Chapter Four

MayFurr blinked through the falling rain at the creature before him. It was the same one that they had encountered three days ago! Rapidly, still holding the phaser-rifle trained at the creature's chest, he scanned through the rain for any others of its kind. Finding nothing, he lowered his weapon and slung it over his shoulder again, still facing the chakat.

Sundown lowered hir hands to hir sides, looking confused. Obviously the fox had recognised hir, but still finding the ship and the fox still in the clearing was a surprise! Shi waited for him to approach hir, but instead he turned and barked something towards the hatchway, then trudged through the pouring rain to the entrance of the ship. Intrigued, Sundown followed him, the male taking no steps to prevent hir.

"What did you say, May?" Ranthe asked as the dripping vulpine clambered back into the shelter of the Fury. "I couldn't hear it over the rain..."

"I said, our native friend is back," MayFurr replied, stowing the rifle in a safe place, then slipping off his hat and jacket and shaking the excess water off them outside the door. "Alone, surprisingly enough. Thought it'd have time t' bring its pals back with it by now though - " He stopped, startled for a moment, as a large dark shape loomed in the open doorway and a pair of hands reached in to hold onto the edge of the opening. A second pair of pseudo-hands grasped at the lower part of the floor lip, then with a couple of grunts Sundown pulled hirself partway inside by hir hands and fore-paws, looking up at the surprised vixen.

The two foxes exchanged glances. MayFurr nodded to Ranthe, then reached out to the 'taur' and pulled hir in the rest of the way into the cockpit of the Fury. Sundown smiled gratefully to the pair, removing hir own hat and shaking the water off it in the same way MayFurr had done minutes ago.

"Well," MayFurr sighed, "Now we're all one big happy family in here out of the rain, what do we do now?" Finding himself at the back of the now cramped cabin, he squeezed past the not insignificant bulk of the chakat to rejoin Ranthe at the command console. Behind him Sundown looked on with interest as MayFurr brought up the mapping scans the Fury had made of the general area as they had landed on the main viewer. Ignoring their new observer, he overlaid their initial travel path on the map, their current location marked by a flashing white dot, followed by noted areas of possible civilisation. "How far from the nearest settlement do you think we are, Ranthe?"

Ranthe traced a paw on the map between the closest grey area and the white dot. "Assuming these areas are settlements of some kind, I'd say thirty-five kilometres." She looked up at the fox. "What're you thinking, May?"

MayFurr rubbed his chin. "Thirty-five kilometres? Mmmm...three days - it could've got there in that time if it walks as fast as we do, and I think it does." he speculated, glancing at the chakat's powerful looking legs and lower body. "But- why did it come back? I can't see that it needed to."

"Perhaps it was curious?" Ranthe murmured.

"After the way we treated it? I'm surprised it didn't takeus prisoner when we let it go..."

Sundown listened to the two fox's yapping, not understanding a word of it. Hir gaze focussed on the display on the screen, the chakat's eyes recognising hills and settlements in the general area surrounding the huge forest. Struck by a thought, shi pulled out hir own map from hir saddlebag, and compared it to the alien map - apart from some lack of detail around the towns, the copy shi held was the same as the one on the screen. Which meant...Tapping the vixen on the shoulder, Sundown pointed at the white dot at the end of the curved line, then gestured at the interior of the cabin. Ranthe jumped in surprise, but nodded to hir before resuming the animated conversation with her companion.

"Okaaaay," Sundown muttered to hirself, causing the flow of conversation in front of hir to stop for a moment as shi found the ship's position on hir map. "That's where we are now... and this is where I camped the last night before I was taken here." She looked up. "That's quite a distance!", shi murmured, looking with new respect at the male fox who had dragged hir heavy unconscious body all the way back to his ship. Sundown closed the map up and replaced it in hir bag, the route out of the forest implanted into hir agile mind. Shi turned to leave, glad at not having to suffer the ignominy of rescue...

And stopped.

Shi looked back at the two vulpines, something occurring to hir. They were lost too, Sundown recalled, lost and wanting to find their way home. They couldn't found their way back yet, else they would have gone by now... lost not only from their home, but from their entire world. A pang of sympathy washed over the chakat as shi considered this unexpected thought, having experienced the fear of no return hirself...

