Book One – The Curse
Part 1: Departure From the Norm

Chapters: Day001,   Day 002,   Day003,   Day004,   Day005,   Day006,   Day007

Day 001, Dawn on the planet Bright Hope
(July 17, 2331 Old Earth)

Red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning.

Time was slowly working its magic once again, turning an inky black sky through shades of gray as one side slowly shifted to a dark red, more distant stars fading into the heavens as the light of a more localized star chased away the night. A loose tent flap flipped gently in the slight breeze, and soft snoring could be heard from its interior. The same breeze had already dried away most of the evidence of the previous night’s thunderstorm, leaving the air smelling fresh – if not still a bit damp. A rather long yawn growled forth from the tent. It was followed by what sounded like grumbling before a small motor was heard starting, the puffing noises telling of something being filled – or perhaps emptied – of air. Minutes later, a heavyset and slightly portly-looking figure came out and began releasing the tent’s magnetic stays, causing it to collapse in upon itself. As the light continued to brighten, the figure resolved to be a human male with dark red hair longer than any of the current styles, with a rather unkempt-looking beard to match. The tent he quickly half-folded before rolling it into a bundle and stuffing it in a bag, the tent poles sliding into a sleeve on one side of the bag, and the now-deflated air mattress into one of the bag’s many pockets. Leaving the bag where it sat for the moment, he moved the dozen or so meters to the edge of a sixty-meter man-made cliff as the sun crested the distant horizon. Blue eyes met the still reddish-looking sun and sky for a moment before looking down into the predawn shadows some two hundred feet below. While several miles across, the spaceport was a small and quiet one by most standards; it rarely saw more than two ships in port at any one time. Currently though, there were actually five space-worthy objects sitting on the field; two personnel shuttles were parked near the modest control tower that managed the air traffic on and around the port, and a pair of massive cargo pods, one with a heavy lift shuttle still hunched over it like some sort of four-legged spider guarding a sugar cube.

The human turned, a mere speck on the sugar cube, and picked up the bag as he strolled toward the spider on whose side a hatch opened as he neared. Stowing the tent bag in one of the many compartments, he then opened what turned out to be a cold-box and removed three eggs and a handful of other ingredients before moving over to a slide-out table with a built-in heating element, collecting a pan and a plate from the cabinet above. Ten local minutes and one slightly overcooked omelet later found him again at the edge of his pod, the remains of a glass of orange juice in one hand.

While getting dressed, he had put on a pair of glasses and inserted a pair of earplugs. A couple of shifts of his eyebrow and a wink, and the glasses zoomed in to let him watch one of the personnel shuttles as it took to the sky, the earplugs helping protect his ears from the roar of its engines. Past the tower, he could now see activity in and around the storage and maintenance hangars, as if the launch had also signaled the start of the local business day.

“How’s our schedule looking for today?” he seemed to ask the empty air as the launch noise abated.

“Well,” a human female-sounding voice softly said into his earplugs, “if no one screws up, we should be fully loaded by the end of the day.”

“That would be nice,” he admitted as he scratched at his beard. “It feels about time to shake the local dust from my feet and get us moving again.”

“This from the guy who just spent the night dirt-side in a tent just so he could enjoy a little rain?” the voice asked with a snicker.

It was a dark and stormy night,” he quipped back with a grin, half wondering if she would catch the ancient reference. “But this is a new day,” he then pointed out, “and I’m ready to be out and about.”

“From up here I can see three ships inbound, and below there’s a convoy of loaded trucks heading towards the field, so it’ll soon be time for you to get back to work,” she warned him.

“Bring it,” he said with a half-smile as he turned back towards the shuttle’s hatch.

Around the storage hangars, forklifts of several sizes could be seen moving pallets and crates from trucks into cargo containers, though most of the containers were being brought to the spaceport preloaded and ready to be transferred to the much larger cargo pods, shuttles or starships. Once a pod was loaded, the heavy lift shuttle ‘Alpha’ parked on top of it would lift it skyward. Counter-gravity and inertial dampening systems built into the shuttle and its four legs helped reduce the effective mass of the pod, allowing the shuttle to lift using less thrust, and keeping the crew and cargo from feeling the high acceleration rates the shuttle could produce. Once in orbit, the pod would be reconnected to its ship or a station, and the individual containers could then be shifted to the main cargo holds, or moved to other pods to be dropped where the larger vessels couldn’t go.

As shuttles had grown to lift larger loads in more massive pods, so had the trucks that transported those loads on the ground. While the traffic to Bright Hope’s small spaceport wasn’t steady enough to rate a rail system as yet, it had been designed to allow easy access for trucks up to and including the massive class V Star-Rigs. The class fives were each nearly a hundred meters long and could carry up to thirty-two of the three by three by twelve meter containers that had become the standard for the majority of the Federation’s shipping industry.

It would have been much easier to just pick up all the loads already in containers or pods at the small space station orbiting Bright Hope, but that would have entailed paying others to gather and get the cargo into orbit, never mind the extra expenses of the station’s docking and storage fees. This time around, the captain had parked his ship out of the way in a high orbit, and with his own shuttle doing pre-scans of each item loaded while still on the ground, he could leave whenever he was ready, knowing exactly what had been loaded where, with no question of what might have been stored in which pod and no ‘missing’ or ‘surprise’ packages when they reached their final destinations.

Another ‘little’ advantage of having his own heavy-lift shuttle on the ground rather than relying on others was the local fresh air. The pod currently being loaded had been modified to take advantage of whatever ‘atmosphere’ it was set down in. Energy from the shuttle was now powering the pumps built into the upper levels of the pod; they in turn were pulling in the air, where it was compressed, chilled, separated, and then stored as needed. Waste heat and unwanted gasses were vented back into the atmosphere, saving a little more of the ‘high cost of doing business in space’.

An additional and sometimes useful excuse for owning and operating your own heavy-lift shuttle was using it to help make friends and possibly do a little business on the side with other merchant ships. A pair of Rakshani males were working on loading one of his other pods, or so it appeared. In reality the Rakshani were seeing to the loading for their own ship, they were just renting the pod and the power to lift it, the contents of which would later be transferred to their ship, Night Fang. Even a ‘small’ adult Rakshani would tower over the human’s own six-foot frame by at least another foot if not two. While not of Earth, Rakshani resembled Earth tigers – if you were to stand one of them upright on their hind legs and enlarged the tail into a thick counterweight that could be used as a third limb or a weapon. Then there was their coloration. One of the males in question had green fur with brown and black striping; the other was an orange-red mix that would blend in well on one of the deserts of Raksha.

There was more than just truck traffic in the spaceport’s loading areas. Busses and PPTVs (Public Personal Transport Vehicles) brought those that thought they had some business or other reasons to be at the spaceport this day. Sometimes a shipper would come out to personally supervise the loading/unloading of their cargo; sometimes they had other purposes for their presence …

The first non-cargo to grace him with their presence was a long electric bike. It was long because its rider was one of the many centauroid-like ‘taur’ species, with a four-legged lower torso and two arms on the upper. Head and tail adorned the proper ends, vulpine and fluffy in this case. While taurs had been created and used in the Gene Wars centuries earlier, this particular breed of taur had only been in existence for a few decades. Like the chakats they had been modeled after, they were ‘herms’ or hermaphrodites, able to both sire and bear pups. It had been long established that he and she just didn’t do the herms justice, so shi (shay) and hir (German sounding ‘herr’) were used for their pronouns. This particular young adult was a Stellar Foxtaur, hir general coloration and height was that of the Veldt breed, bred to be most at home in plains and grasslands areas. On hir head shi wore a headband with a visor and pop down goggles to protect hir eyes from the wind and a smart-looking blouse and a belt pouch on hir upper torso – and as with most taurs, hir lower torso had only its natural fur coat covering it.

He watched as shi backed hir bike up onto its kickstand before shi dismounted and trotted up the ramp to him.

Either roughnecks didn’t bother hir – or shi’d been warned of what to expect because he didn’t see any apparent surprise or unease from hir as shi offered him the data PADD shi was carrying. “Captain Foster,” shi said as shi presented it.

Warned, he decided when he saw the sender’s data. Keying in the agreed pass-phrase gained him access to the message and a small data chit popped partway out of the side of the unit. As he read the message he asked, “And just who are you, and how long have you been working for this despicable den of evil scoundrels and thieves?”

“Dash, sir. Daughter of Freeflight and Sunflower. And ever since they proved they would take on anyone for the right cause.” At his raised eyebrow shi added, “My parents almost lost their home and business to some real scoundrels.”

Host parents I assume?” he half corrected.

“My mother carried me to term,” shi didn’t quite snap back at him.

His eyes still on the message, he openly grinned. “Yeah, chakats can be funny that way … Did they not warn you that I can be an ass – or did you let me get under your fur just now?” he wondered.

Letting out a soft snort shi said, “Oh, they warned me all right, I just wasn’t ready for cracks at my folks from the type of guy they’d told me you were.”

“I had you at a slight disadvantage,” he admitted. “Knowing that the odds of meeting a second generation adult Stellar foxtaur on Bright Hope are tiny indeed, foster or host parents were the best you could lay claim to – not that they can’t mean as much if not more to you than any biological parents could have.”

“How could they mean more to me?” shi wondered, more curious now than ever as to why shi’d been sent to see this ‘captain’.

“Biological parents may decide or plan to have a kit – or have an unplanned one. Your parents already knew what they were getting into and what was expected of you long before they said yes – and they said yes anyway … though somebody must have goofed, because if I recall correctly, most of your siblings are currently out colonizing the planet Arisia.”

“Not every Stellar fit the mold Star Corps had hoped to cast us in,” shi curtly replied.

“And knowing that, you still thought you knew what to expect from me?” he chuckled. “A star chart is not space, a map is not the land, and a man cannot be trimmed down to fit neatly into a file – not that I think they’ve let you see my file.”

“I asked, got laughed at,” shi admitted with a scowl.

He chuckled again before saying, “They probably did you a favor; coming in with any preconceptions of what to expect of me would have made it even easier for me to ‘mess with your head’.”

“So Tanner warned me,” shi muttered. Indicating the PADD with hir muzzle shi commented, “They told me there might be a reply.”

“And there is,” he said as he pulled the memory chit out of the PADD and dropped it in a pocket. “I like what I’m seeing so far, but if they see a problem – or a bargain – I don’t expect them to wait for my okay to pounce on it,” he said as he returned the PADD to hir.

“I’ll tell them. Anything else?”

“That’s it. Off with you now,” he teased as he made shooing gestures at hir.

“You know they sent hir for your approval,” the voice in his earplugs pointed out. “So what’d you think?”

“Tell them ‘green light’. Shi’ll do,” Neal said as another of the large forklifts trudged up with a loaded container in its tines.

The next non-cargo vehicle to pull up near the large cargo pod was a rather fancy customized PTV (Personal Transport Vehicle), showing off the owner’s belief in their own self-worth. The fact that the observer thought it merely overly gaudy probably wouldn’t have gone over too well. The passenger would be even less pleased with his assessment in a minute as the vehicle pulled to a stop. The human chauffeur opened the door for a human female that the observer guessed was around twenty-five or so; blond, bouncy, and from the way she moved, very full of herself.

She didn’t so much walk as swagger up the pod’s ramp to him. With a lofty and poorly concealed disgust for the unkempt looking person she found blocking her way, she announced, “I am Betty O’Donnell. I’m sure my daddy told your captain that I’d be here for my ship handlin’ trainin’.”

Frowning back at her, he growled, “Sorry missy, but while you’re kinda cute, the cap’s not said anythin’ ta me ‘bout no passengers, much less any added crew.”

Her grin started looking a little forced. “I don’t think you understand …” she started.

“I follow my orders, missy. No orders, no permission to board this shuttle or pod,” he stated flatly.

“My daddy –”

“Doesn’t own this shuttle and doesn’t pay me to do my job.”

“Get me your captain. NOW!” she demanded.

Instead of getting angry at her tone, he merely smirked at her outburst. “Don’t work like that, little missy,” he cheerfully informed her. “Had my captain okayed your presence, he’d have given you a comm badge like this one,” he stated, indicating the unit clipped to his shirt. “Barring that, our head of resources, Miss Tess, would have told me and any other ground crew who and what ta expect. Until one of those things happens, you will get off my ramp – you’re holding up my loading, which will piss off that captain you claim your daddy supposedly spoke to.”

He grinned as he watched her storm back down the ramp, the chauffeur not getting the door open fast enough to suit her.

As the PTV drove off he muttered, “Why do I have this bad feeling that we’ll be seeing her again?”

“No bet, Boss,” came the female-sounding reply from his comm badge. “Her father was one of the more persistent callers trying to get you to take on a trainee.”

Neal snorted. “I’m not in any mood to put up with someone like her … probably have her locked in a stasis field in less than a week.”

There was a disturbance around the storage hangers a short time later. A small group of humans had been chasing and trying to beat up on any lone furs they could catch. While they hadn’t worn anything declaring their allegiance to any particular anti-furry group, their actions were the type typically associated with ‘Humans First’ extremists, a group known to hate certain types of furs purely because they’d been created by their fellow humans centuries before.

As well as yelling at them for slowing down his loading, a seemingly half-crazed red-haired kin of theirs had started using what looked like an old pump-action shotgun to pelt them with a painful concoction of large birdshot and rock salt when their actions had strayed a little too close to his pod. The shotgun in question was still sitting behind his chair in case they were foolish enough to come back, the ammunition changed out to something that would make a bit more of an impression if they were in need of another hint.

Whether it was because he’d helped chase off the riffraff, or whether it was because he still seemed to be spoiling for a fight, the moving of ready loads from the neighboring storage hangars to his pod was expedited, getting him a little ahead of his planned schedule.

With a fresh pod newly grounded, he was wondering what else might try to go wrong when the small fleet of heavily loaded trucks he’d been warned to expect started pulling up. The emblems on the exposed containers showed that they belonged to Raynor Inc., one of the larger companies on Bright Hope that frequently used him to move their goods across the space lanes. Not seeing the local fur he was used to dealing with, his curiosity went up a notch.

“Where’s that Chakitten Snowfall?” he demanded of the younger human male coming up to him.

“Captain Neal Foster? Snowfall won’t be joining us today, Sir. I’m your new rep,” the guy said with the kind of smirk normally seen on only the seediest of used car salesmen as he handed Neal the printed copy of the shipping orders. “Bill Stalk.”

Taking the proffered papers, but deliberately ignoring the offer of a handshake, Neal turned and walked back into the pod and over to his fold-out desk while tapping his comm badge. “Tess, a quick scan of these docs, please. Check for any tricks or traps,” he quietly requested.

“You expecting a problem, Boss?” the female voice replied.

Something’s so fishy, I think I’m going to need tartare sauce,” he hissed back.

“Two jars in the lunchroom cooler, four more in the back of the break-room cabinet three.”

“Smart-assed computer,” Neal muttered with a half-smile as he flipped through the sheets, letting the scanner in his glasses get a good shot, then moving on to the next.

He was halfway down the stack when he heard the tone from his comm badge.

“Got it,” Tess reported. “Turn back to page 34. Halfway down in all that fine print is an employment contract. If you sign any of the pages in this stack, you become their newest, cheapest wage slave for the next 25 years.”

“I take it the electronic forms were clean?” Neal asked. At Tess’s confirmation, he grumbled, “Great! They’re back to their old tricks again. They must’ve had another management shuffle; the new idiots thinking they can do something the last five sets couldn’t manage,” he muttered.

“Maybe so,” Tess replied, “but what are you going to do about it?”

Neal looked back at the ‘rep’, still waiting just outside the pod’s main doors, “Patch me through to Snowfall, voice only. Let’s see what shi knows about this mess.” His smile wasn’t pleasant as he added, “I wonder how many heads we can make roll this time?”

Thinking back to the past attempts to get him working for them under their terms, Neal wondered why they kept trying. By now they should have known that playing their games just cost them more to get him to ship their cargo.

“The receptionist says shi’s in a meeting and can’t be disturbed,” Tess reported.

“Tell them that if I don’t speak with Snowfall, their cargo will have to be shipped by another carrier,” Neal replied. “Tack on those electronic shipping orders to remind them of how ‘little’ cargo that is.”

“Ooh, mean, Boss. That should get their attention!”

“That’s the idea, Tess. Now be a good girl and send it on down the line.” Neal was smiling again. The ‘new rep’ was starting to look a bit nervous at Neal’s delaying.

Less than a minute later, Snowfall was on the line. “Captain Foster? How may I assist you, Sir?” As they’d been on a first-name basis for a couple decades now, he knew hir starting the conversation by his title and with a question told him shi wasn’t able to talk freely. Either someone was with hir or shi thought the line was being monitored.

“Do I have a new rep, or is someone trying to blow smoke up my ass?” Neal demanded, sounding pissed.

“What? Wait a minute, Neal. Just where are you getting the idea that you have a new representative?” Snowfall asked, hir voice rising as shi spoke.

One of the many things Neal liked about Snowfall was shi had always been very honest in all hir dealings with him. Shi had gotten even madder than he had at some of the tricks hir company had tried to pull in the past; so much so that Neal had made it a point to only work with Snowfall. Shi was the only one he’d let talk his fees down; anyone else trying just got them raised. It hadn’t hurt that like most chakats, Snowfall was a strong empath, able to detect the feelings of others, and shi’d quickly picked up on what Neal would and would not put up with. One of hir company’s tricksters had actually gotten Neal angry enough to leave a rather large shipment sitting on the loading docks. Since most of it had been going to their own manufacturing facilities, they had production lines stopping as they ran out of resources. Their stock prices dropping almost twenty percent because of the delays had insured that they were very careful how they dealt with him the next few times around.

Neal replied with no smile in his voice, “You mean you didn’t know about this idiot at my pod, not only claiming to be my new rep, but thinking I’m dumb enough to sign a set of shipping orders with a very crappy employment contract hidden in all the fine print?”

There was silence on the other end, and then Snowfall quietly said, “No … I was only told that one of the drivers would be giving you the shipping orders.” Then even more softly, “I take it you’re upset about this?”

“You might say that,” Neal snarled, “Tell your idiot bosses the cost to ship this load just doubled.”

A new voice on the other end, human male from the sound of it, shouted, “You can’t just increase your price!”

Neal’s smile could now be heard over the line as he said, “Want to bet? I could just refuse your entire shipment, Dumbass. You’re now up to four times; would you like to say anything else?”

“Mute connection!” Snowfall’s voice cut in before anyone could say anything else.

“Muted at this end too, Boss,” Tess said. “Sounds like somebody didn’t read their own history on how you deal with dirty tricks.”

“Snowfall is probably clueing them in on that, as well as the little fact that I’ve already left their cargo on the docks before for their troubles,” Neal said, some of the anger leaving his voice.

“Do you think they will go for it?” Tess asked.

“They don’t have too much of a choice right now,” Neal sighed. “They’re just losing most of the savings I was giving them for shipping such a large order. Snowfall and I had negotiated the shipping costs down to almost a fifth of what they would usually be, due mostly to the size of the order and that most of it is going to one destination that I’m already being well paid to visit. I’m still a bit cheaper than what I would have typically charged, and still a lot lower than any of the other carriers can afford to offer. Then there’s the little problem of none of the other ships presently in the area being able to handle the whole load, and they probably wouldn’t be able to make the deadline.”

“I’ve always wondered why they don’t just get their own ship,” Tess half asked.

“Think it through. They’d have the cost of a ship, upkeep, paying for a crew, fuel, and then trying to keep it busy enough to make it profitable,” Neal ticked off the points. “After all, I made most of our ‘Folly’ out of other cargo ships, she’s pretty much a one-of-a-kind beast done on the cheap.”

“The original hulls anyway,” Tess allowed. “The specifications of which you then put out on the net, public domain, so pretty much anyone could try to copy her.”

“Sure, they may have the basic building blocks, but not the finer points of how I strung it all together, so they can’t figure out how my Folly goes as fast and far as she does on so little fuel.”

“That, and pirates don’t seem to do so well when they meet up with us,” Tess snidely reminded him.

“Now that’s just pure dumb luck,” Neal said, his smile returning.

“Riiiight,” Tess said. “Oops, they’re back. Unmuting now.”

Snowfall’s voice was the next on the line. Shi sounded like shi was trying to speak quietly after just having had a shouting match with someone. “Sorry to have kept you waiting, Captain. The new rates have been accepted, and the proper shipping orders are being sent as we speak. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“That should do it. Thank you for clearing up that little problem so quickly,” Neal replied. “Should I send this idiot packing, or will you be taking care of him?”

We’ll deal with him,” Snowfall all but growled.

“Have fun!” Neal told hir as he had Tess disconnect the call. Turning back to where Bill Stalk was watching him intently, Neal picked up the order and held it at arm’s length before proceeding to tear it in half the long way.

The replacement shipping orders had come and the ‘new (and now very unhappy) rep’ had been removed. After scanning the orders, they were found to be the same as before, minus any hints of an employment contract. The reason for double-checking was Neal didn’t trust some of them not to try again, and if they ever did get him under their thumb, they would take away his freedom to go where he wanted when he wanted. While he could have gone after them in the courts for their little games, the time delays would have cost him far more in the long run than it would have them.

Neal had swapped pods for the next load of containers when something a little odd happened. The current pod was another of those to be loaded exclusively with containers from Raynor, and destined for their facilities on Earth. Heavy lift forklifts were picking up each of the truck-mounted containers to stack in the pod.

What was out of place was while most of the trucks bringing in the pod’s load were the oversized ones capable of carrying thirty-two full length containers and trailering up to sixty-four more, there was one little singleton tractor with a lone half-sized container on its trailer bed. Neal frowned at this odd load.

“Tess, scan that container. Somehow I don’t think that’s part of Raynor’s load.”

Alpha’s scanners are reading two life signs. One matches the readings we got off your girlfriend earlier,” Tess replied.

Neal’s grin wasn’t pleasant as he said, “Wait until it’s been loaded and the truck pulls away, then I want you to tell the Rakshani I would like them to bring one of their forklifts over here. Let the captain of Night Fang know that I have a little deal for her.”

“Captain Foster?” a female Rakshani voice speaking in Katang Low Tongue – one of the more common Rakshan dialects – growled into Neal’s earplugs moments later. “Is there a problem with our agreement?”

“Not at all, Captain Thorn,” he replied in Caitian Ratarsk, which he knew would be easier on his vocal cords. “I just had something come up that I thought I’d offer to you.”

There was more of a purr in her voice when she matched languages and inquired, “And what would that be?”

“I have an attempted hitchhiker-in-a-box that claims she wants ship training. I also know you have a couple members of your crew you’re trying to fine tune. An outside influence might help you better sharpen their skills …”

The Rakshani’s huffing chuckle sounded in his ears before she asked, “And what do I get for taking on this hitchhiker?”

“What? A greenhorn human female to terrorize isn’t enough of a treat for you?”

“No. You could just leave this human behind, yet you wish that we take her. Why?”

“To teach her that getting what she wants isn’t always a good thing,” Neal admitted.

“Then I want two containers of that Earth honey I know you’re carrying!”

The Rakshani captain could hear Neal’s frown through the connection. “One pallet,” he finally muttered, “she’s not worth even a single container.”

“Done!” she proclaimed happily. “You’re getting soft in your old age, Foster,” she teased.

“Keep telling yourself that, Hiss,” Neal snapped back before dropping the connection. “Tess? Move one pallet of Earth honey to an empty container and have it waiting at the aft access port. I’ll shift it over to them later.”

“Can do, Boss. Are you really getting soft?” Tess asked.

“Keep thinking that way and I’ll see if one of those newer models is smart enough to not ask questions like that.”

“You’re not getting soft, Boss!” Tess quickly corrected. “Just sneakier.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Neal replied as one of the Rakshani driven forklifts pulled up. “I didn’t mention she had a friend,” he softly reminded her.

Neal signaled for the forklift to wait as he got a couple things from a bin by the cargo hatch before walking over to the half-length container. A small clip secured the container’s smaller personnel door from being opened from the inside and then Neal went around slapping new labels to each side. The Rakshani was laughing as he forked and lifted the container. Halfway to the other pod he set it on the ground and placed his tongs just under the edge before lifting, flipping the container on its side. One more quarter flip had the new labels pointing in the right direction before the container was picked back up to be not-so-carefully wedged among the other containers in the Rakshani’s pod.

The rest of the day and well into evening was spent shifting cargo pods between the ground and the Folly. Even though each cargo pod was quite large, it had still taken six of them to move all the shipments heading out this time. Not all the traffic was uphill. Neal brought down a pod and a half worth of cargo, mostly consumer goods, and a few hundred containers of specialty foods that couldn’t or weren’t grown locally, with stasis fields keeping the perishables frozen in time.

The last trip was from Folly to the high orbit space station to drop off a pair of warp engines for a ship nearing completion of its repairs. Then it was a quick trip back to the Folly for the promised honey, collecting the now empty pod from Night Fang, and once more to the ground to pick up the last of this trip’s outgoing cargo.

Coming up on Folly on his final trip, Neal had to smile. Almost every engineer that had ever seen a picture or scan of his ship had told him it couldn’t possibly make it to warp, and if it did, it would consume far too much fuel to be practical. Funny thing was, his Folly not only could make warp, she went faster than some ships a fraction of her size, and in some cases, used less fuel to do so, which in turn made it easier for him to be the lowest bidder when it came time to move someone else’s cargo and still maintain a profit.

She wasn’t much on ‘looks’ as Neal’s main objective had been more towards ‘works’. Take two large freighters, their main cargo spheres looking like they had all but collided nose to tail, with docking ports and bays filling the gap between them. Behind them was a thick pole-like section with rings of cargo pod attachment points. A few slots were empty, making that section look a bit like a cob of Indian corn with a few kernels missing. The comparison to a cob of corn wasn’t hurt by the kernels not all being the same size or shape nor were they of matching colors. Next came the main engineering section with the warp engine nacelles swept forward on long semi-adjustable booms.

After docking and verifying their flight path with Tess, he ordered her to bring the needed warp cores online and head for their next stop at an economical warp four.

As the Folly left orbit and started to move far enough away from the planet to engage her warp drive, Neal was in the local net, getting final news updates, mail and checking dispatches and shipping statuses. He canceled several ‘possible’ load offers that he had left open knowing that killing them earlier would have just given the shippers more time to browbeat him about it, but he knew that the baggage overhead on them would cost him far more than the loads were worth. There were other ships looking for paying loads; perhaps one of them would be foolish enough to take the risks.

“You just received a message from Gilbert,” Tess said as she prepared her systems to take Folly to warp. “Should I hold off going to warp until you’ve had a chance to look at it and give him a reply?”

“No,” Neal said with a smile. “Sounds like he’s finally figuring out that I wasn’t kidding when I said I wasn’t interested in that ‘great deal’ he had for me.”

“Understood. Warp in four minutes,” Tess replied.

Though two minutes later she had to bother him again. “Boss, I’ve got something strange here.”

“Strange how?”

“We have a local police cutter trying to tell us to return to orbit – by laser comm link, even though we’re already well out of their jurisdiction and there’s a Star Fleet destroyer in range they should have handed off the request to if they officially wanted us back.”

“Hmmm, laser rather than the regular comms suggests they didn’t want Fleet in the loop for some reason. Tell you what we’re going to do, I want you to use the regular comms and make sure the Fleet destroyer can hear you complaining that whoever is hitting Folly that their lasers are garbled and to try again,” Neal told her.

“They’re still trying the lasers, still demanding we return to orbit.”

“No reason why?”

“No, Boss.”

“Put me on,” he requested. A small light began to flash, telling him when she was ready. “This is Captain Foster to whatever idiot is bouncing a poorly modulated laser off my ship, we are going to warp in one minute. Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

“Please return to orbit, Folly.”

“Identify yourself and state why we would want or need to waste the time and fuel returning to Bright Hope’s orbit,” Neal countered.

“That was regular comms from the cutter,” Tess told him off-mike.

“Which we all know is trying to boss us around in Fleet’s jurisdiction, so they’re now going to have to explain themselves not only to us but to that destroyer,” Neal agreed, also off-mike.

“Captain Foster, this is Lieutenant Disher of Bright Hope security. We need you to return to orbit at this time.”

“I was in orbit for over five days, Lieutenant. What pray tell has changed that you didn’t desperately need us then but do now that we’re underway? I’m also interested in why you didn’t just relay your request to Star Fleet – as is standard protocol in these parts.”

“That is confidential, Captain. Please return to Bright Hope at this time.”

“You’re running out of time, Lieutenant. Ante up or fold,” Neal countered.

A new voice spoke up instead of the lieutenant. “This is Courtney Tung, Captain Foster. You and I have yet to come to an agreement,” she stated.

