A FOREST TALE 14:  Midnight Incident
By Bernard Doove © 1998

Acknowledgment:  Thank you to those people who pointed out to me that nothing much was known about Chakat Midnight, giving me the subject for this latest Forest Tale.

I groaned as I lowered myself down onto a lounge mat, my aching muscles protesting. Chakats rarely get ill, but this was one of those rare exceptions. A strain of influenza that only affected felinoids, my doctor informed me. It had hit me pretty hard and I was very grateful to be part of such a large family as my mates had taken up the cub-minding duties and other chores.

"Are you okay, Forest?" Boyce asked me worriedly. His visit had come at a rather bad time for us as I was feeling rather far from amorous at the moment.

"I'm fine, Love," I lied with a smile of reassurance.

"Who do you think you're fooling?" he retorted, then sat down beside me and pulled my head down onto his lap. He stroked my hair and fur soothingly, murmuring words of affection. It was quite pleasant and helped me take my mind off how bad I felt. At least my cubs seemed to have escaped it. As soon as I had been diagnosed, they had been inoculated. Midnight was home and had been inoculated also, but because shi was pregnant, shi had been advised to keep contact with me down to a minimum. My vulpine mates were not at risk and they could be heard keeping the playful kittens occupied.

"Thanks, Boyce," I said and snuggled a bit more comfortably into his warm lap. "We seem to have had a lot keeping us apart lately, haven't we?"

"True, but I'm happy to be with you just like this. However, perhaps you could tell me about some of your recent adventures. It'll help you keep your mind off the aches and pains and I must admit that I'm dying of curiosity also."

I smiled back at him. I had been looking forward to recounting my latest exploits to him, especially as it touched on his own fields of interest. Midnight had finally convinced me to accompany hir on one of hir tours of duty. However, I hadn't been prepared to go merely as hir mate as I was entitled to do. I felt that I'd be bored or feel out of place. Midnight reminded me though that Star Corps was not like Star Fleet. The Corps consisted of a core group of career members who contracted work out to specialists suited to the particular project. As hir next assignment was a frontier world, shi reasoned that expert biologists would be required and suggested that I make an application. By that time, I was sufficiently curious and decided to check it out. Nevertheless, I had still been surprised to receive notice that I had been accepted and told to report at a certain date for a week of orientation studies. I had taken a leave of absence from my job and had plunged myself into the new and exciting project. We had been instructed on the command structure of the Corps and where we fitted in, how to find our way around a starship and what could and could not be done aboard one, plus many other small but important details that would ensure that we wouldn't be a liability.

Trina came by carrying a sleepy Patchwork in her arms. "Oh! Are you going to tell Boyce about your adventures? I want to sit in on this. With all that has been happening, I still haven't heard about everything that occurred on that voyage."

I grimaced in resignation. "It seems like I've got to. Better ask Kris if he wants to join us." They did and he brought Snowcloud in with him and settled onto the sofa. After finally getting hir to sit quietly, they were all ready to listen to my tale.

*                 *                 *

The day came when Midnight and I had to report to the spaceport where we received our official papers and then we were pointed in the direction of the shuttle that would take us to our starship. Both of us were excited; me because it was my first ever voyage in a spaceship, Midnight because it was the first time that shi was taking a mate aboard. I wondered how many of hir scout team would even realise that shi was pregnant. I thought that it was a good idea for hir to be able have family with hir while shi was still adjusting to the thought of becoming a mother. In the weeks since conceiving, Boyce had taken every opportunity to be with hir without neglecting his other mates. They had talked about the coming cub at length and then, finally, they stopped talking and started more physical communication. Only a few days ago, while we were snuggling in bed, Midnight brought up the subject.

*                 *                 *

"I have to admit that I was wrong in my first judgement of Boyce," Midnight admitted. "I think that he's going to be a very good sire and a fairly good match as a mate. He still isn't who I would have first chosen as a potential mate, but he's got a lot to offer. He's done much to soothe my fears and upset feelings due to this unplanned pregnancy."

I giggled a bit. "I told you that he's a good man. I never expected less of him."

"I know, I know. I should have trusted your judgement. I can only blame the shock I was in at the time."

"Are you going to do anything to formalise the union," I asked curiously.

