My name is Tuftear, daughter of Minka and Redwing. I am a Chakat (caracal patterned), and a lieutenant (junior grade) in Starfleet. Currently I am serving as part of an honor guard for dignitaries attending a trade conference on Terra. It is a prestigious posting, especially considering that I graduated from Cape York academy a mere nine months ago.
I don't want you to think that I'm boasting, though I'm definitely proud of my accomplishments. I merely want to establish that I am not the sort of person who is given to making rash or ill-considered decisions. If I were not a stable, sober, and conscientious individual I would not have been chosen to bear the responsibilities given to me. I want you to understand that I have considered, thoroughly and carefully, the implications of what I am about to say. I do not make these assertions lightly, and I would not even consider saying them if there were any other possible explanation.
Today I saw a ghost.
Moving only hir eyes, Lt. (jg) Tuftear glanced at the large chronometer hanging on the wall behind the hotel's front desk. Just then the numbers changed from 09:59 to 10:00. Tuftear allowed hirself the tiniest hint of a smile. At this very moment the trade delegates would be sitting down at their tables in preparation for another day of haggling. Over the next half hour or so the last few stragglers would be coming in. Then, at eleven-hundred, the presentation guard would be retired until the conference broke up for the day, sometime around eighteen-hundred or so. Lt. Tuftear would have most of the afternoon to enjoy the sights and sounds of Pearl City.
The speaker button clipped just inside hir right ear beeped softly. Someone had opened the side door leading from the pool deck into the conference center. Tuftear glanced to hir right, but could not see through the screen of potted palmettoes. Which was why Ensign Kylie Brogan had been stationed near the windows, to fill the gaps in Tuftear's line of sight. It was not an assignment Tuftear envied, even though one got to move around more. The hotel's glass facade might have been an architectural wonder, but in spite of the air conditioning system the tropical sun turned it into a giant solar collector. Whoever ended up by the windows always finished their shift with their uniform soaking wet. Back by the doors the air was cool.
Tuftear waited patiently for Kylie to call it in, or at least to move in and intercept the intruder, but nothing happened. There was a figure moving behind the palmettoes and it definitely wasn't Kylie. Tuftear unclasped hir hands and let them fall to hir sides. The phaser attached to hir equipment belt was brightly polished and meant primarily for display purposes, but it was a real weapon nonetheless. Much like Tuftear hirself. Hir tunic was impeccably tailored, spotlessly clean, and hand-pressed to perfection. Hir fur was neatly trimmed, hir short mane professionally coifed, hir nails and claws trimmed, filed, and polished. Hir golden brown pelt had been retouched- though only very lightly- by the judicious application of air-brushed makeup. Tuftear fully realized that hir selection to this team had been due largely to hir appearance; shi was slender without being skinny, muscular without being heavy. Hir breasts were neither small nor large, and held their pleasantly rounded shape with only nominal assistance from a custom-fitted brassiere. The confirmation of hir lower body was textbook perfect. None of which changed the fact that shi could, if called upon, draw hir phaser and shoot down the intruder with deadly accuracy, all in less than a fifth of a second. That was other part of the reason for hir selection.
The intruder was getting closer and still there was no sign of Kylie. Tuftear glanced to hir left; Ensign Howard Woodrow was at his place by the elevators, acting as if all was right with the world. With hir let hand Tuftear tapped hir comm badge twice. Woodrow looked around- very casually, it seemed- and began walking slowly toward the doors. Anyone not familiar with the security arrangements would have thought it was simply part of his patrol pattern.
"What is it?" he asked quietly. He stood beside Tuftear, facing forward. His eyes were in constant motion; his mouth barely moved.
"I'm going to check on Kylie," Tuftear replied. Woodrow nodded once; Tuftear padded silently across the synthetic marble floor and around the end of the line of palmettoes. Hir hand was at hir side, almost touching the butt of the phaser-
"Hello, Tuftear," the intruder said.
It was a Chakat. Shi was only a few centimeters taller than Tuftear, but a good fifteen kilograms heavier- and every bit of it solid muscle. Hir pelt was silky black, with a faintly visible leopard patterning. Shi had a leopard's frame as well, sleek, lithe, and immensely powerful. Compared to Tuftear's hir breasts were larger and a touch less firm. Shi wore a broad sun hat and a flower-print shirt that was knotted closed instead of being buttoned.
Tuftear's hand twitched over the butt of hir phaser, and for an instant hir composure wavered. "Hello, Boots," shi said. "What are you doing here?"
"I... needed to speak to you, Tuftear. I've... gotten myself into a bit of a jam."
"Couldn't it wait until I'm off duty?" Tuftear searched the palmettoes. Kylie was standing in the next row, staring right at the pool deck door. She was perfectly still and didn't seem to be aware of the two Chakats not four meters away.
"I'm afraid not," Boots apologized. "You see, when you get off duty there's going to be a message waiting for you, to the effect that I died on board the F.S.S. Arthur C. Clarke as a result of complications arising from my wandering around in the desert for three months without food or water. I wanted to make sure you saw me before you got that message."
"Okay," Tuftear replied. The word did not signify that shi agreed with what had been said, only that shi'd heard it. "You seem reasonably healthy now, at least. Why are you here instead of off on- on-"
"Nelhut Three," Boots supplied. "That's... part of the story. It would take too long to explain. I realize you don't have time to talk right now-"
"I'll be off duty at eleven," Tuftear cut in. "Can you meet me, say, out there on the pool deck, at eleven thirty?"
"Sure. Thanks." Boots turned about and walked out. Shi passed right in front of Kylie, who gave absolutely no indication that she noticed. In fact, she hadn't moved a muscle since Tuftear had first arrived. Then, quite suddenly, she started walking. The sudden motion drew Tuftear's attention; when shi glanced back outside to search for Boots there was no sign of hir. There wasn't anywhere shi could have gone to get out of sight that quickly, and there weren't enough people on the pool deck that someone of Boots' size and appearance could get lost in the crowd.
Kylie turned at the end of her walk and started when she noticed Tuftear. "S- sir!" she exclaimed.
"Quite all right," Tuftear assured. "I thought I heard the pool deck door open."
Kylie shook her head. "Must have been an equipment glitch. There hasn't been anyone through it all morning."
"I... see." Tuftear searched the pool deck one more time. If Kylie noticed the pause she did not remark on it. "Sorry to startle you. Carry on."
"Aye aye, sir."
Tuftear strolled back to the doors. "False alarm," shi whispered. Woodrow nodded and ambled back over to the elevators.
Tuftear resumed hir pose of comfortable vigilance. Hir tail refused to bow to the mind's will and continued to twitch in an agitated fashion. Hir eyes kept glancing toward the pool deck, though direct view was obscured by the palmettoes. Hir mind kept wondering how it could be possible that hir lover, who was supposedly at an archeological dig on the other side of the galaxy, could be here. And how in the Hell had shi managed to disappear like that?
The next hour would prove to be one of the longest in Tuftear's life.
The very moment I went off duty Captain Schiffer told me that I had an urgent personal message. He even allowed me to skip the usual after-shift debriefing, which was a very bad sign. I went to my room, checked for messages, and there it was: personal and most urgent from Captain Wollenstoncraft of the Clarke. The substance was largely as Boots had described: the Arthur C. Clarke had been ordered to Nelhut Three when Starfleet Command lost contact with the archeological expedition at New Karnak- where Boots had been assigned, some three months ago, as security officer. When the Clarke arrived in orbit they found that everyone at the site had died in what Captain Wollenstoncraft described rather enigmatically as "a tragic accident." After an extensive search Ensign Boots was found wandering in the desert. After four days in the Clarke's sick bay shi died without regaining consciousness. Hir remains were returned to hir family on Chakona.
I logged onto the secure net and requested Captain Wollenstoncraft's report on New Karnak. it was under security seal; I used the conference's code to unlock it. The "tragic accident" was that someone had set the camp's shield generator into an overload loop; the resulting explosion had destroyed the site and, presumably, killed everyone. Boots was found twelve kilometers away, without clothing or equipment. Shi was nearly incapacitated by lack of food and water and described by the crewmen sent to retrieve hir as "delirious." Shi resisted rescue and managed to injure three crew members before being sedated. The Clarke's doctor worked with hir around the clock, but shi simply would not respond to treatment. The remains were ferried by shuttle to Chakona Gateway Station, where they were signed over to Flasheart and Kyrie, Boots' mother and father. Attached were copies of all the relevant paperwork: the message to Boots' parents, their response, a customs receipt from Chakona Gateway, and the transfer of custody receipt signed by Flasheart and Kyrie.
At this point I suddenly noticed that it was nearly eleven thirty. I stripped, put on my bathing suit, and ran down the stairs rather than wait for the elevator. I would have skipped the bathing suit, but Terrans have terrible hang-ups about bare breasts.
I wasn't going to miss this meeting, though. The way Boots had described it, I was prepared to believe that the report of hir death had been an unfortunate mix-up. But the paper trail was simply too convincing; unless Starfleet was riddled with incompetence on an unimaginable scale, someone had died in the Clarke's sick bay. That person had been enough like Boots that the Clarke's doctor, with access to the very latest forensic techniques, had concluded that it was Boots and turned the body over to hir parents. The inspectors at Chakona Gateway had verified that the box did in fact contain a body and that it matched the identification forwarded by the doctor who had signed the death certificate. If I hadn't the evidence of my own eyes, all that would have been more than enough to convince me that my lover really was dead.
In spite of hir agitation Tuftear stopped and forced hirself walk slowly out onto the pool deck. Hir ability to remain calm under extraordinary circumstances was another of the reasons shi had been chosen for this assignment. Still, people stared as shi came out into the bright noonday sunshine. But that could be ascribed to the fact that hir string bikini top was only barely enough to satisfy the requirements of propriety. Or that by quite a number of standards shi was one Hell of a looker.
Boots was laying on a towel near the ocean side of the deck, under a broad umbrella. Hir clothes were the same as they had been earlier. Tuftear walked around Boots, examining hir from every side. Boots watched without comment, twisting hir torso to keep Tuftear in view. When Tuftear settled down Boots scooted over to give hir the maximum amount of shade. Which wasn't that much for an adult Chakat; shi and Boots ended up snuggled tightly together.
"Hello again." Tuftear leaned hir torso backwards and slid hir hand down Boots' flank and between hir hind legs.
Boots started slightly. "Hello yourself. You know, after a greeting like that, hugging and shaking hands seems so... impersonal."
"You're supposed to be dead." Tuftear ran hir fingers through the soft fur on Boots' belly. "I wanted to make sure it was really you."
Boots' eyes had unfocused, hir mouth was hanging slightly open, and shi was shivering. Tuftear leaned back a little farther, sliding hir hand until it encountered Boots' vulva. Tuftear could feel it responding to hir touch; Boots lifted hir hind leg to facilitate the contact. Tuftear drew hir hand out and delicately licked hir fingertips. Boots' eyelids fluttered and shi gasped loudly.
In addition to the fact that Boots would respond most ardently to hir touch, Tuftear had discovered that Boots had no penis- a very significant condition, given that Chakats are normally hermaphrodites. Moreover, Tuftear's fingers had encountered no evidence of surgery or injury that might account for the lack. It was as if Boots had simply never had one- which was as it should be. The Boots Tuftear knew and loved had been born without one.
"Now, I need you to explain to me why Starfleet thinks you're dead- to the extent that they sent your body back to your parents- and why you're here, on Terra, instead of on Nelhut Three."
Boots sighed heavily. "Can't we just go up to your room?"
"Not until after you answer some questions."
"Oh, all right." Boots picked up an iced drink- which was mostly melted- and sipped from it. "Nelhut Three. I was assigned as security officer to an expedition that was digging up a ruin they called New Karnak, apparently because it was similar to some ruin here on Terra. It was all very mysterious; the temple was unique, and built way out in the middle of nowhere. My predecessor died when a big rock fell on his head and smashed his skull. This was after the building had been thoroughly scanned for stability and deemed safe. Shortly after I arrived, a hidden gallery was found that, I was told, contained hundreds of mummies and all sorts of artifacts. Two mummies- the king and queen- were brought up for study. Then- during the night-" Boots rubbed hir face; shi was shivering as if shi were freezing. "A... friend of mine sneaked into the security vault, opened the queen's mummy, and- and- died." Boots gulped.
"He opened the mummy and died?" Tuftear prompted gently, stroking Boots' back.
Boots shook hir head. "No... he- he- had oral sex with it." Boots covered hir eyes, shivering violently.
"He had oral sex with the mummy?" It took all of Tuftear's carefully cultivated discipline to keep hir voice steady.
Boots drew a shuddering breath. "He... open her mouth and put his- you know- in it. He cut himself on her teeth. And bled to death."
"What happened next?" Tuftear forced hirself to keep hir voice calm, to continue stroking Boots' back.
"A few days later, I... met her."
"The queen. Daughter Night. She had taken over R'marl's body and reshaped it into her own. She had R'marl's ba- his soul or whatever- prisoner, and was using it to, to, I really don't know, but it was there, on the table next to her, and she was feeding it bits of muffin-"
"Boots, I hope you realize how crazy this sounds," Tuftear interjected, gently but firmly, keeping hir voice calm and soothing. Just get hir calmed down enough that I can leave hir alone while I call the paramedics-
Boots laughed. It was despairing, humorless expression. "You think it's crazy? How do you think I feel? I was there!" Boots squeezed hir head as if afraid it would burst. "Tuftear, she thought I was the reincarnation of her dead husband. She wanted me to rule the world with her."
"So what did you do?"
"The only thing I could think of. I set the shield generator on overload. I thought the explosion would kill her. But it didn't."
"How did you survive?"
Boots smiled. It was an expression that spoke of things far distant from normal sanity. "I didn't, Tuftear. I was right at Ground Zero, and I got blown to Em Cee Squared along with everything else. But- it wasn't the end. I became- I became whatever Daughter Night was. We floated around the desert for a while. She had the ba of her servants- all the Tabaqui, the locals who were helping us, they were her worshippers. She- she would have them enter the bodies of desert creatures, then kill themselves. Then she could use the carcasses. After doing that for a while she made a body big enough for us to fit in. Eventually we found a prospector. Him, his family, and his lizards was enough mass for her to make new bodies for both of us. It was a near thing; she had to use up all the ba. Any less and one or the other of us would have been trapped without a body and floated away- died for good. After that we were both pretty wiped out and just hung out in the desert until we realized that the Clarke had come looking for us. So we went out and waited for them to find us. Eventually they did, and took us to the ship."
