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The Colony - Taurger by the Tale
Book 1 - I of the Taurger
Chapter 2 - Taurger, Taurger, Burning Bright
By Wayne Cook (aka EarlWerks) © 2004
Set in The Colony by Verina Ducain
Based on Forest Tales by Bernard Doove
Katherine took one last peek into the chamber hir second real patient on this still unnamed world had claimed, then stepped back from the narrow entrance. Shi'd been quite alarmed at first, but now shi thought shi'd see a complete recovery. Only time would tell if there'd be any lingering effects.
Shi paused to take a look at the letters scratched into the stone to one side of the entrance. Shi'd noticed them when shi'd come here but hadn't bothered to read them. Just enough light reached this far into the caverns for hir to make them out if shi traced them with hir finger. T - A - U . . . Katherine grinned as shi headed back to the main chamber. White Tip would get a laugh out of the name, since it was hir patient's denmate that was the punster. Behind hir the stone wall proclaimed itself -- "Taurger's Den". Inside, hir patient stirred uncomfortably . . .
Heh. Figures you'd show up again after the past two days. Can we make it short? I got a real nasty headache. If that whozit from last time's around have 'em come out. Don't wanna get bugged by that with this head.
What've I thought about? You shoulda asked that last time. I was too busy staying alive to think about anything. Now I've been thinking about plenty.
Yeah, I'm still thinking of myself as a guy, not a herm chakat. Gonna end up in heat sooner or later. If that don't shake me up nothing will. Is that the kind of stuff you want to hear?
Okay, just stuff about starting over. There's been plenty of talk from everybody, but mostly about what happened or what's a chakat. Too much like a staff meeting, so I'd looked around for my usual stuff.
Oh. Well, I've been moved around enough to have a list of things I look for first. Where'm I supposed to be, how to leave, the water fountains, snack counter, break room, bathrooms . . .
No, I mean toilets. Chakats may be water-efficient but I like to know where to go before I need to go. Kinda surprised that one of the military types we're supposed to have didn't start a latrine detail first thing. Thought they were big on that stuff. Then again that's Army, and these were supposed to be Marines.
But I found a real nice place for myself. A little small when Pat's in there with me but I haven't kicked hir out. Yet. Hole in the ceiling, but since nothing came in when it rained it's gotta be blocked off. Found a hard stone and scratched my name on the outside so I don't get somebody moving in when I'm not there. Then I made arrowheads on the walls outside so I can find my way out.
Found water, too. Couple of streams or something running through the lower levels and I found a little side-hole about as big as my "den" I can use like a washroom.
No way! No idea where that water goes, so it's not a toilet! I just like to wash up when I wake up. Marked my way out from there, too.
Food's something they were still working on, like the toilets. But I didn't feel hungry when Pat told me we were going outside. Didn't know then there'd been some kind of contest to see who could go, I'd've probably said "no". Wish I had . . .
Taurger stood beside Pitty-Pat just inside the main cavern as shi made introductions. "Taurger, this is Blue and Goldeneye. We're not supposed to go outside in groups smaller than four so we're all going together."
Goldeneye obviously took hir name from hir brilliant eye color, which Taurger found slightly uncomfortable pointed in his direction, even if shi had to look up to do it. But he politely shook the offered hand and asked, "What're we goin' to look for?"
"Mice," said Blue immediately, a thoroughly impudent grin on hir face. Goldeneye and Pitty-Pat laughed at the joke as Blue crowded up to Taurger.
"Something to eat, really," Goldeneye said. "But mostly to take a good look around."
Blue was irrepressible. "Oh wow!" shi gushed, looking at Taurger's fur pattern. "Are you white tiger or silver tabby?" Immediately shi began spreading his fur trying to see the roots.
"Hey!" Taurger protested as his skin twitched and he jumped away from the unexpected intrusion, the abundant hair on his head spilling over his face. Goldeneye held Blue back from following Taurger and Pat stepped between them, hir tail lashing.
"Sorry," Goldeneye explained, "Blue's a cat fancier."
Embarrassed at hir lapse of manners but still excited, Blue apologized unevenly. "Sorry! I . . . heh . . . I . . . Well, look at us! A solid blue, a classic calico, this magnificent seal point," as shi put an arm around Goldeneye, "and you." Hir gaze was back to Taurger again. "God, you've even got a tiger's ruff!"
Taurger smoothed down his fur and swept his head hair back in place as he tried to figure out what he'd felt when Blue had touched him. *And what's a 'tiger's ruff'?* he wondered. Aloud he said, "Yeah, well, no pouncing, okay?"
Blue giggled. "Not without Pitty-Pat's permission, at least."
Goldeneye hugged Blue and advised hir, "Well don't ask, then." Blue just turned hir head and gave what Taurger took to be hir denmate a lick-kiss.
*Another pest-to-be,* Taurger thought. Then he noticed Pitty-Pat had hir arm possessively over his withers. Disentangling himself he asked, "So when are we supposed to go?"
"As soon as you're ready," Goldeneye said. "All Pat and I have to do is check in with the Colonel."
"You were military?" Taurger looked back and forth between the two.
"Marksmanship instructor," Goldeneye explained. "I'll be busy setting up a practice range once we start making some weapons, so I want to take a look around while I can. And Pat was Corporal Patterson, company clerk. You?"
