"But... but..." a very youthful voice protested.
"No more buts, kid; call back when you’re older," the older voice on the line retorted before disconnecting the call from their end.
Holly reached around to give Quickdash a hug as she said, "Mind over matter. We don’t mind because what they think doesn’t matter."
"But what if none of the tech schools will take us?"
"Then we’ll intern with Arcs and Sparks. Nobody can say they don’t know their stuff."
Screamingwind looked over at them from another console. "If it’s any consolation, they at least let me take the test, but then they said I didn’t have the talent needed to become an engineer …"
"They would have been admitted with no questions asked – if their link to you was known," Tess was pointing out in another room. The Folly – or what was left of her – sat quietly outside an asteroid belt. It had been three weeks ago that a distress call had caused Folly’s captain to rush into the system, only to discover it had been a well-laid trap for him and his ship. The intact forward section of the Folly sat not too far from the mangled remains of her aft section.
"I know, but they need to see that all doors don’t swing open because you know how to do something. Besides, they’re years away from needing to worry about other training."
"By then, they might be as well known as you are."
"Heaven help us then," Neal agreed with a chuckle.
Shadowcrest sat quietly in one of the smaller holosuites, hir breath clouding the chilled air each time shi exhaled. As well as linking dozens of PSI operators together, shi was also holding several doctors together as they performed a very delicate operation on one of their patients. In front of hir were several large mugs of different flavors of energy drinks and a plate of snacks, below hir was something Moonglow had suggested after a session ran overlong and Shadowcrest had almost had a ‘childish accident’, a taur pad with a ‘relief tube’ as Neal had called it.
Shi now yawned and stretched as shi said goodbye to the last of the operators; it had been a busy session, but not overly hard on the still relatively new T5. The pay as a freelancer was nice, and the sessions were still teaching hir new things. Shi still kept in contact with Blackflower, though shi had been moved up to new instructors, and Kirrly dropped in often to lend advice and counseling as there were those that didn’t like the idea of an independent T5 on the loose – no matter how helpful shi was being. Shi got up now and headed for the galley; Suzan would have a big meal waiting for hir and then shi would relax a bit with Windsong and the others before shi slept.
"Shadowcrest!" came a very weak thought. It had sounded like Kirrly, so shi sent a strong link at hym, which hy latched onto to conserve hys own strength. "I’m glad I could reach you."
"From the feel of your link, you should be resting," Shadowcrest semi-sternly told hym.
"Can’t, we – or rather you are needed," hy replied.
"Who – and why the hurry?"
"Star Fleet – and they may have lost a ship. A mother with a very strong bond to hir daughter told Star Fleet hir daughter has just died. As this wasn’t through ‘normal channels’ they tried to contact the ship in question …"
"And failed," shi finished for hym, "But we won’t have anyone to link to if everyone was killed."
"They still want us to try scanning for other members of the crew; family members and friends are being contacted so we can get a ‘feel’ for them."
"That’s not going to be easy."
"No, it’s not. That’s why we need you for this. You’re stronger than most and you’re better at finding links from a first feel than almost anyone I know."
"There was way too much buttering-up in that last part," shi commented.
Shi smiled as shi heard Kirrly snicker down their link. "Maybe a little bit," hy admitted, "But I’m no longer strong enough to do all the work this will entail."
"All right already, how can I help?"
"Others are being brought up to speed as we speak, T3 and T4s will be contacting the families and friends, and then it will be your job to try to reach out and find those links."
"Okay, darn, I’ve just done a shift. Let me grab another snack and we’ll get started."
"No! You will grab a full meal – any less and I won’t let you do the link," hy sternly told hir.
"I’m getting tired of everyone telling me to eat more," shi grumbled as shi headed to the galley to eat.
Shi held a light link to Kirrly as shi ate so that hy could reach hir again without putting a strain on hymself.
"Why isn’t Star Fleet using other methods to reach them?" Shadowcrest wondered as shi tried to feel for presences that may or may not have even been there.
"They are," Tonguetied told hir. She was a Caitian Shadowcrest enjoyed working with for her sharp wit and not always ‘by the book’ attitude. "But Enigma is way the hell and gone out there; I understand it’d take a month to get a ship out there even at high warp. There aren’t any FTL relays out that far, so that adds to the problem of non-Talent type connections."
"But you think I can reach them."
"From what I’ve heard and seen of you, if you can’t nobody else is going to …"
"Ok, I’m not getting anything from the last three – feed me a new set," Shadowcrest requested. As before shi reached out trying to sense those mind images shi had been given, and after a few minutes shi thought shi had something, but they weren’t responding. "I think I’ve got one, but they’re not reacting to my trying to talk to them."
"Let me see what you have," Kirrly asked and shi strengthened their link. Hy probed gently for a moment before saying, "Alive, but drugged, possibly injured. This contact shows you where to reach, hold this link and let’s see if we can find a livelier one to talk to."
They went through a dozen more mind images before shi found another one, alive, aware, and scared mostly out of their wits …
"Hello, can you understand me?" shi carefully asked.
"Air must getting really bad – now I’m hearing things," shi heard the male cat morph thinking.
"No, you’re not hearing things – not yet anyway. This is Chakat Shadowcrest and I’m a T5, Star Fleet asked me to help find out what happened to the exploration ship Enigma."
"If you’re real and not just a hallucination, then tell ’em we’re fucked but good. From what I’ve been hearing, something somehow overloaded the core, it ejected, but not soon enough and not far enough. We’ve already lost half the crew and life support is failing."
"Any chance that your engineers can restore life support?"
"I don’t know if we even have any engineers!"
"My notes say you’re a cook’s second?"
"If you’re good with your hands, I maybe able to get you some help."
"How the hell would you do that?"
"Like this," shi said before increasing hir link and moving his arm and hand to give him a thumb’s up.
"What the hell?" he said in surprise.
Releasing his arm, shi said, "If you allow it, I can link you to an engineer. They will see through your eyes and they can guide your hands to help repair your ship’s systems."
"You can do that?" he asked in amazement.
"Only if you let me, and you will still see and be able to move if you need to."
"If it means getting out of this alive, you can dance me around the bridge nude!"
"It shouldn’t come to that," shi replied with a mental laugh. "Give me a second to find us an engineer to work with." Opening another link, shi said; "Neal? Are you busy?"
"Nothing of importance, were you able to reach that ship?"
"Yes, and they badly need engineers to repair her."
"And how were you planning to accomplish that? It’s not like they’re in transporter range."
Sensing that he was already sitting down, shi linked him to the cook.
"Holy shit!" Neal muttered, staring at the furry arms he seemed to be in control of.
"How do you think I feel?" he felt the cook’s mouth say in reply.
"Robby meet Neal; Neal, Robby," Shadowcrest said. "While Robby knows the ship, he’s no engineer."
"You sneaky little chakitten," Neal said as he and Robby stood up. "See if you can find a couple of taurs for the terror twins to play with while Robby and I see what we have to work with."
"Terror twins?" Robby asked as they headed down a corridor towards engineering.
"A name they were given by Pegasus’s engineers for being able to outsmart them a couple times," Neal told him. "They can do fine detail and down-and-dirty; the down-and-dirty is what I think we’ll be needing here."
Turning a corner, they were almost knocked over by a chakat heading the other way. Before shi could swing around them, Neal reached out and grabbed hir arm. "Link," he thought at Shadowcrest – feeling hir nod, he released hir arm and continued on their way.
"What the hell?" the chakat said in surprise as shi felt a new presence.
"Shadowcrest, PSI services," Shadowcrest told hir, feeling that identifying the group shi was working for might speed things up. "We’re trying to get some help out to you, but you might find the aid a little unorthodox."
It turned out that Shadowcrest had scored big time with hir latest link. Chakat Timberline was in security and knew most everyone on board the Enigma. Using hir mind impressions Shadowcrest was quickly able to begin linking the rest of the crew. While shi held just a light link to most of them, shi singled out several for special attention.
"Who are you?" Birdsong asked in surprise at the new thoughts she was half hearing.
"Screamingwind," she told the other, older female Caitian. "You volunteered to help with life support and I’m here to help guide you."
"Weird," Birdsong said as she pulled loose a panel. She reached for a burnt relay – only to have her hand jerk away from it on its own.
