Penny Must Die!


Brian W. Antoine

Bob Kirkpatrick

June 27, 1994

Chapter One

Do You Know What Time It Is?

I'm cursed I think to never get a good nights sleep when I'm aboard the Sunbeam. The vacations were over and the crew was slowly showing up through the Gate and settling back in. They should all have been relaxed and ready to sleep for a week. Fat chance...

<bang> <bang> <bang> ...

I was half asleep when it dawned on me that someone was hammering on my cabin door. "This had better be good..." I mumbled to myself as I stubbed my toe on a chair in the middle of the room. "Son of a bit..." and the door irised open to show me Cali winding up for another blow.

"Brian, get out here..." and she stopped just in time to avoid hitting me as she turned back to face the doorway. "Oh, uh, hello..." she stammered and I realized where she was looking.

"Jesus Christ ..." I muttered as I turned and grabbed a robe. Cali was bright red when I look up at her after tying the belt. "At least you can confirm I'm still mostly human. Now what the hell is going on?"

"Uh, you ought to get down to the rec room. Dave and Penny are trying to kill each other again." I stood there for about 10 seconds and considered closing the door and going back to sleep. "Brian?"

"Yeah, yeah ..." and I ducked through the doorway and stumbled my way towards the rec room. "I'm going to save them both the trouble and kill them myself!" It wasn't going to be that easy to do though because the door to the rec room was locked and the safety field was engaged. When it refused to release as I pounded my fist on the panel I looked up at the security bubble on the ceiling and glared.

"Open the damn door!"

"Go back to sleep boss. I've got everything under control."

I heard the muffled thud of something slamming against the wall and snorted in disgust. "Open this door right now or I'll do it." I waited 30 seconds and them motioned Cali to back down the corridor. When she was out of range I threw up a shield of my own behind me and opened up on the door to the rec room. My second blast sprang the door from the frame and the third reduced it to metallic vapor. The scene that greeted me as I stepped through the doorway though didn't make sense.

I just had time to step to the side when a suit of battle armor slammed into the empty frame of the door. On the other side of the room Dave was tracking the suit with his energy cannon and trying to keep it from getting to its feet. Ok, one suit was Dave's. Nobody else in their right mind would have painted Barney the Dinosaur on the chest of their armor with a stake through his heart. Who was in the other suit though?

"What the hell is going..." and I was drowned out when the second suit opened up with a mini-gun and forced Dave back by shear volume of fire. "Damnit, stop for a moment..." and Dave retaliated with both weapons pods and a couple of slaved remote energy cannons. "I said stop ..." <oooph> I spend the next few seconds trying to breath as I slid down the wall in pain. Whoever was in the second suit, they had back handed me into the wall and then turned back to Dave.

*Enough is enough!* Even as I finished I enclosed the entire area in a class 2 defense field. Cut off from the ship, the lights and other systems died immediately. What surprised me was that the anonymous suit of battle armor also collapsed. "What the?"

"No fair!" came the scream of rage from Dave as he ran over and began beating the shit out of the armor. "I was winning!"

"Who the hell were you fighting?"

"Penny damnit! That stupid collection of crystal was in control of one of the spare suits of armor!" he yelled as continued to kick the various parts of armor around the room.

"Dave, stop it." <kick> "Dave, I said stop it." <kick> <pummel> I picked up one of the scattered pieces of armor and bounced it off his helmet. "Dave, stop right there." He stopped and started glaring at me. "Now tell me what started this."

"I had the night watch" he muttered as he stepped on a now un-powered section of torso armor and bent it under his weight. "Penny was complaining about those silly Unicorns you sic'd on her and I told her to shut up because I was tired of hearing it."

"Go on..."

"I also told her to learn to live with them because she sure wasn't going to have much luck with the traditional solution."

My ears picked up and swiveled to track Dave as he continued to stomp around the room. "And why is that?"

"Because anyone who kisses as badly as she does will be a virgin to the day of her death." My first shot vaporized Barney from his chest plate and threw him across the room.

"You stupid God Damned idiot!" and I spent the next half hour beating the shit out of him.

* * *

I stepped through the smoke that poured out of the ruins of the rec room doorway and found myself facing almost the entire crew. "Naldantis, I would appreciate it if you would make sure Dave is ok. I tried not to break anything as I discussed things with him, but he may be a little bent."

"Human talk violent?"

I looked up and spotted the flashing lights of the translated message from our newest crew member as it clung to the ceiling. "Welcome aboard 931. No, most of the time we just yell alot."

"Interesting" came its reply after some more flashing of light from the frequency transverter field that surrounded him.

"What kind of name is 931?" came the whispered question from Marlanda as he spotted the diminutive Tipkatz walking along the ceiling.

"That's the closest we can come to his name. Tipkatz names are based on their personal resonant frequency and 931's primary resonance is at 931 Megahertz with a half dozen others intermixed. He decided 931 was close enough for us poor deaf carbon based lifeforms." I was explaining this as I worked my way between everyone and headed for Penny's vault. "He's the latest addition to the crew and will be heading up Mechanical Engineering for us" I yelled behind me as transferred to the lower deck to speak to my sister.

"Penny, open the door please." I didn't get any answer. "Penny, I want to talk to you."

"I'm listening."

"In private." A security field snapped on about ten feet behind me in the corridor.

"Start talking."

Instead I just sat down in the middle of the floor and curled my legs beneath me. "Nice legs..." I flipped her the bird and got comfortable. I might have been able to force my way through that door, but this didn't warrant that kind of action. It was her turn to be taught some manners and it took me 20 minutes of concentration before I managed to win control of the external monitors from her. Then the entire crew got treated to a show that was going to be remembered for years.

On every screen on the ship a cartoon appeared. There were only two characters, a gruff old man and a young kid. "So young lady, you wish to act like a child." The cursing that emerged from the toon girl sure didn't sound like a little kid though.

"You son of a #@$#@$% How dare you interfere with my control! Release those systems or I'll @#%$%#$^ you until #$%@$#^%&^..." The old fart shut her up by pulling a large mallet from behind him and bouncing it off her skull. While the birds circled, he pulled a roll of tape from his pocket and wrapped it around her mouth to keep her quiet.

Then, pulling a chair from off screen he sat down and turned the brat over his knee. Holding her with one hand while her eyes grew huge and she started to squirm, he raised his other hand and a small paddle appeared in it.

"No, not big enough" he said as he looked up and out of the monitor like he could see everyone that was glued to the screens around the ship. The small paddle began to grow and when he finally nodded it was half the size of the screen and contained nasty looking holes. The entire time the small toon girl continued to squirm and escape with little effect. The only visible result was a dimming of the lights for a second on the flightdeck.

"You've been acting like a brat so I'm going to treat you like one." With a quick flip of his wrist the skirt was moved out of the way and a whack was heard that reverberated all over the ship. It was followed by several more and with every smack the bottom of the little girl got redder.

How do you teach someone who exists as coherent energy to respect the existence of someone with a physical body. I'd thought about it even as I was teaching Dave to respect someone he couldn't touch. All I'd come up with was embarrassing her in front of those she had to deal with. No matter what happened over the years to come, everyone aboard was going to remember Penny having her butt paddled and being placed in a large playpen at the end of the cartoon. When she decided to get huffy, someone was going to laugh and remind her.

The only thing that worried me as I came out of my trance and released control back to her was wether I would make it to my cabin before she figured out how to get even with me. Kalindra and Bob weren't onboard yet so I would at least avoid being embarrassed in front of them. Lythandi though was waiting outside my cabin with holocrystal camera.

"This should be good" she said with a grin.

"You're a great comfort. How would you like to be hairless?"

Chapter Two

I said, NO!

"...put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth" said the entertainment center. I cast a nervous glance at Jab. The Meenzal was quietly nibbling a rodent he'd managed to find somewhere, and I was less concerned about where it came from than what I'd just heard.

"Jab!" I hissed at him and he looked at me.

"What you want?"

"Didn't you hear that?"

"Not listening. Eating dinner." I gave the cat a nasty look and paid attention to the broadcast. I heaved an audible sigh of relief when it became apparent that we weren't hearing the news, but some retrospective on Kennedy. After our previous experiences, I was still on edge we might not be in the timeline we were supposed to be, but another parallel that only seemed to be the right one.

"Where'd you get the gerbil?" I asked him, more relaxed now. I got an answer, but not from Jab. Instead, it came in the form of a wail from Brenna who discovered her pet was missing. "I suggest that you eat the rest of that quickly, ace. Very quickly."

The family ate in strained silence, nobody really wanting to say anything. Dinner was good, it had been a while since I'd had some of my wife's home cooking and it sure beat the hell out of that damn chili we ate on the Sunbeam. There was more to eat on the ship, but I didn't, nobody wanted to offend Brian and Kalindra by telling them that we'd had enough. Besides, Kal's version of chili was a lot more suited to use as a patching material for meteorite holes in sled hulls. It was finally Brenna, who took time off from lamenting a missing gerbil, to break the strained quiet. "Are you going back on this ship with Brian, daddy?"

Karen's eyes swiveled up from her plate and looked at Brenna and then at me. There was the same question in her eyes that my step-daughter just voiced. "Yes, I am." I said quietly. There was a clatter as Karen dropped her fork. She glared at me, her lips making a harsh straight line beneath her nose.

"Please don't be angry with me, Hon. This is what I do, it's my job."

"THE HELL IT IS!" she screamed at me. "Do you get a paycheck? Do you come home at the end of the day? Do we even have weekends with each other? This is no job. You and your friends go gallivanting across the galaxy with your little toy guns and your little toy ships and, and --this!" she pointed at Jab.

"Now, Karen." I tried to say soothingly. "You don't lack for anything here. You name it, you want it, you got it."

"I want YOU, you dumbshit. I don't care about all of this crap" she waved her hand in a sweeping semi-circle. "The kids want you, too."

"The kids have me. As a matter of fact, Megan...."

"I know, and every minute she was gone was like a hundred years. We didn't know what was going to happen, ...if we'd ever see either of you again."

I looked at the cat and then at Karen. No words came to mind so I quietly excused myself and got up from the table. A half hour later Karen found me in the landing bays staring out into space.

"I'm sorry." she said as she sat down next to me. "That wasn't very fair and it came out of the blue. I guess this has been pretty hard on you too."

"What made you think that?" I asked her.

"Jab got mad at me. He told me that being lost in a big city is nothing like being lost in all of time."

"It had its moments."

"Well, we've started talking about it. Maybe we should finish and see if we can both understand each other. I'd like to know how you feel, anyway."

"Like that." I said. I pointed out into the vastness of the universe. "I feel just like that." She looked at me with and expression of confusion.

"I don't understand."

"That's two of us. All I know is that I'm drawn to this, and I have to go. Besides, Brian needs me."

"Brian doesn't need anything he can't wave a wand at." That got me to my feet. I looked at her with blood in my eye.

"Look here, I don't have a better friend in the world. I don't tell you how to deal with your friends, but I know that when they call you go to them. So I don't want any crap about my dealings with Brian."

"Bob. When my friends call, they want to talk about something that bothers them, get my help for a charity, or to see a movie. When Brian calls, he wants you IN a movie. Besides, it's been a year since I've even seen one of my friends. This house of ours isn't exactly just down the block from them either."

I put an arm around her. "I think it's time for you to take a vacation... the kids too." She brightened.

"Really? That would be wonderful! I'll go tell everyone. This will be fun. Maybe we can even go to Disney World." She cuddled closer. "Think you can make love to me with Mickey Mouse watching?"

"Me? I meant I thought it would be fun for you guys. I have to get to the Sunbeam." Karen snarled something I didn't make out and got up and stomped out of the bays.

"Nothing is ever easy, is it?" I asked myself aloud. There was no answer.

Chapter Three

Oh no, I'll let you keep him :-)

"Yes Karen..."

"Of course Karen..."

"No problem..."

I just kept nodding my head and agreeing with her as she ranted over the video link. I learned early on from Bob's example that letting her get it out of her system was the quickest way to stay healthy. That lesson has kept me safe from Kalindra a number of times too.

"I want Bob here and that's all there is to it!"

"Karen, you can keep him" I answered with a smile against her glare of defiance. "The last time I checked, Penny still had some idea of how to fly this crate so if you want Bob to spend some time with you and the kids you can have him."

"No arguments? What are you up to out there?"

"No arguments. The way things have been going, this will either be the most boring flight we've ever made, or the entire spiral arm will get swallowed by a galactic black hole. In either case Bob would not be able to prevent the inevitable." I glanced overhead and snickered. "Besides, tell him there is a Tipkatz on-board now as crew. That should keep him right there beside you."

Karen bent down to look up at the ceiling through the hologram at her end and laughed with me. "Yeah, he doesn't like spiders. Ok, you and Kal have a safe flight then. Call us if you need anything."

"It's just me this time, and I will if I do."

"Where's Kalindra?"

"Home with the munchkin. He won't be weaned for about a month yet and neither of us thought a starship was the most ideal place to bring him just yet. Give him another two months till he starts walking and I'll bring both of them for a visit."

"Walking at how old?"

"Three months" I grinned, "and he'll be learning to talk by six. Velans mature a lot faster than humans."

"I can just imagine the little monster running around your ship getting in to everything."

"Ah, but that's why I have a security officer. Nek has said he'd be more than happy to keep an eye on him." Actually, Nek had muttered something about how Lan might taste with hot mustard, but we'd work that out when the time came.

"Well take care of yourself anyway, you silly nut."

I winked at her and watched as the image faded from the screen. "Bob, I'm glad I'm not in system at the moment" I muttered to myself as I went back to pre-flighting the Sunbeam. Everyone else was busy as well checking their respective areas when I heard several of them start to laugh and then muffle themselves.

I'd been waiting for Penny to get even all morning, since she had chosen to let me finish my night in peace. I knew whatever she cooked up would be good, good and embarrassing that is. When the laughter grew to the point I could no longer pretend to ignore it I turned my chair and did my best to keep a straight face.

Everyone on the flightdeck was stealing glances at the 'show' playing in the navigational holotank. I have no idea what 931 and Nek thought of what they saw, but the rest of them were alternating between watching Kalindra and I in the tank and stealing glances at me to see my reaction. The only thing that really worried me at all was the look on Lythandi's face whenever she glanced my direction.

Leaning back in my chair I steepled my fingers in front of me and pretended to be watching along with the others before I spoke up. "Penny, you still need some work on the motion simulation. It's still a little jerky at times."

Given the jerky motion in question at that second, Cali lost it completely and almost fell out of her chair laughing. "You need some work on the proportions also. I'm a little larger then that." That got me a dirty look from Dave as Lythandi backed away from the tank to stand beside me.

"I had nothing to do with this" she whispered. "It showed up while I was plotting our course out of the local system."

"I know" I whispered back to her with a grin. "One other thing, you need to work on the tone of Kalindra's growl. Drop it about a half octave and make it more of a cross between a growl and a rumbling purr. Other then that you're getting close. A little work and I expect we'll make a fortune on the video circuit." I kept an absolutely straight face as I turned back to my console and continued to run through the pre-flight checklist. The only emotion I showed at all was to chuckle to myself when the message [Boss, you're no fun at all...] scrolled across the bottom of the screen I was staring at.

"Oh contrair dear sister. I'm quite a lot of fun" and I reached over to tickle the tuft of hair on the back of Lythandi's heel joint, just where it hid above her skirt hem. She let out a scream and skidded halfway across the flightdeck as she leaped away from me. I pretended like nothing had happened and continued working as I watched her glaring at me in the reflection of one of the monitors.

When I turned around a few minutes later, Lythandi was gone and the holotank was back to normal. "Ok, thirty minutes to launch. Gregor, please make sure that Tipkatz traffic control has verified our flight corridor out of the system. Nek, keep an eye out for sightseers as we leave. I don't need somebody getting to curious and getting squashed by our wake."

I got back acknowledgments from everyone and sat back to stare out the front port for a moment while things hummed along behind me. Penny and I had gone over the reports and picked our next target. External problems aside, I hoped it worked out as well at our contact with the Tipkatz seemed to have. The re-built Valance had left orbit on its way to Meenzeii about two weeks ago. Both planets were watching to see how well things would go. I was still lost in thought when I heard a familiar sound from beside me.

"Kalindra, what are..." and I found myself looking at Lythandi as she stood beside me. I was still trying to figure out what I'd heard when she fidgeted slightly and I heard the quiet tinkle of a bell from her direction.


She just grinned and walked over to sit down by the navigation tank. "Course out of the system plotted and confirmed" she said with a smile.

"Course confirmed" said Penny a second later.

I stared at Lythandi for a second then turned back to my flight controls. A quick glance at the clock and I threw up my hands mentally and got things going. Curiosity was going to kill me someday. I was reasonably certain that the bell I'd heard was not attached to Lythandi's tail, so where the hell was it? "Station control this is the Sunbeam. We are ready to un-dock at your convenience."

"They acknowledge" translated Penny. "Docking clamps will release in ten seconds" and she started counting down. "Clamps released, they are giving us a nudge to clear the bay."

Slowly the Sunbeam drifted sideways away from the airlock and clamps that had held us in place for the last few months. I barely had time to even notice the slight twist we were picking up before Penny pulled us back in line and straightened us out. When we were clear of the local traffic around the station I flipped us over and pointed us outward. "Lythandi, give us 1/10th Gee until we clear the planets magnetosphere then bring the main drive on-line."

"1/10th Gee it is" and the Sunbeam began to visibly pull away from the station hanging by its anchor to the planet below.

"Station control, this is the Sunbeam. Thanks for letting us visit and we'll try to stop by on our way back."

"You are always welcome" came the quick reply as we continued to accelerate.

Reaching out to toggle a switch on my console, I threw up a star chart in a split screen. The other half of the screen was an image of the next people we were going to visit. "Well folks, lets go say hello to the teddy bears" and the main drive awoke from its long sleep.

Chapter Four

Say, what's in those pills?

Just in case, I knocked on the edge of the door frame before I stuck my head inside the cabin that had become the ships infirmary. "Hi Cali" I said with a grin. "Naldantis! Old friend, old buddy, old pal... Would you have any more of those wonderful pills you gave me the last time I had a headache?"

"Let me guess" he laughed as he turned to rummage in the cabinet behind him. "Lythandi? Dave?"

"Dave" I said with a low groan.

"Ah, and what has our inquisitive engineer been up to this time?"

"He and 931 are busy destroying the galley at the moment."

"Oh?" he asked as he handed me a couple of pills.

"They are trying to make hot chocolate."

"What is wrong with that?"

"Dave is using the microwave, but 931 is heating his himself. The two of them are competing to see who can bring the water to boiling the fastest."

"Isn't that a little dangerous? 931 could do some serious damage to someone if he wandered around without his transverter field activated."

"They're being safe about it" I muttered, "but they are making a hell of a mess anyway."

"Engineers..." grinned the huge Velan.

"Only the ones who work with hardware" I laughed in reply as I looked over the chess board Cali and he had been arguing over. "So, has he began beating you yet?"

"Almost, this may have been a bad idea" muttered Cali without looking up from the board.

"I tried to warn you. Teaching a game that requires good concentration and intuition to a Healer was asking for trouble."

"Would it help if I continued to let you win some more?"

"Let me win? What do mean 'LET ME WIN'?" yelled Cali while Nal tried to hide behind one of his equipment cabinets. "Have you been losing on purpose? You big fuzzy oaf, I've been playing badly on purpose until you learned how to play the game! Get your butt over here and prepare to get whomped!"

I could still hear them as I headed to the flightdeck to relieve Marlanda from his turn at watch. From the way his ears were twitching as I came through the hatch, he'd been listening as well.

"You ready to go get some sleep?" I asked as I walked up and stood beside him.

"As soon as I grab something to eat. Sitting here may be boring, but you can still get hungry."

"I'd be careful of sticking my head in the galley at the moment. I'd be willing to bet that hot chocolate is a bitch to clean out of fur when it gets sticky" I told him as I sat down and got comfortable. I caught a mumbled 'now what?' as he stretched and headed off to fix himself dinner.

A second later I turned around to ask him if he'd get me a glass of water, but he was out of earshot. "Wonderful" I groused as I stared at the pills in my hand. <gack> I hate swallowing pills dry.

I'd drawn the late evening watch this week so the next few hours were going to be pretty quiet. Even the view out the forward port was boring. We'd been in Hyperspace for three days now and the star that was massive enough to warp space to the point where it would be visible was rare. If someone had painted the inside of the observation port flat black, we'd have been days figuring it out. One of my rules though was that we didn't just hand the duty to Penny and leave her watching alone. I wasn't fair to her and it gave us something to do for part of our day.

"Oh well..." and I reached under the chair where I'd stashed one of my sketchbooks. A quick glance at the nav tank to verify our course and I flipped the book open to the last drawing I'd been working on. I was getting better, but a talent for magic obviously didn't mean shit when it came to being an artist.

"That's suppose to be Sten, right?"

I glanced up towards the ceiling and winced. "Not quite" I mumbled.

"Oops, sorry" snickered Penny before she went back to whatever she'd been doing. That took what little enthusiasm I'd had and left it crumbling in ruins around my feet. Flipping the cover to the sketchbook closed I tossed it on top of the console beside me and just sat back to wait for the pills to kick in.

* * *

"Huh?" I'd heard something and assumed someone had stepped onto the flightdeck behind me. When I opened my eyes though there wasn't a flightdeck at all. I was sitting with my legs crossed on the outer hull of the Sunbeam, just above the forward ports. It was like sticking my head out the window of a moving car at high speed. My hair was flying in the wind behind me and tugging at my clothing and I felt great!

"This has got to be a dream" I yelled and I bent over to look in the port. "Definitely a dream" I laughed as I saw myself still sitting in my chair inside with my eyes closed. "I've got to remember this one" I told myself as I stood up and look into the void around me. I expected to see nothing at all, but who listens to me. The Sunbeam itself was shining with a soft silver glow and scattered around the void were tiny pale lights that winked as we flew by. Nothing in the universe would have bothered me at that point. I just stood there on the hull and watched the show being staged for my entertainment.

Then I heard something coming from behind me and the wind that had been whipping my hair around vanished instantly. Turning to face the rear of the ship, I listened, and heard something again. "Who the hell is crying?"

Walking along the top of the ship I stopped every once in a while to see if I could figure out where it was coming from. When I figured I was close, I knelt down and stuck my head through the skin of the ship. I didn't find the source of the crying, but I found something that caught my interest. Sitting in the middle of a pile of melted cheese were Dave and 931.

"I told you to take it slow. Cheese bubbles when it gets hot!" Dave was busy picking melted strings of cheese from his hair while 931 tried to shake a melted glob of 'processed cheese food' from his leg.

"Excuse me for not knowing the fundamental characteristics of a substance I have only just been introduced to. In the future, please provide a list of things I need to know about BEFORE you involve me in experimental research."

I was howling to myself before he'd gotten a dozen words out of his translator. I don't know what Dave heard, but I'd heard this extremely formal English butler's voice and somehow it had seemed almost proper coming from an small metallic spider with cheese hanging from its limbs. I must have been five minutes rolling in hysterics on the outside of the ship before I calmed down enough to hear the crying again from somewhere close by.

