TALES OF THE FOLLY
Book One – The Curse
Part 3: Complications Set In

Chapter 1: One day at a time
Chapter 2: Too few or the wrong cooks can also spoil the stew
Chapter 3: Station 451F
Chapter 4: Out of the frying pan
Chapter 5: Trial by Cookie
Chapter 6: Abstinence
Chapter 7: Crossed Connections
Chapter 8: If You Can’t Stand the Heat
Chapter 9: Puzzling Solutions
Chapter 10: Changing Sides
Chapter 11: Night School
Chapter 12: Keeping His Word
Chapter 13: Not Gone Hunting for Trouble
Chapter 14: A Little Blast from the Past
Chapter 15: The Tail Chaser
Chapter 16: Sibling Rivalry
Chapter 17: New Kiev
Chapter 18: First Flight
Chapter 19: Rooms of Danger
Chapter 20: The Toothbrush
Chapter 21: Power Corrupts
Chapter 22: Battle stations!
Chapter 23: On the Road Again
Chapter 24: Pegasus
Chapter 25: Too Many Secrets
Chapter 26: You Can’t Always Tell A Book By Its Cover
Chapter 27: A Little Light Reading
Chapter 28: Back at 4854786G76
Chapter 29: Dialing up the Terror
Chapter 30: Another Little Blast from the Past
Chapter 31: The Best Laid Plans of Captains and Admirals
Chapter 32: You can’t keep a good Stellar Foxtaur down
Chapter 33: Divide to Conquer
Chapter 34: Rabbit Seasoning
Chapter 35: Gambling on Hesperia Station
Chapter 36: The Right to be Forgotten
Chapter 37: Smoke and Mirrors
Chapter 38: Prey vs Predator


 
(October 15, 2331 Old Earth)

One Day At A Time

Or maybe that should be one shift at a time.

Because not everyone’s day was working out to be quite the same. Mike preferred a fairly straightforward daily routine, while most of the chakats found themselves preferring a couple of shorter rest breaks rather than one long sleep period. Others were falling somewhere in between as Tess discovered their preferred wake/sleep cycles and set their schedules accordingly.

As this meant his crew’s shifts were now scattering around the clock, Neal could also get back more to the wake/sleep cycles that he preferred as well. Since his preferred cycles were longer than the others, only Tess knew how many hours he was really working and getting little things like her slagged transporter rooms back in working order.

* * *

“Tess, where’s Neal?” Weaver asked as she was sitting down to have her breakfast.

“Asleep after pulling what you might call an all-nighter,” was the reply. “Redtail and Dusk are keeping him company, though both of them will probably be up in the next hour or so.”

“I’m surprised us going in and out of his room all the time doesn’t wake him,” Weaver admitted.

“Oh, it does,” Tess told her, “but then he’ll just roll over and go back to sleep if he feels he still needs it.”

“Or he’ll get up pretending he doesn’t?” Weaver asked.

“It’s not so much pretend as mindset,” Tess explained. “If he thinks he has to do something he will, even if it’s just a front.”

“Like taking on that clan on Parakit?”

“Never back Neal into a corner – unless you’re sure he knows it’s all in fun.”

“He’ll fight like a trapped rat?”

“Worse, he’ll fight like a smart trapped rat, and he won’t worry too much about damaging any of the trappers on his way out.”

“I heard some of the kids saying something about his grandfather diverting a volcano?”

“That one was much easier, as we didn’t have to worry about anyone shooting back at us,” Tess agreed.

“Have there been others?” Weaver wondered.

“There was one other of note,” Tess allowed. “In that case they were already out and killing those not of their so-called ‘faith’.”

“And you were called in to deal with them?”

“No, we just happened to be the first ones to stumble across a piece of their handiwork. A fairly new colony on a promising new world had been hit by several meteorites. The survivors reported three ships demanding the planet pay homage to some god they’d never heard of before – lest the wrath of that god rain down on them. When they declined the ships left and then a week later the rocks began to fall.”

“What did you do?”

“We had one of the earlier stations at the time and we just happened to be running a crew. We left the crew and the station to do what they could to render aid while the captain and I went to see if we couldn’t find the source of the attack.”

“I take it you did.”

“Yes, but not before finding two more planets ‘bombed’ into mini ice ages. One had the remains of a station orbiting it and we were able to learn a bit more about their attackers. Which led us to a fourth planet. We found the three ships; they were missing Federation registered freighters that had been overrun and hijacked when they made the mistake of visiting the planet in question. Unfortunately, one of them had been carrying supplies for Star Fleet, so they were fairly well armed.”

“Wasn’t it dangerous to try to go after them?”

“Yes, but like Parakit, we didn’t have the time to wait for someone else to clean up the mess. We caught them still in the middle of loading supplies for their next religious crusade when we arrived in their system. Having seen what they’d done to the other three planets, the good captain wasn’t going to let them try it again. And we had the same advantages we had at Parakit, they saw us as a prize that they wanted and their ships had never been designed as actual warships. We did have one more little thing going for us that we didn’t have at Parakit.”

“Oh?”

“No friendlies, Weaver. No one over there we had to protect from our weapons or theirs.”

“Your transporters?” Weaver asked.

“No, our transporters of that time would never have stood up to that kind of an attempt. No, our main weapons for that fight were the ship itself and the tractor beams. Since our ship would have made a fine addition to their little fleet, they were trying to take us as intact as possible. Which meant they had to come within our range.”

“And you pushed them around.”

“Put a real tight focus on a tractor beam and you can do a lot more damage to a smaller area,” Tess reminded her. “Imagine a beam capable of shoving fully loaded pods around focused to just over a meter. We didn’t push so much as we stabbed. We aimed at their weapons and pushed so hard that some of the remains were shooting out the far side of their ships.”

“Destroying everything in its path,” Weaver softly said.

“I wasn’t detecting any signs of the original crews and we weren’t going to leave them with the ability to go out and kill another planet. After we de-orbited everything they had in space, the captain was kind enough to give them an out. He told them that he cared nothing for any god so childish that he would have his followers harm nonbelievers, but that he would spare them if they gave up their puny god and prayed to the forgiving deity the captain believed in. They didn’t of course, believing their ‘god’ to be mightier than any mere deity.”

“And?” Weaver prompted.

“And three days later rocks like the ones that they had used in their god’s name were delivered unto them,” Tess told her. “A beacon in orbit was added at that time, warning all comers away from the planet for the next hundred of their years.”

“Has anyone been back there?” Weaver asked.

“Not that we know of, but I do know there’s still another fifty-four Earth years left on the beacon.”

“What does Neal think of it?”

“Neal thought it prudent to have a data probe check on the system and the beacon twice a year. If the beacon ever reports activity in space around the planet or stops reporting – or if the probe doesn’t return from a check – then we may have to go back.”

“And if you had to go back?”

“That would depend on them. If they moved on to a more forgiving religion then we may be able to allow them back into space.”

“Surely things would change after a hundred years,” Weaver commented.

“Some people can be taught, others cannot,” Tess replied. “The Brinkly sect was reduced to just a handful of members and they had a hundred and fifty years to think things over and we saw what they’d decided. It can be very hard to kill an idea; no matter how wrongheaded most people might think the idea is, there will be those that believe it to be their right or destiny.”

“And you and Neal will be there.”

“We weren’t there for what was the Brinkly sect the first time; by the time we knew about them, Star Fleet was already too involved for us to do anything about it. Which meant we couldn’t stop them from trying to ‘convert’ some of the sect’s survivors. It was believed by Star Fleet that all of those survivors were killed by one of their own bombs, but it now seems that the blast was to hide several of them making good their escape.”

“And they ended up on Parakit,” Weaver finished for her. “Okay, so when he’s not delivering supplies or out saving a world, what else keeps you and Neal busy?”

“A little bit of everything,” Tess admitted. “Neal has to wear many ‘hats’ as he calls them, many roles he likes to or sometimes has to play.”

“Hero?”

“That is actually one hat he prefers not to wear, or at least not getting caught wearing it.”

“So Longsock informed me. It seems most records now say Neal had nothing to do with what happened on Parakit. How did you two manage that?”

“With a little help from our friends, including some friends in Star Fleet itself. Fleet would just as soon not have it widely known that some of their more dangerous toys somehow got into the sect’s hands, nor would they want to have to explain how a mere freighter could have taken them out with less collateral damage than Fleet itself could have managed.”

“That’s why they had us pitch them into the sun, to remove some of the evidence.”

“Because we were able to give the Brinkly sect enough of our own targets to shoot at, they never actually fired at anything that could later be checked to determine just how powerful their weapons actually were, which in turn meant the reported power of those weapons could then be dialed down to something Fleet could have been expected to counter.”

“Why are you telling me all of this?” Weaver asked.

“Because it seems a couple of our teens are very good at keyword searches, and I thought it best you heard it from me rather than from them. That, and it’s one of the parts of my records Neal has a hard time with.”

“He can’t take some of the things his grandfather did?”

“Neal can take it, but some things can put him in a very black mood. A mood I really don’t think we want to force on those who are sensitive to such things.”

“True. I won’t mention it then, but what about the kids?”

“I’ve been explaining it to them as well. If he finds out and gets moody, at least everyone will know why.”

“Speaking of kids, who has Star?”

“Neal does.”

“I thought you told me he was asleep.”

“He is. She was just hunting for him again, so I let her try it on her own. She squirmed in with them while we were talking”

“How did she do?” Weaver asked.

“It took her a few times to realize she needed her little comm badge to get the doors to open for her,” Tess admitted. “After that Star followed my light trails to him.”

“So she’s down for a nap?”

“For the moment.”

“The good side to taur kids being fully mobile in just a week or two means they’re quick to sandbox train,” Weaver said with a smile. “The bad side is that they can then get into trouble a lot faster.”

“Don’t worry too much about her,” Tess replied. “I know all and see all – and I don’t require sleep.”

“You just don’t always tell all …” Weaver softly said though she was smiling.

* * *

“Okay, you two – why are you and your siblings being so overly careful and polite around me?” Neal asked the youths later that ‘day’ when he had gone to check on them and their current project.

“Tess?” he asked when they wouldn’t speak, only looking worried and a little scared.

“They found the other times I’ve been ordered to toss rocks at inhabited planets,” Tess admitted.

“And you warned them of how I might feel about it?” Neal guessed with a snort. “The Brinklys had already reminded me of the past, Tess. Why do you think I was looking so grim during the repairs?”

“I’m sorry, Boss, I just thought it was something you might not want brought up.”

“And it worked about as well as me telling you to forget something. You then waste ten times the effort trying to understand why there’s a gap in your memory.”

“Sorry, Boss.”

“Live and learn, Tess. Don’t wake those asleep. Attention. Attention, all crew. Despite the rumors you may have heard to the contrary, your token human is not all that thin-skinned. That said, pussyfooting around him can and will annoy him. You can stop pussyfooting around him at this time. That is all.”

“Yes, Boss,” Tess said.

“Yes, Boss,” Quickdash parroted, causing Holly to snicker.

“All right then,” Neal agreed with a smirk. “Now, about your little project …”

 

 


 

Too Few Or The Wrong Cooks Can Also Spoil The Stew

 

The translift doors opened to the scent of ‘burnt’ in the air. It wasn’t a strong scent, and the captain’s nose wasn’t the sharpest on the ship, but it was strong enough, and he found it disturbing. A second sniff helped convince him that it wasn’t his ship going up in flames but something of a more organic nature.

“I take it there’s no actual fire?” Neal asked, still half in/out of the lift’s doorway.

“There was never even an open flame, though there was quite a bit of smoke,” Tess admitted.

“And since you haven’t told me we’re down a crewmember or three, I’ll assume that used to be something they were thinking of having for lunch.”

“Dinner actually. It being Beechwood’s turn, she thought she’d offer you guys a nice slow-cooked roast tonight, but she allowed Weaver to lend a hand …”

“Ah, I do seem to recall Holly warning us about her mother’s lack of cooking skills,” Neal commented.

“Weaver didn’t think the roast was cooking fast enough so she turned up the heat – and she didn’t think to add more water as the pan dried out,” Tess told him.

“That explains the burnt smell, but not why I’m smelling it this far from the galley.”

“That’s because your denmate opened the lid to confirm the damage and got more than just a little smoke up her muzzle and in her hair.”

“Ah, then maybe she’ll appreciate someone offering to help her wash away the smoke.”

“She might also want a shoulder to cry on, Boss.”

“I think I can survive that as well. Tell the kids to salvage what they can and remind them that we have plenty of other things to eat if it’s beyond repair,” Neal said as he changed directions towards his denmate’s room and tapped his badge. “Hey, Smoky, this is Stinky, wanna share a shower?”

In front of him, the door to her room slid open…

 

 


 

Station 451F

 

The Folly was a week and a half out of Carlsbad, and her captain was in his command chair, touching nothing and seemingly doing nothing while keeping an eye and half an ear on most everything going on around him. His current ‘bridge crew’ were busy doing all the little things needed to bring them into their next port of call. Since there was only one other freighter docked and no other traffic expected, 451F’s station control was allowing Folly to dock with the station proper, the large freighter blocking several of their other docking ports.

If they had been busy, the captain might have parked his ship out of the way and shuttled the cargo pods to an open port. Instead, he was able to let the kids get Folly right up to the docking port, Tess doing the last of the fine maneuvers needed to gently mate with the station. Well, the kids were doing all those things, but they just happened to be doing it on a simulation while Tess did all the real work in the background.

Neal had intended to be docked only long enough to unload, an hour or two at the most; but as his father had always said, there were only two ways of doing anything, ‘first class or with children’. In this case, the ‘with children’ meant spending a few extra hours, most of the kids wanting to see another space station, even though there wasn’t anything particularly special about this one.

Since the station wasn’t showing any signs of trouble, Neal had allowed them to explore in groups of three or more while he had others watching the ship to station access; just because the station showed all the signs of extremely lackluster security didn’t mean he would be making it easy for others to board the Folly.

* * *

“Old Man Foster is so hard up he’s putting kids to work?” a voice laughed from behind Brighteyes and Dusk. The chakats had been standing on the station side of the cargo access port leading into the Folly and turned to find a Voxxan male grinning at them.

“Samus Shays, first officer of the Rolling Thunder,” he stated as an introduction. “I happen to know Foster could have his pick of crews – so why are you kids here?”

“Shi’s Brighteyes and I’m Dusk. We sorta stowed away,” Dusk admitted, skipping the longer chakat naming in the informal settings of the docks.

“That doesn’t explain you two checkin’ off his cargo for him, nor those,” he added, indicating their phasers.

“An armed society is a polite society, or so the Captain’s been telling us,” Brighteyes told him.

“And some people are slower to start trouble if you look like you’re more than ready to finish it for them,” Dusk added. “Rolling Thunder, weren’t you guys at Parakit?”

“Yeah, we were there in time for the excitement. Got to hand it to that Old Man, he puts on one heck of a killer show.”

“So how do you know Captain Foster?” Dusk asked.

“Our ship’s old friends with your old man,” Samus snickered. “I was told he even helped name her way back when.”

“How?” Brighteyes wondered.

“He fed them beans. First time they’d ever seem them, I heard they were pretty good with some of the fixings he’d brought along – not so good a few hours later with most of them more than a little drunk and suddenly full of gas …”

“Oh, no,” Dusk muttered.

Samus grinned. “Story goes that several of the crew were having a farting contest and laughing their tails off when our captain lets out one to shame all the rest – loud, long and rumbling. Old Man Foster called him ‘the captain of rolling thunder’ and it stuck!”

“You mean they named your ship after a fart?” Brighteyes snickered as Dusk laughed.

“No, he named their new ship that; and even when sober the next morning the captain still liked the idea. ‘Course part of the problem with the naming of ships is all the really good names get overused.”

“Come on you guys,” Nightsky said from the other side of the cargo port with Calmmeadow. “You’re talking to someone that might tell us more about Neal and all you’re getting out of him are fart jokes?”

“Hey, he’s another one calling Neal an ‘old man’,” Dusk pointed out. “Now, can we just get him to tell us why?” shi half asked Samus with a grin.

Samus grinned back. “Sure, I’ll give you kids a hint. Ol’ Rolling Thunder is older than you are. All four of you. Combined,” he added with a laugh before continuing on his way.

Calmmeadow frowned before saying, “Depending on how old or young he thinks we are, what, sixty to eighty years old?”

“That would be their ship,” Nightsky pointed out. “And then Neal had to have been old enough at that time to be someone they’d listen to, even after he fed them all beans!”

“Even if he’s taking anti-aging drugs he’s not a hundred, no way,” Brighteyes complained. “Tess? How old is Neal?” shi asked, already knowing Tess wouldn’t tell them.

“Older than all of you combined,” Tess unhelpfully answered.

“Tess, how old is the Rolling Thunder?” Dusk asked.

“By whose calendar?” Tess replied with what sounded like a grin.

“Earth calendar,” Nightsky injected.

“Just under eighty-seven Earth years,” Tess replied. “The planet Voxxa has longer years than Earth does.”

“That makes it even more unbelievable, not less,” Dusk muttered.

“So it couldn’t have been Neal,” Brighteyes told them. “His grandfather then?”

“Must have been,” Nightsky allowed. “But something’s still not adding up. If most ships are running different routes, why are we running into Rolling Thunder again?”

“Maybe they’re following us?” Brighteyes suggested.

“Or maybe we’re the ones in their way,” Calmmeadow countered. “Neal has made several changes to his route because of us, could this not be one of his normal stops?”

“Not all freighters carry the same things to sell,” Tess pointed out. “Some only ship on consignment and there are times when one freighter may not have as much of something as the station wants or needs to buy.”

“How often do you trade cargoes with other ships like Lost Path?” Brighteyes asked.

“Quite often,” Tess admitted. “Sometimes we can actually make more of a profit handing off a stop than we would have delivering the cargo ourselves.”

“So what are we doing at this stop? It seems a bit run down,” shi pointed out.

“451F is a bit of a backwater station as Neal calls them, not as much a call for stopping here after some of the main space-lanes shifted a number of years ago.”

“But people still stop here?”

“Those needing to be in this area, and some just passing through.”

“So how much are we unloading here?” Calmmeadow asked.

“Not all that much as Rolling Thunder managed to get all their sales in before we showed up.”

“Did that have anything to do with us coming out of warp a light-day out and cooling off before coming in slowly?”

“A little,” Tess allowed. “Some ports like to try to run bidding wars between freighters to bring down the prices.”

“And Neal could undercut them all,” Dusk guessed.

“Could in most cases, but won’t because it would be bad for business,” Tess told hir.

“Because he’d make less in profits?”

“No, because it could hurt the other ships and stations involved.”

“Okay, I can see it hurting the ships, but how would it hurt the stations?” Brighteyes wondered.

Nightsky rolled hir eyes. “You haven’t seen how short-sighted some management types can be. My dad calls it ‘suicide by administration’.”

“Let’s say you were used to getting something for a certain price and a new seller showed up offering the very same item for half the price,” shi continued. “Say only half the buyers move over at first. The old sellers just lost half their business and either lose still more profits trying to compete or lose even more business by raising their prices to stay in business at all. Now let’s have that bargain seller move on after a while. The buyers have all gotten used to the low prices and figured them into their budgets. No more low prices, and not even the old prices as most of the old sellers have moved or closed down, and those still selling won’t be ready for the sudden increase in demand. In fact, prices often rise higher than they originally were.”

“Like trying to move out on your own,” Brighteyes said. “A couple of years ago we were complaining about something and my sister Smokingcoals made some silly comment about moving out. Mom and dad made us figure out just how much it would really cost us to leave the nest and do things our way. There were so many little costs we hadn’t even thought about because things were always there when we wanted them.”

“Like food?” Calmmeadow chuckled.

“Yeah. They gave us a budget that would just barely work so every time we went overboard on one thing we’d have to do without something else. We did not like being served three meals in a row of plain noodles because we’d spent too much on other things!” Brighteyes laughed. “So yeah, Neal dropping the rates too low too often could also hurt everyone.”

As they were talking, Roseberry and their three foxtaur teens returned from exploring the station.

“Your turns if you want,” Graysocks told them, “though I’ll warn you right now there’s nothing worth seeing.”

“I believe you,” Nightsky told hir. “Their online offerings were dismal.”

“So’s the emotional background,” Roseberry added. “It’s not as bad around those that are working, but a lot of those that aren’t preoccupied feel desperate, probably to get out of here. I asked Tess and apparently every ship that docks gets all but begged to take on passengers.”

“Didn’t you guys lose something?” Calmmeadow asked. “Weren’t Shadowcrest and our twin mini shadows with you?”

“They were, but they wanted to keep looking around after we gave up,” Redtail told them. “When we tried to press the issue, Shadowcrest pointed out that they were ‘three or more together’.”

“And Tess didn’t butt in,” Beechwood added.

“Tess, you are watching them closely I hope?” Calmmeadow half asked.

“Of course I am,” Tess replied. “And it looks like they’re just about to give up on this place as well,” she added.

* * *

“I guess they were right, there’s nothing to see here,” Shadowcrest was admitting to the other two shortly after getting out from under the teens’ control. As far as great adventures went this station was turning out to be a dump.

“I smell food,” Quickdash pointed out, sniffing the air. Shi wasn’t really so hungry as wanting to extend their independence just a little longer.

“Okay, a snack and then we head back before Neal or Tess yells at us,” Shadowcrest agreed.

 

 


 

Out Of The Frying Pan

 

The rabbit morph’s plain shipsuit was rumpled, she’d had to sleep in it the last few nights. Her funds were getting dangerously low if she was going to be able to afford a ticket off this station. There were only two ships in port at the moment, both freighters that had already rejected her electronic requests to travel on them as either crew or as a paying passenger. She was now sitting in the cheaper (and nastier) of the station’s two eateries nursing a cup of very bad coffee substitute when she heard one of the regular station crew mutter, “Fresh meat.”

She managed to hide her slight shudder; her long ears had picked up those same two words before, only with her as the intended victim. One of her hands slid down and her fingers moved to touch the knife she carried in a hidden pocket. It had saved her more than once, and it was looking like she might have need of it again.

Her reason for concern increased as she turned to watch a pre-teen chakat and two much younger taurs come into the room. She heard the wolf morph that had made the wisecrack snicker as they both took note that there didn’t happen to be any adults following those kids in.

The wolf was just beginning to rise from his seat when one of the many station vermin – a rat in this case – scurried out in front of the newcomers. The older chakat and the small foxtaur had both reached for their belt pouches while the younger chakat had simply snapped a wand off hir belt.

The wand came down in a flash, suddenly longer than the youth that held it, and it struck the rat with a sizzling crack.

The room was now completely silent as the chakat youth collapsed hir wand. Touching a different button extended a small sharp spike, which shi then used to stab the still quivering rat. The youth then pointed hir vermin-laden wand towards the wisecracking wolf and made it again extend to full length as shi stepped towards him – forcing the wolf to retreat until he fell back into his seat.

Another button press retracted the small spike and the now quite dead rat dropped to the table in front of the wolf, the softly crackling wand still aimed at his muzzle. “Your fresh meat, sir,” the much smaller chakat sarcastically told him. “Enjoy.”

There were several snickers and some outright laughter at the wolf’s stunned expression, and no one was now entertaining any thoughts at all of blocking or otherwise crowding these ‘kids’.

The excitement over, her own unneeded blade disappeared back into its pocket as the rabbit turned back around in her seat and returned to nursing her tiny bit of bad coffee; she’d have to find another place to sit once it ran out.

It, therefore, came as a shock when a food tray was set on the table next to her. She twisted around to find the wand-wielding youth grinning up at her, the other two not far behind with more snacks for themselves.

“The rest of them were going to watch the show, but you were going to try to help us,” the older chakat told her. “And you feel hungry,” shi added, indicating the tray.

“No one does anything on this station for free,” the rabbit told them. “What is this going to cost me?”

“You already paid it,” the smaller chakat told her.

“If you’re sure,” the rabbit said as she moved her cup out of the way and allowed the youth to slide the tray in front of her. Taking a small bite of the rather bland fare she asked, “So, what brings you three here and do you have names?”

“Quickdash, Holly, and I’m Shadowcrest. We were just looking around some before we head back to our ship,” the preteen told her. “And you are…?”

“Suzan Pebble. I am, or at least was, a chef. As they won’t hire me here, I’m looking for a way off this station. Sadly, whichever ship out there is yours isn’t interested in a passenger or any additional crew.”

“We could use a good cook,” Holly pointed out.

“Won’t matter if Tess has already told her no,” Quickdash countered.

“Then we won’t ask permission, we’ll beg forgiveness – after it’s too late,” Shadowcrest suggested with a grin. Suzan found herself a little unsettled by the answering grins the younger two were now giving her as the preteen told her, “Eat, and then we’ll go get your things.”

A locker by one of the closed ports disgorged her few cases, just what she had managed to get off her last ship in one load and unassisted. Shadowcrest helped by grabbing a couple of them and they headed for the open port.

* * *

Roseberry wasn’t the only one frowning when shi saw their missing three – plus one. “Did you get authorization?” shi asked.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell. Think Cindy and Parakit,” Shadowcrest told hir before adding, “She’s a cook!”

“Then you get to explain her to Dad,” Roseberry allowed. Shi waited until the inner hatch had closed behind them before saying, “Tess, you’re allowing this?”

“For the moment, though I will make sure we don’t actually leave before Neal knows and has okayed her.”

 

 


 

Trial By Cookie

 

She had her paw in the hatch, but Suzan knew she was far from being on her way just yet, and a promise from a youth wasn’t a guarantee of passage or a job from the ship’s captain. At her suggestion, Shadowcrest led her to the small kitchen the kids had set up so she might prepare a couple of sample treats for the captain and crew.

“Coconut, coconut,” Suzan was quietly muttering to herself as she checked the walk-in cooler shelves for the ingredients she hoped to find for her treats.

“Two shelves to your right, third shelf from the bottom,” a voice behind her said.

“Thanks!” she called back as she hurried over to the indicated shelf. Turning to thank her helper again she found she was alone. “Huh,” she murmured before getting back to work.

* * *

While Suzan prepared to show her merit, Shadowcrest was having trouble finding any additional support for hir actions.

“You’re on your own explaining it to The Captain,” Alex was telling hir. “Neal as ‘Dad’ might be a soft touch when he wants to be, but this concerns the ‘ship’, so you’ll have more of a battle convincing ‘The Captain’.”

“What did Weaver say?” Cindy asked.

“She’s taking a nap, and Tess suggested I not disturb her,” Shadowcrest didn’t quite whine.

“Go on, get in there and get it over with,” Alex gently but firmly suggested, indicating where they all knew Neal was out of sight but in no way out of mind.

* * *

Ever since the kids had started taking over the bridge stations, Neal had started using one of the neighboring cabins as an office/captain’s day room where he could try to get a little work done while still pretending to be keeping an eye and an ear on the running of his ship.

A tap of a claw on the frame of the open door informed Neal that someone wanted his attention. Looking up he found Shadowcrest standing at the door, looking like shi would prefer to be almost anywhere else. He had semi-overheard part of a quiet yet ‘heated’ discussion between some of the bridge crew and the young chakat just a few minutes earlier. Neal wondered if this was in some way related.

Shi just stood at the door, so Neal waved hir in. Shi still looked like shi didn’t know what to say, so he keyed the door closed so shi could speak without hir siblings’ big ears picking up hir every word. When shi still said nothing, Neal came around the desk and wrapped hir in a hug.

Feeling hir trembling, he shook his head as he quietly asked hir, “Okay, just how much trouble did you get yourself into this time?”

“I-I told someone they could ride with us,” a now almost tearful Shadowcrest blurted out. “She says she’s a really good cook!”

“Even if she’s the best cook in all the worlds, that doesn’t mean she’ll be a good match for this ship,” Neal softly told hir. “Hell, we’d probably drive her crazy before she can escape at our next port.”

“Please? I promised her we could take her.”

“You gave her your word?”

“Please?” shi begged tearfully.

“How did you end up being the only one to bring this to me? Which of the teens helped you bring her onboard?”

“It was me, Holly, and Quick,” shi mumbled.

What?”

“We were three!” shi insisted, “Just like your rules!”

Neal frowned at hir a little as he said, “And I’d hoped that you were a little smarter than that. Three kids running around by themselves will look like easy targets to those that prey on the young and the weak.”

“One of them was thinking about it,” Shadowcrest admitted. “Quick-zapping a rat helped him change his mind.”

“One thing about being a big sister is being a role model for those two and not giving them bad examples to follow.”

“Why was it a bad example?” shi asked, sounding a little surprised.

“You’ve now shown them that you think ‘any three’ will do. So, what if next time they tell Weaver they’ll watch Star? Then there are three of them – right?”

Now looking even more worried than when shi came in, Shadowcrest murmured, “I’m sorry.”

He let out a small sigh before releasing hir and saying, “Go blow your nose and wash away those tears. Then you can go bring me your cook.”

Neal waited until Shadowcrest was out the door and around the corner before waving the door closed.

“Tess?” he growled.

“Yes, Boss,” came the overly cheerful response.

“You didn’t think you needed to warn me of what was going on?”

“No, Boss.”

“And for some reason, you think this cook is a good idea.”

“Yes, Boss.”

“And just what did you see or find out that makes you like this cook so much?”

“As she’s a Xanadu Space Lines employee, I’ve got her last twenty years of employment and credit history ready when you are. I was also watching very carefully when our youngest three decided to try flying solo. It was obvious to me that they had detected the loathing directed at them and they were more than ready to act on it.”

“Did they try to back off or call for help?”

“Now, now, Boss, you’re a fine one to talk about setting bad examples. Luckily for their would-be attacker, a rat picked a bad time to come out of hiding and Quick used it to demonstrate what would happen to anyone trying to ‘mess’ with them. The badge cameras also caught their cook start to rise and bring out a knife just before Quick did hir thing. Boss, that cook is quite desperate to get off this station. Among other reasons is that she’s almost out of funds to try to escape on her own.”

“And for some reason, you think we should take her on?”

“At least to a better stop than this hole in the wall, Boss. Besides, she’s making you cookies!”

“I’m putting on enough weight without adding cookies to the mix,” Neal muttered.

“If gaining a qualified nutritionist and chef isn’t enough, then how about the fun of stealing her from your good friend Theodore Boothe?” Tess teasingly asked.

Neal snorted at her, but he did sit back down. “Data?” he requested.

“Take your time,” Tess told him. “I told Shady to hold off on bringing in hir cook until the cookies were done.”

So Neal did take his time. The first thing that stood out in her employment records was she was in it for the long haul, several of her earlier jobs either lasting years – or mere weeks when she didn’t like something about the job or the people in question. Digging deeper brought up company awards and bonuses for her work – right up until sixteen weeks ago. Sixteen weeks ago she had been transferred by Xanadu Space Lines – her current company of over ten years – to their cruise liner Southern Breeze, a ship that seemed to have been having a problem in her kitchens. That in itself wasn’t a surprise; it seems this chef had straightened out the cooking staffs of several of their other cruise ships for them. The surprise was all of the positive reviews started being replaced by very negative ones. The first officer of the Southern Breeze had gone so far as to protest her actions onboard his ship. The strange thing was that ship status reports from both the cooking staff and the first officer had suddenly turned more positive after their stop at Station 451F, some four weeks prior to the Folly arriving.

Next came what Tess had dug up on her presence while on 451F. These included a local security transcript three weeks prior to her defending herself from a rape attempt with a knife much like the one Tess had spotted. Neal’s smile was grim as he keyed in a search for any accidents or injuries reported on board the Southern Breeze while their cook had been there and Tess found that the first officer and what was most likely one of their problem chefs had both been treated for similar injuries just days before their ship had docked at Station 451F.

Neal leaned back in his chair and said, “And just where is Boothe’s cook now?”

“Busy handing out bribes – I mean cookies – she’s busy handing out cookies to the rest of your crew,” Tess cheerfully informed him.

“Have Shady bring her in,” he requested.

While Neal would never consider himself what they used to call a ‘gentleman’, he could at least fake it when he felt like it, so he rose as his visitor came in with Shadowcrest trailing behind her with a tray of cookies.

“Ms Pebble, if you’d like to have a seat,” Neal offered while looking over what might soon be his new employee. She was tall for a rabbit morph – even without counting her ears – though still a bit shorter than his own one point eight meters; with a light brown coat with darker brown hair and a creamy white ruff poking out of her shipsuit – which it seems someone had managed to clean and un-rumple since the images Tess had shown him of her coming onto the ship. Bright green eyes looked back into his blue as if trying to guess which way he was going to handle her being dumped on him.

“Thank you, Captain Foster,” she quietly replied, coming further into his office. “Would you care for a cookie?” she asked as Shadowcrest started to bring them forward.

“Thank you, but no,” Neal replied, having already caught the aroma of her bribe. “I’ve never cared much for coconut.”

“Oh,” she said softly. Behind her, Shadowcrest looked stricken.

Neal half grinned at their reactions. “Relax you two,” he told them, “it’s not the end of the world.” Looking at Shadowcrest he asked, “So, are they any good?”

“They’re really good!” Shadowcrest insisted, hir head bobbing up and down.

“They’re very good indeed,” Weaver said from the door. “I would advise the good captain to keep her; otherwise I will be preparing all of his future meals for him.”

“Now there’s a threat if ever I’ve heard one,” Neal muttered darkly as she grinned back at him.

“She followed us home – can we keep her?” Holly asked with a grin of her own from next to her mother.

“She can stay in my room if you’re going to say we don’t have the space for her!” Quickdash tossed in from behind the others.

“Insubordinate, the lot of you. Out,” Neal ordered with the wave of his hand; the door then slid closed, leaving the rabbit morph to fend for herself. He again waved her to a seat before resuming his own.

Leaning back in his chair, Neal said, “Southern Breeze appears to be in warp or too far from a relay to hail, so I’m not able to get their side of the story; but I do have some limited connections with Xanadu Space Lines, and your records there that I’ve managed to acquire trouble me, Ms Pebble. I don’t like being troubled, so before I say yea or nay to you hanging around I hope you don’t mind if I make a call or three.”

“No, Captain. Call away.”

“How well does your company’s CEO know you?”

“He knows me very well, Sir. I’ve catered Mr Boothe’s daughters’ birthday parties when I was there at the right times.”

“Tess? What time is it there?”

“Just past lunchtime their local time, Boss.”

“Give him a ring if you would please.”

“His personal assistant says he’s busy and can’t be disturbed,” Tess told them a minute later.

“Try his private line, low priority,” Neal suggested. He ignored Suzan’s raised eyebrow at her apparent wonder of how or why he might know or have such a number.

“Who?” was the distracted reply from a dark-furred mongoose morph, quickly followed by a bit livelier, “Foster? What the hell are you doing on this line?”

“Testing a theory, Theodore, I take it you’re not actually too busy to be disturbed?” Neal replied.

“No, why?”

“Because going through regular channels I was told you were too busy for a little chat.”

“My personal assistant gets a little overzealous every now and then, but she should know better than to block callers that are on my list,” Theodore assured him.

“Well, before we worry too much about that, I want you to tell me about a cook I’ve heard you have working for you; female rabbit morph, I believe the name’s Pebble.”

“You can’t have her, no way in hell!” Theodore blurted out after only a moment’s thought.

“That good huh?” Neal asked with an evil smile.

“Yes, she is that good, and I’ll thank you to keep your grubby human mitts off her!”

“So, where is she now?”

“Out on the Southern Breeze. I understand it’s been a struggle, but she’s finally making some headway with them. Why?”

“Humor me,” Neal told him. “I’m guessing those more positive reports started – oh I’d guess about four weeks ago?”

“I think so but I’ll have to check to be sure. And how or why would you know or care?”

“Check if you would please, and see if you can find out who in your office spoke to her the most recently,” Neal suggested.

“What are you playing at, Foster?”

“You’ll know when we get your answers,” Neal told him.

Keying something on his desk, Neal and Suzan watched as Theodore said: “Diane, I need the latest reports from Suzan Pebble on the Southern Breeze and who here last personally spoke with her.”

“I have her report here and I spoke with her just three days ago, Sir – she was quite pleased with the progress she’s making,” another voice promptly reported.

The mongoose saw Neal drag a finger across his throat and said, “Thank you, please forward that report to me,” before dropping the connection to his aide.

Neal’s eyes were hard as he said, “That there’s one of your bad apples, old son. Pebble left that ship of yours over four weeks ago at Station 451F after having to fight off the first officer and one of the cooks.” Looking at someone Theodore couldn’t see, Neal’s eyes softened a little as he added, “You didn’t think I could possibly know about that, did you?” At Theodore’s look of confusion, Neal’s hand gave a little twisting wave and the outgoing screen split to add a very surprised looking Suzan to the mongoose’s view.

“Suzan? How the hell did she end up with you?” Theodore finally demanded.

Neal grinned. “A couple of members of my crew offered her a ride without checking with me first. Lucky for all of us, as I’d already rejected her electronic request – as well as the requests of over a dozen others looking for rides or work.”

“Suzan, I’ll have funds to you shortly and a ship to pick you up as quickly as it can get there – right after I have security toss my soon to be late PA out the door!”

“You might want to question her before you eject her – there’s no telling what other damage she’s been hiding from you,” Neal told him. “As far as Ms Pebble here is concerned, do you happen to remember telling me a while back that possession was nine-tenths of the law?” he asked with a grin.

“I’m not letting you get away with her, Neal!”

“Letting nothing, we released the docking clamps while I was trying to get past your PA; we’ll be going to warp as soon as I say goodbye. The next stop she can try to run from me will be in about five to seven days. I’ll make sure she drops you a line when we get there,” Neal told him with a grin.

“Neal, I want her back safe and sound damn you!”

“That would be up to her,” Neal replied with a grin. “See ya,” he added before tapping a key that dropped their view of Theodore. Smiling more naturally at Suzan he said, “Okay, so I lied about us already being under way. You now know that you’ll soon have funds so you can safely wait here for a better ride, or you can come with us and at least find a better place to jump ship.”

“Aren’t you afraid of what your crew might do to you if you try to kick me off your ship?” Suzan asked with a grin now that she had some better-looking options to work with.

“If they don’t like you leaving they can jump ship with you,” Neal countered. “Though I wouldn’t think of it as a very good idea on their part.”

“It wouldn’t be,” Suzan allowed. “But any port in the storm as they say.” Looking thoughtfully at him she said, “Hypothetically speaking, how would a new chef go about impressing this ship’s captain?”

“By being a good cook,” Neal replied with a snort. “Though there are rumors that he’s fond of such simple and easy-to-make things as a good apple cobbler, cherry pies, or black forest cakes…”

“I’ll just have to see what I can come up with then,” Suzan said with a laugh. “Anything other than coconut to avoid?”

“Earth mushrooms, most of the squash family and bell peppers, a number of other things he’d prefer not to eat,” Neal admitted. “Not that you shouldn’t serve them to the rest of the crew, just have an alternative.”

“In that case, you can break dock and head out whenever you’re ready, Captain Foster. I’m willing to try this for a week, we’ll just have to see where we stand after that.”

Neal nodded and tapped another key on his desk. “Tess, break locks and get us moving. Shady, to my ready room.” The door opened before he was finished speaking as the preteen had been waiting apprehensively on the other side. Indicating Suzan, he said, “Find her a room, run her past Nightsky if shi’s available for uniforms and outfits, and then walk her through the ship safety drills. Oh! First thing is if Suzan has any copies of her reports for her head office, you can show her where and how to load them up and we’ll send them out before we go to warp.”

Once the door was firmly closed behind chakat youth and rabbit, Neal reopened the screen with Theodore still frowning on it. “As you saw, she’s sticking around of her own free will.”

“You bastard,” the mongoose muttered at him.

“Finders keepers losers weepers; and the way you’re growling I’m guessing she’s quite the keeper,” Neal chuckled.

“And her loyalty – if you can earn it – is priceless,” Theodore admitted. “I see I’m going to have me a very long week culling the ones that may have cost me that loyalty,” he darkly mumbled.

“And I wish you luck with your hunt, the really bad ones will have layers of cutouts to hide behind,” Neal warned him.

“I know, I’ll have to hire an outside team as security may have been one of the departments corrupted. Damn it!”

“Could have been worse,” Neal quietly said. When Theodore looked up to glare at him he added, “Your Ms Pebble could have failed to have safely escaped from that ship and still be under their control – if not killed off by some strange ‘accident’. And in either of those cases, you’d still just be sitting there, fat, dumb and happy with how things were going.”

“Take good care of her, Neal.”

“I will. You take care as well, it sounds like you’ll be stirring up a real nest of snakes over there.”

“Oh, I know how to deal with snakes.”

“I know you do; I’ve known you far longer than she has.”

“So, a week before I know if you’ve managed to steal her away from me?”

“A week, though it might be my crew that does the actual stealing.”

“Since when did you start running a crew?”

“Since I failed to detect some stowaways.”

“That’s not like you.”

“No, it’s not, but it’s been interesting so far – and Tess tells me we’re almost clear of the station for real this time.”

“Well, goodbye then, and we’ll speak again in a week.”

“Goodbye,” Neal agreed and the connection dropped.

* * *

“Out!” Suzan finally had to command. It was nice to have help – even mostly unskilled labor – but there just wasn’t enough room for her and all of them in the small galley at the same time!

Fortunately, her new crewmates had taken being ordered out with smiles and not a few laughs. Alone with her thoughts for the moment, she frowned at what she had to work with. While barely adequate to do basic cooking for so many, it would never do for the types of meals she had been hoping to prepare for them.

But it was a poor craftsman indeed that blamed their tools. The thought forced a soft snort out of the rabbit as she considered one particular cook on her last ship who had laid blame on anything or anyone other than himself. She spared a thought to wishing she could have been there when he and the rest of his friends were kicked off the Southern Breeze. Still, despite not having all the gear she’d like, this ship did have a couple of positive things going for it. After meeting her new captain, Shadowcrest had shown her to hydroponics sections the teens had growing, and some of the chives, oregano, basil, sage and rosemary were already large enough for her to harvest and add to their dinners.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the hatch opening to admit one of the few of her new crewmates that hadn’t been crowding her kitchen the first time around.

Nightsky grinned at the rabbit morph as shi said, “I’m Nightsky, daughter of Starfrost and Astral.”

Suzan returned the grin as she countered, “Suzan Pebble, and you certainly look the part, but I bet you get a lot of that.”

“Yes, and I heard you had to chase the others out, but before you run me off I thought you might like a couple of aprons before things start getting too messy,” shi said as shi offered them. “Nothing fancy, just the basics.”

“So that’s why you weren’t in here when I shooed the others out. Yes, I would, thank you,” Suzan said as she accepted the bundle of cloth. “I understand I’ll be seeing you about some uniforms as well?”

“You were scanned coming onto the Folly so I already have your measurements, and I should have a couple of them done in time for you to wear tomorrow. Or some chef's jackets if you’d prefer those over aprons. If you like the way they fit, I can whip up some more – or adjust as needed,” the chakat told her. “And there isn’t really a uniform per se, just some off-blue fabric I made into something like a uniform – not that we wear them all that often.” Getting a thoughtful look in hir eye shi added, “I understand that we have you for a week before you might be leaving us?”

“Yes?” Suzan agreed, wondering what shi was leading up to.

If you decide to stay on, tell the captain he has to upgrade your gear. He’ll do it if you ask.”

“I’ll think about it,” Suzan agreed. “But first I’d have to convince you guys to keep me beyond the week.”

Nightsky tilted hir head a little and grinned. “As a chef, I’m guessing one of the things you brought with you was your little spice rack?”

“You know your chefs,” Suzan laughed, “but…”

“As to knowing chefs, my father is a pretty good one if I do say so myself. Has hir own restaurant and all. No, you can’t make a meal on just spices, but you can save a lot of prep time mixing up and spicing up some of our ready meals and use the time saved on desserts.”

“You think your captain will let me get away with that?” she asked in surprise.

“Your first day with you having no idea what you even have to work with? Trust me, he’ll cut you some slack.”

“Well, help me find some ingredients and you can tell me how a pack of youngsters ended up on a ship like this.”

“Well, like what I’ve heard so far about you, we were where we shouldn’t have been …”

* * *

Dinner went very well for the ship’s new cook. While the crew had thought Suzan had been quite creative in mixing up the ready meals, the spices and seasonings she added had made the meal. That, and the hot apple cobbler under ice cream.

Two of the teens had volunteered to do the cleanup while the rest dragged their new cook to the holosuite.

It was a few hours (and a few chores) later that Neal entered the holosuite. He had planned to simply walk the trails for an hour, both to give himself a little exercise as well as to give his mind a semi-rest on a technical problem he was trying to figure out. The room was large enough that the entire crew could be in there ‘alone’ together and he’d used it in ‘private’ mode a couple of times already.

He found his thoughts derailed when he passed the ‘stinger station’ for what he was now realizing had to be the third if not the fourth time. The station was normally positioned by the access point so those wanting to play ‘tag’ could just grab a stinger and go, but now one had appeared by the lake. Neal had ignored it before because he wasn’t really interested in playing at that particular moment.

“Tess …” he muttered.

“Oh come on, Boss. You need to decouple from your work for a bit – more than you are – and there’s even a fresh target out there! Do be advised though that she’s been giving back every bit as good as she’s been getting.”

Neal snorted lightly but picked up one of the stingers. This made him now visible to all the others currently playing stinger tag.

Since these stingers were just artifacts of the holosuite, Tess had complete control over how – or even if – they worked. In this case, the stingers aimed and fired like stunners set on a very narrow beam, the closer the target the stronger and more pinpoint the hit the ‘target’ would feel; which in turn meant the victim had some idea of the direction and distance of their attacker.

Neal continued his walk, still more interested in his thoughts than in finding himself someone to target.

This didn’t mean Neal was going to have a quiet walk though, as there were others out there that thought that he would make a wonderful target.

Calmmeadow was the first to get a good hit on their token human, shooting him square in the back. It took Neal a minute to find hir and return fire as shi was hiding halfway up a nearby tree.

Warned of this new direction of attack, Neal nailed two of the other tree-borne chakats before they had a good shot at him. “Thank you for wagging your tails in anticipation,” he cheerfully told Brighteyes and Nightsky.

“There’s always next time!” Brighteyes called back.

“Just another chance for me to get you!” Neal laughed – just before someone again shot him in the back!

Turning, Neal found nothing but the lake behind him with only a few rocks half in the water to hide behind.

Charging the rocks, Neal quickly looked over them. No one behind them, nowhere they could have run or splashed off to without him seeing or hearing them. That’s when he noticed a few small bubbles rising in the quiet waters between the rocks. After waiting almost a full minute, a brown and white nose slowly rose from the depths. Neal grinned as he set his stinger as low as it would go and gently ‘tagged’ said nose, which quickly vanished only to be replaced by a now choking rabbit.

After helping a rather soggy looking Suzan out of the water Neal grinned and handed her a comm badge.

“To make me an easier target, Captain?” she asked.

“Not at all, I’d hardly need this if I just wanted to tag you,” he chuckled. “Along with comm functions it’ll keep an eye on your health and environment,” Neal told her.

“My environment? Why?” Suzan asked.

Neal snorted. “Many, many years ago when I was a mere engineering second, I had a little ‘accident’ involving a ship’s cook.”

“Oh?”

“It was my second full shift on a new-to-me ship, and I was late for the shift briefing. I told my new boss that I was late because I had been performing a task for the bridge, but one of my new Voxxan crewmates called me on it – claiming I smelled of the galley.”

“Our furry noses are more sensitive,” Suzan pointed out.

“Yes, they are,” Neal agreed, “but I actually hadn’t been to the galley that morning, I’d been replacing a sticking thruster control valve. Since the gas used is almost odorless to most noses, I’d been carrying around a gas detector set to detect just that gas. While their kitchen used the same gas for things that required an open flame, burning it normally killed the odor.”

“Surely their kitchen had gas detectors,” Suzan injected.

“They did, but their cook had disabled one of them due to too many false alarms and she had turned off the ventilation fans so they wouldn’t blow the flour she was working on all over the place – so the one at the far end of the room had yet to trip over its threshold.”

“So what happened?”

“From the cook’s point of view – a little Caitian female by the way – there’s this human she’s never seen before barging in, yelling that she has to get out of there right now, some test unit in his hand screeching a warning. When she tries to argue the damn fool picks her up and physically starts carrying her out. That happened to annoy her just a little.”

“Just a bit,” Suzan agreed, snickering at the tale so far.

“Yeah, she raked her claws up my back and some of the crew were coming to rescue their cook,” Neal chuckled. “It’s funny now, but there weren’t five seconds from me dragging her out and getting the door sealed before the gas ignited.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, and I’d just as soon not have to ever do that again.”

“You ran all the way to the galley without warning the others of the gas?”

“The records showed that I did yell ‘Shut them down – gas leak!’ as I knocked a couple of people over getting past them and my boss hit the galley hatch just in time to be knocked off his feet when the gas ignited. They did close off the valves in engineering – but the galley was already past its flashpoint.”

“So, you’ll be monitoring me.”

“No more than I do everyone else – including myself. All slaved to the main computer, which acts immediately on any detected hazards.”

“So I shouldn’t claw you if you try carrying me out of my kitchen?”

“Nor should you stick me with that little blade of yours – you’ll find there’s normally a somewhat reasonable reason behind most of my madness.”

“I am a little surprised you haven’t asked me to stop carrying it,” she admitted.

“Why should I?” Neal asked her with a grin. “As a cook, how in the heck could I expect you to do your job without a knife? Besides,” he added, “you’re actually under-armed for this bunch.”

“Really?”

“Really. I can’t always be guarding every one of them every moment they’re off the ship, so they have to be able to depend on themselves and each other.”

“Is that why those three kids were taking on the station roughnecks?”

“No, that was those three using a loophole to do something they thought I’d frown on. I am going to have to have a word or two with them about it.”

“Don’t be too hard on them, they were handling themselves pretty well from what I saw.”

“We were lucky. That asshole might have acted without mouthing off first.”

“True, and I’d never seen spikes on pain sticks before,” she admitted.

“A little military upgrade for when the intended target is wearing protective clothing or a suit.”

“Ah. And may I ask why you have someone so young carrying them?”

“Ask hir, shi might just tell you,” Neal suggested with a smile.

“One other thing while you’re here. I don’t like making excuses, but I’m going to need a little bit more of a kitchen to do more than change up what you already have.”

Neal nodded. “I know,” he told her. “For now, work with what you’ve got. I don’t expect you to be able to manage entire meals from scratch, but I’m sure a few treats, snacks, maybe a dessert every now and then won’t be frowned upon by the crew.”

“And their captain?”

“And their captain, though he’s more a meat and potatoes type. Keep it simple, have plenty of it and you won’t go wrong by him,” Neal assured her.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Suzan told him with a grin.

* * *

The next day went as normally as days on the good ship Folly could go with the crew working shifts, training and working on personal projects.

“I thought those two were working evening shifts,” Neal commented as he watched Graysocks and Beechwood hurrying by heading the other way.

“Strangely enough, Boss, most of your crew seem to be readjusting their shifts so that they can better partake of the meals prepared by our newest crewmember.”

“Not here a day and already stirring things up,” Neal grumbled.

“And you’re not up this early just because she’s here either – right, Boss?”

* * *

“How does the captain like his coffee?” Suzan asked as she poured for Dusk.

“He doesn’t,” Dusk replied. “He’s got a variety of teas he drinks.”

“A bit of a tea snob?” Suzan wondered.

Dusk laughed. “More like a tea slob! I’ve watched him cut the strings off some tea bags, throw them in his big mug and add ice and water. When I asked, he claimed to like that it would start off weak and get stronger as it steeped. Something about some things not always being the same.”

“Hmm, so maybe I should mix things up a little more at mealtime,” Suzan said with a grin.

“Oh, if you’re trying to stay in the captain’s good graces, you might want to warm up your omelet cooking skills,” Dusk suggested. “While he doesn’t have one every day, he does fix himself a rather messy one some mornings.”

“That I can do as well. Did you by chance happen to notice what all he mixed in?”

* * *

Their new cook was quick to demonstrate that she liked to play with the food and mess with their minds. At lunch three apparently identical meat dishes were offered – but each had been spiced to appeal to a different palate.

Later, at the end of the evening meal, more than one person noticed when Cindy turned down the hot brownies with ice cream.

“You didn’t eat much of your meal either,” Weaver noted. “Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine,” Cindy told her. “Just trying to cut down a little on what I eat.”

“Why? You’re looking good to me,” Alex told her.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with you asking me if I knew where the scales were so you could check your weight – does it?” Nightsky asked her.

“I’ve gained ten kilos!” Cindy protested.

“Scales said nine point six,” Nightsky reminded her. “And all of your clothes still fit you just fine. While I have been adjusting our outfits as we grow and develop, I haven’t needed to touch any of yours yet.”

“But I’m getting fat!” she didn’t quite whine at them.

“Come here,” Neal asked her. Cindy seemed semi-reluctant, but she came – and all but Suzan were only half surprised when he pulled her down into his lap.

“Yup, she feels a bit heftier,” he acknowledged. “But where is it all going?”

Giving him something between a glare and a smirk, Cindy twisted around in his lap and then pulled his head into her cleavage much as they’d seen Brajet do when they first met her on Parakit.

“Nice,” those not laughing heard Neal mumble from within. “But these are not kilos bigger,” he added while extracting himself.

He poked and prodded at her for a minute as the others looked on. Thigh and calf got squeezed, as did arm and forearm.

A goose/grope/pinch got her out of his lap and rubbing her butt as he said, “Yes, you’ve put on some weight, but only because muscle mass weighs more than fat. Is it just me or are you also a little taller?”

“Over three centimeters,” Nightsky replied. “But she hasn’t grown past the extra length I had sewn in.”

“In other words, we’d be more concerned if you weren’t gaining any weight,” Neal told her. “Though I am a little disappointed with Alex, I was actually expecting you to gain a bit more the way he’s been working you.”

“I didn’t want to scare her off by rushing her,” Alex told him.

Neal smiled. “I think you’re doing a pretty good job if it took her this long to notice the changes.”

“So,” Suzan asked Cindy, waving her serving spoon, “A double helping to make up for the light meal?”

 

 


 

Abstinence

 

“Abstinence? They were telling their kids to practice abstinence?” Chakat Brighteyes asked in shock.

“That’s what this old record claims,” Graysocks replied as she looked up from the display. With most of them now on their new cook’s shift, several of the teens were spending their free time in the main lounge, reading out bits of the things they were finding in the Folly’s surprisingly extensive library of the past centuries.

“From the era of blue-balls and badly bitching bitches?” Alex laughed from where he and Mike were going over some of Folly’s older logbooks.

“From one of the many eras of stupid parents,” Neal butted in from where he sat with yet another puzzle in front of him. “Us humans seem to like doing stupid in waves or cycles.”

“But abstinence? No sex – really?” Chakat Nightsky didn’t quite demand from where shi sat with four of the other teens – happy for any distraction from the card game shi was losing.

Neal grinned as if in memory. “And what does that record you’re reading say about the sexual attitudes of the generation or so before that one?”

“It said something about them having some kind of a sexual revolution in the same area,” Graysocks admitted. “How does that even make sense?”

“Think of a pendulum, in this case swinging hard from one extreme to the other every generation or so,” Neal told them. “Then throw in human nature and that some can be too overprotective of their children.”

“How would being overprotective cause something like that?” Nightsky wondered.

“You morphs with your heat and rut cycles that you can’t ignore are not going to be able to wrap your furry little heads around this in relation to sex,” Neal told them. “Hmmm, maybe something else … water.”

“Water?” Cindy asked in surprise.

“Water. Your parents played in it, bathed in it, maybe even conceived a couple of brats in it – and then there was one pup that drowned in it. Not wanting to risk her own pups to drowning, a fearful mother kept hers away from the water and petitioned that others’ pups not be allowed in the water either – for their own safety of course …”

“That’s why you use ‘think of the children’ as a curse,” Alex pointed out.

“Because that kind of thinking endangers those children far more than it ever protects them,” Neal replied. “The pups from the anti-water moms never learned how to swim, never learned how strongly a current can pull at them. A far better way would be to teach them to swim and water safety as soon as they’re able. Teach them the dangers and to respect the water – but not to fear it.”

“So the abstinence kids reach the age and get into sex with no idea the dangers – or even how to do it properly?” Calmmeadow asked, sounding mystified by the whole idea.

“Never mind birth control or the diseases that couldn’t be cured back then. The kids of the sexual revolution became parents and remembered all the crazy, stupid and sometimes dangerous stunts they’d pulled and somehow lived through,” Neal agreed.

“And then tried to over-protect their kids rather than educating them,” Graysocks growled.

“Trying to childproof the rest of the world rather than world-proofing their own kids. And then when those ignorant, uneducated kids got hurt or in trouble, those same idiot parents would then use it as proof that they had been right all along,” Neal softly said.

“That’s why you’re always throwing things at us, you’re trying to world-proof us!” Shadowcrest exclaimed, proud that Neal thought shi was old enough to be treated like the older teens. On one of hir fingers rested a rather ugly looking little bird, one that had fluttered down from its nest the first time shi’d been allowed back in the aviary to help feed them – and every time shi’d gone in there since. Shi was holding out for calling the little cockatiel Brave Heart rather than Neal’s jokingly suggestion of Foolish Featherling.

“I couldn’t possibly keep you guys around long enough to teach you about everything you might run into out there. But that won’t stop me and Tess from giving you the best chances we can. Deities save me when your birth parents find out about some of the things we’ve been teaching you.”

“Unlike what my father was trying to do to me …” Cindy softly muttered.

“He needed you to remain someone he could continue to control,” Mike told her. “Somehow, I don’t think he’ll be pleased with how you’re adapting to living on the Folly.”

“And I don’t think they’ll mind that they can toss almost anything at us and we can take it,” Alex told Neal. “Like I told you when you first found us, my folks would much rather rescue me from jail than the hospital or the morgue.”

“As would I,” Neal agreed. “Though I’d like it even more if you’d manage to stay out of trouble in the first place.”

You’re a fine one to talk,” Weaver commented from where she was sitting with Starblazer.

“I am a fine one to talk,” Neal agreed as their still brand-new cook came in with a plate stacked high with freshly baked chocolate chunk cookies. “I wasn’t the one sneaking still more strays onto my ship.”

“Is the captain saying he doesn’t want any fresh-from-the-oven cookies?” Suzan asked, holding the plate just out of said captain’s reach.

“No,” Neal told her. “The captain was simply stating that he was doing his best to stay out of trouble.”

“No,” Suzan countered. “The person I saw giving Mr. Boothe a hard time enjoys causing trouble.”

“Not here two whole days and she’s got your number, Dad,” Alex told him.

“Or she thinks she does anyway,” Neal agreed as Suzan finally brought the plate into easy reach and he snagged a couple off the top of the pile.

After offering everyone else cookies Suzan returned to where Neal was finishing off his second one. “I seem to recall you saying something about having a larger cooking area I might be able to use?” she asked as she offered him the plate again.

“Good of a time as any,” Neal agreed as he waved off the offering of another cookie and got up from his chair. “Been sitting too long as it is.”

It started with just Suzan, but Neal soon found himself leading a parade, as everyone else wanted to see what was going on. The parade came to a halt in front of one of the many doors that would never open when the others had tried them before. Next to the double-wide door, Neal reached up to pull off the protective film that had covered the identification sign for the room beyond.

‘Officers’ Sub-Mess One’ the signboard proclaimed in Terranglo at just below Neal’s chin level. Well above it was some Katang Low Tongue and Ratarsk script that said the same thing for those that could read it, with Yatta and more Ratarsk script running just below the Terranglo.

With the others, Suzan looked up and down the board before she nodded. “Prepared for anyone that happens to show up?” she asked.

“We try,” Neal admitted as the doors now slid apart and allowed them access.

The room inside was empty and bare – and at least three if not four times larger than their group actually needed.

“And this is a sub-mess?” Suzan asked with a laugh. “What’s the main mess look like?”

“Bigger,” Neal warned as they crossed to the next set of doors that hid the galley from the dining area.

Suzan was the first one eagerly through the doors, but she stopped dead when she saw what she had – or in this case, didn’t have to work with.

“Well, shit,” she muttered in a most unladylike manner – earning muffled snickers from a few of the teen chakats at the feelings they were getting off her.

“Shit indeed,” Neal agreed from behind her. “Since there was no way I myself would ever need a room full of cooking gear, the plans were to pick it up and install it at a later date,” he told her with a small smile.

“So what are these?” Holly asked as she and Quickdash went over to one of the many units lining the walls.

“Testers,” Suzan told them. “They’ll draw the power and gas to create the heat, steam and smoke of real cooking units, you just can’t properly cook with them.”

“And the floor’s a bit sticky,” Weaver commented, lifting one of her feet to see if there was something actually sticking to it.

“I’ll have Tess run her cleaning bots through the whole room later,” Neal said. “Once the test gear’s removed, she can clean and resurface the walls while she’s at it.”

“Okay, I’ve heard you guys say that name before,” Suzan half complained. “Who is this ‘Tess’ you keep talking about? Oh wait – the first day, at the end of our interview, didn’t I hear you call someone Tess?” she asked Neal.

Most of them were now looking at Suzan in astonishment. “How could you have managed a whole day on this crazy ship without running into Tess?” Weaver wanted to know.

“She had the rest of you to show her the ropes,” Neal pointed out.

“Oh, she ‘met’ me before that,” Tess told them, “She just didn’t know it was me she’d run into. Miss Pebble, the coconut was two shelves to your right, third shelf from the bottom.”

“Yes, I remember that, thank you again,” Suzan said. “So just where are you?”

“All around you,” Tess teased; she was phase-shifting the sound from the different speakers around the room so as to seem to be circling the rabbit morph.

“Nice trick, and simple enough to do,” Suzan told her.

“That’s me, simpleminded Tess,” Tess told her in return.

“Simpleminded my tail,” Graysocks muttered. “Suzan, take the best A.I. you’ve ever run across and up it three levels – and she’ll still surprise you.”

“An A.I. hmmm?” Suzan asked. “Certain logic problems can make even the good ones chase their tails if you phrase them just right.”

Neal half hid a grin as he said, “When ‘testing’ her please bear in mind that she has direct links to such minor things as our atmospheric controls, the gravity, navigation, antimatter containment …”

“Which are all under the control of my subprocessors,” Tess reminded him. “Besides, I’d like to see if she’s got anything I haven’t already heard from you.”

“Deities preserve us,” Neal muttered.

“That’s why you still practice your manual piloting, in case you’re somewhere where you can’t depend on little old me,” Tess reminded him. “And why you’re actually training your new crew in some of the finer arts of ship handling.”

“Eh, it keeps them out of trouble and out from underfoot,” Neal said, grinning at the look their new cook was giving him.

“I see what Graysocks was saying about her not acting like a standard A.I., Captain. I will try not to break her,” Suzan told him.

“Give it your best shot,” Neal replied. “If you can actually break her she needs replacing anyway.”

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily, Boss,” Tess told him.

“I know, but it’s entertaining to watch you grow and adapt as things change around you.”

While the others had been talking, Holly and Quickdash had been examining some of the equipment in the room. A touch of a button suddenly gave them a foot tall flame – fortunately flaring up rather than at them. A nozzle to each side started spraying something that reduced the flames while the hood above roared to life and started sucking flame and fumes up and away.

“Fire test works,” Holly said as if they’d meant for things to happen the way they had.

“Step back, please,” Tess’ voice told them. “More,” she said when they only moved one step back. “I had to reset the test because you picked one that might have harmed you. Your test would have done this:”

Flames shot out again, but this time as if there was a pot or pan sitting on the burner, the wash of flame going out in all directions except up. Different nozzles sprayed to redirect and reduce the flames and the blowers kicked in again to help confine the heat and smoke to just that area for the hoods to suck away.

Even Suzan looked impressed. “Nice to know the safety features work,” she commented.

“Well, there is one more backup safety feature,” Tess told her.

“Oh?”

“If you’ll step up to the tester?” Tess suggested.

Suzan stepped up to the unit and again they watched the flames shoot out, only to freeze as they reached the edge of the unit.

“Stasis fields,” Tess told her. “So long as you don’t have a hand or ear over the unit I can stop time and let you get clear.”

“And if I was stirring a pot when it happened?”

“Then I’d stasis you and not release you until things were safe.”

“Is that stasis thing there only for emergencies?” Suzan asked with a thoughtful look forming on her muzzle.

“Why?” Tess asked.

“I was just thinking of how convenient it can be to be able to stasis food that gets done earlier than needed,” their new cook admitted. “I’ve had them in a couple of the high-end kitchens I’ve worked. Funny thing is though that no one else had it there primarily for safety; your captain really doesn’t like kitchen fires.”

“Or kitchen explosions,” Neal agreed.

“Well, until she has a real kitchen, there’s always the holosuite,” Nightsky pointed out.

“Pretend food from a pretend kitchen?” Suzan asked with a frown.

“We had a barbeque in there with the crew of Lost Path, the food was quite real,” Weaver told her.

“And mine was even properly cooked,” Neal added.

“If I can drown you in a holosuite lake I can just as easily help you cook food or burn meat,” Tess told her. “Plus you can test fit what goes where before the real gear gets locked in place and you find yourself stuck with a possibly sub-optimal setup.”

“Now there’s an idea …” Suzan said with a smile at what she could do with those kinds of resources.

“One word of warning,” Tess intoned. “Anything not in a real container on a real work surface when the holosuite is turned off will go ‘splat’ on a deck that will then need cleaning.”

“Nor will heating or cooling units continue to do their things,” Neal added. “It’ll draw a bit more power than planned, but those options could use a good testing anyway.”

“Add some real water and the conditioners and we could have just simulated the rest of the beauty salon gear,” Graysocks half complained.

“Could have,” Neal agreed. “In theory, we could simulate the whole ship in there if we wanted to. You’d never know the difference if Tess did everything right.”

“Like Sky has been doing with your fabrication room?” Dusk asked with a grin. “I caught hir trying different cuts and designs for some of the things shi’s been making.”

Nightsky shrugged. “It lets me experiment without having to waste time or material,” shi pointed out.

“So I just have to take all the ingredients I need in there and cook things up,” Suzan was saying half to herself. “If you all will excuse me?” she murmured as she headed for the door.

“Now you’re in for it!” Roseberry laughed. “She thinks she sees a way to properly impress us.”

Neal just shook his head. “Her old boss is going to be so annoyed with me if she decides to stick around,” he told them.

“Are you saying we shouldn’t encourage her?” Weaver asked.

“That’s not what I said,” Neal replied with a grin as he too left them to their own devices.

* * *

Dinner that evening was not only prepared but served in the holosuite. At Suzan’s request, Tess had whipped up a modestly sized banquet hall and appropriate accommodations.

Neal hid a grin as he shook out the snow-white cloth napkin; his new – if possibly temporary – cook was looking a little ill at ease to be sitting across from him at the table instead of being the one serving the meal, but if she could go overboard in using the holosuite then so could he and Tess.

This had come about when Neal had reached the table and found one too few places set for his ‘crew’. So, at a suggestion from Neal, Tess had brought to life several of the ‘people’ they had met since Tess had started collecting figures for her holosuite productions. Thus it was the lioness from the crab restaurant that led Weaver to her seat next to Neal a few minutes later.

At her raised eyebrow he commented, “Someone thought that they were going to spend the entire meal serving the rest of the crew. I just suggested to Tess that they aren’t any better than the rest of us and that they could join us for the meal.”

“Since I already have several of the major brands of equipment and cookware in memory, Suzan’s been seeing what she’d like to work with the best,” Tess told them.

“Make a list of what you see her preferring and we’ll see what all we can pick up over the next few stops,” Neal suggested.

“She’s already working on her own lists, Boss. A ‘just got to have’ and a ‘would be nice to have’ one.”

“Almost like she thinks she’ll be here more than a week,” Neal commented, raising an eyebrow at said cook.

“If I do hang around I can’t leave the planning for the last minute,” Suzan pointed out with a frown. “I’m also making a minimum upgrade list for your next cook just in case I don’t hang around. And before the others come in, I was wondering if you two could explain this to me,” she said as she unrolled one of the new aprons she’d found waiting for her that morning.

‘To Heck with the Spoon – Lick the Cook!’ it proudly proclaimed.

“I knew some of the aprons were to have colorful expressions on them,” Neal slowly said, having had a few suggestions of his own when he heard the kids talking about making them, “but I seem to have missed that one.”

“Just what type of ship are you running?” she half demanded.

“One with a dozen teenagers, all of which are well past puberty, half of which are chakats,” Neal replied. To her questioning look, he added, “You are aware of their twenty-four-day heat and rut cycles?” She nodded. “Then you should know that sex is never far from their little minds. To me, that apron simply suggests that someone or someones already likes you and they would love to get to know you better.”

Neal let that sink in – and the minor fact that ‘the captain’ didn’t seem to have any problems with her finding relief or just having a little fun with his young and apparently willing crew. After a moment, the insides of Suzan’s ears went bright pink. Grinning, Neal added, “Now the only thing you have to decide is if you dare to wear the silly thing. Be advised that they’re a pretty good bunch, and they all know how to take a ‘no thank you’ if you happen to give them one.”

Neal and Weaver were saved from further questions by the arrival of some of the teens in question.

The meal went well, other than the captain complaining that it had been a bit ‘overly fancy’ for his taste – only to get outvoted by the rest of his crew. Then came the dessert.

“Wait – I need to go toast the tops,” Suzan said as she started to get up.

“You can toast them right here,” the lioness hostess informed her as she set one of the desserts in front of Suzan and handed her a small cooking torch.

A few waves of the torch had the top properly crisped and Suzan turned to do the next one – only to find all the others looked like they’d just been done as well.

“One of those little features of having an overly clever A.I. and a holosuite,” Neal chuckled. “If she can understand ‘why’ you’re doing something, she can sometimes ‘help’.”

“So after I’ve made my whole catalog of meals and treats you won’t need me anymore?” Suzan asked him.

Neal smiled. “If that were true then I don’t think Theodore would fear me stealing you away – he already has a decade of your cooking for his food replicators and yet for some strange reason he still wants you back.”

“Even a ‘perfect’ meal can get old after you’ve seen it a few times,” Suzan pointed out. “And people like knowing something was freshly made and not just a replicator copy.”

“True,” Neal agreed, “but you won’t always have the time for large one-off meals, so I will be seeing about adding a few replicators when we hit the right places.”

 

 


 

Crossed Connections

 

Neal had told a minor fib to Theodore; there was one other stop before the one Suzan would be calling him back from, but the station was so out of the way that it didn’t even have an FTL relay in range of it. This made it an opportune location for certain types of activities to be attempted.

“Boss, I’ve got somebody claiming to have been sent out from the ‘head office’ wanting to come aboard.”

“That would be a pretty good trick,” Neal agreed. “Did they happen to say why?”

“Something about a mandatory sensor update for all company ships. I told him we’d have to get to where we could hit a relay to confirm this, but he’s adamant that the orders he has from our head office mean we can’t leave this station until the update has been completed.”

“I thought you owned the Folly outright,” Weaver dryly commented.

“I do, Love,” Neal agreed, “but it’s sometimes nice to officially have a ‘boss’ and a ‘head office’ that I have to ‘check with’ before some things get officially approved or denied.”

Love?” she repeated with a grin at him as they had indeed gone from a marriage of convenience into something much deeper.

“Well, we can’t just be calling each other ‘idiot’ and ‘fool’ when we have company,” Neal pointed out with an answering grin. “And it keeps the kids guessing if nothing else.”

“So … what are you going to do about this joker?” she wondered.

“Well, we’ll learn the most by giving whoever it is plenty of rope with which to hang themselves,” Neal said with a grin. “While at the same time making sure they don’t do any actual damage to our ship. Tess, tell Alex and Cindy I have a little acting job for the two of them, and see if Roseberry is busy.”

* * *

The small personnel shuttle docked at the assigned port and a single human male stepped into the airlock. Dark brown hair and eyes and the pale skin of someone who spent far too much time indoors – or in space; the clothes and gear suggested ‘geek’, but his looks and mannerism disagreed.

The inner airlock door opened, Alex and Cindy on the other side; both dressed rather sloppily, he looking bored while she watched this new stranger as if hoping for something.

“Captain’s with the cargo master. Where’s your suit? He told me you had some kind of upgrade you have to do to our sensors.”

“It should be mainly an internal job,” the technician replied. “Mostly software updates with a couple of modules if you don’t already have the latest ones in place. In fact, I should be able to do most of it from your bridge,” he suggested with a smile.

“This way then,” Alex said, and he and Cindy led the technician into the ship.

“What’s your name?” Cindy shyly asked as they waited for the translift.

“Travis Preston, and you?”

“I’m Cindy, he’s Alex,” she softly said as the doors slid open.

It was a short walk from the translift to the bridge, Cindy almost constantly looking back and smiling to keep their visitor’s eyes on her and not on where they might have been going. She was doing such a good job of it that Travis never noticed the ‘Bridge’ sign plate that had been hastily placed over the one that normally said ‘Holosuite 1’ – which was currently set to mimic the smaller twelve-station bridge.

“Sensors,” Alex said, indicating one of the consoles. Then he gave Cindy a pinch and muttered, “Get back to your lessons.”

Cindy pouted but moved to a console across the room.

Alex pretended to only semi-watch as the technician plugged one of his units into the console and began keying in commands.

“This isn’t making any sense,” Travis finally said. “What type of sensor array are you guys running?”

“Primary’s a Rhombus four-oh-four multiplexed array,” was Alex’s bored reply, Tess having flashed the answer on the console next to him.

“Why would you guys be using something that outdated?” the technician wondered.

Alex shrugged. “It works and the captain likes it, what more reason do you need?”

“Not really a problem, I’ll just need to do a bit more upgrading than I thought I would,” Travis told him before opening one of his cases and hunting for the modules he thought he’d need.

“Are you really running old junk?” Calmmeadow asked from where the rest of the crew was watching things from the real bridge.

“No, but I thought it would make a better test of whatever he’s trying to do,” Neal replied as they watched the technician try to get the imaginary system do what he wanted it to, Tess filling in for the nonexistent equipment.

“And you would think any real ‘head office’ would have known what type of sensors we were actually running, so this guy should have known it as well,” Tess pointed out.

Neal smiled. “It’s not like there was anyone they could have asked or bribed for information on what I’m running and how,” he agreed.

“What are you running?” Calmmeadow asked.

Neal smiled before saying, “Several sets of different types of arrays, and currently six in just the forward array alone.”

“Why so many?”

“Because each type has its strengths and weaknesses. So if one array sees a ‘ghost’ image I’ll have one or more of the other arrays sweep the area to determine if there was really something out there or not.”

“And if you’re still not sure?”

“Then I’ll send a probe out for a closer look,” Neal said as they watched the so-called technician work.

The technician’s next problem was that, while the sensor console fed data to the ship’s logs, those logs couldn’t then be accessed from the sensor console.

Alex was watching the technician button things up when a cue from Tess had Cindy ask, “Why is the primary array transmitting?”

Alex hid a grin at how hard Travis’s head had then nailed the underside of the control board.

“What do you mean?” Travis asked as he rubbed his head.

“Secondary array reports we’re sending out some sort of pulse every fifteen seconds or so – even with the systems reporting that the primary array is locked in passive-only mode,” Cindy reported.

“You might want to fix that,” Alex suggested. “There are places we go where we don’t want to be broadcasting that we’re there.”

“Sure – of course,” Travis muttered as he punched a new command into the system. “And I’ll update that secondary array while I’m at it.”

* * *

As the secondary array was an even ‘older’ model, Alex found himself ‘leading’ the technician all over the simulated ‘ship’ and into some of the greasiest and grimiest places he’d yet to see to add or change out modules. They were just getting back to the ‘bridge’ when Neal joined them.

“My cargo transfer’s now complete; we’ll be leaving in ten minutes whether you’re done with whatever you’re up to or not,” Neal told the now quite grubby looking technician.

“Just one more check, sir,” Travis promised as he checked both arrays. “It looks good now, and you should get another thirty to fifty percent on your range on these old systems.”

“Very good,” Neal said. “Alex, get him back to his shuttle so we can get the hell out of here.”

“Now I know why you wanted the grease and dirt,” Neal told Tess with a chuckle once the door had closed behind the so-called ‘technician’.

Neal smiled as Roseberry appeared from where shi’d been hiding in a ‘pocket’ of the holosuite so shi could get a good ‘feel’ of the technician. “He’s going to mark us off as ‘done’, but he’s not too sure about all of his tricks working as they should,” shi advised him. “He also thinks your security is a joke. No confirmation codes, no challenge and counter-challenge – oh, and he was really nervous and he really expected your crew to figure out something was wrong when Cindy told him that she saw those pulses.”

“All of which might help make any friends of his underestimate us in the future,” Neal pointed out. “What all did we find?” Neal then asked Tess.

“Several things, Boss,” Tess replied. “First and foremost is he was trying to set our arrays to ignore anything sending out a particular coded pulse. In return, we would be constantly sending out a coded pulse with ship information in it.”

“What type of information?”

“Our full Federation ID, core, shield and warp engine status, as well as our last three logged ports of call are the default.”

“And I assume we’re currently pretending to give out that information?”

“As is the station,” Tess reported. “To throw off anyone not ‘upgraded’, the pulse is made to look a lot like a standard warning pulse a ship would send out to alert others of their position and possible thrust vectors. Others would see the pulse, but would have no reason to question it.”

“Anyone sending out that ‘you can’t see me’ code?”

“Not at this time, but they’d want to make sure there were no un-upgraded sensors looking their way,” Tess pointed out.

“Any other goodies?” Neal asked as he, Roseberry and Cindy left the holosuite.

“Quite a bit – which I’ll give you a summary of after I get it all sorted. Oh, and I traded out all his spare modules for duds and rewrote his gear to have a software ‘meltdown’ the next time he turns it on.”

“So he’ll have no record of what he pulled out of our false logs? Good,” Neal said. “Keep the broadcast going until we go to warp, after that only when we see other ships doing the same.”

“Will do, Boss. Warp in ten.”

 

 


 

If You Can't Stand The Heat

 

The next morning Suzan decided to take a chance and wear the ‘spoon’ apron after going through all her other choices. Some were a bit wilder while others were much tamer, and she wondered if the captain himself hadn’t been the one to suggest the one saying: ‘Waiter – Waiter! What’s this dang hare doing in my soup?’ In very small letters below it said: ‘I believe that’s the breaststroke, sir.’

And she didn’t get just a nibble – she got a bite. And the captain had been right; it was one of the chakat teens that offered to do more than just a little ‘licking’.

* * *

Chakat Dusk dragged hirself into the galley a bit later than was the norm for the first meal of the ship’s day, hir tired and only half-groomed appearance causing some grins among the chakat teens presently in the middle of finishing their own breakfasts.

“Talk about something the ‘kat dragged in,” Chakat Roseberry snickered. “Make a long night of it did we?”

Dusk gave hir a dirty look as shi plopped down between chakats Nightsky and Morningmist – who handed hir a clean plate. Spooning up a big helping of eggs and potatoes, shi muttered, “I don’t know where she kept getting the energy. It was like that silly advertisement we saw on that old recording with the little toy bunny with the drum – she just kept going and going – and going and going and then going some more!

“Wait, are you trying to say one little rabbit morph outlasted a teen chakat?” Brighteyes exclaimed. “I know! Ask for a rematch and me ‘n’ you can double-team her!”

“Triple-team her,” Roseberry injected with a grin.

“Quad!” Nightsky and Morningmist both chimed in before laughing at each other.

“It may take all five of us,” Dusk warned them. “Suzan has got to be seen to be believed.”

As if simply speaking the name could conjure up the demon in question, the doors to the kitchen slid open and the shapely brown and white bunny emerged with a fresh platter of bacon.

“Tess told me you’d finally gotten up,” she said with a smile. “I thought you chakats were supposed to have a bit more stamina than that.”

“I want a rematch!” Dusk told her with a devious grin.

“Then you’d better rebuild your strength,” Suzan suggested as she dumped half the platter of bacon onto hir plate.

“I’m going to win this time,” Dusk promised her.

Seeing the grins from around the table, Suzan said, “If you want to win,” eyeing each of them in turn, she continued, “bring friends – a lot of them!” She laughed as she returned to her kitchen – thereby missing the grins the five teens were now exchanging.

* * *

It was late evening and Suzan was in the process of finishing up cleaning her kitchen and getting it ready for tomorrow’s breakfast. Dinner had been a great success – well a success anyway, she corrected herself. She’d received rave reviews from all but one of the others, and that caused a frown to furrow her eyebrows. The captain of the ship hadn’t given it a rave review – or any review at all! He hadn’t even bothered to show up for dinner – though she was sure Tess had told him when it was ready. It was getting to seem more than just a habit with him and she was already starting to grow tired of it.

She glared at the pot of stew again; there were still at least a dozen taur-sized servings in it – even more if you were feeding mere bipeds like the captain. She had considered placing it in the cold room and feeding him a cold meal – when – or maybe if he ever got around to it, but she was more than a little miffed with him and she wanted to make sure he’d get the message. She went to her spice rack and opened it up. While you could get the more common spices almost anywhere, there were some you almost had to go to the source to find, and the one she selected came all the way from a small town on Cait. The spice was rare even there and had to be handled carefully, lest the user got unexpected results. Suzan removed the large spice bottle and carefully sniffed it before cracking the lid and sniffing again. While not a strong smell, the spice was easy to detect if you had ever smelled it before. As the inner container seal seemed to be intact, she slid a smaller bottle from the larger and repeated her careful sniff test. The third and even smaller bottle contained an eye-drop type applicator, which she filled with the reddish-orange liquid. A single drop splashed into the pot, more than enough to ‘spice things up’ had the pot been brim full; as the pot was now far from full, it was now more than a little ‘spicy’. Still staring at the applicator, Suzan smirked as she squeezed out four more drops before replacing the applicator and carefully resealing each of the bottles.

With the bottle put back in its place and the spice rack closed, Suzan was just stirring the pot when the missing captain was led in with a chakat teen on each arm and three more bringing up the rear.

“Look what the chakats dragged in!” Brighteyes proclaimed, as shi didn’t quite give Neal a shove forward. “He just thought he could hide in engineering all night!”

“Somebody’s gotta keep this ship running,” Neal grumbled.

“If what you were doing was that important, I think Tess would have run interference for you,” Nightsky pointed out. “Since she didn’t, then you were more likely just goofing off. So eat before she tosses it out – it’s pretty good!”

“Alright already,” Neal groused, “I’ll eat.” Dusk handed him a large bowl and Suzan carefully filled it with stew. “Smells delicious,” Neal admitted as he grabbed a roll and a drink before turning to go back into the galley.

Placing the lid on the stew, Suzan grinned at Dusk. “And I’ll see you – and any others that might be brave enough to join you – later,” she promised before going out the door leading to the corridor.

“Hmmm, she seems awfully confident,” Morningmist commented as shi watched the rabbit sashay out the door.

“Huh,” Roseberry half agreed. “Maybe we should we have plenty of energy for her – that pot’s far from empty …”

More bowls were gathered and each was quickly filled with the still warm stew. Nightsky was filling the fifth bowl for hirself when Roseberry let out a yowl of pain – hir bowl hitting the floor and overturning.

“It burns!” shi just managed to say as shi rushed to the sink and turned the cold water on full blast.

“No way – it’s barely warm,” Dusk said before taking a taste of hir own stew. Shi at least slopped hir bowl over the countertop before joining Roseberry at the sink.

“Bread seems to work better at absorbing it,” Neal told them from the doorway. “Milk might also help if whatever it is, is Earth-based.”

Milk did help some, but so did a ration bar Neal was happy to discover; but the others were long gone from the kitchen by the time he returned. He carefully poured his bowl of stew down the waste disposal before tipping over the big pot. He then dumped the three bowls the teens had left behind before asking Tess to have her cleaning bots take care of the fourth and the messes.

* * *

Suzan wasn’t too surprised when Dusk informed her they’d be using a different room tonight; if there was to be more than just the two of them they’d need more space. The room was actually a small lounge that a number of taur beds had been made into one large bed to give them plenty of room to fool around on. The four chakats waiting for them all had big grins on their muzzles as she was led in.

“Only five against one? Tell you what, I’ll wait here while you go get more friends,” she offered with a grin.

Dusk smirked. “Oh, I think five to one odds should be even enough – especially since we’re going to start off with a little game …”

“A game?” Suzan asked.

“We’re chakats,” Nightsky reminder her. “We like to play with our prey before we devour it!”

While Suzan wasn’t small as female rabbits went, each of the chakat teens was well over twice her mass, so she wasn’t too surprised at the ease at which Dusk picked her up and tossed her to the center of the bed landing face up. What was surprising was four of the chakats then each grabbing an arm or a leg to pull her out spread-eagle. Roseberry was the only one left not holding the rabbit down, and shi now crawled up the bed until shi was nose to nose with said rabbit.

“On to the game,” shi said simply. “Do you want to stop or continue?” shi asked the trapped bunny with a grin.

Seeing the gleam in hir eye, Suzan decided she could play along – for now anyway. “Continue,” she replied.

What she received was proof that at least one teen knew how to kiss, all the way from gently barely felt pecks to ‘what the hell is your tongue doing halfway down my throat?’ This went on for several minutes, the other four lying as silent observers, keeping her from using her hands or legs to try and control the encounter.

Finally, Roseberry pulled away from the now quite ‘warmed up’ bunny. “Stop or continue?” shi asked again.

“Continue,” Suzan whispered, finding she was short on breath for some reason.

Starting this time at her chin, the chakat worked hir way down to the rabbit’s collarbone before asking yet again.

“Continue!” Suzan didn’t quite demand, the pausing each time it was just getting good was maddening.

Her top was unfastened and pulled to the side before each breast and nipple was meticulously stimulated before the question came again.

Then the question came just before that teasing tongue touched her bellybutton.

And again on leaving the bellybutton. Suzan was ready to scream for mercy, but they were almost there!

“Continue,” Suzan gasped, and then again when she didn’t feel that teasing tongue after her skirt was flipped up and out of the way. Then she felt as it just brushed her down below. She cooed in pleasure just before the nerve impulses from that area fully reached her brain. Just as your hand can feel like it’s being burned in ice water, it had taken a moment for her to tell pleasure from pain. When later asked, she would admit it was a bit like the time she’d burned herself on the hand torch she used to sear meat – but this was a thousand times worse! She cried out as she fought the hands holding her – the hands keeping her from reaching that pain! It may have only been seconds – but it felt like hours before she was able to notice that someone was working some kind of lotion into her still flaming bits. She also became aware that Roseberry was working equally hard to get something off hir tongue.

When the chakat could stand to put hir tongue back in hir mouth, shi moved so that shi was once again nose-to-nose with the bunny below hir.

That was for whatever you did to the stew – we were not amused. Be advised that if you ever do that to us again, you’ll be getting it back as a douche and enema … do we understand each other?”

Suzan’s eyes never left the chakat’s as she very carefully nodded; while things were still a bit sensitive down there, the burn was just a memory. She’d have to ask Tess what they’d used, as she hadn’t known there was anything that could counteract that spice so quickly; but that was just a side thought, she still had to get through ‘now’.

Roseberry’s eyes softened on seeing the nod. “Very well, we’re even,” shi softly told the captive bunny. “So, do we stop here, or do we see where this leads us?”

Flicking her limbs to indicate she wanted the others to let go, Suzan said, “We continue – and you stop asking!” Freed, she grabbed the chakat’s head and pulled hir down for some tongue wrestling on her terms.

* * *

Weaver noticed the next morning that not only was Suzan acting overly tired, but so were most of her chakat teens. A raised eyebrow only got her headshakes and snickers, so she decided to wait and see what happened. Others though weren’t as patient …

“Okay, what happened? You guys go at it all night or something?” Redtail demanded. The foxtaur vixen was sure she could smell sex on their recently cleaned furs, but there seemed to be something else as well.

“We just had a little too much last night …” Dusk began.

“Too much what?”

“Rabbit,” Morningmist said just as Nightsky said, “Stew.”

All five chakat teens broke out laughing.

“Yeah, that was it, we all had too much ‘Rabbit Stew’ Brighteyes snickered at the confused looks they were getting.”

“Be careful though – it can have a bite that burns!” Roseberry added before shi and the other four fled the room laughing.

The lone remaining chakat teen just shook hir head. “I have no idea what they did, but I’ll see if I can find out later,” Calmmeadow told the others.

* * *

Neal was late to breakfast and had half-expected to end up munching on another energy bar, but Suzan was waiting patiently for his arrival. In minutes she had finished making his omelet, which she placed before him before pouring him a tall glass of orange juice.

Neal looked down at the omelet and then back up at the cook.

“Captain, about last night,” she started as he tried a bite of his breakfast.

He interrupted her saying, “I don’t mind the ship’s cook showing her annoyance at the ship’s engineer – or even the ship’s captain for that matter, but I do worry about someone with such powerful weapons – and such piss-poor aim.” At her look of confusion, he said, “It could just as easily have been Weaver looking for a late snack with Star begging for a taste before she knew that it wasn’t safe for her kit.”

Suzan opened her mouth to say something before closing it. Finally, she stated, “It won’t happen again, Captain.”

Neal nodded. “Good enough then,” he said before taking another bite. “I’ve been informed that you and the others burned have also come to an agreement; so I’ll consider the matter closed.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

She was only slightly surprised to find still another new apron waiting for her when she needed a fresh one. A snicker escaped her muzzle when she saw that this one proudly proclaimed: ‘Her food may be great, but I prefer RABBIT STEW!’

* * *

Over the next couple of days, Neal noticed that morale seemed to be increasing. Not that it had been all that low now that they had some pretty good meals to look forward to, but there was something else that was giving it a definite boost. The best clue he got was at breakfast the next morning. Suzan was again shamelessly wearing her ‘lick the cook’ apron and most of the teens were calling her ‘Stew’. At his raised eyebrow, the insides of her ears went pink. At her grin, he could only shake his head with a smile of his own. It was looking more and more like Theodore’s long-eared chef had been well and truly stolen.

