Into every busy life some peace must reign, lest one be driven crazy by the demands of said busy life. He had been promised that he would not be needed for the rest of the day – nor tomorrow as well they had claimed. Still, he carried his comm badge in his pocket just in case. As a random diversion, he had decided to board the sightseeing train – Chakat’s Delight – at one of its stops in Amistad. He was currently lounging in one of the clear-topped observation cars, half watching as the scenery sped by.
His idle thoughts were interrupted by a soft metallic thud beside his chair, quickly followed by a whimper from a furry muzzle. Several others had also looked over, only to spy a yellow-striped black chakat cub of four or five years age – shi in turn was staring down at the pile of tiny-multicolored spheres shi had just dropped on the carpeted floor.
"Problems, little one?" he asked before any of the others commented.
"Daddy told me to be careful, but I dropped it," shi whimpered.
"Are those by chance magnets?" he asked, as he had noticed that while now seemingly misshapen, the object the spheres formed had stayed in one piece.
"Uh huh," shi admitted as shi picked it up.
"Then you haven’t really broken anything, have you? Just reorganized them a little," he gently told hir. "Would you like some help giving them a new shape?"
Shi quickly grinned and started to hand him hir mess of magnets – only to pull back with a shameful look on hir muzzle as shi looked at someone behind him. "I’m not supposed to bother others," shi quietly told him.
"Ah – but I am volunteering to be bothered," he replied with a grin. "And it’s been a while since I played with magnets," he admitted. "We’re going to need some room to work, do you see an empty table we can use?"
Shi looked forward first, only to find all those tables occupied. Shi turned and looked to the rear of the car and he saw hir frown before shi said, "There’s one."
He didn’t miss the adult chakat two tables down from the unoccupied one; shi was frowning at him as he and the cub adjusted the table’s chair and pad to the proper levels. Hir table was covered by six data pads as well as numerous printed and hand written notes.
"First things first, little one," he told hir once they were seated well within hearing range of the frowning chakat. "I am Neal, son of Joyce and Edwin. And who do I have the pleasure of playing with?"
"I’m Yellowstreak, daughter of Honeytongue and Sharpeye," shi said, involuntarily looking past his shoulder to the other table as shi said the last.
"Well, Yellowstreak, the first thing we need to do is get that wad of magnets into a shape we can easily work with."
The magnets were of three colors: silver, black, and gold; and he had hir help him separate them into three piles before he showed hir how to roll them into a coil to make them easier to work with. A few snowflakes were made before Neal showed hir how to stack them.
"That’s what Daddy had made!" shi exclaimed happily once it was finished.
"And now you know the secret to making it," Neal pointed out. Eying hir quizzically, he asked, "Was that your tummy I just heard growling?"
"I’m OK," shi said, looking a little downcast.
‘My stomach’s also claiming that it’s time for a snack," he told hir as he reached into a pocket. Handing hir a credit card, he said, "The lower level had a rather cute chakat selling ice cream treats. I would like you to get three banana splits for me."
"Three?" shi asked in confusion.
"I’ll just bet that your father’s been so busy studying that hir belly is over there growling too," he told hir. "Only one banana and three scoops for mine, whatever you want for yours and your sire’s," Neal suggested.
Shi must have gotten a nod from the other table, as Yellowstreak suddenly grinned before darting for the ramp leading down to the lower level.
After waiting a minute Neal got up, leaving his cap and the magnets to mark the table as still ‘in use’. He then took the few steps needed to reach the chakat’s table. "Are you getting any studying done?" he asked the dark maroon chakat.
Sharpeye gave him a lopsided and slightly sheepish grin before saying, "More than I was expecting, thanks for keeping hir busy for me."
"No, thank you for having brought hir up here with you," Neal countered with a grin. "An entire ‘day off’ with zero to do was starting to feel more like a curse than a blessing."
"Too idle for you to handle?" Sharpeye smirked.
"Something like that," Neal admitted.
"Then I’m happy that Yellowstreak was able to help keep you occupied, it would be so terrible if you had to come up with your own entertainment."
"If only you knew," Neal said with a grin.
Sharpeye gave Neal a closer look as that reply had felt like it had more than one meaning. Before shi could ask, hir daughter appeared rushing up the ramp, a small banana split in one hand and a rather oversized one in the other.
Setting the smaller bowl down next to Neal’s cap, shi then carried the much larger bowl over to them.
Neal grinned at Sharpeye’s expression when shi saw the bowl. There were at least six bananas in there, dozens of scoops of ice cream and what looked like more than a few brownies crumbled over the top.
"Daughter, I am not this much of a pig," shi scolded, "or are we ‘sharing’ this?"
Already backing away, hir daughter grinned at hir sire and said, "Nope! You’re in heat and you’re gonna need to eat lots to keep up with Momma tonight! I’m going back to get mine now," shi called back as shi scampered away.
Neal chuckled at Sharpeye’s expression before saying, "I’d assume shi critiques your performances too …"
"Not funny," shi retorted.
"But true?" he half countered.
Giving him a half nod, shi added, "Shi’s been complaining of late that we’re not trying hard enough at giving hir a little sister."
"Then shi has a vested interest in seeing that you keep up your strength," he agreed.
Taking the first bite out of hir oversized snack, Sharpeye said, "Well, thanks for buying us a treat; perhaps we can return the favor and buy you dinner later."
"I had planned to get off in Marpletown to see about a couple of things," Neal admitted. "Thank you for the offer though," he added as he saw Yellowstreak charging back up the ramp with a bowl sized between what shi’d delivered to hir sire and hir new friend.
After their snack, Neal showed hir tricks to get balls and squares out of hir magnets before the train pulled into its scheduled stop at Marpletown.
Neal spent a little time in a communications booth checking on how things were going; day off or not, he liked having an idea of what was going on without him. The booth wasn’t much, a desk and a couple chairs and pads for the users and complete access to communications and public databases.
Leaving the booth, he noted Chakat’s Delight just starting to leave the station when he heard a young but now familiar voice calling out, "NO! It’s too soon! Come back!" Force fields prevented the black and yellow streak running along side one of the moving cars from falling under the train, but shi quickly ran out of station platform to run.
"Yellowstreak!" he called out, only to have hir all but bowl him over in hir haste to reach him.
"It was only gonna take a minute!" shi sobbed on him, holding up a bag from one of the station’s vendors.
"Come on," he told hir as he led hir back to the booth he had just left. Once there, he sat down and held the still-sobbing kitten in one arm while he reactivated the booth with the other. "Comm on," he commanded. "I need a connection to Chakat’s Delight’s purser or chief porter," he told the system.
"They report as being busy," the system replied several minutes later.
"Try again," Neal instructed it, "Include key words Yellowstreak, Honeytongue, Sharpeye, and lost cub."
The delay was longer this time, but he was rewarded with one of the displays lighting up to show a harried looking cat morph in the uniform of one the porters.
"What do you know about a lost cub?" she demanded as two other cat heads appeared over each of her shoulders, one a dark maroon Neal recognized.
"Only that someone misjudged the time shi had to buy a gift at the station," Neal replied, only to be drowned out as both chakats yelled "Yellowstreak!" at their cub.
"I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to," Yellowstreak whimpered, still hiding hir face against Neal’s now quite damp shirt.
"So," Neal said to the three in the monitor, "now that you’ve found hir, what are you going to do about hir?"
"No, we can’t turn around and go back for hir," the porter quickly said at the looks she was getting. "But we can have hir placed on a later train …"
Neal let out a quiet sigh before saying, "Or I could take hir …"
"What makes you think they would –" the porter started, only to be stopped by a hand on her shoulder.
"What are you suggesting?" Sharpeye asked.
"I understand you two both have classes at Dewclaw University tomorrow, correct?" Neal asked. At hir nod he added, "Then getting hir back to you after your classes will actually work out pretty good for you?"
"It would," Sharpeye admitted. "After putting up with hir most of the day, are you volunteering to cub-sit hir for another whole day?" shi asked.
"I’m certain I can at least keep hir occupied," Neal said with a grin. "Which will allow you two to occupy yourselves after dinner tonight without someone supervising," he hinted.
"Sharp, are you sure?" he heard Honeytongue ask hir mate.
"Honey, look at how’s shi’s clinging to him," shi replied. "It’s him, or assign someone we and shi don’t know until we can get back to hir."
"Let me give you my comm number and you can check on hir whenever you like," Neal said as he keyed some data into the console. "Do be warned that this is to a comm badge, so voice only …"
"That’ll do, you be good for Neal, Scamp."
"I will, Dad, I promise," shi replied.
"Scamp?" Neal said as he dropped the link, "Perhaps by the time I give you back to them you’ll have advanced to ‘brat’."
"I thought a brat was bad," Yellowstreak frowned.
"Depends on the brat," Neal laughed. "Come on, time to find a travel plan that will cause us to end up at Berdoovia and Dewclaw University tomorrow afternoon."
"Where are we going?" shi asked as they headed towards the PPT rentals.
"The spaceport," Neal told hir, "perchance to catch a ride."
"Wow, on a real space ship?"
"Might just be an old beat up shuttle I can deadhead on," Neal warned hir. "We’ll just have to see what comes in that’s going our way."
"What’s deadhead mean?"
"I’m licensed to fly shuttles and ships. When I’m just riding one to get somewhere but not doing any of the work, they call it deadheading."
"Oh, okay. Can I deadhead too?"
"Maybe after a little training," Neal told hir with a grin.
While the spaceport at Amistad was considered the main one for Chakona, most of the major cities had minor spaceports as well. This was because it was cheaper to bring something down near its destination than it was to bring it down and then ship it possibly halfway around the planet. This didn’t mean that it was easy to sneak things in or out as all vessels and cargoes had to be inspected at either Gateway station or Starbase 2 before continuing in or going out.
As it officially handled freight only, Marpletown’s station was little more than a control tower and pilots’ lounge with a few storage and maintenance sheds off in the distance. While Neal took in the small shuttles with a practiced glance as they drove up, Yellowstreak was staring in awe at each and every new thing as it came into view.
Once in the pilots’ lounge, Neal was reminded again that the young – especially chakat young – needed almost constant refueling. Too small to rate a crewed dining area, Neal sent hir to find something to munch on from the row of vending machines while he checked to see what their flight options were. Sighing quietly at the limited options he found, he opened a secondary window and typed in a request. A reply was returned less than a minute later and he nodded as he shut down the terminal and got up to check on his charge.
As with most travel plans, there was to be a wait before the next part of their journey could begin. Neal spent it reading about a new growing area planned for the Wanganui area, while Yellowstreak succumbed to a nap across a row of seats with hir head on Neal’s thigh.
Other people came and went, one shuttle touching down and two others taking off. After a while Neal noticed a slow but steady influx of furs and a few humans that appeared to be waiting for something or someone as well. His curiosity was answered when an older fox came in. Digital clipboard in hand, he called out for a ‘Rachel Veronique’ and ‘Jake Carr’. Not getting any responses, he then called two more names and this time received replies. He nodded and turned to leave, a chakat and wolf morph hurrying to catch up with him.
Minutes later a medium sized pure white cat morph came in, only to be ribbed by the others for getting there too late to fly that evening. The cat frowned, but he still sat down not too far from Neal and Yellowstreak.
"Go home Jake!" a wolf morph laughed at the cat. "You know they don’t have enough instructors or shuttles for your name to come back around!"
To the laugher of the others, Jake pulled out a PADD and pretended to read.
A few minutes later a rather compact, yet shapely vixen came in, to even more catcalls and laughter. Ignoring them, she looked around for a moment before going over to sit next to the cat morph.