When I stuck my head through the hull this time I was staring down at Lythandi from the roof of her cabin. I'd also found the source of the crying. Curled up in a small ball in the middle of her bed, Lythandi was shaking slightly and crying for everything she was worth. I didn't know why, but somehow I knew I was responsible for it and I felt like shit. When I pulled my head back outside, the wind had returned with a vengeance. It was almost impossible to face forward now. The wind whipped the breath from me whenever it could. Always in the background I continued to hear Lythandi crying as well and the wind seemed to intensify the sound.

"So what am I supposed to do!" I yelled into the void around me as I slammed my fist against the hull in anger.

"There he is now" came the snicker from beside me.

"Huh?" I spun in place and found myself staring at Ficus as the two of us floated high above the interior of K1.

"Jab" he said as he pointed. "He just came out of his room for his nightly romp through the interior."

Twisting around again I looked where Ficus had pointed and sure enough, Jab was wiggling through the undergrowth beneath us. When I looked back at Ficus, he was digging around inside a sack he had and handed me something from it.

"Hold this until I get one for myself" and I stared at the water balloon he handed me. "He's been prowling for the last couple of nights and I just couldn't resist playing a joke on him."

"Some joke. We're almost invisible up here by the central shaft. He's never going to know what hit him."

"That's the idea, watch!" Taking careful aim, Ficus waited for Jab to stand still and then gave his balloon a push. Ever so slowly it began to drift away from the central core at about a 45 degree angle from where Jab was sitting. Ficus must have done some work on the computer to figure out the angles though because as the balloon started to be effected by the centripetal forces inside K1, it began to arc away from the point it had been launched towards. It also began to pick up a little speed.

Ficus came damn close for aiming by sight alone. With the force of a small grenade, the balloon slammed into the surface of K1 about 40 feet away from Jab and exploded. He couldn't have gotten very wet, but the noise made him leap about ten feet in the air as he howled at his surroundings. It was all Ficus and I could do to keep from laughing loud enough for him to hear us and look up. For almost a half hour he searched and mangled anything that moved below us. Finally he must have decided to ambush whoever had attacked him because he climbed on top of a small rock outcropping and proceeded to sit and watch his surroundings.

"Ok, now see how a pro does it" I snickered as I looked over at Ficus. Making sure my position was stable. I superimposed a grid over my eyesight and let the part of my mind Penny had trained take over. Laid out in a perfect arc, the calculations displayed themselves on the grid and I snickered with glee. "Ok fuzzball, time for your bath." With a gentle push from one finger, the largest water balloon in history began it descent towards its target.

"You're going to miss him."

"No fucking chance, he's history" I giggled. I think Jab finally heard the balloon coming at him about 3 seconds before it hit. He was just turning to look up when it nailed the rock he was on dead center. "And that is why you don't mess with a Mage" I laughed as the lights went out.

"Hummmm... Sweet!" Whatever I was sucking through the straw I had in my teeth, it tasted funny but good. The straw must have been collapsing though because less and less was coming through as I sucked on it. Then I opened my eyes and started screaming.

"Greedy tonight are we" came the voice in the distance and as I squirmed around I saw Kalindra hovering over me. I yelled again when I saw how big she was.

"What the hell is going on here?" I know what I said, but the only sound that came out was a tiny cry. I was still trying to get my bearings when a voice in my head got my attention.


Oh brother... Or in this case, son.


I never got a chance for an answer because the next second I was sitting on top of the Sunbeam again. I could have cared less about the damn wind, because I was too busy looking myself over to make sure I was me again.

"Jesus Christ! Next time I'll just borrow a mallet to get rid of my headache!" I was still verifying to myself I was really me when I started to melt through the hull and back onto the flightdeck.

* * *

"Boss? Brian, are you awake?"

"Huh? Oh, right, yeah, I must have dozed off. Sorry."

"Are you ok? You were mumbling in your sleep."

"I'm fine, it must have been those pills Naldantis gave me." I glanced over at the clock and groaned. "It's only 11:30? Shit, I've still got almost five hours to go."

"This was your idea."

"Don't remind me." Getting comfortable again I sat back in my chair and tried to remember my dream. Somehow I knew there was something important I needed to take care of.



"Was I crying while I slept?"

"No, why?" came the concerned question from the air around me.

"I'm not sure..." and I continued to think to myself. "Penny, could you tell me if someone else onboard has been crying tonight?" The fact that she didn't answer me right away said more than a direct answer would have.

"Could you tell me who?" I asked.

"And what would you do about it?"

I thought some more and narrowed down my choices. In the end, I only had one name that made sense. "How long has she been crying herself to sleep?"

"How long have you been ignoring her?"

It was a valid question and the answer made me feel like throwing myself into the anti-matter containment core of the main drive. "Shit, how many times do I get to be an asshole in this life."

"No!" came the quick denial, "But you're not Velan either so I haven't said anything to you. This is one of those times you need to meld your beliefs and those of Kalindra's world into something you can live with. I would though be interested in knowing just how you figured out what was going on. Lythandi has been trying to make damn sure she didn't let anything show when she was around you."

"Let's just say it came to me in my sleep and leave it at that."

"Yeah, right. You're not telling me something, but I suspect you don't need to. You'll tell me if I ever need to know."

I sat there and argued with myself for a good hour in silence. When I still couldn't get an answer that felt right I gave up for the moment and picked up my sketchbook from the console I'd tossed it on. When I flipped it open this time I turned to a blank page and stared at it for a moment. Then, pencil in hand, I started drawing, and I started with the eyes...

Chapter Five

Kill'em with kindness

While I had managed to sneak a few hours sleep after my shift had ended at 4AM, I was still just a little groggy as I puttered around the galley. Finding small puddles of dried hot chocolate hadn't done much for my mood either. "Fuck it..." was about the only comment I made as I 'listened' for Lythandi to start waking up as I went all out making a breakfast she'd never forget. When I sensed her starting to get restless, I straightened my cloak and picked up the serving tray I'd been preparing. I only passed one person in the corridors, and the look I threw Naldantis made him stop, then smile as he stepped aside to let me by. Standing outside the door to Lythandi's cabin, I made one last check of my appearance, then keyed the door open.

I was barely through the door before she spotted me and with a <yip>, tried to hide under the edge of her sleeping cushion. "Now is that any way to say hello to breakfast?" The only reply I got was her wide eyed stare as she peeked over a fold of the cushion. I was confusing the hell out of her and I knew it. The first time I'd done this to Kalindra it had taken more than an hour before she had managed to speak to me while I'd been pampering her something terrible.

"It would be a shame to let this get cold. I made waffles with your favorite syrup!" That got her attention and she actually started to sit up before going <yip> again and dived back into the cushion. "Oh, I see the problem. Worst case of 'bad fur day' I've ever seen" I chuckled as I set the tray down where it would be safe. When I looked back, Lythandi was frantically licking her hand and trying to smooth down the tufts of fur that were sticking out all over.

"Stop right there, I know the perfect cure for obnoxious fur." Lythandi froze in mid swipe and stared at me. "Penny, would you stasis this tray for me? I don't want it to get cold. Then give us some privacy if you would." Without a word the tray vanished into a silver stasis field while I visualized a special bag that I kept stashed in my cabin. The moment it appeared I turned and headed for the bathroom to get the shower setup. Every step I took I could feel the eyes tracking me in puzzlement.

"Do you like lemon or sandalwood better?" I called out as the shower started to heat up. "Or do you want to leave the choice to me?" She still wasn't talking, so I pulled the lemon scented shampoo from the bag and set the rest of the stuff out of the way. "Ok, if you... Oh, hi!" I turned to find the top of her head peering around the edge of the doorway at me. "I guessed at the water temperature so tell me if it's too cold" and I indicated she was supposed to get in the shower before I turned and started getting undressed.

She was still peeking around the door frame when I turned and stood there with nothing more than the bottle of shampoo in my hand. "The shower makes a lot more sense" and I held out my hand to her. She just looked from my hand to my face and back without moving. "I don't bite, or at least so that it shows" I said with a grin. Ever so slowly, Lythandi reached out and took my hand and I led her to the entrance to the shower.

The needle spray coming from the shower head was just short of the point where it would have scalded me. From showering with Kalindra though I knew it was just right temp to relax her. From the way Lythandi started to relax slightly as I moved her around under the spray, I'd guessed pretty close to correct. When she was good and soaked I swiveled the head out of the way and started rubbing shampoo into her fur all the way to the fell beneath. It wasn't much different then washing hair, there was just a lot more of it!

Between the heat from the water and the gentle massage I managed to work into the strokes I was using, Lythandi looked seriously tempted to fall asleep in my arms. That temptation vanished when she realized I intended to wash all of her. I'd started at her feet and worked my way upwards. When I started working the shampoo around the base of her tail and the insides of her legs, I had her undivided attention. It took little time after that before I could feel the rumble of her low growl vibrating her whole body as I continued.

"Are we feeling better yet?" I asked as I lathered the slightly longer fur on top of her head. She still wasn't talking, or at least wasn't saying anything aloud. When she leaned backwards so that I had to catch her with one arm I laughed. "I'll take that as a yes. Close your eyes, it's time to rinse" and I turned the shower head so that it caught both of us. I worked from the top down now and when I finished she was almost asleep in my arms. She was walking mostly on auto-pilot as I guided her out of the shower and had her stand so I could dry her off.

That task is something you don't skimp on, as I'd found out the hard way. Kalindra had been sick for a week the first time I'd gotten in a hurry and left her fell damp beneath all that fur. Besides, attacking someone with a huge towel was kind of fun if they decided to play along and Lythandi caught on pretty quickly.

"There, almost done" and I grabbed a couple of combs from the bag. "Now just sit down on the cushion here and I'll finish the job." She looked at me like I was nuts, but sat down as indicated. When I grabbed the large comb and started brushing her fur into place, she relaxed and started that low rumble of hers again. It was slow work as anyone with long hair can attest. You don't just tug on the comb when you hit a tangle unless you want to pluck yourself bald. That huge fluffy tail that all Velans took so much pride in was a royal bitch to comb out. The results though when I finished were worth it.

"There, now that's more like it" I said with a smile as I massaged the cramp out of my hand when she wasn't looking. "Now for that breakfast. You just sit right there and I'll get it." I got up and with a small spell I desolved the stasis field that had been keeping the tray warm. When I had Lythandi propped up into a sitting position, I set the tray down before her and watched her reaction to the smells. Her whole face lit up like a kids on Christmas morning when the scent of that warm syrup wafted up from those waffles.

I reasonably certain that both Kalindra and Lythandi couldn't care less about the taste of the waffle itself. It was completely secondary to the fact that all those tiny pockets of batter managed to hold so much syrup. I hadn't even gotten the napkin unfolded before Lythandi started to reach for the utensils. "Now now" and I tapped her hand out of the way. "This is my job, just sit and enjoy." Grabbing the knife and fork, I sliced up the waffle that was floating in a sea of syrup and began to feed her. A task that soon had syrup everywhere when Lythandi started pretending she wasn't hungry.

"Oops, let me get that" and I grabbed the napkin to wipe some syrup that had spilled. She had syrup all over her face where she turned away as I was feeding her. She wasn't going to let me just wipe it away with the napkin either because the moment it came with range, she grabbed it in her teeth and dared me to do something about it. I took one look at the twinkle in her eyes as she watched to see what I would do and decided she wasn't confused enough yet.

"Ok, no napkin" and I leaned over and licked the syrup off with my tongue. I got the napkin back when she opened her mouth in shock. "Maple Syrup and fur. Not bad, but I don't think it would sell well back home." Thank heaven there wasn't much waffle left. I could hear the gears working overtime in her head as she tried to decide whether to 'spill' more syrup.

"That's it" and I cleaned up the tray and moved it out of the way so I could pull Lythandi to her feet.

"Is it over?" she asked with an almost sad look on her face.

"So you can talk after all" I laughed. "No, not quite. Wait here for a second" and I vanished to pop back with my arms full of clothes. I'd spent a fair amount of my watch the night before sketching Lythandi in various poses and clothing. Something Penny had found highly amusing until she figured out what I was up to. While I'd been fixing breakfast, Penny had turned the designs I'd settled on into something beautiful.

Velans don't wear clothes out of need. A fact that had caused Bob and Karen some little consternation when Kal and I visited K1 once or twice. Rather, Velans were clothes for utility or show. The stuff I'd designed was purely for the latter. Lythandi almost went nuts when I showed her the gossamer thin gold blouse with enough frills to drive a sewing machine insane. When she stopped moving long enough for me to slip it and the matching skirt onto her, she started twirling around the room and laughing. Which reminded me of one more thing I needed to take care of.

"So, you like it?" I laughed as she swept by me in another twirl. I thought I'd done a good job. The blouse was just transparent enough to let the natural red of her fur show through and blend with the gold. The skirt was slightly more practical in that it had numerous pockets for her to carry stuff in.

"I love it!" she cried as she spun to a stop. "I don't know why, but thank you!" and she began to twirl in place so she could see the blouse billowing in the air.

"Because I'm an idiot and I don't have enough friends who will tell me that to my face." She stopped dead and stared at me. "I hurt you and I didn't even know I was doing it. This is my way of saying I'm sorry and asking you to forgive me."

"You have done nothing..."

"Yes, I have" I exclaimed. "After all these years I should have known enough about how your people live to know better than dump you in a cabin by yourself. You're family and families live together. When you manage to calm down we're going to pack up your stuff and move it into Kalindra's and my cabin. I had Penny blow out the wall to include the cabin next door so we'd have room for all the stuff."

She managed to stand still for exactly three seconds before she yelled and jumped into my arms. When someone that strong decides she's going to thank you, you know you've been thanked! I managed to stay on my feet about ten seconds before we both fell backward into her sleeping cushion.

"Ok!" <duck>

"I get the idea!" <dodge>

"I think it's a good..." <mumph>

"Hold still silly!" and she froze instantly with this gawd awful grin on her face. I just lay there beneath her for a moment and tried to catch my breath. "Try and remember that we Humans tend to be kind of fragile!"

"I am well aware of how fragile you are" and she licked the end of my nose.

"I've got one other thing I need to take care of before we pack up your stuff. If you'd be kind enough to let me up? Thanks" I wheezed as she let me get to my feet. "God, I'm going to die young at this rate" I mumbled as I got my breath back.

"You'll die happy" said my attacker with a wink. "What was the other thing you needed to take care of?"

I leaned over and picked up a tiny golden bell I'd spotted sitting on a low table beside the bed. "You're not completely dressed yet. I've been going nuts all week trying to figure out where you're hiding this. Where do I clip it?" and I shook the bell slightly so that it chimed to itself.

She didn't tell me, she showed me. I've never been more embarrassed in my life and it took every bit of concentration I could muster to keep my hand from shaking as I threaded the bell through the tiny gold wire. I was never going to hear that bell again without turning bright red and Lythandi loved every minute of my discomfort.

Naldantis was sitting in the galley when I walked in with the tray. "So, do you have any idea what you have started? It's all over the ship and Cali has been giving all of us hints with a club. Why couldn't you..." <ooph>

I hit him in the chest with the flat side of the tray and turned loose of it as he grabbed it in surprise. "Cali likes pancakes with blueberry syrup. I asked her for you" and I turned and left while Nal stood there in shock. I headed straight for my cabin and kept muttering the same thing to myself over and over again.

"Jesus, and I thought getting my ear pierced hurt! Ouch!"

Chapter Six

Quicker than the eye

"You did what?" I asked Karen.

"Well, I just missed you, that's all. I didn't mean any harm."

"Damn." I said, and walked away. I've always hated it when someone spoke for me, no matter the reason. I was a bit miffed at Brian too. He knew better than to listen to someone else when it came to me. I've always been happy to state my piece.

Karen called after me, but I didn't hear what she said. I just kept going off towards the open space of K1 to be by myself for a bit. The mission Brian had planned for the Sunbeam was supposed to be one of peaceful contact, but so far all the others had started that way and turned out rather different. There was no proof this flight would go the way of the previous ones, but there was no proof that it wouldn't either.

I walked for about ten minutes before I realized that I'd gone most of the way across the asteroid station. The forest was all around me, and I could hear the rustle of the wildlife we'd imported. Still angry, I sat down and lit a cigarette and puffed on it savagely. "God damn it."

"Why Bob pissed?" asked Jab from behind. I nearly jumped out of my skin.

"Where the hell did you come from? You startled the hell out of me."

"Come from mother. Was looking for lunch." he said, waving a furry paw towards the trees. "Need more tiny furry here."

"I bring chipmunks, squirrels and other woodland beasties here to have an ecology, and you make them part of the food chain. Nice job asshole."

The cat smiled but didn't say anything about the animals, instead he asked why I was angry again, so I told him. "Not can be mad at Cookie Lady for care on you." he said reprovingly.

"I suppose. I just feel crappy that I'm not where I want to be."

"Jab like break. Get tired of smartass furry lady."

"Who? Kalindra? Ah, she's just pregnant. It's a natural law or something that females lose their humor when they get round. She's a good lady too, even if she doesn't make cookies."

The cat chortled and it sounded like a rusty hinge. "So, what we do while wait for Mage come back?"

"Hell. I don't know!" I wasn't a wise crack, I really didn't. "I guess we sit on our asses." The cat nodded and thumped his butt onto the turf. "I meant that as a figure of speech, you dork." Jab shrugged and stayed where he was. I noticed that his right ear was twitching and rotating like a fuzzy tipped radar. "What is it, dude?"

"Aron calling you. Is near eating place."

"I wish I could do that."


"No, locate things by sound the way you do."

"Need Meenzal ear for that. Man ear not so good. Bob ear just bad."

"Bite me, fuzzwart." The cat raised a furry eyebrow. "Forget I said that."

* * *

Dinner was over and Karen and I were sitting in the landing bays, looking out on the solar system. It was my favorite place on the whole station. The quiet was interrupted by Ficus, who sauntered in with an announcement. "Comm link for you, Dad. It's Meenzeii calling."

"Ok, I'll go get it in the control booth." I stood up to leave and saw that Karen was giving me a questioning look. "No." I said in anticipation of the question. I didn't call them. I have no idea what this is about."

Answering the call, I was saddened somehow to find it wasn't a plea for help, but an invitation. The cats had completed a new lakeside recreation area and said they'd be honored if we'd be their first guests. I didn't check with Karen, but accepted on my own.

Somehow, even in contrast to the Sunbeam, K1 was just too damn small.

Chapter Seven

Nice hotel you got there

We arrived bag and baggage on Meenzeii about four hours after the invitation was made. Most of the Meenzal's who observed us stepping from the gate either ignored us or gave a hint of a smile. Of course, it's difficult to say if a Meenzal is smiling or just having gas. But some of the cats who saw us, me in particular, looked at us with blood in their eyes. Granted, I *did* set fire to half their planet the last time they pissed me off, but hell, that was then and this was now.

Jasm was looking good. The head of the Council made it a point to come meet us herself, and honor no one had gotten since she took her oath. I also saw that the cats had been busy. The blast marks and craters which had dotted the square previously had been completely erased. Jab was the last one out of the gate, and made an entrance I thought was funny. First his nose stuck through, then his head. Last he stepped quickly through and immediately put his back to the wall and looked both directions before stepping out into the sun.

"Come, Nahn. We are a new world, and one that welcomes you" said Jasm. Jab looked dubious but nodded and took his place by my side. I think he planned to merge with me if anything moved too fast.

"Lighten up, cat." I said. "This is a vacation." He grudgingly accepted this, but I noticed that he didn't relax. His lynx tufts were twitching. Jasm gave a gentle chuckle and turned to lead us to the ground transportation kiosk. The ride to the lake was relaxing, and it was educational. Much of the ravages of war had been erased, and it dawned on me that few of the cats were carrying weapons or wearing any armor.

The hotel itself was awe inspiring. It sat low, a single story tall aside the lake. In front of it were docks which reached like wood fingers into the water. A variety of boats were tied up to them or moored to tiny buoys just offshore. To the right and left were beaches dotted with Meenzal's soaking up rays or playing in the water. It was so different from my last visit that it was hard to believe that only three months has passed.

Our party strolled leisurely to the front and sat down. Almost as soon as our butts hit the chairs, a small phalanx of waiters came and took orders for drinks. "Damn, Jasm. This is more like Earth than Meenzeii. The hotel looks like it belongs in California."

"It should," she replied smiling. "We copy design from magazine one of --uh, one member Vale's crew leave magazine here. I think it called Sunset."

"Past is past, Jasm. I don't mourn any of them. They were assholes. I apologize for bringing them." I told her.

"They good." she said.

"Good? After what they did? Hell, I..."

"Mean they were delicious" smiled our hostess. I smiled back. Karen had stopped with her drink midway to her lips, and set it down.

"Let's not talk about this in front of the children." she said.

"Ok, say. Where did they go?" I got an answer as fast as I'd gotten a drink.

"Pardon, Lord." bowed a uniformed Meenzal. "Boats here belong private. Not for guests." he looked apprehensive at the prospect of my reply.

"I'm sorry, I don't get what you mean."

"FICUS! GET OFF THAT BOAT! AND GET YOUR BROTHER DOWN FROM THE MAST!" yelled Karen. I looked out towards the water and saw that the boys has taken over someone's sailboat. Aron was hooked to some sort of line and was swinging back and forth about fifteen feet up. Ficus was holding the other end, and when Karen hollered, he let it go. Aron was dumped into the water with a loud splash. He rose to the surface screaming his lungs off.

"Sorry" I said to the cop, and went down to get the boys. The sand felt good, even through the shoes I was wearing. At least, it did until I stepped into a hole that Megan and Brenna dug trying to find a crab. While I rubbed my ankle, I explained that Meenzeii didn't have crabs, but if it did, they'd be on the coast. Megan took the news well, but Brenna started crying and ran to her mother to tell her that Daddy Was being Mean Again.

"This is going to be great." I mumbled to myself as I limped back up to the patio where Jasm and Karen were sitting. "Juuust fuckin' great."

Chapter Eight

Check Please!

The rest of the evening was uneventful. At least it was after we finally convinced angry hotel guests that there was such a thing as Terran humor, and my son Ficus was trying his hand at it when he put suntan lotion on the doorknobs of the building. With the Meenzal version of hands, this effectively locked guests outside for an hour before some maintenance people found an appropriate solvent to remove the slick stuff.

It was going on 11 PM when I finally got the kids into their rooms and into bed. They'd become more subdued than usual when one rather angry guest did his size change, grew five times their size and threatened to eat them. They became real believers when one of the kits was sent to get mustard.

I crawled into bed and Karen snuggled up to me immediately. "Now, isn't this a lot better than some stupid ship?" she purred.

"Maybe." I offered. "But I'm still not happy about the way I ended up here instead of there."

"Yes" said Jab. "Cookie Lady make Jab no go too." I sat bolt upright.

"Jab? What the hell are you doing here? You've got a room. Go to it." I snapped.

"Want stay here. No like by self here."

"Why?" asked Karen. "This is your home."

"Not Jab home. Nahn home. Jab live at K1."

"Look you --you feline. This is MY vacation. You just pack yourself up and march yourself down to your room." Karen's snarl was almost as good as the most gung-ho Meenzai Guardsman.

"Aw, c'mon, Karen. He's not hurting anything and... Hey. What do you mean *your* vacation?"

"Ok. So I called Jasm and asked her if we could come. I just wanted to have some time with you. Some special time. You've been all over the --where ever you've been and I've been home by myself. I have rights too, and this is my time with you. Just you. So that cat of yours has to go." She pointed a finger towards the door.

