Gwendolyn left the next ‘morning’, Neal having spent most of the previous evening giving instructions to those who would remain aboard the Folly.
While Gwendolyn had made several test flights at various speeds, this would be the first time her power and warp systems would be held at their higher settings for an extended period of time. Neal spent most of the first day in engineering working with Tina, monitoring and tweaking the individual subsystems to their peak performance.
The others spent the time exploring the new ship. While the bridge was almost identical to one of Folly’s, the much smaller galley didn’t include a corresponding kitchen, having instead several replicator units installed along one wall.
"I hope we have some of Stew’s meals stored in those things," Dessa commented dryly.
"Tess gave me copies of everything that Suzan has entered into her replicator library," Tina assured her.
"And if we can’t power the replicators, I see that Neal’s got plenty of ration packs just in case," Bonita commented with a grin as she’d noticed a single case of human style rat-packs among all the larger cases that would sustain the much larger furs.
Further exploration revealed a good-sized lounge/entertainment room, as well as two medium sized holosuites. A shuttle bay held one of Folly’s old personnel shuttles with a little room to spare. They also found a well-stocked weapons locker with Neal’s preferred weapons, as well as an assortment of Rakshan arms. Zhanch picked up one of the short swords that the marines preferred for ‘close in’ work and tested its balance before replacing it with a smile. As per Rakshan custom, the hilts of each weapon were decorated in their House colors.
As Neal and Tina spent the next couple of days getting them to the search area, the Rakshani marines freshened up on their ship-to-ship boarding and attack skills. While Wenfrec was in security, she wasn’t a marine, so Zhanch and the others gave her some basic training in the way they carried out certain actions. This left her sore and tired, but she was actually starting to look forward to her next encounter with Security's hand-to-hand combat instructors.
A day before they were to reach the area the missing Zulus would have covered, Neal slowed Gwendolyn before launching three fresh Zulus. They were sent ahead to scout the area and sniff out whatever might have taken out Neal’s earlier scouts. Two ran ahead, taking turns at being the lead. The third sat back a ways, monitoring the first two and feeding their data back to Tina, who would stop Gwendolyn at the first sign of trouble.
It was only a day and a half into the search before things got ‘interesting’ as both of the lead Zulus stopped reporting back. As programmed, the third stopped and relayed the data to Tina, who halted Gwendolyn and woke Neal. By the time he was on the bridge, one of the wayward Zulus had resumed its mission as if nothing had happened. Its scans showed the still unresponsive Zulu had changed direction and was heading off its programmed route. An active scan of its new heading showed what they might be looking for: ships – and at least one of the other missing Zulus.
The ship had been new a hundred and fifty years ago, and she still showed much of her Rakshan heritage. A heavy bulk freighter, she displayed a few changes in design as upgrades or repairs had been required or desired. Other changes showed that were not improvements. There was a large hole in the engineering section that indicated that her warp core had been jettisoned. The burn marks of phaser fire across her impulse engines told of her being too crippled to run or maneuver against her attacker. But there were other signs that she had not died easily. Another ship – much smaller, but seemingly more intact – drifted just a few hundred kilometers away. A quick scan of it showed no running power sources or life signs.
While the warp core was gone, the Sharp Claw did have limited power. The missing Zulus sat either on her hull, or drifted near her, feeding power to her remaining systems.
"Well, now we know where the missing Zulus went," Neal commented dryly. "I’m guessing one of the deities was using my Zulu for a little field trip when she came across the Sharp Claw."
Tina spoke up, "Chief, power and fuel recordings from the scouts suggest that the deity may have feared help wouldn’t arrive before the first scout’s fuel reserves were depleted, and by then that scout no longer had sufficient fuel to reach and access a relay."
"And she probably guessed that losing two of them in the same area would have me looking into the matter sooner rather than later," Neal mused.
"She just encoded a bank of my memory. She says ‘Yes!’ and ‘It’s about time you got here!’"
Under Tina’s control, Gwendolyn had moved alongside the Sharp Claw as they were talking. Tina completed her deep scan of the damaged ship. "Someone rigged a stasis system to run on what was left of their power systems. It looks like it held until the deity showed up with the first scout. She then tapped the scout’s power to help keep their stasis field going. In the field I can detect a small pile of Rakshani bodies. The rest are laying or standing separately." She spoke a little quieter as she added, "There is also one body outside the field, near what appears to be the controls for the field."
