Ides Of March
By Allen Fesler
A Chakat Universe tall tale (Chakat Universe the creation of Bernard ‘Goldfur’ Doove)

Pain, but not real pain. His senses seemed shrouded in cotton candy; the mind knowing it was there, but not able to reach it – to understand it – before it faded out and was gone.

Consciousness approached again, more defined this time. With it came real pain. He felt like someone had tried unscrewing the top of his head, each beat of his heart was a fresh agony as it pulsed through his brain. This time there were noises – voices, fresh stabs of pain as the too loud sounds crashed into his skull from his ears …

" … really conscious this time?" he thought he understood a voice asking.

"Can’t tell. It’s not like Doc’s got the proper recovery drugs onboard. We’re supposed to be keepin’ them down – not be waking ’em up," commented another. While he seemed to be understanding them, he wasn’t sure of the languages in use, much less the type of beings using them.

"And you’re sure he’s an engineer?"

"Cap hisself had that lil’ bitch pullin’ up the records; this the only one’s got any star ship type engineering creds in this batch. Not like we has us a lot of choices – unless you wanna send out a distress beacon? I’m sure the humans or those damn Rakshani would be happy ta assist after they get a look at our cargo."

"Like hell … get him on his feet, Cap wants us moving yesterday."

"Give him time, you don’t come out of that stuff fast," said a third voice.

Lighting bolts of pain tracked across his face as he was slapped. He must have reacted to it because someone then forced his eyes open. He thought he heard himself moan at the light, yet another blinding pain, with a slightly darker blur in view.

"He’s awake – get him moving," the voice demanded.

More pain as he was dragged an undetermined distance before being dropped on the hard floor, the contact with the cold deck informing him of his nudity. His head was then yanked up by his hair before someone tried to pour water into his open mouth.

"Stupid shit can’t even drink!" a new voice laughed as he was released to drop back to the deck, choking.

"It’ll take time to get the drugs cleared from his system enough that he’ll be any use to you," that third voice from before advised. "Give him five, and then try walking him around to sober him up."

"Yeah yeah, we’ll take real good care of him – won’t we, Groc?" the new voice chuckled.

A growl that might have been Groc was all he heard before he was picked up by one arm, almost dislocating his shoulder.

"Walk, bitch," he was ordered as they dragged him about. He managed a stumbling walk around a small area; his eyes still too sensitive too keep open. Every few minutes they forced him to drink more water, causing him to throw up when they finally forced him to drink too much.

After a while other things began making intrusions on his consciousness. The brute force walking him around turned out to be a massive nude female Rakshani, her coloration mostly forest green with brown and black striping; while an almost tiny sandy-shaded Caitian male dressed in one of their robes made snide comments of how much they’d make off him once he was properly ‘trained’. What he could see of the room they were walking him in looked like it might have been a starship’s main engineering, other than the minor fact that half of the displays and controls he could see looked smashed all to hell. He found he was having trouble focusing on anything more than a few feet away from him, but his ‘exercise’ path led him around the room, so he managed at least a glance at most of the large room’s equipment. A reflective panel showed him a pale human with dark red hair as he was marched past it; the beard looked to be two or three weeks worth – if he’d started out clean shaven. The sunken eyes may have been blue, but he didn’t get that good of a look before he was yanked back into stumbling motion.

"What’s this?" the male Caitian demanded on his next turn around the room, holding a half melted object in front of his face.

"Plasma regulator, Earth made, looks shot," he mumbled, not questioning how he knew that, just that he did.

"No shit," the Caitian said as he dropped the regulator. "Proves we gots ourselves a real engineer type," he laughed. Pushing him at one of the damaged consoles, he sneered, "Fix this if you want to stay out of a cage, human."

"Schematics? Tools? Replacement parts?" he half asked, trying to support himself on the ruined console. His answer was something hard striking him in the back – slamming his head into the console and back into darkness.

… pain again told him he must be awake, but he tried not to react to it, lest they hit him again. Again, it took a while to understand the voices around him.

"… concussion. We’ll be lucky if he fully regains his senses in another day or two," said that third voice from before.

"That is not acceptable," declared a tinny sounding voice over an intercom system. "We need him up and repairing those warp core controls, we still can’t get them out of idle up here."

"He was making demands an’ not calling me ‘Master’," he heard the Caitian male’s voice whine.

"Maybe because he hasn’t been trained yet, you little idiot? Maybe because he doesn’t know he’s a slave yet? Maybe because you can’t master yourself, never mind anyone else?" the intercom bellowed. "Touch him again and I’ll have Doc feed you those damn drugs!"

"So, what do we do with him for now?" the doctor asked.

"Leave him in there, no reason to let him learn more than he needs to about us," the intercom said. "Groc!" it spat. The massive Rakshani whimpered at the shout. "You will stay with him. You will feed him. You make sure no one hits him. You DON’T hit him. Do you understand?"

Another whimper was all he heard from Groc before he heard multiple steps shuffling out. He waited a few minutes before opening his eyes a crack. He was only half surprised to find the Rakshani just standing there, staring down at him. While much larger than he was, she was still gaunt looking to him, her ribs easily seen under her fur.

"May I have some water, please?" he cautiously asked.

He watched her turn and retrieve a bottle from what looked like a small refrigerator mounted in one wall. She held it out to him and he carefully propped himself up on one elbow before he opened it and took a sip, watching her watch him the whole time. After drinking almost half the chilled liquid, he closed it and offered the bottle back to her. She looked at it longingly before turning to replace it.

"Wait," he quietly said. She flinched as she froze, then she turned back to face him, an apprehensive look on her face. Playing a hunch, he said, "You may drink."

Her reaction was to all but tear the top off the container and pour it down her throat as if she feared he’d change his mind. The look she then gave him was a mixture of thanks as well as wonder.

"Have another if you are still thirsty," he suggested. When she looked at the refrigerator with a fearful look, he tried again. "Get me a bottle of water," he said with a bit of command in his voice. She all but jumped to get it for him. He opened it but took only a sip before handing it back to her. "You may finish this," he told her.

She didn’t gulp it this time, but she did polish it off as well.

"Are you still thirsty?" he asked, again making it a demand for information, not a request. At her headshake, he frowned. "Can you speak?"

Another headshake.

Asking, "Are you a slave?" only earned him a forlorn look.

"I’ll try not to push you too hard," he quietly promised her before asking, "Is there any food you can bring me?"

She flinched again before she glanced at the refrigerator.

"You’re not allowed to touch the food, are you?" he softly asked.

A fearful look accompanied the headshake.

"Help me up, please," he asked gently. She carefully pulled him to his feet and then kept him from falling over, as the room seemed to spin around him. "Guess their doctor was right about the concussion," he muttered as he steered them to the refrigerator. Opening it he found several more drinks as well as some fruits. Digging through a bin under the fridge uncovered a pile of boxes proclaiming to be ready to eat meals. As they were in what he thought was the Voxxan script and apparently not fully known to him, he pulled out three different ones and had her carry them to one of the damaged consoles.

Pulling the release tabs opened and heated the trays. One was what looked like a meat stew, the next some kind of a pasta casserole, and the third some type of fish patties with vegetables. He sampled a small helping of each before deciding the stew would probably be the easiest on his stomach. A glance at the Rakshani showed she was trying and failing to not drool as she stared at all the food. Nudging the casserole at her he commanded, "Eat."

Like the water before it, she all but inhaled the food, carefully licking the tray clean before putting it down to again watch him.

He ate the stew slowly, as she waited more patiently now. He only managed half the stew, so he offered the remainder to her as well. She ate it more slowly but still finished it as well.

"On to dessert," he quietly told her as he put the last tray more between them. "These Voxxan vegetables are a tasty treat for me, and from what I’ve seen and heard, you Rakshani should like fish." This time he was only half surprised that she refused to eat from the same tray he was eating from. Breaking one of the fish patties in half, he held it out for her. With her eyes never leaving his, she stooped down to carefully lick it out of his hand. He finished feeding her the fish before having her place the remains of the vegetables in the fridge.

He rested in the chair for a little while as she stood watch over him. "Ok, kitten," he said as he slowly stood up. "Where’s the fresher?" at her confused look he said, "Bathroom, you know, a place to pee or shit?"

The fresher turned out to be around the corner, a stool that would barely handle her and a sink made up the extent of it. He relieved himself before offering her the chance to do the same, the relieved look on her face warning him that she might only be allowed to go when she was told to. He turned to face away from her, both to give her some privacy and to keep her from seeing his scowl of anger. The slight stench of the water coming into the sink explained why there were plenty of water bottles in the fridge. Though clear, the water smelled like it hadn’t been properly reprocessed.

Business taken care of, he led them back into main engineering. He then started trying each of the less damaged consoles, trying to bring up what information he could about the ship he found himself on. A slaver he had already surmised, but the type and class of ship and her engines he needed to learn before he could make any plans – and the best time to dig would be while his captors thought he would still be unconscious. While the core wasn’t a type he remembered working on before, it was similar enough that he didn’t find himself too concerned about it. His Rakshani shadow followed him from place to place, but never interfered with his work on the equipment. Locating a tool pouch, he moved over to the intercom and popped it open. After confirming it was voice only, he cut and re-spliced a couple of the wires before hanging the unit back on the wall, leaving some of the wiring hanging out below it.

The door controls were the next thing he went after, disabling the sensors so they wouldn’t remotely say if they were opened or closed. Like the intercom, he then worked on the controls, leaving exposed wiring to make disabling them quick and easy.

Pulling loose one of the few undamaged consoles, he set it on a rolling cart and wheeled it over the one of the destroyed stations. He spent the next few hours gathering information on the warp core and the engines, as well as what control he might have over them.

When he found he could barely keep his head up, he put most of the equipment more or less back where he found it and turned to his ever-vigilant ‘keeper’. "Are there a couple beds or mats you could bring in here for me to sleep on?" She looked at the door and then back at him. "Go on," he told her, "there’s no one here to hit me, and I promise not to go anywhere."

She returned a few minutes later with two bedrolls under her arm. He directed her to lay them in a corner of the room before carefully lying on the one closer to the wall.

After a minute he looked back up at the Rakshani, she was still standing there, watching him. "Do you need to pee or shit?" he asked, remembering she wouldn’t do it on her own. She seemed pleased that he had asked, but shook her head. "Then you can share the bed with me," he half suggested. Her expression momentarily hardened, but she obediently dropped to her hands and knees, legs spread, heavy tail to the side. Frowning slightly at his mistake, he said, "No my friend, not that type of sharing." At her look of confusion he added, "Just a sharing of warmth while we sleep. The door will make quite a bit of noise before it opens," he promised at her worried look in that direction.

She lay down next to him, still watching him closely. Giving up on trying to explain things, he pulled her to him. With her muzzle almost against his chest, he gently stroked her and scratched around her ears. She relaxed slowly when he demanded nothing else from her and started to purr. "Rest little one," he quietly murmured, "Tomorrow we will see where we stand."

An angry buzzing and loud clicking noises heralded in the new day, cussing from behind the still closed door warning that others were not amused. The Rakshani was up in an instant, trying to comb her hair and fur down so it wouldn’t look like she had been lying down. He, on the other hand, got up more slowly.

"Go pee and shit," he told her. "I won’t let them in until you’re back," he promised, earning him a thankful look from her as she hurried around the corner. When she returned, he touched a control under a mass of wires that were lying across a damaged console before quickly stepping away from it.

The door clicked a couple more times before opening halfway. "I’m telling you, he must of fucked with something," the Caitian from the day before was saying as he entered, followed by a badly scarred human male. "See? I knew he was up! Groc? What’d he touch to open that fucking door?" he demanded.

The Rakshani looked frightened, but pointed out the correct console. "Check it out," the Caitian told the scarred human. "Make sure he can’t lock us out again!"

He raised his hand as he commanded, "Don’t touch that!"

"You don’t tell us what to do, slave!" the small Caitian declared as his associate grabbed the wires to pull them off the console. High voltage arced across the panel and the human as the lights flickered in counterpoint to the pulse of the crackling sparks. Still hung up in the wires, the scarred human dropped to the deck, parts of his body already smoldering.

"You’re right," he said to the astonished Caitian, "I should just let you idiots kill yourselves off."

The Caitian let out a scream of rage as he charged, claws extended as he rushed him – only to be stopped by Groc, who easily slammed the much smaller fur headfirst into a wall. The Caitian slid bonelessly to the deck.

"I guess he forgot he wasn’t allowed to hit me," he quietly told Groc. She was staring at the Caitian with a mixture of fear and wonder. "Thank you for doing as you were told and protecting me," he added, "I know it wasn’t easy to follow those orders." She stared at him in surprise before calming down a little. "Good girl," he said when she looked at him again, now more curious than fearful.

Ignoring the bodies, he went to one of the other consoles and changed a couple settings before going to the fridge. "Drink!" he ordered, tossing her a bottle of water. Getting one for himself, he sipped as she gulped hers. Pulling out two meal packs at random, he handed her what looked like steak while he ended up with a boneless mass that tasted a bit like chicken. They were almost done with their meal when the intercom let out a squawk as a small light lit among the wires he had left hanging under it.

"R’Tel, Roberts – report already you dumb-asses!" it shouted.

Groc had jumped to her feet at the interruption. He pointed her back at her food before saying, "I’m assuming those would be the idiot human and his even dumber furry sidekick?"

"Who the hell is this?" the intercom demanded.

"The engineer," he calmly replied, "And you would be?"

"Your mas – your boss!"

"So tell me, boss, why did you send me one guy who touches stuff you tell him not to, and another that thinks attacking can cover up his stupidity?"

"Where are they?"

"Indisposed. That excuse for a used hairball might still be alive, but scar-face looks like he took a lethal charge when he touched some exposed wiring. Why don’t you come collect them before they start stinking up my office. While you’re at it, find me my clothes and glasses. Me not being able to see clearly might just get you guys killed."

The intercom crackled a couple times, but the other side didn’t say anything before it went dead and the little light went out.

He snorted lightly before returning to his breakfast; ignoring the look of amazement his companion was giving him.

A few minutes later, a tap on the still half open door drew their attention, a petite Voxxan standing just outside of it with a bundle under each arm. "Is it safe for this one to enter?" she asked.

"Only for the clue-full," he replied. "Those without a clue may find themselves suddenly dead."

"What types of clues would this one need?" she asked with a frown.

"To not touch things would help."

"Then this one will not touch anything unless you tell this one to," she agreed.

His eyes narrowed at that. Though she wore a simple tunic, those were not the responses he was expecting from one of the slavers. "You’re a slave," he stated.

"Yes, Master," she agreed, "How may this one serve you?"

"Enter," he told her. "What did they send you with?"

"Two body bags, clothes, and what they think is your kit," she replied as she came in.

"What orders did they give you?"

"To obey you, Master."

"Drop the slave talk if you’re able – I have no problem with you saying I/me/my as needed. Do you have a name?"

"Anything the Master wishes."

"What have you been called in the past?"


"Descriptive, but not quite what I was looking for. Anything that wasn’t an insult?"

"No, Master … well, once I heard a child say I had a pretty red tail," she admitted as she flicked it out from behind her for a moment.

"Redtail would do if you don’t mind answering to it," he suggested.

"Thank you, Master."

"For now, untangle the wires from ‘Smoking Joe’ over there and I’ll have Groc help you bag him."

"Yes, Master," she replied as she moved to the scarred and burnt human. "May this one – I ask what happened to him?"

"He touched something I told him not to."

"And the other?"

"He tried to touch me."

She carefully untangled the wires and set them aside before turning back to him. "I am ready for assistance, Master."

He nodded at Groc. "Help her put those two in the bags, please."

The Rakshani stood, but she looked at him questioningly.

"Go on," he told her, "I’m not going anywhere."

Bagging the human went smoothly enough, Groc simply lifted the remains and Redtail lifted the bag up and around him. When Groc picked up the Caitian, she quickly dropped him when he let out a whimper of pain.

"This one still lives, Master," Redtail reported. "What would you have us do with him?"

"Bag him so he doesn’t leak all over the place – but don’t seal his bag. I’ll have Groc help you get them both to the ship’s doc; he can deal with them … Oh, and you can knock off the ‘master’ every other sentence."

"Yes, sir," she agreed.

He managed to get Groc to go with Redtail, but only by promising to close the door while they were gone. They were gone longer than he had expected, so he made use of the unobserved time by making a few more changes to the consoles.

When they did return, it was with additional supplies. More of the food packs like the ones under the fridge, as well as more water bottles and fruit.

"Have you eaten today, Redtail?" he asked when they were done stacking thinks in a corner, the fruit added to the fridge.

"No, sir," she admitted.

Waving at the boxed meals, he said, "Pick one." Turning to Groc, he asked, "You still hungry?" At her hopeful nod he added, "And see if you can find one with fish for our oversized kitten."

He turned back to Redtail, only to find she hadn’t moved. "What’s wrong?" he asked.

"This – I am not allowed that food," she stated, trembling.

"Were you given any of the food you are allowed to eat?"

"No, Mast – sir!"

"You acknowledge that they gave you to me," he stated.

"Yes, Master."

"Then you have to do what I tell you – not whatever you were told before."

"Yes, Master."

"Then I’m telling you to drop the master crap, and pick out something for your breakfast – after you find Groc something with fish."

"Yes, sir … or do you have a name you wish me to call you?"

"I … don’t know yet," he finally admitted.

"How could you not know?" she asked, looking at him curiously as she found and opened a fish dinner for Groc.

"While skills and knowledge seem to be coming through whatever they used on me, my personal memories seem to be taking longer to return," he admitted.

"I have heard that some never do," she warned, picking a meal that looked a lot like the meat stew he’d had the night before.

"Sadly for our ‘keepers’, I seem to already have a hearty dislike for slavery and slavers," he quietly muttered.

"Is that why you are treating us nicely?" she asked as the food warmed.

"Perhaps," he admitted as he opened the second bundle she’d brought with her. The clothes were loose as if he’d lost some weight, but seemed to fit otherwise. The glasses felt like they belonged when he tried them on. Noticing a hint of a ghostly double image, he touched the rim of the frame. A hidden control shifted the color scales he was seeing, allowing him to see deeper than usual into both the ultra violet and infrared ranges. Another touch brought up some type of computer interface, but it seemed the system it interfaced with was offline or out of range. A couple of worn pockets in the bag showed where other things were normally placed, but what caught his attention was a name and several strings of numbers written across the bottom inside of the bag. He silently sounded the name out a few times, trying to see if it felt familiar, but it didn’t seem to bring up any memories. The numbers on the other hand seemed to bring up associations with other numbers and some facts or semi-knowledge, but nothing he could check from on in the here and now.

Leaving his name and past for future contemplation, he went back to work. The different consoles and wall-mounted panels were slowly giving up their secrets to him. Redtail was sometimes pressed into service holding things and handing him tools, while Groc helped move or lift the heavier items. One console finally brought up the full system schematics he’d needed and he gave it his complete attention. It was a whimper that finally broke his concentration. Looking up hurt his back and neck as he’d been in that position for far too long, and a glance at his charges proved he had ignored them for a little too long as well. Redtail was waiting calmly, only squirming only a little, but Groc was looking decidedly uncomfortable.

"Go pee and shit," he told the Rakshani. As she rushed to comply, he turned to the Voxxan. "I’m adding a few things to your responsibilities," he told her. "As you may have noticed, when I get busy on something, I can lose all track of time. You will ensure that you and Groc eat regularly. You also have to offer to let her relieve herself as it seems she can’t do so on her own."

"I don’t know if the Rakshani will take instructions from me," Redtail pointed out.

"I’ll see what I can do," he agreed as Groc came back around the corner, "Take your turn as I talk to her ... Groc, I want you to listen to Redtail. She can also tell you to pee or shit – and when it’s time to eat. Do you understand?" at Groc’s nod, he said, "While she’s busy, why don’t you get three – no four waters for us?"

Redtail had returned by the time Groc had the waters, so he had her pick four of the meal packs as he took his turn at the facilities. When he returned, he found them waiting for him, the bottles and food packs still unopened. Popping seals on the meals, he set one in front of Redtail and two for Groc before popping the seal on his own.

"I don’t understand," Redtail stated, indicating the extra water and meal pack in front of Groc.

Neal smiled and gave a small wave at the much larger Rakshani. "She’s twice my mass, close to three times yours, don’t you think she’d need more food to keep going?"

"I have heard them say they don’t want her getting too strong," she said.

"While I like having my friends strong," Neal countered.

"She’s a slave, not a friend," Redtail countered, only to get a soundless growl from Groc.

"Even a slave can choose whether she favors one master over another," Neal told her. At her frown he asked, "Going by what you’ve seen so far, would you prefer to be in here with me, or out there with them?"

Groc looked at both of them before digging back into her meal, eating quickly, but not with the haste he had seen in their earlier meals.

They were just finishing their dinner when the intercom crackled. "What is the status of the repairs, engineer?" it sneered.

"I’ve managed some repairs, but I will need the engineering repeaters from the bridge to make up for the damaged systems down here," he calmly replied.

"You’re not taking anything from the bridge!" the voice all but shouted back.

"Very well then," he replied. "Can you read off the degree of phase shift between the second and fifth warp core fields for me? I can’t see them from here as that was part of the equipment destroyed."

There was muttering from the intercom, but no reply. He waited a minute before saying, "You don’t even know how to bring it up, do you? Let me speak to the captain please."

"You don’t have the rights to make demands!" the intercom told him.

"Not a demand, merely a request," he said coolly. "As I thought the captain was in a hurry to get us moving, the longer you waste my time, the longer we sit here. Your call on letting the captain know that you are the ones keeping us stuck here."

After the intercom clicked off, Redtail looked confused as she said, "You are deliberately making them angry."

He shrugged. "What are they going to do? Beat me? Drug me? Anything but doing what I want ensures they sit here and rot. And I’m betting they’re just starting to feel the pinch of their supplies getting lower, fuel reserves slowly depleting …"

"So what do we do?"

"We get some rest before the captain orders me up there to get those panels. If he’s smart, he won’t trust his idiots to unhook them without breaking something," he said as he got undressed.

Waving Groc to the sleeping mats, he then lay down beside her before indicating Redtail should join them. "Just a sharing of warmth, Redtail," he assured the petite Voxxan as she reluctantly joined them.

The clocks showed almost six hours had elapsed before someone tried and then started cussing the non-opening door.

He used the facilities and then gave the furs time to before again going to a wire covered console to key the door half open.

"What’s with the damn door?" an overweight human demanded, not stepping in the door.

"The seals keep trying to engage," he easily lied, "I have to keep telling the system to release them. Just one of the more minor problems your last engineer left for me to deal with."

"They said you’re demanding consoles off the bridge," the fat man said suspiciously.

Indicating a pile of broken panels and consoles, he said, "Unless you have replacement parts laying around somewhere, I don’t have enough to monitor – much less control the warp core and engines properly. I could try jury-rigging some of it, but I have no faith in it lasting long, that is if it doesn’t just blow up in my face when I light it off."

"I don’t care about your face," the fat man sneered.

"No, you wouldn’t," he agreed with a dangerous smile. "The problem is if the core blows, not only will it get in my face, the same blast will get you in that fat ass of yours."

"I’ll teach you to respect your betters, boy," he snarled, stepping forward.

"Let me know when any of my betters show up," he quipped back, with a chuckle. "What I’ve seen so far has failed to impress."

"I’ll –"

"You’ll what? Drug me – no operating warp core that way, my round friend. Beat me and I won’t be in any shape to fix anything. Killing me signs this ship’s death warrant, so you buddy boy, are basically powerless. Tell your captain to stop sending flunkies if he wants this core online anytime soon."

The fat man scowled at him, his hands balled up in fists, but he didn’t try entering as Groc was giving him her undivided attention. "You keep this fucking door open," he demanded.

"Can’t," he replied easily, "there’s a safety protocol interlock in the case of a plasma leak – unless you happen to have somebody that can reprogram it?"

Almost as if it had been waiting for that prompt, the door rattled for several seconds before slowly sliding shut between them. Turning to the furs he said, "Let’s see about getting something to eat. With a little luck our next visitor will be the captain."

Their next interruption was the intercom a few hours later. "I understand you need more parts to get us moving ..."

"Yes, the engineering repeaters, as these are beyond my ability to repair. One question, am I finally speaking to the captain this time?"

"I am, but you should obey any of my officers."

"Did your officers tell you that I asked to speak with you about these repairs over eight hours ago?"

"Does it matter?"

"Only if you were in any hurry," he admitted. "When do you want me to get the repeaters?"

"My men will bring them down for you."

"If you would please, remind them to bring the cable runs as well, half of these melted when the panels surged."

"I'll let you know," the intercom replied before it ‘clicked’ off.

"He doesn’t believe you," Redtail told him.

Looking over at the intercom and the light still softly glowing underneath it, he replied, "It doesn’t really matter whether he believes me or not; without those parts, the best I can do is kill us quickly. I’ve got just enough working equipment to control half the valves and fields, but I can only monitor a third of them – a recipe for disaster in anyone’s book."

"So what will you do?" she quietly asked.

"Have you two help me patch up what we can as if I knew the other parts were coming. As good of a way as any to stay busy, and we’ll have that much less to do once he calls me up to pull the parts."

"He’ll never let you on the bridge."

He softly snorted. "If he’d had anyone else that could do even the basics, then they’d have been in here cleaning up this mess and sorting out the damage before he’d risk waking me up. So, he must be stuck with me for all the repairs. From the ship’s schematics, I should be able to strip the engineering runs between here and the bridge to make up for those damaged in here – that is if he decides he wants the work done."

"The Captain can’t trust you," she pointed out.

"And I can’t trust him … so, should I just dump the core now? Or try to work out some kind of a deal with him?"

"What would you ask for?"

"My freedom of course. Hell, he’s down three crew that I know of, so I’ll take the wages of his two higher paid deadbeats – and what they took from my bags. One of them was a computer interface of some type, it might make getting this beast to warp easier."

