Tales of the Folly
By Allen Fesler
Book One: The Curse
Chapter 6

Neal woke slowly, trying to remember why he felt so good. Tess’s night vision camera caught his eye roll and brought the lights up just enough for him to see. There was an ear just in front of his nose, an ear much too short to belong to the owner of the bed he was in. The ear twitched slightly as he softly snorted in remembrance.

After leaving the Good Deal with LongSock, he had shown his co-mate to his cabin with a parting hug and a whispered ‘have fun!’ He had then retired to Stew’s room. He must have dozed off, because the next thing he remembered was someone crawling into bed with him. A slight shock had run though him when he realized that Stew had set him up. SharpTongue had been a little apprehensive about how Neal would take her surprise, but Neal quickly assured her that he was getting used to his sneaky mates being almost as sneaky as he was. After showing her just how much he enjoyed her surprise, they had slept for a while, before he was again awakened. This time the arms he had around SharpTongue were covered, as someone snuggled up to her from behind. His back was also soon covered with fur, as a second body hugged him from behind. He also seemed to recall Stormy’s purr as shi gently head-butted him sometime in the night, but shi didn’t fully wake him.

Looking past the twitching ear, Neal could make out LongReach’s face. He gave Neal a ‘cat that ate the canary’ smile, as he whispered, "We are blessed to have mates that know us so well."

From behind him, Neal heard Suzan whisper, "It helps that both of you have learned how to share your loves, as well as your love. One of my former boyfriends thought it was okay for him to see multiple females, but that I should only be allowed to see him. Needless to say, I ditched that relationship as quickly as possible."

SharpTongue backed up a little so she could see Neal’s eyes. "I know we won’t be able to get together very often," she quietly said, "but would you accept me as a companion?"

Neal tightened his hug on her as he kissed her nose pad. "I would be honored," he whispered back.

Stormy picked that moment to give hir vote of approval by all but climbing over their faces, to give SharpTongue a belated ‘milk check’.

With so many guests on board, Suzan had decided to help the kids with the morning meal. She grabbed her ‘rabbit stew’ apron and was soon making breakfast for everyone.

Weaver and LongSock were the last to show up for the meal, both looked happy, but it was obvious they hadn’t gotten much sleep.

Neal smiled at LongSock. "Why do I have feeling you tried to make sure that our mate leaves the Folly as big around as when she arrived?"

LongSock gave him a weary smile. "Well, one of your mates did suggest we would have better odds."

Neal laughed with the others. "At least I get a little more advanced warning this time," he said with a grin.

"How much did you have last time?" Shortdash asked.

"She told me we had two or three weeks, then she gave me six days," Neal said with a laugh.

"Did you practice acting as a midwife in the holodeck?" shi asked.

"The current holodeck came after our next stop. I just did a little reading."

"Replicators, for diapers and such?"

"Those were added after Stormy and Moonglow joined us."

Shadowcrest frowned. "If you never had replicators before, how did Chase and the others have ‘Alternate Thursdays’?"

Neal sighed. "Finally noticed that did you? Well, that’s a tale in itself." With everyone looking at him expectantly, Neal snorted. "When I was gathering parts for the colonies, I bought a few dozen replicators. They were in case they had to whip up drugs or parts in a hurry. When we went to install them, we found the company I got them from had sold me mostly junk. I was able to sometimes take two or three of them to make one working replicator, but that left them short. Since I wasn’t planning on coming back for five years, I ended up tearing every replicator out of the Folly to make up for the junk ones. When I returned, the company in question wouldn’t replace or refund what I brought back, so I don’t do business with them any more."

LongReach smiled. "Neal has a tendency to let others know when he no longer allows particular companies to ship cargo on the Folly. We can then fill the vacuum, or we can follow his lead."

"Does Neal tell you what to do?" Nashene asked curiously.

LongReach shook his head. "Not really. But we do know we could lose the benefits he provides by helping someone he’s seriously displeased with."

"Do you think he would try to run you out of business again?" Shortdash asked.

"No. But we would miss the cargo trading and fuel he always seems to have available."

Up to this point, Weaver had been quietly sharing a big breakfast with LongSock. LongReach’s last comment caused her to pause, her next bite halfway to her open mouth. LongSock was about to ask her if something was wrong, when she dropped her food with a growl. To the surprise of those new to the Folly, and to the amusement of those that called her home, Weaver rushed Neal. Dragging him to the floor, she pinned him down with her lower torso. She tried to keep his wrists pinned with her paws as she growled, "That’s what’s missing from your damn books! They show what cargo you buy and sell, but they never show you buying or selling fuel!"

Neal struggled to free his hands as he called, "Stormy! Tickle Weaver! Starblazer, tickle attack mommy!"

Having played this game before, the little ones quickly started climbing all over Weaver. While they weren’t all that good at tickling, they were distracting. When Weaver tried to twist away from paws that were getting a little too close to her ticklish sides, Neal got a hand free. The battle was turned as the three of them soon had Weaver helplessly laughing, still feebly trying to fight off their attacks.

The little ones quit jumping on Weaver as Neal rolled over to hold her in a hug. After she stopped shaking, he grinned and said, "And I thought you didn’t want any horse-play at the table. Or is it that you’re still feeling frisky after last night?"

"The truth," she whispered.

"After breakfast," Neal replied. At her dirty look he added, "My word."

As they got up, LongReach asked, "Did I say something I shouldn’t have?"

Neal grinned as he watched Weaver dig into her meal with a vengeance. "No, you just gave her the last piece she needed for a puzzle she’s been chewing on for a while. While we’re on the subject, what is your fuel status?"

"Under an eight part, which was another reason to want to meet up with you."

"Good, that much less to unload before we can start on your upgrade."

Weaver stuffed a last roll in her muzzle, and pointed at Neal. Neal shook his head at her. "After everyone is done with breakfast, o impatient mate of mine."

With Weaver glaring at those still eating, the others finished quickly. A couple of the kids started clearing the dishes, but Stew stopped them. "That can wait," she told them as she herded them towards the door, and the lounge Neal was leading the others to. "This should be interesting," she whispered with a grin.

With everyone comfortable, Neal turned to Weaver. "You had a question?"

Still glaring at him, she said, "Your records don’t show you ever loading or unloading anti-matter. But, I know you topped off the Pegasus and the other ships. From what LongReach was saying, you refuel him and your other friends. Where, or who, are you getting your fuel from? How are you paying for it?"

Neal smiled. "Yesterday, I caused you to believe I knew a deity. Could I convince you today of the existence of the anti-matter fairy?" At Weaver’s angry growl, he chuckled. "I guess not." Holding up a hand, he surrendered. "Third method. I have my own supply."

"How?" she demanded.

"As you know, the main way we have to get anti-matter is to make it. The Federation has a few out of the way stars where they make antimatter; it’s a time and power hungry process. A few stars away from my colonies, I set up a station to make a supply for the colonies’ use as well as to keep the Folly moving. There is also enough excess that I can keep most of my friends going as well."

Quickwind started to ask something, only to be elbowed by hir mate. Neal shook his head as he smiled at the pair. "Ask, and yes, I already know you’re both Star Corps." As they turned towards their daughter, Neal added, "No, shi didn’t tell me. I had Tess build up a detailed profile on each of my adopted kids and their parents. That’s how I knew when LongSock’s assignment would end."

Quickwind glanced back to hir mate for a moment, then shi asked, "Why haven’t you told the Federation about your station? We could use an extra source."

"It is well out of Federation space, so you or Star Fleet would have problems laying any claims to it. And indirectly, the Federation is using it as an extra source." At their looks of confusion, he shook his head. "As Weaver pointed out, I didn’t record the fuel transfers to the Star Fleet ships, but I did lighten the load on the Federation’s anti-matter demands. The same could be said of every ship I keep fueled, that much less of a burden to the Federation’s supply, but the cargo still gets where it needs to be."

"And the cruise lines?" Shortdash asked.

"Twofold," Neal said. "A couple of my wayward children are making a very nice living by refitting ships with engine and warp core upgrades. Since they use the same methods I do, they are producing a faster ship that uses less fuel. As for the service you received, the captains of ships we refuel all have communicators like the one I gave LongSock. Among other things, it lets them know that they are dealing with someone that has my support. While a few have abused that support, most do not want to lose it. That means that even competitors will sometimes work together, neither wants to be the one to tell their company that they got on my bad side."

Shortdash stared. "You would retaliate? How?"

"Depending on what who had done to whom, it could be as simple as telling their bosses that I can’t work with that person. If it’s bad enough, I could boycott the company."

Shortdash shook hir head as shi said, "I can’t see a large corporation caring if you boycotted them."

"If my friends and family agreed with my reason for the boycott, that could mean over thirty cargo ships refusing their cargo. Throw in paying more for fuel if I’ve been cutting them a deal, and even a large corporation will see a dip in their bottom line."

"Why are you doing this?" Weaver asked, slowly shaking her head.

"Doing what?" Neal asked, a small smile forming on his lips.

Weaver waved her arms over her head. "Any of this! You have more power than any one man could possibly need, but you’re still acting and claiming that you are just a damn freighter captain!!!" she looked down, still shaking her head in confusion.

Neal got up, and sat down in front of her. A finger stopped her head shaking, as he raised her head so she would meet his eyes. "A damn freighter captain is just what I need to appear to be right now. I have colonies to quietly support. I do not need someone wondering why I am buying something. If I buy five hundred replicators, do I intend to sell them to Star Fleet? No one knows but me. If it were general knowledge that I had money to burn, I would have everybody and their kid brother trying to con me out of it." Neal pulled her into a hug. More softly he continued, "That was part of why I became such a grumpy old man. It seemed every person I saw wanted a handout, anyone saying they wanted to be friends seemed to have an ulterior motive. So, I crawled into my half-crazy, cranky freighter captain persona. The only ones I felt I could trust were the ones that didn’t know I could be of any use to them."

Neal tightened his hug around her for a moment, before continuing, "And then a demented deity with a warped sense of humor decides to blind the sensors that Tess uses to warn me of things that shouldn’t be. There I was, thinking I had just one more dull loop around the Federation before I could go see how my friends are doing on the colonies. But no, what do I find? A dozen furry stowaways! I just get them fed and what appears, but three more brats, not to mention one damaged, pregnant adult."

"Why did you care for them and keep them?" LongSock quietly asked.

Neal looked over at Shadowcrest. Shi was sitting near, but not with anyone. "The same sensitivity that let me save Stormy, also means I sometimes can’t not help. And as I told our mate only yesterday, if things hadn’t happened the way they did, most of the people in this room would not be here."

Shortdash snorted. "We’d all be home."

"No," Mike said from where he sat with CalmMeadow and Nova, helping them keep the little ones quiet. "We would most likely all be dead. If our dozen had picked the right carrier, our last act would have been trying to breath pure nitrogen. Nova and the little ones were trapped on a station, unable to safely get food or water. Our Rakshani friends were being starved in slave cages. Your daughter was locked in that carrier. There’s no telling if they would have been found before they suffocated if they had ended up on a different freighter."

"There, but for the grace of ‘a demented deity’, go I," Shadowcrest said with a small smile.

Neal snorted softly. "I knew I should have kept you out of the old stuff," he said as the twins giggled at their big sister.

"Why haven’t Star Fleet or Star Corps noticed you not charging them for anti-matter?" Quickwind wondered aloud.

"Oh, I always send them a bill," Neal said with a smile. "But there will be a couple of errors on it. So they send it back, I correct one thing, but screw up another. After it’s bounced back and forth a few times, I ‘forget’ to send it back. They have it in pending and think that I am just a bad bookkeeper. And like Weaver just proved, the best way to hide something, is to not make an official record of it."

"So how often do you have to go out and refuel?" Shortdash asked.

"I don’t. I have a dozen modified Zulus transport it to a couple of out-of-the-way places."

"A modified Zulu?" shi asked, reminding Neal that this was hir first day on the Folly.

Neal clapped his hands once. "Twins," he said, changing the subject. When they turned to look at him, he said, "Your chores for today will be orientation and safety. Your parents need to be brought up to speed with how and why the Folly does things. Zhanch, I’ll leave Jackton and your parents to you. Shadowcrest, ScreamingWind will be your chore when I’m done with her." Looking for questioning looks Neal said, "If that’s it, I think it’s time to get to work."

As they began filing out of the lounge, Neal caught ScreamingWind’s eye. "You’re with me," he told her as he led her to his dayroom.

As Neal selected her tests, ScreamingWind looked around Neal’s dayroom. Spotting a long coat hanging by the door, she reached up and pulled it off its hook. The hook was made from a piece of badly corroded pipe; the pipe was covered in a resin to keep it from crumbling any further. "Was that from the Good Deal?" she asked. At Neal’s nod, she asked, "Why?"

"It reminds me that you can find friends under the strangest of circumstances, and some of which can be trusted to hold your coat," Neal said. "And I will tell you, there are very few indeed that I trust that much."

ScreamingWind smiled. "My mother still has that long coat you carried her in. She takes it out sometimes, just to smell it. A few times when one of us kids were scared of something, she would wrap us in it, and tell us that that was what you did when she had been cold and frightened."

Neal snorted softly. "Did she also tell you that I was the thing that caused her to be cold and frightened?"

"Yes," she said with a small grin and a nod. "She admitted that she had made you mad at her and she was afraid that you wouldn’t forgive her. I’m glad you did."

Neal grinned at that. "Ready for your tests?" he asked.

"I think so, Holly told me not to try to study, that it would throw off your tests."

"These tests are to see not just what you know, but how you think, I’m not interested in what you may have memorized. Take your time, please skip the ones that you don’t know or don’t understand, WAGs will only throw off my evaluation."

"What’s a WAG?"

"Wild Assed Guess. Any other questions?"

At her headshake, Neal indicated that she was to sit at his desk. "Just tell Tess when you’re ready to begin," he said as he left the room, the door closing silently behind him.

Shadowcrest found Neal in the lounge just before dinner. He had spent most of the day tearing though the Good Deal, checking over the equipment they wanted modified and installed, as well as planning what would fit where. Instead of sitting in his favorite recliner, he was sitting on a pad on the floor, his torso supported by a padded board that kept his back straight. His arms were up, fingers interlaced on his head, as if he were trying to keep his head from falling off.

