The small atmospheric transport touched down in the forest clearing, the rear doors opening immediately as the small chakat and 'morph group carried their injured comrade through the flying dust and leaves from the downdraft. Quickly, two chakat med-techs ran out towards the struggling group, taking the makeshift stretcher between them and carrying Spotty back into the aircraft. At the same time a second group of uniformed chakats leapt down the aft ramp, forming around the stretcher party.
"Which of you is Chakat Commander Nightshade?" the leader of the new arrivals asked.
"Shi's back at the contact sir," the feline - Dakar - quickly responded, still panting a little from the headlong rush to the rendezvous point. He looked up to see the rest of the newcomer's team unloading strange-looking equipment from the transport, pushing out the last of the items as the ramp door raised.
As Dakar and the rest of his party watched, the transport slowly lifted away from the clearing with a roar, blowing swirling clouds of dust around them as it rose up beyond the trees.
"Good. Then let's get going." the chakat lieutenant pronounced, laying a hand on Dakar's shoulder. "Don't worry, they're heading straight to the hospital with your comrade, shi'll be fine. Meanwhile - can you people give us a hand with our equipment?"
Dakar nodded, and directed his team to assist. As they went about their work, Dakar murmured to the lieutenant, "What exactly is in those boxes?"
"You'll find out soon enough."
The next five hours were an anxious wait for Sundown as shi continued hir conversation with Ranthe and MayFurr, one ear listening for any visitors. As Swiftsure had instructed, Sundown had left hir commlinks directed to the answer service shi was using, hoping that hir usual callers would still think shi was on holiday. The chakat forced hirself to speak as though nothing was wrong and everything was all under control, though shi couldn't quite manage to convince hirself otherwise.
Meanwhile, MayFurr was starting to feel on edge as the remote control for the Fury brought him more disquieting news. Concealing his actions from Sundown by the simple expedient of sitting behind his vixen companion, he noted with alarm that contact with the ship's defensive shield had been made - and a couple of hours afterwards surrounding low-level sensor emissions were picked up by the Fury's sensitive ECM equipment. Despite the action of putting himself and Ranthe into the hands - or paws - of Chakats in general and Sundown in particular, MayFurr felt the general unease hunted prey got when a backup escape route was threatened. He didn't like it at all.
In an effort to pass the time, and also to give hir guests more of an idea of Chakonan society, Sundown activated the entertainment screen in the lounge, and called up a selection of programs from the various broadcast channels - drama, local events, cultural and new items. As it turned out, this proved to be an inspired move on the chakat's part as MayFurr and Ranthe were fascinated by the variety of subjects presented regarding life on Chakona, the resulting exchange being a tremendous aid to the translator.
"You certainly seem to have a very relaxed lifestyle here," Ranthe commented as a program item about a harvest festival on one of the northern continents ended.
"We do indeed," Sundown nodded, glowing with a quiet pride. Shi shifted on her haunches on the carpet as shi continued. "We've tried to make a society here where technology compliments our culture instead of supplanting it, as has happened on other worlds."
"From what I've seen, it seems to have worked," MayFurr agreed, watching the screen which was now showing a news bulletin. "Everything I've seen so far here is clean, natural and fresh!"
Sundown smiled. "That's because most of our heavy industries are up in orbit, off the planet so to keep the natural environment unspoiled. I'm glad you like it!"
"Is this one of them?" Ranthe asked, pointing to the screen where a large starship was shown approaching what was presumably an orbital facility.
"... at Chakona on its way to explore the outer reaches of this quadrant, the Terran starship Isaac Asimov docked at Chakona Station this morning. The Asimov's commander, Captain Walker, said..."
Both MayFurr and Ranthe looked stunned as an image of the ship's captain flashed before them. "What on earth is that?!?" Ranthe spluttered, pointing at the pink-skinned flat-faced creature being interviewed by a white spotty-striped chakat. "It must have had a terrible accident to have all its fur burnt off! Ouch!"
Sundown looked perplexed. "What do you - "
"What sort of creature doesn't even have a tail?" MayFurr gasped. "Even you've got one Sundown, and - no offence - you chakats are the most unusual race I've ever heard of!"
