The party fragmented a bit as the cubs were put to bed. While Goldfur and Garrek checked out one of the smaller holosuites, Midnight and Forest had decided to call it an evening and had volunteered to sleep with the cubs. On hearing this, Leanna had tucked Opal and Mica into Midnight’s big top before dragging Kris and Trina towards their room, the grin on hir muzzle suggesting that they wouldn’t be sleeping any time soon. The twins had also dragged their new friend in the direction of the main holosuite. After hearing one of them say something about ‘stingers’, Shady had followed to help keep Windsong from getting in over hir head.
When Neal returned to the lounge, the only guests remaining were Silverpelt, hir sister, and their mates. A moment later, Suzan joined Neal as he plopped down on a low couch; a quick tickle-fight erupting before they settled into a comfortable hug.
Silverpelt grinned at the pair. "And here I thought he was in hot water for making you all that extra work."
Suzan grinned back as she said, "Oh, I have no problem with Neal bringing home friends for a meal, but the ‘ship’s cook’ will sometimes get after the ‘captain’ for not giving her sufficient notice."
Desertsand snorted as shi asked, "How do you know when it’s safe to play-act? He could have been trying to impress someone important."
"First, Tess was good enough to tell me where he was calling from. Second, he asked for ‘the cook’. That told me I could play it as I pleased. Since I really would have preferred to cruise the local markets first, I voiced a little of my annoyance at him. From what I heard, either Midnight fell for it too, or shi was helping set the rest of you up to take the fall."
"So we shouldn’t believe anything while we’re here?" Fireglow asked with a frown.
Shortdash chuckled. "The rule of thumb for this ship is: ‘Is it really important?’ If the answer is no, then good luck getting a straight answer out of this group. If on the other paw it is important, you will find they don’t play around."
Quickwind snorted as shi added, "Proof that it is contagious, my mate didn’t add that the question of importance is gauged by the one asked, not the asker."
Desertsand turned to Silverpelt and asked, "Does that note you passed to our host fall under the category of important?"
"I think so," Silverpelt said with a nod. "I just hope the captain thinks so too."
Neal was about to answer, when they all jerked a little from a sudden mental jolt.
Longstripe was the first to speak, though shi was fighting back a chuckle, "That was Goldie! Five credits says shi just got goosed!"
"No bet," Neal replied. "But, could you tell if it was intentional, accidental, or did shi manage to goose hirself?"
"How could shi goose hirself?" Longstripe wondered.
"I had suggested to Garrek that they try out some echoes," Neal said with a grin. "You will feel what they feel, and they can be made to move as you do. So if Goldfur’s echo was close to hir own hindquarters when shi took a swipe at Garrek, and he dodged out of the way…."
"What a delightfully evil toy!" Silverpelt exclaimed, laughing as shi tightened hir hug on hir mate. "Is there a free room where we can try them out?"
"Be patient, love, I’m still waiting for him to answer our question," Fireglow told hir.
"Patience my tail!" Silverpelt exclaimed. "If I understand this correctly, your echo can’t knock me up, but we can still enjoy you in me!"
Tess spoke up before Fireglow could try again to calm hir mate. "A room for eight has been reserved for you whenever you are ready for it."
"Eight?" Silverpelt said in surprise.
"Your words and actions earlier suggested that your sister and hir mate would be joining you tonight. If all four of you wish to play with your echoes, you will need a little more room."
Desertsand raised hir hand before Silverpelt could start dragging hir mate out of the room. With a smile shi said, "As you can see, my sister can sometimes be easily distracted when shi comes into heat. I fear it's something of a family tradition. But before we go play, what was that note about?"
"Admiral Kline sent that to us just before we left Chakona," Fireglow explained. "We weren’t too sure about it initially, but having meet Neal and his ‘crew’ we are starting to think Boyce’s idea has merit."
"Which is?" Longstripe prodded.
"To have Neal take Windsong to hir first Star Fleet station. Shi was originally scheduled to take a Star Fleet cargo ship, but Boyce suggested the Folly as an alternate possibility."
Silverpelt nodded. "And with the way shi’s acting, we decided to ask about the option."
"I had not noticed anything unusual about hir," Desertsand commented.
Silverpelt frowned a little as shi said, "Something about hir has changed since shi went to that school in North America. A little over two years ago hir cheerful messages stopped for over a month. Then they started up again, but the cheerfulness seemed to be forced, almost as if shi was trying to hide something. Shi brushed off our questions and we let it go at the time. But now that we can feel hir, we can sense a barrier, almost like shi is afraid we might find out something shi wishes to keep a secret from us."
"I was wondering about that," Shortdash said. "Windsong seems to be holding up a mental block to try to keep hir family from reading hir too deeply. A much weaker shield is directed at the rest of the chakats that might try to read hir. Neal and our ‘twins’ got through because shi wasn’t expecting them to be able to sense, much less read hir."
Weaver frowned. "Did shi raise hir barriers once shi knew they could get to hir?"
"Not really," Shortdash said with a chuckle. "Shi stopped trying to read Neal when he scorched hir tail, but he was still able to get through with physical contact. As for the twins, shi had opened up a little while they were washing hir. The physical contact and Quickdash’s bull-headedness kept hir from getting hir barriers back up."
"I seem to remember hearing you saying something to the effect that that attribute was the fault of hir first adopted father," Weaver said with a grin.
Shortdash gave first Weaver and then Neal dirty looks while hir mate chuckled. "Pot, meet kettle," Quickwind laughed as hir mate turned hir glare on hir. "Neal may have helped bring it out, but you have to admit that ‘bull-headedness’ runs in the family."
"What are you doing Neal?" Silverpelt asked, having noticed that Neal seemed preoccupied.
"Along with asking if I would give your daughter a ride, Boyce added a few access codes. One of them includes access to certain Star Fleet records in which Tess has already found a medical reference to Windsong." Neal’s voice hardened a little as he continued, "It seems shi was badly injured about that time. The full details are under a privacy seal." He didn’t add that Tess had also found that there had been a lot of furs hurt in a riot in a town bordering the school Windsong had been attending just hours before shi had been admitted to the hospital.
"Why would shi try to hide something like that?" Silverpelt wondered, feeling hurt.
"What would you have done if you had known?" Neal asked hir. "Would you have tried to pull hir out of school and drag hir back to Chakona?"
"I… we…" Silverpelt sputtered as hir mate sadly nodded.
"The other glaring omission is that no psychological testing was done as part of hir treatment and recovery. In fact three doctors placed in hir records that shi refused to be tested." Neal frowned a little more as he continued; "Perhaps shi feared the loss of hir scholarship if they didn’t like what the tests said about hir mental state after whatever happened."
"Why do you see that as an omission?" Shortdash asked.
Neal snorted. "Star Fleet took a very close look at the mental health of my kids after the New Kiev incident. They either liked, or were confused by what they found, because they then ran me through the wringer."
"I somehow find that hard to believe," Shortdash said with a small snort of amusement of hir own.
"It’s true," Weaver told hir with a grin. "They asked us to drag him down to Pegasus's main sickbay. Once there, they knocked him out and a skunktaur did what hy said was a little ‘light reading’."
"And they still let him loose?" Shortdash laughed, only half joking.
"They seemed to think he was more traceable with others to look out for." Weaver grinned a little wider as she added, "What seemed to scare them a little was what Neal might have done if he hadn’t had us to think about."
At the stares he was getting, Neal shrugged. "The most dangerous thing out there is someone that believes that he has nothing to lose."
"What about your colonies?" Quickwind asked. "Don’t they still need you?"
"Not really. My death and the loss of the Folly would be a major setback, but the colonies would be fine. Some of the progress on the existing ones would be delayed a bit, and the new ones might start up a year or two later than currently planned, but I have enough help that they can do it without me if needed."
Suzan pulled him back into her hug with a growl. "You promised to help me raise these two," she reminded him.
"I did, and I intend to," Neal agreed while returning her hug.
"So no more talk of doom and gloom!" she said as she poked him in the ribs.
"Yes dear," he replied before he made her squirm with a tickle.
"So will you take hir?" Fireglow asked.
Neal was quiet for a moment before slowly nodding. "We’ll take hir. If we can’t get hir out of hir shell, perhaps whoever we find to help Shady will be able to help Windy as well."
"Is that the only reason?" Desertsand asked with a raised eyebrow.
"That, and I’m sometimes a sucker for stray kittens," he admitted with a grin.
Fireglow nodded. "One word of warning, shi prefers Song to Windy."
"I’ll take that under advisement," Neal said, his grin turning evil.
While all the cubs had been taken to the nursery, not all of them had thought it was bedtime just yet. Stonefur, Ember and Markus had been carried in and were still asleep, Windrunner had awakened just long enough to crawl over to hir mother before going back to sleep. Patchwork and Snowcloud on the other paw, were still wide awake and getting bored. Snowcloud started to get up, only to be stopped by a tail trying to nudge hir back down. Shi turned to complain, but stopped when shi saw it was DarkStreak. DarkStreak simply held up a paw for silence as shi watched Midnight and Forest. Deciding their slumber was deep enough, shi and Spitfire headed for the door, only pausing to grab their comm badges. Patchwork and Snowcloud made to follow them, only to be stopped by Spitfire, shi was pointing at the pile of badges. Silently grumbling, they each grabbed a badge and followed them out of the room.
"They’ll be cranky in the morning," Forest mumbled into Midnight’s fur.
"They can nap on the way to the beach," Midnight replied, as shi let hirself drift off to sleep.
Once they were around a couple of corners, the cubs stopped for a moment.
"What’s the big idea? The ship can track you with these things!" Snowcloud said as shi waved hir badge around.
"Tess can track us without them," DarkStreak replied. "If you had left it behind it would have set off an alarm when we left the room."
"And I think I have hirs," Patchwork said, sniffing hir badge.
"That’s all right," Tess said, shocking their visitors. "I can tell who is wearing which badge. Now, what are you four up too?"
"They were going to play stinger tag, and we want to play too!" Spitfire said, referring to the twins.
"Well, they are already having entirely too much fun at Windsong’s expense. Tell you what, you go in on Windsong’s side and I’ll pretend I didn’t see you sneaking out. Deal?"
"Deal!" they chorused as they ran down the corridors.
Silverpelt was trying to coax hir mate back to their waiting ‘room for eight’ when shi heard the soft thumps of fast moving cubs. Turning to Neal, shi said, "That was…."
Having just been warned by Tess, Neal grinned as he finished, "… a couple of ours, and a couple of yours. I think they’re heading for a game of tailstinger tag."
"Should we send them back to bed?" Desertsand asked.
Neal shook his head. "No, let them play themselves tired. Tess will keep an eye on them." Checking a note in his glasses he added, "They’re around the corner already, so it’s safe for you to sneak out."
A little while after having seen his guests to their room, Neal was heading for his cabin when Tess paged him.
From the intermittent wash of feelings that he had been getting since the groups had gone their separate ways, Neal had started to wonder if some of his crew and guests were competing for the night’s high score. As he yawned, he asked Tess what else needed his attention.
"I just thought you would like to welcome your latest guest onboard," she said.
"I don’t remember asking anyone else to join us," Neal said slowly, trying to think of what – or whom – he might have overlooked.
"Midnight sent the invitation; I understand hir guest had to do a little packing before joining us."
"And you didn’t see this as noteworthy?"
"You did say you didn’t mind pleasant surprises," she reminded him.
The small personnel shuttle docked at the port Neal had been closest to, and its sole occupant stepped into the airlock.
The skunktaur was in male mode. As hy stepped out of the airlock, hy gave the tired looking Neal a grin. "Burning the midnight oil again, I see. I had thought that all of your mates would have tied you down by now." As Neal continued to just look at hym, hy smiled and added, "I was in female mode when last we met."
"Lighttouch," Neal acknowledged as he finally recognized hym, "What brings you calling? Not that I mind seeing you again."
"Since I was not sure I could break free in time, I asked Midnight not to mention I was coming. The reason for my calling is you, or rather your family. I understand Shadowcrest was hurt and might benefit from my services. Midnight gave me a few of the details, but knowing you I am sure that there is more to it."
As one of Tess’s carts came up to take hys luggage, Neal began filling Lighttouch in on Shadowcrest's situation, as well as the training Quickdash’s parents thought shi would be needing a little earlier than anticipated. He then told the skunktaur about Windsong and the reasons shi might soon be joining the Folly.
Lighttouch smiled to hymself as Neal rambled from point to point. He had been more than a little tense before he recognized the skunktaur, but he now seemed to be calming down now that he thought he might have a possible solution to some of his more time sensitive problems.
As Neal wound down, Lighttouch asked, "I would be happy to help with the twins and Shadowcrest. Are they still up?"
"They are currently tail-stinging each other and Windsong. Did you want to talk to them, or just observe?" Neal asked.
"Observation will do for now," hy replied.
Neal led hym to a small holodeck and asked Tess for a chair and a taur pad. Once they were comfortable, Neal asked her for a ‘magic mirror’. The view changed to one of the forest in the other holodeck. They could each look down into a small display and see where everyone was, they could then use it to shift their views to wherever they liked.
They watched as the youngsters tried to out-fox each other. Shadowcrest was walking though the underbrush, making just enough noise to make hirself easy to track. Windsong laid in wait for the twins, only the tip of hir tail twitching in anticipation. The twins though, had spotted the trap, and were now silently sneaking up on Windsong. Behind them were the four cubs; they had already paired off to take the twins.
Neal chuckled as everyone got into position. "This is when I’m always tempted to have Tess make the audio go both ways and clap my hands."
Lighttouch grinned. "So what is stopping you?"
"Payback, among other things," Neal replied with a matching grin. "I’m trying to teach them the old ‘do unto others’ and not the ‘do as I say, not as I do’."
"And this?" Lighttouch asked, as the players seemed to be almost ready to spring their surprises.
