A FOREST TALE 29: Transitions
By Bernard Doove © 2007





The comm rang stridently, making itself known over the bedlam of chakat cubs at play.

"Iíll get it!" Forestwalker called out. Activating it, shi was delighted to see Malenaís visage upon it. "Malena! We were beginning to wonder if you were going to call. In fact I was going to call you again tonight if you didnít."

Malena looked concerned. "I didnít know how welcome a call from me would be under the circumstances. I thought that Goldfur at least would still be mad at me. How is shi feeling now?"

"Still mad at you, of course. But Hon, just because youíre hir lifemate doesnít mean that you wonít ever have a disagreement, even a big one like this. That happens even between chakats too, yíknow? Shi has had to concentrate on Garrek recently, of course, but shiís still concerned about you. Believe me, shi wanted to be completely calm and attuned to your own needs before shi talked with you again, but shi did call the day after we got back home. Jaleth told hir that you were out. In fact, youíve been unavailable every time Goldfur called. Why didnít you call hir back sooner?"

Malena frowned and looked even more distressed. "Mom didnít tell me about any calls whatsoever. Sheís punishing me still, ostracising me in fact. She must have decided to shun me as much as she is able without letting the rest of the clan know. Oh, Forest, I just canít take this too much more! Family is everything to a foxtaur, and Iím being shut out almost completely. Whereís Goldfur? I really need to talk to hir!"

"Shiís out on an errand, but shiís due home any moment. In fact, I think I hear the PTV pulling in right now. Wait a moment while I check."

Forestwalker dashed out to the front yard where Goldfur was climbing out of the family PTV. "Goldie! Malenaís on the comm! Sounds like sheís got more troubles."

Goldfur wondered what else had gone wrong, but hurried inside with Forest right behind. Goldfur was relieved to finally see hir lifemate on the screen. "Malena! Why didnít you return my calls? I was worried about you."

"Goldie, mom hasnít been passing on your calls to me. I never knew! I should have tried calling you sooner, but I thought you were still so mad at me that you werenít calling."

"Jaleth did that? I would not have thought that sheíd do something so petty. I know that she regards Garrek as her favourite, but not at the expense of you. That must be terrible."

"It is, but things have gotten even more complicated. I went to the doctor to confirm the pregnancy. He tells me that there are three embryos. Iím expecting triplets! I canít deal with that by myself, especially without momís support."

"Triplets!" Goldfur exclaimed. "Good heavens! That doesnít usually happen amongst foxtaurs, does it?"

"No, it doesnít. In fact itís directly as a result of the feral mating. Mom tells me that twins arenít that unusual from such. I seem to have hit the jackpot. Oh, Goldfur, I canít cope with three as well as Blaze. I know itís so soon after, but could you consider me moving over to join your family in Australia?"

"You know that Iíve wanted you to join us before this, but I respected your decision to raise Blaze at Mountain Glade. You had better wait until Garrek and I leave on our next assignment though. He needs the time to come to terms with what has happened."

Malenaís concern shifted to her brother-mate. "How is he doing, Goldie?"

"Heís strong, Malena. Give him time and he will bounce back from this. You and he are going to have to start your relationship anew though. You need to regain his trust, and some of mine also."

Malena hung her head. "I know. Believe me, I realise that this was the worst decision of my life. I need to talk this over with you more before you leave."

"I agree, but Garrek will be here anytime, so I canít spend too much time now. "Iíll call you back in a few hours, and Iíll make sure that Jaleth doesnít intervene this time."

"Thank you Goldfur. I love you!" Malena exclaimed.

"I love you too, Malena. Never forget that," Goldfur replied.

Goldfur disconnected with a sigh. Shi turned to Forestwalker who had been waiting and listening. "Good news and bad news, isnít it? Triplets are going to be quite a burden for her. She belongs with us though. Thank heavens she doesnít suffer from the homesickness because I canít see her returning anytime soon."

Forestwalker nodded. "Yeah, I agree, but weíre going to have to work on Jaleth also. We canít have the family tearing itself apart like that."

"I still find it hard to believe that Jaleth would react that strongly. I can only hope that her anger doesnít consume her reason," Goldfur said.

"As much as they are similar to us, they are still foxtaurs and not chakats, and there are bound to be differences that we still donít understand. Tread carefully, sis," Forestwalker advised.

"I will. At least I know whatís happening now. People seem to look to me as head of this household, so I suppose Iíd better live up to that expectation and sort things out. Iíll have a good heart-to-heart talk with Malena tonight, and square us away." Goldfur cocked an ear. "Thatís Garrek arriving now. Donít tell him about this call yet, please, especially about the triplets. Thatís a bit too much for him to cope with yet, I think."

"Will do, Goldie."


 

There was one more arrival not long after Garrek. Forestwalker was nearest the door when the public PTV pulled up outside, and opened the front door before the occupant got there. Hir eyes lit up in recognition of the red fox vixen in Star Fleet uniform.

"I see you made it pretty much on schedule," Forestwalker commented. "Weíve been expecting you for a couple of hours. Welcome to our humble abode."

The vixen grinned as a group of cubs streaked between them playing tag. "I see that itís as hectic as you warned me it would be."

The chakat grinned at her. "That? Positively peaceful in comparison to what might happen. Anyway, come on inside. Weíve got a big surprise to pull."

"Lead on," the vixen replied.

Forestwalker showed their visitor into the lounge room, thankfully free of cubs at that time. Then shi headed for the back yard where shi had last seen Goldendale and hir mates. Shi found Lupu playing with Stonefur and a couple of other cubs, while Avi was studying a PADD while Goldendale was pointing out and explaining something displayed on it.

"Dale!" Forestwalker called. "Could you come inside, hon? Weíve got a visitor whom you need to meet."

"No problem, Forest. Iíll be there in a minute."

Forestwalker went back inside and told the vixen that Dale would be along momentarily. Shi positioned hirself so that shi could see Goldendale when shi entered, a grin locked on hir face.

Dale showed up in just over a minute. "OK, Forest, whoís our visiÖ." Goldendale froze and hir jaw dropped in surprise. Then she blurted out, "Mary-Anne!"

The vixenís smile broadened. She got up to approach the stunned chakat. "Different body, same reaction. Thatís Dale alright! How are you doing, dear?"

Dale used to look down several centimetres into his former girlfriendís eyes, but now they were at the same eye level. Nothing else had changed about her though, and the memories of their time together overwhelmed hir momentarily before shi managed to say, "What are you doing here?"

"Is that any way to greet me after so long?" Mary-Anne asked with a smirk.

"UhÖ sorry. Good heavens, itís just such a surprise to see you." Goldendale opened hir arms to give Mary-Anne a hug. Shi was hugely conscious though of hir breasts rubbing up against the buxom vixenís however, and was a bit hesitant. Mary-Anne was having none of that though and pulled hir in tight to give hir a heartfelt hug and kiss on the cheek.

Goldfur walked in just then and said with a grin, "Dang! Missed the big moment! If I had been a little earlier, I could have pretended to be Dale and got that hug."

Goldendale backed away slightly from the vixen and shook hir head in amusement. "Mary-Anne, meet my new twin sister, Goldfur. Shiís the one with the long hair in a ponytail, so donít mix us up. No hugs for hir meant for me!"

Mary-Anne grinned back. "Oh, I already know Goldfur from the videocom. Shiís owed a hug anyway for hir efforts to contact me after what happened to you. How do you think I knew what youíd look like when you walked in the room?"

"Good point," Goldendale admitted. "So that explains part of how you knew to come, but why now?"

Goldfur interrupted. "Afternoon tea is ready, so why donít you all make yourself comfortable while I serve it up, and Mary-Anne can explain everything."

The adults made themselves comfortable and Eudora, Snowcloud and Patchwork also joined them, partly out of curiosity but mostly for the cake served with the drinks. Lupu and Avi came in at that time, so Goldendale introduced them to Mary-Anne before they settled down on either side of the chakat.

When everybody was served, Mary-Anne began her explanation. "My starship was on a deep-space mission when news of your accident finally reached me. We were way out of range of real-time communication though, so there was absolutely nothing I could do at that time. Of course the ship wasnít going to return to Earth early either, so it was several months before we returned and I could see you. Only then I discovered that you had gone off into the wilds with your new wolftaur mate. Not only was my shore leave limited, but I also felt that it wasnít an appropriate time for an old girlfriend to barge in. Anyway, I did manage to find out what time that you were due to return and arranged to have my next tour of duty bring me here at the same time. I think I had a bit of help from some people in the Stellar Services there, otherwise I might be back in deep space again. Iím glad that they were looking out for you though because I really wanted to see you again. I truly wish that I could have been there for you at the time of the accident though. You seem to have done very well for yourself without me, even getting a second mate! Youíre really getting into this chakat thing, arenít you?"

"It has come surprisingly easily. Once I accepted my change, I began looking at things from a different point of view. The biggest thing was adapting to the fact that I am also female now, but I didnít push it. So when the time was right, accepting Avi as a lover then a mate came naturally."

Mary-Anne looked a little melancholy. "You seem to have come through brilliantly, dear. I envy them. Letting our relationship lapse was the worst decision of my life."

Goldendale was surprised. "I thought that was a mutual decision based on our inability to be together much?"

"Being together a little would have been better than not being together at all. I just thought it would be selfish of me to cling to you when you could have the opportunity to find someone else who could be there for you. I have regretted that decision ever since though." Mary-Anne looked at Goldendale earnestly. "Iíve not met anyone close to being as compatible with me as you had been."

"I didnít either until I met Lupu, and thereís a little more to our bond than the usual attraction between people. I didnít rebound well after we parted. My new girlfriend turned out to be a fur-phobe."

"Iím sorry to hear that, Dale. I havenít had a steady boyfriend at all. Iíve mostly buried myself in my career. Iíve done pretty well," she said as she indicated her lieutenantís pips, "but my social life has been a bust. Iíd been pretty dissatisfied with the situation until I heard what had happened to you, and I knew that it was time for me to try to get back together with you. I didnít realise that you would be acquiring new mates as a consequence though. Still, I had to see you again."

There was an awkward silence for a moment before Goldendale said, "I really wish that you had been there. It was hard, Mary-Anne. If it wasnít for the wonderful support of my new family, I donít know if I could have coped half so well, but those first couple of days were the worst."

Mary-Anne got up and went over to kneel in front of Goldendale. She put her arms around hir and put her head on the chakatís shoulder. "I am so sorry, Dale. Iím sorry to have left you alone when you needed me the most. Iím also sorry for myself for letting a good thing go."

Goldendale stroked the vixenís head, caught up in the emotion of the moment, yet still conscious of his denmates there right next to hir. It was an awkward but deeply moving scene. Eventually Mary-Anne got up and returned to her seat.

