Although she was securely strapped in, Violet Woods clung onto the acceleration couch as if her life depended upon it. The rumbling and shaking seemed to go on for an eternity but, in actuality, had only lasted a few minutes so far. It was much worse than the stomach-churning teleport up from Equestria to the faster-than-light starship that had brought the unicorn mare from Equestria to the new world of Chakona. The hours spent traveling the many light years here had been boring but smooth, but when you were in a vessel with a reactionless drive, that was to be expected. The shuttle down to the colony on the surface of the planet was an entirely different matter. Intellectually, Violet knew that it was a purely routine procedure to bleed off relative speed while transitioning from orbital velocity in the vacuum of space into the life-giving atmosphere of her future home. However, right now she would have traded her life savings for another nauseating teleport rather than this bone-rattling transport.
Then the shuddering and shaking suddenly smoothed out. The mare knew that they were still some time from landing though. They must have slowed down enough to fly at normal atmospheric speeds like the aircraft that had taken her to the spaceport on the first step to her new life. Not that she could see anything. The shuttle was purely utilitarian and made for transporting goods and non-VIPs between Chakona and Equestria. The three dozen or so other passengers were little more than cargo that required special treatment. This amounted to closely packed acceleration couches with plenty of padding and straps but zero amenities. There were no windows or holographic displays to show them the view, even if that was just sky and clouds for now. At least, she had gotten a brief glimpse of the planet through a window on the starship as they had shuffled onto the landing craft. The sight had briefly taken her mind off the upcoming plummet of several hundred miles down to the surface.
Violet sensed the banking and turning and heard the sounds of the engines fluctuate as the shuttle maneuvered for the landing at its destination. Then there was a jarring thump that made her squeal before the engine noise dropped quickly to zero. After about half a minute, the intercom chimed.
“Welcome to Chakona and the Emu Island Spaceport. We had a particularly smooth trip down today so you’ll be able to disembark very soon. You may now all disengage your safety harnesses and get your possessions in preparation for leaving. Those of you who won’t be making the return journey to Equestria, we wish you the best for your future in the New Horizon colony.”
Violet did not know if the pilot had been kidding about the smoothness of the ride down, but she had no intentions whatsoever to make this trip once more. Nothing would convince her to set hoof on a shuttle ever again. She fetched her saddlebag from the locker under her couch, secured it around her barrel, and then waited.
The bulkhead door eventually slid open and a crewpony directed the passengers to make their way to the exit. There was the normal rush to be the first out the door and it took a minute before the unicorn mare emerged from the shuttle, blinking in the bright sunlight. By the time she had made her way down the ramp to the apron, her eyes had adjusted enough to have a good look around. Many of her fellow passengers were doing the same.
Unlike at a modern airport, the shuttle was required to land and park a safe distance from the terminal. A small bus was parked nearby and a few of the passengers had boarded it already. The driver closed the door before the mare reached the front of the line, leaving the remainder of them to wait for his return. That suited Violet as she wanted to have a chance to get a good look around before being hastened away. Not that there was a great deal to be seen from this vantage point, but it was a new world and it deserved a moment to appreciate it.
The mare drew in a deep breath. The air was clean and warm with unfamiliar but pleasant scents. She figured a lot of them came from the dense vegetation that bordered the spaceport. In the distance, she saw long, straight tree trunks rising into the jungle canopy. Violet’s heart urged her to climb them to get a better view of the area even while her head told her no. She could see a few birds but no pegasi, although she guessed that this would be a no-fly zone for them. A short distance away sat the terminal building. It looked fairly utilitarian from here but that was not surprising. Violet remembered why Emu Island had first populated by Equestrians – as a base to fight a war. Although the military compounds had long since converted into a very young colony, most edifices had been built with practicality in mind rather than with expensive artistic flairs. Not that they were dull though – she didn’t think ponies were capable of settling for boring architecture. Still, she reckoned she could sense a touch of griffon brutalism in places.
The bus soon returned and the remainder of the passengers boarded. The trip to the terminal was brief and they soon stepped within to join the lines that had formed in front of two plain desks. A sign located above and between the two desks read: “CUSTOMS & IMMIGRATION”. While the left desk was manned by an earth pony, the right one that Violet had lined up for had a Terran morph official behind it – a raccoon by the looks of him. The mare tried not to stare when it became her turn to be interviewed.
The agent gave her a polite smile and said, “Identification, please.”
Violet hastily fished out the smartcard that she had been issued. It was a combination ID and passport with her visa digitally loaded on it. She passed it to the agent in the glow of her magic and he took it without batting an eye. Obviously, he was quite used to such displays of magic. He tapped it on the surface of the desk and the formerly blank surface lit up with data and images.
The raccoon muttered, “Violet Woods. Unicorn mare. Unmated. Profession – geologist. Status – immigrant colonist.” He compared the photo to the green-coated mare with a mauve mane and peach stripes in front of him. His eyes flicked over various other details before nodding. “Your visa seems to be in order, Ms. Woods. Please turn right at the exit to join the others in the Transit Lounge where you will all be addressed for your orientation. Welcome to Chakona.” He passed the ID back.
“Thank you,” Violet replied.
She made her way through the exit that was located between the two desks. The mare noticed that turning left would take her through a security barrier and egress from the terminal but she turned right as she had been instructed. There were a lot of chairs in the room suited to various body types and Violet chose a quadruped-friendly one. Aside from several other ponies, there was a minotaur, four red changelings, and a griffon couple with two children. She had chatted with a few of them and all were eager to start new lives on this world. Their enthusiasm was infectious and the mare found herself itching to go out and explore.
When the last of the immigrants joined them, two people emerged from a side door. One was the raccoon-morph that Violet had been interviewed by earlier, but the other was a chrome changeling. The former stepped up to a rostrum and smiled at his audience.
“Hello. My name is Paul Iotor and I am a representative of the Chakona World Government. All of you here today are joining the Equestrian colony of New Horizon. Like all the colonies on Chakona, New Horizon enjoys semi-autonomy. That means the laws and conventions of Equestria that you are familiar with apply equally here, up to a point. The Chakona World Government holds ultimate authority over all the colonies. However, it has a strong hands-off – or in many of your cases – hooves-off approach to governing these colonies and it is likely that you will never need to concern yourself directly with us. That said, the CWG maintains a permanent office here that deals with inter-jurisdictional matters and we are here to help if you need it. The office is manned at all times although only fully staffed from Firstday to Fifthday during daylight hours. I suggest you familiarize yourselves as soon as possible with the Chakonan eight-day week and twenty-hour day. As Chakona uses Universal Time, the date and time are the same all over the world, but office hours will look odd to you until you get used to the system.”
The raccoon held up a leaflet. “A summary of local laws which you should be aware of was uploaded to your ID chit upon arrival, but you will be given a copy of this ready-reference that should answer your commonest queries. While your preparations for coming to this world should have familiarized you with them, please take the time to refresh your memories. We truly wish that your introduction to your new homeworld will be a smooth and pleasant one.”
The morph stepped aside to allow his compatriot to take his place. The changeling shapeshifted into anthro form to use the rostrum microphone without adjusting it. “Hello. I am Glistening Path and I am the coordinator for new arrivals. The fees that you all paid entitle everyone to four weeks of free housing at the immigrant hostel. All meals and services are included. After that period, you may remain but you will be charged a boarding fee payable in advance. You have the first week open to settle in and explore your new home. You are obliged to check in with your employers from the start of the second week. Any job orientation and training will begin then. You will be expected to have commenced full-time work by the third week. While we hope that you will find time to enjoy the beauty and opportunities of your new home, you are reminded that this is still a young colony town and everyone needs to contribute fully to its prosperity.”
The changeling’s horn lit up and a box floated over to the rostrum. “I have keys for the hostel here for everyone. Please transfer the details to your ID chits at your soonest convenience. The keys will be deactivated at the end of four weeks regardless of your status. It will be up to you to negotiate an extended stay at the hostel or find new accommodation before that. There are many options for affordable housing available in the colony and, before you ask, I don’t need a pod-buddy.” Violet chuckled along with the rest of the immigrants even as she wondered how many times their host had told the same joke. From the raccoon-morph’s lack of reaction, she had to assume this was a regular occurrence.
The changeling gave everyone a warm smile. “If you have any problems related to the colony services, our main office is located by the CWG office at the east end of this building. However, queries can also be submitted through the hostel manager’s office. Remember that we are here to help you begin your new lives with as little fuss as possible. What benefits you, benefits the entire colony.”
“At the conclusion of this orientation, you will go out that door…” A hoof pointed to the right. “…where you will board a bus that will take you to the hostel. Any goods that you have brought with you will be delivered directly to your accommodation after they are unloaded from the shuttle and processed through Customs. You may expect it all to arrive within a few hours but bear in mind that yours may not be among the first to be delivered. Please do not contact us about your checked luggage unless it fails to turn up before sunset. Any questions?”
One pegasus stuck up a hoof.
“If this is the chakat homeworld, why haven’t we seen one yet?”
Glistening Path chuckled. “While several non-Equestrians live and work in this colony, there are presently just two chakats, and only one works in the CWG offices. Tigerbright is otherwise occupied today but you are welcome to come by and introduce yourselves at a later date. Shi quite enjoys meeting newcomers. Anything else? No? Then let’s get you started on your way. Once again, welcome to New Horizon.”
The changeling shifted back to normal form and carried the box of keys along to the exit door. The immigrants queued up and presented their IDs which were matched to the keys. Violet stuffed hers into her saddlebag and headed outside. The same bus that had ferried them from the shuttle was waiting and everyone boarded as soon as they had stepped outside. This time, Violet was lucky enough to make it into the first group and they were all soon on their way. As they left the spaceport, the unicorn spotted the aforementioned offices and filed their location into her memory.
The bus spent a few minutes passing at high speed through forest which Violet figured was a noise buffer zone. Then they emerged into an area that had been mostly cleared for development. They continued until they reached the firmly established districts. By this time, the mare could smell the salt air of the nearby ocean. The hostel apartments turned out to be fairly close to the beach, much to Violet’s delight. She hadn’t had the opportunity to go swimming for a while.
Everyone disembarked and the bus promptly left to fetch the remainder of the immigrants. By the time the unicorn made it inside, there were already two lines at the check-in counter. As there was very little to do besides confirming their arrival, the lines moved quickly. When it was her turn, Violet registered herself and was given directions to her assigned apartment. It turned out to be on the second floor and a long walk down the hallway, but that was fine by her. The key let her into Apartment 227 and she took in her home for the foreseeable future.
There was a small bathroom, a tiny bedroom with a wardrobe that doubled as a wall between it and a kitchenette, and living area. She suspected that the griffon family would get something a lot larger but this suited her needs fine for now. Drawing back the curtains, the unicorn was delighted to find that she also had a small balcony. It was probably a concession for the winged species that stayed there. Stepping out onto it, she realized that she could see a bit of the beach from there. She looked around and observed the luxurious and well cared for gardens that seemed to be a feature of every place that the mare had seen so far beside the new developments. This might be a very young township but it was obvious that the citizens took great pride in its appearance.
The mare closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath of the fresh tangy air while feeling the sun on her fur. She let out a contented sigh. “Welcome to the first day of your new life, Violet Woods. Let’s see if we can solve the mystery of why House Path thinks this remote island is so special.”
Violet allowed the waves to propel her gently toward the shore. When she felt her hooves touch the bottom, she stood up and waded the rest of the way onto the beach. She paused to shake herself vigorously to get rid of much of the seawater that had soaked into her coat before proceeding further. She settled down with a sigh of contentment under the shade of what passed for a palm tree on this world. That had been a most enjoyable swim in the relatively warm water of this semi-tropical island. A fine way to end her first day in her new home.
The sun was lowering toward the horizon and would soon be blocked by a ridge of hills that sheltered the beach from the prevailing westerly breeze. Ponies young and old were still making the most of the remaining daylight. She didn’t see any griffons but they were not generally known to enjoy bathing in saltwater. She did see a couple of morphs though. Birds cruised around looking for a meal, calling to each other in strange voices. The sun’s rays reflected off a ship entering the bay around which the colony was being constructed. Beyond, Violet saw glinting from the communications tower perched on the highest point of the surrounding hills. It all seemed very peaceful – not bad for a place that had been founded for the purpose of fighting a war. But why this island in particular? Official documents had been a bit vague beyond listing its uninhabited nature. The mare intended to do some research into this in her spare time but, right now, she had a new hometown to explore.
Getting back to her hooves, the unicorn headed toward her accommodation. She passed several nice homes along the way, owned by the fortunate beings who had arrived here early enough to claim some prime real estate for their dwellings. Violet considered herself lucky that the barracks that had been converted to apartments for new immigrants were in the same area. Then there was the small group of shops that serviced this subset of the larger colony town. She had bought a hat there when she found out just how strong the sunlight was In New Horizon. Back at her room, she took a long shower to thoroughly rinse all the salt out of her coat before applying some conditioner. She spent the time needed to dry off making a mug of tea with the ingredients that had been thoughtfully provided in the small pantry.
While sipping the steaming beverage, she considered how to deal with her luggage that had been delivered a bit over two hours after her arrival. No – correct that. It was about an hour and a half in Chakonan hours. She would have to start getting used to the local time measurements. Anyway, some of it could be stored in the wardrobe while the equipment that she needed for her work could be stacked in a corner out of the way. Not the most elegant solution, but what more could you expect from free lodgings? Deciding to put off starting that task until she had eaten, Violet made her way to the cafeteria downstairs. It was always open, perhaps another concession to the wildly varied tastes and needs of the creatures it served. However, some items were only available at certain times of the day. This being the normal dinner hours though, most options were available.
While it was a sit-down restaurant, you had to pick up many items at a buffet counter and put in any special orders with the staff there. The poached mikuriya looked tempting after the violet changeling behind the counter explained that it was a local type of fish similar to salmon. The ’ling was a little surprised at the unicorn’s choice but served it up for her. Violet projected gratitude at him and he nodded and smiled in thanks. After charging the meal to her immigration credit, the mare took the fish, salad, rice pudding, and milkshake she had chosen and looked for a place to seat herself. As it was a busy time of day, there were no empty tables, but there were a few with only one occupant. Recognizing a griffon from the starship that had brought them to Chakona, she asked, “Mind if I sit here?”
The hawk-beaked griffon looked up, his eyes widening in recognition. “No – go right ahead.”
Levitating her items to the other side of the table from the cat-bird, Violet settled into a seat opposite her acquaintance. The griffon eyed the food, an eye ridge rising in curiosity.
“I don’t see too many ponies eating fish, and they are usually pegasi,” he commented.
“Family quirk,” the mare responded. “We all love it.”
“Fair enough. The name’s Lightning Lance.”
“Violet Woods.” She held up a forehoof which Lightning bumped with his balled-up talons. “So, what brings you here?” she asked before taking a gulp from her milkshake.
“I’m a biologist. I was drawn by all the new science to be learned here. Never-before-studied flora, fauna and ecosystem? Count me in!”
“With a name like yours, I would not have picked you for a biologist,” the mare said with a grin.
The griffon chuckled. “Neither did my parents. They were most disappointed with my choice of career. How about you?”
“Geologist. I had some of the same reasons as you to come here, but some were a bit more personal. Frankly, I’m trying to re-start my life with a clean slate.”
“I won’t pry then, although I am very curious why your family likes fish so much. You are obviously enjoying yours.”
