Sundown left for the market soon after shi and the two foxes had finished breakfast, needing to stock up on a few essential items. Shi could have used the small replicator that every home on Chakona was fitted with, but the chakat felt shi needed to get out of the house for a while and catch up on some sense of normality. After "explaining" to MayFurr and Ranthe that they were to stay put, she padded out the door and locked it behind hir before taking a short walk down to the public electric bus stop.
The marketplace that Sundown went to was the same one shi and hir 'guests' had passed through on their way from the ship - in fact, it was the only one in Chases-My-Tail. As usual, the place was busy, full of chakats and other races milling around the stalls and shops, a cheerful hub-bub of voices ringing out through the cool morning air. The produce stalls were relatively quiet this morning, but several morphs were gathered around one shop that was selling the latest craze of body communicator implants, the rodent owner of "Benrum Ball" doing a roaring trade judging by how often his silver-toothed grin flashed at his customers.
Sundown strode through the milling crowd, outwardly confident, but inside shi felt worried. Keeping the fox-aliens concealed from the authorities had the possibility of turning into a bigger risk than shi originally planned if they managed to find their ship, and while shi was sure the two foxes would be well-treated, what sort of trouble shi would get into was unknown. Was shi doing the right thing? shi wondered, not for the first time. Was the prestige of a First Contact worth it?
Sundown arrived at the stall shi was searching for, and made hir purchases. As shi paid the chakat shopkeeper, an atmospheric flyer passed over at low altitude, heading towards the south-east.
"That's unusual," the shopkeeper commented as shi handed over Sundown's parcel to hir. "We don't get many of those around here, but that's the second one in two days..."
"Really? Sundown asked, forcing innocence into hir voice. "I've been... out of town for a few days, I've only just come back."
"Ah," nodded the other chakat, "I thought you might've... You went bush again, eh Sundown?" Shi tapped hir nose in a conspiratorial gesture. "They say they're part of setting up the new air traffic control system over at Berdoovia, but I'm wondering if there's anything more."
"What do you mean?" Sundown asked, playing along but interested to know just what was known. "Surely if that's what they say it is..." Unlike many others in the Stellar Federation, the Chakonan world administration had a reputation for integrity and honesty, a product of the highly intelligent chakats being the dominant race on the planet. Corruption and major scandal were virtually unknown in all levels of government on Chakona, and to suggest otherwise was almost unthinkable.
The shopkeeper scratched hir ear, causing it to flick back and forth. "I don't know... but you've heard the radio item about the 'glitch' they reckon they had?" Sundown nodded. "Well," the chakat continued, "My sister's lifemate works there as part of the testing, and I was talking to hir last night - it was hir birthday, you see. Twenty five years old... Anyway, shi said everything was working fine when they got the contact... and you know something else?"
Sundown shook hir head.
"There was some kind of random noise pattern over the guard frequency when they tried to call whoever it was... shi said it sounded like a voice. But it was nothing shi had head before."
Sundown struggled to contain hir nervous reaction. So there it was - the short hop from the national park to near the settlement had been noticed, and if others were starting to put pieces together... Shi forced hirself to ask, "What do you think it might be?"
The other chakat smiled, shrugging hir shoulders, hir tail waving in a relaxed graceful arc behind hir. "Ah, I don't know really. Probably some joyrider playing games, twisting tails or something, or else it's some sort of search-and-rescue. Still, it's kinda fun to speculate - not much has happened here in Chases-My-Tail for ages, we could do with some excitement. Anyway... will that be all for now, Sundown?"
Sundown nodded, and picked up hir parcel, placing it in the small backpack fastened to hir lower torso. Smaller than the saddlebag shi used on the tramp, it was a valuable accessory for chakats as it allowed packages to be carried on the 'taurs stronger lower body, freeing the upper body for better movement than with a standard human-type backpack. "Thanks... I'll see you next time."
"I'll look forward to that, Sundown," the shopkeeper agreed. "Take care!"
As soon as shi was out of earshot of the stall, Sundown let out a huge sigh of relief. Shi sat down in the shade of a spreading palm-like tree in the main plaza, pushing hir hand though hir head-fur and hir hind leg scratching at an itch on hir lower body.
"Gods... what now?" shi asked hirself.
"Dammit Corky, that's my personal project, and I don't want you shutting it off!"
