Copyright 2001 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 Eight

September 19, 2380

When I lived on Terra, I often heard the old human saying about being "driven up a tree"--but I never took it seriously. Until now.

I'm writing this amidst the upper branches of a gigantic old Tatak, about half a kilometer south of Sah'surraa's house. It's nice and cool up here, with a refreshing breeze, and shady too; and the leaves have a pleasant, spicy smell, which I've loved since I was a kit, but seldom experienced, because there aren't many Tatak in the city. The view is nice too; it seems as if I can see forever, across a waving sea of grey-green grass, with occasional glimpses of houses tucked into the little hollows and in the lee of hills. Far to the west is what must be a herd of maxigrazers: dozens or hundreds of tiny, slowly-shifting dark blobs.

…And best of all, it's private here, and nobody knows where I am. It's late afternoon now, and the shadows are long; pretty soon I'll have to climb down and find my way home for dinner. But not quite yet. Not until I've collected the rest of my scattered wits.

I've had more stressful weekends, I suppose, but offhand I can't remember many. And worse yet, I'm beginning to wish I'd never met Ehm'murra. That's a horrible thing to say, and may the Goddess forgive me, but it's truly how I've come to feel these last two days. I like her; she's a fascinating person; but she's brought me nothing but trouble. Sometimes it's felt as if she's my own kit--and if this is what parenthood is really like, Tom and I had better postpone it for a decade or two.

The day started…well, not exactly badly, but certainly difficultly, and kept getting more so as the hours went by. I overslept, to begin with--which isn't surprising, I guess, considering that I tossed and turned half the night, reliving yesterday's events over and over. By the time I finally woke, my bedroom was already flooded with midmorning sunlight. After cursing myself roundly for not setting the alarm, I gulped down my breakfast and threw on my clothes, and dashed out into the hallway--just in time to almost run headlong into one of the household staff, coming from the direction of the guest rooms with a tray of blood-smeared plates in her hands.

The servant (a word I loathe, but which I guess is accurate) was a female named Ehm'haazal. I've become quite friendly with her over the last couple weeks. She's about six years older than me, and even in a plain white day-robe she's strikingly beautiful. She's from Ehm'tarr Continent: her form is wiry and supple, and her fur is sleek, almost wet-looking, and faintly spotted. She's also newly-bonded, with a joyful radiance in her eyes that's both familiar and wonderful to see--but makes me pine all the more for Tom.

We both pulled up just in time to avoid a collision, and Ehm'haazal smiled. "So where's the fresh kill?" she asked.

"I was hurrying to take Ehm'murra her breakfast," I said. I nodded at the tray. "But it seems you beat me to it."

"I'm afraid so," she said. "Ehm'naala's orders."

That wasn't particularly surprising either. "How is she this morning?"

"Much better," Ehm'haazal said. "There's color in her ears, her eyes are bright, and her nose is cold. I think she'll be fine. The doctor is coming later today to make sure, though."

Which could, I knew, be a little sticky--hopefully Sah'sell had talked Sah'vuul out of turning in Ehm'murra for prescription drug abuse. Actually though, I was relieved simply to hear that she was still in the house. I'd more than halfway expected to find that she'd sneaked out again in the middle of the night--though that would have been a little difficult, since we'd locked up her clothes and collar. "That's good," I said. I sighed. "I suppose I really ought to look in on her…"

Ehm'haazal grinned and shook her head. "Not quite yet," she said. "I was just coming to get you--Sah'surraa is waiting for you in the sitting room."

My tail thumped the wall. As a matter of fact I'd quite forgotten about my appointment with the head of the household. It was supposed to have happened more than an hour ago--and I knew, both from my own experience and from the stories I'd heard, how much Sah'surraa enjoys being kept waiting. I nuzzled quickly under Ehm'haazal's chin. "Thank you," I said, and brushed past her, heading up the corridor at a near-run.

