In a small, austere studio apartment, a frail young woman contemplated the future. A window to her left revealed the setting sun; dying-ember colors bled through the gray room.
No, she thought to herself sternly. Don’t even think about getting depressed. There have to be ways out there that you can beat this.
Sallow, spidery hands, resting on the padded armrests of her hoverchair, began to clench shakily. Vanessa Saroian took a deep breath, willing herself to relax. As bad as her current situation was, there was no reason to risk making it worse.
But...the sheer bitter irony of it all was simply too much.
"Activate, custom angle setting one," she commanded the sleek metal-and-glass desk in front of her. The built-in computer console hummed to life, then tilted itself so as to give her the ideal view.
"Here goes," Vanessa muttered under her breath. Then, more clearly: "Commence search; topic, new treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis."
A browser window opened. The results were no more or less than what she’d expected to find.
Well...at least something’s been confirmed: Dr. Swiftfoot knows what he’s talking about.
At that moment, a chime sounded, and a button icon popped up in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. It read:
You have a call from TAUNA SHADOWBACK. Accept or ignore?
"Accept," Vanessa answered.
Another window opened, putting Vanessa face-to-face with one of her closest friends.
"Hi, Tauna," she greeted the vixen. "Thank you, in advance, for salvaging something of my day. It seems that being a living, breathing cautionary tale in favor of prenatal care is not as bad as it gets."
" That bad?"
"Look at it this way," Vanessa replied. "Modern science can cure sickle-cell anemia, hemophilia, and heavens-only-know how many other genetic conditions in utero. It can create new people—people who are beautiful in form and perfect in function—from raw protoplasm. But yet, sometimes, it can’t even repair its own...lousy...mistakes."
Tauna’s amber eyes narrowed. "That bad." Her expression brightened. "Here’s something that might just cheer you up: I’ve got a travel guide to Equatoria on Chakona."
"What a coincidence; I’ve got something that you might be interested in. Ever heard of Clayton’s World?"
"It sounds vaguely familiar."
"According to this booklet, some of it has to be seen to be believed. Trade you?"
With a few key-taps, the files in question were exchanged.
A half hour later, miles away, a vixentaur—seated on a cushion in a café—reluctantly severed the communication channel. Much as she would have liked to sit there talking with Vanessa, there were tasks to be attended to at home.
Talk about cosmic injustice, Tauna thought. For a brief moment, the vixen found herself pitying her friend. She quickly squelched it; that was the one thing she was sure that Vanessa couldn’t forgive.
Tauna shut down her portable computer, slid it back into its carrying case, stood up, and stretched. She was an athletic young vixen whose smoke-gray coat had golden blond tips. A wide black stripe, with matching crossbars at her shoulders and forequarters, ran from the nape of her neck to the base of her ivory-tipped tail. Thick black hair was pulled back into a braided topknot; and a modified halter top—the only garment that she was wearing—protected four small breasts.
Rather typical of the Lake Valley clan, all in all. Pretty enough to draw admiring glances, yes; but still typical. Nonetheless, there was something that set her apart: Not long ago, she’d taken a day trip up to the city to actually meet Vanessa—and, the novelty of the experience aside, it hadn’t been much of an issue. For a lot of foxtaurs, a jaunt so far out of clan territory would have been a big deal.
One of these days, the vixen mused, I should actually leave the continent—or maybe even the planet.
For the time being, however, Tauna was content with the occasional trip to the city. More often, she’d simply come to this little trade junction to visit the café. Although the establishment was within Lake Valley territory, it was also the place where representatives of several foxtaur clans often came to interact with the outside world—and vice versa.
This had been Tauna’s first introduction to the world outside of foxtaur lands. As a kit, she’d accompanied her mother there. While her mother had been bartering jackrabbit pelts for fresh grapes, the five-year-old Tauna had seen her first bipeds. She’d been asking some rather prying questions of the human and the ferret ‘morph—both of whom, luckily, were more amused than anything else—when her mother had finally caught up to her.
Seven years later, she’d met her first chakat. Once the initial weirdness wore off, she’d gotten along amazingly well with Tigerlily.
It’s really too bad shi was just passing through. Although Tauna had heard quite a bit about Tigerlily’s lifemate and cubs, it had only been recently—and completely by accident—that she’d met any of her friend’s immediate family. During Tauna’s visit to the city, a friend of Vanessa’s had introduced hirself as "Chakat Topaz, child of Tigerlily and Dawnlight." The vixen had made a point of confirming that the young chakat’s mother was, indeed, the striped therapist.
But her mind kept drifting back to Vanessa: It was looking less and less likely to Tauna that the human would ever get the opportunity to travel.
With the help of a physical therapist, Vanessa limped painfully out of the heated pool.
"Do you need me to arrange for a transport?" the lynx asked, helping her to the dressing room.
"No, thanks. I’ve got plans for the afternoon, and I can hire a PPT later if I need it." The lynx nodded and stepped aside. Leaning on the support bars that ran along the walls, Vanessa made her way to the showers.
Later—clean, dry, and back in street clothes—Vanessa left the facility, only to receive another shower: The day had started out temperate but dreary, and that now appeared to have been a warning. Grumbling, she put up the protective canopy over her hoverchair. Raindrops rolled off of the transparent plastic film as she steered towards the Sunflower Café, a nearby sandwich shop.
As Vanessa ordered her bacon-lettuce-and-avocado sandwich on rye bread, she noticed some familiar faces seated near the front window. Two were conversing animatedly.
"...and the botany lab finally got that sunburst plant in," a small, wiry basenji ‘morph announced. "Turns out that the academic export permit was the easy part, next to finding an available specimen of that size."
"Well, that’s good, Simon. Have any idea what they’re going to do with it?" asked a trim, dark-haired human woman.
The dog tipped one upright ear quizzically. "No idea, Meg. Probably let it grow all over the greenhouse. That’s what they do with most of the exotics." He shrugged. "At least it’ll draw new students."
Meg shook her head. "I only wish I could get one of those for the studio. Very pitta."
"What you need is less vata, Megan!"
Simon and Meg both turned to look as Vanessa maneuvered her chair towards the table with her lunch plate on her lap. So did a pair of customers at an adjacent table.
"Oh, hello!" The speaker—a feline ‘taur whose dark gray fur had a few creamy gold markings—stood up. Then, to the female coyotetaur at the other side of the table: "Chloë, can you grab the tea?"
The Sunflower Café’s tables were solid wood, durably constructed, and by no means light. A gap of two meters separated Simon and Meg’s from that accommodating the ‘taur pair. And the chakat obliterated that gap without apparent effort, repositioning the cushion on which shi’d been seated with a flick of hir sinewy tail.
