Tales of the Folly
By Allen Fesler
Book One: The Curse
Chapter 4

"Wait a minute, the only reason to be sending some of these types of hardware to an unknown destination is if you’re…" Everyone turned to look at M'Lai as she stared at Neal. "You’re supporting a colony!"

"Nice try, but I am not supporting a colony."

"But, that’s the only thing that fits! Unless you like throwing expensive equipment out the airlock while hiding for long periods of time!"

Midnight laughed. "Easy M'Lai, the key word he’s jerking you around with is ‘a’. He said he’s not supporting ‘a’ colony." Looking at Neal, shi asked, "So just how many colonies are dependent on you and the Folly?"

"Three at present, but after this ‘gap’ it should be down to just two that I’m lending a hand too."

"Why?" Rosepetal asked.

Neal frowned. "Not an easy question. Thirty-seven years ago, I had just ended a very long trip around the borders of our ‘known’ space, looking for possible colony worlds. I found quite a few good choices, and a couple of great ones. Then I started doing research on how other colonies had started, and how they ended up. I found a disturbing trend – of all the independently started colonies over those last 20 years, all but two of the colonies had ‘failed’ and were now controlled by a company called ‘Triform’. A lot of digging through false fronts and holding companies will lead you to four major companies, two of which are in the courts almost every other week for using illegal means to crush anyone that gets in their way. All of the ‘failed’ colonies failed the same way, pirate attacks, and/or an influx of ‘new’ colonists that overwhelmed the original colony’s resources." Neal’s frown deepened. "You have to understand that once Triform gets a colony in its clutches, it does its best to run the colonists into the ground. The best parallel I can think of would be the old North American coal mines in their early days. The company store was the only place you could buy or sell anything, and the prices were set so you were just keeping your head above water, no matter how hard you worked." Neal smiled. "There was even a song about those times, one of the lines went: ‘You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’. Triform has taken that to a whole new level."

"That would never be allowed!" Midnight said with a little anger in hir voice.

"If it was widely known about, no. But Triform handles all the communications and most of the shipping on those planets, so they can monitor and control most of what is heard from their colonies."

"Star Fleet would help!" Rosepetal pointed out.

"Like they did at ‘Amazonia’?"

Amazonia was a sore subject. Through loopholes and more than a few shady tricks, Star Fleet had ended up supporting the companies and not the Wemic that had originally been left there to fend for themselves. (see Hands Across the Sky, by John R. Plunkett)

After giving everyone a moment to calm down, Neal continued. "So I was stuck with a dilemma: any colony I started would be set upon by Triform unless I could keep it quiet, and there was no way to quietly get enough colonists to get a reasonable-size colony going."

"But you did anyway," Weaver said with a small grin.

"Not at first. I came up with a very large ‘shell game’ that I thought might work, but then I looked at the time required. I was starting to get older. I could have made the first few deliveries, but that would have left them on their own long before they were ready." Neal snorted and shook his head. "I deleted the colony plans and went to bed that night."

"And in the morning?" Weaver asked.

"I didn’t wake up."

Smiling at the shocked looks Neal said. "Two days later I did wake up, unable to control my movements or see straight." Nodding to the Rakshani, he said, "I think you ladies know how that feels." At their grins and chuckles, he added. "After the week it took me to get it back in gear, I found the colony plans waiting for me. It seems Tess’s delete key doesn’t always work properly."

Rosepetal asked, "And the ‘shell game’?"

"Was to safeguard my colonies from Triform while they grew. I figured I could support up to three colonies if I didn’t have to fight Triform on all three fronts. Two of the colonies are still not known by anyone but me and the colonists. The third was made known to the public eleven years ago. You may have heard of it; ‘Catch-A-Lot’."

Rosepetal thought for a moment. "I think I started hearing about it around ten years ago. Mostly water, grasses and swamps on the landmasses. The deep oceans though are teaming with life, thus the name."

Neal grinned. "And storms like you wouldn’t believe! Either you build it solid to last, or it gets blown away next week. The colonists that I settled on Catch-A-Lot know that they’re bait. Most have sent their families and friends ahead to the other colonies while they help set up my trap."

"Trap?" Boyce asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Catch-A-Lot was settled as bait for Triform and their parent companies. The colony had been running fine for six years, then the public was informed that they existed. Almost overnight the pirate attacks started… and failed to inconvenience the colonists. I had left behind a dozen of my Zulus. The pirates never knew what hit them."

"You have your Zulus attacking other ships without warning?" Midnight asked, hir eyes growing wide.

"Of course not. I set up three small automated space stations around the planet. They challenge any ship approaching. If the ship refuses to answer the hail, an unmasked baby Zulu goes out to meet it. Since the pirates usually like to open fire once they see it coming, anything done to them afterwards becomes self-defense."

"I guess that’s one way to get around the rules," Boyce commented with a frown.

"If my colonies would be safe playing by the rules, I would play by them. Until that day, I will do whatever it takes to protect the people that have placed their trust in me."

"What other traps have you set?" Rosepetal asked.

"The colony’s charter does have an option where other companies can buy their way onto Catch-A-Lot, but it requires eighty percent of the voters to okay it. Voters have to be adults that have been on Catch-A-Lot at least one standard year. With over twenty-five thousand adults already there, Triform has to move over a hundred thousand adults to guarantee a victory at the polls. They tried to just dump people like they’ve done in the past, but they hit a snag. The charter requires them to supply housing and food for any colonists they send. In other words, no ‘free room and board’."

Weaver was looking thoughtful. "So for every adult you have on the planet, they would need to support four to take over."

Neal nodded as he grinned. "And with the storms, you either set up very large, very tough greenhouses, or you ship in a lot of food. The one time Triform tried to claim that we were ‘starving’ their colonists, I had Tess dump the whole digital trail of who owned what to the press. That and the charter made them look very bad in public."

"Are they winning?" Shadowcrest asked, having joined them from the main pool.

"After getting burned twice, they’ve been slowly building their forces. At their current rate, they should have enough adults in about six months. Add a year until they are guaranteed to win the vote, and I’m cutting it just about perfect."

"You want them to win?" Rosepetal asked, a little confused.

"It doesn’t really matter in the long run. Win or lose, in less than eighteen months I’ll be pulling all of my people out, and splitting them between the other two colonies."

"You can’t just pick up and move twenty-five thousand people!" she said, thinking of the logistics it would take.

"At the rate they’ve been going, it will be closer to forty with all the kids. As for how, I’ll use my usual methods and cheat." At the looks of mass confusion, Neal chuckled. "That’s right, you haven’t seen the settlement yet, have you. Tess, if you would please."

A hologram of Catch-A-Lot appeared, then zoomed in. On a finger of land, thrusting out from one of the landmasses, sat forty boxy-shaped objects with something reflecting between them. As the zoom continued, Chase was the first to realize what they were seeing. "Those are cargo pods!"

"With full life-support and living quarters built in. Give them enough power and you can live in them anywhere, up to and including space. My idea was to insure safe living spaces, and each of them can hold up to two thousand. The greenhouse was made using local materials and will be left behind.

"Why are you giving up on Catch-A-Lot?" Weaver asked, "Surely there’s some way to keep Triform out."

"When we leave, Catch-A-Lot will have done just what I wanted it to do. Triform will have wasted a lot of money and resources on a planet they can’t keep."

"The planet has another trap?" Boyce asked, wondering just how many more tricks Neal had up his sleeve.

"The star system itself was the trap. If they had looked before they leaped, they could have missed all my tricks."

"How?" Weaver asked, shaking her head.

"Catch-A-Lot has been settled twice before." Smiling at Zhanch, Neal said, "To the Rakshani, it is better know it as ‘Thrice Damned’."

Zhanch sputtered. "But everyone knows about…"

"But Triform never bothered checking the old solar information. They only saw the report that someone else had of colonizing a planet." Looking at the others Neal filled in the gaps. "Thrice Damned’s sun has a very strong solar flare cycle, but it’s only on about ten out of every one hundred and fifty years. That’s why the ocean life is so far ahead of the land – the land keeps getting burned back by the flares. Thinking it was a one-time event, the Rakshani tried to resettle after the flares died down. We’ve got four to seven years before the next flare cycle starts; plenty of time for Triform to get their ‘colonists’ out and give them a black eye in the process."

"So you have forty thousand secrets," Holly said.

"In that one colony, yes. There are still the other two colonies to consider."

"Dependant on you," M'Lai added.

"Not as much anymore. They both have populations well over eighty thousand by now, and are pretty much self sufficient. Most of my current load is for expanding their growing areas, and adding some more space-mining capacity. If they ever do need help, they each have a dozen message drones I put together. The drones are about the size and speed of a baby Zulu, but even longer ranged. One automatically makes a mail run every three months, and they can send one when needed. For protection, they each have twenty Zulus. Catch-A-Lot was close by so I could come running if they called for help. The other two are over four months away even at the Folly’s speed."

"Wait a minute, where did you get all those colonists? I don’t remember seeing anything about it," Boyce asked.

"My first two ‘gap’ trips were to set up and start some minor terraforming, to get the planets ready for colonists. Then I went shopping for people unhappy with where they were. Three guesses where I started?"

"The ‘failed ‘ colonies!" Holly exclaimed.

"Got it in one!" Neal said with a smile. "Most of the original colonists jumped at the chance to try again, with the promise that I would do my best to keep Triform and its parent companies out. Then there was ‘the old fur’ rumor mill." Neal smiled. "I had told a couple of older friends about wanting to try starting a colony. One of them had complained that starting a colony was for youngsters, old folks would just be a burden to the group. Since I had used Tess’s process on a couple of furs that had almost been killed by pirates, I told them that there was a dangerous option, but an option nonetheless. To make a long story short, they each told their old friends, who told their old friends. When I came back though to pick up what should have been a few thousand, I found I had over fifty thousand volunteers, with over five thousand old furs willing to risk what was left of their lives for a chance to help start a new colony. What was even more of a population boost was a lot of them managed to talk their kids, and even grandkids into joining them!"

Boyce almost dumped Rosepetal off his lap in surprise. "Wait a minute, that was when all the fur disappearances occurred on earth, about twenty years ago!"

Neal nodded. "That’s the problem with a secret that gets too big – people notice. We emptied a couple of furry retirement communities as well as rest homes and whole sections of a few hospitals, even the staff wanted onboard when they heard about it. I had a hard decision to make. If I said no to any of them, it would only take one ‘whistle-blower’ to bring the whole project crashing down."

"So you took them all," Boyce stated.

"So I took them all. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have a tenth of the living areas or the life support I needed. I couldn’t take any of the older furs until I had arranged accommodations for everyone. If I just started making people disappear, the local authorities would have noticed, and tried to figure out what was going on."

Boyce frowned. "As I recall there was a bit of a panic. A lot of rumors got started, including that Humans First groups were involved."

"Except their M.O. was nowhere to be seen. H.F. types like to destroy things and leave the bodies laying about. This little mystery had no damage, and no blood. Just a large number of furs and more than a few humans, all disappearing in the space of one night. The missing left behind notes saying they were leaving. Wills and best wishes were left for those who would remain behind. A few left behind hints, though most just packed what they would be needing on a new world."

"Why take old furs?" Quickdash asked with a puzzled expression.

Neal smiled. "There’s an old saying that ‘youth is wasted on the young’. You youngsters have all that extra energy and wonder at everything new. When you get older, you start losing the wonder, because you’ve already seen everything, or so it seems sometimes. And the energy? I know you’ve heard older people watching kids at play and wishing they had that kind of energy themselves." Quickdash nodded, and Neal continued, "The flip side of that coin is the older people have a lot more knowledge and wisdom, mostly learned the hard way by making mistakes. Those ‘older furs’ were bringing well over a hundred years of experience each! But, they no longer had the energy to make the most of that knowledge. Run them though the process and you end up with furs like most of our Rakshani. They may look young, but they know things that it takes a lifetime to learn."

"The news of people missing was just on Earth, I don’t remember any mention of any of the other colonies losing colonists," Boyce remarked.

"You’re forgetting that Triform controls all communications from those colonies. If they had admitted that they had people disappear too, they would have had Star Fleet and everyone else ‘helping’ them investigate it. Not something they would want. Word might get out as to how they really run things…"

"ENOUGH!!" cried Shadowchaser, "This was supposed to be relaxing, not getting everyone stirred up."

"How did we get on that subject anyway?" Mike asked.

"Some people think I have too many secrets," Neal chuckled.

"Will you tell me a secret?" asked Quickdash.

"Sure little one. Come here and I’ll whisper it to you." With hir ear at his lips, he gave hir a hug as he whispered, "I love you."

"Can I stay with you?" shi asked.

"Well, it is going to be a while yet before I take you home."

"No, I mean stay like Chase stayed with you."

"Little one, Chase didn’t have a home or parents to go home to, that’s why I had hir for years. Don’t you miss your parents? I know they miss you."

"How do you know?"

"The message drone I left at New Kiev came in yesterday. Along with some of the information I was waiting for, it also had a few late messages from some of your parents. That, and they took a trick I played on you and played it back on me."