MayFurr finally leaned back in his chair, the seat prodding Sundown from hir train of thinking as it pressed against hir upper flanks. Shi yelped, causing the fox to hurriedly sit upright again. "Sorry," he growled apologetically. Sundown smoothed out hir still damp halter-top, nodding at the fox as shi continued to think.

The idea of leaning more about the aliens intrigued hir as well, shi had to admit. And the prestige of a First Contact was very alluring! Could shi take the aliens with hir somehow?

How would shi manage that, much less communicate with them? Sundown frowned... the sign language shi had managed to start with the vixen during hir captivity had worked after a fashion, but rapidly became clumsy with anything beyond 'I am hungry'. There had to be something...

"It's obvious that the creature didn't get to tell anyone about us," Ranthe said. brushing her head-fur out of her eyes where it had fallen. "So if we want to be found, we'd better do it ourselves."

MayFurr frowned again. "I've told you before, Ranthe, we can't just fly in - "

The vixen held her hand up, interrupting her companion again. "Yeah yeah, I know May, they've got no way of telling if we're friend or foe, blah blah blah... but - we've got something we didn't have before."

"What's that?"

Ranthe patted Sundown on the shoulder, causing the chakat to jump slightly. She smiled at hir, and rubbed hir shoulder. "This."

"What do you mean - oh, I see. A guide? Translator? Someone to say we're not dangerous?"

Ranthe nodded.

MayFurr snorted. "Fine time telling me now after I attacked the damn thing. Y' do realise, hog-tying someone isn't high on the list of getting into somefur's social graces..."

Ranthe interrupted again, her voice carrying a note of exasperation. "Dammit May, I know that. But what other chance have we got? Besides, we released it voluntarily, and it came back by itself - it wouldn't do that if it did think we were going to hurt it."

"Okay, okay, you've convinced me!" MayFurr raised his hands in surrender, causing Ranthe to smirk. "The thing is, how do you convince our friend here?"

"Good point," Ranthe acknowledged, looking carefully at Sundown. The chakat's clear gold-green eyes met hers in return. It looked a little different to what it did last time, the vixen thought, even though it still had very female breasts and upper-body figure it now looked more... masculine somehow. Ranthe blinked, shaking her head slightly, returning her attention to MayFurr, who was tracing a path on the map screen in front of her.

"Probably the best thing to do Ranthe is to simply take off, and show our guest here where we're going as we travel," MayFurr decided. "We'll launch when the rain stops so we all can better see what's going on once we're up."

Steam rose off the grass in the clearing as the hot sun dawned, shrouding the forest in a light mist pierced by the bright light of another Chakonan day.

It had been three days before the rain had finally stopped, and all three inhabitants of the Fury were glad to get outside and stretch their legs in the warming sunshine. While MayFurr and Ranthe worked on the outside of the ship clearing their makeshift camouflage, Sundown had taken it upon hirself to tidy up and disperse the campfire before their departure. Some progress had been made in communicating with each other while waiting for the rain to clear, and Sundown had managed to understand - on a basic level at least - what the two foxes intended to do. For hir part, the chakat had successfully steered the aliens to plot a course that would take them close to hir home settlement Chases-My-Tail, figuring that shi may as well get a free ride home instead of trying to explain hir new companions on the bus from the national park.

MayFurr clambered back into the ship, and soon afterward a high pitched whine grew from the main engines. Sundown's ears flattened at the unaccustomed shriek of the motors as shi ran back to the ship, followed by the vixen, pulling hirself back into the confined cabin as Ranthe squeezed past into the copilot seat. The main hatch closed and sealed, shutting off the din from outside while the two foxes strapped themselves into their seats, leaving the chakat to brace hirself in the cramped space that was left.

"All set, Ranthe?" MayFurr called out as he shifted the controls.

Ranthe nodded. "Ready as I'll ever be." Slowly, the Fury crawled out from under the trees into the middle of the clearing, bumping and shaking the occupants as it negotiated the rough uneven ground.

"What about our friend here?"

The vixen looked behind her to Sundown, who had managed to wedge hir lower body partway under the mission specialist console, bracing the rest of hir against the walls. "It looks okay to me -I think it'll manage..."

