reports indicated, he made quite the mess of his transporters and power distribution systems.”

“And it helped that he was going after fixed installations that couldn’t move around on him,” Mulric agreed. “And that his materialization target was open air instead of liquid or against something solid. Vacuum or holding the same local frame of reference is something any of us could have done if our transporters had the range and could handle the mass.”

Captain Couth ap Tarn na Forthcourth indicated the Caitian on the other side of his daughter. “Tec here was able to recover some of the settings and power levels the surviving platform was using. Because they didn’t have as much power as they might have liked, they were running the shields at just under an eight part – not that Captain Foster would have been able to see that through all the jamming the compound already had online. Fortunately for Foster, they weren’t properly trained to use the equipment or they might have killed him despite his tricks.”

“Would that same ham-handedness have improved the odds of us taking them out?” his admiral asked.

“No, ma’am, or at least not enough to matter.”

“Thank you. If there’s nothing else, let’s bring Captain Foster online.”

The table shifted once more and Neal appeared on a screen at the end of the table away from the admiral. His image seemed to glance at each of the officers before him, breaking into a grin when he saw the cub. “Can’t be too bad if you’re bringing tykes in to watch,” he commented as his eyes returned to the admiral at the head of the table.

Several of the officers chuckled before Admiral Kalren said, “Come now, Captain Foster, you know if it had been ‘bad’ I would have simply had you escorted in here in binders.”

“And you probably wouldn’t have let me sleep in,” Neal agreed. “So, anything in particular?”

“A couple of my people have questions, and of course to answer any of yours,” she replied.

“Fire away,” Neal said.

“I’ll start if you don’t mind,” Captain Mulric said. “We know what you did and have a pretty good idea how you managed it, so my question is ‘why’? You made yourself a pretty good chance to run – why didn’t you take it?”

Neal frowned slightly as he leaned back in his chair. “At the time it seemed like the right thing to do,” he finally said. “Looking back you can always see things you wish you could have done differently, but at that time it seemed to be the best course of action, at least to me anyway. And I was prepared to run, but only after I took my best and in this case only shot I had at them. If I succeeded then it would be a much easier cleanup for those on the ground, if I failed then they’d be no worse off than if I’d simply cut and run.”

“But to risk your ship and cargo like that,” Captain Mulric insisted.

Neal smiled ever so slightly. “You will risk your ship and crew as Star Fleet demands,” he softly pointed out. “Sometimes you will do this without even knowing ‘why’ you have been ordered to put your people in harm’s way. If I had failed or just run you and your friends would be risking your lives to take those weapons out yourselves. And I have more than a few friends down there, Captain, friends I thought were worth taking a calculated risk for. Even with all the cargo I’m carrying, one man and one ship was a pretty cheap price to pay if there was a chance they could remove the risk to so many others.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Mulric said with a nod.

Towards the head of the table Tec had removed a small cube from his bag. “We detected you playing with your transporters, Captain, and it has been a while since your last certification,” the Caitian hinted with a smile.

Neal snorted softly before saying, “Tess, full scans please.” He smiled slightly as the warning tones sounded for those watching him as their ships reported that they were being scanned.

“I guess I should have warned the bridge first,” Tec said.

“And you also should have gotten out your recorder and worm as well,” Neal told him as Tess relayed what her scans had shown.

“I didn’t think you’d want them on an initial test,” Tec told Neal as he removed a small transparent globe and an oversized PADD from his bag, the globe containing what looked like one of the slugs Neal had been using earlier. Tec then had to rescue the globe from the Rakshan child’s quick fingers.

“Taan, no,” her father growled at her as he pulled her back into her chair. “That is not your treat.”

“Before the poor thing gets eaten,” Neal said and all three items disappeared – to reappear in front of one of the other captains. “Please flip the cube to a new face and take your hand away,” Neal suggested. This was repeated until everyone but Taan had flipped the cube at least once before it reappeared in front of Tec.

“Why have them flip it each time?” Tec asked Neal.

“To prove it wasn’t just a holographic image,” Neal replied. “Check your recorder.”

Tec did so, his head popping up in surprise as he said, “Eighteen transporters?”

“At the moment,” Neal allowed. “I lost a dozen in my little battle and a couple of the others are still offline for maintenance cycles.”

Placing the cube on a cloth, Tec shattered it. “Perfect. If the recorder hadn’t shown it being moved each time I’d swear you hadn’t transported it at all.”

“I often have time for a little tweaking and fine tuning between stops,” Neal admitted.

While they were talking Tec and the others were distracted and didn’t notice the small hands reach for and grab the globe with the still tranquil grub in it.

“Taan!” her father shouted when he finally looked down, but quick little fingers had already opened the globe and the child had the grub in her mouth.

Jumping out of her seat to avoid her father, Taan giggled as she ran out of sight of those not in the room with her.

“Ah, hell,” Neal muttered.

“They all have to learn sometime,” Captain Mulric agreed, failing to hide his grin.

Sounds of a small cat gagging reached them before Captain Couth came back into view carrying what appeared to now be a very sick and heaving child. “If you’ll excuse me, Admiral,” he said as he disappeared out of view, the sound of a door hissing open and then closed was heard in the background.

“And that is why I don’t want you playing that particular trick on your siblings,” they heard Neal telling someone off-screen.

Admiral Kalren was smiling softly as she said, “Back when I was just a young lieutenant, the transporter teams had a saying that went: ‘If eating the worm doesn’t kill you, the transporter surely will’.”

“The worm won’t actually kill you – that’s just wishful thinking on the victim’s part,” Neal corrected. “And it doesn’t make you sick in and of itself, it’s you trying to get that nasty taste out of your mouth – and deities help you if you managed to swallow any of it.”

“Before we get too much more side-tracked, are you in need of assistance in getting your ship repaired?” Admiral Kalren asked.

“Thank you, Admiral, but no. I’ve got all the more important bits back online and my crew and I can handle the minor stuff. We’ll be here a few more days before we head out for our next stop,” Neal told her.

“If you’re sure,” Admiral Kalren said. “In the meantime, Captain White was telling me that it’s not uncommon for you to sometimes re-supply Fleet ships when you happen upon them?”

“Business is business,” Neal told her with a shrug. “Have your quartermasters make a list of who needs what and I’ll see what I’ve got to offer.”

“Unless anyone has something else for the good captain?” Admiral Kalren asked. She failed to notice Lieutenant Thursday open hir muzzle – only to have a signal from hir captain close it. “Then I think we’re done here,” she said and the hologram dissolved back into them each in their individual rooms.

“What were you going to ask?” Captain White asked hir once the connection was severed.

“I was going to ask him why his scans tripped our sensors but him actually transporting those things into and out of our ships did not,” shi replied.

“A very interesting question, Number One. Why don’t you get with our science and engineering staff and see if our sensor logs will give us a clue as to how he managed to do it,” Captain White suggested. “While you do that, I’ll have our quartermaster see what things we are most needful of.”

* * *

“Wow, that sounded so noble,” Chakat Morningmist murmured as the connection dropped, though a couple of hir siblings were looking more than a little skeptical.

“Pure BS,” Neal corrected. “I’d have lost a planet’s worth of customers and millions of credits if the clan had managed to take over the planet. All that potential profit up in smoke.”

“Didn’t you just lose millions saving them?” Mike countered. “I mean those transporters can’t be cheap – never mind all the cargo you threw out there.”

Neal shrugged. “A one time loss versus a long term gain. You’ll find I’m in this for the long haul; my profit/loss sheets cover decades not just quarters,” he told them.

“Like your adoption covering more than the trip,” Graysocks said. While her siblings had been assisting Tess’ bots in removing the scorching from the overheated corridors, the foxtaur teen had been replacing clogged and damaged air filters and replacing half melted light bars. “You’re taking the long view with us too.”

“What was the thing about the bug?” Weaver asked.

“It has to be properly prepared to be eatable,” Holly told her mother. “We can show you later.”

“Edible,” her mother corrected.

“Is there a way to prepare them that doesn’t require using the transporters?” Beechwood asked.

“Electro-shock treatments will clean them out, though it can take some practice to do it properly,” Neal warned her. “And the traditional Rakshan methods can take years of training before they’ll license someone to prepare the slugs by claw.”

“Boss?” Tess interrupted, “We’ve got their signoff on using those drones, and they gave you the full code sets to better use them if anything else comes up.”

“How do they compare to what you were able to discover on your own?” Neal asked.

“The low permissions line up, though I was in error on a couple of minor details. On the higher commands they sent the full command sets where I seem to have discovered more of the maintenance sets. If we’d had the time I could have reprogrammed them to do anything in the command sets.”

“If we’d had the time,” Neal agreed because Tess hadn’t cracked some of those codes until well after their little battle. “Save yours as well as theirs, just in case.”

“Will do, Boss. Be advised that two of those quartermasters are asking what we have rather than telling us what they’re looking for.”

“Standard Fleet list for them, Perry’s probably the only one that’ll know about the special list.”

“You have different lists for different people?” Calmmeadow asked.

“Just like you have some friends that you trust more than others, I have different levels for different customers.”

“I would think Star Fleet would all be the same customer,” shi insisted.

Neal smiled. “Let’s just say that I have different levels of trust with particular officers. Perry I know, the others I don’t. There are even a few Fleet ships and stations I refuse to deal with.”

“Wait – you can reject Star Fleet requests?” Mike asked in surprise.

“Just like any other business,” Neal assured him. “The only time that isn’t the rule is when someone declares an emergency, then all bets are off.”

“Then you have to do what they ask?” Quickdash asked.

“Only in how it relates to their emergency,” Neal told hir. “I had one of their officers expect me to drop everything and take him halfway across the Federation. When I said ‘no’ he actually threatened me. I gave him his free ride, in stasis, and with Star Fleet security waiting for him at the other end.”

“What was his emergency?” shi wondered.

“He’d partied overlong and missed his ship’s departure,” Neal said with a grin. “He was AWOL for over a year before I got around to visiting the base he’d demanded I take him to.”

“My BS meter just pegged,” Mike told him. “You held him for a year and Star Fleet didn’t raise a stink about it?”

“Oh, Fleet knew I had him,” Neal chuckled. “I’d dropped them a line and the recording of our little meeting the first day. It seems he was a bit of a problem child for them and they saw it as a learning experience for him.”

“Did he learn any better?” Quickdash asked.

“No idea,” Neal admitted. “From my understanding he left Star Fleet shortly thereafter.”

“Do you keep track of everyone you meet?” Weaver wondered.

“Tess does, and then she looks more in depth if we run into them several times or have something ‘interesting’ happen.”

“So Tess knows everything about us?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

“If it’s on the nets,” Neal warned her with a grin. “Like that news bit of you dropping your comm trying for a selfie while bungee jumping.”

“But I’ve never bungee jumped in my life!” she protested.

“Yeah, funny how there always seems to be a few errors in the nets,” Neal agreed with a grin. “Half the fun is figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong. The other half of course is figuring out who will have too much or not enough of something when and where. Which is why I have Tess digging up data and crunching numbers so much.”

“So,” Mike said, “what do you want us doing?”

“What I want you guys doing is making sure you have everything you think you might need or want. When we leave it’ll be weeks before our next stop, and stations often don’t have the selections planets do, and most things they do have will cost a lot more,” Neal said. “That of course just goes for those of you whose parents or your own common sense wasn’t quite enough to get you to run home where it might be just a little safer.”

“Give it up, Captain, we’re staying,” Alex laughed.

Neal just shook his head before saying, “In that case, go ahead and get whatever you guys think you need or will want and we’ll worry about resuming training and school after we’re done with Parakit. As I’ll be busy dealing with Star Fleet and a few other repairs, Howey will have crews running my shuttles for me. You can catch rides with them; just don’t get in the way.

“And just what will you be doing?” Weaver asked.

I am going to be spending a little time on some of the things I’ve been ignoring,” Neal admitted. “If all goes well I should have the remaining transporters online before I call it a night.”

“Meaning he’ll stay up all night long if he has to,” Alex commented. “Somebody should keep an eye on him.”

“I’ll do it,” Cindy said. “I’m not planning on leaving Folly until I can’t be dragged away by whoever my father tries to send after me.”

“Tess can keep an eye on me, she’s been doing it for a while now,” Neal pointed out. “Until you know more about things, all I’ll be doing is boring you.”

“Boring is good,” Cindy said. “Boring beats the heck out of being dragged away by the local cops.”

“Or being shot at,” Alex agreed. “Maybe if someone is always with the good captain he’ll take fewer risks.”

“Oh, I’ll pitch you guys clear of danger if and when I see it coming,” Neal warned. “And I’ll jump as well if I feel it’s warranted.”

“Why don’t I believe you?” Weaver asked.

“Because you’re still discovering you don’t really know me all that well yet?” Neal asked with a smile. “I had several escape routes even if they had hit us, and Delta is smaller than all those sixty meter pods they’d have to shoot up to make sure they got me.”

“Still.”

“Still,” he quietly agreed. “Had that been you or any of the kids being beaten in that alley, I wouldn’t have bothered to have Tess call the cops.”

“No?”

“No, because when I got done with them there wouldn’t have been anything left for the cops to clean up. Tess tells me that the Cha-Ching is inbound, you guys sure you don’t want to buy some tickets to Bright Hope?”

“You promised,” Quickdash reminded him.

“Yeah, I did,” he agreed. “But that agreement is to each of you, not to all of you, so those that wish to leave won’t affect those that wish to stay.”

“Staying,” shi replied.

“Staying,” Cindy echoed just before the rest of the kids.

“You’re a fool if you think you’re getting away from us that easily,” Weaver told him.

“Ah, but you’re the fool and I’m merely the idiot,” Neal pointed out. “Tess, get with Howey for his estimated schedules for both sites so people know when they can get up and down. Any word from Robin about our other little problem?”

“Some, Boss. Charles’ lawyers only have the public facts to work with. Public facts that show that hours after being taken into police custody, the police station Cindy was being held at was attacked by a terrorist cell and there are no reports as yet stating if she’s actually still among the living.”

“Are they now trying to have her marked as dead?” Neal asked while watching Cindy’s reaction to the news.

“It seems not,” Tess told them. “Robin was able to get more information to how the estate was set up, and it seems Charles very much needs Cindy alive in order to draw on those accounts. Upon her death, the property is to be auctioned off and all proceeds go to pre-selected charities.”

“Good to know he won’t be trying to mark her off as dead to collect, but he might try selling bits of the estate if he thinks she’s not around to protest it,” Alex pointed out.

“Everything of any real value was chipped and inventoried,” Cindy told him. “His only hope would be private collectors and many of those should be leery of getting caught with stolen property.”

“Even so, we’ll leave a little evidence that you’re alive and kicking before we go,” Neal said.

“How?” she asked.

“Frostpoint has a bank branch, you’ll just make a small withdrawal. As that now requires they fully ID you, that’ll be proof enough.”

“Then Charles and his lawyers will know she’s alive,” Alex pointed out.

“Only if they think to ask the bank,” Neal replied with a grin. “And even if they do, she’ll be off-planet before they can do anything about it – but Robin will know it’s there in case they do try to get her marked off as dead.”

“Tess, how long do you think he’ll be on his little projects?” Alex asked.

“If he’s just going to do the last set of transporters, four to six hours,” Tess replied.

Looking at Cindy, Alex said, “Then we have time enough to get in a workout while he plays.”

“Works for me,” Cindy agreed. “Tess can let us know if he’s getting done early.”

 

 


 

In For a Penny, In For a Pound

 

As it turned out, Alex and Cindy had plenty of time for a full training session, as well as cleaning up and having a snack before Neal was anywhere near done with his own little project. They then learned how to read the cubes and tasted the grubs before convincing Neal to call it a night.

Not that everyone had called it a night when Neal did. Several of the teens made use of the slow but steady shuttle movement to see what riding them was like when Neal wasn’t in charge.

Others had found other diversions.

Mike sat at one of the stations in the smaller bridge, his displays in tactical mode as he watched the station, ships and shuttles in Folly’s neighborhood.

“Tess? Is Alpha off course?” he asked, having noticed that Alpha didn’t seem to be heading for either of the groundside ports.

“No,” Tess replied as she added Alpha’s expected flight plans to his display. “Star Fleet has commissioned us to clean up after the clan a bit. That includes removing all three of those weapons platforms.”

“I thought you and Neal had ruined all of them.”

“We did for the most part, but Star Fleet doesn’t want to leave the remains as reminders or monuments of this little event. Baker will be picking up the one near Tootles once they drop off their loaded pod.”

“Then what?”

“Star Fleet has already decided they aren’t worth repairing, but at the same time they don’t want anyone trying to salvage any of the tech from them; so they’ll most likely just have us pitch them into the sun as we head out.”

“And Neal’s getting paid to do it?” Mike asked.

“Of course,” Tess agreed. “And in turn Neal’s paying those flight crews to help him with it. Everything costs credits, Mike. You either make or do it yourself or you pay someone to make or do it for you.”

“Everything costs credits,” Mike repeated. “So why is he wasting credits on us?”

“I really don’t know,” Tess admitted. “Every now and then he does something my logic can’t explain. But as to the actual credit costs of keeping you, you guys are hardly a rounding error compared to the total costs of running the rest of this ship.”

“And you’re going along with it.”

“Sure! This is lots more exciting than watching just him rattle around in this oversized tin can.”

“So, what are you doing now that you know he didn’t scare us off?”

“I’m prepping several more of the hydroponic and botanical rooms, just the one wouldn’t be enough to keep any of you in fresh greens, and I think you’ll want to see and smell a few things other than just food. I’ll also open a few more of the gym and project rooms to help keep you guys healthy and occupied.”

“And what were you thinking about for me?” he asked.

You need more room to run,” Tess told him. “I couldn’t help but notice you breaking away from the others to do a few laps when you saw that schoolyard track field.”

“It felt good to stretch my legs and pound my hooves a little,” Mike admitted. “But I can’t do that on your ship’s corridors.”

“No, your hooves would be a splintered mess in no time,” Tess agreed. “That’s why I took the liberty of ordering you some new shoes with just enough padding to protect your hooves from my decks and my decks from your hooves. As an added bonus they’ll give you a bit more traction as well.”

“Is that coming out of my allowance?” he asked with a grin.

“No, it’s coming out of your crew member clothing allowance. Go out and buy some overly fancy or pretty ones and that’ll be on you.”

“I can live with that.”

“Thought you might. On the other hoof, you haven’t given me too many clues as to what type of hobbies you might be interested in. A few hints now might help ensure I have the things you need when you’re ready for them.”

“I’m good for now. What I do want is a bit more on how Neal does business,” he suggested.

“Neal’s base logbooks are open, you’d need his permission for access to his private ones.”

“Base logs will be a good start. I’ll ask if I think I need more,” Mike agreed.

An icon on the screen flashed, opening a timeline of log entries when he looked up at it. Picking one between the Bright Hope and Parakit markers, Mike found himself looking at the log covering setting up the FTL relay. It contained not only the stop itself, but also which of several companies would be billed for what, including a note about an error in the packing and pre-preparation of the relay.

Letting that log close, Mike opened another at random …

* * *

Before Alex, Cindy and Mike had found things to keep them occupied, the chakats Roseberry, Dusk and Morningmist had bummed a ride on Baker going down.

“Go park your tail in the deadhead area, Hernado,” a rather gruff older female Caitian had been telling a male fox morph as the chakats entered the airlocks, a fox that wasn’t all that much older than the chakats. “You passed your mandatory downtime on the way up,” she reminded him.

“Ah, Sands, I’m good for one more trip,” Hernado protested even as he got out one of the web seats and snapped it down before plopping into it.

“You may be,” Sands-of-the-desert admitted as the fox snapped his backpack to the frame. “But we’re no longer under emergency conditions so the regular rules will be enforced,” she informed him.

“So who’s going to ride second seat for you?” he asked with just a bit of snark.

Shi will,” the Caitian said as she pointed at the nearest chakat.

“Me?” Roseberry squawked in surprise.

“Why not? All I need is a warm body. Any shuttle training before?” Sands asked hir.

“No ma’am.”

“Perfect, nothing for you to unlearn. You get the co-pilot bench, go get yourself strapped in.”

“Ah, which seat is the co-pilot’s?” Roseberry asked.

“Right hand of the two side-by-side,” Hernado muttered. “Don’t touch anything unless told otherwise,” he added.

“A good practice,” Sands-of-the-desert agreed. “Though I also find locking down the panels to be a good idea.”

A little hesitant, Roseberry found the seat in question and figured out how to switch it from biped to taur mode.

“Tail to one side or under your seat – unless you want it getting stepped on,” Sands-of-the-desert warned hir from behind. “Though if you go under you should first adjust and then lock your seat height controls. Getting your tail pinched if the seat unexpectedly drops is no fun.”

“Is that the voice of experience?” shi half-asked.

“No, that’s the ‘I got scared nearly to death and thought I was going to die when a pilot’s tail got mashed and they reacted badly while in the middle of a landing’,” she replied with a laugh. “Fortunately for us, we were still high enough up that the co-pilot was able to recover the craft before we plowed sideways and down into a starship parked the next pad over.”

“Was there another reason you wanted him out of the seat?”

“He’s good, but he’s still learning. If he was in that seat he’d want to fly. If he flew and screwed up I wouldn’t be able to tell if it was an honest mistake that needed correcting or just a sign of fatigue. Plus there’s getting him in the habit of obeying the rules, the better to help teach him when to bend or break them.”

“So what do I do?” Roseberry asked.

Sands-of-the-desert laughed again. “You sit there and be a warm body in the seat. As an instructor I can have a student of any level – or even no level – riding those controls.”

“You’re past your hours too,” they heard Hernado call from the cargo area.

“And I can do a simple computer assisted landing in my sleep!” Sands-of-the-desert called back. “Ned will be there to take over after we hit the ground,” she added.

Dusk and Morningmist watched the launch and picking up a pod on the monitors, noticing Tess’ comments and instructions as the local ‘command of space’ was a lot more crisp and professional than how she normally spoke to them. Hernado had dug a PADD out of his backpack and was reading something.

They were just entering the atmosphere when Hernado said, “Hey, Sands. Planetary news now has Star Fleet taking out the clan with a little help of the local militia.”

“Good,” Sands-of-the-desert replied. “They say anything about Foster?”

“Only that Fleet is paying Folly to do some heavy lifting for them – oh wait, there’s a comment from Foster himself that he got the living daylights scared out of him when one of those beams went right by his ship. He is reported as saying he was glad Fleet just happened to be there to take care of things.”

“That’s not what happened!” Dusk protested.

“Sure it is,” Sands-of-the-desert said as she made a minor adjustment to their course. “By now they’ve got all the logs changed to show that Folly had nothing to do with any of it. With all those logs lining up, any rumors or speculation to the contrary won’t make it off the planet.”

“Our parents on Bright Hope know the truth,” Morningmist told her just before Roseberry asked, “Why the cover-up?”

Sands-of-the-desert smirked slightly at her co-pilot as she said, “The cover-up as you call it is being done because your captain really doesn’t want to take the credit.”

“Why wouldn’t he want to take credit for saving lives?” shi replied.

“Because it would get in the way of what he does want to do,” Sands-of-the-desert told hir. “There are a lot of problems, a lot of conflicts out there. While your captain doesn’t seem to mind helping out, he likes to choose when where and how he acts. Would the clan have ignored the Folly’s potential if they’d known he’d stomped out problems like them in the past?”

“So he’s done this before?” Roseberry asked in surprise.

“Only one other that I know of, no telling how many I’ve never heard of,” Sands-of-the-desert admitted. “And when that one happened everyone knew he was crazy at the time, it was only later we realized his actions were better than anything we might have planned.”

“What happened?”

“A still fairly new colony world and what they thought was a dormant volcano. Only it wasn’t so dormant and the way it was getting ready to blow would have wiped out the majority of the colony.” Sands-of-the-desert paused for a moment before adding, “He did the very thing he was pretending to threaten the clan with, multiple kinetic strikes from space. He came in low to improve his aim and blasted a channel that destroyed the course of several rivers before his last strike went into the base of the far side of the volcano. It still caused a violent eruption, but nowhere near as violent as what they’d been expecting, and it all went away from the colony instead of out over the top of it.”

“You were there,” Roseberry quietly said.

“Not yet I wasn’t,” she replied with a small smile. “That event happened to my parents and grandparents five Earth years before I was born.”

“But he doesn’t seem old enough to have been there,” Roseberry pointed out.

“His father or grandfather then,” Sands-of-the-desert allowed. “And I think the freighter that did it was actually called ‘Pogo Stick’. Only thing I’ve ever found referencing that name was some type of child’s toy on Earth.”

“Stranger and stranger, yet more stuff for us to look into when we go back up,” Roseberry said.

Sands-of-the-desert gave hir a grin as she prepared to land the shuttle. “While researching pogo sticks, I tumbled across some rather interesting fantasy stories. One of the stranger ones was supposedly long before humans had created morphs. I think it translated to ‘Alice in the wondering land’ and I wonder if you digging up Foster’s past won’t be a bit like that young human girl falling down a rabbit hole.”

“Why would I fall into a rabbit hole?” Roseberry wondered as the shuttle gently set down.

“You might find yourself tumbling into the unexpected and the unimagined,” Sands-of-the-desert told hir. “I know I did when I sought to learn more of my own family’s history.”

“Did it have something to do with them being on a colony world?”

“As a matter of fact it did. Most Caitians don’t think very highly of telepaths and one of my grandfathers had a touch of the Talent. ‘Mind-stealer’ was one of the kinder things he was called before he fled to find a life elsewhere.”

“That seems rather harsh. It’s not like someone can just decide they will or won’t have a Talent.”

Sands-of-the-desert gave hir a little shrug as she started switching the shuttle’s systems to standby. “Our history has a few bad spots where some telepaths did great evils. There were good ones as well, but the evil is what people remember.”

“But yet they accepted him in the colony?”

“They didn’t know at first as he didn’t tell them and no one else traveling to the colony had known. By the time it was brought out in the open, they knew him for a good man and trusted him. It didn’t hurt when his firstmate pointed out the number of times he had ‘just happened’ to be where he was needed to help others.”

“Firstmate. That’s right, Caitian males might have up to six wives.”

Sands-of-the-desert snorted. “Comes of having over five Caitian females born for every male. We either learn to work together and share, or we end up doing without.”

“So, did you learn to share?” Roseberry asked.

“Nosy chakat,” she laughed. “No I didn’t. I found me a nice little Voxxan fox that doesn’t mind being ‘all mine’.”

“Any number greater than one is good with most chakats, love multiplies, it doesn’t divide,” shi told her.

“Oh, I know,” Sands-of-the-desert agreed. “In fact there’s another couple we’ve been dating that might turn us into a nice quad. Ah, either the pad’s cooling off quicker than I thought or they parked their PTV right at the ramp, either way our replacement crew just entered the airlock.”

“I hear ya,” Hernado called at her from the cargo/crew area as he started getting up. To Dusk and Morningmist he added, “You guys can ride with us into town or hang around and watch them lift that pod the clan dropped back into space.”

“We planned on sticking around,” Dusk told him. “Most of the shops are closed for the night anyway.”

“Should be interesting as they have to do something with that damaged shuttle as well,” Hernado told them.

Four beings entered the compartment from the foot access passageway. The two humans were about as opposite as they could get, light to dark, tall to short, thin to bulky; as were the two Rakshani that followed them, though both of them were female.

The smaller of the two Rakshani was in a Star Fleet uniform with a lieutenant’s comm badge. “I still don’t see why a Fleet crew couldn’t have managed the lifts,” she was saying as they came in.

The small male human grinned before replying. “Foster’s kinda picky about who uses and abuses his equipment. We’ve worked for him before, and he trusts us to do the job.”

“More fool he,” the larger Rakshani muttered with a chuckle.

“Quiet, Margaret, or we won’t let you play with them either,” the taller human laughed.

“Ha! You have no choice, Mom. You need me to run the tractor beams while you fly and Dad manages our power,” she countered.

“And I still don’t believe you’re really a family group,” the Fleet lieutenant complained.

“That’s what happens when you live on the frontier, to stay alive even opposites will find they can attract,” Margaret told her. “I even have two chakat sisters and a little Caitian brother, poor guy.”

“They’ll be lifting those other pods with Alpha and that other lieutenant that came down with you,” the male said as he gave Sands-of-the-desert a warm hand grasp before looking over at Roseberry. “Sorry ‘kat, but we’re going to need that seat,” he told hir.

Sands-of-the-desert smiled as she said, “Hey, Ned. Fore-port main thruster was about a quarter of a point low, we topped off at the Folly and those three are just along for the ride.”

“Then they can debark with the off-shift crew,” the lieutenant grumbled. “This is a Star Fleet mission at this point, and we don’t need any civilians in the way.”

While her parents had continued to the flight deck, Margaret had stopped so suddenly the smaller Rakshani ran into her. Turning with a grin that promised mayhem, she looked down at the lieutenant. “No civilians and that pod will just sit there – or did you forget that this craft belongs to a civilian?”

“For security reasons there will be only those civilians required to perform the lift,” the lieutenant snarled back at her.

Lieutenant!” the small male snapped from the flight deck. “You are here at our discretion as an observer. Not as an advisor, not as a mission specialist, and damn sure not in command of this flight. If you have any problems with that you can disembark at this time and take it up with your commanding officer. Barring that, you will sit down out there with the chakats and leave us to our work.”

“I thought there was room for an observer in there,” Dusk quietly murmured to Roseberry as shi snapped a third taur seat into place.

“There is,” Roseberry quietly agreed. “But I think someone just talked herself out of it.” Hir own seat ready, shi opened the next cabinet and pulled out one of the biped style seats for their new guest.

The lieutenant just stood there glaring at the flight deck hatch before finally walking over and plopping down into the web seat.

“Are questions allowed before you guys get busy?” Morningmist asked.

“Even while we are busy – if you become a nuisance we’ll just kill the intercom,” they heard Margaret tell them.

“May I ask how you ended up with the name ‘Margaret’? I’d always heard that Rakshan naming was ‘personal name ap father’s personal name na house name’?” Morningmist inquired.

“You go straight for the throat, don’t you?” Margaret laughed. “Well, when I lost my birth parents the local House refused to accept me as Rakshani with human parents, so I refused to accept them. I took a human name and never looked back.”

“Stubborn she is, almost as stubborn as her adopted mother,” they heard Ned mutter.

“Who is in turn almost as stubborn as her husband,” Margaret added. “My board’s green, pod is released.”

“There’s a shuttle inbound, we’ll lift once it’s grounded,” her mother replied. “How did you three end up on the Folly?”

“By hiding in the wrong container,” Morningmist told her. “Instead of a friend’s ship that had just come in we ended up in one about to leave. By the way, just how much of a security issue are we really?”

“None. None at all,” she replied. “Since they never got this one opened to fire, no one actually knows what it is or why it and the shuttle were crash-landed here. The official story is that the shuttle had a problem and crashed – true enough as the load was too much for them. Star Fleet just happened to be by and hired a passing freighter to pick up a load Fleet can’t handle with what they have on hand. We’ll actually be recording everything, both so Fleet has a record and because it’s unusual and would make a good training scenario.”

* * *

“Tess? Where was the Folly when you sent our discovery to Bright Hope?” Weaver asked. She was again sitting at the Flight Ops sub-command bench and had previously asked for a map of the FTL relay network and the planets it serviced.

A new spot of light began flashing off one of the many strings of beads representing the relays.

“And where you got ‘lucky’ with the second one?” she asked.

A second light much farther from the beads lit up.

“You were further away from the relay than the relays are spaced, how did that work?”

“Several things,” Tess told her. “Which will require a little explaining on how the FTL network works at all. Sub-space detectors allow us to ‘see’ things in real time, before light from an event or an object could reach us. Some things become easier to detect the closer you are. In the case of the FTL relays, they are placed closely enough to detect a broad band of sub-space signals from their neighbors, the better to move a lot of data at once. While we were much further away, I only needed a small section of the band to send and receive my data. To use terms the kids would understand, the relays gush data at each other like water through fire hoses while I moved our little bit with a really long straw. I got lucky in that the cup I was aiming for just happened to be at the right angle for me to get my straw in.”

“And where were you and Neal installing that new relay?”

A third light flashed into being far from any of the other chains of beads.

Tess allowed Weaver a moment to stare at the new dot in confusion before saying, “Now ask me where I expect there to be FTL relays five years from now.”

Without waiting for a reply, new lights sprang up, new strings of beads connecting the existing planets and some not previously connected.

Weaver frowned at the new dots. “Is it just the way they look, or are they further apart than the old ones?”

“Good eyes,” Tess told her. “There have been improvements since the original relay networks were designed and set up. Updated technologies allow the new relays to send several times the data almost twice as far. I understand the goal for the next two years is getting every other one in place, which will be able to just match the current system’s speed with a third of the relays,” Tess said as half the new dots disappeared.

“Why have I never heard that they were building up new lines?” Weaver wondered. “I would have thought the hearings to gather the needed funds would have reached even Bright Hope.”

“Because what you’re seeing here is the start of a private venture, not one being paid for by the Federation member states,” Tess replied. “Several companies pooled their resources and talents to form a new startup. As we travel around a lot, Folly is just one of the many ships being paid to help deliver some of those relays.”

“But why was Folly able to make those longer connections – or hit the local relay when the station couldn’t?”

“Parakit’s station has a rather short-range FTL relay as it doesn’t have to reach even a light year to hit the local relay chain, while this section of the Folly was designed and built to act as a remote station and has a FTL relay on par to one of the new ones we are deploying. Though in this case we were also limited by the older tech in that local relay.”

“I thought the FTL systems were also there for emergencies?”

“They are, but there’s a major difference between handling millions of concurrent connections between planets and a distress call. The distress call isn’t trying to move a planet’s worth of information, just a little ‘help me’ signal with limited data. Think of someone standing right next to you and someone far enough away you can barely hear them when they’re shouting. The shouter has to speak slowly and clearly for you to have a chance to make out what they’re trying to say, while the person next to you can be motor-mouthing away. In our case someone tooted their loud horn in everyone’s ears, meaning we couldn’t hear or be heard until the noise stopped and everyone’s ears had time to recover.”

“So while you guys sometimes seem to perform magic, we can’t always depend on it?” Weaver suggested.

“That would be a good way of looking at it,” Tess agreed. “While I’ve never seen anything I ‘knew’ was magic, I have seen things I couldn’t simply explain away as science or as a Talent at work.” She was silent for a few moments before adding, “Oh, and by the way, he was making up that bit about the bungee jumping.”

Weaver growled, but failed to hide her grin.

* * *

“So what are we doing?” Beechwood wondered as Graysocks led her and Redtail down a passageway.

“You two said you were bored,” Graysocks reminded her as a door opened. “Watch your step,” she added.

One by one the three foxtaur vixens stepped across the threshold of a very large room and down the half-meter to the sub-floor dotted with places to mount something; the pattern of mounting points also went up the walls and across the high ceiling. Scattered around the room were pallets of small boxes, and in one of the far corners they spotted Holly and Quickdash who were busy fastening a strange looking object into the floor’s connections.

“What are you two up to?” Redtail asked them once they were close enough to not have to shout.

“Something Neal was picking up before things got crazy,” Holly told her. “One of these things goes at each of those mounting points.”

“Then you have to daisy-chain the power and data connections between them and their neighbors,” Quickdash interjected.

“Yeah,” Holly agreed, “and then there are standoffs and a floor to add after each section is done.”

“So what are we actually making?” Beechwood asked.

“Neal said it will be a holosuite when we get done,” Quickdash told her.

“So VR without the headsets and gloves? Cool,” Redtail said.

“Neal said something about ‘full contact’, as in if you run at a tree you won’t be running through it,” Holly warned her.

“Even better,” Beechwood agreed. “How can we help?”

“Installing the units seems to be easier with two people doing it,” Holly said. “The third might spread the boxes out to save us the trips or collect the scraps to get rid of.”

“You four install, I’ll play runner for now,” Redtail told them.

Though Graysocks and Beechwood watched Holly and Quickdash install one to see how it was done, they also read the instructions to see what might be different. While the example in the instructions showed a square pattern of elements, they were actually making tighter sets of triangles, with each element surrounded by a hexagon of others.

