A FOREST TALE 16:  Transformations - Part One
By Bernard Doove © 2000



I stood in the doorway, momentarily stunned by the sight of my sister, Goldfur... both of hir! Two chakats, centauroid felines patterned like a cougar, faced me, identical in every detail of fur pattern. The same golden-brown fur, waist-long golden-blonde hair tied in a ponytail. Absolutely identical dark markings on the muzzle. Same lengthy prehensile tail. They even smelled exactly the same. The only differences that I could make out were that they wore different duty uniforms, which was no help as they were both types that Goldfur wore on different occasions, and that one looked agitated and depressed, while the other had an air of curiosity and anticipation. A Star Corps officer, a wolf morph named Commander Redfang, looked at me expectantly while I tried to puzzle this out.

I had come here to pick up Goldfur from the spaceport. Hir foxtaur lifemate, Garrek, was away at his home village and I had volunteered to drive hir back and forth. Shi was currently working on the Corps' geosynchronous space station and was beaming there and back from the transporter facilities at the spaceport. Shi had taken on the long overdue work of major maintenance and upgrades to the station because it kept hir close to home for the duration. It was only a short time after the birth of hir and Garrek's second child whom they'd just named Tailstalker because of hir penchant for chasing everybody's tails. Rather than go on another deep space assignment so soon, Goldfur had elected to take this job so that hir cub could be left in the family's care in hir absence. Star Corps' maintenance department was ecstatic because they seldom got the services of such highly rated technicians as Goldfur because they were all needed for the starship missions. Garrek normally would be working with hir as usual, but was taking care of foxtaur clan duties for a few days. On the other hand, I was mere days away from delivering the cub sired by the Admiral and I had just gone on maternity leave, which left me with little to do. I suppose Goldfur could have made hir own way back and forth, but we both enjoyed being able to spend some time together, just we two sisters.

This had been just another normal trip to the spaceport to pick up Goldfur and I had been waiting in the Corp's large foyer for my sister to arrive. I had arrived a little bit late and was mildly surprised that Goldfur wasn't there already. I wasn't too concerned though because delays weren't too unusual, but I was surprised again though to hear my name paged over the public address system:

"Paging Chakat Forestwalker. Would Shir Forestwalker please report to the information desk for an important message"

I walked over to the information desk where the young lass behind it smiled in recognition and passed a note to me. I grinned back and thanked her. Jenny was an acquaintance whom I'd made long ago, although we'd rarely had the opportunity to chat much. I looked at the message and saw that it was from Goldfur. It said: "Forest. I have been detained by a major problem and it might be some time before I will be able to meet you. Sorry for the delay. If you want to go back home and await my call, let me know. Otherwise, I'll be out as soon as possible. Love, Goldie."

I sighed. "Oh well, these things happen, I suppose," I thought to myself. I ended up talking a lot with Jenny, spending more time with her than in several months. However, she couldn't talk too much because she was on duty, so I wandered around the lobby, examining everything in detail. The Star Corps building wasn't the only facility at the spaceport, but it featured one of the most impressive lobbies. Its vaulted ceiling had been painted a matt black that soaked up all reflected light. However, this didn't mean that it was a dark and gloomy room. Far from it! For the space between floor and ceiling was filled with one of the largest and most elaborate holograms that I had ever seen. The entire solar system was represented there. Each planet could be seen in magnificent detail, and their associated moons were all in their orbits. Comets and asteroids wove through the astral plane, and the hologram sun was the source of light for the room. Places like the information desk were islands shaped and placed in such a way as to suggest that they were objects like starships or space stations. A few more holograms ringed the room, each showcasing one of the Corps' projects: Terraformed worlds, new colonies, even the discovery of the extinct Arborian culture with which I had been involved were proudly displayed. It was magnificent and fascinating, but after a couple of hours of looking at it, I had had more than my fill of it.

At last, the word came through for me to go meet up with Goldfur. I was directed to go to the office of the duty officer and, after asking for directions, I headed there promptly. The rest of the building, although not unpleasing in its decor, was much more functional and easy to navigate. I knocked on the door and a voice said, "Enter!", so I did. There, the first thing that I saw was a wolf morph seated behind the desk, a name stand on it telling me his name was Commander Kylan Redfang. It was an unspectacular office, neatly but sparsely decorated and, seeing as it was shared by various duty officers, lacking a lot of personal touches that everyone adorns their territory with. It was also a very large room, which is why I didn't immediately see the other occupants. The wolf morph wordlessly drew my attention with his eyes to the corner of the room to my right. I turned, only to be confronted by the sight of identical twin sisters. Nobody said anything, evidently waiting from a response from me. I was confused. Obviously they both couldn't be my sister, yet they were completely alike in all respects... wait! There was one difference. I turned to the one on the left and said, "Okay! Would you care to explain the meaning of your doppelganger here?" I jerked my thumb in the direction of the other.

The Star Corps officer shook his head in amazement, while Goldfur's muzzle split in a grin as shi stepped up to hug me in proper greeting. "It's a long story, Forest, but basically, shi used to be a human male named Dale Perkins, believe it or not. Shi was cloned into a facsimile of my body because of a transporter accident." Goldfur's expression became serious. "Shi came within a hair of being killed. This was the result."

Dale's expression had barely changed. Shi...? He...? Oh, the hell with it! I'd stick with 'shi' as that was hir current form. Shi spoke up then, hir words slurred and barely understandable. "Prraps it woodv been bedda if ah had died." Hir voice sounded hollow and with a hint of utter hopelessness. I was shocked to hear such words come out of a chakat's mouth because a zest for life was one of our characteristics. Of course, shi was a chakat in body only.

"I don't want to hear any more of that sort of talk, Ensign!" Commander Redfang said severely. "We'll be investigating every possible means of reversing this. It's only a matter of time." Dale nodded, unconvinced. The wolf then turned to me. "As for you, Shir Forestwalker, are you going to tell me how you could tell who was who, or are you going to make me die of curiosity? I couldn't tell even the slightest difference in looks, voice or scent."

"Simple," I replied. "One of the lesser known abilities of chakats is our mild empathic talent. This ability lets us form special bonds with our loved ones. I could sense emotions coming from both, but only my sister possessed that unique link once I looked for it."

"Told you shi'd pick me!" Goldfur said smugly.

"Alright! Alright! You win already!" The wolf threw up his hands in mock surrender.

"So, what happens now?" I asked.

"We were just debating that when you arrived," Goldfur replied. "The Commander here thinks Dale should stay at the base while they poke and pry hir. I say that all that will prove is that shi has the body of a chakat! I feel that shi should come with us and we can show hir how to cope with hir new form while the technicians investigate how this happened and how shi might be restored to human form."

The wolf looked ready to argue further, then sighed and shrugged. "There's no precedent for this. I suppose we can always call in Ensign Perkins if we really need him... hir... oh, whatever."

I looked at my sister. "Are you sure you want to do this, Goldie? We don't exactly have experience with this either."

"I think we should, Forest. Besides, if it wasn't for me, shi wouldn't be in this predicament and I feel kind of responsible."

"Of course, Ensign Perkins would be completely dead if you hadn't acted," the wolf added, "So I don't want you beating yourself up about it either, you hear?"

Goldfur grinned. "Don't worry about that. I don't regret my actions, but I do take responsibility for them. You don't mind if Dale uses the guest room, sis?" shi asked me.

