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 Fifteen

November 30, 2380

So much has been happening these last few days, I don't know how to begin to explain it all. I'm not even sure how to organize my thoughts, which seem to be running in a thousand different directions at once. I've tried meditation, communing with the Goddess, even long walks; nothing seems to work. If I'm very lucky, maybe the simple act of writing it all down will do the trick, if I can recall what my Language-Arts tutor tried to teach me: subject, predicate; thesis, conclusion. Sure.

I guess I'd better follow tradition, and dispense with the bad news first; maybe, as the legend has it, that really will break the curse. This morning I received a very long and very distraught message from my bond-mate. His paternal grandfather and namesake, Thomas Abrams, suffered a heart attack several days ago, and is now in the Stanford University hospital. Thank the Goddess (or perhaps the Terrans' God), he's expected to recover, though he's probably looking at an artificial heart, once he's strong enough to withstand the surgery. Needless to say, the entire family is beside themselves with worry, especially Joel, his siblings, and their mother Lucille. Tom and Rae too, of course. They've always thought the world of their human grandparents, having grown up much closer to them (in both senses) than they were to Sah'surraa and Ehm'naala. They're doing everything they can to help their grandmother, or as much as their studies will allow, and visiting their grandfather every day.

The only person I'm not so sure about is Ehm'ayla. Certainly she cares, and naturally she's supporting Joel and the rest of the Abrams family to the best of her ability. But I have to wonder--though I'd never in a million years mention this to Tom--what she's really feeling. The fact of the matter is (as Tom told me some time ago) she once had good reason to be a little less than thrilled with the couple who would eventually become her in-laws, and though she tries hard not to show it, that resentment, deeply-buried though it is still tends to color her thinking.

When she and Joel first met and became friends, back when they were cadets at the Officer's Academy, she was a welcome guest at the Abrams home in Atherton. But later, after the Raven scandal, Thomas and Lucille, in their anger and sadness, blamed her for their son's ruined career--meaning that they were not exactly thrilled when Joel married her. To the extent, so I'm told, that they scarcely spoke to their son for the better part of two years; and on the few occasions when they did, they treated Ehm'ayla like a piece of furniture--or maybe I really mean like a nasty stain on the carpet. It was the birth of Tom and Rae that finally broke the ice; as Joel once remarked, "Nobody is immune to the charms of fuzzy newborns." Since then, the elder Abrams' largesse has known no bounds: they helped pay for Joel and Ehm'ayla's home in Pacific Grove, and (along with Sah'surraa) they're financing their grandkits' college education. The guilty feelings of wealthy people can be a valuable thing to cultivate.

…But I do have to wonder if Ehm'ayla might still resent the way they snubbed her, more than twenty years ago. It's terrible to think that her feelings might be mixed, now that Thomas Abrams is seriously ill--but if that truly is the case, I have to say I'd find it hard to blame her. Does eighteen years of generosity make up for four or five of ice-cold disdain? I honestly don't know. For Joel's sake, though, and for Tom and Rae's, I hope very much that Mr. Abrams will recover. Tom has promised to let me know immediately if anything happens.

After that, I'm almost ashamed to mention the good news, especially since it only affects me personally. But tradition demands that I balance the bad, so here goes: my knee is definitely getting better.

At first I didn't want to believe it; things that seem too good to be true almost always are. But even my therapist has noticed it now, so I suppose it's pointless to linger on the banks of denial any longer. Movements that would have been impossible--or too painful to contemplate--only a few weeks ago, I can now accomplish with relative ease; and I can walk for much longer distances without having to rest. Nor does the joint blow up like a puff-melon at the slightest provocation.