Neal nodded. "I know that DarkStreak would have had Patchwork and Snowcloud try the tailstingers on themselves so they know what they are doing to the twins. And if Forest is anything like Midnight, shi has taught those two that what goes around, comes around."
Tess quietly interrupted with, "They also did a little practice stalking in one of the other holodecks, so while this is the first time they have gone after the twins, they have been ‘stung’. I heard Spitfire warning Snowcloud that the twins won’t hurt them for their sneak attack, but they will get even. Spitfire then suggested they let the twins get even with them tonight, shi wants it over and done with."
The moment had arrived. Thinking shi had heard something, Windsong had stepped just a little ways out of hir concealment. Not making a sound, the twins stood as one, and fired at the copper-toned tail. Windsong seemed to levitate as shi shrieked in surprise, hir tail spreading into a nice imitation of a bottlebrush. The cubs then bounded out of their concealment, nailing the tails of the twins. Windsong spun around in surprise as hir attackers shrieked in return. As shi brought hir stinger to bear on Holly’s fluffed out tail, Windsong saw Snowcloud and Spitfire dodging back into the underbrush.
"Shady!" Quickdash yelled as hir tail bottle brushed just as Windsong’s had a moment ago.
"No fair using two stingers!" Holly added, thinking their big sister had managed to nail them both at the same time.
As the twins headed in the direction they thought the shots had come from, Windsong gave chase with a grin. If they were looking for one very large chakat, a sneaky cub or two would probably go unnoticed.
Lighttouch and Neal watched as the twins ran past the hidden cubs, who then gave chase, ignoring Windsong. The twins were ‘tail stung’ several more times as they tried to find Shadowcrest and retaliate, but shi wasn’t anywhere they looked.
Holly was turning to return fire on Windsong, only to find that shi was still firing at Quickdash. Looking harder at the underbrush, she spotted Snowcloud popping up for another shot. "Quickdash! Cub infestation!" she cried as she fired on Snowcloud before the cub could duck back under cover.
The next few minutes were a free-for-all as the groups split, everyone being targeted by everyone else. The twins finally found (and tailstung!) all four cubs, then they, the cubs, and Windsong went in search of Shadowcrest. They were passing under one of the large trees when several water balloons dropped from above, getting headshots on two of the older three and spraying the little ones with near misses.
Patchwork started to aim hir stinger at the treed chakat, only to have DarkStreak bat it down with hir tail. "It’s wet!" shi explained, "You might get zapped too!"
Noticing that no one else had tried to fire, Patchwork nodded and lowered hir arm.
Once shi was down, Shady gave them all a grin as shi said, "No hits on my tail, and I didn’t have to fire a shot!"
Noticing the lack of hir suppresser belt, Quickdash asked, "That’s an echo, isn’t it?" At Shady’s nod, Quickdash dropped hir stinger and leaped at the much larger chakat. Holly, DarkStreak and Spitfire were right behind hir.
Having been asked to avoid physical contact with Shady, Windsong, Patchwork and Snowcloud watched in confusion, as Shady was tickle-attacked by the others. Tess quietly explained how the echoes worked, and that this Shady was safe to attack.
No matter the size, seven against one is a losing proposition for the one. Fighting to speak through hir laughter, Shady gasped, "Enough! I have to go on watch in a few minutes!" when the others just redoubled their efforts, shi called out, "Tess! Cancel echo!" A moment later shi vanished from the holodeck.
As the rest fell into the space Shady had been just a moment ago, Patchwork demanded, "Let’s go after hir!"
Giving Windsong a wink, Quickdash said, "No, shi’ll be expecting that. Let’s pretend to be tired and head for our room. We can lie there and let hir think we’ve fallen asleep. Then we’ll get hir!"
The cubs just thought they were ‘acting’ tired, but by the time they reached the twins’ room they were actually dragging a little. The twins trapped Windsong on the large bed with the cubs, which they then blocked in with themselves. Windsong's last thought was to wonder if Quickdash had been pushing the idea of being tired at hir as well as the cubs….
When Shadowcrest arrived on the active bridge, shi found Neal and Lighttouch waiting for hir. Neal left soon after, having asked Shady to let Lighttouch help hir if hy could. The two spent most of hir shift talking while they probed hir new strengths and weaknesses.
Neal was paged yet again by Tess, this time to tell him that his toothbrush had been moved, and that he was expected to join it. He soon found himself in the suite of rooms the Rakshani had taken over after being processed. Across the room there were a row of clocks, each with a different time. One was real time for the main star port on Raksha, in their equivalent of minutes /hours /days /weeks /months and year. The next one had changed itself to match the clock and time of the port they were currently using. The last was an old twenty-four hour clock that the Folly used for ship time. The last two reminded Neal that just a day before they had been synchronized with the opposite side of the planet.
Kestrel was waiting for him on one of the love seats. An unwanted memory flashed through Neal’s tired mind of the way she had looked being wheeled into the Pegasus's sickbay. Her easy grin helped dispel the memory; she was over that event and had moved on. Something about her grin as she got up to drag him to her room also pushed away some of the weariness Neal had been feeling.
The early morning light of Melbourne saw the Folly’s two heavy lift shuttles each gently set a pod in the freight unloading area. Forest and family had been awakened after everything was ready for them to depart. Neal and a couple of the kids had tested Alpha before getting both shuttles loaded with the picnic supplies and guests. The cubs were wakened just long enough for a restroom stop, then carried or led to the shuttles where they were allowed to go back to sleep.
Midnight kept an eye on the still sleepy cubs. Littleroar was snugly tucked away in hir ‘big top’, the adjustable straps holding hir just under hir mother’s breasts. The day before there had been a little confusion the first time Littleroar had needed to relieve hirself. Shi had come out of the restroom still full and very unhappy that shi hadn’t found a sandbox to go in. Firestorm had beat Midnight to the distressed cub and led hir back into the restroom. Midnight had not been in this restroom yet, and had let out a chuckle when shi saw it. Behind the standard taur facility, there were several brightly colored boards hanging from the wall, as well as a ramp with different colored steps. Stormy had led Littleroar up to the ramp, and then placed hir hand-paw on the first of the colored steps. One by one, the boards came down off the wall, on their topsides were taur toilet tops, each smaller than the one before. The topmost was tiny, just the right size for a cub that knew when shi needed to go. Stormy led hir the rest of the way up the ramp, and helped hir position hirself for the first time. After shi was done, Stormy showed hir the flush button, before leading hir to the side of the ramp. Here shi leaned on the counterweights, and one by one, the seats rose back into their out of the way positions.
Watching as Littleroar now brought the seats down again, this time in play instead of need, Midnight muttered, "Great, now shi’ll want one of these at home."
"That can be arranged," Tess told hir. "Shall I have one taken down with the loads tomorrow?"
"Let me think on it," Midnight had told her.
Shi now looked around the shuttle as shi heard the power systems winding down after the landing.
Shi smiled as shi looked in one of the corners. Neal had seen to the shuttle testing before shi was awakened, and had picked that corner to nap away the short trip to the surface. He had been joined by Stormy and Star. With the exception of Shady, the tailstinger crowd was curled up in another corner. Shady and Lighttouch were laying side by side, and if not for the occasional stray thought or feeling shi could sense, Midnight would have thought they were asleep as well.
A small fleet of taur-sized rental vans pulled up and were loaded as Neal talked to Samuel, who turned out to be a five foot six red squirrel. "It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you carrying passengers," he commented as he watched them packing the vans.
Moonglow overheard them, and called out, "I’m no passenger, I’m his mate! Well, one of them anyway," shi added with a grin.
The squirrel looked over towards Neal with a surprised expression. "Mates? I thought you told me mates were for fools that…" Samuel started before Neal could shut him up.
"WHAT!?!" Moonglow demanded, hir grin turning evil. "What was this he said about mates and fools?"
Neal was saved from hearing what Samuel might have come up with by the arrival of a Rakshani female. She was dressed in an outfit common to many civilian ship crews, this one being an off green and showing no pins or badges to suggest who she was or had previously worked for. She looked a little intimidated by the crowd of furs around the cargo pod, but she all but marched up to Neal, and came to something that resembled ‘attention’ a little too much. She didn’t quite bark out, "Captain Foster! I am Wenfrec ap Pulan na Shazbot. I am seeking passage to Chakona. I am a skilled pilot and navigator."
As the Rakshani spoke, Neal’s glasses darkened slightly as Tess reported what her scans were finding. The weapon in her holster had been made to look like a common Rakshan heavy stunner, but was in fact a phaser. A hidden flap on the back of the holster also hid an alternate ID card. Her belt also concealed several memory chips, one of which seemed to have a Star Fleet security seal on it.
More than a little curious, Neal decided to play along – sort of. "Well, I’m not really hurting for pilots, and we haven’t gotten lost recently," he said scratching his head, "but we are heading to Chakona if what you’re really after is a ride."
Wenfrec nodded cautiously; this was not going at all as her briefing had suggested it should.
" ’Course, we’ll have to see if you can fit in without stirring up too much trouble, so pick a van and climb in," Neal said with a grin.
Definitely not as per her briefing, Wenfrec thought as she soon found herself trapped in a taur van full of chakats heading away from the spaceport.
Shortdash gave Midnight a wink as they started quizzing their guest. Both had tuned into the fact that the Rakshani was reading off what was now a broken script. As Wenfrec had to make up more of a story than she had thought she would need for just the Folly’s captain, she started making mistakes – mistakes that the others didn’t bother to point out, wondering just how far she would go to spin her false tale.
While hir mate and Shortdash double-teamed their victim, Forest had been carefully gauging Wenfrec’s mental state. While the Rakshani was starting to worry that her story would soon unravel, she wasn’t too concerned with them because she thought it was Neal she would have to convince.
Shortdash looked over at Midnight, and got a nod. Shi grinned as shi dropped their pretence of idle questions. "An interesting tale, Wenfrec. Or should I say ‘Lieutenant’?"
"I don’t know what you are talking about," Wenfrec said, shaken by hir guess.
"Give it up," Midnight softly told her as Littleroar popped out of hir top for a quick nuzzle. "I’m a Star Fleet Lieutenant Commander, and my companion interrogator holds a similar position in Star Corps."
Shortdash nodded before adding, "And the Folly has both branches represented, so we will know what you’re up to – sooner or later."
Wenfrec sagged a little. This was not how she had envisioned this mission starting! She was trying to think of an excuse that wouldn’t dig her pit any deeper, when she felt something touch her forearm. The tiny chakat from Midnight’s top had climbed down and was now looking up at her as shi patted her arm. As she stroked Littleroar, she looked at Midnight, more than a little surprised to see hir grinning.
"No, Lieutenant, we weren’t waiting in ambush for you. You just happened into us heading for a quiet day on the beach," Midnight said with a smile. "May I ask how old your briefing data was?"
"My information is for the captain of the Folly," Wenfrec said, trying to stick to some part of her orders.
Shortdash’s comm badge chirped and the voice of the human she had spoken to earlier said, "He’s been listening, go ahead Lieutenant Wenfrec."
"I am not going to discuss classified information over an unsecured channel, sir," she stated, getting nervous as she realized that her conversation with the chakats had gone farther than she had known.
"As you will, Lieutenant," the voice said before falling silent.
A few minutes more found them paralleling the beach. Neal was in the lead PTV and he let the cubs pick out where their small convoy would pull over.
The cubs picked a wide flat expanse between two dunes for their beach party.
While the cubs ran for the water (some to quickly come running back when they discovered this water ‘attacks’ back!), the rest dragged, rolled and carried the supplies a little closer to the water.
Wenfrec found herself helping drag one of several barbecue grills that had been stashed in the backs of a couple of the vans, a rabbit doe and the leopard-spotted chakat directing their placement. Having completed the task they had asked of her, she turned to hunt down the human, only to freeze when she found him almost behind her, a very large projectile weapon in each hand.
Neal pretended to not notice to shock in the Rakshani’s eyes as he offered her one of the weapons. "Care to try a little skeet shooting?" he asked with a grin.
Midnight watched the exchange with interest as shi joined them. "I didn’t know skeet was on the menu," shi said giving Neal a long look. "Nor do I remember us loading any weapons."
"Tess was kind enough to add a few party favorites when she noticed the PTV that was following our little convoy stopped a few klicks away, and they are breaking out some lethal toys of their own." Neal looked in that direction as he offered hir the other weapon. "I’m hoping that seeing we’re not helpless might deter them."
"And if it doesn’t?" Midnight asked as shi examined the shotgun Neal had handed hir.
"Then we try something different," Neal said with a smile.
The launchers would fire three of the clay disks at a time; they were aimed out over the water to reduce chances of anyone being hit by stray shot.
Neal had gone first. The first two targets had shattered quite nicely, but he only knocked a small piece out of the third.
After teasing Neal, both Zhanch and Dessa took out all three of their targets.
The only shooters to miss all three of their targets were Shadowcrest and Wenfrec; both were then given a little instruction on leading their targets and allowed to try again.
Halfway through the third set, Midnight sidled up to Neal. "Did it work?" shi asked, having seen a strange head pop up a few times, but it hadn’t been seen for a while.
"Unfortunately not," Neal admitted. "I think they’re trying to wait until they think our guard is down."
"So what do we do?" shi asked.
"We eat!" he said with a grin.
The cubs had been snacking since they reached the beach; the rest of them now started looking to see what was for breakfast. Forest and Suzan had been busy; they now helped fill plates with food. As most of them sat or lay on blankets to eat, Dessa picked up her Rakshani-sized shotgun, and walked over the dune that the unknown head had been peering over.
Wenfrec had jumped up and grabbed the gun Neal had provided her; only to freeze as a command voice behind her said, "Stand down, Lieutenant!"
As she spun around to face Neal, she snarled, "You would have her face them alone?"
"Yes," Neal said a little quieter. "I am not foolish enough to insult a Rakshan marine by suggesting that she can’t handle a few roughnecks armed with rocks and sticks."