"Shouldn't be a problem," I agreed. With Garrek absent, Goldfur was sleeping with the rest of us anyway, freeing up the room. "What about you, Dale? Are you okay with this?"

Dale shrugged. "Muh life seems to be in roons, no madda what I chooos," shi replied in my sister's voice. It was eerie, but also disturbing because of the hopelessness in hir tone.

"Okay, if that's settled, I've got other problems to deal with. I know how to get in touch with you if needed, so get going!" With that, the Commander shooed us out of the office.

At that point, I got to see something that would have clued me sooner as to which sister was the real one. Up until then, Dale had been sitting on the floor in front of the desk, fidgeting slightly, hir tail twitching occasionally. Goldfur got up and urged hir double to do the same. Now, as shi walked to the door, it was a clumsy and awkward movement. Hir tail dragged on the floor and shi seemed ready to trip over hir own paws at any moment. Of course! Shi'd never learned to walk on four feet and shi must be fighting hir body's instincts constantly. It seemed that the first things that we needed to teach hir were the very basics! Goldfur stayed at hir side in case shi faltered and I took up the other side. We supported hir as shi occasionally stumbled, but we were both startled as shi gave a sudden yelp as we exited the building. It turned out that the automatic doors had closed on hir tail lagging so far behind the rest. Shi hadn't really been hurt, but had been given an unexpected scare. To ensure that it wouldn't happen again, I picked up the end of hir tail, swung it around hir body and handed it to hir, saying, "Here! Until you learn to control your tail, you'd be better off holding onto it!"

Shi took it gingerly, as if it was a delicate, fragile thing. "Muh tail..." Dale said with a touch of wonder in hir voice. Shi seemed fascinated by the thought of actually having one. I patted hirs with mine, with a renewed appreciation for our sensitive, expressive appendage. "I think you'll learn to like it," I said.

"Umm, thangs... thankks," Dale said without taking hir eyes of the furry limb in hir hands.

We continued on to my vehicle, Dale hugging hir tail to hirself. While hir mind was focused on that though, shi stopped thinking so much about actually walking, and therefore stopped fighting hir new body's instinctive gait. We got to the PTV without further incident and only had minor difficulty getting hir onboard. It was a little like assisting a very elderly Longtail and had a touch of familiarity about it. Dale seemed fascinated by the taur-adapted vehicle. These Personal Transport Vehicles had only a single large door on either side, as well as a hatchback. These allowed us to easily step inside and settle ourselves on the moulded couches in front and beside the doors. Swing-away backrests made the journey more comfortable and safer because of the built-in harnesses. The couches in front of the hatchback door were smaller, adapted for carrying our cubs. Last but not least, it was a CS model, standing for Chakat Special, meaning that it was fitted with controls that enabled me to drive the vehicle with just my handpaws if necessary, leaving my true hands free to do other things. It was a beautiful, sleek machine, and I was very proud of it. It was just a pity that a vehicle that was big enough for several taurs ended up being so big that it was hard to park!

As we left the parking lot and headed for the freeway, I turned to Goldfur and said, "Okay, now that we have some time, I'd like some explanations."

"Explanations?" echoed Goldfur.

"Details! Telling me that this was a transporter accident was a glib statement that told me almost nothing. What really happened? Tell me how we ended up with a cloned 'sister'. I want every little fact!"

"Alright, you asked for it." Shi took a deep breath and started hir tale. "The shift on the space station had ended and, after packing up my tools, I headed for the transporter room. It had been a pretty typical day of repairing broken-down equipment and installing upgrades wherever needed. It would be going a lot quicker if Garrek was here to help me," shi said wistfully. I nudged hir to get hir mind back on the subject. "Anyway, this day I had been doing an EVA to try to find a fault in one of the communication arrays. Turned out to be a micrometeorite puncture causing an intermittent failure. I replaced the defective unit, and as I was stowing it in a suit compartment, I noticed a starship rendezvousing with the station. I recognised it as one of the Corps' science vessels, the Archimedes. It had just returned from an extended mission and I took the time to watch it docking. It was something that I rarely got to see from that vantage point. However, I knew that its arrival meant an influx of personnel onto the station. Sure enough, when I got to the transporter station, there was a queue of people waiting for their turn to beam down. As I joined the line, Dale arrived with a trolley-load of goods. I was rather curious about all the stuff that he'd brought with him, so I struck up a conversation.

Goldfur paused and lowered hir voice to a murmur that was intended only for my ears. "Truthfully, I also found him quite handsome. Tall and rugged... mmrrrr!" I grinned in response, but I also noticed Dale's ears twitch. I wonder if shi'd heard what my sister had said. After all, shi now had hir same acute hearing now. I mentally shrugged, unable to do anything about it either way, and turned my attention back to Goldfur.

"Anyway," shi continued in a normal tone, "We got to talking about his voyage, and he was eager to show off some of the exotic goods that he had picked up. He'd been one of the last to get into line to be beamed down to Earth because he'd brought samples of exotic foods from various worlds, plus many other alien artefacts such as an ornate wooden carving and a statuette carved of some ivory-like substance, all of which needed to go through quarantine to be thoroughly tested or decontaminated before transportation down to the planet. So far Earth hasn't acquired some alien plague and the Corps is doing its best to see that none ever will. I'd been especially interested in the ivory because of Admiral Kline's enjoyment of such relics."

"Thuh Mordoks call id a kasmek," Dale spoke up, momentarily distracted from hir plight. "Id was a statchoo of their good-lugg... luck... spirrid. Fat lodda good id did me!"

"A kasmek, that's right. I'd forgotten that in the recent events." Goldfur nodded to Dale then continued. "He'd brought back an extraordinary amount of goods, something that would prove to be an important factor in his survival. Our wait passed quickly this way and soon it was my turn to beam down, which went quite normally. I paused to say hello to the transporter technician, Angela Frost, an old friend of mine. When the signal came for the next beam-down, everything started normally. The containment field was sparkling as the incoming plasma filled it when suddenly alarms started going off. Angela frantically started trying to deal with it, attempting to complete the transport, but finding she still lacked Dale's pattern. Finally she slapped him into a holding pattern. She urgently asked me to watch over the controls while she tried to find out what had happened. She knew that I had the necessary qualifications for the job, especially since I had maintained and fine-tuned many of them. Believe me, a transporter is something in which you don't want even the slightest glitch. She contacted the station and we were both concerned to hear a babble of confused and highly agitated voices at the other end. Finally we were able to determine that there had been an accident of some kind. As reports came in, we were getting more and more concerned. Matter transportation is an extremely energy intensive operation, which is why bulk cargoes still get space-lifted by shuttles or the unique Quange Cosmo-liners. We could not maintain the continuous energy drain of the holding pattern for long. On top of this, there's no such thing as a perfectly lossless transport, but usually the process causes no harm whatsoever. However, it is cumulative and as the seconds passed, we got more and more worried about Dale's condition. First we thought that there had been some sort of power loss, but all transporters have their own emergency power supplies. Then the word came through that there had been an explosion that had damaged the pattern buffer. Now the buffer is just a gigantic memory bank; there's nothing in there that can explode, and it has more surge protectors than any other system aboard the station. That meant that the explosion had been deliberate, something that sent a shudder through us both. The station's transporter officer finally confirmed our worst fears: "Catastrophic failure with total pattern loss," he confirmed. "I'm so very sorry."

