Tales of the Folly
by Allen Fesler
Book One: The Curse

Chapter: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17



The cool morning breeze felt good tousling his dark red hair, as Neal half watched, half supervised the loading. Forklifts moved pallets and crates from trucks into transport carriers, which would then be transferred to his cargo pod, and then the overpowered shuttle attached to the pod would lift the whole mess skyward. Once in orbit, the pod would be reconnected to the ship, the carriers would then be shifted to the main cargo holds, or moved to other pods to be dropped where the larger vessel couldn't go.

It would of course have been much easier to just pick up the loads already in carriers at one of the space stations, but that would have entailed paying others to get the cargo into orbit, never mind the extra expenses of the docking/storage fees. This way his ship was out of the way in high orbit, and with his own shuttle on the ground, he could leave when he was ready, knowing exactly what was loaded where, with no 'missing' packages when he got to his destination.

Another 'little' advantage of having his shuttle on the ground was the fresh air. Pumps onboard pulled in air, compressed, chilled, and stored what he needed, unwanted gasses were vented back into the atmosphere, saving a little of the 'high cost of doing business in space'.

There had been problems earlier. A group of 'Humans First' idiots had been chasing and trying to beat up any furs they came across. Funny how they had seemed to be in such a big hurry to leave when some seemingly half-crazed red-haired human had started using what looked like an old pump shotgun to pelt them with a painful concoction of large birdshot and rock salt.

The shotgun in question was still sitting behind his chair in case they came back, the ammo changed out to something that would make a bit more of a dent if they were in need of another hint.

After dinner the night before, Neal had visited an old coffee shop he had been going to for over thirty years, the shop offering a mellow tea he enjoyed. It was just as he was getting ready to leave that the old proprietor had placed the curse on him. He had just stood there at the door not quite believing his ears. Staring back at the grin his old friend was giving him, he could only shake his head in return, "Take back your curse, you old furball!" he said with a smile of his own, "I really don't need something like that hanging over my head." The old foxtaur had just laughed as Neal left his shop.

Just as he was smiling again thinking about last night, a small fleet of heavily loaded trucks pulled up. The emblems on the doors showed that they belonged to Raynor Inc., one of the larger companies that used him to move their goods across the space lanes. Not seeing the fur he was used to dealing with, Neal's curiosity went up a notch.

"Where’s Snowfall?" he asked the man coming up to him.

"I’m your new rep," the guy said with a smirk, as he handed Neal the shipping orders, "Bill Stalk."

Walking back to his fold out desk, Neal tapped his comm badge, "Tess, a quick scan of these docs please. Check for any tricks or traps."

"You expecting a problem, boss?" a female voice replied.

" ‘Something’ is so fishy I think I’m going to need tarter sauce," Neal whispered back.

"Two jars in the lunchroom cooler, four more in the back of the break-room cabinet three."

"Smart-assed computer," Neal hissed with a half smile as he flipped through the sheets, letting the scanner in his glasses get a good shot, then moving on to the next.

He was halfway down the stack when he heard the tone from his comm badge.

"Got it," Tess reported. "Turn back to page 34. Halfway down in all the fine print is an employment contract, if you sign any of the pages in this stack, you become their newest, cheapest, wage slave for the next 25 years."

"Great! They’re back to their old tricks again," Neal groused. "They must’ve had another management shuffle; the new idiots thinking they can do something the last five sets couldn't manage!"

"Maybe so," Tess replied, "but what are you going to do about it?"

Neal looked back at the 'rep' still standing just outside the pod’s main doors, "Patch me through to Snowfall, voice only. Let's see what shi knows about this." He smiled as he added, "I wonder how many heads we can make roll this time?"

Thinking back to the past attempts to get him working for them under their terms, Neal wondered why they kept trying. By now they should know that playing their games just cost them more to get him to ship their cargo.

"The receptionist says shi's in a meeting and can't be disturbed," Tess reported.

"Tell them that if I don't speak with Snowfall, their cargo will have to be shipped by someone else," Neal replied. "Tack on the shipping orders so they get an idea of how 'little' cargo that is."

"Ooh, mean boss. That should get their attention!"

"That’s the idea Tess. Now be a good girl and send it on down the line." Neal was smiling again. The 'new rep' was starting to look a bit nervous.

Less then a minute later, Snowfall was on the line, "Neal, why are you calling me?" Starting the conversation with a question told Neal shi wasn't able to talk freely. Either someone was with hir or shi thought the line was being monitored.

"Do I have a new rep, or is someone trying to blow smoke up my ass?" Neal asked acting pissed.

"What? Wait, where are you getting the idea you have a new rep?" Snowfall asked, her voice rising as she spoke.

One of the many things Neal liked about Snowfall was shi had always been very honest in all hir dealings with him. Shi had gotten even madder than he had at some of the tricks hir company had tried in the past. Neal had made it a point to only work with Snowfall; shi was the only one who could talk his fees down. Anyone else trying just got them raised, one trickster got Neal angry enough to actually leave a large shipment sitting on the loading docks. Since most of it had been going to their own manufacturing facilities, they had production lines stopping as they ran out of resources. Their stock prices dropping almost 20% because of the delays had insured that they were very careful how they dealt with him the next time around.

Neal replied with no smile in his voice, "You mean you don't know about this idiot at my door, not only claiming to be my new rep, but thinking I’m dumb enough to sign a set of shipping orders with an employment contract written into them?"

There was silence on the other end, then Snowfall quietly said, "No, I was only told one of the drivers would be just giving you the shipping orders." Then even more softly, "I take it you’re upset about this?"

"You might say that," Neal said, "Tell your bosses the cost to ship just doubled."

A new voice on the other end shouted, "You can't just increase your price!"

Neal’s smile could now be heard as he said, "You're now up to four times, would you like to say anything else?"

"Mute connection!" Snowfall's voice cut in before anyone could say anything else.

"Muted at this end too, boss," Tess said. "Sounds like somebody didn't read their own history on how you deal with dirty tricks."

"Snowfall is probably clueing them in on that, as well as the little fact that I’ve left their cargo on the docks before for their troubles," Neal said, some of the anger leaving his voice.

"Do you think they will go for it?" Tess asked.

"They don’t have much of a choice really," Neal sighed, "They’re just losing some of the savings I was giving them for shipping such a large order. Snowfall and I had negotiated the shipping costs down to almost a tenth of what they would usually be, due mostly to the size of the order and that most of it is going to one destination. Even if I go to eight times, I’m still cheaper than what I would have typically charged, and a lot lower than any of the other carriers can afford to offer. Then there’s the problem that none of the other ships presently in the area can handle the whole load, and they won’t be able to make the deadline."

"Why don't they just get their own ship?" Tess asked.

"The cost of a ship, upkeep, paying a crew, fuel, and then keeping it busy enough to make it profitable," Neal said, "After all, I made the ‘Folly’ out of major parts from five older cargo ships, smaller pieces from over a dozen more. She's pretty much a one-of-a-kind beast done on the cheap."

"The specifications of which you put out on the net, public domain, so pretty much anyone could try to copy her."

"Sure, they may have the basic blocks, but not how I strung it all together, so they can't figure out how the Folly goes as fast and far as she does on so little fuel."

"That, and pirates don't seem to do so well when they meet up with her," Tess said.

"Now that is just pure dumb luck," Neal said, his smile returning.

"Riiiight," Tess said. "Oops, they're back. Unmuting now."

Snowfall’s voice was the next on the line. Shi sounded like shi was trying to speak quietly after just having had a shouting match with someone. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Captain. The new rates have been accepted, and new shipping orders are being sent to you as we speak. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"That should do it. Thank you for clearing up that little problem so quickly," Neal replied. "Should I send the idiot packing, or do you want to take care of him?"

"We’ll deal with him," Snowfall all but growled.

"Have fun!" Neal said, then had Tess disconnect.

The replacement shipping orders had come and the 'new rep' had been removed. After scanning the orders, they were found to be the same as before, minus the employment contract. The reason for double-checking was Neal didn't trust them not to try again, and if they ever got him under their thumb, they would take away his freedom to go where he wanted when he wanted.

The rest of the day and well into evening was spent shifting cargo pods between the ground and the Folly. Even though each cargo pod was quite large, it still took six of them to move all the shipments heading out this time. Not all the traffic was uphill. Neal brought down a pod and a half, mostly consumer goods, and a few carriers of food that couldn't be grown locally. The last trip was from the Folly to the high orbit space station to drop off a pair of warp engines for a ship nearing completion, back to the Folly for a pod, then down to the ground to pick up the last of this trip’s outgoing cargo.

Coming up on the Folly, Neal had to smile. Every engineer that had ever seen his ship had told him it couldn’t possibly make it to warp, and if it did, it would be out of fuel in no time. Funny thing was, the Folly not only went to warp, she went faster than some ships a fraction of her size, and in some cases, used less fuel to do so, which in turn made it easier to be the lowest bidder when it came time to move someone’s cargo while still maintaining a profit.

She wasn't much on 'looks' since Neal's main objective had been more towards 'works'. Take two large freighters, their main cargo spheres looking like they had all but collided nose to tail, with docking ports and bays filling the gap between them. Behind them was a thick pole-like section with rows of cargo pods attached. A few slots were empty, making that section look like a cob of corn with a few kernels missing. Next came the main engineering section with the warp engine nacelles out on long adjustable booms.

After docking and verifying the flight path with Tess, he ordered her to bring the needed warp cores online and head for their next stop at an economical warp four.

While having a quick snack, Neal checked through his mail. One of his accounts that only a few people knew about, had a new message. He started laughing as he began to read. Snowfall was more than a little pissed, not at him, but at her now 'ex'-workmates, and was blowing off a little steam.

It seemed that the now outgoing management types had tried to blame the cost increase on Snowfall because shi hadn't 'warned' them about him and his 'temper'. Shi had pointed out that it was hard to warn someone about something when they were doing it behind hir back. The top brass having seen this ‘trick gone wrong’ before, knew whom to blame, so Snowfall stayed and three levels of 'stupid-visors' were shown the door.

Neal had liked Snowfall from the moment he had met hir, and shi had always understood him better than anyone else working there. Shi had never acted like a ‘brown nose’, and if he put a final yes or no on a business-related subject, that was it, shi stopped asking. When not talking business though, they had yet to find any limits on joking, storytelling, or teasing, just as long as you remembered that turnabout was fair play. Shi still didn't know how he had filled hir home bathtub with cherry jello the day shi had swapped his sweetened tea for a very bitter one at lunch.

Shi even put up with the nicknames he would give hir. Snowfall was one of the largest chakats he had ever seen at just inches under his own six foot height, and hir tiger-striped fur was almost a pure white-on-white. He would often say that shi came down on hir adversaries like an avalanche, after first blinding them with a blizzard. When caught by one of hir jokes or gags, he would claim he had been snow-blinded. Shi would return the favor by calling him Red, or hir pain in the tail, which he would then offer to tie in a knot.

Shi had asked him home for dinner with hir mate Sandrunner, only to find hirself the odd one out. Sandy and Neal had hit it off at once, and had spent the whole time talking sensor and transporter theory until well after dawn. Neal had found out later that hir sandy-shaded mate had spent the next three days bouncing off the walls trying to fully grasp what he had been trying to explain to hir, and trying to write it all down before shi forgot anything important. What had confused Snowfall the most was how a mere freighter captain could know enough theory to get one of Star Fleet's top transporter techs that excited.

Still chuckling at Snowy’s rant, Neal brought up the maintenance logs to see what needed doing tomorrow. He had just opened the logs when an alarm went off. As he got up, Tess called his station, "Captain, my sensors are picking up movement."

Since they weren't shipping any live cargo, either they had cargo shifting or someone/something had gotten onboard without being noticed.

"Where?" Neal asked as he put his shoes back on. Leaving the bridge, he stopped by the weapons locker, belted on a stunner, and then he grabbed the shotgun. Loaded with large buckshot, it would chew up most living things, but not put a hole in the hull.

"External bay 23, row delta, the last one you loaded," Tess reported. "So far I can make out at least ten life forms; looks like mostly taurs."

Neal put the safety back on the shotgun but didn't shoulder it. "What the hell are a bunch of taurs doing on my ship?" he muttered.

"No idea," said Tess. "I guess you'll just have to ask them."

"Have the force fields ready just in case," Neal said as he got to the hatch.

"Ready when you are boss."

Neal opened the first hatch, entered and locked it behind him. Now even if his ‘guests’ made it past him and the fields, they still wouldn't have the run of his ship.

Opening the second hatch, he brought the lighting up to full and stepped into the bay.

"Alright, I know you're in here. Come on out where I can see you," he called, his voice echoing off the walls.

After waiting a moment and not getting any reply he said, "Okay, if there are no humans or furs in here, the sensors must have picked up rats, and since I don't like rats, my method of getting rid of them is venting the bay to space." He chuckled for effect. "Haven't seen a rat yet that could breath vacuum."

This caused some frantic whispering from behind one of the carriers.

After giving them a few moments to think things over, Neal called out again, "Last chance. Hmmm.... no answer. Must have been rats after all."

As he made some noise working the latch handle, a voice cried out, "Wait please! We’re coming!"

One by one, a dozen furs all in their early teens came around the corner of the carrier: six chakats, three foxtaur vixens, a very large male equitaur, a female fox and a male cat and, if Neal was any judge, none of them old enough to be out on their own.

One of the chakats tried to put on a bold front. "Take me to the captain," shi demanded.

Neal cocked his head, sizing hir up. "And who might this ‘captain’ be to you?" he asked with a smile.

"Shi’s my mother's sibling," Brighteyes replied, no longer sounding quite so sure of hirself.

"And does hir ship have strap-on cargo pods, like the one you're in?" Neal asked softly.

Before shi could form an answer, Neal asked, "What ship were you trying to stow away on anyway?"

"The ‘Twintails’," Brighteyes all but whispered, realizing they were all in trouble. They had just barely avoided the Human First groups on the ground earlier, and now they were on the wrong ship, with an armed human that didn’t seem at all pleased to see them.

"Twintails, huh?" Neal said, "Dawn's-light runs that ship as I recall, crew of ten, none of them human last I saw, not the fastest ship around, but well maintained."

Brighteyes could only nod slowly, as Neal continued, "You've probably figured out by now you caught the wrong ship, so I guess introductions are in order. I’m Neal Foster, and you’re aboard the Folly."

They whispered among themselves for a moment, then the vixentaur Graysocks asked, "What are you going to do with us?"

"Is there something I should be doing with you?" Neal asked her with a smile.

"Can you take us home?" This from the fox named Cindy.

"Not until I finish this run, I’m afraid," Neal answered. "I’m on a timetable and have to be a certain places at certain times."

"So when can you take us home?" This again from the fox.

"If everybody I need to deal with is ready when I get there, about sixteen months, but it could be as long as twenty three."

If they had been long enough, twelve jaws would have bounced off the deck.

Neal waited for them to say something. As the silence continued, he finally asked, "How long was the Twintails expected to be gone?"

"Just over two years." Brighteyes replied slowly.

"Not a problem then," Neal said. "I can get you all home in plenty of time."

The furs were now looking anywhere but at Neal. After another moment, Neal spoke, "Why am I getting the funny feeling that none of you told your parents what you were up to today?"

Now the furs looked like they wanted to sink into the deck.

Neal continued, "When they try tracking your movements, they’ll find you went to the spaceport. Add the Humans First attacks earlier, and since there will be no record of you leaving, what do you think your parents are going to be thinking?"

"Can I call my dad?" asked Alex the cat.

"Not till we reach the next port," Neal replied. "By then you will have been missing for weeks."

"Please," one of the chakats pleaded, "I have to tell them I’m okay!"

Neal quickly held up his hand before they could say any more. Half of them looked ready to panic, the rest ready to plead and beg. "I may not be able to let you each call your parents, but I can get word to them that you're alive and well."

"How?" someone asked.

"I can't just patch through the FTL relays, but I can drop a message to a starbase we will be passing close to in a few hours."

"What will you tell them?" asked Cindy, looking like she already knew she wouldn't like the answer.

"Well," Neal said, "the safest thing for me to say is the truth: found a dozen stowaways, add your names and who needs to be contacted for each of you, and tell them how to contact me in return."

"You’re going to keep us?" asked Alex.

"It’s either that or drop you off at the next port. Your choice really."

Brighteyes, looking very scared and ready to cry, asked, "You mean you would just leave us?"

"Only if you wanted me to, after all, keeping you against your will is kidnapping, and that’s something I’m not into."

The kids calmed down a little on hearing this.

"Now what?" asked Alex.

"We keep on keeping on," Neal said with half a smile. "Get your information for that message, then some food in you, then someplace for you to sleep tonight. Then tomorrow we see where we go from there."

The message was set up and queued to go out as they passed the starbase. The meal was almost done when the alarm went off again. The kids had been complaining about the food packs, saying that they were not to their taste, nor sized for the taurs, when Tess broke in to announce more life forms where there should have been none.

Neal was at the inner hatch on bay twelve, row baker, the first cargo pod to be loaded and lifted after Neal had chased away the Humans First rabble. Before opening the second hatch, he looked back at the kids, all of whom had followed him to see what was going on. "Look," he said, "if you're coming in, you will do as I say, understand?"

There was a mixed choir of 'yes' and 'OK'. Neal brought his shotgun to the ready and opened the hatch. With the lights up, nothing moved, just row after row of carriers casting long shadows down the bay. "Hello!" Neal called out, "Show yourselves".

No sound other than that of the kids behind him. He tapped him comm badge. "Tess, full scan. Where are they hiding?"

A few seconds later, Tess responded, "Two carriers to the right of your current position, still in the carrier. Scans show more taurs, one large, one medium, two small."

Two carriers down, the door looked like something on the inside had come loose and bowed it outward a little. The latch that should have opened easily from either side had a bent rod jamming it closed.

Eyeing the set up, Neal set his gun to the side, and looked to the kids. "Hey big guy," he said looking at the big equitaur whose name he’d learned was Mike. "Think you can bend that rod back?"

Mike looked at it and smiled, "No problem, sir." Stepping up, he twisted it back into place with little effort.

"You guys might turn out to be useful after all," Neal said with a smile. "Now stand clear while we see who our guests are," he said as he worked the latch.

Only Tess's force field kept Neal from getting clawed as the hatch opened. A chakat youth, about eight or nine years old, jumped at Neal, was bounced to the side by the field, then seeing Neal start hir way, ran for the shadows.

Neal had taken another step as if to follow when he heard sounds of crying in the carrier. Along with stale air came the smell of blood.

Looking at the kids, he said, "Catch hir if you can. Try not to hurt hir, but don't let yourselves be hurt either."

"And if we can't catch hir?" one of them asked.

"Then we’ll try something else, but right now I need to find out who in that carrier is bleeding badly enough that even I can smell it."

As he moved toward the hatch again, the chakat youth came around the other side still trying to stop him. This time the force field knocked her away from both Neal and the carrier, as shi hit the deck shi found hirself blocked on all sides.

"Why didn't you tell us shi was coming back?" someone asked.

"Think about it. Anything I could have said would have told hir that I knew where shi was and start hir running again. For now, see if you can calm hir down. I still have work to do."

Opening the hatch fully, Neal could see two smaller furs, one foxtaur, the other a chakat both about six years old. As his eyes adjusted to the inside of the darker carrier, he saw the third fur, an adult foxtaur vixen backed in and wedged partway between the crates, her right arm bent at the wrong place, with dried blood all down that side of her torso.

"I could use some help with this," Neal called. As the kids came to the hatch he said, "See if you can get the little ones out and calmed down, while I see what I can do for the vixen."

The vixen’s name was Weaver, and though she didn't try getting up, she pleaded, "Please don't hurt them!"

Neal held his hands out showing they were empty, "In case you didn't notice, everyone with me is a fur, and no one here wants to hurt you or yours."

Weaver eased back, stopping as it brought on pain. Neal called over his shoulder, "Someone bring me the med kit. It's that big white box with the red cross, to the right of the hatch we came in."

A moment later it was in his hands. He removed a scanner and ran it across her body.

"Both bones broken right forearm, three ribs cracked upper torso, forward right thigh broken." As he continued the scan, Neal stopped in surprise, and went back over her lower torso. He looked at her carefully as he asked, "When is your child due?"

"Sometime in the next two or three weeks. Why? Isn’t my child alright?" she asked.

Neal replied slowly, "As far as I can tell, the child's scan looks okay, but the trauma to the rest of your body could cause you to go into labor sooner than expected."

"How long until your next port?" she asked

"Too long. Tess, options please." Neal studied the readout that formed in his glasses, then selected his choice. "Bring up core number three. Once online, bring us up to warp six." Looking back to Weaver, he said, "About eight days to port with the added speed. That will give us a few extra days at port for the birth and to get everything you'll be needing to take care of her."

"Her?" from one of the kids.

"Scan shows a female. Not knowing what her mate was, I wanted to make sure I didn't have a baby chakat to deal with," Neal responded without turning around.

"What would be wrong with the baby being a chakat?" demanded chakat Roseberry.

Neal turned to look hir in the eye, "Have you had your lessons on the birds and the bees?"

"Of course," shi said wondering where this was leading.

Neal continued, "Then you are aware that a chakat baby would need trace nutrients that are only available in a chakat’s milk to get everything shi needs?"

Hir eyes went wide as shi saw what shi had missed.

Seeing that shi understood, Neal smiled, "So for a baby chakat with a non-chakat mother, we would have to add to the shopping list, either finding a chakat wet nurse that likes to travel, or try finding a source of chakat milk at almost every port. If we couldn't, we would be risking the child's health by not having a constant source."

"What about us?" chakat Dusk asked.

"First, are you old enough to make milk, second would you be willing to play 'wet nurse' for the next two years or so, never mind that we would still need some chakat milk to get you started?"

Weaver took this time to end the debate. "A good thing all that’s a non-issue."

"True," Neal told the vixentaur, "But it does give my stowaways some idea on how hard it can be to handle unexpected surprises in space."

"Stowaways?" she inquired.

"Somebody thought it would be a wonderful idea to surprise hir aunt by stowing away, and shi brought a few friends along for the ride," Neal said as he pulled equipment from the med box. "Needless to say they caught the wrong ship."

"What are you doing?" Weaver asked looking at the small pile of hardware he was assembling.

Setting up a work light, Neal said, "Well, I can't move you without causing you more damage and pain, so I’m going to start fixing you up here and now. Once we get you patched up, we can move you." Neal looked around as he called, "Hey, big guy, if you can stand the blood, I could really use your help on this."

The equitaur came forward slowly; the smells of the now crowded carrier making him uneasy.

"Easy, Mike," Neal said seeing how much white was showing around his eyes. "I’m going to want you to hold the bones together so I can mend them. Think you can handle that?"

Mike slowly nodded. Neal gave him a smile and a pat on the arm. "Good, just let me get her ready." At that, he placed two small disks on the vixentaur, one at the shoulder, the other on her hip. "These nerve blocks will keep you from feeling most of the pain. However they can't stop all of it."

"I understand," she said. "Let’s just get it over with."

Turning on the devices, Neal turned to the equitaurs. "Place one hand at her elbow, the other at her wrist. When you're ready, I’ll guide you on getting the bones in place to set them."

After a few moments of careful pulling and twisting, Neal leaned back and set down the scanner. "Can you hold her just like that for about five minutes?" At Mike’s nod, Neal placed a wrap around device over the break. Before turning it on he looked at Weaver, "Everything looks good, but in order to make sure we haven't pinched a nerve, I need to turn off to block and have you tell me what you feel." At Weaver’s nod, he deactivated the shoulder block.

The vixentaur's face told him she was hurting, but she managed a weak smile and said, "Not as bad as before."

Turning back on the block, Neal turned on the other device. "This will close the skin and start knitting the bones back together. After a few minutes, they'll be strong enough that you will be able to relax," he told Mike.

While waiting for the arm to set, Neal reached for a handheld bone knitter. This one he held over her cracked ribs.

"Good thing all your injuries are all up front," he said. At Weaver’s questioning look, he elaborated. "I don't dare use these toys near your child. They could cause her growing bones to set, not something we would want to occur."

"What would you have done?" she asked.

"Set and splint the breaks the old way and wait for the next port. You would have been in a bit more pain, and unable to move around. Like I said, it’s fortunate I can treat what injuries you do have."

After a moment of silence, Weaver said, "I’m sorry, but I just have to ask you something, but I don't want you upset at me for asking."

"Fire away." Neal said giving her a grin, "If I don't like the question I can always give you a ‘no comment’."

"Are you the only crew?"

"Very good. There's me, the stowaways, and your little group."

"How will you manage all us and still run a ship?"

"Having a very good computer helps." At the sound of a laugh track coming though his ear plug, Neal added, "When she's not being a smart-ass that is."

Having heard the noise from his earpiece, Weaver also laughed, finding her ribs didn't hurt as much now "I would have thought someone with all of us dumped on him would be in a panic by now."

"No," Neal said quietly "I’m more in a ‘wait and see what's going to hit the fan next’ mode with this curse and all."

"What curse??" came from somewhere behind him

"I’ve just been figuring you must all be part of the curse I was recently put under."

"WHAT CURSE??" they shouted at him.

With every eye on him, Neal gave them a half smile. "The curse placed on me yesterday by an old friend was, ‘may you live in exciting times’." Looking at all the furs staring at him he softly snorted, "It seems to be working a little too well."

As Neal removed the nerve block from her shoulder, Weaver noted that there was now very little pain. Looking at him, carefully she asked, "You mean you think this is all part of some stupid curse?"

Neal told Mike that he could relax his grip, then looked back at his patient. "And just how did you get busted up and locked in a box?"

"My mate, my daughter and I were surprised by a group of those Humans First types." Weaver checked quickly to see how Neal was reacting to the information, not seeing any anger coming her way she continued. "We got separated from my mate, then we were blocked by a second group. We ran into this carrier. Holly could get between the pallets and hide from them, but I was a little too wide, so I backed in as far as I could and tried to defend myself. As you may have noticed, I didn't do very well." The last was said with her head down, eyes closed as she tried to hold back the tears.

Her eyes opened in surprise when she felt a finger slide under her chin and lift her head until she was again eye-to-eye with Neal. He then asked softly, "If you were doing so badly, why did they stop?"

"They had only hit me a few times when Shadowcrest came out from between the crates. She was trying to hold them at bay when we started hearing an old style gun firing. It seemed to have alarmed them. The group attacking us ran out, locked the door somehow and then we heard more shots. We felt the box move a few times, and then you opened the door."

Neal was no longer smiling and said quietly, "Tess, bay speakers, very low volume, give me some audio of ‘Betsy’ in action."

Everyone but Neal jumped a little when they heard a female sounding voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once, "Sure thing, boss," the voice said, then came the stepped down sound of a shotgun blast, the 'click-clunk' of another round being chambered, then another blast.

Neal let this continue for five shots watching his guests. After waving Tess to silence, he quietly asked, "Is that what you heard?"

There was fear in more than one set of eyes as Weaver slowly nodded.

"Then you should have figured out by now that I dislike Humans First types a lot more than I do furs that, by either accident or design, end up uninvited on my doorstep."

"So you're not going to shoot us?" This from the Holly, who was trying to hug her mother without hurting her.

"Shoot you?" Neal chuckled. "That’s not my idea of fun." With an evil grin, he picked up the little vixentaur and said, "I like to think that I have much better ideas," he pushed her into the arms of one of the chakats. "Hold her!" he commanded.

Nightsky looked like shi was going to let Holly go when shi saw him wink at hir, "Yes sir!" shi said.

Acting like he was going to grab of the child by the torsos with both hands he said, "This is what I do to little trespassers!" and he then proceeded to tickle her until she was just a wiggling pile of giggling fur.

Letting her catch her breath, he declared, "I’ll get the rest of you later."

"You won't get me!" This from the largest of the chakats.

"Want to bet?" Neal asked with a grin, "I’ll have lots of help."

"They won't help you if they know what's good for them!" CalmMeadow said starting to back up.

He smiled at that, "Even if they don't help, there's always Tess."

"What’s that suppose to me…" she had started to take another step back, only to find she could only move her head and neck.

Stepping slowly towards CalmMeadow, Neal spoke quietly, "Tess is quite good at holding things, and she's very clever." Now close enough Neal reached out and placed a hand on either of hir shoulders, then stepped forward until they were almost nose to nose. "When are you going to get it though that thick skull of yours that I’m not going to hurt you or anyone else? If I wanted you dead I could have spaced you when I found you. If I was the fur-hating type, I wouldn’t have bothered to feed you or to heal her." Neal turned away, dropping his arms. "But you can't even handle the threat of your friends holding you down for a little tickling."

Finding hirself free to move again, CalmMeadow took a hesitant step towards him. "I’m sorry," shi whispered. "Most humans hate furs."

Turning back around, Neal stepped right up to hir. CalmMeadow held hir ground, so he gave hir a grin and wrapped his arms around hir in a gentle hug. After a moment shi hugged him in return.

"Not most," he quietly said, still holding hir. "Just a very few really. They just seem like more due to the amount of noise and damage they cause."

He held hir for a moment longer then let hir go, "We’ll talk about this more if you like," he said, "but right now we still have a few things that need to get done." Neal looked around; most of the furs were looked a little sheepish at having been afraid of him.

Stepping back toward his patient, he said to Mike, "Ready to do it again, big guy?" At his nod, Neal added, "This is going to be both easier and harder, easier because there's only one bone, not two, harder because the muscles are much larger in the thigh than the forearm. Get a good grip on the knee and on the thigh as close to the hip as you can." Picking up scanner, he checked the bone's alignment. "Very good. Now start pulling the knee away from the hip." It took less time to get Weaver ready this time. While waiting for the bone to fuse, Neal had Tess bring up ship's status, dialing up life support another notch to handle the extra bodies, and seeing what might have needed his attention while he had been busy.

The rest of the late evening was spent feeding the newest group, getting their information for the starbase message, and finding places for everyone to sleep. Since the kids couldn’t make up their minds as to who should sleep with whom, Neal had them drag the bedding from several of the cabins and make a large bed in one of the lounges.

"There," he finally said. "Group sleeping in here. For those that want to pair off or sleep alone, there are plenty of cabins to choose from. Sorry that you’ll have to make your own beds; the staff has the day off." The last got a couple of laughs, so he knew the kids were starting to settle down and become used to their situation.

Later that night, Neal awoke to sense someone was in his room with him. He brought the lights up a little so he could see who his visitor was. A taur, too small to be from the first group, and too large to be the smallest two cubs. He had last seen them curled together, asleep with the Weaver, looking like they might have been siblings.

That left the dark gray chakat youth that had tried to jump him at the carrier. Shadowcrest waited for him to say something, when all he did was watch hir back, shi finally spoke, "I don’t fit into the other groups." shi said.

Raising the sheet to offer to share his bed, he said, "Birds of a feather should stick together." At her blank look he smiled, "We are alike in that I don’t fit into most groups either."

Climbing into bed with him Shadowcrest whispered, "I’m sorry I tried to attack you."

"You were just trying to protect them weren’t you?" he asked softly. At hir nod, he said, "It’s alright, I understand. Try to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day for all of us."

The next morning Neal got an early wakeup call.

It came in the form of his cabin’s door opening and closing again and again, almost like he had a cat that couldn’t decide on which side of the door it wanted to be on. Looking past the ears of the chakat he was entangled with, he saw three of the chakats and a vixentaur teen staring at him. "Can I help you?" he asked.

"What are you doing to hir?" CalmMeadow demanded.

Ear movement told him his bed-guest was awake, but didn’t want to face the older kids just yet.

"Not really doing anything ‘to’ hir, more like doing something ‘with’ hir." At their blank looks he added, "Since nobody thought to include hir in their sleeping arrangements, Shadowcrest slept with me. You don’t have a problem with that do you?"

"Shi should have slept with us." CalmMeadow said.

"Did you ask hir? Did you even think that maybe shi would be just a little intimidated by your older group? That since no one had invited hir into your group, that maybe you were ignoring hir, didn’t want hir, or maybe that you hadn’t even noticed hir?"

"We did want hir with us." shi said slowly.

"And you didn’t tell hir this last night, because…?"

"We thought shi already knew." CalmMeadow said looking at the deck.

"We’ll talk about this later. For now, OUT!" After they had fled, Neal tightened his hug around the softly crying Shadowcrest, "Easy little one. It sounds like they assumed someone else had welcomed you into their group, or that you would automatically feel welcome. They weren’t trying to hurt you."

Hir crying eased up as shi asked, "Does this mean I can’t sleep with you anymore?"

This earned hir a chuckle as Neal replied; "My door and my bed will always be open to you if you need them." He smiled as he added, "Of course you may have to share."

After breakfast, Neal handed out comm badges and allowed them to explore the safer parts of the ship, Tess answering questions and keeping them out of trouble. The only real surprise they got besides the size of the ship, was when Shadowcrest found Neal’s pets. A very faint scent made hir try a door, inside was a small space and another door. Opening the second door shi found hirself in what looked like a very small clearing with trees all around. A small shallow stream cut across the meadow, and on the sandy banks were several small piles of seed, cut up fruit and nuts.

All this shi saw later. What caught hir eye first were six little cockatiels. Five of them flew for the tree limbs and out of easy reach, the sixth flew right at hir face. When shi ducked it flew into the smaller room and, on finding the other door closed, flew in tight circles squawking its head off. With the annoyed bird still squawking overhead, Shadowcrest had called for help. Tess had told hir to lie down and cover hir head with hir hands to protect hir face. Neal found hir in that position a few minutes later.

After letting the bird land on his shoulder and petting it for a moment, Neal told Shadowcrest shi could get up. Leading hir all the way into the room, he had hir sit in a corner, then he introduced hir to the birds. The one still on his shoulder was male. His name was Squeaky due to his higher than normal pitched call. It took a few tries to get Squeaky to sit on Shadowcrest’s finger, but soon shi was able to pet him and rub his neck without him flying off.

By this time, the other kids had heard there was something to see, so Neal let them in two at a time, having them move slowly so as not to startle the birds, and showing how to hold them and how they liked to be petted. As they were leaving, Shadowcrest admitted shi wished shi could have one for a pet of hir own. Neal smiled and led hir over to the far wall. He had hir look into a hollow ‘tree’. There shi saw four tiny eggs. As they left the aviary, Neal told hir that the female laid eggs every other day, and with four eggs the oldest egg must be at least six days old. The eggs only took twenty-one days to hatch, and it would only be a few months after that before the parents would be kicking the young birds out of the nest. So, could shi wait that long?

After lunch Neal was at one of the bridge stations, trying to come up with a plan of what to do with the kids.

Leaving them to their own devices was out; they would either drive him or each other crazy – not a good idea when you couldn’t get away from one another.

Deep in thought, he didn’t hear Weaver enter, only opening his eyes when he heard one of the other station seats converting itself into a low bench for her to lay on.

"What are you thinking about captain?" she asked.

"What to do with fifteen active kids on a very long, boring trip," he said, studying the displays as if answers were written in the status lights.

Weaver smiled. "And you don’t think I’ll get bored too?"

He returned the smile. "You’re old enough to know how to make your own entertainment. Not that you’ll need too much after she comes into the world," he said, nodding at her baby-filled belly. "I think she’ll help keep you busy."

"I’ll still have plenty of free time. So what have you come up with so far?" she asked.

"Well, I don’t have enough entertainment disks to keep them occupied even if they could sit still that long. So I’m thinking along the lines of some type of training or schooling," he said as he checked the engineering section.

"They’ll never go for it," she said. "They didn’t stowaway just to go to school."

"If it’s that or just sit on their tails the whole trip?" he asked. At her shrug, he continued, "They came out to be on a ship, but not, I think as passengers. If they want to try to become crew, there is a lot to be learned, a lot of how things are done and why you do them a certain way, in a certain order. Before a person can even begin to bring a ship into dock, or find the next port among the stars, they will need more than basic math and science just to understand where to start."

She gave him a long look and said, "And you think you can teach all of them?"

"No," he softly said, "I’m more of a one-on-one type teacher. I never was any good with large groups"

"So how will you do it?" Weaver asked a little baffled.

"I’ll cheat." Catching the look of surprise on her face, he smiled and added, "Tess can help teach them from the basics to advanced using teaching disks. I’ll take over when they hit something Tess can’t explain, and when it gets down to actually running the ship."

"Aren’t you afraid they will fly us into a sun?" she said with a half smile.

"Who said anything about letting them play with ‘live’ controls until I think they’re ready?" he said. "This ship has four full bridges, any or all of which can be switched into training mode."

"Four bridges? Why would you have four bridges?" Weaver demanded, wondering yet again just how insane the individual running the show was.

Neal just laughed at the look on her face, "This ship was created from the sections of over a dozen ships. In most cases, I just added things, not removed. Since four of the bigger pieces already had bridges, I just wired them in. At the time it was much easier than making a bridge from scratch. Plus not only does this gives me the ability to reach a bridge quickly from anywhere on the ship, I can also be modifying or repairing a bridge while under way."

"I still think you are biting off more than you can chew," she said softly.

"Perhaps," he replied equally softly, "but I don’t see a way out of it, without either dumping you and the kids somewhere, or screwing up this run."

"Why is this run so important? she asked.

"Part of the run is timed, as in I have to be at certain ports at certain times. Too early, and I’m sitting around waiting for them to get their shipments ready, too late and not only do I get fined or not paid, but people won’t be able to work because they’re waiting for the parts and material I’m transporting. In between, I hit some ports that may only see a ship once a year or so. A few years ago I got to one frontier station just as they were evacuating. It seems the last two supply ships had never showed up and they were almost out of air, food, and water." At her look, he added, "Very few stations are fully self-supporting."

"Were those other ships ever found?" she wondered.

"Not that I’ve ever heard," he answered. "There’s a lot that can go wrong on a ship, or it might have hit a rock, or possibly pirates."

"Are we at risk?" she asked, more than a little concerned.

"No more than on any other ship, and less than most really." At her look of curiosity, he added, "Unlike most warp-capable craft, this ship has more the one warp core, so losing one doesn’t mean we’re stuck somewhere. Though there are only two engine nacelles, there are really four warp engines, losing one cuts down our top speed and costs us more in fuel to get somewhere, but that won’t stop us from getting where we’re going."

"And rocks?" she asked with a smile.

"Haven’t hit one yet," was the reply. "I have very good sensors."

"And pirates?" a little more concern in her voice and on her face.

He hesitated for a moment, then said, "Let me put it this way: no pirate has ever survived boarding this ship. Some I’ve outrun, some I’ve tricked, but no pirate has ever stepped aboard the Folly and lived."

"I’m not even going to ask how you got rid of them," Weaver said. That earned her an eyebrow wiggle from the human seated across from her. "But I am curious, just how many pirates have you run into?"

"I told you, I have very good sensors, I didn’t ‘run into’ any of them." His smile faded a little at the look she was giving him, "OK, OK! Over the last ten years, I’ve seen a little over eighty pirate ships, very few of which ever saw me. Of the ones that saw me, only two got anyone onboard, and none made it past the second hatch."

"How is that possible?" she asked.

"To explain it so that you would understand could require some schooling," he said, his smile returning. "Interested?"

That got a laugh out of her. "And I thought this was going to be a boring trip!"

"That’s what I was thinking just before I found I had guests," he said. "Now with this crowd I won’t have any time left to be bored."

He turned serious, "Tess reminded me of a problem we are going to be running into very soon." At her nod, he continued. "Due to issues of kidnapping and slavery, a lot of ports require that kids under certain ages to be escorted by a parent or legal guardian."

"Can’t you just hide them?" she asked.

"No, because if I don’t claim them and they are discovered, I would be jailed automatically, getting a trial could take a while, and that would leave the rest of you stranded."

"So we lose the kids at one of those ports?" she asked, apprehension in her voice.

"If the parents of my stowaways can get me proof of their ages, they should be in the clear. It’s your little group that’s going to bite us on the tail." He cut her off as she started to respond, "Yes, Holly is covered by you, but the two chakats have no such protection."

She looked at him closely. "The look on your face suggests you have something that might work, but you don’t know if they’ll buy it."

That earned her a lop-sided grin, "You’ve known me less than twelve hours and already you’re reading me like a book. I hadn’t realized I’d become so transparent."

Weaver waved away his joke and he continued, "The easiest and safest course is for me to adopt them."

She waited a moment, to see if he was serious, then after thinking about it she said, "They will never go for it. You’re just not the father type."

He snorted at the last part, "Oh, you would be surprised." He grew somber. "As for them going for it, it’s all a matter of presentation."

That earned a snort from her "That I have to see!" she said.

He grinned back, "Oh, I intend for you to be there, as a witness if nothing else." He leaned back in his chair. "But that’s for later. Tess dug up some study material that I really should start reading over."

"On child rearing?" Weaver asked with a smile.

With a smile of his own, he said, "I think that’s in chapter three or maybe four." Then he looked her in the eye. "Chapter one is on how to play midwife." Chuckling at the look on her face, he added, "The way this curse is working, if I don’t study this, I’ll probably need it. If I know what to do, I won’t need it, so what do you think I should do?"

Weaver got up, and as she walked past him she patted him on the shoulder. "Please study hard," she whispered.

"This is not the type of test I would like to fail," he softly replied as she left.

Later that evening after everyone had eaten, Neal got them all together. Sitting on the padded deck with Shadowcrest beside him and Weaver holding the littlest two with an arm around each, he quietly explained about the laws requiring parents to travel with very young children and that unescorted children could be taken away to protect them from possible pirates, kidnappers, or slave traders.

The stowaways were looking thoughtful; they hadn’t realized there would be laws covering such things, much less that a law wouldn’t be the same for every port.

Not wanting to ask outright, Shadowcrest pointed to Holly, "Won’t she be okay?"

Neal gave her a small smile, "Yes, Weaver covers her requirements. It’s her little friend, Quickdash, that would be at risk."

Looking at the Quickdash, Shadowcrest quietly asked, "Can you help hir?"

Giving hir a gentle hug, Neal smiled as he said, "I think I can help hir." Squeezing hir a little tighter, he added, "And the same thing should work for you as well."

Neal suddenly found himself short of breath. Shadowcrest was hugging him so tightly he could feel the tips of hir claws.

After shi calmed down a bit, he asked, "What was that for?"

"For saving us!" Shadowcrest said laughing.

"Well," he said slowly, "there is something you will have to learn how to do…"

"What?" shi asked.

"You could probably learn to do it with a little practice…" Neal said, dragging it out a little longer.

"What already?" Shadowcrest demanded, getting tired of his stalling.

Trying not to laugh at the intent look on hir face, he quietly asked, "Do you think you could get used to calling me ‘daddy’?"

An almost snort came out of Weaver as she kept the little ones quiet; everyone else was just staring at him. Giving them a minute, he then took Shadowcrest’s hands in his "I, Neal Foster, captain of the Folly offer to adopt Shadowcrest. Shi will have all the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities as my daughter."

At the surprised look on hir face, he added, "Since you have no way of knowing if I would make a good father, I will leave you with an escape clause. If you ever find me to be unsuitable as a father, you need only say; ‘you're not my daddy anymore’ or ‘I don’t want to be your daughter anymore’, I will ask you if you’re sure, if so, then we will no longer be related."

After a moment Shadowcrest’s face clouded up, and in a small voice shi asked, "And what do you say when you don’t want me anymore?"

Ignoring the fact that shi looked ready to cry, Neal acted like he was thinking it over, "I seem to have forgotten to add an escape clause for myself. I guess I’m stuck with you." Then a gleam came into his eye. "On the other hand, I could just be a bad daddy to make you use your escape clause!"

Realizing that he was teasing hir, Shadowcrest gave him another tight hug. "You can’t get rid of me that easily!" shi said, laughing even harder than before.

"Does that mean you accept?" he asked. Shi had been laughing so hard shi was now crying, Shi could only nod, and then shi buried hir head against his chest.

"Why is shi crying?" asked Quickdash.

Weaver smiled and softly answered, "Because shi’s so happy shi has a new daddy."

"Do I get a new daddy too?" Quickdash asked, not really understanding.

"Yes," Neal replied, "I will be your new daddy as well."

"Do I have to cry?" shi asked, not sure shi wanted to play this game.

There were several snorts and giggles from the older kids now that the tension was broken. "No crying required," Neal told Quickdash with a smile. "You just get to call me daddy." Indicating the chakat in his arms, Neal added, "And since you are both my daughters, that also makes the two of you sisters."

Walking up to Neal, Quickdash looked carefully at Shadowcrest, who had stopped crying and was now watching hir. "I’ve never had a sister before," Quickdash said.

Pulling out of Neal’s arms, Shadowcrest hugged hir new sister to hir. "Me either," Shadowcrest whispered.

Feeling left out, Holly asked, "Can I be hir sister too?"

Neal was hard pressed not to laugh out loud. Weaver had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look, her daughter having completely blind-sided her with the request.

"Well," Neal said, hoping Weaver would give him a sign if she approved of this turn of events, "from what I’ve seen since you came onboard, you two are already acting like sisters. Far be it for me to break up the set." That broke Weaver partway out of her daze and she shot Neal a questioning look. Still not knowing what the vixen wanted, Neal surrendered, "But I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask your mother about that, little one."

Still a little shaken at the turn of events, a confused Weaver hissed, "That’s it! Make this my fault! "

"Not at all," Neal said softly trying to calm her down, "I am more than willing to adopt her, I would just need your okay. Or there is still a way for you to make them sisters even if you didn’t want me to adopt her."

Blind-sided yet again, Weaver just asked, "How?"

Giving her a small smile, Neal waved at the three youngsters. "Whether I adopt her or not, you could always adopt them."

"You would just let me adopt them?" Weaver asked, not sure she understood his meaning.

He smiled at her as he answered, "This isn’t about what I do or don’t want. This is about what the little ones will need. They have been uprooted from their normal lives and family. They’re going to need new relationships to help them deal with the situation they now live in."

With a tentative smile, Weaver asked, "You really don’t mind adopting her?"

Neal chuckled at her uncertainty, "I’ve just adopted two furballs," he said with a smile. "What’s one more?"

Before Weaver could reply, another voice quietly said, "Two."

Turning to face the other furs, Neal asked, "Two?"

"Two more furballs," this from the fox named Cindy, "please?"

"Three!" from one of the chakats, and at least five of the other kids shouted "Four!"

Holding up a hand to silence them, Neal asked, "Are you sure this is what you want? Just because you’re officially be my kids, don’t think it’s going to make the trip any easier or shorter."

Mike spoke up, "I think what we’re saying is that we accept the challenge of trying to be a family for this trip, with you as its head or father. That, and the fact that I for one don’t want to run the risk of somebody trying to pull me off this ship to ‘protect’ me." The other furs just nodded, Neal noticed tears in more than one set of eyes.

Neal found his own eyes misting over a little as he said, "What the heck, the more the merrier."

That earned him a group hug attack from the kids. When it was over, he turned toward Weaver. Cocking his head at her, he smiled and said, "I seem to have just become a father with fifteen children. Would you like to join my crazy new family as its mother?"

Weaver slowly shook her head at him. "You had this all planned, didn’t you?" she asked softly.

Neal shook his head in reply. "No, my only plan was security for the little ones. The rest was just a pleasant surprise." Turning serious he said, "If I remember your customs correctly, two adults agreeing to share the responsibilities of taking care of their children are denmates. That is what I’m offering you."

When Weaver nodded, she was almost knocked over when the hug attack turned her way.

When they finally let her up for air, he added, "Just like the kids, you always have the option of canceling if I don’t turn out to be a suitable denmate."

With a shy smile, Weaver said, "Like the little one said, you won’t be getting rid of us that easily."

"Time will tell," he replied returning her smile, "After all, we did meet less than a day ago."

Two days from port, their newest member decided to make an early appearance, this leading to some thinking that the captain just hadn’t studied hard enough.


Chapter 2  


Eight weeks into the cruise, only a few hours out from the Folly’s second stop, this at a ‘mid-point transfer’ space station. Neal watched his ‘crew’ and had to hold back a smile. The kids had insisted on learning how to help run the ship, so he had them each ‘working’ a training bridge four hours a day. This was in addition to four or more hours of ‘schooling’, everything from math and science to warp theory, and wherever else their interests led them. Tess giving them the basic information and training, Neal working them though any stumbling blocks.

Weaver had been surprised the second day out when Neal had started them all with training on weapon safety and handling. Neal had pointed out that there was no way he alone could protect all of them, especially if they wanted to head off in different directions. He had started them out with a ‘toy’ gun he called a ‘Stinger’. It looked like a standard stunner, but instead of a beam that could knock someone out, this delivered a harmless pinpoint jolt, and could be turned down so it could barely be felt. Neal used these for basic target practice as well as teaching them to keep their heads (and tails!) down when trying to take down someone who was trying to take them out. The kids had renamed the training gun the ‘TailStinger’ due to that being the part some of them seemed to have the most trouble keeping out of sight.

While all of them had been issued stunners for when in port, Neal also trained and armed his four top trainees with phasers. These were to be brought out only at need. Misuse would see them disarmed and no longer allowed to carry a weapon.

The training had come in handy the first five minutes after landing at their first port, the kids having had a bad case of ‘cabin fever’ and couldn’t wait to get off the shuttle and into the fresh air.

They had no sooner stepped out of the shuttle’s hatch than a small group of humans had come around a corner. Upon spotting the furs, they had started to move towards the kids, yelling for them to go back where they came from, they weren’t wanted here.

The humans had stopped dead in their tracks when the three youngest furs pulled their stunners out of their belt pouches. With her weapon still pointing at the ground as she had been taught, Holly asked, "Can I shoot them now?"

Standing beside her with hir own stunner out but not yet aimed at the group of humans, Shadowcrest replied, "Not until they do something threatening. If they try to hurt us, then we get to shoot them."

With some of the teenage furs with their paws in their belt pouches, the humans had decided they wanted nothing to do with this group and beat a hasty retreat.

Neal had then come out of the hatch’s shadow where he had been waiting with ‘Betsy’. He was trying to not let his smile get too big, the kids having done just what was needed, no shots had been fired, and with any luck the word would soon be out that this was not a group to be messed with.

His denmate had then taken four ‘protectors’ and she and the newborn had headed for the hospital. After securing the shotgun and locking up the shuttle, the rest went with Neal.

First stop was a wide-ranging general store to get all the things the kids would be needing for a long trip. Grooming aids, soaps and shampoos, games, snacks, clothing, and a few toys quickly filled the carts in no time. After dropping that load at the shuttle they hit one of the shipyard stores. Here, filters, chemicals and a small mountain of parts were on Neal’s list of needed things.

After dropping off their second load, they joined up with the vixen’s group. The doctor’s report was that Weaver and Starblazer were both in excellent condition.

The group’s next stop was a little company that made meal packs. The kids had groaned at the idea of more ‘ready meals’, but Neal had lead them in anyway.

After a quick word with a salesfur, they were escorted to a dining room where several dozen meal choices were offered. Neal suggested that instead of them just eating what they liked, they should at least sample each of the other choices. After everyone had made a meal out of sampling everything, Neal had wanted to know which ones they didn’t like, to their surprised looks he had chuckled and told them he just wanted to know what ‘not’ to buy.

The rest of the day was spent at the shuttle, loading and unloading as different customers shown up, most of them surprised by how early the Folly had arrived, and that Neal would be there over a week. A day or two was more the norm.

While there had been messages waiting for all the kids from their parents, several of the parents had also sent separate messages to Neal, one was a threat of legal action if their child wasn’t returned at once (at Neal’s expense of course), most of the rest offering support and asking if there was anything they could do to help. The one from Weaver’s tod just asked him to give her and his kids all the love he couldn’t and all but begged for information about how his newest addition was doing.

Neal showed Cindy the letter her father had sent him threatening legal action if she wasn’t returned at once, and gave her the option of staying behind and waiting for a ship to take her home or staying with her group. She chose to stay with her friends, and added a letter to her father telling him of her choice.

Before arrival Neal had let each of the kids make their own recorded messages, some of them having spent hours trying to make each message ‘just right’ so as not to scare or shock their parents too badly. This was a bit of a challenge for his stowaways. How do you admit that you were trying to stow away on a ship and ended up on the wrong one? The Twintails had just come into port and was going to be there another three days; plenty of time to be ‘found’ and still get a look at the ship before being sent home. The only flaw in their plan was ending up on a ship that was leaving as soon as they were loaded.

What they didn’t know was Tess had recorded their whole session – retries, bloopers, and all, this is what Neal had actually sent to their parents. He figured this would give the parents a better feel for what the kids were really thinking and how they were doing as well as show them that he wasn’t telling the kids what to say or how to say it.

Shadowcrest and Quickdash had both gone to the spaceport that day with different groups from their schools. Shadowcrest had snuck off by hirself to do a little exploring. When shi had heard a Humans First group shouting nearby, shi had hidden in the open carrier, slipping between the pallets to get out of sight. After getting separated from hir own school group, Quickdash had spotted Shadowcrest sneaking around and had followed hir into the carrier just before the foxtaurs were chased in by the Humans First mob. Neal had pointed out to Shadowcrest that if shi hadn’t been there, Weaver would most likely have been hurt much worse than she had been. Along with the messages, Neal had sent the recording of he and Weaver adopting the kids, pointing out to any possibly anxious parents that the kids had the choice to opt out of having a human for an adopted father any time they wanted.

With nothing to do until the last loads were ready, they saw some of the local sights and spent a good deal of time in one of the nearby parks. Watching the kids run around in a modified version of tag, Weaver had asked Neal what they could do to help the kids deal with some of the longer stretches between planets. Neal had replied that he had picked up enough parts that he should be able to get a good sized holodeck going, he had some other ideas, but he needed parts he couldn’t get here.

Though Neal had sent the messages low priority to save on the costs of sending so much information, they reached the parents in plenty of time for replies, and while most were fairly understanding, a couple had promised their kids that they would be ‘grounded for life’ once they got back. Neal had suggested the kids take it with a grain of salt; their feelings would change a lot over the length of the trip.

The next letter from Cindy’s father had claimed that Neal had no right to adopt his daughter and ordered Neal to leave Cindy behind. After showing Cindy the latest letter they agreed on a reply. Neal’s reply was that he would never leave a child behind against her will, if he wanted her off Neal’s ship all he needed to do was meet them at one of the Folly’s port of calls and Cindy could leave with him if she wished too. As far as un-adopting Cindy, she was the only person that could do that, Neal would not disown her. Neal had given all the parents the major stops the Folly would be making and when she should be there to make staying in touch with their kids a little easier.

The last evening before they left Neal had taken them all out for ice cream: one last treat before they were stuck on the ship again, this time for over a month.

Once they were back aboard the Folly, Tess had informed the kids that they would not be allowed in the aviary for a while. Two of the three cockatiel pairs now had baby chicks to take care of. When the kids had wanted to see the chicks, Tess had showed them how to access the remote cameras so they could watch the action without bothering the birds.

It had taken Neal almost a full week to convert one of the larger lounges into a holodeck. The kids helped where they could, but making something from scratch was a new challenge for them.

The first thing Neal did once the holodeck was activated was to show them a ‘blank’ world. To match ship time, he added a sun at a slight angle to suggest that it was early afternoon. Neal then ‘made’ two towering pine trees, their large trunks just ten feet apart, branches entangled to form a wide shady canopy. Adding some grass and a large hammock, he fell into the hammock, called up a pleasant breeze and some quiet bird song, and said they were on their own; he was done for the day.

Weaver had gently dropped Starblazer into his lap, telling him that if he was going to sleep on the job, she would keep him company. Since Starblazer had just been fed, it only took a little of the hammock’s gentle swinging to put her to sleep, Neal soon followed.

When he awoke a few hours later, he found himself deep in an evergreen forest, a path leading toward the sound of running water. With Starblazer still asleep in his arms, Neal followed the path and came upon a large clearing with a lake being fed by a small waterfall. He found his denmate and most of the kids napping on the beach, one of the still alert ones informing him the rest were playing hide-n-seek.

When not being used to help them relax, the holodeck was also used for training. Here, Neal could show them everything from the insides of a working warp core to mock-ups of bridge/cockpit controls so they could watch their commands move ships and shuttles around a station or though space.

One of the things Weaver and the kids were still getting used to was their denmate/father/captain’s sleeping routine, or lack of one actually. Neal normally had trouble sleeping, so he was used to just working until he was tried, sleep anywhere from two to ten hours, then he would be up for ten to thirty hours before he was ready to crash again.

Neal on the other hand was learning to live with never knowing whom he was going to wake up with. Sometimes a fur or two (or three) would be waiting for him when he was finally ready to sleep, sometimes his bed was vacant. What would occasionally drive Neal crazy was most of the time who he went to bed with wasn’t who he woke up to. The kids were also trying to get him on a more normal schedule by helping him with his projects, and sometimes by claiming to need his help with their schooling, in both cases they would soon suggest that they were at a stopping point and it was bedtime. This worked more often than not, but the kids in turn found themselves staying up far later than they had intended when they found Neal was working on something ‘interesting’.

Now, Neal just leaned back and watched this shift’s ‘bridge crew’ doing all the little things that were part of bringing a ship into port, while he handled communications with the station, they were moving the ship into the requested flight path and watching out for other traffic. Since there was no other freighter traffic expected, station control was allowing the Folly to dock with the station, blocking several of their other docking ports. If they had been busy, Neal would have parked the Folly out of the way and shuttled the cargo pods to an open port. Instead he was able to let the kids get the Folly right up to the docking port, Tess doing the last of the fine maneuvers needed to gently mate with the station.

Neal had intended to be docked only long enough to unload, a few hours at most, but as his father had always said there was always two ways of doing anything, ‘first class or with children’. In this case the ‘with children’ meant spending most of the day, the kids all wanting to see their first space station, even though there was nothing all that special about it.

