Ranthe and MayFurr sat stunned in front of Captain Walker, unable to believe their ears as the chakat security guards approached. "Captain!" MayFurr blurted out, "It's not like that at all! I can explain - "
"Oh, really?" Walker interrupted, nodding as the guards firmly grasped the two foxes by the shoulders. "And why should I believe you?"
"I'm telling the truth, Captain Walker! We haven't lied to you at all - you must agree with that!"
"Maybe you haven't lied - but you haven't been telling me the whole truth, either." The captain leaned back in his chair while Dawnfire approached MayFurr and Ranthe. "My first officer will escort you to your quarters, and you willstay there until we decide what to do with you."
Ranthe fearfully glanced up into the Dawnfire's face, the chakat looking stern but not unkind. "I suggest that you both go with the guards," shi said. "I don't really want to have to remove you by force, but if I have to... I will. And resisting won't help your case."
The vixen nodded numbly, and got up from her seat, MayFurr following. Behind them, Sundown nervously watched the guards take them out of the room, feeling suddenly alone and under the scrutiny of the two Asimov officers.
"Now Sundown," Dawnfire said, softly padding across the floor, the two 'taurs sitting nose to nose facing each other, "As we now know the full story of what happened with your abduction, do you have anything to add?"
"MayFurr and Ranthe didn't kidnap me!" Sundown exclaimed. "I followed them and got stuck with them. It was a mistake - my mistake - it wasn't their fault I'm here!"
"You're sure about that? You're not just defending them?" Dawnfire insisted, searching for evidence of deceit on Sundown's face.
Sundown nodded. "I'm telling you the truth Commander - chakat to chakat. I can't lie to you." There. Shi had done it -admitted hir failing, hir incompetence in front of others. Shi felt humiliated in doing so - but shi had no choice..
Dawnfire looked deeply into the other chakat's face, two sets of golden feline eyes meeting each other. Finally Dawnfire nodded, and touched Sundown on the shoulder. "I believe you Sundown, it's okay." Shi turned to Captain Walker. "Shi's telling the truth."
Walker breathed out heavily, relieved. "That's one question fully answered anyway," he said, shifting in his chair to lean against the conference room table. "Of course, the next is... what do we do with you?"
The tawny chakat hesitated, hir tail curling around hir forelegs as shi unconsciously smoothed down the fur on hir upper chest with hir hands. "Can... can you take me home? Send me back to Chakona?" Sundown asked, though shi already suspected what the answer would be.
Dawnfire looked to the captain, who shook his head. "I'm afraid that's out of the question, young la- I mean, Sundown," he said. "We're already out of range of any of our onboard shuttles to take you back there and rejoin us - and I'm not prepared to turn the Asimov around just for one stray chakat." Walker got up, and walked around the table to stand beside Dawnfire in front of hir. "And if what my techs inspecting your friends' ship say is correct, we've passed beyond its maximum return range, which means they can't return you to Chakona either .It seems, Sundown, that you're stuck with us for a while."
MayFurr and Ranthe found themselves back in their guestroom, the change in their status as 'guests' underlined by the faint click of the door locks activating when the security guards left. MayFurr flopped despondently onto the small sofa in the middle of the room, his face downcast. He looked up to Ranthe as she joined him.
"I'm sorry Ranthe..." he whispered dejectedly. "It looks like we've lost out."
The vixen sat down next to him. "It's okay, May," she tried to reassure him. "You did your best."
"It wasn't good enough though, was it?" MayFurr said, resting his head in his paws. "I've let you down, Ranthe.. you and Sundown. All on a wild goose chase."
"Wild goose can taste good if you get it - sorry," Ranthe replied. She put an arm around MayFurr's waist. "I think you did good getting us here though... still can't believe they let us on board in the first place, really."
MayFurr smiled, his whiskers twitching a little. "Thanks."
"Besides," Ranthe continued, leaning back into the soft padding of the sofa and rearranging her tail, "They haven't actually said 'No' yet to taking us back to Furry space."
"And even if they don't, they might pass close enough for us to take the Fury back there," MayFurr finished, looking a bit more cheerful. He put his paw on her shoulder and looked into the vixen's eyes. "Y'know Ranthe - I don't know what I'd do without you sometimes."
"Probably have half your fur singed off," the vixen grinned, giving MayFurr a quick kiss on the nose. "Well, I guess we might as well get comfortable - I think we'll be in for a long wait."
The crew of the Asimov had progressed through another eight-hour watch when Dawnfire received the call from the captain. The chakat first officer finished hir round of the bridge crew and returned to the captain's chair, sitting hirself down beside it and activating the communicator. "Dawnfire here sir. And good morning."