"That was slick, Topaz," Vanessa commented, lifting the plate onto the table, as the coyotetaur set down the pitcher of iced tea that she’d rescued. "Hey—mind if I have some of that?"
Lifting the insulated plastic pitcher was no great effort. However, as she poured herself a glass, a jolt of pain shot from her elbow to her wrist. Her arm jerked spasmodically; tea splashed onto the tablecloth.
Topaz quickly grabbed the pitcher. Vanessa bit her lower lip.
"Sorry about that. There’s been a...glitch in my treatment; my arm just decided to go haywire on me."
"Hey—what are friends for, if not to catch you when you fall?"
Vanessa’s face tensed with frustration. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, finally broken by Meg: "Vanessa, did your physical therapist have anything to say about my suggestions?"
"He said that if I could handle a yoga class, it probably wouldn’t hurt."
"Well...you’re always welcome at the studio. If nothing else, you might be more confident if you know that you can handle it."
Simon intervened: "Don’t be so aggressive, Meg." He looked at Vanessa. "On another note...how’s your girlfriend out in Lake Valley?"
Vanessa scoffed. "Considering that I already have so many dates—with doctors and physical therapists, that is—do you really think that I have time for girlfriends? Or boyfriends, for that matter?" She shook her head. "But if you mean Tauna, I talked to her yesterday."
The black wolftaur in a blue scrub tunic held up an injector. "And this medication is called Sudrazol," he explained. "It should at least slow, if not actually stop, the deterioration of your nerve cells."
He pressed it against Vanessa’s arm, and she felt a brief sting. "So...I’ll have to come in for this every two weeks, right?" she asked.
The wolftaur—whose name tag identified him as "D. Swiftfoot, M.D."—nodded affirmation. "I’ve taken the liberty of scheduling your next appointment already—exactly two weeks from today. Meanwhile, have you been considering your treatment options?"
"Well, one thing’s for sure," Vanessa answered. "If I ever go back in that cytogel, I want it ‘customized’ first. Unless the cytogel wasn’t responsible for this newest thing going wrong with my body?"
Dr. Swiftfoot shook his head slowly. "We’re still running tests, but it’s the most likely hypothesis."
"So...I take it that the upcoming month—at least—is going to, quite literally, hurt like hell."
"Probably." Dr. Swiftfoot’s ears flicked back unhappily as he handed her a data card. "Here’s some information."
It was about the size of a standard identi-card and a glossy cerulean blue. Sunny yellow letters read Sudrazol! Get your life back!
Vanessa rolled her eyes at the pretentious slogan. "‘Get your life back.’ Sure."
Dr. Swiftfoot favored her with a half-smile, then turned serious again. "If you start experiencing any of the more serious side effects, call me. Immediately."
A week later, Vanessa prepared herself to face the morning. She felt shaky, and moving her leg joints to any real degree was sheer agony; getting around much without the hoverchair was out of the question. Nonetheless, she signed on to the firm’s server and prepared to take calls: Her job, after all, was not going to do itself.
As usual, people’s tech questions ranged from the truly complex to the utterly fatuous. Finally, late in the afternoon, she signed off and called Tauna.
She caught the vixentaur gazing off to one side, with a disbelieving smirk on her face. The expression, however, was quickly replaced by one of concern as Tauna faced the screen.
"How are you?"
"About seven decades too young to be this creaky. I’ve barely been out of this stupid chair all week." Vanessa scowled. "The whole chemical balancing act— the neuromuscular stabilizers make my joints worse, and the NuMira screws with my nervous system—was bad enough. I don’t even want to think about what the Sudrazol might be doing to me—especially not without the cytogel for damage control." She shook her head. "Sorry. I’m ranting, aren’t I?"
"Kind of. So...I suppose you don’t want to hear about medical treatments that are too successful?"
Vanessa decided to call Tauna’s bluff. "What do you mean by ‘too successful?’"
"Thanks to medical treatments working too well, I’m down by a fifth of the rent and two hunt buddies."
"Remember how I mentioned that Larissa was in therapy? Territorial attachment syndrome?"
"Yeah?" Tauna’s youngest roommate—a novice hunter—had suffered from a case of "foxtaur homesickness" so severe as to interfere with her training. It had left the insatiably curious Larissa in a state of nearly perpetual frustration.
"The therapy worked too well: She joined the Star Corps. In fact, she ships out for basic training the day after tomorrow."
"Oh, really? Wish her luck for me."
"I will. But then...there’s Zia."
"What happened to her?" The vixen in question had been told that she was unlikely to ever have a kit. But recently—after three years of taking the clan midwife’s herbal decoctions—she’d gotten pregnant by a trader from another clan.
Tauna smirked again. "Well, nothing really happened to her. But she’s just over four months along, and she’s already showing. Which got Galina—the midwife—to thinking that it might be twins."
"Well, does Zia know yet?"
"Yes, she does; Galina decided to bend tradition and use the scanner. It turns out that not only is it twins, but one of them is a tod. Considering the odds against boys, the odds against twins, and Zia’s fertility rating...well, her mother will have the rest of us for throw rugs if anything goes awry."
Vanessa bit back a laugh. "Oh, hell. That means..."
"It means that as of yesterday, Zia’s on light duty—skinning and trading, pretty much—until she has the twins. So it’ll just be me, Siri, and Jaishu going on actual hunts."
"Damn, Tauna...maybe I should move in with you girls. I can’t exactly go traipsing around in the woods, but I could at least help out with expenses," Vanessa teased.
The vixen looked thoughtful. "I’m actually not sure that would be such a bad idea," she replied, sounding quite serious. "We’d have to take it up with the council, but I doubt there’d be many objections."
"But even if I do move in, you know I’m not ready to settle down yet, right? I’ve still got some wandering to do."
Tauna looked quizzical. "Is that so?"
"Of course it is, and you should know that. You’re the one who sent me that Equatoria travel guide."
"But yet, you’ve never been off-world."
Vanessa was taken aback. "Circumstances—such as my messed-up body—just haven’t allowed that yet," she protested.
"But speaking of your health," Tauna argued, "don’t you think that something potentially life-threatening—such as a degenerative condition—be an incentive to actually travel while you still can?" She looked at her friend. "Read that new travel guide, Vanessa. If nothing else, it’ll lead you to more information about Chakona...and about other possible destinations."
Later that evening, Vanessa settled in at her computer to read the travel guide in earnest.
I’m going to have to officially thank Tauna for this one. The guide was filled with hyperlinks which, when activated, opened purposely enticing subfiles. There were dazzling holographic images of tropical landscapes; high-quality sound clips of local music and bird songs; and even the occasional video clip. Of these last, Vanessa was especially fascinated by the Equatoria Modern Dance Company: She had known, intellectually, that chakats could manage moves like that. But seeing it was another matter altogether.