"Wait a minute!" I interjected. "If you lost Dale's pattern, how can shi be here now, albeit in a new body?"

"How much do you know about how a transporter works?" Goldfur asked.

"Not a lot, I suppose. Generally, the transporter scans you, converts you into energy, transmits you to your destination, then converts you back into matter."

"Not even close, I'm afraid," Goldfur said with a shake of hir head. "For starters, if you converted all that mass into energy, you'd have the equivalent of a nuclear bomb go off. There's no way of containing that much energy, or even a fraction of it actually. E=mc2, remember?"

"I know. I did do physics at school," I replied with a little sarcasm. "I was just describing it in popular terms."

"Sorry, but that description is way off the mark, and in order to understand properly what happened today, you need to know a more accurate one. There's a lot of technobabble though."

"Go on, we've got plenty of time," I urged, not intending to let hir off easily.

Goldfur leaned back in hir seat, composing hir thoughts. I stole a glance at Dale who looked completely disinterested. I sighed. I had hoped to get hir involved in the conversation, telling hir part, trying to keep hir mind off the situation. Obviously that wasn't working, but at least I was learning something new. Goldfur commenced hir explanation. "I'll try to keep this as non-technical as possible. Nudge me if I start getting too involved."

I nodded and shi continued. "Firstly, matter transportation was made possible by the discovery of a means of exciting matter into a quasi-energetic state. Popularly but incorrectly called plasma, this material possesses properties found in both matter and energy. It has the essential cohesiveness of matter, so it doesn't simply explode, but it can also be heterodyned onto a carrier signal and transmitted through the ether to a receiver in the manner of an energy beam. However, the plasma cannot exist under normal conditions, so the establishment of a containment field is the first step. It is this that you see sparkling during the transport process, not something being converted into energy. The next step is to set up a stasis within the containment field. In order to scan an object to create its pattern, that object needs to be as motionless as possible, and that right down to the molecular level. To do this, time virtually needs to be brought to a near complete halt."

"Good heavens! This is a lot more complex than I had thought," I exclaimed.

Goldfur nodded. "It gets worse. The transporter is by far the most complex device on a ship or space station, and possibly anywhere else. Anyway, when the stasis is established, the object is scanned down to the molecular level, with the position of each being mapped for the creation of the pattern."

"I thought you'd have to map it to the atomic level?" I queried.

"Thankfully, no. The cohesiveness of the plasma actually 'remembers' the position of individual atoms, otherwise it would be an even more difficult process than it already is. Once the pattern is complete, there is another critical step before changing the physical state of a person."

"Another? I always thought that was all there was to it?"

"If you'll stop interrupting me, I'll explain!" my sister said with some asperity.

"Sorry. Please go on." I said contritely. I thought I heard a muffled snort from our passenger, so my questioning was perhaps having a side benefit.

"The true secret of the success of the transporter is called the mind-matrix. When the transporter was first created, it seemed like a perfect success. A chakat named Summerbreeze first worked out the means of converting, transmitting and reconverting matter for transportation purposes. All the test objects that shi had sent through the mechanism had checked out perfectly. Both mechanical and electronic gadgets worked absolutely normally after being sent through. Plants were the next things to be tried out, and they all grew healthily after going through the process. Careful analysis could find nothing wrong with them. It was time to try it out on a test animal, and that was when tragedy struck. A foolishly overconfident and eager assistant, instead of using a lab rat, put hirself onto the transporter platform, wanting to be the first person to be beamed somewhere. Shi came through perfectly healthy, but a drooling idiot. Hir brain was completely wiped of all the higher thinking processes. Only the automatic functions such as maintaining breathing, etcetera, remained. Summerbreeze was devastated because that assistant was also hir niece, Joyleap. Shi ordered that nobody was to try transporting themselves without hir strict permission. Testing on various animals proved that the same thing happened to all thinking creatures. Summerbreeze shut down the project until shi could figure out what had gone wrong. It took hir nearly two years for hir to determine the problem and find the means of dealing with it. And so was created the mind-matrix, a holographic model of the animal's mind that perfectly mirrored its higher-order thinking abilities. Some people say that it captures their very souls! Please don't ask me how it functions. It's very esoteric even for me. Anyway, tests were restarted, this time including the use of the mind-matrix. To their relief, all the test animals came through utterly normal. Finally it was time to test it on a sentient being. Summerbreeze refused to let anyone else try it, putting responsibility for its success or failure squarely in hir paws. Well, to make a long story short, it worked perfectly and Summer came through whole and heartily relieved. And so was born the matter transporter that we use today."

As Goldfur paused for a moment, I asked, "What happened to Joyleap, do you know?"

"Yes, I do. Hir mind was a blank state, having far less sophistication than even that of a newborn cub who learns even while in the womb. It took months to even get hir back to that level, and then shi had to grow up all over again, except that shi already had an adult's body. It complicated matters a great deal, but eventually shi became a normal chakat again. However, shi was a completely different personality. Everything that had made Joyleap an individual was gone and replaced by a new personality created from different lifetime experiences. Joyleap was officially pronounced dead and the chakat renamed Nova, meaning New.

"Amazing. It makes me wish I'd learned more about this in school," I commented.

"I'm sure you know some biology-related facts that would make a fascinating story also, but for now, I'd better finish my explanation. After the creation of the body pattern, a matrix of the subject's mind is made, preserving their personality and experiences. Only then is their body converted to the plasma state and imposed on a transmission beam and sent to the receiver at the destination. Then the process is reversed. The plasma is injected into a containment field, the matrix is imposed, then the pattern pulls mind and body back together again into the right form. The stasis field holds it all together until the plasma is de-energised and reverts to normal matter. The fields are dropped and voila! The subject has been safely transported."

"Hmmm. Couldn't you simply use matter at the other end rather than sending all that mass?" I asked.

"Yes, you could, but it would require the right mix of raw material at the other end. You can't just stick any matter into the process. Besides, you start creating other problems that way. Most sentients wish to have their body back, not something created at the other end. Besides, that leaves open the possibility of producing several perfect clones from the one matrix and pattern. This has been banned on moral grounds. However, it's perfectly okay for non-living things. That's how replicators work. Just shovel in the right raw ingredients and use a stored pattern to re-form it into the desired object, from a filet mignon to a marble statue.

"Why isn't this process used to manufacture everything then?"

"Because it's a far too energy-intensive process. It costs far less to manufacture it the old-fashioned way, but on a starship, it's a lot more practical than carting along everything that you possibly might need, so replicating parts is only limited to the number of patterns you can store. Besides, with their antimatter powered engines, they have a lot of spare power at their beck and call. Earth-bound antimatter power plants are considered too dangerous. Unlike a starship, there's nowhere safe to eject the antimatter core, so power generation limitations still exist."

"I see. So this process was interrupted by the explosion? How did Dale end up with a copy of your body?"

"All the data is sent and copied to the receiver's buffer before reintegration is commenced. This way they it can be error-checked and then allows the transmitter to disconnect while the receiver goes through the rematerialisation process. The pattern remains in the buffer until the next incoming one overwrites it. We never received Dale's pattern, so mine was still in the buffer. We had his mind-matrix though. We were close to panicking when we realised we had everything but the pattern. Up until that point, Dale was still technically alive, but we couldn't do anything about it."

"So you used your own pattern to create a body for Dale. Wait a minute! You're far more massive than a human. How did you cope with the problem of all the extra mass you needed?"