Shi quietly padded in, and slid one of the taur sized cushions next to him. Sitting down, shi smiled. "What is this I hear that you were trying to twist your back like only a chakat can?"

He cracked one eye and looked at hir without moving his head. "Go ’way," Neal muttered, closing his eye. "Those Rakshani torturers have already broken what was left of my back."

"Your sickbay can’t help? Like you did with Weaver?"

"All I really did to Weaver was spot weld her bones in place, and close the skin. It still took time for the muscle damage to heal. One of the healing pads I used on her is under this board. It just takes a few hours to do its work. Unfortunately that means I’m grounded for the rest of the day."

"And you hate being grounded when there are toys to play with, especially some one else’s toys," shi said with a smile.

"You know me too well. I can’t even stupid-vise; the pills I took had me seeing double for a while," he said with a groan.

Giving him a gentle nuzzle shi said, "Don’t worry about it, we have everything under control."

"How is ScreamingWind holding up?"

"Very nicely. After lunch I gave her her ship orientation. From what she said, the Good Deal has a lot of the same rules in place."

"If you’re trying to survive in space, some things are universal."

"True. But that doesn’t explain them having the exact same type of lifeboats, including your modifications!"

"They are friends of mine. If they need to use a lifeboat, I want them to have the best that I can provide."

"She also noticed that you’re holding three of your cores at idle."

"After Charlie’s little incident, I don’t feel safe just sitting dead at any port. Folly needs at least three cores at the ready, just in case we need to move quickly or raise shields."

"I feel a second method there, what aren’t you saying, father?"

"You kids are getting too dang good at that. Thank god Weaver’s not a chakat!"

"Sorry father, but evasion isn’t going to work either."

Neal sighed. "I tried to get in touch with Stormy’s grandmother earlier. I called Raynor Inc. but every time I tried to ask for Snowfall, I was transferred to a jerk named Stalk. He informed me that I would be working for him when I got back. When I told him I don’t and won’t work for an idiot like him, he promised that from now on they would be playing ‘hardball’. I hung up on him after suggesting he not forget to wear his cup." Neal sighed again. "I tried Snowfall’s home number, the call would start to go though, but then it would disconnect."

"And you think it is part of their ‘hardball’?"

"As Tess will sometimes tell you, ‘insufficient data’."

"And you don’t like not knowing what’s going on."

"That too."

"How well do you know hir?"

"Well enough that we often play jokes and tricks on each other," Neal said, smiling.

"What’s the worst thing you ever did to hir?" shi asked with a grin.

"Shi would probably say it was the cherry jello." At hir look of confusion, he smiled. "I just gave hir a little black cherry jello for having swapped my drink at lunch one day," Neal said, trying to sound innocent.

"And now you get to the part where you explain why shi wouldn’t have liked it."

"I just gave hir a taur sized tub of it. You know, a taur sized bath tub." As shi continued to stare at him, he added with a chuckle, "Think of the cleanup. Shi’s a white-on-white tiger stripe. If shi got any of it on hir fur, shi would have been lovely shades of pink. Since we were still on speaking terms afterwards, I have to assume shi didn’t fall in," he chuckled, only to groan when it reminded him of why he was sitting on the floor.

Shi grinned. "That’s why Stew removed some of the desserts before you let Kernos make his selection! Because they would stain fur."

Neal carefully nodded. "She had both blue and green gunk. Imagine Zhane and son, showing up on earth with a lovely green tint to their furs. Somehow I don’t think Boyce would have been pleased with me."

"You’re right, smelling faintly of lemon was much better," shi said with a chuckle.

The door opened and Firestorm and Starblazer raced in. Stormy made to jump on Neal, only to stop just before leaping. Star had been coming in a little slower, but she still bowled the seven-month-old chakat over in their sudden stop.

While Shadowcrest laughed at the little ones’ antics, Neal carefully lowered his arms so he could stroke the wiggling pile of fur that now lay against his thigh.

Still snickering, shi said, "Star’s six months older, but Stormy always seems to be the one in charge."

Neal smiled. "She slows hir down every now and then." To someone just looking in, it would look like the little ones were play-fighting, but if they watched for a minute, they would see that the cubs were also taking turns being petted by Neal. Every time his hand came down to stroke them, it was on a different back.

"Your friend said they were like fire and water," shi reminded him.

"They are," he agreed. "She sometimes banks Stormy’s fire when shi overdoes it. Did you get the other reference?" at hir headshake he smiled. "What happens when you put fire to water?"


"And if it’s in a sealed container?"


"I saw DarkStreak retaliate a little too strongly for one of Stormy’s surprise pounces. Before I could move or say anything, Star was across the room and all over DarkStreak."

"So that’s why shi is so careful around them."

"Size or age does not always a pecking order make."

"Is that why the twins are in charge of getting Gulf built?" shi asked with a smile.

"Partially. The rest of you weren’t all that keen on putting her together until Sparks and hir friends made it look like fun. Between Sparks’ willingness to work under them, and since they have yet to do anything that would give me cause to pull them, what choice do I have?"

"I’m not complaining, but Quickdash's parents are all over hir about it."

"How is shi taking it?"

Shadowcrest grinned. "With Weaver occupied with LongSock, Holly has been helping her twin double team hir parents. When Shortdash tried to tell hir something was too dangerous for someone hir age, Quickdash started telling hir sire just what you have been letting them do, with and without your direct supervision. I think it stunned them a little. They went to their room, supposedly to rest."

"They did get up a bit early by their internal clocks, and I’ll bet the twins gave them a little something to think about. How are you holding up?"

"Okay, but I think I’m going to want a snuggle tonight."

Neal snorted softly. "Weaver’s not going to want to let go of LongSock for a while yet. And somehow I think Zhanch will still be keeping Jackton busy. Since my back is going to keep me from getting too energetic, I think your odds for a snuggle are pretty good."

"Yeah, I just have to get there before all your other mates, companions and kids!"

"The ‘not too energetic’ part rules a few of them out for tonight, besides, it’s been a while."

"I remember the first morning, you warned my I might have to share, but how did you know?"

"I didn’t, but you have to remember that you were not the first cute little furball to crawl into bed with me."

Shi cuddled up next to him. "I wasn’t all that small then, and I’m not as little as when I first climbed into your bed."

Neal pulled hir into a gentle hug - all his back would allow. "You do seem a little bigger," he admitted. "Must be the angle I’m at, or maybe those dang pills."

Shi snorted at his teasing. "It is not! Tess, tell him I’m bigger."

"He knows," Tess said quietly, as the cubs were almost asleep. "I informed him when you first came aboard that you would need to be fed more than most of the teens because you were, and are, in your growth spurt. Your scans indicate he will soon have to worry about having yet another sex-crazed chakat onboard."

"Chakats aren’t sex-crazed!" shi hissed.

Neal grinned. "Compared to some of our Rakshani? Not at all. But compared to – let’s say, a Caitian? Sex-crazed doesn’t even begin to describe a chakat at one of hir peaks!"

"Do you really think we’re sex-crazed?"

"For chakats? No. But, you can be a bit of a handful for someone that doesn’t have your drive and stamina."

"That sounded like the voice of experience."

"It was, and it was quite an experience, but not one we are going to talk about at this time."

Hir reply was to lean into his hug a little more. He felt his back twinge, but he ignored it. Some things were worth a little pain.

Dinner was a quiet affair; well as quiet has you can have with four under a year old anyway. Quickdash’s parents ate quietly, watching the little ones race around the eaters until they ran out of energy and climbed under someone’s top to refuel and recharge. Curiosity finally overcame Shortdash.

"Are those real comm badges they’re wearing?" shi asked as Firestorm disappeared under Nova’s top.

"Yes," Neal answered. "Among other things, it helps us keep track of them."

"Don’t they take them off, and leave them behind?"

Neal grinned. "Tess, put hir badge in baby mode." Looking at Shortdash, he said, "Go ahead, treat it as if you were a child."

Shortdash tore hir badge off, only to have it give an angry buzz as shi dropped it on the table. Looking up, shi found all the smaller cubs watching hir. When Shortdash didn’t put hir buzzing badge back on, Starblazer pulled away from Weaver. Walking across the table to Shortdash, she picked the badge up, and placed it on hir chest. The badge then let out a purring sound. Star patted the badge, and then went back to her mother.

Neal was giving hir a wide smile for hir look of surprise. "Now take it off the way you were told to," he suggested.

Using three claw tips, Shortdash held the badge without pulling on it. After five seconds, it released its hold on hir top. Shi set it on the table again, this time it remained quiet.

"Tess, have hir badge respond as if shi is moving away from it."

The badge let out sound like a happy kitten wanting attention. It cried out every few seconds, each time sounding more and more desperate until shi touched the badge. Shortdash placed hir badge back on hir chest, it gave out a purr of happiness and fell silent.

"Does it always buzz when you don’t take it off correctly?" shi asked.

"Only in child mode, and only when you’re here on the Folly. Tearing the badge off, or someone tearing it off for you, puts Tess in a higher alert mode. Think of it as having hit a panic button."

"So they always wear them?"

"They have been taught to take them off for bathing and sleep. If they walk away without them, the doors won’t open. Needless to say, they learned quickly. And, if they’re lost or scared, all they have to do is start tapping on their badge, and Tess will send one of us to get them."

"I’ve noticed that Firestorm is very careful not to bite or scratch you, why is that?"

"As you have been told, shi bonded with me at birth. One part of the bond is shi feels what I feel. So the first time shi sank a claw into my arm, shi felt me feeling the pain. The down side of the bond is if something angers me, shi will be angry as well, but where my years have taught me to control my anger, shi quickly tries to lash out, and not always at the target that I am really angry at."

Nashene frowned. "Is that why you had to catch hir? You were angry at me?"

Neal gave a small snort. "No, that was fear. Even knowing you probably would not strike; even knowing that Tess would protect me if you had tried. My little monkey brain had a momentary flash of panic when something well over twice my mass with sharp teeth and claws was yelling as it bore down on me. While I could steel myself against my fear, shi felt it, and rushed in to protect me. Hopefully, shi will grow out of it."

Nashene was thoughtful for a moment, and then he grinned. "That is why you were able to give hir to me a few minutes later, you had calmed hir down by calming yourself."

"Partially. As I said, my fear was momentary. Convincing hir that nothing needed shredding took a little longer."

"It seems to be a two way street," Moonglow remarked. "You seem to be slowly getting more sensitive. Either that, or you are now able to access your sensitivity better than before."

Shadowcrest laughed. "That might be why Stormy aborted hir pounce in the lounge earlier. I thought I felt a small push of ‘no’ with a hint of pain behind it."

"Could be," Neal acknowledged. "I saw hir coming, and was thinking ‘this is going to hurt’."

"I have a question," Shortdash said with a grin. "Or do I have to best you in a tickle fight?"

"Depends on the question. Ask, and I’ll tell you if there is a price to pay for it," Neal replied with a smile.

"First would be why you and most of your Rakshani ladies seem to be older that you appear to be."

"My transporters have a way to sometimes reset a person to early adulthood. Before you start thinking that this is a great toy that should be shared, there are a couple of negative points to the process. First you may or may not survive it. The only way to know is to try. Second, it takes a lot of power. The transporter is running at full power throughout the process. Where a normal transport, say from here to the surface takes three to five seconds, it took just over ten minutes to process Zhanch. And even if you have enough power for two hundred transports and are willing to take the risk, there’s still one more little catch. I don’t have full control of it."

"So why would you risk it?" shi wondered.

"Both the times I was processed, it was with no warning. I spent the next week or so relearning how to see and move. I can sometimes cause the process to be used on others. Because of the risks and the power requirements, I only do it when they are quite old or otherwise near death in the first place. Even then, the system will sometimes refuse to process someone."

"I can’t see anyone wanting to take those risks," Shortdash replied, frowning.

"Over fifty-two hundred thought it worth the risk, and I thought they were worth the energy and wear on my equipment." Neal smiled as he looked over at Dessa, "I don’t count you, you weren’t given a choice in the matter."

Dessa grinned. "I would have said yes, had I been given the chance."

"At ten minutes per person, it would have taken you over a month for that many," Quickwind said thoughtfully.

"It took almost four months," Neal said with a frown. "The transporters needed parts replaced after every few hundred taurs or so. And I had to cycle to different transporters while recalibrating the systems a few dozen times." At hir look of disbelief he added, "Remember, that is over a million and a half transports worth of wear on those systems."

"And what did you get in return?" Quickwind wondered.

"Five thousand more colonists."

"For colonies you control," shi said, not sure shi liked where this was heading.

"More or less," Neal agreed. "But if they wish to, the colonists have an option to buy me out."

"A fledgling colony could hardly afford to do that!" Shortdash exclaimed.

Neal smiled. "I don’t know about that, both colonies accepted my payment plan."

"Which was?" shi demanded.

"A ten-kilometer square." At hir look of confusion, he chuckled. "A hundred square kilometers of land. Preferably, some wooded hillside, some water running through the property would be nice. They are allowed to use it as a wooded area or park until I retire."

"You’re going to retire?" Holly asked, her eyes wide.

Neal smiled. "No time soon little one, but maybe someday."

Quickdash furrowed hir brow. "But, if you have both of them reserving land for you?"

"I have no idea where I might want to settle down. The one I don’t pick ends up with a nice park."

"You’re not telling us something." Shortdash muttered.

Neal gave hir an evil grin. "There are a lot of things I’m not telling you. You will need to find the right questions, to get any deeper into my schemes."

Weaver growled to the room at large, "Now you know why he drives me crazy! Second method indeed!"

"So, all you have to do is sit on him, to get him to use the third method?" Quickwind asked as shi started to grin.

Neal quickly cut in, "With my back the way it is, I will chose a champion for any battles you wish to lose."

Quickwind’s grin turned evil. "And what makes you think I will lose?"

Neal matched hir grin with one of his own. "Because I will choose the only fur to have bested me. Kestrel, will you take care of my light work for me?"

Kestrel looked up from helping Spitfire get a slice of spice cake. Giving the chakat the same hungry look she had given LongSock the night before, she purred, "Only if I get hir when shi loses."