 

 


 

Puzzling Solutions

 

“No,” Dusk said in a disapproving tone. “Star …” shi warned again a moment later.

Seeing the direction the chakat teen was looking gave Neal enough time to move some of the puzzle pieces away from that edge of the table before a very small questing hand reached over the corner in search of them. A finger pressing down gently but firmly on the hand rewarded him with a sudden ‘yip’ from below and a frantic wiggling of the now trapped hand.

Neal released his captive before she could get too frenzied and the tiny foxtaur dropped back down to all fours and ran over to her mother for cuddling.

“Someone’s already teething,” Weaver commented as she gave her daughter a hug.

“Too bad she prefers my puzzle pieces to her teething rings,” Neal muttered. “And for some reason only the pieces from the current puzzle,” he added, indicating the pile of pieces from previously completed puzzles he’d left in easy reach of the small kit.

“Not the same thing and you know it, Daddy,” Weaver teased.

“I know, it’s just that the pieces fit better if they haven’t been gnawed on – or gone missing.”

“She’ll grow out of it.”

“Hopefully before she hurts herself on something,” Neal agreed. “Not everything around here is safe for her to chew on.”

“I may be able to help,” Suzan offered. “I have several seasonings that when used improperly will give you a really good ‘yuck’ flavor.”

“Please don’t make her sick,” Weaver requested.

“Nothing like that,” Suzan promised. “Just a little something to suggest to her that there are better tasting things to put in her mouth,” she said as she gathered up a handful of pieces from the ‘old’ pile and left with a smile.

She returned minutes later and carefully lined the edges of the puzzle table with her puzzle pieces.

And minutes after that a tiny questing hand was again hunting for forbidden objects.

“Star – no!” Dusk said just as shi had before – to the same lack of effect.

Neal’s hand slapped down on the table – but nowhere near the tiny hand which had finally found a loose puzzle piece.

Prize in hand, Starblazer ran under one of the other tables.

The room was silent as everyone waited to see what would happen next, so the tiny sound of disgust was clearly heard, followed by a soft whine. This led to a new silence of the suppressed amusement of some.

Suzan smiled as she tossed a couple more brightly colored pieces under the table.

The whining stopped, but it was a couple of minutes before Starblazer crawled out from under the table with one of the pieces Suzan had thrown in her mouth. She headed for her mother for another hug.

Holding up a piece she hadn’t thrown, Suzan said, “It shouldn’t take but a few tries for Star to figure out the green-backed ones taste good and the grays are all either bland or yucky.”

“We’ll just have to see how quickly she figures it out,” Weaver agreed, giving the kit in question a little tickle.

 

 


 

Changing Sides

 

Their next stop was at one of the many Star Fleet bases Neal delivered cargo to.

“Starbase Thirteen, this is Folly with a supply drop for you,” Alex told the uniformed deer morph on his screen.

“Standard approach to dock seven, Folly,” the deer replied. “I understand an Admiral Kalren went and short-stopped a portion of our supplies?” he half-asked.

“Admirals and their war games,” Alex replied, Tess having told them all what the ‘official’ story was. “And commandeering things off a passing freighter is well within their rules of engagement, or so I’m told.”

“That’s not as some rumors I’ve heard have it, but who am I to claim an admiral might be shading the truth?”

“Dock seven,” Alex said with a smile. It seemed there was no telling who might actually know what out here.

* * *

As promised, Neal had allowed Suzan to visit the station without an escort.

She had no problem finding an open comm booth to place her call in. Rather than calling in on the main office line she instead used the same number Neal had used a week before.

“Good morning, Mr. Boothe,” she said when the dark-furred mongoose appeared on the screen.

“Mr. Boothe – not Theodore after all these years; then that bastard did get to you,” Theodore muttered darkly.

“His crew actually, but yeah, they did,” she informed her old boss and longtime friend.

“It may be just as well,” Theodore told her. “My snake hunting forced me to release over a quarter of the main office and almost three cruise ships worth of crew. While I’m desperate for every warm body I can get, your work in our kitchens means I actually have enough people I can trust in food services for now. But watch yourself out there, Suzan; some of those axed might blame you for me discovering their games and getting rid of them.”

“Did you find any signs that another group or company was behind it?” Suzan asked.

“Some hints, but nothing definitive; and several of them simply disappeared when they saw it coming – including that first officer you blamed.”

“I’ll aim higher if I ever see him again,” Suzan told him.

“Use a phaser next time,” Theodore suggested. “No proof if it was him or someone else but someone removed any and all signs of you from the Southern Breeze.”

“I got my spices and I have my favorite knife, what I left behind was easy enough to replace,” Suzan told her old boss.

“Don’t tell that bum captain of yours, but I’m actually quite glad he rescued you.”

“I am too,” she admitted, “and not just because he got me off that station. His ‘crew’ is like a breath of fresh air after dealing with the toxic atmosphere of the Southern Breeze.”

“I’ll call Foster next and tell him he’d better take very good care of my favorite chef.”

“Don’t bother,” Suzan told him. “Captain Foster has already advised me that if I’m staying then this is the last chance I get to roam a station or planet alone. Three or more together when off the ship.”

“And you’re agreeing to this?” Theodore asked in surprise.

“Considering you just warned me that trouble might be looking for me? Besides, they’re currently better armed than I am – not that he hasn’t already offered to help me upgrade my offensive capabilities.”

“Be safe, Suzan, and know you’ll always have a job waiting for you once that smelly old human has run you off.”

“You be safe too, Theodore, and you’ll get the first crack at me once I wear out my welcome here,” she replied before ending the call.

Theodore glared at the blank screen for a moment before snorting and keying in a number.

“You bastard!” he snarled as soon as the connection was made.

“Aw, did da widdle bunny wabbit say she didn’t want to come running back to you?” Neal laughed at him.

“As a matter of fact, she did,” Theodore grumpily admitted.

“Sorry about that,” Neal told him with little if any sincerity. “How goes your snake hunt?”

“Badly, some caught a whiff of it and managed to get away.”

“Send me the list and I’ll keep an eye out for them.”

“A couple of them might try going after Suzan.”

You tell anyone where she disappeared to?” Neal asked.

“No, I was careful not to tell any of them what had given them away. And I fed my ex-PA a different scenario about your call; she doesn’t know who you were or that you were even on a ship. Only the timing might suggest that the call had anything to do with the crackdown.”

“If she allows it, we’ll keep her out of sight for a bit; that should help muddle any trails anyone might be sniffing.”

“Someone might try tracking her credit usage.”

Neal smiled. “I’ve already suggested to her that she draws from the Folly’s ship credit, we can square accounts at a later time. As she walked off the station the same way she walked on, anyone hunting will also have to make sure the other freighter that was in dock wasn’t the one that made off with her.”

“Oh, and your Edward Bunsten helped me secure a replacement captain for the Southern Breeze. Older fox by the name Tommy Brockman.”

Neal snorted before saying, “And you have the gall to call me a thieving bastard. I had plans for Mr. Brockman.”

“So Bunsten informed me, but while the Southern Breeze’s captain wasn’t really a direct part of the problem, I couldn’t leave someone that blind to what was going on all around him in charge of a starship.”

“Oh well, some time under a different boss should be good for him.”

“Bunsten swore he had all your other projects properly staffed before letting me pilfer him for my own needs,” Theodore informed him.

Neal’s grin wasn’t pleasant as he said, “Good luck, as some of those characters were in the program because they didn’t fit in anywhere else.”

“So I’m learning,” Theodore said with a frown. “Why are you even hiring such roughnecks?”

“Because, despite being roughnecks, they can and will do what’s asked of them,” Neal countered. “That and no one cares, so long as they’re ‘somebody else’s problem’.”

“And you like dealing with problems.”

“I deal with you, don’t I?” Neal pointed out with a grin.

Theodore snorted but didn’t reply.

“Other than calling to mourn your losses and brag about your thefts, anything else?”

“A few of those Alamo Antimatter refuel access badges went wandering.”

“Give Tanner the IDs and we’ll give them a nasty surprise if they try to use them anywhere.”

“Or if you detect them,” Theodore agreed with a chuckle.

“Till next time then.”

“Next time,” the mongoose told him as he cut the connection.

“Tess, point one of the groups at Suzan, seems she’ll be hanging around a bit longer.”

“Was there really any doubt?” Tess replied, having already directed Shadowcrest, Holly and Quickdash to stop following and join Suzan. Neal was allowing them to be a ‘three’ on what he and Tess considered to be their safer stops. That, and by having them watch Suzan, Suzan was now watching them.

* * *

“Oh, Boss?” Tess said as the last of her crew returned from the station.

“Yes?”

“I thought you’d like to know that the starbase and all the Fleet ships around it are broadcasting their IDs and statuses through their sensor arrays.”

“So whoever’s doing this is doing it to Fleet as well. Very interesting. Anything squawking that ‘you can’t see me’ string?”

“Not that I’ve seen. I’ll let you know the moment I detect one.”

* * *

“So you’re hanging around a bit longer,” Neal said as Starbase Thirteen dwindled behind them.

“For now, Captain,” Suzan agreed. Other than letting Theodore know her plans and making deals for a few seeds and seedlings in the base’s hydroponics section, she had stayed on the Folly for their brief visit.

“Tess gave me your lists and added a couple of things she thought you might have forgotten,” Neal said, indicating his display. “Now we get to see which list we use,” he said as he handed her a PADD. “This lists the ports we will be stopping at over the next year or so; are any of them someplace you think you might want to abandon ship at?”

Looking over the list, Suzan was surprised to find she didn’t recognize half of them. The others were quite a distance from each other, almost as if the Folly was following some sort of zigzag line.

At her questioning look Neal smiled and said, “Yes, they are in order, and yes, there is a madness behind my methods.” At her arched eyebrow, he continued, “This lets me cover most of two routes at once and helps keep others from realizing just how fast the Folly actually is. If you just go by every other port, then I’m just a third faster than one of Star Fleet’s ‘fast freighters’. A few times I’ve even been asked if I knew there was another ship using the same name running my ‘other’ route. Now, do you think we will be dropping you off at any of them?” At her headshake, he dropped the ‘could work with’ list from the screen, leaving the ‘all the toys she really wants’ list. “If you think of anything to add, tell Tess and she’ll add it to our shopping list.”

“And when I do leave?” she asked.

Neal shrugged his shoulders. “With any luck, some of the kids may take more of an interest in cooking, and if you can teach them anything beyond the basics, we may not have to eat too many mistakes.”

Suzan gave him a perplexed look. “Now you’re expecting me to teach them as well as cook?” she asked.

“Only if you are willing, and only if they show an interest,” Neal replied. “Since I’m assuming that you’ll be needing extra hands every now and then, watching and smelling your meals come together might just make them want to try it for themselves. Besides, I’d think you’d want to train a couple of the more promising ones to help ease your workload if not to take over some of the easier meals.”

“To think on, Captain,” Suzan agreed as she rose to leave.

* * *

Along with mining in their two asteroid belts, the Haley system also offered a well-established planet with a modest population of mostly Caitians, though there was a smattering of other members of the Federation.

As part of Neal and Theodore’s plans to make Suzan ‘disappear’ for a while, Suzan was not offered shore leave – but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going shopping …

“Next one over, Nightsky,” Suzan said from one of the bridge stations. While one part of the display was showing her the fruits the chakat teen was ordering for her, another showed the kitchen gear another team was procuring. “Weaver, tell him the 73E model, not that G he’s trying to push off on you. I know from experience that those things aren’t worth the materials they were made out of.”

“Yuck!” Nightsky muttered, having tasted the small, pale blue, and as it turned out, very overpowering berry.

Suzan snorted out a laugh before saying, “Makers, Sky, don’t try eating it! One or two of those is enough to season an entire salad bowl. They’re not real good eaten by themselves.”

“Now she tells me,” Nightsky muttered as hir PADD recorded the bin number and Suzan keyed in the number of kilos she thought she would need as Tess marked it off Suzan’s shopping list.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Sky,” Suzan said, “what made you choose this market instead of the first one?”

“Little stuff,” the chakat teen said as if shi were thinking to hirself aloud. “Clean but busy enough they can’t catch everything all the time, tired but happy faces, no cheap tricks with the displays, and Tess said their posted prices are okay.”

“They also are cutting their prices below the postings,” offered Tess. To just Suzan, she added, “Nightsky has been ‘reading’ places and people like this at every stop.”

“A good shopper is a big help to a kitchen,” Suzan said. “I’d say the three of us are making a pretty good team.”

Meanwhile, Neal was shopping for other types of toys.

“Fifty replicators, three of them need to be medical spec,” Neal told the first sales clerk that came up to his group.

“We can have them delivered to you by the end of the day,” the now grinning malamute morph told him.

“Just bring all fifty out to the showroom, I brought my own transportation and I’ve learned to always test a couple of them at random before I buy anything from your company,” Neal told him.

“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s against company policy,” the no longer grinning malamute informed him.

“Then I won’t be buying,” Neal replied as he waved for those with him to leave.

“But it’s company policy!” the sales clerk whined to their retreating backs.

“You didn’t come here to buy, you were testing them,” Chakat Roseberry said once they were out of the building.

Neal snorted. “A few years ago their company policy was to let you test one or two and then fill the rest of your order with crap. As properly forming and installation of the Boronike is the hardest and most expensive part of making a replicator, that was the bit they prefer to skimp on.”

“Is that why there are no replicators on Folly?” Holly asked.

“Yeah, I had to pull every one of them from my ships to make a dent in the needs of a new colony that the load had been intended for. And it’s also their company’s policy to reject any returns caused by their own faulty materials or workmanship. While I’ve replaced the medical ones in our little sickbay, I still have way too many others I need to replace.”

“So why the test?” Mike asked, having been asked along in case there had been any heavy lifting to do.

“Because I knew they’d been warned. This was to see if they’d mended their ways.”

“But the sales guy wouldn’t have known he was selling you a good unit from a bad without testing,” Roseberry pointed out. “He was thrilled with the idea of making an easy sale – and then I thought he was going to crap himself when you said you’d be the one picking out which ones to test.”

“While we were inside the PTVs were running scans,” Neal told them. “Properly formed and installed Boronike wouldn’t interfere with most of those scans, but there are so many junk units in their warehouse that they completely blocked the scanners.”

“So just why are we here?” Dusk wondered. Shi had followed Roseberry down to see what they might add to their growing garden space.

Neal shrugged. “Someone asked me to check on their progress. Sadly, I’ll have to report that there wasn’t any.”

“So you owe others favors too,” Mike commented.

“Of course I do,” Neal agreed. “You can only survive if you have friends of good character.”

“I’ve heard both Weaver and Suzan call you a character,” Roseberry laughed.

Neal smiled. “There’s an old saying that a traveler should always keep a towel on him – he’ll never know when one will come in handy. A friend might be there when you need them. A good friend will be there to help you move. A really good friend will help you move bodies.”

“Which are you?” Quickdash asked for the rest of them.

Neal shrugged. “Each of those PTVs has fold-away seating to carry the most cargo possible, and they each have a pair of folding shovels stowed away … just in case they get stuck and we have to dig them out of course.”

“Of course,” Mike agreed.

“So, no replicators?” Roseberry asked.

“Not this stop,” Neal agreed. “There’s another company I know that has a better product, but they’re a few stops away on New Kiev. Which means you guys can go looking for things for your gardening while I look for other ship toys.”

“Take the mini-taurs with you,” Mike suggested. “Unless you two want to look at plants and seeds?” he half asked, already knowing what their answers would be.

“We’ll keep an eye on him,” Holly told them as they split into two groups.

“Beg for any neat new toys they happen to see would be more like it,” Roseberry chuckled once they were in their PTV. “At this rate, those two will know every corner of the ship before we make it home.”

“You didn’t see Neal object,” Mike pointed out. “He sees keeping them busy as a good investment.”

“I’m still trying to understand the whole ’mil angle,” Dusk confessed. “Shi seems like most any other chakat kid I’ve known – even quieter than some.”

“Because shi knows what shi is and what it means,” Roseberry told hir. “I’ve sensed hir anger flare a few times – and hir fight to hold it in check before shi does something shi knows shi’ll later regret.”

“Have you seen hir run off when angry?” Mike asked.

“Yes, why?”

“It seems Neal and Tess made a room just for hir on one of the lower levels,” he told them. “A ‘danger and damage control room’ if you will. Plenty of stuff to shred and several bots to ‘fight’ with if shi really needs to work some of that anger out of hir system.”

“How’d you find that out?” Dusk wondered.

“I happened to catch Quick limping back to hir room last night, so I asked Tess.”

“They hurt hir?”

“No worse than what Alex has been doing to Cindy, and shi heals faster,” Mike said as their PTV pulled up to a nursery.

“Tess? Let Stew know we’re here,” Dusk said.

“Suzan wants you to head over to their Caitian section so she can see what spice plants they might have,” Tess told them.

“That might not be wise,” Roseberry muttered. “It seems our cook likes scorching the tongues of those that try to bring their work to the table. I’ve been nailed once and I know she’s gotten the captain at least twice.”

“So, don’t take your work to lunch,” Dusk suggested.

“Yeah, but then she gets after you for skipping out on her meals because you really wanted to get something finished,” Mike pointed out, having himself earned a scorching. “For added fun Graysocks has been deliberately baiting her to see just how hot she’ll take things.”

“So we’re here to help her gather more ammo?” Dusk laughed as they continued through the store.

* * *

“How are you doing?” Neal was asking Quickdash as they pulled up to Neal’s next stop.

“Seven, maybe eight,” shi replied as shi and Holly hopped out of the PTV.

“I also meant your bruising; Tess told me you took a bit of a pounding.”

“But I beat them!”

“So she also told me. Was it really getting that bad – or were you just breaking things so you and Holly could ‘fix’ them later?”

“A little of both,” shi admitted.

“I’ll ask Alex if he has any training sets for taurs and chakats,” Neal said. “Both to see if it can help with your control as well as make you a better fighter when you need to be.”

“You want hir to fight more?” Holly wondered.

“Training isn’t fighting,” Quickdash told her. “You like shooting his guns.”

“So do you!” Holly accused hir. “And Mom doesn’t like that we like to do it so much …”

“Yeah, you’ll have to wash up better next time,” Neal chuckled. “That’s one of the reasons you two are getting so many hugs – so Weaver can sniff the insides of your ears.”

That’s what she was doing!” Quickdash grumbled.

“So,” Neal said with a smile, “next time you’ll wear the full ear covers – even for the quieter guns?”

“But the ear-buds block most of the noise,” Holly protested.

“True, but they don’t block the odors of the propellant,” Neal pointed out.

“Suzan is questioning your rather questionable methods again, Boss,” Tess told them.

“What’s the problem, Suzan?” Neal asked.

“The orders I’m placing are coming up for more than I ordered – if that makes any sense,” his new cook replied.

“I had suggested to Tess that we could upgrade the smaller kitchen and get some extra cookware and fixtures for same,” Neal told her. “She’ll also gather extra supplies for what she thinks the kids might forget to get for doing their own cooking.”

“That would help explain things, thanks,” Suzan said before going back to her remote shopping.

“You think of everything,” Holly laughed.

“No, Tess thinks of everything; I just sometimes get to take the credit,” Neal told her.

“Or the blame,” Quickdash countered.

“Or the blame,” Neal agreed. “Just one of those things that come with being the ship’s captain, it’s all your fault and responsibility.”

“Even the stuff we do?” Holly asked.

“Even the stuff you do,” Neal acknowledged. “Like Jeff and that other cop when you took down those hyenas, what type of ship must I be running that lets such a sick little chakat torture prisoners – eh?”

“I’m sorry,” Quickdash mumbled.

“Don’t be, at least not for that,” Neal told hir. “Like I told you at the time, if it had been one of you they had attacked, the cops would never have found the bodies. That said, do try to think before you act – and then do only as much as is needed. While grandstanding might sometimes impress whoever you’re battling, it won’t impress those that didn’t see what else had happened.”

“That other cop couldn’t believe Cindy was part of the same ship,” Quickdash pointed out.

“Separated, disarmed, outnumbered, no control over what might happen to her next – how would you be feeling?” Neal asked hir. “Remember, if Cindy had attacked or resisted in any way they would have tried to ‘protect’ her all the harder.”

“So she acted timid,” Quickdash quietly said.

“So timid that they didn’t even bother to escort her out to eat,” Neal agreed. “She would have made good her escape even without those bad cops trying to kidnap her.”

“Timid wouldn’t have worked on those hyenas,” shi pointed out.

“No, the only thing they would have understood was power – and the will to use it. Always look before you act and remember one thing,” Neal said as he met Quickdash’s eye. “You can always go from timid little kitten to screaming wildcat – but once you show them your wildcat they’re never going to believe your timid kitty act.”

“What are we getting here?” Holly asked as Neal led them through the store.

“Some heavier power blocks, so maybe I won’t make such a mess the next time I get a little crazy with my power demands.”

“Couldn’t you do that online?” she wondered.

“I could, but sometimes I feel the need to see things up close and personal,” he said as he waved them into the doors opening in front of them.

And ‘up close and personal’ was what he got, up to and including having the salesperson allow him to tear apart several of their models so he could see just how well made they were.

The Caitian salesperson had frowned when Neal had asked her to open the first unit, but she was wearing a tired but satisfied smile by the time they were done. Part of her smile was for the questions the two youths had been asking and how carefully Neal had explained things to them.

“So, Captain Foster, how many would you like of which ones?” Sharpthorn asked Neal as he snapped the latest module back together.

“How many of those 17LS and 58HCs do you have in stock?” Neal asked.

“How many do you need?” she countered.

“I need forty-six of the 17s and a hundred and fifty-nine of the 58s, but what I really want is a thousand of each. A thousand in Earth’s base ten, mind you, which will be seventeen hundred and fifty in Caitian numbers. So I need fifty-six and two-thirty-seven Caitian.”

“Ah,” Sharpthorn said in disappointment as she checked her PADD. “I can meet your needs, but not your wants with what we have in stock. My apologies.”

“Then I’d like to place two orders, one for what you do have in stock and a second for the balance – which I or one of my associates will pick up here or at one of your other branches if they have sufficient quantity in stock.”

“That I can do; and it should take the warehouse just a few hours to have your first order ready for delivery. Do you wish to pick it up here – or shall I have it delivered to the spaceport?”

“The spaceport if you will, I’m using pads A16 and 17.”

“Thank you, Captain. It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Why did you give her different numbers?” Holly asked after they were out of the shop.

“So that there’d be no misunderstandings about just how many I actually wanted,” Neal told her. “Caitians normally use a different base for counting than we do, and I’ve learned to avoid confusion when I can.”

“They use base eight,” Quickdash injected.

“And they think we use what they would call base twelve,” Neal agreed.

“How do you keep it all straight?” Holly wondered.

“With a calculator!” Neal joked. “Though due to a bad joke played on them when humans and Caitians first met, they understand the words dozen and gross.”

“What’s gross?” Quickdash wondered.

“A dozen dozens,” Neal told hir. “So if you want an Earth ten of something, ask a Caitian for a dozen, gross for a hundred.”

“Weird,” Holly muttered.

“No, weird is dealing with some of the Merraki,” Neal told her.

“Which ones are the Merraki?”

“Usually around a meter tall, look a bit like a wide, smooth-scaled lizard walking around on two legs.”

“Oh – and they’re colorful!” Holly exclaimed.

“They can be,” Neal agreed. “But the biggest problem with them is you’ll never understand one of them without a translator, they make even the hardest Caitian words seem easy.”

“Some of our project kits say they were designed on Kantorg,” Quickdash said.

“That’s the Merraki homeworld,” Neal agreed. “I like collecting things from them because those tricksters can come up with some of the dangedest of gizmos.”

“Is that where you get all your neat stuff from?” Holly asked.

“Sometimes,” Neal allowed. “Though sometimes I’m wondering if some of them haven’t been stealing some of my ideas!” he added with a laugh.

Your ideas?” Quickdash asked, looking skeptical.

Neal shrugged. “Most ideas are just modifications to ideas that people have seen before and most new ideas build off old ones. I can only carry so much. Someone figured out they could carry more of a load if they could drag some part of it. Then someone else noticed that dragging their sled was easier if they were moving their load over roundish rocks or poles. They then figured out how to lash one of those poles to their sled and attaching bigger round logs to the end to make the first wheels.” Indicating the PTV they were approaching he said, “Would you believe that at one time we used to put in one big motor with complex mechanical linkages to carry the power to the wheels rather than simply having a smaller motor in each wheel?”

“Why?”

“Because for a long time it was the easiest and cheapest way to get things done.”

“But how would somebody steal your ideas?”

“The hardest part of most ideas is figuring out if something can be done in the first place. So if you see someone actually doing it – you already know it can be done and watching them might give you clues on just how they are doing it,” Neal said as they climbed into the PTV. “So if someone sees my Folly doing something they didn’t think was possible, they might figure out how I did it and ‘steal’ my idea.”

“Like if Beechwood helps Stew to cook and steals her ideas?” Holly asked.

“How did Suzan get nicknamed Stew anyway?” Neal asked. The other two just shrugged and grinned – they’d heard the moniker from their older chakat sisters and Suzan seemed pleased with it. “Stew, hmmm? Well, while Beechwood might learn some of Suzan’s cooking secrets, she might adapt them to her own cooking and create something Suzan hadn’t thought of – something she might then think is worth stealing in return.”

“Even though it was mostly her idea?” Holly wondered.

“Didn’t Tess show you a trick you could do with your phaser?” Neal countered. “It uses all the same parts and you already knew how each piece worked, but you never thought of using them that way?”

“It looked really simple once she showed us,” Quickdash admitted.

“But before she showed you, you didn’t believe it was even possible. That’s the way most ideas are discovered, by seeing something you weren’t expecting.”

“Will you be showing us more tricks?”

“Maybe, and who knows, you two might show me a new twist to a trick I didn’t know about,” Neal told them as they headed for their next stop.

* * *

“Look out – coming through!” Alex called in warning as he and Redtail maneuvered one of the new large ovens through the doors and into Suzan’s new kitchen.

And no one doubted that it was Suzan’s kitchen. Someone (Tess knew but she wasn’t telling!) had replaced the “Officers’ Sub-Mess One” signboard with one that now proclaimed that one was now entering “Stew’s Domain (Where Untamed Rabbit and Spicy Wild Hare are Always on the Menu!)”.

The insides of Suzan’s ears had gone bright pink the first time she’d seen it. Neal had raised an eyebrow but didn’t mention it. Weaver had smiled, having finally heard just how ‘spicy’ their chef could get from certain teens.

Having used the holosuite to ‘test’ her setup, Suzan knew just what she wanted where and things were slipping into place quickly. The forced delay on getting the kitchen appliances had given Tess plenty of time to not only remove the test units (with ready and eager help from her young crew) but also clean and recover the surfaces in the colors their new chef had requested.

“Slot five,” Tess told him as they wheeled the oven in. “Graysocks should be ready for it in a minute.”

“Right now, in fact,” Graysocks said from behind another unit. “Help me slide this one back and I can finish locking it down.”

“At this rate, they’ll have it finished in another hour,” Neal commented from the door, having come to check on things.

“I hope you weren’t expecting your next meal to come from these things,” Suzan told him.

Neal smiled. “No more than you should expect this ship to jump to warp an hour after having a warp core replaced,” he told her. “I’d expect a delay of at least a few days while you burn them in and run some test meals and snacks through them.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

“And once all this is fully online, the kids can upgrade their own little kitchen,” Neal said thoughtfully.

Suzan started to open her mouth to say something but stopped before Neal noticed.

* * *

“I’m having a conflict of loyalty, Boss,” Tess said as Neal was doing a bit of the endless paperwork that came with running a starship and a business.

“Oh? Who and what?”

Someone has suggested that, with a real chef on staff, the captain shouldn’t need a hotplate of his own hidden away.”

“And this conflicts you how?”

“There’s a saying I’ve heard you say multiple times that I’ve never found the reference to. It’s ‘he/she/hy or shi ain’t no better than the rest of us’. In fact, you used it about Suzan that first meal in the holosuite.”

Neal snorted softly before answering. “It comes from way before the Gene Wars, which is why you won’t be able to find it. It was from an old skit of a family out on a farm. It was mealtime and, apparently, the food they were going to be having wasn’t all that great. As ma was serving up dinner pa asked where grandpa was. Upon being told that the old man was out slopping the hogs, pa said, ‘Tell him to get on in here – he ain’t no better than the rest of us.’ As if dining with the hogs might actually have been preferable to what the rest of them were facing.”

“So you think hunching over a poorly cooked meal of your own is better than eating with the rest of them?”

“No,” Neal muttered. “But sometimes I’m not fit company – as you well know.”

“I know, Boss, but I think you should give it a try,” Tess suggested.

“What the hell, there’s always the kid’s kitchen if I get desperate,” Neal semi-agreed.

“Good, because Graysocks just finished pulling your gear and capping off the connections,” Tess cheerfully told him.

Neal just shook his head. Not quite as conflicted as she’d claimed, it seemed.

* * *

“So why are we moving our old kitchen gear to the secondary hull?” Beechwood asked as she and the other two foxtaur teens wheeled the equipment she’d helped purchase into the freight elevator.

“To replace some of the even older cooking gear in it,” Graysocks replied. “Tess says that the old kitchen hasn’t been used in decades and might not even be safe to use, so we are going to upgrade some of it just in case.”

“In case Neal annoys both Weaver and Suzan to the point he has to eat and sleep down there!” Redtail snickered.

“Or if something happens and we have to evacuate the current primary hull,” Tess injected. “Plus we’ll lose it once we deliver it, so if you guys are still around you might want something other than ready meals.”

“Those of us that stick around,” Graysocks agreed as the freight elevator doors opened to the access passage and the airlocks to the secondary hull.

 

 


 

Night School

 

Quickdash and Holly had napped after dinner and were now wide awake as most of the others slept. They headed to the ‘main’ bridge, having found it extremely easy to talk Tess into showing them all sorts of interesting things on the big screens.

They were a little surprised to find one of their older sisters still up and already using a few of those large screens.

“Riker Control, this is Folly; I understand you have a departure window we can use in thirty minutes?” Chakat Dusk was saying from hir console, which was in navigator/pilot mode. While several of hir screens were related to moving hir craft, several others were in tactical modes and showing the slow dance of dozens of ships and shuttles around what appeared to be a very busy space station.

Folly, Riker Control; with your size and wake I’d prefer you to take the one open at forty-three minutes from now.”

Folly copies, forty-three minutes.”

“Thank you, Folly; sending you vectoring instructions at this time.”

One of hir displays changed to show hir path away from the station, one of the many ships turning red as it was in the suggested flight path.

Folly copies, Control; your suggested course takes us dangerously close to the Star Fleet cruiser Off Paw.”

“Copy, Folly; Off Paw should be getting underway in the next ten minutes and will be well out of your way by the time you’re ready to maneuver.”

“Thank you, Control, Folly clear.”

“Tess,” Dusk asked the air. “Should I have known Off Paw was leaving first?”

“No,” Tess replied. “All Off Paw’s communication traffic with Riker Control has been encrypted bursts, so there was nothing for you to have learned by regular methods.”

“Did you know?”

“As I set up the scenario, yes; though some of my other sensors could have told you that they were preparing to depart, just not ‘when’.”

“Then I shouldn’t have asked Control about it?”

“Actually, you did just what you should have,” Tess corrected. “To see a possible conflict and not ask might suggest that you somehow knew something they would assume you had no way of knowing. On the other hand, if you didn’t ask because you didn’t see it or didn’t consider it important enough to ask for clarification, well that would label you as a rather dangerous idiot by Control and anyone else that you looked like you were willing to scrape hulls with.”

“So better to ask, safer looking a little foolish rather than stupid,” Dusk said as shi keyed in commands. “Okay, kill some time for me,” shi requested.

The clock on hir panel began flashing, the seconds a blur as the minutes clicked away. Hir screens showed ships and shuttles moving about much faster than they had been; Off Paw’s leisurely departure looking more like the ship had been fired out a giant invisible cannon.

“Two minutes,” Tess’ voice told them as the mad dashing of objects on the screens slowed to a more leisurely rate.

Folly, this is Riker Departure Control, you may begin maneuvering at this time.”

“Thank you, Departure, Folly is maneuvering,” Dusk said as shi keyed in the command and hir ship started to turn before shi began to apply thrust.

The next ten minutes were spent watching hir progress and watching out for other things that might have encroached on hir flight path.

“Ready for the first sublight ‘bump’,” shi finally reported.

“You may boost to five percent of lightspeed,” Tess agreed. “We need more distance from the planet to safely go higher.”

“How high would Neal go?” Holly asked from where she and Quickdash had been quietly watching.

“Five percent,” Tess told her.

“What if he didn’t have the time to waste?” Quickdash demanded. “When he’s going like a bat out of hell!”

Dusk smiled. Shi had felt the two of them come in and had been grateful they hadn’t interfered with hir training session. “From the readings and the setting limits I see here, I’m guessing around twenty percent if he didn’t care who saw him do it?”

Tess was quiet for a moment before saying, “In testing around similar uninhabited planets, Neal has reliably managed thirty-three percent from that close to that size of a gravity well. Unless he overrides the safeties, our max boost is set to thirty percent, though the max we’ve let anyone else see so far is ten.”

“And the next boost in another five minutes?” Dusk asked. “To twenty or twenty-five percent?”

“If we were in some kind of hurry,” Tess agreed. “But most ships will do fewer boosts, it’s cheaper and easier on the drives.”

“Is Neal hard on his equipment?” Holly asked.

“Not really,” Tess said. “He just likes to make sure things can perform at their max limits when he needs them to – and the only way to do that is to push things.”

“Until he breaks them,” Quickdash muttered.

“He knew he was going to trash our transporters,” Tess told hir, “he just didn’t realize they’d then take so much of the power distribution systems with them.”

“That was something I’d been wondering,” Dusk commented. “If he took out your primary power, how did you keep those blue areas in stasis?”

“Because they were running off a tap from our secondary power grid – which Neal didn’t engage in case our damage would take it down too.”

“What if he’d had to?” Quickdash wondered.

“Then he would have,” Tess told hir. “It does no good to save that one bit at the risk of the rest of the ship.”

“What about you?” Dusk asked. “If the ship is destroyed so are you.”

“Most of the active ‘me’ was tucked into Delta’s systems, it’s a bit cramped and doesn’t have nearly the power the Folly gives me, but we could have gotten away if we’d had to – not that we weren’t ready to play one more trick if we really needed to.”

“What else could you do?”

“We still could have run. There was nothing wrong with the secondary hull or our warp drives. We could have managed a five percent boost even as low as we were. Up and in a new direction, a few seconds later we’d boost again and then again, changing speed and direction each time and making us a harder target to track while getting more and more out of range every second.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“There was no need, as their big guns hadn’t fired after our rocks had hit them. And it’s harder to do things like search and rescue while bouncing around like that.”

“Never mind giving away some of your tricks to the station and ships that were in the area.” Hir displays showing it was time, Dusk gave hir simulation another sublight-speed boost.

“How’d you learn how to do that so fast?” Quickdash wanted to know.

“I’ve always been a fast learner,” Dusk replied. “I’ve just learned to not reveal it to other kids; too many times I’ve gotten classified as a teacher’s pet or a showoff.”

“I don’t think you have too much to worry about with this group,” Tess told hir. “While you are currently leading the pack, it’s not by all that much. I’m expecting those of you who have been doing well in the shuttle simulations to start getting the hot-seat while Neal gets to play instructor again.”

“I didn’t know we were staying that close together,” Dusk admitted, “though Calmmeadow and Roseberry do like to drag me into their study sessions and Nightsky has been requesting a little more tutoring.”

“Was shi that bad in school?” asked Quickdash.

Dusk grinned. “Nightsky’s smart in different ways than what works in most classrooms. And shi’s a hard worker, too, which lets hir keep up most of the time.”

“So what’s hir way of being smart?” Holly wondered.

“Have you ever been shopping with hir?” Dusk asked with a grin, her tail twitching with mischief.

“No, shi always wants to look at clothes,” Quickdash muttered with a frown.

Dusk chuckled. “Stew would disagree. Tell ’Sky what you’re looking for and shi’ll find the best deal. And sometimes shi can ‘read’ people – even through cameras.”

“That hyena said Neal was a hard teacher,” Holly reminded them.

“He is,” Tess admitted. “If you can’t do it he won’t let you – for your safety as well as others.”

“But is he scary?”

“He’ll push you to see if you’ll break or panic. Good weather or bad, distracted, tired, frightened, angry; do you know when to admit you can’t fly? Part of the training will be teaching you your own limits so you know when things are getting iffy as he calls it – when to make sure your pride doesn’t overrule your common sense.”

“Like me knowing when I’m getting angry,” Quickdash mumbled.

“You may actually have a slight advantage over the others in that regard, you already know how to look inward and notice when your feelings are affecting your judgment,” Tess allowed.

“Will he let us fly too?” Holly wondered.

“Neal doesn’t care too much about a pilot’s age – only their ability to fly,” Tess told her. “And getting good enough for him to let you fly will take lots and lots of practice.”

Consoles a ways away from the one Dusk was using lit up, the youths each quickly picking one to continue their own training.

“Will Neal really let those two fly?” Dusk quietly asked once the youths were out of hearing.

“Will Neal really let you fly?” Tess countered. “Only if he thinks you and they are good enough. Good enough that he will trust you with the lives of himself and the others.”

Dusk was quiet for a moment before saying, “I’m not feeling quite as ready to be tested as I was a minute ago.”

“I’m not surprised,” Tess told hir. “There’s a lot more pressure on you when it’s more than just a simulation that you can reset if you make a mistake.”

“How does Neal do it?”

“By staying in practice. The better to be able to handle something the flight computer can’t.”

“Like what?”

“Like a flight of birds giving off a strong enough radar reflection that the computer tries to divert. Or failed or damaged sensors that a pilot can think their way around that the computer can’t.”

“So Neal overrides it.”

“And if you’re taking over then you need to know how to fly it. You may not believe it, but at one time all ground transport was manually controlled at all times.”

“I saw Mike showing Alex one of those Class Five Star-Rig simulators,” Dusk said with a grin. “Two minutes in and he actually managed to roll it over!

“There’s more than enough power in most PTVs to roll one if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Tess agreed. “But there’s another reason to still have a warm body able to take over. When the first self-driving predecessors to the PTVs came out vehicle thieves had a field day with them because they’d stop if someone stepped out in front of them. Since most owners at the time still knew how to drive, they started taking over the controls to protect themselves. As the vehicles recorded everything its sensors detected as well as driver input, the driver would have a record of why they overrode the auto-pilot, which would stand up in the courts of the day.”

“So they’d run the would-be thieves over?”

“You have Weaver and our youngest four in a PTV with you and those goons back on Parakit try to stop you. Judgment call time – what do you do?”

“I let Quick pain stick them into the ground! No, I drive through them.”

“So it might help if you know how to drive in the first place,” Tess hinted. “Though if I’m linked in you might miss all the action.”

“Oh?”

“Locking you guys in stasis means I can get really rough on the PTV without putting any of you at risk.”

“Have you ever stasised Neal?”

“Yes, and after things settled down we’d then go over who did what and why and work on my strategies.”

“So you’re always learning.”

“As is Neal, though we’re getting to where we have a good idea what the other will think or do when a problem comes up.”

“Hmmm, I think I’m up for one more sim if you please,” Dusk told her.

“Very well,” Tess replied. “Your next task is taking a loaded pod from orbit to a moon-sized planet for an outpost stationed there. You may take either Alpha or Baker, be advised that Baker is a little more updated and is more responsive.”

“If Baker’s that much better, why does Neal fly Alpha so often?”

“He switches between them all the time,” Tess told hir, “but if he’s having someone else flying his gear he’ll give them what he sees as the better equipment – just in case they need it.”

“So if I can manage something with Alpha then Baker would just be a bit easier. I’ll take Alpha then.”

“As you wish,” Tess said and the controls before the teen reconfigured to those of one of Neal’s heavy lift shuttles. “Your pod is on ring fourteen, row Hotel. A mixed load, some perishables so you will be keeping the stasis fields up on your cargo until they start to unload it.”

Dusk nodded before saying, “Folly Control, this is Folly Heavy Alpha; I need clearance to dock with the pod location one-four H for delivery to the outpost.”

Alpha, Folly Control copies,” a more serious sounding Tess said. “Bay doors are open and you are clear to launch at this time. Please maintain a minimum distance of two hundred meters from the ship except for when docking to ship or pod.”

Alpha copies; two hundred meter minimum…”

* * *

With the cook officially having the next day off to better break in her new toys, the rest of the crew were forced to fend for themselves. While Neal fell back on one of his ready-meal breakfasts, most of the others tried their hands with the new cooking gear in the mini kitchen. Weaver also had a ready-meal, Neal having to fight back a grin at her frowning about being turned around by the kids every time she’d tried to ‘help’ in their mini kitchen.

“Very nice, very tender,” Neal was telling Morningmist later that day as he sampled the meat shi had helped prepare for their lunch.

“Glad you like it, Dad. We would have had some of Mike’s pastries for dessert, but they seem to keep disappearing before they can make it to the table. Oh, if you go looking for any of those hot sauces Graysocks has been collecting, they’re in the red cabinet.”

“Oh?”

“Tess had to warn Weaver twice, so we thought it safer if we simply marked them as dangerous.”

While Neal had half expected his still-new cook to take a day or three to get her new kitchen just the way she wanted it, he was pleasantly surprised when Tess announced that the evening meal would be served in ‘Stew’s Domain’, Suzan having settled in faster than even she had expected.

 

 


 

Keeping His Word

 

Neal frowned from his chair in his ready room, glaring at the blank screen before him. They’d just gone to warp after a brief visit to Station 667H – very brief due to the events that had transpired there.

“Bring up the room shields, no reason to force the others to feel this,” Neal requested.

“Psychic shielding up, Boss,” Tess reported as she raised fields that would block – or at least heavily blunt – most psychic talents.

“Record mode,” he quietly said.

* * *

Bright Hope, the home of Shadowspirit and Goldenmist.

“Welcome, welcome!” Shadowspirit called out as the front door opened to a pair of foxtaur vixens carrying heavy bags on their lower backs.

“We got the ribs,” Éclair told hir, “where d’you want them?”

“Smokers are fired up out back; you need a hand loading them?”

“We can manage,” she replied as she and her mate headed towards the rear door. “We saw our Star Corps friends driving up, they looked upset about something.”

“Damn it, what is it with those two?” Shadowspirit muttered just before the two in question opened hir front door. “Bad news?” shi asked them as they came in.

“We don’t know,” Quickwind admitted. “We just received a note from Neal saying something had happened regarding Quickdash and that we might want the group’s support with it.”

“Most of the others are out back. Give me a minute to make sure nothing will burn while we’re busy.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The scene opened to Neal sitting at his desk. “We had a little incident a few hours ago that needs to be addressed,” his image told them. Tapping a key on his desk he said, “Quickdash to my ready room. Bring a wand.”

They waited as he waited until the chakat youth entered the room.

“Do you know why you are here?” he asked hir.

“Because I clawed him,” Quickdash replied. There was some defiance in hir voice and posture, as well as some anger.

“Shall we review what led up to it?” Neal suggested.

“I know what happened,” Quickdash told him.

“No, you only know what you think you heard and saw, there were a couple of other things going on that make a difference in all this. Tess, five minutes in if you would please.”

The screen split into multiple views around an open cargo dock. Neal, Mike, and Dusk were to one side talking to what appeared to be a very upset or annoyed human male as several other humans looked on. Another view showed them Holly and Quickdash leading Suzan and Shadowcrest deeper into the station.

“Boss, I’m seeing a lot of people watching and starting to follow our crew in ways I don’t like,” Tess’ voice reported.

A key press on Neal’s desk froze the playback. “I’ve never had a problem there,” he told hir, “though I’d always been alone – and human …”

“Morph haters,” Quickdash growled.

“Obvious in hindsight or if you’re on the lookout for them,” Neal agreed, “but all the signs had been there and I seemed to have missed them too.”

“Recall,” the Neal on the screen said as the playback resumed. “Stay alert.”

Suzan had hesitated, but the younger three got her quickly turned around and heading back – only to have a human foursome appear between them and the open cargo door.

“What’s your hurry?” one of them said with an evil grin as they blocked the way.

What Suzan and the kids didn’t see was a fifth step out of the shadows that they had been about to pass. While they were distracted he quickly closed in from behind them. “Gonna get me a piece of tail!” he exclaimed, one hand getting a good grip on Holly’s tail – the other raising a large knife.

There was a black and white blur and then the knife came down – missing the tail completely as there was no longer a hand controlling it.

The other hand had let go of the tail, the owner of said hands now trying to frantically decide if they should be best used to protect his face from further clawing, to try to reduce the blood loss from his suddenly deeply slashed knife arm, or to try pushing away the claws still tearing at his guts.

The camera shot was long, but the rage on Quickdash’s muzzle suggested that had either indecisive hand had tried to touch hir, shi would have gladly have taken his throat out with hir teeth.

The front four humans hadn’t been idle, snarling as they belatedly reached for their concealed weapons. A projectile shot rang out – the bullet hitting an overhead pipe and ricocheting hot shrapnel into their faces.

“The next one kills,” Mike’s voice boomed out, he having cleared his weapon for action just before Neal had finished drawing his own.

“Good angle,” the Neal at the desk commented. “I’ll have to remember to ask him if he’d scoped out good deflections before he drew, or if he just got lucky.”

By this time Dusk had hir phaser trained just over the heads of those closest to hir.

“Tess, consider this site hostile and respond accordingly.”

“Aye, Captain. Suggest you guys get back in here before they have time to regroup,” Tess replied.

Suzan looked a little wild-eyed as Shadowcrest hurried her back to the hatch, Holly and Quickdash following – both wearing some of their attacker’s blood.

Only after they were in did Neal and the others back in and close and seal the hatch.

The view then faded back to just Neal and Quickdash, him watching hir reactions.

“The station master was pissed to have one of his people clawed,” Neal told hir. “He was even more pissed when I told him that if you hadn’t been scratching that asshole I would have been putting a bullet through his hollow head – and anyone else trying to get in the way.”

When Quickdash said nothing, Neal asked, “Do you now know why I am going to punish you?”

Quickdash was glaring up at him now, but still saying nothing.

“Are you sure you’re a ’mil? Because what I saw out there looked to me like a purely chakat response to a threat to someone they cared very deeply for.”

“HE WAS GOING TO CUT HER TAIL OFF!” shi screamed at him.

“Would she have lived?” Neal asked coldly. “You already knew that there were more of them to worry about, yet you forgot about all those other threats when a new one directly threatened Holly. Tell me what you did wrong.”

Shi glared at him for over a minute before hir eyes dropped to the deck. “I should have just shot him,” shi finally mumbled.

“That at least would at least have been quicker,” Neal allowed, “But I happen to know that you could have done better.”

“How?” shi demanded.

“I know how good you are with those pain sticks, I know you could have struck him mid-chest – or even in the neck – with one wand set to max while readying your phaser with your other hand,” Neal told hir. “Isn’t that how you train?”

“I’m sorry,” shi mumbled.

“Don’t be sorry,” Neal replied. “Just tell me if you aren’t the little ’mil I was told you were.”

“I’m a ’MIL!” shi snarled at him.

“But not it seems when it comes to Holly,” he softly said.

“I can do it,” shi softly pleaded.

Neal held out his hand, much as he had while they were in Parakit orbit; and shi handed him hir pain stick. It beeped a few times as he changed the settings. He frowned at it and it beeped again.

Setting the pain stick on the desk, he beckoned hir closer and then up and into his arms for a hug.

“I am not mad at you,” he gently told hir, “but I need to know that I can depend on you. That means knowing whether I’ve got a ’mil on my side or just a frightened little chakat. Not that you being merely a chakat is a bad thing mind you, I just need to be able to plan my actions accordingly.”

“I’m a ’mil – you can depend on me.”

As they shared another hug, Neal asked, “But can Holly depend on you?”

Quickdash nodded and then felt Neal’s arm move. Hir lower torso was still in Neal’s lap as shi started to sit up and exclaim, “Wait! Yo–” just as the pain stick touched hir lower belly – and Neal’s thigh.

Hir roar of pain mingled with his scream, filling the room. They were locked in the moment, the pain keeping him from releasing the pain stick. Shi’d had too little warning, and hir claws came out to sink in wherever they happened to be.

Five seconds later the timer Neal had set went off and the now disabled pain stick dropped from his nerveless fingers.

Quickdash got hir breath back before Neal did. “Why?” shi demanded through hir tears. “It was my fault – my pain,” shi cried.

Still breathing hard himself, Neal pulled hir back into a hug. “I – share the – blame, I share – the pain,” he half panted – half whispered to hir. “I’d forgotten – how much I hate those – damn things,” he muttered.

“You’re bleeding,” Quickdash suddenly realized, trying to get off of him again.

“Through no fault of yours,” Neal told hir, letting hir go this time. “Go get the liquid skin out of the first aid kit in the fresher and we’ll take care of it before the others notice.”

“I’ll get you a fresh shirt, Boss,” they heard Tess say.

“That wasn’t a ten,” Quickdash was saying a few minutes later as shi rubbed the paste over the last of the bloody little holes shi’d put in Neal’s sides.

“You haven’t needed punishing since you’ve been here – and I wasn’t sure I could handle more than an eight,” Neal told hir. “Do you think it was enough to make the message stick?”

“Yes,” shi admitted as he put on a fresh shirt.

“Then I’ll consider the matter closed,” Neal informed hir. “Go, get your stick and get back out there before Holly and the others get too worried about you.”

Quickdash did as shi was told, but not before shi gave him a parting hug.

They were back to just Neal, a small thoughtful half-smile on his face as he watched the door closed behind hir.

“You’re still recording,” Tess reminded him after a long moment.

“All in all, I think that went rather well,” Neal replied. “End recording.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The screen blanked to silence, not that the room had remained quiet throughout the recording.

“Wow,” Heather breathed, breaking the silence from where she sat next to Mike’s mother, Cathleen. “So that’s Captain Foster.”

“Not quite what you were expecting?” Cathleen asked.

“No,” the younger equitaur admitted. “I mean I knew he had to be pretty tough to be able to fly a ship solo or to be able to handle putting up with all of them, but, wow.”

“Saving any of that ‘wow’ for Mike?” Cathleen asked with a grin this time.

“Oh, he’s a chip off the old block, he kicks ass just like his mom does!”

More towards the center of the room; Shortdash was gripping Quickwind’s hand hard enough to hurt, not that hir mate was reacting to it.

“He promised,” Shortdash whispered.

“He did, and he kept his word,” hir mate quietly replied. “And he was right, shi didn’t respond as we would have expected hir to.” Shi could feel the glare from the side of hir sore hand as shi added, “Had I reacted like that you’d be forced to mark me off as unstable and take me off the job.” Standing and then pulling hir mate to hir feet as well, Quickwind told the others, “Back in a bit,” before leading Shortdash towards the door.

“At least he didn’t leave us hanging like he did last time,” Redtail’s mother, Honeycomb, commented.

Dusk’s mother Sparrow smiled as she said, “Our daughter looked like shi did well; shi was ready for action and still in control of hirself.”

“The rabbit had a knife out and Shady looked ready to defend them as well,” Goldenmist pointed out.

“Those two are in for a surprise,” Fernando said, indicating the door the two chakats had left out of. “If he walks into another Parakit shi’ll follow him in; he’s earned hir loyalty and more.”

“Not just hir,” Cathleen told him. “Mike looked like he was going to object when the captain told him to retreat with Dusk, the captain then being the last one to return to the safety of his ship.”

“Makers preserve us,” Nightsky’s mother Starfrost murmured, “twelve crazy teens went out; a dozen fire breathing heroes will be returning …”

“It’s not that bad,” hir mate Astral told hir.

“Isn’t it?” Starfrost countered. Looking at the other parents shi asked, “Isn’t anyone else worried about their kid’s future?”

“Wondering about Redtail’s future? Yes,” Honeycomb admitted. “Worried? Not really. It seems she’s learning quite a bit with her friends. Is she learning something other than what we had expected? Definitely – not that Lake and I are seeing that as necessarily a bad thing.”

Longsock had been quietly contemplating what they had just seen. He finally said, “While I don’t like how Neal phrased it, I know it was to shock Quickdash and force hir feelings out into the open. I’m forced to admit allowing a single possible injury to get through was better than ignoring all those other possibly deadly threats they were facing.”

“It seems shi disagreed with you and Neal on that,” Lake told him. The other foxtaur tod frowned a little before adding, “Though Neal was right about hir being more than able to protect your daughter as well as deal with the others if shi’d thought first and not just reacted.”

Goldenmist nodded. “I now know what had frightened Shadowcrest earlier. What I’m feeling from hir now is no little pride and determination to be ready the next time something unusual comes up.”

By the time Shortdash and Quickwind returned, the others were all out in the backyard where the aromas from the grills warned that the food was just about ready.

“Better?” Goldenmist asked, feeling a lot less tension from them.

“A bit,” Quickwind admitted. “It seems the good captain wanted us to see that clip before we found out what other punishment he’d given hir.”

“Oh? Dare we ask what?” their hostess wondered.

Shortdash sighed. “All of those involved had to fill out an ‘after action’ report, what they’d seen and why they did what they did; but hirs included more of hir feelings and had hir pointing out hir own mistakes.”

“Written or recorded?” Shadowspirit asked.

“Both,” Quickwind told hir. “I think that was actually harder for hir to do than taking that pain stick.”

“Maybe that’s why he did it,” Longsock softly chuckled. At their stares he said, “Can you imagine hir the next time something happens, shi’s already up on hir hind legs – claws and fangs at the ready to rip some deserving asshole a new one – instead shi drops back to all fours muttering, ‘Forget it – you’re not worth the paperwork’?”

His joke got a laugh out of Quickwind and even a modest smile out of hir mate.

 

 


 

Not Gone Hunting For Trouble

 

As Neal had once told Weaver, there were some areas of space with sub-space ‘weather’ too turbulent to allow ships to safely travel through them at warp. Neal was about to take them through one of those spaces now, six hours drifting at a high sub-light speed being much quicker than the three days at warp it would have taken going around the worst of the local disturbance.

Preparations had included bleeding off all the ship’s excess heat; to help reduce the chance of being detected by others, Neal would have Tess ‘hold’ their heat until just before they could again go to warp. When questioned by his crew, Neal explained that they were going to be doing what old Earth submarines used to call ‘silent running’, trying to give off little to no emissions that might be detected by any hunters looking for prey that wouldn’t be able to easily warp away from them. Neal had frowned as they entered the area as although he had Tess not broadcasting that little ‘here I am’ pulse, several of the other ships out there were.

“Tell me again why we can’t just warp through this part of space,” Dusk requested as shi and the others watched Neal make his final preparations.

“Planets, stars, universes – all spinning this way and that in reference to each other. They twist and shape the oceans of subspace. What happens on a water world when two strong currents don’t merge but collide?” Neal asked in return.

“Very rough water,” Dusk allowed.

“Rough enough to swamp and even sink ships,” Neal told hir. “Or air currents around a storm. Some may be possible but not worth the risk to the ship and crew.”

“How bad is this one?”

“Very bad because it’s very concentrated. The good news is because of that concentration there are places where it’s only a few light-hours thick. We’ll just find a thin spot and slip on through.”

The Folly was four hours into her six-hour ‘drift’, and her crew had just sat down for the evening meal when Murphy made his presence known.

“Neal?” Weaver asked, him having frozen in mid-word.

“Tess just detected some more company,” Neal told her as he got up and headed for the door. “Go ahead and finish your meals,” he told the others.

“We’ve seen other ships out here and he didn’t get that excited about them,” Mike pointed out, having just finished his watch.

Roseberry disagreed. “That isn't excitement I’m feeling from him. Tess, what makes this one so special?”

“This one isn’t on a ‘least time’ course through the area,” Tess told them. “Which suggests a pirate hunter – or a pirate.”

“So things might be getting ‘interesting’ as Neal calls it,” Alex agreed. “Where’s he heading, Tess?”

“Primary bridge.”

“Then we’ll head for the secondary, no reason to jog his elbow,” he said as he and the others got up; most of them missing Suzan frowning at their interrupted remains of a meal.

“Tactical,” Alex requested as he dropped into the first seat, the others clustering around him or heading for the other stations.

The first to notice something was way off was Cindy. “The range markers seem to be off, we shouldn’t be able to detect them from this far back.”

“And we damn sure shouldn’t be getting this much detail,” Mike agreed. “Tess, have you been holding out on us – again?”

“Data is king as Neal will tell you,” Tess replied. “As our running and defense capacities are extremely limited in here, the more and sooner we know the better we can plan for what we find or what may find us. Therefore we launched a few probes as we were coming in. As subspace comms can be detected they’re using laser whiskers to talk to each other and one sends what they find back in our direction. As they are traveling a little faster than we are, our actual sensor range has been slowly and steadily increasing.”

As Tess was speaking, dozens of bright little comets lit up on the displays as she showed the probes she had to the sides as well as ahead and behind them, their slowly fading tails showing where they’d been. Three of the tails now had curves in them, showing where they were changing course to close in on the suspected pirate.

Suspicions that were looking more confirmed the more data that Tess’ probes gathered. From the three short-range fighters clinging to her hull to the quick-jettison mini pods that would let her get rid of any unwanted evidence if they should be spotted by any pirate hunters, this was becoming one very ‘shady’ looking starship.

The probes appeared to remain undetected as they slowly drifted closer, close enough to now distinguish the other ship’s phasers tucked away just under their hull plating, even the heat signatures of the crew moving about – and one of the mini pods began to flash crimson on their displays as what appeared to be very faint life readings in blocks of bars became apparent.

“Prisoners – or slaves?” Alex wondered.

“Slavers usually wouldn’t need fighters,” Dusk pointed out. “Not that they can’t be pirates with slaves.”

“Either or both,” Tess agreed. “And we can’t try to alert Star Fleet from in here without scaring the pirate off.”

“What would Neal be doing if we weren’t here?” Mike asked.

“As a rule, Neal would disable them and give their location to Star Fleet and let them come collect the pirates, but those prisoners or slaves would most likely be jettisoned or otherwise killed long before Star Fleet could get a ship out.”

“Is there any way to save them?” Weaver asked.

“Several,” Tess admitted, “but each of them would involve Neal putting his current crew at some greater level of risk.”

Weaver quickly left the secondary bridge and headed for the primary one. When she reached it, she found Neal sitting in his center captain’s chair. The look of anger on his face was something she hadn’t seen before. His head turned slightly when she stepped up beside him, but he said nothing.

After a moment she said, “It’s always easier to take a risk when it’s just yourself you’re risking.” At his slight nod she continued, “If the kids and I weren’t here, what would you be doing?”

Letting out a pent-up breath, Neal looked back at the monitors. “Transport the prisoners into one of the empty cargo pods until I know who and what I’m dealing with, beam the computers onboard for Tess to data mine, and of course disable their ship. And then I might leave them for Star Fleet to clean up.” The last was said at almost a growl.

“Might?”

“It may surprise you to learn that I believe piracy should be just as hard on the pirates as it can be their victims.”

Looking him in the eye she said, “Then do it.” At his glare she smiled, “You’re not the only one who is willing to accept certain risks. Tess, what are the others up to?”

Tess responded with, “As your crew just heard his better half tell him he’s going to rescue them, the older kids are going to help me shift some bedding and other essentials into an empty cargo pod, the younger three are going to be helping Suzan. As it appears that the slaves weren’t being fed I’ve suggested she whip up a light protein soup to start them off; and a few snacks for the rest of you, as it looks like you’ll be too busy to finish your meals and we’re going to be making a long night of it.”

Looking like he had bitten into something he wasn’t sure he liked the taste of, Neal stared at Weaver for another moment, then turned back to the displays.

“Tess,” he ordered, “Give us a solid transporter chain. Once in place go active and confirm that we are indeed dealing with pirates. If we’re wrong we’ll apologize for scaring the hell out of them – not that I’m thinking we will be. On confirmation, I want you to disable their bridge controls, then grab the computers and the slaves.” Looking at Weaver he continued, “And then turn them into a rock. The only thing I want you to leave working over there is life-support.”

Four more ‘comets’ shot out of the Folly’s forward sphere at different speeds so that each would stay as far from each of the others as the closest was to the Folly.

As the lead comet came into its transporter range with the pirate they all came to sudden halts with tiny flares of their warp fields.

“I thought we couldn’t use warp in this area,” Weaver said.

“We can’t,” Neal replied, “but if we’re careful we can still use a momentary warp bubble to shift our sub-light speeds. Too bad it’s also one of the easiest ways to be detected out here.”

The warp field flares had alerted the pirate to the fact they weren’t alone, but the pirate had only seconds to react – and that just wasn’t enough time.

Looking back to the displays, Neal and Weaver watched as the pirate’s bridge suddenly showed a complete loss of power. Areas that had shown computer equipment went vacant, then the cages and their occupants started vanishing. A few seconds later most of the ship went dark as control and power systems, even connections and cabling were transported away. The fighters hadn’t been spared as their computers were taken and their cockpits opened to space.

Watching as the pirate continued to drift helplessly along its previous path, Neal said, “Tess will leave them basic life-support. If they want to try to get something else going, they’ll have to take from that, so they should still be here if or when Star Fleet gets around to collecting them.”

Pointing at the four small objects now returning to the Folly, she asked, “Just what are those things?”

Neal glanced at her as he said, “Zulus. The other probes are what I call baby Zulus

With a raised eyebrow Weaver asked, “And just what is a ‘Zulu’?”

“Just as ‘Z’ was the last letter in an old English alphabet, the ‘Zulus’ were intended originally as the Folly’s last defense. When I started out, the Zulus were my ‘last chance’ fight or flight craft. For flight, they are very fast and long ranged, for fight, they have long-range sensors and transporters that can penetrate the more basic shield types.”

Weaver asked, “Is there a reason you haven’t brought this up before?”

Giving her a smile, Neal replied, “Only because we haven’t had a need for you to learn of them up until now. That, and I can no longer use the Zulus for ‘flight’.” At her raised eyebrow, he sadly added, “Each of them can barely hold two passengers, so even using all six I would have to leave some people behind.”

“And a ‘baby’ Zulu?” she asked.

“Unmanned, no transporter, less fuel, made for scouting and, if need be, ramming.”

“Ramming?” she asked, looking a little surprised.

Neal gave her a tight smile, “If need be, they are my ‘last chance’ to protect the Folly and those aboard her.”

Looking a little worried, Weaver asked, “When do you use them?”

“I usually have the baby Zulus out when I’m actively hunting pirates. Their scanner range is almost as good as the Folly’s, so with six of them running parallel to her, we can sweep a much wider path. In this case, I wanted all the advanced notice we could get while we’re stuck going slow. The Zulus are used when I’m trying to keep pirates or anyone else from seeing the Folly. When running silent like we were, coming up on them, I can get pretty close but not quite into transporter range without running a risk of being detected before I can take them out. A Zulu is much harder to see than the Folly, so I used the lead Zulu’s transporters to shut them down. In this case, I used the other Zulus as relays to beam the computers and prisoners onboard. I can also use the Zulus if I’m trying to stay out of range of something that might damage us before I can disable them.”

“How can you ‘relay’ a transporter? I thought they could only take things apart and put them back together.”

“Yes and no. With a single transporter, it would record an object within its range, break it down, transmit the matter to a receiving point also within its range, and use the record to reconstruct the item using the matter it had transmitted. In this case, the Zulus’ transporters retransmitted the recording and the matter to the Folly, and her transporters put everything back together in the cargo pod. With the prisoners, there was also the mind matrix to consider, but as far as the relay goes, that’s just more information to move.”

Weaver frowned. “That’s all a bit too technical for me. You told me before that the Folly had been boarded twice by pirates.”

Neal grinned. “Both times I was using my Folly as bait. I had to make sure all the pirates had come into range before I could act. So far no pirate has ever been able to get the word out just how well the Folly can defend herself. I would like to keep it that way. Oh, and before you ask, I really had no intention of actively hunting pirates with you and the kids onboard. This was just a fluke. Tess, anyone in range taking notice of our maneuvering?”

“I think you gave at least three captains out there heart attacks at the speed they changed course away from us and our pirate friend. Be advised our actions did smoke out one ship we’d missed. What little I’m getting suggests ‘Fleet’, and they are currently maneuvering closer utilizing just their impulse engines. At their current speed I don’t expect them to be in range to see or do anything before we can go back to warp.”

As he and Weaver got up, Neal asked, “Would you like to help me welcome our new guests?”

Weaver smiled as she replied, “Maybe after I take care of Starblazer.”

As they separated, Neal called over his shoulder, “In case you’re keeping score, that one goes under ‘never saw us coming’.”

“… ‘Never saw us coming’,” over a dozen earpieces and comm badges repeated.

“More secrets,” Calmmeadow commented as shi wrestled a bed frame assembly down the passageway.

“More toys for our mini-taurs to play with,” Mike agreed from behind hir.

* * *

Entering the cargo pod, Neal was pleased to see that the kids were already setting up beds for each of their guests and they had stayed away from the cages without needing to be told.

Moving up to the first cage, Neal had Tess transport away the top and sides, leaving the bottom and the chains. Carefully rolling the big fur over, he found a medpac slowly pumping drugs into her. Turning the medpac off, Neal carefully removed it. Setting it aside, he asked Tess to analyze the contents. A medical scan showed the fur to be badly dehydrated, very underweight and generally in very poor shape. Neal attached a comm badge and one of Tess’ medpacs and had her start giving the big cat fluids.

After checking all fourteen of them, Neal took a break, shaking his head at what he had found. He told the others, “All Rakshani, all female, the medical scans suggest that three of them appear to have been beaten a while back, but their injuries have almost healed. Someone was either very scared of them or very stupid. Tess tells me they were using drugs strong enough to knock something Mike’s size down hard, but these furs are all less than half his mass.”

She slowly awoke to the sound of quiet voices, the words not making any sense at first. She felt like she had slept for a very long time. That, and the way she could barely move her body suggested she had been drugged. The quiet clunk of a chain link when she did try to move warned her that she was in serious trouble. Breathing slowly and deeply to try and clear her head, she concentrated on the voices. One was a deep sounding male voice. She involuntarily shivered when she realized it was human. The other came from a young cat morph.

“Don’t you have any drugs that would wake them quicker?” the cat was asking.

“I have something that might speed things up,” the human replied, “but with everything they seem to have been through, I think it would be better to just let the drugs in their system wear off and let them wake up on their own. It should be easier on them, and less of a shock.”

She was surprised that the cat had dared to question the human’s methods, and even more surprised that the human didn’t punish him for it. As she tried to get a look around without being noticed, a hatch opened and a rabbit morph and three very young taurs came in. Two of the taurs were quite small, and her anger rose at the thought that the human had such young slaves. The rabbit seemed to be a trustee. She was heading toward her master.

Suzan walked over to where Neal was using a fold-out desk. He was reading through some of the data that Tess had already recovered from the pirate’s computers. “How did you want to handle feeding them?” she asked.

“You might want to cool the soup to around body temperature, put down a bowl of water, and one of soup in easy reach for them, I’d guess about a half a liter in each.” At her curious look, he said, “With starvation recovery, it’s ‘slow and easy’; just a little at a time to get their systems used to food again. We don’t need them trying to drink too much too fast, they’ll just do themselves more harm than good by throwing up. And until they’re fully awake and aware, I don’t dare try removing any of their restraints.”

As she and the youths started placing soup and water bowls in front of each of the Rakshani, one of them lunged at the rabbit, the Rakshani’s weakness more than her chains stopping her pounce well short of Suzan.

Waving the surprised Suzan away, Neal stepped up to the Rakshani, stopping just out of her reach. She stared at him growling, stopping after only a moment to cough.

Neal gave her a small smile and nudged the bowl of water a little closer to her. “You’re too dry to even growl properly. Drink a little water and you can try again if you like.” At her glare, he stooped to pick up the water bowl and drank half of it. Setting the bowl back down, he added, “You’re bigger than I am, anything in the water would hit me harder than it would you.”

After watching him for a minute, she tried to get a drink but her hands were shaking so badly she knocked the bowl over when she tried to pick it up. Neal sat down on the edge of the cage and helped prop her up. Once he had her up and leaning against him, Neal took a fresh bowl from Holly and held it so all she had to do was drink. After she had finished off the water, Neal set the bowl down and just let her lean on him.

When she looked up at him, he smiled, “Just let that settle, then we can try some soup.” When she rattled her chains, he gave her arm a little squeeze, “The chains stay on until you give your word that you won’t try to harm anyone on this ship.”

“I don’t make deals with slavers,” she managed to growl before coughing again.

“Not a problem as I’m not a slaver and you’re not a slave.” At her glare, he added, “The pirate ship they had you on ran into problems. We beamed you off when they lost power.”

“I don’t believe you.” She hissed.

“What would convince you?” Neal asked.

“Free us!” she would have shouted, but it came out little more than a hoarse whisper.

“Only on your word you won’t try to harm any fur on this ship,” Neal replied.

You are not a fur,” she pointed out.

“I’m willing to take my chances,” he said with a small smile.

Her glare at him was interrupted by the crackling of a pain-stick discharging into the deck next to the remains of her cage.

Alex watched her flinch away before calmly saying, “Be advised that any damage to our token human would really annoy the rest of us.”

Now watching Alex watch her, the larger Rakshani slowly nodded; and without being told Tess released the shackles and the chains suddenly dropped away.

As she stared down at what had been her bonds, Neal smiled again. “Now, did you want to try the soup on your own, or would you like a little help?”

After slowly feeding her two bowls of soup, Neal and Alex helped her up and over to one of the beds. After getting her settled, he turned back to the row of Rakshani still in chains.

“How about the rest of you?” he asked. When none of them moved, he continued, “The comm badges each of you are now wearing are monitoring your vitals so we would know if you were having problems, but they also tell me that all but two of you are faking sleep.”

The Rakshani in bed tried to get back up, but Neal gently pushed her back down. “Please don’t hurt them,” she begged.

Neal just gave her a smile. “You were faking sleep too,” he reminded her, “then you tried to attack members of my crew.” At her apprehensive look, he shook his head as he chuckled. “I will have to think of a suitable punishment for that last part, but perhaps your friends are smart enough to learn from your mistakes.” Looking back at the other Rakshani, he said, “Well?”

One of the larger Rakshani shifted and tried to speak but, like the first, her throat was far too dry. And as with the first one, Neal helped her sit up and then carefully fed her the water. When she indicated she wanted more, he told her she could have all she could hold, but she was going to take it a little at a time. After two more bowls of water and the soup, she was ready to try again.

“As ranking noncom, I give my word that my people will not harm your furs.”

Neal smiled as he replied, “Having dealt with clever little Rakshani a few times, I have some idea of how sneaky your kind can be, so my first question would be if all of these are ‘your’ people?” At her nod, he added, “And for your information, they are mine as far as the vixen that just came in is my denmate, and the younger ones are my adopted children.” He then asked, “What service are you in?” At her look, he shrugged, “We will be going by a Star Fleet base in two days. We could drop you off there.”

“NO!” she hissed, then realizing what she’d just done, she shut up and stared at the deck.

Neal shook his head at what that answer implied and started quietly cursing.

Having missed the beginning of the conversation, Weaver asked, “Why would she not want to go home?”

The Rakshani remained silent, so Neal was the one to answer her question. “I think she doesn’t want Star Fleet to know they aren’t still on that pirate ship. That and the information Tess has already pulled from the pirate’s computers suggest they were on a Star Fleet vessel when they were taken prisoner.” Looking up at Weaver, he added, “In other words, this was an inside job and there’s no telling where, or how deep into Star Fleet the rot has spread.” Looking at the kids, he indicated the other Rakshani. Each of the teens picked a Rakshani to release and help, Holly and Quickdash going to see if the first Rakshani, who had given her name as Kestrel, wanted some more soup. Lifting the chin of the Rakshani in his arms until she had to meet his eye, he asked, “Tell me I’m wrong. Please.” She only shook her head.

She bowed her head and began to speak. “My name is Zhanch ap Nashene na Zhane. I am a Marine sergeant in Star Fleet. We were part of the Marine detachment for the cruiser ‘Montgomery Scott’. Three days from the Connadis system is the last I can remember.”

“The medpacs you were wearing had their data recorders turned on,” Neal told her. “Most of you have been drugged for a little more than five weeks.” Giving the big cat in his arms a careful squeeze, he added, “Your medpac and two of the others showed two days less. Also, your medical scan suggests all three of you may have been beaten around that time. Do you remember any of it?”

She just shook her head, Neal looked to the other two. The one Dusk was helping waited for her sergeant’s nod before speaking. “I had a dream,” she shuddered, “or maybe a nightmare, it kept fading in and out. They were trying to question the sergeant, but someone kept saying that they had used the wrong drugs on her. They tried beating her, but the drugs seemed to be keeping her from feeling any of it.”

“What knowledge would the three of you know that the others in your group would not?” Neal wondered.

Zhanch stiffened in Neal’s arms, “The command codes for the armory and the heavy mobile suits!” She looked at Neal. “If they were trying to get the codes from us, then our officers were most likely already unable to talk!”

Looking thoughtful, Neal agreed. “That should reduce their boarding action fun, but they still might have most of a Star Fleet cruiser to play with. Not a good thing.” Looking at the Rakshani that had ‘remembered’ her dream, he asked, “Did you see any furs in your ‘dream’ or just humans?”

“All I can remember were humans. Why?” she asked with a shiver.

“Because what we’ve pulled from the pirate’s records so far strongly suggest that there was Humans First involvement,” Neal said softly. At the questioning looks, he expanded on his thought. “Take a cruiser-sized play-toy and add a bunch of fun-loving, morph-hating’ Humans First types.” At their shocked stares, he could only shake his head. “The really bad news is that we have no idea where or how this came about – how much of Star Fleet might be in on this. If we don’t want to let them know that they’ve been discovered, then we can’t warn anyone else, and that means no one is going to realize that they’re the enemy until it’s too late.”

After putting all the Rakshani to bed, Neal left two of the kids with them in case they needed help, most of them being too weak to even stand on their own. Going back to his day room, Neal started digging through the data Tess was still pulling from the pirate’s computers.

* * *

The next morning, a rather tired Neal joined the Rakshani as they finished their breakfast of soft foods and plenty of fluids. Nightsky had also spent part of the night making basic shipsuits for each of their guests, Tess having made name and rank patches for them from the data pulled from the pirate computers.

Sitting down next to Zhanch’s bed, he told them what he’d found. “The pirates were planning on taking your group to Pharos, one of the non-aligned worlds. Once there, they were going to sell you off as slaves.” Neal added, “It seems they were, in fact, part of the attack on your ship. A group of Humans First insiders gassed most of the ship and were able to take the bridge and engineering. Anyone not immediately overcome by the gas was killed. Their biggest mistake seems to have been that the gas they used was too strong for the majority of the crew. They would have just stopped breathing. The few with any resistance to the gas might have felt and acted like they were intoxicated. Some side notes suggest your group may have been asleep when they started using the gas. You were the only ones asleep that lived. The alert Rakshani were fighting the gas and got shot for their troubles.” Glancing at each of the three that had been beaten, he added, “While they were trying to get the access codes from you, the gas still in your systems helped keep their Rakshan truth drugs from working properly. That’s why they thought they had used the wrong drugs to question you.” Neal’s tone changed at that point, a little more anger leaking out as he added, “Starvation, dehydration, and the drug overload they had you on would have killed all of you long before they could get you to Pharos.”

“And the human insiders?” asked the sergeant.

“Must have been wearing full body containment suits to protect themselves from the gas. Contact with the skin would knock a human out almost instantly; breathing any of it would kill in less than a minute. Any humans not in on the attack never knew what hit them.”

“So if the gas killed most of the command crew quickly, they may not have all the command level codes they need to properly run the ship,” Zhanch said.

“The problem is all they need is enough of the command and control codes to be able to move the ship, dock with a ‘victim to be’ and unload their troops and take over a ship or station from the inside. Given enough time they wouldn’t even need the codes, just add civilian gear and remove or route around the locked down Fleet equipment. The trick is going to be finding a way to warn others without risking word getting back to the cruiser that we’re on to them.” Looking at the sergeant Neal asked, “Is there anyone in Star Fleet that you trust enough to talk too?”

“A captain, but she won’t believe any message I send her.”

“Don’t worry, she’ll believe the message we send her, who is she?”

“Zhane. The last I heard, she was the base commander for Starbase Three.”

“An old friend of yours?”

“She may still see me more as an enemy.” At Neal’s raised eyebrow, she added, “We were once after the same male. I ‘won’, only to lose him to another.”

“And did she ever find a mate?”

“Yes, she ended up mated to a human admiral of all things. I think he is named Boyce King – or maybe it was Kline.”

“I would guess the male you two were fighting over didn’t rank quite so high?”

That earned a weak laugh out of Zhanch, “You could say that.”

“Then if we can convince her, we should be able to get her admiral in on this too. Tess – schedule information please.” After checking times and locations, Neal told the sergeant, “Our next stop is in two days. If they’re ready for us, we should only be there a few hours. If I push it, the Starbase is only four days from there, so we should be talking to your old ‘friend’ in less than a week. We will only have a day to convince her, then we’ll have to hurry to make our next port on time.”

The Rakshani named Kestrel asked, “Isn’t this more important than your schedule?”

Neal smiled at her, “It is much more important than my schedule. However, I don’t need anyone wondering what I may be up to that would cause my Folly to be ‘late’ for the first time in a very long while. Someone asking questions about us would be the last thing we need right now.” At her nod, he added, “This way there’s nothing to ask questions about. All we have to do is keep your group out of sight. And later I’ll have the kids get you all cleaned up and moved to more livable quarters.”

* * *

“I’ve found a little something I know you’ll like,” Tess was telling Neal after she’d finished her deep dive into the pirate computers. “They had the ‘I’m not here’ codes for those corrupted sensor systems. And it seems there were a series of extensions that would make a compromised system give them even more information – or report things that weren’t really there.”

“Learn what you can,” Neal replied. “We may want to be able to use a few of those tricks to convince others that there’s a problem.”

 

 


 

A Little Blast From The Past

 

Neal and Tess demonstrated to their crew just how quickly dropping off supplies at a small and ready station could be accomplished. They were there and gone in less than an hour before going to a higher than usual warp as they headed for Starbase 3 in the Rakshan Quadrant.

Still two days out from the starbase, one of the patrolling Zulus detected a transmission burst. A few seconds later Folly received the relayed hail. “Shadowchaser to Folly, where the blazes do you think you’re off to in such a hurry?”

Shadowcrest had been standing the early morning watch in the smaller secondary bridge, the primary bridge feeling a bit too large and lonely when there was no one else to share it with. As shi had Tess wake Neal, shi brought up the shield generators, asked Tess to actively scan for the ship hailing them, and then shi switched to the extended tactical displays Neal had used with the pirates.

“Someone out there was hailing us,” shi told Neal as he came onto the bridge still putting on his shirt; shi showed him what information shi had so far.

“So Tess told me,” Neal said, leaning over hir controls and tapping the keys that would drop Folly out of warp, though he didn’t bother bringing up the shields. At Shadowcrest’s stare, he just grinned as he said, “Trust me.”

Keying the comm, he said, “Folly to Shadowchaser; small universe, Kitten.”

“Tiny in fact,” came back to them after the seconds required to send the message at the speeding craft and for the reply. “I hope you’re ready for some company, Old Man.”

“I can still tie your tail in a knot if I find the incentive. What kind of company?”

“My tail’s gotten longer so you can try some of the more complex knots this time around. My boss wants us out hunting pirates – and for some silly reason they think you’d make a good Trojan horse.”

Shadowcrest was still staring at the tactical displays. Currently, they showed only a large two-seat fighter heading their way, the tactical data sheet telling hir that it was a type normally carried by a larger ship or a station, and was deployed to chase down pirates or other foes. It was fast at both impulse and warp, but it didn’t have the range to have gotten this far from a station on its own.

Neal was changing the sensor parameters on the next console. “That’s cheating,” Shadowcrest muttered as their range suddenly increased again and they could now see seven more fighters and what Tess reported to be two small carriers far behind the fighter and closing fast, new data sheets reporting that they were each capable of launching up to eight fighters. Escorting them was a pair of pocket destroyers.

Reading their sizes and mass from the tactical displays, Neal said, “Well Folly can certainly handle the load. Do your captains understand the rules?”

“They do,” the voice that had claimed to be this ‘Shadowchaser’ assured Neal. “The other captains won’t be giving you any problems, Captain Foster.”

At Shadowcrest’s questioning look, Neal explained off mike, “‘My ship, my rules’. If they don’t like it, they can get out and walk.”

As the other ships closed on the Folly, Tess addressed them. “This is Folly flight control to the Star Fleet carriers and destroyers, please pair off. Carriers please discharge your ready and standby fighters at this time.” To Neal, she said, “They’ve all been gotten to, Boss. Say the word and I can make us disappear from their scans.”

“Let’s not – at least not just yet,” Neal dryly suggested.

Folly, this is Slingshot; we would like to keep our fighters in quick deployment positions.”

Slingshot, this is Folly,” Tess replied. “Your fighters will be in quick deployment positions. Please release them at this time. You can launch them pilot only or unmanned as Folly will be parking them by way of tractor beam.”

“Just how good are your tractor beam teams?”

“You’re about to find out as you will also be parked by way of our tractor beams,” Tess informed them as four of the pods partway down the ship started to open. “Each flight will be parked together with any spares parked in the pod next door.”

Slingshot, this is Blue Point One ‘Chase’; be advised that this is standard procedure whenever Star Fleet requests Folly assist us on our little pirate hunts.”

“Very well, Chase, we’ll play things your way for now,” was the reply as both carriers began to release their fighters not already in flight.

Indicators on Shadowcrest’s board showed tractor beams taking hold of each fighter and moving them towards the open pods. Inside the pods were smaller but more precise tractor beams which settled each fighter into a readymade cradle. The few pilots that had ridden their fighters in ‘just in case’ were surprised to find connections in those cradles automatically connecting and topping off their fighters’ power and consumables.

Blue Point One was the last fighter to be tucked into a pod, and then the pods began to close before they were pressurized.

Most of the kids were up by now and watching from the primary bridge. They got another little surprise when Neal told Tess to open the ‘main hangar doors’. They had been told that the first cargo sphere was just for ‘vacuum mass-storage’. They were about to see one of Neal’s definitions of that term. The second sphere they already knew held their main living spaces and long-term container-sized storage. The corncob had some unused living space and two more bridges. All of its storage was limited to the external pods and the container transportation system. Between the spheres were eight protected docking ports that held the shuttles and smaller ships, only seven of the ports currently having a single ship or shuttle in them.

A very large circle appeared on either side of the forward sphere, then those circles started to rotate to the rear, leaving holes big enough that both of the small destroyers could have safely passed through at the same time. Tess now backed the carriers in. Once they were parked, she more or less blocked them in with the destroyers. After closing the forward sphere’s main cargo hatches, the Folly went back to warp as if she didn’t notice the extra mass.

Neal, having already told the other kids to not be seen just yet, then had Tess direct the pilots back to their carriers and inform the other captains that he would be able to talk with them in a few hours. He then asked Blue Point One’s pilot to join him on the bridge. Shadowchaser was led to the correct bridge with the help of a couple of Tess’ winking lights.

Shadowcrest watched the larger and much older dark-gray chakat enter, the look on hir muzzle suggesting shi wished shi had a weapon to help protect hir ship from an invader.

Shadowchaser had entered the bridge with a cocky grin on hir muzzle, only to stumble to a stop and stand slack-jawed, staring in disbelief at the younger chakat staring back at hir from the navigation station.

Neal didn’t quite manage to hold back his chuckle at them staring at each other, the sound causing both chakats to turn towards him with near identical questioning looks – which just made him laugh all the harder.

Wiping his eyes, Neal said, “Sorry kids, but those looks were priceless. Tess, please save them for the scrapbook under ‘crossed shadows’.”

“Sure thing, Boss,” Tess replied.

“Kids?” asked Shadowcrest now totally confused.

“Shadowcrest, say hello to your big sister Shadowchaser. Chase, meet Shady.”

Their new staring contest was interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the kids – who had been hearing what was going on by way of Tess – Weaver and Suzan bringing up the rear. At Weaver’s curious look, Neal waggled his eyebrows and said, “If you remember back to your very first day on board, I did say you might be surprised about a little something.” She thought back and suddenly remembered her smart remark about him not being the father type – and him saying she’d be surprised.

To Shadowchaser he said, “As you can see, I seem to be in the stray-collecting business again, though I will admit that I had even less control of my choices this time.”

Weaver cocked her head as she asked him, “And do you consider that to be a bad thing?”

Neal laughed and replied, “Hell no! With the curse I’m under, it could have been a whole lot worse!”

It was Shadowchaser’s turn to look confused, “Curse?”

“Tell you later,” Neal promised hir, then he started introducing hir to everyone. When he got to Suzan, he warned her to expect nine more for dinner.

Shadowchaser corrected him with “Ten.” At his raised eyebrow, shi said, “I want you to meet my mate.”

This raised Neal’s other eyebrow and earned hir a laugh. “Oh yes, by all means, bring your mate.”

“One warning,” Shadowchaser said giving Neal a wary look, “she’s an engineer.”

Neal laughed again, “Then it will be interesting to see if you have given her enough warnings about me and my toys.” Then turning more serious he added, “You and I need to have a little chat before I talk to your captains.”

They left the bridge and headed to the holosuite; Neal was letting the Rakshani use it when they were up to it. Tess was shifting the environment to aid their movement and exercise, they were now able to get around a little but were quickly tired.

The Rakshani sergeant in her basic shipsuit stared at the Star Fleet uniform as she asked Neal, “Are you betraying us, Captain?”

Neal gave her a frown. “Not at all, Zhanch. You have those you think you can trust in Star Fleet, I have mine. May I introduce my daughter, Shadowchaser.”

Looking at Shadowchaser, Zhanch said, “My apologies. I’m a little nervous about Star Fleet right now.”

Neal looked at Shadowchaser, “They are not here. You did not see them.” At hir raised eyebrow he added, “Star Fleet probably doesn’t know it yet, but one of their cruisers is no longer under their command. These Rakshani were left to die on a pirate ship heading for Pharos that we intercepted five days ago. We were on our way to Starbase Three when we got your hail. One of the things I got from the pirate’s logs was that the insiders had been onboard for months. They waited until the ship left the station without any chakats or other talents onboard before they attacked. I’m pretty sure they were afraid the chakats would sense that they were up to something. So my first question for you is: which of the ships I just took onboard have chakats?”

“Are you serious?” Shadowchaser asked. At his nod, shi thought for a moment, then smiled, “Do skunktaurs count? If so then we should be okay. The carriers both have chakats in the crew, and I understand that the destroyers each have a red/black (Telepathy/Astral Projection) skunktaur team.”

“Just because you have chakats or talents onboard, it doesn’t mean you’re ‘in the clear’. It might just mean they’ll bide their time and think nice thoughts,” Neal warned hir. “I’m having Tess scan all four ships and the fighters for anything out of the ordinary. That gas they used on the cruiser was some pretty nasty business.”

Neal sent Shadowchaser back to hir ship with instructions to talk to the talents and chakats on the other ships. They were to see if any humans ‘felt’ stressed when around furs.

Neal then had his meeting with the captains and first officers from the other ships, most of whom seemed a little ill at ease. They weren’t used to having their superiors telling them to take orders from a mere civilian. One of the captains gave Neal a sealed package. Opening the package, Neal dropped a memory chip into a reader and quickly read through the hardcopy documents that had come with it.

“Well it looks like your commander wants you to magically disappear from where you were and reappear in some pirate-infested area,” Neal told them after looking over the request. “As luck would have it, I’m in a bit of a hurry, so you’re already quite a ways from where you were, and I’ve already been through several of the areas they’ve suggested, so we will rule them out for the time being.”

First officer Canner, a medium sized foxtaur tod, snorted at Neal’s statement. “And how would a freighter know if there were pirates in the area? They could have been shut down or otherwise in hiding.”

Looking over his glasses at the foxtaur, Neal asked, “You’re from the destroyer, ‘Spike’, right?” At the officer’s nod, he continued, “Tess, patch me through to the Spike’s bridge, I would like to talk to their on-duty sensors tech.”

A moment later the speaker mounted on the table spoke, “This is sensors, Lieutenant Carson speaking.”

“This is Captain Foster of the Folly, Lieutenant, I was just checking to see if you had been tied into our sensor network, and to see if you were having any problems with the sensitivity of our systems.”

Not knowing that his captain and first officer were listening in, Carson just laughed. “We’re still taking bets over here on if the data you’re sending us is real or just something you’re making up on the fly,” he admitted.

Neal smiled. “And why would you question our data feeds?”

Carson snorted, “Well, for one thing, your so-called passive scans claim to be ‘showing’ non-powered objects at five times the range my sensors would, and the couple of times your people went active my display wouldn’t scale far enough out to see whatever they were looking at!”

“How could you confirm the data, without having to slow us down or unload your ship?” Neal asked.

Carson thought for a moment. “I’ve heard that some of the fighters have had a sensor upgrade, if one of them could parallel our course, we could then compare the data once it got back.”

Neal smiled, “I think that could be arranged. Passive-only though. There aren’t supposed to be any military ships in this area right now.”

“That would be enough to prove it to me and maybe even my skipper and first mate. Last I heard they were betting on the side that says you’re feeding us a line,” Carson replied.

Neal’s smile was making the officers in question squirm on their couches. “Tess, since Shadowchaser was able to not only spot but properly identify us at extreme range, I’m betting shi has that enhanced sensor package.” Hir carrier Captain, Chakat Autumnbreeze, raised an eyebrow at hir first officer who nodded at Neal. “Looks like a yes. Ask Shadowchaser if shi’s up for another little run; maybe in an hour or two.”

