Eight weeks into the cruise, only a few hours out from the Folly’s second stop, this at a ‘mid-point transfer’ space station. Neal watched his ‘crew’ and had to hold back a smile. The kids had insisted on learning how to help run the ship, so he had them each ‘working’ a training bridge four hours a day. This was in addition to four or more hours of ‘schooling’, everything from math and science to warp theory, and wherever else their interests led them. Tess giving them the basic information and training, Neal working them though any stumbling blocks.
Weaver had been surprised the second day out when Neal had started them all with training on weapon safety and handling. Neal had pointed out that there was no way he alone could protect all of them, especially if they wanted to head off in different directions. He had started them out with a ‘toy’ gun he called a ‘Stinger’. It looked like a standard stunner, but instead of a beam that could knock someone out, this delivered a harmless pinpoint jolt, and could be turned down so it could barely be felt. Neal used these for basic target practice as well as teaching them to keep their heads (and tails!) down when trying to take down someone who was trying to take them out. The kids had renamed the training gun the ‘TailStinger’ due to that being the part some of them seemed to have the most trouble keeping out of sight.
While all of them had been issued stunners for when in port, Neal also trained and armed his four top trainees with phasers. These were to be brought out only at need. Misuse would see them disarmed and no longer allowed to carry a weapon.
The training had come in handy the first five minutes after landing at their first port, the kids having had a bad case of ‘cabin fever’ and couldn’t wait to get off the shuttle and into the fresh air.
They had no sooner stepped out of the shuttle’s hatch than a small group of humans had come around a corner. Upon spotting the furs, they had started to move towards the kids, yelling for them to go back where they came from, they weren’t wanted here.
The humans had stopped dead in their tracks when the three youngest furs pulled their stunners out of their belt pouches. With her weapon still pointing at the ground as she had been taught, Holly asked, "Can I shoot them now?"
Standing beside her with hir own stunner out but not yet aimed at the group of humans, Shadowcrest replied, "Not until they do something threatening. If they try to hurt us, then we get to shoot them."
With some of the teenage furs with their paws in their belt pouches, the humans had decided they wanted nothing to do with this group and beat a hasty retreat.
Neal had then come out of the hatch’s shadow where he had been waiting with ‘Betsy’. He was trying to not let his smile get too big, the kids having done just what was needed, no shots had been fired, and with any luck the word would soon be out that this was not a group to be messed with.
His denmate had then taken four ‘protectors’ and she and the newborn had headed for the hospital. After securing the shotgun and locking up the shuttle, the rest went with Neal.
First stop was a wide-ranging general store to get all the things the kids would be needing for a long trip. Grooming aids, soaps and shampoos, games, snacks, clothing, and a few toys quickly filled the carts in no time. After dropping that load at the shuttle they hit one of the shipyard stores. Here, filters, chemicals and a small mountain of parts were on Neal’s list of needed things.
After dropping off their second load, they joined up with the vixen’s group. The doctor’s report was that Weaver and Starblazer were both in excellent condition.
The group’s next stop was a little company that made meal packs. The kids had groaned at the idea of more ‘ready meals’, but Neal had lead them in anyway.
After a quick word with a salesfur, they were escorted to a dining room where several dozen meal choices were offered. Neal suggested that instead of them just eating what they liked, they should at least sample each of the other choices. After everyone had made a meal out of sampling everything, Neal had wanted to know which ones they didn’t like, to their surprised looks he had chuckled and told them he just wanted to know what ‘not’ to buy.
The rest of the day was spent at the shuttle, loading and unloading as different customers shown up, most of them surprised by how early the Folly had arrived, and that Neal would be there over a week. A day or two was more the norm.
While there had been messages waiting for all the kids from their parents, several of the parents had also sent separate messages to Neal, one was a threat of legal action if their child wasn’t returned at once (at Neal’s expense of course), most of the rest offering support and asking if there was anything they could do to help. The one from Weaver’s tod just asked him to give her and his kids all the love he couldn’t and all but begged for information about how his newest addition was doing.
Neal showed Cindy the letter her father had sent him threatening legal action if she wasn’t returned at once, and gave her the option of staying behind and waiting for a ship to take her home or staying with her group. She chose to stay with her friends, and added a letter to her father telling him of her choice.
Before arrival Neal had let each of the kids make their own recorded messages, some of them having spent hours trying to make each message ‘just right’ so as not to scare or shock their parents too badly. This was a bit of a challenge for his stowaways. How do you admit that you were trying to stow away on a ship and ended up on the wrong one? The Twintails had just come into port and was going to be there another three days; plenty of time to be ‘found’ and still get a look at the ship before being sent home. The only flaw in their plan was ending up on a ship that was leaving as soon as they were loaded.
What they didn’t know was Tess had recorded their whole session – retries, bloopers, and all, this is what Neal had actually sent to their parents. He figured this would give the parents a better feel for what the kids were really thinking and how they were doing as well as show them that he wasn’t telling the kids what to say or how to say it.
Shadowcrest and Quickdash had both gone to the spaceport that day with different groups from their schools. Shadowcrest had snuck off by hirself to do a little exploring. When shi had heard a Humans First group shouting nearby, shi had hidden in the open carrier, slipping between the pallets to get out of sight. After getting separated from hir own school group, Quickdash had spotted Shadowcrest sneaking around and had followed hir into the carrier just before the foxtaurs were chased in by the Humans First mob. Neal had pointed out to Shadowcrest that if shi hadn’t been there, Weaver would most likely have been hurt much worse than she had been. Along with the messages, Neal had sent the recording of he and Weaver adopting the kids, pointing out to any possibly anxious parents that the kids had the choice to opt out of having a human for an adopted father any time they wanted.
With nothing to do until the last loads were ready, they saw some of the local sights and spent a good deal of time in one of the nearby parks. Watching the kids run around in a modified version of tag, Weaver had asked Neal what they could do to help the kids deal with some of the longer stretches between planets. Neal had replied that he had picked up enough parts that he should be able to get a good sized holodeck going, he had some other ideas, but he needed parts he couldn’t get here.
Though Neal had sent the messages low priority to save on the costs of sending so much information, they reached the parents in plenty of time for replies, and while most were fairly understanding, a couple had promised their kids that they would be ‘grounded for life’ once they got back. Neal had suggested the kids take it with a grain of salt; their feelings would change a lot over the length of the trip.
The next letter from Cindy’s father had claimed that Neal had no right to adopt his daughter and ordered Neal to leave Cindy behind. After showing Cindy the latest letter they agreed on a reply. Neal’s reply was that he would never leave a child behind against her will, if he wanted her off Neal’s ship all he needed to do was meet them at one of the Folly’s port of calls and Cindy could leave with him if she wished too. As far as un-adopting Cindy, she was the only person that could do that, Neal would not disown her. Neal had given all the parents the major stops the Folly would be making and when she should be there to make staying in touch with their kids a little easier.
The last evening before they left Neal had taken them all out for ice cream: one last treat before they were stuck on the ship again, this time for over a month.
Once they were back aboard the Folly, Tess had informed the kids that they would not be allowed in the aviary for a while. Two of the three cockatiel pairs now had baby chicks to take care of. When the kids had wanted to see the chicks, Tess had showed them how to access the remote cameras so they could watch the action without bothering the birds.
It had taken Neal almost a full week to convert one of the larger lounges into a holodeck. The kids helped where they could, but making something from scratch was a new challenge for them.
The first thing Neal did once the holodeck was activated was to show them a ‘blank’ world. To match ship time, he added a sun at a slight angle to suggest that it was early afternoon. Neal then ‘made’ two towering pine trees, their large trunks just ten feet apart, branches entangled to form a wide shady canopy. Adding some grass and a large hammock, he fell into the hammock, called up a pleasant breeze and some quiet bird song, and said they were on their own; he was done for the day.
Weaver had gently dropped Starblazer into his lap, telling him that if he was going to sleep on the job, she would keep him company. Since Starblazer had just been fed, it only took a little of the hammock’s gentle swinging to put her to sleep, Neal soon followed.
When he awoke a few hours later, he found himself deep in an evergreen forest, a path leading toward the sound of running water. With Starblazer still asleep in his arms, Neal followed the path and came upon a large clearing with a lake being fed by a small waterfall. He found his denmate and most of the kids napping on the beach, one of the still alert ones informing him the rest were playing hide-n-seek.
When not being used to help them relax, the holodeck was also used for training. Here, Neal could show them everything from the insides of a working warp core to mock-ups of bridge/cockpit controls so they could watch their commands move ships and shuttles around a station or though space.
One of the things Weaver and the kids were still getting used to was their denmate/father/captain’s sleeping routine, or lack of one actually. Neal normally had trouble sleeping, so he was used to just working until he was tried, sleep anywhere from two to ten hours, then he would be up for ten to thirty hours before he was ready to crash again.