"That would be up to hir," Neal said, chuckling at the surprised expression on Quickwind’s face. Hearing Shadowcrest snicker, he turned to hir and added, "All things are relative after all."

"Relative to what?" CalmMeadow asked.

"Shadowcrest had asked me earlier if I thought chakats were sex-crazed." Neal turned to smile at Kestrel. "Compared to a certain pregnant Rakshani, chakats aren’t sex-crazed, not at all."

Looking at Kestrel, Shortdash quietly asked, "Joking aside, are you in need?"

Kestrel grinned as she shook her head, "I’m just teasing your mate. Although, if either of you are offering, I would be happy to take you up on it!"

"Bribing my champion does not count as winning," Neal informed them, causing the others to laugh.

"Not a bribe," Shortdash promised, "just some good clean fun."

Neal went to bed that night with Shadowcrest and Suzan, only to wake up with Croix and Satsuma.

Giving the two Rakshani each a hug, Neal chuckled. "Now I know why I dreamed I was shrinking," he said with a laugh.

After breakfast, everyone piled into Alpha for the trip to the surface. With all of his Rakshani leaving to see friends and family, Neal had tasked the older kids with unloading. Meanwhile, he gave LongReach a little OJT on handling Folly’s heavy lift shuttles.

When it came time to let LongReach ‘solo’, Neal had Holly and Quickdash act as his copilot and engineer. To their parents’ looks of surprise, he pointed out that this was just a familiarizing flight. LongReach had been flying shuttles for years, just nothing as big as Neal’s toys. He didn’t mention that he had let the twins land Alpha that morning, Holly had been their co-pilot and Neal had been at the engineering controls. With the cockpit door closed, Quickwind and Shortdash had not realized they were complimenting their daughter when they had commented on how smooth the flight had been.

The next evening, a worried Zhanch tapped on the doorframe to Neal’s dayroom. At his smile, she entered and closed the door. When she left a few minutes later, her look was relieved, while Neal’s was now thoughtful.

Over the next couple days, each of his Rakshani came to him for a private conference. Some looked relieved, while others were still troubled when they left. Dessa was the last to seek a word with Neal.

"I’m leaving Star Fleet," she informed him, after closing the door and asking Tess to prevent remote monitoring.

Neal arched an eyebrow at her as he said, "That is your right of course, but may I ask why?"

"I was contacted by Star Fleet while I was visiting my family. They want me to spy on you!"

Neal nodded. "They have asked all of you then. As far as I know, only Zhanch has taken them up on it. They offered her a commission, so she is now a Lieutenant."

"She’s betraying you?" Dessa growled, a look of shock on her face.

"No. She came to me, just as you did. I just pointed out that one more spy wouldn’t really matter." At Dessa’s look of surprise, he smiled. "You mean you didn’t know Quickdash's parents are two of Star Corps’ top troubleshooters?" At Dessa's headshake, he continued, "My sources had told me that they would be tied up on their current project for another year or two. For them to suddenly be done at the same time as LongSock, suggests the Folly and I have become their latest ‘project’."

"Aren’t you afraid of what Star Fleet or Star Corps might learn?" she asked, looking even more concerned.

Neal came around his desk, and smiled as he pulled her down for a tight hug. "No, they can learn what they like. I’m not doing anything illegal, so there’s no reason for them to try to stop me. Plus, this time I’m not operating alone, so even if I and the Folly do get detained, my plans won’t."

"Will you tell me your plans?"

"You can’t tell what you don’t know," Neal reminded her with a grin. "You will see the clues as they appear, just like everybody else. I think you’ll like it."

The night before the Folly was to depart, they had a party. Of their thirteen Rakshani ladies, only Zhanch, Dessa, Kestrel, and Bonita would be staying with the Folly; the rest would remain on Raksha. Croix and Velasco were going to retire from Star Fleet to start new families. Satsuma and the others would be reporting back to Star Fleet in the following weeks.

One of the gifts brought out by the Rakshani ladies were Rakshani ankle bracelets for everyone. Neal was more than a little surprised to find that Raksha now boasted a newly formed clan with a house name of Foster. As the head of the house, Neal was now Neal ap Edwin na Foster. Stew seemed quite pleased to have become Suzan ap Frank na Foster.

With the party winding down, Neal had helped carry the sleepy cubs to the nursery. Once he was out of earshot, Velasco had asked Quickwind and Shortdash to keep Neal busy on his return. When he did return, they started firing questions at him. Neal stood in the middle of the room grinning as he returned fire; he was using the second method more often than not. With his back to the door, Neal didn’t notice two, now nude Rakshani enter.

Neal was listening to Shortdash’s next question when Velasco pulled him into a tight hug. "Mine!" she cried to the room at large.

Grabbing Neal from behind, Croix also cried, "Mine!"

Shifting her grip to Croix, Velasco asked, "Ours?"

Shifting her grip as well, Croix agreed, "Ours!" as they started to squeeze Neal between them.

The two Rakshani then proceeded to drag Neal out of the room, to the laughter of the others. Just before the door closed behind them, one of them was heard murmuring to Neal, "So, you think Rakshani are sex-crazed do you?"

The next morning found Neal dragging himself to breakfast. He was holding his back and limping like an old horse that had been ‘rode hard and put away wet’. Croix and Velasco looked up from their meals as he sat down with a groan.

"See?" Croix told the others with a grin. "We didn’t kill him, just broke him in a little."

Looking a little worried, Velasco asked, "Are you really that sore?"

Neal moaned for effect, but it was ruined by Stormy happily jumping up on him for hir morning nuzzle.

"Faker!" Holly cried out. "Stormy wouldn’t be jumping all over you if shi knew you were hurting!"

Still holding Firestorm, Neal sat up straighter in his chair, and smiled. "Actually, they were quite gentle for such big, playful, ‘sex-crazed’ kittens," he said as he stroked the little chakat.

"Just giving you a night to remember us by," Croix laughed.

"That will be hard night to forget," Neal agreed with a grin.

While the Good Deal left orbit right after breakfast, Neal still had three more cargo pods to move before the Folly could follow them.

A few hours after leaving Raksha orbit, the Folly caught up with the Good Deal. As with the smaller Star Fleet ships, Neal had them park the Good Deal in the forward sphere. Because of the extent of the upgrades, Neal also suggested LongReach and his family move into the Folly’s quarters for the duration.

Once the Good Deal was getting power from the Folly, her core was shut down and her remaining antimatter transferred to the Folly. Quickdash and Holly had joined ScreamingWind in coming up with their ‘plan’ for how the Good Deal’s upgrade should go with the equipment they had on hand. That evening, Neal wasn’t the one that had to be dragged to dinner.

Neal grinned as Dessa and Kestrel led the three into the dinning room. Kestrel was commenting on them trying to pull a Foster and work through dinner.

They had then tried to ‘talk shop’ until Weaver had threatened to gag them.

Not two minutes later, Neal almost choked on a mouthful of tea. Holly had snuck in a data pad, which they were now trying to use without being noticed.

Looking over at his growling mate, Neal chuckled. "Let them get it out of their systems, love," he told Weaver. "You should know by now how hard the muse can ride a person."

Weaver glared at him, but she did stop glaring at the kids. The three of them did eat, but they jabbered more than they ate. The ice cream on their cakes had melted long before they realized that their chocolate cake actually tasted like banana bread.

A little later, Neal entered the holodeck to check on their progress. As he entered, he snorted in amusement. Someone had added a viewing room so they could watch the kids without distracting them. LongSock and Weaver seemed to be doing more necking than watching. LongReach and SharpTongue simply watched as their daughter used what she had learned so far to try to keep up with the twins. Quickwind and Shortdash’s expressions suggested they were having trouble believing what their daughter had learned while on the Folly.

Neal listened to the kids for a few minutes. They seemed to be done with their main design, and were now picking over the finer details. Giving his mate and companion both a wink and a quick squeeze, Neal quietly opened the door to join the kids in the engineering mockup.

As Neal sat down to listen to the kids’ ideas, Shortdash turned to Weaver. "What did he mean earlier about you knowing how hard the muse could ride a person?" shi asked.

Weaver snorted. "Knowing Neal, you may get a demonstration tonight. When he gets into something interesting he can work on it for hours - sometimes days, trying to turn a problem into a neat little solution."

"Days?" Shortdash laughed, "For most people, furs or humans, productivity starts dropping after a double shift with no breaks."

"Oh, he will slow down every so often," Weaver agreed, "But then he gets a second wind, and starts charging forward again. His longest ‘muse attack’ since we joined him has been fifty-two hours." At Shortdash’s look of surprise she added, "He was chasing down a few problems in the containment field software he uses in his latest Zulus. As he explained it to me afterwards, the containment field would distort when the warp field first came up. The software was not compensating fast enough. He lost three of them before he had enough data to understand the problem."

Before Shortdash could ask another question, voices were being raised in the mockup.

"We reinforce it with Boronike! That’s how we get that much power out of it," Holly huffed, while giving Neal a dirty look.

Neal looked thoughtful. "Well, yes. Reinforcing the major load areas with Boronike would let you get more power out of it, but Boronike wasn’t on their list of upgrade components," he added with a raised eyebrow.

Quickdash spoke up, "I was going to let them have some of mine," shi said quietly, not meeting Neal’s eye.

Neal shook his head slowly. "I know Weaver has already told Holly that she can’t spend hers on whatever she wants, what do you think your parents would say?"

"They don’t need to know," Quickdash said at almost a whisper.

Neal chuckled. "Do you really think you could keep those two from getting wind of it?"

A startled Shortdash had opened hir mouth, only to be shushed by Weaver as Neal continued talking to Quickdash.

"I’ve gone though what Tess could find out on your parents. From what I read, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could find more than a few pure bloodhound genes in their make up. They seem to able to come up with the right answers with very few clues." Neal snorted softly, before he continued, "I know Weaver told Holly that she can’t touch her Boronike, what do you think Shortdash will say when shi finds out you’re giving it to your new friend?"

"It’s not that much," shi mumbled.

"For that one component, no," Neal agreed. "But if you are going to have that much power coming down the line, will the flow control handle it? What about the buffer?" Neal chuckled. "You three remind me of a couple guys I knew a long time ago. They wanted to ‘soup up’ an old internal combustion vehicle. They dropped a bigger engine into it. The first time they tried to use the extra power, the clutch plate came apart from excessive torque. They upgraded that, only to blow the transmission. After many false starts, they ended up replacing the entire drive train. That is about what you three are going to have to do, upgrade the whole thing to handle what you’re adding."

"So it’s a bad idea?" Holly asked, sounding hurt.

"No, little one. Not a bad idea, just one that you have to think all the way through. Like flying, you don’t just jump in and take-off, you have to plan for the landing before you ever start the craft." Neal glanced at the clock and smiled. "It’s getting late, why don’t you call it a day. I’ll go over the numbers and tell you what I think in the morning. Okay?"

In the viewing room, Weaver jumped up. "Quick! Follow me!" she said as she half dragged LongSock towards the door. They all rushed out and hurried down the corridors until they reached Weaver’s room.

Shortdash cocked hir head at Weaver. "What was that all about?" shi asked, as the door slid shut.

Weaver grinned. "They were about to come out, and I didn’t want to appear to be too nosy of a mother, what about you?"

"Point taken," Shortdash agreed with a nod. "But now that we are clear, what did he mean to insinuate that Quickdash owns a quantity of Boronike?"

Weaver snorted softly as she replied, "Just what he said, shi owns a standard transport carrier worth of Boronike. He received a rather large amount of it and has ‘shared the wealth’ with the rest of us."

"Just how did he receive this Boronike?"

"He seems to have been refusing a payment that others thought needed to be paid. When the kids made a delivery, Neal wasn’t there to tell them not to accept the payment."

"Just how much Boronike are we talking about?"

"Three hundred carriers worth."

"And he just gave it to the kids?"

"And to his mates and companions as well, two carriers each. He called it a ‘windfall’ gift." Looking over at a now very nervous SharpTongue, Weaver smiled, "Didn’t he tell you about it when he accepted you as a companion?"

SharpTongue simply shook her head as her mate held her in a tight embrace. "But, I…" she stammered.

"Didn’t think of the dangers of having such a crazy companion?" Weaver asked with a grin.

"Does he always bribe people to like him?" Shortdash asked with a frown.

Weaver returned hir frown with a glare of her own. "I was the only one Neal asked to be his denmate, and that was to help with the kids. He offered to adopt Shadowcrest and Quickdash, the rest, including my daughter, asked to be adopted. As far as his other denmates, mates and companions, they asked him. Actually, we trapped him for Suzan and Moonglow, then blindsided him with his Rakshani companions. No wealth was ever offered or asked for."

Slightly taken aback by Weaver’s irritated tone of voice, Shortdash chose hir next words more carefully. "I apologize, I didn’t mean to say it quite the way it came out. But you will have to admit, from the outside it looks a bit like he’s bought himself a harem."

With her glare back up to full strength, Weaver hissed, "As for running a harem, unless asked to do otherwise, Neal sleeps in his own bed. No one is forced to join him there. In fact, I had to ask him to join me when I went into heat, he didn’t presume that he would be automatically welcomed." A little less heated, Weaver continued, "He also pays us all for doing tasks. The kids get paid for getting good grades on their tests, as well as for working on the Folly or sitting watches. Suzan gets paid to cook; Moonglow was taken on as a wet nurse and nanny for Firestorm. I’m paid to help manage everyone, so Neal can have a few minutes in his day to actually move freight from one star to the next."

Shortdash snorted softly. "All of which he wouldn’t need to do if he had just taken you home when he found you."

"From what I’ve been able to find, it looks like he had timed his departure to annoy someone. Going back may have caused him other problems. And he did offer to drop off anyone that wanted to leave."

"That’s enough," LongSock stated, "You have your answers. Stop badgering her." At Weaver’s look of confusion he said more softly, "They were testing you, dear. They are here to try and dig up all of the Folly’s little secrets, and you and the kids are a major puzzle to them."

"I tried to tell Neal that our first night, but it seemed he already knew," SharpTongue quietly said.

"Why didn’t he warn me?" Weaver wondered, feeling a little betrayed.

