A Mother’s Pride by Allen Fesler © 2010-11
Chakat universe © Bernard ‘Goldfur’ Doove
Jo Cochran, Sungold, Clyde belong to Tim Rumph
(Got a box of puzzles as a Christmas gift. One of them was named ‘mother’s pride’ and had a wolf and her cubs looking out of their den. Funny how that made me think of other mothers and who they might be proud of.)
((Warning, this is further along than my Folly tale or Tim’s Family Affair.))
Chakona Gateway Station, Medical section
Doctor Jo Cochran was just finishing up her morning reports when Weaver stuck her head in the door. "Hey Jo, reception told me I could find you hiding back here," the foxtaur informed her with a grin.
"You know how it is, the paperwork never seems to be finished," Jo replied. "What brings you by?"
"Well, Folly’s swapping some loads with Gateway, and I was told it was about your lunchtime. So if you’re ready to take a break?"
"Sure, just let me save this and lock my workstation," Jo agreed putting words to action before standing to give Weaver a proper hug.
"May I suggest Chinese?" Jo asked with a grin. "There’s a great little place just around the corner."
"Works for me." Weaver readily agreed.
Jo tapped her comm badge as they walked and said, "Clyde, I'm going to the China Palace for lunch, please let Mystie know where I am."
"Of course, Dr. Cochran," replied a male sounding but still mechanical voice.
Weaver grinned and said, "That doesn't sound like a Clyde."
Jo chuckled and replied, "That's the hospital AI, and as for why it's named Clyde, you’ll have to ask Sungold, my boss. Be warned, I've asked hir half a dozen times and haven't gotten the same answer twice."
"I’ll be over at the China Palace," Jo called out to the chakat in the next office as they strolled by.
"Don’t forget your emergency comm, and pick me up a cappuccino on your way back if you would please!" shi called back.
"Sure thing, Sun," Jo replied. "I swear shi runs on those things," she jokingly told Weaver as they headed for the exit to the station proper.
Weaver chuckled. "For Neal, it’s tea. He got little caches of different types all over that ship of his."
"Sounds like a regular treasure hunt, I wish we’d had more time to explore," Jo said as they joined the short queue waiting to be served, business being light because they were between the station’s main shift lunch and evening meal. "There’s a coffee shop down on the B-shift residential area, and Bobby has occasionally surprises me with some interesting offerings."
"Hmmm, maybe you should ask him if anything new just came in?" Weaver half joked, "After all, Neal might be one of his suppliers."
Once they reached the front of the serving line, Jo chose rabbit to go with her noodles and veggies while Weaver decided to try their chicken and rice.
Jo’s comm unit chirped just as they were sitting down at an unoccupied table with adjustable seating, "Chakona Gateway, this is the cruise ship Tahiti, we have suffered an engineering emergency and are in need of assistance, please respond."
"Tahiti, this is Gateway Control. Please state the nature of your emergency."
"Gateway, we are still investigating the cause, but something tripped our core breach protocols. Our core has been jettisoned and we are adrift with limited power. Due to our position, the core was ejected towards Chakona. We estimate twenty minutes before it enters the upper atmosphere."
"Tahiti, all our heavy lift shuttles are away from the station at this time. We will need to coordinate with Starbase 2 to recover you and your core."
"Orbital dynamics says it’ll take them too long to get there," stated a young voice out of Weaver’s comm badge, surprising both of them. "Where’s Alex?"
"Out of the pod, talking to a quartermaster," replied a second, equally young voice.
Weaver and Jo looked at each other in surprise as they heard Holly’s voice answer, "We don’t have time to wait for him, start buttoning us up!" both comm badges chirped before she said, "Gateway Control, this is Folly Heavy-lift Alpha. We are aware of your situation and offer our assistance."
"Folly Alpha, stay off this channel, we have the situation under control," stated the voice of Gateway Control, sounding harried.
"One question before I drop off, Gateway Control," Holly’s voice asked, "What’s the ETA of Starbase 2’s shuttle?"
Jo’s comm remained silent as Weaver’s said, "Secured, sis. Ready to launch minus the pod. What’d Control say?"
"He’s dithering, no help from that direction," Holly replied. "Tess, we need tactical of all ships around Gateway. Current vectors and estimated paths."
"Coming right up," Tess’ voice said. "The green lines will be your best paths through the other orbits."
"Hey! What are you brats up to?" Alex’s voice suddenly demanded.
"A ship just dumped her core towards Chakona and we’re in the best position to go get it," Holly replied. "Don’t worry, we won’t do anything too crazy, we promise."
"Damn it … ok go. I’ll try to square it with Dad," Alex agreed.
"Hard locks and umbilicals detached, anchoring tractor beams only," Quickdash reported.
Weaver was about to tap her badge when she saw Neal walking in. "The kids –," she called out, only to have him wave her off.
"Are at it again, I heard," he said tapping his glasses with a finger as he headed over to the main cashier.
Jo and Weaver suddenly realized that they were the only ones in the room keyed up, it seemed no one else had a comm unit monitoring the emergency channels.
"Switch over to channel 42," they heard Neal ask the cashier.
Arching an eyebrow at Weaver, Jo said, "42 is a dead channel, there’s never been anything on it."