Neal on the other hand was learning to live with never knowing whom he was going to wake up with. Sometimes a fur or two (or three) would be waiting for him when he was finally ready to sleep, sometimes his bed was vacant. What would occasionally drive Neal crazy was most of the time who he went to bed with wasn’t who he woke up to. The kids were also trying to get him on a more normal schedule by helping him with his projects, and sometimes by claiming to need his help with their schooling, in both cases they would soon suggest that they were at a stopping point and it was bedtime. This worked more often than not, but the kids in turn found themselves staying up far later than they had intended when they found Neal was working on something ‘interesting’.
Now, Neal just leaned back and watched this shift’s ‘bridge crew’ doing all the little things that were part of bringing a ship into port, while he handled communications with the station, they were moving the ship into the requested flight path and watching out for other traffic. Since there was no other freighter traffic expected, station control was allowing the Folly to dock with the station, blocking several of their other docking ports. If they had been busy, Neal would have parked the Folly out of the way and shuttled the cargo pods to an open port. Instead he was able to let the kids get the Folly right up to the docking port, Tess doing the last of the fine maneuvers needed to gently mate with the station.
Neal had intended to be docked only long enough to unload, a few hours at most, but as his father had always said there was always two ways of doing anything, ‘first class or with children’. In this case the ‘with children’ meant spending most of the day, the kids all wanting to see their first space station, even though there was nothing all that special about it.
Since the station wasn’t showing any signs of trouble, Neal had given in and allowed them to explore in groups of three or more.
Two hours before their ‘extended’ scheduled departure time Tess informed Neal that everyone was back onboard. The way she said it told Neal something was going on.
Ever since the kids had taken over the bridge, Neal had started using a neighboring cabin as an office/captain’s dayroom where he could try to get some work done while still keeping an eye and an ear on the bridge.
A tap of a claw on the open doorframe told Neal someone wanted his attention, looking up he saw Shadowcrest standing at the door, looking like shi would prefer to be almost anywhere else. There had been a quiet yet ‘heated’ discussion between some of the bridge crew and the young chakat just a few minutes earlier. Neal wondered if this was related.
Shi just stood at the door, so Neal waved hir in. Shi still looked like shi didn’t know what to say, so he keyed the door closed so shi could speak without hir sisters’ big ears picking up every word. When shi still said nothing, Neal came around the desk and wrapped hir in a hug. Feeling hir trembling, he shook his head as he quietly asked hir, "Okay, just how much trouble did you get yourself into this time?"
That broke the floodgates, an almost tearful Shadowcrest told him that while exploring, they had come across a fur looking for passage off station to almost anywhere else. She would happily work for her passage, and she claimed to be a gourmet cook. It took some time, but Neal finally got hir to the point, Shadowcrest had already promised this ‘cook’ passage without asking him first.
When he asked hir why the others in hir group didn’t say anything at the time, Shadowcrest admitted that shi had gone out with Quickdash and Holly. Neal shook head in amused annoyance. He had inadvertently left a loophole letting hir get loose without any of the older kids, and shi had used it. Of course using that loophole had now forced hir to accept the consequences of hir having been the one in charge of the group.
"Are you mad at me?" shi asked
"No, just a little concerned. Remember, the little ones will be watching you even closer than they watch the older kids, getting ideas from how you handle things. I didn’t think you would try to go for a walk without any of the older kids or Weaver. Quickdash and Holly might think it’s a great idea too…"
"But you said three or more!" shi cried.
"So? What if Holly tells her mother that they will watch Starblazer? Now there are three of them…"
Eyes wide, Shadowcrest opened hir mouth, but no words came out. Neal shook his head, "Part of being a big sister is being a role model. They are going to learn from you, and so you are going to have to decide what you want to teach them."
As he held hir to help calm hir down, he tried to decide on the best way to handle this little mess. While unloading, Neal had been approached by over a dozen humans and furs, all of them looking for a ride to another port. He had declined their requests, having more than enough to do keeping an eye on Weaver and the kids. He could always send this ‘cook’ packing as well, but that might make the youth in his arms think that he was doing it just because shi hadn’t asked him first. On the other hand, while there was less grumbling about the meals, the kids still didn’t think much of them and a change would be welcome.
Having come to a decision Neal gave Shadowcrest one more squeeze and released hir. "Go blow your nose and wash your face." Then with a wink, he added, "And then go get your cook. I would like to have a word with her before you try picking out a room."
The brown and white rabbit in front of him looked nervous but determined. Her name was Suzan Pebble, and the résumé on his desk showed a tendency to work somewhere for a week or two, or to stay for years, then on to the next job. Her last job had been on a cruise ship, the Southern Breeze. She had lasted six months before bailing out early, and because she didn’t finish her contract, the cruise line was holding her pay, leaving her without the funds needed to buy passage off station. Meanwhile, station fees were quickly eating through what funds she did have.
It took a little coaxing to get her whole story. Suzan had been working for the cruise line for several years, and she had completed three previous cruises on some of their other ships before the one she had quit. A little more digging brought up her reasons for quitting: a new cook had been added at the last minute, an ‘old friend’ of the ship’s first officer, one who liked to claim credit for other peoples’ hard work, and for shifting the blame for his own blunders. When management did nothing to resolve the issue, Suzan had left. Her only error was not waiting for a better port to disembark.
Neal thought it over, and then looked toward Shadowcrest, who had been waiting quietly in the corner. "Introduce her to everyone, if that doesn’t scare her off you can find her a room."
After they left, Neal had Tess bring up what she had on the Southern Breeze and her crew. A little reading made Neal glad he had helped her, though it also made him wonder if more personal reasons may have forced her to jump ship at such a poor location.
It turned out that Suzan didn’t scare easily. Most of the kids had been on the holodeck playing ‘tailstinger hide-n-seek tag’ where you ‘tagged’ your opponent with a low-powered tailstinger instead of chasing them down, which put the smaller furs on a more even footing with the bigger kids, good aim and a sharp eye being more important than size or speed. Neal had tried to suggest that this wasn’t a proper use of a weapon, even a training weapon. The kids’ counter-argument had been that his rules required them to practice their marksmanship with the tailstinger. Their ‘game’ covered that as well as keeping under cover while trying to ‘tag’ without being tagged in return. Neither Weaver nor Neal had come up with a good reason to not let them practice their way, so playing ‘tag’ had taken on an entirely new meaning on the Folly.
After leaving the station behind, Neal headed for the holodeck. After picking up a stinger and checking its charge and settings he entered the forest. Normally he would have just walked a few kilometers of the meandering trails for a little exercise, but with the kids adding the stingers to their game, even he was expected to join in. Usually someone would give him a hit with their stinger to tell him they could see him, he would then stop and see if he could find and tag them in return.
Lately most of the chakats had taken to hiding in the trees, but this time his attacker was hiding a little lower. As he walked down the length of the beach he felt someone tag him on the back of his leg, whirling around he saw movement behind some large rocks at the edge of the water. Charging the rocks, Neal quickly looked over them. No one behind them, nowhere they could have run without him seeing them, that’s when he noticed a few bubbles rising in the quiet water between the rocks. After waiting almost a full minute a brown and white nose slowly rose from the depths, Neal with his stinger set as low as it would go, gently ‘tagged’ the nose, which quickly vanished only to be replaced by a choking rabbit. After helping Suzan out of the water Neal handed her a comm badge, at her questioning look he explained that it not only would let her communicate with everyone else, Tess would monitor her vitals, alerting them if she ever got into trouble. When she accused him of trying to make ‘tagging’ her easier, Tess had informed Suzan that she wouldn’t help Neal cheat without helping everyone else as well.
The next day Neal opened one of the long unused kitchens. A substantial layer of dust coated everything. After they cleaned off the mixers, stoves, ovens and other equipment Neal wasn’t too surprised to find that most of it didn’t work, the ship had been in a scrapyard for a while before he bought it, and he’d never bothered to check any of it before. After cutting power to everything but the overhead lighting, Neal set the kids to work removing the old equipment and the new cook with instructions to make three lists, one of all the toys a chef could want, what she could work with, and what she would need to just get by.
When Suzan returned with her lists, Neal gave them a glance, then dropped the ‘just get by’ list in the trash, at Suzan’s dirty look he grinned and said, "It was to make you think, and I’ll bet the other lists have more on them because of it. Am I wrong?" This earned him a small smile and a headshake.
Handing her a list of his own he said, "This lists the ports we will be stopping at over the next year, are any of them someplace you might want to get off at?"
Looking over the list, Suzan was surprised to find she didn’t recognize half of them, the other half were quite a distance from each other, almost as if the Folly was following a zigzag line.