* * *

Buttoning up hir fighter, Shadowchaser discovered a few systems active that shouldn’t have been – as well as a data feed.

“Tess, what are you up to?” shi asked. There was no surprise that Tess was rooting through hir fighter’s systems, just that she was being so blatant about it.

“We detected you running a corrupted sensor program – it actually warns people that you’re in the area looking for things.”

“And what are you doing?”

“Reprogramming your systems so you can pretend to still be compromised but be able to detect the sender and to run silent when needed – like we need you to on this run,” Tess told hir.

Five minutes later, the Folly dropped out of warp. As she vented away her excess heat buildup the large door on a pod swung open and a lone fighter slipped out of the air containment field. Moments later, both ships jumped to warp, the larger ship’s warp fields helping mask the much smaller fighter’s jump to warp.

With hir sensors set to max, Shadowchaser pushed hir fighter’s speed up so that shi could pull away from the Folly while continuing to parallel her. After thirty minutes, the fighter was ten times as far away as the Folly’s suspected maximum passive range. Shi then started jinking around so hir data recorder would have something on it that the Folly wouldn’t be able to guess about. Shadowchaser then sped back to the Folly, both ships again dropping out of warp together.

Once back onboard, Shadowchaser waited for the pod doors to close before opening hir canopy as hir wing commander came up demanding, “What’s the big idea trying to overstress your fighter like that?”

Shadowchaser smiled, “So you saw?”

“Saw? Hell, we had front row seats! That Captain Foster of yours had some kind of probe all but up your tail the whole time going out; it was playing ‘follow the leader’ during your stunt flying, and then it flew circles around you almost all the way back. Didn’t you see it?”

Shadowchaser frowned at the last bit of information. “How close was it?” shi asked.

If they’re not feeding us a line, its warp field was as little as ten thousand kilometers from yours,” hir boss told hir. Looking confused, he asked, “You really didn’t see it, did you?”

Shaking hir head, Shadowchaser smiled as shi saw the expression on hir commander’s face. “It seems that my adopted father is still capable of making ‘toys’ that can and will drive others crazy.”

* * *

Dinner wasn’t quite what the guests had expected for a freighter. While there was no rhyme or reason to the seating, and what looked like everyday dishes, the food was presented and tasted like it had come from a five-star restaurant. Neal had warned them not to try talking shop during the meal. His cook had a nasty tendency to over-spice things if she thought people were ignoring her cooking.

The small talk at the tables wasn’t quite what they’d been expecting either. When one of the Folly’s ‘crew’ was asked what shi had done that day, shi informed them that shi and hir sister had practiced flying one of the heavy shuttles in the simulator. They had been hauling fully loaded pods between the Folly and a space station, as well as an Earth-type planet without getting into any trouble. With this coming from a pair of what looked like six or seven-year-olds, and having already had their collective noses rubbed in the fact that this freighter didn’t practice the usual idea of ‘normal’, the officers were a little reluctant to ask the older kids what they might have been up to.

Shadowchaser and hir mate, a foxtaur vixen named Redfoot, had secured seating pads next to Neal. As they finished off the dessert, a ‘death by chocolate’ cake with plenty of ice cream, shi asked him, “Just what did you have playing tag with us anyway?”

“Just one of the ‘baby’ Zulus,” Neal replied.

Before Shadowchaser could ask another question, Captain Autumnbreeze cut in, “And what is a ‘Zulu’?” Shi had watched the ‘sensor test’ flight; Neal had given them both the direct feed from the Folly and the small sensor probes paralleling her, but also the delayed feed off the probe that had followed the fighter out. Comparing the data with what Shadowchaser’s recorder had brought back had convinced hir that sneaking up on the Folly would be almost impossible even without the probes extending her range.

Neal was taking a moment to determine if he wanted this bit of Star Fleet to know how helpless the Folly wasn’t. He finally decided he’d already shown them too much – a little more wasn’t really going to matter.

“The ‘Zulus’ are the Folly’s defensive fight or flight craft. For flight, they are very fast and long-ranged.” Neal looked at the other officers as he said, “For fight, they have long-range sensors and transporters that can penetrate most basic shields.” Raising a hand to hold off the questions that several of the furs were trying to ask he added, “Releasing a gram or two of antimatter on someone’s bridge would ruin their whole day.” A gram being more than enough to destroy most ships, that was a bit of an understatement.

“And a ‘baby’ Zulu?” shi asked.

“Smaller, unmanned, no transporter, less fuel, made for scouting, and if I think I have to – ramming.”

“Ramming?” first officer Canner asked, his eyes wide.

Neal gave him an evil smile, “Scouts and the ‘last chance’ to protect this ship.”

Autumnbreeze asked, “Have you ever needed to use them?”

“The baby Zulus are often used when I’m hunting pirates. Their scanner range is about eighty-five percent of the Folly’s, so with six of them running parallel to her, we can make a very wide sweep of an area. The Zulus come in handy when I’m trying to stay out of range of something that might be able to see or damage the Folly before I can disable them.”

Shadowchaser said, “I don’t remember any of your Zulus being as fast as my current fighter.”

Neal chuckled, “They weren’t at that time. With just me running the Folly, I’ve always had lots of idle time to tinker with new ideas and the redesign of old ones. The Zulus are now about half again as fast as your fighter’s specs. The baby that was chasing you earlier never got up to thirty percent of its top speed. And at slower speeds, they’re easier to mask, so there was almost nothing for you to detect through your own warp bubble.”

Autumnbreeze broke the sudden silence. “So you have high-speed concealed parking for a small fleet, and enough power to protect against a small fleet. A ship that looks like it should be pirate bait turns out to be pirates’ bane. Are there any other tricks hidden up your sleeves, Captain?”

“There is one not so minor concern I have that someone’s trying to blind civilian as well as Fleet traffic to other craft out there – including yours it appears,” Neal told them.

“What exactly are you implying, Captain Foster?” Autumnbreeze asked, though Neal was watching Roseberry.

“Just surprise, none of them knew about it,” shi reported.

Neal nodded before addressing their guests. “I had someone try to force a so-called mandatory update to my sensors. The main purpose of that update seems to have been to load programs, which would allow ships broadcasting the right signals to then hide in plain sight – and to force my ship to broadcast who we were and what our status was. We later caught a pirate with the codes to hide and we now know a bit more about how the programming works. When you joined us, all of your ships and active fighters were sending out little ‘here there be Fleet’ broadcasts.”

“So you do hunt pirates on your own,” Autumnbreeze said with a small smile.

Neal looked to Shadowchaser. Shi nodded. “I spent a good part of the day checking the other three ships and making a point to say ‘hello’ to everyone on them. If there’s a Humans First type among us, he or she has a split personality.” When Neal remained silent shi frowned. “Well?”

Shaking his head, he replied, “That’s not my call to make.”

A few minutes later, the doors slid open and Zhanch staggered into the room, two of the teens jumping up and helping her to a chair before she could collapse. She looked at Neal and nodded, then bowed her head as she fought to get her breath back.

With every visiting eye on Zhanch, Neal softly spoke, “The Rakshani before you was part of the Marine detachment onboard the Star Fleet cruiser, ‘Montgomery Scott’. We pulled her group off that pirate vessel I caught five days ago. All indications are that the ‘Montgomery Scott’ has been under new management for about six Earth weeks now. The logs of the pirate ship suggest the cruiser now belongs to a Humans First group. The only mixed blessing is that the gas they used to take the ship may have killed the people that could have given them some of the keys to the ship.”

“But you don’t know that for sure, do you?” This came from Chakat Goldeneyes, the other carrier captain.

“No, but if they had captured any of the bridge officers alive, they wouldn’t have needed to try to beat the codes for the armory and heavy suits out of the sergeant here.”

“What do we do now?” asked Shadowchaser.

You and company are going to stay concealed. Zhanch and I are going to have a little chat with someone in Star Fleet she trusts. Then we have one port I have to make.” Neal then gave them all an evil smile. “And then we’ll see if we can’t drop you guys on some pirates. While we wait, we can also see about modifying that sensor upgrade so you won’t be quite as blind as you appear.”

“Our medical teams can help care for your Rakshani,” Captain Autumnbreeze suggested.

“They can certainly help, but Zhanch and party will stay under my protection for now,” Neal allowed. “Depending on how we are received at Starbase Three, they may end up going home through them.”

After dinner, Shadowchaser and Redfoot joined Neal in the lounge, Weaver and most of the kids tagging along.

Once everyone was seated, Redfoot gave Neal a grin. “Chase has warned me about you and your ‘toys’. So instead of saying they can’t work, may I ask ‘how’?”

Returning her grin with one of his own, Neal asked, “And which ‘how’ did you want to attempt first?”

Redfoot cocked her head, “How are you getting a warp field around something this big?”

Neal smiled, “And where do you see a problem getting the field to stretch that far?”

Giving him a dirty look, Redfoot said, “Your engines aren’t strong enough to cover the second sphere, much less the first, no matter how much power you pump into them.”

Neal looked thoughtful. “You’re not by chance using the type of engine nacelles you saw as a reference, are you?” At her curious nod, he added, “I only used those old nacelles because they could comfortably hold the two modified Voxxan mark seven Vor warp engines I stuffed into them.” At her look of total bewilderment, he grinned, “Two engine nacelles, four engines.”

Shaking her head, Redfoot said, “Why? That would just increase the strength of your warp field, not extend it!”

“If they were set up the same, yes. But what if one set of engines was set to distort or push against the field of the others? Just like with magnetic fields where you can use a second magnet to change the size and shape of the fields being generated by the first.” Getting up, Neal held out his hand to Redfoot. When she took it, he pulled her to her feet. With a wink at Shadowchaser, he said, “I wouldn’t wait up if I were you,” as he led Redfoot out the door.

Outside the holosuite, Neal told Tess, “Engineering training room please.”

* * *

It was well past two in the morning ship time when Shadowchaser decided it was time to rescue hir mate from hir father. Shi and Weaver having talked into the wee hours – mostly about Neal and Tess. Entering the holosuite, shi found Redfoot just staring at an engineering diagram, Neal waiting patiently for her next question. Pulling hir mate to her feet, shi said, “Looks like you overdid it again.”

Neal gave hir a smile and wrapped them both in a hug. “Maybe a little, but she’s doing better than a lot of the other so-called ‘engineers’ that I’ve tried to explain it to. You’ve made a good choice in mates with this one. She’ll keep you on your toes. And she must really love you to be willing to put up with the likes of me!”

“Oh, Boss,” Tess said once the two taurs were out of earshot, “I’m starting to see signs of your cook overworking herself with all these extra bodies to feed.”

“Aren’t the kids lending her a hand?” Neal asked.

“They’re trying to, but she keeps insisting she doesn’t need the help.”

“Keep an eye on her, we were supposed to be better than her last gig.”

“Will do, Boss.”

 

 


 

The Tail Chaser

 

The next morning found Neal inventing ways to keep his new little ‘fleet’ occupied while he saw to running it as well as his own ship. Fortunately, Star Fleet had sent along a few simulator ‘missions’ to help the ship crews and fighters practice their skills while waiting for Neal to find them something more interesting to do. As for his own ‘crew’, he tasked some of them to assist with the restocking of their visitors.

“How do you just happen to have spare missiles for our fighters?” the Star Fleet ensign first class wondered, staring at the pallets of the miniature missiles waiting for his teams to move to restock their carrier.

“We ship for Fleet all the time,” Cindy told the lion morph. “Our logs will simply show you guys short-stopped us for a ‘reload’.”

One of the corporals in the group tried to give her a grope as he walked past her – only to get his wrist slapped.

“Not interested,” she snapped at the surprised fox tod.

“Smooth move, jerk,” the lion muttered. “We don’t need them writing us up!”

“She knows she wants me,” the fox morph murmured.

“Sure she does, Mathews,” the puma morph following behind him muttered. “Chase tail on your own time.”

“Thanks, Tess,” Cindy said once the work crew was past. The little warning in her ear had been perfectly timed.

“I’ll keep an eye out for him,” Tess replied. “He doesn’t seem to be one of those that knows how to take a ‘no’ for an answer.”

Cindy smiled. “I had the same problem at school. Which is why I spent most of the time hanging out more with chakats, they can feel when they’re going too far – or when someone like that tod thought they could take advantage of me.”

“Well, as Neal likes to say,” Tess told her, “not on my ship, not on my watch.”

Still smarting from being so easily thwarted – and the snickers from those that had witnessed it – Mathews brightened up when he saw Suzan pass in front of his workgroup.

“Carry on,” he told those under him as he moved to follow that cute little bunny tail.

“Should we report him?” the small Caitian left in charge of part of the group wondered.

“Which is worse?” asked the wolf morph steering one of the pallets. “His revenge, or what the XO will do to us for not reporting him?”

Their conversation was interrupted by a black and white streak calling out, “Gangway – coming through!” as Quickdash leaped over their slow-moving pallet and charged down the same corridor their problem tod had just taken.

“I think it just became superfluous,” the Caitian chuckled, the wolf nodding in agreement.

“Log it anyway to cover our tails.”

Still chasing the bunny tail, Mathews turned the next corner – only to find said bunny turned around and already glaring at him.

“Get back to your ship,” she told him.

“Come on, don’t tell me you aren’t interested,” he replied with a grin.

“She said no,” a youthful voice growled behind him.

Turning in surprise, the fox snorted when he saw the young chakat. “Don’t interrupt your betters,” he snapped at hir before turning back to the rabbit doe – only to discover she was now holding the tip of a knife centimeters from his muzzle.

“Shi’s your better,” Suzan told him. “Quick, please escort him back to his ship.”

“You don’t want to get on my bad side – I’m an admiral’s son,” he snarled at her – just before an overpowering pain in his shoulder drove him to his knees.

“My mom says most admirals’ offspring rate three steps below cadet,” Quickdash told the shocked tod. “Dad rates them even lower. And my adopted dad ranks high enough that your captains are doing what he tells them to do.” Gently waving one of hir pain sticks, shi added, “Let’s get you back to your ship before you embarrass your captain any further.”

“But –” was all Mathews could say before the pain stick tapped him again.

“Thanks, Quick,” Suzan told hir as shi turned their unwanted guest around. “What did you want for dessert tonight?”

“Apple and peach cobbler – oh – and add cherries for Neal!” Quickdash called back without turning around.

“Listen – ow” he tried again when they entered the translift.

“Quiet,” Quickdash told him. “Just pretend I’m a big bad Rakshan Marine that’s just looking for an excuse to bounce you off a couple of walls.”

The corporal led his keeper to the temporary boarding tube leading to the destroyer Spike.

“Returning one of your wayward crew,” Quickdash informed the petty officer standing watch at the access port.

“He’s not one of ours,” the cat morph told hir.

“Wait! Just –” was as far as Mathews got, and this time it was for more than just a love tap.

“… Three … four … five,” Quickdash counted out before finally releasing the now screaming tod. Through his whimpering shi told him, “Every time I catch you in a lie it’ll get longer – and at a higher setting.”

The petty officer waited until the chakat youth had hir charge up and out of hearing range before tapping his comm. “Bridge, advise the other ships that one of them has a lost crewmember being returned by the Folly. And warn them to in no way mess with his jailer!”

Aboard the Quick Draw, a starman first class was just raising a questioning eyebrow at the lieutenant training her when Quickdash appeared with hir charge.

“Returning one lost and seemingly easily confused admiral’s son; you guys should really think about keeping leashes on them,” Quickdash told them.

“He’s no admiral’s son,” the starman blurted out without thinking.

“NO!” Mathews cried out, but the wand was already extending.

Every time you lie!” Quickdash shouted over his screams.

The lieutenant had raised a warning hand to forestall any reactions by his trainee, and they watched in silence as Quickdash counted to ten.

Quickdash gave them both a grin as shi again collapsed hir wand. “My captain’s compliments and he’d just as soon you not let this one stray onto his decks again,” shi told them before turning to leave.

“Security to the docking port,” the starman intoned into the comm. “I have someone that needs to be escorted to the XO.”

The lieutenant was still looking thoughtfully at the hatch the youth had exited. “You man your station. I need to see Lieutenant Krackin about a little something.”

* * *

Lieutenant Krackin, in turn, was a rather stern looking chakat, and shi was frowning slightly when shi reached the end of the boarding tube an hour after Corporal Mathews had been returned to his ship.

“Permission to board the Folly?” shi asked the empty air.

“Permission granted,” Tess replied. “How might we assist you, Lieutenant?”

“I would like to speak with the chakat youth that returned one of our corporals to us.”

“Any particular reason?” Tess asked.

“Just a little chat,” Krackin replied.

“Follow my lights please,” Tess replied as she started them flashing down a path that would lead the chakat to one of her smaller briefing rooms as she warned other parties of their visitor. At a suggestion from one of them, she was also dropping them from warp and seeing how firm a lock she could get on a link to the FTL network.

Tess led hir on a roundabout route so that Neal could be ready and waiting for hir.

“Have a seat,” Neal suggested, indicating the taur pads on the other side of the small conference table. “How can we help you, Lieutenant?”

“Krackin, Sir. Security chief of Quick Draw. I’d like to speak to the chakat youth that attacked one of our corporals.”

Neal shook his head slightly. “There was no attack, Lieutenant, though I understand one of your corporals did need to be rather forcefully persuaded to return to his ship after trying to play grab-ass with a couple of female members of my crew.”

“That’s not the story as he told it,” shi replied, dropping the ‘sir’ as hir pretense at respect evaporated.

“And there’s a reason he wouldn’t,” Weaver countered as she came into the room and seated herself on a pad next to Neal’s chair. Nodding at the wall display she added, “Would you like to see your corporal in action?”

“I wish to speak to the youth.”

“In a moment, but let’s put things in perspective first, shall we?” Weaver semi-agreed before touching a control and they watched the work crew exit the docking tube and enter the Folly proper.

Between Folly comm badges and Tess’ corridor cameras, the corporal’s encounters with Cindy, Suzan and Quickdash were played out.

“I’ll inform our first officer of what really happened here,” Lieutenant Krackin allowed. “But I would still like to speak with the youth.”

Weaver looked at Neal, who shrugged. “Tess, send hir in, please,” he requested.

Lieutenant Krackin frowned when not only the chakat shi wanted – but also a foxtaur youth came in.

“I would like to speak to hir alone.”

“Not happening,” Neal told hir.

“Shi’s a ’mil,” Quickdash told the others after a hard look at their visitor.

As the lieutenant glared at the youth, Neal chuckled. “I was wondering, but sometimes it takes one to know one.”

“I don’t think you understand the ramifications,” Krackin snarled as shi started to stand.

“Stand down, Lieutenant,” a voice behind hir snapped.

Krackin turned hir glare on a chakat now entering the room.

“Sorry, Captain, I was just now informed that shi’d come by for a little chat,” Shadowchaser said as shi sat down next to Krackin, who dropped back down hirself. Looking at the still glaring chakamil, shi said, “There’s a reason everything dealing with the Folly is supposed to go through me, Lieutenant Krackin.”

“There is no way that these people can properly raise a chakamil!” Krackin snapped at hir.

Seemingly unfazed by the chakamil’s anger, Shadowchaser calmly asked, “Why not? I happen to know he’s done it before – I was there.”

All heads turned towards Neal, one with a smile, the others with varying levels of shock and surprise.

“What?” he asked them with a small smile of his own.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Weaver didn’t quite demand with a frown on her muzzle.

Neal shrugged. “Would it have made any difference to know that I actually had some rather limited experience in the care, training and feeding of young ’mils?” Looking Krackin in the eye, he said, “Until you and I know each other a heck of a lot better, you will not be left unsupervised with Quickdash.”

“Where are hir parents?” Krackin demanded.

“On Bright Hope. They are aware that I’m taking care of hir until I can return hir, or they meet up with us at some point.”

Krackin stood again as shi said, “I’m going to have a word with Captain Autumnbreeze about this.”

Sit down, Lieutenant,” a new voice commanded from the blank conference room screen.

The screen now lit to show two chakats that appeared to have been asleep when they’d received a comm call. One just looked angry enough to start shredding something, but it was the one looking almost coolly in on the situation that held Krackin’s startled gaze.

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Quickwind told the surprised chakamil, “we know they’re taking care of our cub. Yes, we consider this a ‘lesser evil’ type circumstance, but the best that we could get with what we had at hand.” Hir gaze turned to Neal as shi added, “And no, we didn’t know he’d helped raise chakamils before either, but it does help explain how he’s been treating hir to date. How are you doing?” The last shi asked of Quickdash.

“I’m good, Mom.”

“And just how did you end up being the one to teach that idiot some manners?”

Quickdash grinned. “I beat Alex and the others out the door!”

“Yelling ‘Mine!’ all the way out said door,” Tess inserted.

Neal shrugged. “They didn’t like the idea of someone upsetting their favorite cook.”

“Are you going to say I went too far?” Quickdash asked hir mother.

Quickwind gave hir a grin. “Your father may disagree with me just a little bit, but I liked it,” shi admitted. “Next time though, remember to have Tess send the XO a transcript to help keep them honest.”

“Okay, Mom.”

“Sit down, Lieutenant,” Quickwind said again. “I’d like to have a private word with you. The rest of you are dismissed,” shi didn’t quite demand.

“Did you just let hir order you around?” Weaver teasingly asked as she and Neal got up to leave.

“Hey, I’m not the one that was gotten up in the middle of my night just because someone desired my input,” Neal countered as they filed out the door behind Holly and Quickdash, Shadowchaser heading for the door shi’d come in.

“I caught Krackin’s name, but I didn’t catch yours, Fleet,” Quickwind said.

Turning to face the screen, shi said, “Lieutenant Commander Shadowchaser Foster. How may I help you, Shir?”

“How did shi turn out?”

Shadowchaser grinned. “Shi still has a few rough spots, but no more than any other ’mil I’ve met or had to put up with.” Turning to Krackin shi said, “Unless those two say otherwise, you will not pursue this.”

Krackin glared at hir before saying, “You may outrank me, but you’re not in my chain of command.”

“Maybe so, but I will be advising Captain Autumnbreeze and the XO of this as well. As you’ll have to go through them …” Shadowchaser left that hanging as shi turned back to the screen. “Unless, of course, you two want hir pursuing this?” shi asked them.

“Would you stand in our way if we did?” Shortdash asked.

“No,” Shadowchaser quietly said after a moment. “But from what I’ve seen of hir so far; be sure – be very sure before you do.”

Glancing at hir mate’s frown, Quickwind said, “Oh, we’re very sure – that we’ll be leaving hir in Captain Foster’s surprisingly capable hands. Lieutenant Krackin, we thank you for your concern, but we think our daughter is better off where shi is than going off somewhere with you.”

It was obvious that the chakamil didn’t agree with this, but shi gave them all a curt nod. “Very well, I’ll stay out of it. But if I see or hear that shi’s being abused in any way…”

“Just so long as you remember that there’s a difference between abuse and punishment,” Quickwind countered. “To date, the good captain has kept his word to us not to spare the rod and risk spoiling our ’mil. And before you ask, he recorded and showed us both the cause and the discipline. We approved.”

You approved,” Shortdash muttered. “But better the devil we know…”

“How old are you, Shadowchaser?” Quickwind wondered.

“Somewhere around sixty-five Earth years. I was a bit younger than your Quickdash when I ended up with Neal and Tess.”

“Any regrets?”

Shadowchaser looked lost in thought for a moment before saying, “I regret the disaster that destroyed most of a new colony and killed my parents. Do I regret then ending up being raised by a certain crazy human? No.”

“How old is Neal?” Shortdash asked.

Shadowchaser laughed. “He still refuses to tell us! But I do know one thing for sure,” shi said as hir eyes met those of the other three, “he’s at least as old as the four of us combined.”

“No way,” Krackin muttered – only to find hirself backing away from the look Shadowchaser was now giving hir.

“Believe whatever you’d like to then,” shi told the chakamil, “but I can promise you that if you try to take him, you will be the one to fail.”

“Thank you – both of you, but my mate and I still need to get up in a few hours,” Quickwind told them.

“Good night,” Shadowchaser agreed and Tess dropped the connection.

“How come I can never back you down with a look?” Shortdash muttered as they made their way back to their sleeping den.

“Maybe because you didn’t start practicing when you were Quickdash’s age,” hir mate teased before opening the door they’d closed so their comm call wouldn’t disturb him.

“Problems?” Longsock asked with a yawn.

“Not really,” Quickwind said as they joined him in their bed. “A Fleet chakamil detected our little ’mil and was getting ready to rescue hir.”

“Are you going to let hir?”

“No. Your Weaver and Neal are better for hir right now.”

 

 


 

Sibling Rivalry

 

“I really need to speak with Captain Zhane ap Nashene na Zhane about a security matter,” Neal said yet again to the base commander’s adjutant who, like all well-trained adjutants, controlled who could and couldn’t gain access to their bosses.

“And as I have already told you, Captain Foster, you can either tell me what the problem is or let me transfer you over to security,” Karvas replied yet again, allowing more of her boredom with this bothersome human to show.

“What I have is above their pay grades – and yours,” Neal told the Rakshani with a frown of his own. “Very well. If we can’t do things the proper way, we’ll do them my way. Good day,” he said before tapping the disconnect key.

“I assume you’ve got the commander’s office mapped out?” Neal asked, grinning a little at the look of surprise that had appeared on the adjutant’s muzzle as the call had dropped.

“Sure do, Boss,” Tess replied. “I even have the scans I need to bypass their security if we have to.”

“We might just have to,” Neal allowed. “We can’t hang around too long for this, so let’s see if we can’t come up with a polite note asking for an audience with her commander-ness.”

“And if the commander’s little helper makes off with it?”

“Then we’ll up the rudeness factor until she learns better.”

* * *

Having finally given up on getting anything past the adjutant, Neal started having Tess transport the messages to Captain Zhane ap Nashene na Zhane’s desk, complimenting her on her receptionist’s abilities, but adding that he really did have a security-related issue that he would not pass on for someone else to decide if it was important enough for her to be informed of.

Zhane was at lunch when the messages started appearing. Her receptionist saw them first, but wisely left the last one alone when she read the lines: ‘If I still don’t get a response from you, I will be forced to assume that your overachieving receptionist made off with this note as well. My next possible means of trying to reach you may be by broadcasting my request through your starbase’s public address systems or getting your attention by rattling your station’s walls by pulsing my active sensor emitters against them.’

Captain Zhane received Neal rather coolly, her receptionist having seen fit to play down just how hard Neal had previously tried to get in touch with her.

It hadn’t helped her mood that the Star Fleet database didn’t have a whole lot on either this Neal Foster or his ‘Folly’. When she had tried cross-referencing with the Federation’s civilian database, she was surprised to find that there was a Federation link that, when activated, told any civilian authority asking about Neal Foster or the ‘Folly’ to give any and all assistance he/they requested and to not interfere with him/them in any way.

When closing out of the Federation database, a Star Fleet authentication had then come up. Once Zhane had passed the verification, she found herself staring at a Star Fleet command issued by an Admiral Silvermane, and while it didn’t quite order her to ‘give any and all assistance’ nor to ‘not interfere’ it did suggest doing so unless having a very good reason not to.

* * *

Once he was finally granted an audience with the Rakshani base commander, Neal explained his having rescued a number of Rakshani captives from a disabled pirate ship, and that they had been on the cruiser ‘Montgomery Scott’ when they were gassed and handed over to the pirates. He did leave out the minor fact that he had disabled the pirate in the first place.

When Neal was finished, Zhane gave him a tight smile. “A very interesting story, Captain. Do you have anything to prove what you’ve told me?”

Neal tapped his comm badge. “Tess, is the sergeant ready?” With her affirmative, he said, “Then beam her over.”

Zhane had been about to tell him whatever transporters he might have wouldn’t be able to make it through her security screens when the figure materialized in front of her. Her mood went from surprised shock that her security was so easily breached, to fury when she saw who stood before her.

With her claws digging deep grooves into the imported wood covering her desk, Captain Zhane stared at Zhanch and demanded, “Why have you brought that damned creature to me?”

Neal spoke softly, trying to calm her down, “This is one of the fourteen we rescued from the pirate ship, and you, on the other hand, were the only one in Star Fleet Zhanch trusted enough to try to contact.”

As Zhane continued staring at her old rival, Neal indicated that the sergeant should sit down. When she remained standing, he stepped over and gently pushed her into a chair, quietly growling, “Sit down before you fall down. You’re in no shape to challenge Starblazer, much less the Captain.” Zhane was shocked to realize that Zhanch had tried to resist being seated. Looking harder, Zhane finally realized how thin and frail looking Zhanch really was.

Turning away from his charge, Neal gave Zhane a wary look. “As for you,” he told the captain, “I understand you two once fought over a male, is that correct?” Surprised by the personal assault, Zhane only nodded. “Then I have a really simple question for you,” Neal said. When she arched an eyebrow, he continued, “If you had won that male, would you be where you are today? Do you think you would have been as happy with him as you are with your current mates?” To her confused look, he added one more little push. “How you answer those questions should help you determine whether you should still be angry with Zhanch, or possibly be very thankful that she got in your way at the time.”

The two Rakshani just stared at each other for almost a minute, then Zhane came around her desk and knelt next to the chair Zhanch was half sitting, half lying in. The words they used were too soft for Neal to hear, and while he could always have Tess tell him what was being said, he figured it really wasn’t anything he needed to know. He moved over to sit on a couch against the far wall, only pausing to sweep his hand over the deep grooves Zhane had made in her desk. Not being too deep into the station – and being able to use the wrist bands Neal was wearing for reference – Tess was able to apply a little remote pressor force, smoothing them out as his arm went over them.

The Rakshani whispered between themselves for over ten minutes, the last few in a tight hug. Finally releasing Zhanch, Zhane stood up, straightening her uniform as she moved back to her desk. Once she was seated she looked at Neal. “Well, Captain, do you have any other surprises to drop on me?”

“The Rakshani I have with me were starved for over five weeks. The only liquid they received during that time was from the drugs that were being pumped into their systems. While some of them are showing limited signs of improvement, our medical scans suggest they are still very much in danger. I would like your sickbay to run a full physical on each of them. The more information we have, the better we can treat or at least take care of them.”

“That’s easily done. Have them report to sickbay. I’ll have the doctors standing by.”

“One problem with them reporting anywhere …” At her raised eyebrow Neal continued. “Zhanch is the most mobile of the group, and she has problems going a hundred meters in quarter G without collapsing. Would it be possible for me to beam them straight to your sickbay? Or someplace where your people can then wheelchair or gurney them to your sickbay?”

There was more than a little frost in her voice when Zhane replied, “Thank you for reminding me, Captain. Just how did you manage to transport her through my security screens?”

“The same way I got that note past your receptionist. Didn’t she tell you that she didn’t place it on your desk?” At Zhane’s head shake, he continued, “Your security screens are set to only sense and block the more common bands of the spectrum used by standard Star Fleet transporters. My systems aren’t quite standard and they simply detected what yours would block and shifted around them. That’s also why your alarms didn’t go off. They’re not watching where I’m beaming. If you like, I’ll give you my word that I will not beam anything or anyone else on or off your station without your knowledge.”

Zhane looked down at her desk for a moment, noticing the new and far from perfect repairs where she had dragged her claws across it. She then looked at her blanked display. She was starting to understand why a Star Fleet admiral might have to keep her people from locking this maniac up. From what little she’d seen so far, he only obeyed rules when they were what he wanted to do anyway. Looking up from her desk, she locked eyes with the infuriating human. “I noticed you used the word ‘knowledge’ and not ‘permission’. Why is that?”

Neal smiled. “I only give my word on what I’m sure I can keep.” Then giving her a grin he added, “If it will make you feel more comfortable, I also happen to have a non-Rakshani member of Star Fleet onboard. If you’d prefer, I can leave control of all transports to and from your station in hir capable hands.”

Zhanch caught Zhane’s eye and nodded. Zhane looked back to Neal. “May I ask what shi’s doing on your ship?”

“Shi and a couple of friends are just hitching a ride.”

Neal’s reply earned him a soft snort from Zhanch. When the other two looked at her, she looked at Neal as she said, “You do seem to have the second method down to a science.”

Neal chuckled while Zhane looked confused. Zhanch smiled. “I had noticed that while Captain Foster rarely tells an outright lie, you won’t always get the truth either.”

Neal continued for her. “When she cornered me on it, I admitted that I try to use the last two methods of lying rather than the first.” At Zhane’s raised eyebrow and frown he grinned. “The first method is, of course, the outright lie.” He waited for her nod. “The second is the partial or half-truth. I told you earlier that I had rescued Zhanch and company from a disabled pirate, I left out that my ship was the one that disabled them in the first place.”

Shaking her head, Zhane asked, “And the third method?”

“Is the hardest one of all,” Neal told her. “It only works if you’ve read your audience just right. You tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You just tell it in such a way that there’s no way they’ll believe a word of it. So, could I convince you to believe me if I told you that some commander in Star Fleet was crazy enough to give me sixteen fighters and four starships to drop on any pirates I just so happen to run across?”

Zhane looked toward Zhanch. “First?”

Zhanch shook her head. “Third.”

Neal asked, “May I have hir beam over? The Folly’s not currently docked, so it’s that or waste time with a shuttle.”

At her nod, Neal asked Tess to beam Shadowchaser to Zhane’s office.

After telling Shadowchaser that shi would be in charge of getting Zhanch and the others to and from Zhane’s sickbay, Neal prepared to have a chat with Zhane’s quartermaster. This hadn’t been on his list of stops, but maybe he could do a little business while the doctors did their examinations.

But before he could leave her office, Zhane asked, “By the way, just how well do you know Silvermane?”

“Silvermane?” Neal asked, surprised by both the subject change as well as the name.

“Admiral Silvermane seems to know you pretty well,” Zhane said, surprised and a little pleased that she had been able to surprise this captain with all the answers.

Neal asked, “How is she mixed up in this? I’ve heard of her, but I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with her personally.”

Zhane activated and spun around her workstation display so Neal and Shadowchaser could see the Star Fleet commands issued by Admiral Silvermane.

Looking at the dates on the orders, Shadowchaser commented, “Looks like somebody figured out just who stepped on all those civilian and Star Fleet toes and tails during that Starburst rescue.”

“Perhaps…” Neal replied, “but how did Silvermane get wind of it? The Folly didn’t even have that for a name at the time, or her current configuration; I was still in the middle of testing different setups and configurations.”

At Zhane’s puzzled look, Shadowchaser smiled. “A cruise ship, the Starburst of the Canaris Lines, lost main power light-years from the nearest port. Star Fleet, the Canaris Lines and several civilian groups spent more time quarreling about who needed to do what than actually mounting a rescue. When they finally got things sorted out and sent ships to start moving the passengers off the disabled ship, the ship was gone. At the Starburst’s last reported position they discovered a large rock, the words ‘too little, too late’ lettered across one of its sides in hull paint.” Shadowchaser’s smile widened, “Two hours before they found that rock, about three and a half days after the first mayday, the Starburst was being docked in her berth at the Canaris Lines facility orbiting Earth. Two heavy lift shuttles were playing ‘tugboats’ and pushed her right up and into the docking clamps.” Shadowchaser chuckled, “Until today, Neal had thought he’d gotten away clean.”

Zhane turned to Neal. “And the rock?”

Neal snorted. “At the time, I was testing to see how far I could stretch a new set of warp fields and how much mass my test configuration could handle. I needed something big that I wouldn’t care if I damaged it, say by not getting all of it in the warp field.” Looking at Zhane he grinned. “The Starburst was a little smaller than what was left of my test rock. I just released it and picked up the ship, hooked up some power to keep their life support going, and gave her poor captain the ride of his life!” At her raised eyebrows, he smiled again, “Think about it. As the captain of a disabled ship, you’re sitting on your bridge, the only thing working is a sensor feed claiming your ship is now moving faster than it ever has before. The only problem is it’s not under your control, and you don’t even know the person or the ship that’s pushing you home.”

“‘Too little, too late’?”

Neal frowned. “I had gotten tired of listening to all the long-range fighting over who should be doing what. I was close enough, I had more than enough power, so I quietly did what needed doing. The note was just my way of suggesting that next time they ‘pull their primary sensory organs out of their solid waste disposal chutes’ a little faster.”

Zhane cocked her head. “But why not claim credit for the rescue?”

Neal slowly shook his head. “At the time, I was trying to keep a lower profile; ‘out of sight, out of mind’, although I don’t seem to have fooled your admiral. These orders may also be the reason officials that started out giving me a hard time suddenly ‘rolled over’ and played nice over the years – and why a couple of them did it while grinding their teeth and snarling at me. From the looks of this, your ‘Silvermane’ has had her paws in my business for quite some time.”

Shadowchaser frowned as shi said, “Now that I think about it, I’m sure the name Silvermane was also mixed into the orders sending us out to meet the Folly.”

Neal returned that with a frown of his own, “The note and message chip they gave me was signed by a commander named Harras. Any idea when those orders were actually cut?”

“Three, maybe four weeks ago. Why?” shi asked.

“And what type of E.T.A. did they give you for the Folly?” Neal asked, a growing look of concern on his face.

“You were about six hours early, we had just started to deploy when I saw you flash by at close to the limits of my sensors.” Cocking hir head shi asked, “What are you leading up to, Father?”

Ignoring the look of surprise from Zhane at his relationship to the Star Fleet pilot, Neal looked at Shadowchaser. “It’s just that I had no plans to go through that particular area of space anytime this year, so how did this admiral of yours know where to place you at least two weeks before I even had a reason to take that route?”

Zhane looked thoughtful, “So that would have been two or three weeks after the cruiser was taken.”

Neal slowly shook his head. “And if this Admiral Silvermane had an informer onboard and had known where both the pirate’s flight plan and mine would most likely intersect, and somehow knew what I’d most likely do with both the pirates and their ‘cargo’.” Looking at Zhane he added, “Your admiral would also have needed to know that Zhanch had survived, would talk to me and would only trust you with all this, otherwise I could have dropped them off at some other starbase, or I could have waited and taken them to your home world when I go there later this year.” Shaking his head again Neal added, “Now I really want to have a little chat with this ‘Silvermane’.”

Shadowchaser frowned a little as shi said, “Aren’t you forgetting something, Dad?”

“Like?” Neal replied.

“Their sensors?” Shadowchaser growled, gesturing at Captain Zhane.

“What about our sensors?” Zhane asked with a frown.

“Tess reported that every last one of them has been ‘upgraded’,” Neal admitted while ignoring Zhane’s growing glare. “Which was another reason I could transport you and Zhanch over without raising a ruckus.”

“You didn’t think we should tell them about it?” Shadowchaser pointed out.

Now smiling at Zhane, Neal said, “Oh, I was thinking of leaving them a note about it – once I was sure we were well out of range.”

“Well out of range of what?” Zhane didn’t quite snarl at him.

“Your claws,” Neal replied, indicating her desk, “your phasers, your missiles, your fighters …”

“My sister’s growl?” Zhanch half asked with a tired looking grin.

“Since my father’s ship runs several non-compatible sensor suites, he was able to detect an upgrade doing more than just upgrading,” Shadowchaser explained. “While he’s detected a few Fleet ships and bases that haven’t been corrupted, far too many already are.”

“What type of corruption?” Zhane asked.

“We could park a fleet in orbit and you’d never know it was there until someone happened to look out a window,” Shadowchaser told her. “To make matters worse, it’s part of a Star Fleet certified download, so the only way to detect it is luck – or someone not corrupted asking why you’re broadcasting when your sensors are supposed to be in passive-only mode.”

“I take it you have a cure for our problem?”

“It took us two days of number-crunching to extract all the little tricks and traps they had threaded through them,” Shadowchaser said with a chuckle. “Including one that would burn out your sensor array if you found and removed only parts of it.”

If they’re running the same strands,” Neal pointed out. “We don’t know that each of the stations wasn’t given something different.”

“I’ll have Lieutenant Carson and his team compare the files with the ones you recovered from that fake tech and the pirate ship,” Shadowchaser told him. “If we find anything new, we’ll bring you and Tess into the loop to help us decode it. With your permission of course – and to help explain things as needed,” shi added to Zhane.

“Permission granted. I’ll order my sensors and electronics officers to cooperate fully,” Captain Zhane agreed.

Nodding in agreement, Neal turned to Captain Zhane. “With your permission – and to help explain why my Folly just happened to have stopped here, I’ll also have a little chat with your quartermaster and see what supplies I might be able to buy or sell.”

* * *

The medical testing went quickly, and most of the news was as bad as Tess’ scans had suggested. The abuse their bodies had received had prematurely aged them, their organs were slowly failing and the doctors didn’t expect them to survive for more than a few years even with constant medical assistance.

Neal offered to take them home. The Folly would be heading for Raksha in a little over three months, or they could stay at the starbase and catch the next ship heading their way. Zhane had dinner with Zhanch and company to go over their options. Six hours later, the Folly pulled away from Starbase 3. Zhane, Zhanch and the other Rakshani had decided that it would be best if Star Fleet, in general, stayed ignorant about them for the time being and that they stayed with a ship and crew that already knew their needs and was willing to take care of them.

 

 


 

New Kiev

 

The side trip to Starbase Three had delayed Neal a bit more than he had hoped for. Because of this, he had Alpha separating from Folly while they were still coasting along at a little better than a quarter of the speed of light. They dropped speed together, though Alpha ‘stopped’ much deeper in New Kiev’s gravity well. As when they had hit Parakit, ship’s time was well off the time of the location they were about to visit, but the ‘crew’ was getting used to having to do things when they needed doing.

“So even this thing can warp?” Alex had asked when they had separated from the Folly.

“He doesn’t have the legs for it,” Neal replied. “At best he’d be able to maintain warp for a few seconds at a time, but these speed changes he can do all day long.”

“Something you’ll be teaching us?” Dusk wondered.

“Only after you are fully trained in all other ship and shuttle movement,” Neal told hir. “A full-sized ship is actually easier to shift as the mass doesn’t change as much as a shuttle’s will.”

As Folly slipped into a high orbit, Alpha headed directly for landfall at New Kiev’s main spaceport.

* * *

The plan had been simple enough. In the early morning hours, as Neal started unloading, some of the kids would help move the Rakshani to rooms in a hotel near the New Kiev spaceport. From what Tess could pick up on the public channels, those in the know at Star Fleet were still holding a ‘news blackout’ about the missing cruiser; no information was being released concerning the ‘Montgomery Scott’ or her crew. Once they were at the hotel, the Rakshani could send any messages they wanted to their families and friends, without there being any obvious link to the Folly or to Star Fleet. With them dressed as elderly tourists, no one would look twice, or wonder why they might be needing a little help in getting around. Nightsky had dressed them as if they were from several different planets and social groups to better break them up. Somewhere, Tess had dug up fourteen Rakshan-sized mobility scooters for them to ride to help keep any straining to a minimum.

That plan died a quick and almost violent death. They were just starting to round the last corner on their way to the spaceport’s main lobby. As usual, the younger kids couldn’t wait, so Quickdash was the first to start around the next corner leading to the main lobby. There was a flash as the pulse of a beam weapon passed just over hir head, momentarily blinding hir and scorching the fur on the tips of hir ears. The second shot was lower and would have caught hir mid-upper-chest if shi hadn’t been yanked back by the tail. Dusk let go of hir tail, while Neal tore the comm badge off hir little tube top. After grabbing four more from the other kids, he told Tess to ‘record for tactical’. He then tossed them high and around the corner.

Tess was playing the video feeds straight to Neal’s glasses, and the kids watched his surprise and anger mount. The scene before him was like something from a bad gene war movie. The bodies of over a dozen furs lay where they’d been shot. A large group of humans each with a big ‘H1’ on their shoulders was using phasers on anything that moved as they worked to fully take over that section of the large building. A small group of spaceport guards were trying to harass the attackers, but their stunners and phasers were having little effect against the personal shields the Humans Firsts members were wearing.

“Boss, they’ve got some type of transport inhibitor up and running somewhere in the lobby area – you’ll need to knock it out before I can help directly,” Tess warned them. “And I’m getting nothing useful from local security – whatever this has just started.”

The Rakshani were confused when Neal called out, “Tess! Betsy with solid shot!” Then the shotgun materialized in his hands. Starting around the corner, Neal saw the kids were preparing to follow him. The look he gave them, and the growled command, “STAY!”, rooted them where they stood. The Rakshani were also momentarily frozen by his order.

Neal glanced quickly around the corner and commanded, “Give me however much of a force field you can project from the shuttle, looks like all they have is beam weapons, so set it to ignore my projectiles.”

Shadowcrest was also telling Tess to get Shadowchaser and hir friends. Their daddy was going to need help.

“Yes, Boss,” Tess replied to both of them, not bothering to admit she’d already set the alarms sounding in the other four ships with her request for combat specialists and the destroyers’ Marine detachments. At the same time, she'd alerted all appropriate and hopefully useful local authorities to the situation.

Behind him, Neal’s order to ‘stay’ hadn’t lasted more than the second it had taken for him to turn his back on the others.

“Mom says ’mils don’t do ‘stay’,” Quickdash was heard muttering as shi and Holly prepared their phasers.

“Stay anyway,” Weaver told hir while trying to comfort Starblazer. “I need you and Holly here with me.”

“Tess, I need my heavy loads for ‘Thumper’,” Mike was saying after a quick look around the corner showed him that Neal was going up against at least one good-sized group and might need a little more help than he thought.

“Incoming,” Tess replied and most of one of her armories was transported down to them; along with extra comm badges.

While most of the taurs grabbed copies of Neal’s Betsy, Alex and Cindy picked up the heavy phaser rifles and the Rakshani each parked their mobility scooters and picked out one of the lighter phaser pistols.

Neal’s old shotgun only looked old fashioned; the rings along the barrel and the ‘choke’ were magnetic. When used with solid rounds, the weapon did double duty as a baby rail-gun, boosting the speed of the projectile far beyond what the gunpowder would normally do. The slightly longer than standard rounds Tess was sending Neal cost him two shots, but his now five round magazine never ran dry, because as long as Neal stayed out of range of the transport inhibitors the beacons built into the weapon would guide Tess’ transporter systems as she beamed in more ammo and swapped in recharged power cells for the magnetic systems.

With the magnetic system up as high as it would go without taking his arm off, Neal had started to fire into the nearest Humans First group heading his way. It had still taken him two or three good hits to take one of them down, deflecting the heavy slugs taking more shield power than absorbing a shot from a beam weapon. Also, the kinetic force from the impact of the slugs had sometimes knocked them towards if not into each other, shorting their personal shields together and robbing them of still more power.

Neal had just shifted Betsy to the position that told Tess he was ready for his first reload when something actually louder than his shotgun went off just over his head.

Mike had observed how Neal had been working his shots into the other group, a small ‘flare’ showing each time a round penetrated the force-field Tess had set to reflect beam weapons but ignore their projectiles. He aimed and fired his first round just as Neal’s last round had finished knocking down one of the enemy’s force fields.

Neal fired his next round just as Mike ran dry, and it seemed Mike was just as fast if not a little faster reloading with his speed-loads than Neal and Tess were using the transporters.

As the first shots of return fire rang out, the other teens weren’t just standing around. The chakats and foxtaurs had each grabbed heavy weapons and split up to cover the other access ways into the area they were trapped in. Alex, Cindy, Holly and Quickdash made up the ‘home guard’ with Weaver and Suzan – though it was plain that their little ’mil wasn’t liking being held back.

Quickdash had pinned one of the spare comm badges to the end of one of hir extended pain sticks to better see around the corner without getting yelled at (yet again) by Weaver.

Neal was so preoccupied with the main group that he never noticed the arrival of Shadowchaser and the crews from the other ships. They started working to take out the smaller groups trying to hold the other entrances to the lobby. They had quickly discovered their beam weapons weren’t up to the task, so Shadowchaser had requested shotguns from Tess. There were a few minor injuries while some of them relearned what ‘action-reaction’ was all about, but then they started clearing the entrances so the local authorities could get in to help. Together they systematically started to force the other terrorist groups back towards the main lobby.

The Rakshani had discovered that ‘group’ phaser firing on a single target was almost as good as Neal’s shotgun. After crawling behind a low half-wall, Zhanch rose just high enough to ‘tag’ a target, and the rest of her team fired as one. Tess kept an extra eye on them, dropping the force field in front of them as they fired and bringing it back up if she saw any return fire coming their way.

Their only casualty came when Starblazer got loose. A tile shattering overhead had momentarily distracted Weaver and Starblazer had jumped free and tried to run away from all the noise. She was running past the end of the half wall that the Rakshani were hiding behind when she was spotted. The last Rakshani in line happened to be Dessa, who had dived out past the wall – and unknowingly past the limited protection of Tess’ force fields – and grabbed the infant taur. Throwing Starblazer back behind the barrier, Dessa then tried to follow only to be hit in the hip by a heavy phaser blast. At Zhanch’s call of ‘fur down’, Tess had beamed Dessa back to the Folly. She was placed in the small medbay and frozen in time with a stasis field until she could be taken care of.

Neal had stepped to one side after the first few massed phaser and projectile shots had started coming from behind him. Now he and Mike were standing almost behind a column, both firing as fast as they could chamber their next rounds. The return fire seemed to be going everywhere but at them, most of the Humans First types having never had to aim at a target that was doing their level best to kill them first; they were more used to hunting those that couldn’t fight back. When some of them had tried to make a run for it, they were met by Shadowchaser and hir ships’ crews, who were almost done clearing out the smaller nests of humans blocking the other entrances with the remains of the regular port security following them in.

Quickdash was the first to notice that while the personal shields were deflecting phasers and projectiles, they seemed to be ignoring slower moving objects – like the blood splatter when their neighbors were hit.

“Alex – come here!” shi demanded as shi worked on the settings of one of hir pain sticks. Pushing it into his hand shi said, “Three-second timer. Activate it and then toss it into the middle of a group and then get back!”

Not wasting time arguing, Alex hit the button and gave it a second before tossing so the wand would be active before coming down.

The relatively slow-moving wand fully extended in flight and bounced off heads, shoulders and arms – each of which jerked hard at being hit by a pain stick set well over its normal maximum setting. Someone tried to grab at the wand by its handle – only to discover the hard way that it too was now ‘live’. Seconds later the power cell failed from the abuse, the small explosion adding to the general chaos.

Watching the confusion grow, Alex grinned and reached back – and another prepared pain stick was slapped into his hand. This he tossed into a different cluster, one that hadn’t yet noticed what had happened to the others. Twin tugs at his belt warned that his pain sticks were next.

While she had not received any additional orders or instruction, Tess had been far from idle. As well as hacking her way into the port’s security systems to gather intelligence, she was using both her ship and shuttle’s active sensors to gather more information on the attack and where it had originated. That turned out to be a shuttle a quarter of the way around the port from where Alpha was parked.

Inside the shuttle, her scans showed even more troops with heavier portable weapons preparing to join the battle. She was pleased to discover that no one in this second group had thought to enable their transport inhibitors while still in the supposed safety of their shuttle. It took Alpha’s transporter only moments to ensure that those inhibitors would never come online, and the removal of several key parts to their shuttle’s hatch release mechanisms locked them in.

Then, as she’d done to the pirate ship, Tess removed the shuttle’s ability to be flown before transporting away the first of their computers to data-mine for more information of the who and why of the attack. It was here that she ran into a small problem.

Unlike the pirate ship, whoever had set up the New Kiev attack had much higher concerns for keeping any intelligence out of the hands of others – more so it seemed than even the safety of their own personnel. The computers appeared to have been running a constant security check between themselves, as the ones Tess had taken burst into flames seconds after being transported to one of her empty cargo holds. And Tess wasn’t able to gather any of the others because they were now also self-destructing and taking with them some of the weapon ammunition that had been stored nearby.

Back in the spaceport’s lobby, Neal could finally see the transport inhibitors; there were three of them in the center of what remained of one of the larger groups. He and Mike managed to take out two of them before the remaining humans started trying to protect the last inhibitor. However, that opened up a gap for Shadowchaser’s crew; one of their shots shorted the last inhibitor’s power pack, taking out several of the closer humans when it exploded.

Tess could now start using her transporters more directly. Better sensor returns meant she could match the different shield frequencies and transport through them with ease. Removing the power pack connections from their weapons and shield generators, she was quickly turning them from a fighting force into easy targets. A missed shot hit a pile of spare power packs, the resulting blast taking down the last of the Humans First group, while Tess’ force fields protected Neal and the others from flying debris.

With the shooting over, most of Shadowchaser’s crews started slipping away, Tess beaming them back to their ships once they were out of sight of the local authorities. Most of those that remained were medics, who quickly went about the business of saving those that could still be saved.

It had taken Neal a moment to realize that the battle was actually over, even with Tess locking his weapon and flashing an ‘all clear’ in his glasses. Then, through the ringing in his ears, he heard a groan: a fox tod near him was still alive. Setting down his shotgun, Neal asked Tess for a med kit. Taking out a medpac, he placed it on the fox’s chest. Tess remotely worked the needles into the veins, as Neal used zip-ties just above the missing knee and arm to help keep the fur from bleeding to death. Once the needles were in place, Tess took a blood sample, then beamed in the correct blood plasma and started pumping it into the tod’s system along with painkillers and other medication.

With the fox stabilizing, Neal moved to the next fur. He found there was nothing he could do for her; she had already died from her injuries.

Neal started walking past the next two furs; both of the taurs having had their upper torsos almost completely destroyed by phaser fire. Something caught his attention and he looked back at the taurs. There was no way he could help them, they would have been impossible to save even if a full med team had been standing by the moment they had been hit. Again, he started to turn away, only to feel something still pulling at him. This time he knelt next to the taurs; one had been a chakat, the other a foxtaur vixen. He gently placed his hand on the vixen’s swollen belly, only to yank it back in surprise. Something had moved under his hand! Grabbing a medical scanner, Neal quickly checked on the unborn child, and then made his decision. Pulling a scalpel out of the kit, he started to cut the vixen open, as a doctor would when the mother was unable to go through a normal birth.

One of the port security guards, a foxtaur, did a double take; a blood-stained human that reeked of spent gunpowder was calmly butchering a taur corpse. She had started to draw her phaser when a large hand clamped over hers. Following the hand up, she found herself staring at an equally large equitaur.

Mike wasn’t watching the guard; he was watching Neal. When the guard again tried to free her weapon, Mike tightened his grip, and simply said, “Wait.”

Realizing that he was wasting time using a method that protected both mother and child, Neal changed his small cautious cut to one that crossed the vixen’s belly. Once the belly was open, it was a simple matter to slice open the womb, letting the unborn child fall into his hands. After using a small zip-tie to pinch off the umbilical, he cut the cord and lifted the baby chakat to his lap. When the child didn’t start breathing, Neal lowered his head and placing the child’s nose and mouth in his mouth. He then puffed a little air into hir, only to get a mouthful of fluids in return. Turning his head to spit out the fluids, Neal gripped the base of hir tail with his left hand. Lifting hir by the tail, he raised hir until hir mouth was level with his own, the rest of hir over his head. Using his right hand to guide hir inverted nose and mouth into his mouth, Neal gave hir a breath, then he released hir head, letting the fluids drain from hir mouth and throat. He then gave hir another breath. This time the tiny chakat responded, first with a large gush of fluids pouring from hir mouth and nose, and then shi inhaled, and started crying. Neal continued to hold hir tail high, letting hir cry the rest of the fluids from hir throat and both sets of lungs.

The guard was no longer trying for her weapon. She was just watching in disbelief as the human lowered the still-crying chakat and cradled hir in his arms. “Why would he do such a thing, and how did he know how to do it? Is he a doctor?”

Still watching Neal, Mike smiled. “The ‘why’ seems to be he collects strays.” At the guard’s stare, he added, “I should know. After all, he took my group in when we ‘strayed’. As to how ... No, he’s not a doctor, but I know he did a lot of studying when he found out there was a chance that he might have to play midwife to a foxtaur while between ports. That delivery went without complications. It looks like all his extra studying has just paid off.”

Shadowcrest slowly stepped up to where Neal knelt, still holding the now quiet infant. After a minute, Neal noticed hir. Looking a little dazed and giving Shadowcrest a sad smile, he said, “Until we find hir next of kin, it looks like you’re going to have a new little sister. For some reason, I think hir name should be Firestorm. Looks like we may need to find us a chakat wet nurse after all.” Handing the newborn to Shadowcrest, Neal said, “Get hir cleaned up; Tess, beam these two and four more to the local hospital for a checkup. Hir lungs seemed to be developed enough, but the rest of hir might still be too immature to survive without medical assistance.”

With the cub wrapped in a spare towel that Weaver provided, Shadowcrest and four of the teens were beamed to the hospital. Neal remained kneeling for another moment, then he slowly got up and staggered toward an unoccupied hallway. Seeing some of the kids starting to follow, he waved them back. Once around a corner, he fell to his knees and emptied his stomach on the floor, his eyes stinging as he cried.

Shadowchaser and Krackin had started to follow after Neal in spite of his wave-off, only to stop when they heard what he was doing. Shadowchaser signaled to Krackin to wait there, shi then went back into the lobby. Some of the bodies were still being tended to or removed as shi went to one of the small shops that lined the lobby walls. Reaching into a shattered display case, shi removed two bottles of water. From another, shi took a tube of toothpaste and a brush. The brush was a bit large for humans, but it was the smallest undamaged one shi could easily get to. Returning to Krackin, they sat down to wait.

“So, he’s only human after all,” Krackin quietly murmured.

“Very human,” Shadowchaser agreed. “But be very careful because I’ve actually seen him get even crazier than this – and the only way to beat him is to kill him.”

“And no one’s managed to do either … yet.”

“Yet.”

They waited until Neal’s sobs had died down, then they slowly came around the corner. Pushing a water bottle into his hand Shadowchaser got him to rinse his mouth, shi then handed him the brush, already loaded with paste. After he cleaned his mouth out, Neal managed to drink some of the water, both to help rinse the stomach acids from his raw throat and to try to settle his stomach.

Letting the chakats help him to his feet, he let them lead him to a bench where he could sit down, Shadowchaser letting him lean against hir and keeping him from falling over.

“Status?” Neal asked after he thought he could speak without croaking.

“I beamed our Rakshani back to their quarters, they’re too worn out to do much else today,” Tess told him. “While you were busy, Starblazer got loose and Dessa took a phaser to the hip saving her. Boss, it’s bad; I don’t think the local hospital can save her, much less my little medbay.”

Neal let out a long sigh. “No, she was injured protecting our family; treat her as such.”

“There will be repercussions,” Tess pointed out.

Neal smiled sadly and said, “So be it. If her injuries are as bad as you say they are, then she has a better chance with you than the hospital. You have my authorization to process her.” To Krackin’s questioning look, Neal just said, “You’ll see soon enough.”

Neal rested a few minutes before forcing himself to get up again. They were just making their way back into the main lobby to rejoin the rest of the group when Tess spoke up.

“Boss, Shadowcrest is having problems at the hospital. Shi and the newborn were separated from the others and now one of the nurses is trying to take the kitten away from hir.”

Neal stopped dead in his tracks, his head down, eyes shut, something more than a frown working its way onto his face.

In turn, the chakat teens were all almost belly down, eyes wide and ears flattened to their skulls at the rage emanating from him. Krackin and Shadowchaser, on the other hand, weren’t belly-down but actually standing taller, snarls on their muzzles and their claws were out and at the ready.

After a moment Neal’s head came up, and his eyes opened. They had been bloodshot before from the gunpowder and tears, but now there was an additional fire burning in them, one that suggested that he wasn’t putting up with any more problems today.

“Beam me to hir,” Neal whispered.

“Now they went and made him mad,” Weaver heard Quickdash murmur, hir grip on one of the remaining pain sticks suggesting shi wished shi could ‘help’.

Neal found himself in a large examining room. Shadowcrest was being held by two guard-type furs, while a chakat in a nurse’s top was carrying a screaming Firestorm towards the room’s only door.

The nurse turned in time to see a human appear in the middle of the room, his red hair a filthy tangle, his face wild looking and his body smelling of spent gunpowder. Blood stained his pants past mid-thigh, but his bloodshot eyes boring into hirs were what terrified hir the most. They and the emotions that seemed to hang around him like a shroud sent hir running for the door, only to find it wouldn’t open for hir. The guards had let go of Shadowcrest and reached for their weapons, only to find them somehow missing.

Neal slowly looked around the room, then nodded his head at Shadowcrest. “Get Firestorm,” he growled through his raw throat. “Then you can tell me what the hell’s going on in here.”

“They wouldn’t let the others in with me,” Shadowcrest said and gave the nurse a dirty look. “Then shi wouldn’t give Firestorm back when shi refused to nurse from hir.” Looking at the floor, shi added, “Shi had the guards grab me when I tried to take Firestorm back.”

Neal gave hir a tired smile. “With everything that’s happened today, you’ve forgotten your other resources.” At hir questioning look he added, “As my daughter, you can draw on many of the same resources I do. For example, say ‘Tess’.”

Shadowcrest gave him a weary grin. “Thanks, Daddy.” Then looking at the others in the room shi said. “Tess, please restrain the guards and keep the nurse from going anywhere.”

“Done,” Tess said from their comm badges as two bright orange net-like devices appeared over the guards.

“Aw shit,” one of the guards muttered as the netting tangled their arms to their torsos. Used often by security forces trying to capture and not kill their opponents, the strands were extremely sticky and the more you struggled the tighter the net would become.

Stepping up to the nurse, the preteen found the nurse was still clutching the cub tightly. Giving hir another dirty look, Shadowcrest just said, “Tess, I need something that will force hir to let go of Firestorm.”

Two small disks appeared in midair and shi caught them as they dropped.

“Medical blockers,” Tess whispered only into hir earplugs. “Set high enough to block nerve impulses in both directions so shi’ll have no motor control in hir arms once you place them on hir shoulders.”

Shadowcrest grinned as shi jumped forward and slapped the disks to the surprised nurse’s shoulders before reaching down to pull the cub away from the suddenly limp hands.

Carrying the still-crying cub over to Neal, shi laid hir in his arms. Neal was as surprised as everyone else when Firestorm almost immediately stopped crying and then tried to suck on one of his dirty fingers.

Giving the tiny kitten a tired smile, Neal said, “Well, you seem to have the right idea. Now let’s see if we can get you fed.” He started to step towards the nurse, only to stop at hir look of fear and revulsion. Shaking his head, Neal moved over to one of the more human-sized chairs against the wall and slowly sat down. Looking down at Firestorm, he said, “Tess, override their public address systems. See if you can’t find us a chakat wet nurse, one that doesn’t mind dealing with humans. Extra points if shi likes to travel.”

It was only a few minutes later that the door unlocked itself and Chakat Moonglow entered the room. The coffee-and-cream-colored chakat was followed by two new guards, who stationed themselves at the door. With the door now open, the other nurse and guards beat hasty retreats.

Moonglow walked over to Neal and said, “I understand you’re looking for a wet nurse.”

Neal handed Firestorm to Moonglow, only to have the infant start pushing away and crying.

Taking Firestorm back from Moonglow, Neal cocked an eyebrow at the wet nurse and said, “Shi won’t let you hold hir, and I can’t breastfeed. What if we try this together?”

Ignoring his bloody clothing, Moonglow sat down in front of him and then knelt until hir breasts were just higher than Neal’s knees. Laying Firestorm in his lap, Neal gently aimed hir nose at one of Moonglow’s nipples. Everyone let out a sigh of relief when the newborn started to noisily suckle.

Neal watched hir feed for a while, noticing that the mostly dry fur was now showing off hir foxtaur mother’s reddish-orange coloration but with darker spots and hir tail had rings of orange and white. He then leaned his head back until it bumped the wall and let out a quiet sigh as he muttered, “So much for the easy part.”

Shadowcrest just looked at him in shock. “W-what easy part?” shi demanded. “What we just went through at the spaceport … One of the Rakshani is dead …” shi said as events started to catch up with hir, and shi started to break down and cry.

Still holding Firestorm with one hand, Neal reached out and pulled Shadowcrest to his side with the other, and then he held hir close as shi cried. “The easy part is what’s already done. For Stormy, this is hir first meal and look at all we had to go through just to get hir that. As far as the hell you and I just went through, it’s behind us and unlike many of the others, we survived.” Tightening his hug on hir he added, “And we won’t lose Dessa.” At Shadowcrest’s disbelieving stare, he gave hir a small smile. “Tess will have her back on her feet in no time.”

Shadowcrest pulled away sobbing. “Please don’t lie to me, Father. I saw her. Her leg was blown off – her guts were all over the place! There’s no way even Tess can put her back together!” Shi then curled up on the floor, crying.

Neal placed Moonglow’s hands around the now sleepy cub, then had hir lean back so he could stagger up. Kneeling next to the sobbing Shadowcrest, he wrapped his arms around hir and held hir tight. He quietly whispered in hir ear, “I am not lying to you. She is alive, she will live, and if I have anything to say about it she will soon be up and about. You have my word.” Shadowcrest looked up at him through hir tears as he added, “And you of all the kids should know by now how important keeping my word is to me, even when someone uses it for me.”

Remembering when he had kept the promise shi had made to Suzan, shi smiled through hir tears, and hugged him back.

Moonglow watched them as they held each other, feeling the love between them. Looking down at the sleeping cub in hir arms, shi made hir decision. When shi thought that they felt ready to move on, shi asked, “There was some mention of travel?”

Neal smiled. “As the owner and captain of a freighter, I spend most of my time bouncing from port to port. Anywhere you want to go, I’ll be going there sooner or later.”

Moonglow smiled in return. “I’ve always wanted to travel, but I have some items I won’t part with.” At Neal’s raised eyebrow shi said, “The last gift my grandparents gave me was a taur-sized motorcycle and sidecar. Needless to say, the shipping charges have always kept me from moving off-world.”

Neal’s tired smile grew slightly wider. “Why do I get the feeling that’s not the only item holding you back?”

“You’re right,” Moonglow said. “I have a whole house full of their things that I would like to keep. I will give most of it up if I have to, but the bike goes where I go.”

Looking to Shadowcrest, Neal said, “Well? What do you think? Is shi a keeper, or do we throw hir back and try again?” At Shadowcrest’s confused look, Neal chuckled for the first time that day. “You were the one to pick Suzan out of all the people wanting a ride off that station. I’m learning to trust your judgment on these matters.”

Shadowcrest looked at Firestorm, now sleeping peacefully in Moonglow’s arms. Looking back at Neal shi grinned a little as shi nodded and said, “Shi’s a keeper.”

Neal’s reply was blocked by a yawn. He suddenly realized that he was all but dead on his feet; well, knees anyway. His arms felt ready to fall off at the shoulders, and his eyes felt like someone had replaced his eyelids with coarse sandpaper. Shadowcrest caught him as he started to collapse. He gave hir a weary smile and said, “Tess, ask Chase if shi wouldn’t mind helping the kids get things under control. I’m afraid I’m not going to be of much use for a while..” Saying that his eyes closed as his head sagged.

Shadowchaser appeared just as Shadowcrest was saying, “Tess, is he all right?”

They both smiled when Tess replied, “He’s fine, just exhausted.”

“Wimp,” Shadowchaser half-laughed in relief. “Whatever happened to that old man that couldn’t be stopped by heaven or hell?”

“Actually, I was starting to wonder just how much longer he could keep running on just adrenaline,” Tess told them. “He’d already had a long day and I had expected him to start to droop right after the firefight. It took a lot of strength and energy to fire that shotgun at the settings he was using, and he fired well over a hundred rounds in that short battle.”

Shadowchaser let out a groan at that. Shi had fired a little over half that many rounds, and hir own arm was just beginning to really ache from hir weapon’s recoil.

Giving Shadowcrest a grin, Shadowchaser said, “It looks like he left you in charge, half-pint, so how can I help, ‘Boss’?”

Shadowcrest gave hir big sister a dirty look as shi thought. “Moonglow here is joining the Folly. We need to move hir and hir belongings ASAP. Can you gather the needed drivers and movers?”

Shadowchaser nodded. “What’s hir weight limit?”

Shadowcrest gave hir older sister an evil grin as shi said, “No more than the max capacity of a pod.”

Shadowchaser did a double-take at the answer. “Don’t you mean a container?” shi asked.

“Pod,” Shadowcrest repeated. “Tess, what’s the status of the rest of our Rakshani?”

“They’re all safe, but down for the count.”

“See if Weaver and Stew can look after Neal for now; he needs to be cleaned up and put to bed.”

As they talked, one of the guards edged up to Moonglow and the sleeping Firestorm.

“You sure about this?” she quietly asked hir.

Moonglow looked thoughtful as shi replied. “What I’m sure of is that this infant appears to have bonded with him. Unless something changes, this kitten will be going wherever he goes.”

“The front office won’t like him trying to leave with hir,” the guard warned hir.

“I think the front office is going to find that they don’t have much of a say in the matter,” Moonglow pointed out as they watched Shadowchaser give Shadowcrest a mock salute before tapping hir comm badge and disappearing in a transporter beam.

* * *

Many hours later, Neal was slowly waking up, unsure of where he was or how he’d gotten there. He found himself lying on his left side, surrounded by fur. He could tell that one of the vixens lay behind him, her breasts making a warm backrest for his neck. In front, he found himself almost nose to nipple with a very impressive set. Looking up, he could see a new feline muzzle. It took him a minute to remember hir name.

Moonglow watched Neal wake up a little at a time. When shi saw that he was watching hir in return, shi pointed at his chest. “While Firestorm will let others you give hir to hold hir for a short while, shi seems to need your presence to feel safe.”

Neal gently laid his hand on the sleeping cub. Carefully stroking hir, he asked Tess for current ship status. Tess informed him they were on schedule, with the help of some of the fighter jocks playing shuttle pilots, the kids and some of Chase’s friends were keeping the pods moving. His new wet nurse/nanny was moved in. Hir three containers of personal property were set up so shi could still get to everything. Shi had a room near Neal’s, though it looked like shi would be spending a lot of hir time with Firestorm – who in turn wanted to cling to Neal. Dessa was off life support. Tess would keep her in a light sleep until morning. The Ship Counselors from his four Star Fleet vessels had spoken with each of his ‘crew’, the kids were all a little shaken, but doing okay. Weaver was still a little stressed about almost losing Starblazer and Quickdash. One Ship Counselor had also warned Tess that his cook was building up to a nervous collapse.

It seemed the attack had been an attempt to take over the spaceport’s main terminal, though no one could figure out why or how they had planned to hold it. Their shuttle had heavier weapons on board, but the first wave’s job had been to quickly secure the port. They had been well enough armed to easily take on the regular security forces, but Neal’s surprise counterattack had forced them to pause and regroup. This had given Shadowchaser and hir friends time to add their weight of fire and put them in a crossfire. Since their shuttle didn’t have any active transport inhibitors at the time, Tess had disabled both the weapons and the shuttle before they could join the fight. On a more positive note, the locals had more recordings of Neal’s group responding to the attack than they did on the rest of it – meaning they had no solid evidence of any Star Fleet involvement in the event.

“I see we haven’t managed to scare you off – yet,” Neal finally told his newest guest with a smile.

“Before you ask, yes, they even roped me into a short game of tailstinger tag,” Moonglow quietly said, returning the smile. “You’ll have to do better than that to get me to quit a ride willing to carry my bike for free!”

“Just remember, no running that thing up and down my corridors!” he softly said, pretending to be stern.

Shi giggled at that, waking Firestorm. Even with Neal’s touch, the tiny kitten was still cranky. When Moonglow offered hir a nipple, shi pushed hirself away. Running his hand down hir lower belly and diaper, Neal smiled. “Time for the second rule, I think,” he said, slowly getting out of bed.

“Second rule?” Moonglow asked.

“The three rules of a happy life,” Neal explained, as he tried to work some feeling into his left arm. It was still a bit numb from the abuse the shotgun had given it. “Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and of course, scratch where it itches.”

“Meaning?”

“You’ve been filling hir empty belly. Now hir little bladder is full of used milk, and it’s time to empty it.”

Moonglow ran hir own fingers across the cub’s belly and smiled. “And how does a freighter captain know how to check a chakat cub?”

Picking up Firestorm and noticing it was Redtail that had been spooning up behind him, Neal said, “I do a lot of reading, some of which comes in handy from time to time. Let’s see if I remember what it said about getting hir to not pee all over hirself.” He then headed for the bathroom.

Moonglow must have been wearing a surprised look on hir muzzle because Neal thought he heard, “Yeah, he gets that a lot,” from Redtail.

Since the tiny taur could have easily swum in the taur-sized receptacles, Neal moved over to the human-sized commode. Neal asked Tess for two long thin boards, one side tacky so they wouldn’t slip – which appeared in front of him moments later. Laying them across the toilet with a small gap down the middle, he then undid the diaper and laid Firestorm’s feet on the boards with hir belly and sheath drooping into the gap. Reaching under the board he slid his finger along hir sheath to draw hir shaft out part way, and after a few strokes across hir full bladder shi started to unload. When shi was done, he rolled hir over and wiped off the tip of hir shaft before it slid back into hir sheath. Near the sink, Tess had already mounted a small temporary changing station which would help hold a squirming cub while applying or removing diapers. Redtail was gone and Moonglow was lying on hir backs when they came out. Neal gently dropped the now hungry kitten on hir upper torso. “Rule one,” he told hir with a grin.

While Moonglow fed Firestorm, Neal took a shower, then headed for the kitchen looking for a late night snack.

The walk-in refrigerator held some leftovers, not that there was much to be left over with all the kids, most of whom seemed to have four hollow legs when it came to food. Spying a large bowl of mixed fruit, Neal spooned some into a smaller bowl. He was looking for the ice cream when a sleepy looking and very annoyed rabbit entered the room.

Hands on her hips she asked, “And just what do you think you’re doing?”

Turning around, Neal gave his tired looking chef a long look. “Tess told me you were asleep, so I was making myself a one bowl mess of a snack. Since I know you couldn’t possibly have heard me, what are you doing out of bed?”

Suzan’s stare faltered, as she looked at the floor.

Neal slowly shook his head. “Tess,” he asked, “does she have you set to wake her whenever someone enters her little domain?”

“Just for you, Boss,” Tess corrected.

Still shaking his head, Neal gently told her, “You and I will talk later; for now, back to bed with you.”

Moonglow joined him before he was done eating, it seemed that a few minutes was all Firestorm would allow hirself to be separated from him.

Neal frowned softly as the tiny kitten clung to him with all seven limbs. “I love you too,” he softly told hir, “but we need to teach you to trust others to hold you.”

“That may take a while,” Moonglow warned him.

“I know,” he admitted. “But I can’t always be holding hir, so the sooner I start teaching hir to trust others the happier shi – and the rest of us will be.”

Moonglow nodded as shi watched him finish his snack. “So, what are the ship rules on nudity?” shi asked.

“Strictly forbidden,” Neal sternly told the still totally nude chakat before him. “With a couple of minor exceptions,” he added with a grin.

“And those might be?”

“At the discretion of the person in question, of course.”

“Funny, I noticed all but the youngest of your ‘crew’ is dressed if out of their quarters.”

“That’s because they’ve found their captain to be easily, hmm, distracted.”

“I see, so I shouldn’t wave my breasts in your face?” shi asked as shi gave hir upper torso a little jiggle.

“Ask Weaver what happened the last time she waved her ta-tas in my face,” Neal replied with a grin.

Moonglow grinned. “Sounds like fun, Captain, let me know when you are in need of a distraction.”

“I’ve actually got too many distractions as it is,” Neal allowed. “Though they’re a fairly good bunch as distractions go.”

“A very good bunch from what I’ve seen so far,” Moonglow countered.

“Yeah,” Neal said with a smile, “just don’t tell them that – we don’t need it going to their heads.”

“I don’t need to tell them, that was one cool and collected team once the dust settled.”

“Today wasn’t the first time things have gotten rough for us; I hope this isn’t giving you too many second thoughts.”

“Weaver was kind enough to introduce me to Tess, who showed me what led up to you showing up in my hospital. If I was going to run, I think it would have been at that look in your eyes just before you transported over. And one of the security cameras was perfectly aimed to watch you recover this kitten. Your young crew will follow wherever you lead, it’s hard to say no to that.”

“They’re all crazy you know.”

“Then they match their captain perfectly,” Moonglow told him with a smile as shi reached out to stroke the kitten between them.

* * *

The next morning, Neal had Shadowcrest, Krackin, Weaver, and Zhanch meet him in his office. Firestorm had been in need of hir security cling, so Moonglow had also joined the group.

“Let me start by saying that Dessa survived the night and is on the road to recovering,” Neal told them. “Let me also say that despite what you’re about to see, she still has a very long way to go before she is fully recovered.”

“From what I saw she should be dead,” Zhanch told him. “So whatever you’re about to show us has got to be an improvement.”

“Very well,” Neal replied with a nod. “Some of you already know that my transporters aren’t quite what you might call standard Star Fleet systems. One of the differences is that I can sometimes get them to do the reconstruction using the being’s DNA rather than the original form. Think of it as if you’d had a perfect twin that hadn’t suffered through all the knocks and bruises that had made up your life. You may still look like siblings, but not the genetic twins you actually are.”

Neal smiled at some of the confused looks he was getting before he continued. “You’re wondering why I said she still has a long way to go if she’s now in what’s basically a new body. That’s the problem; to her mind, it is a new body, one that has a brain that isn’t mapped out quite like her old one. So when we laid her mind matrix over this new brain, she ran into a lot of crossed connections – connections her mind will have to learn to use before she can fully appreciate her new body.”

“Much as someone suffering from severe brain trauma,” Moonglow suggested.

“A good example,” Neal agreed. “I am one of the few humans Tess has run through her ‘process’. She then has to hook me up to life-support for the first six to eight hours, while my mind and brain get together to figure out how to make my heart and lungs work again. Fully understanding what I’m hearing and seeing can take me up to a week. Full mobility and coordination took me a few months.”

“Dessa, on the other hand, was off of life-support after less than an hour, so her mind may already be re-mapping her new pathways easier and faster than I did.”

“Can we see her?” Shadowcrest asked.

“Sure,” Neal told hir. “Just understand that she’s going to be as confused and as helpless as a newborn baby,” he said, smiling as Moonglow handed Firestorm back to him. While shi would let him ‘hand hir off’ to someone else it was only for a few minutes at best, and only seconds for somebody new.

It was a short walk to the medbay, which became just a bit crowded with all of them in it. Before them lay Dessa, appearing to just be asleep.

“She’s never looked that good,” Zhanch commented after looking her over.

“As well as being sixty-five kilos heavier, she’s also over ten centimeters taller,” Tess told them.

“Where did the extra mass come from?” Moonglow wondered.

“Some of the stored biomass we have onboard,” Tess replied. “I normally add twice what I estimate the process will require – in this case, it used sixty-five of the hundred kilos I’d allowed for.”

“And the restraints?” Krackin asked.

“Are to keep her from harming herself,” Neal replied. “You’ll notice that that includes a mouth guard, tail restraint, and finger and toe sleeves to keep her claws from scratching anyone including herself.”

“Is all of that really necessary?”

“Considering how much Tess says I thrash around after being processed, it may not be enough,” Neal told hir. “On a brighter note, I needed almost a full day of assistance with breathing and maintaining my heart rate. As Dessa needed less time, we’ll just have to wait and see how quickly the rest of her recovery progresses.”

“So she is recovering faster than normal?” Moonglow asked.

“So far, but that might just be the difference between human and Rakshan physiology. We’ll know more with time,” Neal told hir.

All the soft talking around her soon semi-roused the sleeper and Dessa tried to stir and then fight clumsily against the bindings.

“Relax, you’re safe,” Neal softly said in Ratarsk. When she continued to struggle he tried again in Katang Low Tongue.

Her struggles changed and she started trying to vocalize something – giving them a broken series of cries and hisses.

Krackin frowned as shi said, “That almost sounds like a tune I’ve heard before.”

“It is,” Neal said before blocking Zhanch’s moving arm. “No,” he firmly told her.

“What does it mean?” Weaver asked, not understanding Neal and Zhanch’s reactions.

“Hellcat Marine code,” Neal told her while keeping an eye on Zhanch. “Dessa doesn’t know what has happened and is assuming that she’s in even worse shape than she was before – and she’s begging to be put down rather than be a burden to others.”

“And Zhanch here?”

“Thought she was going to honor her request.” Still watching Zhanch he added, “What they are both going to do instead is give me one week. If in one week she hasn’t improved enough to change her mind, I will help put her down – but first, you will grant me that week.”

“I don’t think you’ll be able to keep her bound to a bed for a week,” Zhanch warned him.

“I don’t intend to,” Neal replied. “Later today we’ll move her into one of the smaller holosuites and get her used to moving around and seeing again – with Tess keeping her from harming herself.”

“And hearing, Boss,” Tess chimed in. “I seem to recall you once saying Earth classical strings helped calm raging hellcats?”

Neal looked thoughtful for a moment before closing his eyes and shaking his head. “Damn, but that brought back some old memories,” he muttered. “Yeah, light strings to soothe the savage beast.”

“Who are you calling a savage beast?” Zhanch demanded.

Neal smiled at her saying, “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice kitty’ while looking for a big enough rock to knock some sense into said kitty’s thick skull.”

“That explains why every time I’ve had to deal with you I feel like I’ve been run over by an assault shuttle,” Krackin muttered.

“That’s just because you’re too used to throwing your ‘You’d better watch your tail – I’m a big bad ‘Mil!’ at people,” Neal replied with a chuckle. “You don’t know how to handle someone that doesn’t see a ’mil as all that big of a threat.”

“Nor it seems are Rakshan Marines as far as you’re concerned,” Krackin pointed out.

“Eh, I’ve had enough run-ins with them to know about how far I can push before they’ll try to shove back.”

“But you still think whatever you did to her is going to work,” shi growled.

“I think it will,” Neal told hir. “While leaving Tess to watch over her is perfectly safe, I’ll also see if I can’t get a few volunteers to sit with her so she’ll know that she’s not alone.”

* * *

Neal had taken the next shuttle down and found a few of his rules seemed to have been bent while he was out of the loop. Shadowcrest, Holly, and Quickdash were not being allowed to be a ‘three’ by themselves; considering the day before he could understand that. And all the kids now openly wore their phasers in ‘quick draw’ holsters. A raised eyebrow at something he saw had Tess telling him of some of them taking a short trip into town to replace the pain sticks that had been ‘expended’ in the battle.

The only ‘trouble’ his crew had seen since the Humans First battle was from the local authorities. It seems they didn’t like having armed ‘children’ running around loose in their spaceport. They had started to get angry when Mike had calmly asked if they only allowed mature, murdering Humans First members to be armed in their spaceport. They had quickly left though when Calmmeadow had offered to disarm hir work parties. All shi needed from them was their pictures and names, to be given to hir captain in case anything ‘bad’ happened. Having seen from the security recordings how hir captain reacted when things went ‘bad’, they were not about to have him personally looking for them.

* * *

“Yes, I’m going on sabbatical … No, no idea for how long at this time – that was one of the reasons I wanted a copy of my up to date transcripts … Yes, I’ll hold.”

Moonglow settled back at one of the consoles to wait. Shi had learned early in hir nursing career to always have hir current RN credentials with hir when traveling.

Roseberry and Calmmeadow were doing their lessons on neighboring consoles. They couldn’t help but feel Moonglow’s surprise when the ‘please hold’ screen changed.

“Director? What can I do for you?” shi asked the new muzzle on hir display.

“Yes, shi’s just down the hall … Why? Shi was given full scans before we left … On whose authority? You need a court order for that … No, sir, I won’t be taking that cub off this ship without the proper authority … Why not? Because shi’s bonded with him! You can’t claim it’s for the cub’s safety when taking hir away will do hir more harm than leaving hir where shi is … Yes, sir, I will fight you on this. I’m an E5 and my testimony that shi has bonded to him will stand up in court … You do what you think you have to, as will I!” Moonglow snarled as shi stood and stabbed the disconnect button with hir claw before storming away.

“That didn’t go well,” Roseberry commented, noticing that one of the keys on the now vacant station looked bent. “What didn’t we hear, Tess?”

“As Moonglow didn’t ask for privacy, I can tell you that hir department head wants hir to take Firestorm back to the hospital,” Tess replied. “He threatened to make things difficult for Moonglow if shi didn’t.”

“Did he say why?” Calmmeadow asked.

“It seems that the first nurse convinced him that Neal would mistreat the newborn.”

“The one Shady told us was trying to take the kitten from hir? Shi just didn’t like Firestorm refusing to accept hir!” Calmmeadow laughed.

“Yes, well the director seems to realize that he doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on or he’d be busy getting his legal staff on it so instead he’s trying to force Moonglow to do it.”

“Anything you can do about it?” Roseberry wondered.

“Well, we do have a friend of a friend I could ask,” Tess allowed.

“Do it,” Roseberry told her. “Moonglow doesn’t need the stress, and we don’t want Neal going down there and sorting them out his way.”

“Shotgun in hand?” Calmmeadow snickered. “That’ll make them wish they’d left Moonglow alone!”

“He wouldn’t take his shotgun,” Tess told them. “He’d just sic Tanner and her lawyers on them. The hospital would not like that type of publicity aimed at them, their own legal teams would be quick to stop their director if only to protect the hospital.”

“So, when are you firing up the big guns?” Calmmeadow asked.

“What makes you think I was waiting for your approval before taking the appropriate measures?” Tess replied. “I’ve already sent Tanner and company our recordings and my suggestions as to how Neal might like to see things handled. As it’s evening over there, Eddie will most likely be the one to take the job, and as much as he hates stupid make-work I expect he’ll be firing off a rather curt brief aimed at the hospital momentarily. How clue-full the hospital’s legal staff is will be shown in how quickly we see some results.”

“You’re not asking Neal first?”

“No, we don’t want him down there waving his shotgun at them – remember?” Tess teased. “This is well within my parameters of knowing what Neal would want to be done. Now if they don’t correct their actions, then I’ll be forced to bring Neal up to speed on things and see what else he wants done.”

“Is there a risk of them trying to take Firestorm from Neal or Moonglow while they’re dirtside?”

“That would require them getting some court orders – which the director was trying to get around. I will be keeping an eye out just in case and I’ll warn Neal and the rest of you if any court orders are issued.”

* * *

It was getting late where he wanted to call, but he didn’t think it would help to put it off any longer. He placed the call, hoping he didn’t look as grim as he was feeling.

“Hey, Mike! Why didn’t you use my comm?” Heather asked with a grin as the call connected.

“Perhaps because I was actually trying to call my mom this time?” Mike replied, trying to grin naturally. “Is she still up?”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, not at all fooled.

“You can listen in if you like,” Mike offered.

Looking troubled, Heather nodded before leaving the screen. “Cathy – Mike’s on the comm.” He heard her call out.

“Hey, Mike,” Cathleen started as she came to the comm panel. “What’s wrong?” she said on seeing his face.

“I’ve learned what you and Dad meant about only understanding some things after you’ve lived through them,” Mike slowly said.

“What happened?” his mother softly asked.

“We walked into an ambush and a firefight,” he told them. “All of us survived, but just threatening them wasn’t an option this time.”

“How do you feel about it?” Cathleen asked.

“More than a little unsettled,” Mike admitted. “Ships’ counselors are talking it over with all of us.”

“How is Weaver taking it?”

“Poorly. Quickdash was almost hit and Star got loose. One of our Rakshani almost died rescuing her.”

“So, you’ve finally had to fire in anger. Was it anything like you expected?” his mother wondered.

“No.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

No.”

“Knowing what you now know, would you do it all again to save yourself and those you care for?”

“Yes.”

“That’s my boy,” Cathleen proudly said with a smile. “Tess, I want a copy of that firefight,” she added before stepping back from the comm to allow a still worried-looking Heather to step forward.

“You going to be alright?”

“I’m getting there,” he assured her. “How about you? You sure you want to be hanging around someone like me?”

“Someone who was willing to take some hits teaching me how to defend myself? Hell yes, Young Stud. Speaking of which, your mom has been taking me to the range with her. She said the way I’m shaping up we may be picking me out a personal firearm soon.”

“Really?” Mike said with a slight smile. “Tess? Neal doesn’t by any chance have Tani’s equivalent on Bright Hope does he?”

“He does some transactions with a Caitian family-owned business in Astra City,” Tess admitted.

“Send Heather the links and whatever they need for any Folly discounts,” Mike requested.

“Can do and shall I suggest that they make sure to have a ‘Thumper’ in stock for when she shows up?” Tess teased.

“Her grip’s almost as strong as mine is – and almost as large,” Mike allowed. “May need to customize the grips a little.”

“Is that what you ‘used’?” Heather asked.

“Yeah. Part of my therapy is to take a box of ammo and go practice to remind myself that a gun is just a tool and I’m just shooting at a target.”

“Survive your therapy,” she told him. “I expect you to still be able to kick ass and take names when I get you back.”

Mike just replied with a grin at her.

“Feel better?”

“Actually, I do.”

“Go, now – and fire off a box for me while you’re at it!” she ordered.

“Yes, Little Nag.”

Heather let Mike’s window close, but she didn’t disconnect the call. “Tess, you still there?” she asked.

“Yes, Ms Heather, how may I help you?” Tess replied.

“Is Calmmeadow busy?”

“Not too busy, let me check.”

“Heather! Long time,” Calmmeadow cheerfully greeted her, happy for a pause in the flight simulation shi’d been training on.

“How are you looking so calm while Mike’s all torn up about whatever you guys fell into?”

Calmmeadow frowned a little as shi said, “The rest of us mainly did guard duty making sure we weren’t attacked from other directions, Mike ended up being the only active shooter – other than Neal of course.”

“Your captain ordered him to?”

“No, The Captain ordered us to stay out of it – as he went to go deal with the problem himself. Mike thought a few dozen to one was long odds even for Neal and disobeyed his orders.”

“Loosen him up for me.”

“If he balks I’ll tell him it’s ‘Little Nag’s’ orders,” Calmmeadow laughed.

