"Bet ya I can get the closest!" a youthful voice proclaimed.
"No, I can get closer!" another protested.
An only slightly older sounding voice spoke up, "Just remember that you lose if they spot you, so go in slow and easy."
"We know," one of the younger ones griped as they each changed the setting on the controls in front of them.
From what had been several lines running nearly parallel to each other, two lines now shifted to close on a third that didn’t yet know that they were now part of someone else’s game …
Phoenix currently coasted along at a small fraction of light speed on her way sunward towards the planet Carswell. Carswell’s sun was large but dim, placing the sun’s ‘habitable zone’ planets well within the sun’s gravity well and thus it kept ships from getting too close to Carswell while still in warp. This forced several extra hours of travel time for those trying to enter or leave the system.
As had become standard, downtime meant cross-training time for most of the on-shift crew as they waited to be needed at their primary tasks again. At this time, Phoenix’s chief engineer, R’Murran – a Caitian male, was at the bridge controls as he and his engineering second, Presaith – a thirteen year old Faleshkarti herm, were simulating a docking maneuver on a slowly tumbling ship. Commander Bethany Oakwood, a female fox morph and Phoenix’s first officer, was controlling the simulation from another console as another Faleshkarti youth and a Stellar Foxtaur were going over the computer-enhanced sensor logs.
"See, there it is again, Loander," Ceres told the Faleshkarti. "The system just started picking up these ghosts once we entered this system."
"Well it’s not the software; I’ve been over it twice now, and both primary and backup computers are giving us the same answers. Is it possible the sensors themselves have become damaged?" Loander asked the Stellar Foxtaur.
"I’d say maybe, except then there should be other problems showing up," Ceres admitted.
"I would have to agree," Madeline said from a nearby speaker. "Everything else looks good, but something external is causing those distortions."
"Problems?" Bethany asked when she noticed that Loander had started a diagnostic test on their backup systems.
"Sensor ‘ghosts’, Commander," Loander told her. "We weren’t seeing them until we reached this system."
"Humph," R’Murran half grunted. "Madeline? Send your raw data to my console, if you would please. Sometimes ghosts aren’t," he said giving the commander a look.
"True," Bethany agreed, "though we’re close enough to Carswell to call for help if this was an attack of some kind."
"Should I move us away from them?" Presaith asked as shi cleared the simulation from hir board and brought up the navigation controls.
"No!" Ceres and Bethany both half shouted almost simultaneously. They grinned at each other as Ceres explained, "Any departure from what we’d normally do at this point could tell them they’ve been spotted."
"So we pretend we don’t see anything out there?" Presaith asked in surprise.
"We don’t know who might be out there watching or why, so we don’t give them reason to think we’re on to them," Bethany told hir.
"I think I found something," Madeline reported, "One of my inspection cameras seems to have caught whatever it is."
"Hmmm, I think I might know the who," R’Murran said as he sent the image to the commander’s console. "Ever seen one of these before?" he asked her.
"Damn," she quietly muttered at the picture Madeline’s inspection camera had taken before tapping in a command. "Captain to the bridge – at your convenience, sir."
R’Murran nodded. "Thought so. ’Fleet had us working from images and sensor readings, trying to figure out how he made them and what their full potential might be."
"Who?" Loander asked for the others.
"Someone we really don’t want to run afoul of," Bethany sourly said as the hatch opened and Captain Martin Yote stepped in.
"Run afoul of whom?" the coyote morph asked as he leaned over Bethany to look at her display. He could tell whatever it was it concerned her when she didn’t make a fuss over him being so close. Their camera had caught what looked like a small warp engine nacelle, but minus the ship it should have been attached to. There were other differences, such as what looked like a series of sensor arrays down its length.
"What have you heard of a ship named Folly or her Captain Foster?" Bethany asked, cocking her head at him as she brought up the ghost readings that had led to them finding the probe running alongside Phoenix.
Yote snorted. "My dad warned me about him. ‘Piss him off and you might as well drop your ship into the sun’ he told me."
"Colorful," Bethany agreed. "Even ’Fleet has to watch themselves around him. We know he’s helped a few times; if he’s hurt anyone he hasn’t left any witnesses."
"And that?" her captain asked.
"Is what R’Murran and I think is one of his probes."
"Why would it be following us?"
"If I was still in Star Fleet, I’d guess that probe was testing our sensors."
"While this was a Star Corps ship at one point, there’s no way they’d mistake us for ’Fleet," Yote pointed out.
R’Murran huffed lightly before saying, "’Fleet thinks he carries on anti-pirate patrols – though his ship and probes appear to be unarmed."
Bethany snorted. "That probe doesn’t need a weapon, it is a weapon."
"Drag its warp bubble across another ship; or simply ram it," R’Murran agreed.
"Are we at risk?" Yote asked as R’Murran sent more tactical information to their screen.
"As the commander pointed out before you came in, we’re too close to Carswell for the probe to do something without it being noticed. Hardly the ‘out of sight’ the Folly and her captain are reported to prefer," his engineer informed him.
"So, what do you suggest we do about that probe?"
"Well," R’Murran said with a grin, "in ’Fleet we’d just bounce a scan pulse or comm laser off it. A little ‘Yeah, we see you, now go away’."
Yote looked thoughtful for a moment before he grinned and said, "Do it. Bounce a comm laser off it."
"As you said, ‘Yeah, we see you, now buzz off’."
"Sent," R’Murran said, only to let out a laugh a minute later. "I sent them a text message, but the probe is now sending us an audio one in return!" he told them as he directed the reply to the speakers.
"Sorry! We was just playin’!" protested the voice, that of a very young feline. In the background they heard another young voice saying ‘Hey! You’re not suppose to be talking to them!’ before the audio suddenly cut off.
"That was not what we’d normally hear from the Folly," R’Murran remarked as Yote and Bethany exchanged bemused looks.
Madeline’s image nodded as she said, "I picked up a third person, young and giggling in the background. Somehow I’m finding it hard to think of this as an attack."
"Open an audio channel, please," Yote said. At Bethany’s nod he said, "This is Captain Yote of the Phoenix. Let me speak to your captain, please."
There was silence for almost a minute before the reply came back. "It’ll be just a minute," said the young voice from before, "Really, we didn’t mean nothin’," it pleaded a little quieter while yet another voice was calling out ‘Mom!’ in the background.
