Illegally Born

Chapter 16: Firestorm

Ensign Jessel waited until all of the Jellicles had settled down to their meals and she was certain their attention was off of her before rising from her place at the table. "I'll be right back," she told Mistoffelees softly. He gave her a quizzical glance but nodded and continued eating his lunch. She wished he hadn't picked a table in the back of the room, since now she had to cross its length and she didn't want to be noticed.

Fortunately, it seemed she hadn't been as she exited the mess hall. She turned left first and tapped in a code on the elevator to keep it locked and prevent the car from stopping at the Jellicles' quarters. Then she turned and headed into the sleeping room. She'd need her list in her PDA to make certain that all of the Jellicles were accounted for and she decided she'd prefer to seal the crawlway hatch in the sleeping room without the Jellicles seeing her do it.

She'd just slipped the false wall cover off the hatch at the far end of the lockers when a voice asked roughly, "What are you doing?"

The door hissed closed behind Munkustrap as Jessel looked up. "Good, we can talk about this privately," she told him, drawing all her authority into her voice. "I'm sealing all the entrances to this area, so that no one can get in. Captain's orders."

"Why?" demanded the silver tabby, padding up close beside her.

"The Firestorm will rendezvous with us in a couple of hours. We aren't sure what they are going to do. The captain wants to take all possible precautions to protect you."

"I thought the captain said the orders had changed," snarled Munkustrap.

"No," replied Jessel, shaking her head, "the captain said OUR orders had changed. The Firestorm is refusing to talk to us. We can't confirm that they received the change of orders. They should have, but we have to assume that they haven't."

"And what good will locking the doors do?" spat Munkustrap.

Jessel stepped closer to him and drew herself up to her full height, meeting his eyes with a commanding glare despite the disadvantage of having to look up at the tall tom. "Probably none. But every little thing can add up in this kind of a situation and we are going to do everything possible to keep you safe."

Munkustrap took a deep breath and seemed to deflate slightly. "I apologize," he said graciously, suddenly very certain he'd underestimated the danger the humans on this ship were facing to protect the Jellicles.

Jessel nodded, "It's all right, Munkustrap. Everyone's a little tense right now." Jessel turned back to the access hatch and began to push on the manual locking levers. Each of the cargo bays had a hatch and she'd have to seal all four similarly. "Did you notice anyone missing at lunch?" she asked as she worked, knowing that Munkustrap kept tabs on the comings and goings of all the cats.

"No, all were there."

"Good, I don't want to have to go looking for anyone." She pushed down the last of the four levers and then wiped her hands together to rub away the sting of the pressure she'd had to exert on it. Looking back at the Jellicle leader, she said, "We need to get everyone in here, right after lunch and I'll lock this door, too."

"I'll arrange it," replied the silver tabby, soberly.

Jessel replaced the false wall piece and faced him. She laid a sympathetic hand on his arm and said quietly, "These are just precautions, Munkustrap. They should have gotten the change in orders. We just have to be sure."

Munkustrap nodded and then left the room. Jessel locked the access hatches in the rooms the Jellicles had been using to practice and study in and then returned to the now-empty mess hall to lock the hatch there. All of the tables had been cleared, including Jessel's tray, so, whatever Munkustrap had told them, the Jellicles had made an orderly retreat to the sleeping room.

Re-entering the sleeping room, the small security officer noted that everyone seemed in good spirits. A bright colored ball bounced in front of her and she caught it, quickly throwing it back to the brown-and-cream colored kitten who'd been chasing it. "Here you go, Paris," she laughed.

The six year old kitten caught the ball easily and ducked his head shyly. His brother Hector called, "Thanks," and waved to her, as their mother, Cassandra, laughingly called them to come and settle for their naps.

Jessel plopped down on to the bunk she shared with Mistoffelees. The black and white tom was already reclining there, preparing for his nap, and he smiled at her as she reached across him to the cubby for her PDA. Scooting to the edge of the bed, she quickly flipped open the tiny computer, and called up the list of Jellicles, checking off names to make sure everyone was present.