"Okay then," MayFurr acknowledged, "Here we go... and may fortune favour the foolish" he muttered under his breath.

With a deafening roar, Fiora's Fury lifted off from the forest clearing, the blast from its lift jets scattering dust and debris while birds flew off in fright. Slowly at first, then picking up speed, the ship rose above the canopy and started to fly on an approximate north-west heading.

MayFurr kept the ship at a low altitude and speed, trying to avoid any possible radar contact. Despite having instructed Ranthe to locate the native's comm-channels and put them on the monitor speaker so the creature would hear (and hopefully intercede on their behalf), the fox preferred to avoid such contact unless it was absolutely necessary. However, the ground-hugging tactics employed didn't make for a very smooth ride, as MayFurr had to continually swerve to miss hitting trees - causing yelps of distress from Sundown and a round of continual admonishment from Ranthe as the Fury banked, climbed and rolled like a roller-coaster ride. Finally the edge of the forest was reached, allowing the ship to level out somewhat as it passed over scrub and rolling grasslands.

"So far so good," MayFurr murmured -

- only to be interrupted by an alien voice coming over the monitor speaker. Sundown's ears pricked up as shi listened...

"... is Berdoovia Area Control calling unidentified aircraft on heading two-niner-zero. Please state your intentions, we have no record of your flight. Please respond..."

Ranthe looked up in surprise as the alien babble continued. "What's that?" she asked, turning first to MayFurr, then to Sundown.

The chakat glanced to the alien instrument panel, then outside, noting the sun angle. Quickly calculating their current heading and determining that it was them the voice was referring to, shi tapped the male fox on the shoulder and pointed to the speaker.

"Oh shit - looks like we've been discovered - " MayFurr gulped.

Ranthe's vulpine ears flicked back. "What now?"

He gestured frantically to the chakat behind him with his free arm. "Get it to say we're friendly - anything!"

The vixen quickly turned to Sundown, miming speaking and pointing to the monitor, switching the comm channel mike to 'hands-free'. "Come on, say something!" Ranthe desperately hissed.

"... aircraft, this is Berdoovia Area Control. You are passing into restricted airspace, and we don't have your flight plan. Reverse your course, and identify yourself!"

Sundown blinked at the challenging voice coming from the speaker- what was shi supposed to do now? Shi knew that the two fox aliens wanted to fly to a populated area, but... did they want hir to talk, or be quiet? The female was frantically waving at hir to do something, while the male was still flying the ship in what Sundown judged to be an evasive course...

"... reverse your course immediately, unidentified aircraft..."

"Dammit, say something!" Ranthe growled at the chakat.

Sundown gestured to the speaker above the cockpit window, then towards the map, about to indicate they should turn back -

MayFurr saw the chakat point downwards, and made a rapid decision. "That's it, I'm taking us down," he growled, shutting off the open mike and altering their heading. "I thought we'd be lost in the ground clutter by now, but obviously not!"

Ranthe frowned. "But what about - "

The fox cut her off with a wave of his paw, and the ship started to descend, picking up speed, the rolling hills beneath them looming closer and closer. Sundown looked out the window in alarm, not understanding what was going on, only guessing that shi had missed something important. A landmark flashed by that shi recognised...

"What! What?" MayFurr yipped as the chakat tapped him on the shoulder, pointing to a small plantation of trees in the distance. "You want us to go there?" he gestured. Sundown nodded in affirmation, and MayFurr changed course to head for where shi had directed. "I hope you know what you're doing..." the fox muttered under his breath as the trees grew closer.

Three figures plodded along the dusty road towards the settlement, the two foxes trailing behind their chakat guide. Sundown led the way confidently, now on familiar territory, occasionally beckoning hir alien companions to catch up to the athletic chakat's pace.

They had landed next to the plantation Sundown had pointed out, which was about five kilometres from Chases-My-Tail. MayFurr and Ranthe had again tried to camouflage the Fury from casual discovery, this time locking the hatch behind them and placing the ship in 'self-protect' mode before following Sundown. Not that we've really got any choice, MayFurr thought as he wearily followed Ranthe, carrying what few possessions the two foxes had in a bag slung over his shoulder. The vixen seemed to be enjoying the walk so far from what he could see, while the creature... well, it seemed to be tailor-made for travelling like this, the large saddlebags on its lower body scarcely seeming to bother it much at all.