Presaith and Loander both giggled as the older members of the crew smiled or smirked. Whoever was controlling the probe, it sounded like a family-run ship, and not one where the cubs were taught to be wary of everyone they met.
Since the other ship hadn’t muted or dropped their audio connection, they heard ‘mom’ before she knew they were listening in. ‘Ok, what did you brats get into this time?’ a much older voice growled.
"We was just testin’ them like you do," said one of the younger voices, while another was saying, "We didn’t mean to …" while a slightly older voice responded with, "I didn’t do nothing," before they were all cut off by ‘mom’.
"You were in charge – which means you allowed them to do whatever it is we’re talking about. Which is?"
Silence reigned on both ships as ‘mom’ must have been looking over something. A little softer she said, "There was no reason to take either of your unshielded probes in that close; the other two had already proven their sensors aren’t up to our standards, and that they’re probably running some of that hacked software."
The looks Yote and Bethany were now exchanging were not happy ones as R’Murran bent over his console muttering.
"And you little idiots went and left the comm on!" they suddenly heard mom chuckle when she finally noticed the still active communications panel. A moment later and much closer to a pick up, they heard, "Maverick to Phoenix – you guys still there?" the bandwidth increased as a video channel was added to what the probe was already sending them.
As soon as Madeline keyed the video to the main screen, they found a Rakshani female grinning down at them; her fur was almost silver with white and light gray stripes. Sitting down in his captain’s chair, Yote took a moment to compose himself before nodding at Bethany to send his image in reply.
"This is Captain Yote of the Phoenix; whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?" he politely asked.
"You mean the pleasure of finding that things are able to get closer than you thought?" she replied with a smirk. "I am Captain Frosty ap Rawhen na Pridefang of the Maverick. Normally we’d wait until both ships are in dock to chat, but my unruly cubs have forced the issue upon us."
"We heard something that hinted that you had probes closer than the one we spotted?"
"Close enough that one of them was able to catch your inspection camera turning to look at the one you did spot," Frosty agreed. "Suggest you look ‘up’," she added with another grin.
R’Murran switched feeds and instantly found another probe sitting directly ‘above’ them, a mere twenty meters beyond where their warp bubble would form had Phoenix been able to properly form one that deep in a gravity well.
"Permission to go active?" he asked. At Yote’s nod he sent an active sensor pulse at the probe, only to get no return from it at all. "What the hell?" he muttered, "Hologram?"
"No," Frosty assured him with another toothy grin, "it’s real; it’s your sensors that are the issue." Appearing to look back at Yote, she added, "Rumor control tells me you have a pair of Faleshkarti youths onboard, and that one of them is a software witch?"
Loander stepped into range of the camera. "I am Loander."
"I have heard good things about you Faleshkarti; I’ll bet I’ll hear even better after they find a cure for you," the Rakshani softly told hir. "In the meantime, I’m sending you a series of code strings to check against your sensor suite software. A couple of manufacturers got hacked and some code was added to their updates. The corrupted code lets anyone broadcasting the right signal hide in plain sight – as our probe is doing to you right now."
The Faleshkarti youth sat down at hir station and began inspecting the message that had just come in. Not finding any hidden tricks in it, shi started running a scan against the backup systems. The others watched hir work quietly for a minute before hir head came up. "We have strings U2 and SR71," shi stated.
"Nasty, the both of them," Frosty agreed. "Sending you both a bug-free upgraded version as well as the steps to kill it in your own system."
"Why would you be doing us such a favor?" Yote asked.
"Ha, I was wondering when you’d start worrying about getting something that sounded too good to be true."
"Well, you are the competition …"
"Oh, little pup, if only you knew," Frosty openly teased him. "I and some of my friends have been keeping our eyes on you and your little ship and crew for a while now."
"Indeed," Frosty growled. "For example, when your father pulled some strings to get you a cargo after a certain mouse heist, our sister ship, Good Deal, had to go without for a while."
"I didn’t know …"
Grinning again, she said, "No reason you would have, Captain; it was neither your choice nor decision to make. Sharptongue isn’t one known for being played the fool, and she quickly discovered the why of the shipment changes. Since cause and effect revolved around one little mouse and her father, we were happy to show our displeasure at the kidnapping and attempt to run your little Phoenix into the ground."
"Meaning?" Bethany half demanded.
"Meaning, Commander Oakwood, that the senior Windsor is finding it much harder to get things shipped, so hard in fact that he might soon be begging you guys to take his cargo."
"There’s no way," Yote choked out as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.
"Probably not," she agreed, "but he’s having to settle for much less reputable shippers than he’s used to dealing with. Like stepping across a picket line, some will do anything for money, while others won’t for principle."
"And what principle would that be?" Bethany asked with a frown.
Frosty gave her a wink before saying, "The same type of principle that is giving a certain tod officer in ’Fleet a slight problem in finding his next command. It seems he bragged where the wrong ears could hear him, and a little message was sent to ’Fleet. It was something along the lines that if people like that if that tod was allowed to run over other people with ’Fleet’s blessing, then certain resources that ’Fleet has become accustomed to could be withheld."
Bethany shook her head. "Not even that Captain Foster could force Star Fleet to do what he wants."
Frosty shrugged. "Depends on the type of force applied. There was more than enough evidence showing that dirty tricks were used to drum you out of the service, Commander. And over a quarter of the antimatter ’Fleet now uses comes from a certain private sector that can cut them off with a word. With shippers it’s closer to a third, so running counter to this supplier can mean paying a lot more for your fuel."
"So you’re saying you could crush me," Yote slowly said.
"Maybe, but only if I could get the others to agree that you needed to be stepped on. But I see no need, you’re too little to bother with!" she laughed at him.
"So why are you?" Presaith demanded into the new silence on the bridge. The Faleshkarti youth moved to stand next to Yote as shi said, "You test and spy on us, you offer help and threats – why are you bothering with us?"
"YES!" Frosty laughed, "Finally, why would I bother with you? Well, your captain has built up a good team and a very promising ship. We’ve even given him a few chances at dealing dirty to make credits at someone else’s expense, and he refused to take the bait. Then on your last stop at Gateway station, he agreed to take a shipment for Night Hawk and not only didn’t he gouge them – your Captain Yote even offered up some tips on cargo heading the way they needed to go!"
