All Right, Who's First?


Brian W. Antoine

Bob Kirkpatrick

December 27, 1993

Chapter One

Mage Rage

"Calm yourself, Brian" I said.

"Calm? Why should I be calm? I'm pissed!"

"Who isn't? But hollering isn't going to help."

"Look who's talking."

"Yeah, well we've had our time to be flipped out, and now we're down to seeing what we can do about this." Brian stopped and pursed his lips.

"Ok, what have you done so far?" I explained the steps, few that they were. I couldn't see what else there was to do. "So, we either wait here for either the Meenzals or the Maal to come to us, or we take the initiative. Is that how you see this?"

"Yep, that's what I see. The question is, which is best? If we go off to see the Meenzals, the Maal can show up, if we go deal with the Maal, we may have cat burglars on K1 when we return. If we split up, we reduce our force considerably --not like it's any big deal as it is."

"We can hold our own. At least, we seem to have had luck on our side so far." That much was certainly true. "But I agree. There doesn't appear to be a way that deals with all of the possibilities."


"Damn. I better head back and get Kal and the kids to join us here. I think we'd better work from K1 rather than the Lunar Lab. I don't want to attract trouble so close to Earth."

"That sounds ok by me, I... did you say kids?"

"Yes, Kal and I have some new little additions to the family."

I blinked. "Say, what's the gestation period for a Velan?" Brian looked at me deadpan.

"About seven months. Why?" he asked, innocently. I looked at my watch.

"How time flies when you're having fun, eh?" I winked at Brian.

"Before you pass out cigars, these are adoptions. The family they belonged to has been disbanded, and they needed somewhere to go."

"Bring 'em on over, I'm sure they'll get along fine with the rest of the kids."

A few hours later, the roster at K1 was larger than it had ever been. We all sat down to a community meal so we could talk about the situation, and develop the beginnings of plans. Both Brian and I knew not to plan to the last detail --life had a great sense of humor when it came to changing the parameters of any given situation.

We decided to wait and see if the Maal would show up. But we also came to the resolve that we had to tell the Meenzals off. Jab said it was the only way to ensure they wouldn't consider us weak, and trot on over with a bigger force.

"Even if wrong, Meenzai try turn things to way Meenzai want." So Brian and I decided to send a probe to Meenzeii with a little message.

"To the Empire High Council:

The representative of Meenzeii introduced to us as Gal Meen has attempted to conscript our selves and our property. He and his force have been executed, and their ship taken as a prize of battle. Neither the bodies nor the ship shall be returned.

In the failed attempt, it was disclosed that this force has also given our location to the Maal as an attempt to extort our cooperation in assisting Meenzeii to defeat their longtime enemy.

Since such a transgression has been made against ourselves and our race, we are currently considering what retaliatory measures we feel are warranted."

"You realize, of course, that this message is likely to bring the largest part of their military to K1." said Brian after hearing the message I recorded.

"Yes, I do. But keep listening..."

"We further state that we have communication capabilities with the Maal, such as the method we use with you today. If any attempt is made to form a preemptive strike, we shall inform the Maal of your reduced military strengths, so they might attack you while you attack us. This transmission ends."

Brian whistled. "That's going to piss off the whole planet. Are you sure you want to send a message like that?"

I never got to answer. Penny and the K1 alarms started screaming at us. We had an armada of something that just triggered the sensors on the triship we had on station between us and Meenzeii. "What are they?" I asked Penny. A remote glided up to us.

"There's too much mass there for it to be the Maal, or at least anything we've seen of them." she said.

"So it's the Meenzals?" asked Brian.

"How can that be? We haven't sent our message." I said.

"It looks like the Meenzals," said Penny, "It can't be anyone else."

"Intercoursing cats!" snarled Kal. I glanced sideways at Brian.

"I think you mean 'fucking cats...'" he said. "Penny! What's the time factor?"

"They'll be here in an hour."

"Ok, everybody armor up; release all inhibitors, Penny. How many ships are inbound?"

"Looks like ten of them."

Brian and I looked at each other for a moment. "We'd better go meet them. We don't want them running a game plan on us." I said.

"I expect that the Meenzals have thought of that. No matter what, we're going to be playing this their way." he replied.

We figured to try. The Meenzai were coming in a flying diamond configuration. A pretty typical formation for a convoy in space. It allowed them to maneuver or split off easily, while maintaining a center of firepower. Of course, what did we expect from a military race? They knew the ways to get things done.

When we intercepted the Meenzai, they were 10 minutes out of K1. It took us the better part of the hour to get ready.

* * *

"Commander, we have a single target approaching us" said the First Officer.

"Bearing?" asked the Captain.

"Zero, zero, mark zero. He's dead ahead, Lord. Shall we hail them?"

"What is the configuration of the vessel?"

"It appears to be one of ours, Lord. It's a Meenzai Attack Ship as ours is."

"Open a channel."

* * *

The Commander loomed larger than life on the forward screen of the dreadnought. Before he could speak, I did.

"What is the meaning of this intrusion?" It took a couple of seconds for the Commander to control his surprise at seeing me instead of a crew of Meenzai.

"What business do you have with a ship of the Meenzai, human?" he snarled.

"I'll ask the questions here, bud." I snapped right back. "Either you start explaining, or I send you to the great cat box in the sky." My response was a torpedo blast that rocked the dred hard. I didn't return fire, but spoke again. "Repeat that stupidity, and die."

The Commander laughed at me. "And what will a single ship do against a strike force of the Meenzai?"

"Commander, we have more ships coming on sensors" said the First Officer.

Decloaking about the Meenzal ships were three triships, five sleds and the Sunbeam. They appeared slightly forward of the formation of Meenzai craft. "Energy readings from the ships, Bob. They're firing!" said Penny over the comm link. All of our ships let loose immediately.

The Meenzai craft tried to get underway, but Jab had predicted the way they'd react well. He decloaked the thug in front of the rightmost ship as it turned out of the formation and fired on it with all cannons. It bucked under the force, and turned to return fire against the thug.

It didn't get off a shot. The two Meenzal craft which were set to follow it out of formation collided with it and each other, illuminating space with a brilliant display of pyrotechnics. Brian fired at the ships on the leftmost side of the formation, and prevented their escape with the Sunbeam. The ships returned fire, but were destroyed by the triships. It wasn't a turkey shoot, the Meenzai had tricks we weren't expecting.

The craft in the center of the formation dove out at the oblique, and got off good shots at one of the triships and the dreadnought I was in. I was suddenly catapulted into space as the Meenzai craft disintegrated around me. As fast as the hell broke loose, it quieted. From my position I could see that there was a Mexican standoff. Five of the Meenzai craft remained, but one of them was burning in the aft section. All of our ships, except for the one I'd been in were intact, but I saw some arcing on the engine pod of the thug that indicated it was having some difficulty.

"It would seem, humans, that we have opportunity to plan how we shall kill one another." Apparently my armor was in good shape. The Meenzai commanders' voice came through clearly. Brian's voice followed.

"It would seem that you have the opportunity to choose how to die." he said calmly. More ships began to decloak all around what remained of the Meenzai formation. Unless I missed my guess, there were a lot more triships and Sunbeams than I remembered our having. A lot more.

*I hope those fucking projections appear on their sensors, Brian.*

*Shut up. I'm on a roll.*

*Fine. I'm glad one of us has a plan.*


"I hate it when this happens." I whispered to no one.

Chapter Two

Are you feeling lucky furball?

"Any sign that they have figured out the projections yet?"

"No. Unless those ships have a greatly different sensor arrangement than the one we captured. They are getting a visual only on the entire fleet" came Penny's reassuring voice.

I kept my fingers crossed. The Sunbeam and the three operational triships had all dropped the visual part of their cloaks. The rest of our little fleet. Some half dozen 'beam class starships and another 25 triships were a combination of illusion and holographic projects. I crossed my fingers and switched back to the comm channel that held the Meenzai commander.

"You have committed an act of war against my race and my readings confirm that your shields are weakening. If I don't see your weapon systems power down in the next few seconds, I will ship you home in a very small bag. You unweaned, milk sucking balls of lint have attempted to involve the Earth in your war and I'm putting a stop to it right now. You have twenty seconds" and I switched the comm to Zorac counting backwards.

By the time he reached fifteen, every 'beam class ship was rippling in the blue glow that signaled the Conversion Cannon charging. The nose of all the triships was glowing brilliant yellow from the solar energy they were ready to unleash. Sitting directly in front of the lead ship, the thug was going through similar procedures. A glance at it showed that Jab had brought the energy discharge from the engine module under control.

At the count of ten, one of the Meenzal ships tried to turn and run. Before I could do anything, Jab fired one of the shielded grav-torps at it and the ship winked out of existence. I didn't know the method they used to damp singularity reactions, but I could shield against it.

At eight, the damping field that had made such a mess of our first battle with the Meenzai flickered on. With a note that we were now only had 85 percent maximum energy available, I ignored it. The wings continued to ripple in the energy discharge.

At three, Zorac announced that the weapons systems on the remaining Meenzal ships were powering down.

"So you are not quite as stupid as you look" I said as I flipped the comm on. "You may survive to warn the rest of your race that Humans don't take shit from furballs."

*Remind me to talk to you about that when you get back* came Kalindra's 'path from where she was watching back on K1. I was way out of my range to reply, but I blew her an emotional raspberry through our link.

I stared at the Meenzai Commander. "I'm only going to ask this once so be careful how you answer." Watching him on my screen, I put everything I had into a telepathic burst. *And if you lie. You will not live long enough to hear my reply!* I had the satisfaction of seeing him startle as he heard my message.

"Now, what are you doing in this system?"

"We come in search of Gal Meen."

On a separate screen I looked at Jab. He was watching the whole show and I hoped he could signal me if this idiot tried to screw with us. Jab just nodded.

"Then why are you here? Gal Meen is back on your home planet."

"Then you have not seen him? Where did you get his ship then?"

I glanced at Jab who was shaking his head. "Wrong answer. Unless of course you are referring to the fake Gal Meen that is now fertilizer for my friends garden." I could see the Commander wanted to try to denigh it, but also realized I'd just caught him in a lie. He started to reply, and then slumped into his chair.

"Meen ne goth den" he sighed.

"If that means 'we are screwed', I'll have to agree with you. You assholes have endangered my race by trying to involve us in your war with the Maal. I ought to turn the entire lot of you over to them for a midnight snack." Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement on the link to the thug. With a glance, I noted that Bob had made his way to his own ship.

