Tauna sat looking out one of the small view ports mesmerized. She hadn’t had much time to think since Graysocks and the two chakats had knocked on the door of her den. The lure of being able to chase after her friend Vanessa had her throwing caution to the winds – first by having her abandon her other friends, and then by having her throw in her lot with someone she didn’t even know. She watched now as the blue of what should have been an early morning sky faded to a pitch black as the whistle of air across the hull of the small shuttle faded to silence, leaving only a light hum and the slight rushing noise of air through a nearby vent.
She looked forward as one of the chakats exchanged instructions with someone on the comm system.
"ETA ten minutes at your current acceleration, Folly," Dusk said after checking hir instruments.
"I see nothing that should interfere with your current course, and Neal says to park in bay Eight. He has some things he wants to check out," the voice replied.
"Thanks Tess," Dusk acknowledged. Feeling curious eyes on hir, shi turned back to check on their passenger. "How are you feeling?" shi asked as shi tried to carefully gauge the foxtaur vixen’s emotions.
"I’m not sure how I should be feeling," Tauna admitted. "I think I just dropped my life behind me without making sure there was really something to pick up on the other side."
"Been there, done that," the other chakat told her as shi turned from hir engineering station. Nightsky grinned as shi continued, "We had thought we were going to just sneak aboard a ship and look around for a few hours before being caught and sent home. Instead we ended up on the wrong ship and got thrown into a real adventure!"
"Are you complaining?" Dusk asked with a knowing grin.
Nightsky just laughed. "Hell no! I wouldn’t have missed this for the world."
Graysocks also grinned as she told their guest, "If you want to see the ship you’ll be riding in, go over to one of the port view ports. The Folly will be coming into view in just a minute."
Tauna looked out the suggested view port. The shuttle rolled slightly and a ship came into view. It looked to her like someone had balanced two small melons on a corncob. Like a corncob, not all the kernels were the same size, and some were missing. The only things breaking that illusion were the color and the two struts that swept forward to hold the ship’s warp engines a third of the way up the corncob. She turned away to listen to a voice tease her pilots about something, when she turned back; she was shocked to see how much larger the ship had grown.
Nightsky had felt her emotional spike. "You all right?" shi softly asked.
"It didn’t look that big a moment ago! I’m having trouble gauging size… and I guess distance out here," Tauna admitted.
Nightsky smiled. "Completely understandable. There are no references for you to use, and the lack of an atmosphere means there’s no softening of edges or shadows. Here’s a hint; each of those larger ‘corn kernels’ is a sixty-meter cube. The corncob section itself is about two kilometers long."
"I knew they had to be large to move a lot of cargo, but I didn’t think they got this big," She said as they drifted past the rings of cargo pods, and up towards the two spheres.
"The Folly is a bit larger than average. I think it’s because her captain hates to make two trips when one will do," Dusk said with a grin.
As the shuttle got closer, Tauna watched as their shuttle seemed to drift over and up the larger ship. They seemed to lose their race as they reached a point midway between the two melons, drifting inward instead of forward. Moments later, tractor beams gently pulled them into a slowly opening hanger. Once the shuttle was securely docked, the teens led their guest through the airlocks. A lift dropped them deep into the lower sphere, releasing them into the living area.
Walking down one of the numerous corridors, Nightsky smiled as shi asked, "Shall we room her near our other ‘guests’?"
"The room next to Song is free," Dusk agreed. At Tauna’s raised eyebrow, shi added, "That way, in case of trouble we can gather all of you up easier."
"Will there be trouble?" Tauna asked.
"Like our adopted father says, ‘hope for the best while preparing for the worst’," Dusk explained.
"Your room," Graysocks said as she waved Tauna into a room.
Tauna felt her jaw drop, as her heart seemed to sink. While quite large and with a bed big enough for her and all the hunt-mates she’d left behind, the room was stark and unappetizingly barren.
Seeing the chakats’ reaction to their guest’s emotions, Graysocks quickly added, "Perhaps we should’ve warned you that this room hasn’t been used yet. That means you get to decorate it any way you like."
"Can we help?" asked a very young voice from behind them. Tauna turned to find two small chakats openly staring at the latest newcomer.
"Isn’t it past your bedtimes?" Dusk reminded them. At Tauna’s confused look shi smiled at her. "We’ve been on Aussie time this week, so for us it’s getting late."
"Aww… please?" the smaller of the cubs begged.
"Not tonight Spitfire," Dusk told hir. "Ask again in the morning and Tauna may have a few chores for you and Darkstreak."
"Ya!" they both cried as they ran around a corner and towards what Tauna assumed was the nursery.
Turning back to Tauna, Dusk grinned. "I’ve bought you a little time, I suggest you get some ideas of what you want before they swamp you – unless you want a ‘cubs’ room?"
"Thank you, no," Tauna said with a half smile; still looking in the direction the cubs had left. Turning back to the others, she asked, "Do you have a catalog of materials I can work with?"
"Ask Tess; she knows what’s where," Graysocks advised her.
"And who is Tess?" Tauna asked, having only seen the three teens and pair of cubs so far.
"Oops! Sorry, Tess, this is Tauna; Tauna, Tess," Graysocks said waving an arm in the air.
"Greetings Tauna," Tess told her from a nearby speaker.
At Tauna’s surprised look, Dusk added, "Ship’s computer. You’ll find she’s pretty clever."
"Clever enough to suggest that you point our guest at one of the smaller holosuites where we can go through some of her options."
Tauna spun her head around as a new voice commented, "Trying to make our guest disappear before the rest of us are even sure you got her onboard?" The grinning red-headed human had barely registered before Tauna was distracted by a small blur of fur that launched itself right at her.
As she held the small and very playful chakat cub that had ‘attacked’ her, Tauna was again distracted – this time by a growled, "Stormy…" A tall female Rakshani had come from a different direction, and could see what hir little paws were up to. The little chakat changed hir attempt to undo the top’s fasteners into a quick hug.
"I’m Neal and this is Dessa," Neal said indicating the large Rakshani. Pointing at the cub in her arms, he added, "And that little handful is Firestorm. I’ll warn you right now that shi’ll try again."
"Try what again?" Tauna asked, having missed Stormy’s aborted attempt.
"To get under your top," Neal explained with a grin. "Shi likes giving new friends ‘milk checks’."
"I see," Tauna said as she looked down at the cub, who was doing hir best ‘I’m a little angel’ impression. "And who taught hir to greet strangers that way?"
"I like to place the blame on hir chakat big sisters," Neal said with a chuckle. "Shi woke up one day to find that there was more than one source of milk, so now shi’s always looking to see who else might have hir favorite treat."
Looking down at the little chakat in her arms, Tauna said, "Sorry Stormy, I don’t have any milk for you."
Graysocks laughed. "Trust me, shi won’t take your word for it, I know."
"Well then, I’d better be on my guard for kitty attacks," Tauna said as she gave the aforementioned kitten a tickle before letting hir down.
"Good luck," Neal told her with a grin. "Just remember, you have to sleep sometime," he warned her with a chuckle, before he and the tall Rakshani left the way Dessa had come.
"So," Dusk asked as they turned back to their guest, "do you want to make a virtual mess before you try a real one?" at Tauna’s nod they led her to one of the holosuites before getting back to their other chores.
Tauna found herself in what looked like the same bare room she had seen a few minutes ago. "How do I do this?" she asked the empty room.
"Whatever is easiest for you," Tess replied. "Some like to vocalize what they want, others like a control board or a color palette that you can ‘paint’ what you like, or any combination."
"Lets try a color palette," Tauna decided, and one appeared before her with a brush clipped to the edge of it. She dabbed the brush into one of the colors and smeared a blob of paint across a section of the board. A brush full of another color was added across the first. A little of a third was added to a point where the other two were close to the shade she wanted. Touching the concoction at the point where she thought they met her desired color, Tauna touched the brush to a wall, where the color spread to cover the entire surface. Eyeing the wall, Tauna murmured, "Maybe just a shade darker." The wall darkened slightly. Nodding, Tauna asked, "What types of storage options do I have to play with? I’m not planning on getting too fancy for a three week trip."
"My current estimate is thirteen weeks to Chakona," Tess informed her.
"But – I checked the cruise ship schedules! The direct ones get there in a little over three weeks!"
"Had we stayed on our original schedule we would have been on a more direct run to Chakona," Tess agreed. "However, there was a change in which companies we ship for. This removed our priority to get to Chakona, and the captain picked up a few orders requiring stops between here and there."
"If we’re going to be taking that long to get to Chakona, then I need to send a message to my friend."
"That can be arranged," Tess assured her. "Whom do we need to contact?"
"Vanessa Saroian – she’s on a cruise liner named the Star Nomad on her way to Chakona."
"We won’t be able to reach them directly; do you know where your friend will be staying on Chakona?"
"No, but a mutual friend on Earth might be able to find out for me. Hir name is Chakat Topaz, daughter of Tigerlily and Dawnlight."
"Is this the same Tigerlily who informed Neal that you needed a ride?"
"Then get your message ready, I still have hir comm code in memory and I can send it through the next relay we pass."
"Thank you Tess."
"You are welcome Tauna. Now, did you wish to do a little more with your room?"
"I think so, yes," Tauna agreed as she reached for the controls to scroll through her choices.
Dessa had led Neal to one of the smaller and currently unoccupied lounges.
As she indicated that he should sit in one of the chairs, Neal commented, "Well, this isn’t ‘my room or yours’. What are you up to, kitten?"
A little hesitant, Dessa replied, "I wanted to ask you something that has nothing to do with the bedroom."
Neal grinned. "Until something or someone intercedes, you have my complete and undivided attention."
She knelt beside his chair. "Would you be my lifemate?" she blurted out – looking like she wanted to take it back as soon as it left her lips.
After waiting a moment to see if she’d say more, Neal asked, "Are you still worried about our little run through the carriers?" At her cautious headshake he said, "Then yes, I would be honored to be your lifemate."
"Why did you ask if I was worried?" she wondered.
"If you were offering it as an apology, then you’d have been doing it for all the wrong reasons, and I wouldn’t have accepted," Neal said as he pulled her into a hug.
Having watched Stew chase some of the older kids out of her kitchen earlier, Tauna was wondering what to do about her growing hunger. She was roaming the halls when Neal came around a corner.
"Bored?" he asked.
"A little hungry actually," she admitted.
"Well, I could do with a snack myself. Let’s go raid the kitchen."
"Won’t the cook get after us?"
"Not if we’re sneaky enough," Neal assured her with a grin.