*Patterson,* Taurger noted to himself. *Pitty-Pat. Is shi a punster?* Aloud he said, "Computer tech. And city boy, which makes me the most useless one here."
Goldeneye was grinning at Pat when shi said, "Not useless at all, if you ask me." Pat would have been blushing if it could have shown through a chakat's fur. Taurger was only confused. "C'mon, Corporal, let's go polish the brass."
As their ex-military friends left Taurger found himself alone with the excitable Blue. Nervously he asked, "So what did you do before?"
Amused but politely keeping hir distance, Blue said, "Oh, I was one of Professor Van Peer's grad students." Shi laughed at Taurger's reaction when shi mentioned the name. "I loved the way you shut him up yesterday," shi said. "That fussy old goat deserved it for all the put-downs he's done to others."
"It was risky. He . . . Shi could have had an answer."
Blue laughed harder. "Not the Professor. The only way . . . shi could bluff was on paper, even if shi was good at that. If shi gives you any trouble over it let me know. I know what buttons to push." After a moment of silence shi asked, "So you've read about chakats?"
"A little. I ran across them while searching for stuff about centaurs."
"I wish I had. I'd've loved to read the stories. I heard there were pictures, too?"
"Mm-hmm." Taurger decided this was a good time to change the subject. "So what's a 'silver tabby', anyway?"
"Oh, that's a white coat with black stripes. There can also be blue silver, red silver, and cream silver."
"What's that got to do with diggin' inta my fur?"
Blue chuckled. "Well, a silver tabby has white roots. But tigers are striped down to their skin. Oooh . . ." Blue was almost bouncing with excitement. Seeing Taurger's reaction shi apologized, "I know, but I just love this. Camping and cats, all in one! The only downside is everybody who got dragged along with those of us in DiVargin's bunch."
"No way to tell who they wanted," Taurger said, hoping this topic would keep Blue from getting any more excited.
"Oh please. It's obvious. DiVargin and his . . . hir people were scheduled to be on that plane. Nobody else."
"All White Tip said shi heard was someone saying there were 'additional' people but not who. So maybe it wasn't just DiVargin's people they wanted."
"Of course we were. We were the ones scheduled for that flight."
"Only officially. Anybody who can not only transform and transport people like they did us and arrange to fill and control a 747 without anyone getting suspicious, shouldn't have a problem feeding a couple of birds to a plane engine in-flight or wrap a fishing net around a boat prop," he said, remembering some of the things he'd heard White Tip mention the day before. "Flight crew and booked passengers would be easiest, of course, but if you think about it any of us could have been steered to that plane."
"I never looked at it like that. Just get the ones you want on board and take off." Blue tipped hir head back and looked Taurger squarely in the eye to ask, "So how'd you end up aboard?"
Taurger snorted and immediately regretted it because of the abundance of scents he picked up from his breath. He squeezed his nose between two fingers but his expression was more disgusted than the topic made him as he said, "I got on early. My flight home was overbooked. Three guesses what they bumped me onto."
"Free vacation," Taurger explained as he tried to settle his unruly head hair again. "One of those sweepstakes things that take a year and a half to tell ya' ya've won something. Never heard a' one givin' away somethin' decent, but it was still a good excuse."
Blue stepped closer, making Taurger immediately uncomfortable. "An excuse for what?" shi asked curiously.
At that point Goldeneye and Pitty-Pat returned. "Don't have to do that again," Goldeneye announced. "Colonel Deering said he'd find us if he needed us for something, but neither of us would be much use to a recon team, so we're free to find our own duties. Pat's already got plans, too."
As the calico moved protectively between Blue and hir denmate Taurger asked suspiciously, "Like what?"
Pat stepped closer to Taurger and said, "I'll go TDY to the 'local government'," shi joked. "White Tip said I should help May set up a records center." After a jealous glance at Blue shi put hir arms around the bigger chakat to cuddle up to him and asked, "So what've you two been talking about?"
"What you're gonna write on -- or with," he lied, trying to change the subject. Pat gave him a look like shi didn't believe him, but he persisted. "Maybe we can find some birch bark like the Seminoles used, or reeds for papyrus."
"Not much chance for reeds in this dry an area," Goldeneye commented, "But we might look for wood to make paper."
Taurger shook his head. "Probably faster to make parchment or vellum -- should be getting the stuff for those if we catch something to eat."
"You know how to make parchment?" Blue asked.
"No, not really," Taurger confessed, "but I know they're made from animal hide. If somebody here doesn't already know how we should be able to figure it out."
"And what would they write with?" Goldeneye asked.
"Charcoal sticks, ink from oil and lampblack, paintbrushes or quill pens . . . People have been writing way before there was paper. And if we have to we can do clay tablets, moist sand, painted or carved wood or stone, knotted string . . ."
Goldeneye grinned at him. "You sound like a history buff."
Taurger shook his head sadly and had to brush another lock of hair from his face. "Never got more than general ed. You can't make a living from history unless you teach. And teachin's not a living."
"Unless you work it like Van Peer did," Blue added.
Goldeneye got us started out right away. Said something about finding a late lunch along the way. When shi said "lunch" I finally got hungry. Day and a half without food'll do that.