"Pop the breakers first," Screamingwind told her. "We have other groups working to restore power and I don’t want to find out the hard way that they succeeded."
"Thanks," Birdsong said as she hit the breaker before trying to pull the relay. "Okay, that’s out, now how do we short the pins to bypass it?" she wondered.
"Pins 5 to 9 and 6 to 8," Screamingwind answered.
"And how do you know that?" Birdsong half demanded. She suddenly found herself no longer looking into the life support panel, but through Screamingwind’s eyes. In front of them were several displays showing pictures of her location onboard the Enigma, the panel in front of them, as well as breakdowns of the relay and other components. "Where did you get all of this?" she said in wonder.
"Star Fleet asked us for help, so we asked for all the data they could give us on the Enigma. I understand some captain tried to refuse using security as a reason, but we were able to make them see reason."
"I heard a snicker in there – what did you do to that captain?" Birdsong half demanded.
"The T5 linking us got a grip on said captain and linked them to someone up on your bridge. They’re trapped up there and life support is out – I understand whoever it was demanded that captain remain linked to them – all the way to the end …"
"And share death? No wonder they caved in."
"Well, that and the captain of this ship has other resources, resources we only find out about when the ‘shit is hitting the fan’ as they say on Earth."
"Okay then, does that manual of yours say what we can steal from to make this work?"
Elsewhere, two other chakats had found themselves with very interesting ‘riders’ indeed.
"If we can get this secondary system back online, we can short the relays down the hall to feed the life support systems on the lower three levels."
"Only if we can repair the fuel feeds – whatever blew back into the system did a real number on them," the other pointed out.
"Hey! What are you two doing? You’re not supposed to be in there!" a voice demanded from behind them. They turned to find a harried-looking human staring at them in anger.
"Trying to get some power online before the batteries give out," one told him. "PSI is using several volunteers to remote engineers to you guys."
"And my volunteer knows you," the other stated. "You’re Parker, Engineering Third. So why aren’t you working to restore power and life support?"
"I’ve been trying! There’s too much down, it wasn’t supposed to do all this …"
"What wasn’t suppose to do all this?" one chakat demanded while the other one’s eyes went wide in shook and shi said, "Just what did you do?"
Parker turned to run. The chakats gave chase, but he hadn’t gone far, just to the first escape module in which he slammed the latch and fired away from the crippled ship.
"Shady," one of them said, "tell Dad this wasn’t an accident; this was an act of sabotage."
"He knows now, Quickdash. You and Holly do what you can."
"We’re too few, we need more help," Neal was telling Shadowcrest. "Contact Star Fleet again; we need another couple dozen engineers to even have a chance with this. That is, if you can handle that many more links."
"Calmmeadow is talking to them over the FTL link. We’re getting a lot less help than I would expect for them having a ship out there dying on us."
"Then we take it over their heads. Shadowcrest, I want you to try to contact Goldfur – shi and hir mate are both good engineers – and Sparks on the Pegasus, hell give The Tinker a shout; there’s a whole ship of engineers we can pull from."
"Makers, what a mess," Neal heard a new thought say as he and Robby made a connection to a battery pack that been taken offline by the damaged systems.
"Hello, who might you be?" he asked as the lights brightened slightly, the soot-stained chakat not being one he knew, though through Shadowcrest’s link hir mind felt familiar.
"Goldfur reporting for duty – remote duty anyway."
"There’s plenty of work – power and life support are the main things I’m worried about."
"On it. I just wish Swift had been available," shi said as shi turned to go.
"Who?" Neal asked.
"My twin’s mate, Swiftwalker. Shi’s a teleport," Goldfur explained.
"Range?" he asked.
"Unknown, but shi hasn’t hit hir limits yet."
"Shadowcrest, find hir. Shi’s your priority now."
"Hir ship’s in transit, at warp, so you can’t reach hir," Goldfur warned him.
"But they pop out of warp periodically to take sightings and check their mail," Neal pointed out. "Give Shady hir feel and hir mate’s. And why didn’t you mention a twin when we were on Earth?"
"We have time, unless it’ll distract you too much."
" – gency, emergency, have your ship drop from warp, emergency, emer –" Swiftwalker heard booming in hir head, waking hir from a sound sleep. Turning hir head, shi found Goldendale was also now fully awake. "You heard it too?" shi softly asked.
"Yeah, and while I could tell that wasn’t Goldie, I felt something of hir in the call."
Reaching for the comm, Swiftwalker said, "Bridge, this is Swiftwalker – my mate and I both received an emergency request that the ship be taken out of warp."
"And just how did you receive a message?" the first officer asked curiously.
"A telepath that knows someone that knows us. Considering our location, I’d say they had to bother a T5 to reach us out here."
"Dropping from warp. Please keep us advised."
"Will do, I will let you know what happens" Swiftwalker agreed as the ship dropped from warp and the message resumed. "We hear you," shi thought at the messenger, "What’s the emergency?"
"We have need of your special talents, Shir Swiftwalker. Neal and Goldfur can explain it better than I," Shadowcrest said as shi brought the others into the link.
Seconds later Swiftwalker again touched the comm panel. "I’m needed for a ship rescue. I’ll return when I can."
"Understood, I’ll advise the captain."
Swiftwalker grinned as Goldendale took hir arm and shi ported them away from the ship. They found themselves in a small, cold room with a very large black and gray-striped chakat who appeared to be asleep.
"We’re working hir too hard; I’m hoping you can take some of the load off hir," the human behind them said.
"I think Goldie warned us about you – you’re that Captain Foster," Dale said with a raised eyebrow.
"Guilty as charged, and Goldie’s in the links already. I understand your mate doesn’t have a known distance limit, but does shi have a weight one?"
"Heavier loads tire me faster," Swiftwalker admitted. "What did you want where?"
"Let’s ensure you can reach the ship first. You’ve already demonstrated a strong ‘feel’ of the site is enough to get you there, and we have a problem. The Enigma’s bridge is currently cut off from the rest of the ship, and they won’t last much longer."
"Give me the link," Swiftwalker thought at Shadowcrest as Goldendale took hir hand again. Shi felt the info from Shadowcrest and shi took a deep breath and ported. They found themselves on a smoky bridge, red emergency lights the only illumination. Hir senses helped hir quickly find three of the crew while Goldendale found the fourth. Rather than port back to the Folly with hir load, shi picked a better place shi knew well. Starbase 2’s medical section was more than a little surprised to have hir dropping in with casualties. After warning them that there would be more on the way, shi ported back to Neal and Shadowcrest.
Neal shoved an energy drink into hir hands and offered a second to Goldendale. "While you drink that, walk with me," he suggested before turning to lead them out the door. A short walk and a turbo lift ride brought them to a room holding what looked like a large partly dismantled shuttle, the cockpit and engines were missing, leaving only the core and some parts of the hull. "Think you can ‘port’ that beast?" he asked.
Placing hir hand on it, Swiftwalker concentrated for a moment before saying, "Yeah, it won’t be easy, but I can shift it."
"Let us get you a suit then," Neal replied. "The idea is for it to ‘dock’ with Enigma and then let it act like a station feeding power to the ship."
"I can do that," Swiftwalker said, "I just need to get outside the ship, port here and port back."
Suits were made for both of them and they quickly suited up, Swiftwalker noticing that hirs had a much heavier cooling unit than hir mate’s and had the extra room for hir swollen lower belly. The port back to the bridge was over in a moment, and they vented the foul air so they could open and not blow out the emergency hatch. From the outside they walked the hull to one of the regular docking ports and Swiftwalker ported them back.
"Sorry, love, but I can’t afford your extra mass this time," shi said as shi stepped away from Goldendale before reaching for the power plant.
"It’s hard to let them go it alone," Neal quietly said as the chakat and hir load disappeared.
"I was human, once," Goldendale said.
"So Goldie has told me. How do you like the furry side of things?"
"Wouldn’t trade it, or hir, for the world," shi told him with a grin just before Swiftwalker reappeared, only to collapse in front of them.
"Okay, maybe that was a bit too close to my limit," shi admitted as they rushed to hir.
"Rest for a bit," Neal half ordered hir as Goldendale removed hir helmet and he turned up the cooler on hir suit. "While you do, we’re getting together a few bundles of ‘needed things’ for you to take over."
After his third argument with a Star Fleet supplier, Neal decided it was time to bring out the big guns, so he fired up yet another FTL link. The connection went through smoothly and quickly, as these contacts knew more about him than most.
