Ranthe watched the space station and the energy barrier out the viewscreen slowly grow closer and closer, the vixen's ears twitching impatiently. "What's taking them so long over there?" she wondered aloud. "They've got our ID code..."
"Hailing them first would be a good idea Ranthe," MayFurr grinned. Ranthe gave him a dirty look, activating the comm system as behind them Sundown stifled a chuckle.
"Dreamstar station, this is the Fiora's Fury, ex USS Nighthawk, escorting Stellar Federation exploration vessel Isaac Asimov," Ranthe calmly intoned into her microphone. "Requesting permission to dock."
"Now we wait," MayFurr smiled. He turned to look over the back of his seat to Sundown, who was securely strapped into hir 'chair'. "How's it going back there?"
Sundown flexed hir pawhands, stretching a little. "Pretty good thanks May," the chakat nodded. "This new seat's a lot more comfortable than the floor. Bare metal was getting rather chilly on my backside, if you know what I mean."
Ranthe started to say something, but a crackle of voice from the cabin monitor speaker cut her off.
"Unidentified vessels, this is Dreamstar station. We require you to hold your positions."
MayFurr blinked in surprise. "Unidentified?!?" he angrily yipped. "But we just - "
Dawnfire's voice broke in on a secondary channel. "Asimov to Fury, we missed that last transmission. What's happening?"
Sundown looked up to Ranthe, who nodded and switched the chakat's comm circuit over to Dawnfire. "Sundown here sir, we seem to be having some problems with identification."
"Ain't that the truth," Ranthe muttered. She cleared her throat and started again, the vixen's tail brushing from side to side in impatience. "Dreamstar Station, this is Ranthe Banarlek of the Fiora's Fury. We have identified ourselves to you, and returned IFF interrogation codes. What more do you want?"
The reply, when it came, was devastating. "To the vessel calling itself the Fiora's Fury - the real Fury was destroyed in combat over six standard months ago during the last attack from your side ... so do you want to try again, with the truth this time? This is your first warning."
"Oh my god..."
Ranthe and MayFurr stared at each other, open-mouthed, both vulpines stunned with the realisation. "All this time..." Ranthe finally choked out, gasping, "All this time.. they think we've been dead..."
MayFurr nodded numbly, his body rigid with shock. "I can't believe it..." Tears welled up in his eyes.
Behind them, Sundown lowered hir head in sympathy, the sinking feeling in hir heart for hir friends soon being replaced by a gnawing mood of dread. If Dreamstar Station refused to accept their identification, then what would they do with the Asimov - who had been relying on MayFurr and Ranthe setting up goodwill for them? Suddenly all the mission plans Sundown, Dawnfire and the others had been working on were crumbling about their furry ears.
"Unidentified vessels, hold your present positions. This is your second warning."
"Helm, bring us to full stop, hold at fifty kilometres from that energy field," Captain Walker growled, shifting irritably in his command chair on board the Asimov.
Dawnfire pressed the headset shi was wearing harder against hir feline ears, trying to follow the rapid-fire translation of the transmissions between the station and the Fury. "Captain, we seem to be having some problems with identification between the Fury and..." Hir voice trailed off, and hir face clouded with concern. Wrinkling hir muzzle, shi whispered into the mike, "Say again Sundown... what did the station... oh no...!"
"Report, Commander!" Walker snapped, warily eying the ovoid ship on the viewscreen. "Why are they blocking us still? What happened to MayFurr and Ranthe gaining passage for us?"
The chakat first officer swallowed, hir forelegs shifting worriedly as shi turned to face the captain, relaying Sundown's report as to what was going on aboard the Fiora's Fury.
Walker jolted upright. "WHAT?"
"They say our friends are supposed to be dead." Dawnfire repeated.
An expression of anger crossed over the human's face. "I knew this chance was too good to be true!" he muttered to himself. "So what have we done, Dawnfire - travelled across half the bloody galaxy carrying a couple of con-artists? They've been lying to us all along!"
Dawnfire looked up again after a further conversation over the commlink. "I don't think so sir, Sundown says that MayFurr and Ranthe are as shocked as we are."