“Ah, but I was under the impression that we’d agree to disagree,” Neal countered. “As in I will not be agreeing to anything that gives you or your company any control or say over how I run my ship,” he added as he started keying in a message for Tess to send elsewhere.

“You’ll find our hand is lighter than that,” she protested.

“You have no say as it is, and yet here you are trying to sic your pet cops on me just as I’m getting underway – what might you have tried if you’d had any legal say?” Neal pointed out. “And I know of at least two other ships that you’ve personally run out of business with your micromanagement – that’s not going to happen to my Folly.”

“I don’t think you realize just how much I can influence your voyage, Captain.”

“Then you don’t really need control, now do you?” Neal asked with a smile as he keyed in a new command to Tess.

“We are not done with this!” she warned.

“We are for now,” Neal said as he touched a key – and there was a disturbance around the Folly as the warp bubble formed and she disappeared from normal space.

“Your other message was received and replied to,” Tess informed him.

“And the reply was?”

“Let the games begin.”

While having a quick snack, Neal checked through his ‘mail’. One of his accounts that only a few people knew about had a new message. He started chuckling as he began to read. Snowfall’s message suggested shi was more than a little pissed, not at him it seemed, but at some of hir now ‘ex’-workmates, and was blowing off a little steam.

It seemed that some of the now outgoing management types had tried to blame the shipping cost increase on Snowfall because shi hadn’t ‘warned’ them about Neal and his ‘temper’. Shi had pointed out that it was hard to warn someone about something when they were busy doing it behind hir backs. Fortunately the upper brass had seen this ‘trick gone wrong’ before, and they knew where to lay the actual blame, so Snowfall stayed and three levels of ‘stupid-visors’ had been shown the door.

Neal had liked Snowfall from the moment he had met hir, and shi had always understood him better than anyone else working there. Shi had never acted like a ‘brown nose’, and if he put a final yes or no on a business-related subject, that was it, shi stopped asking. When not talking business though, they had yet to find any limits on joking, storytelling, or teasing, just as long as you remembered that turnabout was fair play. To his knowledge shi still wasn’t really sure how he had managed to fill hir home bathtub with cherry jello the day shi had secretly swapped his sweetened tea for a very bitter one at lunch.

Shi even put up with the nicknames he would give hir. Snowfall was one of the largest chakats he had ever seen at just inches under his own six foot height, and hir tiger-striped fur was almost a pure white-on-white. He would often say that shi came down on hir adversaries like an avalanche, after first blinding them with a blizzard. When caught by one of hir jokes or gags, he would claim he had been snow-blinded. Shi would return the favor by calling him Red, or hir pain in the tail, which he would then offer to tie in a knot.

Shi had once asked him home for dinner with hir mate, Sandrunner, only to find hirself the odd one out. Sandy and Neal had hit it off at once, and had spent the whole time talking sensor and transporter theory until well after dawn the next day. Neal had found out later that hir sandy-shaded mate had spent the next three days bouncing off the walls trying to fully grasp what he had been trying to explain to hir, and trying to write it all down before shi forgot anything important. What had confused Snowfall the most was how a mere freighter captain could have known enough transporter theory to get one of Star Fleet’s top techs in the field that excited.

Still chuckling at Snowfall’s rant, Neal brought up the maintenance logs to see what needed doing the next ship’s day. He was just opening the logs when an attention alarm quietly went off. As he got up, Tess called his station, “Captain, I hate to say it but my security sensors are picking up movement aft.”

Since they weren’t currently shipping any live cargo, either they had cargo shifting when it shouldn’t, or someone/something had gotten onboard without being noticed; not a common occurrence with Tess’s sensors.

“Where?” Neal asked as he put his shoes back on. Leaving the bridge, he stopped by the weapons locker, belted on a stunner, and then he grabbed the shotgun. Loaded with mix of buckshot sizes, it could chew up most living things yet not put any holes through the ship’s hulls.

“External pod, twenty-third ring, row Delta, the last mixed pod you brought up,” Tess reported. “Initial scans are confirming ten – sorry, twelve life forms; ten taurs and a pair of biped furs.”

Neal put the safety back on the shotgun but he didn’t shoulder it. “What the hell are a dozen furs doing on my ship? And how the hell did the shuttle’s sensors miss them?” he muttered.

“No idea, Boss,” said Tess. “I guess you’ll just have to go ask them. Could this have anything to do with Tung trying to get us to return to Bright Hope?”

Neal hesitated for a moment before resuming his walk towards the translifts. “No,” he finally said. “If she’d known, there were safer ways to warn me that they had gotten onboard somehow. As pissed as she was acting though, she most likely would have told the local cops I was kidnapping or enslaving them. So, no, goodwill or bad she didn’t know anything about them. But by the same token I can’t just turn around and dump these stowaways without going back into the legal range of Tung and her pet cops.”

“Then could it be part of that curse I heard William place on you?” Tess wondered as Neal left the translifts and took the more express route through the secondary hull to reach the pod in question.

After dinner the night before, Neal had visited an old coffee shop he had been going to for over thirty years, the shop offering a mellow tea he enjoyed. It was just as he was getting ready to leave that the elderly foxtaur proprietor had placed the curse on him. He had just stood there at the door not quite believing his ears. Staring back at the wolfish grin his old friend was giving him, he could only shake his head in return, “Take back your curse, you dang furball!” he said with a smile of his own, “I really don’t need something like that hanging over my head.” The foxtaur had just laughed as Neal left the shop.

“Let’s hope not. Have the force fields ready just in case,” Neal told her as he reached the shipside hatch leading to the pod. “And I want a full detailed scan of each of the other pods we moved this stop. If Alpha’s scanners missed that many warm bodies, they could have missed other things.”

“I’ll finish with this pod and move back with the scans. Force fields are ready in case you need them, Boss.”

Neal opened the shipside hatch, entered and locked it behind him. Now even if any of his ‘guests’ somehow made it past him and the fields, they still wouldn’t have the run of his ship.

The ship corridor’s gravity was ninety degrees off the pod’s gravity, so Neal navigated the small zero gravity area between them. Opening the smaller secondary hatch on the pod, he brought its limited internal lighting up to full and stepped up into the open center area on the floor of the pod. “Alright, I know someone’s in here. Come on out where I can see you,” he called, his voice echoing off the walls and nearby containers.

After waiting a moment and not getting any reply, he said, “Okay, if there are no humans, furballs or lizards in here, then my sensors must have picked up rats, and since I don’t like rats, my method of getting rid of them is venting the pod to space.” He chuckled for effect as he added, “Haven’t come across a rat yet that could breathe vacuum.”

This caused some frantic whispering from behind one of the stacks of containers.

After giving whoever they were a few more moments to think things over, Neal called out again, “Last chance … Hmmm, no answer. Must have been rats after all.”

As he made some noise working the latch handle, a voice cried out, “Wait – please! We’re coming!”

One by one, a dozen furs came around the corner of the container; six chakats, three foxtaurs – all vixens he noted, a very large male equitaur, and finally a pair of biped morphs, a female fox and a male cat; and, if Neal was any judge, all mid to late teens and none of them looked really old enough to be striking out on their own just yet. Their manner of dress was typical for most teen furs from what he’d seen on Bright Hope. While each of them had a hip purse of some type, the smallest, the fox vixen morph, was the most dressed with a rather plain top, vest and pants. The cat morph looked a little dressier in his pants and open vest. Taurs normally went ‘bottomless’, and the male equitaur wore only a simple vest, but the foxtaur vixens and chakats wore a variety of tops and vests.

His estimate of the group didn’t climb much when one of the chakats tried to put on a bold front. “I am Chakat Brighteyes, daughter of Wildrider and Brightheart. Take me to your captain, please,” demanded the small, dark brown, cougar-colored chakat with pale green eyes.

Neal cocked his head a little as he sized hir up. “And who might this ‘captain’ be to you?” he asked with a smile that wasn’t as pleasant as it might have been.

“Shi’s my aunt,” Brighteyes replied, no longer sounding quite so sure of hirself.

“And does your aunt’s ship have strap-on cargo pods, like the one you’re currently in?” Neal asked softly. Before shi could form an answer, Neal asked, “What poor ship were you little idiots trying to stow away on anyway?”

“The ‘Twintails’,” Brighteyes all but whispered, realizing they were all in very real trouble. They’d been lucky enough to miss the Humans First attacks on the ground earlier that day, but now they were on the wrong ship, with an armed human that didn’t seem all that pleased to see them.

Twintails, huh?” Neal said, appearing to think. “A chakat named Dawn’s-light runs that ship if I recall correctly … crew of ten or so, none of them human last I saw – not that shi’s anti-human. Not the fastest ship around, but very well maintained from what I’ve seen and heard of her. She’d made orbit about six hours before we left.”

Brighteyes could only nod slowly, as Neal continued, “You’ve probably figured out by now you caught the wrong ship, so I’m guessing introductions are in order. I’m Neal Foster, and you’re aboard the freighter Folly. The really bad news for you guys is that we left orbit almost as soon as your pod was attached to the ship – we’ve been at warp a few hours now, so there’s no turning around and dropping you off at this point. So who have I been lumbered with?”

There was a quick round of introductions. It was a good thing that Tess was there to help keep track of names, because along with the rather bold chakat ‘Brighteyes’, Neal would soon have Chakats Roseberry, Calmmeadow, Nightsky, Dusk, and Morningmist to deal with. Then there were the foxtaur vixens Graysocks, Redtail, and Beechwood; Mike, the equitaur male; Cindy, a rather busty female fox morph; and finally a male cat morph named Alex.

They whispered among themselves for a moment, then the vixentaur Graysocks asked, “What will your captain do with us?”

“Why? Is there something I should be doing with you?” Neal asked her with a smile.

You’re the captain?” she didn’t quite squeak, realizing she had just insulted the most important person on the ship. She was somewhat relieved when he simply gave her a chuckle and a small nod.

“C-Can’t you take us home?” This from the rather nervous-looking fox morph, Cindy.

“Not until I finish this run, I’m afraid,” Neal answered. “I’m on a timetable and have to be at certain places at certain times.”

“So when can you take us home?” Cindy fearfully asked.

“If everybody I need to deal with is ready when I get there, about sixteen Earth months, but it could be as long as twenty-three,” Neal admitted.

If they had been long enough, twelve jaws would have bounced off the deck at that point.

Neal waited for them to say something else. As the silence continued, he finally asked, “How long was the Twintails expected to be gone?”

“Just over two Earth years.” Brighteyes replied slowly.

“Not a problem then,” Neal said. “I can get you all home in plenty of time.”

The furs were now looking anywhere but at Neal. After another moment, Neal spoke again with a growing frown, “Why am I getting this funny feeling that none of you told your parents what you were up to today?”

Now they looked like they wanted to sink into the deck.

Neal continued, “When they try tracking your movements, they’ll find you went to the spaceport. Add those humans hating furs attacks earlier, and since there will be no record of you leaving, what do you think your parents are going to be thinking?”

“Can I call my dad?” asked Alex, the light gray cat morph with gray-green eyes.

“Not till we reach the next port,” Neal replied. “By then you will have been missing for several weeks.”

Please?” Chakat Dusk pleaded, “I have to let them know I’m okay!”

Neal quickly held up his hand before they could say any more. Half of them looked ready to panic, the rest ready to plead and beg. “I may not be able to let you each call your parents, but I can get word to them that you’re alive and well.”

“How?” Alex asked.

“Well, I can’t just patch through the regular FTL relays, but I can drop a one-way message into one we’ll be passing close to in a few hours.”

“What will you tell them?” asked Cindy, looking like she already knew she wouldn’t like the answer.

“Well,” Neal said, “the safest thing for me to do is to tell the truth: done found myself stuck with a mess of stowaways, add your names and who needs to be contacted for each of you, and tell them how and when they can contact me in return.”

“You’re actually going to keep us?” asked Alex.

“It’s either that or drop you off at my next port of call. Your choice, really.”

Brighteyes, looking very scared and ready to cry, asked, “You mean you would just leave us there?”

“Only if you wanted me to. After all, keeping you against your will is kidnapping, and that’s not something I’m into.”

The kids calmed down a little on hearing this.

“Now what?” asked Alex.

“We keep on keeping on,” Neal said with half a smile. “Get your personal information for that message, then get some food in you, then find you all someplace to sleep for tonight. Then tomorrow we see where we go from there.”

Though that had all sounded good to the teens, the next actual step was leaving the pod for the ship proper. As the small space between the hatches would be harder for the taurs to navigate in, Neal had Tess slide open the main cargo doors that would normally be used to move the containers between the ship and the pod. The teens watched as a large section of the floor lifted almost a third of a meter before starting to move on rollers to one side, revealing a twenty-meter black pit with just a few dim lights to one side.

“Eighth G pod and walkway,” Neal requested, and the teens suddenly found themselves feeling very ‘light’ on their paws/hoofs. “See that bar down there? Just catch it with one hand as you drop and your own momentum will swing you towards the catwalk just four meters below the lip. Tess will catch you if you miss – and no jumping required, just step off,” he added, stepping over the edge himself.

The teens watched him fall much slower than they thought he should have, giving him plenty of time to reach out and grab the bar in passing. From there they watched his momentum twist him to the side, where he released and softly dropped to a deck with him now well out of sight below the edge of the hatch.

“One at a time,” Neal ordered as he looked up and over at a couple of the teens walking around to the side of the hatch to look down on him, “I don’t need anyone kicking anyone else in the head on the way down.”

“Eighth of a G, huh?” Mike muttered before stepping off, the others watching him fall just as slowly as the human before him. While Mike’s twist and landing weren’t quite a graceful as Neal’s, the others could see he didn’t have any real trouble with it. This led to a little showing off, including a couple somersaults, tail-hooks and fancy dives; the chakats’ mid-limbed ‘handpaws’ giving them an edge over the other taurs.

Having noticed one of their party stepping away rather than towards the edge, Alex had waited until he and Cindy were the only two left. “May I have this dance?” he asked with a grin as one of his hands caught one of hers and the other slipped around her waist. Cindy let out a squeak and tried to escape, but the lower gravity meant Alex already had her feet off the deck and one big step had them sailing over the edge. With both hands occupied keeping his partner from struggling, Alex didn’t make a grab for the bar. Instead, three prehensile tails reached out and snagged them as they came into range, the chakats having quickly done handstands on the catwalk’s handrail and stretched their taur bodies and tails out to reach them.

“Many thanks,” Alex told the chakats as he set Cindy back on her feet.

“I could have done it!” Cindy tried to protest.

Having watched all their different antics from the side, Neal grinned at her objection. “Then do it,” he told her with a growing grin. At her look of confusion, he stooped slightly before easily jumping up to grab the bar. “The bar’s in a zero G area, so there’s nothing but inertia to fight,” he told her as he let his body swing around the bar a couple times. As he lined up on the pod’s opening Neal pulled his body across the bar and kicked off and shot out of sight. “Well?” floated back to those below.

The next ten minutes helped show Neal which of the teens could relax and adapt to a strange and possibly dangerous environment, and those who could not – or at least not yet. Of even more interest to him were the ones he noticed trying to covertly watch him watching them.

“Just how big is this thing?” Neal heard Redtail mutter – courtesy of Tess’s pickups and his earplugs.

He watched as the foxtaur vixen look around. They were all on or above a catwalk ‘below’ the twenty-meter wide opening giving access to the pod they had been in. One direction had a similar set of lights well over fifty meters away, but the other faded to darkness beyond the lowly set local lights. He observed as Redtail let out several sharp ‘barks’, her ears semi-folded forward to better catch the echoes.

Other ears and eyes turned to see what she was up to, and it was Mike who was first to realize what Redtail was trying to do. “What is this place?” he asked Neal.

“Internal storage, secondary hull, fourth bay,” Neal told them.

“Ooookay …” Redtail muttered for the rest of them. “I know some of those echoes took over a second to bounce back.”

“Don’t forget that different air pressures and mixes will also throw off the speed of sound through them,” Neal cheerfully warned her before raising his voice slightly and calling out, “Tess, light us up if you would please.”

“Sure thing, Boss,” they heard a human-like female voice say from his comm badge just before their area lights snapped up to what seemed to be full daylight brilliance.

Then previously unseen pod docks curving above and below them lit up – and then docks above and below those. As lights continued to come on, the teens could now see that they were along the inner wall of a very large ring of docks and there were shadowy hints of still more rings in both directions. Then the rings and walkways to each side of them lit up, and the next sets of rings a second later. Not all the light trails were unbroken, as groups of containers and other objects seemed to be nested or tied together in some areas. To either side they could now see that the rings ended in walls with massive ports in them, the one to the right was closed while the one to their left gaped open.

Indicating their right, Neal said, “Aft, mostly boring engineering stuff.” Waving them to move towards the left, he added, “Forward be this way, more docking ports and then the bridge and what rather limited living space I have to try to house you guys in.”

“Rather limited, Boss?” Tess asked through his earplugs as they started walking forward, with the sound of a smirk in her ‘voice’. “Where were you thinking of putting them?” she wondered as options popped up in his glasses.

Neal smiled at and then ignored the option of making them all sleep in the container they’d stowed away in, as well as several other options Tess threw up.

Upon seeing the choice her captain had made, Tess warned, “It’ll take me a little while to get those rooms ready, Boss.” A curt gesture from him told her that the decision was made, and for her to start getting them ready.

Passing through a roomy double-hatch airlock set in the wall, the teens found themselves in what looked like the same space they had just left, Redtail quickly counting seven more rings of sixteen ports.

“Just how big is this thing?” she asked again.

“Two more of these before we reach the primary hull,” Neal told her.

Two more? Just how long is this thing?” Redtail wondered out loud.

“This pod carrying section is just over two kilometers long,” Neal admitted as they continued down – or rather up – the catwalk.

“But you said this was just the secondary hull,” Mike commented. “Is the primary even larger?”

“Not really,” Neal replied. “On freighters most of the space considerations are on how much freight can be hauled at the cheapest cost. Crew space and comfort runs a very poor third or fourth place behind stowage, power, and safety; depending on how your priorities are stacked.”

“Do you carry passengers?”

“Very seldom,” Neal said as they reached the next airlock. “I like my peace and quiet.”

“What of the rest of the crew?” Dusk asked from somewhere behind him.

“What crew?” Neal asked back with a smirk.

“There’s no way one guy can run a star ship – and a ship this big must need dozens of people just to shuffle the cargo around!” Brighteyes insisted.

Neal snorted as they passed through the next set of open airlocks and into the next section. “System automation is always improving, a computer being able to handle anything it’s been programmed for.”

“But you can’t program a computer to know how to handle everything,” Brighteyes pointed out.

“Not all at once,” Neal agreed, “you start by training it with the basics and to stop and ask for help when it runs into something it hasn’t seen before. The first couple loads need a lot of instruction, but it quickly tapers off as the computer learns all the more common issues it may run into.”

“And how often does it bother you now?” Alex asked.

“Hmmm, other than you guys popping out of the woodwork, I think it’s been a few years since I’ve needed to come down here just to straighten something out, Tess?”

“Three years ago and that mess of ‘vacuum ready’ containers that weren’t,” she reminded him through his comm badge.

Neal smiled in memory as he said, “That was quite the mess, but as I recall that was more a question of what I wanted you to do about, it – and you offered up several useful suggestions on how to handle the issue.”

They walked through the next massive cavern in silence, but the last section had several large structures at the forward end that still managed to look small in the cavernous space.

“What are those?” Chakat Brighteyes wondered.

“What do they look like?” Neal countered.

“It looks like some type of space habitat – except the thruster packs are missing,” shi complained. “I can even see the power plant from here, but why would anyone have one inside a ship?”

“What better structure to use?” Neal countered. “There are times that this whole bay is in a vacuum, so something built for the airlessness of space is just what I would need.”

“Auxiliary bridge if there’s a problem in the primary hull?” Mike guessed.

“And more rather limited crew quarters,” Neal admitted without correcting his misconception. “Quarters that haven’t been used in decades. Those large tanks all the way forward are some of the water reserves.”

“They’re huge!” Chakat Dust exclaimed. “Why would you need that much water?”

Neal snorted lightly in amusement. “Those are just a fraction of Folly’s water reserves. While we have reactionless drives, you get a lot more push for the power used giving them a little mass to push with. Then you have to realize that this is a freighter, and the one thing stations and other ships will always need is water – and not just for reaction mass.”

“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” Redtail quipped.

“Actually, quite a lot of it is drinking quality,” Neal corrected as they reached yet another double hatch airlock. “While I am carrying some of what you’d consider ‘gray-water’, I tend to filter and clean up most of what I gather. It’s easier to have usable water when you need it than unusable water that you have to wait until it’s made fit to drink.”

They passed a catwalk leading towards the space habitat and into yet another double hatch airlock system, this walkway forcing them to turn towards the center of the ship.

“A long walk,” Mike commented as they came to a junction of corridors.

“Well, there was a more express route,” Neal admitted. “But I didn’t think you guys had that level of trust yet.”

“What? You don’t trust us?” the foxtaur vixen Beechwood half demanded.

“No,” Neal said as he tapped a command into a nearby computer interface mounted on the wall. “I didn’t think you’d trust me enough to try it.”

There was a series of clanking noises and a double-layered wall behind a guardrail began to move. They were soon presented with a downward looking view of the space habitat and discovered it was a donut shape with a large ‘hole’ through the center of it.

“Makes it easier to move cargo containers between the primary and secondary hulls,” Neal explained as a new command also dropped the guardrail out of the way. “Just step off,” he suggested to Beechwood with a grin.

The foxtaur stepped up to where the rail had been – only to step back at the unsettling feeling in her ears as it felt like there was something wrong with her balance.

“The gravity does drop off pretty sharply near the edge,” Neal confessed. “Best to just step across the boundary and get it over with quickly.”

Beechwood gave a little hop and kicked off with her hind legs. This got her past the gravity fields, but she was now heading slowly towards the aft of the ship – and tumbling uncontrollably.

“Tess, straighten her out, please,” Neal asked and the tumbling foxtaur slowed. Turning to the other kids he said, “You’ll all get training on moving in weightlessness, but for now someone will get to see what a quick drop to the twenty-third ring looks like. Say bye-bye, Beechwood!”

With an indignant shout of ‘HEY!’, Beechwood seemed to suddenly recede as she ‘fell’ aft at an impressive speed, through each of the four massive bays, only to slow to a stop still well over seventy meters from the still closed aft ‘engineering’ hatch. She was only there a few seconds before whatever had stopped her mad rush aft suddenly sent her rocketing forward.

“And you didn’t even hurl – a good start to learning the ropes around here,” Neal laughed as Beechwood was slowed and gently set back on the deck, her shaky legs betraying her true feelings for the ‘ride’ she’d just been on.

“That was mean!” Brighteyes protested, but while a couple of the others seemed to agree with hir, others were looking intrigued.

“Was it? That was how I got down there to greet you,” Neal countered with a grin. “Until I get a better feel for you guys you’re going to have to trust my judgment of what you may or may not be ready for. So, did I make the right choice in not using the express route to get all of you up here?”

Alex glanced over at Cindy, who was actually seemed more shaken up than Beechwood, before saying, “No, you guessed right for most of us, and I think it was time well spent letting us see more of your ship.”

The look Neal gave the gray cat suggested he wasn’t sure how that last remark had been intended. He finally gave off a soft snort and shook his head. “One thing I hope our little walk has impressed upon you is that there are lots of places to get lost on my little ship. Don’t get lost.”

A key-tap raised the guardrail and started the massive hatches closing as Neal turned to lead them further into his ‘little’ ship.

The other two foxtaurs had hung back to bring up the rear with Beechwood.

“You okay?” Graysocks asked.

“I’m fine, it was just the sudden surprise,” Beechwood assured them. “Heck, add a couple flips and do it under flashing lights and you’d have one of those rides they charge for.”

Up at the head of the parade, the captain was frowning at the translift as he did a mental calculation before deciding that the freight elevator would better accommodate his large group.

As the freight elevators didn’t go all the places the translift did, there was a little more walking to get where they were going, which the captain had decided was getting their messages home taken care of.

Neal led them through several passageways to a large lounge. Not far from the door was a recliner with a small table on both sides, and a straight-backed chair by a larger third table. A PADD and a drink mug sat on one of the small tables while the larger was partially covered with small colored pieces, which raised more than a few furry eyebrows when they saw the puzzle. Neal led them past these and to the first of half a dozen built-in workstations.

“Comm on, record mode,” he commanded, and the first console lit up. Glaring at the pickup, there was a bit more of a bite in his voice than he’d thus far used on the teens as he stated, “I am Neal Foster, Captain of the freighter Folly. My ship seems to have somehow become infested with stowaways while visiting Bright Hope. Sadly this problem was not discovered until after we had achieved warp. I will now have each of the stowaways enter their personal information and who needs to be contacted and made aware of their foolishness.” Stepping to the side, he said, “Go on, get your furry butts up there. You can take turns or use the other stations.”

“We can always blame Brighteyes for getting us on the wrong ship!” Calmmeadow half joked as they split up to share the workstations.

“That just leaves you trying to explain why you thought sneaking onto a ship was such as great idea that you came along for the ride!” Brighteyes shot back.

“Plenty of blame to go around,” Mike reminded them. “We all screwed up and we know it. Let’s just get this over with,” he suggested.

Alex seemed to have had the same idea. After keying in his parents’ names and contact information he looked up at the pickup and cleared his throat. “Record mode. Hey, Mom; hey, Dad. We ran into a little snag on that side trip I’d hinted at. I know I promised to help rearrange the cellar when I got back, but that’s now sixteen to twenty-three Earth months away. I’ll call when I can, and who knows – I might even run into Tom out here! End recording.”

“I can’t believe your parents would have set your brother up for all those ‘tomcat’ jokes!” Beechwood called over from the next station.

“Why not?” Alex replied. “I’m named after some relic of a car.”

“Oh? Which one?”

“A Cat-Alex!” he said with a laugh.

Cadillac?” a couple of them heard Neal snort. “Those haven’t been around since the Gene Wars.”

“How would you know of them then?” Alex asked in surprise.

“Because a lot of things survived the wars, but very few of their creators did,” Neal told him.

Humans made all of us,” Mike pointed out.

“True,” Neal said somberly, “but not always for the best of reasons.”

“What do you mean?” Chakat Dusk asked, not sure shi liked the emotions shi was feeling off this ship’s sole ‘crew member’.

Indicating Alex and Cindy, Neal said, “After the Second World War, the militaries around the world experimented with making the first of the two-legged furs as better soldiers, but it was the sex trades that really got them out there in numbers and made them popular. Too bad most were then dummied down and treated worse than the animals they resembled.” Waving at Mike and the three foxtaur vixens he said, “Taurs were experimented with during the Gene Wars as bigger and hopefully even better soldiers, able to carry more of a load.” Looking at Dusk he added, “And you chakats were actually created to help clean up the messes those wars made of Earth. Doesn’t say much positive about us humans – does it?” he asked with small half a grin. Waving them back at the still waiting stations he said, “Finish up your messages and then we’ll see what my limited pantry has to offer.”

Neal hid a grin as the kids frowned at the ‘ready meals’ they’d found waiting for them in one of the neighboring lounges.

“As I wasn’t expecting guests for dinner, you’re stuck with the basics,” he told them as they looked around to see what the others had gotten – and what they might be willing to trade for it.

“Anyone not want their salads?” Mike hinted with a grin.

“And the taurs are going to each want a couple of these,” Alex commented.

“You can always do it cafeteria style,” Neal suggested.

“You mean pile it all together and then just grab what we want?” Chakat Dusk asked. “That might be the easiest.”

“You’ll find I’m very much into easy, so long as it also works,” Neal told them. “Go ahead and tear the rest of those boxes open and sort them, pick out just what you want, and we’ll save any leftovers for a later meal.”

Since the choices were limited to what Neal liked to eat, there were a few things they didn’t find in any of the meal packs. This included Earth mushrooms and peppers …

The meal was almost done when the alarm went off again. The kids had still been complaining about the food packs, saying that they were not to their tastes, and definitely not sized for the taurs, when Tess broke in to announce finding still more life forms where there should have been none.

“Why did it take you this long to find them?” Neal half wondered.

“That pod’s mostly perishable goods, so the contents have been locked in a stasis field since you sealed the hatches,” Tess replied. “And as you well know, without a very close examination there’s no real difference between slabs of meat and live bodies in a stasis field.”

“So what gave them away?”

“Inventory showed there wasn’t supposed to be any meat in that container, so I went ahead and ran the more detailed scan.”

