Tales of the Folly
By Allen Fesler
Book One: The Curse
Chapter 3

The plan had been simple enough. In the early morning hours, the kids would help Neal move the Rakshani to rooms in a hotel near the New Kiev spaceport. Star Fleet was still holding a ‘news blackout’ about the missing cruiser; no information was being released concerning the ‘Montgomery Scott’ or her crew. Once they were at the hotel, the Rakshani could send any messages they wanted to their families and friends, without there being a link to the Folly or to Star Fleet. With them dressed as elderly tourists, no one would look twice, or wonder why they might need help getting around.

That plan died a quick and painful death. They were just starting to round the last corner on their way to the spaceport’s main lobby. As usual, the younger kids couldn’t wait, so Quickdash was the first to start around the corner. There was a flash as the pulse of a beam weapon passed over hir head, momentarily blinding hir and scorching the fur on the tips of hir ears. The second shot was lower, and would have caught hir mid-upper-chest if shi hadn’t been yanked back by the tail. Dusk let go of hir tail, while Neal tore the comm badge off hir tube top. After grabbing four more from the other kids, he told Tess to ‘record for tactical’. He then tossed them high and around the corner.

Tess was playing the video feed straight to Neal’s glasses, and the kids watched his surprise and anger mount. The scene before him was like something from a bad gene war movie. The bodies of over a dozen furs lay where they’d been shot. A large group of humans each with a big ‘H1’ on their shoulders was using phasers on anything that moved. A small group of spaceport guards were trying to harass the attackers, but their stunners and phasers were having little affect against the personal shields the Humans Firsts were wearing. Tess then told Neal her transporters were being blocked from reaching the humans. He would need to take out any transport inhibitors before she could help directly.

The Rakshani were confused when Neal told Tess he needed ‘Betsey’ with solid shot. Then the shotgun materialized in his hands. Starting around the corner, Neal saw the kids were preparing to follow him. The look he gave them, and the growled command, "STAY!" rooted them where they stood. The Rakshani were also momentarily frozen by his order.

As he glanced around the corner and yelled at Tess for a force field, Shadowcrest told Tess to get Shadowchaser and hir friends. Their daddy was going to need help.

Neal’s old shotgun only looked old; the ‘choke’ was magnetic. When used with solid rounds, it did double duty as a baby rail-gun, boosting the speed of the projectile far beyond what the gunpowder could do. The five round magazine never ran dry, because as long as he stayed out of range of the transport inhibitors Tess could beam in more ammo as she recharged the magnetic systems.

With the magnetic system up as high as it would go without taking his arm off, Neal started to fire into the Humans First group. It still took him three or four good hits to take each of them down, deflecting the slugs taking more shield power than absorbing a shot from a beam weapon. Also the kinetic force from the impact of the slug would sometimes knock them into each other, shorting their personal shields together, and robbing them of power.

Neal was so busy shooting at the main group, that he never even noticed Shadowchaser and the crews from the other ships. They started taking out the smaller groups at the other entrances to the lobby. They had quickly discovered their beam weapons weren’t up to the task, so Shadowchaser had requested shotguns from Tess. There were a few minor injuries while they relearned what ‘action-reaction’ was all about, but then they started clearing the entrances so the local authorities could get in to help.

The Rakshani were in no shape to handle shotguns, but they found that ‘group’ phaser firing on a single target was almost as good. Zhanch would ‘tag’ a target, and the rest would fire as one. Their only casualty came when Starblazer got loose; she was trying to run away from all the noise and exploding wall tiles. She was running past the end of a half wall that the Rakshani were hiding behind, when she was spotted. The last Rakshani in line was Dessa; she dived out into the open and grabbed the infant. Throwing Starblazer back behind the barrier, Dessa then tried to follow only to be hit in the hip by a phaser blast. At Zhanch’s call of ‘fur down’, Tess had beamed Dessa back to the Folly. She was placed in a suspended animation field that was normally used to keep foods from spoiling during long trips.

Neal had stepped to one side after the first few massed phaser shots had started coming from behind him. Now he stood almost behind a column, firing as fast as he could chamber the next round. The return fire seemed to be going everywhere but at him. Most of the Humans First types having never had to aim at a target that had a chance of killing them first, they were more used to hunting those that couldn’t fight back. When some of them had tried to make a run for it, they were met by Shadowchaser and hir crews, who had already cleared out the smaller nests of humans at the entrances.

Finally, Neal could see the transport inhibitors; there were three of them in the center of the group. He managed to take out two of them before the remaining humans started trying to protect the last inhibitor. However, that opened a gap for Shadowchaser’s crew, one of their shots shorted the last inhibitor’s power pack, taking out several of the closer humans when it blew.

Tess then started using her transporters. Removing the power pack connections from their weapons and shield generators, she changed them from a fighting force into easy targets. A missed shot hit a pile of spare power packs, the resulting explosion taking out the last of the Humans First group, while Tess’s force fields protected Neal and the others from flying debris.

With the shooting over, most of Shadowchaser’s crew started slipping away, Tess beaming them back to their ships once they were out of sight of the local authorities.

It took Neal a moment to realize that it was over, even with Tess flashing an ‘all clear’ in his glasses. Then, through the ringing in his ears, he heard a groan: a fox tod near him was still alive. Setting down his shotgun, Neal asked Tess for a med kit. Taking out the medpac, he placed it on the fox’s chest. Tess remotely worked the needles into the veins, as Neal used zip-ties just above the missing knee and arm to help keep the fur from bleeding to death. Once the needles were in place, Tess took a blood sample, then beamed in the correct blood plasma and started pumping it into the tod’s system.

With the fox stabilized, Neal moved to the next fur. He found there was nothing he could do for her; she had already died from her injuries.

Neal started walking past the next two furs; both of the taurs having had their upper torsos almost completely destroyed. Something caught his attention and he looked back at the taurs. There was no way he could help them, they would have been impossible to save even if a full med team had been standing by when they were hit. Again, he started to turn away, only to feel something still pulling at him. This time he knelt next to the taurs; one had been a chakat, the other a foxtaur vixen. He gently placed his hand on the vixen’s belly, only to yank it back in surprise. Something had moved under his hand! Grabbing a medical scanner, Neal quickly checked the unborn child, then made his decision. Pulling a scalpel out of the kit, he started to cut the vixen open, as a doctor would when the mother was unable to go though a normal birth.

One of the foxtaur guards did a double take; a blood stained human that reeked of spent gunpowder, was calmly butchering a taur corpse. He had started to draw his phaser, when a large hand clamped over his. Following the hand up, he found himself staring at a large equitaur.

Mike wasn’t watching the guard; he was watching Neal. When the guard again tried to free his weapon, Mike tightened his grip, and simply said, "Wait."

Realizing that he was wasting time using a method that protected both mother and child, Neal changed his small cautious cut to one that crossed the vixen’s belly. Once the belly was open, it was a simple matter to cut open the womb, letting the unborn child fall into his hands. After using a small zip-tie to pinch off the umbilical, he cut the cord and lifted the baby chakat to his lap. When the child didn’t start breathing, Neal lowered his head and placing the child’s nose and mouth in his mouth. He then puffed a little air into hir, only to get a mouthful of fluids in return. Turning his head to spit out the fluids, Neal gripped the base of hir tail with his left hand. Lifting hir by the tail, he raised hir until hir mouth was level with his own, the rest of hir over his head. Using his right hand to guide hir inverted nose and mouth into his mouth, Neal gave hir a breath, then he released hir head, letting the fluids drain from hir mouth and throat. He then gave hir another breath. This time the tiny chakat responded, first with a large gush of fluids pouring from hir mouth and nose, and then shi inhaled, and started crying. Neal continued to hold hir tail high, letting hir cry the rest of the fluids from hir throat and both sets of lungs.

The guard was no longer trying for his weapon. He was just watching in disbelief as the human lowered the still-crying chakat and cradled hir in his arms. "Why would he do such a thing, and how did he know how to do it? Is he a doctor?"

Mike smiled. "The ‘why’ seems to be he collect strays." At the guard’s stare he added, "I should know. After all, he took my group in when we ‘strayed’. As to how... No, he’s not a doctor, but I know he did a lot of studying when he found out there was a chance he might have to play midwife to a foxtaur while between ports. That delivery went without complications. It looks like all his extra studying paid off."

Shadowcrest slowly stepped up to where Neal knelt, still holding the now quiet infant. After a minute, Neal noticed hir. Looking a little dazed and giving Shadowcrest a sad smile, he said, "It looks like you’re going to have a new sister. For some reason, I think hir name should be Firestorm. Looks like we’ll need to find a chakat wet nurse after all." Handing the newborn to Shadowcrest, Neal told hir to get Firestorm cleaned up, and take hir to the local hospital for a checkup. Hir lungs seemed to be developed enough, but rest of hir might still be too immature to survive without medical assistance.

With the cub wrapped in a towel Tess provided, Shadowcrest and four of the teens were beamed to the hospital. Neal remained kneeling for another moment, then he slowly got up and staggered toward an unoccupied hallway. Seeing some of the kids starting to follow, he waved them back. Once around a corner, he fell to his knees and emptied his stomach on the floor, his eyes stinging as he cried.

Shadowchaser and CalmMeadow had started to hurry after Neal when he turned the corner, only to stop when they heard what he was doing. Shadowchaser signaled to CalmMeadow to wait there, shi then went back into the lobby. Some of the bodies were still being tended to or removed as shi went to one of the small shops that lined the lobby walls. Reaching into a shattered display case, shi removed two bottles of water, from another a tube of toothpaste and a brush. The brush was a bit large for a human, but it was the smallest undamaged one shi could see. Returning to CalmMeadow, they waited until Neal’s sobs had died down, then they slowly came around the corner. Pushing a water bottle into his hand they got him to rinse his mouth, shi then handed him the brush, already loaded with paste. After he cleaned his mouth out, Neal managed to drink some of the water, both to help rinse the stomach acids from his raw throat and to try to settle his stomach.

Letting the kids help him to his feet, he let them lead him to a bench where he could sit down, Shadowchaser letting him lean against hir and keeping him from falling over. Neal rested for a moment and then asked Tess for a status report. Tess told him she had the exhausted Rakshani back onboard. She then informed him of Dessa’s injuries and how she had received them. Since this was more than her sickbay could handle, Tess wanted to know if she should beam Dessa to the hospital?

Neal let out a long sigh. "No, she was injured protecting our family; treat her as such." When Tess pointed out that there would be repercussions, Neal had just smiled and said, "So be it. If her injuries are as bad as you say they are, then she has a better chance with you than the hospital. You have my authorization to process her." To CalmMeadow’s questioning look, Neal just said, "You’ll see soon enough."

