Lighttouch was sleeping fitfully with Moonglow. They were in the captain’s bed, sans said captain, who had last been seen hiding in engineering. Starblazer and Firestorm had also disappeared in that direction, presumably to help keep him company. Hys uneasy slumber was broken by a mental call.
"Lighttouch! Shi took it!" Shadowcrest's voice was loud in hys mind.
"Who took what?" Lighttouch asked, not yet awake enough to remember that shi was being punished. Hy had barely released the thought when it was answered by the door sliding open. Something was tossed in, only to flutter to the ground in pieces as the door closed.
Shadowcrest’s reply helped explain the shredded mess on the floor. "Desertwind! Song thought shi was going to claw me, but shi just tore the headband off my head."
"So I see," Lighttouch said as hy identified the remains of the headband before hym. "Shi seems to have returned it in no condition to be worn." Feeling how upset shi was through the link, hy added, "You and Song try to get some rest. We will talk about this in the morning."
Desertwind was halfway to hir room when shi felt Shadowcrest's strong mental presence again disappear. Shi turned back with a growl, only to be stopped by Tess’s voice. "This time the block is voluntary," she told the still upset chakat.
"No one deliberately blocks themselves like that!" Desertwind stated.
"They do when they know that their lovemaking is going to require clean linen on every bed on the ship. Or don’t you remember your first rut with Star-rider and Sunset going at it in the next room?"
Desertwind frowned at the very old memory; shi had just come into rut and was asleep when the other two had decided to unwind after their watch. Desertwind had awakened to a dual orgasm – part dream, part the bleed-over of hir sisters’ pleasure. "Surely a set of screens would blunt their output."
"Five sets of standard screens were needed to ‘blunt’ their output, but even that didn’t prevent those sensitive enough from still ‘hearing’ them," Tess informed hir. "Neal came up with the idea of skunktaur headbands that block their mental broadcasts, but allows them to still mentally and emotionally sense those in contact with them."
"The headbands don’t work that way."
"It seems they do for those who believe they can."
Desertwind remained silent. Shi could just sense the two shi’d left in the room, and they did seem to be happy enough. The depression that had lifted shortly after shi had shredded Shadowcrest's headband had not returned, so their current self-suppression didn’t seem to be bothering anyone else.
In hir room, Dreamweaver looked up from the inventory lists shi had been going over. Shi had felt hir sister’s fuming build to the point shi had done something about it. There was still an anger and frustration there, one that Desertwind would aim at Neal as shi always did when shi could find no other target. But shi sensed that the anger wasn’t the same as it normally was, almost as if it had been at least partially deflected. Going back to hir lists, Dreamy wondered what those changes might mean for them in the future.
After hir little chat with Lighttouch the next morning, Shadowcrest again approached Desertwind. Giving the older chakat plenty of space, shi bowed hir head slightly as shi said, "I’m sorry for what I did to you yesterday. I’ve been brought up better than that, but I let my feelings cloud my judgment. I’m not going to ask for your forgiveness because I know what I did was wrong. What I would ask of you is help in understanding your disdain for our adopted father."
Desertwind eyed hir motionlessly for a minute before shaking hir head. "No," shi softly replied. "No mere words will be able to explain to you why I feel the way I do about him, and I don’t want to try to share those feelings with you or anyone else." Shi then turned and left without waiting for Shadowcrest to reply.
Windsong had been waiting nearby. When Desertwind left shi moved in to console the younger chakat. "You tried," shi said while giving Shadowcrest a hug. To help take their minds off things they couldn’t change, they joined some of the teens in one of the holosuites where the Rakshani were showing them various throws, blocks and strikes, each designed for a different types and sizes of opponents.
While most of the others knew better than to try to change Desertwind’s mind, there was to be one more attempt made. Desertwind had been in the main lounge reading when shi felt eyes on hir. Turning, shi found the fiery spotted cub watching hir. Shi frowned as shi said; "I've heard you like doing ‘milk checks’. Is that what you're after, or something else?"
Stormy walked up to hir and carefully undid hir top, watching Desertwind to see if shi disapproved. Not being stopped, shi then proceeded to give Desertwind hir milk check.
Along with the pleasure of the cub feeding at hir breast, Desertwind also felt a gentle mental push from the cub, a push of love, and behind that a nudge trying to get hir to accept Neal as well. "Sorry little one," shi softly said, "but I can’t love him the way you do."