“Oh, don’t force the poor guy, but I remember a rather wild party he missed because he was on the road with his dad, one where you and a couple of other chakittens showed a slightly drunken ‘Little Nag’ what chakat therapy was all about.”

Calmmeadow smiled in memory of a very full and fun night. “The way you were grinning the next morning we were half afraid we’d broken you.”

“If you don’t mind.”

“What are friends for but to do what you can’t be here to do yourself?”

* * *

“I have a call from your hospital for you, do you wish to accept it?” Tess was asking Moonglow a short while later.

“No – yes, damn it,” the cream and coffee shaded chakat muttered in anger as shi headed for a terminal.

And it wasn’t hir shift supervisor or the director that appeared, but a Caitian shi belatedly remembered worked in the hospital’s legal department.

“Shir Moonglow. I am sorry about the delay, but your transcripts have been forwarded to you.”

“And all I have to do is kidnap a newborn?” shi softly snarled back.

“Ah yes, about that,” the lawyer muttered with a frown. “You’re joining a very interesting group, Shir.”

“How so?”

“In the time since the director gave you those quite illegal orders, your new friends appear to have had plenty of time in which to get their lawyers involved. I myself have never before received such a simple and polite yet threatening letter. What they proposed to do if we didn’t quickly ‘clean up our act’ was all perfectly legal – and would most likely have closed this hospital down. In response, Nurse Spegal is already on administrative leave pending counseling and therapy – the recordings provided showed that shi had already decided to remove the newborn from those that had saved hir long before your captain showed up. The director has been let go, his actions don’t fit what we expect of those that work here and trying that stunt without even running it past legal makes him far too dangerous for us to keep. And then there’s you.”

“Me?” Moonglow asked, still angry.

“You. You walked into what appeared to be a hostile environment, calmly assessed the situation, and dealt with it in a manner most beneficial to all. A skill that this hospital shall sorely miss, Shir Moonglow. Enjoy your sabbatical and know there’s a position waiting for you here when you’re ready to return.”

“Thank you,” Moonglow replied, surprised at the sudden turn of events.

The Caitian merely nodded before disconnecting.

“I suppose that an explanation might be in order,” Tess’ voice said from the blank screen.

“That might be a good idea,” Moonglow agreed dryly.

“I know you’ve reviewed the events leading up to you walking into a room with a hungry newborn and a bloodied human in it.”

“Yes.” The fighting had turned hir stomach, but shi had wished shi had been there to help deliver the kitten.

“Then you know our captain doesn’t do things by halves. I had the choice of siccing our tame lawyers on your problem – or letting our not-so-tame captain handle it. What do you think his response might have been?”

Moonglow snorted out a laugh before saying, “I can imagine the director crapping all over himself just on seeing Neal coming into the room looking pissed – even without his gun.”

“Which was why I used the lawyers – less blood to mop up afterwards. Now about my seemingly rather blatant breach of your privacy on that call. While you had the reply set for your ears only, a couple of our teens were distressed at how upset you were by the call and what they heard you say. And of course ‘I’ heard both sides – which I sent to the lawyers to better make our case. That said, you can have as much privacy as you’d like, just tell me where you want it and, of course, you can always change it as needed.”

“Who has access to what you record?” Moonglow asked.

“Normally, no one without your permission. I intervened because I knew this was time critical and that you didn’t know what resources you now have at your disposal. Neal could force me to release or otherwise reveal private information, but it would have to be for a very good reason.”

“By his reasoning or yours?”

“Both. He has ways of overriding me – not that he’s done so in a very long time.”

“What did your lawyers threaten them with?”

“A long and very public attack of the hospital’s methods of doing business; a hospital director being caught ordering the kidnapping of a kitten wouldn’t look particularly good on a press release.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Moonglow agreed. “Leave my privacy settings ‘as is’ for now – though I’d like a heads-up if you’re thinking of being helpful in the background.”

“I can do that. Oh, I’m afraid duty calls – for you anyway – as someone’s waking up and shi’s going to be hungry,” Tess warned.

“Lead the way,” Moonglow said, though the door was already sliding open with lights winking to one side.

And there was more than just Neal and Firestorm waiting for hir when shi got to Neal’s office. The previous youngest member of the crew had thought that this new animated cuddle toy was the greatest thing ever, and Moonglow found Starblazer well wrapped around the much smaller kitten.

“Getting all the help you can with getting hir used to others?” Moonglow asked with a grin.

“That too,” Neal agreed. “And this way Weaver can get a few things done without constantly worrying about what Star might be getting into.”

“Makes sense,” shi admitted as rather than trying to separate the two of them shi simply picked up both kit and kitten.

While Firestorm knew just what shi wanted, Starblazer was soon licking around the kitten’s muzzle as if trying to get a snack herself. Moonglow shifted them in hir arms and offered the small foxtaur hir other nipple.

“Twin milk jugs – no waiting,” Neal quipped as the kit took the hint and started nursing as well.

Moonglow just grinned at him. “I’ll actually need to use my breast pumps with just the two of them, half a dozen or more are my usual nursing duties.”

“I’d say the ship’s cook could find a use for the extra milk – if it wouldn’t cause half the teens to start lactating as well,” Neal joked – just before the door slid open and Weaver entered.

Her smile dropped a little when she saw that Starblazer had already found a meal. “I hadn’t considered that,” she admitted as she sat down next to the chakat.

“Sorry about that,” Moonglow replied, “but Stormy was hungry and Star didn’t want to be left out. As to your needs, I can help – or I can lend you my breast pump.”

“I have a pump,” Weaver admitted before giving hir a foxy grin, “but I’ll take you up on getting to know you better.”

“It’s a date,” Moonglow agreed before turning back to Neal. “Suzan I think it was, can use my excess milk in her cooking so long as it’s heated to break down the CKF first – otherwise poor Weaver here will have even more competition at feeding time.”

“I’ll just try to get to Star before Stormy needs to be fed,” Weaver allowed.

“If you’d like, you can feed them both next time,” Moonglow offered. “While chakat kittens need the CKF in chakat milk their first couple of years to stay healthy, they don’t need it every meal.”

“And that’ll also let you do a little bonding with Stormy,” Neal suggested.

“If she can get hir away from Star!” Moonglow laughed because, while they were being pulled apart by needing to reach both nipples, the kit was keeping a very possessive grip on the kitten.

* * *

That evening, Neal had Tess tie deeper into the local databases. He was looking for any information on Firestorm’s parents. There would be grandparents to notify, both of their losses as well as their gain.

The vixen’s data had been recovered. Her name had been Rushingstream Hammerson. Her village was on Earth, but her records showed that both of her parents had died in a landslide when she was a teenager. No other kin or mates were listed in the local databases.

The chakat was still to be identified, hir ID having been destroyed when shi was killed. Neal sent a request to Tanner’s office, asking them to dig up the information he needed and forward it to the Folly.

Shutting down his terminal, Neal then dropped off Firestorm for feeding before he went rabbit hunting. He found Suzan looking exhausted, still in her kitchen, getting things ready for the next day’s meals. Waiting until she didn’t have a knife in her hand or something to drop, he cleared his throat. She spun around and stared at him as if he had just badly scared her. Shaking his head, Neal simply said, “We need to talk.” He then indicated that she should follow him. Finding the lounge empty, he waved her in and then followed her, closing the door behind him.

Looking at the exhausted rabbit sitting across from him, Neal said, “You’re working yourself too hard. If you keep it up, you’ll run yourself into the ground.”

Not meeting his eyes, Suzan replied, “I’m fine, Captain. I-I’m just a little behind in getting everything ready for tomorrow.”

Neal looked thoughtful. “We’ve been putting too much of a strain on you, even more so since we added the Rakshani and their special needs. You’re not asking for the help you need.”

Suzan was almost tearful now. “Please let me stay, I can do the work.”

Slightly confused, Neal said, “I’m not talking about replacing you or getting rid of you, Suzan. I’m just suggesting we need to lighten your workload a bit. You’re not the cheerful little bunny I fished out of the holosuite’s lake on your first day with us. I should be able to pick up the parts I need to get a food replicator or three up and running in the next few days. Till then, I’m going to ask that the kids take over breakfast and lunch and have them give you more help with the dinners.”

Suzan just bowed her head and hugged herself. Neal was surprised when he saw the tears start. Getting up before kneeling beside her chair, he took her hands in his. Squeezing them gently he said, “The replicators aren’t to replace you, they’re to supplement you, to allow you more time to do the things you like.”

“But I love to cook!”

“The same things day after day, and in the massive amounts needed to feed all my hungry kids and our Rakshani?”

“I just want to stay…”

“I wouldn’t dare try to kick you off my ship,” Neal said with a chuckle. “The kids would mutiny. And even as weak as they are, I know the Rakshani would help.”

“You promise I can stay?”

“Whatever gave you the idea I wanted to get rid of you?”

“You’ve never treated me like you do everyone else, you always seem to be keeping your distance.”

“That’s what’s been worrying you?” At her nod, Neal softly snorted before saying, “The reason I’ve always been careful not to get too personal was because of what I knew about you leaving your last job after having to fight off the first officer.” At her baffled look he said, “I didn’t want to frighten you off or make you think that you had left the frying pan just to end up on the heating element. I’m afraid I’ve been waiting for you to tell me if you wanted to get more personal.”

“But the kids, and even Moonglow …”

“Climbed into ‘my’ bed, not the other way around. Though I think Moonglow is doing it more to be near Stormy, rather than because shi likes to sleep with a smelly old human,” Neal said with a grin.

“Don’t be too sure of that,” Suzan told him. “So does this mean you’ll treat me more ‘personal’?”

“Only if you would like me to.”

Suzan pushed him back into his chair, then moved so she was sitting beside him. She then laid her head on his shoulder as she gave him a hug. Neal returned the hug and continued to hold her as she slowly relaxed. In minutes, she was asleep. Figuring they were going to be there a while, Neal slowly reclined the chair. Smiling at the softly snoring rabbit, he whispered, “Tess, warn the kids that they’ll be making breakfast and lunch tomorrow.”

Moonglow found them both asleep when shi brought in a full and sleepy Firestorm. Shi smiled as shi settled the kitten into their laps before silently padding back out.

* * *

Mike sat quietly reading from a PADD, this being his volunteered ‘big kitten sitting’ time in one of the small holosuites with Dessa.

Dessa, on the other hand, was not being quiet. She’d slowly test her freedom of movement only to growl when she found herself suddenly restricted when she tried moving too fast or too far. Each time she opened her eyes it was to objects testing her vision, her ears hearing tones and words that came in cycles and only changed once she had managed to make a similar sound.

“Oodel,” she muttered and from a tube in the mouth-guard flowed cool water at a slow enough speed that she had no problem swallowing. Clenching her mouth stopped the flow.

“Ooup,” gave her a soup that she thought she remembered, though it tasted spicier and much richer than she recalled.

“Et ee oo!” she demanded, trying to shake her bonds.

“You’re not ready for that,” Tess quietly told her.

“Let’s let her try,” Mike suggested as he set down his PADD and got up.

Stepping into Dessa’s field of vision he asked, “Do you remember me?”

“Eesh,” she replied through the mouth guard.

“A few things have changed since you were last awake, so we’re going to take things one step at a time. Shall we start with that mouthpiece?”

At her rather jerky nod, he stepped closer and took a hold of the mouth guard. “Open,” he requested, “wider … here, let me help,” he said as his other hand squeezed her jaws gently to help pry her mouth just a little wider before working out the mouth guard.

Dessa worked her jaws a bit, freezing when she bit her tongue.

“Now you know why we had the guard in there,” Mike told her on seeing the blood. “You think you can keep from hurting yourself if I free your limbs?”

Dessa gave him a lopsided nod as she said, “Eesh.” Her face contorting into what might have been a frown as she heard her own voice.

“Something else we will work on,” Mike told her as he released the restraints on her right arm.

An arm which started flailing around until Mike caught and firmly held it.

“There was a reason I said she wasn’t ready to be released,” Tess told them both.

“How did you handle Neal in this condition?” Mike asked as Dessa growled in frustration as she tried to control the arm jerking this way and that in Mike’s strong grip.

“The way you would anyone who has suffered extreme brain trauma, one step after another and a little at a time,” Tess told him. “Dessa, stop fighting it,” she ordered.

Once Dessa had settled down, Tess placed a mirror image in front of her. “We’re going to take this a step at a time. Sound off if you tire or need something. Since your arm is free we’ll start with it. Try to raise it at the shoulder.”

Both Dessa and the image almost struck themselves in the head, a ‘shield’ flashing on the image showed where Tess had intervened.

“Slower, you’re going to be relearning your muscle control all over again. It will take some time, but you will get better. I know because you’re not the first person we’ve done this to.”

The arm rose again, slower, stopping well clear of the head before flopping back down.

“Better,” Tess told her, “but try to control the full motion. Again …”

* * *

The next morning, Neal went groundside with Moonglow and Firestorm, and half the teenagers went along as security. There had been no additional reports of Humans First activity since the spaceport shootout, but they were taking no chances with their captain or their newest sibling.

“I hope this goes better than last time,” Mike commented as Neal led them into a showroom a lot like the one they’d seen in the Haley system.

“Hey, at least this time Neal wasn’t frowning before he even got to the door,” Roseberry reminded him. Shi’d noticed Neal nodding to himself as he checked something Tess was feeding his glasses.

“Nobody’s perfect, but these guys look like they’re doing pretty good,” Neal told them as they waited to be waited on. “Their warehouses scan a lot cleaner than I would have expected for having that much Boronike in them.”

“I’ve never understood how Boronike is supposed to interfere with sensors,” Nightsky admitted.

Neal shrugged. “Pretend Boronike is like mirrors attached to the walls of a room. If everything is lined up perfectly you can see the reflection of a reflection of a reflection forever. Now, what happens if you bend or distort any of those mirrors?”

“It would screw up the reflections,” Nightsky allowed.

“And unformed Boronike is like someone shattered a mirror in zero-G, little mirror dust fragments reflecting everything every which way.”

“So what are you seeing here?” Mike asked.

“A few distortions here and there, but nothing like the mess that other warehouse had,” Neal told them.

“So they have some bad ones too?” Holly asked.

“Maybe,” Neal said, still checking his readings. “Though it looks like most of them just need a little realignment as if they might have shifted when being moved.”

“Good day, gentle beings, how may we serve you?” a wolf morph asked as he approached Neal’s group.

“I’d like fifty replicators, three of which need to be medical spec. If I like what I get I may be placing orders for more,” Neal told him.

“We can have them ready in less than an hour, where would you like them delivered?”

“Have them all brought in here, I’d like to test a couple of them before we buy.”

“That can be arranged, though we do charge for the extra power usage after the first three tests,” the wolf warned.

“Perfectly acceptable,” Neal agreed.

“Give me a moment to place your order and get the warehouse moving. There’s seating and refreshments over in the corner while you wait – and I see some of you have already found the manuals.”

“Thank you,” Neal said as he and his group moved towards the waiting area.

“Why are they trying to limit you to only three tests?” Moonglow asked as shi held Firestorm.

“Each test will cost them in energy and raw material, though the material can be reused. And it’s actually generous of them to allow the first three for free, I’ve dealt with some companies that charged for each and every test,” Neal told hir.

“Will you show us what you’re seeing?” Quickdash asked.

“Sure, put your glasses on,” Neal suggested as the first trolley of boxes rolled in through one of the doors towards the back of the showroom.

“Third one,” Mike muttered as they watched them roll in one by one.

“Out of alignment,” Neal agreed. “And look at the sixth, that one has at least one bent Boronike element in it.”

“Wow, it is a bit like funhouse mirrors,” Nightsky admitted. “No wonder our mini-taurs like playing in this stuff.”

“Next one out’s bad too,” Quickdash pointed out.

“Ah well, time to start weeding them out,” Neal said as he got up. “Holly, Quick.”

As the two youths hopped up to join him, Neal headed for the first boxed unit as he pulled a rod out of his pocket.

Waving the rod over and then along the sides of the first unit Neal, said, “Alignment on this one is close enough the software should be able to work with it, see how nicely the gaps between the elements stand out? And those little spikes on the bottom of each element are the transducer interface.”

“This one’s actually a bit better,” Neal said as they checked the second unit.

“And you can see here where one of the Boronike elements has shifted,” Neal pointed out as they scanned the third unit. “Set this one off to the side, please,” he told the wolf morph.

“Is that one of the ones you wish to test?” the wolf asked.

“No, it’s one I’m rejecting for alignment issues,” Neal replied as he scanned the fourth unit.

“Tam, I need a calibrations tech out here,” the wolf said into an intercom as Neal started scanning the next unit.

He scanned it like he had done the others, only to scan it a second time. “What’s missing from this picture?” he asked his two trainees.

Holly was the first to spot what Neal had seen – or hadn’t seen in this case. “Most of the spikes are missing!”

“So no proper contact between the Boronike elements and those transducers,” Neal agreed. “Pull these two as well,” he told the wolf.

“That’s half of them so far,” Mike muttered to the others.

“And Neal thought this was a better company,” Roseberry reminded them as several furs joined the wolf and they had a quick discussion that suddenly became very heated. “Oops, somebody over there just pissed off our salesman.”

“My apologies, Sir, but these weren’t the units they were supposed to be bringing out for us,” the wolf explained as he returned, looking a little nervous.

“So, just what are these?” Neal asked.

Returns, Sir. Some were rentals brought back at the end of their contracts, and some were replaced for on-site problems or damages. Once again we apologize for the mix-up.”

Neal smiled as he said, “While we wait for our real order, would you mind if I have my trainees look over these damaged units?”

“No, not at – wait – those two?” the wolf asked in surprise as Holly and Quickdash stepped up.

“Why not them?” Neal half asked as the three of them moved to the first of the bad units. “They’ve eaten the worm and lived to tell the tale.”

“Yeah, these should be lots easier than transporters,” Holly said as she and Quickdash quickly removed the shipping protection, unfolding the unit into its ‘operating’ configuration, and then started pulling the covers hiding the guts of the machinery.

Quickdash had stuck hir head in first, then pulled it out so Holly could look. “How’d they bend the mount with the top plate installed?” shi asked.

“Do you think it can be straightened – or does it need replacing?” Neal asked.

“We can bend it back,” Holly assured him as she started pulling tools out of her saddlebags.

“They just happened to have their tools with them,” Alex chuckled.

“No, Tess beamed them down,” Mike told him. “That’s why Holly backed away from the unit for a moment, to get clear of the interference.”

“And the how is why I’ve borrowed each of your pouches and carriers,” Nightsky told them. “Tess had me add signal guides so her transporters can better hit them.”

Graysocks had been spending their wait time going through one of the installation manuals. “Setup looks easy enough – if you have good units to work with,” she told the others.

While they were talking the group that had come from the warehouse had had another quiet conversation with the salesman before approaching Neal and his mini engineers.

“What exactly are you doing?” asked a rabbit morph whose utility belt held tools similar to those Holly and Quickdash were using.

Neal shrugged before saying, “The delay gives me time to give them a little training.”

“There,” Quickdash said. “Alignment’s good. We’ll need power to check the rest of it.”

“Let’s,” the rabbit agreed. “Tomas – stretch us some power and source if you would. Dana, your standard test chit, please.”

“Sure thing, Terrence,” the wolf replied, handing over a memory chit.

“Source?” Holly asked.

“Always easier to use something to make something,” Terrence chuckled. “I’m guessing your instructor’s been letting you play mainly with transporters and not replicators?”

“Yeah – so?” Quickdash wondered.

The rabbit grinned again. “With transporters, you break down the object and then move the matter/energy and reassemble it. With a replicator, we start with a base material of something and turn it into what we want. So I need a base mass to convert. As we’ll be making something non-organic, that is what we’ll use.”

“I got you both feed types in case you want them,” Tomas said as he brought over a thick power cord and an even thicker multi-hosed assembly.

The connections took just a minute and Terrence was running the self-checks with Neal’s mini-taurs trying to ‘look over his shoulder’ – or in this case around him – without getting in his way.

“Now we see how good your calibration is,” he told them as he started the first test.

Sparkles under the hood and a hum suggested something was going on, and a minute later the rabbit reached in and slid out a tray of test cubes.

“Why so many?” Holly asked as the cubes were in a five-by-five array.

“I’ll show you,” Terrence said as he pulled out a small mallet and started tapping – and shattering – each of the cubes. He then set down the mallet and carefully picked something out of the rubble.

“Not bad,” he admitted as he showed them the minute remains of one cube’s corner. “Well within tolerances. Want to try fixing the next one?”

The next unit had failed a ‘drop check’, the drop having separated several layers of components from their links. And it failed to bring up its POST screen even after everything had been reconnected.

“How about this next one?” Terrence asked them.

“Can’t fix that one – the Boronike’s bent,” Holly told him.

The rabbit morph frowned at her before scanning the unit again with his own instruments.

Neal had stayed out of the way, though he did smile as Terrence hooked power and source mass to the unit to run the same test he’d run on the first unit.

This time shattering the test cubes ended in some very large ‘corners’ towards one side of the tray.

Looking more than a little perturbed, the rabbit faced the pair of grinning youths. “Just how can you two see flaws my instruments don’t?”

“Transporter systems need even finer tuning,” Quickdash pointed out as shi handed him hir spare pair of glasses.

“Oh, clever,” Terrence murmured as he looked between the different units before looking around. “But how? Oh, outside emitters, and you’re controlling the phasing between them with your little wand. Hmm …”

The rabbit examined several of the other units before he realized he could see through the walls and into their warehouse. “Makers, I can even see into the safe where Jack hides the spares,” he muttered.

“Problems?” asked a lion morph that had been watching things unfold from his office.

“Just a happy accident, Matt,” Terrence told the store manager. “Warehouse sent out the wrong group of boxes and I’ve just learned that there’s some much better test and calibration gear out there.”

“Techs and their toys,” the lion muttered.

“What if I told you these toys could cut our alignment times by a factor of three or more?” the rabbit asked.

“Knowing how much time gets tied up in that step, I’d say you have my attention. Can you prove it though?”

Terrence grinned as he looked over the still sealed boxes. “Tomas – help me set this one up,” he requested, pointing at one showing the distortions of a misalignment.

Powering the unit up, Terrence overrode the onboard computer’s diagnostic warnings and ordered it to produce a set of cubes. He then pulled the tray out and grinned at the lion’s expression as over half the cubes weren’t actually cubes but warped and twisted into strange shapes.

“Okay? So it’s crap,” Matt allowed.

Terrence grinned again as he said, “So how about I show you how fast it can be calibrated?”

“Show me.”

“No, I’ll let them show you,” Terrence chuckled as he waved Holly and Quickdash over.

“We charge extra for instructing!” Holly warned him with a grin.

“We’ll pay it,” Terrence assured her as she and Quickdash unplugged the power and set the cord to one side before they started pulling panels off the unit.

The two youths worked mostly in silence, Terrence and Matt watching as they worked, and a new grouping of boxes started lining up nearby, Neal nodding in approval as his glasses were showing him nothing but properly aligned plate sets.

Finally, the two youths replaced the panels and reattached the power connector. “All yours,” Quickdash told Terrence.

Terrence powered up the unit and ran it through its diagnostics before replicating another set of cubes. These appeared to come up clean and he shattered them to see if there were any imperfections. “Perfect,” he told the manager. “Oh, did I mention that their alignment rig is portable? We’ll be able to do recalibrations onsite instead of having to pull the units, drag them here, recalibrate, and then hope they don’t get knocked back out of calibration on the return trip.”

“Find out how much such a system would cost us and when we could expect delivery and I’ll run it past the powers that be,” Matt told him.

Tess had been playing in the background and Neal stepped up to the lion morph. “Your last name’s McCullar?” he asked.

“Yes?” Matt replied in surprise.

“Send it, Tess,” Neal said before giving Matt a grin. “Check your mail; you’ll find a note from Captain Foster with the contact information for the Merraki firm on Kantorg that makes these little toys for me. Let me know if they don’t give you a discount.”

“And no doubt you’d like a discount in return,” Matt suggested with a slight frown.

“Oh, they’ll give you a discount whether I get one or not. Me getting a discount will determine how many additional units I might be buying from you.”

“May I ask where you learned about this gear?” Terrence asked. “I know I haven’t seen this kind of rig offered anywhere.”

Neal shrugged. “I gave a little input into its development but didn’t have the time to design or build it. A Merraki firm agreed to produce it with the rights to sell it for the next twenty years or so – and most of their sales are to Star Fleet to help maintain their small mountain of transporters and replicators. You will be getting a discount because of a file you’ll be sending them explaining how I made it easily portable – you see, their current models are all fixed units.”

“How long do you think it will take them to modify their gear to do what yours does?” Terrence wondered.

“I’d say less than a week for them to adapt their kits,” Neal assured him. “Very little was changed on the hardware side, it was the software that took time to get right.”

“So about an Earth month?” Matt asked. “And how long to train the techs to use the new gear?”

Terrence laughed. “None other than the basic set up. I could start calibrating units right this moment; it’d actually be easier as well as quicker. If we can, I’d like two sets, one normally here and one mobile.”

“But we could get away with just one?” Matt countered.

“Only if you don’t mind work here grinding to a halt every time we have to take the rig on the road,” Terrence pointed out.

“And it’s always nice to have a spare,” Neal said with a smile.

“I would like a third, but I’m pressing my luck asking for two,” Terrence admitted.

“Dana, take care of them while I see about ordering Terrence some new toys,” Matt told the wolf before heading back to his office.

“And give them our very best deals,” Dana agreed.

 

 


 

First Flight

 

“Our turn on the flight deck!” Holly called out, indicating herself and Quickdash.

When a quick glance at Holly’s mother didn’t show any negative thoughts on the idea, Neal grinned and said, “Sure. You two can help make sure I don’t get lost.” He gave Weaver a quick wink before closing the hatch behind the two furry youths.

Once the door was closed, the human’s demeanor changed. Turning to the foxtaur youth Neal said, “Holly, yours is the pilot’s seat. Quickdash, you get the engineering station this time out.”

“Aye, aye!” foxtaur and chakat chorused as they adjusted the seats for taur use and raised them to compensate for their smaller statures.

Neal settled himself into the co-pilot’s seat and reconfigured his instruments and controls to cover both flight and engineering functions.

Eyeing Neal’s board, Holly asked, “Is that how you fly by yourself?”

“Pretty much,” Neal admitted. “This way I can both instruct as well as keep an eye on things. If we get another chance to fool your mother, I’ll have you two swap positions. A good pilot knows their ship’s engineering, and a good engineer knows what their pilot needs.”

“We make a good team,” Quickdash told him.

“We’ll see,” Neal replied as they received lift clearance from the local control tower.

“Just lift us a meter or so,” he told Holly once clearance was granted. “This is a waste of power, but a useful one … If we’re unbalanced, you’ll start to tilt to the heavy side and can compensate before we get in too much trouble.”

“No tilt, all systems steady, but we’re just starting to drift to the south,” Quickdash said as shi watched hir boards.

“There’s a strong northern breeze that Holly hasn’t compensated for,” Neal told hir as Holly overcorrected for the wind, taking them north. “Take us up, three G’s steady acceleration, please. Quickdash, maintain one G on the inertia dampeners.”

The large shuttle and its load started to climb, only to seem to hesitate. Without looking back at the engineering station, Neal dryly commented, “This is where that good engineer has the power ready when hir pilot needs it.”

“Oops,” Quickdash half muttered under hir breath as shi set about adjusting hir power settings, the heavy lift shuttle soon smoothly climbing.

“Well, we didn’t fall out of the sky so no harm done,” Neal told hir with a grin to take away some of the sting. “Next time she may need that power to avoid crashing into something, so stay alert.”

“Yes sir,” shi replied as shi adjusted hir board. The higher they rose, the less power shi found was required to maintain their acceleration.

“Wouldn’t it be more fuel efficient to go up even faster?” Holly wondered out loud.

“Barring wind resistance lower down, yes,” Neal admitted. “But we’re not in any hurry and we really don’t need to show off for the locals.”

As they left the denser atmosphere behind, Neal said, “Now start twisting our path to match Folly’s orbit. I’ll let you two figure out a zero/zero intercept with her.”

“Least time or least fuel?” Holly asked as she started to key her directions into the navigation computer.

“Six of one, half a dozen of the other,” Neal told her. “Split the difference.”

The two youths talked across the cabin for a minute as they lined up a course that got the shuttle into the ship’s orbit just as Folly reached the same location.

Neal chuckled but didn’t say anything as they approached Folly, the ship having been rotated so the pod’s mooring point was facing the shuttle. Holly brushed the pod across several thin wires projected out from the ship, the first couple sparkling as the static differences between ship and pod were neutralized before they tried to attach the pod.

While they had both docked cargo pods in the simulator, this was for real and they took their time doing it right. As they moved forward to park the shuttle, they found the ship again rotating so the open hangar doors were in front of them as they came level with them.

“Thank you, Tess,” Holly said as she carefully parked the shuttle in its bay, “but next time I want to do it myself.”

“Maybe she’s just afraid you’ll scratch her paint job when you try a shortcut,” Neal suggested as the indicator lights showed they were properly docked and receiving power from the ship.

“We’ll be careful,” Quickdash promised as they secured their stations.

The others were preparing to leave the shuttle as the cockpit door opened. Calmmeadow eyed Holly questioningly as shi asked, “What was that shake-up as we took off?”

“Neal sneezed,” Holly adlibbed as she and Quickdash followed Neal and grabbed their things before following the others out.

Having waved off help gathering the few things she’d picked up on the planet, Weaver was the last to leave the shuttle. Just before leaving, she stepped onto the flight deck and confirmed the positions of the seats. Growling softly at what she saw, she shook her head before following the others.

* * *

After bringing up the first fifty units, Neal and his ‘engineers’ spent the rest of the day putting together the first replicators and getting them online. One had gone in Suzan’s kitchen, with two more in the dining area. Suzan had to hunt Neal down that evening, finding him installing yet another unit in the kids’ mini kitchen.

“You missed dinner,” she quietly informed him.

With his head and chest buried in the unfolded replicator alcove, she couldn’t see his smile as he replied, “Rumor control said you were fixing stuffed green peppers. Peppers and I just don’t get along.”

“I would have fixed you something else if you had asked,” Suzan said, sounding hurt.

Neal pulled himself out of the replicator and looked to make sure Suzan wasn’t as sad as she had just sounded. Catching the gleam in her eye, he gave her a dirty look that made her smile. Shaking his head, he said, “You know how it is when you’re in the middle of something and don’t want to stop?” When she nodded, he continued. “Besides, you always seem to have munchies waiting for those of us that don’t always eat on the ship’s schedule. I was just going to play with some of your snacks, and maybe test this replicator at the same time.”

“Speaking of replicator testing, I know on the cruise ships we always had to watch our supply of bio-gel for converting into different foods and such. How much do you have on hand – or will we need to stock up now that we have replicators to work with?”

“I sell bio-gel to ships and stations,” Neal replied. “One of my pods has an old, industrial-sized replicator in it. Feed it any plant or animal matter and out comes bio-gel.” He had been making the final connections as he spoke before stepping over to an open panel where he removed several lock-out cards and reengaged the power couplings. “And now we’re ready to test this one.”

The testing involved making a rather large banana split, with all of Neal’s favorite toppings. After allowing Suzan to help him make it, Neal placed it in the replicator and had Tess test her connections by recording the pattern. Then he had her make another from the stored pattern. Handing one back to Suzan, they enjoyed their late snack. They were almost done when Moonglow came in with Stormy. When shi said shi would love to try one, Neal overdid it when he ordered the replicator to double the dimensions of the pattern. They all laughed when it materialized – the banana was over sixty centimeters long and ten centimeters across, and the scoops of ice cream were equally massive. Firestorm didn’t think much of it after sticking hir nose in the cold ice cream, so shi warmed hirself by latching onto one of Moonglow’s nipples, causing Moonglow to shiver as the cold nose made contact.

The next morning saw the last pod loaded and reconnected to the Folly; it was well past time to continue their stops, have a chat with Zhane’s Admiral Kline – if they could find him, and maybe even find some pirates for Shadowchaser and hir friends to play with.

 

 


 

Rooms Of Danger

 

On leaving New Kiev, the Folly and the ships and crews aboard her got back on their previous schedules, which allowed some parties a little more freedom than they’d been experiencing.

A scheduling snafu had left Corporal Mathews with a window of opportunity. Banned from access to Folly, he hadn’t been one of those that had assisted in the short battle of New Kiev, nor had he been allowed off the Quick Draw as most of the others had for short, discreet shore leaves.

The fox slipped into a room he wasn’t supposed to be in without authorization. He’d been in it before, but only to help others get suited up. It could be done solo, but it was a lot easier with some assistance. Mathews slipped out of the room, but only after activating the suit’s stealth systems. He knew from hearing the other teams talking that it wasn’t true invisibility, but if you were careful you could move around almost completely undetected.

His timing was good; a large number of his ship’s crew were heading for Folly’s main holosuite. It seemed there was to be a game between the Star Fleet ships in a little while. He followed the group, being careful not to bump into anyone or lag too far behind.

Not at all interested in wasting his freedom watching some game, Mathews left the group when they got to the holosuite level. Before he could figure out how to get the doors to open for someone that ‘wasn’t there’, a new door slid open and a cat morph he hadn’t seen before led that sexy vixen he had seen before into one of the other holosuite rooms. Having missed slipping in as they went in, Mathews now waited for them to come out.

His persistence was rewarded a short time later as the cat morph exited saying, “I’ll check on you in a bit.” And Mathews was able to slip in just before the door closed. His target had her back to him hitting and kicking at a pair of holosuite dummies and he grinned as he reached out to pull her back by her hair.

* * *

After their warm-ups, Tess had paged Alex.

“I’ll check on you in a bit,” he told her as he left, leaving her to practice her strikes on some of Tess’ simulations.

Feeling something brush her hair, Cindy spun around and planted a swift kick into the side of the latest simulation, one she noted in amusement that Tess had tricked out to look just like that jerk of a fox who had been bothering her and Suzan. Before the figure could recover she landed a kick from the other side, then a punch delivered hard enough to knock the air out of the simulated windbag.

Mathews was stunned. He couldn’t get near her and he couldn’t even block her attacks – they were coming at him too fast! How in the hell could she even see him to attack?

A dozen more blows in less than as many seconds and Cindy then kicked the simulation’s ‘reset’ button to order up a fresh target as this one wasn’t fighting back at anywhere near her current skill level.

The bad news for Mathews was what Cindy and Tess had agreed long ago signaled a ‘reset’. The hard kick to the scrotum actually lifted him off the deck. Fortunately for him the holosuite target Cindy had been aiming at faded away and Mathews was allowed to slump painfully to the deck.

Cindy managed to get in another ten minutes of her workout before Alex returned, only for him to trip over a ‘hidden’ object partially blocking the doorway …

* * *

“We were winning!” Captain Autumnbreeze grumbled. “Then there’s Captain Foster’s voice in my ear asking if we just happened to be missing a stealth suit …”

“Blow your concentration, did he?” Shadowchaser replied with a grin. “At least he didn’t ask the room at large.”

“And what can you tell us about it, Lieutenant Krackin?” Autumnbreeze asked hir security chief.

Krackin frowned at hir captain before saying, “In hindsight, we should have been able to detect Mathews and keep him from leaving the ship, Shir. Folly was kind enough to offer their sensor records as well as what actually happened in the holosuite.” Shi smiled slightly as shi continued. “The vixen’s name is Cindy Grayson, and it seems her ‘family’ on the Folly has been toughening her up. When Mathews walked in on her she was already beating the stuffing out of several holosuite simulations; when she detected him she treated him as just another simulation. When asked if she’d noticed anything different at the time she admitted that that simulation had been ‘too easy’ compared to the other simulations attacking her. I checked with medical, his injuries match the blows she delivered to said ‘simulation’.”

“Recommendations?” hir captain asked.

“Brig him once sickbay’s done with him, dishonorable discharge when we get home.”

“Agreed. Computer; end recording, end hearing, save all recordings and related files.”

“Recordings and files saved,” a mechanical sounding voice replied.

Captain Autumnbreeze nodded and then looked over at Shadowchaser. “Now, why don’t you tell us what really happened,” shi suggested.

Tess was what happened,” shi replied while removing a non-Star Fleet comm badge from hir pocket. “There’s a reason that any training or planned exercises on the Folly go through me.” Plugging the comm badge into the console in front of hir, shi tapped it and said, “Tess, please show us when and how you detected Corporal Mathews and what you did about it.”

I didn’t do a thing,” Tess replied as the screen lit up.

“Not directly maybe,” Shadowchaser corrected.

The three chakats watched as the group Mathews had followed entered the Folly – followed by what might have been a heat shimmer. The screen changed to infrared and the extra figure stood out clearly.

“I’m guessing he’s never actually been trained on the suits and missed that setting,” Tess suggested.

“That, and without a cooling unit you’ll quickly bake in it,” Krackin pointed out.

“I almost caught his tail in that door,” Tess pointed out at one point.

“Why did you page Alex?” Shadowchaser asked as they watched the door slide open.

“She was warmed up and I didn’t want Alex helping,” Tess told hir. “Not knowing there was a live idiot under the simulation, there was a risk that Alex might have killed him by accident.”

“She almost did,” Krackin muttered as they watched Cindy turn. “Over half his ribs were broken, serious internal injuries galore…”

“Scrambled nuts,” Shadowchaser added as Mathews was ‘reset’. “Makes me glad mine are internal.”

“Recommendations?” hir captain asked hir this time.

Shadowchaser shrugged. “Don’t mess around with the Folly or her captain. This and New Kiev are hints as to what you can expect from them if you catch them by surprise.”

“Loose cannons,” Krackin muttered.

Captain Autumnbreeze hid a smile as hir security chief’s ears dropped at the look hir lead pilot was giving hir. If shi hadn’t known better shi would have sworn the other one was the ’mil.

“Loose cannons,” Shadowchaser carefully repeated. “So loose every one of their shots missed the civilians at New Kiev. So loose that there’s an unpublicized letter of thanks from the planet of Parakit, and another under a Star Fleet seal signed by an Admiral Kalren. That ship and her captain are many things, Lieutenant, but loose isn’t one of them.”

Autumnbreeze smiled slightly as shi said, “And you are a byproduct of that ship and her captain.”

“And proud of it,” Shadowchaser agreed.

“I’ve known Lieutenant Krackin a lot longer than I have you, Commander, but I do believe you’re the only person, chakat or other, I’ve ever met that could make hir back down.”

Shadowchaser shrugged. “I spent my formative years around a very intense human, one that seemed able to make almost anything happen. And we had our own little chakamil growing up – which he also seemed to be able to handle with ease.” Looking at Krackin without the glare this time shi added, “After growing up around all that, an angry or upset ’mil just isn’t that much of a concern.”

“Or other ship captains? I’ve noticed you also have no problem expressing yourself at our meetings.”

Shadowchaser shrugged again. “With all due respect, Shir, keeping you and the others from getting on Neal’s bad side is worth having you annoyed with me. I was serious when I warned you guys when this operation was briefed that he has no problem with dumping us if we try to push him too far.”

“But you think we can trust him to raise a ’mil?” Krackin pointed out.

“He’s done it before,” Shadowchaser countered before tapping the badge again. “Tess? Did Dad set up a danger room for hir?”

“To better save wear and tear on the rest of his ship and crew? Of course we did. And shi prefers it to the holosuite.”

Autumnbreeze raised an eyebrow and asked, “Danger room?”

“A room no one will care what you break or destroy,” Krackin told hir. “A room we won’t get in trouble for letting out some of our frustrations.”

“Feeling frustrated?” Shadowchaser asked with a grin. “We can always ask if we can borrow it.”

“I would like to see this,” Autumnbreeze admitted.

“Come ahead,” Tess told them.

They were met at the room by Quickdash.

“I thought your captain wasn’t going to leave you alone with me?” Krackin commented.

“You’re not alone, and I’m the one with the home field advantage,” the youth replied with a grin. “How good is your trust?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you panic if helpless?”

“No.”

“Tess, what Neal did to Calmmeadow after tickling Holly.”

Quickdash then stepped towards Krackin, who belatedly discovered shi could now move little more than hir head.

Stepping still closer, Quickdash reared up on hir hind legs and grasped each of Krackin’s immobilized forearms with hir handpaws before placing hir hands on the surprised chakamil’s shoulders.

Almost muzzle-to-muzzle with Krackin, Quickdash grinned. “You’re perfectly safe,” shi quietly told hir. “Do you want to know why?”

“Why?”

“Because, if I were to claw you without a very good reason, Neal will use a pain stick on me before the real punishment starts,” Quickdash told hir.

“The paperwork?” Shadowchaser asked with a grin, remembering the aftermaths of some of hir own youthful brawls with hir siblings.

“Every scratch has to be explained in detail along with what I remember thinking and feeling at the time,” Quickdash agreed. Giving hir captive a lick-kiss across the muzzle, shi said, “Please don’t do anything to make that pile of paperwork seem worth it to me.”

Krackin surprised hir captor with a lick-kiss back before saying, “Deal – for now.”

Quickdash backed off as shi dropped back to all fours. Indicating the door shi said, “Welcome to my danger room; your safe word, for now, is ‘stop’.”

The room looked more like a cub’s playroom than any kind of ‘danger room’, with padded bars that would let one climb the walls and ceiling, and stuffed plushies as small as your hand up to full adult taur sizes.

And then a plushy about Quickdash’s size started moving. “Ah, fresh meat!” it proclaimed, several of the others now starting to move, all grinning at their visitors.

“Rules of engagement,” Quickdash told them. “I’m fine, so maybe just a little workout. Only one of our guests is a ’mil, so go easy on the others if they want to play too.” Turning to hir guests shi said, “You can dial in how rough you want them to be. It’s a countdown system, a ‘ten’ gets you an overactive cuddle-taur, the closer to one the rougher they get. They won’t start clawing or biting until four, but bruising starts at six and ramps up fast.”

“Broken bones and teeth?” Krackin asked.

“A risk at three, though Tess will try to avoid it,” Quickdash told hir.

“Hard to completely keep away from in a real workout, never mind a ‘fight’,” Shadowchaser agreed. “What levels have you gone up to?”

“Three,” Quickdash admitted. “Got caught limping back to my room afterwards.”

“Still sounds rather tame,” Krackin commented.

“Unless you ask for more, they start off one-on-one,” Quickdash admitted. “You disable one and the next one attacks. Fight long enough and they’ll start ramping it up in size and numbers – and they learn your moves.”

“So the longer it goes, the harder it gets,” Shadowchaser said with a smile. “The Academy likes to pull the same tricks on the cadets.” Stepping up to one of the adult-sized taurs shi asked, “May I?” At the plush’s nod, shi said, “Body set to ‘ten’, please.” Shi squeezed, poked, and even punched at the plush in several places. “Other than a very flexible frame, you’d think this thing was just an overstuffed plushy toy. Body set to ‘three’, please.” The plush didn’t seem to move, yet its grin took on a harder edge and now a ripple of muscles could be seen just under its fake fur. This time squeezing, poking and punching got hir nowhere. “Talk about having abs of steel!” shi half-laughed, “I’m not going to even try fighting one of these things.”

Quickdash grinned as shi made eye contact with three of the larger plushies. “Level ‘eleven’, cuddle attack!” shi told them.

Krackin watched as the plushies ‘attacked’ hir fellow officer, Shadowchaser disappearing under a wall of fake fur as they tumbled hir off hir feet and surrounded hir. Once their victim was down, they wrapped themselves around hir.

“Now what?” Shadowchaser wondered from within the pile, finding it impossible to get loose from hir cuddlers.

“Well, you could try tossing them off, though they’ll just come back for more,” Quickdash told hir. “Or you could just disable them.”

“How?”

“Oh, tearing their heads off would work,” Quickdash laughed.

“Or saying ‘Stop’?” Krackin asked.

“Yeah, but shi has to say it,” Quickdash agreed. “You probably want something a little more rough-and-tumble.”

“Let’s start with a five,” Krackin suggested, and another adult-sized plush stepped up to face hir.

“Call out the numbers if you want to go up or down,” Quickdash said as shi stepped back out of the way.

“Four,” Krackin called out after exchanging a few strikes and blocks with what felt like a well-muscled opponent. “Three,” shi said as shi warmed up and got used to fighting the not so plush plushy. “Two,” shi requested – only to discover shi’d bitten off quite a bit more than shi could chew! “TEN!” shi screamed, unable to block or respond quickly enough to the fury of blows now coming hir way.

The claws that had been ready to slice across hir throat instead caught hir before shi could fall.

“Shit,” shi gasped as the now soft plushy held hir. Looking over at the smirking Quickdash, shi muttered, “And you’re going to tell me you beat this thing?”

Quickdash laughed at hir. “I’ve never tried any of the big ones above a ‘six’, and normally no higher than a ‘four’ on the my-size ones. And I have to be ‘angry’ or really worked up enough – which I’m not right now.”

“Who trained these things? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen some of the moves it was using,” Captain Autumnbreeze asked from where shi’d stayed out of the way of hir officers’ play.

“Neal had Tess load the basic fighting techniques, then Alex instructed them in some of his father’s taur-training as well.”

“What’s so special about Alex adding more?” Shadowchaser asked from hir seat on hir pile of plushies; in off or ‘stop’ mode, they made a very soft bed.

“His father runs a dojo,” Quickdash told hir. “That’s also why he’s the one training Cindy.”

“And we’ve already seen her ‘kicking tail’,” Shadowchaser snickered. “You need a gurney?” shi asked Krackin, who was nursing a rather obvious mid-limb limp as shi moved away from the plushy that had so quickly and thoroughly pounded hir.

“What – and let the troops think I can be beaten? I’ll walk it off,” shi muttered.

“I think you two have had enough fun for one evening,” their captain told them. “Thank you, Shir Quickdash, it’s been very educational.”

“Send your ’mil back if shi ever needs to work off a ‘mad’,” Quickdash cheerfully replied as the other three made their way to the door.

“Do you still think shi needs to be rescued?” Shadowchaser asked once they were down the corridor.

“Maybe not, though I’d like to keep an eye on hir while we’re here,” Krackin allowed. “And who knows? Shi might want another ‘mil to talk to.”

 

 


 

The Toothbrush

 

“You’re mine tonight,” Suzan declared in front of the others in the lounge from where she stood next to Neal’s recliner.

Reclined and with Firestorm asleep in his lap, Neal said, “Tess, what’s the location of my toothbrush?”

“In your room,” Tess replied.

Neal gave a little shrug. “And that’s where you’ll find me later tonight,” he told his cook.

“Tess, I want you to move his toothbrush to my room,” Suzan said with a grin.

“Are you sure that’s what you want?” Neal asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Very sure,” she told him.

“Tess, move my little box of toys while you’re at it,” Neal said as he got up, setting the waking Firestorm on the arm of the recliner.

“Already anticipated, Boss,” Tess replied.

“Ah well,” Neal said as he bent down and grabbed Suzan by the hips.

“Hey!” Suzan protested as he easily lifted her up and onto his shoulder.

With one arm holding the now squirming rabbit, Neal’s other hand snagged Firestorm and placed hir on her back, limiting what Suzan could now do without getting tiny kitten claws in her rump.

Neal then carried his victim and youngest daughter out of the room to the laughter of those in the lounge.

“He’s stronger than he looks,” Zhanch commented as the door slid shut behind him.

“Not really,” Calmmeadow snickered. “When he walked by I could feel Tess playing with the gravity plates along his path.”

“Bets on her walking funny tomorrow?” Nightsky asked with another laugh.

* * *

“You’re pushing,” Mike warned her as she took another unsteady step.

“I-I’m a Marine – it’s what we – do,” she muttered back, shuffling forward less than a half-step at a time, her tail whipping in all directions as she fought to maintain some kind of balance.

She had asked Mike to help her with this; as the largest of the teens, he was almost as tall as she was and had more than enough brute power to pick her up and carry her if it became necessary. But for now, she blundered down the passageway unassisted, just to prove that she could.

The door to her destination slid open and she grabbed the frame edge with a gloved hand to help turn herself into the room, the gloves and footgear helping her to keep from accidentally extending her claws. Rakshani heads were turning in surprise as others saw her stumbling in.

“Deities! Dessa?” one of her fellow Marines asked in shock at seeing her.

“Back from the dead and three times as mean, Croix,” Dessa warned her with a voice and grin that were still far from normal for any Rakshani.

“How are you feeling?” Zhanch carefully asked her as she looked Dessa up and down.

“Like I want to see how far this goes,” Dessa told her honestly. “I’m still sleeping semi-restrained so I don’t hurt myself, but this is early days yet.”

“Early days,” Zhanch agreed. “You may be our future, deities willing.”

“I can think of worse fates,” Dessa agreed. “But for now I think my keeper wants me back in the holosuite.”

“Where Tess can do a better job at keeping you from hurting yourself,” Mike agreed.

Nodding at the others, Dessa turned and headed for the door.

Dessa waited until the door slid closed behind them before waving Mike ahead of her, clamping her hand on his shoulder as he went past.

“Do you want a ride?” Mike offered.

“Let’s try this first,” Dessa requested, using him to help steady her as they moved down the passageway. “Thanks,” she told him.

“Any time,” he replied, his thoughts not on her words but on her actions. He had reviewed what he hadn’t actually seen that day and there had been no second thoughts or hesitation when Dessa had used what little strength she’d had to throw herself out into the open to save Starblazer. The determination in her eyes had done more to settle his mind about his own actions than the Fleet Ship Counselors and Calmmeadow’s chakat therapy.

They walked down the corridor together, each supporting the other in their own way.

 

 


 

Power Corrupts – But Absolute Power Is Even More Fun

 

“Exiting warp in the Frost system; the Fleet station should be on this side of their sun,” Alex reported as Folly’s warp bubble smoothly collapsed, dropping them back into the normal universe with hardly a quiver. “I’ll handle traffic control while you talk to the quartermaster.”

“On it,” Cindy replied from a neighboring console.

While they always had Tess backing them up, this stop they also had Shadowchaser watching this younger crew in action.

“Hey Tess!” called out a cheerful voice as a female husky morph suddenly appeared on Cindy’s display.

“Cindy, actually,” Cindy said with a grin as the husky had started looking confused at the fox morph on her screen. “Though I’m sure Tess is around here somewhere if you’d rather talk to her.”

“Holy shit – oops, excuse the language! So Old Man Foster’s running with a crew again!?” the husky laughed. “This should be fun.”

“Oh?” Cindy asked. “Did you know the last crew?”

“Ha! That was just a little before my time, but I do happen to know that they left a lasting impression on this station,” the husky said with a grin so big that it looked like it should hurt. “By the way, I’m Ensign Wade – call me Veronica,” she told them. “How much of a hurry is he in this time?”

“Neal didn’t say anything about us being in any hurry, and we could already see you guys have a couple of ships ahead of us,” Cindy told her.

“Traffic Control is warning me of a four-hour minimum wait to transfer cargo – though it could be over six, depending on how well the other transfers go,” Alex told her.

“That’ll give the others time for a little shopping,” Cindy agreed.

“There’ll be more of you? This just keeps getting better and better,” Veronica said with another grin.

“You seem far too excited that Folly has a crew,” Cindy suggested.

“Let’s just say I know that something ‘out of the ordinary’ happened one time the old Pogo Stick came in to drop off supplies – twice actually …”

“Oh?” Cindy asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Veronica replied. “Since we have plenty of time, give me just a second or two to find it.” It was closer to a minute before her window shrank into the corner, a new scene taking her place.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Starbase Firewall, Traffic Control, this is Pogo Stick. ETA to docking range fifteen minutes. Be advised that we are a little pressed for time,” the head of a cat morph teen was telling a female lion morph in a Star Fleet uniform. A side window on the screen showed no other ships at or near the station.

“My sister, Chakat Faststream,” Shadowchaser commented from where shi’d been watching hir new siblings work.

“Roger Pogo Stick, one-five minutes to docking range. This is Lieutenant Second Class Oran. Our main shift just started, so we should be able to get you in and out promptly. May I ask the reason for the rush?” she politely asked.

Faststream nodded as shi said, “You guys just happened to be in line with where we need to be in a few days. As we’re pretty sure at this point we can’t make the first bonus for getting there early, we figured we could drop off your supplies and still get there without getting hit by the late penalties. If we can be done and out of here in under six hours we’ll be in good shape, if you tell us longer we’ll have to fly by again some other time.”

“We’ll have to really drag things out to make you guys hang around six hours,” Lieutenant Oran assured hir with a chuckle. “Let me forward you to our quartermaster while I tell the cargo crews to get ready. Dock twelve.”

“Dock twelve, copy,” Faststream said just before the display changed to that of a bored looking poodle morph.

“Quartermaster,” the poodle didn’t quite sneer as she looked up from whatever she had been doing.

Pogo Stick inbound with your supplies,” Faststream replied.

“We’re in the middle of an inventory over here, your offload will begin in ten and a half hours,” the poodle snapped at hir before disconnecting the connection.

The recording switched to showing just Pogo Stick’s bridge.

“Well, that was rude,” Faststream muttered before hitting a button on the intercom panel. “Dreamy? We may have a problem …”

“Chakat Dreamweaver,” Shadowchaser injected. “Another of your new big sisters. Shi’s currently the captain of hir own little freighter.”

“Be there in a minute!” came a quick reply on the screen.

While shi waited on Dreamweaver, Faststream called the station again.

“Hello again, Pogo Stick. To what do I owe the honor?” Lieutenant Oran asked.

“Your quartermaster just told us you guys are busy doing an inventory, and an unload delay of over ten hours …” Faststream told her with a frown.

The Lieutenant sputtered for a moment before saying, “There’s no inventory going on, as far as I know. Give me a second,” she said as she opened another window on the comm screen.

The screen opened to show the poodle from before. “Hey, Debbie! Just what so-called inventory are you running that has a higher priority than unloading a supply ship?” Lieutenant Oran demanded – just before the window closed.

“Why that little –” Oran started to say before Faststream interrupted her.

“Don’t bother,” shi said as a second head appeared over hir shoulder. “You get all of that, Sis?”

“Got it,” Dreamweaver agreed. “Turn us around and line us up, I want to be able to go to warp in the next minute or two. Lieutenant, if you would please connect me to your quartermaster’s office one last time? And make sure you get a personal recording of this,” shi added with a grin.

There was more glare than sneer on the poodle’s muzzle when she appeared yet again. Dreamweaver gave her a smile as shi said, “I understand there will be a delay of over ten hours in your station being ready for us, is that correct?”

“At least ten and a half hours!” the poodle snarled at hir.

“And while we’re in a bit of a hurry, there’s no way to expedite things at your end?” Dreamweaver sweetly asked, still smiling.

“NO!” Debbie snapped.

If anything, Dreamweaver’s smile grew even wider. “That’s all I needed for my captain. We’ll try again sometime when you’re not so busy,” shi said before looking off camera and saying, “Engage!”

The Star Fleet recording was left showing a now very surprised poodle sputtering protests to a no longer connected channel.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Oh … shit …” Cindy snickered as the recording ended.

“Yeah, but it gets better,” Veronica warned her.

“How could she top that?” Cindy wanted to know.

Veronica just grinned. “A couple of weeks later they tried again to deliver those supplies. This time it’s your captain against the base commander!”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Hello, Commander. Is there a problem?” said what looked like a much older Neal Foster, a cup of tea could be seen to one side but otherwise, the table in front of him was empty.

“I want to know why the hell you didn’t drop off the supplies like you were supposed to two weeks ago!” the commander demanded. Like the quartermaster, he was a poodle, but he was sneering so hard he looked more like an ugly bulldog.

“Raise your voice like that again and I won’t be delivering any supplies this time either, Commander,” the older Neal snapped back. He hadn’t raised his voice, but his tone promised mayhem.

“Don’t you try to threaten me …” the poodle started, only to see the human was now smiling a smile that he didn’t seem to like at all.

“Ever hear the expression ‘Power Corrupts’?” Neal asked. “It’s a very simple concept, giving someone power empowers them to do more than they could have done without it. The problem comes about when said empowered person then abuses that power to their own ends – say like someone causing a deliberate delay to push something past her shift so she doesn’t have to do the work …”

“That was no excuse for your ship leaving!”

“Actually it was,” Neal countered. “As my crew told yours, we had only so much time that we could waste here.”

“Star Fleet has a higher priority than anything else you might be delivering,” the poodle growled.

“Only if they’re paying for priority service,” Neal replied, “Which they don’t bother to do for these standard supply runs. On the delivery we were making, the bonus and late penalties alone were much more than Star Fleet was offering to pay for your little run, and this delivery won’t be considered ‘late’ for another six weeks.”

“I want to know what type of punishment you gave your crew for leaving this station without our permission!”

“I gave them each a piece of the profits their actions caused,” Neal replied with a tight grin. “It looks like we’re back to ‘power corrupts’, Commander. While you are the highest authority of your little starbase, you are not of this ship – that’s my command. Mine is the power to decide where this ship goes and when, who has what priorities if any. If I dictate to my crew that they may try to make a stop unless it’s going to risk a higher paid job, then I expect them to do it, Commander. I’m assuming you reviewed the recordings of the event, I certainly did.” Neal could see that the poodle’s glare was more guarded now, but there was also a more stubborn or mulish look to his eyes. “What I saw was a ship and station ready to quickly and efficiently get supplies moved – all but one person, the one person that it all hinged around. My read on it was she didn’t want to do all the paperwork that accepting your supplies would entail, so she came up with a very poor excuse to make it wait for a later shift. You wanted to know what punishment my crew received, well Commander, why don’t you tell me how you disciplined your daughter? Yes, I did my homework and I know you two are related, I think this is part of why Star Fleet doesn’t like relatives among members reporting to those above them.”

“She was never told why you needed any rush on anything – not that a Starbase has to jump to some freighter’s demands.”

“Of course she wasn’t told, Commander,” Neal chuckled at him. “As we saw, she kept saying no and then disconnecting on all callers – even those that outranked her. By that same token, an independent freighter like mine doesn’t have to sit around waiting on a starbase that’s too lazy to get its tail in gear. Though, as an independently owned freighter, I do have one small advantage over you.” Neal’s grin grew as the poodle’s eyes narrowed. “I report to me; if I screw up so badly that I’m losing money, it’s my own damn fault. But if you or yours screw up, you get the privilege of explaining it all to Star Fleet.”

“You can’t threaten me,” the poodle again told Neal, his glare back to full strength.

“What’s to threaten? I’ve already sent Star Fleet my recordings of our first visit with a ‘Is this a new standard that we civilians should learn to put up with when dealing with Fleet bases?’ Their replies were ‘No’, and ‘We’ll look into it’, so I’d imagine me threatening you at this point would be somewhat anticlimactic, Commander …”

“Just for that, Captain, I’m thinking of ordering a full stem to stern inspection of your ship and cargo!”

“That would be within your rights as a Star Fleet base commander – that is if you had any probable cause in mind other than petty revenge. Of course, I would then be within my rights to protest your highhandedness to Star Fleet. I would also be advising Star Fleet that the other supply runs that they’ve already entrusted to us will be delayed because of your actions … hmmm, considering the size of my ship and the amount of cargo, and figuring in how your quartermaster will be dragging her heels at all that extra work your little inspection will make for her … I’d best warn them that due to your belligerence and interference their supplies will be a minimum of a year late, possibly longer.”

Glaring at the rather smug looking human on his screen, the poodle hit a button on his desk. “Red Alert!” he half shouted. “Launch the ready fighters at once – they are to physically disable the Pogo Stick!” The last he said while now grinning back at Neal.

“Putting my ship at risk, are you?” Neal calmly asked. “Very well. Bridge. Full emergency power to the engines, I want warp speed now.”

“Warning! Base proximity –” a computer-like voice was heard saying in the background.

“Override safeties and engage!” Neal ordered. “Their idiot excuse for a commander has no concerns for our safety, so I have no concern for theirs,” Neal told the now shocked looking poodle just before his image disappeared – and the station side of the recording showed that the base was suddenly rattled hard enough to knock the poodle out of his chair.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The recording shrank to a lower corner as injury and damage reports started flooding in.

Cindy took a deep breath and looked at Veronica. “I wonder how much trouble he got into for that little stunt?”

Veronica snorted. “Your captain knew exactly what he was doing. The records show he plotted a least-time course to the next closest Starbase and gave that base commander all the recordings from his side. He even offered to let them ‘inspect’ his ship if they thought it necessary, but he wasn’t going to risk his ship and crew to that unstable poodle and daughter act.”

“So ... what happened?”

“I don’t have access to everything,” Veronica admitted, “but we do know that there just happened to be a Galaxy-class starship in port when Pogo Stick showed up there, and three days later they showed up here with the supplies – as well as a full IG team.”

“IG?” Cindy asked.

“Inspector General. A special team made to check on every aspect of a command for problems, and I heard they tore this base a new one when they came through.”

“Oh my … Tess gave us an informal inspection once. We were so smug when she started …”

“And felt like running with your tail between your legs long before she was finished with you?” Veronica chuckled. “Believe me, I’ve been there a time or two too.”

“I take it the poodles didn’t fare very well?”

Veronica frowned. “Well, it’s considered a bad sign when there’s an unplanned change of command less than three hours after an IG team arrives,” she pointed out. “And all the departments were run through the wringer, and part of that was all the heads of those departments having to rewrite their last few performance reviews for their staff from memory – and then having to justify them.”

“To remove ‘forced’ reviews that the base commander had influenced?” Cindy guessed.

“That too,” Veronica admitted. “Though he wasn’t the only one, it seems they had quite a ‘good old boys’ club running between him and his friends. Records showed that the IG team spent a whole month here, weeding out the problems.”

“I’d think a lot of people would have been unhappy with the man who’d created such a shakeup,” Cindy commented.

“Fewer than you might think,” Veronica told her with another grin. “There were a lot of good people working here, but they were being forced to work under the yoke of bad command.”

“So, do you just so happen to have their next visit?” Cindy wondered.

“I thought you’d never ask!” Veronica laughed as a new recording came up.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Starbase Firewall, Traffic Control, this is Pogo Stick. ETA to docking range twenty-five minutes,” Chakat Faststream’s hair was longer this time, but shi didn’t look any older. The side window showed six ships either near or already docked with the station.

By chance, the same female lion morph was there to greet hir.

“Roger Pogo Stick, two-five minutes to docking range. This is Lieutenant First Class Oran, welcome back. It’ll take me just a moment to get the lanes cleared for you!”

“Get the lanes cleared? Why?” Faststream asked with a raised eyebrow.

“After what happened the last two times you guys were here? Standing orders are to expedite whatever you require,” the lieutenant told hir.

“We’re in no hurry this time, Lieutenant, we’ll wait our turn.”

The lieutenant’s grin was a little forced as she said, “We’re being watched very carefully after what happened to you guys last time, Shir. It’ll be my tail if I don’t follow orders.”

“Understood, Lieutenant,” Faststream acknowledged. “Please conference in your supervisor – and ensure your recorders are running.”

“Yes, Shir,” she said, and in less than a minute the screen split and there was a Rakshani male staring at them. His comm badge was that of a lieutenant commander.

“I understand there is a problem with our arrangements?” he said without preamble.

Faststream smiled. “While it’s sometimes nice to be treated ‘special’, it sometimes can cause more harm than good. I know a couple of those ships out there, and I know how upset their captains will be if Pogo Stick is seen to ‘jump’ your queues. If you would please, as a favor to us, just place us in line?”

The Rakshani just stared at hir for a moment before saying, “Lieutenant, add them to the end of the queue. Shir, as it will be several hours before it is your turn, we have a shuttle service if any of your crew requires station leave while you wait. Also, if you would, our compliments to your captain, and would he like to join our base commander for dinner?”

“I will ask,” Faststream told him, “To increase the chances of his reply being a ‘yes’, I’ll see if I can’t convince our cooking staff to ‘mutiny’ for the evening,” shi added with a smile as shi did something to the panel in front of hir.

“Thank you, Shir,” the Rakshani said with a curt nod just before he dropped off the line.

“He’s rather no-nonsense for a Rakshani,” the lioness told hir with a small smile. “You always know exactly where you stand with him. Quite a step up from my last boss.”

Faststream looked ready to reply, but something on hir board caught hir attention. Giving Oran a wink, shi split the screen to add Neal’s stern looking face.

“Your siblings just went past my door saying ‘You’re on your own tonight, sucker!’ You wouldn’t know anything about that – would you?” he said, ignoring the ill-at-ease lioness on the other half of his screen.

Faststream gave him a cheesy smile as shi said, “You’re always telling us that making friends is good for business, and it seems the new base commander has invited you to dinner. As we know how hard you’re always working at setting a good example for us, I knew that you would accept – which means we don’t have to cook tonight.”

Neal’s head did a half shake as he snorted. “Where did they place us in the queue?” he asked.

“Dead last – as I requested,” shi replied. “We can all use the station time and I thought you would want to hide any special privileges from Hartorn.”

Jumping Jack Flash is here? Yeah, low profile until they’re clear, then we’ll see if we can find out what all he’s been up to. Tess? Full passive scans, I want to know which way they go.”

“Aye, Boss,” another voice was heard to say.

Finally looking at the still shocked looking lieutenant, Neal said, “Let your base commander know that I accept, and I’ll let you and Faststream work out the timing.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Cindy chuckled as the screen went back to just Veronica grinning back at her. “And here I’d thought we had pushed him to his limits a couple of times – I’ll have to let the others know we have yet to scratch the surface.”

“Don’t go getting too cocky,” Tess’ voice told them. “The Captain’s threshold can change without warning.”

And for no apparent reason,” Neal’s voice chimed in. His chuckle when Cindy and Veronica exchanged worried looks confirmed that he was watching them even though he hadn’t popped up on their displays. “And dear Veronica, since you like airing my dirty laundry so much, I’ll let you tell that reprobate excuse of a base commander of yours that no, I won’t dine with him tonight – but that he is more than welcome to join me. Oh, and tell him he can bring along that excuse for a cook that he’s so proud of – I’ve already asked my cook to see if she can’t whip up a little something to impress our guests.”

Veronica didn’t look like she really wanted to relay that message, but she nodded before again making eye contact with Cindy and giving her a nod as well before the screen went blank.

“Are you trying to get her in trouble for showing me those clips?” Cindy asked the blank screen.

“Not at all,” Neal’s voice replied. The lack of video was somewhat explained when she then heard what sounded like a wrench or some other tool bounce off a hard deck – most likely at the other end of the ship down in engineering. “Gilbert, their current base commander, and I met long before he was assigned here. Heh, we even went through our own little supply snafu, which he handled much better than those poodles did. Which was one of the first things he learned about when he came on station as the new commander. It seems every new base commander – as well as the quartermasters and traffic control – are shown those first two recordings Veronica showed you. I called him more than just a reprobate the first time we met up here.”

“Oh?”

“You saw the ass kissing they were trying to pull in the third recording? Now ramp it up from someone who knows I don’t put up with that kind of crap.”

“So he’s used to you calling him a reprobate?”

“Among other things,” was all Neal admitted to.

“Anything else?”

“Standard orders while visiting the base, groups of three or more.”

“Aye, Sir.”

“And extra points depending on how long you guys can keep Weaver from finding out about those recordings.”

“Damn,” Cindy muttered as Alex and Shadowchaser snickered in the background.

* * *

The station commander was a raccoon morph; his grin was wide as he led a female muskrat through the boarding tube.

“Yes, Meredith, he’s up to something,” the raccoon was saying. “Let’s just see if he manages to outdo his last visit,” he added just before the shipside hatch slid open.

Whatever tricks Captain Gilbert Topperwein had expected Captain Foster to pull, being greeted by a Star Fleet honor guard hadn’t been one of them.

Lieutenant Commander Chakat Shadowchaser saluted the surprised captain. “Welcome Captain Topperwein, I am Commander Shadowchaser; Captain Foster is waiting for you in conference room five.”

“I didn’t think this was a Star Fleet ship,” Meredith quietly muttered as the three of them entered a translift.

“It isn’t,” Shadowchaser agreed, “but the ‘Old Man’ likes putting hitchhikers to work.”

“I wouldn’t think he’d be advertising Fleet personnel movement,” Gilbert commented.

“He doesn’t normally, it seems he trusts you not to tell too many tales,” Shadowchaser said with a small smile as the translift doors opened.

A short walk brought them to a door that Shadowchaser waved him through without following before leading his chef in a new direction.

Inside sat Neal, flanked on both sides by furs whose comm badges told Gilbert that they each commanded Star Fleet ships.

“Not quite what I was expecting, Neal,” Gilbert admitted. “Up to your old tricks again I see.”

“Yeah, I should have had you bring along your quartermaster as I didn’t have quite everything these people needed for their resupply – if of course, we can somehow manage it ‘off’ the books as they aren’t officially here.”

“Don’t forget the rest of it,” Captain Goldeneyes reminded Neal.

“Ah yes. Tell me, Captain Topperwein, did you recently have someone give your sensors a little upgrade?”

“Yes, why?”

“Contact your watch and have them keep an eye on my Folly.”

Tapping his comm badge he said, “Topperwein to sensors.”

“Sensors here, Captain.”

“Keep an eye on Folly, I think they’re about to show us a new magic trick.”

“Deities I hope not, he’s sneaky enough without more toys,” came the grumbled reply.

“Tess, hocus-pocus,” Neal said with a smile.

“Ah, Captain Topperwein, Sir? We can see the Folly though the observation windows, but both our active and passive sensors are now saying that there’s nothing out there at the end of that access boom.”

“We’re all friends here,” Neal said and there was a sudden intake of breath over the comm link.

“Sir, where the Folly was docked we now have what looks and claims to be the carrier Slingshot. And we have a Captain Goldeneyes wishing to speak with you.”

“Put them on and relay it over here,” Gilbert requested.

The screen in the room lit to reveal a chakat in a Star Fleet captain’s top – one that just happened to match one of the chakats in the room down to the last whisker.

The screen chakat smiled at them before saying, “Just imagine if you will, someone with this little trick and a recording or three of a ship’s command crew.”

“Damn it, Neal,” Gilbert muttered. “Please tell me that this is just you playing me.”

Neal shook his head before saying, “Anyone with the right codes can scan a ship and then fool your sensors into seeing just what they want you to. I do have a cure though – if you’re interested.”

“Damn right I'm interested! How soon can you straighten us out?”

“I take it you trust Captain Foster,” Captain Autumnbreeze said with a chuckle.

“More than I do some members of Star Fleet,” Gilbert admitted. “He’s not above playing tricks on me personally, but I'd trust him at my back with a charged phaser.”

“Authorize a secure link and Tess will see what all’s playing you,” Neal told him.

“If she’s not already in our network,” Gilbert groused. “Damn you for having such a good AI.”

“And how many times have you sung her praise?” Neal countered with a laugh.

“Too many,” Gilbert admitted. “What do you see, Tess?”

“Nothing as yet, Captain Topperwein. Sometimes I actually do wait for permission before diving right in,” Tess told him.

“Dive already,” Gilbert replied. “While you’re doing that, are there any others out there that we can’t see?”

“Nothing within your normal scan range – and nothing within my current one.”

“Quit rubbing it in,” Gilbert groused.

Captain Autumnbreeze grinned. “Humbling, isn’t it?”

“It was,” Gilbert admitted. “Of course my humbling was a couple of decades ago. Fortunately, Captain Foster doesn’t rub it in your muzzle too badly or too often.”

“Unless you doubt him,” Autumnbreeze replied. “Then he’ll get you!”

“Yes, he will.” Gilbert grinned as he added, “After dealing with Neal a few times I was always telling my people to be more polite with non-Fleet dealings – to the point a couple of visitors have wondered if we’d had dealings with the Folly.”

Neal shrugged. “I will deal with you as you deal with me.”

Gilbert laughed. “Or you won’t deal with them. I know of three captains that can’t get new posts because Star Fleet knows you and your friends will refuse to deliver supplies or personnel to ships or bases they are in command of.”

“Screw with me – or others I like – and I’ll screw you right back,” Neal replied – to grins from the rest of them.

“Captain Topperwein, your sensor upgrade was pretty much what we already knew about and I think I’ve gotten most of it cleaned out,” Tess stated. “I’m leaving things where you’ll be able to see the real thing while also being able to see what they’re trying to pretend to be. With your permission, I’ll run out a couple of Zulus for testing purposes.”

“You have my permission,” Gilbert acknowledged. To Neal, he said, “That was quick.”

“She’s had several samples to work off of, and this looks like it was just something someone tacked onto an actual update.”

“In that case, I’ll get my quartermaster over – and what did you do with my chef?”

Neal grinned. “Well, you see I ended up with a chef too, so I thought I’d let them compare notes.”

“Compare notes? You do like to live dangerously.”

“Just keeping things interesting,” Neal replied.

* * *

Meredith found herself led to a door claiming to be ‘Stew’s Domain’. The female muskrat looked at her guide with a frown.

“I understand one of the kids made that up for her,” Shadowchaser told her with a grin. “I also understand that any mere mortal trying to conduct business while ignoring one of her fine meals will get burned.”

“Ah,” Meredith murmured, “a spice fiend.”

“Only if you dare to get on her wrong side,” Shadowchaser told her, waving her through the door.

“You’re not coming in to protect me?” Meredith asked.

“Nope, you’re on your own,” the chakat said with a cheeky smile as shi turned to leave and get back to hir other duties.

Inside were tables and seating for a couple of dozen, half chairs and half taurpads. Near another door, a pair of foxtaur vixen teens were busy chopping vegetables at one of the tables.

“Ah, a fresh victim!” one of them said with a grin. “Tess, what’s Stew up to?”

“Sharpening her knives, Redtail. She’s waiting on you and Beechwood to finish up.”

“We’re almost done,” Redtail replied. Looking to their guest she said, “Why don’t you take that one to her now?” indicating one of the large bowls of already prepared vegetables.

Meredith carefully balanced the heavy bowl before making her way to the inner doors – which slid open as she approached them.

“About time,” Suzan teased before turning around. “Oh wait, you’re not one of my scullery maids!”

“Nope, just got roped into it,” the muskrat half complained. “Meredith Cambel, Frost Station’s head chef.”

“Suzan Pebble, chief cook and bottle washer. I’d claim my old title of chef, but the captain keeps saying he doesn’t need someone that fancy. Set that down anywhere and tell me how you got roped into delivering it.”

“The same way you get roped into anything, you walk in and they put you to work,” Meredith said with a grin as she set the bowl on a table.

“And you just let them?” Suzan asked with a grin.

“Well, not knowing how the local chef reacted to strangers in her domain, I thought having a little something I could throw or use as a shield might be useful,” the muskrat replied with a grin. “So, ‘Stew’?”

“Eh, I over-spiced things and got burned in return.”

“I do hope you don’t intend to over-spice my base commander.”

“Only if they try talking shop at my table!” Suzan laughed. “What don’t they like?”

He’s a pretty good sort – for a raccoon,” Meredith admitted.

“Well, this is what I had planned…”

 

 


 

Battle Stations!

 

Neal smiled as he watched the Frost system dwindle on one of his monitors; the meal had gone well with only a few lightly scorched tongues and Gilbert had agreed to help him have a little fun. As his other captains had been advised as well, he was just waiting for everyone’s crews to wind down a bit before he jacked them back up.

He gave them two hours and then keyed in a command. None of the displays reacted as the Folly dropped from warp and disgorged several dozen of her Zulus and a short-range FTL relay similar to the one he’d quietly left behind in the Frost system. The freighter jumped back into warp – only to crash out of warp just seconds later and only a few light minutes from her last stop.

The simulated crash had been a hard one, rocking the big ship and everyone in it.

“We have just hit a gravity mine. All ships to battle stations; fighter crews to your ships,” Tess’ voice ordered, sounding much more mechanical than usual.

From two light-minutes behind them came a swarm of pirate ships, sensors now able to see the hidden base they had spawned from.

Light-years away, the Fleet base in the Frost system detected a very large ship dropping out of warp just light minutes from the base.

“Pirates!” the sensors operator gasped before slamming her hand on the large button that would bring her base to red alert.

On both the Folly and the base it took what felt like long minutes to go from relaxed to ready to fight.

The fighters on both sides took the least time to get crewed and ready to launch, Tess removing some of the Folly’s teams delay by using her transporters to get her fighter pilots into their ships as she handled pre-starting the fighters remotely.

As fighters left the Folly, pirates turned to close on the Fleet base. As Gilbert’s teams rocketed out of their launch bays, the pirates spread towards the Folly.

Between the ships and stations, a three-dimensional dance took place as Star Fleet fighters took on the pirate fighters. While the bases had disgorged more fighters, the shipborne fighters seemed to have a slight edge – an edge that grew when the large pirate ship released two smaller but heavily armed ships just as the Folly released the now ready Star Fleet destroyers.

“Destroyers have just joined the fight!” someone called out on the comms.

“About time,” Shadowchaser muttered as shi dodged yet another shot by one of the pirates. Shi’d already taken two of them out, but now had three of them on hir tail.

“Coming around!” shi heard hir wingman say – just before a pirate scored another direct hit that finished dropping what was left of hir aft shields and the other two fired together.

“NO!” shi gasped just before a force slammed hir hard into the side of hir upper-seatback, hir displays flashing before going dark.

Hir own harsh breathing was all shi could hear as hir inner ears told hir what was left of hir craft was spinning wildly, which meant they’d lost their gravity and inertial dampeners along with everything else.

Then hir ears detected a second harshly breathing individual, one who after a few more pants muttered, “Why are we still alive?”

“Huh?” asked her still-dazed partner.

“We’re still on ship air – not suit,” Redfoot pointed out. “Which means we still have hull integrity – which we shouldn’t have after a hit like that.”

“What have I told you about getting too far ahead of your wingman?” a voice asked them out of the blue.

Dad? What the hell?” Shadowchaser gasped in shock.

“How are you doing this?” Redfoot demanded. “I know we’re not on a holodeck.”

As if in answer their displays came back to life. Flight controls and weapons were offline although their shields reported being at full strength – and Redfoot’s damage control board showed no issues.

“As Tess had full access …” Neal’s voice reminded them as the tactical screens showed the battle still in progress, ‘their’ ship appearing as a spreading collection of wreckage.

“Just what are we battling?” Shadowchaser demanded. “They’re much too good to be pirates.”

“I dropped faster than light links here and in the Frost system; you’ve been battling the base’s fighters.”

“So there are no pirates?” Redfoot demanded.

“No, but would you have fought so hard if you’d known it was just a simulation?” Neal asked.

“Why didn’t you just camouflage the Fleet fighters from each other?” Shadowchaser wondered.

“And have you guys firing full powered phaser shots at each other?” Neal countered. “Gilbert and I wanted a realistic drill – preferably one without any of the realistic damage and deaths.”

“I fired at pirates between me and my wingman.”

“And you hit the Zulus I had out there matching the movements of the ‘pirates’.”

“How many of your Zulus have we killed?”

“Only three so far, though I may lose a few more as the battle is still going strong. I think we’ll give them another five minutes to see if either group can score a clear victory.”

“This exercise is hereby terminated,” Tess reported five minutes later. “Those fighters crippled or killed should now find their systems fully restored.”

“Not too bad, though nobody won,” Neal was telling Gilbert over a private link a few minutes later.

Gilbert smiled in return. “You should hear some of the fighter jocks over here; we really seemed to have fooled them.”

“And I got in some good testing of my own – though it did cost me eight Zulus,” Neal agreed. “We’ll be back in a couple of hours and pick up my bits.”

“Some of their after action reports should prove entertaining,” Gilbert said with a grin. “I’ll save you copies of the better ones.”

“I’m sure I’m going to hear some real doozies on this side too,” Neal replied. “I know my daughter didn’t like getting hir wings clipped.”

“Hey, at least shi outlasted my supposed ace,” Gilbert countered.

“We’ll be back in three hours or so,” Neal told him. “Cleanup and travel time.”

“And we’ll be waiting.”

* * *

There were more than a few sour looking faces and muzzles in the large briefing room, though most of them were worn by fighter crews that couldn’t believe they’d been so perfectly fooled.

“I still don’t believe they had us firing full powered shots at each other,” one of the station pilots was griping as the crews from the Folly filed in.

“You weren’t,” Shadowchaser growled at the larger Rakshani as shi found a pad to plop down on. “Your team and ours were firing on drones from the Folly. Those drones, in turn, were ‘firing’ comm lasers and your fighter computers recorded the hits and changed your shields and other system readings accordingly. The only real danger you were in was the risk of any friendly fire hitting you – and despite the readings, your fighter always had full shields to help deflect any shots that might have come your way.”

“Settle down people,” a large wolf morph told them. “Captains Gilbert and Foster thank you all for helping test not only our readiness but also our training. And before any of you start mistrusting your ships, the programming used has already been removed.”

“Commander,” a Caitian asked from where she sat with her co-pilot, “are we going to be told how those programs got installed in our flight systems in the first place?”

The wolf frowned and looked over at his base commander. Gilbert nodded and the commander turned back to the waiting group. “This is not to leave this room,” he told them. “The latest Star Fleet updates included programs to allow our sensors to be manipulated by outside sources. While this is being repaired, it allowed us to make your exercise all the more realistic.”

“Screwing with our sensors doesn’t explain us getting rattled by hits that weren’t actually there,” one of the pilots growled.

“Corruption to a part of your fighters’ systems can result in corruption or control of other systems,” the wolf reminded them. “Fortunately for all of us the people that discovered the corruption didn’t use it to harm the rest of us.”

“And that crap is out of our systems?” another pilot asked.

“No, but it has been de-clawed and otherwise modified so it can no longer take over. You’ll now be able to see what’s really there as well as whatever they’re wanting to make you see. Any other questions?”

“I have one,” one of the pilots replied as she looked over those standing with her base commander. “What’s with the civilians?”

Gilbert was the one to smile and reply. “They were the ones that not only warned us of the problem but helped us solve it.”

 

 


 

On The Road Again

 

“Tanner has sent you a little Alamo Antimatter business, Boss,” Tess reported as they were again leaving the Frost system behind them.

“Everyone else busy?” Neal asked.

“Moonglow just finished feeding Firestorm; shi’ll be with you momentarily. Everyone else looks occupied with sleep or other things.”

“We’ll wait, then,” Neal told her.

Moonglow entered with an almost asleep Firestorm, whom shi gently laid on the mat Neal had added to one side of his desk.

“Do you intend to get any sleep tonight?” shi asked with a chuckle.

“In a little bit,” Neal replied. “Just a couple more loose ends I want to get tied down.”

“Don’t be too long,” shi advised as shi turned to go. “Or we’ll sic Stew on you.”

Neal smiled at the threat and waited for the door to slide shut. “Go ahead, Tess,” he requested.

The scene opened to a small conference room with Robin Tanner sitting to one side as six well to over-dressed furs walked into view from the other side and found seats.

An immaculately dressed and groomed husky morph spoke first. “Where are your principals? We told you they needed to be present for this.”

Robin smiled back at him, careful not to expose her teeth at this overdressed rat and his colleagues. “Why would my principals need to be here when yours didn’t see any need to attend?” she countered.

“You and your principals had best repair their attitudes if they expect to be in business much longer,” a female Caitian snapped at her. “When that bill goes through, there will be a Consortium representative on each and every one of your ships and stations!”

Robin smiled again, a little more openly, a few teeth peeking out from between her lips. “My principals have empowered me to inform you that there will never be Consortium representatives telling Alamo Antimatter employees what or how to do anything.”

“They will have no choice if they intend to do business in the Federation!” the Caitian hissed.

Robin was fully smiling now, intentionally showing off plenty of teeth. “And there you have it!” she replied, barking out a laugh.

“Have what?” the Rakshani sitting next to the Caitian demanded.

Robin leaned forward and her smile sharpened. “My principals have decided to simply close down all their antimatter operations in the Federation if that bill goes through.”

“I for one can not believe that your principals sent you here with such a weak bluff,” the Caitian laughed back at her.

Leaning back now and with still a trace of her smile, Robin said, “Let me tell you how my principals see this playing out. Someone sees the light or otherwise has some sense knocked into them, the bill is withdrawn or fails; and we all go on, business as usual. Or no light is seen, no sense is found; and your little bill passes. The moment that bill is signed Alamo Antimatter won’t wait for it to go into effect, each and every ship will be returning to their home ports for maintenance and refitted for other tasks. Every Alamo Antimatter station will be closed for all business. My principals figure it might take the rest of the Federation an entire Earth week to figure out what’s gone wrong, maybe another week before they really start to panic as they see the signs of your Antimatter Consortium falling further and further behind on providing the antimatter the Federation needs to keep their stations and transports running – never mind the not so minor needs of Star Fleet and Star Corps.”

Robin smiled again at those on the other side of the table. “My principals figure four weeks – eight on the outside – before that bill would be rescinded and the angry affected parties start demanding an investigation on how such a bill could have come up on the docket – much less be voted in.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” the husky half-stammered.

“Yes, it does have to be just that way,” Robin countered. “Alamo Antimatter sent some of their people to be ‘trained’ in whatever so-called safety protocols the Consortium is claiming to be pushing, but they discovered that there was no training – and no actual safety protocols. Once you clear away all the superficial legalese, you discover that all of this is just a rather blatant attempt on the Consortium’s part to gain total control over all the other antimatter producing independents – and Alamo Antimatter. My principals have decided that letting the Consortium get away with this attack would be detrimental to both Alamo Antimatter and to the Federation. Alamo Antimatter will, therefore, withdraw its business if your bill passes. My principals think they’ll still be around to pick up the pieces once your little empire building scheme has collapsed into ruin.”

“They can’t do that,” the Caitian growled.

“Can’t do what?” Robin countered. “Are you trying to say Alamo Antimatter can’t close up shop because it no longer suits them? There are no laws in the Federation forcing a company to stay in business.”

“The Consortium could buy or hire their services,” the husky suggested.

Robin smiled at him. “Some things aren’t for sale, and even if they were, your principals couldn’t afford it.”

“They can’t do that!” the Caitian repeated.

“Sure they can,” Robin told her. “Your principals and their little bill are saying ‘you will do things our way or you can take a hike’, and my principals just happen to be putting on their hiking gear. I suggest you let your principals know just what they’re actually getting themselves into – before that bill of yours brings both your Consortium and the Federation to their knees.”

“Don’t think this is over,” the Caitian snarled at the lone representative of Alamo Antimatter as the others started filing out.

“No, I know it isn’t over,” Robin said as the door closed behind them. “But I do know who intends to win this little pissing contest,” she added as she looked at the camera. “I know, I didn’t go and kick them in the teeth like you wanted me to, but these are the idiots we need to convince to explain to their bosses that things may not be as ‘in the bag’ as they thought it was. We’ve also had a couple of Star Fleet representatives asking questions. No warrants, so they left empty-handed, but somebody wants very much to apply more direct pressure to Alamo Antimatter. You and I know it wouldn’t work, but somebody over there has to know just how screwed they are if Alamo Antimatter refuses to play the game by their rules. Good luck and do try to stay out of too much trouble.”

“Sounds like she still hasn’t seen New Kiev as yet, Boss.”

“Or her staff hasn’t bothered her with it, as we did send it with a rather low priority. Give her time, she’s got a lot on her plate.”

“Mostly from you putting it there.”

“True.”

“Don’t look now, but we seem to have a cute little rabbit hunting you.”

 

 


 

Pegasus

 

The Federation Star Fleet Starship NCC-2121 Pegasus was running silent at low impulse. Almost no emissions betrayed her position as she passively scanned the current star system, hunting for the telltale signs of pirates trying to run just as silent. There had been a recent increase in pirate activity and she and her crew had been asked to help weed them out.

The hunter and her crew could be forgiven for missing the several tiny Zulus which passed through, crossing her sensor range without ever being noticed. Knowing where his target was allowed Neal to plan his course in a way the other ship would be hard pressed to detect.

Several hours of careful and silent pursuit had the Folly approaching the hunter from the rear, then shifting to port. Coming parallel to the Pegasus at just over two hundred kilometers out, Tess matched speed and course. After five minutes of the hunter ignoring them, the call button on the captain’s ready room onboard the Pegasus announced a visitor.

“Come,” called Admiral Boyce Kline, not looking up from the report he was finishing. He did a double take when he did look up; he knew most of the faces onboard his ship even if he might not know them all by name. The face not being familiar and the non-uniform the man wore momentarily threw him for a loop. Cocking his head, he asked, “Who are you, and how did you get on my ship?”

Neal gave him a smile. “The who is Neal Foster, captain of the freighter ‘Folly’. As to how I got here, we waited a few minutes after coming alongside. Not getting a hail, I decided to deliver my message in person. Since it happens to be for you, I rang your doorbell and you said ‘come’, so I beamed over.”

Looking for a thread to pull to help unravel this unexpected puzzle, Boyce asked, “Are you telling me that your ship is within transporter range?”

Neal grinned again. “Right outside your window in fact.” Tapping his comm badge, Neal said, “Tess, strobe just your visual running lights, if you would please.”

Looking out his ready room’s window, it only took Boyce a moment to spot a small flash of light among the stars. Boyce asked, “Why didn’t my bridge tell me that you were approaching?”

“That’s actually my fault, Admiral. Captain Zhane was kind enough to inform me that you were running the same type of sensor suite as a cruiser we need to locate. I thought I’d see how well my Folly could sneak up on it if we have to,” Neal said as he handed Zhane’s letter to him.

After opening and reading the letter, Boyce gave Neal a long look. “And how can I be sure that any of this is real?”

Neal shook his head as he smiled. “The first clue would be if it sounds like something she would have written; most families seem to have their own little secret codes. Another way would be to get one of your other mates to smell it. Zhane wrote it a little over three weeks ago, but her scent is probably still strong enough for a fur’s nose to pick up.”

Requesting Commander Silpurr’s presence in his dayroom, they waited for the admiral’s first officer and mate to arrive.