"Well done! You've seen the problem that I was faced with. The answer? Sheer bloody luck! You remember what I told you about Dale's baggage? All that organic material contained just enough of the essential ingredients to recreate the entire mass of my body."

"My muttha always sed dat froot wood be good fuh me," Dale murmured. "I don' thin' she had dis in mind tho."

"Well, at least shi's retained some sense of humour," I thought to myself. "So that's a good sign at least." Aloud, I said, "It seems the whole event involved a lot of luck."

"You've got a talent for understatement," Goldfur agreed fervently. "If the process had been interrupted at any time other than at the exact moment between receiving the matrix and the pattern, Dale would have had virtually no chance whatsoever. Shi might have been mind-damaged at least, but more likely would have died. The transporter specialists who took the incident report almost couldn't believe that we had achieved what we did, the probability being that small. Even I was amazed. I was grasping at straws when I realised my pattern was still in the buffer and I decided to try it. I didn't have the luxury of time to work it out."

"Why not?"

"For starters, as I've said already, the continuous power drain is enormous and can't be sustained for long, but worse still, the mind-matrix is volatile and will start to break down after a short period."

"Oh! That would cause memory loss at least, or that mind-damage that you mentioned., I suppose?"

Goldfur nodded. "Yeah. That and worse."

"So how did shi react when shi rematerialised?"

Dale suddenly spoke up, hir speech still oddly slurred, but slowly getting better. It was like someone who had come out of a dentist appointment with their mouth numbed by anaesthetic that was slowly wearing off. Taking into account the distortions, what shi said was: "I didn't even realise that anything had gone wrong. I went to step off the transporter pad and stumbled. I threw my hands forward to catch myself and realised two things. First: I wasn't falling forward because a weight behind me was stopping that, and second: those weren't my hands! I stopped and stared at them, then followed the arms up to my torso, my chests, my... breasts?! Looking further, I saw that the rest of me had changed too. I recognised the form as that of a chakat, then I don't remember any more before coming to in the port's sick bay."

"Shi fainted," Goldfur confirmed. "The medics said it was only shock though and otherwise gave hir a clean bill of health."

"Huh! They may have said that I was okay, but I felt awful. At first, I couldn't do anything right. I could hardly even talk. I was too conscious of having a muzzle, a bigger tongue, etcetera. Once the doctor gave me a mild sedative though, I relaxed enough for the body's memory to take over."

"You're still a bit garbled though," I pointed out.

"Some things I'm going to have to re-learn, including talking and walking it seems, and controlling this tail is a totally new skill." Shi shook hir tail's black tip at me, apparently not having relinquished it since I had handed it to hir.

"You sound almost resigned to being a chakat," Goldfur interjected. "You know that the techs will be working on a way to restore you to human form."

Dale's control of hir body might have been incomplete, but the cynical look on hir face was unmistakable as shi replied, "Yeah, sure! You just got through telling us what a colossal fluke it was getting me into this body. What chance have I got of getting back to normal?"

"You shouldn't give up so easily," Goldfur replied sternly. "Attempting that under controlled conditions will be much easier than relying on luck in an emergency. Probably the longest thing will be the time spent testing to ensure that the process will be safe."

Dale looked unconvinced, but said no more. Goldfur looked at hir with concern, then sighed. "Well, one step at a time, I suppose. Just like we've been doing since the accident." Shi turned hir attention back to me. "After Dale had the tranquilliser, the doctor interviewed hir, then booked hir a session with psych division. We tried to get hir walking again, with mixed success, as you found out. Then we went to the duty officer's office where we started debating what to do about hir situation. I belatedly realised that you'd probably be waiting for me by then and had you paged. The commander said that he'd bet that you wouldn't be able to tell me apart from Dale and I contradicted him, so he said he wanted me to prove it and not give away who was who. And that's where you came in."

"Heh! Surprised him, didn't we? Anyway, it still seems a short time spent on Dale's problem."

"It was, admittedly, but the general consensus was that they needed to gather more experts to study the case, and in the meantime I insisted that shi'd be better off with other chakats to consult with problems. I know my body better than anyone else, and I'd best be able to interpret hir needs. And so here we are!"

Indeed, and despite my sister's glib and confident tone, I knew we had quite a task before us. Of course, I didn't need to involve myself, but I was prepared to back my sister in whatever course of action shi chose, just as I knew shi would do for me. We spent what remained of the journey home in quiet contemplation of the situation.

*          *          *

The 'fun' started all over again when we got home. Midnight, my jet-black furred, blue-eyed chakat lifemate had been cub-sitting in my absence. Although the cub that I was presently bearing was the Admiral's and not hirs, shi still wanted to be present for the birth. Hir presence had been a great help lately, especially to Trina who worked out of a home office and needed a break from child-minding to get on with her architectural work. Lupu frequently did this, but not even the dedicated wolftaur could be available all the time, especially as shi was Goldfur's denmate and therefore usually lived at hir den. I had begun to seriously think of moving into a bigger home so that Goldfur and I could move both our families back in together again. Shi was more than just a sister to me, and I very much missed hir. It was bad enough that shi spent so much time in space, but when shi got home, naturally shi had to devote time to hir mates. A little bit selfishly, I wanted to share more of those times together, but I knew shi felt much the same, so I didn't feel too guilty about it.

Of course, Midnight was just as surprised and confused as I had been to see two of Goldfur, and shi lacked the special bond that Goldfur and I shared. However, shi's very observant and quickly figured out who was who. Eudora, Goldfur's first child by Garrek, had no such problem, bouncing up to hir mother without hesitation. Eudora was getting on to three years of age, but shi had started talking early even for a chakat. Shi informed us in hir childish words and phrases that Lupu had gone out grocery shopping and taken Stonefur with her. It had taken over a year for Lupu to regain the confidence to go out in public without an anxiety attack. Last year, she had visited her old wolf-pack for reasons that she had not fully disclosed to us and had returned with a new determination to overcome her fears. Lately she'd even started taking out her cub without an escort, signalling to us that the mental scars had virtually healed.

The others headed for the living room, Goldfur going on to the kitchen to prepare some tea for all of us. I diverted to the room which Trina used for her office so that I could let her know what was going on and not cause another stir. She didn't even notice me come in, so engrossed was she in her work. My lifemate approached everything with the same intensity, whether it be work, play or sex, and that was one of the secrets to her success. She also liked to work in total comfort and, being an arctic fox, her thick white fur kept her more than warm enough, so she usually worked completely nude, which was perfectly fine in our den as none of us much bothered with clothing in the privacy of our own home. I admired her gorgeous body for a moment, then quietly padded up behind her and slipped one hand around her to give her a cheeky grope on one breast. She jumped, slapped my hand, then pulled my head down to plant a huge, long kiss on my muzzle. When she was good and ready, she broke it off.

Nude portrait of Trina "Hello, Love. Back already?" she asked.

"Already? I'm way overdue! You've been getting too wrapped up in your work again."

"Oh?" She looked at the desk clock. "You're right. So what happened?"

"Very long story, and one best told all at once to the others at the same time. I just wanted to let you know we were home and to warn you to slip on something. We have a guest."

"Okay. I'll wrap this up and be out there soon. And take this with you..." With that, shi returned my grope, a mischievous look in her eye.

"Mmrrr! Gladly!" I replied with a grin.