"You want Phoenix in your group," Presaith accused.
"It would be nice," Frosty admitted. "We could use a ship like yours. But all those in this group are free agents; other than a few basic rules, no one tells you what to do."
"Rules?" Bethany growled.
"Yeah, very basic rules, so basic that even old man Foster could follow them."
"He didn’t make them?" Bethany asked surprise.
Frosty grinned at her. "Not the type of rules you may be thinking, methinks. We have a couple of lists. One is of people, groups or ships that we don’t deal with. The other is a warning list of who has dealt dirt in the past and what to watch out for."
"I’ll have to think about it," Yote said.
"Take all the time you need," Frosty agreed. "In the meantime, I’m sending you those lists. Follow them or not, at your own risk, of course," she said with a toothy grin as her image disappeared from the screen.
"At your own risk? I don’t like the sound of that," Presaith stated.
"Not following it means we could be working with people even Foster’s group wouldn’t risk dealing with," Bethany pointed out. "And I was on a couple of cruises where we were refueled by remote automated stations, I wonder if those belonged to Foster …"
"Wouldn’t ’Fleet just go in a take what they want?" Yote wondered.
"I think someone might have tried it, once," R’Murran muttered as he looked at the list Frosty had sent them. "Rumors say a ’Fleet captain pissed Foster off and Foster refused to refuel them. They then reportedly followed him out to one of his stations and then tried to steal from it."
"I don’t remember hearing of that one," Bethany commented.
"Rumors say a destroyer came in with most of its hull ‘sandblasted’ away. The official story was they went unshielded through a dusty system far too fast, but scuttlebutt says the damage looked more like it had tried to fly through a cloud of antimatter."
"So much for ‘unarmed’ stations."
"Can’t really blame him – you don’t want him giving pirates free fuel either. Huh! Windsor’s company is on their list for dirty tricks … Ha! Yote is too!"
"What?" Yote said in surprise.
"Just a minor note. Says here he plays favors; also says he will then try to make up for it if he can."
"Frosty did say we got some of the cargo that was bound for Good Deal," Bethany pointed out, "though she didn’t sound too upset about it …"
"What now?" Loander asked. "Do I patch our software or just load theirs?"
"Can you confirm it doesn’t do more than she said it did?" Bethany asked in return.
"The patches appear to do just what she said they do, but the software has more in it than I can figure out without more time."
"Just the patch then," Yote agreed. "While they seem friendly enough, there’s no reason to take unnecessary risks with our systems."
"We have a little time – deceleration in thirty, station-docking twenty after that," Ceres reminded them.
Madeline’s image nodded. "Plenty of time then for me to use my extra systems to simulate our sensor systems and see if there are any tricks in their software."
"Is that safe for you to do?" Yote asked.
"Completely safe, Captain. I can isolate the subsystems and watch it run through another layer of interfaces. Think of it this way – I’ll be doing the equivalent of you looking at the sun through one of our cameras – and the screen has been preset to not get bright enough to hurt your eyes."
"So long as you’re taking precautions," he acknowledged.
Loander soon had their backup systems cleared of the ‘hacks’, and they could now see the other probes clearly, as well as the Maverick, which had been trailing a ways behind them.
Once docked, there were more chores to be done as Phoenix was placed in the queue for unloading. While some were tasked with moving the cargo, others were in charge of the kids.
A surprise awaited Phoenix’s youths when they left the shipping docks for the station’s main concourse. A teenage Rakshani female smiled when she saw them coming, while the younger Rakshani male and a pair of chakat youths didn’t seem quite as pleased.
"You guys from the Phoenix?" the teen asked.
Penny had been leading the group and cautiously nodded as a very pregnant Shintaro moved to stand beside her.
"Excellent! I am Greeneyes, and these are Graytail, Starburst and Renniky. As they managed to bother your captain and crew, our captain has decided that they would make up for it by treating you guys to the ice-cream parlor in the shopping section."
"And how do we know this isn’t a prank or some type of trap you’re setting for us?" Penny asked, having heard a bit of what had happened on the bridge.
Greeneyes shrugged. "I picked the parlor because it would be out in the open and neutral, neither group having an advantage."
Penny cocked her head a little and asked, "Do you always see everything as challenge and challenger?"
Greeneyes laughed. "When you deal with many different species and the many different customs, you learn to not look too overbearing – but not appear to be a rollover either."
"I think you mean a pushover, but I get your drift," Penny admitted. "And if our captains don’t see eye to eye?"
"Doesn’t matter," Greeneyes assured her, "This is just a ‘getting to know you’ thing." She grinned even bigger before adding, "Though if this were an attack, you really should expect it to be a multi-prong one."
Penny frowned as she pulled out her comm. "Lane to Phoenix, I’ve got the kids, who’s unaccounted for?"
"Hotfoot’s gone shopping, everyone else is either unloading or still onboard," Madeline told her. "Is there a problem?"
"Check on hir, now."
"Shi’s with Sergio, Maverick’s chef," Greeneyes cheerfully told her. "Ask them to swing by when they’re done shopping."
"Hey, Penny! What’s up?" Hotfoot’s voice asked a moment later.
"Watch out for Sergio, he’s from Maverick," Penny replied.
"So he admitted when we first met. He also told me Maverick’s cubs and their keeper would be treating you guys to ice-cream. We’ll see you there later," Hotfoot laughed before disconnecting.
Penny was still frowning up at the much larger – and still grinning – Greeneyes when her comm chirped. "Yote to Penny Lane," it said.
"Yes, Captain?" Penny replied.
"Madeline told me you’d felt the need to call in to check on things. Maverick’s captain is with me in my dayroom, and she has advised me that her crew would be looking up ours. An offer of being treated to ice-cream sounds safe enough, and we will be joining you there in a little while."
"Yes, Captain," Penny said again, this time with a lot less stress.
The combined group of youths and keepers didn’t quite make it to the ice-cream parlor though – the spicy aromas from a restaurant two doors down detoured them. Greeneyes informed someone named Spencer while Penny updated Madeline.
Sergio and Hotfoot must have been told of the change in venue, as they were there just a little later. Sergio turned out to be a rather large wolf morph; the rusty coloring in his fur suggested some possible fox in his ancestry. Wolf and chakat placed their orders and then sat at a table a little away from the others, their conversation hardly impacted by outside influences.