"What trick?" shi asked with a frown.

"Do you remember when I was complaining that some of the corridor filters were clogging up faster than I thought they should? And some of you decided to ‘help’?" At their nods Neal grinned. "I caught your group in the act, and had Tess record it."


"Oh yes! Tess?"

A hologram opened, Quickdash was in front of the group, Shadowcrest behind hir and a little to the left, with three of the teenage chakats across the corridor bringing up the rear. All of them were swinging mops although it looked like the last three were cleaning up the mess the first two were making.

"This is boring," Quickdash was complaining.

"You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to," Nightsky reminded hir.

"I want to help, but this is just boring," Quickdash moaned.

"Well, we could always sing something while we work, what song would you like?" asked Dusk.

"Could we do one of the songs I found in Neal’s library?" Quickdash asked, starting to get excited.

"Is it a good song to mop by?" Morningmist asked with a laugh.

Changing one word, Quickdash sang the first verse to them. After the first few bars, Tess supplied the music, minus the original voices.

"I am Chakat, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore,
And I know too much to go back an' pretend
'cause I've heard it all before.
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna keep me down again."

(from I am woman -Words and Music by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton)

Shadowcrest laughed. "Works for me."

What followed was four-footed dance lessons for beginners. Only Dusk had ever taken any dancing classes, so shi was trying to teach the others.

"Oh yes I am wise,
But it's wisdom born of pain.
Yes, I've paid the price,
But look how much I gained.
If I have to, I can do anything.
I am strong (strong).
I am invincible (invincible).
I am Chakat! "

Let’s see, there’s the steps, stepping to the music, trying to stay in step to the music and each other, moving their bodies in sync, swinging their arms, mops and tails simultaneously. The only thing not happening was any mopping!

"You can bend but never break me,
'cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal.
And I come back even stronger,
Not a novice any longer,
'cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul"

"I am chakat watch me grow,
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin' arms across the land.
But I'm still an embryo
With a long long way to go
Until I make my brother understand."

By this time, most of the adults were weak from laughter, so Neal stopped the replay, "There’s over an hour of that. They do get fairly good towards the end."

"And the trick on you?" asked Boyce.

"I had sent it as proof of how badly I was abusing their kids. They sent one of the last songs the kids sang to their local news channel and it was aired as some of the local color. One of the music stations picked it up, and it’s a top ten music/video hit for most of the planet. There’s a few talent agencies that think the kids have some talent and want to talk to them when they get home."

"That’s not what had you so depressed," Shadowchaser said.

"No. That was the good part of ‘the good the bad, and the ugly’."

"The ugly?" Weaver asked with a raised eyebrow.

"I now know why Cindy’s father was trying to get her back so badly. After his last message, I had a private investigator do a little snooping. Cindy has a good-sized inheritance from her grandmother’s estate and her father’s been seeing how much of it he could steal before he loses control over Cindy."

"Can you stop him?"

"May already have. Since I know this P.I. quite well, I had given him the okay to take things to a certain level," Looking at Cindy, Neal continued. "When your father found out he was being investigated, he disappeared."

"Are you hunting him?" Weaver asked.

"No. That would be up to Cindy."

"And the ‘bad’?" she asked.

Neal looked over at the pile of warm towels that the little ones had burrowed into. "I now know the name of Stormy’s sire. Chakat Whitepaws, daughter of Snowfall and Sandrunner."

"Did you know Whitepaws?" Brighteyes asked, sensing his sadness.

"No, I never meet hir, but I spoke to hir mother the day you all stowed away in that carrier. How do you tell two good friends you were there when their child was killed?"

"But, you saved their grandchild!" Holly blurted out.

"I keep thinking that if only we had been a few minutes earlier… but a few minutes earlier would just have put us all out in the open when that Humans First group started firing."

"You’re still holding something back, father," Shadowchaser said, cocking hir head.

"I don’t know if the last one is good, bad, or no big deal. I was planning to check on a group during my ‘gap’ trip, but they’ve already sent a message that they’re ready for pick-up whenever I’m in the neighborhood."

"Why is that a problem?" Weaver asked.

"I was going to pick them up before heading out to Catch-A-Lot. What’s puzzling me is the lack of information. They’re not asking for an early pickup, and no mention of trouble, just that they’re ‘ready’ to be picked up."

"This isn’t another trap for someone like ‘Thrice Damned’, is it?" she said, starting to get tired of all Neal’s secrets.


"Give, father!" When Neal just laid there and smiled, Shadowchaser hissed, "Tickle him Quickdash! Make him talk!"

Neal grinned. "Shi knows how well I can tickle back. The group I’m wondering about is on a first contact mission."

"But Star Fleet…" Rosepetal started.

"… didn’t discover them, and still doesn’t know that they even exist. I found them at the end of one of my log’s ‘gaps’. I was scanning what I thought was a promising solar system, when one of my baby Zulus ran straight through one of their sensor screens. While they haven’t left their system yet, they have seen aliens before, and a few had been ‘unfriendly’. I admitted to being a trader that did a little exploring between deliveries." Neal smiled at Boyce. "I only showed them the foods and low-tech things I had to sell. They knew my ship had to be able to go faster than light, but they understood that I couldn’t just ‘give’ them access to it. After trading for samples of most of the things I offered them, they requested contact with the Federation. I suggested that I bring a contact team to them. If everything worked out, the contact team would let the rest of the Federation know about them. If it didn’t work out, I would take the team home, and we wouldn’t bother them again."

"How could you promise them that?" she inquired.

"Well, the contact team doesn’t know where they are, and they gave their word they wouldn’t try to find out. And, since they’re a bit off the beaten path, the odds are good no one else will be tripping over them anytime soon."

"And, just where did you dig up a first-contact team to send to them?" Midnight asked, more than a little concerned.

Neal smiled, "I bent the ears of a few members on the Chakat High Council. They quietly put together the team for me. It’s sometimes handy, having daughters in strange places."

"What are they like?" asked Holly.

"All you’ll get from me is this: they lay large eggs, and never stop growing. Some of their elders are huge."

"But, what do they look like?" she demanded.

"If they decide they don’t want Federation contact, you’ll never know."

"Please?" begged half the kids. Neal just shook his head.

"So, are you going to get them?" Weaver asked.

"When I can make the time. Right now, that means after this run, as I had originally planned."

"But, that’s over a year away!" Shadowcrest exclaimed.

"As fast as the Folly is, she can only be at one place at a time. Even pushing her to her limits, I can’t get far enough ahead of my deliveries to get out there and back between all the stops I have to make."

"What if we use Charlie and Delta?" Shadowcrest asked.

Charlie and Delta were two of the six working shuttle/ships that were docked between the Folly’s spheres. Alpha and Baker were designed to move loaded pods into and out of a gravity well, while Echo and Foxtrot were designed to move pods to nearby space platforms. Charlie and Delta, on the other hand, were warp-capable and able to carry up to two hundred carriers internally. Gulf was a work in progress, that bay looking more like a junkyard than a ship. The Folly also had some smaller, non-cargo carrying craft. Two old rebuilt assault shuttles were in a bay just aft of engineering; they were used when Neal needed to move people, and not cargo to or from the surface. There were also over a dozen lifeboats scattered across the Folly. Neal had kept them all in good shape, mainly because he couldn’t predict where he’d be when and if he needed one.

While Charlie and Delta didn’t have the Folly’s speed, they could be dropped off along the way, make a delivery, and be recovered after the Folly had made a delivery of her own.

Neal looked over at Boyce. "Hmmm, what would Star Fleet say to me offering some of its commanders some command time in civilian craft?

Before Boyce could open his mouth, Brighteyes spoke up. "What about us?"

Neal softly snorted. "What about you? You’re not ready to take a ship out on your own."

"You let Chase’s group do it!"

"Yes I did, but only after years of training and experience. You’ll have to remember, most of them were under ten when they started, and that the Folly was their home," Holding up his hand to forestall any more questions or demands, Neal smiled as he picked up a data pad. "Give me a minute or two to see if they would even make enough of a difference. Tess. Schedules and loads please."

Neal’s data pad updated, and a hologram appeared overhead, red, yellow and green stars filling the space. Some of the stars were red with a date stamp on them. Yellow weren’t time sensitive, but the deliveries were more than the smaller ships could handle. A bar across the bottom was the timeline. Red knots showed the ‘must make’ times with red lines leading to them showed the time needed to get there from the last planned stop. White spaces showed ‘free’ time between the other colored lines and dots. Neal started finding places that he could drop Charlie and/or Delta to save the Folly a stop without using up more time than it saved. The others watched quietly as the lines showing the Folly’s planed flight path shifted, green stars turning blue, and more pieces of the timeline turning white.

Finally, a white line almost filled the space between two widely spaced red knots, one little yellow line/dot standing in the way. Neal sighed. "Best I can do. Tess, do you see a better path?"

"Not without exceeding your parameters, boss."

Looking at Boyce, Neal asked. "I believe you were interrupted before you could give me an answer about using Star Fleet volunteers."

"How many would be needed?"

"A dozen per ship would be enough to comfortably cover the shifts, eighteen to twenty would be a full complement. "

"So twenty-four to forty ‘volunteers’…"

"Minus the slots my kids can fill, once they’ve had enough training, and if whoever I put in charge is willing to take them on as crew."

"What about that one stop?"

"If Charlie and Delta are a go, then I’ll call in a marker for that last stop."

"I don’t see a problem, in fact most of them will probably jump at a chance to try out your equipment."

Looking back at his data pad Neal thought for a moment. "Hmmm. If we figure on two weeks for training and a shakedown cruise or two, then a couple of runs with the Folly there to back them up… Could I tie up your holodeck for training? That would let both ‘crews’ train at the same time."

Boyce nodded. "When did you want to start?"

"I should start tomorrow. We have five weeks before the first real runs, but you can never have enough training time."

"Should we post the openings in the morning?"

Neal thought for a moment. "No. Post them now, let’s let the off shifts have first crack at it."

"What’s your message going to say?"

"Hmmm. ‘The Folly is looking for a few fools foolish enough to want to work long hours on their time off from Star Fleet. The job will entail moving cargo from point A to point B using equipment designed by the same demented fool that designed and built the Folly. Available fools taken in the order of their foolishness to volunteer’."

"Are you sure you want it worded that way?"

"Of course. It gives them fair warning of what’s to come, and what’s expected of them."

"Okay by me."

"Tess, have the ships’ on-duty personnel post it, if you would please."

"Sure thing boss."

"Oh, and send out three of your message drones. I’ll be needing the next year’s schedules for all the usual suspects." At Boyce’s raised eyebrow, Neal grinned. "If this is going to work, I’m still going to need someone to deliver that last load, and they may be interested in some of my other loads as well."

Giving Stew a nudge to get her the rest of the way off his lap, Neal stood. "I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting waterlogged. I’m not saying the party’s over, I just need to get a little drier."

Neal wasn’t done drying off when Tess asked him if she should have set a cutoff number of foolish volunteers, she already had well over a hundred. By the time he stopped laughing, she reported she had just over two hundred. The shifts had just changed, and everybody on the graveyard shifts seemed to want a crack at playing with Neal’s toys.

Neal laughed again, this time at the bemused expression on Boyce’s face. "And I didn’t even have to mention paying them. We must not have been giving them enough to do, if they’re that bored."

It was Boyce’s turn to think for a moment while he finished drying. "I understand Charlie and Delta aren’t as fast as the Folly?" At Neal’s nod, he continued. "Why don’t you give them an ‘escort’? That would give them some added protection, as well as give the other crews more to do."

"I was going to send them out with three scouts and a pair of Zulus each, but there’s no reason we can’t use the other ships as well. Hmmm, that reminds me, I’m going to have to get some more Zulus and scouts made up." Seeing the eager expression on Boyce’s face, Neal chuckled as he added, "Yes, you can help. That is, if you can talk your mates into giving you some time off for good behavior."

Neal snickered as Boyce turned to speak with Rosepetal, his mates having heard what he and Neal had been talking about. The looks they were giving him suggested he was going to have to work hard to earn his freedom to help Neal play with his toys.

Weaver came up and handed Neal her brush. As he started running it though her fur, she asked. "What are you finding so funny?"

Neal pointed his chin to where Boyce was running a brush though M'Lai’s hair, Rosepetal and Midnight on either side of him. From the tones of the voices, Boyce was losing the quiet ‘discussion’ they were having. "Poor guy’s outnumbered. Looks like I’ll be working solo again."

"What makes you think you’re going to get off any easier?"

"Because I only have to convince one mate that doing something is a good idea, he has three times the challenge."

"I remember you told me that he has two additional mates, Zhane and another chakat," she said as she smiled.

Neal snorted. "Zhane – I just barely dodged the phaser pulse with that one."

"And just what do you mean by that?" Rosepetal demanded, her lips curled back halfway to a snarl for the slur to her co-mate she thought she had just heard.

Meeting her eyes, Neal sighed. "What do you know about Zhane’s older sister?"

"A sister she hates, she never even speaks her name." Rosepetal said, her voice dripping with scorn.

