When Jo got home on Fourthday, she found Will sitting in his recliner in the living room. The original recliner had been damaged when their home on Earth had been broken into, but they had found a furniture-maker in Curtisport who could reproduce it from pictures that they had. Hy had also made it strong enough so that Track could curl up in it without any danger of it collapsing.
She pushed Will over to the side and climbed in next to him. She kissed him as he wrapped his arm around her and gave her a squeeze. He asked, "How did your session with Yapur go tonight?"
She sighed and rested hir head against his shoulder. "Hy seemed pleased, but I donít know. I still wish Hughes was dead."
Will frowned and asked, "Well, what can we do about that?"
Joís head jerked back and her jaw dropped open. "Donít tell me you want to hire an assassin to track him down and kill him!"
Will looked surprised, and then he frowned at Jo and said, "The universe would certainly be better off without him. Is that what you want to do?"
"Where would weÖ." Jo shook her head and jumped off of the chair. "We canít kill Hughes; that would make us just like him!"
"Hughes kills people for no good reason. I think there are very good reasons for him to be dead."
Jo crossed her arms and glared at Will. "I donít care what our opinions about Hughes are, he still deserves a trial like anyone else. I canít believe you asked me if you wanted us to kill him."
Will stood up and approached her, but she turned away. He said, "Jo, you misunderstood my question. What I meant was what are we going to do about how you feel, not how do we get rid of Hughes."
Jo frowned but turned back to him. "Well, you certainly let me run with it."
Will smiled sheepishly. "Once we started down that track, it seemed like a good idea to get it out of your system."
Jo gave him a hug and a kiss. "So are going into psychology now?"
"I think Iíd better stick to engineering."
Jo kissed him again and said, "Well, engineer, letís see if you can engineer something to take my mind off of this topic."
Andy Foster and his family arrived the next afternoon. They got settled in that evening, and then Jo and Andre met Mel and her kittens Sixthday morning with Teri, Peter, and Spots in tow. Andy went to the conference which was scheduled for three days. It was the first day of mid-term break so Teri had Sixthday and the next Secondday off.
It was raining, but that was normal for this season and everyone was prepared for it. Jo and Andre had enough things lined up so that nobody got bored, but Peter, Spots, and Art were dragging a bit in the afternoon. Jo got a PPV and showed them the waterfront. The sea was rough, but there were still some people in the water. Jo explained that these were lifeguards practicing for a competition held each year on Yearís End. The lifeguards were made up of teams of skunktaurs who found distressed swimmers using telepathy and astral travel, and generally made rescues using telekinesis. Despite this, they also took pride in being outstanding swimmers and were fully versed in Ďmanualí rescue techniques as well. She went by the port and Teri took Eddie and Joan up to the observation platform so shi could show them what was happening there.
By the time they got back to the Cochransí house, the little ones had had a nice nap and were ready to go again. Peter and Spots took Art back to Peterís room and when Mel started to follow, Andre said, "Donít worry about them, theyíll be alright."
Mel said, "You donít know what Art can get into in no time."
Jo smiled. "Whatever your one little pup does wonít be noticed compared to what Peter and Spots are capable of." She led Mel into the living room. "Have a seat. Can I get you something hot to drink? Tea? Coffee?"
Mel smiled and sat down. "Do you have any hot chocolate?"
"Of course, with or without peppermint?"
Jo also decided to have some hot chocolate and Andre asked for coffee. As she was bringing the drinks out, Spots came out, followed by Peter and Art. Shi asked, "Momma Jo, I smell hot chocolate. Can we have some too?"
Jo smiled and said, "Yes, come on into the kitchen." They then all moved into the kitchen.
Peter and Spots pulled a box up next to the table, and then Spots climbed up onto it while Art followed Peterís example, climbing onto chairs and kneeling on them so that they could sit at the big table with the grown-ups. Andre tied bibs around all three of their necks while Jo made their drinks. The kids finished theirs quickly and then jumped down to run off, but Jo said, "Put things away before you go."
They put the box back, and then ran off. Mel nodded at a small table in the corner with a couple of kid-sized chairs and ítaur pads. She smiled at Jo and said, "I see that you are prepared for small guests."
Andre said, "Jo is ready for guests of any size and shape."
Jo offered to freshen their drinks and then sat down with them. After talking a while and answering Melís questions about Curtisport, Jo said, "Track said something about your kidsí ĎGrumpa Nealí being Arcsí and Sparksí father?"
Mel nodded. "Neal Foster is a human who runs a freighter called the Folly. Quite some time ago he was involved in the rescue and evacuation of a colony that suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami. A group of kids ranging in age from about five up into the early teens decided that they wanted to stay together and they hid on his ship rather than being unloaded at the star base. With all of the confusion surrounding the rescue, no one noticed that they were still on the ship until after he left. He was running behind schedule so he couldnít afford to turn around and bring them back right then. It turned out that all of the kids had lost all of their close relatives on the colony and when they got back to Earth, he offered to adopt them and they accepted."