"Because we would have felt your prior knowledge just now," Quickwind murmured. "By not telling you, Neal made sure that we would know what your true feelings for him were."

"And now?" Weaver asked, still a little annoyed.

"We can safely tell our superiors that Neal is not forcing or bribing anyone to stay," Shortdash replied, "We don’t like giving new friends the third degree, but in our line of work we’re sometimes not given much of a choice in the matter."

"And why do you need to spy on him?" Weaver demanded. "Do you suspect him of something?"

"Sometimes strange things happen when this ship appears. Most often it’s pirates disappearing before Star Fleet can take care of them. We don’t mind that, other than the minor fact that this is supposedly an unarmed ship."

Weaver laughed in spite of herself. "As the sneakier of my two mates would say, ‘define armed’."

"An armed ship is one with weapons." Shortdash replied with a raised eyebrow.

"So now you have to define ‘weapons’." Weaver said, her smile getting bigger.

"A weapon is something used to damage something else."

"So a phaser bank would be a weapon."

"Of course." Shortdash agreed, wondering where this was leading.

"Even if it’s on a mining station and set up to slice rocks?"

Shortdash sighed. "Granted, some weapons can have peaceful uses."

"And some peaceful things can be used as weapons," Weaver said with a smirk.

"Explain," Shortdash asked, with a raised eyebrow.

Weaver smiled. "You figure it out. Neal was saying something about you two being part bloodhound, you tell me. I’m sure your orientation gave you more than a few clues, and the open portions of Neal’s records should give you plenty to chew on."

LongSock also smiled. "Why don’t you think it over tonight? In the morning we can see if you’re half as clever as you think."

The next morning, Neal was the late one to breakfast. He had showered and changed before joining them, but it was obvious that he hadn’t slept that night. To Weaver’s knowing grin, he just gave her a tired smile and nod of acknowledgment.

Quickwind also grinned at Weaver. "You didn’t tell us that the local muse jumps from person to person to get the task completed."

Shortdash snorted. "It looks more like there was a muse on each of the kids, and all three of them jumped to Neal when they left."

"Close," Neal admitted. "My original plans didn’t have us with a ready supply of Boronike. While it is normally reserved for transporters and replicators due to it being hard to get, it has other uses. Once I started figuring out where the Good Deal could use it, ideas for upgrades on the Folly and a few other things came to mind." Shaking his head, Neal chuckled. "It just sort of snowballed from there."

Weaver grinned. "Well, while you were playing, we challenged our Star Corps friends to figure out what you are up to with what they have seen so far."

Neal gave a soft snort. "You should have included Zhanch. That way we could get Star Fleet’s side of it as well."

Zhanch smiled at Shortdash. "Want to go first?" she asked.

Shortdash nodded. "We won’t bother going into the dual uses of your Zulus; that was amply demonstrated when Charlie beat off those pirates. We did notice that the two spheres that make up the forward section of the Folly are detachable. We also noticed some of the cargo you have onboard suggests you’re getting ready to start another colony."

Zhanch spoke up next, "The configurations of the spheres suggest a ready-made, mobile spaceport. The spaceport would have thirteen docking ports, eight of them protected. The forward sphere could be used to hold a small fleet as we have already seen, or for a dry-dock to build or repair small to medium sized ships as you are preparing to do with the Good Deal."

Quickwind nodded. "With three of the Folly’s eight warp cores and the impulse engines you have on them, the spheres would be able to freely roam a solar system. Throw in a few dozen of your Zulus and you could control, or protect a system."

Neal snorted. "I have no need to control a system, other than to protect those in it."

Dessa frowned. "Did you lie to Boyce when you told us you were going from supporting three colonies to just two?"

Giving them all a grin, Neal laughed. "That was just the second method in action." To Dessa’s hurt look he added, "I never said the two after were any of the three before, now did I?"

"So, you are setting up two more colonies?" Shortdash asked.

"Yes, I am setting up two more colonies," Neal agreed.

Weaver snorted out a laugh. "Even I could smell that second method! What else are you up to?"

Shortdash had noticed SharpTongue lean a little more into LongReach’s hug. Shi snorted as shi said, "Whatever it is, he needs help to pull it off." Looking at Neal, shi asked, "How many others are helping you with your next colonization push?"

Neal let out a quiet sigh. "Like the first time, I planned something little. To get it done, I had to let a few friends in on it. They liked the base idea, but wanted a little more. That led to a few more knowing what I was up to. By the time things had stabilized, we were up to four more colonies. Two of which, are to be set up and supported without my assistance."

"Are you laying any claim to them?" Zhanch asked.

"Other than discovering them, and a little prep work? No. Though they had offered payment, I said no. When they insisted, I gave them my request of the ten square kilometers, as I did the other colonies."

"Why are you doing this?" Shortdash demanded.

Neal shrugged. "Why not? As Weaver has pointed out, I now have more wealth than I could ever need." He snorted softly. "While I have known some that considered wealth as a way of keeping score, for me it has usually been more along the lines of ‘what can I do with it?’ It started with building up my ship. As I gathered the needed credits and knowledge, I slowly put my profits into upgrades for the Pogo Stick. More power and tweaked engines meant better speed, so I could meet deadlines better than before. Once I gained a reputation for always getting things delivered on time, business improved to the point that I didn’t have enough cargo space. A little more system tweaking let me double the number of pods I could carry with just a minor reduction in speed. I had a few baby Zulus by then, though they were nowhere near what I use now."

Looking at Zhanch, Neal shook his head. "And then I ran into a pair of pirates just outside of the Rakshani system. They had either been running silent, or had some basic stealth systems, because the first warning I had was when they fired their phasers. What shields I had were down and they cut though my debris screens like they didn’t exist. Their first shots took out my transporter and warp engines. I was badly burned when a power conduit blew during the fight. With nothing else to use, I rammed my few scouts into them. I then somehow managed to patch enough of the Pogo Stick together to limp into Raksha orbit."

"This was before you were processed the first time, wasn’t it?" Shadowcrest asked.

"Yes," Neal agreed. "I was well past middle age and had been thinking that a few more runs would be enough to retire on. Instead I ended up badly burned, in a ship that was badly damaged, circling a planet of oversized cats that weren’t to happy with humans or the Federation at the time.

"When was this?" Dessa asked.

"Not long after the signing of the treaty between the Rakshani and the Federation. Needless to say, they weren’t the most friendly group I had ever met."

"Tess’s records don’t have that. They seem to start sometime after you left Raksha," Weaver added.

Neal nodded. "Her databases were badly scrambled by the surges and fluctuating power during and after the attack. The data isn’t reliable until about a month after she processed me."

"How did you get your hands on a transporter? They had just been perfected to transport living beings about then," Shortdash wondered.

Neal snorted. "What I had at the time was really just an oversized point-to-point replicator, with something to capture the mind matrix tacked on. I was still testing it and hadn’t gotten to the level of trying living things yet. I was just trying to get it up enough to help move things that I could no longer handle. After a couple of tests, I had called it a night. The next thing I knew, I was in my little sickbay, a breathing tube down my throat. I was gagging on the tube, but I didn’t have the muscle control to remove it."

"Risky," shi muttered.

"And unplanned on my part." Neal agreed. "I was trying to get enough of the systems back up to get me to Earth and better medical treatments for my injuries. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure I would survive the journey."

"You never did say what happened on Raksha," Weaver reminded him.

"Partly because I only remember bits and pieces of it. I do remember trying to argue with one of them, or maybe several of them, about transporting some of my cargo to a nearby system for me. They were being cunning little Rakshani, and trying to change the deal I was offering to one that would give them ownership of what was left of my ship."

Zhanch grinned. "We didn’t earn a reputation for being crafty by being nice to helpless little humans," she said with a chuckle.

Neal chuckled as well, as he said, "But even Rakshani have their limits which, when met, they won’t cross. I had all but given up on getting any help, when a child came up to me. She was carrying a small meat pie, which she offered to me. After what the adult Rakshani had put me though, I must have asked her half a dozen times what she wanted in exchange. Each time she said it was a gift. I finally took it after thanking her. I can’t tell you what type of meat it was, but it seemed to have been soaked in their version of brown sugar."

Dessa nodded. "There are several meats that are treated that way, it helps mellow their taste."

"Well the sugar gave me a little more energy to work with. And it was after I accepted her treat that things began to change. A Rakshani bigger than Zhanch's father came up and offered to take the cargo that I was trying to get moved. He made me more than a little suspicious when he offered to do it for less than I had been offering." Neal shook his head. "I don’t know why, but I gave him the access codes he would need to safely board the Pogo Stick. No sooner had he left, than another Rakshani male stepped up to me. This one was much thinner, and claimed to be a doctor. It took me a while to understand what he wanted. He was teaching his students how to care for burn victims, and he wanted to use me as a practice dummy. Once again, I don’t know why, but I let him drag me to his transport."

Dessa smiled softly. "The traveler deity may have been helping you and the others decide what to do. As her new ride, she now had a vested interest in your safety and well being."

Neal nodded. "True, but I didn’t know about her at the time. All I knew was that things had gone from bad to seemingly good for no apparent reason. A good reason to stay alert, so the first thing the doctor does is give me something for the pain." Neal snorted. "I woke up three days later; he had overestimated my mass and my tolerance for his drugs."

"Do you think he did it to you on purpose?" Shortdash wondered.

"As pleased as he seemed to be when I woke up, I would have to guess no," Neal replied.

Quickwind summed it up with, "So they patched you up, and then you patched up the Pogo Stick and got processed when you got your hacked together transporter working."

Neal nodded. "More or less, yes," he said as he finished his breakfast.

Zhanch grinned. "I think most of us have been avoiding one question." At Neal’s raised eyebrow, she chuckled. "Why Pogo Stick? Why Folly? Other than to confuse people I mean."

Neal shrugged. "Folly came about because that’s what friend and foe alike told me adding a sphere to the front of the Pogo Stick was, sheer folly." Neal grinned. "So I added two. As for Pogo Stick, that’s what a double length pod carrier looks like. One long, thick pole, with the two booms sticking out like footrests. I guess I could have named her ‘the Flying Corncob’, but I think that name was already taken."

Suzan had been coming out of the kitchen as Neal was speaking. As the rest of them laughed at his alternate name, she said, "That does it! When your jokes start getting that bad, it’s past your bedtime. SharpTongue, would you like to help me put him to bed?" she asked with hint of a grin.

Moonglow hooted, as they dragged Neal from the room, "I noticed you didn’t say anything about him getting any sleep!"

Weaver watched as Shortdash and Quickwind exchange glances before they looked at her and nodded. She returned their nod before returning her attention to LongSock.

A few days later saw the Folly orbiting Bifrost, an inhabitable world currently in the middle of a minor ice age. The settlement was there to dig up information on a civilization that had once existed there. At Shortdash’s request, Neal held the Folly in orbit long enough for them to send messages and wait for replies on the FTL relay stationed there.

After a few hours, Shortdash and Zhanch both received their replies from Star Corps and Star Fleet.

As the Folly left the system, Shortdash entered Neal’s dayroom.

Closing the door, shi turned to Neal. "My mate and I may soon be out of your hair, Captain," shi said as shi settled on the taur pad next to his desk.

"Why so formal?" Neal asked with a raised eyebrow.

Shortdash smiled. "I’ve noticed that you have the others addressing you depending on what they want you for, father, mate, companion or captain. It’s the captain I need to speak with now." At Neal’s nod, shi continued, "Our supervisors didn’t seem to be very impressed by our report, and have decided we could be better utilized elsewhere."

"Did they say where they wanted you next, and how much of a rush they were in?" Neal asked, as he brought up the Folly’s flight plan.

"They want us on Karpiak, ASAP," shi replied. "I can’t tell you why."

"Understood, they can’t have just anyone knowing that something in nearby space is scaring the hell out of the locals." At hir dirty look, Neal chuckled. "No, Tess wasn’t reading your mail. That has been an ongoing problem for at least the last twenty years. My only question would be why they consider it important enough to send the two of you now."

"The three of us. We will be taking Quickdash when we leave."

"Have you told hir yet? Weaver, LongSock and Holly should also be informed."

"We will tell Quickdash when we are ready to depart; this does not concern the others."

"I think you are wrong about that. It does concern them."

"If you are referring to the bond shi has with Holly, they will get over it."

"That bond may be deeper than you realize."

"Are you going to try and keep us from taking our daughter when we depart?"

"No. I’m just saying that you may be so glad to have hir back that you’re missing just how attached shi has become to Holly and the others."

"I think you are the one overreacting Captain."

"That wasn’t just the captain speaking. That was also their adopted father, teacher and friend."

"Nonetheless, we will be leaving the Folly when we get to Terra."

Neal nodded, a troubled look on his face as Shortdash turned to leave.

It was the next day before Quickdash and Holly cornered Neal.

"My parents are up to something," Quickdash told him.

"I know," Neal said.

"Does it have something to do with me?" Holly asked.

"Only indirectly," Neal admitted. "Go get your parents," he told her, "and I will tell you what I can."

Once LongSock and Weaver had joined them, Neal explained, "For reasons I can’t go into, Quickwind and Shortdash have received new assignments. They will be leaving us when we get to Earth." Looking at Quickdash, he added, "Naturally, they want to take you with them."

Clinging to Holly, Quickdash blurted out, "But what about Gulf? Or the Good Deal?"

"Or Holly?" Neal quietly finishing hir unasked question for hir. "I know. I just don’t see any easy solutions."

After sending the kids off with a task to help take their minds off what they had learned, Neal turned to his denmate and co-mate. "I think you will agree that the real problem is separating those two?" as they nodded, Neal said, "Then we can add another option to the list." Weaver refused to meet his eyes, but LongSock looked confused, so Neal explained, "If they insist on taking Quickdash, we can at least request that they take Holly as well."

LongSock looked to Weaver, who slowly nodded her head.

The problem came to a head a few hours later, Quickdash had gone to beg hir sire not to separate hir from Holly, and Shortdash was furious at Neal for having told hir.

"You had no right!" Shortdash growled at Neal, when they met in one of the corridors.

Neal met hir angry stare. "Not just a right, but a responsibility. This affects more than just the three of you."

"We are taking hir with us when we leave!"

