(This takes place long before the ‘Tales of the Folly’ story – about the time Pogo Stick was created.)
Eight weeks Earth time. Fifty-six days. Thirteen hundred and forty-four hours. Eighty thousand six hundred and forty minutes …
Kicked off his own damn ship by the yard-dogs. Well, they did have their reasons. The last set of upgrades had taken far longer than scheduled due to a certain red-haired human’s meddling.
Stuck with an unwanted impromptu vacation, said red-haired human now roamed the Consateen Space Station, wondering what he could possibly do to keep himself occupied that long. His random route led him past one of the many sets of docking ports that double-ringed the station, this one having been opened since his last trip around this level.
Two furs at the open hatch were having a discussion bordering on an argument about something. The bear’s outfit said station security while the wolf wore a plain jumpsuit, a bit grubby as if he’d been working on or around something dirty. At a growled demand from the bear, the wolf glared at the bear before turning and closing the hatch behind him.
Forgetting his boredom, he watched the furs each leave in a different direction. His mere human ears had failed to hear what had been said, but even his nose could detect some of the odors in the air that had come from the direction of the now closed hatch. It seemed the ship had thought to exchange their rather foul air with the station’s in a manner not permitted.
A quick trip back to his temporary room on the station and with a couple queries of the station’s database and he had a rough idea of how he might spend his ‘vacation’. The ship in that slot was named Maverick, and the job board reported that she was looking to hire an environmental specialist. The job info included her stops and times; she would be returning to Consateen station in roughly seven Earth weeks. Checking his personal database, he found that he hadn’t had any direct contact with the ship or her known crew, so with a little luck he should be able to slip into the role without being found out.
It was a quick trip back to the maintenance ports where his ship had been docked for its refit. The Caitian guard that had witnessed his being kicked off his ship opened her muzzle to speak, but hesitated as the human brought a finger to his lips for silence. "I’m just going to get a couple more things I’ll be needing," he promised as he stepped past her.
A quick stop in his ship quarters saw him loaded with a pack filled with clothing and personal items for his possible working vacation. His next stop took him past where the yard dogs were preparing to start the work he’d ordered. Seeing the foreman start in his direction, he placed his hand over his mouth and continued on, the chakat foreman sitting back down on hir haunches to wait and see what he would try next.
Once in engineering, he started gathering the test equipment, tools, and instruments he thought he might need for the next seven weeks. Two environmental suits, a light one for inside work and a heavier one for outside, finished filling a roll-around carrier to near capacity. Going past the foreman again, he gave hir a wink and a smile, again without saying a word.
Once back on the station, he checked the job board again; the posting was still open so he headed for the station office listed. The male Voxxan inside looked up as he entered, an eyebrow rising as he pulled his gear in behind him.
"Can I help you?" the Voxxan asked.
"Possibly …" the human admitted. "I saw a listing on the job board for an environmental tech. As my current post will be out of service for the next two Earth months, I’m looking for something to help pay the bills until then."
"While we run a mixed crew, you’ll be the only human onboard," the Voxxan warned him.
"Not a problem," he said with a chuckle, "the biggest issue I run into with furs is that they like their thermostats set a little lower than I do. I on the other hand don’t clog the drain filters after almost every shower."
Chuckling, the Voxxan extended his hand. "Torence Barr."
"Neal Alan," the human replied clasping the furry hand in his own. With his other hand he offered a data chit he had prepared while he was getting his gear.
Torence accepted the chit and ran it through his reader. After a few minutes of reading he looked up at Neal and grinned. "Your captain speaks well of you," he commented.
Neal grinned in return. "Captain Foster can be a soft touch at times."
"That’s not what I’ve heard of him," Torence replied with a raised eyebrow as he looked up from the display.
Neal chuckled. "Screw with him and he’ll hand you your lungs," he admitted. "Keep your word when working with him and you can get away with a lot."
Torence stared at him for a minute before slowly nodding. "Very well; I take it the posted rates were acceptable?" At Neal’s nod, he closed his terminal and got up. "Let me show you where you will be bunking and let you look over the chore you just signed up for."
Torence led Neal to the docks and the wolf that was back to standing by the closed hatch. "This is Graywalker, our chief engineer. The rest of my crew are visiting the station."
"And getting some fresh air. Damn security won’t let me leave the hatch open, Skip," the wolf grumbled. "Who’s this?"
"Someone I’m hoping can correct our environmental issues," Torence told him. "This is Neal."
"Hope he’s better than the last two," Graywalker muttered, deliberately ignoring Neal.
"Only one way to find out," Torence reminded him as he opened the hatch.
The smell was worse direct from the source, making Neal wonder how the furs with their more sensitive noses could stand it.
"You get used to it after a couple days," Torence commented to him as if in answer.
"I’ll need your parts manifest so I know what I have to work with, and what I’ll need to get before we leave," Neal suggested as Torence opened a door leading to a small cabin.
"I’ll have it accessible by your room’s terminal within the hour. We leave tomorrow at sixteen hundred ship’s time. That gives you less than a day to get what you need."
"Should be plenty of time for my initial checks; I’ll have a parts list ready for you by ten hundred," Neal promised as he stowed his gear after grabbing a set of testers.
After looking over the ship’s schematics, Neal moved through the common areas of the ship, placing small sensors just inside the access panels for the air outflow and returns.
"What’cha doing?" asked a small voice as he was closing one of the air return grills in the galley.
Turning, Neal found a five or six year old Voxxan watching him from the door, the color and cut of the robe suggesting a female. Neal nodded to her before turning back to finish securing the panel. "Just seeing if I can make the air a little nicer in here," he said as he turned back to her. "My name’s Neal. And who might you be?"
"I’m Kassy," she said as she stepped up to watch as he entered commands into the PADD he had set on the table. "What’s that do?" she wondered.
"Well, this lets me monitor these," Neal explained, showing her one of the little silver sensors he was installing. "They’ll tell me how much the air is changing so I can see what needs fixing."
"They’re pretty," she said as she picked one up.
"Daughter," Torence said from the hatch, "those are not toys."
"That’s all right," Neal assured him. "I have more than enough sensors."
A gleeful giggle and the little Voxxan was out the door with her prize. At her father’s scowl, Neal grinned and added, "And now I don’t have to ask your permission to place one in her room, as I need to do with each compartment." Tossing one to Torence he said, "In your room near your bed please."
"What all will this monitor?" he asked, looking over the little sensor.
"The PADD queries them for gases and air pressure only," Neal assured him. "They’re good for about a month before they need recharging."
Nodding, Torence dropped it into his pocket before leaving Neal to his task.
Neal left the ship two hours later, not having met any more of the crew. He placed an order for some of things he knew he’d need before going to one of the station’s restaurants for a late snack. As he dug into a small steak and salad, he watched the tables around him.
What looked like a family group of Caitians had filled a corner booth. The way the lone male was carrying on with one of the females suggested she was in heat, another female calming them down while they were still in public pointed out the family’s first wife.
At another table set very low, a group of the meter tall Merraki were snorting their laughter at something they were viewing on a PADD they were passing around. The potent blue liquid in the bottoms of their glasses told Neal the bipedal lizards would most likely be staggering or even crawling to their next destination.
Two tables over, there was a group of Rakshani having drinks. There were two males and four females, their uniforms telling Neal that a Rakshan military vessel had docked since he’d last checked the station’s boards. He watched as a non-uniformed Rakshani made to join them, only to be sent away, wrinkled noses and growls letting the lone male know he wasn’t welcome. As he turned, Neal saw his shoulder patch matched the ones he’d seen Torence and Graywalker wearing. Raising an eyebrow, Neal tapped his table twice to get the Rakshani’s attention and wave him over.
One of the seated Rakshani had seen the wave and called out, "He stinks!" in Katang Low Tongue.
Neal smiled as he retorted in Ratarsk, "Then it’s a good thing I have a mere human nose!" Switching to Terranglo, as the Rakshani languages were harder on his throat, Neal added, "I would be happy if you’d join me."
"Why?" the smelly Rakshani demanded.
"Because Captain Barr hasn’t given me a ship’s patch yet," Neal replied with a grin. "I’m Neal."
"If we’re being informal, I’m Treckka," he said as he sat down. Speaking softly he added, "I took a shower to try to remove the stench, but their noses can still smell it on me …"
"I’ve been hired to see if I can’t help with that little problem," Neal admitted. "You guys seem to have quite a mess over there."
"Tell me about it," Treckka muttered before cocking a hard eye at Neal. "Are you actually joining us? The last environmentalist jumped ship when he couldn’t stand the smell."
"As I told your friends, my human nose is to my advantage."
Treckka glared back at the table of Rakshani and caught one of the females watching him before she turned her head back to her friends. He growled in frustration, only to stop at Neal’s chuckle.
With the glare now on him, Neal asked, "What’s she worth to you?"
"She’s not for sale by the likes of you!" Treckka protested.
Neal ignored his outburst. "Is she worth another shower and buying a fresh ship suit?" he countered. As Treckka stared at him, Neal grinned. "I still have a room rented on station, think you can de-stink yourself before she’s ready to leave?"
Treckka looked back over at the other table before taking a deep breath. "You are done eating," he told Neal.
"No, I’m not," Neal corrected as he fished a keycard out of his pocket. Tossing it at Treckka he said, "There’s some Austinidic hair shampoo all the way from Cait in the bag on the bed – use it."
With a quick nod Treckka hurried out. Neal went back to his meal, silently counting the seconds since Treckka had passed from view. He didn’t get to twenty before the female that Treckka had been watching was standing over him, her drink in hand.
"Why did you do that?" she asked, having clearly heard their short conversation.
"Tomorrow he will be one of my shipmates, and I thought you looked interested in him – right up to the moment your friends smelled him," Neal countered. "If he does it right, you have at least twenty, possibly thirty Earth minutes before he returns."
"Do you always play Rakshani matchmaker?" she asked as she sat down – not in the seat Treckka had used.
"No, but keeping on the good side of Rakshani has always proven to be beneficial," was all that Neal admitted to.
"An intelligent human … what is the Federation coming to?" she teased.
Neal smiled. "Intelligent enough to also suggest that you remind him that he has my room’s keycard later, unless you’re planning to take him to your quarters?"
"I think not," she replied, glancing at the other table. "Will we have to worry about you showing up at a bad moment?" she softly growled, only half kidding.
"No, I’ll be working tonight," Neal assured her. "Just ask him to bring my bags when he returns to the Maverick."
"Can do," she said, "and thank you."
"Just ‘pass it forward’," Neal replied. At her look of confusion he grinned. "You know how to pay back a favor, right?" At her nod he said, "The odds of you being able to pay me back are remote, so I’m asking that you do someone else a favor when you don’t necessarily expect it returned."
"Crazy customs you humans have," she muttered.
"Very few of us I fear," Neal said as he finished his meal.
Twenty-two minutes later a still slightly damp Treckka didn’t quite run back into the restaurant, his muzzle drooping a bit when he saw the empty table where the Rakshani had been seated, making the double-take when he looked to Neal’s table all the more humorous. Ignoring his slack-jawed shipmate, Neal stood as he nodded to the party still sitting at his table. "His ship leaves at sixteen hundred, Quinzet. Try to not keep him up all night."
"Wait," she requested as she also stood. Stepping up to Treckka, she took a deep breath … and smiled. "Very nice; what did you have him use?"
Neal said, "It’s a blended herbal shampoo. I’ve found that it will get just about anything out of my hair."
Sticking her nose right into Treckka’s neck fur for a deeper sniff, Quinzet nodded and grinned. "And it also gets disagreeable odors out of fur. It seems I will owe that favor we discussed."
Neal nodded to her before he looked up at Treckka. "Don’t prove me wrong," he suggested as he left.
"Wrong about what?" Treckka grumbled, turning to watch the human leave.
