Tales of the Foxtaur Clans #15: Savannah's Journey
Part One: A Bad Start
By Bernard Doove © 2008


Savannah the Veldt Breed foxtaur and Tweet

The thick bank of thunderclouds withdrew quickly to the east, pushed along by the gusty winds that had accompanied the persistent storms. Heavy rain was still sheeting down and darkening the rolling plains, occasionally lit up again by broad strokes of lightning. The last of several storm fronts that had passed through in the past six days left behind miraculously clear skies, and warm sunlight drenched the sodden encampment of the nomadic Veldt Foxtaurs. Tall grasses were whipped around by the wind that had been cracking the family banners like whips. Activity had already recommenced, and that was the scene that greeted Savannah as shi poked hir head out past the weather flap of hir home. Half tent and half hut, the Veldt Foxtaurs’ dwellings were easily dismantled to move to a new site, yet rugged enough to endure everything that the storms had thrown at them without a single tear or leak.

The atrocious weather had been a good excuse to spend more time with hir denmate, Willow, and their young kit, Grass-stalk. The life of a Stellar Foxtaur was always a busy one, equally mixing the daily tasks of making a living with their duties for the Star Corps which had established their colony on Arisia, and Savannah was grateful for any excuse that interrupted either task in a way that gave hir more time with hir family. However, this time the break had been too long, and hir itinerary was way behind schedule. Shi had to complete preparations for hir journey tomorrow.

Savannah stepped out of the hut and stretched luxuriously. The hut wasn’t that small, but after being virtually confined to it for several days, the freedom of the outside was most welcome. Shi shook hirself, letting the fresh air fluff out hir dark red fur. Along with the dark brown ‘boots’ and ‘gloves’ of fur on hir arms and hands, plus hir very long legs, shi strongly resembled a Terran maned wolf. Shi owed more of hir ancestry to foxes and humans though, and no maned wolf ever had an extra upright humanoid torso where the wolf’s shoulders would normally be. Savannah was a Stellar Foxtaur of the Veldt Breed. Hir kind and the other breeds were the creation of Earth’s genetic laboratories, but unlike the bad old days when anthropomorphs had been created as slaves and toys, hir kind had always known freedom and equality. Superior in many ways to their creators, they nevertheless worked together for the betterment of an entire civilisation, not just a species. Arisia was a bold experiment in readying a new world for colonisation, and the Stellars had been equal to the task; terraforming some areas, taming others, preserving even more places, and learning how to exploit resources with the minimum of environmental impact. Savannah’s breed had been optimised for the huge rolling plains. Hir legs gave hir the height to see far over the tall grass-like plants and shrubs, and enabled hir to run tirelessly for many kilometres, hour after hour.

Usually though, those long legs were used to haul a cart, for Savannah was a trader for hir day-to-day living, as well as a biologist in the employ of the Star Corps. While the Corps would transport any necessary equipment meant for use on Corps’ projects, personal items were luxuries, and if the Corps would transport them at all, it was only at a hefty fee. Savannah’s Corps work kept hir moving about to many distant places, and shi saw that it would also be a way to fill the need for a cheap alternative. Shi had started carting along trade goods between the foxtaur settlements and Arisia Freeport. Whatever area that shi needed to study, shi brought along goods to suit the needs of the clans in that area. Shi had rapidly built up a large clientele, and had become known as Savannah the Trader more than as a professional biologist.

An excited twittering announced the arrival of one of the local avians. The Arisian equivalent of birds had plumage similar to – but not exactly like feathers – which had given them similar characteristics for flight. Two of those pseudo-feathers grew exceptionally long in this species, earning them the name Pennantail. Savannah held out hir hand, and the avian landed on it, twittering happily.

"You’re glad that the storms have ended too, aren’t you, Tweet?" Savannah asked it.

Tweet chirped back in response. Savannah had gained the pet avian by accident when, on a field trip, shi had inadvertently disturbed a predator that had raided a nest, killing the parent birds and breaking open the eggs to eat the contents. All but the last egg was destroyed, saved by the predator being frightened off by the arrival of Savannah. Shi had come to check the progress of the new family of birds that shi had been monitoring for several weeks, and shi was disappointed to find that they had all been killed. Shi took the sole remaining intact egg, intending to study it in detail later. Imagine hir surprise when it hatched on the journey home, and hir consternation when the chick immediately bonded with hir. Fortunately the species was omnivorous, so Savannah was able to feed the chick from the many options shi had available. Apparently shi had done a good job as the pennantail grew up happy and healthy. It also refused to leave Savannah, and had become hir almost constant companion, so Savannah built it a bird home that allowed it to come and go whenever it pleased. Like the foxtaur though, it had been confined to the hut for the past several wet days.