Tuftear licked hir lips. "Both of you?"
"Yes. Three, actually. The body Daughter Night had originally made for us went, too. That's what Captain Wollenstoncraft gave to my folks."
"Why isn't there any mention of this in the official reports?"
"That's one of Daughter Night's powers, you see. She can cloud people's minds."
"What about the security logs?"
"If nothing was wrong, why would anyone bother to check them?"
"This still sounds crazy, Boots."
"Then answer me this: how did I manage to walk past Ensign Brogan without her noticing me?"
Tuftear opened hir mouth, then shut it. That very question had been on hir mind ever since the initial encounter. The only explanation that made any sense was that Kylie and Boots were somehow in cahoots. But how had they managed to arrange it? What possible motive could there be in that? Shi glanced toward the hotel. Actually there was a very good motive. The trade conference.
"I know what you're thinking," Boots said. "You think, at best, that I'm part of some kind of plot to get into the trade conference. At worst you think I'm a dangerous lunatic who cold bloodedly murdered sixty odd people."
"You don't have to be a mind-reader to figure that out," Tuftear pointed out.
"True." Boots got to hir feet. "I didn't expect you to believe me just like that. Hell, I wouldn't believe me and I was there. So I'm gonna prove it to you." Shi walked along the pool deck. Not too far away a group of four young Terran men were sitting around a table, drinking drinks and keeping a close eye on the young Terran women. Boots paused by their table, put hir hand under the edge, and tipped it over.
The men leapt to their feet, cursing loudly. That much Tuftear expected. What came next was not expected. Instead of turning their anger on Boots, they stood around bitching about the junky table. In fact they seemed completely unaware of hir, even though shi was standing right next to them. When one of the men stepped between Boots and the edge of the pool shi gave him a push. He tumbled into the water with a yell; his friends started laughing and accused him of drinking too much. In fact no one on the deck was paying even the slightest attention to Boots, as if- as if-
"Well?" Boots asked, returning to the umbrella.
Tuftear watched the commotion for a while to give hirself time to compose hir thoughts. "Very good," shi allowed. "But you could have staged it."
"Name your test," Boots replied. "Anything you want, except that it can't involve sensors. I'm only invisible to people."
"Let's take a walk." Tuftear got up and headed for the street stairway. Boots fell in beside hir.
During the Gene Wars of the late 21st century the Hawaiian Islands had been completely depopulated. Pearl City was a planned community that had been built on the blasted rubble of what had once been Honolulu. It existed exclusively for tourism; as part of the Reconstruction the chain's original ecosystem had been restored as closely as possible- with one significant exception. The smiling, dark skinned "natives" in grass skirts and flower necklaces were all Polynesian transplants. Not a single ethnic Hawaiian had lived to see the dawn of the 22nd century.
The wide avenue running in front of the Waipahu Hotel and along the waterfront was paved with cobblestones and lined with palmettoes. Brightly- and scantily- clad tourists moved along in clumps, talking excitedly or snapping pictures of this, that, and everything. On the landward side of the street were the hotels, each occupying a tract that was landscaped with varying levels of skill and taste. Still, it was nothing like the tourist cities of the pre-war period, where hotels and casinos marched shoulder-to-shoulder along the beach. Pearl City's planners had mandated that sixty percent of the skyline remain unobstructed. To fulfill this requirement yet meet demand, hotels were allowed to be very tall and underground building was unrestricted- encouraged, in fact. Shopping centers, transport nodes, and other utilitarian structures were underground to save valuable topside space for tourist attractions. Such things filled the strip between the avenue and the beach, and were supplemented by pushcart vendors hawking everything from hovership rides to synthetic lais (manufactured in New Zealand and imported).
"Steal that guy's wallet," Tuftear directed, indicating a portly Northern European gentleman dressed in a tee shirt and shorts, whose skin had been seared mercilessly by the tropical sun.
Boots walked over to the man. When he had finished purchasing an order of poi on a stick and was turning away shi stuck out hir forepaw and tripped him. The poi, his camera, glasses, and ID card went flying. Boots scooped up the card and presented it to Tuftear. According to it the man was Siggard Yasperson, native of New Stockholm, European Sector. Tuftear nodded and handed it back. Boots tossed it; it landed by his hand and he gratefully scooped it up. After a moment's thought he decided that the poi was salvageable, and after brushing off the grit started eating as he strolled away. Neither he, nor anyone in the bustling scene, had paid the slightest attention to Boots.
"Convinced?" Boots asked.
"Hmm." Tuftear rubbed hir chin thoughtfully and resumed walking. "Snag a couple of those elephant ears."
Boots strolled over to the stand. Shi even waited in line; people didn't blunder into hir as if they couldn't see hir, they simply ignored hir. When hir turn came Boots took four of the fried pastries off the rack and even shook cinnamon sugar on them. As shi walked away no one said a word- not even the stall keeper, who surely couldn't help but notice that nearly a third of the ready stock had simply vanished.
"Okay," Tuftear said as shi munched on one of the pastries. "I believe you. At least, I believe you've found a way to cloud people's minds. I still reserve judgement on the rest of it." Though looking ahead Tuftear kept the corner of hir eye on Boots. If shi started to fade out Tuftear was resolved to attack, suddenly and without mercy. That Boots was fifteen odd kilos heavier and had, during school, shown an almost inhuman mastery of unarmed combat affected hir decision not a whit.
"I promise I won't disappear on you," Boots said. "I... you're my lover. My best friend. I want you to trust me... and I don't want to have to hurt you."
"You may be good," Tuftear commented, "But you're not that good."
Boots smiled humorlessly. "If I were you I wouldn't bet on that. You see... you remember how I said Daughter Night thinks I'm the reincarnation of her dead husband? Well, it turns out her husband was some kind of shit-hot warrior. Daughter Night did something to me while- while I was dead- to, to put me back in touch with his spirit. It seems to have worked, insofar as that it's really honed up my combat skills."
"Is it true?" Tuftear asked. "Are you the reincarnation of her dead husband?"
"God, Tuftear, I have no idea." Boots scrubbed hir face. "After everything that's happened... I don't know whether I'm more afraid to believe it or not believe it."
"Show me," Tuftear said.
"Show me. If what this Daughter Night did to you made you a great warrior, I wanna see it."
"Well-" Boots looked around. "Okay. Let's go down onto the sand, where falling won't hurt so much."
The beaches were fairly crowded but quite wide; near the land side it wasn't that hard to find open space. Boots took off hir hat and shirt and laid them aside. "What's your pleasure?"
"Whatever you want. Non-lethal, I assume. Best out of three."
"You're on." Boots shook hirself down. "Whenever you're ready."
Tuftear took a moment to compose hirself. Boots was loose and relaxed; someone who didn't know hir well might think shi wasn't ready at all. Tuftear knew better; when Boots was tense it meant shi was uncomfortable, distracted. When shi was like this- so relaxed as to seem almost like shi was slouching- shi was completely focused and as full of lethal potential as a charged phaser. But Tuftear and Boots had spent hundreds of hours sparring- contests which frequently had led to physical interaction of a much more intimate nature. Tuftear stepped in-
The brilliant, white sand had seemed plenty soft while shi was walking on it. As Tuftear slammed into it face first it felt about as solid as hardened hull metal. As shi picked hirself up she reviewed the encounter in hir mind. Thinking back shi could reconstruct the sequence of step, grab, and throw. Shi moved in again-
As shi picked hirself up again Tuftear once more reconstructed the encounter. Shi'd seen it coming this time, but not quickly enough to respond. Third time's the charm-
Tuftear didn't try to get up this time. Boots had switched to a different throw. Once again Tuftear was reasonably certain that shi could analyze and counter it- but shi might very well end up a bloody smear on the sand before Boots ran out of variations. "Okay," shi croaked. "I believe you."
Boots hauled Tuftear to hir feet. Shi was as strong as ever- more so, even. Shi hadn't put on more than a kilo or two since Tuftear had seen hir last, but there was a tempered hardness to hir that shi'd lacked before. In hir heart of hearts Tuftear was glad that Boots had gone easy on hir.
"Can you get off this evening?" Boots asked.
Give me an hour or so alone with you, Tuftear thought. "Why?"
"Because Daughter Night is here, in Pearl City. I think she wants to do something to the trade conference."
"Sir." Tuftear came to attention even though shi was wearing nothing but a string bikini and the man addressing hir only a pair of baggy red trunks. Regardless of what shi or he were wearing, he was hir commanding officer.
"Have a seat." Captain Jack Schiffer gestured to a spot beside his chaise lounge. He'd chosen to sit near the front of the hotel, which was the least popular part of the pool deck, so he and Tuftear were comparatively alone.
"Sir." Tuftear sat.
"Tell me what happened in the last hour of your shift today," he said, crossing his right leg over his left and taking a sip from a tumbler that was dripping with condensation. In many ways he was like Boots: lean, lithe, powerful, and devilishly sexy even though his once black hair was now shot with gray. Though of Caucasoid ancestry the tropical sun hadn't scorched him; it merely darkened his color to a rich bronze. Women young enough to be his children, if not grand-children, eyed him hungrily. If he had even hinted at the possibility of a liaison Tuftear would have said yes in a heartbeat. But that would never happen; Captain Schiffer would never violate the integrity of his command in such a fashion. In fact, he had comported himself as if on duty ever since the trade conference began.
"Here, sir?" That the captain was here, dressed like this, was more disturbing to Tuftear than his question.
"Yes," he replied. "I want to know what you are going to say before I hear it."
"I see," Tuftear replied, and shi did. The captain wanted to hear what Tuftear had to say without involving the official apparatus of Starfleet. Which meant that he felt something was seriously wrong.
"At exactly ten hundred, the pool deck door was opened," he continued.
After only the briefest of hesitations Tuftear quickly recounted hir initial and subsequent encounters with Boots, leaving out nothing. Shi could not even think about hiding anything from him. Those sharp, brown eyes seemed capable of dissecting hir soul with the precision of a surgical laser.
"Do you believe that shi really is Ensign Boots?" he wanted to know. There was absolutely nothing in his tone to suggest what he thought about the story.
Tuftear hesitated. That calm voice, with its unimpeachable aura of command, compelled hir to speak, but shi didn't know what to say. "Yes."
"I... there was a time when I loved hir more than I'd ever loved anything in my life."
"I... I still do."
Captain Schiffer nodded. He was not agreeing, merely organizing points in his mind.
"What should I do, sir?" Tuftear's precise control slipped ever so slightly, revealing that shi understood exactly how much trouble shi was in.
"You will meet with Boots and go to this party. I interviewed Ensign Brogan. She doesn't remember seeing the pool deck door open even though, according to the locator in her comm badge, shi was standing right in front of it. I want to know more about this Daughter Night and what Boots' involvement with her is. You may consider yourself relieved of other duty until further notice. If anyone asks, you will say that you have been granted time off because of your bereavement."
At this point I decided to start keeping a record of everything that happened. Frankly, I was scared to death. I hadn't the faintest idea how to handle a situation like this. It made me glad that Captain Schiffer had taken action. If anyone could work through this mess he could.
By the time I got back to the security barracks- merely a section of Tourist class rooms reserved for our use- rumors were flying hot and heavy, so I decided to make a general announcement: my lover, Boots, had died in a tragic accident on Nelhut Three. There was a great outpouring of support; they're good people, and it broke my heart to beg them off, but in the end they agreed to let my grieve in my own way. I know they won't hold it against me if and when they find out that they'd been deceived. Secrecy is a big part of security work. You just have to accept that there are times when you can't be told everything.
To be honest, what bothers me most is Boots. I want to believe hir, I want it so much I can taste it. Because, quite simply, the alternative is that my lover is dead and been replaced by some sort of simulacra, and someone is trying to use me to get at the trade meetings. To make matters worse, I fully appreciate that a clever opponent would use that against me. Frankly, if the hotel blew up and killed all the delegates it wouldn't bother me that much so long as I'd done everything in my power to stop it. But trying to get at me through Boots, that's personal. Someone is going to pay for that.
We need to get out of here before the maid shows up, Tuftear thought. The double bed might have been enough for two friendly Terrans but was entirely inadequate for a pair of amorous Chakats, so it was propped against the wall. The bedclothes were scattered on the floor, ripped to shreds and stained to boot. "Why are you turning against this Daughter Night character? She saved your life, didn't she?"
Boots quivered. Tuftear felt the muscles tense, then relax. "No she didn't. She killed me."
"You're still here because of her."
Boots pushed hir torso upright. "She put me through Hell, Tuftear. Pure Hell. You can't imagine what it was like. Being undead. Better to have died honestly. Though-" Boots gently took Tuftear's breast in hir hand and squeezed. "I'm not sorry I got to be with you again, Tuftear. It's just... you don't understand what Daughter Night is. She and Son Day-"
"Sundae?" Tuftear cocked hir head.
"Son Day." Boots enunciated each syllable. "Her dead husband- or brother- of whom I am supposedly the reincarnation. They ruled the Three Rivers with an iron fist for a thousand years. She's a vampire; she gets her power by murdering people and taking their ba, their souls. Then she expends them, or uses them to do her bidding. The reason we're here is because she's decided that Nelhut Three is small potatoes. She figures to get her claws into the Stellar Federation and be queen of a hundred worlds instead of just one."
Tuftear was silent for a moment. "If she's so all-powerful, how did she end up buried?"
Boots shook hir head. "I don't know. Someone named Pekki Garanesset managed to kill her and trap hir somehow so she couldn't jump to a new body. I'm sure it comes as no big surprise that she won't tell me how he did it."
Tuftear sat up. "Why does she let you run around loose? She must realize that you don't exactly subscribe to her philosophy of galactic conquest."
Boots sighed. "She's in love with me. She thinks I'll come around, eventually."
"Love is blind, isn't it?" Tuftear stretched. "So. What are we supposed to do about this?"
"For the love of God, Tuftear, I have no idea. I came to you because, because I needed somebody to talk to."
Tuftear sighed, stroking Boots' flank. "To be honest, I'm really no expert at destroying vampires. And I don't have much influence in Starfleet. All I could think of to do is tell Captain Schiffer."