"Good morning to you, Commander," the voice from the speaker grill replied. "Dawnfire, I want a meeting of all science section heads at oh-nine-thirty - I want to discuss the possibility of a course change."
"As per our guest's suggestion?" Dawnfire's feline muzzle wrinkled. "I thought you weren't going to listen to them after that report we got from Chakona."
"There's still some merit in the idea, Dawnfire," Walker replied. "I just want to determine what effect it'll have on our science schedule if we do decide to go for it."
"Understood sir. I'll get on it right away."
Ranthe awoke with a start as the door to the room clicked open and Dawnfire walked in, closely followed by Captain Walker. The vixen hastily ran a paw through her head-fur in an attempt to tidy herself up, and hastily nudged MayFurr. "Hey, wake up- we've got company."
"Eh? Whazzat?" MayFurr sleepily replied, before realising where he was and bolting upright in the sofa. Behind him, he heard the unmistakable sound of a chakat waking up - the claws making a ripping sound on the carpet as feline feet stretched. "When did Sundown get in?"
"Must've been while we were asleep - come on, wake up, the Captain's here."
Sundown rose to hir feet, yawning, blearily looking around the room before hir eyes found Dawnfire's. The reaction was immediate. "Oh heck..."
Dawnfire smirked, watching Sundown and the vulpines obvious discomfort at being woken like this. "So sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep," shi chuckled, "But the Captain wants a word with you, Sundown." Shi padded over to the tawny chakat and reassuringly laid a hand on hir shoulder. "It'll be okay, it won't take long."
"Gawd... seeing that first thing in the morning really turns your stomach," MayFurr whispered to Ranthe as Walker approached Sundown. "I dunno about these 'hyoomans'..."
"Shhh! Shut up will you?" Ranthe hissed back. "Listen... "
Walker stood in front of Sundown, and looked at the datapad he was holding in his hand. "Chakat Sundown, child of Riverscent and Blacktip?"
"Yes, Captain Walker."
"And what was your employment on Chakona, Sundown?"
"Well... it's kind of complex - I guess you could call me an administrator."
Walker glanced at the datapad. "So it would seem.' He tapped at the datapad for a few seconds, and handed the pad to Sundown. "I want you to transmit this to your employer."
"What is it, Captain?"
Sundown stood there shocked, and so did Ranthe and MayFurr. "My... my... WHAT?" the chakat finally blurted out.
"Like I said, Sundown - you're resigning from your old job."
"But - WHY?"
"You can't do this to her!" MayFurr shouted. "It's not her fault shi's out here - it's ours, mine and Ranthe's! It's not fair!"
Walker smiled, ignoring MayFurr's outburst, and nodded to Dawnfire. "Sundown, the reason you have to resign," Dawnfire explained reassuringly, "is that we're assigning you as an official liaison for when we encounter MayFurr and Ranthe's homeworlds." Shi took the surprised chakat's hand in hirs, and shook it warmly. "Welcome to the crew of the Asimov."
Ranthe and MayFurr looked at each other. "You mean - "
"Yes." Walker replied. "We're changing course to head for Furrderation space, as soon as you can supply the navigation data to us."
"Oh MayFurr!" Ranthe cried out happily, jumping on MayFurr and hugging him tightly. "We're going home! We're going home!"
Dawnfire smiled at Sundown as the two vulpines celebrated, while Walker shook hir hand. Sundown blinked, staring at the datapad which showed hir assignment details, scarcely able to believe hir eyes. Working in Deep Space Command was a job that very few people - even chakats - were able to get into, something like this was beyond hir expectations.
"It's really quite logical Sundown," Dawnfire smiled, taking the datapad from Sundown's hands and giving her a warm congratulatory hug. "You see, you're the resident expert on MayFurr and Ranthe and you've had the most dealings with them."
"Also, as well as your liaison duties when we reach our destination," Walker added, "you'll also be responsible for making sure that MayFurr and Ranthe here are brought up to speed with our language and customs, working with their integration into the crew, and just generally helping to keep them out of trouble." The muscular human grinned. "Someone's got to keep an eye on these two!"
"Come on, Sundown!" MayFurr whooped, bouncing over to hir and hugging hir madly. "You've just got a promotion, we're going home, everyone's happy!"
The next few days passed very quickly for the Sundown, MayFurr and Ranthe as they busied themselves with their assigned preparations. The navigation data for the journey to Furryspace was downloaded from the Fiora's Fury to the Isaac Asimov, and lessons in Standard for the two alien vulpines were quickly initiated. Relations between them and their chakat companion healed over very quickly with the workload, and their friendship was soon restored.