Retrieving his shotgun from the armory, Neal led them on a quick march back to the secondary hull – and out past the railing that had given Beechwood her ‘ride’. Even Cindy managed to step off the firm walkway into nothing, Tess timing their speeds and spacing to ensure that there would be no collisions or close calls and they each stepped easily over the railing in front of the pod bay door. As before, Neal opened the smaller personnel door rather than the main one.

Neal was at the inner hatch on bay twelve, row Baker, this was the first cargo pod to be loaded and lifted after Neal had chased the fur-hating rabble from his cargo holding area. Before opening the second hatch, he looked back at the kids, all of who had followed him in to see what was going on. “Look,” he told them, “if you’re coming in, you will do as I say – understood?”

There was a mixed chorus of ‘yes’ and ‘okay’. Neal brought his shotgun to the ready and had Tess shut down the stasis fields before he tried to open the hatch. With the lights up, nothing moved, just row after row of stacked containers casting long shadows down the pod. “Hello!” Neal called out.

No sounds other than that of the kids still coming up and in behind him. He tapped his comm badge. “Tess? Where are they?”

Tess responded, “Two containers to the right of your current position, still in the container. Scans show we have still more taurs, one large, one medium, two small.”

Two containers down, the main door looked like something on the inside had come loose and bowed it outward a little. The latch that should have opened the smaller personnel door easily from either side had a bent rod jamming it closed.

Eyeing the set-up, Neal set his gun to the side, and looked to the kids. “Hey big guy,” he said, “Think you can bend that rod back for me?”

Mike looked at it and smiled. “No problem, sir.” Stepping up, the big equitaur twisted it back into place with little obvious effort.

“You guys might turn out to be useful after all,” Neal said with a smile. “Now stand clear while we see who our guests are,” he said as he worked the latch.

Only Tess’s force field kept Neal from getting clawed as the hatch suddenly sprang open. A nude chakat youth, about nine or ten years old, jumped out at Neal, was bounced to the side by the force field, then seeing Neal start hir way, shi ran for the shadows of the next row of containers.

Neal had taken another step as if to follow when he heard sounds of crying in the container. Along with the stale air from the now-open hatch came the smell of blood.

Turning back to the teens, he said, “Catch hir if you can. Try not to hurt hir, but don’t let yourselves be hurt either.”

“And if we can’t catch hir?” one of them asked.

“Then we’ll try something else, but right now I need to find out who in that container is bleeding badly enough that even I can smell it.”

As he moved toward the hatch again, the chakat youth came around from the other side of the containers, still trying to stop him. This time the force field knocked hir away from both Neal and the container, as shi hit the deck shi found hirself blocked on all sides by the other furs.

“Why didn’t you tell us shi was coming back?” Chakat Calmmeadow demanded.

“Think it through. Anything I could have said would have told hir that I knew where shi was hiding and start hir running again. For now, see if you can calm hir down. I still have work to do.”

Opening the personnel hatch fully, Neal could see the two smaller furs, one foxtaur, the other a chakat, both around six or seven years old. As his eyes adjusted to the inside of the darker container, he saw the third fur, an adult foxtaur vixen backed in and wedged partway between the crates, her right arm bent at the wrong place, with dried blood all down that side of her torso and dress top. What appeared to be a second top had been wrapped around her right front thigh.

“I could use some help with this,” Neal admitted. As the teens came to the hatch he said, “See if you can get the little ones out and calmed down, while I see what I can do for the vixen.”

The vixen’s name turned out to be Weaver, and though she didn’t try getting up, she pleaded, “Please don’t hurt them!”

Neal held his hands out showing they were empty. “In case you haven’t noticed, everyone else with me is a fur, and no one here wants to hurt you or yours.”

Weaver eased back, stopping as it brought pain. Neal called over his shoulder, “Someone bring me the med kit. It’s that big white box with the red cross to the right of the hatch we came in. And let’s see about opening the main door on this container, both to give us more room to work and make it easier to move her when we’re ready.”

A moment later the main door was open and the med kit was in his hands. He removed a scanner and ran it across her body.

“Both bones broken right forearm, three ribs cracked upper torso, forward right thigh broken.” As he continued the scan, Neal stopped in surprise, and went back over her lower torso. He looked at her carefully as he asked, “When is your child due?”

“Sometime in the next two or three weeks. Why? Isn’t my kit alright?” she asked.

Neal replied slowly, “As far as I can tell, the child’s scan looks okay, but the trauma to the rest of your body could cause you to go into labor sooner than you were expecting.”

“How long until your next port?” she asked.

“Too long. Tess, options please.” Neal studied the readout that formed in his glasses, then selected his choice. “Go ahead and bring core three up to full power. Once online, take us up to warp six.” Looking back to Weaver, he said, “Depending on the weather, about seven or eight days to port with the added speed. That will give us a few extra days at port for the birth and to get everything you’ll be needing to take care of her.”

“Her?” from one of the kids.

“Scan shows a female pup. Not knowing who her mate or mates might be, I wanted to make sure I didn’t have a baby chakat to contend with,” Neal responded without turning around.

“What would be wrong with the baby being a chakat?” demanded Chakat Roseberry.

Neal turned to look hir in the eye. “Have you had your lessons on the birds and the bees?”

“Of course, my mom’s a wet nurse,” shi said, wondering where this was leading.

Neal continued, “Then you should be aware that a chakat newborn would require trace nutrients that are only available in a chakat’s milk to get everything shi needs?”

Hir eyes went wide as shi saw what shi had missed.

Seeing that shi understood, Neal smiled. “So for a baby chakat with a non-chakat mother, we would have to add to the shopping list, either finding a chakat wet nurse like your mother that doesn’t mind traveling, or try finding a source of chakat milk at almost every port. If we couldn’t, we would be risking the child’s health by not having a constant supply.”

“What about us?” chakat Dusk asked.

“While you may be old enough to make milk, would one of you be willing to play ‘wet nurse’ for the next two years or so? Never mind that we would still need a sample of chakat milk to get you started.”

Weaver took this time to end the debate. “A good thing all that’s a non-issue.”

“True,” Neal admitted to the vixentaur, “But it does give my stowaways some idea on how hard it can be to handle unexpected surprises in space.”

“Stowaways?” she inquired.

“Somebody thought it would be a wonderful idea to surprise hir aunt by stowing away, and shi brought a few friends along for the ride,” Neal said as he pulled equipment from the medical kit. “Too bad for them, they caught the wrong ship.”

“What are you doing?” Weaver asked looking at the small pile of hardware he was assembling.

Setting up a work light, Neal said, “Well, I can’t easily move you without causing you more damage and pain, so I’m going to start fixing you up right here and now. Once we get you patched up, you’ll be easier to move.” Neal looked around as he called, “Hey, big guy, if you can stand the blood, I could really use your help on this.”

The equitaur came forward slowly; the smells of the now crowded container making him uneasy.

“Easy, Mike,” Neal said, seeing how much white was showing around his eyes. “I’m going to want you to hold the bones together so I can mend them. Think you can handle that?”

Mike slowly nodded. Neal gave him a smile and a pat on the arm. “Good, just let me get her ready.” At that, he placed two small disks on the vixentaur, one at the shoulder, the other on her hip. “These nerve blocks will keep you from feeling most of the pain. However they can’t stop all of it.”

“I understand,” she didn’t quite hiss at him. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Turning on the devices, Neal turned to the equitaur. “I need you to place one hand at her elbow, the other at her wrist. When you’re ready, I’ll guide you on getting the bones in place to set them.”

After a few moments of careful pulling and twisting, Neal leaned back and set down the scanner. “Can you hold her just like that for about five minutes?” At Mike’s nod, Neal placed a wraparound device over the break. Before turning it on he looked at Weaver, “Everything looks good, but in order to make sure we haven’t pinched any nerves, I need to turn off to block and have you tell me what you feel.” At Weaver’s nod, he deactivated the shoulder block.

The vixentaur’s face told him she was hurting, but she managed a weak smile and said, “Not as bad as before.”

Turning back on the block, Neal turned on the other device. “This will close the skin and start knitting the bones back together. After a few minutes, they’ll be strong enough that you’ll be able to relax,” he told Mike.

While waiting for the arm to set, Neal reached for a handheld bone knitter. This one he held over her cracked ribs.

“Good thing your injuries are all up front,” he commented. At Weaver’s questioning look, he elaborated. “I don’t dare use these toys near your child. They could cause her growing bones to set and fuse together, not something we would want to occur.”

“What would you have done?” she asked.

“Set and splint the breaks the old-fashion way and waited for medical assistance at the next port. You would have been in a bit more pain, and unable to move around much. If you’d been in really bad shape I’d have stuck you back in a stasis field and the next thing you’d have seen would have been a hospital full of doctors. Like I said, it’s fortunate I can treat what injuries you do have.”

After a moment of silence, Weaver said, “I’m sorry, but I just have to ask you something, but I don’t want you upset at me for asking.”

“Fire away.” Neal said giving her a grin, “If I don’t like the question I can always give you a ‘no comment’.”

“Are you the only crew?”

“Very good. There’s me, the stowaways, and your little group.”

“How will you manage all of us and still run a ship?”

“Having a very good computer helps.” At the sound of a laugh track coming though his earplug, Neal added, “When she’s not being a smart-ass that is.”

Having heard the noise from his earpiece, Weaver also softly chuckled; finding her ribs didn’t hurt quite as much now. “I would have thought someone with all of us dumped on him would be in a panic by now.”

“No…” Neal said quietly, “I’m more in a ‘wait and see what’s going to hit the fan next’ mode with this curse and all.”

“What curse?” came from somewhere behind him.

“I’ve just been figuring you must all be part of the curse I was put under recently.”

“WHAT CURSE?” several shouted at him.

With every eye on him, Neal gave them a half smile. “The curse placed on me only yesterday by what I thought was an old friend was, ‘May you live in interesting times’.” Looking around at all the furs staring at him, he softly snorted, “It seems to be working a little too well – wouldn’t you think?”

As Neal removed the nerve block from her shoulder, Weaver noted that there was now a dull ache rather than the sharp pain through her arm. Looking at him as she carefully tried moving her arm she asked, “You mean you think this is all part of some stupid curse?”

Neal told Mike that he could relax his grip, then looked back at his patient. “And just how did you get busted up and locked in a box?”

“My mate, my daughter and I were surprised by a group of fur-hating humans.” Weaver checked quickly to see how Neal was reacting to the information, not seeing any anger coming her way she continued. “We got separated from my mate, then we were blocked by a second group. We ran into this container. Holly could squirm between the pallets and hide from them, but I was a little too wide, so I backed in as far as I could and tried to defend myself. As you may have noticed, I didn’t do very well.” The last was said with her head down, eyes closed as she tried to hold back the tears.

Her eyes opened in surprise when she felt a finger slide under her chin and lift her head until she was again eye-to-eye with Neal. He softly asked, “If you were doing so badly, why did they stop?”

“They had only hit me a few times before Shadowcrest came out from between the crates where shi and Quickdash had already been hiding. She was trying to hold them at bay when we started hearing an old style gun firing. It seemed to have alarmed them. The group attacking us ran out, locked the door somehow and then we heard more shots. We felt the box move a few times, and then you opened the door.”

Neal was no longer smiling and said quietly, “Tess, pod speakers, very low volume, give me some audio of ‘Betsy’ in action.”

Everyone but Neal jumped a little when they heard a female sounding voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once. “Sure thing, Boss,” the voice cheerfully said, then came the stepped down sound of a shotgun blast, the ‘click-clunk’ of another round being chambered, then another blast.

Neal let this continue for five shots watching his latest guests. After waving Tess to silence, he quietly asked, “Is that what you heard?”

There was fear in more than one set of eyes as Weaver slowly nodded.

“Then you should have figured out by now that I dislike species prejudice types a lot more than I do furs that, by either accident or design, end up uninvited on my doorstep.”

“So you’re not going to shoot us?” This was from Holly, who was trying to hug her mother from her uninjured side without hurting her.

Shoot you?” Neal chuckled. “That’s not my idea of fun.” With an evil grin, he picked up the little vixentaur and said, “I like to think that I have much better ideas,” he pushed her into the arms of one of the chakats. “Hold her!” he commanded.

Nightsky looked like shi was going to let Holly go when shi saw him wink at hir. “Yes, Sir!” shi said.

Acting like he was going to grab the child’s upper torso with both hands he said, “This is what I do to little trespassers!” and he then proceeded to tickle her until she was just a wiggling pile of giggling fur.

Letting her catch her breath, he declared, “I’ll get the rest of you later.”

“You won’t get me!” This from the largest of the chakats.

“Wanna bet?” Neal asked with a grin, “I’ll have lots of help.”

“They won’t help you if they know what’s good for them!” Calmmeadow said, starting to back up.

He smiled at that, “Even if they won’t help, there’s always Tess.”

“What’s that supposed to me…” shi had started to take another step back, only to find shi could now only move hir head and neck.

Stepping slowly towards Calmmeadow, Neal spoke quietly. “Tess is quite good at holding things, and she’s very clever.” Now close enough, Neal reached out and placed a hand on either of hir shoulders, then stepped forward until they were almost nose to muzzle. “When are you going to get it though that thick skull of yours that I’m not going to hurt you or anyone else? If I wanted you dead I could have spaced you when I found you. If I was one of those fur-hating types, I wouldn’t have bothered to feed you or to heal her.” Neal turned away, dropping his arms. “But you can’t even handle the threat of your friends holding you down for a little tickling.”

Finding hirself free to move again, Calmmeadow took a hesitant step towards him. “I’m sorry,” shi whispered. “Most humans hate furs.”

Turning back around, Neal stepped right up to hir. Calmmeadow held hir ground, so he gave hir a grin and wrapped his arms around hir in a gentle hug. After a moment shi hugged him in return.

“Not most,” he quietly said, still holding hir. “Just a very few, really. They just seem like more due to the amount of noise and damage they cause.”

He held hir for a moment longer then let hir go. “We’ll talk about this more if you like,” he said, “but right now we still have a few things that need to get done.” Neal looked around; most of the furs were looking a little sheepish at having been afraid of him.

Stepping back toward his patient, he noticed the dents they’d seen on the outside of the door, but this time from the inside – which included several claw-like scratches. Seeing how one ended much sooner than the rest, he removed a tube of ointment and tossed it at the teens keeping the chakat youth calmed down. Chakat Roseberry caught it and looked at him questioningly.

Indicating the youth, he said, “That should help ease any pain in that claw shi broke battering at the door. Knowing how fast you chakats heal, shi should be feeling fine by morning.”

Turning back to Weaver, he said to Mike, “Ready to do it again, big guy?” At his nod, Neal added, “This is going to be both easier and harder, easier because there’s only one bone, not two, harder because the muscles are much larger in the thigh than the forearm. Get a good grip on the knee and on the thigh as close to the hip as you can.” Picking up scanner, he checked the bone’s alignment. “Very good. Now start pulling the knee away from the hip.”

It took less time to get Weaver ready this time. While waiting for the bone to fuse, Neal had Tess bring up ship’s status, dialing up life support another notch to handle still more extra bodies, and seeing what might have needed his attention while he had been busy.

As Neal and Mike were setting Weaver’s leg, the three foxtaurs had been eying the shotgun that Neal had casually laid aside. While not trained as true hunters, they knew how to hunt and the types of damages a weapon of that type could inflict. Their thoughts were interrupted by a light huff, Alex had seen what they were looking at and had surmised their thoughts. Making sure Neal’s attention was still on Weaver, he stepped over to the foxtaurs and hissed, “He just demonstrated that his systems can shield him and immobilize us, so I know you’re not planning anything stupid. Right?”

“He shouldn’t leave it loose that way,” Beechwood quietly replied.

While Weaver and Mike were otherwise occupied, other furry ears had picked up the conversation. Cindy wandered over and whispered, “Did you happen to think that he might have left it there to test us? Maybe it’s not even loaded.”

Right behind her were chakats Dusk and Morningmist, the chakat youth between them with Roseberry bringing up the rear. “He didn’t even reach for it when Shadowcrest here tried to claw him,” Dusk pointed out. “Leave it be for now.”

When Neal decided his tools had done enough, he carefully put everything back in the med kit before having Mike help him ease Weaver out of the container. As they started walking her towards the now open main hatch, he called back, “If one of you will bring Betsy?”

“I’ll get it,” Redtail said picking up the shotgun, a little surprised at the weight of the weapon even in the lowered gravity.

“Not that I don’t trust you, but unload her,” Neal suggested.

Redtail pumped the shotgun, only to not have a shell eject. She pumped it again, and a green shell popped out. A yellow shell was next, followed by a green, and then another yellow.

“Don’t assume,” Neal commented as he guided Weaver down the ramp.

Redtail gave him a dirty look and pumped the shotgun again, missing the fifth shell she hadn’t expected it to eject. Several more pumps showed her that Betsy had been modified to hold seven shells plus one in the breach.

“Why green and yellow?” the little foxtaur vixen asked.

“Not now, Holly,” Weaver told her daughter.

“It’s alright, the more they know the better off they’ll be,” Neal told her as he gently pivoted her in the zero G space before reaching the shipside deck, several of the teens helping steady her as she ‘fell’ to the catwalk below. “Greens will hurt like hell, but not do any real damage unless it’s in the face or at point blank range, the yellows will leave a nasty looking flesh wound – or can kill at point blank range. If you were in a fight, think of the greens as hard slaps, and the yellows as very hard punches. The mix gives me more options on how to respond to a threat. Tess? We’re clear, close it up and re-engage stasis fields.”

“Can do, Boss,” they heard from his comm badge as the pod as well as the ship-side hatches began to close.

“Shadowcrest tried to attack, but you didn’t go for your weapon,” Redtail pointed out as they started heading forward.

“If a frightened cub claws you and draws blood, would you slap hir or try to calm hir?” Neal asked

“But shi didn’t draw blood,” Dusk protested.

“And he didn’t slap hir,” Morningmist finished. “He let us calm hir down.”

“Why do I get the feeling there are red ones,” Alex commented, as they made their way forward.

“There are,” Neal admitted. “But being able to damage the hull can make them a poor choice for use on a ship.”

They were met at the next hatch by a medical gurney.

“I though your new friend could use a ride,” Tess told them as it lowered itself to the deck.

After Weaver had carefully laid her gravid lower torso on the gurney, Neal raised it so that she was sitting as tall as if she were standing.

“Straps?” Tess asked.

Neal frowned again. “Straps will be at the rider’s discretion as you will not be changing speed or directions so suddenly the rider will be at risk of falling off,” he instructed. “A little upper back support wouldn’t be out of place though.”

“Yes, Captain,” she agreed. A pair of poles extended from the gurney; unfolding to a mesh Weaver could lean back against.

“Okay,” Neal told it. “Slow march to Lounge One to add their data for the FTL relay and then we’ll get you guys fed.”

“Aye-aye, Captain, and I oh-so-humbly again request a proper med-bot and associated programs.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Neal muttered, though he was looking thoughtful. “And I’d guess you’re also about to remind me that to keep myself out of trouble at my next port of call, I need to run all of them through the med bay for checkups, right?”

“Yes, Captain, but I was going to let you get their messages ready and feed them first. Though if you’d prefer, I could start things off with a couple at a time from the first group as our little med bay only has two full diagnostic beds.”

“Suits me,” Neal agreed. “Two of you kids head for the primary hull and follow the hall markers when you get there; and the next two will go when they return.”

“I noticed she addresses you by ‘Boss’ or ‘Captain,” Chakat Dusk said as the foxtaurs Graysocks and Beechwood were the first to dash forward ahead of the rest of the group. “How should we be addressing you?”

Neal softly snorted. “I guess it would be by whom you’re wanting to address. Matters of the ship are the captain’s bailiwick; while more personal questions can usually be addressed to Neal.”

The rest of the late evening was spent getting their information in just before it was time for the relay message, feeding them, and putting them all through a quick medical exam – though Weaver’s was more detailed due to her injures and her unborn kit – and finally finding places for everyone to sleep. Since the kids couldn’t make up their minds as to who should sleep with whom, Neal had them drag the bedding from several of the unused cabins and make a large bed in one of the lounges.

“There,” he finally said. “Group sleeping in here. For those that want to pair off or sleep alone, there are plenty of cabins to choose from. Sorry that you’ll have to make your own beds; the cleaning staff has the day off.” The last got a couple of laughs, a good indication that the kids were starting to settle down and become used to their situation.

Mike was looking around thoughtfully as the door closed behind the captain. A room for each of them as well as a sizable sleeping den ready with no notice. Rather limited living space indeed.

As he left his ‘guests’ to their own devices, Tess gave him another clue that they were already adapting and settling in.

“It seems someone’s already worrying that they don’t have any clean clothes for tomorrow,” she warned him.

“One stumbling block at a time,” he told her. “Deities know that we should have something somewhere in stores we can cover them in if they’re all that worried about it.”

“Well, they know you humans are such prudes about nudity and whatnot,” Tess said with a smirk in her voice.

Neal snorted. “Yeah, right. As if every one of them isn’t already covered in a fur coat – never mind the minor fact that the taurs have their genitals swinging in the breeze anyway.”

“Ah, and they’re just realizing they’d like a few other little things like brushes for fur and fangs,” Tess told him.

“Are they expecting any more miracles tonight?” Neal asked.


“Then the rest can wait until morning,” Neal half suggested with a yawn.

“Eight chakats, Boss, six of them past puberty and they’ll all have some level of empathic ability. Are you going to be able to keep your personal thoughts and feelings matching your ‘I’m merely a simple freighter captain’ persona? And for how long?”

Neal softly snorted. “It has been a while since I’ve had to worry about maintaining my acting that long,” he admitted. “As for how long can I behave myself? I guess we’re going to find out.”

“At least none of the foxtaurs seem to be having any problems with Territorial Attachment Syndrome.”

“Keep an eye on them for me, Tess. The only thing we can do if they start showing signs is putting them in stasis until we can ship them home. Oh, and hide anything that you think might scare our guests.”

“Will do, Boss. Goodnight, Boss.”

Later that night Neal awoke to sense someone was in his room with him. He brought the lights up a little so he could see who his visitor was. A taur, too small to be from the first group, and too large to be the smallest two cubs – he’d last seen them curled together, asleep with Weaver and looking like they might have been siblings.

That left the dark gray tiger-striped chakat youth that had tried to jump him at the container. Shadowcrest waited for him to say something, when all he did was watch hir back, shi finally spoke. “I don’t fit into the other groups,” shi softly said.

Raising the sheet to offer to share his bed, he said, “Birds of a feather should flock together.” At her blank expression he smiled and added, “We’re alike in that I don’t fit into the groups expected of me either.”

Climbing into bed with him, Shadowcrest whispered, “I’m sorry I tried to attack you.”

“You were just trying to protect them weren’t you?” he asked softly. At hir nod, he said, “It’s alright, I understand. Try to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day for all of us.”

Bright Hope, late evening.

It was well after regular business hours at the main settlement on Bright Hope, but some places and people are on call all hours of the day and night …

Robin Tanner of ‘Tanner, Stripes and Star’ was just pouring herself and her mate nightcaps when the phone she’d left on the table beeped.

“Ignore it,” her mate of over fifty years growled. “That’s why you have around-the-clock staffing.”

“I know, but we do as well as we do by not getting blindsided by things,” she reminded the much larger Rakshani as the phone changed to a different tone and pattern. “Damn, sorry Love, but they know not to play that alert unless it’s actually important,” she added as she headed for the small desk set in the corner of the room.

A touch to a hidden button caused the top of the desk to open, revealing a small but powerful workstation with her evening shift supervisor already on the screen.

“Hey Eddie, this had better be good,” she told the raccoon morph.

Smiling back at his reverse-Siamese cat morph boss, he said, “You tell me,” before his imaged disappeared – to be replaced by a rather annoyed-looking bearded human that she knew all too well.

“I am Neal Foster, Captain of the freighter Folly. My ship seems to have somehow become infested with stowaways while visiting Bright Hope. Sadly this problem was not discovered until after we had achieved warp. I will now have each of the stowaways enter their personal information and who needs to be contacted and made aware of their foolishness.” He stepped out of the camera’s view at that point, but she could hear him saying, “Go on, get your furry butts up there. You can take turns or use the other stations.”

“Deities,” her mate muttered as the screen split to six screens with one or more teenagers talking to the pickups. “There goes our evening.”

Holding up a hand for silence, Robin concentrated on what they were saying and the byplay. After a minute she let out a sigh and relaxed a little. “He’s in the clear, they’re admitting they stowed away.”

“Was there ever any question?” her mate wondered.

“No, Runelock, not really, but some of the things he’s up to right now make it very important that there’s not a whiff of scent of any wrongdoing that others can find and use against him.”

“Why would he send this to your company and not the local constables?”

“Because most of those constables are all bought and paid for by Courtney Tung and Whyite Enterprises – who I’ve heard tried to keep his ship from leaving earlier.”

“He didn’t look pleased to have found them,” he pointed out.

“He’s in no way anti-fur if that’s what you’re thinking – but are you watching those kids? That bunch is not cowering in fear or terror of him, even with that weapon in his hand.”

Runelock snorted. “It did look like he’d forgotten he was even holding it,” he admitted as the last teen finished giving their parents’ information and the screen blanked – only to come up again.

The timestamp in the corner showed a couple of hours had passed and it was a more bemused Captain this time that addressed the pickup. “I thought the dozen was it, but a more detailed scan found us four more – well, four and a half actually.”

A gurney rolled an injured and obviously pregnant foxtaur vixen into view, a young foxtaur hanging onto one of the rails. After keying in some information, the vixen raised her eyes to the display. “Longsock, we ran into a little trouble after we got separated …”

At other stations a teen from before was helping two much younger chakats get their messages ready to send home.

“Chakat Shadowcrest, daughter of Shadowspirit and Goldenmist,” the preteen started while the smaller one was saying, “Chakat Quickdash, daughter of Quickwind and Shortdash.”

“Now that’s going to be a problem,” Robin muttered.

“And the others weren’t?” Runelock countered.

“The older ones are at or almost of age, their parents can easily authorize their traveling unaccompanied – but those others are just too young.”

“I think the foxtaurs are mother and daughter,” he softly suggested.

“I agree with you, but that still leaves us with two problems.”


“Us,” she replied firmly. “Eddie, you still there?”

“Of course. I’ve been working with that contact info list he sent to see how best to contact whom.”

“Good, start calling the families; their kids are safe but had a little misadventure, more info if they’d like to come by the office tomorrow – I don’t want to panic any of them. Base info only to the constables – but only after we’ve contacted the families.”

“Got it. You going to be able to get any sleep knowing all this is going on?”

Runelock leaned closer to the pickup and said, “Don’t worry about her, I know how to put this kitten out all night.”

“Video or it didn’t happen!” Eddie laughed at them before dropping the connection.

Day 002

The next morning Neal got an early wake-up call.

It came in the form of his cabin’s door opening and closing again and again, almost like he had a cat that couldn’t decide which side of the door it wanted to be on. Looking past the ears of the chakat youth he was entangled with, he saw three of the chakats and one of the vixentaur teens staring in at them. “Can I help you guys with something?” he asked.

“What are you doing to hir?” Calmmeadow demanded.

Ear movement told him his bed-guest was awake, but didn’t want to face the older kids just yet.

“Not really doing anything ‘to’ hir, more like doing something ‘with’ hir.” At their blank looks he added, “Since nobody thought to include hir in their sleeping arrangements, Shadowcrest decided to sleep with me. You guys don’t have a problem with that do you?”

“Shi should have slept with us,” Calmmeadow protested.

“Did you think to ask hir? Did you even stop to consider that maybe shi would be just a little intimidated by your older group? That since no one had invited hir into your group, that maybe you were ignoring hir, didn’t want hir, or maybe that you hadn’t even noticed hir?”

“We did want hir with us,” shi said slowly.

“And you didn’t tell hir this last night, because…?”

“We thought shi already knew,” Calmmeadow said looking at the deck.

“We’ll talk about this later. For now, OUT!” After they had fled, Neal tightened his hug around the now softly crying Shadowcrest, “Easy little one. It sounds like they assumed someone else had welcomed you into their group, or that you would automatically feel welcome. They weren’t trying to hurt you.”

Hir crying eased up as shi asked, “Does this mean I can’t sleep with you anymore?”

This earned hir a chuckle as Neal replied; “My door and my bed will always be open to you if you need them.” He smiled as he added as an afterthought, “Of course you may have to share.”

After breakfast, Neal handed out comm badges and released them to explore some of the safer parts of the ship. Tess answered questions and kept them mostly out of trouble as a couple of her bots moved a few things into a couple of the closer storage rooms. Later she would send their unexpected guests in to find toiletries and other things to suit them.

One of the foxtaur teens held back as the others headed off in different directions.

“Something I can do for you, Graysocks?” Neal wondered.

