Tales of the Folly
By Allen Fesler
Book One: The Curse
Chapter 7

Shi woke slowly, as sensations started to register on hir mind. Opening hir eyes, shi found hirself on a taur pad in the middle of the Folly’s main lounge. Neal lay nearby; a couple of small med units softly hummed behind him, suggesting that at some time in the recent past he had sustained injuries. Lying next to his hip was Spitfire, with Stormy and Star all but wrapped around the larger cub. Raising hir upper torso, shi thought it seemed to take more effort that it should. LongSock and Weaver were in front of hir, Weaver smiled as she saw hir stir.

"How do you feel?" she softly asked.

"A little strange," shi replied, "and everything looks smaller."

There was a snort, then a groan from Neal as the snort jarred something tender. "Look down," he suggested, a small grin trying to show on his bruised face.

With a raised eyebrow, shi lowered hir muzzle. The other eyebrow joined the first as shi stared down at hirself. Shi finally raised hir head and looked first at Weaver, and then to Neal. "Okay," shi acknowledged, barely whispering, "Those are bigger."

"Do you remember what happened?" Weaver softly asked hir.

"The carrier stacks were tipping over and, in the rush, Spitfire got loose. I grabbed hir and was chasing after the twins…" Shadowcrest quickly checked hir paw, where a childhood accident had left a fine scar and a thin line of white fur. Not finding it, shi looked at Neal. "I was processed!" shi said in surprise, "I thought it was just a dream."

"And what does the process do?" Neal quietly asked.

"It makes you younger, taller, and bigger!" shi said, hir voice cracking.

"Calm down and try again," Neal suggested. "If you were any younger than you were, your body would be too young have any breasts at all."

"Best potential of the DNA, body age reset to early adulthood," shi whispered, remembering how shi had heard Neal describe it to others. Stormy had crawled over to hir, requesting to be held. Picking up hir little sister, Shadowcrest was amazed at how small shi seemed to have gotten. Giving Stormy a gentle cuddle, shi slowly started to accept that the others hadn’t shrunk, shi had grown, and not just a little. "Just how big am I?" shi asked, not sure shi really wanted to know.

"Do you remember that full sized holodeck image I have of Snowfall?" Neal asked. When shi nodded, he smiled. "Tess tells me you would look down to look hir in the eye. Not by much, just a few centimeters or so. You are also a little wider across the beam – among other places."

"The other chakats you processed, did they all end up like this?" shi wondered, trying to imagine the Folly’s corridors crowded with very large, very busty chakats. And then a giggle escaped, as shi tried to imagine Neal getting any work done in that type of environment.

Neal smiled. Hir finding humor in the situation was a good sign that shi was starting to get used to the idea that things had changed for hir. "Most of them did get bigger, though only a few got as busty as you. And there were a few vixens that would have made you look underdeveloped."

Weaver quietly added, "Have you noticed anything else?" When shi shook hir head, she smiled. "Well, I for one seem to recall our Rakshani friends spending a few days relearning how to move and talk. You don’t seem to be having any of those problems."

Shadowcrest looked down at the paw shi wasn’t holding Stormy with. Shi slowly flexed the digits and fully extended hir claws. Other than it feeling like shi was using a little more effort to move them, they felt fine and were under hir complete control. Brushing hir thumb across hir finger pads, shi thought that they might be a little more sensitive.

Remembering that the others had also said it was a day or more before they could see straight, shi looked at Neal.

He nodded. "Several things were different about your processing. You didn’t need any heart or lung assistance, and Tess tells me you were processed in just over two minutes, compared to Zhanch’s ten."

"I… I had a dream," shi whispered. "I could see my body." Looking at Neal, shi continued, "I couldn’t see you."

"I was detained," Neal admitted, "I just got there in time to see you being transported out."

Looking around the room, shi suddenly realized that everyone else was with them. "The rest of you were in a big hug."

Weaver’s eyebrows shot up. "But we didn’t get there until after the stasis field was up!"

"I know," shi agreed, "I was looking through the stasis field. And I wasn’t alone." To their surprised stares, shi described the deity and their conversation. Shi ended it looking at Neal as shi said, "She said she gave me her treat that day, not you."

Weaver was first to break the silence that followed, "But I saw the child give Neal a treat, he shared it with her!" looking a little confused she added, "She gave each of us one."

Neal let out a long sigh before he answered, "Well. That might help explain a few things." At Weaver’s growl, he snorted. "No love, I wasn’t holding back. Well not much anyway, I just didn’t know for sure until now."

"Didn’t know what?" Weaver demanded.

Neal carefully shook his head. "In all the years that the traveler has offered me her treat, no one has ever seemed to notice. With Chase’s group, she could walk right up to me, we would share her treat, trade a word or three, and then she would leave. The others never saw or heard a thing. After the child was well out of sight, they could smell what I had eaten on my breath and would wonder how I had snagged and eaten something without them noticing."

"Were they ever offered treats?" Weaver wondered. When Neal shook his head, she asked, "So what do you think it means?"

"From Rakshan folklore, as well as what the traveler has told me over the years, she only offers her treat to one person of the ship she wishes to travel on. Any crewmember or passenger will do, and the stories say that she can jump ship at any port if she chooses to do so."

Weaver frowned. "So why would she give us each a treat if she never has before?"

Shadowcrest’s head jerked up as shi said, "She didn’t!" a little calmer, shi added, "The deity that shared Neal’s treat wasn’t the one that gave me her treat."

Are you saying there’s more than one?"

"That might explain some of the strange things the little ones have been doing," Nova said slowly. "I know most cubs go through phases where they talk and play with imaginary friends, but they actually seem to be learning from these friends."

Moonglow nodded. "I had thought they seemed to be behaving better since Raksha, maybe they’ve been getting some coaching."

Shortdash and Quickwind were staring at each other, their mouths half open. Weaver chuckled. "You two as well?" she asked with a grin. "I was with LongSock when another child offered him a treat."

Bonita was shaking her head. "I’ve never heard anything to suggest that more than one of the deities was a traveler. And why would more than one of them want to visit the same place?"

Most of the eyes in the room zeroed in on Neal as Zhanch said, "Maybe they know something interesting is to occur before the Folly’s next visit to Raksha."

"Just finish this run, see how my colonies are doing and set up a couple more," was all Neal admitted to.

"All of which you’ve done before without stirring up the deities!" Bonita exclaimed.

"That you know of," Neal pointed out. "The offering of treats is just her way of asking permission. She has never said she had to…"

"There’s more to it, isn’t there?" Weaver asked.

"Well," Neal said, as if thinking out loud, "a few Rakshani have requested some space at one of the new colonies."

Kestrel snorted. "This from someone who compares the ocean to being damp! What is your definition of ‘a few’?"

"Just a few," Neal answered. As she continued staring at him, he added, "hundred," this was followed by a longer pause. Kestrel was opening her mouth when Neal said, "thousand."

"Well?" she snapped, "What is it? A few hundred? Or a few thousand?"

"Yes," Neal agreed, with a small smile.

As Kestrel growled at him, Zhanch was looking at him in wonder. She asked, "Just where did you find a few hundred thousand Rakshani willing to follow you? And how the hell are you going to move them?"

"It seems that there are more than a few Rakshani looking for something challenging to do. A fight if you will, even if it is just against what is currently an uninhabited planet."

"Colonizing a planet can’t be that much of a challenge," Zhanch said with a headshake.

"There’s a strong chance that once known about, others might try to take it from them. Would that discourage or encourage your average Rakshani?" Neal asked with a small grin.

"If you offered it to them that way, you couldn’t keep them away," Bonita said, watching Neal carefully. "Why would others want it?"

"For the same reason ‘Amazonia’ has been a battleground for all these years. While different, the plant and animal life there is almost as diverse. That alone will have bioengineering and pharmaceutical companies fighting over who gets what. I figured things might be a little more orderly if a large group of well-armed Rakshani were calling the place their new home."

Zhanch nodded. "That’s why your latest Zulus are built to handle Rakshani easily. And these spheres will become the station protecting that planet."

Bonita frowned. "Our people could control and protect such a planet, but we couldn’t use it properly…"

SharpTongue gently coughed, "A number of Caitians have also been offered permission to share the planet with the Rakshani. Those with the needed skills are allowed to bring as many family members as they would like."

"How many?" Zhanch wondered.

SharpTongue shrugged. "The total was over four hundred thousand the last time we were at Cait. By now their numbers might match that of the Rakshani."

"Could that be why the deities are onboard?" Weaver wondered, "To be with their ‘children’ on their new world?"

A growing purr made itself known before anyone could speculate further.

Stormy had decided that shi wanted more than just a cuddle. Smelling a new scent on hir big sister, shi shifted to where shi could give hir a ‘milk check’.

Shadowcrest didn’t think anything of it at first, shi had been milk checked before by the little ones. They would give hir a pleasant feeling by teasing a nipple for a minute or two before looking for someone with milk to offer. This time shi was stunned by how much more sensitive hir nipple was, and then shi felt a muscle behind hir nipple relax. As the greedy cub began to nurse in earnest, Shadowcrest found hir pleasure increasing. A nudge at hir other breast woke hir to the fact that Starblazer also wanted some refreshment. Shi moved hir other arm to help support her, and soon had both nipples occupied. Hir eyes slowly closed as shi was lost in the pleasure of feeding the cubs. Shi never even realized shi was purring.

Weaver smiled. "I thought they weren’t normally interested in milk-water."

"So we’ve noticed," Shortdash said. Looking at Neal, shi asked, "Another effect of the process?"

"Not sure," Neal said, looking troubled. "It just seems to happen to about ten percent of the females and herms."

Noticing Neal’s reluctance to mention it, shi asked, "What aren’t you telling us? Is there a problem?"

Neal’s frown deepened for a moment, only to lighten as he watched Shadowcrest enjoy feeding the little ones for the first time. Looking over at Shortdash, he said, "Other than a few that had been dedicated wet nurses, all the other milk producing furs were pregnant by the end of their first heat."

Staring at Shadowcrest in a new light, Shortdash murmured, "I can see how that might cause you some concern."

"Hir parents are already going to be displeased that I got their daughter injured badly enough to need processing. Somehow I don’t think adding a young one on the way will help."

"It wasn’t your fault they were trashing the cargo," Mike quietly pointed out from where he sat with CalmMeadow.

"That’s not what he means," Shortdash said with a snort. "He has accepted responsibility for all of you. So anything wrong, real or imagined, will be his fault in the eyes of your parents."

"Not mine," Mike said with a grin. "As soon as they knew I wasn’t coming back anytime soon, they dumped my junk in storage, rented out the house, and mom started riding the long-hauler with dad." He gave a small snort as he added, "That’s how they met years ago. It turns out that they were just waiting for me to ‘fly the coop’ so they could go back to riding together. The only thing that surprised my dad was how far I ‘flew’," he finished with a chuckle.

CalmMeadow smiled. "We’ve sent our families word of us becoming denmates and adopted parents. While my mom might see it as more of Neal’s bad influence, my sire will probably take it in stride."

"Did you send them the recording?" Neal asked.

CalmMeadow smiled as shi nodded. "We started the record from when Suzan rolled out the cake. We sent it to the group. Not only so all of them could see how everyone is doing, but so they would be there to help support my parents when they find out what I’ve been up to."

"The group?" Kestrel asked.

Shortdash chuckled. "For want of a better name, ‘the group’ is made up of the parents of Neal’s stowaways." Looking again at Neal, shi wondered yet again if he had planned for it to happen from the start. "We were all called together to be told that our cubs had snuck aboard a starship and hadn’t been discovered until the ship was well underway. The data packs we each received had all the cubs as well as their parents’ names. We ended up getting together once a week or so, a cross between a support group and a rumor mill." Nodding at LongSock, shi continued, "He was the odd one out, since he was without both his mate and cubs. Quickwind and I more or less took him in. That is how we knew Neal was planning a little surprise and added ourselves to it."

Shi was so absorbed in the new feelings the cubs were giving hir, Shadowcrest had barely heard the discussion around hir. After the first minute of bliss, shi had realized shi could feel the cubs enjoying hir milk. Shi could actually taste hir milk, and experience their contentment as it filled their bellies.

Shi found shi could feel some of the other cubs being fed as well, Nova, and CalmMeadow were both nursing a cub. While each was projecting calm and love at their cub, Shadowcrest could feel the underlying emotions of fear and anger.

With what felt like no effort at all, shi found hirself probing deeper. Shi then tried to recoil from the storm of emotions shi found in each of them, but was unable to back out. Still fresh in their minds was the crashing of the falling carriers, Spitfire’s screams and mental blasts of fear and pain. They had rounded the last carrier to find Quickdash and Holly clutching the three little ones, trying the give them a calm they couldn’t find in themselves. As if that raw wash of emotions wasn’t enough, there was their memory of that thing just beyond the twins. Even having seen it in the dream, Shadowcrest couldn’t bring hirself to think of that form as belonging to hir. It lay there where it had fallen, looking awkwardly like a limp doll that a cub had tossed partway into a toy box before slamming the lid closed.

As shi tried to disengage from their minds, thought associations brought the others to mind, bringing their thoughts, hopes and fears to hir as well. The storm only intensified, sweeping away what little control shi had left.

With hir physical contact, Firestorm was the first to react to Shadowcrest’s mental turmoil. When a nip on a nipple didn’t get hir attention, Stormy pushed away and cried out for help.

Reacting to Stormy’s cry, Shortdash tried a gentle probe of Shadowcrest's emotional state, only to be blasted by the overload of feedback. Feeling hir mate’s shock at what shi had stumbled into, Quickwind hugged Shortdash to hir, as shi tried to shield hir mate from whatever was causing hir distress.

Neal had been about to ask Stormy what was wrong when everything seemed to suddenly go silent. It wasn’t a silence of sound, but of mind. Until it was gone, he hadn’t even noticed the growing mental noise, nor the headache that it had started to give him. The chakats suddenly found themselves unable to sense each other, only feeling those that they were in physical contact with.

Weaver watched as Stormy rushed over to Neal, while Star climbed into her arms for a hug. Meanwhile, Shadowcrest tried to curl hirself into a ball, hir arms trying to protect hir head, the end of hir tail twitching wildly. Looking at all the agitated chakats, she asked, "What’s wrong? Is shi alright?"

Quickwind was the first to reply. "From what little my mate got, Shadowcrest was being overpowered by our emotions." Looking at Weaver shi said, "Shi seems to have gained hir adult sensitivity without having the time to grow into it. It was a good thing Neal had Tess isolate hir from us with her fields."

"Wasn’t me," Neal said as he calmed Stormy. "Tess?"

There was a moment of silence before she replied, "I received orders to set up fields in a blanket pattern across this room. But nowhere do my records show me receiving them."

Neal gave a soft snort, as he said, "Don’t blow a fuse looking for the logic. You can turn off the fields not protecting Shadowcrest."

"Yes boss. Do I put this under ‘traveler’s logic’?"

"No. I think you need to open a new folder labeled ‘deities’. Place it in there for now."

Shortdash had recovered slightly from Shadowcrest’s overload; shi now crawled over to hir, being careful not to touch hir. "Shadowcrest? Shady? Stop trying, just relax and listen to my voice…"

Watching Shortdash try to calm Shadowcrest, Weaver edged over to Neal and asked, "What actually happened just now?"

"Do you remember the first time you ‘borrowed’ my ear plugs?"