"That's the problem," Boots muttered glumly. "Daughter Night- she calls herself Zalika Corby now- has the same powers I do, only more so. She can twist people's minds, make them think whatever she wants them to think, and they think it's all their own idea. If someone confronted her, she'd just twiddle her fingers and make them forget about the whole affair."
"But she has a body. A physical one that can be scanned, just like you."
"Which means that she can be photographed or otherwise monitored- by electronic means, at least. How close does she have to get to twiddle someone's mind?"
"Hmm..." Boots thought hard. "Actually... It seems to be in two parts. The easy part is what I did today, making people ignore stuff. But all you're doing is, is preventing someone from perceiving something. You aren't changing what they think about what they do see. That woman at the elephant ear stand is going to suddenly notice that some of her stock is missing and wonder what happened to it. If she'd had a security camera and reviewed the log, she'd see me take them. If I wanted to stop her from going to the police and pressing charges, that's the hard part. I'd have to ask Daughter Night to do that. She'd have to go talk to the woman face to face; it doesn't work on electronic representations even if the person is standing next to you. No zapping people over the phone. After talking for a while the stall keeper would just decide that whatever Daughter Night wanted was entirely sensible. She'd, she'd rationalize the decision in some fashion that was comfortable for her. If Daughter Night told her to forget about the elephant ears she would. Not only that, but her mind would clean up the memories so there was nothing inconsistent. She'd forget that she'd spoken to the police, or even that she'd made the ears and put them on the rack in the first place."
"What if the police have a security log that shows her talking to the detective?" Tuftear wanted to know.
"Well, I get the impression that what Daughter Night does is basically brainwashing, only she does it very quickly and without all the fuss. I'd guess that it could be broken by a clever psychologist."
"But someone would have to suspect that something was wrong," Tuftear commented. "Otherwise, everyone goes along as if nothing had happened."
"Would she do it?"
"Sorry?" Boots cocked hir head.
"Daughter Night. If you asked her to zap the elephant ear woman, would she do it?"
Boots considered for a moment. "Yes. She dotes on me. She... wants me to fall in love with her."
"Why doesn't she just zap you?"
Boots lay back, staring blankly at the ceiling. "I wonder that all the time. I really don't know. I guess... maybe it would be too easy. I think... I think she wants me to decide that I'm in love with her. For real, if you will."
"Can she zap you?"
"Well-" Boots frowned in concentration. "Actually... there was one time. Captain Wollenstoncraft sent my- remains- back to Chakona on board a shuttle. Me and Daughter Night were on board. She... she wanted to kill the pilot and steal the shuttle. I wouldn't let her do it. We argued. Eventually... she glared at me. Then I was- I felt like I was waking up suddenly after dozing off. I guessed that she'd tried to zap me and failed. After all, if she'd succeeded, I wouldn't have noticed. I certainly didn't find myself any more... amenable to her way of thinking. She hasn't tried anything since. Not as I've noticed, at any rate."
"How did you get from Chakona to here?"
Boots smiled. "We took a star liner."
Tuftear frowned. "With no money and no identification, you just waltzed on board a star liner?"
Boots chuckled. "That's what I thought, too. But let me ask you this: how many of the delegates at the trade conference carry money or ID?"
"Hmm." Tuftear rubbed hir chin. "Good point. We know who they all are. Messy details are all handled by underlings."
"Exactly. Picture this in your mind, if you will. Two persons arrive in the embarkation lounge of a star liner. Obviously they need boarding passes. One of them walks up to the attendant and explains that she is a very important person. Her staff was supposed to have taken care of all this, but something didn't work, the passes haven't arrived. Because I am a very important person, I'm not going to waste my time fixing the problem. You will fix the problem, and you'd better do it quickly, or I will be forced to have words with the very important people I know."
Tuftear was shaking hir head. "Yes, I see it. I'm just an underling, so I call the purser. The purser comes down and has a personal chat with the very important person. Next thing you know, everything's been worked out."
"Exactly." Boots nodded. "Now we have to do something about the outstanding account, but we have until we reach Terra, in a week and a half. So Ms. Corby starts working the lounge. I'll give her this, she's very good. She knows at a glance who are the real power brokers and who are wannabes. Once she has a list of prospects, she starts sleeping with them. Several a night, in some cases. Some will pay cash up front for sexual experiences. Some give her presents, tokens of affection. Some pay her off to avoid unpleasant scandals. Some pay her for the dirt she digs up on other passengers. By the time we dock at Cape York, Ms. Corby has not only earned enough to pay off the passage, but also landed herself a wealthy lover."
"Who?" Tuftear wanted to know.
"Jandabar ne Saddan."
Tuftear felt an icy chill creeping through hir body. "Are referring to the husband of Chufatz nal Saddan, who is the Voxxan delegate to the trade meeting?"
"Yes," Boots replied. "Though honestly, I didn't know who he was until just recently. That's part of the reason I came to you now."
"And the rest?"
"I..." Boots got slowly to hir feet. "It has to do with what happened next. Daughter Night had managed to convince Jandabar that she was some sort of wealthy debutante. She needed money to back it up... so as soon as we landed we took a stratojet to Kowloon."
"Pretty wild place," Tuftear commented. Southeast Asia had been severely hit during the Gene Wars. Survivors had been reduced nearly to Stone Age savagery; even now, two hundred years later, the land- and the people- were not exactly civilized.
"That's what she wanted," Boots replied. "She found a triad gang... and took it over."
"Just like that?"
Boots nodded. "Yes, just like that. The ability to twiddle minds is only part of her power. She's a telekinetic... if her body is damaged she can put it back together... and she can pass through solid objects. You still see her, but you can't touch her. She found a gang member and took his ba. When she does that, she knows everything the person knew. So all of a sudden she speaks Cantonese and knows all about Triad culture. She goes to the hideout- it's back in the slums, doesn't have much electronic security- and walks right in, through the walls. She assassinates the boss- takes his ba- then announces that she's taking over. Anyone objects, she kills them."
"And takes their ba?"
"No. Technically, you have to willingly sacrifice yourself to her. Practically, it means she has to work with a person for a while before she can take their ba. She can't just take the ba of anyone who dies."
"What does she do with a ba once she has it?"
"Any number of things. By calling a bunch of them together shi can enhance her natural powers. They aren't physical, they pass through solid objects and they can't touch or pick anything up, but they can hear and see. She uses them as drones, to spy for her. If she binds one to an inanimate object it comes to life, but it can't do anything it wouldn't normally do. An animated chair isn't much use. But an animated ground car, robot, or security computer could be very useful. Traditionally she's used them to animate dead bodies." Boots shuddered. "If she binds one to a person who's still alive, that person's normal soul is suppressed and the ba takes over. It's not like mind control, though; it doesn't give her access to anything the person knew, just control of their physical body."
"How did you get your powers?"
Boots licked hir lips and shifted uneasily. "I... after Ms. Corby brought me back to life, I had the ability to control ba. To a limited extent. She... gave me one. But all I can do with it is have it spy or cloud people's minds. None of the other stuff."
"Where is it now?"
Boots raised hir left hand, palm down. "Right here." Hir right hand outlined something approximately bird shaped. "It looks like a hawk, with- with-" Boots swallowed, hir voice quavering- "the face of, of whoever they were in life."
Tuftear stared intently at the space above Boots' hand. Shi waved hir own hand back and forth in the volume, encountering nothing but empty air.
"Normal people can't see them, but I can," Boots explained. "If... If Daughter Night sent one to keep an eye on me, I'd know it."
"What about this one?" Tuftear wanted to know. "How can you be so sure it's not spying for her?"
"Because-" Boots' voice caught; hir hand was quivering. "This... is R'marl. He hates Daughter Night. She... pretended to be me. That's how she tricked him into giving her his ba. He was- in love with me." Boots swallowed, dabbing at hir face. "I really don't know if she can see what he sees or not. She doesn't seem to. Besides, if she's that powerful, what the point? I have to try. I have to do something!" Shi started sobbing.
Tuftear pulled Boots close and hugged hir tightly. "Why not just... run away?" shi asked. "If Daughter Night isn't watching you, and lets you run around on your own, you could be off planet before she realizes you're gone."
"I've thought about it," Boots replied in a barely audible voice. "But... you see... If a ba exists too long outside a body, it sort of evaporates. And the person is dead for good. I, I can't put a ba into a body, and I can't sustain one on my own. Only Daughter Night can do that."
"So," Tuftear said. "If you run off, you either have to leave R'marl to Ms. Corby's tender mercies, or you take him with you and he dies for good."
A fine mess you've gotten us into, Tuftear thought. Shi wrapped hir arms around Boots' shoulders and kissed hir gently on the cheek. Because of it, Boots did not see the hard, merciless expression in Tuftear's eyes. I don't care of this Daughter Night is God herself. She is going to pay for making my beloved suffer.
Two doors down from the Waipahu was the Elephantine, one of those hotel/casino combinations- and its designers had elected to push the envelope of taste to its very limit. For their theme they had selected ancient Egypt; the grounds were dotted with stands of date palms and pools full of rice and of papyrus stalks. The buildings themselves had been textured to look like sandstone and decorated with ornately carved and brightly painted hieroglyphics. Massive, stiffly-posed statues with flared headdresses decorated every wall, obelisks every courtyard and fountain. Attendants- women in snugly fit gowns, with heavy gold necklaces, bracelets, and snake-headed circlets on their heads, men in striped headdresses and kilts- moved through these settings, talking to guests and sometimes playing instruments.
"Did she have to have her party here?" Tuftear muttered, adjusting hir gown. It had cost what amounted to half a year's pay for a lieutenant (jg). After careful consideration Tuftear had decided not to ask wherefrom the money had come.
"She's got a thing for Egyptian art," Boots replied. Hir own suit was in the same vein as Tuftear's gown, but it had already been in Boots' luggage. "I think it reminds her of home."
Inside the main entrance was the primary casino, in an enormous hypostyle hall. Gambling machines had been built into the bases of the huge decorated columns that supposedly supported the roof; alcoves to either side contained gaming tables presided over by various idols.
"This way," Boots directed, angling off the room's main axis. "We're in the Ramesses II room."
The entrance had retractable panels so that it could be opened or closed. Right now it was closed- and guarded by half a dozen security men. Nor were they the usual rent-a-cop types; though dressed in nondescript suits they were very obviously- to Tuftear, at least- soldiers. There was a line of people waiting to get in; each one had to pass through a detector frame and submit to a quick hand-scan- and they had to present an invitation to get even that far. As Boots and Tuftear walked up a couple was turned away- quitely, but firmly. The young woman- obviously wealthy and just a tiny bit drunk- seemed as if she might argue, but when the guards turned their cold, hard eyes upon her she thought better of it and left quickly.
"Good evening, Ma'am," one of the guards said, bowing as Tuftear and Boots approached. Two men picked up the detector frame and hustled it out of the way while a third held the door. None of them made the slightest attempt to question or detain Boots or Tuftear.
"What if I was carrying a weapon?" Tuftear whispered.
"She'd probably kill you out of hand," Boots replied. "Thought since you're my friend, she might let it go."
The room inside was full of gaily decorated people. Along one wall was a bar, along the other a buffet table. At the back was an orchestra stand and a dance floor. Dominating it all was a large dais supporting what could only be described as a throne. Seated on the throne-
"That's her," Boots whispered. "Ms. Zalika Corby, also known as Daughter Night."
Tuftear accepted a drink from a passing waiter and sipped it while studying the strange woman seated on the throne. At first shi thought Ms. Corby was a Voxxan; her sharply pointed ears, slender muzzle, and fluffy tail were very fox-like. But her feet, currently bare, were digitigrade instead of plantigrade. Nor was her color anything fox-like; every bit of visible fur was silky black; her nails- both finger and toe- had been painted a bright, arterial red. Her eyes were a brilliant, intense gold like the afternoon sun on a warm, summer day. She was dressed in a form-fitting gown that left her breasts exposed almost down to the nipples- which were clearly visible through the sheer fabric- and slit up the sides all the way to the waist. It was the vibrant, shimmering white of the full moon, coated with sequins-
"Those aren't sequins," Boots put in. "Her gown is made of real silk, and coated with real diamonds."
Ms. Corby filled the gown, and then some. She was very tall- two meters or so, Tuftear guessed- and incredibly full figured. She seemed to be carrying as much flesh as her frame would support without becoming dumpy. Tuftear thought it rather excessive; shi had always subscribed to the pen rule: the perfect breast was just large enough that a pen could be tucked under it. Ms. Corby's bust looked capable of hiding a pair of paperback books, and the rest of her was scaled to match. Equally apparent was the fact that under the gown was nothing but Ms. Corby herself.
Tuftear whistled under hir breath. "How much did all this cost?"
"I can't even begin to imagine," Boots replied. "She's not the sort of person who worries about money. She always has someone hanging around who'll pay the bills."
"I see what you mean. That woman, the one on her left, she's the secretary to the Caitian ambassador. In fact-" Tuftear surreptitiously scanned the room- "there's an awful lot of people here that I've seen at the trade delegation meetings. Not principals, of course, but accessories. Secretaries, assistants, advisors... hangers on, wannabes."
"She's getting them close so she can twiddle their minds," Boots said.
"What species is she?" Tuftear had finally given up trying to guess.
"Tabaqui," Boots replied. "A native of Nelhut Three. I'm told they bear some resemblance to Terran jackals- though not her. Her color's wrong. And she's too big. All the Tabaqui I saw were smaller, about the size of Voxxans."
"A female Anubis," Tuftear commented.
"Anubis," Tuftear repeated. "An Egyptian god of the dead. One of them, at any rate. Represented as a black jackal, or a jackal-headed man."
"Tuftear, I never realized you were such an academic."
"I'm not, really. That's just something that happened to stick in my mind."
Boots grimaced. "She definitely has power over the dead. Very macabre."
"All right then. Will you introduce us?"
Boots shifted uneasily. "Are you sure about this, Tuftear?"
"Yes, Boots. I have to see what I'm up against."
Boots sighed unhappily. "All right."
As they approached the dais Ms. Corby shifted her gaze to look at them. With a casual gesture of the left hand she cleared a path; the richest and most powerful of a dozen worlds stepped aside because Ms. Corby desired it. Tuftear felt a cold, icy dread beginning to form in the pit of hir stomach; over the last few weeks shi had been given plenty of opportunities to study people who wielded immense power. Ms. Corby wore her power as naturally and unconsciously as she wore her skin. Among these people- captains of industry, world leaders, statesmen- she was as comfortable as Tuftear could imagine being among hir own family.