Leading her into the kitchen, Neal headed for the storage area. "What do you say to some stuffed baked potatoes?" he asked as he grabbed several.
"Stuffed with what?" she asked.
"I was thinking of roast beef and broccoli smothered in cheese – unless you’d prefer something different?"
"That does sound good right now," Tauna admitted.
While they were talking, Neal had gathered the mentioned ingredients and a few others. Handing Tauna half the load, he headed for the door.
"Aren’t we going to cook this?" Tauna asked staring at Neal.
"We are," Neal agreed, "but not here."
One level down, Neal showed her the kid’s mini kitchen. While the potatoes were quick-baked, Neal started chopping the meat into smaller pieces. "I’m going add some onions and olives to mine, is there anything you would like for yours?"
"Shrimp, but I didn’t think I saw any."
"Sounds good. Tess, a kilo of peeled and steamed shrimp please."
"Coming right up, boss," Tess replied as the shrimp materialized in the replicator.
Frowning at the steaming shrimp, Tauna asked, "If you have replicators, why are you making a meal by hand?"
"Where’s the fun in that?" Neal laughed. "Besides, I don’t think we have stuffed potatoes with shrimp loaded yet."
"So I’m helping add to your selections?" Tauna asked with a small smile.
"That too." As they started preparing their potatoes, Neal asked, "Are you feeling alright? I know it takes some people a while to get used to shipboard life."
"I am not suffering from Territorial Attachment Syndrome," Tauna stated a little defensively.
Neal chuckled, "I didn’t think you were, or I’d probably have found you hiding somewhere in the fetal position. Nonetheless, we all get a little homesick every now and then."
"Where do you call home?" she asked as they placed their potatoes back in the oven to warm the toppings.
"Home is where the heart is, or so they say. This ship has carried me from place to place for so long that she’s my home. She helps connect all the pieces of my heart."
"I don’t think I understand."
"From Tigerlily’s note, your heart’s chasing its pieces, some of which you left behind while you chase one you’ve grown very close to."
"I hadn’t thought about it that way," she admitted as they removed their snacks.
Neal placed his potato in the replicator. "Copy pattern please," he told Tess. After it beeped, he removed it and suggested Tauna do the same. "After all," he told her with a grin, "I can’t have too many options in the case I go and get my cook mad at me."
They were almost done eating when a voice at the doorway sweetly asked, "Would you like some dessert to go with that?" Stew rolled the cart into the room as she gave Neal a dirty look. "You, mister, are busted," she growled at him.
"Are you saying I should’ve made our guest dine alone?" Neal shot back with a raised eyebrow.
Giving him a long look, Stew finally nodded. "You’re forgiven… this time," she granted before turning to the foxtaur and giving her a grin. "As for you Tauna, my kitchen is always open if you’re hungry. I just ask that you not leave me too big a mess to clean up." Tauna looked a little confused by Stew’s rapid changes in attitude and merely nodded.
Stew then served Tauna and Neal from the dessert cart before cutting herself a slice of spice cake and joining them. Tauna finished first and bid them a quick goodnight before leaving the small kitchen.
After their guest was out of earshot, Neal commented, "Tess told me she was roaming the halls with her stomach growling."
"I had playfully chased some of the kids out of my kitchen earlier," Suzan admitted. "She may’ve thought I was serious. By the way," she teasingly asked, "what were you still doing up? You know how Bonita hates to be kept waiting."
Neal grinned; Bonita was one of his more understanding mates when it came to him going to bed later than expected. "I spent a little while this evening with Dessa, she’s asked me to be her lifemate."
"‘Bout time," Suzan said with a grin.
Neal nodded. "And after that I needed to rebuild my energy before seeing Bonita. As I was still recharging my batteries, I went over some of the data from the scouts I sent to check the alternate routes. One of the scouts I sent out as we left Raksha never hit any of its later checkpoints. I’m sending out a few more to cover the areas it never got to, and to see if I can find out what happened to it."
"Any particular reason?"
"While I do lose a scout every now and again, this one might have disappeared in one of the areas the Sharp Claw may have gone missing. More than enough of a reason to send others down its path."
"Too many maybes in there I think." At Neal’s nod of agreement, she asked, "Will you tell Wenfrec?"
"Not until we know more. I don’t see any reason to stir up hope just yet."
After giving Suzan a goodnight snuggle, Neal went in search of Bonita – Tess directing him to one of the smaller holosuites. Twin moons shining through scattered gaps in the canopy lit a lush bluish-green jungle night. Following a path through the dense vegetation, Neal found Bonita waiting for him in a small clearing. Having heard his approach, Bonita struck a pose as he came into view.
"Silly kitten," Neal said as he gave her a hug. Looking around a little he wondered, "What world is this?"
"Teauhous Four," she replied as she pulled him back into the snuggle.
Neal shuddered slightly as he grumbled, "I hope you left the more ‘interesting’ of the plant and animal life off the holosuite program."
"Of course," she said with a grin. "I didn’t think having to wear protective armor suits would be all that romantic."
"Did they try colonizing it again?"
"Not to my knowledge, but it was a beautiful place."
"Beautiful and deadly, just like most of my mates."
"You’re one to talk."
"Sure I am, being neither beautiful nor deadly."
She frowned. "As I’ve heard you telling the cubs, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. As far as deadly, a long talk with Shortdash and Tess brought out that you have protocols in place that could wipe life off the face of a planet."
"Which I hope to never have a need for," Neal pointed out. "Like your military training, it is hoped that you will never need it – but if you do, you will need to know how to do it right the first time."
"Why is it I never win these types of discussions with you?" she asked playfully.
"Perhaps you need to pick your battles more carefully," Neal suggested as he gave her a quick kiss.
"Then let’s see if I can win this type of battle," she whispered as she rolled them both over into the soft and springy groundcover, her low rumbling purr filled with a promise of things to come.
Tauna spent the next few hours getting her room the way she wanted it, just leaving a few little things for the cubs to ‘help’ her with in the morning. She then settled down for a nap, figuring that to be the easiest way to shift her internal clock to ship time.
As this was the first time she’d had to just lay there and think since that knock on the door, her thoughts went out to her denmates. It would just be late afternoon in the village; her friends would be working, the evening meal still hours away. She rolled over again, trying to find a position that would bring her a little rest before the ship’s quickly approaching ‘morning’.
Tauna woke slowly, the warmth from the bodies around her making her want to curl back into the group for another few minutes, but someone had other ideas. "Zia, you tease," she grumbled as one of her nipples was gently tongued. A giggle that Zia couldn’t have produced brought her fully awake – to find herself nose to nose with the oldest of the cubs she had meet the evening before.
Seeing she was awake, Darkstreak grinned as shi said, "You felt lonely so we slept with you. Is that okay?"
A glace down showed Tauna that the little cub she had been warned about had indeed gotten hir ‘milk check’ in. She looked back to Darkstreak and returned hir grin. "I was a little lonely for my friends," she admitted. "Thank you for filling in," Tauna said as she pulled the two cubs into a hug. "You have my permission to help me anytime I’m feeling lonely."
Nova had been spooning Tauna from behind. Shi softly chuckled as shi said, "Like they would wait for permission. I’m Nova, and I understand you didn’t get to see too much of the Folly last night, so I’ll be your guide until you get your bearings."
Looking back at the younger chakat, Tauna smiled. "If last night was anything to go by, I’ll need a guide, a scorecard, and a coach to figure this place out!"
"We’ll go easy on you," Nova promised.
Still enjoying the cuddle, Tauna said, "Let’s start with that. Just how many is ‘we’?"
"Counting cubs?" Nova asked with a grin. Taking a moment to mentally count heads, shi said, "Not counting the crew of the Good Deal whose ship is in getting an upgrade, the Folly boasts thirteen adults, fourteen teenagers counting me, a preteen and a pair of eight year olds as well as seven cubs five and under. Though the preteen’s more in the adult category these days." At Tauna’s look of disbelief, shi added, "You’ll see."
"Are you saying there’s another ship in this one?" Tauna asked.
Nova laughed. "Counting one that’s still unfinished and the Good Deal, there are four ships and six shuttles tucked into the Folly."
"I knew this ship was big, but…."
"Like that old saying goes ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’," Nova assured her.
Tauna’s first lesson that morning was in chakat cub herding, the cubs being much more interested in going through her things than going to breakfast.
As they entered the dining area, Nova grinned as shi whispered, "Got your scorecard ready?"
The first thing added to the scorecard was when a foxtaur kit a little larger than the milk check kitten bowled said kitten over as they came in. A playful scuffle began. "Star – Stormy!" an older vixentaur snapped without turning her head. "Not in the dining room," she said a little softer. As the two cubs leaped up on one of the tables and went over to a bowl of what looked like kibbles in milk, the foxtaur turned towards Tauna. "Welcome Tauna. I’m Weaver, and that little tripping hazard was Starblazer." Waving her hand around the table she added, "I’ve heard you’ve already met Dessa. These are Shadowcrest, Bonita and Kestrel. The rest of our menagerie is scattered about the ship, this being towards the end of Folly’s breakfast time."
"Hello little sister," Tauna heard Nova say as shi brushed past the much larger Shadowcrest.
"Younger sister maybe," Shadowcrest mumbled around a mouthful of food as shi gave the smaller chakat a gentle swat with hir tail.
"Where’s your coppery shadow?" Nova teased as shi selected what shi wanted from the remains of the open buffet.
"An early training session with Lighttouch. Hy’s running some tests to see what other abilities shi might have hidden away."
"You mean besides broadcasting erotic feelings from orbit?" Nova teased again as shi set a bowl of mixed fruit on the table.
"Behave," Bonita told hir with a grin.
At Tauna’s look of confusion, Weaver smiled. "Some chakats can be very mentally ‘noisy’ at times, and we seem to have more than our fair share on the Folly."
"And Windsong’s been so loud other ships have heard hir," Nova added with a giggle.
"I told you to behave," Bonita reminded hir, her grin getting wider.
"Make me," Nova challenged, remembering how easily Neal had brought down the large Rakshani with a few well-placed tickles.
Bonita was about to give the chakat youth one last warning, when she was distracted by Nova’s bowl of fruit – the spoon having shifted slightly without being touched. Then the handle of the spoon dropped as if an unseen paw had slapped it downward and a piece of fruit was flipped out of the bowl to bounce off Nova’s muzzle.
Nova looked around the room as the spoon rattled on the table. "Who did that?" shi demanded, not seeing anything or anyone that could have knocked the spoon out of the bowl, and the fruit almost into hir eye.