"I take it we missed again," she muttered to Jake once she was seated.
"I saw them taking the first pair out as I was coming in. It seems Kirkland called us first – knowing we have other jobs," Jake muttered. "Speaking of which, you forgot to wipe around your eyes, nice color by the way."
"I was in a hurry to get here, but I was still too late. You know he only did it to put us at the back of the queue," she grumbled. "You gonna wait it out?"
"Have to, and so do you, Rachel. If we don’t fly this week, we lose what hours we’ve gained so far. It was hard enough the first time around without having to start all over again."
"Who’s the guy with the kitten? Haven’t seen him around before," she asked, pointing her muzzle in Neal’s direction.
"Only new name I saw on the board was a ‘Neal Alan’. Board said he’s trying to deadhead to Berdoovia," he replied. "He can’t be too bad if that chakat cub thinks he’s a pillow."
Though they had been speaking in low tones, they were surprised when the human in question looked up from his reading and bounced his eyebrows up and down at them. He then smiled and cocked his head as if listening, and they also heard the muted roar of one of the larger shuttles landing on its main thrusters.
"A big one from the sounds of it," Jake said, "Maybe a forty."
From where he was sitting, Neal snorted. "Try a sixty," he muttered, just loud enough for the two of them to hear him over the growing noise of the inbound shuttle.
"No way – a sixty would be shaking this building harder," Rachel told him as the noise level peaked.
"Depends on the sixty and his crew," Neal countered in the sudden silence. "With no load and the counter-grav cranked up, a sixty could land as gently as one of the old thirties."
"His crew?" Jake asked.
"The ships are the ladies that ply the space-ways, while the little guys get stuck doing all the grunt work," Neal explained. Since their conversation and the shuttle landing had woken Yellowstreak, Neal got up and gave them a grin. "As I happen to know that you two have nothing better to do, let’s all go take a look. If it is a sixty, you two owe me five minutes of your undivided attention."
"And if it’s not?" Jake shot back.
"Dinner! On me," Neal promised as the four of them headed for the door. It took them a minute to get outside, as most of the others were heading in the same direction.
Outside three of them stopped to stare. Even though it was on one of the farther landing pads, the shuttle, still venting gasses, dwarfed most of the other vessels around the spaceport. It wasn’t much on looks, more like a fat spider standing tall on four swollen legs that came down at each corner. The two older furs listened as Neal explained to Yellowstreak how the counter-grav system built into each of the four legs allowed the shuttle to ignore most of its load’s true mass, requiring much less power and reaction mass to move things about. Inertial dampers kept cargo and crew from feeling the multiple G acceleration the shuttle could then produce.
From where they stood, they could see two furs step out of one of the thick ‘legs’ and some kind of cart-like vehicle was unfolding from the side of the leg. Climbing onto it, the two furs sped towards the buildings. As they approached, they resolved into a fox vixen and a foxtaur vixen.
"Would you by chance be Neal Alan?" the foxtaur politely inquired as they pulled to a stop in front of their group.
"I am," Neal admitted.
"The Old Man said you wanted a lift to Berdoovia," the vixen commented.
"Well, I did, but I’m thinking of changing which way I ride," Neal said as he pulled out an ID and touched the settings before handing it to her.
Eyeing the card, the vixen snickered before asking, "These two – or all three?"
"Just the pair. The little one’s just along for the ride," Neal replied with a grin.
"May I?" Jake asked with his hand out for the card.
"I’m Cindy, that’s Graysocks," the fox vixen said as she handed him Neal’s ID.
Jake’s eyes got a little wider before he held Neal’s ID where Rachel could see that it claimed that his talents included flight instructor for space craft – including shuttles.
"So, as I just happened to hear that you two are a bit desperate for some flight time … you can hang around here, or come fly with me," Neal hinted.
"We’re going to really fly that?" Yellowstreak asked, still staring at the distant shuttle.
"No, you’re going to ride in it. These two will be the ones trying to fly it," Neal corrected.
"Is it safe?" shi asked, looking up at Jake and Rachel a little dubiously.
"I’ll be making sure they stay out of trouble," Neal assured hir. "Among other things, I teach flying so I’ll keep them and you safe."
"Okay!" shi exclaimed as shi hopped on the back of the cart like vehicle.
Neal and the two students were about to board the cart when a dark gray cat morph yelled from behind them. "Hey! They’re not next on the list!" she protested.
"And I’m the next instructor going up!" another male cat complained as several others followed him towards the cart.
The fox vixen climbed back out from behind the controls, and gave the approaching group a cool look before saying, "I am Cindy Foster and I’m in charge of the heavy lift shuttle Baker. May I ask why you seem to think you have any say as to who I let onboard?"
"Shuttles being used to train students are required to use the student and instructor boards to select which ones are to fly next," the instructor told her.
"Your ID please?" Cindy asked as she extended her hand. "Old Man Foster is very picky who he lets near the controls of any of his equipment."
"Foster? What has he to do with any of this?" he demanded.
The instructor had almost handed her his ID when she mentioned the name Foster. He tried to pull it back – but Cindy was faster and snatched it out of his hand. "Maybe you missed me saying my name was also Foster, he’s my adopted father. A poor or short attention span is not something I’d want in someone trying to fly my shuttle," she commented as she was sliding the ID across her reader. Cindy frowned as the information was displayed. "Joseph Hadly, the notes say you’ve been banned from Gateway and most of the other fields for damaging cargo and shuttles. Those that can’t do – teach?" Cindy asked as she flipped his ID back at him.
"Nothing was ever proven!" Hadly snarled back defensively as he missed catching his ID.
"But Old Man Foster also has you banned from moving any of his cargo, so you won’t be boarding Baker," she informed him. "And since we were here to pick up Neal and his party, it’s a moot point anyway."
The cart turned away from more than one frowning face. Jake managed not to snicker until his back was to them. "That explains why Hadly is always hanging around – he doesn’t have anywhere else to go," he muttered to Rachel.
It seems the others had heard him as well because Graysocks turned back to grin at them. "Don’t think you’ll be getting off easy, friend. From what I’ve heard of your instructor, you will truly earn any hours he credits you."
"On the bright side," Cindy called back, "I’ve heard tell that he’s trained some rather impressive pilots."
"It all depends on the student," Neal countered, "If you want to learn I’ll be happy to teach; if all you’re after is a grade, I’ll flunk you in a heartbeat. So, are you two here to fly?"
"Yes sir!" they chorused.
"Do you prefer Jake or Jason?" Neal asked the cat.
"Jake, please," Jake said, wondering how Neal knew of his other name.
"Rachel or Rikki?" he asked Rachel.
"Rachel please," she said with more of a frown. "How do you know Rikki?"
"It’s funny how many people don’t realize just how combined the different databases are," he said in reply. "And before either of you asks, I’m not interested in your moonlighting jobs, only in your abilities as pilots."
"What’s moonlighting?" Yellowstreak wanted to know.
"Secondary jobs," Neal laughed. "Like right now two of my moonlighting jobs are cub-sitting you and training them – or I guess I’m really just trying to keep all three of you out of trouble."
"You know of our other jobs?" Jake asked, sounding a bit defensive and concerned.
"Why yes, I do," Neal admitted with a smile. "Would it bother you even more to know I own an interest in a bordello in Amistad?" he asked.
"And your interest in us?" Rachel asked with a raised brow at him.
"If you want that type of action, go apply at the bordello. I’m always on the look out for good pilots," Neal assured her.
"Rikki is an independent," she replied.
"So are a lot of them," Neal countered. "Something for you to think about, but not here or now," he said as they pulled up to the shuttle.
As Cindy and Graysocks re-secured the cart to the leg of the shuttle with Yellowstreak’s ‘help’, Neal took the other two on an external inspection.
Then there was the ride up the shuttle’s leg. There was an elevator, but one like nothing the chakat cub had ever seen before. A row of handles moved steadily upward. Graysocks went first, grabbing a handle and then stepping onto other handles with her fore and then aft paws to disappear into the heights. Cindy slowed the system down so Yellowstreak could easily grab one with hir hand and then grab the next set with hir handpaws. Graysocks then helped get hir off the elevator at the top.
Neal and his trainees were up a little later, and Neal walked them through the internal inspection and preflight checks. Though Rachel had started in the pilot’s seat, Jake was in it when Neal told him to start the launch checklist and gave him the flight parameters he was to follow. While Rachel was in the engineer’s seat following the steps, Neal had reconfigured the copilot’s position to allow him to control both engineering and flight controls as needed.
With the counter-grav systems and inertial dampers online, Neal had Jake take Baker up and into orbit. Yellowstreak was heard yelling happily through the cockpit door as Graysocks dropped the shuttle’s cargo room gravity to zero for hir to play in.
Baker reached Gateway station safely enough, Neal only having to give Jake a few suggestions to get them hovering over a loaded pod. They then let the computers take over to bring the shuttle down to gently mate and connect to the pod.
Rachel then found herself in the hot seat, disconnecting shuttle and pod from the station being a little more work than just lifting the shuttle off the ground. Her task took them into an orbit well ahead of Gateway, out to where the Folly sat waiting. Again the ship and shuttle’s computers worked together to dock the pod to an empty slot on the long ship. Rachel then found herself piloting the unloaded shuttle towards the forward end of the Folly.
"We’re going to park him in Bay 8, you can see the warning strobes on the open doors just ‘above’ us," Cindy was saying as they seemed to be rising up Folly’s length. "Hold this orientation, we will be backing him in to mate with the aft hatch."
Rachel was nodding when Neal flipped a switch on his panel and a red light lit on her board.
"The computer controlled docking system just went offline! I can’t park him with that off!" she exclaimed.
"Sure you can," Neal told her before keying the comm system. "Folly, this is Baker. Coming in on manual, with a student driver."
"Folly copies, manual docking procedures engaged … For the student that means relax and just do your best, Folly’s tractor beams will ensure you don’t run into anything."
"Which your excuse for an instructor wasn’t going to tell you," Cindy added, giving Neal a glare.
"Fear is a wonderful motivator," Neal countered, "especially when it seems to be your life hanging on your abilities."
"Bastard," Rachel softly muttered, but she kept her eyes on her readouts, slowing them as they reached the open hanger doors.
Keeping his own eyes on his instruments, Neal muttered back, "Funny how often the cute ones call me that. Rotate the shuttle so the aft hatch is pointed in, you’ll be aiming it at the upper most center airlock."
"Why are we even docking with the Folly?" Jake asked.
"To take on reaction mass, as well as let them do a crew change if needed," Neal replied.
"And maybe a snack?" Cindy retorted. "I’ll see if our cook has any ‘flight meals’ made up," she said.
"Much appreciated," Neal agreed. "I don’t want that starving cub back there to start gnawing on my leg."
"I’m not that hungry!" Yellowstreak protested from the now open cockpit door.
"But you wouldn’t say ‘no’ to a snack?" Cindy teased hir with a grin. "We just happen to have a pretty good cook."
"Square it up a bit and push us back," Neal was telling Rachel. "Not bad, not bad at all. How many manual dockings have you done?"
"Two simulated, none real," she muttered back, not liking the distraction.
"Hold at two meters, Folly will make the final mating," he told her.
"Holding at two meters," she finally reported.
"Baker, this is Folly, disengage thrusters. I’ve got you from here. As your instructor just said, not bad for a first timer."
Cindy noticed Jake was frowning from the engineering’s station. "Don’t fret, you’ll get your chance."
"Speaking of which," Neal commented, "Do you guys have enough extra work for two, or am I going to be making them take turns all night?"
