Brian W. Antoine

Bob Kirkpatrick

March 18, 1994

Chapter One

Testing... One, Two, Three

We'd planned on being parked in the Oort cloud for two days while Penny scanned the system for signs of life. Shit, what a waste of time that idea had been. We'd been buried in EM signatures the moment we emerged from Hyperspace. The whole system was crawling with enough radio and microwave noise to light up a fluorescent tube without it being plugged in. The one thing we didn't see though was the unique energy pulse that signaled a Hyperspace transition.

"So, they haven't discovered FTL flight yet?"

"Unless they discovered a way radically different then either ours or the Guardians, no" answered Penny. "I'm currently tracking 1239 different drive fields within the confines of the system. From the energy signature I'd guess they were using simple ion drives with gravity neutralizers. There are also 4218 low band EM sources that must be the crews of the ships."

"Given the problems high G fields must pose for them. The null-G fields make a hell of a lot of sense. I'm surprised though that they didn't advance further in the last two hundred years. They had the Meenzai ship to show them it was possible. I'd have expected them to come knocking on their neighbors doors long before this."

"Maybe the Tipkatz are not as curious as you Humans" said Marlanda with a grin on his face. "You and the Meenzal seem to generate enough curiosity to make life most interesting for the rest of us."

"That from the person who has had his furry nose stuck to the sensors for the last two days" I said as I returned the grin.

"I will admit to some small interest perhaps" he replied while attempting to look innocent. An attempt that failed miserably judging from the laughs coming from the rest of the crew. We'd all been listening to his outbursts for the last couple of days as he would exclaim out loud "that is impossible" and then argue with Penny about what they were seeing.

The Tipkatz may have been slow escaping from their own world, but they were exploring their solar system with a vengeance now. They seemed to be doing a good job of it even given their handicaps. At the time the Meenzal's had passed through the system two hundred years ago, the Tipkatz had just been launching their first planetary probes. The Meenzai cruiser had been ordered home to assist in the war with the Maal. A war which was flaring back to life after several hundred years of both sides glaring at each other.

Their orders had been to search every system possible on the way home for races who might be of use in the coming battles. The cruiser Hatzin had heard the EM leakage and stopped to investigate. After spending about a week in orbit, they had decided the Tipkatz were too fragile and primitive to be of use. One thing that didn't show in the Meenzai database, and caused me no little worry, was what methods the cruiser had used to make its determination. When the time came to show ourselves, I planned on keeping Jab and Nek out of sight until we knew how they might be greeted.

I turned my chair around to face the rest of the crew at their stations. "So, has anybody found anything that needs further research before we say hello?" I got a lot of thoughtful looks, but no one spoke up. "Ok, then lets see how they react to a new voice in the net. Assuming of course that Penny didn't drop a bit someplace in the translation routine."

"I do not make mistakes like that" came the icy, yet amused voice from the hologram sitting between Bob and I. "Any error in the translator will be caused by faults in the data the Meenzai provided." There was a snort of disgust from Nek, but he didn't say anything.

"Ok" I said chuckling to myself. "Light up the probe and let's see how well that hardware does at talking to the Tipkatz. What a hell of a way to communicate" I muttered to myself as the remote display on one of the panels came alive. One of the first things we'd found on arrival was that the Tipkatz communicated by radio signals in the UHF range. Their choice of transmitter was decidedly odd though. The few images that had survived in the Meenzai databases had shown a creature that looked like a large Terran spider, something that drove Bob green every time he saw it. One of the puzzling thing about the images though was that there were no obvious visual or auditory organs.

The solution was in the tiny array of hairs that covered their upper bodies. Those hairs it seemed were millimeter antenna and the massive number of low power EM signals we'd started listening to were individual Tipkatz 'talking' to each other. Our best guess was that their 'sight' was based on microwave signals that they used like radar. We were going to have to take a few precautions when we first met them face to face. Jab had pointed out after his attempts to repair the microwave in the galley. That a Tipkatz looking you over would be like disabling the safeties on the oven and standing in front of it with the door open. Slow cooked Meenzal sounded disgusting, even to the non-Meenzal members of the crew.

As I watched the telemetry from the probe, I waited for it to arrive in-system. We had dropped it about a light day out from the system and had programmed it to arrive from Hyperspace with all the fanfare it could muster. Even as I watched, it accelerated and vanished only to re-appear a second later just outside the orbit of the outermost planet of the system. Using the various cloaked probes we had scattered around, we watched for signs of acknowledgment as it announced its arrival with a shockwave that had to have registered on every gravitic sensor the Tipkatz owned.

".95C and decelerating" announced Penny for those who couldn't see the status panel. "The shockwave will reach the first ship in 22 seconds. I am commencing the broadcast as planned."

As the probe decelerated, the shockwave would pull ahead and announce its presence. Following right behind it would be the messages we had decided upon, which would rebroadcast about once every half hour. The probe itself would take up orbit around the Tipkatz sun and wait for a reaction. We didn't have long to wait though. Within about 5 minutes of the re-entry wave passing by the first ship we began to notice a change in its comm traffic. When the leading edge of our message passed them a few minutes later, the traffic came to a complete halt.

"Nothing, they have gone completely silent" said Penny as she listened. "I'm not even getting the normal low power personal traffic between crew members."

"Do you suppose we turned the power up to high after all?"

"No" answered Marlanda. "The power level is consistent with that used in short range intership traffic."

"Maybe the frequencies we used taste funny to them or something" commented Dave as we all waited for Penny to report a change. "That, or we might have gotten the modulation wrong in some subtle manner. Every signal we monitor is slightly different even when it translates the same."

"I expect that is how they tell one another apart" I said as I glanced Dave's direction. "Each one has his own unique modulation pattern. Maybe they are just trying to figure out who the newcomer is?"

Whatever it was, the pattern kept repeating itself. It would take the probe about 8 hours to reach the inner system. From time to time people would wander through and check with Penny. All she had to report was that every ship the signal reached as it expanded outwards went silent.

I was grabbing some lunch when Bob wandered into the galley and plopped himself down. The look on his face was one I was growing familiar with, though not happy with. "Anything new you would like to complain about, or is this just the standard bitch?" I said as I winked at Lythandi.

"This is getting fucking boring..." he muttered under his breath.

"You find the act of procreating boring?" snickered Lythandi as Bob got a look of pain on his face. "I myself find that it holds my interest quite easily."

"Damn smartass Velan's..." he muttered as he rummaged through the icebox. I caught Lythandi's eye as she was about to reply and shook my head 'no'. She winked and stayed silent. "Hey, did you get the microwave fixed?"

"Yeah, I took pity on Jab and put it back together for him" I snickered. "You should have seen the expression on his face when it worked the first time I tested it. He damn near shot it again just so he could see how I'd fixed it so fast. Speaking of the little monster, where is he?"

"Believe it or not, he and Dave were sitting in the rec. room talking." That got Lythandi's attention real fast and she ducked out with a grin that promised mayhem for someone. "Why do I think I'm going to be hearing about this."

"Hey, at least they aren't trying to kill one another anymore. That's got to be a step in the right direction" I said as Bob popped a hot-dog in the microwave.

"That's easy for you to say. You didn't have to dry out your entire cabin after their last escapade."

"They just know better then to screw with the mighty Mage" I laughed. "That, or Kalindra has them all scared shitless of her."

"That's more likely I think. What's her problem anyway?"

"You heard Naldantis, Velan's get a serious case of the grumps when pregnant. I rolled over on her tail last night and found myself halfway across the room before I was even awake."

"Ouch, at least my wife didn't have claws" he snickered, then he got serious again. "When are you going to tell her?"

"When I work up the guts" I muttered. "Telling her she has to head home until she's delivered is real high on my list of painful things to avoid."

"You have to tell her sometime. She's starting to show, or at least I think she is. Either that or she's getting fat from all the sweets she's been eating."

"I'll tell you what. You tell her she's getting fat and I'll tell her she has to head home." The look I got said 'fat chance'. "That's what I thought." Getting to my feet I vaporized my trash and stepped out into the corridor. "I think I'm going to just walk around the ship and think for awhile."

"Don't strain anything" came the laugh from behind me as I headed towards the rear of the ship. I'd built a small observation bubble just aft of the main drive. Since we were shutdown at the moment, I headed there and sat down to think about what we were doing. The one thought that kept running through my head was 'what did we do wrong?', and it pushed everything else to the side.

* * *

I had been thinking about it all afternoon and was almost ready to have Penny shut down the transmitter when the first ship began to 'talk' again. Before the probe settled into its solar orbit, the entire system was alive at a traffic level that made our original introduction look like they had all be asleep.

"Jesus boss, I'm having trouble separating the signals! Every one of them is talking at the same time. I doubt that they can make much sense of it themselves."

"Are you getting anything at all?" I asked as the rest of the crew rushed back to the flightdeck.

"Some" answered Penny. "When I manage... Oh shit..." came the mutter as I turned to face her hologram. She just sat there with this silly smile on her face. "I just picked up a transmission from the homeworld and someone turned on the PA system. A rough translation would be 'shut the fuck up' and everyone seems to be listening to it. It's going to be a couple of hours before it reaches the edges of the system, but things are quieting down pretty rapidly where its been heard."

"Anything else, or just the 'shut up' message?"

"There was a short follow-up that said clear a channel between the planet and the probe."

"Ah, we get our reply" said Gregor as he sat down at his station.

"Maybe, or maybe they want a clear line of fire to blow the silly thing away" said Bob as he slid into his chair.

"They shoot, we shoot" grinned Nek.

"Not a chance fuzzball. If they decline, we head to the next system on the list."

"No shoot?"

"Not even a pea shooter" I answered.

"Mage no fun. Nice gun but no use is waste of skill."

"Don't worry, I'll find something for you to blow holes in."

"Is promise?"

"That's a promise" I said as I wondered what I had just promised.

The message the probe had been spouting had been fairly simple. It explained that we had heard of the Tipkatz from another race and wanted to know if they were interested in establishing trade of any kind. It also stated that it would wait until it had orbited their star twice for an answer before it headed to the next system on its list. Of course we could also have been telling the entire race that we were here to vaporize their world. Translation is not an exact science no matter how much Penny thought of her skills.

"I'm getting another broadcast from the homeworld" said Penny. "It looks like they are answering our message."

"Wait until it reaches the probe before you react to it. We don't want them to know we've been here all along."

"Don't you want to know what it says?" she asked with a faint tone of amusement.

I cringed and said "speak oh mystic stone of wisdom."

"As close as I can tell, it translates as 'What took you so long and how soon can you get here?'"

"Your kidding, right?"

"No I'm not. I'm still having trouble with the way they repeat themselves several times within the same sentence, but that's the rough translation."

I looked around the bridge at the everyone else. With the exception of Nek, and who could tell what he was thinking, everyone had what passed for astonishment on their faces. "Could we have gotten that lucky" I asked Bob as he stared back at me.

"It's certainly time something went our way for once" he said as he started to smile. "Penny, as soon as the probe hears the message, send the canned response. I'm going to need an orbital insertion plot for polar orbit around that planet also."

"How long shall I wait before telling them we will be coming for a visit?"

I thought about it for a moment. "Make sure they notice you activate the Hyperlink and tell them we will be arriving in whatever 24 hours translates into."

"We have to sit here another day!" came the simultaneous groans from all over the flightdeck.

"I'm not going to give anything away until forced to. You can all spend the next day figuring out what you're going to need information wise when we find someone to talk to that has the authority to deal with us."

"And also deciding what equipment you will need when I decide who will be coming with me on the first contact team" said Kalindra as she spoke up for the first time.

Everyone but Bob swung around to their consoles and began working like mad as they watched the running translation Penny provided on their screens. Bob just looked at me as he nodded towards Kalindra. With a sigh, I nodded back. "Kal, could we talk for a moment?" I clamped down on our link so she didn't pick up my feelings as she followed me from the flightdeck to our cabin.

When the door irised shut, I turned and faced her with what I hoped was a look of resolve. "Kalindra, what makes you think I'm going to let you risk our sons life by leading the contact team?" The look she gave me as my words registered was murderous. Before I could even move she grabbed my by the throat and I felt her claws tickling my skin. With a voice that was a lot steadier then I actually felt, I continued. "Either put those away or use them, but I'm not letting you lead the contact team."