"Yes, an older sister she hated for stealing a male from her almost twenty years ago. It turned out the quartermaster of Starbase 3 was a childhood friend of Zhane’s. When she found out I had gotten them both in the same room after all these years, she was more than willing to tell me the whole story, as well as the aftermath. The male they fought over had a history of using, as well as abusing ‘his’ females. I say had, because the family of the female her big sister ‘lost’ him to, removed him from the gene pool. Funny thing is, if you look at it from the outside, it almost looks like an older sister used herself to shield her younger sister from a jerk, and then fed said jerk to what she knew would turn into a meat grinder. What do you call a human that goes and rubs a Rakshani’s nose in something like that? In her own office, with her big sister in the same room no less?"

No longer angry, Rosepetal quietly said. "A fool."

"I didn’t know at the time that they were sisters. When I found out, I had a quiet nervous breakdown. You don’t get in the middle of a family- never mind a Rakshani family’s domestic dispute unless you’re crazy. More often than not, the domestic disputers will team up, and take out whatever is interfering with their personal fight," Neal shook a little from the memory.

Weaver gave him a hug from behind. "That’s why you were so quiet that evening."

"You never saw how angry Zhane got when I had Tess beam Zhanch into her office. She clawed a very nice set of grooves into her desk, just on seeing her sister. I was afraid her hatred would cause Zhane to not help Zhanch, or the others." Neal snorted softly as he looked back to Rosepetal. "The only thing I knew at the time was she had you and Boyce as mates. I rubbed her nose in the fact that if Zhanch hadn’t taken that jerk away from her, she could have ended up with him for a mate. I got lucky; she thought it over and decided to forgive Zhanch, and she forgave me for sticking my nose into her personal life. But the way she said ‘take good care of my sister for me’, when she left the Folly that evening let me know just how close I’d come to looking like her desk."

Having heard her name being used, Zhanch had come up on the group as Rosepetal asked, "Were you able to take good care of her?"

With a small smile and a hand wave at Zhanch, Neal said. "You can ask her yourself, this is Zhanch. Zhanch, this is most of your sister’s family."

Not sure how she would be received, now that they knew who she was, Zhanch simply nodded. Boyce was having none of that however, and pulled her down for a tight hug, his mates quickly joining him.

"Why didn’t you tell us?" Rosepetal asked Zhanch.

Neal answered before Zhanch could find her tongue. "How did you describe her to me just a moment ago?"

"Oh!" Rosepetal said, her fur hiding her blush. "There is that."

"Indeed. Well, since you and Zhane are co-mates, I guess that would make Zhanch your co-sister-in-law, or whatever equivalent term you use."

"What it makes her is part of our extended family," Rosepetal said smiling up at Zhanch.

With everyone dried off, they dressed and then headed for the Folly’s main lounge. The three rabbits had snuck off as soon as they were dry. They now returned with the unused dessert cart and fresh drinks.

Once everyone had something to munch on, Stew sat down next to Neal. She waited until he finished his snack before she spoke. "I want a raise."

Neal took a moment to reply. "Monetary, title, or altitude?"

"The first two would be nice, but they are not what I’m after. I’m not sure what you mean by the third. The fourth option please."

"And just what would this fourth option be?"


Neal was glancing around as Stew spoke. Moonglow and Weaver were showing no surprise at the request; Neal thought he actually saw Weaver give a small nod. Looking over his glasses at her, he snorted. "This is why you smiled when I thought Boyce being out-numbered by his mates was amusing."

Weaver gave Neal a grin. "Like the Caitian, I’m used to the problem of the females outnumbering the males, so sharing one of my males with someone I care for isn’t an issue. Suzan and I have been helping each other take care of you and the kids since she joined us. I see nothing wrong with giving her the ties that go with the job she’s already doing."

Neal frowned. "If I agree to that, your next trap would be to point out that as the nanny and wet nurse for a child I’ve accepted as my own, that Moonglow should also be given a raise in the relationship department."

Weaver grinned again. "It’s so nice, dealing with a male that knows when he’s already beaten."

"That doesn’t mean I’ll go down without a fight," Neal said with a matching grin as he raised an eyebrow at Suzan. "First you wanted me to get more personal, now you want a relationship. You already have my word that I won’t kick you off my ship, what else are you after?"

Suzan wrapped him in a hug. "I’ve never worked harder, nor have I been happier, than I have after I came aboard the Folly. Even before we had our little ‘talk’, I knew I wanted to stay more than anything else. I guess that’s why I overworked myself; I was trying to prove I was worth keeping. You and the kids have given me a feeling of family I’ve never felt before, I want to be a part of that family."

"You do realize that my ‘family’ is more than a little unstable. At the end of this run, all of my kids have relatives that will have more of a say in where they go next than I do. You could end up stuck with just a grumpy old human for company."

"Even then," she said softly.

Neal then turned to Moonglow. "You understand that I could lose Firestorm at our last stop. If hir grandparents claim hir, I’ll have to give hir up. Not to mention that if you’re always on the Folly, you may never get a chance to ride that bike of yours."

Moonglow’s smile was on the tender side as shi replied, "I understand the risks, and accept them. Even if you don’t accept us as your mates, we will be your mates in our hearts, and will treat you as such."

Neal snorted. "As mates, or as keepers?"

Rosepetal spoke from where she sat on Boyce’s lap, Midnight and M'Lai each with a possessive arm around each of his shoulders. "Is there a difference?"

From the middle of the group, Boyce added, "It has its advantages."

Stew tightened her hug on Neal when he shook his head, and let out a quiet sigh. "I keep seeing old sayings and phrases used against me." At the curious looks, Neal gave them a small grin. "I started this cruise with the curse 'may you live in exciting times' hanging over my head," Neal snorted. "That still seems to be in full force. The old saying that comes to mind now is ‘men may rule, but women decide’, and fool be he that thinks he has a voice in the matter!" Looking to Rosepetal, Neal asked, "Did he go quietly, or kicking and screaming?"

Rosepetal laughed. "Both actually."

Boyce had started to protest, but Midnight squeezed his arm and whispered. "Forest," as they tightened their hugs on him.

Neal smiled at Suzan. "I guess it’s like that old song ‘all or nothing at all, I don't know why I go to extremes’." Wrapping her in a hug, Neal looked over to Weaver and Moonglow. "I surrender. What have you ladies ‘decided’?"

Weaver smiled. "Suzan and Moonglow join me as your denmates…"

"I saw that coming," Neal said with a grin. "Why do I get the sinking feeling there’s more?"

"The odd phrase I heard you tell Holly was ‘he who saves a life…’" Weaver said.

"’…Is responsible for it’. At the time, she was wondering why I didn’t just leave our Rakshani ladies at Starbase 3," Neal said. "We had just rescued them from death in a drugged sleep, only to leave them looking forward to a slow and lingering death. I was holding the process back as a last thing to try, because of both the risks, as well as the resources it demands. That, and I could only offer it if we kept them. No sane doctor is going to let me just walk in and experiment on someone in their care. Then Dessa was hit and it was her only real chance of survival."

Dessa stepped up and knelt in front of Neal and Suzan, bringing herself to their level. "I’ve used the holodeck to help me remember, as well as to see what I missed. When Tess told you I had been shot, you told her to treat me as family. Am I ‘family’? Or am I just a ‘stray’ you’ve now rescued from three different possible deaths?"

Neal reached out to place his hands on her shoulders. "I would be honored to call any of you family. Even in your weakened conditions, all of you were more than willing the fight by my side; you were willing to risk your life to save one of my children. In doing so you saved yourself and your sister marines from their lingering deaths. I consider all of you many things, but ‘strays’ isn’t one of them. Your current options are open; all of you have choices to make once your ready to face the outside world again. If you wish to stay on the Folly while you get used to your new situation, I would be happy to have you here."

"As what?" she asked.

"You’ve all been helping with the ship and my kids. Teachers, trainers, a couple of you are already pretty good shuttle pilots. What do you have in mind?"

"You said you would let the kids train to use the smaller ships; will you give us the same privileges? It’s starting to feel a little strange, not having any set responsibilities."

"If that’s what you would like, I have no problems with it."

"What about our Star Fleet responsibilities?"

Neal snorted. "What Star Fleet responsibilities? Right now Star Fleet can’t even admit you’re here on the Folly without admitting that one of their cruisers is out there under someone else’s control. Then we gave them another little problem. May I ask how long you’ve been in Star Fleet?"

"Eighty-five ye… Oh, hell!"

"Indeed. So they will be getting back a few youngsters claiming to be well over a hundred. Your families and friends are in for one hell of a shock." Looking at Zhanch, Neal raised an eyebrow. "Do you think Zhane will mind trading in an older sister for one that appears to be half her physical age?"

Zhanch chuckled. "Only if I swear to stop stealing her mates from her!"

After the laughter died down, Neal continued, "It’s a good thing the Folly and I are disappearing for a while after this run. From what Tess has been telling me, the Folly’s reputation as the ship of impossibilities is still growing among the Star Fleet crews. Both the kids and the Rakshani are also generating rumors that we must have found the fountain of youth. Most of the confusion is being caused by the knowledge my ‘crew’ has not matching their apparent ages." Neal gave them a grin. "For example, I had the privilege of watching Kestrel in action. She was mopping the deck with the Pegasus’s marines in hand-to-hand combat practice. The real treat was that she looked like she was just practicing her dancing. One of the challengers would come into range, she would shift towards them, and they would be down, or flying backwards, all without her missing a beat. Then there’s our ‘terror twins’." Looking at Boyce, Neal’s grin widened. "If you ever have trouble finding your chief engineer, ask Tess to scan Gulf’s bay. After the twins stopped getting underpaw, Sparks got worried they might have been ‘grounded’ and came over to check on them. When I went to check on the twin’s progress that evening, I found that slim Siamese colored chakat of yours, almost ‘buried alive’ in Gulf’s power distribution systems. I had to threaten to not let hir back on the Folly to get hir to eat and go get some sleep. Sparks was back the next day though, with more than a few friends. At the rate they’re going, Gulf will be ready for trials in less than two months."

Boyce just shook his head. "Shi gets all the breaks. I can’t even help you with your scouts, and here Sparks is building a ship."

M'Lai laughed as she gave Boyce a hug. "Be good and maybe we’ll let you play too."

Rosepetal smiled. "That is if Neal is going to be working on them, his mates may have something else with a higher priority."

Neal snorted. "One of the differences between us is that I am this ship’s chief engineer, as well as the captain. I have no choice but take the time to make sure everything is done right." Making eye contact with each of his mates, he continued, "If that means I don’t get to spend as much time as I would like with my mates and my kids, I hope they’ll understand."

Weaver grinned. "Just so long as you understand we will do everything we can to help you, even if that help is dragging you to bed before you’re so tired you hurt yourself or those around you."

Neal nodded. "Understood, love. I wouldn’t have it any other way."

"Good!" Weaver said as her grin turned evil. "Then you won’t mind having fourteen companions, to ‘help’ us keep you out of trouble."

Neal got his mouth open, but no sounds came out. Weaver laughed at his shocked expression. "You said yourself that they are not strays, and you also said you would be honored to have them as family. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll let you adopt them, even as old as you keep hinting you are."

Neal just sat there, with his mouth hanging open, until Stew poked him with a claw. "Breathe!" She hissed.

After Neal got his breath back, Dessa asked sweetly, "Is there a problem?"

"Sorry, that last surprise burned out what was left of my mental calculator." Smiling at the mixed looks of amusement and concern, Neal explained, "I was just trying to figure out how the hell I’m supposed to keep sixteen more denmates and companions happy, when I’ve already have seventeen kids that need everything from love to guidance and encouragement. Oh yeah, I’m also currently in command of not only the Folly, but also four Star Fleet ships and their fighters. Plus I have scouts and Zulus I should be getting built, never mind making sure that Gulf is built the way I intended." Neal shook his head. "I’m starting to feel like I’m getting stretched a little too thin in places."

Dessa leaned forward and wrapped both Neal and Stew in a hug. "Try to think of it more as extra shoulders helping you bear your load, not as more of a load for you to bear."

Neal smiled. "I’ll try. You have to understand that this is the first run in a long time, in which I‘m not running solo. One of the reasons I’ve always liked this job was the ability to get away from everything and everybody for a while, no cares or responsibilities except to get someone’s cargo elsewhere. The few times I was running Star Fleet games, it seemed like it was nothing but extra work."

Redfoot asked, "And Chase and company?"

"That started out rough and had a few bumps, but it smoothed out. The worst parts were the attempted kidnapping and the kids hitting their teens. Like most youths, they decided they knew more than I did on just about any subject you care to name," Neal snorted. "That’s where ‘ye old school of hard knocks’ reared it ugly head. I got tired of arguing with them, so I just started letting them learn things the hard way. After getting their tails scorched a few times, they started asking me ‘why’ I thought things, instead of just assuming that I was too old to know anything worthwhile," Neal chuckled as he looked at Chase. "Plus I showed a couple would-be ‘hotshot pilots’, that even they could be taken down by an old man with poor reflexes."