"Sure, Sundown would say that - shi's been going out with one of them, if not both!" Walker grumbled under his breath. "Of course she'd defend them - "
"I don't care whether you're my commanding officer, lover, or the entire Space Command council, I will not stand for anyone insulting a chakat's honour that way!" Dawnfire angrily interrupted him. "Chakats don't do that sort of thing, especially not on something as important as this! If Sundown says that's what's going on over there, then that's the truth - I believe her, even if you don't... sir," shi said, hissing at him under hir breath.
Walker glared at hir, but Dawnfire stood hir ground, hir fur raised and hir teeth exposed in a quite uncharacteristically angry snarl. "And don't forget the accident that took them to Chakona in the first place, " shi added. "From their own description of the spatial rift, I could well believe that to an outside observer destruction of their ship would be very believable."
The captain relented, easing back into his chair, his face offering a mute apology. "Okay... but that still doesn't alter our current stand-off," Walker said, frowning. "And judging by the way that ship's been placing itself between us and the station, they obviously regard the Asimov as a threat."
"Well, what's Plan B?" Ranthe asked aloud, recovering sufficiently from her shock to start thinking about a solution to their predicament. "Any ideas?"
MayFurr had slumped morosely against the control panel, having first brought the Fury to a full stop a mere five kilometres from the strange ovoid vessel from the Dreamstar. "Plan B..." he moaned softly, "We always have to go to Plan B... Why can't anything we do go right the first time for a change?" He propped his paw underneath his muzzle and stared glumly out the viewscreen. "I should just go to Plan B first and be done with it..."
The vixen beside him shrugged, looking disdainfully at her companion. "That's why they called you Snafu, remember?"
Sundown shook hir head, reaching up with one hand to scratch through hir head-fur. "Isn't there something else you can use to prove who you are? Details about your old ship, your crew, things that aren't generally known?"
MayFurr and Ranthe looked at each other. "Of course..." Ranthe breathed, her face lighting up in realisation, "That's it! Sundown, you're a genius!"
"They're hailing us again," Artania observed to Snorty aboard Dreamstar. "Still coming up voice, and using the same ID codes as before."
"Put it on speaker, let's hear it," the dragon replied, checking across the station boards and confirming that the station was now at full readiness. "You're out there keeping an eye on them, and they shouldn't be able to punch through the barrier."
Artania nodded, and the voice of the vixen on board the Fury came across the speakers. "... calling Dreamstar station, please respond... we can understand how you think we're imposters, but we can offer additional means of identification - if you'll only give us a chance. Please respond..."
Snorty looked sideways at Artania, who shook her head. "I don't trust them," she coolly announced. "There's nothing they can tell us that can't be gained from other sources, and that other ship they're supposedly escorting could overwhelm the station if we let it through."
"Did you scan the other ship - the big one - for weapon systems?"
"Of course I did," Artania said, her voice getting colder, the feline's ears flicking back.
"Were they powered up at all?"
"That is not the point - "
A firm dragon hand gripped Artania's shoulder. "Artania - yes, or no?" Snorty firmly insisted. "Do either of the ships have their weapons activated?"
Artania's eyes narrowed, any hint of compassion replaced by hard-edged determination as she glared into the furry dragon's face. She held her stare for what seemed like an eternity before lowering her eyes to the floor.
"No..." the feline finally admitted, "The intruders' weapons are not activated." She slowly reached up to remove his hand from her shoulder, pausing for a moment to hold it before releasing it.
Snorty let out a sigh of relief. "Fine. That's what I wanted to know." He scratched under his muzzle with a clawtip, thinking. "It won't do us any harm to hear them out," he decided eventually. "But keep an eye on them just in case." He switched on the commlink again, and opened a channel.
"Dreamstar to Fiora's Fury..."
Inside the Fury's cockpit, Ranthe silently motioned to Sundown to pass her another water pack as questioning continued.
"Where is the rec room on deck fifteen of the Nighthawk, Fury?"
The channel had been running hot as the two foxes fielded queries and rebuttal from the station, while in the background Sundown kept Dawnfire on the Asimov informed as to their progress.