"They never let slaves go," she softly said.

"One, I’m not a slave yet," he replied. "Two, I’m an alpha male type; trust me when I say that we don’t make for good slaves … not that you would want a passive engineer in the first place. An engineer that can’t tell his captain something can’t be done will end up killing the ship and crew. There are some slots you just can’t place a slave in, I’m afraid." He chuckled before adding, "Hell, I might make you and Groc as part of my payment. Think he’d go for it?" he asked.

"Whatever the Master decides," she whispered.

"For now I’ve decided we’ll start with the junction panel behind that console. Groc? Help me shift this, we want to move it slowly so we don’t damage anything …"

"Report to the bridge," the intercom demanded a few hours later. "The Voxxan bitch will guide you," the voice said, obviously not the one claiming to be the captain.

"Understood," he replied as he rolled up one of the tool kits he’d found. "Come on ladies, there’s more work to be done."

"Groc will stay behind," the intercom ordered.

"So you have someone up there that will hold things for me and carry the consoles back down here?" he asked. Quieter he told them both, "Go use the facilities."

He took his turn after they were done, but it was another ten minutes before the intercom spoke again. "Where the hell are you?" it demanded.

"I apologize," he replied. "I was waiting for your answer."

"What answer?"

"Whether you have someone up there to do the grunt labor for me – or do I bring the big slave with me?"

"Just get up here!" the voice demanded.

He indicated that Redtail should lead them pushing one of the carts they’d found, and he followed with a second cart. Groc brought up the rear without being told.

Redtail noticed this and said, "They said to leave her behind."

"I think it was the captain that I heard ordering her to stay with me," he easily replied. "So they don’t have the rank to override his orders."

The bridge wasn’t much, just five stations and center seat where the captain could see what was going on. He frowned at the engineering station, it looked like it was where they normally piled junk and trash to get it out of their way. The fat human was there, scowling at him, as was another Caitian male who was a couple shades darker than the one Groc had bounced off the wall.

"I told you to leave her in engineering," the fat man protested.

"And someone else seems to have told her to stay with me. Seems you don’t rank high enough to override her previous orders," he easily replied as he slid the trash and other junk to floor so he could activate the console. "Shit," he muttered as it came to life, "half of this thing is trashed too … it’s amazing the ship lasted this long."

"Just get the parts and go," the dark Caitian growled.

Powering down the console, he released the fasteners holding it down and waved Groc over. "Lift this side for me, please. Little more – right there, let me get it unhooked." He was under the console disconnecting connections when it shifted and Groc let out a whimper. The Caitian was rearing back for another kick when he muttered, "Abuse her again while she’s working for me and I will refuse to get that core working until I watch your captain space you – sans suit. Got it?"

"You have no say here," the Caitian sneered.

"Try me," he replied standing up to look down at the much shorter Caitian.

Their staring contest was interrupted by the fat man. "R’Teck, we need that core more than you need your fun," he reminded the Caitian. "There’s always later."

The Caitian’s dirty look promised revenge at the earliest opportunity, but they were allowed to work without further harassment until he started undoing the console next to the now gutted engineering station.

"Hey! You’re not to be taking that one!" the fat man protested.

"Oh, I’m not," he assured them, "but I will need these cable runs, and they run in this direction. I’ll let you test each panel once I’m done to ensure nothing else was done to them."

He worked slowly but steadily across the bridge, each panel or console was opened and rooted under as a lengthening group of cables emerged. A bulkhead connection panel released the cables and he had Redtail begin coiling them as he went back around the room reconnecting and closing the panels. To the two impatient slavers he said, "A couple of these consoles may go offline for short periods of time as I work my way down the corridors. I’ll let you know when I’m done with the cable pulls."

The fat man’s scowl had never left his face. He now muttered, "You’d better hurry up and get us moving!"

He turned back with a raised eyebrow. "One mistake on my part guarantees the death of this ship. Do you want slow and right, or fast and possibly fatal?"

"Just get outta here!"

"Yes, sir," he replied before ushering Groc and Redtail out ahead of him.

"You were almost respectful with him at the end," Redtail commented once the door had closed.

"Almost," he agreed as he started opening the panel just outside the door. "In an old earth dialect, sir just happened to be spelled S I R, and in his case it stands for Stupid, Idiotic, and Retarded."

They moved slowly down the corridor, gathering still more cable. The furs didn’t notice that he didn’t always reconnect some of the connections to their original ports. Several levels down, they returned to engineering, Groc loaded down with cables while he and Redtail pushed the carts with the consoles he’d taken.

"Damn door," he pretended to mutter as he worked the door controls for a minute before they opened barely halfway, which was just wide enough to let them get the carts in. he helped relieve Groc of her load before pointing her at the facilities, Redtail following her.

He had already hooked power and control feeds to one of the consoles when they returned. "Thirsty work," he commented as he went to relieve himself. Redtail correctly interpreted his suggestion and went to get them each some water.

He heard a ‘thump’ just as he came back around the corner; he found Groc collapsed near the console he’d hooked up. Redtail was turning to him, her mouth open – but no words came out before she too passed out and fell across Groc.

His expression hardened as he absently noticed the still almost full water bottle she had dropped, Groc’s empty was still in the big Rakshani’s hand. He took the unopened bottle on the cart and uncapped it before going back and pouring most of the contents down the sink. He laid the bottle on its side, positioned as though it had been dropped by someone behind the cart the furs laid in front of. Opening a panel halfway down the room helped to conceal him while letting him just see the still half-open door. He placed his hand in the panel, his finger just over a contact strip and waited.

The intercom crackled ten minutes later. "Report! … Engineer?" the captain’s voice demanded. "Answer me, damn it!" he commanded to the silence. "Bitch! Groc? I swear I’ll beat you idiots to death if you don’t answer me right now!" the silence continued for another full minute before he was heard saying, "Go check. Drag him to Doc and he’ll dope that asshole up good."

"And the bitches?" that fat man’s voice asked.

"Whatever you want to do. Take Stanley with you," was the reply.

Two minutes later a furry arm pointed a phaser around the half open door, a weasel morph’s head popping around the edge a second later. "No movement," he hissed behind him.

The fat man joined him with a second phaser. "The bitches are in plain sight, where’s the bastard?"

"There’s a third water bottle on the floor almost behind that cart," Stanley pointed out.

"Just in case he’s back there faking it," the fat man said as he fired a heavy stun at the cart.

As they started to move into the room a contact was touched in the open panel and the door jerked quickly into motion without any warning or sound.

The fast closing door caught them completely by surprise. The weasel’s chest was caught between the door and its frame, while the slower moving human lost his gun arm at the shoulder – and his head.

Neither had had a chance to call out before being crushed by the door, so it was a minute before the captain tried to contact them. "Well, did you get him?"

The him in question hadn’t been idle after he keyed the door closed, thanks to the cables he had changed in the bridge and in the corridors he now had repeater control of some of the basic bridge functions. He keyed the sickbay in with the bridge and changed the gravity-plate limits and settings. A touch of the confirmation key changed both rooms to three G’s negative. The intercom confirmed proper function of the repeater by the sounds of thuds and a couple crackling sounds before someone started to scream in pain. Leaving the controls at three G’s, he counted to three before flipping the gravity plates back to positive. More thuds and a new voice screaming told him the captain hadn’t been alone. He cycled the controls a few more times until the softening thud/splats were all he could hear. He left the controls on negative while he planned his next move.

While debating what to do – and in what order, he carried Redtail and then dragged Groc over to their sleeping mats. Collecting the phasers from the dead crew, he hid one to play with later before slipping the other in his pocket. While he didn’t trust his chances in a one-on-one with the remaining slavers, he figured that any edge might make the difference.

Unless overridden from the locked down bridge, he could now control most of the ship’s access. He closed all the doors and hatches on the crew level and set the controls so they could be opened from outside – but not by those within. He also disabled the intercom systems other than the still open comm between engineering and the bridge.

Hoping he hadn’t forgotten anything security wise, he then moved the open package of water bottles out to the corridor with the corpses. With the panel now set to let him know if any of the doors opened, he settled down to take a nap with the ladies.

Redtail inadvertently woke him several hours later when she staggered to her feet and rushed around the corner. The sounds of her retching came moments later. Getting up and stretching, he moved over to their extra supplies and shifted them enough to access the water bottles on the bottom. "It should be safe," he told her as he handed one to her, "these bastards are too lazy to have traded all of them out."

"But you don’t know that," she softly accused.

"No, I don’t," he admitted. "Just take a couple sips and rinse your mouth out. We’ll wait a couple minutes and see if it’s safe to continue." When she hesitated he pointed at the bloodstained door before adding, "I had to defend myself from an attack by the crew when they thought we were all unconscious. Somehow I don’t think you can protect us if I’m the one that passes out if this water is also drugged."

"They’ve made us take it before," she told him. "The sleepy water shouldn’t have made me sick."

"The fat one thought I might be faking it behind the cart, so he hit the cart – and you two, with a stunner."

"So that’s why I was sick …"

"And Groc may be too, if she doesn’t just sleep through that part of it."

Nodding in agreement, Redtail sat down on the bedding. "Not as far to fall this way," she explained with a half grin before taking a few sips from the bottle. Not feeling sleepy, she drank deeply and then waited a few minutes before getting up. "It’s safe," she proclaimed.

"Good," he agreed from where he had been working on a console. "Later I’ll have you show me what’s stored where on this piece of junk."

"What about the crew?" she asked. "They won’t just let us roam the ship at will."

He stared down at the console before him so he wouldn’t have to look at her as he said, "I was angry and more than a little afraid when you two just passed out like that. I killed the fat man and a weasel with the door. I have either injured or killed the captain and at least one other person on the bridge. I’ve done what I can to make the bridge and sickbay inaccessible to what’s left of the crew."

She was quiet for almost a full minute as what he had said slowly sank in. Cautiously she said, "If the captain is dead … then you are the new master … how may this one serve you?" she was pleading the last as she quickly dropped to her knees and pressed her forehead to the deck.

"You can start by getting up," he softly suggested, frowning not at her, but her actions.

"Yes, Master!" she said, quickly getting up to stand at something resembling attention.

"Nothing has changed between us, Redtail," he gently informed her. "I still don’t like being called ‘master’ and you can drop the ‘this one’ crap."

"Yes, sir," she meekly said.

In a little lighter tone he suggested, "Since those waters seem safe enough, place two of them near Groc so she’ll have them when she finally wakes up. After that, we’ll take a little tour of the ship. We need supplies we know they haven’t tampered with, and I do need to check to make sure the bridge is secured."

It was two hours later that they left the relative security of engineering to see where they stood on the ship. He had sealed the passages the best he could before playing his up/down gravity games on them in the hopes of disabling anyone that might lie in wait for them. First stop was replacing their supplies and grabbing a dozen body bags. Outside the bridge, he used the access controls to set the gravity to positive before reducing it to one gravity and opening the hatch.

Blood and other things dripped from the ceiling onto the remains of the three bodies.

"This was the captain," Redtail told him as she stood over the remains of an elderly human.

"Bag him with the rest," he told her.

Groc didn’t move to help her; she was just staring at the dark Caitian, shivering slightly.

"He can’t hurt you any more … none of them can," he softly told her. As Redtail waited, he gently pulled the much larger Rakshani to a less messy part of the bridge. Pulling her down so they were eye to eye, he quietly said, "Groc was the name forced on a Rakshani that was mistreated by slavers. Those slavers are no more, so there is no more Groc. When needed, I’ve seen you move with speed and grace. Would you allow me to call you Grace?"

Her answer was to lift him off the ground, almost crushing him in her hug.

"I’ll take that as a ‘yes’," he chuckled as she finally let him down. "Why don’t you two bag them while I see what we have to work with – don’t touch the consoles, I don’t want any of the settings accidentally changed."

After wiping off the captain’s chair, he sat down and started studying the controls within reach. "Nice of your late captain to have left the computer access unlocked before his untimely demise," he idly commented as he changed the codes and locked it down to prevent anyone from locking him out. He deliberately ignored how gleefully his girls were shoving the bodies in the bags, to the point of not looking up at the sound of water pouring slowly into the bag the Caitian had been stuffed in.

"Sir?" Redtail said, "It seems Gro-Grace no longer needs to be told to go."

"Just so long as she does it in the proper receptacle," he replied. "In this case, that includes bags we won’t be reopening."

"Yes, sir," she replied happily as they closed the last of the bags. "We are done here, what else would you have us do?"

"Sit down and relax for a bit, I want to make sure we have all the keys and that they can’t take back control," he instructed them. "I also don’t want you touching any controls until they’re locked." Redtail sat at the gutted engineering station. Not finding a chair large enough for her size, Grace sat down on one of the few blood free areas of the deck.

Moving to one of the other stations, he worked on it for a few minutes before activating it. "There," he told them, "the emergency beacon is active, and I’ve got the comm panel set to squawk here and in engineering if we get a reply. As they were afraid of humans or Rakshani responding to it, with luck one of them should be who finds us."

"What will happen to us?" Redtail asked.

"Try to find out who you were, find your families, deprogramming if we can," he assured her. "Despite what I said before, I’m not interested in having slaves. I find friends much more valuable."

"You are our master now, to command or free as you will," she reminded him.

"Then you two are free," he told her. "But with freedom can come responsibilities. For now we are stuck on this ship. We will still need to work together to make it. And I understand there’s quite a number of people drugged onboard, they too will need care to stay alive until help arrives."

"The others need very little care," Redtail corrected him. "Would you like to see?"

"Yes, I would," he agreed, "just let me lock down the bridge and we can drop off the body bags on the way."

It took a little longer than that, as they also bagged the human doctor and R’Tel; seems the tiny Caitian had still been in the sickbay when the gravity had started bouncing them around.

The slave pens were rows of cages, each cage holding six to ten beds. In each bed a being was strapped down, IV needles into arms and neck to keep the merchandise alive and perfectly controlled as they waited for their delivery to buyers and trainers. He inspected a couple of the hookups, and found it to be a simple computer interface that monitored and regulated the amount of drugs and other fluids being administered to each victim. A cursory visit to each of the other holding bays gave him an estimate of well over three hundred being held.

They toured the crew quarters next. It was split into officer country with a couple of good-sized suites for the captain and first officer, and large single rooms for the rest. Another hatch and passage led to quarters for the lower ranking crew. Tapping on the locked doors produced banging and muffled shouts from most of them, he guessed they still had another dozen or so to deal with if they somehow got out.

He locked down each of the hatches leading to the crew quarter access and then set the gravity in the passageways to a negative three G’s just in case any of them managed to escape from their rooms.

They found no replies to their distress beacon when they returned to engineering, so he suggested a meal and some rest. The furs woke the next ‘morning’ to him quietly cursing; he had starting working on remoting more of the bridge stations as something to keep himself occupied.

"Is something wrong?" Redtail asked as Grace went to the fridge and got them each a water. He smiled as he accepted one of them from her. Since discovering her old master was dead – and her renaming, Grace had become a lot more independent, yet she still deferred to him and seemed to need his approval each time she stepped beyond her old bounds.

"The bridge controls said the emergency beacon was running, but these remotes say it’s offline. I need to find out which is right and make sure we are broadcasting," he told them. "I’ll know more after I tear into the bridge after we have breakfast."

They went with him to the bridge, both to help as well as keep an eye on him it seemed. Grace especially seemed to try to keep an eye on the entrance, almost as if she feared the crew would set upon them at any moment.

Their luck in the matter turned out to be all bad, he could neither activate nor repair the stubbornly silent beacon. The regular comm systems weren’t much help either; they had a low powered light speed comms, with nothing other than the non-working beacon for faster than light transmission.

"That tears it," he muttered, letting the panel he’d been under for over an hour drop with a thud. "Without that beacon, we’ll have to rescue ourselves … and unless you two have ship skills I’m unaware of, we’ll need some help."

Grace was giving him a very guarded look as she slowly shook her head, while Redtail frowned at him. "You’re going to let the crew out? After you killed their captain?"

It was a very dry chuckle he gave her before answering. "No, I think I’ve proven that trying to get your enemy to aid you can be counter-productive. I was thinking of looking for talent from the rest of the cargo. They knew I was an engineer; with luck we may be able to find a navigator that can fly with these systems. But that does mean I’ve really got to be able to get this beast into warp somehow."

"I thought that’s what you were doing?" Redtail half asked.

"I was laying down the groundwork," he admitted, "but do you think I’d actually hand them a working system? As soon as they were sure it was working, they would have had me tied back down on one of those beds."

‘So you weren’t really trying to make a deal with them?"

"Hell no! There was no way they could trust me not to turn them in, so there was no way I could trust them to honor any deals they agreed to."

"You lied," she stated.

"If someone’s holding a gun to your head, you’re going to agree with whatever they say if you want to live. Once the bastard turns his back – all bets are off."

"Did you lie to us?" she asked.

"Only when I was telling you I hoped that a deal with them would include you two. The intercom to the bridge was still live and I wanted them to think I did have a bit of slaver in me."

"So you don’t want us?"

"As my slaves? Hell no. As friends and helpers? Sure, I’d like that," he assured her.

"Ok then, what do we call our friend?"

He frowned before saying; "As that name in that bag still doesn’t ‘feel’ right, just call me ‘Red’ for now."

"Ok, Red For Now –" she started before breaking into a giggle at the look he was giving her. "They made me help them look in the databank to help find you, so I might be able to help you find it again."

"How long did it take to get me up after they decided to wake me?" he wondered.

"Three days," she replied, "then another day and a half before they got you on your feet and moving."

"Then we start the database search first, then I get to see what I can get working while our navigator wakes up."

"Can we eat first?" Redtail suggested, "I thought I heard Grace’s belly grumbling."

"Keeping a Rakshani happy and well fed is always a good idea," he agreed.

Grace gave them both a toothy grin as they headed back to engineering. Though they now had the run of the ship, Red insisted on staying where he had the most control, and the other two weren’t going to be far from him.

They all headed back to the bridge after their meal. Red set one of the stations in read-only so they could inspect – but not make any changes to the data they were searching. It took a while, but they did find one file that claimed that being was a navigator. They rolled a medical gurney to holding bay two. Cage four was a six-bed cell and on bed three was where the data file had led them.

"Figures," Red muttered, looking down at the unconscious Rakshani. Unlike some of his more wildly colored brethren, this one could have been a classic Earth tiger, covered in orange fur with narrow lightning like black stripes and a white belly.

"Is there a problem?" Redtail wondered.

"There might be," Red admitted. "Seeing him brought up a few thoughts and half memories that Grace did not. If I’m right, right now Raksha and Earth still aren’t on the best of terms, so he may have a problem with me."

"But you treat Grace well," Redtail protested.

"I didn’t say I had a problem with him, to me a furball is a furball," Red corrected, giving her a smile, "but if he’s one of those that think humans are encroaching on Rakshani rights and territories, then he may not want to work with us."

"What do we do then?"

"Load him up and see about rinsing the drugs from his system," Red replied. "Just because I said there may be problems doesn’t mean we have any better choices."

After moving their newest recruit-to-be to sickbay, the girls helped Red clean up the sickbay a bit – especially after he pointed out that the Rakshani waking to the smell of old blood may not be putting their best foot forward. Finding that some of the consoles wouldn’t transfer properly to engineering, he asked them to also do at least limited cleaning on the bridge.

The Rakshani ‘woke’ after only two days. He strained against his bonds screaming incoherently for all of five minutes before passing back into unconsciousness. He did this over and over again for almost half a day before waking with merely a snort, testing his bonds and then lying there silently.

"Are you awake? Would you like something to drink?" Red asked. The Rakshani remained silent. Red gave him a minute before saying, "If you are awake, there’s a few things you need to know. I don’t know what you might remember or where they picked you up, but we’re currently on the Ides of March – a slaver." Red stopped for a moment when the Rakshani tested his bonds again. "You’ll stay bound until I’m sure you’re fully conscious, as most of us seem to thrash around a bit as the drugs wear off."

His eyes flashing open, the Rakshani snarled, "Release me or I’ll rip your head off!"

Red’s smile wasn’t pleasant as he replied, "You’ve already tried that my friend."

"I am not your friend!" he shot back.

"I know," Red admitted. "Why don’t we listen to our last conversation?" he suggested before activating a small recorder.

The first words to come from the small speaker were in a Rakshani voice, cursing for almost four minutes – seemingly without repeating itself. Next came Red’s voice trying to say something – only to be cut off by more Rakshani screaming and cursing, the sounds of someone thrashing around the whole time. The curser finally ran out of steam and fell silent. A softer, female voice quietly said, "Are you sure he’s safe?"

Red’s voice chuckled, "Did I turn out to be safe?"

"No," she whispered.

"And that was the drugs talking," he added. "How long did you say I was like that?"

"Just over a day," she admitted.

"We’ll give him more time then," Red’s voice told her. "He’s getting more coherent each conscious phase. Stay with him if you would, I’ll relieve you in two hours."


"I don’t remember that," the Rakshani coldly stated.

"But that did sound like your voice?" Red inquired. "The drugs they used plays havoc with our short term memory."

"They?" he demanded.

"The slavers had an ‘engineering accident’ that left them without warp – and without their engineer. They woke me … and now I’m waking you."


"When they realized they didn’t have as much ‘control’ over me as they liked, they tried to drug me again. They failed and I had to kill them. I now find myself in control of a ship stuck in space without any way to call for rescue. While I think I can get her into to warp, I can’t pilot her while managing the warp systems – that’s where you might come in handy."

‘I’ll never work for a human!"

"Would you consider working with one?" Red asked. "If other lives are on the line? There are over three hundred others still drugged onboard, the ship systems might keep them alive another month if we’re lucky, though that’s probably not what will kill them."

"What then?"

"Life support will probably pack it in before we finally lose power, the water recycling is already crap and the air filtration will run out of chemicals in three weeks at current consumption."

"Your life means nothing to me," the Rakshani muttered.

"What about the lives of others? There are at least fifty Rakshani that you will be killing."

"I have not decided."

"If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. I will check in on you later," Red said as he got up.

"Release me!" he demanded.

"Not until you can remember the last time you were awake. I’d prefer to not have any feral Rakshani running around loose."

The Rakshani’s eyes narrowed as he said, "There was another voice on that recording. I would speak to her."

"I’ll ask," Red agreed, "but only if I have your word that you won’t try to harm her."

"I don’t give my ‘word’ to humans."

"Very well, but I will give you my word. If you harm her I will kill you the same way I killed most of the slaver crew," Red promised before he turned to leave.

Redtail entered a few minutes later. The petite Voxxan moved so that he could see her easily, but not reach her, even if he had been unbound. "You asked to talk to me?" she asked.

"May I have something to drink?" he asked.

She retrieved a bottle and carefully fed it to him. "Red asked if you were thirsty – why didn’t you say something?" she asked as he finished off the bottle.

"I will have nothing from that human," the Rakshani stated.

"Then you will have nothing," she replied. "He is the reason you are awake. He asked me to talk with you or you would be alone right now."

"Release me!" he demanded.

"No," she said. "If he would listen to me, you would be back in that cage and safely drugged."

He had another hot retort ready to fire when another Rakshani stepped in. Grace scowled at him lightly before raising an eyebrow at Redtail.

"We can’t trust him not to attack Red," Redtail told her.

Looking hopefully at Grace, he said, "Release me and I can get you free of that stinky human!" he started cussing her out when she didn’t comply – but stopped when she finally stepped forward, only to bend low and take a good grip on the end of his bound tail. He was about to ask what she was doing when she bent her head down and bit down hard! He bellowed in surprise and pain as she stood back up, her toothy grin stained red by his blood.

"Bad Grace," Redtail teasingly told her, the Voxxan’s smile showing she didn’t mind at all. "You’re getting his blood all over the place." She went to a cabinet and retrieved a small bottle. They all wrinkled their noses at the smell, but she just applied its contents to his bite, eliciting more groans and complaints from him as it stung.

Replacing the bottle, Redtail flipped a switch on the room’s intercom before going back to stand near his bed. "You now know what two of only three people that can free you think of you. I suggest you get over your hatred of our human very soon … Come on Grace, it’s about time to eat and you know he’ll forget if we don’t remind him."

They walked out of the sickbay, ignoring his demands, which turned to half pleas as the door started to close behind them.

It was ten hours later that Red finally went to check on him. "I would have been by earlier, but the girls turned off the baby monitor," he told the Rakshani.

"The what?" he asked in surprise.

Pointing at the intercom, Red said, "That was supposed to activate if you did more than mumble something or if your heart rate got much above your normal pulse when asleep. Since they insisted I eat and then rest when they returned, I’m afraid ten minutes ago was the first time I’d checked the monitor since we last spoke. Do you remember it?"

"You played a recording, a Voxxan told me she wants to put me back to sleep, and your pet Rakshani took a bite out of my tail!"

"So that’s what those two were giggling about. I’ll ask them to behave, but that’s the best I can do."

"Are you going to let me go?"

"Depends, are you going to help or impede me?"

"Humans can’t be trusted."

"Raksha and Earth may still be at an impasse, I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that others will die if we can’t work together."

"You’ll die too."

"As will you. I think I saw maybe another ten humans in the pens, but I saw at least fifty Rakshani. Do so many Rakshani need to die just so you can ensure a few humans die with them?"

"You said you would release me when I could remember," he pointed out.

"So I did," Red agreed. "Before I unstrap you, one word of caution. Grace badly injured the last person to attempt to attack me."

"What happened to them?" he asked as Red began to undo the restraints.

"Look up and to your left," Red simply told him.

Looking up and left provided a sight of pooled blood on the ceiling outlining where a body had lay for a while.

"They thought it was time to put me down, so I stopped putting up with them," Red said as he moved around to undo the other side’s restraints. "I don’t anticipate that problem with you."

"Why not?"