"Hey, Boss! I’m defecting!" Sergio called out a little later as Frosty and Yote came in with most of the rest of their two crews behind them.
"Like hell," Frosty growled back, "I’m not going back to eating my own cooking!"
"Ha," he scoffed, "I’ll wait until I’m sure you guys won’t poison yourselves, but I do want to spend some leave time in this kitten’s kitchen."
"Yote here will think I sent you to spy on him," Frosty pointed out.
"Na, his chakats would see through that. The only things I want to spy on are Hotfoot’s cooking skills. Hell, I’ll pay full passenger rates for a cabin if I have to."
"Between you and them then," Frosty grudgingly agreed. "After you train your replacement!"
"Ha, I’ll make sure the replicators have plenty of healthy choices," he countered.
Frosty just shook her head. "Do you have this type of trouble with your crew?" she asked Yote.
The coyote morph just chuckled before replying. "We aren’t such an old ship that my crew has had time to become jaded," he pointed out.
"Hmmm, we sometimes trade crews to better train them," she admitted. "But only with ships that can handle the surprises that can come with new deckhands."
Yote nodded. "You caught us doing some cross training when your probes started ghosting our sensors."
Frosty grinned. "It’s always interesting to see how a ship will react when they realize the Zulus are there," she admitted. "My favorites are the random pirates that think they’ve been caught out. I’ve had three of them roll out their ‘concealed’ guns and fire – while in clear view of a ’Fleet base no less!"
Yote shook his head. "So you guys also flush out game for ’Fleet to hunt?"
"It’s something of a hobby," the large Rakshani said with a grin. "With Neal and his Folly out visiting his colonies, we have to show the pirates it’s still not safe to come out and play."
"I’ve heard rumors that Folly now has armed probes," Bethany commented with a side look at Frosty.
Looking down at the smaller gray fox morph, Frosty placed a finger along side her muzzle before flicking it away. "His one ship is carrying over half a million colonists, it damn well better be ready to protect them," she stated. "Though that doesn’t mean he took all the good stuff with him," she added with a sly grin.
"Are you saying you’re armed?" Yote said mildly. He figured they were already in deep water; time to sink or swim.
"A few things we don’t bring into port," Frosty admitted. "‘Fleet is spread too thin to cover or patrol what is needed." She snorted lightly before adding, "They’ve been grateful the couple times they’ve found us there to back them up."
"May I ask what type of weapons?" Bethany asked.
"You saw one of our older probes," Frosty told them. "The new baby Zulus are three quarters the size and have a pair of fighter based phasers – though that’s just the start. Neal also has a manned Zulu with transporter capability. As well as arming it too, it has twelve hard points that can either mount the baby Zulus or fuel and cargo containers."
"And the little ones can be used as remote guns or missiles?" Bethany suggested.
"Just so," the Rakshani agreed. "Their sensors are still just as sensitive as the originals, so they’re great for the hunt or a search and rescue."
"To give you a wider envelope, I thought that’s what I saw once we could properly see them," R’Murran commented.
Frosty nodded. "We do wide scans where we can, and we hide the Zulus if they might scare or offend the locals."
"And ’Fleet?" Bethany asked with a smirk.
"Some members of ’Fleet get pissy about us patrolling their space," Frosty agreed, "but there are a lot of others that are glad we do it. Even Nightwatch has been asking us to look into a few things – don’t try giving me that look, Commander! You of all people should know that groups hunting shadows will eventually run into each other," Frosty exclaimed at the astonished look Bethany was giving her.
"Okay you two … just what is Nightwatch?" Yote asked.
"A group that among other things watches for strange comings and goings, so of course Folly and her friends have attracted their attention on numerous occasions," Frosty told him, ignoring Bethany. "’Fleet likes to think Nightwatch is a big secret, but we’ve picked up their activity often enough that they had to ‘fess up’." Looking Bethany in the eye, she added, "Folly came up on what looked like two pirates fighting over a kill. Imagine the Nightwatch ship’s surprise when Neal not only went after the real pirates, he then offered them aid."
"He already knew," Bethany stated for her.
"Just so. Knowing the players helps keep you from hurting the wrong team."
"And what do you know about us?" she demanded.
"Quite a bit actually," Frosty admitted. "Otherwise we wouldn’t be bothering with you," she added with a grin. "Phoenix is a solid little ship and pretty well run from what we can tell. Others of our group liked what they saw and suggested that you joining our team would be beneficial to all parties. As one of the oldest ships in the group, Maverick was appointed to make the offer."
"That, and we were the closest," they could all hear Sergio telling Hotfoot from the neighboring table. "They also thought the practice would be good for our still wet-behind-the-ears captain."
"Sergio!" Frosty snarled as her ears folded back in rage and embarrassment.
"You’re not such an old hand as to be putting on such airs, Captain. Your uncle requested we keep you from getting too swollen a head with your new position," he reminded her with a cheeky grin.
"How long have you been a captain?" Yote asked.
"Six Earth months," Frosty admitted.
Yote chuckled. "And most of your crew has more time and experience than you do? I can relate; my ex-Fleet people have had to point things out to me on several occasions," he said.
"She’s a good kid – just needs a little more seasoning," Sergio said with a grin at the sour look his captain was giving him.
"Do you always dress down your superiors in public?" Bethany asked, frowning slightly.
Sergio shrugged. "It was that, and let her make even more of a fool of herself when you did find out, or say ‘excuse me’ – grab her by the ear and drag her around the corner to have a couple words. If it had been your captain, would you have let it ride?" he countered.
Yote frowned as he said, "There’s a couple of looks and words they like to use to ‘warn’ me that I’m about to make a major blunder – I find I ignore them at my own peril."
Presaith nodded from where shi had joined Penny and the kids from both ships. "I saw the wolf try to get his captain’s attention before he butted in. I think this might be another ‘showing of faith’ in that they’re willing to correct her in front of us."
R’Murran chuckled, "Like me teasing you in front of the others when you’ve missed something?"
"Just like that," shi agreed. "It’s in house or in the family. They think they know us well enough to trust us with their family business."
"So …" Penny said, looking slyly at Greeneyes, "what’s the family rate for things?"
Greeneyes grinned back. "Such as?" she countered.