"What I don't understand is how she can just waltz in here and everybody just starts giving her stuff," Boots marveled.
Tuftear smiled grimly. "You don't get it, Boots. It's the- the- aura of authority, I guess you'd say. All these people, they take one look at her and they see it. They think to themselves, 'this is a person who wields great power.' The fact that the power isn't visible around her means nothing. It- it's a faith. It goes right past the brain and into the gut. The other half- well, the heart and soul of politics is getting leverage on people so you can force them to agree to your plan. You do that by having your friends exert influence on your behalf... and by finding the dirt on people and threatening to expose it. If Ms. Corby can read minds, she's the ultimate source. She can tell you what the enemy is doing, what hir weaknesses are. The value of that skill- in the political arena- makes the cost of all this-" she took in the room and its contents with a small gesture- "peanuts. Less than peanuts. Remember, we're talking about people who control the wealth of entire systems."
"Hello, Boots, so good to see you," Ms. Corby said, extending her hand. Her voice was deep, smooth, and harmonic, lacking burrs or sharp edges. Tuftear found hirself thinking of a knife blade: solidly forged, carefully polished, and finely honed.
"Zalika, this is my friend, Tuftear," Boots announced after briefly gripping Ms. Corby's hand and stepping aside.
"A pleasure to meet you, Tuftear. Boots has spoken highly of you." Ms. Corby spoke softly, but each word came out as if it were a royal decree. Tuftear found the hand extended to hir: fingers bent, knuckles in a horizontal plane. Taking cue from Boots, she gripped the fingers briefly but firmly and gave a little bow. In that moment of contact Tuftear hastily revised hir opinion of Ms. Corby's physique. The fingers were fleshy but there was very real strength in them. She was almost certainly stronger than just about any of the slender people gathered around her.
"You are taking part in the trade delegation meetings," Ms. Corby continued. It was a statement, not a question.
"You are?" a somewhat more than middle aged Voxxan man in a brilliant, red silk suit decorated with gold embroidery turned suddenly. Tuftear felt momentarily faint; it was Jandabar ne Saddan himself. Shi hadn't recognized him because he was dressed in gray tights and a loose-sleeved tunic that left his chest bare, instead of the conservative suit and tie shi'd always seen him wearing in the past.
"Why yes, Jan. Shi's with the Chakonan delegation." Zalika made a small gesture with her right hand as if to say It's really no great matter.
The Secretary of Economic Development for Voxxa and all its dependent territories gave Tuftear a polite smile and turned his attention back to Ms. Corby. Tuftear, recognizing the dismissal, took a step back then turned and walked briskly toward the buffet table. Along the way shi grabbed two drinks from passing waiter, one in each hand, drank down both, one after the other, then passed the empties to another waiter.
"Well?" Boots asked.
Tuftear picked up a plate and began selecting buffet items. "We're in way over our heads."
"I believe I tried to tell you that earlier."
"Yes, you did." Tuftear nibbled a pastry. "Let's hobnob for a while. I want to get an idea of who all is here."
They ended up on dance floor. It proved to be an excellent way to get an overview of the crowd without being tied to individual conversations. A great many of them, it seemed to Tuftear, were what in an older time would be called courtesans- or, in a less distant time, arm candy. That is, people whose function was to accessorize the individuals they escorted. For this reason, Tuftear suspected, everyone seemed to take it quite in stride when Boots introduced hir as simply "a friend."
"I don't see any other Chakats," Tuftear commented. Shi and Boots were dancing chest to chest; their lower bodies swept a wide enough area that no other couple was close enough to listen in.
"Or skunktaurs," Boots put in.
"I wonder why that is." Tuftear glanced around again. There were other centauroids: foxes, wolves, even horses. Tuftear had managed to get close enough to discreetly inspect the several felitaurs, but none of them were hermaphrodites and therefore not Chakats. Of course by that definition Boots wouldn't be a Chakat-
"It's going to be dark soon," Boots muttered.
"Yeah?" Tuftear prompted.
"If things go typically, Daughter Night is going to put on a show. A demonstration of her power for the faithful, as it were. When that happens, you must stay close to me. Touching. At all times. If not- I won't be able to protect you."
"I understand." Far more telling than hir words was the fact that Tuftear felt Boots begin to quiver. Tuftear held hir more tightly.
The group around Ms. Corby's throne had refreshed itself, with one exception. Jandabar was still there; he and Ms. Corby seemed to be engaged in an animated conversation. At that distance, and in the poor light, Tuftear couldn't tell what was being said even by watching their mouths, but at one point Ms. Corby laughed. Tuftear found hirself wondering where the ambassador might be right now. Probably busy, in spite of the late hour. Chufatz nal Saddan had a reputation as a workaholic. On several occasions Tuftear had been on duty until nearly midnight-
Jandabar stroked Zalika's cheek with his left hand, then slid it under her chin. She closed her eyes and lifted her head. There were at least a dozen people within two meters of the throne, but not a one of them paid the slightest attention. Nor would they, Tuftear decided, thinking of Siggard Yasperson. Unless Ms. Corby wishes it.
Tuftear broke away from Boots for a moment and tossed hir head, running hir fingers through hir mane. Ambassador Chufatz was, like her husband, somewhat more than middle aged. Even as a youth she had been handsome rather than beautiful. She had been- and still was- slender, with small, firm breasts and trim hips. Nothing at all like the mammalian fullness of Ms. Corby.
"What's going on up there that's so interesting?" Boots asked, wrapping hir arms around Tuftear and giving hir a kiss.
"A lot of the same as what's happening down here," Tuftear replied, massaging Boots' back and licking hir cheek. Shi had always found Boots' solid but curvaceous body to be intoxicating. Long separation- and the afternoon's activities- had only sharpened hir appetite.
Zalika seemed to have slouched to one side in her chair. Tuftear found that strange; Ms. Corby did not seem like the sort to allow herself to show bad posture. It took a trip to the bar to determine the cause: it was so that she could stroke the front of Jandabar's pants, which were decidedly stretched. On the next twirl Zalika had unzipped his fly and reached inside. Those soft but powerful fingers were stroking and massaging rhythmically-
Tuftear sat down suddenly.
"What's wrong?" Boots asked.
"Stilter men are lucky," Tuftear replied.
"They wear pants. It's much more difficult for them to, shall we say, embarrass themselves in public."
"Ah." Boots nodded understandingly. "Would you like a glass of ice?"
A moment later Boots returned from the bar with a glass full of ice. Zalika had drawn Jandabar's penis out through his fly and was massaging it to erection. Tuftear tried not to stare but it was difficult; Jandabar's male member was huge. Zalika's hands were not small, yet it seemed as if she could have placed them side by side around that fleshy shaft without covering the tip. It was far too easy for Tuftear to imagine how those hands would feel around hir own penis, squeezing and stroking-
Boots dropped to one knee, scooping out several ice cubes.
"No no," Tufter protested, taking the glass and the ice. "If you do it, it won't help, believe me."
"Sorry." Boots didn't look the least bit repentant. "There is an alternative, you know."
"Yes. Like they're doing." Boots nodded slightly toward the dais. "We could... do it too. No one would notice."
Tuftear licked hir lips. Shi wanted to pant; the temperature in the room seemed to have increased suddenly. "Haven't you had enough sex for one day?"
"No," Boots replied. "I could fuck you all day long and still not get enough."
Tuftear looked around. "I... I know how you feel. But under the circumstances... now's not the time."
Boots drooped hir head. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Tuftear stroked Boots' cheek. "I agree with your sentiment. It's just that right now we need to keep an eye on Ms. Corby."
"Looks like it'll be about the same difference," Boots commented after a casual glance. Ms. Corby had turned Jandabar so that he was standing right beside her chair, with his left arm across the back. She gripped the base of his shaft with one hand while caressing the tip with her long and exceptionally agile tongue.
Tuftear shook hir head. "I never realized that Jandabar was hung like a draft horse."
"He isn't," Boots corrected. "Or, at least, he wasn't. Ms. Corby used her power to reshape him."
Tuftear frowned. "Then... she could give you a penis, couldn't she?"
Boots said nothing for a long time. "Yes," shi finally admitted. "In fact the first body she gave me did have one."
"Why not this one?"
"Because... I didn't think you'd believe it was really me."
Tuftear nodded. "You were right about that." They continued dancing; Tuftear found it difficult to keep hir mind on task. Shi kept imagining what Boots' penis would be like. Like the rest of hir body, shi decided. Big, sleek, and powerful. Hir knees quivered and almost gave out. If Boots hadn't been there to hold hir up shi might have fallen.
At the end of the current song the band fell silent. Waiters gently but firmly cleared the dance floor. A drum roll began, a spotlight came on, and a tall, rakish man in white pantaloons, black boots, a bright red swallowtail jacket, a black topper, and white gloves jogged out onto the floor. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Elephantine thanks you all for coming tonight. Let's have a big hand for the person who made it all possible, your gracious host, Ms. Zalika Corby!"
The spotlight fell on Ms. Corby's throne. She smiled and waved with the gracious dignity of a queen; the crowd cheered and applauded. No one, at least not in Tuftear's hearing, remarked on the fact that her other hand was still wrapped around Jandabar's penis.
"And now," the ringmaster continued once the spotlight had returned to him, "The Elephantine's Theater of the Ancient World brings you the first act of tonight's entertainment. In the First Century, ancient Romans entertained their populace and at the same took care of a sticky political problem by having early Christians devoured by lions. I now give you our take on this, shall we say, most interesting practice." He winked ostentatiously and backed to the side of the dance floor, pointing. The spotlight shifted, falling upon three figures. Two were soldiers, dressed in brightly polished armor that Tuftear supposed was meant to be Roman. Between them they held a man with swarthy skin, dark curly hair, and a full beard, dressed in a plain, un-dyed robe. His ankles and wrists were manacled. The soldiers pushed him out onto the floor then retired. A moment later the lions emerged.
There were two of them. They weren't actual lions- at least, they weren't animals. They were wemics- centauroid lions, very like Chakats in general appearance, but not hermaphrodites. Both of these were female; they were bigger even that Boots, with thickly muscled bodies and very large breasts, though not so large as Ms. Corby's. They wore not a single stitch of clothing, though their fur had obviously been carefully trimmed and tended.
The victim struggled to his feet and tried to scramble away. The lionesses easily cut him off, circling to herd him back toward the center of the floor. He darted this way and that, but the eventual outcome was never in doubt. One of the lionesses stepped up and shoved him; he stumbled against the other, who caught him and pinned his arms. The first unsheathed her claws and ripped open the front of his robe. He wasn't wearing anything under it. She dropped to her knees, grabbing his thighs so he couldn't pull away, and licked his belly. After a moment she moved down to his crotch. After switching off a couple times one of them- Tuftear couldn't tell the lionesses apart, they looked identical- grabbed the man around the neck and forced him to hands and knees. The other turned about and presented her hindquarters. He grabbed her pelvis and started licking.
"Oh, man," Tuftear muttered, shifting hir attention back to Ms. Corby. Jandabar had knelt and slipped his hand under the front of Zalika's skirt. He probed with two fingers, then four. Good God, it looked like he was sticking his whole hand in. Tuftear couldn't be sure; the light and viewing angle were bad. Even so it was pretty obvious that Zalika's sexual dimensions were as prodigious as Jandabar's.
"She does this to, to get people off guard," Boots said. "And... well, she seems to enjoy it."
"If I'd been buried for a thousand years, I'd probably be pretty horny, too," Tuftear admitted.
Out on the dance floor the victim had started using his fingers, or more accurately, his arm. He made a fist, held his arm straight, and pumped it in and out. At one point he was doing both lionesses at once.
"I wouldn't do that," Boots commented.
"No. If I was gonna have sex with a humanoid I'd want two. One for the front and one for the back."
"You're not helping my concentration, Boots."
"Sorry." Shi didn't sound sorry.
Tuftear was still holding the glass of ice. Some of it had melted, but the water and remaining ice were plenty cold. Shi dipped hir fingers in it, then twisted around and reached between hir hind legs. The cold was like daggers in hir hot flesh, but it had the desired effect.
"No," Tuftear replied sharply. "And I'd advise you not to forget that we're in a shit load of trouble here."
"Sorry." Now Boots did seen sorry, pitifully so.
Tuftear sighed. "Boots, you yourself told me that Ms. Corby does this to get inside peoples' heads. Just because she's not using her funky powers doesn't mean that she can't get to you."
Boot's expression sobered. "Yes, you're right." Shi frowned. "I... I should have thought of that." Shi began to look worried. "Look- maybe, maybe you should go-"
"No way," Tuftear declared flatly. "The only way I'm going out of here without you is if someone's dragging my lifeless body." Boots said nothing, but the expression in hir eyes made Tuftear's knees turn rubbery.
The lionesses had finished with their sport. The victim was rather the worse for wear; he was covered with a sheen of sweat, marked by more than a few bruises and scratches, and looked exhausted. He was almost carried from the floor. No big surprise, Tuftear reflected. Servicing a pair of females, each of whom were more than double his mass, had to be a Hell of a lot of work.
Another figure had joined Zalika and Jandabar on the dais. It was the secretary to the Caitian ambassador; Tuftear searched hir memory for the name. Ah, yes. N'laska of Rathisho. She wore a snugly fitted navy blue gown that left a great deal of her tawny, golden fur exposed to public view. Her darker, burnt-umber mane had been straightened and step-cut. On first impression a person might think that she'd been picked solely on the basis of her appearance; she was young and slim, hard-bodied but nicely curved in a way Tuftear found maddeningly sexy. Especially considering that the ambassador himself was older and considerably less attractive than Jandabar. Anyone who'd ever seen her work realized that she was incredibly smart- and incredibly ambitious. It was no secret that she wanted to be the next ambassador.
Jandabar was again standing. Zalika was holding his penis, one hand near the base and the other near the tip, as if presenting it. N'laska was starting at it with a look of hot interest that left no possible doubt that she saw it and liked what she saw. With one hand she reached out to stroke it gently. With the other she rubbed her crotch.
"Now wasn't that fun, ladies and gentlemen?" the ringmaster declared, practically dancing out onto the floor. "For our second act, let us take a small trip into mythology. The classical centaur, part man, part horse, was a wild, barbaric, and uncouth creature. If such a one were to happen upon a young maiden who had ventured too far afield... well, see for yourselves."