Rosepetal gave Neal a curious stare as she reported to Boyce, but a signal from him kept her from saying anything. He then handed her the letter. After reading it, she smelled it. She then held out her hand and said, “Tess…” A sealed clear bag materialized with a piece of fabric in it. Opening the bag, Rosepetal placed her nose over it, then inhaled as she gave the bag a squeeze. She smiled at Neal’s puzzled look. “Zhane’s note suggested that she had hidden a stronger hint on how she felt about you. I am curious though, as to who or what a ‘Tess’ is.”

Neal gave a small sigh. “Tess is the Folly’s main computer. With everyone I have onboard, I had changed her security protocols to just inform me of what she thinks I need to know. Looks like I’ll be having a little talk to her about that later.”

Boyce chuckled. “You mean you’re not ‘all knowing’?”

Neal’s sigh was closer to a groan this time. “I’ve never been ‘all knowing’, though with Tess to help ferret out, process, and remember information for me, I guess it could look that way at times.” Then looking at Rosepetal, he asked, “Just what was the deal with what appears to be one of my shirts anyway?”

Rosepetal smiled. “I take it you didn’t cheat and read her letter?” At Neal’s head shake, she said, “Zhane’s note only told me that Tess would know what I wanted. She told me to just hold out my hand and say ‘Tess’, and she would give it to me.”

Looking back to Boyce, Neal asked, “So do you now believe the letter is real?”

Boyce opened his mouth to reply but was cut off by a tone from Neal’s comm badge. It seemed someone needed to talk to him. “Sorry to bother you, Captain,” Moonglow was saying, “but I have someone trying to claw hir way through the hull to get at hir father.” The sound of Firestorm’s crying was easily heard over the open comm link.

Neal said. “Tess, beam hir over please.”

Boyce and Rosepetal watched in amazement as a very tiny and very loudly crying chakat cub appeared on the deck, moving at a fast six-limbed crawl. “How –?” she started to say before Boyce signaled for her to stop; he too had noticed that their ship and crew had not reacted to the unauthorized transport – and that this wasn’t the first time.

Firestorm hit Neal’s shoe and started climbing his leg. Neal bent over, and gently got hir tiny claws out of his pants leg. Holding the now semi-quiet infant, he looked to his hosts. “Sorry for the interruption, but Stormy here always seems to know when I’m trying to go somewhere without hir.”

Rosepetal stepped forward to stroke the now quiet kitten. “Captain Zhane’s note didn’t mention any baby chakats.”

Neal’s smile softened a bit. “Firestorm joined us after our little meeting with Captain Zhane.”

A very pregnant black-furred chakat dressed in a Security officer’s uniform burst unannounced into the room, having sensed an unknown chakat cub broadcasting distress. Security Chief Midnight stopped warily, staring at the now calm tiny cub and the stranger to hir ship who held hir in his hands.

Boyce caught Midnight’s eye and nodded, causing hir to relax a bit, though shi didn’t lower hir guard. He then stepped towards Neal. “May I?” he asked, holding out his hands.

Neal nodded. “When shi starts to get upset, just hand hir back to me.”

Holding the tiny cub, Boyce frowned. “Why would you assume that I will upset hir?”

“Not just you, Admiral. As you heard on the comm, even my chakat wet nurse can’t calm hir if shi’s wanting me.” At their confused looks he added, “Shi seems to have bonded with me at birth.”

They were all staring at him now, Midnight demanding, “Why would a chakat cub bond with you, and not hir parents?”

“When they are dead,” Neal quietly said.

Firestorm was already trying to climb out of Boyce’s hands. As he carefully handed hir back to Neal, he said, “Explain.”

Looking down as he gave Firestorm a little cuddling to settle hir back down again, Neal sighed. “There was a Humans First attack at the New Kiev spaceport a couple of weeks ago. Over a dozen furs were killed; a lot more were injured. After I helped take out the Humans First types, I was rendering aid to those furs that I could. I passed the remains of a pair of taurs, their upper torsos shot all to hell. When I tried to walk past them, it was like something was pulling at me, that and I was suddenly feeling short of breath. I looked again but, as before, there was nothing I could do for them, but again I found I couldn’t just walk away.” Looking at each of his hosts he continued. “One had been a chakat, the other a foxtaur vixen. The pulling feeling seemed to come from the vixen. When I placed my hand on her lower torso, I felt movement. At that moment, her unborn child still lived, but with hir mother dead shi was quickly running out of oxygen.”

Looking a little grim, Boyce asked, “You cut hir out of hir dying mother?”

“No,” Neal slowly said, “I cut hir out of hir dead mother. My only other option was to stand there and let hir die as well.”

“That must have been a hard thing to do,” Rosepetal quietly said, giving Neal’s arm a gentle squeeze as she reached out to stroke the tiny kitten.

“I don’t really remember the cutting part all that well, but I do remember holding hir up by the tail, letting the fluids drain from hir airways,” Neal said, looking down at her. “I was more or less running on autopilot by then, reacting to whatever hit me next. Tess has recordings of the events. I’ve been trying to use them to help fill the gaps in my memory, but it’s not an easy or pleasant task.”

“I would like to see those recordings,” Boyce said.

“No, you wouldn’t,” Neal sternly told him, then he sighed again. “View at your own risk. I strongly suggest you not have anything in your stomach.”

Changing the subject, Boyce asked, “So, was there anything else besides testing our sensors, and letting us know about our missing cruiser?”

Glad for the subject change, Neal smiled. “Well there are a few things I can help you with, and as it turns out there are some things I could use your help with.”

At Boyce’s raised eyebrow, Neal grinned. “In pointing me in your direction, Captain Zhane said something about you guys being rushed out on this ‘hunt’ without being able to properly re-supply first. I may have a few things you could use. If I remember correctly, she said something about this particular ship not running on anti-matter, that it ran on something called, oh what was it…? Ah, I remember, she claimed this particular ship – or at least her captain – was fueled primarily by Chipinge coffee.”

The look on Boyce’s face was classic. Rosepetal failed trying to hold back her chuff of laughter. “He’s been out for weeks, and there’s been no living with him!”

Neal laughed with her. “Then I can help, I have half a container of the stuff, I’m sure we can agree on a price, say 5 grams of anti-matter per coffee bean?” Rosepetal broke up again at the look on her mate’s face. Neal chuckled. “Just kidding, but I did bring you some other little ‘things’ that you may find useful.” Tapping his comm badge, he said, “Tess, are they ready?”

“Waiting on your command, Boss.”

Neal smiled at the confusion on his hosts’ faces. “Tell them that they are free to launch. Just a couple of Star Fleet fighters I found lying about,” he casually informed his hosts.

Shoved out and then ‘thrown’ by some of Tess’ tractor beams, sixteen fighters erupted from the Folly’s pods and quickly passed over and under the Pegasus. They then paired up and went off in different directions to form a search pattern. The comm unit on Boyce’s desk chimed, as warning lights and alarms indicated that his ship was now at yellow alert.

Giving Neal a dirty look, Boyce stepped over to his desk. Pressing the ‘all hail’ he said, “This is the captain. Stand down from yellow alert at this time.” Tapping another key he said, “Kline to bridge; Sensors, where did those fighters come from?”

“Broadtock, Sir. They just appeared as if they’d been behind some type of cloak. Permission to go active, Sir?”

“Denied for the present,” Boyce replied. “Are passive scans showing anything else in that area now?”

“Nothing, Sir – even with the sensitivity dialed all the way up.”

“If you’d like, I can help you with that,” Neal quietly said. “Oh, and you might want to warn them not to panic – or I’ll have you at red alert in a moment,” he added with a grin at them.

“Bridge, do not change readiness states for the next few minutes,” Boyce told them.

“Shift watch, Lieutenant Satcrit copies, Admiral. Does this mean you expect things to get even stranger?”

“What gives you that idea, Lieutenant?” Boyce asked.

“How did you know they were fighters, Sir?” Satcrit countered.

Boyce just shook his head and muted his side of the link before looking back at Neal.

“Okay, Tess, open the forward hangar bay doors and make sure everyone’s ready.”

“They’re ready, willing and able, Boss,” Tess reported, having rotated the Folly so that the main hatches were edge-on to the Pegasus to help make opening them harder to spot. Her tractor beams hauled the hatches out of the way before giving the pocket destroyers a shove – and the small carriers seconds later. They, in turn, moved to take up positions near the Pegasus.

Boyce had left the comm unit set to listen to his bridge. The noisy commotion caused by the magical ‘appearances’ of the larger ships was cut to dead silence when Neal said, “Okay, Tess, stop trying to hide.” After giving them a moment, he added, “And you might as well bring us into close docking range.”

Shaking his head at the now growing dot that was quickly turning into a rather odd looking freighter, Boyce keyed the intercom asked, “Bridge, just how close was that ship hiding from us?”

“Two hundred kilometers, Sir. Point blank range.”

Turning back to Neal he said, “I take it this isn’t the first time you’ve moved Star Fleet craft?”

“No,” Neal said with a smile. “The first time was a rescue, one of your small carriers had chased down a pirate, only to find the pirate had been bait for a trap. When I found them, the carrier was a floating wreck. Only one of the fighters was in any condition to fly, much less fight. We were able to find the remains of all but two of the fighters; three of the pilots were somehow still alive in the wreckage. Most of the time the Folly just plays postman, delivering things where they’re needed. Twice before she’s been quietly used as a carrier. Six of her current pods are set up to hold up to eighteen fighters each. Other pods can hold forward supply points and spare fighters.”

“And you were in command?” Rosepetal asked.

“The first time, yes and no,” Neal replied. “I could veto any launch if I thought it would put my Folly at too much risk, and I could only ‘suggest’ what the fighters should do. Their wing commanders could override me once they were launched.”

“Did they override you?” Rosepetal asked.

“Only the first three times. The first time, they sent everything they had after one lone pirate. Their reasoning being the Folly couldn’t possibly see far enough to tell if the pirate had friends or not. The next two, I had to bail them out. Again, they didn’t trust what I told them the Folly could see, and they ended up biting off a bit more than they could chew.”

Looking at one of the Folly’s viewports, now a mere forty meters from his own, Boyce could see two youths, a foxtaur and a chakat, staring in fascination at his ship. When they finally noticed him, they waved. Waving back, Boyce asked, “And just how did you ‘bail’ them out? Is your ship armed?”

“Define ‘armed’,” Neal said with a grin, as he again keyed his comm badge. “Tess, please park a baby Zulu where we can see it.”

Moments later, one of the small scouts floated between the windows.

As Boyce, Midnight and Rosepetal examined it, Neal explained, “While I don’t have any craft with phasers or missiles, I can use some of them as weapons if needed. The baby Zulu before you is a scout, but it is fast enough to chase down and ram most other ships. The larger Zulus have transporters that can get through what most pirates have for shields; I can either remove parts to disable a ship or beam in a little anti-matter if I think it’s a better option.”

After letting them look at the baby Zulu for a minute, Neal said, “Tess, send it and the other babies out to help scout the area. Let our little fleet scout for a shift and then we’ll button them back up.” Giving Boyce a small shrug he added, “My scouts actually have better scanner range and are harder to detect – which you might have guessed if you’d managed to pick them up while we hunted for you.”

As the scout left, Rosepetal turned from the window. “And the second time?” she asked.

“The second time, I was in full control.” At her raised eyebrow, Neal smiled. “I simply told them that if they wanted to play with my toys, it would be by my rules. The only pilot dumb enough to argue the point found himself dropped off at a starbase we were passing. His craft was given to one of the spare pilots to fly.”

Boyce shook his head. “So you’re going to reinforce us, resupply us and scout for us? And just what were you looking for in return?”

Neal smiled. “Star Fleet wanted those other craft out hunting pirates, so if my scouting doesn’t turn up anything, I’ll just load them up again, and continue the search. As for resupply, I’ve quietly done that for passing Star Fleet vessels often enough to know off the top of my head which forms I need to fill out to get paid. The main thing I could use from you will be a little medical assistance.” At the look of concern from all his hosts, he continued, “The fourteen Rakshani I have with me were starved and badly dehydrated for over five weeks, the tests Zhane’s doctors did suggests they will all most likely be dead in a year or less. Due to an incident at New Kiev, I was forced to try something a bit unorthodox to keep one of them from dying on me. Depending on what your doctors can tell me, it may help save the rest of them as well. I was going to wait until we got them home to Raksha, but Tess’ latest scans are suggesting that they may not have as much time as we’d originally thought.”

“When did you want to start?” Boyce asked. “I can have our medical teams ready in a few minutes if needed.”

Neal shook his head. “No. I know for both of our ships it’s well after the main watch, and the Rakshani are probably already worn out. Let’s get the testing started in the ‘morning’, which will also give your quartermaster time to make a list of what else you all might need.” Seeing Boyce opening his mouth, Neal added, “Besides your dang coffee!” Which started Rosepetal laughing again.

Boyce had his security chief escort Neal to the ship’s quartermaster before turning to his first officer and firstwife. “And what did my secondwife’s scent tell you?” he asked.

“Wariness, anger, a taste of fear and maybe just a touch of respect, Husband,” Rosepetal replied, all humor gone from her voice. “None of which I can blame her for if he played on her any of the games he has already played on us.”

“He does seem to have a few interesting tricks up his sleeve,” Boyce agreed. “I’m going to have a little chat with our lab people and see if they can’t figure out his transporter and sensor tricks. It might also be an idea to invite this Captain Foster and his crew over for dinner and get to know them a bit better.”

* * *

Suzan was a little annoyed when Neal informed her they would all be dining on the Pegasus, but was cheered up a bit when Neal promised she would get a chance to show off her culinary skills some other evening.

They had no sooner walked into the dining area than Suzan had made a beeline for their galley. Neal only noticed it because he had seen how Midnight had quickly caught her by the arm and had spoken to her for a moment before letting Suzan continue her journey. At Neal’s raised eyebrow, Midnight simply told him that they were still breaking in their galley help.

They found the food to be every bit as good as some of Suzan’s creations. This led to a meal-long debate of which was better, the kids having to set their loyalties aside and judge the food on its own merits.

Four nearly identical looking blonde-haired male gray rabbits had served the meal and had been ecstatic when the kids had favorably compared their cooking to Suzan’s. Suzan had then come out to serve the after-dinner drinks. The younger kids were served their hot chocolate first, then half the teens joined Neal and Weaver in trying the mild tea that was offered. The open coffee container on the cart smelled like something someone had left on the back burner over the weekend. Boyce and the other coffee drinkers had quickly flipped their cups upside-down to indicate they were not at all interested. Neal was about to ask Suzan what had happened when he caught her wink. She capped the nasty smelling sludge and then picked up one of the overturned cups before filling it from a sealed carafe. The furs picked up on the new scent before Boyce and Neal did. Neal tried and failed to hide his grin as Boyce stared in disbelief at his coffee cup, the rich aroma of the Chipinge coffee almost bringing tears to his eyes. Boyce gave Neal a dirty look as he tried a sip.

Neal laughed and shook his head. “Don’t give me that look. She didn’t advise me ahead of time either.”

After dinner, Rosepetal offered to give them a tour of the Pegasus. Dr M’Lai, a near Rakshani-sized Caitian – and it turned out another of the admiral’s wives – offered to take the Rakshani off Neal’s hands for the night. With the relocation and basic scans done while they rested, they could start first thing in the morning.

* * *

More than one of the Pegasus’ doctors was in for a little shock the next morning. Neal was not at all interested in the information they had on the thirteen Rakshani at risk; he only wanted the status of Dessa.

Dr Kelly, the Pegasus’s Chief Medical Officer, was trying to tell Neal for the third time just how bad Zhanch’s condition was getting when Neal grabbed the PADD from her hand and tossed it at a nearby table.

When she opened her mouth, Neal cut her off. “Doctor, the only thing I want to hear out of you is what, if anything, is wrong with Dessa. Everything else can wait.”

“She’s not the one you should be concerned about!” Dr Kelly angrily snapped at him.

“Doctor,” Neal said again, speaking sternly but slowly as if to a stubborn child, “just over two weeks ago, Dessa was in the exact same shape the others are in now.” Neal raised his hand to cut off the doctor’s interruption. “She was then hit by phaser fire, severing her leg and doing severe damage to her torso. Needless to say, we tried something more than a little unorthodox to save her life. My only question is her status. If she is fine, then I can risk trying it on the others. If there’s anything at all wrong with her, I could be moving them from the frying pan into the fire.”

The doctor’s mouth had hung open since Neal had said ‘phaser fire’, her mind having problems wrapping itself around the idea that anyone already in such poor health would have survived the shot, much less having been treatable.

M’Lai stepped forward to bail out her superior. “As per your request, Sir, Dessa received the full battery of tests. While she still thinks she has a few coordination issues, she appears to be in perfect physical condition.”

Neal nodded, “Thank you, Doctor, that’s what I needed.” Turning to the other Rakshani, he took the time to make eye contact with each of them. “While I can’t guarantee that any of you will survive the process, I can and will offer it to you.”

Having recovered from her surprise, Dr Kelly asked, “What are the risks?”

“It’s basically Russian roulette. They spin the prayer wheels of whichever deity they believe in, they either come out as Dessa did, or they don’t come out at all.”

“And the odds?” Zhanch asked.

“I’ve lost seven furs: three chakats, two foxtaurs, one wolftaur, and a skunktaur.”

“Seven – out of how many?”

“Tess?”

“Fifty-two hundred and fifty-eight, counting Dessa.”

“How many were Rakshani?”

“Dessa is the one and only so far.”

Meeting the glances of her troops, Zhanch said, “We like the odds. Why did you wait so long to make the offer?”

“Two reasons: to make sure Dessa wasn’t a false hope, and to have medical assistance on hand if and when we needed it.” At Zhanch’s raised eyebrow, Neal added, “The Folly’s current active sickbay can only handle one or two of you at a time. The Pegasus, on the other hand, can handle all thirteen of you in one go. Plus, if there is a problem, you’ll have real doctors ready to help, instead of just me making my best guess as to what to try next. A third reason if you need one is that Dessa was stuck with just Tess and the teens getting her back in control of herself, whereas the rest of you will have Pegasus’ staff helping you get re-started.”

“I would like to see how Tess started Dessa’s retraining,” M’Lai requested. “The better for us to know what else to expect.”

With the Rakshani bedded down, Neal gave the doctors their instructions. Two trauma teams would be active while the Rakshani were being processed. One would hook the processed fur to the systems that would maintain their breathing and heartbeat before adding the sleep inducers and restraining them, the other would stand ready in case there were any other problems while the first team was busy. The teams would then trade off duties on the next patient.

Zhanch went first, ten minutes later she reappeared on the bed. The trauma team took a moment to get moving, such was their surprise at what they got back. Zhanch was thirteen centimeters taller and over eighty kilos heavier. That and her going from near death’s door to what appeared to be healthy early adulthood caused them to doubt that this was actually the same individual.

Kestrel was the last one processed. When she reappeared, Neal heaved a small sigh of relief. At the curious looks from the doctors, he smiled. “At least I don’t have to tell the kids we lost any of them. In an hour, you should be able to stand your crews down to just a couple people to monitor them. Leave the sleep inducers on until morning. It seems to be beneficial to give their minds more time to integrate with their rebuilt brains.”

Boyce had come to watch the last of the Rakshani be processed. He frowned at Neal as he asked, “And you’re certain that you can’t teach us that little trick?”

Neal frowned back as he replied, “Are you telling me you think any of your transporters could handle a full power demand lasting ten minutes? I used a different one for each of them and I won’t be surprised if several of them need recalibration tweaks after this little stunt.”

“But you did it anyway,” Boyce pointed out.

Neal watched as the medical team finished up with Kestrel and her bed joined the ranks of her sister Marines. “It isn’t what will I do, but what I won’t do to save a life, Admiral. In as bad of shape as they were, they were still willing to fight at my side. The very least I can do is put a little wear and tear on my equipment.”

The next morning found the Rakshani in seemingly good spirits, despite the fact they not only couldn’t see straight, and their speech was impossibly slurred, but they were flopping around in their restraints like fish out of water.

“That’s what I looked like?” Dessa had asked, half in horror and half in fascination.

“More or less,” Mike admitted. “But you did get better.”

“And I still have a ways to go,” Dessa told him. “As will they.”

 

 


 

Too Many Secrets

 

“I’m sorry, Commander, we are still unable to get any reliable readings on anything in those areas he has in stasis. I’ve seen a few similar setups, but never of anything that size and there’s something odd about the stasis fields and how he’s using them.”

Commander Rosepetal Silpurr, first officer of the Pegasus frowned. It was all well and good that Captain Foster seemed to be a fairly pleasant and mostly helpful type, but she didn’t like mysteries. Her mate had often joked that she was too curious – even for a Caitian – but there was just too much ‘strange’ to this Folly and her captain for her to ignore.

Her frown deepened as she considered that they hadn’t even been able to passively detect the large freighter until Neal had ‘allowed’ them to, and even now it was difficult for Pegasus to detect the other ships they’d watched tuck themselves back into the forward sphere with her active scans. “Can you up the power to your sweeps?” she asked her scanner tech.

“I’ve been increasing it each sweep, Commander; any higher and we will start blistering their paint at this range.”

“What is he hiding in there? And how?” she half snarled.

Softly – but not so softly that she couldn’t hear – the sensor tech muttered, “You’re just going to have to go over and ask them.”

* * *

“Have I done something to upset you or your crew?” Neal was asking Boyce over the comms a short time later.

“Not to my knowledge, why?” Boyce replied with a frown as Neal seemed to have somehow managed to bypass his communications officer when placing his call.

“Well, a little while ago it seemed like someone over there wanted the part numbers off each and every bolt holding my ship together, and now Tess tells me your ship seems to be preparing an away team – one with plenty of well-armed security types.”

“Huh,” Boyce muttered. “News to me. And you could see all that from over there?”

“I was starting to wonder if your active scans were to try blinding my passive ones,” Neal admitted. “They seemed to be ignoring my pods full of perishables and mainly focusing on some of the areas of the second sphere that I have set in long term stasis.”

“Ah, and neither my first officer nor my head of security likes not knowing what you might be hiding,” Boyce acknowledged.

“You think they’ve decided to force the issue?”

“That would be my read on it,” Boyce agreed. “They probably aren’t telling me for deniability in case I end up having to apologize to you for whatever they’re about to do. Is this going to pose a problem for you?”

“It’s going to ruin a few things I was hoping not to; though I guess it was only a matter of time before someone in Star Fleet ‘insisted’ on seeing what all I might be hiding on this little ship of mine,” Neal admitted. “What the hell, my kids have been begging to see what’s in there since day one. Perhaps between us, we can limit the damage done.”

“So you’re not going to raise a fuss?”

“No, you’re welcome to come along – in fact you can bring your daughters and whoever else you like.”

“You think we have the time?”

“All indications suggest your bunch is still in the early planning stages of their pre-raid briefing,” Neal told him.

“I am starting to understand how people underestimate you, Captain Foster.”

“Trust me, Admiral, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Neal replied with an evil smile.

Boyce nodded and dropped the connection so he could go join his wives.

Neal leaned back in his chair before saying, “Let the kids know.”

“Already done, Boss, and the big kids too.”

* * *

Commander Silpurr was more than a little surprised when the briefing room door slid open to her mate leading their Caitian daughter Kayla, who in turn was carrying Midnight’s chakat cub Ember.

“Admiral?” she half asked as the others stood.

“This unofficial raid is hereby canceled,” Boyce told her. Looking at the rest of the room he added, “Dismissed.”

He waited until he, Rosepetal, Kayla, Ember and Midnight were the only ones in the room before saying, “Captain Foster kindly advised me that you were planning a little surprise visit.”

“How could he –” Rosepetal started.

“Yeah,” Boyce agreed. “Good thing he wasn’t too upset about it.”

“So, what happens now?” Midnight asked.

“So instead of an armed raid we are going to have a little family outing,” Boyce told them. “After we collect M’Lai, we will all head over to the Folly.”

As the others filed out of the room, Midnight looked towards one of the corners of the room and nodded.

And they didn’t even need to board a shuttle or transport over, Captain Foster having thoughtfully re-run out a boarding tube that had previously attached itself to one of the Pegasus’ airlocks. Midnight had quickly seen to a security watch, who now braced to attention as their captain approached.

The first to step into the tube, Boyce had stumbled momentarily; he hadn’t been expecting the tube to have its own artificial gravity.

As they approached the open airlock on the far side, Chakat Shadowchaser saluted for the Star Fleet security team already in place on the Folly side.

Boyce returned the salute. “Permission to come aboard?” he asked.

“Permission granted, Admiral. Captain Foster is expecting you and your party,” Shadowchaser told them.

“Does he always make idle work for Star Fleet personnel?” Commander Silpurr wondered.

“Sometimes,” Shadowchaser agreed. “In this case, he thought it’d be more polite to have someone in the fur greet you rather than just having Tess direct you with her flashing lights.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t just assign some of his crew to the task – or come himself,” Commander Silpurr commented.

“Rose,” Boyce quietly muttered.

Ignoring the byplay, Shadowchaser smiled as shi said, “He had trouble getting any volunteers this time around, as I understand they’ve been bugging him about what might be hidden in those sections much longer than you have.”

“And you already know what we’re going to see?” Doctor M’Lai asked.

“Well, I know what should be in there, but every time he’s done this he’s had a little something new he’s added to impress those that come to pay him a visit.”

Their short walk had taken them deeper into the Folly. Passageways led away to either side, but ahead of them, a large sealed hatch kept them from going forward. Neal stood to one side with the tiny Firestorm clinging to one of his arms as he watched a display. What appeared to be his entire crew was waiting with different levels of patience behind him. To the other side of the large hatch leaned the rejuvenated Dessa, she too wishing to see what all was going on.

“Almost ready for you,” Neal told Boyce as they approached. “I just have to make sure everything’s set up and ready for the changeover.”

“Stage two complete, Boss,” Tess informed them.

“Go ahead and start cracking the seals,” Neal told her.

There were several loud clacking noises as the locks holding the hatch closed were released and the sections of the hatch began to move. Molding dropped into place as the hatch receded, hiding and sealing the small gaps momentarily exposed. Before them was the semi-mirrored blur of a very high-powered, multi-layered stasis field.

“No wonder we couldn’t get past it,” Rosepetal muttered. “But why go through all that effort?”

“Maybe we’ll find out,” her husband quietly told her.

“Power ready, Boss.”

“Start dropping the main fields,” Neal told her.

In stages, the blur before them became less mirrored and darker before disappearing altogether, leaving them staring down a long dark passageway. This lasted only a moment before lights began to come on.

From the still darkness came a screech and what sounded like the hard flapping of leathery wings.

“Damnit!” Neal muttered as he and everyone else ducked to avoid the meter and a half of wingspan as a very upset Rakshan bird of prey made a hard bank to go down one of the other corridors. “Tess, try not to hurt it getting it back where it belongs.”

“Aye, Boss. Be advised that there’s about a dozen other critters that the closing team warned us weren’t where they were supposed to be.”

“Which was one of the reasons I didn’t want to open this section until I had all the gardeners and zookeepers on board,” Neal admitted. “Oh well, on with the show,” he said as he led them down the now fully lit passageway.

The passage went on only another dozen meters or so before opening up into a wide concourse lined with trees from several planets, smaller paths led elsewhere with bushes and strips of ground cover. To one side a small cascading waterfall was just starting to flow as they felt the first puffs of a breeze. Small stands and buildings dotted the grounds – as did dozens of things still hidden in stasis fields.

“And these?” Midnight asked.

“Things I’d like to not disturb or destroy,” Neal told hir. “Go ahead,” he suggested with a shrug. “Pick one.”

“That one,” shi said and Tess dropped the field to reveal an old Earth cherry tree in full bloom. Then there was a flapping of wings as half a dozen small red and brown birds took off.

“That particular tree had some cardinals nesting in it,” Neal told them, Tess having told him what was where. “Hopefully the adults will return or we’ll lose the eggs they were going to hatch for us.”

“What startled them?” Boyce wondered.

“Well, to try to close everything down with most of the critters at home, they waited until the middle of their night cycle to place them in stasis. So for those birds it just went from the blackest of night to the brightest of day in an instant,” Neal commented. “For some reason, I didn’t think your curious cats were going to let us wait twelve hours for a new day to come around.”

Rosepetal frowned at the insinuation but walked over to another stasis field. “This one,” she didn’t quite demand.

Neal let out a small snort before saying, “You just had to pick that one …”

“Father?” Shadowchaser asked, not liking the feelings shi was getting off of him.

“This is one of those items that will be destroyed rather than just disturbed,” he told hir while pretending to ignore the looks of surprise their guests were giving them. “I guess it’s only appropriate that it will be done by someone from Cait.”

“Neal …” Boyce said with a warning tone, only to have Neal wave it off.

“You and yours are in no danger, Admiral, I just had high hopes for this one surviving. Tess?” he said as he turned to face the stasis field in question.

“Sorry, Boss,” Tess replied before the field shifted twice before finally dropping – it having been behind a much heavier and more complex field than what had protected Midnight’s choice.

A spicy but dry scent seemed to instantly surround them as dark red leaves shifted in the sudden light, showing and then hiding hundreds of fist-sized objects that looked a bit like smooth Earth pine cones, whose colors went from dark orange to bright yellow with nearly white tips.

While most looked at the tree with differing levels of curiosity, Boyce’s two Caitian mates were staring at it in shock. M’Lai was the first to find her tongue.

“That looks and smells like a Diamond Fire Bush – but I’ve never heard of one growing that large and they can’t be grown off Cait!” she told them.

“They can be grown off Cait, just not very well – the dang things are very finicky,” Neal replied. “Some genetic tinkering by a lab I know made these slightly more tolerant – a side effect is the size – but it still requires a team of specialists to keep one alive, a team I don’t happen to have on hand at the moment …”

“So it’s going to die?” Kayla softly asked from where she stood next to her mother.

“Most likely I’m afraid,” Neal agreed. “The instructions I have to bring them out of stasis say it needs to be done slowly and gradually over a three day period. No matter what I do to this one now, it’s most likely had too much of a shock to its system.”

“Anything else our curiosity will kill?” Boyce dryly asked.

Neal opened his mouth to reply but a screech of a happy predator was heard as the Rakshan bird returned carrying something in its claws.

“I’m dropping the field she should have been in,” Tess reported.

“What did you find for her to eat?” Neal asked.

“Half a raw chicken – warmed to body temperature,” Tess replied. “The notes say they don’t have any problems consuming Earth fowl.”

Neal nodded before saying, “To answer your question, Admiral, I had samples of different home-world plants at each main docking point, so if your mates insist on seeing each and every single thing in here we have seven more to kill.”

“You could have told us,” Midnight half snarled at him for upsetting hir co-mates.

“No,” Neal replied, “I couldn’t have. Had I told you what was in there, your co-mates would have informed you that I must be lying – after all, they know these things can’t be grown off Cait.”

“Your hungry critter is now contained, Boss,” Tess cut in. “Nothing else of any real danger is still loose.”

“So,” Weaver said into the uneasy silence between guests and host, “Is the rest of this place safe for us to explore so long as we leave the stasis fields alone?”

Neal made a throwaway gesture as he said, “I’ll give you guys a couple of hours to explore and then we’ll lock it back down.”

Kayla was still looking forlorn at the Diamond Fire Bush; Neal noticed and let out a slight sigh. Forcing a small smile, he quietly asked, “Tess, from what the research teams gave us; which would cause it the least additional harm, one large injury or many smaller ones?”

“It depends on the severity and frequency. What are you thinking of, Boss?”

“A bulb or more for those that want them, and whether it would be better just to cut off a small branch of them.”

“If we’re not waiting for them to blossom, then you’d have to cut into the branch to remove each of them anyway,” Tess told him. “The notes say that these should be just days from blooming, so it should work.”

“Would you like one?” he asked Kayla.

“I can have one?” she asked in surprise.

“I’m a little annoyed at your mother – not at you,” he told her – earning another glare from said mother. “How many would you like?”

“How many are you trimming?” M’Lai asked.

“Since they have yet to bloom, Tess tells me we’ll do the plant less additional harm by taking an entire branch rather than just snipping a bulb at a time, so we’ll see about picking a branch with enough bulbs for everyone.”

“I’d like one if I may,” M’Lai admitted.

“Take two in case the one doesn’t open,” Neal suggested.

Kayla appeared to have been mentally counting before saying, “Can I have a dozen of them?”

“A dozen Earth or Cait?” Neal joked. “How about seventeen Cait in case a few of them fail to open?” he offered.

Rosepetal frowned but said nothing.

As the others split up to look around, Boyce followed Neal.

“You could have told us,” he said once they were out of hearing of the others.

“No,” Neal replied. “It would have just made things worse if she’d known. This way they can see it as my fault for not telling her.”

“They mean well.”

“I know, but I did a little checking on you. You’ve always been an engineer at heart.”

“And?”

“You tell me. Having seen just the toys I’ve shown you so far, and if I’d had harbored any ill intentions; how hard do you think it would have been for me to have hit the Pegasus before you’d even had any clue that you were in danger?”

Boyce frowned as he said, “I’ll admit I didn’t like how easily you snuck up on us. Though if you were thinking of attacking, you’ve missed your best opportunity.”

“Now if we could just convince your security-conscious wives that, if I really was a bad guy, I’d already have taken you out?”

“I think what alarms them is that you still could …”

Neal snorted. “Star Fleet has its own warts; heck, that’s why we’re both out here; but I know how badly we need it. I’m only one guy, no matter how good my ship and my connections, I can’t make that much of a dent in the pirate activity – much less everything else going on.”

“And then there’s that cruiser,” Boyce commented.

“And then there’s that cruiser,” Neal agreed. “None of my contacts has seen any trace of it, so I have to wonder where they’re getting refueled, remanned and maintained.”

“Just how good are your ‘contacts’?” Boyce asked.

“Good enough to worry me,” Neal admitted. “There’s no way they could run for any extended period of time without restocking and refit. And I can’t imagine they’d be able to bluff or otherwise trick a starbase when most – if not all – of the assigned command crew aren’t to be seen.”

“So, a secret base somewhere.”

“One that has or can get all the parts they need to keep it going. What concerns me is that they thought it worth stealing, knowing it will at some point be missed – and then hunted.”

Watching his wives follow his kids deeper into what looked like a small town, Boyce commented, “The frowns I’m seeing suggests you haven’t gotten my first officer or security chief off your back just yet. I could put my foot down, but I fear that would simply come back to bite us later.”

“Are you saying you don’t share their fears?” Neal asked curiously.

“No,” Boyce replied. “You may be a bit on the crazy side, but somehow I don’t picture you as a threat to us.”

“Now all we have to do is convince them,” Neal agreed. “Sometimes the only way to reach something is to push past it and then come back around.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning maybe someone else pointing out that I’m actually much more dangerous than either of them has ever dreamt of might force them to reconsider.”

“And you have someone you think they’d believe?” Boyce asked. “I can tell you right now your mate and kids aren’t going to cut it.”

“How about a couple of Star Fleet types?” Neal replied. “People that have been on the pointed end of the stick and survived to tell the tale?”

“Maybe,” Boyce allowed. “Who?”

“Hmm, I was thinking for your security officer another chief of security who I’ve already locked horns with. For your first officer and firstwife, I think someone who has known me for over sixty years might just do the trick.”

“And who here has known you that long?”

“Your escort, and one of my adopted daughters,” Neal said nodding at the chakat that had directed them to Neal, “Lieutenant Commander Shadowchaser over there has had me tying hir tail in knots ever since it grew long enough to be tied into a knot.”

“And you think they’ll be able to get my wives to back off.”

“They’ve both seen me in ‘dangerous’ mode, and they’ve both somehow survived the results.”

“It’s worth a shot I guess. When do you want to do this?”

“Now’s as good of a time as any. Tess, see if Krackin is available if you would please?”

“Aye, Boss, shi was just leaving the holosuite, and I’m letting Chase know you want hir help with this too.”

“You sure about this, Dad? You know I won’t do any half-assed job of it,” Shadowchaser warned him as shi joined him and Boyce.

“I know,” Neal agreed. “That’s why I think you’d be the best one to convince Boyce’s firstwife that she can and should trust me.”

“I don’t know, Dad, I don’t think there are too many people as crazy as you for them to compare or understand.”

“Do your best, if it doesn’t work I’ll try something else.”

“If they knew you a tenth as well as I do that right there would scare the hell out of them!” shi snickered at him before turning to chase down a Caitian to better rock her worldview.

Krackin picked that moment to enter the area. Shi looked around for a minute before strolling over to Neal. “Tess said you wanted me for something?” shi asked with a smirk.

“Admiral Kline’s chief of security doesn’t think they can or should trust me. As you have also been in that position, I thought you might be able to explain it to hir,” Neal said.

Krackin laughed. “I’m not sure I trust you just yet, Captain,” shi pointed out.

“But you’re willing to give it a try?” Neal asked.

“Sure, I’ll talk to hir – just don’t expect us to be finding any peace, love or understanding.”

Neal just smiled and waved hir towards where Midnight was trying to keep Ember out of things.

Boyce watched as the second prong of Neal’s counterattack headed for his fourthwife. “That didn’t sound very promising,” he pointed out.

“At least it will be honest,” Neal countered. “Sometimes that’s more important than the message or even the messenger.”

“What else didn’t you just tell me about hir?” Boyce half asked.

“Hmm?” Neal half replied. “Oh, Krackin? Just a mental bet on how long before your head of security figures out shi’s dealing with a chakamil …”

Boyce watched as Rosepetal and Midnight handed the kids off to M’Lai before heading off with Shadowchaser and Krackin. “You’re a braver man than I am.”

“Not braver,” Neal softly said, “only more devious. While they will be honest, you and I will do a little cheating.”

“What kind of cheating?”

“I won’t ask Tess to relay their words, merely the subject matters they pick – or would you like to be blindsided by whatever they happen to find?”

Boyce frowned. “And they’ll double team me too. Okay, how do we do this?”

Neal smiled. “Tess, which way are they heading?”

“The holosuites. Krackin is going to show Midnight the mess you ran into at New Kiev. Chase has been going through our records – I think shi’s going to show Rosepetal Parakit.”

“Ah … hell,” Neal half chuckled. “Yeah, those two should really wind them up.”

“That bad?” Boyce asked. “Shouldn’t you be trying to stop them?”

“No. Like the Diamond Fire Bush, not letting them know would just toughen their resolve against me. Come, you and I now have a date with a holosuite.”

As others spread out to look around, Chakat Dusk remained and watched as a couple of Tess’ remote tools rolled up. One was a machine made for clipping anything from grass and leaves to large branches, the other to carry away the branches and clippings.

“Tess, if nobody else claims them I want the leaves,” shi told the bot.

“I was going to trim one of the larger branches and clip and save the extra bulbs in stasis, may I ask what use you have for the leaves?” Tess replied.

“If I can dry them properly they will make a very spicy Caitian tea that, like the plants themselves, isn’t normally seen off Cait.”

“Any particular way I should trim the leaves?”

“Try not to cut the leaf itself and leave as much stem as possible,” Dusk told her.

“I’ll place them in one of the unused hydroponics labs so you can control the heat and humidity as they dry.”

“Thanks, Tess. Let me know when they’re ready,” Dusk replied as shi went to see what all the others were finding.

* * *

Nightsky had been looking around with the others, though shi was looking at the different shops and how they were arranged. Spotting the one shi thought was in the best position shi said, “Tess, unless he’s got other plans for it, that one’s mine.”

“Your what?” Dusk asked as shi looked around.

“That shop is perfectly placed for a lot of foot traffic and I could sell my silk top designs.”

“You really think you’re going to have time to play storekeeper?” Weaver teased, knowing how much of a workload most of the kids were trying to prove they could handle.

“When I’m off duty,” Nightsky told her. “We’ll need to find out when he’s bringing in his gardeners and such, but I’m willing to bet that by the time he reopens this area we should all be fairly well trained on our ship duties. Besides, he’ll have too much else going on to worry about what we might be getting into!”

“If we’re still around when it’s open. This is all just a station that he’s leaving somewhere,” Weaver reminded the teen.

“I still have this feeling we’ll get a chance to help break it in,” Nightsky said with a grin.

* * *

While Weaver and the others explored, three pairs sought deeper levels of understanding. Not knowing what details the others might be going into, Neal simply allowed Boyce to watch Tess’ recordings of the events, answering any questions as they came up.

Boyce’s engineering side got a workout peeling back the layers of seemingly magic Neal had performed on Parakit, and his stomach’s constitution at New Kiev, Neal’s rescue of Firestorm being almost rougher for him than the bloodbath that had preceded it. Not knowing what the others would see, Neal had included the little scene at the hospital, as well as him bidding a rather permanent farewell to the head of the Brinkly sect and their circle of nine.

Moonglow had joined them when Firestorm had needed feeding, staying to watch what Neal was showing Boyce, carefully watching and gauging their emotions as the past events unfolded before them.

As Tess had warned Weaver, reliving certain events were putting Neal in a black mood – one which he had to fight to keep from upsetting Firestorm. Moonglow did what shi could to shield the kitten from hir adopted father’s emotions, but shi stopped trying to calm Neal after the first signs that he was fighting the manipulations. Though they had gone over both events, Neal and Boyce managed to finish up just before the others.

While not as good as Boyce at reading them, Neal guessed there was still anger directed his way from Rosepetal, and something like sorrow from Midnight.

“I hope everyone has enough food for thought to hold them for now,” Neal told them. “If you’ll excuse me I still have a crew to round up and a few things I need to lock down and place back in stasis.”

“Food is the last thing on my mind right now,” Midnight said as they watched Neal, Moonglow, Shadowchaser and Krackin head away from them.

“Husband, we need to talk,” Rosepetal told Boyce.

“I know,” Boyce replied. “While you two were being ‘fed’ he aimed a fire hose at me for a sip.” Catching Midnight’s eye he snorted before saying, “And this is an order: we will not try infiltrating the Folly again.”

“Again?” Rosepetal asked.

“Our security chief thought we might need a little extra security. Neal and Tess knew hir friendly ninja followed us in and that he then followed Neal and me once we all split up.”

Behind him, a shimmer in the air resolved into Midnight’s covert ops specialist, Hiro Senji in a stealth suit.

The black-footed ferret morph shook his head and said, “I realize now that it was Tess who tripped me coming onto the boarding tube – and then caught me before I could actually fall. She never prevented me from staying with you, Sir, but she made sure I knew that she could keep me from interfering with anything she wanted to do.”

Boyce nodded, “Tess made Senji visible to me once we were in the holosuite, though the way Neal paused at the different hatches suggests he was ‘seeing’ him the whole time. So, no more trying to ‘spy’ on them; if we want to know something we’ll just ask.”

“And if they lie to us?” Rosepetal countered.

“Will you lie to us, Tess?” Boyce asked the air.

“Why would I do that when the truth seems to be even more confusing to your mates?” they heard Tess’ cheerful reply.

“Will Neal lie to us?” Rosepetal demanded.

“All three ways,” Tess cheerfully agreed. “He’ll tell you the whoppers as well as half and whole truths.”

“How would a whole truth be a lie?” Midnight asked.

Tess remained silent.

* * *

“It’s only been two days,” Dessa pointed out, trying to calm the rather frantic Croix.

“Da odhers arrre ‘ll ‘oin’ ‘edder ‘an ‘is!” Croix cried out as she fought the bonds that were protecting her from herself.

“Everyone’s having a different rate of recovery, Croix, you just need to give yourself more time,” Dessa softly told her.

“She’s pushing herself too hard,” Cindy said. Most of the teens were spending their free time helping the processed Rakshani get their new selves back under control.

“Na ood ough!” Croix protested again.

“I think I may know why,” M’Lai told them as she finished checking on Zhanch’s progress. “According to her records, Croix here almost didn’t make it into Star Fleet because of a childhood head injury that left her unable to even walk for years after.”

“Aa od edder!” Croix tried to snarl at the doctor.

“Yes, you did,” M’Lai agreed, “and that may be what is hindering your recovery now. As Captain Foster explained it to us, your rebuilt body has a rebuilt brain, but it’s closer to what your natural brain would have been without the accident. Your mind is seeking those old paths it learned to use after the accident and not those you now have to work with.”

“How much extra time do you think she will need?” Cindy asked.

“We have no idea,” M’Lai admitted. “Her parents were in Star Fleet so I was able to review her records of the time and she amazed the doctors by relearning her motor control as quickly and completely as she did.”

“So you’ve done all this before,” Dessa told her unhappy fellow Marine. “And unlike my process, you’ve had this type of therapy and know it can take time.”

“And as Mike discovered with Dessa, trying to work on it while you’re frustrated is a waste of time,” Cindy told them. “So you’re done for the day.”

“Oo!”

“Yes,” Cindy countered. “You will relax – or we will help you relax.”

“Oo-oh,” Dessa muttered. “You’d better behave before she calls in the big guns.”

“Big guns? Do I even want to know?” M’Lai asked.

Dessa grinned. “Some of the Folly chakat teens will wrap her in a cuddle she won’t be able to escape and broadcast ‘calm and mellow’ at her until she’s as limp as a wet noodle. A night of it actually did me a lot of good.”

“And here they come,” Cindy chuckled as Calmmeadow, Roseberry and Dusk walked over.

Our kittens are done for the day; we understand you need some help with yours?” Dusk teased as Croix growled at them.

“I need her de-frustrated before we can continue,” Cindy told them.

“Ready, willing, and able,” Calmmeadow told her. “We just happen to know how to put over-sized kittens down for the night.”

“Yeah, by practicing on me,” Dessa muttered, but she was smiling as she said it.

* * *

Following the philosophy of keeping friends close – and possible enemies even closer – Commander Silpurr wished to continue keeping an eye on the Folly. While her admiral didn’t actually oppose the idea, there was the little matter of trying to hunt pirates with the freighter having such a very large and obvious escort.

On hearing of the issue, Neal had simply shrugged and shifted a dozen of his cargo pods around. A few prefabricated support and mounting brackets later and there was a place to ‘dock’ the Pegasus in among the pods on the corncob just aft of the second sphere.

A few adjustments to the Folly’s warp engines and Pegasus was easily contained in the slightly expanded warp bubble.

With twelve scouts and six Zulus adding to their scanner range, they could cover large sections of space in short periods of time.

When they came up on one of the Folly’s stops, Neal would drop off the Pegasus with six of her scouts to search the outlying areas. While at Folly’s stop, her remaining scouts checked the star system they were in. After each stop, the Pegasus would link back up with the Folly. Once in warp, anyone watching the space lanes would only see a very large freighter-sized ship making good time.

* * *

It was the morning four days after their little tour of the hidden bits of the Folly that Rosepetal opened the door to their bedroom and was hit with a strong scent of her native planet of Cait. In the center of the table, they normally had their meals on was a small low pot containing sandy soil with a freshly opened Diamond Fire Bush cone blooming in the middle of it.

She was so caught up in the sight and smell that it was a minute before she noticed that her daughter (who normally had to be dragged out of bed) was not only up early, but had already dressed, eaten, and was now watching her mother with a grin so large it looked like it should be painful.

“I thought that was for you,” she softly said in their native Ratarsk.

“I got it for us,” Kayla softly corrected her mother.

“It’s not going to grow,” Rosepetal warned her, indicating the pot.

“No,” her daughter agreed, “but it will keep longer this way.”

They were still enjoying the sight and fragrance when the others joined them.

* * *

Elsewhere another Diamond Fire Bush cone had opened.

“Smells nice, but I can’t recall where I remember it from,” Zhanch confessed as she and the other Rakshani met in their common room before heading off to breakfast. She nodded with approval as Croix came in; still a little shaky but under her own power, the fear of failure no longer haunting her eyes.

“It’ll take a while to recalibrate your noses, deities know a lot of things still smell wrong to mine,” Dessa told her. “That, by the way, is a little something all the way from Cait, something that isn’t found off Cait the way Admiral Kline’s wives carried on when they saw it.”

“Have to see what Tess has from Raksha that we can sniff,” Zhanch agreed as they headed for the door.

Their path took them past several of the planters the teens had set up and labeled; Earth roses, morning glories and day lilies; Rakshan blood blooms and snow bells being just a few of the scents and colors assaulting their still new senses.

The teen vixentaurs Graysocks, Beechwood and Redtail were handling the morning cooking chores, they had laid out a good-sized buffet and stood ready for any special orders.

After breakfast, the Rakshani made their way to the main holosuite, some to continue to work on basic motor control, while others worked on finer control of their new and younger bodies.

Dessa headed for another corner of the holosuite, a door forming just as she reached it. Inside was a changing room and showers to one side, the other side leading to several squash courts.

Donning protective glasses and gloves she walked into one of the courts and stretched a few times before picking the lone paddle off the floor. She had barely gotten into position before a ball shot out of the wall coming right at her head. She deflected it and it bounced off two walls before coming back her way.

Dessa had her way with the ball for two strikes, simply bouncing it off the floor and walls and letting it come back to her. On the third strike, the far wall shifted into a series of raised and angled patterns somehow changing both the angle and speed of the returning ball, forcing her to chase after it.

It was almost an hour later that Tess decided that the now nearly exhausted Dessa had had enough. The large Rakshani was stumbling and panting as if she’d run a marathon – which in a way she had.

“Hit the showers,” Tess suggested, the far wall of the squash court already starting to fade – as was the ruined wooden flooring that had not faired well under Dessa’s clawed feet as she had dug in to help her chase that crazily bouncing ball.

“I’ve got no endurance,” Dessa murmured as she staggered in the right general direction.

“Actually you have plenty of endurance,” Tess corrected as cool jets started to firmly but gently pound the tired Rakshani from all sides to help her cool down. “When you first complained about your stamina, I had a little chat with Doctor M’Lai and she suggested I borrow a few Rakshan Marines from the Pegasus to get a better idea just how robust you guys are supposed to be. You went almost twenty-seven percent past the best any of them could manage in my endurance testing. If you’re still looking for faults in your new body you need to find something else to fixate on.”

Dessa half nodded as the sprays changed their patterns and pressure to better massage her sore and achy muscles.

 

 


 

You Can't Always Tell A Book From Its Cover

 

It was the night shift for Folly and the ships traveling with her, but night watches kept watch. Tess had over a dozen Zulus out sweeping a wide net in the hopes of spying a pirate or three. And as had become policy, she was feeding the raw as well as the refined data collected to the other ships so they could see what she saw (and to give their crews a little something to do.)

“New contacts; one medium, one small; traveling in close convoy,” Lt Sirms reported from the bridge of the Slingshot.

“We see it,” replied hir counterpart on the Pegasus. “An escort in this troubled area – or a pirate keeping close watch over their prize.”

“What? You don’t think they’re afraid some other pirate might try taking off with their plunder do you?” another voice chuckled.

The amusement was cut short when Tess unexpectedly marked both contacts in flashing red and Folly suddenly shifted to a fast intercept course.

“Talk to us, Tess,” Mark Carson requested from his station on the destroyer Spike. “You’re seeing something you’re not telling us.”

Spike, Pegasus, bring your cores up out of standby at this time,” Tess said instead. “Fighter crews to your craft. All fighters will remain in ready status until told otherwise by Folly command.”

“Tess?” Carson said again as his watch officer woke their captain.

“Broadcasting a mayday isn’t the brightest thing to do when the one you need to escape from is right there with you,” Tess told them. “However, those in the know can hide the distress call in something else – such as their warp engine noise. Of course, any rescuers would need to know how to read it.”

“And that ship over there is calling for help?” Carson surmised.

“They are,” Tess replied, lighting up the smaller ship rather than the expected larger one. “To make matters even more interesting, the sub-distress message indicates the larger ship is holding one or more of the smaller ship’s crew hostage.”

“How can you tell that it isn’t just warp-bubble harmonics?”

“Because the harmonic is staying perfectly steady except for one little bit,” Tess replied as she added an interpretation of the noise to their screens.

Watching the part that was changing, Carson commented, “That looks like a ternary counting sequence.”

“It is,” Tess agreed.

“We have a security detachment ready,” Commander Silpurr reported. “Pegasus is prepared to separate.”

“Hold on separation, Pegasus,” Neal’s voice cut in; he had been working late and was now on his main bridge with his night shift crew. “I intend to keep you guys in reserve – just in case this is more than Folly can handle on her own. I see no need to let them know Star Fleet is out here in force unless we have to. Tess will keep Folly turned so our bulk keeps you out of their sight.”

“And how were you intending to force them out of warp?” Silpurr half demanded.

“Why, the same way any good pirate would,” Neal told her, “with a well-placed gravity mine of course.”

The other ship crews watched as Folly dropped out of warp just long enough to eject half a dozen more Zulus before going back to warp in hot pursuit of the mismatched pair of ships.

That Folly had been spotted by the other ships was apparent as the larger made a sudden course change away from them, the smaller shifting to follow moments later.

As the new Zulus sped past the two fleeing ships, Folly’s warp bubble began sending out a message of its own – along with a counter counting down.

“Preparing to drop from warp,” Tess advised the Star Fleet ships. “In five, four, three, two, one, drop.”

What surprised the other crews was that the smaller ship had dropped out of warp just as the Folly had, leaving just the larger one to crash out of warp when it hit an unexpected gravity well that had suddenly popped up in their path.

Folly had deliberately come out of warp with a carefully distorted warp bubble, leaving her with a good bit of sublight speed with which to continue closing on the other two vessels.

The larger of the two ships tried to jump back into warp – only to fail as another gravity well formed and then collapsed right in front of her.

“We can do this all day,” Neal broadcasted at them just as a compressed message was sent from the smaller ship.

“Foster! They have my daughter! To force me to cooperate they addicted her to Firefuzz!”

Neal’s eyes hardened, though he said not a word – unlike the angry mutterings coming from the bridges of the Star Fleet ships. Firefuzz was well known to be highly addictive and was banned throughout the Federation. Another unpleasant fact about Firefuzz was that far more people had suicided than had ever survived the very real pains of withdrawal.

“Their shields are pretty good, I can’t use my transporters on them yet,” Tess reported. “New contact – someone’s trying to escape in a Warp shuttle.”

“Knock him down and take him,” Neal ordered.

“Two bodies – intertwined,” Tess reported a moment later. To Neal only she added, “And I did detect a small amount of Firefuzz.”

“Any in an injector?” Neal growled back – to curious stares from those on his bridge.

“That’s where I detected it – in one injector, Boss.”

“Transporter room one,” Neal requested. And he vanished from his bridge.

In transporter room one Neal stepped off the pad and turned back to it. “Keep us private for the moment.”

“Injector,” he requested and a small already loaded medical injector appeared. “And now our new friends – leave them in stasis,” he said once he had it.

What appeared before him was a Voxxan male holding a wolf morph female, one hand held her arm while the other held a phaser aimed at her head. The female looked gaunt and underfed, a not uncommon affliction of those addicted to Firefuzz for any period of time.

“Remove the power and internals from his weapon,” Neal ordered.

“Already done, Boss,” Tess replied.

“Shift that field a bit, I want access to his gun arm and her shoulder,” he told her.

“Done.”

Neal stepped up and pressed the injector into her shoulder and squeezed the trigger. He then aimed to do the same to the Voxxan’s arm but stopped himself. “What’s the minimum dosage that guarantees the addiction and pain?”

“Any dose causes addiction, all a lower dose would do is reduce the high and might extend the time before the first crash,” Tess informed him. “From what documentation I have on Firefuzz, the actual level of the crash isn’t dependent on the dose; though the higher they went the harder the crash would seem to the victim.”

“We just rattled his cage, with luck he might not notice a light buzz on top of what comes next,” Neal replied as he adjusted the injector’s settings and gave the Voxxan a much-reduced dose.

Tossing the injector at one of the other transport pads he said, “Get rid of that.” As soon as the injector had disappeared he added, “You can let the others see what’s going on now. Have Mike and Alex join me as part of our security force.”

“They’ll be just a minute, Boss.”

Neal then tore the phaser out of the Voxxan’s hand in a way that would painfully twist his wrist before saying, “Drop stasis.”

Before either of the furs could react to their change in location Neal punched the Voxxan hard in the muzzle, the surprise and sudden pains in both hand and face causing him to release his grip on the wolf.

“I’ve got you,” Neal told her as he pulled her off the transporter pad. “You look like shit.”

“Captain Foster? How?” she half muttered in confusion.

“The same way I saved your father from himself all those years ago,” Neal told her. “Pure dumb luck. Now let’s get you to sickbay.”

“He addicted me to Firefuzz,” she mournfully muttered, “you can’t save me.”

“So your father has informed me,” Neal admitted. “Let’s just say that he’s underestimating me yet again.”

“You bastard!” the Voxxan cried through his bloody muzzle. “I’ll see that you spend the rest of your life incarcerated for this!”

“And what do you think we’ll do with a Firefuzz dealer?” Neal countered.

“There is no Firefuzz in my vessel – and even if there was – I have diplomatic immunity!” the Voxxan screamed at him.

Neal’s smile wasn’t a pleasant one as he said, “We’ll see how far your diplomatic immunity gets you once we find your Firefuzz and hand you over to Star Fleet.”

The doors picked that moment to slide open to allow Mike and Alex to enter.

“Place our friend here in a holding cell while we check his ship and shuttle for Firefuzz,” Neal told them.

“What about her?” Mike asked.

I’ll deal with her,” Neal said, “as well as her father.”

Neal waited until the Voxxan had been half dragged out of the room before saying, “Lieutenant Krackin, Commander Midnight, if you would like to provide teams in civilian dress, I’ll let you guys search his ship for Firefuzz and anything else of interest he might be carrying.”

“Gladly,” Krackin replied, followed by Midnight’s, “See you in five.”

“I’ve got their shields down, disabling them now,” Tess reported.

“Did you detect any more?” Neal asked quietly.

In his ears, she said, “Negative, Boss, though there are several large containers that have an acid mixture that may have been used to destroy it.”

“Good, nothing we can hold him on and no way for him to continue as a dealer.” In his normal voice, he added, “How’s her father?”

“Begging to come over.”

“Bring him then.”

The transporters hummed yet again, depositing an older male wolf morph on the pad his daughter had arrived on.

“Diann!” he cried out rushing to hold her.

“Father,” she murmured and fell into his hug.

He pulled away with a look of concern on his muzzle. “How long ago was your last injection?” he asked.

“I was already past due when we were knocked out of warp – he was letting me suffer again – b-but I’m not hurting right now for some reason.”

“I’ll –” he started to say before Neal cut him off.

“Her last dose was two minutes ago,” Neal quietly told them. “That should give us long enough to debrief both of you and your crew, Hurshal.”

“And then?” Hurshal demanded.

“And then I have a little something that will either cure her or kill her. Interested?”

“Yes!” Diann said before her father could. “Death will be far better than the pain when this dose wears off!”

“Let me know the minute you stop feeling good. Oh, and be advised,” Neal told them, “that I don’t need to call Star Fleet, I went and brought a few of them with me.”

The first person through the doors was a cute rabbit morph pushing a snack tray. Picking up what looked like a thick shake, Suzan pushed it into Diann’s hands and said, “Drink” with such force that even Neal was impressed.

While Diann was obeying orders, Krackin and Midnight walked in with their teams.

Waving the first team towards the transporters Neal said “Good hunting.”

Waiting until the last of the grim-faced security types had been beamed away, Hurshal asked, “Will they find enough to convict him?”

“Tess tells me no, though she’s been wrong a time or three,” Neal admitted.

“Not very damn often,” Hurshal muttered as the doors opened to admit Admiral Kline and Commander Silpurr.

“It’s safe to tell them what you know about this,” Neal told father and daughter as the other two approached.

“And about other things?” Commander Silpurr asked frowning at Neal.

Neal just shook his head at her. “Haven’t you learned by now that even knowledge has a cost – are you willing to pay the price?” he gently asked.

Commander Silpurr looked away, the insides of her ears turning pink.

“Just what have you been up to?” Hurshal wondered.

“Same old same old,” Neal said with a small smile. “Why don’t you two go satisfy their curiosity while she’s still able to?”

“How is she even walking under her own power?” Suzan wondered as the foursome left, Tess’ lights leading them to a small conference room.

“She’s high on Firefuzz,” Neal told her. “Pain and hunger mean nothing to someone that’s on that crap.”

“I heard you say they aren’t going to find any,” she cautiously commented.

“Nope.”

“Did you find it and hide it somewhere safe?”

“Nope. Found it, gave her a dose, and had Tess destroy what was left.”

“Then what are you going to do when she starts needing another dose?” she asked with a growing frown at him.

Neal shrugged. “The same thing I did to Dessa when she almost died saving Starblazer.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Yeah, I thought you’d like that. So all we have to do is keep her comfortable until then.”

* * *

“How long have you known Captain Foster?” Boyce was asking Hurshal.

“Since my one and only time trying to live the life of a pirate,” Hurshal replied.

“So you are a pirate,” Rosepetal growled.

“No, I’m a would-be pirate, if I hadn’t had the bad – or possibly the very good – luck to try to hit Foster’s ship as my very first victim. You saw how easily he bagged us? Now think of how much easier it would have been if we’d been trying to attack him.”

“So, how did you survive your first encounter with Neal?” Boyce asked.

“We only survived it because he was the first ship we’d tried to hit,” Hurshal told them. “Your Captain Foster is very big on the punishment fitting the crime, and if our logs or holds had held any hint that we had hit another ship he most likely would have left us helplessly adrift – hoping and praying that Star Fleet would come along and rescue us.”

“So what did he do?” Rosepetal wondered.

“After digging everything out of our computers, he had his systems do the most painful and total body scan I have ever felt, detailed enough to stand up in any court. Then he promised all of us that if he ever caught so much as a sniff that we’d tried pirating again he’d turn us in – if he didn’t find and deal with us himself.”

“Did he?”

“I’m still here,” Hurshal pointed out, “but a couple of that crew thought they’d try their luck on another ship. Haven’t seen them or that ship in a long time.”

“And the Voxxan?” Boyce asked.

“Told us that he wanted an escort – which was what we found to do rather than piracy – which is normally a much safer job when I stop to think about it. They wanted a go-between and Diann begged me to let her be the one.”

“Sorry, Father.”

Hurshal frowned. “First thing that slimy bastard did was force a dose of Firefuzz into her. He then let her escape back to our ship – knowing full well that she’d only have hours before she’d be screaming in pain.”

“You should have killed me then,” she softly murmured. “It would have been easier on all of us.”

“Where there’s life there’s hope – even if it feels like death would be welcome,” he quietly replied.

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you had felt the pain I have lived through,” she told him.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m a little confused,” Rosepetal confessed. “If you’re addicted to Firefuzz there’s no known cure, not a real one anyway. So how is it that you’re still functional?”

“Captain Foster gave me a dose when I came on board.”

“And just where did he get it to give you? Tess!”

“Yes, Commander?”

“Does Captain Foster have any quantity of Firefuzz anywhere on the Folly, her pods or the ships in or attached to her?”

“No, Commander.”

“Replicator images?”

“No, Commander.”

“Did he have any before we came upon these ships?”

“No, Commander.”

“Did he leave any for us to find?” Boyce softly asked.

“No, Admiral.”

“How many doses did he administer?” Boyce asked even more softly.

“Two.”

“Admiral?” Rosepetal half asked, but Boyce was staring intently at Diann.

“Do you feel like he gave you a double dose?” he asked her.

“No,” she said after thinking about it for a moment. “A double would probably have me feeling too good to even notice that you were trying to question me.”

“Oh, my,” Hurshal slowly said in dawning admiration. “The punishment will indeed fit the crime ...”

“Husband!” Rosepetal snapped as using his rank had failed to get his attention.

“Rose,” he softly replied, “that’s what he was doing in those few moments we couldn’t see or hear him. Since she was already addicted it couldn’t harm her – only keeping it from her could. And what better punishment than to force a drug merchant to suffer like his victims have?”

“We can’t —” Rosepetal started.

“We can,” Boyce gently countered. “In fact, if he does have diplomatic immunity, we can’t legally touch him if we can’t find any hard evidence. Tess, what was Neal’s game-plan?”

“The ship itself is on a search list; seems someone failed to keep up their lease payments, good for a return fee. Midnight has already confirmed that the rest of his crew all have outstanding warrants out for them, more rewards. Which leaves us with one possibly diplomatically protected drug dealer and his shuttle – the comms and warp drive of which my boss has already ordered me to disable. So if said drug dealer refuses to give us a confession, we will leave him to his shuttle and to his fate. Besides, whatever diplomatic immunity he may have won’t extend to his rented ship or that criminal crew. By the way, how are you feeling, Diann?”

“Still feeling really good – why?”

“Because Neal intends to release the Voxxan before he can figure out that he took his own first and most likely last hit.”

Diann shivered. “He had to tie me down to keep me from tearing out my own throat.”

Hurshal gently placed his hand on her bony shoulder. “There will be no one there to tie him down.”

Rosepetal looked a little unsettled by this revelation, Boyce looked thoughtful.

* * *

“There were traces of what we are pretty sure was Firefuzz in the shuttle,” Krackin was saying. Shi had come back from hir search angry that shi hadn’t been able to find the proof that they needed to hang the drug dealer.

“But not enough to prove it was actually Firefuzz?” Neal countered.

“No, sir,” shi growled unhappily.

Turning to an equally unhappy Midnight, Neal said, “And you found nothing?”

“Just evidence that they had destroyed quite a bit of something,” shi admitted.

To one side, the Voxxan stood, not even trying to hide his grin. To his side, Alex stood with his pain stick softly crackling in the hope the Voxxan would give him a reason to use it.

“And the ship itself?” Neal was asking.

“Past due on the lease, there’s already a reward posted for its return,” Midnight reported.

“And the rest of his crew?”

“All wanted and currently in the brig.” Actually in Pegasus’ brig, but there was no reason to mention that out loud.

“And his so-called diplomatic immunity?”

“That’s the only thing that seems to actually be real,” Midnight admitted. “It seems even Star Fleet can’t touch him for anything less than murder.”

Looking over at his prisoner, Neal said, “I don’t suppose you’d like to make it easy for us and confess?”

The Voxxan just grinned wider. “I’ll see that you burn for this, Foster,” he promised.

Neal gave him a little shrug before saying, “One of us surely will. Send him back to his shuttle and we’ll get the hell out of here.”

“What do we do with the ships?” Mike asked as the Voxxan was beamed out.

“We have room enough in the bays for them, we’ll be keeping them for a few days.”

“Oh?”

“She’s going to need to be processed soon – and you remember how much help the Rakshani needed those first few days.”

“So they’re actually friends with benefits?”

“Well, he took my advice and didn’t turn pirate.” Looking around, Neal said, “I think that about wraps things up, everyone’s released. Krackin, Midnight, you two stay just an extra moment if you will.”

Which for some strange reason meant that no one felt the need to leave just yet as the two chakats approached him.

“One and a half?” he asked Krackin.

“Point seven five,” shi countered from half a meter away, and hir claws were indeed out.

“Would it help at all to know that you didn’t let him get away just now?” Neal softly asked.

Hir reply was one of those kinds of deep-throated growls that only a large angry taur with two sets of lungs could produce.

His hand reached out and took hold of hir top before pulling the chakamil forward. With nose to muzzle a mere centimeter apart, he growled back. “He’s been hurting my friends – do you think your little ‘mil anger can even compare to mine?” he demanded.

We found what little Firefuzz he didn’t destroy,” he softly hissed at hir. “I gave his victim one dose to stave off her pain – and then I gave him a dose so he will soon enjoy feeling the pain he’s inflicted on others.” Releasing Krackin’s top, he looked over at Midnight adding, “Your mate and firstwife had already discovered my little trick on him.”

“C-Captain Foster? I-It’s starting,” Diann said as she came in with her father, Boyce and Rosepetal trailing behind. She was already trembling slightly.

“You were to tell me when the good feeling left – not when the pain started,” Neal gently scolded her. “Tess, process her if you would please – and have her father waiting for her.” As they were beamed away Neal said, “Boyce, I took the liberty of placing your medbay in standby status so they’d be ready for her.”

Boyce nodded before saying, “How often do you have to do things like this?”

“More often than I’d prefer,” Neal admitted. “It gets too painful, watching them get away with murder – or worse.”

“So you step in.”

“So stop me,” Neal countered. “Catch them and make it stick. Be there when they strike – or better yet before they can strike.”

“We can’t be everywhere,” Boyce pointed out.

“Then tell your crew to stop acting surprised that sometimes some of us independents find ourselves picking up the slack – and not necessarily doing things the way you would.”

“You boys can finish your little discussion in the morning,” Weaver told them both. “Krackin needs to do some shredding so shi can unwind and the rest of us need a bit more rest. Tess? Did she make it?”

“The process has almost doubled her weight. We won’t try waking her for at least a shift or two. And her father was trying to sleep on the floor by her bed but M’Lai sedated him and the guards have placed him in the bed next to hers.”

“Good enough,” Neal allowed. “Park the ships and make sure Hurshal’s crew has everything they need.”

Boyce nodded. “The rest of it can wait,” he agreed.

* * *

“Husband?” Rosepetal said once they’d returned to their rooms.

“No,” he quietly replied. “We are not mentioning that second dose in our reports.”

“Are we mentioning this encounter at all?” Midnight wondered.

“We have half a dozen warm bodies in the brig,” Rosepetal pointed out.

“Mark them as flying a stolen ship,” Boyce suggested. “I understand that we have enough on each of them to put them away even if that doesn’t stick.”

“And Neal’s friends?” Rosepetal demanded.

“Two had some very minor past infractions, the rest came up clean,” Midnight replied. “We’d have let them go if we had been the ones to come across them.”

“Any thoughts on Hurshal thinking the odds were good enough of being spotted and some type of help coming to the rescue?” Boyce asked.

“It does make me wonder just how extensive and far-reaching Neal’s ‘little group of friends’ really is,” Midnight said with a frown. “And what other messages we’ve been missing hiding in warp bubbles.”

“Including the one we’re currently wrapped in,” Boyce agreed.

“It’s not enough,” Rosepetal muttered.

“What would be?” Boyce gently asked her. “I understand you don’t trust him, but what hoops does he have to jump through to gain any of that trust?”

Rosepetal frowned before finally saying, “We still have that red-paw skunktaur shrink helping with the recently freed slaves, I wonder what hy might be able to find for us...”

“And you don’t think we might need an actual legal reason to force him to be read?” Boyce wondered. “By that logic, he could demand you or even I be read as well.”

“Never mind getting past that AI of his,” Midnight pointed out.

“I was having a little doctor/nurse chat with Moonglow earlier,” M’Lai commented. “It seems they all wonder about his mental state every now and then. Perhaps they’d be willing to help us find the answers.”

“What about Tess?” Midnight asked.

M’Lai gave a little shrug. “What about her? If she is a true AI, she might share our concerns about his mental state.”

“Once the question is asked she’ll be watching to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Rosepetal warned them.

“She detected your little invasion force in the making the other day – do you really think we could get at him without her allowing us to?” Boyce pointed out.

Nodding slightly Midnight said, “The first step is to see if our friendly neighborhood mind reader thinks we have enough reason to ask hym to probe Neal’s mind.” Getting nods from the others, Midnight said, “Computer, locate Lighttouch.”

“Lighttouch is in the coffee lounge,” the computer reported.

“Midnight to Lighttouch. Are you busy with anything?”

“Just a mocha.”

“Could I bribe you to join us with a little freshly made Chipinge coffee?” shi asked.

“On my way!” Lighttouch agreed.

* * *

“Okay,” Lighttouch was saying a little later. “I can see why some of you might have concerns, but concerns are not enough to force read him against his will – and any forcing could hide the very things you wish for me to discover.”

“What if we had his crew’s and family’s support in this?” Boyce asked.

“Do you?” the skunktaur countered.

“Not yet,” Boyce admitted, “but it seemed foolish to ask them before asking you.”

“You have it – but just for the narrow line of questioning and the issues that we have discussed. The rest of whatever he might think or know is not really any of our or Star Fleet’s business,” Lighttouch told him.

“Agreed,” Boyce replied. “Boyce to Folly.”

“Good morning, Admiral, who can I connect you with?” Tess answered.

“Are Weaver or Moonglow up?”

“You’re in luck, Starblazer and Firestorm are both being fed.”

“And where is Neal?”

“Asleep finally. I would prefer not to wake him unless needed.”

“Actually, we’d like to talk to them – and you – about Neal.”

“I see. Am I going to be running into a conflict of interest here?”

“That’s why we wanted to have a little chat with all three of you.”

“Four,” Tess corrected. “I’ll wake Suzan.”

 

 


 

A Little Light Reading

 

The next morning it seemed that ‘out of the blue’, Weaver and Moonglow had decided that with all the available Star Fleet support just looking for something to do, that this would be a good time for everyone on the Folly to have physicals. The kids were no problem, but getting Neal into a sickbay almost required brute force.

Neal entered the Pegasus’s sickbay in poor humor, still arguing with Weaver. “All a doctor is going to tell us is that I’m a bit overweight, a shrink will tell you I’m crazy, both of which we already know to be true.”

Moonglow was carrying Firestorm. Shi and Weaver had been double-teaming Neal the whole way to sickbay. “As your ship’s only crewmember with any medical background, I insist you have a full physical while we have the resources available to us. You’re no better than the kids you know.”

Nodding at Drs Kelly and M’Lai, Neal turned back to Moonglow. “And what part of a physical would not be covered by Tess’ scans?”

“This part,” Dr Kelly said.

As he turned to face the doctor, Neal felt something touch the other side of his neck. Spinning around the other way, he caught a glimpse of M’Lai with a hypospray in her hand as he started to collapse – M’Lai and Weaver catching him before he could fall. They were laying him on one of the medical beds as a skunktaur in hys female form walked in.

Firestorm began fighting for hir release the moment Neal collapsed. A sharp nip had won hir hir freedom from a surprised Moonglow, and shi leaped for the nearby bed. Shi then stood with hir hands and handpaws on Neal’s chest, growling up at the group of adults.

With a chuckle, Lighttouch said, “You may have taken down the master, but you seem to have missed his guardian.”

“First time shi’s bitten anyone, to my knowledge,” Moonglow said, rubbing hir hand.

Weaver sighed. “It was this, or have you try to sneak into our room while he slept. You did say it would be easier for you to do this if he wasn’t warned about your assessment.”

Lighttouch smiled. “Quite right. Give me a moment to calm the kitten, and then I can begin checking on hir father.”

To Weaver, this appeared to be a staring contest between Lighttouch and Firestorm. After a minute Firestorm relaxed a little and laid hir head between hir hands, but hir eyes never left Lighttouch.

Stepping to the head of the bed, Lighttouch’s eyes seemed to lose focus as hy placed hys hands on Neal’s head. After several minutes, hy blinked as if waking up.

“Most interesting,” hy said. “He does have a modest empathic sense, but he has no real control over it. Most of the links lead to his subconscious; only a few threads reach his conscious mind. He may sometimes get ‘feelings’ about things and people around him, but not know why he is getting the feeling.”

Weaver smiled. “That might explain why he’s more understanding and tolerant of someone after sleeping with them, but how did he know about Firestorm?”

“From what I’ve been told of the incident and what I just received from the evaluation, Neal was already exhausted from the firefight. His subconscious, or autopilot as he calls it, was at the forefront. That and Stormy’s own empathic abilities may have bonded them together before he got hir out of the womb.”

* * *

Feeling slow and sluggish, Neal opened his eyes. Weaver’s anxious face coming into focus with Moonglow a few steps back watching him as well. “Why?” he whispered.

Giving him a small smile, she said, “Because you would have thrown the results by knowing the test was coming.”

“I assume you talked it over with Tess and received her compliance.”

“True, but we forgot to ask someone else’s permission.” At Neal’s look of confusion, she smiled. “Firestorm didn’t like our little surprise and did what shi could to defend hir father.”

Stroking the head of the now purring kitten in question, Neal smiled. “You should have seen that coming. Of course, leaving hir behind wouldn’t have worked either. Shi would have been going full speed down the halls, screaming hir little head off. Just think of the crowd shi could have been leading by the time shi reached sickbay!”

“Do you always have to paint things in their worst light?”

Neal snorted. “No, that would have been more towards the ‘funny’ side of the scale. Worst light would have been Tess deciding you had deceived her. You don’t want to know some of the tricks we’ve pulled over the years.” Giving her a half smile, he asked, “Now that everyone knows just how crazy I am, why am I not in a little padded room, wearing one of those very long-sleeved coats that tie in the back?”

Weaver grinned. “Would you believe we’ve decided you’re our kind of crazy?” she snickered. “Then there’s the problem of getting Tess to let us lock you up. And as we’ve seen, we will also need Stormy’s permission too.”

“Not to mention Stormy and Moonglow would be frequent visitors. Nice to know I’m not worth the hassle of locking up.”

“No, but we’ve been asked to keep you under strict observation, and to try to keep you out of trouble!”

Neal grumbled. “Just what I need, more keepers.”

* * *

Elsewhere Lighttouch was also being debriefed.

“Coffee?” Midnight asked.

“Just some ice water, if you please,” Lighttouch replied holding hys head. “That has got to be one of the most convoluted minds I have ever been in,” hy quietly muttered.

“What did you find?” Rosepetal didn’t quite demand.

“What I found, Commander, is that you’d be much better off not poking at him.”

“Meaning?” Boyce inquired.

“Meaning so far none of your people’s stunts has done more than mildly annoy him, sir. He’s not a threat to you and yours or even Star Fleet and the Federation unless someone forces him to become a threat. Oh, and for those of you still wondering about what Tess really is, Folly is not a Brain-ship and Neal is not what one would consider a brawn. While she can squeeze herself into one of the smaller ship’s computers, Tess’ ability to ‘think’ greatly expands with the addition of processor power.”

“That’s not what we were after,” Rosepetal told hym.

“That’s what you’re getting,” Lighttouch replied. “We agreed to the lines of questioning and that’s as far as I can go within those lines.”

“What can you safely give us?” Boyce quietly asked.

Lighttouch sighed. “What I can safely give you is an impression of you through his eyes.” Hy looked at each of them in turn before saying, “You’re like children – curious cubs that he has to try to keep his tools and tricks as much out of your sight and reach as he can, lest you harm yourselves in your own ignorance.”

“Really,” Rosepetal muttered darkly.

“Really,” Lighttouch replied. “You fear what he may be capable of doing without first having any real grasp of what he is capable of doing. On Earth, they have a saying about something being only the tip of the iceberg. You’ve seen only a few of the tricks and the power of his ship and think you have reason to fear him, but Folly is only a tiny part of what is Neal Foster.”

“Are you saying he’s a danger to the Federation?” Boyce asked.

Lighttouch chuckled. “In fact, even now he’s trying to save the Federation from itself on more than one front.”

“Can you tell us about one?” Midnight asked.

“I shouldn’t,” Lighttouch admitted, “but perhaps it will give you a hint of just how deep the waters you’re all busy paddling into truly are. Neal has Tess following many trends and cycles, the better to plan for or to disrupt the ones he thinks he has to. One of the cycles he’s getting ready to disrupt is a little empire building taking place inside the Federation. Many decades ago there was a merging of over a dozen suppliers of antimatter. Once they controlled almost all antimatter distribution they started raising their prices. They also stopped bothering to deliver to places that they couldn’t make profitable enough for themselves. Some independents set up shop and started covering those not being supplied. Over the years those independents have grown to provide over a third of the fuel that the Federation depends on. This has annoyed the Antimatter Consortium, as it has kept them from raising their prices still higher. As the independents refuse to join the Consortium, there’s a Federation bill being pushed through to force the Consortium’s control over any and all antimatter refueling operations in the Federation. As the man with controlling interest in the largest of those independents, Neal intends to throw a spanner into the works if that bill makes it through.”

“How?” Boyce wondered.

“By picking up all his marbles and going home,” Lighttouch told him with a smirk. “He believes a short but hard disruption will do the Federation the least amount of damage in the long run and might even help protect it from the next power grab someone attempts.”

“And he thinks he can actually make it stick?” Rosepetal asked.

“The Consortium will ‘need’ the full cooperation of Alamo Antimatter for their bill to not quickly cripple the Federation. They’re not going to get it.”

Frowning, Rosepetal said, “I would think the other stockholders would object to Foster doing this.”

Lighttouch’s smirk only grew. “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with here, Commander – you don’t see just how large and thick that iceberg you’re trying to ram really is. There are no other stockholders to object – for all intents and purposes Neal Foster is Alamo Antimatter.”

“What else does he control?” Rosepetal demanded.

“No, I’ve already given you far more than I should have.”

“Power corrupts,” Boyce quietly said.

“It can,” Lighttouch agreed, “and Neal happens to know that too, which is why he has set up a number of checks and balances to help keep himself from playing god more often than he should.”

“But he can still override them if he wants to,” Midnight pointed out.

“Push him hard enough and he will,” Lighttouch agreed. “Just as any of you would if you really thought you had to.”

“Do Weaver and the kids know about Alamo?” M’Lai asked.

“Not at this time. All they know is the Folly – and that Neal seems to have a lot of friends to run into.”

“And that’s what we should be, friends,” Boyce said looking at his firstwife. “That doesn’t mean we roll over and beg for tummy rubs, but it does mean that we quit treating him like that drug dealer he put down for us.”

Rosepetal opened her mouth, but Boyce shook his head at her.

“It stops,” he reiterated. “You don’t have to like him, but it stops. Just pretend he’s one of those stuffed shirt diplomats we have to put up with from time to time – I know you can manage that.”

“Yes, Admiral,” she meekly replied as this was no longer her husband speaking but her ship’s captain and superior officer.

* * *

At Lighttouch’s request, Neal had Tess transfer a copy of her New Kiev spaceport records to the Pegasus’s holodeck memory. Hy wished to better understand what had happened that morning. On hearing the records would be available, Dr Kelly had decided that the recording could also be converted into a simulation which might be useful for trauma team exercises.

M’Lai had returned to her quarters that evening looking drawn and haggard. Even having been warned what the simulation was about had not fully prepared her for walking through the aftermath of the attack.

With the original EMS teams removed, they had gone from one mangled body to the next, diagnosing and rendering aid where they could. That had been bad enough, but Lighttouch had then reset the simulation to when the last shot had been fired and added Neal’s group. They watched Neal treat the fox tod, noting that his computer-controlled medpac did most of the work for him. As they had, he bypassed the next fur as she had been beyond anyone’s help.

Having not been told about Firestorm, they were surprised when Neal stopped at the pair of dead taurs. They watched as he discovered and removed the baby chakat and got hir breathing. After handing the newborn to a chakat youth, Neal had staggered down a corridor and disappeared around a corner, two chakats following him at a distance.

Lighttouch had paused the simulation at that point and suggested that the trauma team exercise was now over. M’Lai had leaned against a wall as the others had filed out.

Already knowing what had happened out of sight, Lighttouch had the program continue as Neal came back around the corner, half supported by the chakats. They were just reaching the rest of Neal’s group when the comm call came in telling Neal that someone was trying to take the newborn from Shadowcrest. Lighttouch watched with interest as all the chakats reacted to Neal’s rapidly growing rage. Shadowchaser and Krackin were the only chakats that did not drop to their bellies. If anything, they were standing taller, teeth bared, claws fully extended, looking for and almost eagerly seeking a threat.

After Neal was beamed to the hospital, the others had calmed down. Shadowchaser had then contacted Captain Autumnbreeze, requesting assistance; both with the debriefing of Neal’s group as well as with helping them deal with what they had just been through.

Lighttouch stopped the simulation and restarted it just before Neal appeared at the hospital. After watching it through Neal’s collapse, Lighttouch commented to M’Lai, “That explains why Moonglow was confused by the feelings of the others when shi first entered the room. Shi never actually saw Neal ‘mad’, just the effects it had on the other nurse and the guards. While he will take most things in stride, it appears that threatening a child in his care will get you an almost chakat-like response.” Looking carefully at M’Lai, hy said, “You may wish to leave now, I intend to see the actual fight.”

M’Lai had stayed and watched as Dessa was shot. After examining her body both before and after the shot, M’Lai gave the odds of her own sickbay’s chances of keeping someone in that condition alive at less than one in ten.

* * *

After dinner, Neal had decided to visit the Pegasus’ coffee lounge. He had drawn some raised eyebrows when he commandeered an empty chair and two unused tables. He now watched the stars slide by from the chair, a table to each side. One held his iced tea within easy reach, the other a soft pad on which Firestorm slept, curled around his right hand and lower arm.

“Walks around like he owns the place,” a vixen fox morph muttered from where she watched from the bar.

“Our first officer really doesn’t like him,” a Rakshani male quietly agreed as they watched the human in question gently roll the chakat kitten a little further away from the edge of the table.

“Seems our captain doesn’t mind that captain being here,” the bartender commented. “Scuttlebutt says so far we’ve gotten a full resupply and a sensor upgrade out of him – and he, Kline and Sparks have spent the last shift playing with warp core simulations on the holodeck. Ah, speak of the devil. Good evening, Sir.”

Three more chairs were soon moved to the other side of Neal’s tea table, and a tray with four cups of coffee was set on the table. An additional glass of tea was set on the other table, well away from Firestorm. Lighttouch gently stroked the kitten as hy asked, “What are you thinking Neal?”

Still watching the warp distorted stars slide across the viewports, Neal quietly said, “They say that hindsight is 20/20 but, even looking back, I don’t know what I could have changed to make things better. At New Kiev I could have killed off the Humans First group faster with bigger weapons, but a strong enough beam weapon would have fried the furs on the ground between us. A heavier projectile weapon would need to be anchored to the ground, making me a sitting duck. As far as safety for those with me, I should have beamed the lot of them back to the Folly! Of course, then I wouldn’t have had Mike’s and the Rakshani’s fire support, and the other Star Fleet crews may have taken longer to join the fight. Dessa almost getting herself killed is the only reason all the Rakshani are healthy today. Without the Rakshani firing from behind me, I most likely would have been behind a different pillar. And that tod and Firestorm would have died …”

“You don’t know that,” M’Lai said.

“The medical teams might have gotten to the tod in time, but I understand even your trauma teams missed Stormy.” Turning to Boyce, Neal said, “I request that you delete those recordings when your medical teams are done with them. You’ll understand if I think of most of it as being a bit ‘personal’.”

“Some of it is a bit intense,” Boyce agreed.

Neal snorted. “Yeah. I guess you could say some parts of that morning were just a wee bit ‘intense’.”

Lighttouch gave him a small smile. “Intense enough that you still can’t get it out of your head for more than short periods of time?”

“Get out of my head, shrink,” Neal snapped, though there was no heat in the words. “We each cope in our own way. Mine just takes me a little longer.”

“And the fear?”

Which fear?” Neal half-laughed at hym. “The fear that I didn’t do enough, or what I did do wasn’t the best thing to do? Or the fear that those I’ve come to care about won’t want to be anywhere near someone capable of doing the things I do?”

“Which one scares you the most?”

“The past is over and I can’t change what happened, but I can try to use it to help determine what to do next time. I’ve been afraid to ask Weaver and the kids what they really think, afraid that they may be just waiting for a safe enough port to jump ship. Not that I can really blame them.”

A pair of furry arms reached around Neal’s chest and didn’t quite squeeze his breath away. A set of sharp teeth gently nipped at one of his ears, then a voice quietly whispered, “I’ve told you before that you won’t be getting rid of us that easily. Which part didn’t you understand?”

Neal sighed and laid his head back against her chest. “I almost lost half of Chase’s group when they found out what I could do if pushed to my limits. We were on one of the non-aligned worlds and someone tried to kidnap one of our younger chakats. They had hit hir with a tranquilizer dart, then stuffed hir in a bag.” Neal snorted softly before adding, “I never did find out what that attempted kidnapping cost them. Tess was disabling and destroying their automated defenses, while Betsy and I took out anyone that tried to keep us from getting hir back.” Giving the arms around him a gentle squeeze, Neal continued. “It was as bad as, if not worse than, New Kiev, but it was spread out over a city block. Half the kids didn’t want to have anything to do with me after that, the other half was mad at the first half for treating me that way. If they had had any place else to go, I think that would have broken up our extended family.”

“What did happen?”

“It took a while for them to finally understand that some things could get an ‘extreme’ reaction out of me. Danger to my kids was high on that list.”

“Kidnappers?”

“And pirates, slavers, Humans First types, even your common every day mugger is not too little to get a response out of me. And, as you noticed with Zhanch and company or New Kiev and Diann, it doesn’t have to be my kids that they’re hurting.”

“Did they ever forgive you?”

“To different degrees with time. Most of that group pooled their funds and bought an old medium-sized freighter. They allowed me help them get it up to spec, and I gave them a few of Folly’s smaller contract stops to get them started.” Neal smiled. “They were quite pleased with themselves, they somehow managed two years of dodging pirates, without being seen or having to run or fight them. Then they were given some cargo that contained a gravity mine. There they were, dead in space, trying to get the warp drive back online when three pirate ships showed up to claim their prize. The kids got two of them, but the third got their boarding teams unloaded before they were taken down. The kids won in the end, but not without three of them being badly injured, and a lot of damage to their ship.”

“Sounds like they learned their lesson the hard way.”

“Yeah, straight from the school of hard knocks, they learned that sometimes the only choices are ‘fight or die’.”

“So, did they give up on the freighter?”

“No. They’re still out there moving freight. They just know now not to ignore trouble, just in case trouble doesn’t feel like ignoring them.”

“Do you help them?”

“I help keep their propulsion systems tuned up to save fuel. And they have two Zulus and six of the babies on permanent loan for protection.”

“And the others?”

“Chase and three others are currently in Star Fleet, two in the Star Corps, and five on other freighters.”

“Do you ever get to see any of them?”

“We can sometimes get together when we’re at the same port. Most of the time we just play e-mail tag.”

“And you thought we would run when you showed us you had a darker side.”

“I’ve been trying not to make the same mistakes that I made with Chase’s group. I just keep forgetting your group’s dynamics and reasoning are different from what theirs was.”

“I guess that helps explain why you always seem to be putting your foot in your mouth …”

“… and wiggling my toes. Yes, I know. Each of your accounts has more than enough to get you home in style. The only reason to hang around any longer is because you want to.”

“It is nice to have another option, but most of us are making other plans for the money.”

“May I ask what yours is?”

“It all depends on what happens next.”