"They may not have had the time to rig a timer they thought they could trust," Neal suggested as he examined the scans. "All Rakshani will suit up and join me on the Sharp Claw. Lighttouch, Quickwind, and Shortdash are assigned to sickbay; I’m afraid their mental states may be a little on the rough side when we start waking them up. I’ll send Wenfrec back to you so they’ll have someone they know with them."
Along with Neal and the Rakshani, portable stasis generators were also beamed into place. As the Rakshan generator was taken offline, Tina would bring up the ones under her control, allowing them to deal with the Sharp Claw’s crew one at a time rather than all at once.
Once the stasis generators were in place, Neal killed the old system as Tina activated the new. With the systems now under her control, Tina started scanning the Rakshani one by one.
"Chief? I have one very elderly Rakshani with badly damaged lungs and other injuries that will require processing to save her."
"Which one?" Neal asked. Tina sent them all a picture of the Rakshani in question as well as her medical scans.
"That’s Bertif! She’s the head of our House!" Wenfrec blurted out in surprise.
"Go ahead and process her. Dessa, you and Wenfrec will go back to Gwen and stay with Bertif. Shadowcrest was only out a few hours after hir process, so there’s no telling how soon she’ll wake up. Tina, start a list of those we can bring out without too much patching up."
"Captain?" Zhanch asked as Bertif and the others were beamed away. "What’s missing from this picture? If this was a family-run ship, where are all the cubs?"
"Tina?" Neal asked in reply.
"Ship design suggests that one of the areas badly hit was probably the nursery. The only cub I can detect is a newborn being held by his mother."
"Thank you, Tina," Neal somberly said.
"What’s next?" Zhanch asked as she and Kestrel carefully wrapped the mummified body that had been outside the stasis field.
"The rest of us will be looking over that other ship for clues on who they were and why they attacked the ‘Claw. For now, the rest of these will keep until we can ask Bertif just what happened."
The two groups rejoined a few hours later for a late meal.
"What did you find?" Shortdash asked as Neal picked at his food.
"Another ten Rakshani bodies as well as fifty-four human ones. While a lot of them died fighting, the final deathblow was gas." Looking at those around him, Neal quietly added, "It’s almost identical to the stuff that was in the pirate’s database."
"So they might have been part of the same group?"
"Looks that way," Bonita agreed, "and every wardrobe I checked had a shirt in it with a big H1 on the back."
"Humans First," Zhanch growled. "What did they want with a Rakshan freighter?"
"I’m afraid that wasn’t in their databanks, at least not the ones I’ve gone through so far," Neal admitted. "I’ve hooked Tina into what was left of their computers to see if she can find anything useful."
"What’s Bertif’s status?" Kestrel asked.
"Processed successfully, currently in a light sleep," Tina replied. "I’ll let everyone know when she’s about to wake up."
It was only an hour later that a very confused Bertif woke to find one of her great-granddaughters peering at her anxiously. The explanation of how she came to be there, and why Bertif was now physically younger than Wenfrec took a little while. Getting her to tell them about the attack took even longer, and left several of them thinking Bertif wasn’t telling them everything.
"I think we should wake the others one at a time and question them before they can talk to each other and work out a cover story," Shortdash muttered after Bertif had eaten and gone back to a nearby room to rest.
Wenfrec looked like she had a hot retort, but held it when Zhanch raised a paw at her. "Are you suggesting that she was being less than truthful with us?" she asked the annoyed chakat.
"Second method," Shortdash shot back. "But she’s not as good as Neal at hiding the fact that there’s more that she’s not saying."
"The ‘Claw’s holds suggest some of what she’s hiding," Kestrel quietly told the group. "She’s carrying a lot of stuff that only a new or very young colony would find useful."
"And somebody knew where they were going," Neal added. "The attacker’s ship was named Yuri. While Tina was able to recover some data from the attack, a lot of short term information was lost, so I had her read what she could from the ‘Claw’s computers." At Wenfrec's dirty look he frowned. "We were only digging for how the attack was carried out, not any ‘family’ business, Wenfrec."