Violet nodded but finished chewing the succulent morsel before replying. “Blame my great-grandfather. He was a pegasus and he introduced it to his unicorn wife. They served it to their foals and it’s been a family staple ever since.”
“It’s really surprising more ponies don’t eat fish. It’s a good source of protein and low in fat.” The skin under his eyes crinkled and he winked. “Better than all that sugar you eat.”
Violet giggled. “Ponies have a weakness for sugary stuff, I admit. I try to keep it in moderation though.”
The conversation lapsed as both concentrated on their meals. Lightning Lance bade the mare a friendly good night before departing. After the mare finished her dessert, she returned to her room and finished putting away the last of her gear. Then, with a tired groan, she threw herself on the bed and fell asleep almost instantly.
After breakfast in the cafeteria the next morning, Violet headed into town. While there were plenty of electrically powered single passenger vehicles at her service, she preferred to trot the distance. She needed to keep fit for her job and she had spent far too much of the previous day either sitting or lying down during her travels. Besides, it saved the bits that she had put aside for special occasions. Some of those bits were spent almost as soon as she hit town, drawn by the irresistible aroma of freshly baked goods coming from a shop in the main street. She munched on her warm fruit buns as she walked around her new hometown, getting the lay of the land. She noted where various shops were located (with the bakery on the top of her list!) and found the office where she would have to report for work. That could wait for next week though.
During her travels, she encountered a few more of the non-Equestrian species that lived there. The Caitians reminded her a lot of the Abyssinians but there were no equivalents to the many other morph species. She found the equine morph to be a little unsettling, to be honest. Ponies belonged on four hooves, not two!
Tourism was not a thing here yet so she had difficulty in getting some general information about the area. Undoubtedly, she would receive a lot from her workplace when she reported in, but that was days away. Besides, the mare had her own side agenda and did not want to explain her need. One thing she prioritized was updating her comm service. While the nature of magic-based communications technology meant that her comm worked anywhere on Equestria, she didn’t expect it to do so light years away. After locating the office of the local service, it took only about a quarter-hour to open a new account and have her comm activated.
With all the essentials completed, Violet decided that she might as well make the most of the remaining day. She practically galloped to the beach again. This time, she spent some effort meeting the locals and managed to get invited into a volleyball game. It was both fun and a good workout. When it was time to go back to the apartment, she was a very tired but happy pony.
After dinner at the cafeteria, Violet laid out the equipment that she needed for the next day. Now that she was fairly familiar with the township, it was time to get a good look at the whole area. And what better viewpoint than the communications tower that overlooked the entire settlement and more? Tomorrow, she would hike up there and see what she could see. And, who knew? She might even get a head start on solving the riddle of this island.
Violet pushed aside the undergrowth with her magic for the hundredth time and heaved a sigh of relief at seeing what appeared to be an animal trail that was going roughly in the direction that she desired. She had drastically underestimated the density of groundcover in this type of forest and her hike up the low mountain to her goal was proving to be quite arduous. She paused long enough to drink a gulp of water from the flask that she kept in her saddlebag before proceeding. After following the relatively easy path for a while, she came upon a small creek. It was narrow enough for her to step over but it was probably a vital water source for the local fauna. The trail continued on the other side before turning downhill. It was time to part ways. The mare took a bearing with her GPS and headed into the bushes once more.
About a half-hour later, she noticed moss-covered rocks were getting more prevalent and larger. They had the effect of thinning out the vegetation but making moving forward gradually more difficult the further up she went. Only her field experience let her negotiate some of them even as she grumbled, “I’m a pony, not a mountain goat.”
As Violet wound her way higher, the moss thinned out and vanished, leaving her surrounded by bare rock. Eventually, the unicorn was confronted by an impassable jumble of gigantic boulders. As the mare assessed her options, she realized that she could smell smoke. Violet had noticed some barbecues the previous day but she should not be able to smell any up here. The orientation material told her colonists did not practice slash-and-burn farming. The forest hundreds of feet below saw regular rainfall and was in little danger of burning, so the mare was not greatly concerned about the fire but you couldn’t take it for granted.
“Time to cheat a little,” Violet murmured, lighting up her horn.
The unicorn was skilled in several disciplines other than the basics. In this case, she was particularly adept at self-levitation. The mare rapidly rose above the immediate obstacles only to see even more, so she kept going further up. Spotting the tower that was her goal, she realized that she was very near the top now and the smoke smell was getting stronger. Suddenly, Violet sensed that she was not alone up here. Cresting the last pile of boulders, her eyes confirmed that feeling. A tiger-patterned chakat with short brown hair was relaxing alongside a campfire over which was hanging a small cooking pot. Violet immediately noticed that the chakat had been looking in her direction before she had been visible. Somehow, despite her silent approach due to levitating, her arrival had been anticipated. Judging by the soft smile on the stranger’s face, the mare’s presence was not undesired.
Violet returned the smile as she came in for a landing. “Hello. I wasn’t expecting to find anyone up here, let alone a chakat. I’m told that there are only two of you in the colony.”
The chakat nodded. “That’s right. I come up here regularly though and I don’t usually meet anyone.”
“You seemed to know that I was coming.”
“Yes, I did. Chakats are empaths and I sensed your emotions a couple of minutes ago.”
Violet raised an eyebrow. “From way down there?” she said with an inclination of her head in the direction from which she had come.
The chakat chuckled. “Well, without any other being around for kilometers, it’s not hard to spot the one shining beacon in the psionic landscape.”
The mare grinned wryly. “I suppose not. My name is Violet Woods, by the way.”
“Mine is Tigerbright. I’m making tea; care for a cuppa?”
“Sure, if it isn’t any trouble. Hey, aren’t you the one who works in the Chakonan government office?”
“Yep, that’s me.”
“This isn’t the kind of place I’d expect to find an office worker.”
Tigerbright snorted in amusement. “That’s precisely why I’m here. I like my job but I really need to get away from the office and crowds by the end of the workweek. I’ve always liked hiking and camping so I regularly come up here for the exercise and the view. How about you? Normally, only pegasi come up here to service the communications tower once in a while.”
“I’m a geologist, so I’m used to hiking to places. There’s only so much that you can determine remotely. It takes hooves on the ground to check out the promising sites. Anyway, I wanted to come up here for a couple of reasons including getting a good look at the lay of the land.” Violet stepped over to near the edge of the cliff to take in the view of the vista below. From here, she could see the entire settlement from the original structures near the beach to the new developments. She could even identify her apartment complex. But it wasn’t the artificial features that drew her eye, no matter how pleasingly they had been designed and landscaped. The lush forest that surrounded the colony, the golden beaches, and the turquoise waters were breathtaking. “This is absolutely gorgeous,” the mare said with a broad smile.
“It sure is,” agreed Tigerbright. “The tea’s ready. Got a cup?”
Violet turned away from the view and hauled out her flask, unscrewing the top. It doubled as a cup in situations like these although she had not anticipated needing it on this occasion. The chakat filled the cup before doing the same with hir own. They both took a moment to sip a bit of the very hot brew before Tigerbright spoke up again.
“So, you mentioned that you had a couple of reasons to come up here. May I ask what else besides the view?”
“I wanted to get a look at the mana flow of the area.”
Tigerbright’s eyebrow rose. “What’s that?”
Violet took another sip of her tea before setting the cup on the ground. “Perhaps it would be easier to show you. Give me a moment.” She shut her eyes and her horn began to glow. For several seconds, nothing appeared to happen, then sparkling streams of silvery light appeared from nowhere. Everywhere the chakat looked, even down to the township below, ropes and strings were crossing the landscape, occasionally joining or diverging.
“There! Those are what you might call ley lines. They show the natural flow of mana, the power behind magic. They’re very strong and dense around here.”
“Won’t seeing all that… mana… disturb the people down there?”
“The spell didn’t make it visible – it affected your perception so that you can see it. The spell will fade in a few minutes.”
Tigerbright pointed to the nearby tower. “There seems to be a lot there.”
The unicorn nodded. “It makes sense that they’ve built a magitek device at the conflux of the mana streams.”
“I’ll take your word for that. So – did you find what you were looking for?”
“Yes and no. I kind of expected this result. If I had been the one choosing the site of a colony, I’d want to put it where the mana supply is ample. While we, like all life, can generate mana too, we can suffer from magic exhaustion if we draw on nothing but our reserves all the time. Anyway, it’s a possible clue to the mystery I intend to solve.”
“Mystery? Is this something the Chakonan government should know about?”
Violet laughed. “No, nothing so dramatic. In deciding to make this my new home, I found myself wondering why House Path chose this island in particular.”
“Well, it was uninhabited and unclaimed so far,” Tigerbright pointed out.
“Yes, but so are a great number of others, many of which are located nearer to existing settlements and their resources.”
“Maybe they wanted the privacy?”
Violet shook her head. “Equestria and House Path, in particular, have a policy of bringing races and cultures together in Harmony. Isolation runs counter to that goal.”
“The colony was originally a base for the Equestrian military. Perhaps those in command wanted to maintain a safety margin from other settlements?”
“Sensible but there are still plenty of suitable sites that could have been used which were also a reasonably safe distance from civilians.”
Tigerbright shrugged. “Beats me then. Have you any ideas?”
“Yeah. I’ve seldom seen such a dense mana flux. Either something is causing it or using it, but I don’t know which yet. It does seem likely that it would draw the interest of House Path though, especially considering that Twilight Sparkle, the foremost mage in Equestria, is one of the founders.”
“Sounds like you have quite a mystery on your hooves if she hasn’t figured it out.”
Violet grinned. “Yep. Unlike her though, I will be trekking all over this island doing my job, and I will have the time and opportunity to poke my muzzle into many places she hasn’t. After all, Princess Twilight Sparkle is way too busy with more important tasks to investigate a second-string mystery.”
“I wish you good luck with your sleuthing.” Tigerbright finished the last of hir tea and put the mug away in hir pack. Shi then got up onto hir paws, picked up the pot, and poured the remaining water onto the fire. Shi scraped dirt on top of the steaming remains to ensure that it was thoroughly extinguished. “Well, I’m going to start heading back down now. Care to join me? We can chat along the way.”
“Sure! I’d like that. Just give me a moment to have another look at the view.”
“You probably didn’t notice because you were facing the wrong way when you floated up here, but you can just see the spaceport on the other side of the ridge from the top of that boulder.” The chakat pointed it out.
Violet used her magic to scale the huge rock and spotted the clearing in the forest where the spaceport was located. Aside from the road from there to the township, the remainder of the area appeared to be virgin forest still. The unicorn turned around to look once more at her new home and she smiled. “You made a good choice, Violet Woods,” she murmured to herself.
“Did you say something?” Tigerbright asked from below.
The unicorn levitated herself down again, saying, “I’m just thinking that I’ll have to come up here again soon. It’s too beautiful to take it all in at one time.”
The chakat chuckled. “Can’t say I blame you. I haven’t tired of this view yet despite the number of times I’ve been here.”
“So – do you know a better route than the one that I took?”
“I should hope so! I haven’t just hiked up here without doing plenty of exploring at the same time. Not only have I discovered some quicker routes, but I’ve also found some gorgeous scenery along the way. I’m thinking of commissioning a proper hiking trail so that everyone can visit Tower Peak safely and easily. Anyway, follow me.”
The chakat set off and Violet fell in behind hir. It seemed that this little expedition was going to pay greater dividends than the mare could have hoped for. She might learn a lot from one of the locals, and a chakat at that!
The Chat (Part 1)
Tigerbright led Violet toward the edge of the cliff before bearing to hir left. The mare then saw that part of the cliff had a reasonably broad ledge sloping down the face of it, neatly bypassing the boulders that she had levitated over. A closer look at the rock face revealed the strata where the softer stone had eroded and broken free to produce the ledge. The shelf only ran about thirty meters but it reached a cleft that gave them some natural steps, albeit very uneven ones. Violet had little trouble negotiating them, and they were laughably easy for the feline taur. The mare blushed a bit when they reentered the forest no more than five minutes after they left the hilltop. It had taken thirty minutes to scramble up over the obstacles even with the help of her magic.
Now that she was being guided, the mare noticed the slightly unnatural touches to the route that they were taking. Gaps between bushes were too conveniently aligned, fallen branches were parallel to their route, and so forth. This was soon confirmed when the chakat pulled out pruning shears from her backpack and trimmed an offending growth here and there. Violet decided to do her bit to help and levitated some rocks to the side that Tigerbright had stepped over. Despite this attention, the path was quite faint. This was not too surprising if it was only trodden by one person on the weekends. Nature was a lot more resilient than that.
A fairly sharp bend in the trail made Violet frown thoughtfully. “I think I crossed this trail on the way up. I didn’t take it because it headed toward the cliff and I wanted to go further upward.”
Tigerbright pointed over hir left shoulder with hir thumb. “There’s a gully and boulders that way; nice to look at but awkward to traverse.”
“Yeah, I found that out the hard way.”
“That’s why I want to make this a proper hiking trail, so more hikers can take in the view without dealing with things like that. Not everyone is as enthusiastic about tackling obstacles as people like us.”
“If you like it so much, why have you confined yourself to just this route? You have a very large island to explore.”
The chakat grimaced. “Because they won’t let me.”
“Huh?” The pony raised a puzzled eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware of any such restrictions. I need to know because I have to go off-trail to achieve my goals.”
Tigerbright chuckled. “But you’re not the colony’s Chief Administrator for the Chakonan Government.”
Violet blinked in surprise. “I knew that you worked in the CWG office, but you’re the top authority?”
“Yep. For security and safety’s sake, I’m not allowed to go far from the town by myself, so anything I do has to be completed within a day. And, so far, I have not met anyone else who enjoyed bushwalking and camping for their own sakes.”
“Well, that sucks. I have to admit that you seem a bit young for such a senior post. Not that I’m an expert judge of chakat age or anything.”
“No, you’re judgment is correct. Normally, I would not have qualified for the position because I didn’t have much seniority. However, due to something you brought up earlier, I got my chance. As you pointed out, Emu Island is a long distance from just about everything, and it’s a very young colony to boot. Not only wasn’t it a prestigious posting, it was also isolated from friends and family. Nobody put their hand up for the position except me. I saw it as a golden opportunity because I am very career-minded and it was a way of quickly boosting my status, not to mention my pay-grade. Best of all, it gave me a place to indulge in my bushwalking hobby.” Shi chuckled wryly. “That was before I discovered the limitations that would be imposed upon me. Still, I don’t regret my decision.”
“So, you got the position simply because they had no other choice?”
Tigerbright shook hir head. “Not exactly. The minister could have appointed someone despite their preferences. My volunteering was entirely dependent upon whether there would be another chakat sent along with me. Fortunately, although there wasn’t one in my department, the colony governor had put in a request for a local biology expert to work with the earth pony environmental team, and Morningmist was available. And that’s how I got the job.”
“Why did there have to be another chakat going with you?”
“Because there weren’t any here already.”
“You get lonely?”
The chakat snorted in amusement. “No. It’s a minor problem we have. As I said earlier, I’m an empath – all chakats are. But while that gives us the ability to feel other people’s emotions, it was intended to give our species a sense of community. Unfortunately, it’s too powerful. We actually need empathic interaction on a regular basis for our mental health. We can’t go too long without it before we start having detrimental effects.”
“Hallucinations at first, delusions, then total mental breakdown.”
“Yikes! Seems like a major problem to me.”