Right on cue the maiden appeared. She was very classical: a full, almost Reubenesque figure, fair skinned, with golden hair that fell in ringlets, an aquiline nose, and rounded features. She wore a sandals with garters and a filmy, toga-like garment.
Next came the centaurs. Their massively muscled human torsos were bare, their skin having the rich, bronzed appearance Tuftear had found so attractive on Captain Schiffer. Their features were very square and solid, their hair long, black, and tightly curled, their chins sporting long, Persian style beards. Their horse bodies were jet black and gleamed like silk under the spotlights. In overall size they were about the same as the wemics, their horse parts much smaller than an actual horse would be.
Tuftear glanced at the dais. N'laska was on her knees, both hands around Jandabar's shaft, sucking greedily at the tip. Zalika watched, smiling and rubbing herself. Everyone else in the room, even those standing right on or near the dais, were either watching the floor show or talking amongst themselves.
Despite the fact that she was not hampered by chains as the Christian had been, the maiden's two legs were no match against the four belonging to each of her pursuers. In short order she was intercepted. It wasn't necessary to rip her gown to get it off, but the centaurs did so anyway. She struggled and pleaded; neither effort availed her. Tuftear found hirself wondering how the centaurs planned to proceed; the design of their hind legs wouldn't permit them to kneel the way a two-legger could. If the victim were laid on her back, there was no way to prevent her from crossing her legs or kicking her attacker in a sensitive area. Putting her on hands and knees would be most convenient for the centaurs, but there was no easy way to make her hold still. A chair and some rope would do nicely, but the centaurs had neither. Of course Tuftear's forepaws were capable of grasping; shi could probably pin a victim adequately enough that intercourse would be possible. The solution the centaurs did employ was one Tuftear wouldn't have thought of: they beat their victim until she stopped struggling and submitted willingly. Tuftear frowned; the bruises, swellings, and pressure cuts covering the maiden's face and torso were shockingly realistic. Not to mention the groans of pain and the blood that began to dribble down her thighs as her attackers forced their massive organs into her again and again. The bit with the Christian and the lionesses had looked reasonably like an act. This looked rather like an actual rape. When they were at long last finished the centaurs trotted off the floor, dragging their victim between them. She hung like a rag doll in their grip.
N'laska was on her knees, with her face buried in Zalika's crotch. Jandabar stood behind her, his hands on her hips. He thrust in, slowly but firmly, until their thighs were pressed firmly together, then pulled back until the head of his penis emerged, wet and glistening. On it went, in and out, in and out. Though N'laska seemed far too small a woman to accommodate him, she showed no sign of distress. No surprise there, Tuftear thought. If Ms. Corby could reshape Jandabar, there was no reason she couldn't do N'laska as well.
"Whew! That was almost too much," the ringmaster declared, dabbing at his brow with a handkerchief. "Let's try something a little less frenetic. During the Middle Ages it was believed that unicorns ran through the forests and wild places. They could only be held by a golden bridle... and even then only by a young woman with virgin flesh and a virtuous disposition. But they don't say what happens afterward." He gave the audience a knowing leer.
First out this time was the unicorn. A gasp rose from the crowd- mostly from the female members, and Tuftear. He was not a literal unicorn but rather an anthropomorphic version. He was not so massive or muscular as the centaurs had been but he had a sculpted delicacy, a Classical perfection of form, that they had lacked. His skin was the white of new-fallen snow, his hair glistened like silk. His eyes were the brilliant blue of bottomless pools, his horn like mother of pearl, matching his nails and hooves. His mane was long and wavy, his chin bearded, his forearms and ankles tufted. He was completely naked, and the dimensions of his male organ rivaled Jandabar's.
"Buy that one for me, Daddy," Boots whispered, giving Tuftear an especially tight squeeze. Tuftear did not trust hirself to respond coherently, but shi completely agreed with Boots' sentiment.
The virgin was tall, full-figured but firm, with fine, Aryan features, long, golden blonde hair, and grey-green eyes. Compared to anyone but the unicorn she would have been exotic and beautiful, As it was he very nearly eclipsed her. She was wearing a filmy, almost transparent gown that hung low on her shoulders and dipped precipitously in front. Though the skirt hung to her ankles it was so sheer that her figure still showed through. Her hair was long and held up by a shimmering net. On her feet were delicate slippers; in one hand she held a bridle that seemed to have been woven from fine strands of golden thread. She began the hunt with a lustful intensity that was shockingly at odds with her supposedly virtuous disposition. But her satisfaction was not to come easily; she could run as fast as him- faster, even, because her slippered feet clung more surely to the dance floor than did his hooves, but every time she got close he evaded her with an effortless, breathtaking dexterity that was a wonder to behold. One time she actually managed to get the bridle wrapped around his arm; he escaped by flinging her through a crack-the-whip that momentarily tipped her off her feet. While she was regaining her balance he sipped away.
"I've half a mind to go help her," Tuftear commented.
"Don't you dare," Boots murmured, nibbling at Tuftear's shoulder. "If you do, I'll be forced to subdue you."
"I'll share him," Tuftear offered.
The virgin decided to try a different approach. She took off her hair net and shook her head; her tresses spilled out in a brilliant cascade of gold. She slid her feet apart, rolling her hips in a very suggestive manner, lifting her breasts and thrusting them forward while licking her lips. The unicorn began to take some interest; he watched with one eye while massaging his member until it was semi-erect. He circled but kept out of reach.
N'laska had her arms around Zalika's torso and was sucking greedily at her nipples. Jandabar's lips were drawn back in a feral snarl; spittle dripped down his chin and onto N'laska's back. His hips pounded frantically, as if he were trying to drive her right through the back of the chair.
The virgin had begun a strip-tease. Her gown was a lot more complex that it looked, allowing her to draw out the process considerably. The unicorn was masturbating and not being as careful about keeping his distance; range had closed by almost a third. As the last of her clothing fell away the virgin redoubled her efforts, masturbating and fingering herself energetically with one hand while squeezing and fondling her breasts with the other. Sweat glistened on her face, shoulders, and buttocks. Every so often she would pull her hand out of her vulva and lick her fingers or smear the fluid on her neck and chest. The unicorn had actually stopped walking and was masturbating furiously, his eyes beginning to glaze.
N'laska let out a piercing shriek that could have shattered glass. Tuftear almost jumped right out of hir skin. The unicorn's eyes rolled back and his semen erupted forth in a pulsing spray. The virgin struck, quick as lightning, slipping the bridle over his face and jerking his head back viciously. While he was still in the throes of orgasm she forced him down onto his face, binding his wrists behind his back with the reins. Then she flipped him over onto his back, spread his legs, grabbed his semi-rigid penis with both hands and stuffed it into her mouth. When he struggled she grabbed his testicles and squeezed. After only two or three half hearted attempts he surrendered. She sucked hard, thrusting her middle finger into his anus. When he was adequately erect she lowered herself onto him, rolling and bouncing her hips. His second orgasm discharged so much ejaculate that it oozed out of her and dripped down her thighs. When it was over she sat on his chest, grabbing his horn with both hands and jamming his muzzle into her crotch. He licked up every drop of fluid, probing her vulva with his tongue.
"Miss?" a waiter called, laying a hand on Tuftear's shoulder.
Tuftear started violently and nearly fell. "Y- yes?" shi managed to stammer. The ice had melted a long time ago, and by this point shi didn't think even a whole bucket would have helped.
"Ms. Corby will see you," the waiter said.
Tuftear smoothed the front of hir gown and made a half-hearted attempt to straighten her mane. Ms. Corby was looking straight at hir and the waiter had stepped away but wasn't leaving. Tuftear didn't recall asking for an audience, but shi strongly suspected that the summons was not a request. Gripping Boots' hand tightly shi marched up to the foot of the throne.
"Are you enjoying yourself, Tuftear?" Zalika inquired. She sat with her knees apart and the front of her skirt tossed over one leg. Her labia were puckered and glistening wet. The fur in her crotch was matted and the velvet cushion on which she sat was badly stained. The straps of her gown had been pulled down off her shoulders, leaving her massive breasts fully exposed. The nipples were damp and stiffly erect, the fur around them matted. N'laska was sitting on the floor leaning up against the left side of the throne, her cheek pressed against Zalika's hand. Her skirt was gone, apparently ripped off. Semen draining from her vulva had left a large stain on the expensive looking carpet. Jandabar was sprawled against the right side of the throne, clutching his chest with one hand. He seemed to be having difficulty catching his breath.
"It's... different," Tuftear allowed. Zalika's Mona-Lisa smile and heavily lidded eyes revealed not even the slightest trace of embarrassment or self consciousness. In fact they dared Tuftear to comment. Tuftear couldn't shake the conviction that if shi did allude in any way to Zalika's condition or activities she'd just stand up and say "Hey, everyone, Tuftear doesn't approve of what I'm doing, but shi's got a hard-on as big as the Auckland Sky Tower." With the battering hir psyche had endured during this tumultuous day Tuftear knew in hir heart of hearts that shi'd never be able to match Zalika's iron self-confidence. Shi would flinch, blink, or give hirself away in some other fashion and it would be all over. Zalika, on the other hand, looked entirely capable of marching down the middle of the boulevard exactly as she was. Her air of regal power was so utterly seamless that, like the emperor with no clothes, no one would dare say a word.
"I'm glad you like it." Zalika raised her left hand-
Something brushed past Tuftear so fast that the wind of it's passage ruffled hir fur. It was Boots; hir lips were drawn back in a feral snarl, hir ears laid flat, hir eyes narrowed to gleaming slits, her body quivering with murderous rage. The fingers of hir right hand, held as stiff and straight as the point of a cudgel, had slammed right through Zalika's neck and burst through the back of her throne.
Zalika shook her head sadly. "Oh, Boots," she said in the tone of a mother addressing a precocious but dearly beloved child. She stood up and stepped forward, passing right through Boots' arm and body as if shi were nothing but a hologram. Boots was straining with every fiber of hir being but shi was completely frozen, an exceptionally life-like statue. Tuftear tried to scream but couldn't; hir whole body seemed to be buried in wet sand. It took all of hir strength just to fight for each breath. "I'm not going to hurt your precious darling, Boots," Zalika continued. "I just need to... ah." She reached into Boots' left ear, rooted around for a moment, then caught something with her fingernail and jerked it out. Tuftear winced as a small web of amorphous circuitry came out along with a clump of ear fur. The tiny disk of paper-thin plastic was no larger than a dime and almost completely transparent; even a close physical search could easily have missed it. The detector frame by the door would not have registered it. Nor would a conventional bug-sniffer; instead of broadcasting what it heard the device recorded it, up to nine hours worth. A medical scanner would have detected it only if the operator looked in just the right place.
A person who read minds, on the other hand, could have sifted through Tuftear's thoughts and pulled out the memory of Captain Schiffer applying it.
The imprisoning force suddenly vanished. Tuftear collapsed, gasping raggedly for breath.
"Don't be so melodramatic, Boots," Zalika admonished, resuming her seat. "You may have my beloved's spirit- and some of his skill- but you have none of even what little subtlety he possessed. Your motivations are so utterly transparent." A mercenary arrived and took away the recording device. "Since you've been so shockingly rude, I'm afraid I must insist that you and your friend remain for the private party." She kissed Boots on the cheek; Boots gasped raggedly and staggered back.
"Are you all right?" Boots asked, moving to Tuftear's side and helping hir up.
Tuftear nodded. Hir diaphragm felt bruised from the effort of struggling to breathe. "Was that-" shi coughed. "Was that-"
"Telekinesis, I believe you call it," Zalika declared.
"Why, what do you call it?" Tuftear challenged.
"I call it ba, or the Power of the Spirit," Zalika replied
"Ba? Isn't that what you take from people you kill?"
"Yes. And no. As with so many things, it is not quite so simple. Everyone, everyone who is alive, has Power of the Spirit. It is what separates us from animals, what gives us awareness of the Majesty of God. When you focus your spirit you can do amazing things, because it calls a part of the Majesty of God down into you. You can create amazing works of art. You can perform amazing physical feats. You can even do what superstitious people, like you, call magic. What you're thinking of as ba is a bundle of spirit wrapped up into a package. It's what you conventionally think of as defining a person, the sum of their memories and experiences. It's also a bit of the Majesty of God. But not a soul, mind you. The soul is the kernel, the seed, around which all the rest of it is built. When you die naturally the soul leaves the body and becomes one with the Majesty of God, but all the parts that make it uniquely you are lost, dissolved in the Majesty of God. That's why you don't remember the lives you've had before. Holding the ba together after it leaves your body is a special application of the Majesty of God that most people can't do."
"But you can?" Tuftear ventured.
"Yes," Zalika replied. "If my body dies, I can move to a new one. When-" She stopped suddenly, her eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "Hmm. No, I don't think I'll mention that. Not only are you breathtakingly beautiful, Tuftear, you are devilishly smart. I can understand why Boots loves you so much." She got briskly to her feet without bothering to reset her gown, leaving the top to dangle around her waist. As she walked down the steps of the dais she beckoned with her hands; though everyone in the crowd seemed to be watching the dance floor- where the virgin was using the unicorn's horn as a dildo- about a dozen and a half people left their places and came over. No one remarked on this sudden departure, even when conversations were interrupted mid-stream.
"I take it we're going to the private party," Tuftear ventured.
"We are," Zalika responded. "And we will be doing so in a such a way that Captain Schiffer will not be able to defeat me with his cleverly placed sensors." She grinned, her bone-white teeth flashing in the dim light. "As a matter of fact, we're going to walk right past them." She glanced at Jandabar and N'laska, who quickly shed what remained of their clothing. Jandabar wrapped his arms around N'laska from behind- and their flesh suddenly blended together, flowing like metal melting in a crucible. Jandabar dropped to his knees behind Zalika and bent over; since his arms were bonded to N'laska's chest she wrapped hers around Zalika's hips. Again flesh melted and flowed; all individual traces of Jandabar and N'laska vanished, and Zalika had become a large, powerfully built tiger Chakat.