"Dreamstar, the 'hawk doesn't have a deck fifteen. Next," Ranthe answered, gratefully accepting the water pack and sipping a drink.
"And you say that Shades McKatt is your squadron commander?"
"Affirmative Dreamstar, that is correct." MayFurr replied, irritation showing in his voice. "Look Dreamstar, we've been doing this for the last fifteen minutes, yet you don't sound much more convinced than when we started... you might like to play Twenty Questions with us for the next millennium, but some of us out here don't have the endurance!" The fox cleared his throat. "Now...what's it to be? You must know the truth of some of what we've been telling you to keep us out here so long, so what more do you need? Ranthe and myself will submit ourselves to a DNA check if you like, in person aboard the station if you need any further proof - you can't get any better than that!"
The com channel fell silent for a few moments. Ranthe shifted uneasily in her seat, all eyes fixed on the ship outside the barrier. Sundown glanced to the bulk of the Asimov beside them, the giant explorer ship dwarfing both the other two vessels. If the other ship opened fire, shi wondered, how long would they both last?
A new voice on the com channel from the station interrupted the chakat's thoughts. "Dreamstar station to Fiora's Fury and Isaac Asimov," it announced. "You will proceed through the barrier under Artania's escort. Any deviation from this course and you will be fired upon." As the deep rumbly voice spoke, a portal opened in the barrier, and the strange ovoid ship moved to cover both vessels as the opening grew larger. "Once on the other side of the barrier, the Isaac Asimov will hold position twenty kilometres from the station, while the ship calling itself Fiora's Fury will proceed to the main landing bay. If you do not follow these instructions, we will assume you are hostile and will react accordingly."
On the flightdeck of the Fury, and on the bridge of the Asimov there was a collective sigh of relief. MayFurr switched to Dawnfire's channel. "Fury to Asimov, you got that? Looks like we're in."
"Acknowledged," Dawnfire's voice came back over the speakers and in Sundown's head-set. "Your people sure are a friendly bunch, aren't they?"
At that, Ranthe chuckled. "Trust me Dawnfire, for some areas in Furryspace what we've just been through is the height of respect..."
The noise of the Fury's engines was winding down in Dreamstar's massive hangar bay as the hatch on the ship was opened. Sundown peered out through the opening at a large number of exotic-looking spaceships that shared the hangar with them, all bathed under an oddly sourceless white light emanating from glowing panels in the roof, illuminating the room with very few shadows. Surprisingly, there was no other activity on the bay at the moment - in fact, it looked deserted of all other life - but as Sundown climbed down the steps of the Fury and onto the deck plating she noticed a feline 'morph and a rather unusual-looking reptilian creature approaching from a pair of sliding doors set into the far wall.
The two fox 'morphs climbed down the steps behind the chakat, and stood either side of hir as they waited for the approaching forms to arrive, taking the time to look around them. Behind them was the magnetically-sealed entranceway, transparent to space, and scattered around the bay were several large display screens, giving a constant view of the station's local space and showing the bulky shape of the Asimov off in the distance.
Snorty and Artania approached the small group beside the Fury, and stopped, appraising them coolly. "Lieutenant MayFurr and Ranthe Banarlek, I presume?" the furry dragon asked, his reptilian tail slowly brushing the deck behind him.
"Yes, that is correct," Ranthe answered, her vulpine eyes calmly fixed upon him.
The dragon mumbled non-committally under his breath, and inclined his head towards Sundown. "And who is your companion here?" he inquired thoughtfully.
"This is Chakat Sundown, a representative of the Stellar Federation," MayFurr replied, gesturing towards the chakat who smiled and stepped forward. "Shi also represents the starship Isaac Asimov, with whom we were travelling with. They are explorers, travelling in peace."
Artania levelled her gaze into Sundown's eyes, the chakat flinching a bit under the cold intense stare shi was receiving before the white-furred feline lifted her head up and turned to Snorty.
Snorty nodded. "I am Snortenheimer, Dreamstar Station administrator, and this is Artania, my general systems operator," he said. "I apologise for the security measures we have had to subject you to, but given your approach path we can't be too careful. The last visitors from that side came close to destroying us. The Frontier can be a dangerous place, and we have to protect ourselves."
