A FOREST TALE 35: Whatever The Cost
By Bernard Doove © 2011
Swiftwalk’s combadge chirped, and the voice of the starship’s personnel manager said, "Shir Swiftwalk – report to Base Camp Alpha for scheduled teleportation duties."
Swiftwalk tapped hir combadge and replied, "Swiftwalk acknowledging. I’ll be there in a minute." Shi then turned to the golden chakat next to hir and said, "Time for me to go, Dale love. I’ll leave the final preparations of the scout teams to you as we discussed."
Goldendale gave hir a hug and a kiss. "Good luck with your first teleportation job, hon."
"Thanks. I hope I did the right thing, although it seemed a good idea at the time. Anyway I’m past the point of no return now."
"So stop stalling and get going," Dale replied and gave hir a slap on the rump to add emphasis to hir words.
"Hey! Okay, I’m going. Catch you later!"
With that, the skunk-striped chakat disappeared into thin air, a slight breeze the only thing indicating hir exit. Used to it by now, Goldendale merely turned back to hir preparations.
An instant after shi departed the starship, Swiftwalk arrived at the main base camp on the new planet that they had started exploring on their last tour of duty. Not much had changed since they had last been there, so shi had no difficulty locating where the personnel manager had set himself up. Stepping inside the hut, shi closely observed the interior to memorise it so that in the future, shi would be able to teleport directly into it.
A leopard morph sat behind a desk piled high with both electronic equipment and paper print-outs. A plaque squeezed onto the front of the desk was marked with the name, Elan Hayes, the person shi was expecting to meet, so Swiftwalk said, "Chakat Swiftwalk reporting, sir."
"Glad to meet you, Shir Swiftwalk," he replied stiffly, his attitude at odds with his words. "I plan to keep you very busy for the next few hours. I hope you’re up to the task." Scepticism fairly dripped from his words.
"The test runs went without the slightest problem, sir," Swiftwalk said with a hint of reproach.
"Sorry, but it’s too new for me to be confident until we’ve done this on a full-scale basis. We’ll be stuck up the creek without the paddle or the canoe if this doesn’t work out 100%."
"Then let’s get to it and set your mind at ease," suggested Swiftwalk.
"Agreed." Hayes got up and headed to the door. "Follow me. We’ve set up a warehouse as a transfer point for people and goods. That will be your base of operations on the days that you are contracted to provide teleportation services for us." He led the chakat to a nearby building that was new since the last time shi was here. It was painted in a nice friendly shade of green, and had two doors into it – a large roller door big enough for a vehicle, and a small door for people. They entered through the small door into a compact office with a desk, behind which sat a pretty young lynx fem.
Hayes said, "This is Erin Knowles. She will be your coordinator for all teleported shipments. Erin, this is Shir Swiftwalk, our wunderkind Teleporter."
Erin quickly got up from her seat with a genuine smile of pleasure at seeing the chakat, and gave hir a warm greeting hug that Swiftwalk happily returned. "I’ve been eager to work with you since I learned how we were going to transport personnel on this voyage."
"I’m looking forward to working with you too, now that I’ve met you," Swiftwalk said with a grin.
The lynx’s ears pinked a bit as she blushed, but her smile never diminished.
Hayes said, "Erin has a list of personnel who need to be brought here as a priority, then you can get to work on the shipments of extra equipment."
Swiftwalk nodded. "No problem."
"I’ll leave it to you then. Since we’re on schedule, I expect to see the first people in my office very shortly." Hayes then turned and left without further ado.
"Jeez, who stuck the rod up his arse?" Swiftwalk asked.
Erin giggled. "Don’t mind him. He’s just a stickler for details and everything in neat order. You’ve just upset his little world with the unknown, but he’ll thaw out when he sees that this works out. Let me show you the staging area where you will be doing all your teleports."
Erin took Swiftwalk’s hand and towed hir eagerly through an inner door. Swiftwalk grinned at the easy familiarity – shi already liked the young fem. Shi was quickly distracted though by the interior of the building. Most of it consisted of rack space for palletised goods, although most of the racks were empty at this point. There were areas demarked for larger items that could not fit in the racks, and a loading area for trucks. In an empty bay though, the concrete floor had been marked with a large, bold yellow square, with the letters – STS1 – and a stylised leaf painted in green.
"STS1?" questioned Swiftwalk.
"Sylvania Teleport Station #1. We marked it that way so that you have something very distinctive to lock onto when you teleport things here from elsewhere. It also gives us a single destination point that will always be kept clear."
"Excellent! And is that a coffee maker that I see on the bench?"
"I believe you enjoy café latte? I’ve laid in a few snacks too. My job is to keep you working at maximum efficiency, and a chakat works best when shi’s happy and well-fed, yes?"
"Definitely yes! Erin, we’re going to make a great team. So what’s first on the agenda?"
Erin handed a mini PADD to Swiftwalk. "We’ve allocated people and equipment to each teleport as listed on there. You just have to go to Earth, get everyone on that list, and then bring them back. I’m looking forward to seeing it with my own eyes."
Swiftwalk said, "I’ll do you one better. Let’s go!" Shi grabbed Erin’s hand and before the lynx could react, teleported to Earth.
Erin squealed in surprise, then stopped and looked about her in wonder. She recognised the facility that was based in the Melbourne Star Corps headquarters. "Oh wow! We’re really back on Earth. That was so quick!"
"Nothing to it," Swiftwalk said smugly, pleased with surprising her.
"But I wasn’t supposed to come here," Erin protested.
"I won’t tell Hayes if you don’t," Swiftwalk said with a wink.
"Deal!" She then turned her attention to the human who was approaching them.
"Hello, Swiftwalk. Almost exactly on time, I see. The trip went smoothly, I take it. So who’s your friend?"
"Hi, Ed," Swiftwalk said as shi shook the man’s hand. He was a good friend, but not the touchy-feely type who liked hugs. "This is Erin, my coordinator back on Sylvania. I decided to show her how we’ll be doing all this."
Ed laughed. "I bet Hard-ass Hayes didn’t approve this little jaunt."
Swiftwalk grinned and Erin looked chagrined. "Nope, and we’d better get a move on so that he doesn’t have any reason to check up on us."
"No problem, Swift. Everyone turned up early; I reckon that they’re all excited to be teleporting instead of spending all that dead time aboard the ship."
"Troop them in here then, like we rehearsed."
A group of excited scientists, each lugging a case of personal goods, was herded into the area that they had designated for all the teleportations. Swiftwalk checked them off hir PADD and said, "Right, we have everyone now." Shi raised hir voice. "Everybody pay attention! One hand must be gripping your luggage, and the other must have a firm hold on a neighbour. Anyone or anything not making firm contact with the group will get left behind. Anybody not ready?" When nobody spoke up, shi continued, "Okay, here we go!" Shi reached out with both hands and held onto Erin with one hand and another person with the other. Shi locked onto the image of the Sylvanian teleportation station and made the mental shift that initiated the transition. A moment later, everybody was on the frontier planet.
"Thank you for using Swiftwalk Teleportation Services," Swiftwalk said with a grin to the disoriented crowd. "Please follow Miss Knowles into the office where you will be directed to your destination."