Swiftsure glared at the unrepentant mongoose on the other end of the comlink, the chakat's tail twitching furiously over hir back - always a bad sign, as many first-year students at Dewclaw University's Languages department had found to their cost. "Your job is to support the activities we want to carry out on the machines, not make us conform to your requirements!"
"And I'm telling you, Chakat Swiftsure, that the Universal Translator program you're running is seriously impeding the other department's work!" Corky shot back at hir, the mongoose's Indian accent distorted by the comlink speaker. "We're only running a Cray ZMP-6 here, not one of those fancy Colorado machines! Your program has now managed to consume over sixty-five percent of the available resource on the machine it's running on, and I'm the one getting hassled by the molecular analysis people!"
"Listen Corky, I'm not even running the full function version- "
"You ever seen the inside of one of your people's jaws?" the mongoose shrilled, the high pitch flattening the chakat's ears back. "The Geology head gave me an extremely good look! Now maybe you can stand the smell of feline breath in the morning, but my people are extremely sensitive to that sort of thing - like keeping their heads attached to their bodies! And why the lines running to some place called..." Corky paused while he called up a display, "... Chases-My-Tail anyway?"
Swiftsure raised an eyebrow in surprise. "How did you know?"
Corky's image scowled on the viewscreen. "'Cause the Xenobiology department told me they wanted the same sort of lines out there by tomorrow, and I happened to notice that's where your UT program is being run to. There's only so much capacity going to a small place like that."
Swiftsure swallowed. Something funny was going on. "Why are they going out there? I thought they'd be getting ready for the Asimov's arrival."
"Something about a meteor fall or something, how the hell should I know?"
Now the chakat was getting really suspicious. All these coincidences... and shi was starting to think that Sundown was somehow connected with all of them. First hir request out of the blue for the use of the Universal Translator, the loading it was putting on the University computer, now the Xenobiology department wanting connections out to the same settlement about the same time... Squaring hir shoulders, Swiftsure faced down the mongoose on the other end of the link.
"Corky, that is my business where I want to run these things and why. But... in the interests of inter-departmental harmony, you may restrict resource for the UT to no more than thirty-eight percent. Will that keep Geology happy?"
The mongoose nodded. "That'll go some way towards it, yes."
"Good." Swiftsure replied. "Oh, and Corky... you try and shut the UT off without my permission, and it won't just be the Geology department head's tonsils you'll be inspecting. Got it? Swiftsure out."
Corky's picture vanished from the screen, and Swiftsure pursed hir lips thoughtfully. Reaching a decision, shi addressed the comlink again. "Computer. Personal call to Chakat Sundown, Chases-My-Tail, Chakona." Shi smiled wryly to hirself, waiting for the connection to be established.
"Sundown love, you've got some explaining to do."
The front door to Sundown's home opened, and Sundown wearily walked through, heading for the kitchen area where shi poured hirself a draft of cool water and downed it in one gulp. The chakat yawned, leaning against the countertop. "Bloody tourists..." shi mumbled to hirself, remembering the brief encounter at the market shi had with a group of them. A lot of tourists to Chakona were what shi would consider legitimate, wanting to visit the almost unspoiled natural wilderness or partake of the unique culture the chakats and fellow 'morphs had created... but as well as those there were those voyeuristic off-worlders - humans, mostly - who were simply fascinated with the chakat's dual-sexual nature. Being treated close to being a zoo animal, as well as being referred to as an androgynous 'it', was highly insulting and annoying to virtually all chakats, and Sundown was no exception.
Sounds of running water came through the open doorway, causing the chakat's ears to prick up. A quick glance around the main room showed that the two fox-aliens were no longer there, and hearing sounds of foxish yipping confirmed hir deduction that hir two 'guests' had discovered the bathroom. I'd better go and make sure they're not breaking anything, Sundown thought to hirself, and padded down the hall towards the splashing.
MayFurr and Ranthe were indeed making full use of the chakat's bathroom facilities, having discovered how to operate the various bath and shower controls very quickly. Some things were just universal it seemed, MayFurr grinned to himself as he washed Ranthe's backfur in the shower, his paws pressing and massaging firmly against the vixen's back as he washed her down under the steady streams of hot relaxing water. "How's that, Ranthe?"
"Lovely..." Ranthe sighed in return. "Gods, I needed this... lower, down a bit... ahhhhhh...." She wriggled appreciatively under MayFurr's paws, her soaked tail swishing from side to side like a wet brush between the male fox's legs.
"Hey!" MayFurr chuckled. "That tickles!" He quickly reached down and tickled the vixen's waist, causing Ranthe to shriek with glee.
