So you can do better?


Brian W. Antoine

Bob Kirkpatrick

March 9, 1994

Chapter One

You have to start somewhere

"I'll re-phrase that in simple words. NO!"

"Why the hell not?" asked Bob.

"Because I refuse to tow that piece of shit all over the spiral arm! If we find a race that can even make use of it, I'll open a Gate and drag the damned thing through it! Until that time, it sits in orbit around Meenzeii." I glared at Bob and dared him to say anything. It was one of the few times I'd asserted my authority as Captain, and it wasn't making him real happy.

"What if you can't push a Gate that far? Then we get stuck building something there, or coming all the way back here to pick the damn thing up."

"First, opening a Gate that far is my worry, not yours. Second, what makes you think the damn thing is going to be usable anyway? The Valence was designed for a Human crew. Take a look at the consoles we designed for Kal and Nek. What do you think they would do with stuff designed for us?"

Bob looked at the consoles for a second, then nodded. "Tear them apart with their claws trying to use them" he muttered.

"You are learning Robert" grinned Kal as she listened to us yelling at each other. "You still tend to think in terms of Human only designs, though you are learning."

"Yeah, I saw the stuff you changed on the armor design" he answered. "I guess having a tail changes things a little." Kalindra just grinned and nodded her head in agreement. "Ok, so maybe we have to change the control design a little for whoever we give the Valence to. We should still take it along with us. While we change the controls, they can use the computer interface."

"And do what with it? The damn thing only speaks English at the moment. What ever planet we pick to visit first, it's going to take Penny at least a day or so to pick up the language and add it to the translators. That's assuming of course that they even use vocal communication. Hell, the Varn used a combination of telepathy and body language!"

"The Varn?"

Oops, I thought to myself. "Uh, yeah. You haven't met them yet," and probably never will I thought to myself. "The point is that we can't make assumptions about who we might meet. I've gone over the listings that Jasm gave us and what Penny retrieved from the Guardian. The closest planet that either of them records as being inhabited lists the race as something along the lines of a large spider."

"How large is large?" asked Naldantis as he listened in on our little discussion.

"Call it about four feet across" I said as I used my arms to rough out the size in question. "They live in a low gravity environment and the normal gravity field of the Valence would cripple them, if not kill them. Add to that the problems of working controls designed for human hands and the Valence would probably cause more problems then it would solve." I looked at Naldantis, then at Bob. "I'm sorry. The idea is a good one and we'll use it when we find a race that is at least close to human form. Until then though, the Valence stays in orbit around Meenzeii."

"So what of the idea then?" asked Bob in exasperation.

"The idea is wonderful. A large number of the races listed had at least rudimentary space flight. The chance to expand that to interstellar capability and establish trade relations will be a big incentive for whoever we meet to join up with us."

"If they are still around of course" muttered Bob.

"True," I answered. "The Meenzal's tended to ignore anyone who was too primitive to be useful, and pound the rest into submission. Their war with Maal though broke whatever links with other worlds they had. Their last reported contacts with the other worlds are almost two hundred years old. A lot can happen in two hundred years."

"So what do we do now?"

"I pick the best I can and we head out" I answered.

"You pick?"

"With suggestions from the crew, yes."

"So where we go?" asked Nek Tal.

"I think the Tipkatz are the best bet at the moment."

"The spiders?" asked Cali.

"The spiders," I said with a nod. "They were one of the last races discovered by the Meenzal's and were just starting to explore their own solar system at the time of discovery. If they are still around, they should be branching out to nearby systems at least by now. The data banks list them as non-aggressive by the standards of the Meenzai crew that discovered them. By our standards, it's either true or they were good at fooling the Meenzai that stumbled across them." That comment got me a dirty look from Nek Tal that I ignored.

"When do we had out then?" asked Bob.

I looked over at Kalindra. "Are we set?"

"Yes" she said as she nodded in agreement. "The extra time we have spent in orbit here has allowed everyone to complete their initial surveys and expand upon what we wanted to know. We now have a real good idea of what the Meenzal's have to trade, and what they need to aid in the re-construction of their world. The crew has done well," she said with a smile. I noticed everyone stand just a little bit straighter as she complemented their work.