Since the station wasn’t showing any signs of trouble, Neal had given in and allowed them to explore in groups of three or more.

Two hours before their ‘extended’ scheduled departure time Tess informed Neal that everyone was back onboard. The way she said it told Neal something was going on.

Ever since the kids had taken over the bridge, Neal had started using a neighboring cabin as an office/captain’s dayroom where he could try to get some work done while still keeping an eye and an ear on the bridge.

A tap of a claw on the open doorframe told Neal someone wanted his attention, looking up he saw Shadowcrest standing at the door, looking like shi would prefer to be almost anywhere else. There had been a quiet yet ‘heated’ discussion between some of the bridge crew and the young chakat just a few minutes earlier. Neal wondered if this was related.

Shi just stood at the door, so Neal waved hir in. Shi still looked like shi didn’t know what to say, so he keyed the door closed so shi could speak without hir sisters’ big ears picking up every word. When shi still said nothing, Neal came around the desk and wrapped hir in a hug. Feeling hir trembling, he shook his head as he quietly asked hir, "Okay, just how much trouble did you get yourself into this time?"

That broke the floodgates, an almost tearful Shadowcrest told him that while exploring, they had come across a fur looking for passage off station to almost anywhere else. She would happily work for her passage, and she claimed to be a gourmet cook. It took some time, but Neal finally got hir to the point, Shadowcrest had already promised this ‘cook’ passage without asking him first.

When he asked hir why the others in hir group didn’t say anything at the time, Shadowcrest admitted that shi had gone out with Quickdash and Holly. Neal shook head in amused annoyance. He had inadvertently left a loophole letting hir get loose without any of the older kids, and shi had used it. Of course using that loophole had now forced hir to accept the consequences of hir having been the one in charge of the group.

"Are you mad at me?" shi asked

"No, just a little concerned. Remember, the little ones will be watching you even closer than they watch the older kids, getting ideas from how you handle things. I didn’t think you would try to go for a walk without any of the older kids or Weaver. Quickdash and Holly might think it’s a great idea too…"

"But you said three or more!" shi cried.

"So? What if Holly tells her mother that they will watch Starblazer? Now there are three of them…"

Eyes wide, Shadowcrest opened hir mouth, but no words came out. Neal shook his head, "Part of being a big sister is being a role model. They are going to learn from you, and so you are going to have to decide what you want to teach them."

As he held hir to help calm hir down, he tried to decide on the best way to handle this little mess. While unloading, Neal had been approached by over a dozen humans and furs, all of them looking for a ride to another port. He had declined their requests, having more than enough to do keeping an eye on Weaver and the kids. He could always send this ‘cook’ packing as well, but that might make the youth in his arms think that he was doing it just because shi hadn’t asked him first. On the other hand, while there was less grumbling about the meals, the kids still didn’t think much of them and a change would be welcome.

Having come to a decision Neal gave Shadowcrest one more squeeze and released hir. "Go blow your nose and wash your face." Then with a wink, he added, "And then go get your cook. I would like to have a word with her before you try picking out a room."

The brown and white rabbit in front of him looked nervous but determined. Her name was Suzan Pebble, and the résumé on his desk showed a tendency to work somewhere for a week or two, or to stay for years, then on to the next job. Her last job had been on a cruise ship, the Southern Breeze. She had lasted six months before bailing out early, and because she didn’t finish her contract, the cruise line was holding her pay, leaving her without the funds needed to buy passage off station. Meanwhile, station fees were quickly eating through what funds she did have.

It took a little coaxing to get her whole story. Suzan had been working for the cruise line for several years, and she had completed three previous cruises on some of their other ships before the one she had quit. A little more digging brought up her reasons for quitting: a new cook had been added at the last minute, an ‘old friend’ of the ship’s first officer, one who liked to claim credit for other peoples’ hard work, and for shifting the blame for his own blunders. When management did nothing to resolve the issue, Suzan had left. Her only error was not waiting for a better port to disembark.

Neal thought it over, and then looked toward Shadowcrest, who had been waiting quietly in the corner. "Introduce her to everyone, if that doesn’t scare her off you can find her a room."

After they left, Neal had Tess bring up what she had on the Southern Breeze and her crew. A little reading made Neal glad he had helped her, though it also made him wonder if more personal reasons may have forced her to jump ship at such a poor location.

It turned out that Suzan didn’t scare easily. Most of the kids had been on the holodeck playing ‘tailstinger hide-n-seek tag’ where you ‘tagged’ your opponent with a low-powered tailstinger instead of chasing them down, which put the smaller furs on a more even footing with the bigger kids, good aim and a sharp eye being more important than size or speed. Neal had tried to suggest that this wasn’t a proper use of a weapon, even a training weapon. The kids’ counter-argument had been that his rules required them to practice their marksmanship with the tailstinger. Their ‘game’ covered that as well as keeping under cover while trying to ‘tag’ without being tagged in return. Neither Weaver nor Neal had come up with a good reason to not let them practice their way, so playing ‘tag’ had taken on an entirely new meaning on the Folly.

After leaving the station behind, Neal headed for the holodeck. After picking up a stinger and checking its charge and settings he entered the forest. Normally he would have just walked a few kilometers of the meandering trails for a little exercise, but with the kids adding the stingers to their game, even he was expected to join in. Usually someone would give him a hit with their stinger to tell him they could see him, he would then stop and see if he could find and tag them in return.

Lately most of the chakats had taken to hiding in the trees, but this time his attacker was hiding a little lower. As he walked down the length of the beach he felt someone tag him on the back of his leg, whirling around he saw movement behind some large rocks at the edge of the water. Charging the rocks, Neal quickly looked over them. No one behind them, nowhere they could have run without him seeing them, that’s when he noticed a few bubbles rising in the quiet water between the rocks. After waiting almost a full minute a brown and white nose slowly rose from the depths, Neal with his stinger set as low as it would go, gently ‘tagged’ the nose, which quickly vanished only to be replaced by a choking rabbit. After helping Suzan out of the water Neal handed her a comm badge, at her questioning look he explained that it not only would let her communicate with everyone else, Tess would monitor her vitals, alerting them if she ever got into trouble. When she accused him of trying to make ‘tagging’ her easier, Tess had informed Suzan that she wouldn’t help Neal cheat without helping everyone else as well.

The next day Neal opened one of the long unused kitchens. A substantial layer of dust coated everything. After they cleaned off the mixers, stoves, ovens and other equipment Neal wasn’t too surprised to find that most of it didn’t work, the ship had been in a scrapyard for a while before he bought it, and he’d never bothered to check any of it before. After cutting power to everything but the overhead lighting, Neal set the kids to work removing the old equipment and the new cook with instructions to make three lists, one of all the toys a chef could want, what she could work with, and what she would need to just get by.

When Suzan returned with her lists, Neal gave them a glance, then dropped the ‘just get by’ list in the trash, at Suzan’s dirty look he grinned and said, "It was to make you think, and I’ll bet the other lists have more on them because of it. Am I wrong?" This earned him a small smile and a headshake.

Handing her a list of his own he said, "This lists the ports we will be stopping at over the next year, are any of them someplace you might want to get off at?"

Looking over the list, Suzan was surprised to find she didn’t recognize half of them, the other half were quite a distance from each other, almost as if the Folly was following a zigzag line.

At her questioning look Neal smiled and said, "Yes, they are in order, and yes, there is a madness behind my methods." At her arched eyebrow he continued, "This lets me cover two routes at once and helps keep others from realizing just how fast the Folly actually is, if you just go by every other port, then I’m just a third faster than one of Star Fleet’s ‘fast freighters’. A few times I’ve even been asked if I knew there was another ship using the same name running my ‘other’ route. Now, are we dropping you off at any of them?" At her headshake, he dropped the ‘could work with’ list in the trash, holding the ‘all the toys she wants’ list he had Tess scan it into memory, then handed the list back to her, "If you think of anything to add, tell Tess and she’ll add it to the shopping list." As she kept staring at him, he answered her unasked question, "The second list was in case you weren’t going to be with us long. After all, why buy more than we need if you’re not going to be here to use it?"

"And when I do leave?" she asked.

Neal shrugged his shoulders. "With any luck, one or more of the kids may take an interest in cooking, and if you can teach them the basics, we may not have to eat too many mistakes."

Suzan gave him a perplexed look. "You expect me to teach them?" she asked.

"Only if you are willing, and only if they show an interest," Neal replied. "Since I’m assuming that you’ll be needing extra hands every now and then, watching and smelling your meals come together might just make them want to try it for themselves."

At their next planetary stop, Neal had four of the chakats accompany Suzan as she looked for kitchen equipment and all the other toys that a cook needed to get the job done. Suzan’s orders were to look over what was available for what price and make a list of what she wanted. Suzan wasn’t told, but the chakats’ orders were to watch her and make a list of the items and cost of what she really wanted but had passed over due to her doubts that Neal would okay the higher expense.

After they returned Neal uploaded both lists to Tess, she would display the lists through his glasses while they were shopping. Then the whole crew came along, some to help haul what they bought, and some for guard duty as there had been some reports of Humans First problems.

Once they were back among the ovens and stoves, Suzan would point out what she had selected from her list, Neal would then walk over to the one the kids’ list said she really wanted and ask if it were a better choice. After the fifth ‘upgrade’ Suzan had stopped dead in the middle of the store and demanded to know what was going on. Neal had just smiled and said, "I get by with a little help from my friends." After that Suzan stopped even looking at her list, she just pointed out the things she wanted. The only other surprise she received was when Neal sometimes purchased more of some items than she had asked for. He had pointed out he was just making sure she had enough, and to cover any breakage caused by inexperienced ‘help’.

With the kitchen equipment loaded in the shuttle, Suzan and the kids were then sent grocery shopping, Suzan carrying not only her list, but also a list of what she could draw from ship’s stores.

It took a few days to get the kitchen rebuilt and ready for its new chef. The ceiling was cleaned and painted, and the drains were cleaned and tested before the flooring was replaced. Power and water connections were replaced and checked before the walls were covered, then it was time to start moving in the new ovens, stoves, sinks and countertops. Shelves and cabinets covered most of the remaining wall space while a large movable chopping block/workspace dominated the center of the room. Then Suzan had to decide what to store where, a couple of the kids bringing in more boxes as she emptied them. (It would be two weeks before she realized that over half her chef’s hats and aprons had sayings on them, ‘to heck with the spoon, lick the cook’ being one of the milder ones that the rest of the crew had picked out for her.)

Suzan had stormed into Neal’s office, closed the door and then opened an apron for him to see. "What the hell is this?" she demanded.

Neal was hard pressed not to show his amusement. The apron read: ‘Her food is great but I prefer RABBIT STEW!’

"I knew some of the aprons had colorful expressions on them," he said slowly, having had a few suggestions of his own when they were being made, "but I seem to have missed that one."

Suzan just glared at him "Just what type of a ship are you running?"

"One with a dozen teenagers, all of which are past puberty, half of which are chakats." Neal replied, to her questioning look he added, "You are aware of their twenty-four day heat and rut cycle?" She nodded "Then you should know that sex is never far from their minds. To me that apron simply suggests that somebody likes you and would love to know you better."

Neal let that sink in. After a moment, the insides of Suzan’s ears went bright pink. Now smiling, Neal added, "Now the only thing you have to decide is if you dare to wear it."

Over the next week Neal noticed morale seemed to be increasing. Not that it had been low, but something was giving it a boost. The best clue he got was at breakfast one morning. Suzan was wearing her ‘lick the cook’ apron and most of the kids were calling her ‘Stew’. At his raised eyebrow, her ears went pink. At her grin, he could only shake his head with a smile of his own.

It turned out several of the kids were interested in cooking, but finding free time to experiment when Suzan didn’t need her kitchen turned out to be a problem.

Neal had just smiled and reminded them that they had enough ‘spare’ parts to put together a small kitchen. They only had one spare oven and stove, but that should be enough for cooking up an ‘experiment’ or two. They would still need Stew’s okay for the cooking supplies, or they would have to remember to get their own when at port. A break room was converted into a mini kitchen for them to try their skills without keeping Stew from getting her meals ready. Mike turned out to already be a pretty good pastry cook though he had problems proving it. It seemed someone would always eat his treats before he had a chance to show them to everyone. Morningmist, on the other paw, seemed to be able to take some of the toughest meats and turn them into something that would all but melt in your mouth.

Everyone was relaxing in the lounge after another of Stew’s excellent dinners, when Tess silently paged Neal. Though he had tried to act as if nothing was wrong, the chakats all felt his emotional spike. Once he left the lounge, the kids had started asking Tess what was going on. When she evaded their questions they knew it had to be something important.

They then asked where Neal was. When informed that the captain was on the bridge, they rushed to one of the other bridges. Once there, they slaved the monitors to the active bridge just like they normally would for training. Once the systems came online, they found themselves seeing screens Neal hadn’t shown them yet: tactical data on an unknown ship they were coming up on shown on most of the screens, on others were indications that the Folly was getting ready for something. She had just dropped out of warp and power levels were coming up instead of dropping. Her shield generators were powering up but the shields were still down.

Then from the nose of the Folly, four small shapes appeared on the displays, three of them moving to quickly parallel the other ship, one slowly coming up behind it. As the shapes closed on the other ship, more information was now being added to the tactical screens. Suddenly, part of the unknown ship started flashing red, then zoomed in. They were looking at a storage room about the size of a carrier, down one side was a row of fourteen cages, in the bottom of each cage was a large catlike fur in chains. Now when asked, Tess answered their questions. They had come up on a pirate/slaver. Neal would as a rule disable them and give their location to Star Fleet and let them collect the pirates, but the prisoners or slaves could be killed long before Star Fleet could get a ship out. Weaver asked if there was any way to save them. Tess admitted that Neal had several options, but he was worried about putting his own crew at risk.

Weaver quickly left the training bridge and headed for the active one. When she reached it, she found Neal sitting in his captain’s chair. The look of anger on his face was something she hadn’t seen before. His head turned when she stepped up beside him but he said nothing.

After a moment she said, "It’s always easier to take a risk when it’s just yourself you’re risking." At his slow nod she continued, "If the kids and I weren’t here, what would you do?"

Letting out a pent up breath, Neal looked back at the monitors. "Transport the prisoners into one of the empty cargo pods until I know who and what they are, beam the computers onboard so Tess can data mine them, then disable their ship and leave them for Star Fleet to clean up." The last was said at almost a growl.

Looking him in the eye she said, "Then do it." At his stare she smiled, "You’re not the only one who is willing to accept risks. Tess, what are the others up to?"

Tess responded with, "The older kids are starting to move bedding into a cargo pod, the younger ones are helping Stew, since it looks like the slaves weren’t being fed, she’s mixing up a light soup to start them off, and a snack for the rest of you since it look’s like it’s going to be a long night."

Looking like he had bitten into something he wasn’t sure he liked the taste of, Neal stared at Weaver for another moment, then turned back to the displays.

"Tess," he asked, "is there anyone over there running around loose but unarmed?" With her negative reply, he made his decision. "Disable their bridge controls, then grab the computers and the slaves." Looking at Weaver he continued, "And then turn them into a rock. The only thing I want you to leave working is life-support."

Looking back to the displays, the pirate’s bridge suddenly showed a complete loss of power. Areas that had shown computer equipment went vacant, then the cages started vanishing. A few seconds later most of the ship went dark as control and power systems, even connections and cabling were transported away.

Watching as the ship started to slowly drift, Neal said, "Tess will leave them basic life-support. If they want to try to get something else going, they’ll have to take from that, so they should still be here when Star Fleet gets around to collecting them."

Pointing at the four small objects returning to the Folly, she asked, "What are those?"

Neal glanced at her as he said, "A Zulu and three baby Zulus."

With a raised eyebrow Weaver asked, "And just what is a ‘Zulu’?"

"Just as ‘Z’ is the last letter in the English alphabet, the ‘Zulus’ were intended originally as the Folly’s last defense. When I started out, the Zulus were my ‘last chance’ fight or flight craft. For flight they are very fast and long ranged, for fight they have long range sensors and transporters that can penetrate most shields."

Weaver asked, "Is there a reason you haven’t brought this up before?"

Giving her a smile, Neal replied, "Only because we haven’t had a need for them so far. That, and I can no longer use the Zulus for ‘flight’." At her raised eyebrow, he sadly added, "They can barely hold two, so even using all six I would have to leave someone behind."

"And a ‘baby’ Zulu?" she asked.

"Unmanned, no transporter, less fuel, made for scouting and, if need be, ramming."

"Ramming?" she asked looking a little upset.

Neal gave her a tight smile, "I’ve only used them as scouts so far but, if need be, they are my ‘last chance’ to protect the Folly."

A little worried Weaver asked, "When do you use them?"

"The baby Zulus are used when I’m actively hunting pirates. Their scanner range is almost as good as the Folly’s, so with six of them running parallel to her, we can sweep a very wide path. The Zulus are used when I’m trying to keep pirates from seeing the Folly, when running silent like we were, coming up on them, I can get pretty close but not quite into transporter range without running a risk of being detected before I can take them out. A Zulu is much harder to see than the Folly, so I used its transporters to shut them down. Then I used the Zulu as a relay to beam the computers and cats onboard. I can also use the Zulus if I’m trying to stay out of range of something that might damage us before I can disable them."

"How can you ‘relay’ a transporter? I thought they could only take things apart and put them back together!"

"Yes and no. With a single transporter, it would record an object within its range, break it down, transmit the matter to a receiving point also within its range, and use the record to reconstruct the item using the matter it had transmitted. In this case, the Zulu’s transporter retransmitted the recording and the matter to the Folly, and her transporters put everything back together in the cargo pod. With the cats, there was also the mind matrix to consider, but as far as the relay goes, that’s just more information to move."

Weaver frowned. "Too technical for me! You told me before that the Folly had been boarded twice by pirates."

Neal grinned. "Both times I was using the Folly as bait. I had to make sure all the pirates had come into range before I could act. So far no pirate has ever been able to get the word out that the Folly can defend herself. I would like to keep it that way. Oh, and before you ask, I really had no intention of actively hunting pirates with you and the kids onboard. This was just a fluke."

Taking the Folly back to warp, Neal asked, "Would you like to help me welcome our new guests?"

Weaver smiled as she replied, "Maybe after I check on Starblazer."

As they separated, Neal called over his shoulder, "In case you’re keeping score, that one goes under ‘never saw us’."


Entering the cargo pod Neal found the kids had already set up beds for each of their guests and they had stayed away from the cages without being told.

Moving up to the first cage, Neal had Tess remove the top and sides, leaving the bottom and the chains. Carefully rolling the big fur over, he found a medpac slowly pumping drugs into her. Turning the medpac off, Neal removed it. Setting it aside, he asked Tess to analyze the contents. A medical scan showed the fur to be badly dehydrated, very under weight and generally in very poor shape. Neal attached a comm badge and one of Tess’s medpacs, and had her start giving the big cat fluids.

After checking each of them, Neal took a break, shaking his head at what he had found. He told the others, "All Rakshani, all female, three look like they were beaten a while back, but their injuries have almost healed. Someone was very scared of them or very stupid. They were using drugs strong enough to knock something Mike’s size down hard, but these furs are all less than half his mass."


She slowly awoke to the sound of quiet voices, the words not making any sense at first. She felt like she had slept for a very long time. That, and the way she could barely move her body, suggested she had been drugged. The quiet clunk of the chain when she did move told her she was in serious trouble. Breathing slowly and deeply to try and clear her head, she concentrated on the voices. One was deep sounding male voice. She involuntarily shivered when she realized it was human. The other came from a young cat.

"Don’t you have any drugs that would wake them up quicker?" the cat was asking.

"I have something that might work," the human replied, "but with everything they seem to have been through, I think it would be better to just let the drugs in their system wear off and let them wake up on their own. It would be easier on them, and less of a shock."

She was surprised that the cat had dared to question the human’s methods, and even more surprised that the human didn’t punish him for it. As she continued to watch, a hatch opened, and a rabbit and three very young taurs came in. Two of the taurs were quite small, and her anger rose at the thought that the human had such young slaves. The rabbit seemed to be a trustee. She was heading toward her master.


Stew walked over to where Neal was using a fold-out desk. He was reading through some of the data that Tess had already recovered from the pirate’s computers. "How did you want to handle feeding them?" she asked.

"Cool the soup so they can’t burn themselves, put down a bowl of water, and one of soup, about a half a liter in each." At her look he said, "With starvation recovery, it’s ‘slow and easy’; just a little at a time to get their systems used to food again. If we let them try to drink too much too fast, they’ll do themselves more harm than good by throwing up."

As they started placing soup and water bowls in front of each of the Rakshani, one of them lunged at the rabbit, her weakness more than her chains stopping her pounce well short of Stew.

Waving the surprised Stew away, Neal stepped up to the Rakshani, stopping just out of her reach. She stared at him growling, stopping after a moment to cough.

Neal gave her a small smile and pushed the bowl of water a little closer, "You’re too dry to even growl properly. Drink a little water and you can try again if you like." At her glare he picked up the water bowl and drank half of it. Setting the bowl down, he added, "You’re bigger than I am, anything in the water would hit me harder than it would you."

After watching him for a minute, she tried to get a drink but her paws shook so badly she knocked the bowl over when she tried to pick it up. Neal sat down on the edge of the cage and helped her sit up. Leaning against him, then taking a fresh bowl from the little foxtaur, he held it so all she had to do was drink. After she had finished off the water, Neal set the bowl down and just let her lean on him.

When she looked at him, he smiled, "Just let that settle, then we can try some soup." When she rattled her chains, he gave her a little squeeze, "The chains stay until you give your word that you won’t try to harm anyone on this ship."

"I don’t make deals with slavers," she growled/coughed.

"Not a problem. I’m not a slaver and you’re not a slave." At her glare he added, "The pirate ship they had you on ran into problems. We beamed you off when they lost power."

"I don’t believe you." She hissed.

"What would convince you?" Neal asked.

"Free us!" she all but shouted.

"Only on your word you won’t try to hurt any fur on this ship," Neal replied.

"You’re not a fur," she pointed out.

"I’ll take my chances," he said with a small smile.

At her nod, Tess released the shackles and the chains dropped off. As she stared at them, Neal smiled again. "Now, did you want to try the soup on your own, or would you like some help?"

After feeding her two bowls of soup, Neal and Mike helped her over to one of the beds. After getting her settled, he turned back to the row of Rakshani still in chains.

"What about the rest of you?" he asked. When none of them moved, he continued, "The comm badge each of you is wearing is monitoring your vitals so we would know if you were having problems, but it also lets me know that all but two of you are faking sleep."

The Rakshani in bed tried to get up, but Neal gently pushed her back. "Please don’t hurt them," she begged.

Neal just gave her a smile. "You were faking sleep too," he reminded her, "then you tried to attack one of my crew." At her apprehensive look, he shook his head as he chuckled. "I will have to think of a suitable punishment for that last part, but perhaps your friends have learned from your mistakes." Looking back at the other Rakshani, he said, "Well?"

One of the larger Rakshani tried to speak, but her throat was too dry. Neal helped her sit up and carefully fed her the water. When she indicated she wanted more, he told her she could have all she could hold, but she was going to take it a little at a time. After two more bowls of water and the soup, she was ready to try again.

"As ranking noncom, I give my word that my people will not harm your furs."

Neal smiled as he replied, "Having dealt with Rakshani a few times, I have some idea of how sneaky your kind can be, so my first question would be if all of these are ‘your’ people?" At her nod, he added, "And for your information, they are mine as far as the vixen that just came in is my denmate, and the young ones are my adopted children." He then asked, "What service are you in?" At her look he shrugged, "We will be going by a Star Fleet base in two days. We could drop you off there."

"NO!" she gasped, then realizing what she’d just done, she shut up and stared at the deck.

Neal started quietly cursing.

Having come in the middle of the conversation, Weaver asked, "Why would she not want to go home?"

The Rakshani remained silent, so Neal answered her question. "She doesn’t want Star Fleet to know they aren’t still on that pirate ship. That, and the information Tess has already pulled from the pirate’s computers, suggests they were on a Star Fleet vessel when they were taken prisoner." Looking up at Weaver, he added, "In other words, this was an inside job and there’s no telling where, or how deep into Star Fleet the rot goes." Looking at the kids, he indicated the other Rakshani. Each of the older kids picked one to release and help, the two little ones going to see if the Rakshani already in bed wanted some more soup. Lifting the chin of the Rakshani in his arms until she met his eye, he asked, "Tell me I’m wrong. Please." She only shook her head.

She bowed her head and began to speak. "My name is Zhanch ap Nashene na Zhane. I am a Marine sergeant in Star Fleet. We are part of the marine detachment for the cruiser ‘Montgomery Scott’. Three days from the Connadis system is the last thing I can remember."

"The medpacs you were wearing had their data recorders on," Neal told her. "Most of you have been drugged for a little more than five weeks." Giving the big cat in his arms a squeeze, he added, "Your medpac and two of the others showed two days less. Also, your medical scan suggests all three of you were beaten about that time. Do you remember any of it?"

She just shook her head, Neal looked to the other two. One of them waited for her sergeant’s nod before speaking, "I had a dream," she shuddered, "or maybe a nightmare, it kept fading in and out. They were trying to question the sergeant, but someone was saying that they had used the wrong drugs on her. They tried beating her, but the drugs seemed to keep her from feeling anything."

"What would the three of you know that the others wouldn’t?" Neal wondered.

Zhanch stiffened in Neal’s arms, "The command codes for the armory and the heavy mobile suits!" She looked at Neal. "If they were trying to get the codes from us, then our officers were already unable to talk!"

Looking thoughtful, Neal agreed. "That should reduce their boarding action fun, but they still have a Star Fleet cruiser to play with. Not a good thing." Looking at the Rakshani that had ‘remembered’ her dream, he asked, "Did you see any furs in your ‘dream’ or just humans?"

"All I remember were humans. Why?" she asked with a shiver.

"Because the pirate’s records strongly suggest Humans First involvement," Neal said softly. At the questioning looks, he expanded on his thought. "Take a cruiser-sized play-toy and add a bunch of fun-loving Humans First types." At their shocked stares, he could only shake his head. "The really bad news is that no one will realize they’re the enemy until it’s way too late."

After putting all the Rakshani to bed, Neal left two of the kids with them in case they needed help, most of them being too weak to even stand on their own. Going back to his day room, Neal started digging though the data Tess was still pulling from the pirate’s computers.

The next morning, a tired Neal joined the Rakshani as they finished their breakfast of soft foods and lots of liquids.

Sitting down next to Zhanch’s bed, he told them what he’d found. "The pirates were planning on taking your group to Pharos, one of the non-aligned worlds. Once there, they were going to sell you as slaves." Neal added, "They were part of the attack on your ship. A group of Humans First insiders gassed most of the ship and were able to take the bridge and engineering. Anyone not immediately overcome by the gas was shot. Their biggest mistake seems to be that the gas they used was too strong for most of the crew. They just stopped breathing. The few with some resistance to the gas acted like they were intoxicated. Some side notes suggest your group was asleep when they started using the gas. You were the only ones asleep that lived. The alert Rakshani were fighting the gas and got shot for their troubles." Glancing at the three that had been beaten, he added, "While they were trying to get the access codes from you, the gas still in your systems helped keep their truth drugs from working properly. That’s why they thought they had used the wrong drugs to question you." Neal’s tone changed at that point, a little more anger leaking out as he added, "Starvation, dehydration, and the drug overload they had you on would have killed you all long before you reached Pharos."

"And the human insiders?" asked the sergeant.

"Must have been wearing full body containment suits to protect themselves from the gas. Contact with the skin would knock a human out almost instantly; breathing it would kill in less than a minute. Any humans not in on the attack never knew what hit them."

"So if the gas killed most of the crew quickly, they may not have all the command level codes they need to properly run the ship." Zhanch said.

"The problem is all they need is enough to be able to move the ship, dock with a ‘victim to be’ and unload their troops and take over a ship or station from the inside. The trick is going to be finding a way to warn others without risking word getting back to the cruiser that we’re on to them." Looking at the sergeant Neal asked, "Is there anyone in Star Fleet that you trust enough to talk too?"

"A captain, but she won’t believe any message I send her."

"Don’t worry, she’ll believe the message we send her, who is she?"

"Zhane. The last I heard, she was the commander of Starbase 3."

"An old friend of yours?"

"She may still see me as an enemy." At Neal’s raised eyebrow, she added, "We were once after the same male. I ‘won’, only to lose him to someone else."

"And did she ever find a mate?"

"Yes, a human admiral named Boyce Kline."

"I would guess the male you two were fighting over didn’t rank so high?"

That earned a weak laugh out of Zhanch, "You could say that."

"Then if we can convince her, we should be able to get her admiral in on this too. Tess, schedule information please." After checking times and locations, Neal told the sergeant, "Our next stop is in two days. If they’re ready for us, we should only be there a few hours. If I push it, the Starbase is only four days from there, so we should be talking to your old ‘friend’ in less than a week. We will only have a day to convince her, then we’ll have to hurry to make our next port in time."

The Rakshani named Kestrel asked, "Isn’t this more important than your schedule?"

Neal smiled at her, "It is much more important than my schedule. However, I don’t want anyone wondering why the Folly is ‘late’ for the first time in over five years. Someone asking questions about us is the last thing we need right now." At her nod he added, "This way there’s nothing to ask questions about. All we have to do is keep your group out of sight."

After dropping off supplies at a frontier station they headed for Starbase 3 in the Rakshah Quadrant, two days out they received a hail. "Shadowchaser to Folly, where the blazes do you think you’re going in such a hurry?"

Shadowcrest was standing the early morning watch. As shi had Tess wake Neal, shi brought up the shields, set the sensors to actively scan the ship hailing them, and switched to tactical displays. As Neal hurried onto the bridge, shi gave him hir updated information. Having already heard the hail from Tess, Neal had Tess drop the shields and take Folly out of warp, at Shadowcrest’s stare, he just smiled and just said, "Trust me."

Reopening the comm channel, he asked Shadowchaser how far behind hir friends were. Shi replied that they should be arriving in less than an hour.

Shadowcrest was still watching the tactical displays. They showed only a large two-seated fighter, the tactical data sheet telling hir that it was a type normally carried by a larger ship or a station, and was deployed to chase down pirates or other foe. It was fast at both impulse and warp, but didn’t have much range.

Neal was changing the sensor parameters. Their range suddenly increased and they could now see two small carriers, each capable of launching up to eight fighters. Escorting them was a pair of pocket destroyers.

Reading their size and mass from the tactical displays, Neal told Shadowchaser the Folly could handle the load. Did hir captains understand the rules?

Shadowchaser assured Neal that the other captains would not cause problems. At Shadowcrest’s questioning look, Neal explained, "‘MY ship, MY rules’. If they don’t like it, they can always get out and walk."

As the other ships closed on the Folly, Neal had them split up, a carrier and destroyer to each side. As they reached the forward end of the ‘corncob’, Neal had the carriers discharge their fighters. Tess then started pulling them into two cargo pods, eight on each side. Once the fighters were parked, the pods were closed and pressurized.

Most of the kids were up by now and watching from another bridge. They got a surprise when Neal told Tess to open the ‘main hanger doors’. They had been told that the first cargo sphere was just for ’vacuum mass-storage’. They were about to see one of Neal’s definitions of that term. The second sphere they already knew held the main living space and long-term carrier-sized storage. The corncob had some unused living space and two of the bridges. All of its storage was limited to the external pods and the carrier transportation system. Between the spheres were eight protected docking ports that held the shuttles, only seven of the ports were currently in use.

A very large circle appeared on either side of the forward sphere, then the circles started to rotate to the rear, leaving holes big enough that both of the small destroyers could have passed though at the same time. Tess now backed the carriers in. Once they were parked, she blocked them in with the destroyers. After closing the sphere, the Folly went back to warp as if she didn’t notice the extra mass.

Neal, having already told the other kids to not be seen just yet, then had Tess direct the pilots back to their carriers and inform the other captains that he would be able to talk with them in a few hours. He then asked Shadowchaser to join him on the bridge. Shi came without asking directions or asking which bridge.

Shadowcrest watched hir enter, the look on hir face suggesting shi wanted a weapon to protect hir ship from an invader. Shadowchaser had entered the bridge with a cocky grin, only to stand slack-jawed, staring at the younger chakat at the navigation station.

Neal didn’t quite manage to hold back his chuckle, the noise causing both chakats to turn to him, with identical questioning looks that just made him laugh all the harder.

Wiping his eyes, Neal said, "Sorry kids, but those looks were priceless. Tess, please save them for the scrapbook under ‘crossed shadows."

"Sure thing boss," Tess replied.

"Kids?" asked Shadowcrest now totally confused.

"Shadowcrest, say hello to your big sister Shadowchaser. Chase meet Shadowcrest."

Their new staring contest was interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the kids, Weaver and Stew bringing up the rear. At Weaver’s look, he wiggled his eyebrows and said, "if you remember your first day onboard, I did say you would be surprised about something." She thought back and suddenly remembered her remark about him not being the father type.

To Shadowchaser he said, "As you can see, I seem to be in the stray collecting business again, though I will admit that I had a bit less control of my choices this time."

Weaver cocked her head as she asked him, "And do you consider that to be a bad thing?"

Neal laughed and replied, "Hell no! With the curse I’m under, it could have been a whole lot worse!"

It was Shadowchaser’s turn to look confused, "Curse?"

"Later," Neal told hir, then he started introducing hir to everyone. When he got to Stew, he warned her to expect nine more for dinner.

Shadowchaser corrected him with "Ten." At his raised eyebrow, shi said, "I want you to meet my mate."

This raised Neal’s other eyebrow and earned hir a laugh. "Oh yes, by all means bring your mate."

"One warning," Shadowchaser said giving Neal a wary look, "she’s an engineer."

Neal laughed again, "Then it will be interesting to see if you gave her enough warnings about me and my toys." Then turning serious he added, "We need to have a talk before I talk to your captains."

They left the bridge and headed to the holodeck, Neal was letting the Rakshani use it when they were up to it. Tess was shifting the environment to aid their movement and exercise, they were now able to get around a little but were quickly tired.

The sergeant stared at the Star Fleet uniform as she asked Neal, "Are you betraying us, captain?"

Neal gave her a frown. "Not at all Zhanch. You have those you think you can trust in Star Fleet, I have mine. May I introduce my daughter, Shadowchaser."

Looking at Shadowchaser, she said, "My apologies. I’m a little nervous about Star Fleet right now."

Neal looked at Shadowchaser, "They are not here, you did not see them." At hir raised eyebrow he added, "Star Fleet probably doesn’t know it yet, but one of their cruisers is no longer under their command. These Rakshani were left to die on a pirate ship heading for Pharos, we intercepted it five days ago. We were on our way to Starbase 3 when we got your hail. One of the things I got from the pirate’s logs was that the insiders had been onboard for months. They waited until the ship left station without any chakats onboard before they attacked. I’m pretty sure they were afraid the chakats would sense that they were up to something. So my first question for you is: which of the ships I just took onboard have chakats?"

"Are you serious?" Shadowchaser asked. At his nod, shi thought for a moment, then smiled, "Do skunktaurs count? If so then we should be okay. The carriers both have chakats in the crew, and I heard the destroyers each have a skunktaur."

"Just because you have chakats or skunktaurs onboard, it doesn’t mean you’re ‘in the clear’. It might just mean they’ll bide their time and think nice thoughts," Neal warned hir. "I’m having Tess scan all four ships and the fighters for anything out of the ordinary. That gas they used on the cruiser was nasty business."

Neal sent Shadowchaser back to hir ship with instructions to talk to the skunktaurs and chakats on the other ships. They were to see if any humans ‘felt’ stressed when around furs.

Neal then had his meeting with the captains and first officers from the other ships, all of whom were a little ill at ease. They weren’t used to having their superiors telling them to take orders from a civilian. One of the captains gave Neal a sealed package. Opening the package, Neal dropped a memory chip into a reader and quickly read though the papers that came with it. "Well it looks like your commander wants you to magically disappear from where you were and reappear in some pirate infested area. As luck would have it, I’m in a bit of a hurry, so you’re already quite a ways from where you were, and I’ve already been though some of the areas she’s suggested, so we can rule them out for now."

First officer Canner, a medium sized foxtaur tod, snorted at Neal’s statement. "And how would you know if there were pirates somewhere. They could have been shut down and hiding."

Looking over his glasses at the foxtaur, Neal asked, "You’re from the destroyer, ‘Spike’, right?" At the officer’s nod, he continued, "Tess, patch me though to the Spike’s bridge, I would like to talk to their on-duty sensors tech."

A moment later the speaker mounted on the table spoke, "This is sensors, Carson speaking."

"This is Captain Foster of the Folly, I was just checking to see if you had been tied into our sensor network, and to see if you were having any problems with the sensitivity of our systems."

Not knowing that his captain and first officer were listening in, Carson just laughed. "We’re still taking bets over here on if the data you’re sending us is real or just something you’re making up on the fly!"

Neal smiled. "And why would you question our data feed?"

Carson snorted, "Well, for one thing, your passive scans are ‘showing’ non-powered objects at five times the range my sensors could, and the couple of times your people went active my display wouldn’t scale far enough out to see what they were looking at!"

"How could you confirm the data, without having to slow us down or unload your ship?"

Carson thought for a moment. "I’ve heard that some of the fighters have had a sensor upgrade, if one of them could parallel our course, we could compare the data once it got back."

Neal smiled, "I think that could be arranged. Passive only though. There aren’t supposed to be any military ships in this area."

"That would be enough to prove it to me and maybe even my skipper and first mate. They were betting on the side that says you’re feeding us a line," Carson replied.

Neal’s smile was making the officers in question squirm on their couches. "Tess, since Shadowchaser was able to spot us as we went by, I’m betting shi has the enhanced sensor package. " Hir carrier Captain, Chakat Autumnbreeze, raised an eyebrow at hir first officer who nodded at Neal. "Looks like a yes. Ask Shadowchaser if shi’s up for another little run; maybe an hour or two."

Five minutes later, the Folly dropped out of warp, the large door on a pod swung open and a fighter slipped out. Moments later, both ships jumped to warp, the larger ship masking the fighter’s jump to warp.

With hir sensors at max, Shadowchaser pushed the fighter’s speed up so that shi could pull away from the Folly while continuing to parallel her. After thirty minutes, the fighter was ten times as far away as the Folly’s suspected maximum passive range. Shi then started jinking around so hir data recorder would have something on it that the Folly wouldn’t be able to guess about. Shadowchaser then sped back to the Folly, both ships again dropping out of warp together.

Once back onboard Shadowchaser had just opened the canopy when hir wing commander came up demanding, "What’s the big idea trying to overstress your fighter?"

Shadowchaser smiled, "So you saw?"

"Saw? Hell, we had front row seats! That Captain Foster of yours had some kind of probe all but up your tail the whole time going out, it was playing ‘follow the leader’ during your stunt flying, and then it flew circles around you almost all the way back. Didn’t you see it?"

Shadowchaser frowned at the last bit of information. "How close was it?" shi asked.

"Its warp field was as close as a hundred kilometers from yours," hir boss told hir. Looking confused, he asked, "You really didn’t see it, did you?"

Shaking hir head, Shadowchaser smiled as shi saw the expression on hir commander’s face. "It seems that my adopted father is still capable of making ‘toys’ that can and will drive others crazy."


Dinner wasn’t quite what the guests had expected for a freighter. While there was no rhyme or reason to the seating, and everyday dishes, the food looked like it had come from a five star restaurant. Neal had warned them not to try talking shop during the meal. His cook had a nasty tendency to over-spice things if she thought people were ignoring her food.

The small talk wasn’t what they were expecting either. When one of the Folly’s ‘crew’ was asked what shi had done that day, shi informed them that shi and hir sister had practiced flying one of the heavy shuttles. They had been hauling fully loaded pods between the Folly and a space station, as well as an Earth-type planet without getting into any trouble. With this coming from a pair of six year olds, and having already had their collective noses rubbed in the fact that this freighter didn’t practice the idea of ‘normal’, the officers were a little reluctant to ask the older kids what they had been up to.

Shadowchaser and hir mate, a foxtaur vixen named Redfoot, had secured seating pads next to Neal. As they finished off the dessert, a ‘death by chocolate’ cake with ice-cream, shi asked him, "Just what did you have playing tag with us anyway?"

"A ‘baby’ Zulu." Neil replied.

Before Shadowchaser could ask another question, Captain Autumnbreeze cut in, "And what is a ‘Zulu’?" Shi had watched the ‘sensor test’ flight, Neal had given them both the direct feed from the Folly and the feed off the ‘probe’ that had followed the fighter out. Comparing the data with what Shadowchaser’s recorder had brought back had convinced hir that sneaking up on the Folly would be almost impossible even without a probe adding to her range.

Neal was taking a moment to decide if he wanted Star Fleet to know how helpless the Folly wasn’t. He finally decided he’d already shown them too much A little more wasn’t really going to matter.

"The ‘Zulus’ are the Folly’s defensive fight or flight craft. For flight they are very fast and long ranged," Neal looked at the other officers as he said, "For fight, they have long-range sensors and transporters that can penetrate most shields." Raising a hand to hold off the questions that several of the furs were trying to ask he added, "Releasing a gram or two of antimatter on someone’s bridge could ruin their whole day." A gram being more than enough to destroy most ships, that was a bit of an understatement.

"And a ‘baby’ Zulu?" shi asked.

"Smaller, unmanned, no transporter, less fuel, made for scouting, and ramming."

"Ramming?" first officer Canner asked, his eyes wide.

Neal gave him an evil smile, "Scouts and the ‘last chance’ to protect this ship."

Autumnbreeze asked, "Have you ever needed to use them?"

"The baby Zulus are often used when I’m hunting pirates. Their scanner range is about eighty-five percent of the Folly’s, so with six of them running parallel to her we can cover a very wide sweep. The Zulus come in handy when I’m trying to stay out of range of something that might be able to see or damage the Folly before I can disable them."

Shadowchaser said, "I don’t remember any of the Zulus being as fast as my fighter."

Neal chuckled, "They weren’t at that time. With just me running the Folly, I’ve always had lots of idle time to tinker with new ideas and redesign old ones. The Zulus are now about half again as fast as your fighter. The baby that was chasing you earlier never got up to 30% of its top speed. At slower speeds they’re easier to mask, so there was almost nothing for you to see."

Autumnbreeze broke the sudden silence. "So you have high-speed concealed parking for a small fleet, and enough power to protect against a small fleet. A ship that looks like it should be pirate bait is really a pirates’ bane. Any other tricks up your sleeve, Captain?"

Neal looked to Shadowchaser. Shi nodded. "I checked all four ships, and said hello to everyone on them, if there’s a Humans First type among us, he or she has a split personality." When Neal remained silent shi frowned. "Well?"

Shaking his head, he replied, "It’s not my call to make."

A few minutes later, Zhanch staggered into the room, two of the kids jumping up and helping her to a chair before she could collapse. She looked at Neal and nodded, then bowed her head as she fought to get her breath back.

With every visiting eye on Zhanch, Neal softly spoke, "The Rakshani before you was part of the marine detachment onboard the cruiser, ‘Montgomery Scott’. We pulled her group off a pirate vessel five days ago. All indications are that the ‘Montgomery Scott’ has been under new management for six weeks now. The logs off the pirate ship suggest the cruiser now belongs to a Humans First group. The only mixed blessing is that the gas they used may have killed the people that could have given them some of the keys to the ship."

"But you don’t know that for sure, do you?" This from Goldeneyes, the other carrier captain.

"No, but if they had captured any of the bridge officers alive, they wouldn’t have needed to try and beat the codes for the armory and heavy suits out of the sergeant here."

"What do we do now?" asked Shadowchaser.

"You’re going to stay concealed. Zhanch and I are going to talk to someone in Star Fleet she trusts. Then we have one port we have to make." Neal then gave them all an evil smile. "And then we’ll see if we can’t drop you on some pirates."

After dinner, Shadowchaser and Redfoot joined Neal in the lounge, Weaver and most of the kids tagging along.

Once everyone was seated, Redfoot gave Neal a grin. "Chase has warned me about you and your ‘toys’. So instead of saying they can’t work, may I ask ‘how’?"

Returning her grin with one of his own, Neal asked, "And which ‘how’ did you want to attempt first?"

Redfoot cocked her head, "How are you getting a warp field around something this big?"

Neal smiled, "And where do you see a problem getting the field to stretch that far?"

Giving him a dirty look, Redfoot said, " Your engines aren’t strong enough to cover the second sphere, much less the first, no mater how much power you pump into them."

Neal looked thoughtful. "You’re not by chance using the type of engine nacelles you saw as a reference, are you?" At her curious nod, he added, "I only used those old nacelles because they would just barely hold the two modified Voxxan warp engines I used. " At her look of total bewilderment, he grinned, "Two engine nacelles, four engines."

Shaking her head, Redfoot said, "Why? That would just increase the strength of your warp field, not extend it!"

"If they were set up the same, yes. But what if one set of engines was set to distort or push against the field of the other? Just like with magnetic fields where you can use a second magnet to change the size and shape of the fields being generated by the first." Getting up, Neal held out his hand to Redfoot. When she took it, he pulled her to her feet. With a wink at Shadowchaser, he said, "I wouldn’t wait up if I were you," as he led Redfoot out the door.

Outside the holodeck, Neal told Tess, "Engineering training room please."

It was two in the morning ship time when Shadowchaser decided it was time to bail hir mate out. Shi and Weaver had talked into the wee hours. Entering the holodeck, shi found Redfoot just staring at an engineering diagram, Neal waiting patiently for her next question. Pulling hir mate to her feet, shi said, "Looks like you overdid it again."

Neal gave hir a smile and wrapped them both in a hug. "Maybe a little, but she’s doing better than most of the other so called ‘engineers’ that I’ve tried to explain it to. You’ve made a good choice in mates with this one. She’ll keep you on your toes. And she must really love you to be willing to put up with me!"


Once at Starbase 3, it took a couple of tries to speak with the base commander. Her receptionist kept referring him to different departments rather than letting him have access to her boss.

Neal finally gave up on using regular channels of gaining access to the base commander and transported a message to Captain Zhane ap Nashene na Zhane’s desk, complimenting her on her receptionist’s abilities, but adding that he really did have a security related issue that he would not pass on for someone else to decide if it was important enough for her to be informed of.

Zhane was at lunch when the message appeared. Her receptionist saw it first, but wisely left it alone when she read the last lines. ‘If I still don’t get a response from you I will assume your receptionist made off with this note. My next available means of contacting you would be by tying into the starbase’s public address system, or getting your attention by rattling your station’s walls by pulsing my radar against them.’

Zhane received Neal rather coolly, her receptionist having seen fit to play down just how hard Neal had previously tried to get in touch with her.

It hadn’t helped that the Star Fleet database didn’t have a whole lot on either this Neal Foster or his ‘Folly’. When she had tried cross-referencing with the Federation’s civilian database, she was surprised that there was a Federation link that, when activated, told any civilian authority asking about Neal Foster or the ‘Folly’ to give any and all assistance he/they requested and to not interfere with him/them in any way.

When closing out of the Federation database, a Star Fleet authentication had come up. Once Zhane had passed the verification, she found herself staring at a Star Fleet command issued by an Admiral Silvermane, and while it didn’t quite order her to ‘give any and all assistance’ nor to ‘not interfere’ it did suggest doing so unless having a very good reason not to.

Neal explained his having rescued Rakshani captives from a disabled pirate ship, and that they had been on the cruiser ‘Montgomery Scott’ when they were gassed and given to the pirates. He left out the minor fact that he had disabled the pirate in the first place.

When Neal was finished, Zhane gave him a tight smile. "A very interesting story, Captain. Do you have anything to prove what you’ve told me?"

Neal tapped his comm badge. "Tess, is the sergeant ready?" With her affirmative, he said, "Then beam her over."

Zhane had been about to tell him his transporters wouldn’t be able to make it though her security screens when the figure materialized in front of her. Her mood went from surprised shock that her security was so easily breached, to fury when she saw who stood before her.

With her claws digging deep grooves into her desk she stared at Zhanch and demanded, "Why have you brought that damned creature to me?"

Neal spoke softly, trying to calm her down, "This is one of the fourteen we rescued from the pirate ship, and you on the other hand, were the only one in Star Fleet Zhanch trusted enough to try to contact."

As Zhane continued staring at her old rival, Neal indicated that the sergeant should sit down. When she remained standing, he stepped over and gently pushed her into a chair, quietly growling, "Sit down before you fall down. You’re in no shape to challenge Starblazer, much less the Captain." Zhane was shocked to realize that Zhanch had tried to continue standing. Looking harder, Zhane finally realized how thin and frail Zhanch really was.

Turning away from his charge, Neal gave Zhane a wary look. "As for you," he told the captain, "I understand you two once fought over a male, is that correct?" Surprised by the personal assault, Zhane only nodded. "Then I have a question for you," Neal said. When she arched an eyebrow, he continued, "If you had won that male, would you be where you are today? Would you have been as happy with him as you are with your current mates?" To her confused look, he added one more little push. "How you answer those questions should help you determine whether you should still hate Zhanch, or possibly be thankful that she got in your way at the time."

The two Rakshani just stared at each other for almost a minute, then Zhane came around her desk and knelt next to the chair Zhanch was half sitting, half lying in. The words they used were too soft for Neal to hear, and while he could always have Tess tell him what was being said, he figured it really wasn’t anything he needed to know. He moved over to sit on a couch against the far wall, only pausing to sweep his hand over the deep grooves Zhane had made in her desk, Tess smoothing them out as he went over them.

The Rakshani whispered between themselves for over ten minutes, the last few in a tight hug. Finally releasing Zhanch, Zhane stood up, straightening her uniform as she moved back to her desk. Once she was seated she looked at Neal. "Well, Captain, do you have any other surprises to drop on me?"

"The Rakshani I have with me were starved for over five weeks. The only liquid they received during that time was from the drugs that were pumped into their systems. While some of them are showing limited signs of improvement, Tess’ scans suggest they are still in danger. I would like your sickbay to run a full physical on each of them. The more information we have, the better we can treat them."

"That’s easily done. Have them report to sickbay. I’ll have the doctors standing by."

"One problem with them reporting anywhere…" At her raised eyebrow Neal continued, "Zhanch is the most mobile of the group, and she has problems going a hundred yards without collapsing. Would it be possible for me to beam them straight to your sickbay? Or someplace where your people can wheelchair or gurney them to sickbay?"

There was more than a little frost in her voice when Zhane replied, "Thank you for reminding me, Captain. Just how did you manage to transport her through my security screens?"

"The same way I got that note past your receptionist. Didn’t she tell you that she didn’t place it on your desk?" at Zhane’s headshake, he continued, "Your screens are set to only sense and block limited bands of the spectrum. My systems simply detected what yours would block and shifted around them. That’s also why your alarms didn’t go off. They’re not watching where I’m beaming. If you like, I’ll give you my word that I will not beam anything else on or off you station without your knowledge."

Zhane looked at her desk for a moment, noticing the repairs where she had dragged her claws across it. She then looked at her blanked display. She was starting to understand why a Star Fleet admiral might have to keep her people from locking this maniac up. From what she’d seen so far, he only obeyed rules when they were what he wanted to do anyway. Looking up from her desk, she locked eyes with the infuriating human. "I noticed you used the word ‘knowledge’ and not ‘permission’. Why is that?"

Neal smiled. "I only give my word on what I’m sure I can keep." Then giving her a grin he added, "If it will make you more comfortable, I have a non-Rakshani member of Star Fleet onboard. If you like, I will leave control of all transports to and from your station in hir paws."

Zhanch caught Zhane’s eye and nodded. Zhane looked back to Neal. "May I ask what shi’s doing on your ship?"

"Shi and some friends are just hitching a ride."

Neal’s reply earned a soft snort from Zhanch. When the other two looked at her, she looked at Neal as she said, "You do seem to have the second method down to a science."

Neal chuckled while Zhane looked confused. Zhanch smiled. "I had noticed that while Captain Foster never tells an outright lie, you won’t always get the truth either."

Neal continued for her. "When she cornered me on it, I admitted that I try to use the last two methods of lying rather than the first." At Zhane's raised eyebrow he grinned. "The first method is of course the outright lie." He waited for her nod. "The second is the partial or half truth. I told you earlier that I had rescued Zhanch and company from a disabled pirate, I left out that I disabled them in the first place."

Shaking her head, Zhane asked, "and the third method?"

"Is the hardest one of all," Neal told her. "It only works if you’ve read your audience just right. You tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You just tell it in such a way that no one believes you. So, would you believe me if I told you that some commander in Star Fleet was crazy enough to give me sixteen fighters and four starships to drop on some pirates if I find any?"

Zhane looked toward Zhanch. "First?"

Zhanch shook her head. "Third."

Neal asked, "May I have hir beam over? The Folly’s not currently docked, so it’s that or waste time with a shuttle."

At her nod, Neal asked Tess to beam Shadowchaser to Zhane’s office.

After telling Shadowchaser that shi would be in charge of getting Zhanch and the others to and from Zhane's sickbay, Neal prepared to have a chat with Zhane’s quartermaster. This hadn’t been on his list of stops, but maybe he could do a little business while the doctors did their examinations.

Zhane asked, "By the way, just how well do you know Silvermane?"

"Silvermane?" Neal asked, surprised by both the subject change as well as the name.

"Admiral Silvermane seems to know you pretty well," Zhane said, surprised and a little pleased that she had been able to surprise this captain with all the answers.

Neal asked, "How is she mixed up in this? I’ve heard of her, but I’ve never dealt with her personally."

Zhane activated and spun around her workstation display so Neal and Shadowchaser could see the Star Fleet commands issued by Admiral Silvermane.

Looking at the dates on the orders, Shadowchaser commented, "Looks like somebody figured out just who stepped on all those civilian and Star Fleet toes and tails doing that cruise ship rescue."

"Perhaps…" Neal replied, "but how did Silvermane get wind of it? The Folly didn’t even have a name at the time, or her current configuration, I was still in the middle of testing different setups and settings."

At Zhane's puzzled look, Shadowchaser smiled. "A cruise ship, the Starburst of the Canaris Lines, lost main power months from the nearest port. Star Fleet, the Canaris Lines and several civilian groups spent more time quarrelling about who needed to do what than actually mounting a rescue. When they finally got it in gear and sent ships to start moving the passengers off the disabled ship, the ship was gone. Where it should have been was a large rock, the words ‘too little, too late’ written across one of its sides." Shadowchaser’s smile widened, "Two hours before they found that rock, about three and a half days after the mayday, the Starburst was being docked in her berth at the Canaris Lines facility orbiting earth. Two heavy lift shuttles were playing ‘tugboats’ and pushed her right up to the docking clamps." Shadowchaser chuckled, "Until today, Neal had thought he’d gotten away clean."

Zhane turned to Neal. "And the rock?"

Neal snorted. "At the time, I was testing to see how far I could stretch my warp fields and how much mass my test configuration could handle. I needed something big that I wouldn’t care if I damaged, say by not getting all of it in the warp field." Looking at Zhane he grinned. "The Starburst was a little smaller than my test rock. I just released it and picked up the ship, hooked up some power to keep their life support going, and gave her poor captain the ride of his life!" At her raised eyebrows, he smiled again, "Think about it. As the captain of a disabled ship, you’re sitting on your bridge, the only thing working is your sensors, and yet your ship is moving faster than it ever has before. The only problem is it’s not under your control, you don’t even know the person or the ship that’s pushing you home."

"‘Too little, too late’?"

Neal frowned. "I had gotten tried of listening to all the long-range fighting over who should be doing what. I was close enough, I had more than enough power, so I quietly did what needed doing. The note was just my way of suggesting that next time they ‘pull their primary sensory organs out of their solid waste disposal chutes’ a little faster."

Zhane cocked her head. "But why not claim credit for the rescue?"

Neal shook his head. "At the time, I was trying to keep a lower profile; ‘out of sight, out of mind’, although I don’t seem to have fooled your admiral. These orders may also be the reason officials that were giving me a hard time suddenly ‘rolled over’ and played nice over the years. From the looks of this, your ‘Silvermane’ has had her paws in my business for a long time."

Shadowchaser frowned as shi said, "Now that I think about it, I’m sure the name Silvermane was also mixed into the orders sending us out to meet the Folly."

Neal returned that with a frown of his own, "The note and message chip they gave me was signed by a commander named Harras. Any idea when those orders were cut?"

"Three, maybe four weeks ago. Why?" shi asked.

"And what type of E.T.A. did they give you for the Folly?" Neal asked, a look of concern on his face.

"You were about six hours early, we had just started to deploy when I saw you flash by at close to the limits of my sensors." Cocking hir head shi asked, "What are you leading up to father?"

Ignoring the look of surprise from Zhane at his relationship to the Star Fleet pilot, Neal looked at Shadowchaser. "It’s just that I had no plans to go through that particular piece of space anytime this year, so how did this admiral of yours know where to place you at least two weeks before I had a reason to take that route?"

Zhane looked thoughtful, "So that would have been two or three weeks after the cruiser was taken."

Neal slowly shook his head. "And if Admiral Silvermane had an informer onboard and had known where both the pirate’s flight plan and mine would intersect, and knew what I’d do with both the pirates and their ‘cargo’." Looking at Zhane he added, "Your admiral would also have needed to know that Zhanch had survived, would talk to me and only trust you, otherwise I could have dropped them off at some other starbase, or I could have waited and taken them to your home world when I go there later this year." Shaking his head again Neal added, "Now I really want to meet this ‘Silvermane’."