Midnight looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "I've pretty much decided to ask him to officially become my den-mate when we get back. I think he deserves it and I've come to care for him a lot. Admittedly, because of my pregnancy, my female libido has been in ascendancy, as well you should know from your own experience. It has made relating to him much easier and quite pleasant at times. Boyce has a knack for making you feel warm and secure. Now if only I could get him to stop apologising for impregnating me every time we get together! Anyway, by the time this coming voyage is over, I hope to be fully adjusted to my coming role, especially with you at my side to help me when I need it."

"You realise that all of us will be delighted to help in any way possible," I assured hir.

Shi laid hir head on my breasts, purring. "I know, my love. I'm truly blessed to have you all." I could tell that was a good time to shut up and show hir how much shi was appreciated.

*                 *                 *

Midnight and I settled ourselves and our two cubs into our cabin. It wasn't large, but it was efficiently designed so that two adult taurs did not feel confined. The presence of the children would have made it a bit cramped except that we were allocated a family cabin with an extra room. Much of the time while we were both on duty, Snowcloud and Patchwork would be cared for in the creche. This was a starship designed for long-term projects and catered to all family needs, so I was quite satisfied that they'd be well cared for. I pulled on the tunic that was the normal uniform for on-duty staff and admired myself in the mirror. I felt that the green of the life-sciences department complemented my fur nicely, something rapidly confirmed by a few words of appreciation from my lifemate. Midnight's was red and looked quite bold against hir black pelt. We then each went off separately to report to our department heads.

My ability to navigate came in handy right away in the confusion of corridors. I recalled the layout from our training course and made my way directly to the office of the chief of life-sciences. However, there wasn't anyone in, so I poked my head into the lab next door where I saw a human female in the green tunic busy at one of the benches.

"Excuse me, I'm looking for Lieutenant Sanderson," I announced.

She looked up, an eyebrow lifting when she recognised who was talking. She smiled and replied, "Look no further." She came over to meet me as I padded into the room. She immediately surprised me by giving me a quick embrace and saying formally, "I am Marta Sanderson, child of Vanessa and Matthew. Welcome aboard."

Automatically, I replied, "I am Chakat Forestwalker, child of Desertsand and Longstripe. Thank you for the chakat-style greeting. How is it that you are so familiar with it, may I ask?"

Marta grinned as she indicated that we should head for her office. "I should, I'm life-mated to one!"

Now I was really surprised. Life-mating between chakats and humans just didn't happen that often. "You too!" I exclaimed.

It was Marta's turn to be startled. "Too?" she asked. "I knew to expect a chakat biologist, but I didn't know that you had a human mate."

We made ourselves comfortable, she in her chair, myself on a lounging mat that had been thoughtfully provided. "Yes, we became den-mates just a few weeks ago after a difficult period when we thought the relationship could never be. You may even know of him. His name's Admiral Boyce Kline of Starfleet."

"A Starfleet admiral? Quite a catch! However, I'm not familiar with him. How did you get to meet him?"

"My sister introduced us. Shi is a Master Technician in Star Corps and they met on one of the frontier planets. We fell for each other right from the start. Only his commitment to his two other mates impeded our relationship, but that was recently resolved. My mate, Chakat Midnight, is also pregnant to him."

Marta nearly choked on her coffee when I dropped that bombshell. "That's impossible!" she stated flatly.

"Yes it is, but he did it," I assured her. "We eventually found out how and now Starfleet has a very keen interest in those two."

"So would I" admitted Marta. "I hope you'll keep me up to date on Midnight's pregnancy.

"You could ask hir yourself. I'm accompanying hir on this mission. Curiosity was the major factor for going on this voyage, but I admit that wanting to keep an eye on my mate was the factor that pushed me over the edge when making the decision. Please be tactful. Shi's getting a bit tired of all the tests they've put them through."

"I'll keep that in mind. I see that this is already starting out to be an interesting voyage." She put down her coffee mug and picked up a PADD. Handing it to me, she said, "I'll want to continue this chat with you later. In the meantime, the details of the work we'll be doing on the trip to Arboria have been entered on this PADD and you should review them. We'll be starting next shift, so until then I suggest you familiarise yourself with the ship and get to know the crew." She stood up. "I'm glad to have you as a member of my staff, Forestwalker."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. And please, friends just call me Forest."

Shi grinned. "Okay Forest, as long as you call me Marta!"

I left her office feeling that this voyage was getting off to a very positive start. I hoped that the rest of my experiences would be this good.

*                 *                 *

My work proved to be quite fascinating. The data on the PADD showed both the similarities and the amazing differences between Arborian and Terran biologies and I was lost in fascination until Midnight came back and dragged me off to dinner. There were quite a large number of crewmembers in the mess at that time and Midnight set about introducing me to several of them. We ended up sitting at a table with a large group of them and chatting at length. We were almost done with our meal when I spotted Marta walking in and I called her over.