There was also an interactive virtual tour guide: Selecting the highlighted words "Ask Sunshine!" brought up an animation of a pretty, marmalade-tabby chakat. Although Vanessa had encountered similar programs before, "Sunshine" impressed her as being more versatile and less obnoxiously saccharine than most.
She was pleasantly surprised, however, when "Sunshine" also proved to be genuinely useful.
"If you want, I can help you explore other locations on Chakona. Would you like that?" the virtual guide asked. When Vanessa affirmed that she would, a window displaying a list of destinations opened.
All right. While I’m here, I may as well take a look at accommodations.
"Sunshine?" she asked, feeling just a bit silly speaking to a computer program as if it were a real person. "Can you give me some information on disabled services at the Chakona spaceport, and on medical facilities in the Amistad area?"
"Right away," the cartoon chakat replied. "Just give me a moment to get that for you."
There was a brief delay as the information was transmitted from the Amistad City Hall server via hypernet. In the meanwhile, "Sunshine" did a little dance, much to Vanessa’s amusement. Finally, a new window opened; "Sunshine" waved goodbye as the travel guide switched into dormant mode.
Some spacelines offered shuttle service if transporters were impracticable; there was, however, usually an additional charge. Vanessa gave an exasperated little sigh; this was looking more and more like a costly venture. Calculating expenses in her mind, she flipped over to the medical services page.
The list was dauntingly long: The search appeared to have pulled up all of the independent clinics in Amistad proper, plus every major hospital on the northern half of Flinders Continent. Time to get specific.
"Refine search," Vanessa began. "Topic, treatment facilities for genetic and/or neurological disorders."
Vanessa was up early the next morning, hoping to catch Tauna. But the vixen who answered her call had short platinum-blond hair and a white blaze on her face.
"Hello, Zia. Is Tauna in?"
"No, they all took off at sunrise." Zia glanced over her shoulder, towards where Vanessa knew that there was a window. "Must be nice."
"So, what do you get to do while awaiting twins?" Vanessa asked.
Zia smiled wryly. "Tauna already told you, then. Well, at the moment, I’m getting some ducks ready for the smoker."
Vanessa winced. "Not that I’d know from experience, but that sounds tedious."
"Like you wouldn’t believe." Zia rolled her eyes. "But if I even think of doing anything more strenuous than this, I’ll hear it from either Galina or my mother. So...here I am."
"Well...look at it this way: You’ve got another five months to catch up on your reading."
"There is that. In the meanwhile, I need to get back to plucking ducks."
"For what it’s worth, good luck staying sane. Could you have Tauna call me when she gets back?"
"Thanks, and I’ll make sure she gets back to you. Smooth trails!" Zia signed off.
Vanessa dithered a bit as she waited for Tauna to call back. She mulled over the idea of connecting to the firm, but concluded that she was too distracted to work at the moment. Other minor tasks, such as organizing her desk, were similarly abandoned. Even a new novel couldn’t hold her attention for long. Finally, after several hours of waiting, she heard the communicator chime.
Tauna looked tired but satisfied, and her fur was damp from showering. "Hi! Zia said that you were trying to get back to me?"
"Yes, I was. First of all, did you catch anything?"
The vixen grinned triumphantly. "Only the perfect send-off dinner for Larissa. We’re having venison with oyster mushrooms tonight!"
"That certainly sounds tasty. But I had some other things that I wanted to discuss with you."
"All right. Shoot."
"First of all, what are your feelings on chakats?"
A predatory grin spread across the vixen’s face. "What about the lovely Shir Topaz?"
"The lovely Shir Topaz is still not in the market for anything more serious than companions. But I wasn’t thinking about hir in particular."
"In that case, all of the chakats I’ve met have been nice enough. And of course, I’ve heard all of the usual stories...and I think I’ve sorted out the truth from the tall tales on that front. Why do you ask?"
"Well," Vanessa took a deep breath. "I took your advice and read that travel guide you sent me. And that led me to an experimental procedure which could potentially solve everything."
"There’s a catch to it, isn’t there?"
"If you want to call it that. The procedure would completely rebuild my body, and cure all that ails me. No arthritis, no choreoathetosis, and no ALS."
"I wouldn’t be human any longer."
"That’s a catch?"
"Hey!" Vanessa was indignant. "I am kind of attached to this body, such as it is. It’s the only one I’ve got!"
"All right, all right!" Tauna put up her hands placatingly. "So, tell me more about this procedure."
"They’d basically put me through a transporter, and—how shall I put this—re-make me on the other side. As a chakat."
"Well." Tauna paused. "Okay." She rubbed nervously at the side of her muzzle. "Why a chakat?"
"I don’t know, but that’s what the article mentioned. And if changing species is my best bet—and that’s how it’s starting to look—I could get used to being, well, like Topaz."
Tauna smiled wistfully. "Yes. Like Topaz. That could work."
Everything was falling into place. Now, all that Vanessa had to do was make arrangements.
"All right," she muttered. "Flight to Chakona...lodging in Amistad...this is going to hurt. Am I going to have to give up this apartment?" She scowled. But then again, if this worked, she wouldn’t have to be buying so much of Dr. Swiftfoot’s time. Not to mention prescriptions, or sessions with the physical therapist. And Tauna had seemed fairly serious about letting her move in...
That left one major thing to do. She opened a channel and keyed in the contact number. Presently, a spotted chakat answered.
"Hello. How can I help you?" shi asked.
Vanessa bit her lip, then met the receptionist’s eyes. "Hello; my name is Vanessa Saroian, and I’m calling from Terra. Could I please speak to Professor Oceanwalker?"
"Ah. Long-distance, then. May I ask what this is about?"
"I’m interested in hir transporter experiment."
"All right; let me just put you through to hir office." The receptionist’s face was replaced by a shifting fractal pattern, and classical music began to play. But after a brief moment, another chakat—somewhat older than the receptionist, and striped like a tiger—came on-screen.
"Hello, Ms. Saroian. You were wanting to speak to me?"
"Hello, Professor. I understand that you’re running clinical trials involving transporters."
"Yes, I am," the professor replied. Shi looked critically at Vanessa. "You’re not another journalist, are you? Because I’m afraid we’re still years away from publishing this study, and our client records are confidential."
"I’m not a journalist," Vanessa explained. "I suppose I’m volunteering."
"Well, then. Do you mind if I ask why you’re considering changing your species?"
"I can give a full medical history, if you’d like. But here’s the short version: My body is going downhill, fast. At the moment, the best that I—or my physician—can do is slow that descent." Vanessa sighed. "My parents didn’t believe in prenatal gene therapy until I was thirteen."
The professor’s ears perked up at this. "So your condition is genetic?"
"At least two-thirds of it is, anyway. The last third is probably a side effect of treating the other two."