He was indeed waiting for me, alone in the sitting room: that cavernous space furnished with massive old antiques, none of which quite match, but somehow achieve a harmonious whole. He was seated on a huge sofa of glove-soft, chocolate-brown grazer leather, and on the low stone-topped table before him was an exquisite tea service of the bright-red china commonly called "bloodware." I paused in the doorway to catch my breath, and as I entered I bowed. "My tardiness shames me--" I began, but he waved that off.

"You deserved your rest," he said. He waved a hand. "Come, child, sit by me."

I did, and sat in silence while he poured me a cup of herbal tea, and refilled his own. He leaned back, studying me, and finally he said, "You and my grandson have not yet formally mated…"

Not the most promising beginning--but fortunately it got better. "…But to me that is immaterial; I consider you a member of this family. As such, my home is your home. However," he added, his voice hardening just a little, "I do insist upon knowing what goes on beneath my roof. I find myself with a house-guest--one who is most welcome, I assure you--but without any recollection of having invited her to stay. Perhaps you can clear up this mystery?"

I felt my ears redden. "Yes, sir," I said. I took a deep breath then and launched into the story: everything that had happened since Ehm'murra's late-evening call two nights ago. I left nothing out; I knew--and could tell, from even a single glance into those rheumy, but shrewd, eyes--that he would pounce instantly on even the slightest inconsistency. I must have satisfied him, though, because he remained silent until I'd finished.

"I see," he said finally. Peering past me, through the windows into the sunlit garden, he nodded thoughtfully. "I was aware, of course, that Ehm'murra is an Incomplete…"

"You were?" I interrupted in amazement, and he turned his gaze on me, looking hurt.

"Of course, child," he said. "Some days ago when you invited Ehm'murra to dinner, I took it upon myself to look briefly into her history."

That's Sah'surraa, I thought--and it wasn't as if I hadn't been warned. Ehm'ayla would by then have been spitting nails, as the Terrans say--but I kept my expression neutral. No use antagonizing him--not when he was being so agreeable.

"--But I was not aware of her romance with a human." He sighed. "Recently I have become reconciled to the reality of such things," he went on. "And I have been forced to admit--however grudgingly--that a mixed relationship can occasionally be a good one. But though it pains me to say it, your friend is a very foolish young woman--on a number of levels."

"I can't argue with that," I said wryly.

"It would of course serve no purpose for her to go to jail," Sah'surraa went on briskly. "If you believe she truly has learned her lesson--?"

I nodded. "I do," I said. "She knows she came close to dying--I don't believe she'll try anything like that again."

"Then that is sufficient," he said. "And should any legal difficulties arise, I believe I can deflect them." He paused. "As for you, child--it seems to me that you have acted entirely properly, and with honor. Clearly, you and Ehm'talak saved Ehm'murra's life; had you not searched for her, she might well have not been found until it was too late. And I do understand your desire for discretion. But," he went on severely, though with the ghost of a twinkle in his eye, "I would appreciate it if in the future you would include me in your schemes. I am not such a monster, nor half so unreasonable, as I am rumored to be."

Once again I blushed. "Yes, sir," I promised. "I will."

"Excellent." He leaned back and sipped his tea. "That leaves us with only two problems. Ehm'murra is of course welcome to remain here as long as she wishes. I would not have her sleeping under trees while I have a bed to spare. But there is the matter of her uncle and aunt."

"I've been thinking about that a lot," I said. "I understand why they were so upset--but I can't condone her uncle striking her. Certainly not hard enough to cause such a terrible bruise."

"Nor can I," Sah'surraa assured me. "No matter how much he may have been provoked. And I understand her reluctance to return to a home where such things occur." He stroked his whiskers. "It may be that an airing-out of their difficulties in neutral territory is called for. Perhaps I should arrange for the three of them to meet here…"

"I--" I began, and broke off. What could I say? "That might indeed be the best idea," I said. "Though we might have some difficulty convincing Ehm'murra to attend."

He smiled. "I leave that in your capable hands. They must at least be told where she is. She has apparently walked out on them before, yes--but they must surely be worried about her."

I wasn't so certain of that--but I couldn't disagree. "I'll try to get their visiphone code from her," I said.