An excited babble of conversation started as the scientists realised that they had actually travelled many light-years in an instant. A few came over to Swiftwalk to thank hir and comment on hir remarkable ability. Shi smiled in pleasure and thought, ‘I could get used to this.’
Swiftwalk stumbled into the hut that shi and Goldendale were allocated, made a beeline for the bed, and then collapsed on it. "This is gonna kill me," shi mumbled.
Goldendale was startled and came over to hir mate with a look of concern. "What’s wrong, Swift? You look like hell!"
After a long moment, Swiftwalk said, "I’ve never been so tired in all my life."
"Huh? What did they have you doing?"
"Didn’t you tell me that the distance didn’t matter and the job should be easy?"
"Hundred metres… hundred light-years… makes no difference. But mass is another thing. Shifting all that mass is easy at first. It’s okay for the first dozen or so times. Made me hungry and thirsty very quickly though. Then I did more trips. My body couldn’t replace the energy I was using quickly enough. I was burning the candle at both ends, and it met in the middle. I feel burnt out."
"Oh, you poor thing. How about I get you a cold energy drink to help perk you up?"
"Sure, why not?" Swiftwalk responded tiredly.
Goldendale went over to the mini-fridge that held their personal stash of goodies. Shi fetched out a can of drink and went back to Swiftwalk who greeted hir with a snore. The black and cream-striped chakat was dead to the world and Goldendale smiled in chagrin. "I suppose that this means we won’t be doing much snuggling tonight either," shi said softly.
Putting the drink back, shi finished up the work shi was doing, then climbed into the bed next to hir mate. "Sleep well, Swift. You’re going to need all your energy for when we start our scouting work tomorrow." Shi wrapped hir tail about Swiftwalk and laid one foreleg over hir mate’s lower torso, trying to not disturb hir at all, although somehow shi suspected that it might take an explosion to wake hir up now.
Rank has its privileges, and getting to sleep in was one of them. Nevertheless Swiftwalk was up and trying to get back on schedule fairly soon. First things first though, and that was hitting the mess hall to fuel up. Swiftwalk ate like shi was starving, which in a way shi was. Goldendale looked on in awe as shi shovelled food into hir at a prodigious rate.
"Slow down, Swift! You’re going to be too bloated otherwise when we start off our trek."
Swiftwalk reluctantly tapered off hir gorging, and settled for a huge chakat-sized mug of coffee. Goldendale patiently waited for hir to be replete, and packed a doggy-bag with some doughnuts and other high-energy foods to take along with them. Shi suspected that hir mate was going to have to build up some reserves over the next few days before shi had to report back for another stint of teleportation duties.
Goldendale’s arrangements had the members of the scientific contingent accompanying them ready and waiting for them at the shuttle pad. Chakat Oceanrider, their pilot, was waiting with them not so patiently, and when shi spotted them approaching, shi gestured for them to hurry up.
"Come on, you two! We were ready to leave a quarter hour ago."
"Unavoidable delay," Goldendale answered without further explanation. Shi could sense Oceanrider’s irritation clearly and knew that no excuse would mollify hir. Shi certainly could not see the cougar patterned chakat’s mood improved by telling hir that Swiftwalk had been stuffing hir face while the others had been cooling their heels.
Oceanrider hmmphed and said, "Well get in and buckle up. We leave immediately, and if you’re not secure when I take off, I won’t be responsible for any bumps or bruises. I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up. Some of us can’t get around instantly, y’know?"
"Neither can I to some place that I’ve never been before, so your job is safe," replied Swiftwalk as they hastened to board.
Once they were on their way, Oceanrider’s mood improved, and the exploration team’s excitement at their upcoming task dispelled any remaining irritation. Their starting point for this survey trek was the newly established Base Camp Beta which was located a couple of hundred kilometres inland. Whereas Swiftwalk and Goldendale had concentrated on the coastal areas on their last assignment, this time they were to explore the forest leading up the mountain range to the north. Beta was to be their base of operations and re-supply depot for the duration of the survey.
At the base camp, Oceanrider quickly and efficiently got hir shuttle unloaded. Shi gave each of the scouts a quick hug, wished them good luck, and then departed promptly back to Alpha for hir next task.
The chakats looked about them, observing the forest beyond the clearing secured by the force-field poles. Above the treetops, the snow-capped peaks of the mountain range could be seen in the far-off distance. It was every bit as hot as it had been the last time they had been on this world, and both chakats wore only the basic halter to help keep cool. The fact that the mountains still had snow on them indicated just how high they had to be.
"Well, partner," Goldendale said, "Ready for a hard slog into the forest?"
Swiftwalk grinned. "You bet, Dale. Between the food and the excitement, I’m back up to full steam again. Let’s get going – we’re burning daylight here!"
The chakats and their team made slow but steady progress through the fairly dense temperate forest for the next ten days. The warmth and light made for tall tree growth with moderate undergrowth filling the gaps, but it wasn’t quite as hard as it had been near the coast where it had been more humid. Occasional incidents with hungry animals made for interesting moments, but the chakats kept their charges safe and sound, and even provided them with some new specimens. On the eleventh day though, they did not pack up and continue as they had on the previous days. Instead, all the scientists worked on their findings while Swiftwalk had other obligations.
The chakats had made love as usual the previous night, but had kept it short and sweet so as to get to sleep sooner. "I’m going to need all the rest that I can get, love, especially if it’s going to be as bad as the first time," Swiftwalk explained.
Goldendale understood, and in the morning got up a little earlier to cook an extra large breakfast for hir mate.
"I’ve made you foods that should give you a fast kick-start. Hopefully you won’t burn out like last time."
"Thanks, hon. You spoil me." Swiftwalk ate with gusto until shi felt quite replete, finishing up with a large drink of coffee. Shi then burped loudly.
"Oops! Pardon me – made me feel less bloated though. Anyway, I’m as ready as I will ever be, so I’d better get going."
"Don’t overdo it, hon," Goldendale admonished.
"I’ll try not to this time, I promise, but I still have an obligation to meet."
"That doesn’t include killing yourself from exhaustion."
"No need to be so dramatic, love. I’ll be fine."
Goldendale nodded acceptance, then said, "Are you sure that you can find this place when you want to return? One camp in these woods looks much like any other we’ve made so far."
"Not a problem, Dale. I won’t need to find it – just you." Swiftwalk put hir hand tenderly on Goldendale’s cheek. "I’ll always be able to find my beloved denmate."
Goldendale smiled tenderly and hugged hir mate. "You say the nicest things." Shi kissed hir and continued. "Better go before I get too horny and won’t let you leave."
Swiftwalk winked and said, "Good idea. Seeya!"
With that, shi disappeared right from within Goldendale’s arms.
An hour before sunset, Swiftwalk reappeared beside Goldendale and groaned. Goldendale immediately dropped what shi had been doing to put hir arm around hir mate supportively.
"Another bad one?" shi asked.
Swiftwalk nodded. "At least they had special sports drinks for me that I could rapidly assimilate so that I could keep up my energy. I’m not quite as exhausted as I was the last time."
"So can I get you something to eat then?"
"Yes, please. Something meaty – I’m sick of liquids."
