Tales of the Folly
By Allen Fesler
Book One: The Curse
Chapter 5

The others hadn’t noticed the small Rakshani child walk into their group, not until DarkStreak and Spitfire both let out small cries of delight at the smell of the small pieces of fruit pie she was offering them. CalmMeadow was more than a little surprised that Nova didn’t raise a fuss about a stranger offering hir little sisters a treat. However, Nova just calmly sat there, and quietly watched as the child somehow magically produced yet another slice of pie for each of the little ones.

When she offered Starblazer and Firestorm their treats, she stroked each of them for a moment. "Like fire and water," she whispered, "and they will be as much trouble as when the two are combined."

Then she walked over the where Holly and Quickdash were sitting together. As they accepted their pie slices from her, she said, "You will make a very good couple, and have beautiful cubs."

She next stepped up to Nova, and as she offered hir her treat she said, "What you seek you will find right in front of you. Don’t be afraid when it is offered to you."

The Rakshani child continued handing out slices of pie from an apparently unlimited cache, to some with just a smile, to others with a sometimes-cryptic remark.

When she offered Weaver her treat, she smiled as she whispered, "With such loving but sneaky mates, you should be more careful of what you wish for."

Suzan received her slice with a rub of her belly, and the words, "They will cause much mischief, and will be much loved."

Finally, Zhanch and Neal were the only two to not have been offered a treat, the child looked into her eyes as she handed Zhanch a slice. "All your questions will be answered when you go home," she whispered.

She smiled as she turned to Neal. Holding out a last piece of pie, she quietly asked, "Foolish Captain, will you accept my offer?"

Neal returned her smile as he closed his hand around the paw she was holding the plate with. "Conditionally," he all but whispered. "I would be more than happy to share what you offer with you."

As she fed him a piece of her pie, she smiled. "Again with the sharing. Didn’t it cause you enough problems this last time?"

Feeding her a piece in return, he replied, "I know you kept Tess from seeing my stowaways until it was too late to take them back. And I think you shifted our course just enough so I could pick up our Rakshan ladies. My only question this time is if you blinded Tess at New Kiev?"

"I didn’t have to," she quietly replied. "Because of the problems Tess’s scans had caused you with the local authorities the last time you were there, your standing orders had her on limited power and frequencies. She was mainly watching through your comm badges. Once you were fired upon, she naturally started pulling data from every source she could reach."

They finished sharing their slice of pie in silence. Then the child climbed into Neal’s lap, and gave him a hug. "This one has traveled further than she should have. Will you see her home?" At Neal’s nod, she added, "She lives two doors past your next stop." She then laid her head on his chest, and fell asleep.

Noticing that all except the youngest were now staring at him, he smiled. "What’s the difference between a curse, a blessing, or a gift?" As most of them shook their heads, he softly chuckled, "Sometimes not a thing."

Looking at Brighteyes, Neal asked, "Did you have time to read the mail that was waiting for you when we got into port?" At hir unhappy nod, he said, "I got hir message as well. So tell your fellow stowaways why catching the wrong ship was really a blessing in disguise."

Shi looked down for a moment to work up the courage to tell hir friends what they had almost walked into. "Dawn'sLight, my aunt, wrote me after Neal told hir that we had tried to sneak onto hir ship. It seems hir message has been chasing us all this time. The last time the TwinTails was in space docks, she had some upgrades done. One of the major upgrades was her loading and unloading equipment was completely automated, so no one would have heard us. Since no one needs to go into the storage bays anymore, there’s no reason to waste life-support on it. They just keep it at ten psi with nitrogen." Almost tearful shi concluded, "If we had made it to the TwinTails, we would have been dead before anyone knew to look for us."

Looking at all the somber faces, Neal added, "And if Tess had told me about you in time, you may have had enough time to get in a carrier heading for the TwinTails. Tess had a little help turning a blind eye on you."

Weaver frowned. "And us?"

"I’m still not really sure just how much trouble your group was supposed to cause." At her dirty look, Neal chuckled again, as he continued, "You served as several tests for both me and the kids: could I trust them, could they - or you - really trust me? Without your group, I would not have needed to adopt the older kids, and their parents would probably have been in a bigger panic. Then there’s our first space station stop. With just the teens, we would have missed Suzan. With just your group, the kids would never have been let out on their own, so still no Suzan. And without both your groups and Suzan, I would never have tried to keep our Rakshan ladies. If Zhanch hadn’t trusted me, they would have been dropped at the first starbase we could reach. Even if she had talked, I would have dropped her on her sister at Starbase 3."

Weaver frowned. "I remember you were hesitant to rescue them. Tess told us it was because you were worried about the risk to us. However, the longer we’ve been on the Folly, the less that makes sense."

Neal gave a soft snort. "I had two main concerns at the time, one was if they would be a danger to your group. The other was giving all of you such a big hint of just how many tricks Tess and I have up our collective sleeves."

"So you decided their lives were worth more than your secrets," Holly said with a grin.

"Some of my secrets, anyway," Neal said with a smile, as Weaver’s frown deepened. "Either way, we wouldn’t have had their help at New Kiev. The odds are good that I would not have been close enough to ‘feel’ Firestorm, so no Stormy or Moonglow." Looking around the group, Neal sighed. "In fact, on my original schedule, I most likely would have already have left New Kiev by the time they attacked." Looking at Nova, Neal sighed. "The original schedule also had me going to your station a few months from now. So without the rush to try to make that early pickup, we would have missed you too…"

Suzan shuddered as she looked from all her Rakshani friends to Nova and the little chakats. "So they would have all have died by now," as a tear stained her cheek fur.

Kestrel reached over and pulled her into a tight hug. "Thanks to you, and the others, we didn’t."

"Was she telling us the future?" Weaver asked, her eyes shifting between Starblazer and Firestorm, and Holly and Quickdash.

"No," Neal said quietly. "She was just reading the potentials she sees in each of us. She has had since you came onboard to learn to understand each of you. Her comments are just on what she has seen so far. Holly and Quickdash have been hard to separate for quite a while now, and I’ve noticed that if you give either Starblazer or Firestorm a treat, they will always share it with the other."

Still wrapped in Kestrel’s arms, Suzan put her paw on her belly. "She said ‘they’," she whispered in awe.

Kestrel tightened her hug on the worried rabbit. "When did you come into heat?"

"Yesterday evening," Suzan whispered. "Moonglow helped me insert my first try this morning."

Kestrel chuckled as she held the dumbfounded bunny. "Foolish rabbit! You tried getting pregnant during a Rakshan fertility festival, compounded by the Traveler’s festival? Don’t be surprised if it works better than you anticipated!"

As the others each gave Suzan a hug, Weaver turned to Neal. "And just what did she mean by I should be careful of what I wish for with such sneaky mates?"

Neal just smiled. "If I told you, I wouldn’t be being sneaky, now would I?"

Zhanch smiled. "If you will excuse me, there’s someplace I should go."

Neal said, "I’m coming with you."

"That may not be a good idea," Zhanch said with a frown. "My parents are very traditional."

"Yeah," Neal said grinning. "So traditional your sister is a mate to a human with four other mates."

"True, but she introduced him to them with his child in her belly. That made a big impact on a couple that didn’t think they would be seeing any grandkids."

"Why did they think that they wouldn’t have grandkids?" Weaver asked.

"When we were very young, Zhane and I were playing out on a pier that we knew we weren’t allowed on. She fell in, and I jumped in to get her. We got out and cleaned ourselves up as best we could and didn’t tell our parents what had happened." Zhanch hug her head. "The reason we weren’t allowed out there was the water was polluted. About a week later, we were both so sick we spent almost a month in the hospital. Among with the other problems caused by our long illness, was the likely inability to have children."

"But, I thought she had a son," Weaver said, a little confused.

"She does…" Zhanch said as a strange look crossed her face. Reaching for Neal’s face, she gently pulled his glasses off. Turning them around, she said, "Tess, please show me the dates the Folly has been in orbit around Raksha." She then let out a soft snort as she said, "Rakshan dates please, not Terra’s." She slowly lowered the glasses, staring at Neal. "You were here the night Boyce impregnated them."

Neal slowly shook his head. "You’re reading too much into it. I didn’t know any of them at the time, and the only control I have over any deity, is giving her permission to ride." At Zhanch's disbelieving glare, he continued. "It was my third visit after I was processed. I suddenly realized that a small female Rakshan would always offer me her treat, and that a Traveler’s festival was always underway. The child was much more somber that time, as if she knew that I now understood what was happening. We talked – it seems that most spacers don’t want an alien deity looking over their shoulder. We talked some more and she promised to not affect me or my ship if that was my wish. In the end, I had three choices. Reject her offer, and she promised to stay off my ship. Accept her offer, and she would just ride along, unable to affect anything."