Which was the same thing the cashier was telling Neal. At his insistence she tried it, only to find it was no longer empty. The main screen now held what appeared to be a full tactical display of Gateway Station and the surrounding area. She idly checked the sub-channels, only to find them filling with additional information.
"We’re not going to get any help from Control," came from both comm units as well as the room’s speakers. "Start planning a least time zero/zero intercept to that loose core, figuring that we won’t have permission to push off the station and that shipping will not be cleared for us," Holly’s voice stated.
"Don’t they know they’re transmitting?" Jo wondered to Weaver. Others in the room were starting to take notice of the new ‘programming’.
"Better odds that they’re doing it on purpose," Neal replied for her as he joined them, his attention focused on the displays. "This way everyone in earshot knows that they are going out in spite of Gateway Control. Bet on every ship out there considering what they might do and how."
"Got it!" Quickdash's voice called out. "Up just enough to clear our pod, side thrusters for ten seconds, thirty more seconds will then have us clear of the station, full reaction thrust for four minutes to get us on our way, pausing thrust for fifteen seconds to not spray Odyssey as she crosses our back path, minor course correction for when we go through Gilbert’s spray … with a hard decel at the far end we can be zero/zero with the core in tractor beam range with three minutes to spare. Flip it high so it’ll be waiting for us to go after once we get Tahiti docked to Gateway."
A new voice came over the comms and speakers. "Alpha, this is Gateway Control. Suggest you use repulsion against the station on a bearing of 127 mark 45. Please spread your force over available space and limited to no greater than twenty tons per square meter, station integrity fields are being brought online for you now. Good hunting."
"More like fishing," Holly countered, "but thanks Control, that’ll save us some reaction mass and time. Reconfiguring for repulsion … disengaging from station now."
"New solution," Quickdash’s voice informed them, "increased repulsion as we gain station area to press it against – focused to avoid other ships docked, a little less than four minutes to have us at the proper intercept speed and trajectory."
One of the monitors showed the dark-side outer window shields had been closing as Control was speaking. Even from deep within the station they could now feel the gentle yet insistent vibration as the shuttle began pushing hard against the station. The vibration intensified a little before starting to slowly drop off as the shuttle quickly reached its desired speed from the station.
On one of the displays they could now see the shuttle moving at an ever-increasing speed away from the station. Another showed other ships and their current vectors as the shuttle zoomed towards them, several flashing red momentarily as their estimated paths intersected. A third display showed the station and its traffic as small dots to one side of the screen with the middle showing the arc of the upper atmosphere. To the far side were two dots, a ship that at on its current projected path would completely miss the station, and the flashing red icon of the core on an ever-increasing arc towards the upper atmosphere.
"Coming up on cutoff to avoid giving Odyssey a shove," Quickdash reported. "With the push off from Gateway we won’t need to resume thrust, switching over to reaction drives for the next maneuver."
"Coming up on Gilbert’s reaction exhaust, prepare for course correction … hold that, Gilbert has canceled thrust, timing looks good for us to miss their spray, thanks Gilbert!"
"Anytime, Alpha," a voice said as Gilbert resumed thrust and their vectors changed back to one that would intercept the station.
"You were right, they were talking out loud so everyone knew what they could do to help if they wanted," Jo mussed.
Neal nodded in agreement as Weaver asked, "Aren’t you going to say something to them?"
"What? And let them know they had my tentative approval?" Neal chuckled. "Better they think they’re on their own."
"Though you’re always watching?" Jo asked. While Weaver had hardly touched her meal Jo was already halfway through hers. She knew that she could be recalled at any moment, and meals could be few and far between when there was emergency work to do.
"I could have shut them down before they had the clamps released," Neal admitted, "but this needed doing and they were in the best position to do it. I will admit to being a little surprised they didn’t ask first, especially after having been grounded so recently."
Almost as if shi had heard him, Quickdash’s voice came out of just Weaver’s comm badge, "Should we tell Neal what we’re doing?"
"Too late to ask permission," Holly quietly pointed out, "wait ‘til we’re finished to ask forgiveness … if Tess hasn’t already tattled on us."
"So obeying my boss is being a tattletale?" Tess’s voice asked.
"Wonder if Arcs and Sparks will let us sleep with them … we’re sisters after all …" Quickdash was wondering out loud.
"You know he won’t kick us out," Holly replied, "but he might not let us play with his toys for a while."
"Time to start our decel to catch the core," Holly’s voice came from the main speakers. "Control, I’d like to toss it into a higher orbital arc to be retrieved after we have Tahiti secured."
"Agreed Alpha, how about above and behind Gateway? Arc it so it will ‘fall’ just in front of us and we can snag it with the station’s tractor beams. Sending suggested parameters now."
"Got it, and can do Control. I will add a transponder beacon to make it easier to keep track of," Holly agreed. "Coming up on Tahiti now, will scan for damage as we pass."
"What the hell?" Quickdash’s voice murmured from only Weaver’s comm badge. "There’s a small shuttle docked to her underside. Five life forms aboard."
"Maybe they plan on ‘sneaking’ onto the station while everyone’s watching the emergency," Holly suggested. "Tess, we need a channel to Gateway that Tahiti can’t monitor."
"You have one. Alex is presently in Gateway Control," Tess informed them.