For her part, Redtail set out several units for each team before she started to gather up the packing material from those already done. She hid a grin when she noticed how carefully the youths seemed to have opened the first couple of boxes, and how they’d shredded most every other box once they’d known where the more delicate stuff would be.

* * *

“Sorry, Boss, but it appears to be the transducers themselves,” Tess was saying as Alex and Cindy came to check on Neal.

“Are they from the same batch as those other failures?” Neal asked.

“I’m afraid so,” Tess admitted. “And we have half a pallet of them left in the spares area.”

“Mark them as duds and move them to returns and warn the manufacturer of the problem,” Neal told her. “Hopefully they’ll be able to figure out the issue before someone has a total failure in the middle of a transport. Do we have enough for a full set from a previous batch?”

“Even better, I still have enough for a full set from the batch before they started trying to ‘improve’ on the specifications we’d given them.”

Neal frowned. “None of the batches since have held up as well as the originals – have they?”

“Their very best has been seventy percent, Boss. These failed before ten. Is it time to quit hoping they’ll get it right?”

“I think so. Contact you-know-who and see if they can get the old fabricator back online, that should be faster than whipping up a new one.”

“Problems?” Alex asked.

Neal grinned as he said, “You might say that. Often the prototype and first couple runs of a new system will be over-engineered to handle unexpected issues. After that, the manufacturers will start trimming things to save money on each production run – hopefully without trimming away any of the safety or reliability. In this case they appear to have trimmed a little too close and took away the reliability.”

“Then why use them?” Cindy wondered.

“Because the only true test is in actually using them,” Neal replied. “Testing might show flaws or weaknesses, but it won’t always tell you how well or how long the device will work in the real world.”

“So part of your job is to test any changes they make,” Alex said.

“Well, I had a very minor part in some of the research and development, but now it’s all down to fine tuning and figuring out the best way to do things,” Neal admitted. “Obvious things are easy to spot, it’s the little things that just don’t hold up as well as expected that are starting to annoy me.”

“Anything we can do to help?” Alex asked.

“Only if you two are that much of gluttons for punishment,” Neal replied with a smile. “Tess, find them a PADD and the tools to get the covers clear. While they do that, I’ll get a start on getting and testing those replacement units.”

The first things they had to pull up were the mats hiding the floor fasteners for the transporter pad. Peeling one up, they were surprised to find some areas of the mat were still quite flexible while others were now very rigid.

“What causes this?” Cindy wondered.

“Lots of transports,” Tess replied. “To not lose anything being transported, a thin slice of the pad goes with it – or comes back – depending on the direction of the transport and what it was sitting on. It’s only a layer or two of atoms, but in time they can add up.”

“So that’s the ‘wear’ on the transporters?” Alex asked.

“Oh, no. That’s not even counted as wear as far as the transporters themselves are concerned. The main wear used to be the primary emitter pads themselves, before someone figured out how to replace them with Boronike pads.”

“All I know is that Boronike is supposed to be really expensive,” Alex said.

“And it is really expensive because of its properties,” Tess agreed. “First, the raw ore plays havoc with modern day sensors, so it’s a pain to locate, mine, extract and process; but once it’s been properly shaped it can make those same sensors even sharper – which we just happen to need when doing transports. Second, unlike that pad in your hands, Boronike can’t be transported and doesn’t ‘wear’ down with each transport; which means the transporter systems will stay in calibration longer. Third, the man-hours saved not having to constantly recalibrate transporters and replicators is why the Boronike enhanced systems are actually cheaper to use than any non-Boronike alternative.”

“So we don’t even touch the Boronike when we get down to it,” Cindy chuckled. “You sound like a mother trying to scare her kids away from the cookie jar.”

“Laugh if you will,” Tess told her, “but if you ever get any of it in or on you you won’t like it.”

“You said it interferes with sensors,” Alex said. “As in they can no longer see you?”

“More like you’re carrying a big ball of interference,” Tess corrected. “Think of all the fun you could have setting off every security gate you try to go through, the fun of full body and cavity searches because their scanners just won’t work on you.”

“Ah, not as much fun as it first sounded,” Alex allowed as the first floor panel came loose in his hands.

Below the floor panels they found six pie-wedge shaped pieces with a thick plastic-like coating protecting each of them. Much heavier than they looked, Tess lowered the gravity to under a quarter to make it easier for the two of them to lift and move each segment of the Boronike out of their mounting brackets and off and to one side so they could get to the failed transducers for Neal to replace them.

 

 


 

If You Don't Follow the News, You're Uninformed; If You Follow the News, You're Only Misinformed

 

“It’s gone,” Chakat Shortdash muttered as shi tried yet another keyword combination in hir search window. Shi and hir mate were at Chakats Shadowspirit and Goldenmist’s home again – as was over half the group.

“What’s gone?” Quickwind inquired.

Any reference or information to do with the Folly in that little incident on Parakit,” shi growled. “Either Star Fleet is given credit, the planetary defense forces, militia, or the local cops; the freighter doesn’t even get mentioned in any direct search.”

“What about indirect?” hir mate asked.

“Only a couple of hits, a Fleet request for some heavy lifting on Parakit and some cargo requests, but you have to be searching from that side to find that the Folly was even in the area at the time.”

“Scary, isn’t it?” Goldenmist said from behind hir. “He – or someone working on his behalf – has the power to change what is known about events happening around him.” When Shortdash turned to glare at hir, shi added, “Think – really think about this; how hard would it have been for him to just shrug his shoulders if someone had thought to ask him if he knew anything at all about our missing cubs?” Getting up to head for hir kitchen shi said, “Get over your mad at him, Shir Shortdash, or I’ll have to ask you to stop forcing it on the rest of us.”

Quickwind got up from the pad shi’d been sitting on to sit closer to hir mate. “Shi’s right you know, the mad isn’t helping.”

“Shi’s your daughter too.”

“Shi is, and as the captain rubbed our muzzles in, I’m also a ’mil. I can make your worst mad look like a kitten’s pout, but I can no longer find and maintain my mad here. He knows, and he’s still willing to care for hir and the rest of them. That coldly calculating part of me and the overly emotional part of you is what has made us such a good team. Sometimes one of us has been wrong, but so far never both of us. Trust me if you won’t trust him. If shi goes too far he will put his foot down, and we just saw how hard he’s willing to stomp if he sees the need, but only if shi’s really earned it.”

“You act so sure,” Shortdash softly accused.

“You know, I think I am ‘so sure’. A dozen teens told me. They have a free and clear escape route and not one of them is the least bit interested in taking it. Why don’t you go over there to Fernando and Cathleen and tell them their kids are too dumb to come in out of the rain? Then there’s Weaver, an adult with two of her own at risk, and yet she’s staying – even after all this. Yes, I’m sure our cub is as safe as shi can be. Let it go,” shi whispered the last as shi hugged hir mate to hir.

Cathleen grinned from where she and Fernando had been having a quiet discussion. “Should we admit to them that our kids just happen to like playing in the rain?” she softly asked.

“Nah, why worry them needlessly?” he easily replied. “Nor will I mention to them that Alex had been getting itchy feet of late and we’d already been talking about finding him an apprenticeship somewhere, though I’ll admit I hadn’t imagined anything quite like this.”

“Mike too. He’s ridden with his father any number of times, but he needs more. I could call him home and he’d come, but I won’t.”

“Nor will I, though I’m pretty sure he’d drop everything and come running if I asked him to,” Fernando confessed. “But right now he still trusts my judgment, I have no desire to make him start questioning it.”

Cathleen looked back over at where Quickwind was hugging Shortdash before softly saying, “What a strange group we are.”

Fernando just grinned. “Blame our kids, they’re our only link to each other.”

“They were, but I don’t mind making new friends, no matter how oddly it comes about.”

Fernando grinned again before he sniffed the air. “Seems our hostesses just pulled some snacks out of the oven. I think I’ll go see if I can ‘lend them a hand’,” he said as he got up.

“Snag me a couple while you’re at it!” Cathleen chuckled, noticing others were starting to notice the fresh aromas coming from the kitchen.

“You know your mother’s miffed at you. Seems you haven’t bothered to tell her you’ve left me to run off with some human male to go explore the universe with,” Longsock said with a small smile at the monitor in front of him.

“What are you doing?” Sparrow asked of her fellow foxtaur as she offered him one of the personal-sized meat pies that had recently been removed from Goldenmist’s oven.

Taking the pie with a nod of thanks, Longsock said, “Just making another little note for Weaver.”

“You know you could always check with Tess and see if she’s up,” she reminded him.

“Oh, I know, but sometimes it’s nice to just find a little note waiting for you to notice rather than having things pushed in your face. Besides, my oh-so-sneaky denmate has already left me one on my upcoming ‘Obligation’ …”

“I’m surprised you hadn’t alerted your whole family the second day,” Sparrow said with a rising eyebrow.

“To understand why I haven’t, you’d need only know her mother,” Longsock told her. “Lorrita was very upset when Weaver showed a more than casual interest in me, she’d spent so much time and effort trying to turn each of her daughters into good little vulpamours like she is.”

Sparrow couldn’t stop a grimace from going across her face. Vulpamours weren’t just lesbians, but many were tod/male haters and some went out of their way in expressing it. “I take it you aren’t welcome when Weaver visits,” she quietly said.

“No idea,” Longsock said with a small smile. “Weaver and her mother had quite a fight over me. Weaver swore she’d never go home until after her mother publicly apologizes for the things she’s said about me. My mate can be a bit stubborn about some things. Lorrita knows about Holly, but they’ve yet to meet.”

“Yeah, I think we saw just a touch of that stubbornness when she shut down our Star Corps pair,” Sparrow agreed. “Though I will admit that I was a little surprised that she wasn’t in more of a hurry to come home.”

Longsock shrugged. “This won’t be the first time we’ve been separated, my job keeps me bouncing around.”

“That’s another thing, if your family is new to Bright Hope, how do you end up having an ‘Obligation’ to a foxtaur clan on Bright Hope?”

“Weaver and I joined one of your local clans. We thought it would be good for Holly, but she was being treated just a little too much as an outsider by the other kids.”

“Kids can be like that,” Sparrow admitted. “And you can be stuck as the new kid until the next new kid shows up.”

“True,” Longsock said, “but it doesn’t help that as soon as she’s learned some of the local plants and animals and makes a few friends she gets uprooted yet again and we dump her into a whole new environment.”

“Isn’t she in a ‘whole new environment’ now?”

Longsock smiled. “With one major difference this time, she’s not the new kid on the block – they all are, including Weaver.”

“At least the teenagers all knew each other,” Sparrow pointed out. “Though you’re right, none of them had planned on finishing school in space.”

“There was at least some interest,” Longsock countered with a grin. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have thought sneaking up to see a ship was such a great idea.”

“Okay, I’ll be the first to admit my Dusk pulls stunts that make me want to tie hir tail to a bedpost until shi’s fifty, but hir going up and now wanting to stay caught us by surprise.”

“My Weaver’s always been flexible and adaptive, much to her mother’s chagrin.”

“Yeah, she’s going to have to be plenty adaptive with that ‘crew’,” Sparrow laughed. “And how is she doing with her new denmate?” she slyly asked.

“I’ve been told he snores, and that she’s discovering that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Sorry, no juicy gossip on what else he does or doesn’t do in bed.”

“At least not yet,” Sparrow teased. “Be careful or she’ll start thinking you’re easy to replace!”

Longsock smiled and shook his head. “I think I’m safe enough, and so are the rest of you as far as him trying to steal your kids away; well other than that Charles Grayson anyway.”

“Oh? Those other lawyers bothering you too?”

“They tried, I told them all correspondence must go through my lawyers, ‘Tanner, Stripes and Star’. Haven’t heard a peep from them since.”

“Since when did they become your lawyers?” Sparrow didn’t quite demand.

“Since my daughter was adopted and I gained a co-mate. They’ve told me Neal’s footing the bill for any required legal services in reference to Weaver and the kids, and the rest of us even get a group rate for anything not related to them.”

“How’d you find that out?”

“I asked.”

“Perhaps you could ask something for us,” Shortdash said, shi and hir mate having approached as Sparrow and Longsock were talking.

“I’ll be happy to try, though you should be able to ask just as easily,” Longsock told hir.

“I’m not sure, but I think you’ve got more of an inside track than we do,” Quickwind replied. “The question is just what did he use and how did he use it to beat them. The numbers we have just won’t add up.”

“Did you hear that, Tess?” he asked the monitor – much to the surprise of the pair of chakats.

“You hadn’t said goodbye or requested privacy,” Tess’ voice replied. “Just what would you like to know, Shir Quickwind?”

“Whatever he’s willing to let us have. We know about the siege weapons, we just don’t understand how you guys could have dealt with them with so little damage to the surrounding areas.”

Since the room’s entertainment system wasn’t in use, Tess activated it through Longsock’s console. “We launched a dozen ‘bullets’ at their compound. We managed to take out their heavy guns despite a couple of them failing and several others drifting off their intended targets,” she said as the display showed an overhead of the clan’s area and the expected and actual impacts.

“‘How’ did you ‘fire’ them – and why so much error in some of the shots?” Quickwind asked.

“Transporters, and it was hard enough delivering them through the atmosphere at over twice the local speed of sound without trying to spin stabilize them as well,” Tess told hir.

“Bullshit,” Shortdash muttered.

The screen went blank. “Of course, Shir Shortdash,” Tess’ voice sternly told hir. “I am lying. Captain Foster screamed like a little girl and crapped his pants when he saw those big guns. He then burned out two of our transporter rooms trying to get them to transport him all the way to Earth from Parakit orbit. It was Star Fleet who took care of the guns and the clan.”

“They weren’t even there yet!” Shortdash snarled.

“Well, if Star Fleet didn’t do it, and we couldn’t possibly have done it, it must have been the locals or maybe some Smurfs,” Tess told hir.

“And just what in the hell is a Smurf?” Shortdash demanded.

“Something Neal has jokingly referred to a couple of times,” Tess replied. “Best I can figure out they are supposed to be small blue imaginary people that do silly things. He rates their usefulness a ways below Murphy and his laws.”

There were several frowns to counter the chuckles before Longsock said, “Weaver said something about you whipping up a little documentary for the kids. May we see that?”

“Of course,” Tess told him. “Just be advised that a couple of those with you will consider it to be a work of science fiction.”

“I am willing to ignore comments from the peanut gallery if you are,” he replied.

His request was rewarded with the short playback of the fight, and the follow-up, which led to questions which led to the why and how of the discovery – and several of the conversations Neal had had with Tess and others.

“I can’t believe he could be so callous with other people’s lives,” Chakat Applenose said after they’d run out of questions.

“The needs of the many,” Quickwind told hir. “He couldn’t let them finish their preparations, he had to keep them off balance and reacting to him rather than attacking others. The only thing he could do for the cops was remove them as usable hostages, even that cop he spoke with knew it.”

“But the kids –”

“He got them out of harm’s way as soon as he knew of the threat. Even ours,” shi added, locking eyes with hir mate.

“Even ours,” hir mate allowed. “I’d still prefer hir here with us and out of danger.”

Quickwind snorted. “How quickly you forget that our job isn’t always the safest either, or are you trying to ignore having to stuff our cub into a life-bubble on more than a couple of occasions – and once all by hirself?”

“That was just in case!” Shortdash protested.

“As his was a ‘just in case’,” Quickwind countered, waving at the again blank screen. “Give it up, love, shi’s no safer with us than with him.”

“Aren’t you afraid he’ll beat hir with that pain stick?” Applenose asked in surprise.

“No,” Quickwind said shaking hir head, “if he was that type he wouldn’t have needed an excuse and we’d have seen it with any or all of the kids.”

“And we even gave him all the excuse he needed,” Shortdash muttered. “When we thought he couldn’t punish hir he could have proven us wrong by using it on hir right then and there.”

“And he didn’t,” Longsock injected. Nodding at blank display he added, “Though I think that proved he can and will take action if he thinks it’s required.”

 

 


 

Meanwhile Back on the Folly

 

“Welcome aboard, Captain Muelsfell,” Tess said to the hesitant canine morph standing at the airlocks separating Baker from Folly, said canine having caught a hop up after the shuttle had removed the clan’s dropped pod.

“I wasn’t too sure how welcome I’d be after what all has happened,” he admitted as he stepped forward. He wasn’t in uniform, just wearing a comfortable looking outfit of pants, shirt and vest.

“As I told you before flying all of you over to the hospital, Neal was just removing you as a usable bargaining chip,” Tess reminded him. “Are you looking for him – or are you here for the tenth-credit tour?”

“He charges that much for them?” he asked with a smile.

“Stick with me, Jeff, and I can get you the discount rate,” Tess promised as some of the lights started flashing in a ‘follow me’ pattern.

Jeff quickly figured out that Tess had warned most of the crew, as those he ran into didn’t seem too surprised to find him roaming the corridors. One pair didn’t seem to have been warned though. As it had done a number of times the dancing light had come to a stop, this time halfway between entrances. The wall in front of him was one of those that could be made opaque, one-way mirror either way or clear. In this case the wall turned one-way and allowed him to see in without him disturbing the occupants.

Cindy was facing to one side with Alex behind her. Both wore padding, but Alex’s was more extensive. With a command from Alex they both started walking forward, Alex grabbing her arms from behind after just a few steps.

Cindy tried to pull her arms forward while trying to head-butt Alex, but he easily avoided her moves.

“Good,” Jeff heard him telling her, “but if you can you want to try pulling your attacker forward more before you counter; the more off-balanced they are the better your chances. Let’s try it again, this time keep trying to move forward and really pull once I grab you.”

Cindy did better this time, not only pulling Alex forward but twisting and getting in an elbow to his (padded) ribs before tripping him over her leg.

A grab at her legs as he went down pulled Cindy off balance and down as well.

“Better,” Alex said as he got up and offered her a hand, “but keep moving, never stop as it can give your opponent time to recover and counter.”

“I was a little worried about her,” Jeff told Tess. “I didn’t know she’d been allowed out to eat and thought she’d been captured in the attack on the station.”

“Only to have Perry and Brinkly try to make off with her,” Tess told him. “They failed because they tried to use one of my PTVs and I was able to help her escape. Taking her back to the station to give those two another chance didn’t appeal to either of us.”

“Yeah,” Jeff acknowledged. “They destroyed the recording room but missed the recordings themselves so we have the proof that they not only kidnapped her, but stunned the cells officers to free their friends before treating the rest of us to stun grenades from the armory. They didn’t remember the recording room until after they had shot each of those they weren’t planning on taking with them. It was just bad timing that David and Pat walked into the middle of things; they managed to take down Perry, but Brinkly and his brothers got them.”

“If I’d had my ‘ears’ in your station I might have been able to alert you and the others in time to stop them,” Tess quietly said. “But with you holding Cindy I didn’t dare get caught spying on you.”

“And now?” Jeff asked.

“We’re still looking for and trying to round up any and all those ‘friends’ the clan had,” Tess told him. “Therefore I knew when you were released from the hospital; your visit to your office, where you were reminded that the doctors have not released you to resume your duties; and your little ride to the spaceport to bum a ride up here. I could have stopped you, but I think you’re one of those that can’t find closure without knowing the answers. Knowing you’re not up here in a professional capacity I thought it safe to let you know that Cindy had found her own way home.”

“I’m starting to see how you guys beat the clan,” Jeff said as the lights told him where Tess wanted him next.

* * *

“How can I help you, Admiral Kalren?” Neal asked the Star Fleet officer that had just entered his office. Tess had warned him of the request for a face-to-face meeting in time for him to clean up a little before his visitor arrived.

“I was talking with Captain White and he admitted that he owes you a favor or three,” the Voxxan said with a smile. “He asked me to ask you if you’d consider letting him owe you another one,” she added with a raised eyebrow.

Neal leaned back in his chair as he studied the admiral. While his trust in some of the Fleet officers was high, his trust in Star Fleet itself wasn’t, though the odds were long for her having found out or guessed the pass phrase. “A favor or three?” he repeated. “I guess they’re still not teaching captains how to count,” he said with a smile.

Kalren smiled back. “The way he said it did suggest that it may have been on the low side, but that the words themselves carried the meaning.”

“And what sort of favor might you and he be looking for?” Neal asked.

“Whatever you have on how that pod ended up in your hands,” she told him. “We know you didn’t get it from the depot, but we need anything you might have heard or seen to help us backtrack it.”

“And you can’t start any official investigation without warning those that slipped it out in the first place,” Neal agreed. “Tess? Give our good admiral here what little we did find on it.”

“Of course, Boss,” Tess said as a memory chit was ejected from a holder on his desk.

Picking it up, he said, “Be careful with this,” as he offered it to the admiral.

“As to not expose any of your connections in Star Fleet?” she asked as she took it.

And Captain White,” Neal added. At her confused look he added, “This was his call, not mine. If he turns out to be wrong about you then I may have been wrong about him.”

That earned him a glare, one that he handled with long practice.

You’re not wrong, and neither was he,” she curtly informed him before giving him a nod and turning to go.

“You got her steamed,” Tess told him once the door had slid closed. “I don’t think she likes being doubted.”

“Then she’s going to have to earn the trust, just as Perry did. Did he fail to warn you that he was sending her over?”

“No, but he had to wait until her ship or shuttle wouldn’t catch any hint of the laser comm coming from his ship. As that wasn’t until after you’d decided to give her the info, I didn’t see it worth interrupting you with it. What I’ve been able to find on her looks pretty good, she’s already made a couple of enemies in Fleet by not letting go of problems when told to do so.”

“Then we’ll just have to wait and see. You said Jeff was also paying us a visit?”

“He didn’t raise a stink when he saw we had Cindy back, and I have him in one of the offices reviewing what he missed that day. Now might be a good time for you to check on him, he’s just been sitting there thinking the last few minutes.”

“I’ll see to him next. What are the kids up to?” Neal asked as he got up.

“Since you’ve thrown any schedule out the airlock your crew has done pretty much the same. Over half of them are asleep after their long day and several are up after having rested.”

“Youngest three?”

“Shadowcrest is one of those currently asleep, the younger two are up after they took a nap.”

“Did someone have to suggest it, or did they decide it was naptime on their own?”

“Quick recognized that shi was getting snappish and Holly joined hir.”

“For hir that’s a positive sign,” Neal said as Tess led him to the office Jeff was in.

The canine’s muzzle was wearing a thoughtful frown on it when the door slid open to admit Neal. He started to get up but Neal waved him back down.

“Well, you’re looking a bit better than you did the last time I saw you,” Neal said as he plopped down into one of the guest chairs.

“I feel like I’m a kid sitting in the boss’s chair and he just walked in,” Jeff dryly said.

Neal smiled before saying, “While that is a chair behind a desk in an office on a ship which I command, that is not my chair. For one thing, my chair doesn’t have a notch cut out of the seat for a tail.”

Indicating the now blank screen, Jeff said, “I saw what you did and why you might have thought you had to.”

“What you saw was a lot of luck. There were so many ways it could have gone so much worse than it did,” Neal told him.

“You didn’t look like you were counting on luck,” Jeff countered. “Tiffany Wallsom looked like she was expecting miracles out of you, and you delivered.”

Neal snorted softly. “The problem with appearing to be a miracle worker is people start expecting you to clean up all their little problems. Heck, it was a minor miracle I was even here when all this went down.”

“But she knew you were coming …”

“In another two to three weeks,” Neal told him. “Since no one knew about their heavy firepower the bank was going to cut them off long before I got here; that new road to the port was to cut off their last big revenue maker.”

“So that road would have gone in no matter what else had happened?”

“That was the plan,” Neal admitted. “But knowing what we know now there was a very real chance the bank cutting them off might have been enough to make them decide to bring out their big guns anyway. If they had, by the time I’d have gotten here you guys would have been under siege for at least a week.”

* * *

As Neal and Jeff talked, a patient clock-watcher checked the time yet again.

Closing the latest log he’d been looking at, Mike again checked the small status bar in the corner of his display that he’d set to show him Bright Hope – Astra City time.

He opened the communications panel and keyed up a request for a FTL connection. He then keyed in a number he knew by heart.

He waited for the call to go through, frowning when it was redirected – to another number he also just happened to know by heart.

“Yeah?” a voice said from the other end, offering no video.

“Hey, Heather,” he said, opening his own video.

“Hey!” the other voice said, opening their video to show a chestnut colored female equitaur of about the same age.

“I waited until I thought others wouldn’t be up,” Mike admitted.

“No longer a problem,” she softly told him.

“Yeah, I saw the redirect – how the hell did you talk them into that?”

“About that. You literally ‘taking off’ made them think they’d finally gotten rid of you.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Don’t be, they went overboard and it backfired on them big time.”

“Oh?”

“They tried to force Vance on me.”

“That self-centered ass?”

“Yeah, and he tried to show me how much better he is than you.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes. And I know you remember all the fun you had helping your mom when she was teaching me more than just a little self-defense.”

“Oh shit,” Mike muttered.

“And since the poor guy was trying to force mount me, he wasn’t wearing any protection,” she told him with a grin. “I hear they managed to sew everything back together and he should be out of the hospital in a few more days, and then the court system will have their turn with him.”

“I’ll bet there was hell to pay when your parents heard about that.”

“Heard? They were right there telling me to calm down and accept him – I had to knock Dad down to get away!” A little calmer she added, “They hadn’t expected me to realize what they were up to; I had the main entertainment center in record mode forwarding to one of my accounts. I grabbed my comm and was out the door at a full gallop; I’d forwarded the recording links to the local security office before my mother had managed to call the medics.”

“And you ran for my place,” Mike said. “Mom have to point a gun at anyone?”

“No, by the time my parents tried to find me we had me in protective custody and they aren’t allowed anywhere near me or your mom.”

“Makers,” Mike muttered. “Reminds me of when I was younger and the other kids couldn’t believe I had such a ‘bad-ass’ mom.”

“You still do and she’s still a bad-ass,” Heather assured him with a grin. “You want to know the funny thing? I don’t think she’s the least bit worried about you. I think her main concern is you annoying that human captain that’s stuck with you.”

“He’s cool,” Mike told her. “Just don’t piss him off.”

“Yeah, so your mom has been telling me. I’m going to start joining her for those group calls.”

Mike keyed in some data to his console as he said, “Here’s my new ‘roaming’ code. Worthless when we’re at warp of course, but it’ll store and forward any messages you try to send me.”

“Your mom said it may be two years. I guess we’ll get to see if distance makes the heart grow fonder – or just go yonder,” she said with a smile as she waved ‘goodbye’.

“Getting rid of me already?” he asked with an answering smile.

“Some of us are up late studying for exams tomorrow – unlike certain others out there gallivanting around the stars,” she said with a smirk.

“Oh, you should see some of the things I’m learning.”

“Invite me along next time!” she demanded with a laugh.

“Makers help us if there is a ‘next’ time,” Mike agreed.

“Night, young buck.”

“Night, little nag,” Mike said as the connection dropped.

He sat there looking at the blank display before saying, “You will forward anything from either of them.”

“Of course, and any issues coming up from her parents or that Vance. Your mother wisely used Neal’s pet lawyers, so I’ll be able to keep more of an eye on things,” Tess assured him.

“Do you have access to that video?”

“Are you sure you want to see it?”

“Yes.”

“Alone? Or might you like a little support?”

“Who’s still up?”

“Neal.”

“If he doesn’t mind.”

“You should know better than that by now,” Tess admonished him.

Neal joined him a few minutes later – followed by Jeff.

“I understand a friend of yours had a bad time,” Neal quietly said.

“Attempted rape with her parents supporting the rapist,” Mike muttered darkly.

“And you’re pissed because you weren’t there to protect her,” Neal agreed. “Though from the sounds of it all you’d have been doing was cheering her on.”

Mike smiled slightly as he added, “My mom showed her how to defend herself, and Mom’s a bit like you in that she doesn’t care if you have to do any lasting damage to the other guy.”

“Go ahead and roll it, Tess,” Neal suggested and they soon had a view of someone’s main room. Two males, two females, two young, two older, and it was obviously three against one; though it was quickly apparent that the one knew that every move and every word was being recorded, and the three had not a clue. Already knowing the ending, the script read like a bad soap opera where you think you know just how it’s going to end – right up until the cornered young mare demonstrated why standing behind a skittish horse could be a very bad idea. She’d had to go through both males to escape, but that wasn’t the end of the recording, it continued on past the medics recovering all the bits of one foolish young male and the bandaging the flank of the older one. The three watchers growled together as the recording also caught her parents working on their stories to try to explain why it was their daughter who was at fault.

“Tess, tell me Robin’s going full tilt on this,” Neal quietly said once the video had ended.

“She’s going full tilt,” Tess confirmed. “That includes having already informed certain parties of what they will need to do to avoid long term stays in correctional institutes.”

“Better they rot,” Mike darkly muttered.

“If the courts take too much interest in this we could lose any control of what might happen to Heather,” Tess told him. “One of the conditions was they allow your mom to finish raising her.”

Jeff shook his head. “Normally I’d be leery of what you people are trying to do, but what those three did can’t be forgiven.”

“Jeff,” Tess said, “from what I heard of their earlier conversation, Mike’s mother is the one that taught Heather the moves you watched her use, and they were using poor Mike here as a practice dummy.”

“Now that’s true love,” Neal said with a smirk. “You know they’re serious when he’s willing to let a gal that big kick at his nuts!”

“I was quite well padded,” Mike told him.

“And next you’re going to tell us it didn’t hurt a bit?” Neal countered.

“Oh, she nailed me good a couple of times,” Mike admitted. “Earned me some quality cuddling time.”

“Cuddling being the only thing you were probably up for at that point,” Jeff agreed with a chuckle. “Out of my jurisdiction so it’s not my problem; though now I have to wonder what other stunts you guys might be playing that I need to be watching out for,” he said eying Neal.

Neal smiled. “You already have a good idea which way I roll, Jeff. If I was planning that type of funny business you’d never have stepped a paw on this ship.”

“I know, but you seem to have a lot of firepower for one man. It makes a guy like me worry.”

“If there had been a chance I’d use that firepower in that manner you’d have never taken Cindy from us.”

“I know that – now.”

Neal shook his head. “No. It still hasn’t sunk in I think.”

“It didn’t with us either,” Mike commented. “We only saw the bearded bum the first couple of days – and even he never showed us what we saw you dump on the clan.”

“Why should you have?” Neal asked. “As a dozen stowaways you weren’t putting thousands of other lives at risk, the only threat you guys represented was to the already rather questionable sanity of me, Weaver, and your folks. Why would you think I’d treat you guys like I did the clan?”

“You wouldn’t, but man …”

“If it got to you that badly, you still have that chit – and Heather’s waiting for you,” Neal gently said.

“Chit?” Jeff asked with a raised eyebrow.

Mike sighed. “He gave us each enough credits to go home on the next ship heading that way if we wanted to.”

“So Cindy had the funds to go home the whole time?”

“No,” Neal told him. “She returned it. She didn’t want to have access to enough funds to return or be forcibly returned to Bright Hope.”

“But you did give her the option.”

“Right after you met us for breakfast. I didn’t want them if they didn’t want to be here, and that included Cindy.”

Mike grinned before saying, “He offered again after that little battle, still no takers.”

“And the adoption thing?”

“He can’t un-adopt us – we have to reject him. So him proclaiming Cindy un-adopted wouldn’t mean a thing unless she had also un-adopted him.”

Jeff snorted. “That’s the most convoluted thing I’ve ever heard,” he muttered.

“Who do you see benefiting the most?” Neal asked him.

Them it appears, which makes me wonder what else you might be up to.”

Neal grinned. “I just made the most out of a bad situation I found myself in – much as I did with you once I knew the clan had taken you.”

“You threatened to kill me,” Jeff reminded him.

“And the kids feared I’d just abandon them somewhere – after they decided I wouldn’t just space the lot of them. And I really needed a legal hook to hang two of the younger ones on.”

“Well, try not to cause too much more excitement if you could please. Oh, and keep Cindy out of my jurisdiction, that warrant is still current.”

“Your jurisdiction doesn’t extend to Frostpoint,” Tess injected.

“No it doesn’t, why?”

“Just that Neal and friends have been invited there in two days,” Tess told them. “And you’ve been encouraged to bring friends, Boss.”

“Who’s doing the inviting?” Neal asked.

“Polar Oceanic; things suggest that they’re finally ready to start harvesting,” she told him.

“Ah, I think that was one of those little long-range projects my grandfather had a hand in starting up,” Neal said. “How about it, Jeff? Want to see what else has been going on right under your muzzle?”

“Am I going to regret it?”

“Nah, I don’t think so. Bring your mate and kids if you like.”

“Next shuttle to Tootles leaves in ten minutes,” Tess warned them.

“Sounds like my cue; see you in two days, Neal,” Jeff said as the side lights started flashing their runway pattern.

What little long-range project?” Mike asked once the canine cop was out of sight.

“As the company name suggests, one of those in the deep blue sea, though theirs is more a yellow-green than blue,” Neal allowed.

“You’re going to make me go find it in the old logs, aren’t you?”

If it can even be found, as I can’t even be sure which five year group you should be looking in,” Neal admitted. “The reason it was long-ranged was it’s much harder to properly terraform the oceans than it is a patch of land.”

“I remember they were trying some new type of algae on Bright Hope.”

“Which they need to get well established before they can introduce larger and more complex critters,” Neal agreed. “And unless you have an inland sea, it has to play nice with the rest of the planetary environment.”

“So what were they working on?”

“Hard-shelled critters if I recall, krill and larger.”

“And edible I take it?”

“So I’d hope. We’ll see how they did in two days.”

* * *

“Good morning, Tess. Anything you feel I need to know?” Neal asked as he made himself an omelet. The teens having installed Beechwood’s kitchen the day before meant he wasn’t doing anything any of the others couldn’t now do if they so desired.

“Define ‘need’ for me, Boss,” Tess replied. “As there aren’t currently any fires you ‘need’ to put out at this time.”

“Okay then, what are the kids up to?”

“Which ones? As in no two seem to be up to the same thing,” Tess teased. “A couple are adding units to our new holosuite, your gardeners are down at Frostpoint looking for stock, and the youngest two are trying to reprogram one of my housekeeping bots.”

“Have you run into any issues with Cindy going to Frostpoint with us tomorrow?”

“None that I’ve been able to find, Boss. Charles’ lawyers sent their demands to Jeff’s office as the nearest police force to where we were coming down, and I have no indications that Jeff has bothered to inform Frostpoint of it.”

“And he should be on medical leave until well after we’re gone,” Neal noted.

“She’s content for now doing her studies,” Tess told him. “Be advised that Mike and Alex are sniffing through your open logbooks.”

Neal smiled. “It should be interesting to see what they can figure out – no hints.”

You’re the one most likely to drop one too many hints, Boss.”

“True,” Neal allowed. “And Weaver?”

“Is helping pick out miniature fruit trees,” Tess warned him.

“Remind them to get some pollination brushes.”

“Ah, about pollination.”

“Oh?”

“Bees, Boss.”

Neal shook his head and snorted. “I can see that going wrong so many ways,” he muttered.

“These are the non-stinging type and they are scent trained,” Tess informed him. “The documentation on them looks pretty good.”

“I’m not so worried about their stings as much as I am how quickly they’ll die off getting lost throughout the ship.”

“I think I can help keep the die off to a minimum, Boss. And several of the hydroponics rooms have their own links so the bees can move freely from one to the other.”

“We’ll see how it goes then,” Neal agreed. “Hmmm, better order at least three sets so one dying off won’t stop them growing things – and make sure they get whatever the bees need to eat when there aren’t any fresh blossoms for them to pollinate.”

“Got it covered, Boss. And I should have the holosuite ready by the time we’re ready to leave Parakit.”

“I take it the kids got enough of them installed that you were able to take over?”

“Oh, they’re still helping, but there’s enough up now that I can use them to connect more of them. With all four corners now established I’ve run new units halfway up the walls.”

“See what programs you can get for it, sets as well as bits and pieces.”

“From the spec sheets, anything I can get a high enough resolution scan of I can duplicate in the holosuite, though scents will be a bit trickier,” Tess told him.