"My shadow," Shadowcrest told hir, unable to hold back hir laughter. "I do believe shi heard you."
Nova had hir mouth open to reply but remained silent as another piece of fruit moved. This one rose up out of hir bowl and floated over to the table where the cubs were eating. Star had seen it coming and snapped it up as it came into range. A third piece of fruit made its way to Stormy before the bowl spun around a few times and then stopped.
After waiting a few moments to see if anything else would happen, Tauna asked Nova, "I take it that wasn’t normal for this ship?"
Kestrel chuckled. "While anything can and sometimes does happen on the holosuites, the only time food flies in the dinning room is during a food fight – which is frowned upon most of the time."
They were still speculating on the reason for the flying food, with Shady insisting it was hir ‘shadow’, when Windsong and Lighttouch joined them. Tauna noticed that they both looked exhausted. As Song loaded two plates from the buffet, Lighttouch ordered two very large omelets from the replicator. Joining the others at the table, they dug into their meal as if they hadn’t eaten for days.
Weaver gave them a minute before asking, "I thought you two ate before you went off to play?"
"So we did," Lighttouch admitted. "But we have burned off a great deal of energy this last hour, and we need to replace it."
"Doing what?" Kestrel asked, the tone of her voice suggesting she thought she already knew.
Song stared at Kestrel’s almost empty plate. A well-chewed bone lifted a few inches from the plate and floated in midair for a moment before dropping back to the plate. "Best I can do right now," shi said after swallowing a mouthful of food. "I’m still tired, and Lighttouch was lending me hys support when we were playing with Nova’s food," this last said as shi half grinned at Nova.
Weaver frowned lightly as she asked, "So, were you using Tess’s sensors to see what you were doing?"
"No," Lighttouch said as Windsong's mouth was full again. "One of hir other abilities is Astral-Projection or ‘Out-of-body Projection’ as it is sometimes called. Add to that hir telekinesis, and shi can not only see, but also affect things at a distance."
Weaver gave Shadowcrest a dirty look. "That’s what you were grinning about before Tauna and Nova came in – you could sense Song’s presence."
Shadowcrest nodded. Shi had sensed parts of Lighttouch’s testing, and hir growing bond with Windsong had helped the astral-projecting chakat find hir way to the dining room.
"What’s hir range?" Dessa wondered.
"We are still determining that," Lighttouch told her. "Today’s test was just to see if shi could do it at all, and whether shi could control it consciously. Windsong’s range will also be affected by whether or not shi has any ‘help’. With my support shi was able to project a little farther, and have a little more strength when shi used hir telekinesis. Both should improve with practice."
"So this is something new?" Tauna asked. At Weaver’s nod, she mumbled, "So even trying to keep a scorecard on this bunch won’t help."
"You get used to it after a while," Weaver assured her. "I’ve almost learned not to assume anything’s impossible on this ship."
"Is there by chance a corridor long enough for me to practice my archery?" Tauna asked with a grin. "I don’t want to get too out of practice."
"Actually there is," Weaver told her, "but you wouldn’t want to use it." When Tauna gave her a questioning look, Weaver explained, "While it’s almost two kilometers long, there’s no gravity."
"Some local gravity could be added," Bonita commented, "but it wouldn’t always be constant, which would throw off your aim."
"Never mind the captain not wanting you putting any holes in his cargo carriers," Dessa chimed in with a grin. "I suggest you stick to the holosuites, much safer for everyone."
"My aim’s not that bad," Tauna said, pretending to pout.
"Considering you’re a hunter, probably not," Dessa agreed, having seen the bow that had accompanied their guest. "But gravity fluctuations, tractor beams and random air vents will throw off even your aim."
"Tess has warned me that this will be a thirteen week cruise to Chakona, I’m hoping there’s something I can do to help out."
"In other words, she’s afraid she’ll be ‘bored out of her gourd’," Nova piped in. "Don’t worry Tauna, we have lots of things to do."
"After you’ve given her a tour of the Folly and briefed her on the safety protocols," Weaver warned hir.
"Of course," Nova agreed. "I’ll take good care of her."
After her ship orientation and safety briefing, Nova led Tauna to the main holosuite. They entered a tropical forest with several well-worn paths leading away from the door portal. A small pedestal held rows of what appeared to be phasers, some smaller than others. A few were missing, each empty spot showing a small picture of who had taken which weapon.
Snagging a pair of phasers, Nova nodded at a couple of the pictures. "A few of the cubs are in here with us, so you’ll want to set your weapon at its lowest setting."
"Why on earth would I want to shoot cubs?" Tauna wondered, not taking the presented weapon.
"Self defense perhaps?" Nova countered.
Tauna was about to reply when her tail received a sudden jolt. As she reached back to inspect her tail, there was a second sting on her shoulder. "Hey!" she protested as she checked the ‘hits’, other than the momentary shock, her shoulder and tail felt fine.
"Cease fire!" Nova called out. "She’s not playing!"
A rustling in a nearby tree alerted Tauna of the direction of her attacker. Or attackers as a tree limb on another tree began to shake as well. A nearby bush also shifted as a Caitian youth stepped into view.
"We’re sorry," Honey told the surprised foxtaur. "We thought you were playing ‘stinger tag’ too."
"Not yet she isn’t," Nova told her, showing that shi still held both stingers.
"Will you play with us?" Honey asked hopefully.
"It goes against my nature to hurt cubs," Tauna told her with a headshake.
"But it doesn’t hurt," Darkstreak insisted, shooting hirself in the foot.
"I’m not that good with a beam weapon anyway," Tauna tried to insist.
"Bows and arrows!" Spitfire exclaimed from hir tree.
Nova cocked hir head. "How would that work?" shi wondered.
Tess’s voice came from all around them, "This is a holosuite after all. I can simulate her arrows feeling like stinger hits, and if desired I can also leave the arrow sticking out of its victim."
Nova held out hir paw. "Tess, an arrow please." When the arrow appeared, shi pushed it into hir buttocks. Looking at the others, shi commented, "Just like a stinger hit when the tip touched me, but it doesn’t hurt… it just feels like something’s stuck to me." Shi wiggled hir hips, making the arrow wave back and forth.
Tauna was about to protest that she wasn’t going to be shooting them with anything, when the cubs all started demanding arrows from Tess. A minute later it looked like a group of happily animated corpses from a bad B-rated movie, including Honey sporting the classical ‘arrow through the head’.
Shadowcrest, Windsong, and Lighttouch picked that moment to enter the holosuite.
Watching the cubs bounce around to see how far they could make their arrows swing, Windsong laughed. "I should have thought of that!"
"Please?" Darkstreak begged. "She won’t shoot us," shi said, indicating Tauna.
At Windsong’s request, Tess created a pair of bows as well as quivers of arrows like the ones used at the beach. Testing the tension on one of the bows, shi asked, "How long should we set the arrow’s persistence to?" as shi picked an arrow and fired it through hir own handpaw and into the ground. A tailstinger’s jolt on the top and bottom of hir paw told hir what shi would be doing to those shi shot, an attempt to shift hir paw showed hir that shi was indeed ‘nailed to the spot’.
"I would think a minute would be more than long enough," Shadowcrest suggested.
"Why a minute?" Honey asked.
"That way you don’t end up pinned somewhere until after dinner time," shi replied with a chuckle.
"How would shi pin me?"
"Like this," Song said, stringing and firing an arrow into Honey’s arm as well as the tree behind her.
"Oh, wow," Honey said as she tried to pull free, finally working her arm down the shaft, the feathers tickling as they were drawn ‘through’ her arm.
"Brings a new meaning to ‘pin the tail on the cub’," Shadowcrest said with a grin.
"I’m having trouble believing that you’ve turned getting shot at into a game," Tauna stated as she watched their antics.
"The holosuite training is a non-lethal environment," Lighttouch explained. "But to show you that they can and do take weapons seriously…" hy clapped hys hands to get everyone’s attention. "Training time," hy stated. "Weapons are on heavy stun, any hits take you out of the game. The scenario is we were enjoying a wooded area near the spaceport, but an unknown force may now be hunting us. We will not be safe until we are back in the shuttle and launched. Any questions? No? Tess will provide a map of the area and the path we used to get here. You have ten minutes to study it."
What followed was a practice session in stealth and caution as they split up into three groups and tried to sneak their way back to the shuttle. While they ended up not needing to stun any possible ‘foes’, Tauna and Windsong's arrows did help provide distracting noises away from the groups when a couple of possible hostiles got too close.
They were all safely in the shuttle when Darkstreak pleaded, "Now can she shoot us with arrows?"
Alex was ‘piloting’ the shuttle. He turned and smiled at the little chakat. "That would be up to Tauna. If she says no, then no. And I know that you know better than to keep begging after a ‘no’ has been handed down."
Alex turned back to his controls as several of the cubs began to pout. Tauna touched Darkstreak’s shoulder and quietly said, "Maybe later." This cheered the cubs up, but Tauna was still thinking about what she had seen. When trying to get to the shuttle the cubs had been surprisingly careful to not aim their weapons at each other, but now that they were playing with stingers they were aiming at each other’s tails again.
"Cubs will be cubs," Alex commented, as the shuttle appeared to dock with the Folly.
Shadowcrest snorted. "Are you trying to say you wouldn’t be back there swapping stings if you weren’t flying?"
Alex chuckled. "No, I’d be back there stinging away. As Neal’s shown us, you’re only as old as you let yourself feel."
"Just how old is Neal?" Tauna wondered. She hadn’t really gotten a good feel for him in their two encounters.
"You can ask him, but don’t expect a straight answer," Shadowcrest warned her. Shi held back that some of the memories shi had from him suggested that not only did he predate chakats – but possibly furs as well.
Shutting down the ‘shuttle’, Alex nodded. "As he’ll tell you, ‘does it matter?’ He’s old enough to know what needs doing, and young enough to still have fun doing most of it."
As they disembarked from the shuttle into the corridor leading to the holosuite, Nightsky walked next to Tauna. "I understand you’ll have a chakat for a companion when we get to Chakona." At Tauna’s curious nod, Nightsky asked, "How close have you been to chakats? As in would you like a little practice?"
"Are you offering to ‘instruct’ me in the ways of chakats?" Tauna asked with a shy grin.
"If you like," Nightsky agreed with a grin of hir own.
"Hey! No fair hogging the fresh meat!" Dusk called out from behind them.
Tauna laughed. "Shi did ask first, and some idea of what to expect wouldn’t hurt – especially since my companion won’t have been a chakat all that long."
"Maybe you’d better explain that last part," Dusk suggested, she and most of the others were now clearly curious.