Eventually the trio entered the township itself, walking down the main street. The buildings and streets looked like they had been taken straight from Furry Prime itself, Ranthe noticed in amazement, having expected some wild alien architecture to be the norm, but the only differences she noticed were substantially wider doors to accommodate the strange double-torso physique of the natives. Not many vehicles were in evidence, mostly cargo transports or something similar, all appearing to be electrically powered and having extra-large driving positions. But apart from these differences, the town looked so ordinary!

"What the hell is this thing doing?" MayFurr whispered to Ranthe as they walked further and further into the town. "We're going to be so damn conspicuous we'll probably get mobbed!"

"I don't understand it either!" Ranthe whispered in reply, her bushy tail twitching with anxiety. "We are going to stand out like nothing on earth, but it doesn't seem to worry - "

They rounded a corner in the street, and found themselves walking through what seemed to be a typical shopping or market day in the town. Creatures like their guide were in abundance, but there were also fox-morphs as well as other canine and feline-based races going about their daily business. Both foxes breathed a sigh of relief - at least the question as to why their guide didn't seem to be surprised at their appearance had been answered. At the sight of a familiar species at long last, MayFurr stopped to cheerily wave hello in greeting to one fox-morph, only to get a puzzled look and a half-hearted wave in return. He shrugged in resignation before turning around and jogging to catch up with the others.

They boarded an electric public-transport vehicle, Sundown waving the two foxes up while shi scrabbled around in hir bag for the correct fare before climbing in hirself through the wide doors and moving to the flat-decked area reserved for 'taur-forms. MayFurr and Ranthe took seats in front of the chakat, sitting together and trying not to stare too much as the vehicle moved off. Fifteen minutes later, the bus pulled up and deposited the three outside a low modest-looking dwelling, which Sundown unlocked the front door and entered, MayFurr and Ranthe following hir inside.

The room they entered was a combination of sparseness and comfort, appearing rather odd to the two foxes. Most of the usual furniture that was associated with homes back on Furry - even on board a military starship such as the Nighthawk - was missing, specifically chairs and stools for sitting. Instead, richly textured carpets were carefully placed around what appeared to be the main dining table and recreation areas in the large open-plan room, with a couple of beanbags placed against the walls. MayFurr noticed the doorways were, as usual, wider than what was normally required at home, but the rest of what he could see of the house was fairly familiar, including the multitude of shelving for books and ornaments.

"What do you think?" he whispered to Ranthe. "Doesn't look too different from home, surprisingly enough..."

Ranthe nodded. "You're right," she whispered in return. "I kind of thought they'd have weird architecture and stuff, but this... it's so much like Furry it's uncanny!"

"Apart from the locals." MayFurr murmured.

Sundown waved the foxes into the main living area, gesturing to them to make themselves comfortable, before disappearing down one corridor to the little office shi kept. "Computer," shi said as shi entered, addressing the standard comm and datalink terminal each house on Chakona was issued with, "Personal call to Chakat Swiftsure, Dewclaw University, Chakona."

"Working." the computer replied, sending out the call over the planetary data network. A video screen on the terminal activated, revealing a sandy coloured spotted chakat in what appeared to be a badly disorganised office. Shi looked up and smiled. "Hello Sundown! Haven't heard from you in ages! How are you?"

Sundown smiled. "I'm just fine, dear friend," shi replied, brushing some of hir head-fur out of hir eyes in a tired manner, glad to be able to communicate properly with someone else after the last few days. "I need to ask a favour of you. Are you still in the languages department of the university?"

Swiftsure's face grinned on the video screen. "Sure am - and head of department too, now! What do you want? Decided to chuck in that admin job of yours at long last?"

"Not yet," Sundown chuckled, shaking hir head and leaning wearily on the desk, hir rump settling down on the soft rug placed underneath for the purpose. "I need access to the Universal Translator, Swiftsure - real-time access, as soon as you can."