The others filled the silence with anecdotes about what had happened to Goldendale at the time until Forestwalker excused hirself to look into preparations for dinner. Then Goldendale excused hirself also to attend to another need in private. Lupu and Avi got up and walked over to Mary-Anne.

"Weíd like to have a word with you alone, Mary-Anne. Could you come with us, please?" asked Avi.

"Sure," Mary-Anne agreed.

The trio walked outside, and Lupu led them to a quiet corner of the garden where they could chat undisturbed.

Lupu said without preamble, "I knew a lot about you and what you meant to Dale from what shi has told me ever since the day we first met. Shi has never forgotten you, but I have never felt threatened by hir emotional attachment to your memory. Now you are here and back in hir life again, and Avi and I both want to know what you intend to do from here."

Mary-Anne felt herself to be under the spotlight. Even she hadnít been sure what she intended to do after meeting Dale again. "IÖ I donít intend to get between you and DaleÖ."

Lupu cut her off. "Forget that crap," she said with her usual bluntness. "I asked what you want to do. I may not have spent as many years with hir as you did, but I know hir better now in many ways. Shiís changed. Shiís still basically the person that you once knew, but shi has grown and adapted. Shiís a chakat now, and shi has different needs and desires from a human. Shi knows this up here," she said as she tapped her head, "but sheís still learning it in here." She moved her hand over her heart. "Avissavaunte here is proof of how much shi has changed already, but shiís only slowly accepting hir nature. Right now youíre both behaving like a couple having an illicit affair. A real chakat would have thrown hir arms around you and had a good cry after that little speech of yours, but Dale was flustered and worried what weíd think. Well, Iíll tell you what we think so we can make this perfectly clear Ė Dale is a chakat now, and shi has new needs. The greatest trait of chakats is their capacity for love. Dale loves me deeply, but shi now also loves Avi without diminishing hir feelings for me. Yet hir first love was you, and that has never been lost either. We can accept that. Dale will accept that too once shiís reassured. You need to accept that you have to commit to a relationship with hir or make the break final and just be friends. Anything else would be just cruel to hir. As long as you donít try to come between us, we wonít try to stop you two from renewing your relationship. So, I ask you one more time Ė what do you want to do?"

Emboldened by Lupuís forthright manner, Mary-Anne replied, "I want things to go back to the way they were before I broke up with himÖ hir."

"Well they wonít be exactly the same because of hir changes, but thatís close enough. If you can make our denmate happy, then our family will be happy too. Make hir unhappy and weíll be onto you like a tonne of bricks!"

"You donít strike me as typical wolftaurs from what I know of them," Mary-Anne observed.

"Weíre not. We two were always different, and I have been mated to Goldfur for a while, learning what itís like to be a chakatís mate. I made the effort to adapt and have benefited from that. Thatís why I wonít be a jealous bitch if you want to be with Dale. Can you say the same?"

"If I have to share Dale in order to have him again, then yes I can," Mary-Anne declared.

"Great! Thatís what we wanted to hear. Now what are you going to do about it?"


 

It was a much more relaxed vixen who joined the family for dinner. Goldendale didnít understand what had happened in hir absence but was happy that it had, so shi was able to enjoy the meal and table conversation as much as the others.

Mary-Anne delighted the cubs with after-dinner treats brought from a far-flung world. There werenít many left for the adults to sample! Much as Goldendale had done, the vixen regaled the family with tales of her experiences in Star Fleet, with Forestwalker occasionally adding hir observations from the time spent with Boyce. The evening flew by until the chakats grudgingly admitted to needing to go to bed. Mary-Anne was given the spare room for the night. How she chose to spend the night was left entirely up to her though.

Mary-Anne's Surprise

Dale wondered why Avi and Lupu seemed to be dragging their feet. They were the last ones to head for bed, even beating Leanna who typically checked up on the cubs before joining the others. As shi approached hir den though, Mary-Anne stepped out into the doorway of the spare room and leaned up against the frame. The vixen was wearing nothing but lacy blue lingerie that perfectly set off her gorgeous fur and hourglass figure. Goldendaleís hearts skipped a beat as shi recognised the same outfit that she had been wearing the last time that they had made love so long ago. "Thatís not exactly typical sleeping garments to bring on a visit," shi said.

"You know I usually sleep in my fur only. This is just for you, hon," Mary-Anne said sultrily.

"But what aboutÖ?" Goldendale started to say as shi turned to face Avi and Lupu, only to discover that they had disappeared into the common sleeping area.

"Tonight is ours, Dale, if that is what you wish." She walked up to Goldendale, swaying her hips and swishing her tail in a mesmerising manner. "I know that I do."

"ButÖ Iím a chakat now. Iím not the man you used to love."

"Dale, remember back when we were in high school. Remember the two fox tods in our class?"

"Mike and Justin? Sure I do."

"Two of the most handsome fox tods on Earth, and they knew it too. Remember how they were always trying to get me to go out with them? I never did though. If a personís looks or species were what attracted me most, I would have gone out with one or both of those tods. Instead I dated someone who wasnít even a morph, let alone a fox. A vixen and a human Ė how they gossiped! But you were the one that I wanted. You were clever, funny, and we liked the same things. You were the one who made me feel alive in that dreary little country town, and you were the one that I fell in love with. Youíre still that person, Dale, even if the outer form has changed. After the time that we spent together this afternoon and evening, I know that the person that I fell in love with has grown but not intrinsically altered. I donít care that you look like a cougar now. I donít care that you have four legs instead of two. I donít even care that you are a herm instead of just a male. I love Dale Perkins a.k.a. Goldendale, and I am damned if I am going to lose you again!"

Mary-Anne pushed herself into Goldendaleís arms, wrapped one arm around hir back and used the other hand to pull the surprised chakatís face to hers. She opened and turned her muzzle to match Goldendaleís and gave hir a long heartfelt kiss. Goldendale was conscious of the vixenís breasts rubbing against hirs, but this time was turned on by the feeling rather than embarrassed by it, and shi returned the kiss with enthusiasm. They finally broke, panting for breath, and Mary-Anne gently tugged on Goldendaleís arm to bring hir into the spare room.

"Lupu and AviÖ" began Goldendale.

"Öhave already given their blessing," Mary-Anne finished for hir. "This night is ours, love. Unless you truly donít want me anymore."

"God, yes! I want you so badly. I just thought that I never could have you anymore."

Mary-Anne encouraged the chakat to lay down on the bedding, then laid down next to hir, stroking the thick golden fur admiringly, Goldendale returning the favour with some welcome familiarity.

Mary-Anne said, "As was quite pointedly made clear to me this afternoon, you are a chakat now, with chakat needs and lifestyle. My career will still keep us apart for much of the time. Thatís inevitable, but I will be happy to know that I will have a lover to come home to occasionally. Under those circumstances, I canít be a full-time mate, but I can be a Chakat Companion. Will that work for you?"

"Anything to have you back again. If Lupu is okay with that, then Iím sure not going to argue."

Mary-Anne was overjoyed. "Then letís celebrate being Companions properly. Iíve been aching to do so for ages!" She reached out to stroke the chakatís penis that had slid free of its sheath while they had talked and touched. "I never had cause for complaint when you were human, Dale, but you have to admit that youíve been blessed in the male department by your change."

Dale grinned. "I know. Let me show you just how good it is too!"

Mary-Anne giggled and the two started making love as only long-parted lovers could do so enthusiastically. By the time the pair had exhausted themselves, Mary-Anne had to admit that some changes were definitely for the better.


 

Lupu and Avi joined Goldendale and Mary-Anne in the morning to make sure that Goldendale was pleased and comfortable with the arrangements they had made with the vixen, and to reaffirm that they were happy to have her as their denmateís Companion. Then they both embarrassed and pleased the chakat by all ganging up on hir. The foursomeís emotional output kept all the other adult chakats in a frisky mood all morning!

Mary-Anne continued to endear herself to the entire family, and the cubs discovered that she was an easy touch for a treat or cuddles. If she hadnít had to leave that afternoon, she might have been monopolised by the children all day. However, her shore leave was brief and not subject to extension, so she insisted on getting to know all the people in the extended family as best as she could in the limited time available. She intended that this would not be another sad ending to a relationship, but the start of a new one that encompassed her Companionís entire new world. She was already looking forward to the challenges of mixing a career and a steady relationship. For the first time in years, Mary-Anne Renelle was truly happy again.

Forestwalker stood by Goldendaleís side as they all waved goodbye to Mary-Anne as she left in the public PTV to go to the spaceport. As the PTV disappeared down the road, Forestwalker said, "Yíknow, Dale, most chakats take a few years to get three mates, but youíve done it in less than one. Whatís your secret?" Shi grinned widely at the flustered changeling chakat.

"Mary-Anne is only a Companion!" shi protested.

"Tsk! Semantics!" Forestwalker replied smugly. "However, if you insist sheís not a mate, I might be interested in taking her out one night."

Now Goldendale realised shi was being teased. Shi poked Forestwalker in the chest above the chakatís impressive cleavage and said with mock severity, "Youíve got three foxes of your own, Ďsisí, so hands off mine. Got it?"

The people around hir laughed as Forest gave hir a fake terrified look and threw hir hands up in surrender. "OK! Point taken!"

Goldfur had to add something though. "Are you sure about still going back to work though? You might come back with a couple more denmates at this rate."

"Arrgh! Youíre all hopeless!" Goldendale cried before launching a tickle attack on hir giggling twin. Of course the cubs refused to be left out of the fun, and soon there was a huge writhing mass of fur and limbs as everyone became everybody elseís target in the tickle fest.


 

Garrek had been attending the Star Corps Engineering departmentís briefings on the starship, Endeavour, a new ship with the latest improvements. Goldfur had similar updates in her field, but unfortunately not at the same time. Shi knew that there would inevitably be bugs to be worked out, and the authorities usually threw their best people at new ships. That meant teams like Goldfur and Garrek were often called upon. They did not mind as they enjoyed the challenge. Goldendale had similar briefings to attend, plus a couple of refresher courses aimed at familiarising hir with taur-related matters that might trip hir up otherwise.

Their flight was scheduled to depart the Star Corps space station at 0900 hours the day after tomorrow, and they were both busy with preparations, Goldfur especially. After their heart-to-heart talk, both Goldfur and Malena were crying but reconciled. Goldfur made arrangements for Malena to fly over the same afternoon that shi and Garrek left. Shi regretted that shi would not be able to see her in person again before they left, but it was still too soon for Garrek. Shi contented hirself with knowing that hir second lifemate would be well cared-for and reasonably happy in hir absence.