“I have the same problem with my time. Should I put some of my available time into fixing something, or is it time to just toss it and replace/upgrade the dang thing? Then should I be working on the Folly, the shuttles, the pods, or maybe working on that idea I had? Too many things to do for the time I have to do them.”

“And yet here you sit, sipping tea, and helping Firestorm sleep.”

“Even I need a little downtime. Someone once wrote that you can’t stay tense while watching a cat sleep. With hir cuddled up around my arm, I think I can understand what they mean.”

“Well, finish your tea and come to bed. Shi isn’t the only one that would like to cuddle.”

“Yes, dear.” Getting up, Neal wrapped Firestorm in hir pad, nodding to his hosts. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said as he followed his denmate back to the Folly.

 

 


 

Back At 4854786G76

 

“They still back there?” Captain Olympia Powers asked as Alamo Antimatter’s fuel ship Genesis dropped out of warp on a least-time course to one of the three antimatter generation plants orbiting the local sun. The slim ferret frowned as she made calculations she hoped would get her ship and crew safely away.

Nor Tec, the ship’s first officer let out a snort. “Sticking to us like glue, Skipper. And the way they’re acting I don’t think they know we can see that Star Fleet escort they have with them.” The large wolverine growled at his captain’s expression; he knew that look, she didn’t think the numbers were going to be on their side this time.

“You think zooming through the defensive areas of two of the plants will cut them down to size?” his captain asked him.

“It’d take out their fuel transport, doubt though that the destroyer will just sit there and let us take them out too,” Nor warned her.

“Crew comes first, ship second, company third,” Olympia quietly mouthed the company code drilled into all Alamo Antimatter captains and crews. “We could just give them the codes, Alamo can change them later.”

“Sadly, that won’t help matters any,” a new voice told them.

Both turned to stare at their engineer’s daughter/trainee. The voice coming from her was all wrong for the person they knew.

The teen cheetah morph smiled at their stares and said, “Introductions are in order; I am Paul, a telepath living in a habitat out by the refining station in the belt. You are Olympia Powers and Nor Tec, your safe word is ‘kimchi’. I’m channeling through Sandy here because she was the most willing and because the rest of you have far too much to do. Captain, plot your course past the two antimatter plants as you’d planned. Tec, start prepping the escape shuttle.”

“Who are you to give orders?” Olympia demanded.

“We – or rather you – don’t have time for this,” Paul told her. “Whether you give them the codes or not, the destroyer’s orders are to kill you. They are then to destroy each of the antimatter plants in order to ensure that there are no records of this event. Move, Tec. Crew comes first. Start setting things up so you can remote Genesis from the shuttle and Powers will join you once you’re ready.”

“Jake –” Olympia started, naming Sandy’s father.

“Her father is busy making sure Genesis will give them a proper light show to help cover your shuttle’s escape,” Paul told her. “Move, Captain, you can’t save your ship and I estimate that you now have less than ten minutes to save your crew.”

* * *

Genesis, stop running. We just want the codes,” Chopin’s Captain Luxus said yet again as he followed the Alamo Antimatter ship deeper into the system. “We’ve given you our Star Fleet authorization, you have no choice but to comply.”

“I have plenty of choices,” Captain Powers countered from Genesis’ escape shuttle, the rest of her crew around her and Paul/Sandy currently sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. “Unless the Federation is at war even Star Fleet can’t just steal from any company it likes. As for you, you have no say over Alamo Antimatter affairs at all.”

Minotaur is now in range and preparing to fire,” Paul informed them. “Right about … now!” and Sandy’s fingers slapped down the keys that would kick them free and propel them away from Genesis.

“Jumping the gun a bit?” Chopin’s Captain asked their escort as Genesis was destroyed.

“They weren’t going to give you those codes and I saw no reason to let them take us into range of those station defenses. Use the Star Fleet codes and see if the plant will take them.”

“It’s not like they can just open fire on any ship that comes along,” Captain Luxus agreed.

Sandy let out a hiss of annoyance before Paul said, “Damn the timing. I just received a faster-than-light transmission and the local relay acknowledged it – and Minotaur detected the transmitted pulse. They will now not only destroy all three antimatter plants but then they’ll come after the refinery and relay – as well as my little station.”

“What do you need us to do?” Nor asked.

“Nothing. I was hoping to have the time to properly read a few minds and see who’s ultimately responsible for all of this, but staying alive and having a place for you to take shelter takes precedence.”

“What will you do?” Olympia asked.

“As a friend of mine likes to say ‘What I have to’,” Paul replied as Sandy’s fingers tapped in a command for the station they were now passing.

Moments later the Chopin was destroyed when she came into range and the station beamed a little extra antimatter into their engine room. Even with her shields now up, Minotaur survived to fire only a few shots into the station before she suddenly lost antimatter containment and became the third ball of fire and spreading debris.

Sandy’s fingers now danced as Paul changed the shuttle’s course to head for his station. “This one will need to rest, I was working her rather hard. The rest of you might as well get some sleep as well as it will be a little over ten hours to my habitat where I have some shielded quarters for you.”

“Is there a reason you don’t just shield yourself?” Jake asked the person that had taken over his daughter.

Then I wouldn’t have been able to save any of you,” a voice said in all of their heads at once as Sandy slumped down in sleep.

* * *

Lighttouch was in a light sleep when something awoke hym. A mind presence that hit hym with what felt like a bucket of ice water – only much colder.

You’re not him,” a voice said with great power and no small amount of amusement. “But you read him so now an echo of him can be felt in you. Which is why I woke you and not him.”

Who?

Call me Paul – he does. Tell Tess he needs to check his mail.”

But who are you?” Lighttouch tried to ask, but the presence was already gone.

Trying to shake hymself fully awake, hy tapped the comm badge on the shelf next to hys bed. “Lighttouch to Folly.”

Folly here,” Tess’ voice told hym.

“Your captain’s friend, Paul, told me to tell you to check your mail,” hy told her.

“Thank you, we will,” Tess replied before dropping the connection.

* * *

“I have a notice that Captain Foster would like to talk to Admiral Kline at his earliest convenience,” the admiral’s yeoman was informing the admiral in question later that morning.

“Sounds strangely official,” Boyce said thoughtfully. “Did the message specify a venue?”

“No, Sir.”

“Then I think I'll take it in my ready room. Please have Commanders Silpurr and Midnight join me.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Once his mates had joined him, Boyce set up the call to the Folly. “I understand your boss has something important for us?” he asked Tess once the connection was made.

“Sadly, yes,” Tess replied. “He ordered me to not complete the connection until after your Yeoman d’Armand has Ember and Kayla back onboard the Pegasus.”

“Why?” Boyce asked in surprise.

“So that certain paranoid wives of yours wouldn’t think that he was holding on to them as possible hostages,” Tess informed him.

“What happened, Tess?” Rosepetal demanded.

“Not until your daughters are safely off Folly,” Tess curtly replied.

While his second in command fumed, Boyce tried to gather a little more information. “Is this something that I or mine did, or is this more Star Fleet related?”

Neal suddenly appeared on Boyce’s display saying, “It would matter not at all if Lighttouch hadn’t told you about my relationship with Alamo Antimatter. As it is, it is now very much a Star Fleet related matter.”

Midnight snorted softly as shi said to Rosepetal, “Tess allowed the mind reading – so of course she would tell him what we might have learned.”

“How can we help?” Boyce asked.

“By watching and listening,” Neal replied. “We had things set up to cover certain situations for when I’m not readily available, and one of my legal teams has already started the ball rolling.”

The screen changed again to what appeared to be a conference call between half a dozen people.

An annoyed looking Caitian was speaking, “Where is she? Tanner demands we do a conference call with less than two hours’ notice and then doesn’t bother coming herself?”

“Actually, we still have a few minutes until the appointed time,” a husky morph pointed out.

“I want to know why we’re jumping just because they told us to!” the Caitian snarled.

Further conversation stopped as a seventh connection joined the conference.

“Congratulations,” Robin Tanner told the others as she appeared. “As of six hours ago an act of piracy has forced Alamo Antimatter to cease doing any and all business in the Federation. This act of piracy was a joint effort of the Antimatter Consortium and of Star Fleet.”

Outrage and confusion answered her. The cat simply smiled thinly and waited for the volume to drop a little before continuing.

“The Star Fleet destroyer Minotaur and the Consortium antimatter transport Chopin followed Alamo Antimatter’s Genesis to system 4854786G76 where Alamo has – excuse me – had an automated antimatter generation plant. When Genesis refused to give Chopin the codes needed to safely approach Alamo stations, the destroyer Minotaur fired on them, destroying Genesis. The station then fired on Chopin when they ignored the station’s warnings and boundary limits. Minotaur then fired at the station – which returned fire. All three ships were destroyed and as the station is too severely damaged to be safely repaired, it will, therefore, be de-orbited into the local sun.”

Tanner seemed to look around at all the stunned and upset faces before her before continuing. “I say again, congratulations, because Alamo Antimatter hereby refuses to go anywhere near a Federation port or Star Fleet base until those responsible for this act of piracy are in custody for their crimes. And they will be read by a telepath of our choosing to confirm who else might have been working with them and that they aren’t just someone being offered up to us as scapegoats.”

“This will take some time,” the husky protested.

Tanner’s smile wasn’t pleasant as she said, “I’d be willing to bet my retirement fund that at least one of you present on this call knew all about it – so I suggest you work quickly. The full records of the attack will go public in four hours. That is all.”

Robin’s connection dropped just as the shouting began.

“There’s a reason no pirate has ever managed to steal fuel from Alamo Antimatter,” Neal dryly commented. “Their crews and stations are very carefully trained or programmed and they are allowed to defend themselves.”

“But to destroy a Star Fleet destroyer?” Rosepetal demanded.

Neal frowned at her through the display. “What won’t be provable is that Minotaur wasn’t destroying the station because it had defended itself – but to destroy any recordings that the attack had occurred in the first place. In fact, the attack was also recorded by a refinery and ore processing center out in the belt that happens to have a faster-than-light relay. Minotaur had detected it and that was to be their next stop. The lone occupant of a station near the refinery just happens to be a telepath and read their intentions. He then took the necessary measures to protect himself.”

“That would be the one that contacted Lighttouch?” Boyce deduced.

Neal nodded. “Paul has to ‘stretch’ a little to reach out more than a few dozen light years, but inside a solar system he actually has to work at it to not hear the thoughts of others.”

“And he killed them,” Rosepetal softly growled.

Neal frowned at her before saying, “Let’s say that Firefuzz dealer had just shot Boyce and is aiming at Kayla and Ember before bothering to kill the rest of you – please tell me you think his diplomatic immunity would slow Midnight’s retaliation – or yours.”

Rosepetal snarled again but said nothing.

Midnight was also frowning at Neal's image. “You’re either more cold-blooded than I thought – or there’s something you’re not telling us,” shi stated, getting a curious look from Boyce.

“In regards to?” Neal asked.

“You don’t seem to be all that upset about losing a ship and her crew,” shi pointed out.

“Ships I can replace,” Neal told hir. “Even the production plant with a little time.”

“But the people?”

“What people? The Genesis crew? I’ve already been informed by Paul that they survived.”

“What? How?” shi demanded.

Neal snorted at hir in amusement. “You’ve been in Star Fleet how long and you’ve never seen another ship blown to bits? It’s big, it’s messy, and a smart and prepared crew can escape while the enemy’s sensors are blinded by all the interference. And Genesis was carrying enough antimatter to completely refuel any of your major Star Fleet bases – so things were even more exciting than blowing up your average starship.”

“And if your telepath had allowed himself to be killed they’d have had no place to go – and no way to call for help,” Boyce guessed.

“That’s if they weren’t detected by the destroyer later on,” Neal agreed. “Tess tells me all your crew are back aboard the Pegasus, once your core is out of standby we can drop out of warp and separate.”

“Are you kicking us off the Folly?” Boyce asked with a frown.

“No, I’m giving you a chance to talk among yourselves knowing that Tess can’t possibly be listening and let you contact Star Fleet if you so desire.”

Looking at his mates who were looking at him in turn, Boyce said, “Don’t bother. Lighttouch reading you was never placed in the official logs, nor was anything hy told us. Therefore there’s no official reason for us to be concerned with the Folly or her captain in this matter. I am concerned though about Star Fleet ships committing acts of piracy.”

Rosepetal opened her muzzle with an angry retort on her tongue, but her admiral’s look closed it on her protest.

“Well, if we’re all friends here,” Tess’ voice said. “Then I can tell you something else that won’t be on any of those reports. While Genesis and the station hadn’t really been compromised by the ‘I can’t see you’ hack, they had been advised of it and were sending out the proper coded pulses.”

“And?” Neal asked for everyone.

“And Minotaur was broadcasting the ‘I’m not here – you can’t see me’ codes the entire time,” Tess told them.

“Now that is interesting,” Neal said, watching Boyce’s reaction.

“Indeed it is,” Boyce replied, looking in turn at his second in command. “Was there anything left to examine?”

“Sorry, Admiral, but no,” Tess reported. “Our telepath friend admits to having tricked one of their engineers into disabling the containment fields on their antimatter containment. There wouldn’t be a lot left to examine afterwards.”

Neal smiled when he saw Rosepetal shiver at how easily the starship had been destroyed. “It’s a good thing you didn’t try to convince your pet mind reader to leave any ‘suggestions’ in my head – you don’t want to find out how Tess is set to react if she detects that I’m being controlled in any way, shape or form.”

Boyce slowly nodded. “I hate to think of the trouble having your control disrupted might bring.”

Neal smiled. “To you and the Federation. Hopefully, I can keep nudging things from the background.”

“Why always from the background? Why not out in the open?” Rosepetal demanded.

“Because it would reduce my ability to make a difference with what resources I have,” Neal told her. “Imagine if the Consortium and whoever in Star Fleet knew that to take full control over Alamo Antimatter they need only apply force to one single man on one single ship. They were willing to kill just to get the codes to use the facilities, what do you think they’d be willing to try if it might gain them complete control? And idiot that I’ve proven myself to be, I now have a crew and family that I’ve placed at far greater risk if what you now know ever gets out.”

“Word won’t get out – not through us,” Boyce promised. “Though I will need to make a faster-than-light call later; Star Fleet Headquarters needs to be advised of Minotaur’s actions.”

“Let Tess know and she’ll drop us out of warp near a relay,” Neal told him.

“I didn’t think we were following any of the relay chains,” Rosepetal commented.

“I never said anything about linking you through one of the commercial relays,” Neal said with a smirk in her direction before disconnecting.

“Makers!” Midnight muttered.

Boyce’s eyebrow had also risen at Neal’s parting remark. “I guess he’s just showing us a little more trust. Perhaps we should be doing the same.”

His mates nodded but remained silent.

* * *

As the Folly had to drop from warp to discharge her excess heat every now and then, Boyce had simply asked Tess to inform him of her next stop so he could place his call with the minimum disruption to their travels.

While he had intended to just leave a message, Boyce discovered that the party he needed to communicate with was at the office quite early – or had never left.

Admiral Hal Johnson, Supreme Commander of Star Fleet and Boyce’s commanding officer looked up from the PADD he was viewing and smiled. “And what trouble are you bringing me?” he half asked with a grin.

“What makes you think I’m bringing you any trouble?” Boyce asked with a half grin in return.

“Because I know you know how to tell time and you weren’t expecting me to be here,” Hal replied with a smirk of his own. The large Kenyan grinned again as he leaned forward and said, “This doesn’t have anything to do with Star Fleet vessels committing acts of piracy does it?”

“I had heard something along those lines,” Boyce admitted. “But I was more concerned about rumors that the attack was politically motivated.”

“You’re referring to that Antimatter Consortium bill,” Hal said. “I’ve been trying to quietly kill it from this end, but the Consortium placed their bribes well, it’s going to go up for the vote any day now.”

“I thought Star Fleet had a representative on the committee?”

“We do, Admiral Holden. And we now know why she was so eager to volunteer to represent us …”

“So it’s about to go to hell in a hand-basket,” Boyce commented, wondering if he should tell his superior what else he knew about certain things.

“Maybe, but maybe not,” Hal told him. “Someone is trying to do some very serious damage control – or at least that’s what we think it is. To keep the story of the attack from going out, someone has been knocking the major faster-than-light relay connections offline. Fearing it was an attack of some type I sent a ship to our local link. The relay is fine as far as we can tell – it just refuses to communicate. Which does make me wonder just how you are getting through to me.”

“Hold that thought,” Boyce requested as he opened a new link. “Tess, is Neal available?”

It was Neal that replied. “Problems with the link?”

“No, my link is fine, but I’ve just been told that someone has been knocking out the main links to the commercial faster-than-light relays.”

“Not my doing,” Neal replied, unknowingly getting a raised eyebrow from Hal.

“There’s a thought that it’s to keep information from getting around – like that attack on Alamo Antimatter,” Boyce suggested.

“Hmm,” they heard Neal mutter. “We sent out the warnings to all Alamo Antimatter ships and ports before letting the Antimatter Consortium know that we knew about the attack. Tess, start unlocking our links. Full power pings, let’s see what all might be willing to talk to us.”

Hal had opened his mouth to speak, but he held his peace at a warning wave from Boyce. “What are you thinking, Neal?” Boyce asked.

“I’m thinking I wish I’d started this secondary network ten years ago,” Neal replied. “Okay, it appears that I can bypass most if not all of the current gaps they’ve created, but some routes I just don’t have enough relays in place for any real bandwidth.”

“But you can reach everywhere?” Boyce asked.

“Barely, but yeah, so long as they don’t lock out too many more relays I can route around this current mess.”

“Is there any way to give Star Fleet priority on the links with limited bandwidth?”

“Sure,” Neal agreed, “but they’d have to know to use them.”

“I’ve got Star Fleet Command on my other line, if they had the links, they could get the word out.”

“Priorities,” Neal muttered. “I wanted more time before they knew my relays were out there, but this needs doing too. Sending you the codes and instructions on how to use them.”

“Thank you, Neal,” Boyce quietly said as the connection dropped. To Hal, he said, “Any thoughts on someone thinking they could take independent control over parts of Star Fleet if we were divided?”

“All the more reason to get everyone reconnected,” Hal agreed as he received the data pack from Boyce. “I’ll get this started now. I’d like to talk with you again in six hours.”

“I’ll be there,” Boyce said as his boss hung up on him. “Tess, I’ll need to call them back in six hours by their clocks.”

“Six Earth hours, aye, sir. I’ll make sure we’re in range of a relay,” Tess assured him.

* * *

“I have your connection,” Tess reported. As it was now well after ship’s main watch, Boyce was taking the call in his quarters.

“Thank you, Tess,” Boyce replied. “Admiral Johnson, is there anything you need to tell me that my mates can’t hear?”

“No, Admiral Kline, in fact, we may want their input on a few things,” Hal replied.

Boyce smiled and waved his wives back into the room. Once they were all seated, he said, “I received the Fleet orders you sent out, so I’m guessing those priority codes worked.”

“Indeed they did,” Hal agreed. “Even better was someone overriding the lockouts and bringing all those offline relays back into full service. Considering the way the companies that run the faster-than-light service are now screaming that someone out there is ‘hacking’ their relays, I’m guessing they didn’t want them back online just yet.”

Boyce smiled as he said, “Let me check with someone. Tess?” he asked, only to not get a reply. Tapping a comm key he again said, “Tess?”

“Yes, Admiral, how can I help you?”

“Do you know anything about those faster-than-light relays coming back online without their headquarters telling them to?”

“We’ve had the override codes since they were first installed and Neal didn’t want to give away too many of our own secrets, so we brought them online after changing their command codes. The owners will now have to physically go to each and every relay to regain control over their networks,” Tess told them.

“Won’t they be able to tell who did what to the relays once they’re onsite?” Boyce asked.

“They’ll have to completely reload the command and control systems – which will wipe the history folders and any hints of our relays having ever linked with theirs,” Tess told him. “We think it was set up that way so they could hide their own dirty little tricks when needed.”

“Thank you, Tess,” Boyce replied.

Hal’s image glared at him for a moment before saying, “Are you going to get around to telling me who the heck that ‘Tess’ might be?”

Boyce smiled at his boss before saying, “Tess is an AI that seems to be running almost everything on a freighter named ‘Folly’. Let’s just say neither she nor her ship go anywhere near the ‘normal’ scale of things.”

“And the Folly’s captain – or is the AI in full control of everything?” Hal asked.

“Captain Foster is just as odd as his ship. You might say they’re ‘well matched’,” Boyce advised him.

“Foster. An interesting name, as it cropped up on something else I was looking into. Did you know Alamo Antimatter has stopped all their deliveries after that little incident?”

“I haven’t heard as much as I’d like from out here,” Boyce allowed. “Why?”

“Because it seems some of Alamo’s captains – like certain Star Fleet admirals I won’t bother to name – take their orders more as suggestions,” Hal dryly said as the display changed to something recorded at an earlier time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The screen was split, on one side an older male badger morph was scowling, while from the other a female mink morph with a slight frown marring her muzzle.

“Well, well, well, the base commander herself,” the badger muttered. “To what does a lowly merchant such as myself owe such privilege?”

“You fail to check your mail?” the mink dryly asked.

“I checked it,” the badger growled. “Why?”

“Because I thought you guys were afraid of more Star Fleet attacks.”

“First, you’re Night Watch – not Fleet. Second, I doubt that you have three weeks of fuel left in your containment fields – and I know for a fact your emergency reserves don’t hold another two. So either I drag my tail all the way out here and refuel you, or you’ll be abandoning this base before my boss thinks things will get back to what passes for normal in these parts.”

The mink sighed. “Yeah, you called it. Aren’t you afraid you’ll catch hell for helping us out?”

The badger’s grin wasn’t a polite one as he said, “All you outposts were to be topped off before that stupid Consortium bill passes. My boss would be even more upset if I’d just left you to scuttle your base.”

The mink smirked before saying, “Does this mean you’ll accept an invitation from the base commander to dine with her?”

The badger snorted at her. “I’m bending my orders, Lady, not breaking them,” he told her.

“Standard procedures then. I’ll have the teams ready for you. Base clear.”

Anaconda, clear.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“So Alamo Antimatter’s not being quite as hard-nosed about this as they’re publicly claiming,” Boyce surmised.

“At least not where others might notice,” Hal agreed. “And now, why I thought the name ‘Foster’ was so interesting,” he added before the display showed them a blank screen.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Jump Start to station. How you guys doin’ on your setup?” an elderly sounding human male voice called out.

“What ship?” came a startled male canine sounding reply. “Who the hell are you? And why can’t I see you?”

“As I was saying,” the elderly voice said with apparent humor, “this is the freighter Jump Start. As you kids are setting up well off the beaten paths, I thought I’d swing by and see if you needed any supplies. As to where I am, I’m directly in front of your primary array at three hundred kilometers.”

“Okay,” the canine finally said. “We can see you if we go active. Why the hell can’t we see you at that range in passive?”

“Hmm, perhaps I can convince your base commander to buy a sensor upgrade as well as supplies from me.”

“I’ll get hir – don’t go away!”

The display finally lit to reveal an older and slightly frowning cinnamon/strawberry colored chakat on one side.

The other side now displayed an elderly human male, his beard and hair were mostly gray to white with a few hints of what once might have been dark red hair.

The chakat’s frown had dropped into astonishment as shi gasped out, “YOU?”

The old man merely grinned back at hir. “Small universe, eh kitten? What’s this I hear about them leaving you out here in the dark and blind as a bat?”

“Docking port Seven,” the chakat didn’t quite demand before dropping hir link.

The old man had been chuckling as he dropped his own link.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Hal’s face returned to the screen as he said, “Records show that we incorporated that sensor upgrade into Star Fleet ships and stations once Night Watch admitted that they had the better system. What I found interesting was that that trader’s name was also Foster and that he had quite the family resemblance to the current captain of the Folly.”

“And Folly was able to get within two hundred kilometers of Pegasus without our passive arrays detecting her,” Boyce admitted.

“See if this Foster’ll sell you an upgrade,” Hal suggested – not knowing one was already well underway. “Preferably with the training and tech manuals so we don’t have to reverse-engineer the whole thing this time around.”

“Who was the chakat?” Midnight asked.

“One of the very first of the second generation of chakats. Chakat Squiggle, daughter of Sunshine and Zigzag,” Hal told them.

“And shi knew that Foster by sight,” Boyce commented.

“I had my aide do a little digging,” Hal added. “Alamo Antimatter ships have been transporting fuel as well as regular supplies to most of our Night Watch stations ever since.”

“Food for thought,” Boyce allowed. “Anything else?”

“That’s it for now. Watch your step out there.”

“You too. And good luck killing that bill.”

Hal merely nodded as the screen went blank.

“Lighttouch warned us that the waters were deep,” Midnight said.

M'Lai had been wearing a thoughtful look on her muzzle since seeing the old man and the chakat. “I don’t think that was just a family resemblance,” she finally said.

“What do you mean?” Rosepetal asked.

“In med-school one of our human training courses had recordings of past human professors teaching their classes. One of those humans, a Professor Wyatt, had actually taught classes for almost a hundred years. We’d have one recording of him teaching at thirty, then one when he was well over a hundred, and the next when he was only fifty.”

“So?”

“So the human’s skin covering changed over time, but the bone structure didn’t – or at least not that much. That old man was Neal Foster.”

“But the timestamp on that recording said it was well over a hundred years old,” Midnight injected.

“Then he’s processed himself,” M’Lai countered with a shrug. “But I’m positive that was him.”

Boyce said nothing, only watching as his firstwife came to terms with the person she had been distrusting.

* * *

Having finished his ‘shift’ early, Neal again was watching as the simulated stars slid across the viewports of Pegasus’ coffee lounge. A table on his left held an iced tea while Firestorm and Starblazer slept in a basket to his right.

As her co-wives and husband were still otherwise occupied, Rosepetal walked in front of him alone.

Neal had been taking a sip of his tea as she appeared and he nodded as he swallowed. “Good evening, Commander. Where’s the rest of your entourage?”

“They will be joining us momentarily,” she informed him.

“And they trust the two of us to be seen alone together?” Neal quietly teased. “Oh, the scenes we could make up in full view of your poor crew!”

“I trust we won’t have to do that,” Rosepetal said a little dryly.

“Oh, come on, just a little one,” Neal offered.

“I am not going to sit in your lap!” she smirked.

“How about sliding up to the bar and ordering a pair of banana splits?” Neal suggested.

“Why a pair?”

“Well, you could pretend to be being a gracious hostess and bring me one …”

Rosepetal gave him a glare before heading for the bar.

“Tess, make it happen,” Neal whispered.

“Just for the two of you?” Tess asked.

“Anyone that asks – but just for tonight.”

“Two banana splits, please,” Rosepetal was saying to the bartender.

“We –” was as far as he got before a pair of banana splits materialized on the bar between them.

“I wanna banana split too!” a youth coming in with his parents proclaimed – and a third one joined the first two.

Rosepetal left the bartender with his jaws still agape, picking up her order and returning to where Neal sat.

Handing him one of them, she asked, “Just how many banana splits are you and Tess offering?”

“As many as are asked for,” Neal replied. “I see no reason to limit them to just the two of us.”

“We can detect your transports now.”

“And yet your ship’s alert level hasn’t changed. Somebody over here must trust us – at least a little bit.”

“Answer or don’t,” she said. “How long have you been meddling with Federation politics?”

Neal was quiet as if in thought long enough that she wondered if he wasn’t going to answer before he finally said, “If I hadn’t kicked some ass and shaved a tail, instead of joining us the Rakshani might have gone to war with the Federation – or at least with Earth.”

Rosepetal’s muzzle had opened with a sharp remark on the tip of her tongue, but she had asked and he had answered, if she rejected this he may not answer another.

“Totally unintentional on my part,” Neal continued after a moment. “I and several Rakshani happened to be busy dragging a crippled starship to the closest place we could seek help – it just turned out to be while they were having their peace talks. It seemed a couple of their Houses were thinking a little war with an Earth still recovering from the Gene Wars would be more profitable than peace. With a little help, I was able to convince them that they really didn’t want to see what those smelly furless – or furry – beings from Earth thought war should look like.”

“Night Watch?” she asked.

“Was and is a good idea. We exchange a lot of data with them; though Folly isn’t officially part of the network we do have a couple of other ships out there helping with the watching.”

“And the doing?”

“And the doing,” he agreed.

“Chakat Squiggle.”

Neal smiled in memory. “Shi was maybe a week old when I got tripped into those Rakshani peace talks. Hir parents hated me giving hir that name – and even shi claimed to not like it – but for some strange reason shi never changed it …” Neal commented. Starblazer and Firestorm were now awake and looking around, so he mashed up a slice of his banana to offer them.

As cub and kit licked at Neal’s banana-coated fingers, Boyce, M’Lai and Midnight joined them with Kayla and Ember in tow, each carrying a banana split.

“Trying to disrupt my ship yet again?” Boyce asked with a grin as he bent to set one banana split on the deck where Ember could get at it.

“As your first officer has informed me, you could have prevented it,” Neal pointed out. “Besides, I had Rosepetal get these for us,” he added with a grin.

“I had to trust that he hadn’t sent me up there just to make me look foolish,” she admitted.

“Are you claiming you now trust me?” Neal wondered.

“A little,” she allowed.

“More fool you,” Neal said with a smile – only to get one from her in return.

* * *

After returning to the Folly, Neal ran into Hurshal.

“I still can’t believe what you’ve done for Diann!” the wolf morph said with a chuckle. “She’s still relearning how to move about, but she’s in better spirits than I’ve ever seen.”

“Amazing how not being in pain can improve your disposition,” Neal agreed.

“Oh, it’s more than just that,” Hurshal insisted. “But she’s already well enough off that she no longer needs Tess watching over her – and we aren’t earning any credits just sitting in your ship bay.”

“True,” Neal admitted. “And I need to get that other ship out of here as well. Hmm, I believe you’re still running staffed well enough to run prize crews?”

Hurshal nodded. “We get enough jobs moving ships for owners that don’t have a crew for them yet.”

“So, let me hire you to take it to the barn. They’ll need to go through it anyway in case that asshole left any other surprises behind.”

Hurshal smiled. “Easy money. Why are we taking her to the barn?”

Neal shrugged. “Well, it seems I indirectly own the silly thing.”

“Ah. And why do I feel there’s more on your mind?”

“You’ve kept your muzzle clean since our first unpleasant encounter. I was wondering if maybe it’s time to reward you for that with a bit of an upgrade.”

It was Hurshal’s turn to shrug. “It’s a nice enough ship, but she’s slow and unarmed.”

“I did say an upgrade and not just a trade,” Neal reminded him.

“You did, didn’t you,” Hurshal murmured as he thought it over. “Speaking of the asshole…”

“The probe I left watching him detected the air venting from the shuttle a little over eight hours after we left. I left a silent marker on it in case we want to retrieve it someday.”

“Just so long as he’s gone for good.”

* * *

That evening Neal went to bed late, and he wasn’t too surprised to find someone already sleeping in his bed. What did surprise him though was that it wasn’t his denmate, the cook, his nanny or any of his kids waiting for him.

Zhanch had heard him come in and gave him a jaw-cracking yawn before smiling up at him. “I understand you have an open door and open bed policy,” she softly growled.

“That I do,” Neal admitted. “Is there a reason I found a cute little hellcat in it tonight?”

“A thank you for saving us,” Zhanch softly replied.

“If you see this as an obligation or payback then I really don’t want you in that bed,” he softly said with a frown.

“Really?”

“Really. One of the teens thought it was expected of them. As I told them, I don’t want anyone in that bed that doesn’t want to be there.”

“I see,” Zhanch said with a small frown of her own. “What did you do?”

“Explained the rules and carried her back to her own bed.”

“And you slept alone?”

“No, she came back on her own.”

“I am here because I wish to be – will you join me?”

“I would be honored …”

 

 


 

Dialing Up The Terror – For Some

 

Whenever the Pegasus was joined to the Folly, Kayla could now usually be found with Shadowcrest when they didn’t have classes or chores. The two became fast friends and mischief magnets. Shadowcrest was reminded the hard way why Neal wanted her to only have one door to the aviary open at a time. His parent birds were only semi-trained, and other than hir own Brave Heart, the other eleven younger birds not at all, so spooking them with both doors open meant chasing panicked birds up and down the Folly’s corridors for over an hour.

However, even they couldn’t keep up with Holly and Quickdash. Those two had quickly been given the title of ‘terror twins’ by some of the Pegasus’s crew. Not because they were always getting into trouble, but because they seemed to know enough about how ship systems really worked that the Pegasus’s technicians couldn’t BS their way through the kids’ questions. This led to some of the technicians actively avoiding them; it was embarrassing being caught out by a pair so young.

* * *

Boyce and Neal were walking through the Pegasus’s engineering hull when a door at the far end opened. Holly and Quickdash were pushed out into the corridor. “And stay out!” was heard as the door closed.

“Busted,” Boyce quietly said while hiding a smile.

“Again,” Neal agreed. As the kids turned to go in the opposite direction, Neal called out, “Hold it right there, you two.” When they reached the kids, Neal frowned. “What were you told about making a nuisance of yourselves?”

“But, Daddy, they’ve got a big problem!” Holly complained.

“Do you think their ‘big problem’ is going to hurt someone or damage the ship?”

“No, but …”

“This isn’t my ship, so you can’t just go around telling the crew how to do things. What did I tell you to do when you see a problem?”

“Report it.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“Take it to their supervisors.”

“And if they don’t want to listen to a couple of meddlesome little brats?”

“Tell Tess what we think is wrong, and tell her how we think it should be fixed. And then she will tell you.”

“You keep skipping that last step. Back to the Folly with the both of you; Tess will have something for you to do when you get there.”

“But …”

“Move!”

Once the kids were out of sight, Boyce turned to Neal. “You were a little harsh on them.”

“Not at all. If they think they’re up to criticizing other people’s work, it may be time to let them get their own hands dirty and see what it’s really like. Tess, show me their training schedules.” Looking at their training, Neal added a few more tests for them to take. “Tess, tell them if they can pass these tests, they can help me work on Gulf.” Smiling at Boyce, Neal said, “So, would you still think I’m being too harsh if I tell them that if they quit irritating your crew, and pass a test, that they get to help build a ship of their own?”

“But, they don’t know that.”

“Yet. They need to learn that being able to see someone else’s mistakes doesn’t mean you won’t make the same mistake when you do it yourself.”

“They’re a little young for you to be forcing them to work.”

“Too young to force it on them as work, but not too young to offer it as a new type of play. Ask them in a week if they feel ‘abused’.”

“Dare I ask what a ‘Gulf’ is?”

“It’s a semi-organized pile of bits and pieces that I’d intended to turn into a starship someday,” Neal admitted. “I was showing you and Sparks the warp core configuration I have planned for her. But with everything else going on, that project’s been going nowhere fast.”

Their conversation was interrupted by a nearby translift opening. Rosepetal was leading Kayla towards the door the terror twins had just been evicted from. Kayla’s muzzle and upper body were covered in something thick and gray looking, Rosepetal’s muzzle was covered in fury. Boyce started to open his mouth, but a look from his mate closed it with a snap.

After the door closed behind them, Neal said, “I wonder… Tess, what were the kids bothering his technicians about?”

“Some of the sink and shower drains have a positive pressure behind their check valves. Holly acquired a face full of water from one of them.”

“And it looks like Kayla wasn’t pouring water down her drain. Almost looked like watered down clay.”

“Perhaps art class cleanup,” Boyce suggested.

“Hmmm. Tess, did the kids ever get to tell the techs what was wrong, or were they stonewalled?”

“A very solid stonewall, Boss.”

Turning to Boyce, Neal said, “If you don’t mind, this could be a very good learning experience for my twins. The downside is your firstwife may decide to tear a long strip off of whatever’s left of your techs.”

At Boyce’s nod, Neal had Tess send the twins running back to the Pegasus’s engineering section.

When they arrived, Neal didn’t give them time to catch their breaths. With a hand-signal requesting that Boyce wait, he led them into the room.

Rosepetal was glaring at a group of techs who looked like they wished they could sink into the deck. Kayla was standing in a corner, trying to not be noticed.

“Sorry for the interruption,” Neal briskly said as he led the twins over to Kayla. As they stared wide-eyed at their friend, Neal said, “This is what can happen when you waste time arguing with someone who’s not listening. By the way, you were incorrect when you told me that the problem couldn’t hurt someone; Kayla here got a little mud in her eyes, but she was lucky. It could just as easily have been someone in the galley dumping boiling hot water into a sink. Now take Kayla and get her cleaned up. I’d advise having Tess check the drain before you try using it.”

“Can we take her to the Folly?” Holly asked. Neal turned and arched an eyebrow at Rosepetal, at her rather sharp nod all three kids took off.

Looking at Rosepetal, Neal was about to speak when the comm panel on the wall beeped. “Engineering! We’re getting reports all over the ship of drains not working. Some are spraying the contents back up, while on others the drain valves don’t seem to be opening at all!”

“This is Commander Silpurr, we are aware of the problem. Engineering out,” Rosepetal snapped. Giving Neal a suspicious look, she asked, “Do you know why some of the valves are staying closed?”

“No, but I have someone who only tells me what she thinks I need to know. Tess, are you keeping those drain valves from opening?”

“Yes, Boss.”

“As I think I can guess why I’ll simply ask: how?”

A collection of small pieces suddenly rained onto one of the tables. Picking up one of the pieces Neal snorted. “The power connections for the valves?”

“Yes, Boss.”

As three more connectors fell into the pile, Neal smiled at Rosepetal. “I suggest we let them get to work before this pile gets too much bigger.”

Rosepetal was fuming as she followed Neal out to where Boyce was waiting for them. “If your ‘Tess’ was protecting people from the problem, why didn’t she protect my Kayla?” she snarled at him.

Neal ignored her anger as he replied. “It sounds to me like she’s protecting your crew from injuries, not from mere messes,” he pointed out. “That, and with engineering not listening to the twins, Tess allowing Kayla’s little ‘mess’ brought the problem to the two top-ranking people on this ship. And it did get our attention, where all the twins got was the brush-off.”

“I don’t like her methods,” Rosepetal said, still more than a little upset.

Neal shook his head as he smiled. “No, but you do have to admit that they work.”

Neal had turned away and missed the glare she aimed his way, Boyce biting back a chuckle and a thought of from whom Tess might have learned those methods.

 

 


 

Another Little Blast From The Past

 

The next evening, dinner was on the Folly, Stew getting yet another chance to show off her culinary skills. Two of the bunny boys had come over to help her prepare it, both to ease her workload, as well as to learn some of her ‘tricks of the trade’. They all considered this a fair trade because when the meals were on the Pegasus, Stew was picking up some of their secrets in return.

The main courses were over. Everyone was sipping coffee/tea/hot chocolate, letting their stomachs settle a bit before the desserts were rolled out.

Neal and Boyce had been discussing where to extend the pirate hunt next when Holly spoke up. “Daddy,” she said. When Neal looked her way, she asked, “Can we have an ‘Alternate Thursday’?”

“Where did y…?” Neal sputtered. Then, catching sight of a dark tail disappearing out the door, he yelled, “CHASE!” As the door slid closed, he muttered, “Brat ...”

Weaver looked around. With the exceptions of Neal, Redfoot, Quickdash, and Holly, everyone else seemed to be looking equally mystified by the exchange. Looking at Neal, she said, “One of these days I’m going to sit on you until you tell me all of your little secrets. This isn’t another ‘Zulu’ is it?”

“No, Love, it’s not another Zulu. Just another little ‘blast from my past’. And as far as sitting on me, I’m torn between saying ‘Promises, promises’, or pointing out that I just happen to know where you’re the most ticklish.” Looking around, Neal said, “You’ll have to understand that most of the kids in Chase’s group ranged between Holly and Shadowcrest when I took them in. This led to some of the entertainment being just a little more, well, juvenile. There were more than a few messes made, and I finally had to put my foot down, and dictate that they were only allowed to make a mess where and when I told them they could. These ‘messy times’ became known as ‘Alternate Thursdays’, although they could be any time of any day. They were used to have fun, blow off a little steam, and sometimes as a reward for not driving me too crazy.” Neal smiled. “The rooms we used to use are offline, but I think I could set it up as a holosuite program in a few minutes.”

“That won’t be necessary, Neal,” Redfoot informed him with a smile. At his raised eyebrow, she grinned. “Chase and I have spent quite a bit of our free time getting the rooms in question back up to spec while Tess hid the logs from you. The only reason your twin terrors know about it is they caught us in the act of repairing and recalibrating those old out of date replicators and upgrading some of the power conduits. So, we can all have a little ‘juvenile’ fun. That is, if you’re up to it, old man.”

“Old man? No one has called me that to my face in a very long time. Didn’t Chase warn you that I’m in better shape now than when shi was a cub?” At Redfoot’s nod, Neal grinned. “Then shi should have also have told you that even as an ‘old man’, I could still tie hir tail in a knot whenever I thought shi needed it.”

“You’re avoiding the question again, Pops. Is this a Thursday of Alternatives or not?”

“Pops … I’ll show you Pops!” Neal muttered as he looked at the others. Weaver was wearing her poker face, but the gleam in her eyes suggested she was waiting for the show to begin. Boyce’s group was waiting with a show of patience, but the way Holly and Quickdash were bouncing around was making everyone squirm a little in anticipation. Zhanch had what could only be called an evil grin plastered across her muzzle. Giving them all a grin to match Zhanch’s, Neal said, “Clothing is optional, but I do suggest you not wear anything that stains easily. If you want a set of trunks or tops, just ask Tess.” He then looked to Redfoot. “Show them the way – I’ll join you in a moment.” He then walked into the kitchen.

All three rabbits looked up from their final preparations of the desserts when Neal walked in. Stew arched an eyebrow as she said, “We’re almost ready. Are they getting impatient?”

Neal smiled. “No to the second, don’t bother to the first.” At their confused looks, he chuckled. “Change of plans, and this time it’s not even my fault.”

“What are you doing?” Stew asked as Neal looked over the dessert cart.

“Deciding on the proper ammunition,” Neal said as he picked an item off the cart and placed it in the kitchen’s replicator. “Tess, use this for our new pattern please.” Looking back to the bunnies as the replicator hummed, Neal said, “You’re invited, but be aware it will be getting messy. Dress, or don’t dress as you please.”

Redfoot had led the others to an older dining area in the corncob, just forward of engineering. Most of them had left their clothes in a neighboring cabin. Boyce had borrowed a pair of trunks for the ‘messy fun’. Redfoot had them line up along the walls, facing inward. Wearing his own trunks, Neal arrived a few minutes later with three nude bunnies in tow.

After getting the rabbits positioned, Neal then hung his glasses on a loop by the door and walked over to Kayla. Smiling he asked, “Ready for dessert?” At her curious nod, he grinned. “There are special rules for eating desserts on ‘Alternate Thursdays’. You cannot eat your own dessert; someone else has to feed it to you. Alternately, others will need your help to eat their desserts. Think you can handle that?” When she nodded again, Neal smiled and pointed at Shadowchaser, who was standing across the room. “Go ahead and feed Chase dessert.”

Looking confused, Kayla asked. “How can I feed hir? There are no desserts in here.”

“Silly me,” Neal chuckled. “Hold out your hand like you were balancing a plate on it,” he suggested. When Kayla held her hand out, she almost dropped the whipped cream covered chocolate pie that suddenly appeared. As she started to walk toward Shadowchaser, Neal said, “No, no. Feed hir from where you are.” When Kayla stared at him in shock, he laughed. “I did warn you it gets messy! The only way anyone is leaving this room clean is if they are extremely good at avoiding being ‘fed’, or if no one else thinks they’re worth feeding.”

Kayla hesitated until Shadowchaser gave her a smile and then opened hir mouth wide. Her shot was low and a little to the right, adding a cup size to half of Shadowchaser’s bust.

“RELOAD!” Neal ordered. Once she had another pie, he called out. “Let the games beg…” three pies catching him in the face, while others plastered the rest of him.

Like the pies, things instantly got out of hand and went downhill from there. The first shots were fairly accurate, but this quickly changed. It’s hard to aim when others keep nailing you with pies. Neal didn’t bother with aiming, he just wind-milled his arms in the direction that he thought an attack was coming from. Others tried his method and found saturation pie firing had its uses. After the first minute, the footing became treacherous, the taurs gaining a slight advantage, though even they were sliding around in the rapidly growing mess.

Neal waited until things died down to just a few of the Rakshani practicing ballistic bombing at each other, half their missed shots dripping off the apparently not high enough ceiling. In places, the pie filling was over half a meter deep. He quietly called out, “Anybody still hungry?” At the groans and laughter, he said, “Then I hereby declare a ceasefire.”

Seeing part of a small chocolate and cream pile next to him move, Neal reached into the pile and pulled out a small six-legged creature by the tail. Eyeing his find, he chuckled. “Heavier than Ember last time I held hir, but the limbs don’t seem to be quite long enough. Tail wraps around too well to be Starblazer. Either we’ve been invaded, or Stormy has managed to cross the field of battle without drowning. Not bad for such a little furball.”

“I take offense to that term,” said one of the larger animated piles of chocolate pie filling.

Carefully wiping off Firestorm’s face, Neal smiled. “For once I can honestly say all you big cats look alike to me. Which one are you anyway?”

“Kestrel, sir. And I’m serious about not liking that term.”

“Furball? I’m afraid I sometimes use it as a term of endearment to those I care for. Of course, I know of those who do not care for furs sometimes use it offensively. Hmm, as for not liking the term, maybe you’ve never had it properly applied.” Looking at the other chocolate piles, he tried to remember who had been next to Kestrel when the pie fight had begun. “Zhanch, would you and Dessa do me a favor, and please restrain Kestrel?”

Kestrel started to back away from her colleagues as they closed in on her, their eyes and grinning teeth the only non-chocolate covered parts of their bodies. Neal chuckled. “Don’t you trust them?” he asked as she continued to back away. That stopped her; Kestrel stood still and let the other two get a grip on each of her wrists.

Neal hummed. “It may be safer for all three of you to sit down, better still if Kestrel laid down.” Once they were down, Neal called out, “Suzan, Holly, Quickdash, Shadowcrest! Front and center please.” As they struggled through the chocolate and cream mess, Neal turned to where Boyce and his family were watching with growing curiosity.

“When the Rakshani first woke up onboard the Folly, they thought they were aboard a slave ship and Kestrel here tried to attack my crew. At the time, I told her then that I would have to think of a suitable punishment. I did think of one, but in her previous state, there was a chance it might have killed her. Now that she’s healthy again, the punishment shouldn’t be fatal.” Neal whispered something into Suzan’s ear. She tried to disagree, but finally nodded her head and whispered something to the others that got her grins as Neal continued, “Since these were the ones Kestrel attempted to attack, I think it’s only fitting that they deliver her punishment.”

The four surrounded Kestrel and reached for her. At first, nothing seemed to be happening as they dug their hands into her chocolaty fur, then Kestrel let out a shriek, and then another one. She was trying to tuck her legs up and free her arms, her thick tail slashing wildly as she let out yet another shriek, and broke into helpless laughter as her punishers continued to tickle her. After a minute, Dessa and Zhanch released the now helpless Kestrel. She tucked her legs in again and wrapped her arms around them, in an attempt to reduce the areas her tormentors could reach.

Neal waved the others off and held Kestrel’s hands in place. When she got her breath back, Neal smiled. “In case you didn’t notice, you seem to have wrapped yourself into a ball. If it weren’t for all this chocolate, you would look like a ball of fur, or as some would say, a ‘furball’. I will try to not use that word in your presence, but if I slip, I want you to remember this moment.” As Neal released her hands, he added, “And if you ever need a reminder, I’m sure any of the kids would be more than willing to help you remember.”

Struggling to his feet, Neal offered Kestrel a hand up. With a grin, Kestrel took his hand but used it to yank Neal back down on top of her. With her tormenter where she could now reach him, she started giving him a taste of his own medicine. Earlier brats of assorted ages had taught Neal long ago that there was no real defense against a good tickler; only a stronger offensive against an attacker might work. Soon they were both having problems breathing. It didn’t help having the others shouting advice and taking bets on the winner. In desperation, Kestrel grabbed both of Neal’s wrists and held them away from her body. While this did keep Neal from tickling her, it also removed his means of supporting himself. This dropped his head between two chocolaty mountains. While he would normally find this quite pleasant, the valley between was also currently full of chocolate, making breathing a challenge. Kestrel took pity on him and raised her arms over her head, dragging Neal’s face clear of her breasts.

Neal caught his breath and then began to chuckle. At Kestrel’s look of confusion (or at least that’s what it looked like under all that chocolate), Neal said, “I never knew the Marines taught that type of attack: smothering the enemy with your chocolate covered breasts. But I must say, what a way to go!”

Kestrel just stared at him for a moment, then she released his wrists and started giggling. With his arms free, Neal took some of his weight off of her and waited for her to settle down. “Truce?” he asked when she was looking at him again. At her raised chocolate eyebrow, he added, “At least for now?” She nodded, and he rolled the rest of the way off of her. “Good, because I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to overheat in this layer of chocolate,” he said as he slowly got up.

Shuffling to the far end of the room, Neal opened a heavy set of double doors. The next room held several screened, taur-sized toilet stalls, half a dozen large open shower stalls, a wading pool, and two huge hot tubs built to hold up to ten taurs each around its perimeter. The center of the room was dominated by a large pool, with depths ranging from a meter in the shallows, to over three meters under the diving board.

Dropping his trunks in a bin as he headed for the first set of showerheads, Neal said, “Here’s where we find out if Chase and Redfoot really got the filtering systems back up to spec.” As he stepped into the shower area, the heads started a needle fine spray, driving deeply into his hair, and the chocolate seemed to melt off his shoulders. He was almost through the shower when he heard a small cry over the noise of the water. Firestorm had tried to follow him in, but the shower’s spray was more than shi was ready to handle. Neal picked hir up, and as the others took their showers, he carried Firestorm to one of the sinks. A few minutes of splashing around got most of the chocolate off the kitten, and then it was time for a proper bath.

Moonglow met them at the wading pool; shi had Firestorm’s shampoo and bath toys. Weaver joined them with Starblazer. Midnight soon followed with Ember in tow. A bubbling fountain in the center of the pool released fresh water, the chocolate and soap residue washed down drains set around the rim. With the little ones cleaned up, a few more toys were added to the pool and they were allowed to play. The adults moved over to one of the hot tubs, the other hot tub having been commandeered by the Rakshani, while the older kids seemed to be trying to turn the main pool into one big bubble bath.

Neal was just stepping down into the hot tub when he was pulled to one of the bench seats and a furry pair of legs wrapped around his waist. Furry hands pointed his head forward when he tried to turn around, and then his captor began working shampoo into his hair. After dunking him to rinse out his hair, the paws began working over the rest of his body with a soapy sponge. After getting the soap out of his eyes, Neal was able to see Rosepetal was giving Boyce similar treatment. Midnight was working on M’Lai’s back, Moonglow was already on Weaver’s lower back, and the bunny boys were laughing about something as they did each other’s hair and ears.

When he decided the paws were doing more groping and tickling than cleaning, Neal pulled the legs around him apart far enough to get loose, then used them to bring their owner in front of him. While Suzan had walked through the showers, she still looked like she was trying to audition for the role of a sexy and very chocolaty Easter bunny. Smiling, Neal turned her around as he said, “My turn.”

He quickly found out why the bunny boys had been laughing so hard – cleaning the chocolate out of Suzan’s ears was driving her crazy. As he started on her back and shoulders, Neal looked around to see how his guests were doing. Boyce had turned the tables on Rosepetal, who was all but screeching for him to stop, while he kept insisting her ticklish sides needed just a little more ‘cleaning’. Neal turned his head just in time to see a very soapy Dessa make a short flight as her associates threw her from their hot tub the few feet to the deep end of the pool. She came up sputtering, then sprung out of the pool and all but dived back into the hot tub, as they chose their next victim to be cleaned.

Thirteen more large splashes into the pool later, the ‘cleaning’ was dying down, and it looked like cuddling was the next thing on the menu. The three little ones had been tired after all their hard play, so after drying them off, a pile of warm towels was made into a bed next to the hot tub.

Shadowchaser turned toward Neal and asked, “Feeling better, Father?”

For a moment, Neal didn’t answer. He just laid there, a towel acting as a pillow, Suzan still in his lap, her head on his shoulder. “Yes, I do feel better. Thank you, Chase. I didn’t realize just how much I was holding back until you and the others helped release it.”

“This has been building since New Kiev, hasn’t it?”

“Since our stop at Starbase Three, actually. The idea that someone in Star Fleet has enough information on me to anticipate my movements so well scares me a little.” Looking over at Boyce and Rosepetal, he added, “It’s not so much that I mind Star Fleet keeping track of where the Folly might be. It’s more a fear that that data could make it to others, whom I’m deliberately trying to keep in the dark.”

“How many secrets are you keeping from us?” asked Shadowcrest.

“You can’t count that high,” Neal said with a chuckle.

“How about 5,250?” Mike asked.

“Nice try, but that’s just the number that needed and survived the process, not my number of secrets.”

“Give us a hint!” Holly demanded.

Neal just shook his head as he laughed. “I know you nosy furs have been going through my ship and cargo logs. All the clues are there if you can just figure out what you’re looking at.”

“But there are gaps!” Holly cried.

Neal smiled. “There’re more than enough clues in what is in the logs to fill in the gaps. You just have to know how to read between the lines.”

Weaver looked a little hesitant as she asked, “You’re not annoyed at us for snooping around, are you?”

Neal smiled as he shook his head. “No. If I didn’t want you looking, I could have told you no, or planted fake logs for you to find.”

Looking intrigued, Rosepetal asked, “Can we give them a try?”

“Since there’s a good chance you’ll figure it out, you’ll have to wait until my crew ‘gives up’ on it.”

Weaver and the kids quickly ‘surrendered’, and one of Tess’ mobile carts came in with a pile of waterproof data pads for all of them. Some went for the ship’s movement logs, others the cargo logs, while a few tried finding the correlation between the two.

“The first gap was for three and a half years ending thirty-five years ago, then we have ship logs for every four or five years, followed by another two-year gap. The way the patterns repeat, this should be the last ‘logged run’ before another gap.”

“No major changes in the cargo load out for the first gap. All the others, the loaded cargo takes a major hit with no increase in credits to show for it. A slow but steady build-up in cargo and credits between gaps.”

“Wait a minute, the only reason to be sending some of these types of hardware to an unknown destination is if you’re…” Everyone turned to look at M’Lai as she stared at Neal. “You’re supporting a colony!”

“Nice try, but I am not supporting a colony.”

“But that’s the only thing that fits! Unless you like throwing expensive equipment out the airlock while hiding for long periods of time!”

Midnight laughed. “Easy M’Lai, the keyword he’s jerking you around with is ‘a’. He said he’s not supporting ‘a’ colony.” Looking at Neal, shi asked, “So just how many colonies are dependent on you and the Folly?”

“Three at present, but after this ‘gap’ it should be down to just two that I’m lending a hand to.”

“Why?” Rosepetal asked.

Neal frowned. “Not an easy question to answer. Thirty-seven years ago, I had just ended a very long trip around the borders of our ‘known’ space, looking for possible colony worlds. I found quite a few good choices and a couple of great ones. Then I started doing research on how other colonies had started, and how they ended up. I found a disturbing trend – of all the independently started colonies over those last forty years, all but two of the colonies had ‘failed’ and were now controlled by a company called ‘Triform’. A lot of digging through false fronts and holding companies will lead you to four major companies, two of which are in the courts almost every other week for using illegal means to crush anyone that gets in their way. All of the ‘failed’ colonies failed the same way, pirate attacks, and/or an influx of ‘new’ colonists that overwhelmed the original colony’s resources.” Neal’s frown deepened. “You have to understand that once Triform gets a colony in its clutches, it does its best to run the colonists into the ground. The best parallel I can think of would be the old North American coal mines in their early days. The company store was the only place you could buy or sell anything, and the prices were set so you were just keeping your head above water, no matter how hard you worked.” Neal smiled. “There was even a song about those times, one of the lines went: ‘You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’. Triform has taken that to a whole new level.”

“That would never be allowed!” Midnight said with more than a little anger in hir voice.

“If it was widely known about, no. But Triform handles all the communications and most of the shipping on those planets, so they can monitor and control most of what is heard from their colonies.”

“Star Fleet would help!” Rosepetal pointed out.

“Like they did on ‘Amazonia’?”

(The planet Amazonia was a bit of a sore subject. Through loopholes and more than a few shady tricks, Star Fleet had ended up supporting the companies and not the Wemic that had originally been left there to fend for themselves. (see Hands Across the Sky, by John R. Plunkett) )

After giving everyone a moment to calm down, Neal continued. “So I was stuck with a dilemma: any colony I started would be set upon by Triform unless I could keep it quiet, and there was no way to quietly get enough colonists to get a reasonable-size colony going.”

“But you did anyway,” Weaver said with a small grin.

“Not at first. I came up with a very large ‘shell game’ that I thought might work, but then I looked at the time required. I was starting to really feel my age at the time. I thought that I might have been able to make the first few deliveries, but that would have left them on their own long before they were ready.” Neal snorted and shook his head. “I deleted the colony plans and went to bed that night.”

“And in the morning?” Weaver asked.

“I didn’t wake up.”

Smiling at the shocked looks Neal said. “Two days later I did wake up, unable to control my movements or see straight.” Nodding to the Rakshani, he said, “I think you ladies know how that feels.” At their grins and chuckles, he added. “After the week it took me to start getting it back in gear, I found the colony plans still waiting for me. It seems Tess’ delete key doesn’t always work properly.”

Rosepetal asked, “And the ‘shell game’?”

“Was to safeguard my colonies from Triform while they grew. I figured I could support up to three colonies if I didn’t have to fight Triform on all three fronts. Two of the colonies are still not known by anyone but me and the colonists. The third was made known to the public eleven years ago. You may have heard of it; ‘Catch-A-Lot’.”

Rosepetal thought for a moment. “I think I started hearing about it around ten years ago. Mostly water, grasses and swamps on the landmasses. The deep oceans though are teeming with life, thus the name.”

Neal grinned. “And storms like you wouldn’t believe! Either you build it solid to last, or it gets blown away next week. The colonists that I settled on Catch-A-Lot know that they’re bait. Most have sent their families and friends ahead to the other colonies while they help set up my trap.”

“Trap?” Boyce asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Catch-A-Lot was settled as bait for Triform and their parent companies. The colony had been running fine for six years, then the public was informed that they existed. Almost overnight the pirate attacks started… and failed to inconvenience the colonists. I had left behind a dozen of my Zulus. The pirates never knew what hit them.”

“You have your Zulus attacking other ships without warning?” Midnight asked, hir eyes growing wide.

“Of course not. I set up three small automated space stations around the planet. They challenge any ship approaching. If the ship refuses to answer the hail, an unmasked baby Zulu goes out to meet it. Since the pirates usually like to open fire once they see it coming, anything done to them afterwards becomes self-defense.”

“I guess that’s one way to get around the rules,” Boyce commented with a frown.

“If my colonies would be safe playing by the rules, I would play by them. Until that day, I will do whatever it takes to protect the people that have placed their trust in me.”

“What other traps have you set?” Rosepetal asked.

“The colony’s charter does have an option where other companies can buy their way onto Catch-A-Lot, but it requires eighty percent of the voters to okay it. Voters have to be adults that have been on Catch-A-Lot at least one standard year. With over twenty-five thousand adults already there, Triform has to move over a hundred thousand adults to guarantee a victory at the polls. They tried to just dump people like they’ve done in the past, but they hit a snag. The charter requires them to supply housing and food for any colonists they send. In other words, no ‘free room and board’.”

Weaver was looking thoughtful. “So for every adult you have on the planet, they would need to support four to take over.”

Neal nodded as he grinned. “And with the storms, you either set up very large, very tough greenhouses, or you ship in a lot of food. The one-time Triform tried to claim that we were ‘starving’ their colonists, I had Tess dump the whole digital trail of who owned what to the press. That and the charter made them look very bad in public.”

“I seem to recall bits of that circus,” Boyce said. “There was some talk about auditing other Triform colonies, but I don’t remember any action actually occurring.”

“Are they winning?” Shadowcrest asked, having joined them from the main pool.

“After getting burned twice, they’ve been slowly building their forces. At their current rate, they should have enough adults in about six months. Add a year until they are guaranteed to win the vote, and I’m cutting it just about perfect.”

“You want them to win?” Rosepetal asked, a little confused.

“It doesn’t really matter in the long run. Win or lose, in less than eighteen months I’ll be pulling all of my people out, and splitting them between the other two colonies.”

“You can’t just pick up and move twenty-five thousand people!” she said, thinking of all the logistics such a move would require.

“At the rate they’ve been going, it will be over forty with all the kids. As for how, I’ll use my usual methods and cheat.” At the looks of mass confusion, Neal chuckled. “That’s right, you haven’t seen the settlement yet, have you. Tess, if you would please.”

A hologram of Catch-A-Lot appeared above them and then zoomed in. On a finger of land, thrusting out from one of the landmasses, sat forty boxy-shaped objects with something reflecting between them. As the zoom continued, Chase was the first to realize what they were seeing. “Those are cargo pods!”

“With full life-support and living quarters built right in,” Neal agreed. “Give them enough power and you can live in them anywhere, up to and including space. With those pods, any freighter with the extra power and a heavy lift shuttle can deploy or move a colony. My idea was to ensure safe living spaces, and each of them can comfortably hold up to two thousand without crowding. The greenhouse was made using local materials and will be left behind.”

“I thought I saw a cruise line using something similar,” M’Lai told them. “Smaller, but they could be taken to a prepared place and left for a week or two before you were taken to your next stop.”

“Why are you giving up on Catch-A-Lot?” Weaver asked, “Surely there’s some way to keep Triform out.”

“When we leave, Catch-A-Lot will have done just what I planned for it to do. Triform will have wasted a lot of money and resources on a planet they can’t keep.”

“The planet has another trap?” Boyce asked, wondering just how many more tricks Neal had up his sleeve.

“The star system itself was the trap. If they had looked before they leaped, they could have missed all my tricks.”

“How?” Weaver asked, shaking her head.

“Catch-A-Lot had been explored but never colonized.” Smiling at Zhanch, Neal said, “To the Rakshani, the system is better known as ‘Thrice Damned’.”

Zhanch sputtered. “But everyone knows about…”

“But Triform never bothered checking the old Rakshan solar information. They only saw the report that someone else was out colonizing a planet.” Looking at the others Neal filled in the gaps. “Thrice Damned’s sun has a very strong solar flare cycle, but it’s only on a total of about ten out of every one hundred and fifty years. That’s why the ocean life is so far ahead of the land – the land keeps getting burned back by the flares. We’ve got four to seven years before the next flare cycle starts; plenty of time for Triform to get their ‘colonists’ out and give them a black eye in the process.”

“So you have forty thousand secrets,” Holly said.

“In that one colony, yes. There are still the other two colonies to consider.”

“Dependant on you,” M’Lai added.

“Not as much anymore. They both have populations well over eighty thousand at this point and are pretty much self-sufficient. Most of my current load heading for them is for expanding their growing areas and adding some more space-mining capacity. If they ever do need help, they each have a dozen message drones I put together. The drones are about the size and speed of a baby Zulu, but even longer range. One automatically makes a mail run every three months, and they can send one when needed. For protection, they each have twenty Zulus. Catch-A-Lot was close by so I could come running if they called for help. The other two are over four months away even at the Folly’s speed.”

“Wait a minute, where did you get all those colonists? I don’t remember seeing anything about it,” Boyce asked.

“My first two ‘gap’ trips were to set up and start some minor terraforming, to get the planets ready for colonists. Then I went shopping for people unhappy with where they were. Three guesses where I started?”

“The ‘failed’ colonies!” Holly exclaimed.

“Got it in one!” Neal said with a smile. “Most of the original colonists jumped at the chance to try again, with the promise that I would do my best to keep Triform and its parent companies out. Then there was ‘the old fur’ rumor mill.” Neal smiled. “I had told a couple of older friends about wanting to try starting a colony. One of them had complained that starting a colony was for youngsters, old folks would just be a burden to the group. Since I had used Tess’ process on a couple of furs that had almost been killed by pirates, I told them that there was a dangerous option, but an option nonetheless. To make a long story short, they each told their old friends, who told their old friends. When I came back through to pick up what should have been a few thousand, I found I had over fifty thousand volunteers, with over five thousand old furs willing to risk what was left of their lives for a chance to help start a new colony. What was even more of a population boost was a lot of them managed to talk their kids, and even grandkids into joining them!”

Boyce almost dumped Rosepetal off his lap in surprise. “Wait a minute, that was when all the fur disappearances occurred on Earth, about twenty years ago!”

Neal nodded. “That’s the problem with a secret that gets too big – people notice. We emptied a couple of furry retirement communities as well as rest homes and whole sections of a few hospitals, even the staff wanted onboard when they heard about it. I had a hard decision to make. If I said no to any of them, it would only take one ‘whistle-blower’ to bring the whole project crashing down.”

“So you took them all,” Boyce stated.

“So I took them all. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have a tenth of the living areas or the life support I needed. I couldn’t take any of the older furs until I had arranged accommodations for everyone. If I just started making people disappear, the local authorities would have noticed, and tried to figure out what was going on.”

Boyce frowned. “As I recall there was a bit of a panic. A lot of rumors got started, including that Humans First groups were involved.”

“Except their M.O. was nowhere to be seen. H.F. types like to destroy things and leave the bodies lying about. This little mystery had no damage and no blood. Just a large number of furs and more than a few humans, all disappearing in the space of one night. The missing left behind notes saying they were leaving. Wills and best wishes were left for those who would remain behind. A few left behind hints, though most just packed what they would be needing on a new world.”

“Why take old furs?” Quickdash asked with a puzzled expression.

Neal smiled. “There’s an old saying that ‘youth is wasted on the young’. You youngsters have all that extra energy and wonder at everything new. When you get older, you start losing the wonder, because you’ve already seen everything, or so it seems sometimes. And the energy? I know you’ve heard older people watching kids at play and wishing they had that kind of energy themselves.” Quickdash nodded, and Neal continued, “The flip side of that coin is the older people have a lot more knowledge and wisdom, mostly learned the hard way by making mistakes. Those ‘older furs’ were bringing well over a hundred years of experience each! But they no longer had the energy to make the most of that knowledge. Run them through the process and you end up with furs like our Rakshani. They may look young, but they know things that take a lifetime to learn.”

“The news of people missing was just on Earth, I don’t remember any mention of any of the other colonies losing colonists,” Boyce remarked.

“You’re forgetting that Triform controlled all communications from those colonies. If they had admitted that they had people disappear too, they would have had Star Fleet and everyone else ‘helping’ them investigate it. Not something they would want. Word might get out as to how they really run things.”

“ENOUGH!!” cried Shadowchaser, “This was supposed to be relaxing, not getting everyone stirred up.”

“How did we get on that subject anyway?” Mike asked.

Some people seem to think I have too many secrets,” Neal chuckled.

“Will you tell me a secret?” asked Quickdash.

“Sure little one. Come here and I’ll whisper it to you.” With hir ear at his lips, he gave hir a hug as he whispered, “I love you.”

“Can I stay with you?” shi asked.

“Well, it is going to be a while yet before I take you home.”

“No, I mean stay like Chase stayed with you.”

“Little one, Chase didn’t have a home or parents to go home to, that’s why I had hir for so long. Don’t you miss your parents? I know they miss you.”

“How do you know?”

“Tess tells me the mail came in earlier. Along with some of the information I was waiting for, there were also a few messages from some of your parents. That, and they took a trick I played on you and played it back on me.”

“What trick?” shi asked with a frown.

“Do you remember when I was complaining that some of the corridor filters were clogging up faster than I thought they should? And some of you decided to ‘help’?” At their nods, Neal grinned. “I caught your group in the act, and had Tess record it.”

“NO!” came out of Quickdash and several of the chakat teens.

“Oh, yes! Tess?”

A hologram opened, Quickdash was in front of the group, Shadowcrest behind hir and a little to the left, with three of the teenage chakats across the corridor bringing up the rear. All of them were swinging mops although it looked like the last three were cleaning up the mess the first two were making.

“This is borrrrring,” Quickdash was complaining.

“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” Nightsky reminded hir.

“I want to help, but this is just boring,” Quickdash moaned.

“Well, we could always sing something while we work, what song would you like?” asked Dusk.

“Could we do one of the songs I found in Neal’s library?” Quickdash asked, starting to get excited.

“Is it a good song to mop by?” Morningmist asked with a laugh.

Changing one word, Quickdash sang the first line to them. After the first few bars, Tess supplied the music, minus the original voices.

“I am Cha-kat, hear me roar!”

(from I am Woman – Words and Music by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton)

Shadowcrest laughed. “Works for me.”

What then followed was four-footed dance lessons for beginners. Only Dusk had ever taken any dancing classes, so shi was trying to teach the others.

The song was played several times, as was the attempted mop-dancing – much to the amusement of all. After a bit Neal stopped the replay, “There’s over an hour of that. They do get fairly good towards the end.”

“And the trick on you?” asked Boyce.

“I had sent it as proof of how badly I was abusing their kids. They sent one of the last songs the kids sang to their local news channel and it was aired as some of the local color. One of the music stations picked it up, and it’s now a top ten music/video hit for most of the planet. There are a few talent agencies that think the kids have some talent and want to talk to them when they get home.”

“That’s not what had you so depressed,” Shadowchaser said.

“No. That was the good part of ‘the good the bad, and the ugly’.”

“The ugly?” Weaver asked with a raised eyebrow.

Cindy’s father is still playing games. I have a private investigator trying to keep track of where he goes and what tricks he’s up to.”

“Can you stop him?”

“May already have. Since I know this P.I. quite well, I had given him the okay to take things to a certain level.” Looking at Cindy, Neal continued, “When your father found out he was being investigated, he somehow managed to disappear.”

“Are you hunting him?” Weaver asked.

“No. That would be up to Cindy.”

“And the ‘bad’?” she asked.

Neal looked over at the pile of warm towels that the little ones had burrowed into. “I now have the name of Stormy’s sire. Chakat Whitepaws, daughter of Snowfall and Sandrunner.”

“Did you know Whitepaws?” Brighteyes asked, sensing his sadness.

“No, I’d never met hir, but I did happen to speak to hir mother the day you all stowed away in that container. How do you tell two good friends you were there when their child was murdered?”

“But you saved their grandchild!” Holly blurted out.

“I keep thinking that if only we had been a few minutes earlier… but a few minutes earlier would just have put us all out in the open when that Humans First group started firing.”

“You’re still holding something back, father,” Shadowchaser said, cocking hir head.

“I don’t know if the last one is good, bad, or no big deal. I was planning to check on a group during my ‘gap’ trip, but they’ve already sent a message that they’re ready for pick-up whenever I’m in the neighborhood.”

“Why is that a problem?” Weaver asked.

“I was going to pick them up before heading out to Catch-A-Lot. What’s puzzling me is the lack of information. They’re not asking for an early pickup, and no mention of trouble, just that they’re ‘ready’ to be picked up.”

“This isn’t another trap for someone like ‘Thrice Damned’, is it?” she said, starting to get tired of all Neal’s little secrets.

“Nope.”

“Give, Father!” When Neal just laid there and smiled, Shadowchaser hissed, “Tickle him Quickdash! Make him talk!”

Neal grinned. “Shi knows how well I can tickle back. The group I’m wondering about is on a first contact mission.”

“But Star Fleet…” Rosepetal started.

“… didn’t discover them, and still doesn’t know that they even exist. I found them at the end of one of my log’s ‘gaps’. I was scanning what I thought was a promising solar system when one of my baby Zulus ran straight through one of their sensor screens. While they haven’t left their system yet, they have seen aliens before, and a few had been ‘unfriendly’. I admitted to being a trader that did a little exploring between deliveries.” Neal smiled at Boyce. “I only showed them the foods and low-tech things I had to sell. They knew my ship had to be able to go faster than light, but they understood that I couldn’t just ‘give’ them access to it. After trading for samples of most of the things I offered them, they requested contact with the Federation. I suggested that I bring a contact team to them. If everything worked out, the contact team would let the rest of the Federation know about them. If it didn’t work out, I would take the team home, and we wouldn’t bother them again.”

“How could you promise them that?” she inquired.

“Well, the contact team doesn’t know where they are, and they gave their word they wouldn’t try to find out. And, since they’re a bit off the beaten path, the odds are good no one else will be tripping over them anytime soon.”

“And, just where did you dig up a first-contact team to send to them?” Midnight asked, more than a little concerned.

Neal smiled, “I bent the ears of a few members on the Chakona High Council. They quietly put together the team for me. It’s sometimes handy, having daughters in strange places.”

“What are they like?” asked Holly.

“All you’ll get from me is this: they lay large eggs, and never stop growing. Some of their elders are huge.”

“But, what do they look like?” she demanded.

“If they decide they don’t want Federation contact, you’ll never know.”

“Please?” begged half the kids. Neal just shook his head.

“So, are you going to get them?” Weaver asked.

“When I can make the time. Right now, that means after this run, as I had originally planned.”

“But, that’s over a year away!” Shadowcrest protested.

“As fast as the Folly is, she can only be at one place at any one time. Even pushing her to her limits, I can’t get far enough ahead of my deliveries to get out there and back between all the stops I have to make.”

“What if we use Charlie and Delta?” Shadowcrest asked.

Charlie and Delta were two of the six working shuttles/ships that were docked between the Folly’s spheres. Alpha and Baker were designed to move loaded pods into and out of a gravity well, while Echo and Foxtrot were designed to move pods to nearby space platforms. Charlie and Delta, on the other hand, were warp-capable and able to carry up to two hundred containers internally. Gulf was a work in progress, that bay still looked more like a junkyard than a ship. The Folly also had some smaller, non-cargo carrying craft. Two old rebuilt assault shuttles were in a bay just aft of engineering; they were used when Neal needed to move people and not cargo to or from the surface. There were also over a dozen lifeboats scattered across the Folly. Neal had kept them all in good shape, mainly because he couldn’t predict where he’d be when and if he needed one.

While Charlie and Delta didn’t have the Folly’s speed, they could be dropped off along the way, make a delivery, and be recovered after the Folly had made a delivery of her own.

Neal looked over at Boyce. “Hmmm, what would Star Fleet say to me offering some of its commanders some command time in civilian craft?”

Before Boyce could open his mouth, Brighteyes spoke up. “What about us?”

Neal softly snorted. “What about you? You’re nowhere near ready to take a ship out on your own.”

“You let Chase’s group do it!”

“Yes, I did, but only after years of training and experience. You’ll have to remember, most of them were under ten when they started, and that the Folly was their home,” Holding up his hand to forestall any more questions or demands, Neal smiled as he picked up a datapad. “Give me a minute or two to see if they would even make enough of a difference. Tess. Schedules and loads please.”

Neal’s data pad updated, and a hologram appeared overhead, red, yellow and green stars filling the space. Some of the stars were red with a date stamp on them. Yellow weren’t time sensitive, but the deliveries were more than the smaller ships could handle. A bar across the bottom was the timeline. Red knots showed the ‘must make’ times with red lines leading to them showed the time needed to get there from the last planned stop. White spaces showed ‘free’ time between the other colored lines and dots. Neal started finding places that he could drop Charlie and/or Delta to save the Folly a stop without using up more time than it saved. The others watched quietly as the lines showing the Folly’s planned flight path shifted, green stars turning blue, and more pieces of the timeline turning white.

Finally, a white line almost filled the space between two widely spaced red knots, one little yellow line/dot standing in the way. Neal sighed. “Best I can do. Tess, do you see a better path?”

“Not without exceeding your parameters, boss.”

Looking at Boyce, Neal asked. “I believe you were interrupted before you could give me an answer about using Star Fleet volunteers.”

“How many would be needed?”

“A dozen per ship would be enough to comfortably cover the shifts, eighteen to twenty would be a full complement.”

“So twenty-four to forty ‘volunteers’…”

“Minus the slots my kids can fill, once they’ve had enough training, and if whoever I put in charge is willing to take them on as crew.”

“What about that one stop?”

“If Charlie and Delta are a go, then I’ll call in a marker for that last stop.”

“I don’t see a problem, in fact, most of them will probably jump at a chance to try out your equipment.”

Looking back at his datapad Neal thought for a moment. “Hmmm. If we figure on two weeks for training and a shakedown cruise or two, then a couple of runs with the Folly there to back them up… Could I tie up your holodeck for training? That would let both ‘crews’ train at the same time.”

Boyce nodded. “When did you want to start?”

“I should start tomorrow. We have five weeks before the first real runs, but you can never have enough training time.”

“Should we post the openings in the morning?”

Neal thought for a moment. “No. Post them now. Let’s let the off shifts have first crack at it.”

“What’s your message going to say?”

“Hmmm. ‘The Folly is looking for a few fools foolish enough to want to work long hours on their time off from Star Fleet. The job will entail moving random cargo from point A to point B using equipment designed by the same demented fool that designed and built the Folly. Available fools taken in the order of their foolishness to volunteer’.”

“Are you sure you want it worded that way?”

“Of course. It gives them fair warning of what’s to come, and what’s expected of them.”

“Okay by me.”

“Tess, have the ships’ on-duty personnel post it if you would please.”

“Sure thing boss.”

“Oh, and send out some calls. I’ll be needing the next year’s schedules for all the usual suspects.” At Boyce’s raised eyebrow, Neal grinned. “If this is going to work, I’m still going to need someone to deliver that last load, and they may be interested in some of my other deliveries as well.”

Giving Suzan a nudge to get her the rest of the way off his lap, Neal stood. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting waterlogged. I’m not saying the party’s over, I just need to get a little drier.”

Neal wasn’t done drying off when Tess asked him if she should have set a cutoff number of foolish volunteers, she already had well over a hundred. By the time he stopped laughing, she reported she had just over two hundred. The shifts had just changed, and everybody on the graveyard shifts seemed to want a crack at playing with Neal’s toys.

Neal laughed again, this time at the bemused expression on Boyce’s face. “And I didn’t even have to mention paying them. We must not have been giving them enough to do if they’re that bored.”

It was Boyce’s turn to think for a moment while he finished drying. “I understand Charlie and Delta aren’t as fast as your Folly?” At Neal’s nod, he continued. “Why don’t you give them an ‘escort’? That would give them some added protection, as well as give the other crews more to do.”

“I was going to send them out with three scouts and a pair of Zulus each, but there’s no reason we can’t use the other ships as well. Hmmm, that reminds me, I’m going to have to get some more Zulus and scouts made up.” Seeing the eager expression on Boyce’s face, Neal chuckled as he added, “Yes, you can help. That is if you can talk your mates into giving you some time off for good behavior.”

Neal snickered as Boyce turned to speak with Rosepetal, his mates having heard what he and Neal had been talking about. The looks they were giving him suggested he was going to have to work hard to earn his freedom to help Neal play with his toys.

Weaver came up and handed Neal her brush. As he started running it through her fur, she asked. “What are you finding so funny?”

Neal pointed his chin to where Boyce was running a brush though M’Lai’s hair, Rosepetal and Midnight on either side of him. From the tones of the voices, Boyce was losing the quiet ‘discussion’ they were having. “Poor guy’s outnumbered. Looks like I’ll be working solo again.”

“What makes you think you’re going to get off any easier?”

“Because I only have to convince one mate that doing something is a good idea, he has three times the challenge.”

“I remember you told me that he has two additional mates, Zhane and another chakat,” she said as she smiled.

Neal snorted. “Zhane – I just barely dodged the phaser pulse with that one.”

“And just what do you mean by that?” Rosepetal demanded, her lips curled back halfway to a snarl for the slur to her co-mate she thought she had just heard.

Meeting her eyes, Neal sighed. “What do you know about Zhane’s older sister?”

“A sister she hates, she never even speaks her name,” Rosepetal said, her voice dripping with scorn.

“Yeah, an older sister she hated for stealing a male from her almost twenty years ago. It turned out the quartermaster of Starbase Three was a childhood friend of Zhane’s. When she found out I had gotten them both in the same room after all these years, she was more than willing to tell me the whole story, as well as the aftermath. The male they fought over had a history of using, as well as abusing ‘his’ females. I say had because the family of the female her big sister ‘lost’ him to removed him rather permanently from the gene pool. Funny thing is, if you look at it from the outside, it looked a lot like an older sister using herself to shield her younger sister from a jerk, and she then fed said jerk to what she knew would turn into a meat grinder. What do you call a human that goes and rubs a Rakshani’s nose in something like that? In her own office, with her big sister in the same room no less?”

No longer angry, Rosepetal quietly said. “A fool.”

“Zhanch had told me that they were old rivals not that they were sisters. When I found out, I had myself a quiet little nervous breakdown. You don’t get in the middle of a family – never mind a Rakshani family’s – domestic dispute unless you’re crazy. More often than not, the domestic disputers will team up, and take out whatever is interfering with their personal fight,” Neal shook a little from the memory.

Weaver gave him a hug from behind. “That’s why you were so quiet that evening.”

“You never saw how angry Zhane got when I had Tess beam Zhanch into her office. She clawed a very nice set of grooves into her desk, just on seeing her sister. I was afraid her hatred would cause Zhane to not help Zhanch, or the others.” Neal snorted softly as he looked back to Rosepetal. “The only other thing I knew at the time was she had you and Boyce as mates. I rubbed her muzzle in the fact that if Zhanch hadn’t taken that jerk away from her, she could have ended up with him for a mate. I got lucky; she thought it over and decided to forgive Zhanch, and she forgave me for sticking my nose into her personal life. But the way she said ‘take very good care of my sister for me’, when she left the Folly that evening gave me a clue to just how close I’d come to looking like her desk.”

Having heard her name being used, Zhanch had come upon the group as Rosepetal asked, “Were you able to take good care of her?”

With a small smile and a hand wave at Zhanch, Neal said. “You can ask her yourself, this is Zhanch ap Nashene na Zhane. Zhanch, this is most of your sister’s family.”

Not sure how she would be received, now that they knew who she was, Zhanch simply nodded. Boyce was having none of that, however, and pulled her down for a tight hug, his mates quickly joining him.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Rosepetal asked Zhanch.

Neal answered before Zhanch could find her tongue. “How were you describing their relationship to me just a moment ago?”

“Oh!” Rosepetal said, her fur hiding most of her blush. “There is that.”

“Indeed. Well, since you and Zhane are co-mates, I guess that would make Zhanch your co-sister-in-law, or whatever equivalent term you use.”

“What it makes her is part of our extended family,” Rosepetal said smiling up at Zhanch.

With everyone dried off, they dressed and then headed for the Folly’s main lounge. The three rabbits had snuck off as soon as they were dry. They now returned with the unused dessert cart and fresh drinks.

Once everyone had something to munch on, Stew sat down next to Neal. She waited until he finished his snack before she spoke. “I want a raise.”

Neal took a moment to reply. “Monetary, title, or altitude?”

“The first two would be nice, but they are not what I’m after. I’m not sure what you mean by the third. The fourth option please.”

“And just what would this fourth option be?”

“Relations.”

Neal was glancing around as Stew spoke. Moonglow and Weaver were showing no surprise at the request; Neal thought he actually saw Weaver give a small nod. Looking over his glasses at her, he snorted. “This is why you smiled when I thought Boyce being out-numbered by his mates was amusing.”

Weaver gave Neal a grin. “Like the Caitians, I’m used to the problem of the females outnumbering the males, so sharing one of my males with someone I care for isn’t an issue. Suzan and I have been helping each other take care of you and the kids since she joined us. I see nothing wrong with giving her the ties that go with the job she’s already doing.”

Neal frowned. “If I agree to that, the next step of your trap would be to point out that as the nanny and wet nurse for a child I’ve accepted as my own, that Moonglow should also be given a raise in the relationship department.”

Weaver grinned again. “It’s so nice, dealing with a male that knows when he’s already beaten.”

“That doesn’t mean I’ll go down without a fight,” Neal said with a matching grin as he raised an eyebrow at Suzan. “First you wanted me to get more personal, now you want a relationship. You already have my word that I won’t kick you off my ship, what else are you after?”

Suzan wrapped him in a hug. “I’ve never worked harder, nor have I been happier, than I have after I came aboard the Folly. Even before we had our little ‘talk’, I knew I wanted to stay more than anything else. I guess that’s why I was overworking myself; I was trying to prove I was worth keeping. You and the kids have given me a feeling of family I’ve never felt before, I want to stay a part of that family.”

“You do realize that my ‘family’ is more than a little unstable. At the end of this run, all of my kids have relatives that will have more of a say in where they go next than I do. You could end up stuck with just a grumpy old human for company.”

“Even then,” she said softly.

Neal then turned to Moonglow. “You understand that I could lose Firestorm when we reach Bright Hope. If hir grandparents claim hir, I’ll have to give hir up. Not to mention that if you’re always on the Folly, you may never get a chance to ride that bike of yours.”

Moonglow’s smile was on the tender side as shi replied, “I understand the risks, and accept them. Even if you don’t accept us as your mates, we will be your mates in our hearts, and will treat you as such.”

Neal snorted. “As mates, or as keepers?”

Rosepetal spoke from where she sat on Boyce’s lap, Midnight and M’Lai each with a possessive arm around each of his shoulders. “Is there a difference?”

From the middle of the group, Boyce added, “It has its advantages.”

Stew tightened her hug on Neal when he shook his head, and let out a quiet sigh. “I keep seeing old sayings and phrases used against me.” At the curious looks, Neal gave them a small grin. “I started this cruise with the curse 'may you live in exciting times' hanging over my head,” Neal snorted. “That still seems to be in full force. The old saying that comes to mind now is ‘men may rule, but women decide’, and fool be he that thinks he has a voice in the matter!” Looking to Rosepetal, Neal asked, “Did he go quietly, or kicking and screaming?”

Rosepetal laughed. “Both actually.”

Boyce had started to protest, but Midnight squeezed his arm and whispered. “Forest,” as they tightened their hugs on him.

Neal smiled at Suzan. “I guess it’s like that old song ‘all or nothing at all, I don't know why I go to extremes’.” Wrapping her in a hug, Neal looked over to Weaver and Moonglow. “I surrender. What have you ladies ‘decided’?”

Weaver smiled. “Suzan and Moonglow join me as your denmates…”

“That I thought I saw coming,” Neal said with half a grin. “Why do I get the sinking feeling there’s more?”

“The odd phrase I heard you tell Holly was ‘he who saves a life…’” Weaver said.

“… ‘Is responsible for it’. At the time, she was wondering why I didn’t just leave our Rakshani ladies at Starbase Three,” Neal said. “We had just rescued them from death in a drugged sleep, only to leave them looking forward to a very slow and lingering death. I was holding the process back as the last thing to try, because of both the risks, as well as the resources it demands. That, and I could only offer it if we kept them. No sane doctor is going to let me just walk in and start experimenting on someone in their care. Then Dessa was hit and it was her only real chance of survival.”

Dessa stepped up and knelt in front of Neal and Suzan, bringing herself to their level. “I’ve used the holodeck to help me remember, as well as to see what I missed. When Tess told you I had been shot, you told her to treat me like family. Am I ‘family’? Or am I just a ‘stray’ you’ve now rescued from three different possible deaths?”

Neal reached out to place his hands on her shoulders. “I would be honored to call any of you family. Even in your weakened conditions, all of you were more than willing to fight by my side; you were even willing to risk your life to save one of my children. In doing so you saved yourself and your sister marines from their lingering deaths. I consider all of you many things, but ‘strays’ isn’t one of them. Your current options are open; all of you have choices to make once you’re ready to face the outside world again. If you wish to stay on the Folly while you get used to your new situation, I would be happy to have you here.”

“As what?” she asked.

“You’ve all been helping with the ship and my kids. Teachers, trainers, a couple of you are already pretty good shuttle pilots. What do you have in mind?”

“You said you would let the kids train to use the smaller ships; will you give us the same privileges? It’s starting to feel a little strange, not having any set responsibilities.”

“If that’s what you would like, I have no problems with it.”

“What about our Star Fleet responsibilities?”

Neal snorted. “What Star Fleet responsibilities? Right now Star Fleet can’t even admit you’re here on the Folly without admitting that one of their cruisers is out there under someone else’s control. Then we gave them another little problem. May I ask how long you’ve been in Star Fleet?”

“Sixty-five ye… Oh, hell!”

“Indeed. So they will be getting back a few youngsters claiming to be way too close to a hundred. Your families and friends are in for one hell of a shock.” Looking at Zhanch, Neal raised an eyebrow. “Do you think Zhane will mind trading in an older sister for one that appears to be half her physical age?”

Zhanch chuckled. “Only if I swear to stop trying to steal her mates from her!”

After the laughter died down, Neal continued, “It’s a good thing the Folly and I are disappearing for a while after this run. From what Tess has been telling me, the Folly’s reputation as the ship of impossibilities is still growing among the Star Fleet crews. Both the kids and the Rakshani are also generating rumors that we must have found the fountain of youth. Most of the confusion is being caused by the knowledge my ‘crew’ has not matching their apparent ages.” Neal gave them a grin. “For example, I had the privilege of watching Dessa in action. She was mopping the deck with the Pegasus’s marines in hand-to-hand combat practice. The real treat was that she looked like she was just practicing her dancing. One of the challengers would come into range, she would shift towards them, and they would be down, or flying backwards, all without her missing a beat. Then there are our ‘terror twins’.” Looking at Boyce, Neal’s grin widened. “If you ever have trouble finding your chief engineer, ask Tess to scan Gulf’s bay. After the twins stopped getting underpaw, Sparks got worried they might have been ‘grounded’ and came over to check on them. When I went to check on the twin’s progress that evening, I found that slim Siamese-colored chakat of yours, almost ‘buried alive’ in Gulf’s power distribution systems. I had to threaten to not let hir back on the Folly to get hir to go eat and get some sleep. Sparks was back the next day though, with more than a few friends. At the rate they’re going, Gulf will be ready for trials in less than two months.”