Kestrel burst out laughing. "You’re letting her ‘share’ the ride, rather than just being a passenger!"

Neal nodded. "Just like the rest of you. You could just sit in your rooms, or you can be part of the voyage. So far, her interference has benefited all of you."

Shadowcrest grinned. "And has it benefited you?"

Oh, yes," Neal said with a matching grin. "Either that, or she was just making sure that that curse came true. However, that’s not the whole truth either. Brighteyes wasn’t the only one having a message chase hir across the stars. The mate of the foxtaur tod that placed the curse on me, wrote to say she had made him take back his curse. Of course, she then went and damned me with a blessing of her own."

"Damned by a blessing?" Bonita asked. "How?"

Looking at each of the kids, then to his companions and mates, Neal chuckled as he shook his head. "Her ‘blessing’ was ‘May you find Love’." Looking at all the stunned looks, he laughed. "Curse or blessing, it seems to have been a little overdone."

"Are you complaining?" Zhanch asked with a smile.

"No, just amazed." Neal said with a small smile. "I had turned into such a grumpy old man, not even going though the process could pull me out of my rut. So she goes and drops all of you on me," he softly snorted. "Not even I could stay grumpy with that much love and youthful energy aimed at me."

"So, you’re saying a Rakshan deity likes you so much that she always travels with you?" Nova asked, unsure why everyone else was taking the idea so calmly.

"No. I’m saying she asks me because she knows I won’t tell her no. Without her help, I probably would have died from my injuries after a pirate attack many years ago. I owe her my life. And all she wants in return, is for me to let her ride along. It’s hard to say no to something like that. And every now and then, she gives our voyage a nudge into something ‘interesting’."

"So, do we rate as ‘interesting’?" Holly asked with a grin.

"I would say so, little one. Once, she told me that one of the things she likes about riding with me is because I take her to so many ‘interesting’ places. Seems most other ships aren’t as far-ranging as the Folly," Neal said with a grin of his own.

"How do you let her ‘share’ the ride? Does she whisper in your ear?" Weaver asked with growing curiosity.

"I’ve only heard her words when she’s offering me her treat here on Raksha. She’s able to interface with Tess to a certain extent. Which means she can ‘look’ with Tess’s sensors, and she can ‘shift’ our course within the limits I’ve given Tess." At Weaver’s look of concern, Neal smiled. "Let me give you an example. Say Holly was in engineering and you called her for dinner. There are several paths she could take, as well as several places she could get cleaned up along the way. Tess is the same way, I tell her where and when I want the Folly to be and she takes it from there. If her logic takes her down one path and not another, was it her random number generator? Or just a wandering spirit, wanting a closer look at something?"

"Why didn’t you tell us?" Shadowcrest demanded.

"Would you have believed me? ‘Welcome to the Folly! Not only does she have a smart-assed computer to go along with her demented captain, she also has a deity from another world!’" Neal said as he chuckled.

Shaking her head, Weaver snorted. "There is that. Was she the secret you were hiding from us?"

"One of them, yes."

"I swear, I’m going to…" Weaver started.

"… sit on me. I know, I know. The last time you tried it, you lost, remember?"

With Weaver still growling at Neal, Zhanch smiled as she stood up. "Let’s go, before she decides that it’s time for a rematch."

As they walked the short distance to the passenger terminal, she asked. "You are aware that half of us are in heat, right?"

Neal smiled. "Even my nose couldn’t miss the scent of that many big cats and foxtaurs smelling extra special."

She smiled back. "And you know that some of us wouldn’t mind having a cub, if we can find the right partner?"

"And you know I will be happy to treat any cubs you have as if they were my own, if you stay with me or not. Kestrel caught, and decided to stay with the Folly, while Whitetail stayed with Derikk. Both asked me to be their mate, both so they would have someone to help them raise their cubs, as well as an extra parent in case something happens to them."

"Will you extend the same honor to me?"

"It would be my honor, but I thought you were worried about your parents disapproving?"

Zhanch stopped just short of the transport’s doors; she took a deep breath, and turned to face Neal. "I haven’t been home since I stole that rotten excuse for a male from Zhane," she said, her voice shaky. "I knew that my parents would never forgive me for hurting her. As soon as I was sure that I had lost him to my rival, I joined the marines."

Neal’s hands were full so he couldn’t hug her, so he just leaned against her. "You stood beside me and fought at New Kiev. How could I not help you face your parents?"

"Thank you," she quietly said, wrapping him and his load in a gentle hug.

The doors on the transport were closing when a small high-pitched cry was heard. Zhanch held the doors, as Firestorm raced in with them. "I just can’t escape without hir chasing me down," Neal said with a grin, as Zhanch scooped up the little chakat.

Their transport took them around the sprawling city, and finally stopped at the entrance to a small community. As in the olden days when attacks from rival groups were common, the six-sided outer wall was tall and solid, with no openings save the entrance. There would be a back door on the far side, but it would only be opened in times of trouble. Unlike those olden days, the tops of the wall and corner watchtowers were ablaze with color in the early afternoon sun. The protected walkways had been converted into an extended garden; potted fruit trees and vines made the wall look almost overgrown. The gate and bars that would have closed the entrance had been replaced by force barriers, and the guards by a single guard.

Zhanch looked on with some amusement as the young Rakshan guard stared at the human carrying a child, while being followed by a young adult carrying a small chakat.

Still staring at their group, the guard demanded, "What is your business here?"

Doing her best not to laugh at the poor guard, Zhanch almost lost it when Neal replied.

"Just bringing home a couple wayward children," Neal said, with a tone that suggested that it was something he did on a daily basis.

As the guard took a closer look at the child in Neal’s arms, his eyes widened. "But that’s Fellstorm! Her mother reported her missing!" he said in surprise.

"Yes, she decided to visit the spaceport. I was wondering how she had gotten that far on her own," Neal said with a smile. "She lives two doors down from the ‘Nashene na Zhane’ residence, correct?"

The guard just numbly nodded as Neal started past him, Zhanch trying not to grin as she followed.

The inside of the community had the homes built against the outer wall, with the center courtyard broken up into garden areas and a few small buildings.

"He’s going be chasing his tail before nightfall, trying to figure out how she got out without being seen," Zhanch said, once they were out of sight.

"And you think he’d feel better if I told him a deity had spirited her away?"

"Perhaps not. My parents live in this next dwelling."

"And so our little friend lives two doors beyond that," Neal said with a grin. "If you’ll scratch on their door, we’ll drop her off."

"Now I know how Tess ended up being such a smart-ass," Zhanch laughed as she pushed the doorbell. "It’s the company she keeps!"

Neal smiled as the door opened. To the astonished parents, he simply told them that their child had wandered up to him and shared her pie with him. Once they had taken Fellstorm from him, he told them it was his custom to return a gift for a gift. He stepped back out the door, returning moments later with a heavy box. Setting it on the table, he turned to go; with a parting comment that he hoped it would please them. Opening the box once their visitors had left, they found four large jars, each filled with large honeycombed chunks floating in a thick golden liquid.

"What did you give them?" Zhanch asked as they walked the few steps to her parents’ home.

"Just a little raw honey from earth," Neal replied with a smile.

Zhanch stopped to look back at him. "You like confusing people, don’t you?"

"Better they wonder about the gift, than worry about why their child wandered so far from home."

Zhanch just shook her head. They had all been surprised at some of the gifts Neal gave his friends and some of his customers. When told that he was spending too much on something, he had laughed and pointed out that any value was in the eyes of the beholder. Zhanch knew that the honey had only cost him a few credits on Earth, and Neal would only consider the shipping cost if he was selling something.

They now stood before a door; Zhanch's claw had stopped just short of pushing the doorbell.

Neal gave her a gentle smile as he stepped in front of her and pressed the button. "Into the breach!" he whispered as they heard the tone sound inside.

A young male with hazel eyes answered the door. "Can I help you?" he asked, looking curiously at Neal, Zhanch, and Firestorm.

"You wouldn’t by chance be Kernos, would you?" Neal asked with a smile. At his nod Neal added, "By Terran dates, you are ten years old, as I recall."

"How do you know that?" Kernos asked in surprise.

"I’m Neal Foster. I met your mother at Starbase 3, and your father on the Pegasus. You look a lot like her, but you certainly have his eyes. Is Zhane with you?" At his nod, Neal asked, "May we come in?"

Kernos led them down the hallway, past the kitchen, to where it turned before opening up to the main room.

Knowing Zhane was home and not sure how the ‘new’ her would be received, Zhanch held back at the corner, letting Neal precede her.

