Hands Across the Sky
by John R. Plunkett
"Yes?" Sergeant Gerheim glanced up from his workstation. Before his desk stood a young Terran male, somewhere in his early to mid twenties. Rusty red hair on his crown, cheeks, and jaw completely enclosed his sharply rectangular but gentle featured face. His otherwise fair skin was freckled and covered with irregular swarthy blotches, giving him a piebald look. Such was the consequence of heavy and continued use of Melegaurd to protect one's skin from the punishing rays of Amazonia's harsh, tropical sun. The skin itself was freshly cleaned but bore traces of dirt worked deep into the pores, were even a thorough scrubbing wouldn't easily dislodge it. The young man might be clean now but he'd spent a lot of time previously in muck and filth, washing only occasionally. His tiger stripe camouflage fatigues were clean and neatly pressed but they too bore the marks of hard use: faint stains overlay the camouflage pattern, which was itself slightly faded. Various rips and tears had been closed or patched with very workman-like stitching. In short, this young man had spent a lot of time in the bush, from which he had only recently emerged. "What can we do for you, Lance Corporal?" Gerheim inquired, noting the stripes on the young man's sleeves. Transfer request, furlough request, or non-resident spouse permit, he speculated to himself.
"I'd like a non-resident spouse permit, please."
Gerheim called up the necessary screen on his workstation and held out his left hand. The young man deposited his dog tags in it. Gerheim inserted the chit into a reader slot; the top half of the form filled itself in. Lance Corporal Rand Eriksson was 22 years old, a native of Texas Territory, Terra. He was within days of completing a three-year tour in the infantry, during which he'd served with distinction, receiving several citations for valor. Remarkably, he didn't have a single wound badge; he'd come through his tour without so much as a scratch. Not inflicted by the enemy, at any rate; his medical showed that he'd been laid up numerous times for causes ranging from plant and animal toxins to infections to parasitic infestations. Which wasn't too remarkable, really; everyone on Amazonia caught something, sooner or later. Privately Gerheim felt that such things should merit wound badges; the jungle itself was a far more dangerous and implacable foe than any human agency could ever hope to be. "Name of spouse?" Gerheim inquired, returning the tags.
"On-sa," Eriksson replied.
"Excuse me?" Gerheim glanced up.
"On-sa," Eriksson repeated. "O-N-C-A."
"Onca." Gerheim typed it in. "Surname?"
Roe, Gerheim typed. "Age?"
"Sex?" Gerheim set it to female but you couldn't always be sure with these kids.
"Species?" Gerheim had been about to select Terran but hesitated. Terran females without surnames were rare. Even people wanting to hide their true identities- which weren't uncommon on Amazonia- usually took false surnames rather than abandoning them altogether. The most common users of single names were the native tribes.
"Um..." For the first time Corporal Eriksson hesitated. "Wemic."
Gerheim's heavy brows drew together as he entered the selection. He had a bad feeling about this. "Residency status?" He selected undocumented, meaning that Onca did not have either an immigration clearance nor a locally issued birth certificate.
"Undocumented. She's down in Medical right now getting checked out."
Gerheim's growing suspicions gelled into certainty. Onca had been born in the jungle to the Sarenoc tribe, who were far and away the most determined opposition to Federation presence of Amazonia. "Do you mean to tell me," he began in a voice like distant thunder, "that after everything you've been through here you're going to marry a jungle bunny?"
Eriksson didn't so much as bat an eyelash. "Sarge, I've already been through it with the CO. If Colonel Cully couldn't talk me out of it you sure as Hell ain't."
Gerheim shrugged, his easygoing demeanor reasserting itself as suddenly as if a switch has been thrown. "Ain't my ass in a sling. All I do is fill out the paperwork. But could you at least satisfy an old man's curiosity and tell me why."
Eriksson looked troubled. "Because... she's carrying my baby."
"Thank you, my dear," Dr. Chandra said, clipping the sensor wand back to the side of his medical scanner. "You may step down."
Onca slid off the examination table. She landed with no more than a muted thump but Sergeant Gerheim felt the floor shake. The traditional Wemic is a centauroid lion: a creature that looks as if someone had cut the head off of a regular lion and spliced a humanoid torso between it and the body. In popular usage a Wemic could resemble any type of cat and Onca resembled a jaguar; short, pale orange fur with dark, roseated spots covered her body, including her torso. Her palms, as well as the pads of her feet, were black and her fingernails were narrow and pointed rather than wide and flat. She also had a jaguar's compact, powerful build; though shorter than Rand from head to forefoot she would have equaled his mass even as a humanoid. Adding in her lower body she outweighed him by nearly two and a half times, even though if she'd stood up on her hind legs she wouldn't have been much more than half again his height. Nevertheless she was unquestionably female; her torso had a decidedly feminine shape and sported a pair of well developed and generously sized breasts. Her pelvis had the characteristic shape as well, if one knew what to look for, which Gerheim did. He could also tell that she'd never previously had children and she'd grown up in town. Her size and the perfection of her build and coat spoke of abundant food and medical care during her youth, neither of which were so readily available to her "wild" brethren. As was not unusual for Wemics, at least on Amazonia, she wore only a Star Fleet issue web belt with an assortment of pouches attached to it.
Sergeant Gerheim allowed himself a flicker of hope. Plenty of local Wemics had thrown in with the colonists. Onca could have grown up right here in Rimouski or on one of the big plantations. Gerheim looked into her eyes, which were deep amber-gold, and his hope died. However Onca had managed to acquire her appearance of civility, beneath it lay the jungle. Onca was Sarenoc, though and through. "She's really pregnant?" he asked.
"Oh yes," Dr. Chandra affirmed. "She's carrying what appears to be an entirely normal Terran fetus approximately a month and a half old. Don't ask me how such a thing could happen; I'm not a geneticist."
"Is her medical clear?" Gerheim continued. Onca put her arm around Rand, stroked her cheek against his, and licked his face. Rand scratched the top of her head with one hand and her throat with the other. At least, Gerheim allowed, they really seemed to like one another; the pleasure of contact didn't seem at all feigned on either part. Onca was purring and Rand looked like he would have been, had he been built that way.
"Entirely." Dr. Chandra ejected a chit from the medical scanner and handed it to Gerheim. "She's fit, free of disease or parasites, and her pregnancy is proceeding flawlessly."
Sergeant Gerheim took the chit, juggling it in his hand as a way to mark time while he organized his thoughts. "I hope to Hell you two understand what you're getting into," he said. "Amazonia's only a very small, and very backward, corner of the Federation." That was, he decided, as close as he could come to saying they were both out of their freaking minds.
using it as an excuse to look away from Onca's frighteningly intense orange-gold eyes. They seemed to be sizing him up, as if she wondered whether or not he'd make a good meal. That the answer was probably no- Gerheim was old and bony- didn't reassure him in the least.
"I know," Onca replied in a surprisingly deep voice possessed of a sensual burring quality. "That's why we're leaving. We don't want our son growing up in this... wilderness."
Gerheim's cheek twitched. He looked Onca in the eye and didn't turn away this time. I can just see you and Eriksson living in a split-level somewhere in Suburbia, holding barbecues and garden parties, attending PTA meetings and youth soccer, he thought to himself. Now he was firmly convinced that Rand Eriksson was out of his ever loving mind. Son, you're bringing home a wild animal. Your wife is a biological weapon, designed and trained to be the most efficient killer possible. That she's sentient makes it worse, not better. He shifted his gaze to Rand's gray-green eyes and for the first time really looked at them, the way he had Onca's. . The jungle was there, too. Gerheim knew all too well how it got under your skin and into your blood. There he saw... not the infamous Thousand Meter Stare, but something closely related. The Federation "Good luck," he said. You're going to need it.
With a banshee scream that rattled windows all across town the Westone Oklahoma settled into Bradore Bay. Enormous, roaring geysers of vapor erupted into the sky as plasma from the ship's thrusters burrowed into the water. The ear-splitting noise dropped in pitch to an earthquake rumble then faded out entirely. Water displaced by thruster exhaust slapped against the ship's hull and rebounded, sending a towering wave crashing against the sea wall. No sooner had it passed then tugs set out to guide the massive vessel to her berth.
Not without some regret did Rand Eriksson, now officially released from active duty and transferred to Reserve status, look around at the tightly packed buildings of Rimouski for what would probably be the last time. Some of the structures were prefab buildings erected by Star Fleet, others of the adobe brick favored by natives. By far the most were built of whatever scraps their inhabitants could lay hands on, making some neighborhoods strongly resemble gigantic trash piles. Shabby appearance notwithstanding it had been Rand's home for the last five years.
"What's the matter, darling?" Onca slipped her hand under his arm.
Rand sighed. "I'm almost sorry to be leaving."
"Don't be," Onca nuzzled Rand's cheek. "It's a terrible place."
"I have friends here."
"You've lost friends here. While we're talking your brothers and mine are out there killing each other." With her free hand Onca pointed at a place beyond the security wall at the far edge of town. Massive, buttress roots of towering jungle trees rose up just outside the mine field, creating a sharp boundary between Amazonia's largest settlement on one hand and the rain forest on the other. Since Rimouski sat on a narrow spit of land forming Bradore Bay's western boundary water lay on the city's other sides, the bay on one and the Great Northern Ocean on the other. "It's always easier to choose what you know, what's familiar, even when it's unpleasant," Onca continued. "But this child-" she reached back, touching herself on the flank. "Your people and mine aren't supposed to be able to interbreed but here it is. We've been blessed with something rare and precious, Rand. We need to nurture it, care for it. How can we do that here?"
"I know," Rand sighed. "It's just... what Sergeant Gerheim said. Adapting to life out there-" he waved at the sky- "is going to be tough."
Onca jabbed Rand in the chest. Her nail poked him sharply even through his BDU jacket. "You adapted to life here. I'll adapt to life out there."
Rand grimaced. "What am I going to tell my folks?"
Onca's eyelids drooped and she rumbled deep in her throat, pulling Rand close and licking his ear. "Tell them to be glad you didn't bring home a woman with two heads. My dad wouldn't exactly be thrilled if he knew I was going with you."
"He's dead," Rand pointed out.
"Yes," Onca agreed. "And I'm glad. I hate to say it but it's true. I loved him dearly but he was a villainous bastard. The only thing that made him happy was dreaming of the day when all the offworlders were dead. He'd never have understood us going away together. He'd have killed you... and our baby too. He'd see it as an abomination." She shivered. "Rand, I fell in love with you because you have a goodness in you that even this awful place hasn't managed to kill off. When I'm with you I feel... human. When I'm out there-" she waved toward the forest- "I feel like an animal. Existing only to kill and survive. The people who've been fighting all their lives... both yours and mine... they've become animals. I was one of them. I... I have to get out of here. Before I stop wanting to be human."
Rand hugged Onca fiercely. Tears stung his eyes and soaked into the fur on her neck. "If it hadn't been for you I'd have become like that." He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to drive away the memories that came surging up.
"All right, kids, listen up," First Sergeant McClusky bellowed in a stentorian voice shockingly at odds with her petite frame. "It's play time. Since a lot of you are greenies we're gonna take a nice stroll just outside the minefield. Stay frosty, stay alert, and above all don't fuck up. First Squad has point."
I'm going to die, Private (first class) Rand Eriksson thought to himself as he mechanically checked the charge status of his raythrower and each of the power cells in his web belt. His faith in his own demise was the profound conviction of a new convert; during the three week trip from Terra he'd attended briefing after briefing which described, in excruciating detail, all the horrific and gruesome ways a soldier could die in the steamy jungles of Amazonia. Only a few of them involved enemy action; the rain forest itself was his greatest foe. Legions of microbes waited to invade even the most trivial of wounds. Poisonous plants, insects, and animals lurked everywhere. Just about every creature that slithered, crawled, flopped, swam, hopped or flew- and not a few plants- seemed to be a vicious predator just waiting for one of its fellows to make a mistake. Rand Eriksson was about to be dropped into this seething crucible of natural selection; eight weeks of Basic, nine months of Infantry School, and three weeks of Theater Specific seemed woefully inadequate preparation.
Lieutenant Grissom raised his left hand and waved forward. Platoon Golf three-two, Green Company, started forward. The troopies formed a staggered line, each successive person on opposite sides of the trail, with occasional flankers out to the side. With a rumble and a squeal the massive Tritanium valves of Gate Three swung open and the platoon marched through. Rand risked a quick glance back over his shoulder; weapon scars- both new and old- marred the gates and the security wall. Next came a hundred meters of red laterite, cleared of jungle by Star Fleet engineers and sowed with a deadly crop of land mines. Amazonia's burning sun baked the bare soil until it was as hard as fired clay. Thus it would remain until the Monsoon rains turned it into a sea of slimy muck.
Lieutenant Grissom pumped his left arm up and down. Arm all weapons.
Rand touched a control on the butt of his raythrower that switched it from "Safe" to "Armed." The weapon responded with two beeps. With the noises of the city muted by the wall, and more importantly with everyone keyed up by the prospect of going into the jungle, the beeps seemed to echo like the Trump of Doom. Several of the troopies near Rand flinched and raised their own weapons. Sergeant McClusky glared over her shoulder. She made not a sound but her eyes said it all. You just fucked up, dick head. Hastily Rand changed his weapon's settings, suppressing all audible signals. He was supposed to have done that back at the armory. I know I'm going to die, he thought miserably. But oh, God, please don't let it be because I fucked up.
The forest canopy didn't block as much light as one might have thought but even so it reduced the forest floor to a twilight world of shifting colors, mostly greens, as if the whole scene were under water. During the wet season it really was; close to eight meters of rain fell on this part of the world over the space of three short months. Rand drew his scanner- with his left hand so his right would be free to use his raythrower- and switched it on. Scanning for life forms in a rain forest was a joke. No matter how tightly you refined the settings the instrument was overwhelmed with data. The sheer quantity of life packed into and around these trees was more than the human mind or its clever machines could embrace. And yet that incredible biodiversity was why the Federation remained on Amazonia. Pharmaceutical and bioengineering companies shelled out immense sums of money for access to those biological products and the DNA patterns that produced them. Likewise they lobbied the Federation Council to make sure Star Fleet stayed on and kept the colony open. The conglomerates made tons of money and Star Fleet paid the price. More accurately, people like Rand Eriksson paid the price.
After putting the scanner away Rand lifted the front of his helmet and slung a load of sweat from his brow. The canopy cut direct sunlight but intensified the humidity until it felt like a steam bath. His utilities, helmet, and web gear kept the air away from his skin and he felt like he was roasting in his own juices. A cloud of insects buzzed around his head and crawled around on his skin to drink up the precious beads of fluid. Special inoculations kept the biters away as much as possible; if water was precious then fresh blood was pure gold.
A particularly determined biter took what felt like a chunk from the side of Rand's neck. He yelped and staggered.
Crack. The sound burst on Rand's ears as sharp as a whip crack and as loud as loud as winter ice sheets breaking up. Rand recognized it instantly: a rail gun firing. The weapon's drive coils made almost no sound as they accelerated a fin-stabilized dart to three times the speed of sound but the projectile itself created a substantial shock wave. In less than the blink of an eye four soldiers opened fire; the frying-bacon sizzle of raythrower discharges seemed almost melodic compared to the harsh sound of the rail gun. A red carat blinked on Rand's helmet visor, showing the source of the shot. He swung his raythrower on target and added to general fusillade.
"Cease fire!" Sergeant McClusky bellowed. She marched back along the line, an expression on her face that would tear flesh.
"Man down!" someone screamed.
Rand frantically searched the foliage around him. All he could see were rustling leaves and the occasional flower. His helmet sensors told him no targets were nearby. His instincts told him the enemy was everywhere.
"Shit on a stick," Sergeant McClusky muttered wiping her brow and holstering her raythrower. "Gorman, Hastings, stretcher duty!" she shouted. "Lind, get over here!"
The soldier diagonally behind Rand lay sprawled on his back, thrashing wildly. The rail gun dart had punched through his neck; bright arterial blood spurted from the gaping wound, soaking his battle dress and pooling in the dust. His chest heaved as he struggled to scream and breathe; he couldn't do either because blood flooded his windpipe. Bright red froth boiled from his mouth, nose, and neck with a sound like bubbles being blown in oil. Corporal Lind, the medic, arrived and dropped to one knee, waving a medical scanner. He glanced up at McClusky and shook his head.
"Shit on a stick," McClusky repeated. "I told you bastards not to fuck up. Sergeant Henderson, dress the casualties! Bates, Howarth-" she paused, gaze settling on Rand. "Eriksson! With me!"
As he struggled after Sergeant McClusky- who seemed to move through the underbrush as if she were nothing but a shadow- Rand's mind settled on one important fact. Don't fuck up meant don't get killed.
They found the sniper less than fifteen meters from the trail. It was some sort of humanoid canine. Adolescent female, Rand concluded, noting the structure and development of the pelvis. She wore no clothing and carried only a rail gun- a model used on more civilized worlds by sport hunters- with a bulky RF suppressor. Raythrower beams had shredded her chest like so many band saws; her head and arms lay separate from the rest of her body. Her mouth gaped open, her eyes wide, in an expression Rand interpreted as shock or surprise. He glanced backward; her sight line was diagonal to the trail. If that anonymous bug hadn't bit him-
It would be me on the ground instead of- of- whoever the Hell it was. Rand couldn't remember the name. His mind settled on another fact. It's not even a matter of making a mistake or not making a mistake. At the very bottom it comes down to luck. Pure, dumb luck. Roll the dice to see who goes home in a body bag.
"Eriksson, get that," McClusky ordered, pointing at the rail gun.
"Sarge." Rand nodded. He had to step over the corpse; it smelled but not nearly so bad as he'd feared, probably because it was still fresh. In spite of that bugs and other critters already swarmed over the organs and tattered flesh spilled from the girl's violated body. Somehow the fact that the corpse's upper extremities were missing was more disturbing than the basic fact that it was dead. Rand caught the rail gun's forestock- with his left hand, natch- and picked it up. The girl's right hand still gripped tightly; the severed arm came with the weapon. Rand stumbled back as bile exploded from his mouth and nose. He dropped to his knees, retching uncontrollably, with streamers of stomach mucous drizzling down the his chin and the front of his battle dress. It would have been easier if there'd been anything in his stomach to purge but there wasn't. In that instant Rand Eriksson felt his soul beginning to die. If he stayed on Amazonia long enough he'd end up as dead as that poor fucker back on the trail. As dead as this poor fucker here. Even if his body remained intact, even if it walked back onto a star ship under its own power, everything that made it a human being would be gone.