I had no idea where we were going, or how to get back. I just let the others lead the way. A ways out, Goldeneye whipped up a sling and bagged us a small bird apiece which Blue cooked on a fire Pat started. They put me to work gathering some kind of melon they'd seen. We were supposed to bring back at least two thirds of what we caught, but Goldeneye said we could just pick 'em up on the way back.
Not too bad a snack, really, except even the melon tasted really strong and I didn't get a nap afterwards. Maybe it's just me, but these first days have seemed awfully long, and my four-nap schedule was working pretty nice.
Then there's Pat and Blue. I don't know what's going on between those two . . .
Pitty-Pat was humming as shi twirled the red flower shi'd picked from a melon vine. The four of them were making their way through a thicket of tree-sized bushes between a barren rise and a sinkhole pit but shi was still in an exceptionally good mood. True, they hadn't found anything they'd bring back with them, but the afternoon was young, they'd finally had something to eat, and hir "tiger" was in sight. With nothing else to worry hir at the moment, shi decided to find out if shi'd kept hir voice, and shi knew just the song to try . . ."I see trees of green, red roses too,"
"I see them bloom for me and you,"
"And I think to myself what a wonderful world."1
Ahead, Goldeneye was walking beside Taurger and trying to give the "greenhorn" a little outdoor education when they heard Pat's song. "Get used to it," Goldeneye told Taurger with a grin. "Back on base, Pat tried to get involved with any off-duty activity that included performing, especially singing and dancing."
"Dancing?" Taurger asked incredulously. "A marine?"
Goldeneye laughed. "Yeah. Surprised some close combat instructors with hir moves. These new bodies might change that, though. Might have to re-learn close combat too. But shi's still got a good singing voice."
Taurger looked back at his denmate and saw Pat give him a big smile and continue with the song. He turned away and sighed before he said, "Hope shi doesn't drag me into that. I don't have a voice."
Before Goldeneye could reply, the irrepressible Blue came bounding up. So far shi'd been dashing about, always in sight of the others but always looking at something or other ahead or behind or beside them. This time shi carried a piece of wood from one of the tree-bushes. "Smell this," shi said, scraping the bark and presenting the stick before Goldeneye's nose, who obediently gave it a critical sniffing.
"This is from the trees?" shi asked Blue.
Another sniff and Goldeneye said, "They may look like mesquite but they sure don't smell like it. Kind of reminds me of coffee."
Blue tried to hold hir stick up to Taurger's nose but he backed away. "Just a sniff," shi said.
Taurger put a hand over his nose and let Pat step between him and Blue. Pat's tail twitched as shi took a sniff, but otherwise shi didn't seem upset. "Smells a little like chocolate," shi said. When Blue tried again to get Taurger to smell the stick Pat said, "Don't bother, Blue. Shi won't do it."
"Why not?" Blue asked.
"Shi hates hir nose." Goldeneye and Blue both stared at Taurger. "You haven't noticed?" Pat asked. "Taurger always breathes through hir mouth."
Goldeneye put hir hand on Taurger's shoulder. "Taurger, our sense of smell is going to tell us as much about this world as our eyes and ears. What's the problem?"
Still holding his hand over his nose and eyeing the stick Blue held Taurger said, "I've read about bad acid trips that're better than what I get through my nose."
Blue seemed to be both concerned and disappointed. "Oh Taurger," shi said holding up the stick, "just one little sniff?"
"No!" Taurger protested. "Just . . . drop it, okay? A nosefull of th' main cavern was bad enough."
"Shi's right," Goldeneye told them. "I'm having trouble with this 'empathy' thing we're supposed to have, and I know you're bothered by noise, Pat. It's going to take a while before we get used to some of these new senses."
Surprisingly subdued, Blue said, "I guess you're right."
Goldeneye grinned and put an arm around Blue's shoulders. "Let's get going. I'd like to see how far we can get before sundown."
As they set off again Taurger asked, "Shouldn't we try to be back before then?"
"With our night vision, that won't be a problem. Besides, we stand a better chance of finding something the farther we go. There'll be too many groups who stay close."
Taurger trudged on. "As long as you know the way back."
You kidding? Gimmie a map and I'm fine. Take it away and I can get lost in a phone booth. If I hadn't been dragged along I wouldn't have left sight of the big cave.
Goldeneye kept us going at a pretty good pace, but I was beginning to be annoyed every time shi talked about how many "klicks" we'd gone . . . like there was any way to be sure . . .
The foursome were threading their way through a formation of embedded boulders and broken stone in a wide valley. Ahead of them the easy path curved to their left. "Looks like we're turning west," Goldeneye commented. "Hope we can find a way back north."
"You sure that's north?" Taurger asked, figuring he'd been silent long enough.
Goldeneye tried to explain wilderness navigation by saying, "We may not have compasses yet, but if you don't have a good sense of direction, just keep track of the sun and the time of day."
"No, that's not . . . Well, I do have . . ." Taurger started. "Look, I worked in the same complex for over ten years and could still get lost without a map. But I'm talking about something else."
"What are you talking about then?"
"Has anybody declared which way is north?"
Goldeneye looked at Taurger like this was nonsense. "Don't have to. The sun rises in the east and north is ninety degrees counterclockwise of that."
"No . . . I . . . I'm not disputing the words, or even their relationships. I'm just saying this is a new world and the old definitions might not fit."
