One Little, Two Little, Three Little Crew Members...


Brian W. Antoine

Bob Kirkpatrick

January 31, 1994

Chapter One

Chaos Theory as a Way Of Life

Hello, we are a small company looking for engineers and scientists fresh out of college. We are currently involved with helping a war ravaged country re-establish its infrastructure by providing technical assistance. If you would be interested in spending a year of your life on the adventure of your life. Write to the PO Box below with your qualifications. Those who qualify will be sent further information and a questionnaire to fill out. Electronic submissions will not be accepted.

Meenzeii Enterprises

P.O. Box 12583

New York, NY

* * *

The notice had gone out over the internet and appeared in selected newspapers around the world. That had been 4 weeks ago, and the response had been insane. Our requirements had been strict though. We wanted single people, and the fewer the family ties, the better. They had to show flexibility, skill with languages, no allergies to cats, etc. That had eliminated most of them up front. The rest we sent a second questionnaire to. Now we started looking for more subtle things. Did they show signs of being xenophobic? It wouldn't do to have someone go nuts and become a Meenzal snack. Did they object to the restriction that they couldn't discuss the job with anyone? I'd make sure those we accepted were not capable of talking about it, but it helped if they were willing to stay quiet of their own free will. After all, we couldn't exactly mention that the country in question was on another world until we were sure about them.

During the process we'd come across at least two people who were snoops for government agencies. Penny had made damn sure they learned absolutely nada about us. When the submissions had trickled off, and we'd narrowed the field to a couple of dozen people. I'd arranged to interview each of them in person while I was disguised by an illusion. As much as I hated to do it, I'd poked around in their heads to uncover any hidden gotcha's. That had narrowed the field to three people who met the requirements. We'd sent them each a letter notifying them they had been accepted and would be contacted about transport when we were ready.

"And she never mentioned the lack of pay?"

"Never once" I said as Penny went over my transcript of the final interview I'd given. "She thought it was a little odd, but accepted the idea that room and board would be provided with compensation being limited to goods, knowledge and the experience she would gain."

"I suppose the fact she is a red-head has nothing to do with your accepting her on the team?"

I threw a dirty look at the monitor. "You don't think much of my will power today, do you."

"Have you heard from Kalindra lately?"

"No..." and strictly speaking, I hadn't. It had taken a week for her to cool down after my suggestion on how to start our family. Then she had shown up in the lab one day and asked, 'Did you mean what you said?' I'd repeated it and ducked. Instead of busting my nose again, she nodded, kissed me and walked out. That had been three weeks ago, and we'd been so busy with the ship and the flood of letters that I'd pushed it into the background.

She was safe and relatively happy about something. That much I could read from our link. What she was up to though, was anyone's guess. I did however have a better guess than the rest of the group. Nine days ago I'd been jolted out of a sound sleep by our link. I'd almost died of embarrassment when I'd realized what I was feeling wash over me from the link. Where ever she was, she was feeling real good. For the next three days I'd been caught the same way at odd times during the day. I could sense she was trying to suppress her reaction as she could feel me react to the emotional flood she was producing. There are times though when the best of intentions get tossed out the window, or under the bed in this case. I'd simply resorted to cold showers until things settled down. The last three days had been quiet.

"She may not think much of your choices" said my sister with a vague tone of uneasiness.

"She better not bring it up as far as I'm concerned. We will have three Humans, three Velans and a Meenzal in the crew. Only two of them are female. If she wanted to help select the crew, she knew where we were."

"It's your nose" muttered Penny. The view in the holotank shift to an external view of the Sunbeam II. What had been a small river of bots flowing in and out of the access hatches, had slowed to a trickle. "Launch is now T-minus 19 hours and counting..."

I glanced at the vault in the corner of the lab. "Is that a hint?"

"Maybe a small one..."

"Impatient to move into your new home?"

"A little... A little scared also" said Penny. "I talked you into this when you asked me to design your next ship. I sometimes wonder if I haven't just helped you build the method of my own death."

"You asked to be included and I said yes. I've done everything I can think of to make that ship safe for both of us. Even before you started filling the interior with junk. The mass of the hull gave a twenty percent safety margin over the minimum needed to form a magic field. With the insides done, you could cut it in half and still have a little margin."

"And if something cuts it in thirds?"

"Then I'm probably dead and you will find out just how much your existence depends upon magic. The choice is yours and yours alone." I leaned back in my chair and waited. Penny had been having second thoughts about this for the last few days. She desperately wanted to accompany the family on its trips, but to do so she had to face the possibility of her death. Given that she was for all intents and purposes immortal while protected in her vault, this was her first experience with risking that immortality of her own free will.

"If the rest of you can risk your lives, I'm not going to hide in my vault while you enjoy life. Get the key brother..."

I smiled to myself. Artificial intelligence, crystalline lifeform, or the most confused hunk of diamond ever created. I thought she was alive, she thought so too, and nobody argued with either of us. My sister had just grown up a little more and I was proud to witness it. Turning to my desk, I typed out a simple message and flashed it on every screen in the network. All over the lunar complex and K1, everyone read and understood that our crew had become a little more complete.

[Attention... Penny will be off-line for the next hour or so.]

Even as I walked over to the vault entrance, the computer displays that normally showed unceasing activity came to a halt. Except for the autonomic functions she had built into the network, Penny controlled just about everything either Bob or I had built. One of her first tasks after moving was going to be installing and activating AI routines to cover for her when she was out of communication. First though I had to move her to her new home.

The vault door had slid into the floor without a sound. As I detached the interface web that acted as the cradle for her crystal. I extended my aura and whispered reassurances to her. *I'm right here.*

*I know. You always have been and always will be* came the faint reply as I watched the her crystal flicker with its internal light. *Just don't drop me please* she laughed as I placed her in her in the carrier I'd rigged up.

It wasn't much of a walk from my lab to the docking bay, but it was silence was weird. Where there should have been the almost unceasing sounds of machinery in action. Now there was just the occasional click of a relay in the walls as I stepped into the docking bay. I had to laugh out loud as I closed the door behind me. Just before she shutdown, Penny had lined up every bot in the hanger as an honor guard. Hundreds of bots of all shapes and sized showed me the way to the main airlock of the ship that sat waiting for the breath of life to be given to it.

*Nice touch, but a bit pompous don't you think?*

*I was going to pipe in the music from Star Wars, but decided it wasn't needed* snickered Penny. I was still laughing as I floated up the gravtube into the airlock. I ashamed to say, I actually got lost once on my way to the computer bay. This damn ship was big! *Take the second left and then follow the corridor to the end* corrected Penny as I figured out where I had taken the wrong turn.

*Smartass...* I did however find the entrance to the computer core without getting lost again. The door was ten feet of hull metal and what Penny called Neutranium in a composite. A little trick she had learned from scanning the memory banks of the Guardian. All I knew was that neither Jab nor I had been able to dent the sample we'd played with. Stepping through the door, I popped the latches on Penny's case and opened the cradle that waited to hold her.

*Try not to fuse every circuit in sight when you power this stuff up. Jab and I had fits building this damn interface for you.*

*Bitch, bitch, bitch...*

I sealed the last interface sensor in place and closed up the cradle. Penny was already bringing the systems to life as I patted her case and backed out of the room. The whole room was beginning to flicker with light as the door slid into its latches and I sang the note that sealed it. Then as tradition required, I wrote her name into the door with a pen of magic fire.

"Well?" I asked the ceiling as I worked my way to the flightdeck. I hadn't taken ten steps before I started hearing a low purr from the walls around me.

"I think I'm going to like this!" came the little girl's voice from the air around me. The burst of static and the cussing that followed were decidedly not from a little girl. "Damn stupid bots! They wired the stupid internal sensor arrays wrong!"

"And who programmed the bots?" I laughed as I stepped onto the flightdeck. All around me, console after console was coming to life and blinking to itself. Superimposed on the forward port, a small clock came to life and began to count down the time remaining before launch. "I assume your going to fix the wiring before we launch?"

"That and about ten other things I've found so far."

I looked out the port and saw that the honor guard had dispersed and was back to loading and installing supplies and equipment. "Are the shuttles working ok? I'm going to need one to go pick up our crew members."

"They check out fine. I'll cycle Gamma through the hull for you to use." The Sunbeam II had four shuttles available for planetary jaunts. As I looked out the viewport, Gamma phased its way through the hull and hovered below the port wing.

"Try not to be late. I'd hate to take off without you."

"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss seeing the expression on Bob's face when you say hello for anything. It shouldn't..."

"Excuse me, you have someone waiting to talk to you."


"She's waiting by the entrance to the hanger."

I looked out and saw Kalindra standing in the hanger entrance, staring at the chaos going on in front of her. "Oh... Why do I not think this is going to reduce my stress levels?"

"Because you're a horrible person who deserves everything he gets?"

"You're a great help" I muttered as I headed to see what Kalindra wanted. Penny must have been worried she was going to miss her own launch time. The battle to wind my way through the bots was worse than normal. Finally though I nudged the last of them aside and stood in front of Kalindra. "I assume this means your speaking to me again?"

She nodded towards the ship and smiled. "You did not tell me you had changed your crest. Once again you show me that I choose wisely."

I'd been up all last night sealing the artwork to the hull. Where a single gold ring would have been emblazoned on the hull, there were now two. The left enclosed the head of an Arctic Wolf, the right a Red Fox. Around the inside of each ring were the words; 'Two Rings Joining Two People, To Defend Two Worlds'. It was written once in English, and once in Velan. In the center where the twin rings overlapped was the Velan symbol for our family name.

"Then I'll leave it there for everyone to see."

She smiled up at me. "I should have learned by now that my mate is resourceful in ways I can never predict. No matter the problem, he will come up with a solution."

"That's me. Unpredictable to the end" I laughed.

"Some solutions take longer to understand then others though. How is your nose?"

I rubbed the side of my nose with my hand. "Seems to have healed ok. What solution are we talking about?" I looked at her with curiosity. Something was different, but I couldn't pin it down.

"You remember some small discussion we had about my wishing to have a child?" My wince answered the question. "You may also have felt something the last week or so as I pondered your solution?"

Uh, oh. "Yes..." I said as I thought about what had to have been going on. Kalindra reached out and took my hand. Looking me straight in the eye, she placed that hand on her belly.

"Who is the father of my children?" she said in an extremely formal tone of voice.

I thought about what she had been up to, and the fact that I wasn't being asked to accept a candidate for admission into the family. All I could think of was that she had decided on an anonymous donor, and that was her decision to make. In a few short seconds, all this and more ran through my mind.

"Until the day I die, I am" I answered and was rewarded by her smile.

"Then you have seven months to help me choose a name for your son."

I'd have bet money that Bob heard my yell half way across the system.

Chapter Two

You can't do everything yourself

I almost knocked on the door again, but stopped when I heard someone moving around inside. A moment later, the door opened to the limit of the chain would allow it and Gregor peeked his head around to see who was there.

"Hello, I'm your transport" I said, knowing he didn't speak a bit of English. I just got a puzzled look and a question in Russian asking me who I was. It was obvious he was nervous as he kept throwing glances up and down the hallway. Pulling a translator from my shirt pocket, I handed it to him and turned so he could see the one in my ear. He watched as I mimed putting it in his ear, then he took it from me and inserted it.

"Hello, I'm your transport" and I watched his eyes enlarge as he heard the translation. With a look of shock, he yanked the translator from his ear and looked at it. I just stood and waited patiently until he put it back.

"I wouldn't loose that if I were you. You are going to have trouble talking to most of the people you are going to meet without it."

"You are with Meenzeii Enterprises?" he asked.

"I'm here to transport you to your new job. You have everything packed that you want to take?" He unlatched the chain and hustled me into his apartment. The other doors along the hallway closed about the same time his did. Curiosity was a way of life around here.

