Ranthe's cry reverberated across the clearing, calling out desperately. "The shield MayFurr, the shield! It's gonna come down any second!"
Her words broke through to the struggling fox, and as MayFurr looked up he too noticed the line of death on the ground that he and the chakat were struggling over. How many seconds had passed since he had hit the button? Five seconds? Eight? How long did he have left?
Sundown was between him and the ship, grappling him with hir arms and fore-legs as he tried to pull away...
He had to get through to the ship - if Sundown held onto him like this he was done for!
There's just one chance - no time to think -
MayFurr quickly let himself go slack in the chakat's grip, the sudden overbalance of force from the chakat causing then both to tumble over and over on the grass towards the Fury, the group of uniformed 'taurs pounding towards them -
Ranthe stumbled towards the struggling pair, screaming out her warning again and again -
The vixen covered her eyes, burying her face in her paws, not daring to see the fate of her companion -
Swiftsure emerged from the bushes, having successfully extracted the thorn from hir foot, when shi heard the howling scream. Shi looked about frantically for the source, to see two forms thrown bodily from a glowing roiling bubble of energy that suddenly materialised out of nowhere. Hir heart leapt to hir mouth as shi recognised the unconscious tawny-furred 'taurform...
MayFurr regained consciousness with a start, finding himself flung onto the grass, free of the chakat's grip. Hurriedly, he looked up, turning from side to side - he was alive! The last thing he'd heard was a scream, but a rapid check proved the fox was uninjured, so it wasn't his voice he'd heard - so what had happened?
What side of the shield was he on? Was he safe?
As his eyes found the ship, he breathed a sigh of relief - no line was between them, and a look over his shoulder confirmed that he was indeed inside the Fury's defences. The oncoming group of chakats had skidded to a halt before the reactivated barrier, any weapons they were carrying were now useless as far as he was concerned...
A moan from behind him caused MayFurr to whirl about, as Sundown struggled to hir feet, a wisp of smoke coming from the extreme tip of the chakat's tail. The searing jolt of pain as the reactivated energy barrier brushed hir tail had caused the 'taur to involuntarily release him - "Sundown!" MayFurr urgently yipped. "You okay?"
"No thanks to you I'm not!" Sundown angrily growled in reply, the translator on the chakat's back obviously unaffected by the fall. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Shi rose to hir feet and started to advance towards him.
"Sorry..." MayFurr said apologetically as he backed away, before turning and breaking into a run towards the ship, calling out to the motionless vixen. "Ranthe! To the ship! Prepare for launch!"
Ranthe opened her eyes, blinking hurriedly at the sound of MayFurr's voice. "MayFurr! Y-you're alive!"
"Never felt better!" MayFurr gasped as he sprinted towards her, again pursued by Sundown. "Let's go!"
Standing at the nearly assembled disruptor watching the proceedings through binoculars, Chakat Commander Nightshade couldn't believe hir eyes. Two foxmorphs - obviously the owners of the alien vessel - had managed somehow to penetrate the defensive perimeter shi had established, and to cap that off an unknown chakat had been in hot pursuit of them! Now all three were inside the alien defence shield, hir team cut off from them and barely managing to avoid poor Spotty's fate as the energy barrier suddenly reactivated in front of them.
"They're still okay - all of them I think - and they're heading to the ship..." Dakar's voice told hir through hir commlink headset. "The shield's definitely up again, I don't think we can get through! The aliens must have dropped it deliberately to get in!"
"I can see that!" the chakat officer snapped back. Quickly shi turned to the chakat tech next to hir. "How long before we can disable the barrier?"
Before the chakat tech could answer, Dakar's voice again broke into Nightshade's ear. "There's another stranger coming towards us - it's another chakat!" he urgently reported.
Ranthe needed no further encouragement, turning about and running for the ship, reaching the Fury first to punch in the access code for the hatch and ducking to one side as it swung open. The vixen pulled herself inside the cockpit and leapt into the copilot seat, hurriedly flicking through switches as she rushed through the pre-launch sequence. MayFurr appeared gasping for breath behind her, slamming his paw on the door control as he fell into the commander's chair beside her.
"APU transfer, lift engines warming up... " Ranthe called out, running through the checklist, paws expertly manipulating controls as she worked. "Fuel pumps on, impulse engines started and online -"
"Nav sync okay, switching power to main engines..." MayFurr answered, flicking through the same list. "Come on, come on..."
"We've had some problems matching the field frequencies - we should have a good match in an hour - "
"We don't have an hour!" Nightshade snarled, pawing at the ground with hir hind feet as lights on the alien ship started to flash and a low whine began to build in intensity. "The bloody thing's taking off! Activate now!"