The four adults had stood when they heard voices approaching. An almost growl escaped from the two males when they saw Neal following Kernos, Zhane had simply let out a hiss of surprise.

While they sized him up, Neal was returning their stares with a polite smile as he looked them over as well.

The older of the males, who Neal assumed this was Zhanch and Zhane’s father, Nashene, was just a little shorter than Zhane, but had a massive build that caused him to look like he might almost be as big around as he was tall. The other male was almost thin in comparison, though he probably still weighed well over twice Neal’s 115 kilos.

If their mother, Yelest, was any indication of what the girls would look like when they got older, all Neal could think was ‘wow!’. Like her daughters, she was just over seven feet tall, and ‘stacked’ was the only word that fit. Not the kind of thoughts to be having of one’s ‘mother-in-law’ when ‘daddy-in-law’ was giving you the look that suggests that he’s wondering how small a box he could squeeze you into.

Kernos broke the staring contest. "There’s a lady and a baby chakat with him," he stated.

Neal grinned. "That’s no ‘lady’, that’s my mate," he said watching their faces.

Having heard that joke a time or two from Boyce, Zhane just groaned. "What are you doing here Captain Foster?" she asked, Neal noticing that she looked like she hadn’t been getting much sleep.

Before Neal could speak, Nashene growled, "Is this the human you were telling us about?" Stepping up to tower over Neal, he demanded, "WHERE’S MY DAUGHTER?"

"Afraid to face the wrath of her father, it appears," Neal said quietly. "Not that I can figure out why," he added, with more than a little sarcasm.

Firestorm picked that moment to come charging around the corner. Shi let out hir little war cry, as shi headed straight for the big Rakshan. Nashene gave ground in total surprise at the tiny attacker.

Neal had bent over and grabbed hir tail as shi went by, then he lifted hir off the ground by it. "No," he said as he tried to cradle the squirming kitten in his arms.

Having dealt with baby chakats that didn’t want to do something, Zhane was surprised that the kitten never once tried to use hir teeth or claws on him, as shi struggled for hir freedom.

With one hand now holding the angry kitten by the lower torso and the other holding hir head so shi couldn’t turn away, Neal brought hir up to his face. Shi stopped struggling and allowed him to kiss hir nose pad. "No," he said again quietly. "As much as you would like to help, this is my battle little one, not yours."

Who is shi?" Yelest asked, smiling at the little chakat.

"A survivor of New Kiev," Neal slowly said, as he continued to calm Stormy, "and my adopted daughter."

Not meeting his eyes, Yelest asked, "I saw the news footage of the fight. You lost a Rakshani. Was it…?"

Neal shook his head as he replied, "Dessa left shelter to rescue Starblazer, and was hit before she could get back behind the wall. We did not lose her."

"How long did she survive?" Zhane quietly asked.

Neal gave her a smile. "I last saw her less than an hour ago. At that time, she was still alive and kicking." At Zhane’s look of disbelief, he grinned as he added, "With both feet, I might add."

"That’s impossible!" Zhane blurted out. "Even if she lived, there’s no way to repair or regenerate that much damage in just a few months!"

"M'Lai saw the Folly’s recordings of the incident. She gave Pegasus’s EMT’s less than a one in ten chance of saving Dessa. I only had one thing I could try, but it had never been used on Rakshani before. It worked, and she was in much better shape than before. I offered it to your sister and the others." As Zhane continued to stare at him, Neal grinned. "Do you remember telling me to take good care of your sister?" At her guarded nod, he added, "We have an old saying, ‘be careful what you wish for’." Stepping back, Neal reached around the corner and grabbed Zhanch's wrist. As he pulled, he added, "’you just might get it’. And with me, you can sometimes get more than you bargained for."

Zhanch just stood there, and waited for their reactions. Having been told how bad her condition had been, her parents were confused. Zhane, on the other hand was trembling as she slowly shook her head in disbelief.

Neal then realized that the younger male had not known Zhanch. He too was looking at her, but with the curiosity of a stranger having been told about someone they had never met.

Zhane finally took a step towards her sister, then another, before all but running into her arms. Their parents took only another moment before they also joined the hug.

As they all began speaking, laughing, and crying at the same time, Neal smiled and walked back down the hallway. Letting himself out, he carried Stormy towards the gardens.

Hearing the sound of the door closing again, Neal turned. The younger male had followed him out.

"Why did you leave?" he asked as they continued walking toward the gardens.

"Self-preservation," Neal said with a grin. At the confused look he got, he chuckled. "Think about it. Right now, they’re so excited that they might literally crush me in a hug – accidentally of course. I think it’s safer for me to let them all calm down a little."

"Strange. The person that Zhane spoke of would not have ducked out of a fight."

"A fight is one thing, getting mauled unintentionally is another matter. One happily excited Rakshani can be bad enough, I know! I’m not sure I could survive four." Neal smiled. "As you must know, I’m Neal Foster, and you are?"

"Forgive me, I am Lieutenant Jackton. Captain Zhane is my commander and a good friend."

"Nothing to forgive, Lieutenant. When I first saw you, I had wondered if Zhanch hadn’t bothered mentioning a brother."

"No, I was just making sure my Captain got home alright, before heading home myself."

"With one of her co-mates giving birth next week, I had figured she would have headed for Earth," Neal said with a raised eyebrow.

Jackton growled. "If things hadn’t gotten so busy on Starbase 3, she would have. But, by the time we had everything under control, it was too late for her to catch a ship that would get her to Earth in time. So she decided to at least be with family."

Neal smiled as he tapped his comm badge. "Tess, top off one of the new Zulus, and add a few games to the computer buffer, just in case she takes me up on an offer." At Jackton’s look of bewilderment, he chuckled. "I’m just going to rock her boat a little, and maybe get her where she really wants to be."

Giving Neal a dirty look, Jackton growled, "Speaking of ‘rocking her boat’, I take it I have you to thank for the bruising she gave me the evening you left." It was Neal’s turn to look puzzled. "I am her sparing partner when the holodeck won’t do. I found her in the gym after the Folly left, shredding some of the equipment in an extremely non-regulation manner. Seeing that she needed to blow off some steam, I challenged her to a fight." Jackton ruefully shook his head. "I’d always thought we were pretty evenly matched, but not that night. She blocked all my best shots, and all but tore my tail off!" Letting out a sigh, he continued, "I found out later, she had gone back though the medical scans herself, and she didn’t expect any of the Rakshani with you to make it home alive."

"You saw the New Kiev news feeds?" At Jackton’s nod, Neal sighed. "Dessa's only hope was a process I had used on a few other types of furs. After it saved her, we monitored her closely to see if there were any complications. When we got to the Pegasus, I had their doctors confirm that Dessa was okay. Then I offered it to Zhanch and the others."

"So they all survived?" Jackton asked in surprise. At Neal’s nod, he asked, "Are they with you?"

"All but one. Whitetail stayed with Derikk, her new mate, on the Pegasus."

"Zhane has been worrying herself ill, thinking she should have kept them, to get them home quicker."

"That’s why she looked so tired. I may have just the thing to help her get some rest."

"What are you going to do to my Captain?"

Neal smiled. "Wear her out, then put her someplace boring." At Jackton’s raised eyebrow, he grinned. "Ever done any patrols in one or two seat fighters? About as boring as it can get, if there’s nothing going on out there."

"I’m not sure she would be interested in riding in a small, cramped fighter."

"Even if it could get her to Earth in about four days? She and Kernos could be there a couple days before Midnight’s cub is due."

"No fighter has that kind of range!"

"It’s not a fighter exactly, it just has the same limited space for passengers."

"That might be a good idea," said a deep voice from behind them. Turning they found Nashene and Kernos standing a few steps away.

At Neal’s raised eyebrow, Nashene smiled. "It seems Zhanch wants to find a mate, at least for breeding purposes. So the females kicked us out, so they could talk without burning any mere male’s ears off." Then he gave Neal a calculated look. "She tells us that you are already her mate. Are you like Zhane’s Admiral Boyce?"

"No," Neal said, shaking his head. "I would give her a child if I could. Since I can’t, I’ll just support whatever decision she makes in selecting a male."

"Have you no pride?" he demanded, more than a little surprised that his daughter would be interested in someone that didn’t stand up for themselves.

"Not only do I have pride, I have faith. Faith that she will do me proud with her selection," Neal replied with a smile.

Nashene shook his head. "If these were the old days, I would challenge you, or just run you off."

Neal laughed. "What? No third option?" At his growl, Neal grinned. "I happen to know that some families allow themselves to be bribed, either with power or money to ‘buy’ their daughter’s mating to a male that the rest of the family may have seen as less than entirely suitable."