“Not really. Back at Amistad, there are chakats around you all the time. Even if you don’t live there, chakats tend to live in clans, with several others in the home. It’s normally a non-issue.”
“So, what do you do here?” Violet asked, totally intrigued by now. “I take it that Morningmist doesn’t work with you?”
“No, shi works out of another office in town. Shi’s also mated to a stellar foxtaur and lives elsewhere.”
“I would have guessed you two would have shared accommodations like us immigrants.”
Tigerbright shook hir head. “Shi and hir mate have three cubs and need a place of their own. We have to schedule a regular meet-up to get in our empathic sessions.”
“How long do they take?”
“If we just have a conversation and socialize, about four hours or more.”
“That seems a pretty large chunk of time to spend with someone just for that purpose.”
“True. Although we’re friends, we don’t have much in common, so finding enough stuff to chat about isn’t easy. Fortunately, we do have an alternative. The effectiveness of empathic interaction is entirely dependent on its intensity. The better we know each other, the stronger our feelings and the shorter the time required. And there’s one activity that can reduce that period to only half an hour.”
“Okay, I’ll bite – what is it?”
Tigerbright grinned. “Recreational sex!”
Violet blinked. “You mean every couple of weeks you go around to hir place and you buck each other?”
The chakat giggled. “I like your euphemism. But yes, that’s essentially it, although shi comes to my place for privacy’s sake.”
“And hir mate doesn’t mind?”
“Hir mate knew exactly what shi was getting into when shi denned up with Morningmist and again when their family moved out to the untamed wilderness. Shi and I are on quite good terms actually.”
“So, Morningmist just comes around and you screw for a while before shi leaves, saying, ‘See you in two weeks’?”
“Well, it sounds pretty sterile when you put it like that, but just because it’s an essential activity doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to enjoy ourselves. Recreational sex is extremely pleasant and we have fun switching things up. But a couple of intense orgasms are enough to recharge us mentally, so we don’t prolong the meetings.”
Violet grinned wryly. “That’s something I never expected to learn about your kind. I wonder what other surprises you have in store ?”
Just then, their path opened up onto a ledge which, like the peak, overlooked the township. The way the cliff curved around, it enabled the mare to see the tower they had left behind. It also gave them a view of the colony further east than at the summit due to the lay of the land. The sun was past its zenith and Violet had to shade her eyes, but the scenery was just as breathtaking as earlier. Tigerbright paused there, letting the unicorn take in the sight.
“Whenever I see this, I don’t regret my decision to come here despite the inconvenience,” the chakat said quietly.
“I haven’t been here long enough to have regrets, but I can still empathize with you there. Literally.”
Tigerbright looked at the mare, cocked hir head, and frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that I have some empathic talent too.”
The chakat looked at the mare quizzically. “I’ve never heard of that being a pony trait.”
“It isn’t, normally. I owe mine to my great grandfather.”
“He wasn’t a pony?”
“Nope. Changeling actually. Due to a flaw in the first version of the compatibility spell that enabled him to have children, his foals all had a unique talent. Mine comes from his second daughter, my grandmother.”
Tigerbright looked thoughtful. “Hmm… well, that explains why I’ve been feeling extra chipper. I think I’ve been unconsciously interacting with you empathically since we met.”
“I guess so. I’m not used to dealing with empaths, so I’m not familiar with the sensation.”
“Not even with changelings?”
“It’s different for them. They consume emotions while it manifests another way in ponies.”
The chakat stuck hir tongue out briefly. “Different is right. Meeting a changeling for the first time was uncomfortable for me because they are an empathic void. I can see a living, thinking being right in front of me, but to my empathic sense, there’s no one there.”
“I can see how that would seem weird. Having been around them all my life, it’s something you get used to.”
“I suppose so,” the chakat conceded as shi turned away from the view and resumed the trek.
After a while, Violet said, “If being with me has perked you up that much, does that mean you’re due to get a visit from Morningmist soon?”
“Yep. Tomorrow, in fact.”
“Do you mind if I ask a personal question?”
Tigerbright looked back over hir shoulder with a smirk on hir face. “Bet you I’ve heard it before. Go ahead – I’m pretty easy.”
“What’s it like being a hermaphrodite?”
“What’s it like being only female?” shi shot back.
“Huh? I don’t understand.”
“You Equestrians have this weird image of us being some sort of chimera of a male and a female mashed together somehow. While it’s true that we have both sets of genitalia, we don’t think of ourselves as a mare with a penis or a stallion with a uterus. We are whole beings. Just as you probably can’t imagine what it would be like to possess a stallion’s equipment and temperament, I can’t understand what it would be like to be only male or only female.”
“Oh. You have a point.”
“However, if you want to talk about our sexuality, that’s a different subject. I’m not greatly familiar with your species yet, but I believe that you have a fairly broad range. I mean, you don’t just have heterosexual couples but also mares with mares and stallions with stallions?”
“That’s right, although the latter is rare.”
“Due to the relative scarcity of stallions, I understand. But that spectrum does exist, and the same is true for chakats. I will say in advance that there’s no such thing as a chakat that doesn’t like both sides of hir sexuality. However, having established that, there’s still a huge range of attitudes towards sex. Some prefer female sex most of the time and others love doing the mounting. I’ve also met one who dresses in the girliest clothes but is definitely male-inclined when it comes to sex. Anyway, on a scale of zero to ten where zero is totally masculine and ten is totally feminine, chakats occupy the entire range from one to nine. Most are five or six though.”
“What are you?” Violet asked with a grin.
The chakat returned the smile. “Other than when my cycle swings to my heat, I’d say I’m a two. How about you?”
“I guess I’m an eight. Most mares are interested at least a bit in other mares. It helps whenever we go into season.”
“I hear that’s a lot more intense than when we go into heat.”
“Yeah. It doesn’t matter even if you’re a dedicated fillyfooler normally – hormones make you crave a stallion badly.”
“That’s why your stallions go elsewhere at those times?”
“Correct. Self-control is almost non-existent.”
Tigerbright chuckled. “And you thought I had problems!”
Violet grinned. “At least it’s only about one week a year for me.”
“But I get to have sex,” the chakat countered with a smirk.
They both laughed and continued on their way.
The Chat (Part 2)
The chakat and the unicorn trekked in companionable silence for a while, only pausing occasionally to deal with an offending branch or rock. Then Tigerbright stopped and indicated a small shrub with red-rimmed leaves.
“See this plant? Don’t let its sap get onto you – it gives you a painful rash that lasts for days without treatment. It’s also murder to get out of your fur.”
“Is that a particularly rare species?” Violet asked.
“Heck, no! It’s almost a weed.”
“Then you won’t mind if I do this.” With a burst of her magic, the mare ripped the entire bush out of the ground and deposited it well away from the path.
Tigerbright chuckled. “Now that’s what I call non-contact pest control. Feel free to rip out any others that you see too close to our route.”
“Sure – not a problem,” the mare replied as they resumed their walk. “Please point out anything else that needs to be similarly dealt with.”
“Must be handy having magic to make problems disappear. That ley line trick was pretty impressive.”
“Thanks, but any graduate of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns could have done that.”
“Oh? So you’re saying that the average unicorn doesn’t know how to cast that spell?”
Violet grimaced. “The average unicorn can levitate objects, use their horn light as a flashlight, and that’s about it. The only complex magic they can perform is directly related to their special talent.”
“Well, that explains why I’ve never seen a pony fly without wings before. What other kinds of stuff did you learn?”
“Illusions, transformations, teleportation—”
“You can teleport? I hear that your alicorns once teleported all the way from your world to Chakona.”
Violet chuckled. “I’m no alicorn. I’m pretty much limited to line-of-sight. Useful for getting out of trouble, but that’s about it.”
“I see. What else?”
“Divining.” At the chakat’s raised eyebrow, the mare clarified. “Using changes in the mana field to determine the presence of various substances. While it’s frequently employed to find water, it’s also very useful for my geology work. It was one of my best subjects, although that shouldn’t be too surprising considering that it’s an aspect of my special talent. Anyway, I also know various useful incantations, but I was pretty poor at potions. Can’t be great at everything, I suppose. Unless your name is Twilight Sparkle, of course.”
“With that kind of education, why did you pick geology? It seems to me that you could have gotten into some more high-end jobs.”
“Because I love it. I’ve known since I was twelve that it was what I was going to do when I grew up.”
“I’ve heard about how you ponies get your cutie marks when you discover what you’re best at, but isn’t that limiting? You spend the rest of your life focused on that one thing.”
Violet chuckled. “Not necessarily. How you express that talent can vary a lot. But for me, it was discovered while doing something that I love. I was on a camping trip with the fillyscouts when I detected a vein of diamonds. That’s how I got my geode cutie mark. Now I get to hike and camp frequently while doing my job.”
“Do you always work alone when on one of those field trips?”
“Most of the time. If a site requires a thorough follow-up, I might go with a team, but my primary job is ground surveying.”
“Don’t you ever get lonely? We chakats are very social beings and don’t like being by ourselves for long. And that’s not even counting the empathic interaction we require.”
“Oh, ponies love socializing and we’re incurable huggers. I do miss that occasionally, but I’d rather be out in the field by myself than stuck in an office with people who don’t share my interests.”
Tigerbright gave her a quizzical look. “And you couldn’t do that back on Equus?”
“The trouble with Equus is that it’s a well-explored and populated world. The few areas that are not already checked out or claimed have several geologists vying for the job. Here, though, the colony is always looking for more experts. The colonial authority bent over backward to get me to sign up. Frankly, not too many ponies have a pioneering mentality.”
“New Horizon is hardly a backwater village with huts made of sticks,” the chakat said dryly.
Violet giggled. “It might as well be to their minds. That’s why the majority of ponies here are aligned with House Path. They tend to have the most forward thinkers. It’s also why there’s a higher than average proportion of griffons in the population. They’re a lot bolder about this kind of thing.”
“I guess. Still, it’s a heck of a transition from a comfortable place in your homeworld to this colony. Is your career really that important to you?”
The mare snorted derisively. “Combined with the opportunity to explore a new country, it could easily have been. No, the deciding factors were my parents.”
Sensing the unicorn’s irritation, Tigerbright said diffidently, “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“Nah. It’s not as if it’s a big secret. My parents kept nagging me to find myself a stallion, get mated, and give them grandfoals. Mom was especially bad. It’s not as if I was completely disinterested in getting hitched, but I’d never found a male that shared my interests. Oh, I had a couple of friends but they were not suitable mates. That didn’t stop my mother though. She must have lined up every eligible male in town, even those with a large herd of mares already. Call me selfish, but I wanted a stallion who had time to devote just to me. They even arranged a blind date with a griffon once.”
Tigerbright’s eyebrows rose. “I thought you said they wanted grandfoals?”
“You might not have any here yet, but hippogriffs are the progeny of ponies and griffons, courtesy of a compatibility spell. Well, at least the ones that don’t hail from Mount Aris. Anyway, Garth was equally surprised when he found out I was a pony. Turns out it was a blind date for him, too.”
“So, I guess you didn’t go out on that date?”
Violet grinned widely. “Oh, we did. Garth is one of those male friends I mentioned. Dad and Mom were paying for a ‘romantic’ meal at a high-class restaurant, and we made sure to order all the most expensive stuff. I hoped it would teach my parents a lesson in meddling, although that turned out to be wishful thinking. Nevertheless, we had an awesome dinner on their bits. Garth suggested that we pretend to have some interest in each other to get some more high-class free food, but I knew that would only encourage them even more.”
The chakat snickered. “I’ve known a few chakats like that. The biggest difference between us is that we tend to prefer large clans, or herds as you call them.”
“I could possibly agree to adding a mare to the herd after I’ve been married for a while, but that’s something to consider in the future. Anyway, the final straw was when my parents convinced one of my grandmothers that I was despairing of finding a stallion and could she unearth somepony for me? Well, she did. The poor colt was fed some horsefeathers about how I was so desperate for a husband that I was ready to mate with any eligible stallion who turned up on my doorstep. He thought he would be taking on a charity case and treated me with exactly zero respect. I blew up at Grandma, Mom and Dad and left town in the morning. I already had been considering my options and that incident pushed me past the tipping point. I went to see the Chakonan Colonial Authority the next day, sat through a presentation of what to expect, and submitted my application immediately afterward. It took less than a week to be approved. Like I said before, the colony has an urgent need for expert professionals.”
“So it’s only been a few days since you decided to come here?”
“Well, I had to wind up things with my employer first, plus a few other personal details, but yeah, I pretty much came here as soon as I could.”
“Not so far, although this is only my third day here.” Violet grinned at the chakat. “And I’ve made my first local friend. Things are looking good.”
Tigerbright returned the smile. “So, I can persuade you to come with me on an overnight hike sometime soon?”
“Twist my fetlock, why don’t you?” the mare replied with a giggle.
The conversation switched back to the sights along the trail which slowly grew more distinct. Violet paused briefly to get a closer look at a rock formation before they continued. Eventually, they came to a T-intersection and Tigerbright halted there.
“Are you in any hurry to get back to your apartment?” the chakat asked.
“Not at all.”
“Then let’s go this way.” Tigerbright turned to the left. “The right path leads to town, of course, but I have something else I want to show you.”
They continued onward and Violet heard waves breaking and the scent of saltwater was heavier in the air. The pair abruptly emerged from the trees onto an outcrop of rock that jutted into the bay, terminating the beach that fronted the colony.
The tiger chakat took off hir backpack and said, “Put your saddlebag here. It’ll get wet otherwise.”
Curious to find out what Tigerbright was up to, Violet did as she was asked. Then she followed hir to the end of the rocky promontory. The chakat put a hand on the mare’s withers and gestured at the scenery. The mare was a little surprised but not discomfited, and she was soon engrossed in the view her friend was showing her. A yacht was sailing across the crystal clear water which sparkled in the sunlight, and the hills on the other side of the bay were verdant and lush. It was a picture-postcard moment and they both admired it in silence for a minute.
Eventually, Violet asked, “It’s beautiful, but why did you think our stuff would get wet? The waves are hardly making more than a ripple at the moment.”
Tigerbright grinned. “Because we’re going down there now.” Shi pointed to the lee of the outcrop where the unicorn could see several rock pools. It was low tide and the pools were isolated from the sea for the moment, and in them, Violet could see fish swimming. As they emerged from the shadow of an overhang, their bodies shimmered like living rainbows.
“Ooh! What are those?”
“Spectrum fish. Follow me.”
Tigerbright bounded down to the pools. Wary of her hooves skidding on the slippery rocks, Violet opted to levitate down. By then, the chakat was hip-deep in one of the pools where the spectrum fish darted between hir legs. “Come on in,” shi said.
Considering how deep her feline friend was, the unicorn was unsurprised to find herself up to her neck in the cool water.
“Refreshing, isn’t it?” Tigerbright asked with a grin.
“Yep. I notice that the fish aren’t afraid of us.”
“Like most brightly colored animals, they are poisonous to eat, so they don’t have many natural predators. Spectrum fish are curious and playful because they can afford to be.”
Violet held up a hoof and one of the fish gave her frog a nibble, tickling her. “Oh, I’ve got to take a picture of this!” She looked up where she could see her saddlebags and a magic glow lifted one of the flaps. Her comm floated down and then paused nearby. The mare put a foreleg over Tigerbright’s barrel and said, “Smile!”
The comm made a shutter sound twice before floating back to its place in the saddlebag.
