The Last Straw
by Tim Rumph
Chapter 2: School Daze


After walking home from school, Teri found hir dad in the kitchen. Shi dropped hir sandals and picked up hir cat, Fluffy. Shi was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a spaceship on it and a yellow and white floral print skirt. Will was cleaning greens that Jo had picked that morning from her garden before starting her two to ten shift at the hospital.

Will said, "Hello Squirt, how was school?"

"OK. Can I have a snack?"

"Thereís some fruit on the table."

Teri picked a pear out of the basket on the table and took a few bites. Shi said, "Dad, can you make something for me?"

"I suppose so. What do you need?"

"A toilet seat?"

Will stopped his work and looked at his daughter. "The last time I looked, your toilet had a seat on it."

"Itís not for here, itís for school."

"The toilets at school donít have seats?"

Teri licked hir nose. "They told me not to use the boysí room any more."

Will pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and sat down. He lifted up Teri, Fluffy, and the remains of the pear, and set them on his lap. Fluffy decided not to stay and jumped down.

"If they donít want you to use the boysí room, are you using the girlsí room now?"

Teri squirmed a bit and said, "They want me to use the Ďtaur room."

"Do you know why?"

"They said that Ďtaurs were used to having boys and girls and herms share, and I wouldnít bother them."

"I see. Have you talked to Shir Redfoot?"

"Shiís not there any more."

"So who is the school counselor now?"

Teri got a look of disgust on hir face, "Bishop Johnson."

"And you donít like Bishop Johnson."

Shi shook hir head.

"How long has this been going on?"

"Since school started."

"So this has been going on for two weeks and youíre only telling me now."

Teri now looked on the verge of tears and whispered, "Yesterday I had to take a poop and almost fell in."

Will hugged his daughter and said, "Iíll talk to your Mom when she gets home tonight and see what I can put together this weekend."

Teri turned around and gave hir dad a hug. "Thanks Dad." Shi jumped off of his lap and asked, "Can I go over to Mikeís?"

"What are you and Mike doing?"

"Weíre building a tree fort in his back woods."

Mike was another red fox morph Teriís age that lived down at the end of the street. His parents were Sean Phillips, a biomedical research chemist, and Alice Maeger, who was in technical sales. Mike had two sisters, Mitsy, who was 15 and a regular sitter for Teri, and Sarah, who was ten.

Having two morph families in the same neighborhood had caused some grumbling about property values, but in the three years since the Cochrans had moved in, no one had actually sold their house and left yet. They were mostly ignored by their neighbors except for a gay couple who lived across the street from the Cochrans. John McDonald was nearly 2m tall and very muscular with firey red hair and a lantern jaw. He was the soccer coach and athletic director at one of the high schools in town. He also participated in Scottish heavy athletics and Will had known him from when they were both in college. When his sexual preferences were discovered, there was some grumbling, but the Stellar Federation laws that gave some protection to the furs in the HCKNA also protected him.

Johnís partner, Lindsey Richmorland, was a black man about 150 cm tall. Lindsey was thin as a rail, but solid whip cord and had a dojo where he was a martial arts instructor. Before meeting John, he had been an unarmed combat instructor in the Star Fleet Marines.

John and Lindsey had a daughter, Eleanor, who was a year older than Teri. Eleanor was conceived by extracting genetic samples from her fathersí seamen, and combining them. After removing all of the Y-Y pairs and half of the X-Y pairs, the genetic material was randomly selected and inserted into three sterile eggs donated by Lindseyís sister, Leanne. Two of the fertilized eggs were cryogenically stored, and the third was brought to term by Leanne, whom Eleanor called her "Mama Lee". Her fathers were "Papa John" and "Papa Lind". Eleanor was another friend of Teriís.

"Does Mikeís dad know about this?"

Teri nodded, "Heís helping us."

Will had an idea about who was helping whom, which may have been different than his daughterís, but Sean was a sensible guy and would keep them out of trouble. "Put your jeans and sneakers on and you can go, but come straight home when your com alarm goes off!"

"OK Dad." and shi was out the door and heading down the hall.

Will shouted, "And put your sandals away!"

Teri scrambled back to the kitchen, grabbed hir sandals, and then was off down the hall again.

When Jo got back from the hospital, Will was in his recliner in the living room, reading. She dropped her bag and sauntered over to Will and smiled. "You are baking tomorrow; I smell bread growing in the kitchen."

Will returned her smile, "Itís not bread yet."

Jo pushed him over to the side so she could sit next to him and started cuddling, "Fresh bread is sexy."

Will put his arm around his wife and said, "Teri and Mike are building a tree fort."

Jo started nuzzling her mateís neck and said, "Tree forts are sexy."

Will gently groped her and said, "We need kitty litter."

Jo started nibbling on his ear and said, "Kitty litter is sexy."

Will started to open his mouth again, but Jo had had enough of this. She turned his face toward her and kissed him. After a bit, Jo broke off and licked his nose, "Whatís on your mind?"

"So youíre starting to be empathic like a chakat?"

"No, but when youíre preoccupied, you donít pay attention to your kissing. Fess up, buster!"

Will looked away from her and sighed. Turning back to her, he said, "Teri told me that the school doesnít want hir to use the boysí room any more, they want hir to go in the ítaur room instead. Shi almost fell in yesterday."

"You mean that Redfoot let them get away with that?"

"Apparently, Chakat Redfoot isnít there any more. Teri said the new counselor is a ĎBishop Johnsoní."