Rand broke away from Onca and straightened up. He rattled the chits in his pocket to assure himself that they were real. He kept expecting to wake up back in Barracks Block Twenty.
"I can't believe it's really happening," Onca said as if reading Rand's mind. "It just... doesn't seem possible that we could really be leaving this place."
"It's worse than that," Rand replied, looking out across the water and squinting against the glare. "Earlier today I thought about my folks. The house, back in Texas." His eyes tightened more, not to resist glare but to force up images that had become as ephemeral as smoke. "It's like... when I first came here it was like I was in a nightmare. Now, when I think about home... that's what seems like a dream."
"Is all the paperwork ready?" Onca asked.
Rand dug the chits out of his pocket. "Let's see. ID, mustering orders, boarding passes, luggage checks, medical certification... yep. It's all here."
"Getouttahere, genejoke!" a shrill voice screamed as a semi-rotten skunk melon came sailing through the air. In spite of her size and only an instant's warning Onca slipped out of the way. The fruit splashed across the top of the wharf and skipped into the water.
"No!" Rand shouted, clutching at Onca's arm as she tensed for pursuit. "Let it go! Let it go."
Onca's entire body quivered with tension. Her sharp eyes easily picked out three skinny forms darting back to cover amid the tightly packed, ramshackle houses lining the waterfront. All three were Terran males, the youngest no less than twelve, the oldest no more than fifteen. With Rand's hands urgently massaging her shoulders she relaxed suddenly, still quivering.
"Damn kids," Rand muttered.
"Their folks oughta teach 'em better than that," Onca commented. Any plan that involved humanoids outrunning a centauroid was in trouble from get-go. Onca could have been on them before they took five steps. Quick slashes from her powerful forepaws with their razor sharp claws would knock down the first two and lay them open like gutted fish. That would give the last a bit of a lead; she'd have to pounce on him. No need for claws there; the weight of her body coming down behind her forepaws would slam him to the ground and snap his spine like a dry twig. She could almost taste the hot blood spurting into her mouth as her teeth ripped through his tender throat-
"Onca!" Rand had his arms around her torso and one leg across her back as if he'd planned to mount her like a horse. Even with him on her back she could have run the kids down but the contact brought her back to her senses. She pulled him around, holding him tightly in her arms, licking his face and neck. The salty, dirty taste of his sweat brought up memories.
"What is it, Daddy?" Onca craned her torso forward so she wouldn't have to actually approach the thing Father had set on the floor.
"That's a Terran, darling," Huitzil replied. His voice sounded deep and vibrant, like the rumble of distant thunder. Thick sheets of muscle rippled under his sleek coat. For a moment Onca forgot her confusion; whenever she looked at her father she felt a surge of pride and joy. Surely he was the most powerful thing, the most beautiful thing, in all of Creation.
The Terran started squalling again. Onca took a hesitant step forward, her whiskers twitching as she sniffed. The creature was only about a quarter her size and stank of feces and urine. Its soft, puffy, and utterly hairless flesh- except for a straggly mat sprouting from its unnaturally oversized and flat faced head- reminded Onca of a grub. Its limbs seemed too frail to support it and in fact did nothing but wave randomly.
"I want you to kill it, darling," Huitzil continued.
Onca dropped to a crouch, starting intently at the Terran. Ever since she'd taken her first faltering steps she and Huitzil had played these games. He brought small creatures- lizards, snakes, insects, rodents- and turned them loose for her to chase. He taught her, patiently and lovingly, how to stalk, how to pounce, how to bite hard and accurately to insure a quick, clean kill. Wounded creatures could thrash around and possibly injure a person. But the Terran didn't do anything; it just lay there squealing and wiggling. It didn't try to run away, it didn't freeze. What kind of a screwed-up creature was it? With some trepidation Onca hesitantly batted it with a forepaw, hardly more than a touch. It turned its head and looked at her with those shockingly alien, white-rimmed eyes. It grabbed her paw with its tiny hand. Onca froze in shock. Nothing like this had ever happened before. She didn't know what to do.
"Kill it, Onca." Huitzil's eyes narrowed slightly. The distant thunder drew closer. Onca took a step away, glancing at her mother.
"Dear-" Tzeca began.
"Tzeca, we've discussed this," Huitzil said, his tone again soft. He caught his mate, Onca's mother, in his arms before she could rise. A land mine had blown off her right foreleg; even with a hand-carved wooden prosthetic getting around was difficult for her. "Look at how strong she is, how graceful. Beautiful, too. Just like her mother." Huitzil stroked his cheek against Tzeca's. "She's going to become a mighty huntress when she grows up. Which isn't going to do her a lick of good in this war." His tone hardened without becoming louder. "To learn how to fight against the Federation she needs to go to school in the Federation enclave. Which won't do us a lick of good if she forgets who she is while she's there. You know what those schools are like. They're going to teach her that her parents are evil because their ancestors were made in a genetics lab and didn't allow themselves to be turned into domesticated slaves. They're going to tell her that her people are criminals because they resist when a bunch of thugs show up and try to steal the land they abandoned us on. I want to give her something to hang onto while the Federation bullies try to warp her mind." He turned. "Onca, that is one of the people who took your mother's leg."
Onca's whole body jerked as if skewered. She looked again at the Terran; It didn't seem like something that could have committed such an atrocity but the technical details were of little concern to her. Tzeca was beautiful and powerful, like the river at full flood. The loss of her leg reduced her to something... broken. Still beautiful, still powerful, but diminished. Onca saw how Tzeca struggled with things most people did easily. Onca noticed the look in Tzeca's eyes as she watched the cubs running, jumping, and climbing. Tzeca was still strong; strong enough that for the benefit of Onca and Huitzil she hid her pain. But even at the tender age of four Onca noticed how loss marked her mother, aging her beyond her years. There wasn't a night, there wasn't hardly a moment, when Onca didn't wonder if there wasn't something she could do to ease her mother's suffering.
Perhaps there was something after all. Onca looked closely at the Terran. Somehow it had flipped itself over and now tried to crawl but wasn't getting anywhere. She pinned it down with her forepaw; since it didn't struggle excessively she took time and positioned herself carefully. The bite, when it came, was as swift and powerful as Huitzil could have wished.
"Very good," Huitzil pronounced as he picked up the Terran's carcass. "But I'm afraid there's more Terrans that have to be killed. We have to kill them, and keep killing them, until they go away and stay away."
Onca straightened proudly, licking the Terran's blood from her muzzle. She resolved to kill as many as it took.
"Here comes the luggage," Rand announced.
Onca released her grip and turned. A stake-bed wagon with balloon tires came up the jetty drawn by a pair of harnessed cougar Wemics. Both were male and sufficiently alike to be twins. Like Onca they wore only belt pouches around their waists. A stack of small to medium sized shipping containers filled the wagon's bed.
As was not uncommon in such cases battle lines on Amazonia were not clearly drawn. The Federation brought food, medicine, housing, jobs, entertainment, consumer goods, and all the myriad benefits of civilization. Plenty of tribespeople wanted those things enough to abandon their traditional lands and come to the cities to work for development companies, most often by collecting the rain forest's bounty or watching out for their more extreme minded brethren. Likewise a certain number of Federation colonists enjoyed the freedom of the wilds and abandoned modern life to seek it. Inside each group were infiltrators, opportunists, sycophants, and the usual assortment of folk ready to profit from general misfortune. That led to a climate where no one ever quite trusted anyone else and effectively prevented either side from gaining a decisive advantage. So resentments festered and conflicts smoldered, occasionally- like knots popping in the coals of a fire- flashing briefly into open warfare.
Another skunk melon sailed over the wharf as the wagon coasted to a stop. With the missile leading them slightly the brothers instinctively tried to jump back but the cart defeated them. The melon landed at their forefeet, splashing its vile smelling flesh across their forequarters and bellies. Even with a head start as the cougar brothers released their harnesses the Terran boys didn't reach cover among the houses before their victims caught them. Onca flinched as the cougar brothers dropped their prey with a series of lightning quick forepaw slashes but they kept their claws sheathed. The brothers rolled on their assailants, smearing them with the noisome fruit. A group of spectators gathered; some- mostly Terrans- glowered but most seemed to feel the kids had gotten no more than they deserved. At any rate a Military Police van rolled up, quelling any further thoughts of violence.
"Coulda warned us," one of the cougars commented when he noticed the fruit smear near where Onca and Rand stood.
"Sorry." Onca shrugged. "I wasn't watching."
"We oughta charge 'em extra," the brother commented.
"You got 'em back," Rand pointed out.
The first brother shrugged one shoulder. "I guess." He lifted his right forepaw and turned it over, apparently inspecting the pad. He spread his toes, extending and retracting his claws. Onca said nothing; her opinions of the encounter were too close to those of the brothers. Some night in the not too distant future three Terran kids would suffer grievous, possibly fatal, accidents. That they may or may not be the ones who threw the melons- and the instigators of the accidents probably wouldn't particularly care- was one of the reasons things on Amazonia continued as they were.
Rand pulled a wad of scrip from his pocket and held it at arm's length, "Here," he said, turning his face away and covering it with his other hand in an attempt to minimize the stench. "I won't be needing it anyway."
"Hey, thanks!" the first brother exclaimed, snatching the wad of cash and counting it rapidly. "Here's wishing you all the best in your future life."
"And may your memories of Amazonia quickly fade to the stuff of nightmares," the other brother added. In but a moment they unloaded the wagon, re-fastened their harnesses, and trotted off with their cart bouncing jauntily behind.
"That's what really worries me," Onca commented.
"Hmm?" Rand was checking the ID's on each of the crates.
"They were born here and they think it's a hell hole."
"So were you and so do you," Rand pointed out. Onca said nothing.
Other outbound passengers wandered out onto the jetty. A great many of them limped along on canes or crutches; others rode in wheelchairs. On nearly every face sat a a blank, wide-eyed expression as if the wearer were fervently searching the distant horizon but hadn't the strength to go on. Rand watched them, his eyes narrowing and his mouth tightening into a thin line. Solders called that expression the 1K (or Thousand Meter) Stare. Civilians found it unsettling; soldiers, who understood the unspeakable horrors that engendered it, found it infinitely worse. Last to arrive were those who had, in a sense, already departed. Half a dozen panel trucks pulled up and discharged coffin after coffin. Civilian rubberneckers watched as longshoremen stacked them on the quay. The soldiers did not.
A launch tied up at the quay. A pudgy, middle-aged Terran man whose ancestors had probably come from somewhere in the South Pacific jumped up onto the dock. "Attention everyone. I am Westone Oklahoma's purser. Everyone planning to ship out with us needs to show me their boarding pass, medical certificate, and either travel orders or destination visa. Line up here, keep it orderly, and we'll get you on board and squared away."
Rand hurried forward and presented his handful of chits. The purser took them and one at a time fed them into a data pad. He seemed satisfied with all except the last one. "Where's your wife?" he asked.
"There," Rand replied, pointing at Onca.
The purser frowned. "Her?" Rand nodded. The purser scratched his head and shrugged. "Okay, whatever. Here's your cabin assignment. Luggage?"
"There." Rand pointed out the stack of cases.
"Right. Stand over there." The purser indicated a corner of the jetty. "You can board as soon as the gangway comes out."
"Thanks." Rand put all the chits back into his pocket and hurried to the indicated area with Onca right beside him.
"I hear right, boy?" demanded a massively built African in an equally thick Bayou accent. "This here cat lady is your wife?"
"That's an affirm," Rand replied. Technically he was now a civilian so he didn't have to call the man sarge.
"Whatever in the world for, son?"
"Y'see, my dear old momma told me to get a wife," Rand explained, letting the Texas drawl come thickly into his voice. "But back on the ranch we got this terrible rat problem. I figure this way I take care of both problems."
The African's heavy brows drew together. For several seconds he seemed to be trying to decide if Rand were serious or not. Then his face split in a huge grin and he exploded in thunderous laughter, "I like you, boy!" he exclaimed. "You're funny!"
Enormous cargo hatches opened along Westone Oklahoma's side once she was securely moored. Built-in cranes unfolded and commenced discharging cargo. One of them paused long enough to swing out a passenger gangway.
"All right, people," the purser bellowed. "Walk-ons can start boarding now. If you can't make it by yourself for whatever reason wait by the luggage and you'll be swayed up. Keep it orderly and we'll all be off this stinkball by morning!"
"The Wemic there really is your wife?" a slender Amerindian with his left arm missing below the elbow inquired as the group shuffled into line.
"Yeah," Rand replied, picking up two of the carry-on bags.
"Then you can get your traitorous ass to the back of the line." the Amerindian punched Rand with his good hand; Rand would have fallen if Onca hadn't caught him. "While you're waiting, take a good, long look at her type's handiwork." He made a gesture that took in the shuffling wounded and the stacks of coffins. "Maybe you'll come to your senses before it's too late." Very deliberately he turned away.
Rand glanced at the military police. They watched but made no move to intervene.
"Let's not argue," Onca whispered. "It's... nothing. Don't mean a thing."
"Yeah." Rand scrubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. He stepped quickly into line before they really did get relegated to the rear. A woman on crutches glared at him and he glared back. Not too much later Rand and Onca shuffled their way up the gangway, found their way through the ship's labyrinthine interior, and arrived at their cabin.
"By the Allfather's hairy testicles," Onca muttered as she looked around. The cabin amounted to a volume about two and a half meters wide, two meters high, and maybe five meters deep. Neither of the fold-out bunks were more than one hundred and eighty centimeters long.
"Well, most of the species of the Federation are humanoids, after all," Rand said, walking into the room and looking around. Every fixture folded away when not in use but even so it would have been a snug fit for two humanoids, to say nothing of a humanoid and a centauroid. "I'll ask the purser for a mat-"
"No." Onca caught Rand's hand and squeezed it gently. "We'll just end up tripping over it. I'll sleep on the floor."
"Then I'll be tripping over you," Rand said. "Besides, I couldn't sleep on a bunk while my wife slept on the floor. If the floor's what it is I'll join you there."
"Mmmm. If you do that you'll have to cuddle with me."
Rand grinned. "You say that like it was a bad thing."
"Well, well." Onca pushed the door shut with her hind foot. "Then let's get started, shall we?" She sank to the floor, then grabbed Rand by the front of his shirt and pulled him down.
Each launcher consisted of metal tubes eight centimeters in diameter and three meters long welded together into two rows of eight and mounted on the back of an ordinary flatbed truck. Star Fleet called them Stalin organs though no one on Amazonia knew why. The rockets themselves- unguided, fin-stabilized projectiles with high explosive warheads and solid fuel motors- were called Katayushas, the origins of which was also lost in antiquity.
"Battery, deploy left!" the commander shouted. His words carried clearly because the fuel cell powered trucks made no sound except for their cooling fans, the crunch of tires on gravel, and the clatter of loose gear. Five launchers wheeled off the road in a broad clearing, their ammo haulers stopping nearby but not too close. Several support vehicles including an ambulance and the mess truck pulled into a loose circle. Soldiers dismounted from four troop carriers and quickly secured a perimeter. Gun crews formed a daisy chain between each launcher and its ammo hauler, passing rockets along and loading them into the tubes. Despite apparent chaos setup was complete in just under fifteen minutes.
The battery commander was a Voxxan, basically a humanoid fox. He strolled along the line, his tail swishing behind, working with a hand-held plotting computer. At each battery he paused to speak with the gun captain and make final adjustments. In another ten minutes debris was cleared from around- and most importantly behind- the launchers and all was in readiness.
"All right people!" the commander shouted, slinging his plotting computer and taking station near the command vehicle, a bus loaded with communications and sensing gear. "Let's play those jungle bunnies a little tune, shall we? All launchers, fire!"
Back blast licked at the ground like a gigantic blowtorch as rocket motors ignited. The weapons erupted from their launch tubes, ripping the air with a continuous, shattering roar that hammered the battery crew like a physical assault. Even the commander wasn't immune; he hunched over his plotting board, attempting to shield himself from the psychically overpowering noise. Nevertheless his eyes remained fixed on the large, glowing numbers that counted down the seconds until splash, when the first rockets struck their target.
Fifteen kilometers away a village lay nestled among the roots of several giant trees. Ground cover had been cleared away and used to build huts, yurts, and lean-tos. Clearing the area completely would have made things easier but also left the village exposed to observation by aircraft or satellite. Three hundred or so Wemics of various types did domestic things in and about the area; kittens frolicked or helped their mothers cure skins, weave mats, and dress carcasses brought in by the hunters last night. Men- and young, unmarried women- came and went with bundles of blossoms or fruits to be eaten or sold to company buyers. A tiger patterned woman skinning a large lizard pricked up her ears and looked around. A second later others looked up as well. In the distance came a strange whistling sound.
"Take cover!" someone shouted. Pots and goods lay scattered on the ground as people fled every which way. Children screamed and parents screamed back. Those nearest forest edge ran off as fast as their legs could carry them. In the village itself people sheltered among the trees but it did no good. Boles three meters thick shattered into kindling as high-explosive rockets tore them apart. Huge trunks toppled, smashing huts and people alike. Flying splinters cut down whoever escaped. Still the rockets fell like Hellish rain, explosions coming so fast their reports ran together into a rolling crescendo that made the earth dance like a storm-tossed ocean.
As quickly as it began it ended. Dirt, pulverized wood, and body parts showered from the sky. Eddies of smoke swirled across ground churned into froth, blending with the stink of explosive residue and the charnel reek of torn bodies. Moans and screams from the wounded and dying gradually filled the crushing silence. It didn't seem possible that anyone could have survived the cataclysm but they had. They struggled out of the wreckage trailing shattered limbs and in some cases coils of glistening, pink intestine. A mother, apparently unscathed, picked up the head and body of her infant and clutched them to her chest, ignoring the blood still pumping from the severed neck. A man whose pelvis and legs were smashed into a bloody mess clutched the torso of a woman. The rest of her was nowhere to be seen. He stroked his cheek against hers until his strength gave out and he flopped over on his side in a pool of his own blood.
Onca moved forward. She wasn't conscious of climbing over shattered timbers or broken bodies; her point of view seemed to float in space. She didn't see her own body as she looked down but even in death she recognized the faces of her mother and father.
"Onca! Wake up!"