"This is really pissing me off. First you send Brian off without me, then you fake me into coming here. Hell, I thought they wanted me here, and now I find out that it's some damn arrangement. Plus that, you're telling me that my cat isn't welcome. Ok. You like secrets? I'll give you one. That cat's a part of me. We've been inside each other. I mean really inside. No cuddles, no sex, just two parts of the same damn mind."

"I just wanted us to have some fun together."

"So you do all of this? Christ! What do you do at parties? Kill the fucking guests?" Damn, woman. If you wanted a good time, you sure as hell picked a funny way to get it."

"I'm sorry. I thought you'd like being with me."

"Don't pull that crap on me. I'm not going to fall for that guilt trip stuff. Yes, you wanted time with me, no I don't feel guilty that you made all these arrangements without talking to me and now things aren't going the way you want them to. This is your doing, and so you can pull that lower lip in before a bird sits on it."

Karen opened her mouth to reply, but the explosion stopped any sound from coming out of it. The sound was deafening, and the flash was temporarily blinding. Before I knew what was happening, clawed hands were roughly pulling me out of the bed.

"I said I was sorry about the doorknobs" I mumbled before the sap hit me. Then I said noting, I was out like a light.

* * *

"Yach te ma tse" said a disembodied voice in the dark. "No se ch'i nach tuk." It was pure Meenzeii, but I recognized the meaning. My captors knew I was regaining consciousness. The darkness was pulling away like dark sheer curtains jerked from in front of me one at a time. My head hurt fiercely, and I tried to raise a hand to feel for a bump. No go. The hand moved only a few inches before it came to the end of the chain that bound it. As my eyes cleared, I realized where I was.

The familiar decor of the Council Chambers materialized before straining eyes, and I was bathed in a light from above. I knew all too well where I was. I was on an execution pedestal; one of the stained elevations that we'd seen on our previous visits to the planet. To my left, on another of the pedestals was Jab. He wasn't looking very good. Even through covered with fur, I could tell he'd put up quite a fight. But he lost. The cat wasn't standing, he was laying on his side, his rib cage moving erratically with ragged breaths. He'd been beaten badly.

"What did you fucks do to him?" I growled into the darkness.

"SILENCE! You brought here to face consequence of genocide. You die now. Will human die with honor of traitor friend?" came my reply.

"Fuck you." wasn't much of a response, but it was all I had. "You wanna kill my ass? Fine. Go ahead. But if you're so hung up in honor, then your killing Nahn Mal Eo is an act of cowardice. He didn't do shit to you so the only reason you're doing him too is to hide. I guess that makes you cowards."

A large cat emerged from the blackness around me and struck me with a baton. "Hold tongue, human." it said. Then another spoke. The sound came from near where Jab lay.

"You care for Nahn?" I saw a figure lean into the pool of light around Jab and release the chains from him. "Then you die with Nahn" He picked up Jab and hurled him at me. The weight of my cat knocked me over so I lay for a moment, half off of the pedestal.

* * *

The beast felt his strength, and stood erect. The chains that bound it to the pedestal came apart as though Lilliputian threads binding a giant. He turned so that his chromium eyes faced the great bench where his captors. Where the eyes looked, they saw. What they saw, the thigh slung weapon came out and shot. In the morning their bodies would be found, and with it the message written in their dried blood.


* * *

"What it is for you, Bob?" asked Jasm in the morning. She was looking at the damage to the hotel room. "Can you no be some place and nothing happen? You make me want live in woods by self."

"What? You mean like Bigfoot or something?" asked Megan.

"Yes, like the earth big foot" replied the head Meenzal.

"Oh, you little Yeti, you." I said.

"I didn't know you could yodel" said Karen, smiling.

"Ya know what woman? You'll do."

"Can we go home, Dad?" asked Aron.

"I think that would be a good idea. Madam Meenzal, if you don't mind, I think we'll take our leave now." Jasm nodded.

"It too soon for you come here. Many Meenzal remember you firestorm of anger."

"Well, they better get over it. This planet is going to be a center of trade. Those who want it will win over those who don't. That's the way it is, that's the way it always is. Change can't be stopped any more than time can."

Jab limped over next to me. "You family one time for Jab. I tell you something. You not be where are if no Bob come. Ch' tse fa zik."

"Change must be controlled" said Jasm with a look of distaste. I put my arm on Jab's shoulder as he stood erect.

"Time is change, and time cannot be controlled" said the beast. The light glinted off its metallic teeth as it spoke.

It waited to go through the gate last. A second after it stepped through, the gate glimmered and was gone.

Chapter Nine


It had shown me something, the trip to Meenzeii. It showed me that my family wasn't as thrilled with living in space as I was. So after a night of sleeplessness and thinking, I told them at breakfast the next morning.

"I've given this a lot of thought, and I've decided to take us home." I was expecting some protest or excitement, one or the other, but I got neither. The kids kept munching their waffles and Karen had little to say as well.

"That will be nice, dear."

"Uh, I was expecting more of a reaction. This is it? That's nice dear?" The kids looked up at me, but kept eating. Karen nodded and said she thought it was probably for the best.

I had no intention of abandoning the station. K1 was my home base, even if it wasn't theirs. I had some inkling of the technology at play, and the opportunities it offered, even if they didn't. But it was plain to me that the kids needed other kids, and my wife needed other people too. Even though this was my idea, the thought of leaving made me angry. "Perhaps you should go tell Suzanne." was all Karen had to add.

"Maybe I should." I said, and went to do just that. Suzanne was in the control room doing readings. Clipboard in hand, she'd read the instruments and make notes.

"Hi there." she said when I came in. "What brings you here?"

"I came to tell you that we're leaving."

"Where this time?"

"Home. Earth." She froze in mid-movement for a second.

"What did you say?"

"I said we're going home. Back to earth." She regarded me for a moment, then half-sat on the edge of the console.

"Why?" was all she asked.

"Because I got to thinking. Nobody is happy up here except for me, and even I'm really only happy when I'm out on the Sunbeam."

"Then why go? If this is where you want to be, why leave it?"

"Because nobody else is happy here."

"It's not so bad. Did you forget what it's like on earth? I have no doubt that you'll be miserable before a day goes by. You'll get angry at the way people drive, the way people don't think clearly and the way the government takes advantage of that."

"Yeah, I know all of that. But I can't keep everyone prisoner because of the way I feel about things." Sue stood, leaned to me and kissed me on the cheek.

"You're a nice guy, Bob."


"No, you are. At least, if people aren't screwing with you, you are. Of course, if they are screwing with you, they'd be better off if they went skydiving without a parachute. Especially lately." she paused a second. "What does the cat think of this?"

"Don't know. I haven't told him yet."

"Haven't told Jab what thing?" came a voice from behind me. Sue looked at me and then the cat.

"We're going back to earth, Jab." I told him. The cat looked at me with curiosity.

"Why go there?" he asked. I explained it to him and got the same reaction I did from the family. He shrugged and nodded.

"So," said Suzanne, "have you given any thought to where we'll be living? As I recall, we didn't leave under the best of circumstances, and there may be warrants for some of us."

"Yes, I did give that some thought." I replied.

"And so?" asked Sue.

* * *

Brian sat on the toilet with a printout. This was the one place on the ship that he was left alone. If you asked him why he was left alone there, he'd talk about people respecting privacy. If you talked to any of the crew, they'd mention his chili.

"Greetings, Pilgrim" said the beast. It stepped from the darkcyl and stood facing him.

Brian's expression went from curiosity to anger. "Do you mind?"

"Yes, I do." it said, fanning the air in front of its nose. "But it's necessary. I'll wait for you by the vault." The beast was gone as fast as it arrived, and as quietly.

* * *

"Dad?" said Aron. "Can I have my own room?"

I looked at him and nodded towards Brian. "You need to ask him, he's the architect." Aron looked over at the Mage who was gesturing with his arms as he sang. Watching him and what was happening in front of him was like watching a time lapse film. A hole appeared in the ground and then a foundation. After that, the skeleton of walls and floors began to take shape. He was singing the trusses for the roof when Aron tugged at his shirt. His concentration lost, the trusses fell to the side, one into another like dominos and fell into the construction with a splintering crash.

"Yes?" asked Brian. He wasn't pleased.

"Can I have my own room?" asked the boy.

"If you interrupt me again you'll have your own room. How about a small steel box floating into the sun?" Aron recoiled.

"Sorry." he said, and turned to walk away.

"Ok, I'm sorry. What would you like your room to be like?"

Aron brightened. "I want it big, with a TV, a kitchen, a tire swing and a hammock."

Brian smiled. "I'll see what I can do. But now you have to leave me alone, or your TV might only get the Barney Channel." Aron recoiled again and padded away quickly. With Aron gone, Brian turned back, grimaced at the mess of tangled lumber, and began to sing again.

"Ok, there's the house" said Brian an hour later. "It's your problem if this property turns out to be owned by someone who wants to use it someday."

"That isn't going to be a big problem." I told him. "Penny did some checking for me. It's a stroke of luck, actually. They guy who owns it died intestate and without a family. Penny doctored the records to show that the estate sold me the property. As far as the records are concerned, this is mine, lock, stock and barrel. She even added permits for the house construction."

Brian scowled. "I don't like you having her mess with records like that. It could backfire on you."

"Maybe so, but for now I have a legal residence here, a whole new name and background, and even a plausible story for my wealth."

"I don't want to know" said Brian. "I need to get back to the Sunbeam. The crew is bound to get upset if they discover me gone. So far, Penny is telling any who ask that I'm in the vault talking with her."

"Thanks, Brian. Stay in touch dude." He turned and materialized his staff, then stopped.

"I just figured it out. You did this for freedom, didn't you?"

"In a way, yes. I also want the kids and ladies to have a life, but yes. If they have things to do and people to be with here, I'm not so necessary."

"I don't think so. I think the Cookie Wench really does want to spend time with you... although I can't imagine why." He vanished with a <POP>.

"Have a good trip!" I called after him, then turned to inspect our new home.

The house was large, and perched on a basalt outcropping in a small bay. It was hidden slightly from the lake, so the people who used Couer 'd Alene wouldn't wonder about a house that appeared rather suddenly. You could only see it if you were directly in front of it.

It was a fairly large house. The basement was cut into the rock, and had areas for the projects that Jab and I would be doing. Up on the first level was a living room with a big fireplace at one end and a small fishpond in the center. Brian had conjured an Escher-like aqueduct to bring fresh lake water into and out of it. The kitchen was large, the way Karen wanted it. There were large walk-in pantries and a refrigerator, and in the center was an island with stove and ovens as a part of the counter space. Like a restaurant kitchen, it had overhead racks for pots and pans. A dining room was off the kitchen, big enough to be roomy, but not so large as to be pretentious.

Upstairs were the bedrooms, and each of those were roomy. All had their own separate baths, and each had a balcony through double french doors. It wasn't obvious, but the house had its own power, and the water and sewage was handled in a way only Brian understood. I never did figure out where the water came from, or where the gray water went to. There wasn't a single pipe in the whole house, even though the county records showed there was. The phones were equally mysterious, but at least they entered the grid as cellular traffic. A good move, the phone company was a lot more alert than any county agency ever was.

The house had one feature I insisted on. In the basement was a gate to K1. I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid.

Chapter Ten

Hello? Go Away!

"Three, two, one..." and the universe greeted us with a window full of stars as the Sunbeam slipped from Hyperspace back into reality.

"Ok, did you manage to get us even close to where we were headed?" I ducked the expected tail whack from Lythandi and listened to Penny recite selected parts of my families genetic background. I had no way of knowing how close they nailed it. Every solar system looks pretty much the same when you're sitting in the Oort cloud. When I hadn't gotten an answer after about thirty seconds though, I swung my chair around and listened to Lythandi and Penny whispering to each other and looking puzzled.

"Ok, so where is it then?" whispered Lythandi as she stared into the navigation holotank.

"I was hoping you had an idea?" replied Penny.

Slowly, I snuck up beside Lythandi and tickled the tip of her ear. "Ahummmm... Did we manage to loose something?"

<Ack> "Don't do that!"

I just smiled sweetly while everyone else on the flightdeck tried to hide their snickers. "Did someone goof?"

"We don't make mistakes!" came the echoing replies of outrage. "It's just that one of the planets seems to be missing" added Penny while Lyth glared at me.


"It's the one we're here to visit."

"Hummmm..." I murmured to myself. "Yeah, that might be a bit of a problem. You're sure it's not just hiding from you? Planets have been known to do that from time to time." The look I got said it was time to shut up, so I sat back down in my chair and listened to the two of them continue their argument.

"No, it can't be the wrong system. The star matches the profile almost exactly."

"The other planets are in the correct orbits also. Number two just isn't there! This is not going to be a good day..."

I listened to them argue amongst themselves for about 5 minutes before I cleared my throat to get their attention. "Would it help if we got a little closer? Maybe it's hiding behind a dust cloud or something?"

Penny's hologram turned to Lythandi and shrugged her shoulders. "It couldn't hurt any, but it would have to be a damn thick dust cloud to hide a planet and the cloud itself would be detectable."

"Have you got anything better to do? I'm not going to travel 1200 light-years just to leave without at least trying to find the damn thing. Anybody else care to comment?" Nobody spoke up so I laid in the course Lythandi plotted for us and we started making short jumps inward. The planet might not be where we expected to find it, but the system was far from empty. We'd been working our way inwards less than a half hour when Penny and Nek started yelling within seconds of each other.

"Two, no, three energy sources just came to life within sensor range. They appear to be small ships of some kind, and they are on intercept courses with us."


"Not sure but would guess yes" rumbled Nek as he started to grin.

"Life signs?"

"None, they appear to be drones or probes of some kind" yelled Cali over the background noise of the alarms.

"Time to intercept?"

"Fifteen minutes to first contact. They are accelerating at over a hundred G's boss. They better be un-manned or the crew is pulp. They are using an ion-plasma drive so they aren't running inertialess."

I watched the plots on the nav tank and waited while the rest of the crew kept an eye on their instruments. At about the seven minute mark the first ship started decelerating and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. "That makes me feel a little better. Penny, warm up your translator routines and see if you can contact those ships. If they intended to attack, I don't think they'd be slowing down to rendezvous with us. Nek?"

"No shoot?"

"Not first at any rate. Keep us shielded and you can fire away the moment they start something." Nek grumbled, but we ignored him. He isn't happy unless he's shooting at something. A trait which had kept us alive more than we cared to think about. Hopefully, this time things would be a little different.

"Boss, I'm receiving a signal from the lead ship. It's RF and in the hydrogen band."

"At least they are trying to be obvious. How long to make sense of it?"

"I'm working on it. The language information for the Pell though was even skimpier than for the Tipkatz."

"Ok, I'll give you some extra time then." Without changing our course any, I brought the Sunbeam to a halt in space. Within moments, the incoming ships changed their courses and deceleration to compensate.

"New time to intercept about 20 minutes" said Penny as I turned back to watch the tank. "They should be visible in about 10 when they get close enough for their exhaust to be visible."

There wasn't much to do but wait. Nek was hunched over his board just waiting for something to twitch and everyone else was remarkably calm. I guess having fought the Zulm, three small ships didn't seem to be worth worrying about. Still, I ducked off the flightdeck just long enough to grab my staff from my cabin and clipped it to the back of my chair.

The first ship was just visible against the background starfield when Penny spoke up. "Boss, I've got a rough translation of that message they keep repeating."


"It says roughly: Stop, proceed no further into our home, or else."

Huh? "Can you send a response?"

"I think so. What do you want to say?"

"Ask them: Or else what?"

Penny coded the message and sent it. Seconds later Nek started that gravelly chuckle of his as our sensors registered weapons of some kind powering up on all three ships.

"Good! Not be bored this trip!"

Chapter Eleven


Even as the warning registered on my ears, my hands were dancing across the consoles in front of me. "Penny, threat assessment now!"

"None" came her immediate reply.

My hands' kind of skidded to a stop and just lay there on the controls for the ship's defenses. "None?" I asked in surprise.

"None boss" came the amused confirmation from the hologram standing beside me. "If those things hit us going full tilt they might scratch the paint, but that's about as aggressive as they might get. I've been doing a deep scan on them and they are pretty harmless."

Great, I love panicking for nothing. "Then what was that about weapons powering up?"

"I didn't say they were un-armed, just that they were harmless as far as we're concerned. They have no shields that I can detect and are armed with a small array of low yield missiles and lasers."

I stared out the front port at the three ships blocking our entrance into the system. "They're watchdogs?"

"That would be my guess. They are out here to perform the same task that we use Triships for, but don't have the armament that we have."

I disengaged the systems I'd been bringing on-line and leaned back into my chair. "So we're being annoyed by a loud and obnoxious watchdog."

"Don't forget stupid" added Penny as I heard muted laughter coming from the various people on the flightdeck behind me. "I've tried talking to those things and keep getting the same reply. My best guess is that they are simple AI's put out here to defend the system."

"Ok, but who are they defending?" asked Gregor as he scanned his console.

"I've got a better question. Who or what are they defending against?" I added as I looked back at the nav tank. "You don't build something like that unless your paranoid or have a damn good reason and I ought to know."

"These three have a lot of friends also" said Penny as I watched red highlights start to appear in the tank. "Now that I have an idea of what to scan for, I'm finding thousands of these things scattered all over the Oort cloud. Except for the three in front of us though, the rest seem to be lying dormant."

I turned back forward and tried to hide my annoyance. "Ok, the only thing that wants to speak to us is the local equivalent of a guard dog, only the dog is mostly bark. That bark though must be enough to warn off something in the area or the dogs would all be toast by now."

"Or they have never seen actual use until now" added Lythandi as she stepped up behind my chair."

"That would leave us with the paranoia option then, and I'm not up to dealing with a race that crazy." I thought about it for another few minutes and then made my decision. "Unless someone has a reason to stick around, I'm going to write this one off as a loss." Nobody spoke up. "Ok, that's it then. Penny, send one last message into the system and tell them that anyone with manners this bad isn't worth the trouble to trade with."

"I'm not sure I can get the message across. I've still got very little to go on for a language base."

"Do your best. We'll wait for it to be sent and then head on to our next target." I muttered something about 'fuckin teddy bears' and started checking the controls to get us headed out-bound. I must have looked tense to Lythandi because she leaned forward and began to massage the back of my neck while I began to slowly back us away from the 'dogs'. "Hummmm..... Thanks, that feels good."

"Good enough to get you to fix your Pepper Steak again for dinner tonight?" she asked as she worked on a knot in between my shoulder blades.

"Are you trying to bribe the pilot?" I chuckled as I tried to enjoy her efforts and keep an eye on the forward port.

"Could be" she murmured in my ear just before she gave me a playful nip.

"Then I'll make it easy for you. Stop, and all you get is chili." I heard a shuffle behind me and glanced up at one of the overhead displays. Reflected in it I could see Dave on his knee's begging her to continue. "Gawd what a crew" I chuckled. "I'll bet Picard never has these problems."

"Picard made sure he had a good cook on-board before he broke orbit" laughed Penny as she watched the expression on my face. "Before you get too comfortable though, I've detected a ship leaving the orbit of the sixth planet on a course that brings it this direction."

I groaned in disgust and touched Lythandi's hand as it worked on my shoulder. "Thanks... Ok, give me the details" I asked as I brought the Sunbeam to a stop once again and waited.

"I'm reading one ship out-bound at about 7 G's acceleration. Long range scans show it to be about 3 times the size of one of the watchdogs and I'm getting intermittent reading that may be life signs."

I turned so I could see the nav tank and watched the slowly growing trace that was the new ship. "Anything else in orbit there that you can see?"

"No, and that bothers me. Planet six is pretty close to us and that ship wasn't there on the initial survey scan. I only picked it up when I spotted the energy surge of it leaving orbit."

Watching the trace it was obvious that they were going to take quite awhile to get here. The question was wether I wanted to bother waiting, and frankly I didn't. We'd gotten our greeting and it stank. Only two things stopped me from swinging the Sunbeam around and punching up the main drive. First, I'm too damn curious for my own good. A fact that everyone that knew me took great pains to point out whenever possible. Second, and I was sort of ashamed to admit it to myself, the Triships on station back home were programmed to do almost the same thing we'd just ran into. 'Stop any intruder, warn them to go no further and open fire if they try to proceed.' Those watchdogs on the screen might not have been capable of bothering us, but I was damn sure they would have tried.

"Boss, your curiosity bump is itching again" came the quiet comment from Penny as she stood beside Lythandi and I.

"Is it that obvious?" I replied with a grin.

"On you, yes." I tilted my head back to look at Lythandi and she nodded her agreement. "So do we wait?"

"Suppose that's a warship coming out to make sure we leave?"

"Then we get good source of scrap metal" growled Nek as he reminded us how good his hearing is. "Or is Mage growing afraid in old age?"

"Fuzzball, ask me that when I kick the shit out of you next training session" I growled in a mixture of English and Meenzei.

"Just making sure" he laughed with a sound like an engine running without oil. "When ship loose spirit, time to find new ship."

"This ship and crew has plenty of spirit" growled Lythandi as she glared at him. "If you don't believe me, meet me in the rec. room after dinner."

I reached behind me and grabbed her hand as she gouged furrows in the back of my chair with her claws. "Knock it off please" I asked her as I held her hand and waited for the claws to retract. "You too fuzzball" I added with a glare at Nek. "You don't have to like each other, but you have to work together or I'll kick both your butts." They glared at each other, but both of them nodded at me and went back to work.

Penny's hologram was standing with her arms folded watching everything that was happening. "Can I say something now?" she asked in a faint tone of amusement.

"You're a great help" I whispered. "What's up now?"

"I'm getting a signal from the out-bound ship. My best guess is that it's a video transmission of some kind with a low frame rate. I'm running it through the works to figure out its format, but I already can decode the audio channel that is mixed in with it."

I waited for her to continue, but she just stood there and stared back at me. When my impatience got the better of me, I broke down and asked her "What's the message oh fountain of knowledge?"

"I haven't a clue" she said as she shrugged her shoulders. "The data we have on their language is almost non-existent and what little I've added to that base by talking to the watchdogs isn't enough. I'm only getting about one word out of thirty."

"Can you tell anything about intent?" I asked as I glanced out the forward port towards the star in the distance. "Do they sound angry, curious, worried or anything you can guess at?"

"I've nothing to go on. The only language records that survived were databases only. There aren't any audio recordings to use as a baseline." Penny paused for just a second and turned to look out the port herself. "I can add one thing though. The watchdogs just powered down and turned to head back to their original stations."

"I feel like I just stepped onto K1 and Bob yelled at his dogs to 'shut the fuck up and go lay down' or something." In the silence on the flightdeck I could almost feel everyone's eyes on me as they waited for my decision. Sitting back in my chair I steepled my hands in front of me and stared into space for a few minutes.

"Penny, how long before that ship gets here?"

"Unless they change their acceleration curve, about three days including turnover. We could always go meet them" she added with a glance my direction.

"No," I answered as I made my decision. "We wait, but they come to us. Call it petty, but they've annoyed me just enough to make them go to the trouble of traveling all the way out here." I leaned forward to double check my consoles and then swung my chair around. "Ok, break out the chessboards again. We've got three days to wait." I stood up and headed for the hatch, then stopped and grinned to myself. "Dave, you have the first watch. I've believe I've got dinner duty tonight."

"Ok... Hey, wait a minute. What are you fixing?"