“We were wondering if you had any extra combs or brushes,” Graysocks asked.

“We should have something rattling around here somewhere that can be used; I’ll have Tess see what she can hunt up for you guys. Anything else?”

“Well, a couple of us were wondering about a change of clothes,” she admitted.

“Sorry, Graysocks,” he said with small smile. “Common clothing just isn't worth shipping between worlds on speculation. For one thing, I don’t bother following the styles which seem to change far too quickly, never mind that some of those styles never get picked up on other worlds. The only stuff I have is either freight or part of things like disaster relief kits. The former isn't mine to give and the latter, well, it's survival-level stuff. I don't think you guys would really care for it.”

“Sorry to have troubled you, Captain,” the vixentaur said, her tail drooping a little at the news.

“Hold on, I didn't say I don't have anything,” Neal told her, hiding a grin as he’d already had Tess moving a few things that might help with their little problem.

“Yes you did,” Graysocks protested.

“No, I said I don't have any ready-made clothing,” Neal explained, openly grinning now. “That doesn't mean I've got nothing to offer – if you guys don't mind putting in a little effort. Can any of you sew?”

“Well, I can – a little, if you've got a sewing machine.”

“I think I've got one around here somewhere. Now as for personal care, I may not have fur, but I do still have enough hair that I need to take care of it and even bathe on occasion. And when I run short between ports, I sometimes ‘break’ a pallet for this or that, which considering how long I've been operating, means more than a few odds and ends have accumulated. See how many of your friends you can catch and I'll have Tess see what we can dig up.”

The foxtaur gave a little squeal before jumping forward to give Neal a hug. She gave him a quick “Thank you” before taking off.

“I’m ready when they are,” Tess told him once Graysocks was out of hearing.

“I thought you might be,” Neal admitted.

“Are you going to show them the old chandlery, or should I move things somewhere closer, Boss?” asked Tess over Neal's earpiece.

“Move an assortment of opened personal supply boxes from the shaft's long-term storage into one of the smaller storerooms, Tess,” he replied. “I don't want them thinking I've made a regular habit of providing for crew or passengers. And break open one of the China pallets and put it in the hands-on workshop.”

“One of the China pallets?”

“Yes. Crack a pallet if we don't have one open already; I want to see how they react to it.”

“There’s nothing to do,” complained the foxtaur youth to her very pregnant mother.

“I’m sorry, Holly; it’s not like we planned on taking this trip,” Weaver reminded her daughter. “Why don’t you check on Quickdash; I’ll bet shi’s feeling lonely and just a little bored too.”

Finding the equally young chakat was easy, first because as the youngest two, they were only allowed in certain areas of the ship, and because the ship’s computer seemed to always know where everyone and everything was located. Each of them had been allowed to pick out a room to call their own, and Holly tried there first. She found the chakat sprawled on hir bed, staring at a blank screen in annoyance.

Plopping on the bed next to hir, Holly muttered, “I’m bored.”

“Me too,” Quickdash admitted. “They’ve got lots of things to watch, but they won’t let us explore the ship like the bigger kids are getting to do …”

Sounding a tone like a hail from another part of the ship, Tess, the ship’s computer then said, “Perhaps I can help you a little with your boredom. While I don’t have any real ‘toys’ to offer, I do have a few things you two might be able to turn into toys.”

She led them to a translift and down a passageway they hadn’t seen before. Several of her remotes were leaving the room she was guiding them to. The room had no bed or other furnishings in it, but the door leading to the bath had been left open. Several boxes had been stacked near the large bath; otherwise this room was also bare.

“Inside you’ll find some of my spare parts – and some instructions for putting together a few things. Let me know if you want something more challenging,” Tess told them before going silent.

Inside the boxes they found plumbing parts; several sizes of tubing, adapters, valves, and connectors; along with some simple instructions for making a squirt gun, water pump, and other interesting things. Part way through the booklet, they found hints on how to add pneumatics to their hydraulic systems, adding air to make their water toys do more. Tess had also offered up a liquid soap as a way to detect any air leaks in their projects.

“I thought it’d be bigger,” Alex commented.

“There’s just him, how big would it have to be?” Mike countered.

“I still don’t see how one guy can run a whole ship,” Calmmeadow added.

They were standing in the doorway of a room after asking Tess to show them the ship’s ‘bridge’. It was much smaller than the lounge where they had given Tess their info and messages for home, and looked more like some kind of training or study room. There was no big screen dominating a wall, nor was there a large captain’s chair in the center. A dozen desk-like terminals in a more or less ring made up the major of the furnishings with a recliner blocking access to one of them.

“Looks like there are disadvantages to being the only crew – you are all shifts,” Mike said, inclining his muzzle at the recliner as they stepped into the room.

“So … what does what?” Calmmeadow wondered.

“Safety first,” the cat morph told the others before addressing the room. “Tess?”

“Yes, Alex?” Tess’s voice said from all around them.

“Is it safe for us to be in this room?”

“For you or the room?” Tess countered.

“Well, I’d prefer we didn’t blow up the ship or run us into something.”

“As the captain has yet to give any of you rights or permissions, you won’t be accessing any live controls,” she informed them.

“So … is there a demo or training mode?” Alex asked.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Tess cheerfully replied as all the terminals displays sprang to life – each crowded with different types of data.

“Holy shit,” Alex muttered as he tried to understand what the displays in front of him were telling him.

“Damn,” Calmmeadow agreed. “But how can one guy manage all this?”

“Have a seat and I’ll show you,” Tess told them as the station seats each of them was near changed to better suit them.

Alex’s chair shifted just a bit and a section dropped down and out of the way to make room for his tail.

Calmmeadow’s shifted into a taur seat with a backrest.

Mike’s followed Calmmeadow's, but dropped all the way to the floor as the desktop and screens rose to accommodate his taller ‘seated’ position.

Once they were all comfortable, Tess said, “Terminal emulation: Command Mode One.”

Across the tops of each of their main screens appeared over a dozen icons, mostly shaded green, but mixed in with a few yellows and blues. Sensors started tracking their eye movements to speed up their search requests. A glance at one of the main icons brought up a row or sometimes two of sub-icons with a general information screen taking up the rest of the screen.

“Information overload,” Mike said after a minute of almost constantly changing screens.

“It can be,” Tess agreed, “but some can learn to pick the important parts they need out of the bigger picture.”

Alex was silent as his eyes had hit the ship icon and the Folly was presented to him in a slowly rotating 3D wire mesh diagram. “Tess, what’s all this in blue?” he asked as he held his eyes on several large areas that gave no indications of their actual layout or use.

“Those areas are in standby storage mode,” Tess replied. “Currently non-habitable, but could be made so by adding a little oxygen and heat. And until the captain says otherwise, off limits to the rest of you.”

“What’d you find?” Mike asked.

“Only that it looks like we could wander this ship for months without ever seeing each other if we so desired,” Alex told him. “This thing is huge!”

“The captain did warn us not to get lost,” Calmmeadow pointed out.

“Warm bodies,” Alex requested, and several areas were highlighted with names attached. A hand gesture while staring at two icons zoomed in on that area of the ship and new icons revealed the different rooms they were near. “How do I –” he started when a couple other icons flashed – Tess making a guess as to what he was about to ask for.

“Alex to Roseberry. You claim to have a green thumb, right?”

“Hey, Alex. Yeah, all four of them, so?” came the reply.

“Just that the right hand door three up from the one you’re passing says ‘Hydroponics’.”

“And you know where it is and where I am how?” the chakat half demanded.

“You’ve got to see the bridge,” Alex told hir. “It’s got all sorts of cool toys in it.”

“You ain’t kidding,” Mike muttered. “This looks like a tactical display for the space around the ship.”

“What would a freighter be doing with a tactical display?” Calmmeadow asked with a laugh.

“Don’t know, but this looks just like one of the big ones Star Fleet had at the school when they were doing their recruitment pitches,” the large equitaur replied. “Looks like it’s locked in passive mode, the active is grayed out on my console.”

“Active scans means dropping out of warp to do them, and drawing more attention to ourselves,” Tess told them. “No reason to jump up and down shouting ‘Hey – we’re over here!’ at any pirates or other unsavory types that may be lurking about.”

“I’d thought a ship this big in warp would be easy to see,” Mike protested.

“Oh, we are,” Tess agreed. “But the change into and out of warp is even easier to detect and interpret. Then again, most scans can’t tell all that much from a passing warp bubble. What kind of ship are we and how worried might we be about things lurking around these parts? We don’t want to appear to be afraid of our own shadow – nor do we wish to look like a ship out hunting others. So we sail a steady course as if we not only belong here – but have nothing to fear from those that may be lurking.”

“Whistling in the dark,” Calmmeadow softly said, having changed hir displays to match Mike’s.

“Not as much as you might think,” Tess replied. “The larger the warp bubble, the more sensitive it can be to outside sources, giving me better passive sensors than most smaller ships.”

“I thought a ship’s warp engines created too much interference to see out of your own warp bubble,” Calmmeadow complained.

“They can,” Tess agreed. “But if I have a good enough sensor reading for the engine interference, I can cancel it out of the other ripples in my warp bubble – and see what is around us.”

“So this is a live feed?” Mike asked.

“It does take me a few seconds to read the bubble, clean out the engine noise, and then turn it into something useful; but yes, that’s more or less a real time display of active ships and gravity wells around us,” Tess admitted without saying what else she might be cleaning out of the scans. “Anything changing course to match or intercept us will stand out like a sore thumb.”

“Why do some of them have names and others just a colored light?” he wondered.

“Some of them I’ve positively ID’ed before and their current emissions match what I have in my data banks, while others are my best guesses at who’s who. Take this one,” Tess said as one of a pair of icons flashed. “Her warp bubble size and ‘engine noise’ line up with what I have for a Star Fleet mini carrier named Fast Tail. As mini carriers aren’t armed for going nose to nose with a pirate ship or two, they will always have a gunship of some type to protect them. I don’t know the other ship, but her emissions suggest she’s in the pocket destroyer class, so I’ve got her marked as Fast Tail’s escort.”

“And that?” Mike asked, indicating a faint red icon that was slowly flashing.

“And that,” Tess told them, “is either a Fleet ship in hiding to see if the other two can find them – or a pirate. From the way I accidentally detected them, my money’s on a pirate.”

“Should we warn Neal?” Calmmeadow wondered.

If they are a pirate, they’re in no position to come after us without being spotted by those Star Fleet ships. As with all things of note, I’ve added the sightings to the ship’s log, which the captain will be going over later.”

The third door on the right slid open just before Chakats Roseberry and Dusk came up to it, so they missed seeing that it said: Hydroponics Room 3C. The lights came up as they entered, showing off a long room with rows and rows of hydroponic equipment shelves and tables.

“Wow,” Roseberry quietly said as shi looked over the first shelf.

“You know what all this does?” Dusk asked.

“Nutrient mixer, feed control, drippers and sprayers, seed starter pans, root and branch holders, lighting controls; we could grow all the fresh veggies we want in here,” Roseberry said as shi traced one of the drip feed lines to its controller.

“And how long would that take?” Dusk asked, trying to break Roseberry out of hir daze at all the new toys just waiting to be played with.

“Depending on what we want to grow, a few weeks for the faster growing ones – couple months or longer for others,” Roseberry admitted.

“And we might get kicked off this ship in a week,” Dusk pointed out.

“Ha – like the captain would kick us off his ship unless we actually wanted to be kicked off,” Roseberry laughed. “You weren’t there when we found Shadowcrest in bed with Neal. Seems shi’d felt like the ‘lone ‘kat out’ last night and went to him. And he not only didn’t kick hir out of his room, but they were cuddled together when we went looking for hir this morning. Trust me, if any of us jump ship at the next planet, it’ll be because we wanted to go, not because he ran us off at gunpoint.”

“How sure are you of that?”

Roseberry grinned at Dusk’s worried look. “I think I’m the most sensitive empath of our little group, and while he is kind of hard to read, I don’t think he’s a threat to us – unless we do something to make him one.”

“So you really think we’ll be here to pick fresh vegetables?”

“Yeah, I think we’ll be here to harvest our crops. Now, I wonder where they might hide the seed and root stocks?”

“In here?” Graysocks half asked as she approached what she hoped might be the right door.

As if it had heard her, the door to Workroom 07 Fabrics slid aside. “Go right in,” Tess said from her comm badge.

She might have said it wasn't what she’d expected, except she hadn’t known what to expect. The room wasn’t really that small, but the assortment of equipment shelved, sitting on workbenches, or standing directly on the floor if they were big enough seemed to fill it.

And then there was a shipping pallet off to one side that threatened to take up the rest of the floor. Its burden was mostly wrapped in tough plastic, but had been sliced apart across part of the top and one side, the resulting gap having then been pulled open wide. Inside it seemed to be mostly filled with bolts of cloth in a wild assortment of colors and patterns. She pulled out one of the easiest to get at bolts. The cloth was a deep, rich green and shimmered slightly in the light as she turned it.

The door opened and she turned to look. A small, robot-like device – one of Tess’ small ‘remotes’ as Neal had called them – with a box on top wheeled in quickly, slid the box onto a shelf under one of the benches, and then whizzed back out.

She looked back at the door when she didn’t hear it close. Nightsky was standing there, looking at her and the room.

“Um... Hi, Nightsky,” she said.

“Hey.” The chakat stepped into the room, and the door closed quietly behind hir. “What’s all this?”

“Some sort of workshop, I think. Neal said if we wanted a change of clothes, we’d have to make them. There's supposed to be a sewing machine in here somewhere.”

“That’s one,” said Nightsky, pointing to the top of the bench where the remote had delivered the box. Shi then indicated one of the floor units. “That’s a fabric welder, and the one with the cover looks like a platform cutter.”

“You can sew?”

“Sure. What, you thought I buy all my stuff?”

“You do know where the sales are.”

Nightsky snorted. “It’s the only time most of those stores sell things for anywhere near what they’re worth. No, I’ve been making my own clothes for years.”

“What about the hoodie you gave to Calmmeadow?”

“Made that, too.”

“I wondered where you found one with hir coat pattern on it.”

The chakat giggled. “Shi caught me taking pictures of hir. I had to do some fast talking to keep hir from figuring it out.” Peering at the fabric in Graysocks’ hand, shi said, “That color will look good on you. I hope there’s a nice ‘dawn’ rose, in there.”

As Nightsky poked around in the pallet, Graysocks took a closer look at the platform cutter. They weren’t home appliances, but when loaded with fabric and a pattern they would quickly produce shaped pieces for assembly by a fabric welder or thread sewing. They'd had one at school, which avoided the chaos of a room full of students with scissors in their hands.

She was still looking for the power switch when Nightsky spoke.



“Put that fabric back.”

“What? We're supposed to make ourselves some clothes out of this.”

“Just put it back. Somebody made a mistake.”

“Oh come on...” The expression on Nightsky’s face made Graysocks’ voice trail off. “What is this stuff?”

“It’s silk.”


Silk, Graysocks. Not rayon or some other artificial – silk. All the way from Old China on Earth. This stuff has to be worth a small fortune.”

“And how do you know that?”

“I thought I recognized the texture, but then I found this.” Nightsky held out a hardcopy of the pallet's packing list, where the point of origin was clearly identified. Both of them knew from their history lessons that China’s silk production had suffered terribly during the Gene Wars and only survived due to extraordinary efforts to preserve both silkworms and the mulberry trees they depended on as food. By combination of legacy and rarity, unreplicated Chinese silk was one of the Federation's prized luxury items. As if it had suddenly become extremely fragile, Graysocks picked her bolt back up.

“There’s no mistake,” Tess said over the room’s speakers.

“It has to be a mistake, Tess,” insisted Nightsky. “This is probably all the silk you guys have aboard.”

“No, it isn’t,” Neal also replied from the speakers. “That’s just what was easiest and quickest to get at. It’s what we in the shipping industry call a ‘broken pallet’, as it was damaged or opened deliberately. In this case, that pallet was unsealed so that I could hand out samples to help drum up a little business. As the rest can no longer be sold as a unit, do what you can with it. If you don’t trust yourself with silk, I can offer you a burlap bag as soon as Mike's finished the oats in it.”

Graysocks snorted in amusement. “If you don’t have enough oatmeal aboard, Mike will end up chewing on that bag!” She sighed. “Okay, we use silk. What else do we need?”

And then Shadowcrest found Neal’s pets. A very faint scent made hir try a door, inside was a small space and another door. Opening the second door shi found hirself in what looked like a very small clearing with trees all around. A small shallow stream cut across the meadow, and on the sandy banks were several small piles of seed, cut up fruit and nuts.

Most of this shi would see later. What caught hir eye first were six little cockatiels. Five of them flew for the tree limbs and out of easy reach; the sixth flew right at hir face! When shi ducked it flew into the smaller room and, on finding the other door closed, flew in tight circles squawking its little head off. With the annoyed bird still squawking overhead, Shadowcrest had called for help. Tess had told hir to lie down and cover hir head with hir hands to protect hir face. Neal found hir in that position a few minutes later.

After letting the bird land on his shoulder and petting it for a moment, Neal told Shadowcrest shi could get up. Leading hir all the way into the room, he had hir sit in a corner, then he introduced hir to the birds. The one still on his shoulder was male. His name was Squeaky due to his higher than normal pitched call. It took a few tries to get Squeaky to sit on Shadowcrest’s finger, but soon shi was able to pet him and rub his neck without him nipping at hir or flying off.

By this time, the other kids had heard there was something new to see, so Neal let them in two at a time, having them move slowly so as not to startle the birds, and showing how to hold them and how they liked to be petted. As they were leaving, Shadowcrest admitted shi wished shi could have one for a pet of hir own. Neal smiled and led hir over to the far wall. He had hir look into a hollow ‘tree’. There shi saw four tiny eggs. As they left the aviary, Neal told hir that the female laid eggs every other day, and with four eggs the oldest egg must be at least six days old. The eggs only took twenty-one days to hatch, and it would only be a few months after that before the parents would be kicking the young birds out of the nest. So, could shi wait that long?

Bright Hope

“We’ve got a full house, Boss,” Dash told Robin a little before the local noon at the law offices of ‘Tanner, Stripes and Star’. “All the parents are here and just a few siblings.”

“Any panicking?” she asked.

“Not really,” shi replied. “Though we do have one lone parent trying to convince the others the teens must have been kidnapped.”

“How are the other parents taking it?”

“Some concern, but they seem to be bonding for mutual support – minus that one of course.”

Robin hmm-ed thoughtfully. “I wonder if that’s why he had them all piled into one mass recording – so the parents would have no choice but to see how all the kids were reacting, not just their own.”

“You warned me he was a sneaky son of a bitch,” Dash reminded her.

“And did it help that you knew that going in?” Robin asked.

“Hell no, he got under my fur in seconds flat!”

“And that was with us dropping you on him cold. Have you seen the recording yet?”

“Been too busy on that other assignment you dumped on my backs.”

“You taurs make such good pack animals,” Robin chuckled as they headed for the conference room.

“First him and now you too?” Dash muttered.

“Just teasing you, Dash, my dear,” hir boss told hir. “Best get used to it though, there are others that will do a lot worse and you’ll need to be able to ignore their slurs or be ready with the correct snappy comeback.”

“Yes, Boss,” shi said as the doors opened before them.

What had been a fairly noisy room quickly quieted down as heads turned towards the opening doors.

“Where’s my daughter?” the lone fox morph of the group demanded.

Ms Tanner’s grin was one of those that most lawyers reserved for use when the opposition had made a serious blunder. “Out on a bit of an adventure, Mister Grayson, though I understand it wasn’t the one she and her friends had originally planned on,” she informed him.

“So they were kidnapped!” he exclaimed.

“Sorry, but no,” she replied, still grinning but with more teeth exposed. “The twelve of them hid in a near-empty shipping container in the hopes of being taken up so they could see a starship. They succeeded – they just ended up on the wrong ship …”

“That other ship kidnapped them!” the fox yelled again.

Deciding to ignore the angry fox for the moment, Tanner addressed the others in the room. “As well as contact info, the captain of the ship they stowed away on included a short recording of those he’d found.”

“They were kidnapped!” Grayson bellowed, not liking being ignored.

“Which we will view once the disturbance stops,” she added with a frown.

Over three dozen pairs of eyes glaring at him finally convinced the fox that he might want to shut up and take a seat.

Smiling a little more naturally, Tanner touched a button on the remote she’d tucked into her pocket and the large display normally used for video conferencing came to life.

“I am Neal Foster, Captain of the freighter Folly.”

From the back of the room Dash found hirself standing a little straighter than shi had been. The human glaring down at them was not the easy-going teasing bum shi’d met the day before at the spaceport, a slight shiver running down hir backs as shi realized just how easy he’d been going on hir. This man idly holding an old projectile weapon carelessly in one beefy hand had no idea who might end up watching this recording and he intended for there to be no question of who was in charge and that he meant business.

“My ship seems to have somehow become infested with stowaways while visiting Bright Hope,” the recoding continued. “Sadly this problem was not discovered until after we had achieved warp. I will now have each of the stowaways enter their personal information and who needs to be contacted and made aware of their foolishness.” They all watched as he stepped out of the camera’s view and growled, “Go on, get your furry butts up there. You can take turns or use the other stations.”

There were murmurs among the parents as their kids came into view with some snickering and more than a bit of growling at what their kids were saying and admitting to.

More than one pair of eyes watched as a very upset looking fox vixen keyed in her personal data and then just sat, not looking at the screen for a few seconds before getting up and quickly walking to the back of the group still waiting their turns.

“Something or someone here scares her far more than what’s out there,” one of the foxtaurs muttered, looking over at the fuming fox among them.

“I see no coercion being used on my son,” stated the cat morph who had brought his mate and two of their daughters along.

“How would you know?” Grayson demanded. “He could be threatening them with his gun off camera!”

“Because there’s no strain in Alex’s voice, he’s used several of the family keywords to tell us he’s okay – and because we don’t have a cellar to rearrange,” he told the fox before frowning as he added, “Though I can see your reason for concern, Mister Grayson; your own daughter appears much more afraid of something here than she is of that gun-toting human. Why might that be, Mister Grayson?”

“Brighteyes will be grounded for life – once we get hir back,” Chakat Wildrider growled to the room in general. “But, yeah, they were already showing more concern with our reactions than being in any danger from that Captain Foster.”

Hir mate, Chakat Brightheart, frowned as their daughter Smokingcoals muttered, “I wish I’d gotten to go too!”

Looking towards their hostess, a chakat that had remained silent so far chimed in. “I hope there’s more, Ms Tanner?” shi inquired with a raised eyebrow.

“There is, Shir Shadowspirit,” Tanner informed hir. “Fortunately the group your daughter was with was discovered before they’d run out of time to hit a passing FTL relay with messages.”

“Weaver!” cried a foxtaur tod on seeing a gurney rolling his bloodied mate into view, Holly close by her side.

“Longsock, we ran into a little trouble after we got separated,” her image told him as several chakats stirred as their cubs also came into view.

“How the hell did the schools miss that they weren’t on the busses?” one of a pair of chakats in Star Corps uniform tops muttered rather loudly.

Tanner frowned, but she understood their anger. “As far as we’ve been able to gather, all the kids on the field trips were rushed onto the closest bus as soon as the teachers learned of the disturbances. It wasn’t until there was a complete nose count at the schools that they realized that a couple of muzzles were actually missing and not just on the wrong bus. By the time they went back, it was too late – even if they’d known where to look, the container they were hiding in had already been loaded and the pod was in space.”

“They don’t appear too frightened,” one chakat said as shi listened to hir daughter apologize for having worried them. “Heck – one of the foxtaurs even has his gun this time.”

“Shadowcrest is grounded until shi’s at least a hundred,” Chakat Shadowspirit agreed. “But how do we get hir back?”

“That’s up to you,” Tanner told hir. “We know the expected times and places for Folly’s next few stops; if you wish, you can have a ticket waiting at one of them to have your kids shipped home.”

“He took them – he should pay to bring them back!” the fox ranted.

“Ah, but Mister Grayson, he didn’t take them, they stowed away or otherwise hid in cargo containers that were part of his load. They are responsible – or perhaps I should say their parents can be held accountable for their actions, Mister Grayson!” Tanner pointed out, glaring back at the fox. “Do you have any idea how much he could charge you for your daughter’s actions? And if he just drops her off somewhere, you will be held responsible for her room and board there until you send her a ticket to bring her home. You should be very thankful that Captain Foster didn’t just send all of you a bill of all the charges your kids are racking up.”

“Has he made any demands at all?” the other uniformed chakat asked.

“No, Shir Shortdash, just the data drop,” Tanner told hir, still glaring at Grayson. “The only reason we got that as quick as we did was because going by one of the FTL relays just happened to be ‘on the way’ for him. From the information pack he sent us, it was going to be three weeks to his next stop, but with Longsock's mate possibly due before then, he’s stepped things up a notch to get them there in another seven to eight days.” “The fuel for that extra speed can’t be cheap,” shi commented.

“No, but a medical emergency could become much more costly,” Tanner pointed out. “It seems the good captain thinks a pregnant mother and her unborn kit is worth more than a little fuel.”

“Then he should bring back my daughter!” Grayson insisted.

“Maybe if you ask him nicely he will,” one of the other chakats snarled at him before adding, “and the rest of us would very much prefer that you not make an enemy out of the man that has our cubs!”

Grayson had a snappy comeback on the tip of his tongue, but he choked on it in the face of over a dozen furious chakats – several of them already rising onto their hind legs to free the claws on their handpaws for use. He actually backed up several steps before turning and rushing out of the room and out of the building.

“Ah, so that’s all it takes to get rid of that blowhard,” Tanner dryly commented, which seemed to help the chakats calm down. “Dash, I need you to practice more on your growl in case he comes back,” she added with a laugh.

Dash’s only reaction was to stick out hir tongue at hir boss.

“This is not a laughing matter,” Shortdash told her.

“Oh, but it is. The good captain also sent a couple other clips that might help reduce at least some of your concerns about him and the safety of your cubs. If everyone would please resume their seats?”

They were then treated to the teens being found – as well as Weaver and the three younger ones.

“That’s my boy!” was heard as Alex swept Cindy off her feet – and over the edge. “Idiot fox would be having a hissy-fit if he’d stayed and seen that.”

“Shadow – NO!” was gasped out as the container door popped open and the dark striped chakat sprang out ready for battle.

“And he didn’t even reach for his gun,” hir sire pointed out.

“Oh, Weaver,” Longsock softly murmured when Neal’s comm badge showed him all the blood matting his mate’s fur.

A hand gripped his shoulder firmly as a voice purred in his ear, “Steady, friend. We see her later and she wasn’t looking as bad as she does right now.”

The tickling of the smallest was met with some chuckles, but the freezing one teen in place sobered them up.

“That’s why he didn’t go for his gun – he could have stopped any of them at any time!” one of the uniformed chakats growled.

“Come on, Shortdash, you know as well as I do that an obvious deterrent is sometimes more useful than any number of hidden deterrents you might have,” Quickwind reminded hir mate.

“Okay, the mother is walking wounded, the gurney was just to help her take it easy,” someone pointed out as Weaver was carefully walked to the edge of the pod before she was ‘handed down’ rather than being allowed to drop to the catwalk below.

“Well, it could have been worse,” Shadowcrest’s mother quietly said as the display faded. Looking at Tanner shi said, “What do you need from us?”

“What would be helpful from you, Shir Shadowspirit, would be us finding some way for you to authorize the custody of your child to Captain Foster for the duration. While the teens are old enough that their parents can allow unaccompanied travel with a simple note, that won’t work with Shadowcrest – or Quickdash,” Tanner added as shi looked over at the uniformed chakats.

“We may be able to get a Fleet or Corps ship to collect them,” Shortdash suggested.

“Really?” hir mate said with a frown. “You want to trust blind luck that we won’t be putting hir into worse circumstances than shi already is? And we would still have hir traveling unaccompanied.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“No, but we have seven days to find one,” Quickwind pointed out. “And we know where and when they’ll be if that better idea comes along.”

“As for the rest of you,” Tanner said a little louder to be heard over the other growing conversations, “We need either permission for your kids traveling on their own, and/or plans and tickets to get them back. We have a couple of terminals you can use in here and more in the main lobby. You can also prepare messages for Captain Foster and your kids in case he stops and checks his mail between now and his next stop.”

“Who’s paying you for all your services in this?” Chakat Shortdash didn’t quite demand.

“Captain Foster, of course,” Tanner replied. “He’s used us before for legal matters, and it seems he trusts us enough to drop this – and you – in our laps.”