“So just set the PTVs to random paths and start scanning?”

“The regular ones could be used for scenery, but not for up close – only the sensors in the specials have the needed resolution I would want for something you might touch or pick up.”

“Hmm, grab a couple of sparring partners for Alex and Cindy while you’re at it,” Neal suggested between mouthfuls. “No sense making Alex take all the hits.”

“You’re forgetting, Boss, I can have them in different parts of the room and they’ll never touch each other.”

“And fighting their echoes,” Neal agreed. “If we have enough emitters we might also do a couple of the smaller rooms for individual fun.”

“We should have enough for three if we use the default configuration, two if you overdo it like you’re doing to the main one.”

“The higher the resolution the more real you’ll be able to make things seem. Go ahead and make it three rooms and we’ll see if any of them can tell the difference.”

“And Tanner and company sent you a little note saying Snooper came through again.”

“And just what did shi find?”

“That Charles Grayson likes to gamble and play the part of a big spender. It seems he blows what few credits he wins and steals from Cindy when he more often loses.”

“So there’s nothing more to recover for Cindy.”

“Sorry, Boss. On a more troubling note – for him anyway – it seems he hadn’t paid off his latest debts before you and Cindy locked him out, nor does Snooper think he has the funds to pay them or his lawyers.”

“Now there’s a silver lining,” Neal acknowledged. “Not too many services will help him bother Cindy without some credits up front.”

“A slightly troubling note for us is Chakastra Fuels Consortium is again trying to consolidate all the other fuel producers and shippers under their oversight if not their actual control. Their current attempts would require only members certified by them to load, unload or transfer fuel anywhere in Federation space. Supposedly for ‘safety’ concerns of course.”

“And have they furnished a list of requirements needed for others to obtain their little certificate?”

“No, Boss, nor is there any place documented where a non-Consortium group could send their people for the required training or to train their own instructors.”

“Did Robin happen to add how she’s proceeding with it?”

“As the legal representatives for Alamo Antimatter; Tanner, Stripes and Star have pointed out the gross over-stepping of the Chakastra Fuels Consortium. Robin has also pointed out to the Federation committee pushing for this that Chakastra Fuels Consortium is having problems enough meeting their own current deliveries without having to take over for the companies that would no longer be allowed to move fuel under these proposed rules. There’s also a side note that she sent Star Fleet, Star Corps, and several of the larger space transport businesses warnings that Alamo Antimatter will be unable to continue supplying them with fuel if this little power grab goes through.”

“We’ll see what happens then. How are our ‘big guns’ rooms?”

“As promised, shirt-sleeve temperatures, but you’ll need at least a light environment suit for the hazardous materials and fumes. Though I’d suggest a heavy suit with all the exposed sharp edges.”

“I’ll suit up then,” Neal said as he got up from the table. “Have you gotten a bot in there yet?”

“Only after some cutting, that sticking door finished warping once things started cooling down. It’s as bad as we’d figured; we’ll save the Boronike because it’s Boronike otherwise we’re just scraping to framework, breaking the rest of the slag into pieces small enough to get through the corridors.”

“And the emergency exhaust ports?”

“I already had some of my bots working on them, the room vent hatches have been cleared and repaired, and the ports themselves should be cleaned out in another two days.”

“Hmmm, would the cleanup be any easier if we were to break the slag down enough to go out those ports?”

“It would save either containing each piece or having to then clean up whatever path we use to carry it to the airlocks, Boss. I can add an air-field so we don’t have to vent the whole room every time we want to move another load out.”

“Figure on that then,” Neal agreed as he zipped up his environment suit. He hid a smile of amusement when the translift doors opened to reveal that a good portion of his ‘crew’ was also suited up and waiting for him.

He led them to the now cut open doors to what used to be Transporter Room One and turned to them just before entering. “This is just a quick inspection, we’re not going to start tearing things apart just yet. You can look around, but be careful. If you get caught on something stop and ask for help and if you damage you suits then it’s time to leave.”

“Won’t Tess keep us safe?” Calmmeadow wondered as they snapped their helmets closed and turned on their hand-lights.

“Tess is fairly blind anywhere near this area of the ship for now,” Neal told them. “She’s limited to what her cameras and microphones can pick up – and all the ones in there were melted by the heat.”

“And that Boronike Tess told Cindy and me about is messing with her other scans,” Alex added.

“Which is why it will be one of the first things I’ll have you guys help me remove once we can work in there,” Neal told them before he turned and entered the room.

“Watch your step!” he called back as he gingerly stepped on and then through what was left of the deck and lightly into the insulation that had kept most of the heat from melting into the level below.

While Tess’ bots had fastened some small lights and camera heads around the perimeter of the room, most of the room was still dark and in shadows.

Lighter materials had been burned away by the intense heat, leaving behind the heavier elements, some of which had flowed together into interesting shapes while some had been bent and twisted by gravity and the momentary winds as the air had rushed out through the emergency exhaust port.

“Gravity’s out of kilter,” Alex commented as he stepped into the room, swaying a little as he found his new balance.

“The gravity plates and controls for this room were destroyed along with everything else,” Neal told him. “Tess has ramped up the units on the next level so we wouldn’t have to float around for now.”

“And even the Boronike was melted into strange shapes,” Cindy said as she ran her gloved hand over the gentle curve of what once had been a perfectly straight plate, the once thick protective coating a thin smear of black that came off on her glove.

“Cutting them loose from the remains of their supports will be fun,” Neal agreed. “Though after removing the Boronike we’ll actually start from the top and work our way down. Once the ceiling is cleared we can string up some better temporary lighting.”

* * *

Neal spent all of that day and part of the next cutting the heat-warped Boronike free and out of the room, Tess supplying boxes to contain it and the kids taking turns helping him. They also ‘helped’ him take meal breaks and at least get a short nap in.

“Your denmate is looking for you,” Tess quietly informed him as he finished his lunch. With the Boronike moved to a container now in the secondary hull, Tess’s sensors once again had full access to the area and Neal was allowing his crew to continue the teardown without his direct supervision.

“My denmate or my second in command?” Neal wondered.

“I’m pretty sure it’s your denmate cap you’ll be needing, Boss,” Tess said and the doors opened for Weaver to walk in.

“Are you done hiding from me?” she asked with a grin.

“Why, did I do something that would suggest I was trying to hide from you?” Neal asked with a smile of his own. “What’s up?”

“Well, I’m pretty much healed from my injuries, and you can’t use the excuse of Star coming early,” she hinted.

“And you’re feeling a little frisky with all the chakat teens having their fun,” Neal added. “Unless you’re desperate, how about tonight after dinner?”

My room,” Weaver suggested, “I’d like our first time to be just you and me.”

“Yeah, I don’t need an audience to make a fool of myself,” Neal agreed.

“Ah, but I’m the fool, and you’re the idiot I’ve picked.”

“And a real idiot I’d be to deny you.”

“So, where are we having dinner?”

“At a little place in Frostpoint. The kids will dine with us but the rest of the evening will be ours,” Neal suggested.

* * *

At the insistence of others, even Neal was wearing his latest silk outfit from Nightsky as they all climbed out of the PTVs in front of the ‘Seafood Palace’, the PTVs then whisking themselves out of the way until they were needed again. Weaver had frowned but said nothing about Quickdash wearing hir pain sticks on hir belt; after all she knew even Holly was armed with a heavy stunner.

The doorman, a rather large husky morph that might have been doing double-duty as the bouncer, simply stepped back and waved them to the right where a slim lioness waited.

“If you’ll follow me?” she asked with a smile before turning and leading them around the edge of the large room towards a set of closed double doors.

Brajet was past the doors, as was Jeff; but it was several hyena morphs that the teens noticed first.

Quickdash’s wands had come out in a flash, fully extended and crackling in less than a second. Shi looked a little closer at one of the two nearest hyenas before raising hir wands vertically and letting them collapse back into their handles.

“I told you shi was as fast as lighting,” the herm hyena told the female beside hir – who had flinched back when the wands had snapped out in her direction.

“I-I see. No wonder shi was able to take down your attackers,” she said as she watched the youth carefully clipped hir wands back on hir belt.

“I owe you two a hug or two – if you’ll allow it,” the herm told Quickdash.

“He’s the one that had me get the pain sticks,” Quickdash said as shi used one of the wands to point at Neal.

“But you were the one that used them so well,” the hyena replied. “I’m Dana and this is my sister, Mary Su.”

As the two hyena morphs gave the young chakat a hug, Jeff had stepped closer to Neal. “Bit of a hair trigger there,” he commented.

“To arm – but not to fire,” Neal pointed out.

“Is your baby okay?” Holly was asking the herm.

“Thanks to you two,” Dana told her before giving her a hug as well.

Neal meantime was getting a hug from Brajet, who then handed him off to a slightly smaller and older calico for another hug.

“Well hello, Tiff, got all the fires put out?” Neal asked as he returned the hug.

“Mostly,” Tiffany admitted. “There are still over a dozen bodies that we may never be able to identify; they don’t seem to be in any data base or missing persons report I have access to. I gave what we had to Star Fleet, but I don’t have high hopes for it.”

“You did what you could. Anything on the ones the Poseidon pulled off the station?”

“What may have been a double agent and some hyenas that did station maintenance.”

“I’m assuming you have people looking for any unwanted ‘going away’ presents?”

“Very carefully, though the short notice might have prevented them from getting too many traps in place,” Tiffany pointed out as their waitress was trying to get them all seated.

“What is that thing?” Shadowcrest demanded, staring at the table’s centerpiece.

The contents of the centerpiece seemed to be staring back at hir with beady little eyes as a claw holding a piece of what might have once been a fish moved close to and then away from its mouth, another bit of its meal bitten off to be chewed.

Neal leaned forward to look into the clear round tank and its inhabitant. “Hmmm, my guess would be some type of cross between an Earth king and snow crab, but neither of those ever had six legs and a claw on either side of them.”

“And a few gene segments from Caitian and Rakshan sea life thrown in for good measure,” an otter morph said as she found a seat a few chairs down from Neal’s. “May West, and we hope they will meet with your approval.”

“I assume you have others being prepared?” Neal inquired.

“The cooks wanted to wait until after you had arrived before starting them.”

“Why were they waiting on Neal?” Weaver asked.

The otter opened her mouth to reply, but Neal spoke first.

“Because if I like what they have, I’ll be buying quite a bit of it to sell elsewhere along my route,” he told her.

All of it this time,” May added. “While we’ve been harvesting them since the beginning of this project, this will be the first time we’ve had enough to actually go commercial.”

“You’re not pruning them back too hard on my account I hope,” Neal told her.

“No, we started early to have a load ready for you in time, but we were going to have to start harvesting them more aggressively anyway if we didn’t want them overgrazing their current habitats.”

Weaver’s next question was interrupted by the doors to the kitchens opening, serving carts piled high with cooked and halved crabs still steaming as they were wheeled to the tables.

Bibs were offered, Neal chuckling as he said, “This is why I thought the silk might be overdressing for this meal.”

“And who didn’t tell us that his reasons were a messy meal?” Nightsky shot back, only half kidding.

Neal just shrugged. “Sooner or later you’ll figure out my suggestions are usually offered for a reason.”

“For the reasons of driving you and everyone else crazy,” Brajet warned from a neighboring table.

“Don’t you be getting catty on me now,” Neal called back to the groans of several of the others.

A large plate was placed in front of each of them, but not so large that the crab cluster didn’t extend past both sides of it. Smaller plates for the shells and side dishes were also provided, as well as finger bowls for cleaning and butter and other sauces for their crab.

Neal smiled at the questioning look Weaver was giving the small dab of wasabi he had put to one side of his plate. “A little goes a long way,” he warned her before picking up his crab and tearing off the rearmost leg.

Brighteyes watched Graysocks put a larger blob of the green paste on one side of the plate in front of the foxtaur. “Okay, none of that for me,” the chakat said.

Graysocks grinned. “Chicken. It's like horseradish.”

“Definitely none.”

“How are you supposed to eat these things?” Nightsky muttered to hir tablemates.

“Why am I not surprised that he seems to know how?” Morningmist said as shi pointed hir muzzle at Neal, who had just snapped a leg off at the joint.

They watched him bend the next leg joint the wrong way and pull something long and thin out of the leg before carefully snapping the leg in half and pulling the meat out of first one side and then the other.

Having been one of those watching Neal, Weaver commented, “Had a bit of practice have you?”

“A bit,” Neal agreed as he tasted the meat he’d pulled from the leg. “Maybe a tad brinier than snow crab, but it’s been a while since I’ve had any, so it might just be me.”

“You didn’t put any of your sauce on it,” she pointed out.

“That’s because I wanted to see how it tasted first, and not how well you could cover it up,” he replied. “My mother used to dip each piece in a butter sauce,” he added before taking another bite. “Either that or she’d just shell out all the meat into a bowl and add butter before eating it.”

Finishing the segment he’d been working on, Neal set the rest of the leg aside and reached for Weaver’s cluster. He walked her through the basics of getting the most meat for the least work out of a leg and body segment.

Others had noticed that as well as instructing his denmate, he was also feeding her.

“I thought something was up,” Chakat Roseberry said with a grin as through Weaver Neal showed them all how to get around a crab cluster. “I thought she was feeling a little eager about something.”

“Oh, so we’re going to be unsupervised tonight?” Calmmeadow asked with a grin of hir own.

“Only if you pretend to ignore Tess,” Redtail pointed out between mouthfuls; they were all making better progress now that Neal had showed them the tricks of eating this particular treat.

Neal managed only two of the good-sized crab clusters before declaring that he’d had enough, but he stayed at the table and kept cracking to help speed up his denmate’s meal.

Weaver finally begged off any more of the crab. Neal helped her up and then set her saddlebags and Starblazer on her lower back.

To the kids he said, “Three or more, do try to stay out of trouble.”

“Define ‘trouble’!” Quickdash called out.

“Anything Tess has to interrupt Weaver and me about,” Neal told hir. “And that includes any notes from Jeff over there starting with, ‘About that crew of yours’.”

“That poor kid,” Tiffany said once Weaver and Neal were out of sight and hearing.

“Why do you say that?” Mike asked, beating out several of the other teens.

“Because if he’s in the mood I think he’s in, she’s in for one hell of a ride,” she said with a smirk.

“Will my mom be okay?” Holly asked, sounding worried.

“She’ll be fine,” Tiffany assured her.

“Then why the crack about one hell of a ride?” Mike asked.

Tiffany laughed. “The other day you saw how much effort he puts into a task he doesn’t like,” she told them. “Now wonder how much effort he might use to please someone he does like …”

“She’s not going to be able to walk come morning,” Brighteyes muttered, failing to hold back hir snickers.

* * *

Weaver woke up slowly, unsure where she was. Then disjointed events from the night before intruded on her waking mind.

Neal had set Starblazer on the seat pad behind him, out of the way but still in easy reach before demonstrating that he knew how to ‘get her motor running’ with a bit of heavy petting as they took a quiet drive. She wasn’t sure how they’d made it to her bed; Tess must have transported them up while Neal had her well and truly distracted.

And then she’d learned that Neal considered himself a mechanic as well as an engineer and a starship captain. And when said mechanic felt like it, he could tinker with things for hours, which he preceded to do with and to her. The massage would have been great in and of itself, but he kept adding ‘diagnostic tools’ or in this case toys to keep her wound up and excited.

And it had worked. By the time he was done in so was she, quite nicely in fact as she recalled it, though she thought she’d been slightly unsettled by something but she couldn’t remember quite what it might have been.

While Starblazer had been fed during one of their lulls, she was hungry again. Weaver noticed with a smile that someone seemed to have changed her kit’s diaper before sneaking out and letting her sleep in.

Getting some breakfast, her fur helped hide some of her blushes at some of the jokes the teens were making, though Holly winning a ‘bet’ on whether she’d be able to walk unassisted had struck a little too close to home.

“See? I wasn’t too hard on her,” she heard Neal say behind her – just before she flinched as he ran a hand up her upper back.

The unsettling part came back in a flash as his fingers continued to make her squirm. She had tried tickling him the night before – only to discover he was better at it!

Neal stopped teasing her and set down the tea and snack bar he’d been carrying in his other hand.

“So,” Neal said with a sideways look at her, “did you have a good night?”

“I want a rematch,” she told him.

“Oh goody, there just happens to be a couple more diagnostic ‘tools’ we didn’t have time to try last night,” he replied with a grin at the looks the teens were giving them.

“Get a room, you two!” Calmmeadow said with a laugh.

“We did,” Neal happily informed hir. “Poor Starblazer didn’t get much sleep last night. Maybe if I muzzle her mother next time,” he said thoughtfully.

The look his denmate was giving him suggested that trying any type of muzzle on her fell in the bad idea category.

Changing to a safer subject, Neal said, “I take you guys didn’t get into too much trouble while we were otherwise occupied.”

“No, no trouble,” Calmmeadow told them. “Most of us were too full to want to do too much, so we watched a few shuttles take off and land before catching a ride up.”

“There was that security guard at the port that thought Quick shouldn’t have those wands,” Brighteyes reminded hir.

“Neal asked about ‘trouble’, not if we’d had any fun,” Calmmeadow pointed out with a grin. “Poor wolftaur never knew what hit her. Quick turned them way down and was just giving her a little sting every time she reached for hir or the wands.”

“Her partner was no help either,” Brighteyes snickered. “Shi just stood there and laughed as Quick all but made hir partner dance.”

“So,” Neal said, “Did we make friends or enemies out of them?”

“Oh, friends,” Calmmeadow said. “Even more so after Quick told them where they could get pairs of their own.”

“Speaking of which,” Brighteyes added, “Shi and Holly said something about you letting them make a delivery to that place on their own?”

“Three or more,” Neal reminded them. “We should schedule it for some time during Tootles business hours today.”

“I’m volunteering!” Brighteyes said as shi headed for the door.

“Wait for me!” Calmmeadow said as shi followed hir sister out the door.

Weaver gave Neal a long look. “That weapons dealer?”

Neal shrugged. “Best to let them get it out of their systems, and Tess has veto powers on anything too overblown, well except for Quickdash.”

“And why not hir as well?”

“As a show of faith when I was discovering shi was a chakamil I reloaded hir credit card and then locked myself out of it.”

“Ah, about that, Boss,” Tess injected.

“Yes?”

“Shi has asked me to warn hir if shi ever does something you might frown on, and shi did give me permission to set hir limits so long as shi had the right to override it.”

“Did you ‘help’ hir make that decision?” Neal asked.

“No, but shi told Holly about it while they were fixing that console and I think all that extra responsibility was starting to scare hir a little. They were talking about it again last night while they were with the teens and asked for advice. It was ‘suggested’ that shi have the training wheels put back on hir bike until shi’s a bit more ready to solo.”

“But with a quick-release in case we try to protect hir when shi doesn’t want protecting,” Neal murmured. “I can live with that.”

“Quick-release – was that a bad pun I just heard?” Weaver said with a mock glare.

“All puns are bad, but some are so bad that they’re actually good,” Neal told her. “Tess, how many containers were we sending Tani?”

“Three containers, Boss.”

“Not worth hiring someone for just three if the kids are going with them, send down some flatbeds to haul them and the kids can ride the PTVs.”

“What’s a flatbed?” Weaver asked.

“Think of a PTV with no cab at all, you just drop a container on top of it and it drives where you tell it and unloads itself.”

“More toys.”

“Hey, I’ve even got a handful with tracks instead of wheels for getting through snow and places that don’t have finished roads,” Neal warned her with a grin.

After Weaver had left Neal asked, “Just how serious was their little spat with security?”

“Just as they told you, not an issue and no report was filed,” Tess told him. “Quickdash did just enough to keep from having the wands taken from hir. The wolftaur didn’t give in until her partner told Quick to take it up a level. A couple of light taps at two convinced her that Quick had been going easy on her and that she really didn’t want to try a three.”

“Who’s where?”

“Alex and Cindy are having an early session; Holly and Quickdash are annoying themselves with a microcontroller problem; your seamstress is in hir element and the rest of them are breaking the remains of Transporter Room One into pieces small enough to go out the exhaust port.”

“Let them know about the delivery in case they want to look around a bit.”

“Ah, you just caused a stampede, Boss.”

“Who says you can’t herd ’kats – or teenagers?” Neal chuckled. “And while they’re busy with that I might even get a few of my other chores done.”

“Weaver’s going too, it seems.”

“All the better.”

“We have more than enough weapons on board you know.”

“True, but I’ve found that most people take better care of things that actually belong to them.”

“You don’t.”

“That’s the flip side, you’re more likely to risk something that’s yours compared to risking something a friend might get upset about you breaking.”

“Like your Betsy?” Tess asked.

“When I say the name you know just what I want,” Neal pointed out. “And how many times have we had to replace her after I used her in a manner she was never intended for?”

“I think we might have the kids back to Bright Hope before I can count that high,” Tess warned him.

* * *

“And Quad-Star Research is going to go over budget due to their Yukon branch receiving a bad batch of samples,” Edward Bunsten, an older and rather stately looking squirrel morph and the head financial accountant of Thirteen Star Bank stated from the screen. “Their local manager, Tammy Parker, is accepting the blame for the blunder; but the evidence suggests she’s trying to protect the people under her from any possible fallout. Other than this one problem her department has been doing some of the better genetic adapting and testing for us. If they hadn’t been so ahead of their other tasks they’d never have been asked to take on the additional samples in the first place.”

“Your recommendations?” Neal asked.

“That we rebalance their budget for her. Both to pull them out of the red and to ensure she has the funds to give out those bonuses her people have earned.”

“Do it,” Neal told him. “Reserve a bonus for Ms. Parker as well; any manager that can get that much good work out of her people and is willing to stand up for them when things go wrong is someone we want to keep if we can.”

“Next up is the butcher’s bill of Parakit. The road was expected, just not the timing. Current loads look like you’ll actually come out a little ahead of expectations. Which leads us to your losses. I understand most of your actual damages you’ll be able to make good on from your onboard spares – though replacing some of those spares won’t come cheap. And Star Fleet has officially signed off on the loss of their equipment. That still leaves you needing to replace the materials you used that were destined for your other stops. Fortunately, I may have a solution. 4854786G76.”

Neal’s eyes half closed as he thought for a moment. “Not much of a system, one of the original refueling stations close in, outer asteroid ring has some automated mining. Shouldn’t cost us more than a day to divert.”

“And they should have more than enough extra construction rods to make up for those you threw away – not that it wasn’t for a good cause I understand.”

“That crazy Caitian still running that station all by himself?”

“As of nine months ago,” Edward said. “That was the last time we know a ship visited him anyway. He’s more of a hermit than you are.”

“He’s a telepath, one that can’t stop the voices in his head, so he lives far away from any voices. Tess? Remind me to keep the screens up while we’re there.”

“He doesn’t mind a single mind every now and then, even one as crazy as yours, Boss,” Tess reminded him.

“Yeah, but it won’t be just my mind this time around,” Neal pointed out.

“True, half a dozen horny chakat teens might fry his poor brain,” Tess allowed.

“I had heard a couple of rumors,” Edward admitted. “I wasn’t sure since they haven’t impacted your finances.”

“Actually, they have,” Neal corrected. “Had I not had an about-to-pop vixentaur aboard I wouldn’t have rushed a bit to be here at Parakit. And your butcher’s bill would have been much higher if I’d been any later.”

“So the wording in Star Fleet’s sign off suggested,” Edward agreed. “What do you need from me?”

“Raynor and Whyite.”

The squirrel’s smile turned almost shark-ish. “Our ‘third parties’ have finished buying up their debts and any outstanding stocks. Unless one of them has a well-heeled secret sponsor we should have them under control in the next year to year and a half. We will of course keep a close eye out for them trying to sell off anything of value as things get ‘tight’ for them.”

“Watch for firings as well, some of the people may be useful.”

“Five from Raynor since you left.”

“Was a ‘Bill Stalk’ one of them?”

“No, why?”

“He was the front man for their latest con job,” Neal told him.

“Give me a minute,” Edward said as he looked something up. “Nope, you won’t be knocking him out without gutting their top offices, he has a senior vice president for a grandfather.”

“Sounds like a worthwhile goal,” Neal said with a grin.

“Indeed,” Edward agreed. “Refinancing Whyite allowed us to ‘rescue’ a couple of ships they were in the process of sinking. Your friend Courtney Tung couldn’t claim to want them while at the same time trying to claim they weren’t making her company any money.”

“Anything that upsets Ms. Tung is a good thing in my books,” Neal told him.

“Having had the rather questionable pleasure of dealing with her, I’m inclined to agree with you. It seems she had only skimmed the contract her accountants gave her and didn’t realize she’d lost all control of the ships until she tried to call one of them – and got one of my people.”

“How bad off are the ships – and their crews?”

“All but one of them was dangerously behind on their maintenance cycles and all of them were understaffed, all because of Whyite’s messing with their funds and scheduling. We’re hanging onto what of their crews we can by paying them to take extended training courses while their ships are being brought back up to standards. Fortunately our other training programs have enough fresh graduates that we can fill in most of the holes in the crew rosters.”

“Keep me posted and we’ll see if we can scare up some loads and routes for them to take.”

“The only other note of interest I have is that Tanner and company are drawing on your accounts a bit more heavily than is normal.”

“I have them acting as a go-between with the parents of my stowaways.”

“Ah, all well and good then,” the squirrel said with a smile. “Everything else is pretty much where you left it. Any questions or instructions?”

“No, Tess has warned me that the others will be returning soon and there’s a couple more things I want to get done before they’re underfoot.”

 

 


 

Of Guns and Roses

 

Neal wasn’t surprised that each of the teens had one or more packages from Tani’s little shop, nor that the youths had also found a little something for themselves. Weaver not meeting his gaze and the extra lump in her saddlebag did perk his interest.

“Training room in twenty – bring your new toys,” he told them.

It was only ten minutes for the last teen to find hir seat. Neal had also found a seat at an empty desk to one side.

“Mom first,” Neal suggested, and Weaver walked up slowly with her package.

Snapping away the ties which had held the case closed, Neal opened it to reveal a small hand stunner.

“No sights,” he pointed out, “So you’ll have to get used to the laser designator. Standard power cells so we have plenty of spares. I’d suggest an hour or so twice a week until you’re comfortable with it,” he told her as he placed it back in its case and handed back to her.

Cindy was next with an only slightly larger phaser.

Neal frowned slightly before saying, “While it’s small and easy to conceal, this is one of the poorer quality phasers you could have picked. I’m a little surprised Tani allowed you to –” Neal stopped on seeing the other package Cindy was waving. Examining the upgrade kit he said, “Okay, my faith in Tani is restored. I’ll walk you through the upgrade later. Same as Weaver, practice until you’re sure you know what you’re doing.”

“A-hem?” a voice said.

Turning, Neal discovered most of the teens were waving their ‘upgrade’ kits at him. “Fine,” he said, “Anyone have anything different?”

Holly and Quickdash came up together. Both had even smaller stunners and kits to make them more than they seemed. Holly also had a pair of wands to match the ones Quickdash was wearing.

“You two need a bit more training for these,” Neal told them. “And you don’t want to find out what I’ll do if I find out you’ve used these at more than a quarter on yourselves or anyone else,” he growled at them.

Alex held up a wand to show he had a pair and understood as well. “Do you know why I don’t want you cranking these up on each other?” he asked.

“Because they can hurt a lot,” Holly said.

“Because they can kill,” Quickdash said in turn. “That’s why I was turning them down to three for each strike. I set them back to nine in case they wanted to kill themselves on them and they almost did.”

Neal nodded. “Properly – or improperly done, you can stop or start a heart with one of those things. Alex, how knowledgeable are you on these pain sticks?”

“We have some in Dad’s dojo, and yeah, I’ve seen one used to restart a heart.”

“Where’s the most dangerous place to hit someone with a pain stick?” Neal asked him.

“Head and neck, especially the base of the skull where it joins the neck.”

“Which is why I want you guys to wear helmets and neck guards when ‘playing’. I’ll have Tess make up one for each of you. It won’t stop the charge, just move the contact point to a lower, somewhat safer location.

“Any other new toys?” Neal asked.

Mike grinned as he brought a large case over to Neal. Sized to fit his larger equitaur hand, the handgun was too big for Neal to hold in a proper firing grip.

Neal chuckled as he lifted it out of its packing. “Picked something you knew your siblings couldn’t borrow?” he asked; the barrel was only slightly shorter than the one on Neal’s shotgun and the bore looked to be about as wide.

Mike shrugged. “Like your Betsy, showy and quite loud to discourage. There’s even an adjustment to reduce the bullet’s velocity if I don’t want to hit something with its full power.”

“Practice, practice, practice,” Neal told him.

Mike grinned. “I got a dozen ammo boxes of just the practice rounds, as well as an assortment of other shells. Oh, and this,” he added, showing a heavy phaser pistol also sized for his larger hands.

“And I had Tani include the adapters and molds I’ll need for your reloading stations, Boss,” Tess added.

“Any other toys?” Neal asked.

“Not toys, but we did pass a nursery on our way back,” Roseberry said with a toothy grin.

“And shi just had to get some roses,” Dusk muttered.

Climbing roses,” Graysocks added. “So I’ll need to see about setting up large trellises wherever shi decides to plant them.”

Neal looked thoughtful as he said, “Maybe I should see if Tani has any flamethrowers on sale, my machete may not be up to the task.”

* * *

*** WARNING ‘ZERO’ GRAVITY PAST THIS POINT *** Respirators and eye protection must be worn at all times.

Warned the board blocking access to the open doorway leading to Transporter Room One.

Calmmeadow slid it to one side so shi and Nightsky could enter. They grabbed the temporary hand bars tacked to either side and pulled themselves in.

Temporary lights clipped here and there cast strange shadows over the scene. Hearing a grunt overhead, they looked up to find Mike ‘standing’ on the wall over their heads, his hooves locked in magnetic shoes, which were in turn locked to the wall. He hadn’t noticed them as he was looking up and he was busy. He had a hand through Alex and Cindy’s belts, holding them so they’d have something to push against as they worked on removing the half-melted ceiling material.

“There, pull,” they heard Alex say. Mike ‘pulled’ and Alex came away from the ceiling with a crackling noise – and a good-sized piece of debris came with him. Pushing his latest piece towards the center of the room, Alex turned partway in Mike’s grasps upon seeing lights moving behind him. “Ho, we have reinforcements!”

Mike didn’t turn to look, as Cindy was still busy. “Welcome to the mess room,” he called back.

“Where’s Neal?” Nightsky asked.

“Removing the deformed Boronike from Transporter Room Two,” Alex told hir. “Roseberry and Brighteyes are giving him a hand.”

“Where do you want us?” Calmmeadow asked.

“How about that corner?” Alex suggested with a wave. “We won’t be getting in each other’s way and we can toss – very gently or it’ll be bouncing off the walls – what we break loose into the far corner. Tess has just a little negative gravity going to hold it in place.”

“Pull,” Cindy said, and Mike pulled her away and another chunk came loose.

* * *

“You seem distracted,” Longsock commented from the screen, it was now the third time his out-of-reach denmate’s words had slowed to silence.

“What? No, I’m fine,” Weaver insisted as she snapped out of whatever she’d been thinking of.

Longsock smiled at her denial because he’d seen that look before, but the last time had been her mother on the comm asking the question and he had been to blame.

“Finally tried him out did you – how’d he do?” he asked with a grin at the look she was now giving him.

“He was alright,” she allowed.

“Only ‘alright’?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. “Shall I ask someone else just how ‘alright’ he was?”

“If you’re referring to me, I need Weaver’s approval,” Tess told them.

“Not your boss’?” Longsock asked.

“Nah, not for this – unless you want to ask him yourself?” Tess said, sounding hopefully cheerful for some reason.

“Is he busy?” Longsock asked; Weaver was shaking her head ‘no’, though he couldn’t tell if it was for him or Tess.

“He’s not that busy,” Tess reported just before saying, “Hey, Boss. Longsock has a question for you.”

“Okay, that’s got it. Box it carefully and then you two can take a break. What question be that, fellow denmate?” Neal asked without showing up on the screen.

“Well, the way she’s carrying on you were merely adequate in bed,” Longsock said with a grin as Weaver’s eyes and mouth opened in surprise.

“That’s not what I said!” she protested.

“It was more implied,” Longsock acknowledged.

“Only adequate?” Neal growled, though it sounded like he might have been fighting back a laugh. “Thank you for that information, Longsock, I’ll try to see to it that her next report to you is a bit more positive. Adequate my ass – next time I’m breaking out the power tools!”

Longsock was now openly laughing at his denmate’s expression. “Do please remember that I want her back in one piece,” he said once he had his chuckles almost under control.

“Oh, she might be walking a little funny, but you’ll get her back,” Neal’s voice promised.

“The way she keeps getting lost in thought I think she liked whatever you did do to her last night,” Longsock told him.

“Well, she was getting a little frisky and I thought it best to show her what I thought of as a ‘good time’. If she disagrees there’s still time for her to catch that ride on the Cha-Ching,” Neal told him with a grin in his voice.

“You are not getting rid of me that easily!” Weaver snarled at him.

“Yeah, she liked it,” Longsock laughed. “Don’t tease her too much, it just winds her up more.”

“That’s okay, I found the defuse button on your little vixentaur bombshell,” Neal told him.

“Oh?” Longsock said, giving his denmate a grin. “Which one?”

“It seems she’s easily distracted with a little tickling in just the right places.”

“That she is,” Longsock agreed, laughing at Weaver’s expression.

“That’s enough from both you two,” Weaver complained.

“Yup, that’s situation normal for us,” Longsock said. “Good luck, Neal, you’re going to need it.”

“Thanks, and I’m starting to think I am going to need it,” Neal replied. “Ah, and my helpers have just returned, so I’ll leave you two alone together. Weaver? Please don’t slobber all over the monitor this time.”

“YOU!” Weaver snapped, but if he was still there Neal was wise enough not to give her a reply.

Longsock just grinned at her. “So – you think you’re good?” he finally asked.

“Yeah, we’re good,” Weaver said with a more honest smile. “He and the kids may have driven me crazy by the time we get back, but we’ll make it.”

“Where’s Holly?”

“Making sure Quick’s parents don’t start yelling at hir again,” Weaver told him with a frown. “If they try to order her to leave the room shi’ll be following her out.”

* * *

“We just want to talk with hir privately – we promise we won’t yell at hir,” Shortdash was telling Holly yet again, and it was obvious to all that shi was getting annoyed.

“Fine,” Quickdash said when shi thought the stalemate had gone on long enough. “If I ask her to leave – you leave too.”

What?” hir father sputtered.

“Your word on it,” shi told Shortdash, “If she goes, you go – or don’t you think Mom can get the point across for both of you?”

Shortdash seemed at a total loss for words, staring at the two youths and then at hir mate – who had simply raised an eyebrow and waited to see what hir mate’s decision would be.

Holly openly smiled and gave Quickdash a hug as they watched hir father storm out of the room. She then turned and left as well.

“That was mean,” hir mother told hir once both doors had closed.

“You didn’t say it was uncalled for,” Quickdash pointed out.

“No, I didn’t,” Quickwind agreed. “Did your adopted father suggest it?”

“No, a couple of the older kids were talking and I heard one of them telling the others that double teaming them wasn’t going to work.”

“It sounds like you’re learning all sorts of lessons on that ship,” hir mother said before cocking hir head a little to one side and asking, “Why me instead of your father?”

“Because you don’t yell, you will try coming at it from another way, but you won’t just keep yelling at me. Neal says it’s the logical ’mil in you.”

Quickwind snorted lightly. “And he’s going to expect you to be a logical ’mil as well,” shi pointed out. “Do you think you can do that for him and me – and the rest of them?”

“I’ll try,” shi promised.

“You know I have a lot of faith in you, Quick; if I didn’t your father and I would be trying a lot harder to get you back before you get yourself into too much trouble.”

“I know. When Neal found out he offered to stick me in stasis and ship me home.”

“He had Tess show us that part. You thought he would have to send you back too,” hir mother softly reminded hir. “And then he sent you off to get those pain sticks,” shi added. “Pain sticks I see you’re carrying even now.”

