Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration of this work, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited.

Life Lesson

By Paul S. Gibbs


As our borrowed hover-skim sliced the cool clear air, and dawn slowly unfolded the savanna, I glanced at my bond-mate, just for an instant before returning my attention to the controls. "Tell me again," I suggested, "why we're doing this."

Lounging at ease in the passenger seat with his feet on the dashboard, entirely comfortable with my embryonic piloting skills, Sah'larssh smiled, and his tail flicked lazily to cover mine. "Because we were invited," he said. He indicated my holocam, resting in the back seat. "And because you want to see more of the natural world."

"See it, yes," I agreed. "Kill it, no."

"It's part of what we are, Ehm'rael," he said softly, studying the horizon as if seeking landmarks. "And at the risk of sounding like your grandfather…"

I sighed. "I know," I said. "My Terran upbringing."

"Exactly," he agreed, glancing significantly at my shortalls, T-shirt, and baseball cap, and the four ruby studs in my right ear. "Call it a lesson in becoming a Complete Sah'aaran."

"As long as all I have to do is watch."

He leaned across to nuzzle under my chin, causing the 'skim to rock alarmingly before I regained control. I growled. Not only would a crash be embarrassing, and dangerous, it would also make my namesake--Sah'larssh's grandmother--quite annoyed. It was her vehicle we'd borrowed. "That, my dear," he said, "must be your choice."

He straightened then, pointing out through the sharply-angled windshield. "Ah," he said. "We're here!"

I peered ahead and down. At our backs, the sun had risen fully, flooding the rolling plain with golden light. A vast sea of tall, grey-green Second-Summer grass spread out before us in every direction, half-consuming the scattered Tatak and flattening the little swales and gullies. Here and there the waving carpet was crisscrossed with narrow shadow-filled aisles: game trails, I supposed. Just appearing over the sine-curve horizon was a small flat table of land, elevated above the grassland and crowned with a denser stand of trees. Amidst the massive dark trunks stood a dozen or so low whitewashed buildings. They resolved quickly into a large house--which at first glance appeared more Terran than Sah'aaran, being a lumpy rectangle rather than a smooth open circle--and a scattering of smaller structures that could either be sheds or cabins. Oddly, I was immediately reminded of a cottage hotel in the California redwoods where my family and I once stayed, and my brother and I spent every afternoon in the river. No such thing here--but there must have been water under the surface, to support all those trees.

Sah'larssh pointed to an open area perhaps twenty meters west of the house, where several other vehicles stood. "There's our landing site," he said. He flashed a sharp-toothed grin. "Want me to take her in--?"

"I can manage," I said with enormous dignity. I swung the 'skim into a wide, spiraling descent--and carefully, too, because this was no time to show off. Not with three hundred meters between us and the ground. Sah'larssh watched carefully, and for the first time since we left Sah'salaan, more than an hour before, I detected a hint of nervousness in the set of his whiskers and the twitch of his tail. Ignoring that, I struggled to remember what he'd taught me. Throttle back…ease up on the lift-fans…even the keel and let her settle slowly…and hold the rudder so she doesn't spin. We touched down with only the smallest of thumps, and I grinned triumphantly. "See?"

"Bravo," he said, applauding softly. He stretched out his arms and legs, and reached for the door-latch. "Let's see if anyone's at home."

Our landing had kicked up a small cloud of dust, but the breeze, bearing with it the pleasant, spicy smells of grass and Tatak, quickly whisked it away. Climbing down from the cockpit, my legs stiff after the long flight, I peered around curiously, shading my eyes against the bright sunshine.

Though undeniably exciting, learning to fly a hover-skim was actually one of the least significant things that had happened to me recently. A little more than three Terran weeks had passed since my father--with a little help from his friends--rescued my mother, my brother and myself from the depths of the Undercity. Mother and Tom emerged from captivity relatively unscathed--except for their manes--but I was a wreck, emotionally and physically, having come within a hair's breadth of giving up interest in life itself. I'd lost something like a quarter of my body weight, and even more of my strength--and courtesy of Sah'rajj's claws, I also had four long painful slashes on my right thigh.

That was then; this was now. My leg had healed, and the fur had begun to cover the scars. My shortened mane had grown an infinitesimal amount. I'd been eating up a storm, putting away a truly scandalous amount of maxigrazer and Terran beef, and thus had put back most of my missing weight. Vigorous exercise had hardened it into muscle, and--with my bond-mate's bemused assistance--I was even getting my pitching arm back into shape. I wasn't back to normal yet--not quite--but I was getting close.

…All of this, though, had occurred in the absence of my family. My mother, father and brother had already returned to Terra, leaving me behind--at my own request, I hasten to add. It was the most difficult decision I'd ever made, and the attacks of homesickness had been many and terrible--but I'd truly had no choice. One night with Sah'larssh had simply not been enough. Not when I had no idea when I'd see him again. I hadn't been sleeping with him, not all the time at least: I spent most nights, alone, at my grandfather's house. But I did spend at least part of each day with Sah'larssh, and that made all the difference.

…Unfortunately, though, it couldn't last. Not yet. Within two weeks, give or take, I must be aboard a ship bound for Terra, if I intended to keep my promise to be home in time for school to start. And Sah'larssh himself was college-bound. I would miss him terribly--as much as I was missing my family now, if not more--but it had to happen. We'd have a lifetime together, I knew; just not quite yet.

I reached into the 'skim for my holocam, and then, hand in hand, my bond-mate and I started toward the big sprawling house, its many windows dark. We had gone no more than a few steps when we were halted by a shout from behind: "Sah'larssh! Is that really you?"

We turned, to see a lithe female Sah'aaran jump down from the tailgate of the largest parked vehicle and come jogging toward us, a smile on her face and her hands raised in greeting. She appeared to be in her early forties, and stood several centimeters taller than me. Hard, wiry muscles corded her arms, legs and abdomen. Her fur was dark brown, with a minute dusting of grey around her muzzle and a scattering of faint, coin-sized coppery spots across her shoulders and upper arms, and down her sides and legs. Her long burnt-orange mane was tied behind her head. She looked sleek, her fur shiny and slicked-down, almost as if wet. I assumed that to be natural for her, and I wondered what part of the planet her ancestors hailed from. Certainly she made a startling contrast to my decidedly fluffy companion.

For a Sah'aaran she was curiously dressed, in tight-fitting stretchy shorts and a halter, both with a staccato, grey-green pattern that I immediately realized to be camouflage. Her collar was very plain, a simple dark-grey strap, and the bonding-band around her left ankle was gold, inlaid with beads of white-veined bloodstone.

She greeted Sah'larssh first; formally, with hands clasped at eye-level, and then informally, with a rib-cracking hug. "Goddess, it has been forever!" she said, in obvious delight. "And how you've grown!"

