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
November 15, 2380
Last night I did something that I haven't for several years: had dinner in town.
How it happened that I did--and what came of it--is a rather strange story. I'd spent most of the day in my room, with the door locked, telling the family that I needed to study--which was true, as far as it went. And because I was expecting a particular call, one which I didn't care to take, I left my visiphone turned off. It was a little after one in the afternoon, I guess, when Ehm'haazal came scratching at my door, and handed me an envelope--a real envelope, made of folded white paper and glue. I wasn't aware that such a thing could even be had in this day and age. She told me that it had just been delivered by Sah'larssh--which aroused both my suspicions and my curiosity. Inside, neatly folded, I found a crinkly beige sheet--not paper, but parchment--something I don't believe I'd ever seen before, outside of a museum. It must have cost a small fortune. On it, hand-written in blood-red ink, was an invitation to dine with Ehm'talak--just the two of us--at the restaurant of my choice.
I thought about it for the better part of two hours, and I probably would have paced, except that it would have hurt. Finally, after many silent consultations with the holo of Tom that I keep my on desk, I decided I really didn't have much choice. Ehm'talak had obviously gone to a great deal of trouble and expense, and after all, she wasn't the one I was angry at. I e-mailed my acceptance, which I guess was a little impolite; but I didn't feel like phoning, lest someone other than her answer the call.
Around dusk, the two of us met on neutral ground, so to speak, at the shuttle platform about halfway between my house and hers. It was a glorious evening, with a spectacular orange-red sunset and just a few feathery wisps of cloud in the sky; but it is getting late in the year, and the breeze had a bit of an edge to it, which could only get sharper as the evening wore on. I was glad that I'd bolstered my silver-and-bronze day-robe with a long-sleeved pullover. Whether Ehm'talak had done the same I don't know; if so, hers was sleeveless. We exchanged a few guarded words, and the traditional ritual greeting (and I couldn't quite suppress a shudder at the touch of those hard metal hands on mine), and then we boarded the next available car for Sah'salaan.
It was a silent and somewhat uncomfortable ride. We sat side-by-side, saying almost nothing, exchanging occasional surreptitious glances, our tails flicking nervously back and forth between our feet--yes, even hers. The sun set to our right as we rode, and the sky faded gradually from pale blue through deep purple to star-shot black. Directly ahead, growing gradually brighter and taller with every kilometer, was what seemed a solid dome of light, a glowing pearlescent soap-bubble shot through with every color imaginable: the city. Soon afterward the buildings themselves broke the horizon; and just a heartbeat later, so it seemed, we were among them.
When I was a kit, my family lived in the heart of Sah'salaan, near the top of a gigantic apartment building; and from my balcony I became very familiar with the city's many moods: morning and evening; first-summer and winter; rain, shine and dust-storm. But it had been three years since I'd last seen the place at night, and I had quite forgotten the overwhelming beauty of that sight. The tight-clustered buildings, slender and tapering, their thousands of windows gleaming and their pinnacles flood-lit, leaving the patches of sky in between as black as well, as I am; the storefronts at street level, a whirling kaleidoscope of color and light; and everywhere, fluttering from every window-ledge, street-sight and lamppost, a multitude of bright-red banners and streamers, in celebration of Migration Day. Like most big cities these days, Sah'salaan never sleeps, and the streets were crowded with shoppers, business-people, and those on their way to dinner or a show. Most were Sah'aaran (and the evening was cool enough that even the kits were clothed); but the other species of the Alliance were represented also. Bustling though they were, the avenues were virtually silent, with just a muted purr of conversation and a soft rustle of day-robes stirring the crisp night air.
I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and exactly how to get there: if the place was still in business, it lay almost in the center of the city, near the Government Building on the north side of Alliance Plaza. I took the lead, and Ehm'talak followed; and for the most part we stuck to the moving sidewalks, because long-distance walking was still a bit painful for me. We must have made quite a pair, she and I: a cyborg with gleaming copper limbs, and a blackfur with a pronounced limp. But if indeed we collected any stares, we paid no attention.