"He suggested you might be worth the wait," Quinzet quietly growled. "My friends are gone, so the only person you have to impress now is me …"
Fifteen thirty had Treckka cheerfully entering his security code on the access hatch to the Maverick, Neal’s bags in hand. He braced himself for the stench of the ship, but was surprised when it wasn’t quite as bad as he remembered. Several relatively small units had been mounted close to the ceiling of the corridor; they hummed as they stirred up the surrounding air. The hatch to the galley was open, another of the air units humming away inside. Also in the galley was the rest of the crew. Torence sat at the head of the main table with his daughter at his left side. To his right was Tonya Cantu, Maverick’s primary pilot/navigator and second in command. The arctic fox morph may have looked like a busty fluff head, but Treckka had learned the hard way that the sexy looking vixen had a very sharp mind, beating him soundly at any game requiring analytical thought. Graywalker, a wolf morph of the Winters clan, sat on her other side. The ship’s young chief engineer looked even more unhappy than usual. Across from the wolf were the ship’s taurs; Chakats Morningsky and Wilypuma were their doctor and procurement specialist. Neal sat at the other end of the short table, a couple of PADDs in front of him. Treckka set Neal’s bags on a bench by the hatch before dropping into his seat next to Graywalker. Smiling at the Torence, he asked, "What’d I miss?"
Torence nodded towards Neal as he replied, "We have a new environmentalist – this is Neal Alan. While he’ll be paid full shares, he’ll only be with us until we return to this station. Neal, this is Treckka ap Kutmyk na Pridefang, the final member of our crew."
"We’ve met," Treckka told him before turning to grin at Neal. "Your bags are by the hatch, and she said ‘thanks’."
Neal merely smiled back and nodded, leaving the rest wondering what they might be missing.
After deciding he might have to have a word with Treckka later, Torence continued, "As you may have noticed, he’s already started."
"And drawing too much power," Graywalker grumbled.
"Would you prefer what you were breathing yesterday at this time?" Neal shot back. "Your systems are in pretty bad shape, so those units are on loan from Old Man Foster. I guess I could return them if you don’t want them drawing your precious power."
Graywalker growled but didn’t say any more.
Tonya raised an eyebrow at Neal. "Just how did you convince him to loan us those units? I know those things aren’t cheap."
Neal chuckled. "One, he knows I’m coming back, and any damage to his toys comes out of my pay … or my hide as the case may be. Two, his ship is undergoing a major refit, so he’ll have no use for them until well after my return. Three, I said ‘please’."
"He trusts you that much?" Chakat Wilypuma asked.
Neal smiled, knowing that most chakats had problems getting a good ‘read’ on him. "Everybody’s got to trust someone, or they end up going crazy from paranoia," he told hir.
"And who do you trust?" Chakat Morningsky countered.
"Me? I trust Kassy. She wouldn’t be as happy or as easy going around strangers if this was a bad ship to be on," Neal said as he gave the kit a wink.
The little Voxxan grinned back at him. "You’re funny," she giggled.
"Why thank you!" Neal replied.
"What other skills do you possess?" Tonya wondered.
"Oh, a little of this and a little of that," Neal admitted. "I’m a jack of many trades, master of none – though I am pretty good with environmental systems."
"I may want to pick your mind later, if you’ll have the time," she said.
"I’ve got six more of those air units to set up. After that I was thinking of giving them a day or two to clear the air before I start rooting any deeper into your systems. My ‘free’ time will then depend on what I find."
"Then the sooner you’re done, the sooner we can have that chat," Tonya said with a grin. "Treckka? Why don’t you spend your first shift helping Neal get those units set up."
Treckka nodded. "Can do; I’ll give him the ship basics while we work."
The work went quickly, Treckka’s height and strength speeding up the setup of each unit. Watching as Neal checked the settings, chemicals and filters before activating the last unit, Treckka asked, "How did Foster happen to have this many air systems for you to ‘borrow’? Does he have problems with his life support all the time?"
Neal chuckled. "No, and this isn’t even half his cache. These little beasts are for attaching to transport carriers when shipping live cargo. Trust me; it’s much better than having the whole ship smell of whatever’s being transported."
Treckka nodded. Stasis fields were still unreliable and some things just didn’t take well to cold-sleep. "Just be warned, Tonya wasn’t kidding when she said she was going to ‘pick your mind’, my first session felt like a full day of interrogation."
"No problem," Neal replied as he brought the unit online. "If I can’t dazzle her with my brilliance, I’ll just baffle her with bullshit. It’s not like I didn’t get the job after all."
"True," Treckka allowed, "but if she thinks you’re bullshitting her, you’ll find your rights onboard strictly limited."
"I promise to behave with your second in command," Neal swore before adding, "but your engineer also seems to be having issues with me. Is it because I’m human? Or because I’m encroaching on his territory?"
"A little of both I think; he knows the warp systems well enough, but he lacks knowledge in a lot of the other systems that would normally fall under ‘engineering’ … As far as the human part, some things have hinted that he had a bad experience with humans when he was younger."
"Well, I’ll try not to upset him too badly, but right now we need these units cleaning up your air. After I’ve got your main systems back up to snuff, I’ll let him ‘help’ me take these things down."
"What is that?" Tonya asked as Neal spooned a small amount of powder into his bottle of ice-cold water. She had been waiting in the galley for him to finish his work.
"Herbal tea, light on the caffeine as you really don’t want to see me wired," Neal said as he capped and shook the bottle. "Want to try some?" he asked, offering her another package.
"Maybe just a sip of yours," she suggested. With a half smile Neal handed her his bottle of tea. She uncapped it and sniffed it before trying a sip. "No sweetener?" she asked as she returned the bottle.
"Not really bitter enough to need it," Neal pointed out, taking a sip himself before recapping the bottle.
"Do you get ‘wired’ easy?" Tonya asked.
"Depends on what I’ve had and my state of mind," Neal admitted. "If it ‘has to be done’ I can stay up a couple days, but you wouldn’t want to be around me after the first day or so."
"So, what other fields are you a ‘jack of trades’ in?"
"Well?" asked Torence when he next saw Tonya. "What do you think of out newest recruit?"
"He’ll do. He doesn’t have any issues with furs, and he seems to be well versed in most ship systems," Tonya replied, frowning a bit at the end.
"And that bothers you?" he asked, not liking her tone.
"Only in the way that he’s working for way too ‘cheap’; he could get paid a lot more with one of the bigger freighter services keeping their ships going."
Torence frowned slightly. "In my interview with him it sounded like he was just looking for a temporary bunk while his ship was being worked on."
"About that – did he tell you what they were doing to Foster’s ship?"
"No, only that it would take two Earth months to be done."
"Well, I don’t know if he meant to, but he told me quite a bit about it. Seems Foster’s getting more orders than he can carry, so he’s doubling the length of his ship."
"Can he do that? I would think he’d need too much power to wrap that long of a ship in a warp bubble."
"That’s what I asked, and Neal went into enough detail that he gave away he knows warp systems far too well to be merely a ‘jack of all trades’."
"Does Graywalker know?"
"No, and Neal’s promised not to bring it up," Tonya said frowning. "I wish he could though – I think Graywalker could learn a lot from him."
Changing the subject, Torence smiled. "At least the air smells fresher."
Tonya nodded. "Neal said that he might get to start a little earlier than he predicted."
"Good enough. It’s almost Kassy’s bedtime; would you like to tuck her in tonight?"
"Sure, and then I’ll come by later and ‘tuck’ in her father too," she said with a grin.
Neal started on the ship’s atmospheric systems the next day. Tonya saw him that morning at breakfast wearing a thin white suit that was designed to help keep whatever he found off of him. Treckka saw him two hours later, his white suit varying between dark gray and brown to black. By lunch time the entire crew knew that Neal was proficient at cussing in all the languages they recognized, plus a couple that none of them could place.
About an hour before the evening meal, a very grubby looking Neal was spotted heading towards his room in only a pair of shorts, his once white suit wadded up and turned inside out so it wouldn’t drip its coverings on the deck.
After cleaning up, Neal tapped on Torence's ‘office’ door, PADD in hand.
Weighing the tensions emanating from the room, the chakats had the rest of the crew gathered in the galley before Torence and Neal made their way there.
Neal looked in the galley and chuckled before entering. "It seems the there’s a bit of truth to the rumors that gossip travels faster than light on small ships."
Chakat Wilypuma frowned a little as shi said, "We could sense you upsetting our captain. What did you tell him that he didn’t like?"
"Well doctor, I told him how bad off the patient was and what I estimated it would cost to get her back on her feet. He gave me a much lower sum and said, ‘do what you can’."
"And you can’t do that?" shi asked.
"She’s already been the victim of too many ‘do what you can’ patch jobs. Like a chakat, Maverick’s atmospheric systems have two sets of hearts and lungs, and could run on one set of each if she had to. I’m guessing you’ve had six to nine people before me, patching her up just ‘good enough’." Neal looked at each of them before continuing, "This poor lady is currently running on one heart – with leaky valves, and only half of one lung – and that’s filling with fluid as we speak. With what I brought and what Torence can afford, I might be able to ‘dry out’ the only working lung, but she’ll be running crippled, ready to kill her crew if anything at all stops."
"You said half a lung," Tonya pointed out.
Neal nodded. "Like your body, you need a certain amount of lung capacity just to stay alive, more to be active. With her current crew, Maverick would need two thirds of a lung just to maintain the status quo. With just her currently running on just half a lung, the air was slowing turning more and more foul. You might have lasted another week or so before having to live in your suits."
"So, what are you proposing?" Treckka asked.
"Torence tells me he can’t put more funds towards the repairs without cutting into your wages … So I guess what I’m wondering is how much this ship and her captain mean to the rest of you."
"How much from each of us?" Tonya asked for the group.
"We figured a sixty percent pay cut for the next twelve weeks could get one of her primary systems back to full and safe operation. Eighty percent for the next fourteen weeks would get both systems back up and running properly."
"And what ‘cuts’ are YOU taking?" Graywalker demanded.
"The same as whatever the rest of you agree to, at least for the time I’m here. My life is on the line just as much as yours is, and I have no intention of dying due to bad air."
"And if we don’t agree to this?" Treckka asked into the silence.
"Then I ‘do what I can’ and leave you at the next station and find my own way back to Consateen. I am not going to bet my life on what’s left of those systems. I brought enough materials to keep those sub-units running for up to three weeks. As your engineer has already complained, they do take more power to run, and their upkeep is higher as well."
"If we say yes, what will you do?" Tonya asked.
Neal looked thoughtful before speaking, "I’ll bring down what’s left of your main atmospheric systems and start the prep work to get ready for the replacement parts. If you just go for the half plan, I’ll see if I can’t rig a ‘last ditch’ backup out the old parts."
"What’s your definition of ‘last ditch’?" Torence countered.
"Something that you would only turn on as a last resort, knowing that it may not last you very long …"
Kassy stepped up to Neal and asked, "Can you really fix her?"
Neal nodded before saying, "I’m sure going to try, little one."
Kassy turn to her father and said, "He can have my allowance, okay?"
"All right daughter," Torence agreed. "Every little bit will help."
Neal nodded and smiled. "Don’t worry; every credit will go into you having nicer air to breathe." Looking around, Neal saw Graywalker looking peeved, while the rest were looking thoughtful. "I’ll give you guys time to discuss it," he said before gathering up his PADD and leaving.
"You can be quite persuasive," Tonya said when Neal answered the announcer on his door.
"It was important for everyone to understand what was at stake," Neal replied. "Half or full? You would have opened with ‘nice try’ if they’d voted ‘make do’."
"Full. With a stipulation." She grinned as she added; "You will also be required to teach the systems to Graywalker."
"Do you really think he’ll accept instruction from a human?" Neal asked.
"He will if he wants to remain our engineer. He growled about it, so the Captain pointed out that his lack of knowledge is one of the reasons we keep having to hire and pay specialists to do the jobs he doesn’t know."
"I bet that didn’t sit well."
"No, but this has gone on long enough." Tonya looked thoughtful before asking, "Any chance we could permanently hire you away from Foster?"
Neal chuckled. "Sorry, no. I’m already tasked with a small mountain of work once the ship upgrades are completed."
