The Loner
By Bernard Doove © 2003

Based on The Colony by V. Ducain





“Now I’ve got you!” the leopard chakat murmured to hirself as shi nocked an arrow and pulled back the bowstring. However, as shi raised the bow to take aim at the dark-pelted deer-like animal that shi had been chasing for over an hour, it suddenly lifted its head from the grass that it had been grazing upon, startled by a small noise coming from the chakat’s left. The animal started to take off, and the chakat cursed loudly and prepared to pursue once again, only to be halted by the sight and sound of an object whirling through the air. It wrapped itself around the legs of hir fleeing prey, bringing it crashing down to the dusty ground. The chakat was surprised by the turn of events, but surprise turned to anger as another chakat trotted out to the felled animal from behind bushes that had been obstructing sight of hir. The archer also moved out of concealment to meet the interloper. As shi approached, shi heard the newcomer murmuring a prayer of apology to the prey, thanking it for the gift of sustenance that it would bring. Then shi quickly and mercifully despatched the creature.

“Hey! That was my kill!” the archer said hotly.

The target of hir wrath nearly jumped out of hir skin, not having noticed the other chakat up to this point. Shi turned, and the two regarded each other. The archer realised that the other was very nearly a twin to hirself: similar-size bodies with common leopard patterning, green eyes and modest-sized breasts. In fact, the only obvious difference between them was that the newcomer had honey-blonde hair while the archer had black hair.

After collecting hir wits, shi replied tartly, “I didn’t see any sign of you. Besides, I was under the impression that this hunting territory had been assigned to me. What are you doing here?”

“I’m not part of your neat little clique. I’m independent, and I’ll hunt where I will. I’ve been pursuing that deer-thing for miles, and I don’t appreciate you just waltzing in and taking it after I’ve done all the hard work of tiring it out.”

“It’s a Pukka.”

Hir thoughts derailed, the archer blinked and said, “It’s a what?”

“This animal is called a Pukka, not a deer-thing.”

“Where did that name come from?”

“From the children, of course. At least the ones who have been given the task of naming the various animals that we discover.” Shi bent over to start disentangling hir bolas from around the Pukka’s legs.

The archer let it slide for now. “Okay, so what are you going to do with it now?”

“Do with it? Why, take it back to the community to cook it up for dinner, of course.”

“Listen, Lady, I did most of the work tiring it out. That meat should be mine!”

“Yours?” shi replied coldly. “We’re all in this together whether you like it or not, and everyone gets their share. Nobody gets to hog the resources, and that includes this meat. And if you really want to claim a kill of your own, go see White Tip and get hir to assign you a hunting territory of your own. You’ll get your wish, and the territory will be hunted more efficiently.” Shi softened hir tone. “However, alternatively I’ll let you claim half the credit for this kill if you like. Most hunters hunt in pairs anyway. By the way, what’s your name?”

Shi had wrong-footed the archer again, but this time shi gave it up as a lost cause. With a sigh of resignation, shi answered, “My name is Jason. And who may I say ‘partnered’ me?”

I’m Amber. So, you haven’t a chakat-style name.”

“I was born Jason Walker, and that’s who I am no matter what they do to my body. I notice that you’ve jumped on the bandwagon though and changed your name.”

“Yes and no. My human name was Amberlynn. I merely shortened it to something more appropriate to my new form.

“At least you’re not one of those former males who’ve gone all silly with new names,” Jason grumbled.

“Yeah, you were sort of right when you called me ‘lady’ as I used to be a woman. You really can’t tell at all now until you get to know someone better. For example, I would have to guess that you used to be a grumpy old man!” Mischief glinted in Amber’s eyes.

Jason glared sourly at Amber, and then reluctantly gave hir a lopsided grin. “I suppose I deserved that. Okay, let’s get this carcass divvied up and get it back. It’s a pretty big load for just one person, even if these chakat bodies can carry a lot.”

The two set to butchering the Pukka, then helped each other secure the loads on their lower torsoes before setting off at a steady pace.

After a short time, Amber broke the silence with a giggle. Jason looked at hir curiously. Shi grinned at him and answered the unasked question. “I just realised something about your name – Jason Walker… J. Walker... Jaywalker! You do have something like a chakat name after all!”

Jason rolled hir eyes. “Like I haven’t heard that nickname a thousand times before.”

“I suppose so. How about we just call you Walker then? It’s still your name, but it sounds more chakat-ish.”

Jason sighed. “Okay, okay! If it makes you happy, call me Walker.”