"Sundown! Come back! SUNDOWN!"
Swiftsure watched with horror as first one, then both of the alien foxes disappeared into their ship as Sundown continued hir pursuit... Shi ran towards the sprinting 'taur, calling out to hir - before Swiftsure was suddenly forcibly stopped by a large burly member of the Chakonan Security Forces.
"Let me go dammit!" Swiftsure gasped. "You don't understand - Sundown's after them, they've got to be stopped!" Hir tail whipped from side to side as shi fought for hir freedom, snarling and crying out at the top of hir voice... "Sundown!"
Dakar and two others of his team wrestled with the panicking chakat, struggling to hold hir back from the still-glowing field. "You can't go that way!" Dakar yelled, slipping on the grass, his paws trying to find traction to hold hir, "It's a high-energy defence shield, it'll fry you in milliseconds! You can't get to hir - no-one can!"
"Sundown!" Swiftsure called out again, scarcely hearing hir captors, overcome by desperate need to rescue hir lover. Sundown was now at the alien craft, lights flashing and illuminating hir fur, hir arms stretched up towards a shrinking gap in the hull -
The Fury's hatch continued to close as the foxes madly worked, the crack of light from outside growing slimmer and slimmer... until something thrust its way into the cabin through the shrinking gap. Automatically the door stopped closing and started swinging open again, catching Ranthe by surprise.
"May! I thought you - "
The vixen never finished the sentence, as the looming form of a tawny-red chakat pulled itself through the opening hatch with both sets of hands, Sundown madly scrabbling with hir hind-paws trying to find purchase on the hull of the ship - then shi was in completely, slamming into the panel opposite the door. MayFurr punched the door control again, closing the hatch fully this time as the angry chakat glared at the two foxes.
"Can you two tell me just what the hell is going on!"
Ranthe opened her mouth to answer, before a loud CRACK! sounded from outside the ship. Panels and indicator lights started flashing crazily as a deep-throated rumble from the main reactor sounded through the cabin.
"Something hit us!"
"No shit - "
Ranthe looked over on the main panel as her attention was caught by an urgently flashing light. "Impact on shields - integrity ninety percent and dropping!"
MayFurr leaned over to look out the cockpit window, and spotted a fat beam of energy emanating from the chakat's projector apparatus impacting on the shield area directly opposite the impulse engines. "They're trying to drain the shields with that thing - Ranthe, increase power to deflectors!"
"I'm onto it!" Ranthe's expert paws flew over the controls, diverting power to the defence systems and boosting reactor output as a stunned Sundown looked on with amazement. "Shields holding..."
"How long before takeoff?" the male fox called out over the generator whine.
"Takeoff?!?" Sundown looked stunned. "You mean - "
Ranthe cut the chakat off, looking worriedly at the displays. "Just a few more seconds May... uh-oh, shield integrity dropping again!" She glanced anxiously at MayFurr. "What'll we do?"
The fox glanced out the window again. The beam directed at the Fury seemed to be growing in intensity, and as he and Ranthe had been relying solely on the defence shields, once the chakats broke them down they'd be at their mercy. Yet the Fury had gained an unwanted passenger which would probably upset his plan... but could they risk the time persuading Sundown to leave them before hir fellow chakats overran them?
He came to a decision.
Dakar and his group staggered back as the alien ship started to lift from the ground, its thrusters blowing dust and leaves all over the clearing as it slowly rose into the sky. He struggled to restrain the frantic Swiftsure from racing into the blast of the craft's engines, the wind tearing and ruffling at their fur as the Fury climbed quickly away from the forest and the stunned chakats.
"Sundown!!!!" Swiftsure wailed, tears running down hir face as shi agonisingly watched the ship carry away hir friend and lover, tugging at the feline that held hir, wanting desperately to follow... "Sundown! Come back! Come back! Oh please... please... NOOOOOOOO!!" Swiftsure's voice trailed off into a heartfelt scream of pain and loss, loud enough to make the rest of Dakar's squad flatten their ears before the distraught chakat slowly collapsed onto the ground sobbing.
A shadow fell across Swiftsure's face, and shi looked up through hir tears to see a jet-black chakat in a khaki uniform jacket standing sternly above hir.
"Citizen." The other chakat coldly addressed the tearful Sundown, hir eyes burning like fire. "I am Chakat Commander Nightshade, Security Force special detachment to the Department of Extra-Chakonan Affairs. You've been following a chakat who you obviously know, which has just this moment departed in an alien craft with two members of a race we've never seen before." The black chakat's face became a vision of carefully controlled indignation and fury. "Would you be so kind as to give me an explanation for all this?"