"You have a car close by?" he asked as he gathered a well-used duffel bag and a couple of boxes into a pile by the door. "I do not have much to take with me, but I can not leave it unguarded for long."

"That won't be a problem. I'll help you move your stuff." Gregor jumped again as he heard the translation slightly out of sync with my voice. "Don't worry, you'll get use to it."

"Such a device should not be possible. Who do you work for that can create such a thing?"

"I work for myself. The translator though was designed by my sister. She's quite good with computers and the like."

"Flattery will get you anywhere" snickered Penny in my ear. I just ignored her and continued.

"Before we leave though, I have to verify one final time that you wish to accept my offer. This is the point where you will begin to learn things that you will have to keep silent about."

"Such as the translator?"

"That's a good starting point" I answered.

"And if I change my mind?"

"I leave and you never see me again."

Gregor looked around his tiny apartment as I waited. He'd been out of school for two years when he'd seen my ad. Those hadn't been easy years from what I'd learned during our interviews. With a sigh, he grabbed his duffel bag and one of the boxes. "Let me see then what you consider to be the adventure of a lifetime."

I picked up the other box and smiled at him. "Hold on to your hat then, because the adventure begins now." I focused for the teleport back to the shuttle and got the warning that the destination wasn't clear. *Hey up there. Would you mind moving off the platform?* I got a startled reply and the warning disappeared.

"Have you ever seen StarTrek?" I asked as Gregor watched to see what I was going to do. I hadn't included him in my 'path, so it looked like I was standing there bored.

"Twice when I was at a friends house that had a working television. Why do you ask?"

"Transporters are neat to have around" even if they aren't based on technology I added to myself. Reaching over with my free hand, I grasped Gregor by the arm and 'ported up to the shuttle. The instant we appeared, he screamed and stumbled back to fall into one of the chairs. The other two passengers yelled almost as loud.

"Welcome to the Twenty Fourth and a Half Century" I said as I stood there waiting for his panic to die down. "You have just joined one of the most unusual groups of people ever assembled. The next few days you are going to see things that will tax your ability to believe. Unless the questions and interviews were completely screwed, you will soon consider them common place."

Gregor just kept staring at me, then at the grid pattern in the floor I used as a jump point. "How did you do that? Where am I? Who are these people?" He was almost shouting towards the last. Off in the corner, Cali looked about ready to join him. Dave on the other hand seemed to be taking things in stride. Of course he'd been my first pickup, so he'd seen this before.

"It was an application of the Uncertainty Principle. I simply shifted the laws of probability so that it was more likely we were here in the shuttle than in your apartment. As for where..."

Dave had his translator out of his ear and was tapping in on the arm of his chair. "What did you do to it?" I asked as he got this sheepish grin on his face.

"He tried to take it apart" came the reply from Cali in the rear of the shuttle. "I told him not to, but he had a small tool kit in his bag." She was still frightened, but was trying to deal with it.

"Here, use mine" and I popped it out of my ear and tossed it to him. "Your first task when we get where we are going though is to fix the one you broke." I looked back at Gregor, who had listened to our interchange.

"Before I answer your other questions, some introductions are in order. Gregor, I'd like you to meet Dave and Cali. Dave is our engineering wizard and Cali is our biologist. Gregor here is the social dynamics specialist" I told the other two. "His job will be to keep us from screwing things up when we meet someone for the first time."

I sat down on the pilot's chair and checked the instruments. We were still cloaked, so I wasn't in a hurry. "Gregor, you wanted to know where we are. Take a look out the port, we're about a half mile above your apartment building." I tipped the shuttle slightly to make it easier for him to see below us.

"How are we staying in the air?"

"At the moment, we're enveloped in a null gravity field that is keeping us weightless. The shuttle's drive systems are holding us in position."

"Anti-gravity is an impossibility" said Dave from behind me.

"Then don't tell anybody else. If you don't believe, we'll fall from the sky like a rock" I laughed. His expression said he didn't find it nearly as funny as I did.

"Sorry" I said as I swiveled my chair around. "I don't mean to make fun of what you people believe. You will have to understand though that where we are going. Most of the people you will meet violate several laws of nature and most of the rules of common sense before they even eat breakfast."

"In other words, you're all crazy?" asked Cali.

"Sometimes I wonder about that" I answered.

"And if I now want to change my mind about going with you?" asked Gregor as he looked out the port towards his home.

"Then I take one precaution to make sure you don't remember anything from just before I knocked on your door, and I send you home." He considered the offer, just as Cali and Dave had when I'd offered it to them. He'd had a few minutes to calm down though and I watched him decide to stick it out.

"You did say this was the adventure of a lifetime. I believe I am going to have to quit thinking you were trying to exaggerate."

"It might save a lot of time..." I snickered. Turning back to the flight controls, I laid in a course back to the labs and we started a slow climb into the sky.

"Excuse me" came Dave's voice again.


"You gave me your translator. How are you understanding Cali and Gregor? Can you speak French and Russian?"

"I can see your going to be pestering me the entire trip, right?"

"Well, I was just curious."

"And don't ever stop. Curiosity has gotten me and my friends out of more trouble than it's gotten us into. As for how, I'm using magic to..."

"What's happening to the sky?" asked Gregor. In seconds the others were looking out the ports as the sky above us darkened to black.

"We're leaving Earth's atmosphere. Remember the questions about your ever getting motion sickness or related nausea? We were trying to figure out if you might be prone to vertigo or low gravity related problems."

"Wait a minute, where are we headed!" yelled Dave.

"The Lunar Farside. That's where our ship is waiting."

"The moon? What about the country we're suppose to be helping?"

"Oh, did I forget to mention that? It must have slipped my mind, sorry. Folks, the country we're headed to first isn't on Earth. The word Meenzeii is the name of the world we're going to try to help back to its feet."

It was a good thing I wasn't in a hurry to get home. I had programmed a three hour flight back to the lab and I ended up spending the entire time either answering questions or calming down whoever was yelling the loudest.

Chapter Three

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

"What do you mean 'you and Brian?'" I asked Penny. She'd just asked me why Brian and I had been running similar ads.

"Because you're both doing it." she replied.

"I knew that. What I meant was --I was showing surprise that his Mageship was running interviews for merchants."

"Oh, then you aren't doing the same thing?"

"Hell, I don't know. I didn't know Brian was doing ads until you just mentioned it. And wait a minute. Didn't Brian tell you what he, uh, we were recruiting for? I mean, the reason?"

"Yes, my question was why the both of you were doing it. Why two of you? Are you expecting to do this alot?"

"I dunno. As long as it takes."

"As long as WHAT takes, Bob."

"Setting up a merchant network. You know, start up some interplanetary commerce. And don't get huffy."

"Then you aren't doing the same thing. And I'm not huffy."

"Are too."


"Well, you're argumentative today."

"I am not."

"So what's Brian recruiting for?"

"He's seeking people with a variety of skills to assist the Meenzals in reconstructing the infrastructure of the planet."

"Peace Corps."


"Peace Corps. Come on over! Change your life! Have the adventure of a lifetime! It's all the same. It means, Hey! We don't pay." Penny giggled a little.

I had other things to do than talk to Penny. I had a series of interviews myself, plus I had to continue to check on the manufacture of the ships back at K1. Between Brian and I, we must have been running Penny ragged. He was building a ship, I was building a fleet of them. Penny coordinated it all, and made it all happen. "I'll chat more later if you want." I said. For now, I gotta go see a lady about a cruise."

Vale Connor came with a twelve person crew. She's been running a number of routes, carrying everything from pot and cocaine to military arms. She was 47, and had spent the last 20 years playing no favorites. She went where the money was, and over time she built a crew of men and women she trusted completely. When asked why she was looking for a chance to start over, she'd replied that in her years she'd managed to make a few enemies --almost all of them governments of countries she trafficked in. If there was a way to have a do-over, she was interested.

"Miss Connor, if you'd just step into this closet with me, please."

"Excuse me?" she said. There was a nasty edge to her voice. "If this turns out to be some kind of bullshit, me and the crew are going to have fun playing tug-o-war with your limbs."

"No! No bullshit. Look, I could explain it, but you'd go back up those stairs and out the door. If you'd just step this way..."

She came, but with an unmistakable expression of mistrust. We stepped into the closet and I closed the door. Behind us the gate room of K1 glimmered into view. "Say, that's a good trick. What is this place, like underground?"

"Hardly. Welcome to my home, Miss Connor. This is station K1. If you'll wait here a moment, I'll go make sure your crew doesn't start ripping the house apart looking for us." I stepped back into the gate and cycled into the closet. I opened the door, and told them to come through, two at a time, until they were all through.

I led them out into the hangar bay, and took them to the landing pad at the station's edge. "Look out there, you can see earth out there. It's the bluish one --right there. See it?"

The crew gathered 'round and looked. All of them were quiet, and stood solemnly. "This is what I meant by having a chance to start over." I said. "You have a sea much bigger than any you've sailed so far, and a lot more ports to call on. Plus, you get the added benefit of being legit. No heat. A start over."

"How is all of this happening? How did we get here, was that some kind of dimensional gate? I watch Star Trek, so I know we weren't beamed or anything. So, what gives?"

"Miss Connor, ..."

"Cut the crap. You can call me Vale."

"Ok. What you just ..."

"Wait. Aren't you going to ask about my name?"

"What about it?"

"It's different, you know. Most people ask about it."

"You're name isn't all that different. Now a name like Nahn mal Eo, there's a weird one. Or how about Rak Zi?"

"Are you speaking English, or did you just slip into Esperanto?"

Almost as if queued, Jab came strolling out onto the hangar bay looking for me. He walked up to the group. "Hi Jab. We were just talking about cultural differences." Then-- "I'd like you to meet Jab." I said.

"You wanna introduce us to a fucking cat?" asked Vale. She was starting to look untrusting again.

"Why not introduce to cat?" asked Jab. "I Nahn, but all call Jab." He began to expand as he rose from all fours to erect. He extended his paw towards Vale. "Glad meet you. You name is what?"

"I think this is going rather well, don't you?" I asked a guy from her crew. He'd stepped up when Vale fainted and caught her. The answer was for 11 of them, all but the one holding Vale, to pull out handguns. "Hey! I wouldn't do that."

Behind me, 30 construction bots dropped from their hover by the ceiling, and trained the cutting lasers they were carrying at the crew. "My crew gets nervous really easily too. Don't be embarrassed. Just go ahead and put your guns away." It took them a few moments and five quick bursts from the lasers to decide. They threw their guns on the deck and raised their hands.

"Jesus Christ, people. I didn't say drop them. God, they'll get caught in a docking latch or a catapult or something. Now take them back and put them away. And take your hands off your head. You look like a bad episode of a DEA show." Slowly at first, a few stooped and picked up their weapons. When they didn't die, the rest followed cautiously. "Ah! I see Vale is back with us."

We spent four hours talking it all over. In the end, Jab and Karen led them to the guest quarters we'd just added. They'd stay while their ship was finished and then outfitted. When they were on their way, I'd get the next group. I only hoped that all of them would be as close a group as Vale's were. Hoping is usually done in vain, and this was no exception. Half of the groups either fought among themselves, or were interested in developing an animosity for others we'd installed in the trade.

The ships we were building were cargo ships. They were made up of three main parts. First was master control. This was a control area with pilot, nav, and engineering stations. It also doubled as an escape pod in the event of trouble. Next was a crew module. This consisted of a series of rectangular compartments which interconnected. The ship could be customized and added to or subtracted from according to the needs of the compliment. There were private and public 'rooms,' as well as hygiene centers, galley, recreation, exercise and other compartments. Last was the cargo modules. These could be connected like a great train, stretching or contracting according to the load requirements for a trip.