With a ragged gulp Onca awoke, all seven limbs flailing wildly. The scent of fresh blood filled her nostrils and the ground shook-
"It's the thrusters!" Rand shouted. "Onca, the ship is taking off! It's only the thrusters!"
Onca collapsed in a quivering heap. Beneath her the deck vibrated, echoing the nightmare roar of rockets in her mind. With a shock she realized her hands were wet. When Rand turned on the light she saw them stained red with blood- and Rand's back torn by row and after row of bloody gashes. Her fingernails weren't really claws, not like the ones on her feet, but they were plenty sharp. Because she couldn't think of anything else to do she pushed him down and licked his wounds, as she would for one of her own species. The sensation of her rough tongue dragging over his tattered flesh must have been excruciatingly painful but he endured it without a sound, at least until he passed out.
"Mmm, hmm," the doctor commented as he cleaned the cuts with antiseptic and sealed them with synthiskin. "You'd be the fellow with the Wemic for a wife, eh?"
"Well, I gotta tell you, old boy, you'd better get her to tone down the nocturnal activities, if you know what I mean. I understand her type can be rather, hmm, excitable, y'know, but this is ridiculous."
"Either that or invest in an autodoc or I don't think you'll survive the honeymoon."
"Is that it?" Rand asked as the doctor stepped back and put away his tools.
"Doc?" Rand asked, tentatively flexing his shoulders.
"Yes?" The doctor half-turned.
Rand threw a fast punch that landed squarely on the doctor's jaw. He crashed into a cabinet full of equipment and slumped to the floor, his cheek already turning purple and blood oozing from a nasty pressure cut on his lip. Rand dabbed at his shoulder; exertion had torn loose some of the syntheskin and blood began to ooze. No matter; Onca could take care of it. "Look, Doc," he said, pulling on his shirt and crouching by the doctor's unconscious form, "I've had to swallow a ration of shit because of Onca. But we ain't on Amazonia any more. The line can fucking sue me but you are not going to talk about my wife that way." He got up and left the medical bay.
"Thank you for travelling with Westone Interstellar and please enjoy your stay on Colulite," a recorded voice said as Onca and Rand walked down the gangway and through the transfer lock. "If you have questions please follow the blue markers to the information kiosk. If you need to claim checked luggage follow the yellow markers to the baggage claim area. To find inbound and outbound customs please follow the red markers."
"It's all right," Rand said soothingly, squeezing Onca's arm. She moved cautiously, constantly sniffing and looking around. The artificial scent of the atmosphere still disconcerted her, even after eight days. As they stepped into the terminal she froze.
Northstar One, Colulite's main orbital transfer facility, resembled a gigantic snowflake. Six arms radiated from the hex-shaped central body and each arm subdivided into smaller and smaller galleries terminating with individual berths. To make sure that visitors appreciated the grandeur of it clear panels roofed the passenger concourse. Colulite itself filled half the sky, painted by sunlight in brilliant blues, greens, and whites. Twinkling, multicolored constellations created by the running lights of star ships and smaller vessels filled the blackness around it. A few of the bright specks were planets or distant stars. Glare washed out the rest.
"Onca," Rand prompted, tugging at her arm. It did no good; she didn't move and she weighed too much to move by force.
Onca swallowed convulsively. Other than travelling by stratojet to Halifax a few times she'd spent her entire life within about a hundred kilometers of Rimouski. The scene before her brought home like nothing else that she had, literally, left her entire world behind. The air was cool, relatively dry, and lightly scented with potpourri to make it seem less artificial. Musak drifted from concealed speakers. White painted metal trusses with mobiles hanging from them supported the arched ceiling. Shops with brightly colored electronic signs lined the opposite wall. Crowds of clean, neatly groomed, and well dressed people- of many different species- bustled briskly back and forth, no few of which turned to gawk at the newly arrived strangers. For the first time in her life Onca appreciated the rest of the Federation as a physical place rather than a theoretical abstraction. The immensity and diversity of it terrified her in a way that raythrowers, mines, and Katayusha rockets never could.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," Rand whispered, squeezing her hand and stroking it gently. "It may seem strange but they're just people. Like you and me." Belying his words, though, a number of passers by stopped and stared, pointing and whispering among themselves. A security officer noticed the growing throng and hurried over, taking something from his belt-
Onca caught the motion in the corner of her eye. In a flash she spun to face him, dropping to a crouch, a menacing growl building in her throat. The crowd scattered with a chorus of yelps; the guard recoiled, dropping the communicator he'd drawn and clawing for his sidearm.
"Onca!" As he felt her tense for a spring Rand kicked her. She merely grunted; thick slabs of rock-hard muscle sheeted the ribs of her lower body. It threw off her timing, though; she hesitated, looking up at Rand. He grabbed her head and pressed it against his belly. After a moment she wrapped her arms around his waist. "Is there a problem, Officer?" Rand inquired in what he fervently hoped was a normal sounding voice.
By the way the man stiffened it wasn't nearly as much so as Rand would have liked. "Sir, public nudity is not permitted on Northstar One," he said.
"Okay," Rand replied because clearly an answer was required but he didn't understand what the officer was getting at.
"Your, um, companion needs to cover her chest," the officer clarified.
"Oh." Rand blinked. On Amazonia Wemics didn't wear clothes; he'd grown so accustomed to that state of affairs he hadn't even thought of it. "Um... dear, let's go back on board for a moment. I'm sure I have an extra shirt or something." He pulled Onca by the neck back toward the ship. "We're terribly sorry, Officer. Didn't mean anything. Just kinda forgot, y'know? Sorry."
The officer didn't pursue, though he remained for some time. The immediate problem was solved... and he really didn't want to confront the jaguar woman again. What he'd seen in her eyes made him shiver even in recollection. Not rage, exactly, but more of an implacable determination. In another instant she would have pounced. She would have killed him, as deliberately and as dispassionately as a person swatted a fly. Besides, she hadn't actually done anything except flash her boobs, which in itself was only a misdemeanor. As he scooped up his communicator and ambled away he wondered if that Terran fellow had thought to pack a whip and a chair in his carry on luggage. On the other hand, maybe the two weren't so mismatched after all. The fellow had that same hard, tempered look- and even that same killer's glint in his eye.
"Dear, can't we just go straight to the other ship?" Onca asked as she and Rand made their second appearance on the concourse. She wore a tiger striped fatigue jacket- one of Rand's- that only barely buttoned across her chest and was rather the worse for wear. She gripped Rand's arm so tightly her fingers left marks on his skin and pressed so hard against him he had trouble walking. Still people stared, though not so much as before. Maybe, as Rand insisted, it was only their clothing. But all the people going by were humanoids, without another Wemic- or any other centauroid- anywhere in sight.
"I'm sorry, no," Rand replied. "The liner for Terra won't start boarding for seven or eight hours." His gaze slid along the rows of shops. "But I think we can find a way to spend our time profitably."
"How?" Onca asked.
Rand smiled, brushing his cheek against hers. "Making you beautiful."
Two hours later a pale chartreuse halter replaced the battered fatigue jacket. Rand kept expecting the security guard to show up again; the halter covered only a little more of Onca than a bikini top and her nipples showed rather obviously through the fabric. And yet while people did stare, they were only what one would expect an amply built woman in a skimpy top to receive.
"Go figure," Rand muttered to himself.
"What?" Onca asked.
"Nothing." Rand shook his head. "I was just thinking. It's not okay for you walk around bare chested but it's okay for you to walk around like this."
Onca made a deep purring sound and stroked her flank against Rand's hip. "Does it drive you mad with lust?"
"Good. Then you'll be in the right state of mind when we finally do get our cabin." She stroked her cheek against Rand's. He slipped an arm around her shoulders and hugged her.
Boutiques lined this particular stretch of concourse: hair salons, nail salons, and purveyors of dainty feminine things. Rand noticed feline Caitians and vulpine Voxxans as well as Terrans and other species he didn't recognize but still he saw not a single non-humanoid. On Amazonia centauroids represented about half the population; most people didn't give it a second thought. With some dismay Rand realized that he hadn't either; in planning his future with Onca he'd never once considered the implications of bringing a quadruped into a bipedal world. Suddenly a whole host of things one normally took for granted became major issues. Riding in private or public transportation, for instance. Finding appropriate seating in restaurants. Elevators, escalators, and stair cases. Anything at all to do with restrooms. Was he really doing Onca a favor by dragging her away from a place where, if nothing else, her physiology was normal and accepted?
"You okay, Rand?" Onca asked.
Rand smiled ruefully. Devilishly perceptive, she is. "I've got a problem."
"I brought you out here because I wanted to beautify you but now that we're here I can't think of any way to make you more beautiful than you already are."
"Mmm." Onca pinched Rand's buttocks. "Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Eriksson."
"Ugh. That's what I was afraid of."
Onca tossed her head, twitched her tail in a jaunty way, and punched Rand in the shoulder. Rand giggled; Wemics, like cats, didn't laugh but managed to convey quite a bit with body language.
"Let's try this one," Rand declared suddenly, turning into one of the shops. Since an ideal solution refused to present itself they'd just have to make do. At the very least the staff at this shop was all Caitian so presumably they'd know what to do with cat fur.
One of the attendants- the oldest, Rand thought, but he wasn't sure- stepped up. "Good afternoon, sir, ma'am," she began. "How may we assist you today?" Caitians tended toward slimness so by their standards this particular woman might be considered plump. Rand, at least for his own part, found her pleasantly rounded. Soft, golden brown fur that reminded Rand of freshly baked bread coated her body and tail; a slightly darker mane with golden highlights that almost seemed to sparkle cascaded down from her head. Her features were leonine but not so literally catlike as Onca's. Her voice possessed a burring quality similar to Onca's but not so deep.
Rand hesitated briefly. Never before in his life had he actually spoken face to face with a Caitian. It reminded him how little he really knew about felines, yet here we was married to one. Still, he hadn't survived a tour on Amazonia by dancing around difficult problems. Best to confront this one as he had so many others: squarely and succinctly. "We've just come from Amazonia, we're on our way to Terra, and I want Onca to look her best when she meets my parents," he said.
"But of course," the Caitian replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. She gave Onca a quick but professional look over. "I recommend a wash with shampoo and conditioner, trim, manicure, and pedicure."
Rand produced his credit chit. "We place ourselves at your disposal."
"Right this way, dear." The Caitian took Onca's hand and drew her forward. "Rela, Keris, set up the large stall, the one we use for Chakats," she directed, nodding to a pair of her assistants then turning back to Onca. "What's your name, darling?"
"Onca." She appeared rather unsettled by the excessive familiarity but handled it all right.
Rand watched curiously. Apparently full body styling wasn't anything unusual for Caitians; in addition to notched sinks where patrons could have their manes washed was a regular shower stall. A decorated screen shielded the user's modesty; the stall's side panels opened so attendants could approach from either or both directions. Two attendants affixed extra panels to one side, creating an L-shaped volume that could accommodate Onca's lower body as well as her torso. Once they led her inside Rand couldn't see anything but he heard water running. Knowing from personal experience how long it took to wash Onca all over he took a seat in the waiting area. "What's a Chakat?" he inquired of the room at large. The magazines laid out for patron's perusal were too female in character for his tastes.
"Did you say you were from Terra or just going there?" asked a portly Voxxan woman of somewhat more than middle age. One attendant teased her mane while another worked on her nails.
"I was born and raised there," Rand replied. "El Paso del Norte. North America," he added hastily.
"Ah, you probably wouldn't see any Chakats there," the Voxxan continued. "The Holy Christian Kingdom frowns on that sort of thing."
"Yeah." Rand nodded. Technically El Paso had been ceded to the United Nations of Terra World Government by the Ozark Treaty of 2216 but cultural traditions didn't go away just because some politicians signed a piece of paper.
"The Holy Christian Kingdom doesn't approve of Recombinants of any sort," the Voxxan added, casting a significant glance at Onca before returning her attention to Rand.
"Tell me about Chakats," Rand said. He wasn't disposed to discuss his plans once he and Onca reached Terra because, frankly, he didn't have any.
"They're a type of felitaur," the woman said. "On Terra they live mostly in Australia, California, and western Europe. What ship are you travelling on?"
"Eurostar Normandie," Rand said.
"There's a Chakat engineering specialist on that one, isn't there?" the Voxxan's manicurist inquired.
"Goldfur, daughter of Longstripe and Desertsand," the hairdresser replied. "Shi was in here just yesterday."
"You might look hir up, shi has a Terran mate," the manicurist commented.
"No, that's hir sister, Forestwalker," the hairdresser corrected. "Still, look hir up. Chakats are friendly; if you're having trouble finding a place to settle I'm sure shi'd be glad to help."
"Thanks," Rand replied, somewhat distractedly. Speaking of the Holy Christian Kingdom brought back memories.
Rand knew he wasn't supposed to go through Grandfather's things. Which was, of course, a large part of why he did it. After a few deep breaths to steady his nerves he opened the door to his bedroom.
He'd probably never have a better chance and he knew it. Mom and Dad were out for dinner and a movie; they wouldn't be back until late. The babysitter watched TV in the family room, believing Rand to be asleep in his bed. From experience Rand knew she wouldn't move, except to raid the 'fridge or got to the bathroom, and then only during commercials. Even so he hesitated; he hadn't actually done anything yet. He could still slip back into bed and no one would ever know. And the forbidden secrets of Grandpa's study would continue taunting him.
Rand's socks slid noiselessly over the hardwood floor as he eased out into the hallway. Behind him the TV cast strange flickers of color on the hall floor and sent forth a muted jumble of mostly unintelligible sounds. By the time he reached his destination, the last door at the end of the hall, his heart beat so hard it seemed his whole body vibrated. He gripped the knob and slowly turned it; the latch withdrew with a muted click. To Rand it sounded like a rifle shot. He stood frozen for a subjective eternity but nothing happened. The babysitter couldn't have heard over the blare of the TV; Rand knew- intellectually, at least- that if he shouted at the top of his lungs there wasn't more than an even chance she'd hear. He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
During the day, with sunshine streaming through the lace curtains, Grandpa's study became a bright, cheerful, friendly place. In the dark, and especially through the eyes of an intruder, it was a grim, forbidding lair. Directly before Rand stood Grandfather's chair, an overstuffed recliner with a pole lamp next to it. Shelves laden with books lined the two walls behind it. That's real shelves, made of wood, with real books, printed on paper. Not e-books or data chits. Rand always found it a wonder just to look at them, though he couldn't imagine why anyone would deliberately choose such an inefficient storage format.
Rand's goal lay behind the enormous oak desk. A small matching cabinet stood under the desk's eaves; the key was missing and had been for as long as Rand could remember so his father opened it with a screwdriver. Rand produced the tool he'd sequestered some weeks ago for just this purpose and set to work. The scratches he made wouldn't be noticed against the ones already there. It took more effort than he'd expected, though; As the latch dragged across the lock plate it made a grinding sound. The cabinet itself acted as a sounding box, amplifying the noise. Finally it came loose with a loud clunk. Rand sighed, wiping his brow. Getting it closed again would be a bitch but that was for later. Inside he found three items: a large box on the bottom, a smaller box above it, and a heavy scrap book on top. He lifted out the scrapbook and opened it.
In it Rand discovered pictures and newspaper clippings. In the dim light he couldn't read any of the text but the condition of the photos and newsprint suggested that they'd been around a long time. Of the pictures, mostly they were of people and places he didn't recognize. Some of the outdoor scenes looked like church gatherings. He flipped ahead a few pages and to his surprise discovered a picture he did recognize. It was a smaller, grainier version of a one he'd seen hanging in the church rectory, a portrait of a former pastor. Now Rand studied the photos more closely; in some of the group shots he recognized his grandfather, as a man even younger than his father was now. He seemed to be a close friend of the pastor, given how many times they appeared together. Rand found that odd; neither his parents nor the people at church talked about Grandpa as if he'd been a big part of the church community. In fact, Rand couldn't remember ever hearing anything about what his grandfather had done in his youth. Which was strange, because these days the Fathers and Mothers of the church were important people and not only did everyone know then, everyone talked about them, too. Rand began to wonder: had Grandfather done something that made the community not want to talk about him, like Geddy Henrikson running off with that foxtaur woman?
After turning several more pages Rand encountered a large photo set on a page all by itself. It showed a gathering of eight people; Rand couldn't identify any of them because they all wore hoods. The hoods were white, tall, and pointed, with eye holes cut in the front. White, robe-like garments covered their bodies. They stood around the foot of a gnarled tree, clearly posing for the camera. The photo had been shot at night with a flash so there wasn't much background but the tree itself showed up, as did the thing hanging from it. It was a foxtaur, hanging by its neck like a prize deer on display. More ropes securely bound its arms and legs.
For a long time Rand could only stare. Finally his eyes drifted to a newspaper clipping on the facing page. Because of its large type size he made out the headline: Local Klansmen run down foxtaur rapist. Rand had seen that picture before. Not here, of course, but in school, of all places. While learning about the history of Texas Territory the teacher spoke briefly about a group called the Klu Klux Klan. The Klan, she said, was a vigilante organization spreading hate against non-Terrans, Recombinants in particular. During the previous century the Klan had been especially powerful, roving freely through Texas and Appalachia Territories, driving out non-Terrans and occasionally murdering them. To clarify what a Klansman was she showed the class a picture: this very one Rand looked at now, except with the hanging foxtaur edited out.
Rand licked his lips, which were suddenly as dry as dust. He set the scrapbook aside and opened the smaller box. It contained tissue, of the sort used to wrap clothing for storage. Rand lifted away the top layer and there it was. A white cloth hood, with its point folded back so it would fit in the box. He almost ran right there but he couldn't just leave everything sitting out. He closed the box and scrapbook, putting them back as he'd found them. Getting the cabinet door shut was difficult but he hardly noticed.
These days no one talked about the Klan. After hearing about it in school Rand had asked his parents; they'd told him it was just something people had done a long time ago and didn't happen any more so he shouldn't worry about it. Pastor Coffin got angry; he said that it was the World Government's Education Initiative trying to stamp out local cultures by making them look like villains. But come to think of it he hadn't answered Rand's question, at least not directly.
After returning to his room Rand crawled into bed but he didn't sleep. Even without reading the text he grasped the truth of what he'd seen. His grandfather had been a Klansman. In all probability the pastor had been one too; you couldn't do something like that and, at the same time, be highly placed in the church community without everyone knowing about it. Which meant that the church community had to have at least not disapproved.