"He’ll be with you in a minute," Rosepetal was saying as her mate entered the room behind her. The fact that he had just thrown on a robe and not a uniform suggested that their relationship was more than casual.
"I’m here already," Boyce grumbled as he dropped down in the seat Rose had just vacated, "What’s so important that you’re not working on Enigma?" he asked with a half grin.
"It takes over thirty minutes to get a two minute request through Star Fleet’s red tape, and I was hoping you had some magic scissors on you," Neal replied. "Swift managed to ‘port’ a Zulu out to them, so we have power. What we need now are all the bits to get life support back up enough to not kill the crew."
"What’s your assessment of her?" Boyce asked.
"She’s in a world of hurt, and there’s no way Swift can port them a big enough replacement core …"
"But you aren’t suggesting we abandon her?"
"Well," Neal hedged with a slight grin, "Looking at what was left of her engineering section, I thought the cores for six baby Zulus would probably fit and get her to warp …"
"And you think Swift can deliver them for you?" Boyce asked, grinning in spite of himself.
"You outrank anyone else I’ve talked to on this project so far; how badly do you want Enigma back?"
Nodding, Boyce said, "Do it. I’ll rattle their cages to make ready whatever you need."
"Thanks. Back to work then – no rest for the wicked."
"Indeed, how is your T5 holding out?"
"Shi’s claiming shi’s fine, but Tess can see shi’s digging deep into hir reserves to keep all those links going; another excuse for this call was to lighten hir load and give my link on the other end a much needed break."
"I never realized that a T5 could force one being to control another like that," Boyce admitted.
"We’re not using it so much for force as guide," Neal corrected, "Think of you reaching out and guiding someone else’s hand; it’s a lot more personal, but that’s all we’re really doing."
"And you’re sure it was sabotage?"
"No doubt at this point; we found several relays with cut pins so they wouldn’t engage, and a couple others wired to fool the sensors."
"Were they trying to destroy the ship?"
"From what Holly and Quickdash got before he bailed, we think Parker was trying for an incident, but not on this grand of a scale. Your local security is trying to go through his logs and personal effects to see if we can get any more info."
"Keep me informed."
"Can do. Later," Neal said as he dropped the connection.
Turning to his first mate, Boyce asked, "What do you think?"
Rosepetal frowned before saying, "If it was anyone else, I’d be very afraid right now. He was a power in his own right before this and now he has his own T5?"
Boyce frowned as well. "I thought the dispatch on hir said something about shi was attacked?"
"I saw it too; a gestalt on Chakona tried to use force to make hir join them."
"Are you suggesting that would have been better than having hir under Neal’s protection or control?"
"Damn you, husband; you may be right. Better the devil we know as you say."
"The air doesn’t seem as bad," Robby was saying as Neal was joined to him again.
"Good," Neal agreed. "Here’s the current game plan – power and life support everywhere we can get it in the next two hours while our friendly transport gets all those in critical need of aid to Starbase 2, then all teams are going to take a sleep shift."
"I’m good for another shift," Robby protested.
"As am I," Neal agreed, "But we have a single T5 doing all of these links – and shi had put in a full shift before the call for help came in. We either let hir rest soon or shi’ll be of no use to us later."
"I can manage, Father!" Shadowcrest complained across their link.
"Your room’s freezing but you’re still overheating, and you can’t take in calories as fast as you’re burning them," he sternly told hir. "Start dropping any links we don’t really need or you won’t make that two hours," he added a little more gently.
Swiftwalker was back up and porting well before the two hour mark, an additional thirty-eight wounded were ported to Starbase 2 for care and Enigma’s remaining crew were pleasantly surprised when hir last two ports weren’t equipment – but food from Folly’s galley. On one of hir side trips Swiftwalker had also grabbed Garrek and Goldfur; all were now more than ready for a break.
Shadowcrest and Swiftwalker were a little bemused at how Suzan fussed about their eating habits, as she tried to get them to eat more than they really wanted – not that the others were being helpful.
"Another bowl of your excellent clam chowder if you please, and two more for Swift, I think shi needs it more than I do," Goldfur joked.
"Stop trying to put food in my mouth!" Swiftwalker good-naturedly griped, "I’m feeling stuffed already."
"What happens if they need help while Shady’s offline?" Garrek asked.
"They have another T5 watching them for now," Neal told them. "A rather prickly skunktaur named Loran. Hy didn’t see why hy should have to be bothered with something they had ‘assigned’ to that new ‘still wet behind the ears’ T5 … I heard Calmmeadow wasn’t very calm at all when shi laid into hym."
Shadowcrest snickered, "Hy linked to me going, ‘So what’s the big deal that I should have to help you?’ – so I showed hym all the links I was holding, including the remote sessions and rubbed hys nose in the fact that I’d been holding them for over eighteen hours. It was hard to tell through hys link, but I think I actually made hym shit hymself!" Shi waited for the others to stop laughing before adding, "After that, hy was more than happy to just hold a few easy contact links open while I recharge."
"Well, get some rest," Neal advised hir, "Even with Swift helping us, we have a few busy weeks ahead of us."
"I’m surprised Star Fleet didn’t just pull the crew off and leave it behind," Goldfur commented.
"I kind of suggested we could get her moving again," Neal admitted.
"How?" shi demanded with a laugh, "You can’t even get this beast moving!"
"Enigma is much smaller than my Folly; I was thinking of about six cores from my baby Zulus …"
Garrek frowned as he said, "If I remember their specs correctly, that might be just enough power to get them to warp, but not at a very high warp speed-wise."
"Better than impulse all the way home," his mate pointed out.
"True," he agreed, "But can Swift handle it?"
Neal nodded, "Shi took a gutted full Zulu over there for your external power source, the babies are much smaller and can be done in pieces if needed. Once we have one or two of them supplying ship power, we may be able to also add that Zulu core currently in use."
Swift snorted, "That big one was right at my limit, anything smaller I should be able to handle with only a little strain."
"Less than half that size," Neal promised, "And it’ll take time to get each connected, so you won’t be doing them all one shift."
"Okay," Goldendale said, "What I want to know is how a civilian ended up in charge of a Star Fleet rescue and recovery. Goldie and Garrek have told us you know more engineering than they do, but that’s not enough to explain all this."
Neal grinned as he said, "I seem to have fallen into it. They needed someone that could mentally reach the ship, and someone over in the PSI group suggested Shadowcrest. When shi finally got someone, a cook as it happens, he admitted that he wasn’t sure if they even had any live engineers, so Shadowcrest linked us so I could look things over. Star Fleet just hasn’t got around to saying, ‘Okay, thank you for the assistance, Mister Foster, we’ll take it from here,’ yet."
"They’re not going to either," Swiftwalker informed them with a grin.
"Oh?" Neal asked in surprise, "And why won’t they be?"
"I heard a piece of a call between Starbase 2’s medical department and someone further up the food chain. Captain Foster and those under his command are in charge of the rescue and salvage until further notice, all requests made by Captain Foster or those under his command are to be expedited. One of the doctors said something I didn’t hear and hy was told to take it up with Admiral Kline," shi finished with a grin. Looking over at Neal shi added, "I understand you’re paying us, and Star Fleet then has to pay you."
Neal let out a bark of a laugh. "Hell, you and Shady will be the top paid consultants on this little job, the rest of us are merely engineers …"
"Swift is doing all the heavy lifting," Shadowcrest pointed out.
"Ah, but you are the link," Swiftwalker countered, "Without you giving me a good ‘feel’ of Enigma, there’s no way I could have found her.
"Enough you two," Goldie laughed. "I’m sure Neal and Star Fleet know just how important you both are to this mission."
"And now that they’ve been properly stuffed, that big bad ol’ Neal is going to send them both off to bed!" Neal told them.
Swiftwalker raised an eyebrow at him as shi said, "You may be Shady’s father, but you can’t really tell me what to do."
Neal’s grin turned evil. "Sure I can. As your boss I can tell you to do lots of things – but in this case I won’t have to," as he looked to hir right.
Looking to hir right, shi found Goldendale giving hir that look. "Yes, sir! Going to bed now, sir," shi semi-meekly replied.