"Oh - I see!" Sundown realised. "You mean... " and the chakat promptly burst into laughter! "I'm sure he'd be flattered to hear you describe him in such flattering terms!" It took a few moments for Sundown to suppress a fit of the giggles. "Nonono..." shi chuckled, "The captain there is a human from the planet Terra, they always look like that!"
MayFurr's ears went back in consternation. "Even for an alien - that one is pretty alien! What did you say it was... 'hyooman'? When did the chakats discover them?"
"Hyoomans - I've heard fables about them on my home-world." Ranthe muttered. "It's what mothers tell their cubs about if they don't want them to grow up to be business analysts."
Sundown's tail swished behind hir. "Actually MayFurr, they have known us for far longer than we knew them. You see, they originally created us."
It was dusk when a knock sounded at Sundown's front door, making the nervous chakat jump. Forcing hirself to calm down, shi instructed the two foxes to sit still and remain silent while shi padded through the short passage to the main entrance. Sundown peered through the door peephole before breathing a sigh of relief - it was Swiftsure!
"Sundown! It's so good to see you again!" Swiftsure beamed as Sundown opened the door for hir. "My word love, you haven't changed a bit! Your fur looks as good as ever!"
Sundown smiled in welcome, and embraced hir old friend and lover. "And you too Swiftsure, it has been too long! Come in, come in!" Swiftsure trotted inside, the large fabric carry-case on the taur's lower body brushing the walls as they made their way into the living room, closing the door behind them. The two chakat's lips met in a warm friendly kiss as MayFurr and Ranthe looked up in surprise, the foxes ears flattening against their head in apprehension at the sight of the stranger.
"Ah. And these must be your guests that you have been telling me about, mmm?" Swiftsure asked, still keeping an arm around the tawny chakat's waist. Sundown nodded.
"Yes love, allow me to introduce Lieutenant MayFurr and Ranthe, our esteemed guests from the... ah, planet Furry. MayFurr, Ranthe, this is my good friend Chakat Swiftsure."
"More than friend, I hope!" Swiftsure chuckled as shi clasped hands with Ranthe and MayFurr in turn. "Welcome to Chakona. It is a pleasure to meet you."
MayFurr bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment. "Thank you Chakat Swiftsure. It is the same for me too." He studied the new arrival's face with interest, the golden eyes that this chakat had giving an aura of surety and calm.
"Right. To business." Swiftsure announced. Shi reached for the travel bag on hir back, opened the main flap and pulled out a briefcase-shaped piece of equipment. "First things first. Sundown, disconnect the link with Dewclaw's Universal Translator... I took the liberty of bringing this portable translator along and pre-loading it with what you've got so far. It'll be more convenient." The chakat returned MayFurr's gaze as Sundown left briefly to carry out Swiftsure's instructions, before activating the portable unit shi was carrying. "Now... tell me all about yourselves, and why you're here," Swiftsure addressed the foxes.
MayFurr and Ranthe went through their story again for Swiftsure, the sandy-spotted chakat listening intently, pausing occasionally to scribble notes. "And you have no idea as to how you got here?" Swiftsure asked when they had finished.
"None." Ranthe answered. "Like we said, we encountered a spatial rift that we weren't able to escape from in our home space. This pla- I mean Chakona, was the closest planet to where we exited - we intended to stay long enough to take stock of our damage and to get our bearings. The rest you know already."
"Indeed." Swiftsure mumbled to hirself, contemplating. "And your mothership, the... Nighthawk, you said it was... it will be looking for you?"
The two foxes exchanged glances. "I don't think - " MayFurr began.
"We don't think they will give up looking for us." Ranthe interrupted. "Our commander's dedication to his crew is legendary, and they will find us."
"Of course." Swiftsure replied, hir ears flicking a little. Shi looked into the vixen's eyes, receiving an expression of quiet determination in return. "So, I guess the next question is... what do you want to do now?"
Again, there was a moment of silence as MayFurr and Ranthe fidgeted nervously, unaccustomed to Swiftsure's directness after the informal conversations they had been having with Sundown. Finally it was Ranthe who broke the silence.
"To go home." she answered simply.
That evening the two chakats retired together to Sundown's bedroom, leaving MayFurr and Ranthe alone again.
"How is it with the Fury?" Ranthe whispered to MayFurr after the hallway door closed behind the departing 'taurs.