"You have nothing I want," he said, giving Neal a dirty look.

"Your daughter’s happiness?" Neal asked quietly. "I’m not forcing her to stay with me, it’s her choice. If she finds someone to mate with and wants to stay with him, I will wish them well. All fourteen of the Rakshani we saved are my companions. So far, three of them have asked me to be their mate. One stayed with her Rakshan mate, one stayed with me. Which way Zhanch goes is up to her, whatever makes her happy will be fine with me."

"You don’t care if she leaves you?"

"There was a poem I saw a long time ago. Its message was simple:

If you love something, let it go.

If it comes back to you, it’s yours.

If it doesn’t, it never was."

Giving Firestorm a gentle squeeze, Neal said, "Zhanch and the others were as weak as kittens when we got to New Kiev, but that didn’t keep them from fighting at my side." Neal gently pushed the now quiet Firestorm into Nashene’s arms. As the big Rakshan stroked the tiny chakat, Neal asked, "What price do you put on a cub? What reward do you give someone that helped you save hir? Her freedom to choose where and who she stays with seems like such a small price to pay."

"Zhane was right. You’re nothing if not an enigma. Zhanch has always chosen her own path before, I will not stand in her way now."

"It would be nice if you told her. She came home fearful that you were still mad at her for hurting Zhane."

Nashene seemed to deflate a little as he sighed. "We were never angry at Zhanch for taking that piece of crap from Zhane. We were mad at her when we thought she had really wanted him. However, we understood what she was doing and why, when she all but handed him to daughter of one of my rivals." Shaking his head, he continued, "She fled before we could tell her we understood why she did it."

Neal frowned as he shook his head. "Sounds like misunderstandings on more than one front. Zhane on why her sister stole that male, and Zhanch believing you wouldn’t understand." Neal snorted. "And now that you have them together under your roof for the first time in years, I was going to separate them."

Nashene smiled. "If you really can get Zhane to Earth in time, offer it to her. Now that they’re talking and Zhanch is in good health, we have time."

Looking at Kernos, Neal smiled. "How about it? Want to ride in a very small, very fast ship?"

"You said it would be boring," Kernos said frowning.

"Boring for your mother. Hopefully she’ll get some much needed rest, now that she knows Zhanch and the others are okay." Neal grinned. "I’ll see if we can’t find something to help you pass the time. Would you like to see the ship?" At Kernos’s nod, Neal smiled at Nashene. "I would send you up with him, but you would barely fit. If you don’t mind, I’ll send Jackton in your place."

At his nod, Neal turned to Jackton. "Ready Lieutenant?"

"Why are you sending me?" Jackton asked.

"To make sure the oxygen level is set high enough for Rakshani!" Neal said with a laugh. Tapping his comm badge he then said, "Engage!" before Jackton had time to sputter a protest.

Jackton vanished into a transporter stream, to be followed a few seconds later by Kernos.

"Besides," Neal quietly said to Nashene, with a smile. "This way Kernos has someone that he knows with him in an unknown place." Tapping his comm badge again, he said, "Well, what do you think, Kernos? Ready to try and talk your mother into a four day trip to Earth?"

Kernos and Jackton had found themselves in a small cockpit, the seats arranged side by side. Both seats had a full set of controls, which Jackton had already suggested they not touch.

So of course, Kernos’s first question was, "Can I fly it?"

Neal chuckled, both at Nashene’s groan, as well as a whimper from his comm badge that could only have come from Jackton. "How about learning how first?" he said. "You pass the tests, then we can see about a little flight. Okay?"

"YES!" Kernos shouted. "How do I start it?"

"Simply say ‘Zulu. Training mode. Start training’. Jackton, you can ask for training or flight simulation modes. Don’t worry about making any mistakes, the Zulu won’t let either of you actually fly it without my authorization."

Neal was just turning back to Nashene when the three female Rakshani picked that moment to join them.

"Where’s Jackton?" Zhanch demanded, looking around.

"And my son?" Zhane added, a frown forming on her brow.

"Playing in a Zulu," Neal said with a smile. "Care to join them?"

Looking toward her sister, Zhane asked, "Do I even want to know what a ‘Zulu’ is?"

"Yes you do," Neal told her with a grin. "By the time your sister shows you the ropes, the males should be ready for a little two on two."

Zhanch just smiled, as she tapped her comm badge. "Beam us up, Tess," giving her sister an evil grin.

After they were gone, Neal smiled at Yelest. "Your mate’s being a regular ‘pain in the tail’ that I don’t have."

She just smiled back at Neal. "Nothing new about that," Yelest said with a chuckle. "You should have seen him run poor Boyce around in circles when he first told us he was taking Zhane as one of his mates."

"At least Boyce could give you a grandchild. I’m having problems getting Nashene to suggest a suitable bribe for stealing away your other daughter."

"We should be asking you what kind of ‘bribe’ you would accept for giving us back our daughter," she replied. "This is the first time she’s been home in years. And your surprises have hit Zhane harder than you may know. When Zhanch told us she wanted to have a cub, Zhane immediately suggested…" Yelest stopped, covering her mouth with her hand.

Neal’s blue eyes sparkled as he laughed. "So that’s why she was wondering where Jackton had gotten off to!" At her look of concern, he grinned. "Well, if Zhane’s helping set her up with a male that she trusts, I would have to guess their troubled past is truly behind them."

"You’re not upset by her looking for another?" Yelest asked still concerned.

Neal smiled. "As I’ve been trying to tell your mate, I trust Zhanch to find a good breeding mate for her child. If she stays with him, or she continues traveling with me will be her choice. I will honor her decision."

Yelest laughed. "No wonder you drove Zhane crazy so quickly. Boyce was much more possessive when he argued with my mate."

"I will argue for keeping her as my mate as hard as is needed," Neal told her. "What I won’t do is force her to stay with me against her will. As I told Nashene, Zhanch has done things I can’t pay back. I can only try to help where I can. If that help is letting her live her own life, so be it."

"I still feel that we are in your debt," she said quietly. Nashene slowly nodded.

Neal nodded with a smile. "If you really feel that way, you can help me surprise Zhane. Gather up whatever she and Kernos brought with them, I don’t think they’ll be spending the night."

Once they were out of earshot, Neal keyed his comm badge. "Tess, do we have any of the ‘sampler’ pallets that I normally use for the Rakshani restaurants?"

"Yes boss."

"Wait till they come out, then break one out and transport it to their kitchen please."

"It sounded like they didn’t need or want a ‘bribe’."

"That’s why they’re getting a gift instead."

"Will do, oh sneaky boss."

"Let everyone know that those spending the night on the Folly should meet back at the spaceport in about two hours. Warn Suzan we will be having some Rakshani guests, and she should plan the evening meal accordingly. Let the kids know I’m thinking that we should have an ‘Alternate Thursday’ tonight. Let Zhanch know quietly, I want it to be a surprise for our guests."

"She’s a little busy right now, she and Zhane are already giving the boys a hard time."

"Sounds like the boys need more practice," Neal said as he saw the door start to open.

Firestorm was out as soon as the door was open far enough. Shi dashed up to him for a quick hug, then jumped down to explore a nearby bush as they waited on the others.

Zhane had been surprised to find herself in what appeared to be a small two-seated fighter. Her sister quickly walked her though the basic controls, then Zhanch brought down a barrier between them. With the barrier down, it was as if she were alone in the small ship. Choosing the flight-simulator mode, Zhane quickly got use to the controls. After giving her sister a few minutes to get familiar with the little ship, Zhanch had suggested they take on the males.

With Tess tying the four cockpits together, they agreed on the types of ships they would be fighting in, as well as their weapon loads.

They started out simple, just the four ships in open space. With an open comm to tease and instruct him with, Zhane quickly taught her son not to hold his course for any period of time, unless he wanted to be shot to pieces. While she was training her son, Zhanch was showing Jackton what old-fashioned dogfights had looked like. As their matches progressed, the obstacles increased. From rocks to hide behind or dodge, to stations and other moving ships that they needed to avoid damaging.

While they didn’t win every match, the girls held a fair lead by the time they were told that dinner would soon be served. While the adults had been ready to call it a day, Kernos didn’t want to quit yet.

Zhane was about to tell him no, when Neal’s chuckle sounded in their headsets. He told Kernos that they could all have one more flight, but how long they could fly would be determined by how long the four of them could survive his fighters. Their environment changed to the Raksha area they were in, the Folly drifted nearby, while other ships moved around a station that they could see in a lower orbit. Then two new fighters left the Folly, and headed towards them.

