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 Twelve

November 12, 2380--midmorning

Well, I did it--and the Goddess grant that I made the right choice.

I think I did--though I'm in a distinct minority there. I pondered, I researched, I tossed and turned at night; I solicited opinions, and I truly did consider each and every one of them. In the end, though, the decision was, had to be, mine, as I always knew it would be.

My parents and my brother were opposed, of course. I expected that, I wasn't surprised, and I'd already mentally prepared myself for all their arguments, which--to be honest--were long on emotion and short on logic. So too were Uncle Sah'sell and Aunt Ehm'sanzz--mostly, I suspect, because one of their kits is a physician. Ehm'naala claimed to be neither opposed nor in favor; but her body language, and the questions she asked, suggested that she was at least mildly against the idea, but didn't think it was her place to say so. And of course Dr. Ehm'ullya, my orthopedic surgeon, was utterly, irreconcilably opposed. I felt it my duty to at least discuss the matter with her--and almost immediately, I was sorry I had. She fumed and blustered; she threatened to have Sah'majha and his partner Dr. Sah'hariir arrested (though on what charge, I haven't a clue); she told me that I'd no longer be welcome in her office if I went through with it. And I have to admit, her words, and her white-hot anger, did trouble me. She is the leading authority in her field on Sah'aar, and she does know what she's talking about, most of the time. It's very difficult to so casually brush aside her advice. Especially since she'd be the logical one to turn to for help if something goes wrong.

Only two people were in favor--but as it happens, they were the two whose advice means more to me than almost anyone else's. One was Tom. I'd expected that too--mainly because he, like his father, is a dedicated gizmocrat. But to be honest, I don't know if his fondness for technology really had all that much to do with his endorsement. Far more important, I think, was his wish to spare me (and, by extension, himself) the greatest possible amount of anguish. Bond-mates don't really feel each other's pain, of course; but at times--and given a sufficiently vivid imagination--it's easy enough to believe that we do. I very definitely experienced Tom's fractured ribs and damaged lung, which he suffered last year on Centaurus Minor--but only when I learned of his injuries, which was weeks after the fact. (Which strongly suggests that it's a matter of sympathy rather than telepathy.) He didn't say so, not in so many words, but I very much suspect that the same sort of empathy is at work here. Tom can all too easily imagine what I'd go through if I chose to have the surgery: the long recovery, the weeks or months of therapy, the braces and the crutches. Being Tom, he'd suffer right along with me--and the Goddess bless him for that. In his mind, Sah'majha's nanotech represents a far easier, much less painful solution.

The other person who supported me, rather to my surprise, was Sah'surraa. He didn't explain why, and I didn't ask. But in the final analysis, his sturdy, unshakable faith in Sah'majha's skill is what gave me the courage to proceed. If anything should happen to go wrong, he won't abandon me, or say "I told you so!"--because part of the responsibility would be his, and he is legendary for living up to his commitments. With that kind of safety-net, almost any risk becomes acceptable.

So…I did it. With the University closed this week for the Migration Day festivities, this seemed a perfect time. Three days ago I alerted Sah'majha, and he in turn alerted Dr. Sah'hariir, and they went to work programming the nanobots. And early this morning, right after breakfast, I made my way down the path scared half to death but determined to get it over with. As before, Ehm'talak showed me in and took me to the lab, and stayed to assist--which, translated, means that she sat beside me and held my hand.

Actually, truth to tell, the procedure was quite short, and relatively easy. I didn't even have to disrobe; just remove my brace. I was a bit alarmed by the size of the needle required--the nanobots had to be injected directly into the joint, in two places--but Dr. Sah'hariir applied a nerve-block to my leg, and I didn't feel a thing. The only visible evidence that anything happened at all is two tiny bare patches on either side of my knee, where the doctor clipped away the fur. When he and Sah'majha had finished fiddling, adjusting and tweaking, half an hour later, I was able to walk home under my own power.

If I was expecting an instant cure, I was disappointed--but I'm not quite that stupid. As I sit here on my terrace, sipping tea, thinking about lunch and avoiding the studying I really ought to be doing, I don't feel anything at all, apart from--maybe--a little extra warmth around the joint. For the moment, and for the next several days, the nanobots are in "replicating" mode, making thousands upon thousands of copies of themselves. Only when a sufficiently large workforce has been created will the next phase begin: repair. And how long will that take? Probably two to three months, according to Sah'majha. The good news is, the improvement should be ongoing, a gradual lessening of pain and increase in flexibility, and it won't interfere at all with my daily activities, or my therapy. The better news is, once the bots have finished their work and self-destructed, I'll have a completely new knee, a perfect match to its uninjured mate. This process is still slightly experimental, though, and Sah'majha wants to monitor the bots' progress very closely: for the next few weeks, he wants to see me every two days. Fortunately, those appointments should be fairly brief: just a quick once-over with a scanpak, and perhaps a minor reprogramming of the master-bot, if needed.