He smiled. "In more ways than one," he said. He pulled me close with an arm around my waist. "May I present my bond-mate, Ehm'rael Sarah Abrams. Rae, this is Ehm'viir."

She turned shrewd gold-flecked eyes upon me, and nodded shrewdly. "Daughter of the legendary Commodore Ehm'ayla," she stated. "And her human mate." She seemed to hesitate over that word, and a spasm of something like pain crossed her face. Before I could ask, though, she shook herself and smiled. "Welcome to the Sah'raal Game Park, Miss Abrams."

I bowed. "Thank you," I said. "But 'Ehm'rael' will do. Or even just 'Rae.'" I glanced at Sah'larssh. "You two know each other, I take it--?"

Ehm'viir nodded. "My kits attended school with Sah'larssh and his sister, some years ago." She glanced at him. "How is Ehm'talak? If I may ask?"

"She is well," Sah'larssh said. "Her control over her prosthetics grows more precise with each passing year. It scarcely seems appropriate to think of her as 'handicapped' now. She is traveling on Sah'taam Continent with our parents right now, but in a week or so she will arrive in Sah'salaan. We will be attending the University together."

"That is well," Ehm'viir said. I detected a certain dryness in her tone, and Sah'larssh turned away, his ears reddening. He'd already confessed to me the jealousy he'd felt toward his unfortunate twin most of their lives. Fortunately for both of them--and me, come to think of it--those days were over. "Please do let us know when she arrives," she went. "I have no doubt Sah'jass will wish to see her."

"No doubt," Sah'larssh said wryly. He glanced around. "So where are Sah'jass and Ehm'vanja?"

"Sah'jass is with his father, fixing fences on the northern border," Ehm'viir said. "And as for Ehm'vanja--" she gazed over our shoulders, in the direction of the house, and nodded. "Here she is now."

The girl who came speeding toward us, her braided mane bouncing against her shoulderblades, looked to be about my age, and so resembled her mother that she seemed more clone than offspring. Like Ehm'viir, Ehm'vanja was solidly muscular, in a way that few Sah'aarans of any age bother to achieve, and she too wore camouflage shorts and a halter. She skidded to a halt before Sah'larssh, and her broad welcoming smile froze as she saw the bonding-band around his ankle. Her own leg was bare. She recovered well, though, and when the introductions had been performed, she bowed to me with apparent sincerity. "I am honored to meet you, Ehm'rael," she said.

She was attractive, very, and had I not been sure of my bond-mate's pheromones, I wouldn't have allowed her within a kilometer of him. But I was, and so I replied in kind. "And I you."

If Ehm'viir noticed this by-play, she gave no sign--but I had a strong feeling she had. My mother would have, certainly. She glanced at the fast-rising sun, and nodded firmly. "All right," she said. "We'd best get moving." She indicated the large vehicle with a jerk of her thumb; it was a hover-skim truck, a four-seater with an open cockpit and a long, wide bed. "I've got the equipment stowed," she went on. "So as soon as you've changed clothes…"

I spread my arms. "I thought I'd go like this," I said, but Ehm'viir shook her head.

"Too bulky," she said. "And too conspicuous." She grinned. "Some of my clients prefer to hunt in nothing but their fur…"

"I'm not--" I began. I'd been about to say "I'm not hunting"; but Sah'larssh caught my eye and shook his head, and I finished lamely, "--that kind of person."

"Few are, these days," Ehm'viir observed sadly. "Ehm'vanja, dear, would you please--?"

"Of course," the younger version said. She beckoned. "Follow me."

She led us across the yard, toward one of the smaller structures, and as we went, I hissed softly into my bond-mate's ear, "Why did you stop me? You know I'm not going to…"

He nuzzled my cheek. "It can't hurt to dress the part," he said. "You'll be more comfortable. And less visible too, as Ehm'viir said." He fingered the sleeve of my white T-shirt. "Even this might be enough to spook a herd."

I sighed. "All right," I said. "For you."

As I'd expected, the little building was indeed a bunkhouse, Spartan but comfortable. It contained four narrow, low-slung beds, several footlockers and cabinets, and--behind a folding screen--a functional, if plain, bathroom. Rummaging through one of the cupboards, Ehm'vanja brought forth a pair of small, flat, plastic-wrapped bundles. "These ought to fit," she said.

Sah'larssh ducked into the bathroom to change--more to spare my feelings, I suspect, than to protect his modesty. Ehm'vanja didn't step outside, and I didn't trouble myself to ask her to, but she did turn her back as I stripped off my clothes. Slitting the wrapper with a forefinger-claw, I found inside, to my extreme non-surprise, a pair of shorts and a halter, identical to those worn by our hosts. Rather more perplexing was the collar, a plain grey one with a strong, tricky-looking clasp. "What's this?" I asked.

Ehm'vanja glanced back. "Radio tracking," she said simply. "Required equipment."

I hesitated--I'd had my fill of such things, and quite recently too--but finally, with a shrug, I fastened the rather stiff band snugly around my neck. Of course I could see the point: if a member of a hunting party were to become separated from his fellows, or if there was an accident, those collars could mean the difference between life and death.

As I clothed myself, I commented, "I get the feeling your mother has a low opinion of humans."

"Oh?" Ehm'vanja said, a little too casually. "What makes you think that?"

"The tone in her voice, when she mentioned my father."

She sighed. "As it happens," she said, "you're right. But it's nothing personal. A human once tried to abduct her, back before my brother and I were born. She's had as little as possible to do with Terrans ever since."

"I can understand that," I said. "Having recently been kidnapped myself. Though in my case it was a strictly Sah'aaran affair."

"Yes," she said, nodding. "I heard about that. They say one of them actually clawed you--?"

Pulling up the thigh-length leg of my shorts, I showed her the pale scars. "Fortunately his claws were weak," I said. I could finally talk about it without a tremor--almost. "Otherwise I might have bled to death."

Her eyes widened, and she shook her head. "I can't even imagine a Sah'aaran doing that to another," she whispered in horror.

"Neither could I," I assured her. Raising my arms, I turned a full circle before her. "How do I look?"

My new clothes fit well, and though undeniably snug, they were actually pretty comfortable, being stretchy and virtually weightless. The shorts had an elastic waist, and the halter was secured with strong mag-seals rather than bow-knots. The outfit was similar to ones I'd worn many times before--on Earth, that is. Looking me up and down, Ehm'vanja nodded in approval. "One thing," she said, pointing at the top of my head. "Those--what do you call them--earrings. I'd leave them here, if I were you. They might reflect the sun at the wrong moment."