"Oh great! One of the reasons we decided to live here was because Redfoot was the counselor at the local school, and now weíve got some H1 whacko preacher."

"We havenít even met him yet."

Jo snorted. "I wonder why Redfoot didnít call us."

"I tried hir personal com this evening, and all I got was a very polite AI telling me to Ďbuzz offí. I sent hir a message, but havenít heard anything back yet."

Now Jo was starting to look worried. "You donít think that anything has happened to Redfoot do you?"

Will shook his head. "I think that they just have hir tied up in legal red tape, and shi hasnít had a chance to break out of it yet. After the riots when Chakat Gildedtongue was acquitted down in St. Altretic, theyíve been treading a little more carefully."

Jo shivered, remembering when that had happened, about twelve years before, while she had been doing her residency. Will wrapped both arms around her and gave her a hug. After a minute, she kissed him and said, "Thanks dear."

Will said, "I told Teri Iíd make something for hir to sit on, so if you two can go and get a toilet seat tomorrow, Iíll cobble up a frame for it from what Iíve got in the shop."

Jo nodded. "Youíre going to London Sunday night to present that paper, so Iíll go to the school Monday morning and see if I can find out whatís going on."

Will smiled. "Iím not presenting the paper; Iím only there for moral support."

"Jerry listed you as a co-author!"

Will waved that off. "I just helped a little bit."

Jo glared at her mate and said, "You spent thirty hours a week at the university for four months, plus trying to keep up with your current clients and drum up new business, and we ran out of bread, and we had to eat store bought bread for four weeks!"

She snuggled back up to him and continued, "And fresh bread is sexy, and if you donít take me to bed, Iím going to throw you down on the floor and shred your clothes, and then Teri will complain to us about the wet spot on the carpet, again!"

Being a sensible fellow, Will picked up his wife and carried her off to bed.

Jo had made an appointment with the schoolís AI over the weekend, and showed up at the school at 9:20 Monday morning. She was wearing a conservative business suit and her hair was done up in a bun instead of her usual pony tail. As she walked into the office, the secretary, a tabby cat morph, immediately dropped her ears and looked like she wanted to hide under the desk. Jo smiled at her and said, "Iím not angry at you, Lucy, I just want to see your boss."

Lucy buzzed the principal, Ms. Watson. After listening to her ear bud for a moment, she said, "You can go on back Mrs. Cochran. You know the way."

"Indeed I do. Thank you, Lucy."

When she went into the principalís office, Ms. Watson glared at her and said, "What is it this time, Mrs. Cochran?"

"Teriís father and I just wanted to know why have you decided to make Teri use the facilities for your centauroid students, and why didnít you tell us about this decision before school started?"

"We have gotten several complaints from other parents about hir sharing facilities with other children. The Ďtaurs room only holds one person, and the door has a latch on it to insure privacy."

"When we enrolled Teri here, I thought that we agreed that having hir use the boysí room would be the most sensible thing to do. At hir age, you can hardly tell that shiís not a boy without a physical examination." She thought Ďunless you can smell hir,í but decided that would not be helpful.

"None the less, the parents know what shi is and are complaining. It doesnít help that your child wears dresses or skirts half the time!"

Now Jo was starting to get more than a little bit steamed. She took a deep breath and tried to calm down; grateful that human noses were so insensitive that Ms. Watson couldnít smell her anger and frustration.

"I am of the opinion, and Teriís grandmother and your former school counsellor agree, that making Teri wear boysí clothes all of the time would not be good for hir. By the way, where is Chakat Redfoot?"

"Shi has been dismissed. I can not discuss personnel matters with our studentsí parents."

Trying to calm down again, Jo asked, "Are you planning to install a biped style toilet in the Ďtaurs room?"

Ms. Watson started shuffling some things about on her desktop, apparently wanting this to be done with. "I am trying to run this school on a limited budget, and I cannot justify the expense of another toilet in there for just one student. I really think that you should consider taking your child to another school or home schooling hir."

This had occurred to Jo, and she had discussed it with Will, but wasnít about to admit that right now. "My mate has made a seat that Teri can use on the Ďtaur facility. If you can send someone out with me to get it, itís in my PTV."

Ms. Watson snorted and said, "Iím sorry but we cannot have uncertified equipment in the school."

This was one thing that Jo and Will had planned for. Jo pulled her PADD out and said, "I have a document here certifying that this seat is structurally sound and meets all of the health and sanitation guidelines required by the state."

Ms. Watson reluctantly accepted the document, which including the drawings of the seat, a structural analysis, and a report citing the pertinent portions of the health and education department codes. In addition to manufacturing systems, Willís practice included machine design and facilities management. The document was sealed with Willís electronic signature as a licensed engineer. Having an engineer around the house did come in handy from time to time.

Looking up from the document, Ms. Watson said, "Very well Mrs. Cochran, Iíll have Davey meet you in the front office. Good day Mrs. Cochran."

As she turned and left the office, Jo thought again about taking Teri out of the school and just putting an end to all of this harassment, but it seemed too much like giving up. Jo had originally planned to also see this ĎBishop Johnsoní, but at the moment she was so worked up by her meeting with the principal, she felt that she should wait for later. Attacking the new school counselor would certainly not improve things.

Davey, a raccoon morph who looked like he should have retired ten years ago, followed her out to the PTV. When Jo handed him the seat, he said, "I made one of these the first day of school, but they made me take it out."