Weaver shivered, her ears having been blasted by a volume setting Neal considered ‘low’.

"Same difference," he agreed, "except shi can’t dig those loud voices out and throw them across the room."

"What can we do for hir?"

"The screens will keep hir from getting any more feedback from us, but that may not be enough. If Shortdash and Quickwind can’t bring hir down, we may have to sedate hir." At Weaver’s raised eyebrows, he explained, "Shi’s like a terrified child, clutching the controls of a runaway vehicle. Shi has to let go of the throttle to slow the vehicle, but hir panic is keeping hir from releasing it."

They watched as Quickwind moved to be beside hir mate. Shi then asked Tess to screen them from the rest of the room. Shi wrapped hir arms around hir mate, keeping hir mental contact with Shortdash as the fields blocked out the rest of the room.

Shortdash continued trying to calm Shadowcrest as the others faded from hir senses. Once hir mate was in position and mentally prepared, shi gently laid hir arm against Shadowcrest’s.

Projecting all the calm shi could bring to bear, Shortdash slowly and gently pushed into the storm that raged in Shadowcrest’s mind.

For a minute, Shadowcrest’s erratic tail seemed to be the only movement in the room.

Stormy started to climb out from under Neal’s hand and head toward Shadowcrest, only to be stopped by Neal’s gentle grasp of hir tail. "Not now Stormy. Let them try to calm hir first,"

Stormy tugged again, and was rewarded with a quiet ‘no’. Turning around to face Neal, shi extended a single claw and placed it on the hand holding hir tail. Shi slowly added pressure until Neal took notice of the discomfort. The eyes that returned his look were too level and steady to belong to an eight month old cub.

After meeting hir gaze for a moment, Neal nodded as he released hir tail. "Be careful," he said, "both of you."

Giving Neal a slow nod, the little chakat turned and moved over to Shadowcrest. Shi sat down next to Shady’s head, then laid down and rolled onto hir side so hir back laid against the back of hir big sister’s head.

Looking very startled, Dessa asked, "Did what I think just happened, happen?"

Still watching Stormy, Neal slowly replied, "If you think you just saw a deity prove that they can inhabit and take over beings other than Rakshani, I think we did."

"Why?" Weaver asked, still watching Stormy, who seemed to have fallen asleep.

"Perhaps because a younger mind is more flexible to the idea of letting someone else take over for a short while. Why Stormy? They should know by now how well shi and I know each other, so they knew I would feel more than just Stormy just now."

"Can we trust them?" LongSock wondered.

"I think so. They’ve been onboard for over a month now, and they don’t seem to have caused too much trouble." Watching Shadowcrest’s tail slow down to the slow and gentle twitch of a sleeping chakat, Neal added, "Unless of course you consider them playing with the little ones to be trouble."

"Or the possibility that they may have helped get a few of your mates pregnant," CalmMeadow pointed out.

"Considering that was what some of us wanted, I don’t think you can count that as causing trouble," Zhanch said with a grin. Both she and Bonita had caught, leaving Dessa as the only non-pregnant Rakshani onboard.

As LongSock rubbed Weaver’s lower belly, he smiled in acknowledgement. SharpTongue chuckled as she winked at Suzan. "Six little ones on the way," she said with a grin. "They should help keep him from finding time to get into trouble."

"Don’t count on it," Weaver said, grinning at Neal. "He seems to have a knack at being in the middle of things."

Pulling a small bottle out of her belt pouch, Bonita said, "Speaking of him being in the middle of things, this was from one of the broken crates. It caught my eye because it didn’t match any of the others." She handed Neal the bottle.

Neal gave a fair imitation of a pissed Rakshani’s growl when he read the label. Without being asked, Tess scanned the bottle and confirmed that the label matched the contents.

"Tess, confirm that was from one of the pods that was loaded exclusively with carriers from Raynor," he asked.

"Confirmed, boss. We still have two more pods from Raynor to drop."

"Detailed scan, Tess. I want every bottle of this crap removed from their carriers."

"Order accepted and started boss. It will take me several hours to check each pod. What do you want me to do with what I find?"

"Find an empty carrier in internal storage, place them there."

"Yes boss."

"What’s so special about that bottle?" Weaver asked.

"One, this drug in it isn’t on their manifest. Two, the main source of the drug is Amazonia. Three, Raynor knows I refuse to ship drugs from Amazonia."

"Are they illegal?"

"No. But in the Federation they are supposed to be carefully controlled. This drug and others like it are the main reason for the fighting on Amazonia. When I was told that I would not be allowed to ship aid to the war beasts, I told them I wouldn’t be assisting the pharmaceutical company either. Which means I don’t ship their drugs out, and I don’t ship in weapons for them to use against the war beasts."

"Amazonia?" LongSock asked.

"Also known as Pizarro 419C," Shortdash said. Looking at Neal, shi asked, "Where are you getting your data? I knew there was an ongoing conflict with Star Fleet involvement, but your database has a very different spin on it then what I’ve seen in the Star Corps reports."

"A few baby Zulus once the Folly was no longer welcomed in that area of space, chats with a few people that have been there, and a little digging through Star Fleet records by some of my kids." Neal’s frown deepened as he continued, "The bare bones is a very large, very well connected drug company wants what Amazonia has to offer, but they don’t want to share the profits with the war beasts that have lived there for the last hundred years or so. So they got Star Fleet involved as ‘peacekeepers’." Neal snorted. "Star Fleet hasn’t been allowed to escalate it into a war as that would then kick the company out of the war zone. So you have both Star Fleet and the war beasts bleeding for a drug company’s gain."

SharpTongue said, "Surely something can be done!"

Shortdash shook hir head, remembering what Neal’s notes had hinted at. "I don’t know, but if Neal’s data is correct, then parts of the Federation Council are in on it to a certain extent. And there is pressure from the council to keep Star Fleet in the mix at a less than optimal level."

"The Federation Council wouldn’t stand for others being treated that way!" LongReach exclaimed.

Shortdash snorted as shi replied, "What if they’re getting the same reports as the Star Corps gave us? The spin doctors have done a good job at having everyone see just what they want them to see."

"Could the same group be responsible for the edited news from New Kiev?" Nova wondered from where shi sat with Mike and CalmMeadow.

"A page from the same book perhaps. But if it is the same group, they screwed up badly." Weaver said with a snort.

"How so?" shi asked.

"By giving it to the general public, they can’t control the response. The shuttle instructor and his family didn’t see the news about New Kiev, so they didn’t have a problem with Neal. On the other paw, if we hadn’t been with him in the diner, it could have gotten ugly."

"Not to mention he wouldn’t have known about the drugs if those workers hadn’t started tipping carriers." Bonita added.

"I would trade that knowledge for the old Shadowcrest," Neal mumbled.

"We could feel your friends calming hir down, but for some reason I got the impression that they can’t stay with hir all the time." Shortdash said.

"Can’t they fix hir?" Holly asked.

"Shi not really broken, just a little too strong." At her confused look Shortdash smiled. "Just like Quickdash needing training to help hir learn how to not overwhelm you. Right now Shadowcrest is so sensitive that we overwhelm hir."

"Shi will need training to help hir control hir abilities," Quickwind agreed.

Neal frowned as he asked; "You were talking about training Quickdash and Holly, could you add Shadowcrest to you class?"

"No," Quickwind said, "This is more than just hir overly sensitive empathic talent." Shi looked at Neal. "Shi wasn’t just overwhelmed by our feelings, but by our thoughts as well. One of the thoughts we saw clearly was from you. You were trying to convince yourself that there was nothing better to have tried. I am curious about where you had seen a tailless chakat with a set of wheels in place of hir hind legs."

Neal shuddered. "A very long time ago. Shi had been caught in a rockslide on a frontier world. Being as stubborn as most chakats, shi had insisted that shi could still work. The wheels gave hir enough mobility to not be a burden on the others, and do quite a bit around their campsite. By the time the Folly visited them, shi didn’t see them as enough of a reason to leave."

"Did you offer to process hir?"

"No. That was before Shadowchaser’s group, so I didn’t even know I could use the process on others at the time. Plus, there would have been the minor issue of hir being three months pregnant. I still don’t know what would occur if I tried to process someone in that state. Would we lose the unborn cub? Or after Shady’s process - would we end up with an adult sized infant?"

"Some things are better left undiscovered," Weaver murmured.

"So if you don’t think that you two are up to the task, what do you suggest?" Neal asked.

"We have a couple of skunktaur friends currently stationed at Port Kepler on Chakona. Since Quickdash has also been doing a little mind reading, we were planning on asking their advice on an instructor."

"That’s at least three weeks travel time with all the stops we need to make. That doesn’t count the next four or five more days transferring cargo at Big Sur, Melbourne and Cape York. So call it a month before we get there." Neal sighed, "I can’t safely keep hir screened that long, no input can be as bad as too much." Neal laid back, looking for answers on the ceiling for a moment before continuing, "Tess. Start preparing Charlie for a little trip. No cargo, three Zulus, five scouts, and one of the personnel shuttles." Looking around the room, he said, "I would like at least six volunteers to take Charlie to Chakona."

"I take it there will be some ‘non-volunteers’?" Weaver asked with a raised eyebrow.

Neal nodded, "Holly, Quickdash, and Shadowcrest need the help. Quickwind and Shortdash have the contacts. I want at least six ship handlers, anyone else can go or not as they please."

"Won’t that leave you a bit short on crew for the Folly?" Shortdash asked.

Neal grinned. "I’m used to running her all by my lonesome, I think I can handle her."

Weaver smiled at Holly as she said, "LongSock and I will stay behind to help keep Neal out of trouble."

"As will I," Dessa said, nodding at Zhanch.

"Charlie has replicators, so they won’t be needing me," Stew said with a smile.

Moonglow shook hir head. "With Stormy’s dependence on Neal, I’m not leaving the Folly."

"We can help fly Charlie," Holly pointed out.

"I know. That’s why I only asked for six," Neal agreed.

An annoyed voice from the center of the room growled, "I’m staying!"

The others had failed to notice that Shadowcrest was awake again, and shi was a little perturbed that they were planning hir future without hir input.

Neal let out a quiet sigh, "I’m sorry, little one, but you need more help then we can give you. My choices are leaving you behind, or rushing you to the Folly’s next major stop."

"You’re a fine one to talk!" shi huffed, "You should be in sickbay, tied to one of the beds. You’re using the pain from your other injuries to mask your broken rib and the torn ligaments in your back and right leg!"

Neal ignored the dirty looks his mates were giving him, and watched Shadowcrest as he said, "Okay, I’ll spend the next three days running this ship from sickbay if you board Charlie without any complaints."

"No deal. You promised you wouldn’t force any of us off the Folly against our will, and I’m holding you to it!"

Neal opened his mouth for a rebuttal, but Shadowcrest wasn’t done yet. "This is not an emergency! You don’t have to rush me anywhere, I can handle my little problem until we get there." A little calmer shi added, "I know you were given the pain killers that make you more than a little loopy. Before Tess dropped her screens on me, I got a pretty good read on everyone. The only person you’ve been fooling with your act is yourself, the others have been waiting for you to nod off so they could put you to bed. Father, let them put you to bed, I promise not to go crazy before you wake up."

Neal snorted lightly. Moonglow had given him a second dose of the painkillers just before Shadowcrest had awakened the first time, and shi was right, he was more than a little out of it.

Weaver also snorted. They had almost lulled Neal to sleep when Shadowcrest woke up, that added excitement had given him what had to be at least his third ‘second wind’. She waited now to see if he would continue to fight, or if he would give in. She gave a sigh of relief when he made a throwing away gesture with his hand.

"We’ll discuss this tomorrow," he agreed.

To show that she supported the decision as well, the doors opened and one of the computer controlled gurneys rolled in.

As it rolled to a stop next to him, Neal gave Tess’s pickup a small grin. "Et tu Brute?"

"Short of us being under attack, I would have been ignoring your orders as well boss. Let them help you up and I’ll do the rest," Tess said as the gurney lowered itself nearly to the floor.

Dessa and Moonglow carefully lifted him onto the gurney; an easy leap had Stormy join him. Moonglow was exasperated that Neal had been able to conceal his other injuries from hir. The painkillers were wearing away at his control, and shi could now sense more of what Shadowcrest had mentioned.

Dessa had been ready to follow them out, when Shadowcrest caught her eye and signaled for her to stay. When the doors closed, she opened her mouth to speak, only to have Shadowcrest shake hir head.

"You can join him in a moment," shi told her. "But first I thought you should know that he doesn’t blame you for his injuries." As Dessa stared at hir, shi grinned. "No, I’m not reading your mind right now, but I did get a little more than I wanted just before Tess set up her fields. Your main concern was that he would reject you for hurting him. You are wrong to worry. Every time Neal feels those aches and pains, he remembers what he saw when you were carrying him to the rest of us. He saw how the carrier had come apart and where the debris landed. He figures his odds of living through that without your help at close to zero." Shadowcrest looked at her carefully for a moment before adding, "The other things I saw are for you to tell, or not to tell, although I think he already knows part of it."

Dessa had remained motionless while Shadowcrest spoke. She now nodded to hir before turning to head for sickbay.

Shadowcrest now turned to the twins, who scooted back a step at hir gaze. Shi snorted softly and shook hir head. "As for you two. No, I am not upset that you froze up and panicked a bit. I’ve got more than an inkling of the pressure you were under, and I think you did pretty well under the circumstances." Shi gave them a grin as shi added, "I would give you both a big hug in thanks, but I don’t think I could handle the contact right now."

"You mean you can’t touch them?" Weaver asked, looking confused.

"I want to, but I don’t dare. Before being processed, I could just sense them and feel their base emotions, handy as a lie detector, or feeling what they meant beyond just their words. What I got earlier was far more than I am used too. Their feelings lead me to their thoughts, and some of their thoughts were about those around them. The associations lead me to the rest of you; your feeling and thoughts quickly overwhelmed me. That’s when Tess dropped her fields over us, but by then I couldn’t find a stopping point."

"We felt some of what you were going through, but I couldn’t get enough of your attention to help," Shortdash said. "Then we felt another presence that seemed to cover you like a blanket."

"That was several of the deities working together. I had another dream-talk with the one who gave me her treat. It seems they improved on the traveler’s ‘process’ as you may have noticed. The problem is they ‘tweaked’ my mental abilities as well. Having never tried it before, they overdid it a bit," Shi said the last part with a small grin before continuing, "She told me they can’t undo it, but they will try to help keep me sane until we can get to someone that can help me."

"Is there anything we can do to help?" Weaver asked.

"All I really need is your love and understanding, the rest is just something I need to learn how to handle."

"One of the other things we saw from your brush with Neal’s mind is probably the reason he’s in a rush to get you to someone who can help. All the furs he’s processed had very strong ‘first’ heats or ruts on their next cycle. And here you are, with no idea when your cycle will start, and no one can touch you."

Shadowcrest shuddered, "I know, I could almost hear the thoughts behind his words. It’s a little spooky, knowing him that well."

"Are you saying you could read him through the field?" LongSock asked, wondering if any of their thoughts would be safe from hir.

Shortdash snorted as shi shook hir head. "No. Shi’s saying that shi inadvertently ended up with a piece of his mind, literally."

"So, do you know all his little secrets now?" Nova asked with a chuckle.

"No. What I got was a lot of little fragments. The right thoughts or word associations can cause them to gel into an idea of where his thoughts might be heading."