"Thanks, Tess. Alex, warn Control this might not be an accident, there’s a shuttle attached to Tahiti that they haven’t bothered reporting."
"Roger, Alpha, I’ll let them know. Thanks for not getting too crazy out there … yet anyway."
"We love you too, big brother," Quickdash's voice said on Weaver’s badge as the main speakers had Holly’s voice saying, "Zero/zero with the core in range of our tractor beams. Pulling it in as we move to swing it up and over Gateway. Scan of the core says it had a hard and dirty shutdown. It’s hot, but no risk of a breach."
"Control copies, core is safe to recover."
They watched as the shuttle started gaining again on Tahiti, the core closing on the shuttle like a yoyo returning to a hand that was also in motion. Just as the core would have struck the shuttle Alpha shifted ‘up’ and spun on its axis, the core zooming around the shuttle before suddenly steadying on a new course. "Not bad," Neal muttered in approval. "They flipped it perfectly."
Weaver’s badge beeped as Alex said, "Nice one guys, the general consensus in Control was ‘holy shit’. I don’t think they see those types of stunts too often." Another voice in the background was heard correcting him, "My young friend, we see stunts all the time … now well executed stunts, not so often."
The voice of Control seemed to agree. "Nicely done Alpha. Are you guys for hire?" the main speakers asked.
"Negative, Control, we have other obligations," Holly told them. "Thanks for the offer though."
Alex’s voice was back on Weaver’s badge. "Control understands that there’s an unknown shuttle docked to the Tahiti, Chakona Defense Force fighters are going on alert and station security is preparing for possible trouble. Play it safe you two, Neal will skin me alive if something happens to you."
"We’ll keep our distance," Holly assured him. "I figured we only need two of the presser beams to hang on to Tahiti, that leaves the other two to catch that shuttle if they decide to try anything."
"Have your shield generators spun up just in case," Alex advised them.
"Yes, mother," they chorused.
"We’ll come in from above so they won’t have any reason to think we know about the shuttle," Holly stated as Alpha closed on the disabled ship.
"Tahiti, this is Alpha, we will be towing you to Gateway momentarily. Anything we should know about?" Holly’s voice asked from the speakers.
"Negative Alpha, we have sufficient power for life support and inertia dampeners for you to get us to Gateway."
"Roger, Tahiti. Sit back and enjoy the ride."
Jo snorted softly as she said, "They make it sound like this type of rescue is an everyday occurrence for them."
"All the better to not panic Tahiti or Control," Neal chuckled. "How do you think they’d be reacting if they knew they had a pair of eight year olds for their rescuers?"
Jo shook her head. "About as well as if they discovered Teri has a concealed phaser permit."
"At some point you have to show you trust them," Neal told her. "For some, that trust seems to come a lot earlier than we’re ready for."
"You didn’t have to give them that trust that early," she countered.
"Nor did you," Neal softly pointed out. "But you do if they’ve proven to be worthy of the trust and responsibility."
Jo nodded. "Shi’s proven hirself, as have your ‘twins’ I think."
Neal nodded with her as Holly reported, "In position, tractor beams engaged."
Two short ranged fighters were pulling away from the station as Alpha took Tahiti in tow. They kept the shuttle between them and Tahiti before passing over and under the ship. "An escort?" Holly asked as if in surprise, "Afraid we couldn’t find the station two times in a row?" she snickered.
"Just an extra set of eyes," the fox morph in one of the fighters replied. "You can’t see all the angles from where you’re sitting. I’m Robinson, shi’s my girl Friday."
"No problem," Holly agreed. "I’d offer to race you back, but we already got in trouble for that last week."
"Never mind the ship you’re dragging around," Robinson half teased.
"Tahiti’s not that heavy," Holly argued. "We could still give you a run for your money."
"Private channel please," said Robinson’s voice from only Weaver’s comm. "Private channel," Holly’s voice agreed a moment later.
"The only ‘speeding’ issue I’ve heard of lately were a pair of cubs whose captain should have known better," Robinson commented.
"Sadly, he still doesn’t know any better," Holly informed him. "You gonna tattle to Control?"
"Shit shit shit …" Robinson was heard muttering before he asked, "Where are your damn keepers?"
"In Control. There wasn’t time for us to get him back onboard," Quickdash explained.
"And I’m listening," Alex’s voice quietly added. "Short of our captain, you have our best team for this type of work."
"Damn it, I don’t like having cubs in the middle of things," Robinson complained as the shuttle began shifting the cruiser’s path.
"Tough, we’re what you got," they heard Holly fire back on Weaver’s comm badge just before saying through the main speakers, "Heads up! That shuttle’s powering up!"
"Unidentified Shuttle! You will remained docked and you will power down at once!" Robinson's voice cracked through the main speakers.
"Shields up!" Quickdash's voice sang out. "We have a spare presser beam if they try coming our way."
"We just detected a second unidentified closing rapidly on your position. It’s now reporting a transponder of Zulu 34," Control reported
"That’s one of mine," Neal said, his voice echoing from the speakers. "I don’t like unpleasant surprises involving my crew or family."
"We have the situation under control," Control replied.
"Then you won’t mind an observer," Neal ‘suggested’. "Give us a deep scan, Tess. I would like to know what else might be coming our way."