As I'd hoped, and expected, the restaurant was still there, just as I remembered it: it was too popular to have gone out of business. It's an outdoor place, tucked in between two huge buildings; the tables are scattered amongst trees, bushes, rocks, and patches of grass, with an artificial stream trickling musically through the middle. The trees were hung with punched-metal lanterns, and I don't think they really contained candles; more likely their bulbs had been made to flicker like flames. Hidden among the branches as well were a number of parabolic-dish heaters, taking the edge off the chill. During The Interval they roll out a huge, flexible waterproof roof; but at the moment there was nothing above us but sky. The place was crowded, but not so much so that an ambassador's daughter couldn't get a table; and the other diners were a diverse lot, ranging from young couples (the sight of which was like a knife through my heart) to singles, to families with kits. The cuisine was strictly Sah'aaran, though, and so we saw only furry faces.
Ehm'talak remained silent as we were shown to a table for two, right on the edge of the "stream;" but after our waiter had taken our orders, and brought us a pot of tea and a tray of spices and sauces for the meat and fish that were even then being sliced and warmed in the kitchen, she leaned back, crossed her arms, sighed, and said, "All right--who goes first?"
I waved a hand. "Be my guest."
"Okay." She took a sip of tea, then went on, "You missed your appointment with Grandfather today--"
I nodded. "That's true."
"--And he'd like to know why."
I fixed her with my gaze. "Does he really need to ask? Do you?"
She glanced aside, and shook her head. "Not really," she admitted. "And for the record, I don't blame you for being upset--or Ehm'murra either, of course."
I smiled. "But--?" I prompted.
"But," she echoed, "it's very dangerous for you not to keep your appointments. You have Grandfather's nanotech inside you, and he has to monitor its progress. The chances that anything will go wrong are small, of course, but the results could be Well, let's just say we want to identify any problems as early as possible."
I nodded. "I know that."
It was my turn to look away. "I--I'm thinking seriously about having him deactivate the things."
Her tail clicked sharply against the leg of her chair. "Why?" she said. "I know you're angry, but is that really worth giving up your chance to have a pain-free, fully-functional knee?"
"Maybe not," I admitted. "But how do I know that's what his nanobots are doing?"
She nearly dropped her teacup. "Pardon me?"
I shrugged. "He lied to Ehm'murra about the ones he injected into her," I pointed out. "How do I know he didn't lie to me too? Maybe they're actually oh, I don't know. Turning my fur brown at the roots, maybe, because he's decided that life as a blackfur is too stressful. Or breaking my bonding to Tom, because he agrees with how my father used to feel."
She snorted. "Ridiculous."
"Easy for you to say," I told her. "What assurance do I have?"
Her eyes glinted. "His good word," she ground out.
I refused to wilt under her stare. "And just exactly how much is that worth?"
Things could have gotten ugly then--but at that moment our dinners arrived, and we devoted the next ten minutes or so to eating. And yes, the food was every bit as good as I'd remembered: the maxigrazer was tender and absolutely fresh, and the imported Terran salmon, having been flash-frozen and thawed just as quickly, reminded me strongly of many intimate dinners on Cannery Row with Tom.
Finally Ehm'talak swallowed and said, "All right. I deserved that. And I do understand how you feel--honestly, I do. I love my grandfather; I know in my heart that he is a good person." She raised her hand and rotated her wrist, with a fluidity that flesh and blood couldn't duplicate. "If not for him I'd be in a basket right now, being spoon-fed--or, more likely, I'd be dead. It's only natural for me to defend him. But I also appreciate your point of view."
"Sah'aarans respect our elders," I said. "It's almost a reflex. But respect, and trust, can be abused--and lost. I'm not happy about it either, but I honestly can't bring myself to trust Sah'majha right now. I could understand him refusing to help Ehm'murra, and I could almost understand him slipping her a placebo and sending her on her way. But to do the absolute opposite of what she requested " I shook my head. "That's despicable."
Ehm'talak smiled thinly. "Even if it turns out he was right?"
I looked up at her sharply. "What do you mean?"
Her grin widened. "Rumor has it," she drawled, "that Ehm'murra's human lover-boy dumped her--before he knew that she'd bonded with a Sah'aaran."