Savannah gave the avian an affectionate stroke on the head as shi looked around. The gully with the placid brook that bisected their camp was still full to the brim. It had been threatening to break its banks the last couple of days as the run-off increased from the saturated soil of the plains, but that had not happened. Either the footbridge or a long jump was required to safely cross it, although shi could see one young foxtaur trying hir luck at fishing right at its edge. Other people were repairing storm damage, and groups of herders were heading off to find out where the herds of zikba grazers had sheltered or weathered the Spring storms. Shi would have to get hir cart loaded with trade goods quickly this afternoon before many others disappeared about their delayed business, and to get their orders in if they hadn’t already done so. Shi eyed the flooded brook again, wondering what the river crossing would be like. Shi hoped that it would have dropped a bit before shi reached it tomorrow.

Savannah heard hir mate exiting the hut, and turned to see Willow emerging with Grass-stalk in tow. Careful not to let their child get too near the flooded stream, shi otherwise let the kit run about and enjoy the sunny afternoon after being cooped up for so long. Willow had virtually the same build and fur colour as hir denmate, but where Savannah only had a swatch of white fur on hir chin and throat, Willow’s white fur spread out over hir chest, and then dived between hir breasts before petering out just above hir navel. Shi also had white headfur as opposed to Savannah’s dark red. Shi was also a hermaphrodite like hir mate, but unlike hir, was conspicuously pregnant.

"So, you reckon this good weather will last for a while?" Savannah asked hir.

"Degrees in meteorology and climatology, and you still doubt me?" Willow queried.

Their hut was crowded with scientific equipment, both for Savannah’s biological pursuits and Willow’s meteorological ones. Above the huts, partially obscured by the house-colour flags, was a satellite dish that kept hir appraised of weather conditions both worldwide and, in a more concentrated fashion, locally. They had been on Arisia long enough to accurately predict the weather for several days ahead.

"Of course not, Love. It’s just that the delay has me worried about keeping my schedule. They won’t hold up the starship just for me, y’know?"

"Yes, I know, but it won’t be the end of the world."

"Of course not, but we planned a large family around our ability to maintain a certain level of income over and above our Star Corps wages, I need the best trade goods and to make the best deals. If the ship is on schedule and I get there late, that might not happen."

"You worry too much, ’Vanna. Our income is more than sufficient to give Grass-stalk and the new kit a good future. But then there’s the third kit that we decided to have, the one that you are supposed to bear," Willow said as shi poked hir finger into Savannah’s chest for emphasis.

Savannah sighed. This had been the one major point of contention in their otherwise harmonious lives. Willow had been happy to be the mother of two of their kits, but insisted that shi would be the sire to the third. Savannah agreed in principle, but shi had been procrastinating the actual event. Originally shi had been going to bear their second child, but shi had claimed that it would affect hir ability to travel and do trade. Willow had gotten tired of waiting for hir and had gotten pregnant again. Savannah had been given more breathing space, but shi was not off the hook as yet. Willow frequently commented that the amount of trading shi did was so that they could support three kits comfortably, and hir mate rarely let an opportunity to go by to remind hir of it.

"I know, I know!" Savannah replied. "A couple more trips and we should have enough stashed away that I can afford to slow down and be a mother."

"Isn’t that exactly what you said last time?" countered Willow with a frown.

"Come on, Love. Ease up on me a bit, will you? After all, I’m doing this for all of us." Shi gave hir mate a lick-kiss as shi rubbed the fur between Willow’s breasts, something that shi particularly liked.

Hir mate relented and returned the lick-kiss. Then shi swatted Savannah on the rump. "Get on with you!" shi said with mock severity. "You need to be ready to leave at the crack of dawn, and I’ll not have you blaming me for not being ready."

Savannah grinned, then said, "C’mon, Tweet, let’s get to work."

The avian chirped loudly and flew after Savannah as shi trotted off towards a neighbour’s hut.

