by Terry Knight
The overwhelming tropical Queensland heat hit Keith Walker like a physical wall as he stepped outside the terminal building, causing him to wince almost perceptibly. It had been over a three hour flight from his home city to where he stood now, where it had been decidedly cooler. I knew Australia was hot, he thought to himself, shading his eyes from the sun as the roar and whine of transports taking off and landing behind him sounded in his ears, but I never expected this...
Beyond in the shimmering haze was the welcoming form of an Academy shuttle bus, the white roof reflecting the bright sunlight almost painfully into his eyes. Grasping the handle on the baggage trolley, Keith grimly made his way across the baking expanse of the pickup area to the shuttle bus, where the driver hopped out of his seat to meet him.
"Keeth Walker?" the driver asked in a thickly Australian accent.
"Yeah..." Keith nodded, panting in the heat.
"Ah, the kiwi bloke," the driver smiled. "You're the last one from this flight. Come on, I'll take care o' your bags, you hop in. Guess you're not used to the heat over here yet."
Keith nodded numbly, and gratefully clambered into the crowded bus, managing to find the last spare seat which was next to a tall African. He seemed to be regarding the wiry European with wry amusement, the temperature obviously not troubling him in the slightest. The rest of the bus was of similarly mixed nationality from what he could work out - the African next to him of course, a couple of what he thought were Pakistanis, a tall blonde couple which spoke with South African accents, a handful of Asians, and a few Caucasians like himself. Keith looked at them with no small amount of curiosity - an ethnic mix such as this wasn't exactly heard of at home - but mostly he just wished the driver would get the door closed and the dammed air conditioning working.
It only took a few minutes to travel from the Cape York Aerospaceport to the actual Space Academy itself, and after the bus had deposited Keith and his companions at the reception area, he suddenly found himself with his bags in the middle of a huge concourse, with only signs to point the way.
"Well, this is it," he breathed. "I'm finally here." After all this time, all the work hed put into his studies, all the applications and interviews - hed made it. Now he, Keith Walker, was now - or soon would be once hed finished final registration - a cadet at the Cape York Space Academy, the first stepping stone on his career. Where exactly hed be going was still undecided, but the young New Zealander knew that his path lay among the stars.
The Space Academy that Keith was about to spend at least the next three years of his life at was one of the several Stellar Federation institutions expressly set up for training and instructing would-be spacefarers. Situated next to the Aerospaceport, the Cape York Academy was first of the two Academy sites on Earth catering for Terran and Sol-based students.
The first truly international spaceport, the Cape York Aerospaceport was first proposed in the late twentieth century as a private venture for launching communication satellites, using its close proximity to the Equator to gain significant launch advantage for the primitive chemical rockets of that era. Using Australian experience with the Woomera test area in South Australia, and flying Soviet Proton-class and even Chinese Long March-class rockets, Cape York was poised to replace the American Kennedy Space Center and European Kororou launchpads as the preferred commercial spaceflight gateway. Unfortunately, planning delays meant the proposed spaceport was never built - but the actual site and concept remained.
Keith sat in the lecture hall, leaning to one side while doodling with a pencil as the lecturer continued the orientation session. Hed heard and read all about the history of Cape York before, from the days as a child when hed first seen the vapour trails high above his head as the orbital shuttles leapt for the stars. Keith had voraciously devoured everything he could read about spaceflight. Hed seen recreated holos of the first Moon and Mars landings, read with excitement the first-hand records of the Voxxan contacts two hundred years ago, and followed religiously the news from deep space exploration missions... Ah, those were the days, he smiled to himself. Being a kid with no responsibilities. For the last year at least, studying for a stellar science degree at Otago had consumed much of his time, and while the work had been interesting, it lacked a certain excitement. But now - completing it here would give him a foot-hold into the keenly-contested field of deep space exploration.
