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.
 
 

THE BLACKFUR CHRONICLES

Volume Eleven

October 30, 2380--Afternoon

It's official: I hate mid-terms.

It isn't so much the taking (though I came out of each and every one with a splitting headache, blurred vision and expressed claws) as the studying. Especially when you end up having five exams in two days. It's the same dilemma, more or less, as that faced by the hunter who peers through the underbrush to see half a dozen fat and isolated grazer calves right in front of him. Which one do you chase? Or--in this case--what do you study first? There are, after all, only so many hours in the day. Which subject do you have a handle on, and in which are you a little shaky? And may the Goddess help you if you guess wrong. Things were certainly a lot easier when I had a tutor.

Actually, I didn't do too badly at all. Tom will be proud of my score on the Calculus exam: all that extra coaching he gave me before I left Terra is finally paying off. And my grade on the Linguistics test was high enough to convince me that I really did pick the right major--though I suppose I shouldn't get too excited just yet: it is, after all, just a midterm grade in a very preliminary course.

Only on one test did I do a little less well than I'd hoped: that computer class. It's not that I'm having trouble with the material. At least I don't think so. My problem is the instructor. In my two-plus years on Terra, I met dozens or hundreds of humans, and by and large I liked them, although they do smell kind of funny, and can at times be frightfully noisy. But Professor Hank Zane, I've discovered to my dismay is, just plain annoying. He jumps around the computer lab like a yearling Spotted Leaper in the springtime, and has the singularly irritating habit of not finishing his sentences. And worse: he continually launches into one supposedly instructive anecdote or another, drifts off the subject, and never returns. I don't know how many of his stories are still bouncing around in my head, unresolved. I'm not the only one in the class who feels that way, either--I know that for certain. But by the time I realized how much he bothers me, it was too late to transfer out. It isn't too late to salvage my grade in the course, though. Uncle Sah'sell, bless him, has provided me with some extra study material, and I think I've made a deal with Professor Zane to do some extra-credit work--which might, as it happens, do my personal life some good as well.

At least my stupid leg didn't hamper me much: only a week after my accident, I was back on campus--albeit on crutches. Fortunately, I wasn't on the receiving end of quite as many curious stares as I'd feared--no more than I'd already been getting, in fact. And just a couple days ago, I was able, thank the Goddess, to get rid of that ugly, stiff, full-length brace. The one I'm wearing now--and which I'll probably be stuck with for quite some time--extends from my lower thigh to my upper calf, and has articulated metal supports along each side. It's black, too, meaning that it practically vanished into my fur. Wearing it, I can walk without crutches, and almost--almost--without pain. The slightly stiff hinges give my stride a mechanical aspect, almost like Ehm'talak's--but with nothing like her grace.

I'm taking physical therapy, twice a week--and that, I'm here to tell you, does hurt. A great deal. During my first two or three sessions I came very close to passing out from the pain, and I nicknamed my therapist (a pleasant, but utterly pitiless, female of about thirty-five) the "Spanish Inquisition." As Tom's father likes to say, though, "Time wounds all heels." I should also mention that the therapist comes to me, here at the house, rather than me going to her office in the city. Three guesses who arranged that.

As predicted, my parents were terribly upset when they heard about my injury--but somehow or other, Sah'surraa managed to mollify them, at least partially. Exactly how, I don't know, and I don't have the nerve to ask. At least they didn't insist that I withdraw from the University and return to Terra--a demand which Father, if sufficiently provoked, would have no qualms at all about making. And also as predicted, my bond-mate became nearly hysterical when the news reached him. As he himself readily confessed: I didn't need to rely on Ehm'rael for that information. And that, by far, is the worst part of a rotten situation. My pain I can live with; it was my own fault, the wages of carelessness. But his was totally undeserved, and struck him out of the blue, at a time when he could ill afford the distraction. But it's an ill wind, as the Terrans say: at least now he knows how I felt when he vanished into the Undercity--or when he nearly got himself killed, three times, on Centaurus Minor.