Tauna soon found herself in the main lounge, explaining to most of the Folly’s crew and guests Vanessa’s physical problems, and the possible cure.
When Tauna was done, Calmmeadow turned to Neal, "Could your ‘process’ have helped Vanessa?"
Neal frowned thoughtfully for a moment before shaking his head. "If she was already having problems when she hit adulthood, the process could ‘reset’ her to that point, but not cure her."
"So it seems someone on Chakona has a trick Tess doesn’t know yet," Shortdash commented with a grin.
"So it appears," Neal agreed. At the looks several of them were giving him, he added, "And no, I don’t intend to try to pry their secrets from them."
The more telepathically sensitive picked up, "He won’t need to with all the curious felines on-board – corporeal and non…." The thought was whispered so faintly that none of those that heard it was sure of the sender.
Further speculation was interrupted by Stew informing them that lunch would soon be served.
After lunch, Song found Neal humming to himself as he worked on one of the smaller Zulus. Shi smiled as his humming stopped suddenly and he looked around to see who had snuck up on him.
Waving the pair of data pads shi had carried in, shi said, "The terror twins say they’ve aced your little test."
"Remains to be seen," Neal countered as he reached for them, only to have Song pull them back.
"Trade," shi offered him. "These pads for that tune you were humming."
"No deal," Neal told hir with a grin.
"Please?" Song begged, using hir best pout.
Neal relented and held out his hand.
Handing him the data pads, Song quietly asked, "The tune?"
Chuckling, Neal started humming the tune again, and then he added the words for hir.
"Who's peekin' out from under a stairway
Calling a name that's lighter than air
Who's bending down to give me a rainbow
Everyone knows it's Windy"
(by Ruthann Friedman)
Song made a face, both at the name as well as Neal’s excuse for a singing voice. Neal just grinned and said, "Tess?"
Having had time enough to find to original tune in Neal’s library, Tess played the rest of the tune for them:
"Who's tripping down the streets of the city
Smilin' at everybody she sees
Who's reachin' out to capture a moment
Everyone knows it's Windy
And Windy has stormy eyes
That flash at the sound of lies
And Windy has wings to fly
Above the clouds (above the clouds)
Above the clouds (above the clouds)"
As a flute solo began, Song grinned. "And here I thought you were making up the ‘Windy’ part of it."
"No," Neal told hir, "it was a fairly popular song a long time ago. Funny thing is, the songwriter was making a song about a man she knew but when the song came out, they had switched the gender."
"Why is that funny?"
"Because in my mind the song’s now gone from he, to she, to shi," he said arching an eyebrow at hir.
Song laughed as shi turned to leave. "Thanks… I think," shi said as shi curled hir tail under his chin in a quick tease, only to jerk it away before Neal could grab it.
Glancing at the pads, Neal asked, "Tess, how do they really think they’ve done?"
"As Song told you, they feel they breezed it."
"We’ll see," he said with a smile. "Tell them to join Screamingwind on Good Deal. Her parents are starting to ‘chomp at the bit’ to get moving again."
"You’re stuck with just Screamingwind for this afternoon, boss," Tess informed him. "Lighttouch has already requested the twins to gauge their link and Quickdash’s powers."
"Alright, I’ll see where she’s at after I get this beast finished and buttoned up."
"You are going to have your hands full with those two," Lighttouch said with a chuckle. "As if Quickdash was not powerful enough, Holly also has some latent talent of her own." The two in question were with Neal and Screamingwind, deep in Good Deal’s engineering section.
"Which Quickdash is no doubt stirring up," Weaver suggested.
"More than a little," Lighttouch agreed. "And it will be interesting to see how far they will grow as they started so young."
"Are you sure we can’t blame this on Neal?" Shortdash asked with a grin.
Lighttouch chuckled as hy replied, "Only as far as they came together on the Folly. Quickdash’s powers would have manifested in the next few years with or without Holly and Neal. Whether Holly’s talent would have surfaced is open to speculation."
"So we can blame him but you can’t!" Weaver told Shortdash with a laugh.
"Blame, or thank?" Longsock wondered. "Without his help I might have lost my mate and daughters."
"Maybe a bit of both," Quickwind allowed. "But should we be thanking Neal, Tess, or a particularly devious deity?"
"Since they’ve admitted their presence, I’ve noticed the cubs talking a lot more about their new playmates," Weaver said. "I’ve even spotted what I thought were Rakshani cubs in the holosuite, but when I looked again they were gone."
Lighttouch frowned slightly before commenting; "I asked Dessa and Zhanch about the stories behind their deities. While the traveler was known about, there is no mention of a group of them all traveling on one ship."
"Have you tried talking to the deities themselves?" Weaver asked.
"A couple of times, with no results. On the other paw, Shadowcrest says a couple of them do ‘suggest’ things to hir from time to time."
"Windsong’s noticed it a few times. It seems shi can sense that Shady’s communicating with them, but shi can’t hear what’s being said," Weaver commented, having seen Windsong look curiously at Shadowcrest just before Shadowcrest admitted that a deity had just said something.
"That is normal for telepathic communication," Lighttouch informed her. "Unless one of those communicating sends you the conversation, the most you might get is a ‘feeling’ of the emotions of those conversing."
"You do know they’re probably listening to us right now, don’t you?" Quickwind pointed out.
"I know," Lighttouch admitted. "But they have not seemed interested when I tried to communicate with them before."
"We’ll talk at you when we have need," a mental voice assured them all.
Shortdash laughed at Lighttouch’s pained expression. "Looks like they prefer the cubs to us."
"Perhaps because we have questions while the cubs just want to play with them?" Quickwind suggested with a grin.
Weaver also laughed. "If they have yet to tell the Rakshani everything there is to know about them, I don’t see them telling all to a bunch of nosy taurs."
"Or perhaps a bit more like Neal," Shortdash suggested looking thoughtful. "They’ll only tell us what they think we’re really ready for."
"I was wondering if you’d be my first," Shadowcrest quietly asked Windsong that evening, after shi’d gotten Song alone for a minute.
Song’s expression was a mix of a grin and a smirk as shi replied, "After our little game the other evening, I was wondering when you’d ask." Wrapping the larger chakat in a tight hug, Song whispered in hir ear, "Anytime you’re ready…."
"Well…" Shady whispered slowly into their snuggle, "neither of us has any duties until midday tomorrow…."
Song giggled. "Your room or mine?"
As they ducked into Song’s room, Shady said, "Tess? Please place fields around this room to give us a little privacy."
"And to keep the whole ship from hearing me!" Song added with a laugh.
It was only a few minutes later that Weaver suddenly shivered. "Why am I feeling frisky all of a sudden?" she asked, noticing that several of the chakats were also becoming aroused.
"Shady and Song finally decided to make a little ‘Whoopee’ as Neal calls it," Morningmist commented as shi shifted to make hirself more comfortable. "Tess, shield those two before we have to break out the mops and pails."
"I already have them behind a set of fields, sensors indicate that the fields are working properly," Tess informed them.
"Then add another set!" Holly said with a laugh. "If Mom can hear them, then so can everybody else!"
A third set of fields was erected before most of them thought they couldn’t hear the mental and emotional output coming from the room. The quiet lasted until they all felt a sudden jolt. They all also received double mental images from both Song and Shady. One in pure bliss at something shi was doing for the very first time, the other in more than a little surprise and discomfort.
"Ouch!" Neal summed it up as they all tried to get over the feelings. "That felt like too much too fast, and the last time I checked I don’t have one of those."
"That was Song," Moonglow groaned. "Either shi forgot to suggest Shady take it slowly, or Shady ‘slipped’." Trying to unclench a couple of cramping muscle groups, shi muttered, "Remind me to ask Shady to go easy on me… that hilting was a bit much."
Noticing that most of the others were still in some discomfort from what had bled through the fields, Lighttouch checked on hys students. Finding that they were already past the initial shock and back to pleasuring each other, hy said, "Tess, drop all but one set of fields please." Hy let the others feel the enjoyment the two chakats were giving each other for a minute before asking Tess to bring the fields back to full strength. Hy then asked for yet another field, and finally a fifth before deciding the others should no longer be able to sense them. While hy was doing this, most of the others had left the lounge in twos and threes, leaving just hym and Moonglow.
Moonglow was growling in frustration. "Well, that took care of the hilted feeling," shi admitted, "but your cure left most of us horny as hell!"
Lighttouch chuckled. "As Neal would say, ‘would you like a bit more of the dog that bit you?’ As I am not totally unaffected, would you like some help with the aftereffects?"
"Y-yes," shi agreed, "but first I think we need to check on the others."
Tess interjected, "Everyone else has found a partner or partners to help them finish what those two have started. I’ll continue monitoring and let you know if anyone needs help."
"Thank you, Tess," Lighttouch said before giving Moonglow a leer. "Your room or mine?"
"Mine," Moonglow told hym as they headed for the door. "Yours is a little too close to those two for my liking."
More than a little late for breakfast, Windsong and Shadowcrest were grinning and giggling as the door to the dining area open in front of them – this stopped when they saw what awaited them. The rest of the Folly’s crew and company were also having a very late start and it looked like most had gotten little sleep the previous night.
One by one, each of them held up scorecards like the ones used to tease Windsong’s parents. Each and every one was flipped to ‘Holy #%#^^$$!!’.
"B-but we had Tess put up the fields before we started!" Shadowcrest protested.
"You and Song went right through them," Lighttouch informed hir. "We thought three sets of fields were sufficient until you two traded positions and you gave Windsong a little more than shi was ready for." The skunktaur stifled a smirk; neither of them seemed to have noticed that hy was now in female mode. Hy had gotten a little carried away and drank Moonglow dry during their hours of lovemaking. Hys body had finally put hym to sleep to change, and hy had been one of the last ones up.
"You heard that?" Shadowcrest asked; both shi and Windsong were now looking very nervous.
"No," Weaver told them, "We felt it! The only good thing I can think of is that the males onboard now know what it feels like."
"Never mind everyone having to work off that sexual overload you two gave us," Moonglow added with a grin at the embarrassed pair. Shi had already promised Lighttouch a rematch now that the tables were turned.
"Daddy," Holly said looking at Neal with a big grin. "Can Quickdash and I be processed so we can try it too?"
There were four rather loud ‘NO!’s before Neal even got his mouth open. Looking at each of his co-parents, he turned back to Holly. "I would have to say ‘no’ too, little one. You two will just have to wait until you’re old enough to enjoy it yourselves."
"But we could help a lot more if we were bigger," Quickdash insisted.
