Chapter 18: Arisia
by Honeymane


For most of hir young adult life, Honeymane had been taller than most of hir peers. Chakats, in general, weren’t the tallest of species, but hir father’s genes had certainly given hir a boost in that department. But here, Honeymane felt like a giant, and more than a bit out of place. It wasn’t that the Starwalkers were particularly short, but they were all the same height – about five feet – and Honeymane was nearly a foot taller than them all. So it wasn’t all that surprising that shi got more than one stare as shi followed hir guide, a Starwalker by the name of Horizons, as they travelled down the hallways and corridors of the partly built Gateway.

Like Chakona, Arisia was planned with one central hub station, from which all the system would work with and through. Naturally it had to be huge, and this was no exception. In the seventy or so years since the Chakonan gateway had been built, technology hadn’t been sitting idle, and hir guide was more than happy to point of all the structural and other changes they were able to incorporate into it. Indeed, despite Horizons’ insistence that they were headed straight for the team leader’s office, they seemed to be making an extraordinary number of detours.

"And here we have the second atrium," Horizons said, pointing to the hanging gardens above them. High above those was a polarized plane of glass. "Unlike the first one, this atrium is more for relaxation than growing anything important. As you can see, the majority of the plants are from the surface, some of them, like that one," shi pointed out a large, rubbery looking plant," have a number of medical properties Star Fleet is quite interested in and…" Horizons paused, looking over hir shoulder and seeing the exasperated look on Honeymane’s face. "I like to talk, don’t I?"

"Well, I…" Honeymane stammered flustered, "I’m sure it’s all very interesting, Shir, but I’d really like to take care of business."

Horizons grinned, but empathically Honeymane could tell shi was a bit irritated. "I understand. I am trying to take you there as directly as possible – most of the station doesn’t have active gravity panels, and it’d take too long for us to spin them up for just one person."

"Oh, I see," Honeymane said, before continuing the conversation. "I heard Starwalkers are very comfortable in zero gravity, I should have realized…"

"It’s okay, even some of the Admirals we’ve had to entertain don’t get it." Horizons frowned. "I’m a bit worried it’ll count against us in the final evaluation."

It was Honeymane’s turn to frown. "Why’s that?"

"Well, you see, the whole idea of the project was that us Stellars would be both the architects and first colonists of the worlds we work on, right?" Horizons asked rhetorically, as shi ducked down a side corridor. "But when we’re open for business, so to speak, most of us Starwalkers aren’t going to be too happy with the gravity on all the time. We’re really more comfortable and happy with it off. Of course, other folks don’t…"

"I’m sure they’ll let you turn it off on some parts of the station," Honeymane said, following the pitch black foxtaur.

"Maybe, maybe… but we still might get marked down if there’s conflict over it!" Horizons said gloomily.

"I wouldn’t worry," Honeymane said, as they turned down another narrow walkway. "This place is looking good on the outside, and it’s really shaping up on the inside too."

Horizons looked at hir with a suspicious glint in hir eyes. "Are you sure you’re not with Star Fleet?"

"Of course not." Honeymane frowned.

"You know if we guess you’re on a surprise inspection, and we ask you directly," Horizons said, "You can’t lie to us…"

"Do I look old enough to be an inspector of any sort to you?" Honeymane snorted, as they began to walk up what appeared to be a sharply sloping surface, but the gravity plating pulled at hir senses, made it feel like shi was still horizontal.

Horizons shrugged and stopped in front of a door. "This is Eclipse’s office. "I’ll wait here, but you’re expected, so head right in."

Honeymane nodded to hir guide, before stepping up to the door and pressing the entrance key. The door slid open smoothly, to reveal a rather explosive situation.

"Crescent! Come back here!" the older Starwalker yelled, as shi chased the obviously much younger stellar around the room. It wasn’t a large office by taur standards, but the cub’s small size was obviously giving hir significant advantage in avoiding the adult. Honeymane stood still for a moment, before stepping in front of the cub, who naturally slipped through hir legs – only to be caught by hir tail, and lifted safely off the ground. The older Stellar skidded to a halt in front of hir as the cub squirmed.

"Thanks!" the older Starwalker exclaimed, as shi accepted the squirming bundle from Honeymane’s tail. Upon retrieving the child, shi wiggled free the shiny object shi had clasped in hir hand – a combadge. Sighing, the elder clipped the badge back onto hir chest and released the cub, who streaked under one of the tables.

"Thanks again," shi said in hir rather heavy British accent. "Take a seat. I’m Eclipse, team leader for one of the family crews here; you must be Honeymane?" shi paused and settled down as Honeymane did. "Okay, first thing’s first. I’m told you need to sign a couple of discharge papers?"

"Yes shir." Honeymane nodded, and accepting the offered PADD. Shi read over it and signed it again. It beeped and shi handed it, and hir combadge, back to the stellar, who put the combadge in a holder device and pressed a couple of buttons, before turning back to hir.

"Alright, that’s out of the way. Now, what brings a civilian like yourself to Arisia? We’re not open to the public yet, you know," Eclipse said, tilting hir head quizzically. "All your Captain would say is that you were on a short-term emergency commission…"

"Well, Shir," Honeymane paused, thinking of how to explain it. "You may have noticed my… unusual appearance, such as my height?"

"I suppose, I’ve known a few pretty tall chakats, although you’re probably the tallest," Eclipse said. "Why?"

"And the shade of my fur?" ‘Mane shook hir head at the quizzical look shi was getting from the team leader. "Okay, I suppose I shouldn’t beat around in the bush. My… my sire, shi’s a veldt Stellar Foxtaur."

"Impossible!" Eclipse said shaking hir head. "You’re far too old to be one, and we’ve only been accepting visitors in the last five years. More to the point, I think I would know if there were any chakat-stellar foxtaur hybrids, even if we’re different breeds or on different planets, we Stellars are very close to one another, and we know who’s mated to who!"

"Ah, well, you see…" Honeymane shook hirself before shi said anything rash to the Starwalker. "That’s the problem – my mother and my father never mated…"

"What?" the Starwalker said. "That seems unlikely!"

"Unlikely or not, It’s why I’m here," Honeymane said sharply. "I want to see hir. Will you give me a pass to beam down?"

"If you’re really here to see hir, why didn’t you come on the starliner that we’re expecting to arrive in a couple of days?" Eclipse asked. "The one bringing all the people who want to see the Stellars…"

Honeymane frowned mentally – perhaps hir mother hadn’t been lying after all. Still, shi needed a better story than shi had ran away, even if shi was legally old enough to do so. "Well Shir, I’m not exactly the richest of chakats…" shi began. "I have an aunt in Star Fleet who suggested something like the Hoshiko so I could get here. The tickets were a bit pricey."

The Starwalker’s yellow-eyes stared at hir searchingly for a moment. "I have the feeling," shi said slowly, "that’s a lie." Honeymane’s hearts started to hammer. "But… I suppose I’ll accept it – for now." Shi paused, as Honeymane felt hirself calm down a slightly. "But I can’t let you use the transporters."

"What?" Honeymane said, hir fears returning. "Why not?"

"This may surprise you, child," Eclipse said wryly, "but we are building a space station here. The transporters are part of that process, and I can’t simply stop it for one chakat."

"But surely it wouldn’t take that long?" Honeymane asked pleadingly. "Only a moment or two."

Eclipse snorted. "Tell me this, Honeymane, do you know where you father is?"

"What?" Honeymane asked bewildered. "Of course, shi’s down there!"

"Yes, but where?" Eclipse replied dryly, but Honeymane could feel a hint of sympathy under hir irritation. "We Stellars have explored the whole planet, Honeymane, the whole planet. Your father could be anywhere down below us, and you don’t even have the slightest clue where."

"I…" Honeymane swallowed hir objection. Of course Eclipse was right – how could shi have been so naïve?

Eclipse smiled gently. "It’s alright. I imagine this is your first time off-world?"

"I – yes," Honeymane said softly, looking down at Eclipse’s desk. Suddenly the cub’s face poked out from under the table and stuck its tongue out at hir cheekily. Shi couldn’t help but smile. Before sighing. What would shi do? "I guess I could wait until that ship arrives…"

"You could," Eclipse said, a hint of mischievousness creeping into hir voice. "But I have the feeling that it wouldn’t be ideal for you." Then shi sighed. "Alright, Honeymane, I’ll give you some help. If you head down to the docking ring, you’ll be able to get onto a shuttle that’s about to head down to First Town."

Honeymane looked up; maybe there was hope.

"Once you’re there, you should find the Director of Operations, a desert breed by the name of Sanddune," Eclipse continued. "Shi’ll at least be able to tell you where to find your father, but I don’t know how much more help shi can give you."

Honeymane leapt to hir feet, leaning across the desk to give the Starwalker a big hug, grinning like a fool. "Oh thank you, shir!"

"Oof!" Eclipse grunted. "Save the hugs for your sire!" Eclipse waited for Honeymane to release hir before standing up and returning the hug, if a bit gentler. "Now get going! That ship’s not going to wait around, no matter what I tell it."

"Okay!" Honeymane nodded, before dashing out the door to find Horizons.

"Ah, to be young again!" Eclipse snorted, before turning around. "Come out you little terror, before I tear this place apart!"

First Town proved to be even busier than the still-under construction Gateway station, and much more chaotic. Without gravity to help them, every motion that a Starwalker made had to be calculated carefully, in a sort of choreographed ballet of multi-ton pieces of equipment. Not that they were perfect at it, of course, but there was something calm about it. As they approached the Town, Honeymane could tell that on the ground it was a different story. Stellar foxtaurs of all breeds, and all variations of those breeds darted every which way, avoiding carts hauled by other Stellars, and robotically driven construction vehicles. Clouds of dust seemed to hover over everything, and after weeks on a starship, breathing filtered and recycled air, it made Honeymane cough.

"Are you okay?" asked the refinery ship’s pilot, another Starwalker whose name Honeymane had missed.

"I-I’m fine," Honeymane gasped, as shi took a couple of deep calming breaths. "Do you know where I can find the administration center?"

"If you’re sure…" The Starwalker looked doubtful for a moment. "Just head out of the landing area to main street. You can’t miss it," shi said brightly. "But if you do, you can always ask someone – we’re all very friendly."

Honeymane took another deep breath and grabbed hir luggage, and began hauling them across the "space port" which was little more than a bunch of crude-but-effectively dug blast holes in the ground. The spaceport was busy, but few of the ships were true starships, but rather shuttles and similar intrastellar ships, and very few of them stayed long. Even as Honeymane was walking away, shi heard the faint hum of the refinery ship taking off. Before shi had a chance to look behind hir, the ship flew overhead, banking slightly, and headed for the distant mountain range.

The Town was an interesting mix of carefully planned building and less-carefully built structures – obviously built as the need demanded them. It wasn’t that they looked shabby – everything looked fresh and brightly painted, even if it was a warehouse, but some of the buildings seemed to be out of place, like a Spaceport-warehouse built almost right on top of a small café. And while some streets were beautifully lined with trees and other natural structures, other streets seemed to just be streets.