The Fiora's Fury climbed through the cloud deck into the empty blue skies above, sunlight reflecting off the battered spacecraft's hull as it smoothly soared through the air. After the excitement of takeoff, the atmosphere in the cockpit had changed to a sullen boredom as the Fury continued to gained altitude.
MayFurr nodded to Ranthe, who unfastened herself from the copilot chair and leaned over towards Sundown. The chakat gave the vixen a dirty look.
"I've got no idea what you two are planning, but I'm sure it's not going to work," shi harrumphed. "Why in deity's name are you - ow! - doing this? And you've managed to singe my tail!"
"I wondered what the burnt smell was - no offence, Sundown," Ranthe replied. Carefully, she squeezed herself out of her seat to stand next to the chakat's imposing bulk, and opened an overhead compartment. "I've got some burn cream in the first-aid kit - it should help."
"Thanks," Sundown sighed, curling hir tail up so that the tip was poised in mid-air. Ranthe retrieved the kit, placed it on Sundown's lower back and took out a white tube, squeezing some of the cream onto a paw-finger before gently massaging it onto the chakats seared tail. "You still haven't answered my question - what do you hope to accomplish with this... stunt?"
"Ask him... he's the brains of this operation," Ranthe answered, gesturing back towards MayFurr who was studiously concentrating on his flying.
"Well?" Sundown asked, tapping the fox on the shoulder, wincing a little as Ranthe applied the soothing cream to hir tail. "Care to tell us? You just about got us both killed you know!"
MayFurr turned his head to Sundown, but his reply was directed to Ranthe. "When you've got a free moment there, can you start a scan of the Chakonan broadcast frequencies? Any news channels, for preference."
Now it was Ranthe's turn to get angry. "Dammit May!" she snarled, taking both Sundown and MayFurr by surprise. "Sundown's right - you and, and... and... how do you refer to yourselves, Sundown?"
"Hir, and shi." Sundown answered.
"Right... you and hir almost got yourself fried getting to the ship - "
"If shi hadn't grabbed me, I would've got through with no problems, same as you!" MayFurr protested.
" We've probably got the Chakonan military after us right now as we speak, plus we've effectively kidnapped a member of their race -"
"We didn't kidnap hir! Shi came in by hirself, dammit!"
"And you still haven't told us - you haven't told me even, May - why we're sticking our tails on the line!" Ranthe shouted, her ears folded back against her head in anger. MayFurr's and Sundown's ears flattened back in response, due to the sudden volume of noise in the cramped cabin. "What's your plan, May? What the smeg are we doing?" she angrily demanded.
Both the chakat and the vixen looked accusingly at MayFurr. He sighed, and flipped some switches on the flight panel, engaging the autopilot as the Fury continued to climb steadily through the rarefied air of Chakona's upper atmosphere. As the ship rose higher and higher, stars were becoming to become visible through the windows, the blue haze surrounding them deepening towards the blackness of space.
"We're going to try and rendezvous with the exploration ship we saw on the news broadcast back at Sundown's house," MayFurr said simply.
Both Ranthe and Sundown blinked. "You what?"
"I don't understand!" Sundown exclaimed. "If you wanted anything - specialists or whatever, I would have done that at home! Why?"
"Because Ranthe wants to return home to her family," MayFurr replied. "Myself, I'm pretty much alone at home, so it doesn't worry me much living the rest of my life with your people, Sundown. But Ranthe..." and here he smiled at her, "Well, I owe her at least the chance of return. And a small chance is better than none."
The vixen gasped in surprise. "You mean..." she struggled for words - "All this, all this risk... just for me?"
MayFurr nodded. "I'm responsible for you Ranthe... and you're my friend."
Beyond the cockpit windows, the sky turned to black, and the view slowly oriented itself around until Chakona was visible below. Ahead, one of Chakona's twin moons was in sight, the reflected light flowing into the cockpit and falling on their faces.
"I'm still not convinced, you know."
The grey lifeless surface of the second Chakonan moon rolled beneath the orbiting "Fiora's Fury", craters and rounded mountain ranges a ground-hugging fifty kilometres below them. Ranthe had returned to her station, while Sundown was sitting quietly behind the two foxes with hir gaze fixed on the view outside.
"What do you mean?" MayFurr replied, leaning back in his chair and facing Ranthe. "That ship's on it's way out of the system anyway, we just want to hitch a ride - and I'm sure they'll be as interested in us as we are of them."
Ranthe finished calibrating the ECM equipment for their current position and sighed. "I really don't think it's going to be that easy, May. You're not on Furry now, y'know... you just can't stick your thumb out and hope for a lift."