"It is my duty, and you will cease to question me about it."

"Bullshit!" I yelled and felt something trickle down the sides of my neck. "After all I've heard about the dedication of Velan's to their families. The last thing I expected to find was my mate risking our son in this manner. I don't care how tough you think you are. That world out there is almost completely unknown. You might step out of the shuttle and be killed before anyone could react. Where does that leave the rest of the family then? I don't want to have to take Lythandi back to Velar to turn her loose, or spend the rest of my life wondering wether Bob and I could have prevented something."

I half expected her to squeeze her hand given the stuff I'd heard from Naldantis when we'd had a chance to talk. When she released me and let me try to stop the bleeding, I wondered what was next.

"Somehow I knew this was going to be interesting to watch unfold" she said as I dabbed at my neck with a cloth. She must have found my expression funny because she started to laugh. "I too have been doing a little research and wondered when you would finally say something to me. I have felt the conflict in you growing for a couple of weeks now."

"You were expecting this? Why the hell did you..."

"To make sure you were serious" she answered. "You are possibly a month early, but you are also correct. The time for wild adventures has come to an end, at least for a little while. The contact team will be led by Gregor when the time comes. I will monitor and advise from here." I was still staring at her as she stepped to the doorway. "You still do not believe?" she asked as she looked back at me.

"I'm just trying to figure out what alien race stole my mate when I wasn't paying attention. The last thing I expected was for you to be reasonable about this."

She chuckled as she answered. "Maybe I have just been around you and Bob long enough to be calmer then expected? Maybe chocolate works as a sedative on Velans."

"Maybe Nek will take up knitting" I muttered as I threw the cloth into the corner. "If being around this place had effected you any, I'd be dead and in the oven."

"How revolting" she laughed as we headed back to the flightdeck. "Velans like raw meat almost as much as Meenzals. You would probably taste terrible cooked." The later statement came just as we stepped through the hatch onto the flightdeck. You could have heard a pin drop as everyone stared at us.

"What the hell are you looking at?" I yelled. "Penny, how long to signal acquisition at the probe?" With a start, everyone swung back to their stations and tried to look busy. Both Bob and Lythandi though had shit eating grins that threatened to rip their faces apart. I made a silent note to myself to find out just how much of the last 10 minutes they had known about ahead of time. Now though we all had work to do to prepare for our first visit to the Tipkatz homeworld. It was a good thing the last couple of weeks had been fairly relaxing because the next few promised to be anything but.

Chapter Two

It's not the years, it's the memories...

[We wait long]

[Long time we wait you]

[You long time gone]

[We wait you return]

[Your return welcome]

[We welcome your return]

[We trade yes?]

[We welcome trade]

On and on scrolled the jumble up the screen as I watched the raw data Penny was working with zip by my eyes. "Well, they seem anxious enough."

"I suppose that's one way to look at it. Could they be too anxious though?"

"Maybe..." I muttered as I watched the sequence start over again. For the last 5 hours the planet had been transmitting the same message over and over again in response to our acknowledgment and notice that we would be showing up in person in less than 24 hours. I was resting my head against my arm and staring blankly at the screen when Kal came up quietly from behind me and began to massage my neck.

"You are tense again" she whispered as she rubbed the knot at the base of my neck.

"I do think I've got reason to be" I replied as I tried to relax. "In something like 18 hours I'm going to put myself and whoever you choose on the firing line."

"They are here by choice, remember that."

"But do they understand what they are getting into? Everything up until now has been fairly safe. When we step out of the shuttle tomorrow, the only think keeping them alive will be a little bit of technology and my reflexes if something goes wrong."

"Then they couldn't be safer" muttered my mate. "You have proved many times how serious you take the responsibility of keeping those that travel with you safe." For just a second I flashed on Kalindra hanging inside the center of a Maal. The memory caused us both to shudder as she picked the image from my mind. "What we have chosen to pursue is not without risk."

"So I had best be prepared. It's been awhile since I let Penny run me through the training sequence and I think a refresher might do me some good before I call it a night. It's been a couple of weeks since I had the chance to cut loose and I need to get my mind off of this or I'll never get to sleep tonight." Reaching up, I grabbed Kal's hand and rubbed it against my cheek. "Thanks for everything. Now I think I'll go undo all your good work."

"Males..." she muttered as she changed places with me. She was grinning though, so I ignored it as I headed to our cabin. Starting her turn at watch, Kalindra took up watching the screen where I had left off.

* * *

"Hey Smaug, up for a small war tonight?" My tiny draconian friend stuck his head out of the niche he had claimed for his home and <cheep'd> at me as I stepped through the door. It wasn't a thought I caught, but he managed to signal his willingness by ducking back into his niche and dragging his armor out where I could see it. Within ten seconds he had himself so tangled up that I had to help him. "Hold still dummy!" I laughed as he tried to watch me and help at the same time. "Dragons are so stupid..." I said in my best Yosemite Sam voice.

I'd discovered a long time ago that Smaug tended to get real defensive about those people he knew when he perceived a threat to them. Given the way my life had been going the last year or so, he was kept pretty busy. Rather then see him kill himself trying to defend either Kalindra or I, I'd set about coming up with a way to keep him safe.

Most of the setup I strapped to him was defensive. He wasn't all that large, so I hadn't had a lot of area to work with. What I'd settled on was a small but powerful shield that rested between his wings and a small laser that fit snugly on the end of that long tail of his. With a small set of hull metal razors that fit snugly over his claws. Smaug made a small but incredibly dangerous companion. After I changed my clothes and grabbed my staff, he settled on my padded shoulder and we headed to the rec room.

"...those tiny black peppers are murd... What the hell?" I was just passing by the galley when Dave spotted me and let out a yell. "I knew it! Cali take a look!" he yelled as I stopped to see what had set him off. Dave was standing in the doorway with Cali looking around him. "See, I told you I saw something" he exclaimed as he pointed at Smaug. I turned my head to see Smaug looking down at me from his perch.

"I've been trying to tell these idiots for days now that I've been seeing something hiding in the shadows" said Dave with a look of triumph on his face.

"Who are you calling an idiot" said Cali as she elbowed him in the ribs.

"You" he replied as he dodged the second blow. "None of you would believe me when I described it." Stepping out into the corridor, Dave tried to get a closer look. The others just stood in the door of the galley and waited to see what happened. "Who is it?" he asked as Smaug kept bobbing his head to follow Dave's movements.

"His name is Smaug" and I got a couple of chuckles from those who had read Tolken.

"Pleased to meet you Smaug" said Dave.

"Right idea, wrong pet" I laughed as Dave waited for an answer. "I'm afraid Smaug is just a pet who adopted me." Dave tried to keep from looking embarrassed while the others chuckled. "Don't worry about it. It's better to err on the side of assuming he's intelligent, then try to explain why you just fed a kitty snack to the Meenzeii Ambassador." I was turning to continue on when a thought crossed my mind. "Tell me something Dave. Is Smaug the reason you've been trying to sneak a look into my cabin?"

"Yeah" he replied with a sheepish grin on his face. "I thought I saw him duck through the door once, but I didn't want to say anything until I was sure I wasn't imagining things."

"Next time just ask. Kalindra was about to teach you a lesson in privacy the next time she caught you hanging around the door. You don't want to be a student of hers" I whispered in case our voices were carrying all the way to the bridge. While Dave thought about it and turned a little pale, I tried once again to continue on my way.

"You heading to the rec room?" asked Gregor.

"Yeah, I'm going run through a refresher course before we land tomorrow."

"Should we be coming with you?"

"Not for this one. These sessions might be a little to intense for you guys just yet. When you are a lot more familiar with your equipment, I may let you sit in and watch."

"What's so special about your training?" asked Dave. "Shouldn't we be trying to figure out how to keep ourselves alive in the battles you seem to believe we'll run into?"

"When you're better trained you can join me. Until then I don't want to lose one of you in a training session. That means don't ever try to open that door when the warning light is on."

"The warning light?"

"The warning light that says the safety interlocks on the weapons are off." They thought about it, then collectively told me I was nuts. I just agreed and continued on my way.

* * *

"Door sealed and locked" said Penny. I watched as the walls of the rec room took on the pale blue glow that said the internal shields were in place. "Shields active and verified. Session begins in 20 seconds" and she started counting down.

Grabbing my staff in both hands I released the interlocks on the center metallic section where the battle computer I'd been working on resided. I was verifying that it was operational, and listening to Penny count, when the lights went out. Like an ass I froze and the first energy beam took my square in the chest. My shield deflected it, but I'd been caught off balance. I flew one direction and Smaug flew another. My staff clattered into the corner where it came under fire from something in the middle of the room.

"So that's the way you want to play..." I held out my hands and flashed a thought to Smaug. A second later he dropped my staff into my hands and teleported to the other side of the room. "I wonder if it's possible to spank a hologram?"

"You have to survive to stand a chance of finding out" came the direction less voice from the room around me. Catching just the barest hint of an energy trace, I released the power I'd been building and caught one of Penny's remotes in the center of the room. The explosion blew molten metal everywhere and the battle was on. For the next hour Penny tried everything short of an all out attack to get me to submit. When the session ended, both Smaug and I were so tired that we both just sat on the floor and gasped for breath.

"Your getting better boss" came Penny's voice from the ceiling as the lights came up. "It's getting harder to keep you from spotting the energy traces from the sim and remotes. You were still generating reasonable power levels in your attacks right till the end also."

I looked at Smaug who was having trouble staying on his feet. "Reasonable power she says... I thought I'd shit when that multi-armed monstrosity dropped from the ceiling." Smaug just gave a weak <cheep> and curled up in my lap to go to sleep. Flying almost the entire time had worn him out. At the end he'd gotten batted around when the sim he'd been tearing chunks out of with his claws had decided to take its time dying.

Picking up Smaug and cradling him in my arms I headed towards the door. "We made a hell of a mess" I grinned weakly as most of the mess faded back into the energy that had formed the holo-sims to begin with. I was standing at the door, waiting for it to unseal, when a half familiar voice spoke from behind me.

"You should not have worn yourself out old man" came the low laugh that I remembered so well. I could feel the energy building behind me even as I spun around. "I wonder how much I can get for the pelt of your son?" said Jon as I caught sight of him. My reply was on its way even before I had time to think about it.

The energy bolt I generated passed right through the hologram Penny had generated. It also went through the rec room defense field, the wall and the next three rooms before it impacted the hull of the Sunbeam and vaporized everything in the area except the hull. I was still hyperventilating when the door burst opened behind me to the sounds of Kalindra on the warpath.

"What the hell did you do!" she screamed at Penny as she stared at the hole in the wall.

"I pushed him past what he thought was his limit" answered Penny as she directed the repair bots. "He has been reaching just so far and then he has been holding back. I wanted to make sure he could push harder if needed."

Both Kalindra and I looked at the hole in the far wall. The rooms beyond had been empty and unused at this point. I privately hoped Penny had taken that into account when she had designed her little experiment. "If you're going to make a habit of goading me, I suggest you strengthen the shields around this room."

"Suggestion noted" she answered as I leaned against Kal to keep from falling on my face. With her arm around me to keep me on my feet, I grabbed Smaug from where he lay sleeping on the floor and the three of us headed for our cabin. I was so wasted as the door closed behind us that I fell into bed without a word. I'd ended the day with the training session to give myself a workout and to make myself tired enough to sleep without dreaming. While I was certainly tired, the sleep was not to be as restful as I'd hoped. At least twice that night I woke up in a cold sweat with the memory of Jon's laugh echoing in my mind. It was a hell of a way to set my mood for the coming day.

Chapter Three

Traffic Jam

The sight that greeted me the next morning almost made up for the lack of sleep from the previous night. I'd finally fallen asleep along towards morning and everyone had let me sleep in. All I found of Kal the next morning was a note pinned to a T-shirt.

'If I have to wear mine, you have to wear yours'

I couldn't help but laugh when I got a good look at the shirt. It was a picture of a toon wizard who looked a lot like the energizer bunny. Plugged into his back was an extension cord that trailed around to the backside of the shirt. On the back was a toon Meenzal who had his paws poised over a large detonator that the cord was plugged into. I had a real good guess who the artists had consulted for this one. When I stepped onto the flightdeck, the grins that met me confirmed we'd all had been had during the night.

