The day had dawned still and clear. There was a chilly bite in the air that made it all the more refreshing. My fur and Trina's easily kept us warm, but Kris' fur was lighter and he preferred to wear a jacket, although I suspected that he wouldn't need it for too long. The hike would soon warm him up and the weather promised another hot day.
We had our breakfast before dawn and we were prepared to leave shortly after sunup. It was our intention to make our way to the mountains to the south where the trail made its way through a high pass and it intersected with another path from the east. There we would meet with my sister, Goldfur, who would join us for our hike for the next couple of days. Shi seldom got the opportunity to travel with us as hir work as a starship technician kept hir a long way from Earth for many weeks. After about an hour of walking, the trail started winding its way up the mountainside. Unlike yesterday's emergency, there was no rush, and we could take greater care negotiating the path, although it wasn't as dangerous as the cliffside trail. We paused at one of the open areas to gaze out over the valley. The sunlight was reflecting off ripples on the lake and a flock of cockatoos was noisily making its way to some feeding site. Everywhere else was virtually unbroken green with the bluish tinge that results from eucalyptus oil in the air. I felt very possessive of this beautiful country and I'm pleased to be able to contribute to maintaining it in its near pristine state.
We proceeded with our hike and it wasn't long before we had made our way to the junction of the trails. We were a bit early and nobody else was there yet, but I knew Goldfur would be here soon as shi was very reliable for turning up at an appointed time. As the moment drew near, I kept watching the trail for hir approach. The breeze was blowing exactly in the wrong direction to scent hir coming. Then almost right to the minute, shi appeared around a bend in the trail. Shi always had this uncanny ability to time things this well and it probably helped greatly in hir profession. Then another person followed hir around the bend. It was another chakat, but it was almost like Goldfur's shadow had been given solidity. Shi had jet black fur with no other shade to break the solid colour. Shi wasn't even wearing a halter or jacket to interrupt the lustrous black pelt. It seems that Goldfur had indeed brought a friend as shi had hinted, and a very interesting one at that. As the newcomer came closer, I could see that there was some colour to hir after all, but that was in hir startling crystal blue eyes. Chakat eyes are usually golden-green and I had never seen the like of these before.
I turned my attention back to my sister who had walked up to me, and we embraced and gave each other a welcoming nuzzle. Hir last tour of duty had taken hir away from Earth for over 4 months, and I hadn't seen hir since shi got back a few days ago. We had only talked over the phone and arranged this get-together and it was then that shi had hinted that shi might have a companion on this outing. We broke apart and shi gestured hir friend forward.
"Sister," shi said formally, "Let me introduce my companion. This is Midnight and shi was the scout-team leader of the planetary survey team of the starship that I was last on. Midnight, please greet my baby sister Forestwalker and hir lifemates, Kris and Trina."
Humph! Baby sister indeed. There were only 11months between us. Goldfur always loved playing older sister, even though we were now both mature adults. Nevertheless, that wasn't going to stop me from greeting hir new friend properly. I stepped up to embrace hir and shi returned the hug with enthusiasm. Shi felt very cuddly and I looked forward to getting to know hir better. Shi also hugged Kris and Trina who looked like they enjoyed it as much as I did.
Goldfur and Midnight didn't feel in need of a rest-break yet, so we decided to continue our hike to the west, following the ridge of the mountain. This not only was more challenging, but also gave us some magnificent views. As we hiked, I fell into conversation with Midnight. I was a little surprised that Goldfur wasn't trying to update me on hir travels and I began to wonder if something odd was going on. It turned out that Midnight had very similar tastes to mine, including the love of forests. Only shi had extended hir curiosity to other worlds, while I had focused on protecting Australia's native bushlands. We spent a lot of time comparing biospheres of various worlds with Earth's and almost forgot about our companions. Occasionally I would notice that the other three were having quite a discussion of their own, although, because I hadn't paid any attention, I didn't have a clue what they were talking about. Then, as Midnight was explaining the survival characteristics of some of the better known furry denizens of the planet Voxxa, I scented smoke. All thoughts of other-worldly matters were pushed aside. There wasn't a fire ban in place at this time, so hikers and campers could make cooking fires, but they always worried me. More than a few times, I had seen the consequences of a careless fire and once I even had to outrun a firestorm deliberately started by a firebug.