I sighed. "True enough," I said. "And yes, Sah'majha was correct: she and Ethan DuKane were not made for each other. That's obvious." I paused. "But I once heard someone I respect very much--and who has never done anything to make me feel otherwise--comment that the ends never justify the means."
She cocked a curious eyebrow. "And who might that have been?"
"Joel Abrams," I said. "Tom's father."
She nodded. "Ah," she said. "I see. Were I in the mood to be nasty, I could point out a few things about his past. But I'm not, and I won't--because I happen to agree with him."
I blinked. "You do."
"Of course," she said. "And just because I'm inclined to defend my grandfather doesn't mean I endorse his every action. That truly would be foolish."
"Hate the sin, but love the sinner?" I guessed, and she nodded.
"Exactly. And I'm not the only one who feels that way, either. Far from it. Grandmother is furious with him, and so is my brother. I can't say I blame them. I don't know about my parents or my aunt; they probably haven't heard yet. I imagine Tom's folks will feel a bit betrayed as well."
I nodded. "So does Sah'surraa."
She frowned. "I know," she said. "And that's bad. Most of our funding comes from the Sah'surraa Institute for Public Health. If we lose that money "
I shrugged. "If you do, it won't be Sah'surraa's fault, will it?"
"No," she agreed. "It wouldn't." She sighed. "Goddess, what a mess!" She peered into my eyes. "How much do you know about Grandfather's early life?"
"Quite a bit," I replied. "I got the story from Tom, and he got it from his mother."
Ehm'talak nodded. "That's probably enough," she agreed. "Ehm'ayla was closer to my grandparents than almost anyone else, when she was younger. Which means you know how he acquired his prosthetics, and the circumstances of his bonding with Grandmother?"
I nodded. "Yes."
"What you have to understand," she said, "is how things were for him after he returned to Sah'aar. It was as if ten years of his life had simply vanished, in the blink of an eye. He was told that he'd been a Chrysaoan agent, but he had no conscious memory of that, nor of anything he'd done in their service. And yet he was treated as if he was a spy, even a traitor. The Combined Forces held him incommunicado for weeks, and they questioned him day and night. They even threatened to take away his legs and hand. It took all of Sah'surraa's influence to get him freed."
I nodded. "So I've been told," I said. "But I've never quite understood why Sah'surraa got involved."
She smiled. "It had a lot more to do with his feelings toward my grandmother than his sense of justice. You've probably heard that he and she were lovers, before he bonded with Ehm'naala?"
I felt my ears and nose redden. "Yes," I said. "But I wasn't sure whether to believe it."
"Believe it," she said flatly. "Anyway, she wasn't able to defend Grandfather--she was still having undone what had happened to her on Lands-End--so Sah'surraa took it upon himself." She paused for another few bloody chunks of steak, and a drink of tea. "But even after he'd been freed, and cleared of all suspicion of espionage, he still wasn't trusted. Not entirely. Sah'surraa supported him, and that helped; but the Chrysaoan taint always lingered, right beneath the surface, no matter what he did, no matter how many people benefited from his work. And then he went and helped a Sah'aaran bond with a human."
I nodded again. "I know," I said. "He told me. And I can understand why he wouldn't want to bring that kind of vilification down on his head again. But that's not a motive for tricking Ehm'murra, or lying to her. That's a motive for brushing her off, refusing to help her."
Ehm'talak nodded. "And had she been anyone else, that's exactly what he would have done. But because of what she is, he didn't believe he could."
I frowned. "I don't understand," I said. "Because of what she is? What is that?"
"A journalist," she said. "Yes, I know: really just a journalism student. But one who has already gotten her byline into the news-feeds. Grandfather thought that if he refused her, she'd lambaste him in the press; dredge up all that hatred and suspicion again. She'd probably label him the 'Mad Scientist of the Nanobots,' or some such."
"I suppose that's possible, yes," I agreed. "But wouldn't she be more likely to do that now? And far more viciously? Refusing her is one thing; what he did is quite another."