"Surely he doesn’t own you," she protested.
"No, but he did give me an advance of my pay for my time off," Neal informed her. "Let’s just say it’s more that you’re paying me and let it go at that."
"So why did you sign on with us?"
"As I told Torence, I had eight weeks of sitting on my hands, or a chance to be active – and make rather than spend credits."
"There’s something you’re not telling me …" Tonya suggested.
"Maybe," Neal returned with a grin. "I’ll start the teardown tomorrow. Who all can I conscript to assist with what I can promise will be a very messy job?"
"All of us, so long as we don’t have other tasks to do," Tonya assured him. "And I will make sure Graywalker doesn’t spend the whole time hiding in engineering!"
Neal chuckled, "That won’t save him, a good portion of the work will be in his areas anyway."
The inquisitiveness of youth had Kassy as the first of Neal’s volunteers. She was soon happily seeing how far she could crawl into the different ventilation shafts, cleaning the layers of filth left behind by the failing systems. Tonya’s first task was keeping an eye on Kassy, changing out her cleaning supplies as needed and keeping her from going further than she should. The others paired off preparing to remove the old equipment, Neal getting paired with Graywalker.
"Why can’t this screen be reused?" Graywalker demanded, holding up one of the few intact looking screens from one of the air exchange systems.
"Do you even know what that screen does?" Neal mildly asked. When the wolf just growled again, Neal explained, "This screen helps absorb carbon dioxide and a few other gases. The gases are carried away for conversion by fluids carried within the screen. If you look carefully, you’ll see the screen’s membrane is failing, the fluids are starting to leak out of it …"
"So this is the crap we’ve been smelling?" Graywalker asked.
"Part of it," Neal admitted. "The other screens were all patched or partially blocked; reducing the work they did … Little things add up, whether it’s not adding enough of one thing or not removing enough of something else."
"Torence said you’re going to teach me how to keep this going."
"No, I’m going to teach you how it works, so you’ll know what each part does and why it’s needed." Seeing Graywalker’s frown, Neal added, "You need to know ‘why’ things work, not just ‘what’ to do when it acts up. A little prevention could have saved us from having to replace a lot of this."
"So you’re saying this is all MY fault?"
"No, and yes … But your captain and your fellow crewmembers are also at fault. Torence gave me the records for all the atmospheric system repairs that have been handled by outside specialists. From what I’ve been able to piece together from the overlaid patches, I’d guess about three years ago a team cut a couple corners to pad their own pockets. Easy enough to do if no one familiar with the systems is going to inspect it afterward. The next group either went along with it, or just did another patch when Torence told them he couldn’t or wouldn’t pay more. The last couple were just doing what they could to keep the systems from completely falling apart. Let me make a guess, about a year and a half ago is when things started to go wrong. It would have started with it taking longer for strong odors to dissipate, say like fried fish?"
Graywalker wasn’t growling when he quietly said, "Morningsky and Wilypuma tried to warn us that something ‘felt’ wrong with a couple of the specialists, but we didn’t know what to look for."
"Which is just part of what I need to teach you," Neal quietly said. "You have to know the systems yourself before you can hope to be able to tell if a specialist has done it right or wrong."
"Then why hire the specialist?"
"Because some jobs are just too big not to farm out. Take Foster’s little upgrade, it would take at least a decade to do it with his current crew, or just a couple months with the right team. If Maverick wasn’t in such bad shape, we’d be running on one system while we worked on the other, as it is it’s lucky I could borrow those atmospheric units or we’d be stuck at some station paying them to clean our air for us." When Graywalker didn’t respond, Neal stopped pulling the next screen out and faced the wolf. "I know there’s something about me that’s getting under your hide. Is it because I’m human? Or because I’m invading your territory as an engineer?"
"You’re here to replace me –" Graywalker started, only to have Neal cut him off.
"Wrong! This is a short-term gig for me. In less than seven weeks, done or not, I’m out of your fur. Try again."
"You’re making me look stupid."
"Wrong again. We already know you’re ignorant in some things, but ignorance can be cured. You’ll only prove yourself stupid if you fail to take the opportunity to learn." Neal waited until Graywalker nodded before adding, "So, think you can put up with me long enough for me to pound some knowledge into that thick furry skull of yours?"
Graywalker didn’t look pleased with Neal’s assessment, but he did grudgingly nod.
The next station had most, but not all the parts Neal needed. A quick crew meeting had them making a slight detour to a station only three days out of their way that claimed to have the rest of the required components.
"Rough station," Neal commented as he and Treckka checked for the supplies they’d need to finish repairing the air scrubbers.
"I’ve seen worse," Treckka replied, the large Rakshani eyeing some of merchandise on display. "They say you can buy anything here."
They had just placed their order when their comms started going off. Text only ‘Return to ship ASAP’.
They were the last to make it back to Maverick, and her captain was livid.
"Kassy’s missing," Torence said without preamble. "I was momentarily distracted by an altercation and when I turned back, she was gone."
"She wouldn’t have run off," Wilypuma pointed out.
"No," Morningsky agreed, "but she’d be easy enough to stun and carry off."
Torence hissed before growling, "Teams of two. I want her found!"
"Captain, we should alert station security," Morningsky suggested.
"No," he told the chakat, "you can’t tell which of them may be in on it."
The others armed themselves and paired off, leaving Neal the odd man out. He glared at the station from the open hatch before closing it and heading for his cabin. Grabbing a pocket sized PADD, he did a data dump from the sensors. One of them did not respond. "Good girl!" he muttered as he traded the stunner he’d been wearing for a small phaser that slipped into his pocket and added a hat pulled low that helped hide his eyes. Locking the ship’s hatch behind him, he tried the PADD again, nothing. As the sensor wasn’t expected to transmit great distances, he would have to check the station a section at a time.
On one of the lower levels he started getting a reply from the missing sensor. Setting the PADD to silently vibrate as the signal got stronger, he started wandering the passageways, a quizzical frown on his face.
"Can I help you?’ a voice said from the near shadows of a darkened corridor.
"I don’t know," Neal replied with a sneer in his voice. "I was told you could buy anything here, but the boast seems a bit overrated."
"Depends on what you’re looking for," a female Caitian said as she stepped out of the shadows. "I take it you have something particular in mind?"
"My last ‘toy’ broke, and I’m looking for a replacement," Neal admitted. "What type of selection might you have available?"
"What are your requirements?" she countered.
"Young, female, preferably untrained." Neal’s smile wasn’t a pleasant one when he added, "I like personally breaking in ones that have yet to learn what true fear is …"
"I … see," she replied. "Let me check with my sources." She left Neal to look around for a few minutes before returning with a massive Rakshani male. "My associate tells me he’s located a pair of prime candidates for you. If you will follow me?"
The Caitian led Neal down another level, the Rakshani bringing up the rear. She stopped at a heavy door and turned. "Do you prefer Rakshani or Voxxan, sir?"
"Bigger should be more fun to break. Let’s see your hellcat," Neal said, the PADD in his pocket vibrating quite strongly.
The Rakshani watched Neal as she unlocked the door. She took over watching Neal as the Rakshani then went in. A minute later he returned, half dragging a female Rakshani of about eight years of age. She struggled despite her bonds, at least until the male cuffed her hard enough to knock her to the station’s deck.
"Easy," Neal commanded. "I won’t pay nearly as much for damaged goods."
The Rakshani growled, but didn’t strike her again.
Neal took his time examining the girl. Her condition and reactions to his inspection suggested she hadn’t been held long. He finally stood back and said, "Maybe, just maybe … You said you also have a Voxxan bitch?"
Again the Rakshani opened the door as the Caitian watched Neal. The Rakshani youth tried to run despite her short chains and tripped, distracting them just long enough for Neal to pull his phaser and fire at the Caitian, stunning her. The male Rakshani tried to use the door as a shield as he reached for his own weapon, but Neal stunned him before he could fully close the door or draw his phaser.
The Rakshani youth stared at Neal as he watched her in return. Making a judgment call, Neal indicated the Caitian. "She probably has the key to those chains. Strip her; chain her with your bonds. When you find her weapon, set it to medium stun – anything heavier might trigger station security." Figuring that the best way to show trust in the youth was to be trusting, Neal turned his back on her and headed for the cell door. He gave the male Rakshani a second stun shot for good measure before calling into the dark room beyond, "Kassy? You in there?"
There was a jangling of chains and a fearful "Neal?" before the little Voxxan came into view.
"Hey kiddo," Neal said as he lifted her over the prone Rakshani, turning the lift into a hug once she was over. "Your father is going crazy looking for you," he added.
"I’m sorry," she whimpered as she started to cry.
"No tears little one," Neal told her. "We get you back on Maverick and I’m sure Torence and Tonya will let you cry all over them." Turning back to the Rakshani youth, he asked, "Did you find those keys?"
The youth had been staring at the phaser in her hands. She started a little bit when Neal called out to her. She got up, key in one hand, phaser in the other. When she was just out of Neal’s reach she tossed the key to him.
"What is your name, child?" he growled in Katang Low Tongue as he freed Kassy, who whimpered a little when he accidentally jarred her ankle.
"Grimleaf ap Hardeyes na Ironpaw, sir," she quietly said, still unsure of him.
"Well, Grimleaf, daughter of Hardeyes, of the House Ironpaw; I offer you sanctuary and a promise to help you return to your House. But I will need something in return," he told her.
"What?" she demanded, her phaser coming up to train on him.
Neal met her stare with one of his own. "Kassy’s hurt, so I’m going to have to carry her. What I was going to ask you to do was carry our slaver friend. I figure she can answer some questions, don’t you think so?"
Grimleaf half looked back at the Caitian before turning back to Neal. "I can carry her," she said as she offered Neal the phaser.
"Keep it," he told her. "If you carry her over your gun arm she can act as a shield and to hide your weapon until you’re ready to fire," he pointed out, just before the Rakshani male’s legs moved.
Grimleaf’s phaser was up in an instant, only to lower when she saw what was happening. The legs moved into the cell a little at a time, unseen chains rattling at each shift. Once the legs were fully in the cell, one chained Merraki male shuffled out, leading and supporting a much smaller female Merraki.
"What’s wrong?" Kassy asked on seeing Neal scowl at the two Merraki.
"I left my excuse for a translator on the ship," Neal complained. "Which will make organizing this escape a little harder …"
The larger male Merraki looked at each of them in turn, his eyes appearing to widen when he noticed that Grimleaf was now dressed and armed. He turned back to Neal and Kassy with open curiosity, turning so they could see that he had taken the Rakshani’s weapon.
Neal looked over at Grimleaf. "Ever done any ‘play acting’?" he asked her. "Maybe as the captain of a ship giving commands, perhaps a pirate claiming her prize?"
"Sometimes," Grimleaf admitted.
"I think I know a way to get all of us out of here, but I will need you to play the part …"
"As what?" she asked.
"Either as my servant or as a trusted slave," Neal replied, waiting for her reaction.
She looked at the Merraki and then at Neal and Kassy. "Each of us carrying a newly acquired slave," she said.
"Precisely," Neal agreed. "Think you can fill the role?"
Grimleaf answered by removing and dropping the robe she had taken from the Caitian. "You don’t have a belt pouch for the Merraki to wear, so we’d be best believed as trusted slaves."
A bit of pantomiming got the male Merraki out of his chains with the smaller female still wearing hers.
As they were getting ready to move out Neal had one more instruction for Grimleaf. "If I get taken down, you are to drop the slaver and help Kassy get to her ship. She can get you in and then call her father for help. Got it?"
"Understood," she agreed.
"Mount up," Neal said as he picked up the loosely chained Kassy. She held his phaser between their bodies as Neal was carrying her in his arms.
Graywalker and Treckka ran into them almost halfway to the ship. Graywalker was just opening his mouth in surprise when Neal cut him off. "Graywalker take point, Treckka will play rear guard. We are doing a slow march back to Maverick," he ordered.
Graywalker was about to hotly protest when Treckka clamped a paw on his shoulder and pointed, the little Rakshani had her phaser trained on them.