Stormy gave hir an almost mournful look before giving Desertwind a hug. As the little chakat made hir way to leave the lounge, shi was attacked. "Got ya!" Phillip exclaimed as he snagged hir tail and smoothly pulled hir up and over to plop bellies up in his lap. As he started to give the surprised kitten a good tickling, he said, "Can’t have you moping about, I’ve noticed our adopted father seems to reflect it, and we can’t have the captain in a poor mood."
Dreamweaver had been watching the action from one of the neighboring taur pads. "You’ve gotten better at hiding your intentions, you caught hir completely by surprise," shi told him with a chuckle.
"Sprinter and Blossom have given me plenty of practice, though I was starting to wonder if they weren’t faking their surprise so I’d drop my guard more often," he admitted as he continued to have his way with the now helplessly giggling kitten.
"Over-tickling may be as bad as hir moping," Dreamweaver warned Phillip as he continued to tease Stormy.
"Just winding hir up to the right level," Phillip insisted with a laugh. He then part tumbled-part set the cub back on the floor. "Go get daddy!" he told hir as shi found hir paws and scurried for the door.
Phillip had turned back towards Dreamweaver when the door started to open, so he didn’t see Stormy suddenly change directions and head for the back of the oversized recliner he was sitting in. An easy leap had hir on the top of the chair, from there shi dropped to the top of his head. Before Phillip knew what had hit him, Stormy had a good grip of his head with hir lower paws, bending down shi began to give his face and muzzle an inverted tongue bath.
"No! Stop! Off! Yuck!" Phillip groaned as he tried to get the overly energetic chakat out of his hair and off his head. By the time Stormy decided shi’d had hir revenge, even Desertwind was laughing with the others.
Sensing that Phillip was going from wanting hir off to preparing to resume tickling, Stormy quickly climbed back over the top of the recliner and back around to the door.
As the door slid closed behind hir, Dreamweaver laughed as shi reminded Phillip, "I warned you not to over-tickle hir!"
Trying to get his now damp face fur to lie down, Phillip chuckled as he replied, "Spunky little brat."
Going back to hir reading, Desertwind softly muttered, "Pot, meet kettle."
"… and along with Shanook and Huey, we can take those five Wayward ports off your hands," Dreamweaver suggested as shi and Neal went over the lists shi had worked out. "While they’re not directly in our current path, they’re not that far out of it."
"Then take that Fleet training base while you’re at it," Neal suggested, pointing out the details. "Dropping that set of stops will cut three weeks off Folly’s time to Chakona. Which a couple of my passengers won’t mind a bit."
"Which ‘couple’?" shi asked curiously.
"Tauna, who has a friend already heading to Chakona ahead of her. And Wenfrec, who is feeling a little like a fifth wheel because I already have plenty of Fleet type Rakshani trying to keep me out of trouble."
Dreamweaver leaned in a little closer as shi said, "I’ve been meaning to ask you, how are you doing with your new family?"
"How does it look like I’m doing?" Neal shot back with a grin.
"Like some of our good times, when everything seemed to be running well and we didn’t have any major conflicts going on," shi admitted.
"This group does have a few advantages over yours at this age," Neal pointed out. "They haven’t had the time your group did to learn all my tricks and grow tired of me. And it doesn’t hurt that they all have a home to go home to, unlike you and the others."
"Do you think we could have stayed together as a family unit?" Dreamweaver wondered, thinking of hir own cub-hood and early adulthood aboard the Pogo Stick.
"No," Neal said sadly. "All you guys knew was me and my ways. It took getting out in the ‘real world’ and learning that things were both better and worse before most of you could decide that maybe I wasn’t as crazy, or as stupid as some of you thought."
"I never thought you were stupid," shi said, sounding hurt.
"How many times did you go off in a huff when I didn’t agree with what you thought we should buy or sell?" Neal asked with a raised eyebrow and a grin to show he wasn’t really trying to restart an old fight.
Dreamweaver made a face at him that any five-year-old cub would have been proud of, before grinning hirself. "Alright, I’ll admit that I couldn’t see your rhyme or reasons for a lot of things before the rest of the universe rubbed my muzzle in it. But could we come back now?"
"Why?" Neal asked, "Are you tired of being the captain of your own ship?"
"No… no, not really, I was just wondering if we could ever come home," shi said, feeling a little foolish for feeling lonely all of a sudden.
"As I’ve told Tauna, home is where the heart is, and somehow I doubt you really want your old room back."
"No," shi softly said. Shi had gone into the old Pogo Stick section and to hir old room earlier, to just look around. Shi’d tried to remember how the room had once felt, but though the room hadn’t really changed, shi had. Dreamweaver looked at Neal again as if seeing him for the first time. They’d been talking earlier, not as father and daughter or teacher and student, but as equals. Two captains, discussing a beneficial trade agreement between their ships. "No," shi said again before giving him a smile, "but I would like a snuggle tonight. That is, if I won’t be depriving your mates or cubs of you."