Chase hung hir head a little, "We thought fast reflexes were everything back then. Neal showed us that some traps work even better on those that just react, and don’t think things through." Looking up, shi smiled, "I was one of the best pilots in my classes at Star Fleet, mostly because I had such an evil, cheating, scheming, no-account father!"

Neal sighed. "Damned by faint praise."

"But praise nonetheless, father," shi said with a smile. "Now prove to me that nothing’s changed, and my adopted father can still handle anything that’s thrown at him!"

Neal looked over to Boyce, "Shi’s almost sixty-five, and shi still doesn’t understand that things and people have limits. Shi still thinks a little begging, or a cute pout will make things better."

Redfoot answered before Boyce could speak, "Of course shi does – shi had you for a role model. When did you ever let hir down?"

"Oh, I failed them, more than once, but I made up for it when I could. They may not have always had treats when they thought they should get them, but there was always food and a warm place to sleep."

"And you always found you had a spare box of ‘hugs’ tucked away somewhere when we needed them the most," Chase said with a chuckle. Smiling at the confused looks around hir, shi continued, "When I was little, we came close to overloading Neal. Nineteen small furs can be quite a handful, and it took a while before the four teenagers started pulling with him instead of against him. One time when we were all feeling a little down, Neal pretended we had ‘run him out of hugs’. I swear he spent over an hour with most of us kids following him, worried that he wouldn’t be able to hug us anymore. He was looking in all his drawers, under the bed, in his desk, just about everywhere. Finally, he got into a storeroom and locked the door before we could follow. He made noises as if he was shifting things back and forth, then we herd him shout out in triumph! He then came out and gave us each a hug…" Chase chuckled again, "I know I spent hours in that storeroom, trying to find where he hid his supply of spare hugs!"

Neal smiled at the memory. "When they finally confronted me on there being no ‘boxes of hugs’ in that storeroom, I simply told them that I had gotten the last package that had been stored in there. After that, whenever they wanted or needed a hug, I would tell them not to worry, I had more spares tucked away somewhere."

"So, have we given you more than you can handle?" Weaver asked.

"I don’t think so love," Neal said as he smiled at her. "It’s just going to take a little while for it to all sink in. I seem to remember it taking you a day or so to get used to the idea of having an extra fourteen kids, never mind agreeing to have a human denmate. Just give me some time to get used to the idea."

Shadowchaser snorted, "That means he wants to go off by himself and play with his toys. He’s always claimed to think better when he’s working with his hands."

"Boyce can be just as bad," Rosepetal said with a smile. "Why don’t we give the boys a little time to at least look over Neal’s projects tonight. They have crews to pick out, and training to start in the morning, so I don’t expect them to make an all-nighter out of it."

At Neal’s raised eyebrow, Boyce shrugged and smiled as he got up. After the door closed behind them, Chase chuckled. "What do you think their first topic of discussion will be about?"

"’How to keep multiple mates happy without ending up in the doghouse’," Weaver said with a laugh. Turning to Rosepetal, she said, "And our discussion should start with, ‘How can multiple co-mates work together to not drive their mate - or each other crazy’?"

The next two weeks resembled semi-organized chaos as things took shape. At Boyce’s suggestion, Neal took most of his foolish volunteers from the ships under his command, being careful not to strip any of the ships of key personnel. Along with the groups working on Gulf in their off hours, Boyce brought a dozen more to help with the Zulus.

Neal had been a little apprehensive about having seventeen denmates/ companions waiting to attack when he and Boyce were done talking that first evening. His fears proved groundless though – only Stew and Moonglow were waiting for him when he entered his room. As with the kids, he found who he went to bed with wasn’t always who he would wake up to find.

The other problem he found with having so many keeping an eye on him, was his habit of working long and strange hours went right out the airlock. While he could brush off the kids with a ‘go on ahead, I’ll be there when I’m done with this’, his new companions would wait for him, and if he didn’t move fast enough to suit them, they could and would pick him up and carry him! This led to him missing fewer meals, and if it was bedtime and he was still too wound up, they were more than happy to take care of that as well. This didn’t mean they were always all over him, they had their own training schedules, and they did give him the time for a little peace and quiet.

Weaver also took on more of the role as Neal’s second in command. The kids and Stew had always used her as a sounding board before asking Neal about something, but now she was making more of the decisions. Neal found she could be just as bad as Tess when it came to telling him only what she thought he needed to know.

Dinner that night was on the Pegasus. Along with the other captains were the commanders that would be taking Charlie and Delta out for the first time the next day.

The Spike’s first officer, Canner, was taking command of Charlie, while Craig Dobson from the carrier Slingshot was in charge of Delta.

Four of Neal’s kids and six of his Rakshani companions had passed the tests Neal had set up for them; now he needed to see if his acting captains would take them on as crew.

When Neal had brought up the subject, Canner had laughed. "Trying to replace us already?" he asked with a smile.

Neal returned the smile with a chuckle. "Not until they’ve had a little more seasoning. So far, the kids have only had me for a captain. Some time under someone else will be good for them. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when you’re training your replacement."

Canner smiled again and nodded. After their rocky start, Canner had been afraid that he had alienated the civilian captain. While Shadowchaser was Neal’s main liaison with the Star Fleet vessels, Canner found that he had been ‘drafted’ to fill in for hir whenever shi was busy. It had taken him a while to realize that Neal hadn’t been angry when he’d disbelieved the sensor data the first day. Neal had simply used Canner’s distrust of the data to show him and the others that there might be a good reason to have the Folly’s help in hunting pirates. Even though the Folly’s current flight path didn’t use the more commonly used ‘space lanes’, Neal was sending a few of his scouts down each of those lanes, then picking them up when the Folly reached that destination.

His next surprise had come when Neal had helped upgrade their sensors, and explained the trick of Folly’s ‘sensor jammers’. Space is a noisy place; every star puts out its own ‘hiss’ across the radio spectrum, up to and past the speed of light. Most sensors were set to ignore this and just report what the sensor could detect above its set noise threshold. Neal’s jammers worked two ways, by slowly adding to the noise, raising the noise threshold of the sensor he was trying to blind, and by sending out a ‘counter signal’ for the Folly’s noises that were over that noise threshold. Like a good set of noise canceling headphones, the earmuffs kept out the hiss and static of the universe, while the electronics ‘countered’ any noise above the threshold. The key to the jammers working correctly were the Folly’s own sensors, you had to know where the other ship was and what they would be ‘hearing’ in order to send the right signals.

Having originally settled on fifteen crew per ship, splitting Neal’s crew between them brought them both up to full complements. His acting captains were pleased that Neal did this without having to ‘bump’ any of their already-trained Star Fleet personal to make room.

After dinner, Neal had both new crews meet him in the lounge. One of the things he wanted to remind the Star Fleet members was that they would be flying freighters, not combat craft. They were to avoid danger whenever possible. While they were used to risking their lives for others, this time their lives were more important. If delivering their loads looked dangerous for any reason, they were to abort. He reminded the captains he expected them to abort if anyone of their crews said the word ‘abort’. Once they were clear, they could find out why.

The next morning saw both ships taking turns making a short hop. Neal running around their engineering sections, making sure everything was working and tuned up. The rest of the day the ships and crews were run though their paces, docking, loading and unloading was practiced by each crew’s shifts.

The next day saw both of the small freighters with a full load, making for the Folly’s next stop. They flew together as a small convoy, the Star Fleet carriers and destroyers acting as an escort. The Folly followed them at a distance, the Pegasus hidden within her warp field.

Two days later, they reached their next stop. Not only did Neal need to transfer cargo on the planet’s surface, there were three space-mining platforms and a research facility to deliver supplies too. After dropping the Pegasus well out of the system, The Folly headed for orbit around the planet, leaving the space based platforms to the smaller ships.

After dropping off their supplies, Charlie and Delta headed back out of the system with their escorts. The Pegasus joined them once they were clear of the system.

The Folly caught up with them two days later. Once the other ships were loaded onboard, the Folly continued on, apparently alone.

The debriefings went smoothly; almost everything had gone according to plan. Neal had made sure to give his crews what background information he had for each of their stops. The crews though, had been more than a little surprised by how many people had been surprised, and sometimes even upset that Neal had sent someone else in his stead.

This had been especially true of one chakat, who had met Charlie as they docked at the first of the mining platforms. Shi had been in such a hurry to meet them, that shi still had hir infant nursing under hir open top. TaurgerWolf, both for hir parents, as well as hir tiger pattern and timber wolf coloration, had first seen the odd human when shi was a very small cub. He had never failed to have a treat or present for hir as a child. As a surprise for hir wolftaur grandparents, Neal had once given hir a ride in the Folly. When they reached Earth, Neal had contacted hir grandparents, only telling them that hir parents had shipped some cargo though him. Neal had then helped hir climb into a large crate, and then filled it up to hir chin with pea sized packing foam. When the grandparents had complained that the crate wouldn’t fit in their vehicle, Neal had suggested they unpack it there, and just take the contents. It was a very dry day, so when the side dropped, white foam poured out. Then, with foam clinging to hir fur, TaurgerWolf had pounced on hir grandparents. A little static electricity soon had all three covered in the foam beads, foam they were still finding in their home twenty years later. CalmMeadow and Mike had been assigned to Charlie. They explained that Neal was using the smaller ships to make up some time, but he hadn’t forgotten hir. They gave hir the small box with hir name on it. Inside shi was surprised to find, not only a gift for hir, but also toys for hir newborn.

The next runs were to two neighboring systems, the Folly heading for one, while the smaller ships and their escort made for the other. The second system had no habitable planets, just a small way-station with a large mining operation.

The quartermaster had been surprised at having the two smaller ships bringing in his supplies instead of the massive Folly, but then he had smiled and made an inter-station call. Delta was almost unloaded, when carriers from the station started queuing up to be loaded. Dusk and Morningmist had been put in charge of unloading Delta; they now looked again at their data pads, no cargo was scheduled to be taken, just dropped off.

The stationmaster, Tom Prasills, whose blond hair had turned to silver over the years, explained the load to them. "A little over fifty years ago, old man Foster helped us repair and upgrade these facilities after a pirate attack. Part of it was a loan and replacement equipment, the other part was lowering the cost of shipping things though him. We’ve never been able to fully pay that loan back. About thirty-five years ago, this ‘younger’ Foster started making the rounds, claiming to be the old man’s ‘grandson’. He’s always told us that there was no record of a loan to us in the old man’s database, so he would never accept payment. Funny thing is, this ‘grandson’ seems to know everything the old man knew, including my daughter’s birthday. So since he has always refused our payments, we’re going to send it to him though you."

The story had pushed Craig Dobson’s curiosity buttons, so he had Velasco scan the carriers before they were brought aboard. The Rakshani had let out a hiss of disbelief at what her scans were showing her. Each carrier was loaded to capacity with refined Boronike ore. The ore in question had properties that kept it from being transported, but those same properties made it a key component in most transporter and replicator manufacturing. Depending on the current prices, each carrier was worth more than a small ship. A hundred and fifty carriers were loaded onto both Charlie and Delta. When asked why so much, Tom had just laughed. "When he wouldn’t take his payment, we rolled it back into the business, this is just half of what his ‘share’ has grown into."

A little before the Pegasus was scheduled to separate from the Folly to check the outlying area while the Folly went in-system, four identical gray rabbit bucks entered Neal’s dayroom. Neal smiled as he said, "Please, don’t tell me you need permission to kick Stew out of your galley again."

"N-No sir. It is about Suzan, but that’s not the problem," Peter said, all of the bucks were clearly nervous about something.

Waving them to chairs, Neal leaned back in his. "She has been acting strangely of late. Why am I getting the feeling my mates are trying something behind my back, and they asked you to help them with it."

"Yes…" "But..." "We…" they all tried to answer at once, but then none of them could bring themselves to speak.

After trying for several minutes to get them to tell him what was upsetting them, Neal suggested they all go back to the Pegasus with him. As they filed out, Neal asked Tess to see if their ship’s counselor or LightTouch was available. LightTouch met them in the coffee lounge.

Even with hys help, it took a while to get the issue out in the open. Suzan had asked the four bucks for something Neal couldn’t give her, and the bucks were terrified Neal would be upset about it.

Neal shook his head as he snorted in amusement. "Don’t worry gentle furs, I learned a long time ago that shooting the messenger is a bad idea. Tell me what the problem is. If I do get to upset, I’m sure LightTouch can hold me down long enough for the four of you to escape!" he said with a grin.

"I do not know about that," LightTouch said with a chuckle, "I have heard rumors that you can out-tickle a Rakshani."

Peter and Roger had been there that night, and they nodded. "And he’s not too bad in a pie fight either!" Peter laughed.

"So I have heard," LightTouch said, giving Neal a wink. Turning to the bucks hy said, "So, what has you so frightened of him? Or, is what you are holding back so terrible that you are afraid he might tickle you to death when he hears it?"

Oswald all but whispered, "She wants our seed." Then he slapped his paws over his mouth.

LightTouch carefully watched Neal. Hy had felt the spike of mental activity. Now hy listened as it slowed down, a few more spikes came up, but they were much smaller, side-thoughts to the main one. After a few breaths, Neal was as calm as he had appeared to be.