"No Grimleaf, they’re with us – If they can get their heads out of their asses and get moving!" Neal added when Graywalker didn’t move.
Treckka gave the wolf a shove in the right direction as he reached for his communicator.
"Comm silence until we reach the ship," Neal told him. "No need to let anyone else know we have her back."
"Who are your friends?" Treckka asked as he kept his eyes roaming like a good bodyguard.
"Kassy’s cellmates and one of the slavers; I thought she might have some answers for us."
"You know the captain’s is going to ream you for going this alone," Treckka growled.
"Let him," Neal shot back. "You guys had already left before I could check on something."
"And that was?"
Squeezing Kassy a little tighter for a moment, Neal said, "What has Kassy been told time and time again is not a toy?"
"The sensors." Kassy and Treckka said almost together.
"And that one was missing when I tried a sweep," Neal agreed. "It got me to the right level and sector, a little acting and luck did the rest."
They made it to the ship with no other surprises. A closet was emptied to form an improvised brig while Neal dug through one of his bags for something. He returned with his translator, tools, and one of his PADDs. These he handed to the male Merraki, who had just unchained the female. A cross sounding phrase and a smack from her and he handed over the materials to her.
Turning to Grimleaf, Neal said, "If she gets that thing going, you can tell them what I offered you is open to them as well. Kassy, wait five minutes and call the chakats’ comms and tell them we have an injury onboard that requires their immediate attention. Five minutes after that, I want you to call Tonya and tell her that the package for Torence has arrived. Graywalker, help them get some food and drink, put the Merraki in my room for now. Treckka and I still need to get those parts we came here to get."
After the hatch had closed behind Treckka and Neal, Grimleaf turned to Kassy. "He’s not the captain?" At Kassy’s headshake, Grimleaf turned back to the hatch. "He is a captain. He has that force of presence my uncle has when he gives orders."
"He’s just an environmental specialist," Graywalker corrected her, though he seemed a little unsure.
"Then he has you fooled!" Grimleaf proclaimed. "Just as he fooled the slavers … I really thought he was there to buy me …" she added as an afterthought.
Treckka and Neal found their order waiting for them; all that was left for them to do was pay for it. Treckka handed over the ship’s credit card, which contained what Torence had authorized, only to have the computer say ‘insufficient funds’.
He was just opening his mouth to protest when Neal gripped his arm. "I’m covering the balance," he said as he slid another card into the scanner. Credits accepted; Neal turned to start the motorized cart in the direction of the ship. Out of curiosity, Treckka requested a second copy of the receipt before following him.
They found the rest of the crew waiting for them when they reached Maverick. The chakats helped them quickly unload the cart while Tonya worked on getting them departure clearance.
The last piece had just been removed and the cart set to return home when Tonya called out that they were cleared for departure. Treckka secured the hatches as Neal and the chakats finished stowing the equipment. Chakat Morningsky caught Neal’s arm as he went past hir towards the galley.
"Wait," shi advised.
"Why?" Neal countered. "I’m going to have to face the music sooner or later."
"True," shi admitted. "But you might want to wait until after Kassy and her new friends have told Torence their stories. Graywalker’s already told us about you ordering him and Treckka around like they were your personal property."
Neal frowned. "I had one robe for all five of them. Best explanation was slaver with some new purchases."
"We know, Kassy told us. We came in to your little Rakshani telling Graywalker off, something about you being a ‘captain’. Is that true?"
"A ship can only have one captain. And is a man still a captain if he doesn’t have a ship?" Neal countered.
"A good question," Treckka said from behind them. "Why don’t we go in now, I also have something for Torence to consider."
As they entered, Neal noted Grimleaf wore a look of stubbornness as she tried to stare down Torence.
Torence’s frown increased when he saw Neal enter. "This one thinks you should be the captain here and not I …"
"She’s young and easily impressed, Captain," Neal countered. Turning to Grimleaf he said, "To Maverick, I am only a visitor and temporary crew. She already has a captain, and a very good one." Returning his gaze to Torence, he added, "As for our added guests, I invited them and I’ll pay their way if need be, but I wasn’t about to leave them behind."
"There’s too much going on," Torence grumbled, looking at each of them.
Neal also took a moment to check on the others. The Merraki seemed to be listening to the translator; Neal hoped it wasn’t mangling things too badly. Kassy had commandeered one of Tonya’s tops and a skirt for Grimleaf, which were just a little too big for the young Rakshani. A bulge in one of her pockets reminded Neal of something. "Grimleaf, did you by chance remember to safety your weapon once you were on board?"
Her drooping ears and guilty look said it all. Neal held out his hand. "You won’t be needing it on Maverick," he promised her. She handed over the phaser without protest, her eyes never leaving Torence. Neal checked the weapon before pulling the power cell and setting both pieces on the table. He then pulled out his own phaser and repeated the check and unloading before placing it with the first. The male Merraki offered his weapon before Neal could ask for it. As he inspected the heavier Rakshan weapon before breaking it down, Neal said, "Treckka, if you’ll go to my cabin please? Blue bag, inside left pocket has my spare phaser. Brown bag same location has my stunner." As Treckka left, Neal said to the room in general, "I am not here to plan a mutiny. I am not here to harm any one onboard – with the possible exception of the Caitian slaver we locked in your supply cabinet. I took this job so as to not sit on my hands for eight weeks. In taking this job I agreed to help repair the atmospheric systems, which led us here for parts. Kassy’s abduction led me to finding her cellmates, whom I won’t leave behind. That’s where we are now, Captain."
"Not quite," Treckka said as he entered the galley, one of Neal’s weapons in each paw. "I have a question for you ‘Alan’." At Neal’s nod he asked, "Are you a thief?"
"I just stole four warm bodies from slavers – and kidnapped one of them, so yes, I am a thief."
"Would Foster call you a thief?"
"Then how do you explain this?" Treckka demanded, slamming the receipt he had picked up on the table. It showed both credit payments, the names on the cards had been Barr and Foster.
"Clever," Neal granted, "but everything I’ve said is still true."
"So, did you lie about your name being Neal Alan?" Torence asked. "And are you here to steal our routes, our contacts?"
Neal chuckled. "The only lies I’ve told are those of partial truths. My full name is Neal Alan Foster. As well as being a ship’s captain, I am an engineer well versed in all aspects required in keeping a starship moving. Maverick didn’t need another captain, nor a chief engineer. So I dropped my infamous surname and offered just the skill sets required. And I’m not here to steal away your business, once my ship is ready I will have too much to do to worry about the areas or the loads I already knew you were working."
"Then why were you on Consateen Station in the first place?" Tonya asked as she came in, she had been monitoring the galley from the bridge as she got them moving.
"Because I had dealt with their yard dogs before and they had the opening. I just hadn’t considered that they might remember my last refit," Neal admitted with a chuckle.
"Why would their remembering you be a problem?" Torence wondered. "Did you do something to them like you’re doing to us?"
"No, not really … What happened was they were about halfway through the job when I decided something needed changing from the specs I’d given them. They didn’t mind that too badly as I paid well for the changes. They did start getting a bit testy after five or six ‘little’ change requests."
"You were costing them time," Tonya guessed.
Neal nodded. "They were two weeks late starting their next job without the break in between they would have gotten. I happily paid the late fees and bonuses, but it was a matter of pride with them, they didn’t like being late."
"Why didn’t you expect them to remember you?" Torence asked.
"Well, most of the workers from that first refit have long since retired. Just my luck that an apprentice chakat from my last refit is now their chief foreman … and it seems shi has a memory even longer than hir long tail."
"So why the arms display?" Tonya asked as she indicated the assorted weapons.
"The Captain is nervous about how many things seem to be happening at once. Better I show him I’m armed than have him stumble on them and wonder if I have unsavory plans for his ship and crew."
"You still could," Chakat Wilypuma commented. "For all we know the units you set up could be set to gas us."
"True," Neal admitted. "But would someone interested in stealing your ship put themselves at risk rescuing the captain’s daughter? For that matter, you all headed out looking for her and left me alone on the ship. How much trouble could I have caused while the rest of you were distracted?"
The others were silent for almost a minute before Treckka stepped up to the table. Raising an eyebrow at Torence he said, "You haven’t asked for our input yet, but here’s mine. I trust him at my back with a charged phaser. The parts order was placed before we got word that Kassy was missing. Neal had intended to help pay for our repairs before any of this happened."
Chakat Morningsky was the next to speak. "We concur, Captain. While Wilypuma and I have trouble getting good reads on him, we trust Neal."
Torence looked to Graywalker, who just shook his head. "I don’t know, sir. When we caught up with him and the others, he was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I thought he would shoot me right there if I didn’t do just what he said."
The translator chirped a moment later as the Merraki female spoke, "Wolf risk escape. Human act slaver to rescue. Slave disobey be shot. Maybe stun, carry like more slave."
"I considered it," Neal confessed. "We didn’t dare waste time stopping to explain."
The translator chirped again. "One trust. Watch earn trust. We trust," she said.
Treckka nodded in agreement. "He had a ‘presence’ about him, one that you crossed at your own risk."
Torence was looking at Neal, the human’s words from their first meeting were replaying through his mind. ‘Screw with him and he’ll hand you your lungs … keep your word when working with him and you can get away with a lot.’ Some of the rumors of what this human had done and to whom were starting to make a bit more sense to the Voxxan. Tonya caught his eye and gave him a barely perceptible nod. Relaxing into his chair more than he had since Kassy had been taken, he smiled. "May I ask your thoughts on what to do with that slave trader?" he asked Neal.
Neal looked thoughtful before saying, "Depends on what resources I can find. I’m assuming you would prefer not to have Maverick’s name involved?" Torence nodded. "Tonya, if you would, plot us a course that takes us by a FTL relay in a few hours. I should have a message ready for it by then – and yes, I have the codes to get it to take the message. Grimleaf, you and the Merraki please come with me."
Tonya waited for Torence to nod before heading back to the bridge.
"Graywalker?" Treckka asked as Tonya left. "He knows ship systems like few others. If you ask him, I think you could learn a lot from him."
"If he can keep up," Morningsky commented. "Part of our problems with reading him is his thoughts seem to flow into almost constant tangents."
Wilypuma nodded in agreement. "Which might explain how he rescued Kassy and the others – he could think like the slavers as well as the slaves. From what Graywalker and Treckka both said, their first impressions were that of a slaver merely moving his slaves, and not a desperate rescue effort in progress."
"And he used that ability to our benefit," Torence admitted. "I’m willing to wait and see what he has in mind."
It was almost an hour later that Neal tapped on the open hatch to the bridge. "I’ve got the messages ready."
Tonya waved him in. "You’re early," she commented.
Neal grinned. "I thought it best to give you time to go over the messages in case they needed changing," he said as he handed her a pair of data chips. "One is the messages, the other is a couple references I thought Torence might find useful."
Tonya slipped the first chip into her reader. The first message read:
To House Ironpaw:
My apologies for being detained, but that issue has been successfully resolved. Included are my travel plans. May the deities have our paths cross soon.
Grimleaf ap Hardeyes na Ironpaw, in care of Captain Neal Foster.
Maverick’s expected schedule followed. Tonya looked at Neal before asking, "Why add your name to her message?"
Neal didn’t quite smirk. "Even with the still often strained relations between Raksha and Earth, Captain Foster has a reputation of being honorable among some of the Rakshan Houses. My name with Grimleaf's should keep them from reacting too badly. As an added bonus, my name may cause other Houses to offer assistance."
Tonya nodded as she checked the next of the dozen messages on the chit. They were for some of the businesses on the stations Maverick would be visiting, a letter of introduction from Neal Foster suggesting that since he wouldn’t be making the rounds any time soon that they might want to consider doing business with Maverick. There was one more message she couldn’t read, but the translator said it was in one of the more obscure Merraki dialects. The second chit held data on the stations and businesses Neal had been dealing with, what was shipped and for how much. Tonya turned back to Neal and said, "Torence needs to okay the other messages."