Tuftear did not move, did not speak. Telepathy and telekinesis were reasonably well known, if not especially common, psychic phenomena. There were even people who could project their senses out of their bodies. The notion of Zalika Corby as a powerful psionisist was one Tuftear was prepared to handle. The possibility of psychic attacks against trade conference delegates was one that had been brought up in security meetings, and steps had been taken. Starfleet had its own Psi Corps, though the fact wasn't commonly known. But this... Tuftear hadn't believed, not really. Watching Zalika transform had taken hir back to childhood, when shi'd crawled into hir parents' bed for fear of the monsters hidden in the closet, under the bed, and by darkness in general. The monster was no longer in the closet; it stood proudly in the open, as real and solid as Tuftear's own flesh.
"Of course I'll have to dress you two up a bit, also," Zalika the Chakat commented, turning and gesturing. Tuftear cried out and fell to the floor, writhing. Shi felt as if hir skin were being seared by boiling oil-
As quick as it came the sensation was over. Tuftear started to get up- then froze when shi noticed hir hands. The golden brown fur was gone, replaced by longer, fluffier fur that was gray with dark speckles. She had been changed from a caracal into a lynx. Boots' change had been similarly subtile and complete; instead of a panther shi was now a jaguar. Shi did not feel or had managed to stoically endure the transformation, though; shi was still standing.
"A quick change of clothes and we'll be on our way," Zalika concluded, pulling her- now hir- gown off over hir head. Two mercenaries had approached; one took the discarded clothing, the other offered replacements. Tuftear had not moved, so Zalika wiggled a finger. Tuftear's hideously expensive gown separated into pieces and fell away. After handing a new blouse to Boots the second mercenary stepped up to Tuftear and dressed hir in a tank top. Zalika wore a blue bikini top under a plain white tee shirt. The three of them had become nothing but a trio of Chakat tourists.
"This way, if you please," the second mercenary said as Zalika started away, but it was not until Boots laid a hand on Tuftear's shoulder that shi lurched into motion. They departed through a hidden doorway the Theater of the Ancient World players had used, and wound their way through the hotel's utility corridors.
"I could still convince Captain Schiffer that I'm Tuftear," Tuftear commended suddenly.
"True enough," Zalika agreed. "Let's say we walk right past Captain Schiffer on our way out of the hotel. I'll allow that you could convince him that you really are Tuftear, even though your DNA pattern no longer matches. I'll even allow that you might convince him to arrest me. But here's the kicker: on what charge is he going to hold me? You have exactly two witnesses who will testify that I'm Zalika Corby: yourself and Boots. Ensign Boots, d/o Flasheart and Kyrie, though, is dead. Shi was buried about a week ago in a private ceremony. I can just see us talking to the judge. I present my impeccable documentation and a dozen witnesses, who've known me since childhood and will testify under verdication. You can offer no evidence but your word, and the testimony of a person who doesn't legally exist. You'd get laughed right out of court. Except for Boots, who'd be arrested as an illegal alien. Unless you can convince the court that shi really is Boots, at which point shi'd be arrested for desertion and murdering everyone at New Karnak. Or-" shi smiled wickedly over hir shoulder- "you can keep quiet, come with me, and see what there is to see."
Curiosity killed the cat, Tuftear found hirself thinking. Not as it really mattered; Zalika had judged the situation well. Tuftear did want to know where this was leading... and shi couldn't abandon Boots. Shi'd just have to trust that Captain Schiffer would find a way to get hir out.
The group emerged onto the casino floor and headed for the front door. Tuftear found hirself surreptitiously scanning the faces around hir, trying to see if one of them might be Captain Schiffer or another member of the security team. It was a foolish hope; if they were here they wouldn't show themselves. Shi berated hirself for hir lack of professionalism but shi couldn't bring hirself to stop. The simple fact- and the one Tuftear really didn't want to examine- was that shi was afraid. It was the very worst kind of terror, a formless miasma that settled in the dark corners of the mind like mustard gas, the sort that brought one out of bed screaming. Except that Tuftear couldn't escape hir nightmare because shi was already awake. Shi was so keyed up that when the alarm went off shi almost screamed. A force field dropped across the hotel's entrance, blocking it. Half a dozen armed security guards appeared so suddenly they might have been conjured.
"What's the problem?" Zalika demanded.
"Your friend here is carrying an electronic cheating device," one of the guards said, aiming a scanner at Tuftear. It beeped accusingly. Two of the guards grabbed Tuftear by the arms and began hustling hir away.
"Tuftear!" Boots took a half-step, shaking hir head, arms, and tail. The change was less overt than Zalika's flesh shaping but no less extreme. In the blink of an eye Boots ceased to be a Chakat tourist and became a two hundred and twenty kilogram killing machine. On the beach Boots had been playing; now shi was serious. Weapons and armor notwithstanding, none of the guards would leave the portico alive. The two closest to Boots wouldn't even have time to scream-
"There's nothing we can do right now," Zalika said. Shi raised hir hand but didn't try to put it on Boots' shoulder. "I'll call my lawyer and we'll have this all straightened out." Boots clenched hir fist and looked away, fortunately before the nearest guard could turn and see the expression in hir eyes. If he'd seen it he might have panicked and drawn his weapon. Which, under the circumstances, would have been a grievous mistake and very probably his last.
Zalika had produced a pair of ID cards and was speaking vociferously with one of the guards as Tuftear was whisked away. Shi was taken through a hidden door and into an elevator that dropped with stomach churning swiftness. Far below ground shi was marched into a small office. Behind a desk was a bulky man who looked like he might be a chief of security. In front of the desk was Captain Schiffer.
"Thank God!" Tuftear exclaimed. Hir relief was so intense that hir knees buckled and hir eyes filled with tears.
"What is your name, Miss?" the man behind the desk demanded. Captain Schiffer did not move and his expression did not change, but his steady gaze missed nothing.
"Sir, I'm Tuftear, daughter of Minka and Redwing," Tuftear began, ignoring the man behind the desk and speaking directly to Captain Schiffer. "Ensign, junior grade, Security section, ID number 1DE8D49B. Ms. Corby changed my appearance so that shi could sneak me out of the hotel without you recognizing me. She's the tiger Chakat; the jaguar with her is Boots. She found the recording device you put in my ear and took it out."
"Where is your ID, Miss?" the man behind the desk wanted to know.
Tuftear's hands strayed toward hir waist. Hir shirt had no pockets and shi wasn't wearing a belt pouch. Hir ID had been in the gown that was taken. "I don't have one. Ms. Corby's mercenary took it when we changed clothes."
"How was your appearance altered?" Captain Schiffer wanted to know.
Tuftear shivered. Hir mind was filled with the image of Jandabar and N'laska melting out of existence, becoming nothing but a physical accessory to Zalika. "Shi... Ms. Corby... just waved hir hand, and it happened. It... felt like my skin was burning. When... I looked at my hands, they were, they were-" shi held them up, backs toward Captain Schiffer. "Gray. And spotted."
The man behind the desk began to speak but Captain Schiffer forestalled him with a glance and a gesture. "Do you know why you were arrested?"
Tuftear shook hir head. "They said I was carrying an electronic cheating device. It must be in the shirt, because I wasn't carrying one when I came in."
The man behind the desk glanced at Captain Schiffer, who nodded. The security man came out from behind the desk with a scanner in hand and examined Tuftear carefully. He seemed to find hir left shoulder particularly interesting. He slid his fingers under the edge of the tank top and probed; a moment later he set the scanner aside and took up a pair of tweezers. Tuftear winced slightly; it felt as if he'd plucked out some hairs. When shi looked back shi saw, clasped in the tweezers's jaws, a tiny plastic disk apparently identical to the one Ms. Corby had found.
Tuftear gaped. "That's why you slapped me on the back!" shi exclaimed. "But why-" and it fell into place. "Of course. Ms. Corby knew I was with Security. If I'd showed up without a bug she'd have been suspicious, and searched until she found one. You put one on and made sure I knew about it, so when she looks in my mind she finds it. Since she's found her bug, no reason to look for the one I didn't know about."
"It was also a backup escape plan," Captain Schiffer said, rising to his feet. "After you enter the hotel, we transmit a signal that activates a special circuit in the bug. When you try to leave, it sets off the alarm. Recorders come on at the same time, so if Ms. Corby tries to zap the guards and walk out, we have evidence of it. Getting you away from her makes sure that I have a chance to recover this." He took the disk and inserted it into a small electronic device. "Thank you for your assistance, Belam."
"Any time." The officer had resumed his seat behind the desk.
"Now we need to leave." Captain Schiffer moved to the door and opened it. "Ms. Corby is going to react quickly."
Tuftear had started to follow, then stopped. "What do you mean?" The fear was starting to come back.
"Ms. Corby wants you, Tuftear. She's not going to give you up that easily. Come on!"
"You- you knew about her?" Tuftear exclaimed as shi loped along at Captain Schiffer's side. They were threading their way rapidly through the hotel's utility corridors, almost but not quite running.
"I knew something was happening, but I didn't know who was causing it," Captain Schiffer replied.
They emerged into an underground parking area. A plain white van was waiting with the rear door open. Captain Schiffer leapt in; Tuftear followed. Kylie, in the driver's seat, put the van in motion even before the door had shut. Woodrow and another ensign, Lita Harris, were riding in back.
"This is Tuftear?" Woodrow exclaimed.
"Yes," Captain Schiffer replied. "Our mysterious Madame X got to hir."
"Don't tell me you all knew about this!" Tuftear exclaimed.
"No," Woodrow replied. "That is, only just now." He shook his head. "Who would have thought?"
"Keep an eye on those instruments," Captain Schiffer directed. "If we're being tracked or followed, I want to know."
The van was speeding along an underground highway. Tuftear glanced around; shi could see forward, though the windshield, and back, through a pair of small windows in the van's rear doors. Otherwise the walls were solid. Traffic was light, mostly freight and utility vehicles.
"I'm not picking anything up," Harris commented.
"You should have listened to Boots," Captain Schiffer said.
"Huh?" Tuftear twisted around.
"Shi told you to stay close once the sun set," Captain Schiffer continued. "You should have done that."
"Why?" Tuftear felt the icy tendrils of panic reaching through hir gut.
Captain Schiffer's face suddenly stretched forward into a point. His ears moved up, lengthened, and sharpened. Black fur sprouted around his eyes and spread across his skin like mold growing in fast motion. His shoulders narrowed, his chest swelled. The sides of his pants ripped as his pelvis abruptly widened.
"Because now you don't know what's real and what isn't," Zalika replied.
Ensign Harris groaned and slumped forward. The flesh on her face and hands shrank until her skin was tight against the underlying bone. Her eyes liquefied and drizzled down her cheeks. Her hair turned ratty and gray, falling out in clumps. Her skin blackened, clumps of fungus appearing and spreading. Her mouth opened- and something began to struggle out, like a butterfly from a cocoon. It was a bird, about the size and coloration of a hawk. When it turned to look at Tuftear, shi saw that it had Lita's face. Woodrow had slumped back; his bird sprawled across his rib cage and into his lap before righting itself. As Kylie's struggled free the desiccated tendons of her neck broke, tumbling her skull to the floor by her feet.
Tuftear slapped the emergency door release and jumped. In the fraction of a second hir flight lasted it occurred to hir that, fear notwithstanding, perhaps leaping out of a vehicle that was going down the highway at eighty klicks perhaps wasn't such a great idea.
Then shi hit the pavement.
"I hate this job."
Huh? Tuftear wanted to say, but the words didn't form.
"What happened this time?" a second voice wanted to know.
"Shi fell out of a van and got run over."
Shi was laying sort of on hir side, Tuftear realized. The strange, regularly striated surface filling hir field of vision was the wall and ceiling of the highway tunnel. Something else moved into the field: a Terran paramedic. He crouched over hir and waved a scanner. "DOA," he muttered.
Then why am I seeing you? Tuftear wanted to ask, but hir mouth wouldn't move. In fact, no part of hir body would move.
"Shi might'a made if shi hadn't gone under that semi," the second voice commented. It was another paramedic, a woman. She was breaking down a holographic imager, with which she had presumably just taken a recording of the accident scene.
"Dammit, Tuftear." Captain Schiffer appeared, crouching by hir head. "What happened to you?" He reached out and gently touched hir forehead. Shi felt his fingers as they ruffled hir fur.
I'm here! Tuftear tried to say. Shi could hear, shi could see, shi could feel- but shi couldn't move. No part of hir body was moving. Not hir lungs, not hir heart....
Captain Schiffer rubbed his face. He was crying.
Please don't go, I'm still here, I'm still here! Tuftear pleaded. Captain Schiffer stood and turned away, rubbing his forehead.
"Call the morgue and tell them to reserve a large freezer," the male paramedic said. "And toss me that grav-jack, will you? I don't think the regular stretcher's gonna do it."
The tunnel lights flickered and dimmed from antiseptic yellow to a grimy, bloody red. No one seemed to notice; the paramedic whistled to himself as he grabbed Tuftear's hind legs and straightened hir out so he could place the grav-jacks. He caught something tossed to him and began to unfold it. It was a large plastic bag.
No, no! Tuftear screamed inside hir own mind. Please, I'm not gone! Don't put me in that bag!
A spot on the wall behind him began to ooze with something black and slimy, like used motor oil. The patch grew, then swelled out from the wall as if it were a sheet of plastic being lifted from underneath. As it detached from the wall a definite outline took shape. Tuftear might or might not have recognized it but shi knew those eyes, glowing like liquid gold in the heart of a furnace. Inky shadows stretched from the light fixtures, cracks in the tunnel wall, even from folds in the paramedic's coverall. Each one had eyes, in some cases no more than a pair of golden pinpricks. They slid across the floor, chattering obscenely. When they slid across Tuftear shi felt it, like a chilly draft ruffling hir fur. They clustered around the dark figure, swirling like butterflies, chattering like birds.
Tuftear couldn't scream, couldn't run, couldn't shiver, couldn't even soil hirself. Terror was a burning ball in the center of hir mind with nowhere to escape. It grew and grew, threatening to burn away what little of Tuftear still remained.
"I'm sorry, Tuftear, but this isn't a dream," the figure said, dropping to one knee by Tuftear's face.
"Dream, dream, dream," the shadows echoed in their tiny, child-like voices.
"I'm afraid that you really are dead," the figure continued.
"Dead, dead, dead...."
"But I can help you."
"You, you, you...."
I don't want your help! Tuftear shouted.