"Even a name will be sufficient," he said. "I have my sources." He paused. "The other difficulty may be far less easy to solve, I fear."

I nodded. "Ehm'murra and Ethan," I said.


"I thought," I said, "and Ehm'talak seemed to agree, that we'd consult Sah'majha. What he did for Ehm'ayla and Joel Abrams…"

Sah'surraa frowned. "Have you mentioned this to Ehm'murra, child?"

"No, sir. Not in so many words, anyway."

"If I were you," he said, "I would not. At least not yet."

"May I ask why, sir?"

He leaned back. "I am…concerned," he said. "No doubt Sah'majha could help them--though he might be somewhat reluctant, given the public scorn he endured on the last occasion. But…well, child, you were extremely fortunate. You bonded at an early age, and now your future is secure. You were spared the heartbreak of ending a relationship that was never meant to be."

I said nothing, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. Many years ago, he and Admiral Ehm'rael--not even a cadet, then--had shared a brief affair, long before he bonded with Ehm'naala and she with Sah'majha. By all accounts, they'd been very much in love--but they hadn't bonded, and that was that. And though they were both perfectly happy in the matings that they'd ended up with, still, I knew, they would never stop having tender feelings for each other--nor a certain amount of regret either.

"--But humans do not bond," Sah'surraa went on. "Some of them will indeed form life-long relationships--but many will not. I have come to trust Joel Abrams; I know that he has accepted the responsibility of being mated to a Sah'aaran. But he was more than thirty years old when he shouldered that burden, a mature adult who knew what he was doing. I cannot say the same for this Ethan. I do not know him, I have nothing against him--but I do know that for humans of his age, love affairs begin and end with shocking rapidity. Ehm'murra may be prepared to form a lifelong connection--but he might not. Or, even if he thinks he is, he might well change his mind in the years to come. And that would be devastating for her--perhaps even fatal."

"So," I said, "what do I tell her?"

He sighed. "I do not know," he said. "And it may well be a moot point. But it might be best if I speak to Sah'majha first. I will not try to dissuade him from helping her," he added hurriedly. "He is in any case not easily dissuaded. But I will make certain he appreciates my concerns."

I nodded slowly. "That might be for the best." I drained off the rest of my tea then, and stood. "Thank you for being so understanding, sir," I said, and he smiled, so broadly and charmingly that I wondered how he'd ever gained a reputation for being difficult.

"I had lessons in understanding, not long ago," he said. "Painful--but effective."


I left the sitting room then, and made my way to Ehm'murra's guest quarters, and the instant I drummed my claws on the door-plate I heard her strong, almost strident voice ring out, in Terran: "Come in!"

I found her sitting in a large comfortable chair near the sliding door, looking out at Ehm'naala's lovely imported roses. She'd stripped the sheet from the bed and wrapped it around herself, below her arms, forming a kind of impromptu toga. She was collarless, but that didn't bother her, and I tried to keep my eyes from straying too often to her scandalously bare neck. "Good morning," I said. "How are you feeling?"

"Much better," she said. She waved her hand, indicating the desk chair, which was the room's only other seat. "Take a load off," she said. "Sorry about my casual turnout--I can't seem to locate my clothes."

Briefly I considered telling her that she'd had none when we found her--just to pay her back for the trouble she'd caused. But I'm too soft-hearted, I guess. "I'll get them for you," I promised. "We--uh--wanted to have them laundered…"

She grinned mockingly. "You mean you were afraid I'd skip out on you again." She shook her head. "Not this time," she went on, suddenly serious. "Listen--I really want to thank you. If you and--what's her name? Ehm'talak?--hadn't shown up when you did, I don't know what would have happened to me."

"Just promise you'll never do that again," I said. "That will be thanks enough."

"I won't," she said. "I swear. Once was enough. You wouldn't believe the dreams I had last night…"

I peered closely at her. She did indeed look much better: more like herself, rather than the pale, weak, shaking invalid that Ehm'talak and I practically carried across campus. Her eyes were once again piercing, and a healthy pink had returned to her ears; even her fur and mane had regained their gloss. That ugly bruise seemed to have gone down a little as well.