"What are you doing?" asked Mistoffelees, curling around her to peer at the tiny screen. Before she could answer, his ears perked up and he said, "Hey, there's my name!", pointing to it on the list.

Jessel grinned at the wonderment in his voice. "Help me make sure everyone is here and later you can see how many other names you can pick out."

The black and white tom rolled his eyes at his mate. He was learning to read faster than any of the other adults, but, with only a few days practice at it, he was still struggling with even the simplest words. He'd been completely confused when his mate had insisted he sound out what looked like a horrendously long word, but he'd done it to please her and had been delighted when he realized the word was his own name. "We're all here. If we weren't, Munkustrap would be having a fit. He said we are all suppose to stay in the sleeping room for now." He brushed his face against Jessel's arm and then looked up at her with a question in his blue eyes. "I wasn't sure if that included you."

"I'm assigned here," she reassured him, craning her neck to catch sight of both of Griddlebone's toddlers. "But I'm responsible to the captain to make sure everyone is here now."

He ran his hand down her back and suggested, "Then you can show me some more reading."

She sighed. "I can't Mistoffelees. I have a job to do." She finished checking off her list and checked the time before turning to meet his quizzical gaze. She brushed his cheek with her fingers and stared deeply into his eyes. "Everything is going to be all right. Ok?"

His expression became more bewildered, but he nodded. Jessel rose and looked around; none of the cats looked the least bit sleepy. She had hoped that she might escape notice when she put on her riot gear. A vain hope, she knew, and completely impossible now. She was under orders and it was time.

She stopped and locked the cargo bay door before proceeding to her locker, keeping an ear out for the Jellicles' reactions. Surprisingly, locking the door didn't seem to bother them. 'That will change,' thought Jessel as she tapped in the combination to the locker door. The first thing she reached for was the blaster that she had carefully wrapped in her riot vest to keep the Jellicles from seeing it. The murmur of happy voices behind her died into silence as she slipped the holster onto her belt and fastened the holster strap around her thigh. The click of toeclaws on the metal floor sounded behind her but stopped as she unlimbered the large hand weapon and checked it's charge. Jessel returned her weapon to it's holster and fastened it closed.

"What is that?" hissed Munkustrap's voice from behind her.

"It's a blaster," replied the small security officer, without turning around. Shrugging into her protective vest she told him, "Lieutenant's orders, all security personnel in riot gear with weapons at the ready."

"It's bigger than the stunners," said Munkustrap, tension audible in his voice. "It's for killing, isn't it?"

Grabbing her helmet, Jessel turned towards the Jellicle leader. "Yes, it is," she replied, taking rather longer than she needed to adjusting the helmet's straps, using that as an excuse to keep her hands busy and away from the weapon.

"Killing who?" asked Tugger. The blond Jellicle stepped forward, a question in his hazel eyes.

"You didn't tell them?" Jessel asked Munkustrap quietly, and every Jellicle in the room tensed.

"I didn't know that I needed to," hissed Munkustrap, ears flattening as his tail did a sudden one-two snap from side to side.

Too late, Jessel realized her mistake. She should have told Munkustrap about the riot gear and the blaster.

"Tell us what?" demanded Demeter, stepping forward, ears half back.

Munkustrap nodded to Jessel in a manner that she took to mean she should explain. "This ship is about to meet up with the Firestorm. We can't confirm that they got the change in orders so we have to act as though they haven't until we know that they have."

Confusion showed on many faces, including Demeter's. Swallowing hard, the multi-colored queen asked, "You mean that they may still try to kill us, even though they aren't supposed to?"

Jessel sighed, "It isn't likely but it is a possibility, and one that we have to be prepared for. I didn't tell you sooner because there wasn't anything you could have done about it."

"You should have told us anyway," growled Tugger, with a hard look for Munkustrap.