Jo gave him a hug and said, "Thanks for trying; I just wish they had your good sense." As he carried the seat back into the school, Jo told the PTV to go to the gym, hoping she could work off some of her frustration.

Jo left the gym feeling a little better, with the gym equipment suffering only minor damage. She had just gotten into her PTV when the com alarm went off, "Will you accept a call from Chakat Redfoot?"

Jo hollered "Yes! Redfoot, where have you been? What happened to you?"

Redfoot said, "Calm down a second Jo, can you meet me for lunch? Are you on duty this afternoon?"

"No, I worked Saturday night and Iím off today. Where do you want to eat?"

There werenít a lot of options for a pair of furs who wanted to eat lunch out. Discrimination was technically illegal, but a discrete H1 sticker by the door indicated someplace best to be avoided. Fortunately, Luigiís was an outstanding Italian place nearby that was run by a pair of rabbit morphs. When Jo came in, she smiled at hearing Redfoot and the proprietor, Ben, yakking back and forth in Italian. Redfoot was a medium sized chakat who had tan fur, fading to a medium cream color on hir belly. Hir hair was blond, and the tips of hir ears, the end of hir tail, and hir right hand-paw were a brick-red color. Shi spoke a number of languages, so that shi could make hir foreign students more comfortable. In the last couple of years, shi had been studying Caitian, after a Caitian family had moved in to do some work at the university.

Ben was a chubby rabbit morph wearing a white smock and cookís cap. As Jo walked up he said to Redfoot "English now please, Piede Rosso. It is impolite to leave Josephine out." He turned to give Jo a hug and a peck on the cheek. Ben had learned Italian while studying cooking in Italy. He said, "Josephine my dear, I am so happy to see you! Please have a seat," as he pulled a chair out for her.

Jo smiled and sat down, her mood improving just from being near the vivacious chef. "Why donít you call this place ĎBenísí instead of ĎLuigiísí?"

He smiled and replied, "Come, come, my dear. If you go into a place called ĎBenísí, you expect to get okra and collards with fat back and grits. If you want fine Italian cooking, you come to Luigiís!"

They all laughed at his antics as a young female rabbit morph in a waitressís uniform came up to them and smiled. Ben clutched her around the shoulders and said, "I would like to introduce you to my niece, Francine, who is studying at the university. My dear, this is Shir Redfoot and Dr. Cochran."

She smiled sweetly and said, "Pleased to meet you. One of my professors last spring was Dr. Cochran, but heís a human."

Redfoot winked at Jo and asked, "Is that a problem?"

"No, itís just that humans donít think much of their fur students."

Ben, who was a frequent host of the Cochran family, stepped back so that his niece couldnít see his face. His mouth was clamped firmly shut so he wouldnít burst out laughing.

Jo smiled sweetly. "Does he treat you any differently than the human students in his class?"

Francine thought for a moment. "No, now that you mention it, he doesnít. The only students he harasses are the stupid ones, regardless of whether they are humans or furs."

Jo nodded and said, "You shouldnít jump to conclusions so quickly about people just because they are humans or furs. People are all different and deserve to be judged on their own merit."

Francine nodded and asked, "Do you know my Dr. Cochran?"

Jo grinned at her use of the possessive. "Somewhat, he is my mate."

At this, the inside of Francineís ears turned bright pink. Her uncle couldnít hold it any more and burst out laughing. Ben grabbed his niece around the shoulder again. "Donít worry love, Shir Redfoot and I set you up, that is what we were talking about before. Dr. Cochran was bright enough to catch on to what was going on."

Seeing that Jo was still smiling and not upset, Francine regained some of her composure and asked, "Are you an engineer too, Dr. Cochran?"

"Oh god no, one gear-head in the family is enough. Iím a physician at the University Hospital."

Francine gave her uncle a peck on the cheek. "Mama warned me about you, I should have paid more attention to her." Turning back to her customers, she pulled out her pad and smiled. "Now, what can I get for you?"

After sticking to small talk during their meal, Jo asked as they were finishing up, "So, whatís been going on at the school?"

Redfoot frowned and said, "When I got to the school the day before the term started, there were two sheriffís deputies and one of the districtís IT guys waiting for me. While the IT guy hosed my PADD and com, the deputies served me with an injunction to stay away from school property and forbidding me from contacting any of the students or employees of the school or their families. It took me this long to get the injunction modified so that I was allowed to contact friends that I had known before they had any connection with the school."

Jo looked shocked. "What in the world did they use for justification?"

"They said that they had evidence that I was Ďcontributing to the delinquency of a minorí, but there have been no charges filed."

Jo snorted, "Even here, they have to actually produce evidence to file charges, and I know they canít do that. Do you know anything about this ĎBishop Johnsoní that took your place?"

Redfoot looked ready to gag. "Heís no more a counselor than I am a starship pilot. Heís a flunky for the Fundamentalists at the Federal Monastery who goes around to Ďstraighten out problem schoolsí. He is a bishop in the church, and is supposed to have a Ph. D. in education, but you couldnít tell it by his actions. All Iíve been able to find out for sure is that in schools where heís been, the fur population has dropped significantly."

Jo shivered. "Iím starting to get a feeling like I did after Marc was elected to the city council."