Rand's eight year old mind wasn't really capable of grasping the full ramifications of that conclusion but it haunted him. Suddenly he wasn't afraid of the dark or things under the bed or in the closet. Intellectually he realized that those things scared him because of what might be there, not what was. Now he saw that nightmares did exist. They stalked through the night in white hoods and robes. During the day, though, they looked like ordinary people. His own grandfather had been one.
Rand cried. The babysitter, with the TV to mask out the noise, didn't notice.
"I- I'm sorry?" Rand blinked rapidly, realizing suddenly that someone had spoken to him but he hadn't registered it.
"Your chit, sir." The proprietress offered him his credit chit.
"Ah, thanks." Rand took it and slipped into his pocket. "So, um, how did it-"
Rand fell silent because, as Onca stepped out from behind the screen, he saw for himself what his money had bought. Her naturally short fur hadn't required much trimming but the shampoo and conditioner made a stunning difference. Her coat shone like silk, the colors vibrant and dazzling. As she walked her pelt seemed to ripple as if she were something liquid flowing through the air instead of moving in the traditional sense. Her nails- all of them- were filed, buffed, and painted with high-gloss polish.
"How do I look?" Onca turned gracefully in a circle, hands clasped above her head.
"I think he likes it, dear," the older Caitian chuckled. Rand stared, wide eyed and gape mouthed. Occasionally his lips quivered a bit as if he were trying to speak but nothing came out.
"Am I beautiful, Rand?" Onca purred, stepping up to him and stroking her cheek against his.
"Yes," he replied in a breathless voice. "You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
"Mmm." Onca looked down, taking the lapels of his fatigue jacket in her hands. "Then now it's my turn. I wanna see how you clean up."
"Try one of these," the Caitian suggested, offering several cards. "I think you'll find the styles to your liking."
"Thank you." Onca took the cards and slipped her arm through Rand's. "Come along, darling. Maybe this civilization thing isn't so sucky after all."
"There you are, sir." The shopkeeper, a wizened little Terran man with a prominent nose supporting metal frame spectacles, smiled obsequiously.
"Um." Rand turned this way and that, studying himself in the three-faced mirror.
"I like it," Onca said. "It makes you look sexy."
Rand wore black leather pants that fit like a second skin and a white blouse made of material so sheer his nipples showed through just like Onca's did on her top. Long, pleated sleeves hung down to his wrists, where ruffles decorated the cuffs. The open necked collar looked like it should have buttons but it didn't, thus leaving a portion of his chest down to the base of his sternum exposed to public view.
"Well..." Rand stroked the side of his jaw. "Okay." If Onca liked it he would endure. He glanced at her and smiled; she'd replaced her halter with a forest green short sleeved blouse that ended well above her waist and showed a great deal of cleavage.
"Then let's go eat," Onca said. "I want to go to a nice restaurant. With fancy plates and real waiters."
"Um, okay," Rand allowed. On Northstar One such a thing would be awfully expensive but cost wasn't what bothered him. Star Fleet gave him hazard pay for serving on Amazonia and there wasn't hardly anything there to spend it on. Since Star Fleet also paid his and Onca's passage that left quite a nest egg. It was just-
"I know," Onca murmured, slipping close to him and curling her hands around his arm. "Putting on new clothes doesn't make you feel any less different. You think that- that people are going to look at you and know that you don't belong." She trembled minutely.
Rand squeezed her hand, blinking against the tears rising in his eyes. "Let's go," he said. "And damn what anybody thinks."
Onca licked Rand's cheek. "I love you so much."
"I love you too." Rand hugged Onca tightly. "I'd be lost without you." But even as they left the shop, arm in arm, doubt lingered at the back of his mind. What were they going to do when they reached Terra?
"My word, I can actually turn around in here!" Onca declared, demonstrating.
"All the comforts of home," Rand put in as he brought in the grav-sled carrying their luggage.
Apparently centauroids numbered sufficiently among Eurostar Normandie's prospective customers that her designers took their needs into account. The Tourist class cabin Rand and Onca occupied could, with only minor modification, sleep two 'taurs, four humans, or any reasonable combination thereof.
With a sigh of contentment Onca stretched out on her long bed. "Rand?"
"Hmm?" After taking the luggage off it Rand slid the grav-sled back into the hall and left it. Sensing itself abandoned it trundled off.
"I finally believe it," Onca whispered. "For the first time since we left Amazonia... I really feel like we've made it. Every night on the first leg I was afraid I'd wake up and it would all be a dream."
"I know what you mean." Rand put the suitcases away. A grin spread across his face and he leapt onto his bed. "I'm going home!" He laughed. "For real!"
"What are we going to do about your folks?"
Rand sighed heavily, his smile fading away. "God, Onca, I don't know. They aren't going to understand. El Paso may not be part of the Holy Christian Kingdom but it's right next to it. Church is a big thing there."
"The Holy Christian Kingdom says that Recombinants don't have souls," Onca said. "Which means you can't marry one because they aren't human. And having sex with one is the same as doing it with an animal."
Rand's eyes narrowed, his face setting in anger. "You aren't an animal, Onca. Animals don't... regret what they'd done to survive. Animals don't dream about better places."
"Yes," Onca agreed after a lengthy pause. "But is El Paso a better place? Can we live there?" She laid a hand on her flank.
"I... don't know," Rand mumbled.
"I know you want to see your folks again," Onca continued. "You want to... see everything that was before you went away. But... it's not going to be there when you get back." She shifted, letting her torso dangle upside down off the edge of the bed. "It was like that when I came back from the boarding school. I did everything I could to keep myself from being infected by Star Fleet's propaganda. Then I got back to the village..." Her eyes unfocused. "Everything looked the same. The people were the same. But... somehow it just wasn't the place I'd grown up. It took me a long time to realize that it was me that'd changed, not the village." Her eyes locked on Rand's. "You can't pretend that Amazonia never happened. Maybe your home wasn't wiped off the face of the earth by a rocket barrage but it's still gone." She didn't sound at all accusing. Just sad. Very, very sad.
Rand said nothing. He didn't want Onca to be right because... because he hoped that coming home would wipe away the horrors of Amazonia. Like waking from a bad dream to find himself safe in his old bed, in his old room-
In his old life. He couldn't dispute the truth of Onca's words and he hated it. The Rand Eriksson who'd left Terra five years ago couldn't even have imagined taking a Wemic for a wife. Nor would he have survived long enough for it to matter. In a very real sense he had died on Amazonia. He looked across at Onca; she was part of the nightmare he struggled to escape. But only because he'd lived through it did he want so desperately to escape it... and to lift Onca out as well. The conundrum in that made his head hurt. "What else could we do?" he demanded. "Where could we go?"
"Somewhere," Onca replied. "Anywhere. Some place were people of different species can be together and folks don't get all in a snit about it."
Rand stared at the ceiling. He didn't want to reply because he feared, in his heart of hearts, that no such place existed. That Amazonia was real and escaping it the dream.
"Maybe we should look up that Chakat whatever her name was," Onca suggested. "The one who's sister has a Terran mate."
"Goldfur," Rand said, his expression becoming thoughtful. At least he'd be doing something. Given the choice he'd rather advance under fire than wait for the enemy to find him. In combat there wasn't time to think about being scared and he had the assurance of knowing it would end eventually, one way or another. Waiting meant there wasn't anything to do but think. And wonder.
"Goldfur, yes." Onca got up. "Let's go find her."
"What, now?" Rand exclaimed, starting.
"Yes, now," Onca retorted. "Why not? What else have we got on our busy social calendar?"
"Well- I'm sure she's busy what with the ship pulling out and everything." Rand grimaced; it sounded lame even as he said it.
"This from the man willing to introduce me to his reactionary parents? Sorry, but I don't buy it."
"Oh, all right." Rand stood. Though loathe to admit it, even to himself, what scared him most was entering unknown territory. To the best of his knowledge he'd never even heard of Chakats before today. Which wasn't so unusual, really; during the Gene Wars hundreds- if not thousands- of new species were created and quite a few of them still existed. Then there were true extraterrestrials, like Voxxans and Caitians. Some of them had gone through episodes similar to the Gene Wars and created Recombinant species of their own. He grinned, then laughed aloud.
"What is it?" Onca asked.
"Just thinking," Rand replied. "I'd never hesitate to go into the jungle, though I'd never say I wasn't afraid. But the jungle... was at least something I understood."
"I know." Onca took his hand and squeezed it, rather tightly. "I know exactly what you mean. Now let's go before we lose our nerve."
"How will we recognizer her?" Rand wondered. So far all their contact with Goldfur had been by electronic mail. As he'd suspected, the period just before departure was a busy one for the engineering staff. Once the ship jumped to hyper-space the work load eased off considerably unless there was an emergency. Since none materialized Goldfur asked to meet Onca and Rand in person.
"Shouldn't imagine it'd be too hard to pick out a cougar patterned felitaur," Onca observed. She and Rand occupied a table in the Cafe Grill, wearing the clothes they'd bought on Northstar One. Interestingly enough they hardly stood out at all; the variety of people- both in clothing and body types- was such that a Terran and Wemic in sexually provocative garb barely warranted notice.
Rand made a noncommittal sound. There seemed to be a lot of centauroids among Eurostar Normandie's passengers. Foxes, skunks, cats, even horses, and at least one Rand thought was an actual centaur, though he'd only caught a brief glimpse of the individual. He found himself wondering what possible use these creatures could serve that ancient geneticists had gone to the effort and expense of creating them. On the other hand, it wasn't illegal for an individual to have him or herself modified and he understood there were people who chose to do it. For his own part the thought of putting on a body like it was a new set of clothes gave him the willies.
"There." Onca pointed with her eyes.
Rand looked. He found himself thinking of the cougar Wemics who'd brought their luggage to the wharf on Amazonia. Except that this individual was female and possessed a long, golden mane pulled back into a ponytail she might almost have been one. She wore a powder blue short sleeved tunic with a Star Corps logo on the left breast and the belt pouch which seemed almost universal among centauroids. Rand supposed that for a people generally not disposed to wear pants it was the most reasonable alternative to pockets for carrying keys, credit chits, ID cards, and the other accoutrements of modern life.
Halfway across the floor the cougar woman waved and picked up her pace. "Hello," she called, pushing aside a chair and sitting down. "You must be Rand and Onca, right?"
Rand couldn't reply. As Goldfur sat- surely it could be no other- he'd seen that she shared another quality with the cougar brothers on Amazonia: that is, despite being apparently female in every respect, she had a penis. The notion shocked him so deeply he couldn't even form coherent thoughts.
Goldfur seemed not the least daunted by the reception. "What's the matter? Am I growing another head or something?"
The comment struck sufficiently near the truth that Rand gagged. He coughed, gulping several swallows of water to clear his throat.
"Never seen a Chakat before?" Goldfur asked in a gentler tone.
"No," Rand admitted, dabbing at his face with a napkin.
"I imagine meeting a woman with a schlong must be a bit of a shock," Goldfur added.
Rand choked. He stopped it by holding his breath until the spasm passed; by then his face was beet red, either from tension or embarrassment.
"Please, I don't mean to make fun of you," Goldfur said. "You're taking it pretty well, actually, compared to some I've met. Where are you from?"
"El Paso," Rand answered.
Goldfur rocked back. "Wow. Then you really are taking this well."
Rand shook his head. "So many strange things have happened to me-" He glanced at Onca; she hadn't spoken but neither had her expression or demeanor changed. In fact he didn't think she'd moved all, except that her tail lashed back and forth like a snake with a gut-ache. "Onca?" he asked, a note of concern creeping into his voice. It didn't take a genius- at least not one who knew anything about feline psychology- to see that she was upset. Nor, he figured, did it take any great feat of cogitation to divine the cause. Onca seemed open minded- and she was in may areas- but for the most part her upbringing had been even more parochial than his own.
Onca didn't notice Rand's question. She'd detected Goldfur's nature before Rand did; the Chakat's scent revealed it. Every time Onca inhaled that odd blend of male and female smells hit her like a smack in the face. It made her skin crawl, not the least because she knew 'taurs didn't evolve naturally. Someone had deliberately crafted this horrific abomination of nature. When she thought about what sort of a sick, twisted mind that would take-
"Onca-" Rand repeated, his voice tinged with alarm. Without a word she leapt up, turned about, and left the table. She rushed to the flowering shrubs in planters to one side of the enormous bronze-faced doors separating the Cafe Grill from the Grand Salon. She thrust her head under the bushes and inhaled deeply; their rich scent washed the smell from her nostrils if not her memory.
"Rand, I can't do this," Onca said when she felt him come up beside her. "You're lucky. When she sits down you can't see it. But I can smell it." She drew a hissing breath between tightly clenched teeth. "I keep- imagining two of them, together. When one's finished, do they just- switch places?" Her whole body shuddered.
Rand grimaced. He could have done without that mental picture. He glanced back at the table; Goldfur waited, watching with apparent unconcern. It struck him that probably this wasn't the first time she'd been through something like this. "Look, I don't like it any more than you," he said. "But right now Goldfur's all we've got. Her or my folks, take your pick." He shrugged. "The reasons we came to her aren't any less true just because she's a-" he couldn't bring himself to say it. "If it were just us I'd go in a heartbeat. Hell, we've been through worse than this." He smiled grimly. "We've been through Hell, as a matter of fact. But this time-" he stroked Onca's spine just in front of her tail. "We don't have the option of not dealing with this. If we screw up, it's our son who pays."
Onca pulled out of the bush, looked mournfully at Rand, then drooped her head and pressed her forehead against his chest. "What are we going to do?" she asked.
"Sit down at the table, talk with Goldfur, and hear what she has to say," Rand replied. "Once we have all the facts we make a decision. It's not like, like we're moving in with her or something." He'd almost said going to bed with her. He didn't because he feared he'd talk himself out of going back.
Onca sighed heavily. "All right." She straightened up and turned around; arm in arm she and Rand returned to the table. "So where are you from, Onca?" Goldfur asked as if nothing had happened.
"Amazonia," Onca mumbled.
"Oh? What city?"
"Rimouski." Nochila Village didn't exist any more and the name probably wouldn't mean anything to someone from off planet. Not to say that Rimouski would either.
Goldfur frowned. "Sorry. I've never heard of a city called Rimouski in Amazonia."
"It's the capital, such as it is," Onca explained. With the same sort of macabre fascination that people gawked at car wrecks she speculated about a mating encounter between herself and Goldfur. If nothing else it would be short; Goldfur fell behind Onca in overall size and even farther in muscle mass. Only if Onca lay down without a fight could Goldfur hope to mount her. Onca, on the other hand, could probably pin Goldfur without even breathing hard. Not that it mattered any; Onca lacked the equipment to make good her victory. With a twinge of guilt it occurred to her that for Rand she had laid down without a fight- and more than once at that. Not to mention that, as a teenager, she'd wrestled with other girls her age and sometimes older. Everyone loudly insisted that it was all in fun but on a few occasions she'd let herself be mounted- and maybe done a little mounting herself.
"I thought Brasilia was the capital of Amazonia," Goldfur said.
Rand blinked in confusion, then in a flash realized what had happened. "Onca means the planet Amazonia, otherwise known as Pizarro 419C," he explained to Goldfur. "She thought you meant Amazonia Sector on Terra," he said to Onca.
"Shi," Goldfur corrected.
Rand blinked. "'Scuse me?"
"Shi," Goldfur repeated. "Since us Chakats aren't technically men or women we use our own pronouns, shi and hir. Instead of Mr. or Ms. we say Shir or Chakat."
Rand frowned. "She?" To his ear it sounded exactly the same.
"Shee," Goldfur replied, deliberately exaggerating. "Like shee-it."
Though Goldfur's joke wasn't that funny Rand burst out laughing. The tension laying over the conversation forced it out of him, like water spurting from a ruptured dike. Onca felt herself relaxing too; since Wemics didn't laugh she expressed her amusement by letting her eyelids droop until they almost closed and curling the tip of her tail. Goldfur noticed and did smile, as well as curling hir tail some. "Thanks," Rand said, dabbing at his eyes with a napkin. For breaking the ice.
"Don't mention it." Goldfur's warm smile suggested that she (shi, Rand corrected himself mentally) really did understand.
"Are Chakats war beasts?" Onca asked.
Goldfur blinked, then stroked hir chin thoughtfully. "Fair question, actually. A great many Recombinant species around today were built as super soldiers, back during the Gene Wars. But no. We were made after the Gene Wars, during the Reconstruction. As- well, I guess you might say a public relations effort. To show that genetic engineering could be put to beneficial uses. And to help clean up the mess, I suppose, since we're immune to most of those gene plagues and could get into contaminated areas safely. I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before. Quite a lot of people are descended from war beasts." Shi looked around the room. "These days it doesn't seem to matter much, though."
"It matters to Star Fleet," Onca replied darkly.
"Onca-" Rand cautioned. This didn't seem like the time or place-
"Oh?" Goldfur asked. "How so?"
"The fact that my ancestors were war beasts is how Star Fleet justifies sending young men like Rand here to kill us off and take our land," Onca said. Her tone didn't change but her tail started lashing.
"Onca!" Rand grabbed her face. "We left Amazonia to get away from all that. Don't bring it with you!"
Onca bared her teeth, drawing a sharp breath. She lifted her hands from the table, bunching them into fists. Rand gritted his teeth, afraid she might punch him, or worse. Those ancient genetic engineers had done a fine job; Onca could punch like a jackhammer. That her claws were trimmed and polished did not one whit diminish their capacity to rip him open like a cheap pillowcase. She quivered, then sank back down like a deflating balloon. "Oh Rand, I'm sorry!" She pulled him close, licking his face. Rand endured it because she needed it and he wasn't so sure he could have broken free even if he'd wanted to.
Goldfur hadn't missed the byplay or the significance of it. As discreetly as possible shi resumed hir seat after tensing to run or dive for cover if things got out of hand. Hir face had more of a primate's flexibility but she read feline body language well enough. "What is happening on Amazonia?" shi asked, quietly but seriously.
"Early in the last century, a bunch of us- Wemics and other war beasts- got dumped there and left," Onca said. She stared at the table, rending her napkin into smaller and smaller bits. "We kinda figured it was our planet, since nobody else seemed to care. Near the beginning of this century someone found out that Amazonia was a rich source of genetic material for research and pharmaceuticals. Next thing we know Star Fleet's everywhere, building cities and moving in colonists. When the Tribes object to having their land taken or demand a bigger cut of the profits Star Fleet troops move in to quell the 'uprising.'" She extended her hand, thumbing the trigger of an imaginary raythrower. "All nice and legal 'cause we're just squatters, not real natives or colonists at all."