"I didn't tell Munkustrap, either, until a few minutes ago, Tugger." Making contact with as many eyes as she could, Jessel said, "I apologize, I should have told you sooner. I just didn't want to worry you more than was absolutely necessary."

"Tell us the truth now, then," growled Munkustrap. "Are we going to be killed?"

Charged with telling the truth, Jessel felt she couldn't even soften it much. "If the Firestorm hasn't received their orders, then probably; though we are doing everything we can to prevent that. They should have received their orders. There shouldn't be a problem. We just have to take every possible precaution to be sure."

"You'd actually kill your own to protect us?" asked Tantomile, fearfully. She had picked up her daughter, Viva, and her son was holding tightly to his mother's leg.

"Yes, I would," responded Jessel, with conviction, "to protect any of you."

The Jellicles looked at each other for a long moment, seemingly unsure of what to make of that affirmation. With both pain and determination in her voice, Demeter asked, "What do we do if they come?"

Jessel shrugged. "Put the kittens under the bottom bunks to protect them as long as possible. Keep out of my line of fire and fight as best you can."

"How will we know if they're coming?" asked Pouncival.

"Oh, you'll know. You'll hear them," replied Jessel, trying to think of something specific for them to listen for so that their imaginations wouldn't run away with their fears. "Can you hear the engines?"

"I can," replied Rumpelteazer, "They make that thrumming sound. It's louder now than it's been in days."

Jessel smiled at her slightly, "That's because we're moving faster now. The Firestorm can't send anyone aboard this ship unless we slow down. They may try to force us to slow but as long as the engines sound as loud as they are now, they can't come on board. Even if the engines went completely silent, it would still take some time before the ship slowed enough to be boarded."

"So we wait," said Munkustrap. "I think we should try to rest. If we have to fight, we will do better if we have rested."

"What about Mungojerrie?" asked Rumpelteazer, then, with a glance at Victoria, added, "and Macavity?"

"The brig is one of the most protected places on the ship, Rumpelteazer," Jessel responded, trying to be comforting. "Mungojerrie and Macavity are at least as safe there as you are here."

Munkustrap put his arms around his mate and pulled her towards their bunk and their sleeping kittens. "I am going to rest, I suggest the rest of you do the same."

The rest of the Jellicles drifted towards their bunks; most comforting each other, some still glancing back at Jessel suspiciously. Jessel crossed over to the door and sat down on the floor under the control panel, pulling her knees up in front of her, her back to the wall.

Mistoffelees padded over and sat down beside his mate. Softly, he said, "You could have told me."

"I didn't want to worry you," she murmured back.

He nodded and reached out his hand for her, but then withdrew it, hesitantly. Jessel smiled and held out her hand, which he took and rubbed his face against, once. Then he shifted slightly until he was leaning lightly against her shoulder and they sat silently together, drawing strength from the contact.

*********************

Capt. Darren sat in her place at the center of the bridge performing one of her hardest duties; waiting. The Firestorm, the latest of Earth's warships, had arrived within firing range of the Starbright twenty minutes earlier. They had refused to acknowledge any of Capt. Darren's hails, maintaining an intercept course with the cargo ship. Although Darren had received the order to take the Jellicles to Mars several hours earlier, she had no way of confirming that the Firestorm had also received those orders. It was quite possible that they hadn't. Even if they had, genetic engineering was so unpopular in these times that Capt. Pratchett might well feel he'd be doing the universe a favor by ignoring the change and carrying out the extermination order.

The captain motioned to the communications officer behind her. "Hail them again," she ordered, waiting impatiently as the woman did so.

"No response, Captain," answered Lt. (jg) Region finally, in a clipped voice that told the captain how much stress the young woman was under. Not that Darren needed any more confirmation of that. Every station on the bridge was filled with anxious officers. Even the usually-empty auxiliary stations had been occupied by whatever officer had the rank to commandeer the station and didn't have duties elsewhere.