"Listening to the kids, it sounds like yours have a few more toys … is there a sharing program?"
"It’s not that so much as a ‘hand-me-down’ program," Greeneyes laughed. "It seems that we’ve managed to stagger the generations on most of the ships so that while the cubs on one ship are outgrowing something, another ship has cubs just getting old enough to be interested in it."
"So we’d be depriving some other ship’s cubs?" Penny asked.
"Not really, as the cubs aren’t always interested in the same things. Depending on who wants what, we may be glad you’re taking it off our hands," she assured the mouse.
"Hmmm, something to think about," Penny said with a grin towards her charges.
"That can also include tech and hardware," Sergio said as he looked over at Presaith and R’Murran. "Old man Foster hates losing friends, so he’s a strong believer in everyone running the best they can afford."
"Well, as a fairly new ship, affording new toys takes a little time," Yote admitted.
"Some just cost you a little time and practice," Frosty assured him. "Like that software update I sent you. It can run crosschecks between your primary and backup sensor computers – or it can tie them together for a much more sensitive system."
"And you just gave it to us?" Bethany said.
"It’s too good a deal," she stated, "Why are you doing this?"
Frosty let out a small sigh, "Honestly?" At Bethany’s nod she gave them a sheepish grin as she said, "Neal’s latest colony push pulled far more ships and personnel than even he had anticipated. You’ve already helped us move things a couple times without you knowing it, and it also didn’t hurt when we discovered how you’ve dealt with the strays you’ve come across," she said, looking over at Penny and Shintaro. "In case you hadn’t heard, Old Man Foster picked up a few strays of his own his last trip through the Federation. Let’s just say we all thought it might be time to offer you some of the benefits that come with being a part of us.
"Such as?" Yote wondered.
"Such as what cargoes we’ve seen going where at what rates, and where you can refuel on the cheap," Frosty told him.
"What extra toys or gear the others in the group might be willing to part with, a list of what they might be interested in return," Sergio added.
"So you do pay for fuel?" R’Murran asked.
"Oh, yes – but far less than the going rates," Frosty assured them. "Neal uses the extra credits from the group to pay for things he can’t trade for – like that software we sent you."
"Another minor advantage is ready access to The Tinker," a new voice said as a tall arctic wolf walked towards their table with a loaded plate. As he sat down he added, "Schedule your major refits when and where they are to get our engineering experts Arcs and Sparks working with you."
Frosty smirked. "This is Spencer, my first officer, second pilot and comm specialist."
"I thought The Tinker was one of Foster’s ships," Bethany said.
"He may have laid out a little capital to get them started, but Arcs and Sparks own it outright," Frosty assured her with a grin. "Though he does send a lot of work their way."
"He didn’t on that little upgrade he did to Good Deal; word has it he has a couple new tech witches he’s training in the ‘Foster school of engineering’," Spencer told her. "Give them another decade or two, and I’ll bet his newest pair will be setting up their own shop."
"You’ve been holding out on the rest of us?" Frosty demanded, grinning, "Give!"
Taking a drink to wash down his food, Spencer said, "Neal’s got a pair of nine-year-olds in training as both engineering and pilots. I have it on very good Intel that Pegasus’s engineers coined the handle ‘Terror Twins’ for them. They and one of Sharptongue’s daughters did most of Good Deal’s upgrade. In the two weeks they were at Chakona, Starbase 2 fined Folly for those two racing through their shipping lanes, they performed a ship rescue using one of Neal’s heavy shuttles, and they were in control of Gwen when Starbase 2 later got a sample of just how low into a gravity well she can use her warp systems for high sub-light maneuvers."
"Ha! Bet ’Fleet didn’t like that!" Frosty laughed.
Spencer shrugged. "Neal probably did it to wake them up a bit before he left; if he can do it, so might others …"
"Just how low can he go?" R’Murran half demanded.
"With what I heard about Gwen? Warp in maybe half again closer than you did, sub-light maneuvers all the way down to this station," Spencer told him with a grin. "Folly, we don’t really know for sure; Neal holds his cards close to his chest on that info."
"Wow," was all Bethany had to say, while Yote looked interested.
"What can Maverick do?" he asked.
Frosty smiled before saying, "A bit better than your Phoenix, but we’re quite a bit larger too. And like Neal, we don’t show all of our tricks to ’Fleet."
"The better to surprise a problem that thinks you’re in too deep to escape," R’Murran agreed. "Rumors also said they’re getting better speed and economy out of older ships?" he hinted with a grin.
"In their spare time, Arcs and Sparks also refurbish the stuff they pull from those refits," Spencer told him. "Which means we paid the cost of refurbishing for a trio of class three warp cores – whose numbers can best the ones you’d get from a set of fresh-out-of-the-box class fives that ’Fleet pays way too much for," he said with a grin.
"Someone close Presaith’s muzzle and wipe R’Murran’s chin – he’s actually drooling over there!" Penny laughed.
Yote was a little surprised to find that his mouth had been hanging open as well. He closed it gently and carefully ignored the snap of a set of jaws beside him – safer he not look over at his second in command until she’d had more time to compose herself. Taking a sip of his drink to give himself a minute to think, he glanced around. Other than Frosty’s toothy grin, which he was now pretty sure held more humor than malice; the rest of her crew was cool and collected, just another day to them. His crew though was another story.
He caught a feeling and looked over at Chakat Burningbright. Shi smiled and nodded when he finally realized that shi had been gently trying to get his attention for a while now. Knowing he was now watching, shi looked at each of Maverick’s crew before looking back at him and nodding. He nodded in return for shi had just told him shi felt no deceit from the others; they believed in what they were saying.
R’Murran was saying, "I’ve got Presaith fairly well trained, perhaps when your cook is visiting Phoenix I could … or not!" he hastily added when he saw the looks his captain and first officer were now giving him.
Frosty appeared to be ignoring the interplay as she said, "Depending on what type of upgrades your captain goes for, there’s on and offsite training. If needed, this includes help setting up an advanced holosuite to give you some ‘hands-on training’ even before you get the gear."
Yote thought he heard a snort beside him, but it might have been his imagination, that and the suddenly louder talking from the kids’ table at the word that there might be holosuite programs to trade, as well as something called an alterative Thursday?