As no one had any energy left, most retired to one of the common sleeping rooms with the entire floor being one big low bed. They were awakened by cubs, some trying to cuddle without waking them, and by one that was trying hir ‘milk check’ on each of the newcomers …
"Good grief! At least let me get up first," Goldendale grumbled when shi awoke to the hungry kitten working diligently on a nipple.
"Ha! This will be the norm for us soon enough," Swiftwalker laughed as shi rubbed hir swollen lower belly.
"I really shouldn’t have let you port that Zulu yesterday," Neal admitted, "But it was that or have you port every single one of the crew off of Enigma. We got lucky, but we’re not counting on just luck from here on out – you will not overstress yourself."
"I don’t like ultimatums," shi told him.
"And I don’t like giving them," Neal admitted, "But I don’t want you losing that cub because you thought you had to push yourself."
Goldendale nodded, "He’s forcing you to not risk our cub, and I’m forced to agree with him on this."
Swiftwalker glared between them for a moment before sagging a little. "Okay, I promise to be good," shi agreed.
"Excellent!" Suzan said, "And part of that being good means you’re going to eat right!"
The others laughed at Swiftwalker’s groan, but it was indeed time to eat and get back to work.
Rather than load Shadowcrest with ‘remote’ workers again, Neal asked Swiftwalker to port himself and the other engineers over to the Enigma.
"With the families offloaded, we can close off the lower two decks," Robby suggested when they took a meal break. Most of the ‘remotes’ from the day before were now willing helpers of the engineers they’d been helping.
"No," Neal said, "I want them as a buffer in case we lose life support in some other areas of the ship."
"Is that why you have us adding batteries to most of the storage points?" Goldfur asked.
"That’s it," he agreed, "If there is another problem, I want us to have days – not just hours to find a way to put things back together again."
"Are you saying you don’t think this will work?" wondered Chakat Bluemist. Shi had been amazed the day before to have an eight year old telling hir what to do, but that day of working with Quickdash had taught hir not to judge books by their covers.
"I’m sure that it will work," Neal insisted, "But this will be a one-of-a-kind rig, and there may be some teething issues."
"Relax, Blue," hir mate Tupperwind chuckled, "Holly and Quick seem rather sure they can make it work – even without Captain Foster’s help."
"They are getting pretty good," Neal allowed.
"Pretty good – or pretty cocky?" Garrek asked with a grin.
"You tell me," Neal countered with a smile.
"A bit of both, I think," Garrek finally admitted, "They sure seem to jump to the right ideas pretty fast."
"We’ve been cheating," Holly told them with a grin. "Quick can link us even without Shady’s help, so Neal’s aware of what we’re up to and can throw in his suggestions."
Bluemist let out a laugh as shi said, "That’s what was going on earlier! You had linked us so we could better help you."
"Well, we knew your minds so well from yesterday …" Quickdash said.
Reaching over to give Quickdash a hug, Bluemist said, "Oh, we don’t mind; it just feels strange to know what you needed without knowing how we knew it."
"Finish eating – there’s still work to be done," Neal told them.
"Yes, O’ mighty slave driver," Holly quipped at him with a laugh.
Neal raised an eyebrow at her. "Slave driver? Am I pushing you two too hard?" he asked – a little too gently the others thought.
"Let’s see," Quickdash said as shi acted like shi was pondering something, "Getting to help do a neat repair on a ship – or stay ‘home’ doing our schoolwork and chores …"
"We’ll take the – SHIP!" they both cried out grinning at Neal.
"Let me know when it becomes a chore," Neal said as he got up, Robby quickly following.
"That was stupid," Screamingwind commented once they were out of earshot.
"Just testing the waters," Holly told her, "We sometimes have to push him to make him see that we want to do this, and that he’s not pushing us too hard or too far."
"I was afraid you might have pushed him too far this time," Screamingwind admitted.
"Quick was sending him us laughing at the idea; he knows we were just teasing."
"I was wondering at two eight year-olds guiding us through rewiring that breaker panel," Bluemist said with a frown. The only issues had been a couple of pinched fingers, as the youths were more used to working with their smaller hands.
"Wait until you see us mixing antimatter and blending the power from seven cores," Quick told hir with a grin. "As the ‘old man’ said, back to work!"
The next meal, Chakat Timberline joined them with more news.
"I managed to get into Parker’s personal notes and logs. From them and talking to Star Fleet through your Shadowcrest, we think we know most of what happened. Parker was a rather poor engineer and had several marks against him when a ‘friend’ suggested he stage an incident and then be the only one who knew how to fix it – thus making him the hero for the day."
"Which didn’t go as planned," Quickdash commented.
"No, but we were actually lucky it didn’t," Timberline said. "What Parker thought was supposed to happen wasn’t all his ‘friend’ had actually planned. Since Parker wanted to play the hero, it was to happen when he was off-shift during the night, but as he had just been changed to night shift, he set it to go off during our day shift. From what Parker was told by his ‘friend’, Enigma would lose main power and be unable to restore it – until he bypassed three relays." Looking around at each of them, shi added, "Someone in engineering must have realized they couldn’t shut the core down fast enough and jettisoned it, but even then they were almost too late. Had this happened on the night shift as originally planned, there wouldn’t have been anything for you to find."
"Have we found Parker?" Neal asked.
"No, and your T5 won’t be able to," Timberline told him, "While I’m no engineer, I do know our escape pods pretty well. What his ‘friend’ told Parker to do to hide from Star Fleet ensured that he’d kill himself fairly quickly."
"Some ‘friend’," Neal agreed. "I need everything they told Parker to do; there may yet be a few traps we haven’t tripped."
"Of course, Captain Foster. I’ve been ordered to give you full cooperation in this manner."
"Oh? Was there any question of that?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Only that this is a long range research vessel, and a lot of her is classified."
Holly snickered, "I wonder how much of it is classified to keep him from finding out that Star Fleet is stealing some of his better ideas?"
"Fair is fair," Neal told her, "I stole most of those ideas and blended them to make my own tricks."
As most of Parker’s ‘modifications’ had been to the engineering systems, it only took the repair teams a couple of days to get the main hull back up to livable standards. The warp engines themselves bore only a bit of scoring from the core’s blast, but main engineering was a mass of blown panels and fried circuits. Goldfur and Garrek had looked a little worried when they heard Neal mutter ‘to hell with this’, but Quickdash and Holly were quick to reassure them this only meant ‘the book’ had just been thrown out the airlock – not the chance of repairing the ship.
First came gutting what was left of engineering, little of the remaining equipment was worth salvaging and Neal just had it pushed out the same hole the core had used. A replacement hatch was ported over by Swiftwalker and tacked in place before the first of the baby cores were brought over.
"Okay, explain this," Goldfur said with a frown as shi eyed Neal’s unexpected power distribution plans.
"Which part don’t you get?" Holly asked with a grin.
"Two of the mini cores dividing their power between ship power and warp I understand, but there’s a seventh feed here – but only room for the six in the ring!"
"You forgot the Zulu core hooked to the hull. Neal said we’ll park it in the middle of this mess once the minis are feeding Enigma power."
"Ouch, you’re right. Dare I ask what other surprises he has in store for us?"
"Well, the layout’s going to be more civilian than military, but that’s because of what we have to work with."
"And Neal’s more familiar with them, understood; but what’s with the processor core he had Swift bring over? It’s big enough to run the whole ship!"
"It probably could run the ship, but it’s just for managing all this power. You see, it’s a custom AI Neal and Tess came up with for managing multiple cores …"
"Ha!" Goldfur barked out, "I was wondering how anyone could control six or seven cores, never mind dissimilar ones!"
"We cheat," Quickdash called out from where shi was working. "Depending on the loading, all running to get her to warp, then dial a couple back to hold steady. Heh, at this rate, Neal won’t have any secrets left to hide."
"Oh, I’ve still got one or two tricks up my sleeves," Neal said as he and Robby came in, the cook having found working in engineering to be quite ‘interesting’.
"Any word from Star Fleet about the engineers that will be taking over for us?" Goldfur wondered.
"They’re hemming and moaning about me making them work on stuff that’s not ‘by the book’," Neal admitted. "Of course they moaned all the louder when I asked what they would have done – working within the limits we have to work under."
"You mean within Swift’s limits," Garrek said as he finished sealing a connection. "I for one can’t wait to see this monstrosity in action."
"You can if you like – I’ll need to be here for her first couple of warp trials," Neal told him.