"Just rest here while I prepare it," shi said as shi steered Swiftwalk into their tent and onto the sleeping mat.
"Thanks, love," Swiftwalk said as shi sank gratefully onto the mat. "Wake me if I fall asleep, please."
Goldendale did have to wake hir mate in order to feed hir, and Swiftwalk gave hir an account of what happened that day between mouthfuls.
"I have to admit one thing," Swiftwalk added. "It did seem a tad easier than last time. Maybe all that mental exercise is giving me more endurance."
"I certainly hope so. If you’re going to be doing this on a regular basis for a long time, I don’t want you coming home exhausted every time. And if things don’t improve, I want you to get them to change your schedule, or lessen your workload so that you don’t work yourself to death."
"I promise I’ll do that if I can’t cope. Don’t worry so much."
Goldendale kissed Swiftwalk. "Isn’t that what mates are supposed to do?"
Their exploration party had made good progress towards the mountain range by the time the next scheduled teleportation day arrived. This time when Swiftwalk returned, although tired, shi was not dead on hir feet like the past two times.
"I’m sure now," Swiftwalk told Goldendale. "I’m definitely getting inured to the heavy workload. I ’ported some monster loads today without too much effort, although I am still going through those sports drinks like they’re going out of fashion." Shi laughed. "I actually ’ported in a whole pallet load of them today. Seems Erin realised that the base supply wasn’t going to cut it, so shi ordered a lot more."
Goldendale grinned. "You ought to get an endorsement deal out of the company that supplies the sports drinks. I can see it now – Swiftwalk Sports Drinks – the only energy drink that will get you to the stars!"
Swiftwalk poked out hir tongue. "Don’t give up your job for advertising, love."
Goldendale giggled and hugged hir mate. "As you wish, hon."
The next scheduled teleportation day, it was Goldendale’s turn to get ‘shore leave’. After making sure that their charges were secure in their field camp, Swiftwalk teleported them both to Base Camp Alpha. Erin officially marked the chakat on the shore leave roster and Swiftwalk teleported hir to their home. Swiftwalk took the opportunity to make some of the wonderful coffee that was always on hand while shi answered some questions that various family members asked while Goldendale went off with Lupu and Avi for some quality time with them. Then, with travel mug in hand, shi teleported back to Sylvania to start on the rest of the day’s shipments.
Swiftwalk returned about six hours later. At first it seemed that the house was empty, but when shi called out, a gravid fennec fox emerged from Trina’s office where shi had been doing secretarial work for hir co-mate.
"Hi, Swift," Leanna said. "Dale’s out back with everyone, taking advantage of the fine weather. Before you disappear with hir, I’ve got a package to take back with you. Garrek ordered a gift for Goldfur while he was here when you brought him on your previous trip. It’s supposed to be a surprise, so be discreet when you take it to him."
"Oh yeah, he mentioned that. I’m glad it came in on time."
"I’ll be back in a moment." Leanna fetched the package which Swiftwalk put into hir saddle pack.
"You don’t look as tired as when you fetched Garrek and Goldfur last time," Leanna observed.
"Oh, I’m very tired alright, but not exhausted. Frequent practice is building up my stamina. Besides, I think it was a slightly smaller workload this time. I think they’re finally realising that their original shipping schedule was a trifle ambitious."
"I’m glad to hear it. Now I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll see you next trip, I presume?"
"Yeah, no problem, Leanna."
Swiftwalk went outside and found hir mate and co-mates lounging in the warm winter sun, watching the cubs play. When they spotted hir approaching, they got up to meet hir.
"Looks like our time is up," Lupu said to Goldendale.
"I’m afraid so, hon," Goldendale replied. Shi gave them both a hug and lingering parting kiss. Then the cubs wanted hugs also before the duo finally departed.
They rematerialised at their field camp.
"I left you until last so as to give you as much time as possible with Lupu and Avi. I told Erin that I’d take you straight back here to save me a trip. Just radio her to confirm that we’re here and officially back from shore leave. I’m going to take a nap."
"Okay, hon. Are you alright?" Goldendale asked with mild concern.
"As I told Leanna, my stamina has improved again, but I’m still tired and really could use a nap first."
"I’ll prepare a meal for both of us. I’ll wake you when it’s ready."
"Sounds good to me," Swiftwalk said as shi headed into their tent.
Swiftwalk recovered hir strength overnight, just as shi did on all subsequent occasions. Hir ability to cope with the workload grew marginally over the weeks, and then plateaued. Shi reckoned that shi could cope with the current workload though. Goldendale was not convinced.
"I know that you’re contractually obliged to complete this mission at the current rate, but if you intend to keep doing teleportation duties on future missions, I want you to cut down by at least 20%. This is wearing you down to the nub too frequently, and it can’t be good for you."
"But the money is fantastic, Dale. I never expected to be able to earn so much, and now that I have a mate and new family, I want to do a lot more…."
Goldendale cut hir off. "Do you think that I really care that much about the money? We’re both doing what we love, our family will be there for us even without the extra income, and besides it’s putting a serious crimp in our love life!"
Swiftwalk giggled. "Yeah, that’s true."
Goldendale continued, "I also want you to have some reserves in case of emergency. We may need your ability at a moment’s notice, like with the tsunami last time. We don’t want to have to try to wake you and get you to do an evacuation on an empty tank."
"Okay, I get the message. I’ll make sure that any future contracts will be a bit more lenient."
Goldendale nodded, mollified. Then shi snuggled up to hir mate. "Now about that shortfall in our sex lives – when did you intend to try to get pregnant, as you said you wanted?"
"I’ve put it off for years due to avoiding close relationships; it can wait a little longer. I’m eager, not desperate. Besides, I won’t be on heat for a few more days."
"All the more reason to get in some practice before then," Goldendale said with an exaggerated leer.
Swiftwalk grinned. "I’m all for practice, love. Lots and lots of it!"
Their tour of duty ended a couple of weeks later than it otherwise would have due to the fact that they could continue exploring when they would normally have had to pack up and head home on the starship. This gave them valuable extra time in the field and saved them the boredom of the trip back. On the day that they would normally have arrived by starship back at Earth, Swiftwalk spent the day teleporting the majority of the personnel home and replacing them with a fresh crew on the return trips. Because shi would be occupied like that for most of the day, shi took Goldendale home first and told hir mate to expect hir home for dinner.
It was a lot of hard work, but it was a shorter day as only the crews were being exchanged. It would have been even shorter if it was not for one straggling team. As the survey team coordinator, shi intended to have some words with leader of that team. Swiftwalk hung around Alpha Base chatting with Erin until a rather disgruntled Oceanrider turned up with the tardy scouts and field scientists.
"You’re not coming with this lot?" Swiftwalk asked Oceanrider.
"You can keep your teleporting – I’ll stick to piloting, thank you. Which incidentally I have to do when the ship goes back for maintenance and resupply."
"Oh, right. Drop on by our place when you get there."
"I might just do that. Right now I’ve got places to be. Tail high, Swift!" Shi gave Swiftwalk a parting hug.
"Tail high, Ocean!" Swiftwalk then went to see if Erin had finished herding the stragglers and their equipment onto the teleport station.
