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.


Volume Six

September 18, 2380--Morning

Goddess, what a night I had! And it looks like this weekend won't be quite as relaxing as I'd hoped.

My late caller was Ehm'murra--why doesn't that surprise me--and when the screen remained blank, I knew she was calling from a personal commpak, not a visiphone terminal. "Did I wake you?" she asked; and when I assured her she hadn't, she sounded almost comically relieved. "Good," she said. "Listen, Ehm'tassaa," she went on, "I need a really big favor."

At this hour? I almost asked, but instead I said, cautiously, "And that is--?"

"I need a place to sleep tonight," she said, sounding embarrassed. "I'd find someplace to crash at the University, but I'm too tired to look."

"Well, of course," I said. I have plenty of space, the Goddess knows. "But why--?"

She sighed. "I'd really rather not go into that, okay? Let's just say I can't go home right now."

"All right," I said dubiously. "Where are you now?"

"Outside your front gate."

I guess I could have made a comment then--something about counting your prey before it's caught--but why bother? I told her to come ahead, and I quickly slipped back into my day-robe and crept out of my suite. I managed to get her inside the house without waking up the family or any of the servants, and I took her through the darkened hallway to my sitting room.

She was dressed much as I'd first seen her aboard the Matriarch, in green pants and a white shirt, with that multicolored Guatemalan vest and collar. Her mane was loose, and disheveled, as if she'd recently released it from a braid but hadn't bothered to brush it. Over her shoulder she carried a backpack, stuffed full of…something. Clothes, I guessed.

As I settled down on the sofa beside her, she smiled. "Thanks," she said, sounding--and looking--exhausted. "I really appreciate this."

"You're--" I began; but I broke off in horror as she pushed back her hair, and I caught my first clear look at her face. On her right cheek, directly beneath her eye, she bore a large and growing bruise, livid even through her fur. I reached out to touch it, but she shied away. "What in the world--?" I demanded.

She turned away. "I ran into a door…" she began lamely.

"The Dark you did," I said. "Somebody hit you!"

She still wouldn't look at me. "Yeah," she admitted softly. "That's right."

"Who? And why?"

She shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it."

"But great Goddess! Nobody has the right to go around slugging people…"

"I said," she snapped--and yes, her teeth were bared, and her claws visibly expressed-- "I don't want to talk about it! Okay?"

I drew back, and she sighed. "I'm sorry," she said. "That was rude of me. Let's just say I had it coming, and it will heal soon enough. Other than that it's nothing for you to be concerned about. All right?"

"All right," I said--even more dubiously. "But I still don't like it."

"Neither do I," she said. "But that's the way it goes sometimes." She paused. "You wouldn't happen to have a few scraps of food lying around, would you? I haven't eaten since this morning…"

That at least wasn't a problem. I flash-warmed a couple steaks from the freezer--plenty more where that came from--and got out the spice-rack. While she was stuffing her face, even more enthusiastically than is usual for us carnivores, I ransacked the medicine cabinet and found an anti-inflammatory med-patch for her bruise. The skin wasn't broken, so whoever did it hadn't used claws--probably backhanded her. But it was a nasty wound nonetheless, and the blow must surely have knocked her off her feet, at very least. She was lucky it hadn't crushed her cheekbone. As I applied the patch I found my hands shaking with anger, something that had seldom before happened. It's happening again as I try to write this. For virtually the first time in my life I truly felt myself capable of violence: I wanted to find the person who had done this and return the favor, and then some. But if she wouldn't even talk about it…

After she'd finished her meal, I asked her, "What did you mean--'find someplace to crash at the University'?"

She grinned. "I've done it plenty of times," she said. "There's always an empty office or meeting room somewhere, or there's the library. The trick is not getting caught."

She has a way of making the most appalling things sound plausible--but I hope I'll never need to test that theory. And if I wondered about the circumstances under which she'd sought such lodgings…I decided to keep my questions to myself.

About then she started to yawn--and it was contagious. Finally she chuckled and patted the sofa with her hands, evidently testing its softness. "Well, I've seen 'em a lot less comfortable-looking than this. If I can beg the use of a blanket …"

"Don't be silly," I said. "My bed is huge--plenty of room for two."