"We’ll have to add ‘aiding in the delinquency of minors’ to your list of talents," Neal teased Windsong and Shadowcrest as they started to back out of the room, only to be stopped when the door didn’t open for them.
"Where could you possibly run to?" Lighttouch gently thought at them. "Take the teasing for keeping everyone up all night and get it over with," hy advised.
Ignoring their aborted attempt to escape, Neal turned to the cubs. "What did you think of those two last night?" he asked them with a grin.
"They are fun!" Darkstreak told him as shi and the rest of the cubs started piling on Shadowcrest and then Windsong, lick-kissing each and crawling all over them as if they knew there was more to it, but weren’t sure just what.
Wenfrec shivered slightly. She wasn’t sure what she’d have done if Quickwind and Shortdash hadn’t offered their assistance. Even in heat she’d never felt sexual cravings like the ones she’d experienced last night.
Tauna had also been amazed at the strength of the feelings she’d felt last night. Looking at Neal, she commented, "While Nightsky has assured me that most chakats aren’t as strong as those two, I’m not sure I can survive three months of that."
"None of us can," Shortdash agreed. "Lighttouch just needs to show them how to use their mental volume controls."
"Or the ‘mute’ button," Neal said with a thoughtful look. "Lighttouch, you’ve been training them the same way you would skunktaurs, correct?" At hys nod, Neal grinned. "Tess, I want two of those skunktaur headbands." When they materialized in one of the replicators, he tossed them at Shady and Song. "You two know what these do, right?"
"We won’t be able to send or receive mentally," Song said as shi looked at the headband with distaste. "We won’t even be able to mentally feel each other. It would be like making love while wearing bodysuits."
"These won’t stop the mental connectivity transferred by contact," Neal assured them with a grin. "Try it. Put the headbands on, and then see if you can’t ‘hear’ each other when you touch."
More than a little hesitant, they donned the headbands. Quickdash was first to notice the change. "Cool! I can’t sense them."
Neal smiled. If that had worked, the rest should too. "And when you make contact?" he told the two unhappy looking chakats.
They grabbed each other’s hand almost franticly, only to let out a sigh of relief when they could mentally feel each other through the contact.
Neal tried not to grin too big as he turned back to the others. "It seems they can mentally sense each other, can anyone sense them?" Shortdash had started to nod, but Neal’s raised eyebrow turned it into a negative headshake. Neal looked at Lighttouch, who was frowning at the pair. "How ‘bout you Lighttouch? You can’t sense them, can you?"
"No," hy admitted after a moment. "The headbands seem to be working properly."
"The second test will be to see if they work as well under stress," Neal said as he turned back to Shady and Song. "Why don’t you two try a quick romp or three? We’ll monitor things from here… shoo!" he added when they just stood there staring at him.
Once hy was sure they were out of hearing, Lighttouch commented, "They are taught that the headband also stops mental contact through physical contact."
"That’s only if they have the standard black metal thread woven into them and not the green metal thread those will have when Tess gets around to it," Neal replied with a chuckle. "After all, the power source is the same." He then snorted as he added, "I don’t believe I just told those two to go off and have still more sex."
Weaver gave him a strange look before saying, "I believe you and Lighttouch aren’t telling the rest of us something."
Before either of the accused could speak, Quickdash told Weaver, "I know what they’re hiding. Part of the training Lighttouch has started with us covers the headbands."
Holly nodded. "The headbands are what I’ve heard Neal call placebos. They only work because the wearer and those around them believe they work."
"And this will be a blind test," Neal explained. "Tess will be monitoring them and us, so if someone starts feeling frisky while those two aren’t getting hot and heavy, it can be marked down as normal hormones and not a ‘headband failure’."
"So you’re using a mental trick to control their mental output?" Tauna asked in surprise.
"A mental hammer to hammer a mental nail," Neal agreed as he got up. "And since it appears to be working, I think I’m going to try for a nap. If anyone wants to join me, all I might be interested in is a cuddle."
It was well over an hour before Song and Shady came out to see if the headbands had worked. The dining area was deserted, as was the bridge. It seemed that other than a couple of energetic cubs, the rest of the ship was in nap status.
"I guess they worked," Song commented dryly, tugging hir headband off, noticing a series of green threads woven into the inside of the headband.
"I could use a snack and a nap myself," Shady admitted as shi also removed hir headband. "At least we know how to wake them up if we need to," shi added with a grin.
"I think we’d better behave," Song stated. "Neal might decide to glue these things to our heads. And if he doesn’t, a couple of the others will."
"True," Shady agreed.
"So, is it normal for everyone to take a ‘lazy day’ off?" Song asked as shi punched a meal request into the replicator.
"Not normally all at once," Shady admitted, "but we did kind of keep them up for most of the night."
"True. So a snack and nap before your shift?" Song suggested.
"Sounds like a good idea, but you’re coming along. You can learn the comm panel while you keep me company."
Things returned to more or less normal for the Folly, including Tauna’s need to find things to do for the next three months.
"So what hobbies do you have?" Nightsky asked Tauna as they relaxed after a ‘teams’ game of stinger tag with the cubs. Tauna had found the cubs could be quite elusive when the winners got ice-cream. The fact that the losers also received ice-cream didn’t seem to detract from the competition.
"Well, I enjoy archery and cross-country hiking, which led me to hunting. I’m also an amateur ceramicist, and probably would have apprenticed with the potter if I hadn't decided to be a hunter. And I like to read, as you should know after you caught me going through your ‘frontier romance’ novels, though I also like travel guides and adventure stories."
"Hmmm, check with Tess for reading material, I’m starting to think she’s kept a copy of everything that Neal’s ever come across. The holosuite is the place to keep your hunting skills sharp. Just don’t be too surprised if some of the game is new to you, the Rakshani have added some of their beasts to the mix. Ceramics might be something we can use with the cubs when we’d like them to play quietly."
"It can be quite messy," Tauna warned hir.
"Not if we do it in a holosuite," Nightsky pointed out.
"True," Tauna admitted, "but then you have nothing to show for your work."
"That’s where the replicators come in. Once you make it in the holosuite, Tess can turn it into something you can keep."
"Maybe we can snag one of the smaller holosuites after dinner and do a little experimenting," Tauna suggested.
"Sounds like a plan," Nightsky agreed with a grin.
They had planned to try their ceramic talents on their own before getting the cubs involved, but the cubs had other ideas.
"But we saw Kayla making a bowl on a spinning wheel," Darkstreak insisted.
"That’s pottery," Tauna explained. "We can do that too if you like, but I was thinking of making something a little different."
"Like what?" Honey asked.
"How would you like to make little figurines? Small statues. They could be anyone or anything you like."
"Mommy said she once had a bowl that had little people around it. Could we try to make one of those?" Honey asked.
"We may need to mix a little pottery and ceramics, and it may take us a couple tries, but I’ll be happy to help you with it," Tauna assured her.
Tauna then showed them the different clays they would be starting with. The softer one would make shaping on a spinning table easier while the firmer clay would hold its shape better for sculpturing. For the very little ones, several differently colored clays were provided for them to play in.
The first evening’s efforts ended with three unbalanced looking plates, two semi-deer shaped objects – one with a head much too large for its body, and several lumps that were unrecognizable to anyone but their creators. The good news was the various clays vanishing from fur and paws as the cubs left the holosuite.
Nightsky shook hir head at the trails of clay pawprints showing where the cubs had been. "Tess, please save what we’ve got on the table, then wipe the rest of this mess if you would."
"Can do," Tess replied as the mess disappeared. "Do you want me to ‘straighten’ any of the attempts?"
"No," Tauna told her. "Leave them as is. The best way to improve is by seeing the mistakes you’ve made."
"Not that you could really tell what they wanted them to be," Nightsky pointed out, indicating the lumps.
When the cubs wanted to play in the mud the next morning, Tauna had a few surprises for them. With Tess’s help she had made molds of a few of the shapes she had worked on, giving them a quick and easy way to make figurines. Honey was especially interested in the one that she thought looked like her mother, Sharptongue.
As they poured several of each of the molds, Nightsky asked, "How many figurines did you say you and Tess made molds for?"
"One pair of Caitians, a female Rakshani, a deer, and a chakat cub, so five," Tauna replied. "Why?"
Nightsky just showed her the sixth mold. "I think someone else has been playing," shi said with a grin.
"What is it?" Honey asked.
Tauna turned to give her a wink. "Let’s find out," she said as she stirred the ‘mud’ before pouring it into the holes in the mystery mold. After pouring out the excess mud and giving it time to harden, she cracked the mold apart. Inside was a female cat-like creature not quite like the Rakshani. The mold had also made a set of wings that would attach to this strange cat’s back.
"That looks like what Shady said the deity looked like," Nightsky commented in surprise when Tauna fitted the wings to their mystery cat.
"Deity?" Tauna asked in surprise. "I thought the cubs were making them up."
"They’re as real as Shady turning twelve in about a month," Nightsky told her. "Think of a spotted rather than striped Rakshani. I think shi also said the wings were several colors."
Tauna found herself making lots of ‘deities’ as all of the cubs wanted at least one to paint. Even Shadowcrest asked for one with the intention of trying to paint it to match the deity in hir dreams. Other molds were also made, including an adult chakat and a pair of foxtaur vixens, one with two breasts, the other four.
It was few days after leaving Earth that Neal and his engineers finished the work he had promised Longreach and Sharptongue. The Good Deal slowly slipped from the Folly’s forward sphere. With her upgrades complete, it was now time to start the calibrating and testing of her new systems.
Neal had been getting ready to start the fuel transfer when Tess advised him that they had company inbound. Nodding to Longreach, they shifted the Good Deal to dock with the Folly’s second sphere.
The ship that approached looked a bit like the aft half of Folly in some aspects. A pod-carrying ship, she was only three quarters the length of the Folly’s pod storage section. She also sported what appeared to be the same warp engines, and a scan of her engineering section would have revealed a similar five-core arrangement.
As Father’s Love drifted up to the port across from the Good Deal, Zhanch went to the docking port to meet them. Sensing excitement in the air, the cubs followed her to find out what was going on.
A chakat cub about two years old darted in as soon as the hatch was open wide enough, followed a moment later by a another chakat, this one about six, yelling, "Get back here, Stinker!"
Both were brought up short by the sight of the large Rakshani waiting for them on the other side. They stopped to stare up at her grin, and didn’t notice the cubs with her until they were surrounded.
As the adults waited for the hatch to fully open, they watched as Blossom and Sprinter were ‘attacked’ by the smaller, but greater in number cubs from the Folly. The entire pile of cubs then moved as one mass, deeper into the ship.