Moments later, they were all back on Earth. With the final teleport done, Swiftwalk had no more duties until a scheduled re-supply job in a few days. However, bearing in mind hir promise to Goldendale to get hir workload reduced, shi started walking off in the direction of the office of Naomi Sands with whom shi had negotiated the original contract. Shi had barely started on hir way when a voice hailed hir from behind.
"Shir Swiftwalk – I’m glad that I ran into you. Could you spare me a moment, please?"
Swiftwalk looked around to see a slightly obese human male with a broad smile on his face approaching hir. "Yes – what can I do for you?"
"If you can spare me just one minute, I have a couple of questions regarding your teleportation duties. I might be able to streamline things a bit better to reduce your workload."
Naturally that appealed to Swiftwalk, and because shi didn’t have to go see Naomi right that moment, shi said, "Okay, sounds good to me."
"Great! If you could just step into my office here, I’ll give you the details." He opened the door and ushered the chakat inside.
If shi had not been so tired, shi might have realised sooner that something was amiss. The door clicked closed behind hir before shi stopped and looked about hir and said, "Wait – this isn’t an off…." Shi felt as if hir whole body was slammed with a club, and hir world went dark.
Swiftwalk tried to open hir eyes, but hir eyelids felt like lead weights. Shi tried again, groaning with the effort.
"Shi’s waking up. Have you got that drug dose right?" shi heard a voice say.
A second voice replied, "Stop worrying – I got the correct dose from a nurse that I’m friendly with. It’s enough to floor an elephant, so even though chakats are resistant to drugs, it will certainly keep hir quiet for the time that you want. Shi won’t be able to fight, although I haven’t got a clue how it will affect hir ability to teleport."
"That’s what the jangler is for," the first voice said. "Now go wait for me outside."
Swiftwalk thought that shi recognised the first voice, and shi struggled to recall through the drug-induced haze in hir mind. After a minute or so, shi finally prised hir eyelids open enough to see the corpulent face of the Star Corps officer who had accosted hir in the hallway.
When he noticed that shi had recovered enough consciousness to look at him, he reached over to a device the size of a shoebox and flicked a switch. Instantly Swiftwalk’s mind was filled with emotions blaring at hir. Hate, laughter, misery, fear, joy, hopelessness, starvation, accomplishment, breathlessness – every emotion and sensation was assaulting hir empathic senses. However, they were strange raw emotions without any personality behind them – utterly inhuman. The mental assault made it nearly impossible to put a coherent thought together, and the intensity was far too strong to block.
"Like my little toy? The jangler is a bastardisation of a training tool that creates artificial emotional broadcasts. This one is designed to make your freakish species helpless, and it’s going to stay on until I let you go. No teleporting until then – understand?"
Swiftwalk couldn’t manage to talk as yet, but shi glared malevolently at the man.
"Yeah, you understand. Now listen to me carefully Chakat Swiftwalk, child of Oakwood and Karnak, denmate of Chakat Goldendale who was formerly a human, co-mate of Lupukshawteanae and Avissavaunte. You are from Port Kepler on Chakona but recently moved to Melbourne into the den of Chakat Goldfur and hir extended family. I know everything about who is close to you and where they can be found, even those on Chakona. If you try to cross me in any way, one of them will die immediately, and more will be killed on an hourly basis until you comply. Do you understand me, pussycat?"
Swiftwalk’s mind was still being assaulted just as strongly, but the calm clear threat that this man had made had cut an ice cold knife of fear through the jangler’s broadcast, and shi knew with absolute certainty that he meant every word. Shi struggled to overcome the drug’s effects to croak, "I… under…stand."
The man smiled jovially, completely at odds with his deadly threats. "Good. Now I am going to turn off the jangler in a moment. You will listen to everything that I tell you and you will not try to teleport away. If you do, I will instantly signal my associates who will begin to carry out my threat. I don’t care how fast you can teleport – you can’t be everywhere at once, and someone or several people close to you will die. Have I made myself perfectly clear?"
"Got… it… won’t… ’port," Swiftwalk managed to say.
"Excellent! One last thing." He held up a small device that was in his left hand. "This is a dead-man trigger, and if you are faking or the drug wears off quickly and you try to attack or disable me, this will send out the signal anyway."
"Now we can talk civilly," the man said as he switched off the jangler.
The relief was instant. Swiftwalk was still mostly physically incapacitated by the drug, but at least shi could think clearly again. Shi looked about hirself, noting that the other person who had been present and had apparently administered the drug to hir had left while shi was disoriented. The room itself was stripped of almost everything and had an air of abandonment about it. Nevertheless shi fixed it in hir memory so that shi could teleport back to it if shi wanted.
"Trying to get a fix on the room?" the man asked. "Go right ahead – we picked this place at random from some disused factories. We haven’t been here before, we won’t be coming back, and we have been careful not to leave traces." He said it all with a smile, amused at hir futile efforts. Then his demeanour changed abruptly and he snarled, "Now listen and listen good, gene-freak. You are going to do an important task for us. If you do exactly what I say, none of your family will get hurt. Cross us and you will be responsible for the consequences. In about half an hour, that drug should have worn off completely. You will teleport yourself and this bag into the city and go into Rankins Jewellers where they are displaying the Pink Star of Argyle diamond. You will take that and raid their most valuable other items, making sure that the security cameras get a good view of you doing so. You will then make random raids on other jewellery stores until one hour from now when you will teleport in front of the Melbourne Gentlemen’s Club where a motorcycle courier in a green jacket will be waiting. You will give the courier the bag filled with loot after taking out this explosive device from the side pocket." He pulled it out to show hir. He indicated two switches on it. "This switch arms the device, and the other sets off a five second timer. You will take it into the lobby of the club and set it off there."
Swiftwalk gasped. "That’s a… humans-only… club. You… want me to… kill other… humans?"
The man grinned humourlessly. "The bomb is rigged to limit its effects. It will look as if the construction was botched. It will cause a lot of damage, but only kill if someone is too close. You will choose a moment when that is unlikely. If someone does get killed, then they will be a martyr to the cause."
"The cause? You’re a… Humans Firster… aren’t you? This is all… designed to make me… and by extension… all other chakats… look terrible… isn’t it?"
"Smart kitty. Yes – I’ll show everyone what you freaks are really like. Your kind with your dangerous Talents are a threat to humankind, and the sooner you’re dealt with the better."
Swiftwalk could feel the adrenaline surge from hir fear clearing away the effects of the drug even more quickly than it otherwise would have, but shi was still helpless to act. "What about the jewels? You’re just… taking advantage of me… to get money and blame it… all on me. You’re just… vicious thieves!"
"Sadly, it takes a lot of money to fight for the cause. You don’t think that I actually work for the Star Corps, do you?" He fingered the lapel of his Corps jacket. "These things cost, and so did the bribes to get me into the complex, not to mention the real-time communications with Chakona. And we have other plans, all of which you are going to help make possible. You should take pleasure in actually being of use to humanity for once." He smiled beneficently.
Swiftwalk was seriously creeped-out by the man. On the surface he looked like a kindly, jovial character, but his words and actions indicated the opposite, not to mention the contempt and loathing that shi could sense roiling behind his words. "You’re insane," Swiftwalk spat.