Jo and Andre looked astounded. Jo said, "If he raised Arcs and Sparks, he has to be in his eighties at least. Heís still running a freighter at that age?"
Mel smiled and nodded. "Heís older than that, but Iím not sure how much exactly. Heís had some sort of rejuve at some point, so heís in better shape than you would expect. From what Iíve heard from one of his daughters, he has another batch on board with him now, but they will be returning to their parents after this run."
Jo looked like her jaw was about to drop off. Andre said, "So he has more children than just Arcs and Sparks?"
"Yes. Arcs and Sparks tend to move around, rebuilding and repairing spaceships. There is one who lives just outside Amistad and is mated to a member of the council. I think you heard Joan mention her Auntie Passion." Jo nodded. "Shi is having hir latest birthing party on 4/43. There are also a couple of his kids in Star Fleet, a bunch that took after him and now run their own freighter. Several others are scattered around on several ships and planets."
Jo was sitting there trying to absorb all this when Teri, Eddie, and Joan came in. Teri asked, "Mom, can I show Eddie and Joan Dadís shop?"
Jo shook her head and looked at Teri. "Just remember the rules."
Teri nodded. "All of the safety interlocks will stay on. They just want to look."
"OK, Iíll ring the bell when itís time for dinner."
"Thanks, Mom." They got their slickers and went out the back.
Andre said, "Willís shop isnít usually on the standard visitorís tour."
Mel smiled and said, "It doesnít surprise me. I think that Eddie and Joan are both going to be engineers."
They then heard the door open. Quont, Track and Slirparton came in. Track took off hir rain cover, but the skunktaurs were just wearing waterproof belt pouches and looked dry after just shaking off on the front porch. In the wet season their fur got heavier and the outer layer was oily and shed water easily. After hugs all around, Quont said, "Will has gone downtown to collect Andy and bring him here. They should be here in about twenty minutes."
"In that case Iíll finish getting everything put together so it will be ready for Will." While she did that with some help from Track, everyone else sat down in the living room and visited. When Will and Andy came in, they heard Jo call from the kitchen, "Donít let Will take off his slicker. The grill is going and Iíve got stuff for him to cook."
Will walked into the kitchen and kissed Jo. "Iím glad we live on a planet. If we were on a space station, youíd make me put on a pressure suit and go outside to grill."
She smiled and said, "Yes, so count your blessings. Ring the bell when itís ready. Teri, Eddie, and Joan are out in the shop."
He snapped to attention and saluted her. "Yes Sir, Maíam, Sir." Then he kissed her again before going outside with the plate of food.
Teri Ďsupervisedí the little table during dinner while Eddie and Joan sat at the big table. Everyone enjoyed the meal and the company and Andre had prepared special individual treats for the kids for dessert. After dinner, Jo let the kitchen robot take care of the clean up and joined the other adults in the living room while the kids went back to Peterís and Teriís rooms. Mel told them that she also worked at Dewclaw University in the Sapient Resources Management Office. Andy smiled and said that was a fancy word for a headhunter. After several enjoyable hours, Mel noticed the time and said, "I didnít realize that it was so late. Iíd better check on the kids."
Jo followed her back and they found Teri, Eddie, and Joan playing a game in Teriís room. When they opened the door to Peterís room, they found Art curled up between Peter and Spots with a cover over them. Mel said, "I hate to wake him up and take him out in the rain."
"You donít have to leave tonight. Weíve got an extra room if you donít mind sharing a bed."
Jo turned around and started opening the door across the hall. Mel said, "Well, I donít know if weíllÖ."
Inside was a bed that could easily accommodate three Ďtaurs. Jo said, "Like I said, weíve got plenty of space."
"We will certainly all fit on that bed, but what about Quont and Track and Slirparton?"
"They only live three doors down. Track has a good rain slicker and hir winter coat. The rain doesnít bother Quont and Slirparton. Spots and Peter often spend the night together either here or there."
Mel smiled. "In that case, I think weíll accept your offer."
Jo nodded. "I just need to tell you that there is only one bathroom in the house and it doesnít have a lock on the door. There are likely to be naked people wandering around in the morning."
"That isnít a problem; some of them will be us. With all the chakat and foxtaur relatives in this family, no one will even notice anything."
That settled, they went back to join the others. It turned out that Mel and Andy did have the bed to themselves that night. Eddie and Joan crashed with Teri before the grown ups had talked themselves out.
Jo got up early the next morning and collected their guestsí clothes to clean them while they were getting up and showering. Jo also had extra toothbrushes that she kept on hand for surprise guests. Will made breakfast for everyone and while they were eating, Eddie asked, "Dad, can Teri come up and see the Folly when Grumpa gets here?"
He looked at Eddie and Joan, sitting on either side of Teri. "That would depend on Teriís folks and, of course, your Grumpa Neal."