"I’m not contesting that. Would you consider taking Holly as well?"

"We won’t have the time to baby-sit!"

"So you won’t have much time for Quickdash either, now will you?" As Shortdash growled, Neal added, "At least together, they could keep each other company."

"NO!" Shortdash snarled as shi stalked off, hir tail twitching wildly.

About to follow hir, Neal stopped when he heard what sounded like a sob. Around the next corner he found Weaver and the twins, Quickdash was quietly crying as shi clung to Holly.

Neal closed his eyes and let out a quiet sigh. When he opened them, there was a look of determination in them, along with more than a little annoyance.

"What do we do?" Weaver asked, hugging the two tightly.

"What we have to I’m afraid," Neal replied. Pulling Quickdash out of Weaver and Holly’s grasp, Neal gave hir a hug. "I’m sorry little one," he whispered, "but I can’t fight your parents on this. From now until we get to Earth, I want you to stay with your parents. You will eat and sleep with them. You can only see Holly if they are with you, do you understand?"

Now openly sobbing, Quickdash barely nodded before shi ran after hir sire.

Weaver looked angry, but remained silent.

A tearful Holly asked, "Why are you doing this to us? Can’t we at least be together until we reach Terra?"

Neal knelt and gave her a tight hug. "They won’t listen to me, so shi will have to show them just how much you have grown to need each other. For now, why don’t you go help ScreamingWind on the Good Deal’s upgrade. She’s learned quite a bit already, but she’s nowhere near your level yet."

As Holly left, Weaver frowned. "I don’t like where this is leading," she said.

"Doing this now means we have the option of undoing it. If we wait, the same thing will probably happen, but we won’t have the opportunity to get them back together."

"Sometimes you can be a heartless bastard," she murmured.

"That’s not heartless," Neal said, "this is heartless." Tapping his badge, he said, "Tess, I want you to screen Quickdash from everyone but hir parents whenever possible."

"Understood Captain, but I do so under protest."

"Understood Tess. Do you understand why I’m doing it?" Neal asked.

"So that shi won’t have their support. Mean boss."

"Just as if shi were no longer here," Neal agreed. "Hir parents will be forced to fill hir needs, if they can. If they can’t, hopefully we will find out before the point of no return."

Neal’s answer came in the middle of the night watch. Holly had asked to share Neal’s bed that evening, only to cry herself to sleep in his arms.

Neal had been dozing when the door announcer quietly chimed. He slowly let out a long sigh before nodding his head slightly. Tess caught the motion and opened the door.

Quickwind and Shortdash stood in the doorway, looking more than a little frazzled. Quickdash was behind them, looking ready to collapse.

Sitting up, Neal waved them in. the adult chakats would not meet his eyes as Shortdash quietly whispered, "You win."

Reaching out, Neal lifted hir chin until shi looked up at him. "The only winners here will be the twins, they were the ones with the most to lose if we ‘lost’."

As Shortdash slowly nodded, Neal looked at Quickdash. Shi looked half fearful that they would change their minds again, while the other half was staring at Holly as if it had been years since shi had last seen her.

Neal slid the rest of the way out of bed, and gave hir a hug. "She missed you," he quietly said as he gave hir a gentle push towards the bed.

Quickdash needed no other encouragement; shi quickly climbed into bed and wrapped hirself around Holly, who hugged hir in her sleep.

Slipping in his earplug, Neal then grabbed his glasses and clothes before stepping out into the corridor to get dressed as the older chakats followed him out the door.

Out in the corridor, Shortdash said, "We know what you did."

"Do you know why I did it?" he asked.

"To show me that I was wrong."

"No, only to show you what would happen if you separated them. Yes, they might have gotten over it eventually, but could you two have held out that long?" As shi shook hir head, Neal added, "I wanted you to know what you were getting into before you ran out of options."

"What options?" Quickwind asked.

"Hours out of port, in a ship you can’t turn around, is not the time to find out you might have been wrong about something."

"So, where do we stand?" Shortdash asked, looking worried.

"Pretty much where we were before, hopefully just a little more the wiser," Neal said as he headed down the corridor.

"Where are you going?" shi wondered.

Neal stopped and turned back to them. "Well, I’m in no mood to sleep right now, so I might as well get some work done." He turned and continued heading towards the first sphere.

Quickwind cocked hir head at hir mate. At Shortdash's shrug, they started heading after Neal as Quickwind called out, "Could you use an extra paw?"


Weaver was happily surprised to see the twins together at breakfast, seemingly none the worse for wear. Inquiring about Neal, she was told he had worked long into the night and that he was currently asleep. Even more surprising was when Quickdash got the same response when shi asked the whereabouts of hir parents.

Looking first at her mother, and then to her twin, Holly grinned as she asked the question, "Where are they, Tess?"

"Onboard the Good Deal. I don’t have as much access to her as I do the Folly."

Quickdash grinned. "Can we see what their comm badges see please?"

Tess complied. A moment later, the dining area roared with laughter. The view showed that the comm badge had been set on a dresser that had a mirror attached to the back. The mirror was tilted to allow someone to see their entire body by stepping away from the dresser. The tilt was just enough to give the comm badge a good view of the bed. The bed wasn’t quite long enough for taurs, so the two chakats on it were curled up a bit. From between them came a furless arm that had draped itself over Shortdash's upper torso.

Weaver snorted as she shook her head. "Twelve hours ago they were ready to bite his head off."

LongSock chuckled. "Maybe they did, and the arm is all that’s left."

Neal had not taken his earplug out; the laughter Tess had fed it woke him up. LongSock’s wisecrack caused the furless arm to twist palm up. All the fingers curled into a fist. Then the middle finger extended.

"They followed me home, can I keep them?" Shadowcrest asked, as the others laughed.

This time the hand seemed to give a shrug before giving a cut-off wave. The view faded as the arm was seen curling back around Shortdash in a hug.

That night, Shortdash and Quickwind had followed Neal onboard the Good Deal. They were then surprised when he suggested they put on lightweight environmental suits to keep things out of their fur. Once properly attired, Neal had led them into one of the chilly cargo bays. They spent the next few hours running new power and data lines from the bridge conduits out to the hull for the sensor upgrade Neal had decided to add to all the other projects underway.

Neal had been the first to run out of steam, he had sat down ‘for just a moment’ and had fallen asleep in his chair.

After trading tired smirks, Shortdash and Quickwind had carried him to one of the empty bedrooms.

After a late breakfast, Shortdash and Quickwind returned to their room. After creating a short message, Shortdash took it to Neal.

"I know you usually wait until you’re near a FTL relay to send messages, but I would like you to make an exception," shi said.

"Do we need to wait for a reply?" Neal asked.

"No. If they have a problem with it, they can tell us when we get to Terra."

At his nod, shi handed him the memory chit. Plugging it into a slot on his desk, he said, "Tess, drop us out of warp and send this when we have a good line on a relay."

"Sure thing boss," Tess replied.

"Did Tess tell you what was on it?" shi asked.

Neal gave hir a small smile as he shook his head. "Apparently she didn’t consider it something I ‘needed to know’. With your rush to send it, I had assumed it was Star Corps related."

Bowing hir head, shi said, "It is." Without raising hir head shi looked up at Neal. "With your permission, we will be staying on the Folly longer than we last discussed."

Neal snorted. "Well, if you’re done spying on me, it’s going to be a rather boring trip for the two of you."

"We thought we might help on some of your ‘projects’. Just to make the time go faster you understand," shi said the last with a hint of a grin.

"And to spend more time with Quickdash," Neal added with a chuckle.

Shortdash chuckled with him. "That too," shi agreed. Tuning more somber shi said, "I need to apologize for our actions since coming aboard the Folly."

Neal nodded. "From what I’ve heard, Weaver and the twins are the ones you need to apologize to."

"We will, and you?" shi asked.

Neal indicated something behind hir. All shi could see was the long coat hanging by the door. Stepping over to it, shi noted what it hung on.

Turning back to Neal, shi said, "I heard ScreamingWind telling SharpTongue about your coat hook." Cocking hir head, shi asked, "What does it mean to you?"

"A ship I almost killed for smearing my name and reputation. When I found out how close I had come, it scared me a bit. That piece of pipe is there to remind me that an enemy doesn’t have to stay an enemy. They now trust me with their ship and their daughter, and I trust them to ‘hold my coat’." At hir look of confusion, he grinned. "In the bad old days, when challenged to a fight, a man might take off his coat so he could move better. In the pockets he would place anything of value that might get damaged in the fight. Needless to say, he wouldn’t give his coat to someone he didn’t trust."

"Are you saying you trust us?"

"You could have left me on that chair, or just dumped me in one of the beds. Instead you shared your bed and your warmth with me. That seems to suggest that you are gaining some little trust of me."

Shortdash snorted. "In hir second or maybe third letter, Quickdash told us that we wouldn’t understand you until we slept with you." Shaking hir head, shi added, "Until last night, we couldn’t figure out why it would be any different than being with you when you’re awake. Conscious, you hide your feelings better then most. It’s hard to tell when you’re lying; you seem to treat everything as a joke."

"Not really, although it might seem that way sometimes. If it is something that doesn’t really matter, then yes, I will have a little fun with it. Serious things I will treat more seriously. Quickdash falls into both categories. Shi is still quite young, so making things ‘fun’ helps keep them from getting boring. But I try to be very careful when teaching hir. I’ve been helping hir build a foundation of knowledge that shi will be using the rest of hir life, I want it to be one shi can depend on." Neal snorted. "Moonglow sat through one of our training sessions. Shi told me later that Quickdash was ‘cheating’." Neal chuckled at Shortdash's expression as he continued, "What I had mistaken for an intent look was hir using hir ability to ‘read’ me, shi was getting what I was trying to explain a little more directly."

"What did you do?" shi asked.

"What could I do?" Neal asked with a big grin. "I just rubbed hir nose in it."

"How…" shi started to ask, before quickly turning hir upper torso around and whipping hir tail up where shi could grab it. After checking the tip carefully, shi turned back to Neal.

"Like daughter, like sire it seems," Neal said with a smirk. "It can be hazardous, reading someone with a vivid imagination."

"How did you do that?" Shortdash demanded, still holding what felt like a scorched tail.

"In order to try and read me, you have to accept what I feel is happening to a certain extent. So if I can vividly imagine and truly believe that the tip of your tail has just burst into flames, while at the same time thinking of how much that must hurt, you may have problems determining which reality to believe."

"So you’ve done this to Quickdash?"

"Not as often as I should have. When I get wrapped up in trying the explain something, I don’t always notice hir prying. On a side note and as another hint of how closely they’ve bonded, it seems shi can pull information from me and ‘push’ it to Holly. And it appears that I am just sensitive enough for hir to take it the other way as well. Tess pointed it out after a very long session. She said that towards the end we were scarcely even speaking, but it was obvious we were communicating."

"So they know all your little secrets?" Shi asked, hir grin getting bigger.

Neal snorted as he shook his head. "They may have caught a few hints where something pertained to what we were working on at the time, but interrogating Quickdash or Holly isn’t going to give you all of my secrets."

"That might help them pick up your ‘hints’ faster."

"True, but the fun of watching others make their own discoveries may also be rubbing off on them. So don’t count on them running up to you saying ‘guess what?’"

"Why are you still keeping secrets? I mean you don’t appear to be too concerned when some of them are revealed."

"It started as self-preservation. Not knowing if any of them would be with me for more than a stop or two made it easier to not tell them what else is going on. And part of that was a fear of scaring them into jumping ship at what might not have been the best place. I know you have been told that a Rakshani deity likes to ride the Folly, some think to see what trouble she can get into. How long do you think Weaver or the older kids would have wanted to stay onboard if I had warned them about her from the start?"

"But you’re still keeping Weaver in the dark about some things, aren’t you?"

"A lot of things are already out and in the open. The rest of it gives her, and you two, something to do," Neal said with a grin.

"Meaning?" shi asked, hir eyebrow rising.

"She’s not really interested in learning tech, or moving a ship and cargo through space. And she may not remember it, but her first day on the Folly she asked me how I was going to keep her occupied." Neil chuckled as he asked, "Do you think it’s working?"

"The way she pounced on you our first morning aboard? I wonder if you are not overdoing it."

Neal chuckled. "The reason for the strong reaction was because it hit her so hard. She’s been over my books I don’t know how many times, and never saw that little trick."

"And a chance remark dropped the answer on her tail."

Neal shrugged. "Now that she has LongSock, she shouldn’t be needing my distractions as much."

"And Quickwind and I?"

"A lot of the puzzle pieces were already on the table for you two to pick up, all that is really missing is some of the finer detail."

"Like where you plan to find, and how you plan to move enough people for two- no, four more colonies."

"That too," Neal agreed with a grin.

"Why do I get the feeling the clues are right under my muzzle?" shi said, grinning in spite of hirself.

"Could be," Neal agreed with a laugh. "I’ve got to get back to work. When you’re ready, I have the twins helping ScreamingWind supervise the upgrades on the Good Deal. For now, Zhanch is in charge of Gulf’s work. Between them, you should find enough work to keep yourself occupied."

That evening, Stew warned everyone to save room for dessert; she had something special in store for them. When the main meal was over, she wheeled out the dessert cart with a large cover over it. The little ones started getting excited. They knew what that cover had hidden before. The older kids showed mild interest with a little confusion, having not been warned that someone was having a birthday.

The confusion only increased when Suzan removed the cover. The cake had not one, but two faces on it.

Suzan walked over to the confused two whose faces were grinning back at them from the cake. Giving them both a hug, she said, "Last year you said you wished your birthdays were on the same day, and since we missed one of them due to all the excitement at Raksha, I thought this would be a good time to start. Today is the day between your birthdays, so I wish you a happy birthdays."

There was no name on the cake, but even without the life-like artwork, the words ‘Terror Twins’ made sure there could be no doubt of who was being honored.

There were only eight candles on the cake, but sixteen wicks burned. Each candle was a pair of candles that had been softened, and then twisted together. With matching grins, Quickdash and Holly blew them out together.

The little ones were served their cake and ice cream first, one of the teens trying to help each of them to get more of cake in them than on them. The only question on serving was for Quickdash’s parents on if they wanted Moonglow ice cream or regular?