The man laughed uproariously, then his mood flipped abruptly again. "Don’t mistake dedication to human ideals for madness. We may have made your kind, but we can break you also. Like all broken things, you need to be scrapped, and there are those of us who will see to it that it is done."
He got off the crate that he had been sitting on. It was big enough to fit a chakat inside, which made Swiftwalk think that it was likely the way shi had been smuggled out of the Star Corps complex. "Enough talk. You understand what you have to do if you want to save your family?"
"I do," Swiftwalk growled.
"Good. Now you are going to stay here for half an hour and then start on your tasks. The courier will be in place an hour from now for a period of five minutes." He consulted his wristwatch. "That’s from 3:45 to 3:50pm. If you do not rendezvous with him within that time period, we will assume that you have reneged and we will carry out our threat. If one of our group sees you near any of your family, we will assume that you are trying to get them to safety, and we will go after all targets. Nothing but absolute obedience will insure their lives."
"You’re big on killing, aren’t you?"
He smiled that horrible grin again. "Why yes; yes I am when it comes to your kind. Now to ensure that you don’t leave after I’m gone before the half hour is up, I have a timer on the jangler. It will keep you disabled until then."
He reached for the jangler, but Swiftwalk had no intention of being disabled by the horrible device again. There was one vital ability that these terrorists seemed to have overlooked. With barely a thought, shi slipped hir invisible astral self out of hir body. Previous experience had shown that hir empathic sense was dulled when shi used astral travel. Hir A3 rating was very useful for scouting, but nowhere near good enough for sophisticated interaction with other Talents. That was a good thing in this case though because when the jangler turned on, its effects were merely annoying instead of debilitating.
The problem with astral travel was that it left hir body unresponsive and helpless. However, being still under the effects of the drug and with the jangler supposedly scrambling hir thoughts, shi wasn’t expected to react when the man said, "Remember – exactly half an hour and no delays." Then he left the room.
Swiftwalk followed him, completely undetectable. Shi was apparently in the office of an abandoned workshop. Going outside, it turned out that the workshop was just one in a row of similar factories that were slated for demolition, so there weren’t any witnesses around. The man climbed into a waiting private PTV in which another person was already seated – presumably the one who administered the drug to hir. Getting closer, shi was shocked to see that the other person was a morph. ‘What the fuck?’ shi exclaimed inaudibly. ‘He says he’s a Humans-Firster but has a morph accomplice? No, wait… I said he was H1. He led me to believe it. That would explain why his plan to make chakats look bad is so lame – he was bamboozling me and I fell for it. I wonder what else he lied about?’
Shi noted the licence plate but didn’t try to follow as shi was nearly at hir astral range limit. Shi did float up though for an aerial view to try to determine where shi was, and realised that shi was actually not far from the Star Corps headquarters.
‘Okay, Swift, time’s wasting,’ shi thought to hirself. ‘Time to do something about this situation.’
Shi zipped back to the office where shi put an astral hand on the bag and teleported it and hirself out of there.
Swiftwalk had materialised in the common bedroom which had no direct view from outside, and practically in the lap of one of the residents.
"Sheesh, Swift, give me a heart attack, why don’t you?" Forestwalker began, then realised that something was wrong. "Are you okay? Dale’s been worried about why you’ve been gone so long and not answered your comm."
Swiftwalk struggled to push hir upper torso upright. "Forest, listen! I’ve been drugged and can do little more than talk right now. I’m going to need your help and others too, but for Makers’ sake, don’t go outside or near a window or give any indication that I’m here. Quickly!"
Forestwalker could sense Swiftwalk’s sluggishness, as well as hir fear and urgency. Shi wasted no time in rounding up the adults, including Midnight and Boyce who, by chance, had arrived on shore leave the previous day.
Swiftwalk was immensely relieved to see them, and shi felt that they now had a very good chance of getting though this incident unscathed. With Goldendale holding and steadying hir, shi explained as quickly as possible what had happened to hir since finishing teleportation duties at the Star Corps building. Shi then began outlining hir idea on what to do about the situation.
"First we need to confirm if the fat man was lying about the assassins. Forest – you’re the most empathically sensitive of all of us. Can you detect anybody hiding nearby?" Swiftwalk asked.
"Not only can, but have. As soon as you mentioned them, I listened for someone who shouldn’t be there. I detected someone leaking large amounts of negative emotions in the forest backing onto our yard. Perfect concealment for a sniper."
"Damn! I was hoping that was just a threat to control me. Put your hand on me so that I can get an empathic fix on him through you…. Okay, got it. Midnight, have you got any weapons?"
"I’m Star Fleet Security – I’ve almost always got a weapon handy." Midnight pulled a small phaser from one of hir belt pouches.
"Great! Put your hand on me also. I’m going to ’port you to him, then he’s all yours."
The black chakat did so, and a moment later shi disappeared. Keen ears faintly heard the whine of a phaser beam, then Boyce’s comm chirped.
"It’s Midnight," he said as he answered it. He listened for a moment, then said, "Will do." Putting the comm back in his pocket, Boyce said, "Midnight has the man stunned. Shi has requested that you teleport them back here, if you can."
"I can manage that," Swiftwalk said and vanished, only to return a moment later with Midnight and an unconscious human dressed in camouflage gear.
Midnight said, "He was well concealed and downwind from us so that we wouldn’t catch his scent. He had this pulse rifle." Shi held it up for the others to have a good look. "He could have picked off several of us before we could react to the first being hit. He also had an incendiary bomb which I left back in the forest, which worries me even more. I had to stun him because he had some cubs in his sights and I didn’t want to take any risks. Unfortunately it also means that we won’t be able to question him for a while."
Goldendale said, "So the threat to me and everyone else close to my mate is confirmed and very lethal. We’ve got this bloke, but what about others?"
Swiftwalk was rapidly regaining full control of hir body, and as shi struggled to hir feet, shi said, "I can’t see them spreading themselves too thin when they can hit most of us in just two locations. That leaves just my family on Chakona to worry about. I didn’t sense any deception on his part when he mentioned real-time communication with Chakona, so I believe that’s where another assassin will be." Shi looked at Midnight and Forestwalker. "I’m going to need you two to come with me to Chakona to repeat what we just did here."
"Of course," Forestwalker replied.
"I’m ready," Midnight added.
"Okay, I’ll teleport us into my room there. The blinds are kept drawn while I’m away, so we shouldn’t be spotted." Shi reached out to touch both chakats, and a moment later they were standing in pitch darkness. "Oops! Looks like it’s night time here."
Their night vision kicked in quickly enough so that they could see to move about, but Forestwalker wasted no time in starting to empathically search for hostile thoughts. After a tense minute or more of coming up blank, shi finally located a target.
"Found our assassin. It’s a female, and she’s so deadly calm and cool that I kept missing her at first. Now that I have her though, I can sense her true intentions."
"Okay, give me a fix," Swiftwalk asked as shi placed hir hands on both chakats.
"Try to put me behind her," Midnight requested. "That man back on Earth almost had time to get off a shot before I stunned him."
"It’s not that simple, but I’ll try."