They were making their way back to the lobby, to collect the rest of the group, when Tess reported that Shadowcrest was having problems at the hospital. Someone was trying to take the cub away from hir. Neal stopped dead in his tracks, his head down, eyes shut, something more than a frown working its way onto his face. In turn, CalmMeadow and the other chakats were almost belly down, eyes wide and ears flattened to their skulls at the rage emanating from him. After a moment his head came up, and his eyes opened. They had been bloodshot before from the gunpowder and tears, but now there was an additional fire that suggested that he wasn’t putting up with any more problems today.

"Beam me to hir," Neal whispered. He found himself in a large examining room. Shadowcrest was being held by two guard-type furs, while a chakat in a nurse’s top was carrying a screaming Firestorm out of the room.

The nurse turned in time to see a human appear in the middle of the room. His red hair a filthy tangle, his face wild looking and his body smelling of spent gunpowder. Blood stained his pants past mid-thigh, but his bloodshot eyes were what terrified hir. They and the emotions that seemed to hang around him like a shroud sent hir running for the door, only to find it would not open for hir. The guards had let go of Shadowcrest and reached for their weapons, only to find them missing.

Neal slowly looked around the room, then nodded his head at Shadowcrest. "Get Firestorm," he growled through his raw throat. "Then you can tell me what’s going on."

"They wouldn’t let the others in with me," Shadowcrest said and gave the nurse a dirty look. "Then shi wouldn’t give Firestorm back when shi refused to nurse from hir." Looking at the floor, shi added, "Shi called the guards when I tried to get Firestorm back."

Neal gave hir a tired smile. "With everything that’s happened today, you forgot your other resources." At hir questioning look he added, "As my daughter, you can draw on many of the same resources I use. For example, say ‘Tess’."

Shadowcrest gave him a weary grin. "Thanks, daddy." Then looking at the others in the room shi said. "Tess, please restrain the guards and keep the nurse from moving." Stepping up to the nurse, shi found the nurse was clutching the cub tightly. Giving hir another dirty look, Shadowcrest just said, "Tess…" The astonished nurse felt hir fingers being slowly forced open and, after a moment, Shadowcrest was able to take the cub from hir. Carrying the still-crying cub to Neal, shi laid hir in his arms. Neal was as surprised as everyone else when Firestorm almost immediately stopped crying, and then tried to suck on his dirty fingers.

Giving the cub a tired smile, Neal said, "Well, you seem to have the right idea. Now let’s see if we can get you fed." He started to step towards the nurse, only to stop at hir look of fear and revulsion. Shaking his head, Neal moved over to one of the chairs and slowly sat down. Looking at Firestorm, he said, "Tess, use their public address system. See if you can locate a chakat wet nurse, one that doesn’t mind dealing with humans. Extra points if shi likes to travel."

It was only a few minutes later that Chakat Moonglow entered the room. Shi was followed by two guards, who stationed themselves at the door. With the door open, the other nurse and guards beat a hasty retreat. Moonglow walked over to Neal and said, "I understand you’re looking for a wet nurse." Neal handed Firestorm to Moonglow, only to have the child start pushing away and crying.

Taking Firestorm back from Moonglow, Neal cocked an eyebrow at the coffee-and-cream colored wet nurse and said, "Shi won’t let you hold hir, and I can’t breastfeed. What if we try it together?"

The guards helped shift the exam couch so it was in front of Neal’s chair. He had Moonglow stretch out on the couch, and then adjusted it until hir breasts were just higher than his knees. Laying Firestorm in his lap, Neal gently aimed hir nose at one of Moonglow’s nipples. Everyone let out a sigh of relief when shi started to noisily suckle.

Neal watched hir feed for a while, then leant his head back until it bumped the wall. He let out a sigh as he muttered, "So much for the easy part."

Shadowcrest just looked at him in shock. "What easy part?" shi demanded. "What we just went through at the spaceport… One of the Rakshani is dead…" shi said as events started to catch up with hir, and shi started to break down and cry.

Still holding Firestorm with one hand, Neal reached out and pulled Shadowcrest to his side with the other, and then he held hir close as shi cried. "The easy part is what’s already done. For Stormy, this is hir first meal and look at all we had to go through just to get that. As far as the hell you and I just went through, it’s behind us and we survived." Tightening his hug he added, "And we didn’t lose Dessa." At Shadowcrest’s stare, he gave hir a small smile. "Tess will have her back on her feet in no time."

Shadowcrest pulled away sobbing. "Please don’t lie to me father. I saw her. Her leg was blown off, and her guts were showing! There’s no way even Tess can put her back together!" Shi then curled up on the floor, crying.

Neal placed Moonglow’s hands around the now sleepy cub, then had hir lean back so he could stagger up. Kneeling next to the sobbing Shadowcrest, he wrapped his arms around hir and held hir tight. He quietly whispered in hir ear, "I am not lying to you. She is alive, and she will soon be up and about. You have my word." Shadowcrest looked up at him through hir tears as he added, "And you of all the kids should know how important keeping my word is, even when someone uses it for me."

Remembering when he had kept the promise shi had made to Stew, shi smiled though hir tears, and hugged him back.

Moonglow watched them as they held each other, feeling the love between them. Looking down at the sleeping cub in hir arms, shi made hir decision. When they seemed ready to move on shi asked, "There was some mention of travel?"

Neal smiled. "As the captain/owner of a freighter, I spend most of my time bouncing from port to port. Anywhere you want to go, I’ll be going there sooner or later."

Moonglow smiled in return. "I’ve always wanted to travel, but I have some items I won’t part with." At Neal’s raised eyebrow shi said, "The last gift my grandparents gave me was a taur-sized motorcycle with sidecar. Needless to say, the shipping charges have always kept me from moving off world."

Neal’s smile grew wider. "Why do I get the feeling that’s not the only item holding you down?"

"You’re right," Moonglow said. "I have a whole house of their things I would like to keep. I will give that up if I have to, but the bike goes where I go."

Looking to Shadowcrest, Neal said, "Well? What do you think? Is shi a keeper, or do we throw hir back and try again?" At Shadowcrest’s confused look, Neal chuckled for the first time that day. "You picked Stew out of all the furs wanting a ride off that station. I’m learning to trust your judgment on these matters."

Shadowcrest looked at Firestorm, now sleeping peacefully in Moonglow’s arms. Looking back at Neal shi grinned, as shi said, "Shi’s a keeper."

Neal’s reply was blocked by a yawn. He suddenly realized he was all but dead on his feet; well, knees anyway. His arms were ready to come off at the shoulders, and his eyes felt like someone had replaced his eyelids with coarse sandpaper. Shadowcrest caught him as he started to collapse. He gave hir a weary smile and said, "Tess, ask Chase if shi wouldn’t mind helping the kids get things under control. I’m afraid I’m not going to be much use for a while..." Saying that his eyes closed as his head sagged.

Shadowchaser appeared as Shadowcrest was asking Tess if Neal was all right. They both smiled when Tess told them he was fine, just exhausted. She admitted that she had started to wonder just how much longer he could keep running on just adrenaline. She had expected him to pass out after the firefight. It took a lot of strength and energy to fire that shotgun at the settings he had used, and he had fired well over a hundred rounds in that short battle. Shadowchaser let out a groan at that. Shi had fired a little over half that many rounds, and hir arm was still sore from hir weapon’s kickback.

Giving Shadowcrest a grin, Shadowchaser said, "It looks like he left you in charge, half-pint, so how can I help, ‘Boss’?"

Shadowcrest gave hir big sister a dirty look as shi thought. "Moonglow here is joining the Folly. We need to move hir and hir belongings ASAP. Can you gather the needed drivers and movers?"

Shadowchaser nodded. "What’s hir weight limit?"

Shadowcrest gave hir older sister an evil grin, as shi said, "No more than the max capacity of a pod."

Shadowchaser did a double-take at the answer. "Don’t you mean a carrier?" shi asked.

"Pod," Shadowcrest repeated. "Tess, what’s the status of the rest of our Rakshani?" When told they were all in an exhausted sleep, shi asked if Weaver and Stew could look after Neal; he needed to be cleaned up and put to bed.

Sixteen hours later, Neal was slowly waking up, unsure of where he was or how he’d gotten there. He found himself lying on his left side, surrounded by fur. He could tell that one of the vixens lay behind him, her breasts making a warm backrest for his neck. In front, he found himself almost nose to nipple with a very impressive set. Looking up, he could see a new chakat face. It took him a minute to remember hir name.

Moonglow watched Neal wake up a little at a time. When shi saw that he was watching hir in return, shi pointed at his chest. "While Firestorm will let others you give hir to hold hir for a short while, shi seems to need your presence to feel safe."

Neal gently laid his hand on the sleeping cub. Carefully stroking hir, he asked Tess for current ship status. Tess informed him they were on schedule, with the help of some of the fighter pilots playing shuttle pilots, the kids and some of Chase’s friends were keeping the pods moving. His new wet nurse/nanny was moved in. Hir three carriers of personal property were set up so shi could still get to everything. Although shi had a room near Neal’s, it didn’t look like shi would need it for a while. Dessa was off life support. Tess would keep her in a light sleep until morning. The Ship Counselors from his four Star Fleet vessels had spoken with each of his ‘crew’, the kids were a little shaken, but doing okay. Weaver was still a little stressed about almost losing Starblazer and Quickdash. One Ship Counselor had also warned her that his cook was bordering on a nervous collapse.

It seemed the attack had been an attempt to take over the spaceport, though no one could figure out how they had planned to keep it. Their shuttle had heavier weapons onboard, but the first wave’s job had been to quickly secure the port. They had been well enough armed to easily take out the regular security forces, but Neal’s surprise attack had forced them to pause and regroup. This had given Shadowchaser and hir friends time to add their weight of fire and put them in a crossfire. Since their shuttle didn’t have any active transport inhibitors at the time, Tess had disabled both the weapons and the shuttle before they could join the fight.

"I see the kids didn’t scare you off," Neal said with a smile.

"Before you ask, yes, they even showed me tailstinger tag," Moonglow said, returning the smile. "You’ll have to do better than that to get me to quit a ride willing to carry my bike for free!"

"Just remember, no running that thing up and down my corridors!" he said, pretending to be stern.

Shi giggled at that, waking Firestorm. Even with Neal’s touch, shi was still cranky. When Moonglow offered hir a nipple, shi pushed hirself away. Running his hand down hir lower belly, Neal smiled. "Time for the second rule, I think," he said, slowly getting out of bed.

"Second rule?" Moonglow asked.

"The three rules of a happy life," Neal explained, as he tried to work some feeling into his left arm. It was still a bit numb from the abuse the shotgun had given it. "Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and of course, scratch where it itches."


"You’ve been filling hir empty belly. Now hir bladder is full of used milk, and it’s time to empty it."

Moonglow ran hir fingers across the cub’s belly, and smiled. "And how does a human freighter captain know how to check a chakat cub?"

Picking up Firestorm, he said, "I do a lot of reading, some of which comes in handy from time to time. Let’s see if I remember what it said about getting hir to not pee on hirself." He then headed for the bathroom.