I winked at Lythandi who had followed me to the hatch. "I believe I accepted a bribe to fix Pepper Steak."

"That isn't fair!" yelled Dave as he beat his hand on the edge of his console. "You finally decide to cook something we actually like and I get stuck on watch!"

"Do not worry my friend" laughed Naldantis as he laid a hand on Dave's shoulder. "If there is any left I will bring you some."

"Oh great! Leftovers with this gang? I might as well start soaking my shoes now so the leather will be soft enough to eat. Why I get stuck..." and he faded into the background as ducked through the hatch on my way to my cabin.

"You will make enough so that Dave has a share?" asked Naldantis as he stopped outside my cabin door.

"Of course" I snickered, "but I'm also going to find an old shoe to put on the first tray someone takes to him."

"You have a nasty sense of humor" he laughed as he thought about it.

"It's the wonderful company I keep" I answered as Lythandi got this affronted look on her face and poked my in the side.

Chapter Twelve

Splish Splash

The sun beat down like a jackhammer and the air was so thick with heat you could swim in it. Even tucked into the shade of the towering Ponderosa pine trees, and with the air conditioners on full, the new house was heating up. I closed all the windows and powered up the phaseglass, darkening them like photogray eyeglass lenses. In a while, the house would be cool again.

Since I was already hot, I figured it was time to take a trip into town. Karen had given me a list of groceries she wanted picked up before she went off visiting friends she hadn't seen in quite a while. With the list in my pocket, I climbed into the car and drove to Coeur d'Alene. Negotiating in Rosauers was vastly different from having Brian materialize foodstuffs or having crew members bring back things from visits to other worlds. I wasn't sure I liked this method at all. I was annoyed at having to wait in line at the check stand too.

While I waited in line, I read the covers of the tabloid papers that touted everything from Elvis' return from the dead to the abduction of the President by aliens. "Hey Mom. You should see the really cool boats down at the dock!" said an energetic young boy. He was about ten years old and kept going on about jet ski like craft that a few kids had moored at the public dock. I thought back to the days that I would get excited about a boat or a car. My reverie was shattered when the kid said "There's a cat driving one of them!"

His mother said "Yes, dear" in bored tones. I, on the other hand, left my cart where it was and left the store at a run. The city dock was a block away, and I made it there in about ten seconds. On one side of the dock was the large paddle-wheeled tourist boat, on the other side, lined up single file were four space sleds gently bobbing on the waves. It was hard to see them at first. A large crowd of people were admiring the sleds.

"It looks like they float above the water."

"Some of that new graphite stuff, I'll bet."

"Where are the pontoons?"

Comments were slung like bales in a hay barn and I was glad that people aren't too suspicious or observant. At least, I was until some little boy with freckles and oversized glasses started saying that these boats weren't boats at all. I sidled through the crowd and accidentally bumped the boy so he fell of the dock and into the water.

"Harold!" screamed a heavy woman. "You come out of that lake right now. I told you we had to leave and now you're swimming again!"

"But Mom..." he sputtered.

"Don't but-mom me, young man. You climb up here and dry off." Little Harold did so, and the lady threw a towel around his shoulders and steered him back toward shore and the parking lot. I breathed a sigh of relief and started looking around for the kids. They were coming across the street towards me, with Jab following contentedly along.

A man stepped out of the store they'd just left and started to yell something. The kids and the cat picked up speed and didn't look back. "These eggs are ruined!" screamed the man. "You stay out of here from now on!" They all didn't acknowledge the guy, but kept padding quickly to the dock, and towards me. I went down the dock to meet them.

"Are you out of your goddamn minds?" I hissed at them. "And you, cat! Are you crazy?"

"Kids want treat" said the cat with a shrug. "Took sleds from K1 for boat."

"No big deal, Dad" said Ficus.

"Oh yeah? Look over there." I pointed to the crowd of people. "I think they're going to make it a big deal and..." I stopped because my throat tightened. A County Sheriff's boat had pulled up to the dock, and two deputies were looking over the little ships. "Oh, shit." I said.

"Uh oh" said Jab.

"See ya, Dad." said Ficus, and he turned on his heel back towards town.

"Not so fast, twerp." I said grabbing his arm. "You bozos got us into this, now you can help us get out of it." I turned around and saw the deputies looking our way. A couple of people in the crowd were pointing towards us. "Shit. Here it comes."

The deputies strolled over to us. "Those your boats?" asked one. His manner was friendly enough.

"Uh, yes." I answered. "Is there a problem?"

"Well, they don't have any registration numbers, there's no life preservers aboard any of them, and no paddle or visible signal horn. I'd say that makes for a problem."

My mind started racing. "I need all that for those?" I asked, trying as hard as i could to look innocent.

"All powered water craft are required to carry specific equipment. You don't seem to have any of it." said the deputy.

"But these things aren't powered." I said. The deputies both gave me a look that said 'bullshit.'

"We came over here because we observed them moving across the lake at quite a clip. You don't expect us to believe they moved that fast with you folks behind them, kicking." I was a statement, not a question.

"Uh, I didn't mean that they weren't powered at all. They just don't have motors like outboards or something." I got a skeptical look in return for that.

"It's true" said Megan. "These are different."

"What does that mean?" asked the taller deputy.

"Uh, they're electric. Yeah. That's it." I said.

"Well sir, the law doesn't differentiate what kind of power that boats have. Motorized vehicles are motorized vehicles." He said. The other deputy took a ticket book from his belt.

"I'm afraid we're going to have to cite you for these safety violations" said the shorter cop. Looks to be a sizable fine, too. What with four boats and all. Hey, you bring that cat with you?"

"Cats can't swim, you know. They hate water. Dumb animals need to be protected" said the big one.

"Who you call dumb..." said Jab.

"Shut up, Aron." I said. "These officers are just doing their job."

"Oh!" said the short cop. "For a second there I thought the cat said that." He chuckled to himself. I glared at the cat. "Heh. Talking cat."

"You're gonna have to get the necessary equipment before we can let you take the boats back out" said the tall one. "There's a couple of stores that sell what you need right over there" he pointed towards the store next to where the kids had just come from. "We'll wait here while you get the equipment."

"Yeah, tell you what. You get the stuff and we'll let the ticket go."

I thanked them and turned toward town. The cops waited on the dock watching us go. When we got a distance away, I started in on the lecture the kids and Jab had coming. They didn't listen, but then, they never do. We were about to go into the sporting goods store when the manager of the food store stepped onto the sidewalk.

"These your kids?" he asked. His tone was entirely unfriendly.

"Yes. Is there a problem?" I tried to look like a nice but harried parent.

"They knocked over a whole shelf of eggs in the walk-in." he said. "Someone's gonna have to pay for that."

"I'll be happy to." I smiled thinly. "We were going to your store right after this one." I pointed to the sporting goods place. "The kids said there'd been an accident."

The storekeeper relaxed a little. "Well, accidents happen." he said. "Tell ya what, I'll sell you the eggs for cost. Got a delivery coming in this afternoon anyway, so there's no harm."

"Thanks." I said, taking out my wallet. The manager told me how much he wanted and I paid him. He seemed happy and admonished the kids by saying that next time they should just tell him. He'd work something out. He also said he hoped there wouldn't be a next time. I agreed out loud.

The cost of all the extras for the sleds came to just under $400. I wasn't real happy about paying it, but then, it wasn't like money was hard to come by. At least, it wouldn't be after I developed a relationship with a local precious metals buyer to handle gold from my 'mine.' When we got back to the dock, each of us was laden down with armloads of floatation devices and other safety paraphernalia. The deputies inventoried it all and told us we could go.

"And keep the speed down" said the tall one. "We didn't radar you, but I figure you fellas were doing close to eighty as you came across the lake. There's speed limits here." He handed me a pamphlet on boating safety. "All the rules are in there." he said.

I thanked them and the kids and I pushed our way through the group of admirers still looking at the sleds. A couple of them asked where they could buy a boat like that. I answered that they might get them from K-MART but they had to be special ordered. Wondering how I was going to get my car home, I pushed off and steered the sled towards the little inlet in front of the our new house.

Chapter Thirteen

Is anyone in there?

When the Edmonton Mall was suggested as a place for the family to go for a few days, an immediate vote was cast. It was a unanimous YES all the way 'round. Even I liked the idea. In the past we'd all seen the commercials for the Mall with its waterslides, wave tank and other recreational wonders for people with an emotional age under 25. That fits my family particularly well.

The kids were good about helping out. They packed themselves and loaded the car without being prodded. They even helped make road food, something to snack on while driving. Of course, we also had to take a few stereos so the kids could play volume wars with each other until I would pull over and kill them. As a preemptive maneuver, I had the foresight to bring a few sets of headphones.

At any rate, we were loaded and ready to go in less than two hours. I slid into the seat and looked over my shoulder to count noses. "Where's Jab?" He wasn't in the car. My question brought silence and so I hopped back out and went back into the house. "JAB!"

"No yell Jab. Hear good."

"C'mon cat, we're leaving."

"Not go, Jab."

"Huh? It'll be fun."

"Not fun. Jab hide room for no animal allowed rule. Hear you talk about fun and Jab sad. Not fun. Jab no go. Stay here."

I thought about that. It was kind of a bummer for the Meenzal. Here he was, damned smart and a good friend, and I had to treat him like a smuggled pet. "Are you sure you don't want to go?"

"Jab sure. Is ok. Jab be happy here."

I told him ok and gave him a light swat on the back of his head, then it was off to Canada.

* * *

"See?" said Al. He almost lost his balance when the boat rocked with a wave.

"Yeah. I don't think I ever noticed that one before either." Dan said. "Let's cruise in for a look. We can hug the shoreline and we'll look like fishermen."

"Then we better get the rods out." Dan restarted the little outboard motor and started off while Al got out the fishing rods. The boat slapped along with the water making a _thap_ sound against the hull of the aluminum boat. They worked their way into the cove, and drifted with the wind. They didn't catch any fish, but then neither was using bait or a lure --Dan's line didn't even have a hook on it. Just three little shot ball weights clamped to the string.

"Don't look like anybody's home" said Dan.

"Can't tell. We need come back tonight and see what it looks like. We can tell better then."

"A house like that... I bet those folks got some big buck items in there."

"It'll be a shame if they do" laughed Al. "Think of the work we'll have to do to take it from them." Dan laughed too, and the two men steered their boat back out onto the lake and back towards the launch where their rig waited for them.

* * *

At 10:30 that night, Jab got tired of the plans he was musing over and decided it was time for bed. The telepathic link he kept with Bob let him know that he wasn't missing much. The family was two-thirds of the way to Edmonton and the kids had been bickering all the way. The cat smiled as he curled up on his mat. When Bob built the house, he'd put in what looked like a kitchen cabinet. It was actually the door to Jab's room, a small cave like room cut into the rock the house was built on. For all his cultural changes, the one that was changeless was the preference of a lair to a room.

When Al punched the small window in the back door, he cut himself on the broken glass. "Shit!"

"Shuttup, man. We don't know if the house is empty" admonished his partner. Dan got a dirty look, but Al stayed quiet. They switched on their flashlights and made their way to the living room. Dan showed his light around and whistled quietly. Al punched his arm.

"Lookit this stuff" hissed Al. "VCR, big screen --check the bedrooms for jewelry." Dan nodded and padded off towards the stairs to the loft, while Al moved to the entertainment center and began to pull the plugs on the components there. Most of them came easy, but screws were holding the speaker wires to the back of the amplifier. He patted his pockets, looking for a knife. "Damn" he spit.

"Need wire clipper?" said a soft voice.

"Yeah. Got one, Dan?" A paw moved into the pool of light made from the penlight Al held in his mouth. The paw twitched, and a pair of opposing claws click-clacked in front of him like a garden shear. Al's eyes widened a little and he slowly turned his head to see what had spoken to him. There was no scream in his throat when the penlight illuminated the curious face of a nine foot tall cat. Al tried to scream, he tried really hard.

When the cat smiled and showed the six inch needle-like incisors and said "It what for dinner," Al promptly wet himself and fainted.

Still smiling, Jab shrank to his normal size, and quietly went up the stairs to find the other burglar. He found him going through the desk in Ficus' room. The Meenzal thought about it and went into Megan's room next door.

Dan was frustrated. So far, there was nothing of any real value in the loft bedrooms. He had two left to go, and hoped luck would change for him. He left the boy's room and went across the hall. There was a larger room, and he figured this was where the parents slept. His search turned up nothing of value. Cursing quietly, he crossed the hall and started to look through the girl's room. It was when he opened the bureau drawer that the dog leapt out.

The burglar fell over backwards in surprise, dropping his flashlight. He started to get up when the dog hit him full in the chest with all four feet. Dan fell backwards again while the dog said "Bark...Bark bark... bark. Can say bow-wow too."

Dan opened his mouth, and his yell got started, unlike his partner's did. But the dog stuck a paw in his mouth and then gave him a head butt that knocked him out like a light. When he awoke, the air smelled moist and musky. It was as if he was in a cave, thought Dan. He moved slightly to try and look around him, but couldn't see in the pitch black. His foot struck something that grunted when he bumped it. "Al? Is that you?"


"Yeah, what the hell happened?"

Al started to shiver. "Big cat. Bihhgg fucking cat." he stammered.

"Dog got me. It was weird though. Sounded like he was... ah, hell. Never mind. Where are we?"

The lights turned on and both men got a good look at what had waylayed them. It was lynx-ish in appearance, but was much larger than either of the burglars. It drooled slightly from huge fangs. "You here, stupid." it said to them. The weapon the Meenzal aimed at them looked menacing.

It was.

When the family returned four days later, Bob looked at the cat and grinned. "I knew it. You sat on your ass and ate all day."

The cat nodded.

Chapter Fourteen

Where do you think you're going?

"DOS strikes again..." I muttered as I watched the course plot being updated in the navigation tank. "How in the hell did they ever make it into space with computer systems like that?"

"Beginners luck?" answered Penny as she finished the latest updates.

"How far are they going to miss us by now?"

"About half a million miles or so. They are flying that thing on manual as best I can detect. It would also appear that they have some damage to their drive system as well as the computer failure. They're close enough to us that I can do an active scan their ship and their drive system is only running at about 75% output and it isn't balanced."

"If we wait for them to stop and come back, how much longer do we sit here?"

"Another 18 hours." I heard the groans from behind me and knew exactly how they felt. We'd been sitting here almost three days now and everyone was getting antsy.

"Screw that idea" and I turned back to the flight controls to start bringing the ship back to life. "Lythandi would you and Penny please give me a course that brings us along side them as they pass. We'll match their flightpath and follow them as they bring that crate to a halt."

"Should we make it a slow match," she asked she began running the numbers, "or should I just do it?"

"Try not to show them up to badly, but don't make us look pathetic either. I'll leave the particulars up to you." I saw her grin and look pleased with herself as the rough course plot started to appear in the tank.

"Ok, what about the other problem" I asked as I watched the tank. The pause before she answered told me what I needed to know even before Penny tried to explain.

"This isn't as easy as I had hoped. I've got their video format figured out, but I can't translate what they're saying. It's similar to the stuff I got from the watchdogs, but it doesn't translate at all."

I looked up at the monitor that was showing the incoming transmission in real-time and winced at the flicker rate. "So we can exchange pictures, but that's it."

"That's about the limit of it" she said with a sigh. "I'm sorry boss, I just can't make sense of their language. It's so damn close to something I can work with, but just out of reach." If she could have stamped her foot in frustration I wouldn't have been surprised. Even so she made it real clear that she wasn't happy about her inability to translate the Pell transmission. "I'm afraid that leaves it in your hands boss, I'm sorry."

I hadn't liked it when it had been done to me and I didn't expect the Pell to be happy if they ever found out we were going to have to rummage around in their heads to learn their language. Hell, my reaction had been to get royally pissed and leave with plans to never return when I'd caught Kalindra at it.

"I don't suppose you could get lucky in the next few hours?"

"Do you want the odds on that?" she asked quietly. I just shook my head and turned to stare out the forward port. Watching that tiny point of light approaching though got me to drifting and thinking about the people on board it.

"Penny, be paranoid with me for a moment. Could the Pell be faking the engine and computer problems to see how we react?"

"Hummm... Boss you have a warped mind, you know that?"

"I believe I've heard it mentioned a time or two" I said as I heard the chuckles from the rest of the crew being muffled.

"Just so you're aware of it. It's kept us alive often enough that I'm not complaining."

"Hell, around this ship paranoia is a survival trait" came the low mutter from Marlanda's direction.

"As to your question, no, I don't think this is being faked for our benefit. I'm getting a good enough picture on the high resolution cameras to see some damage to their drive systems. It looks like something either got pushed to hard or got hit by debris from the cloud. If they're faking it, they're taking a hell of a chance with their ship."

"Faking what?" asked Naldantis as he stepped onto the flightdeck and headed to his station. I took one look at him as started laughing about the same time Cali stepped through the hatch on the other side of the room.

*My friend, you have a glob of jam in your hair* I told him as I turned away to keep from embarrassing him any further. I could though hear him inhale sharply as he realized he hadn't cleaned up completely. *So, how does Cali like her pancakes?*

*Fluffy* was all I got for a reply but I couldn't miss the self satisfied way he thought it.

"Faking the damage to their ship" I answered aloud as 931 scuttled along the ceiling to join us. "It would seem we get to go chase our potential customers or watch them overshoot us."

Just the idea that we were finally going to be doing something besides sit on our butts had everyone interested and awake. When the time came about two hours later to head out, not a single person had left the flightdeck even though it was getting close to lunch time for some of us. When Penny lit the secondary drive up and we started moving for the first time in three days it took me a moment before I figured out what was wrong.

"Backwards?" I asked Lythandi as I looked around the side of my chair to see her reaction.

"Well..." she started with a sheepish grin. "I didn't want them to know what your ship is capable of, but I also wanted them to understand they were dealing with something beyond their previous understanding."

"Backwards?" I asked again with a raised eyebrow this time. She gave me a weak grin followed a what I figured was a pleading look to not chew her out in front of everyone. "Backwards..." I sighed and turned to watch out the forward port.

The Pell ship was coming up on us ass first with it sputtering drive decelerating with what ever it could muster. Still facing into the system the Sunbeam began to accelerate backwards in an arc that would bring us along side them. God only knows what they thought of us as we matched courses with them, then swung around to face them head-on as we now started decelerating forwards to match them. Unless they thought a hell of a lot different then us, and the design of their ship argued against that, we just shown them that we could match their ships performance using nothing but our maneuvering drive. They did though have a surprise or two for us as we got our first close look at their ship.

"Penny, wasn't there any scale information on those pictures in the databases?"

"What's the problem boss?"

I thought about the height of our hatchways as compared to Nal and my height, and stared at the airlock on the Pell ship. "Penny, that damn airlock must be ten feet tall!"

"Ten feet three inches actually."

"Teddy Bear hell, those guys would give a grizzly second thoughts!"

"Now you know how Bob feels around you and Naldantis" she chuckled as I flipped her the bird over my shoulder.

"You can get back into my good graces now by telling me you cracked the language problem." She didn't answer but her hologram shifted to become a scraggly toothed street urchin that was covered in shit. "Yep, hydroponics duty for a week."

"Sorry, it's up to you" she said as she shifted back.

I looked up at the flickering monitor and sighed. "Damnit... Ok, light up our transmitter and let them see me." I sat back in my chair and tried to smile when the red light on the sensor array came on. @Link with me and let's see how fast we can get this done@ I told Penny as I pasted my best idiot smile my face and began talking.

To the side of the monitor showing the Pell transmission, a second screen lit up showing our outgoing signal. It wasn't going to make any sense at all to the person I was talking to, but nobody but Penny and I needed to know what was really going on. With a light telepathic probe I found the person who had been trying to talk to us. The moment I had him located our transmission changed format. Now the screen split in two and showed me talking and a sample of what I was talking about. As I sat there reciting gibberish, Penny watched the resulting changes in the Pell's thought patterns and started to correlate what I could sense with the image we were transmitting.

"One, Two, Three..." and the split screen showed a numerical sequence of identical objects.

"Human, Velan, Meenzal, Tipkatz, Pain-in-the-ass..." and one of each species flashed on the screen followed by a picture of Penny that I'd snuck in when I'd built the sequence.

@I'm going to get you for that...@

"Starship, star, planet..." and the images continued to flash fast enough that the Pell didn't have time to wonder what it meant. What we wanted was the language concept that flashed through his mind as each image registered. Using me as a base, Penny analyzed the patterns to build a reference. It took less than two minutes to run through the entire sequence.

@Round two please@ and now Penny began running a similar set of images with the commentary in the language she had used with the watchdogs. It had to be confusing the hell out of our poor victim. I just hoped he was distracted enough to not notice my invasion of his mind. When Penny finished I backed out of his mind and waited for his reaction. At least I assumed he was male. That was the flavor I'd gotten listening to his thoughts. I didn't have long to wait as he began talking almost the instant Penny stopped. He'd been ranting for about a minute when we began to hear the occasional English word pop out of the translator.

"There, that should do it" exclaimed Penny with a sigh and the translator began spewing forth a running commentary on the morals, or lack of same, of yet another group of aliens out to take advantage of people in desperate need.

"Run that last bit by my again. What do you mean _another group of aliens_?" The Pell broke off in mid word when his comm system spit out the translated version of my question. When he started talking again I couldn't get a word in edge wise.

"You are not friends of the Klykmt? Where you come from? Do you know of Illinrt? Are you here to help us? How fast can that ship go? Would you be willing..."

"Would you please let me speak" I asked as he had to take a breath.

" sell it to us? Does it have weapons? Why are you moving backwards? Why do you all look different? Is the rock really a pain..."

"Would you please shut up."

"... in the ass? How does the little metal one see?" I got even worse when a second head peeked around the edge of the flickering video signal and began asking even more questions. I listened for another minute before I lost my temper.

"I said SHUT THE FUCK UP!" and I flicked the switch that engaged the Sunbeams cloaking system. The moment we vanished the questions came to a halt for about five seconds before a third Pell entered the picture and began yelling at the first two.

"You made him leave!" "We didn't do a thing!" "Yes you did, I was watching!" "Now what do we do!" "How did they leave so fast?" It went on and on until I felt like putting an energy bolt through the damn screen. Instead I counted to ten, in Velan, backwards, and turned the cloak off.

"Say one word and I'm leaving for good!" I yelled as I glared at them. One of them started to say something but the other two grabbed him and gagged him to keep him quiet. "That's better. Now, one person at a time, one of you tell me who the hell Klykmt are." They looked at each other and one of the ones gagging the third nodded to his friend and answered me.

"The Klykmt are the race that sold us this ship and the weapons we needed to defend ourselves against the Illinrt."

"Who are the Illinrt?" I asked.

"They are the race that is trying to colonize our star system."

I looked at them, looked at their ship, recalled some of the questions they'd asked and got a sinking feeling in my gut. "Why haven't you fixed the damage to your ship and your computer system?"

"The Klykmt wouldn't sell us the maintenance manuals for the ship" came the immediate reply and my gut told me that an ulcer was the least I could expect this time out.

"Boss, I just detected a Jump drive transition on the far side of the system" yelled Penny as the heads up display came to life.

Make that a double ulcer answered my gut.

Chapter Fifteen

What? Again?

The radio on the front porch said with way too much glee that the run of 100 degree temperatures would continue. A prospect that didn't exactly fill me with shivers of joy. When the announcer giggled as he said the low temperature at night would be 90, I swore I'd find and kill him. For now though, I'd just sit here in the shade. It was way too hot to do anything else.