 

Goldfur and Garrek with Eudora led by the hands between them, and with Tailstalker safely in the saddle-pack on the chakatís back, stepped onto the Transporter platform. Goldendale joined them and they were all beamed up to the Endeavour. The Transporter Chief there welcomed them aboard and sent updates to their personal PADDs with details of their cabin assignment and updated duty lists. Goldfur had always made it a habit to check in with the Chief Engineer before departure, and shi liked to take along their children for the informal meeting so that they could all get to know each other better.

The Chief Engineer looked anything but the part. He was a ferret morph and looked just like a clichéd version of his breed Ė excitable, mischievous and fun-loving. At least, that was the impression that he seemed to like to give for some reason. Goldfur liked to know with whom shiíd be working though, so shi had looked up his record a few days earlier when shiíd gotten notice of the crew listings. Shi had been surprised and impressed. Ansible Blackfoot had been one of the leading engineers in the design of the Endeavour, and probably knew just about every screw and switch in the ship by heart. "Call me ĎAntsyí", heíd said with a grin as he tousled Eudoraís hair. Shi already looked forward to working with him.

Oceanrider Prepared

One of the things that shi found most interesting with new ships was the new crew. Frequently it brought hir into contact with people shiíd not met before, although the captain and several of the senior staff were known from previous voyages. This being a Terran based ship, it had a strongly predominant Terran contingent but also the usual smattering of alien races. In fact, while the Captain Blackwood was a silver fox morph, the First Officer was a male Caitian named RíTrarsk Mañutu. The first shift navigator was a dark black human woman called Fayola Freeman and the helmsman was Oceanrider, a cougar-patterned chakat like Goldfur but with slightly browner fur and brunette instead of blonde. Shi was a pilot 1st Class and was not only bridge crew but also flew shuttles. Goldfur was pleased to find that there would be another chakat though, and hoped that Goldendale would be spared the necessity of dealing with other chakats on this voyage. Time enough to get used to the idea by hir next voyage.

Goldfur was intrigued when shi met the second chakat, an exploration specialist who would be establishing sites for bases on a new planet. Although shi was clearly built like a chakat, hir black and cream fur was patterned similar to that of a skunktaurís, and hir tail was bushier than normal. Goldfur gave hir the typical formal chakat greeting, and the other replied, "I am Swiftwalk, child of Oakwood and Karnak, House Blackpaw. A pleasure to meet you, Goldfur."

They hugged as chakats typically do when greeting each other before Goldfur said, "So your sire is a skunktaur. You certainly inherited an interesting fur pattern. Did you also inherit hys Talent?"

"Yep, and believe me, astral travel is a heck of a good Talent to have when youíre on an unfamiliar world. It enables me to check out possible dangers with impunity."

Goldfur laughed. "Yeah, you could make me envious. Good thing weíll have you watching our backs while we set up the base equipment."

"My pleasure, Shir Goldfur. I hear you come with an intriguing companion though?"

"So youíve heard about Goldendale?" Goldfur asked. When Swiftwalk nodded, Goldfur continued, "Shiís still learning new things about hirself and our species, so if it isnít inconvenient, it would be best to not approach hir for anything too intimate yet. Fortunately we do have another on board."

"Iíve already met hir, and that shouldnít be a problem. Like me, shiís come aboard without a mate or companion, so that works out quite neatly for us."

"Great!" Goldfur replied with a smile. "Iíll be looking forward to working with you later. Maybe we can all meet up for coffee later?"

"Iíd love to," Swiftwalk replied. "Say 1900 hours?"

"Perfect for me. Iíll check with the others and let them know," Goldfur agreed. "Tail high!"

"Tail high, Goldfur," Swiftwalk replied.


 

Goldfur and Goldendale turned up promptly at the coffee lounge. They had tried to bring along Garrek, but he had begged off, preferring to stay behind with the cubs. "Besides, Iím not comfortable in the middle of a chakat gabfest anyway," he had added.

They found Swiftwalk seated beside a table near a view portal, along with cougar-patterned chakat who had to be Oceanrider. Goldfur formally introduced hirself to hir and Swiftwalk was next. Then Goldendale did the same.

"Wow! You really are identical," Swiftwalk commented. "If it wasnít for the haircut, Iíd never be able to tell you two apart."

"I really donít know how Goldie puts up with that long hair of hirs," Goldendale replied. "It was relief to get it cut, besides making it clear which one of us was who."

"Tell us all about what happened to you," begged Oceanrider.

"All? Thatís a long story which Iíll save for later when this voyage gets long and boring. I think we can get by with a just a little bit for now," Goldendale said with a grin.

"Okay, Iíll hold you to that," Oceanrider promised.

"Your turn, Oceanrider," Goldfur prompted.

"Right. My mother is Seamist and my sire is Marblefur. Iím the youngest of their three children. We grew up in Monterey, a town south of San Francisco in case you donít know. We lived close to the beach and my mother loved to go sailing at every opportunity, and shi passed on that enthusiasm for the water to me also, which is how I ended up with my adult name. Later, that led me to pursuing a career as a pilot. My eldest sister, Springdaisy, moved to San Francisco to pursue hir career, and my other sister, Dapplecoat, met a chakat in high school with whom shi den-mated immediately after graduation and moved in with hir. When I left to attend Star Corps Academy, my parents dissolved their denmateship. Both have since found new mates, but fortunately not too far apart so that I can visit them both easily between tours of duty. I donít have a lot of time to spare because I sign up for another tour almost immediately. I really love my job!"

"What? Does that mean that you havenít gotten a mate yet?" asked Swiftwalk.

Oceanrider grinned. "Well, I donít spend all my time with my parents. I do have someone who is rather special to me, and maybe in time, something more."

And so the conversation went, each chakat learning a little about each other as they enjoyed their coffee. Subtle empathic interactions, even with the inexperienced Goldendale, made their meeting even more pleasant as the foursome got familiar with each other. This was a vital part of chakat interaction that made long journeys more comfortable for them, and for their fellow crewmembers. A happy chakat radiated that emotion, and even non-empaths found their days more pleasant when working around them.


 

The flight to the new world, Sylvania, was as interesting and busy as Goldfur had expected, with both shi and Garrek being constantly called upon to tweak or fix equipment that didnít quite work as well in real life as it did in the computer simulation. However, overall Goldfur was pleased with how well the new ship was running, and approved of the many design improvements. Shi was in techieís heaven.

The Endeavour was amongst the fastest of the Star Corpsí ships, but even so it was still a long journey to the new planet. More than long enough for a chakat to come into heat. Goldfur and Goldendale were still in synch, so both felt the need at the same time. Goldfur had the experience and self-control though, so after taking appropriate contraceptive precautions, shi let Goldendale control their first intimate encounter. Shy in spite of hirself, Goldendale nevertheless submitted to Goldfur fairly readily, hir experience with Avi making the situation a lot less daunting. Goldfur took it easy and made sure that Goldendale was comfortable every step of the way, and it turned into a very pleasant first time for both. Goldendale was a lot less reticent about returning the favour, and the two discovered exactly what they felt like to their lovers in both male and female fashion. Goldfur found it fascinating, while Goldendale ended up enjoying hirself too much to notice all the subtleties that first time around.

"So, how do I compare to a wolftaur?" Goldfur asked curiously.

Dale thought about it for a moment, then answered, "Better and not so good."

"Well, thatís a mixed reaction. Okay, what was better first?"

"Obviously the fact that we were basically having sex with ourselves was pretty unique and quite a plus, and your greater experience was also very good. But thereís one thing that I mostly prefer over Avi," Goldendale replied.

Goldfur waited, but could sense embarrassment holding Goldendale back. "Go on, dear. I do understand your discomfort but you canít upset me, nor will I hold anything against you."

Instead of answering hir, Goldendale asked instead, "Goldie, while you were staying with Lupu with the pack, did you have any sort ofÖ relations with any of the male wolftaurs?"

"Huh? No I didnít. Not only was I there for only a short time in comparison to you, but I also found the males a rough and crude lot. Not like Avi," shi added hastily.

"Then you didnít get to experience something that I have. I know that chakats and foxtaurs have a rather human-like penis, but wolftaurs are more like their feral cousins. They have thisÖ bulgeÖ." Goldendale floundered in embarrassment.

It suddenly dawned on Goldfur what shi was trying to say. "Oh. OH! They have a cock-knot, and you two got tied! You did, didnít you?"

Dale nodded, hir ears folded right down in complete mortification.

Goldfur laughed and hugged Goldendale. "Oh hon, you have to admit that itís a bit funny, but itís not anything to be ashamed about."

"Says you! You didnít discover that you were stuck together with the first male who had ever mounted you. It was very disconcerting, I tell you! Avi was very apologetic. He hadnít realised that I didnít know about that, and Lupu hadnít thought to warn me either."

"What about all the times since?" Goldfur asked, still grinning in spite of hirself.

"Oh, they werenít so bad once I knew what to expect. Iím not sure if Iíll ever get totally used to that though."

"Give it time, dear, youíll be amazed."

"Maybe, but I must say that I really liked being mounted without being stuck like that afterwards," Goldendale said with conviction.

"Okay, but what was worse?"

"You should be able to figure that one out for yourself, Goldie. I really love Avi, and he really loves me. Even with my poor skills with empathy, I can tell that much when weíre so intimately together."

"And love makes even the best sex better," Goldfur concluded, knowing full well how that felt.

"Exactly," Goldendale agreed. "I care for you greatly as my twin sister and part of my new family, but Iím not in love with you."

Goldfur kissed hir. "I know, dear, and thereís absolutely nothing wrong with that. Avi is a very lucky bloke, and so are you to have him."

Their love-making done, Garrek and the cubs joined the two who needed rest after their enthusiastic exertions. He just wanted the company though, as any foxtaur normally did. It was the only sour note for the evening for Goldfur. Garrek still wasnít interested in sex, something the lifemates had rarely missed indulging in at the slightest opportunity previously. Goldfur wondered if shi should push the issue, worried that he might be digging himself in deeper rather than finding some much-needed resolution to his conflict. Shi decided to let it slide for the moment until hir heat was over. Shi suspected it would remind Garrek too much of what had happened with Malena. Shi wondered though what the emotional tension was doing to their daughter. Although Eudoraís ability was still developing, it was more than sensitive enough to sense hir sireís inner turmoil and hir motherís concern. Thus the denmates frequently needed to soothe hir and ease hir into sleep.