"Why wouldn't they?"
"Well . . . what if someone says 'south' is the direction the sun is from overhead at noon?"
"That doesn't work in the southern hemisphere or the tropics."
"And which hemisphere were most of us raised in?"
"Hmm . . . That's a point."
"And that's a rule we know doesn't always work," Taurger continued quickly. "And this isn't Earth. What if it rotates in the opposite direction? And which is the right one? What about magnetic north? Is it near the axis? How do you tell magnetic north from south? Does this planet even have magnetic poles?"
"That's a lot to think about."
"The real point is we're on a new world. We can't be sure of anything until we've tested it. Not even the laws of physics."
"Oh, come on! Nothing's acting that different."
"Sure, Newtonian physics looks the same, and things like chemistry and biology seem unchanged, but until we test them we can't be sure."
"You make it sound like we aren't even in the some universe."
"Maybe we aren't. Whatever did this not only transformed over 500 unwilling people into something that's supposed to be imaginary, complete with full motor control and no apparent loss of memory, but seems to have transferred us to another planet, or at least another time. No great stretch to imagine being moved to another dimension. And another time is another dimension." Taurger paused a beat as something occurred to him, then added, "Heck, they could have copied our minds and sent the original us on our way and we're just copies imprinted on new bodies. After all, why move the hardware if you're just going to junk it at the other end anyway?"
"But why do that?"
Taurger shrugged. "Repair a new race that got mind-wiped? Jump-start a race that can't quite make the transition from animal to people? Bragging rights? Who knows? Our problem is we don't have any standards of measurement."
"We're not that badly off."
"No? You brought a ruler with you? A watch? A scale? Anything we can make a comparison to?"
"I'm still pretty good at estimating distances and time."
"Sure, and everything looks to be about right, but we can't be sure we've marked an accurate distance without checking against a known standard. And we don't have one . . . that we can get to yet."
"So what would you do?"
Taurger shrugged. "Set some standards. Pick a numbering system, make something to use as a unit of measure."
"Just make something up."
"Sure. We won't need Earth standards until we meet humans again, and by then we'll be timing pulsars and measuring frequencies of light. Those'll give us time and distance at least. So for right now I'd mark off a distance, call it a 'glorph' or something and go on from there. Distance squared for area, distance cubed for volume, volume of water for mass, using a declared 'standard' atmosphere and gravity, and make the day -- a solar day -- as the basic unit of time."
"And how'd you measure short periods of time?"
"Decimal." When Goldeneye opened his mouth Taurger said, "Or whatever number system we pick. Maybe call them cycles and sub-cycles or something. First one or two places right of the decimal instead of hours, next one or two in place of minutes, etc."
"Sounds like it'd work."
"A lot of things'll work. Just got to convince enough people to do it."
Nobody really argued the point. Probably because none of us were going to be making those decisions. White Tip was basically in charge, with Deering, DiVargin, and Folson -- our pilot -- another career rendered useless by all this -- backing hir up. They'd be making the decisions. If we're really lucky they'll think about things a bit first, then try to do what's right for the rest of us. If not then they'd repeat the classic definition of a committee. "A creature with six or more legs and no brain." Well, make that twelve.
You noticed that, didja? Yeah, I got no love for management. You get like that after twenty years of bull. Don't have to worry about that anymore. Everybody's gonna be too busy staying alive to mess around with stuff like that for a while.
Course that don't mean there ain't other stuff to bug me . . .
Goldeneye was leading them along a wide ridge when it happened. Only Blue and Pitty-Pat knew it was coming.
Taurger nearly jumped out of his skin when his denmate snuck up from behind and grabbed him. Hir hands had brushed the sides of the upright parts of his body just below the ribs. That incredible, impossible to ignore twitch he'd felt when Blue had pawed him came back and he cried out as he almost teleported a full body length away. He stood there out of arm's reach from hir.
"You're right, Blue," Pat said as Goldeneye stopped and looked at them. "Taurger's ticklish." Shi raised hir hands and wiggled hir fingers menacingly.
"Don't do that," Taurger said fearfully, his eyes wide. The denmates locked eyes for a heartbeat, the calico's tail lashing in mischief, before Taurger dashed away down the ridge. Pitty-Pat was close behind but Taurger's size and strength gave him surprising leg power and he was pulling away as he reached the top of the next slope.
That was where he made the mistake of turning to follow the edge. Pitty-Pat cut across the corner he'd turned and tackled Taurger. The two of them tumbled down the far slope of the narrow ridge, all the way to the bottom, where Pat tickled with all four hands and hand-paws. The big black-striped white chakat was barely able to defend himself with all six limbs. Then Pitty-Pat brought hir tail into play. Taurger quickly dissolved into near-hysterical laughter.
When Pitty-Pat finally relented, Taurger's sides were heaving from lack of breath. The calico smiled down at hir denmate's tear-moistened face and said, "Well, now I know one way to get your attention."
"Pest," Taurger gasped. But when Pitty-Pat laid down atop him and snuggled close, purring, he wrapped both arms and forelegs around hir and used the moment of peace to catch his breath.