"So what do we need to do?" Weaver asked, "How did you plan on handling your cycles if we can’t come in contact with you?"

"If worse comes to worst, I can use one of the holodecks. With luck, the deities might understand what they’ve done well enough to help rein in my abilities." Letting loose a big yawn, shi added, "Let’s sleep on it for now. In the morning we can continue." Shi hesitated a moment before adding, "Oh, wait, there is one more thing. Neal will want to go somewhere in the morning. Knowing that most of us won’t want him leaving, he will probably try to sneak out. Zhanch, you and the other Rakshani should go with him; maybe Quickwind and Shortdash as well."

Weaver snorted as she asked, "Why would we let him loose? Isn’t he banged up enough without going down there again?"

Shadowcrest met her eyes somberly. "It’s something he’s done every time he’s been to Earth. He seems to think it helps keep him sane, going back to something in the past."

"Where will he lead us?" Zhanch asked.

"To visit the Gene War monument," shi replied. "I don’t have enough to understand why he needs it, just that he does."

"Then he shall have it," Zhanch agreed, then she turned to leave.

As they filed out of the lounge, Shadowcrest heard Shortdash tell Zhanch, "Let us know when you are leaving, we will join you."

"If you don’t mind, we’ll keep you company," Weaver said as she and LongSock settled down to rest.

"Thank you," shi said. The lack of any mental contact was making it difficult for hir to relax. A thought intruded into hir mind, almost as if someone had whispered it. Shi snorted softly and grinned, wondering why shi had not thought of it. "Tess? Would it be possible for you to shift my fields to manual control?"

"Of course. How would you like to control them?"

"Voice control override with a second register, the second register will be a memory location you specify. I think the deities are going to vary it as required, you just need to check it every few seconds." Smiling at Weaver shi said, "If I seem to be in trouble, just say ‘full fields’ and Tess will lock me down. My deity friend seems to think they can control my sensitivity long enough to let me get some sleep."

Weaver nodded and settled back down, her head turned so she could check on Shady by just opening her eyes.

Tess dimmed the room to twilight, and added the soft sound of some classical strings to lull them to sleep.

The next morning found Neal moving carefully. Tess’ medical systems having knitted his bones, but most of the muscle damage was still sore. He had already been out when he got to sickbay, so he had no idea who had slept in the other, now-empty bed.

He was only a little surprised to find someone waiting for him to leave sickbay. Kestrel matched his slower pace as he headed for his cabin for fresh clothes.

After he had dressed in something a little heavier than his standard ship wear, she asked, "Did you want breakfast before going down?"

"Down where?" he asked, not remembering mentioning any plans.

"We were told you would want to visit the Gene War monument. Or are you going to put it off for later?"

Neal stopped and stared at her, and then he grew thoughtful. "Shadowcrest," he murmured as he started walking again. "So it wasn’t all a dream, shi was in my mind."

"Shi was momentarily in everyone’s mind from what shi said. That’s what overloaded hir – too many thoughts."

"What else did shi tell you?" he asked as they headed to the galley.

"Only that you would be going downside, with or without us. We would prefer with."

"The last I heard, it was not always a fur-friendly zone," Neal commented.

"Then it is a good thing you will be there to protect us," Kestrel replied, her tone suggesting that them going with him was not open to debate.

Neal snorted. He had planned on having just Tess watch his back with one of her Zulus overhead. But he knew that arguing with Kestrel, or any of his mates for that matter, would be a waste of time.

Most of the others were still eating when they entered the dining area; Stew had set up a breakfast buffet. She now stood behind one of her moveable hotplates, whipping up omelets on request.

Neal noticed that Shadowcrest was sitting in the corner, eating quietly by hirself. Neal also noted the portable field generator wrapped around hir waist, its display lights suggesting the strength of the field was being shifted almost constantly.

Neal nodded at Stew and indicated he just wanted a small omelet. As she poured out the eggs, he gathered a few things from the buffet before sitting down across from Dessa.

Noticing that Dessa was trying to not meet his gaze, Neal reached over and stabbed a piece of fruit off her plate. He then watched Dessa watch him eat it. She made no move to stop him as he stabbed a second piece. Neal then broke open one of the pastries he’d taken from the buffet and poured honey over it. Dessa allowed him to place it in her mouth, as most of the tension left her shoulders.

"I thought taking food off a female’s plate could get a male clawed," Nova commented, having seen just such an incident while they were on Raksha.

"It can and does," Zhanch agreed. "The male is claiming the female is his. Depending on how strongly she disagrees, his life could be at risk. The only males that can safely take a female’s food are her mates, or very close and trusted friends."

Dessa was studying her plate again, so Neal reached out and lifted her chin with a finger. "I was just reminding Dessa that I still consider her my mate. She seems to have thought that saving my life would change that."

Still looking a little worried, Dessa said, "But I injured you by not considering that your body couldn’t handle what I tried to make it do."

"And if you had taken the time to consider it, we may not have gotten around that corner fast enough. Better a few minor injuries versus being buried in the rubble," Neal said as he stroked her face. She turned her head to lick his palm.

"Get a room you two," Suzan said with a knowing grin, as she slid a loaded plate between them. Having seen what Neal was up to, and knowing a little of the Rakshan traditions, she had upsized Neal’s omelet into something they could share.

The personnel shuttle set down gently on a large patch of bare rock overlooking the Gene War monument.

Neal led them to, and then through, the large gazebo-styled information center, and out to the canyon side. They followed him down a ramp leading deeper into the canyon. The trail started as a well maintained path, but it degraded the further they proceeded. Neal stopped almost two miles later, where the rough footpath ended at the ruins of a massive wall. A curved wall that at one time had spanned the canyon.

What was this?" Zhanch asked.

"A dam," Shortdash replied. "At one time this spot was covered in over thirty meters of water."

Quickwind watched Neal as his eyes traced back and forth over the ruins as if reconstructing it in his mind. "You saw it before it was destroyed," shi accused.

"Don’t be silly," Neal teased hir. "Your mate just pointed out that this side was under water."

Dessa noted that he hadn’t answered hir question. "What does this place mean to you?"

Neal let out a long sigh before answering, "I come here to remind myself that there are those that will do whatever it is they think it will take to keep someone else from winning, even if it means that everyone loses."

"A lot of fighting occurred in this canyon, this dam was where it ended. The furs and their human allies had managed to take refuge in the dam itself; its name was Hoover by the way. Unwilling to wait them out, and not bothering to consider the consequences, the other side nuked the dam. They got the few hundred furs, at a cost of millions of lives on both sides. Those that didn’t die from the blast and the wall of water the destroyed dam released, died in the general flooding downstream. Then came the radiation sickness for anything that drank the water. Downstream was one twisting ribbon of death; the other was the cloud of fallout whipped about by the winds. The dam also supplied a lot of the power for the area, that left a lot of places without and caused even more fighting as each side blamed the other." Neal snorted, "That battle was to be the primer cap that touched off the world wide furry/human war."

"Were you there?" Zhanch asked.

"No. If I had been, I wouldn’t be here now, now would I?"

"Damn it," Shortdash gently cursed. "And you’re still too banged up to tickle attack and force the answers out of you."

"Yeah, lucky me," he agreed.

"There’s more," Dessa half asked.

"This used to be part of what was once called the United States. It’s funny that the two bloodiest wars ever fought on its soil were over the same disagreement – slavery. The first war ended up being called the civil war. It was the slave states against those that thought no man should be a slave. The gene war was those that thought furs were good for nothing but slavery, and those that disagreed." Neal shook his head. "I guess it’s true what they say, ‘those that don’t study history are destined to repeat it’."

After a few minutes of silence, he led them back up the trail.

Still sore from the day before, Neal stopped at the monument this time, both to give himself a break as well as give the others time to look around. Perched on the canyon rim, the large structure gave an impressive view of that section of the canyon. On the side away from the canyon were several fountains and some artwork, even a wading pool to cool tired paws in, though the northern breeze would make it a little chilly to use in late November. A few small statues of both humans and furs dotted the area, the interactive display screens explaining the parts they played in bringing the gene war to an end. While the Rakshani looked around, the chakats kept a close eye on Neal. They didn’t miss him nodding to three of the statues, or glaring at a couple of the others.

As they made their way back to the shuttle, Shortdash commented, "Why do I get the feeling the history books would show the Gene Wars in a different light if you had written them?"

"History is written by the winners, or in this case, by the survivors. Considering that some parts of ‘the truth as I know it’ would probably spark a new war, I think it best to leave the past in the past."

"This from someone who just told us that those how don’t learn from the past will repeat it," shi said with a soft snort.

"I have no proof, having missed some of the more important moments. But what I do know or have heard of some of the players suggests that they could only act in an honorable manner if you held a gun to their heads."

"So you admit to being alive back then!" shi proclaimed in triumph.

"Or, I am simply claiming to have seen personal accounts that paint those events in a different light," he said with a grin, knowing shi wouldn’t be able to read the truth from the lie.

"Will you tell us the whole truth about something for once?" Quickwind asked, shi was growing tired of the near constant sparring between Neal and hir mate.

"Do I get to pick what it is?" Neal asked with a grin. When shi nodded, he said, "Here’s a piece of personal history for you. You may know the first chakat was born using a Bengal tiger to carry hir to term. What you may not know is five tigers were ordered, but they were not the five that were received."

When Neal didn’t continue, Shortdash said, "That’s it? Where is the rest of your ‘whole truth’?"

Neal smiled into hir stare as he added, "Only that I had a hand in making sure the wrong tigers were received. You’re a cleaver little chakat, you shouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out how and why I might have done such a thing."

The ride back up to the Folly was a quiet one as the others thought about the hints Neal had revealed.

"There’s a Jack Benny from Raynor trying to bother you again," Tess said, once everyone was back aboard the Folly.

"Again?" Neal asked.

Weaver snorted, "He’s been calling every couple of hours since our little incident yesterday. Tess had suggested that we not bother you with it until things had settled down a bit."

"More proof that she knows me all too well. Patch him through, let him only see and hear me."

"Will do boss."

"Where is the rest of our shipment?" the talking head demanded when he could see Neal.

"Delayed while I recover from a little attack I had yesterday," Neal said. "Almost being crushed under your shipment can take a lot out of a guy."

The head grinned. "We can help with that. I’ll send you one of our crews to help you get things settled. In fact, with furs not liking you much right now, we can assign them to you until all this blows over."

"That won’t be necessary, I’ll have the next pod down tomorrow morning, the second should be unloaded before nightfall," Neal responded.

"I insist. We can’t have our main shipper unable to ship things."

"And I insist you don’t. I can get your shipment down without your assistance."

"Bill Stalk told me you would be a tough nut to crack. He suggested I remind you that we’re not afraid to play ‘hardball’."

"Oh? So you think you’re up to playing the sandlot bully?" Neal asked, a grin forming on his lips.

"If need be. That’s one big ship. You need our business to keep it running."

"Oh, I think the Folly and I can survive without you or your kind of business. Tell you what; let’s test your hypothesis. After I unload the last two pods of your deliveries, the Folly will stop moving Raynor material. If you are right, my business will fold before yours does."

"YOU CAN’T DO THAT!" he bellowed, his face turning red.

"Sure I can. In case you weren’t informed, I only contract by the job. If I don’t sign any more contracts with Raynor, I won’t be shipping any more Raynor cargo. Tell Billy I hope he likes my ‘pitch’," Neal added as he signaled for Tess to drop the connection.

"You burnt that bridge to a crisp," Tess commented as she disconnected. "I take it they get a busy signal from now on?"

"Hmmm, burning bridges, that bridge was already badly scorched when I couldn’t get in touch with Snowfall, even that PI is no longer returning my messages. The drugs and the way he now thought they had an advantage with the furs hating me were the last flames. Tess, if they do call, you can always ‘take a message’. Who knows? Maybe they will come up with something funny or creative."

"Should get even better when they can’t find their other drugs."

"Speaking of which, how goes the hunt?"

"Almost done, boss. It looks like it will total almost four carriers worth."

"Is it valuable?" Quickdash asked.

Shortdash snorted, "That stuff makes Boronike look cheap in comparison." Looking at Neal, shi asked, "What are you going to say when they demand it back?"

Neal’s smile was not a pleasant one. "Demand what back? If we ask the point of origin, they will deny that there was anything not on the manifest, and it’s not on the manifest. So what is it they’re missing again?"

Shortdash hmmm-ed, "If they try to take it to the authorities, they expose the fact that they have been smuggling. Either way, they lose what you found."

"By hiding their drugs among similar ones, only a very detailed scan could detect the difference. If they let it be known that they did it to me, they will expose all their cargo runs to much more careful inspections."

Watching Neal closely, Quickwind said, "As I recall, it is used in regeneration and age reversals. We could all live forever with what you have in those carriers."

Neal gave hir a funny look as he shook his head. "No," he said, "I’ll find someone that can put it to good use." A soft snort escaped as his added, "And despite appearances, I don’t really want to live forever."

The wall speaker emitted a raspberry, "He just keeps finding ‘just one more thing’ that he thinks needs to be done," Tess said.

"The last time I was processed, I had decided that I didn’t have the time for something," Neal pointed out, then he shrugged, "I’ll leave it to you and the Traveler to decide when I’ve worn out my usefulness."

Looking hurt, Dessa asked, "Don’t we get a say in the matter?"

"What makes you think you will still be here? I have a tendency of running people off after a while. Right now Shadowchaser holds the record at thirty-three years."

"I thought Tess and the Traveler have been here longer,"

"One’s a captive audience, the other is always ‘out of sight, out of mind’."

"You will find me hard to scare off," Dessa promised.

"Of that I have no doubt."

After dinner found most of the crew in the main lounge, when Dessa walked in carrying a large flat box. Leaning the box up against the wall, she opened it and carefully removed a frameless painting. After a moment’s thought, she pressed the painting to the wall. She released it after giving the bonding agent time to secure the painting.

Dessa's portrait

Turning back to the others, Dessa said, "Some things are meant to be enjoyed by others." Looking at Neal, she added, "This is my humble gift to the clan of Foster.

The painting was of a much older Dessa, seated on a chair that was padded by one of the native animals found on the plains of Raksha’s main continent.

SharpTongue studied at the painting for several moments before asking, "When did you pose for Damalia? I had heard it was almost impossible to get her to do personal portraits."

Dessa smiled. "She still does a few, but this one was done about fifty years ago. She was already a very fine painter, but her funds couldn’t keep up with her appetite to travel. My father was the captain of a ship that gave her passage, and this painting was her fee."

SharpTongue shook her head. "Your father got a heck of a bargain."

Dessa laughed. "Funny, Damalia said she was the one who got the bargain."

"I’ve met her once," Neal admitted as he admired the painting. The pale gold Amur leopard had been trying to find some paints used by the natives on New Baikal. At the time, Neal hadn’t had any of their paints. But he did find that he had a few of their painted art pieces. After a little careful scanning by Tess, and a little replication, Damalia had her paints. Neal toyed with idea of finally calling in his marker for those paints, but dismissed it. There was no way he would be able to get Stormy to sit still that long.

One of Tess’s carts rolled in with a protective cover to place over the painting. Once in place, Tess would replace the air with an inert gas to help preserve it.

The next morning saw Neal using Alpha to set down one of the loaded pods. He noticed a lot more security in the area. In the nearby rail yard he could see an empty train waiting to be loaded, so there would be no carrier stacks setting around this time.