"Then I think we'll head out tomorrow morning, if there aren't any problems with that?" Nobody spoke up. "Ok, we have our first target then. Everyone get a good nights sleep and I'll see you in the morning." I was very pleased to see that as everyone filed off the flightdeck, that they didn't separate into species specific groups. Cali and Naldantis were arguing about the sparse records we had of the Tipkatz, and what it might mean to the rest of us when we arrived. Gregor and Dave were asking Lythandi about some Velan custom they were both interested in. Knowing Dave, it had to have something to do with practical jokes. It had become a small war between both him and the Velan's as to which of them had the more obtuse sense of humor. I just tried to stay out of the line of fire.

"Has Mage learned lesson yet?"

I looked down at Nek Tal and Nahn in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"You not treat trip with needed caution. You still walk in, say hello, and wonder what go wrong" said Jab with a faint tinge of contempt.

I kneeled down so I was more on their level. "Yeah, and I admit that I am probably asking for trouble. I don't doubt that I will get all of us into more trouble then you could ever imagine. That's why I asked for a Meenzai warrior as my security officer. I'm still an optimist at heart. It's your guys duty to keep me honest and kick me in the butt when I do something stupid. You two think you can manage that?"

They looked at each other for a moment. "Mage be stupid, Mage be playtoy" said Nek Tal with a smile.

"If the worst I ever have to suffer is beating the shit out of you two furballs, I'll die happy" I said as I grinned.

"Mage has practiced without armor?" asked Jab in response.

"Hand to hand combat with my mate three times a week" I said with a laugh.

Jab looked over at Kalindra for a moment. "That keep in shape for sure." Then he looked a little closer. "Thou furry is getting fat. Maybe Mage should practice with Jab?"

"No fucking way furball! With Kal, all I have to worry about is broken bones. You might forget and start slicing with those damn claws of yours. I like all my parts in one piece, thank you very much."

Both Jab and Nek Tal flexed those sizzor claws of theirs. "Is shame" said Nek Tal. "Mage could learn much."

"Mage could also spend months regenerating body parts" I muttered.

"Would not remove anything really important" said Jab with a smirk, while Nek emitted a noise that sounded like a broken plasma torch.

"Important to who?"

"To mate?" laughed Jab. I aimed my foot at his rear as the two of them turned and headed off to their quarters. I thought about what he had most likely been talking about and mentally curled up inside myself. I didn't even want to think about it!

"Those two are going to make life interesting" said Kalindra as she watched them vanish down the corridor. "Do you know Nek refused Naldantis's offer to regenerate his leg?"

"No, but it doesn't surprise me any" I answered. "I can just barely imagine what it must have been like for him. Most Meenzal's hurt that badly in battle would have been stuffed out the nearest airlock. That he survived and forced someone to build him that artificial leg speaks volumes about how forceful he can be when he needs to be." I stepped over to stand behind Kal as she scanned the console in front of her. "Of course I'm getting quite familiar with forceful personalities" I said teasingly.

"You seem to be coping quite well so far."

I looked down at her from above. "You know, Jab is right. You're just starting to show our son to the outside world." I placed my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it.

"I will be fine for another few months. When the time comes, I will return home."

"I don't doubt it at all. Just humor a poor father a little. What are you going to tell anyone who asks?"

"To mind their own business" and she grinned. "Only Bob and Lythandi know the truth and as family they should. The others will wonder, but have no need to know."

"I hate to tell you, but if you keep getting fatter, they are going to guess."

"I am not getting fat!" she snarled as she turned to face me.

"You have gained three percent in mass in the last two months" came Penny's comment from out of the blue. "Brian is right, you look like you are getting fat."

Kal went ballistic and started trying to deny it. Penny didn't let up for a moment and I decided to retreat to our cabin until they calmed down. "Hey, remember we head out early in the morning" I told them as I stepped through the hatch.

"I'll reminder her when she calms down" answered Penny from one of the security grids in the corridor. "I wouldn't wait up though, she has first watch tonight."

"Remember to clean up the mess afterwards."

"I will" she laughed. "Sleep well brother."

"Hey, I'm being watched over by the best. I wouldn't dare do anything but!"

* * *

At 6AM shiptime the next morning, the Sunbeam swung in space and pointed outwards. The Valence took up a parking orbit under the control of its AI and began to wait for the call what would bring it to life once again. As Jasm and the rest of her race looked skyward, Bob and I brushed the loose hair from our seats and double checked Penny's flight plan. With the faintest shimmer, our ship pulled away from the planet below as the main drive began to argue with the universe around it. Between one blink and the next, we were gone.