Marcus Fleetfoot was a herm fox morph who was Joís first mate. Shi had been elected to the city council from the district around the university thanks to a large concentration of liberals affiliated with the university and helped considerably by the fact that hir opponent had been caught out in a sex scandal two weeks before the election. Even with that, though, hir margin of victory was less than one percent. Shi then died in a traffic accident within a month of the election, and never took office. At the time, Jo had been pregnant with Teri. Even after meeting and mating with Will, Marcís mother, Andre, was still an important part of the family, and visited frequently. Marcís sire, Jacob, had split up with Andre and moved out of the area several years before Marc died. Shi visited occasionally to see hir grandchild, but was not as close to the family as Andre was.

Redfoot reached across the table and gave Jo a hug. After shi sat back down, shi said, "I was always a little suspicious about that accident. After all, since PTVís were required to have AI override, the number of fatal traffic accidents is so small that every one anywhere in the state makes the front page. It seemed very Ďconvenientí."

Jo just sat quietly for a few minutes. Finally, she looked back up at Redfoot and said, "So, what are you going to do now?"

Shi sighed and said, "I like to think that I was helping at the school, but now the chances of me getting another job like that around here are about nil. Iíve got a sister who lives in Colorado, and Iím flying out there tomorrow. Iím just going to take it easy for a while, and then see what I can do next. I can about guarantee, though, that it wonít be in the HCKNA."

Jo nodded as she took her SMART card out and swiped it to pay for lunch. They stepped outside the restaurant and Jo gave Redfoot a hug. "I hope everything goes well for you. Please keep in touch."

Redfoot said, "I will. You take care of that kid and Will. Iíll call when I get to my sisterís."

With that, Redfoot hailed a Public PTV and Jo started back to where hers was parked.

When Jerry Oxendine, Professor of Material Science, and Will finished their presentation titled "The Use of Crystalline Nickel Whiskers for Bonding a Boronike Shell to a Ferrous Metal Core for Improved Resistance of Wear and Fatigue in Machine Components", Will saw someone that he recognized in the audience, which was beginning to file out of the room. They were attending the Technical Conference of the Stellar Federation Association for Mechanical Engineering.

Will said, "Come over here Jerry, thereís someone Iíd like you to meet."

As the room cleared out, a skunktaur and a chakat started moving toward them. The skunktaur was in female phase, and hy had a number of white stripes running across hys back, and a blue paw mark on hys breast, indicating that hy was a telekinetic. The chakat was of a tiger stripe pattern, but with the colors of a Siamese seal point, cream and chocolate. Shi had brown hair, cut in a medium buzz cut, only a little longer than the surrounding fur. Shi was also pregnant.

Will and the skunktaur gave each other an enthusiastic hug, and then Will turned to Jerry to introduce hym. "Jerry, this is Quontiale, House of Blue Paw. Quont, this is Jerry Oxendine. Quont and I attended graduate school together."

Quont shook Jerryís hand, "Itís a pleasure to meet you Professor Oxendine."

"Please, just call my Jerry."

"Good, and Iím Quont. Let me introduce one of my mates," he said turning to the chakat. "This is Chakat Powertracker, child of Bluespot and Starhunter."

The chakat stepped up and shook Jerryís hand, "Call me Track." Shi then turned to Will and grabbed him in a hug. "Will, Quont has told me too much about you to just shake your hand. Itís good to meet you."

Quont grinned and said, "Care to join us for dinner? I think that we can beat the rush."

As they left the conference room and started down the hall toward the restaurant, Jerry said to Track, "So you and Quont are mated?"

Track grinned and said, "Yes, but not just to each other, and Quont isnít responsible for this," as shi rubbed hir tail across hir swollen belly.

Quont chimed in, "We were serving in Star Fleet together and decided to pursue some business interests rather than reenlisting. We met a skunktaur in Curtisport, Slirparton, House of Redpaw."

Track continued, "We both fell for hym immediately, and then found a deeper affection for each other. Slirparton is the sire of my cub."

At this point, they arrived at the hotel restaurant. Will turned to the maître d' and said, "Four please, two Ďtaurs and two bipeds."

The maître d' was an elegantly dressed male lynx morph. "Of course sir." He turned to a human woman who had come up, "This is Tracey and she will be serving you tonight. Enjoy your dinner."

Tracey smiled at them and said, "If you would please follow me, gentle beings?" She turned and led them into the restaurant. After they sat down, she asked, "Can I get you something to drink while you consider your dinner choices?" She left to get their drink orders, and then came back and took their dinner orders.

Will said, "This is sooo refreshing," as Jerry nodded.

At Trackís confused look, Quont said, "Will and Jerry live in the Holy Christian Kingdom of North America. It is very unlikely that the four of us would be treated so well there."

Track frowned, "Donít the Stellar Federation laws against discrimination apply there?"

Will said, "Oh, we would be seated, but they would have to rearrange tables to accommodate a pair of Ďtaurs. Weíd get a table in a poor location, and weíd be assigned the junior-most server. Nothing quite rising to the point of illegality, but certainly pushing the limit."

Jerry added, "Add to that the fact that Will is mated to a fox morph, and weíd never bother even trying to go to a place like this at home. Fortunately, Will and his mate are both excellent cooks, and we know several good places run by furs."

Tracey came back then with their first course, and Quont said, "Now, letís talk about more pleasant things so we donít ruin this fine meal."

Soon enough, dinner talk turned to engineering, and the PADDs came out to be scattered among the dishes. Since they were attending an engineering conference, this was by no means unusual that night. Quont said, "So Track and I came up with an idea to use small tractor beam generators working together to unload pods at spaceports."