Graysocks was a little late getting back to the workroom after lunch, having forgotten to go pick out her brushes and other personal items earlier. She was surprised to find Nightsky already hunched over one of the workbenches.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Without looking up, the chakat said, “Hi, Graysocks. I’m almost ready for ...”

A buzzing sound alerted the foxtaur to one of Tess’ remotes zooming into the room. It had a pair of boxes on top of it, and Nightsky all but pounced on the poor machine to grab them. “Hey!” Graysocks said indignantly.

Nightsky looked up. “What?”

Graysocks watched the remote escape as quickly as it’d come before turning back to the chakat. “You’re cutting already?”

“Only for myself,” the chakat explained.

“Without a pattern?”

“It's nothing fancy, and I already know my measurements. Besides, it’s a wrap design, very easy to adjust with lots of leeway.”

“So what are these?” Graysocks asked, indicating the boxes the chakat had been so eager for.

“Fasteners. Tess delivered a sewing kit while we were eating. Thread’s in there,” shi added, hir tail tapping the box that had been delivered during their previous visit to the room.

“What about the machines? Isn’t there a sewing machine in here?”

Nightsky waved at the unit strapped to the end of the bench. “All yours -- but the presser foot’s broken.”

“The... presser foot.” Looking at the machine, Graysocks tried to figure out where that was; she could use a sewing machine but didn’t know the ‘proper’ names for all the parts.

“Yeah. It won’t lift.”

“Oh.” That helped identified it. She tried the appropriate lever; the problem didn’t seem to be some sort of safety mechanism, more like it was clinging to or jammed by something soft. A squeal of delight from Nightsky interrupted. “What...?”

Holding out a package shi’d just removed from the box, the chakat said, “Binary magnets! Nothing better to avoid spoiling an outfit’s lines.”

“I’d rather have buttons.”

“Got those, too. And snaps, zippers, hooks, eyelets for laces... This ship could probably open its own sewing shop.”

“It is a shop – for other shops.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

For a moment, Graysocks looked at Nightsky with a mixture of wonder and confusion. The chakat was already bent to hir task, despite having at first been so protective of the fabric they'd been given. It was then she decided – this was Nightsky’s project. She could sew a little but not well, so she’d try to just help her friend with what shi needed. She turned back to the machine; if she could open it up she could probably clear it.

“Nightsky, what about the fabric welder?” she asked.

“It messes up silk.” The chakat looked up. “But if Tess has some dura-cloth, it works great and we can make coveralls.”

“For what?”

“For chores. Or do you think we’ll be allowed to sit on our haunches for a couple of years?”

Graysocks paused. “Yeah, that makes sense.” She tested the cover in her hands again and was rewarded by having it pop off easily. That revealed a mechanism coated in some sort of cloudy goo. She poked at it, but it didn’t give and refused to be pulled off. Maybe it was put on for storage? “I don’t think it's broken, it just needs a good cleaning. Have you seen any maintenance supplies?”

“No, but I haven’t looked.”

The foxtaur shook her head as she headed for the nearest cabinet. “And what have you two been up to?” Neal asked as he entered a few minutes later.

Graysocks jumped slightly; she’d been poking around the shelves for something to clean and lubricate the sewing machine and felt like she'd been caught looking in someone else’s closets.

But Nightsky beat her to replying. “I just finished a top, Captain Foster,” shi said, holding out the garment.

Tilting his head in puzzlement, Neal said, “Ooookay...”

“What?” asked Nightsky.

“I’m just trying to figure out how it’s worn,” Neal admitted with a curious look.

“It’s easy! I’ll show you!” the chakat proclaimed as shi proceeded to quickly remove hir camisole-style top. “You just sling it over one shoulder... bring it under the other arm... and fasten. See?”

Neal seemed to be trying not to laugh as he said, “Yes, I ... see. Is it comfortable?”

Behind him Graysocks let out a quiet sigh of relief on realizing that it would take more than a bare set of furry tits to shock or upset their human captain.

“Sure.” Nightsky tugged at a few spots. “It’ll give as I move and just fall back in place. I need to redo the hems so it’ll last longer, but that can wait until everybody’s got a change and we can do some laundry.”

“Why didn’t you hem it that way first?” Neal wondered.

“The sewing machine’s got some sort of sealant clogging it,” Graysocks told him.

“And you were looking for something to clean it with?” he asked.

At the foxtaur’s nod, Neal reached past her and firmly closed the cabinet she had opened before leading her to another one and pointing to a picture on it.

“That identifies maintenance supply storage; you'll see it in a lot of places near machinery. Don’t open anything with a red outlined label unless you know what’s in there, how to handle it, and really think you need it; for now, just assume it means ‘hands off’.” He opened the cabinet and retrieved a few items before closing it just as firmly as the previous one.

“Don’t the latches work?” Graysocks asked.

“Lesson one about living in space,” he told her. “If it isn’t secured, it’s not going to stay put. So everything has to be attached or tied down or put in a secure container. Don’t assume something will close, make sure.”

“And if I don’t?”

“If you’re lucky, all you’ll get is me yelling at you for being unsafe. If not, well, it depends on what gets loose. Some things are just messy. Others make a mess of equipment – or the crew. The really dangerous things are behind multiple layers of security and nobody goes near them until they've proved they're responsible with that access.”

Graysocks ducked her muzzle. “I suppose things have to be a little different in artificial gravity.”

“It's not just because of artificial gravity or the chance of zero-G; ships and even stations can have unexpected motions that artificial gravity and anti-surge systems can’t fully compensate for. Even if the crew learns to stay on their feet, loose objects can’t. So if you open it, close it, and if you take it out, put it away – including strapping it back down. On a planet, it’s to avoid falls; in space, it’s to avoid launching things across the room.”

As Neal looked over the sewing machine, Graysocks took another look at the workroom’s contents. Aside from what she and Nightsky had handled, she realized that everything she could see was bolted down, strapped in, clipped, or otherwise held in place. Even the shelves were secured, and probably the storage cases held smaller things that if not secured inside were unlikely to suffer or cause problems from bouncing around inside. Even the sewing machine was attached to a base clamped to the workbench.

“Yeah, it’s just the seal-coat,” Neal was saying quietly to himself as he pulled the plug on the unit.

“Can you remove it?” she asked. “I couldn’t peel it off.”

“Of course; all it needs is the right chemical ‘key’ and a little fresh lube. It was coated so it wouldn’t rust from being unused for an extended period of time. Here – why don’t you release and clear this part while I check the motor.”

Graysocks took the damp pad Neal was holding out and set to removing the coating sticking to the inside of the machine. That left mostly bare metal, but spots of old, darkened oil had also been hidden. She was trying to remove those when Neal stopped her. “That's good enough,” he said.

“But it’s still dirty,” she insisted.

“And it’ll be worse after your seamstress here gets done with it, so it’ll need a more thorough cleaning later, but for now it’s good enough to use. Here – squeeze a little of this on the shaft and we’ll see if it’ll move freely.”

To her relief, it did. With the lift lever working smoothly, Neal had her replace the cover as he plugged it back in and declared the sewing machine ready to use. Nightsky all but pounced on it, setting up the thread and bobbin with obvious experience.

“Don’t go anywhere, Graysocks,” shi said without looking up. “I’ll take your measurements when I'm done with this, and then I’ll make something for you.”

“So you’re going to make outfits for just you and her?” Neal asked.

“What?” the chakat asked, hir head coming up suddenly in surprise. “No! I mean, if they want to, they can make their own, but I’ll make a little something for anyone if I can get their measurements. It’s not like we don’t have enough material.”

Neal grinned in a way that made Graysocks a little worried. “Really? Tess, what do you have available?”

“It’ll take me a moment to retrieve garment standards and convert them, but I've got topological scans for everyone aboard,” Tess said from speakers in the workbench’s data displays.

On screen appeared a series of wire frame renderings of the various stowaways and castaways Neal had taken in, each labeled by name and reducing to icons to make room for the next. The last was of Nightsky hirself.

The chakat got a huge grin on hir face as shi pulled hir new top back off to happily finish it.

“And what about you?” Neal asked Graysocks.

She shook her head. “Nightsky is already way past anything I can do, but I’d like to help hir if I can.”

“How about starting with helping me make sure the other tailoring machines are ready for use?”

“Sure! ’Sky said the welder isn’t good for silk, but I suppose the cutter might speed things up for hir.”

“We’ll start with that then, though we’ll check the welder, too. Let’s get the cover off...”

Neal was relaxing, having spent part of his afternoon helping Graysocks and Nightsky get some of the sewing equipment ready for use. He still wasn’t sure whether the chakat flashing hir furry tits at him while showing off the top shi’d just made had been part of a test to see how he’d react – or if it was just part of how ‘not’ body conscious most furs seemed to be.

Either way, he figured those two would be occupied for the near future making clothes for the rest of his ‘guests’. Tess had also advised him that two of the other chakats were happily loading seed trays and mixing starter solutions in one of the smaller hydroponics rooms. Shadowcrest had last been seen back in the birdhouse, trying to get the less flighty ones to let hir pet them, while Weaver was down for a nap. The youngest pair of easily bored travelers was busy having fun making water pumps and squirt guns.

As most of the remaining teens were in the Secondary Bridge (primary hull) under Tess’s close supervision, Neal was currently hiding in a corner of the dimly lit primary bridge, reclining at one of the bridge stations while trying to come up with a long-term plan of what to do with the kids – just in case they or their parents didn’t have them abandoning his ship at the first available port.

Leaving them to their own devices was out; they would either drive him or each other crazy – not a good idea when you couldn’t really get all that far away from one another. Neal had seen some signs of boredom, as someone had already finished the puzzle he had been working on. As they were one-off pictures in Tess’ memory banks, he’d dug up an older photo he thought they might find interesting and had Tess cutting it up for them.

Deep in thought (and still not used to not having the ship entirely to himself), Neal didn’t hear Weaver – who had been guided by Tess – enter, only opening his eyes when he heard one of the other station seats converting itself into a low bench for her to lay on.

“What are you thinking about, Captain?” she asked.

“What to do with fifteen extremely active kids on a very long, and hopefully mostly boring trip – if they and you don’t just jump ship at one of our next stops,” he said, studying the displays as if answers were written in the status lights.

Weaver smiled. “And you don’t think I’ll get bored too? That is if I don’t just waddle away at the first sign that you’re a little too crazy for me.”

He returned the smile. “I’m sure Tess will loan you the gurney to help speed your getaway – if you need it. Somehow I think you’re old enough to know how to make your own entertainment. Not that you’ll need too much after she comes into the world,” he said, nodding at her baby-filled belly. “I believe she’ll help keep you busy.”

“I’ll still have plenty of free time. So what have you come up with so far?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t have enough entertainment disks to keep them occupied – even if they could sit still that long. So I’m thinking along the lines of some type of training or schooling,” he said as he idly checked the engineering section.

“They’ll never go for it,” she said. “They didn’t stowaway just to go to school.”

“If their choices are that or be stuck sitting on their tails for the whole trip?” he asked. At her shrug, he continued, “They came out to see a ship, but not, I think just as passengers. And by the way, most of them are in the other bridge, trying to figure out how everything works. So if they want to play at being my crew, there is a lot to be learned, a lot of how things are done and why you do them a certain way, in a certain order. Before any of them can bring this ship into dock, or find our next port among the stars, they will need a bit more than basic math and science just to understand where to start.”

She gave him a long look and said, “And you think you can teach all of them at once?”

“No,” he softly said, “I’m more of a one-on-one type teacher. I never was any good with large groups”

“So how will you do it?” Weaver asked a little baffled.

“I’ll cheat.” Catching the look of surprise on her face, he smiled and added, “Tess can help teach them from the basics to the more advanced subjects using the teaching disks she has in memory. I’ll take over when they hit something Tess can’t properly explain, and when it gets down to the actual running of the ship.”

“Aren’t you afraid they will fly us into a star?” she said with a half-smile.

“Who said anything about letting them play with ‘live’ controls until I think they’re ready?” he said. “This ship has four full bridges, any or all of which can be switched into training mode.”

“Four bridges? Why would a ship have four bridges?” Weaver demanded, wondering yet again just how insane the individual running the show was.

Neal just laughed at the look on her face, “This ship was created from the sections of over a dozen ships. In most cases, I just added and combined bits and pieces, not much was actually removed. Since four of the bigger pieces already had bridges, I just moved them where I wanted them and wired them in. At the time it was much easier than making a whole bridge from scratch. Plus not only does this gives me the ability to reach a bridge quickly from anywhere on the ship, I can also be modifying or repairing a bridge while under way.”

“I still think you’re biting off more than you can chew,” she said softly.

“Perhaps,” he replied equally softly, “but I don’t see a way out of it, without either dumping you and the kids somewhere, or screwing up this run.”

“Why is this run so important?” she asked.

“Part of the run is timed, as in I have to be at certain ports at certain times to deliver or pick up cargo. Too early, and I’m sitting around waiting for them to get their shipments ready, too late and not only do I not get paid or possibly fined, but people won’t be able to work because they’re waiting for the parts and material I’m transporting. In between, I hit some ports that may only see a ship once a year or so. A few years ago I got to one frontier station just as they were evacuating. It seems their last two supply ships had never showed up and they were almost out of air, food, and water.” At her look, he added, “Very few stations are fully self-supporting.”

“Were those other ships ever found?” she wondered.

“Not that I’ve ever heard,” he answered. “There’s a lot that can go wrong on a ship, or it might have hit a patch of bad weather, a rock, or possibly even pirates.”

“Are we at risk?” she asked, more than a little concerned.

“No more than on any other ship, and less than most really.” At her look of curiosity, he added, “Unlike many warp-capable craft, this ship has more the one warp core, so losing one doesn’t necessarily mean we’re stuck somewhere. Though there are only two engine nacelles, there are really four warp engines, losing one cuts down our top speed and costs us more in fuel to get somewhere, but that won’t stop us from getting where we’re going.”

“You say weather like you have to worry about wind and storms out in space,” Weaver said with a frown.

Neal smiled. “You forgot ocean currents and waves,” he admonished with a chuckle. “But there are currents in space and sub-space that can affect us even in warp. Depending on our course through them, they can speed us up, slow us down, or give us a very rough ride. There are even areas of space where sub-space is so turbulent that a ship can’t maintain warp through it, and FTL comms are worthless. We’ll be avoiding all the known rough spots; the bigger the ship, the rougher the ride can be.”

“And rocks?” she asked with a half-smile.

“Haven’t hit one yet,” was the reply. “I have very good sensors.”

“And pirates?” a little more concern in her voice and on her face.

He hesitated for a moment, then said, “Let me put it this way: no pirate has ever survived boarding this ship. Some I’ve outrun, some I’ve tricked, but no pirate has ever stepped aboard the Folly and lived.”

“I’m not even going to ask how you got rid of them,” Weaver said. That earned her an eyebrow wiggle from the human seated across from her. “But I am curious; just how many pirates have you run into?”

“I told you, I have very good sensors, I didn’t ‘run into’ any of them.” His smile faded a little at the look she was giving him, “OKAY, okay! Over the last ten years, I’ve seen a little over eighty pirate vessels; very few of whom ever saw this ship as a possible target. Of the ones that did try their luck, only two got anyone onboard, and none of them made it past the second hatch.”

“How is that even possible?” she asked.

“To explain it so that you would understand could require some schoolin’,” he said, his smile returning. “Interested?”

That got a laugh out of her. “And I thought this was going to be a boring trip!”

“That’s what I was thinking just before I found out I had guests,” he said. “Now with this mob, I won’t have any time left to be bored.” He turned serious. “Tess reminded me of a problem we are going to be running into sooner or later.” At her nod, he continued. “Due to issues of kidnapping and slavery, a lot of ports require that kids under certain ages be escorted by a parent or legal guardian.”

“Can’t you just hide them?” she asked.

“No, because if I don’t claim them and they are discovered, I would be jailed automatically; getting a trial could take a while, and that would leave the rest of you stranded.”

“So we could lose the kids at one of those ports?” she asked, apprehension in her voice.

“If the parents of my stowaways can get me proof of their ages and/or parental permission, they should be in the clear. It’s your little group that’s going to bite us on the tail.” He cut her off as she started to respond, “Yes, Holly is covered by you, but those two chakats have no such protection.”

She looked at him closely. “The look on your face suggests you have something that might work, but you don’t know if they’ll buy it.”

That earned her a lop-sided grin. “You’ve known me less than twelve hours and already you’re reading me like a book. I hadn’t realized I’d become so transparent. Hmmm, something to work on now that I have so many victims – I mean guests to work with….”

Weaver waved away his joking and he continued. “The easiest and possibly safest course is for me to adopt them.”

She waited a moment to see if he was serious, then after thinking about it she said, “They will never go for it. You’re just not the father type.”

He snorted at the last part, “Oh, you’d be surprised.” He grew somber. “As for them going for it, it’s all just a matter of presentation.”

That earned a snorted laugh from her “That I have to see!” she said.

He grinned back, “Oh, I intend for you to be there, as a witness if nothing else.” He leaned back in his chair. “But that’s for later. Tess dug up some study material that I really should start reading over.”

“On child rearing?” Weaver asked with a smile.

With a smile of his own, he said, “I think that’s in chapter three or maybe four.” Then he looked her in the eye. “Chapter one is on how to play at being a good and proper midwife.” Chuckling again at the surprised look on her face, he added, “The way this curse is working, if I don’t study this, I’m probably going to need it. If I know what to do, I won’t need it, so what do you think I should do?”

Weaver carefully got up, and as she walked past him she patted him on the shoulder. “Please study hard,” she whispered.

“This is not the type of test I would like to fail,” he softly replied as she left.

When it had been just Neal and Tess, the good ship Folly hadn’t operated under any set schedule, it was ‘ship’s day’ when the captain was ‘working his shift’ and ‘ship’s night’ when he wasn’t. But with the addition of sixteen more souls, only one of which was an adult, establishing some sort of a routine became just a little more important. Tess had suggested using a ‘ship’s bell’ system to help keep things running smoothly, but Neal hadn’t wanted anything quite so structured – at least not yet anyway. For now, he simply had Tess passing word through speakers or comm badges as needed, such as when it was coming up on time for supper.

None of the teens seemed too enthusiastic about the prospect of another quick-heat food pack meal, but as the alternative was going hungry they dutifully made their way to the lounge they'd been eating in. They were, however, surprised to find Tess refusing to open the door.

They didn't have long to wait, as Neal, Weaver, Holly, and Quickdash arrived only a few minutes after the first of the teens. “What’s going on, Tess?” Neal asked.

“Just a little presentation, Boss,” the computer replied. As the door finally opened, she added, “Graysocks and Nightsky are ready for you now.”

Neal held back, thinking he knew what it might be about. The surprised sounds the teens were making seemed to confirm his suspicions. What Cindy was carrying as she hurried back out proved that they’d gotten a few things done since he’d last seen them.

Inside, the stowaway teens and friends were discovering the results of that afternoon’s labors by Graysocks and Nightsky. Fifteen short stacks had been set out; each composed of one or more pieces of light clothing and topped with a small, embroidered tag bearing the name of the recipient. Graysocks and Nightsky were already wearing theirs, and some of the teens ducked out of the room to change immediately after thanking the two.

“But ... how?” asked Weaver as she held up the top that had been made for her. “All this in one afternoon?”

“It was a team effort,” Nightsky said.

“It was all Nightsky,” Graysocks said at the same time.

“Oh no,” insisted Nightsky. “I sewed, but you cut and Tess figured out the patterns.”

“After you picked the proper fabric and styles.”

Nightsky waved that off dismissively. “Those were the easy parts.”

At that point Cindy came back in, almost bouncing in excitement and wearing her new outfit. “It fits great!” she said as she held up her arms and turned around to show it off.

Neal slipped in behind her.

“Why so light?” asked Mike.

“That’s just what we had to work with,” said Nightsky as shi ticked off hir reasons on hir fingers. “We’re in a controlled environment aboard a ship, and they’ll work as underwear for heavier stuff I’ll make once Tess digs up the fabrics.”

“Underwear?” Quickdash said, sounding a little put off with the idea.

“Or pajamas if you want ’em,” said Nightsky as shi put a hand on the smaller chakat’s shoulder. “Besides, you might want something between you and the kind of fabric that can stand up to a lot of scrapes and scuffs. And you’ll be wanting to wear that when we start getting chores to do.”

“Shi’s right,” Weaver said. “Nothing itches like having your fur pulled the wrong way and you can’t reach the spot to scratch because it’s covered.”

Quickdash looked up at Nightsky for a moment before asking, “Do I have to put it on now?”

“No,” said Graysocks with a chuckle. “But you do have to keep track of it.”

As it was obviously going to be several minutes before they all settled down enough to eat, and seeing an opportunity, Neal got Nightsky off to one side to have a word with hir.

“You seem to have a real talent for this,” he said. “To help you ‘work off’ your passage I’d like you to make some ship’s uniform type outfits for yourself and the rest of the kids – and Weaver. Tess’ll help find you the cloth and give you the designs. And if we have enough silk in the same color, you can make fancier outfits for when we’re in port.”

“Sure!” Nightsky agreed. “But I hope you aren’t going to restrict me to just uniforms.”

Neal chuckled. “No, but don’t think this will get you out of other chores.”

“Of course not. Things still have to be cleaned and moved and stuff.”

“I’m glad we understand each other. Congratulations on a job well done. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to congratulate Graysocks, as well.”

“Oh! Before you go, Captain, these are for you,” Nightsky said, retrieving an unclaimed stack and passing it to Neal.

For once Neal seemed to be at a loss for words, so he just smiled and nodded.

His conversation with Graysocks was a little different, though.

“I just ran the cutter,” the foxtaur vixen insisted.

“Don’t diminish your part because it wasn’t creative like Nightsky's,” Neal told her. “Although the rush is over and shi’ll probably do okay without too much help after this.” He paused, expecting Graysocks to say something, but the foxtaur just looked thoughtful. “Speaking of which,” he continued, “perhaps you can help me with something else?”


“You may have noticed how long most of the machines in the workroom had been sitting idle. They’ll all need a good going-over, and you seem to have a knack for that. Would you mind checking them out? I’ll make sure you have a PADD that will tell you what you need to know about each unit and where to find the supplies you’ll need.”

The happy gleam in Graysocks’ eyes told him he had guessed right.

After everyone had settled down and eaten, Neal got them all together in what they were coming to think of as the main lounge. The new puzzle of a starship crossing in front of a blue and green planet was already over halfway done. Sitting on the padded deck with Shadowcrest beside him and Weaver holding the littlest two with an arm around each, he quietly explained about the laws requiring parents to travel with very young children and that unescorted children could be taken away to protect them from possible pirates, kidnappers, or slave traders.

The stowaway teens were looking thoughtful; they hadn’t realized there would be laws covering such things, much less that a law wouldn’t necessarily be the same for every place.

Not wanting to ask outright, Shadowcrest pointed to Holly, “Won’t she be okay?”

Neal gave her a small smile, “Yes, Weaver covers her requirements. It’s her little friend, Quickdash, that would be at risk.”

Looking at the Quickdash, Shadowcrest quietly asked, “Can you help hir?”

Pulling hir into a gentle hug, Neal smiled as he said, “I think I can help hir.” Squeezing hir a little tighter, he added, “And the same thing should work for you as well.”

Neal suddenly found himself short of breath. Shadowcrest was hugging him so tightly he could feel the tips of hir claws biting through his clothes.

After shi calmed down a bit, he asked, “What was that for?”

“For saving us!” Shadowcrest said laughing.

“Well,” he said slowly, “there is something you will have to learn how to do…”

“What?” shi asked.

“You could probably learn to do it with a little practice…” Neal said, dragging it out just a little longer.

“What already?” Shadowcrest demanded, getting tired of his stalling.

Trying not to laugh at the intense look on hir face, he quietly asked, “Do you think you could get used to calling me ‘daddy’?”

An almost snort came out of Weaver as she kept the little two quiet; everyone else was just staring at him. Giving them a minute, he then took Shadowcrest’s hands in his. “I, Neal Foster, captain of the Folly, offer to adopt Chakat Shadowcrest. Shi will have all the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities as my daughter.”

At the surprised look on hir face, he added, “Since you have no way of knowing if I would make you a good father, I will leave you with an escape clause. If you ever find me to be unsuitable as a father, you need only say, ‘you’re not my daddy anymore’ or ‘I don’t want to be your daughter anymore’, I will then ask you if you are sure, if so, then we will no longer be related.”

After a moment Shadowcrest’s face clouded up, and in a very small voice shi asked, “And what do you say when you don’t want me anymore?”

Ignoring the fact that shi looked ready to cry, Neal acted like he was thinking it over, “You know, I seem to have forgotten to add an escape clause for myself. Dang it, I guess I’m just stuck with you.” Then a gleam came into his eye. “Though on the other hand, I could just be a really bad daddy and force you to use your escape clause!”

Realizing that he was teasing hir, Shadowcrest gave him another tight hug. “You can’t get rid of me that easy!” shi said, laughing even harder than before.

“Does that mean you accept?” he asked. Shi had been laughing so hard shi was now crying, Shi could only nod, and then shi buried hir head against his chest.

“Why is shi crying?” asked Quickdash.

Weaver smiled and softly answered, “Because shi’s so happy shi has a new daddy.”

“Do I get a new daddy too?” Quickdash asked, not really understanding.

“Yes,” Neal replied, “I will be your new daddy as well.”

“Do I have to cry?” shi asked, not sure shi wanted to play this game.

There were several snorts and chuckles from the older kids now that the tension was broken. “No crying required,” Neal told Quickdash with a smile. “You just get to call me daddy.” Indicating the chakat in his arms, Neal added, “And since you are both my daughters, that also makes the two of you sisters.”

Walking up to Neal, Quickdash looked carefully at Shadowcrest, who had stopped crying and was now watching hir. “I’ve never had a sister before,” Quickdash said.

Pulling out of Neal’s arms, Shadowcrest hugged hir new sister to hir. “Me neither,” Shadowcrest whispered.

Feeling a little left out, Holly asked, “Can I be hir sister too?”

Neal was hard pressed not to laugh out loud. Weaver had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look, her daughter having completely blind-sided her with the request.

“Well,” Neal said, hoping Weaver would give him a sign if she approved of this turn of events, “from what I’ve seen since you came onboard, you two are already acting like sisters. Far be it for me to break up the set.” That broke Weaver partway out of her daze and she shot Neal a questioning look. Still not knowing what the vixen wanted, Neal surrendered, “But I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask your mother about that, little one.”

Still a little shaken at the turn of events, a now extremely confused Weaver hissed, “That’s it! Make this my fault!”

“Not at all,” Neal said softly trying to calm her down, “I am more than willing to adopt her, but as her mother I would prefer to have your permission. Or there is still a way for you to make them sisters even if you don’t happen to want me to adopt her.”

Blind-sided yet again, Weaver just asked, “How?”

Giving her a small smile, Neal waved at the three youngsters. “Whether I adopt her or not, you could always adopt them.”

“You would just let me adopt them?” Weaver asked, not sure she understood his meaning.

He smiled at her as he answered, “This isn’t about what I do or don’t want. This is about what the little ones will need. They have been uprooted from their normal lives and families. They’re going to need new relationships to help them deal with the situation they now live in.”

With a tentative smile, Weaver asked, “You really don’t mind adopting her?”

Neal chuckled at her uncertainty, “I’ve just adopted two furballs,” he pointed out while giving her a smirk. “What’s one more?”

Before Weaver could reply, another voice quietly said, “Two.”

Turning to face the teens, Neal asked, “Two?”

“Two more furballs,” this from the fox, Cindy. “Please?”

“Three!” from one of the chakats, and at least five of the other kids shouted “Four!”

Holding up a hand to silence them, Neal asked, “Are you sure this is really what you want? Just because you’d officially become my kids, don’t think it’s going to make the trip any easier or shorter.”

Mike spoke up, “I think what we’re saying is that we accept the challenge of trying to be a family unit for this trip, with you as its head or father. That, and the fact that I for one don’t want to run the risk of somebody trying to pull me off this ship just to ‘protect’ me.” Most of the other furs were just nodding; Neal noticed tears in more than one set of eyes.

Neal found his own eyes misting over a little as he said, “Ah – what the heck, the more the merrier.”

That earned him a group hug attack from the kids. When it was over, he turned toward Weaver. Cocking his head at her, he smiled and said, “I seem to have just become a father with fifteen children. Would you by chance like to join my crazy new family as its mother?”

Weaver slowly shook her head at him. “You had this all planned, didn’t you?” she asked softly.

Neal shook his head in reply. “No, my only plan was security for the little ones. The rest was just a pleasant surprise.” Turning serious he said, “If I remember foxtaur customs correctly, two adults agreeing to share the responsibilities of taking care of their children are denmates. That’s what I’m offering to you.”