“You really do sound like a grumpy old man, y’know?”

“I’m seventy two. I’m entitled.”

“You’re twenty-ish, just like the rest of the adults who have had their body age reset. Lighten up!”

Walker tapped hir head. “I’m still seventy two up here. Life experience still counts for something, I hope?”

Amber looked unconvinced. “That doesn’t mean that you have to be grumpy about it. Besides, very little of that experience is as a chakat. You’re still learning, just like the rest of us.”

Walker shuddered as shi recalled one particular learning experience, and quickly changed the subject. “So, if they call the large deer-thing with black hide and tan speckles a Pukka, what do they call the smaller one with tan hide and black spots?”

“A Kappu. Yeah, it’s sort of the reverse of the other name, just like their colours are reversed.” When Walker gave hir a strange look, shi added, “Don’t look at me like that; it’s not my fault that the cubs have named them that!”

“How did they end up with naming privileges anyway?” Walker asked.

“It’s a bit of a story.”

“Does it look like I have anything better to do at the moment?”

“Nope. Anyway, it started at one of the nightly council meetings....”

* * *

White Tip looked at Fastpaws and asked, “Could you and Kate try to do some herd counts? I’d like to find out the numbers of some of the best meat animals we’ve found so far, and the large deer-things in particular....”

“They’re not deer-things!” a young voice interrupted scornfully.

White Tip’s ears swivelled in the direction of the interjector and hir eyes picked out a child of about thirteen years of age, with a grey pelt and darker grey face markings. “What’s your name, cub?” shi asked.

“I’m Smoke,” shi replied.

“You’re too young to have been allowed to choose a chakat-style name yet, so what’s your real name?”

The cub gave hir a sour look, and then said, “Brian.”

“Well, Brian, what makes you say that they’re not deer-things?” White Tip asked sternly but curiously.

“Because they’ve never been near Earth, and they’re named Pukkas!”

One of the other chakats in the council group chuckled and said, “Shi’s got you on the first point at least. It’s obvious that none of the fauna here is Terran, and despite a vague resemblance, that animal is not a deer.”

White Tip nodded. “True, but where did that name come from? One of the stories about chakats again?”

Brian’s voice became scornful again. “How could it be in a story? This planet was never ever mentioned!”

White Tip mentally kicked hirself for that lapse. Never underestimate a kid! “Okay, so where?”

Brian indicated a handful of cubs of various ages who had been with hir. “We’ve been making up names for all the animals.”

“And what makes you think that you have that right?” White Tip demanded.

“'Cause you grown-ups sure as furballs haven't!” Brian said adamantly.

“Touché!” Kate said. “It’s about time that we gave the animals names that aren’t just reminiscent of Terran ones.”

White Tip half smiled. “I suppose that’s true. All right Brian, they’re now officially called Pukkas. However, we need to keep things consistent and let everybody else know the new names. Tell me: what are your chores?”

“I haul water for cooking and cleaning,” Brian answered, wondering why White Tip had asked that.

White Tip continued, “Redtuft, that’s under your jurisdiction. Can you spare hir for some of the time?”

A brown-furred chakat with red hair and tail tuft answered. “No problem. Plenty more cubs to conscript.”

A small groan came from the group of cubs. White Tip smiles and said, “Good. Brian, I’m making it your task to record all the animals and their new names, and spread the knowledge any way you can. You can continue getting your friends’ help to come up with new names, but they should be kept uncomplicated, mustn’t sound like an existing word in our language, and…” shi fixed a stern glare on the cubs… “They must not be suggestive of anything naughty!”

A few giggles amongst the cubs proved that this was a timely warning. Brian looked excited by the task. “I know how to show people! Wisp! Show White Tip your drawings!”

White Tip frowned. “You haven’t been filching any of our precious paper, have you?”

A very petite sandy-brown chakat padded out of the group of cubs, shyly holding up a handful of ragged sheets to White Tip.

“Wisp?”

“Michelle, actually, sir.”

White Tip looked at what shi had handed hir, recognising immediately something greatly resembling paperbark – finely layered bark peeled from the trunks of certain trees. What was upon those sheets though was what most surprised hir. Drawn entirely in charcoal and clay were incredibly detailed pictures of various animals, including a Pukka. “These are wonderful drawings, Michelle,” shi said, passing the sheets to others to look at.

Michelle watched in concern to see that they weren’t being mishandled before replying, “Thanks, sir. I want to be an artist when I grow up.”