MayFurr nodded in understanding, and extended his paw out to the furry dragon, only to be cut off by Artania. "We're still not convinced of your identity yet, so I wouldn't get too familiar if I were you," Artania warned, her voice having a decided edge to it that set both fox's ears back. "According to our records both of you died in combat over six months ago - "
"- Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know," MayFurr interrupted. "But you're not convinced that we are fakes either, right? Else we wouldn't be here having this conversation."
The furry dragon glanced at Artania, who nodded slightly. "Most of the details you gave us are correct," Snorty admitted, "While some of the information you gave is wrong - including details of the Nighthawk command staff - your knowledge is consistent with your story of being absent during that time. However," he added, causing a smile of vindication on the fox's muzzles to vanish as abruptly as it had started, "such gaps can be easily faked."
Snorty motioned to Artania, who reached under her encompassing cloak and pulled out what MayFurr and Ranthe saw to be a standard-issue medkit. "We will take a blood sample from each of you, and do a DNA comparison with the records we have requested from the Nighthawk," Artania explained, though her voice contained as much warmth as the vacuum of space. "If it confirms your story, you are free to go. If not..." and she let the sentence dangling threateningly. MayFurr and Ranthe looked at each other, then shrugged and held their arms out to Artania, the white-furred feline carefully obtaining a syringe sample of bright red vulpine blood from both of them.
While Artania was analysing the blood samples, Snorty had taken MayFurr, Ranthe and Sundown into his office on Dreamstar's administration deck, after instructing some of the security staff to place the Fury under guard. The furry dragon's attention was now focussed on the chakat before him, Sundown explaining the nature of the Asimov's mission to Snorty, leaving the two vulpines to wait nervously for Artania to return.
The chakat had got up to telling Snorty about the background to Chakat history when Artania entered the room, her face inscrutable as always. MayFurr and Ranthe looked up in anticipation, the question on their lips unspoken.
"Snorty, the DNA samples match," Artania said, handing over a datapad to the furry dragon. "It's all there." She turned around to the foxes. "It seems you two have come back from the dead after all." MayFurr and Ranthe turned to each other, wide grins breaking over their faces, and hugged each other, their tails curling around with joy.
Snorty looked on with quiet satisfaction. "Good to see everything's worked out," he said, grinning. "Artania, tell the Asimov they are clear to dock after standard atmosphere and decontamination checks."
"I'll contact Nighthawk and tell them you've come back to them," Snorty said. "That is, if you want to..."
MayFurr looked up from the view outside the viewing window on the Dreamstar's observation deck, where he, Sundown and Ranthe watching shuttlecraft dart back and forth between the station and the Asimov. It had turned out that the Stellar Federation ship and the station's docking equipment wasn't compatible, and while modifications were taking place they had to resort to more old-fashioned methods. Snorty had just returned from his initial meeting with Captain Walker and his First Contact team, and was very pleased with the results.
The male fox glanced over to Sundown, the felitaur's golden eyes meeting his. On the one paw, it would be good to return to the familiar surroundings of the Nighthawk, but on the other... he had learned so much, and found something on Chakona that he hadn't expected to find for such a long time...
"MayFurr?" Ranthe asked, jolting him out of his thoughts.
"The Nighthawk..." the vixen prompted.
"Oh, yes.. that." he replied absent-mindedly. "I'll think about it."
Ranthe nodded, having noticed the looks that he and Sundown had been exchanging. "We'll let you know what we decide," she advised Snorty. The furry dragon tilted his head slightly in acknowledgment, before heading off about his business.
Putting his arms around Ranthe and Sundown, MayFurr gave them both a heartfelt squeeze. "It's great to be here again, eh?"
The vixen smiled, snugging back. "You sure did it May," she whispered into his ear. "You said you would, and you did... you brought us home at last."
Copyright 1996 Terry Knight (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Acknowledgments to Bernard Doove (for the chakats) and Brett Tamahori (for Artania and Snorty). Thanks heaps for the encouragement in writing this rather involved saga!
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