Wenfrec just stared at him for a moment, before looking to others for support. Most were eating or complimenting the cooks on the snacks. Only Midnight met her look, slowly shaking hir head ‘no’. She slowly sank back down, watching the others act like it was just another day.
She sat down next to Lighttouch. Hy swallowed hys mouthful of omelet and quietly said, "I do not even have to read you to know what you are thinking. And to most of those here, this is indeed ‘just another day’." As Wenfrec continued to stare at hym, Lighttouch continued, "A few days ago, Neal and his family were dodging loaded carriers that were being tipped over because some furs thought that Neal had killed furs on another planet. I am here because that large chakat sitting over there by hirself was partially crushed by one of those carriers. It may not look it, but shi was repaired. I was invited to help hir with a few mental challenges brought about by those repairs."
Looking at what appeared to be a very large chakat in perfect health, Wenfrec frowned as she said, "The more I hear and see, the less I believe."
They watched as a coppery colored chakat joined the one they had been discussing. Lighttouch grinned as hy added; "Here is another puzzle piece for you. Those two have a combined age of under forty Terran years." Getting up to get a pastry, hy said, "I will only add that the smaller is the older of the two."
Not noticing that they were being discussed, Windsong settled down next to Shadowcrest. Offering hir one of the small cakes shi had snagged, Windsong said, "I noticed you’ve turned off your belt."
Shadowcrest looked down to frown at the portable field generator. "My security blanket," shi mumbled around the cake. "Lighttouch showed me a lot last night, but I’m still not all that sure of myself."
"I know my cousin Forest knows more than shi’s telling, and Midnight is entirely too good at keeping secrets. So maybe you’ll explain to me why one minute your family treats you like an adult, the next like a youth."
"Because that’s what I am," Shadowcrest said with a grin. Hir grin widened slightly as shi watched Dessa walk back over the dune. There had been no shots and no shouts from over the dune while she had been gone. Shi noted that other than looking a little annoyed about something, Dessa looked pretty much as she always did. Shi turned back to Windsong, wondering if the other chakat had even noticed hir diverted attention.
Windsong had just looked at Shadowcrest for a few moments before finally saying, "Okay… that makes even less sense that a lot of the other stuff I’ve heard from and about your ‘family’."
Shadowcrest just grinned again as shi said, "You could say I am a youth, trapped in an adult body."
"Still a cub at heart?" Windsong asked smiling. "I can relate to that. Do you prefer Shadowcrest or Shady?"
"Either will do. I heard Neal call you ‘Windy’ earlier."
"I prefer Song or Windsong, but your captain does seem to like ‘Windy’," shi grumbled.
"From what we’ve gotten Tess to admit to, one of Neal’s other daughters was also nicknamed Windy."
"So he’s hoping I’m like his daughter?" Song asked with a laugh, shaking hir head.
"Probably not," Shady admitted. "The same database suggested that shi is still mad at him about something that happened a very long time ago."
Finishing hir cake, Song shook hir head as shi pondered Shady’s last comment and said, "We seem to have gotten off the subject of you thinking of yourself as an oversized cub."
Shady also finished hir cake before replying, "I will be twelve in about a month." Looking down into Song’s shocked expression shi added, "Less than a week ago I was maybe three quarters of your body mass. Neal’s Rakshani mates and I are examples of how the Folly does repairs to badly damaged furs."
Song involuntarily shivered at a thought shi tried to keep down as shi quietly asked, "Twelve? How badly were you injured?"
As shi had done for Midnight the day before, Shady turned and touched hir lower back. "This point back, crushed by a falling carrier."
Song bowed hir head and shivered again as unwanted memories of hir own past pain threatened to surface. Shi looked back up at Shady as the much larger chakat took hir by the shoulders. Shi was radiating concern and trying to offer comfort, but Song could feel that most of Shady’s energy was directed at forcing hirself to not dive into Song’s mind and see the problem directly.
They stared at each other for a moment before Shady asked, "You okay?" Shi released hir grip on Song when Song nodded.
Song just watched the larger chakat; shi had put up hir best barriers when shi felt Shady’s mental presence, but shi now knew that hir walls would have crumbled had Shady pushed even a little. "Thank you," shi quietly said. "Both for support, as well as not rooting through my memories."
Shady giggled. "That was the reason for the belt, to help keep me from accidentally seeing things I wasn’t trying to see. Before last night I didn’t dare touch anyone but the smaller cubs."
They continued to talk for a few minutes before Lighttouch wandered over to them. Settling hymself comfortably, hy asked, "Are you two okay? You seemed a little upset a moment ago."
Shady made a face at hym as shi replied, "And it took you this long to check on us?"
The skunktaur smiled. "You had seemed to have gotten over it, so I thought gauging our new Rakshani friend would be a more useful employment of my humble talents."
"And what did you find?" Shady asked with a grin.
"Only that she wishes that her current assignment made some kind of sense. It seems she is easily confused by Neal and a gaggle of furs that don’t seem to do things quite like everyone else."
"So… why was she sent?" Shady prodded when Lighttouch didn’t volunteer any more information.
"To hand deliver some information, as well as to protect the person she was to give that information to."
Windsong frowned as shi said, "I was under the impression that you don’t probe minds without permission."
Lighttouch grinned at hir as hy said, "Who said I was reading her mind?"
Shady had also grinned at Song’s query, shi now asked, "How do you think a non-telepath learns things without being told?"
"By using empathy."
"How about Weaver?" Shady asked, pointing hir muzzle at the foxtaur vixen. "She’s a solid E and T zero, yet she’s very good at reading between the lines."
Lighttouch chuckled. "Most of it is a natural talent at reading body language, but trying to keep up with Neal has certainly helped hone her skills."
"So you’re a natural telepath that reads body language instead of using your talents."
"You can not always use your other talents. As Shadowcrest’s belt demonstrates, your talents can be blocked. Accidents, injuries, or some types of trauma can also have an impact on our mental gifts and talents. Having some other means of gathering information can be useful."
"But others can fake their body language," Song insisted, trying to ignore some of the other parts of Lighttouch’s statement.
"Like Neal likes to hide his truths in lies?" Lighttouch countered, having heard about the tail scorching.
Windsong could only nod to that question. "I’m still trying to read between his lines, he’s one of the most confusing humans I’ve ever met." Shi chuckled softly to hirself before looking back at the others. "Funny, for all my training and high scores, it seems I’m always the one getting surprised. Though of late, at least some of those surprises have been pleasant ones." Shi looked from Lighttouch to Shady, a hesitant smile on hir muzzle.
When Lighttouch had gotten up to talk to the chakats, Wenfrec had gotten up to move over to where Dessa had sat down with a snack. "Why did you let him put you at risk that way?" she asked the younger looking Rakshani.
"What way would that be, youngling?" Dessa asked, a frown forming as she spoke.
"What do you mean by ‘youngling’, cub?"
"Hmmm, na Shazbot. Would you by chance have a grandmother named Bertif?"
"Great-grandmother," Wenfrec corrected, slowly nodding.
"I ‘cub-sat’ her a few times when their ship was in port," Dessa explained. She grinned at Wenfrec’s look of surprise. "We were both much younger then." Looking seriously at Wenfrec she added, "If you wish to have any real hope of surviving the Folly, you will need to learn to not take all things at face value."
"So I’m noticing," Wenfrec acknowledged, frowning slightly.
"As far as my walking over to ‘chat’ with an armed foe? Neal had already used his ship-based transporters to replace their power packs with something that wasn’t quite compatible with their weapons."
"So that’s what he meant when he said you were going up against someone armed with rocks and sticks."
"Like I said, don’t believe everything you think you see." Dessa told her as she got up to head over to where she had set up her umbrella and chair before the skeet shooting had started. She watched the surf for a minute before setting down her weapon and letting the sea and breeze lull her into a nap.
Wenfrec watched her relax. It had always surprised her how fast some people could change their alertness levels. She frowned slightly as she touched a stud on her ‘stunner’, the gentle vibration telling her that she had not been disarmed. Her frown deepened as she wondered at the seemingly random levels of security. They had left a complete stranger armed in the middle of their camp, and yet they disarmed another group before they even got into range. She remained where she was, pondering the logic – or lack thereof.
Lighttouch nodded in the direction of the two Rakshani. "Just watching their faces and ears, you could see Dessa was rubbing Wenfrec’s muzzle in something she did not care for. Her change in body language suggests that she is now showing Dessa more respect, so it may have been age or rank related."
"Wenfrec does look like she would make a poor poker player," Shady agreed, having also noticed the rapid changes in expression and demeanor.
Windsong shook hir head. "I’m glad I’m not the only one having problems figuring you guys out. Maybe she and I should compare notes later."
The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent enjoying the sun, sand and waves. A few sandcastles were built, but none of them survived long as it turned out that Littleroar loved to ‘help’ Opal and Mica knock them down. Neal had fallen asleep under one of the large umbrellas, only to wake and find his arms and legs buried under large mounds of sand. Weaver had then taken the opportunity to ‘win’ a tickle fight while her mate was helpless.
While shi hadn’t participated in the skeet shooting, Windsong did ask Tess to fabricate and beam down some weapons that were more to hir liking. Tess sent down a long bow as well as a compound bow, a few dozen target arrows, a quiver with a harness for hir lower torso, and a pair of targets. Windsong then prepared to demonstrate that harp strings weren’t the only things shi knew how to pluck.
Shi quickly set up the two targets a few paces apart and secured them into the firm beach sand. After stepping back to hir firing line, shi carefully planted each target arrow into the sand next to hir before shi reached out and lifted the longbow.
Holding it in front of hir, shi pulled the string back against hir muzzle several times before slowly letting the string relax. Choosing an arrow, shi pulled back the string to fire – only to slowly release the tension without firing. Shi reached up and rubbed the side of hir right breast. The string had brushed against it and reminded hir of one more thing shi needed.
Tapping hir badge again, shi said, "Tess? I need one more thing. Could you make a leather bustier for me? I need something to protect my breast and nipple from the string?"
"Of course I can, Windsong," Tess acknowledged. "Would you prefer one with a bit of padding, or will reinforced leather be sufficient?"
"No padding, but some metal bracing inside the bustier will help in case I slip and whip the string across my breast."
A polished brown bustier materialized in Windsong's hands. After putting it on, shi grinned at the curious looks shi was getting. "Trust me, looking silly is worth it compared to the pain a bowstring across the breast can deliver."
Windsong notched the arrow again and pulled back the string, a gust of the breeze across hir muzzle causing hir to automatically correct a little more for the wind before shi released the string. Without looking away from the target shi reached for, notched and fired the next arrow, and then the next. Hir concentration was only broken when shi reached out and hir hand did not encounter another arrow.
Looking around, shi found most of the group watching hir with open curiosity.
Shady was first to break the silence, "What were you thinking about just now? You seemed to be locked on the goal of killing that poor target." Shi didn’t add that the only other time shi had ever seen anyone so focused on mayhem was in the minutes before Firestorm was born.
Mentally pushing back unpleasant memories shi didn’t want to acknowledge, Windsong tried to give them a reassuring smile. "Nothing at all. I just cleared my mind of all other distractions."
Shady nodded, though shi didn’t believe Song. There had been almost a hatred emanating from hir while shi had ‘concentrated’ on the target. Deciding to leave it for later, Shady looked at the target with its tight cluster of feathered shafts. "Nice grouping," shi said. "May I try?"
As Shady and the others took turns trying to hit the target with the gusting crosswind from the sea adding to the challenge, the cubs were offered foam-tipped darts to throw at a target and each other. This was fine until one of the cubs discovered that a tip saturated with seawater not only went further, it also ‘splatted’ nicely on the victim.
"What do you mean?" Wenfrec demanded, her eyes going wide as her claws came out involuntarily. Zhanch had just asked Neal if he was going to paint the main lounge in his Rakshani house colors.
"The Folly is run by the house of Foster, Neal is the head of that house," Zhanch explained. "It shouldn’t be a problem. Many Rakshani have served houses other than their own before."
Wenfrec shuddered before answering, "But a head of a house can not serve under the head of another house!"
Zhanch stared at the other Rakshani. "You are the head of your house?" she asked, unable to hide her surprise.
Wenfrec nodded without looking at Zhanch. "Our house runs the freighter Sharp Claw. It is almost a year overdue. All that is left of my house is myself and three younger cousins." Looking up at Zhanch, she said, "I will not surrender my house!" A little quieter she added, "Not while there may still be a chance that they are alive."
"I have no intention of taking your house from you, Wenfrec," Neal quietly told her.
"You will have no choice in the matter!" Wenfrec growled at him. "One head of house under another dissolves the lesser house. Our laws are very strict on this – it keeps a house from controlling other houses."
"Head of a Rakshani house was thrust on me by surprise, so I am still learning all the rules," Neal explained to her. "As a head of house, could you answer a few questions for me?" At her nod, he asked, "Are the heads of houses exempt from military duty?" She shook her head. "How do they normally keep one head of a house from being over another?"
"A subordinate is chosen to command the lower ranking head of house; the two only communicate commands through the subordinate."
"So if I were to put Zhanch in charge of you, that would satisfy the letter of the law?"
"In most cases, yes," Wenfrec agreed. "But your ship is part of your house and under your direct command and control, and thus I am directly under you again."
"How does a head of house visit another?" Neal asked, still trying to find a way around the new laws he found uncomfortably binding him.
"A short visit is acceptable, but not a long stay under the roof of another house. Sometimes a house will designate an area or a building as open to all the houses. This place allows other houses to meet and stay without the heads of the houses having to sign agreements, or risk being absorbed by others."
Neal sat back for a minute thinking. It was Shortdash that next spoke. "I was told the forward section of the Folly was going to become a new space station, and it would be run mainly by Rakshani… correct?"