Hours later, shi secured the last of the trade goods in hir cart. Although overtly it was a simple hand-drawn cart, in fact it had been vastly improved with high-tech materials and equipment. This was something that was built to suit colonial conditions where breakdowns could be extremely hard to repair, or could even jeopardise lives. Although the primary motive power was Savannah hirself, the cart had a small anti-grav unit of the type used for moving luggage and goods at freight terminals. This enabled hir to easily pull the cart up hills, and regenerative brakes recharged the Superstor battery that powered it, with solar panels to supplement power input. Normal cable-operated brakes served for parking the cart, or for possible emergencies. Savannah was proud of the cart, built at a time when shi had had no mate or kit so shi could afford such extravagances. Shi looked after it very well, and its gaily painted walls were instantly recognisable whenever shi approached a village or encampment.

Next shi loaded hir scientific equipment, the ones that weren’t permanently installed in the cart. Like every trip, shi was required to spend part of it doing biological surveys and follow-ups to hir field experiments. These shi was obliged to do as part of hir contract with the Star Corps irrespective of whether shi was behind schedule for hir trading business, so shi had to factor that into hir travel time.

It was almost dark before shi finished and shi secured all the doors and hatches. Willow had a meal ready for them when shi entered the hut. After helping to clean up after the meal, Savannah played with Grass-stalk for a while, then read hir a story until shi fell asleep. The denmates then made love long and luxuriously as both knew that it would be a long time before they would be able to do so again.

Savannah began hir journey in the false dawn. Shi had given hir mate and child parting hugs after an early breakfast, then attached the cart’s harness to hir lower torso and began walking. There was barely enough light yet to see the track, but shi knew it well and proceeded with confidence. Tweet flew out from the hut at the last moment, scolding the foxtaur for getting up so early before settling on a perch on the cart. Savannah smiled at its antics. In the wild, the avian’s cousins would have already started their foraging. Tweet was quite spoiled.

Savannah set a steady distance-eating pace, the gently sloping plains being conducive to fast travel. It was about an hour before noon when shi reached the rim of a river valley and started down into it. Halfway to the bottom, small trees started to take over from the grasses, and by the time that shi reached the valley floor, shi was in woodlands. Savannah pulled off the path and locked the brakes on the cart. Unbuckling hirself from the harness, shi went to one of the side panels in the cart, opened it and withdrew some prepared food. Shi then laid down on the soft leaf litter to eat hir meal and take a rest. Endurance was one of the hallmarks of the Veldt breed, but Savannah knew how best to pace hirself to get the most distance without over-exerting hirself. A fifteen minute power-nap saw hir refreshed and ready to recommence hir journey. But not quite yet.

Savannah had chosen this spot not merely because it was comfortable, but shi also had a field experiment running in the area. Shi spent some time visiting several sites, downloading data, resetting equipment and gathering specimens. When shi had finished, shi returned to hir cart, stowed everything away, then resumed hir journey. Even then shi was still doing hir job – or more precisely, Tweet was doing it for hir. The bird would fly off occasionally, and Savannah had trained it to bring back samples. The collection tray gained a steady stream of biological specimens such as leaves, berries, grasses, and even some insects. Savannah always enjoyed sorting through the assortment of specimens each day, and rewarded hir winged friend with its favourite foods. Although a bit haphazard, the method had proved to be very worthwhile, leading hir to more closely examine several areas due to a particularly intriguing sample.

Savannah’s route eventually brought hir to the banks of a broad river. It was fed by a multitude of streams that drained the plains, such as the one that flowed past Savannah’s hut. Normally it was shallow enough to ford easily at this broad point but, as Savannah had feared, the river was in full spate. The marker stones that were hir guide along the ford were all invisible, covered by the swiftly flowing water. If shi tried to cross now, hir cart would almost certainly be swept away. Although it was watertight and would float like a boat, it did not steer like one, and if it avoided being smashed into the rocks, it could take Savannah ages to get it to a place on the bank where shi could haul it out. There was no question as to whether shi would try hir luck.

"Well, Tweet, this is a fine mess. Which way do you think we should go now?"

Tweet chirped brightly and Savannah nodded. "Yeah, definitely somewhere else. There’s another shallower ford an hour and a half upstream, but there’s a very good chance that it could be as bad as this, so I might lose three hours backtracking. However, if I keep going downstream, it’ll only get bigger, but there’s a village about two and a half hours away and they can ferry us across. It’ll take us way off course though, and we’d lose more than half a day going that way."