When Weaver nodded, she was almost knocked over when the hug attack turned her way.

When they finally let her up for air, he added, “Just like the kids, you always have the option of canceling out of our little arrangement if I don’t turn out to be a suitable denmate.”

With a shy smile, Weaver said, “Like Shadowcrest told you, you won’t be getting rid of us that easily.”

“Time will tell,” he replied returning her smile, “After all, we did meet less than a day ago.”

“I do hope you know what you’re letting yourself in for; we furs don’t do things the way you humans do,” she warned him.

“And you’re afraid this silly human won’t know or understand your needs or issues?” Neal asked. At the look she gave him he laughed. “Okay my brand new and already doubting denmate, let me start with what I believe you’re thinking about humans and their hang-ups. In fact let’s go to extremes, I’ll use the HCKNA territory, most of which was once considered the ‘Bible Belt’ for what was once called the ‘United States’ back before the Gene Wars. There they still think a boy suddenly become a man on his twenty-first birthday. They also have this crazy notion that not only will their child not be having sex before that time, the kid will need no training or education in sex, seems they’ll magically realize everything about it on the day they become an adult.” Neal smiled at the looks of bewilderment, confusion, and outrage he was getting from some of the teens. “Now here’s what you think I don’t know about you furballs. Most of the females morphs created were originally hard-wired to reproduce, which means they actually needed sex during their heats. While some of that was cleaned up or at least reduced after the Gene Wars, not getting sex can make them quite ill, so your ‘first heat’ is more your ‘coming of age’ than some date set on a calendar. And the different morphs species have come up with their own solutions for dealing with their various needs.” Looking at Weaver he said, “In most foxtaur dens everyone sleeps together – from the youngest to the oldest. Sex is a normal part of the den; the tod and vixen don’t hide what they’re doing from the kids – though they may wait until the kids have gone to sleep. Holly most likely watched you and your mate ‘work’ on giving her a little sister.”

Holly bobbed her head up and down. “They had to try extra hard because they found they were mostly in-ca-pat –” she trailed off.

“Incompatible,” her mother finished for her.

Neal nodded. “And when a foxtaur vixen comes of age she might even ask her father or brother if she has one to be her ‘first’ – which by the way is quite taboo for humans. Chakats are just as easygoing about sex, and with their twenty-four day heat and rut cycle, sex can never be too far from their little minds.”

“We’re not that bad!” Calmmeadow protested.

“Dual-sexed hyper teenagers aren’t sex-crazed?” Neal replied with a smile. “So next you’re going to tell me none of you were sending out waves of horniness yesterday evening – and again earlier today?”

The ears of Dusk and Roseberry folded down as they ducked their muzzles in surprise and embarrassment at the chuckles coming from Neal and some of the others.

“You ‘heard’ us?” Dusk asked in wonder.

“I ‘felt’ something,” Neal corrected, “and I know last night it wasn’t my bed partner making me feel that way. At least one of you two cha-kitties is quite ‘loud’ when you’re having fun, I shudder to think what all six of you at once might do to the rest of us,” he said with a grin.

“So, what are you going to do about it?” Roseberry asked, looking a little worried.

“I can start by banning all sex – or even thoughts of sex in the hydroponics sections,” Neal sternly said before he burst out laughing again at their expressions. “No, I’m not. If it actually gets to be a problem I can have Tess block off areas with force screens that can stop or at least blunt your broadcasts.”

“So you’re not going to tell them they can’t ‘get it on’ amongst their greenery?” Alex laughed.

Neal snorted. “The number one way to get a teen to do something is to forbid them to do it. You may think I’m just a crazy human, son, but I ain’t that stupid.”

“Something just doesn’t add up,” Alex half complained.

Neal just grinned as he said, “Be sure to let me know when you figure it out.” A little more seriously he added, “In the meantime though, be warned. There are far too many parents that go about life trying to child-proof the world so their kids won’t get hurt. Sadly this often churns out kids that have never learned that being burned by fire can hurt. You are going to discover that I am not of that persuasion, I believe more in the world-proofing of the child. That means that while this ship has a lot of safety features built in, they are more to prevent death than they are to prevent harm.”

“So fire will burn them,” Weaver softly said with a look of worry on her muzzle.

“Indeed it will, and they will learn,” Neal agreed. “Tess will offer some protection for the very young – and the ignorant – but she will also be warning and educating when she does. If you’ve been taught better than to stick your finger in the fire and you go ahead and do it anyway, you’re going to get burned.”

“And if we don’t know if something is dangerous?” Graysocks asked, remembering some of the things she’d seen in closed but not locked cabinets.

“Ask,” Neal replied.

When the captain finally did retire that evening it was only to find the youngest two of his adoptees hogging a good portion his bed. While he did find enough room to sleep, he woke to find himself surrounded by fur.

Day 003

“Boss,” Tess said once Holly and Quickdash had headed off in search of breakfast, “this isn’t going to be your regular run – especially after you went and adopted all of them …”

“So?” Neal asked with a yawn.

“So I for one think it’s well past time that you cleaned up your act. So I want you to report to the med bay for a proper shearing …”

“Who’s in charge around here?”

“You are, Boss. Med bay, Boss.”

“Yeah yeah …”

Breakfast was a bit of a shock to those new to the Folly when a shorthaired, clean-shaven human wandered in as if he owned the place.

“What?” Neal half demanded at their stares and dropped jaws, the glint in his eyes daring any of them to comment. He grabbed an energy bar and an iced tea before leaving them to their thoughts.

“For a human, he cleans up pretty good,” Alex quipped once the door had slid closed behind Neal.

The kids also discovered that not only had they gotten a brand new father figure the night before, but a captain – and he a brand new and very green crew …

In a room they hadn’t been in before, twelve teens, one pre-teen, a pair of youths and one pregnant adult sat or lounged on chairs or pads behind desks as they waited for their ‘instructor’ to arrive. It was only the beginning of their second full day on the ship, and after breaking their fast, their now ‘cleaned-up’ captain had informed them of some ‘mandatory’ training. He came in now, pushing a loaded cart before him.

The youths happened to be closest to the door and he stopped his cart at the first desk. He picked up one of the objects off his carts and most of the ears before him perked up in surprise and/or interest. He ejected the magazine and then slid the slide back and locked it open. Setting the gun and its magazine on the first youth’s desk he said, “Don’t touch.” He repeated this with each of the others, leaving one last weapon for himself.

Ensuring his own weapon was ready; Neal turned to face his students. “There are enough rules about guns and other projectile and beam weapons that we could be at this for months,” he told them. “So we’re going to start with the high points and work our way down from there. First things first, like any other tool there is no ‘safe’ weapon, if used by a fool or an idiot, someone will be hurt or possibly killed.” After letting that sink in for a moment he said, “So if you would please, not touch or do anything before I ask you to?” He waited for them all to nod before saying, “Okay, I left each of your guns lying on their right sides and pointing to the left. With your right hand hold the grip firmly – leaving the gun on the desk. Above the trigger are three levers; the rightmost one is the slide release –” a loud SNAP and a “yip!” interrupting him at this point. Raising an eyebrow at the foxtaur vixen who was now trying to relock her slide open, he said, “I was going to warn you to make sure your claws and paws were clear of the slide before releasing it, but I guess a pinched paw is still the best teacher.” Frowning at Redtail, he said, “The easiest way to lock the slide open is to pick up the gun in your right hand, hold the release ‘up’ with your thumb and then move the slide back with your left hand. You may all try this if you will …”

After covering the basics, Neal led them to the room next door that had been set up as a shooting gallery. Once everyone had the proper eye and ear protection fitted, he let them try their hands at hitting a target, sometimes helping them with their posture and aim.

He next gave them instruction on hand phasers and let them get use to handling and firing them as well.

Finally, after pointing out the many ways they could hurt themselves and others with actual weapons, Neal handed out something he called a ‘stinger’. At its highest setting at pointblank range, it might cause an involuntary muscle twitch in the target. But they did sting, quite a bit in fact at the higher power settings, but left no lasting mark or injuries. Weaver was quick to bow out to the ‘fun’ of getting shot at by the others.

After lunch, Neal had led them all to the main bridge, which even Weaver had only seen a dimly lit corner of.

This time the bridge was fully lit and they stared in awe. While there was a ‘captain’s chair’, it was for a working captain with displays and keyboards of its own. Two more chairs braced it as if for a first and second officer. Five large view screens and dozens of smaller ones ringed the curved walls. Standard workstations were clustered into several smaller groups, each with an extended workstation that overlooked that group.

Neal managed to hide most of his grin as the others looked around, waiting to see who might guess what first.

Chakat Morningmist was the first to venture a comment. “Not to offend, Captain-Daddy-Sir, but what science fiction show did you get this from?” shi asked, waving hir arm at the fifty-plus stations around them.

“Close,” Neal allowed with a smile. “It was indeed modeled after something else, but it wasn’t from any science fiction show.”

Mike let out a rather noisy breath suddenly. “Alex, those double-double airlocks between the secondary hull and this one, the fact that both hulls have active warp cores in them …”

“Two ships, but only one has warp drives,” Alex agreed. “Or maybe, a ship and this is some kind of station? That would also help explain those tactical displays.” Looking over at Neal, he asked, “Why?”

Neal shrugged. “This bit needs to be moved and tested a bit before delivery – which under current plans isn’t until after I return you all to Bright Hope. And until more warm bodies arrive, I – and now you – get the privilege of running it through its paces and see what we can break.”

“That, and it’s got nicer captain’s accommodations than his old digs – and it still has that ‘new station’ smell!” Tess added from a neighboring speaker.

“And you love all the extra processing power it gives you almost as much as I like having more storage space,” Neal reminded her before turning back to his ‘crew’. “Unlike a ship, a station can have a lot more going on, in, and around it, so the different divisions each have their own controllers,” Neal told them. “Since you guys are going to be hanging around, you’ll get to help me bring up and test some of those features.”

“You mean you can’t just power it up and have it ready?” Brighteyes asked in surprise.

Neal snorted. “Sure, I could just flip a switch and send a sudden surge of power down the lines and into places that should be ready for it, but unless there’s a need to rush, I like to bring things up a piece at a time – just in case someone missed something, or a lost tool is found by it shorting out a circuit somewhere. All of it was ‘signed off’, but I wasn’t the one that did it,” he explained. “And while I trust the teams that put it all together, I like to play things cautiously when I can.”

“So why did Tess show us that other room when we asked her to show us the bridge?” Calmmeadow wondered.

Tess piped in before Neal could with, “I heard you guys complaining about being overwhelmed in the secondary bridge as it was – and it’s just as much a ‘bridge’ as this one is.”

“And it’s actually better suited to act as a ‘freighter’s bridge’ than this room is,” Neal added. “But I thought I’d show you a few of this beast’s ‘high points’.”

Weaver frowned. “You told me this ship was created from other ships. What other ship has a monster control room like this in it?”

Neal grinned. “Heh, this is actually quite a bit smaller than the primary command and control center on Chakona’s Gateway Station. And you’ll find this isn’t the only ‘monster’ my little ship is hiding,” he told her as he indicated the room they were in.

“Are there any bad monsters?” Holly asked from where she and Quickdash were looking at one of the workstations.

“Why yes, I have a couple really bad monsters lurking about. In fact one’s about to rear its ugly head right about now!” Neal exclaimed with an evil grin. “Emergency evacuation drill! Get your tails into the nearest escape pod! MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!”

This resulted in a mad dash off the bridge, and in seconds Neal was alone – with Weaver.

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t try running for anything less than a real emergency,” she quietly said as she settled down on one of the seats.

“Didn’t expect you to in your condition,” Neal agreed as he too sat down. Unlike her still-dark display consoles, his automatically lit up with the ship’s status. “In fact, Tess would have stopped you if you’d tried,” he added.

“He really doesn’t want to have to play midwife if he doesn’t have to,” Tess told her.

“Which is also why I haven’t offered or suggested that we might ‘consummate’ our being denmates,” Neal softly said. “Fun as it may be, I really don’t want too much stimulation inducing labor …”

“That adoption last night, just how real was it?” Weaver asked, avoiding the other point for the moment.

“As real as it gets,” Neal told her. “Tess recorded it and has the paperwork all taken care of; the next time we hit or pass a planet or FTL relay, it’ll all be sent to a law office on Bright Hope to be processed. The same for us declaring ourselves denmates, though that’s more just a bit of record-keeping.”

“Bad monsters?” she asked after a couple minutes of silence.

“Define ‘monster’ for me,” Neal replied. “I’d just call this room ‘good sized’.” With a grin he added, “Using up all your ‘big’ words early means you won’t have anything to use when something ‘bigger’ comes along.”

“Is that a warning that you sometimes dial things up to eleven?” Weaver wondered.

“What makes you think I even slow down at eleven?” Neal laughed.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to see what you think is a twelve,” she half-muttered.

Neal chuckled, “Just don’t start panicking when the kids try to tell you they’ve just seen something that just has to be ‘impossible’.”

“Speaking of whom, shouldn’t they be getting bored just sitting in those escape pods?”

“They should be anything but bored right now. Tess simulated the pods ejecting near a habitable planet, so they should be trying to get together so they all land close to each other.”

“You believe in throwing them in the deep end.”

“No. The deep end will be after a few more training drills when Tess goes silent and stops offering them any hints,” Neal told her. “After all, if we’re actually abandoning ship, there’s a good chance the ship and Tess are no longer there to offer us any support.”

“Is there a chance of that happening?”

“Not really,” Neal admitted, “but the whole idea of running drills is so they know what’s expected of them – and to teach them not to panic when things are going wrong.”

“Speaking of which, this drill is now concluded,” Tess informed them. “I split them up so they’d have more practice time. Of the seven escape pods; five would have landed within five kilometers of each other. The other two each would have had a bit over a twenty klick hike to rejoin the others.”

“Operator error?” Neal asked.

“Yes, Boss. They went in at the wrong angle and didn’t have enough reserve fuel to recover from their mistakes.”

“That’ll give them something to work on this evening then,” Neal commented.

“Wait-ah-minute – seven escape pods?” Weaver demanded.

“Yeah,” Tess said. “I let the youngest three have their own – they were in the five-some.”


“As the weakest link, the others were using them as the go-to point and followed them in,” Tess told her.

“Do remember, my dear, that this was just a simulation,” Neal reminded her. “If it ever really does all go terribly wrong, they have to know that we trust them to do their very best. Tess? How far were they from their planned landing location?”

“Just over ten klicks – which was why the other two were twenty out – they’d tried to correct, but in the wrong direction.”

“And they’re back,” Neal said as the kids started returning. “Please note, oh denmate of mine, all those panic-stricken muzzles before you.”

And Weaver couldn’t find any panic. She thought she could guess which ones had landed long, but no panic or worry, in fact the mood of the youngest three was closer to elated. She hid a half-grin as she shook her head. “Interesting training methods you have there, Captain.”

Said captain grinned at her bemused look. “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” he promised her. “If they stick with it and have the will, I’ll have them conning my Folly into Bright Hope orbit when we get back,” he promised her – or it might have been a threat.

The rest of the afternoon was spent ‘playing’ in the secondary hull, Neal having Tess drop the gravity throughout the hull. Everyone but Weaver was out and floating, drifting, or slowly spinning as Neal had explained how to use a small canister of air to move about before leaving them to their own devices.

Before they had arrived, Tess had repositioned a number of containers to act as large rooms and corridors for the kids to practice their moves in with plenty of temporary handrails to grab hold of. She now kept an eye on each of them, a tractor beam here or a little gravity-assist there to keep them from hurting themselves as they learned how to move without the aid of gravity.

It was fortunate that the captain had made each of them take an anti-nausea pill before the lesson as the youngest two seemed to be trying to see which of them could ‘spin’ the fastest.

“All right, that’s enough,” Neal finally said to the giggling spinners that were now a little more than out of control.

“Holly – Quick, you two are making me dizzy,” Weaver complained from where she sat near the folded guardrail but fully in the deck’s gravity field.

Kit and cub tried to slow their rotations, but discovered they’d already used most of their canned air. Outstretched hands caught each other, and while it canceled most of their spins, it also changed their rotation axis. Pushing away from each other, they aimed for opposite walls – or at least they tried to …

Tess’ speakers buzzed with a ‘someone screwed up’ sound as her tractor beam stopped the quite dizzy chakat youth from striking the side of a container muzzle first as another one grabbed the young foxtaur before she could tumble head first into her mother.

Neal just smiled and shook his head as they each went and got a fresh can of air. “Now that everyone’s had some fun, I’d like you each to follow the little ‘maze’ Tess has set up for you. At the end you’ll find a little something with each of your names on them. Just bring them back to this point. There are no points for coming in first!” he added as several of them kicked off.

After threading the path of rooms and passageways, the kids each found a foam-covered dummy; bipeds for Alex and Cindy, taurs for the rest of them. Adding to the challenge was that Tess had made each of them half again the size and three times the mass of the one to ‘rescue’ it.

And they were limp – to the point of floppiness, making just moving them a chore and getting them going in the intended direction almost impossible as they floated and seem to flail around.

As the kids worked to get their dummies heading for the first passage, they were heartened to see that Tess had made one more dummy, at least twice as big as the one whose name it wore.

Neal entered the last ‘room’ as the kids were still sorting things out. He grinned to himself when he braced himself against a wall and tried to move ‘his’ dummy. While it did move it didn’t move nearly as fast as it should have, warning him that Tess had given it a bit more mass than he’d suggested she put in the others. “Smart-ass,” he muttered when he discovered that most of the mass had been placed in his dummy’s arms and legs rather than in the very limp torso.

“You did suggest they needed a ‘challenge’, so I thought you’d like one too,” Tess told him.

Pushing off a wall to give his dummy another shove in the right direction, Neal asked, “What is it – five times my mass?”

Tess remained silent.

Despite starting out last, it wasn’t long before Neal caught up with some of his new crew and they learned how he went about moving a dead weight. Close to a wall he would ‘drag’ it up and over him before kicking off and heading to where the dummy would now impact a wall. Where there was a change in direction needed, Neal would grab a handhold while hanging onto the dummy with the other and be ‘hinge’ for the load to swing on.

As he moved forward, Neal had to laugh at some of the ways the kids were handling their own loads. With their mid-limbed handpaws and prehensile tails, the chakats were doing better at it than the others – though two of them were cheating a bit.

Since they hadn’t been given any rules, Calmmeadow and Dusk weren’t actually cheating by working together, but putting their dummies in a ‘sixty-nine’ position and then wrapping the tails of one dummy around the other’s neck wouldn’t have been very pleasant for ‘living’ cargo, but with four grasping limbs for climbing each and their tails holding the tails of their dummies, the two of them were making the fastest progress.

Once everyone had gotten their dummies to the first room, Neal asked them, “Does anyone see what they think might have been an easier or faster way?”

“Depends,” Mike replied. “Can we do it as a team?”

“I don’t see why not,” Neal agreed. “Rather than starting over, just put them back,” he suggested.

“Do we have to be gentle?” Dusk asked.

“After you and your partner went and strangled yours? Nah,” Neal told hir.

The kids got together for a little meeting to discuss things before all but Mike took off, Calmmeadow stopping at the beginning of the first passage.

Mike grabbed Cindy’s dummy and heaved it at hir. He straightened himself up from the twisting the toss had given him before tossing the Alex dummy. As each dummy reached hir, Calmmeadow was holding the handgrips with hir handpaws as shi dragged the dummy around and down the passage where someone waited to take it around the next corner. When he finally got to the ‘Neal’ dummy, Mike let out a grunt of surprise when he tried to launch it – and another when it didn’t head the way he had expected it to.

“Look out, Calm! That one’s even heavier than it looks!” he called out before pushing off to chase his misfired projectile.

Even with the spacing Mike had given the dummies, they were gone in minutes, and cries of ‘done’ echoed back a minute later.

“Somebody doesn’t like you,” Morningmist told Neal as they returned. “I thought I had it – but it had me!”

“She likes to make me work for it every now and then,” he agreed. “Okay, I’m done with you, you can play, study or whatever until meal time.”

For their third dinner onboard the Folly, the crew had been expecting still more of the usual ‘ready meals’ to be broken up and shared. But that wasn’t what Tess’ remote-controlled carts brought in for them this time …

“What is that aroma?” Morningmist demanded as shi and the others filed into the dining area.

“Whatever that is, that’s no ready meal,” Dusk agreed, as the ready meals had been enclosed meal packs with individual heaters and there had been nothing to smell until they were opened.

“That’s chicken – with enough spices to kill for,” Graysocks proclaimed with a grin as she sniffed the air.

Neal had been bringing up the rear and was greeted by hungry growls as he entered.

“Have you been holding out on us again, Dad?” Alex asked for the group.

“Not at all,” Neal replied. “Until our next stop you’re stuck with ready meals or emergency energy bars.”

“Then just what are we smelling?” Alex countered.

Neal grinned. “Even I don’t like a steady diet of ready meals, so every now and then I treat myself to something a little fancier.”

“And you didn’t share this with us earlier because…?” Weaver wondered.

Neal smiled at her as he said; “I didn’t share this with you earlier because I didn’t think it appropriate to get your hopes up.”


“While I do have a few treats stashed away, they won’t go very far when shared,” Neal pointed out. “While Alex and Cindy might settle for a mere adult human sized meal, I don’t see any of you taurs claiming one will be enough.”

“I like chicken,” Mike informed them with a grin.

“So at least twenty-two meals worth just for the teens,” Neal pointed out. “And another pair each for Shadowcrest and Weaver – who’s eating for two anyway, and I’d guess Holly and Quickdash might split three between them. That’s more than half a year worth of meals if I were limiting myself to only one special a week …”

Looking at each of them in turn, Neal added, “Luckily, I sometimes trade in more than just credits, and one of the finer eateries on Bright Hope is one of my customers. For bringing them a few hard to get items, I received fifty baked chickens and a variety of sides to go with them.”

“Stop stalling, Captain, or I’ll start gnawing on you!” Weaver informed him – and she looked like she was only half kidding. Several of the teens looked well past halfway.

“Patience, dear denmate of mine, they went straight from the ovens and into a stasis field – so they’re actually still too hot to eat just yet,” Neal warned her with a grin. “Though I guess if I can get a couple volunteers, we could start getting things ready …”

Everyone but Weaver jumped up, leaving Neal little to do but try to supervise the chaos – though things were quickly sorted and shared out.

That the meal was enjoyed by all was proven by the silence in which it was consumed without a word being spoken. Though it wasn’t done with what might have been called proper table manners, as the captain had led off by using (and scorching!) his fingers to tear off a chunk of breast meat before blowing on it and popping it in his mouth. This led to the dropping of utensils for the more direct approach by the others.

Unlike the taurs, Neal managed less than half his chicken before giving up and snacking on some of the lighter side dishes. He did take note that while Alex managed to get around most of his, Cindy barely made a dent in hers. The taurs were another matter as a couple of them were finishing off their second and a couple of them were well into their third chicken.

“My gluttonous crew,” Neal said with a chuckle. “Tess? Please remind your poor captain to overstock on rations at our next stop.”

“Already had that highlighted for you, Boss. As well as some of the plants and seeds your green-thumbed farmers were wanting.”

Neal frowned slightly. “There are also a few miniature fruit trees that do pretty well in hydroponics,” he admitted. “If we get them pre-grown, cycled, and pollinated properly, we can have fresh fruit in a few months.”

“Why weren’t you already growing your own food?” Weaver wondered.

Neal snorted at her. “Ha! This from someone that thought I was in over my head just running this ship before I got saddled with guests. My birds are more than half wild because I don’t have the time to spend with them, never mind tending a garden.”

“Lucky for you then that a couple of us like gardening,” Roseberry told him.

“Just so long as it doesn’t interfere with whatever other chores you get scheduled for,” Neal told hir. “Part of your ‘punishment’ for stowing away is going to be learning the ship you stowed away on. That includes navigation and at least basic maintenance on all her systems.”

“They also wanted to add some flowers for their fragrances and to brighten up the place,” Tess warned him. “And we do have those planters that fit the corridor connections.”

“Great,” Neal grumbled, “by the time I’m ready to hand this thing off, it’ll be a jungle.”

“You’ll survive, Boss, but I’ll make sure your machete is kept sharpened just in case the day comes that you need to hack and slash your way to the bridge.”

Pushing away the remnants of her meal, Weaver let out a contented sigh before turning to her denmate. “Delicious, but what did you mean earlier when you said you didn’t think it was appropriate before tonight?”

Neal smirked back at her. “How much of a downer would it have been if I’d given this to you guys that first night and then saddled you with ready meals the rest of the trip?”

“Well, okay,” Weaver agreed, “but last evening?”

“Just before I planned to adopt the youngsters?” Neal countered. “How many of you would have thought it more a bribe to get you to agree to play my games? I wanted honest answers, not a paid response.”

“Then why the silk and not some other material for Graysocks and Nightsky to play with?” Alex countered.

“The better to show you guys that things may have different values than you may think they do. I’ve been dragging several containers of that silk around for over a decade now. There are several man-made materials that are as fine – and are easier to work with. So I can’t get what you might expect for it except from those that are actually interested in the silk itself.”

“So you’ll let me have it?” Nightsky half-begged from where shi had been sitting between Graysocks and Shadowcrest.

“We will see,” Neal allowed as most of them got up to start cleaning up after their little feast. “Maybe you can earn some of it.”

“We have a problem, methinks,” Neal stated after closing the door to a room just off the bridge and activating the privacy sign and filters. Most of the others were now relaxing after the large and surprisingly delicious dinner he had just fed them.

“What do you mean, Boss?” Tess ‘politely’ asked; not about to guess which of several friction points she’d already noticed might be bothering her human.

“What’s your read on Cindy where I’m concerned?” he asked with no inflection in his voice.

“The rules I am operating under allow me to ignore questions of that type,” she reminded him, not liking at all which problem he’d picked to work on first.

“Tess …”

“She’s terrified of you,” Tess finally admitted.

“But not all of the time,” Neal pointed out.

“No, just when you appear to surprise her.”

“Well, I don’t think it’s because she thinks I could toss her out the airlock on a whim,” Neal muttered and received a ghost of a snort out of a nearby speaker. “So the Captain isn’t what scares the hell out of her. That leaves me being a smelly old human, or male,” he started.

“Or her brand-new ‘father figure’,” Tess injected.

“You think?” Neal asked, looking thoughtful.

“She has no problem with interacting with you when she knows it’s you,” Tess pointed out. “Like when you were helping her change her stance on the pistol range; it was later when you just touched her shoulder before you complimented her on her shooting, she looked like a kit that had been caught doing something very wrong and she knew the punishment coming would be extreme.”

“Just before that, what would you guess her emotions were?” Neal wondered.

“You have yet to have built me a psychic circuit,” she reminded him with a hint of a huff. “Still … pleased with how well she was doing, a bit of pride, growing confidence.”

“Do you think she was having fun?”

“Oh yes.”

“And a touch of surprise tore it all away,” Neal said, remembering how her next few shots had shown how badly startled and shaken she had been. “No child should be that frightened of having a little fun. Do we have anything at all on her?”

“Only what she and her friends have said or commented on; it seems her mother died when she was very young, still living with her father, no siblings or other family mentioned.”

“Why do I get the feeling I’d want to pound some sense into ‘daddy’ for the way he’s been raising his little girl?” Neal muttered darkly.

If that’s the real source of the problem,” Tess reminded him.

He sat glowering in the silence for a few minutes before he shifted slightly. “Well,” he eventually said, “if I can’t pound the father, then I’ll have to settle for pounding on the daughter. Tess? Here’s what I need from you …”

For the third night in a row Neal found he would not be sleeping alone. Pillow talk with Weaver was mostly about the kids, as they were still finding their comfort zones with each other. While Neal admitted he had planned something for the morning, he didn’t say what – or why …

Day 004

The next day, the youngest cub and kit made appearances only to eat or sleep; their rather cryptic conversations soon had the others wondering just what they might be up to.

That morning, the teens found themselves in yet another ‘new to them’ level and in an exercise room, stepping up onto thick padding with plenty of ‘give’ under it. At Tess’s direction, they dressed in the padded suits they found – surprised at how well they fit each of them. Across the room, they found heavy padded poles with extra padding at each end, as well as some mouth-guards for a little added protection. As several of them had seen and used Pugil sticks before, a semi-training/sparring session was already underway when Neal got there, already wearing a matching padded suit. Weaver came in with him, but she was unpadded and carefully laid down in a raised and cushioned corner to watch.