The medical testing went quickly, most of the news was as bad as Tess’ scans had suggested. The abuse their bodies had received had prematurely aged them, their organs were slowly failing and the doctors didn’t expect them to survive for more than a few years even with medical assistance.

Neal offered to take them home. The Folly would be heading there in a little over three months, or they could stay at the starbase and catch the next ship heading their way. Zhane had dinner with Zhanch and company to go over their options. Six hours later, the Folly pulled away from Starbase 3, Zhane and the other Rakshani having decided that it would be best if they stayed with a ship and crew that already knew their needs and was willing to take care of them.


Chapter 3  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Second rule?" Moonglow asked.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Just for you boss," Tess corrected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But I love to cook!"

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

"I just want to stay…"

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

"You promise I can stay?"

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

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

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

"But the kids, and even Moonglow…"

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

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

"Only if you would like me to."

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

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

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

"You missed dinner," she said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"When they are dead," Neal quietly said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Waiting on your command, boss."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And you were in command?" Rosepetal asked.

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

"Did they override you?" Rosepetal asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And the odds?" Zhanch asked.

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

"Seven… out of how many?"


"5,258, counting Dessa."

"How many were Rakshani?"

"Dessa is the one and only so far."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Busted," Boyce said hiding a smile.

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

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

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

"No, but…."

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

"Report it."

"And if that doesn’t work?"

"Take it to their supervisors."

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

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

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



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

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

"But, they don’t know that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Perhaps art class cleanup," Boyce suggested.

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

"A very solid stonewall, boss."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, boss."

"I can guess why, so I’ll ask: how?"

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

"Yes, boss."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"This part," Dr Kelly said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You don’t know that," M'Lai said.

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

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

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

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

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

"And the fear?"

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

"Which one scares you the most?"

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

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

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

"What did happen?"

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


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

"Did they ever forgive you?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you help them?"

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

"And the others?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"May I ask what yours is?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How about 5,250?" Mike asked.

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

"Give us a hint!" Holly demanded.

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

"But there are gaps!" Holly cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 4  


"Wait a minute, the only reason to be sending some of these types of hardware to an unknown destination is if you’re…" Everyone turned to look at M'Lai as she stared at Neal. "You’re supporting a colony!"

"Nice try, but I am not supporting a colony."

"But, that’s the only thing that fits! Unless you like throwing expensive equipment out the airlock while hiding for long periods of time!"

Midnight laughed. "Easy M'Lai, the key word he’s jerking you around with is ‘a’. He said he’s not supporting ‘a’ colony." Looking at Neal, shi asked, "So just how many colonies are dependent on you and the Folly?"

"Three at present, but after this ‘gap’ it should be down to just two that I’m lending a hand too."

"Why?" Rosepetal asked.

Neal frowned. "Not an easy question. Thirty-seven years ago, I had just ended a very long trip around the borders of our ‘known’ space, looking for possible colony worlds. I found quite a few good choices, and a couple of great ones. Then I started doing research on how other colonies had started, and how they ended up. I found a disturbing trend – of all the independently started colonies over those last 20 years, all but two of the colonies had ‘failed’ and were now controlled by a company called ‘Triform’. A lot of digging through false fronts and holding companies will lead you to four major companies, two of which are in the courts almost every other week for using illegal means to crush anyone that gets in their way. All of the ‘failed’ colonies failed the same way, pirate attacks, and/or an influx of ‘new’ colonists that overwhelmed the original colony’s resources." Neal’s frown deepened. "You have to understand that once Triform gets a colony in its clutches, it does its best to run the colonists into the ground. The best parallel I can think of would be the old North American coal mines in their early days. The company store was the only place you could buy or sell anything, and the prices were set so you were just keeping your head above water, no matter how hard you worked." Neal smiled. "There was even a song about those times, one of the lines went: ‘You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’. Triform has taken that to a whole new level."

"That would never be allowed!" Midnight said with a little anger in hir voice.

"If it was widely known about, no. But Triform handles all the communications and most of the shipping on those planets, so they can monitor and control most of what is heard from their colonies."

"Star Fleet would help!" Rosepetal pointed out.

"Like they did at ‘Amazonia’?"

Amazonia was a sore subject. Through loopholes and more than a few shady tricks, Star Fleet had ended up supporting the companies and not the Wemic that had originally been left there to fend for themselves. (see Hands Across the Sky, by John R. Plunkett)

After giving everyone a moment to calm down, Neal continued. "So I was stuck with a dilemma: any colony I started would be set upon by Triform unless I could keep it quiet, and there was no way to quietly get enough colonists to get a reasonable-size colony going."

"But you did anyway," Weaver said with a small grin.

"Not at first. I came up with a very large ‘shell game’ that I thought might work, but then I looked at the time required. I was starting to get older. I could have made the first few deliveries, but that would have left them on their own long before they were ready." Neal snorted and shook his head. "I deleted the colony plans and went to bed that night."

"And in the morning?" Weaver asked.

"I didn’t wake up."

Smiling at the shocked looks Neal said. "Two days later I did wake up, unable to control my movements or see straight." Nodding to the Rakshani, he said, "I think you ladies know how that feels." At their grins and chuckles, he added. "After the week it took me to get it back in gear, I found the colony plans waiting for me. It seems Tess’s delete key doesn’t always work properly."

Rosepetal asked, "And the ‘shell game’?"

"Was to safeguard my colonies from Triform while they grew. I figured I could support up to three colonies if I didn’t have to fight Triform on all three fronts. Two of the colonies are still not known by anyone but me and the colonists. The third was made known to the public eleven years ago. You may have heard of it; ‘Catch-A-Lot’."

Rosepetal thought for a moment. "I think I started hearing about it around ten years ago. Mostly water, grasses and swamps on the landmasses. The deep oceans though are teaming with life, thus the name."

Neal grinned. "And storms like you wouldn’t believe! Either you build it solid to last, or it gets blown away next week. The colonists that I settled on Catch-A-Lot know that they’re bait. Most have sent their families and friends ahead to the other colonies while they help set up my trap."

"Trap?" Boyce asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Catch-A-Lot was settled as bait for Triform and their parent companies. The colony had been running fine for six years, then the public was informed that they existed. Almost overnight the pirate attacks started… and failed to inconvenience the colonists. I had left behind a dozen of my Zulus. The pirates never knew what hit them."

"You have your Zulus attacking other ships without warning?" Midnight asked, hir eyes growing wide.

"Of course not. I set up three small automated space stations around the planet. They challenge any ship approaching. If the ship refuses to answer the hail, an unmasked baby Zulu goes out to meet it. Since the pirates usually like to open fire once they see it coming, anything done to them afterwards becomes self-defense."

"I guess that’s one way to get around the rules," Boyce commented with a frown.

"If my colonies would be safe playing by the rules, I would play by them. Until that day, I will do whatever it takes to protect the people that have placed their trust in me."

"What other traps have you set?" Rosepetal asked.

"The colony’s charter does have an option where other companies can buy their way onto Catch-A-Lot, but it requires eighty percent of the voters to okay it. Voters have to be adults that have been on Catch-A-Lot at least one standard year. With over twenty-five thousand adults already there, Triform has to move over a hundred thousand adults to guarantee a victory at the polls. They tried to just dump people like they’ve done in the past, but they hit a snag. The charter requires them to supply housing and food for any colonists they send. In other words, no ‘free room and board’."

Weaver was looking thoughtful. "So for every adult you have on the planet, they would need to support four to take over."

Neal nodded as he grinned. "And with the storms, you either set up very large, very tough greenhouses, or you ship in a lot of food. The one time Triform tried to claim that we were ‘starving’ their colonists, I had Tess dump the whole digital trail of who owned what to the press. That and the charter made them look very bad in public."

"Are they winning?" Shadowcrest asked, having joined them from the main pool.

"After getting burned twice, they’ve been slowly building their forces. At their current rate, they should have enough adults in about six months. Add a year until they are guaranteed to win the vote, and I’m cutting it just about perfect."

"You want them to win?" Rosepetal asked, a little confused.

"It doesn’t really matter in the long run. Win or lose, in less than eighteen months I’ll be pulling all of my people out, and splitting them between the other two colonies."

"You can’t just pick up and move twenty-five thousand people!" she said, thinking of the logistics it would take.

"At the rate they’ve been going, it will be closer to forty with all the kids. As for how, I’ll use my usual methods and cheat." At the looks of mass confusion, Neal chuckled. "That’s right, you haven’t seen the settlement yet, have you. Tess, if you would please."

A hologram of Catch-A-Lot appeared, then zoomed in. On a finger of land, thrusting out from one of the landmasses, sat forty boxy-shaped objects with something reflecting between them. As the zoom continued, Chase was the first to realize what they were seeing. "Those are cargo pods!"

"With full life-support and living quarters built in. Give them enough power and you can live in them anywhere, up to and including space. My idea was to insure safe living spaces, and each of them can hold up to two thousand. The greenhouse was made using local materials and will be left behind.

"Why are you giving up on Catch-A-Lot?" Weaver asked, "Surely there’s some way to keep Triform out."

"When we leave, Catch-A-Lot will have done just what I wanted it to do. Triform will have wasted a lot of money and resources on a planet they can’t keep."

"The planet has another trap?" Boyce asked, wondering just how many more tricks Neal had up his sleeve.

"The star system itself was the trap. If they had looked before they leaped, they could have missed all my tricks."

"How?" Weaver asked, shaking her head.

"Catch-A-Lot has been settled twice before." Smiling at Zhanch, Neal said, "To the Rakshani, it is better know it as ‘Thrice Damned’."

Zhanch sputtered. "But everyone knows about…"

"But Triform never bothered checking the old solar information. They only saw the report that someone else had of colonizing a planet." Looking at the others Neal filled in the gaps. "Thrice Damned’s sun has a very strong solar flare cycle, but it’s only on about ten out of every one hundred and fifty years. That’s why the ocean life is so far ahead of the land – the land keeps getting burned back by the flares. Thinking it was a one-time event, the Rakshani tried to resettle after the flares died down. We’ve got four to seven years before the next flare cycle starts; plenty of time for Triform to get their ‘colonists’ out and give them a black eye in the process."

"So you have forty thousand secrets," Holly said.

"In that one colony, yes. There are still the other two colonies to consider."

"Dependant on you," M'Lai added.

"Not as much anymore. They both have populations well over eighty thousand by now, and are pretty much self sufficient. Most of my current load is for expanding their growing areas, and adding some more space-mining capacity. If they ever do need help, they each have a dozen message drones I put together. The drones are about the size and speed of a baby Zulu, but even longer ranged. One automatically makes a mail run every three months, and they can send one when needed. For protection, they each have twenty Zulus. Catch-A-Lot was close by so I could come running if they called for help. The other two are over four months away even at the Folly’s speed."

"Wait a minute, where did you get all those colonists? I don’t remember seeing anything about it," Boyce asked.

"My first two ‘gap’ trips were to set up and start some minor terraforming, to get the planets ready for colonists. Then I went shopping for people unhappy with where they were. Three guesses where I started?"

"The ‘failed ‘ colonies!" Holly exclaimed.

"Got it in one!" Neal said with a smile. "Most of the original colonists jumped at the chance to try again, with the promise that I would do my best to keep Triform and its parent companies out. Then there was ‘the old fur’ rumor mill." Neal smiled. "I had told a couple of older friends about wanting to try starting a colony. One of them had complained that starting a colony was for youngsters, old folks would just be a burden to the group. Since I had used Tess’s process on a couple of furs that had almost been killed by pirates, I told them that there was a dangerous option, but an option nonetheless. To make a long story short, they each told their old friends, who told their old friends. When I came back though to pick up what should have been a few thousand, I found I had over fifty thousand volunteers, with over five thousand old furs willing to risk what was left of their lives for a chance to help start a new colony. What was even more of a population boost was a lot of them managed to talk their kids, and even grandkids into joining them!"

Boyce almost dumped Rosepetal off his lap in surprise. "Wait a minute, that was when all the fur disappearances occurred on earth, about twenty years ago!"

Neal nodded. "That’s the problem with a secret that gets too big – people notice. We emptied a couple of furry retirement communities as well as rest homes and whole sections of a few hospitals, even the staff wanted onboard when they heard about it. I had a hard decision to make. If I said no to any of them, it would only take one ‘whistle-blower’ to bring the whole project crashing down."

"So you took them all," Boyce stated.

"So I took them all. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have a tenth of the living areas or the life support I needed. I couldn’t take any of the older furs until I had arranged accommodations for everyone. If I just started making people disappear, the local authorities would have noticed, and tried to figure out what was going on."

Boyce frowned. "As I recall there was a bit of a panic. A lot of rumors got started, including that Humans First groups were involved."

"Except their M.O. was nowhere to be seen. H.F. types like to destroy things and leave the bodies laying about. This little mystery had no damage, and no blood. Just a large number of furs and more than a few humans, all disappearing in the space of one night. The missing left behind notes saying they were leaving. Wills and best wishes were left for those who would remain behind. A few left behind hints, though most just packed what they would be needing on a new world."

"Why take old furs?" Quickdash asked with a puzzled expression.

Neal smiled. "There’s an old saying that ‘youth is wasted on the young’. You youngsters have all that extra energy and wonder at everything new. When you get older, you start losing the wonder, because you’ve already seen everything, or so it seems sometimes. And the energy? I know you’ve heard older people watching kids at play and wishing they had that kind of energy themselves." Quickdash nodded, and Neal continued, "The flip side of that coin is the older people have a lot more knowledge and wisdom, mostly learned the hard way by making mistakes. Those ‘older furs’ were bringing well over a hundred years of experience each! But, they no longer had the energy to make the most of that knowledge. Run them though the process and you end up with furs like most of our Rakshani. They may look young, but they know things that it takes a lifetime to learn."

"The news of people missing was just on Earth, I don’t remember any mention of any of the other colonies losing colonists," Boyce remarked.

"You’re forgetting that Triform controls all communications from those colonies. If they had admitted that they had people disappear too, they would have had Star Fleet and everyone else ‘helping’ them investigate it. Not something they would want. Word might get out as to how they really run things…"

"ENOUGH!!" cried Shadowchaser, "This was supposed to be relaxing, not getting everyone stirred up."

"How did we get on that subject anyway?" Mike asked.

"Some people think I have too many secrets," Neal chuckled.

"Will you tell me a secret?" asked Quickdash.

"Sure little one. Come here and I’ll whisper it to you." With hir ear at his lips, he gave hir a hug as he whispered, "I love you."

"Can I stay with you?" shi asked.

"Well, it is going to be a while yet before I take you home."

"No, I mean stay like Chase stayed with you."

"Little one, Chase didn’t have a home or parents to go home to, that’s why I had hir for years. Don’t you miss your parents? I know they miss you."

"How do you know?"

"The message drone I left at New Kiev came in yesterday. Along with some of the information I was waiting for, it also had a few late messages from some of your parents. That, and they took a trick I played on you and played it back on me."

"What trick?" shi asked with a frown.

"Do you remember when I was complaining that some of the corridor filters were clogging up faster than I thought they should? And some of you decided to ‘help’?" At their nods Neal grinned. "I caught your group in the act, and had Tess record it."


"Oh yes! Tess?"

A hologram opened, Quickdash was in front of the group, Shadowcrest behind hir and a little to the left, with three of the teenage chakats across the corridor bringing up the rear. All of them were swinging mops although it looked like the last three were cleaning up the mess the first two were making.

"This is boring," Quickdash was complaining.

"You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to," Nightsky reminded hir.

"I want to help, but this is just boring," Quickdash moaned.

"Well, we could always sing something while we work, what song would you like?" asked Dusk.

"Could we do one of the songs I found in Neal’s library?" Quickdash asked, starting to get excited.

"Is it a good song to mop by?" Morningmist asked with a laugh.

Changing one word, Quickdash sang the first verse to them. After the first few bars, Tess supplied the music, minus the original voices.

"I am Chakat, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore,
And I know too much to go back an' pretend
'cause I've heard it all before.
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna keep me down again."

(from I am woman -Words and Music by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton)

Shadowcrest laughed. "Works for me."

What followed was four-footed dance lessons for beginners. Only Dusk had ever taken any dancing classes, so shi was trying to teach the others.

"Oh yes I am wise,
But it's wisdom born of pain.
Yes, I've paid the price,
But look how much I gained.
If I have to, I can do anything.
I am strong (strong).
I am invincible (invincible).
I am Chakat! "

Let’s see, there’s the steps, stepping to the music, trying to stay in step to the music and each other, moving their bodies in sync, swinging their arms, mops and tails simultaneously. The only thing not happening was any mopping!

"You can bend but never break me,
'cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal.
And I come back even stronger,
Not a novice any longer,
'cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul"

"I am chakat watch me grow,
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin' arms across the land.
But I'm still an embryo
With a long long way to go
Until I make my brother understand."

By this time, most of the adults were weak from laughter, so Neal stopped the replay, "There’s over an hour of that. They do get fairly good towards the end."

"And the trick on you?" asked Boyce.

"I had sent it as proof of how badly I was abusing their kids. They sent one of the last songs the kids sang to their local news channel and it was aired as some of the local color. One of the music stations picked it up, and it’s a top ten music/video hit for most of the planet. There’s a few talent agencies that think the kids have some talent and want to talk to them when they get home."

"That’s not what had you so depressed," Shadowchaser said.

"No. That was the good part of ‘the good the bad, and the ugly’."

"The ugly?" Weaver asked with a raised eyebrow.

"I now know why Cindy’s father was trying to get her back so badly. After his last message, I had a private investigator do a little snooping. Cindy has a good-sized inheritance from her grandmother’s estate and her father’s been seeing how much of it he could steal before he loses control over Cindy."

"Can you stop him?"

"May already have. Since I know this P.I. quite well, I had given him the okay to take things to a certain level," Looking at Cindy, Neal continued. "When your father found out he was being investigated, he disappeared."

"Are you hunting him?" Weaver asked.

"No. That would be up to Cindy."

"And the ‘bad’?" she asked.

Neal looked over at the pile of warm towels that the little ones had burrowed into. "I now know the name of Stormy’s sire. Chakat Whitepaws, daughter of Snowfall and Sandrunner."

"Did you know Whitepaws?" Brighteyes asked, sensing his sadness.

"No, I never meet hir, but I spoke to hir mother the day you all stowed away in that carrier. How do you tell two good friends you were there when their child was killed?"

"But, you saved their grandchild!" Holly blurted out.

"I keep thinking that if only we had been a few minutes earlier… but a few minutes earlier would just have put us all out in the open when that Humans First group started firing."

"You’re still holding something back, father," Shadowchaser said, cocking hir head.

"I don’t know if the last one is good, bad, or no big deal. I was planning to check on a group during my ‘gap’ trip, but they’ve already sent a message that they’re ready for pick-up whenever I’m in the neighborhood."

"Why is that a problem?" Weaver asked.

"I was going to pick them up before heading out to Catch-A-Lot. What’s puzzling me is the lack of information. They’re not asking for an early pickup, and no mention of trouble, just that they’re ‘ready’ to be picked up."

"This isn’t another trap for someone like ‘Thrice Damned’, is it?" she said, starting to get tired of all Neal’s secrets.


"Give, father!" When Neal just laid there and smiled, Shadowchaser hissed, "Tickle him Quickdash! Make him talk!"

Neal grinned. "Shi knows how well I can tickle back. The group I’m wondering about is on a first contact mission."

"But Star Fleet…" Rosepetal started.

"… didn’t discover them, and still doesn’t know that they even exist. I found them at the end of one of my log’s ‘gaps’. I was scanning what I thought was a promising solar system, when one of my baby Zulus ran straight through one of their sensor screens. While they haven’t left their system yet, they have seen aliens before, and a few had been ‘unfriendly’. I admitted to being a trader that did a little exploring between deliveries." Neal smiled at Boyce. "I only showed them the foods and low-tech things I had to sell. They knew my ship had to be able to go faster than light, but they understood that I couldn’t just ‘give’ them access to it. After trading for samples of most of the things I offered them, they requested contact with the Federation. I suggested that I bring a contact team to them. If everything worked out, the contact team would let the rest of the Federation know about them. If it didn’t work out, I would take the team home, and we wouldn’t bother them again."

"How could you promise them that?" she inquired.

"Well, the contact team doesn’t know where they are, and they gave their word they wouldn’t try to find out. And, since they’re a bit off the beaten path, the odds are good no one else will be tripping over them anytime soon."

"And, just where did you dig up a first-contact team to send to them?" Midnight asked, more than a little concerned.

Neal smiled, "I bent the ears of a few members on the Chakat High Council. They quietly put together the team for me. It’s sometimes handy, having daughters in strange places."

"What are they like?" asked Holly.

"All you’ll get from me is this: they lay large eggs, and never stop growing. Some of their elders are huge."

"But, what do they look like?" she demanded.

"If they decide they don’t want Federation contact, you’ll never know."

"Please?" begged half the kids. Neal just shook his head.

"So, are you going to get them?" Weaver asked.

"When I can make the time. Right now, that means after this run, as I had originally planned."

"But, that’s over a year away!" Shadowcrest exclaimed.

"As fast as the Folly is, she can only be at one place at a time. Even pushing her to her limits, I can’t get far enough ahead of my deliveries to get out there and back between all the stops I have to make."

"What if we use Charlie and Delta?" Shadowcrest asked.

Charlie and Delta were two of the six working shuttle/ships that were docked between the Folly’s spheres. Alpha and Baker were designed to move loaded pods into and out of a gravity well, while Echo and Foxtrot were designed to move pods to nearby space platforms. Charlie and Delta, on the other hand, were warp-capable and able to carry up to two hundred carriers internally. Gulf was a work in progress, that bay looking more like a junkyard than a ship. The Folly also had some smaller, non-cargo carrying craft. Two old rebuilt assault shuttles were in a bay just aft of engineering; they were used when Neal needed to move people, and not cargo to or from the surface. There were also over a dozen lifeboats scattered across the Folly. Neal had kept them all in good shape, mainly because he couldn’t predict where he’d be when and if he needed one.

While Charlie and Delta didn’t have the Folly’s speed, they could be dropped off along the way, make a delivery, and be recovered after the Folly had made a delivery of her own.

Neal looked over at Boyce. "Hmmm, what would Star Fleet say to me offering some of its commanders some command time in civilian craft?

Before Boyce could open his mouth, Brighteyes spoke up. "What about us?"

Neal softly snorted. "What about you? You’re not ready to take a ship out on your own."

"You let Chase’s group do it!"

"Yes I did, but only after years of training and experience. You’ll have to remember, most of them were under ten when they started, and that the Folly was their home," Holding up his hand to forestall any more questions or demands, Neal smiled as he picked up a data pad. "Give me a minute or two to see if they would even make enough of a difference. Tess. Schedules and loads please."

Neal’s data pad updated, and a hologram appeared overhead, red, yellow and green stars filling the space. Some of the stars were red with a date stamp on them. Yellow weren’t time sensitive, but the deliveries were more than the smaller ships could handle. A bar across the bottom was the timeline. Red knots showed the ‘must make’ times with red lines leading to them showed the time needed to get there from the last planned stop. White spaces showed ‘free’ time between the other colored lines and dots. Neal started finding places that he could drop Charlie and/or Delta to save the Folly a stop without using up more time than it saved. The others watched quietly as the lines showing the Folly’s planed flight path shifted, green stars turning blue, and more pieces of the timeline turning white.

Finally, a white line almost filled the space between two widely spaced red knots, one little yellow line/dot standing in the way. Neal sighed. "Best I can do. Tess, do you see a better path?"

"Not without exceeding your parameters, boss."

Looking at Boyce, Neal asked. "I believe you were interrupted before you could give me an answer about using Star Fleet volunteers."

"How many would be needed?"

"A dozen per ship would be enough to comfortably cover the shifts, eighteen to twenty would be a full complement. "

"So twenty-four to forty ‘volunteers’…"

"Minus the slots my kids can fill, once they’ve had enough training, and if whoever I put in charge is willing to take them on as crew."

"What about that one stop?"

"If Charlie and Delta are a go, then I’ll call in a marker for that last stop."

"I don’t see a problem, in fact most of them will probably jump at a chance to try out your equipment."

Looking back at his data pad Neal thought for a moment. "Hmmm. If we figure on two weeks for training and a shakedown cruise or two, then a couple of runs with the Folly there to back them up… Could I tie up your holodeck for training? That would let both ‘crews’ train at the same time."

Boyce nodded. "When did you want to start?"

"I should start tomorrow. We have five weeks before the first real runs, but you can never have enough training time."

"Should we post the openings in the morning?"

Neal thought for a moment. "No. Post them now, let’s let the off shifts have first crack at it."

"What’s your message going to say?"

"Hmmm. ‘The Folly is looking for a few fools foolish enough to want to work long hours on their time off from Star Fleet. The job will entail moving cargo from point A to point B using equipment designed by the same demented fool that designed and built the Folly. Available fools taken in the order of their foolishness to volunteer’."

"Are you sure you want it worded that way?"

"Of course. It gives them fair warning of what’s to come, and what’s expected of them."

"Okay by me."

"Tess, have the ships’ on-duty personnel post it, if you would please."

"Sure thing boss."

"Oh, and send out three of your message drones. I’ll be needing the next year’s schedules for all the usual suspects." At Boyce’s raised eyebrow, Neal grinned. "If this is going to work, I’m still going to need someone to deliver that last load, and they may be interested in some of my other loads as well."

Giving Stew a nudge to get her the rest of the way off his lap, Neal stood. "I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting waterlogged. I’m not saying the party’s over, I just need to get a little drier."

Neal wasn’t done drying off when Tess asked him if she should have set a cutoff number of foolish volunteers, she already had well over a hundred. By the time he stopped laughing, she reported she had just over two hundred. The shifts had just changed, and everybody on the graveyard shifts seemed to want a crack at playing with Neal’s toys.

Neal laughed again, this time at the bemused expression on Boyce’s face. "And I didn’t even have to mention paying them. We must not have been giving them enough to do, if they’re that bored."

It was Boyce’s turn to think for a moment while he finished drying. "I understand Charlie and Delta aren’t as fast as the Folly?" At Neal’s nod, he continued. "Why don’t you give them an ‘escort’? That would give them some added protection, as well as give the other crews more to do."

"I was going to send them out with three scouts and a pair of Zulus each, but there’s no reason we can’t use the other ships as well. Hmmm, that reminds me, I’m going to have to get some more Zulus and scouts made up." Seeing the eager expression on Boyce’s face, Neal chuckled as he added, "Yes, you can help. That is, if you can talk your mates into giving you some time off for good behavior."

Neal snickered as Boyce turned to speak with Rosepetal, his mates having heard what he and Neal had been talking about. The looks they were giving him suggested he was going to have to work hard to earn his freedom to help Neal play with his toys.

Weaver came up and handed Neal her brush. As he started running it though her fur, she asked. "What are you finding so funny?"

Neal pointed his chin to where Boyce was running a brush though M'Lai’s hair, Rosepetal and Midnight on either side of him. From the tones of the voices, Boyce was losing the quiet ‘discussion’ they were having. "Poor guy’s outnumbered. Looks like I’ll be working solo again."

"What makes you think you’re going to get off any easier?"

"Because I only have to convince one mate that doing something is a good idea, he has three times the challenge."

"I remember you told me that he has two additional mates, Zhane and another chakat," she said as she smiled.

Neal snorted. "Zhane – I just barely dodged the phaser pulse with that one."

"And just what do you mean by that?" Rosepetal demanded, her lips curled back halfway to a snarl for the slur to her co-mate she thought she had just heard.

Meeting her eyes, Neal sighed. "What do you know about Zhane’s older sister?"

"A sister she hates, she never even speaks her name." Rosepetal said, her voice dripping with scorn.

"Yes, an older sister she hated for stealing a male from her almost twenty years ago. It turned out the quartermaster of Starbase 3 was a childhood friend of Zhane’s. When she found out I had gotten them both in the same room after all these years, she was more than willing to tell me the whole story, as well as the aftermath. The male they fought over had a history of using, as well as abusing ‘his’ females. I say had, because the family of the female her big sister ‘lost’ him to, removed him from the gene pool. Funny thing is, if you look at it from the outside, it almost looks like an older sister used herself to shield her younger sister from a jerk, and then fed said jerk to what she knew would turn into a meat grinder. What do you call a human that goes and rubs a Rakshani’s nose in something like that? In her own office, with her big sister in the same room no less?"

No longer angry, Rosepetal quietly said. "A fool."

"I didn’t know at the time that they were sisters. When I found out, I had a quiet nervous breakdown. You don’t get in the middle of a family- never mind a Rakshani family’s domestic dispute unless you’re crazy. More often than not, the domestic disputers will team up, and take out whatever is interfering with their personal fight," Neal shook a little from the memory.

Weaver gave him a hug from behind. "That’s why you were so quiet that evening."

"You never saw how angry Zhane got when I had Tess beam Zhanch into her office. She clawed a very nice set of grooves into her desk, just on seeing her sister. I was afraid her hatred would cause Zhane to not help Zhanch, or the others." Neal snorted softly as he looked back to Rosepetal. "The only thing I knew at the time was she had you and Boyce as mates. I rubbed her nose in the fact that if Zhanch hadn’t taken that jerk away from her, she could have ended up with him for a mate. I got lucky; she thought it over and decided to forgive Zhanch, and she forgave me for sticking my nose into her personal life. But the way she said ‘take good care of my sister for me’, when she left the Folly that evening let me know just how close I’d come to looking like her desk."

Having heard her name being used, Zhanch had come up on the group as Rosepetal asked, "Were you able to take good care of her?"

With a small smile and a hand wave at Zhanch, Neal said. "You can ask her yourself, this is Zhanch. Zhanch, this is most of your sister’s family."

Not sure how she would be received, now that they knew who she was, Zhanch simply nodded. Boyce was having none of that however, and pulled her down for a tight hug, his mates quickly joining him.

"Why didn’t you tell us?" Rosepetal asked Zhanch.

Neal answered before Zhanch could find her tongue. "How did you describe her to me just a moment ago?"

"Oh!" Rosepetal said, her fur hiding her blush. "There is that."

"Indeed. Well, since you and Zhane are co-mates, I guess that would make Zhanch your co-sister-in-law, or whatever equivalent term you use."

"What it makes her is part of our extended family," Rosepetal said smiling up at Zhanch.

With everyone dried off, they dressed and then headed for the Folly’s main lounge. The three rabbits had snuck off as soon as they were dry. They now returned with the unused dessert cart and fresh drinks.

Once everyone had something to munch on, Stew sat down next to Neal. She waited until he finished his snack before she spoke. "I want a raise."

Neal took a moment to reply. "Monetary, title, or altitude?"

"The first two would be nice, but they are not what I’m after. I’m not sure what you mean by the third. The fourth option please."

"And just what would this fourth option be?"


Neal was glancing around as Stew spoke. Moonglow and Weaver were showing no surprise at the request; Neal thought he actually saw Weaver give a small nod. Looking over his glasses at her, he snorted. "This is why you smiled when I thought Boyce being out-numbered by his mates was amusing."

Weaver gave Neal a grin. "Like the Caitian, I’m used to the problem of the females outnumbering the males, so sharing one of my males with someone I care for isn’t an issue. Suzan and I have been helping each other take care of you and the kids since she joined us. I see nothing wrong with giving her the ties that go with the job she’s already doing."

Neal frowned. "If I agree to that, your next trap would be to point out that as the nanny and wet nurse for a child I’ve accepted as my own, that Moonglow should also be given a raise in the relationship department."

Weaver grinned again. "It’s so nice, dealing with a male that knows when he’s already beaten."

"That doesn’t mean I’ll go down without a fight," Neal said with a matching grin as he raised an eyebrow at Suzan. "First you wanted me to get more personal, now you want a relationship. You already have my word that I won’t kick you off my ship, what else are you after?"

Suzan wrapped him in a hug. "I’ve never worked harder, nor have I been happier, than I have after I came aboard the Folly. Even before we had our little ‘talk’, I knew I wanted to stay more than anything else. I guess that’s why I overworked myself; I was trying to prove I was worth keeping. You and the kids have given me a feeling of family I’ve never felt before, I want to be a part of that family."

"You do realize that my ‘family’ is more than a little unstable. At the end of this run, all of my kids have relatives that will have more of a say in where they go next than I do. You could end up stuck with just a grumpy old human for company."

"Even then," she said softly.

Neal then turned to Moonglow. "You understand that I could lose Firestorm at our last stop. If hir grandparents claim hir, I’ll have to give hir up. Not to mention that if you’re always on the Folly, you may never get a chance to ride that bike of yours."

Moonglow’s smile was on the tender side as shi replied, "I understand the risks, and accept them. Even if you don’t accept us as your mates, we will be your mates in our hearts, and will treat you as such."

Neal snorted. "As mates, or as keepers?"

Rosepetal spoke from where she sat on Boyce’s lap, Midnight and M'Lai each with a possessive arm around each of his shoulders. "Is there a difference?"

From the middle of the group, Boyce added, "It has its advantages."

Stew tightened her hug on Neal when he shook his head, and let out a quiet sigh. "I keep seeing old sayings and phrases used against me." At the curious looks, Neal gave them a small grin. "I started this cruise with the curse 'may you live in exciting times' hanging over my head," Neal snorted. "That still seems to be in full force. The old saying that comes to mind now is ‘men may rule, but women decide’, and fool be he that thinks he has a voice in the matter!" Looking to Rosepetal, Neal asked, "Did he go quietly, or kicking and screaming?"

Rosepetal laughed. "Both actually."

Boyce had started to protest, but Midnight squeezed his arm and whispered. "Forest," as they tightened their hugs on him.

Neal smiled at Suzan. "I guess it’s like that old song ‘all or nothing at all, I don't know why I go to extremes’." Wrapping her in a hug, Neal looked over to Weaver and Moonglow. "I surrender. What have you ladies ‘decided’?"

Weaver smiled. "Suzan and Moonglow join me as your denmates…"

"I saw that coming," Neal said with a grin. "Why do I get the sinking feeling there’s more?"

"The odd phrase I heard you tell Holly was ‘he who saves a life…’" Weaver said.

"’…Is responsible for it’. At the time, she was wondering why I didn’t just leave our Rakshani ladies at Starbase 3," Neal said. "We had just rescued them from death in a drugged sleep, only to leave them looking forward to a slow and lingering death. I was holding the process back as a last thing to try, because of both the risks, as well as the resources it demands. That, and I could only offer it if we kept them. No sane doctor is going to let me just walk in and experiment on someone in their care. Then Dessa was hit and it was her only real chance of survival."

Dessa stepped up and knelt in front of Neal and Suzan, bringing herself to their level. "I’ve used the holodeck to help me remember, as well as to see what I missed. When Tess told you I had been shot, you told her to treat me as family. Am I ‘family’? Or am I just a ‘stray’ you’ve now rescued from three different possible deaths?"

Neal reached out to place his hands on her shoulders. "I would be honored to call any of you family. Even in your weakened conditions, all of you were more than willing the fight by my side; you were willing to risk your life to save one of my children. In doing so you saved yourself and your sister marines from their lingering deaths. I consider all of you many things, but ‘strays’ isn’t one of them. Your current options are open; all of you have choices to make once your ready to face the outside world again. If you wish to stay on the Folly while you get used to your new situation, I would be happy to have you here."

"As what?" she asked.

"You’ve all been helping with the ship and my kids. Teachers, trainers, a couple of you are already pretty good shuttle pilots. What do you have in mind?"

"You said you would let the kids train to use the smaller ships; will you give us the same privileges? It’s starting to feel a little strange, not having any set responsibilities."

"If that’s what you would like, I have no problems with it."

"What about our Star Fleet responsibilities?"

Neal snorted. "What Star Fleet responsibilities? Right now Star Fleet can’t even admit you’re here on the Folly without admitting that one of their cruisers is out there under someone else’s control. Then we gave them another little problem. May I ask how long you’ve been in Star Fleet?"

"Eighty-five ye… Oh, hell!"

"Indeed. So they will be getting back a few youngsters claiming to be well over a hundred. Your families and friends are in for one hell of a shock." Looking at Zhanch, Neal raised an eyebrow. "Do you think Zhane will mind trading in an older sister for one that appears to be half her physical age?"

Zhanch chuckled. "Only if I swear to stop stealing her mates from her!"

After the laughter died down, Neal continued, "It’s a good thing the Folly and I are disappearing for a while after this run. From what Tess has been telling me, the Folly’s reputation as the ship of impossibilities is still growing among the Star Fleet crews. Both the kids and the Rakshani are also generating rumors that we must have found the fountain of youth. Most of the confusion is being caused by the knowledge my ‘crew’ has not matching their apparent ages." Neal gave them a grin. "For example, I had the privilege of watching Kestrel in action. She was mopping the deck with the Pegasus’s marines in hand-to-hand combat practice. The real treat was that she looked like she was just practicing her dancing. One of the challengers would come into range, she would shift towards them, and they would be down, or flying backwards, all without her missing a beat. Then there’s our ‘terror twins’." Looking at Boyce, Neal’s grin widened. "If you ever have trouble finding your chief engineer, ask Tess to scan Gulf’s bay. After the twins stopped getting underpaw, Sparks got worried they might have been ‘grounded’ and came over to check on them. When I went to check on the twin’s progress that evening, I found that slim Siamese colored chakat of yours, almost ‘buried alive’ in Gulf’s power distribution systems. I had to threaten to not let hir back on the Folly to get hir to eat and go get some sleep. Sparks was back the next day though, with more than a few friends. At the rate they’re going, Gulf will be ready for trials in less than two months."

Boyce just shook his head. "Shi gets all the breaks. I can’t even help you with your scouts, and here Sparks is building a ship."

M'Lai laughed as she gave Boyce a hug. "Be good and maybe we’ll let you play too."

Rosepetal smiled. "That is if Neal is going to be working on them, his mates may have something else with a higher priority."

Neal snorted. "One of the differences between us is that I am this ship’s chief engineer, as well as the captain. I have no choice but take the time to make sure everything is done right." Making eye contact with each of his mates, he continued, "If that means I don’t get to spend as much time as I would like with my mates and my kids, I hope they’ll understand."

Weaver grinned. "Just so long as you understand we will do everything we can to help you, even if that help is dragging you to bed before you’re so tired you hurt yourself or those around you."

Neal nodded. "Understood, love. I wouldn’t have it any other way."

"Good!" Weaver said as her grin turned evil. "Then you won’t mind having fourteen companions, to ‘help’ us keep you out of trouble."

Neal got his mouth open, but no sounds came out. Weaver laughed at his shocked expression. "You said yourself that they are not strays, and you also said you would be honored to have them as family. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll let you adopt them, even as old as you keep hinting you are."

Neal just sat there, with his mouth hanging open, until Stew poked him with a claw. "Breathe!" She hissed.

After Neal got his breath back, Dessa asked sweetly, "Is there a problem?"

"Sorry, that last surprise burned out what was left of my mental calculator." Smiling at the mixed looks of amusement and concern, Neal explained, "I was just trying to figure out how the hell I’m supposed to keep sixteen more denmates and companions happy, when I’ve already have seventeen kids that need everything from love to guidance and encouragement. Oh yeah, I’m also currently in command of not only the Folly, but also four Star Fleet ships and their fighters. Plus I have scouts and Zulus I should be getting built, never mind making sure that Gulf is built the way I intended." Neal shook his head. "I’m starting to feel like I’m getting stretched a little too thin in places."

Dessa leaned forward and wrapped both Neal and Stew in a hug. "Try to think of it more as extra shoulders helping you bear your load, not as more of a load for you to bear."

Neal smiled. "I’ll try. You have to understand that this is the first run in a long time, in which I‘m not running solo. One of the reasons I’ve always liked this job was the ability to get away from everything and everybody for a while, no cares or responsibilities except to get someone’s cargo elsewhere. The few times I was running Star Fleet games, it seemed like it was nothing but extra work."

Redfoot asked, "And Chase and company?"

"That started out rough and had a few bumps, but it smoothed out. The worst parts were the attempted kidnapping and the kids hitting their teens. Like most youths, they decided they knew more than I did on just about any subject you care to name," Neal snorted. "That’s where ‘ye old school of hard knocks’ reared it ugly head. I got tired of arguing with them, so I just started letting them learn things the hard way. After getting their tails scorched a few times, they started asking me ‘why’ I thought things, instead of just assuming that I was too old to know anything worthwhile," Neal chuckled as he looked at Chase. "Plus I showed a couple would-be ‘hotshot pilots’, that even they could be taken down by an old man with poor reflexes."

Chase hung hir head a little, "We thought fast reflexes were everything back then. Neal showed us that some traps work even better on those that just react, and don’t think things through." Looking up, shi smiled, "I was one of the best pilots in my classes at Star Fleet, mostly because I had such an evil, cheating, scheming, no-account father!"

Neal sighed. "Damned by faint praise."

"But praise nonetheless, father," shi said with a smile. "Now prove to me that nothing’s changed, and my adopted father can still handle anything that’s thrown at him!"

Neal looked over to Boyce, "Shi’s almost sixty-five, and shi still doesn’t understand that things and people have limits. Shi still thinks a little begging, or a cute pout will make things better."

Redfoot answered before Boyce could speak, "Of course shi does – shi had you for a role model. When did you ever let hir down?"

"Oh, I failed them, more than once, but I made up for it when I could. They may not have always had treats when they thought they should get them, but there was always food and a warm place to sleep."

"And you always found you had a spare box of ‘hugs’ tucked away somewhere when we needed them the most," Chase said with a chuckle. Smiling at the confused looks around hir, shi continued, "When I was little, we came close to overloading Neal. Nineteen small furs can be quite a handful, and it took a while before the four teenagers started pulling with him instead of against him. One time when we were all feeling a little down, Neal pretended we had ‘run him out of hugs’. I swear he spent over an hour with most of us kids following him, worried that he wouldn’t be able to hug us anymore. He was looking in all his drawers, under the bed, in his desk, just about everywhere. Finally, he got into a storeroom and locked the door before we could follow. He made noises as if he was shifting things back and forth, then we herd him shout out in triumph! He then came out and gave us each a hug…" Chase chuckled again, "I know I spent hours in that storeroom, trying to find where he hid his supply of spare hugs!"

Neal smiled at the memory. "When they finally confronted me on there being no ‘boxes of hugs’ in that storeroom, I simply told them that I had gotten the last package that had been stored in there. After that, whenever they wanted or needed a hug, I would tell them not to worry, I had more spares tucked away somewhere."

"So, have we given you more than you can handle?" Weaver asked.

"I don’t think so love," Neal said as he smiled at her. "It’s just going to take a little while for it to all sink in. I seem to remember it taking you a day or so to get used to the idea of having an extra fourteen kids, never mind agreeing to have a human denmate. Just give me some time to get used to the idea."

Shadowchaser snorted, "That means he wants to go off by himself and play with his toys. He’s always claimed to think better when he’s working with his hands."

"Boyce can be just as bad," Rosepetal said with a smile. "Why don’t we give the boys a little time to at least look over Neal’s projects tonight. They have crews to pick out, and training to start in the morning, so I don’t expect them to make an all-nighter out of it."

At Neal’s raised eyebrow, Boyce shrugged and smiled as he got up. After the door closed behind them, Chase chuckled. "What do you think their first topic of discussion will be about?"

"’How to keep multiple mates happy without ending up in the doghouse’," Weaver said with a laugh. Turning to Rosepetal, she said, "And our discussion should start with, ‘How can multiple co-mates work together to not drive their mate - or each other crazy’?"

The next two weeks resembled semi-organized chaos as things took shape. At Boyce’s suggestion, Neal took most of his foolish volunteers from the ships under his command, being careful not to strip any of the ships of key personnel. Along with the groups working on Gulf in their off hours, Boyce brought a dozen more to help with the Zulus.

Neal had been a little apprehensive about having seventeen denmates/ companions waiting to attack when he and Boyce were done talking that first evening. His fears proved groundless though – only Stew and Moonglow were waiting for him when he entered his room. As with the kids, he found who he went to bed with wasn’t always who he would wake up to find.

The other problem he found with having so many keeping an eye on him, was his habit of working long and strange hours went right out the airlock. While he could brush off the kids with a ‘go on ahead, I’ll be there when I’m done with this’, his new companions would wait for him, and if he didn’t move fast enough to suit them, they could and would pick him up and carry him! This led to him missing fewer meals, and if it was bedtime and he was still too wound up, they were more than happy to take care of that as well. This didn’t mean they were always all over him, they had their own training schedules, and they did give him the time for a little peace and quiet.

Weaver also took on more of the role as Neal’s second in command. The kids and Stew had always used her as a sounding board before asking Neal about something, but now she was making more of the decisions. Neal found she could be just as bad as Tess when it came to telling him only what she thought he needed to know.

Dinner that night was on the Pegasus. Along with the other captains were the commanders that would be taking Charlie and Delta out for the first time the next day.

The Spike’s first officer, Canner, was taking command of Charlie, while Craig Dobson from the carrier Slingshot was in charge of Delta.

Four of Neal’s kids and six of his Rakshani companions had passed the tests Neal had set up for them; now he needed to see if his acting captains would take them on as crew.

When Neal had brought up the subject, Canner had laughed. "Trying to replace us already?" he asked with a smile.

Neal returned the smile with a chuckle. "Not until they’ve had a little more seasoning. So far, the kids have only had me for a captain. Some time under someone else will be good for them. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when you’re training your replacement."

Canner smiled again and nodded. After their rocky start, Canner had been afraid that he had alienated the civilian captain. While Shadowchaser was Neal’s main liaison with the Star Fleet vessels, Canner found that he had been ‘drafted’ to fill in for hir whenever shi was busy. It had taken him a while to realize that Neal hadn’t been angry when he’d disbelieved the sensor data the first day. Neal had simply used Canner’s distrust of the data to show him and the others that there might be a good reason to have the Folly’s help in hunting pirates. Even though the Folly’s current flight path didn’t use the more commonly used ‘space lanes’, Neal was sending a few of his scouts down each of those lanes, then picking them up when the Folly reached that destination.

His next surprise had come when Neal had helped upgrade their sensors, and explained the trick of Folly’s ‘sensor jammers’. Space is a noisy place; every star puts out its own ‘hiss’ across the radio spectrum, up to and past the speed of light. Most sensors were set to ignore this and just report what the sensor could detect above its set noise threshold. Neal’s jammers worked two ways, by slowly adding to the noise, raising the noise threshold of the sensor he was trying to blind, and by sending out a ‘counter signal’ for the Folly’s noises that were over that noise threshold. Like a good set of noise canceling headphones, the earmuffs kept out the hiss and static of the universe, while the electronics ‘countered’ any noise above the threshold. The key to the jammers working correctly were the Folly’s own sensors, you had to know where the other ship was and what they would be ‘hearing’ in order to send the right signals.

Having originally settled on fifteen crew per ship, splitting Neal’s crew between them brought them both up to full complements. His acting captains were pleased that Neal did this without having to ‘bump’ any of their already-trained Star Fleet personal to make room.

After dinner, Neal had both new crews meet him in the lounge. One of the things he wanted to remind the Star Fleet members was that they would be flying freighters, not combat craft. They were to avoid danger whenever possible. While they were used to risking their lives for others, this time their lives were more important. If delivering their loads looked dangerous for any reason, they were to abort. He reminded the captains he expected them to abort if anyone of their crews said the word ‘abort’. Once they were clear, they could find out why.

The next morning saw both ships taking turns making a short hop. Neal running around their engineering sections, making sure everything was working and tuned up. The rest of the day the ships and crews were run though their paces, docking, loading and unloading was practiced by each crew’s shifts.

The next day saw both of the small freighters with a full load, making for the Folly’s next stop. They flew together as a small convoy, the Star Fleet carriers and destroyers acting as an escort. The Folly followed them at a distance, the Pegasus hidden within her warp field.

Two days later, they reached their next stop. Not only did Neal need to transfer cargo on the planet’s surface, there were three space-mining platforms and a research facility to deliver supplies too. After dropping the Pegasus well out of the system, The Folly headed for orbit around the planet, leaving the space based platforms to the smaller ships.

After dropping off their supplies, Charlie and Delta headed back out of the system with their escorts. The Pegasus joined them once they were clear of the system.

The Folly caught up with them two days later. Once the other ships were loaded onboard, the Folly continued on, apparently alone.

The debriefings went smoothly; almost everything had gone according to plan. Neal had made sure to give his crews what background information he had for each of their stops. The crews though, had been more than a little surprised by how many people had been surprised, and sometimes even upset that Neal had sent someone else in his stead.

This had been especially true of one chakat, who had met Charlie as they docked at the first of the mining platforms. Shi had been in such a hurry to meet them, that shi still had hir infant nursing under hir open top. TaurgerWolf, both for hir parents, as well as hir tiger pattern and timber wolf coloration, had first seen the odd human when shi was a very small cub. He had never failed to have a treat or present for hir as a child. As a surprise for hir wolftaur grandparents, Neal had once given hir a ride in the Folly. When they reached Earth, Neal had contacted hir grandparents, only telling them that hir parents had shipped some cargo though him. Neal had then helped hir climb into a large crate, and then filled it up to hir chin with pea sized packing foam. When the grandparents had complained that the crate wouldn’t fit in their vehicle, Neal had suggested they unpack it there, and just take the contents. It was a very dry day, so when the side dropped, white foam poured out. Then, with foam clinging to hir fur, TaurgerWolf had pounced on hir grandparents. A little static electricity soon had all three covered in the foam beads, foam they were still finding in their home twenty years later. CalmMeadow and Mike had been assigned to Charlie. They explained that Neal was using the smaller ships to make up some time, but he hadn’t forgotten hir. They gave hir the small box with hir name on it. Inside shi was surprised to find, not only a gift for hir, but also toys for hir newborn.

The next runs were to two neighboring systems, the Folly heading for one, while the smaller ships and their escort made for the other. The second system had no habitable planets, just a small way-station with a large mining operation.

The quartermaster had been surprised at having the two smaller ships bringing in his supplies instead of the massive Folly, but then he had smiled and made an inter-station call. Delta was almost unloaded, when carriers from the station started queuing up to be loaded. Dusk and Morningmist had been put in charge of unloading Delta; they now looked again at their data pads, no cargo was scheduled to be taken, just dropped off.

The stationmaster, Tom Prasills, whose blond hair had turned to silver over the years, explained the load to them. "A little over fifty years ago, old man Foster helped us repair and upgrade these facilities after a pirate attack. Part of it was a loan and replacement equipment, the other part was lowering the cost of shipping things though him. We’ve never been able to fully pay that loan back. About thirty-five years ago, this ‘younger’ Foster started making the rounds, claiming to be the old man’s ‘grandson’. He’s always told us that there was no record of a loan to us in the old man’s database, so he would never accept payment. Funny thing is, this ‘grandson’ seems to know everything the old man knew, including my daughter’s birthday. So since he has always refused our payments, we’re going to send it to him though you."

The story had pushed Craig Dobson’s curiosity buttons, so he had Velasco scan the carriers before they were brought aboard. The Rakshani had let out a hiss of disbelief at what her scans were showing her. Each carrier was loaded to capacity with refined Boronike ore. The ore in question had properties that kept it from being transported, but those same properties made it a key component in most transporter and replicator manufacturing. Depending on the current prices, each carrier was worth more than a small ship. A hundred and fifty carriers were loaded onto both Charlie and Delta. When asked why so much, Tom had just laughed. "When he wouldn’t take his payment, we rolled it back into the business, this is just half of what his ‘share’ has grown into."

A little before the Pegasus was scheduled to separate from the Folly to check the outlying area while the Folly went in-system, four identical gray rabbit bucks entered Neal’s dayroom. Neal smiled as he said, "Please, don’t tell me you need permission to kick Stew out of your galley again."

"N-No sir. It is about Suzan, but that’s not the problem," Peter said, all of the bucks were clearly nervous about something.

Waving them to chairs, Neal leaned back in his. "She has been acting strangely of late. Why am I getting the feeling my mates are trying something behind my back, and they asked you to help them with it."

"Yes…" "But..." "We…" they all tried to answer at once, but then none of them could bring themselves to speak.

After trying for several minutes to get them to tell him what was upsetting them, Neal suggested they all go back to the Pegasus with him. As they filed out, Neal asked Tess to see if their ship’s counselor or LightTouch was available. LightTouch met them in the coffee lounge.

Even with hys help, it took a while to get the issue out in the open. Suzan had asked the four bucks for something Neal couldn’t give her, and the bucks were terrified Neal would be upset about it.

Neal shook his head as he snorted in amusement. "Don’t worry gentle furs, I learned a long time ago that shooting the messenger is a bad idea. Tell me what the problem is. If I do get to upset, I’m sure LightTouch can hold me down long enough for the four of you to escape!" he said with a grin.

"I do not know about that," LightTouch said with a chuckle, "I have heard rumors that you can out-tickle a Rakshani."

Peter and Roger had been there that night, and they nodded. "And he’s not too bad in a pie fight either!" Peter laughed.

"So I have heard," LightTouch said, giving Neal a wink. Turning to the bucks hy said, "So, what has you so frightened of him? Or, is what you are holding back so terrible that you are afraid he might tickle you to death when he hears it?"

Oswald all but whispered, "She wants our seed." Then he slapped his paws over his mouth.

LightTouch carefully watched Neal. Hy had felt the spike of mental activity. Now hy listened as it slowed down, a few more spikes came up, but they were much smaller, side-thoughts to the main one. After a few breaths, Neal was as calm as he had appeared to be.

Making eye contact with each of the bucks, Neal smiled. "How do you feel about it?" he gently asked.

"We don’t want to come between you…" Peter stammered.

"You won’t be," Neal quickly assured him. "Don’t worry about me. What I want to know is how you feel about helping Suzan bring a child into the world." As they continued looking confused Neal continued, "I will admit that this was a bit of a surprise, but I’m wondering if it was a bigger shock to you than it is for me. I guess what I’m asking is if the four of you have thought this through? Do you want to have a child running up to you yelling ‘daddy’? Or, ‘daddies’ as the case may be?"

"Daddies?" Harvey asked.

"You’re all identical, so if you all wanted to help, there would be no way of telling which of your seeds did the deed. The real question is: do you want a child to be related to you? I promise you I am more than willing to treat any child of Suzan’s as one of my own. The other question would be if you want the child to know of you as their fathers, or do you just want to be anonymous sperm donors?"

"You’re not upset?" Peter asked, they were all still looking slightly stunned.

"No. Just surprised that I heard it from you. I guess Suzan is still trying to find a way of suggesting it without shocking me too badly. But, I’m not the issue here, you four are. This is something that’s going to be with you the rest of your lives, please do not let me scare you into doing this or not. And, don’t let Suzan, or any of my other mates or kids bully you into doing it if you’re not sure you want to. I know of your sexual preferences; you have never had to consider a child before. It’s a big step for anyone, so please take your time deciding."

Once the bunny brothers had left, Neal turned to LightTouch. "You will help them with their decision, won’t you?"

LightTouch cocked hys head at Neal. "And, which way did you want their decision to go?"

Knowing that hy was just baiting him, Neal snorted as he gave hym a dirty look. "Whatever is the best for them. Suzan can always find other donors. I know she likes them, but that’s not a good enough reason to make them uncomfortable about something like this."

"You did not seem as surprised as I thought you might be about her wanting a child."

Neal snorted again. "Those bucks aren’t the first ones to tell me that one of my mates or companions are thinking of having children. So far, Kestrel and Whitetail have also shown an interest. Derikk, the male that Whitetail approached, came to me to make sure I wouldn’t space him for going after her. I did about what I did with the bunnies. I sat him down and asked him if he was sure he knew what he was getting into. Then I called Whitetail in and sent them off with my blessings, and the hopes of a healthy child." Neal chuckled, "Kestrel's first ‘volunteer’ wasn’t all that bright. He had heard her telling someone else she was looking for a male for breeding purposes. So Tomlic had barged into my dayroom, declaring that he was going to have Kestrel and that there was not a damn thing I could do about it."

"What did you do to him?" LightTouch asked with a grin.

"Why nothing," Neal said, matching hys grin. "I just told Tess to let Kestrel know her ‘stud’ was in my dayroom. I didn’t ask, but as mad as she was when she came in, I have to assume that she had Tess tell her who had said what. You have to remember she’s well over a hundred, even if she looks like she hasn’t seen the high side of twenty yet. She gave him her best imitation of a ‘drill sergeant from hell’; every time he tried to open his mouth, she shouted him down. Then the fat went in the fire when he took a swing at her to try to shut her up! She gave him his arm back, broken in two places." Neal shook his head as he added, "She had to break his other arm, as well as a few ribs, to get it though that thick skull of his that she wasn’t interested in something with such a low IQ."

LightTouch snickered. "I already knew about it. I was talking to Doc Kelly when Tomlic came in. He was trying to claim that you had ordered Kestrel to beat him up. Kelly had called Midnight in; attacks on or by Star Fleet personnel are taken very seriously. After he told his ‘tall tale’ for the record, Midnight requested that Kestrel join us. Of course, their stories did not match, so shi had Kestrel ask Tess if there was a recording of the incident, and if she would release it to hir, uncut. Tess played it back for us, plus from what I understand, in Admiral Kline’s dayroom, as well as the marine barracks and the mess hall. Needless to say, by the time Tomlic was escorted from sickbay to the brig, no one was listening to what he had to say."

Neal shook his head, "And here I thought everyone knew that lying to a chakat was a waste of time, or in front of a skunktaur for that matter. Anyway, the next morning Kestrel brought Johninc to meet me. He’s a bit older, and knew Kestrel from before her change. I don’t know what amazed him more, her change, or that the old sergeant that had given him so much grief when he first joined Star Fleet now considered him a good breeding partner. Like Derikk, I let him know I wouldn’t stand in their way, and if they needed any help to just ask."