The plan was to start up 20 crews to begin inter-planetary runs in order to generate business. So far, there were two planets, Meenzeii and Velar. Hopefully, we'd be adding to that over time. It was part of the commerce job to plant buoys. These would act as nav stations and as mileposts, marking the routes as they grew. When the need arose, we'd give some thought to junction stations. But for now, we were going to have to get Meenzai engineers to build orbital platforms so that the cargo vessels could dock. Then, the cargo modules, each powered and controllable, would act as shuttles to deliver and pick up goods.

For now though, we needed to tend to Vale Connor and her crew. They were going to have to help in the final assembly of their ship, the fitting of its accessories, and all that while learning astrogation and quantum power theory. I hoped they would get over Jab being a Meenzal. After all, he was the teacher.

Chapter Four

Have you seen my keys?

The questions had died down as we swung around towards the back side of the moon. They'd stopped completely when Cali had spotted the dome on the horizon as I brought the shuttle over the lip of the last crater. Even I had to admit it was a sight to behold. Three of the planned five external domes were operational, and that much plant life stuck out from the stark surroundings like an oasis in the dessert. I had planned for a lot more room then I would ever need. It was just possible though that as the community grew that I would have to expand yet again. I never seem to think big enough.

With a soft <fifttttt>, the shuttle phased through the hull and attached to its docking clamps within the port wing. "End of the line for the moment folks" I said as I shut down the systems. Swinging my chair around, I popped the hatch and stepped into the bay proper. "Grab anything you want to take with you right now. The bots will move the rest to your cabins after you pick them out."

"The bots?" asked Dave as he poked his head out the hatch to take a look around.

I motioned to a couple of the robotic assistants that populated the Sunbeam. "Those things in the corner over there. You will find them just about everywhere you go. They will obey most orders you give them and you'll find any number of uses for them."

Dave looked where I had pointed and snickered. "Kinda ugly things aren't they?"

"You ain't no prize catch yourself, bucko" came Penny's voice from the bot. Dave just stood there gaping at the bot for a moment, then flipped it the bird. The bot of course returned the favor.

"What the hell kind of robot is that?"

"Basic utility, but almost everything on this ship is controllable by Penny, who you just said hello to."

"Penny?" asked Gregor as he stepped around Dave. "Who is Penny? Is she another crew member?"

I motioned for a couple of the bots to grab the rest of the gear and follow us. "You might say she was crew. If you wanted to be more accurate you'd have to say she was the ship itself."

"She also happens to be your sister" came her remark as we walked down the corridor.

I could feel the questions welling up behind me as I started to laugh. "Mostly she is a synthetic intelligence that lives in a crystal about the size of a basketball. Add all that together and you have Penny. I'd suggest you make friends with her when you get the chance, since she is the power behind your translators. Piss her off and everyone is going to wonder why you keep talking like a deranged cartoon character."

"So, she like an AI of some kind?" asked Dave.

I winced at the words, the smiled quietly to myself. Somehow, I think someone else just got raised to the top of the roster for cleaning armor filters. "I suggest you ask her about that yourself. I suspect she will be more than happy to discuss the matter with you." The look on Dave's face when I looked back suggested that he realized he might have just screwed up.

"That was a mistake, wasn't it" he stated. Both Gregor and Cali started laughing.

"You sound like Donald Duck" snickered Cali. Dave just clamed up and took his lumps.

"Ok, here's the deal" I said as I stopped at the end of the corridor. "The rooms on either side here are yours for the taking. When you spot one you like the looks of ask Penny to assign it to you. She'll show you how to key the lock to your voice and hand prints."

"We can select any room?"

"Almost" I said. "From the looks of it, some of them have already been assigned. There a lot more rooms then crew at the moment though, so you shouldn't have any problems. If you need anything, or want to decorate your quarters, just ask Penny. She can whip up almost anything you might ask for."

"Already assigned? Assigned to who?" asked Gregor as all three of them started looking up and down the other corridors.

"To your Velan crew-mates I expect." I got three blank stares. "I suspect you are just about to put our interviews to the test. One of the things we tried real hard to figure out was whether any of you might be xenophobic."

"Xeno... Then our crew-mates are not..." Cali caught on faster then the rest.

"No, this is a multi-species crew." Nobody said anything. The emotional feedback I was getting said they were confused, scared and slightly skeptical. "Look, for the most part they are going to be just as curious about you as you are of them. I suggest you pick out your rooms and then meet me on the flightdeck. I'll introduce you and explain what is going to be going on for the next few days."

They were still silent, but started exploring the open rooms as I walked away. "Penny will help you find your way to the flightdeck when you are ready, or you can reach my on any of the intercoms scattered around." As I walked away, I could hear the three of them talking together. When I got to the flightdeck, Kalindra was sitting at her station running checks on her equipment.

"How's our son doing?" I asked as I buried my face in her hair.

"How often do you intend to ask me that question?" she laughed.

"Until I get used to the idea" I replied. "I noticed that some of the Velan crew seems to have come aboard. My three are picking out their rooms."

"Yes, Lythandi and Marlanda came with me and are down checking out their lab areas. Naldantis will be joining us at K1. He had a few last minute things to take care of before he could close down his practice."

"And the fourth?"

"I have yet to find a suitable applicant."

I ruffled her hair with my hands. "Keep searching..." I looked at the countdown flashing on the forward port. "A little over five hours to go. We still on schedule?"

"No problems that I can't correct before then" replied Penny.

"Good enough then." I walked over to my station and sat down. "Ok, let's see how well this thing works..." I muttered as I began to check out the navigation system. I was involved enough that I didn't hear Dave and the others when they stepped onto the flightdeck.

*Don't move quickly, but take a look behind you* came Kal's thoughts in my mind. *We seem to have an audience*

Turning my chair slowly, I swung it around and spotted Dave peeking around the hatchway. He wasn't even aware I had turned around because he and the others behind him were staring at Kalindra. She was just sitting with her hands folded in her lap, watching to see what they were going to do.

"You are welcome to enter" she said. "I'm not that dangerous..." *No comments from you either!* she 'pathed just before I said anything.

They were content to just stand there until I heard Cali exclaim something and push both Dave and Gregor onto the flightdeck. She was right behind them, but looking behind her at something. That something was Lythandi and Marlanda as they brought up the rear.

"Welcome to the flightdeck" I said as I stood up. "I think it's time for some introductions." I walked over to stand by Kalindra and then dove in. "This is Kalindra nal Kan and she is going to be your boss. She is responsible for the Science and Engineering teams that will be doing the work when we get underway."

I pointed at Lythandi, who nodded in reply. "This is Lythandi nal Kan and she is going to be our Astrogator. A task that will involve no small amount of on the job training."

"I will attempt not to get my Klizach lost" she smiled as she bowed. I caught just a hint of surprise from the Humans as Penny translated the word Klizach for them.

"The other Velan is Marlanda, but I'm afraid I don't know your family name."

"I have not yet been joined to a family" he replied.

"Then we hope to bring honor to your name against the day you do" I said as I nodded towards him. "Marlanda is the Physicist of the group." Pointing at Cali, who was still hiding behind the others. "The redhead in the rear is Cali. What she doesn't know about biology, she figures out with an accuracy that amazes me. I hope that talent extends to her new job as Exo-Biologist."

Dave stepped forward to get a little closer look at Lythandi. "Hi, I'm Dave" he said as they exchanged looks.

"He's the electrical engineer for out little group" I added. "The last one there is Gregor. He's the Sociologist of the group, and I hope he can keep us from screwing up too badly as we deal with whoever we meet."

Walking back to my chair, I sat down a faced the crew. "This is what is happening." I looked at the display flashing above me. "The Sunbeam II launches on its first test flight in about three hours. Between now and then I would like you to go over the lab area assigned to you and make a list of the equipment you would like to have available. Some of you have already gotten a start on this I believe." Marlanda nodded as I looked at him.

"What ever you need, we will have built. The construction facilities on the Sunbeam are suppose to be able to handle just about anything. When you have your list ready, give it to Penny. After that, the fun begins. Our first flight is to the asteroid home of my friend Bob. As he happens to be the pilot of this ship, I figure he might be handy to have around. We'll also pick up the rest of our crew before we head outbound."

"Just where are we headed?" asked Marlanda.

Under his breath, I heard Dave mutter "If he says Pendor, I'm going to scream" as he continued to stare at both Lythandi and Marlanda.

I had to laugh. "Actually, Illerkin is our first stop." The expression on his face was priceless, even if I was the only one there who understood what he was talking about. Everyone else just stared at me until I stopped chuckling. "Our first stop is Meenzeii. We aren't however going to be in any hurry."

Gesturing around the flighdeck with my hand, I explained. "This is a brand new ship, and I expect it to have teething pains. Before we run into someone new, I want those pains gone. At the same time, everyone here is going to learning or defining their job, and learning how to live and work with the rest of the crew. In other words folks, this is a training flight."

Gregor was looking like he had something caught in his throat. I sat and watched until he decided to ask what ever it was he was curious about. "You said this ships name was the Sunbeam II. Was there a Sunbeam I, and what happened to it?"

"Yes, there was an original. It was destroyed in battle when I did something stupid."

Everyone except Kal and Lythandi perked up their ears at hearing that. "Battle?" asked Dave.

"Yes, battle. As my friends and family have found out the hard way. The universe, or at least this part of it, isn't real friendly sometimes. That's why one of our final crew members is a trained warrior, and this ship packs enough power to push a small planet around. If it's any comfort, we have yet to loose anyone, or run into something that either Magic or Technology can't deal with."

"Magic?" asked Dave.

I smiled. "Magic. You didn't think that teleport to the shuttle was via machine did you?" The Velan crew members were used to the idea, but I was going to have fun explaining this to the Human contingent.

"When you get the time. Each of you will find a book in the ships library that documents some of the adventures my friends and I have had the last year or two. I'd recommend you at least skim through it. Also, I'll ask you not to snicker too much over the mushy parts. I'm afraid my sister tended to get carried away when she wrote it."

I looked over everyone standing there. "Unless you have a question that you desperately need to ask. You have all have things to be doing, as do I." Marlanda ducked out the hatch with Lythandi right behind him. Though she did bow once again before she left.

"Kal, I wish you would convince her to stop that."

"You think she listens to be. I'm only the Klizan after all."

The others hadn't moved yet. Raising one eyebrow, I looked at them. "You have a question?"

"You are her..."

"...mate" I finished for Gregor.

"You've been shot at..."

" many times, and by so many people, I've quit keeping count." I finished for Dave. I watched Cali to see what she was going to ask.

"And you are..."

"...the ArchMage of the planet Earth. As my mate is the ArchMage of her own world. When the fun starts, there isn't a safer group of people to be with." Or a worse bunch if you were trying to avoid trouble in the first place, I thought to myself.

"Hey, your under the protection of a powerful wizard here!" came Penny's comment from the console behind me. Of all the people there, it was shy little Cali who caught the movie reference.

"Did you pack the Scotch?"

T-minus 2 hours, 47 minutes until launch blinked the clock above me.

Chapter Five

A progress report for posterity

Vale and her crew were fast on the uptake. After a couple of days the unusual aspects of their new circumstances had worn down, they made great strides to absorb all they could. On one hand I thought this good, but on the other, I was a bit nervous too. These weren't choir members but smugglers. People who'd been earning their living in the shadow of society and often in the dark. Penny had garnered a fair amount of info on our guests, and each and every one had a lengthy record of criminal activity that included some mysterious disappearances and deaths.

They weren't afraid of work. Pitching in where directed and showing a great deal of initiative, they'd made a lot of progress with the fitting of their new ship. All of this while watching holos and reading prints on what the Sunbeam crew had experienced in our forays into space.

"It sounds as if you have some fairly powerful weapons" said Vale one afternoon. We'd been working on the docking latches for the cargo modules.

"Yes. That's true" I replied.

"What kind of armament will we be installing on my ship?"

"I don't know. Maybe a laser or two --a simple railgun perhaps. You aren't going to need much."

"Wait a minute. You want us to go out into unknown space naked as a baby's ass?"