A moment later the black chakat was gone. This time they did not hear Midnight’s phaser, but Forestwalker felt a sudden spike of startlement and fear – thankfully from the assassin and not hir mate. "Okay, I can feel that Midnight has things under control. Take us out there, Swift."
They joined Midnight who was barely visible in the shadows of the bushes outside of the home. Shi was easy enough to find though by the sound of the unending stream of invective that was coming from the vixen upon whom shi was sitting and blithely ignoring. At hir feet was a sniper rifle and what looked like a bomb to their inexperienced eyes.
Midnight said, "It’s another incendiary device. These people play for keeps, and I seriously wonder if they ever meant to keep their word about our safety if you cooperated. I’m going to take great pleasure out of making them pay for what they intended to do."
"And she’s another morph, which also makes the H1 claim look even less likely. Makes sense though – a morph is a heck of a lot less conspicuous than a human on Chakona. Are we going to have to hand her over to Chakonan authorities though?" Swiftwalk asked.
"This is an interplanetary-wide plot, which puts it under Federation jurisdiction rather than local government, and Star Fleet is responsible for policing Federation laws. So as a member of Star Fleet Security, that makes me the responsible arresting officer. I’m taking her back to Earth and throwing her into a Fleet cell along with her buddy."
"Sounds good to me," Swiftwalk said. "And best of all, we did this all without disturbing any of my family. They will never know how much danger they were in. Anyway, if you can clearly visualise that cell, I’ll take us straight there."
"Better make it the front door, or otherwise we might start an unwanted panic," Midnight replied.
That’s almost exactly what they did anyway when they materialised in the midst of some people moving through the entrance. Fortunately, although shi was not in uniform, Midnight had hir Fleet identification with hir and ready to show. Shi hastily arranged for the vixen to be locked up, promising to return to write a formal report as soon as possible, and then they teleported back home again.
Swiftwalk checked the time. "I’m supposed to be in the middle of a crime spree right now. Hopefully they have no way of checking up on that, so we’ve got a little more time before I’m supposed to be meeting the courier. Oh damn! I forgot to ask about the PTV licence plate while we were at Fleet’s office."
Boyce said, "Give it to me and I’ll have them check it out for me. My rank should help get fast results."
Swiftwalk did so and Boyce got on the comm to expedite it.
"Goldfur, I need you to do something for me," Swiftwalk said.
"Me?" Goldfur was startled but curious. "How can I help?"
Swiftwalk pulled the bomb out of the bag and shi showed it to Goldfur. "This switch is supposed to trigger a five second timer after it is armed. Can you tell me if there’s anything more to it than that?"
"How am I supposed to do that without disassembling it and perhaps setting it off accidentally? I’m no bomb expert."
"Back on Sylvania, you sensed the failure of the force-field pole seconds before it happened. You also said that you had a talent for electronics, and I reckon that should be Talent with a capital T. Can you do the same thing with this bomb?"
Goldfur nodded. "I can try." Shi picked up the device and stared hard at it while running hir hand over its surface. Shi frowned. "Swift – there’s no timer in there at all as far as I can tell. The switch appears to connect directly from the battery to what must be the detonator."
"I knew it!" Swiftwalk exclaimed. "I was never meant to live. After I wreaked havoc, I was supposed to apparently accidentally kill myself."
"How did you guess that he intended to kill you?" Goldendale asked.
"He never tried to hide his face. If I had lived, I would have been able to explain my actions and identify him to the police. By apparently being killed accidentally by my own bomb, I’d just look like I was crazy, which would just enhance the smears against chakats in general, and of course throw up a false trail."
Goldendale said, "I wonder if any of us were going to be safe even if you did everything that they asked. An incendiary bomb in this house followed by your death at the club could be construed as a murder-suicide."
Midnight said, "We had similar thoughts about our safety. However forensics should be able to tell that Swiftwalk didn’t bomb this house, although nobody can say that our enemies are knowledgeable enough to realise that."
Just then Boyce’s comm beeped and he looked at the display, then turned it to show to Swiftwalk. "Was this the person in the PTV?" he asked.
Swiftwalk looked closely at the morph on the screen and nodded. "Yeah, that’s him for sure."
Boyce tapped on his comm’s screen for a moment. "Eduardo Petrelli – he’s a hospital orderly. That would explain how he would know about a drug that could incapacitate a chakat, and the dosage. I’ll have him arrested and join his friends in the holding cell."
"That leaves just the courier and the fat man, I hope. At least we’ll know where the courier will be shortly. Hopefully one of those people will be able to tell us where to find fatso." Swiftwalk picked up the bag. "I’m going to shove some stuff in here to give it weight. I’ll try talking to the courier before you pounce on him."
"I don’t recommend that, but just make sure that the courier isn’t armed if you insist on trying," Midnight warned. "Whoever it is might not wait for the bomb to take care of you if they’re pushed too hard. I’ll arrange some back-up for you, but I’ll be as close to you as possible. As soon as I’ve arranged the back-up, teleport us over there so that I can check out the area in advance in the short time we have left."
A couple of minutes later they materialised in an open space a block away from the club, near a landmark that Swiftwalk was familiar with. They startled a couple of pedestrians, but the chakats didn’t bother trying to explain, and the pedestrians chalked it up to one of those things that happen in the city.
Midnight said, "This is good. Stay here until you need to rendezvous with the courier. I’ll just stroll along with the flow and cast my eye over the area. Good thing I’m still in my civvies so that I won’t stand out too much. I can see one or two other chakats, so one more shouldn’t cause alarm."
Midnight walked off, and Swiftwalk nervously watched the remaining time, which apparently had slowed to a snail’s pace. Shi allowed several seconds of the five minute period to elapse to give Midnight more time, and not to appear too desperate, then teleported up to the club’s entrance. Shi ignored the startled people as shi spotted the courier in the green jacket and walked up to him.
"Before I give you the loot," Swiftwalk said, "I want your promise that we’ll be quits after this. My family is safe, right?"
The courier kept a straight face, but shi could sense his amusement and contempt. "You don’t get anything from us until you finish the job, so get going, kitty."
"Where’s the fat man? Why doesn’t he come and get these jewels for himself?"
The courier scowled. "Nowhere near where you can play your tricks. Remember he’s waiting for a signal from me one way or another, so stop stalling and hand over the bag."
Swiftwalk decided that he’d said enough to incriminate himself and subtly signalled to Midnight who had casually moved close by unnoticed by the courier.
Midnight leaped into the courier’s view with phaser raised and pointed at him, shouting, "Star Fleet Security! Hands behind your head and get down on the ground! I said get down! Now!"
The man was surprised but still tried to reach for something within his jacket anyway. He had forgotten about Swiftwalk though, and he was knocked over as the bag shi was still holding slammed into the side of his head. Midnight was upon him in a trice and he was swiftly immobilised.
When shi was done, Midnight pulled out hir comm and called hir back-up. Then shi looked inside the man’s jacket and pulled out something. Shi held it up to show Swiftwalk. "Not a weapon, but a signal device. You didn’t have to do that, by the way. I had things under control."
"Maybe, but it was very satisfying anyway. Couldn’t let you have all the pleasure."
Midnight shook hir head in disapproval, but couldn’t completely hide hir amusement from Swiftwalk.
