Tales of the Folly
By Allen Fesler
Book One: The Curse
Chapter 13

It being a proven fact that pregnant females (and herms) have smaller bladders than non-pregnant ones, Suzan was awake again well before ship’s morning, only to find Neal still cuddling her, his PADD not quite resting on the top of her head. She considered surprising him with a tickle attack before deciding that not only would she lose the fight, but that it would most likely involve them having to change the bedding. Instead Neal received a quick kiss before she started extracting herself from between him and the cubs.

The same reasoning for the smaller bladder also helped explain her having a stomach that didn’t hold nearly enough to feed two, much less three, so she next headed for the kitchen for a quick snack. There she discovered that Weaver, Zhanch, and Kestrel had also had similar urges. A quick request from the replicator and she joined them with a bowl of peaches and cream ice-cream.

"Neal’s in the cubs’ room, reading," she informed them as she sat down.

"What’s he looking over, Tess?" Weaver asked.

"A variation of the skimdrive technology we got from Terra and Hydro," Tess replied. "He’s already cross-referencing the specs to a couple of the newer Zulus, so it seems he is already coming up with a plan," she warned them.

"That fast?" Zhanch wondered. "He’s only had a few hours to look at it."

"It’s not really new tech," Tess explained, "just a different way to do it. It can be a major speed boost if it works right."

"We have an example of what ‘done wrong’ looks like sitting in the repair bay," Weaver informed the Rakshani with a chuckle. "Our ‘engineers’ spotted the wreck at one of the stations we stopped at."

"And they convinced you to buy it?" Kestrel asked in surprise.

"No," Suzan laughed, "it was more like ‘They followed us home when we told them we might be able to help – can we keep them?’ We have a pair of skunktaur guests anxiously waiting to see if Neal will approve repairing their ship."

"Supposedly autopilots and AIs can’t handle it in flight, so the kids are looking forward to some ‘seat of the pants’ flying once they have it working right," Weaver commented.

"They’re just not using a smart enough AI," Tess assured them from one of the galley speakers.

"Well, that explains him reading in bed," Kestrel chuckled, "he doesn’t want them to be able to blindside him with the data."

"Well, that and Tina’s ship clock said it was just late afternoon when we docked," Zhanch reminded her.

"Speaking of your little outing, how did it go?" Weaver asked.

Zhanch smiled. "We got lucky. Seems one of the deities that came on board at Raksha was riding that first missing Zulu when it found Sharp Claw. The reason the Zulus never returned was because she was using their power to keep the ship alive."

"I didn’t know they could transfer their power to other ships," Suzan marveled.

"I’m not sure even our engineers in training know everything those Zulus can do, never mind Neal’s other toys," Weaver pointed out. "Case in point, we all know that Neal’s setting up more colonies after this loop. Well, it seems that the Zulus he’ll be taking with him will be armed."

"No surprise there," Zhanch countered, "he needs to be able to protect not only the convoy going out, but the colonies once they’re established."

"Maybe, but these will have tricks that will probably make Star Fleet take a harder look at him when they see them. Each one will not only have the firepower of a small fighter, but they look like they’re to be launched in groups to increase their effectiveness. And that ‘manned’ Zulu? Not only does it have heavier weapons, but six hard points that look like they could be used for mounting the smaller Zulus or deities know what else."

Kestrel’s smile wasn’t pleasant as she murmured, "A fighter with six remote flying guns? Sounds like my kind of fun. When does he pick up his new toys?"

"Not until we’re done with this loop through the Federation," Weaver told her. "Then what I’ve found says Folly gets some kind of major upgrade and Neal starts loading all the gear and personnel bound for the colonies."

"Will you be going with him?" Kestrel asked.

Weaver nodded with a grin. "Oh yes, somebody’s got to try to keep him under control. Then there’s staying close to Holly and Quickdash … And last, but by no means least, both Longsock and I would like to see both the old and new colonies he helped set up."

Both Rakshani nodded as Kestrel said, "My cub and I will see them as well. Whether we stay out there depends on what we see."

Finishing her snack, Suzan said, "Well, I’m going back to bed. I’ll see if I can’t get him to at least take a nap before he debates merits with them."

"Good luck," Zhanch replied.

"We’ve heard it was a rescue so you stayed longer to celebrate," Weaver commented to Neal the next morning as everyone converged in the lounge after breakfast.

"And I see you guys have been busy picking up still more hitchhikers," Neal countered with a grin.

"Are you saying they should have left me behind?" Jackie asked from where she was sitting next to Suzan.

"No, I thought you should have left years ago," Neal told her. "Glad to see they found you something to do."

"Your family has been quite supportive," she replied. "I’ve been promised a job until Stew has her twins, possibly a bit longer. Unless of course you say no."

"And put myself in the doghouse? Not likely," he chuckled.

"So, anything you wanted to tell us while you have all of us in one spot?" Suzan asked.

"Nope. Just seeing how everyone’s doing before I get pulled seven directions at once."

"Well, other than you needing to drop a few kilos, the chief cook isn’t upset with you," she said with a smile.

Weaver smiled as she took her turn, "Other than Jackie’s station trying to pull a fast one, all the deliveries went ok. Tess also picked up a report that the space liner Star Nomad was delayed two weeks by some type of drive failure, so Tauna isn’t quite as far behind her friend as she feared."

Neal nodded. "I saw the notes, that backflow couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch." Smiling at Tauna he said, "Sorry it’s taking longer than you were hoping for, but we’ll get you there." At her smile and nod he turned to look over at the pair of skunktaurs that weren’t quite hiding behind his engineers and added, "And I’ve gone over the data on your drive. From what I’ve gathered from other sources I’d guess you’re trying to duplicate Blackstar’s little slipstream drive."

"You already know about it?" Hydro asked in surprise.

"Kind of hard to miss," Neal countered. "My scouts have recorded hir Midnight Star coming and going a few times. The scan of your ship suggests you made it into slipstream, but came out of it rather badly."

"They lost their AFU," Holly said. "That’s Advance Flying Unit, Dad, not what you’re thinking!" she exclaimed on seeing Neal’s expression.

"What did you think he was thinking?" Digs asked.

Doug didn’t need to be a mind reader to know what Neal had been thinking. "Situation Normal, All Fouled Up," he paraphrased with a chuckle.

"Accurate enough for what actually happened," Terra admitted before turning back to Neal, "but we think we know what happened and would like to try again. For that we will need your help."

"I am considering it," Neal admitted, "but we’ll scale it down a bit. And we will use an unmanned vehicle until we get everything stable."

"It can’t be done that way," Hydro replied. "Even Blackstar has to use a live pilot to make it work."

"And I’ll bet Blackstar isn’t losing hir data links with hir AFU," Neal countered. "You may be willing to risk your lives making this thing work, but I’m not." Eying both of them carefully, he quietly added, "My toys, my rules. We will break this into pieces; no advancing to the next level until I say we’re ready to move on. Deal?"

Holly, Quickdash and Screamingwind all nodded with the skunktaurs. Terra smiled as hy said, "No less than we were warned of, sir. It was suggested you would use one of your ‘Zulus’, as it could be used for the small scale testing."

Neal nodded. "After we redesign your AFU; that lack of control looks like what almost killed you."

Terra shivered as Hydro admitted, "It was a wild ride for the time it lasted."