"I see you didn't escape the wreckage" I laughed as I saw Bob's shirt. His was a 60's style hippie sitting with his feet on what looked a lot like the flight controls of the Sunbeam. He was stoned out of his mind with the logo above him that proclaimed 'Baby I'm bored'.

"Have you seen Kal's yet" laughed Bob as he motioned for me to turn around.

"No I haven't."

"Keep your mouth shut when you see it. Someone has a real warped sense of humor around here."

"It is probably a human" said Kalindra as she stepped through the hatch. Try as I wanted to I couldn't help but laugh. The glare Kal gave me just made things worse. Her shirt was a parody of the standard 'Baby under Construction' shirt, only hers had about two dozen arrows that pointed every which direction with question marks.

"It certainly wasn't Naldantis, he knows how you're put together." With a final glare at Bob and I, Kal turned to leave and I came completely unglued. Written across the back of her shirt was the phrase 'I could also just be getting fat in my old age'. "Jesus, someone's going to die when she sees that back part."

"She can't see it" hiccuped Bob. "It must be written in some kind of ink that is thermal sensitive. Every time she takes the shirt off, it fades before she can see it."

I looked at Bob and wiped the tears from my eyes. "That sounds like Jab to me."

"That's what I figured, and I suspect Dave helped him with the ideas. That's what the two of them were holed up in engineering for the last couple of days doing."

I was still laughing as I left Bob on watch and went to grab some breakfast. Sitting around the table was most of the crew and each of them, with the exception of the Meenzal's, was proudly wearing their shirts. I found the fact that Dave's was the only shirt that didn't poke fun at the wearer to be real suspicious. He did a good job though of making sure he acted as outraged as the rest of us, so I didn't say anything.

"I don't think it's fair that Jab here doesn't get to be included in the fun" I said as I grabbed a tray.

"Jab no need fun" he exclaimed as he eye'd me.

I waited until he turned back to corralling his breakfast, and winked at the others. They all snickered, but managed to look innocent as I thought about my revenge. With a reasonably clear image of what I wanted, I pulled the energy needed and shaped it into solid matter. With a nod at Lythandi, she distracted him while I placed the silly thing on his head.

"Jab not know what... <snap> Roworrrrrrr!"

The entire room was howling as Jab whirled on me with mayhem on his mind. As he swung around, the headset with the two springy glitter balls bounced like mad and clanged together.

"Mage still not learn lesson" he yowled as he tried to sweep the band from his head.

In for a penny, in for a pound. He got about two steps towards me before I pasted him with a bowl of mush. Yelling "Food fight!" at the top of my lungs, I dove over the table as Jab rounded the end of the counter. "Join or hide" I yelled at those who were frozen in shock. Both Lythandi and Kalindra though were already in action. Both of them turned in unison and flipped spoons of jam at Naldantis.

"It's a family tradition" they said with grins on their faces. "Each new adventure begins and ends with a food fight." Nal just stared at each of them with a growing grin of his own. Instead of nailing either of them though, he grabbed his glass of juice and poured it over Cali's head. Things went downhill from there.

* * *

"You missed a good fight" I told Bob as I sat down at my station.

"Damn" he muttered with a grin on his face. "By the way, you didn't get all the egg's out of your hair."

"I was saving them in case I got hungry later." I started checking over my instruments as I heard the others start to file onto the flightdeck. Jab still hadn't managed to bypass the spell I'd put on his headgear, so he still sported his two springy companions as he sauntered over to his station. Kal must have gotten into the act as well because every time the two balls got close enough together a small arc of static would flash between them.

"The message hasn't changed a single word since you last looked" said Penny to save me the time.

"Well, then I suppose we should get this show on the road. Status checks everyone. Now's the time to spot any problems." Everyone signaled that they were ready and I turned to nod at Bob. "Punch it," and the Sunbeam leapt forward towards the faint star in the distance. When we were up to speed, we made a short transition to Hyperspace and dropped our cloak. When we re-emerged, the tachyon shockwave announced our presence to the entire system.

We had approached the system on the same course the probe had taken. On the in-bound leg we planned on dropping our velocity slowly so we would not be giving away our true potential. All that went out the window when every ship along our projected course started crowding our flightpath. "What the hell do those idiot's think they're doing?"

"Penny, get me intercept plots on everything close" yelled Bob as he started bending our course. The heads-up started tracking at least a dozen ships in our area as we shot inward.

"None of them are on intercept courses. What them seem to be doing is forming up to fly parallel to us."

"At our speed? Are they out of their minds? Our radiation wake alone will fry every circuit in their ships, not to mention what it will probably do to the crews." I looked at the nav display as Bob tried to steer a course through the mess in front of us. "Penny, warn them off and don't bother with the translation goofs!"

"Transmitting..." came the instantaneous reply. As we came up on the first ship we could see its course start to alter, but its low G drive just wasn't up to moving it very fast.

"Bob, fuck the rules. Towing a dead ship into orbit behind us isn't the way to open trade routes. Bring us to a stop and make it quick." Even as I spoke, Penny snapped on the low grade stasis fields that were designed to protect us during high G maneuvers. When Bob reversed the main drive of the Sunbeam, we went from .87C to a dead stop within the diameter of a small planet. Our radiation wake washed over us and began to dissipate, but bringing our virtual mass to a complete stop generated a gravity pulse that continued on through the ships in the distance. The closest ones reacted like they had been slapped by a giant hand.

"Are you picking up any signals from them?" I asked Penny as all of us watched the feed from the sensors.

"Yes, but they are anything but normal. It looks like the closest ships took minor physical damage and there are injuries among the crews. They are calling for aid from their fellow ships."

"What are they saying about us?"

"The ones that are still mostly functional are passing along both our warning and the fact that we have come to a complete stop."

I thought about it for a moment, then turned to face Gregor. "Ok, any ideas? I'd like to see if we can help them somehow, but I don't want to aggravate anything if they aren't pissed at us yet." Gregor was watching both the raw and translated feeds coming from the ship in the distance.

"Yes, that is what I would recommend. I'd also recommend we send an explanation ahead telling them EXACTLY what were doing and why we stopped like we did. If they understand the danger they were in, they may be willing to believe we did our best to minimize it."

"I hope so..." I muttered. "The only other thing that came to mind was ducking back into Hyperspace, but the transition shockwave would have been almost as bad as anything else." I looked at the running translation on the screen and sighed. "Penny, work with Gregor to put together the message. Explain what happened and offer our assistance. Maybe we can tow those ships behind us and pass them off to the nearest medical facility." I heard Gregor talking to Penny as I turned to look at Bob.

"That was one hell of an entrance. Did we just fuck up?"

"Could be" he replied as he watched the traffic. "Could be..." We both just sat and waited for word from the ships we had almost wasted. It was the better part of an hour before Gregor broke in on our musings with news.

"The commander of the closest medical facility has talked with the ships hurt the worst and understands our worry about what we thought was going to happen. He says that his facility is not equipped to handle the quantity of injured in question and wants to know if we can get them to the homeworld for proper care."

"He isn't pissed?"

"It is hard to judge, but it would not appear so."

"How many ships are we talking about?"

"Seventeen that are no longer capable of flight under their own power."

Bob let out a whistle as looked at the screen in shock. "I only count eight in the immediate area. How the hell did we disable seventeen?"

"Their drive systems appear to be considerably more fragile then anything we've ever built. The gravity compensation systems on seventeen ships died under the impact of the gravity pulse we generated when we stopped."

"Jab, can your tractor fields handle that kind of mass?"

"Is much, but not too much" he sang out. "I design more capacity then ever expect to need. Not expect Mage to test this soon though."

"Neither did I" I answered. "Ok, can you get us a fix on the ships that need tows? We're going to need information on their physical limits to keep from killing them when we take them under tow also."

"The medical facility is sending a set of guidelines for us to follow" said Penny. "They recommend we introduce as little force as possible to prevent further injury."

"Jab, how big of an artificial gravity field can you generate?"

"How much power you give me?"

"One of the aux plants?"

"Got planet want move?" he rattled like a broken chainsaw.

"No, just a collection of customers" I laughed. "Is there anything in those specs about very low or zero gravity?" I asked Penny and Naldantis.

"Yes, and it is listed as acceptable" replied Nal as he reviewed the data coming in. "If we can keep them in zero-G, or close to it. They should survive the flight without problem."

"Well then lets go collect some ships" and Bob slowly got us moving once again. As we picked up each of the damaged ships, we tucked them into loose formation around the Sunbeam. With the artificial gravity field extended to include them, they became part of the mass that the main drive pushed without any limits because of acceleration effects. We still took it slow though and Bob kept us under .2C as we tried to get the injured home where they could be cared for. Even so, we picked up exclamations of surprise from the ships in our tiny fleet. We were moving considerably faster then their ships were even capable of.

"What do want to bet the first thing they want to trade for is how we manage to move like this without feeling the acceleration?"

"If they don't shoot us, I suspect you're right" said Marlanda as all of us watched the planet growing in the forward port. As we slowed for our final approach we got instructions detailing the orbit we were to take up. As we came to a stop, a small army of shuttles descended upon the ship we released. Watching, we waited for them to contact us. We were anything but bored though. Marlanda was going nuts trying to figure out how they had built three of what was considered wild speculation on Earth, and was almost impossible to even think about for Velan's. At three points around the planet, impossibly long cables were anchored in the surface of their world. Stretched into space and held taut by centrifugal force, they each had a huge platform spreading outward from their terminus.

"Something tells me they will have things worth trading for also" I said as I looked on in awe. "The gravity control they must use to keep those things stable gives me a headache just to think about."

"I'm getting a signal from one of the platforms" said Penny as the rest of us stayed glued to the ports. "They would like to know if we need a shuttle to ferry us to their dock. They regret they have nothing large enough to handle a ship our size."

I looked back at Kal and nodded. "Get your team assembled, we have a house call to make." She returned my nod and told Gregor and Naldantis to get their gear.

"Tell the Tipkatz that we can provide our own transportation if they will give us directions to the docks." I moment later a nav chart superimposed itself on both the port and the holotank display.

"I have the directions and they sent over a description of the physical environment at the docking site. You guys are going to need your environment suits for more than just protection from the RF. Their room temperature is about -20 degrees centigrade. Their atmosphere also seems to contain a lot of what I think is Methane instead of Oxygen. I'm having trouble with some of the more esoteric terms that are missing from the Meenzai database."

"Are you guessing?"

"No, they are sending me the equivalent of the Periodic Table and then showing me the combinations. I seem to have been handed off to some kind of computer interface."

"Don't screw with it from the inside. They may have ways to detect your intrusions and hacking their computer net probably would not make us look real good to them."

"I'll behave" snickered Penny.

After stopping by my cabin to grab my gear I met Gregor and Nal in the shuttle bay. It was hard to tell what Naldantis was thinking, but Gregor looked more then a little apprehensive about everything. "Worried?"

"Scared shitless" he replied with a weak grin.

"Just remember your training and what I told you. If things start to go wrong I can pull us out of there with a thought."

"Just don't leave anyone behind..."

"I don't intend to." Just to make sure I'd tested for the presence of the planets natural magic field. It was there and more then strong enough to serve if needed. What few natural voids I could sense were down on the surface and out of the way. Even so I didn't take any chances where our lives were concerned. Nestled away inside me like a warm coal was a kernel of energy that would serve to get things going if all hell broke loose.

"You will take care of yourself" said Kalindra as she watched us board the shuttle. She said it like an order and I took it as such. Penny all ready had the shuttle fired up and the course laid in. With a mental hug I winked at Kal and waited for her to clear the area.

"Did anyone remember to bring the Raid? I hear the spiders get really large around here." Gregor gave a real weak laugh as the shuttle cleared the wing and we got under way.

Chapter Four

Watching them go

"Report, Ymml." barked Ulyw. "Where is the Magg?"

"It has left its ship and goes now to the planet" answered the Counsel. The Supreme Master stood from his chair and began to pace. With the Magg away from its planet, there was the possibility that this was the moment his Seers has sung about.

"And all is according to the Plan?" he asked quietly.

"It is, Master. Our neurasyns were able to read it, and we have built the thought blacks as ordered. They have been transmitted to it on the schedule which will interrupt the dormant cycle of the Magg."