As Neal opened the main cargo door, a female Quange stepped up and handed him a data chip. As he dropped the chip into his reader, she cleared her throat. "They didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt."

"Spotters are often used to insure that nothing is in the way of moving machinery. Something that might have prevented them from being incarcerated for attempted manslaughter," Neal said a little stiffly, eyes still on his reader.

"They didn’t know anyone was around."

Neal reached over to his desk and handed her a personal holo-viewer. After adjusting it for her head, she activated it.

At her gasp, Neal explained what she was viewing, "What you are seeing is what my mates found when they followed the sounds of a screaming cub. The two eight year olds trying to calm their little sisters. That object in the stasis field is what was left of their big sister after your friends decided to play ‘tip the carriers’. Shi was carrying one of the cubs when shi was crushed."

When she tried to return the viewer Neal shook his head.

"Keep it," he told her. "When they ask why what they did was so wrong, you can show it to them. And their families, and anyone else that thinks they are being treated unjustly."

The unloading was half finished when a Raynor Inc. PTV and a bus pulled up. Neal recognized the man getting out of the PTV’s passenger area as the talking head he had dealt with the evening before.

Jack Benny waited until over a dozen men from the bus had joined him before approaching the pod.

Neal had a sour look on his face as he said, "You and your men are neither needed nor wanted here."

"Just protecting the vested interest of the company," Jack said with an evil grin.

"After I’m done unloading, Raynor won’t have any vested interest in me or the Folly."

"Let’s discuss that. Tommy…" Tommy was six inches taller then Neal’s six feet, and looked like someone that should have been on the pro wrestling circuit.

He was almost to the cargo door when Zhanch stepped out of the shadows, grinning down at him.

Neal’s smile now matched the one that Jack had worn a moment ago. "I see your thug, and raise you one oversized kitten with very sharp claws," he said to Jack’s look of shock.

One of the men still with Jack reached into his coat pocket.

A ‘Cha-chunk!’ came from the shadows that Zhanch had just left. "If your hand comes out of that pocket with a weapon, you lose the hand," a voice growled.

He carefully removed his empty hand from his coat pocket as Dessa stepped into view. While she had something that looked similar to Neal’s ‘Betsy’, it was built more along Rakshani lines. The barrel was half again the diameter of ‘Betsy’ and the slug it threw was four times as heavy. In the style of some Rakshani weapons, it included a ‘claw’ mounted to the side of the weapon, allowing her to ‘gouge’ someone on that side without releasing her grip on the weapon.

"As you can see, I now have a crew. I suggest you take your hired muscle and leave."

Jack stuttered as he asked Zhanch, "How can you work for him? Haven’t you seen the news from New Kiev? He hates furs!"

Zhanch seemed to disappear, only to reappear right in front of Jack, his men stepping back in surprise at the large Rakshan’s speed. She growled as she picked him up by his shirt. Nose to nose to him, she snarled, "We were there. The only things he killed that day were humans. FUR hating humans. One of which almost killed Dessa. " She then dropped him in disgust, her nose telling her that he had soiled himself.

"Do you think they got the message?" Dessa asked as Zhanch returned to the pod. Jack and his crew were beating a hasty retreat back to their transports.

"Time will tell, and they won’t have too many more chances. With any luck, we will have the next pod unloaded before they discover anything’s missing."

The call from Raynor Inc. came that evening, Neal had been going over the pods that needed to be unloaded at Melbourne the next day.

A new talking head had replaced Jack; this one was younger and seemed very nervous about something.

"There’s some cargo missing from your delivery," he stated without preamble.

Neal made busy work for a moment, bringing up the load manifest for their order. "I have your manifest in front of me, which carriers are missing what items?"

"Uh… I-It’s not on the manifest," said the talking head.

"Have you confirmed it was actually sent?" Neal asked. As the talking head stammered, Neal smiled as he added, "You are putting me in a rather interesting position. The only reason to have some of your cargo not on the manifest is if you are trying to cheat me, or you are trying to smuggle something using my reputation to hide behind. Either of those reasons would make it in my best interest to get the authorities involved. So tell me, what is missing that was not on the manifest I was given?"

Just before the connection was lost, Neal saw the talking head look to the side, as if to ask what to say.

"Short and sweet," Shortdash said from hir pad in the corner. "Somehow I don’t think they will give up that easily."

"Agreed. But now that we don’t need to make any more trips to Big Sur, they will have to come to us."

"Us?" shi asked with a raised eyebrow.

"You are aiding and abetting. You either don’t have a problem with what I’ve done, or you’re waiting to see what I do with my ill gotten gains."

"A little of both, actually. You haven’t broken any laws per se, but if you bend them much further, some may snap."

"I was thinking of donating it to a good cause. It was that, or drop it into the sun."

Shortdash snorted. "Someone might recover them before they finished their trip."

"Or I could let the kids use them for target practice, push one carrier out the locks and see if they can hit it with another," Neal said with a grin.

"That wouldn’t destroy the drugs," shi pointed out.

"No, but it would scatter them so badly that it wouldn’t be worth gathering up. Add sending them counter spin-ward, and the pieces won’t be in orbit long."

"I think there’s enough junk orbiting Terra without you adding to the mess."

Neal let out a long sigh, "You Star Corps types are just no fun at all."

"The way you suggested it suggests that you have used unwanted cargo for target practice before."

Neal nodded. "One time the ammo was a dozen pirates in heavy armor suits; the target was their own ship. You’ve no doubt noticed the carrier transport system?" At hir nod, he grinned. "The Folly can back into a port and transfer cargo through the aft access port. I just let them get into the transfer system, and almost to the forward end."

Shortdash’s eyes widened. "Then I assume you ‘fired’ them down the shaft with a little gravity."

Neal nodded. "A hundred G’s got them moving quite nicely. Made quite a mess of their ship as I recall."

Shi shivered slightly, the kids sometimes used that area as a large zero-g playground. More then once shi had seen Tess carefully apply a little localized gravity to keep someone from running into something headfirst.

Neal saw hir shiver and shook his head. "It’s as safe as anywhere else onboard, and it’s really the best place for them to practice in zero g."

"I know. It’s just that everything on this ship seems to have more than one reason to be there."

"Nothing strange about that, I like having options."

"Those heavy doors going to the pool area – what purpose do they serve?"

"A holdover from the original design. That pool doubles as one of our water reserves. The doors keep the water inside in case we lose gravity."

"You embrace new tech, but use old tech as well."

"Both have their places, and sometimes it is the same place."

"I did a little hunting on the webs about your Bengal tigers."

"And what did you find?"

"That five of them were ordered for the labs, while another five were ordered from the same source at the same time for a zoo. Nothing shows that there were any swaps, or reasons for swapping."

"You didn’t look far enough, or you would have told me why."

"Please, no more games."

"Just this once, I’ll make you work all the harder for the next one." At hir nod, he smiled. "What you missed is what happened to the ones that went to the zoo. In less than six months they had all been put down after mauling their keepers." Taking a sip of his tea, he continued, "I was to pick up and transport all ten of the tigers, and I had an idea what the lab intended to do with theirs. Imagine my surprise when the ones for the zoo were actually friendly enough to want to be petted, while the ones for the lab were all man haters."

"Why would there be such a discrepancy between the two sets?"

"I didn’t have the contacts and resources I do now, but what little I could find suggested that others also known what the lab wanted those tigers for. It seems they didn’t want any new furs to be created."

"How would that have stopped chakats from being created?"

"Think it through. Quickdash has a lot of Quickwind’s outlook on life, some of which formed while shi was still in the womb. How friendly would that first chakat cub have been if hir mother had carried a strong hatred for humans?"

Shi just stared at him, unable to finish the thought.

"Instead of that, we have some chakats that can actually love humans. Good thing too, or I would be in a lot of trouble right now."

"So now you claim to be the reason that chakats exist."

"Nope. You’ll have to blame Charles and Katherine Turner for that. I just helped keep someone from screwing up their good work."

"Just how much history have you changed?"

Neal frowned. "That’s the problem with history; at any particular point in time, doing something may just seem to be the best or right thing to do. It’s only later that you can look back and see what a seemingly minor change or decision has brought about. I had met Kat long before I moved the tigers. I had no intention of seeing her or her mate hurt by one of those man haters, so I swapped the orders. It was only later that I got to see what they had used the tigers for." Looking at Shortdash, but not really seeing hir, he smiled and added, "I think it was worth the effort."

A little later, Shortdash got Shadowcrest alone for a moment.

"You said you can sometimes get some of Neal’s thoughts and memories with the right trigger words. Would you try one for me?" At Shady's nod, shi whispered, "Bengal tigers."

Shadowcrest flinched back as if avoiding a blow, and then shi calmed down and thought for a moment. "My initial reaction was from the image of one of the big cats trying to take a swipe at me; not a pleasant memory," shi shuddered again as shi added, "I’m not sure how Neal can face us, much less Rakshani with that in his head."

"Is there more?"

"A little more, but it doesn’t really seem to belong. He’s holding a newborn chakat. There is a human female with him. Looking at her, all I get is ‘Cat’."

"Kat, as in cha-kat," Shortdash absently corrected hir, as shi slowly sat down.

"Not what you expected to find?" Shadowcrest asked, looking anxiously at the older chakat.

Shortdash gave hir a half-hearted smile. "Maybe this is why he has learned to only give the rest of us half-truths, his whole truths can be a bit of a shock."

"Is this something I should keep from the others?"

"As Neal would say, ‘your call’. You now have a better idea than I as to what Neal would want."

"Then as ‘my call’ I think I’ll let you in on another of his ‘little secrets’. Mind you, I have no proof or actual memories, just feelings and impressions." Shi waited for Shortdash to nod before continuing, "One of the reasons behind him pushing his colonies is that he has seen similar ‘bad vibes’ between furry and non-furry before. His conscious mind doesn’t see it yet, but his subconscious mind is seeing parallels between now and just before the gene war began."

"He thinks there will be another war?"

"The furry hate movement seems to be growing. While the Humans First types are what makes the headlines, there seems to be even more going on behind the scenes. Neal can’t find the root source, so he’s making what he hopes will be a few safe havens."

"And the monument?"

"He goes there to try and remember how bad the hatred was back then. He’s trying to gauge how close history may be to repeating itself."

In the early morning hours, the Melbourne spaceport seemed laid back and relaxed after the bustle of Big Sur.

After getting the cargo transfers started, Neal collected a couple of packages and made his way over to the personnel section and the ground transport rentals. He was about to select one of the smaller ground cars from the rental fleet, when a furry arm reached around him and punched the ‘taur van’ option. Looking behind him, he told Moonglow, "I was just going to drop off a gift; no need for additional keepers."

Moonglow grinned as the larger vehicle pulled up. "Are you are forgetting that Midnight is our friend as well? Plus this will give us something to do with the little ones for a few hours," shi said as Shadowcrest, Nova, CalmMeadow and the little ones started clambering aboard.

Neal had planned to just take the quickest route there, but with the little ones (and some not so little ones) gawking at everything they saw, Neal changed the computer’s instructions to take a slower and more scenic itinerary.

The van pulled to a stop in front of a large spread-out home that Neal had learned to associate with taurs. Seven miniature missiles erupted from the van, and streaked across the yard, stopping at random points to inspect the grass, bushes and trees, then off to the next thing to catch their attention. Then the dwelling’s front door opened and gave them a new place to explore.

"Hey!" shouted a surprised voice from just inside the door.

Neal had just managed to bend over and grab Starblazer as she went by, he now looked up to see a large, dark haired, golden jaguar patterned chakat; hir green eyes busily examining the cub shi had just caught trying to invade hir home, while another was gently but firmly wrapped in hir tail.

"My apologies, they haven’t quite mastered the idea that there are some places they aren’t allowed to go without permission," Neal said as he approached hir. Shi was just a little taller then Moonglow, with a bust just slightly smaller than the wet nurse.

"No harm done," shi said as shi tickled the cub before giving hir a hug and releasing hir. After doing the same to hir tail captive, shi turned back to Neal. "Midnight warned me that a crazy human with a small hoard of little ones might pay us a visit. I am Forestwalker, child of Desertsand and Longstripe. Forest to my friends."

"It is nice to finally put a face to the name Midnight gave us. I am Neal Foster. Once again, I apologise for the invasion."

"Nothing we’re not used to around here," shi assured him with a grin. "Catching wayward cubs is somewhat of a game in this household."

"One that you appear to need more practice at," said an amused voice from behind hir.

A long-eared fox morph, just under five feet tall walked into view. Firestorm was being given a cuddle as shi was carried back to the front door.

"Leanna, this is that ‘Captain Neal Foster’ Midnight warned us about,"

"Stormy…" Neal said having noticed that hir little paws were busy.

Stormy’s ears drooped. Leanna was about to console hir when shi looked down and realized that Neal’s scolding was for the present, not the past. Without hir noticing, Stormy had already released half the fasteners holding hir top closed. "Why you little scamp!" shi laughed, while giving the kitten a tickle.

"I see shi’s not clinging to you as much," Midnight said as shi joined them with their newest addition in hir arms.

"No, now the problem is shi likes undressing strangers." At hir raised eyebrow, he added, "The kids taught hir to give others ‘milk checks’. As you can see, shi thinks it is great fun."

"No harm done," Leanna said, echoing Forestwalker. "I caught hir sitting quietly at the bedroom doorway, watching Midnight feed Littleroar."

"It’s nice to see shi’s learning a few manners. Disturbing the little one’s meal would not have been polite."

"Now if we could just get hir to not interrupt those bigger than shi is at mealtime," Moonglow said with a smile.

"Everyone anyways gets it backwards," Neal said. "You don’t have the cub, the cub has you."

Midnight suddenly realized that something was bothering hir mate. "Forest, what’s wrong?" shi asked as shi watched hir mate stare at one of the chakats in Neal’s group. Nova, CalmMeadow and Moonglow shi remembered, but the much larger chakat was a stranger – Midnight’s eyes widened as shi recognized the fur pattern. "Shadowcrest?" shi whispered, not believing hir eyes.

What had caught Forestwalker’s attention was hir inability to sense the larger chakat; it was like shi wasn’t there! Then shi noticed the heavy belt and the status lights around hir waist. Shi took a step towards Shadowcrest, only to have two of the others block hir path.

"The field is for hir protection," CalmMeadow said when Forestwalker glared at hir.

"You all might as well come in," Midnight said as shi gently led Forestwalker away from the door. "Neal, why is it every time we meet you have explaining to do?"

"Two data points do not a set make," Neal reminded hir as he sat down after doubling up one of the cushions.

"But they can be the beginning of a trend," shi replied as shi settled down.

"New Kiev came back to bite me on the backside."

"So I’ve heard. We saw a report yesterday of the edited video and the original. Our local news furs didn’t pick up the edited video until the controversy over it came to light. It appears that some one does not like you, Captain Foster."

"And they are spreading hate and discontent," Neal agreed. "A couple of furry forklift operators decided to tip over some of my cargo, Shadowcrest and I were injured as a result."

"You had to process hir? Just how badly was shi hurt?"

Shadowcrest turned hir upper torso and placed hir paw on hir lower torso almost a third of the way from hir tail. Shi shuddered slightly as shi realized that shi knew exactly which point on hir lower spine to touch. Looking at Midnight, shi said, "From this point back, crushed by one of the carriers."