For Sundown, shi felt mixed feelings when shi transmitted hir job resignation back to Chakona - on the one paw, shi liked hir old work, even if it was relatively boring, but on the other paw the excitement of participating in what shi knew was going to be a historical journey was intoxicating. Almost as much as what shi had felt when shi was making hir own tentative First Contact with MayFurr and Ranthe... but this time, Sundown was secure in the knowledge that shi was part of a team, and had the support of experts, instead of trying to 'make do' on hir own. It was a proud moment.
At the same time as shi sent the news of hir change in fortune to hir old boss, her parents, and 'taur-friend, Sundown made a brief personal call from hir cabin to Swiftsure, who was now safely back at Dewclaw University.
"I wish I could be with you Sundown," Swiftsure said to hir, the sandy-spotted chakat looking no worse for wear after hir experiences, "You've got an opportunity that most of us don't have. I had applied for the Asimov mission myself, but got turned down... but I'm really happy for you."
Sundown blinked in surprise. "Swiftsure, I didn't know...you must feel really jealous of me right now, especially after what you went through - "
The other chakat waved dismissively. "Forget it love, it wasn't your fault. Besides, I've still got the data from the Universal Translator you used to play with, and sorting and analysing thatwill keep me busy until you come back - not to mention the credit it'll give me for getting on the Arthur C. Clarke when it's finished in a few years."
"Thanks for all you've done for me," Sundown replied, leaning closer to the monitor screen as if in an attempt to touch hir friend. "I couldn't have done it without you, Swiftsure."
"That's okay love... it was a pleasure. Well, most of it- but you know what I mean." Swiftsure also was looking misty-eyed over the video link, knowing that it would be a long time before they were able to see each other again. "Just when we got re-acquainted, this had to happen... but I'm glad in a way. You've got a decent chance of making a name for yourself, and that means a lot to me."
"I'm really going to miss you a lot this time."
"I know, Sundown... me too. I love you."
Sundown swallowed, rubbing hir eyes, feeling very moved. "I love you too Swiftsure," shi whispered, hir ears pricking up as a general announcement came over the cabin speaker in hir quarters. "I'm going to have to go now hun, we're starting to manoeuvre. I promise I'll look you up when I come back to Chakona."
Swiftsure smiled. "I understand love." Shi blew a kiss to the monitor, and Sundown mimed catching it and planting it on hir muzzle. "We're going to have to take that camping trip again next time... take care Sundown, and hurry home to us."
As Sundown completed hir call, up on the bridge Captain Walker sat in his command chair, Dawnfire sitting beside him. He switched on the ship's public address system and cleared his throat. "Attention all crew. We are about to carry out a course change that will alter our planned mission profile. This is because we have obtained last minute information indicating the presence of a new civilisation within our range..."
After addressing the crew on their new mission objectives, Walker turned to Dawnfire, a proud smile on his face. "Commander, initiate course change."
"Aye sir," Dawnfire answered, hir golden feline eyes shining with excitement. Shi turned to the bridge crew. "Helm, change course to new heading two-oh-five mark two-seven-one, and set speed at standard warp five-point-five cruising." The view through the Asimov's viewscreen slowly tilted, then righted itself before the familiar Doppler-streaks of light rushed past as the ship accelerated back into warp space.
Back in their assigned quarters, MayFurr and Ranthe exchanged smiles. "We did it, MayFurr," Ranthe said happily, "We're going home."
Even at the fantastic speeds the Asimov was travelling at, it was calculated that it would take over eight months to reach Furryspace. So after the initial excitement of the mission change had died down, in the weeks that followed normal onboard life resumed with its own joys and trials.
Sundown and Ranthe had adapted the best to their new shipboard life, the chakat finding plenty of others of hir own kind to socialise with, while the red-haired vixen found plenty of admirers to occupy her leisure hours. Indeed, many of the males found Ranthe's differences to the other vulpine 'morphs to be charmingly exotic, and as a result became very popular. MayFurr had also managed to fit in with the rest of the crew, though with half of the multi-species crew being male (a third were female, the rest were the hermaphroditic chakats), the opportunities for a relationship of the same sort that Ranthe had to fend off were slim. At first, this didn't worry him so much as a lot of his time was taken up with accelerated language lessons and modifying the Fury's onboard systems to be compatible with those of the Asimov, but after a while he found himself looking around for female companionship in his steadily increasing off-hours.
Perhaps it was because of the familiarity that they had build up during their short time together, or maybe it was the lure of the exotic, but as Sundown's chakat cycle swung through to female phase MayFurr found himself spending a large amount of time with hir, much to his surprise. While 'taur-forms back on Furry were reasonably common he usually had no direct dealings with them in his travels, but now he had time to study Sundown closely... watching chakats in general and Sundown in particular going about their daily business was endlessly fascinating. For hir part, Sundown had found MayFurr's attentions to be quite enjoyable, and although shi was starting to think of Swiftsure in terms of being a lifemate when shi returned to Chakona, shi realised that there was no reason why shi couldn't indulge hir affectionate and sensual chakat nature in the meantime.