"In the first place, you won't be in unknown space. We're going to be using standard trade routes and shipping vectors. You have about as much chance of hijack or interception that you would driving down main street in a Cadillac. You don't need weapons."

She was quick. "So, if we don't need weapons, why would you be thinking about a laser or a railgun?"

"Because we don't know everything. And actually, I was thinking more in terms of the weapons as a means of dispatching troublesome asteroids than repelling an attack."

"Every ship I ever sailed was armed to the teeth, and that was on earth --in known waters."

"Yes, and the technology which was a part of your life was very limited. The oceans are a very big place because of a lack of technology, not an abundance of distance. Where you'll be you'll have instantaneous communications with the mother worlds of the races you deal with. Plus, you'll have the protections of their military and policing forces. With jump drives and sprint engines, there's nowhere you'll be that help can't get to in less than a couple of minutes." This was a slight exaggeration, but it was close enough. "Plus, if you do the job right, there will be a whole series of stations along the trade routes you develop. A lack of arms is not going to be an issue."

"Well, you're talking about pirates and beasts like those Malls."


"Whatever. What about the competition? What do we know about the other people who may have the same idea you have? Are you saying that we don't need to worry about rival traders who might find it easier to take what we're carrying? It's a lot cheaper than buying."

That was an angle I hadn't considered. "Ok, you got me. I admit that possibility hadn't crossed my mind. At least, not as a significant issue."

"So, do we get something more powerful than your peashooters?"

That pissed me off. "Peashooters? Look lady, one of Jab's rails will blow a truck sized hole in quadclad armor. And that's the wrist model. A ship mounted rail would send a Toyota sized charged mass right through most ships, and knowing my cat, probably through a small planet."

Vale's eyes widened and the corners of her mouth turned up. "Why didn't you say so? I thought we'd be out there with special effects when we were facing GUNS."

"Shit lady. You need to spend some time with my cat. His idea of a gun makes your concept of one invisible in bright light. However, I'm going to think more about rival traders. Maybe you do need something a bit stronger. Let's just say I'll keep thinking about it, and see what it is that we're dealing with. We have a meeting coming up soon with an exploration group, and I'll take this up with them. Plus, we have a few members of the Meenzeii contingent showing up soon too, and we'll get their take on it. Something tells me that you and they are going to be thinking in similar terms."

"Your cat is a Meenzeii isn't he?" asked Vale.

"No, he's a Meenzal from Meenzeii, main man of Meenzai Security."

"Say that again ten times. Quickly."

"Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat..."


The only other topic that bred some suspicion was when Vale's crew approached me about my cut in the business. Each got an expression like they'd stepped in something a dog crapped when I told them that I wasn't taking a cut. Their premise was that nobody did something for nothing. That I could understand, given the way they'd been living for such a long time. The point was, that I wanted to see a community of planets, and expansion of the consciousness. The fastest way to do that was give the societies a cold shower. Wake them up to the reality that their world was not the center of the universe. While I had enough for ten men, I knew that ego was the greatest failing any species had. Vale and her crew didn't buy it, so we left it that they'd see for themselves soon enough.

On the whole, there weren't any real problems. At least not until the Meenzai star cruiser arrived. It was the first of the new ships that the Meenzals had built, and they brought it to show us. When they disembarked in full uniform, one of vale's crew, a short and ruddy man called Jake started laughing. "Whooo! Lookit the cat show!" he called to the entourage. "All the pretty kitties in their Sunday best!"

Those were the last words he spoke. A humorless contingent of Meenzai cut him apart with multiple blasts from hand weapons.

There was chaos for a few moments as Vale's crew members tried to find cover. They drew their weapons --only to have a collection of bots fuse their barrels with accurate laser hits. When the realization hit that they were unarmed and at the mercy of the cats, they rose and put their hands on their heads in the classic prisoner pose.

I shook my head. "Fuck me. This isn't going to be easy, I see."

Chapter Six

Who ordered the pizza with anchovies?

T-plus 3 minutes 37 seconds... I knew better then to let the laughter I was feeling be heard. Someone behind me, and it sounded like Dave again, didn't know better.

"You God Damned collection of inbred microcircuits! I said release the docking clamps now!" Penny was in fine form as she reasoned with the AI that controlled the clamps holding the Sunbeam in place. "Semi-autonomous piece of Meenzal shit is what you are! I wrote you, and I damn well know what the security code is!"

"Boss, I want permission to use some stronger persuasion on that thing" said the foreground Penny while we listened to her argue with the clamp in background. It took me by surprise for a second. I think it's the first time I'd ever heard her split like that.

"Wonderful, one computer arguing with another" piped up Dave before I'd had a chance to answer.

"Use whatever you like" I answered as I swung my chair around. "Dave, do you have a death wish or do you LIKE cleaning bio-filters?"

"Hey" he smiled. "It's a computer. If it gives me shit, I'll re-program it for chess or something."

"You're on bucko! Assemblers at thirty paces!" yelled Penny. "First one to yell uncle does the others cooking detail for a week."

"Wait a minute. Cooking detail?"

"Penny takes her turn at cooking like the rest of us" I laughed. I was still laughing when I saw the weapons console power up. "Penny? How much..." and one of the X-ray masers in the port wing array lit off with an ionized flash.

"So much for my idiot sibling" came her smug voice as the Sunbeam finally began to lift from its cradle. The weapons console went dormant again after emitting a satisfied <chirp> to itself. "The ship is clear to navigate boss, where to first?"

"K1 by the slow route. Just as we planned" I said as I watched us lift above the edge of the hanger roof. "A nice slow one week trip to work out the bugs and let the crew settle in." Behind me, the crew in question was glued to the ports watching the moon fall away below us. For Marlanda at least, the sight held special meaning. Like most of his race, he was deathly afraid of heights. With Lythandi's help, he was now dealing with that fear using the same arrangement I used with Kalindra.

"Pretty sight, isn't it" I asked him in Velan. His eye's were wide with more than just curiosity, but he was dealing with it as he nodded and smiled. As the moon grew smaller in the distance, he calmed down and returned to his seat.

"I believe I am going to like my stay aboard your ship" he said. It was my turn to smile.

"Ok, listen up folks. Normally it would take about a half hour to get to K1 from here. We're going to take a week, and I doubt you'll have time to get bored. You still have your inventory lists for your individual labs to figure out, and there are a hundred and one other things to learn."

"Such as?" asked Gregor.

"For starters, learning your way around the ship. Then there's being fitted for your armor, starting your language lessons, reading the details of the Meenzeii problem, beginners lessons in operating this ship during an emergency, flight lessons in the shuttles..." There were a lot of pained expressions staring back at me. "And all that's during the first day. I'll have a bigger list by tomorrow" I grinned as a collective groan went up from everyone.

"One other thing belongs on that list" said Penny. "That putz of an engineer owes me a chance to whip his ass." Dave gave me a look that I think said he was just the tinniest bit unsure of his convictions.

"And just how do you propose that I prove you are just a collection of algorithms?" he asked.

"Simple" said Penny. "During your interviews, you said you liked to compose limericks. Really obnoxious ones at that. I propose we each come up with one limerick by the time the Sunbeam reaches K1. If the judges can't decide which one is suppose to be generated by a computer. You concede that I'm just as much a person as you."

"And if you lose? What do you have to concede that I would be interested in?"

I found the pause that followed almost unnerving. What was flat out bizarre was when a hologram shimmered into existence in the middle of the flightdeck. Penny very seldom manifested herself in a visible form. Mostly she limited herself to the occasional face on a monitor. Now she stood there looking at Dave with her arms crossed. "You're an electrical engineer and you specialize in computers. If I can't convince you that I'm just as much a person as you are. I'll give you free access to the information that will let you build a super-computer the size of your thumbnail."

We'd decided before any of this had started that some of the things we knew were not for general access. Nanotech based systems were high on that list. Before I had a chance to say anything, Penny turned and looked my direction. "Brian, this is important to me." I looked at her for a moment, then nodded. She smiled, then turned back to face Dave. "Do we have a deal?"

Dave was looked even less sure of himself as he watched Penny interacting with her surroundings. "Who are the judges?"

"Since you're human, and Penny modeled her thought processes after one. I expect you should have a human judge. Bob is just familiar enough with Penny that he might spot her style. His wife Karen though has only known Penny for a short time. Would she be acceptable?" I asked the two of them. Dave had to think about it for a second, but Penny nodded immediately.

"Ok, the bet has been given and accepted. You each have a week to come up with a single limerick that I will show to Karen when we arrive." Dave had turned to face me, and Penny stuck her tongue out at him. When everyone started to laugh, he turned back but she was standing there innocent as an angel. It was going to be an interesting week.

"Enough fun, time to get to work" I snickered as Penny faded out. "You all have things to do, and I suspect unpacking the rest of your stuff will be high on the list." Looking around, I caught Cali in a yawn which she tried to cover when she saw me looking. "One other thing. It is still the middle of the night for some of you. If you want to grab a nap now and try to get your sleep schedule shifted to ship time, I won't say a thing." Cali and Marlanda both nodded their thanks.

"When you get everything squared away and your lab inventory ready. I'm going to start calling you one at a time to get your armor fitted. You won't be needing it for awhile, hell I hope you never need it at all. You will though have it available and know how to use it. When you're all fitted, I'm going to start teaching classes to get you used to moving and working in it."

"Will we be armed?"

"You might call it that. The person who designs the weapons systems for our armor likes making small planets go boom. He's working on figuring out how to make large ones do the same. Yeah, you'll be armed."

Gregor didn't look too happy with the idea, but the others seemed to take it in stride. Either that or information overload was setting in and they were running on autopilot. "Ok, to work or to sleep. Take your pick and go to it. I'm going to be here on the flightdeck running checks on various systems now that we're in flight. Don't be surprised at the occasional odd noise you hear. I'll try and warn you ahead of time for some thing's." They all nodded and began to file out of the various hatches.

When we had the deck to ourselves, Kalindra stood up and came over to stand beside me as I worked. "Not bad, that could have gone worse."

"I could have gone better also" I said as I gave her a hug. "Hell, I don't know what I'm doing here. I'm just winging it as I go along."

"You are doing fine then. I was listening as you talked with them and they are all willing to listen to you. Give them time to learn about who we are and what they have become a part of. They are more curious then scared and that will help them adjust."

"Don't try to freak the mundane's then?"

"That would be my advice" she laughed.

"Whatever the Klizan wishes..." and I got swatted by her tail as she left me to my work.

The next couple of days were controlled chaos. Sometimes the control was a little thin, but that wasn't unexpected. I did however get taught a lesson of my own. We had intended that Kalindra handle the armor fittings for the furries and I would handle the human's. Kal had taken one look at Cali in a jumpsuit and had decided to switch things around a little. "I trust you and your honor. I also see no reason to tempt you" was all she said as I looked at her with a smirk. I got to fit Marlanda into his armor instead and then teased Kal at every chance.

By the time we began to close on K1, the chaos had died down to a kind of frantic scurry. I figured it would be months before we actually began to work smoothly as a team. As Ficus hailed us and asked us not to run into the Meenzal ship hanging off the asteroid. I was almost ready to welcome the peace and quiet that Bob and his family represented. I was also curious as to the furious composing that had been going on.

"Ok, I'll try to keep from scraping the paint from their nice new ship. Also, would you ask Karen to meet me when she has a moment. She's going to be asked to settle a bet between a couple of people and I want to fill her in on what's going on."

"No problem, I'll tell her. She's a little busy cleaning up the mess that Captain Vale left in the docking bay."

"Oh, did Jab forget his litter box again?"

"Mage still not develop sense of humor" came Jab's comment as he broke in on the link. "Want to help Jab test new gun?"

"A new gun? What do you want to test it on?"

"Mage?" he asked as he snuffled in the Meenzal version of a laugh.

"No thanks, some other time perhaps."

"No problem, will wait."