"Don't be such a sourpuss," Pat said. Blue and Goldeneye, who'd followed behind the romping pair at a slightly slower pace, both groaned at hir pun as they walked up. Pat chuckled and looked up to say something, but the other half of their foursome had stopped and were sniffing the air. Shi took a sniff hirself and smelled something shi couldn't quite place. "What is that?" shi asked.
"Salt water," Blue said as shi headed for the low cliff that could be seen on the other side of the wide hollow they'd rolled into.
Pat got up and was ready to follow when shi realized Taurger was still rolling over. Shi helped hir denmate up as he asked, "We found ocean?"
Goldeneye, who was keeping the impulsive Blue in sight, said, "No, but we might have found a salt lake."
With Taurger back on his feet, the three of them quickly caught up with Blue, who had continued following hir nose. This led them past a fan-like wash at the mouth of a small, wide canyon that opened back into the cliff, to a sharp depression retaining a sizeable pool of briny water, swollen from the previous day's rain.
Fine crystals in water-flow patterns crunched underpaw as they approached the pool. There was nothing growing in or near the water, but none of them detected anything more toxic than the salt. Goldeneye was bold enough to take a taste which shi immediately spat out, declaring it undrinkable but not poisonous. "It's probably worse as the water evaporates," shi told the others. "But if it's deep enough, it may never completely vanish."
Pitty-Pat tried to pick up salt off the ground and looked critically at the mixture of crystals and dirt in hir hand. "I don't think we can take any back with us," shi said. "We've got nothing to carry water in and it's no use dirty like this."
"We'll organize a gathering team and come back here," Goldeneye suggested. "We'll just have to figure out some kind of pan to hold some water while it evaporates. Taurger . . ."
Blue, Goldeneye and Pitty-Pat looked around because the big chakat hadn't stayed with them. Pat spotted hir denmate heading into the canyon they'd passed. Shi brushed hir hands off as shi called out, "Taurger!" He didn't respond. Instead he continued into the canyon, his head down.
Pat easily caught up with him and realized he was watching the ground intently. Shi asked, "Hey, tiger. What're you looking at?" Again he didn't respond, so shi put a hand on his shoulder. Taurger finally looked up at hir and Pat repeated the question.
"There's a salt trail," he pointed out, gesturing to the faint pattern of crystals scattered in the wash. "That pond's still being filled."
"So that means there's an exposed salt deposit somewhere up the canyon," Goldeneye said, shi and Blue having followed Pat. "If we find it we might be able to take a few chunks with us." Shi continued into the canyon as Taurger bent over his salt trail again.
The salt deposit was easily found. At the head of the trail they found it protected between shelves of slate that formed a step in the canyon wall. But, as water had run over the lip of the upper shelf, it had worn away the slate which allowed salt to be dissolved. Softer stone below had eroded back and sections of the salt "sandwich" had apparently broken off, as evidenced by pieces of slate laying in pairs on the canyon floor. Among the broken slate were several small, mostly dissolved, pieces of rock salt.
It was Blue who raised the question when shi asked, "I know how important salt is to a human diet, but we're chakats now. How much do we really need?"
Taurger, who'd been poking along an exposed upper surface of the slope of the slate and salt sandwich, didn't even turn to answer. He just spoke up and said, "Assuming we match the Internet description, which is based on Earth chemistry, probably the same as a human of the same mass."
"Except we don't sweat," Goldeneye countered.
"So maybe a little less. The Doc'll figure it out pretty quick. Besides, we'll need plenty if we want to start preserving meat." While saying this Taurger had picked up a large stone and turned back to the slope he'd been examining. He paused and looked up at the rest of the canyon wall. "How stable do you think this is?" he asked.
Goldeneye knew exactly what the white tiger-stripe was planning and gave the surrounding stone a critical look before declaring, "I don't think anything'll come down on us. Go ahead." Shi turned to the others and warned, "Eyes!"
With a grunt Taurger hefted the small boulder over his head and brought it down hard on the exposed slate. A sharp crack could be heard in addition to the impact of stone on stone. Weathered sheets of slate splintered and dropped, but no salt. Taurger let his boulder fall aside and examined the short, almost finger-thick split he'd made where he'd struck the wall.
Goldeneye shook hir head and said, "I could have told you. Rock salt's pretty strong."
Taurger merely put the tips of his fingers into the crack and braced his handpaws on the canyon wall. With a steady effort he pulled on the rock. Nothing happened.
"Don't worry about it, Taurger," Blue told him. "We'll come back with something to dig it out."
But Taurger was still pulling. Closing his eyes he increased his efforts. A small pop from the stone brought three chakats alert an instant before the final crack and a sizeable slab of the slate and salt "sandwich" came free. It fell to the canyon floor before Taurger could catch it, pieces of slate falling away from the slab of rock salt.
While the others congratulated him on his feat of strength, Taurger was looking at a loose piece of slate that had come off with the rock. "You think we could get some of this a decent size?" he asked.
"Some of what?" Pitty-Pat asked. "The slate? You want to make a blackboard?"
Taurger shrugged. "Or some hand-sized slates for taking notes. It'll be a long time before we have enough paper to waste on anything not permanent. And we can make chalk from ground-up limestone."
Pat chuckled. "Sorry, tiger, but that kind of chalk is made with gypsum."
"Think we can find some?" Taurger asked, undeterred from what seemed like a good idea.