Tweet responded with some more chirping and Savannah sighed. "You’re right of course. We can’t risk the upstream ford, so it’s the long route for us." Savannah turned the cart around and backtracked a little to find the path that followed the river. Tweet flew ahead, pausing on a branch occasionally, waiting for the foxtaur to catch up. Savannah was glad to have hir winged companion. Although neither really knew what the other was saying, it was always easier to make a decision when shi ‘discussed’ it with Tweet. Shi found the trail and turned onto it and stepped up the pace. It was a much less well-worn path than the main route however, so Savannah had to ease up a bit or risk tiring too soon.

It was getting close to sunset when the forest path opened up to reveal a clear area on the V-shaped land at the confluence of the river that shi was following, and another major river coming from another corner of the plains. In that area was built a village with structures of a far more permanent nature than the tent-huts of the nomadic Veldt Foxtaurs. This was a village built by Marine Stellars, foxtaurs adapted to being at home as much in the water as they were on land. In fact, despite the rivers being dangerously swollen, shi could see that they were full of the villagers revelling in the wild conditions. ‘More like otters than foxes,’ shi often mused.

Savannah was soon spotted by the children of the village, and they raced each other to meet up with hir first. Soon a dozen kits were racing around the cart, or asking Savannah if shi had any treats, or trying to get Tweet to perch on their arm. Tweet always seemed to get as excited as the kits, and it flew from one to the other and then back to Savannah. The little avian distracted many of them, and Savannah put the rest of them off with promises of treats soon. Before long, shi was approached by an adult.

"Ho! Savannah!" The caller had the typical brown and beige coloured fur of hir breed. The fur was very thick and waterproof, and hir head only had the normal fur and no long headfur or ruffs. Hir ears were short and thickly furred also, capable of being folded down to seal water out of the ear canal. Hir legs were much shorter than Savannah’s and hir breasts less prominent – all features intended to help streamline hir body for swimming. Like Savannah, shi was a hermaphrodite, as were all Stellar Foxtaurs.

By now shi was close enough to see the variations in the beige patterning that let hir identify the caller. An unfavourable wind had given hir no scent clues up until now. "Swiftbrook! How are you faring?"

"Very well indeed," Swiftbrook replied. "What brings you here so early? We weren’t expecting you for a few weeks."

"The ford is too dangerous, so I am looking for someone to ferry me across."

Swiftbrook looked at the river and nodded. "Yes, I can see how it would be too high. Ferrying you over is no problem, although I recommend that you leave it until tomorrow. Stay with us tonight and perhaps we can do a bit of dealing too."

Savannah eyed the lowering sun and sighed. "No point in crossing now. I’d practically have to make camp straight away, so I might as well accept your offer."

"Great! Do you have any of those sugarstalks with you? Swiftbrook asked eagerly.

Savannah laughed. "Yes, if I have any left after this horde of kits finishes raiding me!"

"You’d better!" Swiftbrook replied with mock severity. "Or else you might have to swim across tomorrow."

"Then you had better get this greedy lot under control!" Savannah glared at the kits who kept on grinning. They knew hir far too well.

Savannah parked hir cart in its usual place in the centre of the village. Shi locked the brakes and put down the stabilisers. Only then did shi open one of the compartment doors. There was a box that shi kept on top of everything else just for this reason. Inside it were the much-coveted sugarstalks. A kind of grain grew on the plains that the Veldt foxtaurs harvested. They toasted the grain while it was still on its stalk, then dipped it into the sap of the ginja tree, and then toasted them some more. This hardened the sap into a crisp, sweet glaze. The result was both nutritious and delicious. Savannah always brought plenty with hir – some for sale and some to give away to the kits. Naturally this always made hir very popular.

Savannah always gave away lots of the popular treats to the kits. It never hurt to have a good reputation when trading, and the kits quite often managed to bring out the adults. The sugarstalks were a cheap item to produce, so shi could afford to give them away. The adults bought boxes of them though, and usually some of the more expensive items from hir cart while they were at it.

While shi was doing brisk business, shi observed a riverboat draw up to the jetty. As soon as it was tied up, foxtaurs both on board and on the land swarmed over the cargo piled in it. Faster than you would have thought possible, the ship was unloaded, and then the flow was reversed as other goods were stowed for the return trip. Marine foxtaurs were renowned for their playfulness, but they also worked just as hard so that they had more time for play.