Frosty’s grin widened – they were hooked, as Neal would say. Had this been real fishing she’d just give a little yank to set the hook, but that wouldn’t work here. While well-baited, her hook had no barb; it wasn’t even really a hook as it couldn’t get caught in the ‘fish’s’ mouth – the moment her catch opened their mouth to protest they were free. The trick here was making her catch actually want to follow her line and leap into her boat on their own accord; trying to force them could cause her to lose them entirely. She said nothing, letting the others ask and answer questions. Turning, she found one of the Phoenix’s chakats looking hard at her, a raised eyebrow at hir and had hir return a rueful grin and headshake. Giving hir a wink in return, she turned back to Yote. The poor coyote morph looked like he really just wanted to go someplace quiet and sort things out.
"For those who haven’t stuffed themselves too much, there’s still ice cream," Frosty reminded them all as she got up. Looking down at Yote she added, "You can take all the time you need to decide. Yea or nay, it was nice meeting you and your crew, Captain."
Yote stood as well before saying, "And you and yours, Captain."
Giving him a wink, Frosty left, quickly followed by the youngsters from both ships.
Penny got up to follow, but Yote waved her down. "Finish your meal; I think they’ll be safe enough. Loander and Presaith went with them," he told her. He also tried to wave down Shintaro, but the twin-tailed fox just gave him a smile as shi followed the kids out with a rub of hir swollen belly.
"I’ve got an ear on them," Spencer assured them. "Never mind that the captain takes her crew’s safety very seriously."
"That looked like a rather heavy-duty stunner," Bethany commented.
"Yeah, that’s what it looks like," Spencer agreed with a grin.
"It’s more?" she demanded.
Spencer smiled at her as he said, "When you’re ‘in’, we can then discuss the different methods we use to protect our crews and ships."
Bethany looked like she had a hot retort ready, but Yote held up his hand as he said, "No more than we would give away our secrets."
"Precisely," Spencer agreed as he also got up, as did the rest of Maverick’s crew. "We’ll leave you to get your crew’s assessment of us," he said as they filed out.
"Do you think they left behind a bug?" Penny asked once they were ‘alone’.
"No," Burningbright told her. "To do so and then get caught would destroy what trust we do have in them."
"So do we trust them?" Penny asked.
"I think we do," Yote admitted. "I think we would have heard of any strong-arming to force others to join."
R’Murran chuckled, "’Fleet’s been trying for years to get trusted enough to get someone in Foster’s little group."
"It’ll never happen," M’Anissa'tk – R’Murran’s Secondwife, told them. "While they might be able to put their trust in someone in Star Fleet, they can never trust that someone higher up the chain of command won’t order them to then abuse that trust."
"And yet they’re just handing it to us," Yote pointed out.
"Only after testing us," Bethany reminded him. "I guess it’s just lucky you didn’t bite on some of those things that were offered."
"Some of the things I saw offered weren’t things I could then be proud of doing," Yote told her. "That type of person might also like to abuse their relationships with their crew …"
"Then I for one am glad we have you for a skipper and not some ass like the one Bethany has mentioned," Penny stated.
"Who is on their list too, it seems," R’Murran commented. "I’m surprised the tod hasn’t tried to make the commander here ‘get them off his back’ as it were."
"He may have tried," Bethany admitted. "I’d asked Madeline to simply delete anything he sent me."
Madeline ‘cleared her throat’ through Yote’s comm badge before saying, "I detect no bugs, and I have moved the almost weekly demands from that tod to a secure folder on the off chance he threatens the Commander or those she cares for."
"From sound of tod, he would try other ways to force you – or himself come," Anastasiya said. The Amur Tiger rubbed hir belly as hir cub kicked before shi frowned and added, "Could this be more Foster group playing in background?"
"Why would they have?" Bethany countered.
"What if you’re not the only one that tod did a number on – and they were already watching him when he pulled that number on you?" Penny asked.
"But this sounds like they hit tod and tod’s power base, so helping someone on shit list put you in same bucket," Anastasiya pointed out. "He may not be able to bother commander because they fear wrong side of Foster’s group."
"So, will we end up on their bad side if we don’t join?" Hotfoot asked.
"No," Burningbright told hir lifemate. "Their offer is freely given; the only strings involved will be those we ask to be tied with."
M’Rarrtikar – R’Murran’s Firstwife and ship’s Purser – grinned as she said, "If the benefits are even half of what they claim, we can easily handle the upgrades, maintenance, and the bonuses you keep hoping to hand out …"
"You’re telling me I should take it," Yote said.
"I’m saying it looks very appealing, but the decision falls on you, Captain," she replied.
"To think on," Yote agreed. "Well, shall we see if they left any ice cream for the rest of us?"
It was late into the ship’s night, but Yote was still at his desk. As a going away present, Frosty had handed him a number of memory chits. While some were for his engineers, he had several that only he could decide on. He was just finishing one when the next command brought up a link that said, ‘Had enough yet?’ Curious, he clicked it.
Greetings Captain Yote. We hope Frosty wasn’t too overpowering. In case she didn’t admit it, this was a group decision to ask if Phoenix would be willing to join us. As she was also supposed to tell you, joining us is totally optional on your part, and you get some of benefits whether you join up or not. I’ve included a few things that you might find useful, including my Night Hawk’s comm codes and a set of FTL relays you now have access to. Drop us a line if you have any questions – or just want to talk.
Colin Steppes, Captain of the Night Hawk
Yote looked thoughtful a moment before grinning like a kid at Christmas and punched in the release code. Looking over the new data it revealed; he tapped a key on the intercom.
"Bridge," a youthful voice replied.
"I take it I’m not the only one burning the midnight oil," Yote said with a smile. "Your people are going to think we never let you guys rest."
Loander’s smile could be heard in hir voice as shi said, "Better that than us telling them you’re finding fascinating new toys and then sending us to bed without even letting us look them over!"
"Well, my toy chest included some access codes to things that are hard to believe. Including what it claims are comm codes that can even reach the Faleshkarti home-world," Yote told hir.
"That’s impossible! The Federation has been talking about a FTL link, but the cost isn’t in the budget," Loander informed him.
"And yet they gave us a comm code and instructions on how to use it," Yote told hir. "I’m game if you are."
"The worst that can happen is we waste a little time, and they laugh at us for falling for their joke," Loander agreed.