At her questioning look Neal smiled and said, "Yes, they are in order, and yes, there is a madness behind my methods." At her arched eyebrow he continued, "This lets me cover two routes at once and helps keep others from realizing just how fast the Folly actually is, if you just go by every other port, then I’m just a third faster than one of Star Fleet’s ‘fast freighters’. A few times I’ve even been asked if I knew there was another ship using the same name running my ‘other’ route. Now, are we dropping you off at any of them?" At her headshake, he dropped the ‘could work with’ list in the trash, holding the ‘all the toys she wants’ list he had Tess scan it into memory, then handed the list back to her, "If you think of anything to add, tell Tess and she’ll add it to the shopping list." As she kept staring at him, he answered her unasked question, "The second list was in case you weren’t going to be with us long. After all, why buy more than we need if you’re not going to be here to use it?"
"And when I do leave?" she asked.
Neal shrugged his shoulders. "With any luck, one or more of the kids may take an interest in cooking, and if you can teach them the basics, we may not have to eat too many mistakes."
Suzan gave him a perplexed look. "You expect me to teach them?" she asked.
"Only if you are willing, and only if they show an interest," Neal replied. "Since I’m assuming that you’ll be needing extra hands every now and then, watching and smelling your meals come together might just make them want to try it for themselves."
At their next planetary stop, Neal had four of the chakats accompany Suzan as she looked for kitchen equipment and all the other toys that a cook needed to get the job done. Suzan’s orders were to look over what was available for what price and make a list of what she wanted. Suzan wasn’t told, but the chakats’ orders were to watch her and make a list of the items and cost of what she really wanted but had passed over due to her doubts that Neal would okay the higher expense.
After they returned Neal uploaded both lists to Tess, she would display the lists through his glasses while they were shopping. Then the whole crew came along, some to help haul what they bought, and some for guard duty as there had been some reports of Humans First problems.
Once they were back among the ovens and stoves, Suzan would point out what she had selected from her list, Neal would then walk over to the one the kids’ list said she really wanted and ask if it were a better choice. After the fifth ‘upgrade’ Suzan had stopped dead in the middle of the store and demanded to know what was going on. Neal had just smiled and said, "I get by with a little help from my friends." After that Suzan stopped even looking at her list, she just pointed out the things she wanted. The only other surprise she received was when Neal sometimes purchased more of some items than she had asked for. He had pointed out he was just making sure she had enough, and to cover any breakage caused by inexperienced ‘help’.
With the kitchen equipment loaded in the shuttle, Suzan and the kids were then sent grocery shopping, Suzan carrying not only her list, but also a list of what she could draw from ship’s stores.
It took a few days to get the kitchen rebuilt and ready for its new chef. The ceiling was cleaned and painted, and the drains were cleaned and tested before the flooring was replaced. Power and water connections were replaced and checked before the walls were covered, then it was time to start moving in the new ovens, stoves, sinks and countertops. Shelves and cabinets covered most of the remaining wall space while a large movable chopping block/workspace dominated the center of the room. Then Suzan had to decide what to store where, a couple of the kids bringing in more boxes as she emptied them. (It would be two weeks before she realized that over half her chef’s hats and aprons had sayings on them, ‘to heck with the spoon, lick the cook’ being one of the milder ones that the rest of the crew had picked out for her.)
Suzan had stormed into Neal’s office, closed the door and then opened an apron for him to see. "What the hell is this?" she demanded.
Neal was hard pressed not to show his amusement. The apron read: ‘Her food is great but I prefer RABBIT STEW!’
"I knew some of the aprons had colorful expressions on them," he said slowly, having had a few suggestions of his own when they were being made, "but I seem to have missed that one."
Suzan just glared at him "Just what type of a ship are you running?"
"One with a dozen teenagers, all of which are past puberty, half of which are chakats." Neal replied, to her questioning look he added, "You are aware of their twenty-four day heat and rut cycle?" She nodded "Then you should know that sex is never far from their minds. To me that apron simply suggests that somebody likes you and would love to know you better."
Neal let that sink in. After a moment, the insides of Suzan’s ears went bright pink. Now smiling, Neal added, "Now the only thing you have to decide is if you dare to wear it."
Over the next week Neal noticed morale seemed to be increasing. Not that it had been low, but something was giving it a boost. The best clue he got was at breakfast one morning. Suzan was wearing her ‘lick the cook’ apron and most of the kids were calling her ‘Stew’. At his raised eyebrow, her ears went pink. At her grin, he could only shake his head with a smile of his own.
It turned out several of the kids were interested in cooking, but finding free time to experiment when Suzan didn’t need her kitchen turned out to be a problem.
Neal had just smiled and reminded them that they had enough ‘spare’ parts to put together a small kitchen. They only had one spare oven and stove, but that should be enough for cooking up an ‘experiment’ or two. They would still need Stew’s okay for the cooking supplies, or they would have to remember to get their own when at port. A break room was converted into a mini kitchen for them to try their skills without keeping Stew from getting her meals ready. Mike turned out to already be a pretty good pastry cook though he had problems proving it. It seemed someone would always eat his treats before he had a chance to show them to everyone. Morningmist, on the other paw, seemed to be able to take some of the toughest meats and turn them into something that would all but melt in your mouth.
Everyone was relaxing in the lounge after another of Stew’s excellent dinners, when Tess silently paged Neal. Though he had tried to act as if nothing was wrong, the chakats all felt his emotional spike. Once he left the lounge, the kids had started asking Tess what was going on. When she evaded their questions they knew it had to be something important.
They then asked where Neal was. When informed that the captain was on the bridge, they rushed to one of the other bridges. Once there, they slaved the monitors to the active bridge just like they normally would for training. Once the systems came online, they found themselves seeing screens Neal hadn’t shown them yet: tactical data on an unknown ship they were coming up on shown on most of the screens, on others were indications that the Folly was getting ready for something. She had just dropped out of warp and power levels were coming up instead of dropping. Her shield generators were powering up but the shields were still down.
Then from the nose of the Folly, four small shapes appeared on the displays, three of them moving to quickly parallel the other ship, one slowly coming up behind it. As the shapes closed on the other ship, more information was now being added to the tactical screens. Suddenly, part of the unknown ship started flashing red, then zoomed in. They were looking at a storage room about the size of a carrier, down one side was a row of fourteen cages, in the bottom of each cage was a large catlike fur in chains. Now when asked, Tess answered their questions. They had come up on a pirate/slaver. Neal would as a rule disable them and give their location to Star Fleet and let them collect the pirates, but the prisoners or slaves could be killed long before Star Fleet could get a ship out. Weaver asked if there was any way to save them. Tess admitted that Neal had several options, but he was worried about putting his own crew at risk.
Weaver quickly left the training bridge and headed for the active one. When she reached it, she found Neal sitting in his captain’s chair. The look of anger on his face was something she hadn’t seen before. His head turned when she stepped up beside him but he said nothing.
After a moment she said, "It’s always easier to take a risk when it’s just yourself you’re risking." At his slow nod she continued, "If the kids and I weren’t here, what would you do?"
Letting out a pent up breath, Neal looked back at the monitors. "Transport the prisoners into one of the empty cargo pods until I know who and what they are, beam the computers onboard so Tess can data mine them, then disable their ship and leave them for Star Fleet to clean up." The last was said at almost a growl.
Looking him in the eye she said, "Then do it." At his stare she smiled, "You’re not the only one who is willing to accept risks. Tess, what are the others up to?"
Tess responded with, "The older kids are starting to move bedding into a cargo pod, the younger ones are helping Stew, since it looks like the slaves weren’t being fed, she’s mixing up a light soup to start them off, and a snack for the rest of you since it look’s like it’s going to be a long night."
Looking like he had bitten into something he wasn’t sure he liked the taste of, Neal stared at Weaver for another moment, then turned back to the displays.
"Tess," he asked, "is there anyone over there running around loose but unarmed?" With her negative reply, he made his decision. "Disable their bridge controls, then grab the computers and the slaves." Looking at Weaver he continued, "And then turn them into a rock. The only thing I want you to leave working is life-support."
Looking back to the displays, the pirate’s bridge suddenly showed a complete loss of power. Areas that had shown computer equipment went vacant, then the cages started vanishing. A few seconds later most of the ship went dark as control and power systems, even connections and cabling were transported away.
Watching as the ship started to slowly drift, Neal said, "Tess will leave them basic life-support. If they want to try to get something else going, they’ll have to take from that, so they should still be here when Star Fleet gets around to collecting them."
Pointing at the four small objects returning to the Folly, she asked, "What are those?"
Neal glanced at her as he said, "A Zulu and three baby Zulus."
With a raised eyebrow Weaver asked, "And just what is a ‘Zulu’?"