Since the tiny cub could easily swim in the taur-sized receptacles, Neal moved over to the human-sized commode. Neal asked Tess for two long thin boards, one side tacky so they wouldn’t slide. Laying them across the toilet with a small gap down the middle, he then laid Firestorm’s feet on the boards with hir belly and sheath in the gap. Reaching under the board he slid his finger along hir sheath to draw hir shaft out part way, and after a few strokes across hir full bladder shi started to unload. When shi was done, he rolled hir over and wiped off the tip of hir shaft before it slid back into hir sheath. Moonglow was lying on hir backs when they came out. Neal gently dropped the now hungry cub on hir upper torso. "Rule one," he said with grin.

While Moonglow fed Firestorm, Neal took a shower, then headed for the kitchen looking for a midnight snack.

The walk-in refrigerator held some leftovers, not that there was much to be leftover with all the kids, most of who seemed to have four hollow legs when it came to food. Spying a large bowl of mixed fruit, Neal spooned some into a smaller bowl. He was looking for the ice cream, when an annoyed rabbit demanded to know just what he thought he was doing in her kitchen.

Turning around, Neal gave his tired looking chef a long look. "Tess told me you were asleep, so I was making myself a one bowl mess of a snack. Since I know you couldn’t have heard me, what are you doing out of bed?"

Stew’s stare faltered, as she looked at the floor.

Neal slowly shook his head. "Tess," he asked, "Does she have you set to wake her whenever someone enters her kitchen?"

"Just for you boss," Tess corrected.

Still shaking his head, Neal told Stew to go back to bed.

The next morning, Neal had Shadowcrest, CalmMeadow, and Zhanch meet him in his office. Firestorm had been in need of hir security hug, so Moonglow had also joined the group. Neal told them he was ready to have them join him in waking up Dessa, but that they should be prepared for a few changes. Due to the extent of her injuries, Tess could not just put Dessa back together. Instead she had taken the coding of Dessa’s DNA, and recreated her body as the DNA called for. With all the others looking confused, Neal gave them an example. Take an egg that had split into two in the womb, when born, you would have identical twins. Take one of them and let her have a rough life, get banged up a lot, and not always eating what she should. Her twin on the other hand was never banged up, and was always fed just what she needed. Forty years later they might still look like siblings, but probably not the twins they actually were.

"There are problems with the system. Since the brain’s interconnections aren’t quite the same, it can take a while for you to regain full control over your body again." Looking a little sheepish, Neal continued. "I’m the only human Tess has run through her ‘process’. She has to hook me up to life-support for the first six to eight hours, while my mind figures out how to make my heart and lungs work again. Fully understanding what I’m hearing and seeing can take me up to a week."

"Dessa, on the other hand, was off life-support after less than an hour, so her mind may be finding her new pathways easier and faster than I normally do."

Stepping quietly into Dessa’s room, Zhanch mentioned that she looked in some ways bigger, and much younger than she had before. Tess quietly admitted that Dessa was ten centimeters taller now. She was over sixty-five kilos heavier, though a lot of that was due to her being very underweight before. Her body had been restored to early adulthood.

On waking, Dessa had first thought they were just part of a drug induced dream. Her memories started flowing back and, with her words badly slurred, she asked how badly injured she was.

Neal smiled, and warned her it was both better and worse than she feared. He explained to her that her mind was still getting use to controlling her body again. Her speech and movement would improve with practice. With Moonglow’s help, he walked Dessa around the room, and then told her why she was now taller than Zhanch’s seven foot one. Dessa had a little trouble with the idea she wasn’t quite herself anymore.

Zhanch had then pointed out that at a regular hospital, they would be still trying to just keep her alive. If she had survived, they would then be talking about a mechanical hip and leg to replace the ones she’d lost, not walking around the next day. Neal warned her to try things slowly. Her new body had never eaten before, so bland foods to get her started. She needed to just start out slowly and learn her new abilities and limits.

Neal had taken the next shuttle down, and saw a few of his rules seemed to have been bent while he was out of the loop. Shadowcrest was the youngest being allowed down; considering the day before he could understand that. All the kids now openly wore phasers in ‘quick draw’ holsters, Neal checked with Tess to see if they had all passed the tests he required them to take in order to be issued a phaser. Tess told him they had, plus all the taurs but Shadowcrest had also passed his requirements to handle ‘Betsey’, Shadowcrest, Cindy, and Alex being just a little too small to handle the heavy shotgun.

The only ‘trouble’ they had seen since the Humans First battle was from the local authorities. It seems ‘they’ didn’t like having armed ‘children’ running around loose in their spaceport. They had started to get angry when Mike had calmly asked if they only allowed mature, murdering Humans First members to be armed in their spaceport. They had quickly left though, when CalmMeadow had offered to disarm hir work party. All shi needed from them was their pictures and names, to be given to hir captain in case something ‘bad’ happened. Having seen from the security recordings how hir captain reacted when things went ‘bad’, they were not about to have him personally looking for them.

That evening, Neal had Tess tie into the local databases. He was looking for information on Firestorm’s parents. There would be grandparents to notify both of their losses, as well as their gain.

The vixen’s data had been recovered. Her name had been RushingStream. Her village was on Earth, but her records showed both her parents had died in a landslide when she was a teenager. No other kin was listed in the local database.

The chakat was still to be identified, hir ID having been destroyed when shi was killed. Neal sent a request to a private investigator he had used before, asking her to dig up the information he needed, and forward it to the Folly.

Shutting down his terminal, Neal went rabbit hunting. He found her looking exhausted, still in her kitchen, getting things ready for the next day’s meals. Waiting until she didn’t have a knife in her hand, or something to drop, he cleared his throat. She spun around, and stared at him as if he had just badly scared her. Shaking his head, Neal simply said, "We need to talk." He then indicated that she should follow him. Finding the lounge empty, he waved her in and then followed her, closing the door behind him.

Looking at the exhausted rabbit sitting across from him, Neal said, "You’re working yourself too hard. If you keep it up, you’ll run yourself into the ground."

Not meeting his eyes, Stew replied, "I’m fine captain. I-I’m just a little behind in getting everything ready for tomorrow."

Neal looked thoughtful. "We’ve been putting too much of a strain on you, even more so since we added the Rakshani and their special needs. You’re not asking for the help you need."

Stew was almost tearful now. "Please let me stay, I can do the work."

Slightly confused, Neal said, "I not talking about replacing you or getting rid of you. I’m just suggesting we need to lighten your workload a bit. You’re not the cheerful little bunny I fished out of the lake your first day onboard. I should be able to pick up some parts I need to get a food replicator or two up and running in a few days. Till then, I’m going to ask the kids to take over breakfast and lunch, and have them give you more help with the dinners."

Suzan just bowed her head and hugged herself. Neal was surprised when he saw the tears start. Kneeling beside her chair he took her hands in his. Squeezing them gently he said, "The replicators aren’t to replace you, they’re to supplement you, to allow you more time to do the things you like."

"But I love to cook!"

"The same things day after day, and in the massive amounts needed to feed all my hungry kids?"

"I just want to stay…"

"I wouldn’t dare try to kick you off my ship," Neal said with a chuckle. "The kids would mutiny. And even as weak as they are, I know the Rakshani would help."

"You promise I can stay?"

"Whatever gave you the idea I wanted to get rid of you?"

"You’ve never treated me like you do everyone else, you always seem to keep your distance."

"That’s what’s been worrying you?" At her nod he added, "The reason I’ve always been careful not to get too personal, was because of what I found out about your last job." At her baffled look he said, "Tess picks up all sorts of information at every port we hit, including information on other ships and their crews. When you told me why you had jumped ship at such a poor location, I had Tess do a little digging. It seems several of the ranking offices of your last ship have gotten into trouble, some more than once, for sexually harassing or forcing themselves on lower ranking crew members. I didn’t want to frighten you off, or make you think that you had left the frying pan just to end up on the heating element. I’m afraid I’ve been waiting for you to tell me if you wanted to get more personal."

"But the kids, and even Moonglow…"

"Climbed into ‘my’ bed, not the other way around. Though I think Moonglow is doing it more to be near Stormy, rather than because shi likes to sleep with a smelly old human," Neal said with a grin.

"Don’t be too sure of that," Stew told him. "So does this mean you’ll treat me more ‘personal’?"

"Only if you would like me to."

Stew pushed him back into his chair, then moved so she was sitting beside him. She then laid her head on his shoulder as she gave him a hug. Neal returned the hug, and continued to hold her as she slowly relaxed. In minutes, she was asleep. Figuring they were going to be there a while, Neal reclined the chair. Smiling at the softly snoring rabbit, he whispered, "Tess, warn the kids that they’ll be making breakfast and lunch tomorrow."

The next morning, Neal went groundside with Moonglow and Stormy, and half the teenagers went along as security. There had been no reports of Humans First activity since the spaceport shootout, but they were taking no chances with their captain or their newest sibling.

After picking up the parts he needed, Neal spent the rest of the day putting together the replicators and getting them online. One had gone in Stew’s kitchen, two in the dining area. Stew had found him that evening, installing the fourth one in the kids’ mini kitchen.

"You missed dinner," she said quietly.

With his head and chest buried in the replicator, she couldn’t see his smile as he replied, "Rumor control said you were fixing stuffed green peppers. Peppers and me just don’t get along."

"I would have fixed you something else, if you had asked," Stew said, sounding hurt.

Neal pulled himself out of the replicator, and looked to make sure Stew wasn’t as sad as she had just sounded. Catching the gleam in her eye, he gave her a dirty look that made her smile. Shaking his head, he said, "You know how it is when you’re in the middle of something and don’t want to stop?" When she nodded, he continued. "Besides, you always seem to have munchies waiting for those of us that don’t always eat on ship’s schedule. I was just going to play with some of your snacks, and maybe test these replicators at the same time."

The testing involved making a large banana split, with all of Neal’s favorite toppings. After Stew helped make it, Neal placed it in the replicator and had it record the pattern. Then he had it make another from the stored pattern. Handing one back to Stew, they enjoyed their late snack. They were almost done when Moonglow came in with Stormy. When shi said shi would love to try one, Neal overdid it when he told the replicator to double the dimensions of the pattern. They all laughed when it materialized, the banana was over 60 cm long and 10 cm across, the scoops of ice cream were equally massive. Stormy didn’t think much of it after sticking hir nose in the cold ice cream, so shi warmed hirself by latching onto one of Moonglow's nipples, causing Moonglow to shiver as the cold nose made contact.

With the last pod loaded and reconnected to the Folly, it was time to have a chat with Zhane’s Admiral Kline, and maybe find some pirates for Shadowchaser and hir friends to play with.