Mel said, "It is worth the time to see it if you can work it in. Neal especially seems to like showing off to engineering types to see how many impossible things they can find."
Will smiled and said, "I can say that it is tempting. I havenít had a chance to look at a large freighter before. Didnít you say you expected him around New Yearís?" Andy nodded and Will looked at Teri. "You know that we leave for Earth on Secondday of Week Two. I donít know if we can work it in, depending on when he actually gets here. Freighter schedules are often subject to unplanned disruptions."
Teri nodded. "I knew it would be close, but Eddie and Joan said that the Folly is different from other ships."
Andy laughed. "Saying that the Folly is different is a bit of an understatement. Iím sure that Quont and Track would get a kick out of seeing it since they used to be in Star Fleet."
"Weíll see how the timing works out. Now, Andy needs to get on his way even if the rest of us donít have to work today."
Mel said, "Weíve got some things to do today before we take the train to New Bletchley tomorrow. Thank you for your hospitality, and I hope we can return the favor the next time youíre in Berdoovia."
"I can call a PPVÖ."
"No need for that, just show us where the tram station is and weíll be fine."
Teri said, "I can take them down to the tram station."
The rain had stopped, but it was still overcast. Everyone gathered their things and after hugs all around, Teri led them down to catch the tram to downtown.
Captain Lindrom was sitting at hir desk when Detective Chakat Runner came in, tapping on the door as shi came through.
Lindrom looked up and Runner said, "This receipt that Shir Slirparton gave us for that power unit doesnít seem to be real."
"What do you mean, not real? Do you think hy faked this for some reason?"
The chakat shook hir head. "No, but I canít find any business called ĎSpaceport Industrial Supplyí in the license database."
Lindrom snorted and said, "Seems like an odd sort of thing for a black market operation. What have you found?"
Runner took out hir padd and pulled something up before handing it to hir boss. "There was this add in the search archives, which apparently was what they found when they were looking for a power supply. The comm codes match, but the code is now listed as inactive."
"Damn black market comms! Weíre just a city PD and thereís no telling where this stuff comes from. We havenít got near enough to get a warrant to pry into the comm records. What did you find out about the unit?"
"Firebrand Power Systems did make it and sold it to Skylift Supply, which has been here in Amistad for decades. They sold it to Sormand Heavy Lift."
"I didnít think they would anything that small."
"They normally donít, but this was for a package they were putting together for a station. They were supposedly returned, which surprised their production manager, but it wasnít to Skylift. There seems to be some confusion in their records."
"Alright. Give what youíve got to The Shrew and tell him to start prying into it. Iím pretty sure that Sormand will cooperate without having to get a warrant.
"What about that robbery on Ö."
At the beginning of the next week, Slirparton asked hys mates and Will and Wing Breeze to join him. As they were coming in Will said, "We got our first two revenue orders out this morning."
Slirparton checked hys PADD and said, "Thatís good. They shouldnít have any trouble getting there on time." Hy looked over at Wing Breeze and Quont. "You two are going out to take care of training our customers?"
They nodded and Wing Breeze said, "Yes, Iíll be going to Berdoovia and Quont will handle the one in Amistad. Iíll be taking Tatka with me for some hands-on training. Hyís been doing well in the simulations and is starting to gather applications for our training and customer service staff."
"Very good." Slirparton transferred a set of documents to their PADDs. "Someone has thrown down a gauntlet, so to speak. Iíve gotten a message from Hampton Freight Forwarders. They have two pods to be unloaded here in Curtisport. Theyíve asked us to unload one and Sormand Cargo Systems to unload the other one and they want to watch the unloading."
Track smiled. "So someone has heard of us and wants to check us out."
"Thatís what it looks like. Iíve never heard of Hampton Freight Forwarders, but their shipment has cleared health screening and customs and they have posted a bond to cover the standard unloading fee for two pods. Revenue will be divided according to how fast the pods are unloaded, accuracy of sorting, and damage incurred."
Wing Breeze asked, "Sorting?"
Slirparton nodded. "Some of the carriers are destined for local delivery; those will be stacked as normal. The ones for other parts of Mephitis we will be loading on rail cars."
"That wonít be any problem from a control standpoint; the sorting routines are all there."
Will chimed in, "They would be better off using the equipment already at the spaceport for loading the rail cars instead of the TracBots."
Slirparton nodded. "Thatís what I told him, but this is what he wanted. Iím inclined to agree. This will be a good PR opportunity that we will actually get paid for. At the demo in Amistad, we had to pay the shipper to use his pod."
Will started doing some calculations on his PADD. "If weíre using TracBots to load the rail cars, weíre going to need to build a support frame. We canít count on using the pod to support them."
"He wants to do the demo on Sixthday. Can you have that ready by then?"
"Yes, that wonít be a problem." Will made a few more notes and looked up. "Iíll get up with Brun and we can get that put together."