"I’ll check," Cindy replied, "Old Man Foster may even have an extra instructor and shuttle we can use."
"Does everybody call him that?" Jake asked.
"Not to his face," Cindy said with a grin at Neal as they felt the docking clamps lock on to the shuttle.
"Umbilicals have a positive seal, reaction mass now being loaded. The cook has been advised of hungry visitors and will be there shortly," the voice of Folly told them.
"Thanks Tess," Cindy replied. "Ask Chakat Quickwind if shi’s free for shuttle instruction duty."
"Shi says yes," Tess said a moment later. "Alpha came in a little while ago, he’s fueled and ready to go. I have three pods that need to go to Starbase 2, two unloading there and one to be inspected before being taken down to Berdoovia."
"That’ll work," Neal said. "If it’s agreeable, we’ll take the Berdoovia one first to give them more time to inspect it while each of the heavy lift shuttles moves one of the others."
"We can work with that," a new voice said from the door. The cheetah-spotted chakat looking in smiled at them before saying, "I’m Chakat Quickwind, and the Old Man told me you’ve brought us some pilot trainees to torment?"
Jake and Rachel warily eyed the silvery gray dapple and black spotted chakat as Cindy chucked. "You can have whichever one Neal doesn’t want to keep," she told hir.
"Oh no, the stud’s all mine!" shi replied with a laugh. "Red’s already got the female steaming at him."
"Hey, Windy! Your rump’s blocking that door!" called a voice from behind the still grinning chakat.
"Come into the main area and get a bite to eat," Quickwind suggested, backing out of the cockpit area.
"Hot stuff coming through!" proclaimed a very pregnant brown rabbit morph, pushing a loaded cart before her.
Graysocks had already shown Yellowstreak how to set up the table in front of hir seat; the rabbit dropped two of the boxes on hir table before grinning and adding a third. "Cub taurs are always hungry," she said before placing a box before Jake and then Rachel. Stopping in front of Neal, she said, "I expect full payment now!" before dropping into his lap and forcing a kiss. For his part, Neal returned the kiss as good as he got as cub and students stared on in amazement.
"Wow, she makes pregnant sexy," Jake hissed at Rachel, who only nodded.
Opening their boxes, they each found sealed soups and salads, a couple sandwiches and a piece of fruit. With matching grins he traded his banana for her peach.
"Thank you, Suzan," Cindy was saying. "I’ll secure the rest of the lunches in the cold locker as it looks like some people will be making a long night of it."
"Leave a couple out for me to take over to Alpha," Quickwind suggested.
"Got you your own cart," the rabbit told hir with a grin. "Tess should have it parked at the hatch by now."
"Done in fact," Tess agreed over the speakers. "I understand Instructor Alan wants to give his students as much time as we can piloting heavies?"
"If we can," Neal admitted.
"To ‘max’ that time, I would suggest we let Echo start out now and take the Berdoovia bound pod to Starbase 2 and return. You can then make use of both of our loaded heavies while they are inspecting it."
Getting a nod from Quickwind, Neal said, "Suits me. If Starbase 2 agrees, we’ll be doing both automatic and manual dockings." At the dirty looks his students were giving him, Neal grinned. "Any half-trained idiot can push a couple buttons to let the computers dock him, but only a real pilot will have the nerve to even try docking without the babysitter. Face it, there won’t be a lot of people out here that will be able to let you waste the time and reaction mass with a pair of loaded heavies."
"The sims –" Jake started.
"Ask Rachel if that docking just now felt anything like the sims," Neal told him. To her headshake at her friend, he added, "The sims can only take you so far – it’s the real thing that gets your heart pumping."
"So why are we required to do all the simulator time?" Jake asked.
"The simulators train you to know where everything is and what to do with it," Neal told him. "The middle of an emergency is not the time to be wonder where the hell the right button might be. Training gives you a chance to try to work things out and learn how things work without damage or loss of life. The better you do, the harder a good instructor will push you, demanding that you exceed whatever limits you may have thought you had."
"Like you did by making Rachel bring us in on manual."
"Just so, the first words out of her mouth were ‘I can’t do that’, yet with a little persuasion she did a pretty good job," Neal said as the vixen in question scowled at her food. "It might be interesting to see what else I can persuade her to do," he added, only to get a glare from both of his students.
Quickwind grinned. Neal’s double meaning was having the desired effect of making them tense and a bit more likely to make a mistake, and like hir old instructor had been fond of saying, ‘you can’t fix it if you can’t see where it’s broke’. Getting up shi said, "Come along Jake, finish your snack and it’ll be time for us to preflight your ride."
"You’re going to leave him alone with her?" Jake asked in surprise.
"We’re going to leave you alone with a horny chakat," Neal countered. "You’re the one that should be crying for a chaperone. Besides, we’ll have Yellowstreak making sure there’s no hanky-panky going on in the cockpit."
"What’s ‘hanky-panky’?" Yellowstreak wanted to know.
"What your mom and dad should be doing real soon," Neal told hir.
"Can I call them?" shi asked, suddenly remembering they were very far from hir.
"We can try, they have my number, but I don’t have theirs," Neal reminded hir. "Folly, I’d like to place a planet-side call, but we may need directory assistance."
"Parameters?" Folly’s voice replied.
"Sightseeing train Chakat’s Delight, Chakats Honeytongue and Sharpeye, with any luck they should be together," Neal said.
"Chakat’s Delight says they just paid for their meal and left the dining car for their berth, I suggest we wait a few minutes and try them there."
"Works for me," Neal agreed.
"How could the crew on this ship know that?" Jake wondered.
"The same way I knew of your other jobs – the computers are much more interlaced than you may realize," Neal said with a smirk.
"And you somehow have access to it?" Rachel half demanded.
Neal grinned. "Your IDs are set to update the boards at the terminal. A very easy cross reference brought up the fact that your credit chits are each signed by two very different people that just happen to look the same," Neal informed her. "If you really want to separate your second identities you will need to separate their funds, addresses, and friends to help break the common links."
"You’ve done that before," she accused him.
"A time or two," Neal admitted. "Sometimes to protect me, sometimes to protect others."
"I have a link established to Chakats Honeytongue and Sharpeye," Tess’s voice reported.
"Hi!" Yellowstreak called out.
"Hey, Scamp," Honeytongue’s voice replied. "Are you alright?"
"I’m fine, Mom. You screwing Daddy’s brains out yet?" shi happily asked.
"Yellowstreak!" hir mother protested.
"Don’t mind me," Neal said with a chuckle, "I’ve heard worse."
"You two promised me a little sister!" the cub laughed. "Get busy!"
"There seems to be a delay on this line, just where are you?" Sharpeye’s voice asked.
"We’re up in a real space ship!" Yellowstreak proclaimed.
"Actually, this is just a shuttle," Neal corrected. "I managed to get us on a short hop so this little brat could see that Chakona really is round."
"Brat?" Honeytongue repeated in surprise.
"A fairly good brat so far," Neal assured hir. "Shi was lonely for you so I’d thought we’d touch base before you guys get too busy."
"Well, so long as shi isn’t being too big a problem …" Sharpeye said.
"Na, no problem at all," Neal told them.
"Then we’ll see you two tomorrow."
"Get to making babies!" Yellowstreak was calling out as Neal dropped the connection.
Still snickering, Jake and Quickwind took their leave. Neal got up to double-check the door seals once it was secured.
"Won’t the sensors check the seals for you?" Rachel asked, having watched him do his checks.
"And if a sensor has failed in the ‘all is well’ mode?" Neal asked. "I’ve learned to always spot check things, it’s saved my life a time or three."
Rachel didn’t comment further; her instructor seemed to be cutting edge one moment, but very old school the next. Even more confusing was that she was just now realizing that this heavy lift shuttle had actually landed at their port for the sole reason of picking him up.
The three of them had moved to the cockpit, Neal strapping Yellowstreak into the engineering seat after he disabled the controls and set it to show hir several games and simulations shi could play with.
Deciding to try to learn a little more, Rachel waved her hand over a darkened section of her own panel. "These aren’t in any shuttle configuration I’ve been trained on," she commented with an arched eyebrow.
"That’s because this shuttle isn’t quite ‘standard’," Neal replied as he touched a couple keys on his board to light up that area on her panel. "Done any ship handling?" he asked.
Rachel was ready with a smart remark about a shuttle not being a true ship – when the new indicators and their meanings suddenly clicked into her mind. "Special or not, there’s no way this thing does warp!" she protested.
"True," Neal admitted. "But Baker can use his limited warp fields for movement changes without using reaction mass."
"Is Jake’s shuttle like this too?"
"Yes, and I happen to know Quickwind is trained to use but not teach those systems," Neal told her.
"And you just happen to be instructor qualified on them?"
"Well, yeah, but you’re not here to play with things like that. Just basic shuttle handling training for you and Jake," Neal told her as he disabled that section of her board. He hid a grin at her sigh of relief, but she still tensed a little at Yellowstreak's giggle behind her.
Once again in manual, Neal had her take them out, then aft to collect their pod. He then took over just long enough to show her that manual docking the shuttle to a pod was possible – if a little nerve-racking with less than a meter of clearance between the pod and each of the shuttle’s legs. Quickwind’s catcalls of ‘showoff!’ told them that shi’d allowed the computers to do the more delicate work. Neal had laughed back, admitting he wouldn’t have tried it if Folly had been maneuvering.
Once the shuttles were loaded, the students had to make and file the flight plans. Neal then placed a call to the station.
"Starbase 2 Flight Control, how can we help you, Baker?" came the reply.
"We’ve got trainees on both inbound heavy shuttles, and we were hoping to give them some manual docking practice with a loaded pod," Neal explained.
"We’re quiet enough for it," Control agreed, "just so long as it isn’t those Terror Twins!"
"Past their bedtime I understand," Neal replied.
"Pity," Control commented, "we have a couple pilots that want to challenge them."
Quickwind cut in from Alpha with, "Didn’t you get enough of those two last week? I was thinking they’d be banned for life!"
"The guys in Flight Control would like to," Control admitted, "But the pilots want them back – especially after what the Chakona Defense Force had to say about them after that little thing with Tahiti a couple days ago."
"Oh, come on," Neal groused, "You can’t tell me a couple kids in an old shuttle actually impressed your pilots."
"No," Control admitted. "But when their best admits to being impressed, ours start wondering what they might have missed."
"How badly do you want them?" Quickwind asked. "I’m sure my daughter and hir friend would like to come over and play."
"Your daughter?" they heard Jake ask over the open line.
"Yeah," shi told him. "Control is talking about a pair of eight year olds impressing their pilots – think you’re up to being taught by one of their instructors?"
In the silence from Jake, Control said, "If your kids are free, a couple of the jocks would like to challenge them in the holosuites."
"You’re on!" called a youthful voice from Folly. "Allow us approval for a fast approach and we’ll be docking in twenty!"
"Approved," Control agreed. "East quadrant, dock 15."
"No buzzing the shuttles," Neal growled at them.
"Wouldn’t dream of it," another young voice replied.
"Which means not only were they thinking about it, but how they could cause the most havoc," Neal muttered over the open connection.
"No worries," Quickwind replied, "they don’t want the Old Man grounding them again."
Less than a tenth of the way to the station, the shuttles were overtaken by one of the small personnel carriers stored in the bay near Folly’s aft engineering.
"Showoffs," Neal muttered as they passed just outside the set limits for the area.
Rachel watched them go by with a little bit of envy, the faster craft doing what she’d like to be making her shuttle do.