As requested, I've been going every other day to see Sah'majha, and while those meetings have been chilly at best, he and Dr. Sah'hariir are very pleased with my progress. Or maybe I should say, more accurately, that they're pleased with their own work. It may be my imagination--maybe I'm actually starting to believe what the general public has always said, that Sah'majha is far more a glory-seeker than a philanthropist--but the fact that the knee in question is connected to a living body--my body--doesn't seem to matter much. Really, though, if I stop and think about it, his behavior isn't all that much different now than when we started the process; perhaps a little more careful, a little less chatty. And that might well be a reaction to my behavior--which, of course, has been influenced (I might even say "jerked back and forth") by both sides of the dispute: Ehm'murra, via Sah'rahfel; and Ehm'talak, representing Sah'majha. Honestly, I don't know what to think any more. The tension is rising with each visit, though, and pretty soon there's going to have to be an explosion of some sort--his, or mine. And speaking of which, I'm reasonably certain that neither Sah'rahfel nor Ehm'murra have contacted Sah'majha--yet. Which surprises me quite a bit: I really didn't expect Sah'rahfel's resolve to "just let it go" to last very long. Not in the face of Ehm'murra's blistering anger. Or perhaps there's more to the situation, something I don't understand.

Where was I? Oh yes--my knee. Actually, as both Sah'majha and my therapist have warned me, I'm in a very dangerous period right now. My knee feels better than it has since my last accident, yes; maybe even better than it has since the first. But that, for now at least, is an illusion. The joint is extremely fragile; as Sah'majha explained it to me, the repairs done by the nanobots are almost like a concrete sidewalk that hasn't had time to set. The surface may look perfectly stable, ready for anything; but a single wrong step…Carelessness is my enemy right now, along with its constant ally, over-confidence. For a while yet I still need to take it easy: wear my brace, move slowly, rest frequently, and above all, don't try anything acrobatic. Hopefully--Goddess willing--I should only need to take those precautions for another six to eight weeks. Or so says Dr. Sah'hariir. I've been deathly afraid to make an appointment to see Dr. Ehm'ullya, my orthopedic surgeon--if indeed I'm still welcome in her office. Before this is all over, though, I'll have to. She's a rational person, and I don't think she'll be able to argue with success. As an expert in her field, though--one of the finest on the planet--I'd like her to "sign off" on the process, so to speak. If she won't agree to see me, maybe I can ask Sah'surraa to persuade her. He does have a way of getting things done.

Speaking of those meetings with Sah'majha--I had a very interesting conversation with Ehm'talak the other day, while her grandfather and Dr. Sah'hariir were discussing the scans they'd just taken of my leg. Looking at her artificial limbs and tail--I try not to stare, but I can't seem to avoid it--I asked her why the physicians hadn't simply cloned new arms and legs for her, rather than constructing those elaborate prosthetics. The instant the words were out of my mouth, I felt ashamed, certain I'd offended her; but to my relief, I hadn't. Probably she's been asked that very same question so many times, she's gotten used to it.

"Couldn't be done, I'm afraid," she said. "If you'd seen the pre-natal scans the doctors took of my brother and me, you'd understand why. Five months into our gestation, while Sah'larssh had well-formed limbs and a tail, I still looked like a Terran tadpole. No arms or legs, not a trace; my spine was curled like a spring, my pelvis, ribs and jaw were undeveloped…only the upper part of my skull was in decent shape. Ninety-five percent of my skeleton is artificial--and so is a good half of my nervous system. There are boosters and bioelectronic interfaces all over my body." She lifted a hand, and rotated the wrist. "My limbs are hard-wired into the motor cortex of my brain. Cloned replacements wouldn't have worked; my nervous system simply wouldn't have supported them."

She seemed so matter-of-fact, even comfortable, discussing the matter, that I dared to push my luck, just a little. I pointed at my knee. "Your grandfather is doing wonderful things with nanotech," I said. "More and more every year."

"Yes," she agreed with a smile. "And hopefully, by the time he calls it quits, I'll be ready to take his place."

"If his research--or yours--should ever reach the stage where everything that's artificial in your body could be replaced with flesh and bone--real bone--would you do it?'

She thought about that for a long moment, staring into space. Finally she shook her head. "No," she said. "I wouldn't. I'm comfortable with who--what--I am, now. I wasn't always--you can ask Sah'larssh or Grandmother about that--but I am now." Once again she lifted her arm. "I have fake-fur coverings for these," she said. "When I wear them, it's almost impossible to tell that I'm a cyborg--from a distance, anyway. But I don't remember the last time I did. I just don't seem to need them." She grinned. "So," she said pointedly, "were you ever tempted to bleach your fur and dye it brown?"