"As bad as Dessa," Midnight commented. At Shadowcrest's nod, shi added, "That helps explain your sudden growth, but not the portable field generator."

"I seem to be rather ‘gifted’ now. So much so, that I can’t shield myself from others."

At Forest’s raised eyebrow, Midnight explained, "Shi’s not quite twelve as I recall. Instead of growing into it, shi got it all at once."

"May I?" Forest asked Shadowcrest.

Shadowcrest looked to Neal. He shrugged and said, "Your call little one." Shi heard the unspoken ‘I’ll have the trank darts ready’.

Shi smiled at Forest and said, "Okay, just give me a moment to prepare." Looking towards Leanna, shi held out hir arms as shi said, "Stormy, I need a hug please."

Before Stormy could leap, Leanna hopped up to press the cub into hir arms.

"No! Just…" Neal had started to say ‘Just let hir jump’, but contact had already been made.

Shady quickly backed up until hir backside bumped the wall, while Stormy leaped clear of both of them.

Still standing in the middle of the room, Leanna looked confused. "What happened?" shi asked. "Did I do something wrong?"

"Not intentionally," Neal assured hir. "Shi was going to use Stormy to get hir baseline, but shi probably got a little of you just now as well."

"I don’t understand."

"Let me see if I can give you an example. Have you ever had your eyes dilated?" At hir nod, he continued, "You can’t control how much light you see, so even low light levels are blinding. That’s Shady’s mental control right now – everything is too bright. Then we throw in another problem. To protect hir ‘eyes’, shi’s wearing blinders that keep hir from seeing any light at all. Just like your eyes in the dark, they go ultra-sensitive in their effort to sense anything at all. Each of us puts out a mental ‘light’ to hir; the little ones don’t seem to be quite as blinding to hir as the rest of us. Shi just wanted Stormy, sort of like letting your eyes get use to a candle’s glow before turning on the room lights."

"And by holding on to Stormy, I blinded hir," Leanna slowly said.

"Shi wanted a candle flame, and got a flashbulb," Neal agreed. "It will take hir a minute or three to recover from the overload."

"Will shi be okay?"

"I think so. If not, I’ll call in the heavy artillery." At hir questioning look he smiled, "Hir first overload was with a couple dozen of us, it took some help to bring hir down."

"Shi’s almost as bad as you, father," Shady said, arms still over hir head as shi took in several deep breaths. "Stormy? Help please."

Stormy brushed up against Shady a few times before offering hirself for a hug.

At Leanna’s puzzle look, Neal explained, "Just like you picking up something that you think might be too hot to handle. You get your arm close, and then you might brush the back of your paw against it as a test before you actually try to grip it. If hir touch was too much for Shady, Stormy was ready to back off."

Shadowcrest cuddled Firestorm for a minute before looking up at Forestwalker. Extending hir arm, shi said, "Let’s make contact with the backs of our arms. That way either of us can quickly break the connection."

Forest extended hir arm to touch Shady’s, only to yank it back after the briefest of touches. Of all the minds shi had ever been in contact with, very few had been this powerful. But where those minds had been in tight control of themselves, Shady’s was wild and undisciplined. Forest stepped back, not wishing to make contact again.

Midnight looked at hir mate. "That bad?" shi asked.

Forest nodded, "A lot of power with very little control. And even being prepared for it didn’t help, for a moment I knew exactly what they mean by ‘a wild bull in a china shop’."

Shady nodded, "Shortdash and Quickwind think some of their friends on Chakona can help teach me to control myself."

"A month away," Forest commented. Shi had gotten a flood of impressions from Shady, mostly of things that were currently worrying hir. "I know you are thinking about using the holodeck for your heat and rut. May I make a suggestion?" At Shady’s nod, shi smiled, "It doesn’t have to be sterile and mechanical. Have a partner in the holodeck with you. Echo or duplicate yourselves and make love to each other’s echo. I’ve done it before with Boyce and the only down side was the lack of mental touching."

Shady snorted. "I should have thought of that! Neal uses that trick often enough in training. It allows us to practice things that might otherwise injure or kill our opponent."

Neal nodded. "Makes it easier to teach them to not pull their punches. Depending on where the safety cutoff is set, a skull cracking blow can be turned into a minor thump."

"A good thing too," CalmMeadow said with a grin. "Neal has even taken down Zhanch a time or two."

"The rest of the time, she stomps me into the ground," he said, grinning.

Midnight had noticed the cubs were all mesmerized by a large bush they could see just outside the window. A growing breeze was pushing the bush back and forth like a flag. "Would you like to play outside?" shi asked DarkStreak.

DarkStreak looked to Nova, who nodded as shi got up. "I’ll keep an eye on them," shi said as Midnight led them to the back door.

Moonglow smiled as shi also got up. "We had better join hir, there is no way shi can keep up with all of them."

The older cubs sought excitement in the upper limbs of one of the trees, clinging to the branches as the wind whipped them about. Starblazer and the younger chakats were content to stay on the ground, a new sight or scent around every turn.

The growing winds were bringing in heavy clouds, and the sky quickly darkened.

"Have they ever been out in the rain before?" Leanna asked from the porch, watching Neal watch the little ones.

"No, all ship or station born and raised," Neal replied as he glanced at the sky. "Looks like the makings for a nice little thunderstorm. Be prepared to be buried in frightened little furballs," he warned hir.

"Ready, willing, and able!" shi replied with a grin.

They didn’t have to wait for the lightning to bring the little ones inside; the first large drops of cold rain sent the younger ones scurrying for the cover of the porch.

Snowcloud and Patchwork had laughed when DarkStreak had asked where the water controls were so shi could set them a little warmer.

Everyone was back on the porch before the rain came down in earnest. As the cubs stared at the downpour, Midnight exchanged a few whispered words with Forest before going back inside.

Forest stepped up to Neal, who was watching the cubs watch the rain. "Why do I get the feeling that you want to go out and run through the rain like an over-aged cub?"

Neal grinned as he watched the heavy rain come down. Looking down at the cubs, he said, "If I go out there, they will follow. Besides, I didn’t bring a spare set of clothes."

"Neither of those are a problem. What’s really keeping you in?"

Neal just smiled as he shook his head, and looked back out into the rain. Forest hadn’t missed the glance he had given Shadowcrest. As Midnight returned, shi said, "This storm will blow out of the area tonight. Will you and your family like to join my family on the beach tomorrow?"

Neal had started to answer when Moonglow cut him off. "We would love to!" shi said. "How did you want to get there? Separately? Or meet up somewhere and go as a group?"

Knowing when his opinion was moot, Neal went back to watching the kids as they watched the rain.

As Moonglow and Forest discussed who would bring what, Shadowcrest stepped up behind Neal. "Aren’t you forgetting something?" shi asked.

"The gifts! Damn, they’re still in the transport," Neal muttered.

The front door slamming against its stop plate was the first sign that someone else had heard Neal’s reply. Going to the door they could see two little furs trying to get into the PTV. Neal reached into his pocket for the remote he had pulled from the dash and keyed the doors open. Watching DarkStreak and Spitfire scramble into the vehicle, he looked back at his hosts and commented, "I think we will start your beach party early by borrowing a couple of towels."

Forest and Leanna disappeared down the hallway, only to return moments later with a pile of towels each. Dropping their piles by the door, they each kept one to wrap around a cub as they ran back in. Some vigorous rubbing soon had most of the water off them, and it was time to see if the gifts had survived the water.

Since the packaging had been made to be easily recycled, they were in a little disarray after being carried through the heavy rain. Though damp, the gifts within had survived intact. For Littleroar, Neal had brought a little ball with a soft and fluffy tail attached to it. Turning it on, it began rolling aimlessly around the floor, the tail flipping randomly as the ball rolled. Littleroar stared at it for a minute before giving chase.

Neal’s gift to Midnight were some tops, some very large tops. When shi gave Neal a confused look, he indicated shi should put one on.

"A little too big Neal," Forest commented with a laugh. "There is enough room in there for hir and a cub or two!"

"That’s the idea," Neal replied. Making a couple adjustments to the straps, he then pulled the top open and gently dropped Littleroar into it. The cub found hirself held securely in a pocket just under Midnight’s breasts. Shi had no trouble climbing back out to see what was going on. As shi turned to nuzzled hir mother, Neal grinned. "Moonglow had mentioned that some of the wet nurses use these. The cub can nurse and sleep right up next to you while you have both paws free for whatever else needs doing."

"A practical gift from you?" Midnight asked in surprise.

"Or very impractical, depending on where you wear it," CalmMeadow said with a grin. "Some joker who will not be named, suggested we wear those tops on an ‘Alternate Thursday’. Wearing one of those once the others have filled it with chocolate pie gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘top heavy’!"

"‘Alternate Thursday’?" Forest asked Midnight.

"Remember the mess Ember made with the pie the first week we were back?"

"All over the kitchen!" Forest said, frowning. "You mean I can thank the Folly for that little disaster?

Midnight grinned. "It seems ‘Messy times’ was one of his treats for the first group of cubs he adopted. One of them was back on the Folly for a few months; shi and hir mate surprised Neal by rebuilding the room they used to use. Our family was invited to join in its reopening."

"You really let them throw pies all over the place?" Leanna asked. At Neal’s nod, shi grinned as shi said, "How do you clean the room afterwards? With a fire hose?"

Neal grinned, "I know you have been on the Pegasus, what did you do with your dirty dishes?"

"Put them back in the replicator," shi said, wondering what this had to do with cleaning a room.

"The ‘mess room’ is basically one big replicator, that’s how I can get pies to magically appear out of thin air. After we are done, the room cleans up the dirty dishes, as well as the floor, walls and ceiling."

"Told ya," Ember said, poking Stonefur.

The poke was returned with interest, which resulted in a pounce, which was also returned. The scuffling pair rolled into the still damp Spitfire who was happy to join in the playful fray. The adults watched as the rest of the cubs joined in, the older ones being careful not to crush the smaller ones. Littleroar watched all this with a growing alarm as the rolling, twisting, growling pile of fur rolled hir way. Before shi could run, two pairs of paws reached out and gently pulled hir in. Hir little roar was heard as shi disappeared into the furry pile, only to be followed by a giggle as someone gave hir a tickle.

The tangle of little ones came apart like magic when the front door slammed open again. A pair of soaked foxes rushed in, quickly followed by half a dozen waterlogged taurs.

While Forest and Midnight took their packages and saddlebags to the kitchen to see what could be salvaged from the soaking, the rest tried to help dry off the newcomers.

Neal found himself rubbing down a chakat with silvery gray fir. As shi used another towel on hir hair, shi twisted hir upper torso around to see who was giving hir a lower backrub. Raising a soggy eyebrow, shi said, "That’s strange, Forest didn’t mention that there would be more guests showing up."

Neal smiled as he kept working his way down hir lower torso. "We just dropped by to say hello, so Forest was almost as surprised as you. I’m Neal by the way."

"Silverpelt. My sister and I were visiting my nieces and got roped into helping get provisions for tomorrow." Frowning towards the kitchen shi added, "I know the breads are ruined, but the rest of it should be alright."

"Not a problem," Neal said, grinning. "I’ve been told that we will be joining you, so we need to gather supplies as well. Make a list and we can add it to ours."

"You’ve been told?" shi asked with a matching grin.

"As mate and adopted father, I find my opinion isn’t always in great demand," he chuckled.

"I know the feeling," said the male foxtaur. The comment earned him a wet tail slap from one of the other waterlogged chakats.

Moonglow had been helping towel hir off. Shi smirked as shi asked, "Too close to the truth?"

Still glaring at hir mate, shi said, "I listen to your opinions!"

"And then you ignore them!" Neal and the foxtaur chorused back, laughing when they realized that they had both been thinking the same thing.

Silverpelt grinned. "Give it up Goldie, they have your number."

Moonglow chuckled. "To paraphrase one of my co-mates ‘isn’t it nice to have a mate who knows his place’."

"It makes me thankful I have a big ship," Neal said. At Garrek’s raised eyebrow, he added, "More places to hide."

"Not as many I’ll bet as that freighter that has been in orbit the last few days. Goldie and I have been arguing about how they get it to warp."

"Magic," Neal said with a grin. "Lots of magic."

"There’s no such thing as magic," Patchwork piped up.

"Tell Mike that when you meet him tomorrow," Neal told hir. "Not only is there magic, but many different types."

"We are trying to not fill their heads with nonsense," Goldfur said with a frown.

"So you’re saying that that big freighter you two saw is powered by nonsense?" Neal asked with a grin.

Before Goldfur could reply, Forest came back into the front room, "We will need a few things for dinner tonight. Midnight and I will take the PTV once the storm dies down a little."

Silverpelt looked back at Neal again. While his hands were still on hir rump, he had stopped rubbing hir with the towel. He turned his head to look over at Shadowcrest. Shi looked back at him and started to grin, knowing that look in his eye.

"You wouldn’t dare, she hates not having plenty of warning!" shi said.

"But, she does like a challenge," Neal pointed out as he tapped his comm badge. "Tess, would you be so kind as to advise the cook that we will be having a few guests for dinner?" he said, grinning at Shadowcrest.

A few moments later Neal got a reply. "Tess, will you tell that idiot captain of yours that I need more than ‘a few guests’ to know how many to cook for on such short notice?"

Neal grinned. "Tess, tell that lazy cook that there will be three bipeds and eight chakat sized taurs. Oh yes, there are also half a dozen cubs to consider."

"Nine taurs," Silverpelt corrected. "My mate will be back in an hour or so."

There was a growl from the other side before the connection was terminated.

Midnight looked at Neal with a raised eyebrow. "That doesn’t sound like the happy bunny I last saw on your ship," shi commented as shi started helping Desertsand dry off.

"Some furs get a glow about them when they are with cub, others get cranky," Neal said as he went back to drying Silverpelt.

"I heard that," came from his comm badge.

Neal kept drying as he replied, "Now, did I say which of those types you happened to be?"

Silverpelt asked, "Is it safe to go to dinner after the captain has annoyed the cook?"

"Perfectly safe," Shadowcrest said with a laugh. "That is, for everyone but the captain!"

Moonglow nodded as shi helped dry Longstripe. "Suzan’s main fear is not having enough time to do everything the way she thinks it should be done. Even on short notice she can whip up some amazing meals."

"So why did she sound so upset?" Forest asked.

"Because she hasn’t had time to visit the local markets to see what she can find. Like any artist, her passion is assembling a beautiful meal, not just slapping something together."

"She sounds a lot like the bunny brothers," Forest commented.

"Just like them," Neal agreed. "If she had been a male I might have lost her to the Pegasus, they got along so well in the galley."

"Just so long as you didn’t get her too excited," Midnight said with a grin. "She would start hugging and kissing them."

"But they’re…" Forest started - only to be cut off by Midnight’s chuckle.

"And there lay the problem!" shi agreed. "Poor Suzan was banned more than once from the Pegasus's main galley." To the confused looks shi was getting, shi added, "The bunny boys we are talking about prefer other males, so having a female jumping all over them wasn’t their cup of tea. Despite her being female, they did care for her enough to donate some seed to help her have a child." Looking at Neal, shi asked, "I take it she caught?"

Neal grinned as he nodded. "Like some of her meals, she seems to have overdone it a bit." At hir raised eyebrow, he added, "Her scans show twins. Tess hasn’t told us the sex because Suzan doesn’t want to know."