"Maybe after the Captain has seen to his other chores?" Weaver suggested.

"Yes Mom," Holly agreed as they started getting up. "Part of their ‘payback’ is having them help us with ship chores."

Neal must have gotten his ‘chores’ finished early (or marked ‘done for now’ anyway) because he and the engineers came in to the dining area as a group and more than a little late for lunch, PADDs out and they were in the middle of a lively discussion/argument. At Suzan’s frown Neal said, "Working lunch, Stew." She had huffed in annoyance, but hadn’t protested further before returning to her kitchen. Not obviously protesting didn’t mean that they were forgiven, as they soon learned, as their first course turned out to be a scorcher.

While the skunktaurs had grabbed their drinks, the Folly engineering crew each reached into their pockets for ration bars they had brought ‘just in case’. Flipping a couple extra bars at Hydro and Terra, Neal said, "they’ll soak up the burn better than your drinks will. And we know they haven’t been ‘spiked’ by our sneaky cooks."

Suzan stuck her tongue out at him as the others laughed.

While the others were enjoying the unexpected entertainment, Digs was wondering what to do with hir after-dinner tea. Shi preferred it with milk, but there wasn’t any on the table. The only thing close to it was some ice-cream a couple of the cubs were having for dessert. Darkstreak saw hir wandering eyes and offered up a double spoonful of hir minty treat. It added an interesting flavor to the tea and Digs nodded hir thanks to the cub. None of the teens or adults had noticed the exchange, or they might have warned Digs of the contents of the cubs’ chilled treats …

After lunch, Moonglow stepped into a holosuite Tess’s lights had illuminated for hir and looked around. One end of the room held tables of all sorts. Pouring tables for the loading and draining of molds; spinning tables for throwing vases, bowls, and plates; as well as just plain tables for modeling clay and painting. Past the tables were shelves of molds and art supplies, beyond those were several kilns ready to be fired. The other end of the room had been turned into a display area to showcase some of what had come off those tables.

Moonglow and Weaver collide

Pedestals lined the walls while some were freestanding. Shi watched as Spitfire moved one of the seemingly lightweight bases before placing a small sleeping chakat statuette on top of it. When the cub darted off to change the next display, shi bumped against one holding a small deer. Moonglow leaped to save the figurine only to see someone coming at hir from the side just as they collided in a mass of limbs. It seemed Weaver had also seen the deer’s plight and had also tried to intervene; she now lay under Moonglow with the deer safely cushioned between her breasts.

"You two may want to get a room," Nightsky suggested as shi smirked at their positions.

Looking up at the confusion mirrored in Moonglow’s eyes, Weaver said, "We were just trying to save this little deer …"

Tauna stopped her table top’s rotation before turning to chuckle at the two of them lying on the floor. "You didn’t really think we’d trust the cubs not to knock things over did you?"

Spitfire proved the point by reaching between them for the deer. Shi gave it a quick lick-kiss before throwing it at the floor – the deer shattering into pieces that rained all over the floor. "Holosuite rewind!" shi called out. The pieces bounced back to the point of impact and the now intact deer jumped up and into hir paws. Placing the figurine back on the pillar shi said, "Sorry I scared you," before running off to the next thing shi wanted to rearrange.

"Never assume," Weaver half muttered with a soft snicker.

"That things are covered, or not?" Moonglow chuckled as they untangled themselves.

"That too," Weaver sadly admitted. "It’s hard to tell when not to jump at something."

"The little ones are still learning what not to do," Nightsky informed them. "Bumps still hurt and they’re encouraged to clean up their messes or they don’t get to play."

The excitement over, Moonglow went back to examining the artwork. Shi was surprised to find a figurine of Lighttouch on one of the pedestals. Spitfire stopped to see what shi was staring at and said, "Tauna makes them – come see!" shi half dragged the larger chakat over to a storage cabinet. Throwing it open, shi exclaimed, "See? She’s making one for everybody!"

The shelf was covered with figurines. Most were in sitting or lounging positions, but some stood seemingly looking back at hir. The scale wasn’t quite the same between the figurines, the cubs being larger than the rest to bring out more detail. Moonglow picked up Neal, he was seated in his favorite chair in the lounge, while the expression painted on his face suggested he was very happy or proud of something.

From behind them Tauna said, "I’ve still a few to finish. Tess, display mode ‘one prime’ please."

Before them the display rearranged itself. Neal’s figure sat in the center with the others around him. Starblazer and Firestorm sat at his feet while Weaver lounged by his right hand with ghostly versions Suzan and Moonglow showing where they would sit to his left. The Rakshani were in a row behind while the teens and other cubs were in front, grouped as they seemed to interact in real life. Mike and Calmmeadow bracketed in Nova and hir cubs while Shadowcrest was next to Windsong.

"I was thinking you each get the signed original while Tess keeps a copy for Neal," Tauna explained.

"They’re beautiful," Moonglow said as shi set Neal down to pick up Firestorm. The ceramic cub’s expression was a cross between ‘I’m a little angel’ and ‘guess what I’ve been into that I shouldn’t be’. "You’ve got hir pegged perfectly," Moonglow assured Tauna. "You can just make out the horns holding up hir halo."

"Shi does seem to take after hir ‘father’," Tauna agreed. "Glad to know I pulled it off."

Moonglow set Firestorm down and looked over the others. Some were waiting for their final touches while a few were still bare of any paint. "Haven’t gotten to me yet?" shi asked.

"I was going to get all the regular chakats poured before doing yours," Tauna confessed with a chuckle at Moonglow’s expression. "For yours I will need to hollow out certain areas of the mold to make a little more room for your assets," she reminded the busty wet nurse with a cheeky grin.

A little before dinner, Windsong was making hir way down the corridors towards the captain’s quarters, a burning question on hir lips and more than a little apprehension in hir heart. The door to the cabin opened as shi approached, but he wasn’t there. Shi was about to turn to go when the bathroom door also slid open, music almost drowning out the sound of running water. Neal had his back to hir and head covered in shampoo as he badly sang with the music:

"… not enough to make the nightmares go away
It's not enough to make the tears run dry
It's not enough to live a little better every day
Everything that they taught us was nothing but lies
Everything that they brought us was nothing but bribes
But it'll all be over now
All I wanted was a piece of the night
I never got an equal share
When the stars are out of sight
And the moon is down -
The natives are so restless tonight

I've been looking for an original sin
One with a twist and a bit of a spin
And since I've done all the old ones
Till they've all been done in
Now I'm just looking -
Then I'm gone with the wind -
Endlessly searching for an original sin"
            (Original Sin - Meat Loaf)

The song cut off suddenly as Neal called out, "Are you in here to wash my back – or just to admire the view?"

Caught flatfooted, Windsong took a moment to move. "Well, maybe a little bit of both?" shi stuttered before shucking hir top, Shi stepped into the shower with him and grabbed the body wash. Once shi had lathered his back, Neal turned and started applying shampoo to hir head fur. Trying to make small talk through the suds shi asked, "What was that song I heard you pretending to sing?"

"Ask Tess to play ‘Original Sin’ for you," Neal replied. "But that wasn’t the reason you interrupted my shower, now is it?"

"It’s Shadowcrest," shi admitted. "You’re the closest thing shi has to a father for quite a few light years. I came to ask for your permission to ask hir to be my companion," shi finished, again fearful that he might tell hir no.