"Frequently," I admitted ruefully. "I almost accomplished it too, when I was about ten--but Mother caught me smuggling the materials into the apartment. How I expected to get away with it, I don't know. I guess I was relying on the old theory that it's easier to get forgiveness than permission."

Ehm'talak nodded sagely. "Then you started to grow up, and realized that being stared at by crowds of males isn't such a bad thing after all."

"You're right," I said. "Though it can still get tiresome after a while. And did you--oh."

I tried to bite back the words, but too late. "Did I ever feel the same?" she said, without rancor. "Let's just say that any attention--even horrified fascination--is better than none."

"I'm sorry if this sounds horrible," I said. "I don't mean it to be. But…did you ever feel that you might not have the right to bond?"

To my relief, she treated the question dispassionately. "Yes," she said. "And sometimes I still do--in my darker moments. Certainly the male who bonds with me will have his life changed forever, and will need to make some…accommodations. And yes, I have sometimes wondered if I have the right to disrupt anyone's existence to that extent. But…well, that's the nature of bonding, isn't it? The 'Goddess' Greatest Gift'? It's unplanned, unpredictable--at least it always has been, and I for one won't be party to any attempt to change that. We never know in advance how it will alter our lives--only that it will. I have faith that my bond-mate--whoever he ends up being--will accept me for who and what I am. Because that's the way it works."

I smiled and clasped her hand; hard, yes, but not cold. "I'm sure you're right," I said. "And I know it won't be much longer."

She gave me a brief, unhappy smile. "Let's hope She's listening."

…Anyway, that was several days ago. We parted with a hug and a lick, and plans for another shopping expedition. That will have to wait, though, for at least another couple weeks: both she and I are about to become far too busy. The end of the semester is fast approaching, and with it, Finals Week--that horrible old custom, which Sah'salaan U should never had adopted from the Terrans.

I hope I won't sound too snobbish when I say that, as with mid-terms, I've never before had to deal with final exams. In the days when I was tutored--which was most of my educational life, actually--my instructors gauged the growth of my knowledge on an ongoing basis, not with all-encompassing tests. Which system, if either, is inherently "better," I have no idea; certainly it's not practical for a professor with several hundred students to interview them all individually, to determine what they've learned. I do definitely know, however, which is the more stressful. Fortunately I'm going into my finals with good overall grades. Even in that computer class: thanks to the study-guides Sah'sell acquired, I'm actually far ahead of Professor "Call me Hank"--to the extent that I've largely been able to stop listening to him. Not entirely, though--more's the pity. As for my other classes, I think I have a good grasp on the material; but even so, I know where I'll be spending every waking moment for the next two weeks: hunched over my palm-reader, fortified by massive doses of caffeine, frantically memorizing. I'll probably come out of the experience looking like a question mark.

Well, at least the lure of the Great Outdoors won't be distracting me from my studies. This is one of those rare years--I think it happens only once in every thirty, Alliance Standard--when Terra's seasons are in almost perfect synch with Sah'aar's, and winter has arrived here right on schedule, just as it has for my bond-mate in California. Central Sah'salaan almost never gets bitterly cold--rarely below freezing--and the nearest snow is in the Grazer-Back Mountains, nearly a thousand kilometers north. But the wintertime climate here is…bleak. I guess that's the best word for it. The sun sinks into the south, turning from bright orange to blood-red; the sky fades to greyish-white; the Ta'chlaas grass lays flat, and the Tatak trees drop their leaves, and stand naked, like skeletons frozen in poses of horror. All of nature seems moribund--except, I should say, the north wind, which blows fiercely, day after day, chilly and bone-dry. No wonder the ancients called this time of year the "Dark Death," and feared, year after year, that this was it: Spring would never come again. Some pre-Goddess civilizations even performed sacrificial rites at the solstice to placate the weather gods.