Once everyone was served, Neal said, "I’m afraid I forgot to get you two anything for your birthdays. Do you have any suggestions?"

Quickdash had hir mouth full, so Holly answered for both of them, "Thank you, father, but we each have a gift from you, for which we thank you."

At Neal’s raised eyebrow, Dessa laughed. "I think everyone considers the Boronike to be gift enough."

Swallowing quickly, Quickdash shook hir head. "That wasn’t his gift."

"Letting you play with Gulf and Good Deal?" Bonita asked with a grin.

"No," Holly said looking at LongSock.

"He doesn’t count," Neal claimed with a grin. "The only reason I invited him onboard was to help get Weaver off my back. The chakats were a surprise to me as well, so I can’t take credit for them either."

"So are you saying that all your best gifts are accidents?" Zhanch asked with a chuckle.

Neal shrugged. "You tell me. I didn’t plan on stowaways, or for them finding a cook. Pirate hunting and Dessa getting shot weren’t on my list of things that needed doing, nor was Stormy and Moonglow at the time."

"Now he’s blaming poor Tess and a particular ‘demented deity’ for everything going the way it has," Kestrel chuckled.

Shortdash stepped up to hir daughter and Holly. "My mate and I would like to offer you a gift." Turning to Weaver and LongSock, shi said, "I know Weaver adopted Quickdash with Neal when they first came aboard. LongSock, with hir permission, would you be willing to adopt Quickdash?"

LongSock choked for a moment in surprise, then he quickly nodded. "I would be happy to call hir my daughter," he said.

Quickdash stared at hir parents for a moment, as if to try and read their thoughts. Shi then turned to LongSock, grinning as shi ran over and wrapped him in a hug. "Thank you, daddy," shi whispered, a few tears staining his fur.

Shortdash turned back to Holly. "And will you allow Quickwind and I to become a part of your family? May we adopt you?"

Watching Weaver join LongSock in hugging Quickdash, Holly looked back at Shortdash and nodded as she stepped into hir arms. A moment later she felt a second pair of arms embrace her.

CalmMeadow had been watching Nova as shi watched the adults adopt each other’s child, a look of longing on hir face. Shi stepped beside Nova, and worked up the courage to say what shi had been holding back for weeks. "I…" was as far as shi got before a large hand closed on hir shoulder. Looking over hir shoulder, CalmMeadow found Mike watching hir with a tender expression on his long face.

"Wrong order," he told hir with a grin. At hir questioning stare, he added, "You can’t do it by yourself." Reaching out to take hir hands in his, he said, "CalmMeadow, would you accept me as your mate and denmate? Will you allow me to share my love with you and any cubs you may have or adopt?"

CalmMeadow was stunned. Shi had been looking one way, trying to do that one task perfectly. Until this moment, shi hadn’t even noticed a support that had always been there for hir. Often silent, but always helping hir with hir task. Shi tried to picture doing the task without that support and shuddered. Mike had known what shi had planned before shi hirself was sure, and he was right – shi couldn’t manage it by hirself. Hir eyes tearing a little, shi nodded before pulling him into a tight embrace.

Mike held hir tightly for a minute. The room was almost silent, even the little ones watching curiously but quietly. After that minute, Mike pulled away a little. At hir confused look, he smiled as he whispered, "Your turn."

CalmMeadow’s eyes open wide as shi remembered what shi had been about to do. Turning to Nova shi asked, "May I… may we, adopt you and your little sisters? Since the day we met, I’ve felt this bond growing. I wish to always be a part of your lives."

Nova turned to Neal, a questioning look on hir face. Neal smiled as he said, "Your call, little one. Remember though, no matter who you call mother, father, sire, or dame, you and yours will be my daughters for as long as you wish it."

Nova’s eyes drifted from one of hir little sisters to the next. Each was watching hir back, they didn’t understand what was happening, but somehow they knew it was something important. Looking into CalmMeadow’s teary eyes, shi nodded before hir own eyes clouded over. Shi felt CalmMeadow clasp hir in a hug, then Mike’s arms wrapped around them both. One by one, five smaller sets of paws added their hugs to the pile.

Shortdash looked at Neal. He nodded as he said, "How does it feel to be the catalyst?"

Shortdash shook hir head in wonder. "I think I understand now what you meant by some things ‘snowballing’ on you. I am worried about one thing though."

"Their ages?" Neal asked. At hir nod, he nodded back. "I agree, they are underage by the rules on most planets. However, most of them would allow it if they have the support of their parents, of which I am one." Mike, CalmMeadow, and Nova were all watching him closely now as he addressed them, "Your mating and adoption has my support. For now, it will be official only on the Folly. Think of it as a trial period, if it doesn’t work out, no harm done. One of the signs that you can do this will be proving you know when you have bitten off more than you can chew and are willing to ask for help."

CalmMeadow smiled with one arm around Mike, the other holding Nova. "We will, father," shi said, "and thank you."

"She said I would find what I was seeking right in front of me," Nova quietly said.

"She told me ‘Shi will say yes, if you’ve but the courage to ask’," CalmMeadow added.

"Funny, that’s what she told me," Mike said as his squeezed his mate.

The next week went quickly, as the upgrades on the Good Deal were done to Neal’s not always understandable specifications. Neal found himself spending most of that time training ScreamingWind. With her only a few weeks into her training, Neal often had to backtrack and lay the basic foundation before he could explain what they were actually working on. The twins would often join them to help translate Neal’s views of reality into something ScreamingWind could understand.

A mere month after entering the tempest that was currently called life on the Folly, Quickwind and Shortdash found themselves sitting on benches to the rear of the bridge. They watched as the kids parked Folly in orbit around Terra. Neal had been a little annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get a synchronous orbit, he preferred to be able maintain direct contact with the Folly at all times. He did place six of his baby Zulus around the planet to guarantee a solid link with her no matter where she was in her six-hour orbit.

It was just dawn as the big shuttle, Alpha, gently set a loaded cargo pod on its designated spot at the Big Sur Spaceport on the southwestern coast of North America continent. Zhanch and Kestrel had volunteered to supervise unloading the pod while Neal took Alpha and the kids north, before heading back into space to drop another of Folly’s cargo pods on the moon.

Neal had dropped the kids off with instructions to wait. The kids found themselves abandoned at a very small spaceport. One small and elderly looking shuttle was parked at one end of the ramp, a small building at the other.

Only a few minutes passed before a small two-seated hover car appeared. It stopped for a moment at the shuttle before driving over to them. A teenaged foxtaur vixen gave them a smile as she climbed out.

"Hi! I’m Surefoot," she said as she approached them. "I take it you all are from the Folly?" At their nods, she said, "Testing will be done two at a time If the first pair will head for the shuttle, the rest of you can wait inside for your turns."

Quickdash and Holly waited impatiently as they watched as their older siblings were tested on their shuttle handling abilities. Whiteboots, the old fox tod instructor, was making them use his shuttle. Not only to make sure they weren’t getting computer assisted help, but to prove they could handle shuttles in general, not just one type. He sat in a cabin off the cockpit with a full control panel. He did this both to take control if needed, but to also to inject ‘problems’ or degrade systems as part of his testing. One of the things he had insisted on was that he would not see any of the students until after their test. This way he could not be swayed by who or what they were, only by how they flew.

Most shuttles took a least three people to operate properly, pilot, copilot, and a flight engineer. Whiteboots was only testing piloting skills, so he was overseeing engineering from his cabin. The kids were going up in pairs as pilot/copilot, sometime in the flight the fox tod would have them swap off to test them in the reverse roles.

With fifteen kids to test, Neal had asked ScreamingWind to partner with Shadowcrest to keep any of them from either having to go up twice or solo. While ScreamingWind had passed easily enough, she had been surprised to find that most of the others were topping her scores.

Cindy and Alex were just finishing up; the instructor had been very impressed earlier by how well they had handled ‘losing’ half their flight control thrusters as they were trying to dock with a mock up space station.

While Quickdash and Holly understood that they would probably not be certified due more to their ages than their abilities, they had wanted to try anyway.

They made it through most of the flight without any problems, even when the instructor had degraded their controls to simulate an overweight, and unbalanced shuttle load. On the last leg of the test, they were to land back at the instructor’s private landing field. They were a few minutes out, when three small stunt planes ‘buzzed’ them. Holly was currently the pilot, and she had shifted her slow-moving craft out of their way as quickly as she could. They could both hear the instructor on the comm telling the planes to leave; they were in private airspace and interrupting a training flight. The planes turned around for another pass, this time opening fire on the shuttle. The phasers they had strapped under their wings weren’t all that powerful, but to an unshielded shuttle they could still be a serious problem. Whiteboots had then tried calling for help, but his comm system was now being jammed by one of the planes. As Holly tried to keep the shuttle moving in unusual directions, Quickdash was trying to find something to use against the stunt birds.

Whiteboots had just opened the intercom to tell them to head back for space where the planes couldn’t follow, when he heard Quickdash growling, "We should have used Alpha for this test! We could have used his transporters to remove the power cells on those things and see how well they glide!"

Holly had hotly replied with, "The Captain always tells us to use what we have, not what we wish we had. What toys does this thing have that we haven’t played with yet?"

Whiteboots was again about to speak, when Quickdash had all but shouted, "Tractor beams!" They then sang out together, "Crack the whip!"

The old tod watched his screens in amazement. The kids were turning his shuttle back to face the planes as they were coming around for another pass. Quickdash grabbed the rightmost plane with a tractor beam. Shi had tightened its focus so instead of grabbing the whole craft, shi just had a grip on the plane’s left wing. Setting the beam to maximum pull, shi forced the craft towards the other two. The one in the middle dived out of the way, but the left craft didn’t react quite fast enough and they collided. With the other planes spiraling towards the ground, the remaining plane tried to run. Quickdash grabbed him by a wing and pulled the plane around in circles. The plane tried to pull a tight turn to shake Quickdash’s grip, but the pilot hadn’t added the tractor beam’s pull into his calculations. The high-G turn had been just barely within the craft’s normal operating envelope, the extra force on the wing overstrained it, tearing it from the plane.

Watching the last plane enter a tight spin on its way towards the ground, Whiteboots broke his long-standing rule. He switched on the video to the cockpit to see just who had not only protected his unarmed shuttle from an attack, but had also managed to use it to take out the attackers.

Holly was busy testing each of her controls to see what, if any damage had been done to the shuttle. Quickdash was the first to see the old tod staring at them in amazement. Nudging hir sister, shi pointed hir nose at the screen. Tapping hir comm badge, shi quietly said, "Daddy? I think we failed our test."

Neal’s voice had a calming affect on hir as he asked, "And why do you think that, kitten?"

Quickdash quickly gave Neal the details of the attack and what shi and Holly had done about it. Shi then informed Neal that even though they weren’t done flying, the instructor was watching them, and he didn’t look happy.

"Has he taken control of the shuttle from you?" Neal asked. At hir negative reply, he said, "Then finish your flight in style, kids. After all, we knew there was only a small chance he’d pass you, even with a perfect flight. By the way, Alpha is inbound to give you all a ride home. Once clear of controlled airspace, I think the others will let you fly him home."

The landing was so smooth that Whiteboots had been surprised when Holly had reported, "Done with engines." He had not even felt the landing skids making contact with the ground.

Mike and CalmMeadow were just returning. They had ‘borrowed’ Whiteboots’ hover car to check the wrecks – none of the attackers had been able to bail out.

As they were discussing their findings with the others, they all looked up to see Neal’s massive shuttle Alpha coming in to land next to Whiteboots’ craft. Usually Alpha looked smaller because it was normally attached to one of the huge pods it was designed to take to and from orbit.

As Neal left the shuttle, he heard Whiteboots telling the older kids and ScreamingWind that they had all passed. Whiteboots then turned to Quickdash and Holly and said, "I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can certify kids as young as you two to fly by yourselves." At their forlorn looks, he smiled as he added; "But I can certify you to fly with someone else in charge until you are older. One thing I would like to know though is how you knew how to do that trick with the tractor beam.

Quickdash had looked down, the insides of hir ears a bright pink. Holly quickly explained, "One day Neal was practicing flying a heavy load in bad weather and some of the other kids had thought it would be fun to ‘attack’ him with small fighters. On the first pass they knocked out his transporters, those being his favorite ‘weapon of choice’. Neal had dived into a canyon to keep us from coming at him from all sides, then whenever a fighter cleared the lip of the canyon, Neal would grab it with a tractor bean and pull it into the canyon wall. You don’t have any canyons close enough to hide in around here, so we had to make do with what we had. We had accused Neal of cheating, so he made us all learn how to do it."

Whiteboots looked at Neal as he slowly shook his head, "And you trained all these kids?"

Neal gave him a grin in return, "I don’t know how much prior training ScreamingWind had, but the other kids only started shuttle training a little over a year ago. Of course I cheated a bit. Most of the training was with an AI on a holodeck. I just stepped in when they needed a little more guidance or instruction."

"Guidance or instruction huh? Well it looks like your idea of guidance may have saved my tail today!" Cocking his head, Whiteboots asked, "Would it be possible for me to check out your Alpha? The way the kids were talking, it must be pretty special."

"Fine by me, " Neal agreed, "In fact, if you like you can take a ride up to the Folly with us, I need to bring a few things back down so you can be back late this evening."

"Would it be possible to bring my mate and my grandpups?" Whiteboots asked with a hopeful smile, "The kids always want to see new things, but as an engineer, my mate can be worse than the kids!"

Neal looked at his ‘crew’. "Bets, anyone?" he asked with a smile.

Whiteboots stared as the kids started naming off times from ’10 seconds unwarned’ to ‘20 minutes if warned, gagged and sat on’. Looking at Neal he cocked an eyebrow. To Whiteboots’ unasked question, Neal had grinned, "The ‘bet’ is on how long your ‘engineer’ can go without saying the ‘I’ word." As the fox tod continued to stare at him Neal laughed, "Most engineers will see my ship or something about it and say ‘That’s IMPOSSIBLE’, even though they can see that it does in fact work."