Neal surprised hir with a chuckle. "You spent way too much time away from other chakats, Song," he told hir. "As I understand, it’s customary for chakats to decide they are companions or mates, and then they go and tell their family and friends."

"But you’re human …" Windsong blurted out as Neal rinsed hir hair and started lathering up hir upper back.

"You will always get in trouble when you try to stereotype, Song. Some of us just don’t fit the molds."

"So it’s okay with you?" shi asked as he turned them around under the sprayers.

"I’m the least of your worries – have you even asked Shady?"

"No, I thought –"

"No, you didn’t think," Neal interrupted hir with a chuckle. "Go ask hir, now," he added with a swat to hir rump, causing Song to all but leap out of the shower.

Still soaking-wet, shi ran out of the room and into the corridors, almost knocking Shadowcrest over as shi was about to round a corner.

"Will-you-be-my-Companion?" Song blurted out as shi clung to the much larger chakat.

"Sure," Shadowcrest replied. "I’ll even help you get dried off," shi added with a giggle.

Still wrapped in each other’s arms, Shadowcrest led Windsong to hir room. As shi got busy toweling hir off, shi asked, "Just how did you end up running through the halls soaking-wet?"

"Neal," Windsong said letting out a soft chuckle as shi realized how easily he had manipulated hir.

"Enough said," Shadowcrest agreed. "Well, if we’re companions, there’s one more thing we should do …" shi suggested with a grin.

Tess interrupted them with, "You are both off the schedule for tomorrow. The Captain’s compliments and a little something to get you started …"

‘Let's roll the windows down, turn the radio up
Let the wind blow through our hair
Love is reckless
Let's get reckless tonight

There ain't nothin' out here but a big ol' Texas sky
There's a red sun painted across the coming night
Well, your daddy's got plans for you
and mine thinks I'm at school
They say it's reckless to chase a dream
But this town's got nothing for you and me …’
                            (Reckless – Alabama)

"So …" Shadowcrest suggested, "neither of us is on heat; shall we get a little reckless tonight?" The only reply shi received was a soft purr as shi felt hirself drawn into a tight embrace.

No one seemed surprised that the new Companions missed dinner that evening, though Suzan did say she would prepare a ‘picnic basket’ for them, they would be hungry soon enough.

The engineers had been careful not to bring their PADDs to dinner with them, but Weaver wasn’t too surprised to see Quickdash make a quick note on a napkin before shoving it in hir pocket.

It was late evening when Tess informed Neal of a request for his presence in the main holosuite. Neal had raised an eyebrow at the lack of who or why, but went to see what might be going on. The holosuite doors opened into what might have been a bar/speakeasy/discothèque if the designer had been on hallucinogens. While there appeared to be a bar running the perimeter of the room, there were stages and tables grouped here and there about the large room. At one table, several cat-like beings were singing what appeared to be a drinking song, said song, the table and their drinks suffering from their apparent loss of coordination. Another feline with wings was attempting to dance, her long skirts all but tripping her up. It took Neal a minute to realize that most of the music and words he was hearing were from old movies – some of which had been considered quite bad when made, and time had not improved them. Stepping up to the bar, Neal had no sooner placed his hand on the surface than a full glass slid into it. He took a sip of his iced tea and nodded to the barkeeper in approval before resuming his travels.

A couple more of what he had finally decided were the deities were playing cards, extra aces peeking out from between feathers and other not so well hidden hiding places. At the next table a wingless deity ‘Arred’ at him as he went by. She wore an eye-patch and peg leg to match her pirate outfit, but the green tinted cockatiel on her shoulder didn’t quite work.

Shadowcrest dancing by Kacey Miyagami

In the center of one of the spotlit stages was Shadowcrest. Shi was up on hir hind legs; pole dancing to the cheers and catcalls of several of the avidly watching deities. The next table over, Windsong looked as if shi was uncomfortably sitting on something as shi watched hir new companion dance. Shadowcrest sensed Neal’s eyes on hir and increased hir bump and grind routine. Neal chuckled when he recognized the soundtrack shi was dancing to, it was Meat Loaf’s ‘Good Girls go to Heaven (but the Bad Girls go Everywhere)’.

Neal grinned and shook his head. Shi reminded him of a cub trying to act like a grownup. Not that shi didn’t now have a grownup’s body and needs, but he could still see in hir the unsure youth asking to share his bed that first night.

There were quieter spots and Neal strolled through each one, sometimes laughing or shaking his head at what the occupants had come up with. Bonita had commandeered another pole and was vamping it up as Neal passed. He gave her a wink as he went by, chuckling at Longsock who seem mesmerized by the display. Doug and Digs were sharing the table with him. Doug acknowledged him with a grudging nod of approval; he was finding that his adopted father had picked up quite an interesting set of mates and kids this time around. Meanwhile Digs was trying to enjoy the show, but shi seemed somewhat distracted as hir hand kept reaching up to rub hir breast.

In the center of the seemingly random anarchy, one of the deities sat quietly in a lotus position with her eyes closed, the party noise seemingly rolling over her without disturbing her. The only thing out of the ordinary was that there was nothing under her for support. Neal stopped a few feet from her and eyed her quizzically. "So you’re the one causing all the chaos and confusion on my ship," he said slightly sternly, but his eyes suggested he was trying to keep from laughing.

She opened her eyes and smiled down at him. "Oh no, Captain. This time I needed a little help in bringing about the required amount of chaos." Unfolding her legs, she placed them on the ground before shrinking to the size of a Rakshani cub.

Neal frowned slightly as the ‘cub’ offered him her treat. As on Raksha, he captured the paw holding the treat with his hand. "This is the last time you offer me a treat for your ride," he told her.

They were instantly surrounded by the other deities. "You shouldn’t punish her for us having a little fun!" one of them said as the rest nodded and growled in agreement.

"I’m just doing something I should’ve done a very long time ago," Neal advised them as he took the Traveler’s other paw in his hand. "You have haunted me and my ship for well over a normal lifetime now. We both know what I will say when you ask, so consider it ‘said’. While I don’t presume that I can really tell you what to do, I consider you a part of my family, and as family, you don’t have to ask for permission to ride."

The treat disappeared as the cub reached around Neal to give him a hug. As Neal returned the hug, one of the other deities said, "You may end up wishing you hadn’t done that. Her need to ask permission was the only control you had over our Traveler."

Neal chuckled. "Like skunktaur headbands, the only power is perceived. And like one of those old Billy Joel songs you were playing says, ‘it’s all a matter of trust’."

"Never tempt The Traveler," another deity warned him. "She loves the challenge and has a wicked sense of humor!"

"Then it’s a good thing I’m always letting her have fun at new places."

"Ah! But now she doesn’t have to wait until your next stop!" she assured him.

"You are going to behave yourself, aren’t you?" Neal asked, noticing that the ‘cub’ seemed to be growing in size.

"By whose standards?" The Traveler deity replied, now nearly as tall as Neal.

"Mine of course," Neal said, though his reply was partially muffled in the still growing deity’s cleavage.

Their sizes reversed, the now massive Traveler picked Neal up and held him much as he had held many of her ‘cub’ forms. "Despite your foolishness, I still promise to cause no harm to you or yours," she vowed as she gave him a hug.

"I didn’t expect that to change, although your friend suggests things might get still more interesting around here."