"What did you find?" she questioned, still unhappy that she hadn’t been asked.
"Yuri knew the ‘Claw’s intended route to such a fine degree that they were able to lay gravity mines along her intended path. The mines detonated when they detected her warp field and dropped her to sub-light for Yuri to attack. The hard drop from warp and some of the damage inflicted by Yuri forced the ‘Claw to eject her core. After taking a few more shots at the ‘Claw to remove what weapons she did have, Yuri then fired into the crew quarters." Neal locked eyes with Wenfrec before adding, "And by that time any able bodied Rakshani would have been at their post or doing damage control, so the only reason to for those last shots were to deliberately kill the cubs and their keepers."
Wenfrec stood up and turned around, she was not going to break down in front of the others. Before she could reach the door, Zhanch had stepped up behind her, a paw on each of her shoulders – her claws digging in almost to the point of breaking the skin. Wenfrec stood there, the pain helping to keep her focused on what the others were saying.
"They obviously didn’t know Rakshani," Kestrel said, pointedly ignoring Wenfrec’s distress. "Taking out the cubs guaranteed that the crew would fight to the last one standing."
"Like threatening a chakat’s cub," Lighttouch murmured. "Once you have reached that point, there would be nothing you could say or do to stop them."
"So when Yuri then made the mistake of trying to board the ‘Claw, they never had a chance," Neal agreed. "The fight left both ships unable to support their crews, gas on Yuri and an almost total power loss on the ‘Claw."
"So what are you going to do about it, Captain?" Bertif demanded as she came in, having heard part of what had been said.
"Gather and render aid to the rest of your family," Neal told her. "Drop a marker on both ships, you’ll be able to reclaim yours and have salvage rights on the other. Then I’ll get you to a starbase to tell your story and get your ship and House in order." Indicating Wenfrec, he added, "She’s been holding your House name while she waited for you to be found."
"And who are you to know of Rakshani Houses?" she demanded.
"I am Neal ap Edwin na Foster, and the Head of the Rakshani House ‘Foster’. The House was formed after the ‘Claw’s disappearance. Wenfrec has been most helpful in teaching me more about the Houses and the House rules. For example, thanks to her instruction, this ship is House neutral."
"I want the rest of my family brought out of stasis," Bertif didn’t quite demand.
"Once you were up, I intended to bring them out a few at a time," Neal told her. "While we have adequate space and life support, our sickbay can only handle three at a time."
"And our dead?"
"Those still on the Yuri have been left alone. The lone remaining body on the Sharp Claw has been wrapped for space burial."
"Thank you, Captain. The others were arguing over who would give their life for our family when young Twovoc stopped the discussion by doing it himself…. I was in no shape to tell them to shut up and let me do it." Looking at each of the others, Bertif added, "I didn’t expect to live much longer, and it would have been an honorable death."
"Dying is easy," Neal quietly told her. "It’s living that’s the real challenge. I’d planned on starting with the little pile that I assume was arguing. Once we have them settled down they can help with the rest."
Tina identified for Neal the Rakshani as they were beamed over. The ‘pile’ was made up of the Sharp Claw’s captain, Bertif’s mate, and one of her granddaughters with an unknown that turned out to be the granddaughter’s new mate. While three of the four had been injured, none of the injuries was life threatening.
"Frodo," Neal told one of them as they got to their feet. "I’m glad to see the ‘Claw won’t be without her Captain. Keitot, Murminka," he said as he nodded to Bertif’s mate and granddaughter. Nodding at the Rakshani that hadn’t been in the database, Neal added, "I am Captain Foster, and you are aboard the Gwendolyn, and you are?"
"Where’s the Sharp Claw?" the unnamed Rakshani demanded.
"Kilson! Your manners!" Murminka softly snarled before the other two could. While she was unsure how this ‘Captain Foster’ knew their names, she had heard tales about him. Foster was known to deal with others how they dealt with him, and right now she had a feeling that they needed all the help and goodwill they could get.
"Manners be damned! We just survived a fight with humans bare hours ago!" Kilson snarled back.