Once again I almost blurted, "But I'm not hunting!"--and once again (after hearing an almost subsonic throat-clearing from the direction of the bathroom) I bit the words back. For some unknown reason, my bond-mate didn't want me to say that. A rule of etiquette, perhaps, with which I wasn't familiar. They'll have to know eventually, I thought--but nonetheless I nodded and reached up to unfasten those four little studs. To keep them safe I pinned them to my own collar, which I then coiled and stowed in the front pocket of my overalls, spread flat across one of the bunks.

"By the way," I said. "The human who tried to abduct your mother--what happened to him?"

"Oh," she said flatly, "she ended up having to kill him."

My jaw dropped--but at that moment the bathroom door slid open, and my horrified incredulity dissolved into a helpless giggle. Sah'larssh stood in the doorway, his brown day-robe draped over his arm. His outfit consisted solely of shorts, basically the same as my own--and had he been a Sah'salaan Continent native, they would have looked good on him. But his mother was from the far north, where the nights are cold--and for better or worse, her genes had been dominant. Even his summer coat was fuzzy as a Terran dandelion. But the area between his waist and thighs had been ludicrously compressed by that stretchy gray-green cloth, smooth and flat as a coat of lacquer. He grinned sheepishly, depositing his clothing beside mine. "When I was a kit, my father used to trim my fur every First-Summer Eve. Took a couple hours. I hated it." He squirmed. "But it was more comfortable."

"No time now," Ehm'vanja said dryly. "Let's go--it's not a good idea to keep Mother waiting."

###

We piled into the cockpit of the big hover-truck, Ehm'viir and Ehm'vanja in the front seat and my bond-mate and me in back. To my surprise, it was Ehm'vanja who took the controls, and the smoothness of our ascent proved she'd had far more practice than I. She took the lumbering vehicle to an altitude of perhaps two hundred meters, then glanced at her mother. "Which way?"

Ehm'viir looked back at us. "What's your pleasure?" she asked. "Spotted Leapers or grazers?"

"What's the difference?" I said.

She grinned. "Leapers are harder to catch, but easier to kill. And there's more meat on a grazer." She pointed back to the bed of the truck, where, amidst the boxes of supplies, stood a long, low, heavily-insulated refrigerated locker, which apparently drew power from the truck's fuel cell. Ominous, that--but at the same time, only to be expected.

Sah'larssh didn't dare meet my gaze. "Better make it Leapers," he told her.

Ehm'viir smiled. "That's just what you said when you were twelve years old."

He nodded. "And I succeeded, too," he said proudly. "Eventually. Admittedly, it wasn't the neatest kill in history…"

"The only bad hunt is the one you never attempt," Ehm'viir said. It sounded like a maxim--and probably was. My mother had a stock of suchlike bloody-minded sayings too. "All right," she went on, "Leapers it is." She turned to her daughter. "Yesterday's satellite images had a herd about sixty kilometers southwest. Hopefully they won't have gone far."

With a nod, Ehm'vanja turned us in that direction. The truck was by no means as fast or lively as Admiral Ehm'rael's little skim, but soon enough the grassland was whizzing by, and a brisk and refreshing wind ruffled our manes. For a time we rode in silence, and the day continued to grow brighter--and warmer--around us. Stirred by our passage, the grass writhed and thrashed into strange, beautiful patterns; unlimbering my holocam and leaning alternately over the left-hand side and across the lap of my long-suffering bond-mate, I clicked off one shot after another. Sah'larssh looked on with indulgent amusement, and I could almost hear his mind working, composing line after line of Sah'aaran blank verse, in which the alternating shapes of the hieroglyphic characters substitutes for rhymes.

I had to chuckle as I contemplated what my family would think if they could see me now, and what I'd gotten myself into. My brother, I suspected, would simply refuse to believe it--and I couldn't have blamed him, since I could scarcely believe it myself. Father, to use one of his own favorite phrases, would probably have "blown a gasket." But Mother…I had the sneaking feeling she would have understood, even approved. And more: she--like Sah'larssh--might even be urging me to take the experience to its logical conclusion. I sometimes felt she regretted not having had the opportunity--until Hellhole, that is.

After a time I leaned forward, raising my voice to be heard over the wind-song. "This is beautiful country!"

Ehm'viir nodded, not taking her eyes off the ground below. In her lap rested a pair of powerful binoculars. "Yes, it is," she said lovingly. "It's been in my family for many generations--we're very proud of it, and how we've cared for it."

"If your ancestor hadn't made it a hunting park," Sah'larssh said casually, "I suppose it would be covered with maxigrazers now--or houses."

I shot him a look, and Ehm'viir, glancing back, frowned in perplexity. She had no way of knowing that she was hearing the tail-end of an argument--well, a discussion--that had begun the previous night. "I suppose it would be, yes," she admitted. "Since it's well outside the Sah'salaan greenbelt."

Sah'larssh grinned, and I elbowed him in the ribs--gently. Ehm'viir went on, "Under the terms of my great-great grandfather's will, the land can never be sold for grazing or development." She shook her head. "Not too many years ago, my mate and I were in danger of bankruptcy. We just didn't have enough business."

"What happened?" I asked. "You seem to be doing fairly well now."

She chuckled. "A book," she said. "Of all things. It was about hunting, and how we Sah'aarans are in danger of losing the tools the Goddess gave us."

I smiled secretly, wondering if perchance that book had been printed by the Sah'surraa Publishing Company. If so, it wouldn't be the first time my grandfather had applied his vast wealth where it was needed--subtly, of course.

"We shared in the royalties, because the author did his research here," Ehm'viir went on. "But it didn't end there. The book started a kind of back-to-nature movement. Very soon our business began to pick up. We were able to improve our facilities, and buy some new vehicles." She smiled. "We don't have to pay our rangers in meat any more, either."

And you raised two kits, I thought. That in itself cost a fortune--as my father delighted in reminding me. "I'm glad," I said. Sah'larssh gave me a brief, quizzical look, which I returned steadily. On a certain level he was right: that was a rather different opinion than I'd expressed earlier that morning. But it's the right of every sentient female to change her mind--a little, anyway.

Ehm'viir fell silent then, leaning forward, and hurriedly raised her binoculars. As she did, I noticed for the first time that her upper left arm, between her elbow and shoulder, was terribly scarred--though not, it seemed, actually impaired. I wondered what could have caused such an awful wound--but I had no opportunity to ask, because at that moment she grasped her daughter's hand and pointed, ahead and to the left. "There!"

As Ehm'vanja swung the truck into a wide, slow turn, I lifted my holocam, cranking its lens to the longest telephoto setting. What I saw through the viewfinder filled me with wonder--and dismay.

In a broad hollow perhaps a kilometer distant lay a star-shaped waterhole, sparkling blue in the sunshine. The grass had been trodden--or grazed, more likely--flat in a wide circle around it, and wide trails ran through the higher growth from all directions, converging on the shoreline.