"More interesting, or more obviously interesting? I can and will be a bit more open when I ‘suggest’ things to Tess, and we’ve all grown fond of playing with your cubs. You, on the other paw, are why I’ve hung around so long. Your schemes and what you’re willing to do to bring them about have always been of interest, but even that sometimes pales when compared to the work you do to keep it unnoticed."

Neal shrugged. "As you deities should know by now, it’s always easier to do something if your target audience isn’t expecting your help in whatever you’re doing."

"While that is true," she admitted, "that doesn’t always explain all your attempts to hide things in plain sight."

"When someone is looking for things they expect to be hidden, they tend to overlook what is left in plain sight. This is especially true when it blends in with everything else that they expect to see. So I hide hints to things that don’t matter, while leaving the rest of it for them to trip over and then discard."

"Very well, Neal," she chuckled, "We shall just see how much you don’t see in plain sight."

The next morning, Digs woke up to Firestorm and Pooled Gold nursing at hir breasts. Shi had been more than a little self-conscious the night before, but hir breasts had finally gotten tender enough to force hir to ask for Moonglow’s advice in the matter. Embarrassed was too kind a word to use when shi found that despite hir careful avoidance of any chakat breast milk, shi hirself was now in nursing mode and producing said milk.

"I was careful, dammit!" shi grumbled to Doug as they got dressed.

"Tess," Doug said instead of arguing with the annoyed chakat, "Please go over the last forty-eight hours, and tell us when or if Digs consumed any quantity of chakat milk."

Digs had hir mouth open to hotly protest when Tess replied, "Yesterday’s lunch, Darkstreak’s ice-cream was made from fresh chakat milk. It seems to have been of sufficient quantity to get Shir Digs in Dirt started."

"So quit your pouting," Doug told the still-fuming chakat with a chuckle. "Not only are you now more popular with the cubs, but you don’t have to be as ‘careful’ during your therapy sessions."

"You think all this is funny!" Digs accused Doug. "Sex therapy, swapping my drugs … hell, they’re worse than your military!"

"I had noticed," Doug admitted. "They even seem to have Dad behaving, no minor feat in itself."

"You make him sound uncontrollable," Digs half asked.

"He can be, uncontrollable that is," Doug told hir. "But there’s more here. He’s got even more to worry about, yet he seems more relaxed then I ever remember him being."

"Maybe he’s better off with others around him," Digs suggested.

"Perhaps," Doug agreed. "But he’s not the only one. You seem to concentrate on your work better after your therapy sessions … Don’t bother giving me that look, you know you’re getting more done. Is it in spite of the sex breaks – or because of them?"

Ignoring his question, Digs headed for the door. "I’m hungry," shi grumbled as shi left.

Doug followed a little behind hir with a small smile; he was wondering if shi knew hir tail was far from its usual ‘almost dragging in the dirt’ position.

As Folly came out of warp well clear of Chakastra’s warp boundary on her way to Chakona, the kids scanned the area that would be their new ‘home’ until it was time to move on yet again.

Darkstreak and Spitfire were using one of the bridge consoles, tapping on things to zoom in on them. "Tess, what’s this one?" Spitfire asked of a particularly bright spot.

Since no one was using the main display, Tess used it to bring up a closer look at what had interested the cubs. "That’s the Spinning Wheel. It is a solar sail craft; its large reflective sail uses the light from the star to push it. Records say it’s currently moving the core structure for a new mining outfit that is just getting started in the Chakastra system."

"Why don’t they use a real ship?" Darkstreak wondered.

"It is a real ship," Tess replied. "And if you’re not in a big hurry to get somewhere, it’s much cheaper than using a shuttle or ship to tow your load out there."

"So why don’t we use a solar sail?" Spitfire asked.

"Because it would take us years instead of hours to get where we’re going," Calmmeadow replied. "Come on you two, time for a snack before we get to Chakona."

As Folly closed on Chakona’s orbit, Tess began reporting to Neal which of his friends were in orbit as she sent each of them a data pulse. On receiving the data pulse, one ship replied with a data pulse of its own. It read:

‘If you’re getting this, then Folly or one of your Zulus has come into range of Chakona. On my own authority I’m offering Blowfish admittance to our little group. They ran into something that may or may not have been pirates and they got chewed up pretty good. I’ve already explained the basics to her captain, and while shi’s a little leery of what sounds like too good of a deal, shi’s saying yes for now. Star Fleet’s been giving hir a hard time, so that might be a part of it. On a personal note, I’ve known Tippytoe and Jasmine for years now, and I believe that they’d make a good addition to the group. I’m forwarding the data they acquired from their sensors; you should be able to extrapolate which way the bigger pieces may have gone. Unless you veto it, I’m going to have Arcs and Sparks start in on their repairs as soon as Star Fleet releases Blowfish. Colin Steppes of the courier ship Night Hawk, out.’

Neal leaned back in his chair for a moment before saying, "Tess, send him an acknowledgment and let Arcs and Sparks know that it has my blessings. Prep two Zulus for the hunt."

"Sure thing, boss."

"Care to explain what you just told Tess to do?" Quickwind asked from where shi sat watching Holly work the helm.

Neal tried not to smile; most of those on the bridge literally had an ear cocked in his direction. "As you know, I have a few friends in a loose group that work together and do a little trading. Tess just gave me a message that one of them is in the area. The captain of the Night Hawk has just informed me that he wants to bring another ship into the fold."

"I take it you trust them enough to ‘hold your coat’ when needed," Shortdash commented.

"Enough that I also trust them with a few baby Zulus," Neal replied. "Which reminds me, Tess? Recall their Zulus and key four of the newer ones for them."

"Will do, boss."

"Who are Arcs and Sparks?" Holly asked.

"An older version of you and Quickdash. They’re a pair of my first group of brats that had that engineering knack. Tess tells me The Tinker is in orbit so you’ll get to meet them."

As Folly approached Starbase 2, they watched as a pair of tugs moved a round little freighter with an extended tail over to the Starbase. Tess’s tactical scans showed the port warp engine was badly damaged and there looked to be some serious hits to the main fuselage as well.

Looking over the damage, Neal quietly murmured, "Looks like they lost their warp drive in the attack – but not their core, so they still had plenty of power. Hmmm, hull damage penetrated into their shuttle bay section, so that might be a write-off." Looking a little closer at something that didn’t look quite right, he asked, "Tess? Tight scan on that old torch system. Has it been used recently?"

"Scan shows that the system has been used and abused, boss. Some of the core components are still warmer than the surrounding pieces, so it was powered up within the last week or so."

"Thank you, Tess. What type of ‘abuse’ does the damage suggest?"

"Equivalent to the damage you would expect to find after someone had taken it from dead cold to full power without a proper warm up."

"Which might help explain why they survived whoever shot them," Neal mused.

"I thought the torch was just an older sub-light type propulsion system …" Shortdash half wondered.

"Oh, it is," Neal agreed. "But a very dangerous one to get in the way of!" he added with a grin. "Think of Folly’s main reaction drive on a tight focus at full power, now up that by an order of magnitude."

"Ouch," Shortdash muttered, "you could cut ships in half with that."

"Well, since we’re done with Gwendolyn, can we " Holly suggested hopefully as the skunktaurs were still a long way from having Neal approve their new AFU design.