“My dear, you already are! But to help you practice your skills, you are relieved of your chores to concentrate on drawing pictures like these. We might even spare you a few sheets of our good paper for special personal art projects.”

Michelle’s eyes lit up. “Oh, thank you, sir!”

“Thank you, Michelle.” White Tip raised hir sights to look at the rest of the cubs. “Now, if we have your permission, we adults will have to get back to other important stuff.”

* * *

“But Pukka sounds a lot like ‘pucker’,” Walker objected. “That was supposed to be avoided.”

“A fair bit,” Amber conceded, “But they’d already named it before that rule was instated, so they let it pass. Anyway, the cubs have been doing a great job of identifying and naming animals. Michelle has gotten quite a reputation as a wildlife artist, and is almost always called by hir artist name, Wisp. Of course you’d know this if you spent time with the community instead of living by yourself.”

“I’ve spent much of the last two decades living by myself, and I don’t have much inclination to change that.”

Amber looked at Walker keenly. “We’ve all felt attitudinal changes since we became chakats, and the desire to be with others is one of the strongest. You’re telling me that you don’t feel this at all?”

Walker had to admit to hirself that shi had indeed felt the pull of social interaction, but seven decades of accumulated stubbornness wouldn’t let hir admit it to others. “I’ve been coping by myself for a long time, and I don’t miss it any more now that I’m a chakat.”

Shi utterly failed to convince Amber though. That strange chakat empathic talent that most people were just beginning to use effectively, told hir that Walker was lying though hir teeth. “So how did you cope when you went through your first heat cycle? Many former males needed help at that time.”

Walker almost stumbled as the impact of that question rocked hir. In fact shi had almost failed to cope. As a human, shi hadn’t had sexual activity for years. Then it was dumped manifold on hir when shi had gone into hir first chakat oestrus. Only a lot of masturbation had stopped hir from going nuts from hir body’s demands. “Let’s just say that I was thoroughly convinced of the fact that I wasn’t just male anymore, and I no longer have problems using herm terminology.”

Amber smiled to hirself. Yeah, that had been the clincher for many former males, far more so than for former females when they went into rut for the first time.

“What about you?” Walker asked, trying to get the focus off hirself. “What was it like for you when you had your first rut?”

“I’m a bad example. I was one of those females who could hardly wait to find out what a penis felt like from the attached end, and see what all the fuss was about. My girlfriend felt the same way, so we went off alone to try out our new equipment. Ended up trying it out for hours!” Shi sighed in happy reminiscence. “That was the best sex I’d had in my life. I was sold on the concept of a herm species from that moment on.”

“Your girlfriend? So you were a lesbian?”

Amber laughed. “No. Shi and I were just very good friends, but we both wanted to do this with someone we knew before forming other relationships. Not that we haven’t had sex a couple of times since then, but we both realised that we weren’t suited to becoming permanent mates. I suppose we’re what the kids tell us are Chakat Companions.”

Walker nodded, accepting the explanation, and then changed the subject. “That was a good throw with the bolas. Have you been practicing long?”

Amber grinned. “I’d never touched bolas before in my life until I came here and we were being tested for weapons skills to find out who would make good hunters. I was terrible with a bow, mediocre with a spear, but when I tried the bolas, I hit the target first time. I thought it was a fluke until I tried it again and again. Perfect each time. It seems I have a knack for them. I’ve never missed yet.”

“Never?” asked Walker incredulously.

“Well, not yet anyway,” Amber answered humbly, aware that pride goes before a fall.

“Amazing. I hunted for years with a bow and arrow, but I’m still only middling good. It’s enough to keep me fed, but not good enough to enter any competition.”

“Still better than me, anyway. That’s one of the reasons why they pair up hunters, so that their different strengths improve the chances of a successful hunt.”

Walker grunted noncommittally, aware that Amber was subtly encouraging hir to stop doing everything by hirself.

While their steady pace ate up the distance to the community, the two continued their conversation. Amber subtly steered the subjects to bring the loner up to speed on what had been happening in the greater community. Walker found hirself enjoying the company that shi had denied needing. Perhaps there was more to this partnership suggestion than shi had first thought.

* * *

“Hey, Blacky! Got a big pukka for you to cook up.”

A black-furred chakat with white face and chest fur looked up. “Hi, Amber. You’re early today; first in with a kill.”

“My new partner here is the reason. Shi tracked the pukka down and tired it out so that I could get in range and administer the coup de grâce.

“Works for me,” Blacky said as shi helped Amber unload the carcass before turning to Walker. “I don’t recall meeting you before, ...?”