Professor Oceanwalker leaned towards the screen. "Let me be frank with you, Ms. Saroian: I’d prefer to continue this interview face-to-face. There is, however, something that I need to ask you: Do you have any friends?"
"I have several, and I don’t think that I could have made it this far without them."
"What about mates, or companions?"
Vanessa flinched. "I’m already enough of a burden to myself. It wouldn’t be fair to them."
The professor looked sad. "I’m no counselor, but let me give you a bit of advice on that front: A burden shared is always lighter." Then, in a more upbeat tone: "When can you be on Chakona?"
"Let me see about that." Vanessa activated the browser. "Looks like the next direct flight is in five days...but there’s no guarantee that they’ll have any openings. We’re looking at anywhere between three and six weeks."
"All right...just let me know when you have everything arranged, and I’ll pencil you in. And call me when you get here, so that we can arrange an appointment to cover things like risks, species choice, and recovery time."
"Great. I’ll call you once I arrive in Amistad."
"You have a nice trip, then, Ms. Saroian. Tail high!"
Vanessa closed the connection, satisfied. But something that the professor had mentioned was lingering in her mind.
"Species choice?" she mused aloud. "Well, I suppose not all of hir clientèle would necessarily want to be chakats."
But that was of no great importance. Now was the time to book a spot on the next spaceliner to Chakona, and to ensure herself a hotel room when she got there. She switched the communicator back on.
The next direct flight, as she’d feared, was booked. There was, however, a cruise liner which left a day later. Although it had the advantage of being something resembling a luxury craft—there were gift shops and other amenities on board—it traveled at a more leisurely pace and took closer to her maximum projected transit time of six weeks. It also cost considerably more.
Vanessa grimaced, and booked a cabin anyway. After all, she’d never thought that this was going to be cheap. She then called Dr. Swiftfoot, to inform him that her treatment information needed to be forwarded to the Star Nomad’s medical database. Next was the firm; they needed to know that she would be unable to take real-time calls for a while. That left one final step: sending Professor Oceanwalker a message confirming her arrival time on Chakona.
Once everything was set, Vanessa decided to relax and enjoy some mindless entertainment. If she recalled correctly, this week’s episode of a new travel documentary series would be airing in a few minutes. After getting herself a sandwich and a glass of iced tea, she settled in to watch the show.
"Hello! I’m Debbi Hernandez, and welcome to Galactic Frontiers!" chirped a bronze-skinned human woman. The two individuals flanking her appeared to be foxtaur vixens. One was tall and leggy, with a burnt-orange coat. The other, compact and wiry, was variegated gray with bright auburn accents.
"I’m here on a recently established colony world with two very interesting new friends," the host continued. "In this installment, we’ll learn more about them and the new settlement on Arisia. And you heard about it right here...on Galactic Frontiers!"
The intro sequence for the show began to run. Vanessa supposed that it wasn’t quite as mindless as she had thought: For one thing, they were filming on a new colony world rather than at some popular tourist trap. The excessively perky host was a bit annoying...but then again, that was probably in the poor woman’s job description.
When the show began in earnest, Vanessa watched with increasing curiosity. The camera showed a fly-over view of a river meandering through low, grassy hills. As the river cascaded over a small cliff, the camera zoomed in closer—revealing a structure built into the cliff and some sort of mechanism spinning within the waterfall. Small figures—most of them resembling the long-legged vixentaur from the intro—darted in and out of the building.
The host’s cheery voice explained that the building was a newly completed hydroelectric plant, designed to be highly efficient while having minimal impact on the surrounding environment. Its developers, she informed, had made sure of that.
As the host spoke, the camera continued to pull back. A small village of colorful tents came into view on either side of the river. Further out were rows of rounded, organic-looking buildings in various stages of completion.
Then, the scene cut to the host—and the same two vixens—standing in front of one of the tents.
"In this installment, we’ve got two very special guests," the host announced. "Breeze," indicating the tall vixen, "is a technician at the power plant. Meadow is one of the architects who helped design those ingenious buildings behind us." She flashed a smile. "And it was incredibly nice of them to spend their day off showing me around."
The host chattered on. The two foxtaurs put in an occasional word; Vanessa noticed, after a few minutes, that they were beginning to look bothered. Finally, Meadow voiced what seemed to have been concerning both of them.
The host stopped in mid-sentence. "What was that?"
"You said ‘her’ again." Meadow grinned disarmingly. "It’s all right; people do that to chakats all the time, so why not us?"
This brought a hasty apology from the briefly flustered host. Vanessa couldn’t help but smirk a bit; direct broadcasts were always so much more enjoyable than pre-recorded shows. And she fancied that if she were to meet Meadow, she’d like hir.
"Shir Meadow has just brought up an important point," the host recovered. "Although shi and Shir Breeze are close kin to the foxtaurs we’re all familiar with, there are quite a few differences."
Nice save, Vanessa thought with a wry smile.
The trio were now wandering through the construction site. The host was gabbing about the development project, but Vanessa wasn’t really listening at this point; her attention was focused on the two foxtaurs. She watched as they stopped in front of a building that seemed to be near completion.
"All of these houses have the same basic floor plan," Meadow explained. "It was a bit of a challenge designing buildings that are this optimal for both ‘taurs and bipeds, but I think we’ve managed."
"Shi can go on like this for hours," Breeze teased, earning hirself a playful swat from Meadow. "Would you like to take a look around, Debbi?"
"Of course! I’d love to!"
As Vanessa watched the show, she came to several conclusions: Arisia looked like a nice planet, if the foothills were much of an indication. Meadow and Breeze were both from a species called stellar foxtaurs—specifically, Breeze was a veldt breed and Meadow was a forest breed—and from the way they needled each other, it was blatantly obvious that they were denmates. And although Galactic Frontiers was probably worth watching again, Debbi Hernandez was truly annoying.
I should see if there’s any information out there on stellar foxtaurs. They’d probably be even more interesting without that dingbat crowding the camera.
"Here goes," Vanessa told Tauna over the communicator. "I’ll be taking off tomorrow."
Outside of the apartment, the wind moaned. Dingy clouds slithered across a pallid sky, and raindrops spattered against the window.
"So...after wanting to travel for all this time, you’re finally getting around to it." Tauna shook her head. "I wish I could go. Even if the girls didn’t need me here, I’m not even sure I could afford a two-way trip."
"You know I’ll bring you back some souvenirs," Vanessa reassured. "I know, it’s not quite the same. But...hey, this isn’t exactly a recreational trip, you know."
"I’ll be coming back in a new body. As a new person, really." Vanessa bit her lip. "I haven’t been able to run since I was a kid. I’ve never had the opportunity to dance. And I’ve never had a..." Her face flushed scarlet, and she trailed off.
Tauna’s eyes widened. "A what?"