"Say fuzzybutt. Has Jasm sent us that weapons officer yet?"

"Is here yes. You like him. Has good sense of humor." If Jab thought he had a good sense of humor, I was in trouble.

"Well, I'll see you in a few minutes. I'm going to see if this crew of mine can figure out how to fly this thing." I turned to Lythandi who had been listening to the interchange. "Ok, take us in to dock." She gave a small squeak and sat down at the pilots chair.

"Flight controls to manual" said Penny as she unlocked the board in front of Lythandi.

"Don't worry, it drives like a truck" I whispered so only she could hear.

"What is a truck?" she whispered back as she nudged the Sunbeam towards the spot we'd been assigned.

Chapter Seven

Hell, hell, the gang's all here

"So, what are you going to do about it?" asked Vale. Her eyes were dark with anger.

"I'm not going to do anything about it.." I said calmly. "That was a stupid thing to do, and a price was extracted. You and your crew are going to have to learn that your species gives you no special privileges. Further, if you want to see something done, go do it. I'm not your daddy."

Vale grew furious. "I don't want you to be a daddy, goddammit! But a member of my crew was just... just... what the hell did they do to him anyway. Jesus Christ!"

"They killed him, Vale. And they did it with the same kind of weapon you were sneering at yesterday." I kept my voice even and low. "You'd better go have a talk with the rest of your crew and let them all know that the universe is a big and nasty place --a lot more so than the seas you've been sailing. I'll tell you another thing. I picked you and your crew because you were pirates. There are others on the way, but you are the first group. I wanted people who wouldn't take any shit, would get the job done, and not need a lot of intervention to do it. Now you come whining to me because one of your crew wised off to the wrong cat."

"PIRATES? You call us pirates? Do I have a goddam beard? Do I carry a cutlass? I'm a smuggler --if you want to use cute terms, but all we are, are business people that deal in a market most people don't want to acknowledge. If you have some stereotyped view of us, you better drop it, and drop it quickly."

"Don't you dictate to me on my own station." I said, standing. "If you want to give me shit, I'll transport your asses back to earth and make sure you land in the center of the Chinese mainland. I'm sure you'd have a difficult time making your way to the coast, finding a ship and making course for somewhere safer."

Vale paled visibly. "You'd do that to us? The Chinese want us dead."

"You fucking-A betcha I would. More than that, I'd..." I was cut off by Penny.

"Bob, Brian is just off K1 and docking, and Naldantis is refusing to leave the Meenzai Cruiser. You're needed on the docking bays."

"Shit. Ok, I'll be right there. As for you, Vale..."

"You're point is made. We do it your way or we don't do it at all."

"NO! That's not it.. goddammit. I'll finish this later." Feeling very frustrated, I stomped off to the landing bays mumbling to myself. I wondered if it was a good idea to use the Meenzals to transport the Velan that Brian had recruited, but with no gate to Velar, it was all I could come up with. I couldn't do it with a sled, and my new ship was an ordered pile of materials laying in a special manufacturing area on the station.

I boarded the Meenzal craft and was shown to the Velan's cabin. It took me five minutes to get him to open the door. I had to be soothing and apologetic because Velan's had a history of distaste for the cats, so it was considered an insult that Nal had to travel with them. When he did come out, I was surprised. I was used to Velans being shorter and a little smaller than I. Naldantis was a good six inches taller than I and had muscles that bulked him like a horse. He was one big boy.

As I was talking to him, the station was jarred by an impact that gently rippled the station. It was as if something had nudged it with a big elbow. "Now what?" I mumbled, and waited to hear the alarms go off. They didn't come. Instead, Penny's voice came over the open comm link.

"No alert. Collision crews report to the docking area." A soft chime rang three times and the message was repeated.

"Unless I miss my guess, I think your fellow Velans have arrived." I told Nal. I was smiling broadly, hoping my embarrassment didn't show. He looked at me curiously, then sighed.

"As the healer, I will make myself present in case I am needed." Then he edged past me and strode off the ship.

"Penny, take a note. The next time a Velan doesn't want to do something, we need to cause a traffic accident. Speaking of which, what's going on out there?"

"A slight misjudgment in the distance required to bring Brian's ship to a stop. No dents, everything's ok."

"Mage still make bad judgment call. He not learn, eh?" I turned and saw an old Meenzal. He wore the uniform and twin planet emblem of the new Meenzai. I recognized him at once as the Commander of the first of the BattleCruiser we'd dealt with.

"Commander." I said bowing. "It is good to see you. Welcome to my property. We are honored by your presence."

"You squat to relieve, you so happy." he said with boredom. "Where my new ship?"

"I believe it's docking now." I said, standing up straight.

"Afraid that was case." he said, and showed his teeth with the typical expression Meenzals use for distaste. "Wonder if I live to be a zaltakk..." The old Meenzal crowded past me and fuff-thopped up the corridor to leave the ship.

"You will live to be a great-great-great grandfather alright!" I called after him. I wondered at the noise he made as he walked, and then realized that his left hind leg was prosthetic. Knowing the Meenzals, I had to wonder if he'd been wounded by the Maal or his own kind. No matter which, he was certainly going to make life interesting for the Sunbeam.

I followed up the hallway and left the ship. Brian was walking across the bay with someone I didn't recognize. He was saying that there was no problem and not to feel badly. "Must be the pilot who docked." I mumbled to nobody. A bot materialized over my shoulder, and Penny clucked agreement. Brian saw me and waved.

"Hi! Where's the wench?" he said.

"Nice to see you too. Karen's in the main chamber with Megan and Sue. They're arguing with Aron over dinner. ...Aron hates mushrooms and olives in his spaghetti."

"Business as usual, hmmmmm?"

"Yeah. Can't we find a war somewhere so we can get some peace?"

"WHAT THEY HELL ARE THEY?" echoed across the bay. Brian and I turned and there was Vale and her crew. One of the women was pointing to Kalindra and Naldantis. She suddenly had four hands clamped across her mouth by fellow crewman. The Meenzal courtesy lesson was taking root.

Nal looked at the clutch of humans with annoyance. Kalindra had an amused look and puckered her lips and blew them a kiss.

"Boy." I sighed. "I can see this is going to be LOTS of fun."

Chapter Eight

Practical Demonstrations

"You will not say hello to me?" came a quiet voice from behind Brian. I looked over his shoulder and realized that it was Lythandi.

"God, I'm sorry. You were kind of hidden behind bulko here." I said nodding to Brian. "How are you?"

"I will heal." she answered.

"Heal? Are you sick?"

"No" said Brian. "She's a little embarrassed. She was at the con as we docked." The Velan looked at her toes.

"Aw, don't sweat the small stuff, Lyth. You ought to see what my ships end up looking like." This drew a small smile.

"I have. They seem to be @@@@@@." She'd said the last thing in Velan and I didn't understand it. My expression showed my confusion.

"She means the filters in their water system" said Brian. He was looking smug as usual.

"Don't give me that look, Wizzie. If I remember right, you drove your last ship into a vice." The look disappeared.

"At least it was only one. How many have you destroyed?"

"Let's talk about something else. Maybe something like you helping out with the hull of the new one?"

"We can do that. What this time, a four seat runabout?" I said it was something along those lines and led him off to the control room. The plans for the new ship were there. I could also show him a 3-D view, Penny had a holo of it.

We got about halfway there when the aroma of spaghetti reached Brian's nostrils. The ship would have to wait until after he ate. I tried to get him to at least look at the plans, but when Brian sets his mind there's no use. He was hungry, and that's all there was to that. "Fud" he said, and wandered off to the eating area.

I went back to the bays, deciding that everyone might as well go ahead and eat. When I got there, Vale's crew was standing in a circle around Kal and Lythandi. For a moment that worried me, until I heard them asking questions about Velar. The women seemed pleased to answer them. I noted that all seemed to be at peace, so I went to the edge of the deck to get a look at the new Sunbeam. It was staggering.

The stars were mirrored in the finish, giving it an ethereal look. It was like something was there, but at the same time it wasn't. It was much bigger than the original, and I was going to enjoy getting my first peek inside. Brian had described the new control system to me. He did it to share the ideas, and also get some input. I was still his chief pilot. But I also figured that at times that would be a reality, and other times it would be a title. Things had changed a lot since we sat in his apartment and lab making plans for the future. A lot of changes. It would have to wait a bit though, for now I had other things to handle.

"This look like worms in blood." said Nek Tal. The old Meenzai had a look of disgust on his face. "No flesh for teeth."

"Why don't you just give it a try?" said Karen. She sounded like she was talking to a child. "Those aren't worms, they're noodles made from grain."

The old cat looked suspicious, but he tried a bite. A look of surprise came over his face and he began to eat heartily. "See? That's not bad at all now, is it?" smiled Karen.

"Not poison I." grumbled the cat, but he kept eating.

When the meal was over, Brian and I ducked away from the crowd. We headed to the control room to look over the plans for my new ship. Brian stepped in the door and saw the holo model floating above the chart table. He exhaled in a huffing noise and stepped closer to it. "This is a new look for you, isn't it?"

It was. At the bows was an hexagonal chamber, spheroid on the top and bottom. It sat at the tip of a triangular hull that gave the impression of wings although they weren't aerodynamic. Mounted at the wide end at the stern were five cylinders, side by side, one row on top and one row on the bottom. The ship had no landing gear, instead it rode on a neutral buoyancy field. Each of the cylinders contained an engine --a new design that Jab and Jasm had recently proved. In slow speed mode they would propel the ship at speeds up to 1.1 C. But in high speed mode they were able to drive the ship at suprahyper speeds up to a design maximum of two time's pi to the second C. In other words, they were jump engines. It only took four to achieve these velocities, but ten were used to offer two and a half time's redundancy. It was made for battle.

The ship's shields were the strongest ever, and in theory could deflect a direct low distance hit from a plasma cannon. Further, it had the necessary shields to protect it from every type of emissions we were aware of, and a few we could imagine. Nestled into the leading and trailing edges of the triangle was an array of ultra-rails complimented by quantum cannons. Mounted atop the triangle, just forward of the engines was a tricluster of torpedo launchers. Beneath it was a series of sensor arrays which had not only long and short distance capability, but had the ability to see into close range hyperspace.

Brian looked at it for almost two minutes in silence before he said anything. When he did, it was simple. "This is a lot more ship than I was expecting. It's not something I can sing together in an hour like your past ones. I'm going to get some rest and then I'll see what I can do." With that, he left without another word.

The whole station was wakened in the night by the alarm system. I jumped out of bed and ran up into the main chamber. Coming towards me was Vale.

"There's been an accident. We were fitting one of the new cargo modules and it slipped out of the suspension cradle. It fell on Max." she told me.

When we arrived in the manufacturing area, I could immediately see the problem. One of the cubes was leaning precariously on a bot trolley we used as a tug to move materials with. Inside the trolley was her man Max. The weight of the container had crushed the tug badly, and we could hear the man yelling in pain. One of the crew told us that they couldn't lift the container because the suspension rack couldn't grip it because of the angle it was sitting. Nobody was going to climb underneath the container, if it slipped even a little, it would fall off of the trolley and crush anyone beneath it.

A group of the Meenzai arrived and looked the situation over. With out hesitation, a few of them clambered underneath the container and began to cut at the sides of the trolley with their claws. Naldantis showed up a few seconds after the cats did, and he too went under to offer any healing he could to help the trapped Max. After a few moments, three of the cats came from underneath, carrying Max. Naldantis was behind, and was making motions over the hurt man. All but two of the Meenzai got out from under when the container when it slid to the side and dropped.

Because the container now sat squarely on the deck, the suspension crane was able to lift it revealing the crushed lifeless bodies of the cats who'd gone in to help. The whole group sucked air in unison at the sight. Vale sat with a thud on the deck and began to weep silently, shaking her head. After a few moments, she approached the Meenzals who stood looking at their dead comrades.

"Thanks for your help. I'm very sorry about your men."