“Call me Walker,” shi filled in the expected detail.

“Okay, Walker. Nice job. Are you going to be partnering Amber on a regular basis?”

Walker glanced at Amber who smiled encouragingly. Shi wasn’t adverse to the idea of having a companion while on the hunt. Shi looked back to Blacky. “I suppose so, if that’s what the person in charge wants.”

“Redclaw is in charge of organising the hunting parties. I’m surprised that you didn’t know that,” shi said curiously.

“I sort of fell into this,” Walker answered evasively.

Blacky accepted that answer easily. “A lot of us have done exactly that. I hope your partnership works out well.”

Walker was suddenly aware that shi was on the verge of a commitment that shi was not ready for yet. “Thanks. I gotta get going now. Could I just grab a share of the meat?”

“Sure hon. There’s a piece over there that’s already cooked. You’re welcome to take that.”

Walker took the piece and wrapped it in one of the broad leaves stacked nearby, then stuffed it into hir backpack. “I’ll be off now. Nice meeting you, Blacky. Amber....”

“Meet me here, just after sunrise?”

Walker hesitated, and then nodded. Shi then took off for hir secluded den, half expecting Amber to follow hir. Once there, shi prepared the meat, adding a few edible greens, and ate hir meal. Feeling tired, shi decided to try sleeping, but hir mind was whirling with the events of the day. After lying on the bedding for a long time, shi concluded that shi wasn’t going to get any sleep yet. Another thing was keeping hir awake – for the first time since shi had arrived on this world, shi had a raging erection that had nothing to do with a sexual cycle.

* * *

Amber had almost decided to leave by hirself before Walker finally turned up the next morning. “There you are! I’ve been waiting for you for half an hour. I’d about decided that you weren’t going to come after all.”

Walker shrugged. “I admit that I almost didn’t, but you’ve shaken up the status quo that I’d established, and something kept nagging me to come. So hopefully this will get it out of my system and I can get back into my routine.”

“Your narrow little groove, you mean. You can’t keep that up indefinitely, you know? We all need to cooperate to make this colony thrive, and also, if what those stories tell about chakats is true, your new chakat form won’t let you be a loner. You could end up being utterly miserable if you try.”

“I was satisfied enough,” Walker replied surlily.

“Not for terribly much longer, I’ll bet. Anyway, I’m going to argue with you anymore. Are you coming hunting with me or not?”

Walker nodded, and they began an easy lope that took them in the direction of Amber’s territory. At first neither talked, but it was Walker who eventually broke the silence. “Anyway, how could I be late? We don’t have any clocks, and ‘after sunrise’ is a bit vague.”

“I said just after sunrise, and that sure wasn’t. Besides, you’re wrong about the clock. Sungazer has already put together a reasonably accurate one.”

“Sungazer?”

“Shi used to do astronomy as a hobby, so that’s why shi chose that name. Shi’s been observing the sun, moon and stars here almost since we first arrived. From that data, shi’s been trying to put together an accurate way of measuring time and make a calendar. We don’t have any terms of reference for that. Hell, we don’t have any terms of reference for any units!”

“We can estimate them for now though. We don’t need anything too accurate.”

“Yet,” Amber added. “If we want to preserve our technical knowledge and start making sophisticated equipment, we need standardised units of measurement. We must have the three basic units – length, mass and time.”

“So, are you going to make a standard measure about this big,” Walker held hir hands apart, “And call it a yard?”

“Basically, yes, although we’ll be going metric and call it a meter. We’re trying to make something that is close to the Terran versions, but we have the problem of not having anything to compare them to. We know that we’re neither tiny nor huge by observing how other objects behave in relation to us, but the only clue that we have to our actual size is what we’ve been told about chakats. Our average height is supposed to be about 1.6 meters, but naturally we have nothing to verify that. Nonetheless, we’re taking that on faith for lack of a better alternative. Same with mass and time. We’re going with our best guesses for both. We’re just hoping that a chakat’s perception of the passage of time is similar to a human’s. Next come the experiments to accurately measure things such as gravity, power, etcetera, in terms of our new units. It helps that we already know many of the physical laws, and constants to enough significant digits to be precise.

“You know them? You don’t sound like any hunter I’ve ever met.”

Amber laughed. “You don’t think I did this for a living before coming here, do you? I have a degree in Physics. I was an engineer!”

“And now you provide food for the tribe, eh? That’s quite a comedown.”