“You forgot to take any pictures when you were up on Tower Peak,” the chakat pointed out.
“I know. I have a bad habit of forgetting to take some pics when I’m engrossed in a view. And then there was the unexpected company too.”
“At least, you have a good excuse to go back again.”
Violet chuckled. “Yeah, as if I needed one.”
They climbed out of the rock pool and shook off the excess water before retrieving their packs. The duo then retraced their steps until they reached the trail junction, this time heading toward the township. They emerged at the end of a street that accessed the beach. Rather than walking down the road, Tigerbright led the mare to a trail that paralleled the beach and moved up the pace to a trot. Violet easily kept pace, wondering where her friend was headed. Eventually, they reached a path which the mare recognized as leading to her apartment complex.
“Wait up a moment!”
The chakat stopped and looked back. “What’s up?”
“My place is thataway.” The unicorn pointed with her hoof.”
“Ah. I was thinking that you could stop by my home first for drinks and snacks if you’d like?”
“Oh. That’d be nice if isn’t too much trouble? I’m a bit damp and salty.”
“You can use my outdoor shower. I use it all the time when I go to the beach. Saves tracking sand and seawater into the house.”
“Very practical,” Violet conceded. “Let’s go.”
Five minutes later, they reached a row of large houses with frontage onto the beach. They all looked expensive and the mare figured that they belonged to all the important people in the colony. Therefore, it was no surprise when Tigerbright turned into the yard of one. There was outdoor furniture underneath the shade of sailcloth and a little hut to one side. The chakat led the mare to the latter and told her to go ahead and use the shower first. After a quick rinse, she was then showed a device that blasted her with jets of air to dry her coat while Tigerbright showered. When both were done, they walked up to the door of the house. The chakat held the back of hir wrist up to a disc by the side and the door slid open. Violet’s eyes widened as she followed the chakat inside.
“Sweet Celestia! You have this huge place all to yourself?”
“Yep. When they built the official residence for the future Chief Administrator, I hadn’t been appointed yet and they had to allow for the possibility of a large family moving in. Instead, it was just unmated me. Plenty of spare bedrooms for visiting VIPs though.”
“You certainly have plenty of privacy. Yet still handy to the beach and other people. Pretty sweet deal.”
“I’m not complaining,” Tigerbright replied with a chuckle. “Anyway, I promised you refreshments. What would you like to drink? I make a pretty mean margarita.”
“I have no idea what that is, but I’m game.”
“Okay. Let me grab the snacks and then I’ll start on the drinks.” The chakat took an assortment of cakes out of the cupboard in the kitchen and passed them to Violet who took them in her magic field. “Take these to the table outside. Help yourself to as many as you like – I can easily get more. I’ll join you soon.”
The unicorn found that chairs made for the comfort of chakats were pretty good for ponies too. She selected an oat muffin and was halfway through it when Tigerbright emerged with a large glass carried in each hand. Each had a narrow stem that flared out into a wide rim. The scents of citrus and alcohol wafted through the air accompanied by enough salt to drown out what came off the ocean. Violet pricked her ears forward, showing her interest. Sure enough, a crust of coarse salt crystals decorated the rim. Tigerbright set one glass beside Violet and then settled down in a chair before taking a sip of hir drink.
“Ah! The perfect way to end a wonderful day,” the chakat said with a contented look on hir face. “Thank you for joining me today. It made it so much more enjoyable.”
“I ought to be thanking you,” Violet replied after taking a careful swig of her drink. Along with its taste, the salt added an unexpected tactile dimension to the beverage. “I never expected to learn so much in one day. It’s been both fun and educational. I wouldn’t mind doing it again soon.”
“Me too. Tomorrow is out unfortunately. I have that appointment with Morningmist.”
“An empathic interaction like you mentioned earlier?”
“Exactly. I have to admit that I need it way less than she will. You may not be a strong empath, Violet, but you’re very much adequate for my needs. I can’t leave Misty in the lurch though.”
“We can have a barbecue on the beach in the afternoon, if you like. Maybe organize a game of volleyball if we’re lucky.”
“As long as you don’t start drumming up stallions for me, I’m all for it.”
“Aww! You’ve gone and ruined my surprise!” the chakat whined.
Violet gave hir a flat look before they both burst out into laughter.
They sipped their drinks and munched on the cakes, watching foals and their parents playing on the sand and in the sea. A gentle breeze kept the temperature just right and the mare sighed in contentment. If this was a foretaste of what her life in this colony would be like, she only wished that she had made the move sooner.
Violet spent much of the morning the next day reading on the balcony of her apartment after a luxurious sleep-in. Plenty of exercise before bedtime always resulted in a night of good solid slumber and she was ready to have a full afternoon with her new friend. They had arranged to meet at hir place at noon, by which time shi would have fulfilled hir obligation to Morningmist, freshen up, and prepare for the day’s activities.
Shortly before the appointed hour, the unicorn departed, carrying only a small pouch slung over her neck with her comm and key. Violet first visited a shop before heading for Tigerbright’s home. She approached it via the beachside entrance as she had been instructed, but before she could make herself known, the chakat’s voice came clearly from inside.
“Come in! The door’s open.”
Violet entered, grinning at the apron-clad chakat who was preparing food on the kitchen bench. “Sensed me coming with your empathic talent?”
“Yep. Got the burger buns, eggs, and lettuce?”
The unicorn held up a bag she had been carrying. “Sure did.”
“Awesome. I’ve got the onions chopped, tomatoes sliced, and burger patties prepared. Vege for you, meat for me.” The chakat put the onions into a plastic container which shi stacked on top of others. “Could you put these in the esky along with the stuff you brought while I wash my hands?”
Violet blinked in confusion. “What’s an esky?”
Tigerbright chuckled. “Sorry – Aussie slang for a portable cooler. My parents emigrated from Australia and I’ve inherited a lot of the lingo from them. Anyway, put them in the blue esky – the red one has drinks in it.”
“Okay. I suppose you’re not very familiar with Equestrian slang?” she asked as she put raised the cooler’s lid and placed the containers in it.
“Not much anymore,” Tigerbright replied as shi cleaned hir hands. “I’ve been doing this job for a while now and have heard most of the idioms. I suppose there could be some I haven’t heard before though.”
“Probably. Anyway, I’m curious as to why you wanted eggs.”
“I guess you’ve never had a burger with a fried egg on it before?” When the mare shook her head, the chakat continued, “Again, Aussie style. You may have noticed the pickles, bell peppers, and sweet corn already in the esky – I’m prepared to accommodate a lot of different tastes.” The chakat dried hir hands and took off the apron, leaving hir nude. “Anyway, I believe we’re all ready now. Leave your pouch on the bench, grab one of the eskies, and let’s go.”
“You’re going unclothed?” Violet asked curiously even as she levitated the blue cooler.
“Yep. No point in wearing clothes on the beach. It’s not as if you ponies aren’t nude all the time.” Shi picked up the red esky and headed outside.
Violet followed, saying, “I noticed that the morphs I’ve seen on the beach were wearing bathing costumes though. I thought you all did?”
Tigerbright closed and locked the door. “That’s purely up to the individuals. Most feel more comfortable wearing something, and a lot of females like support for their boobs.”
“Boobs?” queried Violet.
“Breasts,” the chakat explained, hefting one of hirs with hir free hand.
“Oh. So why don’t you? Not that it matters to me.”
The chakat paused to pick up a large beach umbrella that shi had waiting outside. “I normally wear clothes only for protection like when I’m hiking, or my formal office gear. I prefer being nude most of the time. And FYI, while many planets have a nudity taboo, Chakona expressly forbids the making of any laws requiring the wearing of clothing outside of necessary protective gear, formal premises, or uniform. You can thank that law for not compelling you ponies to wear pants!”
The mare grimaced at that uncomfortable idea as they crossed the beachside path and onto the sand. “I’ve read about how our world came into contact with the Federation, and nowhere was there mentioned anything about requiring clothing. None of the photographs taken at that time showed ponies or griffons in anything more formal than a uniform jacket or such.”
“Oh, you can bet that there were plenty of people of several races who were offended by your ‘immorality’, as they would have expressed it. However, Equestria was the great shining hope for defeating the Swarm at the time, and no one, or at least extremely few, were stupid enough to jeopardize the new relationship between our worlds over that matter. By now though, it’s accepted that Equestrian species only wear clothes when they consider it appropriate. Just like me right now.”
Tigerbright had taken them towards a low structure partially under the shade of the trees. Stopping short of it, shi planted the umbrella’s pole firmly in the sand and opened it up. Shi placed hir esky in its shade and then inclined hir head toward the structure. “Bring your esky with us.”
As they trotted closer, Violet got a decent view of the picnic area. Four wooden picnic tables with benches sat nearby, three of them occupied. Between the seating and cooking areas rose a painted steel column that expanded into ribbed wings covered with thatched thin branches that provided rudimentary shade and protection from the weather. It looked somewhat like a strange umbrella tree.
As Violet could already tell from the smoke and smell, the structure covered several simple but sturdy wood-fired barbecues built out of natural stone. There were four of them, triangular in design with one of the points meeting those of the others so that it minimized the size while maximizing the area in front of each for the users. Several ponies, griffons, changelings, and the raccoon morph that the unicorn remembered seeing at the spaceport were already there and cooking their meals.
“Hi, Tiges!” a stallion called out, quickly followed by greetings from the others.
“G’day, everyone!” Tigerbright replied. “I’d like you to meet my friend, Violet Woods. We met while hiking yesterday. She arrived on Chakona just a few days ago.”
“So, you finally found someone to trudge through the forest with you?” the raccoon asked with a grin.
“Told you that I’d find one someday, Paul,” the chakat replied, sticking out hir tongue at him.
The morph smirked. “Yeah, and how long have you been saying that now? Two years or three?”
“Be grateful – I was this close to dragging you up there with me,” Tigerbright replied, booping him on the nose with hir finger.
The others laughed as the chakat turned back to the unicorn. “Violet – this pack of reprobates are my friends and colleagues who live in the area. We regularly meet up on the beach for a barbecue if the weather is fine.”
Violet looked up into the near-cloudless sky. “It’s been nice since I’ve been here, so I thought the weather ponies had been keeping it under control.”
A pegasus mare laughed. “Hon, there are way too few of us to control the weather here. Those of us in the Emu Island Bureau of Meteorology are more concerned with forecasts and mitigating extreme events.”
“Oh, I see. I should have realized that.”
The pegasus shook her head. “Don’t let it worry you. I’m Silver Nimbus, by the way. My hubby here is Sturdy Frame.” She indicated the earth pony stallion who had first greeted them. “And Zipper here is our herdmate.” She used a wing to hug a chrome changeling.
The others quickly introduced themselves. The griffon cock and hen were a mated couple too. They were named Gavin and Grace, indicating that they originated from Griffonstone with their love of names starting with the letter G rather than from Griffonia where they had more descriptive names like ponies. The raccoon introduced his fiancée, Maria, a female morph that looked similar to his species but Violet learned was a ringtail. The final two adults were a yellow pegasus mare and changeling couple, this time the latter hailing from the Green Hive. Unlike the others, Sunny Skies and Artax had no children, but the rest of the adults proudly indicated their offspring playing on the sand or in the water while their parents watched.
One thing that immediately struck Violet was that all Tigerbright’s friends were either mated or on their way to be. The chakat was the only one who was single. The mare chuckled to herself. ‘Looks like I’m hir designated date today,’ she thought. ‘Ah well, I only told hir not to line me up with any stallions.’
“I’ve finished cooking if you want to use this barbecue,” Gavin said.
“Thanks, Gav. Bring the esky around here, Violet.”
The mare brought the cooler to the adjacent bench and started unloading the ingredients while Tigerbright stoked the fire with some more wood. Shi then began putting the food on the grill to cook. Meanwhile, Violet looked for somewhere to put the buns other than the bare bench.
“Tigerbright – have you got any plates?”
“Whoops! Plates and utensils are in a bag in the other esky. I wanted to leave room for the food in this one.”
The unicorn trotted over to where the red esky had been left, opened it, and took out the bag, noting the assortment of drinks surrounded by ice. After replacing the lid, she took the bag back and extracted two reusable plastic plates. Violet used a knife to split four buns and butter them. She put on some slices of tomato, then tore off several leaves from the lettuce, adding them to the buns. She then considered the condiments.
“You want salt and pepper?” she asked.
“Yes, and barbecue sauce, please.”
Violet added them to two of the buns but selected ketchup and mustard for her two. Before long the patties were done and were placed on the buns, then a generous helping of fried onions before being topped off with fried eggs.
Tigerbright grinned when she saw the final result – four huge burgers packed with ingredients. “Are you sure you can eat two of those? Remember there are still sweet corn and bell peppers too.”
“I had a light breakfast anticipating this meal,” Violet replied.
“As long as you don’t get too bloated for the fun later,” the chakat replied as shi served up the foodstuffs.
The two settled down in the shade of their umbrella as the others coped with their children. Tigerbright fished out a couple of bottles of lemon drink to wash down the food.
“I have some alcoholic drinks too, but I was going to save them for later, unless you would like one now?”
Violet shook her head. “I don’t drink much alcohol, but when I do, it’s normally in the late afternoon at the earliest. I prefer this right now.”
They both had good appetites and finished their food quickly. The mare had to admit that she had eaten a little more than she should have, but it was so good! Silver, Sturdy, and Nimbus came over to chat with them while they all let their food settle for a while. However, it wasn’t long before the children dragged everyone away to have a game of beach volleyball. Violet had never played the game before and had to be warned that she could not grab the ball with her magic, only hit it. She wasn’t very good at the game, but she had a lot of fun nevertheless. Then, it was time for a dip in the ocean to cool off.
That turned into another kind of exercise when someone brought out several gaily colored beach balls. A game of tag soon ensued. Violet was so focused on beaning Tigerbright with a ball that she failed to notice a rogue wave come up behind her. It struck her at the most awkward moment, flinging her to the seafloor. As soon as she could get her hooves under her, she rose to the surface, coughing and spluttering.
The chakat was laughing at her friend’s misfortune and the mare glared at hir. Then her frown turned sly. Her horn lit up and Tigerbright let out a squawk as hir feet were pulled out from under hir and shi plunged beneath the surface. Shi rose again a moment later, still chuckling.
“I deserved that. I think we’ve both had enough for one day. Want to relax on the beach and have a couple of drinks now?”
Violet nodded. “Yeah. I’m a bit tired anyway.”
They headed back to the shade of their umbrella where the chakat pulled out four bottles. “I have several flavors of vodka coolers. There’s raspberry, watermelon, guava, and pineapple.”
“They sound more like fruit drinks than alcohol. Surprise me.”
Tigerbright passed the raspberry one to the mare. “Maybe, but they have a bit of a kick to them. I wouldn’t advise you having too many too quickly.” Shi then opened the guava one and chugged half of the contents in one go.
Violet raised an eyebrow. “What about you?” she asked before taking a more cautious sip.
“Chakats are extremely resistant to toxins, and that includes ethanol. I’d have to drink buckets of these to get drunk.”
“That’s awfully convenient. I’ve never heard of any species that could imbibe that much alcohol without harm.”
“It’s not a coincidence. Like all morph species, chakats were genetically engineered. Unlike most others, we were designed to be survivors. We could go places where no other could do so safely. Eat and drink stuff that would kill just about anyone. We could flourish under conditions that would crush most. Even our dual sexual nature was intended to help as every chakat can be a mother and a sire.”