Milling around the cleared area were a large number of small dark shapes--animals, obviously--perhaps two hundred in all. They stood singly, or in pairs or small groups, drinking, nibbling on the fringe of grass, or simply resting. Silently I willed them to run, scatter, vanish into the underbrush--but they did not. They didn't even look up, being either deaf to the whine of the truck's engine or entirely accustomed to it. Too bad.

Ehm'vanja circled around to the south, downwind of the waterhole, and landed the truck in the high grass about half a kilometer away--much more smoothly than I could have, even if I'd have dared to try with no solid ground visible. We disembarked in the midst of a small oval, beaten down by the truck's lift-fans, bordered on all sides by a rustling, sweet-smelling sea, rising far higher than our heads. The moment I'd been dreading was coming closer, inexorably, and with each passing minute my heart felt a little heavier. How did I ever let him talk me into this?

Moving quietly, especially careful to avoid the clank of metal on metal, Ehm'viir and her daughter opened boxes, distributing ear-clip commpaks and wide webbing belts with water-bottles and first-aid pouches attached. That was the extent of our equipment; we would carry no weapons, apart from what evolution--or the Goddess, take your pick--provided. I wasn't sure whether I found that reassuring or alarming.

Ehm'viir showed us a pair of buttons on our commpaks, one big, recessed and red, the other smaller and green. "The red one is the emergency beacon," she said. "It's linked to an alarm back at our base, where one of my people is monitoring the signals from our collars. The other activates a homing receiver, tuned to a transmitter in the truck. If we get separated, you can follow the signal back here." She peered sternly at Sah'larssh and me. "I can't stress enough the importance of following my instructions--and paying attention. Hunting is a dangerous pursuit, and it requires caution. Spotted Leapers are small, but they have a vicious kick--and extremely sharp hooves. I can assure you from personal experience, neither a broken jaw nor a dislocated shoulder feels very good. Understood?"

Once again I opened my mouth to object--and once again Sah'larssh caught my eye. "Understood," I said meekly, and my bond-mate nodded his agreement. He seemed tense, edgy--not with nervousness, though, but with anticipation. Clearly he'd been looking forward to this--almost as much as I'd been dreading it.

"Good," Ehm'viir said. "Here we go--stay close."

She started off through the grass, and the rest of us followed, single-file, with Ehm'vanja taking the rear. Ehm'viir did not crush the towering blades underfoot, nor even push them aside--not exactly. Rather, she seemed to slip between them, turning her body first to one side, then the other--and her progress, though utterly silent, was remarkably rapid. I struggled to emulate her, and was at least partially successful. Ahead of me, my poor bond-mate's puffy fur was causing him some trouble, catching on the seed-heads, but he struggled along as best he could. And at the end of the line, as might be expected, Ehm'vanja was a wraith.

Slowing my pace a trifle, I spoke quietly into her ear. "How long have you been doing this?"

"All my life," she replied. "Or just about. My brother too. I brought down my first Leaper when I was six years old; he took a grazer when he was eight."

I shuddered, just a little. "You enjoy it?" I asked, and she nodded enthusiastically.

"Very much," she said. "When Mother and Father retire, this park will be ours--my brother and me, and our mates. We're looking forward to that." She glanced hurriedly at Ehm'viir, whose tail was just visible in the grass far ahead. "Not that we don't think they're doing a good job, of course."

"Of course," I said wryly.

She peered at me curiously. "There isn't anything like this on Terra--?"

"No," I told her. "Not that I know of, anyway. Hunting is pretty well a dead issue on Earth--has been for a long time."

She shook her head sadly. "I guess it doesn't mean as much to humans as it does to us."

"I guess not."

She cautioned me to silence then, with a hand on my arm. Glancing ahead, I saw bands of pale-blue brightness between the grass-stems, and the breeze brought me a faint musty scent. It seemed somehow familiar, though I knew I'd never smelled it before. I wondered if it was somehow inscribed on my genes. Soft grunting sounds came to my ears, as did an occasional donkey-like bray.

At the very edge of the untrampled grass, Ehm'viir dropped to her belly, my bond-mate at her side. Crouching low, Ehm'vanja and I crept up and stretched ourselves out flanking them. Cautiously then we pulled ourselves forward, parting the last thin curtain of blades with our claw-tips. And as we did, I caught my first glimpse of a creature I had previously only seen on a video screen.

They were small, the females standing no more than a meter tall at the shoulder, their narrow heads elevated perhaps another half-meter on thin, flexible necks. The males were visibly--though not significantly--larger. Quadrupeds, with stick-like legs and cloven hoofs, they resembled nothing so much as the Terran Thompson's Gazelle--reconstructed by committee, from a verbal description. Their short coats were slate-grey in color, slightly lighter in the females, and their shoulders and hindquarters bore a sprinkling of dark-brown dots. Their rumps were white, as were their stubby tails. The adults of both sexes had horns, four of them, black spiraled things with wicked-looking points, one pair standing straight up, the other angled forward over their eyes. As with everything else, those of the males were larger. Either the creatures did not form harems, or this was not the breeding season: males, females and half-grown young mixed freely, with no sign of segregation. Most of the animals were eating or drinking--but a few, males all, seemed to be on sentry duty. They stood still, their dark eyes darting nervously back and forth and their nostrils quivering.

My companions and I were safely downwind, though, about ten meters from the water's edge. The intervening strip of land angled gently downward, and was composed of bare, dusty earth, freely mixed with the straw of trampled grass. It lacked only water to be the perfect formula for adobe.

I caught Ehm'viir's eye, and lifted my holocam. She nodded, but pressed a finger to her lips in the universal signal for quiet. I had time to squeeze off perhaps a dozen shots before she called us back. Crawling on our bellies, we retreated a few meters deeper into the grass.

"All right," she whispered briskly. "At this time of the year many of the does will be newly pregnant--and there's no good way of knowing which are and which aren't. So they're off-limits. But this herd could stand to lose a non-breeding buck or two." She glanced at my bond-mate and me. "So--who goes first?"

Sah'larssh laid a warning hand on my arm. "I will," he said quickly. "That is, if I remember how."

Ehm'viir nodded. "Trust your instincts," she said--and once again it sounded like a litany. "They'll never fail you."

We crept once again to the edge of the grass, and stretched out flat. My heart had begun to hammer, so hard I was sure it would spook the Leapers, and my tail was lashing out of control. That, at least, seemed to be unexceptional: my companions' were too. For a completely different reason, I suspected.