"Because the only way you and I will survive this is by working together. If it were just the two of us things might be different, but there are hundreds of lives at stake. I’d like to declare a species truce, after we have made a port that can handle our passengers you can decide on if we are friend or foe – and act accordingly."

He was quiet while Red undid the bindings to his tail. Getting up, he stretched before looking down on the much shorter human. "Agreed," he finally said, "but if I find you have lied …"

"Understood," Red agreed as the door opened and Redtail and Grace rushed in.

"You told us you were going to the bridge!" Redtail accused him as Grace moved to confront the other Rakshani – only to have Red step between them.

Staring down Grace, he told Redtail, "I was, but I then I discovered someone had silenced his monitor."

"He’ll try to harm you," Redtail insisted.

"Really? So far he hasn’t tried to take a bite out of me," Red countered. "What’s a matter, Grace? Aren’t we feeding you enough?"

Grace looked both apologetic as well as defiant, but she couldn’t meet Red’s eyes. "No more biting him – unless you guys are having wild sex or something," Red told her with a grin as the two Rakshani stared at each other over his head.

"Why did you say that?" Redtail demanded.

"Woke you guys up, didn’t it?" Red asked with a chuckle before turning to the other male. "You don’t by chance remember your name, do you?"

"No," he confessed.

"Then if you don’t object, I’ll call you Tony," Red half suggested.

"That’s a human name," he protested.

"Make yourself up one," Red offered, "though it might be funny if you discover later you picked a name because you didn’t remember you hated them."

‘Tony’ frowned, but couldn’t counter the logic.

"So I call him Tony?" Redtail asked.

"Unless he renames himself," Red suggested. "You also have that option," he reminded her.

"You naming me was the nicest gift I ever received," she told him, "I’ll never change it."

"Well, let’s get Tony fed and then I’ll show him what we have for him to work with," Red said as he herded them towards the door. "Girls, Tony and I have a truce. I don’t expect either of you to cause him any trouble," he added with just a hint of command in his voice.

"Yes, sir," Redtail quickly agreed while Grace nodded her head.

While the bridge had been cleaned up some, Tony’s nose wrinkled at the smell. He glanced up and confirmed that Red had used the last crew to paint this ceiling as well.

"You’re giving him too much power," Redtail half protested when she saw Red was giving Tony the bridge’s command codes.

"I either trust him to do the job or not," Red replied, "it’s not like you or I could catch that his course will run us into a star or something."

Tony too had been surprised at Red giving him full access, but then he realized that the human was just being practical. If Red needed to be in engineering to make them move, he couldn’t be on the bridge overseeing things there. "You meant it when you said truce," he quietly commented.

"And I meant the other things we discussed," Red said, making eye contact so Tony would understand what he was talking about.

"What other things?" Redtail demanded, not liking the idea there was still more going on between them.

"The truce is off if Tony discovers I’ve lied to him," he simply stated, "as it should be."

Redtail and Grace were both frowning at him, but Red continued to walk Tony through the systems he had access to.

Tony finally nodded. "I think I can find our location and set a course, but it will take time with this equipment, I can’t read some of it," he warned. "Destination?"

"The closest place that can take us," Red told him. "While I’d prefer to hit an Earth based port, I’m not going to put us at risk by insisting on one. I’ll leave Redtail with you, she seems to have a good grasp of the basics."

"Understood," Tony said as Red and Grace left him to his work.

While she hadn’t protested, Redtail looked uncertain at being left with the Rakshani. "Is there really a truce between you?"

Tony actually gave her an honest grin as he said, "Not only is there a truce, but he promised to add me to his collection if I tried to hurt you." At her confused look he pointed at the ceiling. "I have no intention of adding myself to his decorations," he assured her.

"Very well," she agreed. "The languages can be changed – as can how things are measured. Do you have a Federation measurement you understand?"

"I’ll try anything but Cait," he told her. "It’s bad enough converting measurements without arguing with the base also ..."

Tony and Redtail joined them in engineering for a meal towards the end of the ship’s day. "I think Redtail and I have got us located," he was telling Red, "the middle of nowhere, but we’re a lot closer to Rakshan space than we are to anywhere else in their database."

"Any port in a storm," Red replied in agreement.

"And I won’t be able to run the calculations and the bridge by myself," he added cautiously.

"Tony wants to get more Rakshani awake to help him," Redtail told him.

Red frowned at her. "I’m constantly asking you two for help. At least he’s admitting he can’t handle the load now and not when we need to be moving."

Tony was also frowning slightly. "I keep catching myself asking for data – or confirmation, almost like I normally do this as part of a group that works together," he tried to explain.

Red nodded. "After we eat I’ll walk the bays with you. Who knows, maybe you’ll recognize others you’ve worked with."

"I don’t like it," Redtail told Red.

"We’re playing a very high stakes game with very long odds, Redtail. I am willing to try almost anything that might help reduce those odds," Red told her.

‘What if they don’t agree to help?" she asked.

"I was there to explain the game plan to Tony, he’ll be the one explaining it to whoever he decides to wake."

"I gave my word," Tony pointed out.

"I know," Red replied, "and I’m taking you at it."

The Rakshani had been placed in four groups, and Red wasn’t surprised when Tony reacted to those in the group he was pulled from.

"I know these people," Tony said, moving between the beds in neighboring cages. "They’re part of my crew, I know they are!"

"Tony!" Red snapped at the half dazed Rakshani. "We don’t have the resources to spare to wake them all. Think about what you need – what we need and pick just them."

"I can’t," Tony protested.

"You can," Red countered. "Their lives hang on you picking not for friendship but because they can do the job. Think of what you need to work that bridge and pick them."

"To run shifts –"

"Only one shift," Red reminded him, ‘unless you can picture one of these guys arguing warp core settings with me,"

Tony fretted for the next hour, two males and a female Rakshani right away, a second female ten minutes later. Redtail and Grace ferried them to the now crowded sickbay to begin weaning them from the drugs. Red checked on him at the end of the hour. Tony was scowling at one male in peculiar. He turned as Red came up beside him. "I know I hate this one," he muttered to Red.

"But you also seem to know we need him," Red half asked.

"Damn it … yes."

"Well, all the other beds in sickbay are taken, so we’ll unhook this bed and I’ll let you and Grace move him."

"I noticed she’s not glaring at me as much," Tony commented as they uncoupled the connectors and clamps joining the bed to the back wall of the cage.

"Redtail’s accepted you, so Grace no longer sees you as a threat," Red replied easily.

"That comment you made yesterday about her biting …"

"Was to remind everyone that a possible enemy can be turned into a friend," Red said as Grace came in. "One more and we’re done for now," he told her. "And here, just in case," he added as he pulled his phaser out of his pocket and handed it to Tony. "Just in case you let them loose too soon, or you find out the hard way that you made a mistake." Tony nodded as he accepted it, noting that it was already set on medium stun.

As he’d done with the others, Red assigned names to each of them. The male with Tony’s colorization but longer hair he named Tom. The one Tony didn’t like became Dick, while the oldest looking male was named Harry. The lighter shaded of the two yellow/brown female Rakshani became Wilma, the darker Betty.

The next two days were spent getting everything ready for their new ‘crew’. Tony had Red help him configure the bridge stations to handle a group effort while the ladies cleaned things up a bit more. This included Red gently flipping the gravity so they could clean up at least some of the dried mess off the ceiling. When not needed on the bridge, Red also finished hooking up his engineering patch job and static tested his control of the core and warp engines.

The third day Tony got to see what he had been like as the drugs had worn off. The fact that there were five of them didn’t help as one would set off the others – who then kept the first ones going longer than they might have if things had been quieter. After almost a solid hour of them screaming, Tony took Red’s advice and plugged in earphones for each of them, what Red called ‘classical strings’ calming them down in just a few minutes.

Then came determining if they were really awake or still under the drugs. Tony was glad Red had insisted Grace be with him when Harry proved to be not quite ‘all there’ yet and needing to be stunned and tied back down for another couple hours, but by the end of the day they were all fully awake and cut loose. Their first meal went smoothly enough, but the telling of where they were and why did not. Group dynamics made Harry the leader of the group; even Tony found himself deferring to the older Rakshani. So it was Harry that was at the half-open engineering hatch a little later.

"Enter," Red called out when Grace pointed out that he had a visitor.

"I have a couple questions," Harry stated.

"I’ll see if I can’t answer them," Red agreed.

" ‘Tony’ told us why you woke us, and why you seem to be in control of this slave ship," Harry informed him.

"The slavers woke me because they needed an engineer. I woke Tony because I needed a navigator, and he told me he thinks he’ll need your help to make it happen. And yes, I know Raksha is our best chance at getting somewhere alive. Anything else?" Red asked with a smile.

"I’m taking over control of the bridge crew," Harry informed him.

"So long as it doesn’t jeopardize the mission, I don’t care which of you is the ‘leader of the pack’," Red assured him.

"We’ve disabled your ability to play with our gravity."

"If I needed it at this stage we’re all going to die anyway."

"Tony said your word is good …"

"It is," Red assured him, "right up until someone crosses me."

"You will find us the same," Harry agreed.

"You guys have another day or two before I can start testing my repairs and seeing if this beast can get into warp."

Harry smiled. "Your little Redtail has been helping us settle into the officers’ quarters. We found this in the captain’s stash," he added as he pulled a small panel out of his pocket. "She said it looked like it might fit one of those pockets in your bag."

Red looked the panel over, no display or controls, just power and data jacks. Adding power from a nearby console suddenly darkened his glasses and data started appearing before his eyes. "Interesting," he admitted. "Now if I can just remember how to use it."

"Will it help get us going?" Harry asked.

"I think it will," Red admitted as the system began displaying its modes and options.

"Then I leave you to it," Harry said as he turned to leave, but Red never heard him.

"Did Red send you?" Tony asked the next morning when Redtail and Grace joined the other Rakshani on the bridge. The seating had been broken off or otherwise modified for the larger Rakshani.

"No," Redtail told him, "we just came up here so he might get some sleep."

"I thought he was in a hurry to get moving," Harry commented.

Redtail nodded. "So much of a hurry that he was up all night. I had to spike his drink to force him to get some sleep," she admitted. "Don’t give me that look," she told Grace, "you know he needed it." Grace still looked unhappy with what they’d done.

"Are you planning on ‘spiking our drinks?" Dick asked dangerously.

"Only if you ask for something to help you sleep," Redtail snapped back. "Red’s our responsibility, you guys are on your own."

Harry interrupted Dick’s comeback with, "What’s with the attitude? I thought we were all working for the same goals."

"I know what goal Red is working for. I don’t know if you are working for that goal, or just saying you are to earn his trust," she told him.

"We agree that saving lives is more important than any disagreement between our species," Harry told her.

"But do you speak for the rest?" Redtail challenged, looking deliberately at Dick.

Dick again looked like he had something to say, but the look Harry was giving him kept him mute.

"If any disagree, they first have to go through me," Harry assured her. "While some of us appear to have little faith in Red, he strikes me as a being that takes his word very seriously."

In spite of Harry’s stare, Dick stated, "I still don’t see why you think we need to trust him."

It was Tom that answered with, "You say that like we have a choice, Dick. Even if he’s set no traps, there’s no way we could control the engines. And he is showing trust in letting us control our direction – even knowing we plan to take him into Rakshan territory."

Tony was frowning as he added, "I woke each of you because I thought you would improve our odds of getting home. Be advised that I have no problem with putting any of you back to sleep if you endanger that mission."

"I’d like to see you try," Dick challenged as he jumped up.

"He won’t try, he’ll do, and we will help," Wilma said as she and Betty also got up. "None of us wish to die because of your arrogance."

The others had stood as Wilma spoke, Grace approaching him with intent in her eyes. "No, Grace," Redtail said. "Not until he acts on it – or Red says you can; we don’t want to upset him."

"Why do you worry so much about upsetting him?" Betty asked, her tone curious and not scornful or argumentative.

Still keeping her eye on Grace, Redtail said, "I don’t remember not being a slave, but I remember every master I’ve ever had. Red is the only one that has ever asked and not demanded, offered and not forced. I intend to stay with him as long as he lets me."

"I thought you said he ‘freed’ you," Betty said.

"He did," Redtail admitted, "all the more reason to try to make him happy so he’ll keep me."

Tony chuckled. "Red doesn’t seem like the type to just toss a friend aside."

"He doesn’t remember everything yet," Redtail said. "What if he remembers he has someone else – or that he doesn’t like Voxxans?"

Harry looked around his fellow Rakshani before commenting, "While I can’t remember my own name, I do feel that I ‘know’ all but one of these Rakshani and I know which ones I can count on – and who I need to step on to get them to do their jobs," he finished glaring at Dick. "You and Grace I don’t know, but I think I’ve got a good ‘feel’, and I think I can trust you. Your Red is probably working mainly from his own feelings, so while he might treat a person differently once he remembers, I don’t expect his attitude will change where you are concerned."

"But you don’t know," she softly said.

"No," he agreed, "but I feel I can trust him, more so than I trust some of these I seem to know."

Grace got up and picked up the much smaller Voxxan before carrying her back to her seat. She then began cuddling her.

"Put me down!" Redtail demanded. "I’m not some stuffed toy!" Grace ignored her outburst and started lick-kissing her.

Everyone but Dick was laughing at the two of them. Still chuckling, Tony said, "You claim to be in charge of Red, Grace seems to think she’s in charge of you."

Unable to get out of Grace’s grasp, Redtail tried suggesting, "We should check on him." Grace just snorted and continued to hold her. Surrendering to Grace for the moment, she asked Harry, "Will you be ready when Red is?"

Harry nodded. "First course is ready, we’ll refine our plot after we move a few light years."

"Red was cussing about something just before we forced him to eat and take a ‘nap’," Redtail informed them. "Something about the core’s field controls from what little I could understand."

"We won’t rush him then," Harry said. "Better he be sure than guessing."

As the others nodded in agreement, Wilma cocked her eye at Redtail. "So, what’s he like?" she asked.

"What do you mean?" Redtail replied.

"A hot blooded male from what I’ve seen, in control of two female slaves; surely he’s tried one of you?"

"He has not forced himself on either of us," Redtail snapped back while Grace added a glare at Wilma's suggestion. "He has allowed us to share his bed, but only a little cuddling and sleep."

"Maybe he prefers boys," Dick said snidely.

"Are you volunteering?" Harry asked dangerously.

"No," Dick muttered.

"If he’s used to sleeping with you, you may want to join him," Tom suggested. "I know I wake up faster when I’m in a strange bed."

"Maybe I should go," Wilma said slyly. "That way he’ll know any offers aren’t slave conditioning … Or not!" she quickly added at the looks Red’s keepers were giving her.

"Stop baiting them," Harry suggested. "We still have other things to do while our engineer sleeps."

"I still don’t see why we’re catering to a human," Dick muttered.

"Because he’s your best bet at getting home alive," Red said from the door, startling the others. Giving Redtail a hard look he stated, "I will decide when I need a nap, thank you." Looking over at Harry, he added, "I should have us ready to try a short hop tomorrow ‘morning’ if I can finish the calibrations this evening."

"I’m hoping that includes you getting some sleep," Harry replied, "We don’t need you dropping off over the controls ..."

"I plan on at least four hours of sleep," Red promised him before turning to leave.

Harry went to check on Red’s progress that evening. He found Red sitting surrounded by control panels and displays with a couple of small wires going from the small box they’d found plugging into the ear-frames of his glasses.

Noticing his visitor, Red cleared his glasses. "Welcome to my mess," he said with a smile.

"There’s no way their engineer ran the systems like that," Harry half accused the human.

"You’re right," Red agreed, "but their engineer didn’t have half the systems running on the backups – with no redundancy behind them. This rig will let me monitor everything and be able to shut it down if something goes wrong."

"So you’ll have to be ‘wired in’ to the system the whole time we’re at warp? Forgive my asking, but how are you going to handle ‘pit stops’ as I heard you call them?"

"Once things are stable, I should be able to leave it for a minute or two," Red told him. "If not, there’s always a bucket."

"Will you be ready tomorrow?"

"I’m ready to try it now, but not ready for an all day session."

Harry nodded. "Then get some rest and I’ll see you in the morning," he said before turning to leave.

"What’s taking him so long?" Dick complained the next morning. "I thought he said he’d be ready."

"He’s busy as you bitch," Red’s voice said from the open intercom. "As I have to test each system as I bring it up, it’s taking a little while. Third layer of warp core fields tested to fifty percent. I have to bring her out of idle to test any further. Preparing to start transferring power to the warp engines. Call out if you see any imbalance as the warp bubble comes up."

Tom grinned at Dick’s pained look as he said, "We’re ready up here – advance power at your discretion."

"Aye, bringing power up," Red’s voice replied.

"Holding position static, bubble starting to form," Tom said as the indicators rose.

"Seventy … seventy-five – Shit! – Aborting!" Red called out as the power levels dropped to almost nothing before slowly climbing back to ‘idle’.

"Looked good from up here," Tom reported.

"Fourth stage fields didn’t come up evenly," Red reported. "They’re responding, so it’s an interface or control problem."

"How long before you know?" Harry asked.

"Depends on what I find. You have at least an hour before we can try again," Red admitted.

Eighty-three minutes later they were trying again. "Seventy-five … eighty … eighty-four, we should be at the threshold, jumping to warp!" Tom happily reported. "Maintaining warp … power now at ninety-two, increasing power to engines. Red? Can we maintain this power level?"

"For now," Red replied, "I’ll let you know if I have to cut it back."

"Holding at ninety-four, warp seems stable. On preset course, but we’ll recalibrate when we have to stop," Dick reported. He was acting more politely now that they had something to keep him busy.

"Steady as she goes," Harry agreed. "Redtail? Keep an eye on Red – I don’t want him pushing himself."

"I’ll let you know," Red replied. "I was thinking about four hours of running and then we can see how well things are going …"

"Agreed, four hours," Harry said.

"It’ll take us another full week if we figure eight human hours a day," Tom was saying as Red, Redtail, and Grace joined them on the bridge after the first run. "While the rest of us can cover for each other, Red is the only one that knows his systems."

"I can do ten to twelve – maybe fourteen hours a day," Red offered.

"You look almost done in after four," Tony pointed out.

"Now that I know the beast, I can do some tweaking," Red replied, "both to reduce my load and to possibly get a little more speed out of her. She’s not really a bad ship, just abused by her former owners."

"What did you want to do?" Harry asked.

"Everybody take a break while I tweak – we try a new configuration in about two hours?" Red offered.

"Agreed," Harry said to nods from his group.

The next test ran for just two hours, but after confirming their new location, Harry was beaming when he went to talk to Red. "Whatever you did made a big improvement – we got half again as far in the last two hours as we did in the earlier four."

"No promises, but there might be just a little bit more in there. I’m still refining her abilities and limits," Red replied. "Suggestion – we break these down to four-hour jumps, then an hour or two break before we do it again. We do three or four of them per day and then ten hours off – it’s not like we need to stick to ship’s time."

"Only if we cut short the third or fourth when you start feeling fatigued," Harry said with a frown.

"Or when your group can’t handle it," Red said with a grin. "You seem to think us humans can’t keep up with you hellcats."

Harry laughed. "You are proving humans aren’t as soft as we thought," he agreed.

"Oh, I am soft and easy going," Red retorted. "You really don’t want to cross some of our ‘hard’ cases."

"I have trouble imaging humans ‘harder’ than you," Harry replied.

"They exist," Red assured him. "I used reason to get you to help me – they’d use force."

"Then I’m glad we ended up with you," Harry told him, not quite believing him – but not about to push the issue at this time. Looking at the clock, he added, "How about we start the new shifts twelve hours from now?"

"Works for me," Red agreed. "See you in the ‘morning’."

The next day went as planned. They managed four four-hour jumps before Red admitted he’d had enough for one ‘day’, with Dick predicting only two more days at the rate they were progressing. The next day started like the first, a four-hour jump went fine and they took a break.

Bringing the systems back up for another jump, the bridge crew was surprised by a sudden surge that knocked half of them out of their makeshift seats. "What happened?" Harry demanded as he picked himself off the deck.

"Power went off the markers for a moment, still at a hundred and seven percent," Tony warned him.

"Engineering? Red!" Harry called at the intercom.

"Busy …" Red muttered back.

Dick had opened his mouth to say something, but Harry waved them all to silence, this didn’t sound like the time to be distracting Red.

It was another minute before they heard again from Red. "You hellcats best start praying to your deities, ‘cause we have ourselves a little problem down here."

"My systems say we’re moving faster than ever before," Tony reported.

"That’s because the fourth level fields I was having a problem with just went to full strength," Red explained. "I’m having to increase everything else just to compensate. Problem is I can’t be sure I can bring them back up if I shut them down, so no more four-hour jumps. I can drop us out of warp – but only a minute or two at a time before other things start going bad."

"Can we tell how much faster we’re going?" Harry asked.

Tom and Tony shook their heads as Dick said, "We need more data. We were on the most direct vector to Raksha. Let’s do the four hours and then we can stop just long enough to get our positional fix and jump back in. We’ll have to plot our course corrections on the fly, but that’s why Tony needed us in the first place."

"Agreed," Red voice replied. "Give your team a break Harry, in four hours they’re going to get very busy."

The sightings were done within Red’s prescribed times and they went back to warp. Dick quickly went through the numbers, only to swear at the answer. He waited for the other teams to finish before revealing his own information. Harry wasn’t sure which was worse, that they all had the same answer – or what it meant.

"If this is right?" Harry asked.

"Then we need a course change in 3.57 hours to avoid a star in our projected path," Dick told him. "Either that or we got bad sightings."

"We can drop out for another sighting," Tom suggested.

"No," Harry told him. "Red has to work even harder when we aren’t in warp – the systems weren’t designed to run that high when not powering the warp engines."

"And he can’t just shut it down," Tony said.

"Red still doesn’t think he’ll be able to get it back up," Harry agreed, "so we run until he drops."

"Well," Wilma said slowly, "if these numbers are good, how long to Raksha?"

"We’re going to need at least four more sightings to ensure we don’t hit anything," Dick said as he studied the charts. "At least another fifteen hours to get to the system, a few minutes to fine tune – we don’t want to get too close or they may fire on us, unknown ship and all."

Harry turned back on the intercom; they had turned it off to not disturb Red while they talked. "Bridge to engineering, you want the good news or the bad news first?"

"I could really use some good news about now," Red’s voice admitted.

"It won’t take as long as predicted to get to Raksha," Harry told him, a little concerned at how tired Red was already sounding.

"And the bad?"

"We estimate another fifteen hours … Can you make it?"

They heard Red half snort before he chuckled. "You say that like I have a choice," he complained, but there was a hint of amusement in his voice. "I’ll get you there," he promised, "just forgive me when my mood starts going foul."

"Going foul?" Harry asked.

"When you find that Dick is more pleasant company to be around than I am," Red told him.

"Yeah, right," Tom murmured, earning a dirty look from Dick.

The next sighting and course change was done only 3.5 hours later to allow some margin of error. Once again they found themselves not quite where they expected, but still making better progress then they had projected.

Harry went to check on Red as they approached their next to last drop out. They’d started leaving the intercom off as Red started getting annoyed with the idle chatter on the bridge. The human looked more than a little ragged; his hair was matted with sweat and he was hunched over his boards. "Ten minutes until the next drop," he quietly said.

There was no reaction from Red for a moment, then he shifted and sat a little straighter. "I’ll be ready," he said. "How’re we doing?"

"If we’ve got the numbers right, forty-five minutes and then we take a sighting to aim for an angle that will get us closest to Raksha without hitting the gravity-well limits."

"You’ll need extra time," Red muttered. "Warn the others that there will be surges as we drop out. I’ll be forcing some of our extra power though the sublight engines."

"Why weren’t you doing that before?" Harry asked, his tone not protesting, merely curious.

"One, because they won’t take the abuse too many times, and two because I didn’t think being under high acceleration would help your sighting accuracy," Red replied.

There was a little surliness in the human’s tone, but Harry just marked it off as exhaustion. They were all getting more edgy, but at least the others had been able to take naps between the flurries of activity. "Understood," he replied. "Steady as she goes."

"Steady as she goes," Red replied, already only half listening as he made a minor adjustment.

"Too high on the eclipse," Dick reported. "We need to skip out and hit it from a better angle."

"How long?" Red asked, the intercom open for these last short jumps.

"Ten seconds at the rate we’ve been going," Dick replied.

"Line us up," Red requested.

""Already there – go," Tony reported.

The jump was over all too quickly and Red rushed them for what should be the last jump. "Go!" Tony said and they were back it – only to crash out of warp seven seconds later.

Having expected the impulse surge, no one was thrown from their seats. "What’d we hit?" Harry demanded as he watched the core power suddenly drop to almost nothing.

"We got too close to the sun’s gravity field, it knocked us out of warp," Dick answered as they watched as the core came back up to barely ten percent power.

"We’re forty-two light seconds from Raksha," Tom reported.

"Try the transmitter while I check on Red," Harry said, heading for the door.

"Don’t bother," Red’s voice said. "We lost the fourth stage fields, so what you’ve got is all there is – maybe twenty percent impulse and life support. I’ll have to watch it for a bit to make sure she’s stable."

"I’m getting a hail from the station!" Wilma exclaimed a minute later. "Basically a ‘who the hell are you and how’d you get here?’"

"What do we tell them? I don’t remember my name, much less what ship I was serving on!" Tom said with a laugh.

"The truth is always a good idea," Red told them. " ‘This is the slaver Ides of March. Due to crew stupidity, the cargo is now in control. There are over three hundred in need of assistance, including over fifty Rakshani. We have only limited life support and low impulse engines remaining.’ Have Harry send that in Rakshan – it should get us a quick but guarded response," Red suggested.

"And we sound arrogant," Dick said. "I like it. The slavers may have put us down, but we didn’t stay down. It will show them we still have our pride and honor."