But planned or not, the whole Town was teeming with activity, and Honeymane had to stop sightseeing and come to hir senses to dodge out of the path of a marauding cart pulled by red-furred, long-legged foxtaur, who yelled at hir to "watch where shi was walking" before dashing between two startled looking heavyset white-based foxtaurs with black splotches on their backs that reminded hir of Sugarback. For a fleeting moment, Honeymane wondered if it was hir father… before mentally slapping hirself. What a stupid idea that would be! However, as shi glanced up and down the wide street, shi found hirself lost. It was definitely the "main street" but which direction should shi head in? After a moment’s consideration, shi walked over to the two heavy-set foxtaurs the cart-mule had nearly ran over as well.

"Excuse me…" Shi paused as they both turned to face hir. Unlike the Starwalkers, shi was only a few inches talker than they were. Given their grey fur, shi thought they might be mountain breed Stellars, but shi wasn’t sure. "Could you tell me which way to the administration center where the Director is?"

The pair of them turned their heads towards hir, looking puzzled. One of them smirked. "Just follow the path of destruction that nut Veldt—hey wait, you’re not a foxtaur!"

"I’ve noticed," Honeymane said dryly, before smiling. "Thanks for the directions." Honeymane set off at once, but shi hadn’t gone far before shi realized one of the Mountain Stellars was following hir. Suddenly Honeymane wondered if shi was supposed to thank them with a hug, in a Chakonan fashion, or otherwise repay them for their advice. Shi turned. "Yes?"

"We don’t get many chakats here," the mountain stellar said, coming to stand beside hir, the Mountaineer’s hand brushed along hir pelt. "Or any other sorts of visitors, for that matter. What brings you here?"

Honeymane stared at the stellar for a moment; "What the hell are you doing?"

"What?" the Mountaineer asked, looking surprised.

"What do you mean what?" Honeymane jerked back out of the Mountaineer’s reach, although shi had to stumble around another cart heading the opposite direction. "You were feeling me up!"

"What? No!" the Mountaineer protested.

"Then what the hell were you doing with your hand?" Honeymane hissed.

The Mountaineer blinked and looked at the offending appendage as if shi had never seen it before. "I…"

"What’s going on?" By now the other Mountaineer had caught up, and shi came up to the first Mountaineer and did the same gesture to the first foxtaurs. Honeymane frowned, as shi recognized the affection in the gesture, like one sister greeting another sister with a hug.

"I don’t know!" the first Mountaineer said, still sounding dismayed that Honeymane had snapped at hir. "I tried talking to hir and shi called me a perv!"

Honeymane blushed. "Uh, listen, it’s my bad…" shi said quickly; shi hadn’t been on planet for a day and shi was already offending the local population. "I…I didn’t know what you were doing."

"But what sort of chakat doesn’t like to be touched?" asked the second Mountaineer, tilting hir head in confusion.

"How would you like it if a perfect stranger came up to you and started treating you like you’ve known them for years?" Honeymane snapped. "I’m sorry if I offended you, or your customs, but come on!"

The second Mountaineer looked ready to bite Honeymane’s head off, before the first Mountaineer put hir hand on hir shoulder and pulled hir back gently, before turning hir head towards Honeymane. "I’m sorry, Chakat, you’re right of course, but… we Stellars have lived so long together, I guess we can forget that not everyone you meet is someone you’ve known for years."

Honeymane sighed. "I understand, I’m sorry I accused you of—"

"Never mind," the first Mountaineer said. "The past is the past. My name is Cavern, and this is my sister Slopepine. What’s yours?"

"I’m Honeymane," shi said, suddenly awkwardly wondering if shi should hug the Mountaineer.

"How about we escort you to the Administration building, okay? As our way of saying we’re sorry," Cavern said. "I’ll understand if you say no…"

Honeymane paused, thinking. It would be easier with help… "Alright," shi agreed. "Just…"

"Keep our hands to ourselves?" Cavern said with a laugh, as shi swept hir arm in the general direction they were headed. After a few minutes of walking, shi asked the question again. "So why are you here? I can understand if you don’t want to say but… we are curious." Slopepine’s eyes narrowed slightly. "You’re not a surprise inspector are you?" shi added.

"Don’t worry," Honeymane said with a laugh. "I’m just passing through, and even if I was, I wouldn’t mark you down for trying to be friendly, even if it wasn’t perhaps the best idea…"

The two Mountaineers exchanged worried glances, before Cavern responded. "I suppose, but now you’ve got me worried about what will happen when the other colonists start arriving."

"We’ve been out here alone for so long that we’ve developed our own identity," Slopepine added.

Honeymane frowned as shi looked the two foxtaurs over, then looked the crowd over. With a jolt shi realized the majority of them were mostly nude. Even on Chakona, public nudity was a somewhat uncommon manner of dress, but here it seemed be the norm. And as shi watched shi noticed other unusual norms, ranging from the way they greeted one another to the way they talked when haggling over a price. It was like a giant family, where everyone knew everyone else. Honeymane couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to them after the new colonists arrived. "Maybe you could go start a colonization project on another planet?" Honeymane suggested.

"But this is our home" Slopepine said stubbornly. "Leaving would be losing our identity just the same."

"Anyway, that’s not your concern," Cavern said kindly. "It’s something we’re going to have to find out for ourselves, I think, when the time comes." Cavern stopped and pointed to a multi-storey, brightly painted and absurdly modern-looking structure at the very end at of the street. "That’s the Administration building. Pine and I have to get back to work. Warm Stones, Honeymane."

"Warm Stones?" Honeymane asked puzzled, looking back at the Stellar.

"It’s our way of saying ‘tail high’. It gets cold on the mountains, so sun-warmed stones are a welcome discovery…" Cavern broke off hir explanation and sighed. "I suppose that’s something else we’ll have to give up."

Honeymane felt a pang of regret; what if they did lose their culture? "Don’t be silly," Honeymane said quickly. "Warm Stones, Cavern, Slopepine." The two mountaineers half-smiled as if they knew what shi was thinking, before disappearing into the shifting crowds. Shi sighed to hirself and looked up at the building. Maybe they were right, maybe it wasn’t any of hir concern, but if shi was half-stellar foxtaur maybe it was….

The Administration center was even busier than the streets outside, and Honeymane had to sidestep around several Stellars before shi got into the lobby. On the way in, shi passed the same Veldt as before, although this time shi looked less panicked and more relaxed. Perhaps shi had gotten what shi was rushing after. Once inside it didn’t take hir long to locate a directory, and find out where the director’s office was.

Unlike the rest of the building, the Director’s office’s reception was very calm and relaxed, with a number of taur-pillows and pads for people waiting. It was, however, deserted. Honeymane shrugged and dropped hir luggage beside one of the pillows, before walking over to one of the local publications – a sort of rough newspaper detailing the events around the colony. Lying down on the pillow, shi began to read through it. Shi hoped it might give hir some idea what shi’d be expecting. However, while the first few pages were about the development, the rest of it seemed to be articles on various events on various taurs’ lives, such as births, namings, and one or two deaths. Honeymane found it so engrossing that shi didn’t even notice when the office door opened. "Can I help you?"

Honeymane jumped, the newcomer’s muzzle merely centimetres from hir nose. Hir chakat muzzle. "Um. Hello!"

"Hello to you as well," the chakat said, sounding faintly bemused and out of breath. "We don’t get many chakats here, so I’m assuming you’re the one Shir Eclipse commed us about? Chakat Honeymane, right?"

Honeymane nodded. "Are you the director?"

"No, I am," said another voice from the office’s doorway. Honeymane turned hir head and looked, Sanddune was an incredibly small foxtaur, with sand-coloured fur. Shi guessed shi was a Desert breed, which certainly fit with hir name. Unlike the chakat, shi was nude, with a slight scent of sex on hir. Glancing back at the chakat, shi noticed hir semi-uniform like top was faintly wrinkled. Honeymane couldn’t help but smirk. Sanddune’s smile turned into a cheeky grin. "This is my personal assistant and mate Bluemist… I hope we didn’t keep you waiting long?"

"No." Honeymane shrugged. "I’m not in that big of a hurry."

"Glad to hear it!" Sanddune nodded, before gesturing to hir to follow hir into the office. "Take a seat and I’ll see if I can’t help you."

Honeymane nodded and quickly followed, leaving hir bags on the floor outside, while Bluemist shook hir head and stayed behind. "Will you two be wanting something to drink?" shi asked.

"I don’t know about my friend here, but I sure do." Sanddune grinned. "Go freshen up and bring something for the three of us."

Bluemist nodded and hurried off, while Sanddune opened hir office’s windows to let the smell dissipate, while Honeymane took hir seat.

"We didn’t expect you until later; how’d you get down here so quickly?" Honeymane explained about the refinery ship and how shi nearly missed it. Just as shi was finishing hir story, Bluemist returned with tall glasses of bright purple liquid. It tasted like some sort of fruit, one that was probably local. Sanddune drank half of hirs in a single gulp before setting it down on hir desk as Bluemist sat down beside hir. "Now, What exactly can we do for you? Eclipse didn’t bother explaining much, saying we’d hear it better from you."

"I’m trying to find my father," Honeymane said, taking another sip. "Shi’s a Stellar, and I know shi’s on this planet, but I don’t know where. Eclipse said you might be able to help me."

Sanddune and Bluemist exchanged glances. "What do you mean your father is a stellar?" Bluemist asked. "Your mother’s a chakat I’m guessing?"

"Yeah." Honeymane nodded, before looking down at hir drink and swirling it, knowing shi’d have to give up more information than that. "Shi and my dad met a few weeks before shi had to leave to go colonize Arisia. It got fairly serious, and my mom got pregnant, although I think it was an accident." Honeymane shrugged. "At least shi never told my father shi was pregnant. Shi says shi loves hir, but I don’t know…"

"I see," Sanddune said softly in a business tone. "And I’m guessing that’s why you’re not on the scheduled cruise ship bringing the first visitors?"

Honeymane nodded. "I just want to meet hir."

"I understand," Sanddune said. "Do you know your father’s name?"

"My mom said it was ‘Darktoes’." Honeymane paused, suddenly wondering if hir mother had given hir a false name to throw hir off the trail. "Shi’s a veldt."

Sanddune nodded absentmindedly as shi typed in a query into the desktop terminal. After a moment shi smiled, and spun the monitor towards Honeymane. It displayed a Veldt’s face, as well as other vital statistics about hir. Honeymane’s heart leapt "That’s hir!"

"Alright good!" Sanddune grinned. "I’ve got hir last known location here and –"

"Sanddune," Bluemist interrupted. "How’s shi going to get there? We’re booked up for months with our shuttles in and out from First Town, and you know those Veldts don’t have a shuttle of their own.

"What?" Sanddune said, sounding startled as Honeymane’s hearts sank. "We can’t spare one shuttle?"

"I don’t think so," Bluemist said, pulling out a PADD and flipping through an application. "The storm last year did a number on our ability to move stuff around, and we’ve got a bunch of them reserved for when that ship arrives in a few days." Bluemist shook hir head. "I suppose sparing one shuttle might not hurt us too badly, but if anything else happens between then and now, we could be in trouble."