For a time we watched the herd, observing its slow, monolithic shifts. Then Sah'larssh pointed off to our left. Near the water's edge stood a pair of young-looking bucks, their horns only half-grown, alternately drinking and browsing unconcernedly at a little half-submerged tussock. Ehm'viir nodded. Sah'larssh glanced at me and grinned, and I flashed a weak smile and a thumb's-up gesture, which I did not really mean. Very much the opposite, in fact. Then he turned and headed off through the fringe on knees and elbows. In an instant the grass swallowed him, and I could detect no sign of his passage.

I lifted my holocam and sighted through its viewfinder, bringing the bucks into focus. For what seemed an eternity I watched, my throat dry, my hands shaking slightly more than the camera's image-stabilizer could cope with. And then, in a flash of orange and copper, my witty, urbane, poetry-writing bond-mate exploded from the grass, sans belt, sans commpak--and sans shorts. Teeth bared, all sixteen claws expressed, he dashed across the fringe of bare earth, launched himself at the nearest buck--and missed.

At the last instant, warned perhaps by instinct, or having caught a glimpse of movement through the corner of its eye, the Leaper made good on its name. As one, its legs bunched and uncoiled, catapulting the animal straight into the air almost twice its own height. Sah'larssh's lunge, aimed for its flank, carried him instead through empty space.

He recovered quickly, though--much more so than I would have believed possible. Bending his elbows, he struck the ground and rolled, to the very edge of the waterhole. Regaining his balance, he hurled himself back in the direction he'd come. And as he did, he roared.

It was a sound I'd never before heard from a Sah'aaran throat, half snarl and half scream. He uttered it neither in anger nor defiance, but for a very specific, entirely calculated purpose. The first buck, his intended target, was already bounding away, like an ancient Terran toy called a "pogo stick." But the second had been caught off-guard, its head lowered to drink. It gathered itself for a desperate jump--but as Sah'larssh's roar split the air, it froze. Just for an instant--but that was enough. Even as it moved, Sah'larssh fell full upon its back, his claws digging deep into its shoulders. Its momentum dragged him a meter or two, his legs flailing, before his greater weight brought them both crashing to the ground. The Leaper struggled and kicked, and it shrieked on a hysterical, rising note that sent the rest of the herd running for the far side of the waterhole in a kinetic flurry of legs and bodies. But then Sah'larssh's teeth engulfed that narrow throat and clamped down hard. The buck's screams died suddenly in a choked gurgle as the blood fountained forth. Shuddering spasmodically, the animal gradually grew still. And then--

Were I in the mood to lie to myself, I'd say what happened then was solely a function of hunger--it had, after all, been several hours since breakfast. But even then, I knew that wasn't true. I'd read too much, and heard too many times my mother's tale of her exile on Hellhole. Stripped to the very essentials of survival, she found, to her horror, that the veneer of Sah'aaran civilization is paper-thin. And now, in the most graphic way possible, I learned how right she'd been. For a few seconds Sah'larssh crouched over the bleeding corpse, breathing heavily…and then, with a snarl, he began to tear at the body with his teeth and claws. His eyes caught mine, just for an instant, and in their gleaming, feral depths I saw nothing of recognition, or even sentience. He dipped his muzzle…

The holocam slipped from my suddenly numb hands, and I rose. Turning, I crashed through the grass, heedless of the noise I was making. I was heading for the truck, more or less--but I didn't make it. I got no more than a few meters before I collapsed. Sinking to my hands and knees, I lost what remained of my last meal, in agonizing, explosive heaves. Partway through, I realized I was not alone, but I lacked the strength to look up. A hand took hold of my forehead then, and a firm, supporting arm slipped around my abdomen.

Finally I wound down, and, rocking back on my haunches, I saw Ehm'viir gazing at me in concern. Without a word she handed me a water bottle. I rinsed my mouth, spat, and took a few cautious sips, cooling my raw throat. "I'm sorry," I whispered finally.

She made a slashing gesture. "No need to apologize," she said. "Believe me, it happens all the time. The first experience can be a little--overwhelming."

I smiled wanly. "To say the least." I took another drink, and my stomach finally began to settle. "It wouldn't have been quite so bad, if…"

"If he wasn't your bond-mate?" Ehm'viir finished shrewdly. "I know. But what you just saw is within us all, Ehm'rael. No matter where we were born, or who raised us. It's how the Goddess made us."

I turned away. "I have a hard time believing She could be responsible for anything that…ugly."

Ehm'viir shook her head firmly. "No," she said. "Not ugly. Far from it. Waste is ugly. To kill an animal and let it lie, or to kill simply because you want a trophy." Unconsciously she rubbed at her upper left arm, and I wondered yet again what had caused that terribly wound. "But to hunt and fill your belly--that is never ugly. It's…natural."

"Who says nature can't be ugly?" I countered with a smile. I sighed. "But I suppose you're right."

"Glad to hear you say that," she said. "Because now it's your turn."

My stomach lurched again, and I shook my head. "I'm not hunting," I told her--now that my bond-mate wasn't there to prevent me.

"A little squeamishness is only to be expected--" Ehm'viir began soothingly, but I interrupted.

"No," I said. "You don't understand. I never intended to hunt. What just happened has nothing to do with it."

She frowned in perplexity. "Why are you here, then?"

I started to show her my holocam--but it was no longer hanging from my shoulder. I remembered then that I'd dropped it, and I hoped it hadn't been damaged. It was my favorite, a gift from my parents for my fifteenth birthday. "To photograph," I said. "To see the animals close-up. I haven't been out on the savanna before…"

She quirked a smile. "And--?" she prompted.

"And," I said heavily, "because Sah'larssh wanted to. It meant so much to him, I couldn't say no."

"You knew what you were likely to see, didn't you?" she asked.

"I…suppose I did, yes," I admitted. "But--"

"But you were hoping he'd fail."

I nodded, shame-faced. "You're right," I said. "I suppose you think that's terrible…"

"What I think," she said, "is that I detect your father's human influence at work."

I rounded on her, whiskers bristling. "And if it is?" I demanded.

She raised a placating hand. "Don't get me wrong," she said. "I don't mean to denigrate him. Or his species," she added, very much as an afterthought. "Obviously he's taught you to be a caring person, and that's good. I am myself. So are my mate and kits."

"You are?"

"Certainly," she said. "We care very much about the animals in this park. And not just as a commodity, or our stock in trade." She paused. "But there's a vast difference between 'caring' and 'sentimentality.' A modern civilization--ours, or Terra's--can afford to be sentimental. But just because you can afford something doesn't mean it's a desirable product."

"Maybe I am too sentimental," I said. I shook my head. "But--I can't. I just can't."

"Can't--or won't?"

"Can't," I insisted. "I'm not strong enough…"

"Yes, you are," she said, looking me up and down. "Any Sah'aaran with a reasonable degree of physical fitness is. Even Sah'larssh's sister. I know that for a fact, because she's hunted here, and successfully too. That's one way her grandfather tested those prosthetics."