"No! You cannot..." and I flicked off the audio.

"Bob, do you have any ideas?"

"They look like snacks to me."

I looked that Commander trying to get my attention on the screen. "Who do you suppose these clowns are?"

"I'd expect they were the backup for our ex-Gal Meen. They probably got worried when he didn't check in or something."

"That's kind of what I was thinking. Let's find out shall we?" I flicked the audio back on. "How about if I ship the lot of you home instead?" If anything, the Commanders eyes got larger and he started screaming. I cut him off again. "Bingo. He may be afraid of becoming a Maal snack, but he's scared shitless of being taken home. Something tells me that this little group would be in deep shit with the powers that be in the Meenzai."

"But how do we send them home? If the Maal know where Earth is. We can't take off for ten days to escort them home and I'll kill them before I turn them loose."

"Bob right. Not let them walk away. Just be back again" came Jab's comment.

"Then I guess it's time for some more 'wizard shit' as you put it." I could see Bob wince and I had to snicker. "Hey, it's what I am. If you wanted dull and boring you should have made friends with an insurance salesman." I turned back to the other screen. The Commander had finally run down and was just watching me.

"You will put your ships into the following formation and wait." I sketched the formation into the computer and fed it through the link. "Penny, I'm going to need your remotes. Form them into an oval in front of the Meenzal's."

"May I ask why?"

"I need something to anchor at least one side of the Gate. The other end will wander, but it can't be helped. I'll just have to open it far enough from the planet that it won't intersect anything."

I'd learned under fire that I could open a Gate over great distances, but I had to be familiar with the destination. I'd been to both the Meenzal homeworld and the interstellar home of the Maal once now and that was all I needed.

Thirty minutes later, using the tractor locked remotes as an anchor, the largest Gate I'd ever opened shimmered into existence and gave us a clear view of Meenzeii in the distance. Even as the Gate cleared, the four ships tried to break and run for it. While I'd worked, Jab and Bob had targeted their powerplants with the micro singularity generators we used as weapons and propulsion. Within seconds of their first movement, they all started to drift as their source of power died.

"Commander, let's go see if anyone would like to talk with you." The Sunbeam took the lead and I snapped out tractor beams to take the four ships in tow. Even as we led the ships through the gate, I could see reactions in the defenses of the world in front of us. The planetary energy screen was alive and the orbital stations were leaking enough energy to push a small moon. Behind us, the three triships took up position on the Terran side of the Gate to guard it. I reached over and opened a third channel to the planet below.

"This is the Sunbeam. Your ships have commited an act of war against my race. I know how to counteract the method your race uses to disable the singularity generators we both use." I played with the tractor beam holding one of the ships and flung it off into open space. A second later the port grav generator flickered once and the ship vanished. "You have five minutes to get Gal Meen on this line or my next target will be your star. And I mean the real Gal Meen. Not that fake that we killed for pissing us off!"

"Jesus Brian! Are you trying to give me a stroke?" came Bob's cry from the Thug. "You can't be serious?"

"Deadly so... Penny has instructions to turn everything we know about the Maal over to Kimi in the event of my death. I'm sworn to defend the Earth against external threats and these fucking cats are more of a threat then the Maal. They either get their act together, or I'll personally pilot the Sunbeam into the heart of their star to make sure the job gets done."

Zorac had the course plotted and he needed only a word from me to initiate it. With one eye on the clock, I sat back and waited.

Chapter Three

Meeting the Master

"Jab, keep an eye on the Sunbeam. If it moves without warning, I want you to fire on its engines."

"What? You shoot Mage?" The cat was incredulous.

"If need be." I moved the thug astern of the Sunbeam, and ran the targeting myself. Jab looked slowly from the view ahead back to me. "Don't ask, pussycat."

"Not pussycat" said Jab. His tone wasn't convincing.

At 4 minutes and 12 seconds from Brian's deadline, the comm unit crackled and Jab engaged the visual. On our screen was a cat so ancient, it hardly seemed fair he was alive. But in his eyes was a pale blue fire which spoke volumes on intelligence, wile, cunning, and experience. Jab almost hurt himself as he threw himself out of the seat to prostrate before the image. "Is this your way of saying that this is Gal Meen of Meenzeii?"

The beast on the viewer was still powerful. It took a moment to see it, but there was sinew under that tattered fur. "I am Gal Meen. I await your choice."

"No, it's your choice, furball" replied Brian. He was as stiff now as he was earlier. The old cat flicked his wrist, and the nearest platforms in orbit over Meenzeii awoke briefly to spit death at the remaining ships contained in the Sunbeam's tractor. They each flared for an instant before turning to dust.

"The renegades have no value to us. If you returned them in hopes of reward..." the old cat shrugged.

"Reward? We want no reward" said Brian in disgust.

"Then what brings you here?" asked the cat. It was said quietly, and even with kindness.

"We are here to see to it that the Meenzai honor the sovereignty of our solar system, and..."

"Human," said Gal softly, "what you demand of me must be asked of yourselves."

"Hold on there, we didn't seek you out. It was the Meenzai who came to us. They came uninvited, they kidnapped our people, and engaged in acts of war."

"For the power of your legend, Mage, you lack great understanding. No Meenzai has existed for a thousand years."

The comm link was silent for a time. All of us sat stunned, trying to determine what sort of trick was being played this time. At least that's what I thought. The Sunbeam fired it's full compliment of forward facing weapons, and two of the orbital platforms exploded.

"Fire as much as you like, Mage. It will do you no good." The image of the old cat faded from the screen. The scene remained for a moment after, then the channel closed.

"A fucking projection?" I stuttered into the comm.

"Looks like it" replied Brian. The view outside the ships was changing. Platform after platform began to unfold, and the planet itself began to take some motion on its surface. At first it appeared as if the planet was made of billions of worms, writhing and knotting together. Then like the platforms, it too started to unfold.

Space before us changed into a sea of Maal.

Chapter Four

One problem at a time please

Even as I watched the orbital forts vanish, I noted that Bob had moved the Thug in behind the Sunbeam. He wasn't a coward and I could think of no good reason for him to be hiding behind me. I could however think of a bad reason for him to be sitting there. I couldn't worry about it now though. That was about the time the entire planet decided to play transformers and began to unravel at the edges.

"Jesus... Bob, head for the Gate!" I swung the Sunbeam around and spun up the main drive. The damned Gate was un-anchored on this end, so it was shifting position in space as we approached.

"Get it to hold still! How are we suppose to hit it while it's in motion?"

"Slow down and get it right the first time. You don't want to know what happens if you clip the edge." I fed some instructions into Zorac and headed for the cargo bays. The Thug was right beside the Sunbeam as we both slowed to catch the Gate at a stable moment. The instant it held still, the Sunbeam with the Thug right on its tail shot through it.

Floating in space on the Meenzeii side of the Gate. I closed it before the first of the Maal even got close.

* * *

"Well what the hell do we do now and what was that shit about blowing away the star?" I didn't get an answer from Brian, even though the Sunbeam was changing course to head to K1. "Brian?" Still no answer.

"Zorac, this is Bob. Is Brian ok?"

"Unable to answer question. The person in question is not on board."

"What?" I looked back at where the Gate had been a moment ago. "Where the hell is he?"

"Unknown at this moment. Last recorded position was one mile the other side of the H-space Vortex."

"Mage not let Maal follow us home. Now he die to protect planet and family" muttered Jab as I sat there in shock.

"Kalindra's going to skin me alive..."

* * *

I had bailed out of the Sunbeam with almost nothing. As the Gate vanished into random whisps of energy, I was floating in open space with my backpack and staff. Spinning myself around, I headed back towards the Meenzal homeworld at my best speed. What the Sunbeam had covered in a few seconds took me almost an hour. When I started getting close I saw just what I had expected to see. Cloaked as well as I could manage, I slid into orbit above one of the orbital forts and prepared to wait.

While I hung there in orbit I tried to figure out what Bob had been up to. I had a real bad feeling he had planned to try to stop me from carrying out my threat and I wasn't sure how to take that. What ever he had been planning, he was now five days away at the best speed of the Thug. Assuming of course that he even tried to return here. With the Sunbeam headed for K1 and Kalindra going ballistic when she found out I wasn't aboard. Bob was going to have his hands full for for at least a short time.

Whatever he did, he'd know I was dead within seconds of Kalindra feeling our link shatter. Even at this insane range I could still feel her presence faintly. She would know I was alive, but that was about all. I was thinking about the link when I felt the feather light touch of another mind sweeping through the space around me. I didn't bother to hide from it.

*So Human, you did not flee in terror at the sight of the Maal* came the voice of Gal Meen in my mind.

*If there had really been any Maal, I might not be here. My compliments to your Mage. That spell was nicely done. Now though, we still have something to discuss.*

*What would I have to discuss with you now that you are defenseless and not a threat to my planet?*

I didn't bother to reply. He figured he had the better hand in this game, but any doubt I could cause him was to my advantage.

*Very well Human. Perhaps we have something to talk about after all. I will arrange passage through the barrier for you.*

Gotcha! Still unsure about me even now I thought to myself. *I will wait then. I would not want to further weaken your planetary defenses against the Maal by forcing my way through your barrier. Besides, it's not honorable to intrude without an invitation.* As I watched below me, one of the grid squares in the planetary shield flickered off.

*Proceed through the opening Human. There will be a ship waiting to transport you to where I reside.*

I turned and dove through the opening in the grid. As soon as I dropped my cloak, the grid snapped back on. If they wanted to believe they now prevented my leaving, they were welcome to their delusions. Hovering beside the small shuttle I indicated that they should lead the way. The pilot tried to get me to step aboard the shuttle by opening the outer airlock hatch. I ignored it and he finally gave up. Matching every course change he made, we headed into the mountains above the city Bob had visited on his trip with Jab.

The shuttle passed through enough security shields and checkpoints to make the most paranoid Terran seem sane. I guess Gal Meen liked his privacy as much as his hide. The shuttle finally landed on a small pad hidden in the midst of the mountains. Even I didn't see it until we were almost on top of it. Letting my flight field dissipate. I came to a rest beside the shuttle as the outer hatch swung open. I stood absolutely still as the pilot and a dozen Meenzai poured through the hatch. At least twice that number appeared from out of hidden doors around the pad area and I felt like I was judge at a cat show.

"Well, are you going to try to shoot me or do I stand here and watch you guys freeze."

One hugh and grizzled looking Meenzai stepped before me. "You will leave all weapons here before we proceed."