“Holly and I were going to go down with some of the other kids in a little while.”

“And it’s a big show of faith on his part to let you carry them, though what you did with them before you even got them home might have had a little something to do about it.”

“You saw that too?”

“We did, and even your father was impressed with how well you remembered our lessons, though I thought you were getting a little showy once the cops got there.”

“I’m going to teach Holly how to use them,” shi quietly said.

“Don’t let her ‘play’ with them, you could do yourselves serious harm,” hir mother sternly told hir.

“That’s what Neal said too, and he said Tess will make us some protection.”

“I expect regular progress reports from you. Not just what you’re learning but how you’re really feeling. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“I’ll let you go then, I have a feeling I’m going to have to go sit on your father for a little while.”

“Ooo, so I’ll have a little sister when we get back?” Quickdash asked with hir eyes going wide and a cheesy grin across hir muzzle.

Quickwind snorted and then grinned back at hir daughter. “Wise-ass. Somehow I don’t think that will calm hir down a great deal.”

“No, but then shi’ll have someone else to worry about,” Quickdash insisted.

“Are you telling me you like having siblings?” hir mother asked.

“These are pretty good.”

“There’s a risk that shi could be even meaner than you or me.”

“Was I worth the risk?”

“We think so. Go. We’ll talk again later. Love you.”

“Love you both.”

 

 


 

Outbound and Down

 

“Parakit Space Control, this is Folly, we will be leaving orbit momentarily. I’ve sent you our preferred exit route.”

“Roger, Folly, I see you’ll be dumping your trash on the way out,” the small Caitian female said as she looked over the path Folly intended to take away from the planet and out of the system.

“As per Star Fleet’s request,” Neal said, “Since you guys didn’t seem to need them as kinetic strikes anywhere.”

“No, I think we’ve had our fair share of those this last week,” she said with a smile. “I see nothing that would interfere with your planned route or that of the trash you’re about to release. Fair winds and good trading, Folly.”

“Thank you, Parakit Control, Folly out,” Neal said. Switching to internal comm he then said, “Take us out, one quarter impulse.”

As Tess followed her captain’s orders, fifteen sets of eyes studied their screens, their hands making ready to move their ships.

Warning lights flashed on displays as most of them quickly found one way or another to damage if not outright destroy the ship they were attempting to pilot. The badly overstressed but thankfully simulated ships were left bent, twisted, warped if not totally destroyed collections or spreading piles of wreckage.

A sixteenth set of hands and eyes continued long after the others had failed. Weaver watched curiously as Neal worked solutions and implemented them. He was quickly falling behind what Tess had the Folly actually doing, but his simulated ship was still intact and in motion and he kept at it.

“First warp assisted course change in five minutes,” Tess finally stated. “Forty-two percent, Boss, not too shabby for such a sick old organic computer.”

“Sick?” Weaver said in surprise.

“Different planets and environments have different bugs and Neal seems to have caught something. Elevated temperature, already some congestion in his breathing, and he normally does better than that when he’s testing himself against my defaults. Bed, Boss, I’ll get your meds.”

“I’ve got a few more things I need to take care of,” Neal told them.

“Now you’re just posturing,” Tess told him. “There’s not one thing you have to do that I can’t handle, Boss, and you know it. I can keep things going and them occupied while you recuperate.”

“The transporter rooms –”

“Can wait, Boss. I’ve got more transporters online now than we did when we had to drop those rocks on that clan. Your bed or one of those in the med bay, your choice.”

Neal muttered something even Tess couldn’t make out before heaving himself out of his chair and not quite marching to the door.

There were several surprised and thoughtful looks watching him go.

“I thought I was detecting something different in his manner,” Roseberry admitted.

“Does he always let you boss him around like that?” Calmmeadow asked for the rest of them.

“No,” Tess admitted. “I saw the first signs that he was going to be ‘under the weather’ as he calls it yesterday and was hoping he’d put himself to bed. Since he decided to pretend that there was nothing wrong, I waited until any arguing with me would make him look foolish to the rest of you.”

“So you used us against him?” Alex summarized.

“Since I had you to use, yes,” Tess admitted. “For his good as well as your own.”

“So what happens now?” Weaver asked.

“We continue on, of course,” Tess told her. “There’s still classes and training for everyone to do and I didn’t badger Neal yesterday because I knew how much he wanted to get the rest of the damaged Boronike out of our transporter rooms. That means my sensors are no longer blocked and we can now work both rooms as well as all the surrounding areas that were heat damaged. Unless this is a really bad one Neal will be trying to do work again in two or three days, but not actually be completely over his cold for a week or two.”

“So where are we heading next?” Weaver asked.

“As we’re ahead of our planned schedule, Neal has us hitting a couple of stations we normally wouldn’t, as well as seeing about replacing some of the materials we spent rescuing Parakit.”

“How soon is the next stop?”

“Five days, which is another reason Neal will be getting up before I’d like him to.”

“So just how were you going to ‘take out the trash’?” Weaver asked.

“Simple,” Tess told her. “We’ll just boost until we’re doing a quarter the speed of light in the direction of the local sun, push the trash away from the ship with tractor beams and then start heading out. The trash will be destroyed in less than forty minutes and we’ll warp out of the system soon afterward.”

* * *

“Ohhhh – looks like our token human gets grumpy when he’s sick,” Calmmeadow snickered as shi joined the others for breakfast the next morning. “Poor guy just grumbled at me when I offered to get him something.”

“I’ll deal with him, I’m used to his moods,” Tess told them. “Though if you want to surprise him, some homemade chicken noodle soup would be a good start.”

“I’m not sure we have all the ingredients we’ll need,” Beechwood warned her.

“Neal does,” Tess assured her. “And the remains of that chicken he didn’t finish are still sitting in stasis, so you’ll have fresh cooked meat to shred into it.”

While Tess helped their cook find a few things, another little something most of them hadn’t thought about reminded them of why Neal had kept asking if there was anything else that they needed to do while they were at Parakit.

* * *

“It’s okay, Mom, it can wait for the next place,” Holly insisted as her mother braided her hair.

“We were going to both get a trim after we visited the spaceport on Bright Hope – remember?” her mother reminded her. “But we ended up taking this little side trip instead.”

“Are you sorry we did?” Holly wondered.

“A little,” Weaver admitted. “I just wish we’d managed to drag your father along for the ride.”

“I miss him too. Do you think he’ll be all right all by himself?”

“I think so,” Weaver said giving her a hug. “He somehow managed all by himself before finding me.”

“What about you?”

“I didn’t know what I was missing before I met him,” she softly said. “Thank your aunt Stitch for that!”

“I remember her – she says you stole Daddy from her.”

“She used him for an ‘Obligation’, a one night’s stand, and then she was done with him. On first sight I knew I wanted him for more than just one night.”

“I remember she said she wanted his kit.”

“If she can catch him during an Obligation, she can always pluck another feather from his armband and try again; though it took a lot of ‘trying’ for us to have you and Star.”

“And you always have lots of fun ‘trying’,” Holly said with a little giggle.

“Yes, we do,” her mother agreed.

“Was Neal as much fun as Daddy?”

“A different type of fun, but yes, he was fun too.”

“Are you two going to have more fun?”

“Well, not while he’s feeling sick, but yes, I think we’ll be having more fun.”

“Can I watch the next time?”

Weaver choked a little on a laugh before saying, “We’ll see, though I’m not sure he’s up for an audience just yet – if ever.”

“I heard some of the older kids talking about it too.”

“Poor Neal,” Weaver chuckled. “He’s never going to get any rest if they ever find out what he can do!”

“You were smiling kinda funny,” Holly reminded her.

Frowning at the messy end of the braid, Weaver said, “Tess, do we have anything that will cut hair – other than kitchen knives, lasers and phaser beams?”

“We have several means of cutting hair onboard, Weaver, including an entire beauty salon kit Neal suggested I pick up when you guys passed one your second day on Parakit. Well, actually he only suggested it after I’d let him know that Nightsky was the only one of you guys to remember to buy a personal trimming kit,” Tess admitted.

“And where might this ‘kit’ be?” Weaver asked.

“Two decks down in the ‘clean up’ rooms for one of the exercise rooms. It required less work replacing some of the sinks for the shampoo and dye stations.”

“And any excess fur?”

“Fur cleanup equipment is all part of the kit,” Tess said as their door slid open. “If you two will follow my lights?”

Down and a short walk later had them entering one of the empty exercise rooms, noises led them to the doors to one side and through the locker room and into the showers.

The lower half of a foxtaur vixen was sprawled out, back down on the deck, her upper torso hidden by the elongated sink she was working under. “Try it now,” they heard from under the sink.

Nightsky tapped the tap and let the water pour over hir hand. “There you go; hot water is actually hot. You seeing any more leaks down there?”

“Nah, looking good,” the voice said before the lower torso twisted and Graysocks worked her way out from under the sink. “Hey! Our first victims – I mean customers!” she exclaimed on seeing Holly and Weaver.

“Told you you weren’t the only one that forgot to get a trimming while we could,” Nightsky reminded her. “Square off those braids – or did you want something fancier?”

“You cut hair too?” Holly asked.

“If it has anything to do with ‘looks’, I know how to do it or know who to turn to for help, and I’ve had lots of practice cutting my friends’ hair and trimming their fur,” Nightsky told her. “Have a seat,” shi said as shi patted a raised bench.

A couple of quick snips later and Holly was jumping down to go find Quickdash.

“Next,” Nightsky said, clicking hir scissors and smiling at Weaver.

As she settled herself on the bench, Weaver said, “It sounds like you could become a stylist if you don’t want to be a designer.”

“If all I wanted was a job, sure,” countered Nightsky as she combed out the foxtaur vixen’s hair to check its length and evenness.

“Don’t sell yourself short, the tops you’ve made for me are excellent.”

The chakat gave an amused snort. “I’d barely qualify for an entry-level job with a fashion company. In a salon, I’d be cleaning up. But I know the basics for both, and I know what stuff I don’t know. Want to know a business secret I’ve already learned?” shi asked as shi started to cut.

“Sure.”

“Most designers and stylists don’t actually know more than the basics themselves. Of course most of what gets done doesn’t need more than the basics, so unless you want something really tricky or have an unusual problem, we’ll be able to handle it. Especially with this set-up.”

While Nightsky was giving Weaver a more detailed trim, Alex and Mike were finishing up the installation of the second of two low but wide and long tubs that would help reduce the mess of giving a taur a full body shampoo or dye job.

“You’re just going to set up two tubs?” Nightsky asked as shi took a fine brush to Weaver to help remove any loose hair and fur.

“Why? Do you think we’ll really need more?” Alex asked as he tested the water sprayer.

“Well, there’s ten in the kit,” Nightsky pointed out.

“And there’s only eighteen of us counting Neal and Star,” Alex replied. “I just don’t see us needing that many fur grooming stations running at the same time.”

“Okay, two for now and we can add more if we really need them,” Nightsky allowed. “Just make sure we have a few of each of the shampoos and conditioners to try out.”

* * *

“So, what do we have to do?” Brighteyes asked as shi and Redtail ‘manned’ two of the bridge stations.

“You two have to ‘do’ nothing,” Tess told them. “However you might learn a bit more on how things are done by observing and asking questions.”

“Just how hard is it to launch a relay?” Redtail wondered.

“That would depend on your definition of ‘easy’,” Tess said. “Here’s our current checklist,” she added as pages and pages of requirements and checks flew past.

“You and Neal did all that when you launched that other relay?” Brighteyes exclaimed. “It’d take us days to just read it – never mind figuring out what half of it means.”

“Something that you have to understand is what we are really doing is testing their step-by-step setup to see if an automated system could be trusted to do it,” Tess explained. “Once the procedure is letter-perfect we could let unmanned robot ships deliver and deploy these things, but until it is perfect they need us finding any and all of the little problems.”

“There was some strap or something on the last one,” Redtail remembered.

“Yes, a strap that should have already been removed before we received it,” Tess agreed. “I only detected it in time because one of the motors started drawing more power than it had been. Had I not stopped the motor, that strap might have damaged the array. The reason it was a surprise was because it was the first in the latest batch of relays, so all the tests and procedure steps were new as well.”

“Wouldn’t their self-checks have caught the motor drawing too much power too?” Brighteyes asked.

“Maybe, but possibly not before some damage was done. Usually the motor’s biggest draw is starting, only going up again if something puts more of a load of it – like it binding or becoming stuck. So I killed it and went looking for a reason.”

“Could Neal have found it?” Redtail wondered.

“Possibly, but he can’t watch over a thousand different things at once like I can. Without computer help, it’d take a dozen technicians weeks to set a relay up as they checked off each step as it was completed.”

“What are you doing now?” Brighteyes asked as the three sections of the relay were pulled from their pods and a dozen of Tess’ remotes started swarming around one of the segments.

“I’m checking for straps that shouldn’t be there,” Tess said. “And there’s the same type of strap on the same segment of the same array assembly.”

“So they goofed again?” Redtail guessed.

“A missed strap here or there could be sloppy work, but it being the same both times suggests more of a procedural issue. It would be like you guys letting all the air out because Neal never told you to close one airlock door before opening the other, you were following the steps you were given – but they were the wrong steps or something was left out.”

“So what can you do about it?”

“We’ve already warned the manufacturer of the first one, this will be number two and they’ll have to figure out where their ‘goof’ is. We’ll also warn the other ships that we know are setting these things up to watch out for missed straps,” Tess told them. “Okay, we’ve wasted enough time just sitting here. Before our sick captain decides we really can’t get things done without him, let’s get this relay up and running.”

* * *

“Quit pretending you’re asleep, Boss,” Tess was telling the semi-still form wrapped in blankets. “Time to get up and go to the bathroom – because that’s a sign of life,” she added in a different voice. “I never did get that joke,” she admitted.

“A very old joke from a long-dead comedian telling a story of himself as a child in a hospital,” Neal muttered as he groaned and got up. “Sadly, feeling poorly and needing to go is indeed a sign of life.”

“Well, go empty what’s full so you can then fill what’s empty; Beechwood made you some chicken and noodle soup – extra thick and rich,” Tess tempted him.

The soup was still quite warm, as was his tea, slightly clearing his head and soothing his throat.

Having eaten what little he felt like, Neal blew his nose yet again and got up to trudge in a direction that would not take him back to his bed or the bathroom.

“Boss …” Tess said in a warning tone.

Ignoring his mechanical henchman currently playing nursemaid, Neal put on a heavy robe before going back and dragging a blanket off the bed. Said blanket was then dragged from the bedroom and through the captain’s private living space and into his personal office. Other than the initial setup and testing, the room hadn’t really seen much use, Neal preferring to be out and about. A standard desk and several chairs were in one corner; in another was what looked like one of the bridge stations, which was where the blanket was now dragged.

Plopping down in the seat, Neal fought with the blanket until it more or less protected his legs and feet before he swung the controls within easy reach and activated the screen.

As his ‘crew’ had discovered, many of the console’s functions could be controlled by simple eye movements and Neal made use of that feature as he reclined the chair to a more restful position. That they were out of warp he had already sensed, the status of the relay deployment telling him why. He nodded in approval at where the salon kit had ended up and that the teens had set it up in such a way that it could be easily moved/undone if/when needed. He glanced about a bit, seeing what others were up to before focusing on the youngest pair.

With Weaver more focused on their latest member, Tess had been keeping Holly and Quickdash busy by giving them still more freedom to learn as they got to make steadily more advanced toys – a fact that one of the teens was soon to be made aware of.

* * *

“What are you two up to?” Calmmeadow asked as shi entered the lounge and saw Holly and Quickdash in one corner of the room. They were shoulder to shoulder hunched over the PADD in front of them, a short cord connecting it to one of Tess’s cleaning bots.

“A programming lesson Tess gave us,” Holly replied without looking up.

“Really? What’s it supposed to do?”

“Right now we’re trying to teach it to find a recharging station when it’s running low on power,” Quickdash answered.

“That can’t be too hard,” Calmmeadow allowed.

“It is when you have to add avoiding things that aren’t always in the same place,” Holly pointed out.

“Hmm, is this the charging station?” Calmmeadow asked, indicating a new box in another corner. At their nods shi grinned. “Let’s see how clever your programming is,” shi said as shi went over and laid down in front of it.

Quickdash frowned, but Holly gave hir a nudge and they were soon keying in new lines of code into their PADD.

Minutes later, they unplugged the cord and the little bot began moving around the floor. It found and quickly cleaned several stains they had prepared for it, before it headed for its charging box. Finding the way blocked, it tried going around from one side and then the other. Failing that, it softly beeped a few times – which Calmmeadow ignored. Shi couldn’t help but notice when Holly and Quickdash suddenly jumped up and make a run for the door. Mouth open to ask what their hurry was all about, Calmmeadow let out a shriek as the bot sprayed hir rump with its cold cleaning solution!

Calmmeadow bound up and went charging for the door just as it closed behind the other two. The way now clear, the little bot played a short victory tune as it moved to plug itself in.

“Send them my way,” Neal suggested before letting out a small groan and leaning his head against the backrest.

As Calmmeadow had been forced to wait for the next translift, Neal already had the two youngsters sitting in one corner of his office when shi stormed in. Neal’s tired but stern stare suggested that he wasn’t pleased with any of them.

“They had their bot spray cleaning fluids on me!” Calmmeadow protested.

“After you deliberately interfered with their training lesson,” Neal countered. “Tess, did they set it to aim or just fire at the obstacle?”

“They had it doing a crude ‘face recognition’ and set it to not spray at a face.”

Looking at the ‘they’ in question, Neal said, “Extra ‘chores’ before you get to play in the labs again. Go.”

Calmmeadow had started to leave too, but a hand gesture from Neal sat hir back down.

“They let you off easy you know,” Neal told hir. “That bot had other ways to force the issue if they’d really needed or wanted to move you.”

“Such as?”

“While they kept them locked out, there were several other cleaning solutions that would have burned your fur and skin and left a permanent mark to show that they’d ‘tagged’ you. And that little bot can ‘jump start’ other bots, and the discharge hurts a lot worse than one of your stingers at full power.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh. And the minor fact that Tess would have locked it out if they’d gone ‘over the top’ with their tactics. Maybe you could also do with a couple of extra chores for overreacting. Go.”

* * *

It was off-shift hours, but Mike wasn’t ready to turn in just yet. Knowing that it takes time to break things in – and to get used to using them, Mike was wearing the new shoes Tess had ordered for him. One thing she hadn’t warned him about was how well they muffled his footfalls down to dull thuds, something that would take a little getting used to.

Having decided to read a few more logs as he waited for his body to decide it was tired, he entered the secondary bridge – and found it already occupied.

Shadowcrest hadn’t noticed him coming in; hir eyes were glued to the screen in front of hir, where a strange ‘peeping’ sound was coming from the speakers.

On the screen were several eggs, and the remains of another. The baby chick looked to be almost half head, the body and spindly legs almost an afterthought. Its head pointing up, the ‘peeps’ were the sound it made every time the mother cockatiel pushed a little more food down its throat and into the ‘crop’, which already bulged with bits of seeds.

“I take it we’re barred from the aviary?” he quietly asked hir.

Shadowcrest just nodded, never taking hir eyes off the screen.

* * *

The next morning found Holly and Quickdash replacing filters in one of the passageway return air vents.

“Tess? Why are there several layers of each type of filter?” Quickdash asked as they pulled out the next filter set.

“A couple of reasons,” Tess replied. “One is that we catch more junk before it gets to gum up the chemical filters, and two is that Neal is lazy.”

“Lazy?” Holly said in surprise.

“That’s what Neal calls it,” Tess informed them. “If a mess of some type clogged an intake, you could just pull the clogged filter out, and not compromise the rest of the system.”

“But why are we putting two of them back each time?” Holly wanted to know.

“The pressure difference between the intake duct and the corridor can help warn that a filter is getting full and needs to be cleaned or replaced, that’s why you’re just doing certain filters and not all of them. In most cases only the outermost filter has collected any real accumulation of dust, dirt or fur, so we trade it out first, and we place the new filter at the inside of the set.”

“So it can serve twice as long?” Quickdash asked.

“The more we catch in the first filters, the less we have to clean out of the rest of the atmospheric systems,” Tess told them. “Which means a minute of work here can save us hours or even days’ worth of cleaning things out of the ducts and the rest of the system.”

“Will there be other things besides air filters to do?” Holly asked, sounding hopeful.

“That depends on you two,” Tess warned them. “Squirt your sisters again and Neal might have me block you from playing with certain things …”

“We’ll behave!” Quickdash promised, Holly quickly nodding in agreement.

“In that case, we have three more intake ports to check, then we might be able to ‘hide’ in the electronics lab for a bit,” Tess offered.

* * *

After lunch found Neal dozing in his chair again, he was feeling a little better but was still a long way from one hundred percent. A quiet tone roused him from his semi-slumber.

“Sorry to disturb your rest, Boss, but we got a hit off a relay and you now have a little work to do,” Tess informed him.

“Oh?”

“Edward Bunsten had a note waiting for you saying that the medium freighter Lost Path is finishing up her trials after a major refit and will need a couple of cargos to get them started.”

“Was that one of those Tung was trying to kill off?”

“Yeah, and they were down to almost nothing before Thirteen Star ‘rescued’ them,” Tess told him. “They’d lost all their trade routes and any goodwill with them never being able to pick up or make deliveries on time. The notes say Captain Albedo was letting go of the last two of her crew when the bank caught up with her and informed her she was now under new management. Notes also say we might need to go easy on her, she accepted the deal but just barely.”

“She fully crewed?”

“Notes say thirty on board – though that includes some dependents – almost all of them were furnished by Thirteen Star so they’re vetted.”

“Anyone I know or that knows me?”

“Only by reputation from what I can find, Boss.”

“What looks like a good meeting place?”

“Carlsbad Station, they should be able to beat us there and we can transfer cargo before going in.”

“Take a good look at what needs moved where and see if we can’t offer Captain Albedo a couple of different routes she can choose from.”

“You want anything special?”

“At least one too easy, a couple of slow but steady ones if you can build them without screwing up any of the other known routes, and I want one that starts off as a real meat grinder and slows to fast and steady to better test this captain’s mettle, and throw in a couple somewhere in the middle. Oh and I want one that’s too good to be true and can’t quite be done with what she’s got to work with. Line them up and I’ll look them over before you send them.”

“Does that include any of the loads at stops we will have to hit anyway?”

“If it better fits the route,” Neal allowed.

“I’ll have those routes ready for you by the end of the day. Everything else I can cover so you can finish your nap, Boss.”

“Oh, I want one more route.”

“Yes, Boss?”

“I want a revenge route. Poor on profit but it lets her get back at Tung.”

“You’re testing Captain Albedo.”

“That I am. If she’s willing to sink her own ship out of spite then we don’t need her.”

“Yes, Boss.”

* * *

More than one eye opened a little wider with eyebrows raised when their still ‘under the weather’ father figure showed up for breakfast the next morning, dressed as if he thought he was going to ‘work’ while still sick.

The teens helped Tess ensure that the only ‘work’ they couldn’t do for him involved sitting at his desk signing off logs and doing other things once known as ‘paperwork’. As such things seem to be designed to be boring, Weaver wasn’t too surprised to find him asleep in his chair when she went to collect him at lunchtime.

After lunch Tess had another little diversion waiting. While not complete, the holosuite was now at least functional.

“Let there be light,” Tess intoned as they filed in and the room brightened.

“More proof that I’m a bad influence,” Neal admitted. Looking around at the blank walls he said, “Give us an Earth shaded sky dome and local time sun.”

The light localized to near overhead as the walls seemed to fade into an open and very blue sky.

“I’d like me a tree, long needle pine, right about there,” he said, and one was suddenly there in front of them growing out of the deck and there was now a scent of pine in the air.

With a few hand and arm gestures while looking at what he wanted changed, Neal soon had a tall pine tree with its wide branches hiding him from the sun.

“And another one just like it over there,” he requested, and a twin to the first sprouted a few meters away.

“Nah, too close, I want room for a hammock,” he muttered before walking over to the second tree and ‘pushing’ it a meter further away. A screen appeared before him and he touched the type of hammock he wanted.

Tipping himself into the brown hammock, Neal lay there for a moment before muttering, “Light breeze, some birdsong, no deposits!”

“What’s he mean ‘no deposits’?” Quickdash wondered.

“No bird droppings!” Holly laughed.

“Or pinecones, sap, needles,” Neal muttered before making a shooing motion at the rest of them with his hand. “Go. Play. Elsewhere. Quietly.”

The others left him to his nap, Weaver only staying long enough to settle Starblazer in the hammock with him. As she had just been fed, the kit quickly joined her adopted father in slumber.

Neal woke a few hours later feeling more clearheaded than he’d felt since leaving Parakit. The sun had shifted noticeably, but the thick tree trunk still shielded his eyes from the sunbeams that were now getting through to strike the hammock – which for some unknown reason was now an eye-catching red. Along with the breeze through the branches came the sound of running water.

Careful to keep the still sound asleep Starblazer from tumbling, Neal got up to find a springy loam underfoot instead of the hard deck, and his trees were now just two of a forest of them. A seldom-used looking path led away from his hammock and joined one that appeared to get a lot more foot traffic. A bird that looked a lot like one of his cockatiels silently shot past, heading down the path and Neal decided that it was a not so subtle hint of which way he was to go.

The path meandered around some thickets before opening to the sandy beach of a small lake, a small waterfall accounting for the running water he’d heard.

He found Weaver asleep a little ways down the beach, while Calmmeadow and Mike were helping Holly and Quickdash see how tall the holosuite would let them build a sandcastle. A shift of his eyes asked Tess a question, and she let him know that the rest of the teens were busy hunting each other with stingers.

Weaver woke as he laid Starblazer next to her.

“This was a good idea,” she told him.

All my ideas are good ones, just ask me,” he teased.

“Some of them are better than others,” she allowed. “I lost track of who added what, I hope we aren’t overloading your system with all the extra scenery.”

“No,” Neal assured her, “all this is just making a small dent in what a holosuite like this can do once we’re finished with it.”

“Oh? What else can you do with it?”

“Tess, isolate us; no reason to bother the kids,” Neal said and they were in their own little pocket of nothing. “Her room,” he said and she was now sprawled out across her bed, Starblazer in her low pillow crib. “Main Bridge.” And she was at her station, though it had extended to handle her stretched out form.

“Primary-Secondary cargo transfer interconnect,” he said, and she was laying on the cool hard deck, staring down the two-kilometer drop to engineering.

“You had an excuse last time,” Neal reminded her with a smirk, “but you don’t have one anymore, and you do need the training just as much as the kids. Want an anti-nausea pill before we start?”

She gave him a dirty look as she stood up. “Are you saying there’s no gravity out there – even in the holosuite?”

“I’m saying that Tess can make it feel like there isn’t any – just as you were feeling sand, your bed, the bench, and now a hard deck under your paws. While the holosuite system will allow Tess to catch and contain anything you might spew, I find it better not to spew if at all possible.”

“And the pill I take in here would be real?” Weaver asked.

“As real as me being able to tickle you from here,” Neal said as his hands tickled the air in front of him – and she wiggled as she felt ghostly fingers tickling at her sides!

“Seriously,” she requested after backing away from the ghost hands.

“Seriously,” Neal agreed. “As well as several liters of water in case any of you tried drinking out of the lake, Tess brought in a med kit. If you say you want one she’ll just pop it out of its pack and into your mouth.”

Still staring at Neal, Weaver said, “One pill plea– “ before her words stumbled over the pill already dissolving on her tongue.

“Beats using the transporters for the little stuff,” Tess told them.

“Are the extra elements making any difference?” Neal asked.

“I think they are, Boss, not that I’m sure you’d be able to tell the difference.”

“Extra elements?” Weaver wondered.

“More elements means I have more and finer control over things,” Tess told her. “It’s one of those little things that says one thing doing the math, but it’s a much greater change when put into practice.”

“So what does that mean to us?”

“It means I can make things feel very real to you.”

“Show me.”

And there was nothing under her paws. She flailed wildly for a moment – before a hand grabbed her forearm. Neal was standing on the edge with his other hand hanging onto the guardrail.

“You really should be more careful of what you ask for,” he cheerfully told her.

“Indeed,” said his voice from behind her. She whipped her head around too fast and started feeling dizzy.

“Slow and steady until you get used to it,” the Neal holding her arm admonished her.

“How are you doing that?” she demanded.

“How is who doing what?” another Neal asked from his hammock, Starblazer peering over the edge at her mother.

“Enough teasing, Tess,” the one behind her said.

She turned more slowly this time. He floated beside her, his limbs relaxed and shifting slightly to keep his body orientated with hers.

“She’s going to be having way too much fun with this,” he admitted.

“She is – or you are?” Weaver wondered with a frown.

“Yes,” Neal said – just before two forms shot by them with shouts of glee.

“Neat!” Holly hollered as she and Quickdash sailed by.

“Way too much fun,” Neal repeated as most of the teens followed the youths.

“Star?” Weaver worried.

“Still asleep,” Tess assured her.

“So, playing or training?” Neal asked them.

“Tess can make anything in here?” Shadowcrest asked.

“Pretty much,” Neal told hir.

“Then I want to see what the Folly really looks like.”

“Sure,” Neal said, “Tess, show us our Folly.”

What appeared before them wasn’t a ship, but a slightly egg-shaped bubble of energy.

“As we’re at warp, that’s all you’d really see from the outside if it could be seen in the first place,” Neal told them, smiling at Shadowcrest's frown. “Tess, drop the simulation out of warp.”

They watched the egg shape turn more spherical before suddenly disappearing.

“Anyone notice the shape change?” Neal asked. “The more deformed the sphere, the harder the engines are pushing and the faster we’re going. But you don’t want to be pushing hard when you drop out of warp, and you don’t want the warp field to drop unevenly when you do, or you can find yourself with a whole lot of unwanted sub-light momentum.”

“That’s how you did those speed changes in and out of Parakit,” Nightsky said.

“Just so,” Neal agreed. “Done right a deformed exit bubble is great at getting you where you want to be, done badly can be quite hard on ship and crew.”

Before them now was a small, scaled-down model of the rather strange looking ship they’d only caught glimpses or screen shots of so far. The front half, which they knew to be a station in all but name looked like a pair of spheres held together by hatches that hid Neal’s smaller ships and shuttles. The back half resembled an ear of corn with the pods as the kernels and the engineering section attached all the way aft with two long booms bringing the warp nacelles out and forward.

“What are those?” Holly asked as the aft section of the second sphere and the engineering section of corncob began to glow.

With a touch and a widening of his hands Neal zoomed in on one of the glowing areas. “As the model just dropped from warp, Tess is having it dump its excess heat, which we will be doing when we drop from warp.”

“Can’t you just vent it into the bubble and lose it all at once?” Mike asked.

“You’d think so, but it’s a lot harder on the systems,” Neal told them. “The warp engines out in the nacelles do dump their heat straight into the bubble, but if the inside of the bubble heats up enough they will in turn overheat and we’ll have that uncontrolled exit from warp we don’t like.”

“So what do you do if you’re being chased and you can’t stop to vent your heat?” Quickdash wondered.

Neal smiled. “Haven’t had it happen yet,” he chuckled, “and my Folly does have a couple of advantages if it does come down to a game of chase.”

“Like what?” Quickdash didn’t quite demand.

“Like deeper heatsinks than most ships,” Neal replied. “As in being able to store more heat and run longer than most ships before having to drop out due to overheating. And once out of warp we can also vent that heat faster than most ships to jump back into warp faster. It’d be a bit like you trying to catch Mike in a chase, you may take him in a short sprint, but he’s going to beat you in any type of a long run. And if you have to rest a few times before running after him again, how far ahead might he be by the time he had to take a break?”

“But Mom always says bigger means you have to burn more energy,” Quickdash pointed out.

“True,” Neal allowed, “but he’s got greater reserves as well, so he can push further and harder and be able to stomp on an exhausted little ’mil when shi finally does catch up to him.”

“Or he might gently tap hir on the nose in victory before giving hir a ride back,” Mike interjected. “So, any chasers would need to know which way you’re most likely to run and have a relay team of chasers stationed ahead in order to run you down?”

Neal smiled as he shook his head. “If I had no choice I could ruin some of my cargo by pumping as much heat as I could into some or all of the pods. That would buy me still more time and I could drop from warp, eject the ruined pods and their heat, and be back in warp in just a few seconds. If I thought it was do or die.”

“Why didn’t you just form your warp bubble when you were being shot at?” Weaver asked.

“For one thing, we were too deep in Parakit’s gravity well to maintain a proper bubble, and we wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on or try to ‘shoot back’ at them. And it’s hard not to ‘drift’ a bit when you’re in a bubble separating you from the rest of the universe.”

“How come there aren’t any windows?” Cindy said as she looked over the model.

“Oh, there are a couple of windows here and there,” Neal said. “But they’re behind protective covers unless they’re being used.”

With no further prompting Tess started opening and ‘lighting up’ the model’s windows. Above and below the main sensor array there were two large observation blisters. Four more glowed around the circumference of the first sphere and eight more above each of the closed hangar doors between the spheres.

Eight more windows in the second sphere showed where observers could also watch the coming and going of the ships and shuttles in the hangar bays just before most of the second sphere seemed to explode with light as thousands of windows glowed with illumination. The only places where the light tapered off was around the eight docking ports around the circumference and aft where engineering took up most of the space.

The corncob stayed mostly dark, only a few small dots of light illuminating it.

Alex reached forward and touched one of the docking ports and made a pulling motion, which brought out what looked like one of the sixty-meter pods, a stretching/spreading motion enlarging it to bring out more of the detail. Just below the centerline was a port large enough to pass one of the standard shipping containers; above was a collection of different types of docking ports, some with collars to extend them.

“The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from,” Neal commented as Alex frowned at the pod before figuring out how to look inside.

The cat morph frowned again when the personnel level seemed to have multiple walls in the same place.

“Standard configuration,” Neal said, and the walls resolved into paths leading from the airlocks to three entry points in the ship itself and several waiting or inspection rooms.

“Hostile,” Neal said, and the walls became a maze with no actual way into the ship, the security doors only protecting dead ends. Turning the ship model in his hands he added, “And while they fight their way to nowhere, tractor beams from the pod that would normally hold a docked ship stable will instead be keeping their ship from getting away while Tess pushes the pod and the now trapped ship free of our Folly.” On the model one of the pods was ejected from its socket in the ship. “If they’re really bad types we can engage warp while they’re still partly in the bubble and destroy them, or we can let them get clear and then leave them behind. Even if they have the power to go to warp with the pod attached, they’ll still need some time to reconfigure for it.”

“Is that what you meant when you told me no pirate has ever made it through the second hatch?” Weaver asked him.

“It’s also why I carry a couple of extra docking port pods,” Neal agreed without actually answering her question.

Most of the kids by this time had Folly models of their own to examine; Neal noticed Holly and Quickdash were busy peeling back the layers of his main engineering decks.

“Why do you have five warp cores but places for six?” Holly asked.

“Because the five supply more than enough power for my current needs,” Neal told her. “I’ll sometimes have a sixth installed when I’m testing a new core or when I’m getting ready to trade one of the others out.”

“But why not have just one big one?”

“Because it’s actually more economical. One big core might make sense if I was always at warp, but it would cost more to hold it at the lower power settings when we’re not in warp, like that week we spent at Parakit.”

“And there are three with spaces for six in the station section,” Alex pointed out.

“Room to grow as the station and its needs grow,” Neal agreed. “And when sitting idle in orbit somewhere, one core is all the entire ship really needs.”

“And they’re all interconnected?” Dusk wondered, having just discovered that the hydroponic rooms shi and Roseberry had found were part of a much larger network.

“We should have picked up more seeds,” Roseberry muttered.

“And there’s tons of room for fruit bushes and even small trees,” Dusk agreed. “Next place that has what we want we’re stocking up.”

Seeing that Mike was comparing the floor plans of the different levels, Tess highlighted several loops that would allow the large equitaur to run without having to make sudden turns or stumble over raised hatch rims.

Graysocks was also looking at the different levels, having been on several that had seemed different from the others. “Tess, why do some of the decks seem more, I don’t know, posh I guess, compared to the others?”