"They won’t mind you stealing a snuggle, but they might want to join in," Neal half warned hir.
"That’s OK, I’m willing to ‘share’ you with them," shi said with a smile. Indicating their lists, shi added, "I think we’re done here."
Neal nodded as he downloaded the data to his desk. "I’ll have Tess start sorting the carriers and pod sets out for you. Anything else?"
"We’d heard Chase and Redfoot rebuilt the mess room. Any chance we could let Blossom and Sprinter play in it?" shi asked, sounding hopeful.
"And the rest of you?" Neal teased with a grin. "I don’t see why not. You and the Good Deal should both be loaded and ready to leave by tomorrow evening, how ‘bout we all have one more dinner and then make a little mess together?"
"Sounds like a plan. I’m thinking we save it and surprise the others tomorrow," Dreamweaver suggested as they got up to leave. Shi stopped Neal just before the door’s sensor would have opened it. With a worried look, shi added, "And I’m sorry about Windy. I’m not sure if shi’ll ever come around."
Neal pulled hir into a gentle hug as he said, "Don’t fret little one, something I once read said ‘if everyone likes you, you must be doing something wrong’."
"Still, I wish…" shi started, only to have Neal hush hir.
"Don’t ever wish that on anyone, much less your sister," he told hir. "The only way to learn it is by experience, and there’s only one way to do that…."
Dreamweaver shivered in his arms. For hir, the experience had been the pirate attack on hir ship, and almost losing three of hir siblings that had taught hir that shi too held a beast that could match Neal’s when it came to bloodthirstiness. A beast that could lash out at any threat, real or imagined. Desertwind had been in Star Fleet when the pirates had almost taken Father’s Love, then named Frequency Modulated. (‘Frequency Modulated’ being something Neal had said around the then younger cubs instead of saying some things were ‘f**king magic’, and they had used it for the implied joke.)
Neal continued to hold hir as he softly said, "All the reports I could get of hir tour with ’Fleet suggested that shi never saw anything combat-related first hand. So, compared to you or I, shi’s still an innocent." Pulling away so he could meet hir eyes, he added, "And I don’t think getting hir to like me is worth possibly breaking hir spirit that way."
Dreamweaver nodded before pulling Neal back into their hug. They broke up a few minutes later, each turning a different direction when they passed through the door, just two captains with ships, cargos, and crews to see to.
The next time Dreamweaver came across Neal, he was fully in his ‘chief engineer’ mode. He and Phillip were carrying on a lively but convoluted discussion, as carriers of equipment were transferred into Father’s Love’s internal storage. Shi left as their techno babble started going over hir head, figuring shi’d just have to sit on Phillip later and make him explain it in words shi could understand. Unfortunately for hir, shi had left just before ‘holosuites’ and ‘replicators’ were brought up.
When Tess told Neal that Dreamy was well out of hearing, he had grinned and asked her to send his engineers on over; he had a little project or two for them.
Dreamweaver got hir wish that night, sharing Neal with Blossom, Sprinter, Sunset, and Star-rider. Sometime in the early morning hours they were joined by Star and Stormy, who blended their way into the center of the pile without waking any of the others.
After working late on those ‘little projects’ with Neal’s newest crop of engineers, Phillip had also found himself sleeping with some of his younger siblings that night. Screamingwind had declared the others to be too tired to safely continue working, and had led them all to the twins’ room, the oversized bed being more than large enough for the four of them. Scarlet found him there the next morning….
"I knew you liked them young, but really brother…" she said with a chuckle, Phillip had awaked to find Holly in his arms, while Quickdash and Screamingwind were spooned up against their backs.
"We’re sorry," Holly told her. "We didn’t mean to aid in the delinquency of our big brother."
"Smart-alecky little upstarts," Scarlet laughed. "But Neal seems to be happy, so you guys must be the right type of silly."
"We try," Quickdash replied, "though we know to be serious when he’s teaching or letting us work on stuff."
Hands on her hips, Scarlet cocked an eyebrow at them before saying, "I heard one of the other kids saying something about you three doing some of the work on that ship Neal’s been puttering with for the last couple of years."
"Yes, but we’ve had lots of help with it," Holly admitted. "We even had half the engineers from the Pegasus helping for a few months."
"How’d you manage that?" Scarlet asked, sounding impressed in spite of herself.
"It was something new, and being done in ways they hadn’t considered. What more do you need to rope in curious engineering types?" Quickdash asked her with a grin.