"I’m a little surprised by your attitude."

"I learned a very long time ago, that I can’t be everything for everybody. But, every now and then, I find someone who can help me by being what I can’t. For Whitetail and Kestrel, if that means I take a backseat to their new loves, so be it. After all they’ve done for me and mine, it’s the least I can do for them."

"And the bunny brothers?"

"If they can help Suzan get what she wants, fine. If not, that’s fine too. I will respect their decisions either way."

Tess picked that moment to remind Neal that ship separation was in just a few minutes. Neal bid LightTouch a good day, and hurried out of the lounge in the direction of the turbolifts.

Light Touch waited until Neal had left the room, then hy got up and went to the other exit, the one the bucks had used to head back to the galley. Around the first bend in the corridor, Peter stood, looking very confused. When he saw LightTouch, he frowned. "I heard what the two of you said, but I didn’t understand. Does he want us to tell Suzan ‘yes’ or ‘no’?"

LightTouch smiled as hy said, "Neal has left that decision up to you and your brothers. If you like, I can help you talk it over, but I can not and will not make the choice for you." With a grin, LightTouch added, "Welcome to another one of those little problems you face when you have the freedom to make your own decisions."

Peter gave hym a tentative smile. "Would you be free to talk with us after the lunch rush?"

LightTouch grinned. "I would be happy to make the time if needed. As it is, I have no pressing duties after lunch, so it’s a date."

"A date?" Peter said, matching hys grin. "We’re having enough female problems with Suzan without you wanting a date too!"

LightTouch could sense that Peter knew what hy meant, so hy just laughed. "Funny bunny," hy said, shooing the rabbit away. "It is a good thing your cooking is better than your jokes!"

The four rabbit bucks returned to the coffee lounge after the lunchtime rush was over. Sitting down on a long couch, they talked quietly while they waited for LightTouch.

Midnight came in a few minutes later with Ember. Midnight stepped up to the counter, while Ember explored the room. Shi found several people that shi knew, but after a stroke or two, or a hug from those shi knew well, shi headed for the rabbits. To their surprise, Ember jumped to the arm of the couch. Then shi started walking across their laps, giving each one a lick-kiss. Once done, shi laid down, trapping them. Midnight joined them with a cappuccino and a smile.

Shi smiled at the looks of bewilderment on their faces. "That’s what you get for sneaking hir all those treats!"

"You knew?" Peter asked, more than a little surprised that they had been caught.

"Of course," Midnight smiled again. "You keep forgetting that I can feel hir emotions. There’s a special ‘spike’ when shi gets a treat. By the way, if you want hir to calm down, just stroke hir. Shi has a full belly, so shi should drop off quickly."

After a few minutes of group petting, Ember had purred hirself to sleep. LightTouch picked that moment to join them.

Peter shook his head. "You set us up," he quietly said as he gave hym a dirty look.

LightTouch smiled. "There is an old saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. It is one thing to see someone caring for their child; it is different when the hands comforting the child are your own. Nothing I could say would make you ‘feel’ what it feels like to have a child that trusts you enough to fall asleep on your lap."

Midnight smiled again. "LightTouch told me you needed a little help with the idea of becoming parents, or just donating your seed. Ember and I though we would let you get a little closer to the idea, though nothing can really prepare you for your own child."

"Thank you," Roger whispered, the others nodding in agreement, as Ember slept on, not knowing how shi had helped them make their decision.

That evening, Neal waited until after dinner to talk with Suzan. Bonita and Whitetail were helping her get a few things cleaned up and ready for the next day’s meals when Neal stuck his head in the door.

Giving his companions a smile, Neal asked, "Do you mind if I steal Stew for a little while?"

Bonita gave him a leer as she replied, "Just so long as you save some energy for tonight!"

Neal shook his head as he held the door for Suzan. "Thanks for the warning!" he laughed as the door closed.

Neal led her to the same lounge they had used for their ‘talk’. This time though, she shared his chair with him. After getting comfortable, Suzan smiled. "Not that I mind a snuggle, but was there another reason for getting me alone with you?"

Neal tightened his hug around her for a moment. "Just before the Pegasus left, I had four rabbit bucks come into my dayroom…"

"But I didn’t…" A finger across her lips ended whatever she was going to say.

"Let me rephrase that. I had four terrified blonde-haired, gray bunnies come into my dayroom. They would have had their tails between their legs if it was physically possible. It seems you asked them for something they feared would ‘upset’ me."

"I was going to tell you if they said they were willing! I was hoping you wouldn’t mind."

"Oh, I don’t mind," Neal said, as he gave her a gentle squeeze. "The problem is, they had never thought of having a child before, so that was one shock to their systems. The other was when they came to make sure I didn’t mind, only to find out I had no idea you were in the market for a child."

"So where do we stand?" Suzan asked, a little worried.

" ‘We’ stand just fine," Neal told her, tightening his hug around her. "Where we stand with the bunny brothers remains to be seen. While I don’t think we’ve burnt any bridges, we may want to tread lightly on the matter for a while."

"So, they won’t help me?"

"I don’t know. When the Pegasus left, they had a decision to make. Please don’t hound them about it. It may take some time for them to feel right about giving you a yes, or a no. If they do say yes, you just might find out from docs Kelly or M’Lai first." At her confused look, he smiled. "Unless you want them coming after you with a turkey baster!"

She stared at him moment, then closed her eyes. After another moment, she groaned. "Thanks a lot! Now I can’t get that image out of my head!"

Neal chuckled. "You think that’s bad? I left the poor bunnies thinking about some little brat running up to them yelling ‘daddies’!"

Suzan shivered. "Then they’ll say no."

Neal smiled. "Don’t be so sure, there are positive points to go along with the negative ones. More than anything, I think they will need to just sit down, and think about it for a while."

Bonita looked in on them a little later, both were sound asleep in each other’s arms. Suzan's cheek fur showed where tears had flowed, but the expression on her face suggested whatever had caused the tears had been resolved. With a smile, Bonita closed the door, and went to see if Moonglow was interested in some company.

Three days later saw the Folly stopping to pick up the Pegasus, before chasing down the rest of their convoy. Once the ships were joined, Neal headed to the Pegasus to compare notes with Boyce. Midnight met him at the access port.

"Permission to come aboard?" he asked with a smile.

"Permission granted Neal. The last time I saw Boyce, he was waiting for you in his dayroom." Midnight then grinned. "And our cooks have a message for your cook, shall I send them over?"

Neal reached up to tap his comm badge, only to pause when Midnight shook hir head. "They want to surprise her," shi said with a wink.

"Far be it for me to spoil a surprise," Neal said as he headed for the turbolifts.

Boyce was in the coffee lounge when Neal tracked him down, nursing a cup of Chipinge coffee. After getting an iced tea from the attendant, Neal joined him.

They had been talking for only a few minutes when Suzan came in. She was clutching a case, and looking like she was ready to cry. Neal quickly got up and sat her down in his chair. Figuring the brushed metal case was what was bothering her; he gently took it from her and set it on the table.

Suzan shuddered as she said, "They said that this is all they could give me." Then she hid her face in her hands as her tears started.

With Boyce looking on curiously, Neal opened the case and then he snorted as he say the contents. "I’ve always heard that great minds think alike, but this is ridiculous!"

In the case sat three items, each in a molded pocket. A small clear container contained an almost clear liquid in it; another small container of what the label said was cooking lard, and a turkey baster.

With a look of concern, Boyce started to say something, only to be stopped by Neal’s raised hand. Neal had noticed that the case was much heavier than these contents would warrant. Removing the items, he then used the pockets as a handle to lift out the molding. Underneath was a small cooling unit, a tube of lubricant, and rows of oral medicine syringes. Opening the cooling unit, Neal counted over a dozen sealed tubes.

"Suzan? Suzan!" Neal had to pull her hands away from her face to get her to look at him. "You missed something," he quietly whispered.

Her eyes went wide when she saw the contents, then she jumped up and ran from the room.

"Midnight and M'Lai had both told me that the brothers had made their decision, but they didn’t mention any gags going with it," Boyce said with a frown.

Looking again at the first layer, Neal snorted. "It looks like a joke they added after the case was set up. I do like the spirit that it suggests. Although they were willing to help her, they also wanted to give her a taste of the shock she had given them." Still smiling, Neal keyed his comm badge. "Tess, how are the bunny boys surviving Stew’s ‘thank you’?"

"Remains to be seen boss. She’s already hugged and kissed two of them into the ground, the other two have fled."

Putting the case back together, Neal gave Boyce a grin. "I should put this in her room. And I think that our chat will have to wait until after we rescue your cooks from mine."

Late that evening, Bonita found Neal in the lounge, sipping hot tea while Stormy slept in his lap.

"I thought you were with Suzan," she quietly said as she sat down beside him.

"Couldn’t sleep. And, it seems if I can’t sleep, Stormy can’t stay asleep either. So I left Moonglow curled up around Stew." Neal snorted as he added; "She’s been banned from the Pegasus’s galley until she promises to not attack the bucks again."

"She attacked them?"

"For some reason it seems they prefer to not have a female try to smother them with hugs and kisses."

"But they wouldn’t have minded you ‘thanking’ them."

Neal smiled as he snorted, "So I was told."

"Well, I can’t help you with your bunny issues, but I may be able to help you get some sleep," she said as she gently lifted the kitten from his lap and set hir on a cushion. "Fully recline that chair and roll over," she commanded. Once Neal was on his stomach, the big Rakshani started to give him a massage.

"You’re like a coiled spring! Try to relax."

"Too much on my mind…"

"Are ‘we’ pushing you to hard?" Bonita asked with some concern.

"No. It’s worrying about how the others are doing. I don’t like being out of the loop, out of control!"

"That’s all part of being in command of a small fleet. You have to trust your captains and their crews."

"It’s not that I don’t trust them, it’s just not knowing if every thing’s okay. Or I’m racking my brain, trying to think of anything I may have forgotten."

"You know, your ‘kids’ are growing up fast. You can’t hold their paws all the time."

"The first letter I sent to their parents, I promised I’d take good care of them. Then I put them in harms way at New Kiev, and now I have some of them delivering cargo, while we’re out here hunting pirates!"

"Was it this bad when it was Chase’s group?"

"Possibly worse. With Chase and company, I had more time to train them. Maybe that’s part of my fear, that was before they got chewed on by pirates. I thought I had taught them everything they could need, but they still got hurt."

Bonita smiled as her paws firmly worked their way down his back. "Perhaps you inadvertently shielded them from making too many mistakes. I know that you know the expression ‘no pain, no gain’. It’s one thing to be told something, it’s a whole ‘nother story to have it actually happen to you."

"I can tell myself that they’re as safe as they possibly could be, but my gut still churns with the fear that I may have missed something. Like you just said, it’s one thing to be told, it’s another to know. Have you had any kids?"

"A rather personal question, but no, no kids."

"Sorry, it just seems the fear goes up a notch when it’s your kid verses somebody else’s brat."

"So if the child is yours it’s a kid, if they belong to anyone else, then they’re brats?"

"My father always claimed that he had little enough patience with his own kids, and none for other people’s. I like to think I’m a little better than that, but I find that it often depends on the kid in question."

"I’ve noticed that you let the terror twins get away with quite a bit more than I would."

"Probably. Part of the problem is they remind me so much of Chase’s group. They’re at that age where they soak up knowledge like a sponge. I’m trying to let them learn as much as they can without overloading them. The flip side of that coin though, is that I’m trying not to slow them down too much either. Right now, this is ‘fun’ to them. If I turn it into ‘work’ or ‘school’, they won’t be as motivated to learn."

"But, is it safe to let them help build a ship? There are so many things that could hurt them."

"Sparks said the same thing. I told hir to work with the twins for a day. Shi was to just be an extra set of hands; the kids were to tell hir what to do. Shi came back to me that evening, ready to sign the twins on as part of hir crew. They obeyed all the safety rules, to the point that they actually caught hir skipping a couple."

"I’ve spoken with hir. Shi seemed pretty sharp."

"Oh, shi is, but like most people that do the same things day after day, shi has learned what ‘short cuts’ shi can and can’t get away with. The only problem is Gulf isn’t the Pegasus. On hir ship, there’s a lot of places that flipping a single switch kills power to a whole section. On Gulf, those same sections are fed by multiple warp cores, so you have to kill all the routes to make a section safe to work with." Feeling Bonita’s claws digging a little deeper than they had been, Neal snorted. "Easy! Shi was never in any danger; the kids had the section safe before shi could get in any trouble. Plus you’re forgetting my best babysitter of all, Tess."

"You know, you count on your computer too much."

"Only because she’s proven to me that I can count on her. Without her, I don’t think I would have attempted to let Chase’s group stay onboard. Twenty-three to one, that one also needing to run a ship and move cargo? Every trip, Tess seems to learn a little more, there’s less for me to ‘correct’."

"You make her sound almost alive."

"Key word being ‘almost’. When we started out, she was little better than the Pegasus’s main computer. You could give her basic orders, and ‘if/then/else’ type instructions. Then I almost lost to some pirates. The ship was a battered pile of wreckage, and I wasn’t in much better shape. Among other things, a main power bus blew. The safeties kicked in before too much damage was done, but I was badly burned. I didn’t really notice when it started, but it was sometime after she processed me that I noticed that she was starting to do things without being told. At first, I thought I had simply forgotten that I had told her to do things, but then I deliberately didn’t give her needed commands and she did what was needed anyway."

"Could the surge have damaged the computer itself?"

"Possible, but all the components have been upgraded so much since then, that there’s nothing left of the original system."

"And the code?"

"I have let a few trusted experts look though the code. It’s so old, and has had so many upgrades, add-ons and patches, that all they could tell me was that they thought it looked fairly ‘stable’. Considering there’s still nothing on the market half as responsive, I’ve stayed away from starting over with a newer program. As they say, ‘better the devil you know’."

"Speaking of devils we know, I have a few questions about the process you used to make us young again."

"I’ll answer what I know, but it’s not entirely under my control."

"First off, all of us are taller and er… bigger than we were before."

"As I told Zhanch when we woke Dessa up, the process reads your DNA and rebuilds your body to its best potential, not what it was."

Bonita frowned. "Okay. I’ll buy that, but most of us have been trying to get back in shape. In basic training, I remember losing some of my bust as I started putting on more muscle, but that’s not happening to any of us this time. Are the changes permanent?"

Neal smiled. "Sorry, that’s not the fault of the process. It’s the fault of your nutritionist." At her look of total confusion, Neal chuckled as he continued, "I’ve found that one of the programs Suzan has Tess running happens to keep an eye on how hard each of you exercise, and then she plans your meals with enough to replace what you tried to burn off."

"So you’re saying we should blame Stew and Tess for all the males only noticing our tits and not our muscles?"

Neal grinned. "Well, that and your ‘snacks’."

"Most of us don’t snack that much!"

"Not how much, but what you’ve been snacking on."

"A bowl of ice cream isn’t bad for you!"

"Not if it was regular ice cream, no. But I’ve noticed you all seem to have fallen in love with the ‘home-made’ ice cream that we give Stormy as a treat."

"If it’s okay for hir to eat…"

"Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s great ice cream, but my older chakat kids have to stay away from it," Neal smiled as Bonita eyes grew wide. "You see, it was made with Moonglow's milk, so they would start producing milk too."

Bonita covered her face with her paws, the way she was shaking it was hard for Neal to tell if she was laughing or crying.

Neal chuckled. "The bunny boys were all ready to make new creations using the ‘chakat milk ice cream’, until it was pointed out that it would have certain affects on chakats and skunktaurs. Since Midnight was already in milk producing mode, shi tried some and liked it. I understand shi was teasing Sparks and LightTouch with it."

Bonita was now holding her sides as she laughed. "Extra rich and creamy! No wonder it’s so good. Damn it, one more thing that will make me fat!"

"You could always cheat like I do," At her raised eyebrow, Neal smiled. "Just skip a meal and have a banana split instead."

Bonita chuckled. "Is that why Weaver says that you’re a bad influence on the kids?"

"Among others."

"Is it just me, or is she running the Folly more than you are?"

"Weaver is helping manage all the people and their needs, while I try to manage the ship and all the hardware. Otherwise, I’d probably be feeling like a one armed paper hanger."

"That’s another thing, half the things you say don’t make any sense."

"Different frames of reference I’m afraid."

"Just how old are you?"

"As you know, I went though the process thirty-seven years ago. It was about a hundred and twenty years before that, that I almost died in a pirate attack, and I was processed for the first time. Let’s just say I’m over two hundred and let it go at that."

"What’s it like?"

"To be so old? Some times, it feels like too much to remember. Some days Tess has to remind my of something I was just talking about moments earlier, other times a sight, sound or smell will remind me of something from before my first ‘process’ like it was only yesterday." Neal looked at her carefully as he asked his question, "While we are on the subject of age, why was Zhanch in charge of your group? From what I’ve heard, she’s almost the youngest of you."

Bonita smiled. "One of our training tricks is to assign the junior ranking member the command slot. Then those under her command see what she’ll let us get away with, and what she won’t. It also forces her to order her people into possibly life threatening situations. It’s one thing to risk your own life; it’s something else to order a friend to risk their life. Zhanch had been tapped for possible promotion; we were to test her. That was some test we fell into."

Neal grunted softly. "I don’t know. You all survived, and most of you seem happy with the changes surviving required. Like many things, the trip isn’t the destination, it’s the journey. This minor ‘reset’ just means you get a second chance at a few things you may have missed the first time around."

"Like cubs?"

"Them too."

"I was sterilized by an accidental blast of radiation when I was young. That kind of put me out of the running in the cub-making department."

"That body didn’t get hit by that radiation. The doctors would have told you if there was a problem."

"So this time around I have to decide, where last time the choice was taken from me."

"Nobody said the choices get easier as you get older."

Rolling him over, Bonita shook her head and softly snorted as she picked up Stormy. Laying hir on Neal’s chest, she then picked him up. As she carried them to the door she quietly murmured, "Enough thinking for one night. Let’s see if I can’t help you feel young again!"

The small convoy was over a day’s travel from where the schedule called for them to be, when the Folly came out of warp in front of them. Charlie and Delta were barely docked between the spheres, before Neal met them at Delta’s docking port. "What failed?" he asked, wondering what problems he might have missed on the test runs.

"Not a thing, Captain," Craig answered with a smile. "She’s just a little slower with a heavy load."

"What load?" Neal asked, totally puzzled.

"A gentleman named Tom Prasills told us he’s been holding it for you for years now," Craig said with a grin.

"Prasills? That brat!" Neal had started to say more, but was interrupted when both crews burst out laughing. "What?" Neal demanded, confused by their outburst.

Morningmist managed to contain hir laughter first. "Tom told us that only one person had ever called him a ‘brat’. That person was ‘old man Foster’, and he only said it when Tom managed to really get under his skin. Mr. Prasills told us to tell you, that if he’d managed to get you to call him a ‘brat’, then he’s returned the loan to the right Foster," Looking at Neal’s expression, shi snickered, "Sorry father, but it looks like ‘the cat’s out of the bag’." This started the others laughing again.

Neal was still shaking his head when Weaver came up. "Why didn’t you want them to pay you back?" she asked.

Neal snorted. "As far as I was concerned, they already had. I both ship their orders, as well as buy some Boronike for myself to sell on the open markets. Boronike is so much in demand, that I could ship their loads for free! With the markups I charge, the ore I sell makes me more profit than almost anything else."

Weaver waved her paw at the open hold, almost full of carriers. "Then what’s all this?"

Neal shook his head again. "Tom and company think it’s ‘interest owed’." then he grinned. "Oh well, as they say, ‘turnabout’s fair play!’"

"And just what does that mean?" Weaver asked.

Neal’s grin turned evil as he chuckled. "What it means, love, is that they will be getting a ‘gift’ to thank them for their little surprise the next time I come by."

The third and last trip before they would be racing the clock in earnest, had Charlie and Delta heading for different systems. The Folly would drop them off along the way, before heading for a third system. Since the Folly would be over a week early, Neal expected he would have to wait for his loads to be readied. Charlie, Delta, and their escorts were to rejoin after their deliveries, then catch up with the Folly at their best speed.

Charlie’s destination was a small mining platform that was currently positioned well into an asteroid field. They left their escort behind as they slipped into the slowly shifting field, the Zulus taking their own paths to quietly scan the area. Canner had Mike and Zhanch working stations on the bridge, while CalmMeadow and Croix prepared to help unload the cargo.

The first surprise came when it took several tries to contact the station; the next one was when an exhausted-looking human answered their hail. He told them that a remotely operated mining probe had stopped responding to commands, and had hit the station. Most of the station personnel were getting some much-needed sleep, after having worked double or triple shifts on the repairs.

Canner had told him that Charlie’s crew would be happy to do the unloading for them; all he would need was for them to open their docking bay.

Zhanch had been looking over the patched-up damage. It looked like the run-away probe had been going at a fairly good clip, having damaged or destroyed the long-range communications arrays before it impacted the station, just missing the control center. When asked if there had been any injuries, they were told that there had been just enough warning to get everyone clear.

CalmMeadow had been listening to the conversation between the bridge and station, a feeling of fear and dread growing in hir as they approached the station. Shi pressed the intercom key that would let just the bridge hear hir, and whispered, "Abort!"

As hir whispered word seemed to echo around the bridge, Mike looked up from his station; he had been carefully scanning the station as they approached, "I confirm we should abort, Captain."

Canner only hesitated for a moment, then he ordered Charlie to reverse course and pull away from the station. At the surprised demands from the station, he replied that they had just lost their docking computer again. They would try docking as soon as they isolated the fault. Turning to Mike, Canner asked, "Okay, why did we just abort docking?"

Though the intercom, CalmMeadow answered first, "Something’s wrong on that station, captain. I can feel it!"

Looking at the intercom panel Mike sighed. "More than you know, sister mine." Looking over at Canner, he said, "Sir, he’s lying to us. I am only finding six furs on that station, their location suggests that they are hiding in the air ducts. All other life signs are human, and there’s well over a hundred of them, about half of which are waiting on the other side of the docking port they were going to have us use."

Canner’s brow creased. "Neal’s notes said this station is the home of over fifty furs, mostly chakats. Where are they?"

Mike shook his head. "No other large masses of organics on the station sir. They or their bodies were removed, and I can’t see chakats willingly leaving anyone behind. The scan looks like five very small and one medium taur-sized furs, they are all bunched together so they are a little hard to separate."

They could hear CalmMeadow’s voice breaking as shi cried, "They’re starving! We have to save them!"

Canner watched as Mike nodded in agreement. "I’m open to suggestions, but remember, Neal doesn’t want me placing you in danger. This isn’t a fighter, it’s just an over-glorified freighter with a few tricks tacked on."

Mike snorted. "So use the tricks!" At Canner’s raised eyebrow, he added, "Their shields are down for us to dock, we can use one of the Zulu’s to transfer the furs to us. Park the other directly between us and the station, both to act as a shield against any attack, as well as give us the ability to disable their systems."

It was Canner’s turn to snort. "I keep forgetting the full capacities of those dang things!" Looking at Mike and Zhanch, he smiled. "You two have more training on them than the rest of my crew, so I’ll let you do the honors."

Mike nodded and looked over at Zhanch. "I’ll get the furs, you take the station." As Zhanch nodded, Mike keyed the intercom, "All medically trained personnel to sickbay please. Expect incoming. CalmMeadow, please join them."

Meanwhile Zhanch was also busy. As she moved her Zulu into place, she contacted the other ships. "Slingshot, Spike! Full alert guys! These are not the people we were expecting. They may have more unpleasant surprises waiting for us." She could hear the fighter jocks being ordered to their fighters as Slingshot’s captain, Goldeneyes reminded her that that wasn’t proper communications protocol. Zhanch had growled back, "Protocol be damned, I’m busy! Damn! DO NOT launch the fighters! I’ve found four missile tubes and six heavy beam weapons already aimed at us! Give me some time to try and disable them!"

"Got them!" Mike exclaimed moments later, "Captain, you can raise shields and get us clear of this trap!" He then started helping Zhanch disable the weapons on the station.

Zhanch had already taken care of the missile tubes by using her Zulu’s transporter to modify the tube exits. They each now sported a new set of blades set in an ‘X’ pattern that would slice up the missile as it got to the end of the tube. Depending on the type of missile, it might even go off while still in the tube. She was now working on the beam weapons. By cracking their lazing crystals, they would explode if power was applied.

Mike started with their command and control systems. That would keep them from firing multiple weapons from one location. They could still try firing from the weapons themselves, but by the time they could get their people to the individual weapons, Zhanch would have them disabled.

The calls from the station were now getting frantic. They demanded to know why Charlie had raised shields and was now pulling away from the station. Canner’s smile was tight as he opened communications with them again. "Whoever you are, you’re lying to me. Our scans are only showing humans. Where are the furs that own and run that station?"

Their only reply was a small explosion on the station. Mike had left one beam weapon attached to their control systems. Since Zhanch had already damaged it, all it did was let Canner know that they had tried to fire on his ship.

As they started to move away from the station, small explosions occurred on three nearby asteroids. These cleared the openings for three ships. Two started for the freighter, the other began discharging fighters once it was clear of its hiding place.

As Mike and Zhanch repositioned their Zulus to intercept any shots or missiles fired by the two ships, Canner ordered one of the baby Zulus to ram the enemy carrier. One thing Neal had drummed into the crews running his ships was that, if need be the Zulus, the cargo, even the ships themselves were disposable. He could always make more. What he couldn’t replace were the crews. Canner got another surprise when he gave the command; he had expected the scout to head straight for the carrier. What it did was change its course so that it came around and hit the third fighter as it was leaving the carrier, smashing it back into its launch bay as the scout came apart. Neal’s scouts were made for ramming. The anti-matter containment was weakest to the front of the craft, so when the scout hit something, there was little keeping the anti-matter from its intended target. Canner watched as a blinding fire pulsed from the carrier’s open port. Acting as an off-centered rocket thruster, it started spinning the big ship around, as more and more of the ship seemed to catch fire and fall or melt off.

Mike and Zhanch weren’t idle while the carrier died. As well as keeping the other two ships from getting a clear shot at Charlie, they were also fighting back with the Zulus and trying to cut though the attacking ship’s shields, and render them harmless. Mike managed to take out his target’s bridge controls, causing them to hit a large rock almost dead-on. Zhanch’s target had already scraped a smaller rock, and had lost most of their rear shields. Zhanch removed the power buses that fed their anti-matter containment fields. After a moment, the ship seemed to expand just before it exploded, fiery pieces going in all directions.

Canner had the last two scouts harassing the two remaining fighters. They were staying between the fighters and Charlie, while the fighters from Slingshot moved in for the kill. One tried to escape to open space, but was cut to pieces when it came around a rock, and into Spike’s phaser range.

With all hostile craft neutralized, Spike and Charlie joined Slingshot well clear of the asteroid field. With Slingshot’s fighters out and ready for another attack, Canner sent a Zulu and a scout back into the field. The scout went in with its sensors set to ‘high’ active, the extra power letting it see into the rocks, looking for more traps. The Zulu headed back to the station, Canner intended to use it as a relay and ask the current occupants some hard questions.

When they refused to answer his hails, Zhanch suggested he let her try. She had seen something when she was scanning for weapons that she thought might help loosen their tongues. An open crate of gas grenades had been just inside the cargo door where they had wanted Charlie to dock. She transported one of the grenades to their control room. Then she politely informed them that the next one she gave them would have the pin pulled.

Recognizing their own grenade, they started answering Canner’s questions. After ten minutes though, it became apparent that they were making answers up as they were asked.

While Canner continued asking questions, Zhanch was removing their ability to escape. She first removed all the computers from the station and the vehicles in and around the station. She then opened the inner airlock doors and sealed them in place. She also beamed all the space suits outside to keep them from being used. She then removed the cables connecting all but their local antennas to the station. As a last precaution, she booby-trapped all the access to the power room. Anyone trying to get more power out of the system, or trying to blow up the station would get a taste of their own gas.

While all this was happening, CalmMeadow found hirself in a different type of battle. Shi was turning the last corner to the small sickbay, when a human male and a fox tod all but dived out of the room. Both had been clawed, the tod’s left upper arm dripped blood while the human’s hand looked like it had gone though a shredder.

CalmMeadow dragged them both to the next room. Pulling the first aid kit off the wall, shi dropped it next to them. "Do what you can with this, we’ll get you properly patched up after we get hir calmed down." Shi then hit the comm panel and asked Mike to help hir in sickbay.

Mike had taken only moments to join hir, and shi explained hir plan. "We have to get hir to trust us before we can help the cubs. I will try to calm hir down. If shi attacks me, I will try to hold hir for you to grab."

Having seen the walking-wounded in the next room, Mike hadn’t liked hir plan, but unfortunately he didn’t have a better one. He stayed out of sight as CalmMeadow opened the sickbay door. Inside was Nova, a tiger-striped chakat in hir early teens. In the corner there were five chakat cubs, the oldest almost four, the youngest only a few months old. Now that they were awake, all of them were crying in hunger.

CalmMeadow watched the younger chakat carefully, as shi tried to project calm. "Let me help," Shi whispered. "Let me help you feed them. They are crying for food."

The younger chakat stared at hir for a long moment, then shi started shaking as shi slowly collapsed. "I can’t feed them. I’ve dried up," shi said as shi started to cry.

CalmMeadow slowly stepped up to hir, then shi knelt and wrapped hir in a hug. "That can happen when you don’t get the fluids you need yourself. I have a friend outside that will get us both some food so we can feed the little ones. Can I ask him to come in?"

At hir nod, CalmMeadow called Mike in. Understanding that the situation was still touchy, Mike said little, and basically let CalmMeadow tell him what to do.

As well as getting them food, Mike had a guard posted to keep anyone from disturbing them. With three of the cubs looking to be under a year old, he had Canner check to see if the other ships had a chakat producing milk as shi or hir milk would be needed for the little ones. When he returned with the food, he found CalmMeadow with the littlest two. Each was sucking hungrily on a nipple, with the other three whining for their share. After reminding CalmMeadow not to let any of them eat themselves sick, Mike went to have a word with Canner.

Canner had bad news for Mike when he got back to the bridge, none of their little fleet’s chakats were nursing, and none of the replicators had either chakat milk, or the chakat milk ice cream loaded in their memories. And Canner had given up on getting anything useful from the humans still on the station, so he had decided to make for Delta’s group at their best speed, then the convoy would then head for the Folly’s stop.

Canner had already sent a scout to warn Delta and her escorts of the trouble they had run into. Mike suggested he send the remaining scout to catch up with the Folly; the little ones would soon become ill without chakat milk. Canner sent his last scout racing for the Folly. It would let the Pegasus know what they had found as it passed by.

Four days later saw the small convoy still over a week away from the Folly’s stop. There had been some discussions of stuffing the little ones into a Zulu for a fast ride to the Folly, but there wasn’t enough room for CalmMeadow, Nova and the cubs. Splitting them up wasn’t an option; Nova refused to let any of the cubs out of hir sight. That, and shi seemed to have gained a fear of small closed spaces, keeping them from sending just hir and the cubs. Nova was barely letting CalmMeadow near the cubs, never mind anyone else. Mike was doing what he could to help, but that boiled down to just getting whatever they needed, CalmMeadow couldn’t even get Nova to let him hold one of the cubs, much less help feed or clean them.

CalmMeadow had almost scared Nova by leaping for joy, when Mike told hir that a scout had just returned with a message that help was on the way. The convoy dropped out of warp to wait for the Folly. They found that they had been mistaken in their assumption on who was coming to help; it was Pegasus that came out of warp before them. She then came over and quickly docked with Charlie.

Boyce had ‘short-stopped’ the scout Charlie had sent, to keep Neal from finding out. He knew that Neal would have dropped everything and rushed out, only to have to return to finish his pick-ups and deliveries. Now Boyce, Rosepetal, and Midnight got a quick update from Canner before checking on the young survivors. Mike stopped them as they headed for the little sickbay. He apologized to Boyce, but the way Nova was reacting to humans made letting hir see him a bad idea.

Even CalmMeadow couldn’t convince Nova that Rosepetal and Midnight were friends, and that they only wanted to help. Hearing that his mates were having problems getting Nova to trust them, Boyce made a call to the Pegasus.

A few minutes later, Kayla showed up, with Ember being kept in check by Yeoman d’Armand, their nanny/keeper when their parents were busy. Kayla had brought half a dozen small covered bowls. At CalmMeadow’s puzzled look she smiled as she said, "Moonglow ice cream."

CalmMeadow thanked her as shi took one of the bowls and started eating. Midnight stepped back to where shi could speak to Boyce without being heard. "I hope you know what you’re doing," shi told him.

Boyce frowned. "Since Nova wouldn’t let you near the cubs, I thought I would give CalmMeadow some other options on getting some chakat milk into the little ones. Shi could have let the ice cream melt before feeding it to them, but it looks like shi has decided on a more direct approach."

After eating half the bowl of ice cream to prove to Nova that there was nothing wrong with it, CalmMeadow started offering it to the cubs. The older two had no problems with the frozen treat, but the younger three quickly pushed it away. CalmMeadow took one of the unopened bowls and asked Mike to warm it to body temperature. Once warmed, shi had no problem getting the younger ones to lap it up.

Shi then offered a bowl to Nova, warning hir that shi would start producing milk if shi ate it. Nova just stared at the bowl for a full minute, then carefully took a small taste. CalmMeadow watched with some amusement as Nova started slowly, but then quickly wolfed down the bowl. CalmMeadow handed hir a second bowl. Shi then handed one to Mike, requesting that he copy it into the replicator. CalmMeadow had no intention of ever being without a source of chakat milk again.

With CalmMeadow and Nova now producing milk, the young cubs were out of danger. Nova though, was another story. Shi still barely trusted CalmMeadow, and though hir, Mike. Nova would not let any of the cubs out of hir sight, and shi would only doze off for a few minutes at a time before fighting hir way back to consciousness to make sure the cubs were okay. CalmMeadow could only watch as Nova’s fears slowly tore at hir, making hir try to be ever vigilant, always on watch.

The Folly met them two days later; Neal was a little annoyed that Boyce had kept him from getting the message sooner. Once the other ships were on/in the Folly, Neal had the scouts and Zulus create a sphere to give him plenty of warning of any approaching ships.

Boyce met Neal as he was about to board Charlie. Neal gave him a dirty look as he said, "I know what you did and why you did it. Please don’t do it again. While I know the Pegasus could get to them quicker, and the Folly did need to finish loading, I had information that might have made this a little easier on everyone." Without further comment, Neal walked into Charlie. Waving off Canner, and then Mike, Neal stepped into the room next to the sickbay.

He stopped at the countertop connected to the wall that it shared with the sickbay. Laying a few items on it, Neal began using his hands to beat a rhythm on the countertop. In the next room, the oldest of the cubs, (DarkStreak, for hir dark gray cougar coloring) was alerted and looking around with interest. When Neal repeated the rhythm, shi dashed out of the room in search of the beater. CalmMeadow felt a surge of surprise/fear/hope, as well as something else, from Nova, but shi did not try to stop the cub.

DarkStreak had easily found Neal. He let hir carefully smell him before picking hir up in a tight hug. After a minute, he set the cub back on the floor. Picking up two of the items he had placed on the counter, he placed one in hir paw and said, "For you, little one." Placing the other item in hir free paw he said, "For Nova." He then shooed hir out of the room. Looking at Boyce’s look of surprise, he gave him a sad smile. "Shi was almost two the last time I saw hir and hir parents. I’m glad shi still remembers me."

DarkStreak ran back into the sickbay. Shi stuck out her paw to Nova. When Nova just sat there staring at hir, shi pointed hir paw at CalmMeadow. When CalmMeadow held out hir paw, the cub dropped a small hard candy into it. Hir mission accomplished, DarkStreak plopped down with the other cubs to share hir treat with them.

CalmMeadow opened the candy and sniffed at it. It was ‘watermelon’ flavored. Shi then offered it to Nova; who smelled it, then gave it a lick, and shivered.

A knock on the open door caused them all to jump a little as Neal called around the corner, "Nova, this is Captain Foster. May I come in?"

Nova was shaking and unable to speak, but shi looked at CalmMeadow and nodded.

CalmMeadow told Neal he could enter. He did so slowly, so as not to upset the cubs any more than necessary. He knelt next to Nova, his eyes never leaving hir face. Shi spoke first. "I’m sorry," shi whispered, the tears flowing freely.

"For what?" Neal gently asked.

"I couldn’t help them!"

"Your parents?"

Shi nodded. "I could hear them dying, but I couldn’t leave the little ones."

"Your parents would be very proud of you. I know I am. You kept the little ones alive. If you had tried to help your parents, you would have left the little ones with no one to care for them. They wouldn’t have lasted long without you."

"B-but, I ran out of milk-water!"

"They had what you did give them to keep them going long enough for my kids to find you. That’s all that matters."

"Your kids?"

"CalmMeadow and Mike are just two of my kids. Midnight and Rosepetal are two very good friends of mine. They would never hurt you or yours."

Neal then placed his hands on hir shaking shoulders. "I am taking responsibility for you and the little ones. You are relieved, understood?"

Nova nodded, then shi slowly slumped in CalmMeadow’s arms, dead to the world.

CalmMeadow stared up at Neal in disbelief. "How did you do that?" shi demanded.

Neal gave hir a small smile. "I’ve known Nova almost all hir life. At seven, shi tried sneaking into Foxtrot while I was offloading cargo. Since I was in no hurry, I let hir look around the Folly for a few hours before I ‘found’ hir and dragged hir back to hir parents. My rapping out tunes to make it easier to find me was just one of the games I played with hir and the other kids." Neal grew somber. "The reason shi wouldn’t calm down for you was hir sire probably told hir shi was in charge of the cubs. Both hir parents were marines, so shi has more of an understanding of discipline than most kids hir age. So, until I relieved hir, shi thought of the cubs as still being hir responsibility, and shi felt shi couldn’t ‘stand down’."

Midnight and Rosepetal had entered the room as Neal was talking to Nova. Neal handed the two smallest to Midnight. He was handing one to Rosepetal, when she asked, "But shi would ‘stand down’ for you."

Neal closed her arms around the cub and held them for a moment as he met her eyes. "If you told Kayla to guard Ember, and she never again saw or heard from any one she knew, do you think she would relax her guard for just any stranger?"

Rosepetal just stared at him, and then slowly shook her head.

Releasing her, Neal said, "Same difference. It would take a very long time for someone to earn her trust, unless she had already known them from before." Neal then picked up the fourth cub and told DarkStreak to follow him. As they left the sickbay, he asked Mike to help CalmMeadow carry Nova.

The group headed for the main living section of the Folly, where Weaver had converted one of the rooms into a nursery.

After getting their guests settled, Neal debriefed Canner and the rest of his crew, paying special attention to the scan data Mike and Zhanch had collected.

Looking at Boyce, he sighed softly. "Well, we’ve found some pirates, but this isn’t the way I wanted to do it." At Boyce’s frowned agreement, Neal continued, "At this point, my ‘suggested’ orders from Star Fleet are to release command of the carriers and their escort, and let them get on with the hunt. Since you’re the ranking officer out here, you of course have the option to ‘commandeer’ them if you wish."

Boyce nodded. "Let me go over the data and think about it. I’ll give you my decision tomorrow morning."

Dinner that evening on the Folly was a quiet event, CalmMeadow was staying with Nova so shi wouldn’t wake up alone. Moonglow was feeding the little ones while Holly and Quickdash helped feed DarkStreak and Spitfire, a small red and black tiger striped three-year-old chakat. Neal appeared to be deep in thought, all but oblivious to the food and quiet talk around him.

Weaver finally nudged his elbow. "What are you thinking so hard about?"

"What to do about Nova and the little ones. I’ll check, but I’m pretty sure that most – if not all of their kin were on that station. If I had come up on that station by myself, I might have missed them in the attack. Even if I had found them, they would have been a handful without all the help the rest of you are giving them."

Weaver smiled. "Are they really any different from Stormy? We seem to be taking good care of hir; what’s five more and an older sister? There’s more, isn’t there?"

Neal let out a long sigh. "This also ends my control of the carriers and their destroyer escort. I had control of them while we were searching for pirates, now that we have found a nest; they are out of my hands. Boyce can always cut them new orders and take them under his control, or he can leave them as a separate command. The Folly can hang around for another week or so, but then we will have to continue our deliveries. And without those extra hands, Charlie and Delta are done delivering."

"We can fly them!" Nightsky exclaimed. "Most of us have passed the tests you set up."

Neal sighed. "It’s not that I don’t trust you to fly them, it’s that I won’t take the risk of you going out with just a skeleton crew. And while you could fill one of them, it won’t be enough to handle all the stops that were needed for that plan to work. Never mind the fact that I am going to want a few more Zulus to help take out anything that tries to attack."

"So how are you going to get that first contact group?"

Holly and Quickdash both sang out, "We can take Gulf!"

Neal gave them a calculated look. "Who is this ‘we’ you’re talking about?" he asked with a frown. "First, there’s the problem that there’s still a lot of work to be done before she’s ready for trials, never mind a long flight. Plus it looks like I would need to be in two places at once, on the Folly, and Gulf. You see the contact team will be expecting me, not a bunch of furry brats."

Weaver looked up from feeding Starblazer. "Are you saying you don’t think we could run the Folly while you get the contact team?"

"No, love, but if I do take Gulf and leave you to mind the store, we are going to have to decide who stays and who goes. When she’s finished, Gulf will be able to handle about eighty taur-sized people. But I’m picking up fifty, plus however many kids they may have had over the last five years." Looking her in the eye he smiled as he added, "Would you like to decide who stays behind to help you run the Folly?" At her dirty look, Neal grinned. "Now you see my dilemma."

Mike smiled. "CalmMeadow and I will be staying behind to help with Nova and the little ones. And you will have no choice but to take Moonglow and Firestorm. With you going and Weaver staying, your biggest issue will be the twins. Weaver won’t want to part with them, but at the same time they’ve put so much work into Gulf, that it will be hard for the two of you to tell them no."

Sharing a look of resignation with Weaver, Neal sighed. "Well, that’s still a little ways off. Tomorrow we find out what Boyce has decided, and we’ll go from there."

Boyce had decided to leave the other ships as an independent command. So with their group about to split three ways, Neal had called all the quartermasters together to top off each ship’s consumables. Then, there was one last meeting with the captains before they went their separate ways. Neal loaned the carriers four of his baby Zulus. They could use the scouts to improve their chances of finding the pirates, as well as defending the carriers if needed. They would return to a preloaded location for Neal to pick up when the carriers release them, or if they ran low on fuel.

All the ships had received sensor upgrades while with the Folly, but the modifications were not recorded in their logs. The reason that Neal requested they not log the upgrades, nor record any of the things they had learned from the Folly was simple – while he trusted these particular Star Fleet personnel, Neal did not trust all of Star Fleet. Each of the engineers had been shown how to put their systems back to Star Fleet specifications. This was particularly hard on Sparks. Shi was ready to write a few books with all the ideas shi had gotten from working on Gulf. Neal had taken pity on hir and given hir a data pad he said shi could use. Shi had been confused by the gift until shi tried to use it. While shi could transfer information to the pad’s memory, shi couldn’t transfer any information out of it. Hir next surprise came when shi tried to hand the pad to someone else; the pad would instantly shut down.

After declaring themselves mates, Whitetail had decided to stay with Derikk on the Pegasus. Since her Star Fleet status was still up in the air, Rosepetal had simply logged her in as Derikk’s dependant.

They had received a surprise when they went to the marine barracks. The old gunny sergeant had demanded to know if the rumors of them being mates were true. When they had said yes, the other marines had jumped them. Tied and blindfolded, they were carried up and down the Pegasus’ passageways. Finally they were gently dropped, and they heard a door close.

A few minutes work freed them of their bonds. Looking around they found they had been placed in a small but neat cabin, usually reserved for single officers or couples. Derikk’s things had already been moved in, while Whitetail’s bags were sitting on the larger than standard bed. A card on the desk welcomed the new couple. Behind the card was a Pegasus comm badge for Whitetail, and a dual charging stand for a non-Star Fleet type of badge. One slot was empty, the other contained a shadowed ‘F’ badge that Neal used for the ‘Folly’. The note with the charging base told Derikk that he was now considered part of the family, and just as Whitetail, he had a few privileges he could call on when needed.

Shadowchaser and hir mate Redfoot had also received comm badges, Neal having updated them since Shadowchaser received hir last one. At hir mate’s look of confusion, Shadowchaser explained why she should always keep the badge close at hand. Not only did the badge let them talk with those on the Folly, it also would link to other ships that Neal had a standing agreement with. At Shadowchaser’s last count, there were over thirty ships that the badge could get hir free passage to wherever they were heading. Most bases that Neal dealt with would also accept the badge as proof that the bearer was one of Neal’s associates, and would put room and food billings on the Folly’s tab.

After all the run-up to get everything ready to run three ships at once, the pace after the Folly left the other ships behind was more than a little anti-climactic. There was still plenty to do, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere near as much rush to get things done.

Between stops, Neal split his time between working on Gulf and making a few more Zulus. With all the kids getting proficient at using the Zulus, Neal had decided he would have each of them controlling one, while Tess handled the extras.

Raksha was a major stop for the Folly, so Neal had decided to use both Alpha and Baker to get everyone and the first pair of the heavily loaded pods down. Once grounded, they ran into an unplanned snag. No cargo transfers were being done. It was as if they had come in during some type of celebration. While Neal led everyone to a quiet break area, Dessa went to find out what was going on.

Dessa came back to the group, almost bouncing on her toes, she was so excited. "A Traveler’s festival just started a few hours ago. That explains why they aren’t moving any cargo for the next few days! With the Rakshan fertility festival having started yesterday, the deities will be stirring up more trouble than usual."

"More than you know," Neal said with a small grin. "Tell the kids your people’s tale of ‘The Traveler’, if you would please."

Dessa smiled. "Many years ago, one of our deities decided that she wanted to see what was going on beyond of our world. It’s said that she could leave under her own power, but that she wouldn’t be able to find her way back. Then she discovered she could ride a ship to faraway places, and return to tell her fellow deities what she had learned. Throughout her festival, children will carry treats though the crowds for space travelers to ask for. It’s said one of them will be her next ‘ride’ to the stars."

Staring at Dessa with wide eyes, Quickdash asked, "How long is the Traveler’s festival?"

"Until she leaves on her next journey." Kestrel answered for her.

That’s the tale," Neal agreed quietly, "but not quite the truth." Neal’s grin widened as all his Rakshani companions turned as one to stare at him. "The truth would be that she takes on the form of one of those children, and she offers her ‘ride to be’ her treat. If they accept, she rides with them until they bring her home. If they decline, she either stays home or finds another ride."

With her eyes wide in astonishment, Dessa demanded, "Where did you hear that?"

Neal smiled. "I didn’t."


Chapter 5  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaver frowned. "And us?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neal said, "I’m coming with you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadowcrest grinned. "And has it benefited you?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"One of them, yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Will you extend the same honor to me?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No fighter has that kind of range!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You don’t care if she leaves you?"

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

If you love something, let it go.

If it comes back to you, it’s yours.

If it doesn’t, it never was."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why are you sending me?" Jackton asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes boss."

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

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

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

"Will do, oh sneaky boss."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who is this Stew?" SharpTongue asked curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So, instead you made us your business."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How would you do it?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you have any pressing business?"

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

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

"Do you have the space?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Weaver said they’d been behaving."

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

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

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

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

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

"Meaning?" Quickwind asked, frowning.

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

"Some," shi admitted.

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

"A point," shi admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And us?" Quickwind asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Six mates?" LongReach asked in surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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."


Chapter 7  


Shi woke slowly, as sensations started to register on hir mind. Opening hir eyes, shi found hirself on a taur pad in the middle of the Folly’s main lounge. Neal lay nearby; a couple of small med units softly hummed behind him, suggesting that at some time in the recent past he had sustained injuries. Lying next to his hip was Spitfire, with Stormy and Star all but wrapped around the larger cub. Raising hir upper torso, shi thought it seemed to take more effort that it should. LongSock and Weaver were in front of hir, Weaver smiled as she saw hir stir.

"How do you feel?" she softly asked.

"A little strange," shi replied, "and everything looks smaller."

There was a snort, then a groan from Neal as the snort jarred something tender. "Look down," he suggested, a small grin trying to show on his bruised face.

With a raised eyebrow, shi lowered hir muzzle. The other eyebrow joined the first as shi stared down at hirself. Shi finally raised hir head and looked first at Weaver, and then to Neal. "Okay," shi acknowledged, barely whispering, "Those are bigger."

"Do you remember what happened?" Weaver softly asked hir.

"The carrier stacks were tipping over and, in the rush, Spitfire got loose. I grabbed hir and was chasing after the twins…" Shadowcrest quickly checked hir paw, where a childhood accident had left a fine scar and a thin line of white fur. Not finding it, shi looked at Neal. "I was processed!" shi said in surprise, "I thought it was just a dream."

"And what does the process do?" Neal quietly asked.

"It makes you younger, taller, and bigger!" shi said, hir voice cracking.

"Calm down and try again," Neal suggested. "If you were any younger than you were, your body would be too young have any breasts at all."

"Best potential of the DNA, body age reset to early adulthood," shi whispered, remembering how shi had heard Neal describe it to others. Stormy had crawled over to hir, requesting to be held. Picking up hir little sister, Shadowcrest was amazed at how small shi seemed to have gotten. Giving Stormy a gentle cuddle, shi slowly started to accept that the others hadn’t shrunk, shi had grown, and not just a little. "Just how big am I?" shi asked, not sure shi really wanted to know.

"Do you remember that full sized holodeck image I have of Snowfall?" Neal asked. When shi nodded, he smiled. "Tess tells me you would look down to look hir in the eye. Not by much, just a few centimeters or so. You are also a little wider across the beam – among other places."

"The other chakats you processed, did they all end up like this?" shi wondered, trying to imagine the Folly’s corridors crowded with very large, very busty chakats. And then a giggle escaped, as shi tried to imagine Neal getting any work done in that type of environment.

Neal smiled. Hir finding humor in the situation was a good sign that shi was starting to get used to the idea that things had changed for hir. "Most of them did get bigger, though only a few got as busty as you. And there were a few vixens that would have made you look underdeveloped."

Weaver quietly added, "Have you noticed anything else?" When shi shook hir head, she smiled. "Well, I for one seem to recall our Rakshani friends spending a few days relearning how to move and talk. You don’t seem to be having any of those problems."

Shadowcrest looked down at the paw shi wasn’t holding Stormy with. Shi slowly flexed the digits and fully extended hir claws. Other than it feeling like shi was using a little more effort to move them, they felt fine and were under hir complete control. Brushing hir thumb across hir finger pads, shi thought that they might be a little more sensitive.

Remembering that the others had also said it was a day or more before they could see straight, shi looked at Neal.

He nodded. "Several things were different about your processing. You didn’t need any heart or lung assistance, and Tess tells me you were processed in just over two minutes, compared to Zhanch’s ten."

"I… I had a dream," shi whispered. "I could see my body." Looking at Neal, shi continued, "I couldn’t see you."

"I was detained," Neal admitted, "I just got there in time to see you being transported out."

Looking around the room, shi suddenly realized that everyone else was with them. "The rest of you were in a big hug."

Weaver’s eyebrows shot up. "But we didn’t get there until after the stasis field was up!"

"I know," shi agreed, "I was looking through the stasis field. And I wasn’t alone." To their surprised stares, shi described the deity and their conversation. Shi ended it looking at Neal as shi said, "She said she gave me her treat that day, not you."

Weaver was first to break the silence that followed, "But I saw the child give Neal a treat, he shared it with her!" looking a little confused she added, "She gave each of us one."

Neal let out a long sigh before he answered, "Well. That might help explain a few things." At Weaver’s growl, he snorted. "No love, I wasn’t holding back. Well not much anyway, I just didn’t know for sure until now."

"Didn’t know what?" Weaver demanded.

Neal carefully shook his head. "In all the years that the traveler has offered me her treat, no one has ever seemed to notice. With Chase’s group, she could walk right up to me, we would share her treat, trade a word or three, and then she would leave. The others never saw or heard a thing. After the child was well out of sight, they could smell what I had eaten on my breath and would wonder how I had snagged and eaten something without them noticing."

"Were they ever offered treats?" Weaver wondered. When Neal shook his head, she asked, "So what do you think it means?"

"From Rakshan folklore, as well as what the traveler has told me over the years, she only offers her treat to one person of the ship she wishes to travel on. Any crewmember or passenger will do, and the stories say that she can jump ship at any port if she chooses to do so."

Weaver frowned. "So why would she give us each a treat if she never has before?"

Shadowcrest’s head jerked up as shi said, "She didn’t!" a little calmer, shi added, "The deity that shared Neal’s treat wasn’t the one that gave me her treat."

Are you saying there’s more than one?"

"That might explain some of the strange things the little ones have been doing," Nova said slowly. "I know most cubs go through phases where they talk and play with imaginary friends, but they actually seem to be learning from these friends."

Moonglow nodded. "I had thought they seemed to be behaving better since Raksha, maybe they’ve been getting some coaching."

Shortdash and Quickwind were staring at each other, their mouths half open. Weaver chuckled. "You two as well?" she asked with a grin. "I was with LongSock when another child offered him a treat."

Bonita was shaking her head. "I’ve never heard anything to suggest that more than one of the deities was a traveler. And why would more than one of them want to visit the same place?"

Most of the eyes in the room zeroed in on Neal as Zhanch said, "Maybe they know something interesting is to occur before the Folly’s next visit to Raksha."

"Just finish this run, see how my colonies are doing and set up a couple more," was all Neal admitted to.

"All of which you’ve done before without stirring up the deities!" Bonita exclaimed.

"That you know of," Neal pointed out. "The offering of treats is just her way of asking permission. She has never said she had to…"

"There’s more to it, isn’t there?" Weaver asked.

"Well," Neal said, as if thinking out loud, "a few Rakshani have requested some space at one of the new colonies."

Kestrel snorted. "This from someone who compares the ocean to being damp! What is your definition of ‘a few’?"

"Just a few," Neal answered. As she continued staring at him, he added, "hundred," this was followed by a longer pause. Kestrel was opening her mouth when Neal said, "thousand."

"Well?" she snapped, "What is it? A few hundred? Or a few thousand?"

"Yes," Neal agreed, with a small smile.

As Kestrel growled at him, Zhanch was looking at him in wonder. She asked, "Just where did you find a few hundred thousand Rakshani willing to follow you? And how the hell are you going to move them?"

"It seems that there are more than a few Rakshani looking for something challenging to do. A fight if you will, even if it is just against what is currently an uninhabited planet."

"Colonizing a planet can’t be that much of a challenge," Zhanch said with a headshake.

"There’s a strong chance that once known about, others might try to take it from them. Would that discourage or encourage your average Rakshani?" Neal asked with a small grin.

"If you offered it to them that way, you couldn’t keep them away," Bonita said, watching Neal carefully. "Why would others want it?"

"For the same reason ‘Amazonia’ has been a battleground for all these years. While different, the plant and animal life there is almost as diverse. That alone will have bioengineering and pharmaceutical companies fighting over who gets what. I figured things might be a little more orderly if a large group of well-armed Rakshani were calling the place their new home."

Zhanch nodded. "That’s why your latest Zulus are built to handle Rakshani easily. And these spheres will become the station protecting that planet."

Bonita frowned. "Our people could control and protect such a planet, but we couldn’t use it properly…"

SharpTongue gently coughed, "A number of Caitians have also been offered permission to share the planet with the Rakshani. Those with the needed skills are allowed to bring as many family members as they would like."

"How many?" Zhanch wondered.

SharpTongue shrugged. "The total was over four hundred thousand the last time we were at Cait. By now their numbers might match that of the Rakshani."

"Could that be why the deities are onboard?" Weaver wondered, "To be with their ‘children’ on their new world?"

A growing purr made itself known before anyone could speculate further.

Stormy had decided that shi wanted more than just a cuddle. Smelling a new scent on hir big sister, shi shifted to where shi could give hir a ‘milk check’.

Shadowcrest didn’t think anything of it at first, shi had been milk checked before by the little ones. They would give hir a pleasant feeling by teasing a nipple for a minute or two before looking for someone with milk to offer. This time shi was stunned by how much more sensitive hir nipple was, and then shi felt a muscle behind hir nipple relax. As the greedy cub began to nurse in earnest, Shadowcrest found hir pleasure increasing. A nudge at hir other breast woke hir to the fact that Starblazer also wanted some refreshment. Shi moved hir other arm to help support her, and soon had both nipples occupied. Hir eyes slowly closed as shi was lost in the pleasure of feeding the cubs. Shi never even realized shi was purring.

Weaver smiled. "I thought they weren’t normally interested in milk-water."

"So we’ve noticed," Shortdash said. Looking at Neal, shi asked, "Another effect of the process?"

"Not sure," Neal said, looking troubled. "It just seems to happen to about ten percent of the females and herms."

Noticing Neal’s reluctance to mention it, shi asked, "What aren’t you telling us? Is there a problem?"

Neal’s frown deepened for a moment, only to lighten as he watched Shadowcrest enjoy feeding the little ones for the first time. Looking over at Shortdash, he said, "Other than a few that had been dedicated wet nurses, all the other milk producing furs were pregnant by the end of their first heat."

Staring at Shadowcrest in a new light, Shortdash murmured, "I can see how that might cause you some concern."

"Hir parents are already going to be displeased that I got their daughter injured badly enough to need processing. Somehow I don’t think adding a young one on the way will help."

"It wasn’t your fault they were trashing the cargo," Mike quietly pointed out from where he sat with CalmMeadow.