When I got back to the living room, Midnight was trying to show Dale some of the place, but shi cut things short when shi realised how much trouble Dale was having just getting about. I heard the kettle whistling and knew that afternoon tea would soon be ready. I was about to suggest that we all settle down on the lounge cushions when the front door opened and Lupu walked in with Stonefur on the cub-leash. She unclipped it and the cub wandered off, heading for the kitchen. Lupu then started to divest herself of the saddlebags full of groceries. She looked a little frazzled.

"Phew! What a scorcher! I sure picked a rotten day to get the shopping bug!"

Indeed, it really was a very hot day although, in the air-conditioned comfort of the PTV and my home, we hardly noticed it. Once she had the saddlebags off, Lupu immediately pulled off the white cut-off T-shirt that she liked to wear. Now, as I said, it was hardly unusual for us to walk about bare-breasted in our own home. It was certainly more comfortable for all of us, especially on days like this. However, it did disconcert Dale who didn't seem to know whether to look away or to pretend not to notice, and ended up simply staring at the wolftaur's beautiful bosom. Lupu then compounded the situation by walking over to give Dale a big, intimate hug and kiss, saying, "I'm glad to have you home, Love. I'm in the mood, if you know what I mean!" Dale was totally flustered now and still couldn't tear hir eyes away. Lupu stepped back, giving hir a lascivious look as if planning her attack. She then continued, "But I see that you are too. Just give me a few minutes to freshen up and I'll be back." With that, she trotted off in the direction of the bathroom.

"But I..." Dale finally forced out belatedly as she disappeared down the hallway. Then shi turned to us accusingly. "Fat lot of help you were!"

"Sorry," I said, "But the situation was priceless." Midnight nodded in agreement and I could see Goldfur smiling from the doorway, chuckling a little as shi cradled Stonefur in hir arms. Obviously the cub hadn't been fooled for a moment either and had made a beeline for hir sire. "Don't let it worry you, dear," I tried to reassure hir. "It's not your fault, and Lupu will laugh off her error. Besides, I think she appreciated your favourable reactions!" The moment I said it, I knew I'd made a mistake. This was not a chakat that I was dealing with, but a human in chakat's fur, and that person was not used to having all their physical reactions visible to all who looked.

"I don't care!" Dale exploded. "Do you think I enjoy walking around like this?" Hir hand made a sweeping gesture, indicating hir still-engorged male member waving in the air. "I've never felt so humiliated! I don't want to have my cock displayed to all who look! I don't want to be feel like a helpless invalid in my own body! I don't want to be stuck in this body at all. I want to be human again! I want... I want..." Shi broke down into incoherent tears, hir body racked with huge gasping sobs. I desperately tried to comfort hir, putting my arms around hir and projecting calmness with my limited empathic ability. It took a long while, but the outburst finally ceased, although I could still feel the tremors in hir body in the aftermath of the emotional storm. I took hir by the hand and led hir to the lounging rugs. "Our sincere apologies, Dale. We should have known better. Just lie on the rug until you're ready." Shi did so with visible relief. "I can only say that such things are normal to us and we find nothing humiliating about them. True, it can be a trifle embarrassing at inappropriate moments, but I'm sure that you'll quickly learn how to deal with them. As I said, Lupu won't hold it against you; none of us will."

"I know, I know." Dale nodded, calmer now. "It's just one thing piling on top of another. It was one shock too many for one day."

Goldfur walked in with a tray loaded with tea and snacks. "I wish that I could say that it was the last, but it's almost certainly not. My advice is to relax and to learn from each experience. Look at the positive aspects of them," shi said earnestly.

"What positive aspect should I learn from this experience?" Dale asked sceptically.

"Well, as a former human male, I think you'd be pleased to know that your masculine libido is intact," Goldfur offered.

Dale looked slightly startled, then gave hir a crooked smile. "I suppose you're right," shi conceded.

Good, I'll go see Lupu now and explain the situation."

"Thanks. How many more times are we going to go through this?" Dale asked.

I answered, giving my sister a chance to go see Lupu. "A couple more times. My lifemate, Kris, isn't home yet, and Goldfur's lifemates need to be told. Garrek is going to be back soon, in time for my birthing party, but you might not see Malena at all unless we go to her village. Then there's Boyce who's got to be here for the birth of the cub. He's close to my other sisters too."

"Is that all?" Dale asked, feeling a little overwhelmed again.

"There's our younger sister, Quickpaw, but shi's away at college at the moment. Our parents should be informed too, I suppose."

"I've heard about Chakat extended families. I never expected to get such an abrupt and in-depth introduction into one though!" Dale said ruefully.

"I suppose that it can get a bit confusing to those who aren't brought up in such a family, but don't worry, you won't need to deal with most aspects of this. All we need to do for the moment is get you used to your new body. Enough about that for now. Let's have this tea while it's fresh." I started pouring some tea for Dale after pushing the tray of cookies in hir direction. Before giving hir the mug, I grabbed a napkin. Handing them both to hir, I cautioned, "Take it easy. Drinking from a mug with a new mouth might be a bit tricky."

Sure enough, Dale did end up dribbling some, but seemed to get the knack eventually. Once shi did though, shi drank it down quickly and asked for more. It occurred to me that neither shi nor my sister had probably found the opportunity to have something to drink for a quite a while. It turned out that another was thirsty too, because Goldfur returned not with just Lupu, but with hir tiny new daughter in hir arms, nursing at hir breast. "I hope this doesn't bother you, Dale," Goldfur said, "But little Tailstalker here woke up mewling for a meal."

Dale shook hir head. "No, that's fine by me. It's hardly the first time I've seen mothers breast-feeding their children."

Goldfur laid down besides the coffee table and grabbed the mug of tea that I had ready for hir and gulped it down. "Aaahhh! I needed that!"

Dale nodded in agreement. "Yes, this is great tea. How did you know how I'd like it?" shi asked me curiously.

I shrugged. "I guessed that if you had Goldie's body, you'd share hir tastes too, so I made it the way shi prefers it."

Dale looked thoughtfully into the depths of hir mug. "Hmmm. If that's true, it might mean that I may have to learn what I like all over again too."

Just then, I heard the rear door open and, moments later, Kris' voice called out, "I'm home!

"In here, Love!" I called back.

"Do I smell tea and cake?" asked my handsome fox lover as he entered the living room. "I'm dying of thirst..." He halted abruptly as he spotted the twin Goldfurs, but before he could say anything more, I spoke up.

"You're just in time for an interesting tale. Chase up Trina and we can satisfy everyone's curiosity. I already called her, but she may have gotten distracted again."

Kris nodded, and eyebrow stilled cocked quizzically, and headed off to Trina's office. Judging by how quickly she appeared in the doorway, Kris had mentioned Goldfur's double and Trina's curiosity had shot into overdrive. They both joined us immediately. Fortunately Trina had put on some clothing. Of course, her idea of dressing decently left little to the imagination. She wore a small bikini top that showed plenty of cleavage and her nipples prominently poking the fabric. Her shorts were small even before she cut them off. Trina loved to show herself off to her mates, and both Kris and I were very glad of that! She'd long since regained her fine lean form after giving birth to Markus, and was enough to drive any male to distraction. Heaven knows what it was doing to Dale! Goldfur retold the tale of Dale's fate while I, after adding my small part, cleared up the afternoon tea and kept the cubs amused.