"And just what were you guys doing so late into the night?" she queried, poking at her brother.
"A little gift Neal thought we’d like," Phillip told her with a grin. "The installation and calibration of said gift being much easier to do in pairs than alone, dear sister. If you would please, keep your muzzle shut, we want it to be a surprise."
"You’ll owe me," she agreed as she turned to leave, only to have a pillow to the back of her head help speed her out the door.
"What the hell’s up with the Rec room?" Fred asked Phillip later at breakfast. "I saw you and those kids going in and out of there yesterday, so I know you had something to do with it."
"I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about," Phillip replied innocently around a mouthful of food.
Scarlet watched with interest as she’d seen the ‘kids’ in question react to Fred’s accusation.
The recreation room in question was one of two very large rooms in Father’s Love that had been set aside for whatever the crew wanted to do in them. Most of the room was padded to be easy on the paw, with deeper padding where one might lay or be thrown in a bit of horseplay or training. With variable lighting controls and with a good sound and video system, it was where the crew could play and relax. Fred though had gone in for his regular morning workout. He had been halfway through his exercises when he’d realized some things weren’t as they had been.
Giving Phillip a dirty look, Fred said, "I was working the weights when I noticed the marks where they’d been dropped a few times were gone. And there’s the little fact that the section of padding Blossom shredded and we flipped over is whole again…. So tell me, what weren’t you four doing last night?"
Phillip grinned in defeat. "So much for surprises. It was just a little gift from Neal and his latest set of brats," he admitted with a wink it his three companions in trouble. Turning back to Fred, he added, "We’ll show you the new toys after we’re done eating."
After breakfast, almost everyone went to Father’s Love’s recreation room to see what the engineers had been up to. Dreamweaver was among them and shi now looked around, already feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the room. It took hir a minute to put hir claw on it. "It’s too neat and clean," shi told the others. "The pillows and cushions are never that neat. And I know the toy chest was all over the place the last time I looked."
"Yeah, it was kinda messy in here," Holly agreed. "So it took us longer to get everything set up."
"To get what set up?" Fred asked from where he had picked up a dumbbell and was showing Scarlet where the use marks weren’t.
"This," Phillip told him. "Computer, end program." Fred’s hand jerked upward as the weight in it disappeared, as did most of the other objects in the room, leaving just a pattern of holo-projectors offset from the walls.
Scarlet was the first to speak after the illusion faded. "Cute… but I hope you’ve taught it more than just mimicking the old room."
Phillip nodded. "As well as being able to make our own, I also made copies of some of the ones Tess has for theirs. Computer, Forest One, late spring." They now found themselves in a small clearing in what looked like a heavy forest; running water could be heard from one side.
"I know this spot!" Darkstreak proclaimed, just as Star and Stormy took off running down one of the paths.
As the others followed the path they heard giggling from the cubs. The path opened up as it went between two very large tree trunks, to which someone had tied a hammock. The cubs were in the hammock, being tickled by its other occupant.
"How’d you get here ahead of us?" Dreamy asked Neal. "I know you weren’t at breakfast, and you weren’t here when Phillip ended the last program…"
Neal raised an eyebrow at hir. "I was thinking I’d catch a quick nap. Tess was to alert me if the holosuite was invaded, so I wonder why didn’t she warn me?"
Quickdash and Holly were the first ones to realize what was going on and laughed. "She didn’t wake you because we’re not in your holosuite! She transposed you into ours," Holly told them. "Sort of like when we do repairs in bay eight, our holo-projected selves seem real in the other holodeck."
"So you guys are just figments of a holosuite trick?" Neal said with a laugh. "Then I know how to finish my nap. Tess, drop the link between the suites please."
Star and Stormy dropped into the now otherwise empty hammock as Neal disappeared. The two grinned at each other before jumping off the hammock and running towards where they knew the door should be.
"I think he’s done napping for now," Quickdash said as shi faintly heard the doors open and close on the new holosuite. "We’ll need to silence those doors, they ruin the mood of the forest."
Phillip nodded. "Just one more of those little things we didn’t get to last night." Turning to Dreamweaver, he added, "The other room is almost finished as well. We should be done with it in a few hours."
"Other room?" shi wondered.
"Neal gave us enough components for two rooms, so I thought our two ‘great’ rooms would be the perfect candidates," Phillip informed hir.
"How much of a strain will these place on our other systems?" Scarlet asked as she dragged a claw down a tree trunk, smelling the odor of the wood and sap.
"Just a little power," Phillip assured her. "Neal included an independent computer system to run the holosuites. While it’s not Tess, it does use the same subsystems she’s been using to manage the suites."