"Links, Boss?" Tess’s voice asked from the speakers.
"If you can get them," Neal agreed.
In the background noise of the restaurant Jo could hear others making preparations for the possible trouble inbound. ‘Jake? This Kilroy, there’s something off about a ship being towed our way. I want you to get all the outside crews in ASAP. Why? Flip to channel 42 … Trust me, it ain’t dead now.’
Jo’s comm unit also beeped. "Jo, this is Sun. Control’s let us know we’ve got possible problems inbound."
"I know," she replied. "It’s on the main screens over here. Looks like it will be a little while before they’ll have any work for us."
"And how are you more in the know than I am?" Sun demanded.
"It’s the bad company I’ve been keeping," Jo told hir with a chuckle. "Check out channel 42, it seems it might be reserved for certain people and uses."
"Tahiti is not getting this," Tess reported as a tactical display of the Tahiti suddenly filled the main screen. "Someone thought they were being clever by adding trace amounts of Boronike to their weapons …"
"Which makes it easier for us to detect them," Neal finished with a smile. "It does keep us from just beaming their weapons away," he admitted.
A moment later Tess added, "We have the five in the shuttle, two on the bridge with crew members present, two more guarding access to the bridge, three in engineering with a corpse."
"How close can you get?"
"One meter if I can bring the Zulu in closer," Tess replied.
"Unless Control objects …" Neal said out loud before waiting a few seconds but Control didn’t respond. "Do it. Any luck with their command codes?"
"Tahiti is part of the Katrina Cruise Lines," Tess informed them. "Their local office was able to supply Tahiti’s current command codes."
"Start locking her down without her bridge knowing," Neal advised. "I don’t want to put any more of her crew or passengers at risk other than those already being held. Try their computer records, I’ll bet that core dump was part of this."
"Records show Tahiti’s chief engineer, a fox tod named ‘Chris Whitewater’ deliberately dumped their core, boss. Looks like the shuttle snuck up and forcibly docked with them as they were coming in.
"That shuttle’s detaching from Tahiti, presser beam ready if they try to close on us," Holly’s voice reported just before Quickdash’s said, "I see weapons coming on line! I’m ‘kicking’ them with the beam to spoil their aim."
"Disable them, Tess," Neal ordered.
"One meter of control runs and power interface systems gone, Boss," Tess reported moments later as the shuttle suddenly went dark and started to drift.
"I need to get over to Tahiti, somehow," Robinson muttered over the private channel.
"Can do if you’re that gung-ho," Neal replied.
"Who are you?" Robinson asked.
"Just that idiot captain that doesn’t know any better," Neal answered. "The transporter that just disabled their shuttle is life rated, if you trust me."
"Friday, remote my beast. I’m going in," they heard Robinson’s voice say. "Ok, how close can you get me?"
"We’ve secured the command codes for Tahiti," Neal told him. "The only lives directly at risk are those on the bridge, but main access to the bridge is guarded."
"So where do I come in?"
"Well, there is an empty head just off the bridge," Neal suggested. "Your targets are both human, but there’s a fox morph in the way. Suggest you set your phaser for wide beam medium stun. They’re wearing stun shields but they’re currently off."
"You and I are going to have a little chat when this is over," Robinson told him as he readied his weapon.
"If you say so," Neal chuckled. "Let me know when you’re ready."
"No – ow," Robinson said, only to find himself already in a restroom. "Damn …" he muttered before heading for the door.
"I overrode the door controls so they won’t open until you’re ready," Tess’s voice told him. "If you’ll look to the mirror, I have the bridge’s feeds up for you."
"And just who are you?" Robinson asked as he adjusted his phaser’s settings.
"Call me Tess. I’m your primary link to all things Folly."
"Please don’t tell me you’re another kid," he half asked.
"No you’re not a kid, or no you’re not going to tell me?" Robinson softly muttered as he studied the bridge feeds.
"I’ve been a ship’s AI longer than Chakona’s had a name," Tess told him.
"If you have full control, can you give me some type of distraction to get them looking the other way as I come in?"
"Can do," Tess replied. "Let me know when you’re ready."
"Since you can see everything at once, I’ll go on your mark, open the door as they turn away," Robinson suggested.
The door opened onto an alarm sounding on a bridge station away from the head. As the others movement had given him a clear shot, Robinson narrowed his beam before firing. He came fully out of the head as both humans dropped unconsciously to the deck.
"Stop her!" a male cattaur in a captain’s top shouted as a female skunk quickly bent over one of the prone humans.
She quickly stood up with something in each of her hands. "Nice try hero," she snarled at Robinson as she raised one hand. "This is a dead-man’s switch, which I just rearmed. Shoot me now and bombs go off all over this ship." Her other hand then came up; her phaser shot just missing Robinson as he dodged to one side.
"Get her to move away from the humans," Tess whispered in his ear.
Robinson fired a shot at the ceiling as he dodged the other way, the skunk hitting another console as she missed again.
Phaser arm extended, she tried to get a bead on the fast moving fox. As she turned, she brought her other arm up and away from her body as a counter weight. A she fired for the third time, her hands were just over a meter apart and Tess acted.