"I don't have the skill, then."

"There is that," she admitted. "And it's not uncommon to fail on the first attempt, or even the first several. But in my experience a good half--or more--is instinctive. With practice, we can become better at it--more efficient, less clumsy. But even the best hunter has to start somewhere."

"That's just it," I said. "I don't want to start. Maybe that is my father's influence, and maybe he's made me less of a Sah'aaran--but I don't care. I don't want to kill anything, and I won't."

She took hold of my hand, and pressed firmly at the tip of my forefinger, forcing the claw to express. "Why do you have these, then?" she asked. "It takes time to keep them this sharp; why not just cut them off and have done with it?"

"Tradition," I said. "And pride. My mother taught me--"

"And she was right, as far as she went," Ehm'viir interrupted. "We Sah'aarans would rather die than lose our claws. But why? Haven't you ever stopped to consider the reasons behind the tradition?"

"Certainly I have," I said. "And I respect them--of course I do." I swallowed. "But…"

"…Only in the abstract," Ehm'viir finished, with a touch of mockery. She shrugged and stood. "Fine," she went on. "I can't force you--and I wouldn't even if I could."

"Good," I said. "I'll be in the truck, then."

"--But I can give you something to think about," she went on, ignoring my interruption. "You and Sah'larssh just recently bonded, isn't that right? No more than a few weeks ago?"

"Give or take," I agreed, wondering uneasily where this was headed.

"So you're still learning about each other, about your likes and dislikes."

"True enough."

"So tell me," she asked with a wicked smile, "what did you learn about him today?"

I looked away. "Something I wish I hadn't."

"You learned that beneath his civilized exterior there's a carnivore," she said. "And not very far beneath, either. And now you're worried that you'll never see him in the same way again. That's what made you sick--not the sight of blood and guts. Am I right?"

I couldn't meet her gaze. "Yes," I whispered. "You are."

"--And I have news for you," she went on implacably. "You won't ever see him in the same way again. What you witnessed today has changed your relationship with him forever. I know: I've seen it happen, time and time again."

"I hate that idea," I said miserably.

"Of course you do," she said. "But that's the reality you face--unless you do something about it. And you can; it's entirely up to you."

I peered into her eyes for several seconds. Then I said slowly, "You mean--have the experience myself."

"Exactly," she agreed. "That's the only way you'll ever be able to understand what happened back there. He'll try to describe the experience--but it is literally indescribable."

I paused for another long moment--then fired my final, weak salvo across her bow. "Isn't the herd scattered now?"

She smiled. "They won't stay that way very long," she assured me. "You'll see."

"I--I don't know," I said. "I understand what you're saying, but…"

She patted my shoulder. "Think about it," she said. "There's still time." Her ears perked up then, and she nodded. "Here they come."

I turned, to see Ehm'vanja and Sah'larssh pushing their way through the grass, following the trail I'd blazed. With a smile, Ehm'vanja handed me my holocam--none the worse for wear, it seemed. Glancing at its counter, I was astonished to see that someone--presumably me--had shot more than twenty frames of my bond-mate's hunt. I hadn't even been aware of my finger on the shutter release. I reached for the "erase" button--and paused. Better give Sah'larssh a look first. He might actually want to keep them.

And speaking of whom…he followed in Ehm'vanja's wake, and from several meters away I heard his satisfied purr. He had collected his equipment and clothing, and the remains of his victim was slung across his shoulders, the glassy-eyed head lolling near the base of his tail. His fur was disheveled, and slightly damp-looking--but surprisingly, it seemed to contain very little blood. When last seen, the Leaper's severed carotids had been spurting all over him--so what happened to all that gore? Did I really want to know? He gazed at me in concern. "Are you all right, darling?" he asked. "I thought I saw…"

"I'm fine," I said. I glanced quickly at Ehm'viir. "Just a little…overwhelmed."

He nodded. "Believe me, I know the feeling," he said wryly. "I suppose this means we're through for the day--?"

I hesitated--then shook my head. "No," I said. "Not quite."

###

My turn, then--if I dared to take it.

Leaving Ehm'vanja at the truck, to clean, cut up, pack and refrigerate what was left of Sah'larssh's kill, the three of us set off to the right, circling through the high grass to the southeastern side of the waterhole, following Ehm'viir's remarkably sensitive nose. My bond-mate looked as if he would have preferred to curl up and sleep--his abdomen was visibly distended--but he insisted on going along. We went hand-in-hand, he and I, but I was not ready to ask him to describe his experience. Not yet. Instead, I spoke quietly to Ehm'viir.

"There's one part of your operation I don't quite understand…" I began, and she smiled.

"Let me guess," she said. "The truck, the binoculars, the satellite tracking of the herds. Things like that."

"Frankly, yes," I said. "I expected us to spend a lot more time tracking…"

"That takes skill," she explained. "More than can be learned in a single day. We'll include it, if a client requests--sometimes we'll start out from camp stark naked, carrying nothing more than a water-bottle. Sometimes a spear or a set of bolos, too, if that's the experience they want. But for a one-day job, it's easier to find a herd from the air and set down next to it. And frankly, that's more what we're about."

"How so?"

"Anyone can learn to stalk," she said. She nodded at my holocam. "With one of those, or with binoculars, or even with your own eyes. It's a satisfying pastime, true--but it isn't what we as a species are in danger of losing."

I nodded. "The kill," I said. "The claws, the teeth, the blood. That's what you want people to experience."

"Just so. And ninety percent of the time, that's what our clients want too. It's a very deep-seated longing."

I glanced at Sah'larssh, and he returned my gaze sleepily. "Obviously."

Ehm'viir stopped short then, and, waving us to silence, cut sharply to the left. We followed. A few seconds later we reached the fringe, and she dropped to her belly. She parted the blades delicately, peered through…and then smiled and beckoned to me. I cast myself down beside her, and she pointed. "What did I tell you?" she whispered.

I looked--and saw immediately that she'd been correct. The herd hadn't stayed scattered very long. If indeed they'd scattered at all.

The site of Sah'larssh's kill--identifiable by the scuffed footprints and the lurid bloodstains--lay some forty meters to our left, around the curve of the waterhole. The remaining Leapers had departed that immediate area, and indeed that entire side of the pond. But whether through fear of what might be lurking in the high grass, or a belief in safety in numbers, they had remained within the trampled circle. All two hundred of them stood, bunched and nervous, along the southern and eastern shores. We were still downwind, though, and even as we watched the herd began to relax and disperse.

