Alden MacManx finished tightening the last fitting in the set. He then looked up at Ralph Dibbs, the host of the local branch of the Helium Club, and said, "That's the lot. Everything's ready for the race this weekend."

"Thank you once again for coming out and checking everything over. I don't want anything to go wrong." said the basset-headed furson. Large helium tanks, hoses, and regulators littered the field. Baskets, like those used on hot air balloons, were also out on the field. "Have you decided to enter the race yourself?"

Alden sighed. "I would like to, Ralph, but since Marissa left three months ago, I don't know a pilot."

"Rayna Chestnutt is available- her partner cancelled yesterday." Ralph said.

"Rayna? The little flying squirrel? I thought she wouldn't fly with anyone else but her partner- what happened?" Alden asked, his catlike curiosity impelling him to ask.

"Ned dumped her. He took everything he could and left her with little else but the clothes on her back and the change in her purse. Needless to say, Ned will not enjoy a warm welcome at any of the clubs." Ralph said in a very cold voice. That startled Alden, because Ralph had never before shown much emotion. "Shall I contact her and have her call you?" he asked, his voice returning to normal.

Alden thought as he finished gathering his tools. "Go ahead, Ralph. If she's interested in becoming my pilot, I will be happy to be her balloon in the race." he said.

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, with a brisk wind out of the south. About a hundred people, humans and fursons both, gathered on the field. Hundreds more were in the spectator area, along with a couple of TV trucks. Ralph was addressing the contestants.

"The objective of the race is to see how far a balloon can travel by sunset, without exceeding altitude limits or bursting the balloon. No cheating by use of unauthorized talents or magics will be permitted, under penalty of disqualification. Both the balloon and pilot will be allowed to use what skills and abilities they possess to further their goals, if possible.

"First prize is $50,000 for each person. Bonus prizes will be awarded for farthest distance travelled, least amount of helium and ballast used, and exceptional use of skills in the race. Other prizes will be awarded for, ahem, other reasons." The assembled crews laughed at that. They knew he meant the booby prizes for exceptional clumsiness, first elimination, and so forth.

"Teams, to your baskets. Let's get moving!" Ralph announced, and the crews headed for their designated baskets.

Alden scooped Rayna up and carried her to their basket. Rayna {DON'T call her Rocky!} stands barely 4' tall, with grey-brown fur and a bushy tail. She is a flying squirrel, which means that she has large flaps of skin between her arms and legs. They are normally hidden beneath her clothing. She can glide, but not truly fly. She is a skilled pilot, licensed to fly balloons and small planes. She normally works as a cropduster pilot, with some acrobatic stuntwork on the side. She is also a balloonie, able to be inflated until she is round. She doesn't care for helium, however- she prefers air, or sometimes, water.

When they arrived, Alden set her down. "Clip your lines on, and I'll start filling you." she said.

Alden took the lines attached to the loose suit he was wearing and, by stretching himself, managed to clip the lines to the four attachment points, making sure they were secure. Rayna then took a fitting from the basket and placed it in his navel. She then attached two hoses to the fitting, one leading to the large tank near the basket, and the other to the small tank inside. "Ready?" she asked, looking up at him.

"I'm ready. Fill me up!" Alden said. She opened the valve on the large tank, and Alden started to fill. Around them, other teams were filling up, their suits stretching as their bodies expanded with helium. The colors and patterns printed on the suits were impressive, to say the least. While Alden filled, Rayna checked over the supplies, instruments, and ballast in the basket against her checklist.

By the time she was done, Alden was buoyant, floating over the basket. Five minutes later, the basket started to lift, held by its anchors. A groundcrewman shut off the helium from the large tank and disconnected the hose, handing it to Rayna, who put a vent valve on it. By then, four of the other contestants had disqualified themselves, three by not fastening their clips properly, and one person had burst, due to pilot inattention. One balloon was floating off, her clips having not been attached to the basket.

When all the balloons were tugging at their anchors, Ralph's voice came over the radio. "All contestants, report readiness."

At her turn, Rayna reported, "Bravo four-two, ready to lift."

When all contestants had reported, Ralph ordered, "Lift Off!" The anchors were released, and forty-five colorfully-dressed inflated people floated up into the clear blue sky.