MayFurr showed the remote to her. "Not too good," he admitted. "Whatever's out there has had time to run a scan over the shields, and if these chakats are as advanced as we are I'd say they're well on the way of finding a way to disrupt it long enough to get in."
"Through a battle-rated defence shield?" Ranthe was sceptical. "Sure, they could if we simply had an anti-personnel screen up, but the Fury doesn't have one - that's why you raised the main shields."
"I know." the male fox replied. "At a rough guess it'll take over a week. But the longer we leave it, the more chance they have of breaching it."
The vixen thought for a few moments, her ears pricking up at the faint sounds of movement and soft moans coming from the chakat's bedroom. "I don't get it May," she finally said. "Why are you so worried about the ship all of a sudden? We can't get back to the Nighthawk under our own power, and you yourself said our best option was to turn ourselves over to the locals - or did I misunderstand you?"
"No, but - "
"Then why?" Ranthe persisted. "If we're staying here, what difference does it make when they find the ship? Why should we worry - they're going to get it anyway, and we'll be their honoured guests for the duration..."
MayFurr held up a paw. "I never like being cut off without an alternative option."
"What do you mean?" the vixen retorted. "May, I know that look on your face - you're planning something, aren't you?"
He nodded. "I saw something on that newscreen while we were waiting for Swiftsure - and I think it might be a solution for getting home."
Ranthe knelt closer to MayFurr. "Well?" she whispered.
MayFurr shook his head, and pointed to the translator box on the table. "Walls have ears."
Sundown's gaze travelled over the living room next morning as shi prepared breakfast, watching Swiftsure and the two foxes out of the corner of hir eye. It was funny, shi thought to hirself, how quickly you got used to things. A few days ago MayFurr and Ranthe were exotic aliens, strange and mysterious - now, for all intents and purposes they simply seemed like ordinary run-of-the-mill houseguests. They were still quite reserved though, not giving away that much... The chakat shrugged. If the situation was reversed, shi would be behaving much the same.
Some other things never changed either, Sundown smiled, remembering the previous night. Shi and Swiftsure had spent a lot of the evening upon retiring in each others arms, renewing their friendship in the traditional chakat way... in quite a number of variations! Snuggling up together in hir large bed and making love to each other - mounting then being mounted slowly and lovingly - had helped Sundown to unwind and loosen up from the last few days, and had also built up hir relationship with Swiftsure after their long time apart. It had been a long time since shi had felt so relaxed and loved... and there was a nagging piece of Sundown's thoughts that had been insisting shi should have made a move towards Swiftsure some time ago.
But somehow... As Sundown put breakfast out on the table, shi glanced at Swiftsure excitedly talking to the two foxes, and sighed. It rankled hir somewhat that since the other chakat's arrival shi had been relegated to the background somewhat, the university graduate edging the amateur out from what shi still considered to be hir First Contact. Just because Swiftsure was the languages head at Dewclaw... dammit, it was shi who had stumbled across MayFurr and Ranthe, it was shi who had convinced them to come back here, and it was shi that had made the breakthrough in communicating with them. It just didn't seem fair!
Jealous thoughts grew and ran through Sundown's mind all through breakfast, causing hir thick furry tail to twitch impatiently even though shi put on a pleasant face for the benefit of hir guests. Swiftsure seemed oblivious to hir partner's discomfort in hir own excitement of finally being able to use hir linguistic training in a professional sense, eagerly working with the translator and quizzing MayFurr and Ranthe on all manner of subjects. To Sundown's eyes, the other chakat's intense questioning was beginning to wear thin on the fox-aliens, catching a look of tired resignation on the vixen's face as shi cleared the table after the meal.
"I guess you'll be wanting to look over our ship," MayFurr suggested soon afterwards, as he and Ranthe sat back in the beanbags provided. The two chakats nodded, Sundown especially - even though shi had already been in the fox's spacecraft already, shi was curious to get a 'guided tour'.
Ranthe nudged MayFurr. "Don't you think - " she harshly whispered in his ear. MayFurr silenced her with a look, before lowering his muzzle to her ear and whispering in return. "Trust me." The vixen hmphed, but said nothing more.
"Whereabouts did you land?" Swiftsure asked, hir eyes glittering keenly. "Is it far?"