"Just as ‘Z’ is the last letter in the English alphabet, the ‘Zulus’ were intended originally as the Folly’s last defense. When I started out, the Zulus were my ‘last chance’ fight or flight craft. For flight they are very fast and long ranged, for fight they have long range sensors and transporters that can penetrate most shields."
Weaver asked, "Is there a reason you haven’t brought this up before?"
Giving her a smile, Neal replied, "Only because we haven’t had a need for them so far. That, and I can no longer use the Zulus for ‘flight’." At her raised eyebrow, he sadly added, "They can barely hold two, so even using all six I would have to leave someone behind."
"And a ‘baby’ Zulu?" she asked.
"Unmanned, no transporter, less fuel, made for scouting and, if need be, ramming."
"Ramming?" she asked looking a little upset.
Neal gave her a tight smile, "I’ve only used them as scouts so far but, if need be, they are my ‘last chance’ to protect the Folly."
A little worried Weaver asked, "When do you use them?"
"The baby Zulus are used when I’m actively hunting pirates. Their scanner range is almost as good as the Folly’s, so with six of them running parallel to her, we can sweep a very wide path. The Zulus are used when I’m trying to keep pirates from seeing the Folly, when running silent like we were, coming up on them, I can get pretty close but not quite into transporter range without running a risk of being detected before I can take them out. A Zulu is much harder to see than the Folly, so I used its transporters to shut them down. Then I used the Zulu as a relay to beam the computers and cats onboard. I can also use the Zulus if I’m trying to stay out of range of something that might damage us before I can disable them."
"How can you ‘relay’ a transporter? I thought they could only take things apart and put them back together!"
"Yes and no. With a single transporter, it would record an object within its range, break it down, transmit the matter to a receiving point also within its range, and use the record to reconstruct the item using the matter it had transmitted. In this case, the Zulu’s transporter retransmitted the recording and the matter to the Folly, and her transporters put everything back together in the cargo pod. With the cats, there was also the mind matrix to consider, but as far as the relay goes, that’s just more information to move."
Weaver frowned. "Too technical for me! You told me before that the Folly had been boarded twice by pirates."
Neal grinned. "Both times I was using the Folly as bait. I had to make sure all the pirates had come into range before I could act. So far no pirate has ever been able to get the word out that the Folly can defend herself. I would like to keep it that way. Oh, and before you ask, I really had no intention of actively hunting pirates with you and the kids onboard. This was just a fluke."
Taking the Folly back to warp, Neal asked, "Would you like to help me welcome our new guests?"
Weaver smiled as she replied, "Maybe after I check on Starblazer."
As they separated, Neal called over his shoulder, "In case you’re keeping score, that one goes under ‘never saw us’."
Entering the cargo pod Neal found the kids had already set up beds for each of their guests and they had stayed away from the cages without being told.
Moving up to the first cage, Neal had Tess remove the top and sides, leaving the bottom and the chains. Carefully rolling the big fur over, he found a medpac slowly pumping drugs into her. Turning the medpac off, Neal removed it. Setting it aside, he asked Tess to analyze the contents. A medical scan showed the fur to be badly dehydrated, very under weight and generally in very poor shape. Neal attached a comm badge and one of Tess’s medpacs, and had her start giving the big cat fluids.
After checking each of them, Neal took a break, shaking his head at what he had found. He told the others, "All Rakshani, all female, three look like they were beaten a while back, but their injuries have almost healed. Someone was very scared of them or very stupid. They were using drugs strong enough to knock something Mike’s size down hard, but these furs are all less than half his mass."
She slowly awoke to the sound of quiet voices, the words not making any sense at first. She felt like she had slept for a very long time. That, and the way she could barely move her body, suggested she had been drugged. The quiet clunk of the chain when she did move told her she was in serious trouble. Breathing slowly and deeply to try and clear her head, she concentrated on the voices. One was deep sounding male voice. She involuntarily shivered when she realized it was human. The other came from a young cat.
"Don’t you have any drugs that would wake them up quicker?" the cat was asking.
"I have something that might work," the human replied, "but with everything they seem to have been through, I think it would be better to just let the drugs in their system wear off and let them wake up on their own. It would be easier on them, and less of a shock."
She was surprised that the cat had dared to question the human’s methods, and even more surprised that the human didn’t punish him for it. As she continued to watch, a hatch opened, and a rabbit and three very young taurs came in. Two of the taurs were quite small, and her anger rose at the thought that the human had such young slaves. The rabbit seemed to be a trustee. She was heading toward her master.
Stew walked over to where Neal was using a fold-out desk. He was reading through some of the data that Tess had already recovered from the pirate’s computers. "How did you want to handle feeding them?" she asked.
"Cool the soup so they can’t burn themselves, put down a bowl of water, and one of soup, about a half a liter in each." At her look he said, "With starvation recovery, it’s ‘slow and easy’; just a little at a time to get their systems used to food again. If we let them try to drink too much too fast, they’ll do themselves more harm than good by throwing up."
As they started placing soup and water bowls in front of each of the Rakshani, one of them lunged at the rabbit, her weakness more than her chains stopping her pounce well short of Stew.
Waving the surprised Stew away, Neal stepped up to the Rakshani, stopping just out of her reach. She stared at him growling, stopping after a moment to cough.
Neal gave her a small smile and pushed the bowl of water a little closer, "You’re too dry to even growl properly. Drink a little water and you can try again if you like." At her glare he picked up the water bowl and drank half of it. Setting the bowl down, he added, "You’re bigger than I am, anything in the water would hit me harder than it would you."
After watching him for a minute, she tried to get a drink but her paws shook so badly she knocked the bowl over when she tried to pick it up. Neal sat down on the edge of the cage and helped her sit up. Leaning against him, then taking a fresh bowl from the little foxtaur, he held it so all she had to do was drink. After she had finished off the water, Neal set the bowl down and just let her lean on him.
When she looked at him, he smiled, "Just let that settle, then we can try some soup." When she rattled her chains, he gave her a little squeeze, "The chains stay until you give your word that you won’t try to harm anyone on this ship."
"I don’t make deals with slavers," she growled/coughed.
"Not a problem. I’m not a slaver and you’re not a slave." At her glare he added, "The pirate ship they had you on ran into problems. We beamed you off when they lost power."
"I don’t believe you." She hissed.
"What would convince you?" Neal asked.
"Free us!" she all but shouted.
"Only on your word you won’t try to hurt any fur on this ship," Neal replied.
"You’re not a fur," she pointed out.
"I’ll take my chances," he said with a small smile.
At her nod, Tess released the shackles and the chains dropped off. As she stared at them, Neal smiled again. "Now, did you want to try the soup on your own, or would you like some help?"
After feeding her two bowls of soup, Neal and Mike helped her over to one of the beds. After getting her settled, he turned back to the row of Rakshani still in chains.
"What about the rest of you?" he asked. When none of them moved, he continued, "The comm badge each of you is wearing is monitoring your vitals so we would know if you were having problems, but it also lets me know that all but two of you are faking sleep."
The Rakshani in bed tried to get up, but Neal gently pushed her back. "Please don’t hurt them," she begged.
Neal just gave her a smile. "You were faking sleep too," he reminded her, "then you tried to attack one of my crew." At her apprehensive look, he shook his head as he chuckled. "I will have to think of a suitable punishment for that last part, but perhaps your friends have learned from your mistakes." Looking back at the other Rakshani, he said, "Well?"
One of the larger Rakshani tried to speak, but her throat was too dry. Neal helped her sit up and carefully fed her the water. When she indicated she wanted more, he told her she could have all she could hold, but she was going to take it a little at a time. After two more bowls of water and the soup, she was ready to try again.
"As ranking noncom, I give my word that my people will not harm your furs."
Neal smiled as he replied, "Having dealt with Rakshani a few times, I have some idea of how sneaky your kind can be, so my first question would be if all of these are ‘your’ people?" At her nod, he added, "And for your information, they are mine as far as the vixen that just came in is my denmate, and the young ones are my adopted children." He then asked, "What service are you in?" At her look he shrugged, "We will be going by a Star Fleet base in two days. We could drop you off there."
"NO!" she gasped, then realizing what she’d just done, she shut up and stared at the deck.
Neal started quietly cursing.
Having come in the middle of the conversation, Weaver asked, "Why would she not want to go home?"
The Rakshani remained silent, so Neal answered her question. "She doesn’t want Star Fleet to know they aren’t still on that pirate ship. That, and the information Tess has already pulled from the pirate’s computers, suggests they were on a Star Fleet vessel when they were taken prisoner." Looking up at Weaver, he added, "In other words, this was an inside job and there’s no telling where, or how deep into Star Fleet the rot goes." Looking at the kids, he indicated the other Rakshani. Each of the older kids picked one to release and help, the two little ones going to see if the Rakshani already in bed wanted some more soup. Lifting the chin of the Rakshani in his arms until she met his eye, he asked, "Tell me I’m wrong. Please." She only shook her head.