 

Several days passed before the situation between Goldfur and Garrek came to a head. The four chakats had become coffee lounge regulars. They eventually dragged Garrek into their little clique, which proved to be what the foxtaur needed most. His instincts craved the company, and the totally harmless environment of the coffee lounge enabled him to let his guard down. After Goldfur proudly told the others of hir mateís musical talent with the foxtaur flute, Oceanrider had managed to coax Garrek into playing his instrument for them. He played a selection of tunes for them, with his final piece being a hauntingly sad piece. He barely finished it as he broke down in tears, and the four chakats in unison extended their empathic abilities to comfort the foxtaur, with Goldfur hugging him tightly while he wept away his fears and unhappiness. That night he made love to Goldfur with renewed devotion, and Goldfur stopped worrying whether he would recover fully or not.


 

Sylvania filled the view port with blues and greens strongly reminiscent of Earth. There were deserts ringing the equator and no ice caps to speak of, indicating a much warmer climate than that of Earth, but animal life had been detected in abundance, and the survey probes had shown a world of enormous promise. First though, survey teams needed to be sent down to get an overview of the various prime targets, and that meant establishing base camps. That was the job of teams such as Goldfur and Garrek. Naturally they were partnered with the other chakats for that purpose Ė Oceanrider ferrying heavy equipment and light shuttles down in specially designed drop ships, and Swiftwalk checking the landing site clairvoyantly with hir Talent before risking opening the cargo bay doors to start unloading the equipment. Due to the oppressive heat, the chakats soon stripped down to nothing but their halters with the comm badge attached. Garrek went one step further, removing all clothing and attaching his comm badge to the belt around his waist. Everyone wore personal force field belts until they set up projector poles for the permanent force field that would form a barrier around the base camp. Despite the belts, everyone was much relieved to have the barrier up. While the small portable units could make the difference between life and death, they were nowhere near as effective as the larger static units.

Dale and Swiftwalk next started setting up a multi-purpose building. It would serve as a supply depot and shelter for them while they explored the area. Goldfur and Garrek set up machinery and electronic gear with the speed of familiarity with the task while the other shuttle crew continued unloading gear. Everything was in place and working within three hours, and Oceanrider began preparing the shuttle for the trip back to the starship. Garrek wasnít quite happy with the performance of one piece of machinery though, and he went inside the shuttle to pick up a special diagnostic tool. Goldfur, Goldendale and Swiftwalk were left to relax after their efforts, and took the opportunity to take a really good look at their surroundings. Plant life was abundant, but very little of it was similar to Earthís. Typically, much of the animal life had been scared off by the drop ship, but the large vessel was designed for landing in awkward areas without making much environmental impact, its extra heavy-duty anti-grav units settling the ship onto its target with a minimum of noise and destruction. Goldfur kept an eye open anyway.

"Looks like pretty dense jungle," Goldfur observed. "I donít think that Iíd like going into there without knowing the dangers."

Goldendale took a deep sniff and said, "Yeah, you can smell all sorts of animal life. These keener chakat senses are going to be a big help. Just think how I used to do this job without the benefit of them."

Swiftwalk shuddered. "No thanks! Iíve had enough close shaves even with the benefit of an additional Talent. I sometimes wonder how humans ever coped."

"Speaking as an ex-human, itís part something that you learn and part necessity. Seems like we did pretty well before creating morph species to do it better."

"No insult intended, Dale," Swiftwalk said.

"None taken, Swiftwalk, but just because I have chosen to remain a chakat doesnít mean that I was unhappy as a human. I was damn good at my job before the change. These senses may make me better, but that takes nothing away from what I was."

Goldfur put hir hand on Goldendaleís arm. "No one thinks that, twin sister. I was happy to know you as you were in that brief time before the Transporter accident."

Goldendale recalled a couple of remarks that Goldfur had made to hir sister, Forestwalker, and grinned. "I think that you had other things on your mind besides my scouting ability then."

Goldfur returned the grin unrepentantly. Then hir smile slipped and was replaced with a puzzled frown.

Goldendale saw that and asked, "Whatís wrong, Goldie?"

"Somethingís not right. Something on the edge of my mind," Goldfur replied.

Swiftwalkís eyes lost focus as shi Ďlookedí around. "Thereís a very big animal just out of sight on the other side of the force field. Is that what youíre sensing?"

Goldfur shook hir head. "No. Now that you mention it, I can smell a large carnivore nearby, but thatís not the kind of thing that Iím sensitive to. Electronics is my shtick and I sense something wrongÖ."

Just then the friendly green glow on top of the force-field poles flared into red, and the beeping of an alarm could be heard from inside the shuttle.

"Force-field failure!" yelled Goldfur, hands scrabbling futilely for the force-field belt that shi had taken off after the main shield had been established.

Right on cue, the hidden beast chose to make its move, leaping out at Goldfur.. Goldendaleís reactions were nearly instantaneous though, and shi shoved hir twin down and out of the way, lashing out with hir hind legs as they tumbled out of the animalís path. The beast did little more than grunt at the impact, but was knocked off balance and landed badly. It was back on its feet quickly, however, and snarling at the one chakat left in its sights.

Swiftwalk Startled

Swiftwalk stepped back, all claws popped out and fur fluffing out in fearÖ and vanished.

The other two scrambled back to their feet while the beast was confused.

"Whereís Swiftwalk?" Goldfur asked frantically.

"Less talking, more running!" yelled Goldendale, swatting Goldfur on the rump to motivate hir. Shi fervently wished that shi had a weapon with hir, but that was in hir pack, ready for when shi left the safety of the force-field.

The beast roared as it turned to chase its original target. The chakats ran at top speed for the shuttle door, barely ahead of the hungry carnivore. Both realised with horror at the same time that the hatch door had automatically shut when the alarm had gone off and there would not be enough time to open it before they were pounced.

Just then, Swiftwalk appeared directly in their path. Unable to stop, they collided with hirÖ and found themselves skidding across the cargo bay floor in a tangled heap.

"What the hellÖ?" Goldfur exclaimed, completely disoriented.

Swiftwalk was already on hir feet though and racing towards the weapons locker. "Grab a phaser!" shi shouted. "There may be other crew outside with that thing!"

The two cougar chakats did as they were told, pushing aside their confusion. Swiftwalk shoved phaser rifles into their hands and the three armed their weapons and went to the personnel hatch.

Swiftwalk said, "On three, Goldfur open the door and Dale and I will look for the beast. If itís not in sight, Iíll go out and Dale will follow and I will cover hir. One, two, three!"

The chakats proceeded as planned. Once out, Goldendale scanned for danger. "Over there!" Shi pointed out the beast rounding the corner of one of the huts.

They ran after it, spurred on by a shout of terror that they heard moments later. Skidding around the corner, they saw that the beast had treed a male foxmorph. No one had any doubts that that would be of little use. All three fired as soon as they could bring their weapons to bear. The animal gave a weird scream before it collapsed, its fur smoking on its neck, shoulder and midriff.

Although it appeared to be dead, Goldendale continued to aim hir phaser at the beast. "Goldie, can you sense if itís still alive or not?" shi asked without taking hir eyes off it for even a moment.

Goldfur nervously moved closer, approaching from the back just in case it recovered suddenly, but it didnít even twitch. Touching it enabled hir empathic senses to get the strongest and clearest impression. With relief, shi realised that its life spark was dwindling away rapidly, extinguishing as shi watched. "Itís totally dead," shi pronounced.

"OK. Weíre not safe yet though," Swiftwalk said. "Dale Ė you and I have to guard the breach. Goldfur Ė get that damn force-field pole repaired!"

"Repair? Hell no! Iím going to replace that bastard!" Goldfur declared, already racing back to the drop ship. Hitting hir comm badge, shi said, "Goldfur to Garrek. Drop whatever youíre doing and yank another force-field pole from storage. This is an emergency!"

"Iím on it!" Garrekís voice replied.

Garrek had one uncrated by the time Goldfur ran in. Shi instructed him to carry one end while shi carried the other. With only a slight detour to grab hir tool kit, they carried the pole out while Goldfur explained to Garrek what had happened.

Garrek was shocked to hear how close Goldfur had come to being caught by the beast. "We both owe Dale big time," he commented.

"Yeah," agreed Goldfur, "but after that things got confusing. Iíll have to work that out when I get the time."

They arrived at the breach, finding Swiftwalk and Goldendale keenly scanning the jungle nearby, phaser rifles at the ready. Fortunately they did not have to set a new base for the pole. They disconnected the power and heaved the defective pole out and simply slotted the new one into its place and reconnected the power. Goldfur then tuned it to synchronise it with the other poles. The new pole lit up with the normal green operational glow and Goldfur leaned back with a sigh of relief.

"Force-field up! Weíre safe again," shi reported.

"Unless another fails," Goldendale said as shi lowered hir weapon.

Swiftwalk lowered hirs also, but neither turned them off. "Yes, how do we know that this isnít going to happen again?"

Goldfur looked disgusted. "I canít answer that. Theyíve got a bunch of new equipment to go with the new ship, so Iím not that familiar with it. This sure hasnít impressed me so far. Damned if I know why they didnít stick with the old model. It was tried and tested and utterly reliable. Iím going to have to analyse this one to see if the problem is a one-off, or something that will require testing them all."

"Weíll need to post guards until weíre sure then," Swiftwalk said. "I noticed that you seemed to sense its imminent failure though. You beat the alarm by a few seconds."

"Like I said, I have a thing for electronics. I can sense something is wrong in many cases. Itís helped make me a very successful technician."

"Thatís a handy talent," Swiftwalk commented.

"It sure is. Speaking of which, I have a questionÖ"

Swiftwalk interrupted Goldfur. "Not here and now," shi said as hir eyes indicated the various crew who had come to find out what had happened. "Later, I promise."

Goldfur sensed fear then from the hybrid chakat that hadnít been there since hir initial scare from the beast. Shi wondered why this unusual chakat was so afraid of letting others know. Goldfur nodded in agreement and said, "OK. Later. Iíve got a defective pole to examine and a report to write. But first, Dale, could I have a private word with you?"

Goldendale nodded and followed Goldfur to one side out of casual earshot. Then Goldfur said, "Dale, you probably saved my life today. Your fast reactions were amazing. Great big thanks, hon." Shi gave hir twin a hug.

Goldendale grinned. "You have your special talents, I have mine. Thatís how I survived as a planetary scout. You develop certain reflexes Ė react without thinking. My time spent practicing with the wolftaurs got me in tune with my new body so Iíd be able to do the same as a chakat as I did as a human."

"Time well spent then. I think youíre going to do fine back at your old job."

Dale grinned. "Yeah, it was very reassuring to me that everything came back to me when it was most needed." Then shi frowned. "Even so, we could still have been all killed if we hadnít got back into the drop ship. How did we get back in the ship, by the way?"