Sanddune got to hir feet and began to pace behind hir desk. "They wouldn’t be happy about that, would they?" shi said, not bothering to pause as Bluemist murmured in agreement. "Well there must be something we can – Wait!" Sanddune exclaimed, suddenly looking at Honeymane intensely. "You’re sure this Stellar’s your father?"

"Positive," Honeymane said, feeling bewildered by the small foxtaur’s commanding gaze. "Why?"

"Have you ever tried running long distances?" Sanddune asked. "If your father was a veldt, maybe you could just run out to hir?"

"Are you crazy?" Honeymane asked. "I can’t run all that way! And I don’t even know where shi is! If I need to take a shuttle to get to hir, I’m probably not going to be able to just run there."

"Oh, well…" Sanddune sighed dejectedly. "I suppose you’re right…"

"I have an idea," Bluemist said. "What if we put hir on one of the shuttles heading out to Golden Springs? Even if shi can’t run as well as a veldt can, it should put hir close enough to their current encampment that shi could make it."

"That’s a great idea!" Sanddune exclaimed, before turning to Honeymane. "What do you say, Honeymane? Want to give it a try?"

"Well I certainly didn’t come all this way to stop now," Honeymane said, trying to sound resolute. "But I’m not really equipped for it…"

"Not a problem!" Sanddune said. "Bluemist, go get one of our spare travel kits from storage. I’ll give Honeymane a crash course on the local terrain." Shi was almost jumping up and down with excitement. "You should rest here tonight, and in the morning we’ll set you on your way!"

"So what brings you to Golden Springs?" yelled the Forest breed pilot of the VTOL. Before today, Honeymane had never seen such a clumsy, loud vehicle, but according to the friendly Forester who had agreed to fly hir out to Golden Springs, the model was more energy efficient and easier to maintain out in the wilderness than any anti-gravity based air transports. It certainly made flying interesting, or at the very least terrifying, but it was also loud and found hirself grateful for the morph-designed noise cancelling headphones the pilot had given hir when shi hopped in the co-pilot’s seat. Not to fly, of course, but according to the Forester, it got lonely up there without someone to talk to, and since shi was the only passenger, shi might as well get the second best seat in the ‘damn thing’.

Even so, they had to shout to be heard over the remaining noise that the headsets couldn’t eliminate. "It’s complicated. I’m looking for a Veldt, and I couldn’t get a ride out to their camp!"

The Forester grinned at hir, looking almost too young to be a fully licensed pilot. "You’ll need a guide then, if you’re going to the grasslands!"

Honeymane looked at the foxtaur expectantly. "What do you mean?"

"You’ll see!" the Forester said with a chuckle, before pointing out the windshield at the landscape. At the moment the VTOL was headed across a large expanse of water, and in front of them lay a huge mountain, which unless Honeymane was badly mistaken was a volcano. "We’re almost there – hold on!" the pilot flashed hir another grin, and Honeymane barely had time to grab the handle above hir before the pilot jerked the stick and sent the vehicle off on a steep turn, dodging around the mountain as it came increasingly and alarmingly close. Looking out the window, shi could see some of the birds in the short trees that grew on the slopes, before they gave a cry of alarm and flew away.

They weren’t the only ones alarmed by the vehicle’s turn.

However, as the pilot completed the turn and levelled out, Honeymane found hirself gaping in surprise at the scene in front of hir. Behind the volcano, and stretching far out into the horizon was a mountain chain, but not any sort of mountain chain Honeymane had ever seen in hir life, or read about in a book. Most Mountain chains were made up of many mountains, but this was a solid wall of rock, as if the volcano had been taken and stretched out behind it.

"That’s what I mean!" called the pilot, flashing Honeymane another grin. "You’ll need help getting over that. There’s Golden Springs," shi added, hir arm pointing again to a small set of buildings nestled at the base of the mountain chain, at the edge of the water. Below them Honeymane could see a multitude of colourfully decorated boats and watercraft going to and from the town’s sheltered cove.

"How will I ever get over that?!" Honeymane protested, hir throat feeling raw from all the shouting. "Can’t you land me on the other side?"

"No can do, Friend." The pilot shook hir head. "Excuse me." Shi turned away and began listing back attributes and readings from the VTOL as the local air traffic controller contacted them.

Honeymane fell silent and waited as the pilot quickly and deftly landed the VTOL on the local air strip, which was little more than a paved-over square of land. As soon as they touched down, the pilot switched the engines off and the roar which had followed them through the two hour flight was gone, leaving Honeymane’s head ringing with silence. The pilot unbuckled hir harness and indicated that shi should do the same, before following the Forester out onto the tarmac.

The pilot removed hir headphones, but left them hanging around hir neck as shi began trotting around the VTOL inspecting it. "Listen, kid, I’ve got to get back to First Town to pick up a load; if I could help you I would."

Honeymane shook hir head sadly and began untying the large taur-designed backpack of survival gear that Sanddune had given hir, before tossing it over hir shoulder and onto hir back with a grunt. "No advice at all?"

"I didn’t say that!" the pilot laughed, as shi appeared from under the fuselage, grinning up at hir. "Why don’t you check out the Springs? I know there’s a few guides who hang around there."

"The Springs?" Honeymane echoed. "Can you give me directions?"

"It’s hard to get lost on a planet like this." The foxtaur chuckled, before snaking the rest of the way out from under the craft and moving to inspect the engine. "It’s in the middle of the town, and it’s impossible to miss. While you’re at it, why don’t you check out the hot springs – you look like a Chakat in desperate need of relaxation. Normally I’d offer…" The forester chuckled again. "But duty calls! Tell them Benny sent you."

"Right." Honeymane couldn’t help but smile back at the pilot. "Thanks for your help. Good luck with your run."

"No problem; good luck findin’ your taur!" the pilot said, before turning and yelling something at the approaching air crew, who were hauling a large cylinder of fuel across the tarmac. Honeymane gave them a nod, and they gave hir barely a glance as shi slipped by.

As it turned out, The Springs was a cross between an inn and resort, and proved to be the largest structure in the whole town. The inside was nicer than any building Honeymane had been in before, and obviously was way over hir budget. The lobby was very large, with a gently sloping ramp that led up to the second floor and a number of plush-looking couches – both taur and bipedal designs, as well as a jar of complimentary cookies and a rack of towels next to one of the hallways. Despite the fancy trimmings, the lobby was completely abandoned, and it felt as if the inn had never been used.

Honeymane crossed the lobby feeling both self conscious and extremely dirty, given shi was surrounded by such gleaming surfaces. Upon reaching the desk which looked like the receptionist’s, shi rang hard on the electronic buzzer and waited for someone to show up. After several minutes shi rang it again. And after several more shi rang it a third time.

Shi was reaching for the button again when a soaking wet, and nude, otter-like Foxtaur emerged from one of the hallways off on a direction that Honeymane assumed led to rooms. Honeymane guessed shi was a marine breed, given hir appearance.

"I swear to god, Violet, if you don’t stop ringing that damn bell I’ll – " The mariner blinked in surprise when shi realized shi wasn’t talking to whoever this Violet was. "Oh! I’m sorry!" Shi grabbed one of the white towels from a rack and wrapping it around hirself.

The Mariner trotted around behind the desk and, to give hir credit, tried to look professional despite wearing a towel and still dripping water. "How can I help you, shir?"

"Uh." Honeymane hesitated for a moment.

"I hope you… uh, don’t mind. We’re really not open for business even though I’m supposed to be manning the desk," the Mariner said, looking embarrassed. "Don’t tell my boss!"

"I… I won’t," Honeymane agreed, before giving hirself a shake. "A forest breed stellar sent me, a pilot named Benny? I’m looking for a guide to take me over the mountains."

"Benny sent you, eh?" The Mariner said, drumming hir fingers against the desktop. "Well I don’t know if there’s any guides around, but I’ll check for you, if you’d like and make some calls."

"That’d be great, thank you," Honeymane said graciously.

"Meanwhile, why don’t you check out the spring? On the house," the Mariner said, pointing down the hallway shi came from, as the computer booted up. "It’s a great way to relax, although you’ll lose track of time if you’re not careful!"

Honeymane hesitated, but shrugged to hirself. If it was being offered, it was being offered, and there was no reason to refuse it, or reason to wait around while the receptionist did hir thing. After thanking the Mariner, shi trotted down the hall, careful to avoid the wet path the Stellar had made, until shi came to the end of the hallway. At the end there was three doors, one marked with what Honeymane recognized was the Greek sign for hermaphrodites, which suggested the other two were for males and females, although Honeymane had no idea which was which. Either way, only one door opened, which was herm-marked. Inside shi found the purple-with-gold thread trim uniform of the wayward receptionist. While the locker room was large, none of the lockers were unlocked, so Honeymane was forced to leave hir bag out in the open, along with a few other items. After shi pulled hir top off over hir head and left it with the bag, shi walked down the far edge of the locker room until shi found the opening that led to the hot spring.

Honeymane’s eyes grew wide at the steaming, aromatic pools of water inside the cavernous room. Unlike the rest of the inn, Honeymane could sense that the room wasn’t merely using faux-polished marble to build it, but rather real, polished rock. There were two large pools in the first chamber, the first and smaller of the two was obviously designed for bipeds, with sheer sides and ladders for escape. The second pool, and the larger, was made for taurs, with a long, gently sloped ramp that led down one side of the pool.

Honeymane stepped up to that pool and cautiously dipped a toe-finger into the water, before pulling it back in surprise with a yelp. The water was hot! But then, Honeymane thought to hirself as shi chuckled at hir reaction, there weren’t called warm springs. Either way, Honeymane began to slowly ease hirself into the steaming pool, and before shi knew it shi was up to the tops of hir legs, in the hot, tingling water. As shi walked around the pool, shi gave a yelp as hir leg collided with a large immoveable structure. After a moment the warmth of the pool took the pain away, and Honeymane realised it was a bench of some sort. Looking up shi realized there was a similar structure jutting down from the ceiling—the ceiling revealed the underwater structures.

Grinning, shi followed the ceiling map, avoiding the benches until shi found one on the far side of the pool and sank down on top of it. Laying down as shi was, the water covered hir breasts and caused hir to purr with pleasure as the water tingled its way around hir fur and into hir muscles. Despite the Mariner’s warnings, Honeymane could tell shi was falling sleep, and the warm water felt so good shi didn’t even want to resist.

"Well, this is an interesting find!" laughed a voice, deeper and rougher than the Mariner. Honeymane’s eyes flew open with a start; and seemed to be filled with brilliantly amber eyes. After a moment the rest of the intruder’s features materialized. Shi was shorter than Honeymane, and had a base coat of white which eventually resolved into something greyer and darker—a mountain breed stellar, like Honeymane had met earlier. Unlike the earlier taurs shi had encountered, however, this Stellar’s hair, as it were, was a brilliant violet. The taur chuckled at hir expression. Unlike Honeymane, although shi was nude, shi was laying on the stone floor beside the pool. "Why hello there, sleeping beauty."