"That's terrible," Goldfur said.
"Yeah, and what can you do about it?" Onca demanded bitterly.
"Rather more than you might think," Goldfur replied. "You said you wanted to meet me 'cause my sister has a Terran mate? You might be interested to know that he's an admiral in Star Fleet. I know for fact he'd be shocked by what you're telling me and he's in a position to drop words in ears where they'll do the most good."
"He's in Star Fleet!" Onca snapped. "He's one of them!"
Goldfur sighed. "I'd like to say it's all the same but it isn't. Saying 'Star Fleet' is like saying 'The Federation.' They're made of zillions of parts, scattered across dozens of planets. It's not unusual for one hand not to know what the other's doing. But I promise you, Onca-" Goldfur's expression hardened- "I am gonna ask some questions when I get home and I'm not gonna let up until I get some answers. Things like that aren't supposed to happen."
"They do," Onca insisted.
"Sure they do," Goldfur replied. "That doesn't mean we have to sit by and let it. Look at the Skunktaur Liberation. For a hundred years the Three Firms used Skunktaurs as slave labor, keeping them drugged so they wouldn't complain. It stopped because ordinary people, like you and me, noticed things and started asking questions. If things are that bad on Amazonia, Boyce- that's Admiral Kline, Forestwalker's mate- will do something about it." Shi chuckled. "You might say that being part of our family's made him sensitive to what goes on with Recombinants. Especially what with Sis expecting his kid and all."
"Waitaminite," Rand cut in. "I thought- your sister's a Chakat, right?"
"And Admiral Kline, he's a Terran?"
Rand frowned. "So how can your sister, a Chakat, be expecting the child of Admiral Kline, a Terran?"
Goldfur shrugged. "Beats the stuffing outta me. I'm an engineer, not a geneticist. But Forest is pregnant and it's genetically confirmed as Boyce's. Isn't the first time, either. He has Caitian and Rakashan-" Goldfur fell silent, noticing Rand and Onca's expressions. "What? What's wrong?"
Onca and Rand looked at each other. "It's just-" Rand began.
"-we didn't think stuff like that happened," Onca finished.
Goldfur's expression turned thoughtful. "I don't suppose this has anything to do with you two being here, now?"
"Actually-" Onca began.
"Yes," Rand finished. "Onca's pregnant with my baby."
"And don't think it wasn't a shock to find out I was pregnant with a Terran," Onca put in.
"A Terran?" Goldfur asked.
"Why, what's the Admiral's baby?" Rand wanted to know.
"Chakat," Goldfur replied. "At least in Forest's case. His kids have always been the species of the mother."
"Well, ain't that a hoot," Rand said, more to break the silence than anything else.
"I think I'm beginning to appreciate the depth of the problem," Goldfur commented. "It's not just a matter of you two living in a part of the world that doesn't like Recombs. It's about raising your kid there, too."
"In a nutshell," Rand sighed.
"What's Amazonia like?" Goldfur asked.
"Just like Amazonia on Terra," Rand said. "Scorching hot with about a billion percent humidity." Though last he'd heard Brasilia wasn't in open revolt against the World Government.
"If you like that, settle on the north coast of Australia," Goldfur suggested. "Darwin's pretty nice, for instance. If desert's more to your liking there's Alice Springs. For a more temperate clime you might try Melbourne, Sydney, or just about anywhere in New Zealand. I won't say there aren't reactionary elements but us Australasians are pretty much used to living with Recombs and don't make a big fuss about it. Even if somebody's sister- or brother- decides to marry one." Shi chuckled. "Another thing you might think about is settling on Chakona. Technically it's the Chakat home world but it's open to all sorts of Recombs."
"But I thought you said-" Rand began.
"I think shi meant Chakats colonized it and call it their homeworld," Onca cut in.
"Exactly so," Goldfur agreed.
"Oh." Rand felt terribly foolish for having missed that obvious connection. "What about Terrans?" he asked.
"Oh, you'd have no trouble getting in as Onca's mate," Goldfur replied.
Rand blinked. The notion of his status being dependent on Onca was such a complete reversal of how he was accustomed to thinking that it took him a moment to assimilate it. "What's Chakona like?" he finally asked.
"Beautiful," Goldfur replied with a dreamy sigh. "It's only been colonized for about a hundred years. Flinders Continent and the Skunktaur Archipelago are getting built up but the rest of the planet's still pretty much wide open. If you want to live in the city, in the wilds, or somewhere in between, there's a place for you. Wherever you go, the scenery- it's incredible. I can't describe it. You gotta see it. Check by the ship's Tour Information Center. They'll have everything, including photo collections."
"Do you know other interspecies couples?" Rand asked.
Goldfur chuckled. "Since you mention it, I'm actually mated- at varying levels of seriousness- with individuals of several different species, though none of them are Terran. Me, Forest, Quickpaw- we're all like that. And we know couples- and groups- outside the immediate family." She grinned. "I figure too you'll be looking for a midwife soon and I can even help you with that. Quickpaw, my little sister, is one and I know shi'd jump at the chance."
"We don't want to impose-" Onca began.
"You aren't," Goldfur insisted, gently but firmly. "There are times when being in an interspecies relationship is- very difficult." A shadow flicked across hir eyes. "You two look like you could use some help and I'm only too glad to give it." Shi smiled ruefully. "Mom's always saying I spend too much time trying to save the world and maybe I do get in a little too deep sometimes but getting to watch people pull through makes it all worthwhile. You may consider yourselves under my wing- if you'll have me, of course. In fact-" Hir expression brightened suddenly- "Why don't you come to Melbourne with me? You'll get to meet my family and the other interracial families as well. You can see for yourselves what life in Australia is like. If you wanted, you could even stay with us until you find a place of your own. We'd be glad to have you."
"Thank you ever so much, Goldfur, but we really couldn't," Onca said, giving Rand a warning glance.
Rand either didn't see or ignored it. "Yes, thank you very much, Goldfur. It's very generous of you to offer and we'd be delighted to accept. Without your help- well, I'm sure we would have sorted it all out eventually but we were flailing around in the dark." He looked at Onca; his mouth still smiled but his eyes didn't. He had noticed her glance. "Right now, though, Onca and I need to talk things over. Thank you very much for seeing us. We know you've got work to do and we'll let you get back to it. We promise we'll let you know what our plans are before we reach Terra." He rose, offering his arm. "Shall we?"
"You better believe we will," Onca growled.
Rand sat on the edge of his bed. Onca paced by, turned when she reached the cabin wall, and marched past the other way. He watched her pace, back and forth, back and forth. "Onca," he asked in a reasonable tone, "What better option do we have?"
"I will not go to live with those- those-" Onca couldn't bring herself to say it.
Rand clenched his jaw to keep from saying but it was your idea in the first place. Onca came from a physically expressive culture and wouldn't hesitate to cuff him.
As she paced Onca was in fact thinking that she wouldn't at all mind working off some tension by beating Rand to a bloody pulp. After four years together he had to know that... and he'd married her anyway. She looked down quickly; that he refused to be afraid of her was one of the main reasons she loved him so much. Remembering that went a long way to unraveling the knot of anger inside her.
Rand sighed. "Goldfur wants to give us everything we need," he pointed out. "And yes, shi happens to be a hermaphrodite. I'm even the one who said it wasn't like we were going to live with them." He chuckled- and a flash of inspiration struck. "Onca, we left Amazonia because we wanted tolerance. Goldfur has to know how we feel. I imagine shi gets a lot of it. But shi wants to help us anyway. And... just maybe... in hir heart of hearts... maybe shi thinks we're strange."
Onca's head whipped up. "We're not the unnatural ones!"
"I think both our folks would have something to say about that," Rand commented
Onca looked down again. Rand was right; in Huitzil's eyes miscegenation would be worse, because the participants should know better.
"I... Onca, I think I understand what you're going through," Rand began quietly. "You... I offered you my hand and asked you to follow me into darkness because I said there was a light on the other side. You joined me because you believed. You trusted me. Now- now it feels like I'm leading you deeper into darkness instead of out."
Onca looked up. She stopped pacing.
"I feel exactly the same way," Rand said. "When I first came to Amazonia I was scared out of my mind. I was sure I wouldn't survive five years. You came to me and said you'd keep me alive if I took you off planet when I left. The only way I could do that was by marrying you and having a Wemic for a wife wasn't how I expected my life to turn out at all. I certainly never expected that I'd have sex with one and she'd get pregnant. I didn't want to be a father. Now there's Goldfur. The idea of going to live with hir gives me the willies. Meeting hir was your idea, an extension of the basic plan to make this marriage thing fly." He got up and took Onca's hands. "I went along with it, in spite of my misgivings, because it seemed like the only way I could stay with you." He rubbed his cheek against hers.
Onca closed her eyes and hugged him tightly. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"For being afraid? Don't be." He stroked her back. "When we can't talk about something, that's when we're in trouble. Anything else... we'll work it out somehow."
"How can we trust hir?" Onca wondered.
"This isn't Amazonia," Rand pointed out. "I doubt Goldfur's a spy planted to trap us."
"I'm more worried about hir sister's husband, the admiral."
Rand grimaced. "I... worry about that too. But I admit, Goldfur has a point. Just because Star Fleet does something on one world doesn't necessarily mean that Star Fleet as a whole sanctioned it. Not to mention that this thing's been going on for years. They can't be too concerned about what individual veterans say. And... just maybe something will happen." He smiled.
Onca curled her tail and licked Rand's cheek.
"What's so funny?" Rand asked.
"Some things my history teacher told me suddenly make a lot more sense," Onca replied. She settled to the floor, holding Rand in her arms. Her mind drifted, returning to a time fourteen years ago.
"Onca, I need to talk to you about your grades."
Jonindi ne Borkas shuffled out from behind his desk, leaning heavily on his cane. According to rumor an antipersonnel device had shattered the aged Voxxan's left leg. It would also explain the scarring on his left hand and the left side of his face, not to mention the generally ratty condition of his tail. Of the rest of him Onca could only speculate; she'd never seen him in anything less than a long-sleeved tunic and trousers.
"What's wrong with my grades, sir?" Onca asked. She sat on the bare floor before the desk, hands clasped behind her back. Unlike the vast majority of students she didn't fear the headmaster.
"You know perfectly well," he snapped, settling carefully into a chair beside the desk. In dealing with students he preferred to do it face to face. "Your scores in math, science, and language are excellent. Your scores in history are abysmal. Given how smart you've shown yourself to be I can only conclude that you don't care about history."
"I care about history," Onca said.
"Your grades don't show it."
"I already know my peoples' history," Onca replied.
Jonindi leaned back with a sigh. "So that's what it is? You don't think the history of people other than your own counts for anything?"
Onca said nothing.
"I'm surprised at you, Onca." Jonindi shifted to the right, leaning his elbow on the edge of the desk. "Not only are you smart but you... seem to enjoy learning. A great many students go through here that just don't care. About learning, their futures, or even themselves. But you-"
"I care about the future," Onca insisted.
Jonindi's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "I don't doubt that for a second. Which makes it all the more perplexing that you don't seem to care about the past."
Onca said nothing. Not because her point was obvious but because she feared she'd made a tactical error and Jonindi had trapped her.
"Where do you think the past comes from?" Jonindi inquired. "How do you propose to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past if you don't know what they are?"
"I know my past," Onca said.
"So you do." Jonindi nodded thoughtfully. "And you have a goal in coming here. A goal that consumes you, that drives you, like few people I've ever seen. Student or adult." The corners of his mouth turned up; he looked like a man moving his last piece into position before calling checkmate. "I know who your father is and on that basis I have a pretty good idea what that your goal is. You want to learn how to get rid of all us filthy offworlders."
Onca said nothing.
Jonindi leapt to his feet. "And that's what I've been trying to teach you, if only you had the wit to realize it!" He slammed his fist down on the desk.
Onca jumped. The headmaster was not a demonstrative man. She'd never seen him lose his temper or even raise his voice.
"You think you're the only person who ever struggled to free herself from oppression?" Jonindi demanded. "In those books behind you are accounts of thousands of rebellions. Ones that succeeded. Ones that failed. Detailed analyses of what they did right and what they did wrong. If freeing your people is anything but a pipe dream you'd better start reading those books like your life depended on it."
Onca's tail lashed. "Why would you teach me that?" she demanded suspiciously.
"Because its my job. To pound some knowledge into your ignorant jungle bunny skull by whatever means necessary. Because you can't possibly imagine what a joy it is for me to teach a student who's actually committed to learning, no matter what she plans to do with it later. Because maybe- just maybe- if you learn enough about people in other parts of the galaxy you might start to see that not everyone out there is dedicated to keeping you down. That maybe some of them even hate what's going on here as much as you do. That if you work with them instead of against them maybe you can arrive at a solution beneficial to everyone." He held her eyes for a moment. "But I'm not holding my breath," he concluded, settling back into his chair. "That's all I have to say about that. You are dismissed."
A jabbering throng packed the Tourist Class Promenade though as yet there was nothing to see through the view ports but pale blue sky and a moderate overcast still far below. The rumble of thrusters came up through the teak decking as Eurostar Normandie descended toward her berth at Cape York Aerospace Port on Terra.
"Can you believe it?" Rand exclaimed, literally hopping with excitement. "We're really here!" He threw his arms around Onca's neck and hugged her. She put her arms around him, burying her face against his chest and shifting her forepaws so he wouldn't step on them in an excess of enthusiasm. She hated crowds; people kept stumbling into her lower body or stepping on her tail. The saddle packs and luggage trailer afforded some protection but not much. She endured it for Rand's sake; he wanted to watch the landing and she couldn't bring herself to refuse simply because she was afraid.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking," a Terran woman with a throaty, cultured voice declared over the public address system. "We'll be docking at Terminal Twelve in approximately twenty-five minutes. Those of you on the starboard side should get an excellent view of the Barclay Tablelands and the Gulf of Carpentaria. Off to port is the Arafura Sea and New Guinea. Meteorology reports the cloud cover will thin out towards afternoon so we can look forward to a nice, sunny day. Thank you for travelling with us and we hope you enjoy your stay on Terra."
"Oh, Onca, I can't wait to show you around," Rand said, his eyes shining. "Australia is- oh, I can't even begin to describe it. Just before mobilizing me and some buddies got a weekend furlough. We took a stratojet to Melbourne and my God we didn't sleep at all between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. It was incredible!"
"I can't wait," Onca muttered, tightening her grip. To see Melbourne or get out of the crowd, either would do.
A heavy overcast lay over Cape York. Not until Eurostar Normandie broke out under it did passengers finally get a good look at the northern end of the Great Dividing Range. Onca clenched her teeth as the ship's bow lifted and the thrusters ramped up. Artificial gravity notwithstanding the sensation of motion made her queasy. Finally the port itself came into view. Low buildings and rows of enormous berthing trenches ran for kilometers along the eastern coastline. The deck shuddered as powerful tractor beams caught the ship, guiding it gently to touchdown. Colossal billows of white vapor boiled upward as plasma from Eurostar Normandie's thrusters converted several hundred tons of seawater into steam. Water in the landing trench not only cooled it but cushioned the landing. With a heavy jar everything stopped moving and the thruster roar wound down into silence. At once the crowd pressed into the companionways as people headed back to their cabins for last minute packing or down to the embarkation lounge. Rand and Onca joined the flow because, realistically, they had no choice. The crowd swept them along like flotsam in a stream. Onca wanted to ask if arrival was always like this but didn't think she could make herself understood over the din. It seemed like nearly everyone was singing, cheering, yelling, blowing horns, or using other noisemakers. Now she really wished they could have skipped watching the ship land-
Someone tried to jump over the luggage trailer to reach a companionway. He tripped, knocking over the trailer and tangling the traces. Onca struggled but couldn't move; the luggage weighed her down and the traces fouled her hind legs. The crowd parted around the obstruction like water around a rock- and carried Rand away. Onca let out a startled yip as his hand slipped out of hers; in a frighteningly short time she couldn't even see him any more. In that instant Onca came closer to panic than she had in a long time. She fought it down; on Amazonia people who reacted without thinking didn't last very long. Besides, however terrifying her situation might be it wasn't life threatening. If she went with the crowd she'd reach the embarkation lounge eventually. Since Rand would also end up there they'd have a chance to meet. First order of business, then, was to get mobile. With the assistance of several fellow passengers she managed to straighten out the luggage trailer and get moving. When she finally reached the lounge, though, two critical facts impressed themselves upon her. First, the room was every bit as crowded as the hallways had been. Second, it wasn't the one she'd expected. Eurostar Normandie had four embarkation lounges, one for Cabin Class and three for Tourist Class. Getting this far had taken close to an hour so the gangways were open; once again the tide of humanity swept Onca with it and deposited her in the terminal. She put her forefeet on a waste basket and reared up to elevate her point of view. All at once the magnitude of her predicament struck home; this one terminal was nearly half a kilometer long and forty meters wide. Between the passengers leaving the ship, passengers waiting to board, and well-wishers attached to both groups that whole area- larger by far than anything she'd seen even on Northstar One- was very nearly full. And this was but one of many passenger and freight terminals, all running at full capacity to serve the needs of Terra's largest star port. In a single day, Cape York handled more people than the entire population of Rimouski.
Onca dropped back to the floor and started walking. The hard, cool surface wouldn't take tracks and even if it did the crowd would obliterate them instantly. Her ears and nose encountered the same difficulty as her eyes: there were sounds and smells aplenty but she didn't know how to filter the cacophony for the information she wanted. The inescapable fact was that skills acquired and honed in the jungles of Amazonia simply didn't apply here. Which, when Onca thought about it, was what really bothered her. Ignorance wasn't nearly as unpleasant as irrelevant expertise.