Harry growled it out in Katang Low Tongue and they waited for the reply.

"They say a warship is being dispatched," Wilma told them. "We are to maintain this course and heading – or else they will fire on us."

"How long?" Red asked.

"Two hours at the rate they’re moving," Dick replied from his scanner.

"Half on, half off," Harry declared. "We’ll clean up the best we can for our guests."

"What about Red?" Redtail asked.

"I’ll take a break in a little while," he promised.

They didn’t get their two hours, or even one hour as two fast assault craft were released to close on them. One stood off from the Ides of Match, its weapons trained on the slaver while the other force docked with the ship. A dozen Rakshani in armored space suits rushed aboard, half heading for the bridge, the others towards engineering.

Harry’s group had just turned to face the invaders when they heard phaser fire over the open intercom. "Harry!" Red’s voice called out. "Your idiot relatives just blew away what little control we had on the core! It should eject in – " was all they heard before the intercom went silent.

"There should be a Rakshani, a Voxxan, and a human down there," Harry stated. "I don’t want them damaged."

"You are not in charge here," one of the still closed suits told him.

"I am until I am properly relieved," Harry shot back. "That human in engineering is the only reason we’re here. Any abuse to him or those with him will reflect badly upon my honor."

The suit seemed to have a conversation with someone before saying, "They are being brought to us. You will surrender any weapons you may have."

Harry handed over the phaser Tony had given him, and they all sat waiting for something to happen. Two minutes later, Redtail was shoved into the bridge, followed by Grace. Red wasn’t so much shoved as thrown into the room, slamming into a wall before falling to his knees. Grace moved to attack the suited Rakshani that had pushed him, but Red saw her and snapped, "No, Grace. Let them have their petty victory – there are other lives in the balance."

The suit that had shoved Red in moved towards him, only to be blocked by Harry and Dick. "Maybe we should have tried for Earth," Dick said snidely. "If Red is any example, they’d at least be more polite."

Red chuckled. "Oh, humans have their share of bullies," he admitted.

The suit that had been doing all the talking interrupted with a growl, "Why did this ship eject its core and antimatter containers?"

Red’s look wasn’t friendly as he answered, "When the control and monitoring systems are damaged – say by someone showing off their ignorance by firing their phaser in engineering – the system protects the ship by ejecting the now uncontrollable systems."

"If our shuttle brings it back, can you get it running again?" the suit asked after a delay that suggested they have been talking to someone else first.

"No," Red replied. "Even with replacement hardware, we’re talking days to repair. The problem is we only have six to eight hours of battery power … then people start dying."

"Surely this ship has backup systems!" the suit said.

"It would have had backups," Red agreed, "if this wasn’t the second time engineering has been badly damaged. I patched together what was left from the first time to get us this far."

"The tugs can’t get here that fast, and it will take even longer getting us to the station," the suit informed after a minute of debate with someone elsewhere.

"We didn’t fight this ship this far just to have you fools kill everyone in sight of Raksha!" Dick snarled at them.

"What do you suggest?" the suit asked.

Dick’s smile was rather toothy as he said, "Since our human is still being polite, I think that means he still sees a way out of this … Red?"

Red gave him a half smile as he said, "As with the first part of our journey, it can’t be done without trust."

"You tell us how, we’ll make it happen," Harry said, the others with him nodding.

Looking up at the suit that had been doing all the talking, Red asked, "Did you by chance bring any engineering types with you?"

"Yes … " the affirmative sounding cautious.

"Most of our ships and shuttles are designed to accept power from a station while docked. If yours are similar we might be able to use one or both shuttles to extend our time," Red suggested.

Several of the other suits started shifting around, almost as if there was an argument going on. Red let it go on for a minute before adding, "If any of these brave and honorable Rakshani are afraid this is just a human’s attempt at tricking them to gain access to their shuttles, you can always remove the air from the shuttles and stay in your suits."

The suit that had been roughing up Red advanced on him, only to have another suit block his path.

"I see someone else realizes that I’m the only one that knows this ship’s systems well enough to be of any help," Red dryly commented. Looking up again at the talking suit he said, "Decide quickly, it will take time to implement – time we may already be running low on."

Dick stepped up in front of the suit that had been talking and said, "They’re going to do it. They already have one shuttle docked, we can start with it." When the suit didn’t reply he punched it hard, barely rocking it back. "Where is the honor in letting them die?" he demanded.

"Perhaps someone higher up the food chain is thinking of ‘levels of honor’," Red quietly said. "Without the beds, they should be able to stuff the fifty odd Rakshani into the shuttles. They should last long enough the get them to their ship’s sickbay."

"But what of the Caitians, Voxxans, Earth morphs, and even a couple of Renzar?" Wilma demanded.

"And the handful of humans? I did say it was a matter of the level of honor they may decide to accept," Red pointed out with a shrug.

"If our honor has sunk so low, I will remain with the ship," Harry stated, staring at the suit – who still had still not answered.

"Now, now, Harry," Red chided him. "They’ll just stun you and toss you in among your drugged brothers. Hell, they might even show some compassion and stun those they leave behind so we don’t get to see death sneaking up on us."

"You would prefer that?" the suit finally asked, sounding surprised.

"No. I’d prefer to go down fighting, be it keeping this ship going – or you," Red stated.

There was another unheard discussion before the talking suit reached up and unlatched the helmet. The male Rakshani it revealed was a dark green with black stripes, and he looked at Red with what appeared to be amusement. "Your arguments have sparked some interesting debates, human. You’ve been offered the option to ‘fight the ship’," he said.

"Where’s your engineer?" Red asked. "I need to know how your power is configured and how much control you have over it."

Another helmet was removed; the female under it was almost a pure white with light gray stripes. She stared at Red with open curiosity as she asked, "Think you can handle working with a Rakshani?"

Red snorted. "I’ve been working with this lot," he said aiming a thumb to indicate Harry and the others, "What’s one more?"

"Very well," she agreed. "Grab your test equipment and follow me."

"We’ll have to go by way of engineering as I wasn’t allowed to bring any of my toys," Red grumbled.

"Oh?" she half asked.

"I think they were afraid I might use one of them as a weapon against them," Red said with a small smile.

"One human against armored and suited Rakshani?" she laughed. "They had nothing to fear from you." She stopped smiling when she saw his grin widen momentarily. "You think they did have a reason," she accused him.

"Well, I always try to have a fallback if others aren’t willing to talk peaceably," Red admitted. "Since they weren’t abusing Grace or Redtail, I didn’t see any need to activate it."

The male in charge gave Red a hard stare. "Are you trying to claim you could kill us even now?"

"No, merely incapacitate," Red corrected. "Now if we then felt you needed killing …"

"He’s lying!" boomed the suited Rakshani that had been throwing Red around.

"It is a little hard to believe," their engineer admitted.

"Are you asking for proof?" Red asked.

"I guess we are," she agreed.

"Very well. All that believe that this is nothing more than a human bluff, just stand there. Those that think I just might have a trick that I can play on you, be so kind to admit it by removing your helmets," Red told them.

Red waited a minute, but none of the others removed their helmets. "Very well," he said with a shrug – just before a loud high-pitched squeal came from the removed helmets. It lasted only five seconds, but by that time the only suited Rakshani still standing were the two holding their helmets. Red then spat out a small circuit and handed it to the Rakshani engineer. "It doesn’t usually take long to convince others not to wager against me."

Holding it gingerly as she didn’t know how it was activated, she asked, "Why didn’t you use it when they were roughing you up?"

"They had already destroyed engineering, so I now needed your willing assistance to save the others. And it’s short ranged, so all I would have accomplished is taking the ones that had killed the ship with me … I was tempted," Red admitted.

"Any more traps?" the male asked.

"You would hope not – wouldn’t you?" Red asked with a quick grin. "You’re safe enough," he told the Rakshani, "Even we humans have our limits as to how much trouble we can cause in a limited timeframe."

The other suited Rakshani had been getting back to their feet when the one that had been abusing him lunged at Red. Two others quickly tackled them and brought all three to the deck, the sounds coming from the removed helmets sounding like a catfight with very big cats. Red smiled as they disarmed and popped loose the helmet of a tan with green stripes female, who continued to what sounded like a long string of cursing.

"Would someone be kind of enough to translate?" Red asked.

"She wants you dead," the male said. "She says you are an affront to Rakshani honor and dignity."

"Really?" Red replied. "Ask her just how valuable her Rakshani honor and dignity is. Is it worth more than the other fifty Rakshani still trapped onboard this ship? Is it more valuable than the other hundreds of lives that she put at risk by shooting up my engineering section? Your engineer might be able to patch in power to keep things going – but she has a much better chance if I am allowed to live long enough to help her."

The female seemed to understand Red, but that didn’t prevent another volley of hissing. The male Rakshani frowned at her before turning to his engineer. "Blueclaw, take him to engineering to get his gear … Try not to give him any reasons to think we are hostile towards him, eh?"

Blueclaw gave him a toothy grin as she said, "Yes sergeant. Don’t threaten the unarmed, unprotected human."

Red had also grinned. "Death row humor, something else we seem to have in common."

"Oh? What else do you have in common?" the sergeant wondered.

"Species prejudice," Red snapped, glaring down at the female still being held. She hissed at him and he added, "We have some just as bad as this one. Fortunately, like her, they are the exception, not the rule."

Blueclaw touched Red’s shoulder. "Come on, we have work to do."

Grace had started trying to reach Red, only to have them restrain her as well. "Let her go," Red told them, "If there’s one Rakshani I don’t have to worry about, it’s Grace."

"She can come," Blueclaw agreed. "Anything else we need to do here before we get started?"

"I’d suggest Redtail give your sergeant a tour of the ship, the better for him and your supervisors to learn just what a mess they’ve signed up for," Red told her, but it was the sergeant that nodded.

"An excellent idea," he agreed. Looking around, he asked, "Which of you is Redtail?"

"Me," the small Voxxan timidly said from where she’d been almost hiding behind Wilma and Betty.

As Red, Grace and Blueclaw left, Red said, "Treat her right, Sergeant. Any harm comes to her and you’ll answer to me."

At the sergeant’s look of astonishment, Tony quipped, "Same thing he told me the first time he left her alone with me."

"And you believed him?" the sergeant asked, still staring at the door Red had gone out.

Directing the sergeant’s – and the other suited Rakshani’s – attention up at the still red stained ceiling, he said, "I’ve learned to believe that if it matters, Red will find a way."

"How did you ‘squeal’ our headphones?" Blueclaw was demanding as the three of them headed for engineering.

"While you were encrypting your transmissions, it seems your systems still playback things that are ‘in the clear’," Red explained. "And as I had just enough time to find your frequencies as you did all your chattering before docking ..."

"So you used a fallback safety feature against us … clever," she admitted.

"Now that I’ve proven that I can embarrass hardheaded Rakshani, let’s see if we can get your shuttle to play nice with what’s left of my ship," Red suggested as they entered engineering – still smoldering panels showing where careless shots had damaged or destroyed systems.

Blueclaw eyed the half ruined room. There were open panels everywhere, small and large cables running back and forth – though most of the smaller cables seemed to be heading to a standalone station, one that had suffered multiple phaser hits. "This is what you ‘rebuilt’?" she half asked.

"Yeah," Red agreed. "I could probably strip every control and cable from both your shuttles and not make up for what was destroyed."

"So, how do we do this?" she asked.

"I get my gear and some useable cable, we see how compatible we can make them, we hook them up and I short the station power relays. Then we pray to your deities," Red said as he uncoupled one of the heavy cables running across the room.

"Do you believe in our deities?" she asked as he tossed that cable away and pulled the next one loose.

"I want to," he admitted. "I’ve been up for two solid days – most of that glued to that console. And yet I appear to still be coherent and thinking clearly – to the point I didn’t kill that idiot. So either a deity is keeping me from collapsing, or I’m about to run out of adrenaline and pass out."

"Then we had better hurry! What are you looking for?" she asked as she unplugged a heavy cable from the next panel over.

"At least half the length of this room, no scorching or pitting on the ends, no signs of damage on the cable itself. We only need four, but we will take eight just in case."

Cables and gear in hand, they made their way to the shuttle that had force-docked to the ship. The shuttle’s inhabitants didn’t look too happy to see the human coming their way, but Blueclaw snarled out a rapid order and they slowly backed further into their shuttle. Red opened a panel just inside the ship’s hatch while Blueclaw did the same in the shuttle. Red joined her a minute later to look over the connections. "Not a good fit, but I think we can force them to mate," he suggested.

"We’ll have to replace the shuttle side connections afterwards, but I agree," she told him. "I’ll cross connect it so it thinks it’s in port."

Red nodded as he connected his equipment. Moments later power potentials lit up across his meters. "Out of phase and sync, a bit high, but I think the ship’s systems will take it. They’ll have too," he mumbled half to himself. "Release the connection and I’ll get the cables connected," he called out to her.

Since the shuttle was going to be the trickier connection, they hooked that end up first and tested it before clipping in the ship’s side. Before stepping away from the connection, Red smashed a protective cover and pushed small insulated sticks into the relays – locking them into place for external power. Hooking his test gear back up, Red called out, "Bring it back to where we tested it at."

The ship’s lights brightened noticeably as she called back, "You have power!"

"So I do!" he called back with a laugh. "How much more can you safely give me?"

"I can double it!" she promised.

‘Just half of the double – and gently please," Red laughed. "No need to get this far only to burn out something else!"

Fearing Red wouldn’t last much longer, Blueclaw then made him explain the entire setup and readings, both in the hall as well as patching just enough of engineering to be able to see the ship’s batteries, which were slowly but steadily being charged by the incoming power.

"There you go," Red quietly said, "you now know enough to keep us all alive." Pointing at the bedding still in the corner, he added, "and I’m past due for some downtime."

"I’m afraid sleep will have to wait," the voice of the sergeant said from the hatch. "My orders are to get you and your ‘crew’ on the other shuttle. They will take you straight to the station while we wait for the tugs."

"You’re not coming?" Red asked.

"No, I am to remain behind – my orders included insuring the other humans on board are not mistreated," he admitted.

"Thank you for that," Red said before going to pick up his bag near the bedding. Offering it to Grace, he said, "Would you carry this for me? I don’t want someone shooting at me again tonight." Grace slid the strap up her arm and over her head. Shifting it so it was at the small of her back, she nodded that she was ready.

The walk to the other shuttle was interesting for Red – there were more people moving about than since before he had taken over. And the looks on some of the Rakshani muzzles had him forcing back a grin. Some looked over him, not even acknowledging that he existed, while other stared down at him in openmouthed astonishment. Two had growled at him, their fangs fully exposed, but their peers were quick to silence them. Upon entering the shuttle, Harry seated them so that Red and Redtail were surrounded by his ‘crew’, the one suited Rakshani that tried to interfere was quickly stared down by Harry and Dick.

While their ride to the station was uneventful, Red wasn’t able to get any sleep. As brave as she had been when she knew Red was in control, Redtail was now a quivering mass of fear. Grace had tried to comfort her, but she only settled down at Red’s touch, so he spent the entire trip holding and trying to calm her.

They picked up an ‘honor guard’ as they entered the station, a pair of armed guards leading and following their group, while the bridge crew did the same to engineering, placing Red dead center. The side passages were full of curious Rakshani, wondering what all the excitement was about. While most kept their distance, one large male the sandy gray of the deserts shouted something Red didn’t understand as he charged the rear of their group – only to be stopped by the rear guard and Dick. The would-be assailant broke free and ran back down the passage he’d come from with the guard giving chase. Dick had started to follow, but instead he returned to the group.

A few corridors and turns later, the same Rakshani tried again, and this time his timing was better as he forced other Rakshani out of the way just as they were crossing his passageway. With one arm he shoved Wilma out of the way, as he used the other to all but throw Redtail at Dick. For one moment his muzzle was less than a foot from Red’s face, but both of his hands were occupied. Red leaned towards him and threw a short jab that slipped under the Rakshani’s chin. Muzzle open in a snarl, the Rakshani opened his mouth to roar as he prepared to tear Red apart – or at least he tried to roar, as no sound would come from his muzzle, and he found he could not draw a breath. His pause in surprise was just long enough for Tony and Tom to grab him and force him to the ground, still unable to breathe.

Red looked down at his attacker and quietly said, "I’d warned the other Rakshani that if any of them tried to harm the Voxxan in my care that I would have to kill them. I am sorry you didn’t get the memo in time to save your life."

"Ah hell, it’s one of the head diplomat’s aides!" one of the Rakshani from the station called out when he saw who it was.

"Attacking others isn’t very diplomatic," Red commented. "Unless you Rakshani use that word differently than we do …"

"There’s going to be hell to pay on his death," one of their guards muttered in agreement.

"Oh well," Red muttered back as the Rakshani stopped struggling and collapsed, "If you need this Rakshani alive so badly, then I need a small, slim blade and a hollow tube about this thick," he said holding up his pinky finger. "NOW," he commanded.

One of the watching Rakshani quickly offered him a tiny stiletto – well tiny for her – with just a nine-inch blade, while another held out a coil of tubing that was just smaller than what he had asked for.

Taking the blade and hose, Red had Tom and Tony roll the now unconscious Rakshani over. Cutting off a few inches of the hose, he then cut a small notch in it before turning to his victim. He quickly but carefully cut a hole at the base of the throat before forcing first his finger, and then the tube into it. Bending forward, he placed his lips around the end of the tube and blew, forcing the Rakshani’s chest to rise. He leaned back to let the body below him exhale with a wheezing noise before doing it again. This time the body shuddered before taking a breath on its own – the notch in the tube causing it to whistle strangely on the intake.

Red stepped back from the now alternately whistling and wheezing body and handed back the blade and remaining tubing as he commented, "Though I have left him speechless, he will now have trouble sneaking up to attack people. When he wakes, you might inform him that from this time forward every breath he breathes is at my whim."

While most of the Rakshani either looked confused or angry at Red’s remark, his own crew was beaming at him.

"I told that sergeant that if he had to kill something, he would find a way," Tony said loud enough for all those present to hear. "What?" he demanded, looking around at their audience, "You didn’t think we were protecting him from you, did you?"

Though Redtail had only been roughed up, she now clung to Red as if for dear life. Red let her do so for a couple more passageways. "Look," he finally told her, "I am the target here. Clinging to me puts you in more danger, not less." When she didn’t loosen her grip on him, Red stopped and turned to her. "Think of it this way, little one – had you been holding me like this when that Rakshani attacked, I wouldn’t have been able to put him down … I’m not rejecting you, Redtail, I’m just trying to improve our chances of surviving this."

Harry said, "Redtail, trade places with Wilma, please. With you up front, we can easily see over you, and Red will have Rakshani females at his sides and back. Very few would be foolish enough to try to get past them."

"Do it," Red agreed with a gentle nudge in the right direction. "I’ll be right here behind you … watching your pretty red tail wave," he added, getting chuckles from the others and finally a faint smile from Redtail.

It turned out they didn’t have much farther to go – one turn and a few more meters before they were led into a good-sized conference room where others were waiting for them. Half a dozen Rakshani stood, as did three Caitians. Two other sentients that had been lounging on low sofa-like seats rolled to their feet as well. They were cattaurs with one a golden sunshine color, while the other was an brownish-orange with dark stripes that actually changed direction at sharp angles. While both sported modest breasts for their size, one of them had also revealed a penis sheath as ‘shi’ rolled over. Red had been scanning each fur as they moved, only to freeze as he stared at the taurs that had been on the sofas. He had stopped so fast that Betty had almost knocked him over, putting them all on the alert for danger. The chakats were staring at Red in confusion as well. The Rakshani and Caitians waited as the human and chakats seemed to be frozen in place.

Red came out of his astonishment first, and his group noticed a very marked change in how he stood and looked at the others. He now eyed the still-staring chakats with an almost amused look as he said, "Slipped your leashes again, eh kittens?"

"No way …" the golden one said, not sounding sure at all.

"Way," Red replied, stepping around his friends to stand at the front of the group. "What are you and Zigzag doing so far from Earth, little Chakat Sunshine?"

"You … know this human?" one of the Caitians demanded in surprise.

"Yes, M’Ling," Zigzag finally replied. "We told you of some humans that have made a positive impact on others. May I introduce you to Neal Foster. Though last time we saw him, he was driving a big truck."

"And you were stowing away on said big truck," Neal retorted. "Moving up in the world, are we?" he asked with a grin.

The others were looking on with varying degrees of uncertainty and surprise as the human stepped over to share a hug with first Sunshine and then Zigzag. As he released Zigzag, Neal noticed movement on one of the sofas. It was a saddlebag that the taurs would wear to help carry things on their lower backs; this one’s flap had just been shifted by its contents.

"Ho ho, and what have we here?" Neal half asked as he stepped over to the sofa. He raised the flap just a little to look in before dropping it. "Interesting," he said as he opened it again a little further for a longer look before letting it fall closed again. "Does shi have a name?" he asked as the corner of the flap opened to let a tiny chakat head peer out to see who had been peeking in at hir.

"Not yet," Sunshine admitted as hir week old cub sniffed at Neal’s fingers before allowing him to pick hir up. They exchanged a nose rub before the kitten discovered shi was the center of attention and started to try to squirm out of Neal’s grip.

"Nice try," Neal told hir as he released one grip only to gain another as he walked over to hir parents. "Dang, you’re almost as bad as Zigzag was at your age," he told hir. "Squiggle would make an excellent name for one such as you."

"No!" Sunshine protested, "we’re trying to come up with something more …"

"Descriptive?" Neal retorted with a snort as the chakat kitten continued to squirm. "That’s better than what I was coming up with. By the way, this is Grace, Redtail, Tony, Tom, Dick, and Harry, Wilma, and Betty."

Sunshine just stared openmouthed at the Rakshani as Zigzag quietly said, "Neal, how could you?"

Neal shrugged, "Hey, it’s what got past the memory blocking drugs the slavers had been feeding us. She moves with speed and grace, she remembered someone complementing her pretty red tail. The first Rakshani I woke somewhat reminded me of the old ‘Tony the tiger’, and he wanted to wake every Tom, Dick and Hairy."

"And Wilma and Betty were always getting the better of their mates," Sunshine finished.

"Something like that," Neal admitted.

"Is there a problem with those names?" asked an older, tan and green striped Rakshani that had been at the table.

"I’m sure there isn’t," Tony said. "Even if there was, it is for us to decide."

"As you wish," the other said, sounding annoyed. "Be advised we have found that these humans are lacking in honor."

"And we have witnessed Rakshani also showing a lack of manners and even less honor," Dick retorted.

The older Rakshani glared at Dick as he opened his mouth to retort – just as the door opened and a uniformed Rakshani rushed in. "Sir!" she exclaimed to the older Rakshani, "Your aide has been badly injured. He claims he was attacked by humans!"

"Let us guess," Wilma sneered, "he has a neck injury?"

"And how many of these little humans did it take to best this big brave Rakshani?" Betty added.

"Now, now children," Neal quietly said, drawing all eyes to him as he continued to play with Squiggle. "This always could be a different Rakshani, and not the one that tried to attack our group not once but twice … Easy enough to find out as I notched the breather tube I used on our Rakshani attacker. Tell me my dear, does he now whistle when he breathes?"

Still staring at him holding the chakat cub, the Rakshani only nodded.

"Then you can tell that honor-less piece of crap that if I ever see him again I will take back the breath of life I gave him," Neal instructed her.

"What really happened?" Zigzag demanded of Neal, hir hands on her forward hips.

"It’s what didn’t happen," Tom said with a chuckle. "Dick and one of the guards deflected the first attack – "

"So the Rakshani was the attacker?" Zigzag injected.

"Oh yes," Tom agreed. "After being blocked the first time, he tried again and I had a good view of what happened next. The second time he managed to get past us and to Red – I mean ‘Neal’. Our human wasn’t even looking at his enemy; he was looking to see if Redtail had been hurt when she’d been shoved aside. I thought Neal was going to punch him in the snout, but his fist went under his chin. Our assailant made to say something, but it seems among other things Neal had rendered him mute. Tony and I held him down to keep him from trying again, but the deathblow had already been struck, as he could no longer breathe."

"So why is he still alive and claiming he was attacked?" the older Rakshani demanded.

Tom’s smile wasn’t pleasant as he answered, "Neal took pity on the poor fool and put a tube in his neck and restarted his breathing – a waste of breath if you ask me."

"I didn’t ask you," Neal reminded them. "Though in hindsight, I may have to agree."

"Trach-tube?" Zigzag half asked.

"Yeah," Neal admitted, "I’d only crushed his upper throat, so there was plenty of room."

"As I understand Rakshani honor, you removed his honor by saving him," Sunshine quietly said.

"His honor was already gone when he attacked," Harry commented. "Neal may have returned his life, but nothing will restore his honor."

"But now he has to live with it," Sunshine pointed out. "For him, that can be a fate worse than death."

"He can pull out the tube and stick his finger in the hole anytime he feels he ‘can’t live with the shame’," Neal pointed out.

"Seems he’s not that brave," Tony said. "So where does that leave Neal – and us?"

"Until we’ve identified you, you are guests of the station," one of the guards that had brought them in stated. "Your human is another matter – one that hasn’t been decided as yet."

"He stays with us," Harry stated in a tone that suggested it wasn’t up for debate.

"No," the guard replied, "You each need to be debriefed separately."

"Then those not being debriefed will stay with Neal," Harry stated.

"You act as though you don’t trust our security to protect one lone human," the older Rakshani said with a frown.

"We don’t," Dick injected. "He’s already been attacked on the ship and again on this station. So no, we don’t trust your security."

"Trust," Neal muttered. "Trust is such a funny thing. You can trust someone with your life, but not trust them with the change in your pockets."

"Yet these chakats trust you with their newborn," the Caitian named M’Ling commented. "They haven’t let any of us hold hir yet."