"That’s why I gave you the extra time," Neal admitted with a grin as he got up to leave. "Page me when you’re at the relay and I’ll show you how to play packet injection games on FTL relays."
With the messages sent, Neal started the final teardown of the damaged systems before he could start installing the new components. To aid in his learning, Neal had Graywalker watching if not doing most of the work. He got a short break when the male Merraki joined them, only to question Neal’s methods.
"Not make sense," the translator spat out. "Not logical," it said as the Merraki waved at the larger than needed framework Neal had started.
"Don’t talk to me about logic if you don’t know what’s going on," Neal countered as he handed the Merraki a PADD. "Read, and then point out the problem," he suggested.
After scanning the first few pages, the Merraki turned and left with the PADD.
"Don’t you need that?" Graywalker asked.
Neal shook his head. "Spare PADD in my tool bag with the same data, though I know what I need to get started. I’d guess he wants the female to help him find a problem."
"I thought Merraki knew this stuff forwards and backwards," Graywalker muttered.
"Don’t stereotype," Neal cautioned the wolf. "You and I are engineers. Would you claim to know everything I know?" At Graywalker's dirty look, Neal nodded. "We each have our own specialties and knowledge levels; perhaps his lie elsewhere."
The Merraki returned as they were sealing the return air ductwork to the new assembly. "Over-engineered," the translator spat.
Neal nodded. "They can safely lose half the elements and still breathe the air, or we can run milder chemicals in each element to make them last a lot longer. After what happened to their previous system, I want this one to last a very long time."
"This outlive you," the Merraki protested.
"Maybe …" Neal admitted. "It should last a hundred years, longer if treated right."
"And you will be teaching Graywalker what ‘treat it right’ looks like, correct?" Torence said, having stuck his head in just in time to hear the Merraki’s last comment.
"Yes, Captain," Neal agreed. "It’s taking longer because I’m teaching and not just doing, but we should have this unit up and running by tomorrow evening. I’m thinking just over four days for the other system."
"Finish this one and wait until after our next stop before starting the other," Torence advised. "I will need all hands for the cargo transfers."
"No problem," Neal replied. "That will give me some time to look over a few other things."
"Such as?" Torence asked.
"Graywalker has grudgingly admitted that he won’t object too strongly to me taking a look at your engines and core, as well as a few other things," Neal told him.
Torence waited for Graywalker's nod before nodding himself. "Very well, I’ll leave you to it," he said as he turned to go.
Their prisoner had refused to talk, not that they tried to force anything out of her. The Caitian was fed twice a day by Kassy and Grimleaf at their insistence, one bringing in the food while the other held a stunner on her. She had only hurled threats and insults at them that first day. Neal had been walking by during the first feeding and heard the slaver screaming at her former slaves. Kassy was almost to tears, while Grimleaf had her claws out at the curses the slaver had been using on them.
"Sorry kids," he cheerfully told the kit and cub. "I forgot to give you two training on proper prisoner etiquette. Just like slaves, slavers and other types of prisoners must be trained to respect your authority over them." Neal gave the Caitian an evil grin as he added, "While neither of you are ready for my advanced torture class, the basics should work well on someone as soft as this Caitian bitch. If she’s not happy to have you offering to feed her, then she doesn’t need to be fed. As for her bad manners, hand me your stunner if you would please? Thank you Kassy. Now, you normally want this on the lowest setting that will do the job, why is that Grimleaf?"
"In case you have to stun a friend to get the enemy too, sir."
"Very good. In this case there’s no reason for your friend to go in with that cussing idiot. So, we dial it up to the highest stun we think a Caitian can survive," Neal said as he changed the stunner’s settings. "As well as putting her down longer, she’ll have one hell of a headache when she wakes. Remember, this isn’t for our pleasure, but to help train her to be a better prisoner. Any questions?"
Kassy nodded. "What if we set it too high?" she asked, sounding worried.
Neal’s smile wasn’t pleasant. "That could leave her with permanent brain damage, or it might even kill her. In this case, neither your father nor I will be too upset if you slip on this one. Just in case though, and because I am instructing you, this first shot is mine," Neal said as he aimed and fired on the Caitian. He then turned the stunner back down to a low stun setting before handing it back to Kassy.
Grimleaf waited until the hatch was closed and secured before asking, "Do you really want us to turn it way up?"
Neal chuckled, "No cub, I don’t want you guys going over twenty percent at any time. That little performance was for her; she will now think that any bad behavior on her part will now earn her a heavy stun, possibly a fatal one. And that you won’t be punished if you overdo the stun. Let me know if she acts up again."
"Is there really an advanced torture class?" Tonya asked from the open galley hatch.
"Aye matey! Thumbscrews ‘n hot irons into ye claw-holes!" Neal growled at her in a rough voice. Turning back to the kids he went back to his normal voice to say, "I’ll take the tray, you two get cleaned up for supper."
"Damn it. I can never tell when you’re serious," she complained as he slid the tray in the cooler to wait for morning.
"I am not going to be teaching cubs to torture," Neal promised her as he closed the cooler.
Tonya frowned. "You didn’t say you wouldn’t teach them to kill," she pointed out.
"Didn’t I?" Neal countered. "I doubt either of them realized that overdoing a stun could kill. Now they know, and that in itself could save someone’s life."
"They’re not ready for something like that," she protested.
"I found them chained and in a dark cell with no real hope of rescue … When were they prepared for that?"
"Damn me all you want," Neal quietly replied. "Real life doesn’t wait until you’re ready for it. I’ve seen too many ..." he trailed off.
"Too many what?" she asked, almost as quiet as he.
"Too many manys."
"Death? Torture? Slaves?" Wilypuma asked from the hatch. Shi and Morningsky had felt the emotional unrest and had come to investigate.
Neal gave a soft snort. "Any and all, kitten; let’s just say I’ve seen enough and let it go at that."
Morningsky chuffed lightly before saying, "As ship’s doctor, I want you to see us this evening, Mister Foster."
Rising an eyebrow at the chakat he said, "You really think a little chakitty therapy is needed to improve my mood?"
"I think it will help," shi suggested.
"Na, all I need is five minutes torturing the ship’s first mate," Neal said turning to give Tonya a leer. "The chakats can stay to ensure I don’t do any lasting harm. If you’re game?"
The rest of the crew rushed the galley to their first mate’s shrieking at the top of her lungs. Neal pulled back from the hysterically laughing arctic fox and smiled as he glanced at his timepiece. "Three minutes, you still own me two minutes of therapy, foxy lady."
Tonya shivered as she tried to control her breathing. "No! No way! I don’t care if you do go crazy! No more … please?" she begged.
"We’ll take care of him tonight while Torence sees to you," Morningsky assured Tonya. "In the meantime, I believe it’s dinnertime."
The next station’s cargo transfer went smoothly, and then they dug into the second atmospheric system; Neal letting Graywalker do almost all of the work with the Merraki giving him a hand. Kassy and Grimleaf also sat in on the assembling and training; Kassy claiming that she was going to become Graywalker’s apprentice.
The Merraki had also found themselves a new hobby. The PADD they’d gotten from Neal included the plans for his ship’s upgrade. When not working on Maverick’s systems or possible upgrades, they quizzed him on why he had things planned the way he did.
"Where’s Neal?" Torence asked as he joined Tonya and the chakats for the mid-watch meal.
"In engineering," Morningsky replied. "Graywalker and the Merraki are arguing about his observations and suggestions."
"Are they winning?" he asked with a chuckle.
"The female seems to be able to follow him, but he sometimes has to ‘explain’ things in greater detail before she sides with him."
"So … am I going to be putting us all on quarter pay for still more upgrades?"
"Not so far, though Neal’s been dropping hints that he ‘just might’ have some spare toys lying around somewhere," shi answered with a laugh.
"Did Kassy eat earlier?"
"I doubt it – she’s still down there with the rest of them. The way she’s hanging on their every word, I’m starting to think your daughter’s gunning for Graywalker's job," Tonya said with a chuckle.
"When she’s old enough, she can have it," he told her. "Are they having any problems with the slaver?"
"Not since Neal stunned her. It seems she really believes that the kids will be allowed to test her stun tolerance," Morningsky told them with a grin. "Of course it may have helped that the next morning Kassy was saying that they should work the settings up slowly so their toy would last longer – while Grimleaf was pointing out they wouldn’t have to feed or clean up after her if they were to accidentally kill her.
"My bloodthirsty kids," Torence chuckled.
"Your kids?" Tonya asked.
"Those two are closer than a lot of sisters I’ve seen," Torence pointed out.
"It’ll be hard on them when we get Grimleaf back where she belongs," Wilypuma reminded them.
"I know," Torence admitted. "We’ll just have to deal with it when it happens."
The next station turned out to be holding a message for Neal Foster stating that he was to hand over Grimleaf upon docking to representatives that would be waiting for them at one of the bars.
In Maverick’s galley, Neal was mulling over the message Tonya had just given him. She (and everyone else onboard) were gathered around one of the tables, waiting for him to say something.
"Well, while I know Rakshani can sometimes be a bit abrupt, this is rude even for them," Neal dryly commented.
Treckka nodded in agreement. "No ‘thank you for finding her’, no ‘is she all right’. Something’s not right about this. Hell, did they even put their name or House on the message?" he half demanded.
"Nope," Neal told them. "That’s why we’re sitting here and not charging that bar. Something stinks."
"Well, at least Maverick doesn’t," Tonya said with a small grin. When it had been her turn to cook last evening, she had fried fish and a couple other strong smelling treats for the crew. An hour after the dishes had been done even she couldn’t smell it in the room.
"There are two Rakshan ships in port, both military," Treckka told them. "Slasher and Blueclaw."
"Blueclaw," Neal muttered. "Wasn’t she at the Consateen station when we left?"
"Yeah," Treckka admitted, "That’s Quinzet’s ship."
"It would be nice to have someone else on the station we can place some trust in," Neal commented.
"But Slasher’s my uncle’s ship!" Grimleaf protested.
"But we don’t know who stunned and sold you to the slavers," Neal pointed out. "I don’t want to hand you back to an unnamed person that might just do it again."
"Why didn’t they just ask you to deliver Grimleaf to Slasher?" Chakat Wilypuma wondered.
"Why indeed," Neal agreed as he seemed to come to a decision. "Treckka, if you would please, see if you can hook up with Quinzet. If she’s willing – and can – I want a small escort from her ship to take Grimleaf and I over to Slasher. After she’s with her family again, I might see what awaits me at that bar."
"While Treckka checks on his girlfriend, we can check out that bar," Chakat Morningsky suggested. "After all, they should be watching for a human captain, not a pair of chakats."
"Be careful just the same," Neal said. "Anyone that would sell Grimleaf to slavers won’t care if they harm a chakat or two."
"That was my line," Torence complained good-naturedly.
"Sorry, Captain," Neal said, "But they’re expecting ‘Captain Foster’, and he has a reputation that might make them more cautious."
"And will the good captain be making an appearance?" Torence asked.
"Oh, yes," Neal said. "But not until after I have ‘Neal Alan’ prepare the way. I’m going to start by renting a room for Foster on the station, that way if I need a staging area, it doesn’t have to be Maverick. Though I thought I might wait a couple hours, as the station board says there’s two more ships currently inbound."
"So they won’t know which ship you got off of!" Kassy exclaimed.
"Just so, little one," Neal agreed. "And we’ll get some of the cargo shifted while we wait. Anything that can be used to confuse the enemy can also help improve the chances of us getting Grimleaf home safely."
"We still don’t know who got her off their ship," Tonya pointed out.
"So we go the other way around," Neal told her. Looking at Grimleaf he asked, "Who do you know that would not sell you?"
"Mom, Dad, my uncle has me run errands for him, he says he knows he can trust me," she said slowly.
"Then we will ensure we hand you to one of them," Neal told her.
"You!" Quinzet didn’t quite roar at Neal when Treckka brought her aboard Maverick. Most of the cargo transfer had been completed and they were taking a break. "Imagine my surprise when I run an ID check on you when I returned to my ship! The infamous ‘Captain Foster’ setting me up on a date!" she told him.