Jerry said, "Unlike the rest of you, Iím not really an engineer, but a material scientist. I have only the vaguest notion of how a tractor beam actually works."

Will often used tractor beams in the material handling systems he designed. He started in, "A tractor beam is a variation of a gravity beam, such as is used to propel shuttles, or the gravity field generators used on space ships. The difference is that a tractor beam is modulated with a hyper-wave so that you can control where along the line of action it has affect. Otherwise, the beam would affect everything along that line, which would cause considerable difficulties around crowded space ports. The key thing to understand is that one tractor beam can only do two things, push and pull in a straight line from to toward the beam generator. To generate a force to the side would require at least two beams. Imagine them as rods with swivels on both ends."

Jerry nodded, "So what most people call a tractor beam, it is actually several beam generators working in conjunction."

Quont continued. "Thatís right. A typical ship-board installation would have six or eight beam generators spread over an area three or four meters in diameter. The farther apart the beams are, the easier it is to generate side forces. If a ship is moving heavy loads, it will use beams from two or more locations at once."

"So, how are the beams directed? Are they mounted on gimbals?"

"Generally not, the beam generators incorporate a deflector that can direct the beam, similar to the way that an electric field can deflect an electron beam."

Jerry nodded. "I see. Now you were talking about using these to unload cargo pods. What you describe seems like it would be quite large."

Track now spoke up. "They can be. A typical mobile tractor beam unit is about half the size of a shipping carrier. My mother manages the cargo operations at the Berdoovia spaceport on Chakona, and I would watch them working on the pods while I was growing up. My first job, once I could get the necessary certifications, was operating equipment at the port. When a pod is brought down, it generally has between 800 and 2000 carriers in it, depending on the size of the pod and how fully loaded it is. Once it is on the ground, there are two approaches to unloading it.

"The first is to leave the shuttle attached to the pod and use the shuttleís gravity generators to create a gravity free area in and around the pod. When done this way, a pod can be unloaded in three or four hours. The down side is that it ties up a shuttle for the entire time when it could be better used transporting other pods. Some ships have their own shuttles, and choose to do this, but many pod carrying ships donít have shuttles that can handle loaded pods. They have to pay transport fees to get their pods down. If they want to use these shuttles to help unload the pods, then they have to pay rent on the shuttles, which is very costly."

Jerry asked, "Why canít they put gravity generators in the spaceport?"

Track answered, "Gravity generators of this capacity are almost as expensive and power hungry as the shuttles. Remember that a fully loaded pod can mass more than eighty million kilograms. The only way to power them is with anti-matter cores or large, dedicated power plants. Spaceports are reluctant to build these power plants. Using anti-matter cores would mean transferring anti-matter on the ground, and the local authorities are reluctant to allow this, for quite valid safety reasons."

"Arenít the shuttles powered by anti-matter?"

"Yes, but all of the fuel transfer takes place in orbit, not on the surface of a planet."

Jerry nodded, "So what is the alternative?"

Track continued, "The alternative is to use these large, ground based tractor beam units I described before. The problem is that they are so large that it really slows down carrier handling. Keeping the tractor beam units and the pods out of each otherís way is a real hassle, and the units have to actually go into the pod to get out all of the carriers. It takes three or four times as long to unload a pod this way, and ground time is expensive for a ship."

"They canít put something into the pod?"

"They could, but it would add mass and expense to the pod. Also, a pod is often shifted between ships, and nobody wants to make that kind of investment in something that may get transferred to another ship and never seen again."

Now Will spoke up, "I take it that you two have come up with an alternative."

Quont nodded, "Yes, we have, and thatís what we wanted to talk to you about. Track and I have designed and built a tractor system that can put two generators and a power supply in a disc about 650mm in diameter and 200mm thick. The generators have a capacity of 800 mega-newtons each. The power supply is only good for about six hours, but that is plenty of time to unload a pod."

Will said, "That seems plenty of capacity for shifting a carrier or two, but Iím surprised you can get it in something that small."

Track grinned, "We had to make a few compromises to fit it all in. The biggest one is that the maximum beam deflection is about two degrees, rather than the thirty-five to sixty degrees for a normal installation."

Jerry spoke up. "So with this you do need gimbals, like I asked about before."

Quont said, "Yes, but unlike many heavy lift situations, which move with fairly small loads, and then have clamps to lock them in place, these gimbals need to be able to move while under a full load. High strength steel components can be made to support the loads, but the contact stresses are so high that they get chewed up in short order. We want to keep the whole thing smaller than about a meter and a half, so that it can move easily between and among the carriers in the pod. There isnít enough room for a hydrostatic lubrication system that can handle these loads."

Will said, "Ah, I see where this is going. Building the entire mechanism from something like Boronike could handle the loads, but the cost is out of the question. Using the process that Jerry has come up with could get you what you need at a small fraction of the cost." Will turned to Jerry and said, "Youíve been saying you need a real world application to prove this concept, what do you think?"

Jerry grinned and said, "I think that we need to get a research contract put together and signed."

Later that evening, Will and Quont went up to Willís suite to catch up on old times. Will asked, "Why didnít you let me know you were coming? We could have arranged for Jo and Teri to see you and meet Track."

"I didnít really know we would be coming until right before we left, and then we were scrambling to get everything ready to make the ship."

"Can you come by the house before you go back?"