She bowed her head and began to speak. "My name is Zhanch ap Nashene na Zhane. I am a Marine sergeant in Star Fleet. We are part of the marine detachment for the cruiser ‘Montgomery Scott’. Three days from the Connadis system is the last thing I can remember."
"The medpacs you were wearing had their data recorders on," Neal told her. "Most of you have been drugged for a little more than five weeks." Giving the big cat in his arms a squeeze, he added, "Your medpac and two of the others showed two days less. Also, your medical scan suggests all three of you were beaten about that time. Do you remember any of it?"
She just shook her head, Neal looked to the other two. One of them waited for her sergeant’s nod before speaking, "I had a dream," she shuddered, "or maybe a nightmare, it kept fading in and out. They were trying to question the sergeant, but someone was saying that they had used the wrong drugs on her. They tried beating her, but the drugs seemed to keep her from feeling anything."
"What would the three of you know that the others wouldn’t?" Neal wondered.
Zhanch stiffened in Neal’s arms, "The command codes for the armory and the heavy mobile suits!" She looked at Neal. "If they were trying to get the codes from us, then our officers were already unable to talk!"
Looking thoughtful, Neal agreed. "That should reduce their boarding action fun, but they still have a Star Fleet cruiser to play with. Not a good thing." Looking at the Rakshani that had ‘remembered’ her dream, he asked, "Did you see any furs in your ‘dream’ or just humans?"
"All I remember were humans. Why?" she asked with a shiver.
"Because the pirate’s records strongly suggest Humans First involvement," Neal said softly. At the questioning looks, he expanded on his thought. "Take a cruiser-sized play-toy and add a bunch of fun-loving Humans First types." At their shocked stares, he could only shake his head. "The really bad news is that no one will realize they’re the enemy until it’s way too late."
After putting all the Rakshani to bed, Neal left two of the kids with them in case they needed help, most of them being too weak to even stand on their own. Going back to his day room, Neal started digging though the data Tess was still pulling from the pirate’s computers.
The next morning, a tired Neal joined the Rakshani as they finished their breakfast of soft foods and lots of liquids.
Sitting down next to Zhanch’s bed, he told them what he’d found. "The pirates were planning on taking your group to Pharos, one of the non-aligned worlds. Once there, they were going to sell you as slaves." Neal added, "They were part of the attack on your ship. A group of Humans First insiders gassed most of the ship and were able to take the bridge and engineering. Anyone not immediately overcome by the gas was shot. Their biggest mistake seems to be that the gas they used was too strong for most of the crew. They just stopped breathing. The few with some resistance to the gas acted like they were intoxicated. Some side notes suggest your group was asleep when they started using the gas. You were the only ones asleep that lived. The alert Rakshani were fighting the gas and got shot for their troubles." Glancing at the three that had been beaten, he added, "While they were trying to get the access codes from you, the gas still in your systems helped keep their truth drugs from working properly. That’s why they thought they had used the wrong drugs to question you." Neal’s tone changed at that point, a little more anger leaking out as he added, "Starvation, dehydration, and the drug overload they had you on would have killed you all long before you reached Pharos."
"And the human insiders?" asked the sergeant.
"Must have been wearing full body containment suits to protect themselves from the gas. Contact with the skin would knock a human out almost instantly; breathing it would kill in less than a minute. Any humans not in on the attack never knew what hit them."
"So if the gas killed most of the crew quickly, they may not have all the command level codes they need to properly run the ship." Zhanch said.
"The problem is all they need is enough to be able to move the ship, dock with a ‘victim to be’ and unload their troops and take over a ship or station from the inside. The trick is going to be finding a way to warn others without risking word getting back to the cruiser that we’re on to them." Looking at the sergeant Neal asked, "Is there anyone in Star Fleet that you trust enough to talk too?"
"A captain, but she won’t believe any message I send her."
"Don’t worry, she’ll believe the message we send her, who is she?"
"Zhane. The last I heard, she was the commander of Starbase 3."
"An old friend of yours?"
"She may still see me as an enemy." At Neal’s raised eyebrow, she added, "We were once after the same male. I ‘won’, only to lose him to someone else."
"And did she ever find a mate?"
"Yes, a human admiral named Boyce Kline."
"I would guess the male you two were fighting over didn’t rank so high?"
That earned a weak laugh out of Zhanch, "You could say that."
"Then if we can convince her, we should be able to get her admiral in on this too. Tess, schedule information please." After checking times and locations, Neal told the sergeant, "Our next stop is in two days. If they’re ready for us, we should only be there a few hours. If I push it, the Starbase is only four days from there, so we should be talking to your old ‘friend’ in less than a week. We will only have a day to convince her, then we’ll have to hurry to make our next port in time."
The Rakshani named Kestrel asked, "Isn’t this more important than your schedule?"
Neal smiled at her, "It is much more important than my schedule. However, I don’t want anyone wondering why the Folly is ‘late’ for the first time in over five years. Someone asking questions about us is the last thing we need right now." At her nod he added, "This way there’s nothing to ask questions about. All we have to do is keep your group out of sight."
After dropping off supplies at a frontier station they headed for Starbase 3 in the Rakshah Quadrant, two days out they received a hail. "Shadowchaser to Folly, where the blazes do you think you’re going in such a hurry?"
Shadowcrest was standing the early morning watch. As shi had Tess wake Neal, shi brought up the shields, set the sensors to actively scan the ship hailing them, and switched to tactical displays. As Neal hurried onto the bridge, shi gave him hir updated information. Having already heard the hail from Tess, Neal had Tess drop the shields and take Folly out of warp, at Shadowcrest’s stare, he just smiled and just said, "Trust me."
Reopening the comm channel, he asked Shadowchaser how far behind hir friends were. Shi replied that they should be arriving in less than an hour.
Shadowcrest was still watching the tactical displays. They showed only a large two-seated fighter, the tactical data sheet telling hir that it was a type normally carried by a larger ship or a station, and was deployed to chase down pirates or other foe. It was fast at both impulse and warp, but didn’t have much range.
Neal was changing the sensor parameters. Their range suddenly increased and they could now see two small carriers, each capable of launching up to eight fighters. Escorting them was a pair of pocket destroyers.
Reading their size and mass from the tactical displays, Neal told Shadowchaser the Folly could handle the load. Did hir captains understand the rules?
Shadowchaser assured Neal that the other captains would not cause problems. At Shadowcrest’s questioning look, Neal explained, "‘MY ship, MY rules’. If they don’t like it, they can always get out and walk."
As the other ships closed on the Folly, Neal had them split up, a carrier and destroyer to each side. As they reached the forward end of the ‘corncob’, Neal had the carriers discharge their fighters. Tess then started pulling them into two cargo pods, eight on each side. Once the fighters were parked, the pods were closed and pressurized.
Most of the kids were up by now and watching from another bridge. They got a surprise when Neal told Tess to open the ‘main hanger doors’. They had been told that the first cargo sphere was just for ’vacuum mass-storage’. They were about to see one of Neal’s definitions of that term. The second sphere they already knew held the main living space and long-term carrier-sized storage. The corncob had some unused living space and two of the bridges. All of its storage was limited to the external pods and the carrier transportation system. Between the spheres were eight protected docking ports that held the shuttles, only seven of the ports were currently in use.
A very large circle appeared on either side of the forward sphere, then the circles started to rotate to the rear, leaving holes big enough that both of the small destroyers could have passed though at the same time. Tess now backed the carriers in. Once they were parked, she blocked them in with the destroyers. After closing the sphere, the Folly went back to warp as if she didn’t notice the extra mass.
Neal, having already told the other kids to not be seen just yet, then had Tess direct the pilots back to their carriers and inform the other captains that he would be able to talk with them in a few hours. He then asked Shadowchaser to join him on the bridge. Shi came without asking directions or asking which bridge.
Shadowcrest watched hir enter, the look on hir face suggesting shi wanted a weapon to protect hir ship from an invader. Shadowchaser had entered the bridge with a cocky grin, only to stand slack-jawed, staring at the younger chakat at the navigation station.
Neal didn’t quite manage to hold back his chuckle, the noise causing both chakats to turn to him, with identical questioning looks that just made him laugh all the harder.
Wiping his eyes, Neal said, "Sorry kids, but those looks were priceless. Tess, please save them for the scrapbook under ‘crossed shadows."
"Sure thing boss," Tess replied.
"Kids?" asked Shadowcrest now totally confused.
"Shadowcrest, say hello to your big sister Shadowchaser. Chase meet Shadowcrest."
Their new staring contest was interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the kids, Weaver and Stew bringing up the rear. At Weaver’s look, he wiggled his eyebrows and said, "if you remember your first day onboard, I did say you would be surprised about something." She thought back and suddenly remembered her remark about him not being the father type.