"That is going to be a bit of a problem" I said. "I only brought one weapon and that's me."

"Then you are foolish as well as stupid."

"Tell that to my enemies if you can find any I've left alive." I let my defense shield flair for a second and watched the smug look vanish from his face. He backed away and spoke into some kind of device attached to his uniform. A moment later he got a reply and said "Follow me" as he turned to head towards one of the doorways. This was what I'd come for so I followed him.

As we stepped inside the mountain I found myself in real dim light so I popped a witchlight and set it to hover above my shoulder. The added light caught the attention of my guide and he turned to stare at me.

"Human, do not be so foolish as to attack anyone within the domain of Gal Meen. You would not live to see the results."

In the added light I could see him flexing those crazy claws of his. "Cat, the last furball that threatened me discovered that breathing vacuum is unhealthy. Would you like to join him?" He glared at me, but turned and continued down the corridor. I followed him doing breathing exercises to calm myself. This whole damn planet was determined to piss me off and I couldn't afford to let them. Finally, we came to a large set of double doors with a small army of guards watching it.

"Human, you are about to meet Gal Meen. High Lord of the Meenzai Council and someone who does not like being bothered with petty matters. I suggest you speak only when spoken to and you may live to see the light of day once more."

"Fuck you to hairball. Get the doors open."

He bristled, but barked an order to the guards who were watching us. As the doors swung open, we stepped into some kind of audience chamber and I could see Gal Meen resting on some kind of chair at the other end. As I was lead towards him I noticed his wall decorations. Most of them appeared to be stuffed and mounted trophies that I expect were in honor of battles he had won. Not a few of them were Meenzals of all ages and sizes. The rest were alien creatures that looked like they had come straight from a horror movie. That is, all but one that I stopped before and looked at.

What I was standing before looked like a Praying Mantis, only about ten feet tall. *That was a nicely executed spell. If I hadn't noticed the slight variations in the energy signatures, I would have believed it was indeed the Maal that were following me.* Nothing happened for a second, then the eyes opened and began to sparkle.

*Of course*

When I turned back towards Gal Meen I could see him nod his head in my direction. "You are the first to know that the Varn was not a trophy in my collection." Pulling a gun from no where, he vaporized the guard who had been with me. "And you shall be the only one who knows of it." I looked at the smoking remains on the floor and noticed the burn marks had a lot of company scattered around the room. "So Human. What have you to say that I wish to hear?"

Chapter Five

Goddam ego...

"That son of a bitch!" I yelled. Brian had really pissed me off. "Give a guy a magic wand and look at this shit!" Jab slunk out of the thug and tried to make for the cover of his lair on K1. He didn't make it. Kal foot swept him and sent the cat butt over teakettle.

"Where is Robert?" It was a demand, not a question.

"Right here." I snarled as I got off the ship. "And I don't want any shit about leaving your poor Brian to the wolves or whatever. What the hell is is with you people?" Kal was rippling with anger, but my verbal assault took her off guard. I think she expected me to be sheepish. I wasn't. "I took steps to keep that doof from doing himself in, I even had his engines targeted because he was threatening a suicide mission with the Sunbeam."

"He what?" she blinked and looked surprised. Being in a lousy mood, I pressed the advantage.

"If Brian doesn't come back from this one, it's because of magic, and nothing else. God DAMN!"

Kal bristled. "He has a duty of honor! ..."

"Fuck that kind of honor, Kal. His honor has his ass five days away at light speeds, and for what? Was earth threatened? Not so far. Has his family been threatened? In a way. Did he let us stand together against the assault? NO! Son of a bitch with his fucking know-it-all voodoo attitude." I kicked a small cargo crate across the hangar bay. "Damn him!"

Kal studied me for a moment. "You're worried about him." I nodded. "Tell me what happened."

"You didn't see or hear? PENNY! What the hell is the matter with your Hyperlink? PENNY!" I got no reply. "Christ! What now?"

"I'm right here" said Penny from the 'bot that swooped in from the main chamber. "And the Hyperlink is working just fine." I looked at Kal.

"Weren't you monitoring?" There was still an edge in my voice. Both Kal and Penny said 'yes' at the same time, and then they started talking in unison. Both saying different things at different times was bad enough, but Kal was speaking Velan.

"SHUT UP! Both of you. Just shut up a minute. Let me think."

Penny was quiet, but Kal was another story. "Do not speak to me that way, Robert." She showed her teeth as needle sharp rows, and her voice was low and menacing.

"Oh, fuck this." I said. "I don't want to fight with you Kalindra." I stomped my way out of the hangar bay and into the main K1 chamber. The kids were hovering by the door looking sheepish. As I approached, they shrunk back from the hatch.

"He looks really pissed." whispered Megan.

"Stay back, he might explode." Ficus whispered back.

"What will he do now?" asked Lythandi.

"What he does the worst" said Aron.

"What is that?" asked Sten. Ficus, Megan and Aron looked at each other, but it was Brenna who answered.


Chapter Six

Does anyone know what's going on?

"Why the illusion to scare us off?" I asked the ancient Meenzal on the chair in front of me. "In the end, it was a waste of energy. We could not have stayed away if we had believed the Maal would be following us."

"Because I saw no reason to let you feed off of the remains of my world when I was gone. When the final battle with the abomination known as the Maal comes. This world will be laid waste and my people with it."

"Huh? So the illusion was..."

"To keep you out of the way." he finished for me.

"They why keep sending those goons to harass my friends and I? We would never have even met you had it not been for your invasion of our system. You choose an odd method to keep outsiders from bothering you."

"That was a mistake even I did not know of until the damage had been done. Those responsible have been dealt with."

I looked at the burn marks on the floor. "Yeah, I've seen how you deal with problems. Still, it would have ended had you not sent that fake to try to sucker us into helping you."

"That one" he hissed. "When the time for dying comes I will feed that one's family to the Maal with my own claws! Had you not killed him, I would have made his suffering a thing of legends."

"I'll let my friends know that you didn't mind his being turned into fertilizer then."

"You believe you will ever see them again?"

I looked and noticed that his handgun had somehow ended up pointed my direction. "You will need to use something a lot bigger then that." I nodded in the direction of the Varn who was silently watching this whole thing. "You might ask your friend before you do something that you'll regret."

"That is not a friend. It is the last of it's race and is a tool for my use. It too once thought it could defy me. It's punishment was to watch the destruction of the world of its birth. I see little difference between it and you Human."

"Then your race deserves its fate. My mate was correct when she asked that we not tell you how to defend yourselves against the Maal. If they don't destroy you, we will be forced to do it for them." I was glaring at Gal Meen when the oddest expression came over his face.

"Defend against them? Explain this!" he shouted.

"Explain what? We gave you the information about the Maal's location and how to shield against their effects. Are your scientists so far gone that they are unable to understand simple astrogation and physics?"

For the next few minutes I was treated to the Meenzal version of a temper tantrum. Gal Meen stormed around the room screaming in Meenzeii so rapidly that I was unable to translate. I was forced to duck a couple of times because he kept shooting that pistol of his in rage at anything that got in his way. He finally ran down and plopped himself in his chair. After calling for some guards to clean up the area. I noticed that the Varn was playing statue as the guards hurried to comply.

"Human, I wish..."

"The name is Brian, use it." I interrupted.

I could see him thinking for a second. "Mage, I find myself in a position I never thought to be in again before I died." I just looked at him and waited for him to continue. "That" and he said something that sounded like a cat in a meat grinder, "and his family will never live through the punishments that I will visit upon them. His treachery will serve as an example to my people of how low one can become."

"So your puppet went bad on you. What's that got to do with me and my friends."

"My puppet as you phrase it, decided to better his position by neglecting to pass on information to his master. It would also seem that he distorted what information he did pass along. Know this then from the master himself. The information given me about the one named Bob was that he returned after your visit to the Maal to gloat of his escape and our coming destruction. No mention was made of information that would serve to prevent the death of my race."

I thought about what the fake had told Bob and what Jab had said of the legends of the StarMen. In an insane fashion it made sense. One being had decided to take a chance with the lives of his race in an attempt to get Bob and I involved with him against the Maal. Or maybe he intended to use us to divert the Maal while he climbed into power. I wasn't sure anymore and I was getting a headache trying to keep track of all the double deals that were going on. "You need to use better material in your puppets" was all I said in the end. Gal Meen just nodded in agreement.

"So, where does that leave me and my friends. Your race has involved us in a war with the Maal, and we are not in a position to defend against such an enemy and you at the same time. My reason for being here is still valid. I want your assurance that the Meenzai will bother my race no more so that we can concentrate on dealing with the Maal."

"And if I was willing to give that assurance? What would you provide in return?" asked the tired looking Meenzal before me.

"I'll start with promising not to turn off your star. Anything more than that, we need to talk about as equals."


"Yeah. Either get me a chair or get down here where I don't have to stare up at you all the time." I swear I heard a muted chuckle come from the ancient hulk in front of me. I moment later a couple of guards brought in a chair and we sat down to negotiate. It took the better part of two days, but we ended up with something neither of us liked, but could live with.

* * *

"I will send you the information on the shield design with an hour of my return."

"The first patrol ships will launch when we have the information" came Gal Meen's reply.

With a freshly signed copy of the first treaty between our two races. I keyed the Gate before me and stepped through to the landing bay of K1. It closed behind me, but only to the quiescent state. That gate was going to get used a lot in the times to come. Beside me stood a short female Meenzal who was looking around in curiosity. We didn't even have time to move before every alarm in the place started screaming in our ears.

"Shit, Bob still hasn't turned those damn things down!" I shouted to my companion. She just covered her ears in disgust. About that time Ficus and Bob came running into the docking bay with full armor on. Behind them I could see Jab and the rest of the family. I didn't have to see Kalindra to know she was both glad I was alive and pissed as hell because I'd not told her what was going on.

"Jesus Christ! How the hell did you get here?"

"Could you do something about the alarms?" I was covering my ears too by now. The alarms were echoing within the bay and were beginning to hurt. Direct as ever, Bob turned and put a plasma bolt through the nearest one as he sent the commands to shutdown the rest of them. "Ah, silence at last."

"Now tell me what the hell has been going on! I ought to kill you for pulling that stunt with the Gate. What the hell do you mean bailing on me that way?"

"It's a long story, but first I have to introduce the newest resident of K1." I nodded at the Meenzal at my side. "I'd like to introduce the Meenzal ambassador to Earth, Jasm mal Eo."