"That’s not what he means," Shortdash said with a snort. "He has accepted responsibility for all of you. So anything wrong, real or imagined, will be his fault in the eyes of your parents."

"Not mine," Mike said with a grin. "As soon as they knew I wasn’t coming back anytime soon, they dumped my junk in storage, rented out the house, and mom started riding the long-hauler with dad." He gave a small snort as he added, "That’s how they met years ago. It turns out that they were just waiting for me to ‘fly the coop’ so they could go back to riding together. The only thing that surprised my dad was how far I ‘flew’," he finished with a chuckle.

CalmMeadow smiled. "We’ve sent our families word of us becoming denmates and adopted parents. While my mom might see it as more of Neal’s bad influence, my sire will probably take it in stride."

"Did you send them the recording?" Neal asked.

CalmMeadow smiled as shi nodded. "We started the record from when Suzan rolled out the cake. We sent it to the group. Not only so all of them could see how everyone is doing, but so they would be there to help support my parents when they find out what I’ve been up to."

"The group?" Kestrel asked.

Shortdash chuckled. "For want of a better name, ‘the group’ is made up of the parents of Neal’s stowaways." Looking again at Neal, shi wondered yet again if he had planned for it to happen from the start. "We were all called together to be told that our cubs had snuck aboard a starship and hadn’t been discovered until the ship was well underway. The data packs we each received had all the cubs as well as their parents’ names. We ended up getting together once a week or so, a cross between a support group and a rumor mill." Nodding at LongSock, shi continued, "He was the odd one out, since he was without both his mate and cubs. Quickwind and I more or less took him in. That is how we knew Neal was planning a little surprise and added ourselves to it."

Shi was so absorbed in the new feelings the cubs were giving hir, Shadowcrest had barely heard the discussion around hir. After the first minute of bliss, shi had realized shi could feel the cubs enjoying hir milk. Shi could actually taste hir milk, and experience their contentment as it filled their bellies.

Shi found shi could feel some of the other cubs being fed as well, Nova, and CalmMeadow were both nursing a cub. While each was projecting calm and love at their cub, Shadowcrest could feel the underlying emotions of fear and anger.

With what felt like no effort at all, shi found hirself probing deeper. Shi then tried to recoil from the storm of emotions shi found in each of them, but was unable to back out. Still fresh in their minds was the crashing of the falling carriers, Spitfire’s screams and mental blasts of fear and pain. They had rounded the last carrier to find Quickdash and Holly clutching the three little ones, trying the give them a calm they couldn’t find in themselves. As if that raw wash of emotions wasn’t enough, there was their memory of that thing just beyond the twins. Even having seen it in the dream, Shadowcrest couldn’t bring hirself to think of that form as belonging to hir. It lay there where it had fallen, looking awkwardly like a limp doll that a cub had tossed partway into a toy box before slamming the lid closed.

As shi tried to disengage from their minds, thought associations brought the others to mind, bringing their thoughts, hopes and fears to hir as well. The storm only intensified, sweeping away what little control shi had left.

With hir physical contact, Firestorm was the first to react to Shadowcrest’s mental turmoil. When a nip on a nipple didn’t get hir attention, Stormy pushed away and cried out for help.

Reacting to Stormy’s cry, Shortdash tried a gentle probe of Shadowcrest's emotional state, only to be blasted by the overload of feedback. Feeling hir mate’s shock at what shi had stumbled into, Quickwind hugged Shortdash to hir, as shi tried to shield hir mate from whatever was causing hir distress.

Neal had been about to ask Stormy what was wrong when everything seemed to suddenly go silent. It wasn’t a silence of sound, but of mind. Until it was gone, he hadn’t even noticed the growing mental noise, nor the headache that it had started to give him. The chakats suddenly found themselves unable to sense each other, only feeling those that they were in physical contact with.

Weaver watched as Stormy rushed over to Neal, while Star climbed into her arms for a hug. Meanwhile, Shadowcrest tried to curl hirself into a ball, hir arms trying to protect hir head, the end of hir tail twitching wildly. Looking at all the agitated chakats, she asked, "What’s wrong? Is shi alright?"

Quickwind was the first to reply. "From what little my mate got, Shadowcrest was being overpowered by our emotions." Looking at Weaver shi said, "Shi seems to have gained hir adult sensitivity without having the time to grow into it. It was a good thing Neal had Tess isolate hir from us with her fields."

"Wasn’t me," Neal said as he calmed Stormy. "Tess?"

There was a moment of silence before she replied, "I received orders to set up fields in a blanket pattern across this room. But nowhere do my records show me receiving them."

Neal gave a soft snort, as he said, "Don’t blow a fuse looking for the logic. You can turn off the fields not protecting Shadowcrest."

"Yes boss. Do I put this under ‘traveler’s logic’?"

"No. I think you need to open a new folder labeled ‘deities’. Place it in there for now."

Shortdash had recovered slightly from Shadowcrest’s overload; shi now crawled over to hir, being careful not to touch hir. "Shadowcrest? Shady? Stop trying, just relax and listen to my voice…"

Watching Shortdash try to calm Shadowcrest, Weaver edged over to Neal and asked, "What actually happened just now?"

"Do you remember the first time you ‘borrowed’ my ear plugs?"

Weaver shivered, her ears having been blasted by a volume setting Neal considered ‘low’.

"Same difference," he agreed, "except shi can’t dig those loud voices out and throw them across the room."

"What can we do for hir?"

"The screens will keep hir from getting any more feedback from us, but that may not be enough. If Shortdash and Quickwind can’t bring hir down, we may have to sedate hir." At Weaver’s raised eyebrows, he explained, "Shi’s like a terrified child, clutching the controls of a runaway vehicle. Shi has to let go of the throttle to slow the vehicle, but hir panic is keeping hir from releasing it."

They watched as Quickwind moved to be beside hir mate. Shi then asked Tess to screen them from the rest of the room. Shi wrapped hir arms around hir mate, keeping hir mental contact with Shortdash as the fields blocked out the rest of the room.

Shortdash continued trying to calm Shadowcrest as the others faded from hir senses. Once hir mate was in position and mentally prepared, shi gently laid hir arm against Shadowcrest’s.

Projecting all the calm shi could bring to bear, Shortdash slowly and gently pushed into the storm that raged in Shadowcrest’s mind.

For a minute, Shadowcrest’s erratic tail seemed to be the only movement in the room.

Stormy started to climb out from under Neal’s hand and head toward Shadowcrest, only to be stopped by Neal’s gentle grasp of hir tail. "Not now Stormy. Let them try to calm hir first,"

Stormy tugged again, and was rewarded with a quiet ‘no’. Turning around to face Neal, shi extended a single claw and placed it on the hand holding hir tail. Shi slowly added pressure until Neal took notice of the discomfort. The eyes that returned his look were too level and steady to belong to an eight month old cub.

After meeting hir gaze for a moment, Neal nodded as he released hir tail. "Be careful," he said, "both of you."

Giving Neal a slow nod, the little chakat turned and moved over to Shadowcrest. Shi sat down next to Shady’s head, then laid down and rolled onto hir side so hir back laid against the back of hir big sister’s head.

Looking very startled, Dessa asked, "Did what I think just happened, happen?"

Still watching Stormy, Neal slowly replied, "If you think you just saw a deity prove that they can inhabit and take over beings other than Rakshani, I think we did."

"Why?" Weaver asked, still watching Stormy, who seemed to have fallen asleep.

"Perhaps because a younger mind is more flexible to the idea of letting someone else take over for a short while. Why Stormy? They should know by now how well shi and I know each other, so they knew I would feel more than just Stormy just now."

"Can we trust them?" LongSock wondered.

"I think so. They’ve been onboard for over a month now, and they don’t seem to have caused too much trouble." Watching Shadowcrest’s tail slow down to the slow and gentle twitch of a sleeping chakat, Neal added, "Unless of course you consider them playing with the little ones to be trouble."

"Or the possibility that they may have helped get a few of your mates pregnant," CalmMeadow pointed out.

"Considering that was what some of us wanted, I don’t think you can count that as causing trouble," Zhanch said with a grin. Both she and Bonita had caught, leaving Dessa as the only non-pregnant Rakshani onboard.

As LongSock rubbed Weaver’s lower belly, he smiled in acknowledgement. SharpTongue chuckled as she winked at Suzan. "Six little ones on the way," she said with a grin. "They should help keep him from finding time to get into trouble."

"Don’t count on it," Weaver said, grinning at Neal. "He seems to have a knack at being in the middle of things."

Pulling a small bottle out of her belt pouch, Bonita said, "Speaking of him being in the middle of things, this was from one of the broken crates. It caught my eye because it didn’t match any of the others." She handed Neal the bottle.

Neal gave a fair imitation of a pissed Rakshani’s growl when he read the label. Without being asked, Tess scanned the bottle and confirmed that the label matched the contents.

"Tess, confirm that was from one of the pods that was loaded exclusively with carriers from Raynor," he asked.

"Confirmed, boss. We still have two more pods from Raynor to drop."

"Detailed scan, Tess. I want every bottle of this crap removed from their carriers."

"Order accepted and started boss. It will take me several hours to check each pod. What do you want me to do with what I find?"

"Find an empty carrier in internal storage, place them there."

"Yes boss."

"What’s so special about that bottle?" Weaver asked.

"One, this drug in it isn’t on their manifest. Two, the main source of the drug is Amazonia. Three, Raynor knows I refuse to ship drugs from Amazonia."

"Are they illegal?"

"No. But in the Federation they are supposed to be carefully controlled. This drug and others like it are the main reason for the fighting on Amazonia. When I was told that I would not be allowed to ship aid to the war beasts, I told them I wouldn’t be assisting the pharmaceutical company either. Which means I don’t ship their drugs out, and I don’t ship in weapons for them to use against the war beasts."

"Amazonia?" LongSock asked.

"Also known as Pizarro 419C," Shortdash said. Looking at Neal, shi asked, "Where are you getting your data? I knew there was an ongoing conflict with Star Fleet involvement, but your database has a very different spin on it then what I’ve seen in the Star Corps reports."

"A few baby Zulus once the Folly was no longer welcomed in that area of space, chats with a few people that have been there, and a little digging through Star Fleet records by some of my kids." Neal’s frown deepened as he continued, "The bare bones is a very large, very well connected drug company wants what Amazonia has to offer, but they don’t want to share the profits with the war beasts that have lived there for the last hundred years or so. So they got Star Fleet involved as ‘peacekeepers’." Neal snorted. "Star Fleet hasn’t been allowed to escalate it into a war as that would then kick the company out of the war zone. So you have both Star Fleet and the war beasts bleeding for a drug company’s gain."

SharpTongue said, "Surely something can be done!"

Shortdash shook hir head, remembering what Neal’s notes had hinted at. "I don’t know, but if Neal’s data is correct, then parts of the Federation Council are in on it to a certain extent. And there is pressure from the council to keep Star Fleet in the mix at a less than optimal level."

"The Federation Council wouldn’t stand for others being treated that way!" LongReach exclaimed.

Shortdash snorted as shi replied, "What if they’re getting the same reports as the Star Corps gave us? The spin doctors have done a good job at having everyone see just what they want them to see."

"Could the same group be responsible for the edited news from New Kiev?" Nova wondered from where shi sat with Mike and CalmMeadow.

"A page from the same book perhaps. But if it is the same group, they screwed up badly." Weaver said with a snort.

"How so?" shi asked.

"By giving it to the general public, they can’t control the response. The shuttle instructor and his family didn’t see the news about New Kiev, so they didn’t have a problem with Neal. On the other paw, if we hadn’t been with him in the diner, it could have gotten ugly."

"Not to mention he wouldn’t have known about the drugs if those workers hadn’t started tipping carriers." Bonita added.

"I would trade that knowledge for the old Shadowcrest," Neal mumbled.

"We could feel your friends calming hir down, but for some reason I got the impression that they can’t stay with hir all the time." Shortdash said.

"Can’t they fix hir?" Holly asked.

"Shi not really broken, just a little too strong." At her confused look Shortdash smiled. "Just like Quickdash needing training to help hir learn how to not overwhelm you. Right now Shadowcrest is so sensitive that we overwhelm hir."

"Shi will need training to help hir control hir abilities," Quickwind agreed.

Neal frowned as he asked; "You were talking about training Quickdash and Holly, could you add Shadowcrest to you class?"

"No," Quickwind said, "This is more than just hir overly sensitive empathic talent." Shi looked at Neal. "Shi wasn’t just overwhelmed by our feelings, but by our thoughts as well. One of the thoughts we saw clearly was from you. You were trying to convince yourself that there was nothing better to have tried. I am curious about where you had seen a tailless chakat with a set of wheels in place of hir hind legs."

Neal shuddered. "A very long time ago. Shi had been caught in a rockslide on a frontier world. Being as stubborn as most chakats, shi had insisted that shi could still work. The wheels gave hir enough mobility to not be a burden on the others, and do quite a bit around their campsite. By the time the Folly visited them, shi didn’t see them as enough of a reason to leave."

"Did you offer to process hir?"

"No. That was before Shadowchaser’s group, so I didn’t even know I could use the process on others at the time. Plus, there would have been the minor issue of hir being three months pregnant. I still don’t know what would occur if I tried to process someone in that state. Would we lose the unborn cub? Or after Shady’s process - would we end up with an adult sized infant?"

"Some things are better left undiscovered," Weaver murmured.

"So if you don’t think that you two are up to the task, what do you suggest?" Neal asked.

"We have a couple of skunktaur friends currently stationed at Port Kepler on Chakona. Since Quickdash has also been doing a little mind reading, we were planning on asking their advice on an instructor."

"That’s at least three weeks travel time with all the stops we need to make. That doesn’t count the next four or five more days transferring cargo at Big Sur, Melbourne and Cape York. So call it a month before we get there." Neal sighed, "I can’t safely keep hir screened that long, no input can be as bad as too much." Neal laid back, looking for answers on the ceiling for a moment before continuing, "Tess. Start preparing Charlie for a little trip. No cargo, three Zulus, five scouts, and one of the personnel shuttles." Looking around the room, he said, "I would like at least six volunteers to take Charlie to Chakona."

"I take it there will be some ‘non-volunteers’?" Weaver asked with a raised eyebrow.

Neal nodded, "Holly, Quickdash, and Shadowcrest need the help. Quickwind and Shortdash have the contacts. I want at least six ship handlers, anyone else can go or not as they please."

"Won’t that leave you a bit short on crew for the Folly?" Shortdash asked.

Neal grinned. "I’m used to running her all by my lonesome, I think I can handle her."

Weaver smiled at Holly as she said, "LongSock and I will stay behind to help keep Neal out of trouble."

"As will I," Dessa said, nodding at Zhanch.

"Charlie has replicators, so they won’t be needing me," Stew said with a smile.

Moonglow shook hir head. "With Stormy’s dependence on Neal, I’m not leaving the Folly."

"We can help fly Charlie," Holly pointed out.

"I know. That’s why I only asked for six," Neal agreed.

An annoyed voice from the center of the room growled, "I’m staying!"

The others had failed to notice that Shadowcrest was awake again, and shi was a little perturbed that they were planning hir future without hir input.

Neal let out a quiet sigh, "I’m sorry, little one, but you need more help then we can give you. My choices are leaving you behind, or rushing you to the Folly’s next major stop."

"You’re a fine one to talk!" shi huffed, "You should be in sickbay, tied to one of the beds. You’re using the pain from your other injuries to mask your broken rib and the torn ligaments in your back and right leg!"

Neal ignored the dirty looks his mates were giving him, and watched Shadowcrest as he said, "Okay, I’ll spend the next three days running this ship from sickbay if you board Charlie without any complaints."

"No deal. You promised you wouldn’t force any of us off the Folly against our will, and I’m holding you to it!"

Neal opened his mouth for a rebuttal, but Shadowcrest wasn’t done yet. "This is not an emergency! You don’t have to rush me anywhere, I can handle my little problem until we get there." A little calmer shi added, "I know you were given the pain killers that make you more than a little loopy. Before Tess dropped her screens on me, I got a pretty good read on everyone. The only person you’ve been fooling with your act is yourself, the others have been waiting for you to nod off so they could put you to bed. Father, let them put you to bed, I promise not to go crazy before you wake up."

Neal snorted lightly. Moonglow had given him a second dose of the painkillers just before Shadowcrest had awakened the first time, and shi was right, he was more than a little out of it.

Weaver also snorted. They had almost lulled Neal to sleep when Shadowcrest woke up, that added excitement had given him what had to be at least his third ‘second wind’. She waited now to see if he would continue to fight, or if he would give in. She gave a sigh of relief when he made a throwing away gesture with his hand.

"We’ll discuss this tomorrow," he agreed.

To show that she supported the decision as well, the doors opened and one of the computer controlled gurneys rolled in.

As it rolled to a stop next to him, Neal gave Tess’s pickup a small grin. "Et tu Brute?"

"Short of us being under attack, I would have been ignoring your orders as well boss. Let them help you up and I’ll do the rest," Tess said as the gurney lowered itself nearly to the floor.

Dessa and Moonglow carefully lifted him onto the gurney; an easy leap had Stormy join him. Moonglow was exasperated that Neal had been able to conceal his other injuries from hir. The painkillers were wearing away at his control, and shi could now sense more of what Shadowcrest had mentioned.

Dessa had been ready to follow them out, when Shadowcrest caught her eye and signaled for her to stay. When the doors closed, she opened her mouth to speak, only to have Shadowcrest shake hir head.

"You can join him in a moment," shi told her. "But first I thought you should know that he doesn’t blame you for his injuries." As Dessa stared at hir, shi grinned. "No, I’m not reading your mind right now, but I did get a little more than I wanted just before Tess set up her fields. Your main concern was that he would reject you for hurting him. You are wrong to worry. Every time Neal feels those aches and pains, he remembers what he saw when you were carrying him to the rest of us. He saw how the carrier had come apart and where the debris landed. He figures his odds of living through that without your help at close to zero." Shadowcrest looked at her carefully for a moment before adding, "The other things I saw are for you to tell, or not to tell, although I think he already knows part of it."

Dessa had remained motionless while Shadowcrest spoke. She now nodded to hir before turning to head for sickbay.

Shadowcrest now turned to the twins, who scooted back a step at hir gaze. Shi snorted softly and shook hir head. "As for you two. No, I am not upset that you froze up and panicked a bit. I’ve got more than an inkling of the pressure you were under, and I think you did pretty well under the circumstances." Shi gave them a grin as shi added, "I would give you both a big hug in thanks, but I don’t think I could handle the contact right now."

"You mean you can’t touch them?" Weaver asked, looking confused.

"I want to, but I don’t dare. Before being processed, I could just sense them and feel their base emotions, handy as a lie detector, or feeling what they meant beyond just their words. What I got earlier was far more than I am used too. Their feelings lead me to their thoughts, and some of their thoughts were about those around them. The associations lead me to the rest of you; your feeling and thoughts quickly overwhelmed me. That’s when Tess dropped her fields over us, but by then I couldn’t find a stopping point."

"We felt some of what you were going through, but I couldn’t get enough of your attention to help," Shortdash said. "Then we felt another presence that seemed to cover you like a blanket."

"That was several of the deities working together. I had another dream-talk with the one who gave me her treat. It seems they improved on the traveler’s ‘process’ as you may have noticed. The problem is they ‘tweaked’ my mental abilities as well. Having never tried it before, they overdid it a bit," Shi said the last part with a small grin before continuing, "She told me they can’t undo it, but they will try to help keep me sane until we can get to someone that can help me."

"Is there anything we can do to help?" Weaver asked.

"All I really need is your love and understanding, the rest is just something I need to learn how to handle."

"One of the other things we saw from your brush with Neal’s mind is probably the reason he’s in a rush to get you to someone who can help. All the furs he’s processed had very strong ‘first’ heats or ruts on their next cycle. And here you are, with no idea when your cycle will start, and no one can touch you."

Shadowcrest shuddered, "I know, I could almost hear the thoughts behind his words. It’s a little spooky, knowing him that well."

"Are you saying you could read him through the field?" LongSock asked, wondering if any of their thoughts would be safe from hir.

Shortdash snorted as shi shook hir head. "No. Shi’s saying that shi inadvertently ended up with a piece of his mind, literally."

"So, do you know all his little secrets now?" Nova asked with a chuckle.

"No. What I got was a lot of little fragments. The right thoughts or word associations can cause them to gel into an idea of where his thoughts might be heading."

"So what do we need to do?" Weaver asked, "How did you plan on handling your cycles if we can’t come in contact with you?"

"If worse comes to worst, I can use one of the holodecks. With luck, the deities might understand what they’ve done well enough to help rein in my abilities." Letting loose a big yawn, shi added, "Let’s sleep on it for now. In the morning we can continue." Shi hesitated a moment before adding, "Oh, wait, there is one more thing. Neal will want to go somewhere in the morning. Knowing that most of us won’t want him leaving, he will probably try to sneak out. Zhanch, you and the other Rakshani should go with him; maybe Quickwind and Shortdash as well."

Weaver snorted as she asked, "Why would we let him loose? Isn’t he banged up enough without going down there again?"

Shadowcrest met her eyes somberly. "It’s something he’s done every time he’s been to Earth. He seems to think it helps keep him sane, going back to something in the past."

"Where will he lead us?" Zhanch asked.

"To visit the Gene War monument," shi replied. "I don’t have enough to understand why he needs it, just that he does."

"Then he shall have it," Zhanch agreed, then she turned to leave.

As they filed out of the lounge, Shadowcrest heard Shortdash tell Zhanch, "Let us know when you are leaving, we will join you."

"If you don’t mind, we’ll keep you company," Weaver said as she and LongSock settled down to rest.

"Thank you," shi said. The lack of any mental contact was making it difficult for hir to relax. A thought intruded into hir mind, almost as if someone had whispered it. Shi snorted softly and grinned, wondering why shi had not thought of it. "Tess? Would it be possible for you to shift my fields to manual control?"

"Of course. How would you like to control them?"

"Voice control override with a second register, the second register will be a memory location you specify. I think the deities are going to vary it as required, you just need to check it every few seconds." Smiling at Weaver shi said, "If I seem to be in trouble, just say ‘full fields’ and Tess will lock me down. My deity friend seems to think they can control my sensitivity long enough to let me get some sleep."

Weaver nodded and settled back down, her head turned so she could check on Shady by just opening her eyes.

Tess dimmed the room to twilight, and added the soft sound of some classical strings to lull them to sleep.

The next morning found Neal moving carefully. Tess’ medical systems having knitted his bones, but most of the muscle damage was still sore. He had already been out when he got to sickbay, so he had no idea who had slept in the other, now-empty bed.

He was only a little surprised to find someone waiting for him to leave sickbay. Kestrel matched his slower pace as he headed for his cabin for fresh clothes.

After he had dressed in something a little heavier than his standard ship wear, she asked, "Did you want breakfast before going down?"

"Down where?" he asked, not remembering mentioning any plans.

"We were told you would want to visit the Gene War monument. Or are you going to put it off for later?"

Neal stopped and stared at her, and then he grew thoughtful. "Shadowcrest," he murmured as he started walking again. "So it wasn’t all a dream, shi was in my mind."

"Shi was momentarily in everyone’s mind from what shi said. That’s what overloaded hir – too many thoughts."

"What else did shi tell you?" he asked as they headed to the galley.

"Only that you would be going downside, with or without us. We would prefer with."

"The last I heard, it was not always a fur-friendly zone," Neal commented.

"Then it is a good thing you will be there to protect us," Kestrel replied, her tone suggesting that them going with him was not open to debate.

Neal snorted. He had planned on having just Tess watch his back with one of her Zulus overhead. But he knew that arguing with Kestrel, or any of his mates for that matter, would be a waste of time.

Most of the others were still eating when they entered the dining area; Stew had set up a breakfast buffet. She now stood behind one of her moveable hotplates, whipping up omelets on request.

Neal noticed that Shadowcrest was sitting in the corner, eating quietly by hirself. Neal also noted the portable field generator wrapped around hir waist, its display lights suggesting the strength of the field was being shifted almost constantly.

Neal nodded at Stew and indicated he just wanted a small omelet. As she poured out the eggs, he gathered a few things from the buffet before sitting down across from Dessa.

Noticing that Dessa was trying to not meet his gaze, Neal reached over and stabbed a piece of fruit off her plate. He then watched Dessa watch him eat it. She made no move to stop him as he stabbed a second piece. Neal then broke open one of the pastries he’d taken from the buffet and poured honey over it. Dessa allowed him to place it in her mouth, as most of the tension left her shoulders.

"I thought taking food off a female’s plate could get a male clawed," Nova commented, having seen just such an incident while they were on Raksha.

"It can and does," Zhanch agreed. "The male is claiming the female is his. Depending on how strongly she disagrees, his life could be at risk. The only males that can safely take a female’s food are her mates, or very close and trusted friends."

Dessa was studying her plate again, so Neal reached out and lifted her chin with a finger. "I was just reminding Dessa that I still consider her my mate. She seems to have thought that saving my life would change that."

Still looking a little worried, Dessa said, "But I injured you by not considering that your body couldn’t handle what I tried to make it do."

"And if you had taken the time to consider it, we may not have gotten around that corner fast enough. Better a few minor injuries versus being buried in the rubble," Neal said as he stroked her face. She turned her head to lick his palm.

"Get a room you two," Suzan said with a knowing grin, as she slid a loaded plate between them. Having seen what Neal was up to, and knowing a little of the Rakshan traditions, she had upsized Neal’s omelet into something they could share.

The personnel shuttle set down gently on a large patch of bare rock overlooking the Gene War monument.

Neal led them to, and then through, the large gazebo-styled information center, and out to the canyon side. They followed him down a ramp leading deeper into the canyon. The trail started as a well maintained path, but it degraded the further they proceeded. Neal stopped almost two miles later, where the rough footpath ended at the ruins of a massive wall. A curved wall that at one time had spanned the canyon.

What was this?" Zhanch asked.

"A dam," Shortdash replied. "At one time this spot was covered in over thirty meters of water."

Quickwind watched Neal as his eyes traced back and forth over the ruins as if reconstructing it in his mind. "You saw it before it was destroyed," shi accused.

"Don’t be silly," Neal teased hir. "Your mate just pointed out that this side was under water."

Dessa noted that he hadn’t answered hir question. "What does this place mean to you?"

Neal let out a long sigh before answering, "I come here to remind myself that there are those that will do whatever it is they think it will take to keep someone else from winning, even if it means that everyone loses."

"A lot of fighting occurred in this canyon, this dam was where it ended. The furs and their human allies had managed to take refuge in the dam itself; its name was Hoover by the way. Unwilling to wait them out, and not bothering to consider the consequences, the other side nuked the dam. They got the few hundred furs, at a cost of millions of lives on both sides. Those that didn’t die from the blast and the wall of water the destroyed dam released, died in the general flooding downstream. Then came the radiation sickness for anything that drank the water. Downstream was one twisting ribbon of death; the other was the cloud of fallout whipped about by the winds. The dam also supplied a lot of the power for the area, that left a lot of places without and caused even more fighting as each side blamed the other." Neal snorted, "That battle was to be the primer cap that touched off the world wide furry/human war."

"Were you there?" Zhanch asked.

"No. If I had been, I wouldn’t be here now, now would I?"

"Damn it," Shortdash gently cursed. "And you’re still too banged up to tickle attack and force the answers out of you."

"Yeah, lucky me," he agreed.

"There’s more," Dessa half asked.

"This used to be part of what was once called the United States. It’s funny that the two bloodiest wars ever fought on its soil were over the same disagreement – slavery. The first war ended up being called the civil war. It was the slave states against those that thought no man should be a slave. The gene war was those that thought furs were good for nothing but slavery, and those that disagreed." Neal shook his head. "I guess it’s true what they say, ‘those that don’t study history are destined to repeat it’."

After a few minutes of silence, he led them back up the trail.

Still sore from the day before, Neal stopped at the monument this time, both to give himself a break as well as give the others time to look around. Perched on the canyon rim, the large structure gave an impressive view of that section of the canyon. On the side away from the canyon were several fountains and some artwork, even a wading pool to cool tired paws in, though the northern breeze would make it a little chilly to use in late November. A few small statues of both humans and furs dotted the area, the interactive display screens explaining the parts they played in bringing the gene war to an end. While the Rakshani looked around, the chakats kept a close eye on Neal. They didn’t miss him nodding to three of the statues, or glaring at a couple of the others.

As they made their way back to the shuttle, Shortdash commented, "Why do I get the feeling the history books would show the Gene Wars in a different light if you had written them?"

"History is written by the winners, or in this case, by the survivors. Considering that some parts of ‘the truth as I know it’ would probably spark a new war, I think it best to leave the past in the past."

"This from someone who just told us that those how don’t learn from the past will repeat it," shi said with a soft snort.

"I have no proof, having missed some of the more important moments. But what I do know or have heard of some of the players suggests that they could only act in an honorable manner if you held a gun to their heads."

"So you admit to being alive back then!" shi proclaimed in triumph.

"Or, I am simply claiming to have seen personal accounts that paint those events in a different light," he said with a grin, knowing shi wouldn’t be able to read the truth from the lie.

"Will you tell us the whole truth about something for once?" Quickwind asked, shi was growing tired of the near constant sparring between Neal and hir mate.

"Do I get to pick what it is?" Neal asked with a grin. When shi nodded, he said, "Here’s a piece of personal history for you. You may know the first chakat was born using a Bengal tiger to carry hir to term. What you may not know is five tigers were ordered, but they were not the five that were received."

When Neal didn’t continue, Shortdash said, "That’s it? Where is the rest of your ‘whole truth’?"

Neal smiled into hir stare as he added, "Only that I had a hand in making sure the wrong tigers were received. You’re a cleaver little chakat, you shouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out how and why I might have done such a thing."

The ride back up to the Folly was a quiet one as the others thought about the hints Neal had revealed.

"There’s a Jack Benny from Raynor trying to bother you again," Tess said, once everyone was back aboard the Folly.

"Again?" Neal asked.

Weaver snorted, "He’s been calling every couple of hours since our little incident yesterday. Tess had suggested that we not bother you with it until things had settled down a bit."

"More proof that she knows me all too well. Patch him through, let him only see and hear me."

"Will do boss."

"Where is the rest of our shipment?" the talking head demanded when he could see Neal.

"Delayed while I recover from a little attack I had yesterday," Neal said. "Almost being crushed under your shipment can take a lot out of a guy."

The head grinned. "We can help with that. I’ll send you one of our crews to help you get things settled. In fact, with furs not liking you much right now, we can assign them to you until all this blows over."

"That won’t be necessary, I’ll have the next pod down tomorrow morning, the second should be unloaded before nightfall," Neal responded.

"I insist. We can’t have our main shipper unable to ship things."

"And I insist you don’t. I can get your shipment down without your assistance."

"Bill Stalk told me you would be a tough nut to crack. He suggested I remind you that we’re not afraid to play ‘hardball’."

"Oh? So you think you’re up to playing the sandlot bully?" Neal asked, a grin forming on his lips.

"If need be. That’s one big ship. You need our business to keep it running."

"Oh, I think the Folly and I can survive without you or your kind of business. Tell you what; let’s test your hypothesis. After I unload the last two pods of your deliveries, the Folly will stop moving Raynor material. If you are right, my business will fold before yours does."

"YOU CAN’T DO THAT!" he bellowed, his face turning red.

"Sure I can. In case you weren’t informed, I only contract by the job. If I don’t sign any more contracts with Raynor, I won’t be shipping any more Raynor cargo. Tell Billy I hope he likes my ‘pitch’," Neal added as he signaled for Tess to drop the connection.

"You burnt that bridge to a crisp," Tess commented as she disconnected. "I take it they get a busy signal from now on?"

"Hmmm, burning bridges, that bridge was already badly scorched when I couldn’t get in touch with Snowfall, even that PI is no longer returning my messages. The drugs and the way he now thought they had an advantage with the furs hating me were the last flames. Tess, if they do call, you can always ‘take a message’. Who knows? Maybe they will come up with something funny or creative."

"Should get even better when they can’t find their other drugs."

"Speaking of which, how goes the hunt?"

"Almost done, boss. It looks like it will total almost four carriers worth."

"Is it valuable?" Quickdash asked.

Shortdash snorted, "That stuff makes Boronike look cheap in comparison." Looking at Neal, shi asked, "What are you going to say when they demand it back?"

Neal’s smile was not a pleasant one. "Demand what back? If we ask the point of origin, they will deny that there was anything not on the manifest, and it’s not on the manifest. So what is it they’re missing again?"

Shortdash hmmm-ed, "If they try to take it to the authorities, they expose the fact that they have been smuggling. Either way, they lose what you found."

"By hiding their drugs among similar ones, only a very detailed scan could detect the difference. If they let it be known that they did it to me, they will expose all their cargo runs to much more careful inspections."

Watching Neal closely, Quickwind said, "As I recall, it is used in regeneration and age reversals. We could all live forever with what you have in those carriers."

Neal gave hir a funny look as he shook his head. "No," he said, "I’ll find someone that can put it to good use." A soft snort escaped as his added, "And despite appearances, I don’t really want to live forever."

The wall speaker emitted a raspberry, "He just keeps finding ‘just one more thing’ that he thinks needs to be done," Tess said.

"The last time I was processed, I had decided that I didn’t have the time for something," Neal pointed out, then he shrugged, "I’ll leave it to you and the Traveler to decide when I’ve worn out my usefulness."

Looking hurt, Dessa asked, "Don’t we get a say in the matter?"

"What makes you think you will still be here? I have a tendency of running people off after a while. Right now Shadowchaser holds the record at thirty-three years."

"I thought Tess and the Traveler have been here longer,"

"One’s a captive audience, the other is always ‘out of sight, out of mind’."

"You will find me hard to scare off," Dessa promised.

"Of that I have no doubt."

After dinner found most of the crew in the main lounge, when Dessa walked in carrying a large flat box. Leaning the box up against the wall, she opened it and carefully removed a frameless painting. After a moment’s thought, she pressed the painting to the wall. She released it after giving the bonding agent time to secure the painting.

Dessa's portrait

Turning back to the others, Dessa said, "Some things are meant to be enjoyed by others." Looking at Neal, she added, "This is my humble gift to the clan of Foster.

The painting was of a much older Dessa, seated on a chair that was padded by one of the native animals found on the plains of Raksha’s main continent.

SharpTongue studied at the painting for several moments before asking, "When did you pose for Damalia? I had heard it was almost impossible to get her to do personal portraits."

Dessa smiled. "She still does a few, but this one was done about fifty years ago. She was already a very fine painter, but her funds couldn’t keep up with her appetite to travel. My father was the captain of a ship that gave her passage, and this painting was her fee."

SharpTongue shook her head. "Your father got a heck of a bargain."

Dessa laughed. "Funny, Damalia said she was the one who got the bargain."

"I’ve met her once," Neal admitted as he admired the painting. The pale gold Amur leopard had been trying to find some paints used by the natives on New Baikal. At the time, Neal hadn’t had any of their paints. But he did find that he had a few of their painted art pieces. After a little careful scanning by Tess, and a little replication, Damalia had her paints. Neal toyed with idea of finally calling in his marker for those paints, but dismissed it. There was no way he would be able to get Stormy to sit still that long.

One of Tess’s carts rolled in with a protective cover to place over the painting. Once in place, Tess would replace the air with an inert gas to help preserve it.

The next morning saw Neal using Alpha to set down one of the loaded pods. He noticed a lot more security in the area. In the nearby rail yard he could see an empty train waiting to be loaded, so there would be no carrier stacks setting around this time.

As Neal opened the main cargo door, a female Quange stepped up and handed him a data chip. As he dropped the chip into his reader, she cleared her throat. "They didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt."

"Spotters are often used to insure that nothing is in the way of moving machinery. Something that might have prevented them from being incarcerated for attempted manslaughter," Neal said a little stiffly, eyes still on his reader.

"They didn’t know anyone was around."

Neal reached over to his desk and handed her a personal holo-viewer. After adjusting it for her head, she activated it.

At her gasp, Neal explained what she was viewing, "What you are seeing is what my mates found when they followed the sounds of a screaming cub. The two eight year olds trying to calm their little sisters. That object in the stasis field is what was left of their big sister after your friends decided to play ‘tip the carriers’. Shi was carrying one of the cubs when shi was crushed."

When she tried to return the viewer Neal shook his head.

"Keep it," he told her. "When they ask why what they did was so wrong, you can show it to them. And their families, and anyone else that thinks they are being treated unjustly."

The unloading was half finished when a Raynor Inc. PTV and a bus pulled up. Neal recognized the man getting out of the PTV’s passenger area as the talking head he had dealt with the evening before.

Jack Benny waited until over a dozen men from the bus had joined him before approaching the pod.

Neal had a sour look on his face as he said, "You and your men are neither needed nor wanted here."

"Just protecting the vested interest of the company," Jack said with an evil grin.

"After I’m done unloading, Raynor won’t have any vested interest in me or the Folly."

"Let’s discuss that. Tommy…" Tommy was six inches taller then Neal’s six feet, and looked like someone that should have been on the pro wrestling circuit.

He was almost to the cargo door when Zhanch stepped out of the shadows, grinning down at him.

Neal’s smile now matched the one that Jack had worn a moment ago. "I see your thug, and raise you one oversized kitten with very sharp claws," he said to Jack’s look of shock.

One of the men still with Jack reached into his coat pocket.

A ‘Cha-chunk!’ came from the shadows that Zhanch had just left. "If your hand comes out of that pocket with a weapon, you lose the hand," a voice growled.

He carefully removed his empty hand from his coat pocket as Dessa stepped into view. While she had something that looked similar to Neal’s ‘Betsy’, it was built more along Rakshani lines. The barrel was half again the diameter of ‘Betsy’ and the slug it threw was four times as heavy. In the style of some Rakshani weapons, it included a ‘claw’ mounted to the side of the weapon, allowing her to ‘gouge’ someone on that side without releasing her grip on the weapon.

"As you can see, I now have a crew. I suggest you take your hired muscle and leave."

Jack stuttered as he asked Zhanch, "How can you work for him? Haven’t you seen the news from New Kiev? He hates furs!"

Zhanch seemed to disappear, only to reappear right in front of Jack, his men stepping back in surprise at the large Rakshan’s speed. She growled as she picked him up by his shirt. Nose to nose to him, she snarled, "We were there. The only things he killed that day were humans. FUR hating humans. One of which almost killed Dessa. " She then dropped him in disgust, her nose telling her that he had soiled himself.

"Do you think they got the message?" Dessa asked as Zhanch returned to the pod. Jack and his crew were beating a hasty retreat back to their transports.

"Time will tell, and they won’t have too many more chances. With any luck, we will have the next pod unloaded before they discover anything’s missing."

The call from Raynor Inc. came that evening, Neal had been going over the pods that needed to be unloaded at Melbourne the next day.

A new talking head had replaced Jack; this one was younger and seemed very nervous about something.

"There’s some cargo missing from your delivery," he stated without preamble.

Neal made busy work for a moment, bringing up the load manifest for their order. "I have your manifest in front of me, which carriers are missing what items?"

"Uh… I-It’s not on the manifest," said the talking head.

"Have you confirmed it was actually sent?" Neal asked. As the talking head stammered, Neal smiled as he added, "You are putting me in a rather interesting position. The only reason to have some of your cargo not on the manifest is if you are trying to cheat me, or you are trying to smuggle something using my reputation to hide behind. Either of those reasons would make it in my best interest to get the authorities involved. So tell me, what is missing that was not on the manifest I was given?"

Just before the connection was lost, Neal saw the talking head look to the side, as if to ask what to say.

"Short and sweet," Shortdash said from hir pad in the corner. "Somehow I don’t think they will give up that easily."

"Agreed. But now that we don’t need to make any more trips to Big Sur, they will have to come to us."

"Us?" shi asked with a raised eyebrow.

"You are aiding and abetting. You either don’t have a problem with what I’ve done, or you’re waiting to see what I do with my ill gotten gains."

"A little of both, actually. You haven’t broken any laws per se, but if you bend them much further, some may snap."

"I was thinking of donating it to a good cause. It was that, or drop it into the sun."

Shortdash snorted. "Someone might recover them before they finished their trip."

"Or I could let the kids use them for target practice, push one carrier out the locks and see if they can hit it with another," Neal said with a grin.

"That wouldn’t destroy the drugs," shi pointed out.

"No, but it would scatter them so badly that it wouldn’t be worth gathering up. Add sending them counter spin-ward, and the pieces won’t be in orbit long."

"I think there’s enough junk orbiting Terra without you adding to the mess."

Neal let out a long sigh, "You Star Corps types are just no fun at all."

"The way you suggested it suggests that you have used unwanted cargo for target practice before."

Neal nodded. "One time the ammo was a dozen pirates in heavy armor suits; the target was their own ship. You’ve no doubt noticed the carrier transport system?" At hir nod, he grinned. "The Folly can back into a port and transfer cargo through the aft access port. I just let them get into the transfer system, and almost to the forward end."

Shortdash’s eyes widened. "Then I assume you ‘fired’ them down the shaft with a little gravity."

Neal nodded. "A hundred G’s got them moving quite nicely. Made quite a mess of their ship as I recall."

Shi shivered slightly, the kids sometimes used that area as a large zero-g playground. More then once shi had seen Tess carefully apply a little localized gravity to keep someone from running into something headfirst.

Neal saw hir shiver and shook his head. "It’s as safe as anywhere else onboard, and it’s really the best place for them to practice in zero g."

"I know. It’s just that everything on this ship seems to have more than one reason to be there."

"Nothing strange about that, I like having options."

"Those heavy doors going to the pool area – what purpose do they serve?"

"A holdover from the original design. That pool doubles as one of our water reserves. The doors keep the water inside in case we lose gravity."

"You embrace new tech, but use old tech as well."

"Both have their places, and sometimes it is the same place."

"I did a little hunting on the webs about your Bengal tigers."

"And what did you find?"

"That five of them were ordered for the labs, while another five were ordered from the same source at the same time for a zoo. Nothing shows that there were any swaps, or reasons for swapping."

"You didn’t look far enough, or you would have told me why."

"Please, no more games."

"Just this once, I’ll make you work all the harder for the next one." At hir nod, he smiled. "What you missed is what happened to the ones that went to the zoo. In less than six months they had all been put down after mauling their keepers." Taking a sip of his tea, he continued, "I was to pick up and transport all ten of the tigers, and I had an idea what the lab intended to do with theirs. Imagine my surprise when the ones for the zoo were actually friendly enough to want to be petted, while the ones for the lab were all man haters."

"Why would there be such a discrepancy between the two sets?"

"I didn’t have the contacts and resources I do now, but what little I could find suggested that others also known what the lab wanted those tigers for. It seems they didn’t want any new furs to be created."

"How would that have stopped chakats from being created?"

"Think it through. Quickdash has a lot of Quickwind’s outlook on life, some of which formed while shi was still in the womb. How friendly would that first chakat cub have been if hir mother had carried a strong hatred for humans?"

Shi just stared at him, unable to finish the thought.

"Instead of that, we have some chakats that can actually love humans. Good thing too, or I would be in a lot of trouble right now."

"So now you claim to be the reason that chakats exist."

"Nope. You’ll have to blame Charles and Katherine Turner for that. I just helped keep someone from screwing up their good work."

"Just how much history have you changed?"

Neal frowned. "That’s the problem with history; at any particular point in time, doing something may just seem to be the best or right thing to do. It’s only later that you can look back and see what a seemingly minor change or decision has brought about. I had met Kat long before I moved the tigers. I had no intention of seeing her or her mate hurt by one of those man haters, so I swapped the orders. It was only later that I got to see what they had used the tigers for." Looking at Shortdash, but not really seeing hir, he smiled and added, "I think it was worth the effort."

A little later, Shortdash got Shadowcrest alone for a moment.

"You said you can sometimes get some of Neal’s thoughts and memories with the right trigger words. Would you try one for me?" At Shady's nod, shi whispered, "Bengal tigers."

Shadowcrest flinched back as if avoiding a blow, and then shi calmed down and thought for a moment. "My initial reaction was from the image of one of the big cats trying to take a swipe at me; not a pleasant memory," shi shuddered again as shi added, "I’m not sure how Neal can face us, much less Rakshani with that in his head."

"Is there more?"

"A little more, but it doesn’t really seem to belong. He’s holding a newborn chakat. There is a human female with him. Looking at her, all I get is ‘Cat’."

"Kat, as in cha-kat," Shortdash absently corrected hir, as shi slowly sat down.

"Not what you expected to find?" Shadowcrest asked, looking anxiously at the older chakat.

Shortdash gave hir a half-hearted smile. "Maybe this is why he has learned to only give the rest of us half-truths, his whole truths can be a bit of a shock."

"Is this something I should keep from the others?"

"As Neal would say, ‘your call’. You now have a better idea than I as to what Neal would want."

"Then as ‘my call’ I think I’ll let you in on another of his ‘little secrets’. Mind you, I have no proof or actual memories, just feelings and impressions." Shi waited for Shortdash to nod before continuing, "One of the reasons behind him pushing his colonies is that he has seen similar ‘bad vibes’ between furry and non-furry before. His conscious mind doesn’t see it yet, but his subconscious mind is seeing parallels between now and just before the gene war began."

"He thinks there will be another war?"

"The furry hate movement seems to be growing. While the Humans First types are what makes the headlines, there seems to be even more going on behind the scenes. Neal can’t find the root source, so he’s making what he hopes will be a few safe havens."

"And the monument?"

"He goes there to try and remember how bad the hatred was back then. He’s trying to gauge how close history may be to repeating itself."

In the early morning hours, the Melbourne spaceport seemed laid back and relaxed after the bustle of Big Sur.

After getting the cargo transfers started, Neal collected a couple of packages and made his way over to the personnel section and the ground transport rentals. He was about to select one of the smaller ground cars from the rental fleet, when a furry arm reached around him and punched the ‘taur van’ option. Looking behind him, he told Moonglow, "I was just going to drop off a gift; no need for additional keepers."

Moonglow grinned as the larger vehicle pulled up. "Are you are forgetting that Midnight is our friend as well? Plus this will give us something to do with the little ones for a few hours," shi said as Shadowcrest, Nova, CalmMeadow and the little ones started clambering aboard.

Neal had planned to just take the quickest route there, but with the little ones (and some not so little ones) gawking at everything they saw, Neal changed the computer’s instructions to take a slower and more scenic itinerary.

The van pulled to a stop in front of a large spread-out home that Neal had learned to associate with taurs. Seven miniature missiles erupted from the van, and streaked across the yard, stopping at random points to inspect the grass, bushes and trees, then off to the next thing to catch their attention. Then the dwelling’s front door opened and gave them a new place to explore.

"Hey!" shouted a surprised voice from just inside the door.

Neal had just managed to bend over and grab Starblazer as she went by, he now looked up to see a large, dark haired, golden jaguar patterned chakat; hir green eyes busily examining the cub shi had just caught trying to invade hir home, while another was gently but firmly wrapped in hir tail.

"My apologies, they haven’t quite mastered the idea that there are some places they aren’t allowed to go without permission," Neal said as he approached hir. Shi was just a little taller then Moonglow, with a bust just slightly smaller than the wet nurse.

"No harm done," shi said as shi tickled the cub before giving hir a hug and releasing hir. After doing the same to hir tail captive, shi turned back to Neal. "Midnight warned me that a crazy human with a small hoard of little ones might pay us a visit. I am Forestwalker, child of Desertsand and Longstripe. Forest to my friends."

"It is nice to finally put a face to the name Midnight gave us. I am Neal Foster. Once again, I apologise for the invasion."

"Nothing we’re not used to around here," shi assured him with a grin. "Catching wayward cubs is somewhat of a game in this household."

"One that you appear to need more practice at," said an amused voice from behind hir.

A long-eared fox morph, just under five feet tall walked into view. Firestorm was being given a cuddle as shi was carried back to the front door.

"Leanna, this is that ‘Captain Neal Foster’ Midnight warned us about,"

"Stormy…" Neal said having noticed that hir little paws were busy.

Stormy’s ears drooped. Leanna was about to console hir when shi looked down and realized that Neal’s scolding was for the present, not the past. Without hir noticing, Stormy had already released half the fasteners holding hir top closed. "Why you little scamp!" shi laughed, while giving the kitten a tickle.

"I see shi’s not clinging to you as much," Midnight said as shi joined them with their newest addition in hir arms.

"No, now the problem is shi likes undressing strangers." At hir raised eyebrow, he added, "The kids taught hir to give others ‘milk checks’. As you can see, shi thinks it is great fun."

"No harm done," Leanna said, echoing Forestwalker. "I caught hir sitting quietly at the bedroom doorway, watching Midnight feed Littleroar."

"It’s nice to see shi’s learning a few manners. Disturbing the little one’s meal would not have been polite."

"Now if we could just get hir to not interrupt those bigger than shi is at mealtime," Moonglow said with a smile.

"Everyone anyways gets it backwards," Neal said. "You don’t have the cub, the cub has you."

Midnight suddenly realized that something was bothering hir mate. "Forest, what’s wrong?" shi asked as shi watched hir mate stare at one of the chakats in Neal’s group. Nova, CalmMeadow and Moonglow shi remembered, but the much larger chakat was a stranger – Midnight’s eyes widened as shi recognized the fur pattern. "Shadowcrest?" shi whispered, not believing hir eyes.

What had caught Forestwalker’s attention was hir inability to sense the larger chakat; it was like shi wasn’t there! Then shi noticed the heavy belt and the status lights around hir waist. Shi took a step towards Shadowcrest, only to have two of the others block hir path.

"The field is for hir protection," CalmMeadow said when Forestwalker glared at hir.

"You all might as well come in," Midnight said as shi gently led Forestwalker away from the door. "Neal, why is it every time we meet you have explaining to do?"

"Two data points do not a set make," Neal reminded hir as he sat down after doubling up one of the cushions.

"But they can be the beginning of a trend," shi replied as shi settled down.

"New Kiev came back to bite me on the backside."

"So I’ve heard. We saw a report yesterday of the edited video and the original. Our local news furs didn’t pick up the edited video until the controversy over it came to light. It appears that some one does not like you, Captain Foster."

"And they are spreading hate and discontent," Neal agreed. "A couple of furry forklift operators decided to tip over some of my cargo, Shadowcrest and I were injured as a result."

"You had to process hir? Just how badly was shi hurt?"

Shadowcrest turned hir upper torso and placed hir paw on hir lower torso almost a third of the way from hir tail. Shi shuddered slightly as shi realized that shi knew exactly which point on hir lower spine to touch. Looking at Midnight, shi said, "From this point back, crushed by one of the carriers."

"As bad as Dessa," Midnight commented. At Shadowcrest's nod, shi added, "That helps explain your sudden growth, but not the portable field generator."

"I seem to be rather ‘gifted’ now. So much so, that I can’t shield myself from others."

At Forest’s raised eyebrow, Midnight explained, "Shi’s not quite twelve as I recall. Instead of growing into it, shi got it all at once."

"May I?" Forest asked Shadowcrest.

Shadowcrest looked to Neal. He shrugged and said, "Your call little one." Shi heard the unspoken ‘I’ll have the trank darts ready’.

Shi smiled at Forest and said, "Okay, just give me a moment to prepare." Looking towards Leanna, shi held out hir arms as shi said, "Stormy, I need a hug please."

Before Stormy could leap, Leanna hopped up to press the cub into hir arms.

"No! Just…" Neal had started to say ‘Just let hir jump’, but contact had already been made.

Shady quickly backed up until hir backside bumped the wall, while Stormy leaped clear of both of them.

Still standing in the middle of the room, Leanna looked confused. "What happened?" shi asked. "Did I do something wrong?"

"Not intentionally," Neal assured hir. "Shi was going to use Stormy to get hir baseline, but shi probably got a little of you just now as well."

"I don’t understand."

"Let me see if I can give you an example. Have you ever had your eyes dilated?" At hir nod, he continued, "You can’t control how much light you see, so even low light levels are blinding. That’s Shady’s mental control right now – everything is too bright. Then we throw in another problem. To protect hir ‘eyes’, shi’s wearing blinders that keep hir from seeing any light at all. Just like your eyes in the dark, they go ultra-sensitive in their effort to sense anything at all. Each of us puts out a mental ‘light’ to hir; the little ones don’t seem to be quite as blinding to hir as the rest of us. Shi just wanted Stormy, sort of like letting your eyes get use to a candle’s glow before turning on the room lights."

"And by holding on to Stormy, I blinded hir," Leanna slowly said.

"Shi wanted a candle flame, and got a flashbulb," Neal agreed. "It will take hir a minute or three to recover from the overload."

"Will shi be okay?"

"I think so. If not, I’ll call in the heavy artillery." At hir questioning look he smiled, "Hir first overload was with a couple dozen of us, it took some help to bring hir down."

"Shi’s almost as bad as you, father," Shady said, arms still over hir head as shi took in several deep breaths. "Stormy? Help please."

Stormy brushed up against Shady a few times before offering hirself for a hug.

At Leanna’s puzzle look, Neal explained, "Just like you picking up something that you think might be too hot to handle. You get your arm close, and then you might brush the back of your paw against it as a test before you actually try to grip it. If hir touch was too much for Shady, Stormy was ready to back off."

Shadowcrest cuddled Firestorm for a minute before looking up at Forestwalker. Extending hir arm, shi said, "Let’s make contact with the backs of our arms. That way either of us can quickly break the connection."

Forest extended hir arm to touch Shady’s, only to yank it back after the briefest of touches. Of all the minds shi had ever been in contact with, very few had been this powerful. But where those minds had been in tight control of themselves, Shady’s was wild and undisciplined. Forest stepped back, not wishing to make contact again.

Midnight looked at hir mate. "That bad?" shi asked.

Forest nodded, "A lot of power with very little control. And even being prepared for it didn’t help, for a moment I knew exactly what they mean by ‘a wild bull in a china shop’."

Shady nodded, "Shortdash and Quickwind think some of their friends on Chakona can help teach me to control myself."

"A month away," Forest commented. Shi had gotten a flood of impressions from Shady, mostly of things that were currently worrying hir. "I know you are thinking about using the holodeck for your heat and rut. May I make a suggestion?" At Shady’s nod, shi smiled, "It doesn’t have to be sterile and mechanical. Have a partner in the holodeck with you. Echo or duplicate yourselves and make love to each other’s echo. I’ve done it before with Boyce and the only down side was the lack of mental touching."

Shady snorted. "I should have thought of that! Neal uses that trick often enough in training. It allows us to practice things that might otherwise injure or kill our opponent."

Neal nodded. "Makes it easier to teach them to not pull their punches. Depending on where the safety cutoff is set, a skull cracking blow can be turned into a minor thump."

"A good thing too," CalmMeadow said with a grin. "Neal has even taken down Zhanch a time or two."

"The rest of the time, she stomps me into the ground," he said, grinning.

Midnight had noticed the cubs were all mesmerized by a large bush they could see just outside the window. A growing breeze was pushing the bush back and forth like a flag. "Would you like to play outside?" shi asked DarkStreak.

DarkStreak looked to Nova, who nodded as shi got up. "I’ll keep an eye on them," shi said as Midnight led them to the back door.

Moonglow smiled as shi also got up. "We had better join hir, there is no way shi can keep up with all of them."

The older cubs sought excitement in the upper limbs of one of the trees, clinging to the branches as the wind whipped them about. Starblazer and the younger chakats were content to stay on the ground, a new sight or scent around every turn.

The growing winds were bringing in heavy clouds, and the sky quickly darkened.

"Have they ever been out in the rain before?" Leanna asked from the porch, watching Neal watch the little ones.

"No, all ship or station born and raised," Neal replied as he glanced at the sky. "Looks like the makings for a nice little thunderstorm. Be prepared to be buried in frightened little furballs," he warned hir.

"Ready, willing, and able!" shi replied with a grin.

They didn’t have to wait for the lightning to bring the little ones inside; the first large drops of cold rain sent the younger ones scurrying for the cover of the porch.

Snowcloud and Patchwork had laughed when DarkStreak had asked where the water controls were so shi could set them a little warmer.

Everyone was back on the porch before the rain came down in earnest. As the cubs stared at the downpour, Midnight exchanged a few whispered words with Forest before going back inside.

Forest stepped up to Neal, who was watching the cubs watch the rain. "Why do I get the feeling that you want to go out and run through the rain like an over-aged cub?"

Neal grinned as he watched the heavy rain come down. Looking down at the cubs, he said, "If I go out there, they will follow. Besides, I didn’t bring a spare set of clothes."

"Neither of those are a problem. What’s really keeping you in?"

Neal just smiled as he shook his head, and looked back out into the rain. Forest hadn’t missed the glance he had given Shadowcrest. As Midnight returned, shi said, "This storm will blow out of the area tonight. Will you and your family like to join my family on the beach tomorrow?"

Neal had started to answer when Moonglow cut him off. "We would love to!" shi said. "How did you want to get there? Separately? Or meet up somewhere and go as a group?"

Knowing when his opinion was moot, Neal went back to watching the kids as they watched the rain.

As Moonglow and Forest discussed who would bring what, Shadowcrest stepped up behind Neal. "Aren’t you forgetting something?" shi asked.

"The gifts! Damn, they’re still in the transport," Neal muttered.

The front door slamming against its stop plate was the first sign that someone else had heard Neal’s reply. Going to the door they could see two little furs trying to get into the PTV. Neal reached into his pocket for the remote he had pulled from the dash and keyed the doors open. Watching DarkStreak and Spitfire scramble into the vehicle, he looked back at his hosts and commented, "I think we will start your beach party early by borrowing a couple of towels."