Making eye contact with each of the bucks, Neal smiled. "How do you feel about it?" he gently asked.

"We don’t want to come between you…" Peter stammered.

"You won’t be," Neal quickly assured him. "Don’t worry about me. What I want to know is how you feel about helping Suzan bring a child into the world." As they continued looking confused Neal continued, "I will admit that this was a bit of a surprise, but I’m wondering if it was a bigger shock to you than it is for me. I guess what I’m asking is if the four of you have thought this through? Do you want to have a child running up to you yelling ‘daddy’? Or, ‘daddies’ as the case may be?"

"Daddies?" Harvey asked.

"You’re all identical, so if you all wanted to help, there would be no way of telling which of your seeds did the deed. The real question is: do you want a child to be related to you? I promise you I am more than willing to treat any child of Suzan’s as one of my own. The other question would be if you want the child to know of you as their fathers, or do you just want to be anonymous sperm donors?"

"You’re not upset?" Peter asked, they were all still looking slightly stunned.

"No. Just surprised that I heard it from you. I guess Suzan is still trying to find a way of suggesting it without shocking me too badly. But, I’m not the issue here, you four are. This is something that’s going to be with you the rest of your lives, please do not let me scare you into doing this or not. And, don’t let Suzan, or any of my other mates or kids bully you into doing it if you’re not sure you want to. I know of your sexual preferences; you have never had to consider a child before. It’s a big step for anyone, so please take your time deciding."

Once the bunny brothers had left, Neal turned to LightTouch. "You will help them with their decision, won’t you?"

LightTouch cocked hys head at Neal. "And, which way did you want their decision to go?"

Knowing that hy was just baiting him, Neal snorted as he gave hym a dirty look. "Whatever is the best for them. Suzan can always find other donors. I know she likes them, but that’s not a good enough reason to make them uncomfortable about something like this."

"You did not seem as surprised as I thought you might be about her wanting a child."

Neal snorted again. "Those bucks aren’t the first ones to tell me that one of my mates or companions are thinking of having children. So far, Kestrel and Whitetail have also shown an interest. Derikk, the male that Whitetail approached, came to me to make sure I wouldn’t space him for going after her. I did about what I did with the bunnies. I sat him down and asked him if he was sure he knew what he was getting into. Then I called Whitetail in and sent them off with my blessings, and the hopes of a healthy child." Neal chuckled, "Kestrel's first ‘volunteer’ wasn’t all that bright. He had heard her telling someone else she was looking for a male for breeding purposes. So Tomlic had barged into my dayroom, declaring that he was going to have Kestrel and that there was not a damn thing I could do about it."

"What did you do to him?" LightTouch asked with a grin.

"Why nothing," Neal said, matching hys grin. "I just told Tess to let Kestrel know her ‘stud’ was in my dayroom. I didn’t ask, but as mad as she was when she came in, I have to assume that she had Tess tell her who had said what. You have to remember she’s well over a hundred, even if she looks like she hasn’t seen the high side of twenty yet. She gave him her best imitation of a ‘drill sergeant from hell’; every time he tried to open his mouth, she shouted him down. Then the fat went in the fire when he took a swing at her to try to shut her up! She gave him his arm back, broken in two places." Neal shook his head as he added, "She had to break his other arm, as well as a few ribs, to get it though that thick skull of his that she wasn’t interested in something with such a low IQ."

LightTouch snickered. "I already knew about it. I was talking to Doc Kelly when Tomlic came in. He was trying to claim that you had ordered Kestrel to beat him up. Kelly had called Midnight in; attacks on or by Star Fleet personnel are taken very seriously. After he told his ‘tall tale’ for the record, Midnight requested that Kestrel join us. Of course, their stories did not match, so shi had Kestrel ask Tess if there was a recording of the incident, and if she would release it to hir, uncut. Tess played it back for us, plus from what I understand, in Admiral Kline’s dayroom, as well as the marine barracks and the mess hall. Needless to say, by the time Tomlic was escorted from sickbay to the brig, no one was listening to what he had to say."

Neal shook his head, "And here I thought everyone knew that lying to a chakat was a waste of time, or in front of a skunktaur for that matter. Anyway, the next morning Kestrel brought Johninc to meet me. He’s a bit older, and knew Kestrel from before her change. I don’t know what amazed him more, her change, or that the old sergeant that had given him so much grief when he first joined Star Fleet now considered him a good breeding partner. Like Derikk, I let him know I wouldn’t stand in their way, and if they needed any help to just ask."

"I’m a little surprised by your attitude."

"I learned a very long time ago, that I can’t be everything for everybody. But, every now and then, I find someone who can help me by being what I can’t. For Whitetail and Kestrel, if that means I take a backseat to their new loves, so be it. After all they’ve done for me and mine, it’s the least I can do for them."

"And the bunny brothers?"

"If they can help Suzan get what she wants, fine. If not, that’s fine too. I will respect their decisions either way."

Tess picked that moment to remind Neal that ship separation was in just a few minutes. Neal bid LightTouch a good day, and hurried out of the lounge in the direction of the turbolifts.

Light Touch waited until Neal had left the room, then hy got up and went to the other exit, the one the bucks had used to head back to the galley. Around the first bend in the corridor, Peter stood, looking very confused. When he saw LightTouch, he frowned. "I heard what the two of you said, but I didn’t understand. Does he want us to tell Suzan ‘yes’ or ‘no’?"

LightTouch smiled as hy said, "Neal has left that decision up to you and your brothers. If you like, I can help you talk it over, but I can not and will not make the choice for you." With a grin, LightTouch added, "Welcome to another one of those little problems you face when you have the freedom to make your own decisions."

Peter gave hym a tentative smile. "Would you be free to talk with us after the lunch rush?"

LightTouch grinned. "I would be happy to make the time if needed. As it is, I have no pressing duties after lunch, so it’s a date."

"A date?" Peter said, matching hys grin. "We’re having enough female problems with Suzan without you wanting a date too!"

LightTouch could sense that Peter knew what hy meant, so hy just laughed. "Funny bunny," hy said, shooing the rabbit away. "It is a good thing your cooking is better than your jokes!"

The four rabbit bucks returned to the coffee lounge after the lunchtime rush was over. Sitting down on a long couch, they talked quietly while they waited for LightTouch.

Midnight came in a few minutes later with Ember. Midnight stepped up to the counter, while Ember explored the room. Shi found several people that shi knew, but after a stroke or two, or a hug from those shi knew well, shi headed for the rabbits. To their surprise, Ember jumped to the arm of the couch. Then shi started walking across their laps, giving each one a lick-kiss. Once done, shi laid down, trapping them. Midnight joined them with a cappuccino and a smile.

Shi smiled at the looks of bewilderment on their faces. "That’s what you get for sneaking hir all those treats!"

"You knew?" Peter asked, more than a little surprised that they had been caught.

"Of course," Midnight smiled again. "You keep forgetting that I can feel hir emotions. There’s a special ‘spike’ when shi gets a treat. By the way, if you want hir to calm down, just stroke hir. Shi has a full belly, so shi should drop off quickly."

After a few minutes of group petting, Ember had purred hirself to sleep. LightTouch picked that moment to join them.

Peter shook his head. "You set us up," he quietly said as he gave hym a dirty look.

LightTouch smiled. "There is an old saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. It is one thing to see someone caring for their child; it is different when the hands comforting the child are your own. Nothing I could say would make you ‘feel’ what it feels like to have a child that trusts you enough to fall asleep on your lap."

Midnight smiled again. "LightTouch told me you needed a little help with the idea of becoming parents, or just donating your seed. Ember and I though we would let you get a little closer to the idea, though nothing can really prepare you for your own child."

"Thank you," Roger whispered, the others nodding in agreement, as Ember slept on, not knowing how shi had helped them make their decision.

That evening, Neal waited until after dinner to talk with Suzan. Bonita and Whitetail were helping her get a few things cleaned up and ready for the next day’s meals when Neal stuck his head in the door.

Giving his companions a smile, Neal asked, "Do you mind if I steal Stew for a little while?"

Bonita gave him a leer as she replied, "Just so long as you save some energy for tonight!"

Neal shook his head as he held the door for Suzan. "Thanks for the warning!" he laughed as the door closed.

Neal led her to the same lounge they had used for their ‘talk’. This time though, she shared his chair with him. After getting comfortable, Suzan smiled. "Not that I mind a snuggle, but was there another reason for getting me alone with you?"

Neal tightened his hug around her for a moment. "Just before the Pegasus left, I had four rabbit bucks come into my dayroom…"

"But I didn’t…" A finger across her lips ended whatever she was going to say.

"Let me rephrase that. I had four terrified blonde-haired, gray bunnies come into my dayroom. They would have had their tails between their legs if it was physically possible. It seems you asked them for something they feared would ‘upset’ me."

"I was going to tell you if they said they were willing! I was hoping you wouldn’t mind."

"Oh, I don’t mind," Neal said, as he gave her a gentle squeeze. "The problem is, they had never thought of having a child before, so that was one shock to their systems. The other was when they came to make sure I didn’t mind, only to find out I had no idea you were in the market for a child."

"So where do we stand?" Suzan asked, a little worried.

" ‘We’ stand just fine," Neal told her, tightening his hug around her. "Where we stand with the bunny brothers remains to be seen. While I don’t think we’ve burnt any bridges, we may want to tread lightly on the matter for a while."

"So, they won’t help me?"

"I don’t know. When the Pegasus left, they had a decision to make. Please don’t hound them about it. It may take some time for them to feel right about giving you a yes, or a no. If they do say yes, you just might find out from docs Kelly or M’Lai first." At her confused look, he smiled. "Unless you want them coming after you with a turkey baster!"

She stared at him moment, then closed her eyes. After another moment, she groaned. "Thanks a lot! Now I can’t get that image out of my head!"

Neal chuckled. "You think that’s bad? I left the poor bunnies thinking about some little brat running up to them yelling ‘daddies’!"

Suzan shivered. "Then they’ll say no."

Neal smiled. "Don’t be so sure, there are positive points to go along with the negative ones. More than anything, I think they will need to just sit down, and think about it for a while."

Bonita looked in on them a little later, both were sound asleep in each other’s arms. Suzan's cheek fur showed where tears had flowed, but the expression on her face suggested whatever had caused the tears had been resolved. With a smile, Bonita closed the door, and went to see if Moonglow was interested in some company.

Three days later saw the Folly stopping to pick up the Pegasus, before chasing down the rest of their convoy. Once the ships were joined, Neal headed to the Pegasus to compare notes with Boyce. Midnight met him at the access port.

"Permission to come aboard?" he asked with a smile.

"Permission granted Neal. The last time I saw Boyce, he was waiting for you in his dayroom." Midnight then grinned. "And our cooks have a message for your cook, shall I send them over?"

Neal reached up to tap his comm badge, only to pause when Midnight shook hir head. "They want to surprise her," shi said with a wink.

"Far be it for me to spoil a surprise," Neal said as he headed for the turbolifts.

Boyce was in the coffee lounge when Neal tracked him down, nursing a cup of Chipinge coffee. After getting an iced tea from the attendant, Neal joined him.

They had been talking for only a few minutes when Suzan came in. She was clutching a case, and looking like she was ready to cry. Neal quickly got up and sat her down in his chair. Figuring the brushed metal case was what was bothering her; he gently took it from her and set it on the table.

Suzan shuddered as she said, "They said that this is all they could give me." Then she hid her face in her hands as her tears started.

With Boyce looking on curiously, Neal opened the case and then he snorted as he say the contents. "I’ve always heard that great minds think alike, but this is ridiculous!"

In the case sat three items, each in a molded pocket. A small clear container contained an almost clear liquid in it; another small container of what the label said was cooking lard, and a turkey baster.

With a look of concern, Boyce started to say something, only to be stopped by Neal’s raised hand. Neal had noticed that the case was much heavier than these contents would warrant. Removing the items, he then used the pockets as a handle to lift out the molding. Underneath was a small cooling unit, a tube of lubricant, and rows of oral medicine syringes. Opening the cooling unit, Neal counted over a dozen sealed tubes.

"Suzan? Suzan!" Neal had to pull her hands away from her face to get her to look at him. "You missed something," he quietly whispered.

Her eyes went wide when she saw the contents, then she jumped up and ran from the room.

"Midnight and M'Lai had both told me that the brothers had made their decision, but they didn’t mention any gags going with it," Boyce said with a frown.

Looking again at the first layer, Neal snorted. "It looks like a joke they added after the case was set up. I do like the spirit that it suggests. Although they were willing to help her, they also wanted to give her a taste of the shock she had given them." Still smiling, Neal keyed his comm badge. "Tess, how are the bunny boys surviving Stew’s ‘thank you’?"

"Remains to be seen boss. She’s already hugged and kissed two of them into the ground, the other two have fled."

Putting the case back together, Neal gave Boyce a grin. "I should put this in her room. And I think that our chat will have to wait until after we rescue your cooks from mine."