"Uh…um. Hello!" Honeymane stammered. "Who are you?"

"I’m Manetheren, daughter of Stonedance and Dippingbow," the Mountaineer replied with a smile. "Although some people call me Violet," shi said, gesturing to hir hair. "What is yours?"

Honeymane paused and shook hir head, the hot springs were really getting to hir, making hir feel sluggish and slow. "I… I’m Chakat Honeymane, daughter of Browneyes and Darktoes."

"A lovely name," Manetheren commented. "And a Chakat to boot, I’ve only ever met one before – Bluemist."

"Really?" Honeymane asked, surprised. "Even if you had foxtaurs only for parents, surely you would have met with some of us?"

Manetheren chuckled. "You’re thinking of my parents, I was born and raised on Arisia. One of the first born, at that. My mother was pregnant when the colony ships touched down."

"Wow." Honeymane found hirself checking the foxtaur over. Shi was quite busty, and shi held them well. It didn’t help shi could see all of them, and Honeymane felt hirself stirring as shi looked. Blushing, and thankful Manetheren was unlikely to see that blush, shi tore hir gaze away. "Not to sound rude or…whatever, but is there a reason you’re here?"

"Waterbeetle said you needed a guide over the mountains," Manetheren said, getting to hir feet. "You do need a guide, right?"

"Um…" Honeymane suddenly wondered how much a guide would cost, exactly. "Yes. But… I can’t pay you much."

The Mountaineer waved hir hand dismissively. "Not a problem, not a problem. I’ll do it for free."

"What? Why?" Honeymane asked, before snapping hir mouth shut. "I mean, thank you."

"I need to go to the other side anyway." Manetheren shrugged. "Group of Deebees need help getting across. I’d be glad to have company. Now, if you’re done soaking…"

Honeymane blinked and reluctantly hauled hirself out of the pool. It seemed to call to hir, and after hir warmed flesh hit the cooler air above the pool, shi suddenly found hirself shivering. Hir guide waited for hir as shi made hir way to the locker room, before shaking hir head. "Aren’t you going to clean up first?"

"What do you mean?" Honeymane asked with a blush. "I am clean."

Manetheren chuckled. "first time in a hot spring, eh? If you don’t rinse out, you’ll find your fur hardening and clumping together from all the minerals in the water."

"Oh," Honeymane said with a pause, shi looked around until shi found a marked door leading to the showers. Shi slipped into the room, feeling somewhat woozy, as if hir muscles were on strike, and gave hirself a quick rinse as instructed, and dried hirself off before slipping back to the locker room for hir things. There was no sign of the Mountaineer as shi dressed, but shi wasn’t surprised to find hir out in the lobby, chatting with the now-drying Mariner whom Honeymane assumed was named Waterbeetle. Neither of the two was dressed, and Honeymane was beginning to suspect the planet was bitten by the naturalism bug harder than Chakona had been.

"There you are!" Manetheren waved as shi saw Honeymane approach. "I hope you’re all ready for a hike today."

"Today!" Honeymane exclaimed. "What time is it, surely it’s too late to head out now?"

"Sorry," Waterbeetle apologized with a shrug. "Violet was the only one willing to take you, and shi likes to travel quick."

"Don’t worry." Manetheren smiled, falling into step with Honeymane and putting hir hand on hir shoulder and began guiding hir to the door. "It’s easier than it sounds."

Despite Manetheren’s claim, Honeymane had never felt so tired out in hir life by the time the foxtaur finally called for a camp. Despite hir lack of clothing, the Mountaineer carried a pack bigger than Honeymane’s and shi found hirself impressed that the Mountaineer could handle it all by hirself. The taur obviously had stamina to spare, even if Honeymane didn’t.

"You chakats!" Manetheren said with a chuckle as Honeymane flopped onto a nearby flat boulder. "Always lazing around!"

"How would you know?" Honeymane retorted. "I thought I was only the second chakat you met!"

"True, but we have more than a few pet cats around here." The Mountaineer winked, as shi shrugged off hir pack and began opening a flap. "And you do look like one!"

Honeymane threw a small light rock at the taur, who chuckled as it bounced off hir pelt, before pointing to the open flap. "There’s a stove in there, set it up while I pitch the tent, okay?"

The stove proved to be extremely small indeed, and ran, to Honeymane’s surprise, on propane. Since shi had never had any experience with the explosive gas, shi made sure shi set the stove up very carefully before, as per Manetheren’s instructions, setting a can of what didn’t look very much like beans at all, in spite of Manetheren’s insistence to the contrary. It took a while, and when Honeymane turned back shi saw Manetheren slipping out of the surprisingly small tent.

The tent was a dome, and coloured a bright orange, with strips of reflective tape set into the fabric, making it extremely visible. Obviously the sort of tent you’d want if you got lost in the Mountains. Honeymane shook hir head at the thought; no point adding to hir worries.

"I know I know," Manetheren said with a grin. "Bit forward of me, I know, but I’ve only ever set up one tent unless I need it. If you’re really uncomfortable I’ll put up the other one."

"What? No!" Honeymane laughed. "No, I was just thinking my tent isn’t as visible as that! I hope I don’t get lost in the wilderness."

"Worried about getting lost, while you’re with me?" Manetheren chuckled. "If it weren’t for the delightful aroma of those beans warming my heart and making my stomach growl, I’d be insulted!" Shi padded over and took a deep breath of the warming beans. "Mmm, you must be an excellent cook!"

"I reheated some beans," Honeymane said dryly. "I’m afraid my aunt has all the cooking ability in my family, I’ve burnt soup before!"

Manetheren chuckled, before producing two collapsible bowls and spoons, and dividing the meal between them, At first it didn’t seem like much, but as shi ate it felt as if there was an exponential effect. Before long shi was completely full and gazing out over the ridge. The angle was wrong to see the system’s sun dip below the horizon, but it was still beautiful, to which shi commented.

"That’s why I’d never want to leave," Manetheren said thoughtfully, putting aside the bowls and following hir gaze. "It’s in my blood, literally. Of course," the Mountaineer added with a chuckle. "I suppose my parents would be disappointed, given my name."

"It’s… unusual," Honeymane said carefully. "I’ve never heard one like it."

"It certainly is – I can blame my mother for that, I’m afraid." The Mountaineer glanced at Honeymane with a grin. "It means ‘Mountain home’ in Old Tongue."

"What old tongue? English?"

Manetheren laughed at that. "No, no. My mother was a bit of a nerd, you see. Shi likes to read all the books shi can get hir hands on, with a particular taste for fantasy. Dippingbow was almost more of a science fiction buff hirself, which is probably why my sister is named Starbuck. The "Old Tongue" is a language from hir favourite saga."

"By… Tolkien?" Honeymane ventured.

"Tolkien! Nah, My mother wagered it was better than Lord of the Rings, although my father always retorted with Dune references. Drove hir mad!" Manetheren laughed, before shi sighed heavily. "It’s not been the same since my mom died."

"I’m… sorry to hear that." Honeymane reached over and took the Mountaineer’s hand in hirs, holding it briefly. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Don’t mind me," Manetheren said with a weak laugh. "I miss hir, of course, but I think it’s my dad who’s really hurting. Sometimes shi just stares off into space."

Honeymane frowned before shuffling closer and giving the stellar a hug. Shi didn’t say anything, but shi put a lot of feeling into the embrace, both figuratively and literally, with hir empathic talent.

"Thanks," Manetheren said, hir voice sounding tight as they separated. Shi gave hirself a shake and stood up as the daylight finally faded. "Time for bed – we’re up at the crack of dawn tomorrow."

"You’re joking!" Honeymane protested.

"Nope!" Manetheren said with a laugh, hir old humour returning. "I’ll let you pick which bag to sleep in, it’s all set up. I promise not to pick the same one!" shi added with a chuckle.

Honeymane chucked another rock at the taur.

Dawn came suspiciously fast, at least by Honeymane’s reckoning, and before shi knew it, Manetheren was shaking hir awake with orders to get moving. Breakfast was a hurried affair consisting of dried fruit bars and a small cup of tea. Like the beans before, they didn’t seem like much, but within a few minutes of eating, they seemed to fill hir stomach unusually well. As shi ate, Manetheren collapsed and folded the tent as if shi had done so all hir life, before stuffing it back into hir pack. Then shi signalled for them to get moving.

As they followed the winding trail up the mountain side, the path’s sides became more and more steep, although the trail itself remained mostly flat. Even so, their ascent seemed to become more and more difficult with each passing moment, and before long Honeymane felt incredibly winded and tired; so much so that Manetheren took notice and told hir to rest.

As shi shrugged off hir bag, shi felt hir legs give out slowly from under hir, and it was all shi could do to slump down rather than collapse. Manetheren dropped hir own bag and darted over, catching hir with surprising gentleness and helping hir to the ground, before shi began checking hir over.

"I’m fine, really," Honeymane protested as the dizziness passed. "I guess I’m not as fit as I thought I was."

Manetheren gave hir an incredulous look, before snorting and pressing hir ear against hir chest, causing Honeymane to blush. After a moment shi straighten up. "You have altitude sickness, I think."

"What do you mean you think?" Honeymane tried to get back up before a stern look from Manetheren sat hir down again.

"It’s not something that presents the same in all people, even within a species, and the most experience I’ve had with it is with other Stellars," Manetheren said with a shrug, before fishing out a water bottle from hir pack and handing it to hir. "We’re nearly pretty close to the tunnel as it is. Normally I’d like to keep going after we reach the other side but we’ll make camp earlier and head down tomorrow."

"Tunnel?" Honeymane echoed, taking a swig of the water. It was unlike any water shi had tasted before, but was very refreshing. "And won’t those Deebees be upset if you’re late?"

"To answer your second question, probably, but I can only go as fast as you can." Manetheren held out hir hand for Honeymane to grasp, and helped hir to hir feet. Shi felt much better even after such a short break. "As for the second, there’s a tunnel up above that cuts through the mountain. You didn’t think we were going to go over the top, were you?" Manetheren laughed and picked up hir bag and resettled it onto hir backs, before picking up Honeymane’s in addition, waving off hir protests. "Carrying less will make the journey less tiring, Honeymane. You just concentrate on walking, okay?"

Honeymane frowned but nodded, following the Stellar. After a few minutes shi realized Manetheren was right, it was easier, but shi didn’t like that shi was carrying all their baggage. "Aren’t you going to get altitude sick?"

"Me?" Manetheren glanced at hir and grinned wide. Before slapping hir hand on hir chest. "I doubt it – enhanced lungs. You’re not the only species genetic engineers had fun with!"

Honeymane gave the cheeky foxtaur a soft shove. The trek continued to increase in difficulty, requiring more breaks, if only for Honeymane’s sake. As the sun passed midday, however, Manetheren gave a shout of glee and scrambled up the side of the sliding, rocky slope, off the path and disappeared over a lip of earth. Honeymane snorted and followed the best shi could, and by the time shi reached the other side, the Mountaineer had both packs off and the cooking equipment out and turned on, warming up some more food. Shi waved at hir as shi slid down the inner slope. "I was wondering if I was going to have to drag you over! I told you we’d make it to the tunnel."