Quont shook hys head. "Track is due in six weeks, and with three weeks scheduled transit time back to Chakona, we want to make sure weíre back in plenty of time. If shi delivers hir cub and Slirparton isnít there, hyíll kill us."

Will sat down on the couch in his suite and, before he could get another word out, Quont climbed up onto his lap, wrapped hys arms around him and planted a kiss on his face. Will felt Quontís tongue brush against his teeth, an invitation. Despite the sudden growth in his pants, on which the front end of Quont was sitting, Will kept his tongue in his mouth, a polite refusal.

Quont pulled back and grinned. "I had to try. A business man goes off to a conference and meets his old flame? We have to give the cliché a chance."

Will smiled, "Now I know why youíre in female phase." Quont gave Will an innocent lick on the cheek, and they let go of each other. Quont jumped up on the bed and grabbed a couple of pillows to make hymself comfortable. Will said, "You had better watch it; Jo can get rather possessive at times."

Quont grin got wider, "I called Jo when I got here."

Willís eyebrows looked like they were about to slide off the top of his head. "You asked for my wifeís permission to seduce me?" Quont nodded, still grinning. "What did she say?"

"She said, ĎGive it your best shot. Heíll say no.í"

"That was a pretty good shot. Can you imagine what the neighbors would say if I ran off with my best man?"

Quont made a rude noise. "A third of your wedding guests thought I was a furry, four legged man. Just be glad that I was in male phase. Imagine the confusion if the Ďbest maní was bustier than the bride."

"Youíre right there. My friends know better, but you have to invite family to these things, even if they get angry at you because of it."

Quont laid hys head down on hys arms, a more serious expression on hys face. "Even though you two were married in a church, it has no legal standing there. Jo and Teri are not your heirs."

Will sighed and nodded his head. "Thatís true, but there is no law forbidding business contracts between humans and morphs. That would be a restraint of trade, which the Federation prohibits, and Iíve got a good lawyer. Jo owns three of the five voting shares of Cochran Engineering, which holds the deed to the house. Teri has two non-voting shares that Jo holds in trust. Joís benefits at the hospital are held by a trust account for Teri, of which I am the trustee. If youíre smart, you can work around the system."

Quont said, "When Track and I came here, we wanted more than your engineering expertise to design this machine. Weíd like you to come back to Curtisport to head up the mechanical engineering group and oversee the manufacturing operation. Despite the promise of this technique that Jerryís come up with, you and I both know that there is a huge difference between making a few of something in a research lab and doing it in production."

Will started shaking his head, but Quont continued. "Iím not done yet. On Chakona, there would be no barriers to you and Jo being formally mated, and you actually adopting Teri. There are some churches in Curtisport, and their attitudes and beliefs are a lot closer to your church than to the run-of-the-mill churches in the HCKNA. Your neighbors wouldnít care about you and Jo being together, only about what kind of people you are. The schools are excellent, and they wouldnít care that Teri is a herm. There are even enough Scots on the planet so that there is a highland gathering outside of Amistad every year."

At that Will snorted. At Quontís questioning look, he said, "I just had a mental image of a bunch of chakats and skunktaurs dancing a poussette."

Quont smiled, "If thereís any one who can figure that out, you can. You ought to come."

Will came down the next morning and joined Jerry, Quont, and Track for breakfast. As they were waiting for their order to be taken, they were passing a PADD around.

"Something interesting?" asked Will.

Jerry said, "Since there is five hours difference between here and home, I was able to catch the legal department at the university still in the office after dinner last night. Track and I worked with them to get a research agreement worked out, and sent it to Slirparton to take a look at. Hy just sent back some suggestions for some minor changes, which we were looking at, and Iíll send them back to our people later today. We may get this agreement signed before we all leave tomorrow!"

"That's great! Now if the work just goes as well as the legalities."

At that point their server, a male cat-morph, came up to take their orders. Most of the talk during breakfast was about what other presentations everyone wanted to attend. As they were getting ready to get up, Will asked Track, "Can I ask you something? It might be considered a little personal."

"I donít sense anything unpleasant in your attitude, so go ahead. I just reserve the right not to answer," Track replied with a grin.

"What happened to your hand?"

Track looked down at hir right hand, which was resting on the table. Will said, "No, the left one."

Track chuckled. Shi turned hir left hand over so it was palm up, extended and retracted hir claws, and then closed it into a fist. "I lost it during a pirate raid about two weeks before I left Star Fleet. We were caught by surprise, and their first shot energized a power buss that I was working on. It arced to ground through my hand, and knocked me out. It also cauterized the wound, so that I didnít bleed to death. The shock sent my upper heart into defibrillation, so I was pretty well out of it. Nobody had time to notice I was missing until after the engagement was over. Fortunately, my lower heart carried the load until the upper one got itself sorted out and started working again. The same shock also knocked out my com badge, so they werenít sure where I was. I was found by an S&R team about 20 minutes later, still unconscious.

"I was scheduled to have it regenerated, but then went and got pregnant, which complicates all sorts of advanced medical treatment because of the possible side effects on the fetus. In the meantime, Star Fleet has become very good at building prosthetics, and Iím using this to tide me over. Most people never notice that it isnít real, it even smells like me. What gave it away?"

Will grinned and said, "I seem to have a knack for machinery. When you hugged me yesterday, something just felt a little odd about it."