Savannah the Veldt Breed foxtaur and Tweet

When the last of hir customers left, Savannah closed up hir cart and headed for the community eating hall. Unlike the Veldt Stellars, the Marine Stellars did virtually everything as a group. There weren’t separate huts for mated couples or triads either. Everyone slept in a communal den which Savannah felt was going a tad far with the love of company, but they seemed to prefer it. There was no doubt that, although they were a cousin species, they thought very differently.

The way to the hall was well illuminated by torches that had been lit as the sun’s glow faded behind the horizon. Savannah’s cart had lamps also that ran off the same batteries as the rest of the electrically powered equipment, so shi preferred not to use them unless shi really needed to do so. Inside the food hall, it too was brightly lit by electric lights. The community had a power pack that produced enough electricity for their basic needs, and of course for their Star Corps equipment, as long as they weren’t frivolous with its use.

Delicious smells assaulted Savannah’s nose. Merely scenting what had wafted hir way outside had already whetted hir appetite, but now it went into overdrive. Calls came from various people for hir to join them at their table. Savannah did not have to worry about paying for hir meal because its price was hir companionship and the news and gossip that it brought, so having hir as a table-mate was highly sought after.

Savannah accepted one group’s invitation and was soon enjoying fresh bread with various spreads as an appetiser. Tweet sat on hir shoulder, accepting morsels from Savannah and anyone else who offered the bird something delectable. Then the main course arrived. As you might expect from a people whose lives revolved around water, their staple dish was fish, and there were plenty of varieties to choose from. There were small sweet fillets of pago and braised whole nekkan which had a stronger, meatier flavour. There were also the local equivalent of mud crabs that had been named mabs. Savannah often wondered who came up with those odd names. Besides the fish, there were boiled tubers and greens. For dessert, they had thick slices of watergourd, similar in principal to watermelon but hugely different in taste.

There was a good deal of conversation after the meal was done. Those whose turn it was for kitchen duty rapidly cleaned up while the others talked, then before Savannah realised how late it was getting, it was time to put the kits to bed. The adults would not be far behind though as they did not like to waste power, and they would be up again at the crack of dawn. Before that though, shi was approached by one of the foxtaurs whom shi had seen come off the riverboat.

"My name is Swiftriver," shi said without preamble. "I hear that you are trying to get to the port in a hurry and that you’re behind schedule."

"That’s correct," replied Savannah.

"I have an alternative. Our load is destined for the port also. We’ll be taking the river all the way to the sea and then across the bay. It’s not as direct, but it should still be a bit faster than your land route."

"Do you have enough room for my cart?"

"Of course. I didn’t expect you to leave it behind."

"And what would this cost me?" Savannah enquired.

"Well, seeing as we’re going there anyway, and we have the space to spare, I’ll settle for four boxes of sugarstalks."

Savannah gulped. That was a large chunk out of the remainder of hir stock. Of course the hyperactive Mariners burned through sugar at quite a rate and they were hir biggest customers, but still…

"Two boxes! You can’t even guarantee that you’ll be able to get me there in time," Savannah counter-offered.

"Three and a half. The river is in flood and we’ll make good time," Swiftriver rebutted.

"Two and a half. I can make almost as good time by the direct route if I hurry, and I’ll save some of my most popular trading goods for sale elsewhere."

"Almost isn’t good enough if it’s that important. Three boxes. That’ll pay for your meals also while you sit on your haunches and we do all the work."

Savannah sighed. Swiftriver was right – shi had to take the gamble. "Okay, deal," shi said, holding out hir hand to exchange arm clasps.

"Great!" Swiftriver said. "We sail straight after breakfast. Get up promptly before daybreak if you wish to oversee our loading of your cart before we eat. We aren’t going to wait for you."

"Gotcha. I’ll be up," Savannah acknowledged.

Swiftriver grinned and left.

Savannah hoped that shi had made the right choice. Shi then decided to go straight to bed to make sure that shi didn’t oversleep. Shi headed for the communal sleeping den. Although shi had a sleeping arrangement with hir cart, like all foxtaurs, shi preferred sleeping in the company of others. A foxtaur who slept alone by choice was extremely unusual. Two of the Mariners had been trying to persuade hir to have a little recreational sex with them too, but although shi had sometimes accepted such invitations in the past, it was too soon after having to leave behind hir denmate for hir to be interested in such. It didn’t seem to have stopped them from finding another willing partner though as shi spotted the trio enjoying themselves as shi entered the den. A few other couples and triads were similarly engaged, but over half the rest of the community were already asleep in furpiles of various sizes. A couple who were just settling down patted the bedding next to them as they saw hir enter, inviting hir to snuggle up with them. Savannah gladly accepted, and was soon curled up with, and pillowed by hir friends. After a hard day’s journey and with a full belly, sleep came swiftly.