"Jab, Kalindra? Which of you furballs shed all over my chair this time?" hollered Bob.

I just grinned and brushed the last of the hair away.

Chapter Two

Settling In

Just below light speed, the stars rushed at the front of the Sunbeam only to appear to hop over it at the last moment. Those that went by the side of the ship smeared themselves like water streaks on a moving car.

"Everybody ready?" I asked. There was no response, so I gave a tap on the console and the stars winked out as we went hyper. After a couple of minutes doing cross checks, I locked the controls of the ship and stood up. Arching my back in a stretch, I gave Brian the jump report. "We're hyper at two-thirds, destination system in about six days and change. Penny will keep the count. We're trimmed and sealed."

"Ok, then" said Brian. "Looks like all there is to do is wait for the planet to come to us." I smiled and headed to the galley. It'd been quite a few hours since I last ate, and my stomach was complaining audibly. The other bridge crew stood and went off to other concerns, and a couple fell in behind me. I wasn't the only one who was hungry.

In the galley, Dave took a package of hot dogs from the 'fridge. "Want a couple?" He asked.

"Hot dogs! Jeez, I haven't had a hot dog in a year. Sure, I'd love one." Lythandi and Naldantis stepped forward and peered at the package of weenies.

"Am I correct that this food is made from dogs?" asked Nal.

"Dunno," I answered. "What kind are they, Dave?"

"I'm not sure. The package just says All Meat."

Lythandi recoiled in horror. "You eat this?"

"Sure. Relax though. Some distant relative of yours isn't wrapped up in there. They get their name because they look like a Terran canine --the daschund."

"Doxin?" asked Naldantis. "Is there some chemical within them that..."

"No. Wiener dogs are just low slung and long, kind like one of these hot dogs." I held one up. "Imagine short little legs and a head and tail on this thing, and you'll get the general idea." Both the Velans looked relieved.

"Yup" said Dave. "Never know what mysteries lie in a hot dog. There's probably more adventure in this tube than in all the universe."

"I beg your pardon?" Asked Lythandi.

"I mean, you never know what's in 'em. The package says meat, and that could mean lips, spleen, brain, tumors. Like I said, you never know." Lythandi raised a furry hand to her mouth and left the room quickly, and Nek took her place.

"RAW meat in hot dog?" queried the cat.

"Until I cook it" I said. "Here, Dave. Nuke a few of these puppies." Dave poked three of them with a fork and put them in the Therk. The therk was what we called the oven --it was short for Thermal Cooker. It worked similarly to a microwave, but used a different bandwidth of radiation. It took about thirty seconds for the weenies to cook, and the small crowd watched intently through the glass on the front of the oven. When the machine chimed to signal the end of the cooking cycle, Dave took them out one by one and put them into buns which he'd copiously covered with mustard.

I ate one and Dave at the other. The third was passed around and tried. Naldantis made a face and said he didn't care for them, but they were better than he imagined. Nek took a tentative bite, tasting the meat and then swallowed the rest in a single bite. "Can have more?" he asked. Dave handed him the package of hot dogs, and Naldantis took them from him.

"Here. let me. I think I understand this" He said. The Velan took two more of the weenies from the package and placed them in the Therk. Setting it for 30 seconds, he pressed the start button. Twenty seconds later, one of the weenies exploded.

Nek dove for the floor behind a table and popped back up with his wristrail armed. When the second hot dog exploded, he fired on the Therk, turning it into a scattering of broken and melted parts. The hot dogs were vaporized. "Food fight back!" barked the old Meenzal. "Want more!"

"I think you've had enough" I told him. "Nal, in the future, make sure you poke holes in the hot dogs. They're sealed up in casings, and if you don't poke them, water vapor builds up the pressure inside and they explode. --but then, you saw that." The big Velan looked embarrassed, the Meenzal was looking for remnants of the dispatched weenies.

"Did someone fire a weapon in here?" asked Brian. When he heard the commotion, he came on the trot.

"Chuck the Wooley here was making sure his food was dead" said Dave. "It appears there was some collateral death as well. Do we give the oven the space equivalent of burial at sea, or does old Killer here bury it in his cabin?"

"Dog explode" said the gunner. "Nek shoot back" he pulled himself up to show pride in his fast reaction to threat.

"Make a note," said Brian. "Food isn't violent."