Neal slowly nodded. "So I would have had to claim the whole thing house neutral anyway. Hmmm, no reason I couldn’t do that here and now." Looking at Wenfrec, he asked, "Will that satisfy the letter as well as the spirit of the law?"
Wenfrec slowly nodded. "I think you have found a way to let me come aboard without taking away my house," she acknowledged. "Thank you," she quietly added.
"No, thank you. I would have walked blindly into that trap without you."
"So, am I welcome aboard the Folly?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Well, there are a couple of tests that prospective crew members must pass," Neal admitted.
"I can pass any test you set before me!" Wenfrec declared.
Neal smiled as he said, "Excellent! Your first test will be a ‘little’ one, or in this case, the little ones. The rest of us thank you for your generous offer to cub-sit."
Neal ignored her look of shocked surprise and turned to the cubs that had been waiting patiently for the grown-ups to settle whatever they were doing. Smiling at them, he waved at Wenfrec. "She’s all yours. Try not to break her," he said as he left the Rakshani to her fate.
Shortdash turned hir head quickly, hoping Wenfrec wouldn’t see hir grin. She’d had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look as the cubs had started heading for her.
Silverpelt and Fireglow led Windsong a little ways down the beach, away from the others.
Fireglow started by handing Windsong the message they had received from Admiral Kline. After giving hir time to read it and think on it, Fireglow quietly said, "We think you should seriously consider the idea. We have already asked Neal about it. His response was somewhere between ‘what’s one more furball?’ and ‘the more – the merrier!’"
"There is a lot more to Neal, his ship, and his crew than meets the eye," Windsong pointed out.
"So we’ve noticed," Silverpelt agreed with a nod. "But what we’ve seen so far suggests that this is not necessarily a bad thing. And I don’t think his ‘crew’ would be half this cheerful if he treated them poorly."
Fireglow also nodded in agreement. "You don’t need to decide right now. From what Neal was saying, the Folly will be moving cargo for another week before moving on. That should give you a better feel for them and whether you will want to travel with them. Your other ride was going to take a week longer to get here anyway, so you have the time to get a feel for them before you decide."
"I will need to get my stuff from Starbase One. They’re holding it for my original transport, the Sojourner Truth, I think…" Windsong thought out loud. Shi finally nodded to hir parents. "I’ll consider it."
"That’s all we could ask," Silverpelt said.
A morning of playing hard on the beach had made for a hungry crowd when lunch was ready – especially those that had been downwind of the cooking. Neal had been amused to note that Goldfur’s family had kept hir from ‘helping’ with the meal preparations almost as energetically as his family had kept Weaver occupied and away from the grills.
Most were now sleeping off lunch when Weaver heard Neal’s earplug emit a tone she hadn’t heard from it before. "What is it?" she asked as she noticed that several of the chakats and Lighttouch had also reacted to the tone, even though they had not been close enough to hear it.
"It seems someone thought that with me on the surface, the Folly would be unprotected," he said with a frown. Tess was relaying her scans for him to see the possible threat. Fourteen objects had detached from a slow passing ship and were now drifting towards the Folly. "Tess, patch me through to Starbase One. I need someone in operations."
"Yes, boss," Tess replied.
"This is Lieutenant Peterson in operations. What can we do for you, Folly?"
"You can tell me if Star Fleet has any training exercises going on in the area of my ship," Neal told him.
"Such information would be classified, Folly."
"The reason I ask is because my passive sensors have picked up inbound objects. If they are yours, I’ll be happy to send them back. Otherwise I might just consider pitching them so they skip through the upper atmosphere a few times. Your call, Lieutenant."
It was almost a full minute before the lieutenant replied, "Folly, we have nothing in your area. That being said, we would be interested in those objects ourselves."
"Understood. I’ll keep them out of trouble while you send someone to collect them," Neal agreed. "Tess, shields and tractor beam fun."
"Sure thing, boss," Tess replied. She brought up her primary shields and started using her tractor beams to shift the directions the objects were moving.
The objects didn’t like having their courses changed. Small thrusters first tried to put them back on course. When that failed, they tried stronger ones to break away from the Folly, only to find they too were useless against tractor beams capable of shifting fully loaded pods. By shifting which beams were shifting which object in which direction, Tess soon had them ‘orbiting’ the Folly in a high-speed dance, weaving them in and out of each other’s orbit.
By the time Star Fleet got a ship out to collect the objects, most of them were in no shape to resist; Tess had been making them waste thruster power to avoid ‘near misses’.
Neal watched on the remotes as Tess ‘tossed’ the objects one at a time into the other ship’s hold. Active scans had showed that each of the objects was a camouflaged powered-armor space suit with a human inside. As he watched the last one disappear into Star Fleet custody, Neal hoped they would at least inform him of who had sent them.
His answer came less than an hour later, Tess relaying the message from Starbase 1.
‘To Captain Foster of the Folly:
We thank you for alerting us to the objects you found approaching your ship; however we don’t have a lot of information for you at this time. The occupants of the suits appear to have planned to take a drug that would have made them difficult to interrogate if captured. Unfortunately, the drugs seem to have been tampered with and they are all dead. We believe this was done to keep them from talking. The suits themselves were decommissioned Star Fleet equipment, but there are irregularities on how the equipment was decommissioned. We will keep you updated as our inquiry progresses.
Lieutenant Peterson, Star Fleet Operations, out.’
Shortdash had been resting near Neal, and shi had had no problem hearing Tess relay the message to Neal. Watching Neal watch the surf, shi asked, "What do you think?"
"I think that will be the last report we hear on the matter." At hir raised eyebrow, Neal sighed. "You know how it goes – as more people get involved in it, someone of rank will order a lock down on information about it until they decide what to admit to."
Shortdash nodded, having been surprised that they had gotten as much as they had. "Do you want Quickwind and I to do a little snooping?"
"No. You’re officially still on an extended vacation. Sticking your noses in this could cause your bosses to ‘reactivate’ you before you wish to leave."
Shortdash nodded again. Shi and hir mate hadn’t discussed it with Neal yet, but they would be leaving Quickdash behind when they did go. Not just so shi could be with Holly, though that was a big part of it. They were watching their child grow up and take responsibilities at an age they were hard pressed to believe. Then there was what shi and Holly were learning on the Folly. When they weren’t shuttling loaded cargo pods around, they were rebuilding one ship and helping build another. Then there was the other training shi needed. Lighttouch had already shown an interest in training Shortdash and Holly, and hys results with Shadowcrest looked promising. Raising an eyebrow at Neal, shi admitted, "We would like to hang around at least until Chakona, further if we are able."
"Fine by me," Neal replied. "I know shi’s happy to have you here, and it’s never a bad thing to have friends looking at things from their point of view."
Quickwind chuckled. "So you rate us as friends?"
Neal shook his head and smiled. "Well… I don’t think you’re foe, nor do I think I can consider the two of you innocent bystanders. We happen to have a couple daughters in common, what does that make us?"
"Gluttons for punishment?" Weaver piped in with a laugh.
"They’re not that bad," Neal admonished, looking over to where the two being discussed helped Mike do a little ‘sleight of hand’ to help keep the cubs amused. "And it doesn’t hurt that they have an eagerness to learn. They’re picking up things even faster than any of my first set of brats."
"Their bond and mind reading may have a little to do with that," Shortdash chuckled. "Then there’s the pleasure they sense you getting when they suddenly understand a new concept."
Neal nodded, "Any good teacher gets that, the knowledge that you’ve given them an understanding of something new."
"Real teachers anyway," Suzan snorted. "I’ve met a few ‘teachers’ that were just reading from rote and didn’t really understand what they were teaching."
"I’ve run into a few of those as well," Neal admitted. "They can become very defensive when you use logic to point out that they or their books are wrong about something."
"What degrees do you hold?" Shortdash wondered.
"Not a one," Neal chuckled. "I did sit through a few classes, but I was usually asked to leave when I disrupted the status quo."
"Talking in class?" Weaver asked with a grin.
"That too," Neal agreed with a smile. "As well as pointing out where their theories didn’t allow for other theories that seemed to better explain what they were supposedly teaching. It didn’t help that some of the other students would start paying more attention to what I had to say than they did to the teacher. Those classes I didn’t mind being asked to leave, the teachers weren’t going to teach me or the other students anything useful."
"Why did you bother if you already knew more than they did?" she asked.
"At the time, I knew that I had some major gaps in my knowledge of a lot of things. And like playing with or against any set of rules, the better you know and understand them the better you can properly bend or break them. The trick was finding the instructors that could actually teach and not just read from a script."
Suzan nodded. "Which is something our captain seems to be able to do on occasion. I especially liked him comparing water guns to phasers when one of the cubs asked why they had to wait for it to be ready to fire."
Neal shrugged, "Both store a buildup of a charge – one from a power cell, the other from pumping air into the holding chamber, when you have enough you discharge all the stored energy at once."
"True," Suzan agreed. "But most people wouldn’t think to turn accumulators and charging cycles into playing in the water."
"I just go with the level of my audience, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve never felt I could teach a group."
"Why not?" Shortdash asked.
"Take this group for example. With any subject I might try to discuss, I would have some that I’m speaking at their level, some I’m boring to tears, and some that I’m talking over their heads. So I let Tess feed them data at the rates they can handle. When they can’t figure it out, then I do a little one on one."
"You might have made a good teacher?" Weaver suggested.
"Nah. A classroom is too static – new ideas are hard to get there, and those that do sneak in are often smothered."
Looking over to where Wenfrec was watching the magic show with an almost cub-like intensity, Shortdash commented, "It seems someone else was thinking you and the Folly would make a more ‘dynamic’ training ground. Are you really taking her in?"
Neal nodded. "And possibly Windsong as well. I know hir parents are going to suggest it, but it remains to be seen if shi says yes. I have noticed that Shady and Lighttouch have also been showing an interest in hir."
"Does that worry you?" Weaver asked.
Neal shrugged. "If they click, they click. Who knows? They might be good for each other."
Weaver nodded. "And Wenfrec?"
"Ship born, I’d wager, and a very strict ship at that. That inability to not be at ‘attention’ could get her killed in too many circumstances. Whoever sent her knew I wouldn’t shoot her out of hand, but they either thought I’d drop her after debriefing her, or they knew about Weaver and the kids and thought it would make an interesting training situation."
"Do you think they considered us?" Quickwind wondered.
"Hard to tell without knowing when her orders were cut. Boyce would have known about Zhanch and the other Rakshani, but you two wouldn’t have been in any of his reports."
"Anything you want us to do with her?" Quickwind asked with a grin.
Neal snorted. "If possible, teach her how to stand down." He waved at where Wenfrec had picked up an insistent Starblazer, only to have Firestorm start climbing her tail. "They’re all over her, yet she’s still all but standing at attention."
"Put her on cub duty for a week. If that doesn’t bend that back of hers, nothing will," Shortdash suggested.
"A thought," Neal admitted. "We’ll save it for in case we get desperate."
"Speaking of which, the cubs are almost spent," Midnight pointed out, Littleroar already fast asleep in hir top. "What do you think, a snack before we start packing up?
Forest nodded, "Some of us do have work in the morning."
With the heavier gear stowed, they let the cubs finish wearing themselves out. Then it was time to divvy up the tired cub pile into ‘ours’ and ‘yours’. Neal wasn’t the only one unable to hold back his laughter when Wenfrec energetically thanked the deities that all those cubs didn’t belong to the Folly.
The trip back to the spaceport was uneventful, Tess making sure with a Zulu watching overhead.
While being used to shipboard life, Wenfrec was more than a little unnerved when the twins and Alex entered the flight deck to prepare for departure. "They’re just prepping the shuttle for the pilots, right?" she asked Zhanch.
"The twins took up the last load yesterday, no reason they can’t do this one," Zhanch replied with a grin. "Why, didn’t your parents train you to fly your shuttles?"
"But I was twenty before I was certified!" Wenfrec contested.
Zhanch shrugged. "Well, Neal thought training them young would help keep them out of trouble. All the teens are certified, and the twins’ certificate only requires a trained pilot be up there with them when they fly."
Wenfrec shook her head, but didn’t protest further. Dessa looked younger than she was, but claimed to be old enough to not only know – but to have actually cub-sat her great-grandmother. Perhaps those ‘twins’ were also not what they appeared to be. She spent the flight up to the Folly trying to come up with a way to separate the real from the false.
Once aboard, Zhanch walked Wenfrec through the basic safety and emergency procedures that the Folly used. Having been raised on a ship, Wenfrec had no problems with the procedures, but a cub going by reminded her of another question. "Who’s in charge of them in an emergency?" she asked as Spitfire dodged back into the ‘cub room’.
"Whoever’s available," Zhanch told her, a grin starting to form. "Since you brought it up, let’s walk them through a drill." They walked into the cub room and found only Spitfire and Darkstreak were still playing quietly, the rest were asleep in a pile. Touching her badge, Zhanch whispered, "Tess, gravity loss and wind whistle when you start the alarm." Turning to Wenfrec she quietly added, "You’re on cub patrol until you are relieved. That means you’re cub-sitting for part of tonight." Zhanch then turned and left the room before Wenfrec could come up with a response.
Moments later an alarm sounded and Wenfrec suddenly found herself in zero G. Reaching out; she grabbed a nearby shelf to keep herself from floating away from the floor. She watched in amazement as the cubs responded. The two larger cubs were the first to respond. The smaller threw hir toy away from hir, sending hir towards a panel that displayed a warning sign that it contained a life bubble. Shi activated the release and opened the slowly unfolding bubble. While the bubble was being prepared, the other one had jumped to the far wall and then kicked off to put hirself on a collision course with the now airborne ball of cubs that the alarm was just waking up. Wenfrec stared as the older cub pushed at the pile of little ones, and as they started to move away, shi grabbed the end of one of their tails. That cub then grabbed the tail of another cub. They were soon in a not quite straight line that slowly drifted towards the now ready life bubble; the cub that had opened it had hir hands on the opening and hir body and tail stretched out in their direction. The cub at the front of the chain grabbed the tail and pulled hirself hand over hand across hir bigger sister and into the bubble. As the last cub climbed in, shi looked back a Wenfrec.