Mother and Father will be livid, of course, when they hear what I've done; but it's a fait accompli now, as the Terrans say, and if things go well, they won't be able to argue with success. I hope. As for Sah'sell and Ehm'sanzz…well, their opposition was far less emotional than my parents', and I don't imagine I'll have any difficulty with them. They respect my right to choose. Dr. Ehm'ullya, though--I simply don't know. I may well have lost her services, and her friendship too; but I can't let myself worry about that. Maybe she'll come around too, given time.

Even with everything else that's been going on, I did manage to complete and deploy my specialized search routine. It took a while to get all the bugs out--Professor Zane should be pleased with my code--but even so, I've already had some extremely promising results. I still haven't been able to track down Ehm'murra--but I'm fairly certain I've pinpointed her human boyfriend. It was easy enough to find out where Ehm'murra went to school (William Gates High, just outside Redmond), but a little more difficult to get hold of the recent class lists. I don't think I broke any laws doing so, and since the District Police haven't come knocking at my door yet, I guess I really didn't. Once I'd gotten that information, though, things went quite a bit easier. Even in Seattle, it appears, the given name "Ethan" isn't all that common; just a dozen attended that school in the last five years--and only two of them were in Ehm'murra's graduating class. One, I found, emigrated to Mars immediately after graduation. The other, one Ethan James DuKane, I had a little more difficulty tracing--and imagine my astonishment when I discovered that he's now attending Stanford University in California, along with my bond-mate and his sister! I think it was Tom's father who once said, "Small world--but I'd hate to have to paint it." At any rate, I contacted Rae, and asked her to see if she could find him. I can't say she was exactly enthusiastic, but she did agree to try. I must admit I was a little surprised to find that he apparently hasn't left Terra. I truly expected him to be en-route for Sah'aar long before now. I just hope Ehm'rael can


Later--Sometime after Midnight

I'm not sure how much of this I'll be able to write. My hand is shaking--I doubt I'll be able to read half these characters later--and my claws keep trying to push the stylus out of my grip. It's a good thing too that I'm not writing on paper: try as I might, I can't prevent the occasional tear of shame and anger from dripping down my nose and off my whiskers. Maybe if I describe what happened, it will help purge the emotions, and I'll be able to get some sleep. I doubt it, but it's worth a try.

I was interrupted earlier, right in the middle of a thought, by a knock on my door. It was Ehm'haazal, my friend the domestic engineer, and she was there to tell me that I had a visitor--one who, for some reason, didn't wish to come to my suite. Slightly annoyed, I strapped on my brace and made my way to the front door--and long before I came in sight of the foyer, I caught a whiff of a very familiar scent. I almost broke into a run, but my knee warned me to desist, and I settled for a very quick limp. As I rounded the corner, absolutely certain who I would see, I cried out, "Where in the Goddess' name have you been??!!??"

As I'd known it would be, my visitor was Ehm'murra. She stood just inside the front doors, both of which still stood wide open, her arms crossed over her chest--and she wasn't alone. Another figure stood a little distance away, in the shadow of a huge potted narrowleaf, but in my excitement I scarcely noticed: I had eyes only for her.

"Ehm'murra!" I said. "I am so glad to see you!" I lifted my hands for the traditional greeting, but she wouldn't meet them; in fact she took a step back, away from me. Her tail was whipping, her whiskers were flared, and I could see too that her claws were expressed. Why, I had no idea. I noticed as well--though it hardly registered--that for her, she was dressed quite strangely, in a very plain, solid-brown day-robe and unadorned black collar, her mane loose around her shoulders. Gone were her trousers, her vest and her fedora. She seemed to have lost some weight, and her day-robe was a touch too big for her.

Her attitude and appearance brought me up short, and I fell silent, dumbfounded. And as I did, she half-turned and reached back, grasping the arm of her barely-glimpsed companion and bringing him forward.

