The trio watched the target display with fascination, as far off in the distance the Chakonan ships steadily climbed towards orbit.
"How many?" MayFurr asked, gripping the control yoke more firmly bracing himself for action.
"Stand by..." Ranthe answered, concentrating, her blue eyes fixed to the readout, her foxy lips whispering to herself. After a few moments she looked up. "I count four, May. Mostly small craft by the look of it, reaching orbital velocity, and closing."
Behind the two foxes, Sundown looked uneasy. The chakat nervously flexed hir fingers and toes, the claws on all hir feet making a rough skriiiik sound on the metal floor panels. "Are we in trouble now? What does this mean?" shi asked, hir eyes widening a little.
"It means, Sundown, that MayFurr now has to come up with a Plan B."
The small flotilla of Chakonan ships flew towards the unknown vessel. Three small single-seat craft of the Chakonan Security Force escorted the medium-sized runabout as each pilot anxiously checked their instruments.
"Blue Leader to Waitaki," the lead fighter craft called in, "Have visual contact with alien craft. Target is holding present course, moving slowly, range fifteen thousand."
Aboard the runabout, Chakat Commander Nightshade paced the floor, hir ears attentive. "Acknowledged Blue Leader." shi answered, tail flicking in seeming impatience. Shi reached for another pad on the command console in front of hir. "Waitaki to Blue Flight: The configuration of the alien ship matches the ship that left Chases-My-Tail three days ago. Continue present course and speed, weapons on standby but do not arm," shi ordered. "We don't want to frighten them off this time."
"When we hail them, do you think they'll listen to us?" a voice behind the jet-black chakat asked.
Nightshade angrily gripped the side of hir console and closed hir eyes for a moment, muttering under hir breath before taking a deep breath and calming down. Turning away from the viewscreen before hir, shi coldly addressed the sandy-spotted chakat, hir voice a low growl.
"I think that rather depends on you, Citizen Swiftsure. And you'd better not screw it up this time... had you?"
"It's definitely an intercept course, May," Ranthe reported. "Scope shows three small fighter-class ships, and one ship about the size of one of the Nighthawk's shuttles." The vixen's eyes were bright with excitement.
MayFurr rubbed his chin with one paw, stroking his whiskers. "Sundown," he asked, turning to face the chakat behind him, "What can you tell us about those sorts of ships?"
Sundown shook hir head. "I don't know," shi answered. "They'll probably be Security Force ships, but..." The chakat shrugged, hir tail flicking from side to side. "Security Force isn't very well-known, we hardly need anything like that on Chakona... I can't help you."
"Figures." MayFurr muttered under his breath. It seemed ironic to him that such an apparently peaceful planet managed to keep its defence forces a mystery to its own people, but he quickly shrugged it off. He had more pressing things to deal with anyway. The male fox returned his attention to the other target they were tracking - the space station and their intended ride. "Still no sign of activity from the space station. Estimated intercept time, Ranthe?"
"Fifteen minutes, May - assuming they hold current speed."
And he still had no indication as to when the starship was going to leave. "Damn."
"Continue on course to the station?" Ranthe asked.
MayFurr shook his head. "I'm going to hold our position relative to the Chakonan station, but move slowly away from the other ships. We can't risk those interceptors alerting the starship."
"Chakat Commander, target has slowed to roughly one-quarter impulse speed, same course heading," the young chakat sub-lieutenant at tactical called out.
Nightshade tapped hir personal display impatiently, sitting down on the runabout floor. As chakats and other 'taur-forms found normal chairs next to useless, Nightshade's command position was in the form of two waist-level armrests, each with the requisite panels for the commander of a Stellar Federation vessel. The chakat leaned against one of the padded armrests. "So, they've seen us..." Nightshade smiled. Shi flipped a switch on the armrest.
"Waitaki to Blue Flight, move to encirclement positions and stand by."
Three of the stubby fighter ships broke off formation with the runabout, and proceeded to briskly move outwards in a circular movement towards the alien vessel. Nightshade grinned widely as shi watched them, hir white teeth gleaming in the dimmed light of the cabin. "Hold present course, Lieutenant. Chakat Switftsure, activate the Universal Translator link," shi ordered, feeling pleased with hirself. Everything was going smoothly.
"Open hailing frequencies."