"Do you smell that smoke?" I asked the others. "I'm going to dash on ahead to the next rise to check it out and try to see the source."
"I'll come with you," said Midnight. I guess that shi too would have first-hand knowledge of the effects of wildfire.
For the next few minutes we were silent as we raced to the next vantage point. As soon as we reached it, we could see the column of smoke that obviously was the source of our concern. Midnight pulled out a pair of small but powerful binoculars from hir carisak. They must have been part of hir standard scouting equipment. I had a similar pair for my work.
"It looks okay," shi said. "I can see a campsite with several humans and they look pretty organised. The fire looks to be well constructed and safe."
I sighed with relief. Bushfires were the closest thing I have to a phobia and I was glad to put my mind at ease. "I wonder what they are doing over there? Maybe we will bump into them later and find out. Perhaps they are hikers like us, only doing the route in the opposite direction."
"It's pointless speculating," Midnight replied. "If we do meet, you can ask them. Here come the others. Are you ready to push on?"
We continued our trek and while we found the walk enjoyable, there was nothing of particular interest to make the afternoon noteworthy. As evening approached, we found our campsite at the foot of the ranges in a sheltered spot convenient to a sparkling clear creek. This being a national park, we had brought our own food supplies along, although, if it had been otherwise, any one of us was quite capable of hunting up a meal. The chakats in the group had a distinct advantage though, in that we could eat almost anything, including some things that would kill humans and many other morphs like Trina. We soon had our own (very safe) campfire going and we joked and chatted as we prepared our meals. Finally Goldfur and I started catching up on each other's lives.
As the sky darkened, we made ourselves comfortable around the fire. The moon was nearly full and the temperature pleasant. A near-perfect end to the day. Trina and Kris seemed engrossed in one another and I had Goldfur snuggling up on my left side and Midnight cosy at my right. Once again I suspected that a little subtle maneuvering was going on. Oh well, might as well enjoy it. It was not that often that I got to meet a new chakat and we had hit it off just great so far. It was time for some of that enthusiastic tactile interaction for which we chakats were unashamedly famous. I began to stroke the fur on Midnight's back. Shi closed hir eyes and simply welcomed the sensation. Hir fur was unusually soft and I enjoyed the feel of it between my fingers. I liked to have my back fur petted, especially along the spine, and I thought the chances were good that shi would too. Shi started a rumble in hir chest, a chakat purr. Yes, shi liked it too! Then Goldfur surprised me by starting the same on me. Oooh! What a lovely feeling. I was definitely in the mood for something more physical. I took off my halter-top and Goldfur followed suit with hir hiking vest. Midnight still wasn't wearing anything but hir fur, but shi looked as if shi was prepared to go a step further anyway. I reached up to hir face and gently guided hir lips to mine and then left it to hir to make the next move. Shi was apparently as excited as I was because, after being given this unspoken permission, shi began to enthusiastically kiss and fondle me. There we were muzzle to muzzle, stroking each other's breasts, and absolutely revelling in the sensation. I was aware that Goldfur seemed to be doing hir best to be petting and stroking us both in an effort to heighten this sensual interplay. Then, when I glimpsed the other two watching us with grins on their faces, I knew for certain that we had been set-up. At that point, I simply didn't care. Our tactile and sensual natures had already nearly overwhelmed us and we were enjoying this too much to want to stop.
It helped to know why I had been put into this position. As much as I loved my lifemates, and they me, my mates knew that I needed more interaction with my own kind. I once confessed that I wondered about having a cub one of these days. I could not become pregnant by Kris, nor could I fertilise Trina, and though my need was not urgent, they knew that my desire for a child would keep growing. So now it looked like they had conspired with my sister to play matchmaker. Undoubtedly Midnight was in a similar situation and we had been thrown together to see what happened. Not that I was going to get pregnant tonight. For starters, I wasn't in season yet; but more importantly, despite our passion, we had known each other for only part of one day and having a cub meant so much more to a chakat than a mere frolic with a new friend. However, that didn't mean that we couldn't enjoy each other to the fullest. Casual affairs were common for us and, because I believed my lifemates had conspired to bring about this meeting, I knew that there wouldn't be any jealous feelings on their part.