"Perhaps it’s because I’ve held both of them when they were about this size," Neal replied as he held Squiggle. "As I recall, Sunshine was wet at both ends …"

"Neal!" Sunshine exclaimed as several others chuckled, hir ears pinking in embarrassment.

"Careful or I’ll break out the baby pictures," Neal teased. "But yes, they think they have reason to trust me – and to trust my decisions …" he said as he turned to carry their cub over to his group.

Redtail stared in fascination at the tiny chakat as Neal brought hir over. "May I present Squiggle, daughter of –" Neal turned and eyed the two chakats for a moment before finishing with, "Sunshine and Zigzag." When she tried to rub the cub’s head her hand and lower arm were quickly captured by the energetic and curious kitten.

"Shi likes you," Neal teased as he gently pulled the cub off of her before turning hir towards Grace.

Grace was a little better prepared for the frisky cub, but even she wasn’t ready for the speed of the six limbed kitten, who zoomed up her arm to inspect her hair.

Neal chuckled as he said, "Bend forward Grace, and I’ll get hir out of your hair – literally …"

The large Rakshani did as she was told, ignoring the couple of tugs to her hair as Neal freed the kitten.

"I don’t like cubs," Dick stated when it was his turn, "Rakshani or any other kind."

"Maybe not," Neal replied, "but you would protect hir with your life if I asked it?"

Dick nodded. "I don’t have to like them to willingly protect them," he admitted.

While the others settled for giving Squiggle a quick head pat, Tony let hir climb up his arm. "I don’t mind cubs," he said. "Wouldn’t even mind having a couple – with the right mate," he added, looking at Grace, whose eyes widened in surprise.

Neal smiled as he retrieved Squiggle and said, "I don’t need to remind you she likes to bite."

"I’ll risk it," Tony said. "Do I have to fight you for her?"

Neal barked out a laugh. "Hardly! I’d let you two decide."

"She still thinks she’s yours," Tony pointed out.

"If not in mind, then perhaps in her heart," Neal agreed when he saw the look Grace was giving him. "Do fathers ‘give away’ their daughters in your society?"

"Some do, but normally only if the daughter approves the male," Tony admitted.

"Shouldn’t you wait until your memory returns?" Wilma asked with a grin as she reached for Squiggle, who quickly ran up her arm. "It’ll be hell to pay if you find out you already have a mate and cubs," she added just before the cub nuzzled her neck before trying to climb under her top. "Hey!" she protested as most of the others laughed – she had the tail and hindquarters, but the cub had already gained a four-limbed grip on her breast.

"Want some help?" Neal asked before he reached under her top from below. "Just feed hir down and I’ll keep hir moving."

"Hey! That had better have been the cub and not you, Red!"

"Of course it was," Neal innocently told her. "I know what those claws of yours could do to me!"

"This is getting off track," the older Rakshani complained as the cub reappeared from under Wilma’s top.

"We were discussing trust," M’Ling injected. "And he has proven that these chakats trust him to the extent that he can even vouch for others. And that there are at least seven Rakshani that also trust him."

"Perhaps the chakats know that I can protect their cub – and they and my crew have an inkling to how far I will go to keep my word," Neal said as he returned Squiggle to Sunshine. "Someone’s getting hungry," he said with a grin.

"So we noticed," shi agreed as shi unsnapped hir top to give the cub ready access. "One of these days, Neal …"

"But not today, I think," Neal countered with a smile. "Surely they didn’t send just you two to represent Earth?"

"No, the Federation also sent those from Cait as well as a security detail," Zigzag told him as Sunshine fed their daughter.

"All morphs I hope, as these Rakshani don’t think much of humans?" Neal asked.

"No, they also sent us a handful of human Marines," shi said, sounding surprised at his question.

"Really? I wonder if I could speak with one of them?" Neal asked; his expression suddenly guarded.

"I could – "

"Now would be best," Neal interrupted hir.

"Is there a room where I could talk to them privately?" Neal asked as shi made a call.

"The meeting room next door is unoccupied," the older Rakshani suggested, indicating a side door.

Neal nodded and went through the door, leaving the others to wonder what was going on. As well as a table and chairs scaled to the much larger Rakshani, the room boasted a good-sized window, through which Raksha could be seen. Neal went to the window and waited, silently contemplating the planet below. He was still standing there when the door opened to admit a tall lanky human with dark brown hair and skin that had spent years in the harsh sun.

"You sent for me?" he calmly asked, taking in the rather grubby human before him.

Neal didn’t turn as he touched his ear. He saw the marine nod in the reflection on the glass; he also noted the marine’s uniform held no hint of his rank. "I just wanted to find out what all was going on. Just how many full marines did they send?" he asked while holding two fingers down at his side.

"Just two," the marine said having caught the indicator.

"And the rest of you are general clerks?" this time with three fingers down.

"Three of us."

"Overkill if this was just for peace talks," Neal suggested.

"We have too few chakats as yet – they warrant the little extra protection," the marine replied.

"Should have left them behind," Neal muttered, "If any of the Rakshani actually threaten Squiggle, they’re going to learn just how deadly those gentle taurs can be. Hmmm, do you by chance know if the Rakshani even know any human history?" Neal asked.

"I think they’ve been focusing on how working with us would be to their advantage, sir," the marine replied.

"Diplomats," Neal muttered as if it was a curse. "They always want to show the carrot without warning that there might be a stick waiting if you don’t take it."


"The Rakshani have to be warned not to pick a fight with us," Neal stated.

"I don’t think they see it like that," the marine said with a chuckle. "This is just a minor dispute."

"A minor dispute that they’re already using the word ‘war’ with," Neal countered. "And fighting well is a thing of honor with these people. The problem is that they don’t know how much humans can enjoy fighting as well. And once the fighting starts, that Rakshan honor won’t let them stop …" Neal looked back at the planet below them. "How many millions of them will we have to kill before they realize they can’t win?"

"You say that like we’re already at war."

"Tell me Earth isn’t already gearing up for a possible fight," Neal half demanded. "Even I know that we ‘out tech’ them, badly enough that we will be bringing any ‘war’ to them. You’re old enough to have lived through at least part of the Gene Wars; think of that mindset against these oversized kittens and tell me you really think they have a snowball’s chance in hell."

"They could give us a good fight," the marine countered defensively.

"In the opening skirmishes, perhaps," Neal muttered. "But that’s only if they’re given enough time to prepare."

"With all due respect, I think you’re overestimating the desire of either side to fight," the marine admonished, sounding a little defensive.

"Like hell I am," Neal countered. "Your ship will be the fastest thing that could get word back to Earth that we have war or peace. Tell me you honestly think they are waiting for your return before gearing up for a possible attack – better yet, what is the latest date you can leave here before they expect the worst?"

"That’s classified."

"But there is one. I’ll even bet your contact point is much closer to Raksha than it is to Earth."

The marine remained silent, which spoke volumes.

"You and I are expendable," Neal said after a minute, "the chakats less so. But we can’t give the Rakshani their reason for war … I had to work with six of them to get us here; they’re a good people, we can’t let them go down that road of destruction … Your people can fight if needed, but they are not to go over level two on them."

The marine dryly chuckled. "Level two max? This from a civilian that almost killed one of them just coming onto the station?"

"He attacked someone under my care, and I did let him live …"

"So we heard," he said with a grin as he tapped his ear bud. "These big cats aren’t used to dealing with survivors of those types of injuries, so I sent our corpsman to their sickbay to see what she could do. She reopened his airway, but he won’t be roaring for a while … The word already going around the station is that the Rakshani from the slaver brought along a feral human they’d found – one they have to protect other Rakshani from."

Neal gave him a small smile at the last. "More proof we are alike – our humor."

The marine nodded before saying, "Agreed. By the way, call me Doug or Douglas. I’ll tell my team to tone down our responses, but they’ll still expect us to act like professionals. You on the other hand they can use as an example of how wild and dangerous the average human is. Try to see if you can’t tone it down a bit, hmmm?"

"Neal, and I’m not sure when I last slept, and it’s making me a bit cranky," Neal admitted. "Let me ‘stand down’ for a while and I should be able to turn on the charm."

"Then let’s find you a bunk, sir. Perhaps I can even convince them to let us ‘guard’ you," he said as he indicated they should rejoin the others.

The question of where Neal would be allowed to sleep sparked off a debate bordering on a fight. Douglas wanted him, his crew wanted him, the chakats wanted him, and the Rakshani diplomat wouldn’t trust any of the groups to be able to contain him.

Neal half listened to the four way catfight before stepping over to one of the station guards. "Does this station have a brig?" he asked her.

"A what?" the blue furred with green stripes Rakshani asked in confusion.

"A place you might put someone that needs to be locked up and watched," Neal replied. "Since no one can agree with what to do with me, that might be the best option."

"You’re our guest – not a common criminal!" Harry protested.

"A guest that seems to be frightening some of our hosts," Neal pointed out before turning back to the guard. "My needs are simple enough, a bed, maybe half a ration bar and a couple bottles of water," he told her. "Surely this station has at least one room that has the lock on the outside?"

Waiting for a nod from her supervisor, the guard said, "This way, if you please," before leading Neal back to the door they had originally entered.

Neal raised his hands as the others started to protest. "I just need some sleep," he told them. "Where doesn’t really matter to me. And I’m sure no one’s going to do anything stupid," he added, giving each of them a hard look.

The others nodded in understanding – all but the Rakshani diplomat – who looked angrily at Neal as he turned to follow the guard.

"Is he always that forceful?" M’Ling asked once the door had closed.

Dick snorted. "That was calm compared to Red when that idiot tried to hurt Redtail," he informed her.

"He can be whatever he thinks he needs to be," Sunshine told them. "He can love and hate with the best of them. Just be warned," shi said, looking at the still fuming Rakshani, "harming the ones he cares about can put you in far more danger than harming him."

Neal found himself in a small room – well, small for a Rakshani – for him it was positively spacious. The guard had left him with extra covers for the large cot-like bed as well as the requested food and water. Two bites of the ration bar and a sip of water was all Neal took before collapsing across the bed. He semi-awoke shivering an hour later and wrapped the covers around himself before drifting back to sleep.

He woke to a sudden change in gravity – it seemed to increase before shifting and dropping to zero just before he hit the deck hard and on his back, the bed hitting him firmly in to face.

"Wakey wakey, little human, it’s time for you to get up," a female Rakshani voice taunted from above the overturned bed. "Move, you stupid little human, we’re waiting for you," she growled as she started lifting the foot of the bed to peer under it. It was just clearing her chin when the bed suddenly moved towards her, catching her in the face with enough force to cause the back of her head to bounce off the wall behind her.

Kicking the heavy bed again, but this time to the side, Neal climbed out from under it and wiped at his bloody nose as he eyed his now unconscious wakeup caller. She looked to be tall even by Rakshani standards, with the same tan and green stripes he’d seen on the older Rakshani diplomat. She was dressed as a guard, so Neal went through her pockets and pouches to find what might be useful. Among other things were two full sets of binders sized for Rakshani, so he stripped her of her uniform before binding her in one set. This included clips and adjustable rings to bind her tail either behind her or down one leg, Neal decided to try the behind her version, twisting her limp tail into a large loop behind her. A set of clips on a short cord had him frowning for a minute before he found he could wrap it under her jaw and pin her ears back with the clips.

In one pocket he also found a large pair of claw trimmer/clippers, and since she was still out he decided to reduce the number of her built in weapons by clipping her sharp claws into blunt, nicely rounded off tips. He then flipped the bed back over to sit on while he waited for her to regain consciousness. He used the facilities and was having a bit more of the ration bar when she started moaning herself to consciousness.

"For such a hardheaded bunch, you guys sure are easy to take down," he commented as she struggled and started to cuss at him. She quickly found she could barely open her mouth without pulling painfully on her ears. "Watch the language or I’ll clip your tongue too," he threatened. "Get up," he told her. When it became obvious to him that she couldn’t get up bound as she was, he went over to lend her a hand. "Don’t bother trying to claw me," he muttered as he helped her rise, "you don’t have any."

Now standing, her eyes went wide when she tried to extend her claws and found only nubs pressing into the palms of her hands.

"Perhaps next time your greeting will be more polite," he suggested in response to the look of hatred she was giving him. "Let’s go – you did say others were waiting," he said, giving her nude form a push towards the open cell door. He found that he had to help her keep her balance as she was having trouble walking with her tail restrained and a short cord keeping her from spreading her feet too far apart.

The on duty guard put down her fur trimmers and stared in amazement as the human that had been led in only a few hours ago now walked a Rakshani out of the holding cells, nude except for some binders. The cellblock had been emptied of Rakshani when he had been brought in and there shouldn’t have been anyone back there with him.

"Tell your bosses I didn’t like this one’s idea of a wakeup call," Neal told the on duty guard as they got close to her.

"No one was sent to wake you," she replied, confused. "Tailac wasn’t even supposed to be in this section."

"You mean she woke me just to annoy me?" Neal asked, his voice and expression causing the guard to reach for – but not yet draw her weapon. Neal had seen her touch her weapon, but he had also noticed the fur trimmers still on her desk. "Would you mind if I borrowed those?" he politely asked, indicating the fur trimmers.

The guard stepped away from the desk and nodded. She watched as Neal picked up the trimmers and worked out how they operated.

He removed the depth guide before looking at his captive. "Face down on the deck," he told her. When she tried backing away he added, "Come on kitten, you already know that I am more than willing to do it the hard way if you won’t take the easier path."

The guard watched as Tailac tried to get down, but was frustrated by her bindings. More surprising was the human setting down the trimmers before helping lower Tailac to the deck.

"In case you haven’t figured it out yet, every time you mess with me, I’m going to mess with you," Neal was telling her as he picked up the trimmers. "Flipping my bed with me still in it earned you the right to be paraded in front of others nude, bound and de-clawed. Waking me up before it was required is going to earn you a shaved tail," he said as he activated the trimmers.

When she started to struggle, he gently put his foot on the back of her neck. "Everything I’m doing right now is temporary and will grow back. Struggle and I’ll start doing things that are more permanent," he promised. She froze and he removed his foot before starting to trim the fur on her tail to just millimeters in length.

He shaved what he could, but the tail restraints were in his way. "Don’t even think about it," he told her as he removed the restraints to better get at parts of her tail.

The guard noted that other than trembling in what she suspected was fear mixed with humiliation, Tailac did as she was told, including bending her tail as he asked, to better trim it.

"There," Neal said as he ran his hand up her tail to see if there were any rough spots that needed fixing, "you’re done. Other than you being on display, we’re even. Be warned, you’ve used your two ‘warnings’, the next thing I do will be a part of you for the rest of your life – understand?" he demanded at the end.

Tailac nodded her head quickly and recurled her tail to make is easy for him to bind. Neal helped her back to her feet much as he’d done in his cell. Tailac then stood, but remained hunched over.

"Now what’s wrong?" he asked.

Tailac mumbled something that Neal didn’t catch but the guard did. "She has to go pee," she told him as the insides of Tailac’s ears reddened. "I think she’s afraid you’re going to force her to wet herself in public," she added.

"Sounds like what the slavers were doing to one of the Rakshani we rescued," Neal idly commented. "Take her to go pee and I’ll wait for you here."

"You trust me not to free her?" the guard asked in surprise.

Neal locked eyes with Tailac before saying, "She’s already has one lump from me ‘catching’ her, I really don’t think she wants another."

Tailac quickly shook her head and let the guard help her to one of the empty cells. The guard released her and Tailac did her business before placing her hands behind her back to be rebound.

"Do you want me to leave them loose?" the guard asked.

"No!" Tailac quickly snapped. "My uncle told me these humans are soft, but that one scares me. I heard they made a recording of him talking to the humans that came with those four-legged cats. They agreed to ‘tone down’ their abilities. If that’s toned down I don’t want to see what else they can do!"

"How did he bind you?"

"He knocked me out with the bed somehow," Tailac admitted.

"Then he could have just as easily killed you while you were unconscious," the guard commented as she re-secured Tailac’s tail.

"That’s why I don’t want to make him mad at me again!" Tailac told her.

The guard returned with Tailac properly bound. Neal nodded and asked, "When will the others be getting up?"

"In about four of your hours," the guard said after checking station time. "But I wouldn’t expect them to be ready to do anything useful for six."

"Can I request a wakeup call in four then?" Neal asked.

"Yes, sir … If I may ask, what are you going to do with her while you sleep?" the guard asked.

"That depends on her," Neal replied as he turned to Tailac. "Is your word any good?" he asked her.

"Yes, sir!" she didn’t quite bark out.

"Then I can trust you if you give your word that you will not try any more attacks – and that you will get back in those bindings when I tell you to?" Neal inquired.

"I give my word that I will not try to attack you, and I will allow myself to be bound when you request it," Tailac replied.

"Very well then," Neal said as he reached behind her to release the bindings. "They have plenty of empty cells, you can catch a nap in one if you like."

"Yes, sir," she replied. "Permission to guard you against someone else trying what I did?"

"If you’d like," Neal agreed before turning to walk back down the cellblock to his cell.

Four hours later the guard went to wake her ‘guest’. She found Tailac standing outside the door to his cell, holding her denuded tail.

"It’s cold," she complained as the guard approached. "How do humans stand it without fur?"

"We could always ask him," the guard replied. "It’s time …"

Tailac went in and carefully watched Neal as she gently grasped his shoulder. His eyes flashed open and his arm came halfway up to break her grip before freezing and then he relaxed.

"Time to get up," she told him.

"Already?" he half complained. "No rest for the wicked it seems … Is there some place I could clean up a bit? Sink bathing leaves a lot to be desired and my last one of those was days ago."

"There are showers at the end of the cellblock," Tailac told him.

Neal played with the controls a little before climbing under the hard spray. Tailac stayed clear of most of it, but she shivered when the cold water hit her tail.

Feeling much better after his shower, Neal frowned at his still dirty clothes before putting them back on. "It’s not like you guys are going to have anything in my size," he muttered, "maybe the marines …"

"I could ask," the guard offered before returning to her station.

Neal had just finished rebinding Tailac when the marine from the night before showed up with a small bundle of clothes. What made Neal grin was the three large Rakshani ‘escorting’ him.

"Try these on for size," Douglas suggested, "we know the legs are a little long, but the rest should be close enough for government work."

As he tried on the shirt, Neal said, "I see you have an escort."

"Since this morning for some odd reason," Douglas agreed as he noted that Neal transferred a couple items from his old clothes to the new.

"Level two," Neal reminded him, ignoring the marine’s raised eyebrow.

"Then they’d need more of them, wouldn’t they," Douglas replied with a chuckle, causing the Rakshani to eye them both nervously. "I also brought some grooming aids, if you want to lose that ‘wild caveman’ look."

"‘Shave and a haircut’ still two bits?" Neal asked as he sat down.

"This one’s on the house," Douglas said as he pulled out the hair clippers and a comb.

"Taper the sides and back, get the top out of my eyes," Neal requested. "Watch the back – I’ve got a knot back there from my first wake up call."

The marine’s eyes hardened, the Rakshani actually taking a step back at the look he was giving them.

"Stand down," Neal told him when he saw the Rakshani reaction. "I’ve already dealt with the issue," he added, indicating Tailac.

"I see she’s still breathing under her own power," Douglas observed. "Looks like she could have returned the favor of giving you a trim."

The Rakshani that had escorted the marine in had also noticed Neal’s handiwork and one of them said something that Neal couldn’t understand. Tailac snapped something back that seemed to startle those that hadn’t seen Neal’s earlier actions.

With his eyes closed to keep hair clippings out of them, Neal asked, "Am I going to have to come over there?"

"No, sir," Tailac quickly said, "I was just warning them that you’re not one to put up with fools."

"And that she hoped you would free her to deal with them for you," the guard added with a smile. "I am starting to understand the rumors that those that know you are very protective of you."

Douglas chuckled, "Even our accountant is waiting to see how much havoc you’re going to add to her ledgers."

Neal was silent for almost a full minute as Douglas continued cutting his hair. Starting off softly, but gaining in volume he said, "Please tell me they didn’t actually send a human female Marine Accountant!" the last not quite at a shout as he turned to stare at Douglas.

"Well, yeah …" Douglas admitted, surprised as the rest by Neal’s reaction – only to see him wink.

"They wouldn’t have sent one of those for peace talks – not even to watch over the chakittens …" Neal muttered before giving Douglas a calculating look. "Seems someone else didn’t expect things to go well. Just where is your Accountant?"

"Probably getting ready to have breakfast," Douglas told him.

"Have your marines keep her on a short leash – we can’t have anything setting her off."

"She’s got a good bit of self-control – all of our Accountants do," Douglas protested.

"Keep telling yourself that; just get her secured," Neal told him, "We are not going to give the Rakshani any reason to start their little war."

"You can tell her yourself – after I finish lowering your ears," Douglas suggested. "Be advised, none of the slavers you left locked in their rooms survived. Three got their doors opened and died in the passageway. The rest resisted the Rakshani, who were already smarting from you rubbing their noses in it."

"While I would have liked to have seen what we could get out of them …" Neal muttered, "the hell with it, and good riddance!"

"Somehow that’s what I thought you’d say," Douglas agreed as he went back to clipping Neal’s hair.

"I heard you want me grounded," complained the small slim marine female that joined Neal and his ‘guard’ in one of the station’s galleys. She was accompanied by two rather large marines that Neal hadn’t seen before – and over a dozen very cautious Rakshani.

"We both know there’s no reason to send someone of your caliber unless they thought things were going to go badly," Neal told her as the chakats and other diplomats entered the room, closely followed by Neal’s ‘crew’ and even more Rakshani – of which Neal recognized Blueclaw and her sergeant among the crowd.

"You’re the one that needs to be grounded," she snapped back. "What on Earth possessed you to think that shaving her tail would seem even remotely appropriate?"

"He bound you?" the Rakshani diplomat asked Tailac in fury.

"She was being rude," Neal replied.

"I flipped his bed in the middle of last shift," Tailac admitted. Looking over at the Rakshani diplomat she said, "You lied to me, uncle. Human honor may not be Rakshan honor, but honor they have. He had every right and reason to kill me as he almost did Keatone, but he didn’t."

"You mean the attacks on Neal were related?" the accountant demanded, glaring at the Rakshani diplomat.

"He has been quick to derail any agreement that might have led to a peaceful conclusion to these debates," Zigzag pointed out.

"There can be no peace with such a dishonorable species as these humans!" the Rakshani diplomat sneered, glaring at Neal.

"So you are here only to ensure that there is war between our people," Neal quietly stated.

"Your people are honor-less cowards! We will crush you!"

"And sending others to attack me is honorable by your definition?" Neal countered. "My working with the other imprisoned Rakshani must have made a lie of your claims that Humans and Rakshani could never get along. Yes, there are some humans that have little or no honor – the slavers prove that. It’s funny that you aren’t making the same complaints about the Caitians, as there were a couple of theirs among the slaver’s crew as well. But you … you have others attack for you, trying to force all of Raksha into a war that will hurt your people win, lose, or draw. Is this some of that Rakshan honor you were holding above all others?"

"You admit you Humans can be beaten!" the Rakshani diplomat declared.

"No," Neal corrected him. "From your point view, of which I’m guessing you came up with without bothering to look at human history, we look beatable. You may have looked at the numbers and seen that we are still recovering from a war of our own. What you have failed to notice, or maybe refuse to see, is that if humans believe the fight is right we will not stop fighting. Some of us will go to the extremes to win – even to dying if we think we can take our enemies with us. In the end Raksha would fall, the only question would be how many on both sides would die before peace was forced down the surviving Rakshani throats."

M’Ling had been frowning at her Rakshani counterpart the whole time Neal had been talking. "You’ve caused enough trouble. I am going to request the House council replace you with someone more interested in Raksha’s best interests," she told him.

"The Houses voted me as the one to decide this, and I say there will be war!" he sneered back at her. "Over ninety percent of the humans died in their last war, they are no threat to Raksha!"

Neal’s chuckle as he got up turned all eyes back to him. "You seem to be confusing weakness for determination, my friend. In case no one bothered to point it out to you, the wars were mostly fought human against human about whether furballs like you should be treated as mere slaves and playthings for us humans. You should be thankful the anti-slave side won, or I might be wondering if you’d make a better pet after I have you fixed."

Most of the group looked confused, but the marine accountant actually snorted out a laugh. "Level two," she reminded him.

"Look at him," Neal replied with a hint of scorn in his voice. "A level one could fix him without getting a scratch on them."

"Are you even a level one?" she softly asked.

"No, too old and too soft to even get into your rating system," Neal admitted. "Not that that means I can’t handle a couple unruly cubs and their puppeteer."

"Too old and too soft," Dick retorted from behind Neal as his crew formed a furry wall to reduce the chances of an attack from behind. "I don’t think that’s translating properly."

"And what do you have against accountants?" M’Ling asked.

"Marine accountants aren’t like your regular every day accountants," Neal informed her, eyeing the accountant in question. "In this case, I don’t want her to nickel and dime the Rakshan people to death – not just to mark paid on a few bad pennies," he said as he gave the Rakshan diplomat a dirty look.

"Sounds unpleasant," M’Ling admitted.

"Bad enough for you and me," Neal told her, "From what I’ve seen of the Rakshani? It would be unbearable."

"We can do precision strikes," Douglas pointed out.

"How?" Neal demanded. "In this room we know of only one that truly wants to be our enemy. Are there more? Which ones? The best you can do is fight only those attacking you. Most of those will be innocents, ordered to fight by our real foe. Do you take out their commandeering officers? Or is the rot higher up? This is why I don’t want a war; the bloodshed will claim far more than the few who are really against us."

"Rakshani will fight as they are told!" the diplomat declared.

"Then they are not going to be told …" Neal informed him.

"There is nothing you can do to stop it!"

"I have rescued Rakshani from a slave ship, and I’ve beaten off Rakshan attacks while both awake and asleep. One honor-less creature such as yourself will pose no real challenge," Neal told him.