Oddly enough, that seemed to take her aback. "You mean like…share?"

"Certainly," I said. I frowned. "There's nothing so odd about that, is there? I mean, you used to share a bed with your brother when you were kits, didn't you?"

She gave me a strange look. "No," she said flatly. "I didn't."

That really surprised me. I honestly believed that all Sah'aaran kits, no matter where they were raised, slept with their siblings. I certainly did, until I was about twelve years old--which is fairly typical. So did Tom and Ehm'rael. For us it's as natural as claws and tails. But the fact that Ehm'murra and her brother had not (and come to think of it, I don't even know his name, nor where he is or what he's doing now) explained a lot, it seemed to me.

"It'll be fine," I told her. "And I'm certainly not going to let you sleep on a sofa--not when I have half a square kilometer of mattress to spare."

In the end I talked her into it, and we went to bed. Just as well: I'd been up since dawn, and I was definitely starting to droop; and Ehm'murra, her stomach now stuffed full, was practically asleep on her feet. Without clothes or collar she looked smaller, somehow, and with a great deal of her aggressive self-confidence temporarily on hold, she suddenly seemed much younger than me--though in fact she's my elder by almost four months. She was also embarrassed half to death, and after she'd undressed she ducked quickly under the covers, as if ashamed to be seen in nothing but her fur. Had I thought she'd accept it, I might have cuddled up with her, as I used to with my brother, or--much more recently, but far too seldom--with Tom. But that would have made her terribly uncomfortable, and so we settled in back to back instead. I have to confess I really enjoyed the warmth of her spine pressed against mine, and the feel of our tails twined loosely together. I've never liked sleeping alone, and I look forward to the day when it's no longer necessary.

We went to sleep pretty quickly, and for several hours everything was quiet. But along about four a.m. I came half-awake, and realized that the entire bed was shaking. For a few seconds I had no idea what was going on--Sah'salaan hasn't had an earthquake in recorded history--but then, finally, I realized it was Ehm'murra, and that she was crying bitterly into her pillow. I lay quiet for several minutes, wondering what I should--or could--do. To most Sah'aarans--including her--tears are a matter for deep shame. If I said a word, I'd humiliate her for life. But on the other hand, I couldn't just lie there and do nothing…

And so, silently, I turned over, and, grasping her shoulder, made her turn over as well. She didn't resist. I gathered her into my arms, and she buried her face in my shoulder. I continued to hold her, soothing her with a soft purr as my mother comforted me when I was very young, until finally she quieted and went back to sleep. Soon afterwards I drifted off as well.

Well, it's morning now, and I'm alone. Predictably I suppose, Ehm'murra managed to slip out while I was still asleep, having somehow extricated herself from my grasp without waking me. Well, I always was a heavy sleeper--just ask Sah'hael or Tom. All she left was a hastily-scribbled note, in Terran: "Thanks for your help. I'll be seeing you." Everything else--her clothes, her backpack--is gone.

No, not quite. She did leave one other thing. I'm not sure if it was by accident, or if perhaps she wanted me to find it--though I can't imagine why, if so. I found it on the bathroom floor: the wrapper of a med-patch, a single dose of RHT.

I guess I should explain that, for the sake of future generations for whom (hopefully) such things will be only a distant, bad memory. RHT is a synthetic hormone--and the only thing that makes life endurable for unbonded female Sah'aarans during their fertile and menstrual periods. I say "their," because after bonding such chemicals are rarely, if ever, needed; but I did indeed take RHT myself, twice a year, from about my twelfth birthday until I met Tom. And like millions of others, I fervently thanked the Goddess for having inspired its inventors.

Common enough, yes--but I happen to know that Ehm'murra is at least three weeks away from "that time:" she told me so herself, just a few days ago--and I can't think of any reason why she should lie about that. But that makes my discovery all the more mysterious, because I also can't think of any reason why anyone would take RHT out of season. It ought to have no effect whatsoever--though I'm scarcely an expert.

…But whatever is going on, after last night she owes me an explanation, big time. And I'm going to get one, even if I have to rip it out of her with my claws. The only problem is finding her--and I think I have a pretty good idea where to start looking.

To Be Continued...

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