"What does that mean to you?" Forest asked, having detected more than a few odd thoughts coming from this odd human.

Neal waved at the cubs, who were now almost as wet as the adults they were trying to help dry off. "I’ve already got a mess of brats, what’s two more?" he said with a grin.

Before any of them could object to his terminology, Stormy rushed out from between Windsong’s forelegs and jumped at Neal. Shi then began to squirm and wiggle as shi used his shirt for a towel.

"Brat!" Neal exclaimed as shi soaked his front.

The rest of the Folly’s cubs then joined in, knocking him over onto a taur pad and thoroughly wetting him down with their wet fur.

Moonglow chuckled as they soaked hir mate. To the others shi said, "You will find he doesn’t mean ‘brat’ or ‘furball’ in a derogatory way."

CalmMeadow smiled, "A couple of them prefer ‘brat’ to being told they are good little chakats."

"And Neal doesn’t have just two bunnies on the way," Nova said with a grin. "There are also three Rakshani cubs and a foxtaur pup as well."

"And you all just travel with Neal?" Longstripe asked.

"That’s a long story," CalmMeadow quietly said.

"And different for each of us," Moonglow added.

"How can it be different for each of you?" Forest asked.

CalmMeadow started with, "Twelve of us snuck into a carrier that we thought was bound for another ship, while another four were trapped in another carrier. Both of which just happened to be loaded onto Neal’s ship."

Shadowcrest piped up with, "Suzan came onboard when Neal kept a promise I made. Then we rescued some Rakshani from a pirate ship."

Moonglow continued, "I was hired as a wet nurse and nanny for a newborn chakat that Neal delivered and adopted."

Nova ended with, "My sisters and I were rescued after our station was taken over."

From under the pile of little furs, Neal added, "And along the way we bumped into one of my other daughters, as well as the Pegasus, and a couple of other Star Fleet ships."

Goldfur frowned as shi said, "Boyce and Midnight have told us a bit about their adventurers with a crazy captain in a oversized ship…" shi looked over at Midnight.

Midnight nodded as shi said, "Yes, the human lying under that pile of wet cubs is the captain that thinks nothing of dragging the Pegasus around like a toy on a string with his oversized, magically powered ship."

"Magically," Goldfur repeated, still frowning at the term.

"The main propulsion for the Pegasus seems to be a particular blend of coffee," Neal pointed out. Seeing Patchwork’s scowl, he added, "We are just using the word ‘magic’ in place of saying ‘I don’t know why something works the way it does’. I’ve found that knowledge can remove a lot of the ‘magic’, but there always seems to be a little left."

"Prove it!" shi demanded.

"Proving magic…" Neal said slowly. "I myself have never been that good at it, but I’ll give it a try," he said as he nudged the cubs out of the way and reached into his shirt pocket.

As he pulled a small square card out of his pocket, Goldfur’s eyes narrowed. With his wet shirt stuck to him, there had been no place for the card to hide.

Handing the card to Patchwork, he asked hir to place it on one of the low tables.

"Now what?" Patchwork asked staring at a thin black card five centimeters on a side.

"Try unfolding it," Neal suggested.

Patchwork found that the one card was really two, with one side connected. Once opened, shi could detect another seam, which shi also unfolded, only to find another. Shi soon had a forty-centimeter square with no more seams to unfold.

"Lift it by the corners," Neal said with a smile.

When shi had lifted it high enough, another square came down from each side, forming a cube. One last square unfolded, closing the bottom of the box. Neal had hir set the box down, and then told hir to try opening the top. The room was quickly filled with the aroma of fresh pastries; the box was filled with assorted donuts and small cakes.

At hir wide-eyed stare, Neal grinned. "While I know several of those in this room can explain what just happened, would you prefer a logical explanation, or magical treats?"

Hir answer was to grab a donut in each paw and see how much powdered sugar shi could get on hir muzzle. The other cubs quickly rushed over to claim their share, only to find the bottom of the box before everyone had been served.

Stonefur was staring at the empty box, a pout about to turn into a quivering chin, when Neal asked if shi would like a treat too. At hir almost tearful nod, he suggest shi close the box. He then asked hir to tap on the top three times. At hir doubtful look he smiled and asked if shi trusted him. At hir hesitant nod, he again asked hir to tap the box three times. After shi did, he asked hir to open it. Hir eyes lit up when shi peeked under the top to find the box full again.

As the cubs, and adults, emptied and ‘refilled’ the box a few more times, Goldie stepped over to Neal.

"That wasn’t really magic," shi started.

"It most certainly was!" Neal countered with a grin.

"I will admit that the transporter shifts were very smooth…" shi said only to be cut off by Neal blowing hir a raspberry.

"Not that!" Neal said with a chuckle. "The box was just window dressing. The magic was the cubs when they opened that ‘empty’ box!"

Shi stared at him for a moment before nodding as shi grinned. "All right," shi admitted, having felt the cubs’ surprise and delight. "That part was magical," Shi agreed as shi noticed Midnight herding the now thirsty cubs towards the kitchen for milk and juices.

Neal smiled at Goldfur. "I’ve been warned that you and Garrek are engineering types. I have a standing bet with Sparks that I can get three jaw-drops out of each of you."

"We are not that easy to surprise," shi warned him.

"Good! I like a challenge. Shall we say the next twenty-four hours?"

"Fine by me, what do we win when you lose?" shi asked with a grin.

"If I lose, you have a nice time and I owe Sparks. If, on the other paw I happen to win, you have a nice time and Sparks owes me."

"Is this a private bet, or can anyone play?" asked a still damp chakat with silvery tinted ginger fur, giving hir a gentle coppery effect to go along with hir bright copper eyes.

"It’s folly to bet against him," Shadowcrest warned hir.

"Nonsense," Windsong said, putting on a bit of an air. "My college studies centered on the mind, human and non-human, and how it interacts with the world and with other minds. By watching for his anticipation, I will know when his traps are about to spring, and be able to avoid them."

"Really?" Neal asked with a grin. "Are you reading me now?"

Shi had started to nod when shi let out a shriek and grabbed hir tail.

Looking at a very surprised Goldfur, he said, "Your mouth seems to be hanging open. I think that’s a ‘one’." Looking back at the Coppertone chakat, he said, "And I think you need to learn to comprehend reality a little better before you start gambling on your abilities."

Windsong missed hir mother’s snicker as shi held what felt like a badly scorched tail tip. A moment later shi hissed, it felt like hir sore tail had just been dipped into ice water. Hir jaw hung open when shi realized that Neal had actually stepped over to hir and placed his hand over hir paws.

Neal shook his head as he said, "I couldn’t undo my little trick because you were no longer ‘listening’ to me. It’s much harder to block physical contact." As the cold numbed hir tail tip, he added, "When the cold dissipates, the pain will be gone."

Forest had been watching with minor amusement. "I detected a very low powered ‘push’ from you, but not enough to make someone really feel something."

Neal chuckled, as he explained, "That’s because I let hir do most of the work. Shi was trying to read my mind, so I simply held on to a very strong image of the tip of hir tail bursting into flames."

"That’s not an easy trick," Forest commented.

"Sure it is," Neal quietly said. "All you need are the basics. The ability to focus on the thought or feeling you really want to get across, and to know what it feels like." He said the last looking at his right hand and arm, working them a bit as if to convince himself that they were undamaged.

Copper eyes studied Neal for a moment before Windsong took his hand in hir paws and looked it over. That the hand and arm were where Neal had pulled up the pain of a severe burn, shi could sense. But the hand and arm showed no physical signs of the damage, or of the repair. "Regenerated?" shi asked.

"A while ago," he admitted, though shi could sense both truth and lie in that simple statement.

Now that they were in physical contact, shi thought again of trying to read him, only to see him raise an eyebrow at hir. The thought of a catapult, ready to launch a fireball at hir was in the forefront. Shi could smell the burning pitch and feel the heat as shi released his hand. Acknowledging defeat, shi gave him a small nod. Looking at the others, shi said, "First round to the Captain, I will have to learn to choose my battles more carefully."

"He has had more practice," Moonglow admitted. Once again, Windsong was sure shi heard a double meaning in hir words.

Leanna had gone into the kitchen to help Midnight with the cubs. Shi watched with a growing curiosity as Midnight picked up Stormy and placed hir on the table. Giving hir a small cup of milk, shi reached down and tapped Stormy’s comm badge. When it chirped, shi said, "Tess, I need a little favor…"

When they emerged from the kitchen, they found that the plans had changed yet again. Instead of waiting for evening, they would be going up with the next load. They would not be coming down until it was time to go to the beach the next day.

To Midnight’s raised eyebrow, Neal had shrugged and commented, "You let my cubs play in your backyard, I guess it’s only fair that yours get a chance to play in mine."

It was a bit past lunchtime when three taur-sized vans rolled up to, and then into the cargo pod. Having found the other PTV’s had adequate room for his family, Neal had split them among the other taur vans and sent the rental home alone. As they climbed out, they watched Neal’s kids anchor the vans to the deck before ushering them to the personal lift. That, and a short but steep ramp had them in the shuttle itself. As the others were shown how to fasten their seat restraints, Neal led Goldfur, Garrek, and Windsong to the cockpit. Already in the cockpit were a teenage fox vixen, and a pair of taur youths.

"Cindy," he told the vixen, "I’m shifting you to the observer’s seat so Goldfur and Garrek can monitor the engineering panel. Windsong here will join you."

"Aye Captain," she said as she got up from the engineering controls.

The two youths had been running down a preflight checklist. The foxtaur now turned to Neal. "Preflight complete, tower has given us an available launch window in two minutes."

Neal nodded. "I have no reasons to hold us up, you may take the window."

"Aye Captain," she said as she turned back to her controls.

As he turned to leave, Neal noticed all three of his guests were staring at his pilots with their mouths open. "One for Garrek, and another for Goldie and Windsong. This really is too easy," he added with a grin.

"You’re kidding," Goldfur half asked.

At Neal’s headshake, Garrek suggested, "Remote control?"

Windsong wasn’t listening to the conversation; shi was sensing the youths’ feelings. They knew they were in charge of the shuttle, and they knew they could do it. There was the smallest amount of resentment directed at Cindy, not at her as a person, but because she had to be there in order for them to be allowed to pilot the shuttle. Shi was even more surprised when shi felt the chakat youth send a thought of amusement to the foxtaur. The chakat then turned to look hir in the eye. ‘I know father’s already scorched your tail; bother us while we’re flying and I’ll burn your ears off!’ shi then turned back to hir controls as hir companion received final clearance from the tower.

Neal was still shaking his head to Garrek’s question when he saw Windsong’s ears drop like someone had tied weights to them; hir expression was one of shock. Goldfur also looked a little unsettled. Though the message hadn’t been directed at hir, shi had caught enough of it to get the general idea.

"Now you know who I practice with," Neal said as the shuttle smoothly lifted the loaded pod off the ground.

The only excitement was several direct lighting strikes as they passed through the heavy clouds. Cindy nudged Goldie and Garrek out of the way as she checked her engineering board for problems, while the pilots ran their own checks.

After a minute of checking, Cindy reported, "Eight point three percent loss of port lift capacity. No extra power draw, so it is probably just a couple of the elements."

"Noted," Holly said as she adjusted their course to intercept the Folly as she came around in her orbit.

"Are we in danger?" Windsong asked, though shi had noticed that none of the others seemed too concerned about the damage.

"No," Goldie told hir, having watched the tests over Cindy’s shoulder. "If these instruments are to be believed, this shuttle can lift almost twice its current load."

"Secondary port sensors are out, as are the cameras in that section," Quickdash reported.

"Common denominator?" Cindy asked.

"Port side junction box 3C. Request permission to investigate?"

Cindy snorted. "Did you want to fly it, or fix it?" she asked.

Looking at each other, the youths said, "Yes!"

Shaking her head, Cindy grinned as she tapped her comm badge. "Alex, if you’re not busy, I could use you in the cockpit."

"Copy, be there in two," he replied.

Quickdash got up from hir seat and adjusted it for biped use.

"Problems?" Neal’s voice asked over the intercom.

"A little lightning damage, and the twins want to play," Cindy said with a smile. "I thought Alex and I could do the easy part while they work," she said as she slid into the seat. After looking over the settings, she turned to Holly and said, "I relieve you."

Alex came in as Holly adjusted her seat for him. Dropping into the seat, he said, "Tell me again, which of these is the ‘go’ button?" Quickdash swatted his shoulder with hir tail as they left the now very crowded cockpit. Looking over the controls, he snorted. "Didn’t leave us much to do, did they?"

"Course correction in five, and the docking," Cindy agreed. "Not that I really blame them, we have too many pilots and not enough piloting to do."

"You called them twins," Garrek commented.

"If not twins, then certainly companions, and future lifemates," Windsong commented. At Garrek’s surprised look shi added "I got a very good feel of their bond before shi told me to butt out. Their link is so strong I think she is slightly telepathic through hir."

"And Neal?" Goldie asked.

"Almost an E2, and a very weak T1 as well. He got me because I wasn’t expecting him to have any E, much less T ratings at all."

Garrek frowned. "At the house, you were acting like your tail was on fire."

"As far as I could tell it was. At some point in his life, Neal was badly burned. He still carries such a strong memory of the pain that he can project it as a weapon against mind readers."

Cindy snorted. "He doesn’t use it often, usually just when he’s trying to rub someone’s nose in it."

"Well, he certainly rubbed my nose in it!" Windsong exclaimed with a laugh.

"Safer that than some of the other things he’s projected," Alex said with a chuckle.

"Such as?" Goldfur asked with a raised eyebrow.

Alex shook his head and grinned. "Ask him. Maybe he will give you a demonstration."

"Maybe I will," shi said.

"I don’t know cousin; he had such an evil grin when he suggested it," Windsong pointed out.

After attaching the pod to the Folly, they moved the shuttle to one of the enclosed bays between the spheres.

As the shuttle slid into the bay, Goldfur was examining it with one of the working external cameras. Noting rows of emitters lining the walls, shi zoomed in, only to let out a hiss of surprise. "Those look like holodeck emitters!" shi exclaimed.

"They are," Cindy agreed. "This is the repair bay. Rather than keep buying us suits to outgrow, Neal has us use this bay for vacuum work."

After confirming a good seal with the docking port, Alex led them out of the shuttle’s cockpit area. The twins had finished what repairs they could from inside the shuttle; they were now begging Neal to let them do the external repairs as well. When he gave in, they let out a shout and headed for the hatch, only to stop when Neal caught both of their tails. "After we eat!" he said. "I am not going to have Stew on my ass for you two skipping lunch."

Windsong’s mouth hung open for a moment before shi shook hir head. "How would them not eating cause you to sit in your food?"

Neal smiled. "That’s not what I said."

While Windsong stared at him, Goldfur frowned. "Wait a minute, I remember Midnight warning Forest not to ask for stew unless shi meant it."

As he led them out of the shuttle, Neal grinned and said, "Because shi might bite off more than shi can chew."

They caught up with the others as they reached the dining room. Midnight had known that there were Rakshani onboard, but even shi was surprised when a family group of Caitians came in behind them. After Neal introduced them to LongReach’s family, shi playfully asked, "Are you still gathering strays captain?"

Before Neal could reply, SharpTongue quipped, "Just hitching a ride and a free meal while he puts our ship back together."

Midnight roller hir eyes as shi grumbled, "I see the second method is as contagious as ever on this ship." At the raised eyebrows form hir group, shi said, "I’ll explain later." A moment later the doors to the kitchen opened.