Goldeneye reached up and clapped the big chakat on the shoulder. "Let's get your big chunk of salt home, first."
I carried that rock in my hands a while, until Goldeneye and Blue found some vines they turned into straps and hung it like a backpack. We were heading back and they kept stopping to pick things up. I have no idea how they knew where to find it all, but they did.
First we stopped while the three of them made the straps and some sort of bags or nets out of those same vines. Then as they were filling those up, we stopped again and they made baskets like saddlebags out of some kind of long stalk. The only thing I was good for was carrying the stuff they gathered. Some of it was kind of weird.
Blue wrapped a bunch of those bush-tree sticks shi liked smelling in a big leaf shi'd found, then stuck it in one of the saddle-baskets shi wore. Goldeneye was picking off small birds with hir sling and packing them away in hirs. And Pitty-Pat seemed to be taking one of almost everything, most of which went in my baskets.
I thought we had a pretty big load until we met up with the others . . .
"This doesn't look like the place we ate at," Taurger said. Unlike the other "improvements" his senses received from being a chakat, night vision was one he appreciated. Especially at the moment, since the sun had set not long after they'd found the salt deposit.
Goldeneye was watching something in the distance as Blue and Pitty-Pat lifted hir baskets and set them to one side of the ridge top they were using as a path. "We're still going to stop there, too, but let's take a breather here," shi said to Taurger.
Taurger unslung his piece of rock salt and lifted the baskets from his back. *Figures I'd have to unload myself,* he thought as he set his baskets down beside Goldeneye's. *They've been talking among themselves. Better help them before they come up with something else for me to do.* So far the high point of the day was finding a rock, and Taurger was starting to feel discouraged.
"Thanks, tiger," Pitty-Pat said as he lifted off hir baskets and added them to the pile. "C'mon, let's get comfortable."
The four of them took shelter on a sun-warmed patch of bare stone. While the others watched something in the distance, Taurger tried to make himself comfortable. He wasn't tired exactly, but it was like they'd missed something and he couldn't figure out what. It just drained the life -- no, the enthusiasm -- out of him. He was restless in a way that carrying the salt and all the stuff in the baskets didn't affect. And he'd missed his sunset nap, too.
At first he tried to lay forward over his legs. Then he tucked his legs and lay on the ground. That wasn't right either so he leaned back and "jackknifed" so his head rested on his rump. It was still no use. He just couldn't find a comfortable position. Pitty-Pat got his attention by patting hir . . . hir . . . *Another body part we've got to come up with a name for,* Taurger thought. *Two backs.*
"Put yourself down here, tiger," Pat offered.
*Well, shi's lain on me enough,* Taurger decided as he rolled to his side and tried to use Pat's lower back as a pillow for his head and shoulders. That didn't work so he turned over and cradled his head on his arms. *Better.* His thoughts wandered as he closed his eyes. *Second back. Can feel Pat's lungs going. Don't match mine. Can I breathe with just the lowers? Lower and upper, barrel and trunk. Feels weird to have breasts on my chest. Saddle, flat . . .*
"Never heard of a cat that had trouble getting comfortable," Blue quipped.
Pitty-Pat twisted around so shi could stroke hir denmate's mane and shoulders. Shi was humming some tune like a lullaby, and Taurger was soon about to fall asleep.
That's when Goldeneye stood and called out, "Ho the hunters!"
"Ho yourself!" someone called back. Blue stood up as Goldeneye trotted off down the slope.
Taurger raised his head and groggily asked, "What now?" as he brushed his mane from his face.
Pat tucked more hair back over hir denmate's ear. "That's who we've been waiting for, silly." Shi chuckled as the look shi got and added, "We smelled them coming and decided to head back together."
"Didn' tell me," Taurger grumbled to himself as he got to his feet.
"Come on, sleepyhead," Blue teased cheerfully. "Looks like they got something big. Let's see if we can help." Shi followed after Goldeneye as Pat took Taurger by the arm and led him to the approaching hunters.
There were five hunters, each carrying the carcass of an animal nearly as big as they were except one. That last kill was significantly smaller, possibly a foal. *Or whatever you call their young,* Taurger thought. *They did a lot better than us.*
The hunter carrying the smallest kill was also carrying several poles that looked like bamboo. The ends had been cut at an angle to form a hypodermic-like point, making them crude spears. All five of the chakats seemed tired and gratefully put down their burdens.
"Are we glad to see you!" the spear-carrier said. "These things are heavy!"
One of hir companions playfully cuffed hir ear and got back an impudent grin. "What are you talking about? You got the small one!"
Another of the hunters flopped over on hir side. "Oh, my aching paws!"
Blue was looking over one of the kills and asked, "You couldn't rig carriers with those poles?"
"Two halves'd be th' same load," Taurger said bluntly. "Might share the big ones, but somebody's gonna carry th' small one alone."
Goldeneye was more supportive to the hunters. "I think we can carry your big kills for a while, if you can manage our finds."
The apparent leader of the hunters smiled as shi replied, "I think we can do that. Just give us a bit to rest first."
"Maybe we shouldn't," Blue told them. Shi gestured to the night sky as shi explained. "Looks like weather coming up."