"I'm glad that you turned up, Marta. I wanted you to meet my lifemate."

Midnight, remembering the formal greeting that Marta had given me, decided to give her the same. "I am Chakat Midnight, child of Sharpears and Shorttail. I'm pleased to meet you."

Marta walked into Midnight's arms to exchange a greeting hug and repeated hir chakat-style identification. "I'm also glad to get the chance to talk with you, Midnight. Forest has told you about me, hasn't shi?"

"That you're mated to a chakat, yes," affirmed Midnight.

"Good. I was hoping that perhaps we could talk a little about that and having cubs."

Midnight didn't even blink. That was a good sign. If shi could talk with Marta, it might help get a fresh perspective on chakat-human relationships. Midnight nodded in agreement.

"I must admit that I wouldn't mind getting your viewpoint on my situation."

So that's what we did for a large part of the evening. We told Marta our experiences with our human mate and she told us hers and we compared and discussed the merits and drawbacks. Marta proved to be very adept at putting Midnight at ease about hir pregnancy, to the point that Midnight was showing evident pride in being the mother of the first human crossbreed child. When we finally called it an evening, I hung back for a moment. I kissed Marta on the cheek.

"Thank you for what you have done tonight, Marta. Midnight looks more self-assured than shi has in quite a while."

"You're welcome, Forest, but I do have a little self-interest in this too, you know."

"Of course, but you didn't have to do all you did to get what you wanted, and for that I'm grateful.

Marta smiled and nodded. "Go back to your room with your mate, dear. Shi needs you now and I need you well-rested for work tomorrow." She grinned at me.

I grinned back. She knew us chakats all too well.

*                 *                 *

Over the ensuing weeks, I came to know much of the crew of the ship. It was like a small community where everyone had their place and worked to the best of their ability. There was a lot of pride in their work and also lots of friendly competition between workers in the same department but on different shifts. It didn't take me long to get enamoured with the idea of doing this sort of thing more often, but I still missed the scent of eucalyptus. Whenever I could, I took the cubs around the ship with me. This way, I not only entertained them, but also got to show them off to the rest of the crew. They proved a hit with everyone, even the captain. The crew was the usual mix of humans and morphs, with the humans still outnumbering the furries about two to one. However, this time the captain was numbered amongst them. He was a fairly grizzled old wolf-morph, stern and aloof. The first time I met him directly though, his muzzle split into a big grin and he crouched down to pet and play with the cubs. He then congratulated me, then walked off to complete whatever errand had brought him down my way, leaving me somewhat nonplussed. We sat in on one of Midnight's training sessions. Shi pushed hir team members pretty hard, but this was necessary to make sure they were prepared for the rigours of an unknown world. Eventually shi asked me to leave as the cubs were proving too much of a distraction to both hir and the scout team. The rest of the time, the twins enjoyed their time in the ship's creche.

The whole time spent onboard the ship on our trip to Arboria was very enjoyable and the weeks spent getting to our destination went by in a flash. The time came when it was announced that we were about to pull into orbit about Arboria and I blinked in surprise at how quickly the time had gone by. Because we had shuttled up to the starship, this was to be my first experience with a matter transporter. I held onto Snowcloud while Midnight took Patchwork's hand. We beamed down to a new world together as a family for the first time. It was quite a strange sensation and when we were fully materialised, Snowcloud immediately latched onto me, whimpering. Patchwork's fur was fluffed up, but shi remained quiet. It could have been worse, I suppose. We stepped out into fresh air for the first time in weeks. I took a lung full of air and simply appreciated the new scents that I could smell. Then I felt a little foolish, betraying my naivete, so I stopped. Looking at Midnight though, I was surprised to see hir doing exactly the same thing. Shi noticed me looking.

"I always like to get the feel of a new planet as soon as I arrive," shi explained. "Make the most of it. You'll be too busy to appreciate it for a lot of the time that you're here."

So I did just that. We let the cubs out on their harness leashes so that they could explore without escaping our control. I looked around and was quite impressed by the forest surrounding the research site. It was the trees for which the planet was named. The average ones were as tall as Earth's mightiest sequoias and others towered far above those. This was typical for many of the continents and different climates. I had read up as much as I could about the preliminary surveys and now I could see a little of the complexity of life-forms for myself. I found myself eagerly awaiting the first field trips.