Savannah was awakened by a gentle shake of hir shoulder. Shi opened one eye and recognised Swiftriver in the very dim light coming through the windows.

"Time to get up," Swiftriver said quietly.

Savannah quickly became alert and carefully disentangled hirself from hir sleeping companions. Following Swiftriver into the chill morning air, they made their way to where the cart was parked. Two of the riverboat’s crew were already standing by it, apparently waiting for them. Savannah unlocked the brakes after stowing the stands, and they guided it onto the jetty. There shi was asked to stand back while the crew fastened slings to it, and they hoisted it easily onto the deck of the boat. Shi stepped aboard and helped secure it to tie-down points, then everybody headed for the food hall.

The ship’s crew were hardly the only early risers. In fact, the food hall was more than half full by the time that they got there. The crewmembers ate a hearty breakfast, but Savannah settled for a more modest meal. Unlike the crew, shi didn’t expect to be doing much for the rest of the day.

Despite the size of their meal, the crew didn’t waste any time. Almost before shi knew it, they were all aboard the boat and casting off. Shi seemed to be consistently in everybody’s way until one of them firmly parked hir in a spot where shi would not be any trouble. Once everything was set though, things calmed down and Savannah was allowed to move about again. The conjoined river was deep and wide in most places, and the experienced crew knew where the safe channels were in the less benign spots. Swiftriver had been right though – the flooding rains had dramatically increased the flow of the river which meant greater speed, but also more alertness for navigating. Savannah wondered how difficult it would be going upstream against this strong flow.

Savannah had no concerns for hir safety however. Of all the Stellar Foxtaurs, the Marine Breed were by far the best sailors, as had been intended by their designers. They were also one of the most industrious species anywhere, and they were responsible for opening up trade routes and supply lines along the seas and waterways. It was left up to people like Savannah to service areas inaccessible by water though. Savannah usually worked in conjunction with them, but being reliant on the Mariners was an entirely different thing, and it irked hir.

Shi also chafed at the inactivity. There was nothing that shi could do to help out on the boat, and almost nothing that shi could do for hir own benefit. The sole thing that shi could do to stave off boredom, aside from watching the pleasant scenery, was through the help of Tweet. The little avian often flew off and returned with fruits, leaves and insects, apparently foraging but not really knowing what to get, and not really hungry either as it had been well fed along with Savannah at breakfast. Not ever having parents to teach it when it was a fledgling, Tweet instead imitated its foster parent who had always brought it a large variety of foods. Now it returned the favour, and Savannah had a growing collection of biological samples to examine and catalogue. In the past, Tweet had made some serendipitous discoveries that Savannah had followed up on later. In that manner, shi had added a large variety of nutritious plants to the foxtaurs’ kitchens, some with good potential export value if cultivated. Shi had also found some potential pharmaceutical products which shi had passed on to the experts for further investigation and development. It had proven to be a very profitable partnership between foxtaur and avian.

The river wound its way through low hills covered with dense forest. Wildlife could be frequently heard if not seen, and Savannah enjoyed its tranquil unspoiled beauty. Eventually it started skirting a mountain range on the left which Savannah would have had to surmount if shi’d had to take the direct land route. The river narrowed a bit then and the ride became a little rougher. Savannah found the heaving deck to be unkind to hir stomach, but the Mariners only seemed to be more excited at the added challenge. Thankfully they passed through that section in about an hour, and the river returned to a more placid disposition.

Eventually the sun started to set, and Swiftriver guided the boat to a suitable point on the river bank to tie up before it got too dark to navigate safely. Two Mariners dived into the water and were up onto the bank in a trice. Ropes were thrown to them and, as the boat gently touched the shore, they tied the lines to sturdy trees. Next, despite having a small galley on board, they cleared an area to build a fire pit and were soon cooking the night’s meal. Savannah had to admit that it was a lot more pleasant sitting around the fire than waiting on the boat for food from the galley. They cooked some fish that they had caught along the way, supplementing it with vegetables that they had stocked. Savannah recognised one of the local plants as an edible kind, and shi surprised the Mariners by adding it to hir meal. They all quickly tried it though and expressed pleasure in the taste.