"H-h-h-ey now-w-w-w who's tickling?" she laughed, artfully lifting her tail between MayFurr's legs and brushing his crotch, making him stumble back against the back of the cubicle.
"Ahhhh...hehehehheeee... no fair!" he chortled. "What-what if our host hears us, it'll be back s-s-sooon heheheheee!"
"Who cares if it hears us!" Ranthe laughed, turning and splashing water into MayFurr's face...
"Dammit, I'm not just an 'it', thank you very much!"
"Sorry!" MayFurr called out automatically, before realising something. "Hang on... Ranthe, was that you?"
Ranthe's laughter died suddenly, seriousness crossing her face. "No, not me May."
"Then who - "
"It was me." came the voice again, and Sundown walked into full view of the two startled foxes, looking rather surprised hirself. "Um... you can understand me now, can you?"
Ranthe nodded. "Yes... and you understand us as well now too, it seems."
Sundown sighed with relief. "I have a translator working at the moment which can change your words into mine, and mine to yours - it appears to be working better now it has had time to work with us." Smiling, shi extended a hand towards the dripping wet foxes. "My name is Chakat Sundown, child of Riverscent and Blacktip. What are your names?"
MayFurr took the initiative, stepping forward and clasping the chakat's outstretched hand. "And I am Lieutenant MayFurr, Beta Squadron, USS Nighthawk. This is my copilot, Ranthe."
The chakat nodded. "Well... Lieutenant MayFurr, Ranthe, perhaps you would like to dry yourselves and come to the main room. I think we have a lot to talk about."
The following conversation in the Sundown's living room was most animated, as MayFurr and Ranthe told their story to the eagerly listening chakat. By now the translator had enough of a vocabulary built up of the fox's language to make conversation possible, although there was the odd occasion when something didn't translate properly and the offending statement had to be rephrased.
"... So you see, I'm afraid that your planet was the closest port of call for us after we got thrown into this sector by the rift." MayFurr finished explaining. He coughed slightly before continuing. "Before I say anything else Sundown, I must apologise for the way that we... er, that I... well, for the way you were treated when we first met. We meant no harm to you, we were just... well, scared of being discovered before we were ready. We had no idea what races inhabited this place, and to be honest, seeing you was something of a shock."
Sundown felt a small twinge of disappointment when shi learned that hir guests were in effect castaways rather than an exploration team, but it was made up for by the sheer variety of information shi was learning - the existence of another space federation of inhabited worlds filled hir with excitement. Shi nodded to MayFurr. "That's okay, I can... understand I think about what you were going through. I accept your apology."
MayFurr breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks."
"So... what is the name of this place, Chakat Sundown child of Riverscent and Blacktip?" Ranthe asked.
The chakat smiled. "That is my full title yes, but for now Ranthe just call me Sundown. To answer your question, this world is called Chakona. We settled here over ninety years ago - "
"You mean, you're not native to this planet?" MayFurr interrupted. "Where did you come from originally?"
"The Stellar Federation is made up of many worlds, and our population comes from many places. My race, the chakats, came from a planet we call Terra, though it is only on Chakona that chakats are the dominant species..."
Now it was MayFurr and Ranthe's turn to listen, fascinated. As Sundown described in simple terms about the Stellar Federation and what life was like on Chakona, the foxes were surprised at what technology the chakats had developed and were using.
"They're not much different as far as scientific progress is concerned to us," MayFurr whispered to Ranthe as Sundown took a moment to get some refreshments. "You know, they always said back in the Furrderation that the races we'd find - "
" - would be either far advanced or far below us, yes." Ranthe finished, nodding slightly. "But these chakats... they seem to do things differently, but on the whole I'd say they're our equals."
"Makes it more of a miracle that we weren't discovered immediately." MayFurr murmured. "Perhaps they're not expecting visitors these days." He looked up as Sundown returned carrying a tray of glasses filled with the orange juice they'd sampled before, and gratefully accepted a glass. "Sundown," he asked, "When was the last time that your people met any other races?"
Sundown sat down, hir hindquarters sitting on the soft rug and her forelegs holding hir up in a semi-upright position. "Over fifty Chakonan years." shi replied, taking a long drink from her own glass. "I must say I'm quite... honoured to be the first to make a First Contact after so long - especially as you're from another stellar federation as well! The possibilities..."
The two fox 'morphs glanced at each other. Which makes us very hot property, MayFurr thought to himself. "So... what happens now?"