I peered at the milling beasts--and wondered abruptly what in the Goddess' name I was doing there. Ehm'viir was right: I was too sentimental. Down in the Undercity, tending the crowded fish-tanks, I felt sorry for the casualties I netted every morning. As a tiny kitten, my very first toy was a stuffed animal, a sea otter, which even now occupied the shelf above my desk in Pacific Grove. And when, as kits, our parents took my brother and me to the zoo in San Francisco, I declared the animals to be alternately funny, cute, adorable, or scary. Never were they something to kill, or eat. And yes, that was certainly my father's doing. Mother let it happen--probably because she never imagined I'd find myself in this situation.

And yet…if I forced myself to look beyond my hypersensitive, mawkish sentimentality, there was a resonance of sorts. My initial wave of revulsion having passed, I felt deep within me now a stirring of…something…which centuries of civilization and a Terran childhood couldn't entirely bury. Nature versus nurture, I guess--and though the latter was putting up a heroic fight, the former might actually be gaining the ascendancy. It was an exciting feeling, frightening in its intensity--but did I dare act on it?

"I'll probably end up flat on my face," I muttered, only half-aware that I'd spoken aloud.

Ehm'viir smiled and shook her head. "I doubt it," she said. "But if you do, you do. It's impossible to succeed every time." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Ask your bond-mate about his first five or six attempts."

Sitting cross-legged a little distance away, fighting to stay awake, Sah'larssh nodded. "It's true," he agreed readily. "And even my successes aren't pretty. I was lucky today--by rights I should have gotten nothing more than a mouthful of dirt."

And that would teach me what, exactly? I almost asked--but the answer was obvious. With a sigh, I returned my attention to the Leapers.

The herd had well and truly broken up by then, some of the braver individuals even beginning to drift back to the site of Sah'larssh's hunt. With the exception of a few larger bucks, still standing sentry, the animals seemed to have gone on with their lives, as if nothing at all had happened. I wondered briefly what it would be like to have so short an attention span--or to look upon the death of a fellow creature with just one emotion: profound relief that it had been him instead of you. A strange existence, there near the dangling end of the food-chain…

Ehm'viir grasped my elbow and pointed, breaking into my thoughts. "There!"

I looked--and my stomach tightened painfully. Some distance to our right, a broad, spoon-shaped peninsula jutted into the waterhole, perhaps four meters long and three wide, its edges fringed with fresh grass. As I watched, a matched set of three medium-sized bucks strolled out onto the spit, turned their snowy rumps toward us, and began to eat.

"Circle around to the right," Ehm'viir hissed into my ear. "And hit them from the side. If you're fast enough, you might cut off their escape."

Unless they jump into the water. But perhaps they--like most Sah'aarans--didn't like getting their feet wet. I started to rise--but my muscles refused to obey. My heart had begun to pound again, thudding against my ribs; my tail was writhing and my mouth dust-dry. I wanted to run, to flee, to go home and hide in the closet, and forget that this place even existed. Sah'larssh wouldn't hold it against me--he was my bond-mate--and I need never see Ehm'viir or her daughter again. There would be nothing to remind me of my shame. Nothing, that is, but my own conscience--and the primal urges that were even now building up inside me. I wanted this, I suddenly realized. I wanted to know how it would feel--even to try and fail. Stirred to life now, some savage part of me would never rest until I did.

"Now or never," Ehm'viir said--words which, at that moment, had double significance. Quickly I stripped off my commpak and belt, and handed my holocam to Sah'larssh. For a few seconds I debated whether I should disrobe, as he had--and finally decided against it. There's a limit. "Wish me luck," I said, and then, at a low, shambling crouch, I moved off through the grass to the right.

As I went, doubt rose up once again to assail me. I considered the million things I would rather be doing at that point--practicing my pitching, playing tennis, kayaking, jogging, reading, writing, photographing, sleeping--and one by one, dismissed them from my mind. Trust your instincts, Ehm'viir said. They'll never fail you. Regrets, sentiments, even my very identity as a sentient being…they all must be set aside. I had to distill myself to reflex--an art with which I was not, after all, so terribly unfamiliar. When the count is three and two and the bases are loaded with two out and a tied score, you don't waste time wondering if you can pitch a strike. If you allow yourself to think, you're lost. You simply allow your body to do what it knows it can.

When I had gone what seemed a sufficient distance, I parted the grass and peered out. That little peninsula now lay slightly to my left--and the three bucks were still there, still eating, their right-rear flanks now facing me. The breeze bore me their scent, and to my surprise I realized I could recognize their individual odors. Had they fled into the grass, I felt, I could have followed them by nose alone. Hopefully that would not happen--because, as Ehm'viir had noted, tracking required skills I did not possess.

I paused for a few seconds, picking my target. The buck in the middle was the biggest, his horns the sharpest-looking and most developed. I was not sure whether I cared to tangle with him. The one to the left was smaller--but in the best position to flee. Which pretty much left the one on the right, medium-sized and apparently guileless. I took a deep breath and gathered my legs beneath me, my toe-claws biting in. And then, before I could change my mind again, I sprang.

About six meters of bare earth separated me from my target, and I had crossed a little more than half that distance when my chosen victim heard me. Its ear flicked, and then its head lifted quickly, a tuft of grass still dangling from its mouth. Its eyes locked with mine; I saw the sudden terror in those limpid dark-brown depths…and I stumbled.

What tripped me I don't know; a rock, perhaps, a clod of dirt, a stick…or my own two feet, though one thing I'd never been was clumsy. Whatever the cause, I suddenly found myself falling forward, and I raised my arms to protect my face. In the last instant before I hit the ground I saw a flash of movement, and I knew that two at least of the bucks were making good their escape. The one on the left bounded off in that direction, past the spot where my bond-mate and our host were watching in growing disappointment. And with wild daring--or simple desperation--the animal I'd chosen leaped directly over my sprawled form. I felt the wind of its passage on my back, and one of its hoofs nicked the tip of my left ear.

It would have been very easy just to lie there, and allow the last buck to get away too…but I couldn't, and wouldn't. Less than a second after the one passed over me, while its hoofbeats were still receding into the distance, I scrambled to my feet. And what I saw astonished me.

The third buck--yes, the one in the middle, the largest of the trio--had not yet fled. Caught unawares perhaps, it stood at bay, wide-eyed, its nostrils flaring, its head darting back and forth, pawing the ground as it sought a means of escape. It knew--if that's the correct word--that it was trapped: no matter which way it ran, I would have a clear shot. It hesitated for the space of three or four heartbeats--mine, not its--then lowered its head. I wondered wildly whether it would try to go straight through me. If I can just avoid those horns…But then, wheeling around in a blurred whirl of legs and hoofs, it plunged into the water.