Afterwards they talked for a while before one of them brought out a deck of cards and they organised a game of poker. They invited Savannah to play, but they were betting money and goods, and shi would have nothing to do with that.

"I am a business person," shi said. "I do not gamble with my stock, nor the profits meant for my family."

Swiftriver said, "Oh? What if I offer you the chance to win back those boxes of sugarstalks?"

In spite of hirself, Savannah was intrigued, but shi was still adamant. "I said that I wouldn’t gamble my stock or money, so what could I offer instead?"

Swiftriver grinned widely. "If I win, you will be my bed-mate for the night."

Savannah gaped at hir in surprise, then laughed. "What have I got to lose then? You have a deal! I look forward to winning back those sugarstalks. Now deal those cards!"

The other Mariners yipped in excitement and glee as they positioned themselves to watch the game. They stood to lose their favourite treat, but the thrill of the bet overrode the potential loss even when Savannah easily won the first hand.

Savannah mused that hir luck had been particularly bad lately. However, Swiftriver had proven to be a pleasantly playful and considerate lover, so it wasn’t a total loss. Savannah snuggled up closer to the thick fur of the Marine foxtaur, still enjoying the afterglow of their fling. "No, not completely bad after all," shi murmured as shi drifted off to sleep.

The next day, after a quick breakfast, they cast off and recommenced their journey downstream as soon as they had enough light to navigate. The journey proceeded much as it had the previous day; only the scenery changed. Now that they were on the other side of the ranges, the land was more densely forested with rainforest kinds of vegetation rather than the temperate forests they had passed through previously. Eventually it gave way to coastal scrub as the salt air affected the plant life at the mouth of the river. Abruptly they were into open water, and the sea swells made the boat move in a manner that nauseated Savannah.

"Are you sure this is safe?" shi nervously asked Swiftriver.

The Marine Stellar laughed. "Quite. While this isn’t an ocean-going craft, it’ll handle these placid conditions easily."

"You call this placid?" asked Savannah disbelievingly.

"Yes, this is almost nothing. The deep water and the sheltering mountains make this one of the safest bays to be in."

Savannah’s stomach didn’t quite agree though. Shi tried to put it out of hir mind, but with limited success. "How much further?" shi asked.

"About one and a half hours, and we’ll have you safe and sound on dry land again," Swiftriver reassured hir.

Marine Breed foxtaurs

"An hour and a half too long," Savannah thought miserably as hir stomachs lurched with the next swell. Shi tried to keep hir mind off the motion by observing the coast. Almost immediately, a temporary encampment hove into view. It was another Marine Foxtaur clan and, just like the one on the river, it was a hive of activity, from kits playing on the beach to fishers on the rocks and in sailboats. One boat though headed for a rendezvous with Swiftriver’s. Without either vessel stopping, one of those on the smaller boat dived into the water and swam up to the bigger ship where a rope was lowered for hir. Shi climbed up it with great agility, and was standing on the deck only moments after departing hirs.

"Ho, Bayshore! What brings you here?" Swiftriver asked.

Bayshore grinned. "I have something that I’d like you to take to my sister, Tempest," shi said as shi unsealed a waterproof pouch about hir waist. "It’s hir birthday today, but I can’t get over there until after the fishing fleet comes back, so I’d like you to pass on my gift to hir with my promise to visit hir tomorrow."

Swiftriver accepted the package that Bayshore handed to hir. "No problem. I take it that you’ll have a catch of fish for me to take to market on my return?"

Bayshore nodded. "Don’t we always? Anyway, lots to do, so I’ll be off." Shi clasped arms with Swiftriver, then dived over the rail and was off like a shot towards hir boat.

The whole incident was over in about two minutes, and Savannah mused over the frenetic pace of the lifestyle of hir Mariner cousins. Then it was back to watching the coastline accompanied by Tweet who apparently disliked flying over such a large stretch of water, and so wouldn’t go on one of its fossicking flights.

About forty minutes later there came a sound that Savannah had been dreading to hear. From the direction of their destination, there came the peculiar hum of anti-grav units combined with the powerful thrusters that were still needed to overcome the inertia of a huge freighter starship. Then shi watched in dismay as an extremely bright light climbed into the sky and into space.

"Bugger!" shi swore. "Missed the bloody ship!"


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
To be continued in Part Two.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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