Neal shook his head and chuckled at the looks his three engineers in training were giving him. "Sorry kids, but it sounds like that job’s already been farmed out. Tell you what though, why don’t you go ahead and treat it as a test. Use the scans Tess made, and come up with what you think would be the plan for the needed repairs, and any suggestions you might have for upgrades."

Screamingwind grinned as she tapped the all hail key on the comm section of her board. "Alternate bridge crew to the bridge, your engineers have been otherwise tasked."

"You can at least get us to our parking place," Neal suggested.

"Aye sir," they chorused, settling back into their seats.

Tapping his own comm key, Neal said, "Alex, pick your crew for Echo; Cindy, you have Foxtrot. We’re all going to the Starbase with the first two pods. While I handle some business, those of you not unloading can look around for a bit before we head downside. Tauna? You can either catch a shuttle at the Starbase, or wait for us to take you down."

"While I am in a hurry, I intend to see this Starbase, and I’ll wait to go down with you guys," she replied from where she was watching everything from the rear of the bridge.

"Good enough," Neal agreed before adding, "While we’re on Starbase 2, I want everyone to stop by the medical section for a health check. Those that don’t get a certificate of health will get to spend their time at Chakona stuck in orbit."

"Maybe we should do that first thing … and as a group," Weaver suggested.

"That’ll work," Neal agreed. "Afterwards, you can find something to keep the little ones occupied while I talk to a few people."

Folly was just reaching her assigned parking spot when there was a call from Starbase 2. "To Captain Foster of the Folly. Do not egress any equipment or personnel at this time. A Star Fleet shuttle will be docking with you momentarily."

"A decidedly unfriendly ‘hello’," Neal commented. "What do you see, Tess?"

"They have us under constant scan, boss. Somebody appears to be afraid you’ll pull a fast one on them," she replied. "One shuttle departing, along with two fighters. Their targeting computers are locked on us, but weapons are not powered up."

"Wonder what kinked their tails?" Neal muttered.

Shortdash and Zhanch had already moved to vacant bridge stations and started digging into the ’Fleet and ’Corps nets to find out what was going on. Weaver looked over at Neal – other than looking annoyed, he was just sitting there watching the approaching ships. "Is there anything we should be doing?" she asked with some concern.

"No," Neal replied. "Not really. If they pick up any increase in activity they might start to wonder if we’re up to something."

"Has this happened before?"

"Few decades ago," Neal admitted. "They were looking for someone and thought I may have given them passage."

"Had you?" she asked, questioning the tone in his voice.

"Yup," he confessed. "But they never found her," he finished with a smirk.

"Why not?" Shortdash asked as shi queried the databases.

Neal smiled. "Because basic life scans can’t tell the difference between live and dead meat within a stasis field."

"Whatever it is, there’s nothing in the dispatches up to my level of clearance," Shortdash commented as hir search came up empty.

"Nothing on the ’Fleet side either," Zhanch added. "Which means it’s very hush-hush, or something very new and/or local."

"See if you can get your local commanders on the line," Neal suggested. "We can always leave the links open so they can see what’s going on."

Four beings exited the shuttle when it docked a few minutes later. The deer morph with the Lieutenant rank badge didn’t bother asking permission to board as her group entered. "You are required to assist us in our investigation, Captain Foster. Failure to do so will be considered obstruction and will be dealt with accordingly," she stated, her glare suggested she would love for him to do something that would allow her to use the two guards she had brought along.

"And how might I assist you, Lieutenant?" Neal asked with a raised eyebrow.

"You are illegally trafficking in controlled substances," she accused.

"Allegedly, I assume," Neal countered, "or you would have already arrested me." At her growl of frustration, he added, "May I at least know what I’m accused of trafficking in?"

"We will find it and you will be arrested," she countered sternly.

"Shall we dock so your additional personnel can board more easily?" Neal wondered. "It would take the four of you a lifetime to properly search a ship of this size."

"What we’re looking for will be easy enough to find," the lieutenant assured him with a scowl.

Her assistant, a wolf morph, opened and powered up a rather bulky looking scanner and began scanning. It beeped almost immediately and he and the lieutenant scurried off in the direction it indicated. Neal and Shortdash followed at a more leisurely pace with the security pair, a banded chakat and a Rakshani male, bringing up the rear.

They stopped in front of the hatch for one of Folly’s many lifeboats. The wolf entered, only to emerge a minute later holding up a small container. "Just the standard package from their first aid kit, sir," he reported before turning to replace it.

"Raynor," Shortdash muttered under hir breath.

"Or whoever’s controlling them," Neal muttered in agreement. "Too bad they waited a little too long to play that card," he added with a grin.

"Meaning?" shi quietly asked.

"I had Good Deal take it to Cait."

"Oh. So that means these two are going to inspect every aid kit onboard?"

"And the sickbays," Neal reminded hir.

"What do you plan to do about it?"

"Just give ’Fleet the standard boiler plate that they’ve offended my integrity and dignity, and that if they want to chase real smugglers they should be hounding Raynor and company. Tess, you might as well send it now."

"Sending, Boss," Tess replied. "Shall I have the others stand down? At their current rate I estimate forty hours for them to finish their little ‘inspection’, and that’s only if they don’t tweak their toys to start pulling up false positives."

"Tell them to take a break for now," Neal agreed.

It was ten minutes later that Tess quietly informed Neal that there was a second shuttle inbound and this one was graciously requesting docking clearance. Neal noticed that the chakat and Rakshani security team had also received communications of some sort; they were now looking a little grim about something, but it didn’t seem to be directed towards him or his.

Weaver soon led a female Caitian wearing a captain’s comm badge to their latest check. The Caitian had a quick and quiet word with the security team before stepping over to where the lieutenant was badgering the scan tech over his continuing failure to find what they’d come looking for.

"Ah, Lieutenant Greenheart, I heard that you were out here doing an inspection?"

"Yes, Sir. We received intel that this ‘Folly’ is smuggling controlled substances into Chakona space."

"That’s strange, my office didn’t receive any ‘head’s up’ about this. On whose authority did you come out here by yourself to do the inspection?"

"Captain Maradeath, Sir."

"Who may have a say over on Gateway, Lieutenant, but not on Starbase Two. We need to get this sorted out. Lieutenant, you will be returning with me, now."

"B-but Sir, what about the smugglers?" she stammered.

"Were most likely the ones that persuaded you into coming over here in the first place. Come along Lieutenant, I think we’ve wasted enough of Captain Foster’s time." Turning to Neal she added, "Sorry about the delay, Captain. You should be receiving clearance to start moving your cargo momentarily."

"Thank you, Captain," Neal replied.

As Weaver led them back to their shuttles Shortdash turned to Neal. "Are you going to tell me how you pulled that off?" shi asked. "That silver tunic says she’s security and not part of the regular chain of command."

"I didn’t," he corrected. "But it sounds like the local offices just learned about the surprise ‘inspection’, and Tess would have sent out corrected estimates of when we would be offloading what to whom, and if she just happened to include the reason for the delay …"

"Then someone might see what they could do to rectify the situation before things went too far," shi finished for him.

"So it seems," Neal agreed. "Tess, tell everyone we’re in motion again. Get the first deliveries to the starbase queued up."

"Can do, Boss."