Sundown interrupted. "I remember where it is from when we came here," shi spoke up, smiling confidently at the other chakat, feeling a twinge of satisfaction at being useful again. "I can take us there - we'll take a vehicle from the general pool, and walk the rest of the way to your ship."
"Sounds good to me!" Swiftsure agreed. "I hate walking too far, not like you Sundown love... give me a shopping trip anytime. Plus I don't have your famous sense of direction, eh?"
Sundown grinned, as did MayFurr and Ranthe. "Okay then - let's go!" shi said, padding into hir office to order the required transport from the commlink.
The small electric car pulled up on the dirt road at the edge of the plantation, and the two chakats got out, followed closely by the foxes. It looked like it was going to be another warm Chakonan day, judging from the heat of the sun at this early hour, and MayFurr blinked in the bright sunlight. Sundown shielded hir eyes from the sun, and pointed into the trees. "We go that way," shi announced, moving off and leading the group into the forest, followed by MayFurr, Ranthe, and finally Swiftsure, who was grumbling a little at getting small stones from the shingle road stuck between the toes on hir feet.
Quickly the small group were swallowed up by the forest, leaving the road behind them. Sundown and Swiftsure found the going easy, their twin sets of legs affording them superior travelling over the rough forest terrain to the bipedal fox 'morphs, who were stumbling in order to keep up. Several times Ranthe had to flag Sundown to slow down, so they could catch up with the athletic 'taur, and they had to stop frequently to catch their breath. At one of the stops, Ranthe noticed that MayFurr was carrying the bag with their belongings and wrinkled her muzzle in puzzlement. She though he would have left it behind at Sundown's residence as most of it was quite heavy. Unless...
Suddenly Swiftsure cried out in pain, stumbling briefly before lifting hir front left leg and holding it in hir hands, swaying precariously on hir remaining three limbs. "Owwwwwww!"
Sundown whirled around, as did the two foxes. "Swiftsure! What's wrong?" shi asked, running to the sandy chakat's side.
"Must've stood on a thorn..." gritted Swiftsure, hir face screwed up in pain, clutching hir injured paw-hand. "Gawd... it hurts!"
"Is there anything I can do?" Sundown offered, as Ranthe and MayFurr gathered around. The other chakat shook hir head. "Nonono... just give me - ow! - a minute, I'll be fine love. You go on ahead and I'll catch up."
"Yes of course, Sundown - owww! - serves me right for not wearing sandals when I'm not used to the bush like you. Take the translator, I'll catch you up in a minute."
Sundown nodded, and with MayFurr's help took the translator unit off from Swiftsure's lower torso and placed it on hir own lower back. "We shouldn't be too far ahead, we're almost there anyway," shi reassured hir stricken friend. "We'll wait for you at the ship."
Swiftsure nodded, and watched Sundown and the two foxes leave before returning to trying to deal with hir injury. "Now I remember why I don't like bushwalks!"
Swiftsure was lost from sight when Sundown suddenly stopped, hir sensitive ears pricking up. "Do you hear that?" shi asked, turning to the others. "There's someone else out here."
MayFurr nodded, and motioned to Sundown and Ranthe to stay put, stealthily moving towards the source of the sound. He ducked behind a bush and looked around it...
... to see what appeared to be a fully armed party of chakats and assorted other morphs spread out in a rough circle - and beyond them in the clearing lay the Fiora's Fury, securely protected behind its defence screen.
"Oh hell..." MayFurr softly groaned to himself. So much for a simple walk to the ship he thought, though it was probably a bit much to think that the Fury would be left alone after the initial contact he'd recorded. He crouched down further behind the leafy bush and studied the milling forms in the distance. Sure enough, the chakats were carrying weapons of an alien design, and a party was busy unpacking boxes and assembling something that looked like a cross between a radar dish and a bazooka. MayFurr swallowed in realisation - while he couldn't be absolutely sure, he suspected that they were planning on overloading and draining the ship shields from the outside... and once the shield was down, the chakats would be able to figure out how to unlock the hatch and enter - if they didn't torch the door off first!