It took them only a few minutes to run the commands, and then a voice came on speaking a language Yote had never heard before. Loander replied in kind, and then they started talking even faster.
After five minutes – and no signs that they were going to slow down, Yote cleared his throat before saying, "I take it that it worked as advertised?"
Speaking in a quick burst, Loander then stopped for a moment before saying, "Sorry, Captain. Yes, I got through and thoroughly confused them. They didn’t even know the relay was there until my call came from it as regular local traffic."
"Were you able to get high enough to get someone that will hear things out before they act on what they’ve learned?" he asked, a little concerned now that he had just exposed a previously hidden FTL array.
Loander actually snickered before answering, "Trust me – anyone we speak to at this point will be very interested in anything we may wish to say."
"Let them know that we don’t have the rights to give them access to it," he warned hir.
"I already did, along with what little we know about the group – or human – that most likely did it."
"I’ll ask the group next chance I get what plans they have for that relay, among other things."
Loander went back into high-speed mode and two or three other voices were soon mixed in with hirs.
Shaking his head in amusement, Yote dropped the connection to the bridge. "I wonder what that little call is costing us," he murmured.
"Almost nothing, Captain," Madeline informed him.
"Martin, please, as we’re both well off our shifts by now. And how do you know what the charges will be?"
"You’re forgetting I’m your systems controller. Other than staying out of your personal screens and rooms as a courtesy, I see all and know all; and that comm link included additional information …"
Yote grinned in spite of himself. "Quit smirking in there and tell me already."
"Yes, Captain. Unlike the regular network, this one has more options to choose from, including feedback on how busy the path is and what priority you wish to place on your message. The lower the priority, the cheaper the link, no matter how much data you’re sending down it. As Loander is the first person to ever open that link, I chose the lowest level with an option to upgrade if it became busy." A corner of his display changed to the link in use and the growing charge.
"You’re sure that’s correct?" Yote asked, for the amount wasn’t up to that needed to send an email to Earth.
"Positive, Martin. In fact, with your permission, I’d like to call home too."
"Let me know what it comes to," Yote asked.
"Of course," Madeline agreed as a second line showed up on his display. She was quiet for a moment before saying, "Whoa, this thing looks like it has enough bandwidth to …"
"To what?" Yote asked into the silence, the cost on the second line was climbing faster now, but still slower than a voice only call to Earth on the regular FTL service.
"Oops, sorry, Martin. I didn’t mean to leave you hanging. I’m running a full holosuite simulation at home right now, and I was just giving Adele a long distance hug."
"I’ll let you enjoy your ‘shore leave’ then," Yote said.
Opening a third channel, he keyed in a number he knew by heart.
"Do you know what time it is?" his father’s voice growled a minute later.
"At least this way I know your aide can’t tell me you’re in a meeting," he quipped back.
"Ha!" the older Yote laughed. "But how did you get through without them telling me you were calling?" he half wondered out loud.
"Dad? Have your team run a trace on this call. I’ll be surprised though if they get very far."
"Really? Interesting – give me a minute."
The younger Yote was quiet as his father placed the query, pondering just how extensive this secondary network might be.
"Ok," his father said a few minutes later, "My experts are now very confused. They are insisting that this is a local call – though they do seem to be having problems locating the endpoint …"
"Do you remember telling me I might as well drop Phoenix into the sun if I annoyed a particular freighter captain?"
"It seems I’ve been granted access to his network and an option of joining the group."
"I … see," the elder Yote said after almost a minute of silence. "The word was he was clear out of the Federation."
"He may well be, but it seems his friends can invite others they deem worthy."
"You’ve managed to impress me yet again, my boy."
"Don’t read too much into it; it seems they’re more than a little strapped for ships after their colony group went out."
"Ha! Don’t you read too little into it. There are a lot of ships and crews out there that would do anything in their power to get picked to join."
"That might be part of what got us in," he confessed. "They admitted to having thrown a couple things my way that I rejected on principal."
His father nodded. "I had wondered about a few of the things that had filtered down to me."
Smiling slightly, the son said, "They have a couple ‘lists’ I now have access to. Your name is on one of them for nepotism …"
"Considering the circumstances, I’d do it again."
"They know, and they added that you’d make up for it if you could."
"This wouldn’t have anything to do with a Caitian-run ship named Good Deal, would it?"
"I could double check, but I think that was the one they mentioned."
"That one was easy to remember – their Firstwife has a tongue on her you don’t want lashing out in your direction. You know how our network works here; well despite that, she was able to yell at me directly a mere hour after I diverted their loads."
Leaning back in his seat, the younger looked surprised. "I didn’t think that was possible for anyone not already on your cleared list."
"It isn’t, but she did it. It seems she had already gotten ‘where’ her load had gone and did a little browbeating on me about it."
"And you let her?"
"Let’s just say that by that point I was more interested in how she came by her information than whether she was calm or yelling. At a pause in her rant, I cut in and told her why I’d changed carriers and suggested she could probably go get the loads that you’d been denied. She actually laughed at me! One moment you’d swear she’d tear my ears off if she could only reach them, and the next she was leaning back in her chair laughing like I’d told the best joke ever. Then she agreed to the alternate loads one of my managers had tried to offer her, saying the forced delay would give them an excuse to do a little sightseeing."
"Windsor’s name is also on their list. Unlike your little warning, his carries the full report of the kidnapping and his trying to use ’Fleet to do it. None of them will ship anything relating to him."
"So I’m on their watch list while Windsor's on their shit list."
"More or less," the younger agreed. "One other thing that might interest you – they have some kind of ‘buddy system’ with cargo loads. While we can take what loads we like, we are to let the others know of the ones we didn’t."
"In case one of the others wants them – that makes sense."
"There’s more. It looks like I have their shipping manifests and timetables for the last year or so, so I did a little snooping. One of the group members, Time Bandit, needed to get somewhere well off their normal route. They sent out the request, and in a day there was a new route for them to follow with good cargo loads all the way. Among other things, I also found where they were deliberately leaving some non time-critical cargoes loads where we would find them – including the one that caused us to come out here to Carswell."
"Sounds like they were already working you into their system, son. I wonder how he manages all of that?"
"I don’t know that he does, but from what was said, he has to follow the rules just like everybody else."
"What stories I’ve heard make him sound like a hell of a taskmaster."