I was feeling deep pleasure and I was about to step up the pace when our intimacies were rudely interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. It wasn't too close but we all heard it clearly and all activity ceased. Moments later, there was another shot. This was bad. Gunfire at night was suspicious in itself, but in a national park it meant poachers. Even in this day and age, there were still people who hunted exotic animals for souvenirs, fur or even pets. Bird's eggs were stolen for a lucrative overseas market for rare birds. And because the penalties were so high, the type of person who would still risk it, tended to be rather uncaring of other people's well-being, to the point of killing witnesses. I thought of this as being my park and I was outraged by what I believed was going on.
"I'm going to have to investigate that but I want some backup. Kris can't go because his night vision isn't good enough for a stealthy look-see. Trina would be good but her light coloured fur would stand out like a beacon in this moonlight. Goldfur just isn't familiar enough with the bush. Midnight, you're used to scouting in unfamiliar territory. Can you back me up?"
"Sure, no problem. What do you intend to do?"
"I want to confirm their activities. If they are poaching, I want to ascertain what they are after, how many of them there are and where they're based. If possible, I don't want to let them know that we are here; that could be unhealthy for us. Grab anything that you think might be essential and follow me. The rest of you should put out the fire and break camp. Be prepared to make tracks fast."
With that I grabbed my carisak and headed back down the trail in the general direction of the shots. We had gone perhaps half a kilometre when a couple more shots rang out, disturbingly near. It was time to leave the path. I plunged into the bush and heard Midnight following close behind. I turned to look at hir and found it hard to see hir at all. Shi was a living shadow and, if shi wasn't moving, I would have a hard time detecting hir without hearing or scenting hir first. As we made our way further into the bush, I began to hear the occasional voice or the breaking of branches. What clumsy fools these people were. If they were after animals, most would surely be in hiding and would be safe from capture or shooting. The gentle breeze was no help as they were downwind. Then we spotted some lights. Some were moving, but the strongest were stationary.
"What do you reckon?" Midnight asked. "Do you think it's their campsite?"
"Maybe. I think it's just a base of operations for the night's activities. Poachers don't tend to hang around long after they have raided an area. But we still have to confirm that's what they are doing and not jump to conclusions. You hang back and I'll creep up for a closer look."
"Okay, just don't get too far ahead." With that, shi disappeared into the shadows. Even knowing where to look, I could not spot hir. I started to make a silent approach to the lights. I could smell a number of humans and a lot of alcohol. Worse yet, I could smell blood. Finally I was close enough to spy through a bush. I gasped in horror. So many pelts and carcasses. More animals still alive, crammed into tiny cages. I saw one man packing eggs into padding. This was not a case of a couple of poachers making a bit of money illegally. This was one end of a big smuggling operation. These people had their fingers into a bit of everything, and we had practically camped in their backyard. There were too many weapons around here and I thought that it was time to get far away from here. I commenced my retreat until a voice loudly commanded, "Stop right there!"
Off to my right was a mean-looking character with a rifle pointed in my direction. He looked under the weather and had probably been sleeping it off out of sight of his buddies. I had the misfortune of crossing his path and a fickle breeze, combined with my distress, had prevented me detecting his presence.
"Now what have we here? A kittykat spy? What do you think you were doing?"
We chakats are fast, but that gun could hardly miss at that range. I decided that it was best to answer him and hopefully find a chance to escape. "I heard some gunshots and I was curious about what was happening," I began. I was going to spin a yarn about being a lone hiker and I really hadn't seen anything, when I realised that he wasn't really hearing what I was saying. His attention seemed focused on my chest.
"Nice pair of tits you got there sister. Maybe you and I could have some fun together, eh?"
What!!? Apparently my turning around had let the camp lights illuminate my form. I hadn't taken the time to put my halter-top back on and now, despite the inappropriate situation, all this human could think of were my bare furry breasts. That wouldn't stop me from taking advantage of this lecherous boor's distraction. I began playing up to him, trying to keep his thoughts on me. If Midnight was doing hir job, shi would have seen what had happened and would be doing something about it. I hoped it would be soon. Somehow I didn't think that my looks would keep me safe for long, especially if he realised that I was an hermaphrodite. Many human males were uncomfortable with us because of that and I'd probably be a candidate for skinning. A chakat pelt would be a rare prize indeed.
