MayFurr's mouth dropped. "What?"
Ranthe gestured half-heartedly at the readout screen. "See for yourself, sir... I've double-checked the final computations, and there's no mistake."
The fox peered at the screen, absorbing the star-map plot and the distances. After nearly a day and a half of searching, the Fury's navigation systems had finally managed to detect a lone Furrderation beacon, but...
"The beacon it found is right on the edge of the Frontier, about thirty light-years from Dreamstar station," MayFurr murmured to himself, his vixen companion following his gaze with watery tear-filled eyes. "It's a wonder it managed to find it at all... let's see. So based on that, this planet is - oh. My God... five hundred light-years from home!"
Ranthe nodded, sniffing sadly. MayFurr silently stared at the readout in astoundment, as if willing the figures to change, anything to avoid the growing pit of dread in his gut. His worst fears were confirmed by the impersonal figures on the panel in front of him. "Sir... the Fury simply doesn't have the range to get us home," Ranthe continued. "We'd run out of fuel a quarter of the way home at full warp, even if our life-support didn't run out first."
MayFurr finally tore his gaze away from the console, slumping in his pilot's chair and slowly turning to face his companion. "What about planet hopping our way back? Surely we could refuel and re-provision in stages?"
"We could - but we've no idea what worlds are out there on our route home, there's no guarantee that we could refuel anywhere along the way," Ranthe answered. She leaned forward, propping her head in her paws as she rested against the console. "Sir, it'd be a shot in the dark, even finding a suitable place within range from here... don't forget we used a good proportion of fuel just getting here from where the rift threw us." She sighed heavily, brushing away tears from her eyes. "What do we do now, sir?"
The fox sat silently for a few minutes, staring out through the cockpit viewscreen into the forest outside. "I don't know, Ranthe..." he finally whispered. "I just don't know."
Sundown chewed contentedly, tearing the tender meat off the cooked naa'ghazzi the fox had left behind. The insistent rumbling from the chakats' stomach had finally persuaded hir to take mealtime matters into hir own hands after hir captors had spent so long inside their craft, so shi had helped hirself - with the result that the chicken-sized bird originally intended to feed all three was now almost picked clean!
Despite eating the whole bird - which, shi had to admit, tasted extremely good for a protected species - Sundown was still hungry, having been on short rations for a chakat since hir capture. Shi was considering whether to finish off the bones or attempt to forage in the forest for something when hir ears picked up the sound of the two vulpines climbing out of their ship. Sundown started momentarily in surprise, being caught in the act like a guilty schoolcub, before hurriedly hiding the remains of the picked carcass behind hir back, sure that the vulpines would becoming over to find out what had happened to their lunch.
Instead, however, hir two captors simply stood outside their ship, looking around at the forest, before they took each other in some sort of embrace... now this was unusual, Sundown thought. Hir keen eyes noticed the vixen was shaking, and the male was clearly trying to comfort her, though he also looked upset about something. What was going on?
Shi got up, and after covertly dropping the remains of the bird into the campfire, Sundown walked over towards the two foxes -only to be brought up short with a jolt by the tether attached to hir hind leg while halfway to them, causing hir to stumble and almost fall. Damn, forgot about that, shi thought angrily to hirself. The male fox's ears pricked up at that, and gently disengaged himself from his companion, pushing his hat up on his head before slowly walking over towards hir, pulling out a small knife as he did so.
Sundown shrank back from the advancing fox, the 'taur's paws scrabbling back in the dust as the fox approached hir. Now shi could see that he had a sad sort of expression on his face, his face-fur streaked by tears, and the unfamiliar glint in his eye was unsettling to say the least. Fearing the worst, the chakat crouched down on hir forelegs, hir arms held protectively in front, hir tail whipping from side to side and hir fur bristling in fright.
"You come one step closer, and I'll bite your ear off!" Sundown growled.
The male fox stopped, tilting his head to one side with puzzlement, before crouching down himself and dropping the knife on the ground, beckoning to hir to come closer. He was talking to hir in a low sort of voice, though of course shi couldn't understand him, and he was shuffling across the ground towards hir. Sundown stood still in confusion as he approached hir, the fox reaching down to where the tether was fastened to hir hind leg. Shi felt the rope loosen, then slip off...
The chakat moved hir leg experimentally.
Shi was free!
MayFurr gently patted the creature on the rump as he slipped the rope off its leg, causing it to flinch and leap away slightly from him. It turned and looked at him, a bemused expression on the creatures face, then it cautiously moved off with a peculiar gait to where its saddlebag was lying.