The Federation Starship NCC-2121 Pegasus was running silent at low impulse. Almost no emissions betrayed her position as she passively scanned the area, hunting for the telltale signs of pirates trying to run just as silent. There had been a recent increase in pirate activity and she had been asked to help weed them out. The Folly came up on the hunter from the rear, then shifted to port. Coming parallel to the Pegasus at just over two hundred kilometers out, Tess matched speed and course. After five minutes of the hunter ignoring them, someone pressed the call button on the captain’s ready room onboard the Pegasus.

"Come," said Admiral Kline, not looking up from the report he was finishing. He did a double take when he did look up; he knew most of the faces onboard his ship even if he didn’t know them all by name. The face not being familiar and the non-uniform the man wore threw him for a loop. Cocking his head, he asked, "Who are you, and how did you get on my ship?"

Neal gave him a smile. "The who is Neal Foster, in command of the fast freighter ‘Folly’. As to how I got here, we waited a few minutes after coming up on your ship. Not getting a hail, I decided to deliver my message in person. Since it’s for you, I rang your doorbell and you said ‘come’, so I beamed over."

Looking for a thread to pull to unravel this unexpected puzzle, Boyce asked, "Your ship is within transporter range?"

Neal’s grinned again. "Right outside your window." Tapping his comm badge, Neal said, "Tess, flash your running lights, if you would please."

Looking out his ready room’s window, it only took Boyce a moment to find the small flashing light among the stars. Boyce asked, "Why didn’t my bridge tell me that you were approaching?"

"That’s actually my fault. Captain Zhane informed me you were running the same type of sensor suite as a cruiser we need to find. I thought I’d see how well the Folly could sneak up on it," Neal said as he handed Zhane’s letter to him.

After opening and reading the letter, Boyce gave Neal a long look. "And how can I be sure this is real?"

Neal shook his head as he smiled. "The first clue would be if it sounds like something she would write, most families seem to have their own code. Another way would be to get one of your other mates to smell it. Zhane wrote it a little over three weeks ago, but her scent is probably still strong enough for a fur’s nose to pick up."

Requesting Commander Silpurr’s presence in his dayroom, they waited for his mate to arrive.

Rosepetal gave Neal a curious glance as she reported to Boyce. He then handed her the letter. After reading it, she smelled it. She then held out her hand and said, "Tess…" A plastic bag appeared with one of Neal’s shirts in it. Opening the bag, Rosepetal placed her nose over it, then inhaled as she gave the bag a squeeze. She smiled at Neal’s puzzled look. "Zhane’s note suggested that she had hidden a stronger hint on how she felt about you. I am curious though, as to who or what a ‘Tess’ is."

Neal gave a small sigh. "Tess is the Folly’s main computer. With everyone I have onboard, I had changed her security protocols to just inform me of what she thinks I need to know. Looks like I’ll be having a little talk to her about that later."

Boyce chuckled. "You mean you’re not ‘all knowing’?"

Neal’s sigh was closer to a groan this time. "I’ve never been ‘all knowing’, but with Tess to help ferret out, process, and remember information for me, I guess it could look that way at times." Then looking at Rosepetal, he asked, "Just what was the deal with my shirt anyway?"

Rosepetal smiled. "I take it you didn’t cheat and read her letter?" At Neal’s headshake she said. "Zhane’s note only told me that Tess would know what I wanted. She told me to just hold out my hand and say ‘Tess’, and she would give it to me."

Looking back to Boyce, Neal asked, "So do you now believe the letter is real?"

Boyce opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by a tone from Neal’s comm badge. Moonglow needed to talk to him. "Sorry to bother you Captain, but I have someone trying to claw hir way though the hull to get to hir father." The sound of Firestorm’s crying was easy to hear over the open comm link.

Neal said. "Tess, beam hir over please." Boyce and Rosepetal watched in amazement as a very tiny and very loudly crying chakat appeared on the deck, moving at a fast crawl. Shi hit Neal’s shoe, and started climbing his leg. Neal bent over, and gently got hir tiny claws out of his pants leg. Holding the now quiet infant, he looked to his hosts. "Sorry for the interruption, but Stormy always seems to know when I’m trying to go somewhere without hir."

Rosepetal stepped forward to stroke the cub. "Zhane’s note didn’t mention a baby chakat."

Neal’s smile softened a bit. "Firestorm joined us after our meeting with Zhane."

A very pregnant black-furred chakat dressed in a Security officer's uniform burst into the room, having sensed an unknown chakat cub in distress. Security Chief Midnight stopped warily, staring at the tiny cub and the stranger who held hir in his hands.

Boyce caught Midnight’s eye and nodded, causing hir to relax a bit. He then stepped towards Neal. "May I?" he asked, holding out his hands.

Neal nodded. "When shi starts to get upset, just hand hir back to me."

Holding the tiny cub, Boyce frowned. "Why do you assume that I will upset hir?"

"Not just you. Even my chakat wet nurse can’t calm hir if shi’s wanting me." At their confused looks he added, "Shi seems to have bonded with me at birth."

They were all staring at him now, Midnight demanding, "Why would a cub bond with you, and not hir parents?"

"When they are dead," Neal quietly said.

Stormy was already trying to climb out of Boyce’s hands. As he handed hir back to Neal, he said, "Explain."

Looking down as he gave Stormy a hug to calm hir down, Neal sighed. "There was a Humans First attack at the New Kiev space port. Over a dozen furs were killed; a lot more were injured. After I helped take out the Humans First types, I was rendering aid to those furs that I could. I passed two taurs, their upper torsos badly torn up. When I tried to walk past them, it was like something was pulling at me, that and I was suddenly feeling short of breath. I looked again but, as before, there was nothing I could do for them, but again I found I couldn’t just walk away." Looking at his hosts he continued. "One had been a chakat, the other a foxtaur vixen. The pulling feeling seemed to come from the vixen. When I placed my hand on her lower torso, I felt movement. Needless to say, her child was still alive, but with hir mother dead, shi was quickly running out of oxygen."

Looking a little ill, Boyce asked, "You cut hir out of hir dieing mother?"

"No," Neal slowly said, "I cut hir out of hir dead mother. My only other option, was to let hir die too."

"That must have been a hard thing to do," Rosepetal quietly said, giving Neal’s arm a gentle squeeze.

"I don’t really remember the cutting part that well, but I do remember holding hir up by the tail, letting the fluids drain from hir airways," Neal said, looking at her. "I was more or less running on autopilot by then, reacting to whatever hit me next. Tess has recordings of the events. I’ve been trying to use them to help fill the gaps in my memory, but it’s not an easy task."

"I would like to see those recordings," Boyce said.

"No, you wouldn’t," Neal said sternly, then he sighed again. "View at your own risk. I strongly suggest you not have anything in your stomach."

Changing the subject, Boyce asked, "So, was there anything else besides testing our sensors, and letting us know about our missing cruiser?"

Glad for the subject change, Neal smiled. "Well there are a few things I can help you with, and some things I will need your help with."

At Boyce’s raised eyebrow, Neal grinned. "Zhane had said something about you being rushed out on this ‘hunt’ without being able to properly re-supply. I may have a few things you could use. If I remember correctly, she said something about this particular ship not running on anti-matter, that it ran on something called, oh what was it…? Ah, I remember, she said this ship ran on Chipinge coffee."

The look on Boyce’s face was classic. Rosepetal failed trying to hold back her laughter. "He’s been out for weeks, and there’s been no living with him!"

Neal laughed with her. "Then I can help, I have half a carrier of the stuff, I’m sure we can agree on a price, say 5 grams of anti-matter per bean?" Rosepetal broke up again at the look on her mate’s face. Neal chuckled. "Just kidding, but I did bring you some other ‘things’ that you may find useful." Tapping his comm badge, he said, "Tess, are they ready?"

"Waiting on your command, boss."

Neil smiled at the confusion on his hosts’ faces. "Tell them that they are free to launch."

Sixteen fighters erupted from the Folly’s pods, and quickly passed over and under the Pegasus. They then paired up, and went in different directions in a search pattern. The comm unit on Boyce’s desk chimed, as warning lights and alarms indicated yellow alert.

Giving Neal a dirty look, Boyce stepped over to his desk. Pressing the ‘all hail’ he had his ship stand down from yellow alert. Then with a grin, he contacted the bridge and asked them where the fighters had come from. As they listened to the sensor tech tell them that the fighters had just ‘appeared’ on her passive sensors, Neal offered to show Boyce a few ‘tricks’ to get a little more out of his sensor suites.

Neal then suggested Boyce tell his bridge crew not to panic, or his next ‘trick’ would have them at red alert. After the bridge crew had been warned, Neal told Tess to once again open the Folly’s main hanger doors. The two pocket destroyers slipped free, followed by the small carriers. They took up positions near the Pegasus.

Boyce had left the comm unit set to listen to his bridge. The noisy commotion caused by the magical ‘appearances’ of the larger ships was cut to a dead silence when Neal told Tess to drop the Folly’s ‘sensor jammers’. After giving them a moment, he had his massive freighter slowly move in.

Shaking his head, Boyce asked, "This isn’t the first time you’ve moved Star Fleet craft, is it?"

"No," Neal said with a smile. "The first time was a rescue, one of your small carriers had chased down a pirate, only to find the pirate was bait for a trap. When I found them, the carrier was a floating wreck. Only one of the fighters was in any condition to fly, much less fight. We were able to find the remains of all but two of the fighters; three of the pilots were somehow still alive in their wrecked fighters. Most of the time the Folly just plays postman, delivering things where they’re needed. Twice she has been quietly used as a carrier. Six of her pods are set up to hold up to eighteen fighters each. Other pods can hold forward supply points and spare fighters."

"And you were in command?" Rosepetal asked.

"The first time, yes and no," Neal replied. "I could veto any launch if I thought it would put the Folly in too much danger, and I could only ’suggest’ what the fighters should do. Their wing commanders could override me once they were launched."

"Did they override you?" Rosepetal asked.

"Only the first three times. The first time, they sent everything they had after one lone pirate. Their reasoning being the Folly couldn’t possibly see far enough to tell if the pirate had friends or not. The next two, I had to bail them out. Again they didn’t trust what I told them the Folly could see, and they ended up biting off more than they could chew."

Looking at one of the Folly’s view ports, now only forty meters from his own, Boyce could see two young cubs, a foxtaur and a chakat, staring at his ship. When they finally noticed him they waved. Waving back, Boyce asked, "And just how did you ‘bail’ them out? Is your ship armed?"

"Define ‘armed’," Neal said with a grin, as he keyed his comm badge. "Tess, please park a baby Zulu where we can see it."

Moments later, one of the small scouts floated between the windows.

As Boyce and Rosepetal examined it, Neal explained, "While I don’t have any craft with phasers or missiles, I can use some of them as weapons if needed. The baby Zulu before you is a scout, but it is fast enough to chase down and ram most other ships. The larger Zulus have transporters that can get though most shields, I can either remove parts to disable a ship, or beam in a little anti-matter if required."