After the explanation was completed, Goldfur and the others managed to keep Dale talking, getting to know more about hir and generally keeping hir mind occupied. I noticed a rapid improvement in hir speech too. More of the body memory coming into play, I guessed. At one stage, I got up to order some pizzas. All of us were too wrapped up in the events to be bothered with cooking! We feasted well, and washed them down with copious amounts of soft drink. Of course, the time came when I needed to relieve my bladder because of that, but as I excused myself to go the toilet, Dale tapped on my arm for attention.

"I need to go to the loo also," shi murmured.

I nodded, understanding, or so I thought. I helped hir up and steadied hir once again on the way down the hall to the bathroom. Once there, I pointed out the toilet facilities to Dale. The taur version was still a porcelain flush bowl, but slightly more oval shaped and recessed into the floor where we could squat upon it. The extra length of the bowl and the hooded lip let us urinate easily without splashing. I stood back to let Dale use the facilities first. Shi walked into the cubicle and then just stood there with a helpless look on hir face.

"You can close the door for privacy, you know," I remarked, although I was sure shi would have realised that for hirself. We may walk about nude, but there were some things we preferred doing in private!

"That's not the problem," shi replied.

"Well, what is?" I asked exasperatedly.

"Umm, well, how do I piss?"

That floored me. It's something that I never think about. After all, I had done it since I was a kitten, long before I remembered learning how to do so. I had to think a moment. We chakats urinate like a male, through our penis, and that meant first extruding it from the sheath. This was quite simple... unless you never had those muscles before and didn't know how to use them! I explained this to Dale and shi made a conscious effort to do so, but failed.

"What am I going to do now? Just let go? I'm ready to burst!"

Thank God shi still had bladder control! "No, you don't want to do that. The urine will make a mess around your belly fur. There's only one thing that I can think of and that's to physically push it out the way we do with cubs we're trying to toilet train."

Dale didn't look too thrilled about that idea, but it wasn't as if shi had much choice and shi mutely nodded agreement. I wasn't overjoyed about it either. I thought a couple of dark thoughts about Goldfur who should've been doing this. After all, it was hir idea to help Dale. Then I sighed, remembering that I had agreed to help, then squeezed in next to Dale. The cubicle was normally roomy enough for an adult chakat and a cub, but it was never intended for two adults. I realised this was just as embarrassing for hir as it was for me, so I stopped worrying about it and put my hand on hir sheath, pressuring the penis within to move forward. It took a couple of tries to do it right as it wasn't quite the same as it was for a cub, but then shi was sufficiently exposed and pointed in the right direction. "Let it go now," I told hir. Moments later, with a sigh of relief, shi did.

When shi was done, I released my hold and hir penis slid back into its sheath. Shi stepped out of the cubicle, followed closely by me. "Thank you, Forest. I'm so sorry that I was such a bother."

"Nonsense, Dale. It's hardly your fault. However, I do suggest that you practice that and try to gain control of those muscles. I really don't want to be having to nursemaid you through that too often!"

Dale nodded in fervent agreement, then waited while I took my turn in the loo, then escorted hir back to the table. One more crisis overcome for now. I didn't bring up Dale's problem as it would have been too embarrassing for hir. I'd tell Goldfur about it later, privately. Instead, I steered the conversation towards Dale in an attempt to find out more about our guest.

"Dale, isn't there any family expecting you to turn up?" I asked.

Shi shook hir head. "As I explained to Goldfur back at the spaceport, my family is the pioneering type. They left to become Martian colonists. I chose to stay on Earth when they moved because I'd just completed school and had been accepted into the Star Corps training program. I thought at the time that I'd eventually rejoin my family on Mars, but I never did as I realised that I wanted to keep Earth as my home base. However, my closest relatives live on the other side of the continent, so I don't see them much.

"Sounds a bit lonely," I commented. "Don't you at least have a girlfriend? Or boyfriend," I added.

Dale's inner ears pinked and I realised that I had embarrassed hir inadvertently. "There is a girlfriend," Dale conceded, "Although I don't know what Sharon's going to think of this!" Shi made a broad gesture, starting at the breasts and sweeping down to indicate hir taur body. "I was going to give her a call when I got back. I don't know if I can do that now."

"At the very least, I think she deserves to be told," I advised.

Dale nodded. "I think I'd better get Commander Redfang to pass on that news. I really don't think she'd believe a strange chakat claiming to be her boyfriend."

"You have a point," I said with a small smile. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. So, basically what you're saying is that we're the only 'family' that you have for now?"

Dale shrugged. "So it seems. Look, I'm sorry for having been such a sourpuss before..." Hir mouth quirked up briefly as shi realised the pun that shi had just made. "... but I'm grateful for all the help that you've given me." Shi looked at Goldfur. "I think that you were right to insist that I come with you. I reckon that I'm going to learn how to handle this body a lot more quickly with your help." Shi held up hir tail and its tip twitched back and forth instead of just hanging limp as it had been. "I've learned how to do that so far. Hopefully I'll also learn how to hold the whole thing up off the floor soon." Shi put it down again. So, before I lose my temper in frustration again, I want to thank you and Forest for all your efforts." Shi turned to Lupu next. "Thanks for the cuddle. Even if it wasn't meant for me, I think it broke me out of the funk that I was in."

Lupu dropped hir jaw in a big wolfy grin. "There are more like that if you need 'em!"

Dale actually smiled back this time. My word! Lupu must have really put something into that embrace! Then Dale turned to Trina. "I'm sorry if it seems that I have been staring at you a lot this evening. I don't want you to think that I'm just interested in your looks."

Ha! As if! Trina absolutely revelled in attention. She would have been more annoyed if he had not looked!

Dale continued. "You see, you remind me of a girlfriend I had back in the final year of school."

"You had an Arctic Fox vixen as a girlfriend?" I blurted out.

"What's so surprising about that?" Dale asked. "Just because I prefer being a human doesn't mean that I'm humanocentric."

Dale's rebuke stung, but I deserved it. I had jumped to an unwarranted conclusion. After all, I also had a human mate who enjoyed being human. I think that Dale's desperation to have hir old body back must have misled me.

"Anyway," Dale continued, "She wasn't an Arctic Fox but a Red Fox. She was the most gorgeous female in the class, and she could have had any male in the school, but she chose me. And, no, she wasn't just a BBV!"

"Ummm... what's a BBV supposed to be?" Lupu asked.

Goldfur answered, "Literally, it's initial slang for Big Breasted Vixen. What it means is that the female is beautiful but stupid. The modern equivalent of the old-time dumb blondes."

"Oh, I get it. But how did they get that name? I've yet to meet a really stupid vixen."

"That goes back to the times before the Gene Wars," I answered. "Back then, morph species were bred for very selfish reasons. Foxes especially were designed to be sex toys, both female and male. Their beautiful fur made them highly desirable, but nobody wanted their toys to have a mind of their own. Therefore, they were bred to have strong sexual appetites, gorgeous looks and very little brains. The vixens were usually engineered to have very generous breasts, hence the beginning of the BBVs. After the Wars, most of the morph species had been wiped out, but foxes had survived through sheer numbers and their proclivity for breeding. However, the post-war world could not afford to have such useless creatures wasting valuable limited resources, but neither could they just kill them. Instead, one of the goals of places like the newly established Institute of New Generation Genetics was to use genetic engineering to uplift the foxes, and other similarly afflicted species, to a normal level of mental and physical standards. Fixing their intelligence was relatively easy as the old-time gene-engineers had merely placed a neural inhibitor into the brains of their products. Removing that allowed the adults to become a bit smarter, but it also meant that their children were born with a completely normal ability to learn."