Yes, him. I expected to see a young human male, her beloved Ethan--but to my astonishment, the person who stood beside her, smiling broadly, was undeniably and entirely Sah'aaran. He appeared to be about twenty years old, and was pretty good-looking too, with the wiry build, the rust-colored, faintly-striped mane, and the dark, slicked-down fur of a pure-bred Ehm'tarr Continent denizen--a "Tree-Climber," in Sah'salaan slang. He wore a green-and-yellow striped day-robe, and a collar with vivid emerald embroidery.

"Ehm'tassaa," Ehm'murra said, her voice halfway to a snarl, "I'd like you to meet Sah'rahfel--my bond-mate."

I almost fell over backwards, and for a long moment I couldn't speak. "Your…what?" I stammered finally. I glanced down--and yes, they both wore bonding-bands around their ankles: gold, with bands of ruby and white-veined bloodstone--and obviously brand-new.

"You heard me," Ehm'murra said. "My bond-mate. I assume you recognize the term."

Sah'rahfel stepped forward and bowed low, his hands over his heart. "I am honored," he began--but Ehm'murra shouldered him roughly out of the way. She strode up before me, her muzzle just centimeters from mine, and for a long moment she stared into my eyes. Then she drew her head back, took a deep hissing breath, and spat full in my face. Before I could react she spun around and stalked away, through the door and up the path, eluding her bond-mate's clutching hand. Within seconds she vanished into the lush growth of the front garden.

Sah'rahfel stood aghast, his mouth and his eyes both wide open. Then he shook himself and raised his hands placatingly. "I--I am terribly sorry," he stammered. "I had no idea, none at all, that she was going to do anything like that…"

In my shock, I hadn't moved, hadn't even wiped my face; but from somewhere I found the wit to nod. "I know you didn't," I assured him. I pointed. "You'd better go catch her," I went on. "I think she needs you."

He hesitated, torn evidently between the knowledge that I was right, and his desire to know what the Dark was going on. Finally he nodded sharply, once, and departed at a run.

For almost a full minute I stood trembling, Ehm'murra's spittle running slowly down my face. Finally, when I'd regained some control over my muscles, I reached into my sash-pouch for a handkerchief and wiped the insult away. From my fur, I mean--not from my mind. Then I closed the doors--firmly resisting an impulse to slam them--and stiffly, mechanically, turned and made my way back to my room, locking myself in. I knew what I had to do, but I didn't trust myself to do it in person; the visiphone would have to suffice.

Sah'larssh, Rae's bond-mate, answered, and he must have seen the look on my face, because as the screen cleared he drew back in alarm. "Ehm'tassaa," he said. "What--uh--what can I do for you?"

"I need to speak to your grandfather," I told him. "Now."

He hesitated. "He's a bit busy…" he began, but I interrupted.

"Now!" I repeated, as only an ambassador's daughter can. Sah'larssh jumped, then nodded and put me on hold. A minute later Sah'majha appeared, and Sah'larssh must have warned him, because his expression waved halfway between concerned and wary.

"Is everything all right, my dear?" he began cautiously.

"No," I said tartly. "Everything isn't." I couldn't believe I was pulling that tone of voice on someone so much my elder--it went against everything I'd been taught as a child--but I simply couldn't help myself. The most I could do was to hide my hands in my lap, to prevent him from seeing my claws.

"Your knee--?" he began, and I cut him off.

"No," I repeated. "Not that." I took a deep breath. "I just had a visit from Ehm'murra…"

"Oh!" he said. "So she--"

Once again I interrupted him. "…And her bond-mate," I finished.

His face fell instantly. "Oh."

Somehow, I forced myself to speak calmly. "Sah'majha, a few weeks ago I watched you inject some of your nanobots into Ehm'murra. Is that correct?"

He nodded. "It is."

"And at the time, you told her that they were meant to inhibit her pheromones, so that she'd be temporarily unable to bond. Which is what she wanted."

He nodded again. "Yes," he confirmed. "That is what I said."

"So what went wrong? Did you make a mistake? Did they expire? You said she'd be fine if she stayed on Sah'aar…"

"Nothing went wrong," he said heavily. "The nanobots acted exactly as they were supposed to--as I intended them to."

"What does that mean?"

He glanced away. "It means," he said, "that I programmed them not to suppress her pheromones but to enhance them; to increase their range and striking power, so to speak. As if she had entered her fertile period. It then became virtually inevitable that--no matter where she went on Sah'aar--she would encounter a male able to bond with her."