The bet was won, or lost depending on your point of view, when Whiteboots told his mate who was going to be piloting the large shuttle. Goldenmane, ‘Golden’ for her long honey-yellow hair, had said the ‘I’ word when she saw the two eight year olds. Whiteboots then told her about the three wrecks a few hills over and how they had ended up that way. Golden had been concerned that they would be blamed for the deaths, but Neal shook his head, "I carefully scanned the crash sites, all anybody is going to figure out is that two of them collided in midair, the other over ‘G-ed’ his bird. Three ‘Darwin Award’ winners." At the blank looks he was getting Neal clarified, "They’ve removed themselves from the gene pool so their ‘idiotic’ tendencies won’t be carried to the next generation. Just a little evolution in action."

The ride up to the Folly was interesting for all the passengers. Whiteboots rode in a seat between and behind the pilot/copilot seats listening as the kids explained the shuttles capabilities and limits, while Golden sat at the engineering station, muttering the ‘I’ word both at what the kids were telling her mate, as well as the readings she was seeing on the engineering station displays. Their teenage grandkids, a tod and two vixens, enjoyed the view out the ports and the tales Neal’s kids were telling them.

Once at the Folly, they were all treated to a massive late lunch; Stew having overdone things a bit to help celebrate the kids’ passing their tests.

After lunch, Quickdash and Holly volunteered to show Whiteboots the other shuttles. Neal ended up showing Golden the Folly’s engineering section, while their kids were introduced to tailstinger hide-n-seek tag on the holodeck.

Whiteboots was amazed at the shuttles. Alpha and Baker were both massive brute force shuttles, able to lift a fully loaded pod from a planet with a gravity of up to one and a half gravities. Charlie and Delta were larger, but could only carry two hundred carriers internally, their extra size was because they were warp capable, and they couldn’t handle a pod. Echo and Foxtrot were almost tiny in comparison, designed to just move pods from the Folly to nearby space platforms. Gulf was Neal’s latest work in progress, she was a little smaller than Charlie and Delta, and was more like a baby starship than a shuttle. With very little storage space in her bays, she had a lot more room for crew and living areas. Neal hadn’t mentioned it, but the kids had all figured out that Gulf was Neal’s new replacement for the ‘flight’ side of his Zulus. If anything she would be just a little faster than his current Zulus, but even longer ranged.

Golden was stunned when she walked into engineering, the warp core was large, but not as big as she had expected. Then Neal had brought up the main engineering controls and she said the ‘I’ word again when it showed not one warp core but eight, none of them the same size. It took quite some time to get her calmed down enough to listen but Neal was finally able to explain. Like most energy producing systems, warp cores have a ‘sweet spot’ where you get the most power out for the least fuel in. Running a core on either side of that mark wasted fuel. The Folly was so large that a single warp core would have to be huge both in size and cost, and would never be run at its most efficient, so it would be a fuel hog. Neal’s technique was to run multiple cores, each at their ‘sweet spot’. Which cores, and how many, was determined by the load the Folly was carrying, as well as the speed they wanted to go. Sometimes Neal would go a little faster than planned, because it allowed him to run all the online cores at their most efficient settings and thus actually using less fuel than he would have by going slower. After that Golden was almost immune to the explanation on the multiplexed sensor arrays that increased the Folly’s active and passive ranges. Seeing that he had overloaded her, Neal didn’t bother walking her though the other systems. Instead he showed her to the holodeck, her grandkids quickly roping her into the game.

That evening Whiteboots piloted Alpha down to Big Sur with a loaded cargo pod beneath it. Golden rode the engineering station, watching it give her more of those ‘impossible’ readings. Mike was acting as co-pilot, while Alex sat next to Golden, both advising their guests on the proper running of the large shuttle. After setting the pod next to the empty one, Alpha was detached and flown north to drop off Whiteboots and family, then back to Big Sur to take the empty pod back to the Folly.

The next morning, the twins parked Alpha on the already grounded cargo pod, while Shadowcrest and ScreamingWind brought down another loaded pod with Baker. Neal and a few of the kids stayed to supervise the unloading of the pods, the rest split into groups. Stew needed supplies, while others wanted to go shopping.

As soon as the pod’s main cargo door was opened, Neal was surprised to see Moonglow head for a carrier in the corner. Shi opened the carrier’s doors wide, and stepped inside. Moments later, there was a loud roar of an internal combustion engine that someone had neglected to install a muffler on. As shi rolled hir motorcycle out, the twins dashed over and jumped into the sidecar. As they put their helmets on, Moonglow gave Neal a wave as shi opened the throttle.

"Where are they off to?" Shortdash wondered aloud.

"Just out for a ride," Neal told hir. "Though shi did fail to warn me that shi was bringing hir bike down."

Weaver laughed. "Well at least shi kept hir promise not to run it down the hallways!"

"True," Neal agreed. "And shi’s in keeping with my rule of at least three together at all times."

"I still find it hard to believe that you have the twins packing phasers," Shortdash said as shi watched the bike disappear around a corner.

"Are you saying you want me to disarm hir?" Neal asked with a raised eyebrow.

"No," Shortdash said slowly, "I’m just having problems believing our daughter is growing up so fast."

"They all do that," Neal said slowly. "One moment they can’t be trusted to do something for five minutes without being distracted, the next you can’t believe they stayed up all night to get something done."

"Hir sensitivity seems to have grown since shi bonded with Holly." Quickwind said. Looking to hir mate, shi added, "We may have to think about training sooner than we had expected." At Weaver’s questioning look shi smiled. "Most chakats have their biggest physical and mental growth during puberty. Being separated from us and bonding with Holly seems to have caused Quickdash to mentally mature quicker. And if shi’s anything like we were, shi will need training to help hir control that sensitivity."

As the others took off in different directions for shopping and a little sightseeing, Neal, Mike, Cindy, and Shadowcrest supervised the unloading of the cargo pods. The train that was to take the carriers east had been delayed, so the stacks of carriers were being parked between the pods and the personnel terminal. Looking down from the top of one of the pods, it looked like someone was making a brick wall; the stacks of carriers were staggered, with enough space between them for a forklift to get whichever carrier it was after.

With the pods almost empty, Neal had suggested somebody pick a place for lunch, one large enough to handle his little crowd of hungry furballs.

With the lunchtime rush winding down, Ketta was just glancing out the window when the taur-sized motorcycle came to a roaring stop just outside the door. The coffee-and-cream colored chakat would only draw comment because of hir unusually large bust; the sidecar on the other hand did cause her to take a second look. Two young furs were climbing out of it, a chakat youth and a slightly smaller foxtaur vixen. The three stepped though the door and looked around.

The chakat youth spoke first. "It smells good in here. I think we’ve found lunch."

The foxtaur tapped her badge, "Captain, have you ever eaten at ‘Carol's Gulp N' Gallop’?"

A male voice replied though the comm badge, "A time or three, but it has been a few years. It’s mostly veggie, but if Joe is still at the grill, it will do just fine."

The busty chakat smiled at Ketta. "Do you expect it to get busy anytime soon?"

"No," Ketta replied with a grin. "Most of the lunch mob just left."

Moonglow grinned. "Well then, you’re about to get busy again" tapping hir badge shi sang out, "Red rover, red rover, send that hungry horde on over."

As vehicles started pulling up, Carol laughed at the strange group swarming into her place. The chestnut brown equitaur with them was just a little larger than Joe. Mike gave her a smile as he held the door open as the ‘horde’ rushed in.

Chakats and foxtaurs she was used to seeing, though the handful of hyperactive little ones was a surprise. The Caitians she barely noticed, as the group of four much larger Rakshani entered.

Knowing the big cats were making her boss nervous, Ketta placed her paw on Carol’s lower back. "I’ll take them," she said, indicating the Rakshani. At Carol’s raised eyebrow she grinned. "The little ones are climbing over them as much as anyone else, and the cubs wouldn’t do that to someone they didn’t know and trust."

With all the furs coming in, they didn’t notice the lone human until one of their human regulars cried out; "I’ve seen you on the news! You fur-hating types ain’t welcome here!" Jack said as he advanced on Neal, his hands balling up into fists.

Ketta turned, only to stare open-mouthed. The face of the human before her had been in the news only a few days before; part of the clip had shown him firing an old type projectile weapon. The other part of the chip had shown him taking a knife to the body of a taur. As she shook with reaction, her first thought was that she was glad that Nikol was safe with Stargrey that day. They traded off cub sitting each day, although Ketta had almost suggested she keep Nikol with her. She had found her tips were always better when her curious cub was helping keep the truckers entertained.

The angry trucker’s advance was halted when one of the Rakshani grabbed him by the collar of his shirt as he tried to get past her. Jake grabbed her wrists in an attempt to break her grip as she raised him to her eye level, his legs bicycling in the air.

"Dessa! Put him down gently." The voice had a command ring to it, one that suggested that it was holding back a fury of its own. As Dessa slowly lowered the now thoroughly frightened trucker, Neal placed a hand on her arm. In a gentler voice he added, "You’re old enough to know better. Scaring the messenger may mean you don’t get the whole message. And I for one want to know what he’s talking about."

As Neal turned, Ketta’s eyes went wide. The human had placed his left hand on the big Rakshani, his right hand having been occupied holding a small chakat.

With hir tail wrapped around his wrist, and both pairs of legs gripping his forearm, the little orange spotted, leopard-skinned chakat had twisted hir upper torso to see what was going on around hir. Hir dark brown eyes scanned the crowd; shi was letting out a little snarl at those staring at hir human with hate or fury on their faces. Then hir eyes met Ketta’s.

Stormy tapped Neal’s arm, when he looked down, shi pointed at Ketta. Neal looked over at Ketta, then back down at Stormy. "No milk checks," he quietly warned hir. At hir nod, he moved his arm closer to the table.

Firestorm leaped from his arm to the table, then shi did a six-legged run around the cups and plates to the side Ketta was on. Giving a happy yowl, shi leaped at Ketta who automatically caught hir. Stroking the happily squirming kitten, Ketta looked at Neal in total confusion.

Neal gave her a somber smile. "Hir name is Firestorm. Shi was one of the survivors of an attack on the spaceport on New Kiev."

Looking at the little chakat so she wouldn’t have to look at Neal, Ketta said, "A few days ago, they started showing your image on the news. You were firing a long projectile weapon in part of it. Then the view changed to that of you bending over a taur, a knife in your hand. The reporter said the clips were from the security cameras at the New Kiev spaceport. She also said that quite a few furs lost their lives that day."

Neal looked thoughtful, as well as hurt. "All those things did happen that day," he agreed, "but they seem to have left a few things out. Most of those furs were killed before I even knew that there was a fight going on." Nodding at the young chakat that had come in first, Neal said, "My first warning was someone just missing Quickdash. After I helped take out the Human First group, I rendered what aid I could."

Ketta looked down at the cub in her arms. "Hir parents?" she asked fearing she already knew the answer.

Neal sighed as he lowered his head. "Dead before I fired my first shot." He murmured. Looking up, Neal frowned as he looked at the trucker that had wanted to attack him, who was now in the protective arms of his Quange partner. "The shot where you saw me using a scalpel on the fur, could you see her upper torso?"

Jake watched Dessa as he carefully shook his head.

"Some very careful editing, it seems," said the busty chakat that had ridden in on the bike. Turning to Ketta and the truckers, Moonglow continued, "Without editing, you would have seen that the fur had been killed with a beam weapon. As they did show you, Neal was using a projectile weapon." Looking at Tom shi added, "The fur you saw him using the knife on was Stormy’s mother. He was removing Stormy from her womb before shi could die too. He then adopted hir. He hired me as a wet nurse and nanny for Firestorm." Giving them a small grin, shi added, "Since then, I have also become his mate."

Dessa frowned as she said, "Something stinks about the timing. The news should have gotten here a lot sooner than this. Isn’t Stormy almost eight months old now?"

"Almost," Neal agreed. "Do any of you remember if they mentioned a name or a ship in reference to the news clips?"

As Ketta and the truckers shook their heads, Weaver snorted. "It sounds like someone is trying to make you go into hiding, unable to show your face in public."

"Why?" Holly asked, "What good would that do?"

Shortdash snorted. "Follow the money trail. If this had happened a trip ago, Neal would have been alone. With everyone against him, he’s out of business. Since they didn’t drag his name or his ship into this mess, it is possible they think they can use the Folly without Neal’s face being a problem."

As the adults speculated on who was behind the personal attack on Neal, Quickdash pulled Holly into a booth with ScreamingWind and Shadowcrest. They were using their PADDs to find the clips on the local net. After viewing the clips, they had Tess relay them the original views she had picked up from the security cameras at the New Kiev spaceport. Making eye contact with each of them, Quickdash waited until they had all nodded in agreement before hitting ‘send’. Moments later, the news clip had a new subtitle labeled ‘Nice editing! But here’s the rest of the story’. In it were the full views, the first showing the Rakshani firing in support of Neal. The scene with him holding a blade over a taur now ran though him removing Firestorm, getting hir breathing, and handing hir to Shadowcrest.

Bonita had been keeping an eye on them; she now cleared her throat to get their attention. "Nice trick. Now point the local news services at it. That should speed things up a bit." She chuckle as she added, "With all the sneakiness that you seem to have gotten from Neal, I’m glad you’re on our side."

Stormy picked that moment to jump from Ketta's arms back to the table. Shi then leaped from one table to the next. Shi stopped when shi reached the table Jake and his Quange partner Morris, were sitting behind. Shi held out hir arms to Jake.

After looking at Neal and Dessa, Jack held out his arms for the little chakat to climb into. Looking at Neal as he stroked Stormy, he said, "I don’t understand."

Neal softly snorted as he grinned at the trucker. "I think shi’s trying to play peacemaker, by giving us something in common."

"Maybe we can give you a little more in common," ScreamingWind said as she approached the large monitor that was usually set to the weather channel. Plugging her PADD into the controls at the base, she fed the videos they had downloaded from Tess’s database.

First was Neal pumping his shotgun. But, now it was the original wide-angle view from the same camera, showing fourteen Rakshani hiding behind a wall as they added phaser fire to whatever Neal was shooting at. Then there was a small streak of red with white highlights that was Starblazer, as she ran out into the open. The Rakshani on the end dropped her weapon and dived after the little foxtaur. Throwing Star to one of the other Rakshani, Dessa bunched her legs to leap back to cover. She had just started to move when a phaser hit her. The viewers were left looking at her prone body for only a few seconds before she disappeared in a transporter beam.