"Exactly!" Dale interjected. "Mary-Anne Renelle, my girlfriend, was not only intelligent, she was head of the class!"

"You'll have to tell me more about her," Lupu said.

"I'll do that if you like," Dale replied, then looked a little guiltily at me. "But I think I'd better let Forest finish first."

"Thanks," I said dryly. "Anyway, the next step was to do something about their excessive sexual endowments and hyperactive sex-drive. This took longer due to the fact that they were so deeply ingrained into their genetic structure and the gene-engineers were dealing with people with rights rather than lab animals. Gradually though, all the species were brought back to reasonable levels. However, to this day, you will not find a flat-chested adult vixen. That, along with their still strong sexual proclivities, helps maintain the stereotype of the BBV, much to their annoyance." I pulled Trina closer to me and cuddled her. "But I love my lifemate just as she is!"

Trina gave me a lick-kiss and added, "I wouldn't want to have any less of a libido anyway. I enjoy my sex-life just fine, thank you!"

Dale nodded in agreement. "It's true. Mary-Anne had a healthy sex-drive and, after we'd been going out for a while, she was the one who wanted to start sexual relations. We had so much in common besides that though. We both liked the same books, music, movies, food... you name it! Later we found out that we were also very compatible in bed."

"So why didn't you make her your mate then?" Lupu asked.

"We had started thinking about it. Then we graduated. As I said, she was very intelligent. Her scores got her into Star Fleet Academy. I didn't make the cut and went into the Star Corps instead and joined one of their training programs. I still wanted a career in space, you see. A bit of the family pioneering spirit, perhaps. We tried to keep up our relationship, but distance and lack of time made things nearly impossible. Eventually we reluctantly agreed to close our relationship. We both wanted to pursue our careers and I refused to hold Mary-Anne back. I... I still miss her sometimes."

Lupu put her hand on Dale's back and stroked hir gently. "I'm sorry if I re-opened any unhappy memories, Dale."

"No, Lupu, they were very happy memories, but life goes on. I do have a nice girlfriend now, albeit a human one. She's pleasant company, although she doesn't mean as much to me as Mary-Anne did." Then Dale realised what Lupu was doing and hir ears flushed with blood again. I grinned. It seemed that the wolftaur had taken a shine to our visitor. I hoped that Dale was up to her attentions!

There were a few quiet introspective moments during which we sipped our tea, trying to unwind. Despite the wide-rimmed mugs, Dale was still having some difficulty drinking the hot beverage, but refused any more help. It was best that shi got as much practice as possible anyway. However, while watching hir discreetly, I realised that shi was shifting about uncomfortably, then furtively rubbing hir breasts. I suspected that shi wasn't telling us something, so I decided to try to draw it out of hir..

"Dale, is something wrong? You look bothered by something." Again, Dale flushed, hir ears nearly glowing in embarrassment, but shi mutely nodded. "Spit it out!" I insisted.

Dale gave a sigh of resignation, then put hir hands on hir breasts. "Are these supposed to ache so much? It's been getting steadily worse since I first noticed it about dinner time."

"Uh-oh," Goldfur said. "I should have thought of that possibility earlier."

"Is it bad?" Dale asked worriedly.

"Not exactly," my sister replied. "As you've seen, I'm a nursing mother, and now so are you! Your breasts are overfull with milk. You will need to get rid of a lot of it or else the pain will just keep getting worse. We can go about half a day between feeds, and I nursed Tailstalker just before I left for work, and again when I got home, but you've gone several hours past that time. No wonder you're feeling uncomfortable!"

"You mean I have to breastfeed cubs now?" Dale asked with a touch of horror in hir voice.

"Well, that's the best and most obvious solution," Goldfur conceded, "But it's not the only one. However, I guess you won't like the alternative much either."

"And that is...?" Dale asked apprehensively.

Goldfur continued, "Well, I have another cub by another mate who lives in California. Malena is a foxtaur vixen, and because chakat kittens need certain trace nutrients that aren't present in foxtaur milk, I needed to supply some of my own to supplement the cub's diet. Therefore I regularly used a breast pump to extract the milk to send to Malena to feed to our child. I propose that we relieve you of your milk burden in the same way, unless you'd prefer to nurse a cub, of course."

Dale threw up hir hands in denial. "No, no thanks! But isn't there another alternative?"

Goldfur looked at me questioningly. As a biologist, I knew a few more things about this than shi did, but I shook my head and answered, "None that we know about. After all, stopping lactation has never been a need for us, only starting it."

"You mean that I'm going to be producing milk forever if I'm stuck this way?" Dale asked, desperation creeping into hir voice.

"No, no!" I hastened to reassure hir. "When the cubs are about a year or so old, we start the weaning process, gradually reducing the amount we feed the cub until lactation ceases of its own accord. We'll just artificially start the weaning process immediately."

Dale looked relieved. "I suppose that's a lot better than the alternative. How many days will it take?"

"Well, I think we're talking weeks, even months maybe. That's the normal natural rate." I saw Dale begin to panic again and before shi could speak up, I added a little testily, "Look! This has never had to be done before, and we weren't designed to be turned off like a tap. Unless the med-techs can suggest a better, safe alternative, you're just going to have to put up with the inconvenience. And if you're worried about looking silly, grow up! It's a perfectly natural function and nothing to be ashamed about." I stopped myself. I was annoyed that I had lost my temper even that much. "Sorry Dale, I didn't mean to snap at you."

"It's okay Forest. I think I needed that verbal slap in the face. I suppose it would be best to get this over with now. At least I can avoid further discomfort. What do I need to do?"

Suddenly Lupu spoke up. "I'll help you with that, Dale. I've helped Goldfur sometimes and I know the procedure."

I saw Goldfur give hir den-mate a surprised glance. We both knew the sort of 'help' that Lupu usually gave, although I doubted that she intended to do that this time. No, for some reason, Lupu seemed to have taken an intense interest in her mate's clone. I sensed Goldfur's mental shrug. It was Lupu's business, and if she wanted to do this, neither of us could think of a reason why she should not. Lupu seemed like an excited puppy as she helped Dale up and escorted her to the kitchen. Well, where else would you store milk? I started tidying up the plates, mugs and the remains of the pizzas, putting them onto a tray to take into the kitchen when the two were finished. In the meantime, we'd give Dale some privacy until shi got used to having to do this. I heard Goldfur sigh and I raised an eyebrow questioningly at hir. Shi shook hir head.

"I don't know what Lupu is up to any more than you do. Since she came back from that trip to visit her old pack last year, things have been slowly changing."

"Changing? How so?"

"Oh, she's still affectionate and caring for the cubs, but she's also been broody and I can sense her general feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration.."

"She's even been acting territorial around me sometimes," Trina put in. "Although she apologises for that later."

"Do you think that she's pining for her true family, maybe?" Midnight asked.

"That would be my guess," Goldfur replied, "Or at least a part of it. Let's face it: sometimes what she does and how she thinks is completely alien to me. It was Forest who pointed out to me how she regarded my family as her substitute pack and me as pack alpha, but what else had I overlooked? I did a bit of research into wolf behaviour. Did you know that while wolf cubs are watched over by the entire pack, a few members specifically look after them? That's essentially been Lupu's role for a while. I never tried to pry into her past, but I get the impression that she had some rank previously, whereas with me, she has to settle for third place behind Garrek and Malena. Maybe she wants more? Maybe she isn't satisfied with being just a child-carer anymore?"