"Jealous?" Neal asked as if he could read her mind. "You could always ask for a faster approach – and that’ll give us more time for docking practice."
"It’ll cost more in fuel and reaction mass," she pointed out.
"Which you’re not paying for," Neal pointed out in return. "Your limits are whatever I let you get away with."
"Control, Baker would like to deviate from the flight plan I posted," she told the comm system.
"Was wondering how long you could hold out," Control replied. "Just remember, it looks bad if you have to overshoot the station and come back around," Control chuckled as Alpha suddenly sped up.
"Last one there … " Quickwind’s voice sang out.
"Hold back," Neal quietly told Rachel. She frowned but left her controls alone. "Shi should know better than to play that sort of game with me," he muttered as he grinned and activated the panel she’d asked about earlier. "In a few seconds shi’ll be too close to do this," he said as he switched on the warp fields.
" – CCCCheatrr!" they heard from more than one distorted source as the warp fields dropped them at their new and quite impressive speed. There were no other comments for the few moments they were racing at the station before Neal quickly brought the fields up again, this time to kill their excessive momentum in reference to the station.
Warning alarms as well as hysterical laugher was heard behind Control when they next spoke. "Thanks a lot, Baker!" the speaker growled. "Please hold off your docking practice until we’ve secured from red alert."
"Is there a problem?" Neal asked innocently. "I stopped well clear of your station."
"I thought you said the terror twins were in the little shuttle," Control complained.
"They are," Quickwind assured them. "But we never said they were the only crazy ones we had flying Folly shuttles."
There was a growl from the station, but no other commentary. They knew Neal knew that it was his speed on a collision course with the station that had automatically raised the station’s alert levels.
Rachel was also shaken, her hands trembling over the controls.
Neal hadn’t missed her shaking and quietly commented, "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots," he quietly told her with the comm still active, "but there are very few old bold pilots. As I am considered old by some, you might have to wonder if that little stunt wasn’t quite as bold a move as you and the station seem to think it was …"
"What if the warp systems had failed when you started to decel?" she demanded.
"He still had the time and the room to miss the station using standard thrusters," Quickwind’s voice told her. "I was already too close and going too fast to have a way out to do that myself," she admitted. "You’ll find Neal tries to have at least one more way of doing anything."
"And you are going to be learning some of those ways," Neal added, "As you were saying, things can fail when you might need them most."
With the impromptu ‘wake up’ call, the starbase was more than ready for them long before the kids’ shuttle came in, which was still well ahead of Alpha.
"Baker, we’re assigning you a port away from the active loading areas for your training. North quadrant, pad 17."
"Baker copies, North quadrant, pad 17," Rachel acknowledged.
"We’ll call a park at five meters off and over the port," Neal told Control and Rachel. "If we get within four point five meters the station can shove us away," he added.
"In other words, if we shove – you crashed," Control chuckled. "I’ll let the tractor teams know the limits."
Rachel took the shuttle to the assigned port slowly before carefully lining it up on the pad. "Docked," she finally reported.
"Fail!" a new voice snapped back. "While one of your landing legs is at five meters, the far one is over seven. Then you’re twisted almost ten degrees and three meters off center," they reported.
"In other words, not quite as pretty as they’d like to see," Neal said as he took over and moved them not only away but changing their attitude. "Try again," he suggested.
"This can’t be done!" Rachel muttered after her fourth failed attempt – three of which the tractor beams had given her a ‘shove’.
"I have control, I want you to just sit back and watch," Neal told her as he jetted them clear again. This time he took them in, only pointing out settings and markers so Rachel could see what and how he was using the different instruments. "Docked," he finally stated. "Call it."
"Crap," the port voice said, "you’re less than two centimeters off any point. If you were at two meters I could just extend the clamps and lock on."
"So it can be done," Neal told Rachel. "Stop worrying about the whole process and take it one step at a time."
This time Neal quietly called out what he wanted her concentrating on before letting her move to the next step.
"Better," the base admitted the next time. "You’re just within a meter on all parameters, meaning I could connect you without needing the tractor beams."
"Again," Neal said, kicking them away.
After the second successful ‘dock’ Neal stopped calling out instructions, letting Rachel do it on her own, the watcher at the port telling of her slowly improving her numbers. After several good dockings, Neal upped the stakes by disabling random thrusters or rushing her to see how she would react under pressure.
"I’m done," Rachel finally admitted after over three hours of docking practice. She missed seeing Neal nod; her last two ‘docks’ had shown she was starting to get sloppy and make mistakes.
"So, you’re giving up already?" Neal sneered at her, startling Yellowstreak who had been playing one of the computer games through most of their training session.
Rachel turned to look at him in shock, his voice and attitude scaring her a little. "I – I’m starting to make errors, I’m just getting too tired," she admitted.
Neal’s expression softened as he said, "Just checking, little one. You have to know your own limits – and when not to push them. Some pilots crash because they won’t admit when they’re tired or off their game."
"You can be a real bastard at times," she muttered darkly at him.
"At times," Neal admitted. "But what would motivate you more – you chasing a promised treat, or running from something that’s all teeth and claws that will have you for lunch if you don’t move your tail just a little faster?"
As Rachel just glared at him, Quickwind’s voice said with a laugh, "I don’t know if it’s training styles or the students, but mine collapsed over an hour ago."
"Maybe I just know how to get the most out of my people," Neal suggested.
"Name two," shi challenged.
"Holly and Quickdash," Neal fired back. "Or do you think they could have advanced that fast under someone else’s instruction?"
"No fair using those two!" shi complained. "So, we’ve succeeded in wringing out your trainees, now what?"
"Park your load and then dock with us. As we still have a few hours before we can take that load down, we can all catch a nap."
"What about Alpha?" shi asked.
"We’ll send him home under Folly’s control; it’s not like we don’t trust the computers to do it right in the first place …"
"Just the old ‘have someone there to reset the computer when it gets confused’," Quickwind laughed.
"Have Alpha go high and avoid other traffic," Control advised them.
"Can do," Neal agreed. Looking over at Rachel, he said, "You’ve had a little break, are you willing to try just one more? We’ll go in slow and easy."
"Okay," she agreed before turning back to her controls.
"Port control, we’ll be stopping at five for the grade and then come in to two for you to make the connection," Neal told them.
"Five and then two for docking, agreed Baker."
Neal didn’t rush her, letting Rachel do it at her own pace. While not her best for the evening, it was close enough that the station didn’t need to use the tractor beams.
"Zero G your airlock, please," Quickwind requested a few minutes later. Shi then mated the two shuttles’ aft docking ports inverted to each other, Alpha’s legs pointing away from the station.
"Did you do that in manual?" Rachel asked hir as they came in after turning themselves over.
"No, I’m good but you’ve got the expert in here with you," Quickwind chuckled, setting down the package shi’d removed from Alpha’s cold box.
"I think the terror twins would have made it," Neal commented.
"Maybe," shi agreed.
"Why do you call them the terror twins?" Rachel asked.
"Because, for anyone unprepared for them, they can be," Quickwind told her. "As well as being rather good pilots, they are coming along nicely as engineers – well enough that fully trained engineers don’t want to get caught up in arguments with them!"
"I thought you said they were only eight?" Jake half asked.
"They are, but for more than a year now they’ve been under the tutelage of Folly’s ‘Old Man’," Quickwind told him. "From what I’ve seen and heard, few can beat him in engineering. And the way that he trains his pilots, well, let’s just say you end up with trainees that ‘Fleet and ‘Corps actually fight over."
"He’s also been known to break the weak," Neal quietly added. "Be thankful he was too busy to give us a hand in training you."
"Well, for now let’s all take a break," Quickwind suggested. "I suggest we raid the cold box for snacks and then try to take a nap while we wait for the inspection teams to finish with that pod."
"What’s taking them so long?" Rachel asked.
"That pod can hold over twelve hundred carriers for them to check," Neal pointed out. "I’m just glad it doesn’t take them a local ‘week’."
"Food!" Yellowstreak called out, getting smiles or chuckles out of the others.
After their snack, Yellowstreak insisted on snuggling with Neal. Quickwind smiled and spooned to Neal’s back, the two chakats surrounding him in fur. Jake and Rachel exchanged shrugs and lay together on a second pad.
"How’d you do?" Jake whispered to her.
"Okay, I think, but he can be hard to deal with."
"I know, I got to hear the last hour or so of your training. Were you really getting that close to your marks?"
"So they said, but I really screwed up the first ones."
"Quickwind showed me what to do first and then walked me through the first dozen," he admitted.
"He let me fail before he showed me how to do it," she complained.
"A harsh teacher, but you seem to have learned better than I did."
"Get some rest you two," Neal muttered. "I’ll be flipping a coin to see which of you takes us down," he warned them.
Depending on the point of view, Rachel won/loss the coin toss and was tasked with getting them safely to Berdoovia.
A larger port, Berdoovia had both passenger and freight terminals. As Rachel was setting them down on the edge of the freighter parking, the others were looking around the port.
"I see Gwendolyn is in port too," Quickwind commented, pointing out the small starship to Yellowstreak.
"Wow! It’s big!" shi exclaimed.
"She is when you compared to those shuttles around her, but as warp-capable ships go, she’s actually quite small," Quickwind told hir.
"Can we go look at her?"
"Not now, but maybe later," Neal said. "There are others that will soon be waiting for you," he reminded hir.
"Can we call them?"
"They should be in their classes right now," Neal reminded hir, "Why don’t we wait and give them a call when they have no class?" he suggested.
Jake snorted some of the tea he’d been sipping and Quickwind groaned at the bad pun.
Rachel managed to not react to Neal’s comments, but she seemed to be hitting the control keys with a little more force than she had been using for most of the flight.
"What was funny?" Yellowstreak wanted to know.
"Neal just likes using the wrong words sometimes," Quickwind assured hir.
"If you say so," Neal pretended to grumble.
"Now that we’re here, how do Rachel and I get back?" Jake asked.
"I’ll split a PTV fare with you," Rachel offered as Neal moved the shuttle’s systems to standby mode.
"Or you two could hang around for that dinner I promised you," Neal suggested as he turned away from the controls.
"I thought we’d given you far more than that five minutes of uninterrupted attention – never mind this was a sixty landing," Jake pointed out.
"Never mind everything you say or do seems to have two meanings," Rachel complained.
"So you’re turning down free food?" Neal asked, sounding hurt.
"No," she replied, "but we’ll be on the outlook for your traps!"
Quickwind managed to not to snicker, but Yellowstreak looked up at hir accusingly.
"Well," Neal was saying, "there’s a little place by the campus with pretty good food that I think you’ll like."
"And go see my Mom and Dad?" Yellowstreak asked excitedly.
"We might just ask them to join us there," Neal agreed as they lined up to take the elevator down.
Quickwind was the first down the elevator, hir tail hanging below hir lower torso letting hir know when shi reached the ‘ground floor’. Stepping back with hir hind legs, shi got hir handpaws on the ground before reaching for the speed controls while watching Yellowstreak’s descent and guiding hir off the elevator.
While the others had started walking towards the freight terminal, Neal had gone around the shuttle’s leg and opened a large panel in the side.
"I thought we’d rent a chakat sized PTV," Quickwind said in surprise.
"You can if you want," Neal agreed as the wheeled cart unfolded from its storage slot, "but I have a desire to feel the wind in my hair."
"Yay!" was Yellowstreak’s only comment as shi ran back to the cart.
The other three exchanged shrugs before also going back and climbing onto the cart. Quickwind found and handed out goggles to keep things out of their eyes and they set off with Neal at the controls, Yellowstreak cheerfully riding ‘shotgun’.