"So," Neal calmly asked, "Are you now wishing you hadn’t spent the night with Treckka?"
"No," she replied with a chuckle. "But my captain was most annoyed that she didn’t get to properly greet you. You see – she’s the granddaughter of the Blueclaw our ship was named after, and she has stories about a particular red-haired human …"
"No doubt one of them is of her grandmother surviving a short sword shoved hilt deep into hir ribcage," Neal idly commented. "Sorry, but I wouldn’t know anything about it," he said with a grin.
Quinzet’s nose had flared and her eyes widened when Neal mentioned the story. "What about Squiggles?" she half demanded.
"I did know a chakat by that name," Neal admitted, "and I think it was once suggested as the name for a Rakshan ship."
"There were only a handful of humans that ever knew that," she said accusingly.
Most of the other heads in the galley had been going back and forth between Neal and Quinzet as if they were watching a tennis match. Grimleaf was the first to break the cycle.
"What does all that mean?" she half demanded.
Quinzet gave her a half smile before saying, "What it means, little one, is that the human before you has already had his hand in changing Rakshan history. He’s older than he looks, and if even half the stories are true, he has a very real hatred of slavers."
"Speaking of slavers," Torence cut in, "we have a female Caitian to hand over for questioning."
Quinzet frowned as she said, "Best Blueclaw takes her then, Slasher’s crew would have two reasons to kill her before we could get any useful intel out of her."
"Revenge or to silence her," Torence agreed. "How did you want to do this?" he asked Neal, who appeared to be thinking about something.
"I have your full cooperation?" he asked of Quinzet with a lazy smile.
"My captain would like to have a chat with you if possible, but yes, she told me to give any and all assistance to the first engineer of the Red."
"Blueclaw was the first engineer; I was merely an advisor," Neal corrected. "The slaver isn’t much bigger than Grimleaf, I was thinking we remove both to Blueclaw before Captain Foster makes an appearance. While I have their attention on the bar, you can see Grimleaf safely to her ship."
"It’s a good thing you had us check the bar first," Chakat Wilypuma told him. "There’s a very angry Rakshani female waiting in the back corner of the bar with two males sitting away from her where they could cover anyone sitting at her table."
"Not the type of greeting a parent would give someone returning their child," Torence agreed. "Were you able to get an image of them?" he asked.
"I got a couple of each of them," Wilypuma said as shi moved to sit by Grimleaf. "Do you know her?" shi asked as a female Rakshani came up on the viewer.
Grimleaf took one look and stepped back in surprise and a little fear. "She’s Slasher’s head of security, Ma'line ap Saben na Thorshall. She caught me in one of the cargo bays and threatened to tell my uncle."
"Did she?" Torence gently asked.
"I don’t know," Grimleaf said, almost in tears. "The next thing I can remember was the slavers had me."
Wilypuma wrapped the little Rakshani in a hug while the two captains exchanged looks.
"That would place her high on my suspect list," Torence commented.
"Agreed," Neal said. "I wonder what was going on in that cargo bay that they didn’t want Grimleaf reporting back to her uncle."
"Something to worry about later," Quinzet suggested. "If she’s off her ship, now’s the best time for us to move."
"Agreed," Neal said again. "Let’s have Grimleaf and that Caitian slaver both wrapped in travel cloaks and carried to the room I have ready on the station. Then Quinzet and Treckka can pay Slasher a visit to see if you can get to her parents or uncle while a second group goes with me to the bar."
"I can have a dozen of my security here in five of your minutes," Quinzet told them.
"An easy walking speed," Neal suggested. "No reason to make others think something is going on."
"How do you come to have such easy control over your ship’s security?" Torence wondered.
"That’s right; Treckka only gave you my given name. I am Quinzet ap Tekka na Blueclaw, First officer of the Rakshan fast cruiser Blueclaw. Our captain is my aunt, also of House Blueclaw," she explained.
"A House owned military cruiser?" Neal asked in surprise.
"You’d almost think so, but no. Though it is funny how many of House Blueclaw end up serving on the Blueclaw," Quinzet told them. "And more than our fair share are engineers," she added, giving Neal a hard look.
"You say that like he could have had something to do with it?" Tonya half asked.
Quinzet chuckled at the fox’s bemused look. "Depending on what records you choose to believe, as I said the human before you is a bit older than he looks. Stories abound of said human being able to take down an attacking Rakshani with a single blow. Other questionable tales had him manually riding a crippled warp core for days on end."
Neal laughed. "Sorry, even I can’t stay up and be useful for over a day at a time."
Tonya glared at Neal. "Now I know you’re the one lying," she told him. "I found out you didn’t take a couple of your rest breaks putting in that second system – you just traded out helpers!"
Neal shrugged before saying, "I was just supervising the work; I had something else on my mind."
Graywalker snorted, "Him and those Merraki have been arguing about something he’s doing to his ship when we get him back to her."
"One of our discussions led to other ideas for a couple of upgrades of my own," Neal admitted.
The female had Neal’s translator. "This one will follow human," it squawked. "Interesting ideas he has."
"Your fault that," Neal countered. "Your questions opened a new option of doing a few things."
"Hmmm, sounds like something my captain will need to ask you about," Quinzet said with a grin.
"Ha! Rakshani too dense understand!" the translator spat out.
Before Quinzet could voice a protest, Neal cut in. "Don’t assume all are like the ones you have seen," he told her. "Such thinking is why I can confuse you so easily. Even Rakshan tech has found its way into my designs."
While the Merraki frowned, Quinzet asked, "Would one of those be part of what you did to make Red go so fast?"
"A bit," Neal admitted. "But I’ve expanded on it to sensors and a few other tricks."
"So let’s get Grimleaf safely home so my captain can properly greet you," Quinzet suggested.
The transfer of slaver and cub to Neal Alan's room went smoothly and Neal prepared to visit the bar. Both his phasers were in his pockets and preset for heavy stun. Other toys went in other pockets and up his sleeves.
On entering the bar, Neal tried not to grin as it looked like Quinzet had Blueclaw’s entire security force in there for him. As well as filling several tables near the one that had been pointed out as Ma'line ap Saben na Thorshall, they had three others with each of her support group. Getting a drink from the bartender, Neal asked if anyone had been asking for Foster and was directed to Ma'line’s table.
"I heard you’re looking for me?" he asked as he approached her table.
"Where’s the girl?" Ma'line demanded without preamble.
"Safe enough," Neal replied. "Who are you?"
"None of you business. Where’s Grimleaf?" she demanded.
"Safe. Where she will stay until I’m sure I’m not handing her back to the ones that gave her to the slavers in the first place," Neal informed her. "And I won’t be handing her over to any Rakshani so ashamed of what she’s doing that she won’t give her name nor wear her House colors."
Ma'line jumped to her feet and made a quick hand signal at her side. When nothing happened she took her eyes off Neal, only to discover that both her subordinates were being held at phaser point by Blueclaw crew. Reaching for her own weapon, she froze when she realized that Neal had used her momentary distraction to draw his own weapon.
"Very carefully set your weapon on the table and sit back down, Ma'line ap Saben na Thorshall," Neal told her.
"How – ?" she started.
"Did I know who you were?" Neal finished for her. "I was under the impression you knew who I was. If you did, you would know that there’s a reason most Rakshani are very careful when dealing with Captain Foster. Now put down your weapon, please," he suggested.
Ma'line gently set her phaser in the middle of the table and sat down. With his eyes never leaving hers, Neal reached for her phaser with his other hand before stepping back from the table. Sliding his own back in his pocket, Neal checked the settings on hers before taking it apart. Slipping out a small control board, he set the rest of the dismantled weapon back on the table – then he showed her the board he had kept before sliding it into a pocket.
Neal studied Ma'line’s expression – there was still some of her earlier belligerence there, but there was now fear as well. "Now that we understand each other, why don’t you tell me why you are here for Grimleaf and not her parents – or your captain?" he softly asked.
"You can’t hold me," she half snarled.
"You’re right, I can’t hold you," Neal agreed. "But my associates will have reached Slasher with Grimleaf by now. I’m sure there will be a few questions for you when they next see you."
The Rakshani frowned, but didn’t look too upset with Neal’s threat. The reason why made itself known to him a few minutes later when Quinzet entered the bar.
"We have a bit of a dilemma, Captain," she said as she reached the table. "No one that we could speak to on Slasher claimed to know of Grimleaf, her parents, or her uncle …"
"And yet here we have these three waiting to take custody of her," Neal countered.
"As I said, a dilemma," Quinzet agreed. "It stinks of House politics."
"I gave my word," Neal stated. "And no mere House’s politics is going to make me break it."
"You can’t possibly win a fight against House Thorshall," Ma'line sneered at him.
"Maybe," Neal half agreed. "But will I be battling all of House Thorshall, or just a splinter group that the rest will disown when they discover what you’re up to?" he asked.
Ma'line glowered at him and Quinzet nodded. "You called it – she knows she doesn’t have House backing on whatever they’re doing," she told him.
"So getting word to Raksha would probably have her own House attacking her to aid me," Neal agreed. "All I need now is a fast, reliable way of getting them the news."
"Blueclaw is in the middle of her tour and won’t be returning to Raksha for another eight Earth months," Quinzet warned him. "My captain can’t divert an entire warship for one cub."
"But you could keep one cub safe until your return to Raksha," Neal suggested.
"We could," Quinzet agreed. "I will have Grimleaf moved from your room to Blueclaw. We were only a few hours from departure anyway, so I’m sure my captain will have us moving out quickly."
"Quiz Grimleaf," Neal suggested. "There’s a reason they want her back. Something she may have seen when Ma'line chased her out of the cargo bays." Neal and Quinzet didn’t miss the sudden flaring of Ma'line’s muzzle when the cargo bays were mentioned.
Quinzet smiled as she said, "I think it’s time for you to leave, Captain Foster. My people will keep these three occupied while you depart and we move Grimleaf to Blueclaw."
"Thank you," Neal agreed as he got up. Looking down at Ma'line, he added, "I have a funny feeling I’ll be seeing you again."
Neal quickly took a roundabout path back to Maverick, one that might have taken him to several other docks with ships preparing to depart. A distant siren starting just as he reached Maverick’s hatch.
His comm unit chirped as he entered the galley where all but Tonya was waiting. "Quinzet to Foster," it said. "We were attacked while transporting your package to Blueclaw. I have minor injuries to two of my security detail, but your package was destroyed."
Neal looked over at Kassy and commented, "It seems it was a good thing we brought that slaver with us."
Kassy only nodded as she hugged Grimleaf even tighter.
"What now?" Torence asked.
"Same as before – we wait so we don’t look like we have a reason to hurry out of here. You might even send the chakats out for one more thing we ‘almost’ forgot," Neal suggested.
"What about her parents?" Chakat Morningsky wondered.
"I don’t know," Neal admitted. "We have no way of knowing if they were let go somewhere – or worse …"
"What are you going to do with Grimleaf?" Kassy demanded.
"As I said before, I gave my word that I would take care of her," Neal told her.
"But you were going to allow Blueclaw to guard her," Kassy pointed out.
"And I’ve had Maverick protecting her ever since you helped me rescued her," Neal gently reminded her.
"I don’t want her to go!" Kassy told him.
"Well, Quinzet helped with her little deception as Slasher now thinks they killed her," Neal told her. "To keep her safe, all we have to do is not give them reason to think they missed."
"So we could keep her?" Kassy wasn’t quite begging.
Neal glanced over at Torence, who nodded as he gave a small shrug. "We could keep her for you," he admitted. "Until we know what happened to her parents, I wouldn’t mind having two daughters."
Both girls quickly went over to give him a hug.
"Was this part of your plans?" Chakat Wilypuma asked Neal.
"No, my plan was to return her to her parents," Neal said. "Barring that, turning her into a Barr isn’t that a bad an idea."
There was more than one groan at Neal’s choice of words as the chakats got up.
"And I did think of something we could do with a little more of," Wilypuma admitted as the chakats left.