"I thought your AI would be doing all the work?" Goldfur said.
"It will, but it works better if I tweak it in just a little."
"He’s right," Holly said. "The AI on its own might start out at eighty percent and get us up to ninety five after a run, but with Neal working his kind of magic we can start at ninety and be at ninety nine after just the first run."
Neal shrugged. "When you’ve been doing it for years, you start to see patterns in the different flow rates and learn how to work with rather than against them."
"If you don’t mind my asking a question?" Robby said looking over at Neal.
"Go for it," Neal agreed, "The worst I will do is say ‘none of your damn business’."
"Well, I can’t get your level – it’s like one minute you’re a bigwig, then next you’re just one of us grunts making things work."
"That’s because he is both," Goldfur told him with a grin.
Neal shrugged, "I’m too independent to put up with the control most bosses would try to use on me, so I had to become my own boss. But I still prefer working and tech’ing things to ‘bossing’ …"
"He would drive Star Fleet or the Corps crazy in short order," Goldfur agreed. "Too much talent and not enough caring what those above him might think."
"Boyce didn’t seem too displeased with me," Neal pointed out.
Goldfur snorted out a half laugh. "One: you’re not in his chain of command, so he’s not having to explain your actions – just your results. Two: he’s an engineer too, which means he knows how difficult the task you accepted really is. Three: he likes you, I think you might be what he pictured himself as if he couldn’t be in Star Fleet …"
"What – a stranded freighter captain?" Neal asked.
"No, you goof! As a go anywhere and do anything engineer – that just happens to play at being a freighter captain!" shi laughed at him.
"Ah, well, if he ever gets tired of playing in Star Fleet, maybe I can offer him a job," Neal joked as he started a self-test on the console he’d been setting up.
"Do you think you two could really get along?" Garrek asked.
"Only at a distance," Neal admitted, "You don’t want to be around two old engineers nit-picking some minor detail into tiny bits."
"I shudder at the thought," Goldfur snickered.
Neal was still working the idea over, "It would have to be his own command of course; no way he’d let me tie him to a desk. Heh, between family and friends, he’d have a full crew before I could even sign him on …"
"Enigma to Neal," Holly said trying to sound stern, "We have other pressing matters at hand."
"Behave yourself," Neal told her, "Or I’ll make it your night to force food on our ‘Talents’."
"She’d barely be a snack between them," Garrek laughed.
"Ha," Quickdash laughed, "Maybe we could get Stew to make a taur-sized cake for them to pig out on."
Neal waited until all six of the baby cores were installed and fully connected before bringing up the first one. Once it was up and running to his satisfaction, he showed his engineers why he had interconnected them the way he had by quickly hot-starting the other five off the first. Happy with the pretests, he idled down all but the two for main ship power and it was time for a little EVA action as they disconnected the core running outside the hull and brought it in.
Adding a core to an already running system was a little tricky, but the job went smoothly with force fields ensuring gasses and other objects didn’t end up where they could cause problems.
As the engineers were finishing up in engineering, Swiftwalker had been bringing over Enigma’s new crew. Several of them had reservations about being in a craft with such a troubled past, and this included her new captain …
"This – this – monstrosity isn’t up to Star Fleet standards!" the small Caitian complained. Captain Airburst, as her name translated, was not at all impressed with what Neal had done to the engineering areas throughout the ship.
"Sorry about that," Neal said with no sorrow at all in his voice or manner. "It’s either this, or wait at least three months for Star Fleet to get you parts way out here, or close to five months for a big enough tug to drag you home – your choice, Captain."
Airburst just glared at him in return. "No one would risk their lives on this deathtrap!" she snapped at him.
"I would," he calmly replied. "I’ve done this before on a slightly grander scale for my own ship."
"Which I’ve heard is too badly damaged for even you to repair!"
"That’s not the fault of either the ship or the tech," he pointed out.
"I refuse to be put in command of this pile of junk. Return me at once!" she demanded.
"It may take a minute or two to arrange transportation," Neal told her while thinking at Shadowcrest, "I want to dump this piece of work on Boyce, warn him and Swift, we won’t go until he’s ready for us."
"Can do, Father. I’ll give you a head’s up just before Swift strikes."
"And there’s nothing I can say or do to get you to change your mind?" Neal was asking as he felt Shadowcrest’s warning.
"NO! Just get me the hell off this ship!" she screamed at him, not realizing they had already been ported to Boyce’s day room.
"As good as done," Neal said as Airburst looked around in shock. "As you heard, Admiral Kline, this officer doesn’t wish to command the Enigma."
"So I did, Captain Foster. Commander Silpurr, please find a room for our guest if you will?"
"At once, sir. This way please, Captain," she said as she headed for the door.
Rosepetal waited until they were in the corridor to say, "What did you find so disquieting on that ship that you turned down the command?"
"It’s a wreck and should have been scuttled," Airburst growled.
"Heads over ours seem to think differently," Rosepetal pointed out as they reached a door and she waved the captain in.
"That doesn’t mean they’re right," Airburst muttered. "What about my luggage? It is still on that damn ship."
"I’ll ask," Rosepetal said as she turned to go.
When she got back to the captain’s dayroom, Rosepetal saw Neal hide a grin and Boyce was trying to look innocent – which meant the boys had been plotting behind her back. She gave Neal ‘the glare’, which didn’t seem to work on him anywhere near as well as it did on her mate and commander. "Well?" she demanded, "What have you been plotting, Neal?"
"You’re a clever little first officer – you tell me why I didn’t just dump her on Star Fleet and ask for one with more brains?"
"Because you don’t trust them to not do it again."
"But you do trust Boyce."
"And you, Rosepetal. We may not always see eye to eye, but you have never given me reason to doubt your motives or dedication to Star Fleet," Neal told her. "Now tell me what I expect you to do next."
"You expect me to find you a replacement captain for the dud Star Fleet provided. I have none, though, to offer."
Neal grinned again. "You said ‘no’ way too fast. Surely on a ship this size you have someone capable of a task as easy as bringing the Enigma home?" As she continued to stare at him, Neal added, "Perhaps someone you might feel is ready for that big step, but they’re too far out of the zone to normally be considered?"
Rosepetal had gone from glaring at Neal to looking thoughtful when Boyce added, "Someone in-house, I want this to be a done deal before whoever sent us Airburst tries again."
"Lieutenant Ruth Porter," Rosepetal finally said. "She has all the requirements but has never commanded a vessel before."
"And you think we can throw her in the deep end, and not only will she swim, she’ll go the distance?" Neal asked with an evil smile.
Rosepetal huffed, "So long as you don’t scare her off. By the way, she’s a human."
Neal just grinned back at her – she’d need to try harder to get a rise out of him. "Ask her to pack her bags, and I’ll let you and Boyce give her her walking papers."
The petite brunette that was ushered into Boyce’s dayroom would be the last one you’d pick for a boarding action, but she didn’t let the company distress her as she listened to Rosepetal’s very brief briefing before saying, "This all sounds very remarkable, but why me?"
"Because you’re the best we can offer on such short notice," Boyce told her, "Not that we don’t think you can handle it; we just need you to bring the Enigma home."
"I can do that, sir."
"Excellent; I understand Captain Foster is about ready to warp test your new command," Boyce told her.
"And our ride is here," Neal said from behind her as Swiftwalker appeared – and then the three of them disappeared.
"I’ll never get used to hir doing that," Rosepetal murmured as she slipped over to give her mate a hug now that all their visitors were finally gone.
"Who, Swiftwalker? Or Shadowcrest’s instant messaging service?" Boyce chuckled, "Between the two of them, no place is safe."
Lieutenant Ruth Porter found herself suddenly transported to a small office ‘elsewhere’.
"What just happened?" she didn’t quite demand. The rumor mill had been busy with wild stories, but none of them had mentioned instant transport out to the crippled ship.
"Hmmm?" Neal asked as he moved her bags to one side, "Oh that? We managed to beg the services of a Teleporter to aid with getting parts and people out here. As shi has hir regular job to do too, we try not to tax hir abilities or time any more than we have to."
The bridge still bore signs of the damage it had received, but most of the damaged consoles had been repaired or replaced – though some of the replacements had never been seen on a Star Fleet bridge before.