The cat must have disagreed, because he opened one of the personal food lockers and pulled something small and hairy from it. The tiny beast was kicking and snapping at the furry claw that held it. In a single bite, the creature disappeared into the Meenzal's mouth. The cat hesitated for a second then rubbed his throat. "Bite back on way down." he looked very pleased with himself.

"Make another note" said Brian. "MOST food isn't violent."

"What the hell was that?" I asked. Dave looked interested and Naldantis had disappeared from the room.

"Ki Pawk" said Nek. His tongue snaked around the needle pointed teeth in his mouth. "What you say are snak. Grow in wall of home."

"Christ. It's a rodent" I said. Dave looked at the cat and then at the remains of the Therk.

"I'm not hungry after all" he said, and left Brian and I alone in the galley with the Meenzal.

"Do you have any more of those?" asked Brian.

"Have few. Mage want try one?"

"No, thank you." Brian shuddered slightly. "Maybe Bob wants one." The cat turned to the food locker.

"That's ok. I think I'll pass too. I eat larger animals, and prefer them not to bite back. You know, I eat dead animals." The cat opened the locker again and fired his wristrail twice. Reaching in, he produced a decapitated Ki Pawk and held it out to me.

"Well, Bob?" asked Brian. He was smiling broadly. "Don't want to disappoint a fellow crewman with an aborted cultural exchange, do you?" I made a mental note to make his life miserable sometime when he didn't expect it.

"I'm afraid I'll have to" I said. "Thanks, Nek. But I'm gonna pass on the rat." The cat shrugged and tossed the dead animal into his mouth. This time the bones crunched at he bit. "I think I have to check out my ship" I said, and left Brian and the gunner in the galley.

I headed to my cabin. I'd just said I was checking my ship as an excuse. If I stayed in the kitchen, Brian would have made sure I'd have had to eat one of those gawdawful things. I found Jab in my cabin when I arrived.

He turned away from my dresser drawers as I came in, and looked guilty. "What did I catch you in?" I asked him. He smiled.

"Me? Jab do nothing." A back foot nudged a drawer behind him all the way shut. I walked over and pushed the cat to the side.

"Don't give me that." I reached for the drawer pull, and heard a shuffling noise from the drawer. "What the he..." The drawer came open and a few small hairy animals lept out and scurried for the shadows under the bed.

The cat giggled. It sounded like a rusty hinge. "No room in Jab cabin. Store here."

"Ki Pawk" I sighed. "Right?"

The cat brightened. "Yes! You like?"

"No, I don't like. Collect these little beasts up and get them out of my room." The cat looked unhappy, but he did what I asked. As he worked to catch them, I took a shower. When I came out, the cat was just getting ready to leave. He had a cloth bag whose contents were wiggling. "Good riddance" I said. "The last thing I need is a rodent infestation." I reached into the top drawer for underwear and my hand came away coated with some sticky gelatinous substance. "WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS!"

"Oh. Jab bring heggs too" he said. And left quickly.

Chapter Three

Wheeee, I'm flying!

"Ahhhhh Shiiiit!" <thud>

When my eyes would focus again, I found Kalindra grinning down at me from where she stood on the mat. She was also upside down from my view point against the wall. "That was cheating..." I muttered.

"You are letting yourself get soft again" she snickered as she helped me to my feet. While I checked the servo's of my exoskeleton, she bounced around on the mat making snide remarks about getting old and fat. I was just about to swallow my foot whole by saying something about her own shape, when the rest of the crew started to wander into the recreation room.

"You started without us?" asked Dave as he gave me the once over. I'd definitely looked better in my time. An hour of being tossed all over the place can humble even the best and I wasn't the best by any stretch of the imagination.

"Feel free to take my place anytime," and I grinned as I stepped off the mat. "I think I've more than satisfied my mates basic requirement to beat the shit out of me once a week."

Dave looked from me, to Kalindra, and back. "Why isn't she wearing her exo-suit? How can I spar with someone when I'm liable to hurt them in a moment of forgetfulness?"

Both Kal and I were watching Lythandi as she stood behind him and listened to him dig his grave. With a wink our direction, she braced her feet and reached over to grab the rear of his suit. "I'm supposed to have almost..." <Arrrrhhhhhhh> "What the hell?" With a single clean jerk, Lythandi had lifted Dave from the floor. Now she was holding both Dave and his suit above her head. I nodded at one of the mats and she walked over to it with Dave screaming the entire way. "Put me down! Shit! What the hell is going on?"