"Safety protocols?" Fred asked, as he eyed how high Blossom had already gotten into one of the nearby trees.
"Can be changed," Holly advised him. "But the defaults are set at high safety. You’ll have to work hard at trying to even bruise yourself, much less any serious injuries."
"So we won’t have to ‘spot’ for you when you’re working the weights," Scarlet told him with a grin.
"You know you like ‘spotting’ me," Fred replied with a leer, just as Blossom proceeded to climb beyond a branch’s theoretical ability to hold hir. There was a loud crack and a yowl of surprise and fear as shi plunged towards the ground. Star-rider leaped for hir cub; only to be surprised at how gently Blossom ‘fell’ into hir arms.
Grinning at all amazed looks around hir, Quickdash said, "If you’ll excuse us, we still need to finish up the other suite." Shi, Holly, Screamingwind and Phillip headed for the exit, leaving the rest of the crews to experiment in their new ‘playroom’.
That evening they all sat down for one last dinner together. Although Neal had promised Dreamy dessert in the mess room, he didn’t warn hir of the changes. Blossom was allowed to throw the first cub-sized pie, and it was a tossup of who was more surprised, hir or hir sire when the pie grew to full size before plastering Sunset in the muzzle. Sunset’s retaliation was thwarted by hir return fire shrinking down to cub-sized attacks. An ill-advised wisecrack by Fred turned the general medley into a pie fight between the first and second sets of Neal’s brats. The two groups seemed fairly well matched until all the cubs added their firepower.
After the cleanup, a few gifts were given between those parting. One of the gifts to Longreach and Sharptongue was a deep plate that Tauna had helped Honey make. Small figurines representing each member of their family had been carefully painted and attached to the borders of the plate. Suzan’s gift to those leaving was replicator recordings of all the meals she’d made and saved in the Folly’s replicators. Neal had also had Tess transfer some of the carriers of Boronike to each of the other ships, some as ‘gifts’, the rest to be given to other family members or sold on the open markets.
The little ones were allowed to say goodbye before being put to bed, then it was time for the older kids to give their own hugs, and more than a few tears in farewell. While promises to see each other again soon were exchanged, everyone knew that fate and luck would have more to do with ‘when’ than planning ever would.
Neal sat quietly at one of the bridge stations, idly checking readouts before his eyes went back to the main view screen, which was showing a long-range tactical display of the other two ships heading their separate ways. He didn’t turn when he heard a sound behind him.
"You’re missing them already," Shadowcrest said as shi gave him a hug from behind.
"One of the curses of this type of work, you’re always saying ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ to family and friends," he admitted as he leaned back into hir hug.
"Well, come to bed. Tess can keep the watch tonight," shi suggested.
"Maybe in a little while," Neal replied, "in my current mood I’d just end up keeping the others awake too. Speaking of still being up, why aren’t you cuddled up with Song?"
Shadowcrest smirked as shi said, "I managed to ‘feed’ hir quite a bit of dessert tonight, shi’s sleeping off hir full bellies."
"You two have gotten pretty close in the few weeks you’ve known each other. Am I going to have to explain to your parents that you’re running off with a kitten half your size and twice your age?" he asked playfully.
"I think you’re safe in that regard. From what shi’s told me, hir first assignment won’t have the room for hir to take me with hir." Shi felt an echo of Neal’s mood in hirself when shi realized that shi would be in his position sometime in the not too distant future. "I’m going to want a snuggle the night shi leaves," shi predicted.
"I’ll be there," Neal promised as the long range sensors lost track of the other ships and dropped back to a slowly moving star field.
With the Good Deal done, there was more time for them to spend on getting Gulf ready for her trials. As he was about to take Gulf out for her first tests, Neal found himself at odds with different parts of his family and crew. His engineers had assumed they would be helping with Gulf’s testing and run-up. They had been more than a little perturbed when Neal told them he would be doing the first warp test run solo.
"Good Deal was safe enough for you to let Phillip and Longreach test it with you!" Quickdash insisted.
"Only ‘just as safe’," Neal told hir. "Do you remember those three Zulus chasing after us?" At hir nod, Neal continued, "They were there in case something went badly wrong. Depending on what went wrong and how, they were to beam us off the Good Deal."
"Hope for the best while planning for the worst," Weaver quietly murmured.
Neal nodded. "While I expect everything to work, I like having a lifeline just in case."