She expressed the claws of her right hand then, and peered at them through slitted eyes. "So," she said casually, "when can I meet Sah'majha?"

I almost fell off my chair. "What?" I said. "How--?"

Once again she grinned. "I'm a journalist, remember? Trained to put two and two together and come up with five. I was a little groggy yesterday, but I've been doing a lot of thinking this morning. Ehm'talak, Sah'majha, your bond-mate's parents. You know," she went on in aggrieved tones, "you might have told me the most skilled nanotechnician on Sah'aar was your next-door neighbor…"

I shrugged. "How was I to know it would mean anything to you?" I countered. "And a good reporter ought to have been able to find out for herself."

Her smile fell. "True enough," she confessed. "I must be slipping. But that was what you meant yesterday, wasn't it? When you said there might be 'another alternative'?"

I wished now I hadn't said it; that my tongue had been cut from my head--like the ancient punishment for slandering a Matriarch--before I'd uttered those words. But she had her claws into them now, and like our ancestors, wouldn't let go until she made a kill. "Yes," I admitted. "It was."


I paused, my mind working furiously. Sah'surraa had asked me to wait until he'd had a chance to talk to Sah'majha. Hopefully he'd done so immediately--and knowing him, he probably had. He'd never been one to let prey vanish into the underbrush. Which was good, because Ehm'murra wouldn't be put off for long. In her own way, she's every bit as strong-willed, as stubborn, as he is.

"I'll give him a call," I said finally. I smiled. "But first I'll go get your clothes."


An hour later, Ehm'murra and I took the short walk around the waterhole to the house of Sah'majha and his mate, Admiral Ehm'rael. Ehm'talak and Sah'larssh live there too, and help their grandparents with the household chores while attending Sah'salaan U. We walked slowly--because Ehm'murra was still a little shaky on her legs--but it wasn't long before we passed through the gate and wound our way up the path to the ornate front door. Ehm'talak met us there, and took us through the house to the conservatory. On the way, she glanced at me behind Ehm'murra's back and gave me a wink, and I knew then that she'd been briefed. Good thing.

Amidst the flowers and the tinkling fountains we met Sah'majha. For me as well as Ehm'murra, it was the first time--though both of us were well familiar with his story. "Rescued" by the Chrysaoans from the wreckage of a crashed freighter--which they themselves had shot down--he'd been repaired, his mangled lower legs and hand replaced with weird, skeletal prosthetics, and turned into a brainwashed slave. He was rescued from that soulless half-existence by then-Commander Ehm'rael, who he met on the water planet Lands-End, and after a near-fatal accident (well, a shooting), he regained his true self. They bonded, and have --of course--been together ever since. Now well into his eighties, his fur and mane are snow-white; but his eyes are still bright and shrewd, and he stands straight and tall on his gleaming copper legs, like--and yet shockingly unlike--Ehm'talak's.

He and his granddaughter were alone in the house, and he explained that Sah'larssh and Ehm'rael had gone into the city--quite a coincidence, yes. He sat us down, and offered us drinks and snacks, and then, leaning back in his chair with his hands crossed over his stomach, he invited Ehm'murra to tell her story.

During our visiphone conversation earlier--and thank the Goddess I'd had the presence of mind to make the call in private--he'd assured me that he had indeed already spoken to Sah'surraa, that he understood my grandfather-in-law's concerns, and that I had nothing to worry about. I'd believed him, instantly and without question--and now, sitting there sipping a glass of cold T'samma juice, I finally understood why. He listened gravely to Ehm'murra's story, giving her his undivided attention--and betraying absolutely no sign that he'd heard it all before, third-hand. I have to give Ehm'murra high marks too: she was absolutely frank, sparing not a single detail.

When she had finished, Sah'majha cleared his throat. "At present," he said, his voice strong but slightly ragged at the edges, "I fear I can do very little for you."