"Iím impressed. The only other person that has caught on that fast was a chakat I ran into on Chakona Gateway a while back. Shiís a technician for Star Corps, and has developed hir empathic sense to also be able to detect anomalies in electrical and control circuits. It would be a handy thing to be able to do, and we spent an hour or so while we were both waiting for our connections with hir trying to teach it to me. It was rather frustrating that I couldnít sense anything, while shi was picking up flaws I was intentionally introducing in some gear I had with me much quicker than I could have with my test equipment. You sure that wasnít what you sensed?"

Will shook his head, "Nope, Iím a solid E-0. I can design and trouble shoot control systems as well as the next guy, but I donít have the same affinity for them that I do for mechanisms. Thatís why my engineering practice is mostly in machine design and manufacturing systems."

Jerry added, "And heís very good at those, but if we donít get going, weíre going to be late for the first session." With that they said good bye and each went their own way.

Teriís grandmother, Andre, was eating breakfast with Jo and Teri. Shi had spent the night to watch Teri while Jo worked her shift at the hospital the night before. The com chimed as Jo was starting to get the breakfast things cleaned up. It was Will calling from London.

"Hi Daddy! Guess what we had for breakfast!"

Will smiled and said, "You went out to my shop and ate all of my nails!"

"NO, theyíre too hard. We had fried locusts!"

"Yuck, what are those like?"

"Theyíre crunchy and they taste good. Grandma Andre brought them. Shi says they are nutritious and good for you, but they taste good anyway. You should try them when you get here!"

Will smiled, "Weíll see. Did you and Mike finish your tree fort?"

"Yah. Mike didnít want Sarah to come up though. He said that it was just for boys, but I told him that I would have to leave because Iím half a girl, so he let her come up."

Andre came up and said, "Youíd better say good-by to your dad, itís time to leave for school now."

"OK. Bye-bye Dad!"

"Good-bye sweet-heart. Iíll be home tomorrow night, and I love you!"

"Love you too!" With that, shi was off toward the door.

As Jo came up to the com, Will asked Andre, "Where did you find locusts? Youíre not the type to be grubbing around in the woods catching your own."

A look of mild disgust crossed Andreís face. "Please, donít even think that. Iím much too fond of my creature comforts, unlike you lot who think that itís fun to spend a week out in the woods, bathing in creeks and sleeping on the ground, hauling everything you own on your backs. No power or com except an emergency transponder.

"I actually bought them from a human. He moved here from North Africa, and has set up a shop selling traditional foods from his home. People in Africa and Asia are much more sensible about eating things than you Europeans. Youíre way too picky."

"I will try them when I get home, but no promises about how many."

Jo smiled as she came up to the com. "So, howís the conference going?"

Will smiled back, "Oh, OK I guess."

"So did Quont wait until you were in private before knocking you down and smothering you with kisses?"

"Yes, but just barely. And it was just one kiss, but it was a doozy."

"Will hy be coming back with you for a visit?"

Will shook his head, "Unfortunately, no. Hyís here with one of hys mates, Chakat Powertracker, who is pregnant by their other mate, another skunktaur back on Chakona. They need to get back home for the birth."

A thoughtful expression crossed Joís face. "I can understand that. But I canít believe that our mercurial, footloose, devil-may-care Quontiale is formally mated, twice! We have to meet hys family!"

"We may have that chance, but weíll talk about that when I get home."

"I met a student of yours, a rabbit morph named Francine?"

"Oh yes, she was in my manufacturing methods class last spring. She did well in the class but, like most undergraduate students, could use a little Ďreal worldí seasoning. Where did you meet her?"

Jo grinned, "I was having lunch at Luigiís, and she was working there. Sheís Benís niece."

"Well, Ben is certainly capable of providing some seasoning, but getting something in manufacturing might do her more good. It would pay better too. Iíll see what I can dig up when I get back."

Andre said, "It was good to talk to you Will, but Iíve got some things to do. Iíll see you when you get back."

"Thanks, Andre, and I will try some of those bugs. I hate to rush off, but thereís a presentation that Jerry and I want to catch thatís about to start. I love you Jo."

"Love you too, and travel safely tomorrow. You might find something you like when you get home."

When Will got home he gave Teri a Teddy bear wearing a Beefeaters uniform that he had picked up in London. Teri was spending the night across the street with Eleanor and her dads, and as soon as the door was closed Jo dragged him into the pool and then started undressing him. She was hard on clothes, but he thought it was worth it.

About an hour after Jo left for work the next day, refreshed but not very rested, Will got a call from the school asking him to come there. It was about a ten minute walk, and he met Lindsey coming from the direction of his dojo. They walked in together, to find both of their daughters in the principalís office. Teri had a bandage on one ear, and Eleanor had a swollen eye. Both had a number of smaller cuts and bruises.

Ms. Watson said, "Your children got into a fight today with a bunch of other kids. Watch this," pointing at the vid display. It showed Teri and Eleanor apparently having an argument with some older kids, all humans. There was some shoving, and then Teri jumped up and knocked down another child who appeared to be at least two years older and 10 kilos heavier than shi was. Then Eleanor joined in to help her friend, but they were soon outnumbered and surrounded by older kids. Only then did the teachers come up to break up the fight.

Lindsey frowned and asked, "What about the audio?"

Ms. Watson said, "Weíve been having some trouble with that system. Itís obvious who is as fault though. Your children are both suspended for the rest of today and tomorrow. When they come back on Monday, they will be in in-school suspension for all of next week. Now, please take them home."