Echo beat Foxtrot to the starbase by a good margin. While the terror twins hadn’t broken the letter of the law as they powered Echo through the corridor they’d been allotted by traffic control, but by not waiting for it to be properly ‘cleared’ they had crushed the spirit of the rules, and a fine was levied against the Folly.

The health inspections went quickly and the groups split up, some to do some shopping and to keep the cubs occupied, some to see to the transfer of cargo to and from the station, while Neal went in search of the captain of the Night Hawk. He caught up with Colin Steppes in one on the many corridors.

Trading a handshake with him, Colin said, "Sam’s sticking with Chakats Tippytoe and Jasmine. A ‘Fleet Commander named Bastet is still badgering them about what really happened out there. My mate’s managed to convince the commander that things should be kept ‘informal’, so they’re heading to the ‘civilian’ side of the base."

"Why don’t you go and join your mate," Neal suggested. "I’ll meet up with you after you’re all settled, the better to keep your commander from changing her mind when she sees me coming."

"Captive audience?" Colin chuckled.

"Thereabouts," Neal agreed. "Best to keep them off balance."

"Speaking of which, I heard something was going on as Folly came in," Colin commented.

"I’ll tell you about it later," Neal promised as they parted company.

With more information on which players were doing what, Tess was able to give Neal more of an update. Colin’s twins, Sandra and Matthew Steppes, were already at the same dessert shop Weaver and the others had found. Colin’s comm badge had joined Samantha's and they were now heading in that direction. Neal idly wandered the area until everyone was seated before he entered the shop, pausing only to grab a chair from a neighboring table. Colin and Samantha each gave him a smile in greeting, the chakats just gave him curious looks, while the ‘Fleet commander scowled at his having joined them unannounced.

Colin handled the introductions. "Tippytoe, Jasmine? May I introduce Neal Foster? He’s the head of that group I was telling you about. Neal, this is Tippytoe and Jasmine of the Blowfish, and Commander Bastet of the Starwave. The Starwave came to Blowfish’s assistance after they were attacked."

"Thank you, Mr. Steppes," Neal said formally. Turning to the chakats, he said, "I understand you’ve agreed to the basic terms and are just waiting on the finer details before deciding on whether to take the plunge?"

Tippytoe and Jasmine were just giving Neal tentative nods when Darkstreak rushed up to their table – shi was all but dragging a slightly larger cub. The dark gray chakat stopped beside Neal’s chair. "Can-I-help-hir-deliver-this-package?-Moonglow-says-it’s-okay-n-shi’s-give’n-us-a-ride!" Darkstreak blurted out once shi had Neal’s attention.

Neal grinned. "Slow down, Darkstreak. First of all, who’s your new friend?"

The lynx-tailed chakat looked to the chakats at the table for support before turning back to Neal. "I’m Hyjinx, daughter of Tippytoe and Jasmine, sir," shi said.

"So you’re their daughter huh?" Neal replied. "That makes things a little easier as my next question was going to be if you had their permission to run off with one of my cubs?" Hyjinx’s worried glance at hir parents confirmed that shi didn’t as yet, so Neal decided to help their decision making process. "Though it isn’t a bad idea, you get to have a little fun and fresh air, while your parents and I talk about getting the Blowfish fixed up."

"You’re gonna fix Blowfish?" Hyjinx asked, hir eyes wide.

"With a little help," Neal admitted before turning to cock an eyebrow at Tippytoe and Jasmine and giving them a grin. "Which will it be harder to trust me and mine with? Your ship, or your cub?"

The chakats looked at each other before turning back to Neal and the cubs. "In for a penny …" Tippytoe began.

"… In for a pound," Jasmine finished. "You may go with Darkstreak, Hyjinx; just be on your best behavior."

"I will, Dad," Hyjinx promised. The cubs started to move towards the other group, but stopped short so they could hear what was being discussed.

Commander Bastet frowned at the interruptions before she again began questioning the chakats on their experience. As she started to agitate the chakats, Neal stepped in to slow her down and give the chakats a little peace in which to answer.

(All part of "The Package" tale.)

"Damn him!" Shadowcrest quietly muttered as they pretended to not watch as Neal all but made the Star Fleet commander back down on her attempts to badger the chakats of the Blowfish.

"Who, Neal?" Windsong asked innocently.

Shadowcrest nodded. "Watching him nudge things his way with his little weight brought another one of his favorite songs to mind."

"Which one?" Windsong asked, always eager to learn a new tune.

Shadowcrest softly sang,

"I ain’t in it for the power,
and I ain’t in it for my health.
I ain’t in it for the glory of anything at all,
and I sure ain’t in it for the wealth.
But I'm in it ’till it's over and I just can’t stop
If you wanna get it done, you gotta do it yourself."
                (from Everything Louder Than Everything Else)

"Meat Loaf," Doug supplied unhelpfully as they went back to not watching the other group.

A promise of the pirate’s last known position, and a possible means of seeing past their sensor jammers, soon had Commander Bastet and her people out of their hair, and allowed Neal to talk freely with the chakats.

"Colin has told us a little about the arrangement he and the others have with you," Tippytoe told him. "Let’s just say we’re worried that it sounds a little ‘too good to be true’."

"Which part?" Neal asked, ignoring the smirks Colin and Samantha were giving him.

"First, that you’re going to foot the bill on Blowfish’s repairs, and then let us pay it back as we feel we can. Nobody does business like that," Jasmine shot back.

"And that you and your friends sometimes swap loads and ‘share the wealth’ of the better routes," Tippytoe added.

Neal grinned as he held up his hands. "First off, double-teaming me isn’t going to work because I can and will cheat if necessary," he told them. Looking towards Jasmine, he said, "As to footing the bill, Colin said that not I. However, he has yet to steer me wrong in these matters, so I’m inclined to sit back and see what happens. The payback? While I know you’ll soon have some credits from the salvage fees, I also know ‘things happen’, so locking down a payment schedule could prove to be counterproductive. How do I know you won’t cheat me? Once again, I’m trusting Colin on being right about you two."

To Tippytoe he replied, "Some loads are better serviced by certain ships and crews. So if Colin and Sam see a load heading someplace they know you have a need or want to be, they may offer it to you. Or if something comes up, having friends that can cover your deliveries when you can’t can come in handy."

"And if we decide after a while that we want ‘out’?" Jasmine asked.

"This is a very loose organization," Colin assured them. "Several ships have quit to go do other things or join other groups, some of those did return after their other jobs were done."

"What do you think he’ll have us doing?" Jasmine asked Colin.

Samantha laughed before her mate could form a reply. "No one’s going to be dictating where you go or what cargo you haul," she promised hir. "What you will be told by others is where there’s cargo going places that they weren’t heading, and what types of prices were being offered." Thinking about it for a moment, she added, "Your ship is on the small side, which makes it best suited for small, custom or time critical loads. Once the rest of the group knows about you, that’s what they’ll let you know about. The way you pay us back is by letting the rest of us know which of those loads you’ll take, and about what loads you see that we might be interested in." She frowned slightly before adding in a quieter tone, "One thing that we haven’t had time to bring up yet is the ‘bans’." Meeting both of their looks of curiosity, she continued, "There are a few groups that we don’t deal with or ship for. Most of the bans are because of what they ship where, or what they do to get it."

Colin cleared his throat. "I’ll see that you get the list. Some are hard bans, where we would prefer to not deal with you if you like dealing with them, the soft bans are those you can take, but most of us won’t be doing them any favors."