"Velan's are just slightly stronger than Human's" I yelled as he continued to try to see who was holding him up. "I'd keep that in mind the next time you replace the shampoo with honey in one of the showers." I'd spent the better part of an afternoon helping Kalindra wash the honey out of her fur. Dave had managed to convince Penny that it would make a good joke, and she had let him into our cabin just long enough to make the switch. They were both still paying for that one.

I motioned to Bob as he stepped through the door. "Would you take Lythandi, Marlanda and Dave today?"

"How come I get stuck with Dave" he whispered as we listened to Dave trying to get Lythandi to let him down.

"Because you were the one who let Nek loose around the microwave with a weapon" I grinned. "I'm half tempted to leave it broken and let the rest of you figure out how to heat your food.

"He's not my cat, why do I get the blame?"

"You found the race, you take the blame" I snickered. He grumbled, but headed off to calm Dave down. Naldantis and Cali just stood at the edge of the mat and waited for Kal and I to get ready. "OK, lets run... What the hell now?" I yelled as it sounded like a small scale war was breaking out in the corridor. A second later, Jab came flying through the door screaming in very broken English.

"No want practice!" he screeched as he skidded to a stop.

"No got choice!" yelled Nek as he blocked the hatchway. "You be disgrace to Meenzai! Old, fat, to damn many heggs!"

"Nahn not Meenzai, Nahn engineer! Fighting for stupid Meenzal no got brain build rock!" He was just starting to fluff himself up when Nek raised his forearm and took aim.

"Nek, loose the wristrail" I said as Kal and I both reached out mentally to disarm the powerpak.

"What? Nek no loose gun, it right here" he said as he looked at his shiny toy. "Only thing engineer ever build worth shit."

"Take it off Nek. You can't shoot everything that annoys you around here. In a week, the Sunbeam would be more patches than ship."

"Why not shoot?" he asked like he didn't understand the question.

"Because I said so." He looked at me, then at everyone watching and grumbled as he reluctantly undid the straps.

"Can see got lot to teach Mage about warriors" he mumbled. "Got lot to teach scribble stick pusher also" he said as he watched Jab trying to work his way towards the door.

"At least Nahn no squeak when walk" said Jab. Before he could take another step, Nek jumped him and slammed him against the wall.

"You got lot learn" he snarled. "If lucky, might survive lesson to see home again." I heard Jab mutter something under his breath and Nek lit into him again. The conversation from that point on switched to their own language so I turned back to my practice group.

"Would it not be wise to separate them" asked Naldantis as he peered around me. "I do not yet know enough about Meenzal anatomy to put them back together should they hurt each other."

"Do you want to stick any of your body parts into that cuisinart back there?" I asked. He thought about it for a moment and shook his head. "OK then, today is basic judo throws. Cali, you and I..." I could feel Kal's eyes boring holes in me through the link. "On second thought, I'll practice with Naldantis here."

"A wise choice" said Kal as she whacked me with her tail. I was just stupid enough to grab it as it swung by on the rebound. Instinctively she stepped forward to pull it out of my hands and I backed away to keep it under tension. With the grip given my by my exoskeleton, I managed to hang on as she skidded to a stop. Now as she moved, I danced around behind her keeping her tail taut.

"Uh, Naldantis. Would you have any suggestions as to how to break this hold without getting myself killed?" Kal was emitting a low snarl as she watched me trying to stay out of reach.

"No, do you have any next of kin that you would like notified?"

"Very funny..." I muttered as I ducked a swipe from Kal.

"By chance did Wythdantis remember to warn you that Velan females tend to get both stronger and more irritable when gravid?" Cali's eyebrows hit her hairline as I ducked another blow.

"No she didn't. I'll have to remember to mention that the next time I see her." I tried to duck a low sweeping kick and felt Kal connect with the exoskeleton I was wearing. As I tried to take my next step, my left leg refused to move and I could hear the servo's chewing themselves into mush. "Class is over, see you later" I told Cali and Nal as I 'ported to my cabin. I almost didn't get the door locked down before I heard Kal pounding on it from the other side.

"Open this door and let me in!" she yelled.

"No fucking way" muttered the wolf as he swore off picking on pigs, sheep, chickens and most especially Velan's. "Penny, what's the tensile strength of this door?"

"About half what you're going to need" she answered as I watched the door begin to bow inwards.

Chapter Four

Cat Fight!

I stood in the gym and watched as Jab and Nek started in on each other. Naldantis gave me a nudge towards the brawling cats. "I think you should interfere. They will harm one another."