It was in the mid to late twenty-first century when the idea for using Cape York as a spaceport surfaced again, this time as a joint project between the Australian and Russian governments. After the protracted civil war between Russia and many of her former republics, that country had lost both the Kapustin Yar and Baikonur cosmodromes, which left them almost totally dependent upon the United States for servicing the three International Space Stations. Rather than accept this humiliation - after all, they did pioneer Terran spaceflight - the Russians and their Australian counterparts reactivated the plans for the Cape York spaceport, and the first flight of the Buran-II single-stage-to-orbit shuttle took place from Pad One in November 2186...
As the lecturer droned on, Keith scanned the rest of the lecture hall, studying his fellow students. A mixed bunch, to be sure, similar to the diversity hed encountered on the bus here. He noticed a few unusual-looking heads scattered about the rows, some covered with fur and having oddly-shaped ears, others looking more scaly. Aliens. You had to expect to see them in a place like this, he thought, wondering for a moment why there werent more of them. Of course, Keith realised after a few moments thought. Most of the alien races that made up the Stellar Federation of which Earth (or Terra, depending on who you talked to), had their own Space Academy on their homeworlds. The only off-worlders youd see here would be ones who had deliberately settled here.
Not that Earth was short of its own non-human sentients, anyway...
... staging point for the flights assembling the first Terran starship Olympus, as well as the reception area for the Voxxan Ambassadors first visit to Earth.
Hadnt the guy finished yet? Keith shook his head slightly in mild impatience - all this was old news to him, but he had to sit it out anyway. Besides, you never knew who you might see - or what, as the case may be. One or two of the more exotic students could be Terran recoms, he speculated, though he couldnt be sure without a closer look. Hed never seen any of these human-animal hybrid products of genetic engineering first hand himself, the towns and cities where the Walker family had lived were simply too far out of the way to meet anyone more exotic than the still-ubiquitous Japanese tourist. Plenty of time for that anyway yet, Keith smiled to himself - if everything worked out here, hed be meeting alien races that no-one had seen.
Eventually the lecture came to an end, and Keith filed out of the hall with the other students, standing to one side from the stream of the crowd as he consulted his course book and lecture timetable. He was just about to pull the map of the Academy out from his back when he was interrupted by a light tap on his shoulder.
Excuse me please, a soft purring voice said from directly behind him, Im looking for one of my lectures. Can you help me?
Sure! Keith replied automatically, turning around. Which one -
He never finished the question, because at that point his mouth dropped open in surprise. For behind him stood a creature that was totally different to anything hed encountered before... his first thought was of a centaur from ancient Terran myth, but surely that couldn't be right!
The feline-looking face that greeted him was a shock in itself, the golden-green eyes looking at him with what appeared to be mild curiosity.
Is anything the matter? the creature asked again, decidedly wicked-looking canine teeth becoming visible as it spoke. She - Keith assumed it was female, due to the fact that the creatures upper body was endowed with a pair of generously outstanding breasts, discreetly covered by a plain white shirt - quickly noticed his discomfiture and cocked her head to one side, a small amount of what appeared to be carefully trimmed hair fell across her feline ears with her movement. You look like youve seen a ghost.
Hastily Keith tried to regain his composure, struggling manfully with the myriad of feelings rushing through him. Um - ah - no, I dont think so - um, yeah, sorry, he stammered, his face flushing with embarrassment. Your first meeting with a non-human race, and youre about to wet your pants with fright! an inner voice scolded him. Big brave Captain Walker, Commander of the Spaceways indeed! Managing to pull himself together with no small effort, Keith squared his shoulders back and raised his head up to meet the creatures eyes. You just - um, took me by surprise, thats all! Looking down further, his mind racing, Keith saw that the newcomer was indeed similar in general build to a mythical centaur, having what appeared to be two torsos and six limbs - four legs of a decidedly animal nature and two fur covered but otherwise fairly normal looking arms. But there 's nothing human or horse-like about whatever this is! My God...