We barely had time to settle in the cubs at out quarters when we were called to a briefing. Assignments were handed out, latest information from the outgoing team passed on and warnings issued. I was delighted to find that Midnight's team had been assigned to ours for field trips. Because we had arrived late in the Arborian day, we had little time left to get our equipment down from the ship and assembled ready for departure at first light. We were to be shuttled to one of several sites found to be particularly interesting. Not only did we have an alien biology to study and decipher its secrets, but also earlier scouting forays had discovered evidence of a long-gone civilisation. Our assignment was to study both plant and animal life with a view to identifying possible food species, especially domesticated forms gone wild again.

Midnight and I enjoyed the camaraderie of the base camp that night. After putting our cubs to bed, we spent several hours relaxing before starting what would be many days of intensive work. My mate and I did not repeat my sister's sleep under the stars, but we did have a good view from our quarters as we made love that night. This voyage was turning out to be more exciting than I had dared dreamed it could be.

We farewelled the cubs at dawn, leaving them in the care of the base personnel while we established ourselves. They would soon join us again when a proper camp had been set up for us, but the rest of us wanted to waste as little time as possible and immediately began our projects when we arrived. Midnight and the other scouts were used to the way we got absorbed in our work. Not only was it their job to prepare the way for us, but it was also their duty to protect us from the unknown quantities of this world while we weren't paying attention. Midnight had shown me hir full complement of weaponry for this task. I had been a little disturbed by all the possible means shi had available to hurt or kill, but shi had soon disabused me of my romantic notions.

Midnight on guard "One thing that you will find on any world," shi began hir lecture, "Is that they all have their predators and their prey. It's our job to make sure that you aren't the latter."

"But surely a stunner is enough?" I objected.

"Sure, if it was a Terran creature. However, some of these aliens shrug off a stunner with little effect. Then you had better have some other options available. Sometimes killing is the only option, but it's still better than taking back the corpse of one of your fellow crewmembers."

Chastened, I let Midnight get on with hir job without further objections. Shi'd been doing this for quite some time now and would surely know a lot more than someone like me who had never left Earth. If only to emphasise hir point, I had a run-in with one of the local beasts. I had been laying a live-trap, an assistant meticulously keeping records of their location and the time they were set, when a shout of alarm came from Midnight. I looked up to see an unknown animal springing from its place of concealment. Without even thinking about it, I found myself quite some distance up a tree trunk, all claws on all paws and hands grabbing for purchase. My assistant, a human male named Carter, sprinted off towards Midnight who had calmly shouldered hir stunner. The carnivore was attracted to the running prey, of course and did not seem to notice the inky black chakat standing hir ground. The characteristic zing of the stunner rang through the air and the creature jerked to a stop. Hesitantly, it began to move after its prey once more, but a second shot of the stunner knocked it flat. Only then did I feel it safe to get down from my perch. I was larger and more massive than the animal, but no way was I anywhere near its level of ferocity.

"Careful, Forest," Midnight warned. "The way it stood up to the stunner could mean that this creature is barely unconscious."

I nodded but cautiously approached it still. Taking my datacorder out of my saddlebag, I quickly took some basic readings and took some pictures. Like the majority of life-forms on this world, it was hexapedal. Aside from its shaggy fur, the most obvious features of this predator was its enormous fangs and claws. A real killing machine and one that I'd be happy to avoid in future. To that end, I took a good noseful of its scent and stored it firmly in my memory. I'd scan the area for that scent in future. I decided then that we'd pushed our luck far enough and indicated to Carter to gather our stuff to leave this area.

Fortunately, that was as bad as it ever got. All the other local inhabitants tended to give us a wide berth. Luckily they were unfamiliar with traps and we caught quite a range of specimens. None showed evidence of ever being domesticated though, but it was still way too early to draw that conclusion. We had almost immediate success with the plants though. We were finding an enormous variety of plants and fruit that initial scans told us were edible. Other teams in areas open to plenty of sunlight reported several grain type plants. I decided to try some of the fruits, relying on the chakat metabolism to handle possible nasties we hadn't detected. I soon came to one conclusion: if these fruits tested to be completely harmless to humans, there was going to be a good deal of commercial traffic here. They were absolutely delicious!