"I see you even replaced the FTL comm system," Ruth commented, as she looked the new installation over. While the controls were rearranged a bit from the Star Fleet norm, she didn’t think they’d have any problem using it.
"I offered and Boyce agreed that you having FTL communications back up was a priority. This is similar to the ones I use."
"Too bad we’ll have to be most of the way home before we can make use of it," she said almost wistfully.
Neal chuckled, "A little sooner than that, as this unit can hit a couple private relays that Star Fleet doesn’t have the codes for."
Ruth raised an eyebrow at her comm tech, who shrugged back at her. "I don’t know, sir, but until we’re in range of something, we won’t know what it can or can’t do."
"And on that note," Neal said with a grin, "Let’s go take a gander at your new engineering section."
"Is this why that other captain refused to command this ship?" she asked as the translift took them down.
"Heh, she never got this far. I only know she was whining from the moment Swift dropped her off," Neal told her. "If I was a betting man, I’d bet she didn’t want the job before she ever stepped aboard."
"So, where do I stand with you?"
"You’re asking questions to better know your new command, and you haven’t run towards an exit screaming yet. That puts you as a ‘possible’ in my book."
"Do people often run away screaming when you’re around?" she asked, as the doors opened to engineering.
"You tell me," Neal said with a grin as Ruth’s jaw dropped at the sight. Instead of a single large core in the center of the room, there sat a much smaller core, with a ring of even smaller ones around it. Conduit, pipes and wires seem to be running every which way, but that wasn’t what stopped the Lieutenant dead – that was reserved for some of those working on it. The Caitian looked young for the job, but the chakat and foxtaur youths couldn’t possibly old enough to be doing what it looked like they were doing.
"Kids, you’re scaring the new captain …" Neal commented from beside her.
"Sorry, Dad – one of the force field flow controls wasn’t responding properly – but we got it going!" Holly cheerfully told them.
"Hmmm, okay. Any other issues I or the captain need to be made aware of?"
"Nope! We held off trying the engines until we were sure Swift was done porting things and people over here."
"Check through Shady, but I think we should be done with Swift for the next few hours," Neal suggested.
"Swift is done with you guys for now, and I have advised hir not to try porting out there until you give the all clear," Shadowcrest informed him.
"Thanks, Shady," Neal said and thought. "It’s time to light the fuse and see what our latest roman candle can really do," he added with a grin. "Captain, you may view the proceedings from here or on the bridge."
Knowing that if it all went wrong that being on the bridge wouldn’t be enough to save her, Ruth said, "From here, if my keeping my eye on you doesn’t disturb you, Captain Foster?"
"Not at all," Neal said with a smile before he tapped a button on the intercom. "All hands, this is your chief engineer. We will be conducting warp engine testing before we actually try getting this lady to warp. At this time switch all primary systems to battery backup – take all non-essential equipment offline."
"Light up the ring," he told the others. "We’ll hold off the center until we’re actually taking her to warp."
"Aye, Boss," was heard around the room as the six smaller cores were brought up to full power and Neal redirected that power to the engines.
"Ninety five across the board!" Quickdash sang out.
"Warp bubble formed within parameters, holding steady," Holly stated.
"Navigation has us pointed away from any large masses and in the general direction of Starbase 3," Screamingwind added. "High sublight and warp speed at your discretion."
Neal did something at his console and they all felt the shudder as the warp systems kicked in for just a moment.
"Now at thirty four percent light speed, all stable," Screamingwind reported.
"Kick was smooth, no problems with the bubble," Holly agreed.
"We should be able to make and hold low warp speeds with just the six, better with lucky seven added," Quickdash suggested.
"Bring up seven," Neal told hir. "It never hurts to have a little power in reserve."
"Seven is up, at ninety five with the others."
"All hands," Neal said again, "Warp in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …"
The shudder was harder this time and held as Ruth watched Neal made adjustments that smoothed the shaking to almost nothing. After almost two minutes of tweaking, Neal said, "Sound off."
"We are at warp five, holding steady, still thirty seven percent reserve power at current settings," Ruth heard from the Caitian teen.
"Bubble’s smooth," the foxtaur youth reported next, "We can still kick her up another notch or three."
"Power’s stable; like Holly said, do we take her up?" the chakat youth asked.
"We’ll let this ride for two hours – less if something starts to come unglued," Neal told them. "Steady as she goes."
"Aye, sir, steady as she goes. Permission to restore core power to the rest of the ship?" Quickdash requested.
"Permission granted." Neal said as he turned to look over at Ruth. "See? Nothing to it – just some boring engineering stuff."
"Liar," she muttered. "There’s nothing boring about getting a new setup to warp the very first time – especially one you can’t eject if something goes wrong …"
"Ahh, that just makes it more challenging," Neal said with a grin. "So, what do you think of my engineers?"
Ruth frowned as she said, "Why do I have a funny feeling I’m going to wish I could have kept them rather than the ones Star Fleet is sending me?"
"Well, they do know the systems better; but I think we can come up with a study guide for their replacements," Neal chuckled.
"Why just a two hour test?" she asked.
"Longer than that and the folks we left at home will start to worry," Neal said. "Shady knows we got cut off by the warp bubble, but are we in warp – or did I miss something and there’s nothing left for hir to feel?"
Ruth nodded, "I can understand that, and I’d guess they’ll then let Star Fleet know of our progress?"
"Of course, Star Fleet in general, Boyce in particular," Neal agreed.
"I will confess I was thinking we’d barely be getting to warp and doing a slow crawl home," she said as she watched the kids exchange data and chatter. She didn’t miss that Neal’s boards echoed what they were talking about, and that he was watching it closely even as he chatted with her.
"Oh, I couldn’t do that," Neal laughed. "You see, I have a bit of a reputation for doing the impossible, and just getting you to warp would have been considered too easy by some." Looking over to where an adult chakat and a foxtaur tod sat watching another console, he said, "Have I managed to impress – or just bore – you two?"
"You could be holding this speed with just the ring," Garrek pointed out.
"True, but I like having a little extra insurance when lives are on the line," Neal agreed.
"How much higher do you think you can get?" Goldfur asked.
"Peak? A bit better than eight I think, though I wouldn’t want to hold it there for an extended period. We might be able to give her six or seven for a cruise speed. First we finish this two hour block, phone home and make sure nothing’s shaken loose, then we’ll do a speed run."
"Bet we touch nine," Ruth heard the chakat youth saying as she turned to head for the bridge. She wasn’t sure which adult voice had replied ‘No bet!’ as the doors slid shut behind her.
"They did it," Rosepetal said as Boyce and Midnight joined her for breakfast. M’Lai had spent a late night in medical and was sleeping in.
"How badly did they do it?" Boyce wanted to know with a grin.
"They managed nine point three for an hour, and Neal approved a cruise speed of seven point five."
Boyce let out a whistle. "What did our new captain have to say?"
"Lieutenant Porter seems to be taking it in stride," Rosepetal admitted. "She seems satisfied with the ship and current crew – but she did hope the engineers we send her are ‘adaptable’."
"As in not easily frightened by things they don’t quite understand?" Midnight chuckled. "Good luck with that!"
"Maybe you should port over there with them, husband," Rosepetal suggested. "It might ease their minds – and I know you’re just dying to see what Neal came up with!" She then laughed at his expression.
As with finding a substitute captain, Boyce decided to see which engineers from Pegasus could be used to fill the bill before asking Star Fleet. Sadly he had to shoot down Chakat Sparks; he wasn’t going to try to manage without his chief engineer! He was pleased to find that there were adequate volunteers – but there was an additional volunteer he hadn’t counted on …
"Can we help you, Captain Airburst?" Chakat Sparks asked when the Caitian walked into the conference room they had been using for the final briefing for those to be stationed on the Enigma for her journey home.
"I understand that these are the crewmembers that will be departing for Enigma?" At Sparks’ nod she said, "Then I will give them a quick rundown of what I expect before we are ported over."
"I’m sorry, Captain, but I wasn’t aware that you were being sent," Sparks said as shi tapped a quick query into the display before hir. Looking at the results, shi again looked up at Airburst before saying, "I’m sorry, Captain, but you are not on the list."
"Then put me on the list. That’s an order, Commander!" she snapped when the chakat just stared at her.
"You will have to take that up with Admiral Kline," shi calmly told the fuming Caitian. "I take my orders from him, not from someone that now wants a command she rejected, Captain."
