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

 

Chapter 1

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Whereís Snowfall?" he asked the man coming up to him.

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

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

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

" ĎSomethingí is so fishy I think Iím going to need tarter sauce," Neal whispered back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They donít have much of a choice really," Neal sighed, "Theyíre just losing some of the savings I was giving them for shipping such a large order. Snowfall and I had negotiated the shipping costs down to almost a tenth of what they would usually be, due mostly to the size of the order and that most of it is going to one destination. Even if I go to eight times, Iím still cheaper than what I would have typically charged, and a lot lower than any of the other carriers can afford to offer. Then thereís the problem that none of the other ships presently in the area can handle the whole load, and they wonít be able to make the deadline."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Weíll deal with him," Snowfall all but growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ready when you are boss."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The ĎTwintailsí," Brighteyes all but whispered, realizing they were all in trouble. They had just barely avoided the Human First groups on the ground earlier, and now they were on the wrong ship, with an armed human that didnít seem at all pleased to see them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Just over two years." Brighteyes replied slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How?" someone asked.

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

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

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

"Youíre going to keep us?" asked Alex.

"Itís either that or drop you off at the next port. Your choice really."

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

"Only if you wanted me to, after all, keeping you against your will is kidnapping, and thatís something Iím not into."

The kids calmed down a little on hearing this.

"Now what?" asked Alex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sometime in the next two or three weeks. Why? Isnít my child alright?" she asked.

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

"How long until your next port?" she asked

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

"Her?" from one of the kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What about us?" chakat Dusk asked.

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

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

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

"Stowaways?" she inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I understand," she said. "Letís just get it over with."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What would you have done?" she asked.

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

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

"Fire away." Neal said giving her a grin, "If I don't like the question I can always give you a Ďno commentí."

"Are you the only crew?"

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

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

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

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

"No," Neal said quietly "Iím more in a Ďwait and see what's going to hit the fan nextí mode with this curse and all."

"What curse??" came from somewhere behind him

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

"WHAT CURSE??" they shouted at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting her catch her breath, he declared, "Iíll get the rest of you later."

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

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

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

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

"Whatís that suppose to meÖ" she had started to take another step back, only to find she could only move her head and neck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the late evening was spent feeding the newest group, getting their information for the starbase message, and finding places for everyone to sleep. Since the kids couldnít make up their minds as to who should sleep with whom, Neal had them drag the bedding from several of the cabins and make a large bed in one of the lounges.

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

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

That left the dark gray chakat youth that had tried to jump him at the carrier. Shadowcrest waited for him to say something, when all he did was watch hir back, shi finally spoke, "I donít fit into the other groups." shi said.

Raising the sheet to offer to share his bed, he said, "Birds of a feather should stick together." At her blank look he smiled, "We are alike in that I donít fit into most groups either."

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

"You were just trying to protect them werenít you?" he asked softly. At hir nod, he said, "Itís alright, I understand. Try to get some sleep. Tomorrowís going to be a busy day for all of us."

The next morning Neal got an early wakeup call.

It came in the form of his cabinís door opening and closing again and again, almost like he had a cat that couldnít decide on which side of the door it wanted to be on. Looking past the ears of the chakat he was entangled with, he saw three of the chakats and a vixentaur teen staring at him. "Can I help you?" he asked.

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

Ear movement told him his bed-guest was awake, but didnít want to face the older kids just yet.

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

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

"Did you ask hir? Did you even think that maybe shi would be just a little intimidated by your older group? That since no one had invited hir into your group, that maybe you were ignoring hir, didnít want hir, or maybe that you hadnít even noticed hir?"

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

"And you didnít tell hir this last night, becauseÖ?"

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

"Weíll talk about this later. For now, OUT!" After they had fled, Neal tightened his hug around the softly crying Shadowcrest, "Easy little one. It sounds like they assumed someone else had welcomed you into their group, or that you would automatically feel welcome. They werenít trying to hurt you."

Hir crying eased up as shi asked, "Does this mean I canít sleep with you anymore?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep in thought, he didnít hear Weaver enter, only opening his eyes when he heard one of the other station seats converting itself into a low bench for her to lay on.

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

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

Weaver smiled. "And you donít think Iíll get bored too?"

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

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

"Well, I donít have enough entertainment disks to keep them occupied even if they could sit still that long. So Iím thinking along the lines of some type of training or schooling," he said as he checked the engineering section.

"Theyíll never go for it," she said. "They didnít stowaway just to go to school."