"Ambassador? What..." he was drowned out by a growl from Jab behind him. Forcing his way around Bob, Jab stepped to the front of the group and stared at my companion. Then they started to snarl at each other. Everyone but me about had a fit when Jab fainted.

"What the hell did she say to him?" asked Bob as he picked up his furry friend and held him.

"I'm not real sure, but I believe the rough translation would come out as 'hello grandpa'". I just smiled as they stood there with their mouths open. I'd finally gotten one over on that fuzzy monster and it felt wonderful!

Chapter Seven

It's nice to be wanted...

"Don't give me that shit! Just try and tell me that you weren't going to fire at me if I started towards that star!" I glared at Bob across the dinner table. He'd been pissed ever since I got back and had finally let loose.

"Damn right I would have. What the hell good are you if you try to go suicidal on us?" he yelled back at me. "We need you around to pull rabbits now and then. You can't do shit if you're plasma, asshole!"

"So that's all I'm good for is the occasional trick huh..."

"Yeah, and those are bad enough with your ego. I swear you seem to think you can push the planets around to suit your every whim."

"You give me access to the energy I'd need and I could. Besides, if I decide my life is a good trade for 5 billion, it's my business!"

"You're forgetting someone aren't you?" came the low snarl from Kalindra. "I have an interest in keeping you around even if you are a pain in the ass."

"I'll buy you a vibrator, now shut the fuck up." I turned back to Bob. "And you need... <ouch!>" As Kalindra grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled me to the ground. I found out one of the few disadvantages of having long hair. "Shit, let go!"

"You need a lesson in humility I think" as she snarled at me. From someplace in the background I heard Ficus mutter "Cool..." and Karen telling them to go to their rooms.

"You have 2 seconds to let go of my hair."

"Or what?"

"This..." I reached over to the table and grabbed the bowl of mashed potatoes. Swinging around, I pasted her square in the face with the bowl. My reward was to get backhanded across the table into Bob. It caught both of us by surprise and it took us a couple of seconds to untangle ourselves.

Getting to my feet, I started yelling across the table. "Damnit, that was one of my favorite shirts!" My T-shirt was hanging in shreds where she had slashed me. I was starting to drip a little blood on the floor also. Across the table, Kalindra was wiping globs of potato from her eyes. Since Bob was closer I started in on him first. "And as for you, you little <oomph>"

It is a terrible feeling to try to inhale when nothing wants to work. Sitting on the floor after getting belted in the gut by Bob. I would have given almost anything to breathe correctly.

"You stay out of this. He's my mate and I'll teach him any lessons he needs to learn."

"Screw you. He's my friend and I get a shot at him if you do."

I was still trying to inhale so I didn't say anything at all.

"He's mine!" Kalindra yelled as she jumped over the table. "Besides, I can always heal anything I break when I'm finished with him."

"Like hell he is" as Bob turned back towards me.

I was still gasping like a fish as I tried to crawl under the table. I almost was safe until Karen grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me back. "Oh no you don't. I've got a few things to say to you also." I managed a feeble <gleep> and broke her hold by kicking her with my other foot. Using the chairs as cover, I worked my way underneath the table and made a run for the door. I almost ran over Bob's kids as they stood outside the door to listen to the fun.

"Get the hell out of the road" I gasped. Unfortunately they slowed me down just enough for Kalindra to grab me by what remained of my shirt and yank me back into the room. Food went everywhere as I slid across the table and onto the floor at Karen's feet.

"Kick me you Son of a Bitch!" I was already covered with food so the salad that she dumped over me just made me a little more colorful. About that time Bob and Kalindra reached me from two different directions.

"I get to beat some sense into him first" yelled Bob.

"I'm going to skin him" snarled my loving mate.

"He can make his own cookies from now on" grinned Karen.

I struggled to my feet. "Now wait a minute! What the hell is this? Kick the shit out of Brian night?"

"Yes" came the reply from above me. I started to turn and caught sight of one of Penny's remotes as it slammed into the side of my head. The last thing I remember was her yelling "Abandon your sister without even saying good-bye!"

It was a week after I woke up before anyone would even talk to me. That included Zorac, who had decided somehow that he didn't like the idea of leaving his true love behind.

Ain't family life wonderful?

Chapter Eight

Going once, twice...

Brian was in the gateroom. He'd drawn armor duty and was in there servicing the suits. That meant he got to clean the filters which cleaned body fluids and stored them as clean water, replace the activated filters in the rebreathers, and tune up the various mechanisms.

The adults were stiffing him, and the kids were frightened of him, so it was a lonely few days for the ArchMage of Terra. We'd decided among ourselves to end it today, he was looking pretty forlorn and it _had_ been four days. The luck of the draw, and a little interference from Penny, he'd miraculously drawn the chores everyone hated all that time. I'd gone to tell him he was out of the doghouse --but I'd wait till he had the suits done.

I stuck my head around the large blast door hatchway from the main chamber, and saw that he was just finishing up. "Hi, Brian! I just thought I'd tell you..." I was suddenly soaked. "What the hell? ..." A half step later, I slipped on the wet deck and fell on my rear end.

"Ah!" said Brian triumphantly. "It worked!" He smiled broadly.

"What's this shit?" I asked without amusement.

"Nobody was talking to me, so I figured I was already in trouble so I --well, it looks like you're talking to me now!"

It was hard to be angry. I'd just been had by the bucket of water over the door trick, something I've always thought was funny. I smiled. "Caught by the old invisible pole holding the invisible bucket trick. You're an asshole, Brian."

"I know. But if you didn't have an asshole, you'd be full of shit." he beamed.

"You're a waste of butt wipe, Antoine." Brian held out a hand and I took it and stood up. "And we accept your apology." We stepped into the main chamber, and Jab ran by us, headed for the hangar. I said hi, and asked where he was off to. He didn't respond, but ran ahead into the hangar. A few seconds later, we heard the whine of a spooling sled and knew he'd gone off station for some reason. That reason came walking down the path towards us.

"Have you seen Nahn?" said Jasm. "I like talk to him. He is funny. I like funny. Do you like funny? I will spend a long time talk with Nahn."

"I think I saw him back by the aviary" said Brian, pointing to the opposite end of the station. Jasm trotted off, still talking about how she liked talking.

"My cat's going to kill you, you know" I said, watching as Jasm disappeared up the path. "And Jasm isn't going to like finding out that we don't have an aviary."

"It's like she's in love with Jab. Do Meenzals mate with their own families?"

"Aw jeez, Brian. Come on." He was looking proud of himself as we went up the path to meet with the rest of the family. It was time for a strategy meeting to see what we would do for the Meenzals, or what we wouldn't.

Kalindra was all business. "I do not trust the Meenzals. In our dealings with them, they have always been untrustworthy."

"That's true," said Brian. "But remember that we were having dealings with some very dishonest Meenzals. I think Gal Meen is a good man."

"Man? He's no man" said Karen.

"Can we be more constructive?" I asked. "Brian has made an agreement and it's up to all of us to honor it."

"Well, who told him he could speak for us?" asked Karen.

"If one of us speaks, all of us speak. You know that."

"And I paid my dues" piped Brian. He rubbed his chest where the claw marks from Kal were healed, but still itched.

"What is it that we must do?" asked Kalindra. "Will we go to battle?"

"We might. For the most part, it's up to us to support their science." Brian answered. "They've got a nasty way of penalizing failure, and science experimentation is loaded with failures."

"You mean they have all their scientists in jail?" asked Karen.

"No. That isn't the penalty. They killed them all off."

"What a bunch of morons" I said.

"Who moron?" Jab had returned from his sled ride and padded up to where we were gathered.

"You are, fuzz face." I said. The cat snorted at me and went digging in the box of sandwiches that Karen and Kal had brought.

"No hegg salad" Jab complained.

"Can't win 'em all, cat" said Brian. He was smiling alot today.

"So, where do we begin with all of this? Are we supposed to make space ships or something?"

"Not exactly, Bob. We may build some prototypes, for technology transfer. But the Meenzals will do the actual manufacturing."

"And where is all of this happening?"

"I thought right here on K1."

"My home? An industrial center?" I was dubious.

"No, they'll be the industrial center. This will be for R&D."

"Not so bad, I guess. What's first? Where do we start?"

"Teach how make hull metal" said Jab. "Dred ship break like glass."

"Tell me about it."

"Well, we can't give them hull metal, that's a reserved material. Besides, I don't think that the Meenzals are equipped to make it even if I told them how."

"Yeah, I guess that's right. So what ARE we going to do?"

"Well, the first thing is finding a way to shield the Meenzal dreds against Maal transmissions. If they can move among the Maal without getting their brains zapped, the Maal aren't that hard to destroy." Brian started drawing the outline of a dreadnought on the tabletop. "I think we're going to have to redesign the emitter arrays completely --the dreds not being made of hull metal means that the hull itself can't radiate the shield like the Sunbeam and thug do."

"That means we can't beef up the armor emitters then" said Aron. "The armor is made of hull metal too."

"Right, Aron" said Brian. "Do you have any other ideas?" The boy shook his head.

"I have an idea" said Lythandi. Kal and Brian looked at her and nodded in encouragement. "What if you treat it like a planet?"

"I don't get it." I said. "What do you mean?"

"Well, most planets have a gravity field and an atmosphere. The gravity holds the atmosphere in place, and the atmosphere filters out a lot of the radiation from the planets star."

"And the field also deflects a lot of it too. Go on, this has a good ring to it." I meant it.

"Well, that's what I mean. Could you make a field around the ship, maybe use the shields they already have, to hold a kind of filter atmosphere in place?"

"An area of reflected resonance" mused Brian. "Yeah, that might work."

"Is good idea" said Jab. "We can do like this." The cat set out to explain what he meant, but Jasm came running up as he was starting. She started to say something, but looked at the drawing on the table and got an inquisitive look on her face.

"This is a Bazit. What are you talking about?"

"What's a buh-zeet?" I asked.

"S'what you call a dreadnought" answered Brian. "It's their midsize cruiser."

"We find way to shield ship from Maal" said Jab. He spoke quickly in Meenzeii, and Jasm nodded as he spoke. She surprised all of us when she launched into a description of the wavelengths we'd need in order to set the retainer field's position. It took about five minutes for us all to come to the conclusion that while she was talkative, Jasm was a hell of an engineer.

"All of the Brace Eo are engineers. We were taught the calstick as soon as we could hold one."

"Calstick," said Aron. "Is that like a slide rule?"