The hunters groaned and complained, but all nine chakats picked up their various burdens and set off promptly. Despite the increased strength they enjoyed since the transformation, Blue, Goldeneye and Pitty-Pat had difficulty hefting one of the larger carcasses each, the small one being shared by two of the less tired hunters. Taurger easily carried the last and largest of the kills stretched the length of his lower back and holding its hind feet on his shoulders.
After the second time shi almost lost hir load, Blue asked, "Okay, big guy, there's no way you can hold that thing like that and not have it slide around. What's the trick?"
"No trick," he told hir. "I'm just holding it at both ends."
"Both ends? With what?"
Goldeneye caught on immediately. "With hir tail." Shi grinned at Taurger and said, "I saw you do that the other day with a big load of wood. Don't know why I didn't think of it myself."
That made the carrying much easier and the group made good progress. One of the hunters took the lead while Goldeneye and Blue held back to chat with the others. Pitty-Pat walked beside Taurger.
"Neat trick," shi told him.
Taurger just shrugged and made a non-committal "eh".
"So how does a tech learn about carrying things?"
"By working in buildings that're pre-computer. We had to lug everything through narrow doors, up and down stairs, and pretty much all over the place."
"You should've gotten a cart."
"Management complained 'bout buying $10 sets of tools. The one cart we started with got transferred to shipping, who were real possessive of their stuff."
"Doesn't sound like a lot of fun."
"That's an understatement."
"So why didn't you leave?"
Taurger looked his denmate straight in the eyes. "Because they made sure anybody they snookered into working there couldn't. Can we change the subject? I'd kinda like to forget places like that exist."
"Sure," Pat said with a grin. "How about telling me what you and Blue talked about before we left?"
Taurger sighed in resignation and tried to remember.
The clouds ended up dumping a rainstorm. We weren't very close to our home caves when it started so we ducked into a cave somebody spotted to wait it out. Wasn't as big, but the nine of us weren't crowded, even with all the stuff we carried.
Pat got a fire going, more for light at first, and then the hunters offered to cook up the smaller one of their kills. Seems they'd downed six and ate one already, and as we hadn't had more than a small bird and a couple of melons each, we were still hungry. Well, I was at least. Not that I could really claim anything to deserve it.
Maybe that's what made me say it . . .
It came out over supper that Pitty-Pat was going to be setting up an office, and somehow the conversation turned to governments and what should be done. Taurger, alternating between being ravenous for the meat and repulsed by what he was sure was too strong a flavor, spoke up when someone jokingly suggested that White Tip might have set hirself up as a petty dictator. "Kinda hard t'do in a commune," he said.
Goldeneye and one of the hunters raised their heads sharply from their meals. "We are not going to be communist!" the hunter, who'd earlier introduced hirself as "Sarge Evens", declared.
"Not 'communist', 'commune'. There's a difference."
Evens was not convinced. "Really?" shi said with an edge to hir voice. "And what's the difference?"
"Well," Taurger said thoughtfully as he lowered the chunk of meat he'd been trying to choke down and brushed his mane from his face. "Communes are subsistence-level groups like a tribe. Everybody does what they can and gets what they need like Marx wrote, or whoever that was."
"And that's communism."
"By original definition, yes. But that's not what China and Russia did, and that's what people call communism. Which is as far from what communism was supposed to be as a 'president for life' dictator is from an elected president."
Evens narrowed hir eyes and gave the big chakat an intense stare. "So what do you think was different about Red China and the Soviet Union?"
Taurger shrugged. "Communes work because there's nothing extra to squabble over. The 'communist powers' tried to make everybody work hard and ask for nothing by feeding them all that bull about being communist. All they got was a screeching halt. No point in doing more than you have to if you don't get anything for it. So two big countries that could have produced extra, didn't. And if anybody tries the same thing here, that's what they'll get here, too."
"Interesting way to put it," Goldeneye observed. "We'll have to think of a way to keep things like that from happening."
"Still be herding cats," Taurger said as hunger got the upper hand again and he took a big bite of his portion. That got a chuckle from the others and the conversation continued on a less confrontational note.
As Taurger tried to inhale the meat so he spent less time tasting it, Pitty-Pat, who'd gotten as close to him as he'd let hir, leaned over and whispered, "Slow down."
Taking advantage of the distraction to give his taste buds a rest, Taurger whispered back, "Is it supposed to taste like this?"
"What do you mean? I've had meals in fancy restaurants that weren't this good."
Taurger looked at the meat in his hand again. "I used to like hot chili," he said, "but even the nastiest didn't try to mash on my tongue like this stuff." He took another bite and swallowed it with a bare minimum of chewing.
"Well slow down anyway. You'll make yourself sick, or at least get gas."
"I don't belch."
"Everybody belches," Pat said, then took a bite of hir meal.
"I don't. Never have. Might go out the other way but I just don't b . . ."\ \ \ / / /
> > BELCH < <
/ / / \ \ \
Taurger's hand clamped over his mouth as the sound he'd made echoed in the cavern. Eight feline faces saw the look of wide-eyed shock between his hand and his unruly black-and-white mane. He wasn't sure who made the traditional comment of "Good one!" He tried to uncover his mouth and apologize, but all he managed to get out was "Excus . . ." before another belch rose in his throat and he clamped down again. Instead it penetrated into his sinuses and the overwhelming, meaty odors made him wince. And it didn't completely silence the sound.