Late that evening, Bonita found Neal in the lounge, sipping hot tea while Stormy slept in his lap.

"I thought you were with Suzan," she quietly said as she sat down beside him.

"Couldn’t sleep. And, it seems if I can’t sleep, Stormy can’t stay asleep either. So I left Moonglow curled up around Stew." Neal snorted as he added; "She’s been banned from the Pegasus’s galley until she promises to not attack the bucks again."

"She attacked them?"

"For some reason it seems they prefer to not have a female try to smother them with hugs and kisses."

"But they wouldn’t have minded you ‘thanking’ them."

Neal smiled as he snorted, "So I was told."

"Well, I can’t help you with your bunny issues, but I may be able to help you get some sleep," she said as she gently lifted the kitten from his lap and set hir on a cushion. "Fully recline that chair and roll over," she commanded. Once Neal was on his stomach, the big Rakshani started to give him a massage.

"You’re like a coiled spring! Try to relax."

"Too much on my mind…"

"Are ‘we’ pushing you to hard?" Bonita asked with some concern.

"No. It’s worrying about how the others are doing. I don’t like being out of the loop, out of control!"

"That’s all part of being in command of a small fleet. You have to trust your captains and their crews."

"It’s not that I don’t trust them, it’s just not knowing if every thing’s okay. Or I’m racking my brain, trying to think of anything I may have forgotten."

"You know, your ‘kids’ are growing up fast. You can’t hold their paws all the time."

"The first letter I sent to their parents, I promised I’d take good care of them. Then I put them in harms way at New Kiev, and now I have some of them delivering cargo, while we’re out here hunting pirates!"

"Was it this bad when it was Chase’s group?"

"Possibly worse. With Chase and company, I had more time to train them. Maybe that’s part of my fear, that was before they got chewed on by pirates. I thought I had taught them everything they could need, but they still got hurt."

Bonita smiled as her paws firmly worked their way down his back. "Perhaps you inadvertently shielded them from making too many mistakes. I know that you know the expression ‘no pain, no gain’. It’s one thing to be told something, it’s a whole ‘nother story to have it actually happen to you."

"I can tell myself that they’re as safe as they possibly could be, but my gut still churns with the fear that I may have missed something. Like you just said, it’s one thing to be told, it’s another to know. Have you had any kids?"

"A rather personal question, but no, no kids."

"Sorry, it just seems the fear goes up a notch when it’s your kid verses somebody else’s brat."

"So if the child is yours it’s a kid, if they belong to anyone else, then they’re brats?"

"My father always claimed that he had little enough patience with his own kids, and none for other people’s. I like to think I’m a little better than that, but I find that it often depends on the kid in question."

"I’ve noticed that you let the terror twins get away with quite a bit more than I would."

"Probably. Part of the problem is they remind me so much of Chase’s group. They’re at that age where they soak up knowledge like a sponge. I’m trying to let them learn as much as they can without overloading them. The flip side of that coin though, is that I’m trying not to slow them down too much either. Right now, this is ‘fun’ to them. If I turn it into ‘work’ or ‘school’, they won’t be as motivated to learn."

"But, is it safe to let them help build a ship? There are so many things that could hurt them."

"Sparks said the same thing. I told hir to work with the twins for a day. Shi was to just be an extra set of hands; the kids were to tell hir what to do. Shi came back to me that evening, ready to sign the twins on as part of hir crew. They obeyed all the safety rules, to the point that they actually caught hir skipping a couple."

"I’ve spoken with hir. Shi seemed pretty sharp."

"Oh, shi is, but like most people that do the same things day after day, shi has learned what ‘short cuts’ shi can and can’t get away with. The only problem is Gulf isn’t the Pegasus. On hir ship, there’s a lot of places that flipping a single switch kills power to a whole section. On Gulf, those same sections are fed by multiple warp cores, so you have to kill all the routes to make a section safe to work with." Feeling Bonita’s claws digging a little deeper than they had been, Neal snorted. "Easy! Shi was never in any danger; the kids had the section safe before shi could get in any trouble. Plus you’re forgetting my best babysitter of all, Tess."

"You know, you count on your computer too much."

"Only because she’s proven to me that I can count on her. Without her, I don’t think I would have attempted to let Chase’s group stay onboard. Twenty-three to one, that one also needing to run a ship and move cargo? Every trip, Tess seems to learn a little more, there’s less for me to ‘correct’."

"You make her sound almost alive."

"Key word being ‘almost’. When we started out, she was little better than the Pegasus’s main computer. You could give her basic orders, and ‘if/then/else’ type instructions. Then I almost lost to some pirates. The ship was a battered pile of wreckage, and I wasn’t in much better shape. Among other things, a main power bus blew. The safeties kicked in before too much damage was done, but I was badly burned. I didn’t really notice when it started, but it was sometime after she processed me that I noticed that she was starting to do things without being told. At first, I thought I had simply forgotten that I had told her to do things, but then I deliberately didn’t give her needed commands and she did what was needed anyway."

"Could the surge have damaged the computer itself?"

"Possible, but all the components have been upgraded so much since then, that there’s nothing left of the original system."

"And the code?"

"I have let a few trusted experts look though the code. It’s so old, and has had so many upgrades, add-ons and patches, that all they could tell me was that they thought it looked fairly ‘stable’. Considering there’s still nothing on the market half as responsive, I’ve stayed away from starting over with a newer program. As they say, ‘better the devil you know’."

"Speaking of devils we know, I have a few questions about the process you used to make us young again."

"I’ll answer what I know, but it’s not entirely under my control."

"First off, all of us are taller and er… bigger than we were before."

"As I told Zhanch when we woke Dessa up, the process reads your DNA and rebuilds your body to its best potential, not what it was."

Bonita frowned. "Okay. I’ll buy that, but most of us have been trying to get back in shape. In basic training, I remember losing some of my bust as I started putting on more muscle, but that’s not happening to any of us this time. Are the changes permanent?"

Neal smiled. "Sorry, that’s not the fault of the process. It’s the fault of your nutritionist." At her look of total confusion, Neal chuckled as he continued, "I’ve found that one of the programs Suzan has Tess running happens to keep an eye on how hard each of you exercise, and then she plans your meals with enough to replace what you tried to burn off."

"So you’re saying we should blame Stew and Tess for all the males only noticing our tits and not our muscles?"

Neal grinned. "Well, that and your ‘snacks’."

"Most of us don’t snack that much!"

"Not how much, but what you’ve been snacking on."

"A bowl of ice cream isn’t bad for you!"

"Not if it was regular ice cream, no. But I’ve noticed you all seem to have fallen in love with the ‘home-made’ ice cream that we give Stormy as a treat."

"If it’s okay for hir to eat…"

"Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s great ice cream, but my older chakat kids have to stay away from it," Neal smiled as Bonita eyes grew wide. "You see, it was made with Moonglow's milk, so they would start producing milk too."

Bonita covered her face with her paws, the way she was shaking it was hard for Neal to tell if she was laughing or crying.

Neal chuckled. "The bunny boys were all ready to make new creations using the ‘chakat milk ice cream’, until it was pointed out that it would have certain affects on chakats and skunktaurs. Since Midnight was already in milk producing mode, shi tried some and liked it. I understand shi was teasing Sparks and LightTouch with it."

Bonita was now holding her sides as she laughed. "Extra rich and creamy! No wonder it’s so good. Damn it, one more thing that will make me fat!"

"You could always cheat like I do," At her raised eyebrow, Neal smiled. "Just skip a meal and have a banana split instead."

Bonita chuckled. "Is that why Weaver says that you’re a bad influence on the kids?"

"Among others."

"Is it just me, or is she running the Folly more than you are?"

"Weaver is helping manage all the people and their needs, while I try to manage the ship and all the hardware. Otherwise, I’d probably be feeling like a one armed paper hanger."

"That’s another thing, half the things you say don’t make any sense."

"Different frames of reference I’m afraid."

"Just how old are you?"

"As you know, I went though the process thirty-seven years ago. It was about a hundred and twenty years before that, that I almost died in a pirate attack, and I was processed for the first time. Let’s just say I’m over two hundred and let it go at that."

"What’s it like?"

"To be so old? Some times, it feels like too much to remember. Some days Tess has to remind my of something I was just talking about moments earlier, other times a sight, sound or smell will remind me of something from before my first ‘process’ like it was only yesterday." Neal looked at her carefully as he asked his question, "While we are on the subject of age, why was Zhanch in charge of your group? From what I’ve heard, she’s almost the youngest of you."

Bonita smiled. "One of our training tricks is to assign the junior ranking member the command slot. Then those under her command see what she’ll let us get away with, and what she won’t. It also forces her to order her people into possibly life threatening situations. It’s one thing to risk your own life; it’s something else to order a friend to risk their life. Zhanch had been tapped for possible promotion; we were to test her. That was some test we fell into."

Neal grunted softly. "I don’t know. You all survived, and most of you seem happy with the changes surviving required. Like many things, the trip isn’t the destination, it’s the journey. This minor ‘reset’ just means you get a second chance at a few things you may have missed the first time around."

"Like cubs?"

"Them too."

"I was sterilized by an accidental blast of radiation when I was young. That kind of put me out of the running in the cub-making department."

"That body didn’t get hit by that radiation. The doctors would have told you if there was a problem."

"So this time around I have to decide, where last time the choice was taken from me."

"Nobody said the choices get easier as you get older."

Rolling him over, Bonita shook her head and softly snorted as she picked up Stormy. Laying hir on Neal’s chest, she then picked him up. As she carried them to the door she quietly murmured, "Enough thinking for one night. Let’s see if I can’t help you feel young again!"

The small convoy was over a day’s travel from where the schedule called for them to be, when the Folly came out of warp in front of them. Charlie and Delta were barely docked between the spheres, before Neal met them at Delta’s docking port. "What failed?" he asked, wondering what problems he might have missed on the test runs.

"Not a thing, Captain," Craig answered with a smile. "She’s just a little slower with a heavy load."

"What load?" Neal asked, totally puzzled.

"A gentleman named Tom Prasills told us he’s been holding it for you for years now," Craig said with a grin.

"Prasills? That brat!" Neal had started to say more, but was interrupted when both crews burst out laughing. "What?" Neal demanded, confused by their outburst.

Morningmist managed to contain hir laughter first. "Tom told us that only one person had ever called him a ‘brat’. That person was ‘old man Foster’, and he only said it when Tom managed to really get under his skin. Mr. Prasills told us to tell you, that if he’d managed to get you to call him a ‘brat’, then he’s returned the loan to the right Foster," Looking at Neal’s expression, shi snickered, "Sorry father, but it looks like ‘the cat’s out of the bag’." This started the others laughing again.

Neal was still shaking his head when Weaver came up. "Why didn’t you want them to pay you back?" she asked.

Neal snorted. "As far as I was concerned, they already had. I both ship their orders, as well as buy some Boronike for myself to sell on the open markets. Boronike is so much in demand, that I could ship their loads for free! With the markups I charge, the ore I sell makes me more profit than almost anything else."

Weaver waved her paw at the open hold, almost full of carriers. "Then what’s all this?"

Neal shook his head again. "Tom and company think it’s ‘interest owed’." then he grinned. "Oh well, as they say, ‘turnabout’s fair play!’"

"And just what does that mean?" Weaver asked.

Neal’s grin turned evil as he chuckled. "What it means, love, is that they will be getting a ‘gift’ to thank them for their little surprise the next time I come by."

The third and last trip before they would be racing the clock in earnest, had Charlie and Delta heading for different systems. The Folly would drop them off along the way, before heading for a third system. Since the Folly would be over a week early, Neal expected he would have to wait for his loads to be readied. Charlie, Delta, and their escorts were to rejoin after their deliveries, then catch up with the Folly at their best speed.

Charlie’s destination was a small mining platform that was currently positioned well into an asteroid field. They left their escort behind as they slipped into the slowly shifting field, the Zulus taking their own paths to quietly scan the area. Canner had Mike and Zhanch working stations on the bridge, while CalmMeadow and Croix prepared to help unload the cargo.

The first surprise came when it took several tries to contact the station; the next one was when an exhausted-looking human answered their hail. He told them that a remotely operated mining probe had stopped responding to commands, and had hit the station. Most of the station personnel were getting some much-needed sleep, after having worked double or triple shifts on the repairs.

Canner had told him that Charlie’s crew would be happy to do the unloading for them; all he would need was for them to open their docking bay.

Zhanch had been looking over the patched-up damage. It looked like the run-away probe had been going at a fairly good clip, having damaged or destroyed the long-range communications arrays before it impacted the station, just missing the control center. When asked if there had been any injuries, they were told that there had been just enough warning to get everyone clear.

CalmMeadow had been listening to the conversation between the bridge and station, a feeling of fear and dread growing in hir as they approached the station. Shi pressed the intercom key that would let just the bridge hear hir, and whispered, "Abort!"

As hir whispered word seemed to echo around the bridge, Mike looked up from his station; he had been carefully scanning the station as they approached, "I confirm we should abort, Captain."