The chakat paused. In the excitement of trying to establish communication with the fox-aliens, shi had entirely forgotten to plan what shi would do once that had been accomplished! Sundown took another long drink, stalling for time while hir mind raced. Shi couldn't just walk into the local government centre in Berdoovia with MayFurr and Ranthe in tow and introduce them as interstellar visitors, could shi? "That... will be decided in time." Sundown replied, trying to sound more confident than shi felt. "There are established procedures we have for First Contact, and they will be implemented as soon as possible." Right after I find out what they actually are, shi thought to hirself. Shi was acutely aware of the two fox's eyes seemingly boring into hir own, questioning, appraising, and was starting to feel uncomfortable.
A soft beeping came from the hallway, causing Sundown's ears to prick up. "Excuse me for a moment," shi hurriedly said, and before Ranthe or MayFurr could do anything shi padded out of the living room towards hir office.
Ranthe raised an eyebrow as she watched the chakat leave, before turning to MayFurr.
"You get the impression our host doesn't really know what she's doing?" she asked softly.
A priority message on hir datalink terminal flashed at Sundown as shi strode into hir office. Sitting hirself down, shi took a deep breath and braced hirself. "Computer. Play message."
The computer obeyed, and Swiftsure's face appeared on the monitor screen.
"Sundown, it's Swiftsure." the recorded voice said, sounding less than pleased. "I've been trying to contact you for the last couple of hours, and all I get is your message service. I know you're there dammit, the UT's still running at full capacity and the problems it's causing are starting to give me a headache. What the hell are you doing over there? I've got Xenobiology wanting to kill your translator programs so they can put theirs on-line for when they come out your way tomorrow on some sort of contact investigation - "
Sundown froze. So that's who were suddenly interested in Chases-My-Tail, and what the overflights were for - not merely the transport authorities checking for a rogue contact, but a scientific investigation! Hir tail twitched anxiously as shi played the rest of the message.
" - come up with something pretty damn convincing I'm going to have to shut it off!" Swiftsure looked decidedly aggrieved, pausing for a few moments as shi obviously tried to calm down. "Sorry love... but this is getting complex. Please - call me as soon as you can. Swiftsure out."
The chakat's picture faded from the screen as Sundown leant heavily against the counter-top, trying to steady hirself both inside and out. What seemed so simple a couple of days ago was rapidly starting to turn out of control.. But what sort of choices did shi have?
"I think we'd better be careful what we say around her from now on."
MayFurr nodded to Ranthe. "You're right... I'm getting a bad feeling about this too."
"I had a bad feeling the moment we got here with Sundown myself, May," Ranthe mumbled, the vixen whispering into the male's sensitive ears in an effort to avoid the translator picking them up. "Granted, I know we can't expect that the first Chakonan we met would be expert in dealing with other races, but why didn't Sundown ask for help instead of trying to do this on her own? That's what gets me."
"I think -" MayFurr started, before a soft warbling from his jacket pocket interrupted him. "Uh-oh..."
"What is it?" Ranthe asked.
"The Fury - the security detectors have just activated. Someone's found the ship."
The investigation team gingerly approached the alien ship in the forest, moving cautiously, unsure as to what to expect. Before them in the dappled light filtering through the trees was the Fiora's Fury, looking battered and scorched, yet still giving an air of mystery and hidden secrets.
The team leader - a jet-black chakat - silently signalled to the rest of hir team to spread out to encircle the ship. "Team two to Control," shi whispered into her comlink, "We've found something that looks like a spacecraft of some kind, no activity."
"Proceed with caution." the comlink voice responded into hir headset. "Set weapons to stun, but keep them concealed."
"Acknowledged." the chakat replied. Turning to hir companions, shi signalled to them to change the settings on the light weapons they carried. "You - you, and you... take it slowly up to the hatch. Carefully."
"Aye." the feline 'morph replied, tapping on his two chakat fellow volunteers, before carefully walking up to the still silent ship. Their team leader fiddled with hir weapon behind them, nervously anxious, watching them steadily as the distance between them and the ship grew smaller and smaller. Seventy metres... sixty... fifty...
Suddenly, a massive flash of light exploded in front of the advancing team, a loud crack of discharged energy filling the air. The leopard-spotted chakat to the feline's left screamed in agony as shi was thrown backwards nearly two metres from the point of the flash, hir companions freezing for a split second before leaping back and dropping to the ground, covering their ears -
"Get down! GET DOWN!"