Asking for help might seem an obvious solution but not so to Onca. Tribal life on Amazonia didn't favor trusting strangers, particularly officials. She took note of several people at public terminals and her hand dropped to the zippered pouch secured around her waist. It contained travel chits she'd been issued on Amazonia but everyone she saw at a terminal activated it with a card instead. Furthermore, the terminals were nothing like the computer equipment Onca had used at school, which was all retired military hardware. She kept walking, flexing her fingers. It wasn't a nervous motion; it stemmed from the same impulse that caused a Federation marine to check his raythrower and slide his combat dirk partially out of its sheath, just to make sure it moved freely. Verifying that the equipment would work as expected when the need to use it arose. With some annoyance Onca reflected that, among all the junk in her saddle packs and luggage trailer, there wasn't even one good knife. Oh well; if it came to that she'd make do without one. It shouldn't be too difficult; from what she'd read northern Australia wasn't so much unlike Amazonia. Only half jokingly she sized up some of her fellow travellers. Unappetizingly skinny for the most part, but a least a few looked tastily plump-
"Onca Eriksson, who recently debarked from the Eurostar Normandie, please go to the nearest white courtesy phone," a voice from the terminal's PA system requested. "Your husband Rand is looking for you."
Onca looked around quickly. Had they spotted her? No, of course not. That's why they wanted her to go to the white courtesy phone. Her feet wanted to run but she controlled them. Surely there weren't Federation troops or corporate security gangs out to assassinate her, not here. Logically, the person most vitally interested in locating her was Rand- in which case she most definitely wanted to be found. Nevertheless, as she step to and activated the phone, she couldn't help wishing that she had a raythrower... or a railgun... or a grenade... or even just one good knife...
The screen lit up to show an attractive young Terran woman wearing what was clearly a uniform, though not a military one. "Good afternoon," she said brightly. "My name is Teri. How may we assist you today?"
Onca clenched her hands and forced herself to relax. "My name is Onca," she said. "My husband, Rand, is looking for me."
"Just a moment, Ms. Eriksson, and I'll connect you with your party. Would you hold, please?" Before Onca could reply Teri vanished, replaced by swirling patterns of abstract color and quiet music no doubt intended to be soothing. It reminded Onca of what she'd seen leaking from the belly of a gut-shot soldier after he'd laid dead in the jungle for a few days.
Rand's face appeared. "Onca!" he exclaimed. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine." Onca resisted the urge to lick the screen. "Where are you?"
"Tell her to wait where she is and we'll find her," someone beyond pickup range suggested.
"No, it's all right," Rand insisted hurried, glancing away momentarily. "Onca, if you go to the end of the terminal there's a stop on the tramway that takes people to Customs and Immigration. I'll be waiting at the top of the stairs leading down to the platform. If you haven't found me in half an hour call me on the courtesy phone and we'll try again." He kissed his hand and touched it to the video sensor. "Don't worry, darling. Everything'll be all right."
Onca couldn't reply; her throat had closed up tight. She touched her hand to the screen then hurried down the terminal at a fast trot, threading her way through gaps in the crowd. The saddle packs and trailer degraded her maneuverability somewhat. "Hey!" a voice shouted, probably belonging to someone she'd inadvertently sideswiped. "This ain't the Hippodrome, y'know!" Onca ignored him. A large sign pointed out the tramway entrance. Onca stopped, nearly colliding with a group of Caitians as her feet slipped on the smooth floor. The crowd parted and-
"Hey!" a voice called. Onca whirled; five 'taurs broke from a group near the stairway and bounded toward her. In the lead came a Jaguar patterned felitaur with a long, black mane, dressed in a pale green halter that showed a lot of cleavage. Then she caught a scent: the jaguar woman was a Chakat, as were several of hir companions.
Onca's harness didn't have a quick release, so fleeing wasn't an option even had it been within her nature. Furthermore, her whole body quivered with tension that had built ever since leaving Amazonia, and which recent events had whipped up even more. To top it off, the Chakat's spotted pelt struck Onca as an insult, a deliberate perversion of her noble bloodline. Lastly- and far from least- Onca knew that these Chakats would want to hug her, pet her, lick her, nuzzle her, and otherwise engage in friendly, intimate contact. Goldfur had said so... and Onca expected as much, given that Chakats were, despite their strangeness, fundamentally feline.
There wasn't time for Onca to note all these points consciously as the group bore down on her. If so she might have acted differently. But Onca had come from a place where there wasn't time to think things over. Survival meant assessing a situation and reacting- correctly- in no more than the blink of an eye. Onca had survived by developing very good instincts and very quick reflexes. That they might call forth an action that wouldn't be appropriate here was one of those things he didn't have time to contemplate. She reared back and cuffed the jaguar patterned Chakat with her forepaws.
Onca didn't know that jaguars happened to be the third largest but second heaviest of the Terran big cats. Their bodies tended to be more compact but also markedly more muscular than other felines of their size, particularly in the jaws and forequarters. Adult jaguars were known to kill horses and drag the carcasses for some distance before eating them, even though the horse might outweigh the cat by a factor of three or four. The ancient geneticists who'd designed Onca's ancestors had known, and picked the jaguar genome as the basis of their creations for that very reason. Years of hunting in the jungle and lugging supplies, first for her tribe and then for Rand's platoon, had given Onca more than enough of an opportunity to realize her genetic potential. Conversely, the Chakat she faced was only jaguar-like on the surface; beneath hir orange pelt with its dark, rosette spots shi had a trim, slender build, more like Goldfur's. Not to mention that shi clearly wasn't expecting an attack. Shi reared up instinctively in response to Onca's attack but didn't even manage to meet the blows, much less deflect them. Hir body shook from the impacts and reaction to them sent hir tumbling over into hir back.
The others leapt back as if Onca had dropped a hand grenade. They flinched from her gaze even though she did nothing but lower herself back to the floor and look at them, her ears up and her tail twitching idly. Life on Amazonia had also taught her to be economical with the use of force; overspending in one area might mean coming up short in another, and such deficits almost invariably proved fatal. In this particular case she'd meant only to stop the strangers from mobbing her, and she'd succeeded. In point of fact, they looked like they wanted to keep as far away from her as possible.
"Onca!" Rand shoved his way forward. "Quit screwing around," he continued in an entirely normal sounding voice. "This is Goldfur's family. They're here to pick us up." With a start he realized that he made the statement more than half seriously. He'd figured that acting as if nothing were wrong would calm Onca down. At the same time he knew that she was fooling, in a manner of speaking. She hadn't used her claws; the cuffing wasn't at all unlike what she'd do to one of her own people who annoyed her. Only her relative size and strength compared to the Chakats made it serious. If she'd really meant to hurt someone-
The fallen Chakat groaned, stirring slightly. "Forest!" someone exclaimed. A youngish Chakat with a cougar-like build but a calico pelt, a mixture of light tan and darker sandy brown, dashed forward. Behind hir- only because he couldn't run so fast- came a slender red fox 'morph, humanoid rather than centauroid. He wore a white tank top and blue shorts. He and the Chakat knelt by their fallen companion, conducting a quick but- so far as Rand could see- professional examination of hir injuries.
"Hir left fore-shoulder's dislocated," the calico announced.
"So's the right," the fox agreed, glancing at Onca with a mixture of shock and wonder. Rand saw him noting the thick slabs of muscle coating Onca's forepaws and lower chest.
"Quickpaw, don't call emergency services just yet, please," Rand said.
"And why not?" the calico Chakat demanded bluntly, hir brow furrowing and hir ears laying back. Shi'd drawn a personal communicator from a zippered pouch secured around hir waist but hadn't yet touched any of the controls.
"They'll ask how Forestwalker got hurt," Rand explained. He seemed to be watching, through his own eyes but from a place removed from his body's present. Things were happening, just like seeing a grenade come tumbling out of a bush or hearing the faint ping as a tripwire broke. If he let himself be affected by the possible consequences of what his body needed to do he'd be reduced to a gibbering wreck, unable to do anything at all. "They'll want to know how shi got hurt. If you tell the truth Onca gets a conviction for assault. Her visa gets revoked and she goes back to Amazonia, where she- and my son, that she's carrying- get executed as collaborators."
Quickpaw blinked. Shi still looked angry, but an expression of stunned incredulity lay over it.
"We're attracting attention," Onca commented as if making an observation about the weather in some place she'd never visited and would never would.
Rand glanced around. A number of passers by had stopped, forming the nucleus of a slowly but steadily growing crowd. Beyond them he noticed a pair of security guards approaching. Not hurrying, exactly, but moving briskly. "If we want to deal with this... amongst ourselves we'd better get it squared away fast."
"Forest can't walk," Quickpaw pointed out, shooting Onca a hard look.
Rand looked at Onca. He didn't say anything, he just looked. She knew what he meant to say, though, and opened her mouth to protest hotly- until she realized that he knew exactly what she was about to say. She knew what he'd say in response to it, too. She growled, shaking her head. Only a second passed and not a word was spoken but she felt like they'd argued it out. "I'll carry hir," Onca mumbled.
"What?" Quickpaw frowned.
"I said I'll carry hir," Onca repeated tightly. "If- if someone else'll take this luggage."
"We'll get it." A pair of red foxtaurs, one male and one female, moved up to Onca and quickly stripped off the harness. By the time the guards arrived Quickpaw and a solid black Chakat had linked arms under Forest's lower chest and were guiding hir onto Onca's back, while the biped fox man and a fox woman with a smoky gray pelt supported Forest's hindquarters. Onca stood very stiffly, though the weight really wasn't that much to her. Rand held her head, gently stroking her cheeks.
"Is everything all right?" one of the guards asked, rather pointedly.
"Yes, we're all right," the foxtaur man said as he secured the luggage trailer's harness around his lower body."Forest fell down and hurt hirself but we've got it well in hand, than you very much."
"You're certain?" the guard persisted.
"Yes, quite," Quickpaw said, albeit a little crossly. Rand started along, leading Onca by the chin. Quickpaw and the black Chakat walked to either side with Forestwalker's arms across their shoulders. The party moved off, leaving the guards and spectators behind. Rand repressed the urge to glance back; either the guards would come or they wouldn't. On Amazonia they'd never have the party leave; here they let the group go without comment. Rand heaved a mental sigh of relief when they reached the tramway platform.
"So, Onca, do you have any siblings?" the black Chakat asked with rather forced joviality.
"Three," Onca replied shortly.
"Where are they?" Quickpaw wanted to know.
"Tenna, my older sister, died of cholera when she was six," Onca said. "Taloc, my younger brother, was shot in the head by a Federation sniper. Jalis, my youngest sister, stepped on a land mine."
"Since Onca just joined us, I'd say introductions are in order," Rand said into the heavy silence following her revelation. "First off, Forestwalker there is Goldfur's sister, the one whose mate is an admiral." And I'm sure it's gonna make a Hell of an impression on him when he finds out we cold-cocked hir, he added grimly to himself. "To your right is Quickpaw, Goldfur and Forestwalker's younger sister. To your left is Midnight, mate to Forestwalker and the admiral both. The gentleman with the luggage trailer is Garrek, Goldfur's mate. The foxtaur woman carrying your saddle pack is Malena, also Goldfur's mate. The, the two-legged fox people are Kris Fletcher and Katerina Snowfox." Rand took a breath. "Leanna's back at the hotel with the kids, who are Eudora, Snowcloud, Patchwork, Blaze, Stonefur, Ember, Tailstalker, Windrunner, Markus, Opal, and Mica. How'd I do?"
"Spot on," Midnight allowed, a note of admiration in hir tone. "Did you come from a large family, Rand?"
"No, just me and a brother, but we were always doing things with the church kids so it felt like one big family," Rand replied.
"What's your brother do?" Malena asked.
"He moved to New Canaveral so he could marry his homosexual lover," Rand said. "I haven't heard from him in a long time."
"Are you really from El Paso?" Quickpaw inquired.
"Spent most of my life there," Rand said. "I was born in Texarkana."
A distant rumble and a gush of warm air heralded the tram's arrival. A train of three articulated cars burst from the tunnel and braked to a halt. Though it wasn't particularly crowded the party ended up standing; the seats were all designed for humanoids. As the tram started up Onca grabbed a stanchion but Forestwalker started to slide off her back. Quickpaw and Midnight grabbed hir.
"I think I can stand on my own," Forestwalker said, experimentally flexing hir forepaws.
"Oh, really?" Quickpaw laid a finger against Forestwalker's flank. Forestwalker yelped and glared at hir but made no further attempts at rebellion.
People stared as the party left the tram and made its way up to the Customs and Immigration center. With the passenger volume Cape York handled this occupied five enormous galleries at the southern end of the terminal complex. A row of inspection stations bisected each gallery- not straight across the middle but in a zigzag pattern so as to provide maximum throughput. Even so Rand, Onca, and the others stood in line for about twenty minutes before having their turn.
"What happened to your friend there?" the inspector asked as she processed Rand's chits. She did this by dropping them into the top of a device fixed to her station; it displayed relevant information on a screen set right at eye level and spat the chits out into a tray from which Rand could scoop them up.
"Speaking of which, what did happen to me?" Forestwalker inquired.
"You fell down," Garrek supplied.
"Oh, right. I fell down." Forestwalker nodded sagely.
The inspector gave hir a funny look and glanced once again at Rand and Onca's data but decided not to press it. "Mr. and Ms. Eriksson, welcome to Terra," she said. Her machine ejected two cards. "Here are your ID cards." She passed them over; in general form they looked identical- each had a portrait of its holder in the upper left corner- except that Onca's had a red border. "Please step slowly through the security frame."
In days gone by customs officials relied on physical searches and penetrating questions to reveal contraband. In the modern age that was no longer necessary; the security frame could detect anything from weapons to un-taxed liquor. One by one- except for Onca and Forestwalker- the group filed through; in each case the frame passed them without comment. When Onca and Forestwalker passed through the inspector frowned briefly; the scanner revealed what appeared to be a perfectly made Clovis point flint arrowhead embedded in the bone of Onca's right hip.
"Forest, we need to have you looked at," Quickpaw said as they left the customs center.
"I'm sure there's a clinic in town," Forestwalker replied. "We were going to stay over night anyway. Goldie won't be paid off until tomorrow afternoon. Quickpaw, why don't you take everyone back to the hotel? Rand here looks like a stout lad; I'm sure he and Kris can handle getting me to the clinic."
"But-" Quickpaw protested.
"Come come," Forestwalker admonished, hir eyes twinkling. "I'm sure Rand and Onca aren't going to dispose of me after lugging me this far."
Quickpaw scowled and stamped hir feet. "Oh, all right!" shi snapped. Midnight giggled; Quickpaw glared at her. Midnight responded with an all too innocent look. Quickpaw rolled hir eyes- which made Midnight giggle again- and set about organizing things. With many last minute hugs and goodbyes the group split. Kris led Rand, Onca, and Forestwalker down to the transportation center and put in a request for a taxi with accommodations for centauroids.
"What do you do, Kris?" Rand asked as they waited.
"I coach athletic teams for several neighborhood schools," Kris replied. "I used to be a paramedic." He shrugged. "It paid well but the hours were murder. Here I had this great family and I never got to see them. Forest and Trina both have good jobs with more reasonable hours so I don't have to earn a ton of money. This way we get to see each other more."
"Trina?" Onca asked.
"Katrina," Forestwalker clarified. "We call her Trina. What about you, Rand? What do you do?"
Rand's mouth worked while he distractedly rubbed his hands against his hips. There was a simple answer to that question: I kill people. Star Fleet paid him generously for it, too. "I have a degree in Computer Science," he said. "I... haven't thought much about a career, though." On Amazonia, simply staying alive from one moment to the next generally occupied most or all of one's attention. "I think that with my pension to help we'll do okay even if I have to take a low-level job." The more he thought about it the more it seemed that nothing he'd done on Amazonia had even the slightest relevance to life in the place he now found himself. With a sinking sensation in his gut he realized that Onca was right. He'd thought that coming home would solve all his problems. Now that he was actually here it felt as terrifyingly alien as Amazonia had when he'd first arrived. "I suppose if nothing else I could get a job as a security officer."
"Goldfur tells me that the Veterans Administration can help with finding work," Kris commented.
"Yeah," Rand agreed. Going to the Veteran's Administration would remind him of Amazonia and he didn't want to think about what he'd done there.
A taxi pulled up. It looked like a van with large sliding doors on either side. In place of seats long, low cushions ran lengthwise along the floor. Torso supports rose on posts from the floor and hinged aside to allow ingress and egress.
"Forest, there's nothing wrong with your hind legs so Rand and I are going to support you under the ribs and walk you in," Kris said. "Do not try to put weight on your forelimbs." He and Rand laced their arms under the chest of Forest's lower body and slid hir off Onca's back. Onca opened the rear door and they fed Forest in. Things got dicey for a moment when Forest couldn't get hir hind feet up on the van bed; Onca gripped Forest around the legs and lifted, gritting her teeth because that put her forearms in close proximity to Forest's penis.
"We should have called an ambulance," Kris muttered, looking Forest up and down.
"I'm fine!" Forest insisted, somewhat raggedly. Shi lay on hir side to reduce strain on hir forelimbs but Rand knew well that just the pain from having hir limbs batted around must be excruciating. "Just get us to the clinic, okay?"
Kris selected a destination from a list of options offered by the taxi's nav computer. With everyone on board the doors closed and the vehicle rolled off. Despite not wanting to appear the rube Onca couldn't help staring; Cape York Aerospace Port qualified as a city in its own right and along the primary access corridor leading away south was what seemed to be a city in fact. Hotels, shopping centers, and entertainment complexes lined the roadway. Residential zones for workers in the port or the services industries around it leavened the mix. Six lanes for vehicular traffic flanked the high-speed rail line, upon which trains rumbled past almost constantly. Onca watched it with awe and not a little fear. Everything about it was so... strange. So frighteningly alien.
The taxi left the motorway and, after a short trip across surface streets, stopped in front of a low building set in a small but well kept lawn. Once again Onca ended up bearing Forest as the party made its way to the emergency room entrance. Outside air felt hot and muggy, just like on Amazonia. A mild force field separated the atmosphere inside and outside the hospital; passing through what appeared to be an open doorway and feeling the air change suddenly to cool and dry unsettled Onca more than anything else she'd experienced that day, even being separated from Rand. It seemed like- like sorcery. With an effort she resisted the urge to whisper a quick prayer.
A doctor examined Forestwalker's ID, then hir shoulders. "Pleased to meet you, Shir Forestwalker, I'm Dr. Krone," she announced, smiling warmly. "The bad news is that both your fore-shoulders are dislocated and there's a lot of general bruising. The good news is that we can fit you with a walking brace and have you out of here in a couple hours, tops." She applied a hypospray to Forest's flank. "This'll ease the pain and swelling. Now I need you three to step outside for a moment." She herded Rand, Onca, and Kris into the waiting room, then drew a privacy curtain around the work area. "This may sting some," she said as she gripped Forest's foreleg and gave a sharp tug. Forest yelped; the joint snapped back into place with an audible pop The other leg went back in the same way.