The events of the following days weren't interesting to relate, unless you happen to be a biologist, in which case I was in a constant state of pleasure examining all the new life-forms that I collected. I was in charge of one of the sub-groups examining likely sites, reporting back at the end of each day to Marta who collated our research for further study later. We'd been on the third site for just over a day. Scout teams had located the ruins of some buildings in an arrangement that looked suspiciously like a modern farming community. What puzzled us was that although the ruins showed evidence of a high degree of engineering capability, there were very few artefacts to be found. All the biology teams, in fact all Star Corps personnel, were instructed to report the slightest evidence of the former inhabitants.

Midnight wasn't always assigned to me, although shi did manage to swing it that way most of the time. It gave us the opportunity to be with each other for more time than any other except hir vacations between assignments. I was very happy with this arrangement. I had the best of all worlds with my mate, my cubs and my favourite work all indulged with this project. Much the same could be said for Midnight. We chatted whenever we could do so without distracting each other from our work. The rest of the time shi prowled the area while I was examining the local flora or fauna. It was just such a time when I heard a startled yowl that was abruptly cut off. I looked at Carter who shrugged. I thought I'd better check it out.

I bounded over towards the source of the cry. "Midnight!" I yelled, but received no reply. I cast about for hir scent and soon found hir trail. I slowed down, caution finally beginning to exert itself. It was a good thing that I did because otherwise I may have fallen into the same pit that must have claimed my mate. The freshly broken earth spoke of a cave-in and I approached the edge carefully. "Midnight, can you hear me?" I called down the hole. I couldn't see anything beyond a few metres. The bright sunlight that foiled my sensitive vision was at the wrong angle to illuminate the hole. A groan echoed up to me, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Ohhh! Shit! Wha... what happened?" hir unsteady voice asked.

"There was a cave-in and you've fallen into some sort of cavern, I think. Hang on, I'm calling for help." I activated my comm unit. "Forestwalker to base, we have had an accident. Chakat Midnight has fallen down into a cave and we require rescue equipment."

"Acknowledged, Forest." Came the disembodied voice of the communications officer. "We'll have a shuttle over there as fast as possible. I assume we can home in on your comm?"

"You will have to find a clearing nearby. It's pretty densely forested here."

"Understood. Base out."

I turned my attention back to Midnight. "How badly are you hurt?"

"One moment, I've been trying to stop my head spinning, I'll just... aarggh!"

"Midnight! What's wrong" I cried worriedly.

After a bit of heavy panting, shi replied, "I've broken a foreleg. The shoulder and hind leg on the same side are pretty badly banged up too. And my head feels as if a boulder fell on it, which it might have done."

This was pretty bad. Not only was shi going into shock, but shi also had a bad concussion. Then I remembered something else. "What about the kitten? Have you been hurt internally?"

After a lengthy pause, shi said, "I'm having trouble trying to focus inwards, but I think I'm alright. I think my limbs took the brunt of the impact. Forest, I feel cold."

Damn, shi needed help now. "I'm coming down!" I told hir.

"What? No! It's too dangerous!

"Don't be silly! You know I'm an experienced climber."

"So was my sire," shi replied.

I was a bit startled as shi had never brought this up before and I wondered why shi was mentioning it now. Shi hardly ever talked about hir sire. About all I knew about hir was that shi died a long time ago. I started pulling out my basic climbing gear from one of my saddlebags. Ever since Trina had taught me proper climbing techniques, I had carried the special harness that she had made for me, plus some rope and other basic items. They'd often come in handy on my field trips. I secured the rope to a nearby tree as I continued to chat to Midnight. It was important to keep hir alert as someone with concussion shouldn't be allowed to lose consciousness. "I have the necessary gear to get me down to you. I'll watch out for the weakened areas. Tell me about your sire, Midnight."

"Please be careful, Forest. My sire died in a climbing accident. Shi too loved to climb. Do you know how shi came by hir name?"

"Shorttail? No, you never told me."

"Shi was a climber ever since childhood. Shi was caught in a rockfall once as a teenager and while shi escaped without any serious injury, half hir tail was crushed beyond repair and had to be amputated. Shi took the name of Shorttail at hir coming-of-age ceremony, not only because it was hir most distinctive feature, but also to remind hirself to always be careful. Not that it saved hir in the long run."

I had finished harnessing myself and was preparing to lower myself down. I left Carter on watch and to await the rescue team. "So, what happened to your sire?"