Honeymane snorted and slumped down by the cooker, taking deep breaths as shi examined the hollow. Obviously it had been carved out of the mountain side, and all around the outer edge there were metallic stocks with reflective flat structures on the tops of them. They looked very much like Sunflowers or a Chakonan Skywatcher. Each of them had a roughly cubical base, and each of those bases had a wire running from it, before it became buried in the ground. After a moment, as hir mind cleared, shi realized they were probably solar panels of some sort.

On the far edge of the hollow, at the side of the mountain, there was, a dark, unlit tunnel, through which Honeymane couldn’t see the other side. "It looks dark."

"It ought to be," Manetheren said with a chuckle, as shi served out the meal into bowls. "Sanddune would have my hide if I ran the batteries all the time."

"There’re lights in there?" Honeymane asked as shi accepted the warm meal from the foxtaur.

"Motion activated." Manetheren nodded as shi dug in. "Installed them myself. It’s one of the only ways to cross these mountains currently, although there’s talk of building a rail tunnel down below us in a few years."

"So the tunnel’s natural?"

"Mostly, yeah." Manetheren nodded. "It’s an old side vent of the volcano, absolutely amazing inside."

"Volcano?" Honeymane said, pointing over to the mountain shi had seen as shi had flown in. "Like that?"

"It’s actually the same Volcano," Manetheren chuckled, "You can trust me, I’m a volcanologist after all."

"Cool!" Honeymane commented as shi began to eat with gusto. "What do you mean though?"

"Okay, well you see…" Manetheren set down hir bowl and began gesturing with hir hands, bringing back some advice Fallingstar had given hir once; never ask a geologist about hir work, shi’ll take your interest for granite! "All volcanoes are formed at weak spots in a planet’s crust, and we call that a hotspot sometimes. But some hotspots aren’t static, they move around." Manetheren threw hir arms wide pointing in both directions of the mountain at once. "When it does so, each time it becomes active, it’ll make a new volcano, and leave the ones behind it dormant." Shi waited until Honeymane nodded. "This volcano, which I call Mt. Dragon but maps refer to as MV 2251, is a drifting hotspot, and a very active one. So it’s been erupting and moving for thousands of years, making this wall."

"It’s safe to cross, though, right?" Honeymane asked after a moment. Shi didn’t want to be rude.

"Of course!" Manetheren said with a laugh. "I can’t wait to show you the tunnel, Honeymane, it’s so cool!"

After they finished their meal, Manetheren resettled hirself with the two bags and they began into the tunnel. As soon as they crossed into the shadow, rectangular light fixtures, bolted into the wall and wired together in a chain flickered to life, filling the tunnel with a soft yellowish light. There weren’t all that many of the lights but it was more than enough to see by. As they walked, Honeymane found hirself both surprised and impressed by the cavern. The floor of the tunnel was extremely smooth, like a floor you’d find in a building, whereas the ceiling was covered in icicle like formations, Lavasicles, Manetheren called them. And they were the least of the features of the tunnel. At one point they crossed an area where the walls glittered with thousands of tiny crystals, and Manetheren broke a chunk off and gave it to hir as a souvenir.

They eventually came to a much wider chamber, with a rough stone floor and a low ceiling, which Honeymane had to duck to keep from hitting hir head. "It’s the central lava conduit, where the lava would have came up when the volcano was active." Manetheren explained, running hir hand over the wall. "We’re nearly to the other side; come on!"

Although Honeymane would have thought to take the further tube, Manetheren took one of the closer ones, which after a moment turned sharply and began running straight. In the far distance, Honeymane could see a glimmer of light from the outside, and despite hir tired muscles, found hirself racing along with Manetheren towards it. The distance was greater than shi imagined, but soon enough shi found hirself bursting out into the bright late afternoon sunlight and taking a deep breath of fresh air.

Stretching out in front of them was a golden-orange grasslands that seemed to stretch on forever. In the far distance, Honeymane thought shi could see a river of some size, and the beginning of a forest off to the side. Hir heart began to thump, and not just from the run; shi was getting close. "Wow!"

"It always takes my breath away too," Manetheren said, panting as shi trotted up behind hir. "I didn’t know you could run so fast!"

Honeymane tore hir eyes away from the grasslands and smiled at the Mountaineer, who obviously wasn’t built for running, and grinned. "I can’t let you have all the fun."

"So it seems." Manetheren shrugged as shi dropped the bags beside hirself. "I’ll get the tents up in a while; how about we just rest for a bit?"

Honeymane nodded and flopped down beside the Foxtaur, gazing off into the horizon. After a moment shi realized shi was staring at some sort of reflection in the far distance, the light of the descending sun glinting off of it. "What’s that?"

"That?" Manetheren followed hir hand to the structure. "Oh that, that’s the new FTL transmitter. I heard they’re going to flip the switch in a few days when the ship arrives. Greet them before they get within a light second."

"FTL transmitter?" Honeymane asked. "What were you using before?"

Manetheren snorted. "Don’t you know? Well I suppose you might not." Shi took a deep breathe. "FTL communications use exotic matter to push communications faster than light, basically you point the radio antenna at the exotic matter and it focuses it like a lens in a telescope or whatever. But doing that makes the exotic matter deteriorate, and you either need a lot of energy to stabilize it, or a lot of exotic matter."

"I guess ships would be able to provide that energy?" Honeymane asked. "With their antimatter reactions?"

"Exactly." Manetheren nodded. "But antimatter isn’t safe enough to be used on a planet’s surface, so you have to have piles of exotic matter. To answer your question however, before we built that, we used single use transmitters, basically a small amount of exotic matter that decays when it’s activated, like a firework."

"I guess that’s why we couldn’t talk," Honeymane said with a frown, gazing back out across the grasslands.

"Hmmm?" Manetheren asked questioningly, before shaking hir head. "Don’t tell me, I don’t need to know." Shi grunted and got to hir feet, before opening the tent flap and began setting up the tent.

Honeymane followed hir and shrugged. "I’ll help you. And it’s fine," shi added. "It’s good to tell people; it feels like we’ve kept it secret too long. You see, my mother…" As they worked together, Honeymane told the foxtaur hir story. As shi finished the Mountaineer shook hir head sadly. "I think shi should have told hir anyway, but that’s just me. I imagine it was a difficult decision."

Honeymane shrugged and didn’t say any more on the topic as shi got the stove out and began heating up another can of food. This time the can claimed it was some sort of rabbit stew, but as shi tasted a bit of the meat, shi began to wonder if anyone knew what a rabbit tasted like.

As shi worked, the sun began to dip below the horizon, and Honeymane found hirself staring at it. Unlike before, shi had a front row seat to the sunset, and it was quite beautiful. However, it was also fairly cold, probably due to how high up they were. Manetheren padded up behind hir and dropped a blanket over hir shoulders, before giving hir a bowl to serve the food into, which shi did graciously. As the light died, Honeymane’s gaze drifted from the sunset to the guide, who caught hir eyes and smiled back warmly.

"Thanks for the blanket, Manetheren," Honeymane said after a moment, tearing gaze away from those amber eyes. "And the meal."

"I have to feed you, don’t I?" Manetheren said with a grin and a chuckle. "And you’re welcome."

Honeymane found hir heart beating in hir chest as shi smiled back at the taur, before shi reached over and took the taur’s hand in hir own and gave it a squeeze. Manetheren’s eyes grew in surprise, and Honeymane withdrew hir hand back in embarrassment. "Sorry."

"Don’t be," Manetheren said after a moment, setting aside hir own bowl and reaching back to take back hir hand. "I…" shi broke off with a chuckle. "You are welcome you know. I’m glad to help you."

"I know, but…" Honeymane blushed. "Maybe it’s just that it’s been a while, but I’d very much like to share your bed with you, if you’d like."

Manetheren grinned. "How can I say no? I’ll join you in a couple of minutes." The Stellar got to hir feet and began putting away the pots as Honeymane padded into the tent and turned on the small LED light in the center of the dome structure, before shi removed hir top and arranged hirself in what shi hoped was an arousing pose. After a moment Manetheren stuck hir head and grinned like shi had never seen such a sight in hir life, licking hir lips and stepping into the tent.

Manetheren and Honeymane

Honeymane woke the next day much after dawn, but to hir pleasure Manetheren wasn’t up and at it either, but rather the two of them were still tangled together in an embrace where they had fallen asleep last night. Shi wiggled hir way out of the entanglement, before stretching mightily and giving a purr as hir muscles worked the knots out of themselves. When shi was done, shi noticed Manetheren was awake and watching. Putting hir hands on hir hips shi looked down at the Mountaineer. "Now who’s the lazy one?"

Manetheren chuckled in good humour. "You’re the one who tired me out last night, you know. But you’re right, let’s get moving!"

Not bothering to stop and have breakfast, Manetheren packed quickly and handed Honeymane a food bar to eat as they walked. The descent was easier than the ascent, it seemed, and before long Honeymane felt right as rain as the air became thicker. However, despite overcoming what little altitude sickness shi had, shi found hirself staring at hir guide more than once, and embarrassingly, shi had caught hir at it more than once too. Every time shi gave a wink and shook hir tail or licked hir lips or some other provocative move, and Honeymane felt hirself trying very hard not to pull the foxtaur down into an embrace right then and there.

Shi couldn’t understand it – it was only sex between friends, and it shouldn’t have affected hir that badly! Honeymane found hirself thinking, before shaking hirself for the hundredth time, just as Manetheren called for lunch. Lunch was similar to the previous day’s but unlike the previous days, shi found hirself stroking Manetheren’s flanks, and before long the two of them were making love again, on the bare ground. When they finally got moving again, Honeymane was wincing at the ‘gravel burn’ shi had gotten, although it did seem to allow hir to concentrate on the hike once more.

Two more times they stopped on the way down, and two more times they found themselves making love in the open air. After the final time Manetheren chuckled. "I heard Chakats liked their sex, but this is a bit ridiculous!"

Honeymane chucked another rock at the taur and found hirself laughing. "Perhaps so. How far are we from where you’d meet these Deebees, by the way?"

"We’ll probably reach them by nightfall, provided there’s no more interruptions," Manetheren said with a wink.

Honeymane agreed and they set off again, making good time, both because shi no long felt the need to stop and catch hir breath, but mostly because Honeymane held hir feelings in. Thankfully shi was also able to take hir bag back from the Mountaineer, and the weight of it, shi imagined, helped kept hir mind off… other things. It was, however, after nightfall when they finally reached the small wooden cabin nestled at the very foothills of the mountain. As they approached, a small golden-pelted foxtaur darted out the door and stamped up to them.

"There you are!" shi began hotly. "Where have you been! We’ve been waiting all day!"

"I’m not that late, Dust," Manetheren snorted. "You’ll be in Golden Springs before you know it."