Ehm'murra stiffened, and quickly stuffed her hands out of sight beneath her hips. "Why not?" she demanded.

"The technique I used to assist Ehm'ayla and Joel Abrams is of course still available," he said. "And there is no reason why it would not work for you and Ethan as well. But it requires both of you to be present. I would need to sample his pheromones as well as yours, in order to correctly program the nanobots."

"--Oh," Ehm'murra said, crestfallen. Clearly that was something she hadn't considered. Nor me either--or even Sah'surraa, it seemed. And that, I realized instantly, was why Sah'majha had told me not to worry.

"The young man is still on Terra, I understand?" he asked mildly, and Ehm'murra nodded.

"Yes," she said miserably. "He is."

Sah'majha spread his hands helplessly. "Then you understand my difficulty," he said. "For now, the best I can do is to temporarily scramble your pheromones, rendering you unable to bond." His voice hardened. "I must caution you, however: it is by no means a permanent solution. In the short run it will be harmless--but over a period of time it could have dire psychological consequences."

Ehm'maana sat silent for a long time, and I could almost hear the wheels turning in her mind. Finally she said, "I'll take the risk. Let's do it."

And that was that, pretty much. There was nothing I could say, nothing I could do. They went to Sah'majha's lab, along with Ehm'talak, and with no reason to stick around, I went home. If nothing else, I figured, I could get some studying done, partially salvaging my ruined weekend. I was still hitting the books, several hours later when Ehm'murra returned. She looked tired, but happy, as she sank down on my sofa. "Is it done?" I asked, and she nodded.

"Yes," she said. "The nanobots are inside me even as we speak. Until Sah'majha injects a 'bot with counter-programming, I can't bond."

And that's supposed to be a good thing? I wondered. And, Thank the Goddess my father didn't have that technology available two years ago. His opinions have since changed, but at the time he would have done almost anything to keep me from bonding with Tom.

…I couldn't help thinking, though, that Sah'majha really hadn't solved anything. At best he'd sidestepped the problem--and probably given Ehm'murra's aunt and uncle even more cause for anger in the process. How she'd deal with that I hadn't a clue--camp out indefinitely at Sah'surraa's house, maybe? There was a limit to even his largesse…

Aunt and uncle…I remembered then, with a start, a certain bit of information I'd failed to extract from Ehm'murra. That is, if she'd be willing to give it up. "You know," I said, casually I hoped, "I don't think you've ever told me your aunt's name."

"Ehm'taaf," she said. Then her eyes narrowed. "Why do you ask?"

I shrugged. "Oh, no reason," I said breezily. "Just curious."

"Uh-huh," she said. She stood. "Listen, I'm a little tired--I think I'll go lie down for a while."

"That's fine," I said. "I'll see you at dinner?"

"Whatever," she said, and then she was gone.

I went back to my studying, thinking nothing more of the exchange--but I ought to have known. I'd caught her off-guard with that question about her aunt--but almost never does she speak without thinking. Every word she says is calculated, premeditated--and if she doesn't want to answer a question directly, she evades it. I ought to have known that when old Dr. Sah'vuul arrived a while later to check on her condition, she'd be gone, backpack, fedora and all. And this time without even an enigmatic note. All she left was a pile of unused RHT med-patches, twenty or thirty of them, stacked neatly on the bedside table.

…So that's why I'm up a tree. I have no idea what to do now; whether to try to search for her again, or leave her alone; and more importantly, what I'm going to say to her aunt and uncle. Somehow I can't make myself believe she's gone back to them--and honor demands I tell them what happened. Goddess, how do I get myself into these things?

It's peaceful up here, and nobody knows where I am--but the sun it starting to set, and pretty soon that cool breeze will begin to grow chilly. And I'm getting hungry. I should climb down, and find my way back for dinner--but part of me wishes I could stay up here forever. Or at least until my bond-mate comes to carry me away to a place where nothing matters but he and me…

Oh, yuck--the powderwing moths are starting to swarm. I'm going home.

To Be Continued...

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