A morph and a human dressed in Star Fleet Security uniform arrived then and took control of the courier. They bundled him into the Security wagon, and Midnight said, "I’ll have to go with these officers. Give me your comm to hand in for evidence."
Swiftwalk took out hir comm which shi had set to record the courier’s incriminating words and gave it to Midnight. "Do you need me any more?"
"Not at the moment. Go back home, Swift. Boyce has arranged for some more Security people to come and keep a look out just in case we didn’t get everyone, so they should be completely safe."
"But we haven’t got the fat man yet, so they could still be at risk."
"We’ve got three of his accomplices now. We’ll find out who he is soon enough," Midnight said confidently.
"And what if he skips out before you find him when he realises his plot has failed?"
"Have a little faith in Star Fleet Security, Swift. We’ll make sure our family is safe. Now go home. I’ll rejoin you as soon as I can. I’ve got an investigation to get started on who took bribes at the Star Corps headquarters, and other loose ends."
Midnight climbed somewhat awkwardly into the wagon as it wasn’t a taur-modified model, and they drove off, leaving Swiftwalk and a pack of curious onlookers.
Swiftwalk murmured to hirself, "You have a lot of faith in your people, Midnight, but I think I may be the only one to ensure that they stay safe." Shi concentrated and then disappeared, leaving behind a very surprised crowd.
The fat man waited in his motel room, watching the clock. It was past the deadline and he still had not heard from the courier, one way or the other. He turned on the vid to see if there was anything on the news channel related to a chakat stealing a fabulously valuable diamond or an explosion at the Melbourne Gentlemen’s Club.
When he found nothing, he cursed and decided to signal the assassins on general principle. Suddenly he found himself staring into the emitter of a phaser field rifle. He froze in fear.
"Good – now we can talk civilly," Swiftwalk said in mocking echo of his earlier words. You know so much about me, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a planetary scout is required to carry heavy weaponry for protective purposes on a wild planet. So this weapon is very real and very deadly, and I will have no hesitation in using it. Now sit down on the bed with your hands behind your head."
Overcoming his surprise, the fat man said, "I don’t know how you found me, but you’ve just made a big mistake. I also told my people to go ahead and kill your family if I don’t make contact with them later. Just a little back-up just in case of… unforeseen circumstances," he added with his nasty smile.
"Your people? You mean that human in the camo gear and that cold vixen on Chakona? I don’t think they’ll be in any position to do anything for a long time except maybe chat with your courier in jail."
That startled the man. "How did you…? But…?"
Swiftwalk had hir empathy focused as high as hir level of ability would allow while describing his accomplices so that shi could sense any feeling of hope due to any other accomplices that they may have missed. Shi was alarmed to feel a flare of triumph coming from him.
"I said we were watching all your family, smartass. You seem to have missed some."
Swiftwalk was bewildered. Surely they’d found the only two near the homes of their families? Then it hit hir – Dale’s parents! They were hir family now also. Shi was so distracted by the realisation of hir error that shi failed to notice that the fat man had put his hand in his pocket in time. "Stop! Get your hands up!"
"Too late, kitty," he sneered. "I hope you can live with knowing that you killed those people on Mars."
Swiftwalk wasted no more time on the man. Shi teleported out to the Martian envirodome which housed Rose and Edward Perkins, the human parents of Goldendale, as well as many others in their group of Martian pioneers. Shi emerged into chaos as wild winds blew everything loose into a maelstrom. A huge hole in the outer wall was letting the Earth-normal atmosphere blow out into the low pressure of the outdoor environment. Decades of work on terraforming the world had managed to raise the average temperature and the thickness of the Martian atmosphere considerably, but it would be many more decades before the world would be truly liveable without protective suits and breathing apparatus while out in the open. Meanwhile, all unprotected Terran life was confined to the huge domes constructed on that world.
Swiftwalk found hirself gasping for breath and shi looked about for the emergency breathing gear that was always posted all around the domes. Many were already being grabbed by the frantic residents of the dome who were just starting to realise what had happened, but Swiftwalk managed to procure one. Shi headed towards the hole, knowing that it was located on the section of the dome adjacent to Dale’s parents’ room. Other people were already reacting to the emergency by grabbing for equipment. Automatic doors were sliding closed to isolate the portion of the dome affected.
Swiftwalk immediately found Edward on the floor, bleeding from a gash in his forehead. Shi was about to pick him up when shi was roughly shouldered aside by a man who quickly put a breathing mask over Edward’s face.
"Go find Rose!" the man shouted, muffled by the mask and noise.
Shi did as shi was told and looked about, but saw nobody. Then shi looked through the gaping hole in the wall and saw a body tossed out into the harsh Martian desert. Swiftwalk leapt through the hole and the terrible cold assaulted hir immediately. Hir stay on tropical Sylvania meant that hir fur was at summer length and nowhere near adequate for these conditions, but in the short term it was enough. Shi recognised Rose immediately and hir heart was rent by fear and guilt that shi was responsible for this. Shi picked up the woman as if shi weighed nothing, and in the low Martian gravity, that was almost true. Although shi tried to be careful, Swiftwalk couldn’t afford worrying about whether moving her was safe because no one could survive long in that environment without protection. Shi teleported them both back inside to the sick bay, which was already receiving its first incidental casualties of the assassination attempt. Swiftwalk was glad that the Perkins had given hir a tour of the dome so that shi knew where the sick bay was. Judging by the calmness of the air, that section had been successfully sealed off.
"Put her on that table!" a fox morph wearing a medical insignia ordered.
Swiftwalk did so, then was quickly jostled aside as the staff got to work on Rose.
Someone grabbed hir arm and said, "If you’re not injured, get out of here. We don’t have the room for you."
Swiftwalk nodded, still unable to take hir eyes off the victim of hir over-confidence. Shi snarled and disappeared, badly surprising the person who had ordered hir to go.
The fat man didn’t know how the chakat had managed to track him down to the motel room, but he hadn’t wasted any time evacuating it when shi had disappeared. With his suitcase already packed, he was able to leave within seconds. Leaping into his PTV, he took off at high speed, but not onto the controlled highway where he could be easily picked up. He had a route planned already, and he would soon be out of the reach of the authorities. As he wound through some quiet back roads, he fumed over how everything had gone wrong. At least he’d managed to make good his promise to the damn chakat.
The displacement of air in the confines of the PTV was very much stronger than in a room, and Swiftwalk was abruptly lying on the back passenger seat of the vehicle. With barely an instant to orient hirself, shi quickly had hir weapon pointed at the fat man again. "Pull over!"
The fat man tried to brake suddenly to throw the chakat off balance, but shi was braced for anything and only whacked the man on the head for his attempt.
"Get out of the PTV. Try anything funny and I’ll shoot. You haven’t left me in the mood to be nice about this."
They both got out, and shi marched him out of sight from the road. Then shi said, "What happened? Did you hear the news somehow that a Teleporter was working for the Star Corps and you realised that I’d be the perfect patsy? Or did you just adjust your plans to take advantage of a freak like me? I know that you aren’t the Humans First fanatic that you made out that you were. Was that all just to throw me off with misleading information if I tried to get out the word?"