"I want that human in chains!" the diplomat demanded.

Neal snickered when no one moved. "That’s the problem with truly honorable beings; they can and will question bad or illegal orders," he commented with a grin.

"Obey me!" he shouted at the guards.

"You are here to work out whether we are at war or peace, Diplomat, not to tell security who needs to be locked up," a Rakshani Neal didn’t know said. "So far, I’d say you were the one that needs to be dealt with."

"I will see you spaced from this station for treason!"

"You’re welcome to try," the other Rakshani said, his grin becoming wider as he showed more of his teeth. "Though I think you’ll find it difficult to get my commander to sign off on it."

"Is it always this hard to get anyone to show you respect once they get to know you?" Neal softly asked the diplomat. "I had to work it from their hostile side and earn their respect and trust."

"Humans can’t be trusted."

"Nor can some Rakshani, it seems," Neal countered. "You’re not going to win you know. I can and will stop you."

"You are only one human, you can not stop the war from coming!" he said in amazement.

"Try me," Neal softly said.

The much larger Rakshani grinned as he shook the arm of his robes, a blade sliding into his hand.

Neal shook the left sleeve of his borrowed shirt and a small item fell into his hand. "Oops," he said with a grin, "it looks like your first attempt at playing war with a human was to bring a knife to a gunfight, cub."

"You bluff! That’s not even a real weapon."

"There are several here that were also on the slaver. Ask them how well I bluff," Neal suggested, his eyes never leaving his opponent.

"You may want to lose the blade," Blueclaw suggested from one side. "This human has a nasty habit of being able to come out ahead – even when we have been sure that he was helpless."

"Forget it, uncle," Tailac added. "Even if you were to win, he seems to be the one keeping the others in check."

"No," Neal told her. "They may be deferring to me for now, but I don’t have any real control over them. I’m just one man trying to see if we can keep the body count to a minimum. If and how I fail will help them decide on their next plan of action."

"Then you know you can fail?" she asked.

"Oh yes, I can and have failed before," Neal admitted. "But this needs to be done. I accept the risks required to do it."

"How can we prove to him that you’re not bluffing?" Tailac asked.

"Line up three – no five of your armored breastplates, better safe than sorry," Neal suggested. "Without you in them!" he snapped when several Rakshani lined up beside the diplomat.

"I also believe you are bluffing," one of the armored Rakshani boldly told him.

"Someone give that fool four breastplates to hold," Neal requested as he twisted something on his supposed weapon, "I’ve turned it down to level two," he told them as he aimed – only to lower his weapon. "Somebody put his helmet on him, there’s no reason to have the backscatter burn his face off."

"But he doubts you," Wilma pointed out.

"All the more reason to see that he lives through it to warn others of his folly," Neal told her.

"I have a question," the accountant quietly said. "Why aren’t they attacking or trying to defend against your ‘weapon’?"

"For the same reason you and your team haven’t tried to stop me," Neal told her. "You either believe that this is a bluff, or you actually trust me with a weapon."

Neal aimed again at the suited (and now helmeted) Rakshani that was holding the extra breastplates in front of his chest. The beam from his hand was brief but intense, and the Rakshani dropped the extra armor in surprise as he stepped back, his own armored chest plate smoldering despite the four extra layers of protection.

"So, does anyone still believe I’m bluffing?" Neal asked of the room.

"Someone shoot him before he kills us all!" the diplomat demanded.

"Still more proof that they sent an idiot and a fool," Neal muttered at him. "Everyone else can see that I have had plenty of opportunities to kill, but I have yet to feel the need."

"May I have that, please?" Blueclaw asked.

Neal smiled at her as he took his weapon by both hands and gave it a quick series of pushes and twists. It soon came apart into two main pieces and over a dozen smaller ones that rained onto the deck. "I don’t want anyone else hurting themselves with it," he said as he handed the main parts to a nearby Rakshani.

‘That doesn’t prove anything! I still demand he be locked up!"

"It should have proven that I could have easily killed anyone I’ve met up to this point, had I felt the need. So your fellow Rakshani are probably wondering what it will take to finally set me off," Neal told him. "You on the other hand must be finding it increasingly difficult to show that humans have a ‘lack of honor’ – never mind giving any proof that it would be safe to force a war with us."

"One man can not control destiny!" he blurted out, raising his blade again.

"You are quite correct on that," Neal admitted with a growing smile, "I refuse to let just one man, ‘you’, start a war between our peoples." Reaching his left hand behind him, Neal added, "Douglas? May I have your blade, please?"

"Sir!" Douglas said as he slapped the handle into Neal’s open hand.

"Thank you," Neal said as he examined the combat knife. As long as his forearm, the edge and tip of the blade were blued to the point that they were almost black. "May I have one of those ruined chest plates?" he asked. Dick was the first to grab one and offer it to him. "Just hold it away from you with both hands," Neal said before slashing down – and right through the armor. Taking the blade by its backside, Neal offered the handle back to Douglas. "Still overkill for dealing with one stuffed shirt diplomat. Do you have anything less lethal?"

While Neal was demonstrating just how deadly some of the toys within his reach were, the Rakshani guards had each taken a step or more away from the marines, giving them plenty of open space. All except Neal’s crew, and Blueclaw and Tailac, who didn’t seem at all worried about the humans in their mist.

Thinking he understood where Neal was taking things, Douglas unsnapped one of his pockets and half pulled out the hair clippers he had used on Neal.

Neal grinned but shook his head. "That would do, but I’m trying to make this fight less one sided – not more."

"How about this?" the accountant asked, offering Neal what looked like a simple forearm length baton.

Testing it, Neal noted that it had some flex to it – as well as a weight in the core that moved depending on how he twisted or turned it. "Thanks, that’ll do nicely," he admitted. "Broken bones are much easier to repair than stitching limbs back on … Dick? Another of those breastplates if you would, just to let me get a feel for it," he asked.

He gave the breastplate a couple experimental hits and pokes before putting some muscle behind it. His next poke left a serious dent in it and the next blow almost folded the armor in half.

"Nice toy," he commented as he switched hands and shook out his left hand, despite the flex, the impacts had almost numbed his arm.

"You’re not holding it right," Douglas told him.

"And we don’t have time for lessons," Neal replied. "It won’t take more than two or three strikes to finish him off," he added. "If he has the courage to face me and not demand that someone else do his dirty work for him," he sneered at the Rakshani diplomat.

The Rakshani's mouth moved, but whatever reply he was working on was interrupted by two of the galley’s doors being opened. One was opened by a three Rakshani team, the other by a single harried looking Rakshani, which Neal’s first impressions marked as ‘tech/geek’.

The team reached the diplomat first. "The House council has ordered you to return to Raksha at once. We are to escort you there, personally," the lead Rakshani stated.

"No!" the diplomat shouted. "My work here isn’t finished!"

"Everyone knows!" the geeky one cried out, wringing his hands, blood showing where his own claws had cut him. "Someone hacked us! They used the military protocols to override the satellites. This room has been the only thing Raksha has been able to watch for the last thirty time-parts!" he gasped out. "What little we can get from the surface says civil unrest is already getting out of control!"

"Oopsy," Blueclaw said loud enough for all to hear. "I guess the cat’s out of the bag on that one. Took you long enough to find it," she teased the geek.

The diplomat stared at her in shock. "You –"

"My first loyalty is to Raksha and her people," Blueclaw sneered at him. "I will do anything for them, including disobeying orders from those that would put Raksha at risk."

"TRAITOR!" he shouted as he lunged at Blueclaw, his blade coming forward.

His attack brought him into Neal’s reach, and the baton snapped down with all the force the smaller human could deliver on such short notice, but Neal still couldn’t stop him from burying the short sword hilt deep between Blueclaw’s ribs.

Other swords had cleared their sheaths as the diplomat made his attack. He lost his sword arm just as he planted his blade in Blueclaw, but he never felt it as another sword had been in the process of removing his head from his body. His falling dead weight forced Blueclaw to the ground as well.

Kneeling by the wounded engineer, Neal pushed her back down when she tried to rise. "Stay down!" he ordered her. "Somebody get that carcass off her! I hope you jarheads included a full medic in your group," he snapped at Douglas.

"Two," Douglas assured him as he got down to exam the damage. "But at that angle the strike had to have pierced her heart, Neal. Even a full trauma team can’t save her from that."

"Wouldn’t she already be unconscious if he’d cut into her heart?" Neal asked. "Stay down," he again told the still struggling Blueclaw, "and don’t try pulling it out, for now it’s sealing the hole."

"Hurts," Blueclaw whispered.

"I know," Neal softly told her. Noticing a second gash in her side, he said, "Stay," before removing his arm and reaching under her side. He hissed in pain before carefully removing the broken blade that his baton had struck the moment before Blueclaw had been hit. "And if this much is not in her?" he asked as the blood from his freshly cut fingers added to the blood already along one edge of the blade.

"Debbie, tell me how much of that is really in her," Douglas demanded as he opened his kit. "I can do battlefield repairs on her with this kit, but I don’t have the right drugs to put her under."

Tailac hadn’t been still, it seemed someone had released her binders and she was just returning from shouting into the intercom. "They come with pain killers and a cart to carry her to surgery," she told them.

"Sorry, cutie," Douglas said as he started trimming around her wounds.

"I want your people working on her," Neal told him. "From what I’ve already seen, this may be beyond their expertise."

Having borrowed a like blade to compare, Debbie reported, "Maybe three centimeters at one edge of the blade, about five at the other."

"So he just gave her a punctured lung, which might collapse. We can work with that," Douglas assured them with a tight grin.

"Do it," Neal told him. Turning back to Blueclaw, he put his still bleeding right hand on her breastbone. "Trust me on this", he told her. "One thing Earth Marines are very good at is making – and patching – holes in warm bodies."

"I trust you," she whispered as several Rakshani hurried in, pushing a cart big enough to lay Blueclaw on.

Douglas had taped the handle to her bare skin to keep the blade from moving as they transported her. A quick discussion with the Rakshani med techs and IV’s were added to both arms and a tech administered a drug that quickly put her under.

"Do it right," Neal told them as Douglas and Debbie followed the cart out. He then hiked himself up on one of the oversized chairs, his right hand cradling his left. Redtail, who had been shielded from all the action by Grace and Tony, carefully climbed up to try to hold him, but he moaned in pain when she jarred his arm.

"You’re hurt!" Zigzag said as shi came over to him.

"Think I broke my wrist when I broke his blade," Neal admitted.

"Why didn’t you say something?" Tailac demanded.

"I didn’t want to distract them from Blueclaw," he informed her.

"She’s just a common troop," Tailac pointed out.

"That common troop may have just kept Raksha from war. Her little trick ensured that the entire planet now knows what was going on up here, and the Houses that wanted war can’t claim that things happened differently."

"You saved us," Tailac told him.

"No, Blueclaw did," Neal corrected her. "I could have won that fight and ten more, but if the truth never left this station, what good would it have done?"

"You are a strange people; no wonder my uncle couldn’t figure you out," Tailac muttered.

"Speaking of dead diplomats, these talks still need to be settled," Sunshine pointed out.

"What will the Rakshan Houses do now that he’s dead?" Zigzag asked.

"Normally his understudy would step in to fill his place," Tailac informed them. "But that was Keatone, and I don’t think he’ll risk another meeting with Neal."

"Ah, come on," Neal said. "I’m down to one arm and even it’s hurt, he should be safe enough."

‘No, you shamed him, as you did me. He will not dare face the human that didn’t think he was worthy of a warrior’s death."

"Are you next in line?" Sunshine asked.

"No. I am, well – was – little more than the one that brought them what they wanted when they wanted it."

"A gofer," Neal muttered. "Too bad, as you seem to be able to understand both sides of something better than your late uncle."

"Remember, he had an agenda," M’Ling pointed out. "He may have fully understood, but it went counter to what he was expected to deliver."

Noticing that the ‘geek’ was still standing there looking worried, Neal asked, "Is Blueclaw’s feed to the networks still up?"

Startled at being addressed by the human that had already caused so much trouble, it was a moment before the geek found his voice. "Yes, but we’re trying to stop it," he muttered.

"You might consider leaving it running," Neal suggested. "Right now that feed is the only thing letting a planet full of very upset people know that they are not already committed to a war they really don’t want."

The geek seemed to be thinking hard for a moment before rushing out of the room.

"Well, if this is the only room being recorded, that means we shouldn’t use the other rooms when they finally get us a replacement diplomat," Sunshine commented as shi climbed onto an elevated taur pad that put hir at the proper level for the table.

"Do we have the time?" Neal asked, looking at one of the remaining marines. The dirty look he got back made him chuckle despite his pain. "Yes, I know you can’t say, but do we have as much time left as has already been wasted?" The marine’s expression never changed, but Neal thought he could read between those hard lines. "Damn," he muttered.

"What?" Redtail whispered to him.

"We don’t have the time for them to go though everything they must have gone though with the first diplomat. If they don’t report back in time, Earth will assume the worst. They’ll send a big enough group to ensure that they can get word back, and they’ll be coming in hot, assuming they’ll be shot at when they come out of warp," Neal told her, knowing that the words were being heard elsewhere. "We don’t have the time …" he repeated, "so we need to buy some," he muttered.

"How do you buy time?" Redtail asked, confused.

Neal ignored her. Instead he looked to the Caitian. "I know I have no real say it what happens; I’m no envoy or diplomat, but something is going to give very soon. I strongly suggest you give the Rakshani the rest of today to decide what they’re going to do. Whether we get an answer or not, I want you and the chakats on your ship and off to your contact point. Once there, you can tell them what’s going on and get us an extension."

"Neal! They may think our leaving means we’ve given up on them agreeing on peace," Sunshine warned him.

"That’s why I will remain behind," Neal told hir. "You’re not leaving to condemn them to war – but to save them from it."

"No," M’Ling snapped, "We will not leave you behind," she stated.

"What? Afraid I’ll start the war once I have you out of the way?" Neal teased her.

"We can’t leave you behind," she told him. Her glance at the bloodstained deck suggested that she wasn’t entirely sure the station would still be there upon their return.

"You need a ‘good faith’ gesture. The Rakshani already know where I stand on this … besides, I’m the most expendable." At her dirty look, Neal added, "I’ll be safe enough; the Rakshani do not want to find out how hard marines will fight to recover ‘prisoners of war’."

"Do you think they would they send another Accountant?" M’Ling asked.

"If they think it’s a matter of honor, they might even send two," Neal warned her.

M’Ling visibly shivered before saying, "Then we need this over quickly. With their loose House groupings, it’s hard to know who to speak to on Raksha."

Neal’s smile wasn’t a nice one when he said, "The only way they didn’t just hear you say that would be because their underlings let them sleep through all that’s happened up here so far. Figure on them having heard your words, and that any delay from this point on is them trying to figure out what to do."

"You had to deal with Rakshani to get here, what do you think they will do?" Sunshine asked.

"I didn’t deal with the tops of the Houses, just with your average Rakshani," Neal pointed out. "For the most part, I liked what I saw. Oh, they have arrogant ones like Dick over there, the take command and make it work types like Harry, and cross us at your own risk like Wilma and Betty … in other words, very human."

"Some may take being compared to humans as an insult," shi warned him.

"Only those that have never had to really deal with a human," Harry assured hir. "For true arrogance look no further than that bruised and battered human before you. That human not only thought he could take over a slaver, but that he could free those trapped aboard her using crew he knew had been taught to be hostile to his species – even to the point of agreeing to take them to a world taught to hate him. Command? I admit to commanding the Rakshani bridge crew, but he commanded the ship. Cross at your own risk? I like that one. Attack him and he may only put you down hard – but attacking one of his can be a death sentence …"

"He’s not all humans," Zigzag warned him. "You don’t want to be compared to some of those."

"Just as I wouldn’t want to be compared to that excuse for a diplomat whose blood fouls our deck," Harry snorted. "You’ll notice no Rakshani has a hand on a weapon, despite there being an armed human in the room. For those that missed it, he drew his weapon during the attack, but held his fire when he saw we were dealing with our own. I’d trust him behind me more than I would some Rakshani."

"I want one of those hand phasers," the marine idly commented.

"You have enough deadly toys," Neal told him without turning his head. "Besides, at that setting it was a one-shot."

"You lied," he replied.

"The stakes were – and still are – ‘war or peace between Humans and the Rakshani’, with possibly millions of lives on the line. I will lie, cheat, and steal to win this game. Would you have let him win?"

"That’s not my decision, sir."

Redtail giggled and Neal gently shushed her.

"What?" M’Ling asked.

"I had told her of a derogatory meaning of the word ‘sir’," Neal admitted. "Do you speak old human English?" he asked the marine. Getting a nod, he said in that language, "SIR! Stupid Idiotic Retard."

The marine snickered before saying, "Don’t let the officers know," he replied the same way.

M’Ling and Sunshine looked confused, but Zigzag had snickered too. "I learned a bit of old human English because the Turners thought we wouldn’t fully understand it. He’s using a play on the old words to say what he thinks without the listener knowing it was really a slur on them."

Looking at Tailac, M’Ling said, "You’re now our expert on your people. If we do manage to hammer home a peace agreement, what do you think they’ll ask for?"

"Access to your tech will be a big demand, as well as your medical knowledge," Tailac admitted. "I did study what I could about humans’ past wars. I was wondering about that phrase from their world war two about one country’s attack on another as being but a pin prick on the toe of a sleeping giant."

"Japan and Pearl Harbor," Neal muttered. "They couldn’t admit that they had bitten off more than they could chew. They wouldn’t admit defeat until nuclear bombs convinced them they couldn’t win."

"Were you there?" Zigzag asked, startling Tailac as she had thought it to be out of their distant history.

"Before my time," Neal chuckled.

"When was ‘your time’," shi asked.

"Before your time," was all Neal would admit to.

"What about the ship?" Harry asked. "I understand they’re already trying to figure it out."

"You mean our ship?" Neal asked him. "We brought it in, we have some say in the matter."

"I had heard that the military has commandeered it because it was a slaver," Tailac told him.

"And we’re the salvage crew that not only did the commandeering, but brought it in," Neal countered. "Not that it’s worth as much as is it was before they shot up what was left of the engineering section and the core jettisoned dirty."

"I can ask," she promised.

Neal grinned at her. "While you’re asking, ask them what they pay engineering repair technicians and instructors as there’s no way they’re going to figure that mess out on their own."

"Are you offering to help? – Even after all we’ve done to you?" Tailac asked surprise.

"If we have peace and I don’t have to worry about having the tech used against us, why not? As for what’s been done to me, your uncle’s already paid for his part in it, and I’m not going to hold all of Raksha accountable for the actions of a few."

"I’m not sure I could have done that," she admitted.

"Think of Blueclaw," Neal advised her. "She was stabbed by one of her own kind for protecting her people, and now those same so called ‘enemies of the Rakshani’ are the ones putting her back together."

"Strange times you humans bring with you," she murmured, shaking her head.

"You haven’t even seen strange yet, kitten," Neal cheerfully told her.

"It gets worse?" she asked, looking worried now.

"You say it like it’s a bad thing," Neal teased her. "Your people just recently learned that they aren’t alone in the universe – other than your deities of course. You’re going to have to do a lot of adapting with the information overload you’ll soon be getting." He looked somber for a moment before continuing, "Someone or group thought they could control how you would learn about us, what you would see and be told. They didn’t count on other Rakshani making up their own minds and acting on it. Much as I’d like to deal with them for what they tried, I’d much prefer preventing any more fighting." Looking towards where he thought the camera was, he added, "That means no Rakshani fighting each other for or against a possible war with humans. Everyone just calm down and wait to see where this goes."

"He said –" Harry stated before repeating Neal’s message in the more common Rakshan languages.

"Do you really think they’ll listen?" Zigzag wondered as shi let Squiggle out of hir carrier.

"Why not?" Neal asked, his voice showing a little strain. "I’m just asking them not to fight among themselves until we know there might be a reason to."

"Your control is slipping, Neal. I can sense your pain from here," shi told him.

"You will not disturb the doctors," Neal didn’t quite snarl at hir. "I can handle a little pain until they’re done with Blueclaw … In fact, tell you what. I want one of those sheaths for the short swords, something handle-sized to grip, and something I can use for a wrap."

"Going to splint it?" the marine asked as he set down the stretch bandage they used to wrap sprains.

"Yeah," Neal admitted as a sheath and part of a Rakshani-sized broom handle were placed before him. "Less movement should help with the pain. But first …" he took his left wrist in his right hand and he bowed his head and closed his eyes before carefully shifting and twisting the damaged joint. The chakats’ were shivering, their ears flat as Squiggle whined, hanging onto hir sire.

Neal took a ragged breath before saying, "Sorry cubs, but I had to check. I didn’t feel anything grating, so just a very bad sprain, maybe some torn ligaments."

"That handle’s big – even for your hands," the marine commented.

"It’ll do, just pad and tape off the ends for me," Neal asked.

"Can do," he agreed.

Once the handle was ready, Neal half gripped it and held the sheath against his arm as the marine began to skillfully wind the bandage around Neal’s arm and hand.

Once it was tied off, Neal commented, "Now all I need is a belt sling and I’ll be ready to get back to work."

"Work?" Tailac stammered.

"With Blueclaw out of action, someone’s got to see how our temporary power hookups are holding out. Unless you’re going to tell me this station had over three hundred beds and staff ready for them?" he asked.

"The last I heard, only the first fifty had been moved," Tailac admitted.

"Then I also need to see what we can do about refreshing their life support," Neal told her. "It was already getting foul; I’d guess less than a week to deadly."

"Eat first," Redtail injected.

"I’m fine," Neal told her.

"No! When did you last eat?" she demanded.

"I had part of a ration bar after my first wakeup call," he admitted.

"You’re going to eat and then rest!" she told him.

"And you think you’re going to tell me what to do?" Neal gently chided her.

"You don’t take good care of yourself!" she insisted.

"She has a point," Dick snickered, "less than a day on this station and you’re already down one hand and look like you’re ready to drop."

"Are you saying you think you could take me in my weakened condition?" Neal asked in a very quiet voice.

Dick outright laughed at him. "No, I don’t think you’re safe yet to ‘take’, Neal. A wounded animal is always more dangerous – even more so when she’s protecting her young."

"He’s not a female," M’Ling pointed out.

"He acts like one when he cares about someone," Dick countered.

"And he doesn’t consider it ‘safe’ yet," Tailac said, watching Redtail try to cuddle Neal, who was sitting there like he was waiting for the next challenge. "He knows things can still go badly, and he’s afraid we won’t be able to stop it." Catching Neal’s eye, she said, "Nothing more can happen until they send up a replacement diplomat. Get something to eat and rest. I give my word that we will keep things from getting worse while you sleep."

"You say that as if you can control those that sent the last diplomat," Neal teased her.

"You and Blueclaw have protected us from them; it’s time for Raksha and Rakshani to show you our better side," she told him. "First meal has been delayed long enough. Someone tell the cooks it’s time to serve."

The meal was a little surreal with everyone ignoring the still-bloody decks and the guards all around. Douglas and Debbie joined them as the food was being served, their attitudes upbeat as they got their meals.

"She’ll be up in a couple days, though limited to light duty for a few weeks – a month if we could make her behave that long," Douglas told them.

"You can’t," Neal said from where Redtail was trying to force food on him. "She’s an engineer – she’ll be trying to abuse herself before the day is out."

"We cheated," Douglas admitted. "Her keepers were told to tell her ‘Neal said stay put!’"

"Day and a half then," Neal corrected himself.

"The side chatter says you’re trying to get us to abandon the Rakshani," Debbie commented with a frown.

"No, I just want you to go reset that countdown timer for us," Neal told her.

"You know there’s more to it than that," she told him.

"That’s why I would be the only one staying behind," he agreed.

"No," she told him.

"That now headless diplomat cost you too much time," he replied. "Though I will confess to being surprised you didn’t have a second ship to use to relay information."

"It hasn’t returned from asking for our first extension request," Sunshine admitted.

"And your remaining ship won’t leave without you," Neal guessed. "Since I didn’t get here with you, then they have no orders concerning me."

"They do now," the marine accountant informed him.

"There are times we can ‘protect’ civilians – even against their wishes," Douglas reminded him.

Neal looked thoughtful for a moment. "In a war zone or other dangerous environments, but we’re not at war. Hmmm, you could also use it if I was trying give the enemy information or technical assistance. So, do you see the Rakshani as ‘the enemy’?" Neal asked.

"We hope not to," Debbie admitted as a new Rakshani stepped into the room.

"Station commander," Zigzag whispered to Neal as the Rakshani walked over to Tailac and said something too low for the others to hear. Tailac looked startled, but quickly nodded before the commander quickly left.

Tailac took a deep breath before looking around; she wasn’t surprised to find all eyes were now on her. "It seems we no longer need to wait for a replacement diplomat. It seems I have been appointed to that task." She smiled a little as she added, "Though they sent no instructions on how I should proceed."

"Perhaps someone was worried about how the general public might react if they knew there were ‘special instructions’," Neal said with a smile. "I think I’ll get out of your way and see about a little more sleep."

"But we need you!" Tailac protested.

"No you don’t," Neal told her, "My diplomacy skills are not the type you want." Turning to the chakats he asked, "Will you be offering tech?" at their nods he chuckled. "Good! Then I can keep Blueclaw in bed a few extra days by threatening not to teach it to her."

"Speaking of bed, Charlie, why is his hand wrapped?" Debbie asked.

"He wasn’t holding the baton right, just a bad sprain," the marine that had helped wrap it said.

"Are you in much pain?" she asked Neal.

"Not bad," Neal replied.

"I can give you a local for it," she offered.

"No, thanks," Neal insisted.

"Give it to him anyway," Zigzag told Debbie. "He’s holding back more pain than he’s admitting to."

"Never try to lie around a chakat," Debbie told him as she fixed up a dose. "They can read you like a book."