“It’s not so bad. There might not be much use for my skills yet, but if things go the way White Tip and the others have planned, I’ll probably end up busier than ever soon enough. Meanwhile I’m doing something useful that I turn out to be pretty good at. I think I’ll miss this when I go back to being an engineer.”

“Grows on you, doesn’t it?” Walker asked slyly.

Amber looked at hir suspiciously, eventually answering, “Not so much that I want to go hide in the woods and shun contact with others.”

“Who said anything about shunning? I just like to be by myself.”

“I’d argue with you more, but I believe that you’re going to find that harder than you think, so I’ll let time tell.”

Walker snorted. “We’ll see.”

Silence descended again until the pair spotted another pukka. It fled the chakats, taking refuge in nearby woods. Because bolas were severely hampered under those conditions, Walker took on the responsibility for making the kill, while Amber tried to get ahead of the animal to block and herd it towards hir partner. These tactics worked well, and despite Walker’s claims of mediocrity with the bow, the pukka was quickly and cleanly felled with hir first shot. Shi padded up to the animal just after Amber had emerged from the bushes on the other side, in time to hear hir offer up a prayer of thanks to the animal.

“Do you always do that?” Walker asked.

“Do what? Thank our prey?” Amber queried. Walker nodded and Amber continued. “Yes, I usually do. I’m not really religious, but I do know that there’s a connection between all living things, and if one should have to die in order that another may live, then it’s right to be grateful for the sacrifice.”

“That ‘Circle of Life’ stuff, you mean?”

“Pretty much. I know that it was beginning to sound clichéd, but it still remains true.”

“Well, I’ve never quite taken it quite that seriously, although I’ve tried to never be wasteful of natural resources.”

“That’s the catch. We all need to take it very seriously. The sudden appearance of a few hundred chakats has had a huge impact on the environment here, and if we intend to make a permanent settlement, we need to address that situation immediately.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. I’d noticed that game was already getting harder to find close by.”

“Precisely. I think we got pretty lucky finding another pukka so soon. I’ve gone a couple of days without even seeing one.”

As efficiently as the day before, they butchered the pukka for carrying purposes and loaded up the meat. Both were glad to finish reasonably early in the day because it was turning out to be a very hot one, and chakats coped least well in excessive warmth.

After turning in their kill, Amber turned to Walker and asked, “How about coming down to the swimming pool with me? I really could use a cool bath about now. I’ll scrub your back for you,” shi offered.

Walker had been bathing by hirself, of course, taking the time to do the intimate but vital cleaning of hir privates. However, this should be ob only a general bath and not likely to cause any problems, so shi accepted the invitation. It didn’t take hir long though to find out that shi had made a serious error in judgement.

It started ordinarily enough. Both plunged without hesitation into the cool waters of the deep rock pool that was the community swimming pool. There they washed off the dust and grime accumulated over a couple of hot days. Then Amber kept hir promise and scrubbed Walker’s back. Shi found this to be a lot more pleasurable than shi had anticipated. Then Amber asked to have hir back scrubbed also, which Walker naturally couldn’t refuse. Running hir fingers through the fur on Amber’s back and feeling the lean and taut figure beneath became a very stimulating experience for both, but it was Walker who felt the stirring between hir hind legs.

Amber brought the session to a halt. “That’s enough, thanks. I’m going to get out now.” Shi put hir forepaws on the edge of the pool and heaved hirself up, sliding gracefully out of the water and onto the flat surface of the bank. Hir short summer fur was plastered to hir body, following and displaying every curve of every muscle of hir sleek, sensuous form, and the cold water had hardened hir nipples into proud peaks upon hir perfectly formed breasts. Amber was quite aware of the view shi was presenting, and shi had deliberately chosen hir angle in relation to Walker for the most tantalising effect, although shi made it all seem to be unconscious and perfectly natural. It had the desired effect. Despite the cold water, Walker now had an almost painfully hard erection which shi was desperately trying to conceal.

“Aren’t you coming out?” enquired Amber innocently.

“I think I’ll soak a little longer,” Walker replied hurriedly.

Amber said, “Okay,” before shaking hirself dry as much as possible. Then shi took a crude comb out of hir hip pouch which shi had left laying on the bank, and combed hir hair into place. When shi was finished, shi said, “I’m going to look for something to eat. The bath gave me an appetite.”

With that, shi meandered off in the direction of the community kitchen, hir hindquarters and tail swaying in a fascinating manner that glued Walker’s eyes to hir until shi passed from sight behind a bush. With a groan of frustration, Walker sank beneath the water, hir head buzzing with conflicting desires.



* * To be continued * *




Amber and Walker




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