To Shadowchaser he said, "As you can see, I seem to be in the stray collecting business again, though I will admit that I had a bit less control of my choices this time."
Weaver cocked her head as she asked him, "And do you consider that to be a bad thing?"
Neal laughed and replied, "Hell no! With the curse I’m under, it could have been a whole lot worse!"
It was Shadowchaser’s turn to look confused, "Curse?"
"Later," Neal told hir, then he started introducing hir to everyone. When he got to Stew, he warned her to expect nine more for dinner.
Shadowchaser corrected him with "Ten." At his raised eyebrow, shi said, "I want you to meet my mate."
This raised Neal’s other eyebrow and earned hir a laugh. "Oh yes, by all means bring your mate."
"One warning," Shadowchaser said giving Neal a wary look, "she’s an engineer."
Neal laughed again, "Then it will be interesting to see if you gave her enough warnings about me and my toys." Then turning serious he added, "We need to have a talk before I talk to your captains."
They left the bridge and headed to the holodeck, Neal was letting the Rakshani use it when they were up to it. Tess was shifting the environment to aid their movement and exercise, they were now able to get around a little but were quickly tired.
The sergeant stared at the Star Fleet uniform as she asked Neal, "Are you betraying us, captain?"
Neal gave her a frown. "Not at all Zhanch. You have those you think you can trust in Star Fleet, I have mine. May I introduce my daughter, Shadowchaser."
Looking at Shadowchaser, she said, "My apologies. I’m a little nervous about Star Fleet right now."
Neal looked at Shadowchaser, "They are not here, you did not see them." At hir raised eyebrow he added, "Star Fleet probably doesn’t know it yet, but one of their cruisers is no longer under their command. These Rakshani were left to die on a pirate ship heading for Pharos, we intercepted it five days ago. We were on our way to Starbase 3 when we got your hail. One of the things I got from the pirate’s logs was that the insiders had been onboard for months. They waited until the ship left station without any chakats onboard before they attacked. I’m pretty sure they were afraid the chakats would sense that they were up to something. So my first question for you is: which of the ships I just took onboard have chakats?"
"Are you serious?" Shadowchaser asked. At his nod, shi thought for a moment, then smiled, "Do skunktaurs count? If so then we should be okay. The carriers both have chakats in the crew, and I heard the destroyers each have a skunktaur."
"Just because you have chakats or skunktaurs onboard, it doesn’t mean you’re ‘in the clear’. It might just mean they’ll bide their time and think nice thoughts," Neal warned hir. "I’m having Tess scan all four ships and the fighters for anything out of the ordinary. That gas they used on the cruiser was nasty business."
Neal sent Shadowchaser back to hir ship with instructions to talk to the skunktaurs and chakats on the other ships. They were to see if any humans ‘felt’ stressed when around furs.
Neal then had his meeting with the captains and first officers from the other ships, all of whom were a little ill at ease. They weren’t used to having their superiors telling them to take orders from a civilian. One of the captains gave Neal a sealed package. Opening the package, Neal dropped a memory chip into a reader and quickly read though the papers that came with it. "Well it looks like your commander wants you to magically disappear from where you were and reappear in some pirate infested area. As luck would have it, I’m in a bit of a hurry, so you’re already quite a ways from where you were, and I’ve already been though some of the areas she’s suggested, so we can rule them out for now."
First officer Canner, a medium sized foxtaur tod, snorted at Neal’s statement. "And how would you know if there were pirates somewhere. They could have been shut down and hiding."
Looking over his glasses at the foxtaur, Neal asked, "You’re from the destroyer, ‘Spike’, right?" At the officer’s nod, he continued, "Tess, patch me though to the Spike’s bridge, I would like to talk to their on-duty sensors tech."
A moment later the speaker mounted on the table spoke, "This is sensors, Carson speaking."
"This is Captain Foster of the Folly, I was just checking to see if you had been tied into our sensor network, and to see if you were having any problems with the sensitivity of our systems."
Not knowing that his captain and first officer were listening in, Carson just laughed. "We’re still taking bets over here on if the data you’re sending us is real or just something you’re making up on the fly!"
Neal smiled. "And why would you question our data feed?"
Carson snorted, "Well, for one thing, your passive scans are ‘showing’ non-powered objects at five times the range my sensors could, and the couple of times your people went active my display wouldn’t scale far enough out to see what they were looking at!"
"How could you confirm the data, without having to slow us down or unload your ship?"
Carson thought for a moment. "I’ve heard that some of the fighters have had a sensor upgrade, if one of them could parallel our course, we could compare the data once it got back."
Neal smiled, "I think that could be arranged. Passive only though. There aren’t supposed to be any military ships in this area."
"That would be enough to prove it to me and maybe even my skipper and first mate. They were betting on the side that says you’re feeding us a line," Carson replied.
Neal’s smile was making the officers in question squirm on their couches. "Tess, since Shadowchaser was able to spot us as we went by, I’m betting shi has the enhanced sensor package. " Hir carrier Captain, Chakat Autumnbreeze, raised an eyebrow at hir first officer who nodded at Neal. "Looks like a yes. Ask Shadowchaser if shi’s up for another little run; maybe an hour or two."
Five minutes later, the Folly dropped out of warp, the large door on a pod swung open and a fighter slipped out. Moments later, both ships jumped to warp, the larger ship masking the fighter’s jump to warp.
With hir sensors at max, Shadowchaser pushed the fighter’s speed up so that shi could pull away from the Folly while continuing to parallel her. After thirty minutes, the fighter was ten times as far away as the Folly’s suspected maximum passive range. Shi then started jinking around so hir data recorder would have something on it that the Folly wouldn’t be able to guess about. Shadowchaser then sped back to the Folly, both ships again dropping out of warp together.
Once back onboard Shadowchaser had just opened the canopy when hir wing commander came up demanding, "What’s the big idea trying to overstress your fighter?"
Shadowchaser smiled, "So you saw?"
"Saw? Hell, we had front row seats! That Captain Foster of yours had some kind of probe all but up your tail the whole time going out, it was playing ‘follow the leader’ during your stunt flying, and then it flew circles around you almost all the way back. Didn’t you see it?"
Shadowchaser frowned at the last bit of information. "How close was it?" shi asked.
"Its warp field was as close as a hundred kilometers from yours," hir boss told hir. Looking confused, he asked, "You really didn’t see it, did you?"
Shaking hir head, Shadowchaser smiled as shi saw the expression on hir commander’s face. "It seems that my adopted father is still capable of making ‘toys’ that can and will drive others crazy."
Dinner wasn’t quite what the guests had expected for a freighter. While there was no rhyme or reason to the seating, and everyday dishes, the food looked like it had come from a five star restaurant. Neal had warned them not to try talking shop during the meal. His cook had a nasty tendency to over-spice things if she thought people were ignoring her food.
The small talk wasn’t what they were expecting either. When one of the Folly’s ‘crew’ was asked what shi had done that day, shi informed them that shi and hir sister had practiced flying one of the heavy shuttles. They had been hauling fully loaded pods between the Folly and a space station, as well as an Earth-type planet without getting into any trouble. With this coming from a pair of six year olds, and having already had their collective noses rubbed in the fact that this freighter didn’t practice the idea of ‘normal’, the officers were a little reluctant to ask the older kids what they had been up to.
Shadowchaser and hir mate, a foxtaur vixen named Redfoot, had secured seating pads next to Neal. As they finished off the dessert, a ‘death by chocolate’ cake with ice-cream, shi asked him, "Just what did you have playing tag with us anyway?"
"A ‘baby’ Zulu." Neil replied.
Before Shadowchaser could ask another question, Captain Autumnbreeze cut in, "And what is a ‘Zulu’?" Shi had watched the ‘sensor test’ flight, Neal had given them both the direct feed from the Folly and the feed off the ‘probe’ that had followed the fighter out. Comparing the data with what Shadowchaser’s recorder had brought back had convinced hir that sneaking up on the Folly would be almost impossible even without a probe adding to her range.
Neal was taking a moment to decide if he wanted Star Fleet to know how helpless the Folly wasn’t. He finally decided he’d already shown them too much A little more wasn’t really going to matter.
"The ‘Zulus’ are the Folly’s defensive fight or flight craft. For flight they are very fast and long ranged," Neal looked at the other officers as he said, "For fight, they have long-range sensors and transporters that can penetrate most shields." Raising a hand to hold off the questions that several of the furs were trying to ask he added, "Releasing a gram or two of antimatter on someone’s bridge could ruin their whole day." A gram being more than enough to destroy most ships, that was a bit of an understatement.
"And a ‘baby’ Zulu?" shi asked.