Oh, the creature replied, reaching up to brush a hand through her hair. Out of the corner of his eye, Keith noticed the creatures long bushy tail twirling impatiently behind it, reminding him of a cat he used to have at home. Im sorry, she began, I forget sometimes that -
What did you want help with again? he asked, accidentally cutting the creature off in mid-sentence, anxious to try and get out of this situation before he really screwed it up. Something about lectures...? Keiths voice sounded broken and rather breathless, trying to concentrate on the situation
Here, she said, reaching into a handbag that was slung over her shoulders and pulling out her own course book, flipping through the pages before holding it out to him and pointing at one entry. This one.
Keith studied it carefully, noting with some trepidation that the courses this creature had selected were the same ones as some of his own. Im pretty um, new here myself, Im afraid, he admitted, But I think this one is... from the reference, down the hall back there. He looked back up into the creatures face to see a very wide tooth-filled grin.
Thank you! she exclaimed happily. Thats a great -
Keith waited no longer, making a half-hearted wave before bolting down the corridor to his own next class, leaving the creature speaking to empty air.
Dawnfire watched the hastily departing human with an expression of puzzlement on hir face. Obviously the young man shi had just encountered had never seen one of hir kind before - which, shi thought to hirself, was very unusual considering that most people coming to a place like Cape York should have at least come into contact with species other than their own. Dawnfire certainly had, although this was simply due to there not being many of hir kind around the area where shi grew up.
The feline centauroid sighed to hirself, and slipped hir course book back into hir bag, turning hir comparatively elongated body around to softly make hir way in the direction the scared human had pointed. I guess its something that still happens, even these days, Dawnfire thought to hirself as shi merged in with the crowd, hir paws making almost no noise against the floor tiles. Though I would have thought most people by now would know a Chakat when they see one...
As was normal for people studying at the Cape York Academy, Keith had set up residence in the student accommodation on campus. In fact, everyone at the Academy - staff, tutors, and students - all lived on site as there was no actual town that the campus was part of, this being a result of the old days of the Spaceport where no sane person wanted to live within twenty miles of a launchpad. Consequently the Academy was a town in its own right, a town completely dedicated to learning and research.
Keiths apartment was typical of the quarters allocated to students, surprisingly light and airy with a reasonable amount of space and - to Keiths great joy - air-conditioned. Each apartment was outfitted to take two students, something of a necessity due to the popularity of the Academy, and after the events of the day Keith was relieved to find his prospective room-mate was human as well - Peter being originally from the European Confederation.
So how was your first day? Peter asked him.
I think Ill survive... Keith replied, unpacking his belongings in his private bedroom. Ill probably adjust to all this without much problem.
The burly Englishman nodded, pulled out a couple of glasses onto the kitchen benchtop, and rummaged around in a storage compartment. Thats good to hear, he smiled. Took me a couple of weeks to get my courses sorted out - and three months to get used to the tropics. When youve finished there, would you like a drink?
Excellent. Ive got some genuine German-style lager here somewhere... Peters voice became muffled as he continued his search in the compartment. If I can find it - ah, here we are! He surfaced from the cupboard clutching two large green bottles. Replicators okay for normal food, but I reckon it doesnt do beer justice, eh? Got this during my last holidays in Luxembourg.
Keith finished his unpacking and joined Peter in the living area, thankfully accepting the glass of beer and sitting down next to him. Thanks.
What do you think of the Academy so far? Peter inquired, taking a sip of his drink. Everything youd expect it to be?
Keith thought for a moment. Hard to say yet. Its much different to Otago, or anywhere else Ive been...
Its not too different really Keith, Peter smiled. Trust me - its my second year here, and before that I was at Oxford. Courses are different, but its mostly just a specialised university here. He swallowed some more of his drink. Youll get used to it.
I bet there werent any aliens at Oxford though! Keith grinned. Had one come up to me just after the first lecture - boy, did I get a surprise!
Well, not many... what sort of alien?