"A bit more than a few hours I fear," Neal dryly commented. "Your stasis field was activated, and the Sharp Claw has been missing for over a year."
"Impossible!" Kilson snapped as Wenfrec and another Rakshani he didn’t know came in. "He lies!"
"Shut up Kilson," Bertif muttered as she looked to her mate Keitot. "It seems some of the things we’ve heard of the Folly and her captain are truer than we knew."
Keitot stared at the now very young Bertif. "You were dying," he whispered.
"So I was," she softly agreed, "but the fates and deities seem to have had other plans."
While the others had been staring at the new Bertif, Kilson had drawn his phaser and was now pointing it at Neal. "You will give me the command codes for this ship or I will kill everyone aboard!"
"Kilson!" Murminka started, only to have the weapon swing her way.
"Shut up you idiot!" Kilson snarled. "If your family hadn’t fought so well, I’d have the ‘Claw by now, but this ship will have to do." His eyes widened as even more Rakshani started filing in behind Wenfrec.
"So it was an inside job," one of them retorted. "You probably gave Yuri the information she needed to intercept the ‘Claw, and I’ll bet you worked from the inside to help insure their victory."
"Except our captain doesn’t trust new family members with ship codes," Keitot said as he nodded to Frodo. "You may have fooled Murminka, but your whirlwind romancing and mating left some of us wondering. It’s sad to see we were right to doubt your true intentions," the older Rakshani growled as he stared at their betrayer.
"So… you were to get the ship, and your friends were to get the colony?" Neal asked, interrupting the staring contest. Star and Stormy had joined them, hiding behind Neal, their paws around his legs.
"The codes," demanded Kilson as his phaser swung back to Neal before he lowered his aim slightly. "The codes or I start with those cubs!"
Having ‘just’ lost their own cubs, the ‘Claw’s Rakshani moved as one, and it would have been hard to tell who actually killed Kilson. Their first strikes crushed his skull, tore out his throat, and destroyed his heart. By the time they backed away they were all bloodied, and it would have been impossible to identify the remains.
Neal had simply knelt and held the cub and kit. "You don’t threaten cubs," he quietly said as he waited for the Rakshani to calm down.
"What were the odds of you finding a traitor in the very first group?" Dessa wondered as Lighttouch and the chakats rushed in, only to slow at the sights and smell of carnage.
"Pretty good actually," Neal said as Moonglow joined him in comforting Star and Stormy. "Every other Rakshani looked like they’d just been through the wringer, while he looked like he had somehow managed to avoid any fighting."
"A coward?" Lighttouch suggested.
"Or someone who knew what was about to happen," Bertif growled. It had been her claws that had gutted Kilson on the way to shredding his heart. Turning, she snarled, "The same could be said for you, Captain. You just stood there as he threatened your cubs."
"I was hoping for more information before he died," Neal countered. "Besides, didn’t you wonder why his phaser never discharged? You’ll find that all their weapons were disabled as they were transported." As the others belatedly checked their weapons, Neal added, "It’s easier to get someone to talk if they think they have the upper hand."
"Whereas you think you have the upper hand," Bertif said dryly.
"No, I know I have the upper hand, at least for the moment," Neal chuckled. Giving her a calculated look, he added, "Which in this case means that I can be more generous with my aid than I would be if I thought me or mine was at risk. It also meant that I could listen to his empty threats in the hopes that he might fill in some of the missing pieces to this puzzle."
"What more needs to be discovered?" Murminka demanded, "He only pretended to love me to kill us and take the ‘Claw." The hurt of betrayal mixed with her rage as she spoke.
"And the new colony you were shipping supplies to," Neal added.
Captain Frodo frowned. "We don’t know about any new colony, Captain."
Neal frowned in return. "Your cargo bays disagree with you, Captain. Before you say any more, let me just say that I am not interested in your colony other than how critical it might be to get them the supplies you were to deliver. They’ve been waiting over a year for you to show up – how much do you think that might have hurt them?"
Wenfrec had been helping bag the bloody remains of Kilson. She looked up to Frodo and said, "I have been the acting Head of this House since the Sharp Claw disappeared. While I gladly return that responsibility to Bertif, I strongly suggest that you answer Captain Foster’s questions fully and honestly."