The training/sparring had stopped when the adults had entered, but Neal waved them back to it as he went to get the remaining padded stick. After a few warm-up stretches and swings, Neal approached the group of furs. “A little warm-up and frustration relief if needed,” Neal told them. “Like being able to thump the one you think left all that hair in your comb – but only a thump – it was only a comb after all,” he said with a grin, knowing there had been an argument among the foxtaur vixens over just that issue.

Several jeers and taunts of just who was going to be thumping whom had them paired up again. Neal gave them a minute before cutting in. He’d placed his stick between Calmmeadow and Dusk. They each stepped back a pace and Neal gave Dusk a wink before turning to Calmmeadow. Shi grinned and swung hir stick at his head, which he deflected up and forced hir to hurry to get it back down before he could nail hir upper torso. They ‘fought’ for a little more than a minute, both getting in a few good blows. Neal then stepped back and gave hir a half-bow before turning to Dusk. Having seen how this human moved, shi had a little better luck with hir opening moves, but shi was more than ready to go back to Calmmeadow when he was done with hir.

The foxtaur vixens, Graysocks and Redtail, were the next pair Neal crossed. Neal had to go easy on Graysocks as she wasn’t one of those that had ‘played’ like this before, but she got a bit of her own back at him by taking random swings at him while he was ‘battling’ Redtail.

Alex and Cindy had paired off as the only two bipeds when they had started. Alex had been teaching Cindy the basics because it seemed she’d never been allowed to participate in any of the contact sports in school.

Alex squared off and made a few test swings at Neal to try to keep him guessing before he tried a couple strikes – which Neal easily deflected.

“You can do better,” Neal told him as one of his counterstrikes just brushed across Alex’s ears.

Alex grinned and redoubled his efforts, getting in a couple good thumps, but none anywhere near as hard as he’d hoped for. Finally he saw the opening he’d been waiting for and he swung at Neal’s head for all he was worth – only to leave himself open to Neal knocking his legs out from under him! As this had required Neal to drop too, anyone turning to watch too late would have found them both lying down with their Pugil sticks crossed between them.

Still breathing hard, Neal grinned through his mouth-guard at his opponent. “Very nice. You were really getting into it at the end,” Neal said.

“Yeah, but you still beat me,” Alex muttered, but he was grinning too.

“Heh, I’ve had a bit more practice,” Neal countered as he got up.

“She’s totally green,” Alex warned as he rose.

“I saw,” Neal agreed before turning to Cindy, his face hardening.

The teen vixen before him wasn’t a teen any longer, but a very small kit who knew she was going to be hurt and hurt bad. She had just watched him match himself against the taurs – and take Alex down! Fear rooted her to the spot, the padded stick slipping from nerveless fingers.

“Pick it up,” Neal’s voice was low but commanding, his eyes boring into hers.

She was visibly shaking as she knelt to recover the stick.

Try to hit me,” he ordered. At her fearful headshake, he growled, “You were taking swings at Alex – am I not good enough? SWING!”

Her stick came up and hesitantly moved in his direction. He barely moved to brush it away. “AGAIN! Like you mean it!” he all but snarled at her.

While the other battles had slowed so the others could watch Alex and Neal go at it, the rest of the room was now frozen. Beechwood had started to move towards them, but Roseberry had pulled the vixentaur to a stop. “I’m not sensing any anger from him,” the chakat hissed at her.

“What are you sensing?” she half demanded back.

“Control – tightly held. Why – I can’t tell. Just – wait,” shi half warned / half pleaded.

The two in question never heard a word of it, so locked as they were on each other. At Neal’s demands, Cindy’s swings were getting harder – but still hesitant – and he was having no trouble knocking them away. All the time Neal was demanding more of her – her every attempt was found lacking.

No one knew how long it went on, but they all could tell the moment Cindy snapped. Neal had just brushed away her latest attempt at a strike and she had turned Neal’s deflection into power for her next swing from the other direction, with Neal being forced to put more power into his next deflection – which only added to the power she was able to use in her next swing. This one he tried to block – but Cindy’s Pugil stick slammed into his hard enough to slam it in turn into his head, knocking him off his feet and landing him flat on his back.

Cindy stood there breathing hard, frozen in shock at what she’d just done, the others frozen in surprise as Neal rolled over and slowly got up. With his stick in hand, they watched him roll his neck and test his joints before he turned back to the vixen.

His expression was still hard, but he found the terrified kit look missing from hers. There was a caution there; she had just nailed her recently adopted father and the captain of the ship they were on, but the overriding fear from before was no longer appeared to be controlling her.

As he studied her face, her posture and stance, there might have been just the hint of something like approval in his eyes before he said, “That was good. I expect you to do it again.”

She brought up her stick as he moved his to the ready. Blows now rained down on her, testing her blocks and forcing her to increase her speed. Sometimes she’d see an opening, a couple times she got a strike in, and sometimes it was only a bluff to sucker her into dropping her guard.

The blows slowed as they both tired before Neal finally called a stop. The teens headed out the door for the showers next door, while Neal moved to plop down next to Weaver.

“You stink,” Weaver cheerfully told him.

“Ah, come on. I didn’t do too bad out there – despite getting nailed by a little vixen,” Neal countered.

“Nailed my tail! From this angle I could see you flex your legs for your ‘fall’ – your stick barely touched your head!”

“Don’t you ever tell the others that,” Neal sternly told her. “I needed to prove to Cindy that she wouldn’t be punished just for doing what I told her – even if that means I take the fall.”

“Was it really necessary?” she half asked.

“I think it was. You can’t always just tell someone something’s different from everything she’d ever seen before; sometimes you have to show them. Hell, with a little luck, the others will learn from it as well – I hope so anyway, as I don’t think I can do too many more of those.”

“Wore you out, did they?” Weaver chuckled.

“Now I remember the advantage I had over my brother after they had a kid, I could wind the little stinker up and then give him back to his parents. Too bad you’re in too poor of shape for me to just ‘hand them off’,” Neal said with a half-grin.

“As far as stinkers go, you reek. Go hit the showers, Captain.”

“Two days as a denmate and already she’s nagging me,” Neal muttered as if she couldn’t hear him. “More proof that mated or married people are idiots and fools.”

Snickering at him, Weaver got up while saying, “Well, this fool likes her idiot smelling sweetly rather than sweaty.”

“Yes my dear fool, just as soon as your idiot can get his legs to move again,” Neal promised as she left. As the door closed behind her, he whispered, “How’d we do?”

“Remains to be seen, but it looks promising,” Tess quietly replied before asking in turn, “Do you want one of my gurneys? I was worried there for a minute that your pratfall wouldn’t have any ‘prat’ left in it …”

“I’d intended to use the strike before, but the angle she gave me made the dodge far too obvious,” Neal admitted with a groan as he worked his way back to his feet. “I’ll walk – can’t let the kids know they can wind me this easily.”

“As if your current ‘walk’ isn’t a dead giveaway,” Tess pointed out as he half-staggered to the door. “And if I were you, I wouldn’t pick a fight with Alex on anything but a game – he was holding back even as he was pounding you.”

“I have Alex pegged as street smart and savvy, and a bit of a smart-ass – how much so you and I are going to find out,” Neal told her.

“Is that good or bad?”

“Like any tool or ability, it all depends on how he decides to use it while he’s with us,” he said before keying the door open.

Most of the teens were done with the showers and fur driers by the time Neal entered.

“You look pretty beat up there, Captain,” Mike commented as Neal started trying to get out of his padding, his bare skin showing the still forming bruises from some of the better strikes that had made it past his guard.

Neal let out something between a snicker and a moan. “Believe it or not, I’ve been worse,” he told the equitaur.

“Just not in the last week or so?” Alex asked with a grin as he came around the corner, his fur still slightly damp from the drier.

The two furs had helped Neal shuck the rest of his padding before pointedly nudging him towards the showers. Neal now leaned his shoulder against a wall with his rump mostly on a bench, water jets of warm and cool water playing across his back. He was almost in a doze when the jets stopped their random play and tapered off. The scent of one of the available shampoos struck his nose just before a warm sponge was pressed into his back, the unseen hands working it up and down and across his back and shoulders before pushing it over his shoulder and letting it fall into his lap.

“Thanks,” Neal said as the water jets started back up and rinsed off his back. He turned, but there was no one there.

“What the hell was that?” Beechwood was half-demanding just as Mike and Alex joined the rest of the teens.

“What was what?” Alex asked with a grin as Cindy walked in behind them. “Are you by chance referring to our brand new adopted father pretending to beat on the smallest of us?”

“Didn't look very pretend to me,” Beechwood told him.

Mike shook his head. “I had a better angle than you did. None of his strikes carried any real power – he was pulling his punches with Cindy,” he countered.

“Easy enough to prove,” Alex told them, turning to Calmmeadow. “Any human-made bruises?” he asked. At hir nod, he turned to Dusk, Graysocks and Redtail and got nods from them as well. “And I collected my fair share. Cindy?”

“Only the couple you gave me,” she admitted.

“So, we know he can get past our guard and leave a mark,” he pointed out. “So I don’t think we can consider that an actual beating.”

“So what was it?” Redtail wondered.

Watching Cindy, Mike said, “I think it was to show us that even though he can pound us at will – he doesn’t feel he has to.”

“Why would he do that?” Beechwood wondered.

Mike snorted. “Most of us have been doing one of two things. The bold have been testing his limits and trying to see what we can get away with before he puts his foot down. The timid have been trying to not be noticed so as not to draw fire. My read on things is he doesn’t mind having to clip our wings if we overdo it, but trying to hide in the bottom of the nest isn’t going to cut it on the Folly.”

“So he wants us to try and kick his ass?” Calmmeadow laughed.

Mike shrugged. “Or he just wants us to do our best at whatever we’re doing,” he suggested.

The teens spent most of the rest of the morning taking some of the tests Tess had whipped up for them. After lunch there were still more tests before they were allowed to explore more of the ship. While some explored their new home a step at a time, others went for a more virtual approach …

“Tess? What’s in all these areas?” Chakat Dusk asked, highlighting some of the areas Alex had also asked her about.

“None of your business for now,” Tess cheerfully told hir. “You’ll learn the rest of the ship as you need it – and as it needs you.”

“We’re chakats, you know we’re curious about everything,” Morningmist reminded her.

“Be that as it may, but in this case curiosity runs a strong risk of killing the ’kat,” Tess warned them.

“Not even a little hint?” Dusk begged.

“As others have deduced, this section will one day be a station. So you might wonder what all a station of this size may want or need in it,” Tess suggested.

With the others taking tests or otherwise occupied, Weaver carefully stepped into one of the escape pods.

“Trying to get away from it all?” Tess inquired from one of the speakers.

“I just wanted to see what he’d put the kids through,” Weaver told her.

“First things first then,” Tess said as most of the lights and displays went dark before coming back up. “Escape pod is now in training mode, as we really don’t want you going anywhere.”

“Was there really a risk that I could eject this pod without your approval?”

“All my escape pods are real and are live at all times, Weaver. If they’re needed there’s a remote chance I won’t be able to change their modes in an actual emergency. While I can override most systems fairly quickly, it’s best you treat everything as live unless I’ve told you differently.”

“So, were the kids in any danger when Neal ordered them to the escape pods?”

“No. I’d had plenty of time between the captain’s order and them reaching any of the pods I directed them to. Considering your condition, I won’t play with your gravity like I did with theirs.”

“Why – what did you do to them?”

“To save power the escape pods normally don’t have any gravity, which means you would be floating around and feeling the thrusters when you used them. To be honest, I thought a couple of the ‘pilots’ yesterday were trying to make their co-pilots sick with their spinning the pods about.”

“No spinning, please,” Weaver agreed, “but I would like to see what they went through.”

“No problem. Hatches are closed and sealed, simulated escape pod ejection – now.”

Weaver heard and felt the pod shudder and the displays changed to show the pod moving away from the ship and towards a planet. Other icons sprang up showing that she was one of a dozen pods leaving the ship.

Tess walked her through the rather simplified controls of the escape pod, and then restarted the drill showing some of the other things an experienced hand might accomplish with the same equipment.

Exiting the pod a while later, Weaver said, “Thanks, Tess, and I can now see why the captain would want everyone to know how to use them.”

“Anytime,” Tess replied as she reset the escape pod’s systems back to ‘ready for use’ mode. “And each of you will have your own desktop systems when Neal gets around to it. You’ll be able to simulate anything that uses the standard interface formats and I can add non-standard ones if the need arises.”

At lunch, the foxtaur vixen, Beechwood, had yet another question for their captain/father.

“You’re still holding out on us, Dad,” she accused him as she and Redtail were tearing apart and sorting ready-meal packs before the others arrived. “There’s no way you lived on these ready-meals and an occasional ‘special’.”

Neal grinned. “Like the specials, using it now would be a little unfair to the rest of you. I’ve got a tiny kitchen set up in another room with two surface heat units and a small oven. I doubt you could fully feed one hungry taur at a time on that thing; besides, are you volunteering to do all the cooking?”

“Ah, no,” Beechwood said. “I’m not that good a cook.”

“It seems Weaver’s worse than you from what I heard Holly telling Quickdash,” Redtail laughed. “Though I have a question for you too, Neal. Why do you sometimes look surprised when you hear my name?”

Neal looked lost in thought for a moment before saying, “It’s not you but your name. You see, I knew another Redtail, quite a while ago. So hearing that name is calling up some old memories – a couple of which I wish would stay buried in the past.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Neal told her. “There were good memories as well as bad of those times.”

“You make it sound like a long time ago,” Beechwood quietly said.

Neal chuckled. “All things are relative – how long ago did you guys go and hide in that container?”

Neal grinned as Beechwood actually had to count on her fingers before looking up at him in surprise. “Has it really only been four days? It feels like weeks already!”

“Now think of your last month at home,” Neal told her.

“Feels like it passed in minutes,” she admitted after thinking about it.

Neal nodded. “Welcome to your own personal relativity distortion field, where your time doesn’t move like anybody else’s,” he said as the others started filing in to eat.

Most were finishing their lunch when Tess made an announcement.

“We just went through the fringe range of an FTL relay, and it seems all but one of you had messages waiting. Captain, you have only a couple of dozen.”

“Any of them marked personal or private?” Neal asked.

“A couple of yours are, but none of the others.”

“Anyone want to mark theirs as private?” Neal asked. He smiled when the others all shook their heads. “What’s the general read on them?”

“Several of your ‘crew’ will be grounded for life – if not longer – once we get them back to Bright Hope. All but that one was also told to behave themselves and not cause Captain Foster any trouble.”

“Too late for that,” Neal said with a chuckle. “Was there enough time and link integrity for you to send them our little adoption ceremony?”

“Sure was, Boss. Their next messages should be quite interesting. Oh, and that lawyer firm was kind enough to send you a recording on how the parents took your first little message.”

“We’ll view it after everyone’s done eating,” Neal told her. “Are there any more solid relays between here and Parakit?”

“Not unless you want me to take us off course a bit, and it would cost us another day of travel time.”

“No, straight on in that case,” Neal agreed.

The recording from the law office opened to a large female equitaur being ushered in and finding herself a place to sit towards the back of the room.

“My mom,” Mike said. “Dad should be on the road.”

“She doesn’t look too upset,” Dusk commented.

Mike smiled. “Considering some of the other things I’ve gotten into, this isn’t so bad.”

A pair of chakats were next to enter, they entered and exchanged names and hugs with Mike’s mother before finding themselves pads to settle onto. Shadowcrest sunk in a little bit on hirself at the concerned looks on hir parents’ muzzles.

In ones, twos, and small groups, more trickled in for a while, exchanging greetings and not a few hugs as they waited for more news on their children.

There was one exception, a rather angry fox morph that seemed to be getting even more upset that the other parents weren’t more vocal about their concern over their own missing children.

“I’m telling you they were all kidnapped! Why are you all acting like it doesn’t concern you?” he was snapping at them yet again.

One of the chakats finally stood back up so shi could be more eye-to-eye with the angry fox.

“While a ship in warp blocks all talents, it has to drop from warp every so often to dump heat buildup and to confirm its bearings. I have ‘felt’ my daughter every time their ship comes out of warp and I can tell you that shi – and all of the other kids – are safe from the way shi ‘feels’.”

“Nonsense!” the fox countered. “You’re just saying that because your kids probably helped them kidnap mine!”

The volume of the voices around them was rising and it looked like the chakat was ready to launch into a very angry rebuttal when the doors opened again to admit the stellar foxtaur who had been directing them to the room and a reverse-Siamese cat morph.

Cindy had been slowly hunching down and shivering as her father’s actions made it clear that he was busy making enemies of all the other parents. A hand on her shoulder startled her; Alex had moved closer to give her his support, a hand on her other shoulder was Calmmeadow as the rest of the teens drew closer.

From behind them, Neal caught Weaver’s eye and nodded; they had themselves a pretty good bunch to watch over.

They then discovered the trick Neal and Tess had pulled on them; all of the panels had been live from the moment Neal had said ‘comm on, record mode’, their parents having seen and heard everything

“A bit of ass covering there, Dad?” Alex asked over his shoulder as the scene played out.

Neal had smiled a bit when he’d seen Dash stiffen in surprise, but now it held a bit of malice as he said, “You weren’t my son then, boy, and the captain thought it best that it not look like he was holding his gun to your heads and dictating your every word as you said ‘hi’ to those you left back home.”

“And it seems to have worked,” Weaver said from where she was sitting with the youngest three. “Your parents seem to be going from ‘how fast can we get them back’ to ‘they’re in trouble when we get them back’.”

As they watched the fox try again and again to insist that his daughter had been kidnapped, Alex leaned over and whispered in Cindy’s ear.

“Just say the word and I’ll have my little brother, Tom, kick his ass up between his shoulder blades.” At her startled look he grinned. “You’re my sister now, and I already know how to treat sisters. Their problems are my problems.”

“Tell Tom to leave some for the rest of us to chew on,” Dusk said from behind Cindy. “That’s just wrong.”

“He may not get a chance at the rate he’s making friends!” Roseberry laughed as the angry parents all but chased the rather trying fox morph out of the room.

“Now we know who doesn’t have messages waiting for her,” Graysocks chuckled as the lawyer got the room quieted down.

“Oh shit – no!” Brighteyes moaned a few minutes later when shi realized hir little ‘take me to your captain’ had also been recorded.

Tess’ cameras had also caught the foxtaurs arguing about Neal’s just laying his shotgun down.

“So you knew all along?” Beechwood half demanded.

“Just now in fact,” Neal said calmly, “though Tess knew and she always has my back.”

“And you were kind enough to not make me have to do anything about it,” Tess chimed in. “I thank you for not making me step in.”

“Who are you, Tess? I mean who are you really?” Graysocks didn’t quite demand, a strange and rather troubling thought having finally gelled in her mind.

“Just a humble A.I.” Tess told the foxtaur.

“No, you’re not,” Graysocks countered. “You can’t be. I’ve dealt with the school A.I. and several of the city’s A.I.s, and you’re nothing like them. You’re acting too naturally to be a couple of processors passing electrons and photons between themselves.”

“So, what do you think I am?” Tess asked with a grin in her voice.

Looking at Neal, Graysocks said, “I think you’re the brains of a brain/brawn ship.”

Neal was the first to react and that was to burst out laughing. “Y-you think I’m the best they could find to brawn a brain ship?” he wondered when he could finally speak. “Damn but they must be hurting if they had to stick some poor brain in this oversized bucket of loose bolts, and saddle her with the likes of me!” he added before he started snickering again at the mere thought of it.

“He’s got a point,” Chakat Morningmist said. “He’s not at all like what the brawn recruitment posters look like.”

“And why would a brawn stick himself and his brain ship with a bunch of stowaways?” Chakat Roseberry wondered. “And I haven’t sensed anyone else on the ship, though there could be screens set up to block my talent,” shi allowed.

Graysocks was shaking her head. “But there’s more to her than A.I.s can do! They can’t interact this personally with people; they always screw it up!”

“See, Tess,” Neal said with a grin. “You’re screwing up by not screwing up enough.”

“Sorry, Boss, I’ll try to screw up more often.”

“Please don’t demonstrate your fallibility on any of the more important systems,” he admonished.

There was a raspberry from the speakers before she muttered, “You take all the fun out of it!”

“That’s what I mean,” Graysocks complained. “A.I.s don’t think or talk like that.”

“They would if they’d had to deal with a crazy human bossing them around for decades on end!” Tess assured her.

Weaver interrupted with, “While I find this to be a fascinating subject, I believe Tess is holding some messages for us?”

“Speaking of which,” Neal injected, “please bear in mind that these messages are from the morning after you stowed away, they won’t be seeing me adopting you guys until that law firm lets them know they have another recording.”

“Why didn’t you tell us there was another relay on the way?” Dusk asked. “We could have had our messages ready for them.”

“Because we can’t always hit the relays,” Tess told hir. “Sometimes the timing or angle’s off and we won’t get a connection. I knew I’d be in range to hit the first one, the second we just got lucky.”

Meanwhile on Bright Hope…

“Another strange day, another strange data-drop from the Folly,” Dash muttered as shi set the file download to decoding.

Their upload had been marked as received, so Captain Foster should now have the permissions for all but one of his stowaways, and as much permission as could be granted for the two youngest chakats. A small list of files and another recording were soon spit out by the decoder.

“What new work have you made for me, Captain?” shi wondered as shi selected to have the recording play on hir screen.

“What are you up to?” shi muttered when the scene opened to all of them gathered together.

“No way, you’re not going to …”

“Makers preserve us – how did you rope her in too? – And the rest of them?”

“And then there were none …” Dash quietly said just before the recording ended.

“Problems?” a rumbling voice behind hir asked.

“Oh, hey, Runelock. No, no more than usual. Though I do have a question for you – how long has Robin been dealing with that Captain Foster?”

“Since before I met her. In fact I think she said he provided a little of what they call ‘seed money’ to help her get the firm started. Why? Is he making her have to work for her princely paycheck again?”

“You heard about his stowaways?” shi asked. At his nod shi said, “He just adopted them – all of them.”

“I-I thought one of them was an adult?”

“His new – if slightly damaged and about to pop out a kit any day now – denmate.”

“Deities …”

“Yeah, that’s about what I thought too.”

“Has Robin seen it yet?”

“No. Are you sure you want to be within the blast radius when she does?”

“There are times when it’s safest not to be there for her … send it – and I’ll go mix her her favorite drink.”

“Coward!” shi told the much larger Rakshani.

“It’s the clever cat that runs away to live to run another day,” he quipped back at hir as he headed away from his mate’s office.

Frowning at hir screen, Dash sent the recording to hir boss before marking the adoption files ‘expedite’ and sending them to the proper department.

Shi sighed as shi closed hir eyes for a moment and leaned against hir backrest. Hir ear twitched as shi faintly heard a yowl of what shi very much hoped was laughter come from behind hir boss’s closed and usually fairly soundproofed door. “You’d better have made that a double, Runelock,” shi quietly murmured.

Taking a deep breath shi leaned forward again; there was one poor guy that probably needed a boost, two families that needed to know about this, eleven more that should be advised – and one that was going to get it sent to the email address he’d given them, the one which they’d yet to get any replies from.

Bringing up the proper records, shi touched the first name shi wanted to talk to. It was only a few seconds before one of the two shi was expecting appeared.

“Shir Shadowspirit,” shi began with what shi hoped looked like a cheerful if toothy grin. “I have just received some rather interesting news about an update to your daughter, Shadowcrest’s, situation. It seems that captain is a bit more resourceful than we’d given him credit for …”

Without needing to discuss it among themselves, the teens all got together to use one of the lounge terminals to view their messages. Knowing there wouldn’t be one for her, Cindy had tried to avoid it, but her new siblings dragged her with them – not entirely against her will. There was some laughter at some of the parental threats, but also sobering moments when those same parents all but begged their children to be careful.

Neal was taking his messages in private, though only ‘one’ of them was actually from the parents of his stowaways. While they had sent their kids each a message, they had all gotten together to give one to the captain who held the safety and well-being of their children in his hands.

Only a couple of parents were glaring at the pickup as if it could force him to do their will, but most of them were trying for a more laidback first impression. Each family named themselves, their mates and their child now under his care before asking them to take care of them.

One of the exceptions was Alex’s father, Fernando. He had rattled off his mate and daughters’ names grinning and then saying, “If my boy, Alex, gets himself into too much trouble, just kick him off your ship, Captain. It’d do him good to have to find his own way home again; though if we have to, we might send his little brother, Tom, after him.”

Another exception was the glaring pair of uniformed Star Corps chakats, Quickwind and Shortdash. While Quickwind asked him to take good care of Quickdash, Shortdash just glared as if promising mayhem if anything was to happen to their cub.

“Good grief,” Neal muttered. “They seem to think I’m some kind of ogre or something.”

“Just wait until they see their daughter asking you if shi has to cry to get adopted …” Tess reminded him.

“Right, like they think I could get away with abusing any of them without the rest of the kids and Weaver trying to do something about it.”

“In the recording for us, Shadowcrest’s sire, Goldenmist, said shi could sense hir daughter when we weren’t in warp,” she reminded him.

Neal nodded. “It seems shi has just a bit of talent, even for a chakat. Hopefully that link will help appease the other parents as well.”

“You know we’re deploying another relay in a couple hours; I could always get ‘lucky’ again,” Tess suggested.

“No, too much ‘luck’ and those Corps types will start wondering just how we’re managing to hit so many of the FTL relays along our route,” Neal disagreed. “Parakit’s soon enough for their next contact, and we’ll be hanging around long enough for them to all have a couple of chats with their kids.”

Several teens grinned when Alex laughed as his father basically told him, ‘You’re on your own, sucker!’

“That just means he figures I already have a way home if I need one,” he told them.

“Oh?” Chakat Brighteyes half asked.

“I already had a bit saved up from my tutoring and a few other odd jobs. I’m guessing Dad made sure there’s enough in my account for at least an economy ticket home.”

“I was looking into getting some funds too,” Chakat Nightsky admitted. “As it can take a couple of days for a bank transfer, it’s a good thing Neal said we’ll be on Parakit a whole Old Earth week.”

Alex shook his head. “Tess told me that the Thirteen Star Bank I use just happens to have a branch on Parakit, so for me it’ll take all the time of an FTL data-pulse to Bright Hope and back to have my credits in hand.”

“That works for you, but what about those of us not using Thirteen Star?” Beechwood asked.

“Or those of us with more limited funds?” Redtail added.

“Have your folks pull your credits out of your bank and set up a Thirteen Star account in your name, probably faster than a bank transfer,” Alex suggested.

“That still doesn’t help the ‘limited funds’ part,” Graysocks pointed out.

“Let’s wait until we get there and see what our needs and options really are,” Mike suggested. “I mean unless someone knows or thinks they know of a reason some – or all of us – need to jump ship as soon as we make port?”

“Don’t look at me,” Roseberry said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t be planting still more crops if I thought we were leaving any time soon – but I am willing to pitch in my somewhat meager savings if someone desperately needs help coming up with the price of a ticket back to Bright Hope.”

Two hours later, Neal was riding the primary bridge’s captain’s chair. The main screen was showing the Folly’s estimated location between the stars, the second showed the status of the ship, her cores and her engines, while the third was filled with the results of something’s diagnostics tests.

“Drop from warp in three minutes,” Tess reported. “So far the modules’ startup self-tests are all passing with flying colors.”

“What can I say, they do good work,” Neal acknowledged as he changed a setting on his own board. “Current plans call for the others of this thread to be brought in and positioned over the next year or so.”

“Nine months tops, Boss. Wizard and Early Dawn lost a couple of contracts, so they’re making up the credits lost by taking half a dozen more of the relay install jobs.”

“When did you hear that?”

“All part of the download from the last FTL relay data-dump, and still waiting in your inbox.”

“Which I still need to finish going through,” Neal admitted. “Any other surprises you think I should be made aware of?”

“Only a few more positive ones, Boss. You know I’m quick to point out any negative ones you may need to address quickly.”

“Did it say whether they actually lost those contracts – or did they drop them?”

“Reading between the lines, it looked like someone was trying to pull them in like Raynor and Whyite were trying to own you. Since they couldn’t get a clean contract, they refused the orders – and they also sent out a warning to other shippers to watch out for any more trickery.”

“Go ahead and add the threats to our own ‘watch out for’ sheet; forewarned is forearmed.”

“Already done in fact – and dropping from warp right … now.”

“And just how far off did we end up?”

“Almost five and a half light minutes … sorry, Boss.”

“Eh, that’s not at all bad, Tess, especially when you consider that the nearest deep gravity well you could use for a reference while at warp was over twelve light years away. Besides, it’ll give us an actual excuse to test the thing’s main thruster pack.”

“Passive scans are clean, going active … also clean. Nothing but a bit of dust in the area.”

“In that case, ‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal’.”