Neal swung them out the port’s gate and onto the main road leading toward Dewclaw University. He touched a couple of controls and the cart sped up as the road’s traffic system took over the driving functions.
It was a cartload of very windblown furs that finally came to a stop outside a crowded parking lot of the university’s Grabbit & Growl. From the same panel shi’d gotten the goggles, Quickwind now produced combs and brushes before trying to tame hir now very unruly hair and fur.
Neal swept a comb over the sides and across the top of his head and decided he was done; ignoring the glare Rachel was giving him as she tried to tame the mess the wind had made of her long black hair.
Like Neal, Jake’s hair had needed only a little work to bring it to something resembling order; he then moved to help Rachel with hers as Neal got Yellowstreak presentable. "Can’t have your folks thinking I’ve been letting you have too much fun," he chuckled as he brushed hir hair down.
Looking not quite as wild as when they drove in, the group headed for the front door.
"Is Junior in?" Neal asked the door greeter.
"He hates that name," the deer morph warned him.
"Then he is in," Neal said with a smile.
They were halfway across the crowded main room when a voice roared over all the other conversations going on. "We don’t serve no damn humans here!" a huge wolf morph shouted, heading their way.
Into the now almost complete silence, Neal’s reply was easy for all to hear. "The hell you don’t! Last time you claimed it was poorly cured pork!"
"Bastard!" the wolf cried out, getting closer.
"Takes one to know one," Neal snapped back.
Stopping just a meter from Neal, the wolf stared down at the much smaller human before he grinned and said, "Damn, you’re a sight for sore eyes."
"And you’re just a sore sight," Neal countered with a grin. "How’s it hanging, Junior?"
"Can’t complain, no one wants to hear it," the wolf mumbled as the other diners started to realize there wasn’t going to be a fight. "You’ve got the table in the back. Any more coming?"
"Two chakats, Honeytongue and Sharpeye. Try not to scare them, I don’t want them to think I’ve been dragging their daughter into dangerous places," Neal told him as he started towards the back and the conversations around them resumed.
There was only one empty table in the back and Neal grabbed a chair with its back to the wall and plopped down, Yellowstreak grabbing the elevated taur pad next to him.
As the others found seats, a chakat and foxtaur youth stepped up to their table to give first Quickwind and then Neal a hug.
"Who are they?" Yellowstreak wanted to know.
"The foxtaur is Holly, the other is Quickdash, my daughters," Quickwind told hir.
"But I thought your daughters were the ‘terror twins’?" Jake asked, uncertain he’d heard correctly.
"We are!" Holly proudly proclaimed. "We did pretty good against those ‘Fleet fighter pilots while you two were practicing your docking."
Jake turned to Rachel, but she had already made the connection and was staring at Neal.
Neal’s gaze met her stare and he winked. "So, which is the real me? The rumors you’ve no doubt heard about Old Man Foster – or your flight instructor last night?" he gently asked her.
Rachel didn’t quite jump up before rushing to the nearby restroom.
"Why is she scared?" Yellowstreak wanted to know, looking worried.
Holly was the closest and gave hir a hug. "What if you’ve been told that somebody was always mean to people, and then you find out you just spent a day with them but they weren’t mean to you. Would you be worried that they might still be mean?"
"But he’s not mean," Yellowstreak complained.
"They think I have been to some," Neal told hir. "Remember that cat that wanted to take our shuttle? When I got enough proof that he was damaging things because of his sloppy flying, I put the word out that I didn’t want him anywhere near my cargoes. Others trust me, so they also banned him. So, to him I am mean to others."
"You lied to us," Jake quietly said, noticing the same pregnant rabbit from the night before was leading a coffee and cream chakat into the restroom Rachel had run into.
"He had to," Quickwind was telling him as the door closed behind them. "If you had known who he was, you would have flown trying to watch him out of the corner of your eye all night. A good way to really screw things up."
"It was the only way I was going to get a real read on you and Rachel," Neal pointed out. "Somehow I don’t think you’d have given ‘Old Man Foster’ all those dirty looks. And just how many times did she call me a bastard?" he added with a grin.
"Not enough!" called out a taur vixen from the next table. At Jake’s look of surprise she said, "I’m Weaver, one of ‘the bastard’s’ mates, and we’re all familiar with him and his ways."
"Or so I let them think," Neal chuckled, laughing when Weaver stuck her tongue out at him.
Inside the restroom, Rachel had been staring at her reflection in the mirror without seeing it. She was so deep in thought she hadn’t even heard the door open and close behind her, only to jump a little when a hand was gently placed on her shoulder.
"He can be a bit much to take all at once," the hand’s voice said from behind her.
Rachel turned to discover the pregnant rabbit from the Folly had suddenly appeared behind her.
"This is Suzan, and I’m Moonglow," the chakat now beside them said. "It looked like you were a little overwhelmed out there."
"I – I cussed at him," Rachel mumbled; only to have Suzan pull the smaller fox into a hug, one the fox didn’t return.
"Good for you!" the rabbit laughed as Moonglow wrapped hir arms around both of them. "He likes people that stand up to him."
"If you want to really piss him off, try kissing his ass or agreeing with everything he says," Moonglow snickered.
Rachel looked between them still confused.
Suzan frowned slightly. "We’re both his mates, so we know of his eccentric ways of going about things. He sometimes has to hide who he is to get people to not act around him."
"What will he do to us?" Rachel quietly asked.
"Probably mark your flight hours on your tickets," Moonglow answered just as quietly, "Was there something else you wanted him to do?"
"Ask," Suzan gently added.
"No," Rachel said, "Jake and I got more real training in one night than we’ve gotten up to this point."
"How do you think you did?" Suzan asked, tightening her hug on the smaller fox.
"I’ll never be able to do it as smoothly as he does."
"Don’t sell yourself short. Neal’s had years on that equipment to make it look that smooth," Moonglow told her.
"So, what do you two suggest I do?" Rachel shyly asked, finally returning Suzan’s hug and giving her swollen belly a gentle rub.
"That’s the spirit!" Suzan said as she felt the vixen finally relaxing. "Let’s get you cleaned up; he did promise you a last meal with us."
"Bad choice of wording there, Stew," Moonglow chuckled as hir tail snagged a scented towel from the pile by the sink.
Jake was glad to see Rachel come out of the restroom followed by the rabbit and chakat. He couldn’t help but notice that all the wind tangle had been brushed out of her black hair and her typically elaborate eye shadow had been freshened up. She gave him a smile and a wink before returning to her seat as the waiter came to take their orders.
While a few ordered meals from the kitchens, the majority went for the buffet. Once there, most learned that things were done a little differently here.
A rabbit morph was gathering what he wanted for lunch and turned to growl at the cub waiting behind him before hurrying over to his table with his meal. After the third growl at hir, Yellowstreak wasn’t sure shi liked this place.
Seeing hir confused expression, Neal asked, "Do you remember the name you saw when we came in?"
"Yeah," shi admitted.
"What did it say?" he asked.
"Grabbit ‘n’ Growl."
"That’s what they’re doing, they grab their food and then growl at anyone that might think of taking it from them. Go on, go get something and then growl at anybody that gets too close to your food," he told hir.
Grabbing some fried fish, Yellowstreak felt hir tail brushed by whoever was waiting behind hir. Thinking it was Neal, shi turn and growled – or started to, the growl turning into an ‘eep!’ when shi saw the large lion behind hir.
As shi made a mad dash back to the relative safety of their table, the lion turned to Neal. "Spunky kitten," he allowed as he got some fish.
Neal chuckled, "If you think shi’s bad, I’ve got a couple others that have even made Star Fleet sit up and take notice."
"Huh, I deal with ‘Fleet often enough," the lion admitted.
"Next time you’re conversing with Starbase 2, ask them if it’s true that some of their fighter jocks got stepped on by a pair of eight year olds," Neal suggested with a grin as he headed for the fresh fruit.
"He was gonna eat me!" Yellowstreak was saying when Neal got back to the table.
"Actually, he thought you were cute," Neal corrected hir before looking around. Spotting who had not bothered him lately, he called, "Come here Stormy, snuggle time."
While the chakat kitten jumped up in his lap readily enough, those that knew hir would have seen the hesitation.
After snuggling hir for a bit, Neal asked, "Have you been a good kitten?"
Said kitten nodded quickly, but Neal had picked out that shi was trying not to meet his gaze.
"Would Momma Stew tell me you’ve been being good?" he asked.
The pout was evident before shi buried hir face in his shirt.
"We’re going to have to teach you to behave better, kitten," Neal quietly said. "As your daddy, it’s my job to deal out the punishments … no desserts today Stormy."
Firestorm’s only reaction was to whimper and to hold him harder.
Neal continued to stroke hir, but he didn’t change his mind. "I still love you kiddo, but you’re going to have to learn," he quietly told hir. "Go eat now. If you’re still hungry, you can have a banana."
Neal noticed Jake and Rachel watching them. "Even my kids can’t get away with everything," he told them as Firestorm disappeared under the table – only to reappear in front of Moonglow, whose top was then pulled down for easier access to hir meal.
The playful growling at the buffet tables continued until a Caitian youth turned and growled at whoever was crowding her. The adult Rakshani behind her decided to take offense and he backhanded her out of his way.
Unfortunately for him, others had sensed his intentions and had been almost ready to act. Shadowcrest and Windsong had been to either side and Windsong was able to catch the flying youth. From the front of the line, Blackrose had set hir food on the counter before literally springing over those between them and knocking the much larger Rakshani to the ground.
The Rakshani found himself flat on his back with his thighs and forearms punctured by the chakat youth’s paw and handpaw claws. The claws of hir hands were dug into his muzzle, while hir thumb and forefingers threatened his eyes.
"You were just waiting for an excuse to lash out at someone," Blackrose quietly said into the hushed silence, the whimper of the youth in Windsong’s arms the only other sound. "Like you, I like having someone give me an excuse to do violence. So, give me one good reason not to blind you."
"Besides the fact that they’ll just re-grow them?" Windsong asked, cuddling the youth as two Caitian adults rushed up.
"True," Blackrose allowed, "but until then he will be at the mercy of others. Wonder what type of mercy he’ll get if they know why I blinded him."
"Someone get this child off me!" he started to move, only to have the claws come closer to his eyes.
"Big bad Rakshani warrior that likes to pick on cubs, taken down by a mere cub," Neal’s voice said, dripping of scorn. "And so proud of himself that he doesn’t even wear his House colors in public." Raising his voice slightly, Neal called out, "Junior? I’m assuming the authorities are on their way?"
"Ten minutes. Campus cops can be here in five."
"No hurry. I think Blackie likes hir new scratching post," Neal said. "And I will find out your House and express my displeasure that they let you out of your cage without a keeper," he added.
"He thought that was funny," Blackrose reported.
"He’ll find it unfunny when House Foster makes the displeasure public on Raksha," Neal told hir. "You’re free to do whatever is necessary to keep him quiet until the authorities come for him.
"I – I was just play growling," the Caitian youth cried to her parents as they joined Windsong's hug around her.
"We know kiddo," Neal gently told her. "Some people just like to be mean."
"But not all of us," another Rakshani quietly said as he came around Windsong. The youth stared up at this new even larger Rakshani as he held out his hand to her. "I believe you were trying to get something to eat?" she reached out and he gently led her back to the serving lines.
"She’s safe enough with Derikk," Neal told her parents. "Deities know he lets my brats climb all over him."
"This was to be our final meal on Chakona before we head out to the colonies," one of the females admitted.