"They make friends fast," commented a male skunk as they approached the Rakshani.
"After what most of them have been through, I would consider that to be a good thing," she replied. "I am Zhanch ap Nashene na Foster, and the only skunk Tess warned me to expect was named Phillip."
Phillip nodded, then raised an eyebrow and asked, "na Foster?"
"When a group of mates, companions, and children reach a certain size, they can petition to create their own House. Since Neal is the mate we all have in common, we became the House of Foster."
"How many favors did he have to call in to push that through?" a sandy colored chakat demanded, sounding annoyed.
The glare from Zhanch's eyes suggested the only thing keeping the chakat from a Rakshani backhand was the fact that shi was also one of Neal’s adopted daughters. Letting her lips pull back from her teeth a little further, she quietly snarled, "For your information, the petition was placed by his Rakshani mates and companions. Neal knew nothing about it until it was presented to him, already approved and written into the List of Houses."
Stepping up to them, another chakat said, "Please forgive Desertwind. Shi’s been at odds with Neal for quite a while now."
"Since a particular cubnapping attempt?" Zhanch asked the chakat, whose stripes actually crisscrossed each other.
"That was a big piece of it," shi agreed, more than a little surprised that Zhanch had heard about it.
Turning back to a still fuming Desertwind, Zhanch said, "Well, your father’s been up to his old tricks again. You may want to review Tess’s records before saying hello to him. Tess, direct hir to one of the smaller holosuites, and have the New Kiev mess ready for hir. If shi still wants more, you can show hir my first hours onboard the Folly."
Still sneering up at her, Desertwind asked, "Just what are you trying to show me?"
"Just what an idiot that adopted father of yours can be," Zhanch replied with a matching sneer.
As Desertwind stormed down the corridor, the other chakat smiled at Zhanch. "I am called Dreamweaver. I’m sorry the introductions started out so poorly."
"Not your fault Captain," Zhanch said, giving hir a warm smile. She turned back and made sure Desertwind was gone before the smile turned into an evil grin. "Tess, I want you to position hir right behind where Quickdash will be for that first shot!"
"Now you’re just being mean," Tess scolded. "I take it you want hir to take it personally?"
"Shi’s already taken what Neal has done as personal. I just want to give hir a different point of view."
Dreamy smiled as shi said, "I can’t really object as I don’t know what you’re up to, but what are you about to do to my sister?"
Zhanch frowned slightly as she said, "The New Kiev mess started for us with a beam weapon just missing one of our younger chakats. Let’s just say it went downhill from there."
"And what were you having Tess do?" Dreamweaver repeated.
"Placing your sister where shi gets to watch that first beam come right at hir," Zhanch confessed.
"A little shock therapy?"
"I’ve found Neal sometimes has a problem dishing out ‘tough love’. I, on the other paw, have no trouble at all," she said with only a slightly evil grin.
"Then I wish you luck. That grudge has been there almost sixty years," shi warned her.
"I am cheating just a little," Zhanch admitted as she waved for them to follow her. "There is life as well as death on the New Kiev recording. If what shi sees doesn’t rattle hir feelings for him, nothing will."
"And your first hours?" Dreamweaver inquired with a raised eyebrow.
"Neal got up close and personal to convince us that he wasn’t a slaver after pulling us off a pirate ship." She chuckled as she added, "Though I can see where your sister might think Neal has pulled strings for some things; a lot of people seem to owe him something."
"And what do you owe him?" Dreamweaver softly asked with a grin.
Zhanch grinned back as she said, "In order? My freedom, my life, my sister, my health, a mate, my family," she gave her still flat belly a rub as she ended with, "and a cub on the way."
"I take it he had some help with that last part," Dreamy said, hir grin getting wider. "Or are you telling us he’s fertile with Rakshani?"
"My sister had a friend with her the second time the Folly brought us together. She recommended him highly," she said with a chuckle.
They entered the dining area, a few more tables, chairs, and taur pads had been added to handle the extra guests. One of the trailing chakats paused to let the rest of the group go ahead, waiting just outside the door.
Neal was waiting for them just inside the door. He gave each of them a hug as they came in. He looked a little crestfallen when he got to the end. "Shi won’t even say hello?" he wondered out loud.
"Your mate sidetracked hir. For good or ill remains to be seen," Dreamy said with a smile.
The straggler then pushed through the door, a very surprised Neal happily giving hir a hug, but he looked more than a little confused. Still holding hir by the shoulders, he stepped back so he could see hir face. "I’m always happy to see you Farsight, but aren’t you supposed to be keeping Fangs out of trouble?"
Smiling up at him, shi said, "And I you, and I am." At Neal’s raised eyebrow, shi grinned. "He can’t get in trouble if he isn’t here when you find out what we’ve decided to do!"
"Are you telling me that oversized pup is hiding behind his little kitten again?" Neal asked with a grin.
"You tell me," shi said as shi dropped a memory chit into a wall mounted reader.
Tess read the chip, and started relaying the information to Neal’s glasses. He viewed it in silence, only snorting softly a couple of times as new data spooled by.
After seeing the data, Neal let out a sigh. Looking at Farsight, he commented, "I take it you won’t be wanting a pickup next year."
"No," shi agreed, "But I did bring a list of things we would like you to drop off if you will."
"What about Triform’s people? I thought they were about to have enough people to swing their vote."
Farsight grinned. "Their spies couldn’t help but see what we were building, so when the word got out about why we were building it, they panicked. I heard their last supply ship was overrun by colonists trying to get off planet."
Phillip chuckled at the last part. "Shi forgot to mention that they might have been fleeing for other reasons. A rather large storm had just passed over the Triform complexes when we got there, and our sensors showed that three of their buildings had collapsed. A few of the still standing ones had also been breached by the storm." The skunk shook his head. "And the storms are expected to only get worse as the sun’s activity increases. I can’t see them wanting to stay, no matter how much Triform promises to pay them."
"While my fool of a son and friends want to stay," Neal commented with a frown.
"Not so much a fool, but as someone who has learned to love the planet, no matter how harsh it may seem," Farsight quietly corrected him.
"This isn’t one of your jokes, is it?" Neal asked hir. One of the things that Farsight was well known for was hir pranks – both practical and impractical. So much so that hir longstanding nickname was Loopy.
Dreamweaver smiled as shi said, "I confirmed the data with Fangs. While a few do wish to move to the other colonies to be with their loved ones, most have decided to stay on Catch-a-Lot."
"Despite the sun’s cycle, the planet has much to offer. We are staying," Farsight stated, giving Neal a hard look for thinking shi would play games on something this important.
Neal looked back with a half grin. Farsight was one of those five thousand that Neal had ‘processed’, hir true age was now well over a hundred and sixty, though shi often acted like a preteen when it came time to have fun. Shi had met Fangs while he and Neal were planning the colony on Catch-a-Lot. Shi had taken the large and much too serious wolftaur and knocked him down a peg every time he tried to get lost in his work. Neal hadn’t been too surprised when they announced they were mates a mere year later. That was a couple cubs ago. While Fangs remained the leader of the colony, Farsight gave him a trusted counterpoint opinion on many matters, as well as being his field agent for things off world.
After lunch, Phillip joined Longreach and Neal on the Good Deal. He looked over the upgrades as the ship was fueled.
Once the Good Deal was a safe distance from the Folly, they started bring the new warp cores up one at a time. Then power and fuel flows were tested, venting most of the energy created into space. With the base tests done, it was time to get the warp engines in the loop. With only a little tweaking, Neal declared the engines ready for their first test.
Phillip was tweaking the sensor board when he noticed some extra noise in one direction. "We may have a ‘ghost’," he quietly said.
Neal just snorted. "Three of them followed you in; Tess spotted them as you came out of warp earlier. There might be another one or possibly two hiding behind the three we can see."
"So the ghost ships are real?" Longreach asked.
"Yes and no," Neal told him. "Unlike the Folly’s sneaky methods of hiding, they sometimes broadcast a ‘coded pulse’ to help hide their presence. Unfortunately for them, it only works on software that they’ve had a hand in developing. Since the Folly has several sets of sensors, each set running on different programs, they can’t ‘blind’ all her sensors at once." Looking over at Longreach, Neal added, "None of your systems will be running programs that they can affect."
With a frown, the Caitian asked, "So why do you run systems that they can affect?"
Neal chuckled as he said, "Because their ‘pulse’ broadcast is usually the first sign they’re in the neighborhood. If they’re foolish enough to flash their lights and shout ‘Hey! I’m over here!’ who am I to ignore them? And your systems will detect the pulses to let you know when they’re in the neighborhood as well."
"I thought I heard someone once say they were broadcasting some type of ‘virus’ that caused the sensors to fail to see them," Longreach said, looking confused.
Neal barked out a laugh. "Whoever told you that wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box! Let’s see, for a virus to affect your sensors, you need to receive it, then load it into your sensor’s computer and then run it. Now, while I’ve heard of ships transmitting and receiving messages through their sensor arrays, I’ve yet to hear of someone having their systems set up so you could reprogram their computers from an incoming signal. So, no virus is going to get in that way, not without a lot of help. Now, setting up a backdoor to respond to a coded pulse, that’s a bit more doable if you’ve had a hand in making the software."
Phillip snorted as he worked to finish the calibrations on the passive sensors. "That, and some of the ‘ghosts’ have been adding a coating to their hulls that adsorbs most scans. We saw them a few days ago and Dreamy told them to beat it. Seems they were staying just out of our sensor range." With one final adjustment, the three ships seemed to jump into view. There was one small fuzzy spot behind them, suggesting a fourth vessel. Giving Neal an evil grin, Phillip asked, "Have the active sensor arrays been tested yet?"
Neal shook his head as he grinned in return. "Just static checks, but they should be ready to use."
Phillip nodded and looked over at Longreach. "With your permission, Captain?"
Longreach grinned as he nodded. "It will be interesting to see just what Neal and the twins have done to our poor ship."
Phillip grinned as he focused the active scanner arrays on a small area of space.
Like being in a room where the brightest light is coming from a few lightning bugs, the active array’s emitters lit up that area of space like a pre-space flash bulb, blinding the forward sensors of the ships caught directly in its beam. Reflections from two of the first three helped illuminate a fourth, but that ship’s sensors were not totally blinded. The active pulse also highlighted several much smaller ships well beyond them. Before Phillip could start trying to identify them, the Good Deal’s computers identified them as baby Zulus, and showed that they were currently assigned to the Folly.