Ensign Mickelvy occupied the bridge's security station; Lt. Sentry preferred to take up a station near the one unoccupied docking hatch in case the Firestorm attempted a boarding. Captain Darren silently prayed that that wouldn't be the case, as the Firestorm's troops would undoubtedly be too much for the Starbright's security forces.

"The Firestorm is hailing us," announced Region, in what amounted to a surprised yip.

"On screen," ordered the Captain as she swiveled her chair away from the holographic starfield at the front of the bridge to the communications screen that took up the left wall. Capt. Pratchett's rough, chiseled features and dark eyes carved themselves into the screen. Without waiting for a greeting he snapped, "Allisande Darren, you stand accused of Mutiny. Prepare your ship to be boarded and your command to be turned over to my first officer."

"No," barked Capt. Darren, coming to her feet.

"Are you refusing Earth Command's orders?" demanded Capt. Pratchett, bushy eyebrows closing together like tectonic plates.

"No, just yours," snapped Capt. Darren. "My orders are to return to Mars with all due speed, and, as your Navigation officer can undoubtedly confirm for you, we are complying with those orders."

Pratchett's face took on an even stonier appearance. "I'm not accustomed to seeing someone accused of Mutiny in the captain's chair of a vessel I am assigned to escort."

"I don't care what you're accustomed to, Captain. I have passengers to protect, and that means none of your crew are setting foot on this ship."

In a slow, dangerous voice, Pratchett growled, "My officers follow orders."

"That's what I'm worried about, Captain," replied Darren airily and then her voice hardened, "You can't board us unless we slow down and we aren't going to slow down voluntarily."

Capt. Pratchett looked away from the screen and toward where Darren knew his navigator would be sitting. She didn't have to hear the question to know that he was asking for her course and speed.

"All right then, Darren, we play it your way, for now. Maintain your course and speed, and make your distance within five hundred kilometers of the Firestorm. Any attempt to deviate from your course or increase that distance will ressult in your ship being fired upon." The screen flashed off abruptly as the Firestorm severed contact.

Capt. Darren looked at Ensign James at the helm. "You heard the man, Ensign, keep us within five hundred kilometers of that ship. And let me know if they strain that distance. There are a lot of people who don't agree with what we're doing."

"Five hundred kilometers, aye, Captain," snapped James, military professionalism sharp in his voice.

"Mickelvy, let Lt. Sentry and Ensign Jessel know that they can start breathing again and have Ensign Jessel bring Munkustrap to my office in twenty minutes."

"Aye, Captain," replied the young security officer, taking a deep breath himself.

He wasn't the only one either, it was as if the bridge itself had been holding it's breath and now was making up for it. The captain allowed the starfield in front of her to hypnotize her eyes while she reviewed the conversation.

She hadn't missed that Captain Pratchett had ignored her title, which meant he probably wasn't sympathetic. On the other hand he hadn't fired on them either, that could mean that he had some sympathy for the Jellicles, though none for her. Or it could just mean that he didn't want to end up firing on the Unicorn, which was holding course nearby. Firing on a medical ship would almost certainly bring world condemnation down on the Captain who did it. Darren sighed, there wasn't much use trying to figure out Pratchett. He'd made his bid to take over her ship and had backed down. He wasn't likely to cause any more trouble before they reached Mars, unless his bridge crew started playing games.

Settling back into her chair, Darren turned her attention instead to the upcoming meeting with Munkustrap. The Jellicle leader probably wouldn't be very happy about the precautions they'd taken for the Firestorm's arrival. The captain wondered just how much she was going to have to calm him down before he'd be ready to listen to what his lawyer had to say.

**************

Margot Baines sat in a borrowed office on Earth, staring at her cousin over a connection that was costing her a fortune, for a case that might prove totally unwinnable, especially if Darren's obvious nervousness was caused by Baines’ worst fears -- that the Jellicles might be so savage that they couldn't make a good impression in court. Baines smiled slightly, tasting the battle to come, a precedent setting case: bitter sweet if she lost, ambrosia if she won. She leaned back in her chair, fingering the cameo at her throat like a talisman, her white blouse contrasting against her dark skin.