Goldfur replied, "I suspect that Swiftwalk is that rarest of Talents Ė a Teleporter. For some reason though, it seems that shi wants to keep that a secret, so I am leaving that bit out of my explanations to people and the official report. I suggest that you do the same, at least until we find out whatís going on."

"Alright. I never thought that Iíd meet a Teleporter though. What a great Talent!"

"I agree, but maybe Swiftwalk knows something that we donít."

The two walked back to the group. Goldfur and Garrek picked up the defective pole and took it back to the workshop for analysis. Goldendale went to see Swiftwalk to see what shi needed hir to do. At all times, shi kept hir phaser at the ready in case of another failure.


 

Goldfur, Goldendale, Swiftwalk and Garrek were gathered in the hut that was to be Swiftwalkís Ďofficeí and base of operations for the scouting team.

"The biology department is annoyed with us for killing that specimen," Swiftwalk informed them.

Dale snorted and said, "Next time issue them a net and tell them to show us what to do while we stand safely back and watch."

Goldfur grinned. "Those blokes are never happy anyway. I can live with the situation as it is. Right now though, I am more interested in that explanation that you promised us, Swiftwalk."

The skunk-chakat grimaced. "I didnít mean letting Garrek in on it too."

"Thereís nothing that you can tell me that you canít tell him also. Even if you donít do so directly, I will be telling him anyway. We donít keep those kind of secrets between each other, but between us and others, our lips are sealed," Goldfur reassured Swiftwalk.

Garrek added, "Goldfur speaks for me in many things because we know and trust each other. If shi thinks it needs to be kept secret, then a secret it will remain, I promise."

"Not like I have a choice, but I believe you anyway." Swiftwalk sighed. "Okay, opaque the windows and lock the door. I donít want any unexpected interruptions." They did so and then waited expectantly.

"Youíve probably guessed most of it. Yes, I am a Teleporter. I came into that Talent unexpectedly when I hit puberty. I discovered it by accident. I used to love climbing trees, but one day I misjudged the strength of a branch. My rapidly growing body was now too heavy for that branch and it broke. As I fell, I desperately wished that I was safe on the groundÖ then suddenly I was. It was a weird feeling, like I moved in a direction that was at angles to all three physical dimensions. I remembered what it felt like and tried to reproduce it. The next moment I was in my room at home. It was that easy. I practiced it in secret, trying for accuracy and range to test my limits. People kept remarking about how quickly I got around. I told them that I just walked fast. Thatís how I came by my adult name. However, I never told anyone the real reason."

"Judging by the way weíre discussing this, youíve never told the Star Corps about your ability either. Why not?" Goldfur queried.

"Do you know how rare Teleporters are?" Swiftwalk asked. "There are only a handful, and theyíre all working for the government. The moment that they sniff out a new one, they take them away to do research on how Teleporters do their thing. I donít want to be a guinea pig for their experiments. I want to live and work free!"

"Forgive me for saying so, but that sounds a bit paranoid to me," Goldfur said.

"Oh? How many Teleporters do you know? Iíve looked for them, but havenít found any outside of research laboratories."

"Probably being paid good wages to do what comes naturally. Theyíve been trying to duplicate what Teleporters do for ages. The Transporter was developed in an attempt to emulate it, but it doesnít operate like a Teleporter does in the slightest way."

"If itís so good, why donít we ever hear about them? Ever think that we may be considered a security risk? We can get in anywhere. Force-fields can block Transporters, but havenít the slightest effect on Teleporters."

"Oh? I didnít know that. Still, it seems that it would be simpler to recruit them than anything else," Goldfur opined.

"But I donít want to be recruited or anything. I just want to do my preferred job and leave teleporting for emergencies or discreet travelling."

"Thatís your choice," admitted Goldfur. "What is your range anyway? I hear that good ones can travel around the world, or even to the moon."

"If they can get a Ďlockí on the target, some can go that far. You usually get a lock by having been there before and familiarising yourself with the place, to Ďknowí it so that you can reach out to that point in space-time and move there," explained Swiftwalk.

"Okay, but I didnít ask what Ďtheyí can do, I asked what you can do."

Swiftwalk looked uncertain, then sighed. "In for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose." Shi held out a hand in front of hir. "Everyone touch my hand. I need to be in contact with you for this demonstration."

Goldfur, Garrek and Goldendale all put their hands on Swiftwalkís, then the muted light in the hut was abruptly replaced by a moonlit sky and a blazing cityscape.

Three people looked around in startlement while Swiftwalk watched their reactions. Then Goldendale gasped in astonishment."

"Thatís the New Eiffel Tower! Weíre on Earth!"

Goldfur looked to where Goldendale was pointing. Instantly recognisable was the classic form of the New Eiffel Tower, built in faithful reproduction of the one that had been destroyed during the Gene Wars.

Goldfur looked back at Swiftwalk in awe. "You just brought us hundreds of light years in a blink, and so effortlessly!"

"Well, not entirely effortlessly. I use energy to teleport, and I get very hungry quickly if I do it much."

"Going all this distance, itís no wonder," commented Garrek.

"Actually distance seems to make little difference in terms of energy consumption. The amount that I íport does though. It was much harder to take the four of us here than for me to go here alone."

"How much can you take with you?" Goldendale asked curiously.

Swiftwalk looked thoughtful. "Yíknow, Iím really not sure. Iíve never really tested that limit."

Goldfur couldnít understand why shi had done so little with hir Talent. It was almost as if shi was a bit afraid of it. Still, it wasnít hir place to nag. Instead shi asked, "If I was to ask you to take us to our place in Australia, could you do so?"

Swiftwalk shook hir head. "Not without a Ďfixí. I could get you as far as the Star Corps headquarters in Melbourne for example, but thatís it. Like this spot I have been there before, so I have a fix for it. However, until I actually visit a place, I cannot do more than aim blindly in the general direction. At least my Talent seems to prevent me from trying to occupy the same space as other objects, otherwise my early experiments with teleporting might have had gruesome results."

The others shuddered at the thought of that possibility.

Garrek asked, "Can you teleport objects without touching them?"

"Yes and no. I have to be touching the object to kind of pull it along with me as I íport. However, if I use my Astral Travel Talent, I can step out of body and give it a psychic shove instead. That works quite well, but takes extra effort."

"How do you match the different velocities between origin and destination?" asked Goldfur. "Heaven knows how big a difference in speed and direction the hut on Sylvania has compared to this rooftop in Paris."

"Thatís another thing that just happens naturally. Iíve never had a problem with it."

"Amazing. Such an awesome Talent, and we know next to nothing about how it works," Goldfur said.

"Itís enough for me that it does work. Let some other sucker fool around with the laboratories and the authorities. Iím staying out of their clutches at all costs!" Swiftwalk stated emphatically.

There would be no persuading hir, Goldfur decided, so shi let it slide. "Weíd better get back to the hut. These comm badges are a tad out of range, and someone might start wondering where we are if they try to call us."

"Good idea," agreed Swiftwalk, and held up hir hand. The others stepped up and joined hands, and in a blink they were back inside the hut.

As if on cue, Goldfurís comm badge chirped, followed by the sound of Oceanriderís voice. "Oceanrider to Goldfur Ė are you there? Please reply!"

"Bugger! Looks like I already missed a call." Shi tapped hir comm badge. "Goldfur here. Whatís up, Ocean?"

"Why didnít you answer me before?" Oceanrider asked with a hint of concern.

"I stepped out to Paris. I was in the mood for a fresh croissant," Goldfur extemporised glibly.

"And you forgot to ask me if I wanted one too?" replied Oceanrider, affecting a hurt tone.

"Doesnít matter," Goldfur said. "Turned out to be night and all the bakeries were closed."

"Too bad. Donít forget to bring me a couple when theyíre open again."

"Will do," Goldfur assured hir, satisfied with the outcome. It was difficult to lie to another chakat, but one could still tell mostly the truth and make it seem like an obvious lie for a joke. Shi continued, "Iíve been testing the force-field pole between trips to Earth." Now shi let Oceanrider make the reasonable assumption that interference from the test caused the communications breakdown. Shi felt a little bad about fooling hir friend, but shi had a promise to keep.

"Good," replied Oceanrider. "The captain wants a report. Heís concerned about the other landing parties."

"Itís too soon for a full report, but my preliminary analysis indicates a failure in the field generation coil. Iím stripping it down to give it a thorough test. Until then, I recommend that no one relies on the force-fields alone."

"Okay, Iíll pass that along. Oceanrider out."

"That was quick thinking," remarked Swiftwalk. "Thanks for keeping quiet."

"Itís okay, although Iíd like to talk to you more about this at a better time."

Swiftwalk sighed. "I suppose so. After dinner perhaps? Tomorrow we have to start our surveying, and I believe that you have to go help set up another base?"

"Yep, which means that I had better get cracking and start stripping down this force-field generator."

"Everyone else better get back to whatever theyíre supposed to be doing," Swiftwalk ordered. "Iíve got to get this base of operations fully operational."

Everybody scattered to do their jobs.


 

Goldfur spotted Garrek with their daughters in tow in the company of Goldendale, and shi hastened over to join them.

"I thought that you were going to miss dinner," Garrek said to Goldfur as shi turned up belatedly. "We were about to start without you."

"Sorry," Goldfur said as they joined the queue in the mess hall. "I needed to finish testing that unit and submit my report." Shi piled portions of roast beef, roast potatoes peas and gravy onto plates for hirself, Eudora and Tailstalker.

"So what was wrong with it?" Garrek asked as he followed suit. Goldendale chose the fish menu instead.

"Manufacturing defect. The bad news is if that type of defect happened once, it could easily happen again. The good news is that a unit with that type of defect will always fail in less than an hour, so there wonít be any further rude surprises for Swiftwalkís base."

The five taurs found an unused table. The cubs got up on chairs while the adults pushed the chairs aside and squatted in front of the table. "So now they either have to test every force-field pole for an hour, which could be very time-consuming, or just go ahead and use them but stay on guard for an hour."

"Iíll bet that they go with the latter," Goldendale predicted. "Our schedule is too tight to allow for days of testing when an hourís extra vigilance will achieve the desired security.

Garrek nodded. "Iíll agree with Dale there."

Goldfur sighed. "Yeah. It goes against my instincts, but I can see the point. Fortunately itís not my decision to make. Eudora! Stop playing with your peas!"

"Aw, mum!" protested the errant cub.

The adults ate in thoughtful silence while keeping a stern eye on the cubs. Then Oceanrider turned up with a tray-load of food.

"Mind if I join you?" Oceanrider asked.

"Plenty of room," Goldendale said as shi shifted to one side.

"What took you so long?" Goldfur asked.