Keith rapidly described the encounter hed had with the strange feline creature outside the main lecture hall, carefully omitting his reactions to it out of shame. ... I cant imagine what sort of evolution would bring a creature like that about, and Ive never seen anything like it before. It must have been a recently admitted world to the Federation or something, he concluded. Do you know what it was?
Peter scratched his chin thoughtfully. Looked like it had two bodies, feline face, thick bushy tail... did you notice what the forepaws looked like?
Different to its hind paws... sort of hand-like, I think.
Ah. Peter leaned back into the sofa again. A Chakat.
Chakat. Youve heard of them surely, havent you?
Keith felt his face flush in embarrassment again. I think so... he admitted. But I thought I knew all the Federation off-world races -
Chakats arent exactly an off-world race, although you could say that Chakona is more their home now than what Earth is anymore, Peter interrupted, saving him further humiliation. Remember?
Keiths eyes opened wide in realisation. Now I do! he cried. But Ive only seen them on holo clips, never in person - oh hell! His eyes dropped to the floor. I feel a proper idiot now.
Next day, Keith was back in the lecture hall, sitting just in from the aisle partway down the back, fumbling with his books when something large came up next to him.
Hello again, a familiar voice purred beside him. Keith jumped a little, and looked up to see the creature - the Chakat - that hed met the previous day. Youre not going to run away again, are you?
Keiths face flushed bright red in embarrasment again, causing the chakat to cover its mouth with its hand - paw? - and chuckle to itself in amusement. I didnt think that we always provoked this sort of reaction from humans, shi teased, At least - not the others Ive met in my life so far.
He managed to regain control of himself. Im sorry miss - he started.
No miss, or mister for that matter, shi interrupted.
"What?" Keith blinked, feeling himself teetering on the brink of another chasm of ignorance. All this time he'd spent on studying off-world species, only to find that the first non-human sentient he actually encountered in person was also a child of Earth...
Dawnfire saw his troubled expression, and laid a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. "Just call me Dawnfire for now," shi said, deciding to leave explaining that particular aspect of hir race for later. Keith relaxed a little under hir touch, looking a little less flustered as he looked the chakat in the face. "And you are... ?" shi continued, a hint of a smile crossing her muzzle.
"Keith. Keith Walker." he replied. He cleared his throat. "It's... my first week here, and I'm still finding my way around. I have to say that ummmm... I've never met anyone like you before." There - he'd said it. The lamest thing that an Academy student and a potential graduate could possibly say. Especially to a species that wasn't even technically alien! He braced himself for the inevitable reaction.
But instead of annoyance or ridicule, Dawnfire merely nodded to him, the thick hair? fur? on hir head moving in a flowing liquid motion as shi returned his look. "That's okay Keith, I'm used to this now. I've been on Terra for only a couple of years myself, and I have to admit us chakats are pretty distinctive." Shi chuckled, a sound like a mixture between a laugh and a purr. "Don't be worried, I won't bite you!"
At that, Keith laughed, the tension released inside him. He offered his hand to the chakat, which shi grasped and shook firmly. The sensation of hir hand in his was odd but somehow reassuring, the warmth and confident grip making up for the light covering of fur all over the chakat's hand. It made him feel a lot better, and it seemed to Keith that Dawnfire was also looking a little more at ease, the ice broken.
"Dawnfire..." Keith began , "I feel really... embarrased about my reaction to you, and I'm sorry if I upset you." He paused for a moment. "I'd like to make it up to you... can I buy you something from the cafeteria? A drink maybe?"
The chakat smiled. "I would like that Keith." Hir tail looped around in a pleased manner. "In fact, I would like that very much."
Keith smiled. "Well, if you'd like to join me..." he said, making an exaggerated sweeping gesture of offering hir his arm. Dawnfire chuckled again and looped hir arm around his, before the human and chakat walked off together towards the campus cafeteria.
As they walked together, Keith felt happy. Somehow, he knew that on this, his first day, he had found his first and best friend at the Academy.
Return to the Welcome page!Copyright 1996, 1997 Terry Knight.