"I'm sorry you feel that way," the figure replied. "However, you'd do well to consider your options before making a decision. Right now things aren't too bad. You can see, you can hear, you can feel. Just wait until the paramedic zips that bag over your face. It's awful dark in there. Then you get to spend a few days in a freezer, which is not only dark but cold. When you come out it's so that the mortician can slit open your arteries and pump you full of embalming fluid. The funeral isn't too bad... until they close the coffin. Then it gets dark and stays dark. You feel them lowering you into the ground. You hear the dirt piling up as they fill in your grave. Then it gets quiet and stays quiet. Until the rats come. You hear them gnawing at the coffin, scurrying around in the darkness. Once they get inside they start gnawing on you. They go for the soft bits first. Eyes, ears, nose, fingers.... just imagine it. Those little teeth chiseling away at your flesh. Until you get too rotten for them. Then the worms come. Not as painful as the rats, but you can feel them wriggling around inside you, slowly stripping away what little there is left of you. Until there's nothing but bones and you can't even feel. If you're lucky, your bones will turn to dust in oh, a few hundred years or so. But they might be preserved. They could last for thousands of years. They might be fossilized, and last for millions of years. Just think about it. Those unimaginable spans of time, buried in the dark, silent earth."
"Earth, earth, earth...."
The figure grinned, showing teeth that were as red as arterial blood. "I should know. I've been there. I was lucky, though. There were people who knew I was there, and eventually... after a millennium or so... they came back for me. But who's gonna come looking for you, Tuftear? Who, exactly, is going to deliver you from an eternity of darkness?"
"Darkness, darkness, darkness...."
The paramedic closed the zipper of the body bag and Tuftear's world went black. Trapped within the prison of hir own mind, Tuftear screamed, and screamed, and screamed....
"Tuftear, wake up!"
Tuftear's eyes snapped open. Which meant that hir eyelids would move. Shi leapt up, letting out a hideous shriek, then landed hard on hir face because the floor was about a meter lower than the surface on which shi'd been laying. Pain stabbed through hir face and muzzle; shi embraced it, reveling in the wonder of sensation. As blood from hir damaged lips ran across hir tongue shi felt a surge of almost orgiastic joy. The blood was warm, driven from living tissue by a beating heart. Never before in hir life had Tuftear felt such profound happiness in the simple fact of not being dead.
"Tuftear?" Hands gripped Tuftear's head, turning hir eyes upward. Shi found hirself gazing into a velvet black face with intensely golden eyes. Panic exploded in hir mind like a thermite charge, searing everything it touched. Hir limbs thrashed wildly; shi wanted to run but fear made coordinated motion impossible. Shi couldn't scream because shi couldn't relax long enough to inhale. In the end that saved hir; shi started to pass out and collapsed in a twitching heap.
"Tuftear, it's me! Boots!" the voice was shouting. "Boots, Tuftear! Boots!" The black face swam back into view; Tuftear could now see that it was feline, not canine. Shi clutched at it with the desperate strength of a drowning swimmer, sobbing uncontrollably. Boots stroked Tuftear's head and back, licked hir face, and kneaded hir lower body with hir forepaws. Gradually Tuftear's wracking sobs began to ease as the flaming panic receded.
"Oh, Boots, I had a terrible nightmare," Tuftear gulped in a voice that quavered so badly it was almost unintelligible. Because their bodies were so tightly intertwined Tufter noticed instantly as Boots stiffened slightly. Shi looked up in alarm-
One entire wall of the room was faced with stainless steel. Running along it were three rows of square metal hatches with pull-releases, like on industrial refrigerators. One of the doors on the bottom row was standing open; from it had been pulled a long tray, like the drawer of a filing cabinet. A white sheet with several rips in it lay crumpled on the floor next to it.
"Boots, what the Hell are we doing in the morgue?" Tuftear's voice started out more or less normal and rose quickly to an ear-piercing shriek. Shi back-pedaled rapidly, crashing hard into a tiled wall and slumping to the floor. Hir claws scrabbled on the linoleum floor as shi tried to press hirself through the wall.
"Tuftear, listen!" Boots shouted, grabbing Tuftear's head in a bruising grip. "It's okay. You're all right now. Tuftear, you're not dead."
"B- b- b- b-" Spittle sprayed from Tuftear's mouth and dribbled down the sides of hir chin. Hir teeth were chattering so hard shi couldn't form words, and hir tongue was bloody from having been repeatedly bitten.
"Tuftear, listen!" Boots forced Tuftear to look into hir eyes. "I can't help you if you don't let me! I love you, Tuftear! Let me help you! Please!"
Even with hir eyes wide open all Tuftear could see was a diminishing wedge of light cast on bare metal as the freezer door closed. All shi could hear was a thump-click as the door sealed and latched, shutting hir into an eternity of cold, silent darkness. Shi began to scream, a piercing, high-pitched ululation not unlike the sound of sheet aluminum being cut by a reciprocating saw. Then, even as shi plunged headlong into nightmarish insanity, a ray of hope shone down upon hir. Suddenly Boots was there, not physically but emotionally. Hir love bathed Tuftear in a warm glow of safety and reassurance, driving back the smothering madness. The feeling that shi was not alone was like a glowing lifeline through the darkness; Tuftear clutched at it with every fiber of hir being- and it drew hir up out of the pit of insanity, back to the world of light and life. Boots' face, when it again resolved itself to Tuftear's perception, was drawn with worry and matted with tears. Tuftear grabbed it, pulled it close, and started licking and nuzzling it because hir throat was too tight for words and in any case mere speech could never have expressed the overwhelming love and gratitude shi felt. Hir need was so intense it seemed to swell hir from within until shi was about to burst. Hir penis was unsheathed and so rigidly hard it seemed ready to explode. Shi bit Boots' shoulder- hard enough to break the skin- and used the grip to force Boots down on hir belly while Tuftear got on top of hir. Boots made no attempt to resist; in fact shi tensed hir hind legs, lifting hir pelvis to meet Tuftear's frantic thrusts. With hir hands on the floor shi leaned hir torso back, forcing hir shoulders against Tuftear's breasts. Tuftear reached around and grabbed Boots' breasts in a bruising grip. The coupling was violent and brief; in the moment of orgasm it seemed that the quivering tension of Tuftear's entire body came exploding out, leaving hir so completely spent that shi slid bonelessly off Boots' back and lay gasping on the floor.
Boots got to hir feet. Tuftear rolled onto hir belly, lifting hir haunches and hiking hir tail. When Boots just stood there, Tuftear glanced up at hir quizzically.
"I can't do that," Boots said quitely.
"Oh." Tuftear blinked. "I'm sorry. I... forgot."
"It's all right." Boots stroked Tuftear's back, starting between hir shoulder blades and running down to the base of hir tail. "What you shared with me was... wonderful. But... we have to go." Shi put hir hands under Tuftear's shoulders and gently lifted.
"Boots, what... happened?" Tuftear got to hir feet. Boots' every touch was like an electric jolt that went straight to the pleasure centers of Tuftear's brain. Shi was purring so hard shi had to gasp out words between breaths.
"You know that all Chakats are low-order telepaths," Boots said. Shi was purring, too. "Ones that spend a lot of time together develop empathic connections." Shi nuzzled Tuftear's cheek, stroking hir throat with one hand, hir back with the other. "I think... that's what happened. We connected, telepathically."
"It saved me," Tuftear replied. "You saved me, Boots."
Boots wilted. "No, I didn't." Shi looked down. "I just... I put you here, Tuftear. If I hadn't come to you-"
"Boots." Tuftear grabbed Boots' face, looking deep into hir eyes. "This isn't your fault. If you hadn't come, I'd have come anyway as soon as I found out that your supposed corpse had a penis. I'd have tracked you down, no matter what it took. Even- especially- if I'd known what was going to happen, I'd have come. Since I'm already here... I'm not leaving without you. No matter what the cost."
Boots gulped. Shi wrapped hir arms around Tuftear and hugged hir fiercely. "Oh, Tuftear," shi sobbed.
"Let's get out of here," Tuftear said quietly. "This place... is really starting to creep me out."
"Okay." Boots wiped hir face and headed for the door. Tuftear took a step and froze. Standing on Boots' lower back was a bird. It looked like a hawk except for it's face- which was that of cat with tawny golden fur and a darker colored mane. It gazed at Tuftear with coal black eyes that held no expression at all.
"Boots!" Tuftear shrilled in a voice as jagged as broken glass, pointing a quivering finger at the cat-faced bird. "What the Hell is that?" Shi was clinging by hir fingernails to a crumbling ledge of sanity hanging over a yawning chasm of madness.
Boots yelped and spun. Shi stared in shock at Tuftear, then followed the line of hir gaze. "That's... R'marl," shi said.
Tuftear was quivering like a plucked bowstring, every hair on hir body standing straight up until shi resembled a giant bottle brush. "Come here," shi commanded, extending hir arm. The bird took off, alighting on hir wrist. Shi could feel it's claws through hir fur; it had weight, presence. It blinked, cocking its head from side, then started preening itself. Tuftear stared at it with maniac intensity; a number of thoughts came into hir mind, thoughts that were terrifying but would not be denied. One was that shi had become what Boots was, able to interact with ba. Another was that Boots had become that way by dying and being resurrected by Daughter Night. Tuftear looked down at hirself, lifting each paw in turn and wiggling it. After jumping out of a speeding truck- even without having been run over by a semi, which shi did not remember- shi should have been beat to shit, a mass of abrasions, contusions, dislocations, and fractures. Instead, shi seemed to be in perfect health. And yet this room sure as Hell looked like a real morgue. Had hir "death" been an illusion or had Daughter Night used her flesh-shaping powers to put Tuftear back in order before brining hir back to life? At what point did the real world stop and the illusion begin?
Now you don't know what's real and what isn't. Zalika's words echoed mockingly in Tuftear's mind.
"Tuftear?" Boots sounded terribly worried. And frightened.
"Boots...." Tuftear couldn't continue. How could shi be sure that Boots was real?
At Cape York Academy Tuftear had taken a course in psychological warfare. It had covered such diverse topics as interrogation, propaganda, and the handling of prisoners. It's primary intent had been to show students how even the strongest will could be subverted or broken, and that an understanding of the process did not make a person any less susceptible. Boots showing up to deliver Tuftear from the Hell into which Ms. Corby had cast hir could be seen as a more extreme version of the old good cop/bad cop routine. Tuftear almost dismissed the notion out of hand- because it meant that Boots, consciously or otherwise, was in league with Ms. Corby. Simply considering that possibility was enough to make the chasm of madness yawn wide, and Tuftear began to quiver. But that Tuftear so desperately wanted- needed- for it not to be true only made the whole chain of events even more suspicious. Subverting Tuftear would be a huge step toward getting at the trade conference- and Boots was the obvious path to getting at Tuftear.
"Boots, how you happen to be here just as I woke up?" Tuftear demanded.
Boots opened hir mouth to retort but shut it, apparently sensing what was at stake. Shi paced in a circle, nervously dry-washing hir hands. "After... they carted you off Ms. Corby and I went out to the street. After a while we got in a hired car that took us to a place overlooking the North Shore. Halfway there I asked her what she was going to do about you. She said there wasn't anything she could do, that you'd died in an accident."
"She caused the accident," Tuftear stated.
Boots shrugged helplessly. "I figured that, but what could I do?" shi tried to meet Tuftear's gaze but couldn't. "I... begged her to bring you back. In the face of everything that had happened... you were the only thing that kept me sane. But she refused. She said that if I wanted you, I had to bring you back myself. After that...." Boots kept hir hands tightly clasped, but still they shook. "Well, she told me how to do it. When we arrived at the house I got on the Net and started checking the records of all the local hospitals. When I finally found you I came right down... but I chickened out. I caught a seagull, killed it, and... did what Ms. Corby had told me. It didn't wake up. I took it back to Ms. Corby and demanded to know why. She told me that it had worked, but it took three days for the, the soul to come back to the body. I... waited. Three days later the seagull woke up. I came straight down here and did it to you. Just shy of seventy-two hours later I came back, opened the freezer... and you woke up."
Tuftear licked hir lips. Even in hir current state of mind, Boots' dispassionate delivery was chilling. If it was an act it was an awful damn good one. Anyway, it didn't feel right. Ms. Corby didn't seem like a person who'd keep up a deception after the trap was sprung. She'd want her victim to know that they were trapped with no hope of escape. "Well... I am alive, apparently," Tuftear allowed, looking at hir hands. They were gray with dark spots; shi was still a lynx.
Boots tried to say something but when hir mouth moved nothing came out but a strangled croak. Shi reached out, blindly; hir eyes were so full of tears shi couldn't possibly see. Hir legs gave out and shi fell on the floor, sobbing piteously. Tuftear hesitated- but only for a fraction of a second. Shi rushed forward and cradled Boots' head against hir shoulder, stroking hir mane and back. Maybe Boots really had won free of Ms. Corby's influence. Maybe shi hadn't, and was unconsciously doing Zalika's work. Either way, as far as Tuftear was concerned, it no longer mattered. Boots' sorrow was compellingly authentic, and it was enough to make Tuftear resolve that no matter what the consequences shi would meet Zalika Corby again- and send hir to the Hell she so richly deserved.
I write now as one who has passed into the Great Beyond and returned to speak of it. I was killed in a traffic accident, I lay dead for six days in the morgue of the Pearl City Municipal Hospital, then was restored to life by lover's touch. On the way out of the hospital I stopped to check the records and there they were, clear as day. Report of an accident involving a small rented van and a semi-trailer rig. Holos of the scene, showing my mangled corpse laying on the pavement. Statements filed by Captain Schiffer, the security team, the driver of the semi, and the paramedics. A coroner's report stating that I was unquestionably dead, that my life had ended when the semi's front bogeys rolled over my lower body, reducing my internal organs to so much bloody paste. After seeing the pictures I'm glad Ms. Corby changed my appearance. If I'd looked like myself- the myself I was accustomed to, that is- I wouldn't have been able to handle it. Captain Schiffer tried to claim me, asserting that I was Tuftear, daughter of Minka and Redwing. To humor him the coroner compared data and found that my retinal patterns, fingerprints, blood type, dental configuration, and fur pattern had all changed. Captain Schiffer was able to offer no reasonable explanation for this, so I was labeled a Jane Doe and scheduled for incineration if no one claimed me. Thank God Boots came along when shi did.