"Smaller, unmanned, no transporter, less fuel, made for scouting, and ramming."
"Ramming?" first officer Canner asked, his eyes wide.
Neal gave him an evil smile, "Scouts and the ‘last chance’ to protect this ship."
Autumnbreeze asked, "Have you ever needed to use them?"
"The baby Zulus are often used when I’m hunting pirates. Their scanner range is about eighty-five percent of the Folly’s, so with six of them running parallel to her we can cover a very wide sweep. The Zulus come in handy when I’m trying to stay out of range of something that might be able to see or damage the Folly before I can disable them."
Shadowchaser said, "I don’t remember any of the Zulus being as fast as my fighter."
Neal chuckled, "They weren’t at that time. With just me running the Folly, I’ve always had lots of idle time to tinker with new ideas and redesign old ones. The Zulus are now about half again as fast as your fighter. The baby that was chasing you earlier never got up to 30% of its top speed. At slower speeds they’re easier to mask, so there was almost nothing for you to see."
Autumnbreeze broke the sudden silence. "So you have high-speed concealed parking for a small fleet, and enough power to protect against a small fleet. A ship that looks like it should be pirate bait is really a pirates’ bane. Any other tricks up your sleeve, Captain?"
Neal looked to Shadowchaser. Shi nodded. "I checked all four ships, and said hello to everyone on them, if there’s a Humans First type among us, he or she has a split personality." When Neal remained silent shi frowned. "Well?"
Shaking his head, he replied, "It’s not my call to make."
A few minutes later, Zhanch staggered into the room, two of the kids jumping up and helping her to a chair before she could collapse. She looked at Neal and nodded, then bowed her head as she fought to get her breath back.
With every visiting eye on Zhanch, Neal softly spoke, "The Rakshani before you was part of the marine detachment onboard the cruiser, ‘Montgomery Scott’. We pulled her group off a pirate vessel five days ago. All indications are that the ‘Montgomery Scott’ has been under new management for six weeks now. The logs off the pirate ship suggest the cruiser now belongs to a Humans First group. The only mixed blessing is that the gas they used may have killed the people that could have given them some of the keys to the ship."
"But you don’t know that for sure, do you?" This from Goldeneyes, the other carrier captain.
"No, but if they had captured any of the bridge officers alive, they wouldn’t have needed to try and beat the codes for the armory and heavy suits out of the sergeant here."
"What do we do now?" asked Shadowchaser.
"You’re going to stay concealed. Zhanch and I are going to talk to someone in Star Fleet she trusts. Then we have one port we have to make." Neal then gave them all an evil smile. "And then we’ll see if we can’t drop you on some pirates."
After dinner, Shadowchaser and Redfoot joined Neal in the lounge, Weaver and most of the kids tagging along.
Once everyone was seated, Redfoot gave Neal a grin. "Chase has warned me about you and your ‘toys’. So instead of saying they can’t work, may I ask ‘how’?"
Returning her grin with one of his own, Neal asked, "And which ‘how’ did you want to attempt first?"
Redfoot cocked her head, "How are you getting a warp field around something this big?"
Neal smiled, "And where do you see a problem getting the field to stretch that far?"
Giving him a dirty look, Redfoot said, " Your engines aren’t strong enough to cover the second sphere, much less the first, no mater how much power you pump into them."
Neal looked thoughtful. "You’re not by chance using the type of engine nacelles you saw as a reference, are you?" At her curious nod, he added, "I only used those old nacelles because they would just barely hold the two modified Voxxan warp engines I used. " At her look of total bewilderment, he grinned, "Two engine nacelles, four engines."
Shaking her head, Redfoot said, "Why? That would just increase the strength of your warp field, not extend it!"
"If they were set up the same, yes. But what if one set of engines was set to distort or push against the field of the other? Just like with magnetic fields where you can use a second magnet to change the size and shape of the fields being generated by the first." Getting up, Neal held out his hand to Redfoot. When she took it, he pulled her to her feet. With a wink at Shadowchaser, he said, "I wouldn’t wait up if I were you," as he led Redfoot out the door.
Outside the holodeck, Neal told Tess, "Engineering training room please."
It was two in the morning ship time when Shadowchaser decided it was time to bail hir mate out. Shi and Weaver had talked into the wee hours. Entering the holodeck, shi found Redfoot just staring at an engineering diagram, Neal waiting patiently for her next question. Pulling hir mate to her feet, shi said, "Looks like you overdid it again."
Neal gave hir a smile and wrapped them both in a hug. "Maybe a little, but she’s doing better than most of the other so called ‘engineers’ that I’ve tried to explain it to. You’ve made a good choice in mates with this one. She’ll keep you on your toes. And she must really love you to be willing to put up with me!"
Once at Starbase 3, it took a couple of tries to speak with the base commander. Her receptionist kept referring him to different departments rather than letting him have access to her boss.
Neal finally gave up on using regular channels of gaining access to the base commander and transported a message to Captain Zhane ap Nashene na Zhane’s desk, complimenting her on her receptionist’s abilities, but adding that he really did have a security related issue that he would not pass on for someone else to decide if it was important enough for her to be informed of.
Zhane was at lunch when the message appeared. Her receptionist saw it first, but wisely left it alone when she read the last lines. ‘If I still don’t get a response from you I will assume your receptionist made off with this note. My next available means of contacting you would be by tying into the starbase’s public address system, or getting your attention by rattling your station’s walls by pulsing my radar against them.’
Zhane received Neal rather coolly, her receptionist having seen fit to play down just how hard Neal had previously tried to get in touch with her.
It hadn’t helped that the Star Fleet database didn’t have a whole lot on either this Neal Foster or his ‘Folly’. When she had tried cross-referencing with the Federation’s civilian database, she was surprised that there was a Federation link that, when activated, told any civilian authority asking about Neal Foster or the ‘Folly’ to give any and all assistance he/they requested and to not interfere with him/them in any way.
When closing out of the Federation database, a Star Fleet authentication had come up. Once Zhane had passed the verification, she found herself staring at a Star Fleet command issued by an Admiral Silvermane, and while it didn’t quite order her to ‘give any and all assistance’ nor to ‘not interfere’ it did suggest doing so unless having a very good reason not to.
Neal explained his having rescued Rakshani captives from a disabled pirate ship, and that they had been on the cruiser ‘Montgomery Scott’ when they were gassed and given to the pirates. He left out the minor fact that he had disabled the pirate in the first place.
When Neal was finished, Zhane gave him a tight smile. "A very interesting story, Captain. Do you have anything to prove what you’ve told me?"
Neal tapped his comm badge. "Tess, is the sergeant ready?" With her affirmative, he said, "Then beam her over."
Zhane had been about to tell him his transporters wouldn’t be able to make it though her security screens when the figure materialized in front of her. Her mood went from surprised shock that her security was so easily breached, to fury when she saw who stood before her.
With her claws digging deep grooves into her desk she stared at Zhanch and demanded, "Why have you brought that damned creature to me?"
Neal spoke softly, trying to calm her down, "This is one of the fourteen we rescued from the pirate ship, and you on the other hand, were the only one in Star Fleet Zhanch trusted enough to try to contact."
As Zhane continued staring at her old rival, Neal indicated that the sergeant should sit down. When she remained standing, he stepped over and gently pushed her into a chair, quietly growling, "Sit down before you fall down. You’re in no shape to challenge Starblazer, much less the Captain." Zhane was shocked to realize that Zhanch had tried to continue standing. Looking harder, Zhane finally realized how thin and frail Zhanch really was.
Turning away from his charge, Neal gave Zhane a wary look. "As for you," he told the captain, "I understand you two once fought over a male, is that correct?" Surprised by the personal assault, Zhane only nodded. "Then I have a question for you," Neal said. When she arched an eyebrow, he continued, "If you had won that male, would you be where you are today? Would you have been as happy with him as you are with your current mates?" To her confused look, he added one more little push. "How you answer those questions should help you determine whether you should still hate Zhanch, or possibly be thankful that she got in your way at the time."
The two Rakshani just stared at each other for almost a minute, then Zhane came around her desk and knelt next to the chair Zhanch was half sitting, half lying in. The words they used were too soft for Neal to hear, and while he could always have Tess tell him what was being said, he figured it really wasn’t anything he needed to know. He moved over to sit on a couch against the far wall, only pausing to sweep his hand over the deep grooves Zhane had made in her desk, Tess smoothing them out as he went over them.
The Rakshani whispered between themselves for over ten minutes, the last few in a tight hug. Finally releasing Zhanch, Zhane stood up, straightening her uniform as she moved back to her desk. Once she was seated she looked at Neal. "Well, Captain, do you have any other surprises to drop on me?"