Robinson hit the deck with the scorching burn of a near miss across his back as a scream rang out on the bridge. He looked up in surprise at the now sobbing skunk, who had dropped her phaser and was clutching the hand that had held the dead man’s switch. The switch was gone – as was a good portion of her hand.
"Poor design," Tess’s voice told him. "I was able to duplicate its standby signal so those bombs won’t be going off. I removed the trigger so she couldn’t send the detonation string."
"And her hand?" Robinson asked.
"She barely got it clear of the Boronike, I had trouble locking on to just the trigger."
"I didn’t think AIs made those type of decisions," Robinson commented as he gave the wounded skunk a stun shot on the off chance she decided to try anything.
Neal’s voice replied, "Her orders were to remove the threat. Her parameters include killing if it saved lives. As her best targets were head or hand, she merely took the hand."
"I don’t think I like the way you think," Robinson muttered as he reached for a first aid kit to close the still bleeding stump.
"Then we have something in common," Neal replied more coldly. "Had you followed my suggestion and stunned her along with the rest, we wouldn’t be having this discussion."
Robinson growled, but instead he asked, "What of the rest of them?"
Tess answered him with, "Doors controls are sealed, with oxygen levels dropping to knock them out. The only ones with any real override control are in engineering and about all they can do is vent themselves into space."
"I thought these things had gas and stun in case of capture?" Robinson groused.
"They do," a new voice said. The captain, a timber wolf colored cattaur named Perez reached down and carefully removed the watch and equipment belt from the unconscious skunk before he added, "Though if your engineering’s second is in on the attack …"
"I tried them as soon as I had your command codes," Tess’s voice admitted.
"And how would you have acquired those?" Perez asked mildly.
"That we can discuss in person," Neal suggested.
"That sounded remotely like a threat, and you sound human," Perez commented.
"I am human," Neal admitted. "And the shuttle and remote drone are mine … I do suggest though that you don’t try putting me in the same group your engineering second belongs in."
"I’ll take that under advisement," Perez grudgingly agreed.
"Five minutes to Gateway," Holly reported just then. "Handoff to Control on four."
"Hang loose until Control confirms a good dock," Neal told her.
"Aye, Captain, will wait on Control’s confirmation," she agreed over the main speakers. "See? We can sound official when we have to!" was then heard over Weaver’s badge as they taunted Robinson.
That Robinson wasn’t the only one to hear it became apparent when Perez’s voice asked, "And just who was that, Lieutenant?"
"You really don’t want to know," they heard Robinson tell him, "Hell, I don’t think I want to know until I’ve had three shots and a chaser!"
"You’re not instilling any confidence, Lieutenant."
"Let’s just say it’s no stranger than them being able to get your codes and drop me in your head, Captain."
"Tahiti this is Katrina Cruise Lines, this is Rock. Report," came a new voice on Weaver’s comm unit.
"Excuse me, Lieutenant, but I believe it’s my turn to report in," they heard Perez say.
"Do you want their conversation?" Tess asked.
"Save it for now," Neal said, "I’ll listen to it when we’re not busy."
"Sure thing, boss. Sounds like she’s just telling him to keep his mouth shut and keep his focus on his passengers and crew."
Jo shivered. "I’ve had to deal with Rock before. A more direct Caitian you will not find."
They spent the next couple minutes listening to Alpha and Control agree on the port they would bring Tahiti to. From Weaver’s comm they heard what Control wasn’t saying over the publicly received channels. "Son of a bitch! They stopped Tahiti at precisely two meters, lined up and squared. I don’t care what they cost – hire those guys!"
"Showoffs," Neal muttered before giving Weaver a smirk. "Have you ever considered relocating to Chakona?" he asked.
"They’ll change their minds as soon as they see them," she retorted.
"Could be fun until then," Neal suggested. "The kids can play it as they like."
"So, you’re going to admit to them that you knew what was going on the whole time?" she asked.
Neal frowned at her. "If they’re that dense I shouldn’t be letting them fly," he pointed out. "Tell you what, finish your meal and we’ll see how they do," he suggested as he turned to go.
Weaver found him waiting in a small conference room; Holly and Quickdash were with him. "So, how’d it go?" Weaver asked.
Holly laughed. "We were gonna get half again what their top shuttle driver gets –"
"Each!" Quickdash cut in.
" – but they changed their minds when Quickdash asked if it included being read bedtime stories …" she finished, giving Quickdash a dirty look.
"That was letting them down gently," Neal chuckled.
As the two youths told the story from their perspective, Alex and a skunktaur wearing a white headband came into the room. The skunktaur listened to them for a minute before saying, "You’ve got to be kidding me! There’s no way …"
Alex half shrugged. "This is Mork, from Control," he said as way of introduction.
"Way," Neal replied to the skunktaur. "If you want proof, I’ll let you take a ride with them."
"I’ll take a piece of that action," a fox morph said as he and a chakat entered the room.
"As I recognize your voice, this must be your herm Friday," Neal said with a smile, nodding at the yellow and white striped chakat.
"And you must be that captain that should know better," Robinson countered without a smile.
Neal shrugged. "If you had a pair that fly as well as these two, would you let them?"
"I checked, they can’t fly without supervision," Robinson pointed out.
"I was in constant contact with them throughout the mission," Alex insisted.
"And I had complete remote control capability," Neal added.