The kids decided to swim, and I watched them go and waited for the first signs that one of them was going to burst into flame before they got to the water. None burned, and I began to wonder if maybe I could get to the water safely too. I could have gone back into the house. It was cool enough in there from the air conditioning, but the truth was, I was bored in there.

The cat padded up and sat next to me. "No remember planet so hot last time here."

"Yeah, it's a toaster all right. What brings you out of your lair?"

"Bored in lair. Come out with Bob."

"I'm going to go swimming." I announced.

"Jab go too."

"What? Cat's hate water."

"Not on day like this." he signed, and the two of us took the path down to the lakeshore. Jab immediately stepped into the water and moved out till the water was just under his belly. He sighed deeply.

"I guess I'll give it a whiz" I said, and took a few giant steps into the lake and dove. It felt wonderful. If I could have, I'd have stayed under for a few minutes. As it was, it took me 30 seconds to break the surface. I shook my head and looked at the Meenzal. He'd ducked under or rolled in the water because he was soaked --except for his ears and node. He was standing still with his head slightly cocked and looking out at the lake. His expression was quizzical.

"Have company." he said.

I looked up to see the snub-nosed prow of the county sheriff's boat deplaning as it slowed. "Damn. Now what?" Jab strolled onto the beach and stood there watching.

"Afternoon" said the taller deputy.

"Hi." I answered. "What brings you folks here?"

"We got to thinking about your boats. There's different kinds of registrations, and we think your 'lectric boats may be exempt. We need to give 'em an inspection and see."

"Aw, I don't care." I said. "It's done and over, and the law's been served no matter what."

"Well, I also wanted to maybe try one out" said the shorter deputy, blushing. "They looked fun."

"Sorry, the batteries are out for recharging. If you want to give one a shot, come on back tomorrow and you can take one for a spin."

"No they aren't." said Brenna, paddling over to where I was. "The little boxes are on so they can go just fine. Can I show them, daddy, please?"

"Heh. Cute kids, you know?" I said, pressing her face under the water. "What're you gonna do with them?"

"I think I'd let that one up" said the tall one. "She's not kicking as strong as when she started." I released Brenna who sputtered and told me that I wasn't very funny. "So, what's the story? Do they go or not?"

"Uh, I'm not so sure now. I told my son to recharge them." I looked at Ficus and Aron. They were off on the float and out of earshot. "I guess maybe he didn't."

"So, we can give them a try?"

"Sure, go ahead." I said. There wasn't anything else to say. The short deputy passed me a bowline to their runabout and I pulled them to the dock and tied down their craft. Each man dropped his pants to reveal swim suits underneath, and then stepped onto the dock. Both stared at the sleds.

"So, how do they work?" asked the tall one.

I Pointed. "See this lever here? Forward is go, backward is stop. The pedals down there control the direction. It's pretty simple."

The short one stepped gingerly into a sled and sat down. He gave the pedals little pushes and moved the throttle lever. He swung the canopy down so it latched into position, and I untied the craft. It was facing out onto the lake, and the deputy pressed the lever fully forward.

The sled leapt forward and skittered across the lake at nearly seven hundred miles an hour. The rooster tail left by the plasma generator wrote a thick white line along the trail of the ship. We couldn't hear, but I'm willing to bet that shorty had a laundry problem.

Tall-boy looked out across the lake and back at me. "What the hell is going on here?" he asked. Every bit of his friendly manner was gone.

"I'm not sure." I answered. "That shouldn't have happened." As if on cue, shorty rounded a tight corner and reappeared from behind the rooster tail and cloud. He pointed the sled directly at us and came on like gangbusters. In seconds, the sled was slowing to a stop in our cove.

"Whoooo-eeeeee!" said shorty. "That's one travellin son o' bee!" The smile on his face threatened to cut his head in half. "Scared me at first, but then I figured what-the-hey. Steers real nice, mister."

The tall one looked suspiciously at the sled. "What make o' boat is that, friend." he said evenly.

"Huffy. I think."

"Huffy doesn't make boats, fella."

"Well, whoever sells these through K-Mart."

"K-Mart, huh. Suppose you and I take a ride over to the one you got this from. Think we ought to order a couple o' these for the department."

"Ok, they aren't from K-Mart." I said. "I built these myself."

"Why all the mystery?" asked shorty. His partner raised his eyebrows and looked at me.

"Because it's a whole new design. I invented the system that makes it go. These are test boats, and we didn't want anyone to get the low down and be able to produce boats cheaper or faster."

The tall one nodded. "I buy that. It's how come they're so ugly too, right?"

"Uh, yeah. I guess." I said. "So, you want to take a try now?" He said he did, and so off he went. A lot slower than his friend did. His was a cruise at slow speed, with just a tiny little sprint before he brought the sled back.

"Pretty nice, mister. Pretty nice in deed."

"Glad you like it."

"Probably not."

"What?" I asked.

"I said, probably not."

"Why's that?"

"Because I think I'll just take these ships in tow. I don't know what makes these boats go, but it ain't nothing like anything I've seen before. For all I know, it's dangerous. We're going to have a fella at the state police take a look at it and let us know."

"It's just too goddamn hot today." I said.

Chapter Sixteen

I remember why I left

I stood knee-deep in the water and looked at the deputy. "What do you mean you're going to take my boats in tow?"

"Just what I said. These boats of yours aren't anything like I ever saw before. We don't know if they pose a hazard to the people or the lake or what. That power plant of yours uses something real different, and for all I know, this is stolen technology."

"It will be if you take these sleds, mister."

"That's officer, and what do you mean by that, boy?" The tall deputy was a picture of intimidation, but not to me.

"Officer is a term of respect, spud. You're a mister who plans to rip me off for something I've worked hard to develop. I guess that makes you a fucking thief."

The girls grew very quiet and started moving to the beach. Even the boys saw something was wrong and paddled back from the float where they'd been diving. They joined the girls on the beach. Jab started to slowly pad his way onto the dock.

"I don't guess I care what you think. We're the law here, and if we decided to take these boats, then these boats are gonna get taken."

I stood there in silence for a moment. "Ok. You're the law. But I'm going to challenge everything you do. I don't think you have probable cause, I don't think you have the expertise to determine the possibility of harm to persons or property, and I know you don't have a warrant. So you go ahead and take these boats, but be aware that it's now legit to personally sue cops who exceed their duty, and I'm a pretty litigious kind of guy. I have the money and the lawyers to keep you in court for the next ten years or so --something that will make your bosses a little annoyed, I think."

The cop laughed and said he been threatened before. I shrugged and watched as the two deputies tied the boats in a train and then tied that to both of the stern cleats on their aluminum boat. I glanced up and around until I saw the remote hovering in the pine trees above the cove. *Penny?*

*I'm watching.*

To the cops, I must have looked like I was praying or something. They went on with their preparations, then fired up the patrol boat and started towards the mouth of our cove. "Now, Penny." I said.

The sleds fired up simultaneously and leapt off the lake surface taking an upwards course that swept them --and the deputies' boat towards K1 and the universe beyond. I made it clear that Penny should take all precaution not to leave atmosphere with the cops, who'd both fallen into the bow compartment of their boat when it got lifted by the back end. I hoped to myself that the cleats were well attached to the boat.

"What are you doing to them?" asked Megan.

"They're going for a little ride, that's all."

"We're going to be in real trouble when they get back." she said.

"Why?" asked Ficus. "They're going to tell people that they were abducted by jet skis and taken to orbit. I don't think anyone is going to believe them. The only thing that could make this better would be if we had a doctor or something that could experiment on their genitals while they're up there."

I started laughing. "That's the idea," I said. "Make their story unbelievable. Now, we need to get do a few things before they get down."

* * *

They all arrived with sirens blaring and dust issuing from the car tires as they blew their way down the road. They screeched to a stop, all facing different directions when they got to the house. The kids and I watched all of this from the porch that went around the front and sides of our home. A group of men climbed heavily from the cars, some wearing the western hats and uniform of the sheriff's office, and some in plain clothes. "I make that sheriff and city police." I said.

"Yeah" said Aron. "The fat one is in charge I bet."

"You watch too much TV." I told him. Secretly I agreed. The fat one probably was in charge. We were both right.

He was sweating heavily as he lumbered up the porch stairs. "Your name Kirkpatrick?" he asked. I told him yes. "Well, we got a couple of our deputies who say you haven't treated them very well. Said you abducted them."

I tried to look surprised and amused. "This is for that home video show on television, isn't it?" I asked, looking as though I was trying to spot the camera.

"'Fraid not, Sir." he said. He looked a little embarrassed. "I have to have my men take a look around." He handed me a sheaf of papers that turned out to be a search warrant. I scanned it.

"It says that these men came here to take my boats and that the boats took them instead?" I asked with believable incredulity. "This can't be serious, officer... uh, I didn't get your name."

"Ballentine, Jack Ballentine. I'm the undersheriff for this area. I know. It sounded a little crazy to me too, but I gotta check on what my men tell me... and they told me you have nuclear powered boats."

I stood there with my mouth open. Ballentine shrugged and started off down the steps to the lake shore. He called to his group to check out the garage and then join him at the dock. The kids and I followed him to the dock. "These are my nuclear powered boats?" I asked. Lined up on the dock were four little pontoon boats that could be pedaled along or powered by small electric trolling motors. The undersheriff looked uncomfortable and called for his two deputies.

Mutt and Jeff, as i called them, came down the steps to the dock. They both had the knowing look of the cat who just ate the canary. "Are these the nuclear boats you were talking about?" asked Ballentine. Both of them stopped dead in their tracks.

"No! That isn't them" said the tall one.

"Yeah, the others were different" said shorty.

"These are the only ones I see here" said the undersheriff. The two deputies looked at each other, and then said we must have hidden the boats they saw earlier. The other men who arrived with the group were making a sweep that brought them all the way around the house, down the embankment to the lake shore, and then along the lakeside brush. "You guys find anything?" asked Ballentine. The leader shook his head to say no.

"Did you check the house?" asked the tall one?"

"No, we...." was all the group leader got to say. Mutt and Jeff ran back up the stairs and into the house. The undersheriff tried to call them back, but it was too late.

The men entered the house and rounded the corner to the living room and came face to face with a 12 foot tall cat. Jab looked at them, licked his lips and said "Dinner!" The two reversed course and flew back out of the house, running into Ballantine who'd followed them up the stairs.

"Look out!" said the tall one. "Huge cat. Big fangs. Killer for sure!" he said breathlessly. Ballantine drew his gun and stepped into the house. He was gone a second, then returned carrying a small and purring Jab.

"This your killer pussy?" asked the undersheriff dryly.

Mutt and Jeff looked at each other and then both started talking at once. The sheriff listened for a moment then yelled for them to shut up. He turned to face me. "Look, Mr. Kirkpatrick. I gotta apologize. I don't know what these boys are trying to pull, but I promise you I'll find out and get back to you." He gave the deputies a sour look and then walked around the porch to the parking lot.

"That isn't the same cat" said Mutt.

"Shut up" said Ballantine.

"The other one talked" said Jeff.

"SHUT UP!" screeched Ballantine.

"It's true" said Mutt and Jeff together. The sheriff smacked them both in the back of their heads and told them to shut up again. They left in the same hurry they arrived in, and when they were gone, the kids all started laughing. "I wouldn't be too gleeful." I said. "I don't think we've seen the last of those guys."

Chapter Seventeen

Was it something I said?

I forwarded the image on the main screen to Gregor. "See if you can get a word in edgewise and ask if they want some help fixing their ship. Maybe we can reverse engineer the maintenance manual and sell it to them or something."

"Thanks Brian..." he grumbled as the Pell started bombarding the new face on their screen with questions.

I felt sorry for him, but not sorry enough to take the conversation back from him. "Ok, let's have the numbers on that ship Penny."

"I don't have a lot to give you boss. Without a probe in the area I only have the shock wave from the normal-space re-entry to work with" she answered. "It looks like something about half our mass completed a jump and was moving at about one quarter light speed on re-entry. As for a course, your guess would be as good as mine."

"You're sure it was a jump and not a side-slip like we make?"

"Definitely a jump. After watching how the Anarchy used to rattle the windows during its jumps, I know how to tell the difference."

Was that ship the Klykmt or the Illinrt? We had no way of knowing and it didn't appear that the Pell were even aware that it had arrived in their system. Looking at the workmanship of the ship that was still hanging in front of us. I got the distinct impression that the Pell were being sold stuff that brought 'designed obsolescence' to a fine art.

"Penny, what would you guess the max speed of the Pell ship was?"

"Hummm... Call it one tenth light, tops."

"If that's a Klykmt ship out there..."

"Then the Pell got sold stuff that is slower, less reliable and has no interstellar capability" she finished for me.

"We need better information" I grumbled as I listened to Gregor yelling in the background. "I want a pair of probes with cloaks active in the launch bay, and I'd like them now please."


"Send one towards that jump point and send the other in-system to take a look around. Make damn sure though that the cloaking systems on both of them are working. I don't like the idea of going in without permission, but I like the idea of being sitting ducks even less."

Thirty seconds later a pair of traces appeared in the tank and the first slipped into Hyperspace to head to the jump point. "Do you have anything in particular you want the second to scan for?" asked Penny as we both listened to Gregor versus the Pell.

"Have you been surveying the local system while we've been sitting here?"

"Of course, why?"

I'm not sure where the idea had come from. It sure didn't make a lot of sense given the tech level we'd seen so far, but it would explain where the hell the second planet had gone. "Run a 'what if' on the planetary orbits for me and see if you find them acting like planet two was still out there somewhere."

"A cloaked planet?" she asked with a frown.

This kind of calculation would keep any decent supercomputer busy for quite awhile. Penny put them all to shame when she wanted to and I watched the expression on her face change from a frown to something like amused curiosity in the space of a few seconds.

"Now I know why I put up with your puns" she snickered. "I've only got a few days of tracking data but there seems to be a good sized mass hiding in about the right area to be our missing planet. Your 'hunch' may be a good one."

"Take your best guess as to its location and send the second probe to search the area. If they cloaked the whole damn planet, I want to know who, how and why." With that taken care of for the moment, I turned back to listen to Gregor yelling into his comm.

"... even be slightly interested in the design. Who ever sold you that ship should be forced to fly it themselves! Now do you want our help or not?" I didn't hear the reply, but Gregor grinned and yelled "Good, I see if we have someone interested in working on something that obsolete," before he switched off and turned to face me. "They would be glad of any help we could give them" he said in answer to the puzzled expression on my face.

"What was all the yelling about?"

"That's how they seem to work. He who yells loudest and asks the most questions has control of the conversation."

"I boosted the volume of our transmission a little just to keep things interesting" giggled Penny as she winked at Gregor.

I looked at the visible damage to the Pell ship and started figuring. "Dave, you and 931 get anything you think you'll need and load it into the Odin. Nek, grab your pop-gun and go with them. I want them back safe." Nek rumbled like an asthmatic chainsaw and slaved his console to mine as he headed for his private armory. "Penny, you might want to leave a remote behind to watch over their shoulders and see what you can dig up during their investigations."

"Actually, I've got two standing by in the Odin's launch bay."

"Good enough" I answered with a nod. "Dave, keep one eye on our friends over there at all times. I'm not sure what if anything you're going to be able to do over there, but it might give us a better idea of the tech level we're dealing with here." I grinned to myself. "Keep an eye out for trouble also. I'd hate to have to find someone new for Penny to argue with."

Dave grinned as he stood in the hatchway. "I suspect the mechanical stuff will be ok, but who knows what we'll find in the way of electronics. We may have to jury-rig something from our own stuff to get them back on-line. As for your sister... Her love for me would not allow her to let me be harmed" he recited while striking a pose.

"Meet our point man" muttered Penny as she flipped him the bird.

"If you can jury-rig something, do it, but try your best to hide the internals of anything you install. It may all be stuff that we could use as trade goods down the line. All kidding aside though, watch your ass over there."

"Oh believe me, I WILL!" and he ducked out the hatch.

"Penny, keep a good eye on them" I repeated as I listened to Dave and company talking in the distance. "If we head in-bound, I'm not going to be able to watch them and everything else at the same time."

"I'll watch them like they were family" she answered.

God help me, I couldn't resist. "No no no... I want you to keep them safe" and I ducked out of habit. When I peered around the edge of my chair, she was talking to Lythandi in a whisper and both of them were looking my direction. I didn't even want to think about it, especially when I heard them laughing. I was still sitting there when my overhead display switched to the feed from one of the remotes.

"I've found our jumper" said Penny as she stepped to stand beside my chair. "Does that thing look as odd to you as it does me?"

I stared at the collection of globes joined by short tubes and tried to imagine the mindset of someone who would build something like that. "I'll admit it's odd, but it looks functional. Any sign that they have detected the remote?"

"None. I've got it doing a passive scan of that ship to see what I can find out."

"Leave it passive for now. Gregor, patch the Pell back over to me for a moment."

"Gladly," he sighed and I braced myself for the questions I was sure were going to follow. It took me the better part of two minutes to get them to shut up and let me talk.

"Do you know who's flying this ship?" and I split the screen to show them a still of the globe ship.

"Yes, it is a Klykmt transport. They use them for picking up our payments on the things we purchase."

I cut him off before he could start asking questions again. "Would your people have any objections to our contacting the Klykmt to discuss opening trade?"

"No, I don't think so" he answered after talking to his two friends for a moment. "What are you..."

"Thanks, that's all I needed to know" I said in haste as I shunted the feed back to Gregor. "Penny, we just got permission to enter the system."

"Boss, that isn't what you asked..."

"So they can sue me later." I opened a channel to Dave in the Odin and let him know he was on his own for a while. We'd be back to pick him up after contacting the Klykmt ship. "Lythandi, would you..."

"Plotted and in the tank, sirrrrrr..." she snickered with a drawl.

Something told me to keep quiet, so I just nodded and turned to the flight controls. Switching to manual I broke our lock on the Pell course and brought us to a halt. Then with the cloak in place I engaged the course Lythandi had plotted and we headed in-system. Even taking our time it was less than an hour before we came up in front of the Klykmt ship and dropped our cloak.

"Penny, get me a link if you can using the Pell comm standard." A few moments later my screen lit up and I found myself looking back at a collection of silly putty with eye stalks. Eye stalks that were waving madly as the owner demanded to know who we were and where we had come from.

"My name is Brian and this is the Terran Starship Sunbeam." At the same time I started to speak, I felt an odd itch in the back of head. "We are here to talk to the Pell about opening trade with them and they gave us permission to come talk to you as well." Someplace in the background I heard Cali ask Naldantis if something was wrong.

"You are here to trade?"

"Yes, we represent a small group of planets..." I never got to finish. At the same time I heard Nal scream in pain the itch in my head vanished. It was replaced by something that felt like my head had been clamped in a bench vise and I curled into a ball as I started to scream myself.

Chapter Eighteen

Oh where, oh where ...

The house was entirely too quiet. In the post-dawn of 6:00am, I was moving from room to room through the house, looking for Jab. Nobody had seen him for almost two days. This was unusual for the cat, he was always somewhere about. So, with that sickened stomach feeling, I made my way around looking for him. I'd start at one end of the house and work my way to the other, then search around the yard. I'd been repeating this process since 10:00 last night.

The deputies were big on my mind. I had the vision of these two yokels getting revenge for my making them out to be hallucinating fools by shooting my cat --just to 'show me.' But that didn't hold water all the way. Those bozos would have been more likely to shoot one of the kids than my cat.

I could usually 'feel' Jab in my mind, but now there was nothing there, and that added to the sinking feeling I had as I toured the house for the zillionth time. I was considering this when the telephone began to ring. Not wanting it to wake up anyone, I padded quickly to the den and snatched it up to stage whisper a hoarse "Yes?"

There was a pause and then a female voice said "Jim?"

"You have the wrong number, lady. There's no Jim here." There was a click and then the phone had dialtone. I didn't hang up right away, but stood there holding the receiver. In a way, I had hoped that it was about Jab. Hearing something would have given me a starting place to retrieve him. But this was only a wrong number, and it wasn't the first. Whoever the hell Jim was, his number must be awfully close to the ours. We'd been getting Jim calls ever since the phone was hooked up.

A few hours later, the family was awake and in the kitchen having breakfast. I took advantage of them all being there to announce the search. All of us would be going out to find the cat. This met with protests of all kinds. Just about everyone had plans and didn't like my changing them. It took great effort not to scream at them, but just tell them it had to be.

At a little after ten, each of us had our assigned area to look and made our way out to find the Meenzal.

"Nope, haven't seen a cat."

"Saw a dog."

"Do you know Jesus?"

I was hearing everything but what I was hoping to hear as I went from store to store in town. There was a moment that looked promising when a beer-truck driver said he'd seen a cat --a big one-- walking along the highway yesterday.

"Wasn't real special, but he was big." he said. "Ya think that might of been your cat, mister?"

"Uh, no. If you'd seen this cat you'd know it" I answered. And that was the only luck I had all day. When I got back home, I found that most of the family had abandoned the search, returning home early to go swimming. Only Megan had kept up and she got home the same time I did. She was tired and frustrated. I could relate to that, I was too.

In my travels that day, I'd contacted the Human Society. It was possible that Jab had been picked up. That had happened once before when he got a craving for eggs. They told me they'd call me if they heard anything. So when they called me at dinnertime, I got hopeful.

"We've picked up a big cat --sounds like the one you described to us today." I was off the phone and into the car in minutes. Driving to the animal shelter, I went through all the ways I was going to read the stupid cat off. He knew better than to just leave. The car swung into the parking lot as I'd figured I had the right mix of anger and relief to inflict on the furball.

"It's in the back" said the uniformed attendant. "But we have a few questions about the cat."

"No problem," I said. "Let's go see him though." The attendant led me back to a small room. He crossed it and opened a closet door. From inside it he dragged a plastic garbage bag out and dumped it unceremoniously onto the floor. What spilled out was a mass of fur covered in dirt and dried blood. "Jesus H. Christ."

"He's a mess all right. Looks like a few vehicles took him before one finally knocked it off the road." I looked at the rigid pile and felt nausea welling in my stomach. "So, is this the cat, sir?"

"How can I tell?" I asked, looking at the chaos of limbs.

"Well, if it is your cat, we'd like to know what you're doing with a cougar. It's against the law for anyone but special folks to keep one."

"Cougar?" I asked.

"Yep. Looks to be a young one, maybe 8 months old." I peered more closely at the corpse and focused on a paw. It had regular feline claws.

"I can tell you, this isn't the cat I was looking for. Mine had something different about him --and he wasn't a cougar."

"Well, what was different about him?"

I made a mental list: Loves eggs, can change size, speaks a couple of languages, knows more about rockets than Robert Goddard, could teach Einstein about quantum mechanics... but all I said was "He wasn't this big and the color is all wrong."

I got back to the house, deflated and saddened. "God damn." I snarled aloud. "This is all I need. What else could go wrong now?" The kids looked up from the television momentarily, and then re-engrossed themselves in MTV.