What with my injury, my therapy and my mid-terms, I've hardly had time to think about Ehm'murra--or much desire to, for that matter. For the record, I guess I should say that she's still missing. She hasn't contacted me, and I haven't heard a thing from her aunt and uncle either--not, in the case of those two, that I expected to. But the other night, while I lay wide awake with the Dark Ones and their demonic legions jumping up and down on my knee (well, that's what it felt like, anyway), it occurred to me that I've been looking at this situation entirely backwards. All this time I've assumed that Ehm'murra would want to rush home to Terra, to be with her boyfriend--and wondered why she hasn't. (So far as I've been able to determine, at least.) But spaceships travel both directions--and for her purposes, it would actually make much more sense to bring him here to Sah'aar. After all, Sah'majha told her that both of them would need to be present for him to work his nanotechnological black magic.

And that's where that extra-credit project for my Computer Sciences class comes in. If I'm lucky, Professor Zane will never know the true purpose behind my work; hopefully he'll think I'm simply writing and testing a generic search engine. My bond-mate, I'm sure, could whip up such a thing in his sleep; but he's the son of a former CF Compcomm--with a devious streak a light-year wide. And for better or worse, he's too far away to help. Uncle Sah'sell is a wizard with computers as well, and so is Sah'surraa--but this is something I really need to do on my own. Not only for the sake of my grade, but also because I'm not at all sure the rest of the family would approve.

It isn't going to be easy, either, and much of the time I'll be dancing on the edge of (though hopefully not actually breaking) Alliance privacy laws. My main difficulty is that I have so little information to start with. Ehm'murra's boyfriend is human, obviously, and his first name is Ethan. That much I know. And it seems safe to assume, from context, that he's about the same age as her, and that he also lives, or lived, in the Seattle area. But beyond that, I know absolutely nothing. Not even his surname.

The best way to start, I figure, is to try to find out which high school Ehm'murra attended. (Like an idiot, I never thought to ask.) That shouldn't be too hard. I hope. And if I can determine that, then hopefully I'll be able to get hold of a list of recent graduates. Then, Goddess willing, it will only be a short step to positively identifying Ethan. And if I can, maybe then I'll be able to learn whether he's recently hopped a ship for Sah'aar. The more I think about it, the more certain I become: Ehm'murra must be holed up somewhere on this planet, incognito, waiting for him to arrive.

…And that leaves me with only one question, the hardest of all: Why am I doing this? That's something I've asked myself quite often lately. The family--Sah'surraa and the others--have told me repeatedly that I ought to forget about Ehm'murra and move on; that she was almost certainly using me, pretending to be my friend, as a way of getting to Sah'majha--despite her claim that she'd known nothing of my indirect connection to him. And it's hard to deny that her last action--walking out, without so much as a "goodbye," a "thank you," or even a "freeze in the Dark Domains"--was hardly what you'd expect of a true friend. If I ever see her again, she owes me an apology, at very least.

…But angry as I am at her--and I think I have every right to be--I can't just forget about her. Not that easily. And even if I could, I have a sneaking feeling that she and a young male human might be showing up on my doorstep one of these days. When--if--that happens, I want to be ready.

Oops--visiphone's ringing. Excuse me.

Late Evening:

Without a doubt, that was the strangest experience I've had since arriving on Sah'aar--my adventures with Ehm'murra notwithstanding. And it's left me with a very difficult decision to make--something I most definitely don't need right now.

The call that interrupted me earlier was from Ehm'talak, of all people, telling me that her grandfather wanted to see me. I hadn't a clue why, and she wouldn't--or couldn't--say; but driven by curiosity (always a dangerous thing, I know), I threw on a day-robe, cinched up my brace, and made my slow and slightly painful way up the foot-path. Ehm'talak met me at the door and took me immediately to the lab, which clings to the back of the house like a budding yeast cell to its parent. Sah'majha was waiting for me there--and so too was another male, one I knew only by reputation: Dr. Sah'hariir. He's in his late sixties, and his mane and fur are almost entirely gray, though not yet snow-white like Sah'majha's. He's widely known on Sah'aar, but not, I'm sorry to say, universally liked. In fact in some quarters he's positively despised. He started out as Sah'majha's assistant, many years ago, then went on to earn an MD from Sah'salaan U. Since then he's been the older man's liaison, so to speak, between the sometimes-conflicting worlds of medicine and engineering. It's in the former that his reputation is worst.