“Overkill much?” Violet asked.
Tigerbright laughed. “I suppose so nowadays. Back when we were first created though, the world was a very different place. Almost every country was still recovering from a global war. I’m grateful to be a species with so many advantages though. And it’s not like I can do magic like you can. That’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah, I do like being able to utilize spells when I’m in a jam.” She took another swig of her beverage. “Mmm! I can tell why you warned me about these drinks.”
“Going to stick to just one then?” The chakat reached for a second bottle for hirself.
“Heck, no! I’m not a one-drink wonder.”
Violet did stop at two though while Tigerbright polished off a couple more. Then they lazed and chatted with the chakat’s other friends for a while. In what seemed no time whatsoever, the sun was setting and all the families needed to head home. The pair collected the remains of their food, packed up everything into the two eskies, then headed back to Tigerbright’s place. After a brief stop at the outdoor shower, they went inside and unpacked, putting the dirty plates and utensils in the dishwasher. With that out of the way, the chakat regarded hir friend.
“Got any plans? I could order pizza if you like?”
The unicorn looked thoughtful. “I dunno. My social calendar is very full.” Then she snorted with laughter. “Nah. Sounds good to me.”
“Great. What’s your preference?”
“Have they got a three-cheese one with olives and onion?”
“I’m pretty sure they could make it if I asked. Make yourself comfortable meanwhile.”
“I’m still a bit damp,” Violet pointed out.
Tigerbright held a hand to hir mouth and replied in a faux conspiratorial whisper, “Don’t tell anyone, but I sit on the government-issued furniture with damp fur too!”
The mare chuckled and chose a lounge chair while the chakat placed an online order. Shi then filled a kettle. “I’m going to make tea. Want some? Or coffee?”
“Don’t go to any special effort for me. Tea will be fine.”
“Okay, but I really don’t mind. Do you know how infrequently I have friends over?”
“What about the people we were with today?”
“Notice that most have children? Evening visits are difficult to arrange. With the way those kids were giving their all this afternoon, they’re going to crash and burn after dinner.”
“I guess you’re right. What about visiting officials? You mentioned the other day how you had plenty of rooms to put them up for the night.”
Tigerbright snorted. “I get maybe two visits all year, and sometimes they don’t even stay overnight. I love my job, but I often feel very isolated.”
Violet could sense the chakat’s mood swing and decided to cut it off before it got too depressing. “I have to admit that I did not expect to meet someone with whom I’m so comfortable so soon after arriving, but I’m certainly glad we ran into each other. I wouldn’t mind spending a few evenings with you. Probably all here though. My apartment is tiny.”
The chakat smiled and giggled. “I know! Places made for ponies are a bit cramped for chakats. At least I can blame the Equian authorities for that. They were initially built as barracks, not a hotel.”
After the kettle boiled, Tigerbright made two mugs of tea and brought them over to the coffee table before making hirself comfortable on the sofa. “So – what are your plans for tomorrow?”
Violet took a sip of her tea before replying. “I’m going back up to Tower Peak and taking my instruments with me to make some measurements.”
“Looking for something in particular?”
“Yes and no. My long-term goal is to uncover this island’s secrets but, to do that, I reckon I will need lots of data. Maybe I’ll find something significant up there, or maybe not. Won’t know until I check it out. Besides, I was hired to perform mineralogical surveys across the island. No reason not to start there, even if I officially check in with my supervisor next week. Actually, they’ve probably checked out that area already but I want my own data. You said you make the trek up there regularly – want to join me?”
“Sure! It’s a three-day weekend for those of us in the civil service. We can work on improving the trail some more along the way.”
“Great! When do you want to set out?”
The two discussed their plans until their pizzas arrived. Then they made small talk until Violet let out a jaw-cracking yawn.
“Sorry – I think I’m a bit worn out too. It’s been quite a day. I’d better head off now.” The mare slid off her chair and went over to where she had left her pouch.
“Okay. I think I’ll make tracks for bed too. Thanks for visiting, Violet.” Tigerbright led the unicorn to the front door to let her out.
“Believe me, it was my pleasure.” She then embraced the startled chakat. “Incurable huggers, remember?”
Tigerbright’s smile widened. “Looks like I owe you one next time.”
Violet waved as she stepped out the front gate. The chakat waved back before the mare set off at a trot for her apartment, both hugely satisfied with a day well spent.
Violet set off at an easy trot, headed into town. She felt refreshed from a good sleep after the previous day’s hike. She and Tigerbright had retraced their steps up to Tower Peak along the trail that the chakat had been working on establishing. They had paused at the top for a picnic lunch during which they got to watch a shuttlecraft landing at the spaceport from an unusual vantage point. After they had packed up, they elected to take another way back down to the settlement.
The unicorn soon discovered why the north route was not one of the chakat’s regular hiking trails. A series of ravines that were challenging to traverse lay across the most direct path. Tigerbright had yet to discover an optimal way of bypassing them, so the duo had to work their way around through dense foliage at times. It was difficult but she loved it. A well-maintained trail was great for traveling far in a short time to take you to highlights along the way, but working your way through virgin territory lets you discover hidden wonders and sights previously unseen by anyone before. The effort required was next to nothing for her and the chakat too. Despite her friend’s greater size, hir feline form seemed to weave its way past obstacles smoother and more easily than the pony.
They emerged from the forest at the edge of an area under development. From there, it was an easy trot into town. This route brought them past Violet’s apartment complex, so she invited Tigerbright in for a cup of tea. She divested herself of all the hiking gear before boiling the kettle and bringing out some cookies that she had bought on Fifthday. Hilariously, they discovered how cramped a one-pony apartment was when a chakat was a guest. Tigerbright ended up lying on the floor causing Violet to threaten to adopt her friend as a throw rug. Ultimately, Violet occupied the single chair. Still, the unicorn couldn’t complain about the far-from-luxurious conditions of her free accommodations.
The two discussed what they would do with the remainder of the day. Because Tigerbright had to go into the office the next morning, shi needed to get to bed early. “We chakats need more sleep than you ponies do, although I’m guessing you’re pretty tired too after today’s exercise.”
Violet had agreed. “I’ve also worked up quite an appetite,” she added.
“Tell you what – why don’t you freshen up while I go home and do the same. Come by my place when you’re ready and we’ll go into town to the Silver Saddle.”
“The best restaurant in town. Well, the only real restaurant in the colony so far. Give this place a few more years and there will probably be others. But it’s good for a more upscale meal than anywhere else on this island. Anyway, we can have dinner there – my treat.”
“You don’t have to spend your bits on me, but I appreciate it.”
The chakat snorted. “I get paid a lot for my job, but I don’t have much to spend it on. My home and utilities are all covered by the Chakonan government. I rarely have the need or chance to spend much, so I’ve just been stashing it away for the future. I sure don’t mind using some of it to have a nice dinner with a friend.”
It certainly had been a very nice dinner. Violet didn’t know why a chef of such high caliber was here in this colony town, but she very much appreciated every course from soup to dessert. Afterward, they walked casually back home, parting ways near the mare’s apartment. That time, the chakat initiated the hug before they bade each other goodnight. The fine meal and the day’s exertion had quickly made the unicorn drowsy. After setting an alarm, she had climbed into bed and was quickly asleep.
And now, Violet breathed in the crisp Firstday morning air as she headed for the bakery. Aside from her saddlebags, she was wearing a dark green vest today, only the second time she had worn any clothes since arriving at New Horizon. The blouse that she had worn to dinner the previous night had been the first. She turned the corner onto the main street where the bakery was located. The mare speculated that it was convenient to all the people coming from the residential area into town for work, and indeed, the shop was fairly crowded with customers seeking baked goods and coffee before proceeding to their jobs. To Violet’s surprise, Tigerbright was among them.
“Good morning,” she greeted the chakat.
Tigerbright turned, hir eyebrows rising in surprise. “Good morning to you too. You’re up early, aren’t you?”
“Yep. I’m going into the office to check-in for my new job.”
The chakat noted the blue stylized globe symbol on the pony’s clothing. “Well, that explains the vest, but why today? You arrived on Fourthday, so that means you still have three free days before you have to report in.”
“I came here to start a new career, not a vacation. I reckon these past few days that I have been spending with you were what I needed to be ready and raring to go.”
“Fair enough,” Tigerbright replied before stepping up to place hir order.
Violet was next, ordering a large café latte and a chocolate strudel. After the chakat received hir coffee and bag of baked goods, shi waited for the unicorn and they left together.
“The shop must do great business,” the mare commented as she headed off in the direction of her office.
“Oh, yeah,” Tigerbright replied, falling into step beside her. “It’s always busy at this time every day.”
“Every day? Even weekends?”
“You haven’t been here long enough to know that the working week is flexible on Chakona. Government jobs like mine, for example, go with five days’ work starting on Firstday plus a three-day weekend. You were lucky to meet me on Sixthday, the first of my days off. Other businesses operate differently. Manufacturers very often use a four plus four week. They have two shifts of workers who spend four days on the job then four days off while the other shift takes over. That way, operations can continue without interruption, barring public holidays. Same for shops which carry enough staff to open every day. Self-employed persons can set their own days. It’s a very convenient system.”
“What happens though if someone urgently needs some government service on your weekend?”
Tigerbright grimaced. “That’s the one major drawback of my job. If the situation demands it, then I’m effectively available eight days a week. That’s one reason why I’ve never been allowed to go off by myself for more than a day’s outing.”
Violet nodded thoughtfully. “I see. But if you were with someone else, say with me, then you’d have someone looking out for you in an emergency, so you’d be allowed to camp overnight?”
The mare laughed. “I see your cunning plan now. You’ve been buttering me up so that you can use me as an excuse to go camping!”
Tigerbright chuckled. “I’m so sprung! My subtle plan has been uncovered. Now I have to look for another sucker.”
“Nah. I’ve already been sucked in. We’ll talk about it again when I know exactly what I am assigned to do on which days.”
“I’d love that.”
Violet stopped outside a building with a sign declaring – ‘DEPARTMENT OF GEOLOGY & ENVIRONMENT’. “Well, this is where I have to report in. Wait – don’t you work at the office at the spaceport?”
“Then, why have you been walking with me? Surely you’re not going to jog all the way to the spaceport?”
“Hardly. I’ll catch a PTV from here.”
“Personal Transport Vehicle. I normally hail one at the bakery. I just wanted to chat with you until we got to your office.”
“Oh, I see. Thanks. I guess I’ll be seeing you sometime again soon.”
Tigerbright’s expression turned serious. “You’re welcome to drop by my place anytime, Violet. I mean it.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that.” The unicorn then gave the chakat a quick hug before turning and heading inside.
There was a pegasus stallion sitting behind the reception desk. He immediately noticed the globe symbol on Violet’s vest before giving the mare a polite smile. “Can I help you, ma’am?”
“My name is Violet Woods. I’m here to report in for orientation for my new job.”
The stallion frowned and consulted the screen beside him. After a few moments, comprehension lit his face. “I see. You’re our new geologist. You weren’t due to report in until Fourthday, you know?”
“Yes, I know, but I’m ready to begin now if that’s not a problem?”
“Let me contact the department head.” He picked up the intercom and pushed a button. A moment later he spoke up. “There’s a mare named Violet Woods here reporting in early for her job as our new geologist. What do you want me to do?” He listened for a moment before nodding. “Okay, I’ll let her know.” Putting the intercom down, he turned his attention back to Violet. “Shady Glen will be out in a few minutes. Please take a seat while you wait.”
“Thank you.” The unicorn stepped away from the desk and made herself comfortable on a bench seat on the opposite wall.
Twelve minutes later, a brown-coated earth pony mare with a dark green mane and tail emerged from a nearby hallway. The middle-aged smiled upon seeing the waiting unicorn. She walked over and held up a hoof. “Violet Woods? I’m Shady Glen, Director of Geological Services. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Glad to be here, Director,” Violet replied, clopping her hoof with Shady Glen’s.
“While we weren’t expecting you for three more days, there shouldn’t be a problem getting you started. Of course, we need to get the paperwork out of the way first. Follow me to my office and we’ll get that started.”
Violet was given some forms to sign after the director confirmed the details of the unicorn’s employment and she formally accepted them. Then she was passed onto a zebra-morph assistant named Maria Causeway who introduced her to all the others in the department who were currently in the office. Then she had to sit through an orientation video. By the time it was finished, Violet’s official badge was ready, plus one other device.
The assistant held up a small dish holding a pill-shaped gadget the size of a grain of rice. “This is an ID implant that has been encoded with your details. With it, you can be automatically allowed access to any place you are authorized to enter. That includes both official and private usage such as to your home or PTV. However, it is completely optional as some ponies don’t like having devices implanted in their leg.”
The unicorn recalled seeing Tigerbright unlocking hir door merely by holding hir wrist to a sensor. “That sounds convenient and it doesn’t bother me.”
“Good. Our medical attendant has been trained in the implantation of these devices and we can get this done right away.”
The attendant was Doctor Hyrex, the violet changeling she had met earlier during the introductions. He gave her a welcoming smile. “I thought I would be seeing you again soon. We can get this done quickly. Sit on that chair and put your preferred foreleg up on the desk.”
Violet did as instructed, placing her left foreleg up. Hyrex levitated over a device into which he inserted the ID implant that the assistant passed to him. “Do you mind if I trim a small patch of your coat? It will make the job faster and easier.”
“Go ahead,” she replied.
He trimmed a postage-stamp-sized area just above the pastern joint which he then swabbed with a strong antiseptic.
“The next step will sting a bit. I could administer a local anesthetic if you prefer, but it isn’t too bad. Some ponies hate the feeling of numbness though.”
Violet chuckled. “I’ve probably done worse to myself on every field trip.”
“Oh dear,” said Maria Causeway. “Our newest employee is a trotting disaster area. An accident or three just waiting to happen. Our poor insurers will have a heart attack.”
If Violet hadn’t recognized the twinkle in the assistant’s eye, her smirk would have given her teasing away. The unicorn mare stuck out her tongue playfully then turned back to Hyrex. “Skip the anesthetic.”
“Very well. Please hold completely still while I perform the actual insertion.” He positioned the device then pushed a button.
Violet felt a sharp sting but managed to refrain from pulling her leg away. Hyrex lifted the device leaving nothing to show besides the trimmed hair.
“Excellent. The insertion has been successfully performed and the incision is completely sealed. You are good to go.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Violet said, careful to project strong gratitude to the changeling.
Hyrex smiled in pleasure at the tasty emotion. “You’re welcome, Ms. Woods.”
“What now?” Violet asked the assistant.
“Director Glen should have your initial assignment ready by now. You’ve been assigned an office for your use whenever you’re not in the field and you can go over it there.”
Violet was a little surprised to be getting her own office already, but when they got there, she understood why. It had a large range of equipment related to her job installed inside. It was clear that they needed her services badly enough to ensure that she had everything that she required to do her job thoroughly. This was going to be way better than the shared facilities back at her previous job. The catch was that she would have to do it all herself, but at least there would not be any delays waiting for her place in the job queue to come up.
However, the unicorn would not be using any of those today. Instead, the Director had left several folders on her desk with much more on computer files. The assistant helped her login for the first time before leaving the mare to her work. Violet spent all day poring over the aerial surveys, remote analyses, local surveying, and much more, pausing only for a lunch break. Her new colleagues pointed her to a sandwich shop that they liked, and Violet returned to her desk with a foot-long fish (tasted like tuna) and salad sub.