A little party was held to welcome Grimleaf to the Barr family that ship’s evening. The things Wilypuma had collected went into a cake she made for the occasion. While Torence adopted Grimleaf, officially she became Treckka’s younger sister and took on the name Grimfang ap Kutmyk na Pridefang. Unless someone bothered with the expense of asking Treckka’s parents on Raksha, the papers they made for her would stand up to most inspections.
The next few weeks were spent making stops and delivering/picking up orders, Torence being a little shocked at what Neal’s contact list was getting him in the way of new jobs and quotes. Neal on the other hand spent most of his time in engineering, tweaking Maverick’s engines and core and arguing with the Merraki about what could and could not be done.
"We’ll come close to 4854786G76 on the way to your next stop," Neal commented to Torence as they had breakfast one morning.
"And?" Torence replied, wondering why Neal would mention the system, as it contained only a star and a few smallish planets.
"Maverick uses standard antimatter carriers; want a free refuel on me?" Neal asked with a grin.
"There’s nothing out there," Torence stated.
"Ok," Neal replied, "if you’re sure."
"It’s impossible for independents to set up antimatter plants," Torence insisted.
"Difficult, but far from impossible," Neal told him. "Even this ship has a small converter to turn excess power back into antimatter. Scale it up a bit, add power from a sun and away you go …"
"And you just happen to have one nearby?" Tonya said as she walked in. She had been monitoring the galley from the bridge.
"Yep," Neal admitted. "While you have two antimatter carriers, your system can handle four."
"We don’t have any empties to swap," Torence pointed out.
"Not a problem," Neal assured him.
Looking over at Tonya, Torence said, "Do it."
As had been said, there wasn’t much of value in the small system – that was until Neal had Tonya take them deeper into the system. Three stations orbited the sun deep in its gravity well. Each station looked huge, though they didn’t mass much as most of their size was solar collectors and heat exchangers. A full light minute from the closest one they received a hail and warn off. Neal’s counter message from Maverick changed the station’s message to a welcome and warning about local space hazards.
"How do we do this?" Tonya asked as she moved them closer to the station.
"Graywalker and I cleaned and purged your unused mounts," Neal said. "Open the ejection hatches on those and we’ll hook them up and start the flow before we replace the other pair."
"What do we do about getting the matter to mix with it?" she asked as she sent the commands to safety the emergency release systems on the first door before ordering it to open.
"Me being just a bit lazy, the system stores them in pairs, so equal matter and antimatter per pair."
"I like your idea of lazy," she snickered. "You’ve been so lazy around here that we now have a faster ship."
"All the better to get me back promptly," Neal replied.
"Liar," she countered with a grin. "You just can’t stand not to be tinkering with something."
"Maybe," he allowed.
"Ok, the hatch is open, and the force field has pushed away any remaining gasses," Tonya reported. "Shall I have Graywalker and Treckka go ‘out’ to seat them as the station brings them out?"
"That shouldn’t be necessary," Neal replied as he did something at the comm station.
Tonya’s displays suddenly changed to a view of Maverick from a camera that was rapidly approaching. A second feed showed four of the antimatter containers mounted in an open carrier with robot arms poised at each corner. As it closed on Maverick, she felt tractor beams gently ‘shoving’ against the ship.
"No new gasses being sprayed into the mounting area, though the tug will check anyway before installing the container," Neal commented as they watched four legs extend and the tug did a soft ‘landing’ on the larger ship.
Holding firmly to the Maverick’s hull, the tug extended two of the arms to inspect the mount before the other two detached the first container and carefully seated it. After confirming with Tonya that the mount reported a good seal, Neal had the tug move to the next open port and mount the next unit.
With the two empty mounts now filled, Neal joined Graywalker in engineering to test the feeds. After confirming that both of the new units were feeding their matter/antimatter smoothly, Graywalker shut down and sealed the feeds on the other two. Again the hatches were disarmed and opened, but this time the old units were pulled and taken by the tug before the mounts were purged and inspected before being reloaded.
During the refueling, Torence had spent most of his time in engineering overseeing each step. He joined Tonya in the bridge as Maverick moved to get clear of 4854786G76’s gravity well.
"How’d it go?" Tonya asked.
"Smoother than most antimatter transfers at regular stations," Torence admitted. "But I’m glad I don’t work for Foster!"
"Oh?" she said with a rising eyebrow.
"He’s a stickler for detail – which I like in someone playing with antimatter, but the rest of us had trouble keeping up with him! While walking Graywalker through the transfer, Neal was also explaining what was going on and why to Kassy and Grimleaf, and arguing with the Merraki about something to do with his own ship’s systems."
"Maybe that’s why we’re out here getting free antimatter?" she asked with a laugh. "Then there’s the minor fact that since we won’t soon need to pay for fuel, you’ll be able to pay everyone their full wages."
"Perhaps," Torence admitted ruefully.
"At least the others won’t think of jumping ship to join him," Tonya teased.
"No," he agreed. "Well, maybe the Merraki, the female is extremely interested in something he’s up to."
"Hmmm. I had Grimleaf up here earlier asking all sorts of questions about flying the ship," Tonya quietly said.
"And we can’t pry Kassy out of engineering … you think they’re planning to take over?" Torence half kidded.
"Or strike out on their own – if one lone human can do it …"
"Ha! I think they already realize he isn’t ‘average’."
"I know. Even Graywalker has stopped frowning at him," she pointed out. "It’s going to be awfully quiet around here after he leaves …"
"Another week and a half," Torence agreed. "I can’t believe that even with all those extra stops and delays, we’re still on time."
"We could be ‘early’ with that engine tweak he made …"
"No, from what he’s said, he’ll still have another week before he can claim his ship from the yard crew. No need to make it any longer than it needs to be."
"And he’s done something to our resident chakats – they were giggling like a couple of cubs the other day. I asked what the joke was, but they just looked at each other and burst out laughing again," Tonya half complained.
"I’d noticed, and didn’t get a straight answer either," Torence admitted. "But, morale is up, the air is fresh, and we won’t need to refuel for a while. I don’t mind a minor chakat mystery with everything else working smoothly."
"Hmmm, about the refueling …"
"Well, it seems Neal was proving he can be sneaky right under your muzzle."
"Is this something we’re going to regret?"
"I don’t think so. As we were leaving, the station sent a burst stream of data to our computers."
"Don’t make me drag it out of you …"
"It was a list of all Neal’s active refueling stations. I asked Neal about it and he gave me this," she said as she removed a comm badge from one of the security lockers. "He said that tying it into our comm system would be all the authorization we need to refuel."
"What the hell is he up to?" Torence half asked.
"No idea. You’re the captain – you ask him!" Tonya half laughed.
"I think I will," he said getting up.
"Good luck!" Tonya called to the closing door.
"What’s this we hear that Torence made a deal with the devil?" Chakat Morningsky asked as everyone sat down for the next main meal.
"Which devil might that be?" Neal asked innocently.
"The control-freak one," Wilypuma countered. "Telling our captain we shouldn’t visit certain ports?"
"Like the one we almost lost Kassy to?" Neal softly asked. "Every port I suggested you stay clear of, I’ve included why I’d prefer you not go there."
"And in exchange we get free fuel …" Treckka added.
"And a few more contacts that might come in handy," Tonya threw in.
Neal shrugged. "If you don’t want it, toss the comm badge and delete the files – no harm, no foul."
"We just want to know the real reason why," Torence said to nods from the others.
"You mean you think I have ulterior motives?" Neal asked, looking hurt. Suddenly grinning at them, he said, "Of course I do! Now, can you figure all of them out?"
"You like us!" Kassy blurted out.
"Sure," Neal said, "first point to the youngest of the crew, can the rest of you match her?"
"By us taking some of your old clients, you aren’t abandoning them," Morningsky pointed out.
"So I’m using your need to be profitable for my own uses? I’ll buy that," Neal agreed.
"You’re paying them to keep me," Grimleaf stated.
"First wrong answer, kiddo. I could pay them nothing and still not be able to make them let go of you."
"You’re ours," Torence agreed. "Neal’s deal has nothing to do with you."
"Wheels – in – wheels," the translator spoke. "You gifts look one-sided – but aid both."
Neal shrugged again. "It’s to my advantage to have others out here I can trust. Every now and then I may not be able to meet all of my commitments; having someone I can trust to make the run can be useful. I’m not going to tell you where to go – or what cargos to go after. I will tell you when I see something you might be interested in, and I wouldn’t mind you returning the favor if you see something you don’t want."
"Or that we can’t handle?" Tonya asked.
"Just so," Neal agreed. "For now you need do nothing, your options are open."
"And the lock-in?" Treckka asked.
"There isn’t one. You can say ‘I quit’ at any point," Neal told him. "You’re no good to me if you don’t want to be there."
"We’re going to need a little time to think about it," Torence told him.
"Of course," Neal agreed. "You can take all the time you need."
"How much time do we need?" Tonya asked once Neal was out of the room.
"It seems too good to be true," Treckka pointed out.
"Maybe he’s lonely," Morningsky suggested. "I tried to dig up what there is on him while we were in port. He had a crew once – they mutinied on him and tried to take off in his ship without him."
"Did it say how he got his ship back?" Torence asked.
"No, though from what we’ve seen of him, I’d bet on something missing him at the controls or tweaking things," Morningsky said with a chuckle.
"I’m just glad he doesn’t have a reason to do that to us," Graywalker muttered. "There’s so many changes he made to our systems that I don’t fully understand."
"Most level of service," the translator spat out. "All small change make for big change."
"Yeah," Graywalker admitted. "I’ve got a list of what our defaults were and what he changed them to; I just can’t get a handle on how and why they work."
"Much like the atmospheric systems," Tonya commented. "I spent some of my idle hours trying to figure out just what he built for us. First off, no one is offering this type of system anywhere – I checked! It’s bulkier and doesn’t have to use all the same chemicals; but the chemicals it can use can be milder and much cheaper. We should be able to lose half the screens and still have better air than we did when he started."
"Many ways do – lazy way do," the translator agreed.
Treckka chuckled before saying, "Yeah, lazy, as in he’s too lazy to want to have to ever do it again."
"Oh, we’ve seen his quick fixes too," Tonya pointed out, indicating where the portable air conditioner had sat. "I think he likes to have lots of options."
Treckka nodded before looking over at Torence. "If you’re really asking for votes, mine’s that we grab what we can of what he’s offering. If he wanted to trap or trick us he’s had plenty of opportunities."
Several others had nodded before Torence gave them a grin. "It wasn’t really going to be a vote, but I am glad to see that everyone already agrees with my decision. We should make our next port late tomorrow ship’s time, and we will be seeing what new business Neal’s letters bring our way."
Neal checked the packing of his bags, trying to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anything. They were noticeably lighter than on his arrival, treats made good bartering tools and he’d used up most of his stash. One of his PADDs and the translator was remaining behind for the male Merraki, as he was staying with Maverick, while the female kept insisting that she was going with Neal.
He looked up as someone tapped on the door. "Enter!" he called out.
Treckka grinned at him as the door opened. "Thought I’d warn you, we dock in ten minutes," he said.
"Just can’t wait to get rid of me?" Neal asked with a grin of his own.
"No, in fact there was some discussion of kidnapping you – just to see what else you might come up with of course."
"Of course," Neal agreed.
"That, and we know once we dock we won’t be able to keep you from racing off to see what they’ve done to your ship …"
"So saying goodbye before I can escape? Logical I guess," Neal allowed.
"And Tonya had us come in on a heading that requires that we ‘fly by’ that little ship of yours," Treckka added.
"All the more reason," Neal agreed, tossing one of his bags at the larger Rakshani. "Lead the way!"
The way led to the bridge, the displays showing them closing on the station and the ship docked at one end. Three hundred and eighty meters in diameter, it was now just over two kilometers long, with the pylons holding the warp engine pods forward and away from the engineering section in the rear.
"By the deities that thing is huge!" Treckka muttered as they slowly passed down its length.