"Ha! While you could just beam up when you were finished, I had to fly the shuttle back, which I couldnít do until Swiftwalk signed off on everything, which shi couldnít do until youÖ" shi said as shi pointed hir finger at Goldfur, "Öhad submitted your report. So itís all your fault that Iím starving."

"If that creature had caught me, youíd probably be still down there, so count your blessings!" Goldfur retorted.

"Touché! Oh well, at least they didnít run out of gravy before I could get to it."


 

Garrek and the chakats joined other friends for an evening of socialising, the last that they would all be able to do together for some weeks. Everyoneís cubs were allowed to stay up later than usual, and it was quite a lively party until bed-time finally came. Goldfur invited Swiftwalk and Oceanrider to their cabin for coffee and cake. With the cubs dealt with, the adults settled down for some quiet conversation and the evening passed very pleasantly. Oceanrider eventually excused hirself, citing an early morning schedule as hir reason. When shi left, Goldfur took the opportunity to resume hir discussion with Swiftwalk.

"I had a thought. Skunktaurs can link and share their Talents with their chakat kin. Can you do that?" Goldfur asked.

Swiftwalk looked surprised. "IÖ never thought about that. I inherited my sireís Talent, but that doesnít necessarily mean that I can do that particular trick."

"Okay, maybe you can try that sometime and let me know. Iíve had another idea though. You told us that you can only go to a destination if you thoroughly Ďknowí the place. However, weíre empaths. What if we were to empathically project our impression of a place that we thoroughly know. Could you go there then?"

Swiftwalk looked thoughtful, then said, "Youíve gotten me curious, so Iím going to give that a try. Want to volunteer?"

"Iím game," Goldfur said.

"Okay, just us two for this trial. Have you got a place in mind?" asked Swiftwalk.

"Yes. Itís in our home in Australia, a private room. It isnít used much, so it should be discreet enough."

"Good choice. I donít want to risk being seen teleporting."

"Right. Ready? Iíll start now." Goldfur closed hir eyes to help concentrate on a mental image of the spare bedroom at home. Shi visualised the size and placement of the walls, the door, the window, the curtains, the bedding, the dresser, the light, the scent, the ambient sound Ė the gestalt of all that was the spare room Ė and projected the feel of that place at Swiftwalk.

There was a startled yelp and Goldfurís eyes flew open to see Lupuís face mere centimetres from hir nose, with an equally startled Avi mounted on top of the gravid wolftaur bitch.

"Oops! Bad timing," Goldfur said sheepishly.

Swiftwalk groaned. "More witnesses!"

Both the wolftaurs had their ears lowered in embarrassment. As Avi dismounted, Lupu struggled to understand what just had happened.

"Goldie! WhatÖ? HowÖ? Arenít you supposed to be weeks away on another planet right now?"

"I am, believe it or not. We just teleported here. Keep things quiet though, please. I want to keep this a secrÖ."

Shi was interrupted by a voice from the doorway. "Lupu, I heard you yelp. Is anything wroÖ Goldfur! What are you doing here?"

An amazed but pleased Malena threw herself into Goldfurís startled embrace. Swiftwalk slapped hir palm into hir face and shook hir head in disbelief. Goldfur gave hir a helpless look over Lupuís shoulder.

"As I was just telling Lupu and Avi whom we so rudely interrupted, Swiftwalk and I just teleported here from the planet that weíre exploring. Swiftwalk has an amazing Talent and we were just testing to see if shi could use it in conjunction with an empathic impression from me to go to places that shi doesnít know. Itís obviously a big success. Itís also obvious that I miscalculated the time of day here. Sorry to disturb everyone."

"Who cares?" Malena said as she hugged and nuzzled Goldfur enthusiastically. "Iíve been missing you so much that I have not been able to sleep well, so I heard the commotion in here. Forest and the others are still sound asleep with the cubs though."

"Thank heavens," murmured Swiftwalk. "I was beginning to wonder if I should sell tickets."

"Donít worry, Swiftwalk. These people are all part of my family and I trust them implicitly. People, donít breathe a word of this to anybody. Forget that it ever happened, please."

Lupu replied, "Okay, but speaking of forgetting, please donít tell Dale how you found usÖ yíknow?"

Goldfur was puzzled. "Sure, but why the secrecy? Dale fully expected you two to be intimate in hir absence. Leaving you here alone was one of the things that had most concerned hir when shi originally considered going back to work."

"Goldie, youíve been a chakat all your life. You barely understand the concept of jealousy. Dale has been a chakat for a mere few months. Hir thinking has been altered by hir new body, but shi spent most of hir life as a human. Shi understands the need to share intellectually, and on the surface shi is fine with that and expects that of us. However, deep down thereís still a human part of hir that could still be hurt by our relationship if we push things along more quickly than shi can adjust. We intend to take it very slowly so that our denmate remains totally happy. We care far too much about hir to make hir even the least bit uncomfortable."

"I understand completely now, and thatís very wise of you," Goldfur said with a nod. "You might like to know that shi coped very well with hir first heat spent with me. It was a mutually enlightening experience."

Lupu laughed. "As long as you both had fun."

"That we did." Goldfur looked down at the vixen still hugging hir. "As much as I am enjoying this, Iím afraid that we had better leave before weíre missed or Garrek gets too worried about my absence. However, hereís something to keep you going until next time weíre together again." Shi put hir muzzle to Malenaís and kissed her long and deep.

They parted with a happy sigh and Malena said, "I think that Iíll sleep much better now, love. Thanks for coming."

"The pleasure was mine, dear heart." Goldfur looked at Swiftwalk. "Letís go, Swift."

The skunk-patterned chakat nodded and put hir hand on Goldfurís arm. In a blink, they were gone, a momentary breeze the only indication that anything had happened. The trio looked at each other in amazement before Malena left to have the best nightís sleep in ages, while the wolftaurs resumed their interrupted lovemaking.


 

"Why were you gone so long?" asked Garrek. "We were starting to worry that something had gone wrong."

"Sorry about that, love," Goldfur apologised. "I should have checked what the time was back home. The spare room was occupied when we got there and we had some explaining to do."

Dale snorted in amusement. "Iíll bet! Who did you surprise?"

"I ended up nose-to-nose with Lupu, but Avi and Malena also know about Swiftwalkís ability now."

"And Iím not terribly happy about that despite your reassurances," Swiftwalk added. "The more people that know a secret, the more likely that the secret will leak out."

"I regret that," Goldfur said, "but on the other hand we found out something enormously useful. You can go anywhere that a chakat has been and knows well."

"Only if I also let that chakat in on my secret," Swiftwalk retorted grumpily. Then shi sighed in resignation. "I suppose it might come in handy one of these days. Iíd better go to bed now. The next few weeks are going to be very busy, and I need my sleep, especially after going back and forth to Earth twice! Goodnight all."

With that, shi left for hir cabin, leaving the others to realise that the hour was late and theyíd better think about going to bed also. As they curled up with the cubs, Goldfur realised that hir spirits were higher though. The brief moments with Malena had eased hir concerns for hir lifemate. Now shi could concentrate on healing the rift between her and Garrek. Shi was under no illusion that it would be easy though.


 

The drop-ship settled down at its previous landing site, and a minute later, Oceanrider stepped out of the personnel hatch and walked over to the hut that was the base of operations. There shi found the campís entire complement gathered. Shi gave them a cheery wave of hir tail.

"OK. Youíve got me for the next hour, so letís get things moving," Oceanrider said.

"Now that youíre finally here we can complete the final briefing," Swiftwalk replied tartly.

Oceanrider shrugged. "Itís been a busy morning."

Swiftwalk held up hir PADD. "Iím transferring two sets of coordinates to you."

Oceanriderís PADD beeped in its belt pouch. Shi took it out and examined its display. "OK, I got íem."

Swiftwalk put away hir PADD and said, "Right. Michaelson, youíre team leader for team one. Youíll be taken up to a site in the mountain range in the north. Preliminary orbital surveillance suggests that there are useful deposits of copper and zinc to be found, so you will prioritise geological survey over the normal routines. Hereís the latest data on the area." Shi handed over a data chip with several hundred gigabytes of data freshly culled from the Endeavourís computer. The male human took the chip and plugged it into his PADD, then nodded as he reviewed its contents.

"Looks promising," he said.

"Next, Greyclaw." Swiftwalk turned to the female wolf morph clad only in safari shorts and sports halter. "Youíre in charge of team two and you get to check out the plains to the east. Ship survey says that itís a likely candidate for agriculture. Priority is to be given to checking for edible native plants, or alternatively terraforming for Federation crops. A preliminary environmental impact report will be required. Youíll be dropped off there after Michaelsonís crew. Hereís the latest data on the area." Shi handed over another chip.

"Looking forward to it," Greyclaw said with a wolfish grin.

"Goldendale, normally you would be assigned as leader of team three but, due to your circumstances, you need to undergo re-evaluation on this assignment, therefore I will be heading up this one myself."

Dale nodded. "Itís okay. I was warned to expect this and I fully understand their concerns. Rest assured that this will be the last time it happens however!"

"Thatís what I like to hear," Swiftwalk replied with a satisfied wave of hir tail. "Anyway, we will be doing things the hard way, following the nearby stream on foot down to the ocean in the west. Weíll be doing a broad biological survey along the way, and assessing the coast for accessibility and a potential port."

"Oh sure," said a foxmorph that Goldendale recognised as the one who had been treed yesterday. "You just want to take a swim and cool off in this oppressive heat!" He grinned widely.

Swiftwalk smiled back. "You first. I donít want to be the one to discover the hard way what might be lurking in the sea there."

"Pass! I like it warm."

"If there are no more volunteersÖ? Okay, the Endeavour will be circling the planet and taking high-resolution scans as it orbits. This means that it will be out of beaming range for a large part of the time, although communications satellites put into orbit will keep us in contact with the ship at all times. In emergencies, if the Endeavour is unavailable, then Oceanrider will be available at short notice to come to your assistance in the shuttle. Send in your data back here every night. Lapidix and Ranjit will be minding the main base and processing the data. They will also be your source of new data if you need it. Check in hourly. Keep your force-field belts on and in stand-by mode at all times when outside the protection of your camp. I donít care how uncomfortable that they may get. They may save your life if that beastís mate is nearby and you can snap the field on full at a momentís notice. Heaven knows what else is out there. You science specialists listen to your team leader. They have been trained especially as planetary scouts and have better instincts for novel situations. Keep your sensors active, your senses keen, and stay alive. I want to see you all again in two weeks. Good luck, everybody."

"All aboard, everyone! We leave in five!" Oceanrider announced.