"They die doing duty. No more honorful way die for Meenzai."

The rest of the crew shuffled up and stood behind their leader. "If there's anything you ever need, you got it." one said. The others nodded in agreement. Vale spoke to Nal. "You had no reason to risk yourself, I'm very grateful to you."

"It is up to us to work with one another." he said softly. "You would have done the same, I am sure." The looks showed me they weren't so sure of that, but also showed me that they just might in the future.

"I think I'm beginning to get this... How it works, I mean." she said. "If you need something from us, you just say so and you'll get it."

"I thank you" said the Velan. "But now I must attend to your man." The Meenzai Captain said they needed to attend to their dead, and they went to collect the fallen cats. Nal directed a few bots to transport Max to his quarters so he could administer healing.

Nobody was interested in continuing work, so we all moved off to our respective places in silence. There'd be time to finish the last details of Vale's ship tomorrow. When I got back to my quarters, I found Vale in the doorway, waiting for me. "Got a minute?" she asked me.

"Sure. Come on in." We went inside and sat down in the living room. "What can I do for you?"

"I'm sorry I pissed you off today. I guess I didn't understand."

"So, what is it you understand now?" I asked her.

"It's about a code of some kind, isn't it? I mean, like a code of honor or something."

"There's no 'or something' about it. That's what it's all about."

"It was so strange. The same animals who killed one of my people without a second though just saved one the same way. No thought to it. No big deal."

"Your crewman insulted the Meenzai. That's why I wouldn't take any steps to interfere. He asked for it and he got it. In this case here --well, you guy --Max?"

"Yes, Max."

"Well, he needed help and he got it. That's the way it goes out here. You need to get with it and join in. And by the way, I wouldn't use the term animal again. Some of those folks out there have a lot more intelligence than we do. Plus, it's an insult. Whether or not you mean to degrade someone, if you do you'll end up paying for it. Paying dearly."

"I guess that's probably right. But there's still something I don't get. Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what?"

"You took us off the planet, outfitted us with a ship and the means to fly it. You don't want a cut of what we make, so what's the reason you do it? That's what I don't get. None of us do, and it makes it hard for us to trust you."

"In a way, that's a laugh. You not trusting me, I mean. But I tried to tell you once before. I want a place to be that works. Earth doesn't. So although it may be egotistical, I want to build a new place. Plus, I have a little pride in what I do, and that makes me feel good."

"That's it? You don't want to get paid? What are you, like rich or something? I mean, you have all of this and it must have cost some really major bucks."

"No, this costs nothing. It took some magic to start it all, but now it runs on it's own, and builds what we tell it now."

"Magic? Hey man, you aren't talking to a kid. What was this magic you're talking about?"

"You'll see, Vale. I'm sure of it. Maybe you should find Brian or Kalindra tomorrow and ask them."

"It doesn't matter. The only magic I'm interested in is getting my ship underway."

"Then you'll get your demonstration tomorrow. I suggest that you get some sleep. It's going to be a long day."

Chapter Nine

If you can't convince them, scare them shitless

It was pretty early in the morning for the gang of K1, but I liked doing this kind of thing when there were as few distractions as possible. The fact that the crew of the Sunbeam had been working full bore for a week made it fairly certain they wouldn't be bothering me either. So, my early morning stroll through the central forest of K1 was a perfect chance to relax a little and enjoy the peace and quiet.

"Yes it is" said Kalindra quietly as I stood there.


She giggled quietly. "You were thinking how peaceful it was."

"No fair reading my mind..." I laughed as I picked up the case I'd been carrying and headed for the construction bays. Once again Bob had surprised me with his ship design. He'd finally come up with something I was going to need help with. Having been through it once with the Sunbeam II, I wasn't really worried that we'd be able to create what he'd designed.

It took about an hour to inventory the raw materials he'd collected to make sure they were the correct mixture and mass for the hull he wanted. It was still two hours before breakfast when I found a comfortable spot to sit on and got ready to sing the hull into existence. I was setting up the small tripod when the visitor who had been standing quietly behind me decided to make herself known.

"So you are the wizard Bob keeps talking about. Pretty lousy wizard if I can sneak up on you like this."

I continued to setup the tripod, while I grinned to myself. "You are 22 feet behind me, 4 feet to the left and you've been standing there for 2 minutes 12 seconds. Before that you stood outside the hatch for 6 minutes and the odd seconds before you made up your mind to enter. You are carrying one standard issue energy weapon, a snub nose 38 that you hope Bob doesn't know about and enough knives to outfit a cutlery shop." I looked back over my shoulder to watch the expression on her face. "Sneaking up on a Mage is slightly harder then you might believe Captain Conner."

She looked at me sitting there smiling, then nodded her head. "Point taken, but you might have gotten that from sensors in these walls and a radio."

"I take it then that you don't believe?" I said as I turned back and continued my preparations.

"Let's say I'm skeptical at this point. I'm only just beginning to understand why I'm even here. Believing in magic might take a bit longer."

"What's so hard to understand?" The tripod was setup and I popped the latches on the case I'd been carrying. Inside was a softly glowing crystal the size of a basketball. That same crystal was also slightly annoyed at having been ignored for so long. As I lifted Penny and placed her in the tripod, I felt Kalindra take a keen interest in Captain Conner. Normally I wouldn't have thought twice about being secure on K1. With the arrival of all the people joining our operation, I could no longer take that security for granted. I was going to be very busy shortly and Kalindra was going to make sure I stayed safe.

"How about telling me why I'm here?" asked Vale as she watched me. "I have trouble believing this altruistic crap I've been handed up to now. Nobody who could build something like this place just hands a starship to a bunch of smugglers and tells them to have fun."

"Your point being?" I asked.

"What's in it for you?"

"Fair enough question" I replied. "We get some stability in this small corner of the galaxy that it has been sadly lacking before now. You get to help us, and get rich at the same time."

"You and Bob wouldn't last five seconds talking like that where I come from. Someone would slit your throat and toss your remains to the fish."

I stopped what I was doing and turned back to face her. As I watched, she gave me the once over and did little to hide her disdain for what she saw. "Not very impressive am I."

"Hardly" she laughed. "A little over-weight and definitely out of shape doesn't give you much to intimidate anyone with."

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled, which made just the tinniest hint of surprise flash across her face. "Maybe it's a good disguise."

"I don't think so, you really don't look very dangerous to me. I noticed that your security seems pretty lax this morning. Whoever Penny is, she's asleep on the job at the moment. What if I were to shoot you and steal that ship of yours outside?" She actually made a motion towards her gun before she heard the low growl coming from the shadows.

"Then after I finished here and had breakfast. I'd turn what was left of you over to your crew for burial." I watched as she dropped her hand back to her side slowly. "Thank you. As tasty as Human liver is, it also gives my lifemate terrible gas." Vale was still searching the shadows as I turned back to my work. "So, you didn't really come here to threaten me, so why are you here?"

"I had a similar conversation with Bob last night. He suggested that I talk to you and whoever Kalindra is about it."

"That's Kalindra who's eyeing your liver at the moment."

"I wonder if she tastes good with a lemon sauce" came the voice from the shadows.

"Now now, no eating Bob's guests. Remember the trouble you got in last time" I snickered as Kal stepped from the shadows to flash her teeth at Vale.

"I've figured it out, you're all nuts."

I was starting the initial sequence, so Kalindra answered and kept an eye on Vale. "You will please be silent now. Disturbing my mate while he works is un-healthy at the best of times. If you wish to understand us better, stand there quietly and watch."

Levitating the various raw ingredients and mixing them together. I reached out and began to draw energy from my surroundings. Someplace back on the Sunbeam, the drain was noticed and the primary power systems came on-line to supply my requirements. Pouring the energy into the mix before me, the mass began to glow with its own heat as the various elements melted and mixed. For about twenty minutes I heated the metal, until no corner of the bay was unlit by the incandescent energy it radiated.

Then came the hard part. Bob's earlier ships had been simple enough in design that I could visualize them in my mind. His latest request was several magnitudes of complexity beyond that. Fortunately, I had someone who found such things trivial and I extended my aura to touch Penny as she sat waiting for me.

*You ready to shape this thing?*

*Just don't sneeze this time* she laughed in my mind. *It took me forever to correct the Sunbeam after you turned it inside out.*

*No sneezing, I promise*

Letting her slip into my mind, I felt the by now familiar shift in perspective as she linked with Kalindra and I. With me supplying the raw power and Penny doing the shaping, the molten mass of hull metal began to shudder as it shifted its form. With the precision only a computer might provide, Bobs new ship took shape before us.

*That should do it. Tell Bob he owes me a polishing cloth for my birthday this year*

*I will* I said as I felt the link desolve. I opened my eyes to see Penny's glow fading back to normal. With the occasional <ping> as something vaporized against the still white hot metal, the hull began to cool as well. Before I did anything else, I moved Penny from the tripod back to her protective carrier. Then I stood up and turned around to face my audience.

"How long did you say I'd last against some of your friends Captain Conner?"

She was still squinting as she looked at me. "A bit longer then I believed when I walked in here." She looked from me, to Kalindra, then to the slowly cooling hull floating in mid-air behind me. "I think my life is going to be real interesting from here on out."

I laughed as I gathered my stuff. "Naw, this is the dull stuff. You haven't come close to interesting yet." I walked by her and down the corridor to the central habitat. "I've got something to do first, then I'll be back. Let me buy you breakfast and we can talk about your first excursion."

Behind me I could hear Kalindra and Vale muttering something to each other that had Kalindra snickering to herself.

"Are you sure I couldn't have just a little piece of your liver?"

Chapter Ten

The Traders Take Wing

It was a little after mid-morning when I had Vale Connor paged to the launching bays. She arrived a few minutes later with her crew in tow. They saw their ship, flight ready, for the first time.

"It looks like a football stuck to a shipping conex" said the lady captain. "It just may be the ugliest damn thing I've ever seen." She got some nods of agreement from the crew.

"Well, let's just hope you built it to work better than it looks." I said. "It's time to give it it's maiden voyage."

"You could have put that a different way, you know" said Vale. "A maiden is someone who's gonna get fucked." However, she led the way to the crew section. It gave the easiest access to the bridge. The crew and their captain filed into the ship and made their way up and forward, and I could see them taking their stations through the transparent portion of the hull.

I told Penny to move the ship off station, and to hold it in tractor at about 500 meters. This put it clear to navigate even though the ship was fairly close to the Sunbeam. I signalled Vale to start her engines and felt rewarded to see the familiar glow of ionization illuminate the aft propulsion tubes. "They're idling." Vale's voice said over the comm.

"K1 at station keeping please, Penny. We're going to push on it a bit hard." She responded that she was ready, and I could hear the familiar rumble of K1's power generators rise in pitch as they get ready to apply an opposing load against the cargo ship. "Would you please ask Brian to be ready to dispose of our gates in case we end up moving?"

"I'm right behind you" said Brian. He'd heard the back and forth on the comm, and had come to watch.

"Ok, Captain. Go ahead and spin the wheels. Do it just the way we practiced." I got an acknowledgment from her flight engineer, and saw the glow from the tailpipes begin to brighten. Through my feet I could feel K1 begin to vibrate smoothly as it pushed back against the ship. "So far, so good." I mumbled to Brian. He nodded.

We worked the engines at a variety of settings over the next half hour, and then I decided it was time to see if they could actually steer the ship. I told them to go ahead and press for a full power burn, and was immediately rewarded to see the plasma field stretch out into space behind the cargo vessel. "Penny, autoset their controls for clear space and drop the tractor."

The bulky ship rotated smoothly about five degrees and took off in a gentle arc that brought it up and over the station and aimed it at deep space. "Captain Connor, you are clear and free to navigate" came Penny's voice over the comm. Vale's entire crew could be heard whooping and clapping as the first cargo ship took its first unassisted steps. Brian and I made for the control room so we could monitor their progress.