"She’s correct," Bertif quietly growled. "I’ve already tried telling just what I thought they needed to know and they saw right through my half-truths. Tell him what you would if it were me asking the questions."
"On all things?" Frodo asked with a raised eyebrow.
"As our family can live or die at his whim…" Bertif pointed out.
Frodo nodded and carefully cleaned his paws and claws before he removed a memory cell from his belt. Handing it to Neal he said, "This contains what we have of the colony and its conditions."
Neal accepted the device and stepped over to a small computer terminal to let Tina read it. "Tina, focus on the colony and its expected needs, extrapolate the colony’s condition when the Sharp Claw never made her expected delivery." Turning back to Bertif, he said, "You should know that I don’t normally kill out of hand, so your family is safe enough. The colony though may be at risk, and I won’t let House pride add to that risk."
Bertif nodded. "Understood Captain, but I was less than fully honest with you earlier. More than just my House is still in danger; ask what you will."
"Does anyone else know of this colony? And could the colony call for help if they needed it?" Neal asked as he ushered them all to the little sickbay to get the others tended to.
"Others know but they don’t, or at least didn’t, have a ship. The colony’s a ways from any FTL relay, so we were also their main means of communication," Captain Frodo admitted as his burned arm was unwrapped and tended to by Moonglow with Quickwind assisting. "We were delivering additional seed stock as well as livestock as the native plants and animals aren’t all that tasty or nutritious."
"Unfortunately, your livestock and most of the seed is freezer burned past being usable," Neal commented as he read what Tina was giving him. "Tina, top off one of the baby Zulus. Send it to their colony and make full scans of it. Then see if it can make contact with them. If they’re all right, then the Zulu can return here. If they are in distress, then the Zulu is to head for the nearest starbase and give Star Fleet what info we have."
"Yes chief," Tina replied before adding, "Someone’s overriding some of the commands I just gave the Zulu. I think we have a passenger going out with it."
"So far their interference has been beneficial," Dessa pointed out.
Neal chuckled. "As if I could know for sure whether one of them rides it anyway. She may have been doing the overrides now so we’d know that she was going to help us check on things. At least a Rakshani deity onsite will give us a better judge of the colony’s true conditions."
His last comment had caused his guests to look at him in shock. Murminka was the first to find her tongue. "You speak as if you know deities personally."
"Not really," Neal replied. "But my probe wouldn’t have stopped when it saw your ship, nor would it have fed power to the stasis field on its own. So if it wasn’t a deity, then some of my toys are thinking for themselves."
"I resemble that remark," Tina reminded him.
"And for all I know, you’re just another deity having some fun at my expense," Neal pointed out, ignoring the raspberry coming from her speakers.
As the Zulu left, Neal prepared to get the rest of the survivors moved to Gwendolyn, and patched up. After consulting with Frodo, Gwendolyn was joined to the ‘Claw and a path to the stasis area was lit and made breathable.
Only a couple needed to be transported straight to Tina’s sickbay; the rest were more in the ‘walking wounded’ state. Neal stayed out of the way while they were tended to, to give Wenfrec and the other Rakshani time to explain what had transpired since the fight.
Once all the Rakshani from the ‘Claw had been tended to and fed, the debriefings began.
Two had returned from the ship-to-ship fighting on the Yuri and they accounted their actions onboard her. This had included sealing and forcefully decoupling the ships once they started getting reports of the gas attack.
During the debriefing, there was more than a little finger-pointing as hindsight showed how things could have been done for a better ending. Captain Frodo finally had enough of it and shouted them all down. Yes, things could have been better handled, but they hadn’t known what was happening or why until it was too late. It was time to pick up the pieces and move on.
Neal also found himself dealing with a loss of self-confidence in their Head of House the next time they were out of hearing of the others.
"I failed my family and my House!" Bertif blurted out when they were alone.
Neal shook his head. He couldn’t do it for her without absorbing her House into his, which was already getting complicated enough, nor had he seen any of her family that could take her position without the infighting shaking up the damaged House even more. Deciding to work with her feelings of responsibility and pride, he said, "I lay this task before you: Your family and House need you now more than ever, and you will not shrink from that duty. The deities saw fit that you should live, so I suggest that you get off your guilt trip and get back to being the Head of your House."