"There can be no failure, Ymml. It must be distracted and out of focus or it will see us in the illumination of it's intelligence."

"It shall be done as the Seers have sung it, Master. It is the Plan and the Plan is success."

"It must be, Ymml. It must be or our race shall surely die."

On the surface of the great sphere, whisker fine antenna adjusted themselves minutely, and maintained their contact. The technology allowed the Zulm to sense, and sometimes envision the computations of the biological computers. They were a race of biotechnicals, their bodies' part machine and part flesh. The Zulm had lived in their sphere for half a millennia, and that was two generations of peoples. Their home was fantasy to the science of Terra, a technological achievement of staggering proportion. It was, as the Zulm knew it, home. On earth it would be a known as a Dyson Sphere.

Within the great orb was the Zulm sun, a star half the size of sol. The entire sphere would sit in the center of the Terran solar system and its radius would approximate the distance from there to a point halfway between earth and mars. From the outside, it was rough surfaced and black. On the inside, it was hollow and brilliantly lit by the sun which sat equidistant from any point inside the sphere.

Two millennia ago, the Zulm had been driven from their solar system. Their flight was the result of a twelve hundred year war with an enemy no Zulm had ever seen. The war had ravaged their planets and cleaved their sun. What was the most powerful and technologically omnipotent population in the universe had been reduced to castaways, refugees riding the only alternative their technology offered for their survival. Even with the abilities of the great sphere, the Zulm were little more than prisoners, riding flotsam in space and waiting for an opportunity to change their lot.

The religious leaders, the Seers, all said that this was the time. The Zulm were dying, and they were perishing for wont of something common to Terra. The biotechs were out of water and planned to take what they needed from earth. Their careful observation had shown them that the life forms which occupied their target presented no threat. They were like the uuma --small flying insects whose greatest power was to annoy the Zulm. On earth, they'd be called gnats. Their watchful appraisal had shown them a danger. One being of the world they wanted did have the power to thwart them. It had powers to see what could not be seen, travel where there was no flowpath, and call upon the energy of its surroundings to accomplish that which could not happen. They called him Magg, the name which they had muxxed from its own computational broadcasts. At times their receivers were able to tap the I/O path Magg called The Linnc.

It was the Linnc they would use to steal the power of the Magg. It was possible to locate the data markers which defined the Magg's computations. They would maintain a steady data stream of the data which could de stabilize the Magg. They would find the storage areas for unwanted data and feed it back on the Linnc to create what the Magg would call a Nacht Meer; a stealer of needed quiescence.

They had watched and saw that it would wander space. First in one vehicle, and now another. With it would go the symbiotic sub-Maggs and the creatures of the way-worlds.

"What of the Anomaly?"

"It remains within the vehicle, Master."

"Good. It can hear us, that one. It would notify the Magg. It is good there is separation. He could hear our Maal, and he can hear us."

"We will watch it closely, Master."

"If it discovers us, kill it."

* * *

"Well, there they go." I said to Kalindra. We were watching the shuttle as it fell away from Sunbeam towards the planet. It was easy to see the platform it would land on, even at the distance between it and the ship.

"Why you no go?" asked Jab from behind me. I shrugged. Jab nodded sagely and watched the shuttle go with us.

"What is that look you have on your face, Robert?" asked Kal.

"I don't know. I just..." I shrugged again and watched the shuttle in silence. "I wish I did go."

"You would go when you hate spiders so?"

"It's not the spiders, Kal. It's something else."

"Would you share with me what it is?"

"I can't, Kal. I don't know what it is. There's just something in the back of my mind... Ah, forget it." Kal looked at me closely, and I could feel her probing my thoughts.

"I cannot see you, Robert." she said.

I laughed. "You're trying to find something in my head? That's like looking for a crumpled paper in a trash dump." She nodded.

"Yes, I can see the truth of that." There was no distaste in her voice.

"Even Brian can't see in there. Oh, he can talk to me all right, but he isn't very good at reading my mind."

"But he always knows what you will do."

"Yeah, I'm not hard to figure out." I smiled at here. There was a bit of sheepishness in my voice.

"He has told me."

"Bob have two rule. If move, shoot it. If not move, push it and use first rule" said Jab.

"Yeah, well you have the same rule, Jab. Except you don't shoot it. You eat it." I admonished my cat.

"Food good" said Jab, and trotted off towards the galley.

"You like the way he portrays you" said Kal. It was a statement, not a question. "But I can see you from without, you are not that way."

"What makes you think so?"

"My mate would have no trust for you."

I didn't reply. She had it right, but at the moment, my attention was focusing on the shuttle. It was landing on the platform.

"Oooh! Showtime." I said.

Chapter Five

Greetings to the..., Who the hell are you?

Following our instructions the shuttle closed to within about a mile of the landing bay and then came to a stop. While we waited and watched, a single Tipkatz piloting a scooter came out and attached a tow line to our hull. With a gentle tug we were towed into space dock.

"It would seem they do not trust our piloting skills."

"Who knows how fragile that thing is" I answered as I watched out the forward port. "A strange ship using an unknown propulsion system. I think I'd err on the side of caution also." To make things easier for the tug pilot I lit up the area around our airlock. It only took him a second to realize what I'd done and he turned us slightly so that the lock would touch the oddly textured surface we were approaching.

"I'm getting an odd reading from that surface. It doesn't seem to be solid" said Penny as she monitored our approach. "It looks like you're going to dock with a large ball of silly putty or something."

"Let's hope it forms an airtight seal" I replied.

"Who's air, ours or theirs?" asked Naldantis as he sealed the helmet of his environment suit. Gregor and I followed suit and sealed ours as well. With a bump that we almost missed we made contact with the wall. Watching out the port we saw the surface deform and shape itself to our hull.

"That's one way to allow for different ship designs. I'll have to keep that in mind the next time Bob wants to steal half my cargo area for a landing bay."

"The external sensors around the airlock show that the surface has drawn away from the door itself. I'm reading standard atmosphere at the surface now."

"Ours or theirs?" I asked.

"Theirs," answered Naldantis.

I looked over at Gregor, who was looking a little uneasy. "Ready to play trader?"

"We can't afford to 'play' at this" he said as he glanced at Nal and I. "I have to get this right the first time."

"No, you have to do your best" I said hoping to ease his fear a little. "If this doesn't work there are a lot of others worlds we can try. We do our best and continue on if they aren't interested."

"Trying our best is what we base our honor upon" said Nal as he grinned at Gregor. "Of course honor doesn't pay the shipping charges" he said with a straight face. I caught just enough of his expression to realize he was trying to tease Gregor and chuckled to let him in on the joke.

"Do we have a welcoming party waiting for us Penny?"

"There are at least a dozen of them spread out around the airlock waiting. I don't register anything remotely like a weapon, but a couple of them are carrying what resembles remote sampling equipment."

"They are as curious about us as we are about them." I grabbed my staff and stood in the airlock. "Well, let's say hello and see who screams first." I had just enough time to stretch and yawn once before Gregor and Nal crowded into the airlock with me. "Remember what we practiced" I said as I keyed the cycle to open the outer door. When the door opened, every Tipkatz in the area went nuts within seconds.

"Uh boss, they were expecting Meenzal's" said Penny. The three of us just stood in the open airlock and waited for things to settle down.

"Serves them right for not having a decent visual transmission standard" I muttered as our translators tried to keep from overloading. "How the hell were we supposed to show them what we looked like?" As we stood there, one of the Tipkatz with an instrument pack strapped to the middle of its carapace approached us and came to a stop. I assumed it was facing us, though without a well defined face it could have been sticking its ass in our faces.

"Mistake made" came the translation. "You not what expected. What are you?"

I patted Gregor on the shoulder and chuckled. "Well, explain to them that we aren't dinner and see if they still want to talk." With Penny doing the translating, Gregor knelt down and started his speech. It was a half hour before they let us leave the airlock, and then they greeted us as friends and prospective customers.

"Robert would have been squashing them by now" said Naldantis as our party was lead through a series of corridors to some kind of conference room. As we walked we were being paced by dozens of Tipkatz in all sizes. Every once in a while one of the smaller ones would dart forward and touch our suits with a segmented leg. Just as quickly it would scamper away and chatter to its friends. "I will bet you cooking duties for a week that those are children" he grinned as I laughed.

"No thanks, I've learned better than to bet Velan's. I still owe Kalindra about three years worth of backrubs from when I taught her how to play cards."

"There are worse things to owe one such as her."

"Tell me about it" I chuckled as we passed through a doorway and into what I would have guessed was a public meeting room. We spent another five minutes as the Tipkatz tried to figure out how to provide seating for us. In the end we ended up sitting on something that looked like a large pillow. Unfortunately it was anything but soft and we spent the next eight hours trying to move the muscle cramps around when they got too bad. All of us that is but Gregor. He was so busy talking I don't think he ever noticed.

* * *

With a quiet <fifft> the airlock sealed and we all removed our helmets. Within seconds each of us had positive proof that environment suits are not designed for long term use by any being having a nose. "I am going to soak for an hour" I said as I sat down in the pilot's chair.

"Even with the design changes I think I am going to shed all over my cabin" muttered Nal as he peeled out of his suit. The hair that he wafted all over the interior confirmed it. Both of us just sat and listened to Gregor argue with Penny. He'd been going at it all day and showed no signs of slowing.

"I hate everyone under thirty" I muttered as I looked out the port. When the Tipkatz crawling around on our hull jumped to the station and signaled 'all clear'. I gently nudged us outward from the variable surface that had released us. "Penny, can you get us home please. I'm about half asleep and I'd hate to run over a pedestrian."

"No problem boss" and I saw the autopilot engage.

"You are having problems sleeping?" asked Nal as he sat down beside me. "I have watched you throughout the day and you are not as alert as you usually are."

"I didn't get a lot of sleep last night. Too many years and too many memories piled on top of them."

"Would you like something to help you sleep?"

"Do you have something that doesn't have any side effects and that won't keep me from being alert if I have to get up in the middle of the night?"

"No, I'm sorry."

"Too bad, I'll have to pass then. I can't afford to be drugged out of my skull of the shit hits the fan at 3AM." Nal had to think about if for a moment but then figured out the idiom. We continued the small talk during the trip back and tried our best to ignore Gregor. Every time he tried to involve us in his argument with Penny, we just smiled and declined. When we docked with the Sunbeam and opened the hatch, the entire crew was on hand to congratulate us and bury us in questions.

"Hold it!" I yelled. "Don't try to tell me you weren't all glued to the monitors the entire day. I want a bath, dinner and a soft bed, in that order." Naldantis rose himself to his full height and fluffed out his fur as he growled softly. We both turned to point at Gregor and said, "Go bother him. He hasn't shut up all day." They looked at us, then at Gregor who had already sucked Cali in and was talking himself silly. After clearing us a path they circled and descended upon him. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

I was still soaking in the heated basin when Kalindra came through the door with a tray of food. "You are going to be so wrinkled I will have to iron you" she laughed as I watched her with one eye.

"Bitch, bitch, bitch... Any goof who forgets to clean the fur trap has no right to complain about my wrinkles." I realized I'd sounded nastier then I'd intended even as I spoke. "Sorry" I said as I tried to smile. "It's been a long day."

"You are forgiven then" she answered as she put down the pitcher of ice water she'd been about to pour over my head. "When you get a chance Robert would like to see you. Something is bothering him, but he cannot describe what he feels is wrong."

"Oh great... Another spook scare. Ok, I'll find him after I've eaten." My eyes were closed so I didn't see the look Kalindra threw me as I lay there soaking. When I finally felt almost human again I grabbed a bite to eat from the tray went to find out what was wrong now.

"...said I was sorry. What the hell else do you want from me?" yelled Bob as I stepped onto the flightdeck.

"To call me by my correct name" yelled Kalindra in reply. "I have explained several times that 'Kal' is not short for Kalindra. I would appreciate it if you remember that in the future. If not, you had better get used to being called Bobby by the Velan members of this crew. We are all tired of being refered to by our youth names!"

I looked from Kalindra to Bob and decided to duck out before I was spotted. I didn't make it.

"Brian, would you tell your mate" he sputtered, "that I wasn't trying to insult her!"