There was a lengthy pause, then finally, as with considerable effort, shi continued. "Shi never stopped hir climbing activities, even when shi met and mated my mother. They decided to be pioneers on a new world and were one of the first chakat families there. They established a modestly successful materials exporting business and both bore a couple of cubs each. We were all very happy. I was twelve when shi was killed in another climbing accident. After that, our family struggled. My mother found it difficult to run the business and look after the family by hirself, and because we were on a frontier world, we had no family to fall back on. As the eldest cub, I took upon myself some of those duties. I helped provide for my family's needs and cared for the younger cubs. Fortunately the youngest had been weaned because it would have been hard on my mother to feed hir alone and my body wasn't ready for that yet." Hir voice trailed off. Shi was beginning to reach exhaustion.

I was most of the way down the hole by now. It was rather slow progress as there was a lot of loose material and I kept getting showered by dirt and stones breaking loose above me. Midnight's voice was much closer now though and my eyes were adapting to the gloom. Hir story was revealing previously unknown aspects of my mate. This part of Midnight's life went a long way towards explaining some of hir strongly masculine attitudes. Shi had literally grown up as the "man" of the house, not able to share the privileges of a mate and not having other chakats around to interact with purely on a social basis. I admit that I liked hir masculine strengths balancing out my more feminine leanings. However, it had made it harder for hir to accept being a mother when shi accidentally fell pregnant to Boyce. On top of this, shi had an aversion to rock-climbing so great, shi was badly frightened by the possibility that I might also get hurt climbing down to hir. I could use this last fact to help me in part though. "Midnight, love! Keep talking to me! I'm almost there!" I needed to keep hir talking, keep hir awake and not succumb to the concussion, and keeping hir mind on my descent would help override hir desire to sleep.

There was a moment when I thought shi wouldn't reply, but then hir voice came weakly to me. "Eventually the business grew enough that my mother could leave the responsibility to others and by this time, a couple of my siblings were able to take care of themselves. I suddenly found that I was at loose ends and decided that it was time to do something for myself. I enjoyed travelling around and learning new things. One day I met some visiting members of a Star Corps team and from that moment on, I was filled with visions of travelling to the stars and living free of the responsibilities of the family. I first had to gain some qualifications I had missed because of my interrupted schooling, but it was not long before I had my application in at Star Corps and was immediately accepted. I spent years happily in the service before I met you and realised that I was missing something in my life."

I was feeling a bit emotional from Midnight's revelations, but I kept that in check as I negotiated the final drop. I disengaged my harness and moved quickly to Midnight's side, hir black-furred form barely visible in the dark. What little sunshine was getting in the cave's mouth was rapidly swallowed up by the dark earth. "I'm here now, darling mate. I'm still with you, so don't you leave me!"

A weak grin curled hir lip. "If you insist, dear."

I pulled another piece of equipment from my bag of tricks: a mini-torch. It would not have done much good lighting my descent, but it was useful to examine Midnight's situation. I looked at hir face first and saw blood oozing from a gash, ironically so similar to the bullet wound shi suffered on the first day that I knew hir. Hir pupils displayed the classic signs of shock and I could see hir shivering. However, the most terrible sight was hir right foreleg twisted in a most unnatural fashion. That would need setting before shi was moved. Midnight saw what I was looking at and grimaced.

"It feels as bad as it looks, Forest," shi said with some strain. "I hope that rescue party isn't too far away."

"Any moment now, 'Night."

"I'm thirsty, love. Can you get my canteen?"

"I have a better idea." I laid down next to hir and pulled off my uniform top. "A drink of my milk will do you more good than just plain water." Without moving hir any more than necessary, I put my arm around Midnight to support hir. Shi whimpered a bit as shi shifted to bring hir muzzle to my breast. Then shi began to nurse, slowly at first, then a bit more enthusiastically as my warm milk slaked hir thirst. Besides giving hir the water shi needed, the highly nutritious fluid would help hir in hir weakened state.

With a sigh, Midnight ceased suckling. "Thank you, love, I needed that. Trust you to think of your breasts at a time like this." Shi rested hir head on my shoulder and I hugged hir gently, trying to share my warmth and reassure hir at the same time. I grinned a little. If shi was making humorous comments, shi must be feeling a bit better. With my mate attended as best as I could for the moment until the rescue team arrived, I could finally take the time to have a better look about the cave. I shone my little torch around, and found it to be more useful now that my eyes had adjusted to the darkness. One thing struck me almost immediately: this was artificial! It appeared to be a passageway, much wider than it was high, the roof of which had collapsed. Because it wasn't too high, the fallen rubble had formed a slope that had broken Midnight's fall. If the drop had been much greater, it may well have killed hir.