Suddenly a shadow snaked out from a nearby bush and yanked the rifle out of his hands. It was Midnight's long, prehensile tail that had disarmed him. I had been prepared to act at any moment and I was on that creep in an instant. Unarmed, he was no match for a chakat and I knocked him out. The question was: did anyone hear our scuffle? I hauled his unconscious form onto my back and then, with Midnight's help, carted him away from the camp and hid him, gagged and tied up with rope from my carisak. To our dismay, we heard a couple more men making their way in our direction. Whether they had heard us or they simply realised that their cohort was missing, we could not tell, but we couldn't ignore the fact that if they didn't find him, they might start a serious search. That meant that my family could be in big trouble.
"Forest, I think that it's time we started to act rather than react," Midnight said. "Goldfur and your lifemates might accidentally run into these people if we simply walk away now. Besides, we don't have to let those murderous bastards get away. I've got a uni-com in my pack. Let's call in the law. We couldn't call them before because we didn't really have anything concrete to tell them. Now we have an overabundance."
A uni-com? Great! The satellite-based communicator would be able to reach the authorities. "Right, call them up and I'll keep watch." I made my way back in the direction of their camp. I stopped at a point out of easy earshot of Midnight, sat on my haunches and opened myself up fully to my senses. By focusing like this, I could detect those in proximity to me with great accuracy. Now I sensed two men not far away and on a course that would bring them uncomfortably close to Midnight. Time for action! I moved on an intercept course and was soon upon them. This time luck was on my side. The path they were on wound between some boulders, which I climbed and awaited their passing. When they arrived, I saw that they were wary and had their weapons at the ready, but they still didn't detect me. The time was right and I pounced. I succeeded in knocking the rifle out of the hands of one of them and I restrained him with my tail while I concentrated my efforts on the other. He was strong, which is how he had managed to hang onto his weapon, but he was still no match for me. My pawhands had an unbreakable grip on the rifle and while he struggled to regain control of it, I knocked him senseless with my truehands. In the meantime, the other was trying to worm free of the constricting grip of my tail. I increased the pressure like a python crushing its prey, until the victim blacked out. It was the first time that I had the reason to try that particular trick and I was rather pleased that it had worked so well. I then tied them up too. I was rapidly running out of rope! I dragged them out of sight from the trail and then went back to where Midnight was waiting.
"Well, anything to report?" shi enquired.
"Two less to worry about. No others in the immediate area. And you?"
"Getting action in the middle of the night isn't easy, but a team will be out here in about an hour."
"I reckon that too many of those creeps will get away. What say we have a go at rounding up a few more?"
Midnight smiled a feral grin. "I'm game. How many did you see at their camp?"
"There were five including the lecher, but that's not counting others that might be out trapping or shooting."
"Yes, but you yourself said that they wouldn't hang about. Won't they wrap up the operation and get out of the area as soon as possible? They've already been here nearly a full day at least."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"Our unwilling guest here has really bad taste in loud clothes. I recognise them from that group at the fire we checked out this morning. I got a good look at them through the binoculars. Also, this is about where that campsite should be."
"Hmmm. They probably established themselves early to check out the terrain and perhaps any unexpected visitors. They could have set their traps then and are now collecting their victims. You're right. They probably do plan to leave before daybreak. For all we know, they might be winding up their operations right now. No sense in any more speculating; let's go see what's happening."
We took off in the direction of the camp. Before we reached it, we paused to probe the surrounding area with our senses. "Two in the camp," I announced.
"Yes, and another two to the south. My nose tells me that there's at least one other on the far side. Who do you want to take on first?"
"Those two to the south. The ones in the camp probably won't be going anywhere and I'd rather not have to worry about people suddenly returning while we deal with them."