Chapter Nineteen

Ticking Away

I could feel the heartbeat in my dream as I looked with squinting eyes towards a voice I couldn't hear, but knew somehow it was there. If I tilted my head just so, I could barely make out the expanse of the universe with its colliding debris, brilliant supernovas, and nebulae. But try as hard as I could, I just couldn't look at them. My hands could reach out, but they couldn't touch, and my screaming was encased in silence as soon as it left my throat. Slowly lowering my head in response to a sensation in my chest, I could now see my heart beating as much as I could feel it in the solidity of whatever I stood upon. Beneath my shirt it coursed and pumped, expanding further and farther until it exploded. My eyes burned as they stared at the gaping cavity of wrended flesh and shattered bones that wept thick blood. Ahead of me, a figure --semi human-- stepped from the darkness and grinned sardonically. I raised my head slowly and looked into its hollow eyes.

"I've got you." It hissed at me through barbed teeth.

When I sat bolt upright and my screams weren't lost anymore, my terrified wife held her pillow in front of her face like a shield. "What?" she yelled. "What?"

There were no words for what I felt, so I just shook my head and laid back down.

Claws grabbed me from behind, piercing each side of my body but gently. The stink of its breath condensed on the skin of my neck as it leaned slowly in to eat. With an odd and painless detachment my rolling eyes saw the great teeth plunge into my flesh and tear it away in chunks that would putrefy on contact with the fetid drool that glistened with a lightless luster. And from the darkness all around, hands reached in to hold me fast, pressing me against something unseen and solid like the surface beneath me. A point of light burst in front of my eyes, and opened larger and larger until it revealed Karen above me, her hands grasping my biceps and shaking me awake.

"What's happening!" she wailed. She shook me harder and repeated herself.

"NO! He's mine!" came the guttural roar, and darkness closed on me again, handing me back to the voracious horror.

"Bob!" shouted Karen. She slapped me on the face and the darkness receded again. "What's happening! What's the matter?"

This time the darkness stayed gone, but as it waned behind me and I waked to the brightness of the room lights, the feeding thing made one last try to keep its meal. I swooned hard and fell off of the bed onto my stomach, and then it was Karen's turn to scream. Long lacerations criss-crossed my back in angry gashes that rapidly turned the carpet a deep and wet crimson.

* * *

The paramedics were sickened at first, but retained their professional manner and bound me like a mummy. Gauze bandages webbed all around me, holding my torn body together. They'd kept me laying on my stomach as they worked, at first applying butterfly clamps to the tears in my skin. All the while they spoke quietly to my wife, asking her how it happened. They weren't happy with the answers she gave.

As they were finishing up, the police arrived. A uniformed officer listened expressionless as Karen again related what she saw. I was awake, and tried to hear the conversation, but only managed to get small pieces of the exchange. The paramedics kept telling me that it would be all right, and were talking to someone on a portable radio through microphones that hung from the epaulets of their shirts. I heard the radio speak in words bathed in static, the only one I recognized was 'demerol.' With the sharp prick of a needle, it was the last thing I heard as a softness leapt up from nowhere. It embraced me and led me willingly into a giddy place that had no time.

* * *

"It's a strange one for sure, Cap'm" said the officer. "She won't talk anymore, but when she did, what she said din't make any sense at all."

"That thing about him dreaming?"

"Yessir. That's what I mean."

"There's always a story to go with shit like this."

"Yes, Cap'm. But the thing of it is --well, the thing of it is that we couldn't find the weapon that did this."

"So she threw it in the lake before she called the paramedics. It'll be found. Her big problem is that he didn't die before emergency services got there. When he comes awake, we'll get the story and that'll be that. The guy probably was screwing someone and she didn't like it."

"I don't know. You need to see the crime scene first. The pattern of blood on the bed is consistent with the kind of attack she described. Plus that, I know it's nothing we can use, but my gut tells me that she's telling the truth."

The Captain looked through the glass separator at Karen. She sat quietly in the interrogation room. "You just like that she's got big tits."


"Relax. In my time I've seen women who could pass for angels do shit that might not make you believe in god, but sure as hell'd make you believe in the devil."

"Maybe so, sir. But I don't..." He was interrupted as a paramedic leaned in the door.

"Hey Don. What's up?" asked the watch Commander.

"It's about that guy we picked up" answered the medic.

"What about him?"

"You gotta see this for yourself. If I tell ya, you won't believe it."

Chapter Twenty

Now you see them ...

The telepathic attack was so intense that it took several seconds before my training kicked in and my mental shields came up. Even as the hatred and anger that was attempting to swamp my mind began to fade, it vanished completely as if shut off by a switch. When I could get my bearings, I saw why. Penny had brought the Sunbeam to battle ready and was carving the Klykmt ship into small sections. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the port wing of the Sunbeam shimmer like molten gold and another of the spherical compartments that made up the Klykmt ship was carved from its neighbors.

"Leave enough for us search" I asked as I shook my head again to clear the fog. Then I remembered the other scream I'd heard and spun my chair around expecting to see the rest of the crew out cold. What I found instead was Cali and Marlanda kneeling over Naldantis and Lythandi watching her console and the battle with equal intensity. "What the hell?" I yelled in puzzlement.

"They weren't affected by whatever it was" explained Penny as she concentrated fire on the one or two sections that were trying to fight back. "Only you and Naldantis were effected. I assumed the attack was mental and brought up the shields. That seemed to stop it since Nal quit yelling the moment they were up."

"Yeah, it was some kind of telepathic scream of rage" I told her as I stepped to where I could see Cali working on Naldantis. "How is he?" I asked her as I tried to ignore the blood flowing from his muzzle.

"He's out cold and he's bitten his tongue pretty bad." She nodded to Marlanda who turned and ran from the flightdeck towards sickbay. "Help me get him down on the deck here. I know a little about firstaid and I'll see if I can get the bleeding stopped." A few seconds later Marlanda returned carrying one of the portable kits Nal had assembled and made sure we all knew about.

"If you can't, give me a yell" I told her as the two of them started tearing into the kit. "I'm not in Nal's class when it comes to healing, but Kalindra has given me some training." Cali nodded and winced as she got Nal's muzzle open to apply a compress. I turned and leapt back into my chair to help Penny if needed. One quick look out the port though verified that the only ones needing help were the Klykmt.

"Did you leave any survivors?" I asked as I surveyed the scattered remains floating in front of us.

"Yes, though it was a great temptation to just vaporize the lot of them. I placed my shots to separate the sections. The only casualties were from people in the connecting tubes at the time. Once I severed the modules supplying power, the weapons modules shutdown, as did the module that was generating the telepathic attack."

"The module generating... That was artificial?"

"Maybe not artificial, but certainly mechanically augmented" she answered. "I know your telepathic, and I assume Naldantis is also at some level."

"I'm not sure about telepathic, but I'm reasonably sure he's a decent empath. Most good healers are."

"That particular attack seemed to be designed to paralyze any sensitives on-board. You two were the only ones effected, and I assume it wasn't a pleasant feeling."

"Take every negative emotion you can imagine, form them into a single intense thought and force them into another mind. Take a good guess how it might feel, then figure you missed by an order of magnitude." I could still feel the echoes of that intrusion whispering to me. "The only thing I can tell you for sure is that the single thought tying the whole thing together was the absolute hatred of anything that might jepordize their domination of the Pell. Whatever they have going here, they don't want anyone messing with it."

"It would seem we have once again 'stepped in it' as you Terrans say" injected Marlanda from behind me. When I glanced back, he and Cali had Nal propped up against the wall and I was happy to see his eyes were open.

"Are you going to be ok?"

"A 'op sho" he said with a wince. "hiss is ot ome'ing I e'joy. 'ha happe'ed oo my hea?"

"You're to empathic for your own good my friend. Penny though managed to get us shielded from what ever they were using. You take care of that tongue and I'll see to our _friends_." He nodded and headed towards his sickbay after being helped to his feet.

"Ok, it's time to use the stick since the carrot didn't work. Penny, can you identify the command module of that ship?"

"Yes, but there is one other thing you should know about. Before I shut them down, they got off what I expect was a call for help. It was normal radio, so it's going to be awhile before someone can pick it up and respond, but we might be in for more company."

"Ok, keep an eye out... Damn! Penny, get me a channel to Dave" I yelled between bouts of cussing.

"What's the problem?"

"They're telepathic at some level. Maybe you only heard the radio call, but if they were yelling for help, they would have used that also." She'd missed that and shocked the hell out of Lythandi with a few choice phrases she'd picked up someplace.

"I've got Nek on the line. Dave and 931 are out working on the Pell ship at the moment." She muttered something over the open link that caused Nek to hick-up in laughter. "Sorry about missing that boss."

"Hey, if you were perfect, you wouldn't need us" I replied. "Nek, keep an eye out for a ship that looks something like this" and I sent him the telemetry we had on the Klykmt ship. "They aren't friendly, and they've got a nasty telepathic weapon that I suspect you'll be susceptible to."

"Will keep good eye open. They make nice target?"

"Yes, they make good targets, at least for the Sunbeam. That shuttle though doesn't carry much armament. If they show up, grab Dave and 931 and get out of there."

He plainly was thinking about it as he stared at me for a second. I suspect he was trying to figure out what he might jury-rig for weapons, and came to the same conclusion I had. "Ok, we leave if trouble, but we come back later!"

"No problem. You can kick all the Klykmt ass you want if they get obnoxious" and I signed off. "Penny, show me where that command module is. It's time to pay a visit to our new special friends." Behind me, the holotank switched to a view of the local area and mapped the fragments of the Klykmt ship what were drifting around us. "Lythandi, grab your armor, you're with me" and I left Penny on guard as we grabbed our gear and headed for the airlock.

"Penny, give me a vector" I asked when we had exited the ship and were floating above the upper hull. An overlay appeared on my faceplate and I started towards the command module with Lythandi right behind me. I was expecting trouble and the moment we cleared the shields of the Sunbeam it arrived.

"Power surge!" yelled Penny and my training kicked in as I saw one of the modules highlight in my helmet. Some enterprising Klykmt engineer had jury-rigged a power source for one of the weapons modules. The laser that should have vaporized us though, dissipated as I took in the energy and then handed it back to them with interest. My returning shot hit them dead center and the module exploded like a grape hit by a bullet.

"The Klizan said you were handy to have around" chuckled Lythandi over my headset.

I mimed blowing on my fingertips and polishing them on the chest of my armor when the remainder of the modules started to detonate all on their own. When our faceplates lightened enough for us to see again. I couldn't find a single intact module left in the area.

"Jesus Christ..."

"When things look hopeless, leave nothing for the enemy" came Penny's remark as Lythandi and I floated there in shock. "Paranoid, homicidal, suicidal and greedy. Brother, you sure picked a winner this time. I'm going to have to... Oh shit!"

"What?" I yelled as the Sunbeam began to swing over in space. A fraction of a second later I felt myself get grabbed by a tractor field and pulled towards the ship as it began to accelerate out-bound.

"I just registered a jump shock wave in the area of the Pell ship" yelled Penny as she pulled us towards the area of the airlock. "Nek is on the link and yelling for Dave and 931 to get back to the shuttle."

"How close did they come in?"

"Almost right on top of them and at very low speed."

"What's our ETA?" I yelled as dropped pieces of my armor behind me on my way to the flightdeck.

"Ten minutes if I ... Damn! I just lost the link to the shuttle!"

I felt the chair complain beneath me as I dropped into it still wearing most of my armor. "Everyone hang on tight! Penny, punch it!"

We left a track across the system that a blind idiot could have followed, and we still didn't get there in time. All that we found was the remains of the Pell ship and a buoy that kept repeating the same message over and over.

[You will leave and never return]

"Penny, you're sure there is no sign of the shuttle?"

"None, and no debris from it either. I'm getting a faint echo from it's comm system, but I can't pinpoint its location."

"So Nek and the others could still be alive."

"Maybe, it depends upon whether they made it back inside and got the shields up, or whether the Klykmt wanted them alive."

I looked behind me at the crew that remained and felt sick. Hell, this was 931's first flight with us and he was either dead or captive now. "Penny, get a hold of Bob and tell him I need him here as fast as he and Jab can get their butts out here."

"What about Kalindra?"

I closed my eyes for a moment and focused on our link. %You are needed and there is much trouble% For just a moment I felt her amused reaction to my getting in trouble without her around to watch over me, then her growing anger as she read the details from my mind.

%Tell Bob to wait for me%

"She's on her way. Tell Bob she will meet him at his place to hitch a ride with him."


I swung my chair around and faced my crew. "Everyone find a console and get to work. We've got a shuttle to find before the Klykmt get tired of waiting for us to leave."

Chapter Twenty One

A fly in the ointment

Four pairs of eyes watched the house closely as the couple from child welfare services searched. "When are they going to leave?" asked Brenna.

"Shut up, they'll hear you" said Ficus with a nasty look. They went back to watching. The kids could hear the couple discussing what to do next. The man said they should stay and wait, but the lady said they couldn't take the time. She said that if they waited, the mother would probably get let out of jail and be back before they left anyway. After a few more minutes of quiet discussion the kids couldn't hear, the two walked around to the driveway. As soon as they were gone, the kids went back up to the house and went inside. It didn't take them long to find sprawled positions in front of the television, with MTV blaring music at them.

They'd only been there for a few minutes when someone started pounding on the door. Megan leapt up and shut off the television, then all the kids ran in circles like Keystone Cops trying to find a place to hide. They were afraid that the child welfare people had returned to take them away. They were still trying to figure out where to hide when the door burst open. The kids froze in place and looked at the robed figure silhouetted in the doorway.

"Where is Robert?" asked Kalindra. Her voice was demanding.

"He isn't here" said Ficus.

"He's in the hospital" said Megan.

"Mommy's in jail" said Brenna.

"We're the only ones here" said Aron.

Kalindra looked at them for a moment, then walked to them. "You must show me where the hospital is." All of the kids pointed in the direction of town. "That is not what I meant" said Kalindra. "You must take me to the hospital."

"I don't know how to get there" said Ficus.

"I don't either" said Megan.

"Me either" said Aron.

"I want my mommy" said Brenna.

Kalindra looked kindly at Brenna, then faced Ficus. "You will see the hospital in your mind. Do you know what it looks like?"

"Yeah. It's big and blue and across the street from Wild Waters" said Ficus.

"Where are these wild waters? Is it a river of great strength?"

"No, it's a place with slides to ride down and fall into a pool." Said Ficus. "It's really cool."

"So, I must find a river with fast flowing water where children slide into cold water pools?" asked Kalindra.

"No. It's a place they built for people to play. There's no river, just pools with long slides that people slide down to go into the pools. The name of it is Wild Waters."

Kalindra stood looking at Ficus with a combination of disbelief and confusion." Then, "Picture it in your mind." The boy got an image and a look of understanding came over her. "I am always surprised at the way you humans recreate." On that, she vanished.

"Did she mean how people have sex?" asked Megan.

"Shut up." said Ficus, and he turned up the TV again.

* * *

The police watch commander and the paramedic stood at the bedside of an inert Bob. "So what's so special?" asked the cop.

"Look at this" replied the medic, and reached out and raised an eyelid of the patient. Instead of whiteness from rolled up eyes, or a brown iris and its black pupil was the gleam of shiny metal.

"What the hell is that?" asked the cop. "Some kind of prosthetic?"

"No. That's what I wanted you to see." The paramedic raised the other eyelid and the same metallic gleam greeted them. "There's something really odd about this."

"Yeah, my sergeant was saying things about this case didn't add up. I'm beginning to wonder." They stood there for a few seconds quietly. "Where's the doctor?" asked the policeman. He didn't get an answer, he was interrupted by a scream from the hallway outside. "What the hell is happening now?"

In the emergency room, a cloaked Velan was asking where she could find someone named Robert. The first nurse she asked had replied with the scream that shattered the peace of the hospital. Closing her eyes, Kalindra concentrated and then walked directly towards the room where Bob lay unconscious. In her wake was a collection of orderlies and the doctors and nurses who made up the trauma team. They called to her to stop but she ignored the shouts.

"Jesus H Christ." said the watch commander when Kalindra stepped into the room. "What the hell is that?"

"Stand aside, human" said Kalindra, and with a strong arm pushed him back and stepped to the bedside. With a quick motion, she snapped the sheet covering Bob from the bed and let it fall to the floor. Taking a fast swipe, she cut the bandages which wrapped him and then pulled them off his body. She looked at the slashes on Bob's back and a look of shock came to her face. "What kind of charlatans have done this?" she demanded.

No one in the room replied. All stood transfixed, staring at the Velan Mage as she looked from one face to the next. "You would call this wrapping medicine?" she spat in disgust. She didn't wait for an answer, but turned and tapped her staff on the floor once. The sound of all who watched sucking air broke the silence. As they looked on, the cuts in Bob's flesh closed and left clear unblemished skin. "Robert!" she said.

There was no answer, and Kalindra reached into herself and looked into the mind of the unconscious man on the bed. "A potion!" she said aloud, and then sang four sweet notes. Bob stirred on the bed and then raised his head.

"Hi Kal, wha... What the hell?" Bob slowly looked about the room and then back to Kalindra. "What's going on here, Kal?" he asked.

"Brian needs us. You will take me to him now."

"Wait a minute. What's going on?"

"We must go. We must go NOW."

"Well, even if I was going to go, which I can't, there's a few things we need to do."

"What do you mean you cannot go?"

"I don't have Jab, Kal. I can't do anything without my cat." A nurse fainted with a thud, and no one moved to help. Everyone was looking at Kalindra.

"Where is the beast?" Kalindra asked. She couldn't mask the distaste in her voice.

"I don't know. He's lost." As the two spoke, the watch commander made his way out the door through the group of people. Once outside, he pulled a palm radio from his pocket and called for assistance. Before he was able to describe the help he needed, the crowd of doctors and other medical personnel filed out of the room.

"Don't leave them alone." he barked at the group. "I've got help on the way."

"Save it" said the paramedic. "They're gone."

Chapter Twenty Two

All together now, 1, 2, 3

"What do you mean 'they're gone'?" asked the cop with obvious irritation.

"Just what I said" replied the medic. "That dog thing sort of whipped her cape around and the guy and she just disappeared. Poof. Gone."

If looks could kill, the medic would need a medic. "This is just goddamn nuts" hissed the policeman. He looked past the paramedic into the hospital room to verify that the two were missing, and shook his head.

The radio in his hand squawked. "Commander, this is dispatch. Be advised that your suspect in the slashing case has escaped."

"SHIT!" he exploded. Keying the mike he yelled into the palm radio. "What do you mean she escaped?"

"That's all I have. She was there then she wasn't. The sergeant said we should tell you right away." The radio was hurled to the floor where it shattered. At once the commander was even angrier.

"Goddamit, there goes my fuckin' paycheck" he winced. "That's it." He stepped quickly across the hall and snapped up the receiver from a wall phone and punched in the direct number to police dispatch."

* * *

Kalindra stood in the living room of the lake house and sang. Around her was a circle of the children. Bob sat on the living room couch, and he was singing too. "Oh demerol, I long to feel you." he toned. "Far away, down in my toe-sies."

"What's the matter with dad?" asked Aron.

"He's on drugs" answered his brother. Karen looked longingly at her husband, and called him a lucky stiff. Kalindra's song faltered, and then restarted. After a series of notes, she pointed her staff at the floor in front of her and said something unintelligible. There was an audible <pop> and Jab was suddenly there. The cat was holding a small butane torch and was positioned as if he was working on something invisible.

Bob came to attention from the couch. "It's the kitty, kitty, kitty and he's shitty, shitty, shitty.. Hi'ya cat-face." he bubbled taking a cigarette from a pack on the table. He staggered to the cat and brought the torch up to his face where he lit the cigarette and a good chunk of his mustache. "How's it goin' fuzzbutt?"

The Meenzal was unamused. "Was working." he snarled. "Why you make Jab come?" He looked at Kalindra as he spoke. In the distance, the sound of sirens began to wail notice that police were coming. The cacophony of them indicated there was more than one vehicle speeding their way to the house.

"We have little time, Nahn mal Eo" spoke Kalindra, and she quickly told Jab what was happening.

When the police SWAT team broke in through doors and windows, they found an empty house. In slow orbit around the Terran sun, K1 was occupied again. Its inhabitants were watching Kalindra administer a foul concoction to Bob which would remove the effects of the painkiller drugs given him by the hospital. It took twenty minutes for it to work, and then he and his cat were listening intently to Kalindra. When she was done, Bob looked at Karen.

"Sorry hon, I gotta go." he shrugged. Karen looked disappointed, but nodded.

"I know. Just take care of yourself and come home safe." Bob gave her a light kiss on the cheek and winked at the kids. He stepped forward through his cat, then the beast turned and stepped through Kalindra. When the darkcyl sank beneath the deckplates of K1 and was gone, Karen looked at the kids. "Ok, we're here again. Let's clean the rooms and get things fired up and working." There was the usual grumbling, but they turned to.


"I just registered a jump shock wave in the area of the Pell ship" yelled Penny as she pulled us towards the area of the airlock. "Nek is on the link and yelling for Dave and 931 to get back to the shuttle."

"How close did they come in?"

"Almost right on top of them and at very low speed."

"What's our ETA?" I yelled as dropped pieces of my armor behind me on my way to the flightdeck.

"Ten minutes if I ... Damn! I just lost the link to the shuttle!"

I felt the chair complain beneath me as I dropped into it still wearing most of my armor. "Everyone hang on tight! Penny, punch it!"

We left a track across the system that a blind idiot could have followed, and we still didn't get there in time. All that we found was the remains of the Pell ship and a buoy that kept repeating the same message over and over.

[You will leave and never return]

"Penny, you're sure there is no sign of the shuttle?"

"None, and no debris from it either. I'm getting a faint echo from it's comm system, but I can't pinpoint its location."

"So Nek and the others could still be alive."

"Maybe, it depends upon whether they made it back inside and got the shields up, or whether the Klykmt wanted them alive."

I looked behind me at the crew that remained and felt sick. Hell, this was 931's first flight with us and he was either dead or captive now. "Penny, get a hold of Bob and tell him I need him here as fast as he and Jab can get their butts out here."

"Incoming!" shouted Penny. "We have a second shock wave coming at us from the same location." Every member of the crew grabbed onto their chairs and waited for the impact. When it came, the Sunbeam rolled 100 degrees and shuddered violently.

"Penny!" I shouted.

"I'm working on it, Boss." she replied and got a view of the scene outside the ship almost at once. What had just been empty space was now filled with a huge ship. It was slightly larger than the Sunbeam in all of its dimensions. The ship was made up of odd sized cubes and rectangles, and had rounded protrusions haphazardly scattered all over it like warts. Front and aft were long extensions that looked roughly as if someone had stabbed pencils into a brick. "Stand by, they're powering up --reads like weapons..." There was another shudder through the ship, and even Penny swore. "Damn! We've got another Klykmt arrival and..."

On the forward screen, presenting a peculiarly tilted view, a tiny beam came from a pinpoint in the void of space and began to play across the big ship. "What is that, Penny?" I asked.

"The energy reading matches Nek's pulsar rifle."

"Well then, at least he's still alive."

"He's going to get their attention in a bad way, though. There's no way his rifle is going to have much effect on that ship."

"Then we better help him." I said. "Fire up the weapons systems."

"Already there" said Penny. "Those protrusions are their weapons and I have each of them targeted."

"All right then, let's give them a taste of their own..." The viewscreen went brilliant white as the Klykmt ship exploded. "What the hell?"

"Did someone call for a plumber?" asked the beast from behind me.