The four Rakshani had each picked a different escape vector when the two new ships attacked. But before they could regroup or return the attack, Zhanch was picked off. Zhane soon followed, but not before Jackton got a piece of one of enemy ships as they attacked his captain. The damaged ship had then placed itself between him and the station, making another shot at it an unacceptable risk.

Zhane had found herself beamed onboard the Folly; Zhanch had been waiting for her. As they went to freshen up, Zhane had Zhanch bring her up to date on what had happened to her since their meeting on Starbase 3.

Zhane’s next surprise was when they entered the dinning area. The Rakshani marines that greeted her were a far cry from the barely mobile ones she had said goodbye to almost six months ago. She had met Weaver and Stew at their dinner while at Starbase 3, and the sixteen kids. She was a little startled to realize that the Folly was now actually running a nursery, with four chakats under a year old. Zhanch told her about the survivors of the mining platform that had been taken over.

Zhane had been about to ask about the chakats’ manner of dress, the older ones were either bare, or wearing very loose tops. She got her answer when a hungry cub ran right up Dusk’s foreleg, and under hir top. Dusk had simply brought up an arm to help support the cub as shi continued hir conversation with Yelest.

At her look of confusion, Zhanch had smiled. "Yes, shi’s getting milk and not milkwater. It’s impossible to prove if it was by accident or design, but all the older chakats are now giving milk. I think the way CalmMeadow enjoys feeding the cubs had more than a little to do with it."

Neal led Jackton in a few minutes later, Jackton had only lasted a minute more than Zhane had, the ‘enemy’ ships having caught him in a crossfire.

Holly and Quickdash led Kernos in just as Stew was bringing out the first course, they had saved him for last to give him as much time to play as possible.

Dinner was a big hit with the guests; Suzan had gone all out and made use of one of Neal’s ‘Rakshani restaurant’ pallets, the smoked salmon was particularly well received.

The after dinner entertainment was the ‘mess’ room. When asked what he wanted for dessert, Kernos had selected the lemon meringue pie. This became the weapon of the evening, with his grandfather being his first target.

As with Boyce’s group, chaos reined supreme. This ‘Alternate Thursday’ ended with Zhanch and Zhane wrestling in the lemony mess, much to the delight of those in attendance. What started out with cheerful insults about each other’s aim, turned into taking turns tossing each other around the room. At one point one sister was on top of the other, trying to ‘feed’ her a pie before she was flipped. When Kernos asked who was winning, Neal had chuckled, and told him that they both were.

Jackton had been a little surprised when Zhanch had tried to drag him away for some ‘personal’ cleaning. Her friends had other ideas though; as they were both run through the ‘Rakshani cleaning machine’, before the pair was left to their own devices.

Zhane and Kernos were also carefully cleaned and dried, before Neal suggested that they say goodbye to everyone. A few minutes later saw them in a Zulu, on their way to Earth.

With almost everyone else in their rooms for the night, Neal was heading for his, when Tess quietly paged him. "Sorry to sidetrack you boss, but the freighter Good Deal just came out of warp. From the comm badges I’m picking up, she has that package you were expecting."

Neal just shook his head and chuckled. "And she’s in heat. They say that timing is everything, but this is ridiculous."

"You could always have them ‘hold’ the package for a few days," Tess suggested unhelpfully.

"They’d lynch me when they found out," Neal said with a groan.

"A lynching sounds like fun," a voice behind him purred.

Neal turned to find Kestrel coming up behind him. "This would be the ‘un-fun’ type. With people feeling hurt and upset at me," Neal replied, having lost his grin.

"We all know you occasionally drive us crazy, but I’ve never seen you intentionally hurt anyone. What were you going to do to get yourself in trouble?"

"A surprise package for Weaver and Holly just came in. What do you think they’d do if I hid it for a few days, say until the Rakshan fertility festival is over and she’s no longer in heat?"

"Why would…" Kestrel started, then her eyes got big.

"Yup," Neal said as his smile returned. "That type of surprise package."

"They’re requesting permission to dock, boss," Tess chimed in.

"Main docking port, port side Tess," Neal said as he headed to his room for a fresh shirt.

Tess stopped him with her next remark. "Weaver and Moonglow are already asleep in your cabin. Would you like me to get you a set of clean clothes?"

By the time Neal and Kestrel had changed into fresh attire, Tess was reporting that the Good Deal was beginning her final docking maneuvers.

The Folly’s four main docking ports were located around the second sphere. Each was made up of one of the cargo pods, recessed into the sphere.

As they waited for the Good Deal to dock, Kestrel asked, "Do they work for you?"

"No," Neal said with a small smile. "They’re just some independents that I sometimes share or trade loads with."

The personnel hatch opened to reveal ‘Sharp of speech’ a Caitian female, her fur a rich chestnut brown with dark red highlights. She stopped a few feet from them before she bowed. "Captain Foster," she said as she straightened, staring up at the big Rakshani.

"Kestrel, this is SharpTongue, first mate of the Good Deal and firstwife to her captain, LongReach - house of Starrec. SharpTongue, this is Kestrel, my mate," Neal said with a smile.

An excited cry came from behind him. SharpTongue stepped to the side to see around Neal and Kestrel, as the other two turned towards the sound. They watched a tiny chakat come around a nearby carrier and leap up into Neal’s arms.

SharpTongue let out a soft snort as she chuckled. "And next you’ll be telling me that mating a human with a Rakshani produces a chakat."

Kestrel also chuckled, as she watched Stormy cuddle with Neal. "Are you saying you know of his ‘methods’?" she asked with a grin.

"Oh yes. I’ve learned to assume that I’m not getting any more than he wants me to know." Then with an evil grin SharpTongue asked, "Want to swap tales?"

"It would be interesting to find out what he’s been leaving out," Kestrel agreed with a matching grin. "For starters, I am just one of his mates, and Firestorm here is just one of his adopted daughters."

Done with hir hug, Firestorm leaped into SharpTongue’s arms. She started to stroke the little chakat, only to have hir start trying to get under her top.

Kestrel couldn’t help but laugh, as Neal tried to get Stormy to stop trying to undress his guest.

"NO! No, no, no…" Neal said as he tried to untangle SharpTongue’s top from Stormy’s fast little fingers. "This is not one of your mothers or your big sisters. Stop." With Stormy finally off hir victim, Neal turned to Kestrel. "Lot of help you were," he growled.

Still snickering, Kestrel said, "At least with you, shi won’t try to use hir claws. Besides, it was priceless watching the two of you battle to see who was going to grope your guest the most."

Blushing a deep red to rival his hair, Neal turned back to SharpTongue. "One of the ‘games’ hir older sisters have been teaching hir is called ‘milk check’. I think you get the idea."

SharpTongue softly chuckled. "I see. You know, you never need an excuse if you want to get friendly…" she said as she placed her arms on his shoulders, the still squirming Firestorm now trapped between them.

" ‘They’re just some independents that you sometimes share or trade loads with’, huh?" Kestrel said, her grin getting wider.

"Is that what he told you?" SharpTongue asked, acting hurt. "We’re much more that that!"

With Stormy still trapped between them, Neal pushed SharpTongue away. Now able to move his arms, he threw Stormy at Kestrel, before wrapping his arms around the surprised Caitian. Bending her over backwards, he began giving her a long, hard kiss. After a moment, she was returning it with interest.

Kestrel hooted at the display, Stormy joining her in laughing at Neal’s antics.

Hearing an extra chuckle, Kestrel spun back to the docking port. ‘To grab the distant’, a Caitian male with light-tan fur, was just leaning on the edge of the port, grinning at the scene before him.

LongReach slowly shook his head as he said, "And I thought that you, of all people, would know better than to tease him, my dear."

"I had to try," SharpTongue said with a grin. "It seems his mates have loosened this halfwit up a bit!"

"Halfwit? As in that ‘halfwit’ that has rebuilt or replaced most of your engineering systems?" Neal asked as he let her drop, only stopping her fall as her hair brushed the deck.

SharpTongue grinned as Neal pulled her back to her feet. "Yes, the halfwit that would never accept my offer to share my bed!"

"Perhaps he just prefers big furs," Kestrel said with more than a little pride.

"I dare you to say that where Stew can hear you," Neal said with a grin.

Kestrel laughed. "Your insanity may be rubbing off on some of us, but I’m not stupid!"

"Who is this Stew?" SharpTongue asked curiously.

Neal smiled. "A rabbit doe, about your size."

LongReach let out a chuckle. "A rabbit named Stew. Are we talking about a person, or an item on a menu?"

"Depends on which ‘menu’ you’re placing me on," came a sultry voice from behind the carrier. The dessert cart preceded the brown and white bunny, who was wearing her ‘lick the cook’ apron.