“Because some of them are,” Tess told her. “Once this section is acting as a station, visitors and guests will be allowed in some areas and not in others. Even station personnel won’t have access to everything.”

“Is that why we can’t get in those blue areas?” Redtail asked from behind her.

“No, most of the blue areas are actually the more posh bits as Graysocks calls them, but it will take a small army to keep it all running once we bring it online.”

“Above or below most of the fancier decks you’ll find a maintenance deck to hide and access all the little things needed to keep the fancier decks running,” Neal said. “On the fancy decks decorative trim helps hide away what we don’t want to leave out in the open for the average visitor.”

“To not frighten them with containment doors in case there’s a hull breach?” Alex guessed.

“And to keep kids of all ages from playing with controls they shouldn’t be touching,” Neal agreed with a grin. “You guys figured out pretty quick to ask if you weren’t sure of something, but I’ve run into way too many that if they haven’t already been forbidden to do something, then they think they can do whatever they’d like and then say ‘oops, sorry’ when they damage or hurt someone or something.”

“And you have ways of dealing with those that do it,” Alex guessed.

“I do indeed,” Neal told him. “I even have ways of dealing with those deliberately trying to cause harm.”

“Why do I think we really don’t want to know?” Weaver asked with a small grin.

“Because you’ve already had a sample of what I might do?” Neal replied with an answering grin. “As Graysocks knows and the rest of you will learn, there are ways to ‘lock out’ equipment so it can be safely worked on. On one ship where my grandfather was just the engineer, he had several incidents of someone ‘unlocking’ locked gear and activating it while he was still working on it – almost killing him. The captain declared them mere accidents, but they kept happening. Grandpa finally rigged a little trap for whoever was doing it.”

“A terminal trap I’m guessing?” Mike dryly said.

“Considering the lockout was for an airlock that had been acting up, you’d be correct. Since the captain didn’t care, it was just reported as another of those so-called accidents, and I understand that it was over a week before they figured out that they were a man short. Funny thing is, there weren’t any more accidental safety unlocks after that.”

“But only because they tried to kill him,” Quickdash said.

“But only because they were trying to kill him,” Neal agreed. “You’ll find that like me, he tried to limit his responses to what is being done, so an easy test gauge is to ask yourself if you’d like whatever it is to be done to you.”

“Why were they trying to kill him?”

“Because he’d screwed up,” Neal admitted. “He’d ended up with a certain amount of power and control over them, and they had decided that killing him was cheaper than buying him out.”

“Buying him out?”

“Because they couldn’t afford to actually pay Grandpa what they’d agreed to, part of his pay was in ship credits against the value of the ship itself.”

“My dad had a boss do that with the gym, after a while dad owned more of it than his boss did and bought hir out,” Alex commented.

“And in this case he ended up owning over eighty percent of that ship,” Neal said. “After they realized that Grandpa had no qualms about killing those trying to kill him, the captain and his pals swore that no one would try anything with him. Two days from the next port they tried poison.” Neal looked a little more sober as he added, “From grandpa’s notes they almost got him that time.”

“Did they go to jail?” Holly asked.

“No, they got away, or at least they tried to. What little I could find suggests that they ran the moment he was off the ship, and that ship was only seen once – very briefly – five years later in Rakshan space. Other than that one sighting the ship and crew were never seen or heard from again.”

“Why do I get the feeling you know more about it than that?” Alex half asked.

In the rougher voice they’d heard him use before Neal replied, “Probably ’cause da present captain of dis barge still has no idea how you snuck your girlfriend back onboard.” In a more normal voice he said, “From the notes I know what traps were set, but not what actually happened and in what order as no records of the event survived.”

“You said the ship was seen five years later,” Cindy pointed out.

Neal nodded. “From what I do know – which you won’t be finding in any official records – was that it entered Rakshan space, exchanged communications with a Rakshan warship and left Rakshan space with the warship in hot pursuit. The warship returned damaged, but the other ship was never seen again.”

“They destroyed it,” Cindy said.

“So it seems,” Neal agreed without actually agreeing with her.

“And where did your grandfather come in in all of that?” Alex asked.

“Whatever hand he had in things, Grandpa somehow managed to get a new ship out of the bargain,” Neal told them. “He, and then I have been upgrading ever since.”

“The Rakshani just gave him a new ship?”

“Well, I understand there was a little quid-pro-quo thrown in, as in he had to train some of their people on a few engineering tricks to get more out of their own ships,” Neal allowed.

“Your grandfather knew that much more than they did?” Alex questioned.

“They seemed to think so at the time,” Neal said with a grin. “Do you know more about fighting than Cindy does? How about Mike? The old man probably just convinced the Rakshani that he had knowledge they wanted.”

“Did they supply a crew for him – or did he have Tess at the time?” Weaver asked.

“Oh, they supplied a crew of engineers that did the more normal tasks when not being taught, and the crew size decreased as he went about fully automating his ship. That automation and an early AI slowly evolved into Tess over the years.”

“Decades, Boss, though I can’t say when I truly ‘woke up’, my memories of that time are too blurred.”

“And she was already a bit of a smartass when I ended up with her,” Neal said with a grin.

“What happened to your grandfather?” Cindy asked.

“He finally got tired of running all over the place and retired. Thankfully he left me his ‘little black book’ of who he knew where and why, and Tess of course.”

“And his logs,” Tess added.

“And his logs – which even I still haven’t read all of,” Neal told them.

“Should make some interesting reading,” Mike commented.

Some of those old logs will be made available to you guys, the rest I’ll open or leave sealed as I get around to reading them myself.”

“Was he bad?” Quickdash wondered, looking worried.

Neal snorted at hir before saying, “Good/bad, beauty/ugliness is all in the eyes of the beholder. Those four hyenas probably thought you were evil incarnate, while the herm might have seen you as an avenging angel, sent to save hir from them. So which are you? A pint-sized demon, or a little angel that happens to like kicking ass?”

“Which was he?” Weaver asked.

“Which am I?” Neal countered. “Remembering that I’ll be answering any of your questions from my framework of beliefs and not necessarily your own.”

“One of your shuttle pilots told me about your grandfather throwing rocks from space to help save their colony,” Roseberry said.

“And by the records I have had time to go through, that wasn’t the first – or last time he threw rocks,” Neal replied. “Though I don’t think even he was ever crazy enough to try doing it using the transporters.”

“Speaking of transporters, Boss, your crew has pretty much cleared out Transporter Room One and my bots are doing the final clean up before we can start putting everything back together,” Tess added.

“Since we’re starting over with them, go ahead and figure on adding the upgrades that were planned for later.”

“Of course, Boss.”

“Upgrades?” Roseberry asked for the rest of them.

“This station section was nearing completion when several upgrades were suggested. Rather than push back the first trials, the suggested upgrades were pushed into the ‘when or if you ever get around to it’ bin,” Tess told them. “Considering the amount of time and tear down the upgrades would have required, this will be the best time to fit them in.”

“Can we help?” Holly asked.

“If you keep up with your studies and other chores,” Neal promised.

“Can we help more if we get ahead on our studies?” Quickdash didn’t quite demand.

“May-be,” Neal allowed.

The two youths looked at each other and grinned before going to look for the exit.

“They can have it,” Roseberry laughed. “Dusk and I have seeds to prep.”

“And my sensors are telling me that you’re running out of your ‘second wind’, Boss. Have a snack and call it a day,” Tess suggested.

“Dang uppity computer,” Neal muttered, but he also started to head for the exit.

“How is he really?” Weaver asked once he was out of hearing.

“On the mend,” Tess replied. “Give him a few more days to completely recover and he’ll be running rings around you again.”

 

 


 

For Profit

 

“And that’s really just the basics of how a warp drive works,” Neal was telling his still relatively new crew in a spontaneous training class brought on by a question from one of the teens.

While Neal had been taking a couple of ‘sick days’, Weaver and his ‘crew’ had been seeing to the day-to-day running of his ship – under Tess’ supervision of course. This had included doing some of Neal’s chores, such as launching another of the many FTL relays Neal had planned to position as he traveled around the Federation.

“So you can move anything?” Holly wanted to know.

“Not quite,” Neal replied with a chuckle – which reminded him of his still slightly sore throat. “First you have to be able to get a warp bubble around your target, and then still have enough energy left over to move it.”

“Is Folly the biggest ship in the universe?” Quickdash asked with a grin.

Neal laughed at that. “No, not at all. My Folly is less than half the length of some of the exploration ships that the Federation has been using. While she’s quite large for a privately owned freighter, there are a lot of larger ships plying the space lanes.”

“And this newer section is just an add-on to the old,” Holly added.

“Just so,” Neal agreed. “My current plans call for me needing the extra room before too long; so you guys get to help me break it in a little.”

* * *

“That’s odd,” Neal muttered as they approached a mining station bordering an asteroid field. The system had no habitable planets and a second station not quite opposite it was mining a different part of the asteroid field.

“What’s odd?” Weaver asked, as most of the other ears on the bridge turned their way.

“No supply requests, not a one …” he replied.

“Have you seen something like this before?”

“Not very often, as most stations are eager to top off their consumables every chance they get. Like you guys on a road trip, each stop you’d top off the vehicle’s charge and make sure you have enough drinks and snacks to last you until at least the next stop. Unless they have a contract with a ship to bring them what they need, they should be at least listing what they might be interested in.”

“And they’re offering very little to sell,” Tess pointed out. “Scans show their processing systems are hot, but they don’t appear to be doing any processing at this time.”

“Any mining craft or rocks inbound to them?” Neal asked.

“Negative. A few ‘parked’ nearby, but no noticeable activity.”

“Check the nets, public records, anything that might explain them not needing or wanting supplies.”

“Here’s something; they’re not supposed to be here,” Tess informed them a minute later.

“What do you mean?” Weaver wondered.

“Public records show Sampson Co-op sent out a bid and there is a still open contract to move the station eight months ago. A bid was accepted that would take twelve weeks to complete, and by the dates on those contracts they should have been halfway to their new orbit by now.”

“Backtrack it, I’ll bet there’s a reason for the delay,” Neal muttered.

“Contract was picked up by Sormand Heavy Lift out of Voxxa. They deal with buying or leasing everything from shuttles to warp capable ships able to tow other ships at low warp speeds. They sent a pair of their heavy lift shuttles out to do the move, but seven weeks ago they claimed to be having a problem with one of them. Current claim is they’re still waiting for parts,” Tess added.

“And the contract?” Neal asked.

“Half in advance, and the way the contract was written they can’t be considered default until they fail to have the station in place by the arrive-by date.”

“Where are those shuttles now?”

“In system, but at the other station in the asteroids not quite opposite from this one.”

“Competition?”

“So it appears. Tessro Mining brought out and set up both stations, but this station did so well that they bought their systems out from under the mining company. From what I can find, the other – Tessro Station 117B – is still under Tessro’s thumb, and has all of their supplies contracted though the company – which was why we weren’t interested in visiting them.”

“Why do I want to place a bet that the co-op will run afoul of their obligations and lose their station if they aren’t moved in time?”

“Because you have a suspicious mind, Boss. But in this case you are correct; failure to do the contracted processing defaults the station back to Tessro. Boss? We could re-rig our heavies to do the job.”

“Even if we did, how long would it take to move them using our shuttles?”

“Maximum safe power levels the whole trip; eight weeks,” Tess admitted.

“And we can’t hang around that long anyway,” Neal pointed out. “That station was designed to be moved wherever it was needed. With those heat exchangers folded, just how big would it be?”

“Center of gravity isn’t quite centered, but I see where you’re heading, Boss. One point four kilometers long, point seven three at the widest.”

“Just where are you ‘heading’?” Weaver half demanded.

“As you and the kids found out a while back; my Folly is really two vessels, and the back end can push the front end to warp – and Tess just told us that their whole station is smaller than our front end is …”

* * *

“Damn mercenaries – the lot of you!” the old fox howled.

“So are you!” Neal shot back. “Tell me right here and now that you’ll give two farts in a vac-suit what happens to anyone after they warp out of here!”

“Anything you might try offering is too damn little and too damn late! Just get out of my face!” he bellowed before storming out of the bar that was sometimes used to conduct business arrangements.

“He didn’t even listen to your offer,” Weaver quietly murmured as she tried to calm Starblazer.

Neal softly snorted. “Poor guy’s probably worked decades to get where he’s at, only to watch it all crash from no fault of his own. It doesn’t help that this is a slow motion crash so he gets to enjoy every second of it.”

“So, what do we do now?” she asked. “Or is that it – we let them crash?”

“Hard to get anything accomplished with the principals are mad at each other,” Neal pointed out.

You’re mad at him?” Weaver asked in surprise.

Enraged,” Neal agreed with a hidden grin. “So, while the first stringers are busy locking horns, we’ll just send in the second string to play around them,” he added as he looked around the bar.

* * *

There are no drinking laws, only sober ones, or so they say. As such, Neal hadn’t bothered to tell his ‘crew’ what they could or couldn’t drink; as they were all ‘off duty’ and could do as they pleased.

This didn’t mean he had sent them out as lambs to a slaughter though, as each carried a small pack that included a quick sobering agent and an oxygen breather. They of course wore their comm badges, but most also were wearing small ear buds similar to Neal’s earplugs.

“What we need is information,” Neal’s voice softly told them. “Who else can speak for the station, agree to a contract, or even offer up a new contract while representing the station. We also need to find their engineering people and find out just how quickly they can get this place ready for a move once the movers are here. Drinks are on me if you think it will loosen their tongues. Don’t bother trying to relay anything you learn, Tess will be watching and she will keep me updated.”

Turning to Weaver, Neal added with a scowl, “Since they all seem to be watching me, I’ll just ‘huff’ my way on out of here.” He spilled some of his drink when he slammed it to the table, stood up and stormed out of the bar.

While several conversations started back up, there was a snickering giggle heard coming from one corner. The cat morph looked to be well into her cups if one went by the number of empty glasses that she was none-too-carefully stacking and then unstacking in turn.

“Leave her alone,” the foxy fox morph barmaid snapped when she saw a couple of their visitors taking an interest in their drunk.

“Fine,” Alex agreed, “Then you can tell me why this place is so down in the dumps.”

“What? Weren’t you listening to their argument?” she demanded, pointing at the table where Weaver still sat with Starblazer.

“I heard part of a heated discussion, but I’d really like to hear the rest of the story,” Alex said, ignoring her anger.

“What’s left to tell? We’ve already lost half the credits we had reserved to get us moved! We can’t afford to offer another bid, and even if someone accepted what we have – there isn’t time for them to move us! Which part of that didn’t you get?” she snarled at him.

Alex looked down as he slowly shook his head as if to what the barmaid had just said – but in reality he was listening to what Tess was suggesting to him. “You do know that a good bit of the cost of moving your station is paying to drag the heavy boost shuttles out here in the first place – right? So if they’re already local they might accept a much lower bid. As for the time it would take to actually move the station – if you will follow me?” he said as he started walking toward one of the large ports looking out into space. From there they could see the two-hundred meter access boom that had been run out to where the Folly drifted next to the station.

So?” she demanded.

Alex gave her a small grin as he said, “One, that beast actually hits warp. Two, the leading spheres section is larger than your entire station – and three, they’re detachable …”

As he watched her face and her changing emotions, Alex continued. “To a freighter captain, time is money, so we couldn’t possibly hang around the eight weeks it would take our heavy lift shuttles to move your little station. We’re already here, so there’s no extra to/from charges to contend with. So …” he said as his smile grew, “I need two things from you. Who can place a new bid that we can snag, and just how fast can this place be made ready to travel?”

Now looking thoughtful instead of angry she said, “My Mom can sidestep Dad; as for the second, I now wish I hadn’t let our engineer do such a good job drowning her sorrows,” she added, indicating the still giggling cat in the corner.

Raising an eyebrow, Alex tapped his comm badge. “Tess? That anti-pie-eye stuff you gave me – how would it affect someone about two-thirds my mass?” he asked as he pulled a small flask from his pocket.

“It’ll just work faster on them,” Tess assured them. “Just make sure you put them on the breather, one-hundred percent oxygen for at least five minutes or they’ll have one killer headache.”

The barmaid snickered. “Oh, she is not going to appreciate us killing off her perfectly good drunk. Pete! Page Mom and then get your tail over here!”

The heavyset bartending wolf morph came over while wiping his hands on a towel. “What’s up Tash? I thought we’d agreed that we’d let Copper be so long as she didn’t make a scene.”

Tash grinned up at him. “She’s about to make a scene,” she said as she passed Alex’s now opened flask under his muzzle.

Whipping his head away from it after the barest of sniffs, Pete tried to grin around his wrinkled nose. “I can see now why you want me to hold her down, but why are we doing this?” he asked as he moved behind Copper’s chair.

Tash looked him in the eye as she said, “Because it might just mean this station gets moved with the credits we have left – and in time. I think that’d be worth a free bar tab for Copper for a day or two – wouldn’t you?”

“For a week – hell – a month!” he readily agreed. “Copper, darling? One more for the road?” he whispered to her as he held her wrists and Tash tilted the cat’s head and the flask.

The cat simply swallowed at first, then her eyes opened wide and unfocused as her stomach started to react to the unsettling mixture she was being fed.

“Don’t you dare try throwing up!” Tash snarled at her victim. “Where’s that breather?”

“Right here,” Alex said as he reached around her and pushed the collapsible mask onto the cat’s muzzle as the flask was removed.

Over the next few minutes Copper’s eyes went from surprised shock to anger as her ‘good drunk’ was taken from her. Only Tash’s glare and Pete's strong grip seemed to be keeping her from fighting back.

“What the bloody hell?” she started once the mask was removed. “Let go of me, Pete. I’ll give you guys all of two minutes to convince me that that was needed before I start clawing people,” she snarled.

“How long would it take you to get us ready to move the station?” Tash asked.

“Doesn’t bloody matter,” Copper muttered.

“Pretend it does bloody matter,” Alex countered. “Pretend there was a ship out there that could wrap this entire station in her warp field and drag this station along like a kitten does a mouse toy. But time is money to this ship. In hours – how long?”

“Safely? Six hours. Though I’ve got an emergency play book for two and a half – but it allows for a lot of damage to save the station core from a collision or something,” Copper admitted.

“Is that fast enough?” Tash demanded.

Alex nodded. “I think so, but we still need a contract to wave under my captain’s nose.”

“On it,” said an older fox vixen sitting at a table that had been vacant when they’d approached the cat. “I have the power to place the bid, but my mate still has to approve any binding agreement.”

Alex nodded. “We know you only have half the funds you offered the last time, but we don’t have moving into the system as overhead. Tess thinks it might be enough to tempt our captain – despite him just having an argument with your mate,” he told her.

“We’ve been burned once already …” she hinted.

“No payment until the station is in the requested orbit,” Alex countered. “Add a stiff penalty for picking up the contract and not delivering within five days. That should keep anyone else from even thinking about it.”

“What if Sormand Heavy Lift tries to tie it up again anyway?” she asked with a frown.

A pair of giggles caused all heads to turn to a pair of youths.

“That’s easy,” Holly told them.

“They’re on the other side of the solar system,” Quickdash agreed.

“Tess said we’re almost two light hours out from your sun,” Holly continued.

“So that’s way over three from here to there,” Quickdash concluded.

“The comms are faster than light,” Tash reminded them.

“Not if your ‘drunk as a skunk’ engineer was ‘playing’ and ‘broke’ it just before you sent out the bid!” Holly laughed.

“And the local light speed comms won’t carry all that well anyway if we’re not deliberately aiming it at them …” Copper said with a slowly growing grin. “Glinda? Give me five and then send it,” she said as she jumped up. “And I’ll start parking what I can.”

“As an added bonus,” Alex told her, “anything attached to the station gets moved with it.”

“You seem very positive your captain’s going to agree to all of this,” Glinda remarked.

Alex gave her a smirk as he said, “He knew you needed it and was prepared to help before we docked. Your mate didn’t want to deal with what he thought was a mercenary.”

“And just how did he happen to know that?” Glinda asked with a raised eyebrow.

Alex softly snorted. “By what you weren’t doing. A freighter is inbound and finds a station that has no requests, no need for anything? You pushed his warning buttons and he wasn’t going to even dock until he thought he knew why.”

Glinda was thoughtful for a moment before admitting, “I hadn’t looked at it that way, but it would have been a red flag to anyone coming in.”

“While my captain’s only pretending to be an ass, we do have time constraints,” he reminded her.

“I’ll go get that bid out,” she agreed as she got up to leave.

“Tess also suggests you offer forty percent of the bid you agreed to with Sormand. We know you still have half of it, but this way my captain can ‘raise’ the bid without going over what you had to pay Sormand if they had made good on their side. And him bumping it up a bit might just make it more believable to your mate …”

“Damn sneaky bunch,” she muttered to herself as she hurried down the passageway.

* * *

“Daniel – get your tail in here – we got a bid!” Glinda yelled at the open office door a few minutes later.

“What the hell are you talking about? I didn’t put out no new contracts,” the station manager grumbled as he went to see what his mate of many years was yelling about this time.

“I got a wild hair up my ass and threw out one just to see what would happen,” she snapped back. “I’ve got a live one and I need you to seal the deal before they come to their senses.”

“We can’t afford to pay them!” he growled. “Even if we can get back what that first set of bastards stole –”

“I only offered what we had left!” she snapped, cutting him off. “And it’s pay on delivery! I even added a heavy fine if they’re late!”

“And they took it?” he demanded in surprise.

“Well, they wanted ten percent more – which was ten percent of the forty percent of what Sormand’s bid was!” she quickly added when he started to open his mouth.

His mouth hung open for a moment as his brain processed this. “You mean they’re offering to do it for only forty-four percent of what Sormand was asking for?”

“With the stipulation that we can be ready to be moved within eight hours of them saying ‘now’. Copper says we can do it in six if we have to. Do we lock them down – or give them time to change their minds?”

“Do it, use my codes,” Daniel said as he turned for the door.

“And where do you think you’re going?” she asked.

“To tell that damn mercenary he can shove off!” he called behind him.

Glinda just grinned as she punched in the codes and hit send.

* * *

Daniel was just entering the bar with an evil grin plastered across his muzzle when the visiting ship’s crew’s comm badges all started beeping an alert signal.

“All Folly crew are hereby recalled – I say again, all Folly crew are recalled. First and second shifts are ordered to a mandatory rest period. Third and fourth shifts are to prepare the ship for separation and move orders scheduled for eight hours’ time.” A second later the same voice was coming from his own station’s intercoms, “Folly to station, your eight hours to prepare to be moved starts now.”

“NO!” he yelled. “We won’t be doing business with any damn mercenaries!”

“Won’t we?” his daughter asked in mock surprise. “You’d rather lose the station than let them help?”

“Oh, we’re not just helping out of the kindness of our hearts, we expect to be well paid for our services,” Alex told her, giving her a wink from the side her father wouldn’t see.

“No!” Daniel growled again. “Get your tails off my station and get the hell out of here!”

Our station, Father, as I have shares in it too,” Tash reminded him. “In fact, if you say no to this I’ll need to cash mine out,” she said with a glare at him.

“B-But why?” he asked in surprise at this sudden turn of events.

“Because if these guys don’t move us, this station defaults back to them – and I refuse to ever work for them again!” A little calmer she added, “If this station is to default, then I’ll need the funds to hitch a ride off it.”

“Never mind those shares will become somewhere next to worthless if we default,” Glinda said as she entered the room. Looking over at Alex, she asked, “Tell me, boy, does your mercenary ship take paying passengers?”

Tess had been whispering in his ear, so Alex gave Glinda a sharp look and an almost leer at Tash as he said, “Depends on if the captain likes you – though for such sweet things as you two, I’m sure a little something might be worked out.”

Turning back to Daniel, Tash demanded, “Which is it, Dad? Are they moving me with the station, or out of it?”

“Pride has its place, my mate,” Glinda said softly from behind him, “but there can come a time when swallowing it is the best move you can make. This isn’t just about you – we all lose everything if this station isn’t in place in time.”

“And you think they can actually do it? In time?” he demanded.

They seem to think they can, enough so they agreed to a contract with no credits until they actually accomplish it and charges if they fail,” Glinda pointed out. “Too bad you didn’t put those provisions into the contract you made with those Sormand thieves …”

Daniel's mouth moved about, the pill he was trying to swallow seemed to have been exceedingly bitter. Finally he managed to mutter, “Do it,” before turning and hurrying from the bar.

“Alex,” Tess’s voice said from his comm badge so the others would hear, “Since you’re already making friends over there, Neal’s decided to make you our go-between. You’re to keep us advised on how their preparations are going. Hint, that means you’ll be chasing their engineer’s tail more than that barmaid’s!”

“The things I do for duty,” Alex sadly said, only to earn a snicker from Tash and a grin from her mother.

“Well,” Tash said with a grin before she stepped right next to and then started rubbing shoulders with the surprised cat. “You see, Dad doesn’t like me hanging out with Pete. So my way of thinking is that if I appear to be throwing myself at you, Dad might see Pete as a safer alternative …”

“Just so long as your pet wolf knows you’re only playing,” Alex replied as he gave her a hug. “He is just a little bit bigger than I am – and I’d hate to have to hurt him!” he finished with a grin and a wink in the direction of the barkeeper.

“Just what we needed,” Glinda muttered, “more male hormones …”

* * *

“The $*&*%#er’s frozen solid!” Copper’s voice hissed through the office’s speakers. Normally Daniel would be one of those lending their engineer a hand, but he couldn’t do that without having to deal with the mercenaries. So instead he slumped at his desk and simply monitored the comm traffic.

“Talk to me, kitten,” came the voice of that damn mercenary captain.

“This radiator has to be folded before any of the others on this side, but two of its pivot points aren’t going anywhere,” Copper replied. “That six hours I promised your people before was if everything cooperated.”

“How long would it take you to replace them?”

“Over an hour each … we are so screwed.”

“Oh ye of such little faith,” Neal said with a smirk in his voice. “Get those flow valves closed off and the electronics disconnected, I’m sending a shuttle over to help you shift that radiator by brute force. Once you’re ready, we’ll cut it at one of those failed joints and tie it in its parked position. You can then replace things at your leisure at your new location.”

“That’ll work, and take us minutes instead of hours,” Copper admitted. “How much extra is this going to cost us?”

“The contract is to get you guys moved,” Neal reminded her. “I can’t collect my payment if you’ve got your station’s bits and bobs sticking out all over the place.”

“And that’s the only reason you and your crew are being so helpful?”

“Credits are king,” Neal assured her, “Though it did look like one of my boys might be interested in bidding on that cute little barmaid of yours.”

“Her father won’t like her running off with a bunch of mercs,” Copper warned him.

“Heh, I like idiots that can’t see the mercenary in their own mirrors,” Neal chuckled. “Any businessman has to ensure that their business does well, even if that sometimes means other things in his life may not get all the attention he may have thought they needed.”

“He’s not like that,” Copper muttered, just before calling out, “It’s free!”

“And Alpha has it – or it would have crushed your arm just now!” Neal snapped back. “Keep your mind on your work, pussycat – or this station will be in the market for a new engineer before we’re through.”

“Damn, I forgot the thrust I added to the station to help close these panels …” Copper admitted.

“So little thrust you can barely feel it,” Neal agreed. “All the more dangerous because it’s so easy to ignore. If side conversations are too distracting for you, we’ll stick to the business at hand.”

“I’m good. Why did you call Daniel a merc? He isn’t one you know.”

Isn’t he? While waiting to get the move started I had time to do a little searching on the networks. He’s run you guys hard the last ten years, meeting and beating deadlines; this station and its crew have worked so hard that the owners couldn’t legally keep you under their thumbs. Much as I have built a ship that can push stations around like toys. Oh, Alpha says scans show we still have one more frozen joint to deal with on this side, and Baker reports two joints on different panels on their side.”

“Hold on! You have your crew working the other side?” Copper demanded.

“No, I’m running computer controlled remotes as my current crew is too new to risk on playing in vacuum – much less around things that might crush them like little bugs – as you just tried to do.”

Enough about that already! It won’t happen again,” she snapped at him as she watched the panel quickly ‘folded’. She was about to call out that they were moving it too fast when it suddenly stopped all movement in reference to the station before slowly drifting to rest on its ‘closed position’ stops.

“Heh,” Neal muttered. “It’s almost too bad all the joints aren’t frozen. Not having to wait on them could have us done and gone in an hour. As for the ‘enough already’, would your regular taskmaster have let it go so quickly?”

“I’d never hear the end of it,” she muttered. “Good thing you pissed him off so I didn’t have him watching the boards for me.”

“We nag because you scare the hell out of us,” Neal told her. “If one of mine gets hurt, I get to be the lucky bastard that has to inform their families. Who would he have to write a ‘We regret to inform you’ letter to?”

Copper was silent as they watched the next panel slowly fold. As it clicked into place she said, “So why does a mercenary care if a local hurts herself?”

Neal softly snorted. “You guys may have never heard of me and my Folly before today, but I’m fairly well known in some parts. And I have a reputation – a pretty good one if I do say so myself – a reputation that wouldn’t be anywhere near as good if word got out that I got people hurt while I was busy doing something as simple as this.”

“You call this simple?”

“Yeah, I do. Okay, this one’s better than halfway, start cutting that last one free.”

“You are in too much of a hurry with this,” she accused him.

“I’ve dealt with Sormand before, and they wouldn’t be screwing around on a contract like this. So my read is someone else wanted you guys to fail and fail badly. With that in mind, they may not want to give up just because I came along and derailed their plans. So the sooner I get you moved the better.”

“And you don’t think the eight hours you gave us is soon enough?”

“If they’ve noticed your FTL comm’s down, they may wonder what’s up. Light speed, it’ll take a message about seven hours from there to here and back – but only three and a half hours for a telescope aimed this way to see your radiators folding and for them to know that something’s up.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Copper admitted.

“That’s why I get paid the big bucks to watch the bigger picture. That’s also why I shifted my ship the way I did, Folly’s now hiding most of your station from their line of sight. So we’ll get you folded and locked down with all your pushers and miners docked, separate my Folly, my heavy lift shuttles will get everything lined up and then my back end will warp you to your new location in less than five minutes. We’ll release you and run back over here to grab my front end, couple up and one more jump before everything’s as it should be, just not where we were.”

“They’ll detect you going to warp.”

“Sure they will, but for all they know that first jump could just be my Folly leaving. It won’t be until someone realizes our heading or sees where we pop back out of warp at. By then it’s too late for them to interfere with moving you, so I’m doing what I can to keep them in the dark up to that point. Heck, as your new location is only three light hours away from them, to them you’ll actually appear before you disappear,” Neal told her with a smile in his voice.

“Free!” Copper called out. As the shuttle’s tractor beams started to shift the last radiator she said, “So how in the hell can you move us in five minutes for less than Sormand could in twelve weeks?”

“First off, I don’t think Sormand has anything that can actually warp something your size. Then there’s the time spent; while they can have a couple of crews and shuttles spending months on just one job, my Folly has to make several stops per month – so I’d lose more doing it the slow way. Third, I think I get better deals on fuel than they do, so I can do it for a lower bottom line.”

“That last doesn’t sound like a mercenary,” she pointed out.

“Depends on how you look at it,” Neal countered. “Thanks to Sormand’s playing games with you guys, I wasn’t going to make a single credit after coming all the way out here. So I could either mark it off as a wasted trip – or see if there wasn’t some other way to earn some of that credit you hadn’t lost to Sormand yet. Speaking of which, just how dense and stubborn is that station master of yours?”

“Daniel’s not that bad, it’s just all the games and delays Sormand has been playing on us,” Copper complained.

“So you’re saying no one will need to put a kink in his tail or a boot under it to remind him that he will soon have a very real reason to want to buy supplies from me? I’m a mercenary after all – I can’t just hang around out here out of the goodness of that heart we all know I don’t have.”

“I think he might be a mind reader,” Glinda said, startling her mate who looked guiltily away from the comm for the first time in what felt to him like hours.

“How long have you been standing there?” he grumbled at her.

“Long enough,” she tartly replied as she handed him a memory chit. “That’s the least you’re going to buy from them,” she told him before turning to leave.

Daniel was still glaring at the chit when he heard Copper say, “Locked down and done – on this side anyway.”

“Third one just stowed on the other,” Neal replied. “And since the fourth required cutting, that side should be done in another five. As those two rock pushers you guys had out training are still over an hour away, you’ve got time to go in and take a break.”

“I should inspect everything …”

“Captain,” a new voice cut in, “I’ve got activity at that other mining platform.”

“What do you see, Tess?” Neal asked.

“A warp drive flare – consistent with someone giving themselves a substantial sub-light boost.”

“Was there enough for you to plot their course and speed?”

“Aye, Boss. Close to three quarter light-speed, and on a heading right for us.”

“So we’ve got a bit more than four hours – if they don’t make another speed change,” Neal muttered half to himself. “They might even skirt the sun’s warp gravity well limits and go to warp once they can see something’s going on over here. Worst case is they try to intercept us leaving or in transit. Tess, start your separation sequence. Copper, in, now.”

“All hands – including all station hands,” Neal’s voice calmly said from every speaker and comm badge. “This is that damn mercenary captain speaking. Your fellow mining station seems to have taken an interest in your comm silence and is sending someone over to check on you. I intend for them to find a whole lot of empty space when they finally get here, therefore we will be moving in ten minutes.”

“I can’t close up the greenhouses that fast!” a voice protested.

“I don’t recall asking you to close the greenhouses,” Neal replied.

“But the dust will ruin the windows – never mind if anything strikes them hard enough to come through!”

“Ah, I see the issue,” Neal said with a chuckle. “And open or closed, your windows will not be a problem. We will not be giving you a sub-light boost to get you moving, we will be going straight to warp. Your greenhouse will be protected by the same warp bubble that’s about to move you. There may be a little shaking, but I’d be more concerned about any loose bottles in the bar …”

“Separation complete,” Tess reported as the aft half of the Folly slowly backed away from the forward spheres. “Alpha and Baker will start angling the station into position for the grab.”

“I’m in the primary bridge secondary hull,” Neal’s voice said. “I’ll be your tug boat commander for this little trip. If anyone knows or thinks there’s something not completely secured to your outer hulls, now’s the time to mention it. Station control, please unlock your gimbals so the shuttles may turn and twist you without damaging anything.”

“Unlocked,” Copper’s voice called back. “Don’t we need to build up bracing or a cradle to transfer the load?”

“Negative, Kitten. I’ve got more than enough tractor beam power to hold you steady.”

And go to warp?” she asked in surprise.

“All that and still enough power in reserve to toast a slice of bread – but only one side at a time,” Neal chuckled.

“I wish I could tell when you’re joking!” she half snarled.

“So do a lot of others, Kitten,” Neal admitted.

“Who do you want where?” Weaver’s voice asked. While Neal had taken command of the older bridge aft, Weaver had settled in the main bridge in the forward section.

“Since we’re now in a bit of a rush, you and the kids can just hold the fort while I get them moved. Alex will stay with the station when I come back to recover you. Shouldn’t be more than fifteen minutes of me warping out.”

“And if that other ship gets here first?”

“Then Tess can show off some of her defensive capabilities – if they get belligerent,” Neal told her with a grin in his voice. “And since Alpha and Baker are now clear and we’re all lined up, it’s time to get this little show on the road.”

“Wait! They’re still too clossssss –” Weaver heard Copper starting to yell when the station and aft end of their ship suddenly distorted and disappeared, the event gently buffeting them where they sat.

“Tess, what was she trying to warn us about?” Weaver asked.

“Ah, just our captain showing off a bit for the natives,” Tess replied.

“And just how was he ‘showing off’ this time?”

“Warp fields distort local space; the greater size and the change in speed, the greater the distortions,” Tess explained. “Most ships can’t safely enter or leave warp within a hundred kilometers of another ship or station without the risk of causing dangerous distortions which can damage or even destroy either or both vessels.”

“And how far were we?”

“Just under five …”

“So Copper thinks he just destroyed us?”

“It’s possible – oh, and that other ship or shuttle just went to warp. New ETA under three minutes.”