I continued to survey the room as best I could under the circumstances. There wasn't much to see as it seemed to be mostly bare passageway, but there were a couple of shadowy objects on the wall which could prove interesting. I heard a small noise from Midnight as shi too finally realised what shi had fallen into. Just then Carter's voice came from above.

"Forest, they're here!" I then noticed the hum of the shuttlecraft approaching our vicinity.

"Help's nearly here, dear heart," I told Midnight who nodded slightly in understanding. While it had seemed ages waiting for them to arrive, the rescue team had in fact made good time from the base.

"Shuttlecraft to Forestwalker," came a slightly muffled voice from my comm badge. I picked up my uniform and touched the badge.

"I'm here with the victim," I replied.

"We have the main shuttle equipped with a short-range transporter. Can we use your location for beaming co-ordinates?"

"That's affirmative. Plenty of room for several people here."

"Acknowledged. We're as good as there, Forest!"

True to the pilot's words, moments later the hole darkened as the shuttle hovered overhead. Instead of having to land, it seemed we were fortunate enough to gain the use of the one craft we had with matter transporter capabilities. The glow of the beaming effect started to fill the passageway and, moments later, two people had materialised. They both carried high-intensity lamps and the room was thoroughly lit up now. The medic hastened over to her patient.

Hardly sparing me a glance, Doctor Helena McGrath opened up her medical tricorder and asked, "What happened here, Forest."

I knew she was asking just for a quick summary. "The roof of this room collapsed underneath Midnight who fell on hir right side, breaking the right foreleg and injuring both other right limbs. Shi has concussion and bruises, but no other major internal injuries." The last statement the doctor would not have accepted so readily from another, but she knew of the chakat self-awareness ability.

"Thank you, Forest. Now be a dear and get out of our way." She shooed me away so that she and her assistant could work on their patient. I put my uniform back on and having nothing better to do, decided to look around.

The passageway was about 5 metres wide and 2.5 metres high at the top of the curved ceiling. I couldn't see either end as they extended beyond the limits of the lamps radiance. The walls which looked slickly smooth turned out to be blocks that fit together so well, they almost appeared seamless. It was far more obvious how they were constructed when looking at the portion that had collapsed. The objects on the wall still puzzled me, but I guessed that they might be signs of some kind. A part of the ceiling had failed, possibly due to the roots of one of the immense trees. It appeared that the initial collapse had happened some time ago as several roots were seen to be intruding into the chamber. Midnight had the misfortune of standing directly over the severely weakened soil above it and had been the final straw to break it.

I wandered down the passage a bit, hoping to see a bit more than the plain, featureless wall. I was about to turn back when I was rewarded. Invisible from the accident scene was an intersection with another identical passageway leading off at right angles to the first and there, recessed into the walls were statues. I shone my little torch on them and gasped. They were hexapodal as were all the higher species, only their forward torso was upright and the forelimbs were more like arms. They were taurs like chakats! The statues depicted a species that I would have described as being similar to badgers, including the strong digging claws. At a guess, I'd say that the reason that we had not found much evidence of this species existence was that they were subterranean dwellers. The creatures didn't appear to wear clothes, but did have harnesses that had a high degree of ornamentation. The xenologists were going to have a ball figuring out what they were for and what cultural significance they had. I snapped out of my fascinated trance and raced back to the accident site. The doctor and her patient were just about to beam up.

"Forest! I was about to call you," Doctor McGrath said. "We're going to get Midnight back to base. We've done as much as we can here, but hir leg has been set and painkillers have made hir much more comfortable. I thought that you'd like to be with hir on the way back."

"I certainly do, and when we get to base, have I ever got something to tell them!" I touched my comm badge. "Forestwalker to Carter, are you still up there?"

"I'm here, Forest. I was beginning to think that you'd forgotten me."

"Sorry about that, dear. Could you pull up my rope and gather my gear to bring it back to the base?"

"Can do. I'll meet you back there. Carter out."

I collected my harness and awaited my turn to be beamed up. The shuttle's transporter could only handle two or three persons at a time, and a chakat massed enough for two, so the doctor left with Midnight. I followed moments later with her assistant. The moment I was aboard, the shuttle pilot took off for the base. I settled down next to Midnight and was pleased to see the improvement in hir in such a short time. "You gave me quite a scare, 'Night. You aren't planning on doing any more of that to me on this trip, are you?"

Shi grinned back at me. "You know that I promised you that this would be an exciting adventure, You must admit, I didn't exaggerate!"