"Hurry up!" shi told the big Rakshani, "We don’t know how long the air will last!"
Wenfrec pushed off, mentally kicking herself for just standing there while there was an emergency – drill or no drill. As soon as her tail was in, the cub that had opened the bubble closed and sealed it. She felt the pressure increase slightly as the bubble’s life support kicked in and she heard the alarm start to fade as if there was no longer an atmosphere to carry the sound. She watched the cubs form into another ball and start going back to sleep. Noticing one of the older cubs was watching her, she asked, "Now what?"
Darkstreak eyed her curiously. "We sleep. Daddy says it conserves our air and we won’t get hungry as fast."
Wenfrec nodded and tried to relax a little while she waited for the drill to end. She found she had managed to fall asleep when a quiet beeping woke her. She found that she was now in the middle of the cub pile; they were clinging to her arms, legs and chest. She watched the little foxtaur go to the ‘top’ of the bubble and slide herself into the provided handgrip. Once secure, she turned off the life support panel and opened the cover that hid the return air filter. She carefully removed the used filter and placed it in a bag before removing a fresh filter and turning back on the life support.
"Very good, Star," Darkstreak told her as she settled back into her resting place.
"How often do those need to be changed?" Wenfrec wondered quietly to Darkstreak.
"A day with just us," Darkstreak told her, "but in training mode we have to do it every couple of hours so we get practice."
"I see," Wenfrec murmured, again confused a little by the seemingly random ways things were done. As she closed her eyes to ‘rest’, she wondered what else on this aptly named ship was going to surprise her.
Later that evening, Shady led Song to hir room. "You sure you don’t mind?" shi asked as shi waved Song in ahead of hir.
"Not at all," Song replied as shi looked around the room. "Though I was a little surprised you didn’t ask one of the others."
"As I’ve told you, I lost control of my new sensitivity when I woke up after being processed. So the only ones I would be able to tell I haven’t read would be you and Wenfrec, and I heard Zhanch left her cub-sitting in a life bubble," shi said with a grin. Shady wrapped hir arms around Song in a hug as shi quietly added, "And your trying to hide something of your own makes me feel even more honored that you agreed to help."
Song grinned as shi said, "Before I trust myself to your subconscious, I want to push your conscious mind a little further."
Shady grinned back at hir. "Just what did you have in mind?"
"Take off your top and I’ll show you," Song said as shi pulled off hir own top.
"Now what?" Shady asked once they were comfortable.
"Now we see if you can stay in control under more trying circumstances," Song said as shi placed hir handpaw on Shady’s.
"Okaaay," Shady agreed as shi wrapped an arm around Song’s shoulders.
Song proceeded to reach up between Shady’s breasts to play with hir long hair as Shady gave Song’s breast a friendly grope. As Song’s tail started to wiggle, Shady caught it with hir own. They continued their game until they were wrapped together in a mutual hug. Song then tried a little kiss, only to find on that what Shady lacked in skill, shi more than made up for in enthusiasm.
"I thought you said you weren’t twelve yet," Song whispered, breathing a little heavy at the end of the kiss.
"I’m not," Shady agreed, also a little out of breath.
"So where did you learn that?"
"Watching my older siblings. This is the first time I’ve really wanted to try it."
"Mmmmm…." Was all Song was able to reply as Shady attempted something else shi had seen hir older siblings doing.
The next morning found Wenfrec chasing after Starblazer and Firestorm.
She had thought she had gotten up early to make her report to Captain Foster, only to find he was already up and busy. Adding to her displeasure was some of the kids offering to get her luggage from the spaceport lockers when they went down with the next load. She had only handed over the key and code when Weaver pointed out that the alternative was for Wenfrec to brief Neal after she went down and got her luggage herself.
Then there had been the breakfast she hadn’t really wanted. Feeling that she was more alert when hungry, Wenfrec preferred to meet with supervisors when not weighted down with a meal. She had tried to stare down the rabbit that had insisted she eat, but Suzan had had Weaver on her side. Worried about annoying Neal’s second in command, Wenfrec had given in.
She had pushed back the empty plate and looked at Suzan and then Weaver before saying, "I am done. Will you please tell me where the Captain is?"
Suzan had grinned at Weaver. "Well, she did finish her plate."
"True," Weaver agreed, ignoring the look Wenfrec had given her for treating her like a cub. Looking over to where the little ones were playing in a corner, Weaver said, "Star, will you keep an eye on Stormy?" As her daughter nodded she grinned. "Stormy, Daddy needs his morning hug!"
The cubs placed their toys back in the box where they were stored, and made a dash for the door. As Stormy and Star were heading out the door, Weaver had turned to Wenfrec. "I hope you can keep up with them," she said with a chuckle.
Wenfrec now found herself chasing the two cubs through the Folly’s corridors. The only thing that seemed to be keeping them in her sight was that they had to wait for each set of airlock doors to open for them. She didn’t notice that the doors then stayed open long enough for her to make it through as well.
She was almost to them when the next set of doors opened. A few meters from the second set of doors there was a guardrail – a guardrail that the cubs ran full speed at before dodging under. Wenfrec caught the railing and stared down into a long and vast space. She was having a little trouble with her balance before she realized that it was because she was at the edge of a gravity field – the chamber beyond was in zero G. Hanging on to what her inner ears were telling her was a spinning railing, Wenfrec could just make out the two cubs she had been chasing, they were already over a hundred meters away and still ‘falling’.
She growled in frustration. The twisted corridor run on a full stomach had not been fun, the gravity shift threatened to bring it back up. "How the deities am I suppose to catch them now?" she muttered as she stepped back from the railing.
Deciding to let Wenfrec know she wasn’t quite alone, Tess said, "The objective wasn’t for you to catch them, only to follow. As far as how to follow, your choices are the walkways to either side, or you can take a ‘leap of faith’."
Wenfrec grumbled under her breath for a moment, the cubs were almost out of sight. She braced her leg against the wall, then she kicked off as hard as she could, one step and a leap had her over the railing and on an indirect route to the ‘ceiling’. She twisted around to take the impact with her legs, only to find her course shifting to take her after the cubs.
As she watched things speed past her at an increasing rate, Wenfrec quietly whispered, "Thank you."
"Anytime," Tess replied.
Tess had given Wenfrec a bit more of a push than she had given the cubs, so that all three stepped onto the walkway at the other end at almost the same time. Where the cubs had been dashing wildly about before, they now moved at a pace the Rakshani could easily match without hurrying. They went through several more sets of airlocks before Wenfrec found herself in engineering. If it had not been for the cubs’ lead, Wenfrec never would have found Neal in the series of large rooms. As it was, she watched the cubs settle down to wait near a panel that two human feet were sticking out of. They waited quietly until Neal backed his way out of the panel, then they attacked from both sides. Wenfrec waited for Neal to quit hugging and tickling the cubs before she quietly spoke.
"Good morning, Sir. Is this a bad time to brief you on why I was sent?" she asked as the cubs wound down.
"No, Wenfrec," Neal replied as he got up. "My checks are done for now. Would you be more comfortable here or in my office?"
"Anywhere will be fine, Captain, but you will need a secure reader for one of the chips I brought."
"Over there," Neal said, indicating a nearby workstation.
Shady and Song had spent the morning in one of the secondary bridges; Shady had been giving Song basic ship handling exercises. This had included the fun stuff, like changing orbits with very limited power, the Folly ‘wallowing’ as Song first corrected and then over-corrected the slow and unresponsive beast. Shi had been about to tell Shady that what shi was asking was impossible when shi sensed Shady mentally reacting to someone else. Shi turned just as Shady bolted for the door, the last things shi felt from the larger chakat sending cold shivers down hir spines. Song found hirself chasing Shady through the corridors towards the connection with the ‘corncob’ section of the ship.
As shi ran towards the aft engineering, Shady slapped hir badge. "Family, I don’t know why, but I just got something from Neal that suggests he’s madder than we’ve ever seen! Whatever it was has him thinking of ditching us, possibly for our own safety. He’s all the way aft – I don’t know if I can change his mind by myself." As shi finished, shi ran through the last set of airlocks and ran at the open space, Tess having dropped the guardrail out of hir way.
Windsong hesitated for only a half step before following Shadowcrest over the edge, trusting that Shady knew what shi was doing.
They found Neal at a work desk, sitting seemingly calm. In front of him were several displays, their data frozen at points that had caught Neal’s attention. A closer look showed that he was forcing himself to sit there quietly, but Stormy gave lie to his acted state of mind. Shi was spitting and snarling at Wenfrec, the only thing keeping hir from clawing hir way up the much larger Rakshani was Starblazer. She was wrapped around the smaller chakat as best she could, preventing hir from attacking outright.
"CAPTAIN!" Shady barked. He stood and turned to look at hir, hir hackles rising as a corner of hir mind suggested just how angry he was right now. Had the floor not been littered with furs in New Kiev, a similar anger would have had him order Tess to drop the roof on his targets. Shi searched the anger shi saw, looking for what could be used to break it. Shi almost broke eye contact when shi realized the solution was right in front of hir. "You are hurting Firestorm," shi quietly told him, hoping it would get through to him.
Neal stared at hir for another moment before looking down at the cubs. A couple steps carried him to them; he knelt and picked them up together. "Sorry little ones," he told the now crying Firestorm and Starblazer.
Wenfrec looked from Neal and the cubs to Shadowcrest and Windsong. Neal had been quietly reading the data she had brought as the cubs sat at his feet. He had gone back through something he’d seen, then brought up several more displays and started searches on them. Moments later the little chakat had snarled and leaped at her, only to be tackled and held by the foxtaur pup.
Shadowcrest looked around as Neal calmed down a little for the cubs. Shi could feel most of hir family coming. While a few were dirt-side transferring cargo, and those on watch were manning their posts, shi was sure they were there in spirit thanks to Tess’s sensors and cameras. Shi slowly stepped over to Neal and the cubs. Lowering hirself to their level, shi added hir arms to the hug. Remembering how Lighttouch had soothed hir a couple of times in hir training, shi closed hir eyes and tried to project a peaceful calm onto Neal and the cubs.
Neal felt the push and allowed hir to continue helping him and Stormy calm down. Star, having never been upset by Neal’s rage, simply continue to hold her now quiet sister. Feeling that Shadowcrest had ‘calmed’ them enough, Neal pushed back with a little resistance. When shi didn’t stop, he pushed a little feeling of his own.
Shady’s tail flinched as shi felt someone yank a single hair out of the sensitive tip. Hir mental radar told hir no one was close enough to have done the deed, which suggested it hadn’t actually happened. Shi opened hir eyes to find Neal watching hir. "Ouch!" shi sent. "I was just trying to help."
"And you did," shi felt Neal agree, "but you didn’t back off when I asked, so I got your attention the old-fashioned way."
Shi stared at him in wonder. "So this is what full telepathy is like."
"More or less," Lighttouch gently cut in. "There are many different ranges and flavors. You will find no two minds feel exactly alike."
"And I still have a lot to learn," shi added, hir tail still stinging a little.
"Something we will work on later," Lighttouch agreed, letting hir feel hys mental smile.
Aloud shi declared, "We’re staying," while giving Neal hir best glare.
"I hadn’t said you weren’t," Neal quietly commented.
"You were thinking it loud enough for me to hear you at the other end of the ship! That and something that had made you quite angry."
"Is it related to this?" Shortdash interjected, eyeing the displays over the desk. Shi looked over at Neal and asked, "May we?"
Wenfrec had started to protest when Neal nodded, but then fell silent. One of her few briefings had warned her that Neal might not consider the information to require the same security levels that Star Fleet had. She watched as Quickwind and Zhanch joined Shortdash in going over the data Neal had left open.
After a minute, Zhanch looked back at the group. "This is going to take a while." Indicating Neal, she softly added, "Find something to keep him mentally busy. I can already see some of what might have gotten him worked up."
Neal gave her a dirty look. "Shouldn’t you have waited until I was out of the room to say that?"
"No," she replied with a grin. "I want you to know that we intend to break that foul mood of yours. So the sooner you behave, the sooner you’ll be allowed to play without close and personal supervision!"
The twins and Screamingwind took the first crack at him, after first adding a few ‘faults’ to their work on the Good Deal for him to find. Once they had his tech side warmed up, they started questioning some of the changes Neal had decided to add to Gulf. This in turn became a training session when they started leaving Screamingwind behind.
They arrived late for lunch, still working through an explanation. The kids had Neal’s attention so completely that he failed to notice Suzan’s lack of retribution for them ‘working’ through a meal.
It was an hour later that Zhanch and the others came in for an even later lunch. While Windsong looked more confused than worried, Shortdash and Quickwind looked depressed. Zhanch and Shadowcrest on the other paw looked like they wanted something – preferably certain live targets, to sharpen their claws on. Wenfrec had brought up the rear; her expression was that of someone praying that the present company didn’t shoot messengers that brought unwanted news.
Weaver helped Suzan bring out a meal for the researchers, only to watch each of them push it away. Having confirmed that what they had found was more than a little unsettling, she asked, "What did you find?"
Shortdash was the one to break the long pause that followed, "The only reason we are here is a lot of luck – possibly nudged along by Neal’s resident deity." Shi looked again at the plate of food shi had pushed away. Hir stomach wanted it, but shi was still too angry to want to try to eat just yet. Looking back up at Weaver, shi continued, "What Wenfrec brought us suggests that almost every threat you’ve seen was a direct or indirect attempt at taking over, or at least controlling the Folly. All the injuries and deaths along the way were someone’s attempt to make grabbing Neal and his ship a little easier."