How different it is on Earth--or at least in that little corner with which I'm most familiar. Along the California coast there's a warm current in the winter, replacing the cold upwelling of summer, and I was extremely bemused a year ago to see Tom go surfing on Christmas Day--while Rae and I lay on our towels farther up the beach, in our bathing suits no less. That was exceptional for Pacific Grove--but not, I'm told, for Southern California. What was even stranger was joining Tom and his family, less than a week later, on a trip to Lake Tahoe--and a cabin that, when we arrived, stood two meters deep in snow. I've never been so cold in my life, and I quickly learned the manifold joys of hot chocolate and snuggling by the fire. No such luck here, but I do have to wear a sweater under my day-robes when I go out. Which I guess is a long way from having my beloved bond-mate very kindly stuff a snowball down the back of my neck.

Something else rather interesting happened just last night. When I arrived home from classes, Ehm'haazal caught me in the hall to tell me that I'd better dig out an evening-robe, because Sah'surraa had guests for dinner. Seeing as how his last guests were Ehm'murra's icy aunt and uncle, I was tempted to plead exhaustion and hide under my bed; but in the end curiosity got the better of me, and I went. Fortunately, this couple turned out to be a good deal nicer, and far more interesting. Ehm'vaema is a Senior Investigator with the Sah'salaan District Police, which is fascinating enough; but it was her mate I ended up talking to all evening. Sah'aanaaf works for Sah'surraa Publishing, in charge of acquiring books from other planets, and having them translated into Sah'aaran for the local market. He was extremely interested to hear that I'm majoring in Linguistics. The bulk of his department's translation work is done by computers, of course; but a literal translation is rarely an aesthetically pleasing one, and Sah'aanaaf is constantly on the lookout for people trained in the study of languages, who can, by virtue of their experience, help "tweak" the machines' output. He didn't say so, not in so many words anyway, but I got the distinct impression that he might be inclined to offer me a job once I've earned my degree. Which on the surface sounds wonderful--but on closer examination, could lead to a major problem. The job would be here, in Sah'salaan--but my bond-mate is dead-set against living anywhere but Terra. Which means that there could well be a serious argument brewing, our very first--and the precise equivalent of the one Ehm'rael and Sah'larssh have already had, and which still isn't settled. But like them, fortunately, Tom and I have several years yet in which to work it out. Circumstances--and intentions--can change over time, often in entirely unexpected ways.

…And that leaves me with only one other thing to mention. Whether it's good, bad or somewhere in between, I don't know, and won't for several days. It's staring me in the face right now, there on the screen of my desktop terminal: another invitation, only slightly less fancy than the pen-and-ink one that Ehm'talak sent me the other day. Not for dinner this time, though, but for lunch, this coming Saturday by the Terran calendar. And not just anywhere, but at the very top--the penthouse, mind you--of a certain building in downtown Sah'salaan, the local headquarters of the Ehm'tarr Coffee and Tea Company. In other words, from Sah'rahfel and/or Ehm'murra. Which of them sent it I don't know--though I could guess, if I cared to. Up until this thing arrived, I'd heard nothing from either of them, and I'd truly begun to believe that I wouldn't; that Ehm'murra's hatred for me was so deep that she'd never speak to me again. The problem is, I can't be absolutely sure, even now, that such isn't actually the case. This might be Sah'rahfel's clumsy, male (and aren't those two words virtually synonymous?) attempt to force his bond-mate to talk to me. I'd have given him credit for more sense, though. Or it could have been Ehm'murra's idea, a way to make peace while hanging on to her not-inconsiderable pride. But she's rarely that subtle. Unfortunately there's no way to know for certain--except by accepting the invitation. And that, in a nutshell as the Terrans say, is my dilemma. If I refuse, I might be sparing myself a nasty and pointless screaming match--or I might be missing my one and only chance to save a friendship that I never wanted to lose.

As far as I can see, I don't really have much choice: I'll have to accept. (I'd add, "and go see how the other half lives"--except that in the eyes of many, I am the other half.) But how exactly am I supposed to concentrate on my studies for the next five days with that hanging over my head?

To Be Continued…

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