After letting them look at the baby Zulu for a minute, Neal had Tess send it and the other babies out to help scout the area. As it left, Rosepetal turned from the window. "And the second time? she asked.

"The second time, I was in full control." At her raised eyebrow, Neal smiled. "I simply told them that if they wanted to play with my toys, it would be by my rules. The only pilot dumb enough to argue the point found himself dropped off at a starbase we were passing. His craft was given to one of the spare pilots to fly."

Boyce shook his head. "So you’re going to reinforce us, resupply us and scout for us? And what do you want in return?"

Neal smiled. "Star Fleet wanted the other craft out hunting pirates, so if my scouting doesn’t turn up anything, I’ll just load them up again, and continue the search. As for resupply, I’ve quietly done that for Star Fleet vessels often enough to know off the top of my head which forms I need to fill out to get paid. The main thing I need from you is medical assistance." At the look of concern from all his hosts, he continued, "The Rakshani I have with me were starved for over five weeks, the tests Zhane's doctors did suggests they will all be dead in a year or less. Due to an accident at New Kiev, I was forced to try something unorthodox on one of them. Depending on what your doctors can tell me, it may save the rest of them as well. I was going to wait until we got them home, but Tess’ scans suggest they may not have as much time as we thought."

"When did you want to start?" Boyce asked. "I can have the medical teams ready in a few minutes if needed."

Neil shook his head. "No. I know for both of our ships it’s after main watch, and the Rakshani are probably already worn-out. Let’s get the testing started in the ‘morning’, which will also give your quartermaster time to make a list of what you need." Seeing Boyce opening his mouth, Neal added, "besides your dang coffee!" which started Rosepetal laughing again.

Stew was a little annoyed when Neal informed her they would all be dining on the Pegasus, but was cheered up a bit when Neal promised she would get to show off her cooking skills some other evening.

They had no sooner walked into the dining area than Stew made a beeline for the galley. Neal only noticed it because Midnight had quickly caught her by the arm, spoke to her for a moment, and then let Stew continue her journey. At Neal’s raised eyebrow, Midnight simply told him that they were still breaking in their galley help.

The food was every bit as good as some of Stew’s creations. This led to a meal-long debate of which was better, the kids having to set their loyalties aside and judge the food on its own merits.

Four identical blonde-haired male gray rabbits had served the meal, and had been ecstatic when the kids had favorably compared their cooking to Stew’s. Stew had then served the after-dinner drinks. The kids were served their hot chocolate first, then Neal and Weaver were served a mild tea. The open coffee container on the cart smelled like something someone had left on the back burner over the weekend. Boyce and the others had quickly flipped their cups upside-down to indicate they were not interested. Neal was about to ask Stew what had happened, when he caught her wink. She then picked up the overturned cups, and started filling them from a sealed carafe. The furs picking up the new scent before Boyce and Neal did. Neal tried to hide his grin as Boyce stared in disbelief at his coffee cup, the rich aroma of the Chipinge coffee almost bringing tears to his eyes. Boyce gave Neal a dirty look as he tried a sip.

Neal laughed and shook his head. "Don’t give me that look. She didn’t let me in on the joke either."

After dinner, Rosepetal offered to give them a tour of the Pegasus. M’Lai also offered to take the Rakshani off Neal’s hands for the night. With the basic scans done while they slept, they could start first thing in the morning.

M’Lai was more than a little surprised the next morning. Neal was not interested in the information on the Rakshani at risk; he only wanted the status of Dessa.

Dr Kelly, the Pegasus’s Chief Medical Officer, was trying to tell Neal for the third time just how bad Zhanch’s condition was, when Neal grabbed her PADD from her hand and tossed it to a nearby table.

When she opened her mouth, Neal cut her off. "Doctor, the only thing I want to hear from you is what, if anything, is wrong with Dessa. Everything else can wait."

"She’s not the one you should be concerned with!" Dr Kelly snapped.

"Doctor," Neal said, speaking sternly but slowly as if to a child, "just over two weeks ago, Dessa was in the same shape the others are in now." Neal raised his hand to cut off the doctor’s interruption. "She was then hit by a phaser, severing her leg and doing severe damage to her torso. Needless to say, we tried something unorthodox and saved her life. My only question is her status. If she is fine, then I can try it on the others. If there’s anything wrong with her, I could be moving the others from the frying pan into the fire."

The doctor’s mouth had hung open since Neal had said ‘hit by a phaser’, her mind having problems wrapping itself around the idea that anyone in such poor health would have survived the shot, much less having been treatable.

M’Lai stepped forward to bail out her superior. "As per your request, Dessa received the full battery of tests. While she still has a few coordination issues, she is in perfect physical condition."

Neal nodded, "Thank you Doctor, that’s what I needed." Turning to the other Rakshani, he took the time to make eye contact with each of them. "While I can’t guarantee that any of you will survive the process, I will offer it to you."

Having recovered from her surprise, Dr Kelly asked, "What are the risks?"

"It’s basically Russian roulette. They spin the prayer wheels of whichever deity they believe in, they either come out like Dessa did, or they don’t come out at all."

"And the odds?" Zhanch asked.

"I’ve lost seven furs, three chakat, two foxtaur, one wolftaur, and a skunktaur."

"Seven… out of how many?"


"5,258, counting Dessa."

"How many were Rakshani?"

"Dessa is the one and only so far."

Meeting the glances of her troops, Zhanch said, "We like the odds. Why did you wait so long to make the offer?"

"Two reasons: to make sure Dessa wasn’t a false hope, and to have medical assistance on hand when we needed it." At Zhanch’s raised eyebrow, Neal added, "The Folly’s sickbay can only handle one or two of you at a time. The Pegasus, on the other hand can handle all thirteen of you at once. Plus, if there is a problem, you have real doctors ready to help, instead of just me making my best guess as to what to try next."

With the Rakshani bedded down, Neal gave the doctors their instructions. Two trauma teams would be active while the Rakshani were being processed. One would hook the processed fur to the systems that would maintain their breathing and heartbeat, the other would stand ready in case there were other problems while the first team was busy.

Zhanch went first, ten minutes later she reappeared on the bed. The trauma team took a moment to get moving, such was their surprise at what they got back. Zhanch was thirteen cm taller and over eighty kilos heaver. That and her going from near death’s door to a healthy early adulthood caused them to doubt that this was the same individual.

Kestrel was the last one processed. When she reappeared, Neal heaved a sigh of relief. At the curious looks from the doctors, he smiled. "At least I don’t have to tell the kids we lost someone. In an hour, you should be able to stand your crews down to just a couple people to monitor them. Leave the sleep inducers on until morning. That will give their minds more time to integrate with their rebuilt brains."

The next morning found the Rakshani in good spirits, despite the fact they couldn’t see straight, and they sounded drunk when trying to talk.

The next few weeks were spent covering an ever-expanding area of space in search of pirates. Boyce had been more than a little surprised when Neal had offered to save the Pegasus some fuel and move them to the next search area. By inverting the Pegasus, and attaching its main hull to the corncob just behind the second sphere, Neal was able to get them inside the Folly’s warp bubble. A little shifting of his loads balanced the Folly for flight. With twelve scouts and six ‘Zulus’ adding to their scanner range, they covered large sections of space in a short period of time.

When they came up on one of the Folly’s stops, Neal would drop off the Pegasus with six of her scouts to search the outlying area. While at Folly’s stop, her remaining scouts checked the star system they were in. After each stop, the Pegasus would link back up with the Folly. Once in warp, anyone watching the space lanes would only see a very large freighter making good time.

Whenever the Pegasus was joined to the Folly, Kayla could usually be found with Shadowcrest. The two becoming fast friends and mischief magnets. Shadowcrest was reminded the hard way why Neal wanted her to only have one door to the aviary open at a time. His parent birds were only semi-trained, the eleven younger birds not at all, so spooking them with both doors open meant chasing panicked birds up and down the Folly’s corridors for over an hour.

However, even they couldn’t keep up with Holly and Quickdash. Those two quickly earned the title of ‘terror twins’ by some of the Pegasus’s crew. Not because they were always getting into trouble, but because they knew enough about how ship systems worked that the technicians couldn’t BS their way though the kids’ questions. This led to some of the technicians actively avoiding them; it was embarrassing being caught out by a pair of six year olds.

Boyce and Neal were walking though the Pegasus’s engineering hull, when a door at the far end opened. Holly and Quickdash were pushed out into the corridor. "And Stay Out!" was heard as the door closed.

"Busted," Boyce said hiding a smile.

"Again," Neal agreed. As the kids turned to go in the opposite direction, Neal called out, "Hold it right there, you two." When they reached the kids, Neal frowned. "What were you told about making a nuisance of yourselves?"

"But daddy, they’ve got a big problem! " Holly complained.

"Do you think their ‘big problem’ is going to hurt someone or damage the ship?"

"No, but…."

"This isn’t my ship, so you can’t just go tell the crew how to do things. What did I tell you to do when you see a problem?"

"Report it."

"And if that doesn’t work?"

"Take it to their supervisors."

"And if they don’t want to listen to a couple of meddlesome little brats?"

"Tell Tess what we think is wrong, and tell her how we think it should be fixed. And then she will tell you."

"You keep skipping that last step. Back to the Folly with the both of you; Tess will have something for you to do when you get there."



Once the kids were out of sight, Boyce turned to Neal. "You were a little harsh on them."

"Not at all. If they think they’re up to criticizing other people’s work, it may be time to let them get their hands dirty and see what it’s really like. Tess, show me their training schedules." Looking at their training, Neal added a few more tests for them to take. "Tess, tell them if they pass these tests, they can help me work on Gulf." Smiling at Boyce, Neal said, "So, would you still think I’m harsh if I tell them that if they quit irritating your crew, and pass a test, that they get to play with a ship of their own?"

"But, they don’t know that."

"Yet. They need to learn that being able to see someone else’s mistakes doesn’t mean you won’t make the same mistake when you do it yourself."

"They’re a little young for you to be forcing them to work."

"Too young to force it on them as work, but not too young to offer it as a new type of play. Ask them in a week if they feel ‘abused’."

Their conversation was interrupted by the turbo-lift opening. Rosepetal was leading Kayla towards the door the terror twins had just been evicted from. Kayla’s face and upper body was covered in something thick and gray, Rosepetal’s face was covered in fury. Boyce started to open his mouth, but a look from his mate closed it with a snap.

After the door closed behind them, Neal said, "I wonder… Tess, what were the kids bothering his technicians about?"

"Some of the sink and shower drains have a positive pressure behind their check valves. Holly acquired a face full of water from one of them."

"And it looks like Kayla wasn’t pouring water down her drain. Almost looked like watered down clay."

"Perhaps art class cleanup," Boyce suggested.

"Hmmm. Tess, did the kids ever get to tell the techs what was wrong, or were they stonewalled?"

"A very solid stonewall, boss."