By the end of the workday, the mare knew she would have to spend the rest of the week in the office due to the great backlog, not to mention the training courses. She got the impression that there was much relief that she had begun her job early and her new co-workers appreciated that. At least, her empathic impressions had been overwhelmingly positive. It was good to know that she had started on a high note.
Violet bade everyone goodnight and trotted back to her apartment, filled with the satisfaction of a day of interesting work done. She dropped off her saddlebags and removed her vest before considering what she was going to do for dinner. There was always the cafeteria, but her thoughts inevitably turned to Tigerbright. She shrugged. “Well, she did say to visit anytime.”
Violet approached the chakat’s home from the beach side. Before she even got to the door, Tigerbright’s voice came from inside.
“Come on in!”
Smiling at her friend’s eager tone, the mare opened the screen door and stepped inside. She spotted Tigerbright at the kitchen bench, preparing food, protected by an apron that had ‘HUG THE COOK’ written on it.
The chakat looked up from hir work, smiled, and said, “Dinner will be in fifteen minutes.”
“How did you know I would be coming?” Violet asked.
“I didn’t, but I thought you might and hoped you would.”
“You’re going to spoil me.”
“Good. I haven’t had someone to spoil in ages. There’s only one catch.”
Violet raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What’s that?”
“My kitchen rules,” Tigerbright replied, pointing to the words on hir apron.
The mare grinned and gave the chakat the requested hug. “Best rules ever!”
The cafeteria was about a quarter full. Violet waved to a familiar pegasus mare and the griffon, Lightning Lance, before taking her seat. Today, she had chosen a mixed-greens salad with a sweet vinaigrette dressing. The mare recognized the name of the fruit from the combination back-country survival/bivouacking/orienteering course she had just completed the day before. The classroom course had included photos but not samples of honey fruit and the mare looked forward to her first taste. After chewing thoughtfully, a smile spread across her muzzle. It was just as sweet as advertised.
“Is this seat taken, Madam?”
The mare glanced up to see Tigerbright, tray in hand. She smiled up at the chakat, looked over hir selection, and confirmed her hunch with a sniff. “Poached fish with a topping from the local nuts and an herbal sauce. Not mikuriya this time.”
“Nope,” confirmed the chakat as shi lowered herself into the taur-couch across from Violet. “Chef Reisling has me addicted to his chimichurri sauce. He serves fish every Fifthday and adjusts it for that week’s catch. Today is Golden Moonfish. Want to try a piece?”
“I’d love some!”
Tigerbright lifted an eyebrow. “I thought ponies seldom ate meat and enjoyed it even less often than that.”
Violet shrugged. “Blame it on my mixed heritage. I have a wide palate of what I find both delicious and delightful.”
“Hmmm… Who am I to argue with a pretty mare?” Tigerbright cut off a piece of the fish with hir plasti-steel fork then held it up.
Violet gave the chakat a glare. “What? Am I worth that little to you? Some of that addictive sauce, if you please.”
“Drat. Now I have to share the good stuff.” The bite of fish gained a coating of the green chimichurri before returning to the same spot halfway between the pair.
Violet leaned forward and opened her mouth invitingly. Tigerbright’s ears perked up before shi gently placed the offering into the mare’s mouth. The mare chewed while looking to the side and humming to herself.
After twenty seconds or so of this, the chakat huffed. “So? What do you think?”
Violet swallowed and licked her lips. She looked into Tigerbright’s eyes. “Even better than advertised. I think I’ll have to cut off my field trip a day early so I can clean out Chef Reisling’s stock before anyone else has a chance to get any.” The mare stopped the chakat’s protest with a wave of her hoof. “It’s all your fault for exposing me to such a wonderful delicacy.”
Tigerbright narrowed hir eyes but couldn’t keep the grin off hir lips. Silently, shi selected a much larger piece, slathered it with sauce, and held the laden fork in front of hir. “Tell you what. If you take pity on poor little me, I’ll give you a proper serving of what you want.”
Now it was Violet’s turn to prick her ears. “Is that a bribe or a promise?”
“Yes,” replied her friend.
The mare pursed her lips as she stared at the offered treat. Her pink magic field enveloped the fork and levitated it closer.
Tigerbright let out an exaggerated sigh. “Whew! And here I thought you’d play hard to get. Good thing you’re so easy.”
The fork stopped in mid-air and Violet gave the chuckling taur a mock glare. She waggled the fork back and forth disapprovingly.
The fork accelerated away to the side, leaving a whoosh of air and two broken pieces of fish in its wake. The utensil embedded itself in the wall at the far side of the room with a thud. A loud crack rang out nearby followed immediately by an extended series of crashing sounds near the kitchen.
Violet craned her head to see an earth pony stallion behind Tigerbright. The mare remembered Stone Edifice from an earlier conversation. He had come to Chakona to provide his skills as a stonemason. Right now, one of his forehooves had shattered the granite tabletop, apparently to his immense surprise.
Tigerbright and Violet shared a look and by mutual consent ran over to the source of the cry. Lightning Lance shakily tried to extract himself from the remains of the tray return station. If the spread of bowls, trays, and utensils were any indication, the griffon cock had hit the now bent remains of the station at high speed.
Tigerbright’s comm emitted a shrill tone and shi held it up. Violet noticed a blinking red light on the back as her friend read the message on the screen. The chakat’s facial expression didn’t need any clarification.
“You go,” said Violet. “I’ll learn what I can about what happened and get people over to the medical office.”
“Thanks,” replied Tigerbright before leaving in a run.
Violet had just gotten her scan results when she heard a computer-generated voice echo from a hidden speaker overhead.
“Citizen Violet Woods. Please report to the Chief Administrator’s local office. Citizen Violet Woods. Please report to the Chief Administrator’s local office.”
The mare turned to the familiar medical resident on staff. “Do you still need me, Doctor Hyrex?”
The violet changeling waved a hoof. “Just Hyrex is fine. You and Stone Edifice are free to go.” She turned back to the griffon on her table. “I’m going to keep you here for another hour of observation, Mister Lance. Just to be on the safe side.”
If the griffon gave a response, Violet didn’t hear it. She was already trotting to the small branch office the Chakonan government maintained in town for the citizen’s convenience.
In short order, the mare knocked on the door frame while grinning at the chakat behind hir desk. “Citizen Violet Woods reporting as requested, Chief Administrator.”
Tigerbright’s ears drooped a bit. “Ahhhh. Sorry about that. My comm has been going crazy and I have to keep the line open because of the emergency.”
Violet’s smirk disappeared and she sat down in the only other taur-suitable chair in the small office. “What emergency?”
“Nope. You first. How are you and the others?”
“Stone Edifice and I got a clean bill of health. Some bumps and bruises on Lightning Lance but he’ll be fine. The doc and I have no clue why it happened but we know wha happened. Equestrians in the cafeteria using their mana had their magic surge… probably by a factor of fifty.”
The chakat’s eyes widened. “Wow! Is that common?”
“For unicorns? Rarely. It can happen as foals or when somepony gets their cutie mark but that didn’t happen here. I’ve never heard of magic surges for griffons, pegasi or earth ponies, though. Stone Edifice was using a tiny bit of his strength to flatten something called a ‘vegetable Dagwood sandwich’ so he could fit it in his mouth. Lightning Lance was flying at a walking pace to return his tray. You saw what I was doing.”
“And I got reports of a couple of pegasi in flight that overshot their destination by a kilometer. There are probably other incidents that we haven’t heard about yet.” Tigerbright frowned and looked off the side, tapping the fingers of one hand against the desk. After nearly a minute, Violet brought hir back into the conversation. “And the emergency?”
The chakat blinked then looked back at her friend. “Oh… sorry. You know that we keep a primary and secondary mana beacon here at the station, right? They are linked to their counterparts in Equestria to allow for electronic communication and alicorns to travel back and forth.” She let out a long sigh. “They both went offline at the same moment you had the mana surge.”
Violet blinked. “Offline? How exactly?”
“They are now inert. All the mana has been drained from them.”
The mare gaped. “That’s… how is that possible? The magic had to go somewhere.” She shook her head. “No, wait. This is more important. Do you know what happens when a changeling loses all of their magic?”
“I do. We may be very fortunate that no ’ling was actively using their magic right then. Maybe they would have surged and maybe they have been drained. Until we get to the bottom of this mystery, I’m recommending to my superiors that all changelings be evacuated from the settlement. I’m afraid to say I don’t know as much as I should about the beacons. Could their missing magic charge have been transferred to you five and been used up?”
Violet shook her head. “The energy used is the product of the power output level multiplied by the duration of the event – in this case no more than a second. The magic stored in just one of the beacons would have been enough to cause all three of us to surge at that level for days.”
The comm device on the table beeped twice and Tigerbright looked over the scrolling text for several seconds. Shi smiled briefly before returning to a neutral expression.
The mare asked. “Was that word on your request?”
“No, not yet. It seems there is a crisis of some sort happening on Equus right now. They can get messages through to the other mana beacons on Chakona and in the orbiting spaceships but can’t physically bring anyone here for the next few weeks.”
“Is it related to what happened here?”
Tigerbright shook hir head. “No. Something about the Equian sun having a bad case of sunspots which is causing lots of magical interference. Happens every few decades and this one is past due.”
“The timing still seems awfully coincidental to me,” the unicorn said dubiously.
“Perhaps.” The chakat looked directly at Violet and smiled. “While we can’t get an expert in from Equus, fortunately, we already have a graduate of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns on planet who can investigate.”
The mare narrowed her eyes and gave a warning growl. “I’m all set to leave tomorrow on my first expedition.”
That just made Tigerbright smile wider. “I’m afraid you’ll need to delay your trip into the backcountry, Miss Woods. After all, weren’t you reminded during your orientation in the Transit Lounge that this is still a young colony town and everyone needs to contribute fully to its prosperity?”
After a long pause, it became apparent to Violet that her glare was not fazing Tigerbright in the least. The mare folded her arms across her chest. “The desperation of you chakats. Going to these extremes to keep me around? If you wanted another date, you could have just asked.”
Tigerbright laughed until shi cried, pounding hir desk with a fist.
Violet waited until the chakat’s chuckles died down. “So, what specifically did you want me to do?”
“Actually, I’m not the one you should be asking. While I’m the representative of the Chakona World Government here, I’m not the top authority on Emu Island. As this is an independent colony, you need to speak to the governor. I work at a federal level for such matters as Customs, Immigration, and so forth. Governor Slate is in charge at the Equian level.” Shi got up from behind hir desk and moved toward the door. “Fortunately, Marble Slate and I get on well and I can see her pretty much whenever I need. And while it’s after hours, I’m betting she’s in her office right now. Follow me.”
The New Horizon Town Hall was literally across the street from the CWG office. The security griffon at the front door nodded in recognition at the chakat, merely glancing at the mare before returning his attention to the street. The place was quieter than normal but, considering that it was usually closed at this hour, it was a relative hive of activity. Tigerbright ignored everyone and bypassed what was obviously a private secretary’s desk, currently unoccupied.
The chakat rapped on the open door and said, “Hi Marble. I hear you have problems. Can I come in?”
A brick-red earth pony mare with a silvery mane looked up from her desk and gave the chakat a strained smile. “Hello, Tiger. Yes – I’m still getting reports of the strange mana surges that happened at the same time. I’ve already dragged away our best magitechs away from their families to look into our beacon problem, so I don’t know what you can do.” She seemed to notice Violet Woods for the first time. “Who’s this?”
“My name is Violet Woods, Ms. Slate.”
“Normally, it would be a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Woods, but this isn’t exactly the most propitious moment.” The mare looked back to the chakat. “Why is she here with you? Was your dinner date interrupted or something?”
The way that Marble Slate’s eyebrows rose told Violet that this was not the expected response and she had only been facetious when she asked.
Tigerbright continued, “But to answer your unasked question about what I can do, that’s why I brought her. Violet is a graduate of Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.”
The governor’s gaze returned to the unicorn with far greater interest. “Is that so? What do you know about tonight’s occurrences?”
“Next to nothing,” Violet admitted. “However, one of my goals when I got here was to figure out why Emu Island was chosen among better situated sites as Equus’ base of operations at first, and colony second. I’ve already noted the large conflux of ley lines in the area.”
Slate nodded. “The whole island is like that which made it an obvious choice for magic-using races.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed how much easier many tasks are here. But it also seems to be related to the surge that sent all active magic out of control, and burned out our mana beacons too, I’m guessing.”
“That’s what we figure too. What we don’t know is why or how.”
“Well, I planned to investigate while I was out in the field—”
“In the field? What is your job, may I ask?”
“I’m a geologist, ma’am.”
“Hmm… That’s convenient. I have very few people that I can send out into the field. It’s hard to get wilderness-rated personnel to leave Equus, much less one from Celestia’s school. I’m going to ask you to help out with our inquiry, Ms. Woods.”
“My special talent is geology. Checking out the mystery of this island was supposed to be a hobby activity,” Violet objected.
“You’re a geologist who undoubtedly has many spells under her saddle. That makes you more qualified than anyone else I currently have available.”
“How did you determine the presence of the ley line conflux?”
“With a spell,” Violet admitted reluctantly.
Tigerbright spoke up. “She showed me. She made the ley lines visible to me too.”
Slate nodded. “My point is that my techs rely on instruments to detect them while you don’t. As you work for a government department, I can have you reassigned to this if required.”
Violet sighed in resignation. “Alright, but I’ll need a bit of help if I’m going to concentrate on my investigations. I was supposed to go out solo into the field on my first assignment tomorrow.”
The governor frowned. “I’ve already sent out everyone with even a modicum of field experience. Tiger, have you got anyone who can assist?”
The chakat shrugged helplessly. “You know if I had someone on staff like that, I would have dragged them off on a weekend camping trip ages ago.”
A smile slowly spread across the earth pony mare’s face. She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow without saying a word.
Tigerbright blinked in comprehension. “You want me to go with Violet? While I’d love to do that, this isn’t going to be a fun three-day trip. You’re asking her to investigate an unknown phenomenon from an unknown source which may or may not repeat. That could take weeks, months, or even never be resolved. I can’t take that much time away from my work.”
“I know you’ve got lots of vacation time saved up. You can put Paul in charge until you return, or a temporary fill-in is sent from Amistad.”
The chakat was going to protest some more before shi realized that shi was being handed a golden opportunity. Nevertheless, shi still had a problem. “I’ll need to clear this with the minister.”
“Do it, please. And give hir my personal request for your help too.” The comm on her desk started buzzing for attention. She glanced at its screen and sighed. “Let me know how it goes. Now, shoo! I’ve got more immediate problems.” She tapped her comm and turned her attention to the caller.
Tigerbright inclined hir head, cueing Violet to follow hir out of the office. The two soon exited the Town Hall, but rather than crossing back over the street, the chakat used hir comm to signal a PTV. When it pulled up, Violet was urged to get in.
“Where are we going?” she asked as the PTV took off on autopilot.
“To my office at the spaceport. The town office is little more than an information center for CWG matters. I need access to my personal equipment to get in contact with my superiors.”
“Not exactly dressed for the job, are you?” Violet asked with a smirk.
The chakat had turned up for dinner in hir preferred off-duty dress – that is to say nude. Shi giggled, “Very unprofessional of me, I know, but forgivable under the circumstances.”