 

Dale was revelling in the hike. This was a true jungle with a riot of colourful plants, vines and trees that made progress slow at best. However, where once shi would have struggled to get past or over obstacles as a human, shi could now climb or jump over readily as a chakat. If shi ever had any lingering doubts about hir new form, this was permanently quashing them. Shi was having fun! Shi had to remind hirself a couple of times to not forget the seriousness of their situation. To help speed up the less agile members of their group, shi would climb onto such things as boulders or fallen giant trees, secure an unbreakable grip with hir handpaws, and then let them climb hir tail. It was more effective and quicker than a rope because the muscular tail could pull them up rather than relying on them hauling themselves up. Shi had no trouble supporting their weight, but shi was getting tired of the way hir fur was nearly being yanked out by the more clumsy climbers.

The first day passed without incident. Swiftwalk and Goldendale kept watch whenever they paused to allow the scientific experts time to take samples and do scans. They ensured that the safest routes were taken, their charges were kept fed and hydrated, and made camp for them at the end of the day. Only when the four portable force-field poles were erected and operational did planetary scouts get to relax. The portable poles were an older trusted model, so everybody had confidence in them.

The two chakats were both experienced scouts and were unperturbed by the strange night noises and slept like logs. Not so fortunate were some of their party, and the chakats were amused by the bleary-eyed greetings that they got as they stirred up the group to start the new day. They did make sure that everyone was well fed though so that they would have the energy to get them through another full day.

They did have a bit of excitement on day two. A pack of hunting animals that resembled a cross between a lemur and a mink surrounded them. However, the creatures method of attack Ė herding their prey into the centre of the pack with fearsome screeches and threatening postures Ė meant that not only did everyone have plenty of warning to switch on their belt shields to active, but they also could stun the creatures at their leisure. The biologists were delighted to get some excellent data on the predators and had to be reminded to move along before they recovered consciousness.

Around noon of the sixth day, they emerged onto a bluff that overlooked a massive delta draining into the ocean. Swiftwalk and Goldendale took out their binoculars to give the area a good look from their vantage point.

"Looks like thatís where our stream ends up," commented Swiftwalk.

"I wonder if any part of it is navigable?" Goldendale said.

"Only one way to find out and thatís to go take a look."

"One thing concerns me though." Goldendale lifted a hand to point to a mountain on the other side of the delta. "See that plume of smoke? Thatís a volcano. We donít know how active it is."

Swiftwalk called up a satellite photograph of the area and examined it. "Judging from the copious vegetation on its slopes, Iíd say that the activity level is very low and safe. Iíd say that it has been benign for some time. Even if it was to erupt, itís quite a long distance away."

"But it is an indication of geologic instability in the area," said Mark Fleetwind, their cheetah-morph geologist.

"That could affect this areaís viability for development," commented Goldendale.

"Yeah. Well, time to go have a look for some answers. Timeís wasting, folks!" Swiftwalk set off again.

It took them three and a half hours to get down to the edge of the delta where they were confronted by an extensive marshland criss-crossed with narrow waterways.

"We wonít be getting much further without some form of water transport," Goldendale observed.

"Time to stir up the boss," Swiftwalk replied as shi took out hir comm from its belt pouch. "Swiftwalk to Endeavour!"

After a moment, the reply came. "Endeavour here. How can we be of assistance, Swiftwalk?"

"Survey coordinator, please."

"One moment, shir."

Several seconds later, another voice said, "Bracks here. Whatís up, Swiftwalk?"

"Sir, we have reached the river delta at survey coordinates DXN-402. We require water transport, shallow draft, suitable for six people including two taurs."

"Acknowledged. I can supply you with a suitable craft inÖ" Bracks paused to consult a screen. "Öabout seven minutes which is when weíll be next in Transporter line-of-sight."

"Thank you, sir. Swiftwalk out." Shi put away hir comm and said, "Alright folks, seven minute break to do whatever you want until the boat arrives."

Some people elected to rest and eat an energy bar. Others took some scans of the area and samples from the marsh. Right on schedule, the hum of the Transporter field announced the arrival of their boat. The large rubber dinghy fitted with an outboard impellor was quickly filled with people and equipment and they were soon under way.

They meandered through the network of channels, Swiftwalk allowing the biologists to select their route. Goldendale kept an eye on the sonar in case of something big lurking under the water, but shi never spotted anything longer than about half a metre. Fleetwind was allowed to get off on some of the islands to take samples which he ran through his small analyser while they travelled around.

Having arrived at the delta fairly late in the day, they did not make much progress that afternoon. Swiftwalk chose an island and they set up camp there for the night. They had a far better view of the night sky from there in comparison to their camps in the jungle. Goldendale pointed out the dim red glow that could now be seen on the horizon where the volcano was smouldering.

"Seems pretty active for a benign volcano," shi commented.

"Even benign volcanoes vary in their activity," reassured Fleetwind.

"Glad to hear it," Goldendale replied.


 

Two hours into their explorations the next day, they came across a deep and wide channel. Sonar measurements indicated a depth suitable for river traffic at that point, and they turned to follow it upstream to see if it remained that way once it reached firm land. It was an idyllic cruise on a placid river. The biologists were still going crazy over the sheer volume of data that they were getting, but Fleetwind just lazed comfortably until they reached land again. Neither of the chakat scouts could completely relax while on the job, but they still found it very pleasant work despite the heat which was nevertheless ameliorated by the surrounding wetlands.

Travelling on the broad channel was a lot faster than navigating the narrow tributaries. Still, it took a few hours to reach the beginning of the delta.

"Land ho!" Goldendale announced. Theyíd actually been passing larger and larger islands, but this was clearly solid mainland.

Swiftwalk checked the sonar. "The channel is very deep here. Looks like we have found ourselves a potentially viable port."

"Great!" Goldendale said. "We can check that off the list. Want to see how much further this river goes? There might be falls around the bend, or it could go for hundreds of kilometres inland without a problem. Who knows?"

"Weíll go upstream for the rest of the day, but we need to continue exploring the coast also," Swiftwalk replied. "But first, time for lunch!"

Shi steered the dinghy up onto the shore. Goldendale leaped out and secured the boat to a tree and everyone else got out and stretched their legs.

"Nice to be able to walk around again," Fleetwind said.

"Seeing as youíve been doing nothing for the past few hours, I suggest you get busy while the rest of us prepare a meal," Swiftwalk said pointedly.

"Iím on it!" he replied cheerfully. When they sat down for lunch, he made some observations. "There seems to be a higher salt content in the soil than I would expect to find. Rather curious."

"Weíre not all that far from the ocean yet," Goldendale replied.

"I took that into account," Fleetwind said.

"That might account for the stunting of the growth of these trees," commented Hespa Lapin, the rabbit-morph botany specialist.

"An interesting puzzle," agreed her colleague.

They did not loiter there for long. Aside from doing a quick basic survey, it was more important for the team to continue moving along, leaving it up to follow-up teams to check out the areas of greatest interest later. An afternoon spent travelling upstream found many more sites of potential interest, with the river giving no sign of making trouble for shipping. The night was spent on a particularly nice island in the middle of the river, prompting Hespa to declare dibs on that particular piece of real estate.

The next day, the team travelled back downstream at top speed. They made good time back to the delta, then out to where it finally drained into the sea. Again they had no trouble with finding a deep navigable route right into the bay. Silting was apparently not a problem because of the vast wetlands filtering much of the water. They headed back into the channels where they would not have to deal with the waves coming off the sea. While the dinghy could cope, they were getting a rough ride and splashed a lot. It did cool people down in the oppressive heat, but it was also getting salt water on the equipment.

They were still within the delta but within sight of the coast when it came time to stop for the night. Choosing a suitable island, they began making camp. Abruptly the world seemed to tip over on its side and everyone was thrown off their feet. The ground continued to dance while the team frantically tried to hold onto something solid, but there wasnít anything that was not also shaking wildly.

"Earthquake!" yelled Fleetwind somewhat unnecessarily.

It lasted about twenty seconds, although to those caught up in the shaking, it seemed like forever. When the rumbling of tortured rock finally ceased, people started picking themselves up off the ground. Some equipment had been thrown into the water, and they started salvaging as much as they could.

Goldendale looked around in concern, then noticed something else that bother hir. "The volcano is erupting a heck of a lot more than before. Did that cause the earthquake?"

Fleetwind shook his head. "Too far away, and far more likely that the earthquake is whatís causing the increased activity."

"Whatís happened to the water?" Hespa asked plaintively.

Everyone lowered their sights from the volcano to the seaÖ which was gone. As far as they could see, wet sand and mud was all that was left except for the ribbon of water that was the river flowing out its channel into the bay.

Goldendale went cold with fear. "Oh, fuck! Itís a tsunami coming!"

"Weíre totally vulnerable here," Swiftwalk said. "Weíve got to abandon this site immediately." Grabbing hir comm, shi called the Endeavour.

"Endeavour here," said the same pleasant voice as last time. "What can we do for you, Shir Swiftwalk?"

"Request emergency beam-out for our party. Now, Endeavour!!" shi told her urgently but calmly.

The voice on the other end changed, and Goldendale recognised the captainís concerned tones. "Swiftwalk, we are not in position to beam you up at this time. We canít be in position for at least eleven minutes. Suggest that you call Oceanrider immediately."

Swiftwalk wasted no time on politely signing off. "Swiftwalk to Oceanrider!"

Oceanrider was apparently on the ball because shi answered immediately. "Ocean here. Whatís up, Swift?"

"Drop whatever youíre doing and get here at top emergency speed. We need to be evacuated immediately!"

"Oh shit!" came the reply. "Iím just in the middle of unloading some freight. Itíll take a moment to close up. Hir voice grew quieter as shi apparently turned away from the commís microphone to shout an order to Ďbutton up prontoí which Swiftwalk could still clearly hear. Then Oceanrider turned hir attention back to Swiftwalk. "Iím crash starting the engines now. Thatíll hurt, but I can be there in five minutes. Iíve got your beacon. Hang on!"

"Weíll be dead in half that time," said Fleetwind, pointing out into the bay where an ominous mountain of water could now be seen on the horizon.

"Hell!" Swiftwalk looked at the tidal wave that was their impending doom.

"Swiftwalk!" Goldendale said, grabbing the chakat by the arm to get hir attention. "We have one more option. You can get us out of here!"

Swiftwalk stared at Goldendale. "But then everyone will know. IÖ I canít do that!"

Goldendale was incredulous. "You canít tell me that youíre so paranoid about your secret that youíll let us all die rather than reveal it?"

Swiftwalk was torn by indecision. Hir eyes locked on the approaching wave as shi mumbled, "Too many! Too many people would know! Iíll never be safe again. Theyíll come for me the moment we return. I canít. I just canít!"

"What are you talking about?" Hespa asked in confusion.