"Is much like. But use higher function" replied Jab. We got off on a tangent discussing calculators, and Jasm promised to make one for Aron before we got back on track. Once back on the subject, Sten started to draw up what he envisioned from our discussions. With few modifications, we had firm plans to work from in short order.

"These kids are good, Brian." I said looking at Sten's drawing.

"Yeh, they seem to get along with yours pretty well." It was true. They had packed up like a group of dogs. I said so and Kal slapped me in the back of the head.

"No offense, Kal. It was a figure of speech."

"I know" she smiled. And then flipped her tail so it tweaked my nose.

"Today just gets better all the time" said Brian. He was smiling again.

Chapter Nine

Stiring the pot

With a <snap>, the last of the modules were connected and with my fingers crossed I flipped the power switch. When I opened my eyes, I found Lythandi staring at me oddly, but no smoke from the terminal.

"That is an odd way to checkout new equipment."

"You haven't had as many spectacular fires as I have when installing new hardware" I chuckled. "Anyway, you are now the proud owner of a fully functional remote access terminal to my sister."

"Why do you call her sister? Does that make her part of the family?"

"It's a long story and I'm sure she would rather tell you about it herself. She loves boring people with stuff like that." I kicked the box of hardware on the floor. "Don't you sis..."

"You want to clean armor filters for the next two months?" came Penny's voice from the collection of hardware around us. "I'm sure the others would be more then glad to let you if you continue to say things like that about me."

I ignored her and continued on. "Since the hardware seems to be working, except for an annoying whine in the speaker. Here's what I would like you to work on for me." I sat down and called up the star chart for the area around the Earth. "Starting here, I'd like you to start indexing the charts we got from the Guardian, the Meenzai and the charts from the Central Library. What I'm looking for is the position of Velar relative to Earth."

"Didn't those who took Bob's ship chart their course?"

"They did, but the charts were destroyed when we blew the ship out from under them. The idiots hadn't taken the time to copy their working charts to the Meenzai databases. So, we get to try to figure out how they got home and how to get to each other through normal space."

"I still think using a Gate would be quicker."

"True, but there may come a time when the Gate's aren't usable. I'd like to have some way of getting home if that ever happens."

She cocked her head and looked at me funny again. "Which home do you mean?" I smiled, but didn't answer. "Oh... Do I still get to design the orbiting eye for my world?"

"Yep, that's part of the deal." I had gotten the specs for the Hubble Space Telescope and fed them to the Central Library. After adjusting for technological differences and fixing some design bugs. The local Velan Astronomers had descended upon Lythandi with requests to build and orbit one of their own. I'd agreed to place it in orbit if they could get it built. It was the first time I'd ever seen a Velan drool in excitement.

"Anyway, split your time between your own work and the index if you can. Between that and arranging for Sten to apprentice with one of the local artists. You should be kept more than busy."

She looked around the room. "And cleaning also. Does Kalindra know you borrowed one of her workrooms?"

"Yes, but I don't think she expected me to take the entire room. If she has anything to say about it, send her to me."

"Yes ne Kan" and she gave me a small formal bow. I'd tried to get her to stop doing that when I asked her to do something for me, but I wasn't having much luck. I just shook my head and headed for the Gate back to K1. I swear I heard her laugh though as I left the room.

"So, you have the young ones taken care of for the moment?" asked my mate as I stepped through the Gate into the lunar lab.

"They have a roof over their heads, food to eat and work to do. They should be fine, but I still expect to check in on them once in a while."

"As will I. We have taken responsibility for their actions and honor. It would not do to leave them unsupervised so soon after they have joined our family. Still, I agree with you. The middle of what might become a war is no place for ones so young."

"Yeah... Just us old farts are suppose to get shot at, right?"

"You are old? Maybe I should begin looking for someone younger to lead when you are gone." I could see the twinkle in her eyes as she said it.

"Why do you think I took a mate so young? I wanted someone who could feed me my mush when I grow feeble and useless."

We were still standing there teasing each other when Ficus came running through the gate behind me. "Huh? Where have you been?"

"Uh... Well..."

"Come on, spit it out. I'm not going to toss you outside the dome. I'm just curious to know what you were doing on Velar. You kids haven't shown much interest since that one trip to find the cure for Bob."

"You won't tell my Dad?"

"Unless you were getting into trouble, no."

He grinned and proceeded to say hello to both Kal and I in Velan. His accent was a little odd, but we both understood him. "Sten?"

"Yes, he's teaching me Velan and I'm teaching him English." He pulled the clip-on translator from his ear and stuck it in his pocket. "This works ok, but I don't want Penny to have to translate for me all the time."

"First Japanese, now Velan. You going to start on Meenzeii next?"

"I already have. Jasm is teaching me when she isn't busy giving Jab a headache." Turning back to the Gate, he touched the marker for K1 and hopped back through as soon as it cleared.

"Bob has unique children" muttered Kalindra. I had to agree.

"Well, shall we get back to work? We still have that prototype generator to finish up and install."

"Work, work, work..." she muttered as we stepped through the Gate behind Ficus.

"Yeah, but I try my best to cover for the lazier members of my family." I started running before I finished saying it, but still got tackled from behind and tickled. We were laying in the grass in the courtyard entrance when Jab peeked around the doorway and tried to get our attention.

"Mage and furry... Is clear?" he tried to whisper.

"Is what clear?" asked Kalindra as she sat on my chest to keep me quiet.

"Have no seen Jasm?"

"No, I haven't. I think she is giving Ficus language lessons."

Jab relaxed a little and stepped out of the doorway to walk over to us. Kalindra released me just enough so I could roll over on my stomach and face him. "She still bothering you?"

"All time. Want hear story about famous grandfather."

"Famous or infamous?" I chuckled.

"Is same to her. Always want more story. Driving Nahn crazy she is."

I had to admit he was looking a little more frazzled than usual. I also had to admit I was enjoying it completely. When Gal Meen had asked that I accept an engineer in the roll of ambassador, I'd had no problems with it. He had wanted at least one Meenzal to understand some of what we would be providing to them. It had only been by chance that I'd recognized Jasm's family name since I'd almost never heard Nahn called by his complete name. The chance to have a little fun with the furry monster had been too good to pass up.

"You'll get use to it. Adoration by female's is the price we male's have to pay for being so popular." I could hear Kal growling behind me and Jab snickered.

"Mage still talk before think."

"All the time. I have to keep her amused or she'd leave me for someone younger." That did it, and I found myself being tickled again until I cried for mercy. When I got my breath back, Jab was still sitting there watching us.

"Seem to work good" he said to Kalindra while I rested on the grass.

"Nahn, have you thought about our first test run of the new shield generator?" I enjoyed watching him try to switch trains of thought at my change of subjects.

"What mean?"

"You know there is only one way to really test that thing."

"Was hoping Mage would think of second way" he answered with a hopeful look on his face.

"Nothing that would prove it completely."

"Was afraid of that. Will have to test by going to visit Maal again."

"Yep, and we'll have to use a Meenzai ship for the test."

"Use Meenzai for crew also. Not believe otherwise."

"Yeah, that's what I figured." I sat up and got comfortable as my ribs quit hurting from the tickling. "I assume you will want to act as guard for Jasm during the tests."

"Guard? What mean?"

"Jasm is the Meenzal engineer that will be held responsible for the results of the tests. If something doesn't work right, I don't think we would want her treated the way the Meenzai seem to think is normal." Jab had to agree with me as he proceeded to grow to six feet in diameter as he hissed his anger.

"First Meenzai look at Jasm bad become furry cloud!"

"That's what I thought. Have you considered building a set of armor that would fit her?" He hadn't, but liked the idea.

"Meenzai grow old trying to hurt her then! Jab have work to do. Mage have thanks for thinking about Jab's family." He turned and ran towards the underground work areas that we used for design and testing the things we built on K1.

"Of course you'll have to spend a lot of time with Jasm as you're fitting the armor to her" I called after him. I could see him stumble as he thought about it, but he continued on his way to the labs.

"Oh mate of mine..." came the low purring voice behind me.


"This female would find her mate more adorable if he helped her clean up after working on greasy machinery all day." She said it while massaging my back as I sat there in the grass.

"And would she return the favor by scrubbing her mates back in the shower?" About that time Karen stuck her head out the door and announced that dinner would be ready in about an hour. "Think we can get done in an hour?"

"Not if I can help it" came Kal's snicker.

Getting to my feet I extended my hand and helped her up. "You are a terrible influence on me, you know that?" We headed for the rooms Bob had given us to get cleaned up. We were 10 minutes late to dinner and Bob gave us shit about it.

"And why the hell have you been smiling so much the last few days" he muttered as we sat down. As we sat I tickled Kal and she snickered back as her tail wrapped around my leg to the sounds of her bell chiming. I just smiled and started dishing up our plates.

"Jesus, newly weds... Give's me a pain in the butt..." he muttered.

Karen heard him and whacked him with a spoon. "How come you never snuggle up to me like that?"

"What are you talking about?" Bob yelled.

I just smiled and enjoyed my dinner.

Chapter Ten

What was THAT?

The Meenzai had to kill five of their own before they got a group to volunteer to take the newly shielded dreadnought through Maal space. Even so, they group of cats sitting at the preflight briefing weren't exactly enthusiastic. In fact, they demanded that the engineer who was responsible for the shield design to accompany them. This request was denied quickly.

We did, however, need to have someone aboard to make sure that the cats actually got to the Maal, and not make a permanent side trip on the way. I was on the surface, tweaking the sensor array for K1 when the others took the vote. It wasn't a big surprise to find that I was the one elected to go. Being loyal, Jab said he'd go if I would, so the two of us set out to check and recheck our armor, weapons, and other equipment.

We had one thing on our side to keep the Meenzai in line. We had armor and they didn't. Not only couldn't they harm us while we wore it, but we were in a position to vent cabin pressure if they tried. We were sure to explain all of this to the cats. They were totally uninterested, which surprised me.

"You can't blame them" said Brian. We were making some last minute preparations and talking about the trip.

"What do you mean?" I asked the Mage.

"Think about it. Dying from a rail blast or through decompression would be a lot better in their eyes than to be taken over by the Maal." I saw his point.

"What should I be expecting from them?"

"I don't know. Maybe nothing. The Meenzals that gated over have spent more time talking to Jasm than they've been looking into the ship."

"Looking for reassurance, eh?" Brian snorted.