Chapter Twenty Three

Friends and Enemies

I'd felt Kalindra even before I heard Bob joking about our calling a plumber. Both of them though were background to the fading explosion I was trying to blink from my eyesight. "Jesus! Penny, scan for Nek!"

"I already am" she yelled over the noise as the Sunbeam slewed around to face the second Klykmt ship. "I'm not reading either him, or the energy signature from his weapon."

"Target every weapon on the second ship and disable that damn thing!" I yelled as I swung my chair around to face Bob. "You need to be 30 seconds sooner and pull Nek out of that explosion. Now move!" I started to swing my chair back, and froze in place when I heard his reply.

"No" and then dead silence as I looked at him in shock. Then the entire crew got treated to what had to be the strangest argument I'd ever had the displeasure to listen to.

"What do you mean no?" the catbeast asked itself. "He is part of our crew and it would be dis-honorable to not at least try!" I figured that had to be Kalindra in the mix.

"Is Meenzai, die in good fight is honorable!"

"Look cat, we just can't ..." and the argument escalated from there.

"Quite the damn arguing and go get him!" I yelled over the top of all of them in frustration. I could hear Penny disabling the other Klykmt ship behind me, so at least she wasn't frozen in shock like the rest of us. "You can argue about whether it was right, afterwards!" I was almost ready to get their attention the hard way when the catbeast started to shiver like it was having an epileptic fit.

"No! Is not right!" and with a shimmer the beast desolved into three separate bodies that flew outwards like they'd been ejected by force. I grabbed Kal as she skidded by me on the floor and held on to her as Bob and Jab slammed into the walls and glared at each other in anger.

"You god damned, stupid, fucking morons! That's one of my CREW you want to let die!" Jab looked like he couldn't care less what I thought, but the look on Bob's face would have scared just about anybody. Even Kal was still shaking as she held onto me and I could feel her anger flooding our link. "Now go pull him out of there!"

I could see the refusal in Jab's posture even as Bob yelled "Yes", and tried to merge with Jab again. He wasn't the only one with a surprised look on his face when he and Jab bounced, rather then merging to form the catbeast.

"No, is not right!" was all Jab said before he ran from the flightdeck as Bob looked at him in shock.

"Jesus... Kalindra, are you ok?" She looked up at me a nodded. "Ok, take your station and see if you and Penny can locate the shuttle. Dave and 931 might still be alive and I don't intend to loose any more of my crew." With a click of her claws on the deck, she leapt to her feet and ran to her station. I was swinging my chair back around to face forward, but still heard a low growl that reverberated through the flightdeck as Kal ran by Bob.

"Bob, take the controls while I help in the search." He looked at me for a moment like my words hadn't made sense. "We can fight it out later. Right now I've still got two people out here in trouble." I scrambled into my own chair and Bob slid by me into his even as Penny warned us that at least one more ship was showing up.

"I can't do it by myself" he said as he looked at me from his chair.

"Then we're both going to have a long talk with Jab" I answered with a tired nod, knowing that he meant saving Nek, and not piloting the ship.

* * *

The battle with the Klykmt was short, and extremely one sided. For once in our adventures there was no contest as to which side had the better technology, and we had it. When the fireworks died down there were three Klykmt ships drifting around us, as well as the wreckage of the Pell ship. There wasn't so much as a scratch on the Sunbeam.

"Any communication from them?"

"Not a word on any frequency I can monitor" answered Penny.

"And your sure they got the warning?"

"I saw the echo in their computer systems. They heard it all right."

Once we'd disabled the weapons and drive systems. I'd sent all three ships a short warning that if they called for more help, I'd vaporize them and start talking from scratch with their supposed rescuers. We hadn't monitored a single transmission from that point on.

We'd also heard from the shuttle when the noise had died down. The ship that Nek had destroyed had indeed locked onto it and dragged it off. Somehow, and Dave had no idea, Nek had suited up and started a one Meenzai invasion of the ship that had them. The last they'd heard from him had been a short message to 'go now' just as the tractor field holding the shuttle had vanished. A few seconds later, so had the ship, and they were now headed our direction from about a quarter of the way around the edge of the system.

"How long before Dave and 931 get here?"

"About three hours, why?"

"The minute they dock, we're pulling out. The Pell and the Klykmt can fight this out amongst themselves." I was turning to ask Kalindra something when I heard someone say "No" once again.

"What did you say?"

"I said 'No', I can't let you do that" answered Penny.

I looked at the hologram that was shimmering into existence in the middle of the flightdeck and asked "Why?".

"Brian, I've never had to talk to you about this because you've always done the right thing until now. I can't let you make this mistake though, more people than even you can count would die because of it."

"How do you know?"

"Because I can predict how things will turn out, almost as well as Bob can by simply going to look. I've talked with him about it before because he's seen things in his travels that show the more disastrous outcomes. If it's the only way to fix things, then it's time you were told also."

"And if I'm not interested?"

Every console and light on the Sunbeam went dark at the same time and all hell broke loose as everyone started to yell. "You have to be interested" came the sad voice in the dark. "Just as I have things I have to do that I hate, so do you, and this is one of them. What ever it takes, I can't let you walk away from this."

The only light on the flightdeck was what little light filtered through the forward port from the Klykmt ships. Even without it though I'd have recognized the two furry bodies that now stood beside me ready to defend both themselves and me from all comers.

"And you think you can force us to this task?" asked Kalindra as she placed her hand on my shoulder. "You would do well to remember who you threaten" said Lythandi as she rested her hand on top of Kal's.

@Brian, brother, please don't force me to do this. Even what little I have said is changing things such that what we have been to each other will never be again. Some part of me is dying tonight, please let me save what I can of what remains...@ came the plea in my mind that could only have one source.

I reached up my hand to lay it on top of those that rested on my shoulder. At that moment, those furry hands and the alien minds that guided them felt more like friends then the voice I heard that had been formed from my own mind. With only a small Magelight to show me my surroundings, I said "I won't promise anything, but I'll listen", and waited for my destiny to be explained to me.

Chapter Twenty Four

One, Two, Three

"I can explain it if you'd like." I said to the darkness of the Sunbeam's flight deck. "But Penny, turn the damn lights back on." With a click, the emergency lighting came up and I could see again. In front of me was a triad of two Velans and a Terran. None of them were smiling.

"Go ahead, Bob. You've had the opportunity to see it, and maybe that will help them understand" said Penny.

"Brian, have you had the opportunity to see a Klykmt?"

"No. So far we've had some translated communi..."

"These things come right out of nightmares. They're what little kids imagine lives under their beds at night. More than that, they are the sort of thing that can scare a Meenzal."

Brian started to say that nothing could scare a Meenzal, but stopped himself and look through the hatch in the direction Jab had fled moments before. "I'm still listening." he said.

"Jab believes that Nek is better off having fallen in battle. He also knows what's in store for him."

"What does that have to do with the Klykmt?" asked Lythandi.

I stood and looked at them in silence. "Go ahead, Bob. They need to know." Penny urged.

"Jab is afraid because he knows he will not die of old age or in battle. Those are the only two honorable deaths a Meenzal can have."

"How does he know how he will die?" asked Lythandi, "and how does he die?"

"He'll be eaten by a Klykmt. No battle, no honor. He just gets eaten and there isn't a damn thing he can do about it. He's terrified of that, and he's refusing to go save Nek because if he does, he'll be making sure that Nek comes to the same end. Both of us know this because we've seen it." I turned around so that my friends couldn't see my face. I don't let people see me cry.

"So," said Brian, "why don't you just change timelines? Nothing has to come out any way you don't want it to."

"He can't" said Penny softly. "There are only two timelines for Jab. In one he gets eaten, in the other the Klykmt take over the universe."

"Bullshit" snarled Brian. "Timelines are infinite."

"That isn't true" replied Penny. "Some timelines are and some are not. They are like the limbs of trees. Some have many branches on branches, some are just stubs."

"Then what do you mean the Klykmt take over the universe?"

"What they don't kill, they turn to slaves. It starts just as it has here for the Pell. At first there is trade, then comes the subjugation of the race, along with death and slavery."

"And we have to choose between Jab and the universe? This is like the plot in a bad science fiction story."

"Shut up, Brian." I said turning back. "Just shut up."

"If it is a choice between a Meenzal and all of the races, then the choice is a simple one" said Kalindra.

"The choice isn't so simple to me." I said. "That cat has been there for me at every turn. I owe him a hell of a lot."

"Owe me nothing" said Jab. The cat had quietly come back to the flight deck. "Jab can have honor in his death. Will die to save all."

I sat down on the deckplates and cried openly. I didn't care who saw it.

Chapter Twenty Five

Time to bail out

While I'd listened to Bob, I'd raised my hand up and laid it on top of Lythandi's and Kal's where they rested on my shoulder. I couldn't know what was going through Lythandi's mind as she listened to the story along with the rest of the crew, but her hand was shaking slightly as Bob finally just broke down and cried while he held Nahn in his arms.

"Those are my only two choices? Stay and let Nahn die or leave and turn the universe over to something that acts like a cross between a Ferrengi and a Klingon?"

"Those are the only two outcomes I can predict and Bob's travels have shown me to be correct" answered the hologram that shimmered in the emergency lighting.

Damn, there was that word again. It hadn't sounded right when she'd said it the first time, and it sounded worse now. "What if I went off by myself and convinced the Klykmt homeworld star to go nova on them?"

"You would not catch enough of them to stop them and in two years Jab would still be dead." I looked over at Bob, who nodded his head in agreement.

"What if I went back to the Zulm, got the specs for the Maal, and this time programmed them to like the taste of the Klykmt instead of just killing everything in sight?"

"Jab would be dead in 1 year and you would be dead in 3 when you tried to recall the Maal. They would not limit themselves to just the Klykmt and you'd have no choice but to try to abort the attack when they turned towards Earth again."

Christ, I was quickly running out of ideas, and time. "What about gathering and training every Velan Mage we can find and the whole lot of us forcing the Klykmt to be reasonable?" Then another thought occurred to me. "Hell, I'll tell Earth magic is for real and start recruiting Mages from there also!"

"By the time you got the force together and trained, the Klykmt would have gained in strength and numbers to the point where you couldn't stop them and Jab would be dead in 3 years. No, my prediction holds no matter what you do. You either face them here and now, or they gain the initiative."

Damnit! It was wrong, and I knew it was wrong, and the final straw was the look on Bob's face as he thought about what I'd just said. I'd have bet my life, and I probably was at this point, that the puzzled look he had was because the option I'd just mentioned had never shown up in any of his travels. I hoped the expression on my face didn't give me away as I ran the last few minutes around and around in my mind, and kept coming up with the same conclusion. And I wasn't the only problem because Kal caught what I was feeling and gave my shoulder a squeeze to let me know she was still there.

I returned the squeeze and held onto her hand for my life as I asked the question I was sure I already knew the answer to. "You're that sure of your predictions?"

"I have no doubt that I'm right" answered the horror that stood there wearing the face of my sister.

I gave a silent prayer that Kal had been preparing from the moment she'd caught my reaction. "You may be right" I said as I stalled for time. "But I'm curious as to how you're predicting what Bob, Kalindra and I might do? You've told me several times that you couldn't track any of us through the timelines because of who and what we are. What changed?" I caught the change of expression on Bob's face and tried to catch his eye's to warn him to stay quiet. I was so intent on doing so, that I almost missed Kalindra's squeezing of my shoulder.

What really worried me the worst though was the expression on Penny's face when I'd questioned her ability to predict our actions. "Don't you believe me?" she asked, and the energy sense that comes with being a Mage detected power being restored to selected systems on the flightdeck.

It was all or nothing and I turned to look back at Kalindra as I answered Penny, "No".

I don't ever want to know how close we came to being trapped in that ship for eternity. Just as the stasis fields that protect us during violent movements tried to hold us captive, Kalindra teleported every living thing off the ship and into the middle of the shuttle that was waiting motionless for us to arrive. Then all hell really did break loose.

"Would someone tell me what the hell is going on?" said Dave as he watched us appear. "Kalindra told me to stop and hold here ..."

"That fucking bitch lied to me! I'll take the hammer to ..." yelled Bob in his rage as Kalindra disabled the powerplant and I started building shields around the shuttle. "Jab doesn't have to die in this mess. Damnit, none of us do!"

"I suspect you're right" I yelled as I loaned Kal the energy she needed to teleport the shuttle halfway across the system. "I don't know why, but Penny was lying to keep us here for some reason." And that got everyone else yelling again.

Twice more I helped Kal bounce us around the system at random to try to make sure Penny would not be able to track us. With the shuttle's power off, she would be unable to track it, and the shields I'd erected should be able to keep us hidden. With the power off though, life-support became the next worry and Kalindra set to taking care of that while I grabbed Bob and tried to settle him down.

"That bitch is dead! I'll fucking make sure she was never even created!" he yelled and both of us knew he was capable of doing just that. I managed to catch him just as he started to look around for Jab and got him to hold still long enough to listen to me.

"Not good enough" I yelled as I shook him and ducked the punch he threw at me. "I want to know why she did it! For better or worse, she's family and I want to know why! We're safe for the moment and I need you to help me figure out how we can stop her without killing her!"

"I know just how to stop..." snarled Bob as he tried to break my grip on his arm.

"We are safe, but we are not everyone" came Kalindra's quiet voice that froze us both in our shoes. When I turned and saw the look on her face, I jumped back in shock. "One of her remotes was watching our son when I left to answer your call."

"Oh shit..." I muttered as I watched Kal trying to keep from going bezerk in anger. "Karen..." gasped Bob from behind me, and that just made things worse.

"She couldn't be that insane" I said as I thought of what she could do with the equipment under her control. "If she wanted us dead, she'd just have killed us outright!"

"She can do anything she wants if she gets her hands on our families! If she wants us here, what the hell choice will we have?"

"Families hell! Do you know how many triships are guarding Earth? She's got a lot more than just our families if she wants them..." and the last doubt I'd had about what I needed to do vanished. "Bob, we can't give her time to act. We have to stop her and I mean right now."

"How, if you won't let me just kill her outright?"

"Be removing her from the source of her power over us" I answered. "For all she can control, she still has the same weakness she's always had. Remove her from her support hardware and she's nothing more than a pretty hunk of crystal that glows in the dark." I looked around for Jab, and found him sitting at our feet listening to us. "Nahn, I'm going to need your help."

"In fight with sister?" he asked.

"In the fight with my sister" I confirmed.

"Then if die, will die in fight" and he stepped sideways and merged with Bob. I took just enough time to say good-bye to Kalindra and Lythandi, then slipped out of time as the catbeast stepped through me.

* * *

If I'd tried this on my own, I'd never have made it more than two steps before being frozen in time. As the darkcyl released us in the middle of Penny's vault, I noted with amusement the stasis field that tried to hold us, and failed miserably. Time was a terrible weapon against what we were and I had to wonder why Penny had even tried it. What none of us was ready for though was the voice in our minds.

@Have you come to listen?@ came the voice from the crystal that sat before us.

"Shut the fuck up you bitch!" rumbled the catbeast as we put our fist through the brackets that held the crystal in place. Once more the lights in the Sunbeam went out, and this time they were not going to be coming back on soon...

Chapter Twenty Six

Old Friends and Enemies

The next thirty seconds were a massive struggle for control amongst the three minds that made up the beast. One part wanted at put its fist THROUGH the crystal now that it was harmless, another fought to stop the first, and the third watched to see who would win...

"NO! Damnit, fucked up or not, that's my sister!"

"Your fucking sister is history!"

Only the fact what we were about evenly matched in the strength of our wills prevented Penny from dying right then and there. I only managed to convince Bob to let me have the time I wanted by telling him that his hand could deliver the final blow, if and when we knew for certain what had happened, and knew that Penny deserved it. I wasn't at all sure I'd won anything as the beast stepped sideways and left me standing in the middle of the vault.

The only real light in the room was the pale blue glow of Penny herself as I picked her up from the floor. It took banging my shins twice on cabinets before I even thought about creating a Magelight. When I got a good look at the remains of the systems that had been her interface to my world, I gave Bob credit for having been thorough in his work.

"I'm not going to get those doors open anytime soon" I said as I nodded at the vault doors. "The protections are down though. Do you want to meet me in my cabin or just beat the shit out of the rest of the ship?"

"Don't tempt me" came the rumbling reply.

"You might then see if Jab can jury rig something to get the life support going again. I'll contact Kal and have her bring the shuttle back. The crew would be safer here than sitting out there in that can. Dave and Jab might be able to rig manual controls for some of the more important systems when he gets back." All I got was a nod and the beast dropped through the floor of the vault while I held Penny in my arms and 'ported to my cabin.

I'm not sure why I felt the cabin was safer. Maybe it was because it was my home, not Penny's. In any case the familiar surroundings let me relax just a little as I sat Penny on a cushion in the middle of the floor and tried to get her to talk to me.

@You will have to talk to me sometime@

Nothing, not even a hint of a reply.

@If you don't talk to me, I'll have no choice but to turn you over to Bob and let him play gem cutter@

Still nothing ...

@Damnit answer me! Tell me why!@

Not a single damn word did I get for all the yelling I did. If I wanted answers, I was going to have to ask them in a way she couldn't ignore. *Kal?*

*Yes?* came the answer in the distance.

*I'm going to have to confront her face to face. If you lose contact with me, turn her over to Bob and remember me on my birthday.* She was screaming at me to wait even as I shifted to the energy form that allowed me entry to Penny's universe.

"Good, now we can talk without anyone hearing" came the familiar voice from behind me as I shimmered into existence on the steps of the library I'd grown to know so well.

I guess my upbringing was a little to good. I hauled off to smack her as I spun, and couldn't bring myself to actually hit her. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" I yelled as she looked from my face to the fist I'd made.

"Trying to force you to do the job you were created for."

"And you needed to lie to us to do that? Jesus Christ, the one thing I've always been able to count on is that you'd tell me the truth. I might have to know just what question to ask to get it, but you'd never just straight out lie to me!"

"You were going to leave a world to the enemy. I couldn't let you do that so I used whatever means I had to." She said it with a calm that just made me madder as she stood there and just looked at me.

"Including getting Jab killed for no reason!"

"No, I had a reason. His death would serve to remove Bob from your life and cause you to devote your life to getting revenge. The end justified the means."

I just stood there and shook in rage as I listened to her calmly consign Jab to an ugly and useless death. I didn't want to believe what I was hearing, but I didn't have a lot of choice. Finally I grabbed her by the arms and shook her. "Damnit, how could you do this!"

"Because it was necessary..."

My rage drained out of me and I stood there holding her. "And you don't care who has to die."

"Oh I care, I can't let you die because I need you for my plans to stand a chance of working."

"And everyone else?"

"Expendable" was all she said.

"Even Kalindra?" She didn't say anything and she didn't have to. I saw the answer in her eyes as she continued to stare calmly at me. "You're insane..." and I released as I turned to walk away.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"To hell I expect..." I muttered as I got ready to leave.

"Stay with me."

I stopped and turned back to face her. "Huh?"

"Stay with me here" she said as she waved her arms at our surroundings. "You and I are the only ones who are needed to make things come out right. You have the power and I have the knowledge needed. The two of us can be the strongest force for good this universe has ever seen."

"No thank you" and I turned away again and started walking.

"Don't you think you'd enjoy it here? Everything we need to do, we can do from here. You need never suffer pain or hunger or any of the other problems inherent in your world ever again."

I keep right on walking.

"Brian, if it bothers you, I can make sure you never suffer loneliness either" and her voice changed slightly. "I can be anyone you desire, play any role you want" and the chill that ran up my spine froze me in mid step as I heard her walk up behind me. "Look at me and tell me that you believe life with me would be boring" and she took me by the arm and turned me around.

Standing there naked was the most beautiful women I'd ever seen. The body, the voice, everything was taken straight from every fantasy I'd ever had and given physical form. And the mind that could do that made me want to throw up.

"Or would you rather have Kalindra? I can arrange that too" and she shifted shape to become my mate. "You would never again have to try to explain to others why you find me attractive. It would be just you and me for all eternity, playing out any fantasy you can think of."

I closed my eyes and shook slightly as she rubbed herself up against me. "Or, maybe something in between?" she said with a small laugh. When I opened my eyes I was staring at something that had a roughly human body, but was covered with light fur. "I can be anything you desire" she said as she wrapped her tail around me and purred. "Just stay with me."

God help me, I was tempted. The only thing I think that saved me was the fact that I could still feel my link to Kalindra and yet look at the form trying to seduce my mind and feel nothing but lust. The sense of love and belonging won and with a scream I pulled free and started to run.

"No, you _will_ stay" said the voice from behind me. A voice that had changed completely and that I no longer recognized. "If not by choice then by force. I need your power, but I don't need your mind to guide it. I have a job to do and I intend to do it as I was designed to."

I was in a blind panic as I struggled to free myself from bonds I couldn't even detect. My magic, my strength, nothing seemed to effect whatever was holding me.

"It might have been so much fun the other way. What a waste it ..."


The scream had come from beside me and the moment I heard it my bonds vanished to let me collapse in a heap on the ground. I was trying to get back to my feet when a small hand touched my face and turned it so I could look back.

It was someone I hadn't seen in years and have never expected to see again. It was Penny, as the little four year old girl she'd first shown herself to me as so many years ago, and she was crying.

"I'm sorry, I thought I could control it" was all she said to me before kissing me on the forehead and telling me to "Run". Then she stood to face the nightmare that had taken her form and tried to defend my back as I started running for my life.

I didn't look back. I didn't need to. What I heard told me what I needed to know. The screams of rage and pain as they fought each other are something I'll carry with me the rest of my life. I'll never know though what they were saying because while I've heard Penny talk about the language they used, I've never learned to speak it. I might well never get the chance either because the last thing I heard as I leapt through the interface to the outside world was the scream of a small girl that rattled me to my soul.

* * *

"What the hell is going on in there?"

I came to in Kalindra's arms, with Bob leaning over me and yelling at the top of his lungs. One look at Penny's crystal showed me why he was yelling. The normal blue glow was almost completely gone, and was replaced by a hellish red that pulsed like an angry coal.

"A battle to the death" I told Bob as he stared at me in puzzlement, "and Penny's loosing it."

"Loosing? Who the hell is she fighting, and why the hell should I care?"

"The Guardian..." and I got to my feet to search for my staff, "and you should care because she did and I still do". Grabbing my staff I ran for the doorway and forced it open wider. "Bob, find Jab and get ready to travel. We haven't got a lot of time even as you know it."

"Travel? Where the hell are we going? How can she be fighting the Guardian, we killed it!"

"Not where, when" I told him as I leaned out the door and yelled for Jab to come running. "We need to go back to November 20th, 1993. That was the day Penny started a private war." I rubbed the spot on my forehead where she'd kissed me and tried to sort through the memories she had passed to me in that moment.

Bob was still standing there when Jab ran through the door and skidded to a halt at his feet. "Bob, that wasn't Penny who lied to us, now MOVE!" I guess his trust outweighed his anger, because before I had time to say good-bye to Kalindra, we were off and running again...

Chapter Twenty Seven

Omega and Alpha

My idea had been so simple, there should have been no way it could have failed. Jab offered to shoot me several times when we'd learned just how wrong I could be.