"But this isn't Furry - that's the point." MayFurr idly glanced at the autopilot, checking that it was still doing its job. "Back home, no-one would give two shakes of their tail about us unless we were attacking something or in trouble... but here, we're sufficiently different for them to take notice of us on general principles." He gestured over to the chakat. "Like Sundown, f'instance."
The vixen mulled this over for a few moments. "Okay," she grudgingly agreed, "but what happens if they don't take us?"
"Then we return to Chakona. Simple. Nothing's lost, if you think about it."
"So why here?"
"Because the newscast said they were leaving - when was it, Sundown?"
Sundown thought for a moment. "In three days," shi replied, not taking hir eyes off the view unfolding outside.
"Three days. Our best chance is to get to them shortly after they leave Chakona," MayFurr continued. "So we wait here out of the way until then. We've got no problems staying out here for that time," - he paused, winking at Sundown - "Even if we do have an extra passenger!"
Sundown smiled a little, still fascinated by the vista through the cockpit window. Even though shi and other chakats like hir were very familiar with spaceflight and the universe around them, being up in space was a completely new experience for hir. MayFurr noticed this, and grinned.
"You never been up in space before, mmm?" MayFurr asked. "Enjoying the view?"
The chakat nodded. "It's beautiful!" shi breathed. "I've seen pictures of course, but to be among the stars like this, and this close to Ka'turna..."
Ranthe nodded. "I felt like that when I had my first flight, Sundown. It's really something different, and it changed my life - I knew wanted to spend my life up here."
Sundown leaned against the back of Ranthe's chair. "I remember when I was a cub, my mother and sire used to tell me stories about the moons and the stars," shi murmured. "Stories like how the creators of the First Chakats went to Ka'turna and Cha'turna long ago, how they looked down and watched over me and my sisters..." The chakat sighed contentedly. "It seems silly now, but at the time I wished so hard to be able to fly into the sky and see them and the First Ones. Being up here now... I guess I must have got my wish after all."
Ranthe smiled, and put an arm around Sundown's shoulders. "I know what you mean, Sundown. It's always magical out here."
The next couple of days passed slowly for the crew of the Fury. Despite Ranthe's fears of pursuit, no other ship came anywhere near their hiding place. MayFurr had piloted the ship into a synchronous orbit on the far side of Ka'turna, sufficient to be blocked from direct view from the planet while still allowing them to eavesdrop on planetary communication.
Life on board the ship still had its problems however, the biggest being the lack of space in the cockpit due to Sundown's imposing bulk. Moving around the cabin was a major exercise for the two foxes as they carried out routine work, trying to squeeze past the 'taur's lower body to reach panels and lockers. Sundown tried to help as much as shi could - hir prehensile tail coming in handy to snatch and grab items while MayFurr or Ranthe rummaged through compartments - but inevitably tempers started to get frayed. Particularly when it came time to deal with... bodily functions.
So it was with a sigh of relief that Ranthe plotted a course back to Chakona, engaging the impulse engines while MayFurr switched in the outboard sensor pod into the Fury's tactical suite - taking no chances about getting surprised by other ships in the area. The thrust from the engines pressed the two foxes back into their seats, Sundown bracing against a makeshift strapping arrangement between the tactical position chair and the starboard wall as Fiora's Fury broke orbit and flew back towards the planet.
"Scope still clear?" MayFurr asked, as Chakona once again loomed large and close in the cockpit window.
"Nothing so far..." Ranthe answered, her paws working over several panels as Sundown shuffled irritatedly behind, the chakat feeling rather at a loose end now that MayFurr's plan was under way.
The fox grinned, exposing his white teeth. "So far, so good," he nodded. "I've got a fix on the station our ride is docked at, and once we've got an indication of what direction they're headed in, we'll follow them and make the rendezvous. What's the range?"
"Forty-five thousand kilometres. May - "
"You're nuts trying this, you know that."
"What's going to happen to me?" Sundown ventured. "I want to go home too, you know!"
MayFurr looked over his shoulder to the impatient chakat. "Don't worry," he reassured hir, "Once we get to the other ship, you'll be free to go - and if we don't get there, you'll be home anyway. So sit back and enjoy the ride."
A warning light started flashing on Ranthe's display, a soft beeping filling the air. The vixen studied the readout, and turned to MayFurr with a worried expression on her muzzle. "Looks like we're going to need you for a little while yet Sundown. May, I've got multiple contacts coming up from the planet, bearing three-one-five mark four-two and closing.
"We've got company."
Continue to Chapter 9
Copyright 1996 Terry Knight.
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