"True," Ehm'talak said. "But if she does publish such an article--and he's actually hoping she will--he believes that the average Sah'aaran will read it and think, 'Good! That girl got exactly what she deserved!'"
" 'And old Sah'majha has finally come to his senses,'" I finished softly, unsure whether to be amused or appalled.
"Exactly," Ehm'talak agreed. "And you know what? I think he might be right. The Sah'aaran people are incredibly conservative when it comes to matters of bonding." She held up her hand. "Now please don't misunderstand me," she went on quickly. "I'm not condoning what he did. Certainly not. But from his point of view, having spent the last fifty years being misunderstood, and sometimes even hated, I understand."
"And you're asking me to understand too," I said.
"No," she replied. "I'm not. All I'm asking you to do--for your sake, not his--is to let him examine your knee. You can yell at him, scream at him, tell him to go to the Dark Domains. You can even tell him to deactivate the bots. But please, don't just let it go."
I gazed closely at her, seeing the anxiety in her unusual, turquoise-threaded golden eyes, and realized, with a shock, just how much it meant to her. Why that was, I couldn't say; concern for me as a friend, perhaps? Or was she only worried about her grandfather's reputation? I could easily imagine the headline: "Experimental Treatment Horribly Maims Local Blackfur." But once again, I had little choice. "All right," I said finally, with a sigh. "I'll come. Tomorrow morning, if that's convenient."
She leaned back, exposing the tips of her perfect (and perfectly artificial) teeth in a broad smile of gratitude. "Thank you," she said. "I promise, you won't regret it."
Let's hope not, I thought.
She nodded at my plate. "Now eat up," she went on. "We're going shopping."
And we did. We were only a few blocks from the Public Market, that huge, labyrinthine collection of shops and stalls, and over the next several hours we must have covered every square millimeter of it, with frequent breaks to rest my poor knee. (Which, as it turned out, didn't help.) I'm on an allowance, of course, provided by my father; but because of my injury, which has kept me pretty close to home, and because Sah'surraa and Sah'sell never let me pay for anything, the money has been piling up a little. It was past time to put some of it back into circulation.
I wish I had the words to properly describe the Market. As a kit I spent many, many hours there, alone or with my brother, and there was always something new, something I hadn't seen, or smelled, or heard before. It's best at night, when the hallways and passages are dim, and the merchandise within the brightly-lit shops glows like fire. There are clothing stores, of course; Sah'aaran ones, with every style of day- and evening-robe known; and those catering to humans and other species as well. Even a shoe-store or two, something I've never in my life set foot in. There are shops where you can buy brightly-colored rugs of every size, or plain woven-grass mats; stalls featuring collars and bonding-bands; furniture stores, filled mainly with items made of ink-black Tatak wood; stores packed with jars of exotic spices, the mingled scents of which permeate the entire Market, and clings to fur and clothing long afterwards; food and drink stands of all descriptions; and shops crammed with music and book data-cards. The crowds, the smells, the whirling colors I've never tried any kind of hallucinogen, and I don't think I would if I could, but an evening in the Market surely must come close.
I bought some heavier day-robes for the coming winter (not that Sah'salaan ever gets particularly cold), and a fancy collar that caught my eye, and which ought to drive Tom wild when he sees me wearing it. In a world where almost everyone's coloration is a variation on a theme of brown and orange, it's not always easy to find things that will go well with black. I also bought some new music-cards; I'm tired of all my old ones. Books I didn't need to buy: I live in a home which contains the largest private library on Sah'aar. Ehm'talak made a few purchases as well, but she wasn't really there to shop, I don't think. Or not exactly, anyway. She was far more interested in spreading around her pheromones than her money. We ended up having hot chocolate in a little coffeehouse, deep in a cul-de-sac in the heart of the Market. Very likely it's the same one Tom and his father discovered when they were here two years ago. The proprietors get their coffee, not from Terra as one might imagine, but from right here on Sah'aar. It turns out that there's a mountainous region near the equator on Ehm'tarr Continent which is perfect for coffee growing, and, a few hundred meters lower, for tea. As much as I dislike the taste of coffee, I have to admit that the smell of it roasting and brewing is actually quite pleasant, if a little heady. Knowing how much my bond-mate enjoyed the local variety, I arranged to have a few kilos shipped to him.