Neal nodded and cut in with, "Raynor Inc. has been added as a hard ban. I’ll double-check with Tess, but I understand we also added one station to the soft ban list." Neal’s glasses darkened for a moment before he added, "Yup, just the one soft ban."

Jasmine frowned at Neal. "This is part of what we’re afraid of, you dictating what we can and can’t do."

Neal nodded thoughtfully. "If you like, think of it more as a ‘warning’ list. Places, ships, and people that we strongly suggest you watch out for. Everything on the ban list includes the reason the ban was placed. And any of us can argue for adding or removing a ban. Even some of the ones I’d once banned have been cleared by others after the reason for the ban was corrected or removed."

Samantha cocked her head at Neal. "I thought you were shipping a large load for Raynor. What happened?"

"I caught them mixing controlled substances in with their other drug shipments. As I don’t like being used as a smuggler’s mule, I’m just trying to make sure none of our friends get put in that position."

"Did that have something to do with that ‘security delay’ I heard about?" Colin wondered.

"That was it," Neal admitted. "Someone was hoping we still had what we hadn’t given Raynor. Fortunately that had already been offloaded."

"And the soft ban on the station?" Colin asked.

"They tried the old ‘now that you’ve come all the way out here, we demand a better deal’," Neal replied with a smirk. "That, and they appear to be treating their hired help rather poorly."

"Did you give it to them?" Samantha wondered, though she sounded like she knew the answer to be ‘no’.

"I was otherwise occupied, but my crew," Neal indicated the occupied tables around them, "gave them nothing for nothing, and they even picked up a hitchhiker to boot. Oh, they did post the warning for other freighters to see, so we won’t be the only ones keeping a wary eye on them."

"I smell a rat," Samantha half growled with a grin. "Just what would have kept you otherwise occupied?"

"A little search and rescue," Neal admitted. "We found the Rakshan freighter Sharp Claw."

"Was there anything worth recovering?" Colin asked, remembering that the ship had been missing for quite a while.

"Almost half her crew," Neal said, not adding what else had been found.

"Did you give them a proper Rakshani send off?" Jasmine asked, also knowing of the ship.

"I don’t grieve for the living," Neal replied. "A little luck had them waiting for me in a stasis field."

"So it was a rescue," Samantha said with a smile. "I remember seeing you right after a couple ‘recoveries’. You always looked ready to kill something," she said, half scolding.

Both chakats shivered at the sudden feelings they got from Neal. Neal returned Jasmine’s stare with an icy one before saying, "You were willing to kill to protect your own. I sometimes find myself avenging those that weren’t able to."

Jasmine slowly nodded. "So rumors tell us, Captain. Would you have gone after our attackers if Star Fleet wasn’t already on their way?"

Neal chuckled before asking, "What makes you think I’m not going to take a little look-see into the matter? My Zulus will have several hours to gather data before our ‘Fleet friends can get out there."

"Careful Neal," Colin warned. "They haven’t said ‘yes’ yet."

"I thought I should place all my cards on the table as they seem wary of traps," Neal replied. Turning back to the chakats he continued, "A Zulu is a very small high-speed scout, with the best sensor suite I could cram into something that size. I was thinking a pair of them might make watching out for pirates and other shipping hazards a little easier for you. Night Hawk has some assigned to her as well." Giving them an evil grin he said, "If I am an overbearing manipulative control freak, I might use them to watch your every move … Or, they could be a means of protecting friends that I have a vested interest in. Records are kept, but Tess only uses them to track other ships’ movement for possible pirate activity."

Samantha smiled. "That information’s been used a couple times to determine where a ship was last seen, for search and rescue to know where to start looking."

"And if we don’t want your spies?" Tippytoe asked.

"Then just say ‘no’," Neal assured hir. "Not everyone thinks they want or need them. Night Hawk’s deliveries sometimes take them into less than safe areas, so the Zulus offer a little more in the way of protection." Turning to Samantha he added, "By the way, I’m upgrading yours, better sensors and range."

"Are they armed?" Jasmine asked, hir eyes narrowing.

"No, but you can use them as scouts, or as a shield against enemy fire, and as sword – though they only give you one swing each at your foe."

Jasmine looked at Tippytoe. "Two swings could have meant getting here under our own power …"

"Or seeing them before they attacked, or being able to use their navigation systems to get us home without needing to stop," Tippytoe countered. Turning to Neal, shi added, "We’ll take your spies, Captain Foster."

"Just Neal will do. I take it you’ve decided?" Neal asked.

Tippytoe nodded. "We’re in."

Neal tapped his comm badge. "Tess? Let Arcs and Sparks know that Blowfish is a go. Have them add a pair of Zulu docking ports while they’re making the repairs and upgrades."

"Upgrades?" the chakats chorused in surprise.

Neal nodded, grinning at their shocked expressions. "While she’s down we might as well slide in a few improvements. Say sensors as good as my Zulus? We already know your navigation systems are in need of help. Your original warp core was wedged in there, you might be better off with a smaller multi-core system to power your new warp engines."

Colin and Samantha were smirking at the chakats’ expressions. "We told you, he doesn’t just put a bandage on a problem," she reminded them.

"Do we get any say in the matter?" Jasmine wondered.

"You get every say in the matter," Samantha assured hir. "You’ll find you just have more options to work with.

"The engineering teams will go over each change or repair in detail before they start," Neal promised.

As the chakats rose to leave, Neal noticed that the lynx-tailed chakat was more than a little pregnant. "When are you due, Tippytoe?" he asked.

"Nine more days," shi said with a grin as hir mate reached down to give hir belly a gentle rub. "Why?" shi asked suspiciously. "You aren’t going to claim you can have us back together by then – are you?"

Neal chuckled. "I have no idea what else the engineering teams on The Tinker may have on their plate ahead of you. That said, they aren’t known for wasting time once a job is handed to them." Looking over to where Quickdash, Holly and Screamingwind had been sitting with Suzan and Dessa, Neal said, "Time’s up! Sync your tablets and let me have one of them."

His demand got him a pair of dirty looks from Holly and Quickdash, Screamingwind just sighed and brought him her PADD. "The basics are there, but it’s still very rough," she told him.

Neal smiled as he went down their list, murmuring, "Relax, I wasn’t expecting anything but a rough outline in the hour I gave you kids to work with. Hmmm, not a bad start," he acknowledged as he handed the PADD to Jasmine. "While Arcs and Sparks will probably have other ideas, consider this a ‘first peek’ at what we might do to your poor little ship."

Jasmine looked like shi thought the PADD might bite, so Samantha took it from Neal. "So now you have cubs drawing your rocket ships?" she teased Neal as shi nudged Jasmine back towards to table.

"Next time you see her you can ask Sharptongue what she thought of the drawings they made of Good Deal," Neal replied.

Samantha’s muzzle dropped open in surprise, as she had seen some of Longreach’s boasts of their latest upgrade. "You mean those three?"

"Those two," Screamingwind corrected. "I’m still in training."

Colin chuckled at his mate’s expression as he said to the chakats, "First rule of working with Neal is you will never be able to tell when he’s pulling your tail. Sam, why don’t I take the twins and get us ready to go while you three look over their suggestions?"