Canner only hesitated for a moment, then he ordered Charlie to reverse course and pull away from the station. At the surprised demands from the station, he replied that they had just lost their docking computer again. They would try docking as soon as they isolated the fault. Turning to Mike, Canner asked, "Okay, why did we just abort docking?"

Though the intercom, CalmMeadow answered first, "Something’s wrong on that station, captain. I can feel it!"

Looking at the intercom panel Mike sighed. "More than you know, sister mine." Looking over at Canner, he said, "Sir, he’s lying to us. I am only finding six furs on that station, their location suggests that they are hiding in the air ducts. All other life signs are human, and there’s well over a hundred of them, about half of which are waiting on the other side of the docking port they were going to have us use."

Canner’s brow creased. "Neal’s notes said this station is the home of over fifty furs, mostly chakats. Where are they?"

Mike shook his head. "No other large masses of organics on the station sir. They or their bodies were removed, and I can’t see chakats willingly leaving anyone behind. The scan looks like five very small and one medium taur-sized furs, they are all bunched together so they are a little hard to separate."

They could hear CalmMeadow’s voice breaking as shi cried, "They’re starving! We have to save them!"

Canner watched as Mike nodded in agreement. "I’m open to suggestions, but remember, Neal doesn’t want me placing you in danger. This isn’t a fighter, it’s just an over-glorified freighter with a few tricks tacked on."

Mike snorted. "So use the tricks!" At Canner’s raised eyebrow, he added, "Their shields are down for us to dock, we can use one of the Zulu’s to transfer the furs to us. Park the other directly between us and the station, both to act as a shield against any attack, as well as give us the ability to disable their systems."

It was Canner’s turn to snort. "I keep forgetting the full capacities of those dang things!" Looking at Mike and Zhanch, he smiled. "You two have more training on them than the rest of my crew, so I’ll let you do the honors."

Mike nodded and looked over at Zhanch. "I’ll get the furs, you take the station." As Zhanch nodded, Mike keyed the intercom, "All medically trained personnel to sickbay please. Expect incoming. CalmMeadow, please join them."

Meanwhile Zhanch was also busy. As she moved her Zulu into place, she contacted the other ships. "Slingshot, Spike! Full alert guys! These are not the people we were expecting. They may have more unpleasant surprises waiting for us." She could hear the fighter jocks being ordered to their fighters as Slingshot’s captain, Goldeneyes reminded her that that wasn’t proper communications protocol. Zhanch had growled back, "Protocol be damned, I’m busy! Damn! DO NOT launch the fighters! I’ve found four missile tubes and six heavy beam weapons already aimed at us! Give me some time to try and disable them!"

"Got them!" Mike exclaimed moments later, "Captain, you can raise shields and get us clear of this trap!" He then started helping Zhanch disable the weapons on the station.

Zhanch had already taken care of the missile tubes by using her Zulu’s transporter to modify the tube exits. They each now sported a new set of blades set in an ‘X’ pattern that would slice up the missile as it got to the end of the tube. Depending on the type of missile, it might even go off while still in the tube. She was now working on the beam weapons. By cracking their lazing crystals, they would explode if power was applied.

Mike started with their command and control systems. That would keep them from firing multiple weapons from one location. They could still try firing from the weapons themselves, but by the time they could get their people to the individual weapons, Zhanch would have them disabled.

The calls from the station were now getting frantic. They demanded to know why Charlie had raised shields and was now pulling away from the station. Canner’s smile was tight as he opened communications with them again. "Whoever you are, you’re lying to me. Our scans are only showing humans. Where are the furs that own and run that station?"

Their only reply was a small explosion on the station. Mike had left one beam weapon attached to their control systems. Since Zhanch had already damaged it, all it did was let Canner know that they had tried to fire on his ship.

As they started to move away from the station, small explosions occurred on three nearby asteroids. These cleared the openings for three ships. Two started for the freighter, the other began discharging fighters once it was clear of its hiding place.

As Mike and Zhanch repositioned their Zulus to intercept any shots or missiles fired by the two ships, Canner ordered one of the baby Zulus to ram the enemy carrier. One thing Neal had drummed into the crews running his ships was that, if need be the Zulus, the cargo, even the ships themselves were disposable. He could always make more. What he couldn’t replace were the crews. Canner got another surprise when he gave the command; he had expected the scout to head straight for the carrier. What it did was change its course so that it came around and hit the third fighter as it was leaving the carrier, smashing it back into its launch bay as the scout came apart. Neal’s scouts were made for ramming. The anti-matter containment was weakest to the front of the craft, so when the scout hit something, there was little keeping the anti-matter from its intended target. Canner watched as a blinding fire pulsed from the carrier’s open port. Acting as an off-centered rocket thruster, it started spinning the big ship around, as more and more of the ship seemed to catch fire and fall or melt off.

Mike and Zhanch weren’t idle while the carrier died. As well as keeping the other two ships from getting a clear shot at Charlie, they were also fighting back with the Zulus and trying to cut though the attacking ship’s shields, and render them harmless. Mike managed to take out his target’s bridge controls, causing them to hit a large rock almost dead-on. Zhanch’s target had already scraped a smaller rock, and had lost most of their rear shields. Zhanch removed the power buses that fed their anti-matter containment fields. After a moment, the ship seemed to expand just before it exploded, fiery pieces going in all directions.

Canner had the last two scouts harassing the two remaining fighters. They were staying between the fighters and Charlie, while the fighters from Slingshot moved in for the kill. One tried to escape to open space, but was cut to pieces when it came around a rock, and into Spike’s phaser range.

With all hostile craft neutralized, Spike and Charlie joined Slingshot well clear of the asteroid field. With Slingshot’s fighters out and ready for another attack, Canner sent a Zulu and a scout back into the field. The scout went in with its sensors set to ‘high’ active, the extra power letting it see into the rocks, looking for more traps. The Zulu headed back to the station, Canner intended to use it as a relay and ask the current occupants some hard questions.

When they refused to answer his hails, Zhanch suggested he let her try. She had seen something when she was scanning for weapons that she thought might help loosen their tongues. An open crate of gas grenades had been just inside the cargo door where they had wanted Charlie to dock. She transported one of the grenades to their control room. Then she politely informed them that the next one she gave them would have the pin pulled.

Recognizing their own grenade, they started answering Canner’s questions. After ten minutes though, it became apparent that they were making answers up as they were asked.

While Canner continued asking questions, Zhanch was removing their ability to escape. She first removed all the computers from the station and the vehicles in and around the station. She then opened the inner airlock doors and sealed them in place. She also beamed all the space suits outside to keep them from being used. She then removed the cables connecting all but their local antennas to the station. As a last precaution, she booby-trapped all the access to the power room. Anyone trying to get more power out of the system, or trying to blow up the station would get a taste of their own gas.

While all this was happening, CalmMeadow found hirself in a different type of battle. Shi was turning the last corner to the small sickbay, when a human male and a fox tod all but dived out of the room. Both had been clawed, the tod’s left upper arm dripped blood while the human’s hand looked like it had gone though a shredder.

CalmMeadow dragged them both to the next room. Pulling the first aid kit off the wall, shi dropped it next to them. "Do what you can with this, we’ll get you properly patched up after we get hir calmed down." Shi then hit the comm panel and asked Mike to help hir in sickbay.

Mike had taken only moments to join hir, and shi explained hir plan. "We have to get hir to trust us before we can help the cubs. I will try to calm hir down. If shi attacks me, I will try to hold hir for you to grab."

Having seen the walking-wounded in the next room, Mike hadn’t liked hir plan, but unfortunately he didn’t have a better one. He stayed out of sight as CalmMeadow opened the sickbay door. Inside was Nova, a tiger-striped chakat in hir early teens. In the corner there were five chakat cubs, the oldest almost four, the youngest only a few months old. Now that they were awake, all of them were crying in hunger.

CalmMeadow watched the younger chakat carefully, as shi tried to project calm. "Let me help," Shi whispered. "Let me help you feed them. They are crying for food."

The younger chakat stared at hir for a long moment, then shi started shaking as shi slowly collapsed. "I can’t feed them. I’ve dried up," shi said as shi started to cry.

CalmMeadow slowly stepped up to hir, then shi knelt and wrapped hir in a hug. "That can happen when you don’t get the fluids you need yourself. I have a friend outside that will get us both some food so we can feed the little ones. Can I ask him to come in?"

At hir nod, CalmMeadow called Mike in. Understanding that the situation was still touchy, Mike said little, and basically let CalmMeadow tell him what to do.

As well as getting them food, Mike had a guard posted to keep anyone from disturbing them. With three of the cubs looking to be under a year old, he had Canner check to see if the other ships had a chakat producing milk as shi or hir milk would be needed for the little ones. When he returned with the food, he found CalmMeadow with the littlest two. Each was sucking hungrily on a nipple, with the other three whining for their share. After reminding CalmMeadow not to let any of them eat themselves sick, Mike went to have a word with Canner.

Canner had bad news for Mike when he got back to the bridge, none of their little fleet’s chakats were nursing, and none of the replicators had either chakat milk, or the chakat milk ice cream loaded in their memories. And Canner had given up on getting anything useful from the humans still on the station, so he had decided to make for Delta’s group at their best speed, then the convoy would then head for the Folly’s stop.

Canner had already sent a scout to warn Delta and her escorts of the trouble they had run into. Mike suggested he send the remaining scout to catch up with the Folly; the little ones would soon become ill without chakat milk. Canner sent his last scout racing for the Folly. It would let the Pegasus know what they had found as it passed by.

Four days later saw the small convoy still over a week away from the Folly’s stop. There had been some discussions of stuffing the little ones into a Zulu for a fast ride to the Folly, but there wasn’t enough room for CalmMeadow, Nova and the cubs. Splitting them up wasn’t an option; Nova refused to let any of the cubs out of hir sight. That, and shi seemed to have gained a fear of small closed spaces, keeping them from sending just hir and the cubs. Nova was barely letting CalmMeadow near the cubs, never mind anyone else. Mike was doing what he could to help, but that boiled down to just getting whatever they needed, CalmMeadow couldn’t even get Nova to let him hold one of the cubs, much less help feed or clean them.

CalmMeadow had almost scared Nova by leaping for joy, when Mike told hir that a scout had just returned with a message that help was on the way. The convoy dropped out of warp to wait for the Folly. They found that they had been mistaken in their assumption on who was coming to help; it was Pegasus that came out of warp before them. She then came over and quickly docked with Charlie.

Boyce had ‘short-stopped’ the scout Charlie had sent, to keep Neal from finding out. He knew that Neal would have dropped everything and rushed out, only to have to return to finish his pick-ups and deliveries. Now Boyce, Rosepetal, and Midnight got a quick update from Canner before checking on the young survivors. Mike stopped them as they headed for the little sickbay. He apologized to Boyce, but the way Nova was reacting to humans made letting hir see him a bad idea.

Even CalmMeadow couldn’t convince Nova that Rosepetal and Midnight were friends, and that they only wanted to help. Hearing that his mates were having problems getting Nova to trust them, Boyce made a call to the Pegasus.

A few minutes later, Kayla showed up, with Ember being kept in check by Yeoman d’Armand, their nanny/keeper when their parents were busy. Kayla had brought half a dozen small covered bowls. At CalmMeadow’s puzzled look she smiled as she said, "Moonglow ice cream."

CalmMeadow thanked her as shi took one of the bowls and started eating. Midnight stepped back to where shi could speak to Boyce without being heard. "I hope you know what you’re doing," shi told him.

Boyce frowned. "Since Nova wouldn’t let you near the cubs, I thought I would give CalmMeadow some other options on getting some chakat milk into the little ones. Shi could have let the ice cream melt before feeding it to them, but it looks like shi has decided on a more direct approach."

After eating half the bowl of ice cream to prove to Nova that there was nothing wrong with it, CalmMeadow started offering it to the cubs. The older two had no problems with the frozen treat, but the younger three quickly pushed it away. CalmMeadow took one of the unopened bowls and asked Mike to warm it to body temperature. Once warmed, shi had no problem getting the younger ones to lap it up.

Shi then offered a bowl to Nova, warning hir that shi would start producing milk if shi ate it. Nova just stared at the bowl for a full minute, then carefully took a small taste. CalmMeadow watched with some amusement as Nova started slowly, but then quickly wolfed down the bowl. CalmMeadow handed hir a second bowl. Shi then handed one to Mike, requesting that he copy it into the replicator. CalmMeadow had no intention of ever being without a source of chakat milk again.

With CalmMeadow and Nova now producing milk, the young cubs were out of danger. Nova though, was another story. Shi still barely trusted CalmMeadow, and though hir, Mike. Nova would not let any of the cubs out of hir sight, and shi would only doze off for a few minutes at a time before fighting hir way back to consciousness to make sure the cubs were okay. CalmMeadow could only watch as Nova’s fears slowly tore at hir, making hir try to be ever vigilant, always on watch.

The Folly met them two days later; Neal was a little annoyed that Boyce had kept him from getting the message sooner. Once the other ships were on/in the Folly, Neal had the scouts and Zulus create a sphere to give him plenty of warning of any approaching ships.