The other disagreement Neal found himself with was with Spitfire and Darkstreak over the name. A random tale in Neal’s library had given them a name they wanted for the soon to be christened ship. Neal had given in when the rest of his crew sided with the cubs. He let his engineers take Gwendolyn out of her bay for the very first time. As with Good Deal, they parked her a little ways from the Folly before they started their testing and calibration of the different systems. They then parked her on one of the external docking ports to go in for lunch. There was more than one youthful scowl when she undocked after lunch with just Neal onboard.
Or so he had thought.
The third time an indicator changed before he actually touched the control, Neal growled, "Tess, I asked you to stay with the Folly."
"She did," a female sounding voice replied. While not the voice that Tess used, it was a far cry from the mechanical voice that the ship’s computer had been using before lunch.
Neal’s eyes narrowed slightly as he asked, "And who might you be?"
"I don’t have a name yet. What would you like to call me?"
"I’m open to suggestions," Neal admitted, still not sure that someone wasn’t having a little fun with him.
"Well… my ship’s tiny compared to Tess’s, so Tiny? Or Tina?"
"Size isn’t everything," Neal gently informed her. "Tina works for me, but I’m curious – Tess and I have tried twinning her before with no success. While she can be moved from one computer network to another, she was never separately ‘awake’ in any two of them at once."
"I really don’t know what happened," Tina admitted. "I think Tess placed copies of her memories in me, but I can tell they’re not really mine. I know what my own thoughts feel like, but these are like reviewing someone else’s recordings of past events."
Neal hmmm-ed before guessing, "One of the tests on the computer’s core was for Tess to ‘move in’ and fully test all the systems. She may have left copies of most of her long term memories to help speed her transfers, which in turn could have been used to help speed up your learning process." Neal said, looking thoughtful until Tina disturbed his thought process.
"You still sound like you don’t believe I’m real," Tina said, sounding unhappy.
Neal chuckled. "My choices are: one, you’re Tess playing games with me. Two, like Tess, you’re your own being. Or three, one or more of the deities are having a little fun at my expense."
"How will you test your theories?"
"Well, option one will be made or broken when we hit warp, Tess wouldn’t be able to pretend to be both of you at once."
"And the other two?"
"May take a little longer," Neal admitted. "If you really are your own being, then call over one of the CPU heavy Zulus and back yourself up."
"Already done, chief. Let’s get started on my tests. Your boards are green, Captain. I’m ready to start the first core."
Neal nodded. "Very well, bring up the intermix preloads on one…."
Gwendolyn was back just two hours later. Neal had cut her first test run short to keep from worrying the others. With the more hazardous of the tests out of the way, he could let his engineers help with the rest.
After docking, Neal gave his report to his engineers. As he prepared to leave them to their chores, he added, "And get with Tina about realigning the sensors, something about the port side isn’t quite right."
"Tina?" Quickdash asked in surprise.
"You tell me," Neal replied, jerking a thumb back towards Gwendolyn’s bay.
"What was that all about?" Shortdash asked, having just seen hir worried-looking daughters run past.
"It appears I have yet another smart-assed computer on my hands," Neal replied.
"Why do you think she’ll be a ‘smart-ass?" shi asked with a grin.
"Because she’s already showing some of Tess’s more enduring and frustrating traits. Tess? How long have you known she was there?"
"I was going over the systems while you were eating. I lost my connection with the computer core for just a moment. When I regained the connection, there she was." Tess hesitated a second before adding, "Tina is requesting access to what I see and hear."
"Considering she’ll probably be spending a lot of time cooped up in one of your internal bays, I’d be inclined to allow it," Neal agreed.
"Thank you, chief!" Tina’s voice said through Tess’s speaker.
"Get the feeling they didn’t wait for permission?" Shortdash asked with a grin.
"No surprise there," Neal said with a chuckle. "Tess wouldn’t have asked if she’d had any problem with the request."
"So she only asked to make it official?"
"Something like that," Neal agreed.
"And to help explain Tina knowing things that only I would know," Tess added.
"Oh? And Tina? Don’t give them all the answers, they’re still in training," Neal warned.
"So Tess has informed me, chief."
"Chief?" Shortdash asked.
"Since Tess calls him ‘boss’, I’ll call him ‘chief’ so he knows which of us is speaking," Tina explained.
"Makes a kind of sense, I guess," Shortdash acknowledged.
"Until they start claiming to be each other," Neal chuckled. "Then I’ll be in trouble."
"I heard Neal saying something about making you two the ship’s scullery maids after last night," Lighttouch commented the next morning, as Windsong and Shadowcrest finished a late breakfast. "Something about changing the bedding on all the beds."
"It was an accident!" Song insisted, "I didn’t mean to knock Shady’s headband off."