"And stay gone!" Phillip muttered as the ships each sped off in a different direction.
"You think they’ll return?" Longreach asked, concern evident in his voice.
"They can be rather hardheaded," Neal admitted. "If they do come back, I’ll let the kids ‘tag’ them."
Phillip chuckled in memory of being able to tag Star Fleet ‘spy’ ships when he was young. "You still have those baby Zulus set up for firing paintballs?" he asked with a grin, remembering hearing about a shamefaced captain that hadn’t taken Neal’s suggestion that he and his friends go bother someone else. His ship had returned to its starbase painted in a mad kaleidoscope of colors, a gift from the cubs of a ship he’d thought he could annoy.
Neal nodded as he moved Good Deal further away from the Folly, and started charging the engines for the creation of the warp bubble that would soon encompass the ship. "With some of the newer paints, it’s the easiest way to paint the Folly and the pods. Plus they come in handy to mark things I may want to find again."
Phillip grinned again. "I take it the paint is very reflective to sensors?"
"You could say that," Neal agreed. "And, if some of it just ‘happens’ to get on their sensor arrays.…"
Longreach just shook his head, and then he grinned as he asked, "Will we be getting any of these ship painters?"
Neal nodded, "One of your babies is set up for it. I’ll include standard ship paints as well as the highly reflective stuff for marking things of interest."
With the engines now sufficiently charged, Neal brought up the warp bubble and started checking the readings. Pleased with what he found, he turned to Longreach. "Ready to take her for a spin?" he asked with a grin. Moments later the Good Deal vanished from real space, three of Neal’s full sized Zulus in hot pursuit.
As the Good Deal was prepared for flight, Star-rider and Sunset led Sprinter and Blossom onto the bridge, followed by Scarlet and Fred. Switching two of the bridge stations to taur use, they then raised the couches to let their cubs see the displays and controls. Blossom reached for the controls, only to have an angry sounding buzzer go off.
The adults chuckled at the indignant look on the cub’s face at having been scolded before shi could even touch the forbidden controls. Shi looked up at hir sire’s grin as Sunset said, "You know you’re not allowed to touch without permission, Blossom." Sunset then reach out to toggle a switch – only to get buzzed as well!
Scarlet and Star-rider laughed at the hurt expression on Sunset’s muzzle. Star-rider finally choking out, "Who needs to remember to ask permission?"
Turning to the two teens on watch, Sunset said, "I apologize for that. I guess I’m just used to having full access to Neal’s toys."
"That’s okay," Brighteyes told hir. "We’re still getting used to the number of older siblings we seem to have gained."
"Chase did warn us that there was a new crew to contend with," Scarlet said as she looked over but didn’t touch the panel she was seated at.
Looking over her shoulder, Fred shook his head. "And you’re still going to claim that you were flying these controls at ten?"
"Of course not," Scarlet said with mock scorn. "These controls weren’t here when I was ten. The spheres weren’t here either for that matter," she added, giving him a grin.
"I’m referring more to the piloting a starship at the age of ten," Fred countered.
"Why? Is ten too young?" Redtail asked, feigning concern. Turning to Brighteyes, the foxtaur vixen commented, "I guess we shouldn’t tell them about the eight year olds playing in the antimatter mixes."
"Na. If you really want to scare him, we can ask them to shuttle the pods over to Father’s Love. As this isn’t controlled space, no rules that Neal doesn’t impose and a complete lack of supervision," Brighteyes replied, watching Fred glance between them, trying to figure out if they were pulling his leg.
Thinking she would call their bluff, Scarlet asked, "Tess, are they kidding?"
More than one set of ears folded back in surprise at Tess’s ‘No.’
"Terror twins to the bridge!" Redtail called into her comm.
"We’re busy!" was Quickdash’s reply. "Is it important?"
"Plenty of time," Redtail assured them. "What are you ‘busy’ on?"
"Neal has us going over Father’s Love’s Zulus. Two of them can be upgraded, but the others will need to be replaced," Holly said. "What other chores did you have for us?"
"Swapping pods around. Though some adults think eight years old is too young…" Brighteyes said with a chuckle.
"But they don’t mind us playing with the warp cores of their Zulus?" Quickdash asked in mock shock.
"I think that was more ‘ignorance is bliss’ than them not minding," Redtail chuckled as she watched their ‘guests’ expressions.
"How did you get a hold of our Zulus?" Fred demanded. He was sure he had properly secured them before Father’s Love had docked with the Folly.
"I heard Neal tell Dreamweaver that he wanted to look them over. He then told us to update or replace as needed," Holly said.
"You have time," Redtail told them. "Dreamweaver was last seen looking over Neal’s trades, and Neal’s just left on Good Deal’s warp trials."
"Probably tomorrow if not later," Scarlet assured them. "While Dreamy is the captain, shi’ll still go over what shi’s thinking of with the rest of us for our comments and suggestions."
"Sounds like a well run ship," Brighteyes commented. "Not that I’ve seen enough ships and their crews to be an expert or anything."
"We’ve had the same teacher," Sunset pointed out with a grin. "A well informed crew knows not only what the captain has in mind but why. Neal liked to rotate our responsibilities so we’d have a better understanding of why you might need to know more then just the job you were doing." Shi gave them a sheepish grin and added, "So… request permission to play with the controls? I only intend to use them to show Sprinter a bit of the Folly, maybe see what all dad has to trade."
"Permission granted," Redtail said with a laugh. "We’ll trust Tess to keep you out of trouble."
"Some things never change," Star-rider chuckled. "Tess, how much trouble have you needed to keep this set of Neal’s brats out of?"
"Not as much as your group," Tess stated. "Though they haven’t been here all that long, I’m estimating they’re on par with your group at the same ages."
"Come on now Tess, we have to have caused more trouble!" Brighteyes said with a laugh. "Did they bring home stray cooks, or adopt cubs of their own?"
"No…" Tess admitted, "but there was the one time they…"
"Tess! No! You promised you’d never mention that!" Scarlet exclaimed.
"Oh, so you’ve been naughty too!" Redtail hooted. "Tess, don’t tell them our secrets if they won’t share theirs!"
"We weren’t really being bad, we just didn’t think things through," Scarlet quietly said.
"We had brought home something we should have left where they were," Sunset admitted.
"They?" Brighteyes asked, no longer smiling at the emotions shi was feeling from the older chakats.
"We were about your age," Scarlet admitted, staring at the panel in front of her to not meet the teens’ eyes. "There had been some type of outbreak on a Non-Aligned World and the Pogo Stick was delivering a cure that had been developed by the Federation. Back then Neal took what a lot of people called ‘unacceptable risks’. We were guarding the shuttle, Fangs had already given a couple slave traders warning shots when they tried to ‘inspect’ Neal’s ‘slaves’ when we saw a young collie slave being abused."
Scarlet stopped and shivered, Sunset took up the tale. "We would have been breaking Neal’s rules to leave the shuttle, so we yelled at the slave’s abuser. Seems she wasn’t meeting up to his expectations. After trading a few threats and insults back and forth, we purchased the collie from him. We had thought we could get her off planet and set her free, but it wasn’t that simple." Sunset looked to Brighteyes and then Redtail before adding, "They had done something to her mind. With a lot of work we taught her to keep herself clean and do a few simple tasks, but other than that she only wanted to eat, sleep and have sex."
Fred had wrapped his arms around Scarlet, he now murmured, "That’s why all you guys have such an issue with slavers, you’ve seen their dirty work firsthand."
"I’d warned you that Neal wasn’t our only source of craziness, some of it we brought on ourselves," Scarlet reminded him as she leaned into his support.
"What did Neal do?" Brighteyes asked them.
Star-rider was holding Sprinter as Sunset held Blossom. The cubs knew something was upsetting their parents, and it was upsetting them as well. Star-rider gently stroked Sprinter as shi said, "He did what all good parents do when the cubs bring home a pet, he made us take care of her. It took us months to realize that he wasn’t being mean when he said she couldn’t be trained to do any but the simplest of tasks, and that she was only good for warming a bed. He even had to point out that we were being mean by denying her what she wanted and needed to be happy."
"Sex," Redtail said watching the older chakat.
"Sex," Star-rider agreed. "And the constant reassurance that she was a ‘good girl’ and that we were pleased with her performance."
"Did Neal ever take her to bed?" Brighteyes wondered, not knowing how many of Neal’s methods of dealing with them had come from how he’d dealt with the first group.
"Not per se," Star-rider said, "but she snuck into his bed a few times. As far as we could tell, he would just cuddle her unless she was in need. Then he would help her, much as he would any of us."
"What ever happened to her?" Fred asked, wondering what other secrets his mate and shipmates had been hiding from him all these years.
"There’s this brothel on Chakona, it seems Neal knew some of the operators quite well. They have a wing that’s devoted to those with ‘special’ needs." Star-rider looked to the two youngsters and then over at Fred to see how each was taking it. "It’s run by chakats and they’re very careful in matching their client’s needs to their charges."
"Do you ever check up on her?" Fred asked.
"We each try to see her every time we hit Chakona," Scarlet assured him. "I’ll take you with me next time we’re there," she promised.
"Be warned that she has a very special way of greeting new friends," Sunset advised him.
The Good Deal returned from its trials three hours later, and the way her captain was acting caused his firstwife to wonder if he hadn’t overdosed on a controlled substance. When she had asked how the tests had gone, he had picked her up and swung her about the corridor with glee. Neal received a dirty look from his firstwife when he pointed out that some of Folly’s halls were indeed wide enough to swing a Cait.
Dreamweaver stepped over to Phillip as they watched Longreach’s antics. "I take it the tests went well," shi commented.
"You could say that," Phillip agreed. "They had a good base upgrade planned, but a little luck gave them far more than they had anticipated."
"That tone in your voice suggests you want to upgrade Father’s Love again," shi said with a chuckle.
"I know we won’t have time for what would be needed, but dad has already made us a ‘do it yourself kit’ for when we have the down time."
"More toys," Dreamweaver groaned.
"Wait till you see what these toys can do," Phillip warned hir.
"I think we have enough, don’t you?"
"Those ghost ships followed us in. Can I at least take the sensor upgrade?"
"Is that why you went active?" shi asked, frowning a little.
"Good Deal can now pick them out in passive mode half again as far out as we can."
Dreamweaver nodded. "Okay, you can have your toys. Please make the sensor upgrades your first priority."
Phillip grinned as he said, "Yes boss." He then dodged the tail that tried to swat him.
Desertwind joined the rest of the group at dinner. Shi carefully avoided Neal’s questioning gazes as shi tried to put what Tess had shown hir into a framework shi could comprehend.