"Hardly. It's more like they've been taking their time explaining what's in store for her entire family line if this mission goes bad."

"That's what I like about Meenzals. Always to the point." Brian laughed at this.

"They are single minded, aren't they?"

"Yeah, eat or kill. Don't these fuzzwarts ever fuck?"

"They must. They're a surviving race." Brian looked at me with that smartass look he gets when no argument can be made.

"Drop dead, Brian."

"Not today, kitty boy, you're the one going on the trip."

That much was certainly true, and it was time to get moving. We called the cats for a final mission briefing.

"It's simple," Brian said. "No fancy stuff, no heroics. Get in, let them see you, let them try to use their control trick, and then get the hell out of there."

There was some stirring among the Meenzals. "Lord, we wonder of do a thing?"

"What's that?" asked Brian.

"We like to leave one soldier to stay on Jasm."

Brian laughed out loud. "You mean that you want to leave one of you to stay WITH Jasm? No, that can't be done. The mission goes with a minimum compliment to operate the ship. If one of you stays, we have to get a replacement from Meenzeii. I don't think Gal Meen would like that."

The Meenzai nodded. "It is true, yes. It is true yes too that we Meenzai wish ...garany."

"I think he means guarantee, Brian." I injected.

"No, no guarantee. This is an experiment" replied Brian.

"Are you sure that this was the right thing to tell them?" I whispered.

"Hope so."

It was. The Meenzai said a word or two in Meenzeii to the others and then spoke. "We will do for Meenzeii. Live the Empire long time!"

At least we didn't laugh. The Meenzals were serious, and they still were when we boarded the ship a half hour later. A half hour after that, while we flew in hyperspace towards the Maal, they invoked their plan for mutiny. It lasted all of four minutes, and most of that was in discussion as they stated their demands.

They'd taken Jab as their hostage, and believed that gave them some protection. After all of their mangled English demands, I simply suggested that they shoot Jab, and that afterwards we could get back to the mission.

"You no believe we kill friend for Bob?" said the leader.

"No, I simply don't care. Do what you want."

The Meenzal stepped back from Jab and pointed his hand weapon at the cat's head. "Do not make us to do this."

"Fuck you." I said. The Meenzal fired, and as we expected, the armor protected the cat. The detonation also invoked the program that Penny had installed that vented three quarters of the cabin pressure. I stood my ground and looked at the Meenzal. "And now?"

The cat was gasping for air, and waved a paw in submission. I gave the verbal command for the ship to restore atmosphere, and in a few seconds, the pressure was mostly restored. "Face it, Kitty-Poo, you're in this for the duration." The cat nodded glumly. It was the last incident of the trip. At least it was aboard the ship. During the next eight days we travelled to Maal space, waded through them, shot a few, and started back home.

We were in hyperspace on our way back when Penny called me on a private channel. "I hate to bring you bad news, but you're being followed." she said in my helmet. "As fast as you move through space, the Maal are right behind you." She gave me some coordinates. "Steer this, and meet Brian and Kalindra. They're in route with the Sunbeam." The message stopped, and so did the connection.

"Jab, did you hear that?" I asked. The cat nodded.

"Yes. Jab hear."

"What do you think?"

"Think it not electric lady."

"Me too. Penny can't resist a wisecrack, and she's a lot more talkative than that."

"Is trap" said the cat.


"We go?" he asked.

In answer, I swiveled in the chair and spoke to the leader of the Meenzai. "We have just been contacted by someone we believe is pretending to be someone they aren't." I explained the circumstances, and then took off my helmet. We were all in the same boat, so I took a vote among the cats. "Do we want to go where we were told, or do we want to go somewhere else?"

The cats looked at me. "We not go like in prison?"

"Nope." I opened a small compartment and grabbed his hand weapon and tossed it to him. "Our mission was a success. It's done. What happens now is strictly voluntary."

The big cat holstered his weapon. "We follow Bob."

"Then let's go see what we were invited to."


Chapter Eleven

Prey to the victim

The coordinates that 'Penny' had given us required a three day trip in hyperspace. The leader of the Meenzai, Rak Zi, had calculated the voyage and showed me his results.

"Help me here, Rak. I understand the direction and all that, but where does that actually have us emerging from hyperspace?"

"Not have ..reference? Yes. Not have reference to show. Is where not have go to."

I didn't like the sound of that, and told Jab to open a link to K1 and talk to someone. I wanted confirmation that we were right, it wasn't Penny who'd contacted us, and I wanted to see what they thought of all this. "Have try. Can not make the link to Penny, no talk to K1."

"Shit." Well, it looked as though we were on our own. "Rak, bring the ship out of hyperspace."

"Stop now?"

"Right now."

"But not anywhere and Maal behind us."

"So what? We already know that we're shielded against their worst weapon, and we know enough of where we are to get back on course to go home."

"Nie bruchk ta heh!" Barked Rak, and the ship dumped itself rather unceremoniously into normal space. As the stars became visible on the screens, we began to scan for trailing Maal. Our expectation came true, we saw none.

"Ok, that tells us something." I said.

"Tell what?" asked the First Officer. He'd forgotten himself for a moment, then looked alarmed and worried when he realized he'd spoken.

"Relax, I run a cooperative ship. I want to hear the concerns of the crew." The cat looked relieved. "And to answer your question, we know that the Maal are not in hot pursuit of us, and are probably waiting for us at the coordinates we were given by that impostor."

"We go kill Maal?" asked Rak.

"I think yes, we kill the Maal now. But we need to do something first. We need to either go to or establish communication with my base."

"Why not we go to Meenzeii?" asked Jab. "Is closer and have many Meenzai to help fight."

"MEENZAI!" yelled the crew.

"Would you cats shut up? Jeez, you sound like a pom-pom squad for a high school. Jab, we could go to Meenzeii, and we could collect up a good sized force. But when it came down to it, all there'd be is us in this one ship."

"What mean?" asked Rak. "Have many Meenzai on Meenzeii."

"Meenzai, Meenzeii, miney, moe. There is something you should know. Like, this is the only ship that's shielded from the Maal."

I'd never seen such an immediate loss of enthusiasm before. My once valiant and eager crew slumped in their saddles and moped.

"Is hopeless" said Jab.

"Far from it, catnose." The Meenzal snorted and gave me a dirty look. "What we need to do is beat feet for K1, or get close enough that whatever is blocking our communications can be overpowered."

"Get Mage?" asked Jab.

"Get Mage." I said to the Meenzal, and I made a mental note to let Brian know about it. Two seconds later I scrubbed that idea. The last time we let Brian know the cat had some respect for him, he brought us another cat. And a chatty one at that. All I needed was another chatty catty. "Ok! Warp speed, Mr. Scott."

The cat crew stared at me. "Come on. You mean you guys don't have Star Trek on Meenzeii?" The cats looked at each other and then back at me. If cats can do deadpan, these felines sure as hell could. "Hyperspace! We need to go to hyperspace." I made a whooshing noise and ran my hand through the air like a jet. Rak looked at though a light bulb appeared over his head and started barking commands. In a few moments, the screens faded and we were out of normal space.

It was a day and a half before we were able to raise K1.

Chapter Twelve

Too damned arrogant for my own good

"So about that time I knew something was wrong and started analyzing the signal" came Penny's voice from the speaker.

"I didn't give you any shit, so you thought something was wrong?"

"Something like that" she chuckled. "When I looked closer at the signal, I noticed there wasn't any background noise present. The Maal duplicated your voice exactly, but didn't duplicate the environment. That, and I would never believe that the Hyperlink would just cut out completely like that."

"Yeah, I saw how Brian magic's those things."

"Anyway, Jasm and he launched in the Sunbeam about 4 hours later."

"So where the hell is he?"

"About a day from where the Maal are. I'm trying to get through to him using the relays he dropped. Given the round trip delay, it is still going to be a few minutes before I could hear his response."

Brian and Jasm had launched a follow-up mission to come get us after we had dropped out of sight. When they too had discovered that all Hyperlink communications were dead about a days travel from K1. They had started dropping probes to act as relay stations every so often as they continued on. Now Penny was trying to get through to them to let them know we were safe.

"How are Karen and Kalindra taking all this? They had to have put up a good fight before they got left behind."

"Brian was still healing a couple of the slashes from the discussion he had with Kalindra when he left. At the moment, your wife is teaching Kal dirty songs while they finish off the last round of B52's they made."

I heard a click and then the bridge of the dreadnought was filled with a gawd awful screeching. When Penny turned it down, I could make out Kal trying to sing the refrain to a song I'd taught Karen one time.

"Furry lady not sing well" muttered Jab as he winced at the noise.

"Furry lady is bombed out of her mind. Something tells me they don't have alcohol on Velar." With another click, the bridge fell silent.

"They are both going to be ill in the morning if I... Hold on... I just got a signal from Brian." I waited a few minutes while Penny worked her way through the message. "Ok, I caught him in time. He does say that he got another 'message' from you that directed him to a deep space meeting. The coordinates are close to those you got, but they don't match. He says that you should meet someplace and then go from there. He gave me a set of coordinates to pass on."

Penny rattled them off and the Meenzai navigator plotted our course. "Ok, that's at least a start. Tell him we'll meet him in about 3 days. When we get out of range you're going to lose us again. We don't have a handy supply of probes to drop behind us."

"I'll tell him. It will take about an hour for the message to reach him so he may be a tiny bit late meeting you."

"I'll wait. Tell Karen and Kal to sober up and keep and eye on the kids while we're gone. I'll check back when we get within range of the relay's."

"I'll tell them. Don't worry about the kids, I'm helping keep them in line. Karen and Kalindra just were feeling kind of lonely tonight and got to talking about you two. They'll be fine in the morning. Take care and I'll hear from you in a couple of days."

The signal died and we turned the dred around and boosted back into Hyperspace for the trip. Seventy hours later we heard Brian calling to us and we dropped back into normal space to slide along side the Sunbeam.

* * *

"Of course it's a trap. The question is do we trip it." Bob wasn't looking real happy with the idea and the Meenzai scattered around the bridge of the dreadnought were even less happy about it.

"Why the hell should we?"

"Because we need information on them and this is one way of getting it. If they were capable of killing us outright, they would have. Besides, they shouldn't be expecting both of us to show up in the same place."

"And what if they have been tracking us" Bob asked in disgust.

"They we're fucked, but I don't think they are." Bob turned and began to talk to the Meenzai Captain. They were even less enthusiastic about heading into a probable trap. They had proved the shield we had designed worked. Now they wanted to head home and begin production to outfit their fleet. I listened for awhile until it became pretty clear that they were not going to go along with our idea.