Boyce just shook his head. “Shi gets all the breaks. I can’t even help you with your scouts, and here Sparks is helping build a starship.”

M’Lai laughed as she gave Boyce a hug. “Be good and maybe we’ll let you play too.”

Rosepetal smiled. “That is if Neal is going to be working on them, his mates may have something else with a higher priority.”

Neal snorted. “One of the differences between us is that I am this ship’s chief engineer, as well as the captain. I have no choice but to take the time to make sure everything is done right.” Making eye contact with each of his mates, he continued, “If that means I don’t get to spend as much time as I would like with my mates and my kids, I hope they’ll understand.”

Weaver grinned. “Just so long as you understand we will do everything we can to help you, even if that help is dragging you to bed before you’re so tired you hurt yourself or those around you.”

Neal nodded. “Understood, Love. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Good!” Weaver said as her grin turned evil. “Then you won’t mind me adding fourteen companions, to ‘help’ us keep you out of trouble!”

Neal managed to get his mouth open, but no sounds came out. Weaver laughed at his shocked expression. “You said yourself that they are not strays, and you also said you would be honored to have them as family. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll let you adopt them, even as old as you keep hinting you are.”

Neal just sat there, with his mouth hanging open until Suzan poked him with a blunt claw. “Breathe!” she hissed with a grin.

After Neal seemed to have gotten his breath back, Dessa asked sweetly, “Is there a problem?”

“Sorry, that last surprise burned out what was left of my mental calculator.” Smiling at the mixed looks of amusement and concern, Neal explained, “I was just trying to figure out how the hell I’m supposed to keep sixteen more denmates and companions happy when I already have seventeen kids that need everything from love to guidance and encouragement. Oh yeah, I’m also currently in command of not only the Folly but also four Star Fleet ships and their fighter groups. Plus I have scouts and Zulus I should be getting built, never mind making sure that Gulf comes together the way I intended.” Neal shook his head. “I’m starting to feel like I’m getting stretched a little too thin in places.”

Dessa leaned forward and wrapped both Neal and Stew in a hug. “Try to think of it more as extra shoulders helping you bear your load, not as more of a load for you to bear.”

Neal smiled. “I’ll try. You have to understand that this is the first run in a long time, in which I‘m not running solo. One of the reasons I’ve always liked this job was the ability to get away from everything and everybody for a while, no cares or responsibilities except to get someone’s cargo elsewhere. The few times I was running Star Fleet games, it seemed like it was nothing but extra work.”

Redfoot asked, “And Chase and company?”

“That started out rough and had a few bumps, but it smoothed out. The worst parts were the attempted kidnapping and the kids hitting their teens. Like most youths, they decided they knew more than I did on just about any subject you care to name,” Neal snorted. “That’s where ‘ye old school of hard knocks’ reared its ugly head. I got tired of arguing with them, so I just started letting them learn things the hard way. After getting their tails scorched a few times, they started asking me ‘why’ I thought things, instead of just assuming that I was too old to know anything worthwhile,” Neal chuckled as he looked at Shadowchaser. “Plus I showed a couple would-be ‘hotshot pilots’, that even they could be taken down by an old man with poor reflexes.”

Shadowchaser hung hir head a little, “We thought fast reflexes were everything back then. Neal showed us that some traps work even better on those that just react, and don’t think things through.” Looking up, shi smiled, “I was one of the best pilots in my classes at Star Fleet, mostly because I had such an evil, cheating, scheming, no-account father!”

Neal sighed. “Damned by faint praise.”

“But praise nonetheless, Father,” shi said with a smile. “Now prove to me that nothing’s changed, and my adopted dad can still handle anything that’s thrown at him!”

Neal looked over to Boyce, “Shi’s almost sixty-five, and shi still doesn’t understand that things and people have limits. Shi still thinks a little begging or a cute pout will make things better.”

Redfoot answered before Boyce could speak, “Of course shi does – shi had you for a role model. When did you ever let hir down?”

“Oh, I failed them, more than once, but I made up for it when I could. They may not have always had treats when they thought they should get them, but there was always food and a warm place to sleep.”

“And you always found you had a spare box of ‘hugs’ tucked away somewhere when we needed them the most,” Shadowchaser said with a chuckle. Smiling at some of the confused looks around hir, shi continued, “When I was little, we came close to overloading Neal. Nineteen small furs can be quite a handful, and it took a while before our four teenagers started pulling with him instead of against him. One time when we were all feeling a little down, Neal pretended we had ‘run him out of hugs’. I swear he spent over an hour with most of us kids following him, worried that he wouldn’t be able to hug us anymore. He was looking in all his drawers, under the bed, in his desk, just about everywhere. Finally, he got into a storeroom and locked the door before we could follow. He made noises as if he was shifting things back and forth, then we heard him shout out in triumph! He then came out and gave us each a hug…” Shadowchaser chuckled again, “I know I spent hours in that storeroom, trying to find where he hid his supply of spare hugs!”

Neal smiled at the memory. “When they finally confronted me on there being no ‘boxes of hugs’ in that storeroom, I simply told them that I had gotten the last package that had been stored in there. After that, whenever they wanted or needed a hug, I would tell them not to worry, I had more spares tucked away somewhere.”

“So, have we given you more than you can handle?” Weaver asked.

“I don’t think so, Love,” Neal said as he smiled at her. “It’s just going to take a little while for it to all sink in. I seem to remember it taking you a day or so to get used to the idea of having an extra fourteen kids, never mind agreeing to have a human denmate. Just give me some time to get used to the idea.”

Shadowchaser snorted, “That means he wants to go off by himself and play with his toys. He’s always claimed to think better when he’s working with his hands.”

“Boyce can be just as bad,” Rosepetal said with a smile. “Why don’t we give the boys a little time to at least look over Neal’s projects tonight. They have crews to pick out, and training to start in the morning, so I don’t expect them to make an all-nighter out of it.”

At Neal’s raised eyebrow, Boyce shrugged and smiled as he got up. After the door closed behind them, Chase chuckled. “What do you think their first topic of discussion will be about?”

“ ‘How to keep multiple mates happy without ending up in the doghouse’,” Weaver said with a laugh. Turning to Rosepetal, she said, “And our discussion should start with, ‘How can multiple co-mates work together to not drive their mate - or each other crazy’?”

 

 


 

The Best Laid Plans Of Captains And Admirals

 

Neal and Boyce hadn’t made it halfway to Neal’s little workshop before they were interrupted.

“Priority,” Tess reported in a tone Boyce hadn’t heard out of the AI before. “Emergency message received from your favorite law firm.”

“Confirm and investigate,” Neal ordered as he changed direction – Boyce following in surprise.

“Confirmed. Several updates are missing from the queues. Authorization required to access the backdoors.”

“So authorized – full spectrum,” Neal replied as he entered the main bridge and dropped into the captain’s chair. It was only when he saw a secondary panel light up in the corner of his vision that he remembered he had a guest.

“If you stay you may see a few things that would upset your mates,” Neal warned Boyce as the admiral examined the controls before him.

“Believe it or not, my mates don’t learn of every little thing that I get into,” Boyce curtly informed him as he settled into the seat. “You seem to be taking this rather seriously.”

“The firm in question has a very good security setup; for me to get that message means a rather large pile of shit has well and truly hit the fan.”

“Our up-and-coming Shir Dash sent the message,” Tess informed them. “Waiting on authentications … I’m in,” she stated as their panels exploded with data.

Knowing the system better, Neal was bringing up the records and sensors. “All entrances breached nearly simultaneously, all main sensors systematically disabled or destroyed. Whoever it was appeared to have missed the secondaries, let’s see if the recordings can tell us who came knocking …”

“Those are Star Fleet security uniforms,” Boyce pointed out. “Heavy phaser rifles.”

“I have dead and wounded in one of the conference rooms – two guards outside,” Tess reported. “I’m counting ten hostiles and their leader who has commandeered Tanner’s office. Neal, Robin and her mate both appear to be critically injured – they need medical care soonest.”

“The local cops are owned – not that I’d trust them to take on Fleet – what do we have close in?”

Crossed Swords is in orbit, they can be there in under thirty; but they’re not the group I’d want running a rescue, Boss.”

“No, but they’ll make a good backup if we can build up a front team for them,” Neal agreed. “Get them moving.”

“That’s Admiral Holden,” Boyce said, identifying the Caitian whose actual name was M’Siistakasi sitting behind the large desk. “And, if she’s there, we shouldn’t count on any Star Fleet help in dealing with her. Tess, see if you can’t link me to my dayroom interface.”

“It will need your credentials, Admiral,” Tess informed him as she brought up the proper interface requests.

Boyce wasted no time getting a link to his boss, Admiral Hal Johnson.

“You look like something’s come up,” Hal said on seeing Boyce’s face.

“Admiral Holden’s on Bright Hope. She’s had a Star Fleet security team attack a civilian law firm in an attempt to gain control of Alamo Antimatter,” Boyce told him.

“And you know this how?”

“I have a near-real-time feed from the offices in question, and I’m sitting next to the guy that actually owns Alamo,” Boyce said with a tight grin. “We’re trying to see what we can come up with for a rescue.”

“The only Star Fleet resources will be the ones Holden took with her. I don’t know what Star Corps operatives might be available,” Hal grumbled.

I know of two.” They heard Neal say as he keyed in a number.

“Two against ten is suicide,” Boyce warned him.

“Not when the two will have the better intel – and one of the mated pair is a chakamil,” Neal told them as his call went through.

“Who?” a sleepy voice asked.

“I need me a ’mil in ass-kicking mode,” Neal snarled at the pickup.

“WHAT?”

“Lives are at stake – move your tails!” Neal snapped.

“Foster? Where?” a more alert sounding voice snapped back at him.

Looking at the data Tess was adding, Neal said, “A PTV will be there in three – you’ll get gear and site prep on route.”

“Copy,” the more alert voice said before the connection dropped.

“I take it you’ve fired up chakamils before,” Hal dryly commented from the other screen.

“Actually I raised one,” Neal admitted. “Properly trained, they don’t mess around once they’re on the job and they’re hard to rattle. For this to work, though, I’m going to need your authorization to have them attack Star Fleet personnel.”

“You’ll have it once we have a connection,” Hal assured him.

“Boss, the PTV picked up three taurs,” Tess advised minutes later. “Your two and Longsock.”

“Longsock, I know our Corps friends are good at the rough and tumble,” Neal started. “A renegade Star Fleet admiral has attacked and taken over Tanner’s law offices.”

“You don’t know me as well as you think you know Weaver,” Longsock countered. “I’m in.”

“Can you in any way confirm for me that this admiral is indeed renegade?” Quickwind asked.

Hal spoke up, “This is Admiral Hal Johnson, Supreme Commander of Star Fleet; I confirm that Admiral Holden has exceeded her authority. I authorize whatever means necessary to stop her with the minimum loss of life.”

“This is Admiral Boyce Kline. I confirm that that was Admiral Johnson and I also authorize this action,” Boyce added.

“You have some rather impressive friends, Captain Foster,” Quickwind said, Tess having relayed IDs and authentications to the PTV’s display. “What are we up against?”

“Ten security types with heavy weapons and their admiral,” Neal told hir. “In your favor will be a real-time sensor net and override-control over any doors and systems they haven’t already destroyed.”

“Weapons?” Shortdash demanded.

“That’s your next stop,” Neal told them.

The weapon shop owners looked like they’d gotten the same wakeup call Longsock’s group had. The Caitian family group was barely dressed as they quickly moved about preparing web harnesses and equipment as the threesome hurried in.

The chakats stood with their arms out of the way as the already loaded harnesses were fastened around them. Longsock got his hands slapped – his trying to be helpful was getting in their way as a weapons harness went around his upper torso and a heavily loaded set of medical saddlebags were strapped to his lower. Open helmets were quickly but properly fitted to their heads and it was time to go.

“Site One,” they heard Neal’s voice softly in their ears as their displays activated. “Reds are hostile, blue are injured friendlies, gold is our problem admiral who we will want to take alive if we can for interrogation. Your group will be green once you’re in range.”

“Interrogation?” Shortdash asked in surprise.

“Star Fleet has no idea which captains and crews may be loyal to her. Then there’s the little matter of whoever she, in turn, may be working for,” Neal told hir.

“Admirals, confirm this,” Quickwind demanded.

“Confirmed,” Boyce replied just before Hal.

“What are the white dots and gray rings?” Longsock asked.

“Concealed one shot stun cannons, the rings mark the heavy stun coverage areas,” Neal informed them. “They’ll turn black after being fired.”

“Why haven’t you used them yet?” Quickwind demanded.

“Because so far they’ve never all been in the stun zones at the same time – and we don’t dare give Admiral Holden any more warning than we have to that we’re coming for her.”

“Which is why you need our paws on the ground,” Shortdash allowed. “How do you want to do this?” they heard hir ask hir mate.

“You two in this way, take out these guards and get to and protect the prisoners. I’ll take out these and then hit the admiral,” Quickwind said.

“Once you’re onsite, I’ll keep Holden distracted,” Neal told them.

“How?” Quickwind asked.

“All of this seems to be to force me to talk to her,” Neal replied. “I might as well use it to help tie her up.”

“Boss, the cruiser Typhoon is the only Star Fleet craft currently in orbit of Bright Hope,” Tess injected.

“Admiral Johnson, if you’ll order them out of the area we may be able to get an idea of where their loyalties lay,” Neal suggested as Moonglow stepped on to the bridge carrying Firestorm.

“I’ll wait until you have her distracted – though there’s a chance they’ll still try to warn her.”

“That’s a law office, selective comm blocking is all part of the package,” Neal assured him as he accepted the kitten and nodded back at the door shi’d entered. Moonglow frowned slightly but took the hint and left the captains to whatever it was that they were up to.

“Just how do you have so many links into that place?” Boyce asked.

“Well, you have to understand that the law firm just happens to be renting that floor space from another company, one I just happen to have some little sway in,” Neal admitted.

“You and I are going to have a long talk once this is over,” Quickwind growled over the link.

“If you’d like,” Neal said as the trio’s PTV rolled up just out of sight of the first entrance. “Though as Admiral Kline’s mates have been discovering, the price of knowledge may sometimes be more than you wish to pay.”

“Hold there for the moment,” Tess’ voice said as Shortdash and Longsock climbed out of the PTV. “Their next comm check is in two minutes; you’ll then have ten minutes before they do it again. I will block their outside links as you reach their detection zones and start getting the EMTs rolling.”

“Copy,” Quickwind replied for hir group. “And that should give me just enough time to get into position.”

“And it’s about time I started running a little interference,” Neal said as he waited for the green dots to reach the doors before touching a key and the display in Tanner’s office lit up.

“I understand you were looking for me?” Neal asked the Caitian he found on his screen.

“You were ordered to report here in person!” she snapped back at him.

“Even if I had a ship as fast as the Pegasus in range and I could convince that Admiral Kline of yours to rush me all the way to Bright Hope, we’d still be talking weeks of travel time,” Neal told her. “Considering your most recent activities, I didn’t think you could be patient that long.”

“It wouldn’t have come to this if you hadn’t built those ships to steal business from the Consortium,” she informed him.

Neal snorted at her. “That’s what all this is about? Me upgrading my ships? Hell, the upgrade was forced on me by the Consortium’s actions.”

“Liar.”

“For over fifty Earth years, every eight Caitian years – ten in Caitian base eight – your Antimatter Consortium decides which markets aren’t making them enough credits and drops them. And Alamo Antimatter and a few other independents have been picking up the Consortium’s slack. Their last drop was almost more than we could cover, so the decision was made to upgrade our fleet of ships. Two were made for testing and fine-tuning for a year before the other hulls were laid. We don’t want your business – but we will make sure you can’t claim the Federation needs to foot the bill for you to keep fuel levels where they need to be for commerce and protection.”

“You will surrender your ships and production facilities or they will be destroyed.”

Neal nodded. “We are well aware of your orders to those that follow you. Standing orders to all Alamo Antimatter transports are to avoid and evade any contact with Star Fleet ships. If they are unable to evade, they are free to fire on and if need be destroy the Star Fleet vessels.”

What?”

You set the rules of engagement when your Minotaur fired on and destroyed the Alamo ship, Genesis. Minotaur made no transmissions prior to attacking, no comm requests or demands that Genesis surrender, they didn’t even fire a warning shot. Just the kill shot, Admiral. Therefore our rules of engagement are as they were set by your own actions. No quarter – and no mercy,” Neal informed her as one of his displays showed him Quickwind was already in position just outside that office door and another showed the approaching EMT lights – and a third showed the backup he’d arranged already piling out of their vehicles.

“You may want to reconsider that – I have hostages.”

“No mercy,” Neal softly repeated. “I happen to know you have yet to give any medical aid to those your stormtroopers shot, injured and in several cases murdered in cold blood.”

As he spoke, Neal keyed in a new command. Behind Admiral Holden the window shutters clicked and began to roll open, the strobe lights of incoming emergency vehicles suddenly flashing into the room.

Admiral Holden turned in surprise to the noise and reflected light from the windows and missed the door now silently sliding open. She took only a moment to realize what she was seeing, turning back while already drawing her phaser.

Quickwind had waited patiently for the Caitian to turn back around, hir own phaser out, aimed and tracking.

Admiral Holden’s mind hadn’t even registered the presence of another being before the beam of a phaser burned across her gun hand. She cried out in pained surprise as the chakat now approached, phaser still on target.

“You have your orders, Shir,” Neal said from the display.

“I have my orders,” Quickwind agreed as hir phaser waved the wounded admiral back into the chair she had just vacated. “And no mercy will be offered,” shi sternly added as hir other hand reached around hir harness to pull loose one of the pain sticks shi carried.

* * *

Boyce frowned as Neal did something on his panel – just before all the displays in the room suddenly went blank, cutting off the events still unfolding on Bright Hope.

“Wait – we don’t know –” he started, only to stop at the expression on Neal’s face.

“No, we don’t know,” Neal agreed, his voice almost calm though his hands were balled up into fists. “And I’m sure Hal will give you – and Tess me – full briefings in the morning. If either of us gets any more agitated about this neither of us will be able to keep it from those we love.”

“Neal …”

“No. Those people work for me, several of them are or were close friends. Tess has downloaded the full recordings of Holden and company breaking in and shooting up the place – and the people. She just blocked me from viewing the rest of it, probably because she knows how I’m going to react.”

“Shall I prep Quick’s danger room for you, Boss?” Tess asked.

“Wouldn’t do any good at this point,” Neal growled back.

“Holden in the holosuite?”

“No,” he finally muttered after a minute of trying to get his anger in check. Firestorm unwittingly did hir part, hir tiny claws adding a distraction as his mental state upset hir. “How’s Robin?” he asked.

“They just started moving her and Runelock now; he’s still in danger but the medics seem pretty confident about her.”

“Dash?”

“Longsock is having to sedate hir to get hir to leave the building ‘unattended’, Boss. Broken arm and shock are all I’ve got on hir.”

“That was Eddie I saw take at least four body shots as they came in the door – wasn’t it?”

“Yes, Boss.”

Neal was silent before turning to Boyce. “Tess has been trained by trial and error to predict how and why I’m going to react to certain things. She’s probably correct in assuming that I’m less than a data point away from doing something really stupid.”

“Like?” Boyce asked.

“Like canceling the rest of this run. Gently but forcefully kicking you and yours – and the rest of our mini fleet off my ship, straight to Bright Hope and the same with Weaver and the kids. And then Tess and I would go hunting for the rest of Holden’s friends.”

“What makes you think I wouldn’t want to help?” Boyce gently asked.

“Oh, I’d be kicking you out for plausible deniability, if Tess and I find half of what I think we will, there’s going to be a rather noticeable body count – one you won’t need to know about and damn sure won’t want to be associated with.”

“I can’t let you do that, not even after all this,” Boyce warned.

“I know that, and Tess knows that, and if we were to ask her how close to bat-shit crazy her captain is right this moment, she’ll probably give us a fraction instead of a number. So, do you want to see what happens when you stand at ground zero … or would you rather find out just how badly my Zulus can out-tech your pretty little pride of Star Fleet?”

“Oh, let’s go look at your toys …”

* * *

Longsock was applying the last of the oversized computerized medpacs from his saddlebags to a wolf sitting in the corner. With ‘only’ a slashed forehead and a broken arm, he had been one of the least injured of those they’d found in the conference room/cell. Three of the medpacs had been set to the side, those they had been intended for no longer had any need for them.

He had half expected them to have a long drawn-out fight getting in, but their ‘remote’ help was superb, noises from displays and comm units luring several of the guards to where the stun cannons could take them down, Shortdash only having to fire twice to clear their way to the room where the office workers were being held.

And he’d almost been nailed by those they were trying to help, Dash having worked a heavy leg off one of the tables – the better to clobber the first of their jailers to open the door.

Dash now sat in another corner, hir broken forearm was splinted and shi’d pulled hir medpac off when it had tried to sedate hir. Shi was looking at the bloodied bodies of hir boss and her mate, their medpacs busy pumping fresh blood and stabilizers into the critically injured Rakshani and cat-morph.

“They planned to kill us,” shi softly said to no one. “Robin even told me that was why they were being so cruel and not bothering with any first aid – less evidence when they were done with us …”

“Any idea what they were after?” Shortdash asked from the door as shi returned from giving each of the downed guards an ‘extra’ stun to ensure they’d be out for a while.

“Foster … Folly … Alamo Antimatter … they forced me to send a message demanding his presence ASAP. But he has to be weeks away, there’s no way they could have expected to keep something like this quiet that long.”

“Ambulances and backup inbound,” Tess’ voice said from the shattered display. “Please do not shoot at any of them.”

“Aw – looks like somebody else got to have all the fun,” a rather rough-sounding voice was saying in the corridor minutes later. “Why are we always on garbage detail?” they grumbled.

“Because that’s what you’re best at – taking out the trash,” another voice snapped with more than a bit of command in it. “Victims are in that room, strip, search and bind the prisoners and stick them in the next one over,” the voice ordered.

“Do we have to be gentle with this trash?” asked a third voice.

“You all saw what they did to the civilians,” the second voice snarled at them. “What do you think?”

“Ankle and tail drags it is,” the first one chuckled.

“Friendlies at your door,” the second voice called out before stepping to the door. The short ferret morph took note of but otherwise ignored the fact that Shortdash had hir phaser trained on him as his eyes scanned the room. “Louis, Carlo, bring the stretchers and start prepping these people to move.”

Louis and Carlo turned out to be Caitian and Rakshani, one almost twice as tall as the other. They both growled at seeing what waited for them.

“I can set them up,” Longsock suggested, not liking the looks of either of them.

“No,” the Caitian softly replied. “Skipper sent Carlo and me to do this bit because he knew he couldn’t trust us not to kill the ones that caused all this.” A little quieter he added, “Don’t worry, we’ll be gentle with your friends.”

“Worst first,” the large Rakshani muttered as he unfolded the first stretcher next to where Robin and Runelock laid together.

“Tough little kitten to still be alive this long after a gutshot like that,” Louis mumbled as they carefully got Robin ready for transport.

“Took them three hits to take down her friend,” Carlo agreed. “Another hour and they’d both be gone.”

While Longsock helped where he could, Shortdash stepped out to check out what else was going on.

A pair of mismatched Voxxans guarded the door Tess’ map said hir mate and the renegade admiral were behind. Hir eyebrow rose in surprise when they came to attention as shi approached and the one nearest hir grounded his weapon and actually saluted hir.

“You going to keep me from going in there?” shi asked.

“No, Shir,” the guard replied. “You and the foxtaur have full access to whatever you need or want, Shir.”

“Then who are you guarding the door against?”

“The rest of our crew, Shir. I take it you haven’t seen the attack?” he half asked in return.

“No. Why?”

“After we’re done with this,” the other Voxxan suggested.

“Why?” Shortdash said again.

“Because it was bad, Shir,” the first one told hir. “They brutally attacked those unarmed civilians, most of whom never even had a chance to protest or otherwise resist. Our captain’s orders are the only reason we didn’t just put them down with a headshot each as we came in – seems someone wants to question all of them to try to find out who else might have been in on this.”

Shortdash frowned but didn’t ask any more of them, instead shi went into a neighboring office and keyed the door closed. “Show me,” shi ordered the blank screen.

“No,” Tess’ voice replied a few seconds later, delayed by all the light years and FTL relays between them. “Your mate is going to need you stable and sane once shi and Admiral Johnson are through with Holden.”

“Show me!”

“No,” Tess repeated. “If you need a comparison, it was as bad as New Kiev before Neal and company showed up. If you insist, I will show you later – but not now – we and Star Fleet desperately need to know what they know and who their friends are.”

Shortdash’s eyes flashed. Shi hadn’t taken the New Kiev recording well – even knowing beforehand that hir daughter had made it through relatively unscathed. “Has Foster seen it?”

“Not all of it, but maybe already too much. He and Admiral Kline are doing some busywork to try to calm themselves down before they have to face their mates.”

“He’s trying to keep something like this from Weaver?”

“And from his other two new mates and fourteen new companions.”

What?

“Weaver blindsided him earlier tonight,” Tess admitted.

“And you let them?”

“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time – and this does give us a few more adults to help keep him and the kids out of trouble.”

“Yeah, right,” Shortdash muttered. “Okay, I’ll wait until later to view it; how’s my mate doing?”

“Actually quite well, shi seems almost as talented an interrogator as Neal is when he wants to be.”

“Neal’s done interrogations?”

“When other lives are on the line, I haven’t seen too much he can’t or won’t do,” Tess replied. “Much as you and your mate when you have to.”

“There’s no way you know enough about us to make that kind of judgment call,” Shortdash told her.

“You’d be surprised,” Tess replied. “Why do you think Neal even thought to call you? You were the only pair he knew that might have had a chance at handling the hell he was sending you into. He knew he couldn’t trust the other team to not just kill Holden and her pack of murderers. You were the best choice he had of saving lives – both in that building and beyond it.”

Shortdash was frowning again. When checking the rooms earlier, shi had found one with a number of waiting thermal bombs. It appeared that Admiral Holden and her team had planned on leaving behind no evidence of her attack of the offices, just a smoking hole with no living witnesses.

Shi stormed past the guards, only half-wondering if it was hir expression or the sounds getting through the closed door behind them that put the fear on their muzzles. Shi rejoined Longsock as the last of the victims were carried out.

“I had to sedate hir,” he said, indicating the last gurney with Dash collapsed over it. “Shi thought shi was going to stay and ‘hold the fort’ as it were.”

“Tess has, but refuses to show me, the attack,” Shortdash muttered.

“Smart of her,” Longsock dryly replied. “Our ‘backup’ wants to kill them for what they did; how much worse would it have been knowing those attacked?”

“Carlo and I knew them too,” Louise told them. “That’s why we were in here instead of next door, we’d have killed them.”

“Slowly,” Carlo added. “Tanner’s people got us a second chance.”

Louise nodded. “As slowly and painfully as we have time to make it.”

“What type of second chance?” Longsock asked. He and Shortdash sat back on their haunches.

“We haven’t always been on the side of legal in anybody’s books,” the Caitian admitted. “Ran too long with the wrong type of company.”

“Had no way out – they’d’ve killed us first,” Carlo reminded his friend.

Louis snorted. “We hit some type of a trap – wasn’t Fleet or Corps though. The first pirate to get out of line they simply gut-shot and then left him lying there screaming. Heck of an incentive for the rest of us not to get too clever.”

“Old Man Foster was there,” Carlo said. “Had a mess of furs with him.”

“Emotion readers and telepaths. They were separating the really hardcore from those they thought might be salvageable. For the longest time I thought for sure we’d been placed in one of the ‘exit airlock without a suit’ groups. Turned out we were waiting to see if Foster had any captains willing to take on our training and rehabilitation.”

“And they gave us new names to remind us we were no longer our old selves.”

“Foster did that?” Shortdash growled.

“He was there – his team pulled us and some of the others,” Louis told hir, “but he was arguing with several of them – he was pissed he wasn’t getting what he wanted.”

“Was walking with a cane, like he’d been hurt,” Carlo added. “Thought he was going to hit one of the chakats trying to get him to ride hir.”

“Some type of old folding rain or sun shield,” Louis agreed. “One of the Rakshani females he was arguing with tried to take it away from him.” Grinning at the taurs he added, “They grabbed the other end and pulled it – left him with just the handle – of this little slim sword.”

“Didn’t threaten anyone with it, just looked at her like she were a misbehaving little cub,” Carlo slowly said. “Over half a meter taller than him, but he just stared her down.”

“For a human, that guy is scary,” Louis admitted.

“So we’ve noticed,” Longsock said.

The other two just smirked at him.

“We’ve seen him in action,” Shortdash told them.

“Unless you were with him in the fight, you can’t possibly know him,” Louis warned them. “He’s not what he seems most of the time.”

“Now what happens?” Longsock wondered.

“Now we see how fast your friend makes Holden talk – unless you’d like to interrogate some of her people while we wait?” Louis suggested. “Let us know though if they seem reluctant – Carlo and me’d love to ‘help’.”

“Maybe we should check on the prisoners,” Shortdash suggested.

Carlo and Louis both smiled but made no move to follow them.

There was no guard outside the door, but there were two standing on the inside closely watching their charges.

Not that their charges looked like they were in any shape to try anything.

“Did they try to attack you?” Longsock asked, noting all the phaser burns and broken limbs on most of the conscious prisoners.

“Na, we were just treating them as they’d treated their prisoners,” the female human of the pair replied. “They broke arms for the fun of it, so we thought they’d find it just as entertaining. Those whining that they were going to bleed out we were more than happy to cauterize – which was more first aid than they could be bothered to offer to their victims.”

Shortdash took another step into the room and eyed a lion morph leaning against the wall. “Name?” shi demanded.

“You’re dead meat when Fleet hears about this,” the lion sneered at hir.

Shortdash just smiled. “Admirals Johnson and Kline authorized our actions, idiot. And I have a feeling you won’t be getting any support from your Fleet friends once they find out what you and your fellow murderers have been up to!”

“We were following orders!”

“Were you now? So Holden actually ordered you to murder civilians in cold blood? And you obeyed those illegal orders? I’m starting to see why some of the people here want to see how slowly and painfully they can make you die for what you’ve done,” Shortdash growled before turning to leave.

“That was quick,” Longsock commented once the door was closed behind them.

“Maybe it’s emotional feedback from my mate dealing with Holden, but right this minute I want nothing more than to go get Dash’s table leg and beat him to death with it,” Shortdash admitted.

“It sounds like Tess was right not to let us see them in action,” Longsock suggested.

Shi glared at him but didn’t disagree.

They returned to the room with Carlo and Louis. While they waited on Quickwind, they used their PADDs to get on the nets to see how much word had gotten out.

“Nothing,” Shortdash mumbled. “It’s like there’s a cone of silence around this whole block.”

“And the hospital isn’t reporting anything special,” Longsock agreed. “And we know this law firm is in no shape to hide anything.”

“Hmm,” Shortdash said as shi tried another inquiry. “This office hasn’t gotten a single call since Neal woke us – other than him calling in to help us nail her of course. Seems all calls are now routing to the other offices of ‘Tanner, Stripes and Star’.”

“Which are where?”

“Not on Bright Hope it appears.”

“That actually makes sense; even dropping the faster-than-light links to Bright Hope wouldn’t take them completely out of the loop,” Longsock pointed out. “All of which is making my assumptions of what I thought I knew about Captain Foster seem … inadequate.”

“It’s strange,” Shortdash muttered a while later. “Some of the firm’s info is open to my requests, other similar ones are locked down.”

“Tess seems to be deciding what we can and can’t look into,” Longsock replied. “I noticed the few seconds delay when opening certain search areas.”

Shortdash nodded just before hir head came up and hir ears laid back. “Quickwind is done with Holden, and Makers is shi pissed!”

“So how does shi normally blow off hir ‘mad’?” Longsock asked. “And should I give you two some ‘alone time’?”

“As upset as shi feels, I think we’re going to have to break something.”

“Return to your PTV,” Tess’ voice told them. “I’ve selected something no one will complain if a little damage is done.”

“What about our gear?” Longsock asked, indicating the weapon harnesses they still wore.

“Leave your gear in the PTV and it will be returned while Quickwind cools hir inner ’mil,” Tess replied.

Quickwind came around the corner just then; to Longsock shi seemed overly alert and ‘bouncy’.

“Tess tells me she has a little something in mind,” shi told them, hir smile worrying him a little.

“Should I give you two some alone time?” he asked again.

If anything Quickwind’s smile grew wider. “Nah,” shi told him. “Stick around,” shi didn’t quite order.

Their leaving the building was almost as surreal as the way they’d entered, the security force from the Crossed Swords ignoring them as they moved about – including Quickwind stepping into the room with the Star Fleet prisoners and using hir pain sticks at high settings on several of them.

To Longsock’s look of concern shi said, “They were a little too gleeful in the attack – if they’d taken out Dash as well there’d have been no one left that knew to call Captain Foster.”

“Why did they want him in the first place?” Shortdash asked hir mate.

“I only got part of it, but Admiral Johnson and Tess were feeding me questions to ask and telling me when they knew the answers were false. Tess tells me she had just the thing to help me ‘cool down’,” shi added as they climbed into the waiting PTV.

The trip was a short one, the PTV stopping at a closed building on a corner.

The PTV display now read:

CODE 1158 DISABLES ALARMS/LOCKS.
SO LONG AS YOU DON’T BREAK ANY EXTERNAL WALLS
OR WINDOWS YOU SHOULD REMAIN UNDISTURBED.

Inside they found what appeared to be a gym, weights and exercise equipment taking up most of the floor-space.

“Wait – we know this place!” Shortdash exclaimed. “They kicked us out when we pointed out that half their equipment was an accident waiting to happen.”

“And they didn’t return our fees,” Quickwind muttered under hir breath.

“Well, it seems the bank took it back from them,” Longsock commented as he read one of the notes of closure pinned to the door they’d just entered. “Thirteen Star Bank in fact. What were the odds?”

“Now we have even more questions about Foster!” Quickwind growled as shi set one weight machine for its max load. Shi then moved just off one side of the unit and pulled the handles as hard as shi could.

Longsock’s jaw dropped as the support bars bent alarmingly before snapping and crashing onto the pad the user would normally be sitting on.

“Piece of junk!” Quickwind shouted as shi hurled the broken off chunks at the one-way mirrors that hid the offices.

Shi then broke the next three units in similar manners before coming to a pile of loose weights which shi started bouncing off walls as hard as shi could.

“Makers,” Longsock mumbled from where he and Shortdash stood well out of the way. “I hadn’t seen this side of hir …”

“Shi’ll need cuddling later,” Shortdash told him. “Maybe even a ‘Chakat Maneuver’,” shi chuckled.

Longsock snorted lightly, the maneuver in question required three, the chakat in the middle catching and pitching at the same time.

It took a while for hir to wind down, but Quickwind picked up one last weight only to let it fall back to the rack shi’d pulled it from.

“You good?” hir mate half asked.

“I’m good,” shi agreed. “And despite what we’ve seen tonight I seem to have managed to work up an appetite as well.”

“It’s not much longer till dawn, and there’s a good breakfast place not far from here,” Longsock suggested.

* * *

Boyce had both marveled and frowned at what Neal had been showing him. While noticeably larger than a missile, Neal’s Zulus packed an amazing amount of tech in the limited space; more than should have fit, much less worked without interfering with the other systems.

“There’s a reason we separate the warp core from the engines, how are you getting away with it?” Boyce asked, indicating one of the Zulus Neal had partly dismantled.

“I almost didn’t,” Neal confessed. “Took a while to figure out the right way to take it to warp without the core losing containment.”

“But it does work?”

“That one, yeah. I’m going to make and test a few more before I move on to the next step.”

“Which is?”

Neal led him over to the side and opened a storage container. “This is the next toy I need to teach to play nice with all the others.”

“It kind of looks like the model of a warp core,” Boyce allowed. “But I’m guessing it isn’t – a model that is.”

“A very early Merraki design that full-sized didn’t have enough control over its fields or its output,” Neal informed him. “Now that we have better computers to manage it, it looks like it might just be the next big thing in miniaturization.”

“And just how much power do you think you’ll be able to get out of that tiny beast?” Boyce wondered.

At Neal’s nod, a nearby display lit with figures and graphs. Boyce looked over the details for several minutes before letting out a low whistle. “And just what are you going to do with that much power?” he asked.

Neal frowned slightly as he said, “The Admiral and his wives probably wouldn’t like the answer to that question.”

Boyce snorted lightly before saying, “And what about an engineering friend that already knows you’re crazy?”

Neal shrugged before again nodding and the display changed to a Zulu with the tiny core, other things shifting or being added and removed.

Data flashed as specs showed for whatever Boyce’s eyes paused on, and it surprised Neal not at all where those eyes lingered the last and longest.

“You can’t be everywhere,” he softly said. “And ramming a pirate with a Zulu is an all or nothing proposition. This will allow me a few more options.”

“How many of these do you have deployed?” Boyce asked.

“None as yet on this ship. The required baby cores are still being tested.”

“But you will be deploying them.”

“Yes. Hopefully before the next colony push. I have two teams testing earlier versions to see how well we can hide or make them blend in.”

“Blend in how?”

Neal smiled. “I understand Star Fleet is still experimenting with holo-projectors to help camouflage what types of ships you have deployed where. Link a few of these together and they’ll be able to appear as a freighter. Of course, any pirates that try to attack might be a little upset by what they find.”

“Hmm, one more thing my wives really don’t need to know about,” Boyce agreed. “Speaking of which, how much later of a night were you planning to make it?”

“What? You think you’ve seen enough?” Neal asked with a grin.

“No, but we’ve both got work to do tomorrow, it might be best if we don’t look and act like we were up all night playing like a couple of kids that should have known better.”

“True,” Neal finally admitted, looking over at a sleeping kitten – one that would need to be fed again pretty soon. “Try not to talk in your sleep.”

“You too,” Boyce chuckled as Neal gently picked up Firestorm.

 

 


 

You Can't Keep A Good Stellar Foxtaur Down

 

Shi woke up in a hospital bed, not remembering how shi’d gotten there. Hir aching arm helped remind hir of what had happened. Shi reached out and turned off the bedside monitors before peeling the sensors off the shaved portions of hir fur. Shi then rested a moment before trying to get out of the hospital bed. The room seemed to spin a bit as shi tried to keep hir feet under hir.

The first nurse to spot hir had tried to get hir to go back to hir bed, but shi was having none of it. Instead, shi started opening doors in search for others shi knew had to be there. Shi found Robin first in a private room.

“Where’s Runelock – the big Rakshani? Did he make it?” shi demanded of the nurse still following hir around.

“He’s recovering in intensive care – and you need to return to your bed,” the nurse replied.

“You need them in the same room,” shi replied. “Before one of them wakes and goes looking for the other.”

“Shir Dash, you need –” the nurse started again before she suddenly found herself muzzle to muzzle with a very irate patient.

“Move. Them. To. The. Same. Room,” Dash ordered. “Unless you want to watch them climbing out of their beds trying to find each other!”

“Why?” asked a second nurse that had come to assist the first.

“They’re lifemates,” Dash informed them. “He pushed her behind him to shield her from the phaser fire. She then tried to attack them when they shot him down.”

“And who was firing phasers at them?” the second nurse asked.

“That’s need to know,” Dash ad-libbed. “Right now Star Fleet is in charge of things.” True enough from what little shi’d heard Longsock and Shortdash saying when they’d rescued hir and the others.

“We’ll move her into the ICU ward with him; you need to get back to your own bed.”

“No. I need to check on the rest of my people,” Dash countered.

By the time shi had seen each of the others, they had Robin in with Runelock. Shi shook hir head at them being placed across the room from each other.

“In reach of each other – unless you want to watch them tear apart all your repair work,” shi told the nurses.

As they moved Robin’s bed closer to Runelock, Dash slipped out the door and down the corridor. An emergency exit light beckoned to hir and shi took it. Outside the door waited a lone PTV.

The ride back to the office was quick, barely giving hir time to prepare hirself for what might be left in the aftermath. One thing shi hadn’t been expecting was over a dozen PTVs around the building. There were new front doors being installed and guards that looked like they’d just as soon shoot you as look at you.

Then the Caitian that had been watching hir carefully climb out of the PTV had said something into his comm badge before coming out to meet hir.

“All secure, repairs and cleanup is expected to be completed by first light, Shir.”

“Thank you,” shi replied as if shi’d expected him to report to hir.

“If you need anything, just ask,” he added before resuming his position by the door.

Inside there was controlled chaos as things were being repaired or replaced.

“What’s that?” shi asked two Rakshani pulling some type of unit out of the ceiling part way down one of the corridors.

“Stun cannon,” one of them replied. “It’s a one-shot so it needs to be replaced.”

Shi managed to move along and get hir muzzle closed before they noticed hir shocked expression.

Someone had gone through and trashed hir office, though nothing appeared to be missing. Shi found and gave hirself a dose of ‘Pep’, a little something they used when they were going to be having a long night and were in need of a boost.

Hir office screens turned out to have been damaged by whoever had gone through the place, so Dash headed for Robin’s office.

A cleanup crew had already been there, the room smelled clean and any battle damage seemed to have been repaired.

Sliding Robin’s chair out of the way, Dash dragged a taur pad over to sit on before activating the desk’s login. Then shi got down to business.

The first thing shi saw was that the ‘Don’t come in – don’t call in’ warnings to those out of the office was still in effect. Shi smiled grimly as the way hir request to Foster had been worded had initiated it and had probably saved the lives of the rest of their after-shift crews. New data included Foster’s latest logs and recordings of most of what had happened – including it seemed some type of interrogation.

Foster’s logs explained the hours of delay from when shi’d sent the summons and his rather pointed reply and shi took note of several of the timing marks. The logs also helped explain a few little things like the stun cannon and Dash growled softly wondering what else shi still didn’t know about that madman – or even the people and place in which shi worked.

It was halfway through reviewing the interrogation that shi realized something was off. Dash was no stranger to running recordings faster than real-time, but shi was racing through things and still felt like everything was moving too slowly around hir. Realizing shi needed to undo or at least reduce the effects the Pep was having on hir, Dash got up and headed out of the office to find one of those still doing repairs.

“I-need-your-cutters!” shi snapped at a chakat replacing one of the damaged internal sensors.

The chakat had started to reply but stopped on seeing the expression on the veldt breed’s muzzle and simply handed over the tool.

Cutter in hand, Dash dashed back to Robin’s office and used it to destroy a lock holding one of the panels closed.

Having followed hir cutter, the chakat made a note of the new damage.

“You-will-not-repair-this!” Dash snapped at hir as shi returned the cutter.

Waiting until the chakat had left, Dash opened the panel and removed a tall bottle, popped the top and downed a good slug of the alcohol it contained.

Setting the bottle in easy reach, shi went back to hir work.

The booze helped slow hir down enough that shi didn’t even jump a while later at a tap at the door.

“Dash! What are you doing in here?” demanded a white rabbit morph with a black ring around his left eye.

“What are you doing here, Beeves?” Dash countered. “I haven’t cancelled the ‘stay clear’ warning.”

“As the office manager I’m the exception,” he countered in turn. “What the hell happened here last night? I know you guys were staying late for that conference call with Thirteen Star – but that doesn’t explain the armed guards or the construction crews I saw coming in.”

“We were attacked,” shi slowly said, looking down at the desk in front of hir. “Eddie’s dead. Louise, and Clark too. The rest of the evening crew is at the hospital, last I saw Robin and Runelock were both still in fairly critical condition.”

“What – why?” Beeves stuttered.

“The Antimatter Consortium was closer to blowing up than we thought.”

“Wait – don’t we have a conference call with them in less than an hour?”

“Which was why Robin thought they were still talking and not yet trying anything stupid.”

“And you managed to call the cops.”

“No, we were held prisoners until Foster got my message – and his reply was fire and brimstone.”

“What – never mind. What do you need of me?”

“Cancel the keep-out, let our people know what happened, and tell them we are running in reduced mode with the other branches taking what they can handle off our plates. I’ll take the call when it’s time.”

“Are you sure you’re up for it?”

“This is mine,” Dash replied with a snarl. “I’m going to spit in their eyes!”

* * *

Quickwind was finishing what shi thought might finally be hir last order of pancakes when shi heard Longsock snort in amusement.

“Check your mail,” he told them. “It seems I’ve suddenly got the next couple of days off – at the suggestion of Admiral Johnson’s office.”

“Same,” Shortdash said a minute later. Looking at hir partner shi asked, “What now?”

“Back to the scene of the crime,” Quickwind told hir as shi set down hir fork and grinned at them.

The PTV that had been shuttling them around all night was still waiting for them as they came out of the diner behind a group of teenagers.

“Perfect!” a collie morph declared as they piled into the PTV.

“This vehicle is reserved. Please disembark at this time,” the mechanical voice of the PTV informed the teens.

“Like hell!” one of her friends said as he held the door close button down. “They can catch the next one.”

The PTV’s doors closed and the teens waved at the adults they’d beaten to the PTV – just before they all cringed in pain and tried to protect their ears from an alarm bell that was loud enough to be easily heard from outside the now sealed vehicle. And it seemed from the teens’ frantic actions that the doors were refusing to let them escape.

Longsock counted off a full half a minute before the alarm went silent and the PTV doors reopened.

“This vehicle is reserved. Please disembark at this time,” the PTV again stated. The warning was no longer needed as the teens had fled as soon as the door openings were wide enough.

“Whose PTV is this anyway?” Shortdash wondered as they climbed into the sound of silence.

“Registration says it’s part of Thirteen Star Bank’s taxi fleet,” Longsock replied after going through the PTV’s console display.

“And Foster reserved it for us from light-years away,” Quickwind commented.

“Don’t forget how quickly he had us armed and dangerous,” Shortdash reminded them.

“I think I’d like a few answers,” Longsock agreed.

* * *

The offices didn’t look at all like the one they’d left bare hours before, a single maintenance vehicle sat outside and a professional looking security fur checked them into the building.

The corridors were vacant, not another soul to be found until they neared the office that Quickwind had questioned Holden in. A rabbit morph was just inside the door speaking to someone else.

“I’m going to spit in their eyes!” they heard Dash snarl as they neared the open door.

“I’ll take a piece of that!” Quickwind declared, startling the rabbit.

Dash frowned at them before looking back at Beeves. “Go,” shi told him; to hir visitors, shi said, “Pull up a pad.”

“We have questions,” Quickwind warned hir. “Many questions.”

“So did I,” Dash admitted. “It’s funny how much you can think you know, only to have a single event prove that you don’t really know shit. My mother once told me that you can’t know a person without walking a kilometer in their paw-prints. Last night proved to me that some paths are better left un-traveled.”

“Does that mean you’re not going to tell us?” Longsock gently asked.

Taking a sip from what was now hir second bottle, Dash replied, “No, it means what becomes known can’t go back to being unknown.”

“How is Foster mixed in with what happened last night?” Shortdash asked to start the ball rolling.

“First remember that he ships billions of credits worth of cargo and makes millions off of all that shipping,” Dash told them. “Then realize that even though the Stellar Federation is a federation of planets, there are many laws that differ from planet to planet and even between the cities and towns on the same planet. And if you have to deal with all those legal entities you have to somehow know each of their rules and laws – lest doing something perfectly legal one place ends up having you arrested in another. And those laws are changing all the time.”

The others nodded as shi took another sip before continuing. “One man and one ship can’t possibly keep track of all of that and still have the time to get anything else done, so he hired a lawyer. As his business grew, so did the load on the lawyer, so more were brought in and a firm was established. As the needs of that one man and his ship weren’t steady, the lawyers started taking on outside work to stay busy. That firm eventually turned into the current ‘Tanner, Stripes and Star’.”

“Thirteen Star,” Quickwind injected.

“What’s a bank? A place to store your excess credits. If it weren’t for the interest, you might as well hide it under your bedding. Deposits earn interest because the funds are loaned out to people and businesses in need of credits at higher rates. But you have no control over who the bank will or won’t lend those credits to. They might refuse a loan to a company you think is a good risk while granting a loan to someone you’d rather they didn’t.”

“So he bought the bank,” Quickwind snorted.

“No, he hired some people and formed his own bank,” Dash corrected. “He started Thirteen Star on new colonies at first as a way to help get some of them up to speed quicker. Once they were up and running branches were added to the more established worlds. The name may still say Thirteen Star, but they’re on almost every planet and most stations.”

“Why?”

“Control when he wants or feels he needs to step in. The ability to help direct which way some things go. To be able to ‘waste’ a few credits on a worthy project that he already knows wouldn’t pay out in the end but still needs to be done.”

“The weapons dealer?” Longsock asked.

“My files show they’d borrowed for remodeling their home and business after their last cub. As Captain Foster has been one of their primary suppliers since they opened, they trust him. Fools.”

“That doesn’t explain them getting up in the middle of the night to arm three strangers they’d never met before.”

Dash shrugged. “If we try a search through his older logs, we’ll probably find that they’d dealt directly with him at some point in the past – or maybe even their parents. You see, the good captain has this little black book labeled: Who we can call on when the shit is flying. The funny thing is that I checked it this morning – and you three aren’t in that little book.”

“He was grasping at straws,” Quickwind said. “Though he seemed to know what he was asking for when he called in a ’mil for help.”

“From what I’ve found so far, Foster doesn’t cry wolf often, but when he does, you can be sure there’s one gnawing on his arm while he’s trying to either beat it to death or hold its attention while innocents can make good their escape.”

“Parakit, and New Kiev,” Longsock said.

“And many others, how many I’m still discovering, but it’s not all attacks and fighting. There are rescues and buying out useful but failing companies and ships to keep them from going under, and people…”

“Tell us about our backup,” Shortdash requested. “They weren’t quite what I was expecting.”

You weren’t what I was expecting either,” Dash replied. “Crossed Swords was a recovered short-haul freighter that had run into hard times. Foster bought it at auction and then had to find a use for it. Captain Peppers is ex-Fleet – seems he’d pissed off the wrong admiral and was forced to resign. Foster recruited him, and allowed him to pick a crew he thought he could manage.”

“A rather rough but fairly disciplined bunch from what we saw,” Shortdash commented.

“Peppers doesn’t put up with much; you get out of line and he’ll hand you your head. And his crew knows it. While they do make deliveries to some of the rougher ports of call, their main purpose is making runs for Night Watch.”

“Night Watch?” Longsock asked.

“They watch the Federation’s shadows, I’ll explain later,” Shortdash replied before turning back to their hostess. “Is Folly part of Night Watch?”

“No, though it seems she offers them her scans and traffic data as well as accepting info of who and what they’re watching out for.”

“When we showed up, you also said something about Alamo Antimatter,” Longsock reminded hir.

“Even before the bank, Captain Foster needed fuel to move that ship of his. So he set up a refueling station, the savings allowed him to set up a few more along or near his routes. Mostly he and a few of his friends used them, and he delivered to a few small stations. Then a problem getting antimatter to out-of-the-way Night Watch stations caused Foster to go from a part-time to a full-time provider. Alamo Antimatter hired and modified a few ships and trained the crews. While never ‘actively’ seeking work, they have been snapping up any deliveries the Antimatter Consortium or the other suppliers may drop or fail to make. The Consortium finally took notice and tried to get Alamo Antimatter to join them, when that failed they were trying to get a bill passed that would force their control over all the independents, but they hadn’t expected Alamo Antimatter to threaten to just close up shop and leave them high and dry – not that they knew they were dealing with Foster as all official Alamo Antimatter matters go through this office.”

“And they had to go through you to get at him,” Shortdash muttered. “Coward.”

Dash glared at hir as shi growled, “This wasn’t his fault – it was ours! We arrogantly thought we knew where everything was – which way the Antimatter Consortium would jump and when. We were so sure they were still talking that we didn’t increase our security as we normally do when we’re handling dangerous cases … Twenty-one minutes.”

“What?”

“I now have full access to Foster’s time logs from last night. It was twenty-one minutes from Tess telling him there was an as yet unknown problem in this building and my trying to club Longsock. Minutes spent discovering just what had happened – and identifying Admiral Holden had Admiral Kline calling his boss, Admiral Johnson, and confirming they had nothing close at hand that they could trust. Foster had Crossed Swords moving even before they called you – he was willing to send them in first if he had to – knowing he’d probably lose valuable information on the who and why of the attack. Captain Peppers ordered from Tess the videos of the attack so his crew would know exactly what they would be walking into. While Neal was waking you up, Tess was waking others to have your weapons and medpacks ready – which she amended while Foster was asking if Longsock was sure that he wanted to join the party. He also warned Crossed Swords that you three were in charge and that he would personally deal with anyone that tried to cross you.” Dash snorted lightly before continuing, “Somewhere in all this he must have added me to the ‘don’t get in the way of’ list because later they were giving me the same treatment.”

Beeves’ voice came over the desk’s intercom at that moment with, “Coming up on time, Dash.”

“Go ahead and establish the link,” Dash replied. One of hir screens lit up showing three place holders, two active but blank spots, and one young and confused looking female Rakshani – who looked very worried or upset about something.

The Rakshani opened her mouth to speak, but Dash had simply glared into the conference link before placing hir outgoing image in standby. “That’s strange,” shi muttered. “They’re normally all in and linked ahead of the time they give Robin – the better to gang up on her.”

Beeves interrupted hir musings with, “Foster’s on line three, do you want me to handle him?”

“Mine!” shi snapped at him as shi slapped the key that would transfer the line to one of hir other displays.

Foster looked like he hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, to which shi had no sympathy as there was a lot of that going around. He also looked angry, shi could easily match that as well. There might have been some concern in his eyes, though knowing what shi’d learned these last few hours shi wouldn’t wager on what.

“Captain Foster,” shi addressed him politely if a little curtly.

“Shir Dash,” he replied. “Shouldn’t you be resting comfortably in a hospital bed?”

“Someone’s got to keep things going around here,” shi snapped back. “Robin’s in no shape to!”

“I know, I checked with the hospital first. Good call on getting them together, Runelock woke first and the nurses were able to use Robin being right there to make him behave. Most of the others will be released in the next day or so. See to it everyone gets counseling; yesterday wasn’t what most of you had signed up for. And we’ll need to see to the families of those that were killed. I didn’t really know the other two; but I know Eddie had two daughters, one’s in Star Fleet and the other is still in school.”

“I’ll see to it,” Dash told him. “But that brings up still another question. How the hell did you even know Eddie in the first place? Robin kept him well hidden from clients.”

Neal gave hir a sad grin before saying, “And she kept him out of sight because he was an abrasive asshole that would say whatever he thought to anyone – even a VIP client. But, in his own way, he was a genius with contracts – which was why I knew him. He and I met one evening when Robin was indisposed and the evening receptionist had her water break three weeks earlier than expected and I called in need of a quick yet bulletproof contract for a Merraki firm I was dealing with. Eddie wouldn’t get me Robin, he wouldn’t transfer me to anyone else, he just gathered the contract details – and then he hung up on me. He never called back, but four hours later he sent me a contract – and a second copy annotated to show what could be compromised, where and what it would cost me if I was stupid enough to do so.” He looked a little bemused before adding, “First Merraki contract I’d ever had that they didn’t try to argue it to death; they looked it over and talked among themselves for a few minutes before agreeing to all terms. After that, if he was on shift, my calls got routed to him.”

“You’ll work with anyone that gives you the results you want,” Dash commented.

“As you should well know after last night,” Neal agreed. Looking to the side he added, “And it seems you now have access to Robin’s liquor cabinet.”

Dash frowned at the bottles shi hadn’t bothered hiding. “The Pep I’d taken was winding me up too much.”

“And now you’re slightly inebriated I’ll bet,” Neal chuckled.

“Shouldn’t be,” shi muttered, surprised that shi actually was feeling a little intoxicated. “Normally takes a lot more than this to buzz me.”

“Thank your hospital visit for that,” Neal told hir. “Since most of the Stellar Foxtaur genome came from chakats, you share their immunity to most poisons and drugs. So to make the hospital’s pain killers more efficient, your records show they gave you a little dose of something that helps reduce that immunity, so for the next twelve to twenty hours you might want to be careful of what you take.”

Now you tell me,” shi growled.

Neal smiled. “As the hospital was planning on holding on to you for at least a day, they would have protected you from yourself. Funny thing is, Robin and I had joked that you wouldn’t be fully trained until you had your own key to her personal liquor cabinet.”

“I broke the lock.”

He shrugged. “What is a key but a way to get past a lock? It seems you just went and made your own key.”

“I don’t think I’m ready to replace Eddie,” shi protested.

Neal softly snorted at hir before saying, “You still don’t get it, do you?”

“What do you mean?” shi growled.

“Robin never picked you to replace Eddie; from what I’ve heard you’re good, but you don’t have his genius at contracts.”

“Thanks a lot!”

“Idiot,” Neal muttered softly at hir. “Who’s in charge over there?”

“Beeves is taking care of things for now,” Dash hedged.

“Then why am I talking to you?” he asked hir with a slow grin. “Shouldn’t he be the one talking to me?”

“I …”

You jumped in and took command of things,” Neal told hir. “Which, whether you want to believe it or not, was what Robin was grooming you for …”

“But …”

“No buts – the shit hit the fan and you stepped in and took control. Or are you going to march your fluffy little tail back to the hospital and tell Robin she picked the wrong pup of the litter?”

Dash glared at him and Neal nodded. “Since we now know who’s in charge of the Tanner side of the legal firm I won’t try giving you any orders we both know you won’t obey. I would suggest though that you at least let the hospital finish patching you up. Oh, you’re not by chance waiting for a call from the Antimatter Consortium are you?”

“Should have started already,” Dash agreed while glancing at hir other screen. “Half of them haven’t even linked, the other half are in standby.”

“Ah, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about them bothering you today – or for the next few days to come,” Neal informed hir.

“And why do you say that?” shi didn’t quite snarl at him.

“Because the head of Star Fleet Command, one Admiral Johnson, sent Admiral Kline a very detailed report of things in play as of this morning. Admiral Kline, in turn, decoded it and handed it off to Tess, who dumped it in my in-basket and there will be copies for you in our next log download. Among other things, Admiral Johnson had teams sent to each of the Consortium’s headquarters last night to gather warm bodies and evidence to try to help explain Holden’s actions. I understand they aren’t being gentle about it – nor are they taking ‘no’s or ‘diplomatic immunities’ as reasons not to ask hard questions and demand answers. One already discovered link is Holden is a sister-in-law to the head of one of the Consortium’s legal firms. And it appears that not all of the Consortium’s members knew what all was going on behind the scenes, which is stirring things up over there even more.”

“It’s going to get bad when this hits the nets,” Dash warned.

“More for them than for us,” Neal replied with a shrug. “They started each step of this train wreck, we’ve just responded to protect ourselves. Anything they try to put on the nets we can counter and put them in a very bad light, so unless one of them fires off without thinking, I expect them to not draw any more attention to themselves than they can help at this point.”

“And if one of them does?”

“You will counter. They have not won and they will not win.”

“No matter the cost,” Dash softly said.

“The cost of their little games has already been far too high,” Neal replied equally softly. “Admiral Johnson has now been made aware that if he can’t get them under control, Alamo Antimatter will dry up and blow away – leaving the Federation and Star Fleet to their own devices. If that happens your offices will simply close and reform elsewhere – we won’t be leaving them any targets to go after.”

“And you think that will be enough.”

“No, but I know it’s as far as I can go before my legal teams will start yelling at me,” Neal replied with a smirk at hir.

I won’t yell if you go after them,” Dash mumbled.

“But any dents or holes I put in them we will then have to somehow fill – which was never part of the game-plan. Making up the difference was all Alamo Antimatter was ever meant to do.”

“So, what do you want us to do?” Dash asked.

“I want you to take care of your people – and that includes yourself,” Neal told hir. “I expect Star Fleet’s going to be keeping the Consortium too busy to play any games for the next little bit as they try to find their collective asses with both hands. Have your other offices help you balance your workloads, go ahead and work those people that need the distraction and time off for those it’ll do the most good.”

“And Robin?”

“You tell me,” Neal told hir.

“She’ll demand to be kept in the loop, though I should be able to use Runelock to help keep her out of the office – at least for a little while.”

“Already kicking your boss while she’s down; it seems Robin has managed to create a monster in her own image,” Neal chuckled. “Why don’t the four of you go get something to eat, hit the hospital, and then take some very well deserved downtime?” he suggested before he reached over to tap something and he vanished from the screen.

Dash was frowning again as shi muttered, “Bossy old – wait – how did he know there were four of us? Tess!” shi snarled at the screen – which remained stubbornly blank and silent. “Diplomacy,” shi muttered to the room after a long moment, “the art of pretending you aren’t an asshole while putting up with other assholes …”

“We ate before we came in, but we’ll be happy to sit with you while you have breakfast,” Longsock offered.

Looking at each of them in turn, Dash said, “You guys aren’t going to start mothering me too – are you?”

“Well, you are our most direct link to what’s going on with our kids,” Quickwind pointed out. “We, therefore, have a vested interest in seeing that you stay useful to us.”

* * *

And they did see that shi was properly fed before escorting hir back to the hospital, where shi refused all but outpatient type services before driving hir home – only for hir to realize it wasn’t hir apartment the PTV was pulling up in front of …

“Wait – I didn’t say –” Dash started, only to be cut off by Shortdash.

“The only way the doctors let you go was with your promise that you’d be under observation for the next thirty hours,” shi pointed out. “I’m thinking our place can handle four better than your place can.”

“You’re as bad as he is,” Dash muttered as shi allowed hirself to be led in.

“He did send us in to rescue you,” Quickwind reminded hir. “Just consider it additional services rendered.”

Having had chakat parents, Dash was no stranger to ’kat sleeping piles – nor being invited to some of their other bedroom activities…

* * *

Neal smiled slightly as he closed his tired eyes and let his chair recline. His last glimpse of Dash suggested that the Stellar Foxtaur had just figured out that he had known more than shi thought shi had been showing him. A quiet bleep let him know one of the displays had become active, but he didn’t open his eyes or otherwise react to it.

“My wives are annoyed with me,” Boyce’s voice told him.

“My mates and companions are giving me the silent treatment,” Neal slowly replied. “As in Moonglow seems to have warned the others that whatever it was was pretty bad, and they’re busy pussyfooting around that crazy human again.”

“I’m going to have to tell them more at some point.”

“Tell them,” Neal muttered. “Dump the whole mess on them for all I care. The current crisis is over, nothing but cleanup and reorganizing things left to do.”

“You think it’s over?”

“No. But I do think the parties in question are going to have to stop and regroup or otherwise figure out where things stand. Alamo Antimatter will get back to delivering fuel to the more out-of-the-way places, but none of the major planets or starbases – until the Consortium states its intentions.”

“And what do you expect out of the Consortium?” Boyce asked.

“I don’t know,” Neal confessed, finally opening his eyes. “Your boss’ early notes suggested that some of the members are now very upset at what other parts of the Consortium have been doing in their name. Whether it’ll cause fractures or otherwise splits them up, I don’t know.”

“What are your plans if the Consortium does split up?”

“If the chunks are small enough, it means being able to deal with them on a more even footing,” Neal pointed out. “If they do any splitting.”

“So now what?”

“Crews. Selecting the crews if I’m going to have those other ships making deliveries.”

“Was that only last night?” Boyce wondered. “I can’t say you live a dull life.”

“I’d be happy to take dull over last night,” Neal replied. “Too bad the rest of the universe doesn’t seem to feel the same way.”

“Would you like a little help picking out crews?”

“As you just happen to be the one with full access to their records – hell yes.”

“Oh, before we talk of crews, Hal had a question for you. He was wondering if you might know why those companies are getting so frantic about their communication relays.”

Neal softly snorted. “Tell him it’s because I don’t actually know every little thing.”

“And what don’t you know?” Boyce asked.

“The secure codes needed to talk to some of their non-relay services,” Neal replied. “When Tess and I reactivated those faster than light relays, we had enough of their codes to get the relays to talk, but not the info to set back up the data transfers for tracking each and every call and connection.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning they aren’t getting any of the information they need for tracking or billing any of those calls going through their relays, Admiral. And I’m guessing the word is finally spreading that they are incorrectly billing people and they are having to back down when their false billing is challenged.”

“So turning back on those relays also cut them off from making any more money until they can go out and reprogram each and every one of them?”

“Something like that,” Neal agreed. “Too bad Holden had those hours before we knew about her to place a few calls, I have to worry about who all now knows that I control Alamo Antimatter.”

“How are you going to handle it?”

“I’m setting up a few things in case there’s another attack, but otherwise I’m stuck with seeing who reacts how, when and where,” Neal admitted.

* * *

A forced ‘day off’ had Dash climbing the walls and refusing the idea of a second day of so-called ‘rest’. Shi got up and headed off for work. Since they still had ‘time off’ to enjoy, hir three keepers ensured shi had a good breakfast and followed hir to work.

Dash frowned slightly as shi again settled hirself in Robin’s office; hir own office had been repaired, but there wasn’t room in it to comfortably seat four taurs. The frown was brought on by the way the guard now manning the front door and hir office managers didn’t seem at all surprised at hir entourage.

“I really don’t need keepers,” shi was saying yet again.

“Of course you don’t,” Shortdash readily agreed. “But we’re interested in a few things and you and your office look like the best place to learn more,” shi added with a smile.

“Saving my tail or not – you’re not going to be running willy-nilly through my files,” Dash told them.

“We’ll be happy to take what you are able to offer,” Longsock told hir. “And I’d think you’d like the answers to a few questions yourself,” he hinted.

Dash glared at him and then the other two before saying, “Alright already! It’s almost visiting hours anyway.”

The ride to the hospital was all too quick for hir – and the staff was even quicker to pounce on hir to again check on their repairs and hir well-being – which they demanded to do before shi was allowed to bother any of their other patients. Dash suffered through it in silence, wondering yet again how shi as a patient had managed to so easily escape the first time.

“No doubt Tess was actively watching out for you,” Longsock told hir when shi finally mentioned it to them. “Why else would using an emergency exit not trigger an alarm and a PTV be waiting right outside?”

“You think he had a hand in getting the hospital built or something?” Shortdash complained.

“I’m thinking Dash hirself said he’d used the bank to give some colonies a boost,” Longsock pointed out. “I’d think healthcare would have been towards the top of his list.”

Most of hir people were already gone, setting bones was old hat these days, but two remained.

The doors opened almost silently, the better not to disturb the patients. Dash frowned at how small and frail Robin looked half lying on Runelock, not that the much larger Rakshani looked to be in much better shape. An unwanted image of them lying in a pool of their combining blood forced hir to admit that shi’d seen them in worse condition, and shi was half tempted to just step back out of the room and leave them be.

“Bout time you got here,” hir boss muttered, so softly shi almost didn’t hear it. “Why are they here?” she said a little louder though still quite low.

They were what your pet human sent in to rescue us,” Dash hissed back equally quietly. “Why don’t you explain to me the stun cannons hidden in our building?”

“Not now,” Runelock rumbled, barely louder than his mate. “How bad?”

“We lost Eddie, Louise, and Clark. Of the living, you two are in the worst shape.”

“Eddie was in front of us,” Robin murmured, “why the other two?”

“They came in all three entrances at once and shot on sight,” Dash told her. “Only then did Admiral Holden – turns out all of this was tied in with the Antimatter Consortium – suggest that they might need to leave someone alive that knew how to contact Alamo Antimatter.”

Several of the patient monitors began beeping as Robin started to try getting up. “I’m gonna …” she started.

“Do nothing,” her mate finished for her as the arm already lying around her forced her back down – not that either of them was able to move all that much or that easily.

“I have to …” she sputtered as a chakat nurse came in to check on hir charges.

“Do nothing,” he repeated. “You are down and shi’s in charge, just as you hoped.”

“I even made my own key to open your liquor cabinet,” Dash told her. “Foster said something about it being part of my rite of passage.”

“Bastard,” Robin softly muttered.

“Yes, he is,” Dash agreed. “And his counter-attack has torn the Consortium a new orifice. There was no conference call and we haven’t heard a peep out of them since.”

“I need to take care of my people.”

I need to take care of our people. You need to get better,” Dash countered. “The one thing they don’t need is you coming into work looking half dead as if the place can’t be run without you.” Turning to the watching nurse shi said, “How long can you keep them tied to that bed?”

“If everything goes as planned, three weeks,” the nurse replied. “Longer if things don’t go as expected – or you overly upset or excite them,” shi pointedly hinted.

“So, the less I tell you, the sooner you’ll be back,” Dash half teased hir boss.

“Dash,” hir boss growled at hir.

No,” Dash told her. “He said I was in charge. That means you two are on medical leave until I say different. Behave and you’ll still have jobs when the doctors are through with you.”

“You’ve created a monster,” Runelock muttered. “Leave hir to crush your enemies.”

“You will keep me in the loop,” Robin growled at hir.

“I’ll brief you as often as Captain Foster briefs us,” Dash told her as shi waved those with hir towards the door.

The nurse frowned as the monitors started beeping again and Robin yelled “Daaash!” as the door closed behind hir.

“How often does Neal brief you?” Longsock asked as they headed for their PTV.

“Whenever he damn well feels like it,” Dash growled, fighting back a small grin.

“And here you are picking up his bad habits,” Quickwind pointed out. “Careful there, or next you’ll start thinking like him!”

Dash stopped and frowned at the chakamil before saying, “Maybe that’s part of it. Robin had me doing a lot of the bits and pieces long before I knew they were all pieces of things that Foster was mixed up in. I was wondering how some of those pieces were making enough profit to stay in business – and how they weren’t being overrun by their competition.”

“And now you know?” Longsock asked.

“And now I see hints of how some things might tie together,” Dash admitted. “But there are still some big gaps – pieces I’m missing or pieces I have that I don’t understand what I’m seeing.”

“We’ll be happy to help you look,” Shortdash replied with a grin.

“I have a better idea,” Dash told them. Looking at Longsock shi said, “Records indicate that Neal expects you to want to join your denmate and daughters once your current job is done.” At his nod, shi said, “This office will assist in expediting your tasks – within reason – so that you may join them all the sooner.”

“We will be going with him if we can,” Quickwind warned hir.

Dash nodded. “Same deal – within reason.”

“Within whose reason?” Shortdash inquired.

Mine,” the Stellar Foxtaur told them.

 

 


 

Divide To Conquer

 

The next two weeks resembled semi-organized chaos as things took shape. At Boyce’s suggestion, Neal had taken most of his foolish volunteers from the ships under his command, being careful not to strip any of the ships of too many key personnel. Along with the engineering groups working on Gulf in their off hours, Boyce brought a dozen more to help with the Zulus.

Neal had been a little apprehensive about having seventeen denmates/ companions waiting to attack when he and Boyce were done talking that first evening. His initial fears proved groundless though – only Suzan and Moonglow were waiting for him when he entered his room. As with the kids, he found who he went to bed with wasn’t always who he would wake up to find.

The other problem he found with having so many now keeping an eye on him, was his habit of working long and strange hours went right out the airlock. While he could brush off the kids with a ‘go on ahead, I’ll be there when I’m done with this’, his new companions would wait for him, and if he didn’t move fast enough to suit them, they could and would pick him up and carry him! This led to him missing fewer meals, and if it was bedtime and he was still too wound up, they were more than happy to take care of that as well. This didn’t mean they were always all over him – they had their own training schedules and they did give him the time for a little peace and quiet.

Weaver also took on still more of the role as Neal’s second in command. The kids and Stew had always used her as a sounding board before asking Neal about something, but now she was making more of the decisions. Neal found she could be just as bad as Tess when it came to telling him only what she thought he needed to know.

* * *

It was once again Pegasus’ turn to host dinner. Along with the other captains were the commanders that would be taking Charlie and Delta out for the first time the next day.

The Spike’s first officer, Canner, was taking command of Charlie, while Craig Dobson from the carrier Slingshot was in charge of Delta.

Four of Neal’s kids and six of his Rakshani companions had passed the tests Neal had set up for them; now he needed to see if his acting captains would take them on as crew.

When Neal had brought up the subject, Canner had laughed. “Trying to replace us already?” he asked with a smile.

Neal returned the smile with a chuckle. “Not until they’ve had a little more seasoning. So far, the kids have only seen me playing captain. Some time under someone else will be good for them. Don’t worry; I’ll let you know if and when you’re training your replacement.”

Canner smiled again and nodded. After their rocky start, Canner had been afraid that he had alienated the civilian captain. While Shadowchaser was Neal’s main liaison with the Star Fleet vessels, Canner found that he had been ‘drafted’ to fill in for hir whenever shi was busy. It had taken him a while to realize that Neal hadn’t been angry when he’d disbelieved the sensor data the first day. Neal had simply used Canner’s distrust of the data to show him and the others that there might be a good reason to have the Folly’s help in hunting pirates. Even though the Folly’s current flight path didn’t follow the more commonly used ‘space lanes’, Neal was sending a few of his scouts down each of those lanes, then picking them up when the Folly reached that destination.

His next surprise had come when Neal had helped upgrade their sensors and explained the trick of Folly’s ‘sensor jammers’. Space is a noisy place; every star puts out its own ‘hiss’ across the radio spectrum, up to and past the speed of light. Most sensors were set to ignore this and just report what the sensor could detect above its set noise threshold. Neal’s jammers worked two ways, by slowly adding to the noise, raising the noise threshold of the sensor he was trying to blind, and by sending out a ‘counter signal’ for the Folly’s noises that were over that noise threshold. Like a good set of noise-cancelling headphones, the earmuffs kept out the hiss and static of the universe, while the electronics ‘countered’ any noise above the threshold. The key to the jammers working correctly were the Folly’s own sensors, you had to know where the other ships were and what they would be ‘hearing’ in order to send the right signals.

Having originally settled on fifteen crew per ship, splitting Neal’s crew between them brought them both up to full complements. His acting captains were pleased that Neal did this without having to ‘bump’ any of their already-trained Star Fleet personnel to make room.

After dinner, Neal had both new crews meet him in the lounge. One of the things he wanted to remind the Star Fleet members was that they would be flying freighters, not combat craft. They were to avoid danger whenever possible. While they were used to risking their lives for others, this time their lives were more important. If delivering their loads looked dangerous for any reason, they were to abort. He reminded the captains he expected them to abort if anyone of their crews said the word ‘abort’. Once they were clear, they could find out why.

* * *

The next morning saw both ships taking turns making a short hop. Neal spent his time running around their engineering sections, making sure everything was working and tuned up. The rest of the day, the ships and crews were run through their paces; docking, loading and unloading was practiced by each crew’s shifts.

The day after that saw both of the small freighters with a full load, making for the Folly’s next stop. They flew together as a small convoy, the Star Fleet carriers and destroyers acting as an escort. The Folly followed them at a distance, the Pegasus hidden within her warp field.

Two days later, they reached their next stop. Not only did Neal need to transfer cargo onto the planet’s surface, but there were also three space-mining platforms and a research facility to deliver supplies too. After dropping the Pegasus well out of the system, The Folly headed for orbit around the planet, leaving the space-based platforms to the smaller ships.

After dropping off their supplies, Charlie and Delta headed back out of the system with their escorts. The Pegasus joined them once they were clear of the system.

The Folly caught up with them two days later. Once the other ships were loaded onboard, the Folly continued on, apparently alone.

* * *

The debriefings went smoothly; almost everything had gone according to plan. Neal had made sure to give his crews what background information he had for each of their stops. The crews though had been more than a little surprised by how many people had been surprised, and sometimes even upset that Neal had sent someone else in his stead.

This had been especially true of one chakat who had met Charlie as they docked at the first of the mining platforms. Shi had been in such a hurry to meet them that shi still had hir infant nursing under hir open top. Taurgerwolf, both for hir parents as well as hir tiger pattern and timber wolf coloration, had first seen the odd human when shi was a very small cub. He had never failed to have a treat or present for hir as a child. As a surprise for hir wolftaur grandparents, Neal had once given hir a ride in the Folly. When they reached Earth, Neal had contacted hir grandparents, only telling them that hir parents had shipped some cargo though him. Neal had then helped hir climb into a large crate and then filled it up to hir chin with pea-sized packing foam. When the grandparents had complained that the crate wouldn’t fit in their vehicle, Neal had suggested they unpack it there and just take the contents. It was a very dry day, so when the side dropped, white foam poured out. Then, with foam clinging to hir fur, Taurgerwolf had pounced on hir grandparents. A little static electricity soon had all three covered in the foam beads, foam they were still finding in their home twenty years later. Calmmeadow and Mike had been assigned to Charlie. They explained that Neal was using the smaller ships to make up some time, but he hadn’t forgotten hir. They gave hir the small box with hir name on it. Inside shi was surprised to find not only a gift for hir, but also toys for hir newborn.

* * *

The next runs were to two neighboring systems, the Folly heading for one, while the smaller ships and their escort made for the other. The second system had no habitable planets – just a small way-station with a large mining operation.

The quartermaster had been surprised at having the two smaller ships bringing in his supplies instead of the massive Folly, but then he had smiled and made an inter-station call. Delta was almost unloaded when containers from the station started queuing up to be loaded. Dusk and Morningmist had been put in charge of unloading Delta; they now looked again at their data pads, no cargo was scheduled to be taken, just dropped off.

The stationmaster, Tom Prasills, whose blond hair had turned to silver over the years, explained the load to them. “A little over fifty years ago, old man Foster helped us repair and upgrade these facilities after a pirate attack. Part of it was a loan and replacement equipment, the other part was lowering the cost of shipping things through him. We’ve never been able to fully pay that loan back. About thirty-five years ago, this ‘younger’ Foster started making the rounds, claiming to be the old man’s ‘grandson’. He’s always told us that there was no record of a loan to us in the old man’s database, so he would never accept payment. Funny thing is, this ‘grandson’ seems to know everything the old man knew, including my daughter’s birthday. So since he has always refused our payments, we’re going to send it to him through you.”

The story had pushed Craig Dobson’s curiosity buttons, so he had Velasco scan the containers before they were brought aboard – only to find that they couldn’t be properly scanned. The Rakshani had let out a hiss of disbelief when she had gone down and started opening containers at random. Each container was loaded to capacity with refined Boronike ore. The ore in question had properties that kept it from being transported, but once properly shaped, those same properties made it a key component in most transporter and replicator manufacturing. Depending on the current prices, each container load was worth more than a small ship. A hundred and fifty containers were loaded onto both Charlie and Delta. When asked why so much, Tom had just laughed. “When he wouldn’t take his payment, we rolled it back into the business, this is just half of what his ‘share’ has grown into.”

 

 


 

Rabbit Seasoning

 

A little before the Pegasus was scheduled to separate from the Folly to check the outlying area while the Folly went in-system, four identical gray rabbit bucks entered Neal’s dayroom. Neal smiled as he said, “Please, don’t tell me you need permission to kick Stew out of your galley again.”

“N-No, sir. It is about Suzan, but that’s not the problem,” Peter said, all of the bucks were clearly nervous about something.

Waving them to chairs, Neal leaned back in his. “She has been acting strangely of late. Why am I getting the feeling my mates are trying something behind my back, and they asked you to help them with it.”

“Yes…” “But...” “We…” they all tried to answer at once, but then none of them could bring themselves to speak.

After trying for several minutes to get them to tell him what was upsetting them, Neal suggested they all go back to the Pegasus with him. As they filed out, Neal asked Tess to see if their ship’s counselor or Lighttouch was available. Lighttouch met them in the coffee lounge.

Even with hys help, it took a while to get the issue out in the open. Suzan had asked the four bucks for something Neal couldn’t give her, and the bucks were terrified Neal would be upset about it.

Neal shook his head as he snorted in amusement. “Don’t worry gentle furs – I learned a long time ago that shooting the messenger is a bad idea. Tell me what the problem is. If I do get to upset, I’m sure Lighttouch can hold me down long enough for the four of you to escape!” he said with a grin.

“I do not know about that,” Lighttouch said with a chuckle, “I have heard rumors that you can out-tickle a Rakshani.”

Peter and Roger had been there that night, and they nodded. “And he’s not too bad in a pie fight either!” Peter laughed.

“So I have heard,” Lighttouch said, giving Neal a wink. Turning to the bucks hy said, “So, what has you so frightened of him? Or, is what you are holding back so terrible that you are afraid he might tickle you to death when he hears it?”

Oswald all but whispered, “She wants our seed.” Then he slapped his hands over his muzzle.

Lighttouch carefully watched Neal. Hy had felt the spike of mental activity. Now hy listened as it slowed down, a few more spikes came up, but they were much smaller, side-thoughts to the main one. After a few breaths, Neal was as calm as he had appeared to be.

Making eye contact with each of the bucks, Neal smiled. “How do you feel about it?” he gently asked.

“We don’t want to come between you…” Peter stammered.

“You won’t be,” Neal quickly assured him. “Don’t worry about me. What I want to know is how you feel about helping Suzan bring a child into the world.” As they continued looking confused Neal said, “I will admit that this was a bit of a surprise, but I’m wondering if it was a bigger shock to you than it is for me. I guess what I’m asking is if the four of you have thought this through? Do you want to have a child running up to you yelling ‘daddy’? Or, ‘daddies’ as the case may be?”

“Daddies?” Harvey asked.

“You’re all identical, so if you all wanted to help, there would be no way of telling which of your seeds did the deed. The real question is: do you want a child to be related to you? I promise you I am more than willing to treat any child of Suzan’s as one of my own. The other question would be if you want the child to know of you as their fathers, or do you just want to be anonymous sperm donors?”

“You’re not upset?” Peter asked. They were all still looking slightly stunned.

“No. Just surprised that I heard it from you. I guess Suzan is still trying to find a way of suggesting it without shocking me too badly. But, I’m not the issue here; you four are. This is something that’s going to be with you the rest of your lives; please do not let me scare you into doing this or not. And don’t let Suzan, or any of my other mates or kids, bully you into doing it if you’re not sure you want to. I know of your sexual preferences; you’ve never had to consider a child before. It’s a big step for anyone, so please take your time deciding.”

Once the bunny brothers had left, Neal turned to Lighttouch. “You will help them with their decision, won’t you?”

Lighttouch cocked hys head at Neal. “And, which way did you want their decision to go?”

Knowing that hy was just baiting him, Neal snorted as he gave hym a dirty look. “Whatever is best for them. Suzan can always find other donors. I know she likes them, but that’s not a good enough reason to make them uncomfortable about something like this.”

“You didn’t seem as surprised as I thought you might be about her wanting a child.”

Neal snorted again. “Those bucks aren’t the first ones to tell me that one of my mates or companions is thinking of having children. So far, Kestrel and Whitetail have also shown an interest. Derikk, the male that Whitetail approached, came to me to make sure I wouldn’t space him for going after her. I did about what I did with the bunnies. I sat him down and asked him if he was sure he knew what he was getting into. Then I called Whitetail in and sent them off with my blessings, and the hopes of a healthy child.” Neal chuckled, “Kestrel's first ‘volunteer’ wasn’t all that bright. He had heard her telling someone else she was looking for a male for breeding purposes. So Tomlic had barged into my dayroom, declaring that he was going to have Kestrel and that there was not a damn thing I could do about it.”

“What did you do to him?” Lighttouch asked with a grin.

“Why nothing,” Neal said, matching hys grin. “I just told Tess to let Kestrel know her ‘stud’ was in my dayroom. I didn’t ask, but as mad as she was when she came in, I have to assume that she had Tess tell her who had said what. You have to remember she’s well over a hundred, even if she looks like she hasn’t seen the high side of twenty yet. She gave him her best imitation of a ‘drill sergeant from hell’; every time he tried to open his mouth, she shouted him down. Then the fat went in the fire when he took a swing at her to try to shut her up! She gave him his arm back, broken in two places.” Neal shook his head as he added, “She had to break his other arm, as well as a few ribs, to get it through that thick skull of his that she wasn’t interested in something with such a low IQ.”

Lighttouch snickered. “I already knew about it. I was talking to Doc Kelly when Tomlic came in. He was trying to claim that you had ordered Kestrel to beat him up. Kelly had called Midnight in; attacks on or by Star Fleet personnel are taken very seriously. After he told his ‘tall tale’ for the record, Midnight requested that Kestrel join us. Of course, their stories did not match, so shi had Kestrel ask Tess if there was a recording of the incident and if she would release it to hir, uncut. Tess played it back for us plus, from what I understand, in Admiral Kline’s dayroom, as well as the marine barracks and the mess hall. Needless to say, by the time Tomlic was escorted from sickbay to the brig, no one was listening to what he had to say.”

Neal shook his head, “And here I thought everyone knew that lying to a chakat was a waste of time, or in front of a mind-reading skunktaur for that matter. Anyway, the next morning, Kestrel brought Johninc to meet me. He’s a bit older and knew Kestrel from before her change. I don’t know what amazed him more – her change, or that the old sergeant that had given him so much grief when he first joined Star Fleet now considered him a good breeding partner. Like Derikk, I let him know I wouldn’t stand in their way, and if they needed any help to just ask.”

“I’m a little surprised by your attitude.”

“I learned a very long time ago that I can’t be everything for everybody. But, every now and then, I find someone who can help me by being what I can’t. For Whitetail and Kestrel, if that means I take a backseat to their new loves, so be it. After all they’ve done for me and mine, it’s the least I can do for them.”

“And the bunny brothers?”

“If they can help Suzan get what she wants, fine. If not, that’s fine too. I will respect their decisions either way.”

Tess picked that moment to remind Neal that ship separation was in just a few minutes. Neal bid Lighttouch a good day and hurried out of the lounge in the direction of the translifts.

Lighttouch waited until Neal had left the room, then hy got up and went to the other exit, the one the bucks had used to head back to the galley. Around the first bend in the corridor, Peter stood, looking very confused. When he saw Lighttouch, he frowned. “I heard what the two of you said, but I didn’t understand. Does he want us to tell Suzan ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”

Lighttouch smiled as hy said, “Neal has left that decision up to you and your brothers. If you like, I can help you talk it over, but I can not and will not make the choice for you.” With a grin, Lighttouch added, “Welcome to another one of those little problems you face when you have the freedom to make your own decisions.”

Peter gave hym a tentative smile. “Would you be free to talk with us after the lunch rush?”

Lighttouch grinned. “I would be happy to make the time if needed. As it is, I have no pressing duties after lunch, so it’s a date.”

“A date?” Peter said, matching hys grin. “We’re having enough female problems with Suzan without you wanting a date too!”

Lighttouch could sense that Peter knew what hy meant, so hy just laughed. “Funny bunny,” hy said, shooing the rabbit away. “It is a good thing your cooking is better than your jokes!”

* * *

The four rabbit bucks returned to the coffee lounge after the lunchtime rush was over. Sitting down on a long couch, they talked quietly while they waited for Lighttouch.

Midnight came in a few minutes later with Ember. Midnight stepped up to the counter, while Ember explored the room. Shi found several people that shi knew, but after a stroke or two, or a hug from those shi knew well, shi headed for the rabbits. To their surprise, Ember jumped to the arm of the couch. Then shi started walking across their laps, giving each one a lick-kiss. Once done, shi laid down, trapping them. Midnight joined them with a cappuccino and a smile.

Shi smiled at the looks of bewilderment on their faces. “That’s what you get for sneaking hir all those treats!”

“You knew?” Peter asked, more than a little surprised that they had been caught.

“Of course,” Midnight smiled again. “You keep forgetting that I can feel hir emotions. There’s a special ‘spike’ when shi gets a treat. By the way, if you want hir to calm down, just stroke hir. Shi has a full belly, so shi should drop off quickly.”

After a few minutes of group petting, Ember had purred hirself to sleep. Lighttouch picked that moment to join them.

Peter shook his head. “You set us up,” he quietly accused as he gave hym a dirty look.

Lighttouch smiled. “There is an old saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. It is one thing to see someone caring for their child; it is different when the hands comforting the child are your own. Nothing I could say would make you ‘feel’ what it feels like to have a child that trusts you enough to fall asleep on your lap.”

Midnight smiled again. “Lighttouch told me you needed a little help with the idea of becoming parents or just donating your seed. Ember and I thought we would let you get a little closer to the idea, though nothing can really prepare you for your own child.”

“Thank you,” Roger whispered, the others nodding in agreement, as Ember slept on, not knowing how shi had helped them make their decision.

* * *

That evening, Neal waited until after dinner to talk with Suzan. Bonita and Whitetail were helping her get a few things cleaned up and ready for the next day’s meals when Neal stuck his head in the door.

Giving his companions a smile, Neal asked, “Do you mind if I steal Stew for a little while?”

Bonita gave him a leer as she replied, “Just so long as you save some energy for tonight!”

Neal shook his head as he held the door for Suzan. “Thanks for the warning!” he laughed as the door closed.

Neal led her to the same lounge they had used for their first little ‘talk’. This time though, she shared his chair with him. After getting comfortable, Suzan smiled. “Not that I mind a snuggle, but was there another reason for getting me alone with you?”

Neal tightened his hug around her for a moment. “Just before the Pegasus left, I had four rabbit bucks come into my dayroom…”

“But I didn’t …” A finger across her lips ended whatever she was going to say.

“Let me rephrase that. I had four terrified blonde-haired, gray bunnies come into my dayroom. They would have had their tails between their legs if it was physically possible. It seems you asked them for something they feared would ‘upset’ me.”

“I was going to tell you if they said they were willing! I was hoping you wouldn’t mind.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Neal said, as he gave her a gentle squeeze. “The problem is, they had never thought of having a child before, so that was one shock to their systems. The other was when they came to make sure I didn’t mind, only to find out I had no idea you were in the market for a child.”

“So where do we stand?” Suzan asked, a little worried.

We stand just fine,” Neal told her, tightening his hug around her. “Where we stand with the bunny brothers remains to be seen. While I don’t think we’ve burnt any bridges, we may want to tread lightly on the matter for a while.”

“So, they won’t help me?”

“I don’t know. When the Pegasus left, they had a decision to make. Please don’t hound them about it. It may take some time for them to feel right about giving you a yes, or a no. If they do say yes, you just might find out from docs Kelly or M’Lai first.” At her confused look, he smiled. “Unless you want them coming after you with a turkey baster!”