At Neal’s raised eyebrow, Suzan laughed. "Tess warned me you were entertaining more guests, and that they were in the middle of their dinner when they docked. I thought they might enjoy a surprise dessert. That is, if someone doesn’t want ‘rabbit’ instead," this last she said while giving LongReach a calculated look.

SharpTongue let out a hoot of laughter at her mate’s expression. "And you were telling me not to tease him!"

LongReach bowed his head. "Once again we find it’s folly to assume anything about the Folly, her captain, or her crew when she has one."

Kestrel gave Neal a long look. "Sounds like there’s an interesting story in there somewhere."

"I don’t know about a story, but there is more than a little of a tale," LongReach admitted. With a smile, he waved them back the way he had come. "Will you join us?"

As Stew and Kestrel followed LongReach into the Good Deal, Neal tapped his badge. "Tess, if Holly is still up, asked her to join us."

"Will do, boss." Having already been monitoring the comm badges on the Good Deal, Tess suggested Quickdash also go along.

SharpTongue laughed when they came into view. "You asked for one and got two?"

Neal shrugged. "Double or nothing," he said with a grin.

SharpTongue returned his grin. "I can do you one better!" she boasted as she led them into her ship.

Neal followed her into the Good Deal’s dining compartment, only to stop at the entryway. He had expected to see the foxtaur tod with one foreleg ‘sock’ longer than the others, along with SharpTongue’s co-wives and kids. However, he hadn’t been expecting the two chakats. They were returning his confused stare with one of mild amusement.

Holly and Quickdash almost knocked Neal over in their hurry to get into the room when they saw who was waiting for them. As the three chakats traded hugs and lick-kisses, SharpTongue chuckled as Neal shook his head. "I told you I could do you one better," she said.

With his daughter still trying to crush him in a hug, LongSock nodded at Neal. "I hope you don’t mind a couple of extra surprises. Their jobs finished up before mine did, so they asked to come along."

"I take it the credit chit I sent you had sufficient funds?" Neal asked.

"About that," Quickwind, the larger of the two adult chakats said, "what’s with that comm badge you gave him? We were trying to buy tickets for one of the cruise ships, when one of the managers of the line came up and asked LongSock if he was connected with the Folly. When he showed her the badge, she changed the economy room we were trying to get for a first class suite. Not only did we end up at the captain’s table more than once, the captain actually had a competitor’s ship delay its departure so we could make the connection!"

SharpTongue smiled. "They also made sure we would be there and in time for the final leg of their journey."

Neal smiled. "What can I say? My friends get by with a little help from my friends…"

The other chakat, Shortdash, frowned. "That doesn’t explain the level of VIP treatment we received. I don’t think the president of the lines gets that type of treatment, certainly not from their competition!"

SharpTongue chuckled. "And you didn’t even think to ask why we would help you get to the Folly."

Kestrel cocked an eye at LongReach. "Is this part of the ‘tale’ you hinted about?"

LongReach nodded. "Our first dealings with the Folly were not good ones." At Kestrel’s look of concern, he added, "It was self-inflicted."

SharpTongue took up the tale. "We were doing okay at the time; not great, but we were making ends meet. We were at a small space station when the Folly came into port. You have to understand that we had never met Neal; all we had to go on was the stories we’d heard. Stories of him running other ships out of business by undercutting their bids, tales of him buying up what there was to sell by being able to offer more than anyone else could afford. I have the name SharpTongue because of both the way my name translates to Terranglo, as well as the way I cut deals. Since the station wasn’t one of Neal’s regular stops, they knew even less about him than we did. I tried to use that to undermine his ability to buy and sell at the station to try to increase our own profits."

Neal sighed. "I was just at the station for a few parts and to take a break from my latest set of tests on a new engine configuration. Imagine my surprise when my credit is no good, and they will only take hard currency, and even then they still overcharged me. A helpful store clerk told me that someone was telling everyone that would listen that I was a thief and an all around bad risk." Neal looked around the room, meeting each set of eyes. "The only thing of any real value in this business is your reputation. Having your name dragged though the mud means no one will do business with you. Since I couldn’t afford that, I went to the bar she was spreading her lies from and listened for a few minutes. Then I challenged her to name names. I demanded she give us someone that could back her tale, I even offered to pay the FTL charges for a real-time chat with whomever she could claim I had cheated."

SharpTongue snorted. "I had never expected to have to actually face him, and of course I couldn’t answer his challenge. So I used my ‘sharp tongue’ to try and out argue him. That didn’t work though, his answer to anything I said was ‘prove it’! He kept telling me to name names and places."

"I have run a few people out of business, but those bottom feeders were in the business of screwing others, so all I had to do was be fair to their victims to win the contracts away from them. If she had named any of those, I was ready to counter her claims by also calling some of their victims for the other side of the story."

SharpTongue continued, "I left when it became obvious that Neal wasn’t going to back down. His parting demand for me was a retraction and an apology." A light sigh escaped her as she remembered that evening. "In the end, my lies cost us more than they saved us. With the locals not knowing whom to trust, they didn’t trust either of us. This hurt us more than it did Neal, he had more goods for sale, and could afford to give them better prices."

Neal snorted. "Like I was saying earlier, I wasn’t trying to make any money at that stop, I was still in the middle of a test run. That, and the attitude of the buyers and sellers meant I didn’t bother giving them the best deals I could."

SharpTongue frowned. "We didn’t do half the business we planned there, and when we pulled out it was with a warning shot from the Folly." At the raised eyebrows, she chuckled. "Not that type of shot! As we left the station, Neal just sent a message that he still expected an apology."

"I had sent one of my scouts to follow them. I left the station the next day and reached their next stop two days before they arrived."

"The next station was a very small outpost. With the Folly docked, we couldn’t even see it behind her spheres." She shook her head. "We didn’t even dock, we just sent our list of things for sale. They sent back what Neal had charged them for like items. They admitted they already had enough supplies for over a year, so anything we wanted to try and sell would have to be at bargain prices."

Neal snorted, remembering. "As they left, I again reminded them that I was expecting an apology, as well as their word they would stop spreading lies. I again beat them to their next port, this a large trading center. They docked, but only bought a few supplies and left. The next evening a broker came up to me, and told me he had something that he thought would interest me. He uncovered a plaque with a ship’s name on it. Most sea and space-going races believe losing a ship’s plaque is bad luck, and they only sail without it when in dire straits." Neal gave each of them a somber look. "It was Good Deal’s ship plaque, they had sold it for their supplies. I paid him more than I should have, but I was in a hurry." He grinned. "I almost tore their docking clamps off leaving that station. I caught up with the Good Deal and did a complete scan of the vessel. I was relieved to find they had enough fuel and supplies to reach their next stop. I just tailed them that time, keeping a watch over them."

LongReach took up the tale, "Tensions onboard were high, we were very low on supplies and we had detected at least part of his scans. Fearing pirates, we ran as fast and as quietly as we could."

Neal nodded. "I gave them a couple hours at dock, before I brought the Folly in. Once docked two ports down from them, I sent a message to the local bulletin board that the Folly would not be doing any business until the next morning. Having seen that the Good Deal seemed to be okay, I had decided to wait until morning to deal with them as well." Neal gave SharpTongue a smile as he continued, "But she had other ideas. I was almost in bed when Tess told me someone was waiting at the personnel hatch for me. Not in the mood to put up with some idiot trying to get in an early bid, I told Tess to send them packing," Neal snorted. "That was one of the few times Tess argued with me."

Tess’s voice came over the badges, "Not really an argument, I just insisted that he would want to see this person as soon as possible."

"Tess even suggested I take my long coat," Neal said with a grin. "Most ports don’t waste much power on keeping the cargo bays warm, so they can be a bit nippy. I was ready to tell someone to go to hell, but I wasn’t ready for what I found. One small, nude, Caitian female, shivering, as she knelt in front of my hatch. It told me a moment to realize it was SharpTongue, and she was trying to apologize though her shivers."

SharpTongue smiled at the memory. "First he looked confused, then concerned, that was my first inkling that I might have misread him. He wrapped me in his coat, and picked me up as if I was a cub. By the time he got me to our hatch, he was furious."

LongReach shook his head. "She had refused to eat since the last station, her fears that Neal would never stop hounding us, keeping her from sleeping."

Neal snorted. "She felt much lighter than I thought she should. Thinking her mate had been heartless enough to send her out into the cold to beg forgiveness, I was more than a little pissed off. I stormed aboard their ship, ready to tear a strip off his hide. His first words hit me like a bucket of ice water. Tess had guided me to LongReach, in this room. His first words on seeing me with his mate were, ‘if you can get her to eat, we would be grateful’."