"I think you’re just trying to cover your tails," the fox grumbled.
"Speaking of remotes, you guys might want to pick better encryptions for yours," Neal suggested with a grin at the chakat.
"That was you?" Friday asked with a frown.
Neal nodded before saying; "I didn’t want you running his fighter into my Zulu, no need to have an antimatter mishap in the shipping lanes."
"I was told to get more info on it," shi replied.
"And you did," Neal replied with a smirk, "you now know that I have more than the average resources when it comes to dealing with nosy people."
"Just what resources do you have?" Mork wondered.
"We could put you guys in a new orbit," Quickdash offered.
"We could fill or empty your entire storage on this station," Holly countered.
"Kids …" Neal muttered. "Speaking of which, what’s Alpha’s reaction mass at?"
"Sixty-three percent, still enough for two more loads to Gateway and then that last delivery to Chakona," Holly assured him.
"That would require you to behave yourselves on the remaining runs," Neal commented.
"Aye, sir," they agreed together.
"It’s going to be kind of hard to show off if you can’t burn a little extra mass …" he suggested.
"Are you giving us permission to refuel?" Quickdash asked.
"The rescue wasn’t under your list of tasks, so I guess we can make some allowances," Neal agreed.
"So, you two coming?" Holly asked the fox and chakat.
"We’ve still got reports to fill out," Friday pointed out.
"We can lend you a PADD," Holly said, "Besides, we can then add the scan data we collected on the run."
Robinson nodded. "We’ll take that ride, just to see how you could have managed the shuttle and ship at the same time."
"Oh? So, does that mean you want to see us really challenged?" Holly asked with a mean looking grin. She turned to Neal. "Permission to use the X bar for our next delivery, sir."
"You know we won’t have time to balance it," Neal pointed out.
"All the better," Quickdash replied. "A proper challenge."
Neal tapped his comm badge. "Tess? Tell Baker they’re free, Alpha’s bringing over the last four."
"What’s an X Bar?" Robinson asked as he and Friday weren’t quite pushed out the door by the twins.
"It lets us move four of the pods in one trip and …" Holly was saying as the door closed behind them.
"Is it safe for them to use that thing?" Weaver asked once the door had closed.
"If they were using Echo I’d say ‘marginal’," Neal admitted, "but with Alpha they have more than enough power and control to handle it."
Mork frowned as hy said, "Is it just me, or did you just send those two out without supervision again?"
Neal grinned over at hym. "Your pilots will be with them – or don’t you trust them to be able to manage a mere cub and kit?"
"Normally I’d have full confidence in our Chakona Defense Force members, but you and yours are turning out to be a bit of an unknown," Mork admitted as the doors opened yet again.
The timber wolf colored cattaur from the Tahiti followed a very small female Caitian in.
Noticing that the Tahiti’s captain look like he was being force to attend his own hanging, Neal frowned at the Caitian as he said, "Have you been scaring the kids again, Rock?"
"No more than usual, Captain. Like you, I seem to have a reputation that causes some to fear crossing my path," she replied.
"Do we know how that skunk slipped through your screening?" he asked.
"There’s nothing obvious in her files, but the investigation is just beginning," she assured him.
"And the chief engineer?" Neal asked gently.
"Was killed after he tricked them and ejected the core," she softly told him. "It seems the attackers were disabling some of the sensors and safety systems, and Mr. Whitewater may have had reasons to believe they were going to attempt to utilize the warp engines while in range of the station."
Mork wasn’t the only one to shudder at the thoughts of the destruction a warp bubble forming up against the station could have achieved.
After a moment Neal murmured, "When he was certain there was no other way, he gave his life to save his ship and those on her. A fitting end for Mr. Whitewater, or anyone worthy of his salt."
Perez frowned. "What would you know about Whitewater?" he growled.
"Captain Foster helped train Mr. Whitewater," Rock softly replied. "As in he taught him what the schools don’t, both in making it do the impossible as well as taking control away from others if needed. You do remember the Baton Rouge incident five years ago?"
Perez slowly nodded, the swift cargo ship Baton Rouge had barely survived a pirate attack and had limped in on a jury-rigged core and warp engine. It hadn’t come out of warp so much as fallen out, the exhausted crew jettisoning the core and engine and using what power they had left to get as far away as they could before the core fell apart.
Neal shrugged. "I just show them where certain limits can be bent and how. If you’re already looking possible death in the face, bending a few things can be better than just giving up and dying."
"They had already locked us out, he shouldn’t have been able to do it," Perez said, confused.
"I suggest you never bet Captain Foster that something ‘can’t be done’," Rock softly advised him. "Deities know I’ve lost enough money betting against him …"
Weaver had been watching the three of them closely and now said, "Strange, you’re not acting like ‘The Rock’ everyone on this station fears. What in here is frightening you?"
"Nothing is frightening me," Rock corrected her with a bit more snap in her voice. "But it’s a very poor manager that raises her voice at a primary stock holder without a very good reason."
At Weaver’s glare, Neal said, "Okay, so I own some stock in some of the other transport companies. All the better to insure something gets there even if I can’t deliver it myself."
"Like Longsock?" she asked.
Neal nodded. "Though I try to keep things mostly ‘hands off’. Heck there’s a couple captains that regularly cuss me out – and not quite behind my back – not knowing that I’m the one that signs off on their bonuses."