I stepped backwards. "Not me, dude. I'm not going to get between them. I've grown very attached to my body parts. Besides, I'm still weak from my gunshot wound."

Nal looked at me with a distasteful expression. "You are no longer hampered, your recovery is complete. Why do you pretend weakness?"

"Because when it comes to Meenzals, I'm a notorious coward." Nal nodded at this.

"I believe I understand" he said. He had to duck to avoid being hit by Nek, who Jab had just picked up and thrown across the room. "But cowardice should not be confused with making wise decisions. I believe that I shall leave the Meenzals to themselves also." We both backed up a few more steps, crowding in on the others.

"Make way, make way. Lady with a baby" said Dave. He pressed through the clutch of people by the door and made his way across the mat. He was carrying a bucket of water which he unceremoniously dumped on the wrestling cats.

Both Meenzals stopped the fight cold, released each other and stood up. "You lunch" growled Nek softly. I started yelling.


Jab took a step towards Dave, the look in his eyes was murderous.


Lythandi started to shake her head. "I have read that felines do not enjoy water, Dave. Why did you pour water on angry Meenzals?" Her tone was soft and incredulous.


"Because they were fighting" said Dave. "See? They've stopped."


"David" said Cali. "Are you competent to use your armor?"

"Sure, why?" answered Dave.

"I suggest you turn on the shields. I'd use full power if I were you."

"BRIAN!!!" I was getting hoarse.

The cats lept as a single unit, knocking Dave to the floor. He went down like a brick off a ten story building.


The glow from Dave's exo told me that he was shielded. But he was in for a rough ride, the cats took turns grabbing up and throwing him back down. They were so fast at it, that Dave couldn't get the opportunity to stablize and lock the suit to the deck. Once locked, a freight train could hit it and it wouldn't budge, the train would derail.

*BRIAN! God Damnit, get in here!*

There was a <pop> and Brian appeared next to me. "Stop yelling. What's the mat... oh." He saw what the cats were doing to Dave. "So what's this all about?"

"Dave threw a bucket of water on the Meenzals" said Marlanda. "The cats didn't like it."

"So I see" said Brian. "So why did you call me?"

I sputtered. "I thought you might want to keep Dave alive."

"They won't hurt him too badly. I see his shields are on." The Mage sidestepped as Dave flew past us and collided with a wall. "You added to the padding in the exo design didn't you?"

"Sure, but..."

"He'll be fine." We all turned as Kalindra appeared in the doorway.

"Aha! I have you!" she said, and lept at Brian. She hit him at chest level and drove him backwards into the two cats. All four of them ended up in a pile on the floor.

"Get off!" snarled Nek, thumping Jab on the head.

"Nek go first!" said my cat. He poked the old gunner in the eye.

"Can no move. Furry and Mage on me." Both cats rolled Brian and Kal off of them.

"Quit pushing!" said Kal. She thwacked Nek on the back of his head. The cat swung at her but she ducked, and the blow landed on Brian's nose.

"Hey!" yelled Brian. He went to punch Nek but missed and hit Jab instead.

"I no hit you!" protested Jab, and he tried to hit Brian back, but clipped Kalindra's muzzle by mistake.

"Didn't I see this in a Three Stooges short?" I asked nobody. Dave was pulling himself to his feet.

"It's ok by me" he said, and ducked out of the room.

Kal was showing her teeth to Jab, who was showing his right back at her. Nek took the opportunity to poke Jab in the eye. "That was cheating" said Brian. Both cats hit him, one on each eye. "DAMMIT!" roared Brian, and suddenly the cats and his mate were suspended in air above him. The Mage rubbed his eyes with balled fists like a sleepy child. "That hurt. Now what the hell is going on?" he demanded.

"Dave put water on Meenzai" snarled Nek.

"Yeah" said Jab.

"Then what did you hit me for?" asked Brian.

"You jump on us" replied Jab.

"I did not" pouted Brian. "Kalindra pushed me." The cats glared at the Velan, who was lowering herself with an anti-levitation spell.

"Do not blame this on me" she said. "I was training with my mate. Your argument is with Dave. He threw the water."

"Ohhhh, Jeez!" echoed Dave's voice from the corridor. We could hear his footfalls as he took off running.

"Use wristrail now?" asked the gunner.

"No!" snapped Brian. "You have to quit shooting everything."