"Take your group for example. From what was gathered from some of the ones caught, they had several groups there just to stir up trouble and have security chasing them while a small group overpowered Neal. That failed for two reasons – Neal’s ‘Betsy’, and the fact that the port had been on high alert for another issue and they couldn’t get their own guns in without giving themselves away." Shortdash frowned before shi added, "From what you’ve told us before, Betsy was the reason those thugs stopped trying to beat you. So you and Shadowcrest could have been killed outright, and if they had jimmied the latch to keep others from finding their handy-work then Shortdash and Holly wouldn’t have had a chance either."
"And the teens?"
"May have been caught as well if the other groups hadn’t been run off."
Shortdash looked down, and Quickwind continued for hir, "Timing was everything there, and Neal was late due to his detour to Starbase 3. The enemy shuttle had grounded at the earliest time Folly should have gotten there. Then they ended up waiting over a week – still in the expected window for Folly to get there, but they had been sitting too long, their edge was gone. Add to it being early morning, how Folly came in like a bat out of hell with Alpha in route with the first pod before Folly was fully in her orbit, well they got caught flat-footed. They were still trying to take control of the spaceport when they almost killed Shortdash." A quiet sigh and shi closed with, "An extra hour of advance notice could have had you all walk into the trap with no warning at all."
"That leaves the mining station," Weaver pointed out.
"An expensive operation they had originally thought they wouldn’t need because they would use the Folly to take over the station. When New Kiev didn’t come out as planned, they rushed a force out to take the station so they could then take the Folly," Quickwind snorted softly. "The re-arrangement of Folly’s delivery schedule worked against them. They had just gotten their ships hidden when Charlie showed up, this time catching them long before they thought they needed to be ready."
"Mike and Calmmeadow are a reason they didn’t get Charlie," Zhanch added, having been there for the excitement.
"And our little mishap at Big Sur?"
"Wenfrec’s data is too old to tell us that, but it didn’t have the right ‘feel’ for the group using the Human’s First types for their dirty work. This was a general ‘stir things up’, not a well-defined plan to take Neal to get the Folly. On the other hand, that dead space walking group does fit the profile of them not caring who dies in the attempts."
Turning to Wenfrec, Weaver asked, "Why were you so surprised yesterday? You had to know Neal had a crew."
Wenfrec shook her head. "My data chips have been updated as I chased the Folly, but my only real briefings seems to have been before Star Fleet officially knew he had a crew. I was originally supposed to meet him at New Kiev, but as you know, things got a little ‘interesting’ and I wasn’t able to get close to him. After that, I’ve been on several fast courier ships, trying to be where the Folly was expected to be, but never was. Earth was the next ‘Folly has to be there in this time bracket’ we had." She shook her head ruefully. "And then I get here and find you already have most of the pieces and he doesn’t need me – hell he already has four Rakshani onboard – marines at that! Never mind Star Corp operatives."
Dessa stepped over and placed a paw on Wenfrec's shoulder. "You’re far from useless my young friend. You’ve provided us with a lot of information that we were only guessing at before."
Weaver nodded as she added, "And I heard him asking Tess to see if she can’t dig up the last known position of your family’s Sharp Claw and the next few destinations she didn’t reach. That suggests he’s going to hunt for her." At Wenfrec’s doubtful look, she grinned. "Trust me, the Folly has more tricks than you’ve seen so far."
Wenfrec frowned a little before replying, "So I’m going from supporting him in his endeavors to being supported by him in my search for my family? Somehow I don’t think this is what my superiors had in mind when they sent me out here."
"No plan survives contact with the enemy." Shortdash reminded her. "And it can be even worse with friendly forces – everyone has their own idea on how something should be done."
"Speaking of which, is it time to sit on Neal and tell him what we’ve concluded?" Quickwind asked.
"Don’t bother," came Neal’s voice from Shortdash’s comm badge.
"You mean you’ve been listening the whole time?" Shortdash demanded.
"I know that all of you were shown how to place your badges in ‘private’ mode. Since not one of you thought it necessary, Tess piped me the more interesting parts," Neal admitted.
"Are you still trying to convince yourself that we would be better off elsewhere?" Weaver asked.
They heard Neal softly sigh. "While I would be happy to see all of you safely elsewhere, Stormy’s bond to me would hurt hir. That would mean keeping hir and Moonglow. And if I’m keeping them, there’s no honest way I could force the rest of you out."
"Never mind the fact that Suzan is the only one of your mates small enough for you to pick up and bodily carry to the shuttle," Quickwind said with a chuckle.
Wenfrec brow was furrowed as she asked, "Wouldn’t he be able to just beam you down with the transporters?"
"You would think so," Zhanch said with a small grin, "but it seems Neal understands the concept that power can corrupt, and that absolute power is even more of a hazard. Tess won’t step in with any unwarranted force unless there’s a clear and present danger. So if we are under attack, Neal can order us beamed to safety against our desires."
Weaver nodded. "And she will also protest an action she doesn’t think is warranted. I watched Tess argue with Neal over isolating Quickdash from Holly." Looking over at Quickwind and Shortdash, she continued, "Even I worried that what he was doing was wrong, but he turned out to be correct."
Shortdash noted Wenfrec’s quick glance hir way and nodded. "We had underestimated the strength of the bond between them. Neal forced us to acknowledge it before their separation couldn’t be undone." Shi lowered hir head to mutter into hir comm badge, "Damn sneaky son of a pain in the tail."
"High praise coming from you," hir comm badge replied.
"If you’re making jokes, then can you at least admit that you and the Folly were not the cause of all the deaths we have seen?" Weaver half asked.
"Yes and no," he slowly said after a pause. "The only place that we might have made a difference was at New Kiev. If the Folly had been sooner or later, Stormy’s parents might be alive today. I have to balance that against all the additional deaths there would have been if a ‘fur hating’ Folly had been traveling between the stars this past year."
Weaver wasn’t the only one to shiver at that thought. They had stopped at far too many small stations that would have been easy pickings had the Folly been hostile.
"Is that even possible?" Dessa asked. "I mean a ‘fur hating Folly’ would mean they would need Tess working on their behalf – could they do that? Reprogram her to do their bidding?"
It was Tess that answered her. "No," she said. "While they might batter down my defenses and board me, they would never control me or this ship. My ‘brain’ if you will is all over the ship in several groups of nodes. You would have to isolate each one and keep it offline to keep it from reintegrating with the rest. The problem is some of my smaller nodes do nothing but check on the rest of me. Depending on the ‘last thoughts’ they received, they can disable systems or even destroy the Folly."
"The Folly has a self-destruct?" Shortdash asked in surprise.
"Not as you think of one," Tess told hir. "But any warp capable ship can be destroyed by loss of anti-matter containment, or by pushing a warp core past its limits. The first would burn like a small sun; the second might take out other ships in the blast radius."
"And with eight warp cores, that could be a very big bang," Zhanch said with a frown.
"Would you just blow up the Folly to prevent someone from taking over?" Quickwind asked.
"No. As with Neal, keeping family and friends safe would be my first priority. After that, I have a few more options."
"More proof that I’ve been a bad influence on her," Neal said as he entered the room, his three engineering trainees in tow.
"If we were all gone, would she really kill herself?" Weaver asked, the others also looking to Neal with concern.
"She shouldn’t – unless that’s the only way to remove a threat," Neal told them. "If she can, she will go to a pre-selected spot where some of my other kids will take care of her. If disabled, she will use whatever means she has available to let them know where to find her."
"You make her sound almost alive," Wenfrec said as she looked from face to face to see if she was the butt of some kind of joke.
"At times she seems to be," Neal quietly allowed, several of the others nodding in agreement.
Trying to not sound too hopeful, Wenfrec asked, "Is it true that you’re going to try to look for the Sharp Claw?"
Neal smiled. "I’m afraid the scent is cold, but we will try. I am both checking her planned route, and some of the areas where she could have gotten sidetracked from her scheduled route."
"Thank you," she softly said. She tried to ignore the little voice that thought it odd that she actually believed that this unusual ship and her crew might be able to do something that Star Fleet had so far failed to do.
"I need your help with something," Shadowcrest told Windsong as they left the dining room after dinner. While Neal and the other adults had put a cheerful veneer over their thoughts of what they had found, shi knew it was still troubling Neal more than shi liked.
"Anything," Windsong told hir.
"I’m going to spend tonight with Neal. Would you please join me?"
Song was taken back by the request, but seeing how serious Shady was, shi nodded. "I’m not sure how I could be any help, but I’ll be there if that is what you wish."
"Just having you there with me will be a big help," Shady assured hir. "I just feel like I need a little extra support this time."
They snuggled for a little while before Neal came in. He grinned as he raised an eyebrow at Shadowcrest. "Are you sure this is wise?" he asked hir, only half in jest.
"I need this," shi told him. "And I think you do too."
Neal then grinned at Windsong. "And is Windy acting as your support? Or as your chaperon?"
Shady stuck hir tongue out at him before replying, "A little of both," Shi admitted. Then shi grinned and added, "But which of us is shi chaperoning?"
"Just what I need, one sex-crazed furball pretending to protect me from another sex-crazed furball," Neal muttered as he climbed into bed with them. He soon found himself surrounded by fur, Shady wrapping him in a hug from the front while Windsong covered his back. After the tension filled day, just a little nudge from Shady soon had him fast asleep, with the chakats soon following.
Shi hadn’t had the dream for over a year and shi had thought it was all behind hir now, but here it was again after all this time. A friend had invited hir to a party off-campus. They had become separated, and shi had somehow found hirself at the back of a group that a very energetic man was preaching to. Shi was impressed by how he seemed to have them hanging on his every word. Shi had been listening to how he spoke, not what he was thinking of, so shi was caught by surprise when he suddenly pointed at hir, shouting ‘There’s one of those gene jokes now! It thinks it can openly spy on us! Let’s show that thing what we think of its kind!’ He leaped off the steps he had been stirring the crowd from, and came at hir with a piece of pipe that had been resting against the handrail. Shi had not noticed before, but most of this crowd was similarly armed. As shi started to step back in surprise, shi tried to push a calming feeling at the crowd, but shi was shocked to find another mind pushing a hatred that overwhelmed hir senses. Shi never saw the first blow coming; shi had been staring at the human that had riled the mob to a fever pitch. Pain, pain and more pain had caused hir to black out as the blows had come from all directions. At some point hir mind had blanked out the overload. Shi wasn’t sure if shi had really heard someone cursing when they found the Star Fleet ID in hir belt pouch. It would be days before hir conscious mind would surface again; fighting through the severe concussion shi had somehow survived. It would be months before shi left the hospital, and shi would somehow make up the lost class time to graduate at the head of hir class, but the friendly, fun-loving Windsong was gone. What remained was a guarded chakat, one that was always trying to watch out for anything that might hurt hir. Two years later, shi still unconsciously held hir guard up, even against hir own family. Not because shi thought they would deliberately hurt hir, but because they would try to help. And that was something shi wasn’t sure shi could handle. The shocks – pleasant and otherwise, from the Folly and her crew had lulled hir into a false sense that hir past was behind hir. Past and present combined as shi fought hir demons, struggling to not be buried in the mental hatred and fear shi had known.
Windsong woke shaking badly as shi tried to get hir bearings. Hir limbs were immobilized, and there was a strong smell of fresh blood in the air. Neal had turned around sometime in the night, and was now holding hir, murmuring things you would use to calm a frightened cub. Behind him, Shadowcrest was using hir hands and handpaws to keep Windsong from moving hirs. Hir addled mind couldn’t quite wrap itself around the idea that shi had sunk hir claws into Neal, and Shady was doing what shi could to keep Song from doing any more damage. Still not fully conscious, Windsong found hir sight fading as others started coming into the room.
It seemed like only a minute later shi was awake again, but too many things seemed to have changed in that minute. The lights were back down to a weak nightlight, and the room no longer smelled of blood. Neal was asleep, still holding hir close, while shi now sensed that Shady was hugging hir from behind. Shi had not remembered Suzan coming in, but she was now hugging Neal from behind with Dessa sandwiching her against him. Extending hir senses, Windsong was amazed to find that most of Neal’s family seemed to be in there with them. Hir questing senses also came across another conscious mind.
"Do not stir, you might wake them," the gentle mind-touch of Lighttouch told hir.
"I…" she started, only to stop.
"… had a nightmare," hy softly finished for hir. "We know." Feeling hir concern rising, hy added, "You were broadcasting it rather forcibly. That is one of the reasons everyone is here, to help offer you the support you need."
"They know?" shi thought, tears of shame welling in hir eyes.
In hir sleep, Shady felt Song’s turmoil and tightened hir hug around the smaller chakat.
Song felt Lighttouch nod in hir mind. "Yes they know, and they are more than willing to do what they can to help you," hy sent to hir gently. "As am I."
With hir barriers completely down for the first time since the night of the attack, Song reached out to feel the thoughts and feeling of those around hir. The surface thoughts held support and caring for hir, and a low rumbling anger at the ones that had hurt hir.
"Stop," hy told hir as shi turned hir senses back towards Neal. "Trust me when I say that you really do not want to dig through his thoughts and memories." When shi set hym a questioning thought, hy added, "Ask Shadowcrest what Neal would think or do. Shi knows a bit more of his thought process than shi sometimes wishes."
Song lay there for a moment, just letting the feelings in the room calm hir. "Why am I still here?" shi asked hym. "Why didn’t they lock me away where I couldn’t hurt anyone else?"
"That is not how he does things," hy told hir. "You should have noticed by now that he helps those he cares for. He will do this even if they hurt him."
"What do I do now?"
"You still have a few days to decide if you wish to travel with the Folly. I will only add that if you stay, I will have more time to help you – if you wish it."
"Can you really help me?"
"The first step to any cure is admitting that there is a problem."
"I’ll stay if they’ll have me," shi thought as shi closed hir eyes again, pulling Neal and Suzan a little closer to hir.