"Hmm, what if they’re doing the same thing your managers do? ‘Well, friend, I’d really like to help you with that, but my boss can be a real hard-ass about this/that or the other.’"
The elder Yote chuckled at the tone his son had used; it had sounded exactly like one of his senior managers. "And you think they might be doing the same?"
"Come on, Dad. I know you employ several of your chakats for the sole reason of sniffing out lies, and I lucked into having a couple of my own. Other than some teasing and their young captain trying to act a little pompous, the crew we met was a happy one. There’s no way they’re being forced to be a part of something they don’t want to be."
"Easy, son, you trust what you saw and I trust you … so, you said ‘an option to join’, you taking the plunge?"
"I’m thinking about it," he answered honestly. "They said there wasn’t a time limit so I’m making use of it."
"Wise. You didn’t call for my input I suppose?"
"Not really, you have even less data on them than I do now."
"Hmmm, I’d ask for a copy of what you have, but I have this funny feeling you’d then have to tell me no …" at his son’s lopsided grin he smiled. "I think they picked well in choosing you."
"Thanks, Dad. Tell mom I send my love."
"I will," his father said before the display went dark.
Staring at the blank screen, Yote thought for a moment before going back into the list of names and numbers. The name was there, as it should be, but should he try it? Deciding that it could be the best way to separate fact from fiction, he keyed in the number.
‘Establishing connection’ flashed on his screen for several minutes, along with tracking data and link information across the bottom.
The message finally changed to ‘Connection complete – Ringing’ just before it cleared to reveal a sandy-colored chakat with dark red hair and piercing blue eyes.
"Hello?" shi asked, cocking hir head slightly at him.
"Ah, I’m sorry, the code I entered –," he started, only to have the chakat grin at him.
"You were looking for a particularly troublesome human? I’m afraid he’s indisposed at the moment; you’re stuck dealing with me," shi told him with a warmer smile. "And you might be who?"
"Martin Yote, Captain of the F.S.S. Phoenix."
"Ah, Phoenix, I was wondering when we’d be hearing from you. So you girded your loins and decided to check to see if there really is a dragon hiding in yonder cave," shi chuckled.
"Who are you?" he asked, more than a little confused.
"Ah, call me Red – everyone else does; as to who I am? I’m just the final say in a group dispute, the tiebreaker vote if you will. Sadly, or perhaps not so sadly, the group runs so smoothly that they seldom have need of me for that purpose. So, how can I help you, Captain Yote?"
"The correct comm number so I don’t have to bother you again?" he suggested with a smile.
"Sorry, Captain, but you dialed the right number and reached just who you should have," shi replied. Shi then just sat there grinning as if shi could see the penny making that long drop.
"Captain Foster," he finally said.
"Captain Yote," shi said back, "don’t let the muzzle and fur fool you, I’m still that bastard others have warned you about."
"I’ve read a very old book, The Wizard of Oz, I think it was. Why am I suspecting that you are that little man hiding behind the curtain?"
Red chuckled. "Hmmm, I can vaguely remember that title. So, you think I’m all smoke and mirrors?" shi asked with a toothy grin.
"Not all of it," Yote admitted. "This conversation proves you have some very real tricks behind that smoke you use to hide things. By the way, we made use of your link to the Faleshkarti home world; I’m hoping that isn’t going to cause you any problems."
"No, I was looking for a good excuse to bring it to their attention; you just beat me to it," shi said with a smile. "If you dig deeper into your pack you’ll find the stuff that we’d prefer you not use outside the group – or only in dire emergency."
"Does it include your definitions of ‘dire’?"
The chakat shrugged. "I’d say you almost getting locked up and losing Ms Lane would have fallen under dire – all the more so that little emergency on Hesperia. Even without agreeing to anything else, other members of the group have petitioned that you be given certain rights and abilities within the group. This includes using my name if it is required to make Star Fleet sit up and pay attention to you."
"It sounds like you and your friends are putting a lot of trust in someone you don’t really know," he said with a frown.
The chakat snorted softly before saying, "You and I may not have rubbed noses before, Captain, but I know quite a bit about you, and more importantly I think I know your character. You came very close to damaging your ship saving Hesperia. While I frown on throwing away perfectly good hardware, I have yet to find a way to replace a single living being. I don’t know how much you heard, but Folly was attacked and heavily damaged a while back. I traded the aft end and a good bit of my cargo for six chakats, a Rakshani, and a fox youth. I still think I got the better deal."
Yote slowly nodded. R'Murran still had connections in Star Fleet, and they had painted a much grimmer picture of the H1 attack, including proof that Folly could have escaped with little or no damage – if her captain had just blown them away immediately – rather than trying to look for and recover any furs being held.
"I can work with that," he finally said.
"I thought you might," shi agreed with a smile. "Not everyone wants to fully join the group. Find your comfort level and let it ride – you can always go deeper at a later date if you have the desire."
"Or bail?" he asked with a grin.
"You’re no good to us if you’re unwilling," shi pointed out in agreement. Shi looked ready to say more but shi suddenly had a minor distraction at hir end.
"Ddaaaaddddddeeee," a very youthful voice was heard calling out.
"Wwhhaaaatt--eee?" the chakat called back, turning to the side with a smile.
Yote couldn’t help but notice that as Red turned to face the unseen cub, shi had reached back to rub hir swollen lower torso. He didn’t have to be a doctor or midwife to know that the chakat before him was getting close to hir time.
"eedtim," the younger voice was complaining.
"Yes, it will soon be your bedtime," shi agreed, wincing slightly at a sharp kick from within.
"Stoorree? Youu rommissed." the cub half pleaded.
Looking back at Yote with a smile, Red said, "If there’s nothing else, duty calls."
Yote shook his head as he completely failed to contain his grin. "I think you’ve given me enough information for now, and it sounds like you have a story to tell."
Red grinned. "Perhaps tonight’s tale will be about how a no longer elderly firebird likes to take bubble baths to wash off the ashes of her rebirth!" shi suggested as the connection dropped.
Yote sat staring at the screen for a full minute before giving himself a shake. "I really should have recorded that," he muttered as he locked his console. "No one’s going to believe me …"
With the console off, Yote missed Madeline’s giggle as she quietly saved a copy of his call where he could find it in the morning.
Copyright © 2011 Allen Fesler Redbear1158@hotmail.com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
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