"You two are going to keep your mouths shut about this, right?" Rock demanded of Mork and Perez. They both quickly nodded and Weaver caught a glimpse of what Jo had been telling her about the hard as nails Rock that ran this branch of the Katrina Cruise Lines with an iron will that you crossed at your own peril.
"Captain Perez, you and your crew are relieved of all duties pending the conclusion of the investigation." Rock cut off the cattaur’s open mouth with a curt wave of her hand. "After which you’ll be allowed to either spend your time either on Gateway or on Chakona while your ship is repaired. From your track record I’d say you have a very good team, one that Katrina Cruise Lines will not break up if we can avoid it."
Perez shook his head. "I have a couple people that can’t afford to be on half pay for too long."
"Full pay," Rock assured him. "It’s worth it to us to keep you as a set. If any of your people feel ‘uncomfortable’ drawing full pay for sitting on their tails, I’m sure there are any number of training and improvement classes we can send them to."
Perez shook his head in wonder before turning it back to stare at Rock. "What about engineers? I just lost my one and two …"
"That may take a little doing," Rock admitted. "Other captains won’t want to give up a good engineer." Looking over at Neal, she said, "Tell me you have some fresh blooded trainee we could use."
"Sorry," Neal told her, "I only have three trainees right now, and one will return to her family run ship when she is finished. The other two … well, while they’re further along in their studies, you can’t have them."
"Why not?" Rock didn’t quite demand.
"Well, they were the same ones that were running my shuttle when it went out and caught Tahiti," Neal told her, as he saw Weaver turn away to hide her grin.
"If you’re trying to make me not want them, you’re going about it the wrong way," Rock informed him.
"You must have seen them as you were coming in," Neal said, fighting back a grin of his own. "They were with that pair from the Chakona Defense Force."
Perez was the first to recall what he’d seen in the passageway. "But they were …"
"And that’s why you can’t have them – for at least another decade!" Weaver openly laughed.
"But they were …" Perez repeated.
"The best thing I could send on such short notice," Neal agreed. "Not that they waited. They were free of their cargo pod and planning an intercept a mere minute after your request for assistance came in."
"You sent cubs?" Rock demanded.
"No," Weaver cut in. "They sent themselves. Neal’s already trained those two well enough that they pretty much know what they can and can’t do – and they’re not afraid to go out and do it!" Weaver smiled a little. "There are times I am very proud of those two – when they’re not trying to give me gray hairs that is!"
Rock was looking thoughtful. "Perhaps it’s just as well they’re too young for now, I’d hate to think how fast those two could turn a well adjusted captain and his crew into nervous wrecks with their antics."
"It does help to have a Captain and chief engineer that’s a bit on the crazy side himself," Weaver said grinning at Neal.
"The longer I have them, the crazier I can make them – and you," Neal pointed out with a laugh.
"I don’t know, I think I’m as crazy as I’m going to get," she told him.
"Oh, I don’t know, we still have a few more months to take you over the top," Neal said.
"A few months? I think someone forgot that he’s my mate, and as such he’s not getting away from me that easily," Weaver teased.
"Save it for tonight you two," Alex said from where he’d been standing off to one side. "You sound like an old married couple, and the day you met wasn’t that long ago – I know, I was there. Let’s these guys get about their business and then you two can have at it."
"Somebody’s getting cocky," Neal told Weaver with a grin, "Should we make him handle the rest of the Gateway loads?"
Alex snorted. "The terror twins are bringing in the last four pods, and we have three going back, so unless Gateway puts them on opposite sides of the station I won’t even break a sweat."
"Anything else?" Neal asked of Rock. At her headshake, he turned to the others in the room, the skunktaur and cattaur also shaking their heads. "In that case, we do have some brats to chase down," he said as he and Weaver turned to go.
After the door had closed behind them, Mork turned to the Caitian. "How primary?" hy asked. When she only gave hym a tight smile in return, he sighed. "It must be nice not having to play politics, knowing you have only one boss – one that will back you up."
"It has had its advantages," Rock admitted. "It did take me a few years – and a couple minor disasters before I was finally doing things the way he wanted them done."
"What way is that?" Perez asked.
"That core – even damaged is worth a few million credits, your ship so much more. But without a smooth working crew it’s all worthless. It took time, and him rubbing my nose in it that the figures on the spreadsheet was not what showed a ship’s true value. It was not having to constantly replace or exchange expensive crew, it was finding and getting the right person in a slot that could not only do the job but worked well with those around them." Tilting her head a little at the cattaur, she added, "That’s why you and yours are on paid time off, you work too well as a group for me to split up. Never mind me then having to somehow re-crew Tahiti once she is repaired."
"So keeping us together is in your best interest," Perez stated.
"Of course," she agreed with a hint of a smile. "Having had to deal with Mr. Foster over the years has taught me that everyone is driven by their own self interests. Find those and you can predict which way they will jump."
"Are you saying you’ve figured out Neal’s self interests?" Alex asked from where he’d been quietly listening.
"No," Rock admitted. "I only know that he’s gearing up for something – something big. He’s slowly but steadily building up a considerable force of people that he can trust to do what he wants and needs them to do."