Slirparton nodded. "Very well. The pods will be delivered on the evening of Fifthday by Amistad Orbital Transfer and he wants to start at five-fifty on Sixthday."
Will and Wing Breeze got up to leave, but Slirparton said, "Will, could you stay for a few minutes?"
"Certainly," he replied, sitting back down.
After Wing Breeze left, hy said, "Have you had a chance to talk with Jo about that offer we made you?"
Will nodded. "Yes, weíve decided to accept. Weíve also decided to hold the stock jointly."
Slirparton glanced at Track, who said, "I donít see any problem with that." Shi smiled. "I knew you two were lifemates as soon as I met Jo when you got to Chakona. You two arenít going to split up, and Jo seems to have a good head on her shoulders."
Slirparton nodded and said, "So you will receive a fourteen percent stake in Cargo Engineering in exchange for services performed and your future patent royalties. Professor Oxendine and the university will continue collecting on those patents." Hy indicated Track and Quont. "This is the same share that each of us have, so between the five of us, we control fifty-six percent of the company."
Will opened a file on his PADD. "I have Joís limited Power of Attorney, so I can sign this for both of us."
"Very well." Slirparton handed him a PADD, and Will sealed it after transferring the PoA to it.
Hy took the PADD back. "Now that that is finished, welcome to the Board. We also have another offer to consider. Chakat Arcs Foster and Ms. Sparks Foster have offered to make an investment in kind in Cargo Engineering consisting of seventy-six tonnes of Boronike."
"That is much more than we need for even our most hopeful forecasts for the next year. Can we sell that much without affecting the market?" Will said, making some calculations on his PADD.
"Yes, between Curtisport, Amistad, and Gateway, there are enough manufacturers of replicator and transporter equipment that I wonít have any problem selling what we donít need."
Track asked, "How much of a stake will this be?"
"It will be eight percent of our outstanding stock. This will allow us to retire the last of our bank loans and also put us in a position where we can take a look at longer term contracts for our future Boronike requirements, rather than buying on the spot market like we have been."
"How does that compare to our other outside investors?" asked Will.
"This will put them at number two. The Curtisport Investment Bank is still the largest with twelve percent, and then there are ten smaller investors."
Quont said, "Arcs and Sparks are part of that loose arrangement of ships centered around the Folly, and are, in fact, Captain Fosterís children. Does that give you any concerns?"
"From everything that Iíve been able to find, this group is not an activist entity when it comes to their investments. Their emphasis seems to be on ethical conduct by the managers and competence in running the companyís affairs." Hy looked around at hys partners. "If there are no more questions, shall we accept this offer?"
It was agreed on unanimously, and Slirparton said, "Will, I will be joining you and your family on your upcoming trip to Terra."
"I take it you want to check out Alice Maeger personally."
"She seems very capable, but you are correct."
On Sixthday morning, everyone met at the Curtisport Spaceport. There were two standard sixty meter pods sitting next to the rail spurs which were filled with empty cars. A young looking Quange came up and introduced himself as Mike Hampton. There was a chakat with him named CalmMeadow. The manager from Sormand was a Voxxan named Chaki Tuparr. The crew from Cargo Engineering had a dozen TracBots and the support frame that Will and Brun had constructed. Sormand had four large self propelled tractor beam units with an operator on each one.
Mr. Hampton pulled a control unit out of his pocket and opened all of the side loading doors of the pods. He said, "You both have your manifests and sorting orders?" They acknowledged that they did. "Very well, you may begin."
Both teams started by clearing out the central aisles of the pod so that they would have room to work. It took two TracBots to handle a fully loaded carrier, but that still gave them a three to two advantage over the larger units. A bigger advantage was that the little ones could move around faster and empty or lightly loaded carriers could be handled by one, freeing up another up to be used elsewhere. Tuparr was constantly talking into his com, issuing instructions to his crew as he kept track of their progress on his PADD. Seeing that he was getting behind, he told them just start stacking up the carriers that were to be loaded on the rail cars; they would get them loaded later.
After about half an hour, with the TracBots still pulling ahead, there was a louder than normal bang and an alarm went off on the PADD that Shir CalmMeadow was holding. Shi said, "Everyone stop, please." and went over to talk with Mr. Hampton.
He turned to Tuparr and said, "Where is carrier JLPU 229462?"
His crew had to hunt around a bit but found the carrier at the top of a stack waiting on the rail side. Mr. Hampton asked him to bring the carrier down and he snarled and said, "Whatís going on? Weíre wasting time."
Mr. Hampton said, "The accelerometer alarm in that carrier went off, and youíre not wasting time, I stopped both teams."
Tuparr grumbled but had one of his crew bring the carrier down. When it was on the ground in front of them, Mr. Hampton unsealed it and opened the door, only to quickly close it again as a thick golden liquid started oozing out of the carrier. He smiled at Tuparr and said, "Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of eight thousand kilos of fine sourwood honey, imported from Terra. Iím sure that you can figure out how to get it out of the carrier and get the broken glass separated from it."