"Why?" asked Jab.

"Damn, cat. He was going to shoot you the last time I was in this room" said Brian impatiently. "Maybe I should have let him."

"I no would hurt, Nahn" said Nek. "Much."

"Well, I see I called the right person to get this resolved" I said. "Do you always facilitate crew disputes this well?"

"Fucking wise-ass" mumbled Brian. "OK! Here it is. From now on, all disputes will be resolved through a chess game."

"What chess?" asked Nek.

"A game" said Brian. "Each of you has a number of pawns, knights, and other players who try to kill... Let me rephrase that. From now on we will use checkers to resolve fights."

"What checkers?" asked Jab.

"Each of you has a number of players, and the object is to jump other play... wait a minute. Bob, I could use a suggestion here."

"How about dueling at dawn?" I offered.

"Thanks so much for your help" glowered Brian.

"Any time, dude."

"Look. We need a way to resolve these things, so we're going to start a crew court. Bob will decide who's right, and those who don't like his choices can beat the shit out of him."

"Hey! Wait a min..." The cats looked pleased, and Kalindra was giving me her best smile.

"Any time, dude" said Brian, grinning. "What we'll do is let the crew decide. If the argument is big enough that it's worth a fight, then we'll all decide who's right and who's wrong."

"What if we no like court choice?" asked the gunner.

"There's always the ship's airlocks" Brian replied. This brought pensive nods from both cats.

"We get down now?" asked Jab. Brian let them fall. Both cats stood and headed for the door.

"Where are you two going?" asked Brian.

"Dave need bath" grinned Nek.

Chapter Five

Cat Tale

Relaxing in my cabin after the Great Gym Brawl, I laid on my bed with my eyelids drooping. That's when I heard it. whum, whum, whum. A pause, then: whomp, whomp, whomp. Pause: thum, thum, thum. Pause: BAM, BAM, BAM. I got up and walked to the door and irised it open. Dave was standing there, wide eyed and frightened. He'd been banging on doors all the way down the corridor. "I need to come in..."

That's as far as he got. A wall of water began to cascade over and past him. When it hit me, I was propelled backwards and knocked over. A soaked Dave was laying in front of me on his stomach. His head was up and his face had an expression of panic. Nek and Jab stood at the door, each with an empty barrel next to them. Both had just dumped nearly fifty gallons of water apiece on Dave, and subsequently, me. The cats roared with that dry bearing laugh of theirs and started dragging the barrels away as the door irised closed again.

I pulled myself to my feet and held a hand out to Dave. He took it and I pulled him up too. "So, they caught you, eh? I figured they would."

"They tried to kill me!" huffed Dave.

"No they didn't."

"The hell they didn't." He was upset.

"You're alive, dude. That means they weren't trying to kill you."

Dave glowered at me but didn't say anything for a minute. When he did, it was to launch into a tirade. "If they were any bigger or stronger, they would have killed me. You know it. You're just defending them because you're too fucked up to get along with humans."

The punch I threw sat him on his hind end in the couple inches of water my cabin had just inherited. "When are you going to wake up? Yes, I like the cats, but I also like you, you jackass."

"They what did you hit me for?"

"You were falling asleep, so I woke you."

"What the hell do you mean?"

I held out my hand again, but he didn't take it. He got up by himself and looked at me sullenly. "I mean that you seem to run around on auto pilot all the time. Because you do, you sometimes fall asleep because there's no reason for you to stay awake. As a result, you screw up. Your mouth goes into gear, and something sarcastic comes out. You, my friend, are lucky to be alive."

"That's what I was trying to tell you, dickweed."

"No, you were trying to tell me that the cats were going to kill you and that couldn't be farther from the truth. They had a matter of pride to take care of --one that you forced on them when you treated them like brawling curs in a back alley on earth. They may have fur, but those are PEOPLE, Dave. Just like the Velans are, and just like some of the other races you'll meet out here in space. Earthside ego tells you that you're hot shit. You aren't. You're only a dandy in a frontier town, and all the town is going to prove it to you until you get the idea."

"What are you talking about? I don't get it."

"I'll explain it then."

* * *

Nek's ship had been under fire for almost six hours. Their job was to hit and run, trying to take out a few Maal with each pass. On one trip, they were cornered by a formation of Maal who blocked their path back to the safe areas behind the Meenzai picket.