"Don't look at me" I said as I continued towards the hatch. "She gives me hell if she even catches me thinking her name wrong. You two fight all you want, I'm calling it a night" and I left to the sounds of them still going at it behind me. I'd had a nice relaxing soak, enough food to keep the stomach happy, and getting caught in that fight had fucked up the entire evening. With a disgusted snort because our cabin didn't have a door I could slam. I fell into bed and lay there fuming to myself. We had another full day of meetings with the Tipkatz tomorrow and I needed my sleep. Sleep that was both slow in coming and troubled. I was not in a good mood when Penny woke me the next morning.

Chapter Six

If it doesn't say Skippy

"Look lady," I said, "to use an abbreviation of your name isn't an insult. It happens to be a compliment. If you prefer, I can call you muzzle-mouth, dogface, catbane, hairball, or just plain overweight. I'll let you decide."

Kalindra looked at me with venom in her eyes. "You would speak to me this way? What gives you the right when I have never treated you with anything but respect?"

"I see your claws, FEMALE, and I ain't impressed." Jab walked quietly up behind Kalindra and began to silently increase his size. Seeing this, Nek stole into position next to him and did the same. I looked at the cats after a few seconds and shook my head 'no.' When Kalindra saw my nod, her eyes widened as she realized that she hadn't noticed the approach of the cats. I filed this away as something to speak to Brian about, and then pressed my advantage while she was unsteady with the discovery herself. If you're so fucking proper, then how the hell come you address me as Robert?"

"Because it is your name." She almost hissed the words.

"Shows to go ya, Madame Pelt. My name isn't 'Robert' and it hasn't ever been. I was christened Patrick William Kirkpatrick and I never liked the name Pat, so I changed it to Bob. Somewhere in the deep bowels of some menial bureaucrat's mind, Bob was short for Robert so he changed a form so that on earth my legal name IS Robert. But I've never used it and never will. Besides that, this ain't earth."

Kalindra got a look of combined wonder and confusion. "You have discarded your family name?" Jab was mouthing my full name as I'd just said it and started shaking with the chuckles that overcame him.

"See that?" I said. "That's why I changed it. Patrick Kirkpatrick was a stupid name." Jab started to screech like a loose alternator belt on a 52 Plymouth. "SHUT UP CAT!" Jab fell on his side and wailed in pure delight. Gregor was holding his mouth in a thin line, but I could tell he was having a hard time keeping from laughing too. "God DAMN it! That's it. From now on you'll be Cal, note that isn't with a K, it's with a C. Short for California, an area known for granola, and edible substance of NUTS and FUCKING FLAKES!" Kalindra wasn't sure what I meant, but she knew she'd been slammed. Her eyes narrowed and she took a step closer.

"You have no honor." she growled.

I laughed at her and started singing 'If I only had a brain' from the Wizard of Oz. Kalindra snarled loudly and stomped off the bridge.

* * *

Ymml swiveled his body. "It has begun. The song of the Seers have said it, and it is as they have sung." His superior nodded, smiling gently.

"The Magg?"

"He is quiescent."

"Use the Linnc, Ymml."

* * *

I sat on the bridge and stared out at the planet of the Tipkatz. I wasn't seeing it, my mind was elsewhere. I'd only been half serious as my taunting of Kalindra had continued, but I found my mood going sour. I felt a frustration and welling anger like when something needs to be said but the words to communicate properly can't be remembered.

"Have I told you about the success on the planet?" asked Gregor as he slid into the navigation station. "It went even better than we were..."

"Shut up, Gregor. You're success would have been greater if you sprayed your armor with Raid." The contact specialist looked at me with horror.

"That isn't funny, Bob. This is a new life form to us, why, it's..."

"Put it in a sack, dude. I'm in no mood." I got up and started to walk away. I got a few steps and stopped. "Sorry, man. You didn't have that coming." He looked at me and smiled.

"That's ok. I think I understand. Do you need a friendly ear?"

"Thanks, but I'm ok. Something's nagging at me and I don't know what it is. I think I've forgotten something really important, but having forgotten, I don't know what it is." Gregor nodded seriously.

"You'll remember. Maybe try to forget it more and it'll come to you."

I smiled. "Maybe I'll try that. See you later." Gregor gave me a cub scout salute and turned to look at the planet. I left the bridge and headed to the galley. It had been six hours since I ate and I was hungry.

The two meenzals were in the galley, and Jab was happily spitting Meenzai to Nek. I gathered he was explaining what nuts were to the old gunner.

"Nesh ak tchu Pehnoot Buttar." he was saying. I looked at him sideways. Jab gave me an innocent look and walked to a storage locker, returning with a jar. "Nesh tuk Jif." he said, and screwed the lid off and gestured to the open container. "Is good to eat nut butter?" he asked me.

"Yeah, it's good. But..." The cat gave me a quick look. "Yeah, I like it fine."

Nek scooped a big glop of it from the jar and ate it. He got a look of distaste and his tongue started working to clear his mouth of the sticky stuff. I made a sandwich and ate it. Fifteen minutes later when I got up to leave, the old cat was still trying to work the peanut butter out of his mouth with his tongue. He wasn't looking particularly happy.

"How do you like it?" I asked him.

"Taste not good, cannot get all from mouth."

"Yeah, you'll still be doing that tomorrow." I said smiling. The cat stopped in mid lick and looked at me, then at Jab. If thoughts were pictures, he'd have a big sucker over his head. The cat thought for a second and jumped on Jab.

"Use fur to clean teeth!" he screeched. Jab ducked the assault and made for the door.

"My work here done now." said my cat, and he vanished down the corridor.

Chapter Seven

Hold the noise down, I'm trying to sleep

"Brian? Are you awake?"

My eyes might have been open, but my mind had been wandering a lot farther then it should have. "Yeah, what's up?" I asked Gregor as he looked at me kind of funny.

"I've been asked a question that I think you need to answer. I just don't have the knowledge yet to field it myself."

"No problem." I glanced around the room and shuddered slightly as I remembered where we were. "What's the question?"

"They would like to know why the race they seem to be negotiating with is not one of the races they will be trading with" repeated Penny when she figured I was paying attention.

I thought about it and figured they had a right to understand at least part of the situation. "Ok, warn me if something doesn't translate real well."

"No problem."

It was weird talking to a collection of beings where it was impossible to tell if they were looking at you. Of course had I been able to tell, I might have ended up slow cooked. "The Terran members of my crew that you have met in person, or via computer link, are about the only members of my race that even know starflight is possible. For the most part the rest of my race is unaware we are here or that any other intelligent race besides themselves even exists. My crew is a special case, and since it was my idea to try to establish trade amongst the races we've met, we are doing the negotiating."

The EM sensors in our suits were programmed to overlay the radio signals present in a visual form on our helmet displays. As Penny translated my speech, I could see the discussion going on around the table. "They wish to verify that you have the authority to negotiate for the Meenzals and Velans" said Penny when the discussion wound down.

"We can put you in touch with the respective governments if you want, but you would have to trust us to provide the communications links. Beyond that, why would we be here if we were lying about our mission?" I was just faintly annoyed at their questioning our motives, but I could see where they might be curious. The discussion went on for a couple of minutes before Penny spoke again.

"They want to know why Earth doesn't know you are out here."

"None of their damn business."

It took me a moment to realize Penny hadn't translated that for me. "Uh boss, would you like to rephrase that a little?"

"Yeah, tell them it's none of their god damned business. It's a private matter and they can find something else to worry about." I leaned back on the miserable excuse for a chair I'd been sitting in all morning and glared at Gregor. The look he was giving me was close to what I would have expected had I just grabbed my staff and vaporized the entire Tipkatz delegation.

"Penny, please don't translate that" he asked as he glanced over at Naldantis.

"I won't, but what do I tell them?"

"Explain that it's a private matter and we are not free to discuss it with them."

"Like I said, it's none of their fucking business" I said with a grin on my face. Gregor just shook his head and turned back to the table.

"Brian, are you feeling ok?" asked Naldantis as he leaned over talk to me.

"My back is killing me, I've got a Maal class headache, I'm having a little trouble seeing clearly and my mate is a pain in the ass. Yeah, I'm feeling fine" I grumbled as I tried to get comfortable in the damn torture device I was sitting in.

"You did not sleep well again last night?"

"Hell, I didn't even sleep last night as far as I can tell."

"Maybe you should skip this afternoons meetings and try to get some sleep. You are not looking healthy at the moment. Perhaps you should allow me to check you over back on the ship."

I started to boil over, then clamped down on it when I saw the expression on Nal's face. He hadn't said it to be nasty, it had come from concern. "Yeah, maybe you're right" I said as I looked around the room. "I think the fight or flight part of this stuff has come and gone. When we get a chance you can check me over and give me some of those sleeping pills you were talking about. Give me about twelve hours sleep and I should be fine."

"I will talk with Kalindra about having someone cover for us while we are gone then."

"Wait until after the tour though" I told him. "I want to see more of this place than just two corridors and a conference room."

"I too would like to be here then" he replied with a look on his face I was learning meant his curiosity was showing itself.

Whether the Tipkatz were happy with my answers, they continued to play the perfect host. After about another hour of talking with them they told us our guide for the tour was waiting outside the conference room. "About damn time" I muttered to Gregor's glare. "I can fix that frown for you" I told him as I glared back.

The tour of the platform actually helped lighten my mood considerably. For about two hours the Tipkatz guide showed us around and made sure he pointed out the technological features that they had been playing up in their talks with us. Standing on the underside of the platform and looking at the stalk as it stretched towards the planet below, I allowed as how they had a right to be proud.

"Can you imagine the strain that thing is under?"

"I'm trying not to" answered Naldantis. "I am forced to wonder what would happen to the planetary crust if it were to rip loose.

"It would be the grandfather of all quakes at a minimum. If the stalk didn't clear the atmosphere before the planet rotated far enough it would take the one next to it out as well."

"Think of it as the hammer throw and we're standing on the hammer" added Gregor as we watched the clouds swirling around the stalk below us. "And they built this before they knew enough about anti-gravity to make it safe."

"They certainly think big" I allowed as we turned to head back. Winding our way through the superstructure of the platform reminded me how tired I was. "Gregor, I'm going to grand your wish."

"My wish?"

"To get me out of your hair before I fuck things up." He didn't say a word, but we both knew he'd been thinking it. "I'm going back to the Sunbeam with Naldantis and I'll have Kalindra pick someone to back you up."

"If possible, send Marlanda back so I have someone technical to go over the stuff they wish to trade for. I'm afraid I'm over my head on most of the stuff they keep asking about."

"In that case I'll try to send Jab back as well. They don't seem to hate the Meenzal's so it should be safe to let him join the fun now."

"Please make sure he comes unarmed."

"I'll pass the message on, but Jab listens to me about as well as he likes taking lessons from Nek.

When Nal and I got back he gave me just enough time to verify the messages Penny had already forwarded before he hustled me into his sickbay. I could hear Kalindra arguing with someone in the distance as the door closed and sealed itself.

"Sounds like someone forgot to salute again" I muttered as I lay back on the table.

"Your mate has a forceful personality during the best of times" grinned Naldantis. "One day I may tell you of how she came to 'offer' me the job of 'ships vet', and what happened when I hesitated with my answer."

"One day when she's well out of earshot I suspect."

"That would be wisest, but not always practical given that the two of you are joined. I would allow that she may well listen in through your bond and chastise me anyway." Opening one of the dozens of cabinets he'd ordered installed, I watched as Nal pulled some kind of electronic setup out and set it on the table beside me.

"The first and primary thing I wish to check is whether that bond is now the source of your discomfort. Given your mate's condition, it is possible that her larger than normal emotional swings are somehow effecting you."

"You're going to screw with our link? You better not let Kalindra know about it. The time Bob tapped into it by accident she almost went ballistic on us."

"I will not disturb your bond in any fashion. You should be unable to even detect the scan as it is passive only."

"That's what Jab said before Kal re-wired the entire control system."

Tired as I was I just lay back and let Nal tinker with his toy. More then once I startled him by muttering to myself as I woke up from any attempt I made to take a nap. Finally, he touch my shoulder to get my attention.

"I can detect nothing wrong with your bond. Rather it would seem that it is helping to offset what ever is bothering you." He glanced at his toy for a moment. "You are aware of how strong your bond to your mate is?"