"From that one angle, it almost looked like a giant pogo stick," Neal agreed – only to have to then explain what a pogo stick was.
"Are you sure you can really get that beast to warp?" Torence asked from where he sat at Tonya’s side.
"Play tricks – fast more than expect," the translator said, the female had it – and as they had learned, the look on her face could charitably be called a smirk.
"Merraki play tricks too," Neal pointed out. "It’s only fair that I show you that I can play tricks as well."
"You ‘pogo stick’ warp" she replied.
"Go to warp like a pogo stick?" Kassy asked with a giggle.
Neal frowned slightly at the grins he was getting from the others before shaking his head. "All right," he told them, "If that’s the way you want to be; her new name is Pogo Stick."
"You wouldn’t," Tonya said in disbelief.
"Why not?" Neal countered. "You guys are flying around in a ship named after a wild horse."
"Hey, Treckka," Graywalker said as they cleared Pogo Stick and could clearly see the station and the ships docked to it, "Isn’t that the symbol for Blueclaw on that ship over there?"
"Damn," Neal muttered. "Guess I owe them a guided tour for all the help they gave us."
Quinzet met them at the dock, giving Treckka a quick hug before turning to Neal. "My captain wonders if you have yet another way up your arm covers to avoid her," she said with a grin.
"No," Neal sighed, "she’s got me trapped fair and square."
"Ok, I think I understand ‘fair’, just what does ‘and square’ mean?" she half demanded.
"No place to run to – no place to hide," Neal half sang – to the frowns of the others. "I hope the injuries you reported weren’t too severe."
Quinzet grinned before saying, "We exaggerated the encounter to ensure they thought Grimleaf was dead. As we were anticipating an attack, my forces were well armed and even better protected. The attackers were all killed, but we made sure their communicators heard our force bemoaning the loss of their package."
"And I’ll bet you didn’t lose the slaver either," Neal said with a raised eyebrow.
"She is currently on her way to Raksha with a small delegation that will inform House Thorshall of what Ma'line and her followers are doing to Slasher."
"So, she was more than just a slaver?" Torence asked.
"More like she knew Ma'line and part of her plans. Thinking Grimleaf had heard something damning, they ditched her and then her family before they were ready to carry out their full mutiny," Quinzet told him. "How much deeper it goes we don’t know yet."
"Any word on Slasher?" Neal asked.
"My captain had the authority and ordered her to Raksha – whether she went there we don’t know," Quinzet admitted.
"Depends on how strong her power base is, but I doubt it," Neal agreed. "I’ll be keeping my eye out for her and Ma'line."
"You may be the ‘Foster’ everyone tries to not get mad at them, but what could you possibly do against an armed warship?" Torence wanted to know.
"That depends on them," Neal admitted. "But if they happen to think like you just did, they might come within my new ship’s tractor beam range. As each beam has more power than their main thrusters …"
"And?" Quinzet prompted.
"Set two to push, two to pull and tear them apart?" Tonya asked.
"Or toss a carrier load of something – faster and harder than they can dodge," Treckka suggested.
Neal smiled before saying, "Well yes, those are all good ideas."
"But you have a better one?" Kassy asked.
"Maybe," Neal admitted, giving her a wink.
Giving Quinzet a nuzzle, Treckka asked, "Are you just here for Neal – or were you going to try to recruit me again?"
Quinzet snickered before saying, "I’m here to ask Neal to meet with my captain – who knows that forcing him can be a bad idea. As for you, I’m not here to recruit – but to see if I can be recruited." Pulling a folder out of a pocket of her uniform, she handed it to Torence. "My qualifications, Captain. As I will actually be on detached duty, my wages will be handled by Blueclaw."
"How long?" Treckka asked before Torence could say anything.
"Until I wear out my welcome," she replied. "Part is to see what Grimleaf might not know she knows; part is because it’s time for me to change to a new command."
"And me?" Treckka asked sounding hurt.
"Perhaps a small part as well," she admitted before giving him another nuzzle.
Neal hid a grin as he keyed something into his PADD, but Tonya saw it and shook her head at him, the others missing the byplay.
"What’cha doing now?" Kassy asked as she and Grimleaf tried to see what Neal was up to.
"Just seeing if this link works," Neal replied – just before he laughed out loud.
"What?" Grimleaf demanded as the other looked to see what he might be up to.
"Oh, nothing," Neal chuckled as he keyed something into the PADD. "It seems the work crew missed a couple steps I suggested they take." A couple more keystrokes and he smiled as he said, "Computer, status?"
"Partial secondary power only," a female voice from the PADD reported. "Life support online but in low recovery mode, sensors offline, propulsion offline, comms in standby."
"Upgrade checklist?" Neal asked.
"All checked off, except the final inspection and owner signoff."
"Bring internal sensors online and locate any living beings onboard," Neal instructed.
"Working ... three beings detected. Badges indicate Chakat Gadget, Tony Kingfish, and Jack Blare."
"Audio from their location, please."
"This panel’s all green too, boss," a male voice was saying. "I still don’t understand why you didn’t sign this monster off two weeks ago when we finished her," he grumbled.
"You don’t know this guy," another male sounding voice retorted. "If he doesn’t like the job we did, we’ll be out of business."
"He’s not that bad," a feline voice corrected, "but if he gives us a good review we’ll never want for work again – What the?" shi cried out as gravity dropped to zero, leaving them drifting.
"What did I tell you about locking things down for your own protection?" Neal hissed into the PADD.
The male voices were heard complaining, but the feline voice was a little cool as shi said, "The safeties were locked down as needed – as you’d see if you bothered to check the logs. Everything is currently online to ensure my people didn’t miss anything, Captain."
"So I can’t fire up core three remotely?" Neal asked sweetly.
There was a sigh from the other side. "You shouldn’t be able to, but I’ve learned not to bet against you, sir."
"You’re gravity’s coming back on slowly," Neal told hir as he touched a key on the PADD. "Is there anything you haven’t checked ten times?" he chuckled.
"More like fifty," one of the other voices grumbled.
"Sign it off, kitten. I’ll be over there in a few."
"Knowing you won’t trust anything you haven’t checked yourself, most of the inspection panels were left just tacked at the corners," shi replied.
"Thanks," Neal said before dropping the link. Looking at everyone looking at him, he smiled. "Who wants to see me ‘little’ ship?"
They ended up locking Maverick behind them, as everyone wanted to go. Halfway through the station they were met by a handful of Rakshani, the one in the lead wearing the shoulder slash denoting an acting captain in Rakshan service.
Stepping a little ahead to get between them, Quinzet said, "Captain Neal Foster, may I present Captain Imrana ap Weren na Blueclaw.
"Captain," Imrana said formally as she gave him a small bow.
"Captain," Neal acknowledged with a nod. "I thank you for your support a few weeks ago."
She snorted in amusement before replying. "You brought a major problem to our attention – and you’re thanking me?"
Neal shrugged. "It could have been a lot messier if you’d just sat back and let things happen."
"Ha! I’d have had a mutiny of my own to contend with if I’d tried," she laughed. "Starting with my head of security."
Quinzet smiled. "You were never foolish enough to even consider it once you knew who was in the middle of it," she teased.
"Smart-alecky cub; it’s a good thing I’m getting you off my ship before your habits spread to the rest of the crew."
"Too late for that, though Captain Barr hasn’t said he’ll take me on …"
"You’re in," Torence stated. "That or I might lose Treckka, lovesick cub that he is …"
Imrana eyed Treckka before saying, "This is the one the others were calling Stinky? I’m surprised he didn’t crack a few skulls together."
"I did," Quinzet retorted. "Having to live with a failing atmospheric unit was hardly his fault."
"I take it that problem has been resolved?" Imrana inquired.
"Oh, yes. They had that fixed before we knew about Slasher," Quinzet told her.
Imrana smiled. "I didn’t think you’d voluntarily go if it wasn’t, but I was curious on how they had turned it around so fast."
"It seems that it was the same solution that made Red so fast – you just have to throw in the right crazy human," Quinzet laughed as Neal gave them a bow.
"So, I was just about to inspect my ship’s latest upgrades; care to join me?" Neal asked with a grin.
"Try to keep us away!" Imrana laughed.
It was a short walk to the docking bay, and an elderly-looking chakat met them there.
"Captain Foster," shi said formally.
"Chakat Gadget," he replied. "Did you sign her off?"
"Only thing not done was painting her name – as you told us to hold off on it."
"And very wise was I to do so," Neal told hir before turning to those that followed him. "Gentle furs, I give you Pogo Stick."
"We charge by the letter!" Gadget called out as they filed past hir.
Once past the large airlock they stopped in front of a row of lifts.
"Okay, the bridge is – " Neal started, only to get cut off by Imrana.
"Engineering if you please!" the large Rakshani insisted, her grin showing a lot of sharp teeth.
Neal’s grin was a little rueful at the snickers from the others. "Ah, yes, engineering of course …"
A short trip in one of the lifts soon had them at the aft end of the ship. A few hatches later and Neal stopped in the middle of a spacious room with several control panels positioned here and there. "Main Engineering," he said with a wave.
"Oh, no you don’t!" Imrana declared. "I want to see your core and the real controls!"
"Which one?" Gadget sweetly asked from the rear of the group.
Imrana turned to stare at the chakat. "Don’t tease me," she warned.
"This beast has four warp cores," Gadget advised her, "And the plumbing in place to tie in two more. The way the system is set up, he could also install much larger cores than the ones he currently has."
Imrana and Quinzet glared at Neal. "You’ve been holding out on us!" the Rakshani captain complained.
Neal’s grin wasn’t pleasant as he said, "Just because I gave the first Blueclaw a few hints doesn’t mean I owe House Blueclaw everything I learn."
"No," Imrana allowed, "but now we know to dig deeper."
"Then I suggest you study Voxxan as well as Merraki methods," Neal chuckled. "Tess, start bringing up the rest of the secondary power systems. Advise when online or if there are any problems."
"Acknowledged," a female voice said as a hum could be heard becoming louder from a neighboring room.
"While everything is piped, none of the feeds have antimatter containers connected to them," Gadget advised him.
"A couple of the pods are loaded with fuel," Neal replied. "The secondaries are enough to get us clear of the station, fueling and testing can then be done." Looking at his guests he added, "We should be ready to undock in about thirty minutes. Those wishing to flee should do so by then."
There were no takers, so Neal had a full house as he checked over each core prior to adding fuel and firing it up.
He went as far as letting the warp engines form a static warp bubble encompassing the entire ship before returning to the station and kicking off the observers.
Watching as the ship again drifted away from the station, Quinzet commented, "I wonder what else he was hiding from us?"
"No telling," Tonya agreed as they headed back to where Maverick was docked. "Did you guys know he had an antimatter production station out in the middle of nowhere?"
"We know he has one orbiting one of our nearby suns, and it’s well protected too."
"Then he has more than one."
"We’re talking about somebody that likes to surprise people."
"True … Do we need to get a room ready for you? Or will you be moving in with Treckka?"
"It might be nice to have my own room for now, Treckka and I are still getting to know each other."
The station’s general quarters alarm picked that moment to go off. Before they could reach the nearest ‘safe room’, the alarm was silenced and a voice stated, "False alarm, resume normal activity," before switching languages and repeating the message.
Quinzet pulled out her military comm and said, "Quinzet to Blueclaw, what just happened?"
"Some fool formed his warp bubble within fifty kilometers of the station," came the reply.
"Not a ripple hit the station. Smoothest boost to quarter C I’ve ever seen – wow, they just went to warp!"
Quinzet chuckled as she said, "Suggest you warn the engineers that the Captain’s going to want to be able to match that."
"Right …" the voice said, sounding a little uncertain before they dropped the connection.
"Did Neal add any improvements to Maverick?" Quinzet asked Tonya as they neared the ship in question.
"Just a few minor tweaks," Tonya admitted.
"I look forward to seeing them," Quinzet said as she stopped at the hatch before saying, "Permission to come aboard?"
Copyright © 2011 Allen Fesler Redbear1158@hotmail.com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
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