Penny was under attack by the Guardian she had attempted to suck dry during our second and last battle with it. Somehow, and I was sure I didn't know everything, she had retrieved a lot more than its memory banks. Given her comment to me, I was also sure she didn't know it at the time, but found out the hard way when it had manifested itself within her. She must have believed she could control it, but found out she was wrong when she'd been made a prisoner within her own mind. Without our knowing just when it had happened we'd been manipulated towards becoming galactic cops by the millennia old cybernetic life form that was now killing Penny. It didn't look like my brilliant idea was going to do squat to stop it either.

What I'd hoped to do was travel back in time to the point where Penny had been draining the memory banks of the Guardian. Sometime during that battle, the Guardian had to have made itself part of the data stream she got. I'd planned on destroying the link before that happened. Destroying it had been the first problem...

"Shoot the damn thing!" I thought to myself. "With what?" I answered, "we no have gun." "What the hell is this thing then?" and I started to reach for the holster the catbeast always seemed to be wearing when ever it formed. My hand barely moved before it froze in place.

"Christ! Are you trying to destroy everything? You can't use that gun to..." and I'd been informed that I wasn't to touch the gun under ANY circumstances. "Ok, then we fry the thing with magic" and that idea turned out to be just as fucked as the first one. Meenzals are somehow resistant to being effected by magic. I've never been able to figure out why, but the protection also works to fuck up magic being used by Mage's who are part Meenzal at the moment. Every spell I tried while I was part of the catbeast, fizzled and died. Given the radiation storms present inside the central core of the Guardian I would have died within moments of separating to allow normal my use of my magic. We'd finally had to just sync with the time stream for a second and put our fist through the damn wall where the link had been installed. That had shown us the problem that none of us could figure an answer to.

Every time we destroyed the link, we then ran forward along the threads of time to check the results. The results sucked big time. No matter when we destroyed the link, either Penny still died at the hands of the Guardian, or we all died because she didn't have the knowledge from the Guardian to save us during the battles with the Maal or the Zulm. We could delay things slightly, but not prevent them.

"The fucking thing must have been the first thing up the link when Penny activated it" I muttered to myself as I watched Kalindra carry me out of the core for the N'th time. I'd lived through that experience, but standing out of phase on that catwalk and watching Kalindra throw my sorry ass over her shoulder and fight her way out still effected me every time we watched it. "Remind me to be nice to her when we see her again" thought the Bob part of our mind. "That lady might be a pain in the ass at times, but I'm damn glad she's around."

"What do we do now?" I thought as we phased through the hull of the Guardian and drifted slowly away from it. Just as I kept being fascinated by Kalindra's actions, Bob kept watching our final assault on the Guardian as our ship came boiling out of the solar chromosphere below with a blackhole trailing us.

"Not know, but maybe we not thinking about problem right. If can't stop Guardian, maybe help Penny fight it off?" injected Jab.

"Maybe, but I'm not sure how. I know very little about what she really is and even less about how the Guardian is attacking her."

"Then we need information and you know the date, so let's have it." I thought about it for a moment and let Bob pick the date from my mind as I remembered the night Penny had entered my life.

"Ok, next stop October 30th, 1980..."

* * *

I could barely stand to watch myself as I sat in that long forgotten room and alternately drank myself senseless and argued with the pile of computer parts I'd been using to build a robot.

"And this was how you spend your birthday?" asked Bob as he watched me frying both my brain and another circuit board...

"God Damn piece of shit!" and I pulled the board from the connector and threw it across the room to shatter against the wall. I turned to grab the soldering iron behind me and managed to brush my hand against the tip. When I yelled that time, my grandfather hollered up the stairs to see if I was all right.

"Yeah, I'm fine" I yelled back as I sucked on the back of the knuckle I'd scorched. "I've never been better" I mumbled to myself as I grabbed another beer from my fridge and sat back in my chair to stare at the ruined mess in front of me...

"Mage no sound better" said Jab as the three of us watched me sitting there. "I wasn't" I answered him as I remembered how I'd felt that night. "This is the part we want to watch though" and all three of us began to watch as I snarled a curse and shut the power off to my workbench.

Weaving more than a little, we watched as I walked over to what looked to be a blank wall and began to trace a pattern with my finger. "Fucking piece of shit with either work, or I'll fry it to cinders" I muttered as I repeated the pattern until I got it right. When a section of the wall went transparent, I reached in and pulled a book from the niche that appeared, then stumbled back over to my chair.

"That was my book of spells that I'd created. I still wasn't real good at memorizing things at this point in my training with Kimi" I told myself as I watched myself set wards around the room and then start thumbing through the book. "The spell I'd learned to animate objects wasn't designed to do what I had in mind that night either. Try to watch the surroundings, I'm going to see what I did wrong when I cast the spell" and the catbeast phased a little closer to normal time.

I knew that spell well now and I listened to myself stumble over the thing so badly that it should have been useless. What I saw instead was an energy glow that surrounded both myself and the sorry excuse for a robot I'd been working on. Maybe the spell itself meant less than the intention of the caster. I knew I put everything I had into that spell that night, I'd put a good portion of myself into it also. It wasn't until the glow died away and I watched myself pass out that the rest of me coughed to get my attention.

"Why Mage cry?"

"It's a long story Jab" I answered. "Did you two notice anything?" My answer was to see time freeze and reverse for a few moments.

"Watch the upper part of the wall there just as you finish the spell."

Time began to slide forward again and I saw what they'd seen happen. Right at the peak of the spell, a small glow appeared on the wall, and resolved itself into a tiny sphere of light. About the same time I was passing out and the energy discharge from the spell was fading, the sphere zipped over to envelope me for a few seconds, then hover above the robot for a moment before it merged with it. Like a VCR, we ran time forward and backward to replay that event.

"Was that suppose to happen?"

"No, but it does seem to answer a question. It would seem that I didn't create Penny after all." With a glance at my sleeping form to verify that I really was out cold, the catbeast phased into real-time and leaned over to peer into the mass of electronics. I might not be able to cast spells, but we could still sense the energy within the collection of parts, even while we held the power cables in one hand and the battery in the other.

"No, I didn't create Penny, I created a home for something that grew to become her."

"So we can't alter her creation to make her better prepared for what will come?"

"I doubt it" I answered myself as we turned to look at me laying in the chair behind us.

"Then is hopeless..."

"No, maybe not. I've got an idea that may work if we have the time."

"We have all the time we need dude..."

I looked that the collection of parts mounted on the motorized platform that would one day soon begin following me around of its own accord and grinned as I saw one of the LED's on the front panel flicker dimly. "What was once made can be remade given the knowledge. Take us home James" and my younger self gave a single sneeze in reply as the cylinder of time swept us homeward.

Chapter Twenty Seven

Moving Day

The trip homeward wasn't direct. Still moving around in both space and time, we made several stops along the way. Stops that made little sense to Jab or Bob, but put in motion subtle changes that would setup the conditions I hoped would keep Penny alive. At the moment, we were out of phase and watching the Brian of a few months ago singing the final song that formed the hull of the Sunbeam II.

"Mage still sound terrible" came the internal snicker from Jab as the final note died out and Brian-then collapsed onto the floor exhausted.

"When you can do what I do, you can complain about how I sound when I do it. Until then, shut up, or I'll take you to a Vet and have you fixed."

"Fixed? Jab not broken, why need Vet?" Bob was laughing himself silly as we all watched Brian-then get to his feet and haul the case that contained Penny out of the construction bay. The moment the door opened, we went into action.

We had about 5 minutes as I re-called before I'd installed Penny back in her container in the main lab. Until then, the entire security system was off-line and I could _appear_ in the bay that held the slowly cooling hull without being seen. "Now, and pick me up quick when I signal!" A second later I stood within a few feet of the still white hot hull and shielded myself from the heat even as I lit up the spell I'd designed on our way here.

I took several minutes before the spell kicked in and I held a small ball of coherent energy in my hand. Moving as fast as I could, I stepped to the nose of the ship and released the energy ball against the hull. Nobody who didn't know exactly what to look for would ever detect the change that took place. At the sub-atomic level the entire mass shifted its makeup slightly, and became more crystalline than before. It would have no effect on the integrity of the hull, in fact, it might be stronger than before. What it definitely did though was prepare the hull for what was to come.

The moment I was sure the change had 'taken', I signaled the catbeast who gathered me up and then shifted out of phase again. We'd timed it just right. About 10 seconds later the security cameras came back on-line. "That should do it, let's get home."

"What the hell are you up to?" we asked ourselves.

"Rolling the dice for Penny's existence" we answered as we shifted up-time and homeward. We cut it close enough that everyone was still looking at the spot we'd been standing in as we left, when we blinked back into the here and now. The moment we separated I started yelling.

"Kalindra, get everyone into a shuttle and off the ship as fast as you can!" Reaching over, I grabbed something from under our sleeping cushion, then scooped Penny into my arms and headed for the airlock.

"You didn't succeed?" she yelled at my back as she shoved everyone down the corridor towards the lower deck.

"No, but I've got one last idea!" I yelled back as my environment field sprang up around me. "If this doesn't work, it's all over..." and I stepped into the airlock. Even shielded I could hear the guardian calling to me, trying to temp me into joining it in its mission, a mission that was so old even it had lost count of the years. All I had to do was hand it my mind, which it promised to keep entertained for eternity, while it used my power to destroy anything it deemed unsuitable.

As I floated along the upper surface of the hull, I spotted the shuttle peeling away from under the port wing. Whatever happened as a result of my next action, I wanted them far enough away to stand a chance if things went badly. The moment I consciously thought about the chance I was about to take, I felt Kal have a fit in the distance. Before she had a chance to do anything about it, I sat down on the hull in a spot that I'd sat in once before. Resting Penny's crystal against the hull, I drew the hammer I'd pulled from under the bed, sighted once to line up a vertice, and let fly with everything I had.

The first blow skittered sideways and the hammer slammed into the hull. The guardian went absolutely nuts. Even as I lined up the hammer for a second shot, the crystal flared to life and I felt the guardian devote its entire being to trying to stop me.

The Sunbeam itself was still blacked out. We hadn't been gone long enough for Dave to rig emergency power for lights. The shuttle was to far away to be anything but a slightly brighter than normal star. The only light available was the dim glow of my shield and the increasing brightness of the crystal before me. A brightness that reflected from the mirror finish of the Sunbeam and painted a scene straight out of hell with its hideous red glare and flickering shadows. A scene that vanished forever when my second blow struck truly, and shattered my sister into a million twinkling shards.

I had no idea what to expect at this point. Both the garish brilliance and the screams of rage in my mind had died with my second and final blow. Between my slowly growing panic and the after images that still floated in my returning vision, I almost missed seeing the small blue firefly that had started to drift off into open space.

"Oh no you don't" I yelled as I tried to cup it in my hands. "If you leave now, I'll only have Kalindra to pick on!" It sounded lame even to my ears, but it's a quirk of my personality that I deal with pain by ignoring it or by trying to be funny. Watching the light recede into the distance, I scrambled to pull it back and found it was like trying to hold water. I'd cup my hands around what I hoped was Penny, only to have it pass through my fingers like they didn't exist. We'd drifted about 20 yards from the ship when I finally managed to catch it by using my energy sense to construct a cage around it.

%Penny, I don't know if you can hear me, or if you'd understand me even if you could. I'd don't know what you really are, or where you came from. If you want stick around a little longer and help Kal keep my life interesting, I think I know a way.%


I had no idea whether I was going to be restoring my sister, or an insane horror from an age filled with hate and absolutes. If I was lucky, so be it. If not, well, I'd deal with it when it happened. Setting the restraining cage down on the hull, I got settled myself and brought the spell I'd heard myself cast to the front of my mind. Then I started to sing, and I hoped at least one other person was listening.

With everything I had learned over the years, I had a fairly good understanding of just what it was I'd done on my birthday so long ago. The spell itself was on vaguely related to creation. Most of it was instead a summoning of anything that would create the desired result. Since I wasn't drunk this time, I felt the response from the tiny mote nearby as the spell completed and the hull beneath me began to vibrate lightly in anticipation. There was only one way to know whether it had worked, so I desolved the cage and waited. The moment the cage was out of the way, the mote sank into the hull and vanished with a few ripples of light.

As before, I was sitting just over the top center of the forward port. Bending over, I looked inside in the hope that I'd see the ship coming back to life. It was as black inside as before.

Something had happened, but with the realization that I may have done the guardians dirty work for it, I stood up and started drifting across the hull towards the airlock. Crying in zero gee is a bitch and I had to blink more than a few times to clear my eyes so I could even see the lock. *You can bring the shuttle back Kal. One way or the other I think things are finished here.*

*And Penny?*

I laid my hand against the now quiescent hull. *She's either gone, or in the same state I first found her in. I might have been too late to save her and her memories.*

*And the guardian?*

*It was a construct of Penny's computer based origin. It died when the physical construct did. I'm going to be in our cabin. Please have Dave and 931 try to get some of the basic systems back...* and I let it fade in mid thought as I stepped across the threshold of the airlock and into the ship. I was so wrapped up in my memories, that I missed what would have been a real familiar feeling under normal conditions. I also missed seeing the faint blue barrier across the hatch that was obscured by the environment field I hadn't dropped yet.

* * *

I'd been sitting in the dark of our cabin for about an hour when the lights finally came back on. I'd heard the shuttle return and felt the faint shudder of the ship as it docked in its bay earlier. I just assumed that Dave had gotten things jury-rigged until I felt a wash of astonishment from Kal.

*Brian, would you please join us on the flightdeck for a moment.*

I wasn't feeling real sociable, but I was curious to see what was going on. I assumed it had something to do with either the Klykmt or the Pell, and froze in my tracks when I heard the argument taking place on the flightdeck when the cabin door opened.

"...incompitent asshole! What the hell did you think you were doing by screwing with the flow regulator?"

"I was trying to re-start the secondary reactor!"

"You were trying to blow us clear across the system, you idiot!"

The second voice had been Dave's, and I wasn't sure I believed who the first voice sounded like. It had gotten a little garbled when I had broken into a sprint towards the flightdeck. "Penny!" I ran right over the top of Naldantis, who had had the bad luck to be standing in the hatchway I needed to pass through. When I skidded to a stop I found myself in standing inside a circle of friends that had surrounded the source of the yelling.

She was older, but there wasn't any mistaking who she was as she glared at me. The same red hair, although it was tied back in a quick ponytail at the moment. The same face and figure, though I'd have put her age somewhere in the mid twenties as she stepped towards me with her fists clenched. The same voice, as she started yelling as she walked. The only thing that was really different was the force behind the punch she threw as she broke my nose.

"You fucking son of a bitch! You could have killed me!"

Bleeding like a stuck pig, I stumbled backwards two steps and fell flat on my ass as Naldantis and Lythandi stepped out of my way. I wasn't sure whether to laugh, cry or both. What I settled for was sitting there in the middle of the flightdeck bleeding, while Penny recited my family history, beginning with the slime mold that had been to damn stupid to go back into the sea.

I was still wondering how she'd managed to hit me, a question most of the people chuckling at her tirade by now were wondering also, when my idiot forebrain woke up and reminded me of the fleeting feeling I'd had in the airlock.

"Is the entire ship your _universe_ now?" I asked as she had to pause between breaths.

"Amazing, it manages to think every once in awhile" she replied with a grin. "Yes, the hull now defines the boundaries of my world the same as the crystal did."

"And we..."

"Entered my world when you stepped inside."

Every person present started edging for the doorway at the same time. Everyone that is except Bob and Jab, both of them jumped towards her rather than away. Bob made it to her first since Jab was trying to enlarge himself and run at the same time. I was trying to get to me feet to grab him when he hauled off and showed her how to break a nose the fast way.

"You God Damned Bitch! You'd have killed Jab!" In a flying leap, I tackled Bob from behind and pulled him off of her, but Jab stepped over her as she lay on the floor and pinned her arm to the floor with his paw.

"You solid now, you feel pain now. You learn what it like to hurt so bad you wish to die" and with those damned claws of his he snipped the little finger of the hand he had pinned off with a single <snick>. Bob and I were still fighting, but we both froze at the sound of her scream.

"I'd like an index finger to ..." and I broke both a couple of Bob's teeth and my hand in the process of shutting him up. It worked, I'd distracted him from Penny, and now I was in real trouble. For all the power I could wield, I was still little more than an amateur at hand to hand combat. Bob though had been in a hell of a lot more trouble in his life than I'd ever dreamed about and having redirected his anger my direction, I now paid the price for doing so. I was getting my ass soundly beat to a pulp when Kalindra grabbed us both by the neck and separated us with a snarl.

Bob was trying to get out of her grasp to get at either me or Penny. I was trying to swing around and look at Penny to see what had happened during the fight. I know I'd heard her scream at least twice more while Bob had been trying to kick the shit out of me. When I got turned around, I found Jab still standing over her and the growing puddle of blood near her hand, and Dave holding a railgun to his head with murder in his eye.

"The next <snick> will be followed by a loud <pop> asshole. Now back away or I decorate the wall in fur."

Jab looked down at Penny where she lay moaning beneath him, then at the railgun. "This not over yet" he snarled, but he did back away. In seconds Naldantis was hovering over her and trying to stop the bleeding.

"You're damned right this isn't over yet" muttered Bob.

"You'll have to go through me to get to her" I yelled as I tried to kick him in the kneecap. Kal shook both of us to quiet us down and told Lythandi to help Naldantis get Penny to the sickbay.

"I'll be along in a moment to help with the healing. First though I have to keep these two idiots from killing each other." She shook each of us again and forced us to the floor. We might have been pissed, but the claws tickling our jugulars were convincing as all hell.

"I am ashamed to call you family" she told Bob after glaring at me. "You have heard that it was not Penny who deceived you, yet you attempt to kill her anyway."

"Sez Brian. How do you know he didn't get taken over while he was inside fighting with Penny. Hell, he may be part of the guardian himself!"

"The day I have proof of that, I will kill him with my own hands" and she squeezed my neck slightly. "Until that day though, I expect both him and you to behave."

"Kal?" I wheezed with a slight gurgle. "We can't stay around here to settle this. If we're going to fight amongst ourselves, we at least need to do it where the Klykmt can't interrupt us." She thought about it for a moment, then nodded to herself as she made her decision. Releasing me, she proceeded to drag Bob to the far side of the flightdeck and sit him in one of the chairs.

"You," she said looking at me, "get a Gate opened to take us home. Dave, if either Bob or Jab takes a step towards the other, shoot both of them at least twice." Dave gave a grim nod and backed away to a point where he could keep an eye on both of them.

It took me almost an hour to get the Gate opened. I hurt like hell from the fight with Bob and my right eye was swollen shut. When I finally got the damn thing open, and turned around to ask Kal how she expected to move the ship through it, I found Lythandi had joined Dave in guarding us. I assumed I was now included on the shit list since her railgun ended up pointing at me every once in a while. Jab, Bob and I just sat there and felt like shit until both Penny and Kal stepped through the hatchway and gave us all a look that reeked of disgust.

"I was able to save the fingers" said Nal as he stepped through the hatch behind them. "Be thankful at least that Jab's claws are razor sharp. There was little tissue damage to repair."

"You have the Gate open?"

"Yeah, at the edge of the system to avoid detection."

Kal nodded at Penny, and every console on the flightdeck came to life at the same time. Before it had even registered completely, we were through, and headed inwards.

"Close it" was all Kal said, and I did as I was told.

"Where are we..."

"You will stay silent unless spoken to!" I blinked twice and tried to figure out how I'd ended up on the wrong end of this confrontation. It took a couple of hours before K1 came into view through the port. Whatever had been decided though, Bob was in as much if not more trouble then I was. When he tried to move towards the hatch to leave, both Dave and Lythandi's guns had told him to stay put. The only two people to step off the ship where Penny and Kal.

They came back about an hour later with Karen in tow, and when Bob saw the look on her face his expression said he knew the shit was only beginning. Karen started to say something a couple of times, but in the end she just told Bob to get his ass moving and stalked off the ship in a royal rage. After he'd followed her off the ship, Dave escorted Jab off after Kal had warned him, "You may play games with time, but if you do anything to hurt Penny, I will track you through eternity and back for revenge. Tell Bob this as well." The moment Jab cleared the lock, the Sunbeam swung on its axis and began to sprint for open space.

"Thank god that's over. Now we can..." <crack> and I grabbed my cheek and yelled.

"If you ever risk everything like that again without letting me know what's going on, I will make you wish you had never been born!" I just sat there in shock as she turned to address the rest of the crew.

"You have two possibilities to choose from. At this point, we will not be doing any further exploration in the near future. Penny is willing to drop any and all of you at your home worlds, or the world of your choice if you wish to continue the work we have started."

"What of you and Brian?" asked Dave.

"We will be going home to straighten out problems there, and at some point will try to find a way to help the Pell and deal with the Klykmt. I have no idea how long that will take."

The split didn't end up the way I'd expected, though it made rough sense looking back on it. Everyone except 931 had been through the wars with both the Zulm and the Maal, and were tired in ways that only time could heal. Without exception, they all opted to be dropped back home. 931 though opted to stick around with Kal and I to see what would turn up. I guess the adventure hadn't worn off yet for him.

To keep in touch, Kalindra outfitted one of the shuttles with some gear she and Penny threw together, and Cali, Gregor and Dave were told good-luck and good-bye. The shuttle would remain hidden in orbit after dropping them home and would only respond to a call from the three of them together. Marlanda and Naldantis were given the private call code for our home and told that the family owed them a debt of honor. It was their choice as to how that debt would be paid.

It had been less than two years since Bob and I had been thrown together by Penny. A lot had happened in that time, and a lot more would happen in the future. The stories of the family nas Kan and its adventures were far from over, though I'd have bet otherwise as I stood in the meadow next to the stone arch that had first brought me to Velar.

Looking up into the night sky, I watched the quickly moving star that had joined the lights in the heavens above, and wondered if Penny had forgiven me yet. With a shake of my head, I turned and started down the path that would take me back to where Kal and Lythandi were waiting. No, the adventure was far from over...

Chapter Twenty Nine

The Epilog of time

"You'd better have a good explanation of all of this..." said Karen to me. We watched the Sunbeam speed starward and then disappear.

"Shut up, Karen." I said. "You have no fucking idea." I looked at my cat. "What do you think of this?" I asked him.

"Some things better left alone. ...Maybe" He replied. Our eyes locked with one another, and in that instant we knew what each other felt. We'd been ripped off, but that's the way life was. Nobody gets a break. Penny, or what she had been for a while, wasn't now, or maybe would be again was a thing gone. No remotes were active on K1. Those which remained were merely technological trinkets on the floor, without power, without connection to that which had been our friend, and later our greatest enemy.

"Brian take with him the Penny thing" said Jab.

"I know, cat. Everyone has the right to be an asshole. I hope for his sake that his instincts are true... but I don't think they are. No matter what, no matter why, she tried to kill you --and maybe me too. And I won't forget or forgive that."

My cat nodded in agreement., then looked at me with the wry expression that said he was thinking what I was. We stepped together to make the beast, but only bumped into one another. "I guess it's over, cat breath." I told him.

"Never done." he said. I looked at him questioningly, and he just smiled. From beneath his fur he pulled a small device. "You press button?" he asked.

When I did, a light appeared in the direction the Sunbeam had left. It grew like a newborn sun and then faded away. On earth, those who believed they had an idea of how the universe worked would record that a stellar event had come and gone.

It had a different effect on me --and those with me on the asteroid that had been built to our specification. "Did we make a mistake here?" I asked Jab.

He was too busy trying to understand the deck plates which were dematerializing beneath us to reply.