"Allisande, I don't doubt that you believe they're people. I know you wouldn't throw your career away without good reason." Baines watched Darren stiffen at the thought, but Baines wasn't in the business of lawyering to spare feelings.

"Look," replied Darren, trying to be reasonable despite Margot's ability to get under her skin, "all I'm saying is that we just had a scare, the Jellicles have been locked in their quarters for the past couple of hours and Munkustrap probably isn't at his best right now."

"Good," barked Baines, her dark eyes snapping under the crown of her silvering hair. "Do you really think a court room isn't going to be a stressful situation? I have to convince a judge that the Jellicles should have the same rights as any other person. Knowing how they'll handle stress is very important if they are going to be any help at all with their defense."

Darren frowned, but nodded. The door chime sounded and the captain turned away from the screen to call, "Come in."

Baines took a deep breath to prepare herself for her first look at her client and then chided herself for needing to.

The door slid open and in walked a tall, rather imposing figure with a well brushed coat of silver fur. A handsome creature, decided Baines, or at least he cleaned up well. Behind him walked the smallest security guard Baines had ever seen. Baines wondered how necessary the guard was.

The Jellicle nodded to the captain, who said, "Please, sit down, Munkustrap. This is Mrs. Baines; she has some questions for you." The silver eyes somberly regarded what Baines knew must be her flickering image on the screen, but the cat-man said nothing.

The small guard stayed close behind the silver tabby as he took his seat and Baines looked up at her to see if she intended to stay. Her eyes widened slightly as she perceived the red, barely-healed scratches running across the red-headed woman’s throat. "Guard," she snapped, "how did you get those scratches?" Munkustrap flipped around in his seat to look at the woman behind him as she glanced a question at her captain. Darren nodded her permission to answer.

Looking back at the screen, the small security guard said, "I'm Ensign Jessel, Mrs. Baines. I am currently assigned as the Jellicles liaison officer. And I got the scratches because one of the Jellicles, Macavity, decided it was a better idea to fight than to talk."

"And where is your assailant now, Ensign?" growled the lawyer.

"He's in the brig," Jessel answered sharply.

Pursing her lips, Baines said matter-of-factly, "Hmm, we might have been better off if he were dead."

The silver tabby flipped back around to stare at Baines with flattened ears and furious eyes. Jessel's hand landed on his shoulder, but Baines couldn't tell if she was comforting or restraining him. At least his reaction told her he could understand what she had said.

"I think you'd better explain that last comment," said Darren, more than a touch of steel in her voice.

"I mean, is the prosecutor going to have the chance to trot out a human-hating Jellicle who will immediately destroy any sympathy I've managed to build in the judge's mind?"

"No." responded Munkustrap, settling back into his chair, his tail twitching slightly as he stared at the screen. His low tenor surprised her; his voice was soft and clear.

"I think he means that Macavity was only trying to survive," clarified Darren.

"That's it," Baines declared, huffily. "Would you two nursemaids kindly leave so that I can talk to my client?"

Darren nodded to Jessel and walked through the door to the bridge. Jessel gave Munkustrap's shoulder a squeeze and left through the door to the corridor. Baines watched Munkustrap's ears rotate as he listened to the retreating steps, but he kept watching her image.

"All right, now that they're gone, why don't we start with some simple questions," the lawyer began, hoping she could make the questions simple enough. Before she could continue, Munkustrap got up and stepped out of her line of vision. "Oh, that's lovely," she said sarcastically. Raising her voice slightly she called, "I can't see you unless you stay in front of the screen."

Munkustrap's face reappeared, filling the entire screen, and Baines leaned back involuntarily at the unexpected close-up. "Why are you in the box?" he asked, his whiskers twitching as he examined it. Lightly, he touched the screen with a fingertip, watching in fascination as the crystalline pixels reacted to the pressure by changing colors.