"What is this, putting a ringer in our pod? They would have broken it too!"
"The pods were about evenly loaded. It was also clearly marked on the manifest as Ďfragileí."
Shir CalmMeadow had been looking at hir PADD. Shi said, "There are two loads of honey in the other pod, NNU 44573 and UXOU 553480."
Wing Breeze said, "The NNU carrier hasnít been unloaded yet, but the UXOU is the bottom carrier in the third car down."
They all went down there and Wing Breeze directed the TracBots to unload the two carriers from the rail car. Mr. Hampton opened the doors. "Everything looks intact." He turned to the chakat. "May I use your scanner?"
Shir CalmMeadow handed him the scanner and he walked around the carrier, looking at the readout. "Nothing damaged." He gave the scanner back and closed and sealed the doors. "Put these back and weíll get going again."
As they started up again he turned to Slirparton. "Why is it that he is scrambling like mad but you five are just standing here watching them?"
Slirparton smiled. "The TracBots are autonomous. Wing Breeze has carefully created the programs and honed them to the point that our interfering with them would just reduce their performance."
Mr. Hampton nodded and turned back to watch. Tuparrís crews were being more careful now, but were getting further behind. After about another 75 minutes, a siren started sounding from inside the pod they were working on. Mr. Hampton said, "Stop again, please."
Everyone walked up to where one of Tuparrís crew members sat in the unit. Shi shut down the power as they approached, silencing the siren. Tuparr snarled, "What happened?"
The chakat on the unit said, "I was getting ready to lift that carrier and it blew the overload breakers."
Shir CalmMeadow said, "That carrier is listed on the manifest as high value and heavy." Shi looked up. "It is a full carrier of Boronike."
Mike looked at the tractor beam unit, which was straddling the door, and the carrier on the other side of the pod. "Is this unit rated to lift that much from this distance?"
Tuparr shook his head. "No, but thereís no way those little toys could have lifted that carrier, period!"
Quont looked up from where hy had been studying Wing Breezeís control unit with her. "Youíre right, one couldnít do it. Thatís why four of them worked together to lift our load of Boronike."
"Thereís no way four separate tractor beam units can work together that closely!"
"Considering theyíve already moved their Boronike carrier, Iíd have to guess youíre wrong about that," Calmmeadow suggested after consulting hir PADD.
Quont just smiled as Tuparr scowled. Mr. Hampton turned to Tuparr and said, "I think Iíve seen enough. Youíre behind them and falling further behind as we go. Youíve have damaged my freight, and now youíre damaging your own equipment. Youíve got three carriers on the rail side that should be in the local pile, and Cargo Engineering has been sorting carriers onto the railcars by destination, which is more than I asked for."
"Theyíve got twelve of those things!"
Slirparton smiled and said, "The list price for those twelve TracBots is about forty percent of what youíve been asking for four of your units."
Mr. Hampton looked at Slirparton and then back at Tuparr. "Mr. Tuparr, would you please remove your crews and equipment? You can take that carrier of honey with you if you like." He turned back to Slirparton. "Shir Slirparton, could I ask that your team finish unloading this pod as well?"
Hy nodded. "Certainly, Mr. Hampton."
They walked back to the edge of the apron as the Sormand crew started removing their equipment. There was a smattering of applause from the small crowd that had gathered to watch. They were mostly skunktaurs, a few chakats, and, in the back, a red haired human with a large umbrella.
After everyone else had left, the red haired human came up and gave Mr. Hampton and Shir CalmMeadow each a hug. As he turned around, Slirparton came up to him and, offering to shake his hand, said, "Captain Foster, I presume. I am Slirparton, House Redpaw, child of Randolph and Sweetpaws"
While the human was holding hys hand, his eyes narrowed a little and then he smiled. "Well, I donít think youíre in my head, but you seem to know who I am."
Slirparton smiled. "No, just putting two and two together, Mr. Foster. There arenít that many red haired humans in Curtisport. Also, I see that this Boronike is consigned to us from your daughters as payment for stock in Cargo Engineering." Hy looked Neal in the eye and grinned. "I also noticed that you had 38 tonnes of Boronike in each carrier, compared to the standard capacity of 26.5 tonnes."
Neal shrugged. "I just wanted to see what your little TracBots were capable of. And call me Neal."
"Very well, Iíd like to introduce my mates and associates." Indicating the other skunktaur hy said, "This is Quontiale, who is in charge of our tractor beam systems, William Cochran, mechanical systems and manufacturing operations, Wing Breeze MíBri, IT and artificial intelligence, and Powertracker, power systems."
Neal looked up at the sky and said, "While I did bring an umbrella, it wonít do much for the rest of you. Do you need to stay here and supervise these things?"