I'll say this for Vale. She ran a tight ship. Her commands were spoken once and executed immediately. She put the ship through an entire series of the tests we'd planned, and came up with a few of her own. It unnerved me a little that we saw her weapons system come on-line when the ship was pointed back towards K1. However, she overflew the station and made for the little asteroid field where we stored rocks for our extraction processes before she opened fire.

After a half hour of gunnery practice they turned back to the station and prepared to dock. "So, do you want to go watch this from the bays, or stay here where it's safe?" asked Brian, smiling.

"I think I'll risk it." I answered him. It was a good choice. The ship glided into the docking bay and caught its magnetic latches as if the crew had been doing this sort of thing for years. Even Brian was impressed with the performance. The crew filed off the ship in the reverse order they'd boarded a couple of minutes later.

The crew all stood by a landing leg and pulled something out of their pockets. It took me a while to realize what they were doing. Each of them lit a joint and puffed gratefully on the weed, making small talk as they smoked. Brian and I stood back and watched. "I'm not so sure what I think of this." I told Brian. "I hope they don't plan to go fly again now." Brian frowned and nodded.

"I christen thee Valence!" boomed Connor suddenly, and the crew all stubbed their smokes out on the side of the crew module, leaving gray-black marks on the white finish.

"Well, I'll be damned." I said. Vale walked over to where Brian and I were standing.

"I want my crew to rest for about eight hours, and then we'd like to get underway. Do you have a problem with that?" she asked smoothly.

"Your ship, Captain. It's totally up to you. I'll have stores sent aboard."

"Thank you. I saw that the flight computers have already been programmed. It made things easy for the maiden flight."

"Yeah, well it's not all that hard to get lost. Even for a test hop. I didn't want you folks disappearing into the void."

"I appreciate that. We noticed that the computers don't have any information on facilities. Is that something you can load for us before we take off?"

Brian and I looked at each other. "What facilities?" asked Brian.

"The space stations."

"What space stations?" I asked her.

"You mean, there aren't any space stations?"

"Well, there's something kind of like that over Meenzeii." then...

*Should I tell her, Brian?*

*It'll be more fun to let them find out.*

"Then that will be our first destination" said Vale. Brian and I smiled at her and nodded. "We can get a load there and go check out Varlex."

"That's Velar" said Brian.

"Oops." giggled Connor. "I guess I'm a little fucked up."

"The universe is full of surprises." said Brian sweetly.

*That's the truth.* I 'pathed back. Brian just grinned widely.

Eight hours, to the minute, Vale's crew assembled on their ship and got ready for their step into a brave new world --or maybe the lack of one. I felt compelled to repeat some of the instruction they'd been given as the ship was being built and their training progressed. "Remember, Captain. Your trip out is one way. Neither your nor any member of your crew can return to this system. If you make any attempt to do so, you'll be destroyed before you can get within a light year of Sol. This isn't a threat, it's simply a statement of fact."

"I don't need any reminders" replied Vale. "You were more than clear about this."

"I just wanted to be sure, Captain."

"Well, if that's all, what say I get this show on the road?"

Her response was Penny releasing the docking latches of the ship. "Valence, you're released and on manual."

With a loud hiss of maneuvering jets, the cargo ship lifted and went backwards out of the bay. A mile off station, she rotated and went to conversion engines, moving off at a fair clip. "Bon Chance, Valence." I said.

There was no reply.

Chapter Eleven

Ted Mack Attack

With the departure of the Valence, things were a lot quieter. I had time to take a stroll in the woods which, thanks to Brian, was now a deep green again. I found myself a small patch of supple grass, and laid on my back studying the artificial sky of K1.

"Bob?" I heard my name called, and realized that I'd fallen asleep. A glance at my watch told me I'd been there for nearly two hours. I looked to see who'd called me and saw Karen standing on the path, hands in the pockets of her jeans, smiling at me. "Took a little nap, huh?"

"I guess I did." I said a little sheepishly. "What's up?"

"Well, the kids thought it might be fun to entertain our guests tonight with a talent show, and we wondered what you'd think."

"I don't know. Sounds ok. You know, I'm not really sure what the Velans will think of it. The humans will probably think it's cute, and the cats probably won't come. Their commander told me he planned to cast off in the morning, so I suppose they'll be preparing. Anyway, it might be fun. Tell them I said it was fine with me."

"Ok, I will. What time do we want to eat?"

"I'll leave that to you. You're the one who's running the kitchen. Why you volunteered for that is beyond me, but I figure it entitles you to tell us when it's time to eat."

Karen smiled, waved briefly and went back down the path. I got up, stretched my legs and headed off to see how my new hull was faring. Brian said it would take a couple of days to cool, and it was going on a day and a half.

The ship was pretty impressive looking. At least it was to me. It hung in the suspension field looking as though it was ready to fly. There was no way it could. All that was there was a hull --a container waiting to become a ship. It was seventy feet in length, and stood nearly thirty-five high, from the bottom of the underside engines to the top of the topsides. The crew section was some twelve feet high and twenty-two feet in diameter. The aft 'wings' were thirty-two feet, tip to tip. It was the biggest craft I'd ever had.

It had cooled to the point that it was no longer incandescent, but I could still feel the heat radiating off of it from twenty feet away. It would be tomorrow before I could turn the bots loose, installing the components that would make it a habitable, useful ship. I took a last look and headed off to quarters. I needed a shower.

* * *

The evening meal spared no expense --such as it was. The herd of Herefords was down by two, and the barbecue was calling the crews with the unmistakable aroma of broiling beef. There were potatoes around the fire, and a selection of celery, carrots, broccoli and dips. The kids had built a small stage on the little knoll behind the table area. Even the Meenzals couldn't stay away --not with the smell of steak in the air. They did want their cuts cooked a bit on the rare side. They took them raw off the plate. They were a lot more comfortable now, perhaps because there weren't so many humans still on station. Not that the ten crew members of the Valence amounted to a lot, but their absence was noticeable. The big cats ate and then excused themselves to return to their ship.

After a while, the comm system lit up with music, a lilting melody played by pipes. Naldantis had supplied the recording, it was a native Velan piece. As it played, Lythandi began to do a graceful dance, something I hadn't expected of her race. I was embarrassed that it surprised me they danced. When the song ended, a bouncy Mexican tune came on which I recognized as la Coucaracca. If I'd been surprised by the Velan dance, what came next caused my jaw to go slack.

Twelve of the Meenzai, standing erect and side by side, arm over shoulder paraded onto the stage and began to do a kick dance. The effect was like a muppet can-can. As I watched, they formed a circle going one way, and then the other, all in time to the music. I felt panic well up inside me as the audience of family and Sunbeam crew began to chortle, and then break into a guffaw. The cats responded by mimicking coy poses they must have gleaned from earthside movies. When the StarCruiser's Captain showed up on stage in full drag with breasts the size of basket balls, I fell off my chair I laughed so hard. When the skit was over, the cats drew a standing ovation of applause and --dare i say it?-- Cat Calls.

The kids came on next and did a few scenes from Wayne's World. They too got great applause. But by then, most of the adults had emptied a pair of kegs of ale which Brian had been secretly brewing in his quarters. The show finished with Penny singing Amazing Grace with a clarity that would make Joan Baez green with envy.

It was a sullen and growling shore party that assembled to board the StarCruiser for departure to Meenzeii. Despite their strength, they were as subject to hangovers as we humans were. I made this observation with an ice pack on my head. It was The Morning After for all of us. Even the kids were in a bad mood, they'd been up too late and were short on sleep.

When the Cruiser broke mooring and made space, I said screw the work on my new ship and went back to bed. Tomorrow was another day.

Chapter Twelve

You fix one thing, something else breaks

It was just me and Karen in the kitchen. Dave, and Penny also after I'd ordered her to switch off, were waiting for me to tell them who had won the bet.

"That's all I suppose to do? Just guess who wrote which one?"

"That's it" I answered Karen.

"What's this bet about?"

"I can't tell you that" I smiled. "They just want to see if you can tell them apart" which of course answered her question, though she didn't realize it.

"They both should be ashamed of themselves" she snickered as she read the two limericks again. "I'm not even sure this one is physically possible, much less with a mountain goat."

"Yeah, they are pretty rude" I said as I laughed with her. Karen looked from one piece of paper to the other and sat on the bench to think about it. I had to stay neutral in this, so I didn't say a word.

"I can't decide" she finally muttered. "I suspect this one is Penny's given the fancy words used, but I can't make up my mind."

"Take a guess then." She looked at me for a second, then grabbed a pencil and wrote a name on each piece of paper.

"It's your turn to cook tonight" she said as she handed them back to me. "Bob says that if he smells chili, he's going to reverse flush the toilets in the Sunbeam so that it matches your cooking."

"I'll have to re-do the plumbing before dinner then" I snickered. "Thanks for playing judge for this" and I waved the papers I was holding.

"No problem" she replied as she turned back to fixing our breakfast. Now I had the job of breaking the bad news to the loser. They were both waiting for me as I stepped through the door into the main habitat area. Before I said anything, I stopped to give Penny the once over.

"Are we feeling bored or something?"

"I'm experimenting with feeling more a part of the group" replied her hologram. "I've found that people talk to me more if they have something besides a speaker to talk to."

I thought about it and nodded. "Ok, here are the official results." I unfolded the papers and handed them to Dave. He looked at them, then over at Penny. Without saying a word he handed me the papers and turned to walk away. Penny in the mean time had gotten this stupid smile on her face.

"I wouldn't say anything to him for a while" I told her. "I'd be willing to bet he's trying to figure out whether this means your a person, or he's no better than a machine."

"I won't say a thing" she said as she fairly bounced in place.

"Penny..." I warned her. "Being a poor winner is a hell of a lot worse than being a poor loser."

"I said I wouldn't say a word..." she smiled as she turned and vanished into thin air. I didn't trust her any further than I could have thrown the Sunbeam without magical aid. I had a nasty idea this wasn't over yet.

"Oh well... When the going gets weird, the sane go into hiding" I muttered as I headed out to find Bob. If I could stay busy, maybe I'd miss the shit that was floating in the ventilation ducts looking for a fan. Bob must have had the same idea. I found him hidden away working on his ship with the hatches locked.

"The kids getting to you again?" I yelled as I re-sealed the doors behind me.

"To damn many kids, Meenzals, Velans and Humans. Christ, I had more peace and quiet when we were fighting the Maal!" came the reply from somewhere in the almost cooled hull. "I figured I'd hide out here and get some work done. I should have known you'd track me down."

"Next time, don't lock the hatch. It was a dead give away that someone was here." I heard him grumble a reply and cuss loudly as he banged on something with a hammer. I was just about to comment when I heard the hatch hiss open again behind me to let Kalindra into the construction bay. "This just isn't Bob's day" I snickered.

"Do you to need any help?" she asked as she closed the door. "I decided to get off the ship when Dave came moping around and taking it out on anyone who tried to talk to him. I take it he lost the bet?"

"Yeah, you might say that."

"Good, he needs a lesson in manners and this might be it. He's been talking to the non-human members of the crew like they were only slightly better than pond slime."

I made a note of that. I hadn't heard a single complaint about him to this point and I should have. The last thing I wanted was for everyone to get the idea they shouldn't bother me with stuff, especially stuff like this. "Sounds like I need to have a talk with him."

"We would appreciate it" she replied. I was still standing there thinking about things when I heard Kal call out to Bob. "Hey, where does this stuff belong?"

"Kal! Shit, put that thing down!" I yelled as I saw her lift a crate of gear that had to weigh at least 500 lbs. "What are you trying to do, hurt yourself?"

"What in the infernal realms are you talking about" she asked as she held the box in her arms. "This stuff is hardly heavy enough to hurt me."

"Uh, what about..." and I glanced towards her belly. I jumped a good two feet when she dropped the box on the floor.