"The Rakshani I have with me were starved for over five weeks. The only liquid they received during that time was from the drugs that were pumped into their systems. While some of them are showing limited signs of improvement, Tess’ scans suggest they are still in danger. I would like your sickbay to run a full physical on each of them. The more information we have, the better we can treat them."
"That’s easily done. Have them report to sickbay. I’ll have the doctors standing by."
"One problem with them reporting anywhere…" At her raised eyebrow Neal continued, "Zhanch is the most mobile of the group, and she has problems going a hundred yards without collapsing. Would it be possible for me to beam them straight to your sickbay? Or someplace where your people can wheelchair or gurney them to sickbay?"
There was more than a little frost in her voice when Zhane replied, "Thank you for reminding me, Captain. Just how did you manage to transport her through my security screens?"
"The same way I got that note past your receptionist. Didn’t she tell you that she didn’t place it on your desk?" at Zhane’s headshake, he continued, "Your screens are set to only sense and block limited bands of the spectrum. My systems simply detected what yours would block and shifted around them. That’s also why your alarms didn’t go off. They’re not watching where I’m beaming. If you like, I’ll give you my word that I will not beam anything else on or off you station without your knowledge."
Zhane looked at her desk for a moment, noticing the repairs where she had dragged her claws across it. She then looked at her blanked display. She was starting to understand why a Star Fleet admiral might have to keep her people from locking this maniac up. From what she’d seen so far, he only obeyed rules when they were what he wanted to do anyway. Looking up from her desk, she locked eyes with the infuriating human. "I noticed you used the word ‘knowledge’ and not ‘permission’. Why is that?"
Neal smiled. "I only give my word on what I’m sure I can keep." Then giving her a grin he added, "If it will make you more comfortable, I have a non-Rakshani member of Star Fleet onboard. If you like, I will leave control of all transports to and from your station in hir paws."
Zhanch caught Zhane’s eye and nodded. Zhane looked back to Neal. "May I ask what shi’s doing on your ship?"
"Shi and some friends are just hitching a ride."
Neal’s reply earned a soft snort from Zhanch. When the other two looked at her, she looked at Neal as she said, "You do seem to have the second method down to a science."
Neal chuckled while Zhane looked confused. Zhanch smiled. "I had noticed that while Captain Foster never tells an outright lie, you won’t always get the truth either."
Neal continued for her. "When she cornered me on it, I admitted that I try to use the last two methods of lying rather than the first." At Zhane's raised eyebrow he grinned. "The first method is of course the outright lie." He waited for her nod. "The second is the partial or half truth. I told you earlier that I had rescued Zhanch and company from a disabled pirate, I left out that I disabled them in the first place."
Shaking her head, Zhane asked, "and the third method?"
"Is the hardest one of all," Neal told her. "It only works if you’ve read your audience just right. You tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You just tell it in such a way that no one believes you. So, would you believe me if I told you that some commander in Star Fleet was crazy enough to give me sixteen fighters and four starships to drop on some pirates if I find any?"
Zhane looked toward Zhanch. "First?"
Zhanch shook her head. "Third."
Neal asked, "May I have hir beam over? The Folly’s not currently docked, so it’s that or waste time with a shuttle."
At her nod, Neal asked Tess to beam Shadowchaser to Zhane’s office.
After telling Shadowchaser that shi would be in charge of getting Zhanch and the others to and from Zhane's sickbay, Neal prepared to have a chat with Zhane’s quartermaster. This hadn’t been on his list of stops, but maybe he could do a little business while the doctors did their examinations.
Zhane asked, "By the way, just how well do you know Silvermane?"
"Silvermane?" Neal asked, surprised by both the subject change as well as the name.
"Admiral Silvermane seems to know you pretty well," Zhane said, surprised and a little pleased that she had been able to surprise this captain with all the answers.
Neal asked, "How is she mixed up in this? I’ve heard of her, but I’ve never dealt with her personally."
Zhane activated and spun around her workstation display so Neal and Shadowchaser could see the Star Fleet commands issued by Admiral Silvermane.
Looking at the dates on the orders, Shadowchaser commented, "Looks like somebody figured out just who stepped on all those civilian and Star Fleet toes and tails doing that cruise ship rescue."
"Perhaps…" Neal replied, "but how did Silvermane get wind of it? The Folly didn’t even have a name at the time, or her current configuration, I was still in the middle of testing different setups and settings."
At Zhane's puzzled look, Shadowchaser smiled. "A cruise ship, the Starburst of the Canaris Lines, lost main power months from the nearest port. Star Fleet, the Canaris Lines and several civilian groups spent more time quarrelling about who needed to do what than actually mounting a rescue. When they finally got it in gear and sent ships to start moving the passengers off the disabled ship, the ship was gone. Where it should have been was a large rock, the words ‘too little, too late’ written across one of its sides." Shadowchaser’s smile widened, "Two hours before they found that rock, about three and a half days after the mayday, the Starburst was being docked in her berth at the Canaris Lines facility orbiting earth. Two heavy lift shuttles were playing ‘tugboats’ and pushed her right up to the docking clamps." Shadowchaser chuckled, "Until today, Neal had thought he’d gotten away clean."
Zhane turned to Neal. "And the rock?"
Neal snorted. "At the time, I was testing to see how far I could stretch my warp fields and how much mass my test configuration could handle. I needed something big that I wouldn’t care if I damaged, say by not getting all of it in the warp field." Looking at Zhane he grinned. "The Starburst was a little smaller than my test rock. I just released it and picked up the ship, hooked up some power to keep their life support going, and gave her poor captain the ride of his life!" At her raised eyebrows, he smiled again, "Think about it. As the captain of a disabled ship, you’re sitting on your bridge, the only thing working is your sensors, and yet your ship is moving faster than it ever has before. The only problem is it’s not under your control, you don’t even know the person or the ship that’s pushing you home."
"‘Too little, too late’?"
Neal frowned. "I had gotten tried of listening to all the long-range fighting over who should be doing what. I was close enough, I had more than enough power, so I quietly did what needed doing. The note was just my way of suggesting that next time they ‘pull their primary sensory organs out of their solid waste disposal chutes’ a little faster."
Zhane cocked her head. "But why not claim credit for the rescue?"
Neal shook his head. "At the time, I was trying to keep a lower profile; ‘out of sight, out of mind’, although I don’t seem to have fooled your admiral. These orders may also be the reason officials that were giving me a hard time suddenly ‘rolled over’ and played nice over the years. From the looks of this, your ‘Silvermane’ has had her paws in my business for a long time."
Shadowchaser frowned as shi said, "Now that I think about it, I’m sure the name Silvermane was also mixed into the orders sending us out to meet the Folly."
Neal returned that with a frown of his own, "The note and message chip they gave me was signed by a commander named Harras. Any idea when those orders were cut?"
"Three, maybe four weeks ago. Why?" shi asked.
"And what type of E.T.A. did they give you for the Folly?" Neal asked, a look of concern on his face.
"You were about six hours early, we had just started to deploy when I saw you flash by at close to the limits of my sensors." Cocking hir head shi asked, "What are you leading up to father?"
Ignoring the look of surprise from Zhane at his relationship to the Star Fleet pilot, Neal looked at Shadowchaser. "It’s just that I had no plans to go through that particular piece of space anytime this year, so how did this admiral of yours know where to place you at least two weeks before I had a reason to take that route?"
Zhane looked thoughtful, "So that would have been two or three weeks after the cruiser was taken."
Neal slowly shook his head. "And if Admiral Silvermane had an informer onboard and had known where both the pirate’s flight plan and mine would intersect, and knew what I’d do with both the pirates and their ‘cargo’." Looking at Zhane he added, "Your admiral would also have needed to know that Zhanch had survived, would talk to me and only trust you, otherwise I could have dropped them off at some other starbase, or I could have waited and taken them to your home world when I go there later this year." Shaking his head again Neal added, "Now I really want to meet this ‘Silvermane’."
The medical testing went quickly, most of the news was as bad as Tess’ scans had suggested. The abuse their bodies had received had prematurely aged them, their organs were slowly failing and the doctors didn’t expect them to survive for more than a few years even with medical assistance.
Neal offered to take them home. The Folly would be heading there in a little over three months, or they could stay at the starbase and catch the next ship heading their way. Zhane had dinner with Zhanch and company to go over their options. Six hours later, the Folly pulled away from Starbase 3, Zhane and the other Rakshani having decided that it would be best if they stayed with a ship and crew that already knew their needs and was willing to take care of them.
Continued in Chapter 3.
Copyright © 2005 Allen Fesler Redbear1158@hotmail.com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
Zhane & Admiral Boyce Garald Kline Jr are copyright Boyce Garald Kline Jr and used with his permission.
( If I’ve managed to step on anyone else’s toes (or paws, claws or tails) let me know and I’ll either give you credit or change my ‘tale’.)
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