Wing Breeze shook her head. "No, they will do just fine without us. Iíve uploaded the manifest from the other pod and arranged for refueling."
Neal looked a little surprised. "Refueling?"
Track said, "One of the compromises to make them this small. They only carry enough fuel to last three or four hours in this sort of application."
"What is the fuel, Powertracker was it?"
"These use micro-fusion power units, but we also can install broadcast power receivers and weíre working with our supplier to develop a small antimatter core for off-planet applications." Shi smiled and added, "And just call me Track, and this is Quont and Will." Shi glanced at Slirparton. "My mate believes in using a personís entire name."
Wing Breeze chuckled. "I have convinced hym, though, not to introduce me as Mrríbwnnrlísiv."
Slirparton just smiled and said, "Would you all like to come by the plant and see how we put these together before you get soaked?"
As they were walking to the tram station, CalmMeadow shook hir head and then rubbed hir hand across it. Slirparton asked hir, "Are you getting a bit of a headache?"
Shi smirked and said, "Yeah, I think it was getting up too early this morning. Weíve been on Amistad time."
"That may be part of it, but this may help." Hy pulled a headband out of hys belt pouch and offered it to hir.
Shi looked at it and said, "Your customs people gave me one of those when we got here. Weíve got a couple of chakats on board who are being trained with those, but Iím not. It doesnít feel like somebody is intruding and Iíve got pretty good shields."
Hy smiled. "Empathy among skunktaurs operates on a subconscious level. Skunktaurs are constantly exchanging energy in this empathic field, but chakats only receive it, without being aware of what is happening. You have no way of getting rid of it, and it builds up. If not removed, you will eventually start manifesting our mental powers, again without conscious control."
Shi looked at hym crossly. "Iíve been around skunktaurs before. Weíve got three on the ship right now!"
"Having three on the ship isnít the same as being surrounded by more than ten thousand of us."
"What will that do to me? The chakats on the ship that use them, it cuts them off completely from everyone. I donít want that!"
"You say you havenít received any training with headbands?" After shi shook hir head, hy continued, "Then it wonít do anything to you. After all, itís just a piece of cloth."
Shi gave hym a suspicious look. "Then what good will it do?"
"It will keep us out of your head," hy said, "We are trained to respect the restrictions implied by the headband. Those around you will notice it and pass that information along through the link we share." Smiling hy offered the headband again.
Shi took it and, putting it on, said, "Iíll try it." After it was firmly on hir head, shi said, "I donít feel any different."
"Iíll ask you how you feel in about twenty minutes."
CalmMeadow looked up at Track who was walking next to Neal talking about small antimatter cores. Shi turned back to Slirparton. "Why doesnít shi have one on?"
"Powertracker is mated to Quontiale and me. Hy and I drain the emotional energy from hir through the bond created by that mating so that it doesnít build up to the point where shi starts manifesting our mental powers."
"You mean you have to do this all of the time?"
Hy shook hys head. "No, that operates unconsciously so long as shi is linked to one or more of us through a bond like mating or between a parent and a child."
Just then it started to rain, but they were close to the tram station. Most of them ran up to the station to get out of the rain, but Neal just opened his umbrella while Track pulled a rain cover out and put it on while continuing their discussion.
There were some others from the Folly waiting for them at the tram station, a female Rakshani and a foxtaur vixen, both of whom were pregnant. The vixen was holding a foxtaur kit who looked about a year and a half old, and the Rakshani was holding the tail of a chakat cub who was apparently trying to run out into the rain toward the approaching group. As soon as Captain Foster came into the tram station and started to fold up his umbrella, the Rakshani let go of the cub who took a running leap and was caught by the captain. After giving the little ones some attention, Neal introduced the Rakshani as Bonita, the vixen was Weaver, and the little ones were Chakat Firestorm and Starblazer.
They rode the tram down the line a few stops and got off. It was a short walk from there to the Cargo Engineering plant. A skunktaur from the plant met them and was introduced as Tatka, House of Blackpaw. Hy had rain slickers for everyone but the two little ones, who were carried by Captain Foster and Weaver, under the protection of the captainís umbrella. When they got into the plant, Track said, "Neal, I was planning on showing you around the plant, but Firestorm there is very tightly bonded to someone, and from hir actions I would assume that it is you."
"Thatís right," replied Neal, giving the cub a tickle. Firestorm responded by giggling and then snuggling up against him, purring. "We bonded when shi was born. Iím surprised that shi has let us be apart for as long as we have been this morning. I snuck down to watch your demonstration while shi and Star were taking a nap."
Will said, "Our production area is safe for most visitors, but Iím not sure about two that are this young."
"If youíd like to see it, I can keep the little ones out of trouble and still let them explore a little," said Quont. "My daughter and Willís son are about their age and Iíve managed to keep them in check when theyíve visited."