She stared at him for a moment, then closed her eyes. After another moment, she groaned. “Thanks a lot! Now I can’t get that image out of my head!”

Neal chuckled. “You think that’s bad? I left the poor bunnies thinking about some little brat running up to them yelling ‘daddies’!”

Suzan shivered. “Then they’ll say no.”

Neal smiled. “Don’t be so sure, there are positive points to go along with the negative ones. More than anything, I think they will need to just sit down, and think about it for a while.”

Bonita looked in on them a little later, both were sound asleep in each other’s arms. Suzan's cheek fur showed where tears had flowed, but the expression on her face suggested whatever had caused the tears had been resolved. With a smile, Bonita closed the door and went to see if Moonglow was interested in some company.

* * *

Three days later saw the Folly stopping to pick up the Pegasus, before chasing down the rest of their convoy. Once the ships were joined, Neal headed to the Pegasus to compare notes with Boyce. Midnight met him at the access port.

“Permission to come aboard?” he asked with a smile.

“Permission granted, Neal. The last time I saw Boyce, he was waiting for you in his dayroom.” Midnight then grinned. “And our cooks have a message for your cook – shall I send them over?”

Neal reached up to tap his comm badge, only to pause when Midnight shook hir head. “They want to surprise her,” shi said with a wink.

“Far be it for me to spoil a surprise,” Neal said as he headed for the translifts.

* * *

Boyce was in the coffee lounge when Neal finally tracked him down, nursing a cup of his preferred Chipinge coffee. After getting an iced tea from the attendant, Neal joined him.

They had been talking for only a few minutes when Suzan came in. She was clutching a case and looking like she was ready to cry. Neal quickly got up and sat her down in his chair. Figuring the brushed metal case was what was bothering her; he gently took it from her and set it on the table.

Suzan shuddered as she said, “They said that this is all they could give me.” Then she hid her face in her hands as her tears started.

With Boyce looking on curiously, Neal opened the case and then he snorted as he saw the contents. “I’ve always heard that great minds think alike, but this is ridiculous!”

In the case sat three items, each in a molded pocket. A small clear container contained an almost clear liquid in it; another small container of what the label said was cooking lard, and a turkey baster.

With a look of concern, Boyce started to say something, only to be stopped by Neal’s raised hand. Neal had noticed that the case was much heavier than these contents would warrant. Removing the items, he then used the pockets as a handle to lift out the molding. Underneath was a small cooling unit, a tube of lubricant, and rows of oral medicine syringes. Opening the cooling unit, Neal counted over a dozen sealed tubes.

“Suzan? Suzan!” Neal had to pull her hands away from her face to get her to look at him. “You seem to have missed a little something,” he quietly whispered.

Her eyes went wide when she saw the hidden contents, then she jumped up and ran from the room.

“Midnight and M’Lai had both told me that the brothers had made their decision, but they didn’t mention any gags going with it,” Boyce said with a frown.

Looking again at the first layer, Neal snorted. “It looks like a joke they added after the case was set up. I do like the spirit that it suggests. Although they were willing to help her, they also wanted to give her a taste of the shock she had given them.” Still smiling, Neal keyed his comm badge. “Tess, how are the bunny boys surviving Stew’s ‘thank you’?”

“Remains to be seen, boss. She’s already hugged and kissed two of them into the ground, the other two have fled.”

Putting the case back together, Neal gave Boyce a grin. “I should put this in her room. And I think that our chat will have to wait until after we rescue your cooks from mine.”

* * *

Late that evening, Bonita found Neal in the lounge, sipping hot tea while Stormy slept in his lap.

“I thought you were with Suzan,” she quietly said as she sat down beside him.

“Couldn’t sleep. And, it seems if I can’t sleep, Stormy can’t stay asleep either. So I left Moonglow curled up around Stew.” Neal snorted as he added; “She’s been banned from the Pegasus’s galley until she promises to not attack the bucks again.”

“She attacked them?”

“For some reason, it seems they prefer to not have a ‘female’ try to smother them with hugs and kisses.”

“But they wouldn’t have minded you ‘thanking’ them.”

Neal smiled as he snorted, “So I was told.”

“Well, I can’t help you with your bunny issues, but I may be able to help you get some sleep,” she said as she gently lifted the kitten from his lap and set hir on a cushion. “Fully recline that chair and roll over,” she commanded. Once Neal was on his stomach, the big Rakshani started to give him a massage.

“You’re like a coiled spring! Try to relax.”

“Too much on my mind…”

“Are ‘we’ pushing you too hard?” Bonita asked with some concern.

“No. It’s worrying about how the others are doing. I don’t like being out of the loop, out of control!”

“That’s all part of being in command of a small fleet. You have to trust your captains and their crews.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust them, it’s just not knowing if every thing’s okay. Or I’m wracking my brain, trying to think of anything I might have forgotten.”

“You know, your ‘kids’ are growing up fast. You can’t hold their paws all the time.”

“The first letter I sent to their parents, I promised I’d take good care of them. Then I put them in harm’s way at New Kiev, and now I have some of them delivering cargo, while we’re out here hunting pirates.”

“Was it this bad when it was Chase’s group?”

“Possibly worse. With Chase and company, I had more time to train them. Maybe that’s part of my fear – that was before they got chewed on by pirates. I thought I had taught them everything they could need, but they still got hurt.”

Bonita smiled as her paws firmly worked their way down his back. “Perhaps you inadvertently shielded them from making too many mistakes. I know that you know the expression ‘no pain, no gain’. It’s one thing to be told something, it’s a whole ’nother story to have it actually happen to you.”

“I can tell myself that they’re as safe as they possibly could be, but my gut still churns with the fear that I may have missed something. Like you just said, it’s one thing to be told, it’s another to know. Have you had any kids?”

“A rather personal question, but no, no kids.”

“Sorry, it just seems the fear goes up a notch when it’s your kid versus somebody else’s brat.”

“So if the child is yours, it’s a kid, but if they belong to anyone else, then they’re brats?”

“My father always claimed that he had little enough patience with his own kids and none for other people’s. I like to think I’m a little better than that, but I find that it often depends on the kid in question.”

“I’ve noticed that you let your mini twin taur terrors get away with quite a bit more than I think I would.”

“Probably. Part of the problem is they remind me so much of Chase’s group. They’re at that age where they soak up knowledge like a sponge. I’m trying to let them learn as much as they can without overloading them. The flip side of that coin, though, is that I’m trying not to slow them down too much either. Right now, this is ‘fun’ to them. If I turn it into ‘work’ or ‘school’, they won’t be as motivated to learn.”

“But, is it safe to let them help build a ship? There are so many things that could hurt them.”

“Chakat Sparks said the same thing. I told hir to work with the twins for a day. Shi was to just be an extra set of hands; the kids were to tell hir what to do. Shi came back to me that evening, ready to sign the twins on as part of hir crew. They obeyed all the safety rules, to the point that they actually caught hir skipping a couple.”

“I’ve spoken with hir. Shi seemed pretty sharp.”

“Oh, shi is, but like most people that do the same things day after day, shi has learned what ‘short cuts’ shi can and can’t get away with. The only problem is Gulf isn’t the Pegasus. On hir ship, there’s a lot of places that flipping a single switch kills power to a whole section. On Gulf, those same sections are fed by multiple warp cores, so you have to kill all the routes to make a section safe to work with.” Feeling Bonita’s claws digging a little deeper than they had been, Neal snorted. “Easy! Shi was never in any danger; the kids had the section safe before shi could get in any trouble. Plus you’re forgetting my best babysitter of all, Tess.”

“You know, you count on your computer too much.”

“Only because she’s proven time and again that I can count on her. Without her, I don’t think I would have attempted to let Chase’s group stay onboard. Twenty-three to one, that one also needing to run a ship and move cargo? Every trip, Tess seems to learn a little more, there’s less for me to ‘correct’.”

“You make her sound almost alive.”

“Keyword being ‘almost’. When we started out, she was little better than the Pegasus’s main computer. You could give her basic orders, and ‘if/then/else’ type instructions. Then I almost lost to some pirates. The ship was a battered pile of wreckage, and I wasn’t in much better shape. Among other things, a main power bus blew. The safeties kicked in before too much damage was done, but I was badly burned. I didn’t really notice when it started, but it was sometime after she first processed me that I noticed that she was starting to do things without being told. At first, I thought I had simply forgotten that I had told her to do things, but then I deliberately didn’t give her needed commands and she did what was needed anyway.”

“Could the surge have damaged the computer itself?”

“Possible, but all the components have been upgraded so much since then, that there’s nothing left of the original system. Never mind that she can move herself into any system with enough power and storage.”

“And the code?”

“First off Tess is more than just her code because we’ve copied it to other systems and she can move into them – but we’ve never managed to actually have two Tess’ going at the same time. I have let a few trusted experts try to look though the code. It’s so old and has had so many upgrades, add-ons and patches, that all they could tell me was that they thought it looked fairly ‘stable’. Considering there’s still nothing on the market half as responsive or as intelligent; I’ve stayed away from starting over with a newer program. As they say, ‘better the devil you know’.”

“Speaking of devils we know, I have a few questions about the process you used to make us young again.”

“I’ll answer what I know, but it’s not entirely under my control.”

“First off, all of us are taller and er… bigger than we were before.”

“As I told Zhanch when we first woke Dessa, the process reads your DNA and rebuilds your body to its best potential, not what it was.”

Bonita frowned. “Okay. I’ll buy that, but most of us have been trying to get back in shape. In basic training, I remember losing some of my bust as I started putting on more muscle, but that’s not happening to any of us this time. Are the changes permanent?”

Neal smiled. “Sorry, that’s not the fault of the process. It’s the fault of your ship’s nutritionist.” At her look of total confusion, Neal chuckled as he continued, “I’ve found that one of the programs Suzan has Tess running happens to keep an eye on how hard each of you exercise, and then she plans your meals with enough to replace what you tried to burn off.”

“So you’re saying we should blame Stew and Tess for all the males only noticing our tits and not our muscles?”

Neal grinned. “Well, that and your ‘snacks’.”

“Most of us don’t snack that much!”

“Not how much, but what you’ve been snacking on.”

“A bowl of ice cream isn’t bad for you!”

“Not if it was regular ice cream, no. But I’ve noticed you all seem to have fallen in love with the ‘home-made’ ice cream that we give Stormy as a treat.”

“If it’s okay for hir to eat…”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s great ice cream, but my older chakat kids have to stay away from Stormy’s special blend,” Neal smiled as Bonita's eyes grew wide. “You see, it was made with Moonglow's milk, so they would start producing milk too.”

Bonita covered her face with her paws, the way she was shaking it was hard for Neal to tell if she was laughing or crying.

Neal chuckled. “The bunny boys were all ready to make new creations using the ‘chakat milk ice cream’ until it was pointed out that without boiling it would have certain effects on chakats and skunktaurs. Since Midnight was already in milk-producing mode, shi tried some and liked it. I understand shi’s been teasing Sparks and Lighttouch with it.”

Bonita was now holding her sides as she laughed. “Extra rich and creamy! No wonder it’s so good. Damn it, one more thing that will make me fat!”

“You could always cheat like I do,” At her raised eyebrow, Neal smiled. “Just skip a meal and have a banana split instead.”

Bonita chuckled. “Is that why Weaver says that you’re a bad influence on the kids?”

“Among others.”

“Is it just me, or is she running the Folly more than you are?”

“Weaver is helping manage all the people and their needs, while I try to manage the ship and all the hardware. Otherwise, I’d probably be feeling like a one-armed paper hanger.”

“That’s another thing, half the things you say don’t make any sense.”

“Different frames of reference I’m afraid.”

“Just how old are you?”

“As you know, I went through the process thirty-seven years ago. It was about a hundred and twenty years before that, that I almost died in a pirate attack, and I was processed for the first time. Let’s just say I’m over two hundred and let it go at that.”

“What’s it like?”

“To be so old? Sometimes, it feels like too much to remember. Some days Tess has to remind me of something I was just talking about moments earlier, other times a sight, sound or smell will remind me of something from before my first ‘process’ like it was only yesterday.” Neal looked at her carefully as he asked his question, “While we are on the subject of age, why was Zhanch in charge of your group? From what I’ve heard, she’s almost the youngest of you.”

Bonita smiled. “One of our training tricks is to assign the junior ranking member the command slot. Then those under her command see what she’ll let us get away with, and what she won’t. It also forces her to order her people into possibly life-threatening situations. It’s one thing to risk your own life; it’s something else to order a friend to risk their life. Zhanch had been tapped for possible promotion; we were to test her. That was some test we fell into.”

Neal grunted softly. “I don’t know. You all survived, and most of you seem happy with the changes surviving required. Like many things, the trip isn’t the destination, it’s the journey. This minor ‘reset’ just means you get a second chance at a few things you may have missed the first time around.”

“Like cubs?”

“Them too.”

“I was sterilized by an accidental blast of radiation when I was young. That kind of put me out of the running in the cub-making department.”

“The body you’re currently wearing didn’t get hit by any radiation. The doctors would have told you if there was a problem.”

“So this time around I have to decide, where last time the choice was taken from me.”

“Nobody said the choices get easier as you get older.”

Rolling him over, Bonita shook her head and softly snorted as she picked up Stormy. Laying hir on Neal’s chest, she then picked him up. As she carried them to the door she quietly murmured, “Enough thinking for one night. Let’s see if I can’t help you feel young again!”

* * *

The small convoy was over a day’s travel from where the schedule called for them to be when the Folly came out of warp in front of them. Charlie and Delta were barely docked between the spheres before Neal met them at Delta’s docking port. “What failed?” he asked, wondering what problems he might have missed on the test runs.

“Not a thing, Captain,” Craig answered with a smile. “She’s just a little slower with a heavy load.”

“What load?” Neal asked, totally puzzled.

“A gentleman named Tom Prasills told us he’s been holding it for you for years now,” Craig said with a grin.

“Prasills? That brat!” Neal had started to say more but was interrupted when both crews burst out laughing. “What?” Neal demanded, confused by their outburst.

Morningmist managed to contain hir laughter first. “Tom told us that only one person had ever called him a ‘brat’. That person was ‘old man Foster’, and he only said it when Tom managed to really get under his skin. Mr. Prasills told us to tell you, that if he’d managed to get you to call him a ‘brat’, then he’s returned the loan to the right Foster,” Looking at Neal’s expression, shi snickered, “Sorry, Father, but it looks like ‘the cat’s out of the bag’.” This started the others laughing again.

Neal was still shaking his head when Weaver came up. “Why didn’t you want them to pay you back?” she asked.

Neal snorted. “As far as I was concerned, they already had. I both ship their orders, as well as buy some Boronike for myself to sell on the open markets. Boronike is so much in demand that I could ship their loads for free! With the markups I charge, the ore I sell makes me more profit than almost anything else.”

Weaver waved her paw at the open hold, almost full of containers. “Then what’s all this?”

Neal shook his head again. “Tom and company think it’s ‘interest owed’.” Then he grinned. “Oh well, as they say, ‘turnabout’s fair play!’”

“And just what does that mean?” Weaver asked.

Neal’s grin turned evil as he chuckled. “What it means, Love, is that they will be getting a ‘gift’ to thank them for their little surprise the next time I come by.”

* * *

The third and last trip before they would be racing the clock in earnest had Charlie and Delta heading for different systems. The Folly would drop them off along the way, before heading for a third system. Since the Folly would be over a week early, Neal expected he would have to wait for some of his loads to be readied. Charlie, Delta, and their escorts were to rejoin after their deliveries, then catch up with the Folly at their best speed.

* * *

Charlie’s destination was a small mining platform that was currently positioned well into an asteroid field. They left their escort behind as they slipped into the slowly shifting field, the Zulus taking their own paths to quietly scan the area. Canner had Mike and Zhanch working stations on the bridge, while Calmmeadow and Croix prepared to help unload the cargo.

The first surprise came when it took several tries to contact the station; the next one was when an exhausted-looking human answered their hail. He told them that a remotely operated mining probe had stopped responding to commands, and had hit the station. Most of the station personnel were getting some much-needed sleep, after having worked double or triple shifts on the repairs.

Canner had told him that Charlie’s crew would be happy to do the unloading for them; all he would need was for them to open their docking bay.

Zhanch had been looking over the patched-up damage. It looked like the run-away probe had been going at a fairly good clip, having damaged or destroyed the long-range communications arrays before it impacted the station, just missing the control center. When asked if there had been any injuries, they were told that there had been just enough warning to get everyone clear.

Calmmeadow had been listening to the conversation between the bridge and station, a feeling of fear and dread growing in hir as they approached the station. Shi pressed the intercom key that would let just the bridge hear hir, and whispered, “Abort!”

As hir whispered word seemed to echo around the bridge, Mike looked up from his station; he had been carefully scanning the station as they approached, “I confirm we should abort, Captain.”

Canner only hesitated for a moment, then he ordered Charlie to reverse course and pull away from the station. At the surprised demands from the station, he replied that they had just lost their docking computer again. They would try docking as soon as they isolated the fault. Turning to Mike, Canner asked, “Okay, why did we just abort docking?”

Though the intercom, Calmmeadow answered first, “Something’s wrong on that station, captain. I can feel it!”

Looking at the intercom panel Mike sighed. “More than you know, sister mine.” Looking over at Canner, he said, “Sir, he’s lying to us. I am only finding six furs on that station; their location suggests that they are hiding in the air ducts. All other life signs are human, and there’s well over a hundred of them, about half of which are waiting on the other side of the docking port they were going to have us use.”

Canner’s brow creased. “Neal’s notes said this station is the home of over fifty furs, mostly chakats. Where are they?”

Mike shook his head. “No other large masses of organics on the station sir. They or their bodies were removed, and I can’t see chakats willingly leaving anyone behind. The scan looks like five very small and one medium taur-sized furs, they are all bunched together so they are a little hard to separate.”

They could hear Calmmeadow’s voice breaking as shi cried, “They’re starving! We have to save them!”

Canner watched as Mike nodded in agreement. “I’m open to suggestions, but remember, Neal doesn’t want me placing you in danger. This isn’t a fighter, it’s just an over-glorified freighter with a few tricks tacked on.”

Mike snorted. “So use those tricks!” At Canner’s raised eyebrow, he added, “Their shields are down for us to dock, we can use one of the Zulu’s to transfer the furs to us. Park the other directly between us and the station, both to act as a shield against any attack, as well as give us the ability to disable their systems.”

It was Canner’s turn to snort. “I keep forgetting the full capacities of those dang things!” Looking at Mike and Zhanch, he smiled. “You two have more training on them than the rest of my crew, so I’ll let you do the honors.”

Mike nodded and looked over at Zhanch. “I’ll get the furs, you take the station.” As Zhanch nodded, Mike keyed the intercom, “All medically trained personnel to sickbay, please. Expect incoming. Calmmeadow, please join them.”

Meanwhile, Zhanch was also busy. As she moved her Zulu into place, she contacted the other ships. “Slingshot, Spike! Full alert guys! These are not the people we were expecting. They may have more unpleasant surprises waiting for us.” She could hear the fighter jocks being ordered to their fighters as Slingshot’s captain, Goldeneyes reminded her that that wasn’t proper communications protocol. Zhanch had growled back, “Protocol be damned, I’m busy! Damn! DO NOT launch the fighters! Looks like they’ve been arming the station as I’ve already found four missile tubes and six heavy beam weapons aimed at us! Give me some time to try and disable them!”

“Got them!” Mike exclaimed moments later, “Captain, you can raise shields and get us clear of this trap!” He then started helping Zhanch disable the weapons on the station.

Zhanch had already taken care of the missile tubes by using her Zulu’s transporter to modify the tube exits. They each now sported a new set of blades set in an ‘X’ pattern that would slice up the missile as it got to the end of the tube. Depending on the type of missile, it might even go off while still in the tube. She was now working on the beam weapons. By cracking their phasing emitters, they would explode if power was applied.

Mike started with their command and control systems. That would keep them from firing multiple weapons from one location. They could still try firing from the weapons themselves, but by the time they could get their people to the individual weapons, Zhanch would have them disabled.

The calls from the station were now getting frantic. They demanded to know why Charlie had raised shields and was now pulling away from the station. Canner’s smile was tight as he opened communications with them again. “Whoever you are, you’re lying to me. Our scans are only showing humans. Where are the furs that own and run that station?”

Their only reply was a small explosion on the station. Mike had left one beam weapon attached to their control systems. Since Zhanch had already damaged it, all it did was let Canner know that they had tried to fire on his ship.

As they started to move away from the station, small explosions occurred on three nearby asteroids. These cleared the openings for three ships. Two started for the freighter, the other began discharging fighters once it was clear of its hiding place.

As Mike and Zhanch repositioned their Zulus to intercept any shots or missiles fired by the two ships, Canner ordered one of the baby Zulus to ram the enemy carrier. One thing Neal had drummed into the crews running his ships was that, if need be, the Zulus, the cargo, even the ships themselves were disposable. He could always make more. What he couldn’t replace were the crews. Canner got another surprise when he gave the command; he had expected the scout to head straight for the carrier. What it did was change its course so that it came around and hit the third fighter as it was leaving the carrier, smashing it back into its launch bay as the scout came apart. Neal’s scouts were made for ramming. The anti-matter containment was weakest to the front of the craft, so when the scout hit something, there was little keeping the anti-matter from its intended target. Canner watched as a blinding fire pulsed from the carrier’s open port. Acting as an off-centered rocket thruster, it started spinning the big ship around, as more and more of the ship seemed to catch fire and fall or melt off.

Mike and Zhanch weren’t idle while the carrier died. As well as keeping the other two ships from getting a clear shot at Charlie, they were also fighting back with the Zulus and trying to cut through the attacking ship’s shields, and render them harmless. Mike managed to take out his target’s bridge controls, causing them to hit a large rock almost dead-on. Zhanch’s target had already scraped a smaller rock and had lost most of their rear shields. Zhanch removed the power buses that fed their anti-matter containment fields. After a moment, the ship seemed to expand just before it exploded, fiery pieces going in all directions.

Canner had the last two scouts harassing the two remaining fighters. They were staying between the fighters and Charlie, while the fighters from Slingshot moved in for the kill. One tried to escape to open space, but was cut to pieces when it came around a rock, and into Spike’s phaser range.

With all hostile craft neutralized, Spike and Charlie joined Slingshot well clear of the asteroid field. With Slingshot’s fighters out and ready for another attack, Canner sent a Zulu and a scout back into the field. The scout went in with its sensors set to ‘high’ active, the extra power letting it see into the rocks, looking for more traps. The Zulu headed back to the station, Canner intended to use it as a relay and ask the current occupants some hard questions.

When they refused to answer his hails, Zhanch suggested he let her try. She had seen something when she was scanning for weapons that she thought might help loosen their tongues. An open crate of gas grenades had been just inside the cargo door where they had wanted Charlie to dock. She transported one of the grenades to their control room. Then she politely informed them that the next one she gave them would have the pin pulled.

Recognizing their own grenade, they started answering Canner’s questions. After ten minutes though, it became apparent that they were making answers up as they were asked.

While Canner continued asking questions, Zhanch was removing their ability to escape. She first removed all the computers from the station and the vehicles in and around the station. She then opened the inner airlock doors and sealed them in place. She also beamed all the space suits outside to keep them from being used. She then removed the cables connecting all but their local antennas to the station. As a last precaution, she booby-trapped all the access to the power room. Anyone trying to get more power out of the system, or trying to blow up the station would get a taste of their own gas.

While all this was happening, Calmmeadow found hirself in a different type of battle. Shi was turning the last corner to the small sickbay when a human male and a fox tod all but dived out of the room. Both had been clawed, the tod’s left upper arm dripped blood while the human’s hand looked like it had gone through a shredder.

Calmmeadow dragged them both to the next room. Pulling the first aid kit off the wall, shi dropped it next to them. “Do what you can with this, we’ll get you properly patched up after we get hir calmed down.” Shi then hit the comm panel and asked Mike to help hir in sickbay.

Mike had taken only moments to join hir, and shi explained hir plan. “We have to get hir to trust us before we can help the cubs. I will try to calm hir down. If shi attacks me, I will try to hold hir for you to grab.”

Having seen the walking-wounded in the next room, Mike hadn’t liked hir plan, but unfortunately, he didn’t have a better one. He stayed out of sight as Calmmeadow opened the sickbay door. Inside was Nova, a tiger-striped chakat in hir early teens. In the corner, there were five chakat cubs, the oldest almost four, the youngest only a few months old. Now that they were awake, all of them were crying in hunger.

Calmmeadow watched the younger chakat carefully, as shi tried to project calm. “Let me help,” Shi whispered. “Let me help you feed them. They are crying for food.”

The younger chakat stared at hir for a long moment, then shi started shaking as shi slowly collapsed. “I can’t feed them. I’ve dried up,” shi said as shi started to cry.

Calmmeadow slowly stepped up to hir, then shi knelt and wrapped hir in a hug. “That can happen when you don’t get the fluids you need yourself. I have a friend outside that will get us both some food so we can feed the little ones. Can I ask him to come in?”

At hir nod, Calmmeadow called Mike in. Understanding that the situation was still touchy, Mike said little, and basically, let Calmmeadow tell him what to do.

As well as getting them food, Mike had a guard posted to keep anyone from disturbing them. With three of the cubs looking to be under a year old, he had Canner check to see if any of the other ships had a chakat producing milk as shi or hir milk would be needed for the little ones. When he returned with the food, he found Calmmeadow with the littlest two. Each was sucking hungrily on a nipple, with the other three whining for their share. After reminding Calmmeadow not to let any of them eat themselves sick, Mike went to have a word with Canner.

Canner had bad news for Mike when he got back to the bridge, none of their little fleet’s chakats was nursing, and none of the replicators had either chakat milk or the chakat milk ice cream loaded in their memories. And Canner had given up on getting anything useful from the humans still on the station, so he had decided to make for Delta’s group at their best speed, then the convoy would then head for the Folly’s stop.

Canner had already sent one of his remaining scouts to warn Delta and her escorts of the trouble they had run into. Mike suggested they send their remaining scout to catch up with the Folly; the little ones would soon become ill without chakat milk. The scout would also let Pegasus know what they had found as it passed by.

* * *

Four days later saw the small convoy still over a week away from the Folly’s stop. There had been some discussions of stuffing the little ones into a Zulu for a fast ride to the Folly, but there wasn’t enough room for Calmmeadow, Nova and the cubs. Splitting them up wasn’t an option; Nova refused to let any of the cubs out of hir sight. That, and shi seemed to have gained a fear of small closed spaces, which kept them from sending just hir and the cubs. Nova was still barely letting Calmmeadow near the cubs, never mind anyone else. Mike was doing what he could to help, but that boiled down to just getting whatever they needed, Calmmeadow couldn’t even get Nova to let him hold one of the cubs, much less help feed or clean them.

Calmmeadow had almost scared Nova by leaping for joy when Mike told hir that a scout had just returned with a message that help was on the way. The convoy dropped out of warp to wait for the Folly. They found that they had been mistaken in their assumption on who was coming to the rescue; it was Pegasus that came out of warp before them. She then came over and quickly docked with Charlie.

Boyce had ‘short-stopped’ the scout Charlie had sent, to keep Neal from finding out. He figured that Neal would probably have dropped everything and rushed out, only to have to return to finish his pick-ups and deliveries. Now Boyce, Rosepetal, and Midnight got a quick update from Canner before checking on the young survivors. Mike stopped them as they headed for the little sickbay. He apologized to Boyce, but the way Nova was reacting to humans made letting hir see him a bad idea.

Even Calmmeadow couldn’t convince Nova that Rosepetal and Midnight were friends and that they only wanted to help. Hearing that his mates were having problems getting Nova to trust them, Boyce made a call to the Pegasus.

A few minutes later, Kayla showed up, with Ember being kept in check by Yeoman d’Armand, their nanny and keeper when their parents were busy. Kayla had brought half a dozen small covered bowls. At Calmmeadow’s puzzled look she smiled as she said, “Moonglow ice cream.”

Calmmeadow thanked her as shi took one of the bowls and started eating. Midnight stepped back to where shi could speak to Boyce without being heard. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” shi told him.

Boyce frowned. “Since Nova wouldn’t let you near the cubs, I thought I would give Calmmeadow some other options on getting some chakat milk into the kittens. Shi could have let the ice cream melt before feeding it to them, but it appears that shi has decided on a more direct approach.”

After eating half the bowl of ice cream to prove to Nova that there was nothing wrong with it, Calmmeadow started offering it to the cubs. The older two had no problems with the frozen treat, but the younger three quickly pushed it away. Calmmeadow took one of the unopened bowls and asked Mike to warm it to body temperature. Once warmed, shi had no problem getting the younger ones to lap it up.

Shi then offered a bowl to Nova, warning hir that shi would start producing milk if shi ate it. Nova just stared at the bowl for a full minute, then carefully took a small taste. Calmmeadow watched with some amusement as Nova started slowly, but then quickly wolfed down the bowl. Calmmeadow handed hir a second bowl. Shi then handed one to Mike, requesting that he copy it into the replicator. Calmmeadow had no intention of ever again being without some source of chakat milk.

With Calmmeadow and Nova now able to produce milk, the young cubs were out of danger. Nova though was another story. Shi still barely trusted Calmmeadow, and through hir, Mike. Nova would not let any of the cubs out of hir sight, and shi would only doze off for a few minutes at a time before fighting hir way back to consciousness to make sure the cubs were okay. Calmmeadow could only watch as Nova’s fears slowly tore at hir, making hir try to be ever vigilant, always on watch.

The Folly met them two days later; Neal was a little annoyed that Boyce had kept him from getting the message sooner. Once the other ships were on/in the Folly, Neal had the scouts and Zulus create a sphere to give him plenty of warning of any approaching ships.

Boyce met Neal as he was about to board Charlie. Neal gave him a dirty look as he said, “I know what you did and why you did it. Please don’t do it again. While I know the Pegasus could get to them quicker, and the Folly did need to finish loading, I had information that might have made this a little easier on everyone.” Without further comment, Neal walked into Charlie. Waving off Canner, and then Mike, Neal stepped into the room next to the sickbay.

He stopped at the countertop connected to the wall that it shared with the sickbay. Laying a few items on it, Neal began using his hands to beat a rhythm on the countertop. In the next room, the oldest of the cubs, (Darkstreak, for hir dark gray cougar coloring) was alerted and looking around with interest. When Neal repeated the rhythm, shi dashed out of the room in search of the beater. Calmmeadow felt a surge of surprise/fear/hope, as well as something else, from Nova, but shi did not try to stop the cub.

Darkstreak had easily found Neal. He let hir carefully smell him before picking hir up in a tight hug. After a minute, he set the cub back on the floor. Picking up two of the items he had placed on the counter, he placed one in hir hand and said, “For you, little one.” Placing the other item in hir free hand he said, “For Nova.” He then shooed hir out of the room. Looking at Boyce’s look of surprise, he gave him a sad smile. “Shi was almost two the last time I saw hir and hir parents. I’m glad shi still remembers me.”

Darkstreak ran back into the sickbay. Shi stuck out her paw to Nova. When Nova just sat there staring at hir, shi pointed hir paw at Calmmeadow. When Calmmeadow held out hir paw, the cub dropped a small hard candy into it. Hir mission accomplished, Darkstreak plopped down with the other cubs to share hir treat with them.

Calmmeadow opened the candy and sniffed at it. It was ‘watermelon’ flavored. Shi then offered it to Nova; who smelled it, then gave it a lick, and shivered.

A knock on the open door caused them all to jump a little as Neal called around the corner, “Nova, this is Captain Foster. May I come in?”

Nova was shaking and unable to speak, but shi looked at Calmmeadow and nodded.

Calmmeadow said, “Enter,” while letting Nova feel hir relief that he was finally there.

Neal entered slowly, so as not to upset the cubs any more than necessary. He knelt next to Nova, his eyes never leaving hir face.

Shi spoke first. “I’m sorry,” shi whispered, the tears flowing freely.

“For what?” Neal gently asked.

“I couldn’t help them!”

“Your parents?”

Shi nodded. “I could hear them dying, but I couldn’t leave the little ones.”

“Your parents would be very proud of you. I know I am. You kept the little ones alive. If you had tried to help your parents, you would have left the little ones with no one to care for them. They wouldn’t have lasted very long without you.”

“B-but, I ran out of milk-water!”

“They had what you did give them to keep them going long enough for my kids to find you. That’s all that matters.”

“Your kids?”

“Calmmeadow and Mike are just two of my kids. Midnight and Rosepetal are two very good friends of mine. They would never hurt you or yours.”

Neal then placed his hands on hir shaking shoulders. “I am taking responsibility for you and the little ones. You are relieved, understood?”

Nova nodded, then shi slowly slumped in Calmmeadow’s arms, dead to the world.

Calmmeadow stared up at Neal in disbelief. “How did you do that?” shi demanded.

Neal gave hir a small smile. “I’ve known Nova almost all hir life. Shi was about seven when shi tried sneaking into Foxtrot while I was offloading cargo. Since I was in no hurry, I let hir look around the Folly for a few hours before I ‘found’ hir and dragged hir back to hir parents. My rapping out tunes to make it easier to find me in their station was just one of the games I played with hir and the other kids.” Neal grew somber. “The reason shi wouldn’t calm down for you was hir sire probably told hir shi was in charge of the cubs. Both hir parents were Marines, so shi has more of an understanding of discipline than most kids hir age. So, until I relieved hir, shi thought of the cubs as still being hir responsibility, and shi felt shi couldn’t ‘stand down’.”

Midnight and Rosepetal had entered the room as Neal was talking to Nova. Neal handed the two smallest to Midnight. He was handing one to Rosepetal, when she asked, “But shi would ‘stand down’ for you.”

Neal closed her arms around the kitten and held them for a moment as he met her eyes. “If you told Kayla to guard Ember, and she never again saw or heard from anyone she knew, do you think she would relax her guard for just any stranger?”

Rosepetal just stared at him, and then slowly shook her head.

Releasing her, Neal said, “Same difference. It would take a very long time for someone to earn her trust unless she had already known them from before.” Neal then picked up the fourth cub and told Darkstreak to follow him. As they left the sickbay, he asked Mike to help Calmmeadow carry Nova.

The group headed for the main living section of the Folly, where Weaver had already converted one of the rooms into a nursery.

After getting their guests settled, Neal debriefed Canner and the rest of his crew, paying special attention to the scan data Mike and Zhanch had collected.

Looking at Boyce, he sighed softly. “Well, we’ve found us some pirates, but this isn’t the way I wanted to do it.” At Boyce’s frowned agreement, Neal continued, “At this point, my ‘suggested’ orders from Star Fleet are to release command of the carriers and their escort and let them get on with the hunt. Since you just happen to be the ranking officer out here, you, of course, have the option to ‘commandeer’ those ships if you so desire.”

Boyce nodded. “Let me go over the data and think about it. I’ll give you my decision tomorrow morning.”

Dinner that evening on the Folly was a quiet event, Calmmeadow was staying with Nova so shi wouldn’t wake up alone. Moonglow was feeding the little ones while Holly and Quickdash helped feed Darkstreak and Spitfire, a small red and black tiger-striped three-year-old chakat. Neal appeared to be deep in thought, all but oblivious to the food and quiet talk around him.

Weaver finally nudged his elbow. “What are you thinking so hard about?”

“What to do about Nova and the little ones. I’ll double-check, but I’m pretty sure that most – if not all of their kin were on that station. If I had come upon that station by myself, I might have missed them in the attack. Even if I had found them, they would have been a handful without all the help the rest of you are giving them.”

Weaver smiled. “Are they really any different from Stormy? We seem to be taking good care of hir; what’s five more and an older sister? There’s more, isn’t there?”

Neal let out a long sigh. “This also ends my control of the carriers and their destroyer escort. I had control of them while we were searching for pirates, now that we have found a nest; they are out of my hands. Boyce can always cut them new orders and take them under his control, or he can leave them as a separate command. The Folly can hang around for another week or so, but then we will have to continue our deliveries. And without those extra hands, Charlie and Delta are done delivering.”

“We can fly them!” Nightsky exclaimed. “Most of us have passed the tests you set up.”

Neal sighed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you to fly them, it’s that I won’t take the risk of you going out with just skeleton crews. And even though you could fill one of them, it won’t be enough to handle all the stops that were needed for that plan to work. Never mind the fact that I am going to want a few more Zulus to help take out anything else that tries to attack.”

“So how are you going to get that first contact group?”

Holly and Quickdash both sang out, “We can take Gulf!”

Neal gave them a calculated look. “Who is this ‘we’ you’re talking about?” he asked with a frown. “First, there’s the problem that there’s still a lot of work to be done before she’s ready for trials, never mind an extended flight. Plus it looks like I would need to be in two places at once, on the Folly, and Gulf. You see the contact team will be expecting me, not a bunch of furry brats.”

Weaver looked up from feeding Starblazer. “Are you saying you don’t think we could run the Folly while you get the contact team?”

“No, Love, but if I do take Gulf and leave you to mind the store, we are going to have to decide who stays and who goes. When she’s finished, Gulf will be able to handle about eighty taur-sized people. But I’m picking up fifty, plus however many kids they may have had over the last five years.” Looking her in the eye he smiled as he added, “Would you like to decide who stays behind to help you run the Folly?” At her dirty look, Neal grinned. “Now you see my dilemma.”

Mike smiled. “Calmmeadow and I will be staying behind to help with Nova and the little ones. And you will have no choice but to take Moonglow and Firestorm. With you going and Weaver staying, your biggest issue will be the twins. Weaver won’t want to part with them, but at the same time they’ve put so much work into Gulf, that it will be hard for the two of you to tell them no.”

Sharing a look of resignation with Weaver, Neal sighed. “Well, that’s still a little ways off. Tomorrow we find out what Boyce has decided, and we’ll go from there.”

* * *

Boyce had decided to leave the other ships as an independent command. So with their group about to split three ways, Neal had called all the quartermasters together to top off each ship’s consumables. Then, there was one last meeting with the captains before they went their separate ways. Neal loaned the carriers four of his baby Zulus. They could use the scouts to improve their chances of finding the pirates, as well as defending the carriers if needed. They would return to a preloaded location for Neal to pick up when the carriers released them, or if they ran low on fuel.

All the ships had received sensor upgrades while with the Folly, but the modifications were not recorded in their logs. The reason that Neal requested they not log the upgrades nor record any of the things they had learned from the Folly was simple – while he trusted these particular Star Fleet personnel, Neal did not trust all of Star Fleet. Each of the engineers had been shown how to put their systems back to Star Fleet specifications. This was particularly hard on Sparks. Shi was ready to write a few books with all the ideas shi had gotten from working on Gulf. Neal had taken pity on hir and given hir a data pad he said shi could use. Shi had been confused by the gift until shi tried to use it. While shi could transfer information to the pad’s memory, shi couldn’t transfer any information out of it. Hir next surprise came when shi tried to hand the pad to someone else; the pad would instantly shut down.

After declaring themselves mates, Whitetail had decided to stay with Derikk on the Pegasus. Since her Star Fleet status was still up in the air, Rosepetal had simply logged her in as Derikk’s dependant.

They had received a surprise when they went to the Marine barracks. The old gunny sergeant had demanded to know if the rumors of them being mates were true. When they had said yes, the other Marines had jumped them. Tied and blindfolded, they were carried up and down the Pegasus’ passageways. Finally, they were semi-gently dropped, and they heard a door close.

A few minutes work freed them of their bonds. Looking around they found they had been placed in a small but neat cabin, usually reserved for single officers or couples. Derikk’s things had already been moved in, while Whitetail’s bags were sitting on the larger than standard bed. A card on the desk welcomed the new couple. Behind the card was a Pegasus comm badge for Whitetail, and a dual charging stand for a non-Star Fleet type of badge. One slot was empty, the other contained a shadowed ‘F’ badge that Neal used for the ‘Folly’. The note with the charging base told Derikk that he was now considered part of the family, and just as Whitetail, he had a few privileges he could call on when needed.

Shadowchaser and hir mate Redfoot had also received new comm badges, Neal having updated them since Shadowchaser had received hir last one. At hir mate’s look of confusion, Shadowchaser explained why she should always keep the badge close at hand. Not only did the badge let them talk with those on the Folly, but it also would link to other ships that Neal had standing agreements with. At Shadowchaser’s last count, there were over thirty ships that the badge could get hir free passage to wherever they were heading. Most bases that Neal dealt with would also accept the badge as proof that the bearer was one of Neal’s associates, and would put room and food billings on the Folly’s tab.

* * *

“Ah, Boss?” Tess said once the other ships were out of range of even her sensors.

“Yeah?” Neal asked as he worked on some of the paperwork caused by the latest Fleet re-supply.

“The Admiral and his medical staff left you a little present.”

“Oh?”

“They agreed that the Folly’s not up to caring for injuries like I should be with so many on board. And since they weren’t using it, they thought we might like one of the med-bots they have for emergencies.”

“It wouldn’t by chance be one of those models that we looked at and rejected is it?” Neal wondered.

“Similar but not quite the same, Boss.”

“And the reason you waited until now to tell me?”

“Boyce and company wanted it to be a surprise. His firstwife was snickering up a storm when she had her techs deliver it.”

“And what was your insight into your latest toy?” Neal asked.

“The bot’s okay for what it does, but it won’t win any awards for looks or being able to project anything resembling a bedside manner – not that any was programmed into it. By your terms, it’s rude, crude, and socially unacceptable.”

“Suggestions?”

“I’ll keep it in one of the med bays in case we ever actually need it, but I’m also going to adapt its medical programs to run on my other bots.”

“So your cleaning bots will now also be able to perform surgery?” Neal joked.

“Could,” Tess agreed, “but I was thinking more along the lines of setting up a few more of those taurs-bots like the ones we’re letting Quickdash tear up. Friendlier looking, and I can even hide some medical supplies in their torsos.”

“Go with it and see if you can train the med-bot’s AI into something people would actually want to use.”

* * *

After all the run-up to getting everything ready to run three ships at once, the pace after the Folly left the other ships behind was more than a little anti-climactic. There was still plenty to do, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere near as much rush to get things done.

Between stops, Neal split his time between working on Gulf and making a few more Zulus.

When the med-bot frightened the younger kittens, Alex helped Darkstreak and Spitfire get in a little revenge by taking said bot apart. It was days later before the medbay gurney stopped chasing the giggling stealers of its bits.

 

 


 

Gambling On Hesperia Station

 

“So, that’s our next stop?” Chakat Dusk half asked as hir tactical display showed hir a rather large asteroid that had just come into range, as well as a number of ships clinging to its surface or drifting nearby.

“Hesperia Station,” Tess told them. “The Hesperia Mining Company removed what ores they wanted and then sealed it up and turned it into a habitat. With the help of several other backers, they turned it into something spacers call the New Las Vegas of Space. The six kilometers of rock not only provide living facilities but recreational ones as well. Gambling and nearly every other form of entertainment can be found there.”

“How long will we have to throw our money away?” Morningmist laughed, knowing that most of them would not be wasting their credits on any games of chance.

“One local day,” Tess replied. “The main reason we’re stopping here is because Hesperia also acts as a central distribution hub for four nearby colony worlds.”

“So just one stop instead of five,” Dusk said.

“And we actually save a few credits passing the cargo along to the locals for delivery,” Tess agreed.

“What are your rules on gambling?” Alex asked as he turned towards Neal and other ears perked up to better hear the answer.

Neal smiled. “The first rule is to never take more to the table than you’re willing to lose. That’s it; any others are more suggestions.”

“And they are?”

“If I was going gambling, I’d set out my gambling money. I’d then split it for the number of days it has to last me. Then each day would get split three or four ways for the morning, after lunch, after dinner and late night. I blow all that time slot’s credits in an hour? Go see a show or otherwise do something else. If I hit a jackpot? Cash it in, pull my working funds out of it and the rest of my winnings go in a different pocket – they can be used for anything except gambling.”

“How long did it take you to come up with that system?” Weaver asked.

“Getting in over my head in debt twice,” Neal admitted. “The games will always be rigged for the house to make a profit.”

“Can we gamble too?” Holly asked.

“Depends. Is it worth the risk of not being able to get any new toys if you lose all your credits?” Neal countered.

Quickdash frowned at him but kept silent. They both knew shi could ‘blow’ however much shi wanted – but was it worth his disapproval?

“Oh,” Neal added. “And anyone going on the station will carry an extra oxygen rebreather with them.”

“You expect us all to get drunk?” Nightsky asked.

“No, one problem I have with this station is that it was adapted from a mining platform. It doesn’t have anywhere near the redundancies you’d expect from a regular station or ship.”

“And nobody complains?” Weaver asked.

“Their policy is; ‘If you don’t like it, you can always leave’,” Neal told her. “I understand there were plans to correct most of the safety issues, but the money to do it somehow disappeared.”

“That doesn’t sound promising.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Neal agreed. “But business is business – you just protect yourself where and when you can.”

“We should be docking in a little more than an hour,” Tess hinted as a couple of her crew still had tasks to complete before any station time could be approved.

* * *

“Still nothing?” Neal asked as Folly came to rest fifty meters shy of the dock Hesperia Control had assigned them. Even that far out Folly was blocking – and paying for – three of their docking ports.

“Sorry, Boss, they’ve acknowledged the shipment but haven’t signed for it,” Tess told him.

“See if one of their loadmasters will tell us what’s going on,” Neal requested as Tess extended their short freight access boom. The boom was large enough to handle the cargo containers and had built-in tractor beams to help keep them under control.

The access boom was firmly locked at both ends and aired up before Tess said, “Ah, Boss? They claim to be in the middle of an inventory. Asking them when they’d be ready for us got me a ‘When we’re done’ type reply.”

Neal closed his eyes and let out a sigh before speaking. “I believe we saw cargo transfers going on as we came in.”

“Yes, Boss.”

“Have those transfers ceased?”

“No, Boss.”

What sounded like a second sigh was almost heard from the captain’s chair before Neal’s eyes opened and his finger tapped a key on his chair. “Attention all crew. Your most gracious and benevolent captain hereby grants each and every one of you shore leave at this time. Three or more together and don’t forget your extra oxygen. Since in ship time a shift has just started, I would like you all back by the end of this shift.”

“I’ll stay to help move cargo once they’re ready,” Beechwood volunteered.

“No,” Neal told the foxtaur vixen. “Thanks, but I’ll hold down the fort while you guys look around – it’s not like Tess and I have forgotten how to do it ourselves,” he teased her.

* * *

“Why isn’t he telling them to shove their so-called inventory?” Dusk wondered as shi and the rest of the teens moved down the access boom, the thirteen Rakshani trailing along behind them.

“I don’t know, but whatever it is it’s really pissing him off,” Roseberry told them. “I think that’s why he has us all going now – there may not be a later.”

“Well, enjoy it while you can,” Mike suggested. “While this place has comm repeaters, there’s a chance we might get cut off from Tess. If that happens try to contact the other groups. If that fails, figure there’s trouble and start heading back.”

* * *

“Are you guys sure you want to waste your money on this?” Roseberry was asking as shi, Alex and Mike entered one of the large rooms claiming to be the ‘Gambler’s Den’.

“Just looking,” Alex assured hir with a grin.

“You can’t lose if you don’t play – of course, you can’t win either,” Mike agreed.

Many of the games were AI driven simulations, but scattered about the floor were tables with live dealers and game handlers for those that wanted a more personal experience.

“Hmm,” Alex muttered while they watched a blackjack table.

“Yeah,” Mike agreed.

“What?” Roseberry wondered, bemused by the feelings shi was getting from them.

“Show you later,” Mike told hir as they headed for another table.

They watched a couple of spins on a roulette wheel before Alex said, “Rose, who else is focusing really hard on this table?”

“You saw that extra energetic bounce too?” Mike murmured.

Roseberry closed hir eyes to better concentrate, turning hir head in the direction shi felt the strongest pull and opened hir eyes – to a skunktaur that had been playing one of the machines but was now glaring back at hir.

“Yeah, ‘Cheater’s Den’ is more like it,” Mike said, having seen which way Roseberry’s head was pointing. “I’d wager we’d see a blue paw-print (for telekinesis) if we could get that vest off of hym.”

“Seen enough?” Alex asked.

“More than enough,” Mike agreed.

They didn’t make it halfway to the exit before they were confronted by three security types, a pair of large Rakshani and a skunktaur with a red-for-telepathy paw-print on hys exposed chest.

The Rakshani stood easy, their grim smiles suggesting that they thought they could handle anything the three in front of them might try. The skunktaur stared at each of them in turn before suddenly taking a half-step back.

“You may go,” hy half-hissed at them.

Roseberry waited until they were out the door and a fair way down the corridor before asking, “What were you guys thinking of – hy was terrified of something!”

Mike smiled. “I was just thinking about Neal hearing that we had been stopped. And me standing behind him on New Kiev as he fired away, and that view from Shady’s comm badge of Neal’s face when he beamed into the hospital and that first nurse’s reaction to his emotional state.”

I was just going through what moves I thought I’d need if they tried to detain us,” Alex admitted. “I was thinking that the two Rakshani would be easy enough, and I was wondering if hy could read me fast enough to react in time when it was hys turn.”

“Whatever you two were thinking it was sufficient to almost make hym piss hymself. Me, I was wondering if Tess was already telling Neal we’d run into a little problem.”

Mike grinned at hir. “And hy knew that we knew that they’re rigging their games.”

Alex grinned as well. “Ruined hys whole day being able to read us and know we didn’t think we were bluffing.”

“And here comes our backup,” Roseberry snickered as Cindy and their foxtaur teens came around a corner.

“Tess tells us you guys were bothering the natives,” Redtail said as they all came to a stop.

“They didn’t like us detecting their cheats,” Mike told them. “Where were you guys heading?”

“We’ve walked up an appetite and Tess says there’s a nice bar and grill the next level down,” Beechwood told him. “It seems Shady and the terror twins have already found the place.”

* * *

With the rest of his family/crew out of his hair, Neal’s frown deepened. “Work up the numbers of how much their little delay might cost us,” he told Tess.

“You expecting them to drag things out?” Tess asked.

“Something’s changed since the last time we swung by. Those other ships still loading or unloading?”

“And another one just started loading, Boss.”

“Okay, so our name out here is mud for whatever reason. Start digging and see if you can find out why.”

“Already digging, Boss. A few hints but no definitive proofs as yet.”

“Where are the hints pointing?”

“At Alamo Antimatter retribution.”

“I thought we had Alamo fueling these people.”

“We do, and the refueler stated that Hesperia delayed their last refueling by over a day.”

“Which put them behind on their schedules,” Neal muttered. “Not looking good.”

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Keep digging to see if we can’t find out the ‘who’. That might help suggest the ‘what and why’, and then we’ll decide ‘how’ we might deal with them.”

“Can do, Boss. You might as well try that shore leave thing too, I’ll keep an eye on things here,” Tess suggested.

“What the heck,” Neal allowed, getting up.

* * *

It turned out the bar and grill had a pretty good cook, and most of the Folly crew enjoyed a meal Suzan didn’t have to prepare for them. As an added bonus, one of the vending machines sold playing cards and Alex bought a couple of decks – one of which he tossed at Mike.

Mike grinned at the curious looks as he opened the box and shuffled the deck a few times.

“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no gambling allowed in this establishment,” one of the barmaids warned him.

“That’s quite all right,” Mike told the lioness morph with a smile, “because this is going to be a bit of show-and-tell – no money or bets will take place. Pull up a seat and watch if you like,” he suggested.

“Two more please,” he asked, and Brighteyes and Dusk joined Mike and the lioness at the table, most of the others now crowding around to see what he was up to.

“Alex and I saw something odd at one of the gambling places,” Mike explained. “It looked a bit like this,” he added, dealing out a blackjack hand to himself and the other three. “Anyone besides Alex see what I did just now?”

At the headshakes, he said, “Let me turn the deck over and see if you can spot it.” Turning the first card over showed everyone the three of spades on top. Mike quickly dealt out a new hand – and then sat there grinning.

“What the –” Dusk muttered when hir hole card was not the black three.

The others quickly flipped their hole cards before glaring at Mike, who simply turned his big hand to show the three was still on the top of the deck. “This is why Alex and I don’t play most games with you guys – it’s too easy for us to cheat.”

Alex smiled as he stepped up with his deck. Handing an ace and a stylus to each of those at the table he said, “Please write your names on your aces.”

Collecting them, he looked at the one from the lioness and said, “Thank you for joining us, Lisa, ready to have some fun?”

At her nod, he shuffled and then began dealing cards face down, only breaking the rhythm to flip an ace at its owner face up. He did this several times, letting others shuffle and cut the cards however they liked. For the last deal, all the cards went in order and were face down.

“Flip your top cards,” Alex requested. The correct ace was in front of each of them, but the names were gone.

“That’s what you caught that dealer doing,” Roseberry drolly stated.

“And that’s why we don’t gamble – at least not with cards – it’d be too easy to slip things by you guys,” Mike told them.

“Or to do it accidentally,” Alex added. “Like walking and talking at the same time, the hands are going through the motions while you’re thinking of something else.”

“Interesting,” Neal said from behind the others, having gotten there in time to watch most of Alex’s card tricks.

“The best way to catch others is to know how to do it yourself,” Alex pointed out.

“I’m not complaining,” Neal told him. “It’s always nice to have other talents.”

“If you’re here, who’s minding the ship?” Suzan asked as most of his crew was eating.

“Tess can be trusted to keep an eye on things – she’s been doing it for years.”

“So, what’s next?” Weaver asked as the last of their Rakshan ladies joined them.

Neal shrugged. “I’m going to have a snack and head back to the ship. You guys can look around a bit more if you like, Tess will let you know if your time off gets cut short.”

* * *

“Well, if it isn’t the biggest asshole in space – and possibly the dumbest!” laughed a deep voice from somewhere behind Neal.

Heads turned, as did Neal’s. At a table behind him sat a scarred and rather heavyset lab morph who was aiming an evil grin at Neal.

“I thought I smelled a wet dog wander in,” Neal muttered.

“Yeah, you ain’t smelling like no rose yourself,” the lab shot back. “I just placed a bet on when they’re going to get around to doing your cargo transfer.”

“Winning money’s on ‘by next shift’,” Neal grumbled.

“Nah, most of the bets are three and four days out – with the director’s staff betting on five!” the lab laughed.

Neal dug in his pocket for a moment before flipping a hundred credit chit at the lab as he said, “Bet half of that on next shift – the other half on there being no cargo transfer – I can personally guarantee you that one or the other will be the winner.”

The lab said no more, merely chuckling as Neal and the rest of his party got up and left.

“He seemed far too happy about you being delayed,” Redtail commented once they were clear of the bar.

“He’s one of Neal’s ‘friends’,” Weaver countered. “A foe wouldn’t have warned him that the delay was deliberate.”

“So why the insults?” Redtail asked.

“I’m guessing so others on this station don’t start treating him like they’re treating Neal,” Weaver replied, looking towards Neal.

Neal grinned before saying, “There’s a very old tale about a little bird almost freezing to death one winter. It was so cold that the bird’s legs went numb and he fell out of his tree. An old dairy cow just happened along and took a dump right where the bird had fallen. This defrosted the little bird and he was so happy to be warm again that he started to sing. Along came a feral cat that on hearing the birdsong in the dead of winter hunted down the little bird, dug him out of the cow patty, cleaned him up a bit, and then ate him. From this, we can learn three truths.”

There were several groans at Neal’s little story, and it was Zhanch that finally said, “And what three things do you learn?”

“Not every one that seems to be shitting on you is your enemy,” Neal told her. “Not every one that appears to be getting you out of shit is your friend. And when you find yourself buried chin deep in shit it’s usually not wise to sing about it …”

“So what are you going to do?” she asked.

“I’m going to take this load of shit I find myself stuck with, do a little repackaging, and then see if I can’t then sell this freshly bagged fertilizer to some other deserving idiot.”

* * *

“What time is it for Bunsten?” Neal asked as he settled into his chair in his day room, the door was closed to inquisitive ears.

“Just past his breakfast time, do you want me to call him?” Tess replied.

“Dump your worst-case notes into his in-basket.”

“Done.”

“And still nothing from Hesperia on the order?”

“No, Boss.”

“Any of ours still on liberty?”

“No, Boss. The last ones returned minutes after you did – I think they were afraid you might leave them behind.”

A glance at the clock showed just another ten minutes before the end of the local ‘shift’. “Prepare to break dock. We will park three hundred kilometers out from Hesperia.”

“Aye, Boss. De-airing the boom and advising Hesperia traffic control of our movement plans … Someone over there wants to speak to the captain.”

“Put them through,” Neal agreed.

Folly, why are you moving?” an otter morph asked.

“Because I’m tired of wasting credits paying for docking fees to a rock that doesn’t seem to be interested in the supplies I brought them,” Neal replied. “Unless you called to tell me that you’ve signed the order and are ready to receive it?”

“Ah, I understand it will be real soon now, Captain,” the otter stammered.

“Then I’ll save on docking fees until then,” Neal told them. “If my crew wants more time, docking a personnel shuttle is much cheaper.”

“Boom separating,” Tess informed him.

“Proceed,” Neal said before looking again at the otter. “If there’s nothing else?” he asked.

“I’m sure we’ll be moving cargo again soon.”

“And if you manage to somehow do so in a timely matter we’ll be back,” Neal said as Folly slowly shifted away from the station.

“Should I leave the boom in place?” Tess asked.

“Stow it,” Neal ordered. “It might make more of a point to whoever over there is playing these games.”

“I have Edward Bunsten,” Tess reported minutes later, the squirrel morph appearing on Neal’s display.

“Finally giving up?” he asked.

“Rub it in,” Neal muttered.

“Too late for it to do any good with the mood I see you’re in. What happened?”

“They are now wasting time I don’t have – and it seems they are also wasting the time of Alamo ships.”

“And you think they’re related.”

“That and the credits I had earmarked for safety upgrades seems to have disappeared without a single thing on the list being accomplished.”

“So, what did you want from me?”

“Get us out from under – I want a complete break.”

“That won’t come cheap,” the financial advisor warned.

“Cheaper in the long run than letting them slowly bleed us,” Neal countered.

“How soon do you want it?”

“Yesterday.”

“That’ll cost you even more.”

“Just make it happen. Oh, and Thirteen Star is not accepting any loans based on Hesperia shares, they’re a bad investment as far as we’re concerned.”

“Then they won’t buy,” Edward warned.

“Sweeten the pot so much they leap before checking where they’re going to land,” Neal suggested.

“Rough guess that it’ll cost you another half billion to do it.”

“Worth it if the right parties jump on it.”

“Sending. I’ll keep Tess advised as to any bites or nibbles.”

“While you do that, I’ll stir the pot and see who or what bubbles up and possibly over,” Neal agreed.

“Tess – what of Hesperia’s load was destined for the other ports?” Neal asked as Bunsten dropped from his screen.

“Almost ninety percent was going to Javits. In fact, some of it was marked ‘rush’ and they really wanted it in the next four days.”

“Which wouldn’t have happened if I let Hesperia continue to delay us. Tess, remove our Hesperia order offer. We’ll then give them five minutes to notice and respond.”

“And if they do?”

“If they ask to sign it and agree to begin the cargo transfer as soon as we hit the dock we’ll turn around; if not we’ll tack on the extra shipping charges and see if Javits wants their bits of it.”

“Edward Bunsten is busy on a call but says to tell you it’s done,” Tess reported a few minutes later.

“Excellent. Anything from Hesperia?”

“Not a peep – though it seems other ships know something’s up. And an Alamo Antimatter ship, Shogun, just dropped from warp.”

“Tell them not to make any offers or take any requests at this time,” Neal requested.

“Sending it through the official Alamo channels … received. Any orders?”

“Have them hold station for now; we might be having them follow us to Javits.”

“Your five minutes are up and we also got a reply from Javits, they are willing to pay what you’re asking for the cargo if we can get it there in the next four days.”

“Tell Javits can do and will. Make us a new order for Hesperia, everything except the Javits cargo at ten times the price we were asking, five-minute countdown on the order and delivery upon signing – no ‘inventory’ delays allowed.”

“Boss, I have a reply from Javits; they’ve already paid half to our accounts, the rest on delivery.”

“They sound eager.”

“And we now have someone on Hesperia demanding to speak to you.”

Neal reclined his chair as he said, “The Captain is otherwise occupied. Advise them that he won’t be changing his mind on the prices.”

“The language I’m getting is colorful, but I’ve heard better,” Tess told him. “And their timer just ran out.”

“Point us at Javits and start us moving,” Neal ordered.

“Aye, Boss. Oh, and I now have someone claiming to be the Hesperia City Administrator wanting to talk to you. At least they aren’t screaming – yet.”

“I doubt that they have anything useful to say at this point, but you never can tell,” Neal allowed as he tapped the key to take the call.

The Caitian on the screen looked like she was trying to maintain her calm, but the way her ears were twitching suggested she wasn’t managing it very well.

“You wished to speak to me?” Neal asked.

“Where do you think you are going, Captain?” she hissed at him.

“To my next stop. Would you believe that they are so eager for their cargo they’ve already paid half in advance?”

“You have obligations here!” she sputtered.

“Tess, do we have any outstanding orders to or from Hesperia?”

“No, Captain.”

“So, no actual obligations,” he told the Caitian.

“You have a stake in Hesperia!” she snapped at him.

Neal allowed himself to slowly smile at her before saying, “No, I had a stake in Hesperia. As of ten minutes ago that stake was confirmed sold – so I no longer care what does or does not happen to Hesperia.”

As she glared at him Neal continued, “If you want me to care at all about Hesperia, why don’t you tell me where the credits I personally provided for safety and redundancy equipment went. Three-quarters of a billion credits out the airlock, and not one thing on the safety list to show for it. Or maybe you’d like to tell me who ordered you to delay me as long as possible? No? Well, you can tell whoever it was that they’ve ‘won’ this round. May they – and you – choke on your victories.”

Neal tapped the key to kill the connection and said, “Broadcast that any ships wishing to do business with the Folly or with Alamo Antimatter may do so in six hours’ time at Javits.”

“We could be there in three,” Tess pointed out.

“No rush and it’ll give others plenty of time to join us,” Neal replied.

“Just got a ‘what the hell’ from Shogun, resending through official channels.”

“Not everybody has heard the rumors it seems,” Neal agreed.

Shogun’s captain, Casey Zette, is one of those that doesn’t like you very much.”

“I know. Poor chump.”

“You going to mess with him?”

“I may have to if he reacts too badly to discovering I’m actually his boss.”

“Hesperia’s message board is getting busy; it seems several ships are recalling their crews.”

“Heh! I’ll bet Hesperia hadn’t considered that I might have some little pull of my own out here,” Neal allowed.

“And a new message from Edward Bunsten, Boss. While the stock was purchased by a third party, Windsor Imports is now trying to use that same stock to float a loan to cover the purchase price. It seems they didn’t like being told that the stock would not be considered as collateral, and when they demanded Bunsten immediately give them a loan, he told them no.”

“Records showed that Windsor was already a major Hesperia stockholder,” Neal said thoughtfully. “I think we found the ‘who’. Does that catch on any threads of ‘why’?”

“From what I can dig up on him in public records, he also has large investments in the Antimatter Consortium and the FTL Relay companies – both of which have taken hits from your actions – not that I think they realize that we were the ones that screwed with their relays,” Tess pointed out. “Well, your reactions to their actions, but he won’t be looking at it that way.”

“Tell Edward to stand firm and we’ll see where things stand once we get to Javits. Tell the crew that they might want to take a nap as things won’t get busy for a bit.”

“Aye, Boss, and there’s a couple of people wanting you to join them in a nap too.”

“Be there in a few.”

“Warp in five.”

* * *

Five and a half hours later found the Folly’s captain again alert and at his station as his ship dropped from warp. He’d not only had a nice nap but a snack and was looking forward to a better stop than his last one.

What he found was that over a dozen ships that had been at or near Hesperia had beaten him to Javits, and they were overwhelming the relatively tiny station orbiting the planet.

“I see Shogun got here promptly. Use the official channels and tell her she’s selling to all comers at friendly prices. Record for broadcast to all ships and the station.”

“Recording.”

“Hesperia turned out to be a waste of our time and Folly’s captain now finds himself in a trading state of mind.”

“Sent.”

“Send what we’re offering for what and what in turn we might be interested in.”

“Done.”

“Then go ahead and let’s see what Javits Station has to say.”

“Javits Station – welcome Folly!” came a cheerful call from the station by what appeared to be a pre-teen chakat with fur so orange it could have been used to mark off hazardous areas.

“Am I speaking to Javits Station control?” Neal asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Dad’s doing an inventory,” the pre-teen informed him.

“An inventory? Really?” Neal replied, his tone dropping noticeably.

“Yeah,” the cheeky chakat told him after sticking hir tongue out at him. “Some ship waited until just a minute ago to tell us what all else they had for sale. They’re trying to figure out what we can afford to add to our order. Oh, and shi has another question for you.”

“And that is?”

“What do you charge for groundside delivering? We were hoping that one or two big loads through you might be cheaper than all the little loads our smaller shuttles would need.”

Neal smiled. “Tess, add what we charge to move groundside freight.”

“Done.”

On his screen the pre-teen called out, “Dad – more data!” shi then looked at Neal and said, “You do know it’ll now take them even longer – right?”

Neal shrugged. “Plenty of other trading to do while we wait. Unless there’s a reason not to, I was thinking of docking to the freight port pointing almost at us.”

“That’ll work,” the teen agreed. “We were wondering how we were going to dock so many ships.”

“Well, as we have a few more ports I guess we could play ‘junction’ while we’re here,” Neal allowed.

“For a fee?”

“Nothing’s free, kiddo, but I think your father will find my rates are reasonable.”

“And probably cheaper than shuffling ships,” shi agreed.

“Oh, remind your father that for ground, I charge by the shuttle load. So, if they buy from others and add it to the shuttle, it all costs the same.”

“Good. I’ve seen some charge extra if they couldn’t sell the cargo too – oops, Dad has a question.”

Neal’s screen split to add an older chakat, hir striped fur a dark marbled green. “Captain Foster, welcome to Javits. Just how long might you be planning to be in our space?”

“Why?” Neal asked, his eyebrow rising again.

“Because it will help us determine if we can get some cargo ready to ship out. We weren’t expecting anything of your size – or this soon!”

“One local day is really all the time I can afford,” Neal warned them. “Show us what you’ve got where and the priorities and we’ll see what we can help with.”

“What are you thinking, Boss?” Tess asked after Javits Station had disconnected.

“I’m thinking we’ve got two heavy lift shuttles and two atmospheric capable ships.”

You can’t be everywhere at once,” Tess reminded him.

“No, but it’s uncontrolled space, we have trainees and since there’s no need of warp, you can remote as needed.”

“Getting a bit wild there, Boss.”

“I’ve been wilder,” Neal reminded her. “Let’s see what needs to go where.”

Shogun is doing good business, so good they’re warning the head office that they may have to refuel and throw the rest of their schedule off a bit.”

“Can we top them off without digging into our own reserves too badly?”

“If you don’t mind our next refueling being a little earlier than planned; a good time and place would be right after our visit to Raksha.”

“Have Shogun hold station after fueling those that want or need it and we’ll take care of them.”

“Aye, Boss.”

“Teens and teenage-acting Hellcats,” Neal called out, grinning at the snarl on Kestrel’s muzzle before it turned into a grin as she stuck her tongue out at him. “We will soon have ships to shuffle and cargo to shift. I would like two controllers and nine security teams of two to help keep everything covered.”

“And what were you expecting me to do?” Weaver asked.

“You, my dear, get to watch over your crew. That means getting them help if they need it and rotating them so everyone gets breaks.”

“Actually, that’s my job,” Zhanch told them. “The first officer delegates as she sees fit. The sergeants then manage the manpower.”

 

 


 

The Right To Be Forgotten

 

To Forget – or not to forget, that be the question…

“I don’t see why I can’t establish a new line of credit with your ship,” the gray cat morph on the screen snarled.

“I’m sorry, Mister Kelly, but your personal and company histories with us show you to be a bad credit risk,” Alex replied as Tess brought up the related company data – and which con games their caller had tried to pull in the past.

“That’s all ancient history – you shouldn’t be holding onto things that happened over twenty years ago!”

“Are you saying we should have deleted your old data?” Alex asked in surprise. “That would play havoc with keeping track of this area’s buying and selling trends,” he protested, even as Tess was flashing a suggestion on his screen.

“That’s your problem; I insist you remove all that outdated information.”

“Well, okay,” Alex pretended to grumble, “It looks like there’s an option here to remove old and expired data. I’ll send you the link and you can load your company name and added data. Be advised that’ll take a few hours for a deletion to process through all the databases.”

“Good,” the other cat muttered before dropping the display but not the data link.

Alex grinned once the display blanked. “Okay, Tess, why did you want me to offer him that option?”

“Think of what he’s about to give us. Every company and employee link he gives us will be that much more information on his groups and holdings. We can then use them to follow where their credits go.”

“And he thinks he’s removing – not adding to your database.”

“That’s okay. As far as he’s concerned, we will have forgotten he’s ever existed,” Tess assured him with a chuckle.

* * *

Folly procurement. This is Cindy, how may I help you?”

“Nathan Kelly,” a gray cat morph told her. “I’d like to set up a line of credit.”

“Company name?” Cindy politely asked as Tess ‘suggested’ just how she was to handle her caller.

“Rammington Services.”

“Strange, I’m not finding it, is this a new company?”

The cat failed to hide his smirk as he said, “Yes, it’s a relatively new company, and we’ve never had any dealings with Folly before.”

“Then I’d need some references before we can consider any lines of credit,” Cindy politely told him.

“Travis Transport will vouch for us.”

“I’m sorry, but they don’t seem to be in my database either, sir. I will need established companies that have done business with Folly before,” she reminded him.

“But Travis Transport has a credit line with you guys!” he protested.

“Not in this database they don’t,” Cindy corrected him. Raising an eyebrow at him she asked, “You didn’t by chance ask that a bad rating be forgotten did you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Pity, because that would explain you having issues with me finding valid references. You see, by asking or demanding any negative information be removed about your company, you also removed any positive data, making you an unknown factor as far as credit rating algorithms are concerned. So, Mister Kelly, any transactions will need to be credits in advance only.”

“And what if I don’t trust you guys?”

“Then you can place your credits into an agreed escrow account, but the full credit amount must be in it before Folly unloads any of your cargo.”

“But I can’t get that many credits in time!”

Cindy shrugged. “If I had a history to work with, I could run a risk analysis, but with a wiped background, I have to wonder just how bad it really was.”

“And there’s nothing you can do for me? After all I’ve done for you guys?”

“So much you’ve done to us that you asked that it be deleted?” Cindy countered.

“You were only supposed to delete the bad credit information – not the good!”

“All or nothing at all, the system isn’t designed to make it easier to cheat us.”

“I’m offended that you’re now accusing me of trying to cheat you!” he growled.

Cindy smiled as she said, “But you admitted just a moment ago that you weren’t going to have the credits to pay us in a timely manner – what else could I think you were trying to do?”

* * *

Folly procurement. Mike,” he said to a blank screen, blank other than a line of tracing data – and the little marker that told him Tess was working on it.

“I’d like to place an order,” a synthesized voice told him.

“Name?”

“Anonymous.”

“Okay … Pick up or delivery method?” Mike asked as Tess gave him more data on his caller.

“I’ll send someone to pick it up from the docking bay.”

“Very well,” Mike agreed. “I’ll give you the twenty digit tracking number they will need to know in order to claim the cargo. Escrow account number?”

“COD.”

“For an unknown? No way. Escrow account – which we will then check and confirm the credits and details before we bother to shift any cargo,” Mike informed his unknown caller.

“Credits On Delivery!”

Folly does have a few customers that are allowed to COD,” Mike admitted, “but they all have long records of honoring their debts and the captain vouches for them. As they’d know that I’d have to confirm their identity, I really don’t think you’re one of them.”

The connection dropped suddenly.

“How sure are you on who it was?” Mike asked.

“Very sure,” Tess told him. “His first mistake was using a line he’d previously called us on. The second was though he was disguising his voice, the pace and phrases he used closely matched what I have on him from his other calls – especially after he started getting upset with you.”

“Who gets him next?”

“No one – or rather, he’s all mine. If, or more likely when he calls back, I’ll just let him know that I know who he is before he can admit to it. He’s had his three strikes; he’s out of luck this time around.”

“So, that’s the end of it?”

“One more step for me to do. Since he just tried a con on us yet again, we now have ‘new’ data on him, so I will warn our friends – as well as posting his tricks on the warning boards, so he’ll have a hard time trying to fool anybody else,” Tess assured him.

“Is it just me, or were we baiting him so you could hang him out to dry?” Mike wondered.

“A little. Nathan Kelly’s played his tricks on a couple more trusting ships – one badly enough that Neal had to buy a controlling interest in their ship to keep them from going under.”

“I didn’t think he did things like that.”

“He doesn’t very often. In that case, it was the only way they’d have a chance to keep their ship.”

“Other than just giving it to them.”

“Neal won’t do that because he’s learned the hard way that people take much better care of things they have to work for than they do gifts.”

“Like me working for my spending money rather than just sitting on my tail and begging for an allowance.”

“And you were keener to study for it when you found out how much it affected your pay,” Tess agreed. “Ah, down to an hour before we leave; all prices just went up to discourage any last-minute sales.”

“Why does he do that anyway? I’d think he was here to make whatever sales he can.”

“Follow the credits,” Tess told him. “Rather than parking nearby and shuttling everything and everybody back and forth, we’re docked to this station. Due to our size, we’re actually blocking several of the station’s ports – as well as the one we’re using. This all costs us credits. Leaving late and paying still more for those docking ports could quickly eat up any profits from a late sale – especially if I have to go dig it out of long term storage or if it’s buried in one of the pods.”

“I know you guys plan each stop and what you expect to sell.”

“Sure we do, and I line it up so we can offload it quickly. But we have literally millions of objects on this ship. What do you think the odds are that someone would request a professional Caitian water-color set from us?”

“The lower side of zero?” Mike asked with a half grin.

“Even if you knew that there were two Caitian artists on the station – and one of the ships in port has a budding artist studying it?”

“And you know this how?”

“I don’t,” Tess confessed, “but we’ve had that and stranger things asked for in the past.”

“Were you able to fill the order?”

“Not only that, but I still have three complete professional, six advanced, four basic, and seventeen beginner sets. That doesn’t include a few dozen sets specifically designed with younger cubs in mind; Neal has used them a few times to ‘break the ice’ with a new Caitian family pride he’s trying to work with – though they seem to work equally well with the Rakshani.”

“Heh. Why can’t we ever catch you or Neal out?”

“No time soon, Mike. We’ve been at it a bit longer and while Neal sometimes needs a hint or reminder, I can never forget – though I might ‘overlook’ some things in the name of peace and quiet.”

“And to help the captain not worry about certain things?”

“That too. Go ahead and close down your station, Suzan’s almost got dinner ready.”

* * *

Folly procurement, Tess speaking.”

“Yes, Tess, this is Simon Lexor of Base Three Construction.”

“I have your order before me, Mister Lexor, how may I assist you?”

“We actually sent you two orders; one, which we then cancelled; and then the second. It looks though like you filled the first order.”

“Ah, I see,” Tess admitted. “As the only difference is the quantity of each item, will that be an issue?”

“Tess, we can’t afford that first order at this time.”

“But you can afford the second?”

“Of course!”

“Then I have a question for you, Simon: do you want those extra supplies and are you good for them?”

There were a few seconds of silence before Simon said, “We could definitely use them, but it might be three to six Earth months before we could safely afford to pay for them.”

“My captain has no problem with it taking you up to a year to pay the difference.”

“Thank you, Tess, so many ships are credits on delivery.”

“In this line of work, my captain is very much aware that timing can sometimes mean you don’t have everything you need when you need it. While we are very much COD with some customers, you and your company have proven yourselves to be reliable and trustworthy. I’ll include the banking codes you’ll need and the number to our finance department in case you run into a problem and need an extension.”

“Thank you again, Tess. Simon clear.”

Folly clear,” Tess agreed as she dropped the connection.

“Why did we do that?” Cindy asked, having been monitoring the call.

“Why did we give him what he needed for what he could afford?” Tess asked. At Cindy’s nod, she said, “Base Three Construction is doing some work for us – though they don’t know it. As them not getting all their materials might put our project behind, Neal thought he’d see how they’d react when they got more than they could pay for.”

“So they could have just kept their mouths shut.”

“They could have – but then we’d start keeping a closer eye on them to see if they were up to anything else.”

“You guys play too many games,” Cindy complained.

“True, but games like these are why you’re sitting at my console and not back on Bright Hope,” Tess reminded her.

“There is that,” Cindy admitted. “Bring on the games!”

 

 


 

Smoke And Mirrors

 

“Personnel – Keessa Keite, how may I assist you?” the heavyset brown bear morph asked with a voice that seemed counter to her size and mass.

“Casey Zette, captain of Shogun, Ms Keite. I need to speak to the head of personnel,” the Voxxan told her, an unhappy look on his muzzle.

“Concerning?” she gently asked, his name having already brought up several warnings on her display.

“The Folly,” he curtly replied.

“Ah, Old Man Foster,” she replied with a smile. “There’s been a lot of that going on of late, Captain. If you don’t mind, let’s see first if any of your needs are above my pay grade.”

“How long has Foster had any say in Alamo business?”

Keessa’s eyes glittered with amusement as she softly said, “Since day one, Captain Zette. Why?”

“He said we’d be going somewhere before we got the actual move orders.”

“Normally he hides it better,” she admitted. “Or at least he used to.”

“I … see,” the Voxxan slowly said, and she thought she read resignation in it.

“No, I don’t think you do,” she replied with a bit more snap in her voice, startling the captain on her screen. “He owns this place too, you see,” she informed him. “He and Tess like to leave us notes on how to deal with particular people. Would you like to know what my notes say about you?”

At Casey’s hesitant nod, Keessa grinned again before saying, “The first warning is that you’re stubborn as all get out, the second is that you hate Foster – something about him putting you through something called ‘the crusher’ – whatever that is – and that you cuss his name whenever it’s brought up. That sound like you?” she asked, softening the last part.

Looking more worried than ever the Voxxan merely nodded.

“Captain,” she said with more command in her voice, “as far as you and your command is concerned, nothing has changed. Captain Foster has directly or indirectly signed off on every one of your paychecks and bonuses. Notes show he also bypassed the usual hurdles your mate would have faced trying to buy your first home.”

“Why are you telling me this? It has to be against the rules,” Casey pointed out.

“It normally is,” she agreed, “but one of his other notes warned that I might need something heavy to nail you right between the eyes with to get your attention. So, have I managed to get your attention?”

“Yes.”

“And what has changed?”

“Nothing, he’s still a damn asshole.”

Keessa gave him a warmer smile as she said, “You’re not his only captain calling him that and worse. One of the reasons he didn’t mind was that it gave another level of believable separation between him and Alamo. After all – what boss would put up with his workers cussing at and about him?”

“And now?”

“I don’t see things changing,” she told him. “Most people still don’t know, so a sudden change in how you act towards him might actually look suspicious.”

“Thank you, Ms Keite, and thank you for nailing me right between the eyes.”

“Anytime, Captain Zette,” Keessa replied. “Oh, a quick question while I have you. Will your daughter, Auresia, be heading for flight school at the end of your current loop – or are you going to give her another year?”

“We’re planning on next – wait – how did you know about that?”

“Come, Captain Zette, you don’t think an advanced training school just lets any old random asshole of a captain come in and screw with their students do you?” Keessa laughed before letting the connection drop. She grinned at one of the other notes on Zette that she hadn’t bothered to mention, knowing that Captain Foster happened to like delivering certain little surprises himself.

* * *

“I have a call coming in from the Picacho, it seems their Captain Albright isn’t happy about Shogun refusing to sell them fuel and has this strange idea that you not only can but will do something about it,” Tess warned as the ship-to-ship and ship-to-station cargo transfers were winding down.

Picacho, hmm? Do we have any watch or warnings about that ship?” Neal asked.

“For playing rough and underhanded with several of our other ships – and there was an altercation between them and a couple of Shogun’s crew. It seems they tried to offer to show the captain’s teenage daughter a good time – even after she told them ‘no’.”

“Hit Shogun with a comm laser, outgoing only as we aren’t looking for their feedback or a reply. Once you confirm a lock, we’ll see what this Captain Albright has to say.”

Like Captain Zette, Captain Albright was a Voxxan male, a little older with a slightly lighter shaded fur.

“You wished to speak to me?” Neal asked.

“Your Shogun is refusing to refuel us!” the Voxxan snarled.

My Shogun? I believe a Captain Zette runs that little ship. Rumors I’ve heard are that he thinks rather poorly of me,” Neal easily replied.

“The word is out that you control the Alamo Antimatter ships! So you can order him to refuel us!”

“Hmm, if I did indeed have the ability to order Captain Zette around, there’s still the problem of deciding there’s a reason to do so. Since I wouldn’t normally be where I could micromanage each and every one of my ships and captains, I find myself forced to trust their judgment in some things. In this case, I trust that if I ask Captain Zette, he will give me what he thinks is a very good reason for not wanting to refuel you. Why don’t you try Hesperia? I understand they’re as upset with me as you are.”

“You’re going to regret this, Foster.”

“So Hesperia has also already advised me,” Neal replied with a small grin. “And I will be having a little chat with that Captain Zette; I think his daughter needs to be taught to defend herself more vigorously. My daughters wouldn’t have left your boys as walking wounded – they’d have been in critical care – if not in body bags.”

Neal snorted softly as Albright snarled as he dropped the connection.

“I don’t think he expected you to back a captain that publicly hates you,” Tess suggested.

“A lot of that going around,” Neal agreed. “Kill the comm laser,” he added as he switched his displays so he could remotely watch as Dusk and Alex’s crews prepared to move freight.

* * *

“Five kilometers,” Dusk called out as Baker dropped lower through the air.

“Looking good,” Brighteyes agreed. “Wait – scan shows something on the landing pad.”

“Truck – looks like they can’t get it to start,” Redtail told them. “Slow our descent and prepare to hover and we’ll shift it with a tractor beam. I’ll comm them and have them stand clear.”

* * *

From the Folly Neal watched as Baker’s crew dealt with the unexpected problem. “Thank the ground teams for making things a little more challenging for our trainees.”

“I think they consider it a privilege to do that instead of having to move all those containers in the limited time we gave them,” Tess told him.

* * *

While elsewhere Alex’s team had found a different kind of challenge.

“There’s no place we can set down without burning their fields,” Alex complained to Mike as they steered Charlie towards their next stop.

“Can’t be helped,” Mike replied. “Looks like the harvesters are making one last sweep before we get there.”

“Maybe it can,” Alex suggested. “Tess. Don’t we have another stop we can do while they finish their harvest?”

“It’ll mean coming back and loading this stop in the dark,” Tess warned.

“We’re willing to if they are,” Mike told her.

“Checking … they agree. Level off and head North, your next stop isn’t far enough away to warrant a sub-orbital approach.”

* * *

“Neal or Tess say what’s in it?” Croix wondered as she and Velasco watched as a pod from another ship was attached to one of Folly’s many pod mounting points.

“No, though from what I overheard the other ship say, they were waiting to deliver this after Neal ditched his Fleet friends,” the other Rakshani replied.

“Tess? Any reason we can’t inspect this pod?” Croix asked.

“None at all,” Tess agreed.

Airing up the gap between ship and pod took only a minute, though the Rakshani wore protective gloves and footwear as what had been external surfaces were still quite cold.

“Hmm, looks like this holds up to nine of whatever those things are,” Croix commented.

“Check out the upper hatch configuration,” Velasco told her. “Center hatch only, so you’d have to launch whatever was in the center before the sides and finally the corners.”

At present, there were only three of the nine slots occupied, two with rather odd looking small ships or large shuttles and one corner slot filled with what looked like spare parts. Both ship/shuttles were close to fifty meters long with a hexagon shape. Extendable landing gear and what appeared to be adjustable warp nacelles were partially hidden by two rings of six smaller twenty meter long shapes.

“Tess, just what are these things?” Velasco asked.

“Neal’s latest design for a Zulu,” Tess told them. “Longer ranged and able to carry more people.”

“And those things attached to it – baby Zulus?”

“Or extra fuel or cargo holders as the mission requires,” Tess admitted.

“So why would he be hiding them from Star Fleet?” Croix asked.

“Neal wouldn’t care if a particular admiral knew, but Boyce’s wives would have had kittens if they’d seen some of the specs on these new toys,” Tess informed them.

“Would it be possible for us to inspect one of his new toys?” Croix suggested with a grin.

“I don’t seem to have any orders to keep you out of them,” Tess agreed.

The mid-ship airlock was a little cramped for the two of them, but this was a small ship/shuttle after all. Aft were four long but narrow bunks that could fit even the longer taurs. Forward was a hygiene room and tiny kitchen with a replicator next to a lounge or dining area with seating for four. All the way forward was the flight deck with four control consoles.

“So, does this need a crew of four to fly her?” Velasco wondered.

“No,” Tess replied. “Like all Zulus, it can be flown fully autonomously but, with hot bunking, you could comfortably move a dozen people.”

“And uncomfortably?”

“Life support could handle up to thirty Rakshani or taurs for an extended period of time – though they’d have to be very good friends.”

“Over-engineered for survival – it’s one of Neal’s toys alright,” Croix chuckled as she dropped into one of the seats on the flight deck. The standard options came up – as well as a couple of very nonstandard ones. “Wait – this thing has weapons?”

Tess took over the display to better guide them. “As well as having a pair of phasers, this Zulu can carry up to twelve baby Zulus. The advanced babies will also carry a pair of phasers to allow you to put more firepower on a target – or take on multiple targets. Right now, we only have a pair of the new babies for testing after Neal upgrades their cores.”

Velasco snickered. “Could you imagine some poor pirate coming up on one of these things thinking they have an easy kill on their hands?”

“Never a dull moment around here,” Croix agreed.

* * *

“Boss, a call you were hoping to intercept just came through,” Tess warned him as he handed Suzan the hours-old remains of his ‘working lunch’ tray.

“Thank you, Tess. Ah, just who I wanted, just a few minutes early,” Neal said eyeing the data before opening the connection.

“Who are you?” the adult Voxxan female demanded.

“A friend,” Neal replied. “How are the boys doing?”

“No,” she said after staring at him a little longer. “You’re that Captain Foster.”

“Yes, I am, Ms Zette,” Neal admitted.

“I overheard your plotting with that chakat doctor to have me and my boys kidnapped,” she told him.

“If you knew and still went along with it, then it wasn’t a kidnapping,” Neal pointed out, happy that she’d never realized that he had talked to the doctor first and together they had then staged the call she’d heard. “And I kind of thought he needed it just as much if not more than you did,” he added.

“Why couldn’t you have just sent him to me?” she half-demanded.

“Because the needs of the many sometimes outweigh the needs of the few – or the one,” Neal slowly told her. “I desperately needed his ship making those additional stops to help prevent a much bigger problem, and we’d managed to have him home for your first two. We had no warning that you’d have problems birthing the third and almost die in childbirth.”

“So you dragged us all the way to Chakona.”

“Well, the Chakona Gateway Station anyway,” Neal allowed. “I didn’t have any say in where you guys might have gone after that.”

“So why am I talking to you instead of him?”

“Because I’m going to have to shake up his world again – and I would like your help in doing it.”

“You think I would help you mess with him?”

“Do you trust me?” Neal asked with a smile. “Do you trust the type of person that would waste the time and resources you know I had to have wasted getting you to him after your little close call?”

“No.”

“Smart lady. I’m going to mute you. You’ll be able to see and hear what’s going on; you just won’t be able to interfere. Tess, extend to Captain Zette my regards and that I request his presence at his earliest convenience.”

“He says he’s waiting for a ‘call’, Boss,” Tess informed them a minute later.

Smiling at the frowning muzzle on his screen Neal said, “Tell him I suggested he could wait over here for his call.”

“Just give me a minute with him,” she suggested.

“But that would be out of character for the asshole your mate knows me to be,” Neal reminded her with a smile.

“Your friend Scarface and his captain were also coming over to have a chat,” Tess warned him.

“Even better,” Neal said. “Let’s see if we can’t get them all in here together. Who do we have for escort duty?”

“Cindy just got done with her late lunch,” Tess suggested.

“Ask her to bring them to me.”

* * *

Cindy tried to not show too much of her curiosity as she led the mismatched foursome to the small conference room that Neal was currently using. To her, the scarred lab morph they’d seen briefly at Hesperia seemed overly cheerful, and his chakat captain may have been acting a bit cooler and more reserved than shi really was. The male and female Voxxans felt like a father/daughter pair to her and there was a mix of fear, worry and anger in their expressions.

“Captain Willow,” Neal said with a smile as they entered the room, Cindy having stepped to the side after coming in. “I see you’re still dragging Jack around with you.”

“He reminds me of someone,” the brown with a black underbelly chakat replied as shi and the lab moved to sit on Neal’s left – leaving the Voxxans to sit on his right.

“Captain Zette, Ms Zette,” Neal said a little more formally. “I know you’re expecting a call, but I think you’ll find this meeting to be just as important.”

The daughter looked like she didn’t believe it, the father like he was trying not to squirm in his seat.

Frowning slightly at the older Voxxan, Neal said, “Yes, Casey, you are in that seat and in that uniform because you’ve always been a stubborn little shit – and because I just so happen to be an asshole.”

“Why won’t you just leave us alone?” the daughter demanded.

Neal looked thoughtful for a moment before giving her a smile that would have worried those that knew him better. “Of course,” he agreed. “At what point in time do you wish that I had left your father alone?”

“How about from the very beginning?” she hotly retorted.

“Oh, I couldn’t have done that,” Neal told her. “If I could undo that, then you wouldn’t be here to request it of me.”</