“I’ve told you before I’m not ‘Hal’, and that that was a dumb movie,” Tess protested. “No true A.I. could be that idiotic. Unsealing and opening the pod hatches now.”

Midway down the ‘corncob’, the tops of three of the large sixty-meter ‘kernels’ were opening, splitting apart to better disgorge their contents. Further aft a fourth pod was also opening, several dozen small craft slipping out of it.

“Drones released,” Tess confirmed. “Bringing them forward to unload the relay.”

“Proceed,” Neal agreed.

Tractor beams from the ship latched onto the small remote-controlled drones and moved them to hover above the opened pods. Tractor beams from the drones in turn reached for the contents of the pods and began to gently lift them out. Once clear of their pods, the three awkward-looking shapes were rotated to the proper positions before being brought together and catches started snapping closed and connections were made as they were carefully joined. Neal’s screens showed the different sections of the modules lighting up and changing colors as the many subsystems came to life.

“System integration is now complete, all data and power couplings reading positive,” Tess reported after several minutes.

“Let’s fuel it and get the core started before we begin deploying the antennas,” Neal suggested in acknowledgement.

Fueling consisted of the drones heading aft to bring forward half a dozen containment spheres, which they carefully connected to the midsection before darting back to the pod they’d come out of.

“Fueling complete. Drones recovered.”

“Thank you, Tess. Give it a nudge and get it clear of our shield boundary before we start the core.”

“Nudging, Boss. You do know that core was pre-tested, right?”

“And you know what will happen if a few molecules of matter just happened to have been missed somehow in any of the antimatter conduits?”

“E equals MC squared – outside the core’s containment fields. Though the force field sweeps should have removed anything that might have gotten in there. It’s clear.”

“‘Should’ being a word you don’t want to hear while playing with antimatter. Full shields.”

“Shield generators spinning up, full shields in four minutes. You do know those kids are going to throw off your other schedule, don’t you?”

“We’ll be ahead of time at Parakit, and while it cost us a little extra fuel, it won’t hurt our schedule any.”

“I’m not referring to your ‘captain of a freighter’ schedule, Boss, but your engineering ‘things to get done’ timetable. You have a mostly empty hull, engines, cores and most of an engineering section in the storage bay that you were planning to turn into something resembling a ship over the next two years – or have you decided not to build it?”

“Oh, it’s still going to get built – somehow … hmmm, perhaps after we get them settled down with chores and tasks, I’ll have a little more free time to put on my engineering cap.”

“Now I know you’re dreaming … shields now at full power, Boss.”

“Bring up the containment fields and initiate pre-heat.”

“Containment stable, preheating…”

Looking at a screen showing a 3D map of the Federation with small strings of multi-colored beads draped between some of the many populated solar systems, Neal asked, “How far are we from K17L?”

“Just over a hundred and twenty light years, Boss. I don’t think we can hit it without at least one more between us.”

“It’ll make a good test of those new array geometries then.”

“Preheat complete, core power at your discretion.”

“Light her up if you would please.”

“Coming up, a few spikes – but all well within tolerances. Power is up to fifty percent, how high did you want me to take it?”

“All the way to the top, Tess. You can use some of that power to get it moving towards its proper position.”

“Aye, Boss. Realigning now,” Tess reported as the relay slowly pointed its ‘nose’ to a new angle and its main thruster came to life. “How soon do you want it on station?”

“A month or two will be soon enough – it’ll be longer than that for the others to be brought online.”

“Thrust is stable, should I start deploying the arrays?”

“Sounds good, we don’t need to be sitting out here any longer than we have to.”

“Array arms extending, arrays beginning to unfold. Oops, we got one array hung only partly open.”

“Thrusters and the repair bot, we’re batting a thousand on this beast.”

“Bot on the array, it seems one of the tie-down straps was missed prior to final prep. It’s freed, opening normally.”

“Make a note of it for the construction team checklist, next time something like that might damage an array before the system catches it.”

“Note made, Boss. All arrays now fully deployed.”

“Send out a pulse, let’s see who we can hear replying.”

“Pulse sent … several of the commercial FTLs squawked, but we don’t have the link codes for them. K17L replied, but only over a couple of the low end bands.”

“Run a data stream test between them.”

“Test started, Boss. If we get three percent I’ll be amazed.”

“The amazing thing about a dancing bear isn’t how well the bear dances, but that you can get one to dance at all.”

“I’ll assume you’re referring to a non-morph bear, but I still don’t get it.”

Neal grinned. “As you said, we shouldn’t be able to hit K17L from here but we are, and even one percent of the data moving from one planet to another is still a heck of a lot of bandwidth.”

“Two point three, Boss, holding steady.”

“Good enough. Until they get a couple more relays in place this is a dead end anyway. Let’s get back to moving things.”

“We’re already clear of the relay, I can be ready for warp in a few minutes.”

“‘Make it so’ as that other guy used to say. What are the kids up to?”

“Chakats Nightsky and Dusk are sewing and sowing, while most of the others were watching us launch the relay.”

“Any questions?”

“Several, which I took care of – including that it doesn’t have the protocols needed to send any messages home.”

“Which is true, at least for now,” Neal agreed.

“There are a few other engineering projects you’re not going to be able to hide if we’re keeping them,” Tess warned him.

“I know. We’ll cross those bridges when we get to them.”

“Aye, Boss. Warp in thirty, trouble times sixteen – soon to be seventeen for the rest of this trip.”

“Always the optimist.”

“I’ll have you know I had a paranoid human for a teacher. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong – at the worst possible time. ‘Outwitting Murphy’, I think the lazy bum called it.”

“Ah well, this lazy bum is going to go grab a snack, as my stomach is telling me we worked well past the dinner bell.”

“That’s the most ‘normal’ thing you’ve done since we found them, Boss.”

“The sooner we get them on a schedule, the sooner I can get back to mine.”

“Keep telling yourself that, Boss – and let me know when you actually start believing it!”

Still a little sore from his morning’s ‘exercise’, Neal had actually gone to bed a little earlier than was his norm. He was only slightly surprised when the door to his bedroom opened again a little while later. Between Shadowcrest the first night, Quickdash and Holly the second, and then Weaver, he had wondered if this was going to become a regular nightly event.

A biped not a taur this time, so that reduced the playing field considerably, and the bushy tail silhouetted just before the door closed told him who was braving his bed this night. As with the others before her, Neal lifted the sheet so she could slide under it with him.

She was trembling as she lay down on the bed with her back to him, and then she couldn’t stop herself from physically jerking at his touch.

Neal felt her shaking and frowned. Without touching her again he quietly asked, “Did someone dare you to climb into bed with me?”

There was just enough light in the room that he could see her shake her head, but that was the only response he got.

“I can be walking around with a loaded gun and that doesn’t scare you – but a touch does … Who hurt you so badly, child, and how?”

Like a flower blooming in reverse, she curled up into a tight ball with her tail firmly between her legs.

Neal frowned slightly before saying, “I guess I should have laid out the ground rules earlier, but I hadn’t expected this much traffic – never mind that the kids before you were too young for this to matter. First and foremost, this is my bed. I sleep in it. I will never ask or force someone to join me in it. If someone decides to join me, they will do so of their own free will. Hugs and a little cuddling I don’t mind unless I’m very tired or sore. Anything more than that needs to be discussed and agreed to by all parties. Said parties can also change their minds if they feel they’re getting in over their heads.” He paused before adding, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Her nod was halfhearted at best, and Neal took note that she didn’t uncurl from her near fetal position.

“If it’s the fact that I’m your newly adopted father, that can be undone at your word. If you think all males only have one thought of the use of a female, then I’m sorry if that has happened to you – but it won’t be happening here – not on my ship.”

“You may have noticed I didn’t say that there will never be sex on this ship or in this bed. I’d be an idiot to try to suggest any such a thing. In case you didn’t know or weren’t listening the other day, chakats have a twenty-four day heat and rut cycle, not that most of them don’t like to play off-peak. I also know that you and the other females will need help during your heats. You guys get to go find yourself a willing partner – or partners, that’s none of my business.”

Neal drew a deep breath before continuing, “All of that said, if one of mine comes to me in need, I will not turn them away. But that is their choice – not mine – though I may turn them down if I think they’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”

She hadn’t moved an inch during his little speech.

Neal waited a minute before nodding. “That’s it. You now know the rules for this bed.” Getting up, he reached for a robe hanging on the wall on his side of the bed. Looping the sash to hold it closed, he then pulled a second robe out of a drawer. This he draped over her form before rolling her into it and then up and into his arms.

There may have been a small ‘eep’ from within the robe as he carried her out the door and down the corridor to where Tess had opened the door to the room Cindy had picked out. Gently laying her on the bed, he softly said, “I’m not rejecting you, little one, but I don’t want you in my bed if that’s not where you want to be.”

Having stopped in the break room for a snack and then brushing his teeth again, Neal had only been back in his bed a few minutes when the door almost silently opened one more time. She wore the robe he’d carried her in, and she stepped up to the side of the bed.

“I – I could really use a little cuddling tonight,” she softly told him.

“No tickling – I’m still sore from earlier,” he softly countered.

“Agreed,” she said as she slipped out of the robe and found the hook for it on her side of the bed before sliding between the sheets.

“And no teasing an old man about his morning wood,” he muttered as she wiggled into a loose snuggle. “Your younger siblings found it way too amusing…”

The soft snort he thought he heard from her could have been in agreement – or of amusement …

“You faked it,” she said after a minute of them just lying there together.

“Hmmm?” him not admitting to anything.

“Your fall – your attacks on me. You faked them … Why? You didn’t fool anyone.”

“Did I fool you?” he softly countered.

“For a minute,” she allowed.

“And in that minute, did you discover that some things weren’t what you thought they were?”


“And when you realized that it had all been a trick, did everything go back to the way it was before I took that fall?” he asked.

“No,” she said so quietly he almost didn’t hear her.

“Then I fooled you just as long as I needed to,” he told her. “I needed you to see me as me – not as whoever or whatever scares the hell out of you. And I needed to do it in such a way that you couldn’t not believe it at a primal level. Trust me when I say I can be scary in ways whoever it is has never dreamed of – but also believe me when I say that I will never punish or hurt you just to be punishing or hurting you; you’ll know what you’ve done to earn it.”

“The other kids don’t think you’re scary.”

“That’s just because they haven’t made me show them. You on the other hand were afraid of me for all the wrong reasons. And,” he softly admitted, “I thought if I dealt with your fears first, the others might figure some things out on their own.”

Snuggling in a little closer she whispered, “Maybe.”

Day 005

Tess woke Neal at the usual time and he let Cindy have first use of the facilities. He bit back a chuckle that while she headed to the restroom in her fur, she had grabbed her robe before heading for her room.

Once dressed, Cindy headed out to find her breakfast.

“Someone’s feeling a bit more chipper this morning,” Roseberry laughed with a smile at the fox vixen as she came in. At Cindy’s raised eyebrow, shi added, “I felt your terror last night. If it hadn’t disappeared as fast as it did, you would have had some company.”

“He’s a better daddy than my daddy is,” Cindy softly told hir.

“Than your daddy was,” Roseberry countered. “By the time we get back to Bright Hope, you’ll be of age, won’t you?”

“I-I hadn’t considered that,” she admitted.

“Consider it,” the chakat told her. “We’re all getting a chance at doing things we’d never dreamed of. If your home life was that bad, you now have two years out from under that to see what else is out there.” A little quieter shi said, “And that includes sex if you want to experiment a little. Tess gave us all clean bills of health – and we chakats can’t knock up you bipeds …”

Cindy softly snorted into her breakfast, but she was surprised to find that the idea didn’t bring up the fear and uncertainty in her it would have just a single day ago.

Neal had dozed off for a bit after she’d left; long enough that only Weaver was waiting for him when he finally made his way to their makeshift galley.

“I’m impressed,” she told him as he warmed some oatmeal. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that wasn’t the same vixen.”

Neal gave her a wink as he said, “If I have anything to say about it, she won’t be the same vixen by the end of this trip. It will be a vixen ready to take on the world on her own terms and win.”

“I caught a little of it before the kids all took off. Just what did you do?”

“I just tried to show her that any yokes and shackles that may have been weighing her down were left behind on Bright Hope, and that she’s free to fly as high as she dares here.”

“And you’ll be there to catch her if she falls?” Weaver asked with a grin.

“Or Tess, or you, or even one of her new siblings – which reminds me, Tess? Where are Cindy and Alex?”

“Finishing up some of those tests you had me set up,” she reminded him.

“Let me know when they’re done, I have a little something in mind for the two of them.”

While she didn’t mind having clean and happy children to contend with, the mystery of what Holly and Quickdash were spending their every waking moment on was starting to gnaw on Weaver, and she finally asked Tess to show her where her daughters were hiding.

She found them working hard on a contraption of pipes, pulleys, gears and wheels. She watched silently from the door as Holly turned on the tap, the faucet running over a paddlewheel before dropping into a basin in the bottom of the tub. The paddlewheel powered a small conveyer belt of tiny buckets, which then lifted and dumped the water into a clear container at the top of their project, an overflow return tube preventing a mess if it was overfilled. Quickdash had just placed a glass under a spout on the other side – just before the water started to fill it. A small float at the edge of the glass stopped the flow just before it would overfill the glass.

“Got it that time!” Holly exclaimed.

“Did you?” Neal’s voice asked from behind Weaver; she had been watching the kids so intently that she hadn’t heard him come in behind her.

“Tess told us to fill a glass without making a mess,” Quickdash told him as he and Weaver stepped in.

“Well, it’s a good start, but I do see one thing that you seem to have forgotten,” he said with a grin. “And thanks, I needed a drink,” he said as he pulled away the glass.

With the glass removed, the float dropped and the water again flowed from the spout and splashed when it hit the small shelf for the glass.

“Hmmm, this is where a little something to detect if there’s a glass to be filled can come in handy,” Neal teased them, “But not bad for a pair of beginners. When you get tired of playing in the water, there’s always electricity.”

“Is it safe?” Weaver asked.

“As safe as playing in water can be,” Neal assured her. “Did you know that there are tools to cut metal using just a little high pressured water? Electricity can be just as safe – or as dangerous, and they’ve already been getting some of the basics without knowing it.”

“We have?” Holly asked.

“While you can’t see electricity flowing in a wire, it acts a lot like water in a pipe,” Neal told her. “What does this do?” he asked, pointing at one of the valves on their project.

“It lets water go one way but not the other,” Quickdash told him.

“True, and we’d use a diode to do the same in electricity,” Neal replied. “And this?”

“It can hold a reserve that can be released quickly,” Holly answered.

“A capacitor, and this?”

“A little force can control a bigger one,” she replied.

“A transistor or gate,” he said with a smile. “So the same way you’d fill a reservoir before dumping it all at once, you could let a charge build before letting it flash a light – or shock your sister.”

“We don’t need them shocking each other!” Weaver pointed out.

“Perhaps not,” Neal agreed, “but better they know it could happen than to do it by accident.”

“So we could do all this with electricity?” Holly asked.

Neal shrugged. “A motor to drive your pump, there are several ways to watch the water level or detect the glass,” he admitted. “Though there is a reason for the old saying that electricity and water don’t mix.”

“I still have a few air and water projects lined up for them,” Tess told them, “If they do well with those, they’ll have a better grasp of the ideas when – or if – they move on to electricity.”

“Then carry on,” Neal said with a smile as he let Weaver lead them out of the bathroom.

“Thank you,” Weaver said once they were out in the corridor.

“What? For keeping them occupied? I promised to treat them as my own; that includes finding ways to keep them entertained and out of trouble – and out of your hair. How are you and the little one doing?”

“Just fine, thank you. I told you we still have a couple of weeks.”

“Just checking,” Neal said with a grin. “Any issues with any of other kids you think I should know about?”

“No, they’re pairing or grouping off for mutual support – though I think a couple of them are spending too much time on your ‘gun range’.”

Neal shrugged. “They didn’t like feeling helpless, not that I can blame them. Give them a few weeks to get it out of their systems.”

“And to help you determine the best shots?”

“There’s more to being ready to shoot someone than being able to hit a target, it’s a mindset thing.”

“Do you think some of them have that ‘mindset’?”

“They might, but I won’t be able to tell until they settle down a bit more.”

“Do you have the mindset?” she cautiously asked.

Neal turned to look her in the eyes, and she shuddered slightly as he said, “Oh yes, I have that mindset. You’ll find I have no problems with removing someone or something that I see as a threat to me or those under my care. I see nothing wrong with teaching others to be able to protect themselves and those they care for.”

“Sorry, that didn’t come out the way I wanted it to.”

Neal smirked. “You’re still trying to find your balance with me – as I am with the rest of you. We come from different walks of life and I know this is all new to you.”

“You asked to see us, Sir?” Alex asked as he and Cindy entered a small office just off the bridge.

“I have a little task for you,” Neal told him. “The way you were moving yesterday makes me think you’ve had more than a little fight training.”

“A bit,” Alex admitted. “We live in a rough neighborhood, and my folks have always believed it better to be able to bail their kids out of jail than the hospital – or the morgue.”

“So, you were holding back with me?” Neal asked with a raised eyebrow.

“It wasn’t that type of fight, Sir.”

“And I’m hoping I never have to place you into that type of fight, but that doesn’t mean I intend to let you grow stale while you’re here. We’ll talk about keeping you sharp, even a little honing of your skills if we can, but that will come later. Right now I have what I think is a more important and long-range project for you to consider.”

“Her, I assume?” Alex asked, glancing over at Cindy.

“If you will, and if she will and is able. Like I told you all after the adoption, so many parents waste so much of their time trying to childproof the world that they forget all about – or ignore altogether the world-proofing of their children. As you said, she’s green – easy pickings. I want you to help me world-proof her.” Cocking his head over at Cindy, he added, “If you’re interested of course.”

Cindy looked at each of their faces before simply nodding.

Alex nodded back, but he was thinking. “Shall we start with an hour or so every other day?” he suggested.

Neal nodded. “That sounds reasonable.” Looking towards Cindy he smiled. “Sorry, kiddo, but I see many bruises in your future.”

“And I hope to someday be properly returning them,” she replied with a grin at Alex.

“Anything in particular?” Alex asked.

“Start her with self-defense. If someone tries to grab her, I want her to be able to break free and escape. And I don’t mind at all if she has to cause them some damage in doing so.”

“I’d better have Tess find or make me a reinforced cup,” Alex muttered, earning a blush from Cindy.

“And some other padding as well as a practice dummy or three,” Neal agreed. “Get with Tess and she can help you two schedule where and when while I’ll leave the ‘how’ up to you. Dismissed.”

As the door closed behind them, Alex said, “You sure you’re up for this?”

“If you’re willing to help me, I’m willing to try,” Cindy replied.

Reaching around her to pull her into a side-by-side hug as they walked down the corridor, Alex said, “I’m willing, Sister mine, as are the rest of your new siblings.”

As the teens were finishing up their testing, Tess was assigning training and working shifts for each of them based on four-hour blocks of the ship’s twenty-four hour clock. Four hours of ‘school’, followed by a four-hour ‘break’ when they could eat, nap, or pretty much do whatever they wanted followed by another four hours of training of some type. After their second ‘work’ period, they were ‘free’ for the rest of the day, though most of them would seek out one of the bridges or workstations to learn more about the ship.

Alex and Cindy’s first ‘free’ time turned into their first training day, with Alex teaching her a few basic exercises before teaching her the better methods of taking a fall. It was then that the vixen discovered that not only could the cat morph knock her down any way he liked, he also gave killer backrubs that quickly alleviated most of the pain he had earlier inflicted on her.

“Still up for more?” Alex asked once they had cleaned up and dressed.

“Oh yes,” she replied. “I fully intend to return some of these bruises.”

“We’ll see,” Alex allowed with an approving smile. “While we’re on this level, let’s see how many doors Tess won’t let us in.”

They found several more gym-like rooms, though they were bare of anything to suggest their actual purpose.

As they checked the next door, Alex tapped his comm badge. “Question for you, Tess. While I’ve seen several little bots scurrying about, I haven’t seen any humanoid ones.”

“Oh, I have several, but I seldom use them on the ship.”

“Why not?”

“Have you ever heard of the ‘uncanny valley’ theory?” Tess asked.

“I think I’ve heard of it, but it was a while ago,” Alex admitted while Cindy just shook her head.

“It’s when something makes you uneasy because it’s acting too closely – but not quite human, or furry in your case. I’ve got a couple of biped and taur-shaped robots to handle rougher terrain than my wheeled bots can. As they are, they wouldn’t fool or scare anyone, but if I were to add some fur or change their movements to mimic furs, you’d be doing double-takes every time one went by.”

Alex looked thoughtful. “And with Neal the only living thing on the ship …”

“Yeah, I’d ‘uncanny valley-ed’ him a few too many times,” Tess admitted.

“Let me guess,” Alex said with a smile. “He started carrying that shotgun with him everywhere for a week?”

“More like an Earth month actually, which is why I’ll prepare and pad a couple of each for you and Cindy to work with, but I won’t be adding any fur or muzzles to them!”

“Speaking of what might drive our captain and adopted father crazy, what’s he up to right now?”

“Testing again the med bay’s stasis fields, just in case Weaver goes into labor early and something comes up that’s more than he and his little midwife book know what to do about.”

“Is he always this paranoid?” Cindy wondered.

“Was he paranoid to think it would take getting in your face as it was to get you to stop fearing him?” Tess countered.

“She’s got you there,” Alex admitted. “I was thinking weeks to just start getting you out of your shell, not a single day – nor that he’d use you as an example for the rest of us.” At her dirty look he added, “You weren’t the only one trying to go unnoticed, and he proved he watches the quiet-timid ones even more closely than he does the louder-bold ones.”

Bright Hope, evening …

The Pleasant Hills Country Club of Astra City on Bright Hope had a good-sized main meeting hall that was used for many events. Today a couple of members had requested the room for a special gathering.

Only two arrived alone; all the others came in pairs or larger groups.

While one kitten was kept by hir mother, the rest of the youngsters were herded over to the neighboring game rooms by some of the teenagers so the adults could have a little chat.

“I thank everyone for coming. While I know several of us have large enough homes for a get-together, I thought this might be a little easier to work with,” Chakat Shadowspirit told the group. “I’ll assume you’ve all seen the recording. I guess the first question should be if it’s upsetting to anyone?”

“I’m just surprised a certain fox isn’t screaming at us and our kids,” Beechwood’s mother, Éclair, said with a frown.

“While I did send the invitations out through that lawyer firm, this was personal invite, not something suggested or planned by the firm, so I didn’t see any need or reason to send him an invitation,” Shadowspirit explained.

“Smart move – though won’t he try to cause trouble once he finds out?” Éclair said with a little concern.

“Finds out what?” Shadowspirit chuckled, “That a group of people threw a party and he wasn’t invited?”

“So this is a party?” Graysocks’ mother, Essence wanted to know.

“Sure it is,” Sparrow, the foxtaur vixen mate to Chakat Sweettoes told her. “We’re celebrating at least a year and a half of someone else babysitting one of our kids for us! And if your teens are anything like my cub Dusk is, they’ll be coming home to find that we’ve grown a lot smarter than they currently think we are!”

“While I like that he’s promising to take care of them, I’d just as soon have them here with me,” the lone foxtaur tod quietly said.

“And I think that’s also a real good reason for this little party, to help offer support for those that need it, Longsock,” Shadowspirit said as shi came over to give him a hug.

“My first question to the group is: Does anyone have a problem with what he’s done? Adopting our kids and promising to look after them?” Shadowspirit’s mate, Goldenmist, asked the group.

“Until he brings them home, anyway,” one of the foxtaur vixens said.

“No, Honeycomb, that’s not what we saw him offer your daughter Redtail and the rest of them,” Goldenmist reminded her. “They are his and he is theirs until they disown him; there was no end date or place or time in either the verbal contract he gave them or in the adoption paperwork he filed through that law office. As we saw him tell our little Shadow, his only way out is to be a ‘bad’ father to them.”

“While this is not something I would have signed my son up for, I see more pros than cons now that Mike is stuck on this little trip through the Federation,” Cathleen Hampton admitted. “If nothing else, he should be a little more rounded out in his views of different people and places.”

“There’s that,” Morningmist’s mother, Sunpower agreed. “And if we try to fight this in any way, we’ll just be telling our cubs we don’t trust their judgment.”

“Our kids aren’t telling us everything,” Dusk’s father Chakat Sweettoes complained.

“Of course they aren’t, they don’t want us all in a panic,” Alex’s father, Fernando laughed. “But they certainly don’t know everything yet. Heck, as of that recording it’s only been a day for them, all they can have is a general feel of him and what he might be up to.”

“Enough of a feel for him that they were willing to asked to be adopted with the younger ones,” Roseberry’s mother, Fullmelon pointed out. “Does anyone have more on him than that law office offered us?”

“Not yet, but we’re still looking through Star Corps and Fleet records,” Quickwind told them. “One thing we have found was that the Folly has been captained by a Neal Foster for at least the last forty years, and we do know that Star Fleet trusts him with carrying just about anything in supply runs to their stations – and that at one point we know she boasted a crew that contained furs.”

“Well, we already knew he wasn’t anti-fur,” Fullmelon’s mate Rind said. “Do we know anything of his past crew? We might get more and better info from them.”

“We might also get more from his pet law firm,” Quickwind suggested. “I’ve seen what they gave the local cops about our kids and how they got there, and it’s actually less than they’ve already given us. If they’re filtering who sees what – then there’s got to be a reason.”

“Do you see this as bad thing?” Chakat Shadowspirit asked. “All the feelings I’m getting from our daughter are positive ones – and they’re getting more positive not less.”

“It’s just ‘strange’ the way we’re getting the information,” Shortdash explained. “Like this Folly coming close enough to a relay just hours after leaving Bright Hope on their way to Parakit? Never mind them hitting a second one? There shouldn’t be any relays on any of the routes they should be taking if he’s in a hurry.”

“So you’re saying they’re not following the standard routes, yet they’re going to make it to Parakit in eight days rather than the three weeks he’d originally planned on it taking?” Longsock speculated. “It does make me wonder what he had to keep himself occupied without the kids and if my mate wasn’t rushing him.”

“Another reason to badger that law office,” Shortdash muttered.

“Don’t you dare,” Fernando didn’t quite snap at hir. Glaring at the Star Corps representative, the cat morph said, “Up to this point, the captain and that law firm have gone out of their way to let us know how our kids are doing. You piss off one or both, and that flow of information might stop. I don’t know you or your daughter, but I do know my son. Unless I tell him otherwise, or that captain proves to be a danger to them in some way Alex intends to see just how far this ride will take him. Shir Goldenmist, is your daughter praying you’ll be there to rescue hir when they get to Parakit?”

Goldenmist snorted out a laugh. “Not just no but hell no, shi’s having way too much fun – even if shi started out the odd one out,” shi told them.


“If I was reading hir right – and I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years – Shadowcrest was feeling very depressed that first night, too young for the teens to consider an equal, too old for the younger two that I think Weaver was shepherding, so shi went to the only other odd one out on the ship, the captain of the Folly. My next ‘feeling’ of hir shi was not only calmed down but sound asleep with him. That’s not what I’d expect if he’s a danger to our kids.”

“Okay, okay,” Shortdash allowed. “We’ll badger them gently, but we’re missing more than we know about this human and his ship.”

Fernando gave hir a shrug before saying; “In a few more days we’ll all be able to talk to our kids live while they’re on Parakit. If anyone else wants to, I’ll be happy to split the costs of a full FTL comm call while they’re off the ship and on the planet.”

“Now that sounds like a good reason for throwing another party!” Shadowspirit quipped.

Day 006

The next morning while the teens and Shadowcrest were ‘working’ their morning shifts, Quickdash and Holly had insisted on starting on electricity, so Tess had led them to a different and already well-used looking room. Several workbenches went around the room, drawers and multi-sized boxes filled a row of cabinets across one wall.

Electromagnets and transformers were made (and Holly discovered just how big a spark collapsing a magnetic field across a coil could generate!) as well as several ways of making light. The next day was transistors and relays as they learned to make small actions cause greater reactions.

Weaver would soon find herself getting little ‘gifts’ that they made as they quickly learned; a blinking light set, a working clock, and something they called a Theremin that made tones that changed pitch and volume depending on where she waved her arms around it.

They might have made more, but another little interruption surfaced …

Day 007

A mere two days from port, their newest member decided to make an early appearance, this leading some to think that the captain just hadn’t studied hard enough.


Continued in PART 2.

Copyright © 2016 Allen Fesler – Redbear1158@hotmail.com

Chakat universe is the creation of Bernard Doove (a.k.a Chakat Goldfur) and is used with his permission.


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