Irritated, she replied, "I'm not in the screen, Munkustrap. I'm on a planet, far away from you. The screen projects my image to you and your image back to me, though it doesn't do a very good job when you're that close to it. And it doesn't work at all when you step behind it. So please take your seat."

Munkustrap straightened up and stepped back a bit, looking down at the screen, "The captain says you work for me."

"I do," answered Baines, coldly, "but only because I've chosen to take your case. I don't have to work for you if I don't choose to and I certainly won't if I think you'll make a fool out of me in court. Now, sit down."

The silver tabby retook his seat, but his eyes stayed on the lawyer warily and the tip of his tail began to twitch. "I do not think I like you, you are not nice like the humans on this ship."

Quickly putting a lid on her temper, Baines replied, "I get paid to win cases, not to be liked."

"What is paid?" spat Munkustrap.

Baines tapped the notes on her desk with one dark finger. She had prepared a number of questions to ask her prospective client, but the questions he was asking were proving at least as informative as anything on her list. She decided to let the conversation wander for a few minutes and see where it led. "Paid is a way of trading for goods and services. When you do work for someone they pay with money, then you can pay the money to someone else for goods or services that you need."

Munkustrap's eyes narrowed, "Are we supposed to pay you for speaking for us?"

Baines smiled slightly. Good; he could reason. "No, my job requires me to do a certain amount of work pro bono, for free, for the good of the community. Your case counts towards that requirement."

"I guess all of our work was pro bono," snarled Munkustrap, throwing back the new word.

"Not at all," Baines shook her head. "People paid to see you dance; Ferran just kept the money." That clearly startled Munkustrap; his ears flipping forward and widening eyes giving him away. "We'll have to see what we can do about that after we get your rights affirmed."

"You mean after the judge says that we are people," said Munkustrap slowly. His hand touched his throat in an odd gesture, and he straightened slightly under her gaze.

"That's right," Baines nodded. The creature wasn't educated but he was following the conversation well; she began to think bringing him into the courtroom might not be such a terrible idea.

"I want to speak to the judge."

That startled Baines. "Why, what would you say?"

"I don't know." Munkustrap looked away from her momentarily; when he looked back she couldn't mistake the determination in his eyes. "But if I am going to die, I want it to be because of something I said, not something you said."

Baines smiled and mentally upgraded the cat-man from creature to person. "All right, we have two weeks to get you ready for court and decide what you are going to say to the judge. Do you think you can work with me to be ready in time?"

The silver tabby's chin lifted. "I'm very good at learning my lines."

"You'll have to be good at more than that in front of the judge. Are you ready to answer my questions now?"

"I have one more question for you; why do you wish to speak for us? It is not because you like us as Jessel or Capt. Darren do."

Baines chuckled and decided blunt would be the best way to handle that question; it was her forte anyway. "You're very perceptive. This is a special case, there's never been one like it before and, if there are any like it after, they'll all refer back to this one to help them make the decision. It's an honor to be a part of a case like that."

"An honor for you; life or death for me."

Baines sobered quickly. "So, are you ready to do something about it?"

Munkustrap nodded, "Ask your questions."

***************

Mungojerrie stared at his toes, afraid to look at the security officer who rode the elevator with him. His body was still telling him it was too early to be out of bed but he had already had a long talk with Lt. Sentry. As the doors opened on the Jellicles' quarters, she put out a hand and stopped him. He looked up at her and she said one word, "Remember." He nodded and stepped off the elevator, shuddering slightly. He wouldn't forget her threat -- "If you have to be placed in custody again, you'll stay here all the way to Mars." He wasn't about to risk spending his last days locked away from his mate, even if she hated him. The elevator doors closed behind him and he was alone in the corridor.