"Are you one of those people?" Mork asked her.
"I think I am, and through me he has complete control of most of Katrina Cruise Lines if he has a need of it." At Mork’s look of concern, she actually let out a laugh. "Were you here for the Kile Station disaster in the Wonder system?
Mork’s eyebrows rose at the question even as hy nodded. The Wonder system held no habitable planets, but its position and asteroid belts made it an important source for resources. Kile Station had had an accident rendering most of it uninhabitable, forcing the station population to crowd into the mining ships, shuttles, even into suits just to survive.
Rock nodded with hym. "Seven ships from five different lines were diverted to the Wonder system within hours of their distress call. Two of them were mine and I was able to speak to my equals in two of the other companies, we all received the same call. It was ‘Divert any and all ships in range to the Wonder system – they are to pick up as many of those in need as they are capable’. As mine, they received orders, not requests … How long do you think it would have taken Star Fleet to arrange a rescue – or find out what ships were out there and make the requests?"
Mork nodded again in memory. While Starbase 2 had taken the brunt of the load from the incoming ships, Gateway had taken their overload. What had impressed hym most when hy’d had time to think about it was the lack of issues between those ships and their crews, several of which normally would fight over such little things like which docking ports they received.
Rock smiled as if she could see hys mind working. "Each ship did what they could do best, even up to turning Harvest Moon into a hospital ship for the trip to the Chakona system with the primary doctors from all the other ships aboard."
"And you’re saying it was the work of one man," Mork slowly said.
Rock shrugged. "I only know how four of those ships got there. I do know though that all the companies involved had to pay out penalties and late fees for inconveniencing their passengers. I of course didn’t hear any complaints from the stockholders, but the rumors have it that none of the other managers had any problems with their superiors."
Alex chuckled, "It’s a damn good thing Weaver left with Neal or she’d be riding his ass for the next week over all these secrets he’s still keeping from her."
"Oh?" Rock asked. "Anything I should know if I run into her again?"
"A while back Neal had to admit that he was selling other companies antimatter, and now he’s told her he owns enough of your outfit that you have to be polite to him."
"Ah, but no more. I can handle that," Rock said.
"Jo Cochran over in medical is a friend of hers," Alex warned.
Rock smiled. "Knowing who is to know what is an old game for me," she told him. Looking at the other two she added, "I hope I can trust you two to treat what you’ve heard today as privileged information?"
Mork nodded and Perez commented as they all headed for the door, "I guess that explains the extra codes and identifiers my bridge crew needs to know."
"Indeed," Rock said with a nod, "Your most hated rival can give you those codes and you will do everything in your power to assist them."
"Much as you will if a certain redheaded human makes a request," Alex commented. "Damn, I wish we had more time so I could pick your brain about my adopted father!"
"Young man, from what I saw, you and Weaver already know all you need to about him. The rest is just details, details that won’t make him care any more or less about you," Rock half teased him.
"I know, but we sometimes find we’re working counter to him because we don’t know all of what he’s up to," Alex said as the door opened.
"So, what have we learned?" Cindy asked later that evening. The twelve youths from the carrier met without any of the other kids – or any of the adults to observe.
"That Neal controls a lot more of the shipping than just Folly. The next question would be why?" Morningmist said, hir tail tip gently flickering.
"We all know he has a major colony push going after this run, and it’s far too big for Folly to do by herself," Graysocks threw in.
"Maybe that’s part of it," Mike suggested. "He knows he’s going to majorly disrupt the shipping in parts of the Federation. By controlling more of the shipping, he could smooth the transition when some of those ships disappear into to a colony bound convoy."
Alex nodded. "That’s the read I got on Rock, Neal has her and the others looking at making things work – and not on how to save a credit or undercut the competition."
"Maybe that’s a piece of it too," Brighteyes added, "Records show that some shipping lanes are running ships at only half capacity, almost like someone’s making them share."
"How else would you train new crews and break in new ships?" Tess asked, breaking into their conversation. "As you have seen, simulators can take you only so far, and ‘milk runs’ don’t feel like the same thing because you know they’re not real. It’s one thing to be moving empties from one of my ports to another versus settling a few million credits of cargo onto a station."
"Do you know which ships are leaving with Neal?" Alex asked.
"I know which ones he’d like, but that doesn’t mean the crews will want to go," Tess admitted.
"Why do I think you and others have helped Neal crew those ships with people you think will want to go?" he laughed.
"Perhaps because you have a devious mind?" she replied.
"How many of us is he expecting to go with him?" Cindy asked.
"Weaver and a few others have told Neal in no uncertain terms that they are going. As for you guys? We don’t know."
"Why not?" Alex asked in surprise.
"Other than Cindy, the rest of you have parents to return you to," Tess pointed out.
"And some of us have other obligations, both here and there," Mike added as he looked over at Calmmeadow.
"Things for you guys to think about, but I believe a couple of you are due on my bridge in a few minutes – unless you think you can trust the ‘autopilot’," Tess pointed out.
"You heard the lady, back to work or sleep!" Mike laughed. "Don’t forget Weaver wanted things lined up so that Neal can’t find a reason not to take a day off," he reminded them as they broke up, Morningmist and Dusk heading for the bridge, the rest to other tasks or their rooms.
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