After leaving the hospital we showered in a public bath house and Boots got me some new clothes. Shi has a whole stack of ID's- for hirself and me in my new form. All shi had to do was give my case number to Ms. Corby's Triad forger; he hacked into the hospital computer, pulled up my records, and used them to create all the necessary records and certifications. I'm even still Tuftear, though my parents are now Fleet and Stripe.
We are now going to see Captain Schiffer. As a precaution I'm writing this from a public terminal; frankly the notion that Ms. Corby might have gotten to him scares the bejeezus out of me, but with people like Jandabar ne Saddan on her side I can't ignore the possibility.
While I was dead the world changed. It looks the same, but I feel like everything I see is a projection on the inside of a soap bubble; if I bump it too hard it'll pop and I'll fall back into darkness. It's thirty-eight degrees out and I'm shivering because even with the sun beating down on me I feel Ms. Corby's shadow falling across my soul. I refuse to believe that she's the avatar of an ancient Tabaqui goddess of death, but it's getting harder and harder to find reasonable explanations for what happens around her. Then there's that damn bird. He keeps staring at me, which is unnerving,and I desperately need all the nerves I have left. Just for the Hell of it I told him to fly through someone and he did, just as happy as you please, and no one paid the slightest attention, though we were in the middle of a crowded tram station at the time. Christ.
I hope to God that Captain Schiffer can help us. If he can't, I don't what I'll do.
Tuftear let out a tremendous sigh as the environmentally controlled air of the Waipahu Hotel and Convention Center's lobby washed over hir. Lynxes simply weren't built for the hot, humid atmosphere of the tropics.
"See anyone you recognize?" Boots asked.
Tuftear cast an eye toward the conference room. A team of beautiful, impeccably dressed officers were arrayed in the usual locations in front of the main entrance, by the elevators, and behind the palmettoes. Tuftear didn't recognize any of them. "No."
"Oh dear," Boots muttered.
"What's on your mind?" Tuftear asked as shi looked around, spotted a public terminal, and walked over to it.
"It occurs to me that the first thing Zalika'd do is make sure we were cut off from people who might believe us," Boots replied..
"Easy way to find out." Tuftear keyed in an address. The screen lit up to show a young Terran woman in a Starfleet uniform with a gold Security Section color stripe. "Security desk," she announced. "How may I help you?"
"My name is Tuftear. I'd like to speak with Captain Schiffer."
"Miss, I'm afraid I'm not-"
"I know, I know," Tuftear cut in. "All enquiries have to be directed through the Starfleet liaison office. Who will refer me to the Federation Department of State, who will pass me to Starfleet Command in Cape York, who will in turn tell me to call you. Look, all I want is to leave him a message. You don't have to tell me where he is or what he's doing."
The woman- an ensign- sighed. "I'm sorry, but I really can't help you. The last of the old staff left two days ago. I really don't know where any of them are."
Tuftear licked hir lips. "That's okay. Thanks anyway." Shi switched off the terminal and scrubbed hir face. "Damn. Boots, why didn't you look up Captain Schiffer while I was-" shi couldn't bring hirself to say dead.
Boots' eyes narrowed. "I didn't think of it. I didn't even know what he looked like, and you were dead. I had other things on my mind."
Boots shook hir head. "Don't be. You were right to ask. And I should have tried to find him."
Tuftear wrapped hir arms around Boots' shoulders and nuzzled hir cheek. "Let's get the Hell out of here. Buy a couple stratojet tickets to Cape York. There's people there we can talk to... who'll believe us, with the right persuasion."
Boots drew a shuddering breath between tightly clenched teeth and blew it out. "Okay. Whatever happens.... will be better than this."
"What about him?" Tuftear stroked R'marl.
Boots rubbed hir chin. "Y'know, Tuftear, if I was able to bring you back to life, I bet I can stuff him into a new body."
"Great," Tuftear replied. "Where we find one that isn't being used?"
Boots licked Tuftear's shoulder, then bit it gently. "Worse come to worse, we make one. I think he'd rather be a Chakat than... whatever he is now."
Tuftear sighed, and had to wipe hir eyes. "You know that Heaven, for me, is being pregnant with your baby. Failing that, next best would be you pregnant with my baby."
"After your performance in the hospital, that's a very real possibility." Boots chuckled. "I have to say I've never been more ready in my life. Now let's get the fuck out of here. This whole bloody island is creeping me out."
Twenty minutes later Boots and Tuftear were at Pearl City Airport. Boots purchased a pair of first class tickets; the terminal accepted the fake ID's without complaint and issued boarding passes.
"No luggage to check, so all we have to do is board," Tuftear commented as they strolled toward the waiting area.
Boots sighed unhappily. "I hate this," shi muttered. "It's all too easy. I can't believe Daughter Night is just gonna let us go after... everything."
Tuftear looked around, checking each face as carefully as shi could- which wasn't very. The concourse was crammed with people; as a tourist destination Hawaii was as popular as ever. So far as shi could tell no one was following them, but shi knew that a well-trained team, with the right equipment and operating in relay, was almost undetectable. Zalika Corby seemed like the sort who would not hesitate to pay extra for the very best. "If she's asleep at the switch, that's no skin off our asses." Tuftear smiled, but only halfheartedly. Shi didn't believe it either, and waiting for the axe to fall wore on hir nerves.
As Boots and Tuftear entered the waiting area by their gate Ms. Corby was there, reclining in one of the seats, studying her reflection in a compact mirror. She wore a strapless lemon yellow halter that really wasn't large enough for someone of her bust size, matching trunks, sandals, and a sun hat with holes cut in the brim for her ears. For a fraction of an instant Tuftear considered running for it but Zalika glanced up, looking straight at the two Chakats.
"Come to see us off?" Tuftear asked as shi strode up.
"After all we've been through, it seemed like the least I could do," Zalika replied, snapping her compact shut and slipping it into her pocket. "Besides, you two aren't going anywhere."
"And why not?" Tuftear demanded sharply, unconsciously stepping between Boots and Zalika.
"Tuftear-" Boots tried to interject.
"Perhaps because you're illegal aliens travelling on stolen funds with forged documentation," Zalika suggested. "I could have you arrested on the spot."
Tuftear snorted. "I can just see you testifying that you know our ID's a fake because your own people created them. Or are they so incompetent they can't even produce documentation that'll hold up in local court?"
"Tuftear-" Boots repeated, more urgently.
"They'll get you to Cape York," Zalika allowed. "It's even possible that you could reach someone in Starfleet who'd believe your story and take you in. But they won't be able to save you."
"Pekki Garanesset found a way to kill you," Tuftear snarled. "When Starfleet figures it out, I'm gonna dance on your grave."
Zalika sighed heavily. "Coming from Boots, such things wound me because it means that shi continued to reject me. Coming from you, they are tiresome. Did you like your freezer so much that you're eager to get back to it?"
Tuftear lacked Boots' strength but shi was just as fast. In less than the blink of an eye Tuftear's hand was speeding toward Zalika's throat-
Zalika's forearm slashed up, knocking the blow aside. Boots screamed- and so did Tuftear, as pain exploded in hir hand as if shi'd dipped it in strong acid. Shi staggered back, clutching at it with hir other hand. The flesh was as hard as stone and so cold it burned hir fingers.
"Hir hand is frozen solid," Zalika said as Boots rushed to Tuftear's side. "Medically, your only option is to amputate and replace it with cybernetics. Regeneration therapy doesn't work on undead and transplants only if the donor is also undead. Or, Boots, you can use your new powers to restore it. Imagine that you're brining hir hand back to life. It'll happen quickly because hir soul is still present."
Boots glanced at Zalika, then at Tuftear, whose face was contorted with pain. After no more than half a moment's hesitation shi rolled Tuftear onto hir back, pinned hir down by laying on hir, and grabbed hir forearm with hir right hand. R'marl hopped onto Boots' left hand- then seemed to melt into hir flesh. When Boots touched Tuftear's frozen flesh tendrils of blackness oozed from hir fingertips, twining around and through Tuftear's hand. Tuftear screamed and struggled but Boots held hir down. After about a minute and a half the tendrils faded away and Tuftear stopped screaming. Boots got rather unsteadily to hir feet; hir whole body was shaking, hir eyes empty and hollow. Tuftear lay on the floor, gasping for breath and staring wide-eyed at hir fingers, which now wiggled normally.
"You've done very well, Boots." Zalika really did sound pleased. Proud, even, like a parent whose child has mastered a difficult task. "But there is so much more you need to know, and only I can teach it to you."
Boots licked hir lips, staring at hir hand. Shi opened hir mouth-
"No!" Tuftear shrieked, scrambling to hir feet. "Boots, don't listen! She's fucking with your head!"
"Do you really think that I couldn't force you two to stay if I wanted to?" Zalika demanded, rising to hir feet.
"Why aren't you?" Tuftear asked, genuinely curious.
"Because I want you to choose to remain with me."
"Fat chance," Tuftear snorted.
"Indeed." Zalika's eyes narrowed, beginning to gleam in a way that made Tuftear shiver with fear in spite of hir bravado. "You're forgetting one very important fact, Tuftear. Which is that technically you are dead. Lachesis has measured off the length of your life and snipped off the thread." She made a scissoring motion with the middle and index fingers of her left hand. "Boots plucked your soul from the underworld and stuffed it back into your body. But on its own it wouldn't stay because the vital force that originally held it had expired. So shi took a bit from R'marl. After all, he wasn't using it. But now the force binding you to your flesh comes directly from the Majesty of God... and thus will not expire until the Majesty of God itself ceases to be. That, as you might imagine, will not be for a very long time. There's nothing supernatural about your body, though. It's just a machine of flesh and blood... that can be damaged by illness or disease, and in any case will eventually wear out. But you won't die, Tuftear, because you can't. That's what being undead means. Your ba will stay in the flesh to which it was bound until every last bit of it turns back into the dust from which it sprang. Then you'll be able to move around... but you'll stay here, wandering the earth as a lost soul- a ghost- until the Final Day, when all souls are recalled to the Majesty of God. Unless-" her gaze shifted to Boots- "someone comes along and releases you. If you're the one to do that, Boots, you need to know a Hell of a lot more than you do. If you plan to learn on your own you'd better be ready to practice a lot and I don't mean on seagulls. If you die before mastering the technique, well, you're shit outa luck." Zalika shrugged. "I'll come and get you, sure... but probably not until the furor has died down a bit, in a few hundred years or so. I've waited two thousand years; I can wait a couple centuries. I won't save Tuftear for you, though. You brought her back to life, you set hir free. Just remember, in this case doing nothing is exactly the same as actively abandoning hir to hir fate. Starfleet may be able to hide hir from me, but they can't hide hir from Death. He will find hir no matter where shi goes. So, if you'd rather place your fate in the hands of Starfleet, go right ahead and get on that stratojet. I won't stop you. If you don't come willingly you're no use to me anyway. I'd suggest you consider carefully the long term implications of your choice, however." She turned and marched away onto the concourse without looking back.
Boots looked at Zalika, then at Tuftear, then Zalika again. Hir face was contorted in agony as if shi were being torn apart physically as well as emotionally.
Tuftear knew that shi should tell Boots to ignore Zalika's spiel, that it was all just a convoluted mind game meant to break hir will. But all shi could see was the narrowing wedge of light as the freezer door shut, the thump-clunk as it locked. Shi began to shiver, hir mind drowning in icy terror. The empathic link with Boots didn't help this time; shi was just as terrified as Tuftear. It even occurred to Tuftear that hir own fear was probably exerting additional force on Boots, but shi couldn't help it. Zalika Corby had done her work too well; wether this was all real or just a complex illusion no longer mattered. The fear was real, and Tuftear's resolve was collapsing under its weight.
"Wait!" Boots shouted, taking a step and raising hir hand.
Zalika stopped and turned back. "You have something to say?" hir expression was hard, her voice cold.
"I- I-" Boots gasped.
"No more games, Boots," Zalika stated, leveling a finger at hir. "I have been exceedingly generous with you. I've given you everything you asked for. Even the life of your lover." The finger traversed to cover Tuftear. "In return I've demanded nothing of you. I've tolerated your cute games, even to the point of letting Starfleet get very close. No more. If you come with me it will because you have chosen to do so, and I want to hear you say it. Something like 'I, Boots, with full knowledge of the alternatives, choose to accept the life Ms. Corby is offering.' If not, get on your stratojet and out of my life. I'm not going to waste my time arguing with you."
Boots looked at Tuftear. Hir face was stricken. Shi opened hir mouth-
"Wait!" Tuftear grabbed Boots' arm. "Okay, we'll take it. But only until Boots learns how to, to set us free."
Zalika's eyes narrowed, but it was an expression of consideration rather than anger. "Very well. I agree. And you?"
Boots licked hir lips. Shi glanced at Tuftear, who nodded. "I, Boots, with full knowledge of the alternatives, choose to accept the life Ms. Corby is offering."
"I, Tuftear, with full knowledge of the alternatives, choose to accept the life Ms. Corby is offering," Tuftear added.
"Very good." Zalika smiled. "Now come along. I'm having another bacchanalia this evening and you two are going to help me entertain."
The poshest set of rooms at the Elephantine were, appropriately, called the Pharaoh's Suite. As befitted the palace of a king it enormous: at least ten rooms, with its own kitchen, dining area, and pool. The walls were decorated with brightly painted murals, all the figures drawn in stiffly posed Egyptian style. The furniture was intricately carved with animal motifs, the most common being lion and hawk, but the occasional hippo, cow, and crocodile were present as well. Most shocking- to Tuftear, at least- was the quantity of gold that had been used. Every piece of furniture and bric-a-brac had gold leaf on it somewhere. All the costumes, even those worn by the staff, had a great deal of gold thread woven into them, not to mention the bracelets, collars, tiaras, and ear rings that went with them.
Tuftear did not feel it was hir place to complain. Shi was wearing a white, snug-fitting tube dress that ended just below hir breasts. Since she was a centauroid the back had been cut away from the waist down. Bracelets adorned each wrist and every ankle. A heavy collar made of gold and semi-precious stones lay around hir neck, reaching from shoulder to shoulder and down to the tops of hir breasts. Completing the ensemble was a headdress with an asp's head on the front and a cloth hanging down in back that covered hir mane. At least shi was a caracal again; the transition had been surprisingly easy. Zalika waved her hand, and Boots changed back with only a mild tingling sensation.
- To Be Continued -
Characters & Story © 2000 John R. Plunkett. Chakona & Chakats © 2000 Bernard Doove.
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