For a moment the striped tom hesitated; no voices came from any of the rooms. The other Jellicles were most likely still asleep. He could go and wait for the others in one of the empty rooms.... No, he decided. If anyone was going to be angry with him, he wanted to face it immediately -- he couldn't stand waiting. He stepped through the door to the sleeping room and stopped, unsure for the first time in years if he should join his mate in their bunk. A glad cry startled him and Rumpelteazer ran out of the darkened room towards him. Throwing her arms around him, she pulled his face down so that she could rub her cheek against his.

"Are you all right. Are you all right?" the brightly striped queen demanded desperately, holding onto him so tightly he wasn’t sure she ever planned on letting go.

"I'm fine. I'm fine," he laughed, relieved, as he held her just as tightly to his chest.

"Don't you ever do that to me again," she scolded, drawing back slightly to meet his golden eyes. "You had me so worried."

"I won't. I won't," he reassured her, rubbing his cheeck against hers in promise. "It was all my fault and I won't ever do it again. I just want to stay with you. Forever. I don't ever want us to be apart ever again."

The other Jellicles had roused as well and surrounded Mungojerrie. Murmurs of welcome sounded around him as each of the cats pushed close enough to pat his back or squeeze his arm and it was several minutes before Mungojerrie noticed an absence he had to deal with. Peering through a forest of triangular ears, Mungojerrie spotted Mistoffelees standing near the end of his bunk. He couldn't see Jessel, but assumed the small security officer would be near her mate. Holding tightly to his beloved Rumpelteazer, the striped tom pushed his way through the crowd in that direction. The Jellicles let him through, falling silent as they realized who he was aiming for.

Mungojerrie hated to have to do this in front of everyone, but he wanted to get it over with. Swallowing nervously, he stepped past the last of the Jellicles and approached the fire-haired security officer, who rose from where she had been seated on the end of her bunk. Somehow she looked shorter in the silky blue pajamas she now wore than when she wore her official uniform. "I wanted to apologize, for yesterday. I was out of line. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."

"Good," she replied, smiling, "because I don't ever want to have to do that again." She held out her hand to him. "All's forgiven?"

Mungojerrie had seen humans shake hands and knew it was a friendly gesture, but no one had ever held out their hand to him before, so it took a few heartbeats before he placed his hand in hers. Sighs of relief echoed all around him and Rumpelteazer squeezed him tightly. Jessel released the striped tom's hand and the Jellicles drifted away to start their morning routines. Mungojerrie looked lovingly down at his mate as she drew him away from the other pair, and then felt a light touch on his arm. He turned to find himself staring down into Victoria's questioning green eyes. She didn't have to ask the question for him to know what it was.

"He's all right, Victoria. The cages in the brig are much bigger than they were in the lab. They have bunks the same size as we have here. They even let us out into a bigger room for a little while so that we could have a good stretch. And the food's better than anything we ever got served before we came here."

"Then why won't he let me go see him?" whimpered Victoria.

Mungojerrie's heart ached in sympathy for the white queen. Just one day's separation from his mate had been a horrible punishment; he couldn't imagine what Victoria was going through, and she hadn't done anything wrong. "He doesn't want you around Dr. Ferran or any of the others. That, and I don't think he wants you to see him in a cage."

"I don't care about any of that," cried Victoria, ears going limp in misery.

"But he does."

Victoria looked down at her toes. Ceres came up and wrapped her arm around the listless queen. Her eyes shot daggers at Mungojerrie as she gently led the white queen away.

Mungojerrie shook his head in sorrow and then looked back at his mate. Her green eyes shone up at him, full of questions he knew she wouldn't ask. You never asked someone what happened to them in the labs. It was always bad. The same rule would apply here but he did feel the need to at least reassure his mate. He smiled down at her, "I'm fine really; is there anything I can do to prove it to you?"

"Well, since you ask...," she purred, running her fingers deeply through the fur on his back and looking up at him through hooded, suggestive eyes.

He grinned broadly and the two went in search of someplace they could be alone.

Chapter 17: Kittens

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