"Are you going to be the kind of Klizach that I have to kill before the first month of even over?" There was the barest hint of a fang winking at me from the corner of her muzzle.

"Well, I was just worried that..." I shut up when the other fang made its appearance.

"I am quite capable of judging my capabilities even given my current condition. Something you would be aware of if you bothered to check."

"And what condition is that" came Bob's voice from above us. He had poked his head out one of the many holes in the hull when the yelling started. Now he peered down at us with a faint expression of amusement.

I gave Kal a weak grin and pleaded with her silently to stay quiet. I was wasting my time as usual, since she now found the whole thing slightly funny. "I believe you humans call it being 'slightly pregnant'" she said with a grin. I just cringed as Bob started laughing.

"Why you horny son of a bitch" he chuckled. Then he got a puzzled look on his face. "Wait a minute, I thought you told me... How did the two of you... You're not even the same..." he sputtered to a stop.

"Don't ask me, I wasn't awake at the time." Bob just kept looking at me while Kalindra smiled and picked the box back up.

"Now, where does this stuff go?" she asked.

"Wait a minute, put that down! You shouldn't be carrying that kind..."

I muttered "Oh shit..." under my breath and shuffled towards the door while Kal laid into Bob.

"I'm going to have to kill both of you, I can see it now." The rest of her tirade was cut off as I closed the door behind me. Cowardice being the better part of self preservation, I headed to the Sunbeam to be as far away from my mate until she cooled down. As I walked towards the flightdeck, I spotted a note taped to Dave's door.

"Hummmm..." and I started to read.

There once was a punster named Dave.

And his rep he did hope he could save.

But on Penny he picked.

And his butt was well kicked.

Now his lumps he will take to be brave.

"Penny, I thought I asked you to leave him alone?"

"I didn't put it there boss, Dave did" came the reply from the overhead security camera. "He poked his head out about five minutes ago and taped that to his doorway."

I read the limerick again and then nodded to myself. "They I suggest you accept."

"Huh?" came her puzzled reply.

"I do believe this is his way of saying he's sorry."

"He could of just told me directly."

"No, I don't' think so. This started with a limerick, and he wants to end it with one."

"Hummm... I'll have to think on that" she said to herself as I turned and continued on my way. By the time I reached the flightdeck she had already thought it out and her reply was displayed in the corner of every screen on the ship.

There once was an AI named Penny.

Whose limericks were disliked by many.

Since her lyrical verse.

Was decried as a curse.

In the future she wouldn't write any.

Chapter Thirteen

Sometimes though you come out ahead for awhile

Peace and quiet are a precious gift, not to be wasted or destroyed. With the overhead lights turned off I was sitting in the pilot's seat and watching the stars twinkle through the forward port of the flightdeck. The only other light came from the few consoles that were active while we stayed docked with K1. It was the middle of the night station time. Everyone except myself and Penny were fast asleep, or I thought they were. I almost didn't feel Dave walking up the corridor until he stepped through the hatchway.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't think anyone would be up here this late."

I caught him just as he was turning around to leave. "Don't worry about it, I'm just enjoying the view. Don't leave on my account." I didn't turn to look, but I could still feel him standing there in the hatch. "Want to talk about it?"

"Talk about what?"

"Anything, everything, whatever has been bothering you this last week."

"Yah, right... What would you know about how I feel" he muttered as he started to leave.

"You might be surprised" I said. "I didn't always believe what was happening either and I was doing most of it." For whatever his reasons, Dave turned and sat down in one of the observation chairs in the rear of the room. I didn't touch the lights and he didn't mention it, so we both just sat in the dark and watched the universe rotate as K1 spun us around in its slow dance with gravity.

"What finally decided it for you" came the low question from behind me.

I thought about it for a minute. "I think it finally sunk in the first time Penny talked back to me. She was the first thing I'd created that I could touch and know was real. Everything up until then was special effects and I could tell myself I was really sitting in a rubber room someplace."

"Why couldn't she have been your imagination also?"

"Dave, you're an engineer. Penny and I picked you from all the applicants available because you love your work and you work as much from intuition as from knowledge. When you design a new chip. Is it ever real to you until you hold that first part off the initial production run?"

"Nope, it ain't real until I hold it in my hands" he chuckled. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"You might build the hardware, but I always worked the other side of the fence. You built the chips, and the drive was for smaller, faster, more capability. Am I right?"

"Yeah, mostly. That's the fun part of the work. Cramming that extra gate into the design that makes some function easier. Shaving the propagation delay to speed up the part."

"I'm a software wizard, or I was until a few weeks ago. I've always had a black and blue thumb where hardware was concerned, but I tried anyway." I watched the sky whirling before me and thought back to that crazy night. "I was the greenest apprentice my teacher had ever seen, but I got it into my head that I could use what magic I knew to help me build a robot. Jesus, that thing should have gone up in smoke the moment I applied power. It didn't though, and I started to write the code to bring the thing to life. That's my rush in life. Teaching some useless hunk of silicon how to do something useful. The more things I can teach it, the better the code, the higher the rush."

"I know the feeling" he said. The tone of his voice told me he wasn't kidding either.

"I'd spent two months arguing with that stupid bot. Towards the end I was so mad I could have ripped it apart with my bare hands. One night I got just drunk enough to think of trying magic to write the damn control program. I figured if I could imagine how it was suppose to work, the magic would just create the code." I glanced up at the security camera in the corner of the room. The tiny red light was on that said Penny was listening to me ramble.

"It was six months later before I figured out what I'd done that night. It was another two before I cobbled together the hardware to let what I'd created communicate with the outside world."

"You were kind of slow in those day's boss" came the amused voice from the room around us.

"The first words that screeched out of the tiny speaker were 'what are you', and my world changed from that point on. Buried somewhere in that mass of wires and chips was a program I'd created by accident. The hardware didn't mean shit to me, but that program I'd used magic to create made things real for the first time."

I hoped Dave understood, somehow I expected he would given that his own background was so close. "A lot of things of changed since that day, but the belief has only gotten stronger" I said before I fell silent.

"So why does she think she's your sister?"

"Guess who's memories I woke up with?" answered Penny before I could respond.

"Penny, would you mind?"

"See you in the morning" she said, and the lights on the security cams winked out.

"How do you know she isn't still listening?"

"Trust," I answered. "Penny is a lot of things. Silly, innocent, maddening beyond belief, confusing as all hell, and more obnoxious then any other dozen beings I can think of, but she is honest to a fault."

"She's also a collection of hardware hidden in the guts of this ship someplace."

"Maybe, maybe not. She may have started as something based on a computer chip, but magic is wonderful stuff. What she has grown into, you'd never recoqnize as having come from a production line."

"Then explain all this..."

I didn't need to look to know he was pointing at the massive arrays of computer gear that surrounded us. "Think of it as sense organs for a lifeform that wouldn't otherwise know we existed. Some day I suspect she will either grow beyond needing all this, or no longer care."

"So until then she gives me shit..." he muttered.

Which brought us to what I figured was the heart of the problem. "Dave, how old would you say Penny was?"

"Who the hell knows? From that hologram and the sound of her voice, I'd guess early 30's or something."

I snickered at the thought. "Your a bit high" I laughed. "Penny may be the most intelligent being in this solar system, but she's the emotional equivalent of about 14 years old."

"Your kidding, right?"

"No, I'm not, and I ought to know. I don't know what you two have been saying to each other, it's none of my business."

"Wait a minute. Doesn't she report everything that goes on around here to you?" said Dave as he interrupted me.

"Why should she?" I replied. "Penny is a working member of this crew. She is not my private spy into your lives. Unless she catches one of you trying to open the anti-matter reactor to hop inside. She keeps what she sees to herself. If you don't like even being watched, tell her to shut off the camera in your cabin."

"Will she?"

"Unless she thinks you're asking because you don't want her to see you making a bomb or something, of course she will. Believe me, one thing she has learned the hard way is that humans like their privacy."

"It hasn't worked so far" he replied.

"What did you ask her to do?"

"She was trying to talk to me about something and I wasn't in the mood to argue with a machine so I told her to 'fuck off'."

"And the shit hit the fan" I laughed. "Dave, remember she's a young kid emotionally. I'll bet she proceeded to slow roast you."

"No kidding..."

"I'll also bet she forgot all about it later."

"Only after she told me I could always be returned home by dropping me from orbit over Texas."

"Yeah, that sounds like Penny." It got real quiet all of the sudden and I swung my chair around to face Dave. "What's wrong?"

"Could I go home?"

"If you wanted to, yes."

"To what?"

"Your life just as it was a half hour before I knocked on your door. As far as you would ever remember, I never showed up for the pickup and you would have a set of dull memories of the last week and a half." I couldn't see him, but I didn't need to. He was considering it while he sat there and looked at me silhouetted against the stars.

"And the longer I wait?"

"The harder it gets to construct a reasonable story to explain where you've been, but not impossible." I just sat and waited.

"So what do I do the next time Penny starts giving me shit?"

"Smile nicely and tell her to fuck off again. That, or tell her to go bother Bob for awhile. Whatever you do though, treat her just like you would any other member of this crew, and that should include the Velans."

His heat signature changed just slightly as I watched. "I felt kind of bad about that after I said it. Lythandi didn't deserve that kind of..."

"Stop right there" I interrupted. "I don't know what you said and I don't really need to know. If you feel bad about it, tell that to her. Of course I'd also get ready for her sense of humor to kick in."

"Sense of humor? Am I missing something here?"

"Wait a second" I said as I reached over to type on the closest keyboard. The moment I finished typing 'Penny' on the console, the camera's came back on-line. "Penny, would you like to explain about what Velan's think of practical jokes?"

"Who has Dave pissed off?"

"Lythandi I think. I'm not..."

"And Kalindra" he added.

"Oh shit... Boss, can we hide him in stasis for about 20 years until they forget about him?"

"I suspect there is something wrong with that idea, but it might be the safest thing to do" I snickered.

"Wait a minute, what's going to happen?" exclaimed Dave.

"Nothing fatal, unless you die of embarrassment. I'd start thinking of how to get revenge right now though. The practical joke is a high art form on Velar. You probably won't avoid whatever they have planned for you, but doing them one better will show you don't have any hard feelings."

"Then I'm in trouble. Puns and limericks I can handle, but I'm terrible at practical jokes." Whether he did it deliberately, or through blind luck. He gained at least one friend with his next question. "Penny, could you help me think of a good joke?"

"Boss?" she asked and I could hear the change in her voice.

"Keep me out of this. I feel no need to be used as the target during the next food fight." I turned my chair back to watch the stars and I could hear Penny and Dave talking quietly behind me. He'd made one choice tonight, time would tell if he stuck with the other. In the mean time, I was going to make sure I stayed out from between him and the others. Whatever was going to happen would be good, but sometimes Kalindra doesn't worry about collateral damage.

In the end, the survivors called it a draw. It took a week for the dye to wear off, during which Dave also had trouble sitting down. Kalindra and Lythandi spent the same amount of time trying to get the last of the itching powder out of their armor.

No group like ours had ever existed before. There were times during the weeks before we headed out that I wondered who would kill who first. It was a dead heat between the Meenzals and Kalindra. When the time came though, we buttoned up the Sunbeam II and listened to Karen wish us a safe trip. Vale had a three week head start on us, but we would there just slightly behind her.

"Course to Meenzeii, plotted and ready" said Lythandi from her navigation station. "Flight time estimated at just under 24 Terran hours. Assuming of course that the main drive doesn't explode."

"Drive work fine" came Jab's comment from engineering. "Stupid furry run us into star is worry."

"Well, here we go again..." I muttered to Bob.

"Second star on the right?" he laughed.

"and hide until morning" I replied as Cali was asking Naldantis what kind of conditioner he used on his fur. "What have the god's let me get myself into this time?" I asked of the stars. All I got for a reply was the <tinkle> of a bell from the smirking Velan sitting behind me.