The chakat on the other end of the link frowned. "The Universal Translator? That's pretty resource intensive on our machines, not to mention the data links - not many people can get access to it for that reason. What do you want it for?"

Sundown sighed. "Look, I can't tell you just yet, but it's very important..."

"I'm going to need better than that, you realise," Swiftsure grunted, hir ears flattening on the screen. Shi tapped the desk impatiently at hir end, causing hir image to wobble slightly, and Sundown saw a tasselled tail twitch over the other chakat's lower back.

"I don't have time for this, Swiftsure," Sundown replied in an irritated voice. "Please... " Shi took a deep breath, trying to calm down, hoping that the two aliens hadn't decided to wander off on their own while shi was arguing the point with hir old friend. Shi needed to at least be able to communicate reliably with them if shi was going to get anywhere, and the university's Universal Translator was the only way shi knew of doing it. "Look, I promise it's all above board and everything, and I'll make it up to you. I can pay for the link, all I want is the access...please?"

A long silence followed, broken by the sound of a sigh from the terminal speaker. "Okay Sundown," Swiftsure replied, "I can run up a small version of the Translator for you, and patch it in to your terminal. It won't be strictly real-time, but it's the best I can do considering the load we've got on the rest of the department's machines."

Sundown let out a sigh of relief. "That's great, Swiftsure...thank you."

Swiftsure chuckled. "You always were a bit testy in your male phase, Sundown," shi grinned, exposing hir canines, "but I like that in you. I still think of you often, you know. We'll have to get together sometime soon to catch up on things."

"Like that time we spent together at Haal's Gorge?" Sundown smiled, remembering the time a few years previously that Swiftsure and hir had spent a glorious fortnight together on a private camping trip. Being as out of phase on their respective chakat cycles as it was possible to be made for an extremely pleasurable time, each being able to explore the opposite attraction of both their male and female phases to their fullest extent.

"Yes, I still remember that, love," the other chakat nodded in agreement, resting hir head in hir hands and gazing at the screen as a faint purring came through the link. "We'll definitely have to do that again." After their time together, Swiftsure had been all for them becoming life-mates almost immediately, but Sundown had thought at the time shi was too young for that. Such a pity, Swiftsure thought to hirself on the other end of the link. Still, who knows what would happen in the future...

Swiftsure's hand disappeared out of view on the monitor for a few moments, before the chakat looked up again. "The Translator'll be coming on line in a few minutes, and I've established the links to you. You need to key in the source and destination ports, but they're made to be pretty standard for the students, so I'm sure you won't have any problems," Swiftsure instructed. "Don't expect too much from it for a start, but once it gets a few key phrases sorted out it's usually pretty right from then."

Sundown nodded, already noticing hir datalink coming alive with the necessary parameters and configurations. "Thanks Swiftsure... I owe you one!"

"I'm counting on it love," Swiftsure cheerily informed hir, as something started beeping on the link. "You really need to leave that admin job of yours and join me over here, you know. Darn - lecture at three, I'd better be off. Keep in touch, eh? Swiftsure out."

"See you later, Swiftsure!" Sundown smiled as Swiftsure's image faded out from the monitor, to be replaced by the standard "Chakonstra" corporate logo. Turning to the datalink, shi pressed a few keys, causing various lights to flash on and off in sequence. After a few minutes, everything appeared ready.

"Translator online." the machine informed hir in a soft chakat-accented voice sounding very much like Swiftsure. "Please specify source of input."

Sundown blinked, then smiled to hirself. Shi still does really care, shi thought as shi rose up and peeked back down the corridor, noting with relief that the two fox aliens were still there. "Computer. Translator inputs are audio only, living room of current residence," Sundown declared. Picking up a pair of cordless headphones, shi added, "Translator audio output to Standard are to be passed to headset, output to other language to be audio to living room of current residence. Oh, and block all incoming calls, re-route to message service, visual notification only."

"Working," the computer informed hir. After a few moments, it beeped again. "Translation inputs and outputs complete. Awaiting input."

"Well," Sundown murmured to hirself, turning to rejoin hir 'guests', "Lets see what happens now."

Continue to Chapter 5

Copyright 1996 Terry Knight.
For more information contact: mayfurr@ibm.net



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