Forest and Leanna disappeared down the hallway, only to return moments later with a pile of towels each. Dropping their piles by the door, they each kept one to wrap around a cub as they ran back in. Some vigorous rubbing soon had most of the water off them, and it was time to see if the gifts had survived the water.

Since the packaging had been made to be easily recycled, they were in a little disarray after being carried through the heavy rain. Though damp, the gifts within had survived intact. For Littleroar, Neal had brought a little ball with a soft and fluffy tail attached to it. Turning it on, it began rolling aimlessly around the floor, the tail flipping randomly as the ball rolled. Littleroar stared at it for a minute before giving chase.

Neal’s gift to Midnight were some tops, some very large tops. When shi gave Neal a confused look, he indicated shi should put one on.

"A little too big Neal," Forest commented with a laugh. "There is enough room in there for hir and a cub or two!"

"That’s the idea," Neal replied. Making a couple adjustments to the straps, he then pulled the top open and gently dropped Littleroar into it. The cub found hirself held securely in a pocket just under Midnight’s breasts. Shi had no trouble climbing back out to see what was going on. As shi turned to nuzzled hir mother, Neal grinned. "Moonglow had mentioned that some of the wet nurses use these. The cub can nurse and sleep right up next to you while you have both paws free for whatever else needs doing."

"A practical gift from you?" Midnight asked in surprise.

"Or very impractical, depending on where you wear it," CalmMeadow said with a grin. "Some joker who will not be named, suggested we wear those tops on an ‘Alternate Thursday’. Wearing one of those once the others have filled it with chocolate pie gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘top heavy’!"

"‘Alternate Thursday’?" Forest asked Midnight.

"Remember the mess Ember made with the pie the first week we were back?"

"All over the kitchen!" Forest said, frowning. "You mean I can thank the Folly for that little disaster?

Midnight grinned. "It seems ‘Messy times’ was one of his treats for the first group of cubs he adopted. One of them was back on the Folly for a few months; shi and hir mate surprised Neal by rebuilding the room they used to use. Our family was invited to join in its reopening."

"You really let them throw pies all over the place?" Leanna asked. At Neal’s nod, shi grinned as shi said, "How do you clean the room afterwards? With a fire hose?"

Neal grinned, "I know you have been on the Pegasus, what did you do with your dirty dishes?"

"Put them back in the replicator," shi said, wondering what this had to do with cleaning a room.

"The ‘mess room’ is basically one big replicator, that’s how I can get pies to magically appear out of thin air. After we are done, the room cleans up the dirty dishes, as well as the floor, walls and ceiling."

"Told ya," Ember said, poking Stonefur.

The poke was returned with interest, which resulted in a pounce, which was also returned. The scuffling pair rolled into the still damp Spitfire who was happy to join in the playful fray. The adults watched as the rest of the cubs joined in, the older ones being careful not to crush the smaller ones. Littleroar watched all this with a growing alarm as the rolling, twisting, growling pile of fur rolled hir way. Before shi could run, two pairs of paws reached out and gently pulled hir in. Hir little roar was heard as shi disappeared into the furry pile, only to be followed by a giggle as someone gave hir a tickle.

The tangle of little ones came apart like magic when the front door slammed open again. A pair of soaked foxes rushed in, quickly followed by half a dozen waterlogged taurs.

While Forest and Midnight took their packages and saddlebags to the kitchen to see what could be salvaged from the soaking, the rest tried to help dry off the newcomers.

Neal found himself rubbing down a chakat with silvery gray fir. As shi used another towel on hir hair, shi twisted hir upper torso around to see who was giving hir a lower backrub. Raising a soggy eyebrow, shi said, "That’s strange, Forest didn’t mention that there would be more guests showing up."

Neal smiled as he kept working his way down hir lower torso. "We just dropped by to say hello, so Forest was almost as surprised as you. I’m Neal by the way."

"Silverpelt. My sister and I were visiting my nieces and got roped into helping get provisions for tomorrow." Frowning towards the kitchen shi added, "I know the breads are ruined, but the rest of it should be alright."

"Not a problem," Neal said, grinning. "I’ve been told that we will be joining you, so we need to gather supplies as well. Make a list and we can add it to ours."

"You’ve been told?" shi asked with a matching grin.

"As mate and adopted father, I find my opinion isn’t always in great demand," he chuckled.

"I know the feeling," said the male foxtaur. The comment earned him a wet tail slap from one of the other waterlogged chakats.

Moonglow had been helping towel hir off. Shi smirked as shi asked, "Too close to the truth?"

Still glaring at hir mate, shi said, "I listen to your opinions!"

"And then you ignore them!" Neal and the foxtaur chorused back, laughing when they realized that they had both been thinking the same thing.

Silverpelt grinned. "Give it up Goldie, they have your number."

Moonglow chuckled. "To paraphrase one of my co-mates ‘isn’t it nice to have a mate who knows his place’."

"It makes me thankful I have a big ship," Neal said. At Garrek’s raised eyebrow, he added, "More places to hide."

"Not as many I’ll bet as that freighter that has been in orbit the last few days. Goldie and I have been arguing about how they get it to warp."

"Magic," Neal said with a grin. "Lots of magic."

"There’s no such thing as magic," Patchwork piped up.

"Tell Mike that when you meet him tomorrow," Neal told hir. "Not only is there magic, but many different types."

"We are trying to not fill their heads with nonsense," Goldfur said with a frown.

"So you’re saying that that big freighter you two saw is powered by nonsense?" Neal asked with a grin.

Before Goldfur could reply, Forest came back into the front room, "We will need a few things for dinner tonight. Midnight and I will take the PTV once the storm dies down a little."

Silverpelt looked back at Neal again. While his hands were still on hir rump, he had stopped rubbing hir with the towel. He turned his head to look over at Shadowcrest. Shi looked back at him and started to grin, knowing that look in his eye.

"You wouldn’t dare, she hates not having plenty of warning!" shi said.

"But, she does like a challenge," Neal pointed out as he tapped his comm badge. "Tess, would you be so kind as to advise the cook that we will be having a few guests for dinner?" he said, grinning at Shadowcrest.

A few moments later Neal got a reply. "Tess, will you tell that idiot captain of yours that I need more than ‘a few guests’ to know how many to cook for on such short notice?"

Neal grinned. "Tess, tell that lazy cook that there will be three bipeds and eight chakat sized taurs. Oh yes, there are also half a dozen cubs to consider."

"Nine taurs," Silverpelt corrected. "My mate will be back in an hour or so."

There was a growl from the other side before the connection was terminated.

Midnight looked at Neal with a raised eyebrow. "That doesn’t sound like the happy bunny I last saw on your ship," shi commented as shi started helping Desertsand dry off.

"Some furs get a glow about them when they are with cub, others get cranky," Neal said as he went back to drying Silverpelt.

"I heard that," came from his comm badge.

Neal kept drying as he replied, "Now, did I say which of those types you happened to be?"

Silverpelt asked, "Is it safe to go to dinner after the captain has annoyed the cook?"

"Perfectly safe," Shadowcrest said with a laugh. "That is, for everyone but the captain!"

Moonglow nodded as shi helped dry Longstripe. "Suzan’s main fear is not having enough time to do everything the way she thinks it should be done. Even on short notice she can whip up some amazing meals."

"So why did she sound so upset?" Forest asked.

"Because she hasn’t had time to visit the local markets to see what she can find. Like any artist, her passion is assembling a beautiful meal, not just slapping something together."

"She sounds a lot like the bunny brothers," Forest commented.

"Just like them," Neal agreed. "If she had been a male I might have lost her to the Pegasus, they got along so well in the galley."

"Just so long as you didn’t get her too excited," Midnight said with a grin. "She would start hugging and kissing them."

"But they’re…" Forest started - only to be cut off by Midnight’s chuckle.

"And there lay the problem!" shi agreed. "Poor Suzan was banned more than once from the Pegasus's main galley." To the confused looks shi was getting, shi added, "The bunny boys we are talking about prefer other males, so having a female jumping all over them wasn’t their cup of tea. Despite her being female, they did care for her enough to donate some seed to help her have a child." Looking at Neal, shi asked, "I take it she caught?"

Neal grinned as he nodded. "Like some of her meals, she seems to have overdone it a bit." At hir raised eyebrow, he added, "Her scans show twins. Tess hasn’t told us the sex because Suzan doesn’t want to know."

"What does that mean to you?" Forest asked, having detected more than a few odd thoughts coming from this odd human.

Neal waved at the cubs, who were now almost as wet as the adults they were trying to help dry off. "I’ve already got a mess of brats, what’s two more?" he said with a grin.

Before any of them could object to his terminology, Stormy rushed out from between Windsong’s forelegs and jumped at Neal. Shi then began to squirm and wiggle as shi used his shirt for a towel.

"Brat!" Neal exclaimed as shi soaked his front.

The rest of the Folly’s cubs then joined in, knocking him over onto a taur pad and thoroughly wetting him down with their wet fur.

Moonglow chuckled as they soaked hir mate. To the others shi said, "You will find he doesn’t mean ‘brat’ or ‘furball’ in a derogatory way."

CalmMeadow smiled, "A couple of them prefer ‘brat’ to being told they are good little chakats."

"And Neal doesn’t have just two bunnies on the way," Nova said with a grin. "There are also three Rakshani cubs and a foxtaur pup as well."

"And you all just travel with Neal?" Longstripe asked.

"That’s a long story," CalmMeadow quietly said.

"And different for each of us," Moonglow added.

"How can it be different for each of you?" Forest asked.

CalmMeadow started with, "Twelve of us snuck into a carrier that we thought was bound for another ship, while another four were trapped in another carrier. Both of which just happened to be loaded onto Neal’s ship."

Shadowcrest piped up with, "Suzan came onboard when Neal kept a promise I made. Then we rescued some Rakshani from a pirate ship."

Moonglow continued, "I was hired as a wet nurse and nanny for a newborn chakat that Neal delivered and adopted."

Nova ended with, "My sisters and I were rescued after our station was taken over."

From under the pile of little furs, Neal added, "And along the way we bumped into one of my other daughters, as well as the Pegasus, and a couple of other Star Fleet ships."

Goldfur frowned as shi said, "Boyce and Midnight have told us a bit about their adventurers with a crazy captain in a oversized ship…" shi looked over at Midnight.

Midnight nodded as shi said, "Yes, the human lying under that pile of wet cubs is the captain that thinks nothing of dragging the Pegasus around like a toy on a string with his oversized, magically powered ship."

"Magically," Goldfur repeated, still frowning at the term.

"The main propulsion for the Pegasus seems to be a particular blend of coffee," Neal pointed out. Seeing Patchwork’s scowl, he added, "We are just using the word ‘magic’ in place of saying ‘I don’t know why something works the way it does’. I’ve found that knowledge can remove a lot of the ‘magic’, but there always seems to be a little left."

"Prove it!" shi demanded.

"Proving magic…" Neal said slowly. "I myself have never been that good at it, but I’ll give it a try," he said as he nudged the cubs out of the way and reached into his shirt pocket.

As he pulled a small square card out of his pocket, Goldfur’s eyes narrowed. With his wet shirt stuck to him, there had been no place for the card to hide.

Handing the card to Patchwork, he asked hir to place it on one of the low tables.

"Now what?" Patchwork asked staring at a thin black card five centimeters on a side.

"Try unfolding it," Neal suggested.

Patchwork found that the one card was really two, with one side connected. Once opened, shi could detect another seam, which shi also unfolded, only to find another. Shi soon had a forty-centimeter square with no more seams to unfold.

"Lift it by the corners," Neal said with a smile.

When shi had lifted it high enough, another square came down from each side, forming a cube. One last square unfolded, closing the bottom of the box. Neal had hir set the box down, and then told hir to try opening the top. The room was quickly filled with the aroma of fresh pastries; the box was filled with assorted donuts and small cakes.

At hir wide-eyed stare, Neal grinned. "While I know several of those in this room can explain what just happened, would you prefer a logical explanation, or magical treats?"

Hir answer was to grab a donut in each paw and see how much powdered sugar shi could get on hir muzzle. The other cubs quickly rushed over to claim their share, only to find the bottom of the box before everyone had been served.

Stonefur was staring at the empty box, a pout about to turn into a quivering chin, when Neal asked if shi would like a treat too. At hir almost tearful nod, he suggest shi close the box. He then asked hir to tap on the top three times. At hir doubtful look he smiled and asked if shi trusted him. At hir hesitant nod, he again asked hir to tap the box three times. After shi did, he asked hir to open it. Hir eyes lit up when shi peeked under the top to find the box full again.

As the cubs, and adults, emptied and ‘refilled’ the box a few more times, Goldie stepped over to Neal.

"That wasn’t really magic," shi started.

"It most certainly was!" Neal countered with a grin.

"I will admit that the transporter shifts were very smooth…" shi said only to be cut off by Neal blowing hir a raspberry.

"Not that!" Neal said with a chuckle. "The box was just window dressing. The magic was the cubs when they opened that ‘empty’ box!"

Shi stared at him for a moment before nodding as shi grinned. "All right," shi admitted, having felt the cubs’ surprise and delight. "That part was magical," Shi agreed as shi noticed Midnight herding the now thirsty cubs towards the kitchen for milk and juices.

Neal smiled at Goldfur. "I’ve been warned that you and Garrek are engineering types. I have a standing bet with Sparks that I can get three jaw-drops out of each of you."

"We are not that easy to surprise," shi warned him.

"Good! I like a challenge. Shall we say the next twenty-four hours?"

"Fine by me, what do we win when you lose?" shi asked with a grin.

"If I lose, you have a nice time and I owe Sparks. If, on the other paw I happen to win, you have a nice time and Sparks owes me."

"Is this a private bet, or can anyone play?" asked a still damp chakat with silvery tinted ginger fur, giving hir a gentle coppery effect to go along with hir bright copper eyes.

"It’s folly to bet against him," Shadowcrest warned hir.

"Nonsense," Windsong said, putting on a bit of an air. "My college studies centered on the mind, human and non-human, and how it interacts with the world and with other minds. By watching for his anticipation, I will know when his traps are about to spring, and be able to avoid them."

"Really?" Neal asked with a grin. "Are you reading me now?"

Shi had started to nod when shi let out a shriek and grabbed hir tail.

Looking at a very surprised Goldfur, he said, "Your mouth seems to be hanging open. I think that’s a ‘one’." Looking back at the Coppertone chakat, he said, "And I think you need to learn to comprehend reality a little better before you start gambling on your abilities."

Windsong missed hir mother’s snicker as shi held what felt like a badly scorched tail tip. A moment later shi hissed, it felt like hir sore tail had just been dipped into ice water. Hir jaw hung open when shi realized that Neal had actually stepped over to hir and placed his hand over hir paws.

Neal shook his head as he said, "I couldn’t undo my little trick because you were no longer ‘listening’ to me. It’s much harder to block physical contact." As the cold numbed hir tail tip, he added, "When the cold dissipates, the pain will be gone."

Forest had been watching with minor amusement. "I detected a very low powered ‘push’ from you, but not enough to make someone really feel something."

Neal chuckled, as he explained, "That’s because I let hir do most of the work. Shi was trying to read my mind, so I simply held on to a very strong image of the tip of hir tail bursting into flames."

"That’s not an easy trick," Forest commented.

"Sure it is," Neal quietly said. "All you need are the basics. The ability to focus on the thought or feeling you really want to get across, and to know what it feels like." He said the last looking at his right hand and arm, working them a bit as if to convince himself that they were undamaged.

Copper eyes studied Neal for a moment before Windsong took his hand in hir paws and looked it over. That the hand and arm were where Neal had pulled up the pain of a severe burn, shi could sense. But the hand and arm showed no physical signs of the damage, or of the repair. "Regenerated?" shi asked.

"A while ago," he admitted, though shi could sense both truth and lie in that simple statement.

Now that they were in physical contact, shi thought again of trying to read him, only to see him raise an eyebrow at hir. The thought of a catapult, ready to launch a fireball at hir was in the forefront. Shi could smell the burning pitch and feel the heat as shi released his hand. Acknowledging defeat, shi gave him a small nod. Looking at the others, shi said, "First round to the Captain, I will have to learn to choose my battles more carefully."

"He has had more practice," Moonglow admitted. Once again, Windsong was sure shi heard a double meaning in hir words.

Leanna had gone into the kitchen to help Midnight with the cubs. Shi watched with a growing curiosity as Midnight picked up Stormy and placed hir on the table. Giving hir a small cup of milk, shi reached down and tapped Stormy’s comm badge. When it chirped, shi said, "Tess, I need a little favor…"

When they emerged from the kitchen, they found that the plans had changed yet again. Instead of waiting for evening, they would be going up with the next load. They would not be coming down until it was time to go to the beach the next day.

To Midnight’s raised eyebrow, Neal had shrugged and commented, "You let my cubs play in your backyard, I guess it’s only fair that yours get a chance to play in mine."

It was a bit past lunchtime when three taur-sized vans rolled up to, and then into the cargo pod. Having found the other PTV’s had adequate room for his family, Neal had split them among the other taur vans and sent the rental home alone. As they climbed out, they watched Neal’s kids anchor the vans to the deck before ushering them to the personal lift. That, and a short but steep ramp had them in the shuttle itself. As the others were shown how to fasten their seat restraints, Neal led Goldfur, Garrek, and Windsong to the cockpit. Already in the cockpit were a teenage fox vixen, and a pair of taur youths.

"Cindy," he told the vixen, "I’m shifting you to the observer’s seat so Goldfur and Garrek can monitor the engineering panel. Windsong here will join you."

"Aye Captain," she said as she got up from the engineering controls.

The two youths had been running down a preflight checklist. The foxtaur now turned to Neal. "Preflight complete, tower has given us an available launch window in two minutes."

Neal nodded. "I have no reasons to hold us up, you may take the window."

"Aye Captain," she said as she turned back to her controls.

As he turned to leave, Neal noticed all three of his guests were staring at his pilots with their mouths open. "One for Garrek, and another for Goldie and Windsong. This really is too easy," he added with a grin.

"You’re kidding," Goldfur half asked.

At Neal’s headshake, Garrek suggested, "Remote control?"

Windsong wasn’t listening to the conversation; shi was sensing the youths’ feelings. They knew they were in charge of the shuttle, and they knew they could do it. There was the smallest amount of resentment directed at Cindy, not at her as a person, but because she had to be there in order for them to be allowed to pilot the shuttle. Shi was even more surprised when shi felt the chakat youth send a thought of amusement to the foxtaur. The chakat then turned to look hir in the eye. ‘I know father’s already scorched your tail; bother us while we’re flying and I’ll burn your ears off!’ shi then turned back to hir controls as hir companion received final clearance from the tower.

Neal was still shaking his head to Garrek’s question when he saw Windsong’s ears drop like someone had tied weights to them; hir expression was one of shock. Goldfur also looked a little unsettled. Though the message hadn’t been directed at hir, shi had caught enough of it to get the general idea.

"Now you know who I practice with," Neal said as the shuttle smoothly lifted the loaded pod off the ground.

The only excitement was several direct lighting strikes as they passed through the heavy clouds. Cindy nudged Goldie and Garrek out of the way as she checked her engineering board for problems, while the pilots ran their own checks.

After a minute of checking, Cindy reported, "Eight point three percent loss of port lift capacity. No extra power draw, so it is probably just a couple of the elements."

"Noted," Holly said as she adjusted their course to intercept the Folly as she came around in her orbit.

"Are we in danger?" Windsong asked, though shi had noticed that none of the others seemed too concerned about the damage.

"No," Goldie told hir, having watched the tests over Cindy’s shoulder. "If these instruments are to be believed, this shuttle can lift almost twice its current load."

"Secondary port sensors are out, as are the cameras in that section," Quickdash reported.

"Common denominator?" Cindy asked.

"Port side junction box 3C. Request permission to investigate?"

Cindy snorted. "Did you want to fly it, or fix it?" she asked.

Looking at each other, the youths said, "Yes!"

Shaking her head, Cindy grinned as she tapped her comm badge. "Alex, if you’re not busy, I could use you in the cockpit."

"Copy, be there in two," he replied.

Quickdash got up from hir seat and adjusted it for biped use.

"Problems?" Neal’s voice asked over the intercom.

"A little lightning damage, and the twins want to play," Cindy said with a smile. "I thought Alex and I could do the easy part while they work," she said as she slid into the seat. After looking over the settings, she turned to Holly and said, "I relieve you."

Alex came in as Holly adjusted her seat for him. Dropping into the seat, he said, "Tell me again, which of these is the ‘go’ button?" Quickdash swatted his shoulder with hir tail as they left the now very crowded cockpit. Looking over the controls, he snorted. "Didn’t leave us much to do, did they?"

"Course correction in five, and the docking," Cindy agreed. "Not that I really blame them, we have too many pilots and not enough piloting to do."

"You called them twins," Garrek commented.

"If not twins, then certainly companions, and future lifemates," Windsong commented. At Garrek’s surprised look shi added "I got a very good feel of their bond before shi told me to butt out. Their link is so strong I think she is slightly telepathic through hir."

"And Neal?" Goldie asked.

"Almost an E2, and a very weak T1 as well. He got me because I wasn’t expecting him to have any E, much less T ratings at all."

Garrek frowned. "At the house, you were acting like your tail was on fire."

"As far as I could tell it was. At some point in his life, Neal was badly burned. He still carries such a strong memory of the pain that he can project it as a weapon against mind readers."

Cindy snorted. "He doesn’t use it often, usually just when he’s trying to rub someone’s nose in it."

"Well, he certainly rubbed my nose in it!" Windsong exclaimed with a laugh.

"Safer that than some of the other things he’s projected," Alex said with a chuckle.

"Such as?" Goldfur asked with a raised eyebrow.

Alex shook his head and grinned. "Ask him. Maybe he will give you a demonstration."

"Maybe I will," shi said.

"I don’t know cousin; he had such an evil grin when he suggested it," Windsong pointed out.

After attaching the pod to the Folly, they moved the shuttle to one of the enclosed bays between the spheres.

As the shuttle slid into the bay, Goldfur was examining it with one of the working external cameras. Noting rows of emitters lining the walls, shi zoomed in, only to let out a hiss of surprise. "Those look like holodeck emitters!" shi exclaimed.

"They are," Cindy agreed. "This is the repair bay. Rather than keep buying us suits to outgrow, Neal has us use this bay for vacuum work."

After confirming a good seal with the docking port, Alex led them out of the shuttle’s cockpit area. The twins had finished what repairs they could from inside the shuttle; they were now begging Neal to let them do the external repairs as well. When he gave in, they let out a shout and headed for the hatch, only to stop when Neal caught both of their tails. "After we eat!" he said. "I am not going to have Stew on my ass for you two skipping lunch."

Windsong’s mouth hung open for a moment before shi shook hir head. "How would them not eating cause you to sit in your food?"

Neal smiled. "That’s not what I said."

While Windsong stared at him, Goldfur frowned. "Wait a minute, I remember Midnight warning Forest not to ask for stew unless shi meant it."

As he led them out of the shuttle, Neal grinned and said, "Because shi might bite off more than shi can chew."

They caught up with the others as they reached the dining room. Midnight had known that there were Rakshani onboard, but even shi was surprised when a family group of Caitians came in behind them. After Neal introduced them to LongReach’s family, shi playfully asked, "Are you still gathering strays captain?"

Before Neal could reply, SharpTongue quipped, "Just hitching a ride and a free meal while he puts our ship back together."

Midnight roller hir eyes as shi grumbled, "I see the second method is as contagious as ever on this ship." At the raised eyebrows form hir group, shi said, "I’ll explain later." A moment later the doors to the kitchen opened.

Rolling out the first of the serving carts, a brown and white rabbit stopped between Goldfur and Windsong. Lifting the covers to reveal some of the meal choices, she grinned as she said, "How do you do? My name is Stew. See anything you would like?"

There were several chuckles from around the room as the two chakats stared at her, unable to keep their jaws from dropping yet again.

"Thanks for the warning," Forest told Midnight with a laugh. "The occupants of this ship seem to have a very low sense of humor."

"That too," Neal agreed. "Besides, I think that makes three jaw drops for Goldfur without even showing hir the Folly."

"And for me," Windsong admitted. "I could sense she was very pleased with herself about something, yet I still fell for it."

Suzan grinned, as she said, "Tess warned me that Neal had set you up, all I had to do was spring the trap!"

Silverpelt looked around as shi said, "I don’t remember you introducing anyone named Tess. Will Tess be joining us?"

Weaver grinned. "Tess is the all seeing, all knowing, but not always all telling main computer for this crazy ship."

"I can’t imagine where she might have picked up that bad habit," Midnight said, giving Neal a raised eyebrow.

"If you had a choice of a system that told you every little thing, or one that just told you what you needed to know – which would you choose?" Neal asked hir with a smile.

"Oh, I’m not saying it’s a bad system, just that it could lead to surprises."

"She’s pretty good at warning me about unpleasant surprises. Pleasant surprises I don’t mind being surprised about."

Forest caught a quick flare of amusement from Midnight, and wondered what type of surprise shi had set up for their host.

While there was plenty of food, Suzan considered it just a light lunch for the group. She promised them something a little more substantial for dinner.

The twins rushed out the door after lunch, and Neal had suggested that Goldfur and Garrek follow them. Forest and Suzan ducked back into the kitchen – supposedly to make sure they had or could get everything they needed for the beach party the next day, while Neal led the rest of their visitors – and all the cubs, to the main holosuite. Inside they found themselves in a heavily forested area.

Once inside, they were each handed a bright red ‘gun’. Neal explained the rules, "These aren’t the regular Tailstingers my kids train with. With so many cubs, I thought something a little gentler was called for. These are tinglers; they have a high and low setting." Pointing the one he had at himself, Neal put his finger in the trigger guard. A red beam shot out, showing where the gun was aimed. Pulling the trigger caused the red light to flash, but Neal didn’t seem to react to it in any way. "There isn’t much of an effect, just enough to let you know you’ve been hit. The low setting is about like someone running their finger though the ends of you fur; the high is almost a tickle. I do suggest you try it on yourselves so you know what you’re doing to others."

After finding out that even a face shot only tickled, the cubs started shooting each other. As they started chasing each other, Midnight turned back to Neal.

"Won’t the younger cubs be at a disadvantage?" shi asked.

"Not really," Neal replied. "The tinglers themselves are part of the holodeck and completely under Tess’s control. She will help the younger ones with their aim."

"And for those of us that don’t want to play?" Silverpelt asked, the way shi had hir arm around hir mate suggested shi was looking for a quiet retreat.

"Just lay the gun down. Tess knows who is playing, noncombatants won’t draw light or fire from them."

"It sounds like you’ve thought of everything," Fireglow said as shi and hir mate tossed their guns into the bushes and started heading for the sounds of a waterfall.

"I try," Neal admitted as they disappeared. "But the kids usually prove that I’ve forgotten at least one ‘loophole’."

While Neal helped keep the cubs occupied, Goldfur and Garrek had followed the twins into what looked like a suit room with a set of airlocks at the other side. Having been told earlier that Neal wasn’t buying suits for the kids to outgrow, they were surprised to find not only a pair of suits for the twins, but also another pair with their names on them. Each of the suits had a pressure gauge that read two atmospheres, except the one marked Garrek, it only read one atmosphere. After pressurizing it to two atmospheres, they found a small tear in the joint for the right fore knee. After replacing the joint with one from the parts locker, they donned the suits and tested them again before heading for the airlock.

Leaving the airlocks, they found themselves in the bay with the damaged shuttle. Looking around, Goldfur noticed the holodeck emitters were gone. Keying hir microphone shi asked, "This is all just a hologram, isn’t it?"

Holly nodded. "You’ve been on a holodeck since we entered the suit room. While we don’t really need these suits to do the repairs, Neal has us wear them so we get the full effect."

Garrek nodded. "So this is just a training session."

"Yes and no," Quickdash replied. "We are actually going to be repairing the shuttle, but we will do it remotely. The job gets done with no risk to the crew."

"Or any visitors," Holly added. "You can watch, help, or just play in the zero G. when you are ready for something else, you can ask Tess for an exit."

"So we aren’t required to wear these suits to play in the zero G?" Garrek asked, as he leered at Goldie, who caught his train of thought and grinned as shi shook hir head at him.

"No," Quickdash replied, and then shi grinned. "But if you’re thinking what I thought I just felt you thinking, you really should ‘get a room’."

"Do you have any ‘rooms’ we can use?" Goldie asked.

"Plenty," Holly replied as she placed the spare parts she thought they would need in a container to take to the shuttle with them. "We started with just one large holosuite, but as we found more uses for it Neal has added more."

"And all the rooms have variable gravity," Quickdash added as they headed over to the shuttle. "We even have a couple rooms with padded floors, walls, and ceilings for those that don’t want to bang into anything hard while they are ‘playing’."

Still grinning at the look hir mate was giving hir, Goldie said, "Maybe after we help you with your little chore."

With four of them working on it, the repairs went quickly. In a few cases they found that it wasn’t the anti-grav element, but the power and control runs which had suffered the damage.

After the static checks, they went in to de-suit; the full power tests would have to wait until the shuttle was next flown.

Goldie wrinkled hir nose as they got out of their suits. "I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need a bath or shower before I’m fit to be seen in public again."

Holly nodded. "We all do, and if you like we can use this holodeck to clean up in."

"Built in sonic shower?" Garrek asked with a frown. While it would get them clean, he had never felt that they did that good of a job.

"Something like that," Holly agreed with a grin. "If you two will just stand over there?" as they moved into position, she said, "You will want to raise your arms and spread your legs for the full effect."

Goldfur was about to ask what full effect, when shi started to feel a tingling on hir hand paws. Needle sprays of pleasantly cool water were wrapping hir paws in a watery mist. The rings of spray worked their way up hir arms, combining as they reached hir chest. The washing action then moved down hir torso, splitting into three to do hir forelegs and lower torso. Shi let out a yowl of surprised delight when the spray reached hir hindquarters, before going down hir tail like a fuse in reverse. As the spray died off, shi started to turn, only to be told to close hir eyes and mouth. As soon as shi complied, the spray started again at hir shoulders and worked its way up to hir face. While the spray didn’t go straight up hir nose or into hir ear canals, it did get everywhere else. A moment later and shi felt a tingle across hir entire body. Opening hir eyes, shi was amused to find hir self completely dry and feeling clean. A glance at Garrek showed he had also been cleaned, and if his wild fur was any indication, they both needed a good brush down.

Handing Garrek and Goldfur each a brush, the twins stepped away from them and spread their arms and legs. They were immediately covered in what looked like a watery halo that covered their entire bodies. Five seconds later, the halo disappeared, leaving them looking clean but unkempt.

As they each picked up a bush, Goldfur asked, "Why didn’t we get it all at once?"

Holly laughed. "You don’t get that until you learn to keep your muzzle shut when it’s doing your backside!"

Having yowled when the needle like spray had gone under hir tail, Goldfur understood the logic. "Well, I do feel much cleaner. Is this your regular method of bathing?"

"Actually this is our ‘quick and dirty’ way to get clean. As you noticed, by using holodeck water we can skip having to dry our fur, and go straight to grooming," Holly said as she started brushing Quickdash's hair. "We have regular showers and baths, as well as the hot tubs and pool."

"You bathe in a pool?" Garrek asked in amusement.

"Group bathing," Holly explained. "I think we will all be doing it tonight."

"Why would we need another bath?" Goldfur asked suspiciously.

"You’ll see!" Quickdash said with a laugh.

Once they were all groomed and dressed, the twins started showing Goldfur and Garrek around the Folly – that is until they got a look at the unfinished Gulf. They were still cheerfully rooting around its innards when Tess warned them that it was dinnertime.

Dinner was a noisy affair as the cubs were served first, either from the serving trays or by being dropped into a ‘big top’ as required. Having been fed earlier, Littleroar showed shi was no longer afraid of this new environment or its occupants by going from plate to plate, begging a taste from those that had something that smelled or looked interesting.

The other cubs were getting restless while the rest were still eating, so Suzan brought out one of the dessert trolleys. On it were rows of spoons with very small ‘samples’ of different types of pies.

As the cubs decided which flavors they liked the best, Midnight looked over at Neal and said, "I take it the criteria has changed."

Neal nodded. "You could say that, the game was altered so someone wouldn’t get stuck with something they didn’t care for."

"And how do you work that trick?" shi asked.

"Smoke and mirrors, and of course a little Tess style ‘magic’ thrown in for good measure."

"I take it what we pick is what we get?"

"For the most part, yes."

While chocolate was the most popular flavor chosen, rhubarb and cream was also in high demand. Windsong smiled when shi noticed that only shi, Neal and Shadowcrest had picked cherry.

Grinning at Ember, Neal asked, "Remember the way?"

With a little quiet coaching from Tess, Ember led them to the older dinning room. After leaving hir top in the next room, Midnight looked around the ‘mess room’. "I see you have added holodeck emitters in here as well. Does this mean we won’t be enjoying real pie?"

"No." Neal said with a grin. "It means sneaky chakats can’t sense their victims while blinded by pie." At hir dirty look, he chuckled. "It also lets us have a bit more fun in the same limited space."

Once every one was ready, Neal stepped into the center of the room. "I don’t know what Ember and the others may have told you, but a few things have changed since they last ‘played’ in this room. First, you aren’t stuck getting splattered with a pie flavor you don’t like." As the others grinned at this, Neal added with a soft chuckle, "And we have made it a little more cub friendly. When Ember last played, all shi could manage to throw were the small personal sized pies, even though others were throwing full size pies at hir." Neal gave hir a wink and said, "Here’s how it works now. Hold out your paw." A small pie appeared. "Now point out who you want to hit with it." With a grin shi pointed at Goldie. The pie changed to rhubarb and cream and grew to full size. "Now, if you had chosen Littleroar…" the pie changed to chocolate and shrank to little more than a double spoonful. At the confused looks he was getting Neal laughed. "In a nutshell, everyone receives what they are can handle, and throws what they are able." Turning back to Ember, he said, "Feed someone!" shi raised hir paw and a small pie appeared in it, shi then threw it at Neal. In mid-flight the pie grew to full size and changed to cherry before hitting him right in the face. Wiping the pie out of his eyes, he asked, "Any questions?"

The ‘messy time’ started in earnest at that point. As the pies started to fly, they found that Neal hadn’t mentioned a couple of little ‘loopholes’. One was that pies colliding in midair could ‘feed’ you flavors you had not asked for. The second was the pie was sized for its intended victim when launched, so when Moonglow ducked under what would have been a face shot, it was Eudora that was covered by the full size pie. Windsong was about to voice hir concern, when most of a full sized pie fell towards Littleroar. Just before it would have buried the kitten, the pie hit a small force field. While a little of it did land on Littleroar, most of it plopped down on either side of hir. Puzzled, Windsong turned to Neal and was about to ask what had just happened, when a missed mass of butterscotch not only filled hir open mouth, but also coated the rest of hir face. Tess’s quiet voice warned hir that while she would protect the little cubs, big cubs were on their own.

Spitting out bits of pie, Windsong muttered through hir butterscotch coated muzzle; "Thank you Tess, I think."

With everyone now a multi-flavored mess, Neal opened the heavy doors leading to the pool. Ember led the older cubs to the showers as Midnight carried Littleroar over to a sink to get the worse of the pie fillings off the happily squirming kitten.

Windsong was at the doors when shi looked back; only Longstripe, Desertsand, Silverpelt, and Fireglow remained. It was hard to tell who was whom without hir other senses, as they were so completely covered in the remains of the pies. Fireglow made a shooing gesture as Silverpelt asked hir to close the doors behind hir. Windsong grinned as shi nodded and closed the doors. Unless they had learned to tone it down, the others would know what they were up to soon enough.

Shi was not quite out of the showers when a pair of paws grabbed each of hir wrists and dragged hir to the pool. Once in the pool, one pair of paws started shampooing hir hair, while the other pair started rubbing soap into hir backs, eliciting an unexpected but very happy purr from hir. With hir eyes covered in shampoo, Windsong used hir other senses to see who was working hir over so nicely. Sending out a thread of thought, shi quickly reeled it back in when shi realized it was the youth that had threatened to burn hir ears off.

"Relax, we can talk this way so you can keep the shampoo out of your mouth," Quickdash quietly sent hir.

"I thought you wanted to me stay out of your mind," Windsong sent, confused by the unexpected about face.

"Well, it is more polite to speak where everyone else can hear. As for earlier at takeoff, I find it hard to concentrate on my flying when someone I don’t know is trying to dig through my thoughts."

Windsong bowed hir head, both in acknowledgement, as well as to give Quickdash better access to hir hair. "I’m not used to being around others who are that sensitive, I will have to break myself of that bad habit."

"I’ll be happy to help!" Quickdash sent, along with a light scorching of hir ear tips.

"Hey!" Windsong sent back as the youth pushed hir head underwater, both to remove the shampoo as well as ‘cool’ hir ears. Shi was just raising hir head out of the water and about to ‘path’ a strong ‘tickle’ toward the twins, when a strong feeling flowed across and through hir, leaving hir weak kneed, and wanting to laugh out loud.

"Noisy, aren’t they?" Holly laughed, as most of those in the pool reacted to the pleasurable feelings coming from the next room.

"You can feel that too?" Windsong asked in surprise.

"Mostly through hir," Holly agreed, pointing her chin at Quickdash. "Shi even ‘sent’ me both sides of your conversation just now."

"An interesting ship, and an even more interesting crew," Windsong sent at Holly.

"You have no idea," shi heard back. It had sounded like Holly, but there was a little of Quickdash in there as well.

As things started heating up in the room next door, Windsong grinned as shi said, "I hope no one minds them getting a little excited. My parents live on Chakona, so my mother doesn’t get to see hir sister as often as they would like."

Quickdash tried to blow hir a raspberry while laughing. "Heck, what they are doing is kind of tame for the Folly! With three of our chakat sisters in the same heat/rut cycle, it really starts getting wild when they are on their peaks!"

Looking over at where Neal had just dunked Screamingwind, Windsong commented to the young chakat, "You’re kidding me. Somehow I had thought a human captain would be more restrictive."

Holly snorted as she worked shampoo into Quickdash's hair. "He knows our needs are not always his needs. Although I do remember him complaining that it was hard to concentrate with all that wild sex going on."

"What did he do?" Windsong wondered, trying not to giggle out loud.

"Try to plan his times of concentration when they were busy with other things!" Holly said with a chuckle before adding, "He does have fields that could shield him from the sensations, but he never uses them."

Quickdash nodded. "He has used them to keep others from sensing it though. We had other ships connected to the Folly, and Neal dampened down the output when they started questioning what was going on."

"That, and a couple of them were asking if they could join in on the fun!"

Windsong could only laugh as shi smiled back at the pair. "Well, if that was the case, I guess you couldn’t blame them for asking, could you?"

Forest had been listening to Windsong and the twins talk as shi did Midnight’s hair. Shi looked over at Neal and commented, "I thought my mate was exaggerating about some of the things that happened on this ship."

Neal snorted as Screamingwind washed his back. "First rule of being a good captain to your crew is to never give them an order you know they can’t obey". He hmm’d for a moment before continuing. "Somehow, trying to tell to tell them when they can and can’t have sex just sounds like a great way to start a mutiny."

"That, and we would then expect him to ‘service’ all his mates himself!" Calmmeadow said with a grin, most of those mates in question were laughing at Neal’s pained expression.

The ‘noise’ from the other room had peaked and died down while they were talking. Holly grinned as she asked Neal, "Do we get to rate them?"

"Be nice," Neal told her, "they are our guests after all."

"Rate them?" Goldfur asked with a raised eyebrow. Windsong’s own puzzlement was obvious as shi mentally echoed the question to the twins.

Neal smiled. "You know, score cards with how we felt what they did, maybe critiques on performance," his smile grew wider as his quietly told hir, "You know, teasing your parents."

A soft series of chuckles and giggles followed the suggestion, as they started to ask just ‘how’ they could offer their ratings.

It was another five minutes before the doors to the mess room opened; Silverpelt was the first one out. Shi only got halfway out before shi froze. From the cubs in the wading pool to the Rakshani in the far hot tub, everyone was holding a sign with a number on it. Shi finally moved forward again, frowning at some of the holders of the lower scores.

"You only rate our effort as a five?" shi demanded of hir daughter, whose card was shaking from hir laughter. "At least the good captain gave us a ten!"

Windsong only smiled sweetly as shi looked up at hir mother. "Only because he doesn’t know you as well as I do. After all, there were times some of us weren’t able to sleep with ALL your romping about at home!"

Midnight and Forest lost it at that point, as Goldfur started flipping the sheets of hir card. While there was a blank one to write in your own score, the sheets went from a minus five to zero to ten. Then it went to eleven and twelve, followed by ‘WOW!’ and ‘HOLY #%#^^$$!!’.

As shi stared in bewilderment, Neal said, "We sometimes find the scale we’re using isn’t quite large enough for what we’re trying to measure."

"And what may I ask would it take to get a high score from you?" shi asked as shi stepped towards the showers.

"You mean the ‘holy’ one?" he asked. At hir nod Neal grinned, "The last time I thought I needed that card was when ten chakats all had dual orgasms at once. While several of them are as ‘vocal’ as you are, two are even more so. I happened to be with Zhanch at that particular moment, thank the deities she sank her claws into the bed and not into me!"

"Do you believe in deities?" Windsong asked, more than a little surprised at having felt that for some reason he did.

"A silly question to be asking me," Neal said with a grin. "Ask Midnight or Forest if they believe in deities. Of course they might just believe Boyce is magical."

"I thought strange things have been known to happen on the Folly," Goldfur commented.

"Oh, they do," Neal agreed. "Like a computer whose logic seems to be more than her programming can explain, and transporters that sometimes do more than just move people and things! But those are things that might be explained away with a bad connection or faulty circuits. I know Boyce has sired Caitian, Rakshan as well as chakat cubs with his mates – a wee bit harder to explain than a few short circuits." Looking over to the wading pool where Ember and Windrunner were splashing and being splashed, Neal asked, "So, are those two a love gift from a mischievous deity, or magic?"

"So now I’m a short circuit?" Tess asked sweetly, startling their guests.

Neal grinned. "Your default programming has you do a basic scan on every carrier we take onboard. So was it a loose wire, or a demented spirit that caused you to not alert me to our stowaways until it was too late to take them back?"

"Perhaps she thought you were lonely," Suzan said, with a smile.

"Tess? Or a crazy deity?" Neal asked.

"Yes," she said with a grin.

Forest turned to Midnight and said, "I see what you mean about it being hard to get the truth out of him."

"Truth?" Neal said with a grin. "What is truth? Tell you what; here is the truth as I know it. Yes, deities exist. In fact, I believe that there are over a dozen of them on the Folly at this very moment." At the looks of surprise from his guests, Neal’s grin turned evil as he added, "If just one of them played that ‘trick’ on Boyce, think of the trouble a dozen of them could cause."

Suzan’s grin was almost as bad as Neal’s as she added, "In other words, be very careful what you wish for!"

While Neal was confusing their parents, the cubs had been quizzing DarkStreak and Spitfire about any other entertainment the Folly might provide. Spitfire now ran up to Neal with the other cubs in tow. "Can we show them the birds?" shi asked.

"No scaring my birds," Neal teasingly told hir. As they all nodded, he smiled. "Get dried, and then you can go."

Leanna had been cuddling with Kris and Trina. Shi was starting to pull hirself out of their embrace to help keep an eye on the cubs, when Midnight waved hir back down. At hir look of confusion, Midnight smiled and said, "You can relax Leanna. With Tess keeping an eye on them, they will be hard pressed to get into any real trouble."

Spitfire ran over to one of the mats by the door. Standing on it, shi said, "Tess, quick dry please!"

Goldfur and Garrek were the only guests that didn’t jump a little as the cub was enveloped in a misty halo. Seconds later it disappeared, leaving a dry cub waiting impatiently for the others.

Ember had jumped on the pad for hir turn when DarkStreak called out, "Tess, tickle dry! Start at the tip of hir tail!"

Ember had trouble staying on the mat, as a little ball of mist started at hir tail and crawled up it like a slow burning fuse.

The other cubs all opted for the tickle dry. Some more than once, as they challenged each other to try not to move as the mist tickled down their bodies.

As the older cubs raced from the room, Midnight remarked, "That does look like more fun than towels and a fur drier."

"Just one of the pluses of the holodeck systems. A small replicator deconstructs the water and loose fur, leaving nothing to clean up after."

"Isn’t it a waste of power?" Longstripe asked.

Neal grinned as he said, "Warp cores aren’t ‘instant on’ and they produce a lot of power, even when in standby. We have enough excess that I don’t have to turn them up for little things like the mess room or our magical dry cleaners."

While most of the others headed for the main lounge after drying and dressing, Windsong stepped back into the old dining area. Shi was surprised to find it immaculate. Looking around, shi tapped the comm badge Neal had given each of them and asked, "Tess?"

"Yes, Windsong," she replied, "How may I help you?"

"I understand that this room is one big replicator. May I ask you to make something for me?"

"Within limits," Tess agreed. "You will need to get it out the doors."

"It won’t be all that large." Shi said with a grin. "I was hoping for a Celtic harp, one with dual crossed strings?" shi asked, looking hopeful.

"I have a couple of styles in memory, is this what you are after?" Tess asked, as a harp and covering case appeared next to a wheeled dolly.

Windsong carefully went over the harp, smiling at the rich texture of the beech and walnut wood. Shi then carefully checked the case. In one of the pockets shi found extra strings, a tensioning tool, and a set of metal claw tips to protect hir claws from the strings.

"Thank you Tess, this is perfect!" Windsong said as shi carefully placed the case over the harp.

Shi stepped into the corridor, only to stop after looking both directions in confusion. "Okay," shi muttered. "Which way was my room?"

The emergency lights came on, and then started flashing in a ‘runway’ pattern to the left.

Giving a snort of amusement, shi said, "Thanks Tess!" and followed the lights.

Once in hir room, a few minutes with the tensioning tool had the strings tuned to hir liking, and shi started strumming through some of the melodies shi’d learned while on Earth.

Shi was just finishing a melody shi’d heard in an ancient black and white human movie, one called ‘An Old Irish Lullaby’. Shi was softly singing the old lyrics of a son’s wish to hear his mother’s loving voice again when shi sensed someone watching hir. Turning back to the door, shi found it standing open. In the doorway were several of the cubs, Spitfire and DarkStreak had been leading Patchwork, Snowcloud, Eudora, Stonefur, Ember and Markus through the corridors when they had heard the harp. Suddenly all of them moved into the room, burying hir in hugs and lick-kisses to show their appreciation for hir music. After the surprised chakat returned the hugs and kisses, a few unexpected tears slipped from hir eyes. The cubs then proceeded to drag hir and hir new harp to the main lounge where the rest of their families were congregating.

Windsong's harp

After moving one of the taur pads to the middle of the room for hir, the cubs insisted shi play some more.

Smiling, Windsong started playing an even older tune shi’d learned called "Oh Danny Boy’. With hir lyrics little more than a whisper to the kits, hir mother passed Neal an unsealed envelope. After reading the message Neal raised an eyebrow at hir, Silverpelt gave him a shrug and a smile in return. Neal then passed the note to Weaver, who read it, and then she looked over at the singer surrounded by cubs. Turning back to Neal, she gave him a nod.

Windsong’s last song was another lullaby; with the long day the cubs had had, half of them were now asleep.

One of the little ones still up was Firestorm. Shi started to get up, only to be stopped by Neal’s hand on hir lower back.

"Sleepy time," he quietly told hir.

Shi then tried to crawl out from under his hand.

"Oh no you don’t," Neal told hir as he pulled hir into a hug. When shi tried to wiggle free, he wrapped his other arm around hir as well and said, "Five minutes. You stay awake five more minutes and you can go play, okay?"

Stormy looked like shi was going to protest, when Starblazer joined them. After a couple of lick-kisses, Star cuddled up with hir and closed her eyes. Stormy wasn’t far behind.

Weaver gave Neal a grin. "Water quenches fire," she whispered. At Midnight’s raised eyebrow she said, "Someone told us that they were like fire and water. It’s not hard to tell which is which."

Neal stroked the sleeping cubs as he whispered, "Star often cools Stormy down, but Stormy can occasionally stir Star up to the point that she’s boiling over with excitement."

"What are your plans now?" Forest asked.

Neal snorted. "You’re asking me?" Looking over at Weaver he asked, "What are my plans for this evening?"

"To keep to your schedule and still go to the beach you needed to take down two pods in the morning."

"Pods loaded, manifests checked and confirmed. We will test Alpha’s repairs before we take both shuttles down with a pod."

"You said you had a friend you trusted to unload them without your supervision."

"I’ve already talked to him, Samuel will meet us on arrival."

"I understand that Suzan and Forest baked plenty of breads to replace those ruined in the rain, as well as prepared us a little picnic basket. So the captain is off the hook until morning."

"So much for the easy part," Neal said, still stroking the cubs.

"Easy part?" Garrek asked.

"I feel I wear too many hats sometimes. The captain and quartermaster are done for the evening. As chief engineer, I’ve also checked over the repairs you helped the twins with, a very nice job by the way. With those ‘easy’ jobs out of the way, I’m just got the more challenging ones to do."

"And those are?" Windsong asked as shi put hir harp in its bag.

"Mate, companion, father, teacher…"

"Warrior," Zhanch added.

"Court jester when we need a lift," Calmmeadow said with a grin.

"Magician!" Holly said with a laugh. "We lost track of the number of jaw drops we got out of showing them Gulf."

"Do you regret having those other jobs?" Forest asked.

"No… I just sometimes worry that I’m not giving them the time they need." Looking around the room, Neal grinned as he added, "I’m just lucky my mates and older kids are as understanding as they are."

"In other words, we take turns!" Quickdash said with a laugh.

"So whose turn is it tonight?" Goldie asked with a grin.

Neal smiled. "I’m sure they’ll let me know."

"That’s always safest," Garrek agreed.

"What’s that suppose to mean?" Goldie asked, picking up a nearby pillow.

"When we are at Mountain Glade I have little choice but to bow to vixen rule," he reminded hir. "It sounds like the good captain has also found that to be the safest course of action."

Goldie nodded in agreement, but shi still bounced the pillow off Garrek’s head the moment he turned away.

Alex chuckled with the rest of them when Garrek gave hir a dirty look. "You forgot the third rule," he said with a grin. At Garrek’s confused look, he said, "Neal warned us male types of the three rules to get along with females and herms. Rule one, she, or shi is always right. Rule two, when they are wrong, refer to rule one."

"And rule three?" Garrek asked with a grin.

"If you ever find yourself winning an argument with them, apologize immediately!" Alex finished with a laugh before being pelted by all available pillows.

Neal chuckled. "The Pegasus was with us when I suddenly found I had more than one mate. I think Boyce’s firstwife, gave my ‘firstwife’ a few pointers on keeping peace in the family."

"You didn’t ask Tess?" Midnight asked with a grin, having been there to lend Weaver and the others hir views on sharing a co-mate.

Neal shook his head and shuddered. "I’ve found that there are some things safer left unknown, the workings of the female mind is high on that list."

As the others laughed at him, Neal snorted quietly. "Maybe we should put the cubs to bed before we wake them up again."

As they started carrying the cubs to the nursery, Garrek quickened his pace for a moment to catch up with Neal. "What are the chances of using one of your holosuites for a few hours?"

"Ask Tess, she knows who’s already asked for what." Neal grinned as he added, "If you want it for what I think you do, ask Tess for some echoes."

"Echoes?" Garrek asked, confused.

"You’ll figure it out," Neal assured him.

"Reminds me a bit of Dale," Goldie commented as they looked over their ‘echoes’, while the echoes seemed to look them over in turn. It didn’t help that the echo ‘Goldie’ had precisely matched hir words and gestures with only a slight delay.

Garrek was about to reply, but when moving his arm he bumped his echo’s arm into a nightstand. He then stared at his arm; he had felt that! He then walked himself and his echo up to each other, and gently brushed a hand across the other’s face. "Tess," he asked. "Is there a way to control my echo’s movement without me moving?"

"Of course," she replied. "You can use voice commands, move the echo in real time or with a delay you can set. You can also move it like a dummy, mirror echo, or swap."

"What’s ‘swap’?" Goldie asked - only to find hirself across the room. Hir echo was now where shi had been.

"Echo freeze," Garrek quickly said, grinning when his double froze in mid-word. He then stepped over to what was now Goldie’s echo, and ran his paw down hir backs. Both Goldie’s shuddered as he dragged a claw tip over sensitive spots. He then wrapped hir echo in a hug. Shi could feel his embrace, and returned it, watching hir echo trap him in hir hug.

He grinned as he said, "Echo swap." Moving the ‘him’ that Goldie’s echo didn’t have captured, he moved around to hug hir from behind. "Echo unfreeze, add two second delay," he said when he thought he was in the right position. Both ‘Garrek’s then began groping and lick kissing the chakat trapped between them.

Tired of feeling both of him all over hir while watching the action from across the room, Goldie quietly said, "Echo swap."

After a few more minutes of heavy petting, Garrek pulled away enough to grin at hir as he quietly said, "My dear, I think I see some very interesting possibilities…"


Chapter 8  


The party fragmented a bit as the cubs were put to bed. While Goldfur and Garrek checked out one of the smaller holosuites, Midnight and Forest had decided to call it an evening and had volunteered to sleep with the cubs. On hearing this, Leanna had tucked Opal and Mica into Midnight’s big top before dragging Kris and Trina towards their room, the grin on hir muzzle suggesting that they wouldn’t be sleeping any time soon. The twins had also dragged their new friend in the direction of the main holosuite. After hearing one of them say something about ‘stingers’, Shady had followed to help keep Windsong from getting in over hir head.

When Neal returned to the lounge, the only guests remaining were Silverpelt, hir sister, and their mates. A moment later, Suzan joined Neal as he plopped down on a low couch; a quick tickle-fight erupting before they settled into a comfortable hug.

Silverpelt grinned at the pair. "And here I thought he was in hot water for making you all that extra work."

Suzan grinned back as she said, "Oh, I have no problem with Neal bringing home friends for a meal, but the ‘ship’s cook’ will sometimes get after the ‘captain’ for not giving her sufficient notice."

Desertsand snorted as shi asked, "How do you know when it’s safe to play-act? He could have been trying to impress someone important."

"First, Tess was good enough to tell me where he was calling from. Second, he asked for ‘the cook’. That told me I could play it as I pleased. Since I really would have preferred to cruise the local markets first, I voiced a little of my annoyance at him. From what I heard, either Midnight fell for it too, or shi was helping set the rest of you up to take the fall."

"So we shouldn’t believe anything while we’re here?" Fireglow asked with a frown.

Shortdash chuckled. "The rule of thumb for this ship is: ‘Is it really important?’ If the answer is no, then good luck getting a straight answer out of this group. If on the other paw it is important, you will find they don’t play around."

Quickwind snorted as shi added, "Proof that it is contagious, my mate didn’t add that the question of importance is gauged by the one asked, not the asker."

Desertsand turned to Silverpelt and asked, "Does that note you passed to our host fall under the category of important?"

"I think so," Silverpelt said with a nod. "I just hope the captain thinks so too."

Neal was about to answer, when they all jerked a little from a sudden mental jolt.

Longstripe was the first to speak, though shi was fighting back a chuckle, "That was Goldie! Five credits says shi just got goosed!"

"No bet," Neal replied. "But, could you tell if it was intentional, accidental, or did shi manage to goose hirself?"

"How could shi goose hirself?" Longstripe wondered.

"I had suggested to Garrek that they try out some echoes," Neal said with a grin. "You will feel what they feel, and they can be made to move as you do. So if Goldfur’s echo was close to hir own hindquarters when shi took a swipe at Garrek, and he dodged out of the way…."

"What a delightfully evil toy!" Silverpelt exclaimed, laughing as shi tightened hir hug on hir mate. "Is there a free room where we can try them out?"

"Be patient, love, I’m still waiting for him to answer our question," Fireglow told hir.

"Patience my tail!" Silverpelt exclaimed. "If I understand this correctly, your echo can’t knock me up, but we can still enjoy you in me!"

Tess spoke up before Fireglow could try again to calm hir mate. "A room for eight has been reserved for you whenever you are ready for it."

"Eight?" Silverpelt said in surprise.

"Your words and actions earlier suggested that your sister and hir mate would be joining you tonight. If all four of you wish to play with your echoes, you will need a little more room."

Desertsand raised hir hand before Silverpelt could start dragging hir mate out of the room. With a smile shi said, "As you can see, my sister can sometimes be easily distracted when shi comes into heat. I fear it's something of a family tradition. But before we go play, what was that note about?"

"Admiral Kline sent that to us just before we left Chakona," Fireglow explained. "We weren’t too sure about it initially, but having meet Neal and his ‘crew’ we are starting to think Boyce’s idea has merit."

"Which is?" Longstripe prodded.

"To have Neal take Windsong to hir first Star Fleet station. Shi was originally scheduled to take a Star Fleet cargo ship, but Boyce suggested the Folly as an alternate possibility."

Silverpelt nodded. "And with the way shi’s acting, we decided to ask about the option."

"I had not noticed anything unusual about hir," Desertsand commented.

Silverpelt frowned a little as shi said, "Something about hir has changed since shi went to that school in North America. A little over two years ago hir cheerful messages stopped for over a month. Then they started up again, but the cheerfulness seemed to be forced, almost as if shi was trying to hide something. Shi brushed off our questions and we let it go at the time. But now that we can feel hir, we can sense a barrier, almost like shi is afraid we might find out something shi wishes to keep a secret from us."