Turning to Boyce, Neal said, "If you don’t mind, this could be a very good learning experience for my twins. The downside is your mate may decide to tear a strip off of whatever’s left of your techs."

At Boyce’s nod, Neal had Tess send the twins running back to the Pegasus’s engineering section.

When they arrived, Neal didn’t give them time to catch their breaths. With a hand-signal for Boyce to wait, he led them into the room.

Rosepetal was glaring at a group of techs who looked like they wished they could sink into the deck. Kayla was standing in a corner, trying to not be noticed.

"Sorry for the interruption," Neal said as he led the twins over to Kayla. As they stared wide-eyed at their friend, Neal said, "This is what can happen when you waste time arguing with someone who’s not listening. By the way, you were wrong when you told me that the problem couldn’t hurt someone, Kayla got a little mud in her eyes, but she was lucky. It could just as easily have been someone in the galley dumping boiling water into a sink. Now take Kayla and get her cleaned up. I’d advise having Tess check the drain before you use it."

"Can we take her to the Folly?" Holly asked. Neal arched an eyebrow at Rosepetal, at her nod the kids took off.

Looking at Rosepetal, Neal was about to speak when the comm panel on the wall beeped. "Engineering! We’re getting reports all over the ship of drains not working. Some are spraying the contents back up, while on others the drain valves don’t seem to be opening at all!"

"This is Commander Silpurr, we are aware of the problem. Engineering out," Rosepetal said. Giving Neal a suspicious look, she asked, "Do you know why some of the valves are staying closed?"

"No, but I have someone who only tells me what she thinks I need to know. Tess, are you keeping those drain valves from opening?"

"Yes, boss."

"I can guess why, so I’ll ask: how?"

A pile of small pieces rained onto one of the tables. Picking up one of the pieces Neal snorted. "The power connections for the valves?"

"Yes, boss."

As three more connectors fell into the pile, Neal smiled at Rosepetal. "I suggest we let them get to work, before this pile gets too much bigger."

Rosepetal fumed as she followed Neal out to where Boyce was waiting for them. "If your ‘Tess’ was protecting people from the problem, why didn’t she protect my Kayla?"

"It sounds like she’s protecting your crew from injuries, not from messes. That, and with engineering not listening to the twins, Kayla’s little ‘mess’ brought the problem to the two top ranking people on this ship. And it did get our attention, where all the twins got was the brush-off."

"I don’t like her methods," Rosepetal said, still a little upset.

Neal shook his head as he smiled. "No, but you do have to admit they work."

Weaver and Moonglow had decided that with all the available Star Fleet support just looking for something to do, that this would be a good time for everyone on the Folly to have physicals. The kids were no problem, but getting Neal into a sickbay almost required brute force.

Neal entered the Pegasus’s sickbay in poor humor, still arguing with Weaver. "All a doctor is going to tell us is that I’m a bit overweight, a shrink will tell you I’m crazy, both of which we already know to be true."

Moonglow was carrying Firestorm. She and Weaver had been double-teaming Neal the whole way to sickbay. "As your ship’s only crewmember with any medical background, I insist you have a full physical while we have the resources available to us. You’re no better than the kids you know."

Nodding at Drs Kelly and M'Lai, Neal turned back to Moonglow. "And what part of a physical would not be covered by Tess’s scans?"

"This part," Dr Kelly said.

As he turned to face the doctor, Neal felt something touch the other side of his neck. Spinning around the other way, he caught a glimpse of M'Lai with a hypo spray in her hand as he collapsed. M'Lai and Weaver catching him before he could fall. They laid him on one of the beds as a skunktaur in hys female form walked in.

Firestorm had started to fight for hir release when Neal collapsed. A sharp nip had won hir hir freedom from a surprised Moonglow, and shi leaped for the bed. Shi then stood with hir forepaws on Neal’s chest, growling at the group of adults.

With a chuckle, the skunktaur named LightTouch said, "You may have taken down the master, but you seem to have missed his guardian."

"First time shi’s bitten anyone, to my knowledge," Moonglow said, rubbing hir paw.

Weaver sighed. "It was this, or have you try to sneak into our room while he slept. You did say it would be easier for you to do this if he wasn’t warned about your assessment."

LightTouch smiled. "Quite right. Give me a moment to calm the cub, and then I can begin checking hir father."

To Weaver, this appeared to be a staring contest between LightTouch and Firestorm. After a minute Firestorm relaxed a little and laid hir head between hir paws, but hir eyes never left LightTouch.

Stepping to the head of the bed, LightTouch’s eyes lost focus as hy placed hys hands on Neal’s head. After several minutes, hy blinked as if waking up.

"Most interesting," hy said. "He does have a modest empathic sense, but he has no control over it. Most of the links lead to his subconscious; only a few threads reach his conscious mind. He may sometimes get ‘feelings’ about things and people around him, but not know why he is getting the feeling."

Weaver smiled. "That might explain why he’s more understanding and tolerant of someone after sleeping with them, but how did he know about Firestorm?"

"From what I’ve been told of the incident and what I just received from the evaluation, Neal was already exhausted from the fire fight. His subconscious, or autopilot as he calls it, was at the forefront. That, and Stormy’s own empathic abilities may have bonded them together before he got hir out of the womb."

Feeling slow and sluggish, Neal opened his eyes. Weaver’s anxious face coming into focus. "Why?" he whispered.

Giving him a small smile, she said, "Because, you would have thrown the results by knowing the test was coming."

"I assume you talked it over with Tess, and received her compliance."

"True, but we forgot to ask someone else’s permission." At Neal’s look of confusion, she smiled. "Firestorm didn’t like our little surprise, and did what shi could to defend hir father."

Stroking the head of the purring kitten in question, Neal smiled. "You should have seen that coming. Of course leaving hir behind wouldn’t have worked either. Shi would have been going full speed down the halls, screaming hir little head off. Just think of the crowd shi could have been leading by the time shi reached sickbay!"

"Do you always have to paint things in their worst light?"

Neal snorted. "No, that would have been more towards the ‘funny’ side of the scale. Worst light would have been Tess deciding you had deceived her. You don’t want to know some of the tricks we’ve pulled over the years." Giving her a half smile, he asked, "Now that everyone knows just how crazy I am, why am I not in a little padded room, wearing a very long sleeved coat that ties in the back?"

Weaver grinned. "Would you believe we decided you’re our kind of crazy?" she snickered. "Then there’s the problem of getting Tess to let us lock you up. And as we’ve seen, we will also need Stormy’s permission too."

"Not to mention Stormy and Moonglow would be frequent visitors. Nice to know I’m not worth the hassle of locking up."

"No, but we’ve been asked to keep you under strict observation, and to try to keep you out of trouble!"

Neal grumbled. "Just what I need, more babysitters."

At LightTouch’s request, Neal had Tess transfer a copy of her New Kiev spaceport records to the Pegasus’s holodeck memory. Hy wished to better understand what had happened that morning. On hearing the records would be available, Dr Kelly decided they could also be useful in trauma team exercises.

M'Lai had returned to her quarters that evening looking drawn and haggard. Even knowing what the simulation was about had not fully prepared her for walking though the aftermath of the attack.

With the original EMS teams removed, they had gone from one mangled body to the next, diagnosing and rendering aid. That had been bad enough, but LightTouch had then reset the simulation to when the last shot had been fired, and added Neal’s group. They watched Neal treat the fox tod, noting that his computer-controlled medpac did most of the work for him. As they had, he bypassed the next fur as she was beyond anyone’s help.

Having not been told about Firestorm, they were surprised when Neal stopped at the pair of dead taurs. They watched as he discovered and removed the baby chakat, and got hir breathing. After handing the newborn to a chakat youth, Neal had staggered down a corridor and disappeared around a corner, two chakats following him at a distance.

LightTouch had paused the simulation at that point, and pointed out that the trauma team exercise was now over. M'Lai had leaned against a wall as the others had filed out.

Already knowing what had happened out of sight, LightTouch had the program continue as Neal came back around the corner, half supported by the chakats. They were just reaching the rest of Neal’s group when the comm call came in telling Neal someone was trying to take the infant from Shadowcrest. LightTouch watched with interest as all the chakats reacted to Neal’s rapidly growing rage. Shadowchaser was the only one that did not drop to hir belly. If anything shi stood taller, hir teeth bared, claws fully extended, looking for a threat. After Neal was beamed to the hospital, the others calmed down. Shadowchaser had then called Captain Autumnbreeze, requesting help; both with the debriefing of Neal’s group as well as with helping them deal with what they had just been through.

LightTouch stopped the simulation, and restarted it just before Neal appeared at the hospital. After watching it through Neal’s collapse, LightTouch commented to M'Lai, "That explains why Moonglow was confused by the feelings of the others when shi first entered the room. Shi never saw Neal ‘mad’, just the effects it had on the other nurse and the guards. While he will take most things in stride, it appears that threatening a child in his care will get you an almost chakat-like response." Looking carefully at M'Lai, hy said, "You may want to leave now, I intend to see the actual fight." M'Lai had stayed and watched as Dessa was shot, after examining her body both before and after the shot, M'Lai gave the odds of her sickbay’s chances of keeping someone in that condition alive at less than one in ten.

After seeing how the recordings affected M'Lai, Boyce was even more determined to see what had transpired that day. Midnight insisted on joining him, so they made plans to run it the next morning. M'Lai suggested they not eat breakfast, and take some anti-nausea medicine before viewing the recording.

The next morning Boyce and Midnight entered the holodeck. They were coming up on Neal’s group from behind. When Boyce told the computer to unfreeze the display, a bolt of energy flashed over the head of the chakat youth that he had seen waving at him through the view port of the Folly…

Boyce looked a little gray-faced as they walked into their cabin, and Midnight’s tail was almost dragging the deck. M'Lai met them at the door. Without speaking a word, she walked them into the fresher. She already had their toothbrushes loaded with paste. As they brushed the foul tastes out of their mouths, M'Lai got the shower going. They spent the rest of the day with the ship’s consoler and LightTouch, going over what they had seen and how they felt about it.

With all the ships connected, the Pegasus and the Folly would each host dinner at least once a week. When Pegasus hosted, the captains and first officers from the other ships were invited. When on the Folly, Boyce’s family was invited to a more laid back family type dinner.

The Pegasus was hosting dinner that evening but, for the first time, Boyce and Midnight did not join them. Rosepetal informed them that her mates were a little under the weather.

After dinner, Neal had decided to visit the coffee lounge. He had drawn some raised eyebrows when he commandeered a chair and two unused tables. He now watched the stars slide by from the chair, a table to each side. One held his iced tea within easy reach, the other a soft pad on which Stormy slept, curled around his right hand and lower arm.

Three more chairs were moved to the other side of Neal’s tea table, and a tray with four cups of coffee was set on the table. An additional glass of tea was set on the other table, away from Stormy. LightTouch gently stroked the kitten as hy asked, "What are you thinking Neal?"