The vulpine reached into his bag and patted the remote for the ship reassuringly, pulling it out and stuffing it into his jacket pocket as his mind hastily discarded his original plan and worked through other options. MayFurr's paw brushed against the survival weapon in the bag, the fox considering pulling it out for a split-second before shaking his head and leaving the phaser-rifle secure in the bag. Too conspicuous. Quickly, he crept back to the waiting Sundown and Ranthe, making as little noise as possible through the forest undergrowth.
"Tourists." he announced quietly. " I suggest we move more over that way - after all, we don't want to alarm anyone else, eh?"
The chakat nodded in agreement. "It probably would be best," Sundown admitted. "After all, both of you scent differently to the other foxish races we are familiar with, and in a close personal situation... well, that's how I figured you weren't from Chakona or anywhere else we know about." Shi turned and led off in the direction MayFurr had pointed, the two foxes bringing up the rear.
"Sensitive noses, eh?" Ranthe mumbled. She gave a sidelong glance to her companion. "Those weren't tourists back there, were they?" she softly whispered, hoping Sundown didn't hear her. MayFurr nodded.
"We've got more chakat company than Sundown and Swiftsure out here. No time to explain. Ranthe - when I give the word, we're both going to run for the ship, I'm going to shut off the shield for ten seconds to allow us through before anyone else. Got that?"
Ranthe blinked, but nodded. "You mean, we're - what have you got planned up there?"
"No time to explain! Get ready."
Sundown broke into the clearing first, and stopped in surprise. The alien's ship was there, all right - and between hir and the ship was what appeared to be a black circle around it, and further out from that a group of uniformed chakats from - shi rubbed hir eyes - Chakonan Security Forces. That was indeed unusual - Chakats in general were not prone to violence, and the Chakona Security Force was pretty much a token policing group compared to the military on other worlds. To see chakats especially carrying weapons... what was going on? Shi turned to face MayFurr and Ranthe who came up behind hir.
"Some more of your friends?" Ranthe asked, her eyes widening at the sight. "Who are they?"
Sundown sat down on the grass, hir tail twitching as shi considered. "Well, I guess they're here from - "
MayFurr leapt around from behind the startled chakat as Ranthe sprinted towards the Fury, the male fox pulling out the remote from his pocket and stabbing a key sequence before breaking into a run after the vixen.
"GO GO GO GO!" MayFurr called out frantically. He counted off the seconds the shield was open in his head as he desperately ran. Ten seconds... nine...
Ranthe tore across the clearing towards the ship, her tail flying behind her like a banner as she ran as fast as her legs could carry her, followed by the slipping and stumbling MayFurr. The bubble of energy rippled and dissolved as the defence shield was lowered metres in front of her, the running vixen safely crossing the shield boundary marked by a line of dead grass and plants. Behind her, Sundown recovered quickly from hir shock, and raced off after the wayward vulpines, hir lower legs easily making up the distance as shi bounded towards them. "What the - Wait! Wait!" shi bellowed. "Come back!"
Chakat Commander Nightshade started at the sound of the disturbance, hir ears flicking up in alertness as strange cries reached hir ears. "Look - there!" one of hir subordinates shouted, pointing towards the two sprinting fox 'morphs closely followed by a tawny red-furred chakat.
"What the..." Nightshade roared. "Quick! After them!"
Still some distance behind Ranthe, MayFurr was panting and gasping as he approached the barrier with Sundown in hot pursuit, the chakat closing rapidly. Seven seconds... six seconds, almost there...
Sundown leaped towards him with a loud roar, hir arms and legs outstretched - shi grabbed onto the fox's waist -
MayFurr hit the ground hard as Sundown seized him, pulling the male fox down into the dirt with hir hands and forepaws. The two tumbled together across the grass, rolling towards the ship as they clawed and fought each other, Sundown's limbs scrabbling at the frantic fox, hir tail thrashing wildly -
Ranthe glanced behind at the sound of MayFurr's cries, seeing a group of the uniformed chakats break into a run after them. She gasped in shock when she caught sight of MayFurr behind her - turning and halting to watch with horror as the fox and chakat fought and rolled towards the blackened line in the ground - the line that marked the edge of the Fury's deadly defence energy shield!
If the shield reactivated while MayFurr and Sundown were on that ground where the line was -
Continue to Chapter 8
Copyright 1996 Terry Knight.
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