My entire body went numb, instantly. "You mean you lied to her," I breathed. "And to me also."

"Yes," he said simply. "I did. I am sorry, and deeply ashamed to admit it, but yes: I lied."

I know I should have been even angrier than before; but I couldn't manage it. All I had left was horror. "Did Sah'surraa put you up to it?" I demanded.

"No," he assured me quickly. "No one did. It was my idea entirely. No one else knew; not Sah'surraa, nor Ehm'talak, nor even my own mate."

Thank the Goddess for small favors, I thought. "Why?" I demanded. "Why did you do it? I can't believe that you of all people…"

He sighed, and it was a long time before he answered. Finally he said, "As you know, a little more than twenty years ago I helped Ehm'ayla to bond with Joel Abrams. At the time I was happy to do it; I could see that they were deeply in love, and it was a challenge I could not possibly resist. But I had no idea what the reaction would be, here on Sah'aar. Ever since, no matter what else I might accomplish, I am in the public's eye a monster, a ghoul, a perverter of the Goddess' will. To assist Ehm'murra as she wished me to would only renew that debate. The Sah'aaran people may be willing to accept artificial hearts, and prosthetic limbs, and other devices which prolong life or make it more endurable--but they are not--may never be--ready for alterations to the physiology or psychology of bonding. That is what I learned twenty years ago. Then, I was willing, and able, to stand against the tide, to accept the criticism and loathing and move on--but no longer. I am too old."

I swallowed. What could I say to that? "You could have simply refused."

"Yes," he agreed. "I could have. But that was not my only reason. I felt that she was making a mistake, one that would someday cause her deep regret and pain, and I decided to prevent it."

I nodded "Because young human males aren't known for their fidelity," I said tiredly. "I know: Sah'surraa and I talked about that. But he decided not to interfere."

He shrugged. "That was his choice," he said calmly. "And I respect him for it. I, however, must follow the dictates of my own conscience, and they indicated otherwise. I would not be party to what I perceived as a grave error. At any rate, it is over and done with now; her life will be spent with this other young man, this--?"

"Sah'rahfel," I supplied, and he nodded.

"This Sah'rahfel. Their bonding was perfectly natural; nothing I did interfered with that. And they will be happy together; that is inevitable."

"Maybe it is," I agreed. "And I guess eventually she'll see it that way herself. But the two of them weren't the only ones involved--even if we leave Ethan out of it."

He peered at me quizzically. "Pardon me?"

Once again I drew a deep breath, and, taking iron control over my voice, I described the incident at the door. "So obviously," I finished, "she blames me. I can only guess that she thinks I was in on your plan from the beginning; that I set her up. She hates my guts now, and from her point of view, I can't really blame her."

Sah'majha's eyes widened. "Oh my," he said. "I never thought of that. And you have no idea where to find her?"

"No," I said. "I know where I'd start looking--but I really don't feel like being spit on again."

"Certainly not," he said hurriedly. "I am terribly sorry, Ehm'tassaa. I will see what I can--"

At that point I did something else that shocked me, that I never thought I'd do: I hung up on him. Terribly rude, yes; utterly unacceptable--but I literally couldn't take it any more, and if I'd stayed on the line I might have said some things that we'd both have regretted later.

…So here I am, well past midnight, completely unable to sleep, and with a terrible decision facing me. Thank the Goddess Sah'surraa wasn't involved in Sah'majha's deception; if he had been, I'd have no choice but to pack my bags and leave his house, probably returning to Terra. I don't want to do that, and I'm glad the choice wasn't forced upon me.

But here I am, with Sah'majha's nanotech at work inside me, obliged to report to his house every two days for a checkup. What do I do? Keep the appointments, and pretend that nothing is wrong? Or insist that he hit the kill-switch on his bots, and ruin my chances to have a rebuilt and pain-free knee? Dear Goddess, what do I do now?

…And it gets even worse--or even more comical, if you have an especially dark sense of humor, because just this evening I received a text-gram hyperzap from Rae Abrams on Terra. She managed to track down our Mr. DuKane, all right, and he was indeed the correct Ethan. He claimed not to have heard from Ehm'murra in weeks, though, and that he had no idea she'd withdrawn from Sah'salaan U and gone into hiding. That was all that Rae was able to get out of him, though: it seems he was in a hurry when she spoke to him--because he was late for a date with his brand-new, human, girlfriend.

Why do I sometimes feel that the universe is laughing behind my back?

To Be Continued…

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