It was a very long, quiet walk home. When they got there, Lindsey indicated to Will to come back out after he finished talking to Teri, and Will nodded before going inside.

Once inside, Will said, "What in the world do you think you were doing today? You know better than that!"

Teri started to tear up. "They were hassling us, and they called Eleanor a Ďfurballí."

"I donít care what they said to you, that is no excuse to get into a fight, and you know it. You are restricted all next week and the next two weekends. You have to stay in the house except when going to and from school and your other classes. You are to come straight home afterwards. No use of the com except for school work. Now, go to your room and watch the afternoon classes youíre missing. Iíll be checking with the house AI to make sure of what youíre doing on the com."

Teri nodded and dejectedly went back to hir room. Will wanted to stop hir and give hir a hug, but knew he couldnít, right then. He went out to meet with Lindsey in the front yard.

Will said to Lindsey, "Teri told me that the other kids called Eleanor a Ďfurballí."

Lindsey shook his head, "Eleanor didnít mention that, only that they were calling them names. I wish that we could have heard what they said out there."

"Those units that they use at the school are too reliable for that kind of failure to happen. One thing that they do very well in the HCKNA is their security systems. That had to be a deliberate omission."

"Still, whatever was said is no excuse for what they did."

Will nodded. "Iím just glad that Teri didnít loose hir head and claw someone."

Lindsey smirked a little at that. "That isnít just chance. Even at hir age, that can be considered deadly force. Iím very careful when teaching my fur students about when, and when not to use their claws, as well as how. If shi had clawed one of the other students, shi wouldnít have been suspended, shi would have been permanently expelled, and you and Jo might have been brought up on charges."

That sobered up Will. He know that would have been serious, but not just how serious. Lindsey continued, "With your permission, Iíd like to have a little talk with Teri after her class tonight. Iíd rather not wait until later, but say this while it is still fresh in hir mind."

Will said, "Iíd thought about not letting hir come tonight, but I think that youíre right, say whatever you think best."

With that, they both went back to their homes.

At the dojo that night, Teri and Eleanor were assigned to assist with the youngest students in the class, rather than working out with their peers. Nothing was said about the incident at the school, and the other students knew Lindsey well enough not to bring it up. When he dismissed the rest of the class, he told Teri to stay afterward. After everyone else had filed out of the room, Teri came up to Lindsey and bowed, "Sensei?"

"Sit down."

Shi sat on the floor, and Lindsey sat opposite hir.

"Tell me, for what reasons should you fight?"

Teri sat a moment, concentration tightening hir face. "You should fight under the Ö supervision of a qualified instructor."

Lindsey nodded and waited.

"You should fight to protect yourself or someone else."

"Did you need to protect Eleanor?" Teri hesitated. "Could you protect Eleanor, if she is free and unencumbered?"

Teri frowned. "Sheís, um, stronger than I am, and Ö has a longer reach. Sheís a little better than I am."

Lindsey nodded. "So, you did not need to protect Eleanor. Were you threatened?"

Teri started, "They called El Ö No Sensei. I was not threatened."

"So you started the fight, without justification."

Teri nodded.

They both sat quietly for a moment.

Lindsey said, "Regardless of how it started, what is your objective if you are fighting to protect someone?"

"To, um, get away from the threat?"

"Yes. You and Eleanor were fighting in a coordinated manner, aware of what the other was doing and why. I saw three places in the first eight seconds of the fight where you could have broken away with minimal risk. Can you both run faster than the other children?"

"Yes, Sensei."

"But you did not."

"No, Sensei."

"Very well, what did you do correctly?"

Teri though for a moment, "I, um, didnít use my claws?"

Lindsey nodded. "That is the most important thing you did right. What else?"

Teri shook hir head. Lindsey said, "When you were overwhelmed, you fell to the ground and curled up to protect yourself. Eleanor did not do this, and that is when she got that black eye."

Lindsey stood up and said, "Thatís all Teri, give me a hug before you go home."

Teri got up and hugged him. "Thank you, Uncle Lind."

"You're welcome dear, I told Eleanor to wait for you so that you could go home together. Go and get changed now."

Shi nodded and ran off toward the locker room.

After Teri got cleaned up and changed, shi and Eleanor started home. Eleanor said, "So you got chewed on after class?"

Teri nodded, and then looked up at hir friend. "At least you only got chewed out once."

"Uh-uh. First I got chewed on by Papa Lind about getting into the fight, and then I got chewed on again by Lindsey-Ma about how I fought."

"Wow, bummer. I bet you really got it for that black eye."

Eleanor nodded, and they continued in silence for a while. "I wish I was home schooled, like Mike and Sarah and Mitsy," she said.

Teri looked at her with surprise, "But what about Bobby and Spots and Greycoat and Jon and Linda and Ö"

"Ok, ok, I get it," said Eleanor. "I just wish we were all in a better school, ok?"

"Yeah." The walked in silence the rest of the way home, then gave each other a hug before each of then went into their own houses.


To be continued in Chapter 3.

Copyright © 2008 Tim Rumph – tarumph AT

Chakats and the Chakat Universe are the creation of Bernard Doove and are used with his permission.

Chakat Gildedtongue was created by Robert Adrian.

The Holy Christian Kingdom of North America is the creation of John Plunkett.

Skunktaurs were created by Bob Reijns.

Boronike was created by Allen Fesler.


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