MayFurr mulled over the tactical display, considering his next move. "Looks like they're trying to herd us in to them. I'm raising our shields."
"May, we're receiving a transmission from the lead ship", Ranthe reported. "Audio... and a video component as well. It's slightly off our standard channels, but I can compensate."
"Do it." MayFurr instructed. "Put it up on screen and speakers."
Ranthe complied, and the main commscreen in the middle of the cockpit panel illuminated, showing a close-up of a jet-black chakat in a military-style uniform. Sundown leant over the back of Ranthe's chair for a better look.
"This is the Stellar Federation vessel Waitaki calling the alien ship in front of me," the chakat on the viewscreen spoke sternly. MayFurr, Ranthe and Sundown blinked in surprise - the voice spoke in the language of the two vulpines, while Sundown was able to understand through hir own translator still strapped to hir lower back. The other chakat continued. "You are advised that you are passing through Chakonan territorial space. Please identify yourself."
The vixen drummed her fingers on the console. "Standard challenge, I'd say," Ranthe pronounced. "Do we respond?"
"Not just yet." MayFurr manipulated the controls, and the Fury slowly started to swing to a new heading, taking it away from the oncoming ships. "We need to delay them for a while longer."
"Is that really wise?" Sundown asked. The tawny chakat looked worried. "Why don't you answer them?"
Minutes passed in silence as the Fury flew through the emptiness of space before the other ship hailed them again.
"Unidentified ship, we have reason to believe that you are carrying a Chakonan citizen against hir will," the black chakat on the viewer announced, dropping all pretence of ignorance as to the Fury's origins. "We require you to bring your ship to a full stop and identify yourself."
Ranthe looked to MayFurr, who shrugged. He pressed a switch on the console, and after clearing his throat, replied. "Stellar Federation ship Waitaki, this is Commander MayFurr of the Fiora's Fury, answering your hail. Please be advised that we have not kidnapped any of your citizens, and that we will be leaving your sector shortly."
The vixen raised an eyebrow as the Fury continued on its course unabated. "Since when did you get promoted?" she asked MayFurr.
"Call it a field commission." he grinned.
Suddenly a lance of energy tore across the front of the Fury, flaring the cockpit ghostly white. "What the - " MayFurr swore, hurriedly bringing the ship to a halt. "I guess they really do mean business!"
"No kidding." Ranthe coolly observed. "Commander."
The stern voice of the chakat came through the speakers again.
"Fiora's Fury from Waitaki, Chakat Commander Nightshade responding to you. We insist that we talk to the Chakonan citizen aboard your ship to verify your claims."
"Acknowledged Waitaki, we're putting hir on now."
Nightshade relaxed a little as Sundown's face appeared on the runabouts main viewer. "You are Chakat Sundown, child of Riverscent and Blacktip... correct?" shi asked, relieved to see the other chakat was apparently unharmed.
"Yes, that is correct Commander."
"And you are unharmed? What happened?"
The chakat on the viewscreen considered for a moment. Behind Nightshade, Swiftsure was nervously wringing hir hands, overjoyed to see hir lover again, yet apprehensive about the situation unfolding. "I am quite fine Commander, if just a little cramped... my hosts don't exactly have enough room for a full grown chakat." Sundown's face smiled at this, before continuing. "MayFurr is correct, they didn't abduct me or anything like it... they have been good to me, considering."
"Considering what, Sundown?" Nightshade asked. Swiftsure sidled up next to the commander, indicating shi wished to talk to the other ship, but Nightshade coldly brushed hir aside. "Commander MayFurr, we request that we beam over a party to your ship to investigate."
Sundown's face disappeared off the viewscreen, to be replaced after a couple of minutes by MayFurr's. "Ah, no can do Commander - as Sundown said, we're a little tight for space here for visitors."
On the Fury's viewer, Nightshade scratched hir whiskers. "Can you transport Sundown over to us then?"
"Sorry Waitaki, we don't have that sort of capacity." MayFurr replied. Sensing activity behind him, he pressed the 'mute' control on the comm panel and turned to Sundown. "What is it?" The chakat gestured at a small nondescript panel above him labelled 'EMERGENCY TRANSPORTER SYSTEM'. "What do you mean, 'no transport capacity' - what's this then?" shi angrily growled. "Don't you want me to go home? Why can't you use that to send me over there?" Sundown demanded, stamping hir forepaw.