Still watching the warp distorted stars slide across the view ports, Neal quietly said, "They say that hindsight is 20/20 but, even looking back, I don’t know what I could have changed to make things better. I could have killed off the Humans First group faster with bigger weapons, but a strong enough beam weapon would have fried the furs on the ground between us. A heaver projectile weapon would need to be anchored to the ground, making me a sitting duck. As far as safety for those with me, I should have beamed the lot of them back to the Folly! Of course, then I wouldn’t have had the Rakshani’s fire support, and the other Star Fleet crews may have taken longer to join the fight. Dessa’s injury is the only reason the Rakshani are healthy today. Without the Rakshani firing from behind me, I would have been behind a different pillar. And that tod and Stormy would have died…"

"You don’t know that," M'Lai said.

"The medical teams might have gotten to the tod in time, but I understand even your trauma teams missed Stormy." Turning to Boyce, Neal said, "I request that you delete those recordings when your medical teams are done with them. You’ll understand if I think of most of it as being a bit ‘personal’."

"Some of it is a bit intense," Boyce agreed.

Neal snorted. "Yeah. I guess you could say some parts of that morning were just a little ‘intense’."

LightTouch gave him a small smile. "Intense enough that you still can’t get it out of your head for more than short periods of time?"

"Get out of my head, shrink," Neal said, though there was no heat in the words. "We each cope in our own way. Mine just takes me a little longer."

"And the fear?"

"Which fear? The fear that I didn’t do enough, or what I did do wasn’t the best thing to do? Or the fear that those I care about won’t want to be anywhere near someone capable of doing the things I did?"

"Which one scares you the most?"

"The past is over and I can’t change what happened, but I can try to use it to help determine what to do next time. I’ve been afraid to ask Weaver and the kids what they think, afraid that they may be just waiting for a safe enough port to jump ship. Not that I could really blame them ."

A pair of furry arms reached around Neal’s chest and didn’t quite squeeze his breath away. A set of sharp teeth gently nipped his ear, then a voice quietly whispered, "I’ve told you before that you won’t be getting rid of us that easily. Which part didn’t you understand?"

Neal sighed, and laid his head back against her chest. "I almost lost half of Chase’s group when they found out what I could do if pushed to my limits. We were on one of the non-aligned worlds and someone tried to kidnap one of the younger chakats. They had hit hir with a tranquilizer dart, then stuffed hir in a bag," Neal snorted. "I never did find out what that attempted kidnapping cost them. Tess was disabling/destroying their automated defenses, while Betsey and I took out anyone that tried to keep us from getting hir back." Giving the arms around him a gentle squeeze, Neal continued. "It was as bad as, if not worse than, New Kiev, but it was spread out over a city block. Half the kids didn’t want to have anything to do with me after that, the other half was mad at the first half for treating me that way. If they had had any place else to go, I think that would have broken up our extended family."

"What did happen?"

"It took a while for them to finally understand that some things could get an ‘extreme’ reaction out of me. Danger to my kids was high on that list."


"And pirates, slavers, Humans First types, even your common every day mugger is not too little to get a response out of me. And, as you noticed with Zhanch and company, it doesn’t have to be my kids that they’re hurting."

"Did they ever forgive you?"

"In time. Most of that group pooled their funds and bought an old medium-sized freighter. They let me help them get it up to spec, and I gave them a few of Folly’s smaller contract stops to get them started." Neal smiled. "They were quite pleased with themselves, two years of dodging pirates, without being seen or having to run or fight them. Then they were given some cargo that contained a gravity mine. There they were, dead in space, trying to get the warp drive back online, when three pirate ships showed up to claim their prize. The kids got two of them, but the third got their boarding teams unloaded before they were taken down. The kids won in the end, but not without three of them being badly injured, and a lot of damage to their ship."

"Sounds like they learned their lesson the hard way."

"Yeah, straight from the school of hard knocks, they learned that sometimes the only choices are ‘fight or die’."

"So, did they give up on the freighter?"

"No. They’re still moving freight. They just know now not to ignore trouble, just in case it doesn’t ignore them."

"Do you help them?"

"I help keep their propulsion systems tuned up to save fuel. And they have two Zulus and six of the babies on permanent loan for protection."

"And the others?"

"Chase and three others are in Star Fleet, two in the Star Corps, and five on other freighters."

"Do you ever get to see any of them?"

"We can sometimes get together when we’re at the same port. Most of the time we just play e-mail tag."

"And you thought we would run when you showed us you had a darker side."

"I’ve been trying not to make the same mistakes that I made with Chase’s group. I just keep forgetting your group’s dynamics and reasoning are different from what theirs was."

"I guess that helps explain why you always seem to be putting your foot in your mouth…"

"… and wiggling my toes. Yes, I know. Each of your accounts has more than enough to get you home in style. The only reason to hang around any longer is because you want to."

"It is nice to have another option, but most of us have other plans for the money."

"May I ask what yours is?"

"Right now, it’s a toss up between upgrading our home or transportation."

"I have the same problem with my time. Should I put some of my available time into fixing something, or is it time to just toss it and replace/upgrade it? Then should I be working on the Folly, the shuttles, the pods, or maybe working on that idea I had. Too many things to do for the time I have to do them."

"And here you sit, sipping tea, and helping Firestorm get to sleep."

"Even I need a little downtime. Someone once wrote that you can’t stay tense while watching a cat sleep. With hir cuddled up around my arm, I can understand what they meant."

"Well, finish your tea and come to bed. Shi isn’t the only one that would like to cuddle."

"Yes, dear." Getting up, Neal wrapped Stormy in hir pad, nodding to his hosts. "If you’ll excuse me," he said as he followed his denmate back to the Folly.

The next evening, dinner was on the Folly, Stew getting yet another chance to show off her culinary skills. Two of the bunny boys had come over to help her prepare it, both to ease her workload, as well as to learn some of her ‘tricks of the trade’. They all considered this a fair trade; when the meals were on the Pegasus, Stew was picking up some of their secrets in return.

The main courses were over. Everyone was sipping coffee/tea/hot chocolate, letting their stomachs settle a bit before the desserts were rolled out.

Neal and Boyce had been discussing where to extend the pirate hunt next, when Holly spoke up. "Daddy," she said. When Neal looked her way, she asked, "Can we have an ‘Alternate Thursday’?"

"Where did y…?" Neal sputtered. Then, catching sight of a dark tail disappearing out the door, he yelled, "CHASE!" As the door closed, he muttered, "brat..."

Weaver looked around. With the exceptions of Neal, Redfoot, Quickdash, and Holly, everyone else looked equally mystified by the exchange. Looking at Neal, she said, "One of these days I’m going to sit on you until you tell me all your little secrets. This isn’t another ‘Zulu’ is it?"

"No love, it’s not another Zulu. Just another little ‘blast from my past’. And as far as sitting on me, I’m torn between saying ‘Promises, promises’, or pointing out that I know where you’re the most ticklish," Looking around, Neal said, "You’ll have to understand that most of the kids in Chase’s group ranged between Holly and Shadowcrest when I took them in. This led to some of the entertainment being just a little more, well, juvenile. There were more than a few messes made, and I finally had to put my foot down, and dictate that they were only allowed to make a mess where and when I told them they could. These ‘messy times’ became known as ‘Alternate Thursdays’, although they could be anytime of any day. They were used to have fun, blow off a little steam, and sometimes as a reward for not driving me crazy." Neal smiled. "The rooms we used to use are offline, but I think I could set it up as a holosuite program in a few minutes."

"That won’t be necessary Neal," Redfoot said with a smile. At his raised eyebrows, she grinned. "Chase and I have spent quite a bit of our free time getting the rooms in question back up to spec. The only reason your twin terrors know about it is they caught us in the act of upgrading the power conduits. So, we can all have a little ‘juvenile’ fun. That is, if you’re up to it, old man."

"Old man? No one has called me that in a long time. Didn’t Chase warn you that I’m in better shape now than when shi was a child?" At Redfoot’s nod, Neal grinned. "Then shi should have also told you that even as an ‘old man’, I could still tie hir tail in a knot when shi needed it."

"You’re avoiding the question again, pops. Is this a Thursday of Alternatives or not?"

"Pops… I’ll show you pops!" Neal muttered as he looked at the others. Weaver was wearing her poker face, but the gleam in her eyes suggested she was waiting for the show to begin. Boyce’s group was waiting with a show of patience, but the way Holly and Quickdash were bouncing around was making everyone squirm a little in anticipation. Zhanch had what could only be called an evil grin plastered across her muzzle. Giving them all a grin to match Zhanch’s, Neal said, "Clothing is optional, but I do suggest you not wear anything that stains easily. If you want a set of trunks or tops, just ask Tess." He then looked to Redfoot. "Show them the way, I’ll join you in a moment." He then walked into the kitchen.

All three rabbits looked up from their final preparations of the desserts when Neal walked in. Stew arched an eyebrow as she said, "We’re almost ready. Are they getting impatient?"

Neal smiled. "No to the second, don’t bother to the first." At their confused looks, he chuckled. "Change of plans, and this time it’s not my fault."

"What are you doing?" Stew asked as Neal looked over the dessert cart.

"Deciding on the proper ammunition," Neal said as he picked an item off the cart and placed it in the kitchen’s replicator. "Tess, use this for our new pattern please." Looking back to the bunnies, Neal said, "You’re invited, but be aware it will be getting messy. Dress, or don’t dress as you please."

Redfoot had led the others to an older dining area in the corncob, just forward of engineering. Most of them had left their clothes in a neighboring cabin. Boyce had borrowed a pair of trunks for the ‘messy fun’. Redfoot had them line up along the walls, facing inward. Wearing a set of trunks, Neal arrived a few minutes later with three nude bunnies in tow.

After getting the rabbits positioned, Neal then hung his glasses on a loop by the door, and walked over to Kayla. Smiling he asked, "Ready for dessert?" At her curious nod, he grinned. "There are special rules for eating desserts on ‘Alternate Thursdays’. You cannot eat your own dessert; someone else has to feed it to you. Alternately, others will need your help to eat their desserts. Think you can handle that?" When she nodded again, Neal smiled and pointed at Shadowchaser, who was standing across the room. "Go ahead and feed Chase dessert."

Looking confused, Kayla asked. "How can I feed hir? There are no desserts in here."

"Silly me," Neal chuckled. "Hold out your hand like you were balancing a plate on it." When Kayla held her hand out, she almost dropped the whipped cream covered chocolate pie that appeared. As she started to walk toward Shadowchaser, Neal said, "No, no. Feed hir from where you are." When Kayla stared at him in shock, he laughed. "I did warn you it gets messy! The only way anyone is leaving this room clean, is if they are extremely good at avoiding being ‘fed’, or if no one else thinks they’re worth feeding."