"Two weeks dead and I'll still return to save her fuzzy hide if it needs it."

Nal looked at his instruments and nodded. "I might almost believe it." Shutting down his gear he began to close up the case. "That however does not answer the question before me."

"If it isn't Kalindra, what's making me loose so much sleep" I finished for him. "I've been under stress before. Hell, this is a stroll in the park compared to some of the things we've been involved in."

"Given my understanding of the shields used by your ship. I would also rule out the Tipkatz from being involved in this. Nothing we have seen would lead me to believe they are capable of influencing your sleep. They do not have the correct physical makeup to be telepathically compatible with either of our races."

"I'll vouch for that. I tried to scan the mind of the guide while we were touring the platform earlier. All I got was static and a headache."

"No external influences then" agreed Nal. "It has to be a physical effect of some kind. I will just have to continue my search. In the mean time I suggest you take one of these and get some rest."

I took the small pill from his hand and looked at it. "How long will it put me out?"

"At least twelve Terran hours. More depending upon how much your body decides you need. The medication will attempt to enforce your own bodies regulatory mechanisms to let you rest."

"What if I am needed for something?"

"There is an counter agent, but the side effects of its usage can be unpleasant."

"As long as you can wake me up if the need arises. How fast does this thing kick in?" I asked as I rolled the pill around in my hand.

"Given your condition I would not take it and expect to remove your clothing before snuggling into your bed."

A truly evil idea occurred to me. "Can you taste this in food?"

"No, I would not believe so."

"Refuse to pose for your painting will you..." I mumbled to myself.

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing..." I chuckled. "Just a random thought I found funny." I grabbed my cloak and unsealed the door. "I'll see you in about twelve hours then" and I headed to my cabin. Bob was on watch as I passed through the flightdeck and I paused just long enough to flip him shit.

"What, you didn't volunteer for the away team?" I snickered as he shivered slightly.

"Your MATE refused to let anyone go over there armed. I ain't getting that close to a spider without a wristrail and the largest fucking mallet I can find."

"You don't know what your missing. All those fuzzy legs and the way they always look like their getting ready to jump. They don't have a front or back that you can see, so you can never tell which way they will move next."

"Have I told you lately that you're an asshole?"

"Not since breakfast..." I laughed and I headed for my cabin. Taking the doctors advice I got ready for bed BEFORE taking the pill. He was right, I'd never have done it the other way around.

Chapter Eight

Uh, I didn't volunteer for this

I laughed in her face. "Yeah, right. Bob on the platform with a zillion spiders. I give it ten minutes before the race is extinct."

"Patrick, it is your duty as a member of this crew to..."

"Naldantis! I was looking for you earlier." I said as the tall Velan walked onto the flight deck.

"I do not believe I am late." he said glancing at the chronometer.

"No, that's not it at all. I was going to ask how come Brian came back so early."

"Patrick! I was speaking to you" injected Kalindra.

"Is he feeling low or what's up with him?" I asked Nal.

"Why don't you respond to Kalindra?" he asked me. He looked a little uncomfortable.

"Huh? Was she talking to me?"

"I believe she was."

"I thought she was talking on the comm or something. Hey Kal, who's this Patrick dude? You got a hidden boyfriend?"

Kalindra bristled. "What game is this?"

"I don't understand what you mean." I said with a tone that said I had a halo above my head.

She made it clear that she was talking to me, and I countered that what she claimed couldn't be so, because my name wasn't Patrick. We got back into a debate over proper names.

"My name isn't Patrick --however, your name IS Kal. By the same traditions that Velans use proper surnames, we humans use nicknames. So if I didn't, I'd be betraying my race. You'd call that a dishonor to it I believe." She looked at me with frustration and confusion.

"Penny?" she called out.

"Whoa!" I said. "Shouldn't that be Penelope?"

"Watch it, Buster" came Penny's reply.

"I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to Miss Politically Wrong here." Kalindra stood a little taller and glared at me.

"Penny, please search for any entries on Patrick's name."

"Patrick who?" she asked.

"THIS Patrick!"

"You mean Bob here? Ok." Kal looked annoyed but waited in silence. "All right. Born the eleventh day of August in 1947 is all I see. No birth certificate is available. Records show a certificate of adoption into the Kirkpatrick family on the same day as his birth. The name there is Patrick Williams Kirkpatrick."

Kalindra gave me a look of triumph. "Don't get in a bunch, Kal." I said. Penny spoke again.

"His name was legally changed by his father and mother, at his own request at age eleven. The record shows him officially as Bob W. Kirkpatrick. There are no other entries after that which demonstrate any change. There are, however, a number of misnomers which appear that refer to him as Robert, yet I see updates to those records correcting them to say Bob."

"Ok, Kal. Looks like you've been calling me the wrong name for quite some time. One might even say that as an honor to a member of my family I've tolerated it." Kalindra looked horrified, but the look changed to narrow eyed annoyance.

"If it is your custom to use nicknames, then perhaps I shall call you Bobby." This time I bristled.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you. It could have negative ramifications for your health."

"But if it is proper for you to give me a nickname, then why is it not proper for me to show you respect by giving you one?" She was smiling.

"Because it violates Velan ethics, for one." I said. "Plus, the usual form is to shorten a name to make it a familiar or pet name. If you'd like, you can call me Bo, or maybe just B."

She shuddered and I enjoyed it. "Fine." she said with an icily crystal tone. I shall call you <shudder> Bob."

"Thank you. See, Nal? You can trust me. I'm always right and I never lie." The Velan healer was unable to suppress a smile and turned his head so Kalindra couldn't see his face. He didn't reply to that, but did speak.

"Brian returned early because of fatigue. If you will excuse me, I have some reading to do." He left Kalindra and I alone on the bridge, and I smiled sweetly at Kal.

"Now, what was that you were saying about the planet?"

Kalindra explained --in somewhat strained terms-- that she had assigned me and my cat to the next shore party. I complained that I really didn't want to go, but she stood firm. because it was her job to make the assignments for this mission, I said I'd go, but wasn't happy about it. As I was saying this to her, something stopped me in mid-word.

"What is it, Bob?" she asked. She was looking closely at my eyes with a quizzical expression.

"I don't know --it's that feeling... It's... I don't know what it is." A moment later a scream echoed through the ship. "What the HELL was THAT?"

I started to get up to go see, and remembered I had the watch. "Penny? Who did that?"

"It's Brian. A scan of his cabin shows him alone. Shall I turn on visual and audio monitoring?" I looked at Kalindra and she nodded in the affirmative. "He is alone, but looks pretty agitated." I told Kalindra I'd talk to her later and that she ought to go see what was happening. She came back after half an hour and told me that Brian was having nightmares, and that she'd tried to rouse him but failed.

"How hard did you try?" I asked. She said not very, and that he'd seemed to settle down a bit. Lythandi came on watch, and Kal and I left the bridge to her and walked down the corridor together. She returned to her cabin and I went off to find Jab. I had a turn to take in the spider barrel before I could call it a day, and decided to get it over with.

It was a success I suppose. I didn't kill any of them. But then I wasn't the object of their attention. The Tipkatz were much more taken by Jab. I wondered if that might have been different if they could have seen the situation indicators in my armor, the weapons system was armed and at full power. I only paid little attention to the translated discussions on technology that wafted back and forth over the next four hours. Instead I was trying to figure out which end of the spiders was the head and which wasn't, ostensibly to know which to kick if one pissed me off.

Finally it came time I had to actually talk to them, and Gregor changed seats with Jab so he could sit next to me. "They ask what your reason for visiting is." he said as he settled onto the cushion.

"Tell them I'm the representative from Orkin." I answered. Gregor looked at me sort of funny for a second, and then faced the table and spoke. A moment later he looked to me again.

"They wish to know what planet that is."

"Tell 'em it's in the Terminix Cluster." I answered. Gregor got that look again, started to turn to the Tipkatz but faced me again.

"I don't believe I want to tell them that." he said with a look of irritation. "I just got the reference you're making. It's not very funny."

"It is as long as they don't get Terran television commercials." He made a grunt noise and spoke to the spiders. He told them that I had designed a ship for interplanetary shipping, and was offering it to them for their modification and use. This brought some excited buzzes in my ears which Gregor explained was applause, spider style.

"Great. They like me. Can we leave now?" I guess we could, because a couple of minutes later Gregor stood and said that it was time to return to the Sunbeam. "Peace at last." I said in mock prayer.

I couldn't have been more wrong. As we stepped from the shuttle onto the 'Beam, we could hear Brian and Kalindra having a megadecible discussion.

They both sounded *really* pissed.

Chapter Nine

False Alarm?

Jab and I stood in the hatch from the shuttle bay and looked at each other. Whatever had been going on in our absence had most of the Sunbeam's crew on edge. Brian and Kalindra were literally screaming, and we could hear thumps, thuds and bangs coming from their cabin.

"Mage and Furry make love hard way" mumbled my cat. He was looking down the corridor towards the crew quarters.

"Somehow I don't think this is part of the Kama Sutra, cat. If anything, it's some weird Gestalt therapy."

"What Gestalt?" Jab asked.

"Look it up, fuckhead. What do I look like, a dictionary?"

"No pick on Jab. Just ask question."

"You always ask questions, stupid cat. Don't you ever look and see what's going on around you?"

The Meenzal looked at me with building anger. "Why you talk to Jab this like?"

"What kind of grammar is that? You can read my mind, are you as bad at that as you are everything else?" I was irritated and didn't know why. That itch in the back of my mind was there again, and I felt anger and frustration building in me.

Jab swelled in size, and for the first time ever, took a swipe at me with dagger like claws. "No talk to me. No friend, no crew." he hissed at me.

"Fuck you." I snarled right back at him. Then it dawned on me. I knew what I felt and it caused every muscled in my body to go almost rigid. "MAAL!" I yelled, and ran towards the flight deck. Jab was right on my heels as we fairly flew up the corridor that opened into the flight deck.

"Full alert, Penny!" I hollered. Jab took the weapons console and started engaging the systems. Lythandi, who'd been on watch looked around her with wide eyes and began to plot a jump course as I fired up the propulsion units and brought the GALA on-line.

The Sunbeam fairly leapt forwards, causing equipment and crew all over the ship to fall off balance from the lurch. Alarms all over the ship sprang to life, and the fast footfalls of crew running for stations added to the cacophony of noise that suddenly overcame the ship. "Course Lythandi, NOW!" The Velan girl smacked her console and my trajectory indicator went green. As soon as I saw it, I locked the course and slammed home the controls to take us into hyperspace.

To the Tipkatz, the Sunbeam seemed to elongate as though the bows tried to leave faster than the fantail. With an impact that may well have crushed the spiders on the platform as space compressed, the ship flashed brilliantly and dove out of space.

Nek stumped onto the deck and rolled into the weapons saddle as Jab left it to take the sensor station. At the same time, Brian appeared with a pop on the bridge. He eyes were wide and red.

"FUCK! I knew it" he bellowed. "Take a fucking pill to sleep and the universe goes to hell. What's the situation?"

"Maal." I said. "Jab, pinpoint the bastards. Nek, drop the safeties and prepare to fire."

"Need target" barked the old gunner. I told Jab to link the sensor arrays to weapons.

"No target" said my cat. "See nothing." I snapped a string of obscenities and left my seat and swung around to knock the cat off his station. If he couldn't find them, I sure as hell could. The sense of the Maal's presence was like ten ton weight pressing on my mind. I scanned the readouts as the bridge crew looked at me expectantly. There was nothing to see. Not for them and not for me. All of the sensors showed empty hyperspace in every direction.

"GOD DAMMIT!" I screamed, and punched the console. The blow put a melon sized dent in the facie and stripped the flesh off of my knuckles. Suddenly, I could feel nothing. My sense of the Maal was gone and all I was left with was an expectant crew rushing on adrenaline.

Brian grabbed me by the shirt and threw me on the floor. "Are you nuts!" His voice had an edge of hysteria to it.

"I felt them! They were here." I said through confusion.

"Since it would appear that they aren't, it would be wise for you to take your position at the helm again" said Kalindra. She was standing in the doorway to the corridor, and was the only one who noted that the Sunbeam was rushing headlong through hyperspace at full power --with no one in control.