"Off you go then, " MayFurr told it, not caring whether it understood him or not. "There's no point in holding onto you now... you may as well tell the rest of you about us, we're not going anywhere." He watched it pick up its bag, still carefully watching both Ranthe and himself for any movement, the long feline tail still twitching a little. The fox sadly walked back to Ranthe's side, putting his arm around her shoulders as the creature picked up its belongings and, after one final glance backwards, leapt into the bushes and trees surrounding the ship and was gone.
The first thing Sundown did after assuring hirself that shi was far enough away from the alien vulpines was to set up camp and cook hirself a decent meal from the supplies shi was carrying in hir backpack - even after devouring all of a naa'ghazzi bird all by hirself a couple of hours ago, shi was still hungry! And now, able to relax completely for the first time in two days, shi had build up quite an appetite.
The chakat licked up the last of the canned stew from hir plate, and burped contentedly, settling hirself down in a crouching position on the blanket shi had laid on the ground beside hir own campfire.
"A real First Contact..." shi breathed to hirself. Not for over fifty Chakona years had this happened, but shi - Chakat Sundown, child of Riverscent and Blacktip - had on hir own, and quite by accident, encountered a new space-faring race on hir own world. "It certainly wasn't anything like what they taught me in history though. No-one mentioned getting tied up or anything!" Sundown grinned to herself at that, thoughts fleeting through hir mind wondering what other expeditions had incidents like hirs that weren't in the official records. Shi hadn't done too badly really, managing to communicate with the two alien vulpines with basic signs even though Sundown wasn't in Star Corps and hadn't trained in anything resembling xenosociology. "Not bad for a pencil-pushing administrator, not bad at all." shi smiled.
As shi worked cleaning up the remnants of hir meal, Sundown thought more about the events of the last two days, particularly the puzzling circumstances of hir release by the two aliens. Why they went to the trouble of securing hir, only to release hir again with no discernible reason, shi did not know. But something in the ship had changed their demeanour, shi was sure - that much the chakat had worked out. Orders of some kind, perhaps?
No matter, Sundown decided, remembering the efforts hir former captors made to ensure shi didn't leave before they were ready. They would probably be gone by now, even if shi was to alert the local authorities - and shi was already three days into the forest when shi was jumped by the fox. Besides, shi had been on hir own, with no evidence to back up hir story - who would believe hir?
It was later on the next day after five hours of walking through the virgin forest when Sundown discovered shi had another problem on her paws.
Shi was lost.
The chakat panted for breath as shi climbed to the top of yet another rise, and groaned to hirself as once again the top was shrouded in trees. It was impossible to get hir bearings on the map without the sighting of some sort of landmark, and nothing Sundown had come across in the last few hours tied into anything on the sparsely detailed map shi was carrying. Shi sat down to rest, hir rump nestling into the dusty red soil of the forest floor as shi reached to hir saddlebag for the compass, studying the simple instrument with a look of consternation on hir face.
"How on earth did this happen?" Sundown muttered to hirself. "My sense of direction is much better than this!" Even as a cub, Sundown had exhibited an almost unnervingly accurate sense of direction, and to find hirself lost was humiliating- not to mention a little frightening. Shi spread the map out in front of hir, aligning it with the compass, and frowned at it. "According to this, I should be on this peak here..." the chakat muttered to hirself, tracing on the map her supposed route with hir front paw while rubbing hir chin with one hand, "But that would mean I should have crossed this stream here... but I haven't seen any stream at the base of the hill like that! What's going on here?"
Sundown sighed to hirself, and looked at the trees surrounding hir. Maybe shi could climb up one to get a view... shi shook hir head. None of the trees on this hill would ever support a large beast like a chakat climbing it - they were mere saplings, although tall and bushy enough to obscure hir view of anything that could give the feline 'taur a reference. Shi reached for hir water canteen and took a sip.
"Okay, let's start from the top." Sundown told hirself, moving hir front paw to point at the place shi had entered the forest. "I came along here, followed this ridge, and then down into the valley by the stream. I came along this way, camping here, here, and here."
Hir paw traced out hir route, scattering grains of dirt across the map and smudging it as the chakat retraced hir steps. "And along here... through this clearing, and just up here must have been where the fox jumped me. And then - "
Suddenly, hir mind clicked.
"Then - I don't know..."
Shi picked up the map with hir fore-paw, passing it to hir hands before examining it closely. Nothing on the map indicated a clearing with the proximity of a stream like where the aliens had camped!
"Oh damn!" Sundown snarled, fully realising hir predicament. As long as shi knew her initial starting point, the chakat's sense of direction functioned very much like a form of inertial guidance, being able to calculate a return path from distance and direction of travel, using the travelled path as an additional reference. But when Sundown had been ambushed by the fox, shi had been knocked unconscious and dragged an unknown number of kilometres - so the mental path shi had been building was disrupted!