At the sound of the Deebee’s voice, two more appeared. "Where’ve you been?" repeated one, while the other pointed to Honeymane and inquired as to who shi was. Manetheren introduced hir before shi could speak. "Honeymane needed a guide over the mountain, so I offered to help hir. Shi didn’t have much mountaineering experience, so it took us longer than expected."

The Deebee Manetheren had named Dust snorted. "Sure! And how do you explain the fact that the two of you have obviously been screwing each other!" Honeymane blinked and blushed, suddenly wondering if the Deserters had seen the two of them up on the mountain side, as Dust continued. "I can still smell it! You two were humping your way across the mountain I’d reckon!"

"Now hold on!" Manetheren protested.

"No you hold on, Shir Manetheren!" Dust cut hir off, and jabbed hir chest with hir finger. "We’re going right now and we’re not stopping until we’re half way up the damn mountain!"

"But it’s night!" Manetheren shook hir head, "you can’t climb it at night!"

"Doesn’t your ad say ‘Violet the Mountaineer, knows the Dragon like the back of hir paw’?" the Deserter snorted. "I’ll give you a few moments to rest, but then we’re going."

Manetheren stared at the taur for a moment then agreed, before beckoning Honeymane aside. "Well, I guess this is where we part."

"I’ll miss you," Honeymane found hirself saying to hir surprise, although shi meant every word of it. "I might make a point of coming back this way."

"I’d like that," Manetheren said with a smile, before taking a piece of paper out of hir belt pouch – it was a copy of the advert the Deebee had referred to. "Not everyone has contacts yet, but I do. If you’re headed back this way, give me a call and I’ll be here."

Honeymane looked at the ad for a moment, before hugging the Mountaineer and giving hir a kiss on hir lips, savouring the moment as hir heart fluttered.

When they parted, Manetheren looked flustered as Honeymane felt. "Well, yes. Goodbye Honeymane. Good luck with your father."

"Thanks. Good luck with them," Honeymane said finally, pointing to the taurs who were hauling their things out of the cabin. "I’ll stay here tonight and set out tomorrow."

"Good idea; I keep it well stocked, so you’ll be able to have a decent meal at least." Manetheren nodded, before giving Honeymane’s nose a lick and trotting off to meet with the group of taurs. Honeymane waited until they had disappeared from sight before slipping into the cabin and fixing hirself a meal. The cabin was obviously well used, but certainly tidy enough, and more than well stocked with foodstuffs of all sorts. After shi ate well for what felt like the first time in days, shi checked the bedroom; there was only one, and evidently it had been used, probably by the Deebees, fairly recently. Given the scent, shi couldn’t help but chuckle to hirself at their hypocrisy. A quick change of the bedding, and shi settled down for the evening.

Despite the comfortable bedding, Honeymane didn’t sleep as well as shi had been, which shi attributed to nerves, but as such shi was up before dawn, knocking about, checking hir gear, including the rugged looking GPS and other supplies. As the sun rose, however, shi was delighted to find a working taur-sized shower with hot water. Shi made good use of the facilities, and felt refreshed and ready to face the day. After shi ate a quick breakfast and secured the cabin, shi pulled out hir GPS and checked it over.

Sanddune wasn’t completely sure where the Veldt encampment would be, but shi had given Honeymane a good idea where to start looking, and had kindly marked it on hir GPS as a waypoint. Once shi was sure shi was headed in the right direction, Honeymane began to run, thankful for hir Veldt heritage.

Shi just hoped Darktoes would be too.

Browneyes’ heart began to pound harder as the Arisian Gateway slowly grew in size. It was finally happening. The trip had taken several weeks, and Browneyes wasn’t sure if hir daughter was here or not, or even what shi’d do when shi found hir. But Browneyes was here, and it felt like a homecoming. But even as shi smiled, shi couldn’t help but think about Darktoes, and what this reaction would be. But whatever it would be, it would be. Browneyes jumped a bit as shi felt a hand on hir flank – it was Fallingstar.

"Come on, it’s almost time to disembark, I’ve got our bags ready." Shi motioned for Browneyes to follow hir. "You’ll find hir soon enough. Everything is going to be okay."

For a moment, Browneyes wondered which hir Fallingstar meant.

The journey to the first waypoint was both dull and interesting at the same time. Honeymane had never really been in true wilderness, although many considered Chakona to be something of an untamed world, but here it was as if the world planet was virgin, with no signs of civilization anywhere. When shi did come across one, such as a wooden bridge across the river shi had seen before, it was almost spooky in a sense, and for whatever reason it sent chills through hir body. It was dull however, for much the same reasons. There was only so many times one could see a lone tree or an animal of some sort off in the distance and be interested in it. So shi ran.

The first waypoint was a complete bust however. Honeymane had little training in tracking, but even shi could tell they hadn’t been at the site in a few days at least, if not weeks. Nevertheless they left a clear trail that even Honeymane could follow, and soon shi was following in hir father’s footsteps, at least in hir mind.

Before shi got too far up the trail however, the sun began to set, and Honeymane quickly made camp, eating, to hir surprise, similar food that shi had eaten on the mountain. Setting up the tent proved to be a trick however, and when shi finally managed to get it up and crawl into it, it collapsed on top of hir, requiring hir to climb back out and try again. Shi managed it on the third try.

The next two days followed as such, although shi did get better at setting and collapsing the tent. On the dawn of the third day, shi found to hir surprise shi could see smoke further down the trail. Shi almost sped ahead in hir excitement, but shi made hirself take the time to take down the tent and pack up, before trotting, very quickly, down the trail.

As shi approached the smoke, hir heart beat faster – it really was the camp, or at least a camp which probably was the one shi was looking for. It certainly matched the description Sanddune had given hir, filled with primitive-looking huts, with what appeared to be leather dome tents. Above most of the huts fluttered a multitude of gaily coloured banners and pennants, each of which denoted a different family of foxtaurs, or so Sanddune had told hir. As shi approached, shi slowed to a trot as a few Veldts ran or walked around their structures. As shi approached the outer ring of the huts, one of them finally noticed hir approaching and broke off from the conversation shi was having to walk out to hir. Shi waved as shi approached.

"Greeting, traveller," the veldt said, with an air of formality. The foxtaur was tall, taller than Honeymane, and for the first time in hir life shi realized how hir chakat friends must have felt talking to hir. Besides being tall, the veldt wore no clothing, although shi did seem to have an extraordinary number of beaded armbands and wristbands. Honeymane was beginning to think shi’d blend in better if shi wasn’t wearing a halter hirself. "We offer you water and a meal, and we hope you’ll tell us tales of your clan, and –" The veldt’s green eyes widened in surprise. "Wait a minute, you’re a Chakat!"

"So I’ve been told," Honeymane said drily, before shaking hir head. "I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. I’m just here a bit early is all."

The Veldt shook hir head. "I should have realized, although you do look like a Veldt from a distance. So why are you here?"

"I’m looking for a Veldt named Darktoes," Honeymane explained. "This is hir group, right?"

"I know a Darktoes," the Veldt nodded thoughtfully. "Child of Pond and Spadespot, right? Sorry, Seeker and Spadespot. Forgot shi changed hir name a while back." Suddenly the Veldt grinned. "Ever seen hir play? Darktoes got a vid of a game once, and the next day all the children were playing chakker!" shi chuckled. "Right up until they cannoned into Brownstock’s hut and broke the wall in."

"Oh… dear." Honeymane shrugged faintly. "I don’t suppose you know where shi is?"

"Mmm? Oh, right. Keep going until you get to the center clearing; it’s on the far side of the camp. You’ll need to look for a banner that’s…." Honeymane listened intently as the veldt helpfully described the colour and symbolism of the hut. "But, I think shi might be out at the moment, checking some plants or something," the veldt added, shaking hir head sadly. "Not expecting family, it seems. But hir mate should be there."

Mate! Honeymane almost exclaimed, before nodding graciously to the foxtaur. Shi knew hir father would have moved on, but for some reason shi had never expected this.

From a distance, the camp looked somewhat loosely packed, but to hir surprise it turned out to be very tightly woven as shi tried to move through the huts and other structures that made up the camp. It wasn’t until shi came to the opening that was the camp’s square, which was a good fifteen meters across, that shi realized there were wider passages radiating out from the center, similar to roads. Apparently, shi had been trekking through people’s back yards, and shi hoped they didn’t mind.

The square, however, was as shi imagined it, flattened down grass, with a good dozen or more kits of various ages playing games of all sorts, including, despite what the friendly veldt had said, chakker, or something similar. For a moment, shi thought about stopping and asking them for directions, but part of hir worried they might be overly inquisitive, as children often were, and so shi trotted on, this time sticking to the road rather than people’s backyards. There were a number of veldts here too, all of whom tended to do a double-take upon realizing shi was a chakat, but none of them bothered hir. All the while, shi was scanning the flags above, looking for the right one.

Suddenly, shi caught a glimpse of the brilliant orange with white edging the Veldt had described to hir, and started towards it, only to be swept off hir feet and onto hir back by two reddish blurs. Shaking hir head shi got to hir feet and dusted hirself off, before shi realized the troublemakers were watching hir intently, with more than a little worry in their eyes.

"Sorry shir!" the two said as hir eyes met theirs, in a practiced manner that suggested the two were in trouble more often than not. After a moment Honeymane recognized them as two of the kits from the square, both of whom looked to be about thirteen or so.

"It’s alright," Honeymane said after a moment, to which the kits looked relieved. "But perhaps you could help me. I’m looking for a foxtaur named Darktoes. Do you know hir? Could you take me to hir home?"

"Huh?" said the one whose white bib was broken into two pieces, while the other whose ears were a deeper red than the rest of hir went wide-eyed and said at the same time, "You want to see Mommy?"

Honeymane tried to keep hirself from looking surprised, and waited for a moment to make sure shi’d speak normally. "If it’s the same Darktoes, yes."

The two kits looked at each other before bursting out in excited questions while assuring hir that they knew the best ways to get home. Honeymane tried to answer their questions as non-descriptively as possible, as they led hir back between the camp’s huts and tents in what Honeymane suspected was not the shortest route but the most fun, at least in the childish definition of the word, which included lots and lots of mud puddles. Before long the kits were more brown than red, and almost unrecognizable. Finally they arrived at the hut.

Honeymane paused for a second to look up at the banner, and after a moment felt hir throat grow tight. Shi hadn’t been able to see it from the description, but when shi saw it in the wind shi realized the two brown spots with green spots inside them, that the Veldt had described to hir were eyes, hir mother’s eyes. Before shi could think any more of the topic, however, the kits had ran into the hut and were promptly thrown out to go wash in a nearby stream. As they darted away protesting, a Veldt came out yelling after them to make sure they stayed clean this time. Shi shook hir head and turned to Honeymane, who felt hir mouth go dry.

"Hello stranger, the kits did mention something about a new Veldt in town, but from the looks of you, you’re a chakat," shi said, nodding to hirself.

After a moment Honeymane found hir tongue. "I’m looking for Darktoes…" shi began slowly, was this Veldt hir father?