We moved off in full stealth mode. We wanted no repeat of the events of the first meeting. We carefully crossed a potholed fire trail that led to the camp. The two were now about 20 metres away. They sounded ill at ease. We paused to listen to them, our sensitive ears easily making out their low muttering. It seems that they had already noticed the absence of the others that I had ambushed and they were speculating on why they hadn't checked in. We split up and made our way to either side of them and slightly ahead of their path, our paws padding silently through the underbrush. Then we waited for them. Midnight was utterly invisible to them. My own jaguar patterning was almost as good in the moonlight. Being humans, they certainly couldn't scent us. It was almost too easy to take them out. When I was sure that their weapons weren't pointed at either of us, I gave a signal only Midnight could hear and we jumped them, overcoming them before they could raise an alarm.
"Five down and at least three more to go," Midnight grinned at me.
"Not bad for a couple of amateurs, but let's not get too cocky. Shall we check out that other on the far side of the camp?" I queried.
Without replying, Midnight started off in his direction. About halfway to where we had estimated him to be, we paused to get a sense-fix on him. We could detect only one person about 50 metres away. We began stalking him, but we encountered a problem. He had found a rocky outcrop in an open area that offered no concealment and he looked alert and prepared for trouble. If this man was confident enough to look out for himself, without someone to watch his back, he could be very dangerous.
"Perhaps I could sneak up behind him?" Midnight offered.
"No. There's too much chance of him glimpsing you by accident."
"Well, unless we're prepared to use the weapons that we took away from those others, we're going to be hard pressed to do anything about him."
"Somehow I think the authorities wouldn't take too kindly to us shooting these guys, no matter what they've done. I've got some authority in my position as environmental watchdog for the national parks, enough so as not to get into trouble for clobbering these creeps, but it won't let me get away with picking them off with a gun. Besides, I don't know about you, but I've never learned how to use a rifle properly."
"Weapons training is a necessary part of scout training, but I'm not really prepared to use it against a human unless I was really desperate."
"That brings us back to square one. This calls for the oldest trick in the book: a diversion. If you go to the other side of the clearing and attract his attention by throwing a rock or something, I'll be able to sprint up from behind and take him out. We're faster on our feet than humans and I doubt that he will have allowed for that."
"Okay, but you be damned careful." So saying, shi slipped into the shadows and was gone. I plotted the best way to attack and moved to my left a few metres for a better approach angle. Then it was a matter of nervously waiting until the diversion occurred. Then there was a loud snapping sound as a large branch was being broken. The human started turning in that direction and I leapt into action. But I was only partway across when I realised that the man had not fixed his attention on the noise and was looking around and would soon spot me. I was committed now, I had to go on, but my chances were looking grim. Then Midnight's voice was shouting, "Hey you over there! What do you think you are doing?" Shi must have seen my predicament and was making a target of hirself. I could just see hir at the far edge of the clearing. The man was already moving his rifle back in hir direction. I poured on the speed but, just as I pounced on him, a shot rang out. I was horrified. Had I been too late? I had knocked him unconscious and I took only a moment to remove his gun and I immediately raced over to where I had seen Midnight. There shi was slumped on the ground and I feared the worst. Why did shi have to expose hirself like that? Shi had possibly saved my life by hir distraction, but was it at the cost of hir own? Then shi groaned. I turned hir head and saw blood leaking from a wound on hir forehead. The bullet had grazed hir head, marring hir perfect fur, but had appeared to have done no real damage other than stunning hir.
Shi opened hir eyes and said, "Who dropped a boulder on me?"
"Midnight! Thank the stars you're not dead. What made you do such a foolish thing? You came damn close to being killed!"
"Would you rather that I had let him take a shot at you, a closer target? Anyway, you got there in time to deflect his aim."
"In time?! You're bleeding and you call that in time? Partner, I would have been devestated if that creep had killed you." I softened my tone somewhat. "It's my life you probably saved and I'm very grateful. You hardly know me and yet you put your life on the line for me. I look forward to making it up to you."
Shi smiled. "With those thoughts in mind, I think that I can find the strength to get up and about." With that, shi surged to her feet. "We've got to check out the camp. They may be wondering about that shot."
"First, I've got to tie up that man. Have you got any more rope?"
"No, but I've got some fishing line."
"Perfect!" That man wasn't going anywhere when I was finished with binding him.