"I probably shouldn’t talk about it...I don’t even know if you ever thought about me that way...I’m not a ‘taur—not yet, anyway—and I’m all messed up..." She stopped when she saw Tauna smile.
"Vanessa...going on appearances just gets you either surprised or disappointed. I prefer to go on what I know about someone as a person. And what I know about you, I like. A lot." The vixen bowed her head, then made eye contact again. "I’d rather be asking you this in person, but it just didn’t work out that way. Vanessa Saroian, will you be my compan—"
That was when the communicator window went dead.
"No! No, dammit, no!" Tauna pounded on the table. Her huntmates looked up in alarm.
"What just happened?" Siri asked, concerned.
Tauna, tears building up in her eyes, spun around and reflexively flung her arms around the taller vixen. "The connection just cut out. I don’t even know if she answered me!"
Jaishu—a vixen in shades of silver and warm beige rather than the gray and gold of the others—tried to re-open the channel. "It’s not going through," she reported. "There’s probably a line down."
"So much for failsafe communications networks," Tauna snarled bitterly. "The council will probably take their sweet time getting it repaired, too."
Zia set down the kit-care book that she had been reading. "Mom’s got a PTV. If we ask her, I’m sure she’ll let us borrow it."
"In this weather?" Tauna scoffed. "Not likely."
As if to prove her point, there was a booming snap of thunder. The lights flickered, then shut off altogether.
"And there goes the central generator," Jaishu grumbled, lighting an oil lamp. The tiny flame dimly illuminated the common room of the den. "No one’s going anywhere tonight. That includes you, Tauna."
Vanessa glared at the screen. What had just happened? And had Tauna been asking her what it had sounded like?
She tried to connect again, to no avail. Frustrated, she thumped the side of the computer—oblivious to the discomfort that the action caused—trying to bully it into compliance.
"Stupid pile of wires!" she growled.
Vanessa tried to relax. But the conversation kept playing itself through her mind. Had Tauna really been asking her to be her companion?
She had meant everything that she’d told the vixen. And she knew—having heard it straight from the source—that if Tauna had her choice of a tod, a chakat, or another vixen, her answer would depend on exact circumstances.
But she’d always thought that Tauna would only have wanted her if she’d been any of the above. The possibility of someone...loving her just as she was had always seemed vanishingly remote. And that realization made her want to curse whatever had cut them off.
At noon the following day, Tauna and Siri—rain-soaked and muddy-pawed—returned to the den.
"Did you hear? Communications are still down; a tree hit the generator; and on top of everything else, the road is out," Siri reported.
Galina the midwife—who’d stopped by to check in on Zia—looked grim. "We’ll be bringing this up at council, of course. But it’s going to take some time to get everything up and running again."
"How much time?" Tauna demanded.
"It could be up to a week."
Tauna slammed the heel of her hand against the door frame.
"Her companion, out in the city, just took off for Chakona," Jaishu pointed out quietly. "They got cut off in the middle of something...sensitive."
"I didn’t even get her answer," Tauna mourned. Siri hugged her; Jaishu moved in closer and did likewise.
"Oh, dear," Galina replied. "Let me talk to the council, then. We’ll see what we can do. I can’t promise much—we’re going to have to send out messengers on foot to see if any of the neighboring clans can help—but we’ll get things taken care of as soon as possible."
In her cabin on the spaceliner, Vanessa idly flipped through a newly-acquired book on chakat psychology. Try as she might, she couldn’t entirely focus on the text in front of her—not when heavens-only-knew-what was going on with Tauna.
News reports had said that the storm had taken out communications in parts of foxtaur territory. But the information, thus far, was still sketchy. Vanessa wanted desperately to hear from her friend, but knew that she’d probably arrive before any more news got through to her.
To try to take her mind off of things, she scanned through the ship’s library database for anything that she could find about stellar foxtaurs. The more she found out, the more her interest was piqued.
Vanessa resolved to spend the remainder of the trip reading everything that she could find.
Five days after the storm, the Lake Valley road was once again traversable. Tauna took Zia up on the loan of the car and drove out to the city. There was someone there who just might be able to help her get back in touch with Vanessa.
She tried the rugged little vehicle’s built-in communicator. Out of range. "Go faster!" she snapped at the car’s A.I.
"It’s already at the maximum safe speed," Zia pointed out. "This is as fast as it’s going to go."
"I know," Tauna answered. "But I don’t have to be happy about it!"
Zia rested her hand on Tauna’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. "We’ll get there soon enough, Tauna. A few minutes isn’t going to make that much of a difference."
"My brain already knows that. It’s my heart that’s doing the driving."
Finally, they pulled up in front of a duplex building. At the intercom, Tauna pressed a particular button.
"Hello. Who is it?" a voice asked.
"Tauna Shadowback and Zia Belyaev, from Lake Valley. Topaz is a friend of ours."
A door opened; Topaz peered out. "Hi, there! My parents just got in from Sydney—that was Dad on the line. I’m sure they’ll want to say hello."
Two somewhat older chakats were lounging on mats in the living room. A tiger-striped individual stood up to greet them—and did a double-take when shi saw Tauna.
"Why, hello, Tauna! Topaz mentioned that you two had met."
"Tigerlily. It’s been years!" Tauna hugged the chakat. "This is my huntmate Zia; we’re borrowing her mother’s car." She pulled back, and glanced over at Topaz. "Have you heard from Vanessa?"
Topaz grimaced. "Not since I saw her off at the spaceport. But she told me what had happened—and she was worried about you."
"She didn’t tell you anything else?" Tauna asked anxiously.
"No, and I didn’t want to intrude. I’m sorry."
"That’s all right—and thanks for respecting her privacy. Do you know of any way that I could get to Chakona—fast—without breaking the bank?"
Tigerlily spoke up. "Why do you need to get there?"
Tauna sighed. "Because my companion—at least, I hope that’s what she is—jumped a spaceliner four days ago. She’s got several chronic illnesses, and she’s going to undergo a potentially risky experimental treatment. And I lost contact with her before she could answer my question."
"You poor girl." Tigerlily hugged Tauna again. "But I think I may know a way. Shortly before Topaz was born, I did someone a favor. He promised to return it someday. And his ship just so happens to be orbiting right now."
"How soon can you get in touch with him?" Tauna asked.
"I’ll try this evening." Tigerlily turned to the ivory-furred chakat who’d been sitting quietly throughout the conversation. "On a happier note, I don’t believe you’ve met my lifemate."
"I’m Chakat Dawnlight, child of Silvertip and Niobe," Topaz’s sire introduced hirself. Shi looked keenly at Zia. "If you don’t mind my asking, how far along are you?"
"Just short of five months," Zia answered, the insides of her ears pinking a bit. "It’s twins."