"I get funny reactions to some drugs," Neal warned her just before she gave him the injection.

"Then I’ll have Douglas keep an eye on you," she promised.

"I’d rather have not had the drugs," Neal muttered as she put her kit away.

"Why – you prefer the pain?" Tailac wondered.

Sunshine replied when Neal didn’t answer, "He prefers the pain to the possible loss of control."

"Control?" Tailac asked.

"Self control," Neal muttered darkly. "The ability to not do something you’d really like to."

"I’m not sure I understand," she admitted.

"You constantly have to decide what to do – or not to do … did you ever think that you’d like to shut your uncle up when you knew he was wrong about something?"

"On occasion," she cautiously admitted.

"Why didn’t you?" Neal softly asked.

"It wasn’t my place – I had no right to interfere."

"Now think of what you might have done if you hadn’t cared if you ‘had the right’ to cross him."

"He would have attacked me for challenging his position."

"And you wouldn’t care that he did!" Neal all but whispered, "Total loss of control, if you feel like striking – you strike! We’ve had a few hours together with me in control of myself, do you really want to see me without my self control?"

"No!" she quickly replied with a shiver, Neal’s eyes were getting a little wild and he was beginning to scare her again.

Seeming to change the subject, Neal looked over at Grace before commenting, "I think we’ve found a new home for one of those enslaved by the dead slaver crew. One more and I’ll be breaking even."

Redtail glared at him. "I am yours," the Voxxan insisted.

"I don’t do slaves," Neal told her. "You’ll find yourself a cute Voxxan male and settle down and have a mess of kits someday."

"I don’t want a Voxxan male. I want a master that will treat me well. You are the first master I have willingly served."

"I am not your master," Neal didn’t quite growl. "I freed you on the ship, you are your own person."

"I don’t want to be free! I want to be yours," she begged.

Looking sad Neal muttered, "My path sometimes leads through the fire, little one. Those that try to cling to my coattails often get burned."

"I will risk it," she told him.

"But I don’t want to risk you," he admitted.

"You’re not getting rid of me!"

"Neal, Redtail, we can discuss this later," Sunshine gently suggested. "For now, let’s see about finding some place for poor Neal to sleep off those drugs."

The sergeant from the detail that had boarded the ship said something to one of the guards in one of the other Rakshan dialects, she replied in kind, and he made one additional statement before the guard followed Neal and Redtail.

"What was that about?" Sunshine asked with a raised eyebrow.

Tailac gave hir a half smile as she said, "He just told her to guard them – and not to give them any reason to think there’s a problem."

The sergeant grinned. "She commented that even a cub could overpower him now, and I had to remind her that we thought that last time – and the time before. He’s hurt, drugged and obviously exhausted. I don’t want any of my people finding out the hard way that he still has one more trick up his sleeve."

"Maybe I should send one of mine as well," Debbie commented.

"You don’t trust us?" the sergeant asked, sounding annoyed.

"No, I don’t trust Neal not to misinterpret something when he’s half asleep," Debbie assured him.

"Redtail’s with him," Harry pointed out. "She seems to be able to make him stop and pay attention to her."

"About that little outburst, is she really his slave?" M’Ling wondered.

"More like she wants him to be the dominant to her submissive," Sunshine told her. "From what I sensed, she has a very strong need to be possessed, and Neal is the first one that did not abuse her when he had that power over her. He, on the other hand doesn’t want others dependent on him."

"Do you think he’ll reject her?" Wilma asked. "We’ve grown attached to both of them, and she seems to be good for him."

"We’ll have to wait and see," Sunshine told her. "Neal prefers a strong partner, one that can argue or fight him when he goes too far."

"She has some of those abilities," Wilma assured hir, "though she does most of that in private."

"So as to not insult her Dom in public," Sunshine murmured. "A partner does seem to help stabilize him."

"May I ask how you know him?" Wilma asked.

Zigzag and Sunshine exchanged grins before Sunshine said, "Some of this will be hearsay as we weren’t there –"

"As in we weren’t born yet," Zigzag cut in.

"Neal was a shipper; he would get things moved from where they were to where they were needed. One of the things we happen to know is that he once shipped five Bengal Tigers. One of them was our surrogate mother," Sunshine informed them.

"What is a Bengal Tiger?" Wilma asked.

"Over twice your mass, feral, with a head large enough to take your head in her mouth," shi said with a grin. "And we were told there were signs that that crazy human actually slept with them!"

"Well, to be honest," Zigzag injected, "the only proof offered was finding one of his hats in the back of one of the cages …"

"Our mother always knew when he was near and always insisted on telling him ‘hello’ when he visited."

"Are you trying to say he likes to live dangerously – or that he’s known for his ability to tame wild cats?" M’Ling asked.

"Mainly that you shouldn’t underestimate him. Nor should you think he’s being mean or cruel when he does something; there may be something else you don’t know about directing his actions," Sunshine warned her.

"You mean like when Tailac attacked him and he shaved her tail?"

The sergeant answered for hir, "He demonstrated that he didn’t need to kill to reprimand a disobedient cub. Corner him, as the diplomat did with the sword, and he will bring out deadly force. Otherwise he seems to prefer non-lethal means of getting his point across. A Rakshani would have reacted much more violently to the things that were done to him."

"Do you trust him?" M’ling asked.

"Yes. If my mate and cubs were up here I’d have no qualms or fears if he was holding my youngest."

"Despite the fact he had that tiny weapon?"

"Because of it. He didn’t bring it out until he was ready to do battle – and even then he didn’t use it to kill, but to try to get the diplomat to change his mind about fighting him." The sergeant touched his ear before adding, "They have reached their room. It does appear the little fox is trying to tell him what to do now that others are not watching."

"Maybe she will be good for him," Zigzag suggested to Sunshine.

"Only time will tell," the other chakat agreed. "So … with our trouble-generating human down for a nap, shall we work up a peace agreement?" shi asked Tailac.

"Oh yes!" she agreed. "And preferably done and signed before he wakes and has something to add to it!" she laughed.

Neal woke slowly, holding back a yawn so as to not wake Redtail who was cuddled against him. The Rakshani that had come with them was sitting in a chair across the room; she gave him a nod before returning to whatever she was reading.

"Status?" he whispered.

"We are at peace," she said quietly. "Other than a few fine points, I have been told that the agreement is finished. Blueclaw is resting after being told that if she didn’t, we would wake you up to deal with her … though I will admit to not understanding why everyone is being so careful around you," she admitted at the last.

"Do the Rakshani have the expression ‘better the devil you know’?" Neal quietly asked.

"Yes, why?"

"Because others have treated me as how they thought they could treat humans … they discovered they didn’t know me very well …"

"You are your own devil then?"

"If need be."

"Then I will do nothing that might awaken the beast," she said with a toothy grin.

"Too late," Redtail mumbled, "he needs to sleep more …"

"No, I need to get something to eat," Neal quietly corrected her. "Then I need to see how they are doing with Ides, with both me and Blueclaw down, no one’s keeping the systems going."

"I can have whatever you want delivered," the guard told them.

"Afraid I’ll get loose and cause problems?" Neal half asked with a grin.

She just grinned back at him. "As you just said, you have things to do, so I can’t hold you to this room. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to limit the trouble you can get into."

"Fair enough," Neal agreed. "I wonder if they know how to make a western omelet …"

While the Rakshani cook had never heard of an omelet before, eggs, meats and cheeses were all things he had on hand. Neal got the second omelet made, as the cook and his kitchen crew had to ‘taste test’ the first one. Redtail didn’t need to order a meal as the one sent up for Neal was scaled more to Rakshani appetites and there were leftovers even after they had both had their fill.

After their breakfast, they were led towards where the Ides had been docked. The corridors along their route were deserted.

"Did we scare everyone off?" Neal joked.

"It’s the middle of the late shift, so most are asleep," their guard informed them as they turned a corner and into a stiff breeze. The odor was quite unpleasant. "They are using two ports to exchange and filter the air on the ship. This is the return."

"That’s why I was in a hurry to see to them," Neal told her. "Let me see how bad it is and then I’ll need to talk to the quartermaster about what supplies I can get my hands on."

In the ship they came across a couple of Rakshani and Douglas in one of the corridors. The air return covers and filters were out and stacked to one side as they tried to get deeper into the system.

"I’m just here to translate the writing," Douglas told them. "You probably noticed their short term solution as you came in."

Neal nodded. "A carbon filter ‘air lock’ would reduce the load they’re giving the station systems – if they have them to spare."

"A what?" one of the Rakshani demanded.

"You’re already using the corridor as an air duct; just put your first filters in the corridor before the air locks," Neal suggested. "Since carbon will absorb some of the odor and pollutants, that should reduce how much enters the station. Two sets with a space between would not only filter more, but let you open one set to enter or leave without stopping all the filtering."

"A good idea," he admitted as he lifted his communicator to request the technicians and parts. "Could you also help us with these systems?"

"That’s why I’m here," Neal told him. "I’m Neal."

"We know who you are. You’re the one that has tricks up your shirt arms!" the Rakshani laughed. "I am Rombit, a humble engineer."

"Blueclaw is also an engineer, and there’s nothing humble about her," Neal chuckled. "Let’s see where you’re at and what we have to work with."

By station ‘morning’, the air exchange rate between ship and station had been reduced as the ship started cleaning up some of its own air. The jury-rigged systems were ugly with tape sealing parts that were never designed to be fitted together, but it was working.

By the time Neal was ready to take a break, it was coming up on time for the midday meal, and he and Redtail were led back to the same galley they had used before. It had been cleaned up since the day before, with all signs of the fight removed. The only surprise was Blueclaw sitting in the chair next to the one he was led to.

"I hear you’ve been playing without me," Blueclaw said with a pout.

"And I heard you were to stay in bed for a few more days," Neal countered.

"I promised to lay back down after I shared a meal with you … I’m told you saved my life."

"No, the marines did that; I just lessened the amount of work they had to do."

"You make a poor liar," she told him.

"I’m a very good liar – when I need to be," he corrected her. Looking over at the chakats he asked, "How go the peace talks?"

"Signed, sealed, and ready to be delivered," Sunshine informed him with a grin.

"And how much did you sell my ship for?" Neal asked with a mock glare.

"We didn’t," shi replied before sticking out hir tongue at him. "We thought it safer to not include it in the talks. After all, you brought it in; we’ll let you argue the value of it."

"Sounds fair," Neal agreed, "especially since I can add value to it by offering to help them repair it."

"You’re going to teach me," Blueclaw insisted.

"Only if you obey the doctors," Neal countered. "Misbehave and I’ll be teaching someone else."

"Your doctors are just puny little humans," she mock teased him, "I’ll know when I’m ready to get back to work."

"This puny little human is going to get a meter stick to rap your knuckles when you misbehave and across your head when you don’t think," Neal warn her.

"That wouldn’t be the one with the very thin edge by chance?" Douglas asked. "Also known as a sword?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of a long handed baseball bat," Neal admitted, "perhaps to knock some sense into some of these hardheaded hellcats."

"You keep calling them ‘hellcats’," M’Ling pointed out frowning. "Not very diplomatic."

"They’re big and ferocious looking felines," Neal shot back. "Would you prefer I refer to them as those ‘delicate, soft and gentle oversized kittens?"

M’Ling had her muzzle open for a hot retort – but she was drowned out by Rakshan laughter.

"Is that what you really think of us? Helpless cubs?" Blueclaw hissed, her attempt to laugh with the others forcibly reminding her of her injuries.

"Let’s face it – we haven’t been too much of a challenge for him so far," Tailac pointed out.

"Challenging enough," Neal told her. "So much so that I need to go back to being an engineer for a few weeks to recover."

M’Ling’s eyes narrowed as she asked, "Are you admitting that you’re not up to any more fights with Rakshani?"

"If that’s what you think you heard," Neal answered.

"There’s an old saying on Earth," Sunshine said as M’Ling glared at Neal. "It says: ‘Never kick an old dog – he might still have one good bite left in him’."

"And we happen to know Neal is a very ‘old dog’," Zigzag added. "It is much safer to let sleeping dogs lie."

"So, does that mean we should make him rest after the meal?" Redtail asked, getting chuckles and laughs from the others.

"Well, he has already worked a full shift today," Douglas pointed out. "And I want to check and rewrap his wrist."

Harry snorted. "He was always working at least double shifts while trying to get us here. Not keeping him busy enough might give him too much time to come up with more of his ‘tricks’."

"Some of those ‘tricks’ got us here alive," Tony pointed out. "So long as you’re not his enemy …"

"I still think he had another shot in that mini-phaser of his," Douglas commented. "I’m not sure I want to see what he could come up with if he had a decent lab to work in."

Neal smiled. "I’d settle for getting enough gear together to get that warp core functional."

"What were you doing off Earth?" Sunshine asked.

"I was on my way to Cait to see what’s so special about their warp systems, maybe take a couple classes and what not," Neal said. "Can’t quite remember how far I’d gotten before I woke aboard the slaver …"

"I am going with you to Cait," Redtail told him.

Neal just smiled at the glare she was giving him before saying, "My visit to Cait has been pushed back until after my business on Raksha is done. Perhaps the sign that it’s time for me to leave will be when a purely Rakshan crew can give me – and Redtail – a ride to Cait in their newly rebuilt ship."

"You say that like it’s already a done deal," Debbie commented.

"No word of that ship is returning to Federation space so as not to let the owners learn what happened to it," Neal told her. "I did what I could to preserve all the records it carried in the hopes we can find out who to go after. Most of the value of the ship will go to helping those trapped aboard it – and getting them home …"

"If this had been a recovery, the salvage team gets fifteen percent, five for the captain and ten split between the crew," Douglas suggested.

"Twelve points," Neal corrected. "Two for me, the rest to my crew … Probably cost them more than the next three points in repairs and instruction."

"The ship will need a new name," Harry commented.

"It’s going to be a Rakshan ship, it deserves a Rakshan name," Neal said. "Don’t look at me or I’ll name the damn thing De Squiggles II!" he retorted at the looks they were giving him.

"Not what we’re looking for," Tailac agreed with a grin at the chakats. Squiggle had stuck to their cub, who seemed to like hir new name.

"Red, just Red," Dick said. "It will mean nothing to anyone that doesn’t know the captain that not only forced it to fly, but forced peace when things were sliding towards war."

"Red!" several of the Rakshani called out in a fitting toast.

"Good thing I remembered my name was Neal," Neal said with a half smile. "By the time they get all of the victims out of it and on their feet, we’ll be about ready to tear into your Red and start rebuilding the core and engineering systems."

And life support," Blueclaw added. "I heard you had to go over and make some adjustments."

Neal shrugged. "It needed doing … but unless something important comes up, I understand you and I are to take it ‘easy’ for the next few days."

"Before you start teaching me," she insisted.

"No, before I start learning how you Rakshani do warp cores," Neal replied with a chuckle. "You are to take it easy for a few weeks, while I need to know how you guys do it before I can show you the differences."

"I’ll confess to still not knowing why we seem to be so interested in that ship," Tailac admitted.

"Only because it can outrun our best at warp," Tony said from where he sat next to Grace. "You have to remember we brought it in already badly crippled, more than a few of us want to see what it would do properly repaired."

"I keep hearing everyone refer to the ship as an ‘it’, I thought they were called ‘she’," Zigzag wondered.

"It was used as a slaver, and therefore it is a soulless beast," Neal commented around a mouth of food. "Perhaps the Rakshani can give it a new soul, and a reason to again have pride."

Douglas frowned slightly as he asked, "How’s the wrist?"

"Fine," Neal said, "was aching a little while ago, but … you little idiots – I didn’t ask for that!"

"Do we need to scratch off another drug that’s safe to use on you?" Debbie muttered as they traded out the plate in front of Neal.

"What happened?" Blueclaw asked, having missed the earlier discussion.

"Neal injured his hand when he broke that blade," Douglas told her. "He’s even worse than you when it comes to forcing him to take any down time, and he has issues with some of the pain relieving drugs we use."

"And you were telling me to behave?" Blueclaw laughed at Neal.

"Do as I say, not as I do," he quipped back at her. "I take it I didn’t get the full dose?"

"Less than a quarter," Debbie promised, after looking at the remains of his meal. "With any luck it will at least let you rest for a while after the meal."

"Bitch," he muttered, but with no real heat behind it. "No more drug surprises, or I’ll start coming up with surprises of my own …"

"Can do," Debbie quickly agreed. "Can you at least tell us what is safe to use on you?"

"All seem to have some type of unwanted side affect," Neal told her. "At least I can still see straight for now, some have given me rather interesting hallucinations – which I sometimes react badly to."

"No more experimenting on you," Debbie promised again. "Just let Doug take care of your wrist."

"Yes, mother," Neal groused.

Ignoring the looks the Rakshani were giving her, Debbie laughed at Neal. "If I were your mother, I’d have sent you to your room by now," she told him.

"Yeah, yeah," Neal muttered before shaking his head. "Redtail? Is anything on my plate moving?"

"No," she said, giving him an odd look.

"Great, then this is already shaping up to be one of my better drug trips," he griped. "Back to bed until I can see straight again."

As Redtail led Neal out of the dining area, Sunshine turned to Debbie. "Did you just ‘send him to his room’ by drugging him?"

"Not intentionally," Debbie replied. "Seems that rules out another group of drugs we can use to help him."

"Is this a common occurrence with human medicine?" Tailac asked.

"No," Douglas said. "While you will find a few percent that react badly to some drug groups, Neal seems to be in a class of his own … I’ll give him a few minutes to get settled before I go check his wrist."

"The environmental techs didn’t think much of his ‘quick-fix’ to the air exchangers, but they had to admit it seems to be doing the job," Blueclaw told them.

Debbie chuckled. "I think you’ll find he’s the ‘what’s the quickest and most basic way to get something done’ type of engineer. He took what you had to offer and made it work, much as he did getting that ship here."

Blueclaw nodded. "We had a better solution, but it would have taken us hours to get it installed and operational. From what I’ve heard, Neal slapped his kit together almost as fast as they got him the parts. When someone complained, Neal told them they could disconnect his mess once they had theirs up and running."

Douglas shrugged as he said, "A working ‘slap together’ system means the creator is either very good or very lucky. Which is Neal?"

"A bit of both, I think," Harry slowly replied. "I’ve been quizzed about our wild ride home, and the warp specialists they had on the panel were all convinced we shouldn’t have made it after that ‘fourth stage’ went to high power."

"But we did," Wilma pointed out.

"We did," Harry agreed, "but they don’t see how it was possible. No one could have kept everything balanced enough to keep the core running at those settings."

"All they have to look at is the wreckage," Betty said. "Could that little box you said he had hooked to his glasses be part of the ‘how’?"

"He said it helped him keep things in line; maybe it was doing more than he was saying," Harry admitted.

"Something for me to ask him about," Blueclaw said. "His tricks and knowledge may be worthless to us if we need him to make it work."

"Ask him," Zigzag agreed. "He has always been good at sharing his ‘tricks’ with his friends."

"How are we doing with the ‘sleepers’?" Douglas asked.

"The Rakshani have all been moved planet-side," Tailac told him. "We’re working with the Caitian doctor from your ship on how to deal with the Caitians before we start sending them down. For security reasons the few humans will be kept aboard the station."

"Are we afraid there might be another ‘Neal’ in the group?" Tony asked with a laugh.

"Or that someone still trying to start a war thinks they’re the answer," Zigzag added.

"A bit of both to be honest," Tailac admitted. "He helped buy us peace, I don’t want to give anyone a second chance to foul it up."

"Little late for that," Debbie assured her. "Our ship will leave tomorrow with the news that we have a peace agreement and are discussing trade options. I added that there were factions pushing for war, but that is not what Raksha or her people truly desire."

"And we understand the difference," Douglas added. "While they could escalate things, I think it will take more than they can hope do without most of the Rakshani supporting it."

"On that note, some of us have things that need doing before tomorrow," Sunshine said. "Zigzag and I are remaining behind to talk trade, so we need to get moved into the station."

"As do we," Debbie agreed. "Officially to continue keeping an eye on you two and your cub – though I think keeping Neal in check will tie up more of our resources."

"It will be a least few months before we can return – are you sure you want to be without support that long?" M'Ling asked.

"They will have all the support they ask for," Tailac promised her. "If nothing else, for fear that they might unleash Neal on us again!" she said with a grin.

"The best defense against Neal is to keep him busy," Dick told them.

"Takes one to know one?" Harry asked with a half smile. "You too are less of a problem if we can find things to keep you mentally challenged."

"We can help keep his ‘keeper’ busy with helping us with the computers and the sleepers," Wilma pointed out. "She needs time away from Neal as well."

"I’ll see what I can arrange," Tailac assured her, "Redtail is an important part of keeping Neal happy and under control."

"I wish to challenge you," the Rakshani said as he watched Douglas go through his warm up routine in the station gym.

Eying the taller male without breaking from his leg sweep, Douglas said, "Full contact – or just sparring?"

"Full contact, though I will be wearing these," he replied as he held his hands forward. He wore thin gloves that wouldn’t impede his hands – but would keep him from using his claws. Instead the fingertips ended in what looked like embedded chalk that would mark where the claws would have struck. Similar ‘boots’ adorned his feet.

Douglas nodded. "All right then, do your warm-up and let me know when you’re ready."

Others had heard the exchange, and there were quite a few moving over to the fighting rings. The fighting rings were just that, a series of rings that they would stay within during the fight. The centermost ring was fully ‘no holds barred’, and what was allowed was reduced as you moved to the outer rings. As Douglas understood it, it was to force the Rakshani to not just focus on their opponent, but also on their surroundings.

Moving over to the rings, Douglas sat down on the edge of the outer ring, which claimed it without showing arrogance by claiming the inner rings. He stood and moved to the inner rings as his opponent did.

"You are familiar with our rings?" he asked.

"I asked about them the other day while watching a couple of fights," Douglas admitted. "Are we playing ‘ring toss’?" he asked, as throwing your opponent out of the outermost ring was sometimes considered a victory.

"If you think you can," the Rakshani chuckled; he out-massed Douglas by at least half again and had a reach advantage as well.

"We had been told not to give you cause to think we were ‘attacking’ you humans," the Rakshani said as they both paused at the line to the inner most ring.

"That was because one of us is not a marine," Douglas told him. "While he has proven to be able to take on Rakshani, he doesn’t always know how to win without killing them."

They traded nods and stepped into the innermost ring. At just over three meters across, the ring was big enough for them to both stand without being able to reach each other from opposing sides, but not so big that an adult Rakshani in the middle couldn’t reach anything else in the ring.

The Rakshani stepped forward to claim the center and took a swipe at the human marine – only to have his progress barred as Douglas stepped forward and blocked the swing at the wrist. A little surprised at the quick reply, the Rakshani stepped back before trying again. They exchanged attacks and blocks for the next few minutes, the marine on the defensive most of the time.

"You humans don’t seem all that tough," the Rakshani finally commented, breaking their silence.

"Oh? Is it my turn?" Douglas asked in seemingly surprise. "I’ll try not to disappoint you," he said as his stance changed a little and he smiled.

The next ‘claw swipe’ attempted by the Rakshani wasn’t just blocked; Douglas actually punched the offending knuckles with his own fist. A tail sweep got said tail stomped on hard, as the marine seemed to flow over it. A now angry charge missed entirely, the Rakshani finding himself two rings out. He turned to find Douglas hadn’t followed him, but he simply waited for his opponent to return to the innermost ring.

"You are allowed to attack in this ring as well," the Rakshani said as he stepped back towards the marine.

"You looked like you needed a moment to recover and decide what to try next," Douglas replied.

"I thought about removing my gloves," the Rakshani half snarled.

"Go ahead," Douglas told him before turning all the way around. "As you can see, you haven’t ‘touched’ me with them yet."

"Be advised," Charlie called out from among all the Rakshani spectators. "Those gloves coming off means he doesn’t have to hold back as much either."

"You were holding back?" the Rakshani snarled in disbelief.

"This is just a friendly bit of sparring, not training or an actual fight," Douglas pointed out.

"No! You will not hold back!" the Rakshani roared before charging across the rings.

The Rakshani remembered being almost in range and reaching for the human, but then there was a gap in what he knew had happened … he now found himself laying flat on his back with his tail bent painfully under him. Trying to move either arm forward increased the sudden pain he found in his shoulders – not that he thought he could react fast enough to prevent the foot resting gently on his throat from coming down harder.

Seeing the Rakshani’s eyes tracking him again and deciding he had made his point, Douglas removed his foot and squatted down next to his victim. "That was training mode. Fighting mode means I’d ensure you wouldn’t be getting back up anytime soon."

"How … did you do that?" he groaned, slowly trying to roll over to take the kink out of his sore tail.

"Very carefully," Douglas told him. "Too hard and I’d then be trying to keep you alive."

"I wish to learn how to do that," he said sounding hopeful – several of the observing Rakshani growling their agreement.

"I’ll have to ask my boss," Douglas said easily. "She may not want me giving away all our advantages."

"Why not?" one of those out of the ring asked.

"Because if you know the moves and blocks I used on him, I might have to use stronger and more complicated techniques to beat you."

"He may have to kill you instead of just knocking you down," an older Rakshani stated. "And I’d better not catch any of you young fools trying to duplicate his moves! I have a feeling it took this human years to master the type of control and restraint we saw him using on Kestnit today. Let’s see if he can get permission to train us in the basic forms before we start hurting each other ‘playing’ at this human way of fighting."

"I heard you gave a little ‘demo’ on the proper way to wipe the floor with Rakshani," Debbie commented when Douglas entered the suite of rooms the marines had been assigned.

"He asked nicely, though I may have overdone the last set," Douglas replied. "Several of them are all but begging me to teach these ‘new human moves’, including one of their instructors."

"I seem to recall you spent some time as an instructor on Earth, think you could handle them?"

"No problem teaching them, but should we?"