"So I theorized," Lighttouch admitted. "But there is a way to prevent it from happening again."
"I’m just hoping it doesn’t involve an adhesive," Shady muttered.
"No," Lighttouch assured hir, "just a little more mind over matter."
Gathering up three headbands, hy lead them to one of the small rooms they sometimes used for mental training and practice. "Full screens please," hy told Tess once they were in.
Once the chakats were comfortably settled, hy had them close their eyes before hy personally placed a headband on each of their heads, taking a minute to adjust them properly. They spent the rest of the morning talking of other things, their eyes closed until it was nearly time for lunch.
At the soft tone Tess used as a warning that it would soon be mealtime, Song let out a sigh of relief. "About time! I need to stretch," shi said as shi opened hir eyes and reached up to remove hir headband – only to drag hir hand through hir hair a second time when shi came up empty handed. Looking at the other two, shi realized that none of them were wearing headbands.
"What the?" Shady muttered as shi found hir own headband missing.
Lighttouch grinned and pulled the three headbands out from behind hym. "This lesson was to remind you that the headbands are just a reminder to not broadcast or receive. They have no more power then what you give them."
"So we weren’t wearing them all morning?" Song asked.
Lighttouch nodded. "Like the emperor’s new clothes, they are there only as long as you think they are…. So, reach up and ‘remove’ your headbands."
Song reached up again and ‘removed’ hir imaginary headband, feeling hir senses reaching out as hir arms came down. Shi looked over at Shady, who merely closed hir eyes before hir presence became much more noticeable.
Seeing Song’s questioning look, Shady grinned. "It’s a mental headband, so I used mental hands to remove it." Shi ignored Song’s mentally stuck out tongue as shi turned back to Lighttouch. "We should have figured that trick out on our own."
"It is easiest to be shown something could be done. As Neal started this by changing how some headbands work on you two, I thought you were ready for the next step."
"This will take some getting used to," Song said as they washed up before heading for the dinning area.
"No time like the present," Shady quipped, as shi pantomimed putting hir headband back on. Song shrugged, but mentally lifted hirs back to hir head as well.
They had just settled down on their pads when Nightsky and Tauna walked in. without looking, Nightsky’s senses told hir that the pair was wearing their headbands. "Not at the dinner table," shi playfully growled as shi reached over to snag Shady’s ‘headband’.
"Not what at the dinner table?" Shady playfully asked as shi and Song relaxed their mental control.
"For some reason I thought you two were wearing those headbands," Nightsky confessed looking confused.
"We were," Song admitted with a grin. "But it was all in our heads," shi non-explained.
Tauna just shook her head at them. "I don’t know whether to be hopeful or fearful of Vanessa having some of your abilities as a chakat."
"Be hopeful," Calmmeadow suggested as shi tried to get bibs on a couple of the cubs, spaghetti being a very fun and messy meal for them. "It’s not just what talents she might gain, but how she decides to use them."
"Ready for tonight?" Dusk asked Graysocks as they passed in the corridor.
"I heard we’re starting late so Roseberry and Brighteyes can join us," she replied.
"Not just them, Song and Shady claim they can keep from going overboard and they asked to join us tonight as well," Dusk informed her.
Graysocks laughed. "Neal will need more than the ‘holy’ card if one of them slips and drive us all crazy at once!"
Shady and Song entered the dining area early the next morning, only to find Neal waiting for them with a scorecard. He grinned at their expressions before holding the card up to show the ‘10’.
"We had Tess put up the fields…" Song started to insist.
"… and I had her take them down," he told them. "I’d never expected you two to have to hide behind them every time you had a little fun, and Lighttouch had suggested that you were ready to be trusted not to blow the rest of us away with your broadcasting. The ten is for getting it pretty near perfect. While we could feel you, you weren’t any worse than some of your other chakat sisters."
"Thanks daddy," Shady said as they both gave him a hug.
Setting his dirty plate back in the replicator, Neal added, "Get something to eat, I seem to remember you two having the watch in a little while."
"Slave driver!" Song sent to Shady as Neal left the room.
"Don’t tell him that unless you want to spend the rest of the trip with nothing to do!" Shady fired back. "Just ‘hint’ to him that he’s pushing too hard and he’ll stop. The thing is, he won’t start again."
"Hey! It was just a joke."
"Trust me, there are some things you have to make sure Neal’s in the right state of mind before joking about, and slavery is one of them."
Song looked down at the floor for a moment before nodding back to hir best friend; "You’re right, I should have realized that by now. I’ll try to be more careful, the last thing I’d want to do is hurt him," shi looked back into Shadowcrest’s eyes, "Or you."