Dessa opened her eyes when she felt the shifting. After deciding that all was well for the moment, she again closed her eyes.
When Song next opened hir eyes, Neal and the others were gone. Only Shady remained, still wrapped around hir.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," shi whispered when shi sensed that Song was fully awake.
"The others?" Song asked.
"Doing their chores – this ship doesn’t quite run herself you know," Shady chuckled, ignoring the soft raspberry coming from Tess’s speakers.
"Don’t you have chores?"
"Why yes, I do. My chore for today is you. Captain’s orders and all that you know," shi said with a grin and a cuddle.
"Is he mad at me?" Song asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
"No," Shady assured hir with a hug.
Song curled a little more into hirself before saying, "Lighttouch suggested I ask you what Neal’s feelings were."
Shady shivered for a moment before shi locked those thoughts back in the corner of hir mind where shi was learning to keep them. Tightening hir hug on Song, shi whispered, "Some old piece of poetry says that you would never notice the mountains if it weren’t for the valleys. Neal’s hatred can flow as deep as his love can fly high." Shi thought for a moment before continuing, "The best example I can think of was a space port we stopped at. Someone just missed trying to kill one of our cubs. Neal went berserk, killing them without batting an eye. But then he went out and rendered what aid he could to the surviving furs. That included rescuing a cub from hir dead mother’s womb." Feeling Song shiver, Shady held hir until shi stopped shaking. "Shi bonded with him at birth. If you ever want to know if something is really bothering Neal, just watch Firestorm." They lay together a little longer, each with their own thoughts until a growling stomach suggested that it was time for them to start the rest of their day.
After their late breakfast, they went looking for Neal. Song was far from convinced that he would still want hir onboard after what shi had done.
They found him in one of the environmental plants, explaining to Screamingwind the design modifications that he had also incorporated into the Good Deal’s upgrades.
Before they could interrupt the training session, Song was attacked from behind. Shi had spun hir upper torso around to see what had hit hir lower back just in time to get a face full of chakat cub. Stormy was all over hir with hugs and lick kisses in an attempt to cheer up hir worried new friend. As Song turned around with the squirming cub in hir arms, shi found hirself staring at Neal’s shirt. Trying to not panic, shi looked up, only to find him smiling at Stormy’s antics.
Shifting his attention to hir, he quietly asked, "Are you feeling better?"
Song nodded, not sure shi trusted hir voice at this point.
Neal wrapped the still scared chakat in a hug, being careful not to crush Stormy. "If you’re still worried about last night, don’t be. I have my own demons, and they can sometimes make me lash out or do things I later regret."
"But I…" shi started, only to have him hush hir.
"In a fit of anger during an argument, one of my adopted kids took a swipe at me and tore open my forearm. He’s a wolftaur and the idea of taking orders from a mere human didn’t set well with his alpha male mentality."
"Did you ever forgive him?" Windsong asked, hir voice quaking a little.
"In time," Neal admitted. "But first I made him and the others that had been on his side of the argument patch me up using an old-fashion med-kit. While the others closed the rather messy wound, I had him squeezing my arm to reduce blood loss."
"Tess didn’t step in?" Shady wondered.
"She was ready to, but I had waved her off. I needed the kids to understand that their lives depended on me, and that it was a two-way street." At hir curious look he added, "They hadn’t been onboard very long, and were still getting used to the idea that if they were going to stay on my ship it would be under my rules. My arm was out of commission for a little while after that, so I made them do my more physical chores. They quickly learned that things are a little different in space."
"Did they have a choice?" Song asked, sensing the shifting emotions that the tale was costing Neal.
"Yes and no. They were from a newly settled colony that had taken a terminal hit. An earthquake and tsunami devastated the colony, leaving a lot of parentless cubs and young adults that for one reason or another were away from the main settlement at just the right time. It was three weeks after the disaster that I got the Pogo Stick there and loaded what survivors my life support could handle. Then I redlined my systems getting them to a Starbase. I thought that was the end of it, but a small group of them thought differently.
They made their first choice by hiding when everyone else was being offloaded. I had to make up some time, so they were stuck with me for almost two months. After that time, I took them down with a load for Earth. I gave them each a credit chit that would keep them housed and fed for a year and gave them the option to abandon ship then and there. They all took off and I thought I’d seen the last of them. The next day they were back – every single one of them. I could see the younger cubs sticking together, but the teenagers were a pleasant surprise. The biggest surprise though, was the wolftaur. After that day, he would still argue with his adopted father and teacher, but never again with the Captain."
"He never questioned why you did things your way?" Shadowcrest asked, openly surprised.
"Oh, he would ask after the fact – if he hadn’t already figured it out for himself. But when in the middle of something he just did as he was told – unless he thought I had missed something, he would say just enough to make sure I understood his concerns and then he would follow his orders."
"Will you let me travel with you?" Windsong asked, still more than a little afraid the answer would be no.
"I’m not going to kick you out for a couple of scratches caused by a bad dream, little one," Neal assured hir.
"Thank you," shi said, just before letting out an exclamation of surprise. While hir attention had been on Neal, Stormy had gotten hir top out of the way for a more personal inspection. As Stormy gave hir a milk check, Windsong looked back up at Neal. "As I understand it, the proper response is to call hir a ‘brat’."
"Something like that, Song," Neal agreed.
Raising an eyebrow, shi asked, "You were calling me Windy last night, why the change?"
"Because you have changed little one," Neal said with a tender smile. "Last night you were hesitant to touch me, now you seem much more comfortable with having me near you. Understandable with what had happened to you. You’ve gone from a guarded heart protected to the point your parents were worried, to an open one that seems ready to break out in song. Well worth a sore back and thighs I think."
At Windsong's look of wonder, Shadowcrest smirked. "That’s just the blood loss talking, he doesn’t normally wax poetically like that."
Neal just grinned. "Well, I have to go see what the other two of my trio of terror is up to. Tess says they want to make yet another change to the Good Deal. And I believe Lighttouch said something about talking to you when you’re ready."
Nodding, Song tapped the badge shi’d been given. "Tess, is Lighttouch in the middle of anything?"
"No Windsong, hy’s been going though some of hys mail while hy waited for you."
"Any time you are ready," a soft thought seemed to slip through hir mind, along with where Lighttouch was waiting for hir.
"I’ll be there in a minute," shi said and sent. As shi left the room, shi realized that something that had terrified hir for two years was gone. The fear that someone would look into hir mind and reject hir was missing. Shi was surprised to find more spring in hir step as shi discovered shi was actually eager to have that little talk with Lighttouch.
Windsong found the next few days to be very enjoyable. Shadowcrest seemed to have taken a shine to hir, and always seemed to be nearby. They each had training with Lighttouch, sometimes separately, sometimes together when hy wanted to use one as an example for the other. Quickdash and Holly were also getting evaluated and a training schedule made up as Lighttouch came to understand their budding talents, but Shadowcrest was the one Lighttouch focused most of hys attention on.
After spending most of the day helping Lighttouch train Shady, Song found hirself sprawling in the lounge with just Neal, both of them relaxing as they let their dinners settle.
"I was wondering something," shi said with a shy glance in his direction.
"And what might that be?" Neal asked, sounding almost asleep.
"When we came up that first day, Alex had hinted that you could push worse things than just a scorched tail."
"Are you asking for a demonstration?" Neal asked with a half leer.
"Can’t you just tell me?" Song asked, not sure shi wanted whatever had made Alex grin so nastily.
"Like trying to explain color to a blind man, some things get lost in translation," Neal told hir.
They continued to lay there in a companionable silence until Song whispered, "Show me."
At first shi thought Neal might have fallen asleep, but then shi felt something just brush the fur on hir backs – or something like something was just brushing hir fur. Shi knew they were the only two in the room, and Neal was still in his recliner. The feeling of being almost touched got a little stronger – and seemed to be spreading. Shi shivered as the gently questing touches came around hir front, somehow feeling the same when they reached fur shi was lying on. The feeling reached and cupped hir breast – and shi bolted upright as the door slid open!
Shady and Lighttouch walked in, both radiating extreme amusement. Shady’s grin grew wider as shi noticed that Song seemed to be trying to hide something under hir.
"You two may want to turn on the fields the next time you play. Song was broadcasting rather forcibly," Lighttouch murmured, trying not to chuckle at the shocked look on Song’s muzzle.
"No," Shady said with a smirk. "If the fields were up, Stormy would have come looking for Neal."
"You mean everyone knows?" Song asked, hir eyes wide.
"Even Weaver got a good bit of it," Shady told hir, hir smile holding more than just amusement.
Tess interrupted with: "Captain, the crew of Winds of Fortunate are asking if everything is all right over here."
"Patch them through," Neal told her. A moment later Tess sounded the tone that told them the comm channel was open. "This is Captain Foster of the Folly, how can we help you, Winds of Fortunate?"
"This is First officer Wiggens, sir. We were wondering if everything was okay over there. Several of us were enjoying someone’s rather pleasurable broadcast coming from your direction when it was abruptly cut off. We’re hoping that they’re all right."
Neal looked over at Windsong, who was staring at him in horror and shaking hir head. "Tess, how far were we from Winds of Fortunate when Song and I were playing?"
"Just over ten thousand kilometers when you were interrupted."
"Fortunate, what you ‘heard’ was someone getting a bit more than shi asked for, and then forgetting to keep it to hirself," Neal said with a grin in his voice. "We’re sorry if we caused any problems."
"No problems Folly, but if you’re going to be having that much fun, we request you send us an invitation! Fortunate out."
Even hir coppery fur coloring couldn’t hide Windsong’s blush. Shi made a break for the door only to have Shadowcrest bring hir down in a flying tackle that turned into a six-limbed belly-to-belly hug by the time they stopped rolling.
"Please let me go! I can’t believe I just did that!" Song sent, still halfheartedly trying to escape.
Shady just tightened hir hug a little and projected calm at the smaller chakat. "No one is upset with you Song. Perhaps a little amused," shi admitted, "but not upset."
Neal looked over at Lighttouch. "What do you think?" he asked, "With hir mental shields up for over two years, hir other abilities had to overpower them to be usable?"
Lighttouch nodded. "And then you cracked hir shields and released hir full strength. Shi and I will need to have a few more sessions."
Looking over to where Shady continued to cuddle Song, Neal smiled as he quietly said, "It should be interesting to see what other surprises shi’s been hiding all these years."
Lighttouch looked at him sharply. "What are you suggesting?" hy asked.
"Gusty crosswind with a bow and arrow, and shi still managed to place them in a very tight grouping. Skill, luck, or maybe something else entirely?"
"You think you saw the something else?"
"You tell me," Neal said with a grin. He left the skunktaur looking thoughtfully at the pair of chakats, who for the moment were unaware of anything but themselves.
The next evening, Shortdash decided that shi had a few questions for Neal. Shi was surprised when Tess informed hir he was in sickbay. Shi entered the sickbay to find Neal sitting in a reclined chair, a computer controlled apparatus covering his open mouth.
At Shortdash's raised eyebrow, Tess said, "I told you where you could find him, not that he would be saying much."
Shi grinned as shi said, "Then while he can’t tell me no, you can answer a few questions for me."
"You haven’t needed to be with Neal to ask me questions before, so you must want to gauge his reactions to the questions."
"You’re much too clever for a computer," Shortdash told her.
"Is that your question?"
"No," shi started to say before shi heard a high-pitched whine coming from the device covering Neal’s mouth. "What are you doing to him?" shi asked, hir curiosity overcoming hir other questions.
"Repairing one of his molars, he lost a piece of it during dinner."
"Did he break it on something?"
"No, they’re just getting old and starting to fall apart on him. Though they are lasting a little longer than they did his last process."
"I don’t understand, there are drugs to help strengthen teeth and bones…."
"Most of which Neal is either immune or allergic to. That is one of the reasons he wasn’t interested in the drugs that were found; he can’t use them."
While they were talking, the device moved away from Neal’s mouth. Working his jaw, Neal tested his bite. Nodding, he said, "That’ll do, thanks Tess."
"Anytime boss," Tess replied as the devices started an auto-clean cycle.
"Great," Shortdash muttered, "now I’ve got even more questions."
"What?" Neal asked with a grin. "Even chakats need a little dental work every now and then."
"True, but our teeth don’t just ‘fall apart’ as Tess suggests yours are doing. And how could you have lived so long if you can’t use the anti-aging drugs?" Shortdash watched him watch hir, apparently trying to decide on whether or not to answer hir question.
Neal sagged a little as he sighed. "I can’t take the drugs for the same reason I don’t like or trust most pharmaceutical companies. I was an unwitting non-voluntary test subject a very long time ago."
"Before the Gene Wars?" Shortdash softly asked.
Neal nodded. "I was already well past what we called middle-age back then. A prescription I had for pain had run out and I was having problems getting it refilled. I had some friends that were on similar drugs, and they each gave me a couple of theirs to tide me over. What none of us knew was that the companies their drugs had come from were running illegal tests on older humans. They had several groups, each on a different set of tests for early anti-aging drugs. Just my luck, I had friends from more than one of the groups, so I got an unplanned mixture that almost killed me."
"What did the drug companies do?"
"Not a thing," Neal said with a sad grin. "I wasn’t on any of their programs, so I slipped under their radar. My friends weren’t so lucky. I was completely out of it for almost a week. It was another week or so before I had rebuilt enough strength to try to leave the house. By that time, all my friends had vanished."
"What did the drugs do to you?"
"At first I didn’t think they had done anything but make me sick. A few months later I noticed that a chronic pain in my lower back wasn’t bothering me as much as it had. Over the next ten years I slowly started feeling and looking younger. After about the first year I realized what was happening and moved to another area where no one knew me. There had been more disappearances of what might have been ‘test subjects’, and I didn’t want to get caught in one of their nets. It would be years later that I would learn both the blessings and curses of what had happened to me."
"How was it done?"