"Does anyone not know about your colonies?" Windsong laughed.
"Careful Windy, you’re assuming they’re going out to one of my colonies," Neal warned hir. "The Federation has its own colonies being set up too."
"The timing’s too good," Windsong protested. "You have Time Bandit leaving tonight as I recall."
One of the Caitians eyed Neal curiously. "Yes, we are leaving on the Time Bandit; how would you know of her?"
Windsong laughed. "You’re looking at the guy responsible for two of the colonies out there, and he’s helping with two others in the ‘area’."
Before the Caitian could reply to that, a new voice cut over the surrounding chatter. "Well, hello Roghcouth, I see you’re busy making new friends," a new small adult Caitian commented at the grounded Rakshani.
"Hey, Rock. You know this attacker of cubs?" Neal asked.
"Sadly I do," Rock admitted. "He’s part of Gateway’s maintenance crew. He begged a ride down with my group, but he got his muzzle out of joint when he wasn’t invited to our table."
"So he’s not one of yours?"
"No. He tried and failed to get a position due to him thinking he’s better than everyone else."
"Which he still seems to have," Neal agreed. "Unable to impress adults, he’s taken to trying to leave his impression on cubs."
They were interrupted by several growls coming from the serving lines. Rock and Neal turned to see the Caitian youth glaring up at Derikk. "No, a real one!" she was demanding.
Derikk looked offended, but he cleared his throat and took a deep breath before squatting down to her level. The growl started low but quickly gained force and volume until it seemed to rattle the walls of the large room.
"Yay!" she cried before give him a hug and a lick-kiss. She may have said something more, but whatever it might have been was drowned out by the cheers of the other patrons.
Standing back up, Derikk bowed before guiding his charge back to her table.
Junior picked that moment to appear leading four chakats. The two wearing the tops of the local police he pointed at Blackrose and hir prisoner, the other two he waved in Neal’s direction.
"Mum! Dad!" Yellowstreak cried out as shi tried to hug them both at once.
"Hey, Scamp. Did you behave?" Sharpeye asked as shi returned the hug.
Looking back over at Neal, Yellowstreak asked, "Did I advance?"
"I think so," Neal agreed.
"I’m not a scamp anymore," shi told hir parents, "I’m a Brat!"
"Really?" Honeytongue asked, giving Neal a questioning look.
"Better behaved than some of my brats," Neal assured hir. "Your meals are already paid for, and I’m sure your brat can explain the rules for eating at this fine establishment to you."
"Come on – it’s neat!" Yellowstreak said as shi dragged hir parents away.
Neal turned back to his table, only to see Jake looking ill at ease and Rachel looking defiant. He was far enough from the table that he could see under it – at the fox vixen’s feet was Firestorm, lapping away at a bowl of ice cream.
"Ms. Veronique, Mr. Carr, if you will follow me?" Neal said with a very dry tone before heading after Rock.
Rock led them to a side room normally set aside for parties and it was filled with almost two dozen furs and a few humans. Moving to the head of the table, Rock turned and said, "How can we help you, Captain Foster?"
Ignoring the murmurs at his name, Neal gave Rock a cheesy grin. "Well, I happened to hear that you have most of a full ship’s crew at loose ends while their ship is put back together," he said in a suggestive manner.
"That is true," Rock allowed. "But why would that interest you?"
"I happened to have run across a couple pilots in training. Sadly I won’t be able to hang around long enough to properly train them myself," he admitted.
"And you want me to waste my people’s time on them?" Rock asked a bit crossly.
"If I thought they were a waste of time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation," Neal pointed out.
Perez snorted, he already knew the two of them were playing to the crowd. "Your flight books?" he asked of the cat and vixen.
Jake looked over at Neal as they handed over their flight logs.
Neal caught the look and said, "Yours was updated when Quickwind was done with you, Ms. Veronique’s upon landing."
"You had them using real cargoes to practice manual dockings?" Perez asked in surprise.
"Why not?" Neal countered. "I know how far to let them go before I have to step in. Besides, putting them under a little more pressure helps point out their flaws faster."
"Test to destruction?" Perez wondered. "I see they both stopped well short of their full training periods."
"We let them admit when they were getting fatigued, as I won’t pass a pilot that won’t admit their own limits. The only pressure I didn’t apply was their instructor’s full name."
Perez actually started laughing and even Rock allowed herself a small smile. "I didn’t think you had, considering what you managed to get out of them," Perez agreed. "And if these are a hint at their potential, I don’t see Rock having any problems finding us the ships or shuttles we need to further train them."
Rock eyed him quizzically. "You like what you see?" she asked.
Perez nodded. "If he had them shooting – and hitting manual docks after so little previous experience? Yes, I like what I see, and so will you," he told her.
"They may also want to consult with your ship’s counselor, I seem to remember hearing that shi has a very direct approach to helping hir ‘clients’," Neal commented with a smirk.
"You’ve done more than just hear Neal," the small and slender chakat replied with a smile. Getting up to reveal that shi was a smoky gray all over, the blue-eyed chakat walked around to take first Jake’s and then Rachel’s hand. Eyes half lidded hir grin grew a little as shi said, "Our overly devious Captain Foster is correct, I sense more than a little potential in these two. If Rock doesn’t want them for the bridge, they’re mine!"
"Now now, Smoky, no fighting Rock and your captain over them," Neal teased hir.
Chakat Smoke raised an eyebrow at Neal before saying; "You knew their passions and desires and brought them where they could best pursue them. I hope you're not pretending to be evil while secretly being good. That would be dishonest of you."
"My dear chakitten," Neal said with a raised eyebrow of his own. "At no time since I met these two have I ever claimed to be honest."
Smoke burst out laughing. "No, you wouldn’t have – would you?" shi said, still snickering.
Perez was giving Jake and Rachel a long look before he quietly told them, "Several times in my years with Katrina Cruise Lines I have been given someone I thought shouldn’t have been offered the position. While some have failed, I never had a failure that turned out to have been recommended by Captain Foster. So, you two have a decision to make. I’ve been told our ship won’t be ready for about a month. I’m sure Rock will sign you on as temp help – unless you find you want a real job with us."
"Putting words in my mouth, Captain?" Rock asked.
Perez smiled. "Then tell me you won’t – with him standing there," he replied.
"Oh, I don’t second guess my supervision," Neal answered.
"No, you just replace them if they appear too dense to know what you want done and how," Rock said.
"And yet you’re still here," Neal added. "I have been wrong before, but I think these two are worth the risk and expense to find out if they have what it takes to fly – possibly in more ways than one."
"Would you two be amenable to relocating to Gateway?" Rock asked. "I have a little more leeway up there, as well as better access to training tools and shuttles."
"And we can train them on ship and station systems and see where they really shine," Smoke added. "While I’m not as positive on the cat, I know that this little fox and I are going to be seeing a lot of each other!"
"Already trying to steal the fresh meat for yourself," Neal griped good-naturedly.
"You’re not the only one that can read potential, Neal," Smoke replied. "In fact, I seem to recall it was you that told Rock to try me."
"Yes, well, even I make the occasional mistake," Neal admitted with a grin.
"Ha! I’ll show you mistake tonight!" Smoke threatened with an answering grin.
"Good luck with that. You only have to get past my eight mates and mess of kids and cubs," Neal laughed.
"Eight mates?" Rock asked in surprise.
"Yeah," Neal said. "I didn’t find out until it was too late that foxtaur vixens had certain similarities to female Caitians."
"And that is?" Rock asked with a raised eyebrow.
"That the ‘firstwife’ is the one that decides if, when, and which additional mates will be added."
"So true," she agreed. "So … the head keeper now has keepers?" she asked sweetly.
"Careful, or I’ll add cub sitting to your chores," Neal mock threatened.
"If it wouldn’t lower my own prestige, I’d have to ask her if the ninth wife slot was open," she teased.
Neal snorted. "Not sure you’d survive the test," he commented. "The kids and cubs take you into the holosuite with stingers – you against all of them."
"Sounds like fun," Rock snickered, only to smile even wider when she noticed most of Perez’s crew now openly staring at the two of them in disbelief. "What’s the matter?" she asked them in return, "Surprised that The Rock of Gateway Station’, and ‘Old Man Foster’ aren’t quite what the scuttlebutt says we are?"
Before anyone could think of a good answer, her attention was diverted downward. Firestorm leaped up as Rock looked down, and she instinctively caught the cub.
"Hello rug rat," Rock said, giving hir a tickle.
"Bbat!" shi cried back.
"Shi means ‘brat’," Neal informed them, "as in shi is one."
"No, shi’s a cutie!" Rock countered – just before Firestorm got her top open. Sputtering a protest, and with the rest of the room now laughing as the cub went for an exposed nipple, Rock said, "Okay, shi’s definitely and defiantly one of yours – and shi is a brat!"
"Warned ya," Neal chuckled. "Now, I’ll leave Jake and Rachel to your tender mercies. Come on Stormy, before she tries to recruit you too."
Once the door closed behind Neal and Firestorm, Rock took a moment to get her top back in order before turning to those still at the table.
"Now you know why you’re on full pay," she told them. "He – and I – are betting you’re worth it. If you’d rather not spend the whole time goofing off, there are refresher and advancement classes both here at Dewclaw and on Gateway. And if they take up the challenge, I expect you to help these two reach their full potential – or at least help find which potentials they should be pursuing."
Smoke smiled as shi said, "I think I can safely speak for the others in saying that almost any work is better than sitting on our tails while they repair Tahiti."
"Wow," Jake commented to Rachel, knowing that the others were listening. "All this for not guessing the type of shuttle that was landing."
"One of his 60s?" a cougar morph at the end of the table asked. At Jake’s surprised nod, she laughed. "I’m Jennifer, Tahiti’s chief pilot. If you can catch him when he turns one of them up to eleven, you’ll swear it’s just a personnel shuttle coming in."
"He’s got some kind of semi-warp on them," Rachel commented.
"I know! That’s how I knew Old Man Foster wasn’t flying to our rescue – he would have been there a hell of a lot faster!" Jennifer agreed.
Rachel looked at each of those at the table. Unlike her visits to Marpletown’s pilots’ lounge, there were no jeers here; no one was looking down on her. Several of them including Jennifer were sizing her up, but to see what she was capable of, not where she came from or might have done in the past. Smoke’s gaze suggested that even her other job wouldn’t raise any eyebrows with this group. She gave a little nod before saying, "I’m in. I don’t know why everyone is so quick to take the word of one crazy old human, but I’m going to make the most of it before you guys come to your senses."
Having already reached the same conclusion, Jake simply nodded.
Jennifer’s smile had widened at the ‘crazy old human’ part, and she said, "You ain’t seen crazy until you see him in the middle of a rescue. Things happen that you know can’t be possible."
"You mean like having the Chakona Defense Force pop out of the bridge’s head?" Perez asked dryly.
"Na, that was kinda tame for Foster," Jennifer replied.
"He had an audience this time," Rock pointed out. "It wasn’t like he could cover up his tricks and pretend they didn’t happen."
"What kind of crazy?" Jake wondered.
Jennifer grinned. "When I was in training, Neal was having me move an empty pod to load cargo the station was holding for him. We spied a freighter with a pirate latched on to it over a light minute away. Before I knew what he was doing, Neal had us on a collision course with the pirate at over half light speed! He spun us and backed away from the pod before hitting the brakes. We ‘stopped’ right where the pirate had been, their docking hatch was still locked to the freighter; the rest of their ship was gone." She shivered as she continued, "There was a thermal ‘bloom’ a few light seconds away from us when the pirate ship came apart, but Neal already had the shuttle’s shields up to protect us."