"How... how long will I need the brace?" Forest gasped.
"Five or six days ," Dr. Krone predicted. "Less if your body lets the regeeratives do their job." She glanced at the medical scanner, whose screen was turned so Forest couldn't see it, and made a small adjustment. The false colors of the computer-generated image shifted slightly, bringing into focus a hazy region that looked suspiciously like a paw print. "What happened?" she inquired.
"I played a mean practical joke on Onca," Forest replied. "She let me have it. I deserved it."
"Seems a bit much for a practical joke," the doctor commented.
Forest shrugged. "She'd never been to Terra before and she got separated from her husband. I should have known better but I did it anyway. And, well, you saw how strong she is."
"Yes," Dr. Krone agreed.
"And that's it," Forest concluded. "She's lost in the passenger terminal, wondering if she's ever going to see her husband again. Then wham, I pounce on her. She thought she was being attacked. Of course she apologized at once and carried me here to get fixed up."
Dr. Krone sighed. "Well, it's you affair, Shir Forestwalker." Her tone suggested that she felt otherwise. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go scare up a brace." She grimaced. "I hope we don't have to order one."
"Okay if I call my family?" Forestwalker asked.
"Yes, but don't get up until I come back. You need to move your legs so they don't lose muscle tone but you need to do it carefully, so you don't injure yourself again. It's not that I don't like you but if we meet again I'd prefer not to be in my professional capacity."
"Read you loud and clear, Doc." Forest grinned.
"Good, good. Be right back." Dr. Krone withdrew.
Forest produced a communicator from hir belt pouch and entered an address. Out in the waiting room Kris' communicator beeped. "Hello?" he asked, switching it on and holding it up to his face. "Yeah? Okay." He put it away. "Forest says shi's done for now. Let's go see hir."
"What did you tell them?" Rand asked, dropping to one knee beside Forest's gurney.
"I said I played a joke on Onca and she hit me," Forest replied.
"Why?" Onca asked quietly. "Why not just... tell the truth?"
Forestwalker's lips compressed. "The fact is, Goldie would rip me a new one if I let something happen to you after shi'd done so much to get you this far. Besides, it was my own damn fault. Sis and your husband both tried to warm me and I ignored them."
"I hope your friend the admiral won't be unduly upset," Onca replied tightly.
Forest chuckled. "I suspect he'll say that a little down time would do me good. Are things really as bad as all that on Amazonia?"
Onca blinked, her tail twitching in consternation. "Well, I suppose," she allowed.
"They are," Rand insisted. "Onca's never been anywhere else so she doesn't even know what it's like to live somewhere people aren't killing each other as a matter of course."
"That's terrible." Forest laid a hand on Onca's cheek. "I'm so sorry."
Onca said nothing. She didn't understand Forestwalker's sympathy any more than she understood how the hospital's atmosphere shield worked. The issue wasn't that Amazonia was a brutal place; that went without saying. The problem was that Star Fleet upset things by bringing in troops with advanced weapons. Without them she suspected the tribes and the immigrants would have settled into an uneasy peace. Star Fleet's involvement made it a war, with cultural survival- for one side or the other- hanging in the balance.
"What are you going to do on Terra, dearie?" Forest continued.
"Rand says I can take General Education," Onca replied, resisting the urge to smack Forest's hand away. "Since Rand'll probably be working I'll stay home and look after our son."
"Oh." Forest leaned a bit to one side, peering over the edge of the gurney. Onca didn't look pregnant, but then even a full-sized Terran baby probably wouldn't show noticeably on her. "That's good. Children require a lot of attention, especially young ones. Have you lined up a midwife?"
Rand sighed. "We thought about asking Quickpaw but I don't suppose that's possible now."
"Why not?" Forestwalker wanted to know.
"We... didn't exactly get off to a good start."
"Shi's bigger than that," Forestwalker said gently. "Give hir a chance and shi'll come through, in spite of this." shi gestured at hirself. "Assuming, of course, that you want a Chakat midwife." Hir eyes locked onto Onca's.
Onca met Forestwalker's gaze squarely. "I do need a midwife," she said. "Quickpaw is here. I'd be a fool to toss that way for no reason."
"Why'd you hit me?" Forest inquired.
"I didn't want you to touch me," Onca responded.
"Why's that such a bad thing?" Forest continued.
"I... didn't know about Chakats until I met Goldfur," Onca said, a bit hesitantly. Her expression hardened. "Frankly, I find the whole idea of a creature that's- that's a man and a woman at the same time to be utterly revolting."
"Then why are you still here?" Forest asked.
"Because-" Onca took a deep breath. "I'm breaking the laws and customs of my people by marrying a Terran, leaving home with him, and having his baby. You- your sister, your family- are willing to help me do that, no questions asked. I... I figure I owe you at least that much. To... let you be yourselves, because you're willing to let me be myself."
For some time Forestwalker said nothing. "Onca, I've met a great many people whom just about anyone would call liberal and forward thinking who weren't nearly so open-minded." Shi reached out and took Onca's hand, squeezing it gently. "If this is what you call prejudice, I'd have to say the world would be a better place if there was more of it."
Onca said nothing. But she let Forestwalker hold her hand, and even returned the friendly pressure.
"How do we smooth things over with Quickpaw?" Rand asked. "Shi seems..." he trailed off, unable to think of a word.
"Shi's young," Forest replied, releasing Onca's hand so shi could operate hir communicator.
"Yes," Rand agreed. That didn't seem like the description he'd been reaching for but it fit. He'd been young once. A long, long time ago, it seemed now.
"Go sit in the waiting area," Forestwalker directed, shooing Rand and Onca out with one hand while putting the communicator up to her face with the other. "Once I get out of here we'll go to dinner and straighten everything out."
"Shi seems confident," Onca commented as she and Rand withdrew.
"What's so funny?" Onca butted Rand's shoulder with her head.
"You wouldn't stand being lectured about jungle fighting," Rand said. "I rather doubt Forest would stand being lectured about how to handle hir little sister."
Onca slipped an arm around Rand's torso and snuggled her head against his chest. "Then it's a good thing we have professionals to look after us." Her tail curled happily.
"Roger that." Rand gave Onca a squeeze and a peck on the forehead.
Trina half rose, waving excitedly, as Kris led Rand and Onca into the restaurant. Lacking an atmosphere shield, a short entrance hall with doors at each end served to keep inside and outside air separate. Onca shivered; on Amazonia the only place she'd ever been with air conditioning was the Star Fleet Officer's Club in Rimouski. Here everything seemed to be air conditioned. The sudden changes in temperature unnerved her.
"What is this place again?" Rand inquired, glancing around. Rough, weathered wood paneled the walls. Peanut shells crunched underfoot on what appeared to be a smoothly finished concrete floor. Booths lined the walls; tables and benches made from massive slabs of teak filled the center area. An L-shaped bar occupied one corner.
"The Outback Steakhouse," Kris replied
Rand cocked an eyebrow. "We're not anywhere near the outback, are we?"
"No." Kris shook his head. "But everything around here's for tourists anyway. The food's good, the prices fair, and they have lots of seating for 'non-conforming' body types."
Garrek held the outer doors and Malena the inner ones while Forestwalker passed through them, guided by Midnight. Forest stepped carefully, watching hir feet. The walking brace was actually a powered exoskeleton that fastened around hir forelimbs and the font of hir lower body. Not only did it shift the weight of hir body off of the injured joints, it constrained their motion somewhat so Forest could exercise without the risk of re-injury. Quickpaw jumped up and hurried forward but Forestwalker waved hir back. "Just give me plenty of room," shi instructed. "This thing's trickier than it looks. It lets me move, but not quickly." Shi shook hir head. "I'm so glad I only have to wear it for a few days."
"Does it fit right?" Quickpaw asked. "Are you uncomfortable? I could have it adjusted-"
"I'm fine, Quick," Forest cut in, gently but firmly. "Where's our table? Ah, good." With queenly grace shi crossed the floor to the reserved table. It had two bench seats, logs that had been cut in half and varnished on top. Quickpaw had pushed one aside so shi could sit on that side. Forest positioned hirself at one end and lowered hir hindquarters, gesturing for Quickpaw to sit beside hir. Midnight planted hir elbows on the end of the table, hir lower body hanging out into the aisle. Onca, of necessity, took the spot beside Quickpaw, and Malena squeezed in beyond her. Garrek took the end opposite Midnight. Rand, Trina, and Kris lined up on the bench.
"Trina," Rand began, "If you don't mind my asking, why do they call you 'Snowfox?'"
Trina chuckled. "This is what arctic foxes look like in the summer. I only turn white in the winter."
"Oh." Rand fiddled with his menu, trying not to notice Quickpaw eyeing him.
"Rand and Onca have a question for you, Quick," Forest commented, hir attention apparently focused upon hir menu.
"Oh?" Quickpaw asked, guardedly.
"Yes." Rand clasped his hands together, looking across at Onca. "Would you like to ask or me? After all, you're more... intimately involved."
"I will." Onca turned her face toward Quickpaw's. "Quickpaw, we'll be needing a midwife before long. Would you do it?"
"I-" Quickpaw blinked and fidgeted. It mightn't have been the last question shi expected but it wasn't too far up the list. "Well-" Shi looked at Onca then down at hir hands, which opened and closed repeatedly. "Why me?"
"Goldfur recommended you," Onca replied. "It'll be my first baby so I'm bound to need help. Besides, we don't know anyone else."
"Well-" conflicting emotions warred in Quickpaw's face. "Before I answer, there's something I'd like to know," shi said quietly.
"Yes?" Onca prompted.
"I want an explanation of what happened in the terminal."
"I hit Forestwalker because I couldn't stand the thought of being pawed by a bunch of Chakats," Onca replied. "Attacking Forestwalker was the most expeditious way of driving you off."
Quickpaw's expression darkened. No one said a word but Rand felt their eyes. His shoulders bunched uncomfortably. "What does hir being a Chakat have to do with it?" Quickpaw demanded flatly.
"Only that it makes hir a hermaphrodite," Onca replied. "I find the notion of a creature that's part male and part female... disturbing."
The silence lengthened and thickened. Rand's hands cramped as he resisted clenching them. "Then why are you still here?" Quickpaw wanted to know.
"Because Goldfur offered to help when no one else did," Onca said.
Quickpaw clasped her hands on the table before hir. If not for the fur covering them Rand suspected that hir knuckles would be white. "If I'm your midwife, I'll be pawing you quite a bit," Quickpaw said to hir plate. "If that's a problem for you, it might be better to... ask someone else."
"No, it isn't a problem," Onca assured. "It was then only because I let myself get distracted, and when the moment came I reacted without thinking."
"How can I be sure of that?" Quickpaw looked up. Hir face registered little but hir tail lashed.
"There's no place for me on Amazonia," Onca said. "The only life I could have... is stepping into my father's tracks. Taking revenge on the people who betrayed him. Continuing the fight, until I won... or it claimed me too. I came very close to doing just that, but in the end... I realized suddenly that somewhere along the line I'd stopped believing. I could see myself continuing what Father started... I could even see myself winning. I think I had a better idea of how it could really happen that Father ever did. But I saw too that what Father wanted... the whole reason to fight... was for something that didn't exist any more. Whether we won or lost didn't matter, it was already out of reach. I saw... that whatever way I chose, I was blazing a path into the future. I couldn't roll back the sun and make it so that the Federation never came, any more than I could grow down and become a baby again." She drew a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. "All I could see ahead of me was endless killing and destruction. Until neither side knew or cared why they were fighting, because the fighting itself had become a way of life." Her eyes unfocused, gazing at some place far beyond the horizon. "I... realized that the only way out was to get out. To... leave it all behind. Give up what mattered to my people, because it was what held me. To have a new life I had to lose the old one." Her attention focused on Quickpaw. "I won't say it isn't difficult. I can't forget how I was raised. It's always there, steering my thoughts and feelings- and actions- whenever I'm not focusing on who I've chosen to be. I just... I have to accept that being here, with you- having you as a midwife- is what being a Terran looks like. You- and your family- accepted me without question. Which means that I have to do at least as much in return. I have to, because if I fail I condemn my son to the very horror I fought so hard to escape." She offered her hand. "Please, Quickpaw? Will you be my midwife? And my friend, so I can learn what it's like?"
Quickpaw bit hir lip. Shi stared at Onca's hand as if it were a poisonous snake, shifting uneasily from side to side. Shi opened hir mouth several times, but never worked up the resolve to speak. Shi glanced at other family members but they kept their expressions mostly composed and said not a word. Shi stared at Onca, hir whole body tensing until hir fur fluffed up. Then, all at once, it went away, as if something inside hir snapped. Shi took Onca's hand and squeezed it. "Okay," shi said.
Trina, Kris, Midnight, Garrek, and Malena applauded and cheered lustily. Rand smiled; Forest may not have fought in the jungles of Amazonia but without a doubt shi knew the minds of hir family, better perhaps than they themselves did.
"Thank you, Quickpaw," Onca continued. "My mother told me about pregnancy and childbirth... but being away at school so much I never got much exposure."
"You're not having any difficulty, are you?" Quickpaw asked in a concerned tone.
"No. In fact, if the doctor hadn't told me- and recently the occasional kick- I'd never know I was pregnant."
"Well, that's for the best, really," Quickpaw replied, though shi might have sounded just a teeny bit a disappointed that there wasn't something requiring hir immediate attention. "Have you seen an obstetrician? Do you have birthing classes lined up?"
"The only doctor I've seen was the Star Fleet one on Amazonia," Onca said. "And I wouldn't have thought childbirth was something one could study in abstract."
"Let's eat," Kris suggested, waggling his menu. "We'll have months and months to talk about babies."
"Roger that," Rand agreed, enthusiastically and not without a trace of relief. "What's good here?"
"Steak and beer." Garrek licked his muzzle in anticipation. "Ignore everything else."
"Sounds good to me." Rand pursed his lips, studying his menu closely.
"What are prawns?" Onca asked.
"Small crustaceans about the size of your finger," Kris replied, extending one of his own. "Usually steamed, grilled, or fried in batter. A personal favorite of mine, actually."
"How much do they cook the meat here?" Onca continued.
"As much or little as you like," Forest supplied. "There's a cooking guide on the first page. I suggest medium rare."
"How do they cook meat where you come from?" Quickpaw inquired.
"We don't, really," Onca said. "For the most part kills are butchered and eaten right away. If any meat's left over we smoke it."
A waiter arrived. Rand ordered a barbecue platter, Kris a shrimp basket, and Trina a small steak. Forest, Midnight, Onca, and Quickpaw ordered large ones.
"How did you and Onca meet?" Malena asked once the waiter departed.
"Well-" Rand scratched his head. "The short answer is that she worked in a brothel. One night, after getting seriously liquored up, some of my squad mates said they'd pay for it if I slept with her. Drunk as I was, it sounded like a neat idea." He smiled wryly. "It was... an eye-opening experience. Before that day I'd only ever slept with Terran women, and white ones at that."
"But you kept coming back," Onca pointed out, her tail swishing idly.
"Yeah, well." Rand started fingering his napkin, then forced himself to stop. "At first it was just because I liked the idea of having sex with a- a wemic." He'd been about to say jungle bunny but his heart rebelled sharply at the notion of referring to Onca with such a derogatory term.
Kris chuckled. "A furry at heart, eh?"
"No, you don't understand." Rand took a drink of water to buy himself a little time. He'd taken up the question and now he couldn't see a graceful way to back out. So many things he'd been and done on Amazonia seemed... dirty and disgusting, especially here, in this place, in the company of these people. "I never felt any particular interest in non-Terran women and I still don't. You see... when I thought about a Wemic man doing it with a Terran woman that made me livid. I wanted to, to cut his dick off and skin him alive, slowly. The notion that my doing it with a Wemic woman would make a Wemic man feel like I did... well, that's why I did it. In fact, I liked the idea so much that I came back again and again, even with my own money. I probably would have stopped but Onca gave me a discount. Then, after a while, she made her pitch. She said that if I married her and took her back to Terra with me she'd give me free sex every night and pretty much do whatever I wanted. I said okay but I told her she'd have to do the whole squad every time we came back from patrol. The idea of going out and shooting her brothers then coming back and fucking her raw was just too delicious to pass up. One day she tells me that a couple girls from the brothel wanted her to plant a bomb in the squad bay. I didn't believe her until she actually showed me the bomb. I asked her who the girls were. She pointed out a couple of Gedosu."
"Whats?" Midnight interjected.
"Gedosu," Rand explained. "They look like biped wolves. One of the Tribes."
"How many tribes are there?" Malena inquired.
"Three, including the Gedosu," Rand replied. "The Sarenoc are Wemics, and the Warenoc are..." he trailed off. "Great honking big felinoids," he decided. "The smallest one I ever saw was two hundred and ten centimeters tall. They look sort of like lions without manes. Their tails are really short and their teeth really long. As long as my hand, from heel to fingertip. And if you think Onca here is muscular, that's nothing compared to them. Even the women are built like tanks, and they aren't noticeably any smaller than the men. They use spears-" he broke off. In his mind's eye he saw a Gedosu spear, with a blade longer than his forearm fixed to a shaft longer than he was tall. He saw it flashing toward him, a blur in the half light. He saw its wielder, a snarling mountain of bone, sinew, and muscle. The only reason he survived was because Hammer shoved him aside to get a shot. He never got it; the spear blade chopped through his helmet, skull, and half of his chest before he could press his raythrower's firing stud.
"What happened to the bomb?" Malena asked.
"Oh." Rand blinked, drawn back to the present. "I told the Loot- the Lieutenant- and he decided we'd deal with it on our own. If we kicked it up the chain- of command- we might not be allowed to keep Onca. So we-"
"You what?" Quickpaw prompted.
Rand swallowed. On Amazonia it had felt so right, so natural. "A few of the guys, they ambushed the two girls, raped, and murdered them." He shifted uncomfortably, staring at his place mat. He hadn't meant to tell the whole story like that but it forced its way out. Fortunately the waiter arrived with their food before the silence stretched on too long.
"Is that what this is?" Quickpaw asked. "A business arrangement?"