"Shut up." I hissed through clenched teeth. I still had a charge of frustration and fear in me, and wasn't in any mood to listen to some holier than thou.

Brian was looking mystified, and looked from place to place and crewman to crewman as though he was trying to fight disorientation. As I started to crawl to my feet, the mind-itch came back again. It started as a tiny sensation and then blossomed into such force I lost my footing and fell back on the deck. Brian screamed and fell to his knees next to me and Kalindra rushed forward to help him. Instead of accepting it, he turned to her and screamed again. He swung his arm in a wide arc, and a blue-white glow emanated from his hand. An orb of raw energy leapt off his finger and struck Kal in the chest, sending her careening backwards as though she'd been hit by a train. Almost instantly, the smell of burning fur filled the flightdeck. With narrow eyes the Velan levitated from the far end of the bridge and began to croon in a hoarse voice. As she did, her body began to glow and she fired raw energy bolts at Brian with such rapidity that it looked as though megawatts of electricity flew from her to the Mage. The smell of burning gave way to the reek of heavy ozone as Brian dove forward, returning her fire.

The feeling in my head grew more and more severe until I thought my head would explode. The pain was exquisite, and light faded as I passed out.

Still at full thrust, the Sunbeam careened in corkscrew fashion through hyperspace. It was out of control.

Chapter Ten

Come out, come out, Where ever you are...

My side felt like I'd been splashed by hot lead, but I was still on my feet. "I don't know how you survived, but when I kill someone I expect them to stay dead!" I was gathering my strength for my next attack when the lights went out.

* * *

I had been turning to see what had caused the scream of rage from my Klizan and now I came to a stop in the dark. The silence that had replaced the chaos of a second ago was almost more frightening then watching my Klizan and Klizach attempts to kill each other.

"Lythandi this is Penny" came the voice from the dark. "Give me a second to get the lights back on. Kalindra's last attack took out a power distribution junction and I haven't gotten everything re-routed yet." A few seconds later the emergency lights flickered on and showed me a scene out of a child's nightmare.

"What happened to them?" I cried as I looked from one person to the next. Except for myself, everyone on the flightdeck was frozen like a statue.

"I could not let them continue" said Penny as she flickered into being at my side. "Until I can deal with or defend them from whatever is causing this insanity. I've locked them all safely away using the stasis fields installed for high-G maneuvering. All that is except for you and Naldantis. He is waiting in sickbay for you to bring Brian to him after I release him."

I looked at the Klizach and felt sick. The stasis field had frozen him in time, but the damage had already been done. Whatever he had believed himself to be fighting, the loss of his left arm and part of his chest had not prevented his fighting back.

"If it helps any, I don't believe Kalindra knows what she has done. What you are seeing may not have registered with her brain yet inside the stasis field."

"Are they not frozen?"

"No, only slowed. Time for them is running about a thousand times slower then normal. That is why I must deal with him first. Just in the time it has taken me to get the ship under control his life signs have began to fade. You will only have a few moments after I release him to get him to Naldantis before he dies."

"What must I do?"

The wisp of light that was the Klizach's sister walked over to stand before her brother. "I want you to stand just about like this" and she showed me the position she had in mind. "When I release him he is going to continue to move and should fall into your arms."

"Fall? It still looks like he is getting ready to attack the Klizan again?"

"I recognize the attack in question. Given his condition and the time that spell takes to cast. He will be dead before he ever completes it."

"He must not die!" I yelled as I rushed over to stand as I had been shown.

"At least someone is still taking sense around here. Get ready then and I'll release the field on the count of three."

I braced myself as best I could for the blow I could only imagine. At the count of three, the air shimmered slightly and the Klizach fell directly into my arms. Just for a second he seemed to realize who I was, then his eyes rolled back and he collapsed in my arms. Even as I felt his life taking leave of his body I was through the door and on my way to where Naldantis awaited.

"Now to deal with that asshole that calls herself his mate..." came the quiet voice through the dim light. A voice that sounded both scared and furious as the sounds of running feet faded into the distance.

* * *

"Do the best you can" I told Gregor. "Try to make them understand that we left to draw what we thought was a threat away from them. I did my best as we pulled out to shield them from the effects of our drive. That at least is one thing you should not have to worry about."

"It will help" he answered as the link back to the Tipkatz platform started to crackle with static. "Though I still don't know why we just don't head for home. If Brian dies, this group is going to splinter in short order and I'd like to be someplace safer when it does."

"Brian is not going to die" I told him. "You worry about the Tipkatz and let me take care of those idiots on the flightdeck." The look he threw in the direction of my monitor showed little hope in his eyes, but he turned to his work as the connection to the platform began to clear.

It had been more then long enough for Kalindra, Bob and Nahn to realize something was going on. Even at a thousand to one reduction the amount of time within the three stasis fields I hadn't dropped would now have become noticeable. With a dozen remotes arranged so that their force fields overlapped, I dropped the field around Kalindra. From mid-snarl she continued the attack that she had been launching and screamed in pain when it reflected back at her. Even as she tried to get her bearings I started fighting dirty.

"WHERE IS..... AIIIIEEEEEEE!" and I watched as she curled up and began to go comatose. From her point of view she was now hanging in open space and falling rapidly. Given my brother's condition at the moment she had no way to override her fear and it rendered her helpless.

"Kalindra nal Kan. Tell me why I should let you live..."

She'd heard me and a second later she realized she was still standing on something solid no matter what her eyes were telling her.

"Threaten me again and I will take you apart one atom at a time" she snarled as she stood there with her eyes closed.

"Make one move of any kind and I'll kill you where you stand. You are in no position to threaten me and having watched you kill my brother I could care less how long you survive him by. If need be I will make sure he is buried in a nice fur lined cloak. Care to guess who the donor will be?"

I could see her startle as I'd said Brian was dead, then relax as she realized her link to him still existed. I smiled quietly to myself as she then realized how bad off he was.

"Who did this to him?" she growled from the depths of her throat. "I will see them fed to the Maal..."

"I'll write you the ticket because it was you." She started to turned towards the doorway and I bubbled her in a normal force field to show her I was serious. "I told you to stand still and this is your last warning. The next time you try to move I'm going to split you down the middle with a stasis field. It should be quite interesting to watch one half of your brain die of oxygen starvation while you tear yourself apart."

"Why do you say I am the one that did this to my mate?" she asked quietly as she tried to stand perfectly still.

"Because the entire crew watched you do it. I don't know who or why yet but every telepathic member of this crew has gone mad in their own fashion. From what I could hear from Brian, he thought he was fighting Jon for his life all over again. You just snarled and retaliated when you got in the line of fire and I don't want to even try to imagine what Bob was getting buried under."

"The life of my son was in danger!"

"So to protect him you launched a full scale magical attack at someone who wasn't even capable of defending himself." Given what I thought I knew of the situation Kalindra should be capable of reasoning things out now. With Brian so far out of it that he was barely registering an EEG, she should now be free of the feedback loop that had established itself in their link. I just waited for her reaction and keep the stasis generators on standby.

"While your thinking about that here is another thing to consider. Both Bob and Brian seem to be the focus of the attacks with you and Jab getting caught up in it because of your bonds. I have already tried several things to shield the four of you from whatever is attacking and have had no luck. Before you attempt anything on your own I suggest you remember my threat and discuss it with me."

"You wouldn't dare harm me or your brothers son."

"Don't you believe it. First of all I'm not a member of your family so don't believe I'm going to get sentimental about flushing your carcass out the airlock. Second of all that isn't his son no matter how much you want to wish it so. I know exactly who the biological father is and Brian would shit if I told him. I've kept quiet and tried to make sure you stayed alive for exactly one reason. Because it makes him happy. Having watched you try to kill him, would you care to guess where my concern is at the moment?"

I watched Kalindra think about it and while no else may have ever noticed her slight change in posture I caught it immediately. "At least you have regained enough sense to realize I'm serious. Now I'll ask you once again. Why should I let you live?"

"Because you don't want him to die any more than I do."

"Possibly, I don't know how much you want him alive." Her reaction though gave me the answer I sought. Just because I don't exist as a biological entity doesn't mean I don't understand the concept of body language. "How do you intend to prove it?"

"You claim to have already attempted to defend us from what you believe to be a telepathic attack. Not being telepathic, how do you expect to understand what you are attempting to defend against?"

"I never claimed to understand it. In my years with my brother I have assisted him a a great number of experiments where his recorded results show an effect on telepathic communication. I used every variation I could devise of those effects that seemed to block telepathy. Nothing has seemed to effect what has been happening."

"Then it is time for an expert to attempt to define and if possible block the attack you believe we are undergoing."


"I will need the services of the Meenzal for what I wish to attempt."

"Nek is currently in the secondary bridge watching for signs of activity in normal space."

"I do not speak of the warrior..."

I laughed and enjoyed her reaction. "Nahn would sooner see how you taste with ketchup."

"Perhaps, but he is also interested in helping Bob. I will just have to explain it to him. I will require the use of my magic."

"And I will be watching you every second. The first sign that you show of renewing your attack on my brother will be the last mistake you ever make."

"You do not understand..."

"I understand enough. You have shown me the ability to do almost anything in the name of defending your family. Brian is the only family I have and even he has only a vague idea what I am capable of doing. Keep that in mind when next you see him."

When Kalindra said she was ready, I released Nahn from his prison. The battle I'd frozen began to replay itself with different targets until she managed to get his attention long enough for him to listen to her. Curled around the edge of the stasis field that held Bob. Nahn glared at Kalindra as she tried to stop the slashes on her arms from bleeding.

"I need your help you flea bitten eater of kittens!"

"Jab no listen to food that talk to much."

"You'll listen or we're both dead. Am I right Penny?"

"Listen as a favor for me?" I asked him.

He cocked his head for a second then relaxed just slightly. "Jab listen if Penny ask." I held my voice as Kalindra repeated what I had told her about the four of them being under telepathic attack. "Only interference between Jab and Bob is caused by you" he snorted.

"If you can prove it I'll hold her for you" I told him. Whether I would have was beside the point. I wanted Kalindra scared of me and what I might do.

"How you prove?"

"You designed the command controls on the Anarchy, correct?"


"Are they telepathic sensing like the last couple of ships?"

"Of course, is good design."

"Then I want you to sit with me inside the Anarchy and boost the sensitivity as high as you can. If someone is tampering with us, we may be able to detect them using your equipment."

Jab thought about it then nodded his furry head at my sensor array. "Is good idea even if furry thought of it." Clearing the corridors I let Jab and Kalindra make their way to the Anarchy. Once they left the flightdeck I had to trust that Jab could control Kal if she went wild.

"Penny, I know you are doing your best but please hurry if possible" said Naldantis as he glanced at the screen on the wall. Both he and Lythandi had been following along as I tried to pull things back together. "I've done what I can for Brian but I can't sedate him without doing more harm than good. Without the sedation though he is still aware enough to be influenced by the attack. Either way he is slipping away and I can't stop it."

"Then I will have to bring him someplace where he will be safe. Please prepare him to be transported to my vault." I cut off the automatic complaint I had been sure was coming and devoted the majority of my attention back to the Anarchy.

"This may hurt" muttered Jab as he dug around inside the console. "Was not designed to feedback into person within field."

"Cat, you couldn't hurt me any more then I've hurt myself this day." I saw them both wince when Jab engaged the control system. I hoped he'd had enough sense to disengage the system from the computer, but I armed the ejection systems in the bay in case he'd forgotten. Whatever the two of them were feeling, Jab had been right. The expressions on their faces said it hurt like hell.

"Higher!" yelled Kalindra as she curled her arms over her head as if to block out some impossibly loud sound. I was almost ready to override the power to the system and shut it down when they both started to growl at the same time.

* * *

For just an instant, Ymml froze with indecision. It had been instructed by its master Ulyw to kill the anomaly if it discovered the presence of the Zulm. The bio and tech halves of its mind were still arguing with each other when the two new foci that had detected its transmissions acted in unison.

//stop// and Ymml froze in place. //identify// Now the twin halves of the biotechs mind agreed on what needed to be done. Discovery had occurred and notification was required. As it thought, so the two foci in the matrix heard and they reacted. Before the biotech had time for another thought one last command filled its mind.