"Excuse me..." I muttered in Meenzeii. "If you and your crew are that scared to follow where Human's lead. We will send you on your way and do this without you." The Captain turned with his gun drawn and snarled in my face.

"You no face Maal with us. You quiet be, or dead be!"

Bob is right about one thing. I've been getting real cocky lately. I hadn't worn my armor when I'd 'ported over and now I kneeled down so I could look down the barrel of the Captains gun. "You ought to try cleaning that thing once in awhile. It's really pretty filthy inside the barrel. Have you been rolling in the litterbox with it?" I could see his paw twitch as he thought about pulling the trigger. Behind him I could see Bob looking at me as he tried to figure out wether I had my shields up. I just continued to stare at the Captain. "You will not live long enough to realize your mistake if you pull that trigger. Now I'll ask one more time. Are you and your crew scared to follow where Human's lead?"

He thought about it and finally put his gun away. "We will follow the Bob, but you and I will speak again about this."

I stood back up and laughed to myself. "I look forward to talking with you." About that time Bob grabbed me and pulled me to one side.

"Are you out of your God Damned mind?" he hissed in English.

"Probably. I'm just not going to take shit from a scared ball of fur."

"Didn't learn much about humility from your last little lesson did you."

"I learned not to piss off anyone in my family. They have ways of getting even and I don't dare retaliate. Fuzzy nuts there is another story. He would have been dead before the energy discharge from his popgun died out and I think he knew it." Bob just shook his head in disgust.

"You need a serious lesson in manners before you get yourself killed. You keep making enemies like that and one day your going to get caught with your pants down. On that day, Kalindra is going to find herself a widow."

"Tell me about manners the next time I'm laying paralyzed on the deck of K1 while some furball shoots my mate. You and Jab might have forgiven them for a lot of things, but that's one I owe them for and one day I intend to collect on that debt."

Bob just shook his head again. "There are times I want to belt you..."

I rubbed my jaw and grinned. "You have more than once. Want me to hold still?"

"Don't tempt me... Now get out of here and I'll try to calm down the Captain. You might not like them, but they did ok against the Maal when they expected to get brain fried. There isn't a coward in the whole crew."

"I'll let you know when I'm ready" and I 'ported back to the Sunbeam. I was the one that pushed to trip the expected trap, but Bob did the planning. With the Sunbeam cloaked seven ways to Sunday, I followed along a short ways behind him as the Meenzai dreadnought continued to the coordinates given to it by the fake Penny. Even expecting it, we still got caught by surprise when both ships were forced out of Hyperspace due to drive failure.

"Warning! Hyperspace flight field destablizing. Return to Normal space in five seconds!" Zorac cried as the engineering station lit up like a Christmas tree. I expect the Meenzai Engineer was cussing almost as loud as Jasm was.

"Field not stable. Can not keep active!" she screamed as we started to tumble from the forced exit. When we stabilized our attitude, we found ourselves running about .9C in formation with the dred. One small piece of luck was that the cloak had stayed active. Now we would find out what the Maal had planned. A quick look at the nav display showed we were in deep shit.

*They have the entire area surrounded. They must have been able to generated some kind of field that crippled our Hyperflight field.*

*Shit! How many of them are there out there?*

Zorac was updating the holotank with a display of the area. As it started to fill in, it showed that both ships were approaching the center of what was a hugh sphere of Maal. I didn't want to think of how many it had taken to form a sphere a light hour in diameter. Things didn't get better as we decelerated through the center of the sphere either. As soon as we passed through it, the entire group of Maal began to accelerate along our flightpath.

*Bob, do you still have contact with the last relay we dropped?*

*No, do you?*

*Not a peep. Whatever they did to force us out of Hyperspace, it took out the relay also.*

*Well you got your trap. Are you happy now?*

*Yeah. I'm so pleased I could shit. We're 250 light-years from home, we can't get back into Hyperspace, and the damn Maal are staying out of range.*

*Cheer up. The Captain here wants you to check out his gun again. He looks ever so pleased at having been used as bait and getting his whole crew hooked.*

I didn't bother to reply as the dred began to change course. Every turn we made, the Maal followed suit so as to keep us at the center of the sphere. I slaved the Sunbeam to follow the dred and headed to my cabin. A half hour later, even I was starting to get worried. As an emergency exit, I'd tried to open a Gate back to K1. It hadn't worked...

Chapter Thirteen

The hell you say!

Jab and I looked at the screen on the dred's bridge. "So, Jab. Got any ideas?"

"Why you ask me? Not Nahn idea come here."

"Well, I had it in mind to come here, but not quite this way. I dare say I don't think that Brian expected this either." We were still contained in the huge Maal-made sphere, and it was still duplicating our moves. "Ok, screw it. Shut off the engines."

The dreadnought rumbled and grew silent. It was odd, the low rumble of the engines were like an unheard background noise. Now that they were off, we could hear that they weren't on. But while they ran, we didn't really hear them. The Sunbeam pulled slightly ahead, but then Brian saw we chopped power and did the same. "I have an idea." he said over the comm link.

*Wouldn't it be better to use telepathy?*

"What for? They can't hurt us" he answered.

The Captain looked at me, and if he could have made a winding motion next to his ear, I think he would have. "This no be good." I had to admit that I agreed with that. Even if the Maal couldn't really do us any real harm, they still had us contained.

"I have the beginnings of a plan." I said. "What I want to do is get my ship, and then have the three of us go in different directions."

"Can no do" said the Captain.

"Sure we can."

"Is true" said Jab. "We fly through Maal with ship before. They not can stop us."

"Then we go through now" said Rak.

"Can't. The sphere we're in will just move with us."

"He may be right, Bob" said Brian.

"You heard that?"

"I'm a Mage, right? Sure I heard it. You go left, I'll go right."

"Let's think about this for a..." It was too late. Brian had swung the Sunbeam over and was heading away from us at the oblique. "Weapons!" I hollered at Rak. The weapons officer barked something in Meenzeii and I noticed that his panel lit up like a Christmas tree. "Hard to port, Rak."

The dred turned until the two ships were moving in opposite directions. I watched the wall of the sphere rush towards us, and then we were in free space. "What the hell? Rear view!" We all stared at the viewscreen. We saw that we had passed right through the Maal, but the Sunbeam hadn't. What we looked at was strange, almost to the point of awesome. The 'Beam was still inside the sphere, and the Maal were folding in on themselves making the sphere smaller --and more solid. "Hard about!" I snapped at Rak. "Turn us towards that thing."

The dred swung around, and when the sphere was dead ahead we saw that in the time it took us to turn, the Maal sphere had tightened so much that we couldn't see through it anymore. In seconds it would be completely solid. "Forward guns, fire all cannons!"

The Meenzal gunner hit his switches and the dred shook with the force of the firing guns. We watched the bolt as it moved towards, caught up with, and struck the sphere. The plasma charge dissipated across the skin of the sphere. "Nie shii ma te!" spit Rak to the gunner. Jab screamed.

"HOLD! What's the matter, Jab?"

"No target with Q-gun! No shoot!" said Jab.

"Holy shit! No! If you fire that fucking thing, you'll kill Brian too."

"Will kill Maal" said Rak with a shrug.

I found my chair and sat down. "I don't believe this shit. Don't any of you care about life? You guys probably kill more of yourselves than the Maal do."

Rak looked at me like I was nuts. But he told his gunner to take the Q-cannon off-line. I looked back at the screen, and saw that the sphere was now about six times the size of the Sunbeam. "Keep firing at that damn thing." I said. The ship shook as the gunner started tossing everything we had at Maal globe, but as before, the sphere just dissipated the blasts across its surface.

I had an idea. It was a stupid one, but I figured what the hell. I got my armor helmet off the floor and put it on. Engaging the systems, I thought as hard as I could, and gave my thug the command to home on me. At first, nothing happened, but then the thug burst through the Maal like a fist through a rotting pumpkin. "Target the edge of that break and..."

The gunner had already spotted it, and the ship lurched as he cut loose with every one of the dred's guns at once. I was knocked off the chair and onto the floor. When I clambered back up, I saw on the screen that the Maal sphere was glowing with arcs all over it, and as they did it was coming apart in chunks. It took half a minute, but then the sphere was gone and the Sunbeam hung limp in space. It rotated slowly in darkness.

Whatever they'd done to it, it was effective. It no longer had its mirror finish, but was blackened like unpolished silver. There was no answer on any comm frequency, and even 'pathing didn't work.

"..ppening out there?" spoke the comm system. It was Penny. Whatever had been keeping the communications from working was gone.

"Penny! We have a problem out here." I said. As I spoke, I was moving towards the exterior hatch. "Cycle the airlock!" I called to Rak. As soon as it opened, I was through it, and as soon as it closed behind me I launched myself towards the Sunbeam. Jetting over to it took a few minutes, but when I got there, it didn't respond to the palm plate to let me phase inside. More than that, it was so hot that when I touched it the alarms in my suit went off.

Jab floated up behind me. "Where Mage?" he asked.

Chapter Fourteen

Damn, this is going to hurt!

"I don't see Jasm either" I told Jab as we peered through the dark main port at the flightdeck. There wasn't a single light on any of the consoles visible. The entire ship seemed drained of power and we were going to have to get inside quickly if life-support was down also.

"Any other way to get inside?"

"Well..." I muttered as we drifted back around to the side of the ship. "There was a normal airlock during the original construction and it should be right about here someplace." With the blackened condition of the hull, it was a little hard to make out the outline of the hatch. I finally found it by scraping the crap from the hull with my glove. "Here it is..."

"How open? No power for door" ask my worried friend.

"The old fashioned way I guess. Lets just hope that we can pop it from the frame because we don't stand a hell of a chance of blowing our way through it." Backing away from the hatch, I let loose the the wrist rail to see if we could spring the door loose. Jab and I both floated there in shock when instead of bouncing off, the rail blew the door to shreds. "Oh shit... They destroyed the integrity of the hull!"

"Even Mage metal have limits" muttered Jab as we stepped into the airlock. Luckily for both of us, the rail hadn't blown the inner door as well. We'd have depressurized the ship in seconds. "How we get next door open?"