"So that’s why Starbase 2 panicked last night," Jake quietly commented. At Jennifer's look of curiosity, he added, "Neal pulsed Rachel's shuttle up to half light speed for an instant – aimed right at the starbase …"
"Wow," Jennifer all but whispered. "I wonder whose attention he was trying to get."
Jake shrugged. "I just know Quickwind, my instructor for the evening, was laughing hir tail off as shi cussed him out – off mike of course."
"I’ve learned that Shir Quickwind is Star Corps," Rock told them. "Though they play nice with ’Fleet, there’s still a bit of rivalry between the branches."
A wolf towards the back half raised his hand to get Rock’s attention. "What’s this rumor I’ve been hearing that our route will soon be taking on a major change?" he asked.
Rock half nodded before saying, "That rumor happens to be true. There’s a very major shakeup coming in which ships go where when. In seven to ten months, Folly and quite a few other ships will be heading out on a colony push. Four planets worth, or so I’ve been told, so some of our ships will be picking up the gaps left by those ships leaving."
"Why weren’t we asked to go?" a young German shepherd morph asked.
Smoke answered for Rock. "The crew selections were very carefully made, Paul," shi told him. "You weren’t asked because we knew of your other commitments. Part of the balancing of the crews was on the stay/go line – we didn’t want to build a strong team only to tear it apart when it came time to depart."
Paul nodded. "Okay then, you’re right, I can’t go. I just wished I’d known about it so I could see if it was worth pointing my sister at."
Rock gave a small shrug. "Most of the details are out there for people to trip over, so I see no harm in making sure you’re getting the full facts and not the rumor mill. You’ll each have the current updates in your bins by eighteen hundred tonight."
"How do we ‘report in’ for training?" Rachel asked.
Rock pulled out a small communicator. "Tess?" she asked.
"Yes, Rock?" came an instant reply.
"Did that ‘old man’ have you add these two to my rosters?"
"Lined up but not executed as those are your rosters – not his."
"Go ahead and lock them in," Rock requested.
"Pay grades?" Tess asked.
Rock thought for a second before saying, "Better make them O eights, Gateway has a higher cost of living than groundside." To the now slack-jawed pair, she added, "Don’t worry, I’ll expect you to earn your pay by taking every opportunity to learn. Your IDs will now let you deadhead on most shuttles going to or from Gateway – as well as improve your chances that the crew will give you a little extra piloting time. While I don’t think you’ll need it, you both have one week to report to me on Gateway. Any questions?"
"Welcome to the madness, kids. I think those two’ll fit in just fine," Smoke said once Jake and Rachel had left the room.
"If Neal didn’t scare them off – nothing will," Jennifer agreed.
"Then let’s get this buffet going, before Neal’s crew clears the tables," Rock said with a chuckle.
Meanwhile at Neal’s table, Yellowstreak had been telling hir parents all the great things shi’d seen and done since failing to get back on the train in time. It probably wasn’t helping that Quickwind and the others were confirming the parts they knew about. Their meals barely touched, Honeytongue and Sharpeye were glaring at Neal when he came back to the table with Firestorm.
Feeling the kitten tense up, Neal set hir down. "Go to Star," he told hir.
As shi scampered off, he asked, "Yellowstreak, did you tell your folks you had too much fun?"
"A little," shi admitted, hir parents’ current attitudes not what shi’d been hoping for when shi’d started hir travelogue.
"Shi says shi went up and saw the Folly …" Honeytongue started.
"The shuttle we caught a ride on needed to stop and pick up and drop a couple loads of cargo," Neal admitted.
"And something about ‘student drivers’ flying the shuttle you were on?" Sharpeye asked.
"A couple of them," Neal agreed. "Didn’t even scrape any paint, I’m rather happy with them."
"We hadn’t thought you’d be placing our daughter in danger," Honeytongue didn’t quite growl at him.
Neal snorted. "The most dangerous thing I let hir do was ride the cart over here – after all, shi may have opened hir mouth at the wrong time and swallowed a bug," he told them. "Everything else we did I’ve done hundreds or even thousands of times without mishap."
"Including almost ramming a Starbase?" Sharpeye countered.
"Tess? What speed have we accelerated Baker to in a comparable gravity field?" Neal asked.
"Reliably? Point six eight light-speed, past point seven we have a possibility of it failing to engage that deep in a gravity well," Neal’s comm badge told them.
"And what did I take us up to last night?"
"Only point four seven, Boss. I thought you didn’t go higher to give yourself more time to use the regular thrusters – if something required you to use them."
"So … a walk in the park – if you know what the real risks look like," Neal told them.
Sharpeye slowly shook hir head. "And here I just told a class that you can’t get that much mass boosted that fast that deep into the gravity well of a planet," shi muttered.
"Looks like you should have been the one out flying with Neal," Quickwind said with a chuckle.
"We could tell ya how he does it," Holly offered.
"But you’ll have to quit being mad at our adopted father," Quickdash told them.
Neal looked ready to make another comment, but he stopped as something popped up in his glasses. Now grinning, he said, "Yellowstreak? While we were playing with shuttles your parents were supposed to be doing something too …"
"Yeah!" shi cried out. "Did you make me a baby sister?"
"It will take a few days to know," Sharpeye reminded hir.
"No it won’t," Neal told hir. "I can see from here that you caught."
"Don’t set hir up with false hopes," Honeytongue half begged him. "Even the best scanner wouldn’t be accurate enough to tell this early."
"I wouldn’t normally," Neal replied with a shrug, "but it’s so obvious with twins …"
"TWINS?" three voices all but shouted in chorus, one with glee, the other two in shock.
Other tables around them had heard the commotion and began cheering on the new mother to be.
"Just how sure are you?" Weaver quietly asked as Yellowstreak tried to smother hir father in a hug.
"A little wandering spirit told me," Neal admitted. "And while she’s not above playing me for the fool, I don’t see her hurting others to do it."
"Can’t argue with that," she admitted. "What’s next?"
"See if those two will eat after all this excitement, and then I did kinda tell their daughter I’d let hir look at Gwen."
"One more shock to their systems?" she laughed. Neal just winked in reply.
With a little prompting Yellowstreak’s parents were fed, mostly from their daughter demanding they ‘try’ this or that.
Fed, well fed, or in a couple cases stuffed, Neal’s party broke up just as Rock’s did.
"How are you getting back to Gateway?" Neal asked her as the groups headed for the door.
"A shuttle will be down in a few hours," Rock replied. "Why?"
"Gwendolyn’s going to do a sub-orbital to Amistad. No reason she can’t go a little higher."
"Terror Twins flying?" she asked.
"Is that a request?" Neal countered.
"Sure!" Rock laughed.
"Hey, Jake, Rachel!" Neal called out. "Want to take a ride to Amistad by way of Gateway?"
"Just so long as the ride to the port isn’t on that little cart!" Rachel told him after she and Jake exchanged nods.
"Then I just need two volunteers to take Baker home," Neal said.
"US!" Holly called out.
"Negative," Neal said, getting several grins from Perez’s crew before he added, "You two are piloting Gwen."
Having already met the pair, Perez kept quiet as most of his crew did double takes at the pair of eight year olds.
"You’re kidding, right?" Smoke half asked.
"No he’s not," Jennifer assured hir. "I found out that those were the ones piloting the shuttle that brought Tahiti in. Compared to towing, flying a ship is a breeze."
"Zhanch and I’ll take him," Dessa said. "We’ve got a few things we need to do onboard Folly anyway," she added with a grin.
It turned out it was Holly, Quickdash, Yellowstreak, Honeytongue and Sharpeye that ended up riding the cart back – their daughter insisting they just had to try it at least once.
"Call it," Quickdash said as shi flipped one of Neal’s old coins.
"Tails!" Jake blurted up just before Rachel could.
Eyeing hir coin, Quickdash said, "The cat takes us up, the fox goes down."
While shi was doing that, Holly was seating Rock and Perez. "If you will?" she said as she offered the Caitian the captain’s chair. Perez got a raised taur seat next to her.
"I thought you two were flying for us?" Rock asked.
"We will be taking over for part of the flight," Quickdash told her, "but little things like takeoff and landings we’ll let these two handle."
"Before or after you drop us off at Gateway?" Perez asked.
"Depends on the boss – he wants to demonstrate a couple things to one of Yellowstreak’s parents," Holly told them.
"After," Neal said as he came in with Sharpeye. "Rather than annoy Starbase 2 yet again, we’ll drop Rock and company on Gateway before we do our point light-speed runs."
"Don’t hold back on our account," Rock told him. "I’d love to see what our next generation ships might be doing."
"We still have to be inspected at one or the other to ensure we’re not smuggling anything in or out," Holly pointed out.
"Unless we can get a ‘Fleet observer," Quickdash suggested.
Neal chuckled. "I guess I could ask," he admitted.
"Let me try," Holly said before activating the comm system. "Starbase 2, this is Holly, is Flight Lead Nelson available?"
"Terror Twin!" a voice proclaimed moments later. "Don’t tell me you two slipped your leashes again."
"Not quite, but we are about to fly. The ‘Old Man’ is demo-ing one of his ship’s little tricks and I thought you might like to see what you could be up against."
"Yeah, you might say we’d be interested. How are we doing this?"
"Get a flight ready to play ‘chase’, non-warp fliers might as well stay home," she told him.
"They’ll be scrambled in three," Nelson said as they heard an alarm going off in the background.
"We have one of the trainees from last night getting us out of the atmosphere, after that you’ll have Quickdash and I to contend with," Holly warned him.
"I’ve already let Control know that there are some unscheduled games coming up. You’re not going to threaten to ram the station again, are you?"
"Na, but you guys are gonna have to be on your toes as Neal says," she told him.
"We’ll be ready when you are," he replied.
"Sure you will," Quickdash laughed as Holly cut the connection. Sitting down at the console next to the one shi’d placed Jake at, shi talked as shi set up their boards. "Don’t sweat not having launched ships from the surface before, your panel slaves to mine so I can override you if you goof it up. Biggest difference between this and Baker is that you’ll initiate lift on the belly thrusters, and then rotate to the main thrusters in the tail. Don’t worry about the warp controls, I’ll be doing that while Holly does the engineering tasks."
"Are you two more engineers – or pilots?" Perez asked from his pad.
Holly grinned. "We can’t really answer that," she admitted. "We love flying, but we also love getting into the works and making things happen."
"That’s why we get more out of both," Quickdash told them. "As pilots we know how much further we can push the systems and get away with it. As engineers we better understand what a pilot may try to get out of their systems."
"So the engineer should be paired to their pilot?" Rock wondered.
"For the most out of the ship, yes," Holly agreed. "What good is a finely tuned ship if your pilot will never use her capabilities?"
"Or a just barely tuned ship that the pilot keeps pushing to failure?" Quickdash added. "Dad makes us trade off to ensure we understand why one is so important to the other."
"Speaking of which," Neal said from the station he’d settled Sharpeye at with feeds from the engineering systems, "Time to get us going. Nothing over eighty percent kids."
"We can do that," Holly agreed as Quickdash called for clearance.
Jake bobbled the changeover from belly to main thrusters, but only a little, the nose lifting a few degrees high before he was able to bring it back on track.
Quickdash caught him glancing hir way after he had them stable on the main thrusters. "Not bad," shi told him. "Holly and I almost turned turtle the first time we tried it," shi admitted.