We circled around the campsite a bit because the breeze prevented us from using our noses to the fullest. Then we crept up to within sight of the remaining people. What we saw was two very upset men, nervously watching their surroundings, their work abandoned. I suspected that these people were there solely for their skills in dealing with the captured animals and hides, etcetera, and not their proficiency with weapons. Of course they were still dangerous because they were likely to startle easily and shoot wildly at anything.
"Let's take a different approach to these and give them a chance to give up quietly. We haven't been able to tell if there are any more coming back and maybe those Nervous Nellies would welcome the chance to give up peacefully and trade some info for some leniency."
"If I go over to one side a bit, I can give a better impression of surrounding them." Midnight slipped into the bushes as silent as a shadow. I gave hir a minute to establish hir vantage point, then I called out, "You there in the camp, put down your weapons and put your hands in the air!"
"Shit!" one man cried and he dived between some equipment. The other panicked and headed for the large 4-wheel drive vehicle parked on the track. There was a gunshot and the sound of a tyre bursting.
"You were told to drop your weapons and surrender, you bastards. Now do as you are told!" Midnight yelled out. Shi had very effectively cut off their means of escape and demonstrated our preparedness to act all in one blow. Those confiscated rifles were coming in handy after all. The man who made a bolt for it, froze, then dropped his gun. The other was still trying to hide.
"It's no use, fella. One of us will be able to pick you off. Throw out the gun and come out of there!" The man needed convincing. I aimed my rifle in his direction, allowing a safety margin for my lack of expertise, and fired a warning shot. Dust kicked up not far from him and I hoped that would be the last time I had to use the weapon. I found the thought of actually wounding him very distasteful. Besides, the noise hurt my sensitive hearing. "Last chance!" I called. "You wouldn't like it if you make us do it the hard way!"
The man lost his nerve and tossed out his gun. "All right, dammit! Don't shoot!" He stumbled out from behind his cover, hands in the air.
"Keep them covered. I'm going to secure them," I called, then I stepped out into the open. The men were startled to see who had caught them, but they weren't so stupid as to try anything. I grabbed some rope from the poachers' own supplies and tied up the first fellow while keeping a close eye on the other one. Then, as I started tying up the second, Midnight emerged from hiding. The men were even more surprised by this vision of a dark huntress and didn't seem keen to get to meet hir. I found hir to be surprisingly appealing, but I wasn't in hir gunsights. Half-dried blood was stuck to the fur on the side of hir face and shi wore a savage snarl.
"Okay, you bastards," shi said, grabbing one by the jacket and pulling him face-to-face with a jaw full of dangerous-looking teeth. "One of your group took a pot-shot at me and I'm not in a happy mood. I have some questions and I want some straight answers, or else!" Shi threw the man to the ground and then started asking questions. "How many of you are there all together?"
The one that hadn't been picked up said, "There's five of us only."
I grabbed him by the shoulders with my claws extended and shook him roughly. As he grimaced in pain, I said "Liar! We've already counted more than that. Now we want the truth this time."
The other one almost started babbling in his haste to answer. Obviously he wasn't very good under pressure, not being strong of character. "There are eight of us. Three teams of two were out checking traps and gathering anything else of value that they could lay their hands on. We two were supposed to pack everything to be ready for pick-up by our other vehicle. Actually, that makes nine men. I forgot to include that driver." The man nearly panicked when he realised that he had made a mistake with the number and thought we might start in on him. Because of this, I believed him, and that meant this was almost over. That drunken fool that I had bumped into first must have been the partner of the man in the clearing, and it explained why he was alone. All we had to worry about was whether the vehicle would turn up before the authorities.
"Did you make contact with anyone by radio or phone?" I asked.
"We were to check in at certain times, in fact, right about now."
"Pretty much means that we won't be seeing anyone else if they don't get a call," Midnight said. "So you had better see to it that they do." Shi hauled the talkative one to his feet and gave him a shove in the general direction of the equipment.
"But we had already reported that one of us hadn't called in," he said nervously.
"Tell them that he was found drunk in the bushes. It's true enough."
Our helpful captive dug out a uni-com. 'I have got to get myself one of those,' I thought. In the meantime, he made contact and reported that the missing man had been found and everything else was okay. The voice at the other end told him that the truck would be there in about half an hour. I don't think that our friend knew that I could clearly hear both sides of the conversation and I was carefully remembering that voice. He checked off and I confiscated the com.