The ship had sustained severe damage from the hits it had and was taking. The Captain had ordered his Meenzai Guardsmen forward just before the aft third of his ship was vaporized by a hit to the power conversion reactor.

"Ne ta fa masch! Yo tse mee!" he barked into his comm. It violated the code of the Meenzai to admit any defeat, and telling his crew to prepare for personal combat was as close as he'd ever come. Personal combat meant that either the ship was going to be boarded, or the crew was going to have to abandon her. His crew began to don their environment suits, preparing for the vacuum that would soon empty their ship. The battle cruiser was coming apart. Nek waited until he'd verified as much as he could that his crew were suited before he put his on. As he pushed the last clasp into place, there was a brilliant flash and the Captain found himself tumbling in freefall. Stabilizing himself, he looked back at his dying ship. There were blossoms of fire erupting randomly across its length, and it seemed to shudder. Then it simply flew apart in a huge burst of blue-white brilliance, and was gone.

He stared at this in awe, and came alert when a plasma bolt zipped past his head. Turning, he saw a Maal closing in on him. He pointed himself towards the Maal and fired his jets, sending him straight at the tinker-toy like entity. It seemed to recognize what the cat was doing, but it was also taken off guard as though the move was unexpected. As it tried to reverse its course, the cat caught up to it and grabbed on.

Nek scrambled up the crossbars of the Maal to the vertice, and began to hammer at it with his fists. When that did no good, he pressed his claws through his environment suit and began to tear at the Maal, ripping chunks of it off. It did everything to try to rid itself of the cat, twisting and shaking itself with extreme violence. It didn't work. The Meenzai held on and kept pulling mass from the vertice of the Maal. It finally gave way, and the tinker toy shattered into pieces.

The self-seal in the suit was trying to work, but the cat was losing air from the suit. He'd pulled out one of the claw sets from his left side in the struggle, and tiny bubbles of his blood were being sucked through the marrow of his bone and into space. The cat could feel the cold on himself, and knew that soon the vacuum would pervade his suit and he'd be dead. Like the Meenzai he was, he turned to face the Maal again. "No se te MEENZAI!" he screamed in the suit, and dove towards the enemy again.

From behind him came hundreds of neon ropes that reached out, and touching the Maal exploded them into fragments of whirling debris. His fleet had returned to the skirmish, and twelve battle cruisers and a brace of dreadnoughts were gaining and them passing him in an onward rush against the Maal. Pain bellowed loudly in his body, but he felt the gentle pressure of the tractor beam which first embraced, then pulled him back towards a cruiser. As he began to wonder if he would survive, a laser blast from a Maal took off the leg that had begun to freeze and the cat passed out.

He awoke in the medical bays of the cruiser. He was feeling slightly disoriented and he could feel exquisite agony through his body. He found he was being observed by Tsal Fe, the Fleet Commander. Through his pain, he stood and faced his superior officer.

"I have failed" said the cat in formal Meenzeii. "I ask for my personal weapon that I may find my honor in the netherworlds" he said.

"I give you your weapon, Commander. But it is not to find what you already possess." The former superior bowed to his now equal. It took Nek a moment to realize that he'd been promoted. "Your act is in the tradition of our race. You gave us the time needed to repel the Maal attack, and we shall sing of your bravery throughout the Empire." The Commander paused, then continued. "You, Commander Nek, shall return to Meenzeii and take the place your honor has earned for you with the Procounsel."

* * *

"So," said Dave, "He's a war hero. Big deal."

"I'd like to see your reaction in the same circumstances, pal" I said. "But there's more to it. When they tried to retire him, they found it difficult. As a hero of the Empire, he could have almost anything he wanted, and what he wanted was a battle cruiser."

"So he got it, and they all lived happily ever after."

"He got it, and the crew didn't like it. They figured that some three legged cat wasn't up to the task."

"And?" said Dave.

"Let's just say that Nek sent all who disputed his ability and strength to join the great overmind of the netherworld."

"You mean, he killed them?"

"Obviously. The ways to ascend in the Meenzai Empire was through the death of your commander. As long as you stayed alive, you were in charge."

"Maybe the cats on his ship were just weenies."

"Maybe the cats on his next five ships were weenies" I said. Dave looked at me seriously.

"How long did he stay a Commander?"

"He still is, and this was all twenty three years ago. He'd still have a ship if the war was still going. And that's why I'm telling you that if the cats wanted to kill you, they would have."

Dave was silent and introspective. I left him there thinking and went off to make some systems checks.