This resulted in the two chakat matrons fussing over Zia for at least a half hour. Soon, both vixens were relaxing and chatting with the chakats. And for the first time in five days, Tauna found herself in a good mood.
Later that evening—shortly after the vixens had finally taken their leave—Tigerlily switched on the communicator and began recording a message for hir friend.
When Tauna woke the following morning, it was still dark outside. She lit an oil lamp—the generator, although technically functional, was still undergoing repairs—and donned an apron: The hunter vixens, she’d decided, got homemade sausages, scrambled eggs, and fried potatoes for breakfast today.
By the time the coffee was on, the other vixens were stirring about the den. But just as the potatoes were beginning to brown, there was a knock at the door. Tauna, curious, set down the spatula and answered it.
An adolescent vixen—not a Lake Valley local—and two chakats of approximately the same age stood there.
"Tauna Shadowback?" the vixen asked. At Tauna’s affirmative nod, she continued: "I’m Graysocks, and these are Dusk and Nightsky. We were sent to pick you up."
At the Amistad spaceport, two weeks after her original estimated time of arrival, Vanessa gritted her teeth and checked her account. The failure of the Star Nomad’s drive—and the resulting layover at the space station—had been a most irritating setback: She’d been forced to change her hotel reservation and re-schedule her appointment with the professor. To add insult to injury, the spaceline had only offered to refund half of her ticket price.
To her surprise, there was nearly twice as much as she had expected—even after taking the refund into consideration.
"Huh?" She checked her balance again, to make sure. The number stayed the same.
Curious, she checked her transaction history. Someone had made a substantial deposit while she’d been on the ship.
Vanessa puzzled over this as she hired a PPT. When the car pulled up to the hotel entrance, she still hadn’t figured it out—but it wasn’t really that important.
"Hello," she greeted the clerk. "I have a reservation for a single room with disability accommodations, under ‘Saroian.’"
"Just one moment. Ah, yes...Ms. Saroian." The nearly-white tanuki ‘morph handed her a key card. "We’re sorry about what happened with the spaceliner. Welcome to the Ridian Hotel."
"Thank you. I should probably let you know that some of my information is going to change during my stay. You’ll be receiving exact details on that later."
"Not a problem," the clerk answered. "I take it you’re working with Professor Oceanwalker. This isn’t the first time we’ve hosted one of hir clients," he added with a smile. "If you need anything, just call the front desk, and we’ll help you."
The room, furnished in warm earth tones, was an appealing blend of cozy and sleekly modern. Vanessa was pleased to see that there were support bars on most of the walls: It looked like she would not need her hoverchair much, if at all, in this room. What caught her eye, however, was the fact that a light was flashing on the communicator. Out of curiosity, Vanessa switched it on.
It was a pre-recorded message from Topaz. The young chakat smiled and waved into the screen.
"Hi, Vanessa; if you’re getting this, you’ve just checked into your room. I’ve got a message from Tauna: She says that I should tell you to wait for her." Topaz’s smile faded. "Anyway, we’re all anxious for you to get back. Tail high!"
Tauna’s request perplexed Vanessa. Wait for her? The vixen had made it fairly clear that she couldn’t accompany Vanessa to Chakona. A change in that situation seemed like too much to hope for. Even so, it was probably a good idea to play things by ear for the time being.
She checked the time stamp on the message. It was dated almost a week after her initial departure from Earth. With the delay in my trip, she may have already gotten here! She rang down to the front desk.
There was no visual except for a screen saver, but the answering voice sounded like the same tanuki. "Front desk. How may I help you, Ms. Saroian?"
"I was just curious if anyone has requested any information about me recently."
"Let me check our records..." There was a momentary pause. "No, there has been no contact since two weeks ago, when you changed your reservation. Was there anything else I can do for you?"
"Yes, there is. Can you tell me if a foxtaur by the name of Tauna Shadowback has checked into the hotel?"
"Certainly. One moment...No, we have no one by that name in our register. Is there anything else?"
"No, thank you. Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon, and enjoy your stay."
Vanessa disconnected, then opened a new channel. Professor Oceanwalker’s receptionist appeared on the screen.
"Hello again, Ms. Saroian."
"Hello. May I please speak to the professor?"
"Certainly. Just a moment."
The communicator flickered, and the striped chakat appeared on the screen. "Good afternoon, Vanessa. How was your flight?"
"Not bad, except for the two-week hiccup. Anyway...I’m here. You mentioned a preliminary appointment before we go through with this?"
"Yes. When would be a good time for you?"
"As soon as possible, Professor. Tomorrow morning would be good, if that works."
"Let’s see..." The professor glanced off to the side. "Tomorrow morning at 0950 should work. Unfortunately, I’ll be teaching correspondence classes at Dewclaw for the rest of this week and part of the next."
"I’m sure that’s not so unfortunate for your students. And I suppose I could use some time to see the sights around this city."
"When you come in tomorrow, I can recommend some sights worth seeing; Sandfur’s latest exhibition at the museum comes to mind. Tail high!"
Next, Vanessa contacted the local BGNA branch, attempting to find out more about the mysterious deposit to her account. When she disconnected, she was officially perplexed...and just a bit angry.
The deposit had come from an account belonging to a Camilla Te Ara.
Why is she giving me money? Vanessa wondered, miffed. Is she just trying to bribe her way back into my life? If so...what nerve!
Vanessa tuned the communicator to an appropriate audio channel, then got out of the hoverchair and limped towards the bathroom. A long, hot bubble bath and some soothing music seemed like the perfect idea.
The following morning, Vanessa found herself in front of a computer screen, answering questions.
"Neighbor or acquaintance abusing cubs? I’d be either disgusted or outraged," she mumbled. "Too bad you can’t mark both."
She felt good about her answers as she finished the exam. Tests like this should be required for Stellar Federation citizenship, she thought.
"Are you finished yet?" Professor Oceanwalker asked as shi stepped through the door to the room.
"That was the last one."
"Your results should be back by tomorrow. To tell the truth, I’m thinking that you’re going to pass with flying colors." The chakat’s brow furrowed briefly. "But the delay may actually work in our favor. It’ll give you time to get past whatever has you stressed right now."
"You know about that?" Vanessa almost jumped. "Wait, that’s right; chakats are all empaths of some degree or another."
"Yes, we are. Now, I think you should go and enjoy yourself for the next few days. My receptionist will call you tomorrow with the results."
"Thank you, Professor. And did you have any sightseeing tips for me?"
The professor smiled. "Just a few..."
The communicator in Vanessa’s room chimed at approximately that same time the next morning.
You have a call from THE OFFICE OF PROFESSOR CHAKAT OCEANWALKER. Accept or ignore?
The spotted receptionist smiled into the screen. "Good morning, Ms. Saroian. Your test results have arrived. Would you like me to send them to you?"