Rolling out the first of the serving carts, a brown and white rabbit stopped between Goldfur and Windsong. Lifting the covers to reveal some of the meal choices, she grinned as she said, "How do you do? My name is Stew. See anything you would like?"

There were several chuckles from around the room as the two chakats stared at her, unable to keep their jaws from dropping yet again.

"Thanks for the warning," Forest told Midnight with a laugh. "The occupants of this ship seem to have a very low sense of humor."

"That too," Neal agreed. "Besides, I think that makes three jaw drops for Goldfur without even showing hir the Folly."

"And for me," Windsong admitted. "I could sense she was very pleased with herself about something, yet I still fell for it."

Suzan grinned, as she said, "Tess warned me that Neal had set you up, all I had to do was spring the trap!"

Silverpelt looked around as shi said, "I don’t remember you introducing anyone named Tess. Will Tess be joining us?"

Weaver grinned. "Tess is the all seeing, all knowing, but not always all telling main computer for this crazy ship."

"I can’t imagine where she might have picked up that bad habit," Midnight said, giving Neal a raised eyebrow.

"If you had a choice of a system that told you every little thing, or one that just told you what you needed to know – which would you choose?" Neal asked hir with a smile.

"Oh, I’m not saying it’s a bad system, just that it could lead to surprises."

"She’s pretty good at warning me about unpleasant surprises. Pleasant surprises I don’t mind being surprised about."

Forest caught a quick flare of amusement from Midnight, and wondered what type of surprise shi had set up for their host.

While there was plenty of food, Suzan considered it just a light lunch for the group. She promised them something a little more substantial for dinner.

The twins rushed out the door after lunch, and Neal had suggested that Goldfur and Garrek follow them. Forest and Suzan ducked back into the kitchen – supposedly to make sure they had or could get everything they needed for the beach party the next day, while Neal led the rest of their visitors – and all the cubs, to the main holosuite. Inside they found themselves in a heavily forested area.

Once inside, they were each handed a bright red ‘gun’. Neal explained the rules, "These aren’t the regular Tailstingers my kids train with. With so many cubs, I thought something a little gentler was called for. These are tinglers; they have a high and low setting." Pointing the one he had at himself, Neal put his finger in the trigger guard. A red beam shot out, showing where the gun was aimed. Pulling the trigger caused the red light to flash, but Neal didn’t seem to react to it in any way. "There isn’t much of an effect, just enough to let you know you’ve been hit. The low setting is about like someone running their finger though the ends of you fur; the high is almost a tickle. I do suggest you try it on yourselves so you know what you’re doing to others."

After finding out that even a face shot only tickled, the cubs started shooting each other. As they started chasing each other, Midnight turned back to Neal.

"Won’t the younger cubs be at a disadvantage?" shi asked.

"Not really," Neal replied. "The tinglers themselves are part of the holodeck and completely under Tess’s control. She will help the younger ones with their aim."

"And for those of us that don’t want to play?" Silverpelt asked, the way shi had hir arm around hir mate suggested shi was looking for a quiet retreat.

"Just lay the gun down. Tess knows who is playing, noncombatants won’t draw light or fire from them."

"It sounds like you’ve thought of everything," Fireglow said as shi and hir mate tossed their guns into the bushes and started heading for the sounds of a waterfall.

"I try," Neal admitted as they disappeared. "But the kids usually prove that I’ve forgotten at least one ‘loophole’."

While Neal helped keep the cubs occupied, Goldfur and Garrek had followed the twins into what looked like a suit room with a set of airlocks at the other side. Having been told earlier that Neal wasn’t buying suits for the kids to outgrow, they were surprised to find not only a pair of suits for the twins, but also another pair with their names on them. Each of the suits had a pressure gauge that read two atmospheres, except the one marked Garrek, it only read one atmosphere. After pressurizing it to two atmospheres, they found a small tear in the joint for the right fore knee. After replacing the joint with one from the parts locker, they donned the suits and tested them again before heading for the airlock.

Leaving the airlocks, they found themselves in the bay with the damaged shuttle. Looking around, Goldfur noticed the holodeck emitters were gone. Keying hir microphone shi asked, "This is all just a hologram, isn’t it?"

Holly nodded. "You’ve been on a holodeck since we entered the suit room. While we don’t really need these suits to do the repairs, Neal has us wear them so we get the full effect."

Garrek nodded. "So this is just a training session."

"Yes and no," Quickdash replied. "We are actually going to be repairing the shuttle, but we will do it remotely. The job gets done with no risk to the crew."

"Or any visitors," Holly added. "You can watch, help, or just play in the zero G. when you are ready for something else, you can ask Tess for an exit."

"So we aren’t required to wear these suits to play in the zero G?" Garrek asked, as he leered at Goldie, who caught his train of thought and grinned as shi shook hir head at him.

"No," Quickdash replied, and then shi grinned. "But if you’re thinking what I thought I just felt you thinking, you really should ‘get a room’."

"Do you have any ‘rooms’ we can use?" Goldie asked.

"Plenty," Holly replied as she placed the spare parts she thought they would need in a container to take to the shuttle with them. "We started with just one large holosuite, but as we found more uses for it Neal has added more."

"And all the rooms have variable gravity," Quickdash added as they headed over to the shuttle. "We even have a couple rooms with padded floors, walls, and ceilings for those that don’t want to bang into anything hard while they are ‘playing’."

Still grinning at the look hir mate was giving hir, Goldie said, "Maybe after we help you with your little chore."

With four of them working on it, the repairs went quickly. In a few cases they found that it wasn’t the anti-grav element, but the power and control runs which had suffered the damage.

After the static checks, they went in to de-suit; the full power tests would have to wait until the shuttle was next flown.

Goldie wrinkled hir nose as they got out of their suits. "I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need a bath or shower before I’m fit to be seen in public again."

Holly nodded. "We all do, and if you like we can use this holodeck to clean up in."

"Built in sonic shower?" Garrek asked with a frown. While it would get them clean, he had never felt that they did that good of a job.

"Something like that," Holly agreed with a grin. "If you two will just stand over there?" as they moved into position, she said, "You will want to raise your arms and spread your legs for the full effect."

Goldfur was about to ask what full effect, when shi started to feel a tingling on hir hand paws. Needle sprays of pleasantly cool water were wrapping hir paws in a watery mist. The rings of spray worked their way up hir arms, combining as they reached hir chest. The washing action then moved down hir torso, splitting into three to do hir forelegs and lower torso. Shi let out a yowl of surprised delight when the spray reached hir hindquarters, before going down hir tail like a fuse in reverse. As the spray died off, shi started to turn, only to be told to close hir eyes and mouth. As soon as shi complied, the spray started again at hir shoulders and worked its way up to hir face. While the spray didn’t go straight up hir nose or into hir ear canals, it did get everywhere else. A moment later and shi felt a tingle across hir entire body. Opening hir eyes, shi was amused to find hir self completely dry and feeling clean. A glance at Garrek showed he had also been cleaned, and if his wild fur was any indication, they both needed a good brush down.

Handing Garrek and Goldfur each a brush, the twins stepped away from them and spread their arms and legs. They were immediately covered in what looked like a watery halo that covered their entire bodies. Five seconds later, the halo disappeared, leaving them looking clean but unkempt.

As they each picked up a bush, Goldfur asked, "Why didn’t we get it all at once?"

Holly laughed. "You don’t get that until you learn to keep your muzzle shut when it’s doing your backside!"

Having yowled when the needle like spray had gone under hir tail, Goldfur understood the logic. "Well, I do feel much cleaner. Is this your regular method of bathing?"

"Actually this is our ‘quick and dirty’ way to get clean. As you noticed, by using holodeck water we can skip having to dry our fur, and go straight to grooming," Holly said as she started brushing Quickdash's hair. "We have regular showers and baths, as well as the hot tubs and pool."

"You bathe in a pool?" Garrek asked in amusement.

"Group bathing," Holly explained. "I think we will all be doing it tonight."

"Why would we need another bath?" Goldfur asked suspiciously.

"You’ll see!" Quickdash said with a laugh.

Once they were all groomed and dressed, the twins started showing Goldfur and Garrek around the Folly – that is until they got a look at the unfinished Gulf. They were still cheerfully rooting around its innards when Tess warned them that it was dinnertime.

Dinner was a noisy affair as the cubs were served first, either from the serving trays or by being dropped into a ‘big top’ as required. Having been fed earlier, Littleroar showed shi was no longer afraid of this new environment or its occupants by going from plate to plate, begging a taste from those that had something that smelled or looked interesting.

The other cubs were getting restless while the rest were still eating, so Suzan brought out one of the dessert trolleys. On it were rows of spoons with very small ‘samples’ of different types of pies.

As the cubs decided which flavors they liked the best, Midnight looked over at Neal and said, "I take it the criteria has changed."

Neal nodded. "You could say that, the game was altered so someone wouldn’t get stuck with something they didn’t care for."

"And how do you work that trick?" shi asked.

"Smoke and mirrors, and of course a little Tess style ‘magic’ thrown in for good measure."

"I take it what we pick is what we get?"

"For the most part, yes."

While chocolate was the most popular flavor chosen, rhubarb and cream was also in high demand. Windsong smiled when shi noticed that only shi, Neal and Shadowcrest had picked cherry.

Grinning at Ember, Neal asked, "Remember the way?"

With a little quiet coaching from Tess, Ember led them to the older dinning room. After leaving hir top in the next room, Midnight looked around the ‘mess room’. "I see you have added holodeck emitters in here as well. Does this mean we won’t be enjoying real pie?"

"No." Neal said with a grin. "It means sneaky chakats can’t sense their victims while blinded by pie." At hir dirty look, he chuckled. "It also lets us have a bit more fun in the same limited space."

Once every one was ready, Neal stepped into the center of the room. "I don’t know what Ember and the others may have told you, but a few things have changed since they last ‘played’ in this room. First, you aren’t stuck getting splattered with a pie flavor you don’t like." As the others grinned at this, Neal added with a soft chuckle, "And we have made it a little more cub friendly. When Ember last played, all shi could manage to throw were the small personal sized pies, even though others were throwing full size pies at hir." Neal gave hir a wink and said, "Here’s how it works now. Hold out your paw." A small pie appeared. "Now point out who you want to hit with it." With a grin shi pointed at Goldie. The pie changed to rhubarb and cream and grew to full size. "Now, if you had chosen Littleroar…" the pie changed to chocolate and shrank to little more than a double spoonful. At the confused looks he was getting Neal laughed. "In a nutshell, everyone receives what they are can handle, and throws what they are able." Turning back to Ember, he said, "Feed someone!" shi raised hir paw and a small pie appeared in it, shi then threw it at Neal. In mid-flight the pie grew to full size and changed to cherry before hitting him right in the face. Wiping the pie out of his eyes, he asked, "Any questions?"

The ‘messy time’ started in earnest at that point. As the pies started to fly, they found that Neal hadn’t mentioned a couple of little ‘loopholes’. One was that pies colliding in midair could ‘feed’ you flavors you had not asked for. The second was the pie was sized for its intended victim when launched, so when Moonglow ducked under what would have been a face shot, it was Eudora that was covered by the full size pie. Windsong was about to voice hir concern, when most of a full sized pie fell towards Littleroar. Just before it would have buried the kitten, the pie hit a small force field. While a little of it did land on Littleroar, most of it plopped down on either side of hir. Puzzled, Windsong turned to Neal and was about to ask what had just happened, when a missed mass of butterscotch not only filled hir open mouth, but also coated the rest of hir face. Tess’s quiet voice warned hir that while she would protect the little cubs, big cubs were on their own.

Spitting out bits of pie, Windsong muttered through hir butterscotch coated muzzle; "Thank you Tess, I think."

With everyone now a multi-flavored mess, Neal opened the heavy doors leading to the pool. Ember led the older cubs to the showers as Midnight carried Littleroar over to a sink to get the worse of the pie fillings off the happily squirming kitten.

Windsong was at the doors when shi looked back; only Longstripe, Desertsand, Silverpelt, and Fireglow remained. It was hard to tell who was whom without hir other senses, as they were so completely covered in the remains of the pies. Fireglow made a shooing gesture as Silverpelt asked hir to close the doors behind hir. Windsong grinned as shi nodded and closed the doors. Unless they had learned to tone it down, the others would know what they were up to soon enough.

Shi was not quite out of the showers when a pair of paws grabbed each of hir wrists and dragged hir to the pool. Once in the pool, one pair of paws started shampooing hir hair, while the other pair started rubbing soap into hir backs, eliciting an unexpected but very happy purr from hir. With hir eyes covered in shampoo, Windsong used hir other senses to see who was working hir over so nicely. Sending out a thread of thought, shi quickly reeled it back in when shi realized it was the youth that had threatened to burn hir ears off.

"Relax, we can talk this way so you can keep the shampoo out of your mouth," Quickdash quietly sent hir.

"I thought you wanted to me stay out of your mind," Windsong sent, confused by the unexpected about face.

"Well, it is more polite to speak where everyone else can hear. As for earlier at takeoff, I find it hard to concentrate on my flying when someone I don’t know is trying to dig through my thoughts."

Windsong bowed hir head, both in acknowledgement, as well as to give Quickdash better access to hir hair. "I’m not used to being around others who are that sensitive, I will have to break myself of that bad habit."

"I’ll be happy to help!" Quickdash sent, along with a light scorching of hir ear tips.

"Hey!" Windsong sent back as the youth pushed hir head underwater, both to remove the shampoo as well as ‘cool’ hir ears. Shi was just raising hir head out of the water and about to ‘path’ a strong ‘tickle’ toward the twins, when a strong feeling flowed across and through hir, leaving hir weak kneed, and wanting to laugh out loud.

"Noisy, aren’t they?" Holly laughed, as most of those in the pool reacted to the pleasurable feelings coming from the next room.

"You can feel that too?" Windsong asked in surprise.

"Mostly through hir," Holly agreed, pointing her chin at Quickdash. "Shi even ‘sent’ me both sides of your conversation just now."

"An interesting ship, and an even more interesting crew," Windsong sent at Holly.

"You have no idea," shi heard back. It had sounded like Holly, but there was a little of Quickdash in there as well.

As things started heating up in the room next door, Windsong grinned as shi said, "I hope no one minds them getting a little excited. My parents live on Chakona, so my mother doesn’t get to see hir sister as often as they would like."

Quickdash tried to blow hir a raspberry while laughing. "Heck, what they are doing is kind of tame for the Folly! With three of our chakat sisters in the same heat/rut cycle, it really starts getting wild when they are on their peaks!"

Looking over at where Neal had just dunked Screamingwind, Windsong commented to the young chakat, "You’re kidding me. Somehow I had thought a human captain would be more restrictive."

Holly snorted as she worked shampoo into Quickdash's hair. "He knows our needs are not always his needs. Although I do remember him complaining that it was hard to concentrate with all that wild sex going on."

"What did he do?" Windsong wondered, trying not to giggle out loud.

"Try to plan his times of concentration when they were busy with other things!" Holly said with a chuckle before adding, "He does have fields that could shield him from the sensations, but he never uses them."

Quickdash nodded. "He has used them to keep others from sensing it though. We had other ships connected to the Folly, and Neal dampened down the output when they started questioning what was going on."

"That, and a couple of them were asking if they could join in on the fun!"