"I don’t have all the facts – hell, I only have enough bits and pieces to make a WAG or three. The best I could figure was at least two of the firms doing it were using retroviruses to change the ways the cells reacted to aging. The problem was they were using large dosages to make the changes faster and easier to track. My friends probably had instructions to call in if they started feeling strange, where I had just assumed that the dosage being off was what was making me sick. The accidental mix I got seemed to have been mainly for the soft tissues, which means my bones and teeth start giving out a lot sooner then the rest of me."
"Is that why you always seem to be eating ice-cream?" shi asked with a chuckle.
Neal nodded. "But even with that and the calcium boosters, my teeth don’t go long without needing some help."
"How old were you when you were first processed?"
"Too old, or so I thought. I was thinking I’d had enough, it had been a long and entertaining life, but I was starting to feel soul weary. Another loop and then I planned to try something that didn’t need constant work to keep going."
"And then you got to start over."
"Something like that," Neal agreed. "A younger body, at least for a while. Whatever let me live that long the first time was now encoded in every cell of my body, so my ‘best results for the DNA’ was less than you might have thought. My teeth are already getting ‘old’ by my body’s biological clock, in a few decades my bones will also become an issue."
"How did you handle it the first time?"
"False teeth and having most of my long bones replaced with synthetics. It wasn’t any fun, but it did keep me from becoming a basket case."
"I would think you could do better in this day and age."
"It’s being worked on on several fronts. I donate a little to those doing the research and Tess is always searching the news and keeping an eye out for who might be developing what."
"So do I need to tell your cubs and mates to go easy on their old man? Maybe tell Suzan to puree your food before she serves it?" shi asked with a grin.
"You do and I’ll tie your tail in a knot!" Neal promised with a laugh as they both got up. He added as the door opened, "I have a few more good years left before I have to take it easy on my body, and I intend to enjoy them."
Windsong looked out the port as the shuttle touched down with the last load destined for the Melbourne spaceport. Shi had already caught a ride to Starbase One to get hir things, and now all shi had left to do was to say goodbye to hir family for a while.
While shi had intended to go alone to say hir goodbyes, Shady had insisted on tagging along. They enjoyed the scenery as the PTV drove them to Longstripe and Desertsand’s home.
Fireglow met them at the door with a smile. "’Bout time you showed up," shi told hir daughter with a grin. "I understand the Folly leaves soon."
Windsong nodded and began to reply when hir companion beat hir to it. "Not for a while yet," Shadowcrest assured hir. "And if we were cutting it that close, we would have beamed down."
"I take it shi’s adapting well to shipboard life?" Silverpelt asked from where shi sat next to hir sister.
"Well, shi’s not trying to shield hirself from us like shi was a week ago," Desertsand allowed. "You don’t still think shi was the one we ‘heard’ do you?"
"I know my kitten," Silverpelt said with a chuckle as hir daughter’s eyes opened wide in surprise. "That was hir."
"I would have thought all the other ‘noise’ coming from everyone else on the planet would have drowned out one voice, even one as strong as Song’s," Shady said as shi blocked Song’s path of retreat.
Silverpelt grinned as shi shook hir head. "Yes, there is a lot of background noise, but each ‘voice’ is unique and I’ve known Song’s all hir life. It was brief but quite clear. I even heard some of the news commentators predicting a world wide surge in births in about nine to twelve months." Shi smiled at the near panic in hir daughter's eyes. "I'm only teasing little one, you should know that." Turning momentarily serious, shi asked Windsong, "You are leaving with the Folly, aren’t you?"
With hir near panic at the thought that the entire world might have heard hir subsiding, Song nodded. "They’ve already helped more than I thought anyone could, and Lighttouch says hy would be happy to help work out the issues that are still bothering me."
"And Shadowcrest here has nothing to do with your decision?" hir mother asked with a grin.
"Well, maybe a little," Windsong carefully allowed.
"So…" Fireglow drawled, "Are you going to explain why you were so closed before?"
"Or do you just want to tell us what had you broadcasting so much pleasure of late?" Silverpelt hinted, watching hir daughter’s blush deepen.
"Or you two could let them be and enjoy your time together before shi leaves," Desertsand pointed out.
"There is that," hir sister agreed before wrapping Song in a hug, Fireglow joining them a moment later.
When the hug broke up, Silverpelt then gave Shady a hug as well. "You do promise to take care of our little cub right?" shi asked with a grin.
Shadowcrest smiled back. "Me, take care of hir? You do realize that shi’s twice my age, right?"
"And you’re twice hir mass, so you should be able to sit on hir when shi tries to do something crazy," Silverpelt replied in the logic that mothers have used since time began.
"I don’t know," Shadowcrest contested, "it seems that a lot of people already know we made the mistake of leaving hir and Neal together without a chaperon for all of five minutes. Think of the trouble they can get into in the next few months!"
"Neal and Song?" Silverpelt laughed while hir daughter looked like shi wanted to sink into the floor.
"And that was with him not even touching hir," Shadowcrest added unhelpfully.
"You never told me shi had a thing for older humans," Longstripe interjected, getting in on the fun.
"It wasn’t like that!" Song protested.
"What was it like?" hir mother asked, the grin on hir muzzle getting wider.
Windsong tried to decide how to explain it to hir parents. "When we all went up on the shuttle that first day, one of Neal’s teens suggested Neal could push worse things than a scorched tail."
"And that’s what you were sending?" Silverpelt asked, hir grin getting even wider. At hir daughter’s hesitant nod, shi laughed. "If that was worse than a burnt tail, then I wonder what his ‘terrible’ might be…."
Shadowcrest simply shook hir head. "We’ve learned not to ask," shi replied as shi placed hir hand on Song’s shoulder, offering a little support as hir parents double teamed hir.
"And do we need to thank that skunktaur Lighttouch for your barriers being down?" Fireglow wondered.
"No, that was Neal’s fault, with a little help from me," Shadowcrest admitted, giving a slight shiver as shi remembered Song’s nightmare.
"Neal said that you had been injured. Is this related?"
"I got caught by a fur hating group," Windsong admitted. "It was pretty bad," shi added, thinking of the human that had been stirring up the others. "When Shady and I spent a night with Neal, I had a nightmare about it. I hurt Neal pretty badly, but he didn’t reject me. I think that was the reason I had kept my barriers up all that time, I feared that others wouldn’t like what they would see in me after that night."
"We wouldn’t have rejected you," hir mother softly murmured.
"No," Song agreed. "But you might have pitied me or tried to help, and I didn’t think I could bear that."
"Well, we’re glad that’s behind you," Longstripe said, breaking up the somber moment. "You said you hurt Neal – is he okay?"
Windsong nodded. "In my dream I was trying to hold back those hurting me. I ended up sinking my claws into Neal. I think he was moving a little stiffly the next day, but he claimed he was fine."
"And Firestorm was all over Song the next day, so we know Neal wasn’t hiding any negative thoughts about hir," Shadowcrest added.
"But it was when Neal called me Song, instead of Windy that I was sure he wasn't upset with me," Windsong quickly added to Shadowcrest's statement.
"How did the others take to you hurting Neal?" Desertsand wondered.
"Rather well actually," Shadowcrest assured hir. "It didn’t hurt that hir broadcast had penetrated hir barriers, so we all knew why it had happened." Shi didn’t tell them that most of them had helped make a composite sketch of the human from Song’s nightmare and Tess was looking for matches in the databases she had access to.
"How long can you two stay?" Silverpelt asked, the look on hir muzzle making it plain that whatever they said would be less than shi wished.
Windsong smiled as shi said, "I believe we have a couple more hours before we need to start heading back to catch our ride." Shadowcrest nodded in agreement.
"Good!" Desertsand exclaimed, "Because there’s this great little restaurant just a few minutes from here…."
Two hours before the Folly’s last pod would be ready to lift, Tess relayed a message to Neal. He looked over the short note, thought for a minute before remembering the pregnant therapist that had helped with the furs from one of the medical facilities. Shi had stayed on the Folly a few days while Neal had struggled to get everything ready for ten times the number of colonists he had been expecting. It had been over twenty years, but Tigerlily hadn’t forgotten Neal’s promise to return the favor someday. He nodded slowly before tapping his comm badge. "Tess, let the kids know I need some volunteers for an extra shuttle trip. They will be taking one of the personnel shuttles a bit north of Big Sur, to pick up one passenger bound for Chakona. Give them the information Tigerlily gave us on Tauna. Oh yes, inform orbital control that we will be leaving a few hours later than scheduled."
"Sure thing boss," Tess replied as she relayed the information to those that needed it.
Just before dawn, the old assault shuttle settled gently into a snow-covered field near the Lake Valley clan’s village. Two chakat teens and a foxtaur vixen followed the map they had been given to one of the homes at the edge of the village. The smell of breakfast being prepared told them that the occupants were already up, so they knocked on the doorframe. The vixen that answered the door had a smoke-gray coat with golden blond tips. An apron hid and protected her four small breasts from the cooking the knock had interrupted. She eyed her early morning visitors with open surprise.
"Tauna Shadowback?" the foxtaur with the chakats asked. When the other vixen nodded, she said, "I’m Graysocks, and these are Dusk and Nightsky. We were sent to pick you up."
"I don’t understand," Tauna said, looking from one of them to the next.
Dusk smiled. "It seems you have a friend that knows our captain. He was told you needed a ride to Chakona."
Nightsky nodded. "Our captain said he owed Tigerlily a favor and that shi had finally called in hir marker," shi said with a grin. Catching a change in the odors coming from inside the den, shi added, "I think your breakfast is burning."
Tauna rushed back into the den to rescue what she could of the breakfast. Other calls from inside the den suggested she had been cooking for more than herself. The trio from the shuttle followed her into the warm den to find two other foxtaur vixens, Siri and Jaishu helping pull the pans of food off the heating elements. A fourth joined them, Zia’s hair and fur still wet from her shower. Graysocks and the chakats stayed out of the way while things settled down.
Dusk grinned as their hostesses worked. "Stormy would have a field day in this village," shi joked as shi watched the vixens run around their kitchen.
Zia looked up from where she was separating charcoal from fried potatoes. "Who is Stormy? And why would she be having a field day here?" she wondered.
Graysocks also grinned. "Stormy is a cute little chakat cub with the questionable habit of sampling every breast shi can get hir little paws on. And here you have a village full of four breasted vixens? Shi’d be in heaven!" she chuckled.
"Other than bothering today’s cook at a critical time, why are you here?" Jaishu asked, a burnt breakfast not improving her mood.
Dusk met her glare with steady eyes. "A friend of Tauna’s told our captain that Tauna is in need of transportation to Chakona. Since we were given short notice, I fear she won’t have much time to pack if she wants to go." Turning to Tauna, shi added, "I’m sorry to rush you – but for us the clock is ticking."
"When does your ship leave orbit?" Zia asked with open curiosity.
Nightsky snorted. "Two hours ago. Or at least that was the original plan. The captain gave us one more orbit to pick her up. We can spend a couple hours helping her pack and say her goodbyes before we have to boost." A little more gently shi added to Tauna, "That is, if you would like to go of course."
Tauna set down the dishes she had been holding and rushed out of the room.
"She can’t afford this," Zia warned them, looking in the direction her friend had gone.
"The ride is at the request of a friend; she won’t be charged," Dusk assured her. "Why don’t you help her pack? You’re going to have little enough time to say goodbye."
After Zia had left, Siri turned to Jaishu. "Our group is down to two hunters," she quietly pointed out.
"We’ll get by," Jaishu assured her.
Zia poked her head around the corner to ask, "What’s her weight limit?"
"Whatever the seven of us can carry," Dusk assured her with a grin.
"Please start recording Tess."
"Hello again. I know it’s been less than two weeks, but a few things have happened and I thought it best that you hear it now versus being surprised by it later. This is being sent to the group rather than just my parents because I want them to have the support of the others. First let me say that everyone’s okay – well physically okay, and the rest is nothing that we can’t overcome. Some of your past messages hinted that you were worried about how Neal would treat us, especially after New Kiev. The teens and I have discussed it, and I am going to send you the recordings of that morning. We had thought about editing them to remove some of the parts we thought might upset you, but then you would wonder what could have been so bad that we wouldn’t show you. I am also sending a short news clip that was used to twist the truth of what happened in New Kiev. The clip was used on Earth to get furs to hate Neal. A couple of furs decided to destroy some of Neal’s cargo in retaliation. As a result, Neal and I were injured." Shadowcrest took a long shuddering breath before shi continued. "Thanks to one of his Rakshani mates, Neal’s injuries were not life threatening. Unfortunately I was not so lucky and mine were. Fortunately, the Folly has a process that was able to repair the damage, but at a cost." Shi adjusted the camera that had been focused on just hir face, letting it zoom out to take in hir upper torso. Turning to the side, shi called, "Stormy? I need a hug!" The little chakat leaped into hir arms for a snuggle. Still holding hir, Shadowcrest turned back to the camera. "This is Chakat Firestorm, daughter of RushingStream and Whitepaws. I was holding hir in my last message, so shi will give you some reference as to how I’ve changed. Hir parents were killed during the attack of the New Kiev spaceport. Hir sire was Chakat Whitepaws, daughter of Snowfall and Sandrunner. They may or may not know that their daughter is dead. Neal hasn’t been able to reach them, so they probably don’t know they have a granddaughter. If you would please, let them know. Once they know, I have a feeling they will be joining your group. All my love, Shadowcrest out."
"Got it," Tess told hir. "Do you want to play it back or do any editing?"
Giving Stormy a tickle, Shady shook hir head, "Send it as is. Thank you Tess."
To be continued in Chapter 9.
Copyright © 2007 Allen Fesler Redbear1158@hotmail.com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
Admiral Boyce Garald Kline Jr and some of his family are copyright Boyce Garald Kline Jr and used with his permission. (So far anyway!)
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.
Tauna Shadowback is copyright Chakat Scirocco.
( 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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