"I was wondering about that," Shortdash said. "Windsong seems to be holding up a mental block to try to keep hir family from reading hir too deeply. A much weaker shield is directed at the rest of the chakats that might try to read hir. Neal and our ‘twins’ got through because shi wasn’t expecting them to be able to sense, much less read hir."

Weaver frowned. "Did shi raise hir barriers once shi knew they could get to hir?"

"Not really," Shortdash said with a chuckle. "Shi stopped trying to read Neal when he scorched hir tail, but he was still able to get through with physical contact. As for the twins, shi had opened up a little while they were washing hir. The physical contact and Quickdash’s bull-headedness kept hir from getting hir barriers back up."

"I seem to remember hearing you saying something to the effect that that attribute was the fault of hir first adopted father," Weaver said with a grin.

Shortdash gave first Weaver and then Neal dirty looks while hir mate chuckled. "Pot, meet kettle," Quickwind laughed as hir mate turned hir glare on hir. "Neal may have helped bring it out, but you have to admit that ‘bull-headedness’ runs in the family."

"What are you doing Neal?" Silverpelt asked, having noticed that Neal seemed preoccupied.

"Along with asking if I would give your daughter a ride, Boyce added a few access codes. One of them includes access to certain Star Fleet records in which Tess has already found a medical reference to Windsong." Neal’s voice hardened a little as he continued, "It seems shi was badly injured about that time. The full details are under a privacy seal." He didn’t add that Tess had also found that there had been a lot of furs hurt in a riot in a town bordering the school Windsong had been attending just hours before shi had been admitted to the hospital.

"Why would shi try to hide something like that?" Silverpelt wondered, feeling hurt.

"What would you have done if you had known?" Neal asked hir. "Would you have tried to pull hir out of school and drag hir back to Chakona?"

"I… we…" Silverpelt sputtered as hir mate sadly nodded.

"The other glaring omission is that no psychological testing was done as part of hir treatment and recovery. In fact three doctors placed in hir records that shi refused to be tested." Neal frowned a little more as he continued; "Perhaps shi feared the loss of hir scholarship if they didn’t like what the tests said about hir mental state after whatever happened."

"Why do you see that as an omission?" Shortdash asked.

Neal snorted. "Star Fleet took a very close look at the mental health of my kids after the New Kiev incident. They either liked, or were confused by what they found, because they then ran me through the wringer."

"I somehow find that hard to believe," Shortdash said with a small snort of amusement of hir own.

"It’s true," Weaver told hir with a grin. "They asked us to drag him down to Pegasus's main sickbay. Once there, they knocked him out and a skunktaur did what hy said was a little ‘light reading’."

"And they still let him loose?" Shortdash laughed, only half joking.

"They seemed to think he was more traceable with others to look out for." Weaver grinned a little wider as she added, "What seemed to scare them a little was what Neal might have done if he hadn’t had us to think about."

At the stares he was getting, Neal shrugged. "The most dangerous thing out there is someone that believes that he has nothing to lose."

"What about your colonies?" Quickwind asked. "Don’t they still need you?"

"Not really. My death and the loss of the Folly would be a major setback, but the colonies would be fine. Some of the progress on the existing ones would be delayed a bit, and the new ones might start up a year or two later than currently planned, but I have enough help that they can do it without me if needed."

Suzan pulled him back into her hug with a growl. "You promised to help me raise these two," she reminded him.

"I did, and I intend to," Neal agreed while returning her hug.

"So no more talk of doom and gloom!" she said as she poked him in the ribs.

"Yes dear," he replied before he made her squirm with a tickle.

"So will you take hir?" Fireglow asked.

Neal was quiet for a moment before slowly nodding. "We’ll take hir. If we can’t get hir out of hir shell, perhaps whoever we find to help Shady will be able to help Windy as well."

"Is that the only reason?" Desertsand asked with a raised eyebrow.

"That, and I’m sometimes a sucker for stray kittens," he admitted with a grin.

Fireglow nodded. "One word of warning, shi prefers Song to Windy."

"I’ll take that under advisement," Neal said, his grin turning evil.

While all the cubs had been taken to the nursery, not all of them had thought it was bedtime just yet. Stonefur, Ember and Markus had been carried in and were still asleep, Windrunner had awakened just long enough to crawl over to hir mother before going back to sleep. Patchwork and Snowcloud on the other paw, were still wide awake and getting bored. Snowcloud started to get up, only to be stopped by a tail trying to nudge hir back down. Shi turned to complain, but stopped when shi saw it was DarkStreak. DarkStreak simply held up a paw for silence as shi watched Midnight and Forest. Deciding their slumber was deep enough, shi and Spitfire headed for the door, only pausing to grab their comm badges. Patchwork and Snowcloud made to follow them, only to be stopped by Spitfire, shi was pointing at the pile of badges. Silently grumbling, they each grabbed a badge and followed them out of the room.

"They’ll be cranky in the morning," Forest mumbled into Midnight’s fur.

"They can nap on the way to the beach," Midnight replied, as shi let hirself drift off to sleep.

Once they were around a couple of corners, the cubs stopped for a moment.

"What’s the big idea? The ship can track you with these things!" Snowcloud said as shi waved hir badge around.

"Tess can track us without them," DarkStreak replied. "If you had left it behind it would have set off an alarm when we left the room."

"And I think I have hirs," Patchwork said, sniffing hir badge.

"That’s all right," Tess said, shocking their visitors. "I can tell who is wearing which badge. Now, what are you four up too?"

"They were going to play stinger tag, and we want to play too!" Spitfire said, referring to the twins.

"Well, they are already having entirely too much fun at Windsong’s expense. Tell you what, you go in on Windsong’s side and I’ll pretend I didn’t see you sneaking out. Deal?"

"Deal!" they chorused as they ran down the corridors.

Silverpelt was trying to coax hir mate back to their waiting ‘room for eight’ when shi heard the soft thumps of fast moving cubs. Turning to Neal, shi said, "That was…."

Having just been warned by Tess, Neal grinned as he finished, "… a couple of ours, and a couple of yours. I think they’re heading for a game of tailstinger tag."

"Should we send them back to bed?" Desertsand asked.

Neal shook his head. "No, let them play themselves tired. Tess will keep an eye on them." Checking a note in his glasses he added, "They’re around the corner already, so it’s safe for you to sneak out."

A little while after having seen his guests to their room, Neal was heading for his cabin when Tess paged him.

From the intermittent wash of feelings that he had been getting since the groups had gone their separate ways, Neal had started to wonder if some of his crew and guests were competing for the night’s high score. As he yawned, he asked Tess what else needed his attention.

"I just thought you would like to welcome your latest guest onboard," she said.

"I don’t remember asking anyone else to join us," Neal said slowly, trying to think of what – or whom – he might have overlooked.

"Midnight sent the invitation; I understand hir guest had to do a little packing before joining us."

"And you didn’t see this as noteworthy?"

"You did say you didn’t mind pleasant surprises," she reminded him.

The small personnel shuttle docked at the port Neal had been closest to, and its sole occupant stepped into the airlock.

The skunktaur was in male mode. As hy stepped out of the airlock, hy gave the tired looking Neal a grin. "Burning the midnight oil again, I see. I had thought that all of your mates would have tied you down by now." As Neal continued to just look at hym, hy smiled and added, "I was in female mode when last we met."

"Lighttouch," Neal acknowledged as he finally recognized hym, "What brings you calling? Not that I mind seeing you again."

"Since I was not sure I could break free in time, I asked Midnight not to mention I was coming. The reason for my calling is you, or rather your family. I understand Shadowcrest was hurt and might benefit from my services. Midnight gave me a few of the details, but knowing you I am sure that there is more to it."

As one of Tess’s carts came up to take hys luggage, Neal began filling Lighttouch in on Shadowcrest's situation, as well as the training Quickdash’s parents thought shi would be needing a little earlier than anticipated. He then told the skunktaur about Windsong and the reasons shi might soon be joining the Folly.

Lighttouch smiled to hymself as Neal rambled from point to point. He had been more than a little tense before he recognized the skunktaur, but he now seemed to be calming down now that he thought he might have a possible solution to some of his more time sensitive problems.

As Neal wound down, Lighttouch asked, "I would be happy to help with the twins and Shadowcrest. Are they still up?"

"They are currently tail-stinging each other and Windsong. Did you want to talk to them, or just observe?" Neal asked.

"Observation will do for now," hy replied.

Neal led hym to a small holodeck and asked Tess for a chair and a taur pad. Once they were comfortable, Neal asked her for a ‘magic mirror’. The view changed to one of the forest in the other holodeck. They could each look down into a small display and see where everyone was, they could then use it to shift their views to wherever they liked.

They watched as the youngsters tried to out-fox each other. Shadowcrest was walking though the underbrush, making just enough noise to make hirself easy to track. Windsong laid in wait for the twins, only the tip of hir tail twitching in anticipation. The twins though, had spotted the trap, and were now silently sneaking up on Windsong. Behind them were the four cubs; they had already paired off to take the twins.

Neal chuckled as everyone got into position. "This is when I’m always tempted to have Tess make the audio go both ways and clap my hands."

Lighttouch grinned. "So what is stopping you?"

"Payback, among other things," Neal replied with a matching grin. "I’m trying to teach them the old ‘do unto others’ and not the ‘do as I say, not as I do’."

"And this?" Lighttouch asked, as the players seemed to be almost ready to spring their surprises.

Neal nodded. "I know that DarkStreak would have had Patchwork and Snowcloud try the tailstingers on themselves so they know what they are doing to the twins. And if Forest is anything like Midnight, shi has taught those two that what goes around, comes around."

Tess quietly interrupted with, "They also did a little practice stalking in one of the other holodecks, so while this is the first time they have gone after the twins, they have been ‘stung’. I heard Spitfire warning Snowcloud that the twins won’t hurt them for their sneak attack, but they will get even. Spitfire then suggested they let the twins get even with them tonight, shi wants it over and done with."

The moment had arrived. Thinking shi had heard something, Windsong had stepped just a little ways out of hir concealment. Not making a sound, the twins stood as one, and fired at the copper-toned tail. Windsong seemed to levitate as shi shrieked in surprise, hir tail spreading into a nice imitation of a bottlebrush. The cubs then bounded out of their concealment, nailing the tails of the twins. Windsong spun around in surprise as hir attackers shrieked in return. As shi brought hir stinger to bear on Holly’s fluffed out tail, Windsong saw Snowcloud and Spitfire dodging back into the underbrush.

"Shady!" Quickdash yelled as hir tail bottle brushed just as Windsong’s had a moment ago.

"No fair using two stingers!" Holly added, thinking their big sister had managed to nail them both at the same time.

As the twins headed in the direction they thought the shots had come from, Windsong gave chase with a grin. If they were looking for one very large chakat, a sneaky cub or two would probably go unnoticed.

Lighttouch and Neal watched as the twins ran past the hidden cubs, who then gave chase, ignoring Windsong. The twins were ‘tail stung’ several more times as they tried to find Shadowcrest and retaliate, but shi wasn’t anywhere they looked.

Holly was turning to return fire on Windsong, only to find that shi was still firing at Quickdash. Looking harder at the underbrush, she spotted Snowcloud popping up for another shot. "Quickdash! Cub infestation!" she cried as she fired on Snowcloud before the cub could duck back under cover.

The next few minutes were a free-for-all as the groups split, everyone being targeted by everyone else. The twins finally found (and tailstung!) all four cubs, then they, the cubs, and Windsong went in search of Shadowcrest. They were passing under one of the large trees when several water balloons dropped from above, getting headshots on two of the older three and spraying the little ones with near misses.

Patchwork started to aim hir stinger at the treed chakat, only to have DarkStreak bat it down with hir tail. "It’s wet!" shi explained, "You might get zapped too!"

Noticing that no one else had tried to fire, Patchwork nodded and lowered hir arm.

Once shi was down, Shady gave them all a grin as shi said, "No hits on my tail, and I didn’t have to fire a shot!"

Noticing the lack of hir suppresser belt, Quickdash asked, "That’s an echo, isn’t it?" At Shady’s nod, Quickdash dropped hir stinger and leaped at the much larger chakat. Holly, DarkStreak and Spitfire were right behind hir.

Having been asked to avoid physical contact with Shady, Windsong, Patchwork and Snowcloud watched in confusion, as Shady was tickle-attacked by the others. Tess quietly explained how the echoes worked, and that this Shady was safe to attack.

No matter the size, seven against one is a losing proposition for the one. Fighting to speak through hir laughter, Shady gasped, "Enough! I have to go on watch in a few minutes!" when the others just redoubled their efforts, shi called out, "Tess! Cancel echo!" A moment later shi vanished from the holodeck.

As the rest fell into the space Shady had been just a moment ago, Patchwork demanded, "Let’s go after hir!"

Giving Windsong a wink, Quickdash said, "No, shi’ll be expecting that. Let’s pretend to be tired and head for our room. We can lie there and let hir think we’ve fallen asleep. Then we’ll get hir!"

The cubs just thought they were ‘acting’ tired, but by the time they reached the twins’ room they were actually dragging a little. The twins trapped Windsong on the large bed with the cubs, which they then blocked in with themselves. Windsong's last thought was to wonder if Quickdash had been pushing the idea of being tired at hir as well as the cubs….

When Shadowcrest arrived on the active bridge, shi found Neal and Lighttouch waiting for hir. Neal left soon after, having asked Shady to let Lighttouch help hir if hy could. The two spent most of hir shift talking while they probed hir new strengths and weaknesses.

Healthy Kestrel Sick Kestrel

Neal was paged yet again by Tess, this time to tell him that his toothbrush had been moved, and that he was expected to join it. He soon found himself in the suite of rooms the Rakshani had taken over after being processed. Across the room there were a row of clocks, each with a different time. One was real time for the main star port on Raksha, in their equivalent of minutes /hours /days /weeks /months and year. The next one had changed itself to match the clock and time of the port they were currently using. The last was an old twenty-four hour clock that the Folly used for ship time. The last two reminded Neal that just a day before they had been synchronized with the opposite side of the planet.

Kestrel was waiting for him on one of the love seats. An unwanted memory flashed through Neal’s tired mind of the way she had looked being wheeled into the Pegasus's sickbay. Her easy grin helped dispel the memory; she was over that event and had moved on. Something about her grin as she got up to drag him to her room also pushed away some of the weariness Neal had been feeling.

The early morning light of Melbourne saw the Folly’s two heavy lift shuttles each gently set a pod in the freight unloading area. Forest and family had been awakened after everything was ready for them to depart. Neal and a couple of the kids had tested Alpha before getting both shuttles loaded with the picnic supplies and guests. The cubs were wakened just long enough for a restroom stop, then carried or led to the shuttles where they were allowed to go back to sleep.

Midnight kept an eye on the still sleepy cubs. Littleroar was snugly tucked away in hir ‘big top’, the adjustable straps holding hir just under hir mother’s breasts. The day before there had been a little confusion the first time Littleroar had needed to relieve hirself. Shi had come out of the restroom still full and very unhappy that shi hadn’t found a sandbox to go in. Firestorm had beat Midnight to the distressed cub and led hir back into the restroom. Midnight had not been in this restroom yet, and had let out a chuckle when shi saw it. Behind the standard taur facility, there were several brightly colored boards hanging from the wall, as well as a ramp with different colored steps. Stormy had led Littleroar up to the ramp, and then placed hir hand-paw on the first of the colored steps. One by one, the boards came down off the wall, on their topsides were taur toilet tops, each smaller than the one before. The topmost was tiny, just the right size for a cub that knew when shi needed to go. Stormy led hir the rest of the way up the ramp, and helped hir position hirself for the first time. After shi was done, Stormy showed hir the flush button, before leading hir to the side of the ramp. Here shi leaned on the counterweights, and one by one, the seats rose back into their out of the way positions.

Watching as Littleroar now brought the seats down again, this time in play instead of need, Midnight muttered, "Great, now shi’ll want one of these at home."

"That can be arranged," Tess told hir. "Shall I have one taken down with the loads tomorrow?"

"Let me think on it," Midnight had told her.

Shi now looked around the shuttle as shi heard the power systems winding down after the landing.

Shi smiled as shi looked in one of the corners. Neal had seen to the shuttle testing before shi was awakened, and had picked that corner to nap away the short trip to the surface. He had been joined by Stormy and Star. With the exception of Shady, the tailstinger crowd was curled up in another corner. Shady and Lighttouch were laying side by side, and if not for the occasional stray thought or feeling shi could sense, Midnight would have thought they were asleep as well.

A small fleet of taur-sized rental vans pulled up and were loaded as Neal talked to Samuel, who turned out to be a five foot six red squirrel. "It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you carrying passengers," he commented as he watched them packing the vans.

Moonglow overheard them, and called out, "I’m no passenger, I’m his mate! Well, one of them anyway," shi added with a grin.

The squirrel looked over towards Neal with a surprised expression. "Mates? I thought you told me mates were for fools that…" Samuel started before Neal could shut him up.

"WHAT!?!" Moonglow demanded, hir grin turning evil. "What was this he said about mates and fools?"

Wenfrec's outfit

Neal was saved from hearing what Samuel might have come up with by the arrival of a Rakshani female. She was dressed in an outfit common to many civilian ship crews, this one being an off green and showing no pins or badges to suggest who she was or had previously worked for. She looked a little intimidated by the crowd of furs around the cargo pod, but she all but marched up to Neal, and came to something that resembled ‘attention’ a little too much. She didn’t quite bark out, "Captain Foster! I am Wenfrec ap Pulan na Shazbot. I am seeking passage to Chakona. I am a skilled pilot and navigator."

As the Rakshani spoke, Neal’s glasses darkened slightly as Tess reported what her scans were finding. The weapon in her holster had been made to look like a common Rakshan heavy stunner, but was in fact a phaser. A hidden flap on the back of the holster also hid an alternate ID card. Her belt also concealed several memory chips, one of which seemed to have a Star Fleet security seal on it.

More then a little curious, Neal decided to play along – sort of. "Well, I’m not really hurting for pilots, and we haven’t gotten lost recently," he said scratching his head, "but we are heading to Chakona if what you’re really after is a ride."

Wenfrec nodded cautiously; this was not going at all as her briefing had suggested it should.

" ’Course, we’ll have to see if you can fit in without stirring up too much trouble, so pick a van and climb in," Neal said with a grin.

Definitely not as per her briefing, Wenfrec thought as she soon found herself trapped in a taur van full of chakats heading away from the spaceport.

Shortdash gave Midnight a wink as they started quizzing their guest. Both had tuned into the fact that the Rakshani was reading off what was now a broken script. As Wenfrec had to make up more of a story than she had thought she would need for just the Folly’s captain, she started making mistakes – mistakes that the others didn’t bother to point out, wondering just how far she would go to spin her false tale.

While hir mate and Shortdash double-teamed their victim, Forest had been carefully gauging Wenfrec’s mental state. While the Rakshani was starting to worry that her story would soon unravel, she wasn’t too concerned with them because she thought it was Neal she would have to convince.

Shortdash looked over at Midnight, and got a nod. Shi grinned as shi dropped their pretence of idle questions. "An interesting tale, Wenfrec. Or should I say ‘Lieutenant’?"

"I don’t know what you are talking about," Wenfrec said, shaken by hir guess.

"Give it up," Midnight softly told her as Littleroar popped out of hir top for a quick nuzzle. "I’m a Star Fleet Lieutenant Commander, and my companion interrogator holds a similar position in Star Corps."

Shortdash nodded before adding, "And the Folly has both branches represented, so we will know what you’re up to – sooner or later."

Wenfrec sagged a little. This was not how she had envisioned this mission starting! She was trying to think of an excuse that wouldn’t dig her pit any deeper, when she felt something touch her forearm. The tiny chakat from Midnight’s top had climbed down and was now looking up at her as shi patted her arm. As she stroked Littleroar, she looked at Midnight, more than a little surprised to see hir grinning.

"No, Lieutenant, we weren’t waiting in ambush for you. You just happened into us heading for a quiet day on the beach," Midnight said with a smile. "May I ask how old your briefing data was?"

"My information is for the captain of the Folly," Wenfrec said, trying to stick to some part of her orders.

Shortdash’s comm badge chirped and the voice of the human she had spoken to earlier said, "He’s been listening, go ahead Lieutenant Wenfrec."

"I am not going to discuss classified information over an unsecured channel, sir," she stated, getting nervous as she realized that her conversation with the chakats had gone farther than she had known.

"As you will, Lieutenant," the voice said before falling silent.

A few minutes more found them paralleling the beach. Neal was in the lead PTV and he let the cubs pick out where their small convoy would pull over.

The cubs picked a wide flat expanse between two dunes for their beach party.

While the cubs ran for the water (some to quickly come running back when they discovered this water ‘attacks’ back!), the rest dragged, rolled and carried the supplies a little closer to the water.

Wenfrec found herself helping drag one of several barbecue grills that had been stashed in the backs of a couple of the vans, a rabbit doe and the leopard-spotted chakat directing their placement. Having completed the task they had asked of her, she turned to hunt down the human, only to freeze when she found him almost behind her, a very large projectile weapon in each hand.

Neal pretended to not notice to shock in the Rakshani’s eyes as he offered her one of the weapons. "Care to try a little skeet shooting?" he asked with a grin.

Midnight watched the exchange with interest as shi joined them. "I didn’t know skeet was on the menu," shi said giving Neal a long look. "Nor do I remember us loading any weapons."

"Tess was kind enough to add a few party favorites when she noticed the PTV that was following our little convoy stopped a few klicks away, and they are breaking out some lethal toys of their own." Neal looked in that direction as he offered hir the other weapon. "I’m hoping that seeing we’re not helpless might deter them."

"And if it doesn’t?" Midnight asked as shi examined the shotgun Neal had handed hir.

"Then we try something different," Neal said with a smile.

The launchers would fire three of the clay disks at a time; they were aimed out over the water to reduce chances of anyone being hit by stray shot.

Neal had gone first. The first two targets had shattered quite nicely, but he only knocked a small piece out of the third.

After teasing Neal, both Zhanch and Dessa took out all three of their targets.

The only shooters to miss all three of their targets were Shadowcrest and Wenfrec; both were then given a little instruction on leading their targets and allowed to try again.

Halfway through the third set, Midnight sidled up to Neal. "Did it work?" shi asked, having seen a strange head pop up a few times, but it hadn’t been seen for a while.

"Unfortunately not," Neal admitted. "I think they’re trying to wait until they think our guard is down."

"So what do we do?" shi asked.

"We eat!" he said with a grin.

The cubs had been snacking since they reached the beach; the rest of them now started looking to see what was for breakfast. Forest and Suzan had been busy; they now helped fill plates with food. As most of them sat or lay on blankets to eat, Dessa picked up her Rakshani-sized shotgun, and walked over the dune that the unknown head had been peering over.

Wenfrec had jumped up and grabbed the gun Neal had provided her; only to freeze as a command voice behind her said, "Stand down, Lieutenant!"

As she spun around to face Neal, she snarled, "You would have her face them alone?"

"Yes," Neal said a little quieter. "I am not foolish enough to insult a Rakshan marine by suggesting that she can’t handle a few roughnecks armed with rocks and sticks."

Wenfrec just stared at him for a moment, before looking to others for support. Most were eating or complimenting the cooks on the snacks. Only Midnight met her look, slowly shaking hir head ‘no’. She slowly sank back down, watching the others act like it was just another day.

She sat down next to Lighttouch. Hy swallowed hys mouthful of omelet and quietly said, "I do not even have to read you to know what you are thinking. And to most of those here, this is indeed ‘just another day’." As Wenfrec continued to stare at hym, Lighttouch continued, "A few days ago, Neal and his family were dodging loaded carriers that were being tipped over because some furs thought that Neal had killed furs on another planet. I am here because that large chakat sitting over there by hirself was partially crushed by one of those carriers. It may not look it, but shi was repaired. I was invited to help hir with a few mental challenges brought about by those repairs."

Looking at what appeared to be a very large chakat in perfect health, Wenfrec frowned as she said, "The more I hear and see, the less I believe."

They watched as a coppery colored chakat joined the one they had been discussing. Lighttouch grinned as hy added; "Here is another puzzle piece for you. Those two have a combined age of under forty Terran years." Getting up to get a pastry, hy said, "I will only add that the smaller is the older of the two."

Not noticing that they were being discussed, Windsong settled down next to Shadowcrest. Offering hir one of the small cakes shi had snagged, Windsong said, "I noticed you’ve turned off your belt."

Shadowcrest looked down to frown at the portable field generator. "My security blanket," shi mumbled around the cake. "Lighttouch showed me a lot last night, but I’m still not all that sure of myself."

"I know my cousin Forest knows more than shi’s telling, and Midnight is entirely too good at keeping secrets. So maybe you’ll explain to me why one minute your family treats you like an adult, the next like a youth."

"Because that’s what I am," Shadowcrest said with a grin. Hir grin widened slightly as shi watched Dessa walk back over the dune. There had been no shots and no shouts from over the dune while she had been gone. Shi noted that other than looking a little annoyed about something, Dessa looked pretty much as she always did. Shi turned back to Windsong, wondering if the other chakat had even noticed hir diverted attention.

Windsong had just looked at Shadowcrest for a few moments before finally saying, "Okay… that makes even less sense that a lot of the other stuff I’ve heard from and about your ‘family’."

Shadowcrest just grinned again as shi said, "You could say I am a youth, trapped in an adult body."

"Still a cub at heart?" Windsong asked smiling. "I can relate to that. Do you prefer Shadowcrest or Shady?"

"Either will do. I heard Neal call you ‘Windy’ earlier."

"I prefer Song or Windsong, but your captain does seem to like ‘Windy’," shi grumbled.

"From what we’ve gotten Tess to admit to, one of Neal’s other daughters was also nicknamed Windy."

"So he’s hoping I’m like his daughter?" Song asked with a laugh, shaking hir head.

"Probably not," Shady admitted. "The same database suggested that shi is still mad at him about something that happened a very long time ago."

Finishing hir cake, Song shook hir head as shi pondered Shady’s last comment and said, "We seem to have gotten off the subject of you thinking of yourself as an oversized cub."

Shady also finished hir cake before replying, "I will be twelve in about a month." Looking down into Song’s shocked expression shi added, "Less than a week ago I was maybe three quarters of your body mass. Neal’s Rakshani mates and I are examples of how the Folly does repairs to badly damaged furs."

Song involuntarily shivered at a thought shi tried to keep down as shi quietly asked, "Twelve? How badly were you injured?"

As shi had done for Midnight the day before, Shady turned and touched hir lower back. "This point back, crushed by a falling carrier."

Song bowed hir head and shivered again as unwanted memories of hir own past pain threatened to surface. Shi looked back up at Shady as the much larger chakat took hir by the shoulders. Shi was radiating concern and trying to offer comfort, but Song could feel that most of Shady’s energy was directed at forcing hirself to not dive into Song’s mind and see the problem directly.

They stared at each other for a moment before Shady asked, "You okay?" Shi released hir grip on Song when Song nodded.

Song just watched the larger chakat; shi had put up hir best barriers when shi felt Shady’s mental presence, but shi now knew that hir walls would have crumbled had Shady pushed even a little. "Thank you," shi quietly said. "Both for support, as well as not rooting through my memories."

Shady giggled. "That was the reason for the belt, to help keep me from accidentally seeing things I wasn’t trying to see. Before last night I didn’t dare touch anyone but the smaller cubs."

They continued to talk for a few minutes before Lighttouch wandered over to them. Settling hymself comfortably, hy asked, "Are you two okay? You seemed a little upset a moment ago."

Shady made a face at hym as shi replied, "And it took you this long to check on us?"

The skunktaur smiled. "You had seemed to have gotten over it, so I thought gauging our new Rakshani friend would be a more useful employment of my humble talents."

"And what did you find?" Shady asked with a grin.

"Only that she wishes that her current assignment made some kind of sense. It seems she is easily confused by Neal and a gaggle of furs that don’t seem to do things quite like everyone else."

"So… why was she sent?" Shady prodded when Lighttouch didn’t volunteer any more information.

"To hand deliver some information, as well as to protect the person she was to give that information to."

Windsong frowned as shi said, "I was under the impression that you don’t probe minds without permission."

Lighttouch grinned at hir as hy said, "Who said I was reading her mind?"

Shady had also grinned at Song’s query, shi now asked, "How do you think a non-telepath learns things without being told?"

"By using empathy."

"How about Weaver?" Shady asked, pointing hir muzzle at the foxtaur vixen. "She’s a solid E and T zero, yet she’s very good at reading between the lines."

Lighttouch chuckled. "Most of it is a natural talent at reading body language, but trying to keep up with Neal has certainly helped hone her skills."

"So you’re a natural telepath that reads body language instead of using your talents."

"You can not always use your other talents. As Shadowcrest’s belt demonstrates, your talents can be blocked. Accidents, injuries, or some types of trauma can also have an impact on our mental gifts and talents. Having some other means of gathering information can be useful."

"But others can fake their body language," Song insisted, trying to ignore some of the other parts of Lighttouch’s statement.

"Like Neal likes to hide his truths in lies?" Lighttouch countered, having heard about the tail scorching.

Windsong could only nod to that question. "I’m still trying to read between his lines, he’s one of the most confusing humans I’ve ever met." Shi chuckled softly to hirself before looking back at the others. "Funny, for all my training and high scores, it seems I’m always the one getting surprised. Though of late, at least some of those surprises have been pleasant ones." Shi looked from Lighttouch to Shady, a hesitant smile on hir muzzle.

When Lighttouch had gotten up to talk to the chakats, Wenfrec had gotten up to move over to where Dessa had sat down with a snack. "Why did you let him put you at risk that way?" she asked the younger looking Rakshani.

"What way would that be, youngling?" Dessa asked, a frown forming as she spoke.

"What do you mean by ‘youngling’, cub?"

"Hmmm, na Shazbot. Would you by chance have a grandmother named Bertif?"

"Great-grandmother," Wenfrec corrected, slowly nodding.

"I ‘cub-sat’ her a few times when their ship was in port," Dessa explained. She grinned at Wenfrec’s look of surprise. "We were both much younger then." Looking seriously at Wenfrec she added, "If you wish to have any real hope of surviving the Folly, you will need to learn to not take all things at face value."

Dessa lounging at the beach

"So I’m noticing," Wenfrec acknowledged, frowning slightly.

"As far as my walking over to ‘chat’ with an armed foe? Neal had already used his ship-based transporters to replace their power packs with something that wasn’t quite compatible with their weapons."

"So that’s what he meant when he said you were going up against someone armed with rocks and sticks."

"Like I said, don’t believe everything you think you see." Dessa told her as she got up to head over to where she had set up her umbrella and chair before the skeet shooting had started. She watched the surf for a minute before setting down her weapon and letting the sea and breeze lull her into a nap.

Wenfrec watched her relax. It had always surprised her how fast some people could change their alertness levels. She frowned slightly as she touched a stud on her ‘stunner’, the gentle vibration telling her that she had not been disarmed. Her frown deepened as she wondered at the seemingly random levels of security. They had left a complete stranger armed in the middle of their camp, and yet they disarmed another group before they even got into range. She remained where she was, pondering the logic – or lack thereof.

Lighttouch nodded in the direction of the two Rakshani. "Just watching their faces and ears, you could see Dessa was rubbing Wenfrec’s muzzle in something she did not care for. Her change in body language suggests that she is now showing Dessa more respect, so it may have been age or rank related."

"Wenfrec does look like she would make a poor poker player," Shady agreed, having also noticed the rapid changes in expression and demeanor.

Windsong shook hir head. "I’m glad I’m not the only one having problems figuring you guys out. Maybe she and I should compare notes later."

The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent enjoying the sun, sand and waves. A few sandcastles were built, but none of them survived long as it turned out that Littleroar loved to ‘help’ Opal and Mica knock them down. Neal had fallen asleep under one of the large umbrellas, only to wake and find his arms and legs buried under large mounds of sand. Weaver had then taken the opportunity to ‘win’ a tickle fight while her mate was helpless.

While shi hadn’t participated in the skeet shooting, Windsong did ask Tess to fabricate and beam down some weapons that were more to hir liking. Tess sent down a long bow as well as a compound bow, a few dozen target arrows, a quiver with a harness for hir lower torso, and a pair of targets. Windsong then prepared to demonstrate that harp strings weren’t the only things shi knew how to pluck.

Shi quickly set up the two targets a few paces apart and secured them into the firm beach sand.  After stepping back to hir firing line, shi carefully planted each target arrow into the sand next to hir before shi reached out and lifted the longbow.

Windsong shows hir skill with the bow and arrow

Holding it in front of hir, shi pulled the string back against hir muzzle several times before slowly letting the string relax. Choosing an arrow, shi pulled back the string to fire – only to slowly release the tension without firing. Shi reached up and rubbed the side of hir right breast. The string had brushed against it and reminded hir of one more thing shi needed.

Tapping hir badge again, shi said, "Tess? I need one more thing. Could you make a leather bustier for me?  I need something to protect my breast and nipple from the string?"

"Of course I can, Windsong," Tess acknowledged. "Would you prefer one with a bit of padding, or will reinforced leather be sufficient?"

"No padding, but some metal bracing inside the bustier will help in case I slip and whip the string across my breast."

A polished brown bustier materialized in Windsong's hands. After putting it on, shi grinned at the curious looks shi was getting. "Trust me, looking silly is worth it compared to the pain a bowstring across the breast can deliver."

Windsong notched the arrow again and pulled back the string, a gust of the breeze across hir muzzle causing hir to automatically correct a little more for the wind before shi released the string. Without looking away from the target shi reached for, notched and fired the next arrow, and then the next. Hir concentration was only broken when shi reached out and hir hand did not encounter another arrow.

Looking around, shi found most of the group watching hir with open curiosity.

Shady was first to break the silence, "What were you thinking about just now? You seemed to be locked on the goal of killing that poor target." Shi didn’t add that the only other time shi had ever seen anyone so focused on mayhem was in the minutes before Firestorm was born.

Mentally pushing back unpleasant memories shi didn’t want to acknowledge, Windsong tried to give them a reassuring smile. "Nothing at all. I just cleared my mind of all other distractions."

Shady nodded, though shi didn’t believe Song. There had been almost a hatred emanating from hir while shi had ‘concentrated’ on the target. Deciding to leave it for later, Shady looked at the target with its tight cluster of feathered shafts. "Nice grouping," shi said. "May I try?"

As Shady and the others took turns trying to hit the target with the gusting crosswind from the sea adding to the challenge, the cubs were offered foam-tipped darts to throw at a target and each other. This was fine until one of the cubs discovered that a tip saturated with seawater not only went further, it also ‘splatted’ nicely on the victim.

"What do you mean?" Wenfrec demanded, her eyes going wide as her claws came out involuntarily. Zhanch had just asked Neal if he was going to paint the main lounge in his Rakshani house colors.

"The Folly is run by the house of Foster, Neal is the head of that house," Zhanch explained. "It shouldn’t be a problem. Many Rakshani have served houses other than their own before."

Wenfrec shuddered before answering, "But a head of a house can not serve under the head of another house!"

Zhanch stared at the other Rakshani. "You are the head of your house?" she asked, unable to hide her surprise.

Wenfrec nodded without looking at Zhanch. "Our house runs the freighter Sharp Claw. It is almost a year overdue. All that is left of my house is myself and three younger cousins." Looking up at Zhanch, she said, "I will not surrender my house!" A little quieter she added, "Not while there may still be a chance that they are alive."

"I have no intention of taking your house from you, Wenfrec," Neal quietly told her.

"You will have no choice in the matter!" Wenfrec growled at him. "One head of house under another dissolves the lesser house. Our laws are very strict on this – it keeps a house from controlling other houses."

"Head of a Rakshani house was thrust on me by surprise, so I am still learning all the rules," Neal explained to her. "As a head of house, could you answer a few questions for me?" At her nod, he asked, "Are the heads of houses exempt from military duty?" She shook her head. "How do they normally keep one head of a house from being over another?"

"A subordinate is chosen to command the lower ranking head of house; the two only communicate commands through the subordinate."

"So if I were to put Zhanch in charge of you, that would satisfy the letter of the law?"

"In most cases, yes," Wenfrec agreed. "But your ship is part of your house and under your direct command and control, and thus I am directly under you again."

"How does a head of house visit another?" Neal asked, still trying to find a way around the new laws he found uncomfortably binding him.

"A short visit is acceptable, but not a long stay under the roof of another house. Sometimes a house will designate an area or a building as open to all the houses. This place allows other houses to meet and stay without the heads of the houses having to sign agreements, or risk being absorbed by others."

Neal sat back for a minute thinking. It was Shortdash that next spoke. "I was told the forward section of the Folly was going to become a new space station, and it would be run mainly by Rakshani… correct?"

Neal slowly nodded. "So I would have had to claim the whole thing house neutral anyway. Hmmm, no reason I couldn’t do that here and now." Looking at Wenfrec, he asked, "Will that satisfy the letter as well as the spirit of the law?"

Wenfrec slowly nodded. "I think you have found a way to let me come aboard without taking away my house," she acknowledged. "Thank you," she quietly added.

"No, thank you. I would have walked blindly into that trap without you."

"So, am I welcome aboard the Folly?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Well, there are a couple of tests that prospective crew members must pass," Neal admitted.

"I can pass any test you set before me!" Wenfrec declared.

Neal smiled as he said, "Excellent! Your first test will be a ‘little’ one, or in this case, the little ones. The rest of us thank you for your generous offer to cub-sit."

Neal ignored her look of shocked surprise and turned to the cubs that had been waiting patiently for the grown-ups to settle whatever they were doing. Smiling at them, he waved at Wenfrec. "She’s all yours. Try not to break her," he said as he left the Rakshani to her fate.

Shortdash turned hir head quickly, hoping Wenfrec wouldn’t see hir grin. She’d had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look as the cubs had started heading for her.

Silverpelt and Fireglow led Windsong a little ways down the beach, away from the others.

Fireglow started by handing Windsong the message they had received from Admiral Kline. After giving hir time to read it and think on it, Fireglow quietly said, "We think you should seriously consider the idea. We have already asked Neal about it. His response was somewhere between ‘what’s one more furball?’ and ‘the more – the merrier!’"

"There is a lot more to Neal, his ship, and his crew than meets the eye," Windsong pointed out.

"So we’ve noticed," Silverpelt agreed with a nod. "But what we’ve seen so far suggests that this is not necessarily a bad thing. And I don’t think his ‘crew’ would be half this cheerful if he treated them poorly."

Fireglow also nodded in agreement. "You don’t need to decide right now. From what Neal was saying, the Folly will be moving cargo for another week before moving on. That should give you a better feel for them and whether you will want to travel with them. Your other ride was going to take a week longer to get here anyway, so you have the time to get a feel for them before you decide."

"I will need to get my stuff from Starbase One. They’re holding it for my original transport, the Sojourner Truth, I think…" Windsong thought out loud. Shi finally nodded to hir parents. "I’ll consider it."

"That’s all we could ask," Silverpelt said.

A morning of playing hard on the beach had made for a hungry crowd when lunch was ready – especially those that had been downwind of the cooking. Neal had been amused to note that Goldfur’s family had kept hir from ‘helping’ with the meal preparations almost as energetically as his family had kept Weaver occupied and away from the grills.

Most were now sleeping off lunch when Weaver heard Neal’s earplug emit a tone she hadn’t heard from it before. "What is it?" she asked as she noticed that several of the chakats and Lighttouch had also reacted to the tone, even though they had not been close enough to hear it.

"It seems someone thought that with me on the surface, the Folly would be unprotected," he said with a frown. Tess was relaying her scans for him to see the possible threat. Fourteen objects had detached from a slow passing ship and were now drifting towards the Folly. "Tess, patch me through to Starbase One. I need someone in operations."

"Yes, boss," Tess replied.

"This is Lieutenant Peterson in operations. What can we do for you, Folly?"

"You can tell me if Star Fleet has any training exercises going on in the area of my ship," Neal told him.

"Such information would be classified, Folly."

"The reason I ask is because my passive sensors have picked up inbound objects. If they are yours, I’ll be happy to send them back. Otherwise I might just consider pitching them so they skip through the upper atmosphere a few times. Your call, Lieutenant."

It was almost a full minute before the lieutenant replied, "Folly, we have nothing in your area. That being said, we would be interested in those objects ourselves."

"Understood. I’ll keep them out of trouble while you send someone to collect them," Neal agreed. "Tess, shields and tractor beam fun."

"Sure thing, boss," Tess replied. She brought up her primary shields and started using her tractor beams to shift the directions the objects were moving.

The objects didn’t like having their courses changed. Small thrusters first tried to put them back on course. When that failed, they tried stronger ones to break away from the Folly, only to find they too were useless against tractor beams capable of shifting fully loaded pods. By shifting which beams were shifting which object in which direction, Tess soon had them ‘orbiting’ the Folly in a high-speed dance, weaving them in and out of each other’s orbit.

By the time Star Fleet got a ship out to collect the objects, most of them were in no shape to resist; Tess had been making them waste thruster power to avoid ‘near misses’.

Neal watched on the remotes as Tess ‘tossed’ the objects one at a time into the other ship’s hold. Active scans had showed that each of the objects was a camouflaged powered-armor space suit with a human inside. As he watched the last one disappear into Star Fleet custody, Neal hoped they would at least inform him of who had sent them.

His answer came less than an hour later, Tess relaying the message from Starbase 1.

‘To Captain Foster of the Folly:

We thank you for alerting us to the objects you found approaching your ship; however we don’t have a lot of information for you at this time. The occupants of the suits appear to have planned to take a drug that would have made them difficult to interrogate if captured. Unfortunately, the drugs seem to have been tampered with and they are all dead. We believe this was done to keep them from talking. The suits themselves were decommissioned Star Fleet equipment, but there are irregularities on how the equipment was decommissioned. We will keep you updated as our inquiry progresses.

Lieutenant Peterson, Star Fleet Operations, out.’

Shortdash had been resting near Neal, and shi had had no problem hearing Tess relay the message to Neal. Watching Neal watch the surf, shi asked, "What do you think?"

"I think that will be the last report we hear on the matter." At hir raised eyebrow, Neal sighed. "You know how it goes – as more people get involved in it, someone of rank will order a lock down on information about it until they decide what to admit to."

Shortdash nodded, having been surprised that they had gotten as much as they had. "Do you want Quickwind and I to do a little snooping?"

"No. You’re officially still on an extended vacation. Sticking your noses in this could cause your bosses to ‘reactivate’ you before you wish to leave."

Shortdash nodded again. Shi and hir mate hadn’t discussed it with Neal yet, but they would be leaving Quickdash behind when they did go. Not just so shi could be with Holly, though that was a big part of it. They were watching their child grow up and take responsibilities at an age they were hard pressed to believe. Then there was what shi and Holly were learning on the Folly. When they weren’t shuttling loaded cargo pods around, they were rebuilding one ship and helping build another. Then there was the other training shi needed. Lighttouch had already shown an interest in training Shortdash and Holly, and hys results with Shadowcrest looked promising. Raising an eyebrow at Neal, shi admitted, "We would like to hang around at least until Chakona, further if we are able."

"Fine by me," Neal replied. "I know shi’s happy to have you here, and it’s never a bad thing to have friends looking at things from their point of view."

Quickwind chuckled. "So you rate us as friends?"

Neal shook his head and smiled. "Well… I don’t think you’re foe, nor do I think I can consider the two of you innocent bystanders. We happen to have a couple daughters in common, what does that make us?"

"Gluttons for punishment?" Weaver piped in with a laugh.

"They’re not that bad," Neal admonished, looking over to where the two being discussed helped Mike do a little ‘sleight of hand’ to help keep the cubs amused. "And it doesn’t hurt that they have an eagerness to learn. They’re picking up things even faster than any of my first set of brats."

"Their bond and mind reading may have a little to do with that," Shortdash chuckled. "Then there’s the pleasure they sense you getting when they suddenly understand a new concept."

Neal nodded, "Any good teacher gets that, the knowledge that you’ve given them an understanding of something new."

"Real teachers anyway," Suzan snorted. "I’ve met a few ‘teachers’ that were just reading from rote and didn’t really understand what they were teaching."

"I’ve run into a few of those as well," Neal admitted. "They can become very defensive when you use logic to point out that they or their books are wrong about something."

"What degrees do you hold?" Shortdash wondered.

"Not a one," Neal chuckled. "I did sit through a few classes, but I was usually asked to leave when I disrupted the status quo."

"Talking in class?" Weaver asked with a grin.

"That too," Neal agreed with a smile. "As well as pointing out where their theories didn’t allow for other theories that seemed to better explain what they were supposedly teaching. It didn’t help that some of the other students would start paying more attention to what I had to say than they did to the teacher. Those classes I didn’t mind being asked to leave, the teachers weren’t going to teach me or the other students anything useful."

"Why did you bother if you already knew more than they did?" she asked.

"At the time, I knew that I had some major gaps in my knowledge of a lot of things. And like playing with or against any set of rules, the better you know and understand them the better you can properly bend or break them. The trick was finding the instructors that could actually teach and not just read from a script."

Suzan nodded. "Which is something our captain seems to be able to do on occasion. I especially liked him comparing water guns to phasers when one of the cubs asked why they had to wait for it to be ready to fire."

Neal shrugged, "Both store a buildup of a charge – one from a power cell, the other from pumping air into the holding chamber, when you have enough you discharge all the stored energy at once."

"True," Suzan agreed. "But most people wouldn’t think to turn accumulators and charging cycles into playing in the water."

"I just go with the level of my audience, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve never felt I could teach a group."

"Why not?" Shortdash asked.

"Take this group for example. With any subject I might try to discuss, I would have some that I’m speaking at their level, some I’m boring to tears, and some that I’m talking over their heads. So I let Tess feed them data at the rates they can handle. When they can’t figure it out, then I do a little one on one."

"You might have made a good teacher?" Weaver suggested.

"Nah. A classroom is too static – new ideas are hard to get there, and those that do sneak in are often smothered."

Looking over to where Wenfrec was watching the magic show with an almost cub-like intensity, Shortdash commented, "It seems someone else was thinking you and the Folly would make a more ‘dynamic’ training ground. Are you really taking her in?"

Neal nodded. "And possibly Windsong as well. I know hir parents are going to suggest it, but it remains to be seen if shi says yes. I have noticed that Shady and Lighttouch have also been showing an interest in hir."

"Does that worry you?" Weaver asked.

Neal shrugged. "If they click, they click. Who knows? They might be good for each other."

Weaver nodded. "And Wenfrec?"

"Ship born, I’d wager, and a very strict ship at that. That inability to not be at ‘attention’ could get her killed in too many circumstances. Whoever sent her knew I wouldn’t shoot her out of hand, but they either thought I’d drop her after debriefing her, or they knew about Weaver and the kids and thought it would make an interesting training situation."

"Do you think they considered us?" Quickwind wondered.

"Hard to tell without knowing when her orders were cut. Boyce would have known about Zhanch and the other Rakshani, but you two wouldn’t have been in any of his reports."

"Anything you want us to do with her?" Quickwind asked with a grin.

Neal snorted. "If possible, teach her how to stand down." He waved at where Wenfrec had picked up an insistent Starblazer, only to have Firestorm start climbing her tail. "They’re all over her, yet she’s still all but standing at attention."

"Put her on cub duty for a week. If that doesn’t bend that back of hers, nothing will," Shortdash suggested.

"A thought," Neal admitted. "We’ll save it for in case we get desperate."

"Speaking of which, the cubs are almost spent," Midnight pointed out, Littleroar already fast asleep in hir top. "What do you think, a snack before we start packing up?

Forest nodded, "Some of us do have work in the morning."

With the heavier gear stowed, they let the cubs finish wearing themselves out. Then it was time to divvy up the tired cub pile into ‘ours’ and ‘yours’. Neal wasn’t the only one unable to hold back his laughter when Wenfrec energetically thanked the deities that all those cubs didn’t belong to the Folly.

The trip back to the spaceport was uneventful, Tess making sure with a Zulu watching overhead.

While being used to shipboard life, Wenfrec was more than a little unnerved when the twins and Alex entered the flight deck to prepare for departure. "They’re just prepping the shuttle for the pilots, right?" she asked Zhanch.

"The twins took up the last load yesterday, no reason they can’t do this one," Zhanch replied with a grin. "Why, didn’t your parents train you to fly your shuttles?"

"But I was twenty before I was certified!" Wenfrec contested.

Zhanch shrugged. "Well, Neal thought training them young would help keep them out of trouble. All the teens are certified, and the twins’ certificate only requires a trained pilot be up there with them when they fly."

Wenfrec shook her head, but didn’t protest further. Dessa looked younger than she was, but claimed to be old enough to not only know – but to have actually cub-sat her great-grandmother. Perhaps those ‘twins’ were also not what they appeared to be. She spent the flight up to the Folly trying to come up with a way to separate the real from the false.

Once aboard, Zhanch walked Wenfrec through the basic safety and emergency procedures that the Folly used. Having been raised on a ship, Wenfrec had no problems with the procedures, but a cub going by reminded her of another question. "Who’s in charge of them in an emergency?" she asked as Spitfire dodged back into the ‘cub room’.

"Whoever’s available," Zhanch told her, a grin starting to form. "Since you brought it up, let’s walk them through a drill." They walked into the cub room and found only Spitfire and Darkstreak were still playing quietly, the rest were asleep in a pile. Touching her badge, Zhanch whispered, "Tess, gravity loss and wind whistle when you start the alarm." Turning to Wenfrec she quietly added, "You’re on cub patrol until you are relieved. That means you’re cub-sitting for part of tonight." Zhanch then turned and left the room before Wenfrec could come up with a response.

Moments later an alarm sounded and Wenfrec suddenly found herself in zero G. Reaching out; she grabbed a nearby shelf to keep herself from floating away from the floor. She watched in amazement as the cubs responded. The two larger cubs were the first to respond. The smaller threw hir toy away from hir, sending hir towards a panel that displayed a warning sign that it contained a life bubble. Shi activated the release and opened the slowly unfolding bubble. While the bubble was being prepared, the other one had jumped to the far wall and then kicked off to put hirself on a collision course with the now airborne ball of cubs that the alarm was just waking up. Wenfrec stared as the older cub pushed at the pile of little ones, and as they started to move away, shi grabbed the end of one of their tails. That cub then grabbed the tail of another cub. They were soon in a not quite straight line that slowly drifted towards the now ready life bubble; the cub that had opened it had hir hands on the opening and hir body and tail stretched out in their direction. The cub at the front of the chain grabbed the tail and pulled hirself hand over hand across hir bigger sister and into the bubble. As the last cub climbed in, shi looked back a Wenfrec.

"Hurry up!" shi told the big Rakshani, "We don’t know how long the air will last!"

Wenfrec pushed off, mentally kicking herself for just standing there while there was an emergency – drill or no drill. As soon as her tail was in, the cub that had opened the bubble closed and sealed it. She felt the pressure increase slightly as the bubble’s life support kicked in and she heard the alarm start to fade as if there was no longer an atmosphere to carry the sound. She watched the cubs form into another ball and start going back to sleep. Noticing one of the older cubs was watching her, she asked, "Now what?"

Darkstreak eyed her curiously. "We sleep. Daddy says it conserves our air and we won’t get hungry as fast."

Wenfrec nodded and tried to relax a little while she waited for the drill to end. She found she had managed to fall asleep when a quiet beeping woke her. She found that she was now in the middle of the cub pile; they were clinging to her arms, legs and chest. She watched the little foxtaur go to the ‘top’ of the bubble and slide herself into the provided handgrip. Once secure, she turned off the life support panel and opened the cover that hid the return air filter. She carefully removed the used filter and placed it in a bag before removing a fresh filter and turning back on the life support.

"Very good, Star," Darkstreak told her as she settled back into her resting place.

"How often do those need to be changed?" Wenfrec wondered quietly to Darkstreak.

"A day with just us," Darkstreak told her, "but in training mode we have to do it every couple of hours so we get practice."

"I see," Wenfrec murmured, again confused a little by the seemingly random ways things were done. As she closed her eyes to ‘rest’, she wondered what else on this aptly named ship was going to surprise her.

Later that evening, Shady led Song to hir room. "You sure you don’t mind?" shi asked as shi waved Song in ahead of hir.

"Not at all," Song replied as shi looked around the room. "Though I was a little surprised you didn’t ask one of the others."

"As I’ve told you, I lost control of my new sensitivity when I woke up after being processed. So the only ones I would be able to tell I haven’t read would be you and Wenfrec, and I heard Zhanch left her cub-sitting in a life bubble," shi said with a grin. Shady wrapped hir arms around Song in a hug as shi quietly added, "And your trying to hide something of your own makes me feel even more honored that you agreed to help."

Song grinned as shi said, "Before I trust myself to your subconscious, I want to push your conscious mind a little further."

Shady grinned back at hir. "Just what did you have in mind?"

"Take off your top and I’ll show you," Song said as shi pulled off hir own top.

"Now what?" Shady asked once they were comfortable.

"Now we see if you can stay in control under more trying circumstances," Song said as shi placed hir handpaw on Shady’s.

Shadowcrest and Windsong get amorous

"Okaaay," Shady agreed as shi wrapped an arm around Song’s shoulders.

Song proceeded to reach up between Shady’s breasts to play with hir long hair as Shady gave Song’s breast a friendly grope. As Song’s tail started to wiggle, Shady caught it with hir own. They continued their game until they were wrapped together in a mutual hug. Song then tried a little kiss, only to find on that what Shady lacked in skill, shi more than made up for in enthusiasm.

"I thought you said you weren’t twelve yet," Song whispered, breathing a little heavy at the end of the kiss.

"I’m not," Shady agreed, also a little out of breath.

"So where did you learn that?"

"Watching my older siblings. This is the first time I’ve really wanted to try it."

"Mmmmm…." Was all Song was able to reply as Shady attempted something else shi had seen hir older siblings doing.

The next morning found Wenfrec chasing after Starblazer and Firestorm.

She had thought she had gotten up early to make her report to Captain Foster, only to find he was already up and busy. Adding to her displeasure was some of the kids offering to get her luggage from the spaceport lockers when they went down with the next load. She had only handed over the key and code when Weaver pointed out that the alternative was for Wenfrec to brief Neal after she went down and got her luggage herself.

Then there had been the breakfast she hadn’t really wanted. Feeling that she was more alert when hungry, Wenfrec preferred to meet with supervisors when not weighted down with a meal. She had tried to stare down the rabbit that had insisted she eat, but Suzan had had Weaver on her side. Worried about annoying Neal’s second in command, Wenfrec had given in.

She had pushed back the empty plate and looked at Suzan and then Weaver before saying, "I am done. Will you please tell me where the Captain is?"

Suzan had grinned at Weaver. "Well, she did finish her plate."

"True," Weaver agreed, ignoring the look Wenfrec had given her for treating her like a cub. Looking over to where the little ones were playing in a corner, Weaver said, "Star, will you keep an eye on Stormy?" As her daughter nodded she grinned. "Stormy, Daddy needs his morning hug!"

The cubs placed their toys back in the box where they were stored, and made a dash for the door. As Stormy and Star were heading out the door, Weaver had turned to Wenfrec. "I hope you can keep up with them," she said with a chuckle.

Wenfrec now found herself chasing the two cubs through the Folly’s corridors. The only thing that seemed to be keeping them in her sight was that they had to wait for each set of airlock doors to open for them. She didn’t notice that the doors then stayed open long enough for her to make it through as well.

She was almost to them when the next set of doors opened. A few meters from the second set of doors there was a guardrail – a guardrail that the cubs ran full speed at before dodging under. Wenfrec caught the railing and stared down into a long and vast space. She was having a little trouble with her balance before she realized that it was because she was at the edge of a gravity field – the chamber beyond was in zero G. Hanging on to what her inner ears were telling her was a spinning railing, Wenfrec could just make out the two cubs she had been chasing, they were already over a hundred meters away and still ‘falling’.

She growled in frustration. The twisted corridor run on a full stomach had not been fun, the gravity shift threatened to bring it back up. "How the deities am I suppose to catch them now?" she muttered as she stepped back from the railing.

Deciding to let Wenfrec know she wasn’t quite alone, Tess said, "The objective wasn’t for you to catch them, only to follow. As far as how to follow, your choices are the walkways to either side, or you can take a ‘leap of faith’."

Wenfrec grumbled under her breath for a moment, the cubs were almost out of sight. She braced her leg against the wall, then she kicked off as hard as she could, one step and a leap had her over the railing and on an indirect route to the ‘ceiling’. She twisted around to take the impact with her legs, only to find her course shifting to take her after the cubs.

As she watched things speed past her at an increasing rate, Wenfrec quietly whispered, "Thank you."

"Anytime," Tess replied.

Tess had given Wenfrec a bit more of a push than she had given the cubs, so that all three stepped onto the walkway at the other end at almost the same time. Where the cubs had been dashing wildly about before, they now moved at a pace the Rakshani could easily match without hurrying. They went through several more sets of airlocks before Wenfrec found herself in engineering. If it had not been for the cubs’ lead, Wenfrec never would have found Neal in the series of large rooms. As it was, she watched the cubs settle down to wait near a panel that two human feet were sticking out of. They waited quietly until Neal backed his way out of the panel, then they attacked from both sides. Wenfrec waited for Neal to quit hugging and tickling the cubs before she quietly spoke.

"Good morning, Sir. Is this a bad time to brief you on why I was sent?" she asked as the cubs wound down.

"No, Wenfrec," Neal replied as he got up. "My checks are done for now. Would you be more comfortable here or in my office?"

"Anywhere will be fine, Captain, but you will need a secure reader for one of the chips I brought."

"Over there," Neal said, indicating a nearby workstation.