Now that neither of them had to rely on the universal translator to communicate, it wasn't long before both the fox and chakat found themselves talking together in a way neither of them had anticipated.
"There's one thing about you that's intrigued me since we met, Sundown," MayFurr said to Sundown one evening at one of the Asimov's comfortable recreational lounges. They were sitting at a table together, separated a little from the rest of the patrons, MayFurr occasionally reaching behind himself to massage his sore back. He had challenged the chakat, foolishly in retrospect, to a wrestling match, only to find himself pinned to the floor and secured helplessly by Sundown's prehensile tail in less than a minute. After a few drinks at the bar, the pain in his back had diminished somewhat, but was still noticeable.
"What's that?" Sundown replied, the warm glow from hir drink suffusing through hir as shi returned hir gaze back from the lounge viewing port. The Doppler-streaked starfield resulting from the ship's current speed added a kind of soft mirrorball effect to the room.
"Well, it is kind of embarrassing... I know it's probably silly, but with you being a chakat and all..."
Sundown leant forward, smiling reassuringly. "You can ask me, I won't bite."
"That's not the bit that worries me," MayFurr said, grinning for a moment before returning to seriousness. "Sundown, uhhh... how does it feel being both male and female at the same time?"
The chakat paused a moment before answering. "How do you feel with being only male, MayFurr?"
At that, the fox winced, mentally cursing himself. "Oh, I'm sorry - " MayFurr began, but Sundown held up a hand.
"Look, it's okay... I guess it had to come up sooner or later," Sundown hastily replied. It was a fact of life for many of their race that had dealings with others, and one rapidly got used to it. Seeing MayFurr's confused look, shi continued. "It's hard to explain really, as I guess it'd be for you to explain the way it feels to be what you are to me. We don't really feelstrange or unusual, it's just the way we are."
MayFurr relaxed a bit, happy to see that Sundown hadn't taken offence, nevertheless he resolved to try and be a bit more tactful. "I guess that's true," he admitted. The fox paused, remembering something. "You said once that the hyoomans created your race? Why would they deliberately create beings that were both male and female?"
Sundown considered for a few moments, taking the opportunity to drain hir glass. "That's something that no-one really knows," shi answered, rubbing hir mouth as shi replaced hir glass on the table. "Our history tells us that we were designed to be a superior being from the best genetic stock that was available, but as to why we were given our dual-sexual nature... only the Creators can answer that, and they've been dead for over two hundred years."
The chakat paused. "It's funny... you're the first one to ask me why us chakats are the way we are, everyone else just accepts the fact that we have always been this way. Before there were any chakats at all the humans had already created furries much like yourself, though they were mostly sex slaves or worse..." Sundown shuddered a little at the recollection of what shi had read of those apocalyptic times. "Perhaps the Creators thought they could remove the possibility of chakats being used for that by making us have both genders, removing discrimination or something. Or maybe they were curious as to whether a creature could exist and reproduce that way." Shi shrugged. "No-one knows for sure."
"Whatever the reason, it seems to work just fine Sundown," MayFurr nodded. "In Furryspace, and even on Furry itself, there really aren't any completely hermaphroditic races that I know of, any hermaphs are usually genetic accidents. So you see, for Ranthe and I meeting your kind... well, I guess you can probably guess the reaction."
"I didn't have to - I was there, remember?" Sundown smiled. "You were incredibly lucky the way you captured me."
"Don't I know it!" the fox groaned, stretching his back, his tail stiffening as another jolt of pain shot through his back. "That back throw of yours - I'm gonna be sore for a week!"
Sundown chuckled a moment. "That's what you get for daring me, foxy." Shi tilted hir head to one side, thinking for a moment. "You look like you need something to ease the pain."
"Yeah..." MayFurr replied, still trying to work the kinks out of his back. "Got any suggestions?"
"How about I give you a massage?"
Now it was MayFurr's turn to be surprised. "Ummm Sundown...I didn't mean...?"
"It's no problem MayFurr, honest," Sundown smiled. "After all, I did help cause it." Shi rose up from where shi was sitting. "Back to your quarters?"
MayFurr shook his head. "'Fraid not. Ranthe's entertaining tonight, and I got the impression they wanted to be alone. It's one of the vulpines from engineering, she's been seeing him for around a week."
The chakat nodded. "So I've heard. My room's free, so we can go back there if you like." Shi stood up, hir tail brushing lazily behind hir as shi lead the fox to the door of the lounge." Come on, let's get that sore back of yours fixed."
MayFurr didn't see the speculative gleam in the chakat's golden eyes as he followed Sundown out...
Continue to Chapter 12
Copyright 1996 Terry Knight.
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