Inside of five minutes, it became obvious who the amateurs were, with some balloons soaring high above the rest, and others scraping the ground. "How you doing up there, big cat?" Rayna asked over the intercom. [after all, Alden is almost 50' around]

"It's wonderful, Rayna! Floating free like this feels great! We ought to do this again sometime!" he replied, the joy evident in his voice.

"Depending on how we do in this race, I'll be glad to fly with you, fat boy!" she laughed. "Enjoy the ride and the view- I've got winds to find!"

By noon, the initial field of forty-five was reduced to twelve teams in serious contention. They had flown almost 50 miles by then, and Alden was in kitty bliss at this point- floating freely through the air was more fun than he had imagined!

As they drifted, Alden noticed something coming toward them. After a brief time, he realized it wasn't something, but someone flying up to them in particular. "Rayna, someone's coming up to us- look ahead and down, off to the right a bit." he said.

Rayna looked, then let out a gasp. "It's Ned! He must be using a flight spell! Alden, he has a knife!" she yelled.

"Radio in to base- we gotta let someone know!" As Rayna tried to call, Ned had ascended high enough to reach the radio antenna that trailed below the basket, yanking it loose. He then came up even with the basket.

"You ruined me, Rayna! I can't get in to the clubs anywhere! I thought I ruined you, but it looks like I'm going to have to finish the job- permanently!" Ned growled as he climbed into the basket.

Now, Ned is a large weaseloid furson, almost 7' tall and heavily muscled. He is also rubberized. The balloon didn't descend any when he got in, because he was maintaining the flight spell. Waving the knife, he reached over to the helium tank and opened the valve wide. He then took some clay-like substance out of his pocket and plugged up the vent line. He then advanced on Rayna, who was huddled in the basket. Taking a ball of kite string from his pocket, he trussed her up. As the balloon started ascending, he growled, "I'm ridding me of you- forever!" He then climbed out of the basket.

Alden, however, had not been idle. He had heard Ned, and he could feel himself filling with more helium. Alden had been carefully extending his fingers and toes, the only parts of him that were not inflated, so they hung far down his body, near the basket.

When Ned jumped out, he brushed up against Alden's fingers. The fingers whipped around Ned, pinning his arms to his sides and causing the knife to be tossed back into the basket, landing less than an inch from Rayna. She wiggled over and started cutting the strings that tied her.

Ned was struggling furiously, trying to get free, but by then Alden had wrapped all the fingers of his right hand around Ned's body, binding him tightly. "Let me go, damn you! Let me go!" he bellowed, but Alden refused to do so. Ned thought of cancelling the flight spell, but changed his mind when he realized that they were passing 10,000 feet. He can stretch, but he couldn't bounce.

Alden managed to knot his fingers together- they were painfully overstretched, but he couldn't let the fool go! "Thank heaven for yoga lessons." he thought as the last knot was tied.

Rayna managed to cut herself free, not without nicking herself in the process. She managed to shut off the helium and unplugged the vent. They were getting close to the disqualification altitude. Over her radio, she could faintly hear Race Control trying to call. With nothing to lose, she activated the radio. "Bravo four-two to Race Control, we have a problem here. Have security personnel track us through to landing- attempted double murder aboard. Suspect in custody. Request constant visual monitoring."

"No need to worry, Rayna." Ralph said. Rayna gasped in surprise, because Ralph was standing in midair next to the basket! "Your assailant is being held in a bind spell. You may continue the race. We will be waiting when you land." Then, he vanished.

"Big cat, you all right?" she called over the intercom.

"Other than my fingers cramping up, I'm fine. How are we doing in the race?"

Rayna looked around. "I think we're in the lead, big cat! Let's try to hold it, okay?"

"Sounds good! What do you want to do after the race, little squirrel?"

Rayna grinned, an effect lost on Alden. "I'm sure we can think of something!"

As the sun was setting, the race was halted. Bravo four-two was declared the winner, having flown over 120 miles in eight hours. Not a record, but good enough to win. They also qualified for the exceptional skills use bonus, awarded for the capture of Ned, who was unceremoniously stuffed into a police car and taken into custody. The story quickly spread of the incident.

That night, when everyone was back at the Helium Club, the celebration was rather raucous. After the prize money was distributed, and the partying settled down, Rayna and Alden went off on their own to celebrate privately. Turns out she really likes being rolled and bounced around when she's full of air. She likes being 'popped', too. By sunrise on Sunday, Alden, using his needle, 'popped' her four times! Talk about the start of a beautiful relationship!