"I’m not saying anything, pussycat. You can just keep on wondering."
"I’m guessing that you are part of some criminal gang, and all you wanted was that valuable loot. All the rest was a red herring. You played me for a fool and people were hurt because of that."
"You think I’m going to admit to anything?" he sneered.
"You know something?" Swiftwalk asked. "I don’t really care. All I know is that you attempted to kill me and my family, and there’s very little in the world more dangerous that you can do to a chakat. Now that I’ve seen that you’re prepared to kill at a whim, there’s no way that I can ever be sure that you will not ever try to get revenge eventually for me spoiling your plans and capturing you, so I’m going to make sure that you don’t get the opportunity."
Shi reached out and grasped his shoulder, and an instant later they were out in the open, on a rocky hillside lightly vegetated with hardy plants. A cold breeze blew down from the snow-capped mountains that the hills merged into. The fat man clapped his hands to his ears due to the intense pain of the sudden pressure drop. He started to shiver from the cold.
"Where are we?" he asked.
Swiftwalk had deliberately yawned as shi teleported to stave off the worst of the ear pain. "Welcome to Sylvania. It’s a quite attractive world, actually. Plenty of interesting animals and plants – some of them good to eat, and some of them prepared to eat you. I’m sure you will come to appreciate it while you stay here."
"What?! You can’t just leave me here!"
"Of course I can. You intended me to kill myself with your bomb, and my mate and family were expendable hostages. You’ve forfeited any rights as far as I’m concerned. However, I will give you a chance." Swiftwalk pointed. "Base Camp Beta is a couple of hundred kilometres in that direction. If you make it there, you get to go home again. Good luck – you’ll need it." Shi then disappeared and left the human to the mercy of the planet.
Swiftwalk replaced the field rifle in the weapons storage room at Alpha Base. Although very secure, they had not taken teleporters into account when they designed it, and the CCTV that monitored the door outside never saw anything happening within. With the fat man taken care of, sheer relief was making hir feel a little giddy. Suddenly shi realised that shi still hadn’t even learned the fat man’s name, then shi decided that the worthless human wasn’t deserving of the recognition. It was enough that his face and personality had been burned into Swiftwalk’s mind. Just as shi had once told Goldendale that shi would always be able to find hir due to the bond of love between them, shi would always be able to find the fat man due to the bond of hate shi had with him. Only death would break that bond, but shi hoped that wouldn’t happen too quickly. Shi wasn’t so pure of heart that shi didn’t want him to suffer a while for his evil. Shi had only meant to take him into custody originally, but now that was too good a fate for him, and too dangerous for hir family.
Swiftwalk teleported back to the living room of Goldfur’s home – hir home. This was where hir life was now, with the mate whom shi loved and who loved Swiftwalk in return, and with the family that did their utmost to help and protect each other.
Goldendale was in hir arms in moments, hugging and kissing hir mate. "Swiftwalk – you’re safe! What happened?"
"We caught the courier. Midnight says it will only be a matter of time before they find out who the fat man is. But I made a bad mistake, Dale."
Even Goldendale’s amateurish attempts at using hir empathic Talent could easily sense the guilt that Swiftwalk was emanating. "What’s wrong, hon? Tell me."
"The fat man threatened all my family, Dale. He knew something that I simply took for granted – your parents are my family too now."
Goldendale gasped. "Oh no!"
"I screwed up, and he got a signal out. I went to Mars and your parents’ dome had been bombed. Your father was unconscious on the floor of their room, but your mother was blown outside. I took her into the sick bay…."
"Take me there!" Goldendale interrupted.
Swiftwalk did so, and a moment later they were inside the sick bay. They were almost immediately thrown out by the medical staff, but Goldendale managed to persuade them to let hir see hir parents. They were taken to a small room where they lay in separate beds, both unconscious.
The medic said, "Edward has concussion and some relatively minor injuries. He should recover completely. Rose, however, was lucky not to have been killed instantly. Her exposure to the Martian atmosphere just made things worse. It’s pretty much touch and go at the moment."
Goldendale sat beside his mother and took her hand. Tears welled in hir eyes as shi said, "My mother is a tough woman. She’ll pull through – I just know it."
Swiftwalk asked the medic, "Would she have a better chance if I took her to a big hospital?"
The medic looked at hir with a frown. "You’re the Teleporter, aren’t you? Funny how you turned up just as this all happened."
Swiftwalk cringed. "You’re right, it wasn’t a coincidence. In a way, I’m responsible for this."
"And you want me to trust her to you?"
"No – trust her to her child. Goldendale means everything to me, and I will do my utmost to help hir and our family."
The medic nodded. "I was going to evacuate her to Tharsis Base Hospital. Think you can get her there?"
"Yes. I’ve been to Tharsis. Give me a moment to locate the hospital." Shi disappeared. A few minutes later, shi reappeared. "I found it, and I alerted the staff for an incoming patient."
The medic had not been idle while shi was gone. Shi shoved a PADD with Rose’s medical data on it into Swiftwalk’s hands. "Give that to the doctor in charge."
Swiftwalk said, "Right!" Then shi turned moved over to Rose and Goldendale. "I’m going to have to borrow the bed," shi said as shi laid hands on each of them. A couple of monitors squealed an alarm as they were abruptly disconnected from their patient.
Swiftwalk and Goldendale returned home several hours later. By then, Midnight had also arrived, and shi was not in a happy mood. Forestwalker had overheard what Swiftwalk had said to Goldendale, and had passed that onto hir lifemate. The black chakat waited for Swiftwalk to tell hir everything first before shi started laying into hir for hir stupidity. Swiftwalk had much to feel guilty about, but shi was grateful for only one thing – that guilt would forever mask what shi had done with the fat man. And forever it would be because shi did not regret it at all. Besides, there was no undoing the deed – shi had felt the empathic link to the fat man break shortly before they had returned to Earth.
Midnight informed Swiftwalk that shi was expected to go to Star Fleet in the morning for a full debriefing. "But for now, I believe your mate needs you more," shi concluded, then left the couple alone.
Swiftwalk said, "Right now, I feel lower than a snake. You don’t deserve a mate like me."
Goldendale looked intently at Swiftwalk. "It’s taken me many months to know what I want as a chakat. Don’t try to tell me that I made the wrong choice because I don’t believe it. You made a mistake, hon, I know, but mum’s going to recover, and nobody got killed. You did what you did to try to protect us all, even if you should have left that to the experts."
Swiftwalk took hir mate in hir arms. "I will always try protect you, my beloved, as I know you will do for me and our unborn child."
Goldendale smiled. "I like the sound of that, hon. When should we tell them you’re pregnant?"
Swiftwalk smiled a little. "Let’s see how long it takes them to figure it out themselves. We have a very clever family, you know? That reminds me though – although they probably used a proper chakat-grade anaesthetic drug from the hospital on me, I think I’d better go see a medic and make sure and find out if there has been any undesirable effect on the foetus. Want to come with me, love?"
"Was there ever any question about that, hon?" Goldendale asked. Then shi called out, "Goldie! Swift and I going out for a while. We’ll be back for supper." A moment later, and they were gone.
More stories to come in Forest Tales #36.
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