"We'll have to seal the outside somehow." I thought about it for a moment then backed up to stand in the outer entryway. Adjusting the shields of my armor. I expanded the field until it strained against the inner walls of the airlock. "Jab, see if you can get the door open now. We'll loose some air to fill the lock here, but it should stay sealed." Jab had to work on the door to get it to open, but I heard a faint whistle as air leaked around the edges to fill the lock. When my armor registered normal atmosphere, I popped the front locks and climbed out. It was weird to see my armor hanging in mid-air by its shields, and I hopped it didn't slip out of the lock. When I turned back, Jab had already gone inside to look for Jasm.

"They not on deck" he said as he came back down the corridor from the flightdeck.

"Ok, you take the port side, and I'll check starboard. Just hope to hell they are on-board someplace." I didn't want to think about the possibility that the Maal had spirited them off the ship just in time for us to blow them all to hell. Explaining to Kalindra that I'd vaporized her mate was high on my list of things better left alone. As we searched the ship, I also grabbed one of the normal environment suits we used for external work when full armor wasn't needed. I didn't want to get caught in a blowout if my armor slipped.

It also gave me a radio so I could keep in touch with Jab. We were both giddy with relief when we heard a burst of static followed by Jasm asking if anyone could hear her.

"You hear Jasm now?"

"Hell yes! Where are you?" I yelled in reply.

"In machine room. You hurry, yes?"

"Machine room? What kind of machine?" I asked.

"Thinking machine. Hurry please... Mage not look good."

She sounded worried, and I still couldn't 'path to Brian. "Jab, they are in the computer core!"

"On way!" and I heard him clumping his way down the deck to the lower level. I was closer, so we got to the security hatch to the core about the same time.

"Jasm, what's wrong with Brian?" I asked as Jab began to work on the door.

"Look sick, is shaking. Not talk since Maal attack."

"Jab, get the door open now. We can replace it later." I heard him snarl something, them brace himself against the deck and pull the door off the surrounding wall. Jumping over it, he skidded to a stop by Jasm. I followed right on his heels and found Brian curled up into a ball under one of the consoles.

"Oh shit..." Jasm was in her armor, but all Brian had on was his helmet which he was holding over his head. We hadn't heard from Jasm until the auto-charging systems in her armor had recovered enough to activate the radio. Looking through the face plate of Brian's helmet, I saw why we hadn't heard from him.

From what I could see he was in shock. Judging from the blood I could see, he had also bitten his tongue. The one thing he absolutely would not do was let go of his helmet or relax from his curled up position. "Brian?" No response at all. He just lay there with his eye's closed. I checked his pulse when I managed to get access to his wrist, and it was fast but strong. "Jasm, what the hell happened?"

"Maal know new trick" she said. "Mage pissed that they get through shields with attack. Tell Jasm to get in armor and come here. Say is safest place on ship. Help some, but not enough." Jab had helped her out of her armor and she walked over to stare at Brian. "Mage say he know one shield they not get through and he protect Jasm from Maal. He not able to protect self as well. I hear scream as they attack him, then all power go away."

I sat back on the deck and stared at him. "Christ..." I heard Brian offer his life in exchange for others before. Hell, I'd almost shot him once to stop him. This time he shielded Jasm, but at what expense? "Wait a minute. I've heard him describe that shield. You should still be encased in it. What gives?"

"Not know" Jasm replied. "After power go, shield fade and vanish. Next Jasm know, Nahn and Bob hear her when radio work again."

Something was very wrong here, but it would have to wait. "Let's get him back to the dred and see if we can figure out what the hell is wrong with him." Between the three of us, we carried him to the upper deck and got him into an emergency bubble. There wasn't anyway we were going to get him into his armor curled up the way he was. Climbing back into my armor, we floated him over to the airlock of the dred.

"Jab, grab the thug and get a tractor field on the Sunbeam. It looks like we're going to have to tow it home. Penny and Zorac, if he's still in one piece, are going to have their work cut out for them." Jab jetted off towards the thug while Jasm and I shoved the bubble through the lock. We were greeted by the Captain, who didn't look pleased.

"You talk to Penny person now? She leave lots of messages."

"Messages?" Shit, we were so far out that it was an hour and a half one way even via Hyperlink. "Did you record them?"

"Yes, you tell Penny not to threaten Captain again."

The original loss of contact had been over 4 hours ago. The gang back on K1 must have been getting frantic. I'd sent off a message when the link came back, but Penny would have gotten worried about not hearing from the Sunbeam or Brian. As I started listening to the messages, worried didn't begin to describe it.

"Bob, tell me what is going on out there. I can't get any telemetry from the Sunbeam and Kalindra is going nuts! She screamed in pain and said something had happened to Brian. Judging from the time delay, it was just before I got the link back to you and the dreadnought."

"Bob, please tell me what is going on. Kalindra is getting frantic and Karen is starting to get worried because you aren't answering our messages."

"Ok, Kalindra just went ballistic. She ducked through the gate to the lunar lab and shanghaied one of the triships that was partially converted. Before she left, she told me to pass a message on to you as follows..."

"Robert, I know you will dislike my actions, but I cannot wait any longer. I also know my duties to family and have arranged for the protection of our family. While I am gone, Tanindra and a friend will be responsible for the safety of K1. They understand the responsibility and will act in my stead. I will meet you in route as you return. Please take care of my mate until I can get there."

There were a couple of other messages after that, but they were more demands for information. The Captain had replied once, and Penny had began to demand information from him while I was gone. She got quite inventive describing what she was going to do to him when he didn't reply to any of her other messages.

"You talk Penny?" he asked.

"Yeah, I'll calm her down. You'd look stupid as a rug in her storage vault anyway. We also need to get headed home. I doubt that Meenzai medical facilities are much good for Humans."

"We headed home now." He turned and headed for the bridge, but I'd caught something in his tone.

"Wait a minute, whose home?"

"Meenzai home."

"But we need to get back to K1! Cut the shit and get this thing headed to K1. We have to get Brian where we can care for him." I followed the Captain onto the bridge as we argued.

"Bob good fighter, but Mage is stupid. I not waste time to save life of stupid one. Meenzai need shield from Maal and I take ship home to begin work. Bob want go K1? Bob go in own ship." Turned his back on me, he began snarling orders to get underway. I was real damn tempted to put a hole through his head, but it wouldn't have solved much. He was acting within his framework, and I wasn't going to persuade him otherwise.

"Jab, you out there?"

"Jab here. Got tow on Sunbeam, but thug not designed as tow truck."

"Well clear a space in the cabin for three more. Jasm and I will be over in a moment with Brian. Our friends are going straight home without us." I heard him snarl something to the Captain, but the translation didn't make any sense.

"Will be tight fit. Hope Bob took shower this morning."

"You get to ride on the outside for that."

We stuffed Brian back into his bubble and ducked out the airlock just before the dred bailed out on us.

"We tell Gal Meen that Human shield works. Also tell that Maal have new weapon. Human's will need to begin again."

"Then you should have worried more about the 'stupid Mage'. He's half the design team of this outfit. We built you a shield from the Maal and it works as intended. You want something more? Come talk to us when you have something we want asshole." I was pissed and it showed. The only reply we got was the sight of the dreadnought flashing its way towards Hyperspace.

It was a tight fit alright in the thug. Brian was still curled into a ball and was holding onto that helmet with a maniacal strength. With the Sunbeam in tow, we slowly built up speed and headed home. Four days out, Kalindra caught up with us and we dropped back into normal space to rendezvous with her.

We were far from the nearest solar system when we returned to normal space. About a mile off of our port was one of the triships Penny had been converting to Oort Guardians. Even as I looked out the port, I could see Kalindra headed towards us.

"How is he?" came to voice from the radio.

"No change. He's catatonic as far as I can tell. He doesn't react to noise or being touched. And he still won't let go of that helmet."

"He hasn't eaten?"

"Who can feed him? He's clamped onto that helmet like his life depended upon it."

"It probably did. I'm close enough to him for our link to show me his health. He's weak, and something's wrong with his hearing. Other then that I can't feel anything, and I should."

With a clank, Kalindra landed on the top of the thug. "Shift left, It's going to get even more crowded." As she phased through the hull, Jasm and Jab hopped up on the consoles to give her room.

"Mage be ok?" asked Jasm. "He save Jasm from Maal. Not want to see him die in my place."

Kalindra didn't answer, and I could see why. As she pulled off her environment suit I could see her shaking and shedding slightly. Kneeling in front of Brian. She raised his head so she could look at him. We hadn't been able to clean him up, so he wasn't looking real good. It hit her pretty hard. It was hard to tell which of them was shaking the most. Brian had been rigid for three days now and his muscles were rebelling.

Then Kalindra raised her head to look at him again and cradled his helmet in her hands. It wasn't telepathy as none of us heard a thing, yet we all knew something was happening. As we all sat and watched, she began to call to him with everything she had.

"He not answer" muttered Jab. "Maybe not able to anymore."


"Maaltee..." he whispered mostly to himself.

Kalindra heard him and turned to snarl at him. I've never seen Jab react in fear, especially to a Velan. Disinterested contempt is about as animated as those two races ever get towards one another. This one time though he looked at Kalindra in a different light. Turning back to Brian, she began to call again. This time it was strong enough that we could all understand it.

It wasn't empathy, or the link they shared. I'd over heard both using the thug's command interface, so ruled them out. What we heard/felt was like something that touched all the sense's. Like when I'd smell something and my brain said 'Karen'. What we heard and felt Kalindra generating was something both infinitely complex, yet so simple.

As the call became more refined, it resolved into something that could only be described as 'Brian'. As I sat there and listened, I could picture him in my mind sitting next to me. He would be laughing as he teased Penny or gave shit to Jab. Other times I would see him sitting quietly with a smile on his face as I knew he was thinking about Kalindra again.

Without even asking, both Jab and I joined in the call about the same time. Sitting there in my chair, I didn't notice when Kalindra took the helmet from his hands as he released it. It wasn't until I heard him whimper something that I saw he was back with us. Then I saw why Kalindra had said he had trouble hearing. Under that helmet he was a bloody mess. Both of his eardrums must have ruptured during the Maal attack. That's why he'd been holding onto the helmet. As I watched, he opened his eye's exactly once, then collapsed into Kalindra's arms.

"Bob, please take us home" she said as she held him.

Without a sound, I turned back to the console and got ready to get underway. Nether Jab or Jasm made as noise as they helped. It wasn't until we were safely back in Hyperspace that I turned around again. Kalindra was doing her best to clean him up.

"Kalindra, what was that he said when he woke up?"

The look she gave me was so full of pain I could almost feel it as she sat there on the deck and held him. "The Magic's gone..."