"Oh shit - MEDIC! Get hir over here!"
"Gods... help me with hir - Spotty, can you hear me? SPOTTY!"
The team leader watched in horror as the flash dissipated, raw energies roiling around just in front of where the leopard chakat was rolling and screaming on the ground. For a few moments, the entire alien ship was encased in a glowing bubble of energy -in some cases only footsteps in front of some of the rest of hir team. "All of you - FREEZE! The thing's got a force-shield up!" shi desperately shouted, hir loud chakat roar reverberating over Spotty's muffled whimpers and sobs. "Back - BACK!"
"Team Two - Team Two - what's happening there?" the voice in hir headset demanded. "Report!"
The team leader ran up to the injured chakat's side, kneeling down next to hir as the rest of the team gathered around. "We-we took a hit, Spotty walked into something - " shi gasped breathlessly into the comlink, "It looks l-l-like an energy shield..." Hir voice trailed off as expert arms rolled the unfortunate Spotty onto hir back, the blackened and charred upper torso and forelegs of the chakat still smoking as hir hideously burned face gibbered and moaned in agony.
"Third-degree burns - shi's in shock, we've got to get hir to a hospital!" the medical chakat urgently gestured. The team leader nodded in agreement. "Todd, Moonfur, Dakar, you take Spotty to the rendezvous point - and hurry!"
As the injured chakat was lifted up, hir eyes strayed to a unusually-shaped object next to the edge of the shield. The sight caused the black chakat to swallow uncomfortably... for Spotty's equipment had been reduced to a molten mess of metal and plastic. "Holy mother of god..."
"Team Two, what's your status?" the comlink insistently demanded.
Hir tail lashed uncontrollably behind hir as shi answered. "We need an evac for Spotty to hospital - the rest of the team's okay, but this shield looks pretty powerful! Whatever's in there doesn't want visitors."
"Acknowledged - med-jet's on the way." the comlink informed hir. "Any sign of activity inside the ship?"
"None. Nothing's moving."
"Okay." the voice on the other end paused for a moment. "Form a perimeter around the outside of the shield, and keep watch for any activity. We're sending in some specialists to assist."
"Roger that - form perimeter, watch for activity," the black chakat answered. "Team Two out." Sighing to hirself, shi turned and faced the remainder of hir team. "You heard the boss... fan out, and keep watch. Report any activity you see directly to me."
"Sundown, I don't know what to say... what you've done is amazing!"
Sundown felt a large rush of pride flow through hir at Swiftsure's compliment, smiling confidently. Shi had told hir everything that had happened to hir from the point that MayFurr had ambushed hir in the forest, owning up to the reason shi needed the Universal Translator to an incredulous Swiftsure.
"Thank you Swiftsure, I - "
"I'm not finished yet." Swiftsure interrupted. The other chakat's face on the comlink looked stern. "Unfortunately for both of us, you've opened what they call on Terra a can of worms. Ambition is a good thing, but what you've done is pretty serious."
"What do you mean?" Sundown asked, hir fur bristling a little in anxiety. "All I've done is - "
" - violated several laws on possible First Contacts," Swiftsure finished for hir. "I've checked with Xenobiology- informally and hypothetically, of course - and the regs are clear. What you should have done was informed the Department of Extra-Chakona Affairs, and let them handle it - they're trained to get the right people."
"And what if they didn't believe me?" Sundown retorted. "What about all the cranks out there? They claim a lot of strange things like seeing the second coming of Erma - why should they think I'm anything different?"
"Because they're trained, Sundown... they can spot the flakes from the genuine article." Swiftsure sighed on the other end on the comlink. "At least, you could have confided in me love... you can trust me, you know that. At least I thought you did."
Sundown winced at that, bowing hir head slightly. "I'm... I'm sorry Swiftsure. I should have been straight with you. I...I... " Shi sniffed tearfully.
The chakat at the other end smiled a little. "Anyway... what we need to do now is resolve this somehow." Shi fiddled with something off-camera, transferring hir attention away from the videolink for a couple of minutes before returning.
"Right Sundown. I'm coming out to Chases-My-Tail on the next hypershuttle. I want you to stay there with your guests, and don't leave them unattended for any reason whatsoever until I arrive. Remember - stay put, don't answer your voice-links, plead sick at work, don't open the door to anyone until I get there!"
Continue to Chapter 7
Copyright 1996 Terry Knight.
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