Everyone agreed to that plan, and they all went into the plant except Slirparton, who explained that hy had some things to take care of and went up to hys office. Their visitors seemed fascinated seeing the various parts of the TracBots being moved around and assembled by skunktaur telekinetics without any anti-grav units or cranes. There were also a number of robots in the plant to take care of the simpler, more repetitive operations.
When they got to the far side of the plant, there was what looked like a lounge with a dozen skunktaurs on pads, apparently napping. Weaver asked, "You have sleeping facilities for you employees here?"
Will shook his head. "They may appear to be sleeping, but they are actually working harder than anyone else in the plant." Seeing her raised eyebrow, he smiled and continued, "These are the teams who are applying the Boronike and the ceramic/nickel composite to the molds for the internal components using astral projection and telekinesis." He indicated a pair of skunktaurs of House Bluepaw. "They are unpacking the molds for the components and moving them into the autoclave. Once in there, the teams in the other room apply a thin coating of Boronike to the wear areas, and then the ceramic/nickel slurry. The parts are then moved into the next chamber where the ceramic is fired, and then they are placed in the molds and molten high strength steel is poured into them. After the parts have cooled, the molds are broken open and the parts are machined to the final specifications."
"I wouldnít mind seeing the application of the Boronike," said the captain.
"I wish I could show it to you," Will said as he picked up one of the molds, "but it is applied to areas such as the teeth on this pinion mold. Since the Boronike is molten, we havenít been able to find any sensors that can get in that small space and survive the conditions in there."
Quont smiled and added, "If you want to take your hat off, I may be able to get one of the telepaths in the plant to link you to an astral traveler so you can Ďseeí whatís happening inside there."
The captain shook his head. "Thanks anyway, but I think Iíll pass on that."
"In that case, Slirparton tells me that hy is having lunch brought in." Hy turned to Will. "Hy called Jo and she is bringing Spots and Peter over to help keep the little ones company."
They all went back to the office area and gathered in a conference room for lunch. Will introduced Jo, Peter, and Spots to everyone, and their little ones seemed to hit it off well. As they were finishing lunch, Slirparton came up to the captain and said, "Iíve been in touch with the manager at the spaceport. Apparently the bonding agency for Sormand has been in touch with someone up on your ship named ĎTessí." The captain nodded, so hy continued, "They have settled for the insured value of the carrier, but neither Sormand nor their bonding company want it. They have offered it for sale for ten percent of the insured value." Hy handed a data chip to the captain. "This is a company that specializes in damaged cargo recovery. They are licensed to process food, and the carrier lining is rated for food contact. If you are interested, they can likely recover most of the honey."
Neal looked interested and asked, "I can see separating the unbroken jars, but how will they handle the rest of it?"
Slirparton smiled. "They use telekinetics like we do. Recovering the honey and separating and cleaning it shouldnít be any problem for them."
"Thank you." He tapped his com badge and said, "Tess? Go with it. Offer them a bonus of ten percent of whatever they recover."
"Aye aye Boss," Nealís comm badge replied.
"Well thank you, Slirparton, thatíll save me having to drag down another carrier of honey," Neal admitted before taking another bite of his sandwich.
"I wouldnít think honey would be worth shipping," Quont said. "There are bees and honey here."
"True," Neal admitted, "but the plants the bees get their pollen from are different, giving each planetís honey a unique flavor. In fact weíll be picking up a load of honey from Yarraville next week."
After lunch, the rain had cleared up, so Jo offered to show them around the city and promised some suitable entertainment for the little ones. Will and his business partners had a few things to take care of before the plant shut down for the week, and promised to meet them when Teri and Andre got finished with school.
After seeing several other places, Jo took them to the Freedom Monument. It had been erected soon after the founding of the city to commemorate the liberation of the chakat-kin skunktaurs from the Three Firms. There was a playground in the park adjacent to the monument and the kids went to play there, Firestorm and Starblazer, called Stormy and Star, dragging Neal along with them. Mike joined them while Jo sat down on a bench with Bonita, Weaver and CalmMeadow sitting next to it.
"After the rain this morning, Iíd expect everything to be soaked, but itís not more than damp," said Weaver.
Jo nodded. "All of these facilities are designed so that the water drains off quickly."
"But there must be native plants that prefer to be wet."
"There are." Jo pointed to an area of mixed scrub and forest on the other side of the park. "That is an area that has been left in its natural state. If you went in there, you would be belly deep in muck in no time."
Weaver nodded and CalmMeadow asked, "Why is there such a concentration of skunktaurs here in the Archipelago? Iíve occasionally seen them elsewhere, but they are rather rare."
"This area was given over to the chakat-kin when Chakona was first explored," Jo replied. "As far as why they stayed here, I heard you talking to Slirparton at lunch about skunktaur empathy." CalmMeadow nodded, touching the headband that shi was wearing. "From what Iíve been told, most skunktaurs enjoy the emotional exchange that they get in a large concentration of them like this. If you travel around the Archipelago, you will generally find them in small cities and towns, rather than scattered across the countryside. Quont tried to explain the feeling to me, and the closest thing hy could come up with was that it felt like a warm fire on a cold, stormy night."