As the professor had speculated, Vanessa was cleared for the procedure. She gave a wordless shout of joy, but refrained from trying to jump out of the hoverchair; it wasn’t quite worth the pain.
"Are you all right, Ms. Saroian?" The results screen cleared, revealing a concerned-looking chakat.
"Oh...yes. I just got a little excited, because I passed the test."
"Congratulations. Do you want to schedule your appointment now?"
"All right...the professor’s next opening looks to be eleven days from now, at 1000. Does that work for you?"
"Repeat previous reply!"
The receptionist chuckled. "Great. We’ll see you then. Tail high!"
"In the stratosphere!"
Over the following days, Vanessa became acquainted with the city of Amistad. The extra money in her account made sightseeing much more affordable than it might have been otherwise; she would be bringing her friends much nicer souvenirs than she’d previously counted on. As time passed, her worries about Tauna’s message—and about Camilla Te Ara, for that matter—were replaced with growing excitement about the procedure.
The night before the appointment, Vanessa returned to the hotel after her last meal as a human. She wondered idly if hot-and-sour soup and iced tea would still taste good to her after tomorrow. But her train of thought was rudely derailed when she saw a well-dressed woman in her mid-forties waiting in the lobby.
Camilla Te Ara ran over to her daughter. She made as if to hug the younger woman, but stopped short, a mournful expression on her face.
"Vanessa...I’ve really missed you...and I think I owe you an apology for having let us grow apart."
Vanessa glared. "How did you find me?"
"A dear old friend from school told me that you would be here. Did you get the money that I sent you?"
"Yes, I did. But why did you do that?" Vanessa sighed, and shook her head. "Mother...your biological daughter is essentially going to die tomorrow morning. And you’re part of the reason that I’ve made this decision."
"I know that you’re angry with me, and you have every right to be. I’ll admit to having made a lot of mistakes; marrying your father comes to mind. But my biggest mistake of all was not being anywhere near as good of a mother to you as I should have been. So...I want to put things right between us." A tear welled up in the corner of Camilla’s left eye. "You’re my only child. I still love you. And that’s not going to change, even if we won’t be the same species after tomorrow."
Vanessa pulled back a bit. "Mother...I can’t deal with this right now. I do want to believe that you’re sincere about this...but I need some time to work things out. Is that all right?"
Camilla sighed. "Of course. Take all the time you need." She rested her hand lightly on her daughter’s shoulder. "I just want you to know that I’ll be here."
"Thank you, Mother." Vanessa steered her hoverchair towards the elevator.
Just as the door slid shut, she looked at Camilla again. "I love you too, Mom," she whispered.
"You don’t seem to be under as much stress today," Professor Oceanwalker commented as shi led Vanessa into hir laboratory. There, in the center of the room, was a matter transporter of the sort used on starships.
"I had some unfinished business. Last night, it basically resolved itself."
"We didn’t really go over what species you wanted to become, did we? Have you decided?"
Vanessa interlaced her fingers. "When I first heard about the procedure, I wanted to be a chakat. But I’ve done a lot of reading and soul-searching since then. Do you know anything about stellar foxtaurs?"
"Yes. They’re a relatively new species, but I do have some patterns in my database." The professor tapped a few computer keys; the holographic image of a foxtaur with a streamlined build and a sleek dark-brown coat appeared in the space between Vanessa and the transporter. A moment later, it was replaced by a solid black individual, then a veldt breed. "Are any of these what you had in mind?"
"Not quite." Vanessa’s eyebrows bunched. "I was thinking forest breed."
"All right, then...there was an architecture student who volunteered a few years back, and hir pattern on file is about the right age. Here we go!"
The image changed to Meadow, from the episode of Galactic Frontiers.
"Hey...shi was on a documentary show!" Vanessa commented, amused. "Quite the character. But I don’t want to be an exact duplicate of hir."
"That’s not a problem. It’s easy enough to make minor alterations to the pattern." Professor Oceanwalker pressed a button, and Meadow’s slate-gray hair turned white.
"Not quite what I was looking for. Can I see a list of possibilities?"
For the next few minutes, Vanessa and the professor made various adjustments to the image. "There," Vanessa finally declared. "If I see hir in the mirror for the rest of my life, I’ll be happy."
The result still bore a resemblance to Meadow. But Vanessa had decided on auburn hair and dark-tipped ears. The facial markings were also darker and more distinct than Meadow’s, with more of the slaty off-black and less of the paler grays.
"Good," Professor Oceanwalker replied. "Now, let’s see how much biogel we’re going to need." Shi helped Vanessa out of the hoverchair and over to a scale, then pressed an intercom button. "Bluewater? We’re going to need one hundred nineteen kilos of biogel in the lab."
"Just a moment," came the reply. Presently, a chakat lab assistant carted in a large vat of translucent sludge. Shi placed it on the transporter platform.
"Heh...that looks almost like cytogel," Vanessa muttered.
The professor’s sharp ears caught the comment, and shi smiled. "That’s actually appropriate, since it’s used as the base for cytogel. However, this just allows us to compensate for the difference in mass between you and a stellar foxtaur. Without this substance, the procedure probably wouldn’t be possible." Shi looked at Vanessa. "Are you ready?"
Vanessa flinched a bit. "I think so."
"Is there anyone you want contacted in the highly unlikely event of an error?"
"Yes. Tauna Shadowback and Chakat Topaz. And...I suppose Camilla Te Ara deserves to know."
Vanessa leaned on the lab assistant’s arm as she hobbled up onto the platform. She stood next to the open vat, supporting herself against its edge.
"Calibrating transporter for organic matter," stated the professor.
"Ready," answered the assistant.
Vanessa’s world seemed to fade out of existence. There was a sense of disconnection, and a moment of panic. But as the room swam back into focus, she became aware of something strange: For the first time in years, none of her joints ached.
The lab assistant was staring, wide-eyed. "Wow."
Vanessa tried to step forward...and almost tripped. Catching herself on the now-empty vat, she raised her free hand to look at it. Pale gray fur, tough yet sensitive black palm-pads, blunt claws for fingernails...
"It worked?" she tried to say. The words came out garbled. Ih wuhk?
"Bluewater," Professor Oceanwalker scolded, "stop gawking and help hir."
Bluewater dashed up to the transporter pad and put hir arm around Vanessa’s waist. Shi draped Vanessa’s arm around hir shoulder, and guided her off of the platform.
"Are you all right, Vanessa?"
"Don’t worry about the impaired speech; you’re going to have to adapt to a new jaw and mouth structure. Would you like me to arrange a physical therapy session?"
"Yeh, pleeh. Juss’ a minuh..."
Still leaning on the chakat, the new stellar foxtaur managed to give the hoverchair a solid kick with hir hindpaw. Then, shi attempted to grin—although the actual result was more of a toothy grimace.