Most other members of my species--with the exception of my brother--would have given up at that point. But not me. At that instant nature and nurture, so long in conflict, melded perfectly. Without an instant's hesitation, I dashed to the edge of the pond, gathered myself, and jumped. It was a long leap, and I very nearly missed, but my claws dug deep into the beast's hindquarters. Already off-balance, it fell heavily to the left, and I had just enough time to snatch a deep breath before I was dragged beneath the surface.

Fortunately, the water was only about a meter deep, and fairly warm; unfortunately, it was extremely turbid, and rapidly grew more so. The bottom was thick, slimy mud, and struggle though it might, my victim was unable to rise. It bucked and plunged, its legs flailing wildly, and the water slapped at my face, filling my mouth and nose and half-blinding me. Somehow or other my grip held, and in the dim background of my mind I thanked the Goddess that I had always kept my claws well-tended.

For a few endless moments we were stalemated. If I could force its head underwater, eventually it would drown--but that would take time. It might fight free before then, or injure me badly with its flying feet. It might even roll over onto its other side, pinning me underneath. Already it seemed on the verge of finding its footing…

I have to reach its neck. From whence that thought came, I have no idea--certainly not from my conscious mind, which was screaming at me to let go. But all too true, no matter the source. I had slipped several centimeters by then, my claws digging long furrows in the Leaper's thighs. At any second it would tear itself free, and I was not at all certain I could catch it again--if indeed it didn't decide to turn and attack. I grabbed another spray-filled breath, released the grip of my right-hand claws, and with a desperate lunge, re-planted them farther up the beast's flank. Hand over hand I drew myself toward its head, until finally I was able to pull my legs up and drive my toe-claws into its rump. And then, mouth wide open, I threw myself at the base of its skull. In that last desperate instant there was nothing of emotion in me: not sentiment, nor regret, nor even anger. I was Carnivore Incarnate, and in my contracted universe there existed nothing but my teeth and their target. I felt the shock in my neck as my jaws struck home, and I clamped down with all my remaining strength. Bone crunched and splintered, and a warm, salty fluid filled my mouth; the Leaper screamed, struggled, shuddered, spasmed…and slumped.

Had I possessed the wit, I might have worried that the taste of the creature's blood would make me gag--and I would have been wrong. Very wrong. Freeing my claws--all of them--from the corpse, I rose, water and mud streaming from my fur and mane. Dimly I was aware that I was quite alone: the commotion had once again caused the herd to flee, and this time they had headed for the hills, plunging into the grass in every direction, creating dozens of freshly-trampled passages. Apparently two in one day was a little much, even for them. I grabbed hold of the Leaper's forelegs and dragged the limp body onto dry land. Neither Sah'larssh nor Ehm'viir made any move to help me, though I know they were watching; I think they realized what I would have done if they had.

The metallic tang of Leaper gore still strong in my mouth, I dropped to my knees beside the sodden corpse. At that moment my mind had room for just a single thought, and no force in the universe, not even the Goddess Herself, could have prevented me from following through on it: to fill the gaping chasm that had suddenly opened in the pit of my stomach.

--And as I began to do just that, guided once again by the instincts that had most definitely not failed me, I noticed Sah'larssh crouching at the edge of the high grass, clicking away madly with my holocam. A set of vacation pictures I probably wouldn't be showing my father…

###

In the warm, Tatak-scented darkness of the little cabin, I cuddled a little closer to my bond-mate, feeling the contented purr rumbling forth from his belly. "Glad you came?" he asked, and I chuckled.

"That depends on your definition of 'glad,'" I told him. "It's certainly been an interesting day."

"To say the least," he agreed. He turned over onto his back then, and I draped myself across him, resting my head on his fluffy chest. My body, my limbs especially, felt curiously unresponsive, and I knew that come morning I'd be paying for my exertions. A few bruises were developing too. On a certain level, though, the promise of sore muscles pleased me, much like the tiredness that follows pitching a complete-game shutout. Only a few weeks ago my day's activities would have been impossible. It hadn't been easy, but I was finally nearing the end of my long road back from the Undercity.

I'd wondered a little about the presence of those bunkhouses at Ehm'viir's headquarters; surely their staff couldn't be that large. But now, finally, I understood. Stuffed as we were, neither Sah'larssh nor I was in any condition to pilot a hover-skim--and that could not have been a unique situation. Even to clean myself up after my hunt had required a major investment in concentration. And so my bond-mate and I had gladly accepted the use of a cabin for the night. Stripping off our borrowed clothing, relieving each other of our radio-tracking collars, we removed the lingering traces of grime and blood with a sonic shower--and then collapsed. We retained just enough strength to push two of the narrow bunks together, forming a makeshift, but functional, double bed.

"But yes," I went on, languidly smoothing a patch of his fur with my tongue. "On the whole I am glad I came--and that you talked me into going through with it."

I saw the sudden gleam of his smile. "I don't recall doing that," he observed.

"Not directly, no," I admitted. "Not with words. But you managed to manipulate me into it anyway. And by the way, my darling," I added significantly, "that won't work again. I'll be ready next time."

"You are your mother's daughter," he observed.

"And my father's," I said with a smile. "Seriously, though--I don't regret the experience. Not at all. I can't say I enjoyed it, exactly--but it was…important. I feel richer for having had it."

He stroked my mane. "I hoped you would," he said. "Not that I think you need changing…"

I grinned. "Certainly not."

"…But to be honest, since I met you I've been a bit…concerned. I wondered if you truly understood what it means to be Sah'aaran…"

"I always thought I did," I said. "But now I have to wonder."

Gently he touched the tip of my left ear, where a sliver of dermapatch covered a centimeter-long split. That one desperate buck's hoof had been sharper than I'd thought--and by the time I finished my messy feast, not all the blood that covered me was its. "I just hope the lesson wasn't too painful."

"I'll heal," I said. I paused. "I'm glad it was just you and me," I went on. "I love my brother dearly--but I don't think this was something I'd have wanted to share with him. I'm not even sure he would have participated."

"You said the same thing about yourself, this morning," Sah'larssh pointed out. "Tom might surprise you--as you surprised yourself."

I slipped my arms around his waist. "You might be right." Though my dear brother is ten times more squeamish than me

"So," Sah'larssh asked, "would you do it again?"

I thought about that, while his hands moved in long strokes from my shoulders to the base of my tail, smoothing and re-smoothing my fur. "I don't know," I said finally. "Right now my answer would be 'No, once is enough.'" I shook my head. "But a little voice inside me keeps whispering, 'Never say never!'"

"I know that voice," he told me. "And I'm afraid it won't ever go away--not entirely. If it's anything like mine, it will keep cropping up, at the most inconvenient times. And it won't take 'no' for an answer."

"--Because it's part of what we are," I finished. "I know. And I think you might be right." I stifled a sudden yawn. "For the moment, though, I'd be happy if it would just shut up and let me get some sleep."

##END##


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