With no emotion of any kind, Ymml listened to the command and carried it out. The tech half simply shutoff, the bio components followed at their own pace.

* * *

Jab's voice was so far gone from his yowling that I couldn't understand what he was saying. Kalindra was almost as bad even after reverting to Velan.

"You were right. We have bought time to prepare, but I do not know how much."

"Then I have to restore my brother in as short a time as possible. You will meet Naldantis at the entrance to my vault and behave yourself." I didn't like letting her that close, but she was the only one who could do for Brian what he was unable to initiate for himself. Lythandi was standing guard over him as Kalindra rounded the corner and came to a stop almost at his feet.

"You will now trigger his shapeshift and then all of you will leave and head to the flightdeck. I will warn you ahead of time Kalindra to expect your bond with my brother to vanish until I return him to you."

"The shift will indeed help heal him" she whispered as she stared down at the results of her handiwork. "Nothing you may do though will break our link." Every weapon I had in the area was trained on her as she knelt at Brian's side so she could touch his forehead with her hand. "What is it you intend?"

"To bring him where he will be safe until he heals."

"And where might that be?" asked Naldantis.

"Where I am" I answered simply. "He has been here before and knows the way back. Until he chooses to return he will be safer then anywhere else."

"How can you be so sure?"

"In my universe I make the rules." That got me two puzzled looks and one of astonishment from Kalindra. I suspect she finally began to understand just what she was dealing with and just how capable I was of making her life miserable. After shooing the others away she touched Brian once again and initiated the transformation.

"I want him back" she said as I cracked the vault door to pull him inside.

"That's his choice to make. The three of you head for the flightdeck and get ready to help Bob. I'm going to drop the stasis field holding him and he's still going to be hysterical. I suggest you figure out how to shield the telepaths from whatever it was you and Nahn sensed."

"Us? You will not be assisting us?"

"I'm going to be busy" and the vault doors closed on the universe that was mine to define.

* * *

I don't like beaches and strong sunlight bothers my eyes. So when I woke up after my nap and found myself laying so I could face the ocean in the distance, I was more than a little confused. Then the sun was blocked by someone leaning over me and I looked up to see Penny smiling down at me.

"That must have been a lot stronger drink then I usually mix."

"You don't want to know, now hold still or I'll screw this up."

I relaxed my head backwards and felt it fall back into her hands. After turning it to the side slightly I could feel her doing something with my hair. "Is this going to turn into another nightmare?"

"No, in this dream you get to stay safe" she answered. "I can promise that no one will bother you here until you wish to be bothered."

"It's going to be a long wait then" and I closed my eyes and let the drowsiness take me. Then a thought occurred to me and I started to turn onto my side. Which shook loose another thought. Which started a cascade...

"No, not yet..." came Penny's voice from behind me.

* * *

I don't like beaches and strong sunlight bothers my eyes. So when I woke up after my nap and found myself laying so I could face the ocean in the distance, I was more than a little confused. Then the sun was blocked by someone leaning over me and I looked up to see Penny smiling down at me.

"How are you feeling now?"

I levered myself up on my arms and winced at the pain I expected that never arrived. "Not to bad" I said as I flexed my left arm. "The sun seems to have helped that muscle spasm."

"Hold still for a second or I'll screw this up."

I felt her playing with my hair behind me and I heard the snap as she knotted the end of the braids with a rubber band. "That's going to pull my hair when I have to undo it."

"Not if I don't want it to" she answered as she let the braid fall to hang at my waist. "Nothing here will hurt you, I promise."

"But I don't get to stay here do I?" I started to get to my feet and felt a screaming pain in the left side of my chest.

* * *

I don't like beaches and strong sunlight bothers my eyes. So when I woke up after my nap and found myself laying so I could face the ocean in the distance, I was more than a little confused. Then the sun was blocked by someone leaning over me and I looked up to see Penny smiling down at me.

"Should I just lay here and let you see what breaks this time?"

"I can't fix it until I find it" she said as she finished braiding my hair. "Don't ever tell Kalindra but I'm making a lot of this up as I go."

"What iteration is this anyway?"

"The three hundred and twenty first."

"Do I get to stay awake this time?"

"You tell me. I'm just here to correct the gross defects in your program. The last hundred or so times you woke up, you were the one who aborted the scene."

I thought about it for a moment and somehow things felt right this time. "Yeah, I think this is a keeper" I said as I got to my feet. "No pain" I grinned as I windmilled my arms. "I think I know the answer to the problem that has been bothering me also."

"You should be sure" said Penny as she brushed the sand from her skin. "I got lucky and saved you this time, but who knows about the next."

"No, this feels right" I said as I watched her. "You know, redheads are suppose to avoid the sun."

"Is that your rule or mine?" she snickered.

"Mine" I answered.

"Then I get to ignore it."

"Women... Always making their own rules."

"Some of us have special dispensation."

I stood and watched the ocean washing up on the beach and thought about staying. When I turned back, Penny was watching me with a sad expression hidden in the depths of her eyes. "Time for you to go, you are going to be needed shortly I'm afraid."

"How do I get back?"

"I'll take you to the border, you know the way from there."

"Say, can I communicate with the outside world? I'd like to find out what's going on out there."

"Don't worry, it had only been a few minutes by the clocks you're use to even if it's been almost a year in here."

"Faster then the speed of thought?"

"Fast AS the speed of thought" she said with a wink.

"Ok, how do I contact Bob?"

"What would you do on the outside?"

I thought about it for a moment, then knelt in the sand and sketched a rectangle with a couple of crude knobs below it. Feeling pretty silly I reached over and twisted the imaginary knob that I had mentally labeled as 'on'.

"Crude, but workable" laughed Penny as the sand within the box vanished in a flow of static. When the picture cleared I was staring at a TV picture of the flightdeck. "That's the view from one of my security sensors."

"Hey Bob, could you hold the noise down. Some of us are trying to get some rest."

"What the hell? Brian? Where are you?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you as I looked around." Kalindra spotted my image in one of the displays and pointed at it. When everyone turned so they could see me, I waved and shook some of the sand from my hair. "Give me about..." I glanced at Penny and held up three fingers. She nodded and I looked back at the screen in the sand. "three minutes and I'll join you on the flightdeck."

"Are you well?" asked Kalindra.

I didn't say anything but the smile she gave me when I tweaked our link made me all the more determined to get home. "Well, time to go beat on the bad guys" I muttered as the screen returned to the sand it had been created from.

"That does seem to be your primary occupation in life" grinned Penny as she turned to lead me away. I couldn't resist and practiced a little of what she had taught me about her universe. When the snowball caught her in the center of the back, her yells echoed behind me all the way back to my own.

Chapter Eleven

Alright, show me.

It was amazing how it worked out. To see Brian in the holo as a healed and healthy person was surprising, given the short time it took. But then, never knowing what to expect from my best friend went a long way towards cementing my interest. In many ways I felt a lot better, but in some I was feeling worse.

A sense of normalcy was starting to take over the crew of the Sunbeam, and it was reinforced by the knowledge that Brian would be back among us in a matter of minutes. I was still feeling pretty rocky. What ever it was that had been interfering with our thoughts was gone, but it had left a residue --maybe even a stain in my mind. I left the bridge of the Sunbeam and went to my ship.

"Penny, full shields, please." I said quietly.

"Full, Bob?" she inquired.

"Yeah, I want 'em all in place and dialed all the way up."

"That will block all communications --even Brian's."

"I know."

She complied, but I knew that she had left one tiny hole. There was no way that Penny would ever block herself entirely. At least, not while Anarchy was berthed in the belly of the Sunbeam.

"I know you're still here, Penny."

"Yes. I know you know." there was no humor or smugness in her reply. She was merely acknowledging what we both knew. "What's on your mind that you'd even block Jab and Brian from entry?"

"I need some time to think, and I want to know I'm thinking my own thoughts. Not someone --or something else's." It was true. "I want you to tell me something Penny. I need it straight. Is the programming that Brian gave you still in place?"

"Which set?"

"I can still override blocks to data in you?"

"No, Bob. They aren't. I think what I wish and do the same."

"I thought so." I said.

"If you ask me to, I'll disconnect and leave you completely alone."

"I won't ask." A shimmer of light caught my eye and Penny materialized an image of herself on the deck of Anarchy. She walked to the second seat and slid into it.

"Perhaps you'd like to tell me what's on your mind."

"What's changed in me?"

"Everything and nothing." she answered simply. I asked what she meant. "You are the same Bob who came into space to avoid the hypocrisy of your home world. But you are also the Bob who found himself acting with hypocrisy. You have taken lives which didn't need to be taken, but did so with good reason. You are also unsure of the way that you think, and as you were just thinking, afraid that your thoughts may not be your own."

In many ways I could see what she was saying, but I also figured that I didn't know the scope of what she'd said. So I asked about it, and she told me.

* * *

"What do you mean that Ymml is inoperative?" asked the Administrator. "The Seers sang nothing of this."

"It is true. But we have found him dead none the less. We can find no reason for the failure."


"We believe the anomaly is dead, and the Magg with it. We can find no trace of their data signatures."

"So? Then correlate this new data, please." The Administrator pointed to a display which showed clearly the Maggs return to the travel vehicle.

"We cannot."

"Then, you conclude failure?"

"No, Administrator. It is not yet time to make that judgment."

"Then continue. You will download the data from Ymml and reactivate a standby."


* * *

"You do not know your own power, Bob. You have to find it" said Penny. This was the conclusion to all she'd told me.

I never considered myself a power, and I didn't now. I was a human with no special powers; I wasn't magic, my ability to 'path was highly lacking, and I was feeling my age taking a toll in my physical strength. When I reminded Penny of this, she laughed quietly and said I just proved that her right. When I asked her what that meant, she smiled and vanished back to where ever it was she hung out. As she faded, she told me that the ship was under my control, and that if I needed her, I should call.

I sat in silence for a full hour --lights off and deep in thought. When I was ready, I opened a channel to the flightdeck of the Sunbeam. "Jab, come aboard, dude." Two minutes later I heard the lock cycle and my cat dropped onto the deck. Our eyes fixed on each others for a moment, then the cat took his place just behind and right of me.

"Docking latch release" he said softly, and Anarchy slid from the belly of the 'Beam and onto it's own.

Chapter Twelve

No Data

Brian stepped onto the flightdeck, greeted by smiles, backslaps and handshakes. Then too were the short hugs, and the long embrace of his mate. A smiling Dave didn't complain that it was his watch, for once just taking his station without some complaint or sarcasm.

The Mage stood basking in the warmth of his reception, smiling. His smile faded a little and he looked from one side to the other. "Where's Bob?" he asked nobody in particular. Everyone else started looking around too.

"Bob's on the Anarchy" came Penny's voice from a hovering remote.

Dave looked at the sensor console. "Yeah, he's just..." His words were interrupted by a flash of brilliance that burst through the forward viewports. A second later, the Sunbeam rocked once heavily. "Oh my GOD!"

Crew members ran to the viewport and looked out to see a fading nebula of dancing light. "Oh, Jesus" said Dave. "It's destroyed."

Brian cocked his head. "Penny?"

Her reply was a whisper. "No survivors." Brian closed his eyes and reached with his mind. He felt nothing.

"Were you logging Penny?" he asked.

The audio played back through the remote. "You're a good friend, cat. Are you ready?"

"Self destruct engaged" said Jab's voice. "See you other side."

"Fire" said Bob.

"End of log" said Penny.

Chapter Thirteen

Follow the leader...

My instructions were quite clear. Ignoring the hysterics behind me I sat down at the command console and began to work. I'd designed a large portion of these systems and I knew how to circumvent them. Before Penny could ask me what I was doing the security shields froze all of them in place and she was locked out of the system.

Moving to the communications array I started re configuring it. When the 'link active' light came on I typed a short message and hit the transmit key.

[The anomaly is non-functional as ordered]

[Acknowledged, terminate self] came the reply a second later.


Backing away from the station I melted it into the deck even as I heard Kalindra screaming in my mind. I couldn't reply no matter how badly I wanted to. Stepping to where she was being held I looked at her for a second, then reached up and removed the Ruby from my ear. After laying it at her feet, I backed up two steps and teleported myself unshielded into the heart of the Tipkatz star.