"I’m afraid shi’s out at the moment," the Veldt said. "You’re welcome to stay for lunch, if you’d like while you wait. Shi should be back soon. I’m Quinoa, Darktoes’ mate, by the way."

Honeymane sighed heavily, mostly in relief. Catching the look Quinoa was giving hir, Honeymane blushed and explained shi’d be honoured, plus shi was very, very hungry.

The inside of the hut was surprisingly dark, with a few holes covering the openings, which Honeymane noticed could be covered with heavy pelts. Still, it was light enough for hir to see anyway, once hir eyes adjusted. Quinoa indicated a set of embroidered taur pillows for hir to sit on, next to a table, and asked hir what hir name was, to which shi only gave the first name. The rest of the questions were not particularly probing, or easily lied around, and when the cubs returned, looking damp but clean, the four of them began eating with no further conversation.

Honeymane was half way done hir second sandwich, composed of local grain bread and some sort of meat, when the kit’s ear’s perked up suddenly, and the two of them jumped over the table yelled that their mother was home. Honeymane’s heart began beating almost painfully fast as shi waited, hir appetite gone.

Finally the conversation outside died off as the voice Honeymane assumed belonged to hir father pleaded that shi needed to eat, and the kits raced back in to finish their own meals, while the veldt strolled in behind them. Honeymane got to hir feet uneasily, feeling almost dizzy with nerves.

"So, you’re the mysterious stranger who’s excited my kits like a new toy," shi said with a laugh. "Friend of Quinoa’s, I assume?"

Honeymane licked hir lips, and opened hir mouth, before shutting it and taking a deep breath. "Uh, no… I’m actually here to see you, Darktoes I assume?"

"Me!" Darktoes replied sounding surprised. "Who are you?"

"I… I’m Honeymane, Chakat Honeymane, Daughter of Browneyes and… and Darktoes," Honeymane stammered out.

Darktoes, as well as rest of the occupants of the hut stared at hir for a moment, before Darktoes cleared hir throat and said; "What?" At hir comment, it was if shi had opened a floodgate. Quinoa mostly looked shocked, but the two kits were excited as ever, jumping over the table and racing around between Honeymane and hir father, shooting off questions and exclaiming things like how happy they were to have a ‘big sister’. Finally Quinoa shook hirself and told the kits to get out and go play, and after the third time shi said it they finally obeyed and left.

When it was relatively quiet, Darktoes spoke again. "What… what do you mean?"

"I’m… well…" Honeymane shook hirself, and ordered hir thoughts. As shi did Darktoes sat down across the table where Honeymane had been eating, and thinking it was a good idea, Honeymane followed suit. Sitting down seemed to make the whole thing clearer.

"My mother, Browneyes, shi was pregnant when you set off to colonize this world," Honeymane said softly. "With your kit."

"Are you sure?" Quinoa asked incredulously, with more than a little hint of anger in hir voice. "I don’t mean to be insulting, of course, but it’s not as if Chakats are famed for their monogamy."

"Uh, yes," Honeymane said, licking hir lips nervously. Quinoa sounded angrier than Darktoes looked, but perhaps shi just kept it bottled up better. "I’m… my mom said shi knew after Darktoes and hir spent a few days together."

Darktoes nodded. "I remember that. I also remember Browneyes acting weirdly after that. Shi was crying a lot and I assumed at the time shi was just upset that we had fallen in love and we’d be separated so soon. But…" Shi let hir voice trail off and shook hir head. "I loved hir so much, but maybe I was wrong about hir loving me back, perhaps I’ve been a fool all long. I guess that explains the lack of letters recently."

"Shi… shi does love you Darktoes," Honeymane said softly. "I never doubted that."

"Oh really?" Darktoes said, suddenly sounding angry. "Then why did shi ever tell me shi was pregnant, or tell me about you? Or –" Darktoes got to hir feet and began to pace. "Or anything!?"

"I can answer that," said a voice suddenly. The three of them turned as the hut’s flap was pushed aside, and a calico chakat pushed hir way through.

"Mom?" Honeymane exclaimed startled at the chakat’s sudden appearance, while Quinoa snorted angrily and threw up hir arms in exasperation. Darktoes however, stopped pacing and stared at the chakat.

"I see you made it here safely," Browneyes murmured, nodding to Honeymane, before turning hir attention back to Darktoes. "I… I guess shi’s told you," Browneyes added, hir voice sounding tighter than normal.

"Yes," Darktoes replied softly, hir voice was even tighter sounding.

"Darktoes…" Browneyes moved as if shi meant to stroke the foxtaur’s face, but Darktoes flinched back.

"Why, Browneyes, why?" Darktoes snapped. "Tell me why I should ever let you touch me again, after you – you kept hir from me." Shi pointed in Honeymane’s direction.

For a moment Browneyes said nothing, looking miserable, but when shi did speak hir voice was steady, if it did sound a bit forced. "I did it because I loved you Darktoes…"

Darktoes snorted and crossed hir arms.

"Listen, I never meant to get pregnant, I… I didn’t realize I was in heat, you see," Browneyes said, hir voice wavering. "When I realized I was pregnant, I… I thought. I thought you’d want to stay with me, and raise hir with me. You seemed like the sort."

Darktoes frowned and didn’t say anything beyond the words hir expression carried; it suggested Browneyes was right.

"But… Darktoes, the way you talked about your work, the work you had done, and would do here, you love it Darktoes, you love being here and doing what you do," Browneyes continued. "Staying with me, and Honeymane would have meant you’d have to give that all up, all of it. And I couldn’t ask that of you."

"You could have came with me," Darktoes said finally after a moment. "I could have settled in one of the settlements, the ones that aren’t nomadic."

"I wish I had," Browneyes said simply. "At first, I convinced myself I shouldn’t tell you and try and go with you because I’d have nothing to do here, my skills wouldn’t be in demand or need, but…" Browneyes broke off and looked at the ground. "I… I… After you left, and after I gave birth, and began to realize I just didn’t care about my work any more, it hurt so much being away from you."

"Why didn’t you tell hir?" Quinoa asked, looking frustrated worse than anything Honeymane had scene. "You even spoke to hir once, live."

"I almost did." Browneyes shrugged. "I almost did. After that it just became too hard. I thought for sure you’d hate me for what I’d done, and that was painful to me too. I couldn’t tell you without losing you, but I couldn’t be with you without telling you…."

Honeymane could tell Darktoes was thinking hard, but shi still looked extremely angry. Suddenly shi brushed past Browneyes and left the hut. As the flap slapped shut Browneyes burst into tears. Despite hir anger, Quinoa sighed heavily and seemed to let it go, before getting up and guiding Browneyes onto an pillow and setting the kettle for tea. Part of Honeymane wanted to stay, but shi knew shi couldn’t. So shi darted after hir father.

Despite not seeing where shi had gone, Honeymane had a fairly good idea that shi wouldn’t have headed into the camp, but rather out, and sure enough as shi approached the edge and looked out, there was a veldt running in the distance. So shi ran after hir.

For a while Honeymane seemed to be right on hir tail, figuratively, but after a while, and as hir lungs began to protest and hir muscles twitched from the abuse, shi realized shi really wasn’t gaining on the foxtaur, so shi slid to a stop and cursed. Kicking a rock shi slumped down by a nearby tree and breathed deeply as shi tried to regain hir breath. Part of hir felt like crying; it seemed shi really had fucked it up. The other part of hir felt like screaming in anger, both at hirself, for hir failure and at everyone else, hir mother, hir father, Quinoa, those kits and their simple minded view of the world. And that made hir ever more irate.

"I see you’ve inherited more than my pelt colours," said a voice suddenly, approaching from the direction Darktoes had been running. "Although you’re obviously not used to running."

Honeymane gave Darktoes a glare as the taur settled down beside hir. "Gee, thanks," shi snorted sarcastically.

Darktoes barked a laugh. "Ah well, can’t imagine you get much running on Chakona."

"Why do you care?" Honeymane growled, hir anger intensifying.

Darktoes looked at hir with surprise, before chuckling. "Shouldn’t I?"

Honeymane snorted at that and crossed hir arms, looking away.

"Ah, I see," Darktoes said softly. "You think you’ve screwed everything up?"

"You were running away!" Honeymane retorted. "If you hadn’t came back I wouldn’t even be talking to you right now."

"I came back," Darktoes said as if shi was stating an obvious truth. "But I was never running away to begin with. I wanted to think, and running is what we Veldts do." Darktoes sighed. "You think you’ve screwed everything up, but truthfully it’s been screwed up since before you were born, Honeymane."

"I know," Honeymane said with a snort. "I love hir, but I always thought my mother was a bit of an idiot, at least when it comes to this sort of stuff."

Darktoes sighed again and looked off across the grasslands. After a long silence shi spoke. "What do you think I should do?"

"You’re asking me?" Honeymane said with surprise, shaking hir head. "Hell no! I don’t want to be the one who tells you to take hir back, or tells you to boot hir to the curb. This is your problem, and it’s got to be your solution."

Darktoes chuckled. "That’s probably wise of you, Honeymane, at least Browneyes seems to raised you well enough, although I suspect…" Darktoes’ eyes twinkled. "That you didn’t come here with your mother’s permission, did you?" Honeymane blushed slightly. "Well a bit of independence is always good too."

Darktoes stood up and offered Honeymane hir hand, which shi took and helped hir to hir feet. Shi dusted hirself off and set a fast pace back to the village. "I’m going to forgive hir, I think," shi said as they walked. "But… not take hir back."

"Not yet," Honeymane added. "I know shi’s hurt you, but I can’t see that not happening."

Darktoes hesitated. "That depends."

"On?" Honeymane asked, looking at hir father expectantly.

"If Browneyes sticks around," Darktoes said with a shrug. They were quite far away from the camp, and at the pace Darktoes had set, it’d take them a while to get there. "What about you, Honeymane? What are you plans?"

"I don’t know." Honeymane licked hir lips and suddenly felt embarrassed. Shi really hadn’t given much thought to what to do after shi found hir father, and it suddenly seemed like a huge mistake. "Perhaps I’ll stay here."

"You could do that; I wouldn’t mind getting to know my daughter," Darktoes said. "Assuming you’d want to stay here and learn from your father," Darktoes said, hir ears twitching with humour, as shi looked Honeymane up and down. "I might just be able to make a Veldt out of you yet. Assuming you can keep up with the caravans."

"Are you always so critical?" Honeymane asked with a snort.

"I’m the mother of twins, Honeymane," Darktoes said with a laugh. "It’s either have a firm hand with them or watch your house burn down."

For the rest of the walk back, Darktoes quizzed hir on the various aspects of hir life, who shi was friends with, how shi did in school, whether there was anyone special in hir life. And to hir surprise they arrived back at the camp seemingly within no time at all. As they strolled up to the hir hut, Darktoes motioned for Honeymane to stay where shi was, before ducking into the hut alone. After a few moments of waiting, Quinoa appeared, looking irritated. "You’d think shi’d include hir mate in things, wouldn’t you?" shi asked of Honeymane rhetorically, before telling Honeymane that Darktoes had asked to be left alone with Browneyes for a bit. At the end of hir explanation, Quinoa shrugged and motioned for hir to follow.