"And if I can't find a place on the map to get my bearings off from," shi swore to hirself, "I'll be stuck here!"
Sundown made camp for the night at the top of the hill where shi had stopped, cooking hir evening meal over the flickering campfire as shi pondered hir situation. As dusk fell, the fire illuminated hir feline features, hir green cat-like eyes staring into the fire as the brighter stars appeared in the deepening night sky above the forest canopy. Hir hind-leg scratched at an itch while shi absent-mindedly tended the contents of her cooking-pot suspended over the fire.
Mentally taking stock of the situation, Sundown ran through the possibilities. Hir aimless wandering so far wasn't likely to get hir out of the forest, that shi was certain of - it was more likely to drive hir deeper into the uncharted areas. Following streams out to the edge of the forest was another option, but again, without a clear idea of direction shi could be wandering through the forest for days while hir food slowly ran out. Not good.
The chakat took the pot off the fire, and slowly ate the stew shi had cooked, still thinking. Shi could extend hir food supply by living off the land, Sundown considered, after all the chakat race were renowned for their ability to live off just about anything, and water certainly wasn't going to be a problem. So as far as raw survival went, shi was well-equipped and shouldn't be concerned. "But this is supposed to be a holiday," Sundown grumbled. "Just 'cause I can live off the land doesn't mean I enjoy it..." And it was true - shi had sampled some of the local plants during her journey to this spot, and had been singularly unimpressed by their palatability. Not to mention the chakat was feeling more and more fearful at never finding a way out.
Hir eyes strayed to hir saddlebag and shi frowned, thinking of a small device tucked away inside an interior pocket. "There's always that, I suppose..." the 'taur sighed to hirself, looking dejectedly into the fire again. A device of last resort, perhaps- something shi prided hirself in never having the need to use- but if there was a time that it was needed, perhaps it was now. "I'll need to find a clearing for the pickup, and there's only one I've come across so far."
Sundown pushed hir way through the trees and undergrowth, water from the steady rain on the canopy overhead splashing onto hir muzzle and fur as hir paws slipped and slid through soft mud. Pulling on tree branches to help hir along caused showers of more water to drench the struggling chakat as shi carefully lowered hirself down the side of the hill, while water spilled off the brim of the bushman's hat shi was wearing, dribbling down onto hir halter top and lank waterlogged fur.
The 'taur paused for a few moments, wrapping hir prehensile tail around a nearby tree-trunk to steady hirself as shi took hir bearings. Since leaving the previous nights camp three hours earlier that rainy morning, Sundown reckoned shi was within about seven kilometres of the clearing shi was backtracking to. Once there, shi planned to activate the Emergency Personal Locater Beacon in hir saddlebag and await pickup - an ignominious end to what started out to be an enjoyable expedition, shi wryly observed to herself, but one to which shi couldn't see a preferable alternative.
The ground beneath the chakat's paws suddenly gave way, causing Sundown to slip down the hill before hir tail arrested hir slide, causing hir to fall to the ground with a heavy thump. Wearily picking hirself up again, shi shook hirself, hir lower body sending sprays of excess water from hir fur while having to settle for brushing and wringing water off hir upper torso. "Bloody rain!" shi muttered, replacing the hat on hir head before grimly making hir way onward, hir large paws leaving deep prints in the mud behind hir.
"Bloody holiday bloody bush bloody aliensbloody rain bloody mud..."
Sundown swore in frustration to hirself as shi plodded along through the muddy forest, the continuous downpour of rain only serving to worsen hir temper. The underside of the chakat's lower torso was caked in sticky brown-reddish mud from where shi had slipped and fallen down the sides of slopes, and hir beautiful fur was soaked and straggly from the rain. Each of hir paws made a shlooping sound as shi wearily pulled them from the sticky cloying mud, placing them down only to sink again up to hir ankles. Surely the clearing could not be far now!
Another tree to take hold of... pull, lift hir paws out of the mud, try not to slip over... the same mindless routine over and over. Bushes and branches clawed at the chakat as shi pushed through them, occasionally making hir yelp with pain as yet another series of scratches were inflicted upon hir tiring body. Not for the first time, Sundown considered giving up for the day and waiting for the rain to ease, but shi perversely decided to struggle onward, not admitting to hirself that shi was trying to make up for the shame of getting lost. So, shi continued on, pushing hirself to the limits of even chakat patience and endurance.
A stumble, another fall... brush the mud off as much as shi could, then staggering to hir feet using hir arms and tail to pull hirself up. Release tail, move onward, ever forward...