What the two of them wanted--surprise, surprise--was to examine my damaged knee. How Sah'majha heard about my injury I don't know; possibly from Ehm'talak, or even from Sah'surraa himself. I obliged them--and after they'd probed, prodded and scanpaked my poor leg for an hour or more, they made a remarkable--not to say "startling" offer. Rather than the complicated surgery and long recovery envisioned by Dr. Ehm'ullya, my orthopedic surgeon, they want to attempt to rebuild my knee using nanotech.

By no means is that without precedent--as they themselves hastened to assure me. In fact the medical benefits of Sah'majha's work are well-documented--if not quite universally accepted. Several years ago, for example, he was able to entirely repair his mate's failing lungs, to the point where Admiral Ehm'rael breathes more easily now than when she was forty. There are other examples as well. But a knee is a complicated piece of machinery--and even Sah'majha, enthusiastic though he is, can't be one hundred percent sure that what he's proposing will work.

In the final analysis--unfortunately--the choice will be entirely mine: I'm an adult now. (By Sah'aaran custom, of course, I became such when I bonded with Tom; but Alliance law doesn't quite see it that way.) My friends and family can only advise--and in most cases, I can already guess what they will say. My parents, I suspect, will be opposed, mainly because Sah'majha's techniques are experimental--and also because I'm their daughter. Tom, the budding engineer with a touching faith in the ability of technology to cure all ills, will be deeply concerned--but probably in favor. As for my hosts…For many years now, Sah'surraa has supported Sah'majha's work, financially and otherwise--but his open-mindedness does have limits. The others, I honestly can't say. They might follow Sah'surraa's lead, as head of the household--or they might not. And finally Dr. Ehm'ullya. She, I know, will absolutely hate the idea. That's a given: the Sah'aaran medical establishment long ago proclaimed themselves adamantly opposed to Sah'majha's work--or, at very least, its extension into the medical realm. If I was in the mood to be cynical, I'd wonder if that's because they're afraid he'll put them out of work. More likely, it has to do with the almost legendary conservatism of most doctors. They very much prefer tried-and-true remedies to experiments or (as they would say) flights of fancy.

I've written to my parents and bond-mate for advice--of course I have--but in the end I'll have to make this decision on my own. I have to admit, what Sah'majha is offering is extremely compelling: a fully-functional, completely pain-free knee. And not an artificial one, either, made of metal and ceramic, but entirely natural, built according to the plans stored in my own DNA. And it could be mine without surgery, without months of painful rehab. But if he fails…then even Dr. Ehm'ullya might not be able to clean up the resulting mess. Sah'majha scoffs at that idea--of course he does--but I can't dismiss it quite that easily. After all, I'm the one who'll have to live with the consequences.

Sah'majha didn't press me for an instant decision, not exactly--and a good thing too, because he wouldn't have gotten one. He does want me to choose as soon as possible, though. Not only because of the distinct possibility that I might re-injure the knee in the meantime, but also because the sooner we begin, the less the nanobots will have to undo before they begin to redo. He'd like me to decide within two weeks, at the most. No pressure, right.

One other rather odd thing happened while I was at Sah'majha's house. Just as I was about to leave, he drew me aside to ask how Ehm'murra is getting along. I realized then, to my everlasting shame, that I hadn't thought to tell him that she's vanished--and apparently nobody else did either. The news seemed to alarm him, and I could think of only one reason why: perhaps the work he did, suppressing her bonding mechanism, might do her harm if left untended. But when I asked, his reply was at best enigmatic, and at worst damned peculiar. He pondered for a moment, as if he wasn't too sure himself; then he smiled and shook his head. "No," he said. "As long as she's still on Sah'aar, she'll be fine." Now what do you suppose that means?

Well, I have an early class tomorrow, and I suppose I really should go to bed. The chances that I'll actually sleep are slim to none--but I might as well go through the motions. Maybe I can trick my body into thinking it's actually gotten some rest.

To Be Continued…


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