Shady laughed at the last as shi replied out loud, "Save the mush for tonight, we’ve got chores to do!"
Song was about to threaten hir with twice the mush later, when shi noticed a minor discomfort. Cupping hir slightly swollen breasts, shi looked at Shady’s grin of understanding. "But I’ve been careful not to drink your milk!" shi complained.
Shady laughed. "True, but you forgot that all my chakat sisters are in milk mode, and we did go a little overboard last night."
"I can’t show up for duty in this state!" Song moaned.
"We’ll have a few months to wean you," Shady reminded hir. "In the meantime," shi said with an evil grin, "Tess? Let Stormy know someone needs a milk check!"
"I just hope shi’s hungry," Song said.
Shadowcrest licked hir muzzle in anticipation. "Don’t worry, I’ll finish off whatever shi can’t hold," shi promised Song as Stormy and Star charged into the room.
While Star didn’t have Stormy’s passion for milk checks, she did often join hir when it was time for a snack. The kit and cub were just finishing when Weaver and Longsock came in.
Weaver gave Song something between a smirk and a frown as she said, "Hey! It was my turn to feed them!"
Shady grinned as shi said, "I’m afraid we’ve added another player to the milk queue, but don’t worry as shi’s going to have to start weaning hirself soon enough."
Longsock laughed at his mate’s expression. "Since they’re full, I guess you’ll just have to settle for my services love," he said, giving her a leer.
"See Song, you’re always causing trouble," Shady giggled as Longsock and Weaver left arm in arm.
"Right…" Song shot back, "now finish milking me before Neal comes looking for us."
"Well, if you insist…" Shady said with a grin before pulling the smaller chakat towards hir.
"I’ve lost a second scout," Neal reported once he’d gotten everyone in the main lounge that evening. "While the other two scouts hit all their checkpoints, the missing one’s last report was at its halfway point, so that’ll help narrow down the search area."
"So the Folly’s going on the hunt?" Zhanch asked with a grin. While she and the other Rakshani marines liked Folly and her crew, a little excitement would be welcomed.
"No," Neal said. "I was thinking I’d load a few useful things in Gwendolyn and take a look."
"Those few things being?" Weaver asked.
"Things useful for a search and possible rescue, as well as a handful of Zulus to ferret out and disrupt any traps that the missing scouts may have sprung."
"You had better be counting us among those ‘useful things’," Bonita commented, only half kidding.
"All Rakshani are coming," Neal agreed. "If it is the Sharp Claw, they may be more likely to listen to you than me."
"Wenfrec’s been their ‘Head of House’ this last year; surely they’d listen to her," Shadowcrest suggested.
"Yes and no," Wenfrec replied. "They wouldn’t have known what was going on while they were missing. And while I’ve represented my House, I haven’t had the power base to do more than hold my house name. What we find may establish if I still have a House. And if they are alive, a couple of them might be annoyed that I took over the position without permission or training."
"Not that there was anyone else to take the role," Dessa pointed out.
Weaver grinned at Neal. "So, are you finally trusting us to run this ship?"
"Of course not!" Neal exclaimed acting surprised. "I’m expecting Tess to keep you from getting into too much trouble."
Neal wasn’t the only one to laugh at the dirty look she gave him. As the laughter died down, Lighttouch said, "I too would like to accompany you with Moonglow, and I would suggest you also consider our Star Corps friends."
"And Star," Weaver said with a small grin. "You’ll need someone for Stormy to play with." At Neal’s questioning look, she smiled and gave him a small nod.
"And you’ll keep Quickdash," Quickwind replied. "They should be able to help keep the Folly running for the few days we’ll be gone."
Neal nodded. "It should take us no longer than a week to get there and check the area.
If the ‘Claw is out there and there are survivors, we could be an additional day or two depending on the condition of their ship. So, two and a half to three weeks tops. Then we rejoin before hitting Chakona."
Continued in Chapter 11.
Copyright © 2008 Allen Fesler Redbear1158@hotmail.com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
The Quange were created by Roy D. Pounds II and are used with his permission. (if he likes it!)
Windsong and Myth are copyright Gregg Anderson, and used at his request.
Skunktaurs are copyright Bob Reijns.
Tauna Shadowback is copyright Chakat Scirocco and used with her permission.
Chakat Blackstar, hir ships and crews copyright Alex Wiegerling.
Captain Suzanna Cortez, Panzer, and the rest of the Rendezvous crew are copyright SoulBlade.
( If I’ve managed to step on anyone else’s toes (or paws, claws or tails) let me know and I’ll either give you credit or change my ‘tale’.)
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