I shook my head, then laid it against hir uninjured shoulder and purred softly my happiness that shi was going to be alright. Only then did the tears that had I had been holding back begin to flow. Midnight noticed and stroked my hair and scritched my ears. "It's okay, Forest my love, you won't get rid of me that easily. I have a cub to deliver and another promised to you, so you're stuck with me until then at least."

I snorted at that, but hir words had the desired effect and my tears stopped. We stayed cuddling until we reached the base and Midnight was beamed directly to the medical facility along with Doctor McGrath. The rest of us disembarked normally and I headed to the base commander's office to report the incident.

*                 *                 *

The days after the accident were almost chaotic. Teams were pulled in from various locations to explore the tunnels. There proved to be quite an extensive network of them, some leading to points under those areas we previously thought to be farms. Most wondrous though was the first underground city that they discovered. The xenologists went nuts over them and there were people from all the science teams clamouring for an opportunity to visit. Even I had a part in that because now we knew what our alien sentients looked like and my team was assigned to finding out what had happened to them. This was as a reward for we three "discovering" the site. Midnight snorted at this, but was content to accept some glory as recompense for injuries. The excellent facilities at the medical centre soon fixed hir up. The bone knitter quickly repaired broken and cracked bones, while other devices healed the internal damage that caused the concussion and bruises. They also confirmed that Midnight's cub had come through the incident unscathed, although, if medical help had not been so swift in coming, that situation may have changed as hir condition deteriorated.

Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, Midnight was soon able to inspect the site properly for hirself. I even managed to persuade hir to climb down the hole with me instead of taking the route newly opened by the explorers. Shi needed to overcome that fear as part of the healing process. I knew my mate would also need to come to terms with hir past, but now that I understood how and why shi was like this, I could do something about that also. We reached the bottom without any dramas and Midnight looked visibly relieved.

"Whew! That was hard. How do you make it look so easy, Forest?" Shi started taking off my spare harness.

"Like everything, just practice," I replied. "But don't get too relieved. I'm going to make you climb back up there later."

Midnight groaned. "Don't you know I'm a convalescent?"

"You and I both know that you've been fixed up as good as new, so don't try to worm out of it!"

Shi made some more token noises, but I could tell that shi had decided to take up this challenge, just as shi had done so with all others in hir life. I put my arm about hir waist and we walked off in the direction of the underground city. We both had lots to explore yet, and not all of it had anything to do with Arboria.

*                 *                 *

I shifted myself because an arm was going to sleep. The room was quiet as everyone listened attentively, even our little cubs, although perhaps sleepiness had something to do with that also. I decided that was enough for now though. "Most of the rest of the project, while personally very fascinating, wouldn't interest you much," I concluded.

"What about all the discoveries that were made in those cities?" Trina objected.

"And what about Marta?" Boyce inquired. "Didn't you spend some time with her? It's not that often you get to meet another human mated with a chakat."

I weakly punched Boyce. "Can't you think of anything besides sex? Of course I did when my heat came around. Rather than risk accidentally getting pregnant by Midnight before I was ready, I spent some time with Marta to relieve my urges. It was a mutually pleasant experience and she showed me a couple of things that I hadn't tried before. But that was irrelevant to the story. As for what we discovered on Arboria, the newscasts covered those pretty well."

There was a chorus of objections. "We want to hear it from you." "They don't show everything." "What new findings were you personally responsible for?"

"Okay, okay! I'll tell you more after we've had dinner and put the cubs to bed." Trina and Kris got up and put my cubs onto a couch together where they started playing. It wasn't long before the smell of cooking filled the air, Boyce continued to cuddle me and stroke my fur soothingly.

"So, I take it you enjoyed your first adventure out into my workplace?" he asked.

"Oh yes, very much so. I intend to do it again, perhaps in a year. I still enjoy my work here in Australia, you know. But to me, the best thing that happened to me was learning more about my mate. I have never felt so close to hir since finding out about hir full background. It truly was a voyage of discovery. I was thinking that one day I might be able to do the same with you."

"I'd be delighted, my love. I'm sure that there's a thing or two that we are yet to discover about each other."

He snuggled me closer and kissed me on the cheek, and I felt my body respond to his total affection. I suddenly realised that I was starting to feel better. Maybe tonight I would be feeling amorous after all!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Next story in chronological order is Tales Of The Foxtaur Clans #1.

Forest Tales is continued in FT#15: Unthinkable Deeds.

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