"And maybe we're reading too much into the comparisons between wolves and wolftaurs. Perhaps something about Dale's personality intrigues her?" Midnight speculated.

"Then we're back to square one," Trina commented.

"Uh-huh. I think we'd better let this one play out for a little longer and see what happens," Midnight recommended.

We all nodded in agreement, then we continued conversing about more immediate problems.

"You do realise that if Dale is going to have that much of a problem with mere breastfeeding, shi's going to absolutely freak out when shi goes into heat?" I asked.

Goldfur glumly nodded. "Yeah, I'd already realised that. We'd better lay in some stocks of the suppression herbs."

"You got that right," I fervently agreed. "How long before you next go into heat?"

"The day after tomorrow."

"Hooboy! That doesn't give hir much time to adapt, or for us to prepare!" Trina exclaimed.

"No, it sure doesn't..."

Just then, the comm started ringing insistently. I walked over to answer it, then called Goldfur over when I recognised Commander Redfang on the screen.

"How are things going, Shir Goldfur?" he started conversationally.

"As well as can be expected, sir," shi answered.

"Good!" The niceties over, he continued, "There will be a few visitors coming over to your place tomorrow to see Ensign Perkins. One is that psych specialist with whom we booked a session, so Perkins won't have to come into headquarters for that. She will make a preliminary assessment as to how the ensign is coping. A couple of transporter and medical specialists want to poke and prod the poor fellow a bit more and ask a few more questions. I don't know if they're going to learn anything useful, but we've promised to try. They wanted him... hir... to come into one of the research laboratories, but I've left that up to the psych specialist to determine. She may say that Perkins is better off staying with you for the moment, as you've already said. Anyway, because of this, you won't be reporting here tomorrow. Your current responsibility is the ensign's welfare until further notice." He grimaced a bit. "Not that you could do much here anyway. The space station is under security lockdown until they give it a very thorough check for other possible sabotage and investigate this incident. Very limited access is being allowed through shuttles and the transporters of the Archimedes which is still docked to the station, but that precludes you for now."

"Understood," Goldfur replied. "Sir, do you know more about the incident yet?"

The commander hesitated, then made up his mind. "Keep this to yourself for now. The news will be released to the press tomorrow when we have more information to go with it. We got a message from some group claiming responsibility for the disaster, quoting details that aren't generally known to support their claim, so we believe it's genuine. While they didn't give a name, they espoused all the tenets of the Humans First fanatics, demanding that the Star Corps starts removing all morph species from the organisation or else more 'accidents' would start happening."

The choice of the Star Corps as a target hardly surprised me. It was one of the greatest employers of morph species due to the fact that it had need of the talents of the various species. Once upon a time, soon after the Gene Wars, most of Earth had had the need for these talents, but once civilisation had been put back onto its feet again, this need had diminished. Space was the new frontier though, and both Star Fleet and the Star Corps were common goals for many morph species who wanted to make the most of their abilities. Eliminating morphs from either organisation was clearly ridiculous though as some filled roles that no human could adequately fill, and the number of personnel lost would cripple both branches of the Star Services.

"Gentlefurs," Redfang continued, "I believe we have witnessed the beginning of the escalation from lunatic cult to outright terrorists."

"As if the death of my child wasn't enough evidence," Goldfur muttered to hirself.

"What was that?" the Commander asked.

"Nothing. Thanks for the update, sir."

He nodded. "Report by comm after the specialists leave. And good luck with Ensign Perkins." He cut the connection.

I turned to my sister. The report had re-opened an old wound and I could feel hir sense of loss renewed. I put my arm around hir and nuzzled hir. Shi smiled at me, patted my hand and pushed the hurt aside. We made our way back to the lounge cushions where we quietly snuggled for a while. The others sensed the mood and excused themselves, taking the cubs with them. Eventually Lupu emerged from the kitchen, carefully guiding Dale out with her. Dale plonked down ungracefully and then Lupu followed suit, settling down close beside hir.

"Mission accomplished!" she said with a grin.

"Good," I said. "How did it go, Dale?"

"Well, after getting over feeling extremely silly, it went pretty well. God! I could hardly believe how much milk these things produced!" Shi said this as stared down at hir breasts. "The sensation was... not unpleasant."

I gave a purring laugh. "Now there's an understatement! No, don't get embarrassed again. You just touched on one of my favourite subjects," I said with a reassuring grin.

"One of Lupu's too, I suspect," replied Dale with a glance at the wolftaur. Lupu just put on an innocent face, but couldn't hold it and broke into her wolfy grin again.

"Chakat cubs, having large taur bodies, have quite an appetite, so it's hardly surprising we produce a lot of milk to feed them. Anyway, we'll measure how much milk you produced and start the tapering off process tomorrow. The sooner we start the weaning process, the sooner we'll get results.

"Amen!" said Dale, then yawned hugely. The evening was still early, but this had to have been a stressful and very tiring experience. I caught Goldfur's eye and shi nodded. We both got up and helped Dale to hir feet. "Come, Dale," I said, "It's time you got some sleep. You can rest up for as long as you like. Tomorrow isn't going to be easy for any of us."

Dale mutely agreed and let hirself be led to the spare sleeping den. "Make yourself comfortable, dear," I said, indicating the huge soft mattress we used instead of a bed. "Don't fret about anything. We'll call you when we think that you've slept long enough, or if someone calls for you."

"Thanks," shi replied. "Umm, where are the blankets?"

Goldfur and I grinned. My sister replied, "You've got a fur coat, dear. You don't need blankets!"

Shi looked startled, then grinned back sheepishly. "Okay, but can I keep wearing this T-shirt? I don't think that I'd feel right sleeping completely nude."

"Sure! Whatever makes you comfy."

Shi smiled gratefully. "Thanks again."

"You're welcome, Dale." Goldfur then turned and left the room.

I stayed a bit longer and watched as Dale tried to make hirself comfortable, then turned to follow my sister. I paused at the doorway and turned back to face Dale, and asked hesitantly, "Do you want company for the night, dear?"

Again shi was surprised momentarily, but then a slight smile replaced that. "Thanks, but no. I think I'll be alright, and I don't think I'm ready for the famous chakat practice of sharing a bed just yet."

I smiled back. "Very well, but don't hesitate to ask us for anything if you need it. Goodnight Dale." I dimmed the light, then closed the door behind me. I rejoined Goldfur, suddenly more grateful than ever to have my family there to share my life, its trials and triumphs both. Dale's problems made mine seem small in comparison. Still, I had to wonder how much more trouble our transmogrified friend would cause in hir efforts to rebuild hir life. And what sort of a life would it be? Despite hir cooperation with teaching hir how to deal with hir new body, shi still did not regard hirself as a chakat, and that I found to be faintly disturbing. I had a clear image of who and what I was, but Dale's had been ruthlessly ripped apart. How could we guide hir to create a new self-image if shi could not deal with what shi was?


TO BE CONTINUED IN PART TWO!

Lupu is used with the permission of her Player.
Admiral Kline is the creation of Boyce Garald Kline Jnr and is used with permission.
All other characters and this story are © 2000 Bernard Doove.

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To be continued in Forest Tales #17.

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