"I’ll have you on report for that crack!"
"You can try. This meeting is being recorded, and we’ve all heard about you shouting your way off Enigma the first time you saw her."
Airburst glared around the room, but those that returned her stare seemed to think something was funny. She stormed out of the room, almost bashing her muzzle into the door when it didn’t open fast enough for her.
Sparks frowned as shi tapped hir display. "Bridge, this is Sparks. Warn Admiral Kline that that captain from Star Fleet just tried to add herself to those going over to the Enigma."
"Silpurr copies, I’ll warn him," came the prompt reply. "Continue your meeting as briefed; she will not be bothering you again," the commander added.
"That’s a relief," one of the engineers grumbled, while others nodded.
"Oh, I suspect Lieutenant Porter will have plenty of work to keep you guys busy," Sparks told them all with a grin, "but I agree, she’ll be a lot easier to work with than that bit of noise that just left!"
Captain Airburst was halfway to the bridge when she suddenly realized she had an escort. She spun around to discover Chakat Midnight to one side and behind her, and a heavyset Rakshani to the other. "What is the meaning of this?" she demanded.
"Commander Silpurr requested that we ensure you find your way to Admiral Kline – without disrupting any additional meetings," Midnight informed her with a look of mild annoyance usually reserved for poorly behaving cubs.
Admiral Kline bore a similar expression when she was marched into his dayroom. "I understand you were interfering with a meeting," he stated.
"I have orders from Star Fleet to take command of Enigma," Captain Airburst told him as Midnight and the Rakshani took up stations just inside the door.
"Which you rejected in this very office, Captain. Why are you now so desperate to get back to her?" he asked.
"She was to keep Enigma from ever returning," Rosepetal guessed from where she stood next to Boyce. "She thought Captain Foster’s mad scheme to get her to warp would blow up in his face and save her the trouble, but Captain Foster seems to enjoy such minor challenges."
Airburst said nothing as she glared at both of them.
From the door Midnight said, "Perhaps we should ask security on Enigma to go though that luggage she’s been so desperate to get back, she may have hidden a copy of her real orders in them."
"How about it, Captain? Want to tell us what’s really going on?" Boyce asked.
"My orders are not for you to question, Admiral."
"I disagree," Boyce said mildly. "So until you satisfy me, you’ll be spending the rest of your stay on board the Pegasus in the brig. Commander?"
"This way, Captain," Midnight told her.
"You won’t get away with this!" she screamed at him as the Rakshani grabbed one arm and the chakat the other.
"Well?" Boyce said once the door closed behind them.
"You guys nailed it," Shadowcrest’s voice told them. "She has – or at least believes she has secret orders that are over your head, Admiral. There is something in her luggage she doesn’t want found; she believes they are the command codes which can purge Enigma’s computer core and force the autodestruct to go off without the proper command codes."
"Anything else?" Rosepetal asked.
"Only that you might keep a suicide watch on her – she’s not there yet, but it was in the back of her mind."
"I’ll advise Midnight," Boyce agreed.
"Already done, as I was using hir as a point of reference to probe your problem Caitian."
"Were you probing the rest of us?" Rosepetal asked with a frown.
"I couldn’t help but get a feel for all of those in the room, but I didn’t try to snoop you guys – I’ve got enough secrets I can’t tell a soul without adding to them!" shi laughed.
"Another fine mess we’ve stumbled into," Rosepetal murmured as she and Boyce relaxed a little before having to go back to their tasks of running a starship. "We’re running into too many plots and too many players, husband. Where will it end?"
"I don’t know," Boyce admitted, "but we seem to have made a few friends to help us combat the foes."
"If the plot’s as big and as deep as Airburst suggested …"
"We’ll find a way to handle it," he assured her. "Tonight you’re mine," he added.
"I thought it was Midnight’s turn?" she said, sounding confused.
"I think you need me holding you more tonight than shi does," he suggested.
"I knew I took you as my mate for a reason."
"You mean it wasn’t because I could make you laugh without touching you or saying a word?"
"A male of many talents, one of which is running this ship."
"We really should make an appearance, deities know what they think we do in here when we’re alone," he said with a grin.
"I’ll advise the cleaning staff to make sure they get any stains off your desk," she said dryly.
He just grinned and straightened his uniform before moving to the door. "After you, Commander," he said as the door slid open.
"Thank you, Captain," she replied, stepping onto the bridge.
"Just what am I looking at?" Lieutenant Porter asked as she looked at the chips and printout Chakat Timberline had brought to her dayroom.
"We have reason to believe they are the means Captain Airburst meant to use to wipe the computer core and/or destroy the ship. We don’t dare test them for fear we might do her work for her."
"Do we need to worry about her trying some other way?"
Timberline grinned. "Kline has ordered you to report directly to him once we’re back in Federation space. Until then, all comm traffic is going through that T5 Shadowcrest that found us, and any packages or crew can only come by way of hir friend Swiftwalker. While security teaches you to never say something can’t be done, this time it would be damn hard for anyone to get to us."
"Admiral Kline seemed mildly impressed with our new engineering section," Ruth admitted.
Timberline laughed at her. "No, Captain, the Admiral was not just impressed with what Foster and his kids did – he had his hands in his pockets to keep himself from touching things!"
"What other ‘feelings’ did you get off them?"
"Kline and Foster are a bit worried about who else is playing in the background and why, so they plan some misdirection to help protect us."
"I heard they’re telling others our max speed is warp four, but anything over three is really pushing our systems. Was there something else I missed?"
"Only that the station they have us aiming for is not Star Fleet – it’s one of Foster’s! And that Star Fleet won’t be told we’re home until Kline’s ready to watch and see who jumps which way."
"We should be able to help them a little bit. I want you to lock out any changes to the memory core, new data is fine, but I don’t want something already in there changed or deleted. Check with the engineers, if their new computer core has the space we can place a secure copy in it as well."
"Do you expect someone will try to hide what we are looking for?"
"Not really, but this way we don’t have to fear losing it due to someone accidentally deleting the wrong file."
"I’ll get on it at once. Anything else, Captain?"
"That. How am I doing as your captain?"
"Not my place to say, Captain."
"Damn you, you know what I mean."
Timberline snickered, "Yeah, I do Ruth. Not a bad first couple of days – though you need to quit trying to be buddy-buddy with the crew – that just won’t do."
Ruth gave hir a slight smile in spite of herself before saying, "Then what should I be doing?"
Timberline gave her back a shrug and a grin, "How should I know? I’m just your security kitty. Look at how other captains work with their crew."
"You’re no help; and I haven’t really seen that many ship captains to judge," Ruth grumbled at the still grinning chakat. "Kline does as he pleases, rank has privileges and all that. I never met that Airburst, but from what you said – and how you said it – I don’t want to be anything like her."
"Just don’t try being like that Foster either!" Timberline laughed.
"Why? Was he hard to get along with?" Ruth asked in surprise, as she had had no problems dealing with the civilian captain.
"Na, he was nice enough, but I don’t think I’d want to serve under him," Timberline explained. "I’m very good at reading people – but him I just couldn’t get a handle on."
"Welcome to the world most of us live in, where we can’t often tell what someone really means by the words they say or how they say them."
"Well, no offence, but you’re easy enough for me to read," Timberline told her.
"None taken. So what is your read on me?"
"That you’re trying your hardest to not look as new at this as you are … and you’re stealing up your nerve to ask if I’d like some company tonight."
"Damn, you are reading me like a book," Ruth muttered.
Timberline grinned. "For the first part – stop trying so hard, we know you’re new and we expect a lot of questions as you learn this ship and your role on her … as to the second, helping a friend in need is never a problem, so – your place or mine?"
Shadowcrest stretched after another long session; due to hir ‘work’ mainly being lying around thinking hard, Moonglow had suggested shi also start exercising more. Shi had taken to doing a few laps in the pool when Tess had shown hir it had yet another little trick. The jets in the pool could be aimed and their thrust could be regulated, turning the main pool into a controlled whirlpool with a slow easy current in the deep end and a rapid current in the shallow end. While several of them now used it for their daily exercise, the cubs loved playing and trying to fight the current or sailing boats in it – when others weren’t swimming in it of course.