Ranthe's eyes followed Sundown's hand to where shi was pointing, and sighed. "Several reasons, Sundown." Ranthe ticked off the list on her claws. "One: they're only able to pick morphs out of the seated positions on the ship - think of it as a sophisticated ejector seat. You wouldn't be able to fit in the confinement beam."
The chakat remained unimpressed. "Try me. Go on."
Rathe continued. "Two: the system when activated searches for the nearest habitable environment within range, and automatically beams everyone off to that area. In other words, you can't program a destination."
Sundown snorted. "So you stand out of the transporter area and activate, and as the nearest habitable ship is the Waitaki I'll be beamed there." Shi sighed. "You're stalling, Ranthe."
Ranthe looked hurt. "Sundown, I'm telling the truth. And what you suggest won't work because of the major reason we can't use the ETS to get you off: May, the Fury and myself will be destroyed thirty seconds after you leave."
At this, Sundown looked shocked for a brief minute. Shi looked to MayFurr, who nodded in confirmation. "How?" shi replied.
"It's really very simple, Sundown," Ranthe explained. "You only abandon ship if it's suffered critical damage. In order to stop a damaged wreck being a navigation hazard - and to protect its classified systems as well - the last thing the ETS does after a safe transport is to activate a range safety package on the main reactor. Once that goes... poof!" Ranthe described an expanding circle with her paws. "The ship - and anything or anyone still on board - is blown to bits."
Sundown sighed heavily. "Okay, you've convinced me." Hir tail flicked in frustration as Nightshade's voice came across the speakers again. "Acknowledged, Fiora's Fury. We'll beam Sundown over to us, please lower your shields for transport."
Ranthe's attention was caught by another blip on the tactical scanner. "May," she urgently called out, making sure the commlink to the Chakat runabout was muted, "It looks like the starship at the station is on the move."
The kilometre-long length of the exploration ship Isaac Asimov slowly pulled away from the Chakonan Gateway space-station, its bulk making an impressive sight to the spectators on the viewing lounges as a constellation of reaction thrusters fired to start the ship on its long journey.
Some ships were designed with a streamlined form, a graceful moulding of shape and style designed to evoke a sense of beauty of a vessel slipping between the stars. However, the Isaac Asimov wasn't one of them. Built out of several bulky box-like sections mounted on a central axis, a cluster of four huge warp nacelles mounted towards the aft of the ship and a myriad of beams, antennas and RCS quads dotted all over the hull, the Asimov certainly wasn't going to win any aesthetic awards. Nor was she designed to - it was power, endurance and ease of maintenance that were the cornerstones of the Stellar Federation Verne-class explorer vessels, as these ships had to look after themselves on very extended missions.
Captain Walker stood proudly on the bridge, watching with a certain excitement as his ship manoeuvred away from the station. The crew around him was the usual mixture of races that made up the Stellar Federation - humans, Chakats, Terran recoms, Voxxans and fox-'taurs - all working in a cheerful hub-bub of discussion and activity. It felt good to be going out again into the great unknown, he smiled to himself, this time in command of his own vessel.
"Chakona Gateway to Asimov, we confirm you clear of the station, clear to manoeuvre."
"Acknowledged Gateway, cleared to manoeuvre."
"Have a good trip, Asimov - see you in a couple of years. Chakona Gateway out."
"Thank you Gateway, we'll bring you some souvenirs," Walker replied. Turning to his chakat first officer, he smiled and said, "Mister Dawnfire, take us out. One-quarter impulse power till we're clear of Chakonan space, then engage warp drive."
"Aye sir," Chakat Commander Dawnfire replied, and shi began to give the necessary orders to the crew. Walker sat back into his command chair and relaxed, watching the impressive vista of the stars and the bulge of Chakona beneath them slowly shift as the Asimov slewed around and began to pick up speed out of orbit.
"Shall we lower shields for Sundown to get off before we head out?" Ranthe asked, watching the blips describe a sedate dance on the Fury's tactical readout.
"Like hell we will," MayFurr muttered under his breath. "What's to stop that lot beaming all of us over instead of just Sundown? I'm not gonna risk it." He switched back to the open channel. "Ah, negative Waitaki, we have some problems our end that will take a few moments to solve. Please stand by."