LongReach chuckled. "I could see him shift moods, one moment he was glaring at me. The next, he was carefully setting her in a chair and tapping his comm badge. He and Tess exchanged a few words, and a she transported a small banquet to our table. Then he showed us his darker side by not letting us eat any of it…"

Neal snorted at the dirty looks he was getting. "What I said, was the rest of them couldn’t have any of it. Not until SharpTongue not only ate, but promised she wouldn’t starve herself again. Remember, the others had eaten earlier - SharpTongue was the only one in real need of a meal."

SharpTongue smiled. "After a light meal, all my poor stomach would stand for, Neal told us he would see us in the morning. Then he turned around and said, ‘I almost forgot’, and handed LongReach a thin but heavy box before walking out on us. We were shocked to find our ship’s plaque inside."

LongReach shook his head. "The next morning Neal was back, with a memory chit of reasons we couldn’t leave port. I tried to dispute some of his findings, but he would simply walked over to the unit in question and prove it was no longer up to spec."

Neal snorted. "A pipe rated at a few hundred psi shouldn’t have been so corroded that I could crush it with my bare hands… It was just an emergency drain, but they would have had lost most of their environmental systems if that system had vented."

SharpTongue nodded. "He spent the next three days replacing or patching what he considered the worst of our problems. While he was doing that, he somehow managed to not only have our cargo sold for better than we could have hoped for, but also end up with a prepaid cargo delivery."

Neal shrugged. "I had a friend on the station in need of some of their cargo, and he needed a load going somewhere I wasn’t heading at the time."

It was LongReach’s turn to snort. "All of which wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t put in a good word for us after all we’d done."

"I had just wanted SharpTongue to stop sharpening her tongue on my reputation, not run you out of business."

"So, instead you made us your business."

"Funny, you’ve never complained about it. Do you want me out of your fur?

"No," LongReach said with a smile. "Our current arrangement suits us very well."

SharpTongue cut in, "With one exception." At Neal’s raised eyebrow, she grinned. "We want you to train our eldest daughter on the upgrades you’ve installed for us. ScreamingWind tried studying a standard Federation engineering course, but she said it made your systems even more confusing, not less."

Holly and Quickdash giggled, while Kestrel snorted in amusement. "That’s because he rejects our views of reality and substitutes his own!" she said with a laugh.

Holly piped in with, "No he doesn’t, he just makes it look that way!"

Quickdash grinned. "It’s like when he’s telling one of his tales; you have to know there are lines to read between."

Neal shook his head. "Most of the problem is I don’t use just one style or type of technology. Caitians, Voxxans, Rakshani, Merraki, Terrans, they all figured out ways to get into space, and everyone had found a way to travel between the stars. But while a lot of them use the same Federation standardized equipment now, originally they each had a unique way to get the task done." Neal nodded at Kestrel. "The Rakshani would have to be considered the ‘brute force’ types. When they joined the Federation, their equipment was the biggest and bulkiest for what it did. But, you could beat the hell out of it, and it would keep on working. While, whenever I see Merraki tech, I have to wonder what else it can do beside the obvious. They are some of the most extreme gadget-makers." Neal smiled. " ‘My’ tech is simply using what others have missed. Rakshani sensors were the worst of the bunch, but they had better range and sensitivity than a lot of the others. Why? Because they multiplexed them to make up for their limitations. So what happens when I use Rakshani methods on Caitian sensors using a computer from the Voxxans? I can see things in passive mode that most starships can’t see in active! Most every engineer from any race, upon seeing the Folly, said it couldn’t possibly work. That’s because each of them knows how the Federation does it now, and some know their old tech. A few of them might wonder if I might be using some of their older tricks for part of what I was doing, but only two so far have known enough of other species’ old tech to realize how I might have strung it all together."

"Are you saying you can’t teach her?" SharpTongue asked.

"No. I’m just saying it could take years to teach her just the basics, never mind my ‘tricks’. And you can’t properly troubleshoot a system if you don’t understand it. I’ve already given you the quick ‘if this happens – do that’ instructions. Any more requires an in-depth understanding of the system in question."

"How would you do it?"

"Part of it would be classroom type instruction, which she could do anywhere. The other part would be hands on, learn by doing…"

Still holding Quickdash in a hug, Shortdash asked, "How long did it take you to learn what you know?"

Neal chuckled. "I’m still learning new things all the time. And before you ask, yes, I’m a bit older than I look."

Kestrel snorted. "To paraphrase something I heard him telling the kids, ‘the surface of the sun is warm, the ocean is damp, and Neal is a little older than he looks’!"

"You’re one to talk," Neal said with a grin.

"True," she said with a matching grin. "But, that too is your fault!"

"So it is." At the looks of confusion from his three surprise guests, Neal grinned. "What can I say, Tess gives great makeovers."

SharpTongue chuckled. "Before you start practicing all three methods on them, will you take ScreamingWind as your apprentice?"

Neal looked over at ‘Air rushes though the limbs’. The slim teenager had been sitting quietly while her mother tried to make the deal. "You won’t be the only one I’ll be teaching. I’ll be teaming you with what the Pegasus’s engineering department called the ‘terror-twins’. Think you can handle it?"

ScreamingWind nodded. "I will do my best, sir!"

Neal caught Holly and Quickdash’s eyes as he said, "Why don’t you two show her Gulf. Don’t start on anything, I have a feeling all three of you will have new chores starting tomorrow."

LongReach’s youngest daughter, ‘Nectar of the buzzing insect’, Honey asked, "Can we see Gulf too?"

ScreamingWind looked like she hoped Neal would say no, but Holly piped up first. "Sure," she said. "Just remember, don’t touch anything without permission!" Neal and LongReach nodded their approval.

As they left, Neal turned to LongReach. "Tess tells me you have some interesting toys in your hold. Are they for a customer, or are they for your next upgrade?"

"Upgrade. That is, if we can ever catch you with some free time."

"Do you have any pressing business?"

"Nothing that can’t wait a month or two. Are you saying you have time?"

"I never seem to have any time anymore. But I can make the time, so long as you don’t slow us down too much."

"Do you have the space?"

Neal smiled. "It just so happens that my last set of hitch-hikers bailed out about a month ago, so I have room enough for a Good Deal or two. I know I told you two weeks, but if I’m teaching, it will be more like four to six weeks. Will that cause any problems?"

"No. We were hoping you would have the time, in fact we swapped some cargo with Father’s Love to have an excuse to bring your ‘surprises’ to Raksha."

Neal was thoughtful for a moment. "That should work. They should be moving cargo again the day after tomorrow, so figure we leave in a week. That will give ScreamingWind some time for my tests, as well as beginning her training."

"Will she be okay with your ‘terror-twins’?" SharpTongue asked, a little concerned.

Neal shrugged. "I think they’ll get along, they did seem to be hitting it off when they left."

LongSock’s jaw dropped, along with the chakats’. "You mean Holly and Quickdash are your ‘terror-twins’?" he asked.

Neal grinned at their looks of disbelief. "No. They’re your ‘terror-twins’. I’ve just been honing their skills since they came together under my ‘roof’."

"Weaver said they’d been behaving."

"They have been. But I’ve always found the best way to keep young ones ‘entertained’ is to give them something ‘interesting’ to do. And if it helps them learn and be more self-confident, all the better." Turning to SharpTongue, Neal added, "They actually have a bit of an advantage over ScreamingWind. They didn’t have anything to ‘unlearn’, plus I’m letting them see how what they learn works out in the real world, so teaching them is a little easier."

Quickwind and Shortdash were looking confused. "Just what have you been teaching our daughter?" Shortdash asked.

"How to think. How to take a problem apart and find solutions for the pieces, instead of being stumped by the bigger problem. How to learn. Using the different databases and the nets to find what they want or need to know to get something done. They’ve even found a few things I didn’t know."

"I find that hard to believe," SharpTongue said with a laugh.

"Third method," he told her. "If you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught."

"Meaning?" Quickwind asked, frowning.

"Have you ever done any teaching or tutoring?" Neal asked.

"Some," shi admitted.

"Did you ever have a student that came up with an answer that didn’t use the logic you were teaching?" At hir nod, he grinned. "You either had to show them the error in their logic, or admit that at least in that case, there was more than one solution to the problem." As shi nodded again, he added, "So, did they ‘teach’ you anything?"

"A point," shi admitted.

"A lot of my ‘learning’ involved having a problem, and needing the best solution I could afford at the time. Some ‘newer’ solutions were beyond my means, so I had to look to older methods of getting things done. When I could afford it, I would then look at the newer equipment, and have to decide if the gain was worth the cost. In some cases, I just upgraded pieces of something, rather than the whole unit. An example is the Folly herself. When she was just a double length cargo pod carrier, her name was ‘the Pogo Stick’. When her warp core became unusable, I couldn’t afford a proper replacement. My studies had included the Voxxan’s methods of blending the power of multiple cores, as well as the Merraki methods of getting more power out of smaller cores. So I picked up four much smaller-and much cheaper cores, and ended up with not only more power than running the one core system, but it was also more efficient."