“Stop trying to change the subject,” Weaver retorted.

“It takes even more power and control, but it’s possible to change the shape and direction of the distortions. In this case Neal just channeled most of them away from us.”

“You said most ships couldn’t do that – what other types can?”

“Most military and some search and rescue craft have the extra power and their people have the training to safely pop up quite close to their targets without damaging them.”

“How many our size?” Weaver wondered. When there was no reply, she asked, “Tess?”

“No others that I am aware of, but that doesn’t mean others don’t exist.”

“Why –” Weaver started, only to be interrupted by the unknown vessel popping out of warp.

“Less than a hundred kilometers – they were trying to rattle the station, good thing I had our shields up in case they wanted to play. Let’s see what happens next,” Tess’s voice told her as several of the teens joined her on the bridge.

“So your shields can protect us against the distortions?” Weaver asked.

“Very limited protection,” Tess admitted, “but better than nothing.”

While warp capable, the ship now before them was little more than an oversized shuttle, neither long-ranged nor able to keep its crew comfortable for an extended period of time.

It seemed that they had confused the new arrival, as it was several minutes before they decided to try to communicate.

“Who the hell are you?” the small ship finally demanded, the voice sounding more male feline than anything else.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll take this call,” Tess told her bridge crew before they heard her sending to the ship. “We’re the Folly, silly! Just like our transponder is saying – never mind it’s painted across our nose!” A much younger sounding Tess giggled before continuing. “And why isn’t your transponder running? Are you guys pirates or something?”

“None of your damn business – where the hell’s the station?”

“None of your damn business,” Tess parroted back. “And before you turned your nose away from us, I saw part of the ‘Sormand Heavy Lift’ crest and the name Thor below it. Don’t mess with us unless you want to get very sore there, Thor.”

“I want to speak to your captain – NOW!”

“You caught him practicing his balancing act and he doesn’t like being disturbed – he hates dropping things. But if you ask real nicely I might let you speak with our first officer!” young Tess proclaimed brightly.

“NOW SEE HERE –” he started, before the connection suddenly dropped.

“That wasn’t me,” Tess told them with her regular voice. “Someone over there cut him off.”

There was over a minute of peace and quiet, during which Tess informed them that the station had reached its new parking place and that Neal was already on his way back.

Thor to Folly, if your captain is indeed indisposed, may I please speak with your first officer?” a new voice quietly requested. This one sounded more canine and female.

“Sure thing, just give me a second,” young Tess cheerfully replied. To Weaver she said, “All we have to do is stall them for a few minutes until the boss gets back.”

“I think I can do that,” Weaver agreed with a small smile. “Put me on.” A small light started flashing to let her know she would now be heard. “This is the first officer, how may I help you?”

“You can start by identifying yourself.”

“Why would I bother doing something that you haven’t felt the need to do?” Weaver countered.

“Where’s the station?”

“Where’s what station? Have you thoughtlessly misplaced one?” Weaver asked to the snickers of her bridge crew.

“A station belonging to Tessro Mining was here just a few hours ago,” the voice from the smaller ship sounded strained and there was someone yelling loud enough to override their filters. “It stopped replying to FTL comms right after your ship showed up. You’ll forgive us if we wonder if you had something to do with their sudden silence.”

“Now that’s very strange, because public records show that Tessro Mining doesn’t own but one station in this solar system, the one that was to be moved from this location six weeks ago having been bought out from under Tessro when they couldn’t or wouldn’t fully pay their crews. And as far as the other, we have not and are not preventing anyone from communicating. Perhaps whoever it was merely grew tired of your prattle – much as I am.”

The screamer in the background was breaking through the filters more, and the female sounded a bit put out as she said, “I see we aren’t going to accomplish anything this way. We’re going to try this again, but face to face. Prepare to be boarded.”

“I think not,” Weaver replied with a grin in her voice. “As you have yet to give us any reasons that would make me even consider letting you and whoever’s screaming their head off on board my ship.”

“I order you to drop your shields.”

“That would require you proving that you’re someone with the rights and authority to order around a ship you don’t own,” Weaver told her. “Ante up or fold, puppy.”

There was a growl from the speakers before they started receiving video from the smaller ship. “This is Tyler Jack, sector manager for Sormand Heavy Lift. If you have any Sormand Heavy Lift cargo your contract requires you to allow us to inspect it on demand. How long that inspection takes will depend directly on how much you get in our way. Do you understand what I am telling you?” the Voxxan female snarling the last sentence.

“If you don’t mind,” Tess’s voice told her bridge before a second window opened showing Weaver looking much calmer than the real one was now feeling.

The false Weaver smiled as the Voxxan ended her rant and softly said, “It just so happens that you’re in luck, we do have a Sormand Heavy Lift consignment. We agreed to ship it under the 15-E contract, which does indeed allow for a Sormand Heavy Lift representative to shortstop it and take possession of it for inspection. Are you invoking that section of the 15-E contract?”

“I am,” The Voxxan snarled. “Now drop your shields at once!”

“Not before you have provided your authorization codes,” the Weaver head told her with a cool smile.

“What are you playing at Tess?” the real Weaver asked as the Voxxan fumed and started punching in a lengthy string of code punctuated with key words.

“As you heard her threaten, we’ve had some of their managers delay things with their little ‘inspections’ to hold a ship until they were ready for it to leave. Well, a while back Neal made up a new contract that they now have to agree to if they want their junk shipped on the Folly. If they demand to inspect it in route, Folly unloads it for them to inspect. What some of these managers don’t seem to realize is that by ordering us to unload to allow them access to inspect the cargo, they have then taken ownership of said cargo. Which means Folly has completed our contractual obligations and taking the cargo back on board would require both parties to agree to a new contract.”

Several of the teens started laughing and giggling as Weaver slowly said, “Are you telling me she just demanded we dump their cargo out there?”

“That’s exactly what I mean, and she just finished authorizing the release of her company’s cargo,” Tess said with a chuckle. “And wouldn’t you know it, here comes the boss!”

Again they were treated to a gentle buffeting, protected from a rougher ride by the shields – while the smaller unshielded ship was tossed about by the warp bubble’s sudden collapse.

“Drop your aft shields, Tess. Engage tractor beams to cushion the docking,” Neal’s voice ordered.

“Ready for a fast dock, Boss,” Tess agreed. “Be advised that Thor there is Sormand Heavy Lift, and they’ve demanded we let them inspect their cargo.”

“Queue it up then – how much were we carrying?”

“Only fifty containers worth at this point,” Tess told him.

“And I doubt that toy could tow three of them back to their station at warp,” Neal chuckled. “I’ve got us lined up, I've released control to you for the final docking.”

“Got it, Boss. Did you want to talk to these dummies?”

“Sure, as good a way to kill the time we need as any,” Neal agreed. “Thor, this is Captain Foster. I understand you want to inspect the Sormand Heavy Lift cargo we are currently carrying?”

“Where’s the damn station you $%^^%$#$^%$%!!??” screamed a voice from the small ship.

“Where it should be,” Neal easily replied, “or at least where it would have been going had someone not dragged their heels trying to cause them to be in breach of contract. By the way, I did a flyby of the station still owned by Tessro Mining. Scans showed both of those heavy shuttles ready to launch – which means they aren’t waiting for parts at this time. I’ll be handing those scans over to the independents to help them make their case against Sormand Heavy Lift and get their funds returned.”

“Scans don’t prove anything,” Tyler sneered at him.

“The scans will prove that the shuttles aren’t currently torn apart and waiting for parts, which is more than enough to open an inquiry of you operating under bad faith,” Neal pointed out. “And if a little digging reveals that someone in Sormand Heavy Lift was paid off by Tessro Mining to delay the job Sormand had agreed to do for the independents, I can see some heads rolling as both companies try to prove that it was not sanctioned by either company but by a couple of manager types trying to make a few credits at someone else’s expense.”

“You can’t prove any of it,” she snarled.

“I just have to show enough evidence that they bring in a certified mind reader to start reading people,” Neal countered. “As you came out here all hot and bothered, Ms. Jack, I’m quite sure they’ll have a few questions for you. In fact, I have one for you right now.”

What?”

“Did you still wish to go through with this pointless inspection of the Sormand cargo we have?”

“Yes! And you won’t be going anywhere until we’re finished!”

“We’re moving your cargo now so you can more easily inspect it – though you really should have read 15-E a little more closely,” Neal said as one of the large cargo hatches opened and a string of containers started floating out.

“W-What the hell are you doing now?” Tyler demanded.

“As per 15-E: ‘On request from SHL, the shipper will offload any and all SHL cargo, where an authorized SHL representative will then claim custody of said cargo. SHL taking custody of said cargo removes that cargo from any contracts that may have been in effect with the shipper at the time of the request.’ In other words you have just authorized and ordered me to dump your cargo out here. What you do with it from here is out of my hands,” Neal told her with a tight smile.

“You can’t do this!” she protested. “I-I refuse custody!”

“I have a full recording of you not just asking but demanding that we allow you to ‘inspect’ SHL cargo. As the contract SHL signed in order to get me to move their cargo stipulates that they can’t delay my ship without me dumping their junk, I can and have. You are now free to inspect it to your heart’s content. Of course you’ll then need to contract with someone to get it where you actually needed it – unless it was meant to be delivered here?” Neal asked. “Either way, we have places to be – there’s credits to be made!”

“Wait – NO!” Tyler screamed as Thor’s sensors registered the large freighter’s engines begin to form her warp bubble. Her ship barely shook this time as the Folly kicked suddenly away from them, the containers slowly starting to drift apart.

“Did you just put them out of their misery?” Weaver asked as they moved at low warp to where a couple of rock pushers had been when the station had left without them.

“Just a light tap that time,” Neal assured her. “Tess? If she wants to dicker, six times the going rate – but you can let her talk you down to five.”

“Do I have to let her talk me down?” Tess asked, with more than a little pout in her voice.

“Nope, your call.”

“Then she’s going to find out how hard I can play. I didn’t like them yelling at Weaver like that.”

“Revenge …” Neal started.

“Is best rubbed into their wounds with lots of salt!” Tess sassed back.

“I’ve created a monster,” Neal softly muttered, though it sounded like he was hiding a grin.

“Neal, will she really?” Weaver started to ask before she saw his head shake on the display.

“She’s just playing at being the hard-ass. Part of what I’ve tried to teach her over the years is when to ignore being yelled at – and when it’s right to do something about it.”

“Like you ignoring the station manager yelling at you?”

“He was watching his world crumbling down around his ears; can’t blame him too much for trying to fight back with what little he had. She on the other hand was purely in it for the profit, no matter who she had to hurt to get it. Then there’s me. For me to make any profit from him I had to first steal it back from her.”

“Mercenaries all around,” Weaver slowly said.

“Everyone is,” Neal countered. “Would you steal from Cindy if it was the only way Star would eat today?”

“I’d give it to her!” Cindy protested.

“Of course you would, but that’s not the point. Would you take something of Alex’s to save Weaver’s life?”

“Yes.”

“How about to make a couple of quick credits because you’re broke?”

No.”

Neal shrugged. “You sometimes have to look at why someone’s doing something to determine if they’re doing right or wrong by your definition – but it’ll always going to be right by their logic …”

“Then there’s your logic,” Mike countered. “You’re righting a wrong for less than half the cost.”

“All the better for them to be able to afford to buy supplies from me,” Neal countered. “Which was why we came out here in the first place. And that reminds me. Tess? I want one of those merchant sampler containers set up, but I want it in an ugly Plain Jane wrapper.”

“Can do, Boss. Anything special in it?”

“Couple of cases of the better booze for the bar I’d think, and some things for the ladies he needs to beg forgiveness from. Have Nightsky pick out some silks that would complement their furs.”

“What are you up to?” Weaver wondered.

“You just might see if he takes the bait,” Neal said with a smile. “Now, let’s go grab those two rock pushers and get them back to the station.”

* * *

Daniel glared at the screen in front of him. He had been sure that damn mercenary would jack up his rates on the supplies, but he hadn’t. They were reasonable – almost too reasonable to be true. He had other things offered, things they could really use, things he’d have marked as needed if only they’d known they’d have the credits for them. But that wasn’t what was causing the latest glare; that was reserved for the last offering on the last page …

1 Container on Faith 10,000 Credits (I happen to know you can afford it – do you dare pass it by?)

On top of that he’d thrown that cat that had been sniffing around his daughter off the station after he’d knocked Pete to the ground. His daughter then rushing Pete to her room hadn’t helped matters …

* * *

“Heard you and your sweetheart had a falling out,” Neal said as Alex stepped into his dayroom.

“You could say that,” Alex admitted. “She didn’t like how easily I could toss her pet wolf around.”

“Do any real damage?”

“Only to his pride, which if things are going as planned, she’s repairing as we speak. All three of the ladies seemed happy with my work, anything from your side?”

“You made some friends and I think you left them thinking more positive than negative about us, so that’s a win in my book,” Neal told him.

“And I heard we even turned a profit,” Alex joked.

“Which you guys will be sharing in. The last containers are crossing now so we’ll be out of here in just a little while – in case you need to send them one last message.”

“I might just do that,” Alex said with a grin as he turned to go.

* * *

Daniel gulped. It was the last container that had come from the Folly. While all the others had been clean and neatly labeled, this one showed signs of abuse and many half-assed looking repairs. The label plate was blank, but someone had chalked in the word ‘Junk’ on the door panel. He’d wanted to open it without anyone else seeing what a fool that damn mercenary had made of him, but that was not to be either …

“How much did you say he paid for this?” Tash asked from where she stood next to Pete.

“Ten thousand of our credits – on faith it said,” her mother replied.

“I didn’t know Daniel had that much faith in mercenaries,” Copper muttered. “Though if there were any I’d trust …”

“There is that,” Glinda allowed. “Go on, let’s see if he forgave your bluster or rubbed your muzzle in it.”

He’d expected the release to stick and the door to be rusted closed, but it popped with a gentle snap and opened with a touch. Inside were a few pallets, the ones blocking further access were marked ‘Engineering’. Copper hopped on one of the lifts and started pulling them out. There were others marked ‘Bar’ but the last one just said ‘Odd Ends’.

“Makers,” he heard Pete softly say. The bartender had already opened one of the ‘bar’ boxes and was staring at the bottle in his hand.

“Good stuff?” Tash asked.

“If it’s real. You can’t even order this stuff; they sell straight to the high end places,” he told her.

Daniel almost missed Copper’s hiss of “Holy shit!” but he couldn’t miss her shout of glee as she came around her pallet with an open box of computer boards.

“These are those proprietary upgrade boards Tessro had been denying us! How the hell did he know we needed these things?” she demanded. “We’ll be able to almost double our production rate once I repair the radiators and get these installed!”

“The same way,” Glinda said softly from the ‘odd ends’ pallet, “that he knew that some fine silks would help keep my mate from spending the next month or two sleeping on the couch …”

Daniel looked back at the inside of the now empty container. Unlike the exterior, it was as spick and span as the pallets that had come out of it … except there was something there on the floor in the far corner. Just an off-white envelope. Inside it he found a list of orbits, dozens and dozens of them – with mass and yield estimates for the minerals. And a little slip of paper, with a handwritten note.

Coming in we scanned the local rocks and these ‘few’ looked like they ‘might’ be of some interest or use to you and yours. We’ll settle the bill for this when next we meet.

For Profit! (and what we can then do with it!)

That Damn Mercenary Captain

* * *

“So we’re picking those containers back up?” Calmmeadow wondered as the Folly made one more trip back to where a station no longer sat.

“So it seems,” Mike agreed with a grin. “Not only did Tess get every credit she demanded, she even charged extra for having to round them all up.”

“Neal thinks you guys could use the tractor beam practice – and we just got a FTL pulse from Glinda,” Tess told them. “All she sent was: ‘What the hell did you do to him? He won’t stop staring at a piece of paper he found and braying like a jackass!”

“Out with it, Tess, what did you and Neal do to him?” Calmmeadow half demanded.

“Well, the container surprise held several things they needed to run their processing systems more efficiently, and Neal did a complete scan of their new area looking for useful rocks,” Tess admitted. “We actually nudged a couple of the nicer ones towards the station as we were leaving. From what we saw of their engineer, it shouldn’t take her even a week to have everything ready to roll, so they’ll have five extra weeks of production that they wouldn’t have had if everybody had played nice.”

“And the station manager laughing like a loon?” Mike asked.

“Their quota requirements figure in that the systems will at best be running only half the time because of the time it takes to find and move the rocks – and the low yield of most of the rocks they do find. Instead they’ll be starting rock moving six weeks earlier than planned, they now know where to find some of the better rocks, and they will be processing what they do find faster than ever before.”

“So very shortly they’re going to be way ahead of the game,” Mike said with a nod.

“And anything over the quota they can sell for whatever they please,” Tess added. “Which could let them undercut the other station’s profits if they so desire …”

“Which never would have happened if Tessro Mining hadn’t tried to pull a fast one,” Calmmeadow chuckled. “Never get between Neal and his profit!”

 

 


 

4854786G76

 

“So we won’t be able to get out and look around the station?” Shadowcrest was asking as they came out of warp only a few thousand kilometers away from a station. The reason behind their distance from the station became clear as scans showed that they were close to an asteroid belt with the occasional rock or more drifting in random orbits of their own.

“No,” Mike replied. “It’s just an automated station. Neal said the only reason anyone’s even out here is because they wanted to be away from everybody else.”

While his crew talked, Neal was keying something into his control panel.

No notice was triggered on any of the other panels as bays one and five opened and the heavy shuttles Alpha and Baker slipped out. All the way aft at the engineering section two of the large sixty meter pods came loose from their mounts and were pushed away from the ship by tractor beams. As the ship started moving towards the station, the shuttles started heading away – each capturing one of the pods before heading deeper into the system.

With bays once again closed and the shuttles on their way, Neal returned his attention to the slowly closing station. The habitat section of it was less than a quarter of the size of the one trapped inside the secondary hull, but it was still way too large for just one person and most of it was shut down. One corner, though, showed heat and light and moments later they received a comm call.

“Captain Foster, why are you trying to hide yourself from me?” the voice complained.

“Because I’m not alone this time and I know how you are around too many others,” Neal replied.

The voice was silent for almost a minute before saying, “A little too much noise might be better than too long of a silence, Captain. If you would please?”

Neal hit the mute button before saying, “Okay you guys, I don’t want anyone thinking about that goofy smile your adopted mother was wearing the morning after we had the crabs.”

Neal waited until there were several snorts and snickers before he un-muted and dropped the fields.

There was the sound of a sharp breath being drawn. “You – bastard!” the voice finally choked out, but then came a chuckle, which then rolled into the Caitian form of laughter.

“I warned you,” Neal softly said.

“And you are still a bastard, but thank you,” the voice acknowledged. “And as you thought, they made it even harder for me to try to read you.”

“Safer for you that way,” Neal told him.

“Maybe, perhaps,” the voice allowed. “May I see them?”

“They’ll want to see you in return, and I know you didn’t know we’d be visiting you today.”

“Ah, and I worry so little about my looks and manner of dress these days,” the voice agreed. “Nonetheless, if you don’t think I’ll frighten them away.”

“They’ll no doubt be scarred for life,” Neal said as one of the displays changed to the view of the hermit Caitian.

His lion-like mane was wild and unkempt, the rest of the fur they could see was in need of a good brushing and a trim. He looked a rather gloomy fellow – all but his eyes, which seemed to dance with a fire not caused by the lighting.

Those eyes in turn seemed to be darting back and forth as they took in the views Neal was sending him.

“What a fool you are,” he finally said, “Though maybe as foolish as me because I find myself in need of your services.”

“Oh?” Neal said.

“I ‘met’ someone,” he confessed. “Their ship came in in need of repairs and I helped them remotely. They had a daughter that was willing to listen as long as I wanted to speak, and I in turn hung on her every word.”

“You could have gone with them you know,” Neal told him. “It’s not like this place can’t run without you.”

“No,” he said sadly, “No, I couldn’t go with them and she couldn’t stay with me. What I need from you is some kind of a third option.”

“I could move your habitat closer to a FTL network,” Neal suggested.

“No, think again.”

“It may take some time,” Neal warned him.

“Then let it. As your mind seems as hard for me to decipher as ever, why are you here?”

“I had to offload some ballast to save my ship and now I find myself needing to replace it,” Neal told him.

“Ah, then I have something worth trading. Good. What do you need?”

“I need as much of the station mix as you have that’s not already spoken for.”

“Civvy or mil spec?”

“Both if you have them. Fifty meter hexes.”

“What’s the difference?” Dusk asked.

Neal smiled at the Caitian on the screen as he said, “Mil spec has more materials for armor and redundancy. And it gets used as the outer layers on any stations in the more hazardous environments.”

“And all of mine is spoken for,” the Caitian told them. “Though they weren’t planning on collecting it for another six of your Earth months. I could let you have it and just ramp up production so I’ll have enough for them when they do finally get here – if you can make it worth my while.”

“Still thinking,” Neal told him.

“While you’re ‘thinking’, why don’t you introduce us?” Weaver asked with a frown at Neal’s bad manners.

It was the Caitian that replied. “He hasn’t introduced us because he doesn’t know how I wish to be introduced. He knows I don’t like my given name because of all the hatred that has been heaped upon it over the years.”

“What name did you use with that other ship?” Weaver gently asked him.

“Paul,” he admitted. “As none of them were from Cait, I don’t think they ever realized just how strange it would be for that name to be mine.”

“Not that most non-Caitians can properly pronounce most Caitian names in the first place,” Neal muttered loudly enough for the others to hear.

“Why, what do you normally call him?” Weaver asked with a frown.

Her frown deepened as Neal looked at the Caitian on his display with a growing grin at the worried look of the other. “Paul works, too, I guess,” he finally said.

Weaver was just opening her mouth when Paul said, “Don’t say it, Ms. Shortgrass. He’s actually toning it down for you and the kids – as am I.”

“How did you –”

“Know your name?” Paul kindly asked for her. “I’m a telepath, and you and yours are well within my range. Sadly most of my people consider telepaths to be ‘mind stealers’ and other less friendly things. Out here I bother no one and no one bothers me.”

“Except Neal it seems,” she replied.

Paul smiled. “Neal’s mind wanders in enough different directions that I can’t read him well enough for me to consider him to be much of a bother. Besides, if he hasn’t fed them all to you and his new crew he might still have one of those chickens left for me!”

“Five in fact,” Neal told him, “and something we call ‘crab’ that you might also like.”

“Nice bribes, Captain, but I need a little something more,” Paul told him.

“Still thinking,” Neal replied.

“Wait – why are we moving?” Holly called out.

“Because Paul and I both know I’ll be collecting some of those rods, and as this was an unplanned stop we can’t spend a lot of time here,” Neal told her.

“But you haven’t agreed on a price or anything,” she protested.

Paul smiled at her before saying, “I don’t actually own any of this, little one, I’m just a, hmmm, a caretaker if you will. By now Tess has accessed the station’s computers and knows what Neal can safely grab without hurting any of the other projects dependent on these materials.”

“So why all the noise about him having to cut you a deal?” Weaver asked.

“It’s an old game of ours,” Paul admitted. “Though I do hope he can come up with some way for me to communicate with others. I still can’t handle large groups or even small ones that hang around, but I am starting to feel just a little lonely out here.”

In the new silence Tess said, “We can replenish all we used, Boss. I’ve told the station systems to ramp up production; they should be back up to expected surplus levels in three Earth months. Current raw materials are adequate to maintain accelerated production for the next three Earth years. And that doesn’t take into account the rocks the automated pushers are currently moving to the refinery.”

“Go ahead and start loading while I see what we can do to or for Paul here,” Neal replied.

To me? What are you up to you hairless ape?” Paul demanded.

Neal smiled at him. “We both know the more wound up you get the harder I am to read.”

“And those chakats are feeling your humor and getting even louder,” Paul complained.

“That’s because they know the ‘to’ will be something special. Tell me my fuzzy friend, did you by chance remember to put on pants today?”

Why?”

“You’re right, they’d just get in the way,” Neal said with a smile.

“In the way of what?”

“What do you think, Nightsky? There’s enough extra fur there that you could trim him down to look like a cute little teddy bear – or maybe a poodle,” Neal suggested.

“Or maybe even a well-groomed Caitian?” Nightsky replied.

“Don’t you guys have a tub deep enough to dunk a Cait?” Neal asked.

“I even have some fur conditioners from his home-world,” shi told Neal while thinking about what shi had in mind for Paul – knowing that he could read it from hir mind if shi didn’t fight the intrusion.

Paul grinned as he felt the ‘I know that you know that I know you’d probably like a little pampering’ from the cheeky chakat teen. Neal’s mind still held several overlapping thoughts that he couldn’t separate, but he was used to that.

Giving a little snort, Paul said, “Very well, Tess, one to beam over if you would please.”

Neal made a throwaway gesture as he said, “Nightsky, take whomever you need and do a good job on him. You can show the rest of us the results at dinner tonight. All others are released to whatever you were doing, be advised that the secondary hull is now off limits until Tess or I say otherwise.”

“Is the loading really that dangerous?” Weaver asked.

“Not the loading itself,” Neal admitted. “But we’ve lowered the air pressure without increasing the oxygen, so without a breather or a suit you’d pass out as your ears popped. Plus we’ll be losing a little more air every time we pass a load through the air shields.”

Weaver smiled. “I’m sure we can all find things to do well away from your little project.”

* * *

While Nightsky, Weaver and most of his crew went to chat with this new source of possible information, Neal and Tess saw to their loading.

Much as their previous unloading (but much slower), Tess used her tractor beams to pull small groups of the rods up and into her aft port before maneuvering them into the waiting pod.

Neal was going over where the FTL relay nets were – and where they’d be in the next five years.

“No good, Boss,” Tess told him when she saw what he was shifting where on his board. “Even with a full powered station here he wouldn’t be able to maintain a thread, he’s just too far off any of the links.”

“Forget a five by five connection,” Neal told her. “Think a one by one, an intermittent thread that you can sometimes squirt an email through. If I curve this strand over like this it adds just another half light-year between the links without interfering with any of the other links.”

“Maybe, Boss, but that still wouldn’t give him much bandwidth.”

“He’s got zero bandwidth now,” Neal reminded her. “Anything at all will seem like a lot at this point.”

“Even for threads, you’re going to need another where it wasn’t planned,” Tess pointed out.

“I was thinking about this one,” Neal said, tapping one of the icons on his display. “It’s not too big a change and the other links can be worked around it.”

“And where were you going to pull a spare FTL relay out of?” Tess asked. “The spares?”

“No, we already found we needed one,” Neal reminded her. “But the one that we failed …”

“Is expected to be returned so they can figure out why it failed,” Tess reminded him.

“It was just one of the arrays,” Neal pointed out. “We can return the broken bit, and it’s not like he needs an entire relay, just an endpoint.”

“I’d argue that that’s not the way we do things, but you’ve already decided.”

“Yeah, I think I have,” Neal agreed. “The refinery already has the needed power, no need to dip into our other spares.”

“I’ll send Echo and some bots to rig the needed supports and connections on the refinery, and start prepping that relay head,” Tess told him. “Shouldn’t cost us more than an extra hour here and eight more to divert and set up the out of place one.”

“We can adjust our flight times to straighten things out,” Neal agreed.

* * *

Paul had found himself in an empty room next to a large tub. He could sense the others coming and tried to block them a bit more than he had been.

The cheeky chakat was in the lead, followed by six more and the foxtaur vixen carrying her kit. They may have thought his smile was for them, but he’d discovered that the two other males he’d sensed had in turn discovered that Neal was ‘up to something’.

Nightsky was looking him over and said, “Maybe a shampoo and conditioner before we try trimming …”

“And so I can’t as easily escape your questions?” Paul chuckled as he stepped over the tub’s high sill.

* * *

Alex and Mike had retired to the smaller bridge and had noticed that Neal and Tess had one of the smaller pod moving shuttles out helping herd construction rods into the Folly while another was pulling what looked like one of the FTL relay segments out of a pod.

“They used those little remotes the last couple of times,” Mike commented.

“Which means this won’t be a ‘standard’ installation,” Alex agreed. “I wonder why they aren’t using one of the heavies?”

Mike snorted. “Check the power distributions; they’re not in their bays.”

Alex let out a snort of his own. “And we never noticed. Where are they, Tess?”

“In system and taking care of another task since we have to be here anyway.”

“What task?” Mike asked.

“That would be telling,” Tess told them.

“In other words she’s challenging us to figure it out,” Alex chuckled. “If she doesn’t hide too many of the clues from us.”

* * *

It was several hours later that a fairly well dressed – and very well groomed – Caitian walked onto the main bridge. The typical Caitian robes weren’t usually made out of old Earth silk, but Nightsky had whipped up one that complemented his fur coloring while hir victim was still soaking in the tub.

‘Paul’ had had a wisecrack on his lips to use on the ship’s captain, but the mental activity of said captain warned him that at best it wouldn’t be noticed or appreciated, or at worst, disturb whatever said captain happened to be ‘up to’ at the moment.

“That should do it, Boss,” Tess was saying. “If the refinery processing makes a sudden draw, the relay will do a clean disconnect rather than burning out trying to run its systems underpowered.”

“Good enough,” Neal agreed before turning to eye his guest. “It won’t be perfect, but it’ll beat you having to wait for the next random ship to come by.”

“So you already have me connected?” Paul asked in surprised.

“No, we’ll need to drop another relay before anything can reach out this far. We had to play with the settings a bit, the power for the refinery wasn’t designed for this and the refinery has priority on that power.” Looking his guest over he added, “And how was the pampering?”

Paul grinned. “Surprisingly invigorating. You should try it.”

“Maybe later.”

“Later in the day – or later in life? You have too many trust issues, my friend; you always feel you need to be in control of everything happening around you.”

Neal gave Paul a half-shrug before saying, “Too many times not having that control almost got me killed, which is why I have Tess here to help keep me from going overboard on things.”

“Tess isn’t your only ‘keeper’,” Paul reminded him.

“No, but she’s the one on the scene.”

“I sense they have no idea who you really are or what you’re up to?” Paul half asked.

“You’re the mind reader – you tell me,” Neal countered.

Paul smirked as he said, “They know there’s deep water, but they have no idea of the abyss that’s right under their muzzles.”

“And I’d like to keep it that way,” Neal told him. “I’ve watched too many people panic when they descended too far too quickly.”

“One does have to watch out for the undertow,” Paul agreed. “How deep do you intend to take them?”

“I honestly don’t know yet,” Neal admitted. “I was actually a little surprised that not one of them bailed at Parakit.”

“I know – my questions about why you were out here brought a lot of things into their active thoughts. If you’d wanted them gone, you should have kept to your always annoyed and annoying counterpart.” Paul held his hand up to stop whatever Neal was going to say and added, “I know, you can only wear the mask so long before it starts to wear on you in return.”

“That, and it’s hard to fool all the chakats all the time,” Neal chuckled. “One of the younger ones actually invited hirself into my room the very first night.”

Paul shook his head. “Are you sure you are not the one trying to let them in?” he gently asked.

“Maybe,” Neal allowed. “There are some big changes coming up when I finish this little run; maybe I just couldn’t wait that long.”

Paul just smiled. “Either way, they’re starting to get curious. Was there anything you needed from me before we join them?”

“No, I think I’m good. Since I don’t have enough for everyone, you’ll get your chicken dinners ‘to go’. We do have enough crab if you’d like to try it,” Neal suggested.

“From as fondly as the others remember it, I’d be delighted.”

* * *

The dinner went fairly well. Paul answered a few questions for them, but most of the answers made no sense as those listening to the answers could never be sure it was a spoken or unspoken question he was responding to – and if unspoken then from whom.

“Well, that was different,” Calmmeadow commented once ‘Paul’ had been transported back to his station and the teens were comparing notes. “I don’t know if we learned more or actually less from this stop.”

“More questions anyway,” Mike agreed. “Anyone else wonder if Neal dragged us out here just so his friend could ‘read’ us?”

“No, or at least not just for that,” Nightsky replied. “He did need to replace those rods.”

“Paul was amused about the whole thing,” Roseberry told them with a grin. Shi let out a little laugh as shi added, “And he was listening in on us just now! Yup, still amused.”

“I checked after the meal, the heavy lift shuttles are back in their bays,” Alex told them. “Looks like they changed out two of the pods down near engineering.”

“What’s in them?” Mike asked.

“‘None of our business’ it seems,” Alex told him with a grin. “Though whatever it is, it’s used in engineering itself.”

“Maybe when we’re ready for it,” Mike agreed. “I understand we’re heading to where he needs that relay before we head for his next stop.”

The more sensitive of them felt the ship barely shudder as they went to warp.

* * *

Neal had taken a nap once they were in warp, the better to be alert when it came time to deploy the relay.

“Morning, Boss,” Tess cheerfully said as he stepped onto the bridge. “We’re still five minutes away from where you want us to be.”

“Pretests?”

“All passed.”

“Double the fuel load on this one, it’s going to be set up a lot earlier than originally planned.”

“Already anticipated, Boss. Are you going to warn that ship that Paul will now be able to contact them?”

“Why – did you find their link-codes?”

“Paul seems to have thought you might stick your nose in things and put it where I couldn’t miss it.”

“Huh, maybe he’s getting a better read off me than I thought he was. I’m going to have to work on that.”

“Or he knows by now you do what you can to ensure that all parties are happy with the deal you give them,” Tess suggested. “I’ve already had a bot remove that problem strap so we shouldn’t be stopped deploying too long.”

“Or equally unhappy as the cases may be,” Neal agreed. “Depending on the who and the why.”

“Dropping from warp … now. Should I begin the relay deployment?”

“First make sure we can hit Paul’s relay from here – just in case we have to shift this one a bit.”

‘It will take a few minutes for our subspace eddies to clear,” Tess warned him.

“Can’t be helped, once set up I don’t want to have to move it more than we really need to.”

“Okay, I’m getting Paul’s on some of the lower bands; not a great connection, but then again you weren’t expecting one.”

“And the nearest in the chain?”

“Poor, but better than Paul’s for now, and it’ll get better as the chain is filled in.”

“Expected loss with the new positions?”

“Less than one percent, Boss. Drones are pulling out the relay now.”

They worked in silence as they did the needed steps to bring the relay to life. Once active the tests started in earnest as the Folly was moved a few light hours away.

“Still holding steady, Boss. The connections may drop due to weather at or between the points, but I think it’s about as good as you can expect for what you’re making it do.”

“Very well. Try that link they gave Paul.”

The Tied Tigress was a Voxxan-built hull that had been sold to a Rakshan House-run company that had been expanding its space transport branch. She was currently docked at what had become known as the ‘Station of Houses’ orbiting Raksha. The station had been greatly expanded over the centuries, but the core of the station, which had hosted the very first talks between the Rakshani and Caitians – and later those beings from Earth, still remained.

This being their homeport most of the crew were on the planet, leaving just a skeleton crew to minding the store when a call came in.

The Tied Tigress, Baton,” a voice replied in slightly accented Terranglo, which was by far the most commonly spoken language in the Federation.

Neal frowned slightly before replying. The voice gave no hint of gender or even species, a Rakshani would normally have answered with at least their House name as well, and Tess was now flashing a note at the bottom of his screen that the voice was synthesized. “This is Neal of the Folly, we understand you met a Paul out in the middle of nowhere.”

“How do you know of Paul?” the voice asked.

“Because we too dropped in to surprise him. Paul told us he’d made a friend aboard your ship.”

“That is true.”

“May I speak to her for a moment if she’s not too busy?” Neal asked.

A new voice came on the line stating, “This is Captain Silentdrop ap Coldsword na Battlewalker, and I would like to know just what you want with members of my crew.”

Neal smiled a little on hearing the female Rakshani’s growl, this was more like what he’d been expecting. It was also giving Tess still more pointers for her data searches. “Ah, if we’re rolling out titles then this is Captain Neal Foster of the Folly. The reason I’m asking for one of your crew is because they expressed a desire to speak with Paul again – or at least that was his impression at the time, and she did give him the comm code I used to reach you.”

“And your reason for calling?”