Then the scene changed to Neal stepping up to the remains of two taurs, an open and already bloody med kit hanging from one hand. He started to turn away, but then turned back, looking confused. After another moment, he knelt next to one of them. Placing a hand on the taur’s belly, he yanked it away with a surprised look on his face. Digging though the med kit, he pulled out a scalpel. As he reached for the taur a box framed a small part of the view, showing where the other ‘news clip’ had been taken from. The view was looking at Neal over the taur’s body, so they didn’t see the actual cutting. The next thing they could clearly see was Neal lifting out a tiny taur. It wasn’t until Neal rolled the cub over, that they cold see it was a chakat. They watched silently until Neal got hir breathing; the number of gasps when the cub first cried out suggested that more than one of the observers had been holding their breath. The scene ended with Neal naming the cub as he handed hir to Shadowcrest.

As ScreamingWind set the monitor back to the weather channel, Jake looked down at the little chakat in his arms and then up to Neal. "Is shi really…?" he started to ask.

Neal nodded. "Shi is," he replied.

Joe had been watching the whole show from his kitchen, one hand on the comm panel in case he decided he should call for help. He now stepped up to the serving shelf and called out, "So are y’all hungry? Or did ya come in for just a chat?"

More than one stomach growled in reply, forcing a laugh out of Ketta.

Firestorm climbed out of Jake’s hands and back on the table. Going to the edge, shi pointed at Dessa. When Dessa stepped up to the table and offered Stormy her arms, shi pointed down. Shi then pointed at Neal and then at the floor again.

"I believe shi wants us to sit here," Neal said with a smile. "So, may we join you?"

Jake and Morris both nodded.

A few stools sat in a corner for the restaurant’s biped guests, they were soon all scattered around the room as Neal’s group was invited to join the regulars in a meal.

Joe was doing a quick head count and grumbling that he was going to run out things before they were all fed, when he heard a noise behind him. Turning around, he found a white and brown rabbit that had just started shredding lettuce heads with one of his knives.

"What do ya think ya be doin’ in me kitchen?" he demanded.

"Making sure you don’t run out of anything before my hungry horde is fed. Or did you want those big cats coming over that serving shelf to see what the delay is?" she asked with a grin. As Joe looked back at the four towering Rakshani, she added, "Besides, not only do I know what they do and don’t like, I also know what it feels like to be swamped." She shrugged. "Let me help you at least get your bins refilled."

Joe grumbled under his breath for a moment before nodding. "Just so long as ya remember that I do the cookin’ ’round here," he stated.

Setting the knife down, Suzan wiped her paw before offering it to the Shetland Pony equitaur. "Suzan Pebble, my friends call me Stew," she said with a grin.

Joe did a double take as the nickname registered, then her small paw disappeared into his much larger one. "Joe," he said, "and we don’t serve no ‘dead horse’ ’round here, just catsup." At her look of confusion, he grinned. "A while back we’d had some chakats from ‘down undah’ that kept demandin’ that somebody toss ’em de ‘dead horse’. Carol almost threw the lot of ’em out ’fore one of ’em got up and fetched it hirself."

With a few questions to make sure she got things the way Joe wanted them, Suzan quickly replenished his stocks and took over the deep fryers. When the batter for the onion rings ran low, she whipped up a small batch of one of her own recipes. Joe had almost forgotten he had an invader until he smelled something new coming from the fryer. Turning, he gave her back a glare.

Stew caught his glare as she turned to dump the basket, golden fried rings bouncing into the empty bin. "Try one," she told him, "If you don’t like them you can give me your recipe. Unless of course you think you can whip up a batch yourself without burning all that stuff on the grill."

Joe scowled as he picked up a hot ring, blew on it to cool it down a little, then popped it in his mouth. Suzan quietly watched as he tried a second ring, then he grabbed a handful and dropped them on a plate. He was carrying it over to the serving shelf just as Ketta walked up with another order. He took her order slip and handed her the plate of onion rings, "Take dis over ta Trevor. Tell ’em I’m askin’ his thoughts on a new recipe."

Smelling some of the new spices, Ketta snagged one for herself as she delivered the sample. It had a spicy burn to it, but not an overpowering one. She made a note to herself to pick up a double order before she went home that evening to share with Stargrey and Nikol.

Stew and Joe watched Trevor try one of the spicy rings. Trevor was an older, heavyset Quange who had been one of the very first customers to walk into ‘Carol's Gulp N' Gallop’. Joe often asked his opinion on new things before risking them on his other customers.

Trevor continued reading his news page and glancing up at the large monitor as it showed some of the areas he would soon be driving through. One by one the rings disappeared from his plate. Once they were gone, he put down his reader and cocked his head. After a moment, he caught Ketta's attention. When she came over, he quietly said something to her, and then picked his reader up and moved on to the next news story of interest.

Ketta walked over to the serving shelf, holding her face expressionless. "I don’t think he thought much of them Joe," she told him before she broke into a grin as she added, "He only wants five orders now, and ten in a to-go bag!"

Joe turned to Suzan; "Yous are gonna give me da recipe, right?"

She grinned at him, as she said, "Trade." At his raised eyebrow, she added, "You teach me how you prepared those vegeburgers. The Rakshani usually turn up their noses at mine."

Looking out where said Rakshani were wolfing down vegeburgers like they were the best treats they’d had in a while, Joe gave Stew a lopsided grin. "Deal!" he agreed, "But first stir up a big batch and slice up a few dozen more onions, I think we’re gonna be needin’ ’em!"

As the rush died down, Joe actually had to ask one of the large Rakshani to remove Suzan from his kitchen so he could get her to sit down and eat something. Bonita had laughed as she picked up the much smaller rabbit and carried her out, telling Joe that Stew often had to be kicked, dragged, or otherwise thrown out of other people’s kitchens.

Alex and Cindy rode Moonglow’s sidecar back to the spaceport, while the rest piled into the rented vehicles for the short trip. Parking the vehicles at the terminal, they started walking among the staked carriers on their way back to the shuttles.

A couple of the forklift operators had seen Neal leave and had decided that he must have arrived on the Folly. To demonstrate that letting a fur murderer travel with them was a bad idea, they had decided to trash some of Folly’s offloaded cargo. It had taken them a little while to disable the safeties built into their forklifts, but now one of them slid his pickup tongs just a little ways under one of the stacks of carriers. Raising the side less than a meter shifted the center of gravity for the stack beyond the far side. There was little noise as it fell, just some creaking and a rush of wind from the edges just before impact.

The first sign of trouble was when they heard a loud crash.

"What the hell?" Zhanch demanded

"Don’t know," Neal said, looking in the direction of the noise as it echoed off the rows of stacked carriers. "Get everyone back to the shuttles, we can find out there." Tossing Stormy to Zhanch, Neal added, "MOVE!"

As they ran, there was another crash. This one was closer and echoing from in front of the group, causing several of the little ones to jump free of their holders and change directions. Shadowcrest and the twins raced after them while the main group continued on the more direct path to the pod. They were almost to the pod when the stack they were running beside started to tip. Most of the furs were almost clear of the stack of carriers when it shifted, being the slowest of the group, Neal was bringing up the rear, and Dessa had lagged behind to try to speed him up. Estimating that they couldn’t get clear in time, Dessa grabbed Neal’s wrist with one paw. With the other she grabbed the corner of the next carrier stack as she went by it, yanking herself and Neal into a hard and fast turn. She let go, and quickly dragged Neal to the next corner, then grabbed that corner to put them on the far side from the falling stack. Only just able to keep his feet under him, Neal barely got his other arm up to protect his face before they slammed into the side of the carrier. The falling stack slammed into the stack they were hiding behind as well as the one next to theirs, the upper most carrier coming apart from the diagonal forces that were applied to it. The next carrier down dug into the two still-standing stacks and kept the stack from falling any further.

Dessa had held them right at the corner of the carrier, ready to dodge back around it if it had also started to tilt. With things momentarily stable, she took stock of the situation. Two broken claws and a sore arm were the extent of her injuries, but Neal wasn’t as well off. The last yank around the corner had dislocated his right shoulder, and the slam into the side of the carrier had badly bruised his other arm as well as his face and chest.

She was just trying to get Neal back on his feet when another crash sounded from behind and to the side of them. As the grinding of tortured metal stopped she could hear a piercing scream that made her blood run cold. It could only have come from one of the smaller cubs, the pitch being too high for an older fur to make. The crying scream sounded again, suggesting the cry wasn’t for the crier, but for another.

As Dessa was pulling Neal to safety, the rest of the main group had rounded the tipping stack heading for the problem. The protective cage the driver sat in protected the forklift operator from their stunners, but he was quick to surrender after Shortdash melted a hole in his windshield with hir phaser. As shi and Quickwind detained the driver, the rest headed for where the other crashes were occurring. At the sound of the cub’s scream, Bonita ordered the others to help the child while she and Kestrel went after the other forklift.

Holly and Quickdash had thought Shadowcrest was right behind them when the carrier crashed nearby. A mental stab of pain caused Holly to stumble, while it knocked Quickdash off hir feet. Picking up the now sobbing cubs, they ran back the way they’d come. They found Spitfire screaming hir lungs out as shi hunched over the unconscious Shadowcrest. The rear third of Shadowcrest's lower torso was crushed under the fallen carrier, a pool of blood slowly growing beneath hir.

Holly was the first to snap out of her momentary daze. Turning to Quickdash, she said, "Think Dessa! The same things can save hir!"

Still trying to concentrate through the emotional load the cubs were battering hir with, Quickdash nodded and tapped hir comm badge. "Tess, Shadowcrest has been badly hurt. Shi needs to be processed NOW!"

Tess’ reply was not what they wanted to hear. "It will be three hours until the Folly is in range, unless you order me to break orbit, but even then will still take twenty-three minutes."

"Too long," Quickdash murmured, the panicked cubs making it hard for hir to think, not realizing shi was broadcasting that same panic to Holly.

"Stasis! Tess used a stasis field on Dessa!" Holly tapped her comm badge. "Alpha! Emergency power up! When power is up, beam the portable stasis field generator to this location."

"Commands understood," the shuttle confirmed.

"Tess," Holly asked, still feeling the press of time, "How long would it take for you to get a string of Zulus in place for a relay transport?"

"Eight minutes."

"Do it!" she ordered as the portable stasis generator materialized beside her.

Fumbling in their hurry to set up the unit, they then pulled the crying cubs off Shadowcrest before activating it.

The stasis generator had just come up to full strength, when the others came around the last carrier. They found the three little chakats in a tight ball with Holly and Quickdash wrapped around them. Just beyond them was the stasis field, partly hiding Shadowcrest's form.

By the time the authorities arrived, both forklift operators were in custody. One of them locked the perpetrators in their vehicle, while the other followed Kestrel and the others to the rest of their group.

Among the damaged and destroyed carriers, they found everyone else in what looked like a large group hug. While the spaceport security fur stared at the stasis field and its grisly cargo, it took a minute for Shortdash and Quickwind to work their way to Quickdash, shi and Holly were buried at the heart of the hug, still holding Spitfire and hir sisters.

"We choked! When it was a real emergency, we panicked! Did we take too long? Will shi be all right?" Holly babbled, as Weaver held her tight.

Shortdash could only add hir own supportive hug. Shi couldn’t answer because shi didn’t know the answers hirself. Shi watched as Quickwind helped LongSock hold Quickdash. Shi didn’t know how this was going to end, but shi did know that if their bond was so tight that it could keep them from operating in severe conditions, then it was past time to start training both of them. Not only would Quickdash need training on controlling hir mental powers, Holly would need to be trained with how to cope with those powers being directed at her.

Dessa appeared coming around the rubble from the other side. She was carefully carrying Neal, whose bloodstained face showed that they hadn’t gotten off scot-free either.

Neal was just turning his head towards the stasis field when it collapsed, giving him a momentary view of Shadowcrest's body before shi was transported away.

Shi was in a place without landmarks, the distance fading into the fog.

Shi remembered pain, but shi couldn’t think of a reason for it.

Shi remembered there was something shi should be doing, but for the moment it eluded hir.

A figure appeared before hir, a figure like shi had never seen before. At first glace, it… no she (shi?) looked like a lynx morph, but no morph shi had ever seen sported such a beautiful set of wings.

The figure was floating (but not flying!) just above the ground; she gently set down in front of Shadowcrest. Looking down at herself, she smiled as she said, "That’s quite an imagination you have little one, I don’t think the others have ever imagined us like this before."

"Are… are you the deity Neal has been telling us about?" shi asked in wonder, "Is that the way you really look?"

Flicking her thick tail in amusement, she said, "Close enough, little one."

"Am I d-dead?" Shadowcrest stuttered.

"Not yet, and not at all if your little sisters have anything to say about it," she said with a gentle smile. "They have just placed you in what I understand you call a stasis field. They are having Tess send out some of her ‘Zulus’ to relay you up to the Folly to be processed."

"Do I have to be processed?" shi asked, remembering Dessa and the others.

The figure indicated to the side. There, Shadowcrest could now see hirself laying on the ground, the carrier across hir lower torso. Phantom pains started crawling up hir back before shi turned away. Looking the other direction, shi could see the pile of furs that shi had learned to love calling hir family – and shi remembered what shi had forgotten. "Spitfire!" Shi cried out.

"Safe," the figure beside hir quietly said. "You were able to get hir clear of the falling carrier, just not yourself."

No longer afraid, Shadowcrest looked up at the deity. "Will you help process me?" shi asked.

The deity nodded as she wrapped her arms around Shadowcrest, and after a moment shi returned the hug. Feeling the wings also wrapping around hir as the sounds of the stasis field faded so the transporter could collect hir, shi almost didn’t hear her softly say,

"Neal didn’t accept my treat that day on Raksha."

"You did."


Continued in Chapter 7.

Copyright © 2006 Allen Fesler – Redbear1158@hotmail.com

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

Zhane and family are copyright Boyce Garald Kline Jr and used with his permission.

The Quange were created by Roy D. Pounds II and are used with his permission. (if he likes it!)

( 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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