"So, do you consider yourself an engineering expert?" Quickwind asked with a raised eyebrow.

Neal chuckled. "Not at all, I’m just a jack of many trades, master of none, that sometimes happens to figure out how to bash two different technologies into one solution."

"What ‘solution’ are you working on the Good Deal?" Shortdash asked, with a growing curiosity.

"Power and propulsion this time. They want to expand their carrying capacity, so we start with the power to move it. Then we figure out just how much we’ve gained, and they get to decide on modifying this hull or replacing it."

Shortdash frowned, "You make it sound like it’s no big deal."

"The Folly is my masterpiece in progress, but she’s neither the first, nor the only ship I’ve done this to."

"And you’re going to let those three help?" LongSock asked, still a little stunned at the idea.

"Why not? It will make a good training exercise. I’ll let them plan it out, then see how close it comes to mine. I’ll explain why I chose the path I did, and see if they can explain theirs. Only then do we get to build it."

SharpTongue asked, "Should we send over her things?"

Neal shrugged. "I have no idea where she wants to sleep, so you might hold off for the moment. There’s no real hurry, we’ll have a couple days to sort things out."

"And us?" Quickwind asked.

"Tess or I can find you a room for tonight, or you can spend one more night on the Good Deal. Your choice." LongSock opened his mouth only to close it at Neal’s next words. "As for you," Neal told him. "Weaver is in the captain’s quarters, which is where I’m assuming you will be spending the night." Tapping his badge he asked, "Tess, do you think you can wake Moonglow without disturbing Weaver?"

"Not a problem, boss. Shi had just asked me what was keeping you."

"Ask hir to join us. Oh, and ask hir to bring Starblazer with hir, if you will."

"Can do boss. So where am I putting your toothbrush tonight?"

Suzan spoke up. "In my room," she said, eyeing Neal.

Neal looked over at LongReach, so he missed the winks between Suzan and SharpTongue. "Do your wives always tell you where you’re going to sleep?" he asked with a grin.

"More often than not," LongReach admitted after a moment. "When they don’t care where I sleep, it is usually a sign that I have somehow displeased them." That earned him a grin from his firstwife.

Neal smiled. "So that suggests that I haven’t managed to displease all my mates and companions, at least not all at the same time yet."

SharpTongue chuckled. "Just how many mates do you have?"

"Kestrel and Stew are two, then there’s Weaver and Moonglow. Whitetail is on the Pegasus, while Zhanch is probably well into wearing out a new friend her sister recommended."

"Six mates?" LongReach asked in surprise.

"And eleven more Rakshani as companions, all due to me having a very sneaky ‘firstwife’." Neal said, while giving LongSock a dirty look. "Why didn’t you warn me about our mate?"

LongSock shook his head. "She’s never pulled a trick like that on me, so there wasn’t anything to warn you about."

Kestrel sniggered. "When she ‘helped’ you decide to add Stew and Moonglow as mates, she said she didn’t mind sharing one of her mates with others. Of course, she never said she wouldn’t mind ‘sharing’ the other one too." This last she said while giving LongSock a long, hungry look.

"Down, kitten," Neal said with a chuckle, as she leered down at LongSock, who physically backed away from the big Rakshan. The look on his face suggesting he now knew how it felt to be prey.

Kestrel pouted, as she turned to Neal. "Are you saying you won’t share me with your co-mate?"

"No," Neal said, still grinning. "I’m just suggesting that Weaver might get a little annoyed if you managed to scare him off before she even knew he was here."

"So, that’s why you wanted Starblazer," Moonglow said from the doorway. Shi stepped over to LongSock, and placed the sleepy child in his arms.

As father and daughter stared at each other for the first time, Neal introduced everyone to Moonglow.

After introductions, Moonglow turned back to Neal. "Just how many parties were you planning to have tonight?"

Neal let out a soft snort as he smiled. "I had only ‘planned’ one, this just sort of happened."

Moonglow smiled at LongSock. "Your mate was asleep when I left her, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind you waking her."

"And she is in heat, so before you join her you may want to decide on if the two of you want another child," Neal said, watching LongSock’s face.

LongSock sighed. "That’s not really a problem for us, we have a low compatibility between us. We wanted several cubs, but it took us years to give Holly a sister."

Kestrel reached over and gently squeezed his arm. When he looked up at her, she smiled. "You arrived at the conjunction of a Traveler’s festival and the Rakshan fertility festival. If the two of you want to start another cub now, let’s just say your odds have improved."

"Do you really believe in these ‘deities’?" LongSock asked looking confused.

Kestrel laughed. "The real question is do they believe in you? Oh, and do be careful of what you wish for, you might get more than you bargained for," she added with a grin.

Moonglow walked over and planted hirself in Kestrel’s lap – well the forward end of hir lower torso anyway. With arms and forepaws wrapped around the big Rakshani, shi tilted hir head back and gave her a big lick-kiss as shi said, "Behave."

Kestrel looked down with a big grin. "And who’s going to make me? You?"

"If need be," Moonglow shot back with a matching grin and a gleam in hir eyes.

SharpTongue was about to ask Neal what that was all about when she noticed he had closed his eyes, a smile slowly creeping across his face. Looking around, she saw the chakats were matching Neal’s actions. As she felt something pleasant that made her shudder, they all took a deep breath and opened their eyes.

Smiling at the chakats, who now looked much more relaxed, Neal said, "Sorry about that. Since I didn’t know Stormy would be with me, I had Tess leave the screens down."

SharpTongue had opened her mouth, but Shortdash beat her to it. "Well! After that, I think we can safely report to the other parents that you’re not keeping the kids from enjoying themselves."

A totally confused, SharpTongue asked, "What just happened?"

Neal chuckled. "You know how some chakats can read your feelings and sometimes even project their feelings?" SharpTongue nodded. "Well sometimes they will project when under duress or in this case, when very excited. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, I have several strong ‘projectors’ on board. So when they’re happy, everybody knows it."

Shortdash snorted. "I felt at least three, it was hard to concentrate with such strong emotions."

Quickwind nodded in agreement. "I could feel a couple more. Do they always do it together?"

"Whenever they’re sure they have the time to recover," Moonglow said with a smile.

Looking around, SharpTongue growled, "What does it take to get a straight answer out of you? What just happened?"

Shortdash chuckled. "As you know chakats are dual sexed." SharpTongue nodded. "Well, we enjoy sex from either position, but a dual orgasm is a real treat for us. Even more so when there’s more than one chakat having a dual orgasm at the same time. Sometimes we will inadvertently broadcast our pleasure. That’s what we all felt a moment ago, several chakats ‘letting go’ at once."

Neal snorted. "To keep from bothering others that are sensitive, I normally have Tess set up screens to block the effects. However, those same screens cut the mental link between chakats, so they can’t sense each other. If you want to see a frantic chakat cub, place Stormy where shi can’t sense me."

Shortdash frowned. "Shi has that strong of a bond with you? I didn’t think that was possible."

"Hir parents died in the attack at the New Kiev spaceport. I have a low sensitivity, but I felt hir distress while shi was still trapped in hir mother’s womb. A skunktaur shrink suggested Stormy may have bonded with me before I got hir out. While shi has gotten a little more independent, shi still needs to know that I’m near."

"We had some Star Fleet personnel with us for a while," Moonglow said with a grin. "Even with the screens, I had a few chakats asking me just what type of games we play on the Folly, and more than one asked if they could join in!"

Neal smiled. "LightTouch had commented on it and I had Tess increase the strength of the screens. Hy never mentioned it again, so I thought we had the issue resolved."

Tess picked this time to cut in. "They woke Weaver. Should we send her your ‘sneaky mates’ surprise’?"

"No time like the present," Neal said as he got up. Smiling at LongSock, he added, "If you’ll follow me?" To the rest of the room he gave a half-wave and a yawn. "I’ll see the rest of you in the morning."

LongReach waited until Neal and LongSock were out of hearing, then he turned to his firstwife. "I saw you and that long-eared temptress swapping winks. What deviousness are the two of you plotting?"

Suzan got up and sauntered over to him. With her paws on the arms of his chair, she looked down at him and smiled. "I only told him where he was sleeping tonight." Giving him a slow lick-kiss as she sat down in the surprised LongReach’s lap, she added, "I never said with whom…"


Continued in Chapter 6.

Copyright © 2006 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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