"Who are you to know what deities do and why?" she demanded, her claws out.
"One led me to you," he reminded her. "She seemed to think you and your family were worthy of her time and mine." A little more gently Neal added, "And as far as knowing what a deity wants… well, I sometimes wonder if I’m still around because one thinks I haven’t finished all of my tasks yet."
Her claws slowly retracting, Bertif stared at him for a minute before asking, "How long has she tasked you?"
Neal merely shook his head, "Knowing that would require knowing when she first took an interest in me – of which I have no real way of saying for sure."
Bertif slowly nodded. "Very well, where do we go from here?"
"A day or two for you and yours to recover, the funeral, and then I get you all to a Starbase."
"No," Bertif countered. "We’re staying with our ship."
Neal shook his head. "Even I couldn’t get her warp capable with what we have available."
"Maybe not, but even my crew could make her livable until a starbase can send out a tug," Bertif countered.
"Yuri’s core was still intact," Neal admitted. "While not large enough to get the ‘Claw to warp, it should be sufficient for everything else."
"Do you have the fuel to spare?"
"No, but I can by the time we’re ready for it. Tina? Get one of the Zulus to a FTL relay; we need a load of antimatter. Add a message for the Folly that we’ll be a little later than originally planned."
"As good as done chief," Tina acknowledged.
Despite Neal’s suggestion that they take a day to recover, the more mobile Rakshani were suited and repairing the ‘Claw’s hull breaches the next ‘day’. A few had been shuttled over to the Yuri to collect their fallen while Neal went over to see about removing Yuri’s core for the ‘Claw’s use. Finding enough other things they could use, Neal had Tina bring the ships together to facilitate moving the equipment.
Tina woke Neal in the middle of his ‘night’ to inform him that his ‘House guests’ were again causing her problems. He dressed and followed her lead to a cabin where two of the Rakshani had already partly dismantled the wall to better access the components behind it.
Scowling at the Rakshani, Neal said, "While I’ve promised to help get the ‘Claw operational, gutting Gwendolyn wasn’t part of the offer."
"But we need these parts!" one of them protested.
"I’ll help you strip the pirate and you can have my spares," Neal told them. "But you’re not stealing any of my ship’s systems, and that includes her backups!"
The funeral was held the next day, Neal having docked the shuttle to Gwen’s side so they could make use of the shuttle bay. Each of their dead was named as their body was pushed through the field keeping the air in the bay. A few words were spoken of their fallen comrade as the others growled their agreement. For those that no body remained, an object or possession of theirs filled in for the missing loved one. Kilson’s remains were thrown out last… to a dead silence.
The family had turned to go, only to find their host holding the half-melted remains of one of their fuel regulators. Pushing the unit out into space, Neal said, "To the Sharp Claw! She and her House may have been down, but they are not out…. Like a Phoenix, they will rise from the ashes!"
Surprised by the benediction, Bertif was first to growl her approval, the rest of her family turning it almost into a roar.
It was a worn out Neal that trudged to the captain’s cabin that night. With a lot of help, he’d gotten the warp core from the Yuri installed in the ‘Claw. Tomorrow would see the rest of the connections adapted and the first of the test runs, but for now he was truly exhausted. Therefore it took him a minute of staring at his bed to decide something was wrong, and almost another full minute to figure out what that might be. The dim lighting showed him a Rakshani female in his bed, not an uncommon occurrence with him having four Rakshani mates onboard. Nor was Star and Stormy cuddling up against her belly all that unusual, but that was where things started to not make sense, for there were not two but three tails coming out of the little pile. The cubs’ shifting revealed the surviving Rakshani cub curled up between them. Which in turn made it easier for Neal to wake up to the minor fact that the fur pattern of the Rakshani in his bed didn’t quite match any of his mates.
Neal was turning to go when she spoke. "Stay," she requested. "Your little ones have been keeping my son company all day. Your mates told me that you wouldn’t object."
"Your mate…" Neal began.
"Died in the Yuri," she informed him. "Rakshani males would consider sharing a bed as more of a commitment than humans do, and I feel the need for company tonight."
"I’m not your average human," Neal muttered, "but I have been known to do strange things for the sake of a cub."