Sundown couldn't believe hir ears. "MayFurr - What's the matter? You can trust them - chakats don't do that sort of thing!" Shi touched him on the shoulder, fixing hir gaze into his eyes. "What are you afraid of? Ever since we've met and been able to communicate with each other you've been holding back, trying to work around me and Swiftsure behind our backs, scheming and plotting." Sundown paused, spreading hir arms out in a gesture of openness. "Trust us, please!"
"I promised Ranthe that I'd get her home to Furry Prime if I could," MayFurr answered, his voice cool and remote. "I'm responsible for her - I owe her that much."
"And get yourself killed?" Sundown snorted, impatiently pawing the deck plating with hir forepaws as shi grabbed onto MayFurr's seat, shaking it a little. "There's no guarantee that the Asimov will take you on board, and you'll only succeed in alienating yourselves - pardon the pun - from the authorities when you get back! But if you just fly back with the Waitaki to Chakona - or at least let them beam me over - they'll be able to help you!"
"Yeah right," MayFurr scoffed, facing Sundown and meeting hir urgent stare. "Your people haven't encountered another spacefaring race for what, fifty odd years? They won't let us just walk away! I know what'll happen - Ranthe and I will be lucky to get out of your labs inside eighteen months, and even then we'll be curiosities for the rest of our lives!"
"What's going on over there?" Nightshade muttered to hirself. Leaning on the armrest again, shi faced the worried-looking Swiftsure. "It's a straight-forward request... what's the problem?"
Swiftsure brushed some of hir head-fur out of hir eyes, feeling very much out of hir depth. The roller-coaster ride of Sundown's sudden alien discovery, the long journey travelling from Dewclaw University to Chases-My-Tail, witnessing hir lover's 'abduction' and finally being hauled over the coals by this no-nonsense Security Force chakat had done nothing to improve hir nerves under the circumstances.
"Um, I got the feeling Nightsh- I mean sir," Swiftsure gulped, "that the two aliens weren't telling Sundown and myself everything."
"What a stunning observation," Nightshade growled sarcastically. "You seem to have been proven correct, Citizen Swiftsure."
The sandy-spotted chakat wilted under the rebuke. "What I mean is, is, that they're naturally suspicious, especially if you remember they are in a strange environment far from home. They won't have any reason to trust us yet, that's what I was thinking."
Nightshade pondered this, rubbing hir jet-black muzzle with one hand, hir tail brushing from side to side. "But they have come back to Chakona of their own free will," shi mumbled to hirself. "Why?"
"Let me talk to them," Swiftsure offered. "I know them a little, I could persuade them to trust us..." The black chakat remained silent, thinking carefully over hir next move. The atmosphere in the runabout cabin was tense as the rest of the runabout crew waited expectantly.
Nightshade reached a decision, and barked out orders to hir crew.
"Uh May," Ranthe called out, her ears flicking worriedly, "The starship is picking up speed, and our other friends out there are starting to close to within what I'd judge to be tractor-beam range."
MayFurr ignored his partners warning, continuing his argument with the chakat. "Okay, I could cope with us being lab specimens if we didn't have this chance, or even if I did and I was on my own. I'm alone back home, and staying here wouldn't be a problem one way or the other. But Ranthe's got a home, a family that she wants to return to - and I'm not going to throw that chance away!"
"MayFurr..." Ranthe tried again. "Those ships are closing fast - "
Sundown rested hir hand on the fox's shoulder. "MayFurr... We can offer you and Ranthe a home here," shi tried to reassure him. "We'll treat you well, I promise... you can have a fulfilling life with us on Chakona. You don't have to be alone any more."
MayFurr looked deeply into Sundown's golden eyes, the chakat's gaze clear and unwavering. Shi meant every word shi said, he realised, and a sudden tingle ran through his body at the prospect of what shi was offering him. To no longer be alone, no longer an outsider as he was even on the Nighthawk... To be accepted instead of merely tolerated. The offer was attractive, enticing even - surely it was the chance he'd been looking for all his life!
As if following the fox's thoughts, Swiftsure's face appeared on the Fury's monitor. "MayFurr, please listen to us - we won't harm you or your mate in any way," shi pleaded. "We just want to take Sundown home with us... and both of you are more than welcome to come back to Chakona. Please... lower your shields."