After a fast and brief trip to the spaceport, they were soon in Tigerbright’s office. Paul Iotor was there already but he didn’t stop his current activity to chat aside from greeting the two. This was the first time that Violet had been to the chakat’s main office before. She hadn’t had a reason to leave town yet besides the hikes. A large window overlooked the spaceport’s field which was partially lit up with floodlights. She observed the diplomas and other awards hanging in frames on the wall. There was a shelf of books and some family photos that the mare took some interest in while Tigerbright turned on the big screen on hir desk. Contacting the minister was a little more complicated than making a normal phone call, hence the need to come here, but because it was still morning there, it didn’t take long. A dark grey-furred chakat with medium brown highlights across the face and ears appeared on the display.
Tigerbright explained the situation on Emu Island to Minister Jaguarondi and what they intended to do about it, adding the governor’s formal request. Shi concluded, “I told Governor Slate that I would need to clear this with you but I also indicated that I couldn’t be expected to leave my post on such short notice.”
The minister replied, “We’ve already been getting some pressure from Equus to look into this matter. If Governor Slate feels that you can be of most use this way, then I will approve the leave of absence. Your executive assistant can take charge for the moment. I will arrange to send a temporary replacement for you soon.” Then hir stern voice took on a humorous tone. “Better go back to bed. You and that mare need to get a good sleep.”
“Yes, minister,” Tigerbright replied with a smile. The comm screen darkened and shi turned to Violet. “Well… that was a lot easier than I imagined it would be.”
“Yeah, but what did shi mean by that last remark?”
The chakat giggled. “The minister knows it’s night here, but not the exact hour. Because of my state of undress, shi assumed that we were dragged out of bed by the crisis.”
Violet blinked and then blushed. “You mean, you and me…?”
Tigerbright grinned. “Yep. My boss has urged me on more than one occasion to find a mate. You’re not the only one to have gotten frequent unsubtle hints.”
“You chakats are almost as bad as my parents!”
“Heh! You’ve yet to meet my mom and dads,” shi replied, indicating one of the photographs. “Then again, it’s pretty normal for chakat clans. I’ve never been harassed about it like you were though.”
“Well, the minister did get one thing right – we do need to get some sleep if we’re to get off to an early start tomorrow. But, first, I’m hungry. We never did get to eat our dinner. Think that fish with chimichurri sauce will still be available?”
Violet and Tigerbright strategized over dinner. The mare had already packed for her scheduled field trip but had to rethink her plans under the new circumstances. The chakat, on the other hand, had been caught relatively unprepared.
“I’ve had my camping gear packed away for years. I’m going to have to check it over and add anything else that you think we might be able to use.”
“Not to mention food supplies,” Violet replied with a mouth half full of delicious fish.
“At least some of the stores are still open thanks to the nocturnal species. We can go there straight after dinner and pick up most of what we need.”
“Fresh or preserved? I’ve got a stasis box for the former. It’s only a small one meant for a single person and it might be too full if I add yours.”
Tigerbright nodded. “I have a camping fridge, but its Supastor battery will need recharging if it has to run for more than a couple of days.”
“How portable is it?”
“Not practical for hiking. It’s meant for leaving at the campsite while I went bushwalking.”
“How did you intend to charge it then?”
“From my air shuttle.” At the unicorn’s blank look, Tigerbright explained, “One of the perks of the job is that I have a personal air shuttle that can take me anywhere on this island within half an hour. However, since this is the only township on Emu Island, I’ve only needed to use it twice so far. Anyway, it has a charging port in it.”
Violet frowned in thought. “One of the staff at my office was supposed to drop me off at the survey site and pick me up later. However, it might be more practical in light of my new assignment to use your vehicle. Then we can relocate at a moment’s notice as the need occurs.”
“That makes sense, and I could not only bring the camping fridge but also a few other pieces of equipment that might come in handy.”
“What’s the shuttle’s range?”
“Depending on usage, about five hours. To put that in perspective, I can circumnavigate the island in under an hour.”
“Great! Okay, we’ll do that. I’ll let them know the change in plans when I go into the office tomorrow. I’ll download all the data they have on the ley lines and the rest of the original geological surveys. There were several made when they were checking this island for suitability, even if they were just cursory. I only have copies of the two near my survey site loaded into my datapad.”
“While you’re doing that, I’ll fetch the shuttle from the spaceport hanger where it’s stored. That reminds me – I need to make a call.” Tigerbright took out hir comm from hir waist pouch and dialed a number. It was swiftly answered. “Hi, Paul. Still at the office? … Good. Could you get one of the port staff to give my shuttle a quick service? I’ll be taking it out into the field with me tomorrow morning and I need it ready to go. … Okay, thanks.”
The chakat put away hir comm. “I’ll bring it around to my home and we can load up our gear there. We can bring your stuff over from the apartment tonight and you can stay in one of my spare rooms so we don’t waste any time in the morning.”
Violet was a little surprised but nodded. “That’s a good idea. Besides, I don’t know if there’s anywhere suitable for landing a shuttle at my place.”
Tigerbright chuckled. “Oh, I could, but I’d earn a bunch of dirty looks from the manager and residents.” Then she quieted down and bit hir lip, looking indecisive before she spoke again. “Violet, why don’t you bring everything of yours over? We could be on this assignment for a while and it would be convenient. And… well… I’d like the company.”
The unicorn stared at hir, eyes wide, mouth agape. “You want me to move in with you?”
“Yes. You can have any spare room you like to set up how you want. It’s not as if I need them all. I just would like to have you around more often.”
Violet slowly smiled. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been thrilled about living by myself either. We were a pretty close family and none of my siblings moved out until they got married or joined a herd. It suited both us and our parents to stay home until then.”
“Right up until they drove you nuts about finding a stallion.”
“Exactly. Otherwise, I would still be living there, I suppose. And I might never have come to Chakona and met you. I’ve missed having a family to come home to though.”
“Well, I’m not family, but would a best friend do?”
The unicorn giggled. “Yes, that will do nicely. I accept your offer, Tiger.”
“Awesome! So what’s next?”
“Dessert,” Violet declared, picking up her empty plate in her magic and heading for the counter.
Tigerbright grinned. “I like the way you think.”
After dinner, Tigerbright took Violet to Midnight’s Gourmet Emporium. Midnight was the chattiest thestral Violet had ever met, happily bouncing around her shop while describing the various raw and prepared foods. The pair settled on a dozen freeze-dried packets, four packages of snacks that resembled rice cakes, and two trays of something called Everything Burritos that the chakat swore by. Only after Tigerbright completed their purchase did Violet notice the sign declaring “We Only Use The Finest Insect Protein” and the fishing bait sat on the “Juicy Snack” shelf.
The duo went back to Violet’s apartment next to gather up her belongings. It did not take long because the mare had unpacked almost nothing to personalize her temporary quarters yet, nor had she purchased much to supplement what she had brought from Equus. Tigerbright had no trouble carrying the field equipment while Violet took her personal luggage.
The unicorn chose a room on the second floor that faced the beach. It opened up to a wide balcony that it shared with the room next door – Tigerbright’s unsurprisingly. Who wouldn’t want such a beautiful scenic view right outside their bedroom window, with the susurrating waves adding a pleasant background sound?
Tigerbright deposited Violet’s belongings on the floor in front of the bed. “I’ll dig out the camping fridge and make sure it’s fully charged, then I’ll whip up some coffee while you unpack.”
“Sounds good.” The mare opened the first of her suitcases and pulled out a beloved body pillow. She looked at the huge bed that was big enough to give three large chakats plenty of space and giggled. Don’t get lost,” she told it as she placed it at the head of the bed with a stack of normal pillows. Her clothing was next to be put away in the wardrobe which was still two-thirds empty when she was done. Toiletries went into the en suite bathroom which had a spa bath as well as a roomy shower. She was considering what to do with some knickknacks when the chakat’s voice came up to her.
Violet trotted downstairs where she found Tigerbright placing two steaming mugs on the coffee table in front of the taur-sized sofa.
“How’s everything? Need anything else?” shi asked before bounding up onto the couch and making hirself comfortable. Shi picked up one of the mugs and took a sip.
“Are you kidding? It’s positively luxurious!” To the chakat’s pleased surprise, Violet also climbed up onto the sofa to cuddle up close to hir before picking up the remaining mug in her magic. She smiled at Tigerbright’s expression and giggled. “I think we both wanted this.”
The chakat put an arm around the mare’s barrel and said, “Yes, we did.”
The pair sipped their coffee in companionable silence, their empathic senses warmed with the feeling of the happiness that had been growing since they had first met. Half an hour later, they reluctantly parted to go to bed. They both needed a good night’s sleep before they headed off early in the morning.
Violet surprised Tigerbright by preparing breakfast before the chakat woke up. Pleading excitement for making her wake early, she figured she would make herself useful as the new roomie. She even cleaned up afterward while Tigerbright took a PTV to the spaceport to pick up hir air shuttle. Violet hauled her equipment outside ready for pickup, as well some of her partner’s gear such as the camp fridge which they had loaded up with food that needed to be kept chilled. Room temperature items were put into the unicorn’s stasis box.
When Tigerbright returned with the shuttle, she quickly appreciated why it had been impractical to land it at the apartments. Not only was it large, but it was also a lot noisier than a PTV. The chakat had to apologize to one neighbor for waking them up early. When they finished packing, Violet used Tigerbright’s video comm to call into the office rather than going in person. After informing Shady Glen about the change in plans with the chakat there to back her up, she requested and was supplied with the extra data she required. Then the duo locked up and departed.
“Okay, what’s our destination, boss?” Tigerbright asked as shi took them out over the bay to avoid causing more of a disturbance in town.
Violet smiled at the appellation. “As you pointed out last night, we know next to nothing about the phenomenon, so I’m going to stick with my original plans. I was intending to set up a few experiments at my survey site, so might as well harvest two trees with one buck and do both jobs.” She held up a datapad in her aura. “Here are the coordinates of the site.”
The chakat glanced at them and set them into the flight computer. Shi then let the autopilot take over control and leaned against the swiveling backrest that supported hir upper torso. “We should be there in thirteen minutes at normal cruising speed.”
“Great.” The mare paused and then said, “Mind if I ask why you’re wearing a T-shirt?”
Tigerbright raised an eyebrow. “No. Why are you curious about it?”
“Well, aside from when you are hiking or at work, you’re normally nude. What’s up with that?”
The chakat chuckled. Nothing mysterious about it. After all, you’ve also seen me wearing an apron when I cook. The fact is that my boobs are a bit sensitive, in particular, my nipples. I hate getting them scratched by branches while hiking, so I usually wear at least a T-shirt or jacket, depending on the circumstances.”
Violet grinned. “Yes, I can see that they’re rather prominent and vulnerable.”
“Be glad you don’t have that problem with your udders! Anyway, I could ask the same of you – why are you wearing that vest? Surely you don’t feel the need to be in uniform while out in the field?”
“Simple. Pockets!” She extracted a couple of items from said pockets to show to the chakat. “Handy little things like these I keep there for convenience rather than digging into my saddlebags. I don’t need them for a short hike which is why I wasn’t wearing this when I first met you, but it’s part of my standard gear when out in the field.”
“That makes sense. Are those what I think they are?” Tigerbright’s attention was on several blue crystalline objects that were held in Violet’s telekinesis.
“If you think they are sapphires, then yes, they are.”
“What are you doing with a small fortune in precious gems in your pocket?”
“These trivial things? I buy them by the bagful for use in magic spells. I have several emeralds too. They’re only a few bits each.”
“Are we talking about the same bits that you use in the shops in town? Because I know the exchange rate into Fedcreds, and while I’m no expert I gems, I’d value them at far more than a few bits.”
Violet giggled. “Yeah, I was told that I wasn’t allowed to take them off Emu Island. Something about crashing the market. You see, gemstones like these are not rare on Equus. Dragons even eat them as part of their diet, they’re so common. If you want bigger ones, you’d either have to buy them from a miner or a rock farmer.”
“A… rock… farmer,” Tigerbright repeated in a dubious tone.
“Yes, or at least one that specializes in growing gemstones.”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
Violet gave hir a puzzled look. “I’m what?”
“You’re kidding me. You don’t grow sapphires on a farm.”
“You do if you want a lot at a cheap price. Or big, high-quality fancy ones.”
“Okay, explain that to me.”
“Rock farmers are all earth ponies whose special talent lies with using magic to form and grow mineral deposits. Gemstones are just one particular type of mineral.”
“Can they grow any type of gemstone?”
“As long as the raw elements are available, yes, although some take more work than others. For example, it cost me a week’s pay to buy this.” The mare fished out a vivid pink oval-shaped gemstone about five centimeters at its longest dimension. Light and dark areas danced inside the faceted gem as the mare held it closer for the chakat’s inspection. “Its carbon lattice structure is uniquely suited to some specialized spells.”
Tigerbright’s eyes bulged. “Is that… a flawless pink diamond?”
“Of course it’s flawless. Why would I pay that much for a defective gemstone?”
“Violet, you could buy a huge mansion, hire a staff, and retire in luxury for life on the value of something like that!”
The mare’s eyebrows rose in surprise. She looked for signs of deception with both her eyes and her empathic sense but realized that the chakat was quite serious. She looked again at her amazing gem and said, “No wonder they were so keen on pointing out the penalty for taking these out of Equian territory.”
“Why did they even let you bring them here?”
“Because they’re common magic tools back on Equus. Those mana beacons that were damaged have large gemstones in their core. Many common magic implements use them. How come you don’t know this?”
“Because I can’t work magic, perhaps?” Tigerbright replied sarcastically.
“Oh. Right. Sorry. I suppose if you don’t use them, you don’t necessarily learn about them.”
“Exactly. Got any more fabulously valuable rocks in there?”
“Just a few medium-size rubies. And before you ask, they’re relatively cheap. I’ll show you what the different gems can do in the hooves of a well-trained unicorn when we get to our destination.”
“I’ll be looking forward to that. By the way, what exactly do you want me to do for you? Besides being your chauffeur, I mean.”
“You can save me a lot of time and effort setting up the campsite and cooking meals.”
Tigerbright blinked for a moment and then gave the mare a flat look. “Is that all?”
Violet grinned at her dismayed friend. “I didn’t expect you to volunteer when I said I wanted an assistant. Those are usually trainees who come along to gain field experience under a professional. However, those chores aren’t the only things I’d like you to do. You can help me with my work and I’ll show you how I use magic to accomplish my tasks. And most of all, you can keep me company. That’s the one thing that I dislike about the job – solo field trips can be a bit lonely.”
The chakat brightened. “That I can manage.”
“I’m counting on it.”
Tigerbright glanced at the navigator. “Just a couple more minutes to our destination.”
“I’d better put these away.” Violet safely replaced the gemstones before turning her attention to the territory they were passing over. Trees had given way to low scrub and grasses.
“Looks pretty arid,” Tigerbright commented.
“This area is in a bit of a rain shadow from those ranges,” the mare replied, pointing toward the offending mountains they had passed over. “You’re not likely to have to worry too much about tree branches but it might get a bit cool at night at this elevation. Your T-shirt might still be handy to keep your nipples from getting chilly,” she said with a smirk.
The chakat poked hir tongue out at the cheeky unicorn.
It was not long before the navigator indicated that they had reached their destination. Tigerbright carefully set the shuttle down on a broad patch of grass next to a small creek that was relatively free from bushes and had no obvious rocks. Violet hopped out and did a quick appraisal of the landing site before nodding to her companion. “All good.”