Neal added, "And I’ll take my engineers so they can’t argue their points before you’ve had time to think about what they’ve already got listed."

"You didn’t pull us away just to keep us from kibitzing," Screamingwind suggested as Neal led them away from the snack bar.

"Yes, and no," Neal replied. "They were starting to get the ‘deer in the headlights’ look of too many surprises coming at them too fast, but I needed to take your cohorts aside for a minute," Neal said as he stopped to give Holly and Quickdash a stern look.

"The operations chief in charge of docking wasn’t very impressed with your zooming though hys nicely arranged queue," he informed them. "Hy was so displeased that along with a fine, hy’s requested you not control any vessels within hys domain. Along with banning you from flying for a week, I’ll be adding extra watches to your chores to make up the fine," he told them. "Any thoughts or comments on that?" he asked.

Holly and Quickdash quickly shook their heads no. They could tell Neal was annoyed with them, but not mad, mad would have been banning them from doing anything involving engineering during their punishment.

"How did Arcs and Sparks get their names?" Screamingwind asked, looking for a safer subject. "Surely their parents didn’t name them that."

"Their siblings gave them those nicknames after certain incidents. When they started showing the engineering knack, the names stuck. When they reached adulthood they changed their names officially," Neal admitted.

"What’d they do?" Quickdash asked while at the same time Holly asked, "What were their names?"

"One at a time you two," Screamingwind begged.

Neal just grinned. "One of them tried to all but arc weld a pod to Pogo Stick when shi didn’t properly relieve the electrostatic charge the pod and shuttle had picked up leaving a planet’s atmosphere. The other made quite a shower of sparks when she dropped a spanner across a pair of live buss-bars. As for their original names, I’ll let you ask them," he said, just as a medium sized midnight black chakat and a small slender dark brown female mouse came around a corner.

On spotting Neal, the mouse let out a squeal of delight and pounced him, the chakat quickly following. "I told you he’d hit the starbase first," the chakat said as shi wrapped hir arms around both of them. Noticing the other three’s varying levels of surprise, shi asked, "Are these some of our ‘little’ sisters?"

"These two are," Screamingwind informed hir, indicating Holly and Quickdash. "I’m just another engineer in training."

"What?" The mouse said from within the double hug. "Are you trying to make us some more competition or something?"

"Or something," Neal assured her. "Besides, the last I heard you two were buried in work. A couple more helpers could come in handy."

"Starfleet tried that on us a couple years ago, dad. We don’t have the free hours to play baby sitters," Arcs told him as shi turned to give each of the other three a hug.

"Even if they are cute ‘babies’," Sparks allowed as she also gave them each a hug. She then turned back to Neal. "We heard you had a little ‘extra’ Boronike that you might be willing to part with …"

"Maybe we can come to an agreement," Neal suggested with an evil grin. "You allow my trainees to do a little learning on how you do things, in exchange for a couple carriers."

"Who decides how long?" Sparks asked, as Quickdash handed Arcs one of the PADDs that they had been doing their Blowfish repair/upgrade suggestions on.

"They do," Neal said. "No sense making the ‘sitters’ work if the sittees aren’t happy with them."

"Hold that thought …" Arcs muttered as shi flashed through the different pages and notes. Quickly coming to the end, shi eyed Neal critically. "How much of this is your work, Father?" shi demanded.

"None," Neal told hir with a grin, as Sparks took the PADD from hir and speed-read through the contents herself.

"Tess?" Arcs asked the air.

"The three before you used my systems to access Folly’s inventory and to run a couple simulations, but the work is what they could come up with in the short time they were given for it. At no time did Neal offer any input other than suggesting they work up a plan for repairs."

"Why a tri and not a dual core? It’s not like they’ll need the extra power." Sparks asked.

"A dual system would require interfering with their existing torch drive," Holly explained. "As they’ve left it functional this long, we didn’t see them letting us scrap it."

"Especially after it appears to have come in so handy against their attackers," Quickdash pointed out.

Arcs and Sparks exchanged glances. "Maybe there won’t be as much ‘baby’ in this ‘sitting’ after all," Sparks allowed as they looked at the trio with approval.

"They’re all yours," Neal said as he turned to go. "Try to keep them out of trouble …"

"Was he talking to us, or them?" Screamingwind wondered just as Sparks called out, "Be warned, Talssist wants to speak at you!" at Neal’s retreating back.

"Who’s Talssist?" Holly asked.

"Talssist is a Merraki, still in female mode," Arcs told her. "When her ideas get too crazy for us, we let her bounce them off Neal. He’s shot down dozens of her schemes."

"But he’s also agreed with a couple of them," Sparks reminded hir. "Their last ‘head-banging’ session gave us a rather interesting sensor upgrade."

"This time she thinks she’s cracked reliable full FTL communications while at warp. As Neal’s been fighting that issue for a while, it should be fun watching them kick it around," Arcs agreed.

"Well, we were there when Neal said Blowfish was a go," Screamingwind told them. "Shall we chase down those poor naive chakats and tell them what else Neal’s minions have in store for them?"

"And with your plan and ours, they’ll have too many choices," Arcs agreed. "Tess, where are they?"

"Still at the snack bar talking with Samantha," Tess reported. "Well, that’s not quite correct as Samantha is doing all the talking and I think your newest clients are minutes from total confusion-induced shock."

"So, do we rescue them – or sink them deeper?" Quickdash asked.

"Rescue," Arcs told hir. "They haven’t said ‘yes’ yet."

"Then we can sink them," Sparks playfully finished as they started walking towards the food court.

The non-Star Fleet badge hidden under her lapel softly beeped. She glanced at her mate, who nodded – they were alone for the moment and it should be safe enough to take the call. Tapping the badge, she quietly asked, "Yes?"

"Tess detected your comm badges. Did Boyce tire of the two of you already?"

"No, we were left behind to ride herd on what one of the council members considers a very dangerous madman," she said, the sarcasm dripping off her tongue.

Her mate chuckled and chimed in with, "The Admiral told us that we were the best choices for the task, though I believe that he might have seen it as sending a secondary message as well."

"We’ll be down in a few hours; play it as you like."

"Can do," the two marines chorused as she tapped her badge to cut the connection. Grinning at her mate she whispered, "Things are about to get ‘interesting’."

"About time," her mate agreed. "I grow weary of hir prattle."


Continued in Chapter 14.

Copyright © 2005-2010 Allen Fesler – Redbear1158@hotmail.com

Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.

Admiral Boyce Garald Kline Jr and some of his family are copyright Boyce Garald Kline Jr.

Skunktaurs are copyright Bob Reijns.

The Quange were created by Roy D. Pounds II.

Windsong, Fireglow and Mythril/Myth are copyright Gregg Anderson, and used with his permission.

Tauna Shadowback is copyright Chakat Scirocco and used with her permission.

Chakat Digs-in-Dirt is copyright Daniel Davis and is used with his permission.

Chakat Blackrose is copyright Chuck (Nicolai) Percy

Chakat Blackstar, hir ships and crews copyright Alex Wiegerling.

Captain Suzanna Cortez, Panzer, and the rest of the Rendezvous crew copyright SoulBlade.

The Holy Christian Kingdom of North America, and the Amazonia war are copyright John Plunkett

(If I’ve managed to step on anyone else’s toes (paws, claws or tails), let me know and I’ll either give you credit or change my ‘tale’)


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