Kayla hesitated until Shadowchaser gave her a smile and opened hir mouth wide. Her shot was low and a little to the right, adding a cup size to half of Shadowchaser’s bust.

"RELOAD!" Neal shouted. Once she had another pie, he called out. "Let the games beg…" three pies catching him in the face, while others plastered the rest of him.

Things instantly got out of hand, and went downhill from there. The first shots were fairly accurate, but this quickly changed. It’s hard to aim when others keep nailing you with pies. Neal didn’t bother with aiming, he just wind-milled his arms in the direction that he thought an attack was coming from. Others tried his method and found saturation pie firing had its uses. After the first minute, the footing became treacherous, the taurs gaining a slight advantage, though even they were sliding around in the mess.

Neal waited until things died down to just a few of the Rakshani practicing ballistic bombing at each other, half their shots dripping off the high ceiling. In places, the pie filling was over two feet deep. He quietly called out, "Anybody still hungry?" At the groans and laughter, he said, "Then I declare a ceasefire."

Seeing part of a small chocolate and cream pile next to him move, Neal reached into the pile and pulled out a small six-legged creature by the tail. Eyeing his find, he chuckled. "Heavier than Ember last time I held hir, but the limbs don’t seem to be quite long enough. Tail wraps around too well to be Starblazer. Either we’ve been invaded, or Stormy has managed to cross the field of battle without drowning. Not bad for such a little furball."

"I take offence to that term," said one of the larger animated piles of chocolate pie filling.

Carefully wiping off Firestorm’s face, Neal smiled. "For once I can honestly say all you big cats look alike to me. Which one are you anyway?"

"Kestrel, sir. And I’m serious about not liking that term."

"Furball? I’m afraid I sometimes use it as a term of endearment to those I care for. Of course, I know those who do not care for furs sometimes use it offensively. Hmmm, as for not liking the term, maybe you’ve never had it properly applied." Looking at the other chocolate piles, he tried to remember who had been next to Kestrel when the pie fight had begun. "Zhanch, would you and Dessa do me a favor, and please restrain Kestrel?"

Kestrel started to back away from her colleagues as they closed in on her, their eyes and grinning teeth the only non-chocolate covered parts of their bodies. Neal chuckled. "Don’t you trust them?" he asked as she continued to back away. That stopped her; Kestrel stood still and let the other two get a grip on each of her wrists.

Neal hummed. "It may be safer for all three of you to sit down, better still if Kestrel laid down." Once they were down, Neal called out, "Stew, Holly, Quickdash, Shadowcrest! Front and center please." As they struggled through the chocolate and cream mess, Neal turned to where Boyce and his family were watching with growing curiosity.

"When the Rakshani first woke up onboard the Folly, they thought they were aboard a slave ship and Kestrel tried to attack my crew. At the time, I told her then that I would have to think of a suitable punishment. I did think of one, but in her previous state, there was a chance it might kill her. Now that she’s healthy again, the punishment shouldn’t be fatal." Neal whispered something into Stew’s ear. She tried to disagree, but finally nodded her head and whispered something to the others. "Since these were the ones Kestrel attempted to attack, I think it’s only fitting that they deliver her punishment."

The four surrounded Kestrel, and reached for her. At first, nothing seemed to be happening, then Kestrel let out a shriek, and then another one. She was trying to tuck her legs up and free her arms as she let out yet another shriek, and broke into helpless laughter as her punishers continued to tickle her. After a minute, Dessa and Zhanch released the now helpless Kestrel. She tucked her legs in again and wrapped her arms around them, in an attempt to reduce the areas her tormentors could reach.

Neal waved the others off, and held Kestrel’s hands in place. When she got her breath back, Neal smiled. "In case you didn’t notice, you seem to have wrapped yourself into a ball. If it weren’t for all this chocolate, you would look like a ball of fur, or as some would say, a ‘furball’. I will try to not use that word in your presence, but if I slip, I want you to remember this moment." As Neal released her hands, he added, "And if you ever need a reminder, I’m sure any of the kids would be more than willing to help you remember."

Struggling to his feet, Neal offered Kestrel a hand up. With a grin, Kestrel took his hand, but used it to yank Neal back down on top of her. With her torturer where she could reach him, she started giving him a taste of his own medicine. The kids had taught Neal long ago that there was no real defense against a good tickler; only a stronger offensive against an attacker might work. Soon they were both having problems breathing. It didn’t help having the others shouting advice and taking bets on the winner. In desperation, Kestrel grabbed both of Neal’s wrists and held them away from her body. While this kept Neal from tickling her, it also removed his means of supporting himself. This dropped his head between two chocolate mountains. While he would normally find this quite pleasant, the valley between was also full of chocolate, making breathing a challenge. Kestrel took pity on him and raised her arms over her head, dragging Neal’s face clear of her breasts.

Neal caught his breath, and then began to chuckle. At Kestrel’s look of confusion, (or at least that’s what it looked like under all that chocolate), Neal said, "I never knew the marines taught that type of attack: smothering an enemy with your chocolate coated breasts. But I must say, what a way to go!"

Kestrel just stared at him for a moment, then she released his wrists and started giggling. With his arms free, Neal took some of his weight off her, and waited for her to settle down. "Truce?" he asked when she was looking at him again. At her raised chocolate eyebrow, he added, "At least for now?" She nodded, and he rolled the rest of the way off her. "Good, because I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to overheat in this layer of chocolate," he said as he slowly got up.

Shuffling to the far end of the room, Neal opened a heavy set of double doors. The next room held several screened, taur-sized toilet stalls, half a dozen large open shower stalls, a wading pool, and two huge hot tubs built to hold up to ten taurs each around its perimeter. The center of the room was dominated by a large pool, with depths ranging from three feet, to over ten feet under the diving board.

Dropping his trunks in a bin as he headed for the first set of showerheads, Neal said, "Here’s where we find out if Chase and Redfoot really got the filtering systems up to spec." As he stepped into the shower area, the heads started a needle fine spray, driving deeply into his hair, as the chocolate melted off his shoulders. He was almost through the shower when he heard a small cry over the noise of the water. Stormy had tried to follow him in, but the shower’s spray was more than shi was ready to handle. Neal picked hir up, and as the others took their showers, he carried Stormy to a sink. A few minutes of splashing around got most of the chocolate off the kitten, and then it was time for a bath.

Moonglow met them at the wading pool; shi had Stormy’s shampoo and bath toys. Weaver joined them with Starblazer. Midnight soon followed with Ember in tow. A bubbling fountain in the center of the pool released fresh water, the chocolate and soap residue washed down drains set around the rim. With the little ones cleaned up, a few more toys were added to the pool and they were allowed to play. The adults moved over to one of the hot tubs, the other hot tub having been commandeered by the Rakshani, while the older kids were trying to turn the main pool into one big bubble bath.

Neal was just stepping into the hot tub, when he was pulled to one of the bench seats and a furry pair of legs wrapped around his waist. Paws pointed his head forward when he tried to turn around, and then his captor began working shampoo into his hair. After dunking him to rinse out his hair, the paws began working over the rest of his body with a soapy sponge. After getting the soap out of his eyes, Neal was able to see Rosepetal was giving Boyce similar treatment. Midnight was working on M'Lai’s back, Moonglow was already on Weaver’s lower back, and the bunny boys were laughing about something as they did each other’s hair and ears.

When he decided the paws were doing more groping and tickling than cleaning, Neal pulled the legs around him apart far enough to get loose, then used them to bring their owner in front of him. While Stew had walked through the showers, she still looked like she was trying to audition for the role of a chocolate Easter bunny. Smiling, Neal turned her around as he said, "My turn."

He quickly found out why the bunny boys had been laughing so hard – cleaning the chocolate out of Stew’s ears was driving her crazy. As he started on her back and shoulders, Neal looked around to see how his guests were doing. Boyce had turned the tables on Rosepetal, who was all but screeching for him to stop, while he kept insisting her ticklish sides needed just a little more ‘cleaning’. Neal turned his head just in time to see a very soapy Dessa make a short flight as her associates threw her from their hot tub the few feet to the deep end of the pool. She came up sputtering, then sprung out of the pool and all but dived back into the hot tub, as they chose their next victim to be cleaned.

Thirteen more large splashes into the pool later, the ‘cleaning’ was dying down, and it looked like cuddling was the next thing on the menu. The three little ones had been tired after all their hard play, so after drying them off, a pile of warm towels was made into a bed next to the hot tub.

Shadowchaser turned toward Neal and asked, "Feeling better, father?"

For a moment, Neal didn’t answer. He just laid there, a towel acting as a pillow, Suzan still in his lap, her head on his shoulder. "Yes, I do feel better. Thank you, Chase. I didn’t realize just how much I was holding back, until you and the others helped release it."

"This has been building since New Kiev, hasn’t it?"

"Since our stop at Starbase 3, actually. The idea that someone in Star Fleet has enough information on me to anticipate my movements scares me a little." Looking at Boyce and Rosepetal, he added, "It’s not so much that I mind you keeping track of where the Folly is. It’s more a fear that that data could make it to others, whom I’m deliberately trying to keep in the dark."

"How many secrets are you keeping from us?" asked Shadowcrest.

"You can’t count that high," Neal said with a chuckle.

"How about 5,250?" Mike asked.

"Nice try, but that’s just the number that needed and survived the process, not my number of secrets."

"Give us a hint!" Holly demanded.

Neal just shook his head as he laughed. "I know you nosy furs have been going though my ship and cargo logs. All the clues are there, if you can just figure out what you’re looking at."

"But there are gaps!" Holly cried.

Neal smiled. "There’re more than enough clues in what is in the logs to fill in the gaps. You just have to know how to read between the lines."

Weaver looked a little hesitant as she asked, "You’re not annoyed at us for snooping around, are you?"

Neal smiled as he shook his head. "No. If I didn’t want you looking, I could have told you no, or planted fake logs for you to find."

Looking intrigued, Rosepetal asked, "Can we give them a try?"

"Since there’s a good chance you’ll figure it out, you’ll have to wait until my crew ‘gives up’ on it."

Weaver and the kids quickly ‘surrendered’, and one of Tess’s mobile carts came in with a pile of waterproof data pads for all of them. Some went for the ships movement logs, others the cargo logs, while a few tried finding the correlation between the two.

"First gap was for three and a half years ending thirty-five years ago, then we have ship logs for every four or five years, followed by another two year gap. The way the patterns repeat, this should be the last ‘logged run’ before another gap."

"No major changes in the cargo load out for the first gap, all the others the loaded cargo takes a major hit with no increase in credits to show for it. A slow but steady build up in cargo and credits between gaps."

"Wait a minute, the only reason to be sending some of these types of hardware to an unknown destination is if you’re…"


Continued in Chapter 4.

Copyright © 2005 Allen Fesler – Redbear1158@hotmail.com

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

Admiral Boyce Garald Kline Jr, Rosepetal, Zhane and family 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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