Suddenly the forest stopped, and Sundown found hirself back in the clearing shi had left three days before - in the full force of the rain. Water ran off the brim of hir hat like a waterfall, the heavy rain pounding on hir lower body as shi slumped into the soft welcoming grass, too tired for the moment to care. The drumming of the rain on Sundown's hat blocked out most other sounds in the clearing, and in the chakat's tired state shi felt hir eyelids grow heavier and heavier as the sound of the rain lulled hir into a light doze. It felt so good to stop at last!
Rainwater trickling into hir sensitive ears woke Sundown with a start, causing hir to shake hirself and look around. Realising where shi was, shi raised hirself into a sitting position, hir lower body resting flat on the ground braced by hir legs as shi stretched hir upper back and hir arms, groaning and yawning with relief. The chakat lifted hir hat and scratched the back of hir neck, blinking as the still-falling rain washed over her face. Shi was just about to replace hir hat when something at the edge of the clearing caught hir eye.
MayFurr stared out the open hatchway into the rain, his head propped up in his paws while Ranthe lay back in the pilot's seat chewing on a ration pack.
"Still raining?" Ranthe asked.
"Yep," MayFurr sighed. Silly bloody question.
Ranthe swallowed her mouthful of food, and relaxed back in the chair. "How long do you think it'll be before the natives find us again, sir?"
MayFurr turned to the vixen and smiled. "Ranthe, I think we can dispense with the military protocol, considering the situation. You don't need to call me 'sir'."
"Understood, si- I mean, MayFurr" Ranthe answered, catching herself just in time. "Anyway..."
The male sighed, returning his gaze to the rain outside again. "Dunno, Ranthe - depends how long the one we caught can tell the others. Maybe days, maybe..." His voice trailed off.
Ranthe frowned. Ever since they had realised how far from home they were, her companion had sunk into a state of apathy that was starting to grate on the vixen's nerves. Sure, she had broken down upon finding that out, but she had recovered, forcing herself to do tasks to take her mind off it, but her superior officer... dammit! He was supposed to be the strong one, wasn't he?
The vixen placed a paw on MayFurr's shoulder, shaking him a little. "We can always fly the Fury out of here ourselves and land at one of their cities, you know. That's got to be better than just waiting around here!"
"I told you why that wouldn't work, Ranthe," MayFurr replied, still looking out into the rain-hazed clearing. "If they're advanced enough to have space-flight, they'd have sufficient weapons to shoot us down if we couldn't satisfy them that we were friendly."
"Dammit MayFurr, we've got to do something instead of just waiting - "
"Doing what!" MayFurr snarled, his temper rising.
"I've already told you what - look, there's no guarantee that if we wait here they won't think we're hostile anyway and shoot us on sight!" Ranthe retorted, her ears flattening, pleased to see the male breaking out of his hopelessness despite the chilling atmosphere. "What makes you think waiting here's gonna save us?"
MayFurr whirled around to face the vixen, his fur bristling and his ears also folded back in anger. "Look Ranthe - you know what it was like back on the Nighthawk if any unidentified craft got within critical range. Shades'd blast it to scrap! I don't know about you, but I don't want to die just yet - "
"For god's sake May, I'm not talking about landing at anything that looks like a military base!" Ranthe interrupted him, her own hackles rising and snarling in return. "Even I can tell the difference between a military and civilian area!"
"It doesn't matter! Once we appear on their sensors and they can't identify us - "
MayFurr broke off in mid-sentence, something catching his eye out of the hatchway. Forgetting the argument for the moment, he rapidly turned around and poked his head outside, leaving Ranthe standing behind him open-mouthed.
"Hello, what's that outside...?"
Sundown blinked, rubbed hir eyes, and blinked again, replacing hir hat on hir head and looking with a mixture of astonishment and puzzlement. For there, still sitting under the cover of the trees, was the fox alien's space-craft! It was in exactly the same place as when shi had left.
Raising hirself to hir feet, hir tiredness forgotten for the moment, Sundown slowly advanced towards the ship, ready to run at the least sign of hostile movement.
Now shi was near the back of the craft, behind some sort of wing from where strange-looking pods hung. Sundown's sensitive ears picked up unfamiliar noises coming from within the ship, mostly mechanical sounds shi decided as shi advanced, still seeing no sign of the fox aliens. The chakat ducked around the pods, hir hands brushing against the cold unfamiliar metal, moving slowly towards the front of the ship - and froze.
There before hir in the rain, blocking hir path, was the male fox-alien that had initially captured hir, pointing the hunting weapon at hir. Sundown stood still, then slowly raised hir hands above hir head, wondering what he was going to do next.
Continue to Chapter 4
Copyright 1996 Terry Knight.
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