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

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

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

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

"Iíll cheat." Catching the look of surprise on her face, he smiled and added, "Tess can help teach them from the basics to advanced using teaching disks. Iíll take over when they hit something Tess canít explain, and when it gets down to actually running the ship."

"Arenít you afraid they will fly us into a sun?" she said with a half smile.

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

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

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

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

"Perhaps," he replied equally softly, "but I donít see a way out of it, without either dumping you and the kids somewhere, or screwing up this run."

"Why is this run so important? she asked.

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

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

"Not that Iíve ever heard," he answered. "Thereís a lot that can go wrong on a ship, or it might have hit a rock, or possibly pirates."

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

"No more than on any other ship, and less than most really." At her look of curiosity, he added, "Unlike most warp-capable craft, this ship has more the one warp core, so losing one doesnít mean weíre stuck somewhere. Though there are only two engine nacelles, there are really four warp engines, losing one cuts down our top speed and costs us more in fuel to get somewhere, but that wonít stop us from getting where weíre going."

"And rocks?" she asked with a smile.

"Havenít hit one yet," was the reply. "I have very good sensors."

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

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

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

"I told you, I have very good sensors, I didnít Ďrun intoí any of them." His smile faded a little at the look she was giving him, "OK, OK! Over the last ten years, Iíve seen a little over eighty pirate ships, very few of which ever saw me. Of the ones that saw me, only two got anyone onboard, and none made it past the second hatch."

"How is that possible?" she asked.

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

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

"Thatís what I was thinking just before I found I had guests," he said. "Now with this crowd I wonít have any time left to be bored."

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

"Canít you just hide them?" she asked.

"No, because if I donít claim them and they are discovered, I would be jailed automatically, getting a trial could take a while, and that would leave the rest of you stranded."

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

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

She looked at him closely. "The look on your face suggests you have something that might work, but you donít know if theyíll buy it."

That earned her a lop-sided grin, "Youíve known me less than twelve hours and already youíre reading me like a book. I hadnít realized Iíd become so transparent."

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a smile of his own, he said, "I think thatís in chapter three or maybe four." Then he looked her in the eye. "Chapter one is on how to play midwife." Chuckling at the look on her face, he added, "The way this curse is working, if I donít study this, Iíll probably need it. If I know what to do, I wonít need it, so what do you think I should do?"

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

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

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

The stowaways were looking thoughtful; they hadnít realized there would be laws covering such things, much less that a law wouldnít be the same for every port.

Not wanting to ask outright, Shadowcrest pointed to Holly, "Wonít she be okay?"

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

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

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

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

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

"For saving us!" Shadowcrest said laughing.

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

"What?" shi asked.

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

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

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

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

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

After a moment Shadowcrestís face clouded up, and in a small voice shi asked, "And what do you say when you donít want me anymore?"

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

Realizing that he was teasing hir, Shadowcrest gave him another tight hug. "You canít get rid of me that easily!" shi said, laughing even harder than before.

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

"Why is shi crying?" asked Quickdash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled at her as he answered, "This isnít about what I do or donít want. This is about what the little ones will need. They have been uprooted from their normal lives and family. Theyíre going to need new relationships to help them deal with the situation they now live in."

With a tentative smile, Weaver asked, "You really donít mind adopting her?"

Neal chuckled at her uncertainty, "Iíve just adopted two furballs," he said with a smile. "Whatís one more?"

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

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

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

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

Holding up a hand to silence them, Neal asked, "Are you sure this is what you want? Just because youíre officially be my kids, donít think itís going to make the trip any easier or shorter."

Mike spoke up, "I think what weíre saying is that we accept the challenge of trying to be a family for this trip, with you as its head or father. That, and the fact that I for one donít want to run the risk of somebody trying to pull me off this ship to Ďprotectí me." The other furs just nodded, Neal noticed tears in more than one set of eyes.

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

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

Weaver slowly shook her head at him. "You had this all planned, didnít you?" she asked softly.

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

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

When they finally let her up for air, he added, "Just like the kids, you always have the option of canceling if I donít turn out to be a suitable denmate."

With a shy smile, Weaver said, "Like the little one said, you wonít be getting rid of us that easily."

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

Two days from port, their newest member decided to make an early appearance, this leading to some thinking that the captain just hadnít studied hard enough.

 


Continued in Chapter 2.

Copyright © 2005 Allen Fesler – Redbear1158@hotmail.com

Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission. ( If Iíve managed to step on anyone elseís toes (or paws) let me know and Iíll either give you credit or change my Ďtaleí.)


 

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