“Was to let her know that there is a connection of sorts she can now use to reach him. It isn’t as reliable as we’d like, but it’s better than waiting until the next ship pays him a visit.”

There was silence on the open line for several minutes before the first voice came back.

“How would I contact him?” they asked.

Neal touched a key that then sent a data file down the link. “The first is his link, the second is an FTL link code you should try to reach him on. If the FTL code fails to connect then you can use the regular comms. The last bit will let you query the relays near him to see if the call can go though as it will be spotty at best. I do have one request,” he added.

“And that is?”

“If your willingness to talk with him was only because he was aiding your ship, I only request that you let him down gently when you say goodbye.”

“You think so little of us.”

“No, I know so little of you. But I do know Paul, and how false friends have hurt him in the past,” Neal softly said. “While I don’t know if he’s awake or asleep at this time I do know that link was working as of ten Earth minute ago if you’d like to give it a try,” he suggested.

“We will try now,” the voice told him.

“Thank you,” Neal told them. “While you’re doing that, is your captain still on the line?”

“I am,” Captain Silentdrop admitted.

“If you don’t mind my asking, how did you end up with Merraki on board?”

Silentdrop let out a huff of amusement before saying, “And she told me no one would be able to tell what species she was. How did you?”

“The accent was good, but sexless and too mechanical. That, and if she’d been Rakshan she would have been proud enough to give me her House name.”

“Something for her to work on then,” Silentdrop agreed. “It seems we woke Paul, not that he appears to mind.”

“May I ask, Captain, who supplies your fuel?”

“Our company uses a little outfit called Alamo Antimatter when we can get it, Chakastra Fuels when we can’t.”

“Be advised that Alamo has an automated refueling station in the same system as Paul’s in.”

“So we saw, got warned off though.”

“Like I said, fully automated so there wasn’t anything it could do to help you,” Neal agreed. “Get with your head office and ask them to look into a tier two contract with Alamo. That would give you and your other ships access to their automated refueling stops.”

“Do you work for them?”

“No, but I do like to get fuel from them, and I know the higher tier gets a better deal on their fuel.”

“And we could stop off and Baton could pay Paul a visit,” Silentdrop allowed.

“You do know of Paul’s Talent?” Neal asked.

“Yes, he admitted it when explaining why he couldn’t join us.”

“If you’re anywhere in his system then you’ll be close enough for him and Baton to ‘visit’.”

“Thank you, Captain Foster, I hope that we can meet sometime.”

“I should be thanking you and Baton for pulling Paul out of his shell,” Neal replied. “As for meeting, well, it’s a small universe.”

The Tied Tigress, clear.”

Folly, clear,” Neal said as he dropped the link. “Okay, Tess, get us moving. We don’t want Lost Path to think we’ve forgotten about them.”

 

 


 

Seeking a New Path

 

The sun of the Carlsbad system was large but dim, placing the sun’s ‘habitable zone’ planets well within the sun’s gravity well and thus it kept ships from getting too close to them while still in warp. This forced several extra hours of travel time for those trying to enter or leave the system.

“We came out right at the gravity well limits,” Tess reported as Folly dropped from warp. “And the Lost Path is only a light minute away,” she added.

“Bump us at her and send Captain Albedo my greetings,” Neal told her.

“Message sent. As this area is a bit ‘dusty’ I won’t take us over twenty percent,” Tess told him as the Folly jumped to a fifth of the speed of light.

A quick five minutes later and Folly’s warp fields kicked in to kill most of her movement in relation to the other ship, leaving them to slowly drift towards each other. The Lost Path was one of the more standard pod carrying freighters with ten rings of sixteen pod docks per ring, a bridge/crew compartment forward and engineering aft.

Folly, this is Lost Path,” came from the communications panel a moment later. “How did you want to meet up?”

“Captain’s compliments and whichever way you’d like, Lost Path. That includes a direct dock; our tractor beams can hold us all steady enough,” Tess replied.

“You say that like you’ve done all this before.”

“We have,” she assured them. “Haven’t unintentionally bent or broke anything all this week.”

After a moment Lost Path replied, “My skipper would like the direct dock and would like to know if you have any amenities worth bragging about.”

“Sorry, nothing to brag about, but we did recently add a holosuite big enough for all of ours and all of yours.”

“Well, we happen to have a rather good chef – if you can scrounge up the ingredients he needs!”

“I’ve always been told that the sign of a great chef is them being able to make a masterpiece out of whatever was available,” Tess countered.

“Like I said, he’s good, not a grand master or something.”

“Still more than we can lay claim to, so I’m sure he – and the rest of you – will be more than welcome.”

Thrusters flared and died as the larger ship twisted and shifted in such a way that would put the Lost Path’s nose right up against one of the eight docking ports ringing the second sphere’s circumference. Tractor beams locked on the smaller ship’s hard-points and a short docking tube was extended and locked onto the airlock.

The airlocks opened at almost the same time, a tall male arctic wolf morph and small Voxxan female leading a large group on one side, and a lone pair of taur youths on the other.

“Trusting souls,” the wolf muttered looking down at their escorts.

“Not really,” the chakat of the taur pair replied with a grin as the tip of one of hir pain sticks was suddenly inches from the wolf’s nose pad, the slight static charge teasing the fur on his muzzle warning him that this was not a toy being waved in his face. The tip disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared, the pain stick again hanging seemingly harmlessly from hir belt. “While our captain allows some trust, more has to be earned as he says.”

Holly grinned at the byplay between Quickdash and the wolf before saying, “Captain Albedo, if you will come with me; Quick here will lead your crew to the holosuite.”

“If your Captain Foster doesn’t mind, I’d like my first officer to join us,” the Voxxan replied.

“Of course,” Holly said before turning. “His dayroom is this way.”

Behind the tall first officer had been a slightly shorter but more massive rusty colored wolf morph that grinned down at Quickdash. “Hey, youngin, I’m Sergio, Lost Path’s chief cook and bottle washer.” A little sterner he added, “And I don’t need a demonstration of how quick you might be with your little toys.”

Quickdash just grinned before turning to lead him and those behind him to the holosuite.

* * *

“Captain Neal Foster, may I present Captain Finks Albedo and her first mate Spencer McGrowl,” Holly said as she stopped just inside Neal’s dayroom.

Neal had stood up as they entered, trading arm-clasps with the Voxxan and a handshake with the wolf morph. “Captain Albedo, Mister McGrowl,” he said before waving them to seats in front of his desk.

As Neal sat down his guests were noticing his desk. It wasn’t a large desk, not one that would go with someone that thought they were more important than anyone that might be called before it. There were the noticeable studs where holographic displays and keyboards would appear at need, but all of that was off and out of the way.

“Have you picked one or more of the routes I offered?” Neal asked once they were all seated.

Both of his guests frowned at him, but it was Captain Albedo that finally replied.

“I have a question first if you don’t mind,” she said. “Why did Thirteen Star Bank send us to you?”

Neal snorted softly before saying, “Most likely because I do a lot of business through them, and they know that I sometimes overextend myself, which means they would suspect that I’d have a few stops I could shed which would actually help me more than it would hurt me.”

Spencer frowned as he said, “The problem is that none of your offered routes is really what we’re after.”

Neal gave him a small shrug before saying, “Those were ‘offers’ only, if you have a better plan then you’re free to take it.”

“We don’t,” Spencer admitted, “but we need something extra.”

“Such as?” Neal asked.

Finks smiled slightly. “It seems I now have an eager and rather hungry crew, Captain. One that doesn’t want a milk run and wants to be pushed so they can prove to me and everyone else just how good they are.”

“And be kept out of the clutches of Whyite Enterprises,” Spencer added. “While they no longer have any legal claims on Lost Path, they’ve been known to play dirty whenever and wherever they can.”

Neal chuckled as he said, “I’ve had a taste of their overreaching as well, so I can completely understand your reasoning.” Looking thoughtful he said, “Tell you what; I understand your cook has offered up his services, so why don’t we all share a meal and play in the holosuite while I see what I can cook up for such a hungry captain and her crew.”

Holly had been waiting quietly out of the way while things were being discussed. She now got up to lead their guests to the holosuite.

“What are you thinking, Boss?” Tess asked once the door had closed.

“If they’re really that hungry, and they wish to stay off Tung’s radar, then we need a task that keeps them away from most ports for the next couple of years or so.”

“Hard to pick up and deliver goods without going into ports,” Tess reminded him.

“Ah, but that’s not the only thing that we happen to be doing out here, now is it?” Neal said with a smile. “With their systems, how long do you think it’d take them to deploy one of those relays?”

Tess was only silent a few seconds before saying, “Working shifts, I expect four days for the first ones, they might get it down to two days once they know the job.”

“And if we just happen to end up with a ship dedicated to just the relay deployment?”

“It could cut over a year off the five year plan – if they stick to it.”

“I have this funny feeling those two might just be willing to go the distance,” Neal said as he got up.

* * *

There was a scent of salt in the air when the holosuite doors opened for Neal a few minutes later, salt, smoke and scorched meat.

Palm trees had replaced the pine and it was a black sandy beach with tall dunes. Night had fallen and tiki torches now lined a path leading between the dunes to where the others had gathered.

It seemed that Lost Path’s chef had started cooking as quickly as the needed supplies could be placed in his hands, as he was already serving up chunks of meat onto the plates of eager eaters.

“You’d better hurry if you want any,” Weaver called out to him from where she sat with several adult chakats and two foxtaurs Neal hadn’t seen before.

“Oh, he was safe enough,” the rusty colored wolf morph called back with a laugh. “My skipper would skin me alive if I let your skipper go hungry – especially if he then gives us a bum deal in return!”

Neal smiled as he was handed a large plate with a good-sized chunk of meat and a couple of grilled ears of corn.

There was very little talking going on; most were too busy enjoying the meal to converse.

Conversation did pick up as bellies were filled, even the chef sitting down to join them.

Once everyone seemed to be done, Neal stood and walked over to where the grills had sank into the sand when no longer needed. His own crew looked attentive, the visitors a bit more intense.

“Your captain tells me you guys are hungry for more than just a meal, something challenging, something worthwhile. She also tells me she’d like to keep certain parties from playing any games with her or hers,” Neal told them. “I do have a little something in mind – but it might be more than you or your captain was expecting.”

“Let us decide if it’s too much,” Captain Albedo requested from where she sat between her first officer and chef.

“So be it,” Neal agreed. Borrowing a little theatrical license he reached up into the air and pulled down – bringing the night stars closer to them. A second ‘pull’ brought them down low enough that the others could see that it was now a 3D star chart with the inhabited worlds highlighted.

“It’s not widely known yet, but there’s a new FTL comm network being set up. It’s not widely known for two reasons. First because the owners of the current network would do everything in their power to keep their little monopoly unchallenged, which means the best time to get it in place is before they know anything’s happening. Second, this new network will not only connect to everyplace the current network does, but a lot of places that were never able to get a connection.”

As Neal had been talking Tess had been adding colored strings of dots to show the old and soon to be new FTL relay links.

“Another problem with the current setup is that the relays are running at max capacity most of the time, making large low priority data actually cheaper to transfer by ship. They’ve made noises about upgrading their networks, but they’d much prefer the Federation government foot the bill rather have it come out of their profits.”

“And this network will undercut them,” Spencer said from beside his captain. “Forcing them to lower their rates and lose their profits.”

Neal shrugged. “If they’d invested even ten percent of those profits into upkeep and upgrades there’d be ten times the relays out there than there are, and there’d be no reason to add a second.”

“So how does all this help us?” the arctic wolf wondered.

Neal grinned. “One, if you’re doing nothing but setting up relays there are no ports to call on, so Tung and Whyite Enterprises can’t find – much less bother – you. Two, you’ll have to be a little discreet about it, but you’ll have a link to the rest of the Federation most of the time; so online classes, comm calls and news won’t be a problem for you. Three, this job can go as fast or as slow as you need it to. While you’ll be paid by the relay, the job will demand you do the job right. Four, if you’re doing relays exclusively, then I understand the business conglomerate doing all this will also cover your fuel and food expenses. Five, if you sign onto this for the long haul there are a few other fringe benefits.”

“Such as?” Sergio asked from his captain’s other side.

“Such as being able to order up anything that hungry crew of yours needs when your supply ship brings you your next set of relays,” Neal told him. “And if your captain worries overmuch about you guys climbing the walls without frequent port calls, I’m sure you and your fellow crew can convince her to ask for a holosuite kit,” he added, twirling a finger to indicate the room they were in.

“Just how often would we be resupplied?” Spencer asked.

Neal shrugged. “That would be up to you. Each relay will take up three of your cargo pod docking ports, enough fuel for six relays will take up another, the remote drones have their own pod for storage and recharging, so forty-two relays and their gear would tie up all but a handful of your ports. In theory you wouldn’t need resupply until you run out of relays; though I should stress again that doing the job right has a higher priority than doing it fast.”

“How fast have you been doing them?”

“First remember that I’m making use of a processor heavy AI to monitor thousands of things at once,” Neal warned them. “Tess, how long did our last two relays take once we were onsite?”

“Two and a half hours on one, just over three on the other because your crew in training had a few questions, Captain.”

“Thank you, Tess. Doing them manually I’m guessing it’ll take you four to six days to do the first few, two to three and a half days each once you get in the grove,” Neal told them.

Spencer looked thoughtful as he said, “And if we’re doing a string it’ll be less than a shift in warp from one site to the next, so a minimum of about a hundred days.”

“If your captain is running you guys flat out – which I’m hoping she won’t be doing,” Neal replied. “Even the best crews need their down time.”

“I won’t be,” Captain Albedo told him. “Tung taught me the errors of those ways.”

“Is that a ‘yes’?” Neal asked.

“I believe it is.”

“In that case I have a dozen relays to get you started, and one other little fact I didn’t want clouding your judgment.”

“And that is?”

“That your friend Tung and Whyite Enterprises have heavy ties with the current FTL conglomerate and they aren’t going to like what you’ll be doing one little bit!”

* * *

“Any idea why they broke them up and stuffed them into pods like that?” Captain Finks Albedo asked of her first officer as they watched from one of Folly’s observation ports as tractor beams shifted pods over to the Lost Path.

“Assembled they’d only need two pod tie-down points,” Spencer agreed, “but it’d be obvious what they were – and that would alert other parties to what’s going on.”

“Why did you and Sergio come back? I know you two had a better offer.”

“And that offer will still be there when we’re ready to take it,” Spencer told her. “But Sergio and I weren’t going to just leave our favorite captain stranded. You’ve got your ship back and a whole new crew. Sergio and I just want to make sure you and they can handle things before we make any other plans.”

“I’m not some still wet behind the ears captain that needs to be led everywhere.”

“No, but you have a brand new crew with more than a few rough edges. Give me and Sergio a little time to smooth some of those edges and see if any of them has what it takes to make you a good first officer.”

“I still don’t know why you two stuck it out with me,” Finks softly murmured.

“Because we saw your potential and knew you were getting a bum rap with Tung. Tung no longer has a leash on you, we’ve been paid and your future looks bright. Why wouldn’t we want to make sure it is what it seems before seeing what other trouble we can get ourselves into?”

“You’re sure that the offer will wait for you?”

“Our interview was with a squirrel named Bunsten. When we declined his offer he asked why and we told him. Damned if that didn’t make him all the more eager to have us once we were sure you would be okay.”

“What was the job – if I might ask?”

“A freighter like this, but more a training ship. We’d be breaking in people to assume slots in ships being brought on line and those that have slots to fill.”

“You as the captain?”

Spencer chuckled. “That’s the funny part, I’ll take the role of an acting captain when needed, but captains were one of the things Bunsten was hoping we’d be training …”

Finks turned to glare at her first officer, who took it without flinching.

You weren’t ready for your own ship when you started, you didn’t have a long enough view to see where some of your choices might lead you. That said, you didn’t do half bad, not until Tung caught you.”

“And you had warned me …”

“That I did, but the deal looked too sweet and you went and put your head in that noose.” Spencer frowned as he said, “I knew she was poison, I should have argued harder against you signing that contract, but I didn’t. So all we could do was ride it out and see if the light at the end of the tunnel was freedom – or an oncoming dragon.”

“Dragon?”

“An old Earth fantasy creature from long before morphs, an overgrown flying lizard that could belch fire and would think the likes of you or I would make a crunchy snack.”

“So, is this freedom or the dragon?” she half asked.

“Your ship is still deeply in debt,” Spencer pointed out. “But they’re going easier than I would have expected on the payment plan. And we’ve got what looks like a very good paying job to start making a dent in that debt. We’re free to go find something else, but I don’t think you’ll find anything better.”

“And you don’t think this is another ‘too good to be true’ noose that I’m pulling over my head?”

“I’ve heard many rumors about an ‘Old Man Foster’ – and this grandson of his. There are bad ones as well as good ones. Did you happen to notice his ‘crew’?”

“I’d more believe that those were the real crew’s dependents playing at the part,” Finks told him.

“Actually they were stowaways,” Spencer told her. “And yet here he is treating them like a real crew. We got those two youths because they happened to be the first ones to volunteer to escort us.”

“That little chakat was pretty cocky.”

“Being a cook, Sergio gets to hear stories that won’t be told around officers like us. Seems the kid stopped a mugging with hir little sticks, so there may have been less ‘cock’ in hir greeting than we might have thought.”

“Armed stowaways.”

“Armed trusted stowaways. And they in turn seem to be trusting him.”

“So don’t believe everything I hear.”

“Well, not everything anyway; and don’t forget that he seems to be doing some of this to spite Tung.”

Indicating the relay pods being attached to their ship Finks said, “To whoever planned this thing, Tung wouldn’t even register on their radar, much less be a cause of concern.”

“True,” Spencer allowed as they continued to watch the loading.

* * *

“Loading complete and confirmed by Lost Path,” Tess informed her captain and crew. “Lost Path confirms all of their crew accounted for. None of ours are missing.”

“All Neal needs is more stowaways,” Brighteyes said with a laugh.

“Both ships report good seals; I am venting the docking tube. No venting detected from the hatches; releasing docking tube clamps and retracting tube. Tractor beams have been released and thrusters are pushing us away from Lost Path.”

“May you have a good flight, Lost Path. Do the first ten and then call that link I gave you if you wish to continue,” Neal said over the open comm link.

“Thank you, Folly. Will we be running into you again?” Captain Albedo’s voice asked.

“I’ve learned to never bet against it,” Neal replied. “As vast as space is there are so few points of interest.”

“Smooth sailing, Folly.”

Will we be seeing them again?” Weaver asked once the connection was terminated.

“No telling,” Neal told her. “Though Tess will be keeping an eye out for them.”

“Oh?”

“They’ll be starting at one end of a chain and adding links to it. We’ll know there’s something wrong if a week passes and there’s no new links in the series.”

“So you’ll be watching them one way or another?”

“Someone will. We wouldn’t want another Tung to try to sink them again,” he said as the Lost Path made the first of their warp pulses that would take them far enough out to go to warp.

“Alright, Tess, as we don’t have any business for the planet, so just give us a slow approach to Carlsbad Station timed so we get there in our ‘morning’.”

“Can do, Boss, and I’ll have our local ‘sales agent’ ready when you guys get up.”

 

 


 

Playing the Game

 

“The rules of this game are as simple as chess or Go; how the pieces are moved about is quickly learned and easy to understand,” Neal was telling those that had shown an interest in his business of shipping goods across the space lanes. “And sometimes it’s even easier than tic-tac-toe when the goods have already been paid for and all you’re doing is moving them from point one to point two.”

“I don’t consider chess or Go to be simple,” Alex countered.

“Nor is this, really,” Neal acknowledged with a grin. “The basic rules look simple enough, but buying and selling on a large and ever-changing market can leave even a chess master shaking their head in frustration.”

“Buy low, sell high,” Brighteyes injected.

“You might think so,” Neal agreed with another grin, “but there are other things that can be even more important than at what price you bought or sold something.”

“Shipping costs?” Calmmeadow asked.

“Figuring the true shipping costs can be an art form all of its own,” Neal told hir. “Before you even consider the asking price, you have to be thinking of who you might be able to sell it to – and for how much. Then you can figure in the shipping costs – which can become much higher if that’s the only reason you’re going to that particular port.”

“And the time,” Alex added.

“Just so,” Neal said with a nod. “There are more than a few things that you’d lose money shipping – even if you got it for free.”

“Name one,” Cindy asked.

“Wheat,” Neal told her. “Nearly every planet grows some type of it, so it’s readily gotten locally.”

“But I thought you said you had some,” Brighteyes wondered, sounding confused.

“I have quite a bit in fact,” Neal admitted. “But I carry it ‘just in case’, not because I expect to be able to sell it at any real profit.”

“In case of what?”

“In case something has wiped out part or all of someone’s harvest. Or in case a station hasn’t seen a good offer for it in a while. One other thing is that it can be that first sale that starts the deals rolling.”

“Meaning you might then be able to sell some of your more profitable stuff to them as well,” Weaver suggested.

Neal nodded. “Often the trick is making that first sale; the rest will then follow a lot easier.”

“Unless someone thinks they smell a con job,” Alex pointed out.

“Which is why I mainly deal fairly with those that I see dealing fairly with me and others,” Neal told them. “On the other hand, screw with me and I’ll show you games you’ve never dreamed possible,” he added with an evil grin.

“Anything for a profit?” Weaver asked with a small frown.

“Not always,” Neal said with a shake of his head. “Sometimes you have to step in before a bad situation can get any worse.”

“Care to give us an example?” she asked.

“Hmmm. Let’s say Cindy and Alex were scamming some of the other kids out of their hard-earned funds. I could just let it ride as it’s no skin off my nose who might be losing or gaining a handful of credits. Or as their adopted father I could lay down the law. Or to teach them a lesson I might try to scam them out of the credits they’ve made from the others. Or, if I’m trying to stay out of it as far as all parties are concerned but still blow the deal, I might try to trip up the scam just enough that the marks smell a rat and don’t fall for it.”

“Not that I would ever try to scam any of my little sisters …” Alex proclaimed with a grin.

“Not unless you were sure you could get away Scot free,” Brighteyes countered with a matching grin.

“Is that a challenge?” he countered, his grin growing into a leer.

Neal half chuckled as he shook his head at them. “I would request that you not con each other, but a con isn’t much more than a bet that one person thinks will favor them while the other is pretty sure it won’t.”

“So we have your permission?” Calmmeadow asked with a grin of hir own.

Neal’s smile held another hint of evil in it as he said, “With this warning: if it gets too extreme or too one-sided, then I’ll be free to con the swindlers, and I just happen to have Tess to help make the facts change in a heartbeat.”

“Even if no one’s trying to con anyone else, there’s a lot to buying, selling and trading,” Tess warned them. “I’m still sometimes surprised at what will make someone reject a perfectly good offer – or snap up an obviously bad one.”

“Tess’ll work up some exercises for those of you interested in trying your hands at trading. They’ll include the usual base costs, shipping costs, and possible value at our different ports of call. Then you’ll battle each other to get the best deals. You guys do well and maybe I may not have to argue with the ones that refuse to talk to Tess.”

As Tess had brought them into port last ‘night’, Carlsbad Station was now about ready for business hours to start and some of the teens were looking forward to trying out their new skills.

* * *

Folly procurement, this is Alex, how may I help you?” Alex politely asked the mouse morph on his screen.

“Henry of The Thyme,” the mouse replied. “I’ve forwarded what we’d like to buy, but your offered prices are a bit much for a new startup to stomach.”

While no Gateway to Chakona, Carlsbad was a rather large space station with hundreds of small to large shops and restaurants, never mind the station’s core needs. Alex grinned slightly as some new data popped up on his screen; it seemed the shop owner had been betting that a new ship just into port wouldn’t know all that much about any particular shop. But Alex had Tess on his side, and she seemed to live for digging up random and sometimes useful data.

“Are you buying all this for another shop then?” Alex inquired while acting surprised. “The Thyme’s ads brag about celebrating their twentieth year in business this week.”

“Uh, I …” was all the mouse got out before Alex shook his head.

“A hundred-forty-three-thousand is a reasonable asking price for your order,” Alex told him. “If that is too much for you, you may withdraw the order and just order what you can afford. And I will give you one piece of friendly advice. You may have noticed the time limits on the current prices?” At Henry’s nod, Alex continued, “My captain hates the mad dash of trying to complete last minute orders, so the closer to our departure time, the higher our prices will be.”

“Most ships lower theirs,” Henry pointed out.

Alex shrugged and then grinned. “If you look out the window, you’ll see this isn’t most ships, and I’m still discovering how different our captain can be when he wants to be. Now, were you interested in our merchandise at the listed prices, or would you prefer I delete your current request and let you place a fresh order?”

The mouse let out a silent sigh before saying, “As is, at your advertised prices …”

“Thank you, sir. Your order should be hitting the docks sometime in the next two hours. Will there be anything else?”

Folly procurement, this is Cindy, how may I help you?” she politely asked from a couple of consoles over, the German shepherd morph on her screen glaring back at her.

“This is Admiral Q. You will get me your captain so I can tell him how ludicrous his so-called prices are,” he demanded with a sneer.

Cindy faintly smiled; her training with Tess had included this type of caller as well. “The captain is currently busy with matters of his ship. As you didn’t wish to deal with our sales agent, I will be dealing with you for any matters of buying or selling.”

“Unacceptable! You will get your captain on this line now!” he bellowed.

While she could ‘escalate’ the call if she felt the need, Cindy saw no reason to as yet. That didn’t mean she wasn’t going to react to his tone and manner. “As that won’t be happening, was there anything else I can do for you?” she asked with more than a bit of frost to her voice.

“YOU WILL GET ME YOUR DAMN CAPTAIN NOW, BITCH!” he screamed at her.

Cindy was about to snap back, but a message flashed on her screen so instead she took a deep, calming breath before saying, “Please hold for the captain.”

“NO! YOU WILL NOT PUT ME ON H–” the shepherd managed to get out before the screen blanked.

“Tess?” Cindy asked, as she hadn’t hit the hold button.

“There’s no need for any of you to put up with personal attacks,” Tess reminded her. “As he didn’t mute his end, I’m still recording quite a string of profanity out of that wannabe self-proclaimed admiral.”

“Was he someone I should have forwarded to Neal?”

Tess snickered through the speaker. “Oh hell no, as Neal would tell you. Admiral Q’s may think itself a high-end restaurant, but that so-called admiral has never held any rank in any of the service databases I can search, and other than being ‘nose out of joint’ posh, there’s nothing all that special about his restaurant.”

“So he’s just a blowhard,” Cindy surmised.

“You’ll find them out there,” Tess warned her. “Trust me, had he been someone even remotely important, I would have let you know.”

“Thanks, Tess. Any more calls I can take?”

“No, Alex snagged the last of the current group, and he and Calmmeadow are the only ones still on a call. As soon as they’re done I’ll let the captain know and you guys will have dinner on the station. Dress will be casual, so what you’re wearing is fine.”

* * *

Though the captain had said that it would be casual dining, most of his crew used the event to dress up a bit. For most of them that meant dressing up in some of the fine silks Chakat Nightsky had been making for them, though Neal had opted for one of his regular station outfits for this particular outing. Closer to the docks were the cheaper eateries and shops most crews would have used. Neal led them past these and then beyond those catering more towards the passengers of visiting ships. Weaver had eyed him questioningly as they continued past these and into the more posh sections of the station. Cindy let out a soft snort when she saw their destination come into view.

They had already received looks suggesting they weren’t expected – nor really wanted anywhere near these high-end establishments, the maître d’s glare suggested they wouldn’t be welcome at ‘Admiral Q’s’ either. Neal ignored all that and walked into the entrance.

“And just what do you want?” she sneered at him.

Neal leered at the teenaged German shepherd morph as he said, “Foster, party of seventeen.”

“You don’t have a reservation,” she said without bothering to look.

“Then write us up one, bitch. How hard can it be?” he quipped back.

“Bitch? I’ll show you BITCH! SECURITY! GET THEM THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”

Neal smiled as she continued screaming for security to remove them. Not seeing any signs that she was going to run down – or change her mind – anytime soon, he shrugged and turned, waving his crew to retreat.

A group of overdressed Caitians were approaching as they turned to go. Neal grinned as he shook his head at them. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” he told them with a laugh, “she’s in a real bitchy mood tonight.”

“What was that all about?” Weaver didn’t quite demand once they were around the first corner.

Neal grinned. “Tess had told me about her father screaming and calling Cindy a bitch earlier, so I thought I’d see how much his daughter liked it. And as that blowhard had demanded to speak with me; it’s not my fault his daughter wouldn’t let me in. Tess, save a recording of that if you would.”

“If that ‘mighty full of himself’ Q screams at my recording again, may I switch to his daughter’s sweet voice for the hold music?” Tess sweetly asked.

“No, I want to save it as an unpleasant surprise for him.”

“Gotcha, Boss. Where to next?”

“Now that I have my petty revenge accomplished, I think you said your data pointed out a couple of nicer places to eat?”

“The nearer of which is only fifty meters away, Boss. If you’ll take this next left …”

* * *

‘Jumpin’ Jo’s’ looked to be about mid-classed as the establishments went, and the low but noticeable noise coming from it suggested that it was a lot more family-friendly than the one they’d been refused admittance. While what looked like the headwaiter looked welcoming enough, he was frowning as he appeared to be doing a quick headcount.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he told Neal, “but there will be a slight delay to seat such a large group.”

“We can make the room!” a very small fox vixen boasted from behind him.

“You sure, Keitha?” he countered.

“Bet me!” she dared him.

“You’re on,” he agreed, and she disappeared back inside. “I love how often that little scamp proves me wrong,” he told them with a lopsided grin.

“What’s the bet?” Neal wondered.

“Only a credit,” he admitted, “but it’s the bragging rights Keitha’s after.”

It looked like Keitha’s bragging rights were intact as moments later she waved them in and they saw that she was having a couple of patrons change tables, but it soon became apparent that she’d missed one little stumbling block.

What sounded like an old air raid siren spooling up was heard from around the corner Keitha had just gone. Heading around the same corner, Neal and Weaver found Keitha speaking to a young Caitian mother as her three or four-year-old daughter drew breath for another wail.

“I’m sorry,” Keitha was quickly telling them. “The mother doesn’t mind changing tables, bu–” before the wailing overran her voice.

“Understood,” Neal’s sharp voice cut through even the wail, momentarily startling the cub to silence. “And there’s really no reason to make them move,” he said a little quieter into the new silence.

The child still wore a pout that warned that there was another wail waiting in the wings, her mother looked worried, and from the corner of his eye Neal could see several chakats starting to stand and gather up their meals. He waved them down without looking directly at them, and then he waved the mother back down with a small bow before sitting at the table across from the cub.

“No one’s going to move you, little one,” he said in semi-passable Ratarsk, both the cub and her mother’s eyes opening wide at being addressed in their native tongue. “But my crew is very hungry; may we perhaps share your table?” In Terranglo he quickly added, “Quick? Holly? Front and center please.”

The chakat and foxtaur youths were quickly by his side, the Caitian cub looking at them in wonder.

“I promise they’ll behave,” Neal told the cub’s mother as he stood, the youths keeping the cub’s attention.

“My daughter loves watching the ships while we eat,” she said in way of explanation.

“Ah,” said Neal, as he noticed that their travels had taken them far enough around the station and the large view port just happened to be facing in the right direction. “In that case, we can offer you both a dinner and a show. Tess? Give us a little light if you would please.”

“Sure thing, Captain,” his comm badge replied.

There was no change for a moment, and then all the windows on the middle sphere opened and lit up at once. Most of them then faded away, leaving only a few lit, which then started to fade as others brightened. Patterns and colors began emerging from the flowing lights, some moving quickly about the ship while others slowly drifted from one place to another as their colors shifted.

“Good luck getting her to eat now,” Neal chuckled before he found a chair at a neighboring table.

The young Caitian did eventually eat, though it may have confused other watchers when the light display suddenly changed to Caitian script scrolling across to say ‘No more unless you eat your dinner!’

Despite being quite busy, the staff was friendly and quick and the food was good.

“I’m glad we didn’t get in at that first place,” Weaver admitted. “I don’t think the kids would have liked staying prim and proper this long.”

Neal snorted. “If they’d have even gotten to the second course by now. Heh, we’d probably have starved to death waiting to be served.”

“Then why were you trying to get in there?”

Neal smiled. “I was just checking things over. Even though owners change and shops open and close, you still hear rumors of where to go – and where not to, and why. Q likes to badger shippers and make unreasonable demands. He’s good friends with some of the station management, so he gets away with it more than he really should.”

“So you deliberately crossed him to get a reaction?”

“Not at all. My prices are in keeping with what any other ship would charge; in fact ninety-seven percent of my sales here went through Tess and her computerized ordering system without a hitch. Of the rest, only a handful needed more than Tess’s voice to close the deal. But Q thought to try to bully his way through the system. When Cindy didn’t fold, he went from asking to demanding ‘the captain’. Sadly for him, he’s just a very small fish in just a little pond to what I normally deal with.”

“So you don’t deal with small fry?” Weaver asked.

“Oh, I deal with small fry all the time,” Neal countered. “Heck, if you figure credits earned versus time spent earning them, I spend most of my time dealing with the small fry. What I don’t deal with is assholes that think it’s their God-given right to get a better deal than everyone else. Q didn’t ask if he could speak to a supervisor about it, he demanded that the captain of the ship drop everything else he might be doing and see to his needs that very instant. That I won’t put up with, and normally Tess simply gives them one warning before she stops taking their calls.”

“How do you even stay in business?” Calmmeadow asked from the next table over. “I’d think buyers wouldn’t put up with that.”

“Because my prices are normally the same or better than anyone else can offer. Plus the word gets out ‘Be an asshole with Foster and he’ll just close up shop and refuse to do business with you.’ It only takes one or two of those and the rest quickly get the message.”

“But still …”

“Did Q’s get our business today?” Neal asked. At hir headshake he continued, “Knowing what you now know, would you want to try there tomorrow? Do you think your friends would go if you told them about how they reacted?”

Neal grinned as shi and several of the other kids shook their heads. “Now, if you knew someone had stood up to them, how would you deal with them?”

“Wouldn’t it look like two guys fighting and you can’t tell who is in the right?” Quickdash asked.

“Not quite,” Neal told hir. “There are all those others the Folly has already dealt with at this stop. Millions of credits have been exchanged buying and selling, and out of all that only one person thought they had cause to scream at one of my sales assistants? How can anyone with a thinking mind automatically believe that one is in the right?”

“But he might be – you’ve taught us that,” shi protested.

“Yes, but only after you check the facts,” Neal agreed. “Now, if you’d seen the recording of him screaming at Cindy, what would you think?”

“That he was in the wrong,” shi admitted.

“Which is why Tess saves all our communications traffic. While I can refuse to deal with whoever I like, having a reason for it helps if he tries to get the station’s authorities involved with what is really a personal dispute.”

“He’s getting desperate, Boss,” Tess chimed in. “I’ve been dropping his connection every time he turns away or tries to place it on hold – or when he tries to have someone else sit there to hold the line open.”

Neal grinned as he told the others, “Which means Tess has all but tied him to that comm channel and he can’t be bothering anyone else. Heh, some might even think that we’re performing ‘a service to the community’ by keeping this Q out of everyone’s hair.”

“It gets even better, Boss,” Tess informed them. “As your original pricing guide has expired, I’ve tripled the amounts as your standing policies required. For your entertainment – and because I know how much you love messing with others – I saved him ‘shitting a brick’ when he saw the new prices.”

“Watch the language a little more when we’re out in public, Tess. And how much time is left on the current prices?”

“Sorry, Boss, I’ll remember. Two hours.”

“Gives us time and a little shopping and sightseeing before we head back to the ship. Times ten when the current price expires. We should be leaving a few hours after that.”

“Thirty times the base offer in two hours, aye, Boss.”

“Hey, Dad?” Alex called from one of the neighboring tables, “Did you know they don’t offer Fosters beer here?”

“Not everyone does,” Neal called back.

“Ah, but it’s not that. Seems someone you’ve already run into has a forced monopoly on it around here.”

“Really? Hmmm, can’t say I mind doing a little monopoly busting – especially if that’s who we’ll be going up against,” Neal agreed. Seeing Keitha nearby, he called out, “Little Keitha, I have a bet for you!”