Shady and Song had spent the morning in one of the secondary bridges; Shady had been giving Song basic ship handling exercises. This had included the fun stuff, like changing orbits with very limited power, the Folly ‘wallowing’ as Song first corrected and then over-corrected the slow and unresponsive beast. Shi had been about to tell Shady that what shi was asking was impossible when shi sensed Shady mentally reacting to someone else. Shi turned just as Shady bolted for the door, the last things shi felt from the larger chakat sending cold shivers down hir spines. Song found hirself chasing Shady through the corridors towards the connection with the ‘corncob’ section of the ship.

As shi ran towards the aft engineering, Shady slapped hir badge. "Family, I don’t know why, but I just got something from Neal that suggests he’s madder than we’ve ever seen! Whatever it was has him thinking of ditching us, possibly for our own safety. He’s all the way aft – I don’t know if I can change his mind by myself." As shi finished, shi ran through the last set of airlocks and ran at the open space, Tess having dropped the guardrail out of hir way.

Windsong hesitated for only a half step before following Shadowcrest over the edge, trusting that Shady knew what shi was doing.

They found Neal at a work desk, sitting seemingly calm. In front of him were several displays, their data frozen at points that had caught Neal’s attention. A closer look showed that he was forcing himself to sit there quietly, but Stormy gave lie to his acted state of mind. Shi was spitting and snarling at Wenfrec, the only thing keeping hir from clawing hir way up the much larger Rakshani was Starblazer. She was wrapped around the smaller chakat as best she could, preventing hir from attacking outright.

"CAPTAIN!" Shady barked. He stood and turned to look at hir, hir hackles rising as a corner of hir mind suggested just how angry he was right now. Had the floor not been littered with furs in New Kiev, a similar anger would have had him order Tess to drop the roof on his targets. Shi searched the anger shi saw, looking for what could be used to break it. Shi almost broke eye contact when shi realized the solution was right in front of hir. "You are hurting Firestorm," shi quietly told him, hoping it would get through to him.

Neal stared at hir for another moment before looking down at the cubs. A couple steps carried him to them; he knelt and picked them up together. "Sorry little ones," he told the now crying Firestorm and Starblazer.

Wenfrec looked from Neal and the cubs to Shadowcrest and Windsong. Neal had been quietly reading the data she had brought as the cubs sat at his feet. He had gone back through something he’d seen, then brought up several more displays and started searches on them. Moments later the little chakat had snarled and leaped at her, only to be tackled and held by the foxtaur pup.

Shadowcrest looked around as Neal calmed down a little for the cubs. Shi could feel most of hir family coming. While a few were dirt-side transferring cargo, and those on watch were manning their posts, shi was sure they were there in spirit thanks to Tess’s sensors and cameras. Shi slowly stepped over to Neal and the cubs. Lowering hirself to their level, shi added hir arms to the hug. Remembering how Lighttouch had soothed hir a couple of times in hir training, shi closed hir eyes and tried to project a peaceful calm onto Neal and the cubs.

Neal felt the push and allowed hir to continue helping him and Stormy calm down. Star, having never been upset by Neal’s rage, simply continue to hold her now quiet sister. Feeling that Shadowcrest had ‘calmed’ them enough, Neal pushed back with a little resistance. When shi didn’t stop, he pushed a little feeling of his own.

Shady’s tail flinched as shi felt someone yank a single hair out of the sensitive tip. Hir mental radar told hir no one was close enough to have done the deed, which suggested it hadn’t actually happened. Shi opened hir eyes to find Neal watching hir. "Ouch!" shi sent. "I was just trying to help."

"And you did," shi felt Neal agree, "but you didn’t back off when I asked, so I got your attention the old-fashioned way."

Shi stared at him in wonder. "So this is what full telepathy is like."

"More or less," Lighttouch gently cut in. "There are many different ranges and flavors. You will find no two minds feel exactly alike."

"And I still have a lot to learn," shi added, hir tail still stinging a little.

"Something we will work on later," Lighttouch agreed, letting hir feel hys mental smile.

Aloud shi declared, "We’re staying," while giving Neal hir best glare.

"I hadn’t said you weren’t," Neal quietly commented.

"You were thinking it loud enough for me to hear you at the other end of the ship! That and something that had made you quite angry."

"Is it related to this?" Shortdash interjected, eyeing the displays over the desk. Shi looked over at Neal and asked, "May we?"

Wenfrec had started to protest when Neal nodded, but then fell silent. One of her few briefings had warned her that Neal might not consider the information to require the same security levels that Star Fleet had. She watched as Quickwind and Zhanch joined Shortdash in going over the data Neal had left open.

After a minute, Zhanch looked back at the group. "This is going to take a while." Indicating Neal, she softly added, "Find something to keep him mentally busy. I can already see some of what might have gotten him worked up."

Neal gave her a dirty look. "Shouldn’t you have waited until I was out of the room to say that?"

"No," she replied with a grin. "I want you to know that we intend to break that foul mood of yours. So the sooner you behave, the sooner you’ll be allowed to play without close and personal supervision!"

The twins and Screamingwind took the first crack at him, after first adding a few ‘faults’ to their work on the Good Deal for him to find. Once they had his tech side warmed up, they started questioning some of the changes Neal had decided to add to Gulf. This in turn became a training session when they started leaving Screamingwind behind.

They arrived late for lunch, still working through an explanation. The kids had Neal’s attention so completely that he failed to notice Suzan’s lack of retribution for them ‘working’ through a meal.

It was an hour later that Zhanch and the others came in for an even later lunch. While Windsong looked more confused than worried, Shortdash and Quickwind looked depressed. Zhanch and Shadowcrest on the other paw looked like they wanted something – preferably certain live targets, to sharpen their claws on. Wenfrec had brought up the rear; her expression was that of someone praying that the present company didn’t shoot messengers that brought unwanted news.

Weaver helped Suzan bring out a meal for the researchers, only to watch each of them push it away. Having confirmed that what they had found was more than a little unsettling, she asked, "What did you find?"

Shortdash was the one to break the long pause that followed, "The only reason we are here is a lot of luck – possibly nudged along by Neal’s resident deity." Shi looked again at the plate of food shi had pushed away. Hir stomach wanted it, but shi was still too angry to want to try to eat just yet. Looking back up at Weaver, shi continued, "What Wenfrec brought us suggests that almost every threat you’ve seen was a direct or indirect attempt at taking over, or at least controlling the Folly. All the injuries and deaths along the way were someone’s attempt to make grabbing Neal and his ship a little easier."

"Take your group for example. From what was gathered from some of the ones caught, they had several groups there just to stir up trouble and have security chasing them while a small group overpowered Neal. That failed for two reasons – Neal’s ‘Betsy’, and the fact that the port had been on high alert for another issue and they couldn’t get their own guns in without giving themselves away." Shortdash frowned before shi added, "From what you’ve told us before, Betsy was the reason those thugs stopped trying to beat you. So you and Shadowcrest could have been killed outright, and if they had jimmied the latch to keep others from finding their handy-work then Quickdash and Holly wouldn’t have had a chance either."

"And the teens?"

"May have been caught as well if the other groups hadn’t been run off."

"New Kiev?"

Shortdash looked down, and Quickwind continued for hir, "Timing was everything there, and Neal was late due to his detour to Starbase 3. The enemy shuttle had grounded at the earliest time Folly should have gotten there. Then they ended up waiting over a week – still in the expected window for Folly to get there, but they had been sitting too long, their edge was gone. Add to it being early morning, how Folly came in like a bat out of hell with Alpha in route with the first pod before Folly was fully in her orbit, well they got caught flat-footed. They were still trying to take control of the spaceport when they almost killed Shortdash." A quiet sigh and shi closed with, "An extra hour of advance notice could have had you all walk into the trap with no warning at all."

"That leaves the mining station," Weaver pointed out.

"An expensive operation they had originally thought they wouldn’t need because they would use the Folly to take over the station. When New Kiev didn’t come out as planned, they rushed a force out to take the station so they could then take the Folly," Quickwind snorted softly. "The re-arrangement of Folly’s delivery schedule worked against them. They had just gotten their ships hidden when Charlie showed up, this time catching them long before they thought they needed to be ready."

"Mike and Calmmeadow are a reason they didn’t get Charlie," Zhanch added, having been there for the excitement.

"And our little mishap at Big Sur?"

"Wenfrec’s data is too old to tell us that, but it didn’t have the right ‘feel’ for the group using the Human’s First types for their dirty work. This was a general ‘stir things up’, not a well-defined plan to take Neal to get the Folly. On the other hand, that dead space walking group does fit the profile of them not caring who dies in the attempts."

Turning to Wenfrec, Weaver asked, "Why were you so surprised yesterday? You had to know Neal had a crew."

Wenfrec shook her head. "My data chips have been updated as I chased the Folly, but my only real briefings seems to have been before Star Fleet officially knew he had a crew. I was originally supposed to meet him at New Kiev, but as you know, things got a little ‘interesting’ and I wasn’t able to get close to him. After that, I’ve been on several fast courier ships, trying to be where the Folly was expected to be, but never was. Earth was the next ‘Folly has to be there in this time bracket’ we had." She shook her head ruefully. "And then I get here and find you already have most of the pieces and he doesn’t need me – hell he already has four Rakshani onboard – marines at that! Never mind Star Corp operatives."

Dessa stepped over and placed a paw on Wenfrec's shoulder. "You’re far from useless my young friend. You’ve provided us with a lot of information that we were only guessing at before."

Weaver nodded as she added, "And I heard him asking Tess to see if she can’t dig up the last known position of your family’s Sharp Claw and the next few destinations she didn’t reach. That suggests he’s going to hunt for her." At Wenfrec’s doubtful look, she grinned. "Trust me, the Folly has more tricks than you’ve seen so far."

Wenfrec frowned a little before replying, "So I’m going from supporting him in his endeavors to being supported by him in my search for my family? Somehow I don’t think this is what my superiors had in mind when they sent me out here."

"No plan survives contact with the enemy." Shortdash reminded her. "And it can be even worse with friendly forces – everyone has their own idea on how something should be done."

"Speaking of which, is it time to sit on Neal and tell him what we’ve concluded?" Quickwind asked.

"Don’t bother," came Neal’s voice from Shortdash’s comm badge.

"You mean you’ve been listening the whole time?" Shortdash demanded.

"I know that all of you were shown how to place your badges in ‘private’ mode. Since not one of you thought it necessary, Tess piped me the more interesting parts," Neal admitted.

"Are you still trying to convince yourself that we would be better off elsewhere?" Weaver asked.

They heard Neal softly sigh. "While I would be happy to see all of you safely elsewhere, Stormy’s bond to me would hurt hir. That would mean keeping hir and Moonglow. And if I’m keeping them, there’s no honest way I could force the rest of you out."

"Never mind the fact that Suzan is the only one of your mates small enough for you to pick up and bodily carry to the shuttle," Quickwind said with a chuckle.

Wenfrec brow was furrowed as she asked, "Wouldn’t he be able to just beam you down with the transporters?"

"You would think so," Zhanch said with a small grin, "but it seems Neal understands the concept that power can corrupt, and that absolute power is even more of a hazard. Tess won’t step in with any unwarranted force unless there’s a clear and present danger. So if we are under attack, Neal can order us beamed to safety against our desires."

Weaver nodded. "And she will also protest an action she doesn’t think is warranted. I watched Tess argue with Neal over isolating Quickdash from Holly." Looking over at Quickwind and Shortdash, she continued, "Even I worried that what he was doing was wrong, but he turned out to be correct."

Shortdash noted Wenfrec’s quick glance hir way and nodded. "We had underestimated the strength of the bond between them. Neal forced us to acknowledge it before their separation couldn’t be undone." Shi lowered hir head to mutter into hir comm badge, "Damn sneaky son of a pain in the tail."

"High praise coming from you," hir comm badge replied.

"If you’re making jokes, then can you at least admit that you and the Folly were not the cause of all the deaths we have seen?" Weaver half asked.

"Yes and no," he slowly said after a pause. "The only place that we might have made a difference was at New Kiev. If the Folly had been sooner or later, Stormy’s parents might be alive today. I have to balance that against all the additional deaths there would have been if a ‘fur hating’ Folly had been traveling between the stars this past year."

Weaver wasn’t the only one to shiver at that thought. They had stopped at far too many small stations that would have been easy pickings had the Folly been hostile.

"Is that even possible?" Dessa asked. "I mean a ‘fur hating Folly’ would mean they would need Tess working on their behalf – could they do that? Reprogram her to do their bidding?"

It was Tess that answered her. "No," she said. "While they might batter down my defenses and board me, they would never control me or this ship. My ‘brain’ if you will is all over the ship in several groups of nodes. You would have to isolate each one and keep it offline to keep it from reintegrating with the rest. The problem is some of my smaller nodes do nothing but check on the rest of me. Depending on the ‘last thoughts’ they received, they can disable systems or even destroy the Folly."

"The Folly has a self-destruct?" Shortdash asked in surprise.

"Not as you think of one," Tess told hir. "But any warp capable ship can be destroyed by loss of anti-matter containment, or by pushing a warp core past its limits. The first would burn like a small sun; the second might take out other ships in the blast radius."

"And with eight warp cores, that could be a very big bang," Zhanch said with a frown.

"Would you just blow up the Folly to prevent someone from taking over?" Quickwind asked.

"No. As with Neal, keeping family and friends safe would be my first priority. After that, I have a few more options."

"More proof that I’ve been a bad influence on her," Neal said as he entered the room, his three engineering trainees in tow.

"If we were all gone, would she really kill herself?" Weaver asked, the others also looking to Neal with concern.

"She shouldn’t – unless that’s the only way to remove a threat," Neal told them. "If she can, she will go to a pre-selected spot where some of my other kids will take care of her. If disabled, she will use whatever means she has available to let them know where to find her."

"You make her sound almost alive," Wenfrec said as she looked from face to face to see if she was the butt of some kind of joke.

"At times she seems to be," Neal quietly allowed, several of the others nodding in agreement.

Trying to not sound too hopeful, Wenfrec asked, "Is it true that you’re going to try to look for the Sharp Claw?"

Neal smiled. "I’m afraid the scent is cold, but we will try. I am both checking her planned route, and some of the areas where she could have gotten sidetracked from her scheduled route."

"Thank you," she softly said. She tried to ignore the little voice that thought it odd that she actually believed that this unusual ship and her crew might be able to do something that Star Fleet had so far failed to do.

"I need your help with something," Shadowcrest told Windsong as they left the dining room after dinner. While Neal and the other adults had put a cheerful veneer over their thoughts of what they had found, shi knew it was still troubling Neal more than shi liked.

"Anything," Windsong told hir.

"I’m going to spend tonight with Neal. Would you please join me?"

Song was taken back by the request, but seeing how serious Shady was, shi nodded. "I’m not sure how I could be any help, but I’ll be there if that is what you wish."

"Just having you there with me will be a big help," Shady assured hir. "I just feel like I need a little extra support this time."

They snuggled for a little while before Neal came in. He grinned as he raised an eyebrow at Shadowcrest. "Are you sure this is wise?" he asked hir, only half in jest.

"I need this," shi told him. "And I think you do too."

Neal then grinned at Windsong. "And is Windy acting as your support? Or as your chaperon?"

Shady stuck hir tongue out at him before replying, "A little of both," Shi admitted. Then shi grinned and added, "But which of us is shi chaperoning?"

"Just what I need, one sex-crazed furball pretending to protect me from another sex-crazed furball," Neal muttered as he climbed into bed with them. He soon found himself surrounded by fur, Shady wrapping him in a hug from the front while Windsong covered his back. After the tension filled day, just a little nudge from Shady soon had him fast asleep, with the chakats soon following.

Shi hadn’t had the dream for over a year and shi had thought it was all behind hir now, but here it was again after all this time. A friend had invited hir to a party off-campus. They had become separated, and shi had somehow found hirself at the back of a group that a very energetic man was preaching to. Shi was impressed by how he seemed to have them hanging on his every word. Shi had been listening to how he spoke, not what he was thinking of, so shi was caught by surprise when he suddenly pointed at hir, shouting ‘There’s one of those gene jokes now! It thinks it can openly spy on us! Let’s show that thing what we think of its kind!’ He leaped off the steps he had been stirring the crowd from, and came at hir with a piece of pipe that had been resting against the handrail. Shi had not noticed before, but most of this crowd was similarly armed. As shi started to step back in surprise, shi tried to push a calming feeling at the crowd, but shi was shocked to find another mind pushing a hatred that overwhelmed hir senses. Shi never saw the first blow coming; shi had been staring at the human that had riled the mob to a fever pitch. Pain, pain and more pain had caused hir to black out as the blows had come from all directions. At some point hir mind had blanked out the overload. Shi wasn’t sure if shi had really heard someone cursing when they found the Star Fleet ID in hir belt pouch. It would be days before hir conscious mind would surface again; fighting through the severe concussion shi had somehow survived. It would be months before shi left the hospital, and shi would somehow make up the lost class time to graduate at the head of hir class, but the friendly, fun-loving Windsong was gone. What remained was a guarded chakat, one that was always trying to watch out for anything that might hurt hir. Two years later, shi still unconsciously held hir guard up, even against hir own family. Not because shi thought they would deliberately hurt hir, but because they would try to help. And that was something shi wasn’t sure shi could handle. The shocks – pleasant and otherwise, from the Folly and her crew had lulled hir into a false sense that hir past was behind hir. Past and present combined as shi fought hir demons, struggling to not be buried in the mental hatred and fear shi had known.

Windsong woke shaking badly as shi tried to get hir bearings. Hir limbs were immobilized, and there was a strong smell of fresh blood in the air. Neal had turned around sometime in the night, and was now holding hir, murmuring things you would use to calm a frightened cub. Behind him, Shadowcrest was using hir hands and handpaws to keep Windsong from moving hirs. Hir addled mind couldn’t quite wrap itself around the idea that shi had sunk hir claws into Neal, and Shady was doing what shi could to keep Song from doing any more damage. Still not fully conscious, Windsong found hir sight fading as others started coming into the room.

It seemed like only a minute later shi was awake again, but too many things seemed to have changed in that minute. The lights were back down to a weak nightlight, and the room no longer smelled of blood. Neal was asleep, still holding hir close, while shi now sensed that Shady was hugging hir from behind. Shi had not remembered Suzan coming in, but she was now hugging Neal from behind with Dessa sandwiching her against him. Extending hir senses, Windsong was amazed to find that most of Neal’s family seemed to be in there with them. Hir questing senses also came across another conscious mind.

"Do not stir, you might wake them," the gentle mind-touch of Lighttouch told hir.

"I…" she started, only to stop.

"… had a nightmare," hy softly finished for hir. "We know." Feeling hir concern rising, hy added, "You were broadcasting it rather forcibly. That is one of the reasons everyone is here, to help offer you the support you need."

"They know?" shi thought, tears of shame welling in hir eyes.

In hir sleep, Shady felt Song’s turmoil and tightened hir hug around the smaller chakat.

Song felt Lighttouch nod in hir mind. "Yes they know, and they are more than willing to do what they can to help you," hy sent to hir gently. "As am I."

With hir barriers completely down for the first time since the night of the attack, Song reached out to feel the thoughts and feeling of those around hir. The surface thoughts held support and caring for hir, and a low rumbling anger at the ones that had hurt hir.

"Stop," hy told hir as shi turned hir senses back towards Neal. "Trust me when I say that you really do not want to dig through his thoughts and memories." When shi set hym a questioning thought, hy added, "Ask Shadowcrest what Neal would think or do. Shi knows a bit more of his thought process than shi sometimes wishes."

Song lay there for a moment, just letting the feelings in the room calm hir. "Why am I still here?" shi asked hym. "Why didn’t they lock me away where I couldn’t hurt anyone else?"

"That is not how he does things," hy told hir. "You should have noticed by now that he helps those he cares for. He will do this even if they hurt him."

"What do I do now?"

"You still have a few days to decide if you wish to travel with the Folly. I will only add that if you stay, I will have more time to help you – if you wish it."

"Can you really help me?"

"The first step to any cure is admitting that there is a problem."

"I’ll stay if they’ll have me," shi thought as shi closed hir eyes again, pulling Neal and Suzan a little closer to hir.

Dessa opened her eyes when she felt the shifting. After deciding that all was well for the moment, she again closed her eyes.

When Song next opened hir eyes, Neal and the others were gone. Only Shady remained, still wrapped around hir.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," shi whispered when shi sensed that Song was fully awake.

"The others?" Song asked.

"Doing their chores – this ship doesn’t quite run herself you know," Shady chuckled, ignoring the soft raspberry coming from Tess’s speakers.

"Don’t you have chores?"

"Why yes, I do. My chore for today is you. Captain’s orders and all that you know," shi said with a grin and a cuddle.

"Is he mad at me?" Song asked, not really wanting to know the answer.

"No," Shady assured hir with a hug.

Song curled a little more into hirself before saying, "Lighttouch suggested I ask you what Neal’s feelings were."

Shady shivered for a moment before shi locked those thoughts back in the corner of hir mind where shi was learning to keep them. Tightening hir hug on Song, shi whispered, "Some old piece of poetry says that you would never notice the mountains if it weren’t for the valleys. Neal’s hatred can flow as deep as his love can fly high." Shi thought for a moment before continuing, "The best example I can think of was a space port we stopped at. Someone just missed trying to kill one of our cubs. Neal went berserk, killing them without batting an eye. But then he went out and rendered what aid he could to the surviving furs. That included rescuing a cub from hir dead mother’s womb." Feeling Song shiver, Shady held hir until shi stopped shaking. "Shi bonded with him at birth. If you ever want to know if something is really bothering Neal, just watch Firestorm." They lay together a little longer, each with their own thoughts until a growling stomach suggested that it was time for them to start the rest of their day.

After their late breakfast, they went looking for Neal. Song was far from convinced that he would still want hir onboard after what shi had done.

They found him in one of the environmental plants, explaining to Screamingwind the design modifications that he had also incorporated into the Good Deal’s upgrades.

Before they could interrupt the training session, Song was attacked from behind. Shi had spun hir upper torso around to see what had hit hir lower back just in time to get a face full of chakat cub. Stormy was all over hir with hugs and lick kisses in an attempt to cheer up hir worried new friend. As Song turned around with the squirming cub in hir arms, shi found hirself staring at Neal’s shirt. Trying to not panic, shi looked up, only to find him smiling at Stormy’s antics.

Shifting his attention to hir, he quietly asked, "Are you feeling better?"

Song nodded, not sure shi trusted hir voice at this point.

Neal wrapped the still scared chakat in a hug, being careful not to crush Stormy. "If you’re still worried about last night, don’t be. I have my own demons, and they can sometimes make me lash out or do things I later regret."

"But I…" shi started, only to have him hush hir.

"In a fit of anger during an argument, one of my adopted kids took a swipe at me and tore open my forearm. He’s a wolftaur and the idea of taking orders from a mere human didn’t set well with his alpha male mentality."

"Did you ever forgive him?" Windsong asked, hir voice quaking a little.

"In time," Neal admitted. "But first I made him and the others that had been on his side of the argument patch me up using an old-fashion med-kit. While the others closed the rather messy wound, I had him squeezing my arm to reduce blood loss."

"Tess didn’t step in?" Shady wondered.

"She was ready to, but I had waved her off. I needed the kids to understand that their lives depended on me, and that it was a two-way street." At hir curious look he added, "They hadn’t been onboard very long, and were still getting used to the idea that if they were going to stay on my ship it would be under my rules. My arm was out of commission for a little while after that, so I made them do my more physical chores. They quickly learned that things are a little different in space."

"Did they have a choice?" Song asked, sensing the shifting emotions that the tale was costing Neal.

"Yes and no. They were from a newly settled colony that had taken a terminal hit. An earthquake and tsunami devastated the colony, leaving a lot of parentless cubs and young adults that for one reason or another were away from the main settlement at just the right time. It was three weeks after the disaster that I got the Pogo Stick there and loaded what survivors my life support could handle. Then I redlined my systems getting them to a Starbase. I thought that was the end of it, but a small group of them thought differently.

They made their first choice by hiding when everyone else was being offloaded. I had to make up some time, so they were stuck with me for almost two months. After that time, I took them down with a load for Earth. I gave them each a credit chit that would keep them housed and fed for a year and gave them the option to abandon ship then and there. They all took off and I thought I’d seen the last of them. The next day they were back – every single one of them. I could see the younger cubs sticking together, but the teenagers were a pleasant surprise. The biggest surprise though, was the wolftaur. After that day, he would still argue with his adopted father and teacher, but never again with the Captain."

"He never questioned why you did things your way?" Shadowcrest asked, openly surprised.

"Oh, he would ask after the fact – if he hadn’t already figured it out for himself. But when in the middle of something he just did as he was told – unless he thought I had missed something, he would say just enough to make sure I understood his concerns and then he would follow his orders."

"Will you let me travel with you?" Windsong asked, still more than a little afraid the answer would be no.

"I’m not going to kick you out for a couple of scratches caused by a bad dream, little one," Neal assured hir.

"Thank you," shi said, just before letting out an exclamation of surprise. While hir attention had been on Neal, Stormy had gotten hir top out of the way for a more personal inspection. As Stormy gave hir a milk check, Windsong looked back up at Neal. "As I understand it, the proper response is to call hir a ‘brat’."

"Something like that, Song," Neal agreed.

Raising an eyebrow, shi asked, "You were calling me Windy last night, why the change?"

"Because you have changed little one," Neal said with a tender smile. "Last night you were hesitant to touch me, now you seem much more comfortable with having me near you. Understandable with what had happened to you. You’ve gone from a guarded heart protected to the point your parents were worried, to an open one that seems ready to break out in song. Well worth a sore back and thighs I think."

At Windsong's look of wonder, Shadowcrest smirked. "That’s just the blood loss talking, he doesn’t normally wax poetically like that."

Neal just grinned. "Well, I have to go see what the other two of my trio of terror is up to. Tess says they want to make yet another change to the Good Deal. And I believe Lighttouch said something about talking to you when you’re ready."

Nodding, Song tapped the badge shi’d been given. "Tess, is Lighttouch in the middle of anything?"

"No Windsong, hy’s been going though some of hys mail while hy waited for you."

"Any time you are ready," a soft thought seemed to slip through hir mind, along with where Lighttouch was waiting for hir.

"I’ll be there in a minute," shi said and sent. As shi left the room, shi realized that something that had terrified hir for two years was gone. The fear that someone would look into hir mind and reject hir was missing. Shi was surprised to find more spring in hir step as shi discovered shi was actually eager to have that little talk with Lighttouch.

Windsong found the next few days to be very enjoyable. Shadowcrest seemed to have taken a shine to hir, and always seemed to be nearby. They each had training with Lighttouch, sometimes separately, sometimes together when hy wanted to use one as an example for the other. Quickdash and Holly were also getting evaluated and a training schedule made up as Lighttouch came to understand their budding talents, but Shadowcrest was the one Lighttouch focused most of hys attention on.

After spending most of the day helping Lighttouch train Shady, Song found hirself sprawling in the lounge with just Neal, both of them relaxing as they let their dinners settle.

"I was wondering something," shi said with a shy glance in his direction.

"And what might that be?" Neal asked, sounding almost asleep.

"When we came up that first day, Alex had hinted that you could push worse things than just a scorched tail."

"Are you asking for a demonstration?" Neal asked with a half leer.

"Can’t you just tell me?" Song asked, not sure shi wanted whatever had made Alex grin so nastily.

"Like trying to explain color to a blind man, some things get lost in translation," Neal told hir.

They continued to lay there in a companionable silence until Song whispered, "Show me."

At first shi thought Neal might have fallen asleep, but then shi felt something just brush the fur on hir backs – or something like something was just brushing hir fur. Shi knew they were the only two in the room, and Neal was still in his recliner. The feeling of being almost touched got a little stronger – and seemed to be spreading. Shi shivered as the gently questing touches came around hir front, somehow feeling the same when they reached fur shi was lying on. The feeling reached and cupped hir breast – and shi bolted upright as the door slid open!

Shady and Lighttouch walked in, both radiating extreme amusement. Shady’s grin grew wider as shi noticed that Song seemed to be trying to hide something under hir.

"You two may want to turn on the fields the next time you play. Song was broadcasting rather forcibly," Lighttouch murmured, trying not to chuckle at the shocked look on Song’s muzzle.

"No," Shady said with a smirk. "If the fields were up, Stormy would have come looking for Neal."

"You mean everyone knows?" Song asked, hir eyes wide.

"Even Weaver got a good bit of it," Shady told hir, hir smile holding more than just amusement.

Tess interrupted with: "Captain, the crew of Winds of Fortunate are asking if everything is all right over here."

"Patch them through," Neal told her. A moment later Tess sounded the tone that told them the comm channel was open. "This is Captain Foster of the Folly, how can we help you, Winds of Fortunate?"

"This is First officer Wiggens, sir. We were wondering if everything was okay over there. Several of us were enjoying someone’s rather pleasurable broadcast coming from your direction when it was abruptly cut off. We’re hoping that they’re all right."

Neal looked over at Windsong, who was staring at him in horror and shaking hir head. "Tess, how far were we from Winds of Fortunate when Song and I were playing?"

"Just over ten thousand kilometers when you were interrupted."

"Fortunate, what you ‘heard’ was someone getting a bit more than shi asked for, and then forgetting to keep it to hirself," Neal said with a grin in his voice. "We’re sorry if we caused any problems."

"No problems Folly, but if you’re going to be having that much fun, we request you send us an invitation! Fortunate out."

Even hir coppery fur coloring couldn’t hide Windsong’s blush. Shi made a break for the door only to have Shadowcrest bring hir down in a flying tackle that turned into a six-limbed belly-to-belly hug by the time they stopped rolling.

"Please let me go! I can’t believe I just did that!" Song sent, still halfheartedly trying to escape.

Shady just tightened hir hug a little and projected calm at the smaller chakat. "No one is upset with you Song. Perhaps a little amused," shi admitted, "but not upset."

Neal looked over at Lighttouch. "What do you think?" he asked, "With hir mental shields up for over two years, hir other abilities had to overpower them to be usable?"

Lighttouch nodded. "And then you cracked hir shields and released hir full strength. Shi and I will need to have a few more sessions."

Looking over to where Shady continued to cuddle Song, Neal smiled as he quietly said, "It should be interesting to see what other surprises shi’s been hiding all these years."

Lighttouch looked at him sharply. "What are you suggesting?" hy asked.

"Gusty crosswind with a bow and arrow, and shi still managed to place them in a very tight grouping. Skill, luck, or maybe something else entirely?"

"You think you saw the something else?"

"You tell me," Neal said with a grin. He left the skunktaur looking thoughtfully at the pair of chakats, who for the moment were unaware of anything but themselves.

The next evening, Shortdash decided that shi had a few questions for Neal. Shi was surprised when Tess informed hir he was in sickbay. Shi entered the sickbay to find Neal sitting in a reclined chair, a computer controlled apparatus covering his open mouth.

At Shortdash's raised eyebrow, Tess said, "I told you where you could find him, not that he would be saying much."

Shi grinned as shi said, "Then while he can’t tell me no, you can answer a few questions for me."

"You haven’t needed to be with Neal to ask me questions before, so you must want to gauge his reactions to the questions."

"You’re much too clever for a computer," Shortdash told her.

"Is that your question?"

"No," shi started to say before shi heard a high-pitched whine coming from the device covering Neal’s mouth. "What are you doing to him?" shi asked, hir curiosity overcoming hir other questions.

"Repairing one of his molars, he lost a piece of it during dinner."

"Did he break it on something?"

"No, they’re just getting old and starting to fall apart on him. Though they are lasting a little longer than they did his last process."

"I don’t understand, there are drugs to help strengthen teeth and bones…."

"Most of which Neal is either immune or allergic to. That is one of the reasons he wasn’t interested in the drugs that were found; he can’t use them."

While they were talking, the device moved away from Neal’s mouth. Working his jaw, Neal tested his bite. Nodding, he said, "That’ll do, thanks Tess."

"Anytime boss," Tess replied as the devices started an auto-clean cycle.

"Great," Shortdash muttered, "now I’ve got even more questions."

"What?" Neal asked with a grin. "Even chakats need a little dental work every now and then."

"True, but our teeth don’t just ‘fall apart’ as Tess suggests yours are doing. And how could you have lived so long if you can’t use the anti-aging drugs?" Shortdash watched him watch hir, apparently trying to decide on whether or not to answer hir question.

Neal sagged a little as he sighed. "I can’t take the drugs for the same reason I don’t like or trust most pharmaceutical companies. I was an unwitting non-voluntary test subject a very long time ago."

"Before the Gene Wars?" Shortdash softly asked.

Neal nodded. "I was already well past what we called middle-age back then. A prescription I had for pain had run out and I was having problems getting it refilled. I had some friends that were on similar drugs, and they each gave me a couple of theirs to tide me over. What none of us knew was that the companies their drugs had come from were running illegal tests on older humans. They had several groups, each on a different set of tests for early anti-aging drugs. Just my luck, I had friends from more than one of the groups, so I got an unplanned mixture that almost killed me."

"What did the drug companies do?"

"Not a thing," Neal said with a sad grin. "I wasn’t on any of their programs, so I slipped under their radar. My friends weren’t so lucky. I was completely out of it for almost a week. It was another week or so before I had rebuilt enough strength to try to leave the house. By that time, all my friends had vanished."

"What did the drugs do to you?"

"At first I didn’t think they had done anything but make me sick. A few months later I noticed that a chronic pain in my lower back wasn’t bothering me as much as it had. Over the next ten years I slowly started feeling and looking younger. After about the first year I realized what was happening and moved to another area where no one knew me. There had been more disappearances of what might have been ‘test subjects’, and I didn’t want to get caught in one of their nets. It would be years later that I would learn both the blessings and curses of what had happened to me."

"How was it done?"

"I don’t have all the facts – hell, I only have enough bits and pieces to make a WAG or three. The best I could figure was at least two of the firms doing it were using retroviruses to change the ways the cells reacted to aging. The problem was they were using large dosages to make the changes faster and easier to track. My friends probably had instructions to call in if they started feeling strange, where I had just assumed that the dosage being off was what was making me sick. The accidental mix I got seemed to have been mainly for the soft tissues, which means my bones and teeth start giving out a lot sooner then the rest of me."

"Is that why you always seem to be eating ice-cream?" shi asked with a chuckle.

Neal nodded. "But even with that and the calcium boosters, my teeth don’t go long without needing some help."

"How old were you when you were first processed?"

"Too old, or so I thought. I was thinking I’d had enough, it had been a long and entertaining life, but I was starting to feel soul weary. Another loop and then I planned to try something that didn’t need constant work to keep going."

"And then you got to start over."

"Something like that," Neal agreed. "A younger body, at least for a while. Whatever let me live that long the first time was now encoded in every cell of my body, so my ‘best results for the DNA’ was less than you might have thought. My teeth are already getting ‘old’ by my body’s biological clock, in a few decades my bones will also become an issue."

"How did you handle it the first time?"

"False teeth and having most of my long bones replaced with synthetics. It wasn’t any fun, but it did keep me from becoming a basket case."

"I would think you could do better in this day and age."

"It’s being worked on on several fronts. I donate a little to those doing the research and Tess is always searching the news and keeping an eye out for who might be developing what."

"So do I need to tell your cubs and mates to go easy on their old man? Maybe tell Suzan to puree your food before she serves it?" shi asked with a grin.

"You do and I’ll tie your tail in a knot!" Neal promised with a laugh as they both got up. He added as the door opened, "I have a few more good years left before I have to take it easy on my body, and I intend to enjoy them."

Windsong looked out the port as the shuttle touched down with the last load destined for the Melbourne spaceport. Shi had already caught a ride to Starbase One to get hir things, and now all shi had left to do was to say goodbye to hir family for a while.

While shi had intended to go alone to say hir goodbyes, Shady had insisted on tagging along. They enjoyed the scenery as the PTV drove them to Longstripe and Desertsand’s home.

Fireglow met them at the door with a smile. "’Bout time you showed up," shi told hir daughter with a grin. "I understand the Folly leaves soon."

Windsong nodded and began to reply when hir companion beat hir to it. "Not for a while yet," Shadowcrest assured hir. "And if we were cutting it that close, we would have beamed down."

"I take it shi’s adapting well to shipboard life?" Silverpelt asked from where shi sat next to hir sister.

"Well, shi’s not trying to shield hirself from us like shi was a week ago," Desertsand allowed. "You don’t still think shi was the one we ‘heard’ do you?"

"I know my kitten," Silverpelt said with a chuckle as hir daughter’s eyes opened wide in surprise. "That was hir."

"I would have thought all the other ‘noise’ coming from everyone else on the planet would have drowned out one voice, even one as strong as Song’s," Shady said as shi blocked Song’s path of retreat.

Silverpelt grinned as shi shook hir head. "Yes, there is a lot of background noise, but each ‘voice’ is unique and I’ve known Song’s all hir life. It was brief but quite clear.  I even heard some of the news commentators predicting a world wide surge in births in about nine to twelve months."  Shi smiled at the near panic in hir daughter's eyes.  "I'm only teasing little one, you should know that." Turning momentarily serious, shi asked Windsong, "You are leaving with the Folly, aren’t you?"

With hir near panic at the thought that the entire world might have heard hir subsiding, Song nodded. "They’ve already helped more than I thought anyone could, and Lighttouch says hy would be happy to help work out the issues that are still bothering me."

"And Shadowcrest here has nothing to do with your decision?" hir mother asked with a grin.

"Well, maybe a little," Windsong carefully allowed.

"So…" Fireglow drawled, "Are you going to explain why you were so closed before?"

"Or do you just want to tell us what had you broadcasting so much pleasure of late?" Silverpelt hinted, watching hir daughter’s blush deepen.

"Or you two could let them be and enjoy your time together before shi leaves," Desertsand pointed out.

"There is that," hir sister agreed before wrapping Song in a hug, Fireglow joining them a moment later.

When the hug broke up, Silverpelt then gave Shady a hug as well. "You do promise to take care of our little cub right?" shi asked with a grin.

Shadowcrest smiled back. "Me, take care of hir? You do realize that shi’s twice my age, right?"

"And you’re twice hir mass, so you should be able to sit on hir when shi tries to do something crazy," Silverpelt replied in the logic that mothers have used since time began.

"I don’t know," Shadowcrest contested, "it seems that a lot of people already know we made the mistake of leaving hir and Neal together without a chaperon for all of five minutes. Think of the trouble they can get into in the next few months!"

"Neal and Song?" Silverpelt laughed while hir daughter looked like shi wanted to sink into the floor.

"And that was with him not even touching hir," Shadowcrest added unhelpfully.

"You never told me shi had a thing for older humans," Longstripe interjected, getting in on the fun.

"It wasn’t like that!" Song protested.

"What was it like?" hir mother asked, the grin on hir muzzle getting wider.

Windsong tried to decide how to explain it to hir parents. "When we all went up on the shuttle that first day, one of Neal’s teens suggested Neal could push worse things than a scorched tail."

"And that’s what you were sending?" Silverpelt asked, hir grin getting even wider. At hir daughter’s hesitant nod, shi laughed. "If that was worse than a burnt tail, then I wonder what his ‘terrible’ might be…."

Shadowcrest simply shook hir head. "We’ve learned not to ask," shi replied as shi placed hir hand on Song’s shoulder, offering a little support as hir parents double teamed hir.

"And do we need to thank that skunktaur Lighttouch for your barriers being down?" Fireglow wondered.

"No, that was Neal’s fault, with a little help from me," Shadowcrest admitted, giving a slight shiver as shi remembered Song’s nightmare.

"Neal said that you had been injured. Is this related?"

"I got caught by a fur hating group," Windsong admitted. "It was pretty bad," shi added, thinking of the human that had been stirring up the others. "When Shady and I spent a night with Neal, I had a nightmare about it. I hurt Neal pretty badly, but he didn’t reject me. I think that was the reason I had kept my barriers up all that time, I feared that others wouldn’t like what they would see in me after that night."

"We wouldn’t have rejected you," hir mother softly murmured.

"No," Song agreed. "But you might have pitied me or tried to help, and I didn’t think I could bear that."

"Well, we’re glad that’s behind you," Longstripe said, breaking up the somber moment. "You said you hurt Neal – is he okay?"

Windsong nodded. "In my dream I was trying to hold back those hurting me. I ended up sinking my claws into Neal. I think he was moving a little stiffly the next day, but he claimed he was fine."

"And Firestorm was all over Song the next day, so we know Neal wasn’t hiding any negative thoughts about hir," Shadowcrest added.

"But it was when Neal called me Song, instead of Windy that I was sure he wasn't upset with me," Windsong quickly added to Shadowcrest's statement.

"How did the others take to you hurting Neal?" Desertsand wondered.

"Rather well actually," Shadowcrest assured hir. "It didn’t hurt that hir broadcast had penetrated hir barriers, so we all knew why it had happened." Shi didn’t tell them that most of them had helped make a composite sketch of the human from Song’s nightmare and Tess was looking for matches in the databases she had access to.

"How long can you two stay?" Silverpelt asked, the look on hir muzzle making it plain that whatever they said would be less than shi wished.

Windsong smiled as shi said, "I believe we have a couple more hours before we need to start heading back to catch our ride." Shadowcrest nodded in agreement.

"Good!" Desertsand exclaimed, "Because there’s this great little restaurant just a few minutes from here."

Two hours before the Folly’s last pod would be ready to lift, Tess relayed a message to Neal. He looked over the short note, thought for a minute before remembering the pregnant therapist that had helped with the furs from one of the medical facilities. Shi had stayed on the Folly a few days while Neal had struggled to get everything ready for ten times the number of colonists he had been expecting. It had been over twenty years, but Tigerlily hadn’t forgotten Neal’s promise to return the favor someday. He nodded slowly before tapping his comm badge. "Tess, let the kids know I need some volunteers for an extra shuttle trip. They will be taking one of the personnel shuttles a bit north of Big Sur, to pick up one passenger bound for Chakona. Give them the information Tigerlily gave us on Tauna. Oh yes, inform orbital control that we will be leaving a few hours later than scheduled."

"Sure thing boss," Tess replied as she relayed the information to those that needed it.

Just before dawn, the old assault shuttle settled gently into a snow-covered field near the Lake Valley clan’s village. Two chakat teens and a foxtaur vixen followed the map they had been given to one of the homes at the edge of the village. The smell of breakfast being prepared told them that the occupants were already up, so they knocked on the doorframe. The vixen that answered the door had a smoke-gray coat with golden blond tips. An apron hid and protected her four small breasts from the cooking the knock had interrupted. She eyed her early morning visitors with open surprise.

"Tauna Shadowback?" the foxtaur with the chakats asked. When the other vixen nodded, she said, "I’m Graysocks, and these are Dusk and Nightsky. We were sent to pick you up."

"I don’t understand," Tauna said, looking from one of them to the next.

Dusk smiled. "It seems you have a friend that knows our captain. He was told you needed a ride to Chakona."

Nightsky nodded. "Our captain said he owed Tigerlily a favor and that shi had finally called in hir marker," shi said with a grin. Catching a change in the odors coming from inside the den, shi added, "I think your breakfast is burning."

Tauna rushed back into the den to rescue what she could of the breakfast. Other calls from inside the den suggested she had been cooking for more than herself. The trio from the shuttle followed her into the warm den to find two other foxtaur vixens, Siri and Jaishu helping pull the pans of food off the heating elements. A fourth joined them, Zia’s hair and fur still wet from her shower. Graysocks and the chakats stayed out of the way while things settled down.

Dusk grinned as their hostesses worked. "Stormy would have a field day in this village," shi joked as shi watched the vixens run around their kitchen.

Zia looked up from where she was separating charcoal from fried potatoes. "Who is Stormy? And why would she be having a field day here?" she wondered.

Graysocks also grinned. "Stormy is a cute little chakat cub with the questionable habit of sampling every breast shi can get hir little paws on. And here you have a village full of four breasted vixens? Shi’d be in heaven!" she chuckled.

"Other than bothering today’s cook at a critical time, why are you here?" Jaishu asked, a burnt breakfast not improving her mood.

Dusk met her glare with steady eyes. "A friend of Tauna’s told our captain that Tauna is in need of transportation to Chakona. Since we were given short notice, I fear she won’t have much time to pack if she wants to go." Turning to Tauna, shi added, "I’m sorry to rush you – but for us the clock is ticking."

"When does your ship leave orbit?" Zia asked with open curiosity.

Nightsky snorted. "Two hours ago. Or at least that was the original plan. The captain gave us one more orbit to pick her up. We can spend a couple hours helping her pack and say her goodbyes before we have to boost." A little more gently shi added to Tauna, "That is, if you would like to go of course."

Tauna set down the dishes she had been holding and rushed out of the room.

"She can’t afford this," Zia warned them, looking in the direction her friend had gone.

"The ride is at the request of a friend; she won’t be charged," Dusk assured her. "Why don’t you help her pack? You’re going to have little enough time to say goodbye."

After Zia had left, Siri turned to Jaishu. "Our group is down to two hunters," she quietly pointed out.

"We’ll get by," Jaishu assured her.

Zia poked her head around the corner to ask, "What’s her weight limit?"

"Whatever the seven of us can carry," Dusk assured her with a grin.

"Please start recording Tess."


"Hello again. I know it’s been less than two weeks, but a few things have happened and I thought it best that you hear it now versus being surprised by it later. This is being sent to the group rather than just my parents because I want them to have the support of the others. First let me say that everyone’s okay – well physically okay, and the rest is nothing that we can’t overcome. Some of your past messages hinted that you were worried about how Neal would treat us, especially after New Kiev. The teens and I have discussed it, and I am going to send you the recordings of that morning. We had thought about editing them to remove some of the parts we thought might upset you, but then you would wonder what could have been so bad that we wouldn’t show you. I am also sending a short news clip that was used to twist the truth of what happened in New Kiev. The clip was used on Earth to get furs to hate Neal. A couple of furs decided to destroy some of Neal’s cargo in retaliation. As a result, Neal and I were injured." Shadowcrest took a long shuddering breath before shi continued. "Thanks to one of his Rakshani mates, Neal’s injuries were not life threatening. Unfortunately I was not so lucky and mine were. Fortunately, the Folly has a process that was able to repair the damage, but at a cost." Shi adjusted the camera that had been focused on just hir face, letting it zoom out to take in hir upper torso. Turning to the side, shi called, "Stormy? I need a hug!" The little chakat leaped into hir arms for a snuggle. Still holding hir, Shadowcrest turned back to the camera. "This is Chakat Firestorm, daughter of RushingStream and Whitepaws. I was holding hir in my last message, so shi will give you some reference as to how I’ve changed. Hir parents were killed during the attack of the New Kiev spaceport. Hir sire was Chakat Whitepaws, daughter of Snowfall and Sandrunner. They may or may not know that their daughter is dead. Neal hasn’t been able to reach them, so they probably don’t know they have a granddaughter. If you would please, let them know. Once they know, I have a feeling they will be joining your group. All my love, Shadowcrest out."

"Got it," Tess told hir. "Do you want to play it back or do any editing?"

Giving Stormy a tickle, Shady shook hir head, "Send it as is. Thank you Tess."


Chapter 9  


Tauna sat looking out one of the small view ports mesmerized. She hadn’t had much time to think since Graysocks and the two chakats had knocked on the door of her den. The lure of being able to chase after her friend Vanessa had her throwing caution to the winds – first by having her abandon her other friends, and then by having her throw in her lot with someone she didn’t even know. She watched now as the blue of what should have been an early morning sky faded to a pitch black as the whistle of air across the hull of the small shuttle faded to silence, leaving only a light hum and the slight rushing noise of air through a nearby vent.

She looked forward as one of the chakats exchanged instructions with someone on the comm system.

"ETA ten minutes at your current acceleration, Folly," Dusk said after checking hir instruments.

"I see nothing that should interfere with your current course, and Neal says to park in bay Eight. He has some things he wants to check out," the voice replied.

"Thanks Tess," Dusk acknowledged. Feeling curious eyes on hir, shi turned back to check on their passenger. "How are you feeling?" shi asked as shi tried to carefully gauge the foxtaur vixen’s emotions.

"I’m not sure how I should be feeling," Tauna admitted. "I think I just dropped my life behind me without making sure there was really something to pick up on the other side."

"Been there, done that," the other chakat told her as shi turned from hir engineering station. Nightsky grinned as shi continued, "We had thought we were going to just sneak aboard a ship and look around for a few hours before being caught and sent home. Instead we ended up on the wrong ship and got thrown into a real adventure!"

"Are you complaining?" Dusk asked with a knowing grin.

Nightsky just laughed. "Hell no! I wouldn’t have missed this for the world."

Graysocks also grinned as she told their guest, "If you want to see the ship you’ll be riding in, go over to one of the port view ports. The Folly will be coming into view in just a minute."

Tauna looked out the suggested view port. The shuttle rolled slightly and a ship came into view. It looked to her like someone had balanced two small melons on a corncob. Like a corncob, not all the kernels were the same size, and some were missing. The only things breaking that illusion were the color and the two struts that swept forward to hold the ship’s warp engines a third of the way up the corncob. She turned away to listen to a voice tease her pilots about something, when she turned back; she was shocked to see how much larger the ship had grown.

Nightsky had felt her emotional spike. "You all right?" shi softly asked.

"It didn’t look that big a moment ago! I’m having trouble gauging size… and I guess distance out here," Tauna admitted.

Nightsky smiled. "Completely understandable. There are no references for you to use, and the lack of an atmosphere means there’s no softening of edges or shadows. Here’s a hint; each of those larger ‘corn kernels’ is a sixty-meter cube. The corncob section itself is about two kilometers long."

"I knew they had to be large to move a lot of cargo, but I didn’t think they got this big," She said as they drifted past the rings of cargo pods, and up towards the two spheres.

"The Folly is a bit larger than average. I think it’s because her captain hates to make two trips when one will do," Dusk said with a grin.

As the shuttle got closer, Tauna watched as their shuttle seemed to drift over and up the larger ship. They seemed to lose their race as they reached a point midway between the two melons, drifting inward instead of forward. Moments later, tractor beams gently pulled them into a slowly opening hanger. Once the shuttle was securely docked, the teens led their guest through the airlocks. A lift dropped them deep into the lower sphere, releasing them into the living area.

Walking down one of the numerous corridors, Nightsky smiled as shi asked, "Shall we room her near our other ‘guests’?"

"The room next to Song is free," Dusk agreed. At Tauna’s raised eyebrow, shi added, "That way, in case of trouble we can gather all of you up easier."

"Will there be trouble?" Tauna asked.

"Like our adopted father says, ‘hope for the best while preparing for the worst’," Dusk explained.

"Your room," Graysocks said as she waved Tauna into a room.

Tauna felt her jaw drop, as her heart seemed to sink. While quite large and with a bed big enough for her and all the hunt-mates she’d left behind, the room was stark and unappetizingly barren.

Seeing the chakats’ reaction to their guest’s emotions, Graysocks quickly added, "Perhaps we should’ve warned you that this room hasn’t been used yet. That means you get to decorate it any way you like."

"Can we help?" asked a very young voice from behind them. Tauna turned to find two small chakats openly staring at the latest newcomer.

"Isn’t it past your bedtimes?" Dusk reminded them. At Tauna’s confused look shi smiled at her. "We’ve been on Aussie time this week, so for us it’s getting late."

"Aww… please?" the smaller of the cubs begged.

"Not tonight Spitfire," Dusk told hir. "Ask again in the morning and Tauna may have a few chores for you and Darkstreak."

"Ya!" they both cried as they ran around a corner and towards what Tauna assumed was the nursery.

Turning back to Tauna, Dusk grinned. "I’ve bought you a little time, I suggest you get some ideas of what you want before they swamp you – unless you want a ‘cubs’ room?"

"Thank you, no," Tauna said with a half smile; still looking in the direction the cubs had left. Turning back to the others, she asked, "Do you have a catalog of materials I can work with?"

"Ask Tess; she knows what’s where," Graysocks advised her.

"And who is Tess?" Tauna asked, having only seen the three teens and pair of cubs so far.

"Oops! Sorry, Tess, this is Tauna; Tauna, Tess," Graysocks said waving an arm in the air.

"Greetings Tauna," Tess told her from a nearby speaker.

At Tauna’s surprised look, Dusk added, "Ship’s computer. You’ll find she’s pretty clever."

"Clever enough to suggest that you point our guest at one of the smaller holosuites where we can go through some of her options."

Tauna spun her head around as a new voice commented, "Trying to make our guest disappear before the rest of us are even sure you got her onboard?" The grinning red-headed human had barely registered before Tauna was distracted by a small blur of fur that launched itself right at her.

As she held the small and very playful chakat cub that had ‘attacked’ her, Tauna was again distracted – this time by a growled, "Stormy…" A tall female Rakshani had come from a different direction, and could see what hir little paws were up to. The little chakat changed hir attempt to undo the top’s fasteners into a quick hug.

"I’m Neal and this is Dessa," Neal said indicating the large Rakshani. Pointing at the cub in her arms, he added, "And that little handful is Firestorm. I’ll warn you right now that shi’ll try again."

"Try what again?" Tauna asked, having missed Stormy’s aborted attempt.

"To get under your top," Neal explained with a grin. "Shi likes giving new friends ‘milk checks’."

"I see," Tauna said as she looked down at the cub, who was doing hir best ‘I’m a little angel’ impression. "And who taught hir to greet strangers that way?"

"I like to place the blame on hir chakat big sisters," Neal said with a chuckle. "Shi woke up one day to find that there was more than one source of milk, so now shi’s always looking to see who else might have hir favorite treat."

Looking down at the little chakat in her arms, Tauna said, "Sorry Stormy, I don’t have any milk for you."

Graysocks laughed. "Trust me, shi won’t take your word for it, I know."

"Well then, I’d better be on my guard for kitty attacks," Tauna said as she gave the aforementioned kitten a tickle before letting hir down.

"Good luck," Neal told her with a grin. "Just remember, you have to sleep sometime," he warned her with a chuckle, before he and the tall Rakshani left the way Dessa had come.

"So," Dusk asked as they turned back to their guest, "do you want to make a virtual mess before you try a real one?" at Tauna’s nod they led her to one of the holosuites before getting back to their other chores.

Tauna found herself in what looked like the same bare room she had seen a few minutes ago. "How do I do this?" she asked the empty room.

"Whatever is easiest for you," Tess replied. "Some like to vocalize what they want, others like a control board or a color palette that you can ‘paint’ what you like, or any combination."

"Lets try a color palette," Tauna decided, and one appeared before her with a brush clipped to the edge of it. She dabbed the brush into one of the colors and smeared a blob of paint across a section of the board. A brush full of another color was added across the first. A little of a third was added to a point where the other two were close to the shade she wanted. Touching the concoction at the point where she thought they met her desired color, Tauna touched the brush to a wall, where the color spread to cover the entire surface. Eyeing the wall, Tauna murmured, "Maybe just a shade darker." The wall darkened slightly. Nodding, Tauna asked, "What types of storage options do I have to play with? I’m not planning on getting too fancy for a three week trip."

"My current estimate is thirteen weeks to Chakona," Tess informed her.

"But – I checked the cruise ship schedules! The direct ones get there in a little over three weeks!"

"Had we stayed on our original schedule we would have been on a more direct run to Chakona," Tess agreed. "However, there was a change in which companies we ship for. This removed our priority to get to Chakona, and the captain picked up a few orders requiring stops between here and there."

"If we’re going to be taking that long to get to Chakona, then I need to send a message to my friend."

"That can be arranged," Tess assured her. "Whom do we need to contact?"

"Vanessa Saroian – she’s on a cruise liner named the Star Nomad on her way to Chakona."

"We won’t be able to reach them directly; do you know where your friend will be staying on Chakona?"

"No, but a mutual friend on Earth might be able to find out for me. Hir name is Chakat Topaz, daughter of Tigerlily and Dawnlight."

"Is this the same Tigerlily who informed Neal that you needed a ride?"


"Then get your message ready, I still have hir comm code in memory and I can send it through the next relay we pass."

"Thank you Tess."

"You are welcome Tauna. Now, did you wish to do a little more with your room?"

"I think so, yes," Tauna agreed as she reached for the controls to scroll through her choices.

Dessa had led Neal to one of the smaller and currently unoccupied lounges.

As she indicated that he should sit in one of the chairs, Neal commented, "Well, this isn’t ‘my room or yours’. What are you up to, kitten?"

A little hesitant, Dessa replied, "I wanted to ask you something that has nothing to do with the bedroom."

Neal grinned. "Until something or someone intercedes, you have my complete and undivided attention."

She knelt beside his chair. "Would you be my lifemate?" she blurted out – looking like she wanted to take it back as soon as it left her lips.

After waiting a moment to see if she’d say more, Neal asked, "Are you still worried about our little run through the carriers?" At her cautious headshake he said, "Then yes, I would be honored to be your lifemate."

"Why did you ask if I was worried?" she wondered.

"If you were offering it as an apology, then you’d have been doing it for all the wrong reasons, and I wouldn’t have accepted," Neal said as he pulled her into a hug.

Having watched Stew chase some of the older kids out of her kitchen earlier, Tauna was wondering what to do about her growing hunger. She was roaming the halls when Neal came around a corner.

"Bored?" he asked.

"A little hungry actually," she admitted.

"Well, I could do with a snack myself. Let’s go raid the kitchen."

"Won’t the cook get after us?"

"Not if we’re sneaky enough," Neal assured her with a grin.

Leading her into the kitchen, Neal headed for the storage area. "What do you say to some stuffed baked potatoes?" he asked as he grabbed several.

"Stuffed with what?" she asked.

"I was thinking of roast beef and broccoli smothered in cheese – unless you’d prefer somethi