"No," Onca replied. "Rand never intended to keep his end of the bargain." Her tail curled. "After all, he wasn't the first I'd approached. I started helping the squad more directly, carrying supplies and acting as a guide. After living and fighting together for a while we... fell in love."
Quickpaw dropped hir fork and knuckled hir forehead. "I... Rand, Onca, I don't mean to offend but I don't understand how a person could fall in love coming from, from a situation like that."
"I think I do," Kris mused, stroking his chin. "Something I noticed while being a paramedic. It's... very stressful and you deal with life and death situations every day. You end up developing a bond with the people you go through it with. Even when you start out hating their guts." He chuckled wryly. "Sometimes even if you still hate their guts afterwards."
Rand and Onca looked at one another. "Actually, Kris, I think you summed it up pretty well," Rand allowed. "As well as words can, at any rate."
"What's it like on Amazonia?" Quickpaw asked.
"I can't explain," Rand replied. Rather, he didn't want to; he'd explained far too much already. "If you haven't been there you wouldn't understand. If you had, you wouldn't need an explanation."
Quickpaw frowned and opened hir mouth to speak but Forest lay a hand on hir forearm and shi subsided.
"Do you have a place in Melbourne lined up?" Malena inquired.
"No," Onca replied. "We thought we'd stay in a hostel until we get a flat."
"You know," Malena commented, looking thoughtfully at Forest, "We have a spare room, of sorts, since Lupu and Goldendale left."
"That's true, come to think of it," Forest responded, looking speculatively at Rand and Onca.
"We wouldn't want to intrude," Rand said hastily.
Onca lay a hand on Rand's arm. "They want to be generous," she said. "I think we owe it to them to let them. At least I do."
"Well... if you're sure." All too clearly Rand recalled comforting Onca after her first meeting with Goldfur. It's not like we're moving in with hir, he'd said. Now it looked as if that very thing were coming to pass. Even more amazing was that Onca suggested it.
"We chose to be an interracial couple," Onca said, squeezing Rand's hand and looking into his eyes. "This is what it looks like." She shifted her attention to Forest. "May we use your spare room?"
"I don't think Goldie would have it any other way," Forestwalker replied, perhaps a touch smugly. "And while we're on the subject of interracial couples, there's a Skin and Fur picnic coming up."
"Skin and fur?" Rand inquired, with some trepidation. Everyone was grinning broadly.
"It's sort of an interracial social club," Forest replied. "They run a bulletin board and chat service for interracial couples... and those wishing to become interracial couples."
"Not to mention threesomes and foursomes," Trina put in.
"Yes, but there's not so many of those as rumor might have it," Forest pointed out. "Anyway, they also sponsor picnics and other group outings every now and then. I saw in the newsletter that there's one coming up at Emerald Lake Park a week or so from now."
"Oh, really?" Kris brightened up. "That's great! They have an incredible model railroad-"
"Yes, indeed," Forest cut in, looking at Rand and Onca. "If you come you'll have a chance to meet others who've mated outside their species, and have some fun besides. I don't know if Boyce'll be there- he's been away lately- but I'm sure Zhane and Rosepetal- his wives- will be."
"We'd love to," Onca assured. "It's what we came for."
Rand found himself grinning. For the first time in quite a while- longer than he could remember- the future began to look positive, instead of merely something to be endured. "I think this calls for a toast," he announced, raising his glass.
"Hear hear!" Kris raised his own.
"What are we toasting?" Malena inquired.
"That's easy," Onca replied, lifting her glass. "To newfound friends."
"To newfound friends!" everyone chorused, clashing their glasses together. Some with so much enthusiasm that drink slopped on the table, but Rand didn't care. He laughed, grinning so hard his face hurt. At long last he felt the shadow of Amazonia lifting from his soul.
The hovertrain thrummed as it sped south at five hundred kilometers per hour. Onca felt it through the padded couch on which she lay and the fold-out support cradling her torso. It didn't seem to bother the other travellers- the surface of Onca's glass of mango juice didn't even ripple as it sat in the cup holder- but it still disturbed her greatly. It felt... wrong. Unnatural. Like-
Like the whine of a gunship's repulsor drive as it lined up to strafe a village.
Onca looked out her window. Scenery whizzed by so fast it made her dizzy; combined with the thrumming it made her queasy. When she closed her eyes terror welled up; she felt as if the train were about to fly off the track. Rather than do nothing she rose and looked down the car, the only safe direction. Rand dozed in a seat a few rows ahead. Centauroids were apparently not high volume travellers on this line; each car had only a couple 'taur style seats. That, combined with the number of humanoid travellers on this particular run, meant that Rand and Onca hadn't been able to find seats together. Rather than wake him- he couldn't do anything for her in any case- she started walking.
Two cars down, a Chakat cub whose pelt was a curious blend of red and gold tried to slip between Onca's legs as they met going opposite directions. Onca blocked the child's progress by shifting her forepaw, then grabbed hir by the scruff of the neck when shi hesitated, seeking a new line through the obstacle. The child let out an indignant squawk and tried twisting away; Onca maintained her grip and slipped an arm around the child's lower body, hoisting hir off the floor and holding hir so that the flailing claws couldn't get a grip. "Hey, Leanna," Onca said, moving down a few more rows to the 'taur couches at the end of the car. "Lose something?"
"Hey, Onca." The speaker was a small biped Morph, a fox of some sort with bright, yellow-gold fur and positively enormous ears. Female, to all appearances, with small but nicely formed breasts and a slender but well curved body. The scent in Onca's nostrils told a different story, however. Leanna was a hermaphrodite.
"Here, I'll take that." Malena relieved Onca of her burden. "Now, you know you aren't supposed to run on the train." she addressed the child in an only mildly admonitory tone.
"Aw, mom," the kid responded, in an only mildly contrite tone.
"That's Blaze, right?" Onca said as Malena resumed her seat, offspring in hand.
"Yep." Leanna nodded. "Shi's Goldfur's second child."
"Who are the others again?" Onca settled herself in the walkway since there wasn't room to sit elsewhere.
"Eudora's the first, with Goldfur as mother and Garrek as father," Leanna replied. "Blaze is second, with Malena as mother and Goldfur as father. After that came Stonefur... with Lupu as mother and Goldfur as father. Most recent is Tailstalker, with Goldfur as mother and Garrek as father."
"Thank you." Onca's tail twitched; she hadn't missed the pause after Stonefur's name was mentioned, as if Leanna had begun to say something else but stopped hirself. "Did Stonefur once have a sibling?" Onca ventured.
Malena looked down, hugging Blaze tightly against her. "Yes," Leanna replied quietly. "Lupu had twins. One day they were out shopping... they ran into a mob... all three of them were beat up pretty badly. Greypaw didn't make it."
Onca did not miss how Leanna's eyes hardened and hir grip tightened on the arms of hir chair when she spoke of Greypaw's fate. That was also a feeling Onca knew all too well. "You have an interesting accent, Leanna," Onca said. "May I ask where you're from?"
Leanna hesitated before responding, glancing at Malena. "Oh, go on," Malena said. "We'll be fine until we hit Melbourne."
"Okay. Thank you." Leanna rose. "Let's go to the bistro car and have a drink." She beckoned for Onca to follow.
Farther down the train Leanna and Onca entered a car containing a bar with stools. Beyond were booths where humanoids, at least, could sit and eat. Onca settled herself into an open space by the bar while Leanna purchased a couple bottles of juice. "Sit here," Onca directed, placing Leanna on her lower body.
"Thanks." Leanna sat, propping hir torso against the wall. Then shi giggled. "I've seen horsehair couches before but I don't think I've ever seen a jaguar-hair one."
"Depending on what the housing market in Melbourne is like, you might be seeing one for a while yet," Onca commented, sipping her juice. It had not come from any fruit she'd known on Amazonia but nevertheless had a pleasantly sweet, tangy flavor.
"Goldfur has hir house laid out sensibly for your four-legged types, so you won't end up tucked in wherever you'll fit," Leanna continued. "Shi's... good at that."
"At making things fit in, you mean?" Onca inquired.
"Yes." For just an instant an expression of intense emotion showed on Leanna's face. It vanished almost before Onca could even note its presence.
"Where are you from, Leanna?" Onca inquired.
"A planet called Eden Two," Leanna explained, hir eyes focused on some far distant place and time. "It's part of the Gosper Fringe. Which isn't a member of the Federation. They... allow slavery there. Of recombinants, at least."
"You were one," Onca decided.
"Yes." Leanna nodded. "My master had me made for him as a sex slave and body servant."
"How did you get away?" Onca prompted when Leanna did not continue.
"My master died," Leanna said. "I was put up for sale. The transport carrying me to market broke down. A Federation warship found it."
Leanna delivered hir explanation with the glibness of someone who'd rehearsed it thoroughly. Onca had participated in enough interrogations to know that Leanna had only told half the story, and the least important one at that. For a moment Onca wondered if she should press. In the end she resolved to forge ahead; leaving something half done wasn't her nature... and something in Leanna struck a resonance in Onca herself, something Onca hadn't felt in any other member of Goldfur's family. "It's fortunate that he died when he did," Onca said. "Otherwise you won't be here now."
Leanna shrugged. "Luck of the draw." Hir expression remained closed, Onca noted. This too was part of the act, meant to steer the curious away from the truth.
"It's a good luck to have." Onca turned over her right forepaw and unsheathed the claws. "I wouldn't be here if quite a number of people hadn't died at fortuitous moments." She paused briefly. "If you don't want to talk about it I don't mind. Goldfur and hir family are good people... but they've never been there. They don't understand the choice you're making. They can't." She lay a hand on Leanna's shoulder and squeezed gently.
Leanna remained still but Onca felt tension under her fingers. Hir hand started to shake and shi would have spilled her juice if Onca hadn't caught it. "They don't understand, and I don't know how to explain it," shi whispered in a voice that quavered slightly. "Onca... most Morphs in the Gosper Fringe are, are little better than animals. Just enough brains to do their jobs."
"So they can't think of making trouble," Onca put in, stroking Leanna's back.
"Exactly." Leanna nodded, scrubbing hir face with hir hands. "Except me." Hir hands closed into fists. "He made me smart. I always wondered why. One day I overheard him boasting to his friends. He said it wasn't any fun to have a slave if it couldn't understand, could appreciate, it's master's domination." Shi looked up; a baleful light that probably would have shocked Goldfur and Forest gleamed in Leanna's eyes. "He made me smart as a way of torturing me. So he'd have more things he could keep from me." Shi sighed. "But for it to work I had to know about those things. So he left his terminal unlocked when he went away. If I dared I could use it to learn all sorts of things... but if he caught me at it he punished me." Shi took a drink of juice and stared morosely at the wall.
"What changed your mind?" Onca asked. "What happened that made it intolerable?"
Leanna said nothing for long enough time that Onca wondered if shi was going to respond. "One day he took me to a park," Leanna finally said, in a voice so quiet even Onca had to listen carefully. "Someone called him with business he had to take care of right away. He didn't want to talk about it on his personal communicator, so he went off looking for a secure terminal." Leanna looked at Onca, hir expression challenging. "He didn't tell me to wait. I... wandered off." Shi looked down at the floor. "I saw a man and a woman, having a picnic with their son. He couldn't have been more than four or five. About what Eudora is now." Tears leaked from Leanna's eyes and ran down hir muzzle. "Right there, completely by accident, I found the one thing I couldn't live without. I wanted a family. I wanted to be loved."
Onca picked up a napkin and gently wiped Leanna's face, then offered hir another to blow hir nose. "How did you arrange for him to die?"
"I don't have to answer questions that incriminate me, do I?" Leanna countered. Only a bit less than half jokingly, Onca decided.
"The universe became a better place when your former master died," Onca said. "As far as I'm concerned, if you sped him along to his final reward then you did the universe a favor." She took a sip of juice. "I'm not one to point fingers either. At least your former master was unquestionably your enemy."
Leanna looked up slowly. "What do you mean, Onca?"
"You've probably heard about me by now," Onca said.
Leanna nodded. "You came from Amazonia. Your parents were tribal leaders, and you were educated in a school run by missionaries."
"That synopsis skips over a lot of detail but it'll do for a start," Onca replied. "Father sent me to the school because he wanted me to learn about the enemy. No one would think anything of it; between the Colonization Authority and Star Fleet, Rimouski was crawling with orphans. One more wouldn't make a difference. Except that the headmaster suspected... and others too, as it turned out. While I attended there was a Terran woman named Mura who ran the kitchens. I ended up there quite often; working the mess was a standard punishment detail and I was... a difficult child."
Leanna snorted. "And why doesn't that surprise me?"
"Later on I was there because Mura found me capable and responsible," Onca continued. "Working the kitchen was the best way to find out what was happening in the school and the community at large. Mura was one of those sorts who talked constantly. It encouraged people to talk, and let them think she didn't pay any attention to what anyone else said."
"But she did, didn't she," Leanna put in.
"She most definitely did," Onca affirmed. "So did I. I learned that if you let people talk they'd offer up all sorts of things they'd never pass on if you asked them. It also meant that she and I went out into the market together. Mura would hitch me up to a little trailer and have me carry her purchases back to the school. One day I happened to be unavailable; I'd been sent to detention for fighting. Mura took Seska in my place. Seska happened to be a Sarenoc Torra, like me- a jaguar Wemic, that is- so Mura figured she'd have no trouble with the trailer. While they were out a group of Terran soldiers cornered them. They cut off Mura's ears, nose, cheeks, tongue, and fingers, as well as gouging out her eyes. They skinned Seska and cut off her head. Mura would have died too if a troop of military policemen hadn't come along."
"W... why did they do it?" Leanna asked, eyes wide.
"My father," Onca explained. "Star Fleet called him the Jungle Demon because he'd killed so many colonists and soldiers," Onca explained. "And he did it in... inventive ways. He couldn't overcome Star Fleet by force of arms, so he hoped to make the colonists so sick of slaughter that they'd leave on their own. Rumors got around that he'd planted a spy in the school. The soldiers tortured Mura so she'd tell them who it was."
"She must not have, since you're here," Leanna commented.
"She didn't," Onca affirmed. "She left the planet immediately. None of us ever saw her again. But there was an investigation. Marines came to the school, searched it, and interrogated the staff. They didn't find anything so they let us be."
"Did you let it be?" Leanna asked.
"Of course not," Onca replied. "I found two pieces of flint and chipped them with a piece of granite until I'd made a couple of decent knife blades. I made sure no one ever saw more than one at a time, and deliberately made them as similar as possible."
"Flint wouldn't set off the weapon detectors," Leanna said. "And when the Marines searched the school again, they'd find your extra knife right where you'd left it, clean and unmarked."
"Exactly." Onca nodded. "I waited a few months, long enough for the heat to die down. Then I went out with some friends. I pretended to drink while Carli and Nicu got plastered. Then Nicu starts puking his guts out, because I'd slipped some syrup of Ipecac into his beer. He didn't stop and Carli got worried. I suggested that we take him to the hospital. While Carli and the doctors clustered around him I wandered off and found the maternity ward. There were two nurses on duty and security cameras, so I couldn't go in. I jerked the fire alarm."
"No one noticed you wandering around the hospital in the middle of the night?" Leanna inquired.
"I was healthy and well fed, not scruffy and malnourished like the street urchins," Onca replied. "Also, I knew how to talk like a colonist and I grabbed a hospital gown on my way out of the emergency ward. No one paid me any mind. Once the alarm went off I was just one of the crowd. The nurses brought all the bassinets out into the hall in preparation to moving them outside, and as I went past I used my stone knife to slit the throats of all the Terran babies. The blankets caught the arterial spray so only my hand got bloody, and even then only a few flecks. I licked them off while I hurried out amidst the crowd, after I'd put the knife back in my belt pouch. Outside I found Nicu and Carli and suggested that we'd best get out before the MPs started asking questions and demanding ID. Getting drunk was most definitely against school rules. Since Nicu had stopped puking they agreed. We rented a room in a flophouse where Nicu and Carli slept it off. I tossed my belt pouch into a burn barrel and told everyone I'd lost it while passed out. Later, when the MPs arrived, Carli and Nicu swore up and down that I'd been with them all night. We agreed not to say anything about going to the hospital 'cause that would've begged the question of why, and reveal that we'd been drinking."
Leanna stared into her bottle of juice, swirling it slowly. "Why did those babies have to die?" Hir tone wasn't accusatory; shi asked as if merely curious.
"They were the enemy," Onca explained. "They were there because their parents had murdered my brothers and sisters, stolen their land and livelihood, and reduced the survivors to a form of economic servitude that's slavery in everything but name. All because the drug cartel reaped obscene profits from exploiting our planet and didn't give a damn about the cost in blood, to us or the colonists. If I let them grow up they'd simply become exploiters and I'd have to kill them anyway. I believed, like my father did, that if I killed enough of them then eventually they'd stop coming."
"What changed your mind?" Leanna wanted to know.
"A member of my own family betrayed my parents to Star Fleet just so he could become clan leader in Father's place," Onca explained. "The cartel promised him money and weapons if he'd eliminate Father and agree to a settlement." Her ears lay back. "I really believed that blood- family- was what I was fighting for. Only to have a member of the family sell the blood for personal profit. In Star Fleet's coin, no less." Her tail lashed. "I realized that even if we kept fighting, Star Fleet had already defeated us in the way that really mattered. The war wasn't about honor or our way of life. It was about those who could carving a bigger chunk of the profit for themselves. That being so... the only blood still worth anything was my own. I decided to save it, rather than expend it on something I didn't believe any more." She stroked herself tenderly on the flank. "And in so doing, quite by accident, I found something worth spending it on."
"Family," Leanna whispered.
"Yes." Onca nodded. "Family."
Leanna rested a hand on Onca's fore-shoulder, then lay down on Onca's lower body as if on a couch. Onca gently stroked Leanna's face and side. The train sped on, toward Melbourne... and the future.
The convoy- for that's what the train of vehicles surely was- pulled up before a nicely appointed two story house set in a cheery looking suburban neighborhood. To Rand it seemed excessively large... until he thought about who lived there. "Oh, my aching back," he muttered.
"Trouble?" Kris inquired.
"No more than usual," Rand replied. "Once again I'm reminded of the logistical problems of having a centauroid wife."
Kris chuckled. "So many things you take so much for granted you never even see them. Then, all of a sudden, you're bumping into them right and left."
"That's for sure," Rand agreed.
To Be Continued
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