The chakat shut down the shuttle and climbed out. Shi looked around the area and pointed to an area that was flat and grassy. “I’ll set up our tent there.” Shi then examined the nearby shrubs before declaring, “These are quite woody and dry. I think I can make a decent fire with this.”
Violet smiled as she hauled out her equipment. “Food always tastes better prepared over a proper campfire instead of a portable cooker in my opinion.”
“Yeah, and it’s better for making damper too.”
“A very simple camp-style bread. It’s been ages since I’ve had an excuse to make it. We’ll have it with our dinner tonight.”
“Sounds good,” the unicorn replied. “You’ll have to teach me the recipe.”
“Sure. It’s quick and easy to make.” The chakat came back, grabbed the tent, and began setting it up.
Violet continued unpacking and arranging their gear. She paused after a while to look at the nearly ready tent. “I thought you said that was suitable for two adult chakats. Looks a bit small to me.”
Tigerbright grinned. “You forget that chakats like to snuggle. It’ll fit us both nicely.”
The mare smirked. “And it’s totally not an excuse to get cozy with me?”
“Oh, perish the thought!” the chakat replied with a giggle.
Violet snorted as she choked back a laugh. “Looks like I’ll have to set up my smaller tent to shelter our food and equipment then. While it isn’t likely to rain, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
“You need to leave the food in the shuttle. We don’t want to attract animals.”
“Do you know of anything we should be looking out for while we’re working?”
“Fortunately, this island doesn’t have much in the way of predators. About the only critters that I’d consider dangerous are lizard-like creatures we’ve called nibblers. They were named that because they are prepared to take nibbles out of anything, even chakats ten times their size. They were cleared out of the area around New Horizon but there are still plenty just about everywhere else on the island except the colder places. Anyway, while there are snakes and other normal hazards that won’t bother experienced people like us, I’m more concerned about scavengers that will brave our presence to steal anything edible.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Violet assured hir. “I’ll show you why.” She picked up a short rod with a wire cup on one end and a spike on the other. Her magic extended the rod to triple its collapsed length and she thrust the shaft firmly into the ground between the shuttle and the tent. Then she extracted the pink diamond and set it in the wire basket before closing her eyes and murmuring something that the chakat could not make out. The jewel flashed and a translucent pink dome about thirty meters in diameter appeared to surround them.
Tigerbright blinked in surprise before walking up to have a closer look. “Some kind of force field?” shi guessed.
“Is it safe to touch?”
The chakat reached out and found the softly shimmering wall of magical energy to be utterly unyielding. “Very impressive.”
“Want to see a cool trick?” Violet asked. Without waiting for an answer, the unicorn walked past Tigerbright and through the wall without stirring a hair in her mane.
“How’d you do that?” the chakat demanded, hir hands on hir hips and giving the mare a miffed look.
“It’s designed to block all animal life except any that it is specifically tuned to.” She walked back towards the gemstone. “Come here and I’ll add you to the matrix.”
“What do I need to do?”
“Just put a finger on it. Go on – it won’t bite,” Violet added with a smirk.
Tigerbright did as instructed. The unicorn’s magic glowed for a moment before she declared it done.
“Okay – try it now.” The unicorn inclined her head toward the barrier.
The chakat barely hesitated as shi reached the pink barrier but, as promised, it no longer blocked hir. “That is a cool trick.”
The mare nodded. “It was enchanted with a spell designed by Prince Shining Armor, the Alicorn of Protection. It’s virtually foolproof. Also expensive. Worth it though. Back on Equus, there are all kinds of dangerous monsters that you don’t want to worry about while asleep in your tent at night.” Her horn glowed again and the dome disappeared.
“Why did you turn it off?” Violet asked.
“I didn’t. The pink glow is there to ensure that its size and placement is correct and everything is within its boundary. After it’s set up, I normally turn the visible glow off because it’s distracting.”
“Easy to forget that it’s there at all.”
“True. Just remember that if anything is already within the dome, it won’t be able to do anything about that.”
“What about some animal burrowing in then?”
“It’s actually a sphere centered on the diamond so a burrowing creature won’t get through that way either. However, if it’s already here below ground, it’s trapped inside with us. Don’t worry though – I scanned the area underground first. We’re clear, barring some insects.”
“You won’t have to worry about any blood-suckers. The native life doesn’t like the taste of our alien blood,” Tigerbright assured the mare. “Anyway, I’ll keep setting up the campsite; you concentrate on the reason we’re here.”
Violet unpacked what she needed and began assembling some small devices. She was almost done when the chakat wandered over to get a better look.
“What are those for?”
“They detect and measure mana flow. I plan to use the ley lines to map out the flow from various sites all over the island and determine if there’s either a source or destination point for it all. Aerial mapping is useless because the network of ley lines is too dense and strong to distinguish the finer details. That’s why localized readings are of greater value.”
Tigerbright nodded. “I see. How does that tie in with your geology specialty though?”
“Ley lines don’t just occur randomly. There are all kinds of factors that affect their size, placement, and orientation. For example, those factors include mineral composition, strata, and crystal veins. Above ground, watercourses have a great effect, as does the vegetation. Living things produce mana, so a jungle might produce a lot more than a desert, but the density will alter the flow into the ley lines. It’s quite a complex system. But it’s also a great help to me because I can determine with a fair degree of accuracy whether certain minerals are present due to behavior of the ley lines.”
“So, you could locate something like, let’s say, gold?”
“That’s one of the easier elements to detect. While gold occurs in many kinds of deposits, vein quartz is common. If the ley line indicates its presence, then I can dig in that area and uncover it. A trained geologist can tell a lot from the behavior of ley lines if they are able to detect them. As a unicorn, I can use that spell I showed you when we first met to make them visible. Earth ponies can use their innate abilities to sense them in a different way. Pegasi would probably have to rely almost entirely on instruments. Not that I know of any that are geologists.”
“Magic seems to be a great boon to science,” Tigerbright said thoughtfully.
Violet shrugged. “To us, magic is a part of science. It’s also just another tool. I still take rock samples for analysis, especially for the trickier elements and minerals to detect.”
“So, is this site significant then?”
The mare chuckled. “Not really. It could turn out to be, but it just happens to be the place I was being sent to survey, and I might as well start here as anywhere else. Without any more data, one place is no more significant than another in terms of our assignment.”
“Okay. Are you ready to start then?”
“Just about. I only have to pack all this into my saddlebags. What about you?”
Tigerbright smiled. “Oh, I had my gear packed and ready before we even left town. Because we’ll be returning here, my load is light, so is there anything else you want me to carry?”
Violet gave the chakat some of her field instruments to add to hir backpack before donning her saddlebags. “I think we’re as ready as we’ll ever be. Let’s go.”
“After you, boss.”
The day’s activity consisted of hiking back and forth over the designated survey area. Occasionally, Violet would alter course in light of what the ley lines showed her. Several times, she set up her instruments to make more detailed readings. Tigerbright listened curiously as the mare explained how she used the enchanted sapphires to detect and measure the local geology. Much of the magic theory went over hir head, but it was still fascinating.
In between the stops, the two chatted about many unrelated subjects. Violet described how she studied hard to qualify for the entrance exam for Celestia’s school and her parents’ delight at her success. Tigerbright told the mare about hir interest in working with non-Terran races which had led hir to a government career and hir eventual posting at Emu Island. They talked about their home lives and their interests other than their careers. Naturally, hiking and camping came back up and they told each other about the various places they had visited and the sights they had seen.
“I think I’d like to visit Equus someday and see some of those places for myself,” the chakat commented.
“They’re certainly worth revisiting. I’d gladly show you around.”
“I’ll hold you to that!”
Violet smiled. “Not a problem.”
They returned to the campsite as the sun was setting, a satisfying day’s work accomplished.
Tigerbright said, “You can concentrate on collating your data. I’ll get a fire started and prepare our meals.”
“You were going to show me how you make damper.”
“Yes, but I need to have a good fire going to get a bed of hot coals before I’m ready for that.”
It did not take long for the chakat to gather a large amount of suitable firewood. Picking a good spot where the breeze would blow the smoke away from the campsite, shi cleared it of anything flammable, constructed a fire ring from rocks, and built the fire. Once shi had it blazing well, shi washed hir hands in the clean water of the creek and brought out the food supplies and cooking implements. Placing them on the collapsible table, the chakat then fetched water. Shi filled a camping jug first and then a simple steel pot which shi hung on a rod over the fire to bring to the boil. Shi brought over a heavy cast iron pot with a lid and embedded it into the fire. Next, shi selected the ingredients for the night’s meal. When Tigerbright was satisfied that everything was ready, shi called out to hir friend.
“I’m going to start making the damper now.”
Violet replied, “Just two secs while I close up this file.” Before long, the mare joined the chakat at the table. “Okay – how do we do this?”
Tigerbright pointed to the ingredients. “The most basic damper consists of just plain flour, salt, and water. We’re not going to settle for that though. We have self-raising flour and butter for this recipe.” Shi picked up an enameled tin cup. “First, measure three cups of the flour into this bowl.”
The unicorn deftly did as shi was asked.
“Next – a pinch of salt,” the chakat said.
Violet gave hir a flat look. “And how exactly am I supposed to measure ‘a pinch’?”
Tigerbright smiled innocently. “Like this!” Shi put words into action.
The unicorn rolled her eyes. “Smartypants!”
“I’m surprised you know that term. Anyway, butter comes next – about eighty grams.” Shi cut off a portion from a chilled block that shi had taken from the cooler. “Cut that into small cubes so that we can mix it into the flour.”
“Couldn’t we just melt it and pour it in?”
“We could, but the result is better this way.”
“Okay.” Violet eschewed a knife and diced the butter with her telekinesis.
“Neat,” conceded the chakat. Shi dumped the butter into the bowl. “We then rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. You could probably do this with less mess, but I’ll do it this time.” Shi spent a couple of minutes on that task. “Alright. Now we add about three-quarters of a cup of water.”
The unicorn dipped the cup into the pot of water and poured a bit out to get the desired amount. “Is that good?”
“Looks about right. Put it in.” Tigerbright carefully folded it in until the water was completely taken up. Then shi scattered some flour onto the plastic surface of the table before placing the dough on it. “Now, we knead the dough for a minute or two until it’s smooth.”
When that task was completed, the chakat shaped the dough into a disc about eighteen centimeters wide which shi dusted with some more flour. “Lastly, use a knife to lightly score the top into eight sections. It’s not necessary but makes for a better result.” Shi demonstrated the first score.
“Like this?” Violet asked, doing the remaining scores with her telekinesis.
“Show off,” Tigerbright said with a smile. “Take the lid off the camp oven for me, please.” Shi pointed at the cast iron pot.
Violet lifted the lid with her magic and Tigerbright placed the dough inside. The mare then replaced the lid. The chakat scraped some of the burning coals around the pot and added some more fuel to the fire. “There! It will be ready in about thirty minutes. Time to make a cup of tea and get the rest of the food started. The billy is already boiling.”
The unicorn lifted an eyebrow. “What’s a billy?”
“That simple steel pot hanging over the fire is a type of billy. Yeah, it’s another Aussie slang term.”
“Okay. Go wash your hands while I make the tea,” Violet instructed.
Tigerbright waggled hir floury hands in the mare’s direction. “Worried you might get some in your coat?” shi asked with a grin.
In response, Violet’s horn lit up and hoisted the chakat off the ground, propelling hir toward the creek. “Try that and you’ll get a bath instead,” she warned.
The chakat’s timing was excellent and their food smelled delicious when it was time to open up the camp oven to check on the damper.
“Looks perfect,” shi declared. “Want to fetch it out?”
The mare did so and placed it on a plate. Tigerbright gingerly turned it over and tapped the base. It gave a hollow sound. “Yep, it’s done. We’ll let it cool while we serve up the rest of the food.”
Five minutes later, they feasted on delicious warm bread with their meal of hummus veggie wraps and yogurt with dried berries. The chakat declared their first camp cookout to be a roaring success.
Tigerbright cleared up everything after dinner to allow Violet to finish her work. Then they relaxed around the dying fire as dusk faded. The chakat had brought out some cocoa to make hot chocolate which they sipped while chatting. Eventually, the darkened skies revealed a glorious starscape.
“I can’t get over how many stars you can see here,” Violet said, gazing raptly at the sight.
“Yeah. Unlike Equus, Chakona doesn’t reside inside a bubble within a nebula. You can see even more stars here away from the light pollution in town.”
“I could watch it all night, but I suppose we’d better go to bed. We can get an early start tomorrow.”
Tigerbright hauled hirself onto hir paws. “I’ll get our bedroll ready.”
“I suspect we’ll have heavy dew in the morning, so we’d better pack away our stuff in the other tent first,” Violet declared.
“Good idea,” Tigerbright replied, picking up an equipment bag. “Could you bring over a lantern? It’s gotten too dark to see well in the tent.”
The mare grinned and lit up the tip of her horn instead.
“Or you could do that,” the chakat chuckled.
Abruptly, the gentle glow exploded with the intense brilliance of a magnesium flare. Both of them cried out in shock. Violet struggled to shut it off as Tigerbright flung an arm over hir abused eyes. Several seconds later, the glare stopped as suddenly as it began.
“What the hell was that?” demanded the chakat. “I’ve got spots before the spots in my vision. I’m half blind.”
“It was another surge!” the unicorn explained. It was so strong, I couldn’t terminate the illumination spell. Wait! What’s the time?”
“Don’t ask me – I can’t read anything until my eyes recover.”
“I’m going to guess that it’s close to the same time as last night’s surge. If it is, we’ve got another data point. Hopefully, my instruments picked up and recorded some useful data too. Honestly, I only half-expected the surges to happen this far away from the settlement. If it keeps repeating each night at this time, it’s going to make my job a hundred times easier.”
“Just be sure you’re not using your magic then. Use the bloody lantern next time.”
“Sorry, Tiger. Hold still for a moment.” Her horn lit up and the glow of her magic settled around the chakat’s eyes. After a few seconds, she stopped. “How’s that?”
Tigerbright blinked for a moment then smiled. “I’m back to normal. What did you do?”
“Basic healing spell to accelerate your retinas’ recovery.”
“Great. Now, go ahead and record this event while I finish packing up.”
Violet frowned. “Do you think we should call up and ask what’s happened in town?”
Tigerbright shook hir head. “At the moment, there will be the same confusion as last night. If we wait until morning, there will probably be a report on the event ready for us. Besides, there’s not much we can do tonight anyway.”
“That makes sense.”
They both finished their tasks. The chakat hung the lantern on a hook in the tent, then turned around to back into it and settle down on the sleeping pad. Violet then did the same, snuggling up close to the chakat in the confined quarters.
“Tell me honestly – do you have a bigger tent than this?” the unicorn asked.
“I do. Want me to bring it next time?”
“No, I think this one is perfect.”
“I thought so too. Goodnight, Violet.” The chakat gave the mare a hug.
“Sleep well, Tiger,” the unicorn replied with a nuzzle. Her horn lit up and the lantern turned off. Then there was nothing left but the soft glow of the stars and two small moons left to illuminate the two intimate friends as they cuddled together to share their warmth.
TO BE CONTINUED!
Equestria, canon MLP characters, and other My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic elements are © 2020 Hasbro.
All other original characters and story copyright © 2020 Bernard Doove.
Art is © 2020 Kat Miller
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