Not surprisingly, Quinoa led them back to the square, where the twins seemed to be raising a ruckus of some sort or another. But the square was unusually packed, at least by Honeymane’s reckoning, and it took hir a moment to realize that most of the new bodies weren’t Stellars, but chakats or foxtaurs "I can’t believe Browneyes came after all," Quinoa said, finally, as the two of them stood at the edge of the maelstrom.

"Why?" Honeymane tilted hir head and wondered, briefly, what shi was sensing from the veldt.

Shi gave Honeymane a sidelong glance before shaking hir head. "I guess I’m just… a bit jealous. Darktoes pined after Browneyes for a long time, and I went along with it, for the most part, but I can’t help but feel second best."

"Do… do Veldts not have multiple mates?" Honeymane asked after a moments thought.

"It’s not as common, no. But it’s not that, it’s just…" Quinoa seemed to search for the appropriate word. "It’s just so intense, the feelings shi showed for hir. Now shi’s here, and I can’t help wonder…"

"Don’t worry," Honeymane said gently, patting the taller taur on hir shoulder. "I highly doubt Darktoes is going to leave you for my mother just because shi showed up."

"Maybe." Quinoa sighed, still looking troubled.

It was almost nightfall before Darktoes came to find them, followed by a dry eyed Browneyes. Shi invited both chakats to stay for supper, and they accepted, but shi also noted they’d have to find somewhere else to sleep, since the hut was hardly large enough for two more fully grown taurs. So after they ate, Honeymane excused hirself to go set up the tent shi had traveled with, with Browneyes following hir. To hir pleasure, Browneyes turned out to be no better at pitching a tent than Honeymane had been, but they got it set up eventually, and before the moon was too high up in the sky they crawled into the cramped tent.

Honeymane turned on the light, and for the first time in several weeks shi got a good look at hir mother. Hir eyes were still red from the tears shi had shed earlier, but there seemed to be something different about hir, hir eyes seemed brighter, and shi seemed to move more gracefully. Browneyes caught hir gaze and smiled at hir. "I suppose you’re wondering what happened?"

"A bit." Honeymane nodded, wiggling over a bit trying to find more room in the small structure. "But I suppose that’s between you and hir."

Browneyes nodded. "Perhaps this time you won’t try to go behind my back?" shi added a bit coolly.

"I’d do it again, if I had to." Honeymane shook hir finger at hir mother. "I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened."

Hir mother looked thoughtful, before turning the light off and turning over. "I don’t think I would either."

Honeymane shook hir head and followed hir, and after the long, emotionally draining day, shi was asleep before shi knew it.

Over the next week or so, Browneyes and Darktoes got along well enough, as did Quinoa and Browneyes, although shi seemed to treat hir cooler than most. Honeymane, however, found hirself at the center of attention, at least from Darktoes hirself, who seemed to want to make up for all the years shi had lost with hir daughter as soon as possible and as quickly as possible. By the third day, however, the camp’s Veldts seemed to have realized Darktoes’ mysterious lover Browneyes had shown up, with a kit in tow (how the story got changed around like that Honeymane would never know) and before long none of the three could go anywhere in the encampment, without someone coming up and trying to worm some sort of information out them. It seemed that gossip was the favourite medium of entertainment among the taurs, and they were about as hot of a topic as it gets.

At the end of the week, however, the visitors were invited to a large, open air banquet in their honour. The cruise ship couldn’t stay in orbit forever, and the next day they were due to depart. Despite having not been on the ship, Browneyes assured hir that there’d be room for hir in hir cabin. However, as the meal wound down, Browneyes tapped hir glass and stood up.

"I know a lot of you have been wondering about myself and Darktoes, and what will happen now," Browneyes said, sounding surprisingly calm for someone addressing so many people. "And the truth is, I don’t know. But either way, I’m willing to give it a chance. I’ve decided to move to Arisia."

The table erupted in various talk, although Darktoes only looked sly and dug into hir pudding, avoiding the hard glare Quinoa was giving hir. Honeymane shook hir head and began eating hirself. When Browneyes finally settled back down again, shi leaned over and asked hir whether shi was coming back to Chakona at all.

"Of course," Browneyes said with a chuckle. "I have a bunch of paperwork to fill out and the planet won’t be open for colonization for a while yet, although Darktoes assures me shi’ll get me a special visa."

"What about Fallingstar?" Honeymane asked. Shi had only seen the Starwalker a few times in the past week, and only in passing.

"Shi’s moving here too." Browneyes smiled. "It seems shi had some… bad blood I suppose you’d call it, with hir siblings, but shi’s resolved that. Turns out shi misses zero-G."

"Ah." Honeymane licked hir lips, and let hir gaze slide over to Darktoes, who seemed to be getting an earful from Quinoa. "Is… is it working out between you two?"

"I think so." Browneyes sighed. "At least I hope so. But enough downer talk – we’re here to celebrate!"

And celebrate they did. After the feast, the Veldts pulled the tables away and began a wild kicking style of dancing that was, as Honeymane found out, funnier to watch than attempt. All of celebration was lubricated with a fair amount of alcohol, stuff so strong that by the time the sun started rising, Honeymane was beginning to feel hung over. Thankfully the symptoms didn’t last very long, and despite hir lack of sleep shi felt bright-eyed for the trip to the spaceport via shuttle. Darktoes came as well, and thankfully the shuttle was large enough to contain everyone with room to spare besides. However, the flight was long, and compared to the VTOL, fairly quiet, so for the first time in hir life, Honeymane found hirself curled up next to hir father, sleeping.

Of course, as the shuttle touched down at the spaceport, shi also had the fun experience of being shaken awake and told to get ready for something while shi was half asleep.

The spaceport differed from what the refinery ship had landed on, and rather than having some sort of heavy lift shuttle for all the passengers, Honeymane was finally going to get to use the transporters. There was, however, a large line, and Darktoes was hardly the only person to come out to see their friends and family off. Eventually, however, the three of them were ushered into a transporter room, where they met, to Honeymane’s surprise, Fallingstar along with a uncomfortable-looking polar breed stellar.

"You must be Darktoes," shi said, offering a hug. "I’ve heard a lot about you."

Darktoes accepted the hug graciously, and patted the Starwalker on hir back. "I’ve heard a fair amount about you as well. I guess I’ll be seeing much more of you, when you get back."

"That seems likely," Fallingstar grinned, before turning back to the two chakats. "You look dead tired, so let’s get you into those nice warm cabin beds, eh?" Fallingstar helped them drag their bags up onto the pads, and showed Honeymane how to stand before assuming a similar position and nodding to the transporter operator to activate the sequence. Clear glass, or glass like material descended and encased Honeymane, and shi heard a faint whirl as the machine ramped up, followed by a hissing noise and what sounded like an alarm.

Honeymane opened hir eyes and realized shi was still in the same room, with Darktoes looking up at hir with a worried expression on hir face. Glancing around shi realized everyone else was gone, including their bags. The technician finally raised the hood and deactivated the alarm, looking bewildered. "I’m not completely sure what’s wrong, give me a moment Shir. I –" Shi frowned, and pressed a couple more buttons. "Looks like the other two are coming back," shi commented, as Fallingstar and Browneyes rematerialized and hopped off the pads. Browneyes gave Honeymane a surprisingly fierce hug, before asking Darktoes what had happened.

"Nothing happened," Honeymane snorted, pulling away from Browneyes and cutting Darktoes’ response off. "Some alarm happened."

Browneyes looked at Darktoes expectantly, who nodded in agreement.

Suddenly the technician spoke up. "Here’s the problem! Shir, you’re supposed to tell the screeners you’re pregnant."

Honeymane stared at the Polari for a moment, as did everyone else in the room. "What do you mean, pregnant?" shi demanded. "I’m not pregnant!"

The white Stellar shrugged. "That’s not what the scans say."

Now everyone turned to face hir. Honeymane swallowed hard. Fallingstar looked slightly amused, but neither of hir parents looked all that pleased.

"You’re pregnant," Browneyes said with a frown. "It’s not that awful foxtaur you’ve been dating, is it?" Darktoes shot Browneyes a look, who returned it with an "I’ll explain later" look.

"Maker, mom, he was a wolftaur! And no!" Honeymane said with grimace. "I always used condoms with him and – and this is absurd! I always use a condom, and I always keep track of my cycles, I have a computer program and everything."

"That’s didn’t stop Browneyes," Darktoes pointed out softly. "And nothing’s foolproof."

"But I didn’t!" Honeymane protested again.

"Did you remember to sync your PADD with the ship’s computers, while you were on it?" Fallingstar asked gently, coming up between hir two parents.

"Sync it?" Honeymane said hotly, feeling hirself blush hard. Shi didn’t have a clue what the Starwalker was talking about, but it sounded important.

"When you approach the speed of light, time slows down for those traveling that fast." Fallingstar explained. "It’s the same for going faster than light—although I’m not qualified to explain how it works. If you don’t sync things like calendars to the ship’s computers, the program can’t adjust for the distortion of time. It can make calendars wildly inaccurate."

"W-what do you mean?" Honeymane asked.

Darktoes rolled hir eyes. "It means you were in heat when your calendar showed otherwise."

"But –" Suddenly Honeymane realized what had happened. Shi closed hir eyes and tried to deny it; after everything, to end up like hir mother!"

"They don’t know, do they," Browneyes said gently.

"Well of course they don’t know!" Honeymane snapped, blinking as hir vision became blurry. "How the fuck could they know? I just found out."

Browneyes gave hir daughter a hug, and after a moment, Darktoes joined in too, although shi looked and felt somewhat irritated by the turn of events. After a long silence, the three of them broke apart and Honeymane rubbed the tears from hir eyes. Browneyes opened hir mouth, but shut it to give Honeymane more time. Finally, however, shi spoke. "You should tell them Honeymane."

"Why?!" Honeymane said bitterly. "They probably don’t even love me, and even if they did, what would I tell them, ‘Come move back to Chakona with me, even though you love the mountains so much and…’" Honeymane choked back a sob. "I can’t see it helping anything."

"Honeymane," Browneyes said softly, with an expression that brooked no argument. "I felt the same way with Darktoes. But I made a mistake." Browneyes glanced at Darktoes for a moment, before continuing. "Now, I’ll support you, whatever decision you make, but… but I urge you not to make the same mistake I did."

Darktoes nodded, and Honeymane felt hirself biting hir lip, trying to figure out what to do. Finally shi opened hir belt pouch where shi had stored the flyer, and dialled the number into hir communicator. After a couple of rings, shi picked up.

"Hello, Violet’s Mountain Guides, at your service," said the familiar voice. "What can I do for you?"

"Manetheren?" Honeymane began hesitantly. "It’s me, Honeymane. We’ve got to talk...



The end.


Illustration © 2012 Heather Bruton

Chakats and other concepts © 2011 Bernard Doove

Browneyes, Dancer, Seeker, Fallingstar, and other characters are copyright me, Honeymane

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