"Our cubs show they can be friends, perhaps we can as well," she suggested.
Neal smiled. "Just so I don’t break my longstanding rule of not waking up with someone I don’t know, may I know your name?"
"Calypso," she replied. "And my son is Darkash."
Neal crawled into bed and gave each of the cubs a gentle stroke. "Welcome, Darkash," he murmured as the Rakshani cub reacted to his handling.
He was semi-awakened twice that night, once by Calypso feeding Darkash, the other to find Kestrel had joined them. In the morning he woke to just the cubs, Darkash licking his nose to wake him up.
Repairs continued, but not always smoothly. Neal’s mixed methods left the Rakshani engineers and their assistants confused and upset more often than not, and their frustration was stirring up the rest of the family. Things peaked with Bertif all but roaring in Neal’s face; Neal weathered the storm without backing down. As Neal again started to explain why they were doing things his way, Bertif had fled for her room, her mate Keitot found her there a little later….
"Love, you really need to restrain your temper," he said once the door was closed.
Bertif growled, but Keitot ignored it. She was younger now and could probably take him in a fight, but he knew her well enough to know her moods and how she would react in each of them. Keitot had also noticed the mess of small pieces of wood, padding, and fabric where a chair had once stood.
Indicating the remains of the chair, he said, "While our host may get annoyed at you for the chair, better it than you having taken another step towards him after your little display of anger."
Bertif huffed, "Grandfather’s logs say he had to deal with a very frustrating human by the same name. If it weren’t for the fact that those logs are over a hundred years old, I’d swear it was the same damn human!"
"Go look in the mirror," Keitot gently suggested. "It could very well be the same ‘damn’ human. And if it is, then the odds of you winning an argument with him go down a bit. Oh, and the next time you do decide to scream at him, do it in private. There were three phasers drawn by the end of it."
"His mates thought I would attack him?"
"No, three of your House drew their phasers – aimed at you I might add. It seems Neal’s mates trust that he can get himself out of just about anything."
"Who…" she started only to have him cut her off.
"Mine was one of them my dear. I much preferred the idea of stunning you to finding out what Neal or his mates would do if you had actually attacked him."
"I’ll keep my claws off him," she promised. "But I’ll not make that promise to the rest of you!"
"As it should be," he agreed. "While he seems to be working more madness than sense into our repairs, this ship shows he must know things our engineers don’t."
"I’ll try to keep that in mind."
The next few days saw the Sharp Claw running on limited internal power; just enough coming from her temporary core to run the life support and begin recharging her depleted reserve power cells. When the three Zulus showed up to refuel the ‘Claw, Neal’s crew learned a little more about them.
"Why haven’t we seen these before now?" Zhanch asked. While just a little larger than one of the two seated Zulus, these lacked the cockpit and transporters, and appeared to have very limited sensors compared to their smaller counterparts.
"These are basically flying fuel cans," Neal told her. "And while it would only take a few of them to get the ‘Claw to a station, they’re not big enough to refuel the Folly in a reasonable manner."
"So how do you keep the Folly fueled?" she wondered.
"Several of her pods are nothing more than a collection of anti-matter containers with a small core for power. A little plumbing takes it to internal stores. As far as refueling? Father's Love swapped three loaded pods for four of our empties."
"And where did they get the loaded pods?"
"There are plenty of uninhabitable systems; I just set up a plant here and there. Whoever happens to be heading near one picks up pods for the rest of us."
"You told Boyce your facilities were out with your colonies.…"
"I just didn't tell him I had others closer to home," Neal admitted with a grin.
"One of these days you're going to second method one thing too many and we'll all be helping Weaver ‘sit’ on you," Zhanch warned.
Neal chuckled. "Until that day, I have work to do."
With plenty of fuel, the core was tested at higher levels to see if the ‘Claw could survive on her own until a heavy tug could arrive to drag her home for repairs. This included shields and weapons, some repaired and some taken from the Yuri. Neal noticed a marked increase in morale once the ‘Claws weapons were successfully fired, and her shields brought up to full strength.
Another piece of good cheer was the Zulu Neal had sent to the colony returning with news of the colony’s well being. Most of the news was positive, but they were looking forward to a resupply now that communications had been reestablished.