“What kind of bet and how much?” the small vixen demanded as she came over to Neal’s table.

“Your standard one credit,” Neal told her. “As to the bet; it is if you get this restaurant’s purchasing agent in here, not only will they buy what I have to offer, but that the purchase will then make you a lot more work.”

Keitha frowned. “If you’re trying some kind of con …”

“Then you win the bet of one credit – and my tip will match the costs of our meal,” Neal countered.

Keitha glared at him for a moment as if trying to read his true intentions before she turned and scurried towards the back of the restaurant.

“Boss, this may not have been the best place to do this. While they have a good product and plenty of clients, they’re running on a shoestring here, they literally won’t be able to afford even a pallet of Fosters.”

“Thanks for the warning, Tess; but as you know, I’ll sometimes accept a loss to get the ball rolling if it means a possible gain down the road.”

“I know, Boss. I just thought I’d better warn you just how soft you’ll have to play it.”

“Thanks for the heads-up.”

Through his earplugs she added, “And I just saw the neatest new shock-vid!” Without prompting she played it for him.

Neal let out a quiet sigh when it was over before muttering, “And just when did you see this?”

“I was thinking about ten minutes from now,” she admitted.

Weaver had noticed Neal’s expression change. “Bit into something bitter did we?” she half asked.

Neal shrugged before saying, “Tess is ready to jump the gun on having a little payback. Seems she has whipped up a little shock video she wants to throw on the net.”

“Are you going to let her?”

“Most likely,” Neal admitted, “the question is on the timing …”

“Public note boards are already carrying a few comments about her shouting you away from Q’s,” Tess hinted.

“Really? What the hell, load it up,” Neal agreed. “Best to get it out there before it becomes old news and everyone’s already heard about it,” he told Tess as well as Weaver.

“You sound like you do this all the time,” Weaver mused.

“With a few of them,” Neal admitted. “But most aren’t stupid enough to aggravate the very people whose goodwill they are in need of.”

“And they don’t make for such a bold recording?” she dryly asked as Keitha returned leading an older-looking Siamese cat morph.

“Joe’s a little busy right now, I’m Ms. Nook,” she said as she came up to their table.

Neal nodded and gave her a smile. “Well, Ms. Nook, I’m Neal Foster of the Folly. We had a deal fall through, so we find ourselves with some excess Fosters beer to sell.”

Nook shook her head sadly before saying, “Q’s got a lock in on any Fosters that hits the docks.”

“Not after they’ve insulted my daughter, they don’t,” Neal stated.

“Doesn’t really matter,” the cat murmured. “Even with Q out of the way, we couldn’t have afforded the prices you were offering.”

Neal frowned as if in thought for a moment before saying, “If my crew hasn’t drank it dry, I should still have a broken pallet of the stuff. I ‘break’ them into samplers for prospective buyers. It’ll be a mixed lot of kegs, bottles, cans, and zero-G squeeze bulbs … Tell you what; you and Joe figure out what you can safely afford for a mixed half pallet and send the quote to the Folly.” At her hesitant look, he added, “Try it, Ms. Nook. The worst my sales agent can do is reject the quote.”

Giving him a slight nod, she said, “Thank you, Mr. Foster … any relations to Fosters by chance?”

Neal grinned. “None at all. They brew beer, I move things.”

“Thank you again.”

“One thing, if you will,” Neal requested. At her curious look, he said, “To seal the deal – and to win a little side bet for me – I want you to have Keitha over there make the sign that will proclaim that Fosters can be gotten here!”

“Cheat!” Keitha protested, but she was grinning too hard for anyone to take it seriously.

“Just keeping my promise,” Neal countered. “If they buy it of course.”

As the Siamese left for the backroom, Neal watched Keitha hand something to one of the other waiters – while whispering furiously at him. He in turn pulled something out of his pocket and added it to whatever Keitha had given him before talking with another waiter.

“Tess?” he quietly asked, knowing that she would be using all of their comm badges to hear and see what was going on around them.

“The staff wants this too, Boss, badly enough that they’re throwing their tips into the pool,” she told him. “And we don’t have any broken pallets of Fosters …” she reminded him.

“Then break one,” he ordered with a small smile. “Pull a couple of everything as if we had made a sampler. And Tess?”

“Yes, Boss?”

“Reject their offer and propose a counter offer of twenty percent under what you think it was without those tips. Remind them it’s just part of a pallet.”

“You’re cheating again.”

“These strike me as good people,” Neal countered. “So I’ll cheat a little.”

“What would be cheating a lot?” Weaver wondered, having heard what Tess had told Neal.

Neal smirked. “Ever heard of the game ‘Three Card Monte’ or maybe ‘Find the Lady’?”

“They’re con games,” she stated.

“Indeed they are,” Neal agreed, “And with Tess’ transporters I can make the queen disappear entirely …” the scowl she was giving him just made him grin all the wider as he added, “or, she can make every damn one of them the queen.”

“You can do that?”

“I’ve done that. Even got caught once. He was Rakshan, and he was literally playing for his life. He went and flipped the other cards over after his fourth win in a row. I looked down at the cards, then looked back up at him and told him straight-faced in front of his friends: ‘It seems that even those damnable deities of yours want you to win tonight! So, do you accept their decision and my help – or are we going to play this dumb game all night?’ Since he couldn’t figure out how, much less why I’d do such a thing, he lived out the night.”

“And come the dawn?” she softly asked.

“He shipped out with the belief that he would make a difference – for why else would his deities think he was worth keeping alive?”

“But you and Tess did it, not some supposed deity.”

“Perhaps. But what if there were these deities, and if they did want him to live, might they not send him to someone they thought would trick him into living?”

“And you believe this?”

“I believe many things,” Neal said as a message flashed in his glasses, “but what I believe right now is that it is time to leave. Tess tells me she just sent that counter bid, so we have maybe a whole minute to flee the scene before Ms. Nook comes hunting for us in general and me in particular.”

“Did you leave the tip?” Weaver asked as they filed out.

“Of course,” Neal replied, “I even padded it to cover the Caitians’ meals and left what I’d promised Keitha.”

“I thought that was only if you lost the bet?”

“For good service and food, I tip well.”

“So it seems. And even better when you can make a deal,” she countered with a small smile.

Neal smiled in turn as they left the restaurant. “Even better if that one deal cascades into more. Traders,” he said a little louder, Alex and several others turning towards him. “I just made an after-hours trade. I’ll admit I cheated just a bit.”

“Just a bit,” Alex cut in with a grin.

“Be that as it may,” Neal retorted as he tried and failed to give Alex a sharp look, “Tess has just told me that the deal was indeed made. So, for the next two hours you are free to team up and see what other deals you can make. Tess will offer suggestions on things not currently posted and what you should aim for – and what I might let you get away with. Have fun!”

* * *

Keitha caught up with Weaver and Neal when they were almost halfway back to the ship, Weaver having slowed them down with a bit of window-shopping with Holly and the two chakat youths.

“What did you do?” she demanded as she glared at Neal.

“What I always do,” Neal replied. “I tried to set a deal where both parties were happy with what they got for what they gave – or are you here to tell me that Ms. Nook was unhappy with the deal that was offered?”

“You lowered the offer!” Keitha protested.

“It’s just beer,” Neal countered. “I don’t care for the stuff myself, but if someone else wants to pay good credits for it, who am I to argue with them?”

Weaver looked between the human and small fox. Keitha looked ready to protest further, but Neal was getting a gleam in his eye – one that warned her that he was again ‘up to something’.

“Tell you what,” Neal said. “If you really think I’m not charging you guys enough, there’s a little something you can do to pay me back …”

“What?”

“You live here; you know this station and its shops better than I ever will.” Holding his hand out to Weaver, he said, “I’ll give you a PADD – thank you, Weaver – on it you will find some of the things I didn’t officially offer for sale and what I want to get for them. You have two hours. Are you game?” he asked, holding out the PADD to her.

Keitha took it hesitantly, looking at the lists of items it displayed. Her eyes seemed to light up as she exclaimed, “Kelly’s!” and she darted off.

At Weaver’s glare at him, Neal murmured, “I guess she saw something a friend could use.”

“So you turned her into another of your sales agents?”

“Something like that. As I told her, she has the home-field advantage – and she might know a couple of worthy types that she can help cut a deal.”

“What if she tries to offer things for less than you want her to?”

“She can’t. All she can do is assist in placing a ‘bid’ for what and how much, Tess then sets up the actual sale.”

“And the kids are doing the same thing?”

“Yeah, the way this station’s fees are set up, it’s cheaper this way,” Neal admitted.

“Oh?”

“Active sales agents are charged a thousand credits per month to operate on the station, which usually means that if you don’t have a lot to sell, hiring one of the local sales teams is cheaper than trying to do it yourself. Those sales agents can deal with the public directly or through an assistant. There’s a fee for assistants too, but it’s only fifty credits, as all sales have to pass through the sales agents. Since the local sales teams would want a percentage of whatever I collect from each sale, paying a thousand for my own personal sales agent was much cheaper.”

“So you set up Tess as the sales agent, and all the kids as her assistants?” Weaver wondered.

“And Keitha, I don’t need to get into the trouble of using an unlicensed assistant.”

“I never knew buying and selling were so complicated,” she admitted.

“Heh, it all depends on what rules they’ve decided to set up. Some places you can just open your hatch and trade from there – or at a table at the local bar. Others you can only sell to the station itself – and then they sell it to whoever they like at whatever price-point they’ve decided on …”

“You don’t sound like you think much of that last system,” Weaver inquired with a raised eyebrow.

“I don’t,” Neal agreed. “They can run ships out of business by low-balling the prices, and ruin local companies by overcharging them.”

“Why am I getting the feeling you’ve done something about it before?”

“Couple of times,” he admitted.

“Do I need to sit on you to get all the juicy details?”

“Nah, I’ll give you this one for free,” he offered. Neal then grinned at the way Weaver and a couple of others cocked their ears at him.

“It was a small colony that started out with a lot of promise, but it wasn’t delivering on those promises. And most of their problems stemmed from the ‘gift’ of a station. Usually a station benefits both the colony and the ships that come to trade. For the ships, it means not having to drag their ship or their shuttles down and then back out of a gravity well for a few tons of cargo. For the colony, they need only pay for one shuttle trip that might contain cargo from several ships.”

“I take it this gift station didn’t do that?”

“Yes, and no … They did do that, but they cut themselves in for every bit of the profit that they could get away with. Yes, they bought cargo from the ships that the colony needed, but at prices so low it was just barely better than the savings of not sending your own shuttle. They then did the same thing to the colony, charging them just under what it would have cost to deal with the ships directly. The only real benefit the station provided was it made small scale mining of the local rocks in space possible, but once again the station stripped away what profits they could, making it barely self-sustaining for the miners.”

“Are you going to sit there and tell me you don't do what you can to maximize your profits?”

Neal snorted as he gave her a grin. “Of course I go after as much profit as I think I can get away with, but I also try to ensure that I don’t fleece them for more than they can stand. Funny as it may sound, I want them to do well so they’ll be there for me to fleece – I mean do business with the next time I come around. The station, rather than helping the colony grow, was slowly strangling it to death.”

“So you stepped in,” Weaver murmured.

“I was actually asked to step in. Most of the other ships were getting to the point that it wasn’t worth going out that way and some were talking about working together to establish a second station. Their representatives came to me for the logistics.”

“Moving a station? Like you did that mining station?”

“Just that. While most stations are brought in in pieces and assembled on site, sometimes it can be cheaper to buy a station that’s being retired – if you can move it for a reasonable amount.”

“Which you just happen to be able to do …”

Neal grinned at her. “There are very few ships that can move much over their own bulk at warp. There are fewer still that can move really large items. One of the things they were concerned about was getting it all in place and running before the owners of the other station could try to counter or fight it.”

“You make it sound so easy to do.”

“Heh, not really, I’m glossing over all the work that had to be done to get the station properly prepped, provisioned, and staffed before dragging it out there.”

“Staffed?” she asked in surprise.

“Sure, the warm bodies to do all the regular work a station needs. And we needed someone that wouldn’t just follow in the first station’s footprints.”

“The ships in on the deal didn’t want to crew it themselves?”

“No, or maybe I should say not enough. A couple of ships had a few crew interested, but nowhere near enough warm bodies to properly crew a station. So we had to get creative.”

“You’re going to make me drag each bit out of you, aren’t you?”

“Mercenaries.”

“What?”

“We ended up hiring a group of mercenaries to run the place.”

“Now you’re yanking my tail.”

“No, really. They got a steady money-maker for between jobs, and we got someone that would play fairly with everyone.”

“Wait a minute, who would run it while they were out on a job? And how could you guarantee they wouldn’t shaft someone?”

“Logistics answers the first. Behind every gun team they send out on a contract, there’s a whole support team to back them – a lot of whom never leave their main base of operations. So by letting them use the station as their base, we got someone to staff it for us. As for the second, there were rules put in place for how much they could charge for the different services. Fixed rates for a lot of stuff, percentages for the rest, with a kicker that the total profit couldn’t exceed a certain amount without them forfeiting all their profits for that time period.”

“And these mercenaries signed off on it?”

“No, they signed a one-year contract to run the station. While most of the ship group was willing to give the station up to five years to show its worth, they figured a year was long enough to see if the mercs could actually run it. As well as moving the station into place, I loaned them a heavy lift shuttle that I was getting ready to retire.”

“You just happened to have an extra heavy lift shuttle in your back pocket?”

“No, at that time I’d just commissioned a newer, larger, more powerful and more efficient one and I now had one to get rid of. Leasing it to them was better than selling or scrapping it.”

“The way you’ve been talking I’m assuming it worked?”

Neal chuckled. “The other station never knew what hit them. I parked the new one in an orbit that matched theirs, just opposite of them with the planet always between them. That first orbit the shuttle dropped to the planet with a load that the colonists had said they would pay for – if it could be bought and delivered under a certain price. The mercs had done their homework and even with the shipping charges they came in well under the requested price point.”

“I take it they made friends quickly.”

“You might say that, especially as the timing coincided with the start of the colony’s growing season. They somehow managed a full day before the old station realized that it wasn’t just a one-off delivery from a ship but real competition.”

“I’ll bet they weren’t too happy with the new arrangements.”

“You’d be right. That and the same laws that let them ‘park’ a station in orbit meant anyone else can too.”

“Don’t you mean ‘could’?”

“No, can. A dozen more stations could be added to their orbit. The problem lies in there not being enough business to really keep one station fully occupied, much less two or more of them. Ours only made sense because it would save both sides credits in the long run. Those that were a part of getting the new station set up used it – we wanted it to succeed of course. The colony of course went for the one with better rates and a friendlier shuttle service. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the old station tried lowering its rates and charges, but they couldn’t match what the new station was offering.”

“Did you, I think you call it ‘blackball’ them?”

“Not really. I’d buy and sell to both stations, but I wasn’t about to give the old one any better ‘deal’ than I had the new. Though I think the colony pretty much did blackball them, too many years of getting shafted can cause that …”

“What else did you do to them?”

“Nothing, though the new station had to give up one of its surprises three months in. Through all the cross chatter between the stations and the colony no mention was ever made that the new station was crewed by mercenaries – and that they’d loaded the station with all of their toys prior to it being towed into orbit. So when a pirate ship with half a dozen fighters showed up, the pirates thought they were in for an easy time of it.” Neal’s smile wasn’t pleasant as he continued. “I got to see a tactical playback of the attack. It wasn’t a fight so much as a slaughter, the pirates not getting off more than a couple of panicked shots when the station suddenly launched its own fighters.”

“You’re grinning too wide …” Weaver pointed out.

“Eh, it brings back good memories,” Neal admitted.

“So whatever happened to the old station?”

“The mercs bought them out after they went bankrupt, refurbished it, and turned it into a mining station for out in their asteroid belt.”

As Weaver was looking thoughtful, Tess gave them an update.

“Hey, Boss. Your favorite bellower has given up on getting through by way of the comm systems.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. He’s since hired a couple of station security types to escort him to our docking bay,” Tess reported.

“How have the kids been doing?”

“Fairly well actually, though Keitha is leaving them all behind.”

“Heh, no surprise there,” Neal chuckled.

“You do know she’s cheating us – don’t you, boss?” Tess complained.

“How is she cheating?” Weaver asked for Neal.

“She got several buyers together and is working out what they can buy together and then split up after we deliver it – while using the bottom-most prices you allowed her!”

“Even at those prices we still make a profit, yes?” Neal questioned.

“Well, yes – but not as much as we could have!”

“These are her friends, of course she’ll give them as good of a deal as we let her. We moved some cargo we wouldn’t have without her help, and in doing so we may have made a new friend or two. How long will it take you to offload the goods?”

“Thirty minutes – if they don’t make any more sales!”

“Tell the others to start wrapping things up, and I will see to our little mutt problem.”

“Aye, Boss.”

“And what did you think we were going to be doing while you were having your fun?” Weaver asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Okay, you can come too,” Neal allowed with a smirk. “Fair warning, it might get loud.”

* * *

“Station security. This is Sergeant Chakat Hall, how may I help you?” the gray with a yellow polka dot patterned chakat asked the blank screen in front of hir. It was strange that the caller hadn’t enabled the video from their side, but it wasn’t all that uncommon as some wished not to be identified when talking to security.

“Tess of the Folly,” the screen replied. The voice sounded like a human female, but the sergeant knew how a good voice box could make hir sound just as human. “This is a request for information about any outstanding warrants for the Folly or for her captain and crew.”

As shi checked, Chakat Hall asked, “May I ask why you think we might have issued warrants for your ship or crew, Ms. Tess?”

“Well, it isn’t often I have a pair of security types and a rather annoyed-looking civilian all but blocking my docking port,” Tess replied.

“Have they made any requests?” Hall asked.

“Negative,” Tess told hir. “They just stare at anyone coming near the hatch like they’re trying to catch someone by surprise.”

Hall’s screen now lit up with a shot from the hatch’s camera, showing the backs of three furs standing in front of the closed hatch. A window opened to show their faces, or muzzles in this case. The puma and leopard in uniform shi knew – and also knew that they weren’t working hir shift – but it was the over-dressed German shepherd with them that drew a frown from hir. “So I see. I’ll be right down,” shi told Tess before dropping the connection and grabbing hir cap.

With a little timing prompt from Tess, Neal’s little group reached the Folly’s docking port just as Chakat Hall did.

“Is there a problem, Sergeant?” Neal asked with a raised eyebrow.

“That’s what I’m here to find out,” Hall admitted as shi gave Neal and Weaver a nod before turning to the three waiting for them. Eyeing hir now nervous-looking fellow officers shi said, “I checked before I came down, so I know you two aren’t on duty. The uniform is for official business, not for personal use. Why are you two down here?”

“Well, Ad – Mister Q asked for an escort, Shir,” the puma replied.

“I didn’t realize the docks were so dangerous the locals wouldn’t come down here without bodyguards,” Neal commented with a frown. Tapping his comm badge he said, “Tess, warn the others to stay alert – ensure phasers are set to medium stun.”

“That – shouldn’t be necessary,” Chakat Hall tried to suggest.

“Either your friends were down here because this citizen thinks it’s scary down in the docks – or he hired them to help him shake somebody down,” Neal pointed out. “The first means my people need to be on a higher alert level, and somebody’s going to find themselves in a world of hurt if it’s the second.”

“Don’t you try to threaten me!” the German shepherd growled.

“No threat involved,” Neal chuckled, “that there was a promise …”

Before the male hormone levels could reach the danger point, Sergeant Hall asked, “Just what are you doing down here, Q?”

“I don’t answer to the likes of you!” he snapped. “But if you must know, this ship’s captain has been playing favoritism games against my establishment!”

“Really?” Neal said. “You placed an order and they refused to fill it?”

“The captain refused to discuss the pricing with me!” Q snarled.

“I was under the impression that you’d need to talk to the sales agent about pricing – not the ship’s captain,” Neal countered.

“All businesses have to deal fairly with all clients!” Q snapped.

“Well, now I know that’s not true,” Neal scoffed, “In fact I tried to go into some hoity-toity place called Admiral Q’s of all things, and they wouldn’t let me and my crew in the door. Tess? Play your recording of the event if you will.” “And just what do you want?” they heard a female canine sneer. “Foster, party of seventeen.” Neal’s voice was heard saying. “You don’t have a reservation,” was the reply with a snap.

“Then write us up one, bitch. How hard can it be?” they heard Neal say. “Bitch? I’ll show you BITCH! SECURITY! GET THEM THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”

As Neal waved the playback off, Sergeant Hall looked and tried to get the feelings of the others. Hir fellow officers looked and felt ill at ease at being caught in the middle of all this, perhaps shi wouldn’t need to give them more than another word or two to keep them from volunteering like this again. The foxtaur vixen was shaking her head slightly, but there was no worry and surprisingly a little amusement on hir muzzle. On the other hand, Q was failing to keep from foaming at the mouth – but the human shi just couldn’t get a good feel for, which for some reason worried hir more than shi thought it should have.

“Of course she wouldn’t seat you! Especially after you called her a bitch! I should have you up on charges!” Q snapped.

“You mean calling female canines ‘bitch’ isn’t the standard procedure for this station?” Neal asked sounding a little surprised.

“No …” Sergeant Hall replied. “Why would you think it would be?”

“I monitor random calls coming into the ship, and one of my adopted daughters just happens to be a canine. Tess?” “Folly procurement, this is Cindy, how may I help you?”

“This is Admiral Q. You will get me your captain so I can tell him how ludicrous his so-called prices are.”

“The captain is currently busy with matters of his ship. As you didn’t wish to deal with our sales agent, I will be dealing with you for any matters of buying or selling.”

“Unacceptable! You will get your captain on this line now!”

“Stop it! Turn it off now!” Q demanded, but the playback only grew louder to drown him out. “As that won’t be happening, was there anything else I can do for you?”

“YOU WILL GET ME YOUR DAMN CAPTAIN NOW, BITCH!”

“Please hold for the captain.”

“NO! YOU WILL NOT PUT ME ON HOLD YOU BITCH! YOU WILL – DAMN YOU, YOU LITTLE BITCH! WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON YOU I’LL – “ Mercifully Neal finally waved his hand and the rest of Q’s – and it was obvious to all present by this point that it was indeed Q – bellowing was cut off.

Into the new silence Neal quietly said, “Was that what I was doing wrong, Q? Could I have gotten into your rather questionable establishment if I’d just bellowed and screamed threats at your daughter the way you did at mine? As far as any charges, I’d guess we’d end up as cellmates if you were stupid enough to try it,” he added with a grin.

When the German shepherd did nothing but glare at the security officers – who now seemed to have little sympathy for his plight, Neal added, “Like you, I reserve the right to refuse service to whomever I please – and for whatever reason I feel like. Why would I bother with an idiot that wants to argue prices but doesn’t even bother to place an order so we’d have something to argue about?”

“You haven’t heard the end of this!” Q sputtered.

“Neither have you,” Neal agreed with a grin.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Q demanded.

Neal’s grin grew as he said, “Unless the local grapevine has died an untimely death, you should know by the time you get back to that little eatery of yours.”

“I take it you don’t think he’s seen Tess’ little video yet,” Weaver quietly said as Q stormed off, followed at a discreet distance by three furs from security.

“No way,” Neal told her as he watched the German shepherd pull out a comm unit as he turned the corner. “He wasn’t anywhere near mad enough to have seen it yet – and nowhere near scared enough for the implications to have struck home. Tess? What have you seen so far?”

“I seriously doubt that Q can now get home or to his restaurant without hearing his or his daughter’s voice screaming a particular five letter word. And some of the locals have gotten quite creative with editing the video I sent out.”

“Oh?”

“There are now several purely instrumental tunes being ‘sung’ by those two with her doing the tenor and him the bass. Then there’s over a dozen more of them just yelling ‘bitch’ at each other.”

“And you just know that darling daughter of his is going to take all this calm, cool, and collected,” Weaver murmured.

“Heh, it’s a good thing sound doesn’t travel through vacuum worth a darn,” Neal chuckled. “Tess? Tell the kids and Keitha to wrap things up and get on down here.”

“Aye, Boss. It shouldn’t take them more than a few minutes.”

Alex and Cindy were the first to come into view, followed by Mike and half their teen chakats. Cindy was wearing a strange ‘non’-face, while Alex and the others wore various levels of grim.

“Had a run in with Q, did you?” Neal asked them.

“He tried,” Alex replied. “He then discovered how intimidating chakats can be when they get up on two legs with a full showing of claws and teeth!” he added with a grim smile.

“As I don’t see any blood on you or your cohorts, I assume that the show of force was sufficient?”

Chakat Calmmeadow snickered, “That and those security types behind him! Too many witnesses of who was trying to start things.”

“Don’t forget what else we saw,” Chakat Brighteyes reminded hir. “There had been a couple of youths walking ahead of us laughing as they said ‘you the bitch – no, you the bitch’ at each other. Then they saw that German shepherd coming and they started laughing at him. He looked like he was going to yell at them – but that’s when he saw Cindy and rushed over like he was going to try to grab her. We kind of got in his way a bit …” shi added, looking a little nervous.

“I will never have a problem with you guys protecting each other,” Neal told hir. “How’d you guys do on sales?”

“Not too bad considering it was all last minute stuff, though we heard you gave us some local competition,” Alex hinted with a raised eyebrow.

“And here she comes now,” Neal said, having seen Keitha round the corner. “So, how did you do?” he asked as she came up to them.

“Pretty good,” she said as she offered Neal the PADD.

Not reaching out for it, Neal gave her a stern look and said, “Correct it first. Not all of the cargo is going where you marked it as going.”

“You knew I combined some of the orders?” Keitha asked, looking a little defensive.

Neal smirked. “My sales agent monitors all deals and transactions. How else could she have known what counter offers would better entice your clients?”

“You were spying on us!”

“No, not really. While my sales agent brought it to my attention, she will most likely tell me nothing of who actually said what – or even who bought what. While she probably saved some records so we’ll know better what to bring the next time we come out, your secrets should be safe enough,” Neal told her.

“This is just a guess,” Tess’s voice said as the data on Keitha’s PADD shifted.

Keitha glared at Neal again before looking down at the PADD. She tapped in a couple of quick changes as she frowned at just how close most of Tess’s ‘guesses’ had been.

“Got it,” Tess said. “Just one more thing and we’re done with you – Boss?”

“One last thing indeed,” Neal agreed. “There’s still the matter of you acting as one of our sales assistants. Tess, if you will please?” Keitha’s PADD brought up a new screen as Neal continued, “You may take the credits listed at the top, or you may use them to purchase one or more of the pallets listed for the offered prices.”

Alex leaned over the smaller fox to see what Neal was tempting Keitha with. “Hmmm, looks close to what you offer us …”

Neal nodded. “Your earnings are one thing, but my cargo is business.”

Chakat Nightsky was peering around the fox vixen’s other shoulder. “You definitely don’t want any of those!” shi told her while pointing with a claw-tip.

“Still trying to hoard the silks, Sis?” Alex asked with a chuckle.

Nightsky stuck her tongue out before countering, “No real market here. I even heard one saleslady wonder why anyone would make silk anymore, the philistine.”

Her teeth nipping her tongue, Keitha spent a minute making her choices before handing the PADD back to Neal.

Neal took the PADD and nodded before inserting a credit chit. Removing the chit after the unit beeped, he offered it to Keitha. “Your change.”

“But I zeroed the credits!” she protested.

“And by doing so you made me another sale, and thus deserve to be paid for it,” Neal countered with a grin.

“Well, if you don’t want it,” Alex said as he reached for it – only to have Keitha snatch it and give him a glare.

Neal wasn’t the only one to chuckle at their antics. “Ah, there was one more thing I almost forgot,” he told her. At her look of confusion he added, “You did lose our little bet …”

Pulling a one-credit coin from her tips pocket, Keitha offered it to Neal. “Best ‘loss’ I’ve ever had,” she admitted.

“And I believe Ms. Nook is probably still waiting for her sign to be made,” Neal hinted with a grin.

As Keitha dashed off, Tess said, “Fifteen minutes for me to get the last shipments station-side. There’s a launch window open in twenty-one minutes – unless you guys need more time to shop?”

Not seeing or hearing any protests, Neal said, “Sign us up for that window, I think we’ve had enough fun for one stop.”

“Can do, and you’re not going to believe this.”

“Taxing my credulity again?”

“Q was just arrested – but he’s being sent to the station’s med-bay first.”

“Oh? Any details?” Weaver asked before Neal could.

“From the report Sergeant Hall filed, he knocked a hand player out of a chakat cub’s hand and had his hand raised for another blow when the cub’s parent body-slammed him into the wall.”

“Good thing the sergeant was there or poor Q might have been slashed to ribbons,” Weaver commented.

“Yeah,” Neal agreed. “There was no need to have Q’s bad manners traumatize the cub and hir parent.”

“You don’t care that he could have been badly hurt?” Weaver asked with a slight rise of an eyebrow.

“Do I care that someone’s bad manners got him stomped on? No, not really,” Neal admitted. “I’d be more saddened if the cub had been injured.”

“There is that,” Weaver allowed as she turned to enter the airlock.

“Well, that was a bitching stop,” Redtail commented as the foxtaur vixens joined the rest of the crew in the main lounge.

“I am hoping that word doesn’t become too commonplace aboard my Folly,” Neal dryly commented to the room in general.

Alex gave him a cocky grin as he said, “I’m sure it will only be used when appropriate.” He then looked over at Cindy and snapped, “Get me a drink, Bitch.”

To several stares and more than a couple of glares, they watched Alex smirk as Cindy did as she was told.

She drew a glass of water from the mini-bar in the corner of the room and brought it over to Alex. She gave him a little bow as she presented it to him – just before she dumped it over his head!

Alex ignored the snickers and outright laughter and turned back to Neal and said, “As I said, only when appropriate.” Looking up at Cindy he said, “Thanks, sis.”

“Any time, bro,” she replied with a grin and a nod. To the others she said, “He’s used that and worse in our training sessions to try and get a rise out of me.”

“Someone should probably dry off before he reports for duty on my bridge,” Tess suggested as their little meeting broke up.

* * *

Minutes from their departure time found the Folly’s bridge properly crewed, and her captain finishing up some electronic ‘paperwork’ in his dayroom.

“Boss, I’m getting someone trying to force through a secure hard-line connection – it appears to be from the port authority.”

“Odd,” Neal agreed. “There’s nothing they should be trying to tell us that couldn’t be handled through an unsecured comm link; it isn’t more of our problem mutt is it?”

“These are not the mutts you’re looking for,” Tess intoned. “Or at least it doesn’t appear to be.”

“Keep offering them the open link; we’re still scheduled to break dock in a couple of minutes so they’ll have to ante-up or fold.”

As Neal continued his paperwork he kept half an eye on the status board running down one side of his display. In normal space the board would be mostly green with everything up and running properly, while ‘parked’ near another ship or station there would be a few yellow lights warning of things that might pose a hazard to Folly or those near her. Currently a full half of his board was in that cautious hue, while another third glowed the crimson of danger. Folly out-massed most ships – and more than a few stations – so hard docking to one brought with it new risks and dangers all their own. Through the station’s repeaters and Folly’s sensors, Tess kept a weather eye on everything going on outside the station, ready to do whatever was needed to help protect the ship, her cargo and her crew. Standard Operating Procedure included a station’s tractor beams holding a large ship to the station and their docking collars aligned, but when you’re dealing with almost four kilometers of ship, a little more was required. Since docking, Folly’s tractor beams had been holding half a dozen of the station’s ‘hard points’ for added stability and her thrusters would occasionally pulse to match the slight shifts of the station as other ships docked and undocked.

The first red to switch to amber and then green was the docking port hatch. The outer hatch had been in a ‘closed but not sealed’ condition whenever there wasn’t crew or cargo trying to get through it to help keep anyone or anything from wandering on board. With both inner and outer hatches sealed, there was a slight delay as the station-side hatch was closed and sealed. Together, ship and station released their locking points which had held the docking ports to each other. Momentary puffs from the thrusters helped gently nudge the ship away from the station, and more of the warning and caution indicators changed as the risks they represented were cleared.

The status board was down to a handful of proximity warnings when the tone for an incoming call sounded.

The fox-looking being that appeared on the screen looked like their jaws were clenched hard enough to hurt. The view was limited to the head, but the coloration hinted more to Vulpinoid than fox morph and the hair was teased into a more feminine pattern. “I know who and what you are, Captain Foster. I know how your little scam works and I’m not going to let you get away with it!” she declared.

Neal’s smile held a little malice as he replied, “And what particular scam have I supposedly perpetrated, Ms.?”

“That is immaterial.”

“It is if I’m going to take you seriously,” Neal countered. “It’s hard to believe or be concerned about anything from someone too ashamed to even give their own name.”

While Neal had been speaking, Tess had been going through the news and other station downloads looking for their caller. She scored a hit, which she pinned to the bottom of Neal’s display along with the confidence level as she started digging using the name as well as the muzzle. The confidence level quickly rose, as did the information on their caller.

Their caller either didn’t notice the change in Neal’s smile – or she chose to ignore it. “I know you used some kind of sales point AI system to handle your sales – that’s totally illegal!”

“Use – or non-use – of an AI is not mentioned anywhere in the sales agent rulebook, so it can hardly say yes or no to their use,” Neal countered.

“It refers to the sales agent as a being! Not an AI!” she snapped.

“Hmmm, so now we have to determine if this hypothetical AI is also a being. Tell you what; I’ll let you interview some of my crew and the person who you're claiming is an AI. Let’s see if whatever it was seems to be a being – or just a poorly programmed dummy.”

“And just what the hell will that pr–” she was demanding when Neal closed the window on his screen.

“What it will prove is that the longer you rant, the further out of range we’ll be – and the less we’ll care,” Neal told the silenced screen with a grin. “Tess, ask a couple of the teens to help you keep her busy.”

“Should I hint that we now know she’s most likely Q’s mistress, and that’s she’s really pissed that as a sales agent, she wasn’t able to get a cut of our profits?”

“I’d save it for the last half,” Neal suggested. “For added fun, you can save this for later entertainment.”

“Can do, Boss. So far I appear to be passing my Turing test as she isn’t figuring it out.”

“Keep at it, but try not to have too much fun with her.”

“Party pooper …”

* * *

“I win!” Tess proclaimed to Neal just two minutes before they’d be far enough out to safely engage the warp drive.

“Define win for me,” Neal suggested.

“Well, she thought Weaver, Cindy, Alex and Brighteyes were all AIs – but none of mine! Graysocks tried to play at being an AI but got tagged as real, which just proved our little busybody has been guessing because she nailed a basic business unit. Then there’s the little matter of the entertainment you said I could do,” she said, sounding smug.

“Dare I ask what you did?”

“I saved it as you suggested, and then I was able to offer a couple of copies to our friends on the station.”

“Oh?”

“If you thought the bitcher and bitchette team was in trouble, you should see how this one was ranting.”

Neal just shook his head.

“Oh, and here was my last AI,” Tess said as Neal’s screen showed an image of – Neal.

“And here we are again, Ms. Tanka,” the talking head of Neal said. “And as you now know, I know who and what you are; and you now know your little scam has failed. It’s too bad you never managed to get that secure connection; there’s no telling how many others may have been listening in …” he added with a grin and a wink, her eyes growing wide and her mouth opening in horror as the screen blanked.

“You forgot to close with me chuckling evilly,” Neal said dryly.

“Nah, too over-the-top, even for you.”

“Perhaps. Status?” he asked out of habit, as a look to the side of the screen he was using would have told him what was happening.

“Cores coming up to full power, static tests good, ship and crew are ready, warp in ten seconds.”

“And on to the next little challenge,” Neal softly agreed as the warp fields built and the ship shuddered slightly around him as Folly disappeared from normal space.

 


To be continued!

Copyright © 2005 - 2017 Allen Fesler – Redbear1158@hotmail.com

Chakat universe is the creation of Bernard Doove (a.k.a Chakat Goldfur) and is used with his permission.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons, places, things or events is purely coincidental.


 

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