"They were trying to show me how fast they could perform," Neal chuckled from where he sat next to Sharpeye. "Faster isn’t always better than precision. And what they’re going to be doing next requires both speed and precision."
"You’ll get it," Holly promised. "Any limits?"
"Three quarters will do," Neal suggested.
"Aye sir, we are free to use up to seventy-five percent of what Gwen ‘could’ safely do," Quickdash agreed.
"Meaning?" Sharpeye asked as shi looked up from the displays to Neal’s grin at hir.
"Meaning if this ship can do up to eighty percent light speed in a certain area of the gravity well, the kids will only take us up to sixty percent," Neal told hir. "No reason to scare you – or let Star Fleet see too much of what we can do."
"Clearing the atmosphere," Quickdash reported.
"Nelson, your bunch ready for us?" Holly called out.
"Ready!" came the reply.
"Gwendolyn will hold each course or speed change for at least fifty seconds to allow your teams time to try to join up," Holly warned. As Gwendolyn continued to climb, Holly watched for Quickdash’s signal before adding, "And the games start … NOW!"
Nelson let out an oath, but those aboard Gwendolyn didn’t hear it, as the warp fields blocked the signals. He and his squadron watched the small starship suddenly accelerate to almost fifteen percent light-speed – deeper in Chakona’s gravity well than it should have been possible! Even at Starbase 2’s higher orbit, the fighters would be hard pressed to match, much less catch Gwendolyn.
As promised, Quickdash held hir heading for over half a Chakonan minute before pointing Gwendolyn towards and above the planet’s northern pole and waiting almost another half minute. "5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1" shi called out before again only partially engaging the warp drive and thrusting them even faster in a new direction.
Most of Nelson’s group had finally gotten in range just before Gwendolyn made her next leap and most of them jumped after her almost instantly. Unable to warn them of what he suspected, Nelson could only cuss again as he aimed his own ship higher and not as deep into the planet’s gravity well. Sure enough, Gwendolyn came to a dead stop high above Chakona’s northern pole. While he was barely able to match the maneuver higher up, he watched as almost his entire squadron either couldn’t fully stop – or couldn’t engage their warp systems at all and just sailed past their target.
"Part of Gwen’s little trick is the same counter-grav systems used to reduce the apparent mass of shuttles and their loads," Neal was telling Sharpeye. "Less mass means the more powerful warp engines can be made to work deeper into a gravity well."
"But those fighters are smaller still," Sharpeye protested.
"Sure they are," Neal agreed, "but their warp systems are scaled down to match them, where as I have a full sized warp system with a fraction of its rated mass for it to move. How much higher could you jump if you had your muscles and Yellowstreak’s mass?" he asked hir.
"Damn it," Sharpeye muttered as Quickdash's countdown again challenged the Star Fleet fighters to keep up. "This throws out half my work …"
"No it doesn’t," Neal assured hir with a gentle clap on the shoulder, "it just makes you have to look at it in a different light." He looked over to where Quickdash was deciding on hir next move, Jake watching over one of hir shoulders and Rachel over the other. "Okay kids," he told them, "one more bounce in and out – then I want Gwen parked five thousand klicks outboard of Gateway. Holly, advise Gateway that we’d like to ensure there is nothing along our expected flight path while Quickdash warns our Fleet friends of our final stop. I don’t want them zooming through Gateway’s traffic."
"Can do," Quickdash responded. "Once there, I’ll let Jake here park us, then your little fox can take us back down."
"Just how low can you get in warp?" Sharpeye asked half hopeful.
"If it was an emergency, I might try hitting Gateway’s orbit," Neal quietly admitted, "but there’s a good chance it’d be more uncontrolled exit than controlled."
"But could you get to warp from Gateway’s orbit?" Sharpeye insisted.
"Na," Neal laughed, "nobody’s that good!"
Mere minutes later, Holly reported that they were over Gateway, and Quickdash handed helm control over to Jake.
"You’re not nervous that your new boss is watching your every move – are you Mister Carr?" Rock asked sweetly as he maneuvered Gwendolyn closer to her assigned port.
"More nervous about being distracted," he replied without looking up.
"Good," the Caitian said with a nod.
"Perfect Gwendolyn. Please disable thrusters," Docking Control said two minutes later. "Docking clamps are engaging and station tractor beams have you."
"Thrusters disengaged," Holly agreed. "Station has docking control, no umbilicals needed, we won’t be here long enough to power down."
"Understood Gwendolyn. By the way, did those ‘Terror Twins’ bring you in?" Docking Control asked.
"Nope," Holly snickered, "but we were the failsafe if the trainee goofed up!"
"Which he did not," Rock said with approval. "See you two soon," she added as she and Perez left, followed by Sharpeye who was going to join hir mate and daughter.
"So … now we can call you nobody?" Quickdash asked innocently. "Or not," shi added moments later at the look Neal was giving hir.
"It’s still not stable enough that I’d want you even thinking about it for anything less than a life or death scenario," Neal told hir before he too left the bridge.
"Gees, we’ve got it better than ninety percent, what more does he want?" Quickdash complained.
"He wants it so sure that any of us could make it happen – without him riding the engineering console like our lives depended on it," Holly told hir.
"It’s only forty-five percent chance with him not working his magic," a new voice quietly said from a nearby speaker.
Rachel and Jake looked around in confusion as Holly and Quickdash frowned. "Jake, Rachel, this is Tina, Gwendolyn’s AI," Holly finally said.
"Nice to meet the ones that have been – and will be – playing with my controls," Tina said. The open muzzle stares the fox and cat were giving each other caused a giggle to come from the speakers. "No harm, no foul you two," she told them. "It’s not your fault our Terror Twins didn’t properly introduce me."
"We don’t tell just anyone that Tina’s there," Holly admitted.
"Nor does Neal show a lot of his tricks," Tina pointed out. "He’s trusted these two with so much already that I didn’t think I’d be that big a deal."
Jake raised an eyebrow at Rachel and dryly said, "Makes ya wonder what they haven’t told us …"
"They do make having to deal with Rock and a regular crew seem almost trivial," she agreed. "Anything else you going to throw at us?" she asked them with a grin.
"I think any more surprises will be redundant at this point," Holly laughed. "If what Neal threw at you didn’t shake you – not much will."
Tina spoke up again. "Neal’s telling Rock goodbye, best get us ready to roll," she advised them.
"Your turn in the hot seat Rachel," Holly told the fox. "I’ll be your boss on the way down while Quickdash manages our power settings."
"Ready when you are!" Rachel said as she slid into the seat, hands already adjusting it to her smaller frame.
Two days later, Jake and Rachel were once again seated in the pilots’ lounge at the Marpletown station, a couple of bags on the seats next to them. Several of the other students were having a hushed discussion by the boards before a few of them came over.
"You two forgot to sign up on the training board," a dark-furred collie told them with a smirk.
"And Hadly’s been telling the other instructors not to take you anyway," added a rabbit.
Jake grinned slightly before replying, "First, we’re just here for a lift. Second, where we’re going, Hadly’s name is mud."
"And where would that be?" an older fox mildly asked. Kirkland had been doing a training flight and had missed what had happened, but the stories and rumors had gotten him curious.
"Gateway," Rachel replied.
"Who’d ya have to screw to rate that?" the collie laughed.
Jake bared his teeth, but Rachel just smiled sweetly. "If that was all it took we’d already be fully rated. However, Jake and I believe in learning and earning our credentials. Kirkland calling us to put us at the end of the list brought us to someone else’s attention," she taunted them.
"That guy with the little chakat," the rabbit guessed.
Jake nodded. "Not someone to mess with, but he does seem to know how to teach shuttle handling."
Kirkland frowned at Jake. "I saw your supposed ‘flight card’ recordings the next day," he told the cat. "There’s no way in hell you made that many attempts – and her numbers were even more ludicrous!"
"Are you calling ‘Old Man Foster’ a liar?" Rachel asked him with a small smile.
"And Starbase 2," Jake added with a grin. "Call them up, I’m sure they recorded our training sessions."
Kirkland was working on a reply when a yellow and white striped chakat and a male fox morph stepped into the lounge.
"Carr! Veronique!" the fox called out, sounding a bit like a drill instructor.
"Here!" Jake and Rachel snapped back almost together as they jumped up.
The fox eyed them carefully as he and the chakat approached. "I’m Robinson, and this is Chakat Friday," he told them. "Rock had us diverted to give you two a lift to Gateway. This all your stuff?" he asked seeing their bags.
Jake nodded. "Rock said the rest would be provided."
"Which of you guys were with Foster when he charged the Starbase?" Friday asked with a grin.
"She was," Jake replied. "I got stuck with a rather tame chakat – one who helped train the ‘Terror Twins’."
"We’ve met the twins," Friday snickered. "Are you claiming to be as good as they are?"
"Hell no," Jake laughed. "I’m just saying that shi wasn’t your average instructor either."
"You’ll find we aren’t either," Friday assured him.
Robinson chuckled. "Since he’s already used to being pussy whipped, he’s all yours, kitten. That means I get the little gal that impressed that ‘captain that should know better’," he told hir.
"Careful," Friday said as shi picked one of the bags by Jake. "She survived Foster."
"All the better," he said as he gave Rachel a wolfish grin. "Tell me my dear, have you done any time in a M54 personnel shuttle?"
"Not yet," Rachel admitted, the look she was giving him daring him to have an issue with it.
"Excellent! Then we’ll get to see how fast you learn," the fox said with a leer as he grabbed one of her bags. "We have a full load of passengers going up, and you just bought yourself the primary pilot seat. The foxes have number 17, the ‘cats get O5. We’re supposed to lift in twenty, so let’s get going!"
"Is he really that big of a jerk?" Jake asked as he and Friday did their preflight.
"Na, he’s cool," Friday replied. "He just got his nose rubbed in ‘Foster’ the other day and is still trying to sort truth from hype."
"Ours was just a couple days ago," Jake agreed. "Why are you so calm about it?"
Friday snickered. "Don’t you ever tell my partner, but I went to school with some kids that called ‘Old Man Foster’ Grump-pa. I’ve heard the stories and seen a couple of the things he supposedly did. Don’t worry about Foster, Rock is the one you’ll have to deal with."
"I’ve met her," Jake admitted.
"Do your best, that’s what she looks for. Like your friend, you get the hot seat for this trip."
"How gentle do we have to treat the ‘cargo’?"
"You don’t. Or actually you won't have to. The load’s Chakona Defense Force, so they expect us to give them a wild ride," Friday told him with a grin. "You have to reserve twenty-five percent of your reaction mass in case of an emergency, but the rest we can burn how we see fit. Oh, do be warned, as these are Defense Force shuttles, the fighters like to buzz them. So veer away, you want to keep at least a hundred klicks from any of the fighters. On the flip side, you getting within fifty klicks of one of them counts as a ‘kill’. Pisses them off when a mere shuttle can range them."
"Okay you two," Robinson’s voice said in both cockpits, "I know you both know about the fuel reserves and the fighters. To make things a little more interesting, I’m adding that this is a race – losers buy the winners dinner. We have clearance, the games start in 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1!"
"Bastard," they heard Rikki mutter from Robinson’s cockpit just before both shuttles leapt off the tarmac.
(This tall tale occurs 8-9 years before ‘Rikki Don't Lose That Number’ by James L. Brandt.)
A Day Off by Allen (redbear1158) Fesler © 2011
Chakats and the chakat universe © Bernard ‘Goldfur’ Doove
Rikki Venix, (Rachel Veronique) © James L. Brandt
Copyright © 2011 Allen Fesler Redbear1158@hotmail.com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
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