"Swiftwalk is a Teleporter. Shi could have us out of here safely in an instant," explained Goldendale.

"No! You promised not to tell!" Swiftwalk yelled frantically, grabbing at Goldendaleís arms.

Dale backhanded the hysterical chakat, shocking hir deeply. "Get a grip, Swiftwalk! Stop this paranoia and save us!"

Swiftwalk stared at the golden chakat and then shook hir head to try to clear hir mind. Shi looked to the right to see that the wave was nearly upon them. "What the hell am I doing? Everybody grab me! Now!!"

Not certain why, but desperate to do anything that might save them, everybody grabbed an arm or belt or even a handful of fur. Moments later, the wave crashed into the spot where the six had been standing, the rubber dinghy and the remaining equipment hurled and buried by the mountain of water.


 

Everybody sank to the grass at the base camp, their limbs weak with relief.

"ThatÖ was amazing," Fleetwind said, his eyes shining with awe as he gazed at Swiftwalk.

Goldendale pulled out hir comm as shi saw Oceanriderís shuttle screaming through the sky towards the sea. "Goldendale to Oceanrider. Emergency over. Come back to base."

"What? How?" came back Oceanriderís confused voice. "Wait! Your beacon is now at the main base. How the hell did you get there? If youíve been screwing around with an emergency call, the captain is going to have your hide for a throw-rug!"

"Explanations when you get here. Goldendale out."

That done, Goldendale allowed hirself to relax. Shi had stared death in the face again, and it wasnít any easier than the first time.

"Dale," Swiftwalk said softly, "I want to apologise. My conduct was completely unbecoming of a team leader. It seems that I have issues that have to be dealt with. In the meantime, Iím turning over the leadership to you. Youíve nothing left to prove. Iíll stay back here where I belong from now on."

Goldendale grinned. "Iíll take that leadership gladly, but youíre still going to be on my team. Youíre too good to be stuck in this base camp. Besides, we work well together, and I like having another chakat with me."

Swiftwalk gave hir a crooked grin. "Me too. I just feel a bit stupid right now."

"And seeing as I might still be in the field when I next go on heatÖ" Goldendale left the sentence hanging.

Swiftwalk quirked an eyebrow. "I thought Goldfur was going to be taking care of that?"

"Iíve come to realise that Iíve been using my family as a crutch. When Goldie made love to me on the voyage here, it was beautiful, and it made me realise that I was worrying way too much over it. Instead of confronting my concerns, I had taken the easy way out. Now Iím taking complete control of my life. Iím a chakat now, not a human pretending to be one. If something comes along and surprises me, Iíll deal with it as a chakat would and not let fear sway me."

"Fear? Yeah, I know what you mean. Seems like my fears ran away with me today. Perhaps Iíd better take a leaf from your book and confront them." Swiftwalk looked up as Oceanriderís shuttle flew over the camp and landed in its usual position. "And I think Iím going to have to apologise to Ocean for causing hir to abuse hir poor shipís engines unnecessarily."

Goldendale smiled. "Shiíll forgive you, but shi might throttle you first."

As an aggravated chakat came storming out of the shuttle, Swiftwalk said, "Heh! Maybe I better let hir cool off first." Shi pulled out hir comm and said, "Swiftwalk to Endeavour."

The captainís worried voice came back immediately. "Swiftwalk! Whatís your status? Report!"

"Reporting in right now, sir," shi said. Shi then disappeared, leaving Oceanrider gaping at the empty spot shiíd been in.


 

"At least we can now guess why the salt level was unusually high," Goldendale said.

"Yes, a tsunami could reach that far, and if the area is that geologically active, it might be a fairly frequent occurrence," Fleetwind agreed.

"Which rules out that area for a port," Swiftwalk concluded.

"Still, itís a big planet and weíve barely started to explore it. Lots more prospects to check out. Which one should we try?" Goldendale asked as shi displayed a few that the orbital surveyors had highlighted for priority.

"Iím feeling lucky," Swiftwalk said as shi put hir hand over hir eyes. "Eeny, meeny, miney, mo!" Shi put hir finger down at random on the list. Shi looked at it and smiled. "Look, no volcanoes. Just a lovely lazy river, and itís about two and a half weeks hike away. Looks like we have something else to look forward to, Dale."

Goldendale grinned back at hir. "You peeked! I feel flattered!"

Swiftwalk was unrepentant. "Goldendale, prepare your team for departure first thing in the morning. Iíll organise Oceanrider to bring down some more supplies to replace those we lost."

"Speaking of Ocean, how have you managed to not get killed by hir?" Goldendale asked curiously.

"Yeah, Iíd like to know too," Fleetwind said, looking at Swiftwalk expectantly.

"Easy Ė I bribed hir. I promised hir a round trip to almost anywhere shi wanted if shi promised not to choke me within an inch of my life. I think I got a pretty good deal."

"I think thatíll make up for hir having to repair hir engines. Heck, Iíd be happy to do more!" Goldendale said.

Swiftwalk put a hand on Goldendaleís shoulder and said quietly but sincerely, "You did, and Iíll be forever grateful. You get a freebie anytime."

Dale was about to play down hir role when shi thought of something. "Okay, I think that Iíll take you up on that."


 

This time they got the timing right. It was after mealtime and the adults were having their after-dinner chat in the living room when Swiftwalk, Goldfur and Goldendale arrived unannounced.

Malena was instantly up and into Goldfurís arms, hugging and nuzzling hir. Lupu was close behind and doing likewise to Goldendale, quickly joined by Avi. Forestwalker, Leanna, Kris and Trina were left hugely puzzled though.

"Would someone care to explain how come my sisters are here instead of on a planet far, far away?" asked Forest.

"I think Iíd better do the explaining," Swiftwalk said. "I think your sisters are going to be a little preoccupied for a while."

"One moment, Swift," Goldfur said and padded over to Forest to give hir a huge hug. "Missed you loads, sis. However, I have a lifemate to attend to right now. Make Swiftwalk welcome though, will you?"

"Sure thing, Goldie. Love you!" Shi gave Goldfur a lick-kiss, then beckoned Swiftwalk to follow hir. "We have some great coffee here. Care to try some while you tell me all about this?"

"Sounds good to me, Forestwalker," Swiftwalk replied as shi followed, and hir travelling companions departed for more private rooms.

"Call me Forest, and donít leave out any of the details," the jaguar chakat told hir.


 

Goldfur and Malena took the first private room. Goldendale knew that hir twin wanted to help hir mate more, but had been frustrated by the need to go on the scheduled voyage, so shi had arranged to bring hir along as part of the favour that Swiftwalk had promised. However, shi now could concentrate on hir primary reason for coming home for a visit. As shi closed the door behind their threesome, shi put on a very serious face and turned to face Avi with hir hands on hir hips.

"Okay Avi, I want to know if youíve been screwing Lupu in my absence," shi demanded.

Avi looked surprised, then nervous, then resolute. "Yes. Yes I have," he said, bracing for the worst.

"Good!" Goldendale said, breaking into a wide grin. "Iíd hate to have denmated a wuss who couldnít keep his mate happy!"

Avi looked surprised, then disgusted at having been fooled. Lupu giggled at the sight.

Dale turned to look at Lupu and asked, "You werenít fooled for a moment, were you?"

She grinned and said, "You were curling your tail like you always do when youíre happy, so I knew you were teasing.

"Hmmm, gotta remember that when Iím playing poker," Goldendale said thoughtfully. "But Iím not here to play cards, Iím here to have some time with my denmates whom Iíve been missing so much. How about some hot three-way action?"

Needless to say, they were delighted with that idea.


 

Weeks later, after a more conventional arrival at the Star Corps headquarters in Melbourne, Swiftwalk left the Transporter station in the company of Goldendale, Garrek, Goldfur and their cubs. They were barely out into the corridor leading to the foyer when two people, one a female wolf-morph in Star Fleet uniform with captainís pips and the other a human male in an expensive-looking black suit, stopped the party.

"Chakat Swiftwalk, would you please accompany us to the Duty Managerís office?" asked the captain.

"And what if I say no?" asked Swiftwalk.

"Please, Shir Swiftwalk, we just want to ask you a few questions," put in the man in the suit.

Swiftwalk looked at hir companions with a Ďtold-you-soí expression on hir face. However, shi had decided to face up to whatever these people had to say long before shi had left Sylvania. "Alright. What about my friends?" shi asked.

"They can wait for you in reception if they wish. The meeting is a private one."

"OK. Letís do it. Iíll try to be quick," shi told the others.

The group waited anxiously in the reception area for about half an hour before Swiftwalk finally turned up alone.

"Well? What happened?" asked Goldendale.

"Did it go as you predicted?" asked Goldfur.

"They and the duty officer all gave me a long spiel on the scarcity of an immensely valuable resource, service to the Federation, duty as a citizen, blah, blah, blah. I politely told them to stick that crap where the sun doesnít shine."

They all grinned at that. Garrek asked, "Did they give up that easily?"

"Heck, no! They next tried bribery. They offered me an extremely well-paid job as a Ďresearch assistantí with loads of perks. I asked them if I could still do scouting on frontier worlds also. They told me that I was far too valuable a resource to risk on such a dangerous occupation. I told them that I had no intention of giving up my chosen career. They asked me to reconsider. I reiterated my first suggestion. Then they gave me a couple of contact numbers and told me that if I ever changed my mind, donít hesitate to call them. Then they said goodbye and left."

"What? No knocking you out, drugging you and brainwashing you to be their guinea pig?" Goldfur asked as if shi was shocked.

"Go on, mock me for my silly paranoia if you must," Swiftwalk said, feeling foolish.

"Oh, we must!" chorused the rest with the same impish grins on their faces.

Swiftwalk rolled hir eyes. "Iíve fallen in with a bunch of comedians," shi lamented.

Everybody laughed. Then Goldendale said, "I for one am glad that weíll be getting the opportunity to work together again in the future."

"Me too," agreed Swiftwalk. "Now Iím thirsty for some of that fine coffee that you promised me if I visited again. Is everyone ready to leave?" shi asked as shi raised a hand in front of hir.

"Ready?" Goldendale echoed. "Iíve got a denmate nearly ready to give birth, and weíve all been dawdling here instead!" Shi joined with everyone else in putting their hands on Swiftwalkís.

"Then we wonít keep her waiting a moment longer. Next stop Ė Chez Goldfur!" Swiftwalk announced, and the group disappeared, leaving behind an extremely bewildered receptionist.

 



Oceanrider is copyright hir player.
All other characters and this story are copyright © 2007 Bernard Doove.



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While on Sylvania, both Swiftwalk and Goldendale indulged in Introspections.

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