"I heard Neal’s driving their techs crazy; no reason we can’t demonstrate that marines also have a couple of tricks up our sleeves. Though I’d stick to hand to hand for now."

"I’m going to have to change things up a bit. While we’re more into punching, they’re more into taking swipes at each other."

"That was Neal’s advantage, you know. They had no idea how he would move," Debbie chuckled.

"I’ve already seen a couple of them try throwing punches," Douglas commented with a grin. "The look on their face when they accidentally drive their claws into their own hands is almost comical."

"I see no problems if you’re willing to teach them," Debbie told him. "Plus you’ll learn more this way than by just watching them fight."

"I’ll tell ‘em the big bad ol’ accountant said I could," Douglas laughed.

Debbie laughed with him. "I guess it’s too late to admit the true rank structure of our team …"

"It worked out," Douglas replied. "I wasn’t sure what Neal was playing at – at first, but it did buy us more time and a less confrontational attitude from the Rakshani."

"But why make me the top of the ‘most dangerous person to cross’ lineup?"

"The unknown makes you pause and reconsider your objectives and mission plan. Neal walked onto this station and showed no fear or remorse at killing an attacking Rakshani, yet he could be trusted with a small cub – that impressed the Rakshani watching. That human marines were sent ‘impressed’ him, which made the Rakshani wonder if a fox was guarding their henhouse. And then he all but throws a fit when he discovers they sent an accountant? Those poor cats had no idea which way to run!"

"I did like that part that I might nickel and dime them to death," Debbie chuckled. "But the fear I get off some of them I don’t like."

"Get in their face about it," Douglas suggested. "The next one that cowers before you, yank them down to your level and tell them to grow a pair or you’re going to give them a real reason to fear you."

"Something to think about," she agreed. "How’s Neal keeping Redtail occupied?"

"He ‘lent’ her out to medical to help with the humans. She’s not as intimidating as the Rakshani, and she is very helpful."

"Neal’s leaving her unprotected?"

"Na, one of ‘his’ Rakshani or the chakats are always with her."

"Ha! I want to be there when you say one of them is ‘his’," Debbie laughed.

"I heard one of them saying it," Douglas informed her. "Dick was answering why Neal only seem to fully trust some Rakshani and he said ‘If you’re not one of his, you haven’t earned the trust’."

"I wonder what other Rakshani think of Neal and his little clique of friends …"

"Envy right now. Neal’s at the core of the teardown and rebuild of Red, but there’s only so much of him to go around."

"So your playing trainer might take some of the load off him. Another reason to do it."

"Agreed …"

"The humans are all awake," Redtail called into an open panel in engineering.

"I know," Neal’s voice called back, "I’ve talked to most of them."

"One of them wants to talk to you again."

"After lunch."

"Actually, he’s demanding to speak to you now," Wilma added. "I wasn’t allowed to growl at him."

"Let me guess, a very self-important type personage," Neal’s voice dryly commented.

"Yes, he says he’s a ‘Bonnell Richards’. Seems he’s an Earth bigwig and very full of himself" Redtail agreed.

"Tell that pompous ass that I am no man’s slave and I don’t answer to the likes of him. If he wants to talk to me, it will be at my convenience. Then politely ask if he still wants to speak to me, if he says yes you can say that you’ll let me know," Neal told her. "Let me know how he takes it, the more he yells the longer it will be," Neal added with a grin. "Wilma, if he starts to upset Redtail you have my permission to do more than just growl."

"With pleasure!" Wilma said before they trotted off.

"Do you know who I am?" sneered the human Neal had only had the displeasure of seeing once before. He had come out of his drugged period swearing that he would sue everyone in sight.

"I surmise that you’re loud and obnoxious, but it’s possible you may have other annoying traits," Neal replied as he gathered a few things for his late dinner. He then moved his tray over to a table where Harry and several other Rakshani were talking over the remains of their own late meal.

"They won’t let me talk to the bastards that kidnapped me and said that I should talk to you. You’re either going to tell me what I want to know or you’ll spend the rest of your life behind bars as a collaborator!" he sneered.

"I don’t think Raksha has adopted Earth laws as yet, nor does Earth have any jurisdiction here, so you can ‘piss off’ and let me enjoy my dinner," Neal grumbled without turning.

"Now see here!" the human snarled as he grabbed Neal’s shoulder – only to have one of the Rakshani slap his hand off of Neal as he growled something at him in Katang Low Tongue.

"He was wondering if he’s allowed to drop idiots like you out the airlocks," Neal commented around a mouthful of food. "I would guess that I’m not the only one you’ve managed to rub the wrong way since you woke up. Tell you what, I’ll ask one of them to take you to the slaver’s captain and his crew."

"Well why the hell do I need your permission to see them?" he demanded.

Ignoring him, Neal said in Katang Low Tongue, "Harry, could I get you to escort this fool to where they are keeping the bodies? Lock him in for a few hours so he has plenty of time to ‘talk’ to them."

"Gladly," Harry replied as he stood to tower over the still standing human. Grabbing him by the arm, he yanked him towards the doors.

"Where is he taking me?" he demanded as he was dragged away.

"Where you wanted to go," Neal said just before the doors closed.

Harry took the long way around, taking a certain pleasure in forcing the human to keep up. "One idiot to see the slavers," he told the guard at the door to the cold room.

Opening the door, he dragged the human in and then closed it behind them. Several tables with built-in drains were at one end of the room, while a pile of body bags were laid against one wall. Harry read a couple of the labels Redtail had made as she and Grace bagged the remains. "Captain," he said as he pulled a bag from the pile. "Crew," he added indicating the remaining bags before turning to the door. "The human you were bothering was the one that killed them. Many of us are grateful he did. I would suggest not bothering him again." Harry then left, suggesting the guard not let the human out for an hour or so.

"You can’t go around locking people in the morgue," Douglas said once he had Harry alone.

"He was bothering Neal about the slavers. I simply put him in contact with their remains," Harry replied. "And I warned the station commander that I did it. He agreed that it would probably be better that we do something about it – rather than letting Neal remove the disturbance."

"Okay, if the commander signed off on it I’ll say no more about it. How are they doing at keeping Neal busy?"

"Warp cores aren’t my specialty, but the engineers seem happy with what they’re getting – not that they are really keeping him ‘busy’ enough …"

"Oh? More trouble that I’ll soon be hearing about?" Douglas asked.

"No, just that it seems he has the odd few minutes here and there to ‘play’. He got those parts back from Blueclaw, seems there were still at least two ‘shots’ left in his little hand phaser. He did another ‘level two’ burn before using a remote control to fire a full blast. I’m not sure even our armor would save someone firing it by hand, but the damage it did to the practice range before blowing up was impressive!"

"Please tell me he hasn’t made himself a replacement."

"Not that I’ve heard, but then we didn’t know about any of his other toys before he brought them out. They’re still trying to find a way to fully combat his ‘screamer’. If he managed to do that station wide you could take over without firing a shot."

"We’re not here to take over," Douglas carefully said.

"I know that. Just as I also know you’re in command of the marines and not that little accountant," Harry said with a grin at the slightly guarded look on Douglas’s face. "No, no one told me, but it was hard to miss her often looking over to see if you agreed to whatever was being discussed."

"I’ll have to remind her of that," Douglas agreed, relaxing a little. "Any hint that that little deception has bothered your higher ups?"

"I seriously doubt they even suspect. I only knew from working with Neal all this time. From what I’ve seen, he will misdirect and lie if need be to get you going in the direction he wants. He wanted to ensure peace, so he painted you as supermen and twisted your rank structure so an attack might not cut out your best people first. And to make sure we’d believe it he portrayed himself as ‘harmless’ compared to you – yet even he could take down Rakshani, seemingly at will … How am I doing?" Harry asked with a chuckle.

"That’s pretty close to how we were reading things," Douglas agreed. "Does knowing you’re probably right change anything?"

"No. Ever since the peace treaty was agreed to, Neal’s been getting more and more into the background. He’s doing what he promised to do on getting Red up and teaching us her systems, but he’s staying out of the spotlight as far as Raksha and Rakshani are concerned." Chuckling again, Harry added, "I think he likes working in the background, only stepping forward when he has to …"

"There will be a couple of those humans aboard for the test runs; they are not to be trusted," a Rakshani was telling those following him down a corridor as they headed for the ship they were to test for the next two to three weeks.

A Rakshani female, almost pure white with light gray stripes, had been ahead of them with another group. On hearing that remark she brought her group to a stop to wait for those following.

"Sir, I am Blueclaw, Red’s head of engineering. Did I hear you say we should not trust the humans?" she asked.

"No human can be trusted, they used tricks to prevent the war and have now sold us this piece of junk as if they were doing us a favor," he growled.

"Then you may want to request a different duty station, as the humans were the ones directing the repairs and modifications to Red. The Deities only know what tricks they might have thrown in with the repairs," she snapped back.

"You like humans?" he demanded in surprise.

"Better than I like warmongering Rakshani!" she replied with a glare. "Two of those humans saved my life after that excuse for a diplomat stabbed me. Leave your attitude behind or you’ll be shown the outside of an airlock without a suit!"

"Or we can let the humans ‘play’ with him," another female Rakshani suggested. "Douglas still refuses to show us some of his moves because it’s too easy to slip and kill your opponent. Maybe he won’t mind if someone ‘slips’ on this one ..."

"No, Wilma. I was thinking of giving him to Neal to play with," Blueclaw said. "Maybe he’ll have another toy to show us."

"I thought you guys were keeping a close eye on him?" Wilma half asked.

"We have been, but as he’s proven before, a weapon is only a tool used for a new purpose," Blueclaw reminded her. "It’s been a while since we Rakshani have given him an excuse to put us in our place. Perhaps this one was sent as bait to see what he might do," she hinted with a grin as they resumed walking to the ship.

As they neared to boarding tube Blueclaw said, "Last chance to escape, the ship you’re about to enter has a human in charge of the warp core. He could blow the whole ship on a whim."

"Oh, come on, he’s more selective of his targets than that," Wilma laughed as they stepped into the airlocks and began showing their IDs to the guard.

"Status?" Blueclaw asked as the guard returned her ID.

"Antimatter loading was completed two hours ago, all supplies provisioned," he replied. "Just waiting for a few more warm bodies – and for him to wake up."

"Up all night again, was he?" Wilma laughed.

"So I heard. Captain says we can spend the time at low power getting clear of the gravity wells before we need him." Looking at another group coming up on the airlock, the guard added, "That should be the last of them – Hey Douglas! I want to toss you!"

"Get in line," the human said with a laugh. "You guys still need more of a workup before you get to that point!"

"This one’s telling the others not to trust you humans," Wilma said jerking a thumb at the one they’d heard earlier.

"And well you shouldn’t," Douglas readily agreed. "My students have learned not to trust me when I say I’ll go ‘easy’ on them – and I hear the engineering group groaning every time Neal says something is easy to understand."

"His mind bends things differently than Rakshani," Blueclaw replied. "It’s like he is hitting a problem from a side we can’t even see."

"The experts are still battling over how he got us here," Wilma told them. "Since known physics has failed to answer their questions, they’re now moving towards magic and Deity intervention."

"He does seem to have the devil’s own luck," Douglas admitted. "Though sometimes the payback can be kind of rough on him."

"Redtail’s been keeping an eye on him," Blueclaw commented. "She waits until the Rakshani in the room are getting glassy-eyed before telling him it’s time for something else."

The Rakshani that had started the discussion was about to give his ID to the guard, but Blueclaw stopped him. "Last chance," she told him. "If you step aboard this ship, you best have left your prejudice at the airlock."

"Or at least reserve judgment until you’ve actually spent some time dealing with some of us," Douglas suggested as the guard just waved him through.

"I’ll reserve judgment," the Rakshani growled, giving Blueclaw a dirty look.

"That’s all we can ask," Douglas said. "You’ll find that like Rakshani, we are each different with some being easier to deal with than others."

"Neal’s an acquired taste," Wilma laughed.

"Like you did any tasting with Redtail in the way," Blueclaw snickered as they headed deeper into the ship.

"She is rather possessive of him," Wilma agreed, "but I meant learning how to deal with him. Every time I think I’ve got him figured out he does something to make me start all over again."

"He does that," Blueclaw agreed. "He’ll have a vocal knockdown, drag-out fight with the ones working on the warp system repairs – only to be asking how their sick cub is doing when he sees them at mealtime."

"Same with me," Douglas told them. "As an instructor, I will do everything I can to beat knowledge into your thick skulls. But out of class, I’m just another guy. Some of my best Rakshani friends are the ones I’ve bounced the hardest on the mats."

"That’s because we know you’re really teaching and not just going through the motions," Wilma told him. "When you can throw me, I know that it isn’t brute force, but knowledge and technique – and I want to learn how to do it too!"

"I was wondering at all the Rakshani they’re piling aboard for a simple test flight," Douglas commented.

"This ship was proof that some of our ship disappearances weren’t simple problems but enemy action," Wilma told him. "Anybody trying to take this ship will have a fight on their hands."

"Putting guns and shields on a transport doesn’t turn it into a warship," Douglas cautioned her.

"True, but if they want us or this ship, that means they have to board us – and we hope to surprise them," she replied.

"We threw in a couple of Neal’s tricks," Blueclaw added. "Gravity can now be selectively kicked up to six G’s and he’s even configured the airlock corridors to go sideways! Let them get to one end and then let them ‘fall’ towards the airlock at six G’s – should be quite messy if their ship is docked."

"Okay, so you’ve taught this beast some new tricks," he acknowledged. "What time do we leave?"

"We’ll probably break seals within the hour and start heading out," Blueclaw told him. "Neal’s napping, so the high power and warp tests will wait until he’s up."

"Why are we staging everything around some human’s sleep pattern?" the Rakshani half demanded.

"Hmmm, because he knows the systems better than we do?" Blueclaw hissed.

"Or because he brought it in, running engineering single handedly?" Wilma asked.

"Or because he was probably been spending long nights getting it ready weeks before everyone else’s best estimates?" Douglas asked.

"We managed to dope his water, once. After that he had Redtail sample everything first," Blueclaw admitted. "Not that I really blame him, he wakes up to a headache and is groggy for hours after getting up."

"And we’ll want him alert during the testing," Wilma said as a two toned note played from the speakers near them. "That’s the undocking warning, the captain must be in a hurry to get things started."

"A race?" the human captain asked, disbelief evident on his face.

"Why not?" the Rakshani captain cheerfully replied. "I understand that your ship is to head for Raksha in the next day or so. It will take that long for us to resupply and start back ourselves."

"From what I saw, you’re running an early model Earth transport," the human tried to explain, "while I have a destroyer with much more modern engines."

"That’s why I’d like a little race with both ships heading through the same areas of space, to see if my engineers have improved things half as much as they claim they have."

"If they left when they said they did, then they did do better than the diplomatic ship that came from Raksha," pointed out the Voxxan base commander. "Though we would like you to leave behind the Voxxan female ‘Redtail’," he told the Rakshani captain.

"That would be up to her. Be warned, she doesn’t want to be separated from the human that freed her," the Rakshani told them.

"Are you sure he wasn’t one of the slavers?" the human captain asked the Rakshani.

"Positive. He was drugged with the rest of the ‘cargo’ and only woke when their engineer was killed by something he was ‘playing’ with. They were desperate and picked the wrong person to wake up as he gained enough control to kill the slavers. I understand Redtail helped him find a navigator – a Rakshani, who then insisted they wake still more Rakshani to help bring the ship to Raksha. He may be many things, gentlemen, but a slaver is not one of them."

"Would you trust him behind you with a weapon? the Voxxan casually asked.

"He’s the one teaching my engineers to use the human-made warp systems, so you could say at times my entire crew is at risk of him. Those that know him don’t fear him, those that don’t should."

"Meaning?" the Voxxan asked.

"Threaten him and he’ll likely do just enough to deflect your attack. Threaten those he feels are under his protection and he will kill without a second thought. I don’t know what that diplomatic ship might have told you, but he’s one of the main reasons Raksha is not at war with the humans." Cocking his head back at the other captain, he half taunted, "So, want to race? Or does the thought that I have a half-crazed human making my core and engines roar frighten you?"

"Ok, it’s a race," he agreed with a half grin. "We’ll let Raksha know you’re on your way back."

"Or perhaps we’ll tell them to expect you some day, hopefully soon" the Rakshani teased back. Almost as an afterthought he added, "I hope I’m not overdoing things. The humans I’ve been dealing with have humor that rivals Rakshani, but I’m told they may be the exceptions and not the rule."

"And I’d been warned not to instigate anything because the Rakshani take their honor far too seriously," the human laughed back.

"In front of others, we will have to be careful, lest our crews think their captains are being insulted, but in private we decide what is insult and what is jest. While my engineer didn’t actually say we could beat you, I understand he told the engineers he’s training that we could ‘give you a run for your money’. I understood that to mean he thinks we are a lot faster than you expect us to be."

"‘A run for our money’? Is there then a wager involved?" the human asked with a grin.

"A day and a half," the human captain grumbled yet again as he nursed an oversized mug of what the Rakshani called beer. It was fruitier than what he was used too, and he’d been warned that it was more potent as well.

His ship’s doctor was sitting to one side trying one of the Rakshan wines. He asked, "What’s the big deal? We beat them – didn’t we?"

"Oh yeah, we ‘beat’ them all right," his captain agreed, "but we should have beat them by weeks – if not a month … one old beat up transport almost beating a modern destroyer…."

From the captain’s other side, came a wolf’s growl as his furry chief navigator commented, "Having our warp experts declaring the thing would blow before it even got to warp didn’t help."

"At least they honored the bet," the doctor added, trying to cheer them up.

"Sure they did," his captain agreed with a grown. "They paraded us around as the winners and provided the best banquet I’ve ever seen. Too bad command won’t be quite so proud of us when we get home."

"Any chance of grabbing their expert and finding out what he did to their ship?" the wolf half joked.

"Na," the captain replied. "Even if we were crazy enough to try, he’s still up on the station. Scuttlebutt says that Red’s leaving for the Cait system in the next day or so and he’ll be on it.

"The captain will be happy to hear that we managed to impress you," a Rakshan voice gently growled from behind them. "May I join you?" Blueclaw asked as she came around to the other side of their table.

"Come to rub it in?" the captain asked, even as he waved at the chair across from him.

"No, I’m more interested in getting your points of view. While Neal is good at making things work, he’s not always good at explaining why they work the way they do," she told them. "Agreeing to this means your engineers would have access to what we have in order to explain it to us," she hinted with a grin.

The other three perked up at the thought of gaining information. "I’m sure something could be arranged," the captain readily agreed. "Though before my engineers start barraging yours with questions, could you give me the basics?"

Blueclaw chuckled. "Basically, you were racing against the first Raksha/Earth hybrid core. The original core was in bad shape and then further damaged when he had to jettison it on reaching Raksha. The controls also suffered enough damage that we weren’t sure he could ever get it going again, but he proved us wrong. Over half the core fields are Rakshan made, while not as nice as those that were damaged, they can take a lot more abuse without failing. We tested them at the overload settings Neal had been forced to use to get Red here, and they easily carried the load. So what you might have considered ‘emergency’ settings are now normal for Red. We had to tweak the engines to handle the extra power, but we left them mostly Earth made as they were more tunable than our Rakshan equivalents."

The navigator let out a low whistle before saying, "Damn … if trading out a few parts gave them that much of a boost, I wonder what a real team of experts could come up with from the data – you guys did record the runs I hope?"

"To be shared," Blueclaw agreed, "provided the research is shared with us."

"I think I can agree with that," the captain quietly said. "We’ll need your people to translate it anyway."

"Not as much as you might think," Blueclaw replied. "While Neal now has a good spoken grasp of our primary language, his reading skills are still best in Earth formats – and we didn’t want him misreading something and killing us all," she added with a grin. "I need my captain and our diplomat to sign off on it, but I can’t see them saying no to exchanging knowledge."

"So, when do we get to talk to this Neal?" the captain asked.

"You won’t," Blueclaw replied, "Red left the station two hours ago. Their next stop should be Cait, delivering some of those that had been kidnapped by the slavers. Neal won’t be coming back with them unless Red’s captain has to allow him into engineering to fix something."

"Got a minute, Major?" a Rakshani voice purred into the open hatch of the sleeping area.

Douglas turned from his packing to find Blueclaw standing just outside the hatch, and he could see Wilma and Betty behind her.

"Sure," he replied as he stepped towards the hatch, the Rakshani stepping back to let him exit. "Though I’m not sure why you think I’m a Major …"

In the main area he found the rest of Neal’s hellcats, several of which chuckled at his comment.

"Our ears are much better than your fellow humans think," Harry told him. "It’s surprising how much you can hear when just around the corner from them."

"Or even not just around the corner," Tony said from where he sat with Grace. Their bonding had been recorded, but he wasn’t sure the method would ever be used by other Rakshani. Neal hadn’t give Grace to him so much as given him to Grace with the instructions not to be too rough with her new toy.

Grace now turned to Tony and utilized another new toy from Neal to whisper something in his ear. She held a small device to her neck and it supplied a tone that she could manipulate with her mouth to again form words. Old Earth tech again was found to be useful.

"Somehow I don’t think my supposed rank is what brings you to me," Douglas dryly commented as he watched their interplay. His position as an instructor had gotten him a lot closer to knowing the station Rakshani as a people than even Neal had accomplished on Ides/Red. He smiled slightly at the group. All but Grace had been identified and now knew their names and Houses, but they were still going by their human names – even Dick, who had been the first to start recovering his memory.

"You’re right," Harry agreed. "This is what we want to better understand," he said as he handed the marine an Earth made memory chit. "There’s a song on it that Neal kept playing; we’d like you to translate it for us."

The marine returned to his room for a minute, returning with a portable player. Slipping the memory chit into it, he brought up the player and scanned the chit. He didn’t recognize a lot of the choices, but one had been marked so he activated the file. There was no video, and only two channel audio but his system understood the format and began playing. The tune sounded old – predating the Gene Wars and possibly predating furry morphs on Earth.

Douglas let it run for about a minute before stopping it. "Is this the song Neal was playing?" he asked them. At their nods, he started the song over and played it through to the end. Looking at all of them staring at him, he said, "I’m going to need to check the translations for a few of the words, but I think I can give you the high points."

I'm still alive
Must have been a miracle
It's been a hell of-ah ride
Destination still unknown

"Neal always looks somber at the beginning, is it sad?" Blueclaw asked.

"You might think so," Douglas admitted. "The singer is wondering how he made it this far, and there’s still no end in sight."

It's a fact of life:
If you make one wrong move with the gun to your head
You better walk the line or you'll be left for dead

"He sometimes glares a little at the next part," Wilma pointed out.

"It just states that if someone’s holding a weapon on you, you have to do what you’re told or die."

"Or so the slavers thought," Blueclaw half laughed. "They thought they had him, but they couldn’t keep him."

I'm a runaway train on a broken track
I'm the ticker on the bomb that you can't turn back this time
That's right
I got away with it all and I'm still alive
Let the end of the world come tumbling down
I'll be the last man standing on the ground

"Most of the engineering department would sing this part with him, even though we had no idea what it means," Blueclaw chuckled.

"Hmmm, explaining this part might be interesting," Douglas said. "I remember seeing your rail lines moving goods between the cities; the singer compares himself to one that’s out of control and riding on damaged tracks, in other words a crash is coming and there’s no way to stop it. The next line compares him to a bomb ticking down that also can’t be stopped."

"Chaos thy name is Neal?" Debbie asked from the doorway.

Douglas ignored her and added, "The last part is just saying he’s been through it all and yet he’s still around."

"So Neal thinks he’ll live forever?" Wilma asked sounding confused.

Douglas translated the next lines for them. "‘As long as hot blood runs through my veins,
I'm still alive’
. Basically the world just hasn’t managed to kill him off yet," Douglas finished.

"Is that it?" Harry asked, "is there any more reason to the song that would mean something to him?"

"I think so," Douglas admitted. "The first is being forced to do something, but he gets around it and his blood is still flowing in his veins."

Lost in the night
Feeling so invisible
Oh, dead man walking the wire
High above the devils net
That's made of fire
And it's a long way down from the top of the world
You better look around or you gonna get burned

"This next could be him driving the slaver to Raksha, having to balance each risk against the others in order to bring the ship in and dealing with whatever he found waiting for him. It ends with ‘And as the dust clears look in my eyes, I'm still alive’."

"It kind of reminds me of right after they carted Blueclaw away with that sword handle sticking out of her," Dick commented. "After all that action, he was still standing there, seemingly ready for more if we were foolish enough to ask for it."

Douglas nodded. "The rest of it was of hope – and of continued challenges …"

The darkest night ain't black enough
To keep the morning light from shinin'
The highest wall ain't tall enough
To keep the smallest man from climbin'

The more that you resist the tide
The more it pulls you in
The more you hang on for your life

"The last line seems to be a promise to the future," Douglas told them. "‘And if my shadow's all that survives, I'm still alive’."

"Shadow?" Harry asked.

Debbie chuckled again. "He’s touched each of our lives and more. Even if we never see or hear from him again, Raksha will never be the same Raksha it would have been had he not paid us a visit. His shadow or legacy now guides all of us down paths that may not have been there had he not stepped into your lives and brought you home."

Dick shivered. "Raksha could have been at war, while I tried to fight becoming a slave … I think I don’t mind knowing that the shadows of his actions will haunt us for a long time to come."

The others nodded in agreement and they remained quiet for a long moment.

Douglas broke the silence by releasing the memory chit and handing it back to Harry. "That song has to be at least a hundred years old – most likely more. It’s funny that something so old can still move you."

Debbie snorted lightly before saying, "From what those chakats have hinted, Neal may have been around when that song was recorded. And after what he did to Raksha – Cait had better watch out!"

(Song Lyrics from Meat Loaf’s ‘Alive’)


Copyright © 2011 Allen Fesler –

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


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