Windsong could only laugh as shi smiled back at the pair. "Well, if that was the case, I guess you couldn’t blame them for asking, could you?"

Forest had been listening to Windsong and the twins talk as shi did Midnight’s hair. Shi looked over at Neal and commented, "I thought my mate was exaggerating about some of the things that happened on this ship."

Neal snorted as Screamingwind washed his back. "First rule of being a good captain to your crew is to never give them an order you know they can’t obey". He hmm’d for a moment before continuing. "Somehow, trying to tell to tell them when they can and can’t have sex just sounds like a great way to start a mutiny."

"That, and we would then expect him to ‘service’ all his mates himself!" Calmmeadow said with a grin, most of those mates in question were laughing at Neal’s pained expression.

The ‘noise’ from the other room had peaked and died down while they were talking. Holly grinned as she asked Neal, "Do we get to rate them?"

"Be nice," Neal told her, "they are our guests after all."

"Rate them?" Goldfur asked with a raised eyebrow. Windsong’s own puzzlement was obvious as shi mentally echoed the question to the twins.

Neal smiled. "You know, score cards with how we felt what they did, maybe critiques on performance," his smile grew wider as his quietly told hir, "You know, teasing your parents."

A soft series of chuckles and giggles followed the suggestion, as they started to ask just ‘how’ they could offer their ratings.

It was another five minutes before the doors to the mess room opened; Silverpelt was the first one out. Shi only got halfway out before shi froze. From the cubs in the wading pool to the Rakshani in the far hot tub, everyone was holding a sign with a number on it. Shi finally moved forward again, frowning at some of the holders of the lower scores.

"You only rate our effort as a five?" shi demanded of hir daughter, whose card was shaking from hir laughter. "At least the good captain gave us a ten!"

Windsong only smiled sweetly as shi looked up at hir mother. "Only because he doesn’t know you as well as I do. After all, there were times some of us weren’t able to sleep with ALL your romping about at home!"

Midnight and Forest lost it at that point, as Goldfur started flipping the sheets of hir card. While there was a blank one to write in your own score, the sheets went from a minus five to zero to ten. Then it went to eleven and twelve, followed by ‘WOW!’ and ‘HOLY #%#^^$$!!’.

As shi stared in bewilderment, Neal said, "We sometimes find the scale we’re using isn’t quite large enough for what we’re trying to measure."

"And what may I ask would it take to get a high score from you?" shi asked as shi stepped towards the showers.

"You mean the ‘holy’ one?" he asked. At hir nod Neal grinned, "The last time I thought I needed that card was when ten chakats all had dual orgasms at once. While several of them are as ‘vocal’ as you are, two are even more so. I happened to be with Zhanch at that particular moment, thank the deities she sank her claws into the bed and not into me!"

"Do you believe in deities?" Windsong asked, more than a little surprised at having felt that for some reason he did.

"A silly question to be asking me," Neal said with a grin. "Ask Midnight or Forest if they believe in deities. Of course they might just believe Boyce is magical."

"I thought strange things have been known to happen on the Folly," Goldfur commented.

"Oh, they do," Neal agreed. "Like a computer whose logic seems to be more than her programming can explain, and transporters that sometimes do more than just move people and things! But those are things that might be explained away with a bad connection or faulty circuits. I know Boyce has sired Caitian, Rakshan as well as chakat cubs with his mates – a wee bit harder to explain than a few short circuits." Looking over to the wading pool where Ember and Windrunner were splashing and being splashed, Neal asked, "So, are those two a love gift from a mischievous deity, or magic?"

"So now I’m a short circuit?" Tess asked sweetly, startling their guests.

Neal grinned. "Your default programming has you do a basic scan on every carrier we take onboard. So was it a loose wire, or a demented spirit that caused you to not alert me to our stowaways until it was too late to take them back?"

"Perhaps she thought you were lonely," Suzan said, with a smile.

"Tess? Or a crazy deity?" Neal asked.

"Yes," she said with a grin.

Forest turned to Midnight and said, "I see what you mean about it being hard to get the truth out of him."

"Truth?" Neal said with a grin. "What is truth? Tell you what; here is the truth as I know it. Yes, deities exist. In fact, I believe that there are over a dozen of them on the Folly at this very moment." At the looks of surprise from his guests, Neal’s grin turned evil as he added, "If just one of them played that ‘trick’ on Boyce, think of the trouble a dozen of them could cause."

Suzan’s grin was almost as bad as Neal’s as she added, "In other words, be very careful what you wish for!"

While Neal was confusing their parents, the cubs had been quizzing DarkStreak and Spitfire about any other entertainment the Folly might provide. Spitfire now ran up to Neal with the other cubs in tow. "Can we show them the birds?" shi asked.

"No scaring my birds," Neal teasingly told hir. As they all nodded, he smiled. "Get dried, and then you can go."

Leanna had been cuddling with Kris and Trina. Shi was starting to pull hirself out of their embrace to help keep an eye on the cubs, when Midnight waved hir back down. At hir look of confusion, Midnight smiled and said, "You can relax Leanna. With Tess keeping an eye on them, they will be hard pressed to get into any real trouble."

Spitfire ran over to one of the mats by the door. Standing on it, shi said, "Tess, quick dry please!"

Goldfur and Garrek were the only guests that didn’t jump a little as the cub was enveloped in a misty halo. Seconds later it disappeared, leaving a dry cub waiting impatiently for the others.

Ember had jumped on the pad for hir turn when DarkStreak called out, "Tess, tickle dry! Start at the tip of hir tail!"

Ember had trouble staying on the mat, as a little ball of mist started at hir tail and crawled up it like a slow burning fuse.

The other cubs all opted for the tickle dry. Some more than once, as they challenged each other to try not to move as the mist tickled down their bodies.

As the older cubs raced from the room, Midnight remarked, "That does look like more fun than towels and a fur drier."

"Just one of the pluses of the holodeck systems. A small replicator deconstructs the water and loose fur, leaving nothing to clean up after."

"Isn’t it a waste of power?" Longstripe asked.

Neal grinned as he said, "Warp cores aren’t ‘instant on’ and they produce a lot of power, even when in standby. We have enough excess that I don’t have to turn them up for little things like the mess room or our magical dry cleaners."

While most of the others headed for the main lounge after drying and dressing, Windsong stepped back into the old dining area. Shi was surprised to find it immaculate. Looking around, shi tapped the comm badge Neal had given each of them and asked, "Tess?"

"Yes, Windsong," she replied, "How may I help you?"

"I understand that this room is one big replicator. May I ask you to make something for me?"

"Within limits," Tess agreed. "You will need to get it out the doors."

"It won’t be all that large." Shi said with a grin. "I was hoping for a Celtic harp, one with dual crossed strings?" shi asked, looking hopeful.

"I have a couple of styles in memory, is this what you are after?" Tess asked, as a harp and covering case appeared next to a wheeled dolly.

Windsong carefully went over the harp, smiling at the rich texture of the beech and walnut wood. Shi then carefully checked the case. In one of the pockets shi found extra strings, a tensioning tool, and a set of metal claw tips to protect hir claws from the strings.

"Thank you Tess, this is perfect!" Windsong said as shi carefully placed the case over the harp.

Shi stepped into the corridor, only to stop after looking both directions in confusion. "Okay," shi muttered. "Which way was my room?"

The emergency lights came on, and then started flashing in a ‘runway’ pattern to the left.

Giving a snort of amusement, shi said, "Thanks Tess!" and followed the lights.

Once in hir room, a few minutes with the tensioning tool had the strings tuned to hir liking, and shi started strumming through some of the melodies shi’d learned while on Earth.

Shi was just finishing a melody shi’d heard in an ancient black and white human movie, one called ‘An Old Irish Lullaby’. Shi was softly singing the old lyrics of a son’s wish to hear his mother’s loving voice again when shi sensed someone watching hir. Turning back to the door, shi found it standing open. In the doorway were several of the cubs, Spitfire and DarkStreak had been leading Patchwork, Snowcloud, Eudora, Stonefur, Ember and Markus through the corridors when they had heard the harp. Suddenly all of them moved into the room, burying hir in hugs and lick-kisses to show their appreciation for hir music. After the surprised chakat returned the hugs and kisses, a few unexpected tears slipped from hir eyes. The cubs then proceeded to drag hir and hir new harp to the main lounge where the rest of their families were congregating.

Windsong's harp

After moving one of the taur pads to the middle of the room for hir, the cubs insisted shi play some more.

Smiling, Windsong started playing an even older tune shi’d learned called "Oh Danny Boy’. With hir lyrics little more than a whisper to the kits, hir mother passed Neal an unsealed envelope. After reading the message Neal raised an eyebrow at hir, Silverpelt gave him a shrug and a smile in return. Neal then passed the note to Weaver, who read it, and then she looked over at the singer surrounded by cubs. Turning back to Neal, she gave him a nod.

Windsong’s last song was another lullaby; with the long day the cubs had had, half of them were now asleep.

One of the little ones still up was Firestorm. Shi started to get up, only to be stopped by Neal’s hand on hir lower back.

"Sleepy time," he quietly told hir.

Shi then tried to crawl out from under his hand.

"Oh no you don’t," Neal told hir as he pulled hir into a hug. When shi tried to wiggle free, he wrapped his other arm around hir as well and said, "Five minutes. You stay awake five more minutes and you can go play, okay?"

Stormy looked like shi was going to protest, when Starblazer joined them. After a couple of lick-kisses, Star cuddled up with hir and closed her eyes. Stormy wasn’t far behind.

Weaver gave Neal a grin. "Water quenches fire," she whispered. At Midnight’s raised eyebrow she said, "Someone told us that they were like fire and water. It’s not hard to tell which is which."

Neal stroked the sleeping cubs as he whispered, "Star often cools Stormy down, but Stormy can occasionally stir Star up to the point that she’s boiling over with excitement."

"What are your plans now?" Forest asked.

Neal snorted. "You’re asking me?" Looking over at Weaver he asked, "What are my plans for this evening?"

"To keep to your schedule and still go to the beach you needed to take down two pods in the morning."

"Pods loaded, manifests checked and confirmed. We will test Alpha’s repairs before we take both shuttles down with a pod."

"You said you had a friend you trusted to unload them without your supervision."

"I’ve already talked to him, Samuel will meet us on arrival."

"I understand that Suzan and Forest baked plenty of breads to replace those ruined in the rain, as well as prepared us a little picnic basket. So the captain is off the hook until morning."

"So much for the easy part," Neal said, still stroking the cubs.

"Easy part?" Garrek asked.

"I feel I wear too many hats sometimes. The captain and quartermaster are done for the evening. As chief engineer, I’ve also checked over the repairs you helped the twins with, a very nice job by the way. With those ‘easy’ jobs out of the way, I’m just got the more challenging ones to do."

"And those are?" Windsong asked as shi put hir harp in its bag.

"Mate, companion, father, teacher…"

"Warrior," Zhanch added.

"Court jester when we need a lift," Calmmeadow said with a grin.

"Magician!" Holly said with a laugh. "We lost track of the number of jaw drops we got out of showing them Gulf."

"Do you regret having those other jobs?" Forest asked.

"No… I just sometimes worry that I’m not giving them the time they need." Looking around the room, Neal grinned as he added, "I’m just lucky my mates and older kids are as understanding as they are."

"In other words, we take turns!" Quickdash said with a laugh.

"So whose turn is it tonight?" Goldie asked with a grin.

Neal smiled. "I’m sure they’ll let me know."

"That’s always safest," Garrek agreed.

"What’s that suppose to mean?" Goldie asked, picking up a nearby pillow.

"When we are at Mountain Glade I have little choice but to bow to vixen rule," he reminded hir. "It sounds like the good captain has also found that to be the safest course of action."

Goldie nodded in agreement, but shi still bounced the pillow off Garrek’s head the moment he turned away.

Alex chuckled with the rest of them when Garrek gave hir a dirty look. "You forgot the third rule," he said with a grin. At Garrek’s confused look, he said, "Neal warned us male types of the three rules to get along with females and herms. Rule one, she, or shi is always right. Rule two, when they are wrong, refer to rule one."

"And rule three?" Garrek asked with a grin.

"If you ever find yourself winning an argument with them, apologize immediately!" Alex finished with a laugh before being pelted by all available pillows.

Neal chuckled. "The Pegasus was with us when I suddenly found I had more than one mate. I think Boyce’s firstwife, gave my ‘firstwife’ a few pointers on keeping peace in the family."

"You didn’t ask Tess?" Midnight asked with a grin, having been there to lend Weaver and the others hir views on sharing a co-mate.

Neal shook his head and shuddered. "I’ve found that there are some things safer left unknown, the workings of the female mind is high on that list."

As the others laughed at him, Neal snorted quietly. "Maybe we should put the cubs to bed before we wake them up again."

As they started carrying the cubs to the nursery, Garrek quickened his pace for a moment to catch up with Neal. "What are the chances of using one of your holosuites for a few hours?"

"Ask Tess, she knows who’s already asked for what." Neal grinned as he added, "If you want it for what I think you do, ask Tess for some echoes."

"Echoes?" Garrek asked, confused.

"You’ll figure it out," Neal assured him.

"Reminds me a bit of Dale," Goldie commented as they looked over their ‘echoes’, while the echoes seemed to look them over in turn. It didn’t help that the echo ‘Goldie’ had precisely matched hir words and gestures with only a slight delay.

Garrek was about to reply, but when moving his arm he bumped his echo’s arm into a nightstand. He then stared at his arm; he had felt that! He then walked himself and his echo up to each other, and gently brushed a hand across the other’s face. "Tess," he asked. "Is there a way to control my echo’s movement without me moving?"

"Of course," she replied. "You can use voice commands, move the echo in real time or with a delay you can set. You can also move it like a dummy, mirror echo, or swap."

"What’s ‘swap’?" Goldie asked - only to find hirself across the room. Hir echo was now where shi had been.

"Echo freeze," Garrek quickly said, grinning when his double froze in mid-word. He then stepped over to what was now Goldie’s echo, and ran his paw down hir backs. Both Goldie’s shuddered as he dragged a claw tip over sensitive spots. He then wrapped hir echo in a hug. Shi could feel his embrace, and returned it, watching hir echo trap him in hir hug.

He grinned as he said, "Echo swap." Moving the ‘him’ that Goldie’s echo didn’t have captured, he moved around to hug hir from behind. "Echo unfreeze, add two second delay," he said when he thought he was in the right position. Both ‘Garrek’s then began groping and lick kissing the chakat trapped between them.

Tired of feeling both of him all over hir while watching the action from across the room, Goldie quietly said, "Echo swap."

After a few more minutes of heavy petting, Garrek pulled away enough to grin at hir as he quietly said, "My dear, I think I see some very interesting possibilities…"


Continued in Chapter 8.

Copyright © 2006 Allen Fesler – Redbear1158@hotmail.com

Goldfur, Forestwalker, Midnight, Garrek, Kris, Trina, Leanna, all their cubs, and the Chakat Universe are copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.

Admiral Boyce Garald Kline Jr and some of his family are copyright Boyce Garald Kline Jr and used with his permission.

The Quange were created by Roy D. Pounds II and are used with his permission. (if he likes it!)

The Holy Christian Kingdom of North America, and the Amazonia war are copyright John Plunkett (if he likes it!)

Windsong and Myth are copyright Gregg Anderson, and used at his request.

( 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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