Boyce met Neal as he was about to board Charlie. Neal gave him a dirty look as he said, "I know what you did and why you did it. Please don’t do it again. While I know the Pegasus could get to them quicker, and the Folly did need to finish loading, I had information that might have made this a little easier on everyone." Without further comment, Neal walked into Charlie. Waving off Canner, and then Mike, Neal stepped into the room next to the sickbay.

He stopped at the countertop connected to the wall that it shared with the sickbay. Laying a few items on it, Neal began using his hands to beat a rhythm on the countertop. In the next room, the oldest of the cubs, (DarkStreak, for hir dark gray cougar coloring) was alerted and looking around with interest. When Neal repeated the rhythm, shi dashed out of the room in search of the beater. CalmMeadow felt a surge of surprise/fear/hope, as well as something else, from Nova, but shi did not try to stop the cub.

DarkStreak had easily found Neal. He let hir carefully smell him before picking hir up in a tight hug. After a minute, he set the cub back on the floor. Picking up two of the items he had placed on the counter, he placed one in hir paw and said, "For you, little one." Placing the other item in hir free paw he said, "For Nova." He then shooed hir out of the room. Looking at Boyce’s look of surprise, he gave him a sad smile. "Shi was almost two the last time I saw hir and hir parents. I’m glad shi still remembers me."

DarkStreak ran back into the sickbay. Shi stuck out her paw to Nova. When Nova just sat there staring at hir, shi pointed hir paw at CalmMeadow. When CalmMeadow held out hir paw, the cub dropped a small hard candy into it. Hir mission accomplished, DarkStreak plopped down with the other cubs to share hir treat with them.

CalmMeadow opened the candy and sniffed at it. It was ‘watermelon’ flavored. Shi then offered it to Nova; who smelled it, then gave it a lick, and shivered.

A knock on the open door caused them all to jump a little as Neal called around the corner, "Nova, this is Captain Foster. May I come in?"

Nova was shaking and unable to speak, but shi looked at CalmMeadow and nodded.

CalmMeadow told Neal he could enter. He did so slowly, so as not to upset the cubs any more than necessary. He knelt next to Nova, his eyes never leaving hir face. Shi spoke first. "I’m sorry," shi whispered, the tears flowing freely.

"For what?" Neal gently asked.

"I couldn’t help them!"

"Your parents?"

Shi nodded. "I could hear them dying, but I couldn’t leave the little ones."

"Your parents would be very proud of you. I know I am. You kept the little ones alive. If you had tried to help your parents, you would have left the little ones with no one to care for them. They wouldn’t have lasted long without you."

"B-but, I ran out of milk-water!"

"They had what you did give them to keep them going long enough for my kids to find you. That’s all that matters."

"Your kids?"

"CalmMeadow and Mike are just two of my kids. Midnight and Rosepetal are two very good friends of mine. They would never hurt you or yours."

Neal then placed his hands on hir shaking shoulders. "I am taking responsibility for you and the little ones. You are relieved, understood?"

Nova nodded, then shi slowly slumped in CalmMeadow’s arms, dead to the world.

CalmMeadow stared up at Neal in disbelief. "How did you do that?" shi demanded.

Neal gave hir a small smile. "I’ve known Nova almost all hir life. At seven, shi tried sneaking into Foxtrot while I was offloading cargo. Since I was in no hurry, I let hir look around the Folly for a few hours before I ‘found’ hir and dragged hir back to hir parents. My rapping out tunes to make it easier to find me was just one of the games I played with hir and the other kids." Neal grew somber. "The reason shi wouldn’t calm down for you was hir sire probably told hir shi was in charge of the cubs. Both hir parents were marines, so shi has more of an understanding of discipline than most kids hir age. So, until I relieved hir, shi thought of the cubs as still being hir responsibility, and shi felt shi couldn’t ‘stand down’."

Midnight and Rosepetal had entered the room as Neal was talking to Nova. Neal handed the two smallest to Midnight. He was handing one to Rosepetal, when she asked, "But shi would ‘stand down’ for you."

Neal closed her arms around the cub and held them for a moment as he met her eyes. "If you told Kayla to guard Ember, and she never again saw or heard from any one she knew, do you think she would relax her guard for just any stranger?"

Rosepetal just stared at him, and then slowly shook her head.

Releasing her, Neal said, "Same difference. It would take a very long time for someone to earn her trust, unless she had already known them from before." Neal then picked up the fourth cub and told DarkStreak to follow him. As they left the sickbay, he asked Mike to help CalmMeadow carry Nova.

The group headed for the main living section of the Folly, where Weaver had converted one of the rooms into a nursery.

After getting their guests settled, Neal debriefed Canner and the rest of his crew, paying special attention to the scan data Mike and Zhanch had collected.

Looking at Boyce, he sighed softly. "Well, we’ve found some pirates, but this isn’t the way I wanted to do it." At Boyce’s frowned agreement, Neal continued, "At this point, my ‘suggested’ orders from Star Fleet are to release command of the carriers and their escort, and let them get on with the hunt. Since you’re the ranking officer out here, you of course have the option to ‘commandeer’ them if you wish."

Boyce nodded. "Let me go over the data and think about it. I’ll give you my decision tomorrow morning."

Dinner that evening on the Folly was a quiet event, CalmMeadow was staying with Nova so shi wouldn’t wake up alone. Moonglow was feeding the little ones while Holly and Quickdash helped feed DarkStreak and Spitfire, a small red and black tiger striped three-year-old chakat. Neal appeared to be deep in thought, all but oblivious to the food and quiet talk around him.

Weaver finally nudged his elbow. "What are you thinking so hard about?"

"What to do about Nova and the little ones. I’ll check, but I’m pretty sure that most – if not all of their kin were on that station. If I had come up on that station by myself, I might have missed them in the attack. Even if I had found them, they would have been a handful without all the help the rest of you are giving them."

Weaver smiled. "Are they really any different from Stormy? We seem to be taking good care of hir; what’s five more and an older sister? There’s more, isn’t there?"

Neal let out a long sigh. "This also ends my control of the carriers and their destroyer escort. I had control of them while we were searching for pirates, now that we have found a nest; they are out of my hands. Boyce can always cut them new orders and take them under his control, or he can leave them as a separate command. The Folly can hang around for another week or so, but then we will have to continue our deliveries. And without those extra hands, Charlie and Delta are done delivering."

"We can fly them!" Nightsky exclaimed. "Most of us have passed the tests you set up."

Neal sighed. "It’s not that I don’t trust you to fly them, it’s that I won’t take the risk of you going out with just a skeleton crew. And while you could fill one of them, it won’t be enough to handle all the stops that were needed for that plan to work. Never mind the fact that I am going to want a few more Zulus to help take out anything that tries to attack."

"So how are you going to get that first contact group?"

Holly and Quickdash both sang out, "We can take Gulf!"

Neal gave them a calculated look. "Who is this ‘we’ you’re talking about?" he asked with a frown. "First, there’s the problem that there’s still a lot of work to be done before she’s ready for trials, never mind a long flight. Plus it looks like I would need to be in two places at once, on the Folly, and Gulf. You see the contact team will be expecting me, not a bunch of furry brats."

Weaver looked up from feeding Starblazer. "Are you saying you don’t think we could run the Folly while you get the contact team?"

"No, love, but if I do take Gulf and leave you to mind the store, we are going to have to decide who stays and who goes. When she’s finished, Gulf will be able to handle about eighty taur-sized people. But I’m picking up fifty, plus however many kids they may have had over the last five years." Looking her in the eye he smiled as he added, "Would you like to decide who stays behind to help you run the Folly?" At her dirty look, Neal grinned. "Now you see my dilemma."

Mike smiled. "CalmMeadow and I will be staying behind to help with Nova and the little ones. And you will have no choice but to take Moonglow and Firestorm. With you going and Weaver staying, your biggest issue will be the twins. Weaver won’t want to part with them, but at the same time they’ve put so much work into Gulf, that it will be hard for the two of you to tell them no."

Sharing a look of resignation with Weaver, Neal sighed. "Well, that’s still a little ways off. Tomorrow we find out what Boyce has decided, and we’ll go from there."

Boyce had decided to leave the other ships as an independent command. So with their group about to split three ways, Neal had called all the quartermasters together to top off each ship’s consumables. Then, there was one last meeting with the captains before they went their separate ways. Neal loaned the carriers four of his baby Zulus. They could use the scouts to improve their chances of finding the pirates, as well as defending the carriers if needed. They would return to a preloaded location for Neal to pick up when the carriers release them, or if they ran low on fuel.

All the ships had received sensor upgrades while with the Folly, but the modifications were not recorded in their logs. The reason that Neal requested they not log the upgrades, nor record any of the things they had learned from the Folly was simple – while he trusted these particular Star Fleet personnel, Neal did not trust all of Star Fleet. Each of the engineers had been shown how to put their systems back to Star Fleet specifications. This was particularly hard on Sparks. Shi was ready to write a few books with all the ideas shi had gotten from working on Gulf. Neal had taken pity on hir and given hir a data pad he said shi could use. Shi had been confused by the gift until shi tried to use it. While shi could transfer information to the pad’s memory, shi couldn’t transfer any information out of it. Hir next surprise came when shi tried to hand the pad to someone else; the pad would instantly shut down.

After declaring themselves mates, Whitetail had decided to stay with Derikk on the Pegasus. Since her Star Fleet status was still up in the air, Rosepetal had simply logged her in as Derikk’s dependant.

They had received a surprise when they went to the marine barracks. The old gunny sergeant had demanded to know if the rumors of them being mates were true. When they had said yes, the other marines had jumped them. Tied and blindfolded, they were carried up and down the Pegasus’ passageways. Finally they were gently dropped, and they heard a door close.

A few minutes work freed them of their bonds. Looking around they found they had been placed in a small but neat cabin, usually reserved for single officers or couples. Derikk’s things had already been moved in, while Whitetail’s bags were sitting on the larger than standard bed. A card on the desk welcomed the new couple. Behind the card was a Pegasus comm badge for Whitetail, and a dual charging stand for a non-Star Fleet type of badge. One slot was empty, the other contained a shadowed ‘F’ badge that Neal used for the ‘Folly’. The note with the charging base told Derikk that he was now considered part of the family, and just as Whitetail, he had a few privileges he could call on when needed.

Shadowchaser and hir mate Redfoot had also received comm badges, Neal having updated them since Shadowchaser received hir last one. At hir mate’s look of confusion, Shadowchaser explained why she should always keep the badge close at hand. Not only did the badge let them talk with those on the Folly, it also would link to other ships that Neal had a standing agreement with. At Shadowchaser’s last count, there were over thirty ships that the badge could get hir free passage to wherever they were heading. Most bases that Neal dealt with would also accept the badge as proof that the bearer was one of Neal’s associates, and would put room and food billings on the Folly’s tab.

After all the run-up to get everything ready to run three ships at once, the pace after the Folly left the other ships behind was more than a little anti-climactic. There was still plenty to do, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere near as much rush to get things done.

Between stops, Neal split his time between working on Gulf and making a few more Zulus. With all the kids getting proficient at using the Zulus, Neal had decided he would have each of them controlling one, while Tess handled the extras.

Raksha was a major stop for the Folly, so Neal had decided to use both Alpha and Baker to get everyone and the first pair of the heavily loaded pods down. Once grounded, they ran into an unplanned snag. No cargo transfers were being done. It was as if they had come in during some type of celebration. While Neal led everyone to a quiet break area, Dessa went to find out what was going on.

Dessa came back to the group, almost bouncing on her toes, she was so excited. "A Traveler’s festival just started a few hours ago. That explains why they aren’t moving any cargo for the next few days! With the Rakshan fertility festival having started yesterday, the deities will be stirring up more trouble than usual."

"More than you know," Neal said with a small grin. "Tell the kids your people’s tale of ‘The Traveler’, if you would please."

Dessa smiled. "Many years ago, one of our deities decided that she wanted to see what was going on beyond of our world. It’s said that she could leave under her own power, but that she wouldn’t be able to find her way back. Then she discovered she could ride a ship to faraway places, and return to tell her fellow deities what she had learned. Throughout her festival, children will carry treats though the crowds for space travelers to ask for. It’s said one of them will be her next ‘ride’ to the stars."

Staring at Dessa with wide eyes, Quickdash asked, "How long is the Traveler’s festival?"

"Until she leaves on her next journey." Kestrel answered for her.

That’s the tale," Neal agreed quietly, "but not quite the truth." Neal’s grin widened as all his Rakshani companions turned as one to stare at him. "The truth would be that she takes on the form of one of those children, and she offers her ‘ride to be’ her treat. If they accept, she rides with them until they bring her home. If they decline, she either stays home or finds another ride."

With her eyes wide in astonishment, Dessa demanded, "Where did you hear that?"

Neal smiled. "I didn’t."


Continued in Chapter 5.

Copyright © 2005 Allen Fesler – Redbear1158@hotmail.com

Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.

Admiral Boyce Garald Kline Jr, Rosepetal, Zhane and family are copyright Boyce Garald Kline Jr and used with his permission.

( 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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