"Almost nothing to do now but wait for the police. They should be here long before that truck arrives," I said.
"Midnight replied, "Why don't you gather up the rest of the flock while I guard these two?"
"Not a bad idea. The sooner we can wrap this up, the sooner we can get back to the others and let them know that everything is okay."
It was pretty straightforward collecting our captives. They weren't about to argue with the gun, although they weren't to know that I wouldn't use it. Of course the smarter ones would realise that they wouldn't stand a chance against me in unarmed combat. Two police helicopters found places to land nearby, guided to the spot by Midnight using hir com and waving a torch. The truck driver got the surprise of his life when he turned up, but he didn't try anything foolish when faced with so many law officers. The only thing that irked me was the amount of time the police wanted to spend questioning us, when all we wanted to do was to get back to our friends. Finally, we had to insist on leaving, promising that we would go in to their offices soon. After all, they had enough evidence to put them all away for a very long time without our statements. We begged a lift in one of the helicopters to our campsite. When we reached it, there was no evidence that anyone was there until a bright-furred form stepped out into the floodlight. Trina had recognised the police markings and had come out to guide us to where the others were hiding. Midnight's appearance was greeted with great concern, but after cleaning it up, Kris declared that the wound should not cause any problems. With this last concern alleviated, both Midnight and I felt the weight of tiredness fall upon us. Chakats need more sleep than humans and many morphs, and we had had a very long, active day. We curled up together, our heads pillowed by each other's back, and went straight into an exhausted sleep.
The next day we had a late start. Rather than taking the planned route that would have taken every daylight hour as the track wound its way north and back around the lake, we took a much faster, direct course back to our cabin. There we finally could relax and just chat. Most of the talking done on the hike had been discussing the events of the previous night. I had some burning questions to ask.
"Goldfur, you and Midnight were together on that starship for several months and yet when you get back to Earth, you seem awfully eager to push hir in my direction. Not that I mind, but why? Didn't you get along?"
"Of course we did. We enjoyed many a night together in bed. However, we don't have much in common otherwise and I knew that you two would hit it off. Besides, there was another reason which I had planned to tell you about last night before we were interrupted. You see, I'm pregnant."
"Oh, that's marvellous news! It will be wonderful to have another cub in the family. But I gather you mean that Midnight was not the sire. You didn't tell me that there was a third chakat on the crew. Isn't that unusual?"
"It is, but the sire isn't a chakat. He's a foxtaur, a fellow technician with whom I fell in love and now plan to take as a lifemate."
"A foxtaur? I thought that the chances were slim to get pregnant by anything else but another chakat."
"As a biologist, you should know the facts. It's known that a pure cat-taur stood the best chance of interbreeding with a chakat, while foxtaurs and wolf-taurs stood a lesser chance, but it looks like we beat the odds. You will get to meet him in a couple of days. We've got big plans that we would like to tell you about together."
"This is wonderful. What a diverse family group we will be!"
"I wonder what the cub will turn out like?" Trina said.
"The med-techs tell me that due to our dominant genetic structure, the cub will basically be a chakat. In other words, shi will be a hermaph with a prehensile tail, hand-paws on the forelegs and with all the internal enhancements. After that, almost anything can happen. Can you imagine a foxtail as long as a normal chakat's? Shi will look gorgeous!"
I was so happy for my sister. Shi had found not only someone to love, but was soon to be fulfilled as a mother. I looked over to Midnight and realised that I wanted this too. The events of the last couple of days had shown that we not only shared many interests, but we worked well together as partners.
Midnight smiled at me. "I must confess that I too am at the stage in life where I would like to have a cub, although I would be content to just be the sire for now so that it would not interfere too much with my career. These manipulative friends of ours seem to know us better than we know ourselves. If that is your wish, I would like to get to know each other a lot more. In intimate detail."
I grinned in return. Whatever life held in store for us, tonight looked like being a lot of fun. We took a mattress and retired to a corner of the cabin to begin our learning experience. Behind me, Kris said to Goldfur, "There's something that Trina and I would like to show you. We call it the Chakat Maneuver."
I giggled to myself. It seemed that I wasn't the only one who was going to learn something wonderful tonight!