A nervous middle-aged human sat in the lobby, attempting to read a magazine. She was suddenly surprised by the door being flung open by a frantic vixentaur.
"My companion...I think she’s in here!" the vixen yelped at the startled receptionist.
Camilla stood up and approached the vixen. "Calm down. I’m sure she has a reason; people don’t usually make such decisions frivolously. What’s your companion’s name?"
Camilla smiled. "Then it seems we’re waiting for the same person."
"Who are you?" the vixen asked suspiciously.
"I’m her mother."
The vixen’s eyes narrowed. "Then, considering what I’ve heard from Vanessa, why are you here?"
"To bandage old wounds."
"And what makes you think that she wants that?"
"Because last night—for the first time in years—we discussed things like adults." Camilla blinked rapidly, damp-eyed. "I wanted her to know that I love and support her, no matter what."
At that moment, the door into the main building opened. Two taurs, one leaning on the other, emerged.
"We understand your frustration," the chakat informed. "But you do understand why we moved things out of the laboratory?"
The gray-and-red foxtaur didn’t reply. Hir emerald eyes—still slightly unfocused—widened as shi saw who was there.
"Excuse me, shir," Camilla asked the chakat. "My daughter came in today. Do you know when she’ll be out?"
"I take it you’re Ms. Saroian’s mother," Bluewater answered. Camilla nodded, and Bluewater continued: "Shi’ll be fine once shi gets used to being a foxtaur."
The vixen was dumbfounded. "I thought she was going to become a chakat!"
"Changed...m’ mind," the stellar foxtaur slurred. "Thah...ah ri’, T-t-tah...Tauna?"
"Vanessa...oh, makers!" The vixen made a mad dash across the room, throwing her arms around her friend. "Of course it’s all right...you’re healthy now, and that’s what matters...and, as a side note, you’re beautiful...oh, hell." She clasped the other foxtaur’s hand in her own. "I didn’t get to finish asking you earlier; and, irony of ironies, we’re face-to-face now. Will you be my companion?"
Vanessa managed to smile, although it still came out lopsided. "Yeh...yes!"
Camilla stood back for a few minutes, watching them. Finally, she came over and hugged first Vanessa, then Tauna.
"I’m very happy for the two of you. Vanessa...I do hope that you’ll be staying in touch from now on?"
The stellar foxtaur’s smile widened. With the utmost care, shi replied, "Of...course...we...will...Mom."
Several hours later—after Vanessa had received a medical checkup and some basic lessons in being a foxtaur—shi and Tauna left the facility with their arms around each other. Tauna couldn’t help a tiny thrill of pride at how much surer her companion’s motions had already become.
"Tigerlily knew this crazy human freighter captain; shi somehow talked him and his family—or should that be ‘small tribe of co-mates and step-cubs’—into giving me a ride. The trip took a while—I was afraid that I’d miss you, until I heard about the Star Nomad being down for repairs. Anyway...the short version is that I’m here; I have some new friends who want to meet you; and I finally got my first opportunity to travel!" The vixen paused. "So...is there anything you want to do?"
"Right...now?" Vanessa’s speech was still hesitant. "Had...water...for...breakfast, so let’s...get...lunch. Nice...Asian-fusion...place near...the Ridian."
Tauna grinned. "I get it! You want to see if you still like hot-and-sour soup. We’ll do lunch." Suddenly, she looked at the stellar foxtaur. "Should I still call you ‘Vanessa,’ or are you going to pick a new name to go with your new body? It seems only appropriate."
It was a mild day, with just a hint of moisture in the air. The stellar foxtaur tilted hir muzzle to the sky, where clusters of fluffy clouds drifted past. As shi did so, a drop of water hit hir on the nose. It was followed by others, as a brief spring shower swept over the city.
The stellar foxtaur let go of hir companion, reared back onto hir hindpaws, and attempted a few awkward improvised dance steps, laughing joyously. Tauna, caught up in the moment, joined hir.
"Rain. Call... me... Rain."
Silvery sunlight crept in through the curtains. Rain’s eyes flickered open as shi caught a scent from outside the den.
"Tauna," shi whispered, giving hir sleeping denmate a lick on the cheek. "Chanterelles!"
Tauna opened one eye and gave hir a reproachful look. "I’m not awake," she growled. "Someone wanted to celebrate our two-month anniversary until we were both exhausted." The sleepy vixen managed to open her other eye and prop herself up on one elbow. "You have just earned yourself a place on my list of medical treatments that worked too well."
"Come on!" the stellar foxtaur coaxed. "Siri would bite me if I woke her up. Jaishu’s no use until she’s had her coffee. Zia is in no condition; I’m not going alone...and...we’ve got chanterelles in March!"
"The chanterelles will keep. Give me another hour, at least!"
Rain sighed, as if in resignation. Then, shi gave a wicked laugh and dove for Tauna’s flank, fingers wriggling.
Tauna gave a yelp of distress and tried to escape. "All right! All right...I’m up!" she gasped. "But next time you pry me out of bed after less than five hours’ sleep, you are going to get the tickle torture."
"Sounds fun," Rain smirked. "Guess I’ll have to remember that."
"You, my darling, are absolutely incorrigible."
"But that’s why you love me, isn’t it?" Shi pounced on Tauna again. "Isn’t it?"
"Oh, makers! Okay...that’s part of it."
The stellar foxtaur grinned triumphantly. "I’ll take that as an admission. And if we get going now, we can probably get back before the others wake up."
Rain dashed out of the room, leaving Tauna alone with her thoughts. As the vixen put on her halter, she marveled at how much joy her denmate got out of life. Ever since the procedure, shi seemed to have been making up for everything that Vanessa Saroian had missed out on. And Tauna had to admit that she’d been having just as much fun as Rain had.
Even so, she thought, we’re still going to have to do some more traveling. Some foxtaurs may be most at home in one place, but that’s not for a stellar—or hir mate!
"Rain?" she called softly as she followed after. "How about we start planning a trip to Clayton’s World?"
"I’d like that," Rain replied. "But right now, we’ve got mushrooms to pick."
"Yes. We can talk about Clayton’s World later."
Together, the two foxtaurs stepped out to greet the new day.
The chakat and stellar foxtaur species, the planet Chakona, and the Chakat Universe in general are © Bernard "Goldfur" Doove.
Professor Chakat Oceanwalker is © E. "Kathris" Kern.
Chakat Bluewater is © Cassandra Foxx.
Graysocks, Dusk, Nightsky, the rest of their family, and Tauna’s ride are © A. "Redbear" Fesler.
All other characters, Clayton’s World, and the Sunflower Café are © the author.
Scirocco also wishes to thank various other companions, roommates, and gadflies, without whose help shi probably would have long since abandoned this project out of frustration.
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