"MayFurr... they're still closing, we don't have much time..." Ranthe hissed to the mesmerised fox. "The starship's getting away!" But MayFurr remained frozen in his chair, his mind running around in circles, undecided as to which way to turn. To join the chakats on the planet below - or risk a desperate attempt to get home?
"How long before we have them in tractor range, Lieutenant?" Nightshade asked, leaning forward expectantly as the Fiora's Fury loomed closer in the viewscreen.
"Forty-five seconds - target still holding position."
Ranthe's bushy tail twitched impatiently, anxiously searching her partners face for some kind of reaction, some kind of movement. He'd got them this far, risking everything to give her the chance of returning to Furry Prime, but surely he hadn't given up now? A quick glance at the tactical display confirmed her fears. The Chakonan craft had almost completed an encircling manoeuvre preventing the Fury from escaping, while the larger ship - presumably the Waitaki - was steadily bearing down on them.
She couldn't let MayFurr waste this chance!
Quickly Ranthe switched the Fury's nav controls over to her position, and flung the ship into a steep banking manoeuvre, taking both MayFurr and Sundown by surprise. The vixen gunned the main impulse engines, and steered to the steadily shrinking gap between two of the oncoming Chakonan fighters, her agile mind calculating the optimum moment for each swing and turn she executed.
Sundown stumbled backwards, almost toppling over as shi desperately tried to steady hirself. "RANTHE!" shi shouted, suddenly noticing the two incoming ships through the cockpit window. "You can't do this, Ranthe! You can't!"
Ranthe said nothing, grimly gritting her teeth as the distance between to the other ships rapidly shrunk, the Fury's powerful engines eating up the distance as the vixen stubbornly held to a certain collision course. The chakat gasped in shock, hir eyes widened in fright, the Chakonan fighters looming larger and larger before them -
- before Ranthe pulled the nose of the ship up, screeching at near full impulse power mere metres away over the heads of the Chakonan pilots. The Fury rapidly left the two ships behind, barrelling onwards towards the departing starship far off in the distance. Alarms sounded through the cockpit, jolting MayFurr out of his frozen state, as the ship's defence sensors detected a weapons lock from behind them.
"Ranthe!" MayFurr shouted. "What's happening?"
"Saving our tails - as usual," Ranthe snapped back, her eyes fixed on the displays and systems. "Nice you could come back to us May, we sure could use you now..."
"Ah, yeah, right... sorry 'bout that," MayFurr mumbled by way of apology, hastily refreshing himself on what was happening. A quick check of the rearward scanners confirmed that the Chakonan ships were in pursuit. "Okay, the Asimov's at two-one-zero, mark one-four, making what I'd judge to be thirty percent of our maximum impulse speed. Course appears consistent with standard escape trajectory."
"Acknowledged," Ranthe replied, flashing a smile back at him. "Activating targeting lock sequence, linking to nav computer... we've got him now!"
Sundown managed to pull hirself off the floor and frantically shaking the two pilot seats. "Have you two gone barking mad?" shi roared. "What about me?"
Ranthe quickly turned about, the vixen's face a snarling fury. "Don't ever call me barking mad again!" she snapped at the startled chakat, quickly resuming her evasion efforts. Behind the Fury, the Waitaki and her escorts were closing quickly, angling to keep up with the fleeing alien vessel.
Another alarm sounded through the cabin, catching MayFurr's attention. "Warp signature detected, same distance as Asimov - " he gasped... then he nodded. "It's the Asimov all right, she's gone to warp. Heading confirmed and laid in!"
"Dammit you two!" Sundown howled, growing steadily more frightened. "Bring us about, and stop this madness!"
A crackle from the speakers broke through the noise in the cockpit, and Nightshade's face appeared again on the viewscreen. "Fiora's Fury, please bring your ship about! We mean you no harm - we promise! Please!" Behind the chakat commander, a panicking Swiftsure could be seen, desperately calling out at the top of hir voice, "Sundown, please - tell them to stop! They can't do this! Love, make them stop! Make them stop!"
Indicators came up on the Fury's display, closely followed by a low powerful hum from the engines. Ranthe looked up, her eyes gleaming with excitement.
"May - warp engines now online, course set!"
Continue to Chapter 10
Copyright 1996 Terry Knight.
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