"Iíve noticed that many of the skunktaurs of the House of Redpaw wear headbands, but I havenít seen any of them here wearing one," said Bonita.
"Yes, that is done as a courtesy as much as anything else. No skunktaur telepath that I have met would ever take advantage of anyone, but when they are here, in their home, they consider it the responsibility of their visitors to wear the headband if they are worried about that. I do know that Slirparton will wear one whenever hy is having business dealings with anyone who is not a skunktaur, even if they have been here for many years."
Jo glanced at Weaver and back at Bonita. "From watching you two at lunch, I would venture a guess, and it is only that, since I am a solid E-0, that you are both mated to Neal."
Bonita smiled. "Your guess is correct, we are Nealís mates."
Jo nodded. "I had wondered. I know that it is not unusual for foxtaurs to have multiple mates, but it is rare among humans."
Bonita just grinned and said, "Neal is very creative, and it takes more than one of us to keep him out of trouble."
That comment brought a giggle from CalmMeadow, who quickly covered hir muzzle. Hir laughter was still in hir eyes though.
Jo raised her eyebrows and asked, "You too?"
That brought an outright laugh from hir. "No, Mike and I are two of his adopted children."
"Well thatís a relief. I know that chakats are very relaxed about these things, but that would seem to be robbing the cradle."
Shi smiled and said, "What Bonita isnít telling you is that she and Weaver are not Nealís only mates."
Jo was about to ask about this when Neal, Mike and the kids came back over. Peter ran up to Jo and gave her a hug. "Mamma, waní ice cream."
Jo smiled and said, "You have to ask correctly."
Peter screwed up his face, and concentrated saying, "May we have ice cream?" He thought a moment before adding, "Please?"
"If it is OK with Captain Neal, you may have some ice cream."
Neal smiled. "Make me the heavy. I could use something about now too. I do need to go over to the fish market though. The Shipís Cook called and said that she is done shopping."
"I know of an ice cream shop near there; we can stop there after we meet your cook."
The kids all cheered and Jo led them to the tram for the ride down to the fishing pier. When they got there, they were met by a female rabbit morph who, after giving Stormy and Star each a hug, hugged Neal and planted a kiss on him that indicated she was much more than just an employee.
Jo glanced at CalmMeadow and asked, "Another one of Nealís mates?" At hir nod, she continued, "And there are how many more?"
CalmMeadow rolled hir eyes and started counting on hir fingers. "Letís see, Weaver was his first mate, as well as being First Mate of the Folly, then came Stew," nodding at the rabbit, "and Moonglow, Stormyís wet nurse, and then Bonita, Zhanch, Dessa, Kestral, and Whitetail, who are all Rakshani."
Jo looked at the rabbit. "A rabbit named Stew?" CalmMeadow nodded. "Are they all pregnant?"
"Dessa and Moonglow arenít," shi said, smiling, "and since Lighttouch is in female phase, Moonglowís unlikely to become so, but hy might."
The rabbit finally let go of Neal and added, "Donít forget his companions."
"Yes, ten companions, nine Rakshani and a Caitian."
"This is worse than a Starwalker clan. Do they," she waved her hands around to indicate everyone, "have other mates?"
Stew smiled and said, "Yes, there is only one of him and we try not to strain him too much." She gave Neal another peck as his other mates and children chuckled before continuing. "You can call me Stew or Susan. Neal warned me to expect guests this afternoon. I take it that is your family."
"We havenít actually been invitedÖ" Jo started.
"Well you are now," said Weaver, grinning at Neal.
Jo glanced at Neal, the look on her face asking is this alright?
Neal just shrugged and said, "When any of my mates reach a decision, Iíve found itís usually best to just smile and nod my head."
Jo smiled. "This is very precious, a male with good sense. Itís nice to know that there are at least two in the universe." With that she called Andre, asking hir to pick up Teri and bring hir to the spaceport, and then called Will.
Another group of Nealís mates and children met them at the ice cream shop. Despite everyone seeming to be happy, Jo started wondering just what Captain Foster was doing. She was also surprised when the teenaged chakat and the little ones that came with the second Rakshani were calling Calmmeadow and Mike ĎMomí and ĎDadí.
Will arrived with Teri, Andre, and Spotsí parents before she had a chance to ask anyone about this. After the ice creams, they went to the space port and all trooped into a shuttle for the flight up to the Folly.
To be continued in Chapter Five.
Copyright © 2010 Tim Rumph tarumph AT gmail.com
Chakats, Chakona and the Chakat Universe are the creation of Bernard Doove and are used with his permission.
Skunktaurs were created by Bob Reijns.
Boronike, Arcs Foster, and Sparks Foster were created by Allen Fesler.
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