After hir swim and a large meal, Shadowcrest finished hir preparations. Shi had already warned PSI that shi would be offline for the foreseeable future and hir families understood what shi was planning. Hir bag zipped shut; shi carried it to hir regular ‘work’ room and waited for hir ride. Swiftwalker popped in and gave hir a hug as shi ported them to hir destination. They found themselves in a clearing at the heart of a very large garden, barely seen because the sun was just starting to light the sky on this part of Cait.
"Thanks," Shadowcrest murmured quietly.
"Any time," Swiftwalker replied as shi ported away. The two had become fast friends after working so closely to recover the Enigma and get her heading home.
Shadowcrest enjoyed the peace of the garden as the sun rose, slowly showing hir still more of the garden, and of the house a little ways off.
Shi gradually became aware of another presence in the garden with hir, and turned to examine hym. Late teens and in male mode, the skunktaur had moved in slowly and shielded hys mind as to not disturb hir. Hy stepped forward now to offer hir a hug which shi gladly returned.
"It is good that you’ve come – hy’s gotten very weak of late," hy quietly told hir.
"I know," shi replied. Their only contact of late had always been established by hir reaching out, and quickly released when shi had felt how tired hy felt to hir.
"Hy sleeps, but I don’t think hy’ll mind you waking hym," hy suggested.
Shadowcrest nodded and allowed hym to lead the way, not that shi needed a guide as shi felt shi already knew the house and gardens intimately.
The room was on the lower level, several taur forms lay sleeping in a pile on the large bed. Shadowcrest gently worked hir way into the pile until shi was wrapped carefully around the one shi had come for. Shi felt the others wake and leave hir; parting thoughts were all thanks that shi had come to them at this time.
"Shady?" whispered the form in hir arms, "Is it really you?"
"In the fur," shi whispered back, "You should have told me sooner."
"Didn’t want to worry you, you had so many other things on your mind …"
"Well, I’m here now, and I’m here for you," shi told hym, but hy seemed to have drifted back to sleep.
Hy woke again an hour later, and shi helped hym through hys morning rituals before carrying hym to breakfast. Hys breakfast was sparse, and hy wanted even less than what was offered. Hirs on the other hand was huge with them trying to ply even more delicious treats on hir. Once they had both eaten more than they really wanted, they were allowed to escape and shi carried hym back out to the gardens. Once there, hy was eager to explain the many different types of plants, who had planted them when and sometimes why. Shi allowed hym to ramble on about hys friends and family, and about the work they did and had done. After a late lunch, they napped away the warmth of the day. They watched the sun set in the same spot of the garden that Swiftwalker had delivered hir that morning, so strong was the meaning of that location to hym. This was where hy’d proposed to hys mates and where several of hys children had been conceived. It wasn’t until the night air grew chilly that shi carried hym back in, hy lightly protesting being brought in so early. Evening rituals done, shi curled up with hym on the big bed, the others cuddling up around them.
Shadowcrest woke to find hym awake and actually feeling hungry for the first time in a long time. Shi smiled slightly as shi shifted a little; without the cubs to help, shi was feeling more than a little ‘full’ in the milk department, and shi gently tilted hys muzzle towards a nipple. Hy seemed surprised at the offering for a moment, but then eagerly latched on and drank of hir milk. Shi panicked for a moment at the thought that hir milk might force hys frail body to go through a change, but another presence assured hir that hy was well past that happening.
Hy woke hir again a few hours later. "Please," shi could barely hear hym think through their close contact, "I want to see the sunrise."
Shi carefully got hym up on hir back and draped a blanket over hym before making hir way out to hys favorite spot, where shi lay down while leaving hym on hir back as protection from the cold ground.
Stray thoughts of many things drifted from hym to hir, slowing as they waited for the sun to rise. The sun was just peeking over the horizon when shi realized that hys thoughts had ceased. While the sun was now shining in hys eyes, hy was no longer there to give notice.
"Thank you," a voice said from the edge of the clearing. "You’ll never know how much your friendship has meant to hym."
"Oh, but I do," Shadowcrest promised hym, "As much as hys has meant to me."
"Would you like me to take hym?"
"No, just show me where to go."
Shi carried hir friend back to the house and into a room shi hadn’t seen before. As shi was directed, shi laid hir friend on the raised platform and then bowed hir head to pay hir final respects. When shi turned to move away to allow the others their turn, shi was surprised to find hirself directed to stand by the head. Word of the death must have gone out quickly as the room soon was full of people, each bowing and sometimes openly crying over the body before giving hir a nod, a handshake, or sometimes a hug. One chakat not only hugged hir, shi tugged hir a little way from the line.
"You doing ok, kid?" shi softly asked.
"Nightwing?" shi said in surprise.
"Damn but Kirrly was proud of you, Shadowcrest; each milestone you crossed, hy would brag as if you were hys daughter."
"I felt it too," Shadowcrest said.
"Hard to ignore that much love in a link," Nightwing said with a grin. "The viewing will be over in a bit and then they’ll cremate hys body and we’ll each say a few words."
Food was provided, and shi knew shi ate, but shi would be hard pressed to remember what. Shi found hirself in the garden again, though this time it seemed overcrowded with all the others there. After a while there were words, words of losses and gains, of love and gratitude, of trials and accomplishments. Finally the words stopped, and shi realized they were waiting for hir words.
"While I met Kirrly only a short time ago, I feel I have known hym forever. Hy was the first to really offer to guide me, not tell me what to do, but show me what I could do to help achieve my full potential. Hy may have left us this morning, but he will be with me always. You may think this sounds strange, but I can hear hym even now, hy wants all of us to stop mourning hys death and start celebrating hys life. Though hys are not the only thoughts I hear, for my adoptive father has also left more of an impression on me than he ever intended. He too would tell us that we are what others have made us – yet only what we have allowed them to. I end this by simply saying this; my name is Chakat Shadowcrest, and I am the proud daughter of Shadowspirit and Goldenmist, Neal and Kirrly."
As the large group broke up, a small group approached Shadowcrest. "You take hys name for your own?" asked a skunktaur, Kirrly’s memories giving hir hys name.
"Yes, Coppereyes," Shadowcrest told Kirrly's grandson. "But only for what hy meant to me – I claim no rights to hys family’s properties."
"Do you claim rights of family?"
"I would be honored, but I will not force myself on your family."
Coppereyes nodded. "It is as Kirrly said of you. Know that you are welcome always."
"Though we do have a favor to ask …"
"Hy wished that hys ashes be dispersed in space, would you do that for us?"
"I would be happy to; did hy say how hy’d prefer it?"
"No, but we will leave it to you to give hym a proper send off."
"I think I know just the place," shi said with a smile.
It was just past midnight ship’s time, and Shadowcrest sat watching the stars from one of the observation ports. Shi was focusing hir attention between a triangle of stars pointed out to hir by Tess after they’d made allowances for the expected speed and spread of the particles.
"There hy is!" Holly exclaimed as a burst of light appeared in the darkness as Kirrly’s remains made contact with one of the clouds of antimatter that hadn’t fully dispersed.
"Goodbye," shi said simply, as shi watched the light flare and wane a few times before going dark once more.
Beside hir sat the urn shi had brought hym over in. It had served Kirrly as a flower vase, one given to hym by a childhood friend. A sound to the side made hir turn, only to find the vase gone – and a small striped tail just disappearing around the door.
"Stormy!" shi called as shi got up to follow. The thoughts from the cub were determined, but they didn’t carry the overtones of a deity guiding the cub.
Firestorm’s destination was on the same level, so there was no need to wait for a lift to slow hir down. The chase ended with hir dashing into one of the hydroponics rooms, this one being where most of the ship’s flowers were grown.
Shadowcrest found the cub deep into the roses, staring back at hir defiantly.
‘Stop mourning hys death and start celebrating hys life’, shi remembered telling hys family and friends – but now here shi was ignoring hir own words …
Lowering hirself to the floor, shi smiled gently at Firestorm as shi said, "Okay, Stormy. Which flowers do you think Kirrly would like to hold for us this week?"
Story by Allen Fesler © 2012 Redbear1158 (at) either gmail or hotmail dot com
Chakats and the chakat universe © Bernard Doove (and Goldfur, Garrek, Goldendale, and Swiftwalker)
Admiral Boyce Garald Kline Jr and some of his family are copyright Boyce Garald Kline Jr.
Skunktaurs are copyright Bob Reijns.
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