"Chief?" Tina quietly said once Neal had gotten something to eat. "I have a deity that wishes to speak with you."
"Go ahead and read it to me."
"I can’t. She wants to talk to you in holosuite one."
"Tell her I’ll be there momentarily," Neal said as he disposed of his dishes.
Holosuite one was empty when Neal entered, just the crosshatch pattern and the emitters at each junction, then the emitters faded from view. As Neal waited, a blur formed in the middle of the holosuite. It gained size and then form, and finally color. The deity before him was a little taller than an average Rakshani, her fur spotted rather than striped and her tail appeared thicker and much longer than a Rakshani. She stood with her head bowed and eyes closed, her wings draped around her like a cloak.
"I thank you for saving the Rakshani," she quietly said without opening her eyes.
"I’ve been helped by Rakshani before, so returning the favor seemed like the right thing to do," Neal pointed out.
"They are causing you more trouble than you expected," she suggested.
"True," Neal admitted. "But I would probably be doing the same in their place. Though a year may have passed, to them it’s been mere days since the battle and their losses."
"You wanted to strike them," the deity accused.
"I was tempted to ‘knock some sense’ into a couple of them," Neal agreed, "but it looks like their ‘Head of House’ is doing that for me."
"There is much anger burning in that one. She hides it well."
"They lost their crèche and far too many of her family. I’m only surprised that her control hasn’t slipped more than it has."
"It came close, human. If you had shown the least amount of fear when she roared at you, you would have died."
"I have faith in my protective systems."
"The Traveler won’t always protect you," she warned.
"I was referring to my computer’s safety protocols, not the whims of a deity."
"You make light of serious matters."
"If letting her scream at me gets enough of the anger out of her system that she can think things through, then I’m happy to let her scream."
"And what of me? Would you stand for me screaming?"
"If it will help, scream," Neal replied.
For a moment the deity continued to stand before him, then her hair started to lift as if from a static charge. The air became ionized as if a storm was coming, her hair fanning out more as a crackling sound became audible. Sparks were dancing from her form when her eyes opened and her wings swept wide. The scream was that of Bertif’s roar of anger, as well as that of a tortured soul that had been alone with her own thoughts for far too long. Not having mortal lungs to power her scream, it went on much longer than Bertif’s had, but Neal thought he heard it change to one of hope and challenge towards the end.
Neal waited in the deafening silence; her wings were down, but they no longer fully cloaked her. And while her eyes were still open, they seemed to be looking more inward. "Better?" he asked when she finally took notice of him.
"Surprisingly, yes," she admitted. "Do you also ‘scream’?"
Neal snorted. "For it to work for me I have to add a twenty pound sledge and a large piece of cast iron that I think would look better in a new shape." At her look of confusion, he added, "I sometimes feel the need to manually smash something."
"Ah, I understand. Much like Bertif clawing up the chair in the room you assigned her."
"We each have our breaking points, and our own methods of stress relief," Neal agreed.
"I will have to speak about this to those that came with you. Thank you for your time, Captain."
"You are quite wel…come," Neal had started, only to find the deity gone. "Tina, run a full system diagnostic on the holosuite system before letting anyone try to use it." The odor in the room suggesting to him that the deity might have pushed the system past its design limits.
"Aye chief," she replied as Neal left the suite. He still had things to do before he could think of calling it a night.
Three more days were required before Neal was satisfied that he had done all he could for the Sharp Claw and her crew. They shared one last meal before Gwendolyn left to chase down the Folly. Neal had left behind the two Zulus the deity had hijacked to serve as long-range eyes while they awaited rescue. Whether a deity remained behind wasn’t known.
Continued in Chapter 12.
Copyright © 2005-2008 Allen Fesler Redbear1158@hotmail.com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
Admiral Boyce Garald Kline Jr and some of his family are copyright Boyce Garald Kline Jr.
The Quange were created by Roy D. Pounds II and are used with his permission. (if he likes it!)
The Holy Christian Kingdom of North America, and the Amazonia war are copyright John Plunkett.
Windsong, Fireglow and Mythril/Myth are copyright Gregg Anderson, and used with his permission.
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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