Hir long-held nightmares of how vicious Neal could be were from a cub’s view. Today’s new shocks had been watched through adult eyes, eyes that in the past had watched hir own medical training prove that there were some injuries that even shi couldn’t repair. Eyes that had felt a sense of déjà vu, while this copy of Neal had told those with him to ‘stay’, the flashback in hir mind was that of Neal telling hir and the others to get back to the shuttle. Their big brother had disobeyed that order, and the rest of them had followed. While the one long ago had seemed to stretch forever as Neal fought a running battle with those that had taken Tailspin, this one had been a stand and deliver as Neal bet ‘Betsy’ and Tess’s remote force fields against a larger and better armed group. Still standing where the first shot had ‘hit’ hir, shi had watched as a member of a group of elderly looking Rakshani peered around the corner, then she and the others came forward and hid behind a low wall. Once positioned, they started popping up to take group phaser shots, then ducking back under cover as the other group tried to return fire. After the first few shots, Desertwind thought shi understood why the return fire was not hitting the Rakshani. Tess was dropping a section of her force field only when they fired, reducing the time the enemy had a clear shot at them. Then a very small blur of fur had run out into the open. Desertwind had tried to run towards the tiny foxtaur, but the holosuite kept hir in place. Instead, shi watched one of the Rakshani leave the protection of the wall. She got the kit to safety, only to take a phaser hit herself. For Desertwind, the rest of the fight dulled into a blur of shots before something in the enemy camp exploded.
In a deafening silence that followed, shi watched Neal scan the area, looking for still another target. He finally seemed to sag a little as he lowered ‘Betsy’ to the ground; the barrel hissing as it touched something wet. Neal had then staggered over to a badly injured fur. After rendering what aid he could, Neal moved on, passing another body before stopping at the remains of a pair or taurs. Desertwind almost gagged when he started cutting into one of them. Movement to the side helped pull hir eyes from the ghastly scene, to where a foxtaur guard was being restrained by a large equitaur. The guard turning back to stare at Neal turned hir eyes as well. Shi watched Neal gently remove the tiny cub and start CPR on hir. After Neal handed the newborn to a chakat youth, Desertwind watched him stagger down a hallway, followed at a distance by hir sister Shadowchaser and one of the chakats that had been with Neal when the scene had started.
Tess had changed the scene to where the two chakats were leading Neal back to the rest of the group. Desertwind then heard Tess’s comm call to Neal, telling him that someone named Shadowcrest needed help.
Desertwind didn’t need hir empathic abilities to know why the chakats were reacting the way they were. Shi still vividly remembered the few times something had gotten Neal past the point of being angry about something. Moments later, shi watched him being transported out just as hir own view changed.
Shi was now in the middle of a hospital corridor, the newborn, hir bearer, and a few more of the youths from Neal’s group were explaining why they needed a chakat wet nurse. One came forward and quickly separated the infant and the one carrying hir from the rest of the group. Unlike the chakat youth, Desertwind didn’t miss the nurse’s signal to a pair of guards to follow them as they entered one of the examination rooms.
The nurse had been more than a little displeased when the cub refused to nurse from hir. Shi was even more annoyed when the youth tried to get the cub back. Shi had the guards restrain the youth as shi headed for the door, only to stop and stare as Neal was beamed into the room. Knowing the bottled rage that he had left the other group with, Desertwind wasn’t surprised to see the nurse panic and try to escape out the door, only to find it wouldn’t open for hir. Shi watched Neal scan the room; he had left his weapon behind, but shi knew he was far from unarmed. After insuring that nothing needed his immediate attention, Neal had relaxed a little before reminding the youth that shi was far from helpless hirself.
After watching Neal’s collapse and the youth placed in charge, Tess ran Desertwind through the rescue of the Rakshani from the pirate ship. Knowing how Neal normally dealt with pirates, Desertwind asked Tess, "Did he really let them live?"
Tess replied, "He seemed to be especially displeased with that bunch. So yes, he let them live."
"Did he have you turn their position in to Star Fleet?"
Desertwind nodded. Displeased indeed, if he had chosen to not give them a clean death.
Shi now watched the noisy cubs as they were fed so the others could eat with a little more peace if not quiet. Shi found shi couldn’t stop staring at the cub with the fiery orange leopard pattern, the cub matched the newborn shi had seen on the holosuite. Something else that didn’t feel right to hir was the extremely large chakat that was helping a rabbit doe and a coppery chakat bring out the meal. Shi looked like the chakat that Neal had given the newborn cub to – but that had been a preteen at best, while this was a very large adult.
"Is something wrong?" Bonita asked hir, having been warned about hir attitude by Zhanch.
"That chakat looks like the one I saw in the New Kiev attack, but shi’s much too large."
"Some edited footage of New Kiev made Neal look the part of a fur murderer. A couple of furs on Earth decided to tip his carrier stacks in retaliation. Shady was injured badly enough to require processing, so shi went from preteen to adult in one leap." A little quieter, Bonita murmured, "I suggest you step softly around hir. Among other things, shi seems to have gained more than a little of his outlook on life, making hir almost as dangerous as he is."
"What do you know of how dangerous he is?" Desertwind hissed at the taller Rakshani.
Bonita’s grin matched the one Zhanch had given the chakat earlier as she stared hir down. "I know that he will protect those he loves with everything he’s got. And if that means others need die, die they will," she growled.
Desertwind was the first to break eye contact. Shi shuddered slightly as shi wondered why none of them could see him as shi did – a danger to himself and those around him. Shi spent the rest of the meal staring at the food shi didn’t want.
"You’re hurting him," Shadowcrest told Desertwind when shi’d finally gotten hir alone for a moment shortly after dinner.
"What would you know of hurt?" Desertwind demanded.
"I know this!" Shadowcrest exclaimed as shi reached for the older chakat.
Desertwind shuddered as raw emotions washed over hir, the larger chakat projecting what shi had felt from Neal when Desertwind had rejected him yet again. "You don’t know what he’s like," Desertwind insisted as shi tried to recover from the mental overload.
"Oh, but I do," Shadowcrest countered. This time shi projected hir own past emotions that involved Neal. New Kiev was a mixed bag of fear and terror during the fight, to be changed to wonder at the delivery of Firestorm, while the hospital had shown hir that even Neal had limits.
Then there was the fear and wonder as shi kept Windsong from doing Neal any additional damage while he comforted and calmed Windsong after hir nightmare. There was just one more thing Shadowcrest wanted Desertwind to experience, hir first day on the Folly and hir adoption – but before shi could they were forced apart.
"You know better!" Windsong hissed as shi broke Shady’s physical and mental links with Desertwind. Lighttouch was there moments later to help the shocked chakat.
"I’m sorry! I was just trying to make hir see how much shi’s hurting Neal," Shadowcrest cried.
"We will discuss this after I have checked Desertwind," Lighttouch sternly informed hir as hy led the still dazed Desertwind away.
Weaver found Neal in his office later, frowning at nothing. "I heard you and Lighttouch have settled on a punishment for Shadowcrest."
Neal nodded, looking unhappy. "Two weeks of wearing a black wired headband." At her look of curiosity, he added, "No mental contact with others – even with physical contact."
"I thought they knew how to get around the headbands."
"They do, but shi and everyone else knows shi’s being punished. So they won’t try to sense hir and they will try not to send to hir either."
"So it will be like wearing that belt again, except this time it will be hir own powers keeping hir alone."
"Something like that," Neal grumbled.
"I don’t like it," she quietly stated.
"Neither do I," Neal admitted. "But we can’t have hir using hir talents to try to force hir beliefs or feelings on others…. I should’ve seen it coming and tried to stop hir…."
Weaver gave him a sad smile. "Despite your belief that you can do anything, you couldn’t have known shi would have tried that."
"Truth and falsehood in one statement, you’ve been hanging around me too long," Neal said with a dry chuckle. At Weaver’s frown he said, "I knew Desertwind’s attitude about me, and I knew it would probably rub some of you the wrong way. I also knew that Shadowcrest can and will try to do more than shi should on occasion, but that was a good thing when shi helped bring Suzan and Moonglow into our family. Knowing all that, I just sat back and let matter and anti-matter collide. Should I have warned you all about Desertwind? I couldn’t without turning you against hir before you even met hir. Could I have stopped Shadowcrest? Not without making it seem I didn’t trust hir…."
"What are you going to do?"
"Pray that the next two weeks goes by quickly."
"How’s Windy?" Phillip asked Dreamy when he stopped by hir quarters that evening.
"Shi seems to be alright after hir little encounter with Shadowcrest. From what I’ve felt from hir and Lighttouch proves that doctors make the worst patients," Dreamweaver told him. "I thought hy was going to have to strap hir down to get hir to let hym look hir over."
"That’s our Windy, stubborn as hell."
"Hereditary," Dreamweaver agreed. "Shi gets it from Neal you know."
"Yes, but you can sometimes reason with him."
"Sometimes…. Did you hear about the punishment?"
"Yeah, I saw hir and Windsong at dinner. I think the punishment’s going to hurt the entire crew as much as it does Shadowcrest. Even the Rakshani are acting moody, and I heard one of them say they thought the punishment was just. Did you talk to Windy?" Phillip asked hopefully.
Dreamweaver slowly shook hir head. "No, shi’s not in any mood to listen… even if I did have anything useful to say."
"It’s going to be a long night," Phillip remarked as he left. Dreamweaver only nodded as shi went back to deciding which of Neal’s offerings Father’s Love would be interested in.
It was early morning hours ship time, and Desertwind was storming down the corridors. Shi hadn’t been able to sleep with the depression that could be felt about the Folly. No one had blamed hir for the attack, and shi’d had no say in the punishment, but shi was sure everyone thought it was all hir fault. With a growl of frustration, Desertwind stepped over to one of the computer terminals mounted in the walls every so often. Not trusting hir voice, shi keyed in a question, which Tess dutifully answered. The room shi then headed for hadn’t been computer locked and opened at hir touch. The two occupants were still awake and turned to the opening door. They both tried to apologize, but shi would have none of it. Claws fully extended, shi lashed out once before turning and heading back the way shi’d come.
Continued in Chapter 10.
Copyright © 2008 Allen Fesler Redbear1158@hotmail.com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
The Quange were created by Roy D. Pounds II and are used with his permission. (if he likes it!)
Windsong and Myth are copyright Gregg Anderson, and used at his request.
Skunktaurs are copyright Bob Reijns.
Tauna Shadowback is copyright Chakat Scirocco.
( 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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