It was almost midnight when we dragged our tails home, laden with packages. As we parted at the station, Ehm'talak gave me a quick hug and a lick on my cheek--a demonstration of friendship which was apparently quite sincere, and which made me feel guilty about my earlier suspicions. As soon as I reached my rooms, I undressed and climbed into bed, leaving the unpacking for the morning; and I wish I could say I went right to sleep--but I can't. After that long walk through the Market, my knee had swollen up like a Terran cantaloupe, and was throbbing like the Taiko drums that Tom and I once went to see in the Japanese section of San Francisco. Only after the med-patch had kicked in, half an hour later, was I finally able to doze off.
So this morning I kept my promise: right after breakfast I hardened my heart and made my way up the path to see Sah'majha. I neither yelled, nor screamed, nor told him to go to the Dark Domains; in fact we exchanged as few words as possible, and neither of us mentioned Ehm'murra at all. I might have--but then I took a look into his eyes, and desisted. He's well into his eighties, I know; but like Sah'surraa, he's always before seemed far younger, in spirit if not in body. But at that moment, as he entered the lab, he looked terribly old, used up, and I hadn't the heart to start an argument. And what, really, would it have accomplished? Judging from the look in his eyes, my silence both surprised and relieved him greatly. He went right to work, examining my knee with hands, eyes and scanpak, and he was obviously pleased by what he found. The nanobots were doing well, so he said; they were almost finished replicating, and about to begin the repair phase.
And then well, it's funny, now that I think back on it. I'm not telepathic; to the best of my knowledge, no Sah'aaran is. But at that moment I came as close to reading someone's mind as I ever have. Two someones, in fact. The nearest I can figure is that Ehm'talak must have briefed her grandfather on the discussion she and I had last night. Which is all right with me; I certainly didn't tell her any secrets. But the result was that both he and she expected me to demand that the nanobots be deactivated. I could see it most strongly in Sah'majha's face; he was trying to decide whether trying to talk me out of it would be pushing his luck. Ehm'talak, hovering in the background, looked resigned; she'd apparently decided that I'd already made up my mind, and couldn't be dissuaded. And so you may imagine their astonishment when I didn't make that demand; when I simply thanked Sah'majha for his work, and promised to be on time for my next appointment.
Yes, I'd decided to continue. I might not have--but last night, as I lay waiting for my knee to stop aching so I could get some sleep, I came to two conclusions. First, despite what I'd said to Ehm'talak, I really didn't believe that Sah'majha had lied to me about what his bots were doing to my body. Whether I agreed with it or not, I had to admit that yes, he'd had a reason to lie to Ehm'murra. But not to me. And two, I simply can't go on this way, unable to walk more than half a kilometer without paying for it with hours of pain. Not when I'm bonded to an avid backpacker. For better or worse, I have to stay the course.
Both Sah'majha and Ehm'talak seemed overjoyed by that news, and she and I, as we had last night, parted at the door with a hug and a mutual cheek-lick. Which is good, I guess: she's my de facto sister-in-law, and I ought to get along with her.
Getting along with myself, though, is a little harder. All the way home, with a crisp breeze stirring the grasses, washing me with their pleasant, spicy scent, and with a few masses of meaningless clouds speeding across the sky, I fought a long, hard battle with ugly pangs of guilt. Silly of me, I know, to believe that I've somehow betrayed Ehm'murra; that the only way I could have remained loyal to her would have been to block Sah'majha out of my life entirely--but that's exactly how I did feel, and it hurt.
So here I am, at my desk; it's a little too breezy to sit outside. It's just before noon, and in a few minutes I'll be dining with Ehm'naala, just the two of us. She usually has a calming effect on me, which I hope will be in full force today, because I desperately need it. You see, when I returned home a while ago, I found a message waiting on my terminal. Sah'rahfel wants to talk to me later this afternoon, alone--and that meeting promises to be the most stressful things that's happened to me since mid-terms.
To Be Continued