Sarge Evens chuckled as shi said, "That brings back memories."
Pat barely kept from laughing as shi punned, "I thought it brought back supper."
"I can do better," one of the hunters said.
Challenged, the brown-coated redhead put one hand just below hir ribs and opened hir mouth. Nothing came out. "Geez, where's my stomach?" Others snickered as shi moved hir hand about until shi found what shi was looking for. "Okay," shi said and gave out with a strong, but not overly loud, belch.
"You're out of practice."
"Let's hear you do it."
What followed was a juvenile and completely silly competition of bodily noises, thoroughly enjoyed by everyone but Taurger who couldn't overcome his embarrassment. It didn't help that nobody was able to come close to his first eructation. Instead he quietly ate -- and thoroughly chewed despite the strong taste -- the rest of his meal, then accepted Pitty-Pat's offer to be a pillow again. He lay there and ignored the ongoing conversation as Pat combed out his mane with hir fingers.
"You know," Pat told him quietly, "if you cut it short, you'd probably look even more like a tiger. Your stripes go right through it."
"If I cut it, it'll be to give somebody to make rope out of."
"Be a strange rope."
"Did it in th' Old West. Or was that horse tails?"
"Why'd they do that?"
"Hangin' ropes. Wouldn' scrape skin like hemp."
"Well we aren't going to hang anybody."
"Still be rope."
"Not a lot."
"So we get some more."
"From somebody else who wants a haircut?"
"Some of the military types, maybe. Or just wants it shorter. 'Course we can just make everybody donate a braid."
"A lot of people would object to that."
"Eminent domain. And it could be cut from the back, down by the neck where it won't be seen. A hundredth of a head off five hundred heads. We'd get at least five heads of hair. Should make enough rope to start."
Pat was impressed. "That's not a bad idea."
Taurger just closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but something was wrong. Blue had been talking about the coffee / chocolate bark shi'd found, which bounced around the group and became favorite foods, and then foods that weren't around anymore.
"No more pasta."
"Nothing with bread."
"Oh, God! No more TV!"
"Well, that's not so bad." There were a couple of chuckles but the list didn't stop.
"I'm going to miss air conditioning."
The mood in the cave was deteriorating rapidly as people added to the list of things they'd miss now that they weren't on Earth. *If they start weeping I'll never get some sleep,* Taurger thought, although in the back of his mind he knew that was just an excuse. Pat's hands were slowing and somehow he knew shi was starting to feel it too. And the list grew.
"My allergies," Taurger said. Stunned silence followed. Pat even stopped petting his mane.
"Your what?" Goldeneye finally asked.
"I'm going to miss my allergies," Taurger repeated. More silence. *C'mon, somebody, ask it already!*
"Okay, tiger," Pitty-Pat said, "why are you going to miss your allergies?"
"I was indoors all the time," explained Taurger. "I got date and time from the computer, but I always knew what season it was from my allergies." Pause. Nobody responded, but Taurger thought Pat was trying to not laugh and definitely was not believing him. "I'd itch in the spring, sneeze in the summer, ache in the fall and cough in the winter. I could tell exactly when the weather'd change up to a week in advance." More silence.
And then laughter. They all knew Taurger was exaggerating shamelessly and on his last claim outright lying, but the idea was so completely ridiculous that none of them could keep a straight face. And with the next claim it was impossible to keep the depressed mood going.
"Well, I'm going to miss my mortgage," Pat said.
Blue couldn't hide hir smile as shi asked, "Why?"
"It could always renew my interest!" Groans mixed with laughter at the hoary pun.
Turning the unwanted of Earth into jokes didn't last long, and it soon became just a list of things people wouldn't miss. But the mood had reversed. Taurger half-listened as he relaxed across Pitty-Pat's back and let hir groom his mane.
"I heard we won't have periods."
"You can forget 'gender bias' and 'glass ceilings'."
"Worse, Hari Krishnas!"
"I'd say Jehovah's Witnesses, but we might've have had some aboard."
The conversation continued a great deal longer, but oddly it didn't keep Taurger from going to sleep. As he drifted off, he knew his belly was full, his fur was dry, and . . . what? He couldn't think what else, but it was there and it made him very comfortable.
I slept longer than a nap that night, but I still got up for a while and sat alone at the entrance listening to the rain for a long time before I got tired enough to go back to sleep. Didn't really think about anything, which is a little weird for me, just sat there and listened in the dark. I got up again about dawn with everybody else. Didn't really have a choice about getting up sooner.
I've always slept alone my whole life, so even after having Pat on top of me since I got here, being in a pile with eight other chakats was a weird experience. It's not that I couldn't sleep, 'cuz I did. It's just that . . . well . . . for example somehow, even after pulling myself out in the middle of the night, I was on the bottom again by morning. Only this time it wasn't just Pat on top of me but Blue and Sarge Evens, too. 'Course those two weren't much more than using my rump as a pillow, while Pat had climbed half on top of me. Musta been real comfy 'cuz it took a bit to wake hir up.
Anyway the rain eventually stopped around sunup so we picked up our stuff and what was left of the meal and headed home. I tried a "fireman's carry" with the kill this time . . .
"Is that easier than on your back?" Goldeneye asked Taurger. Shi was speaking, of course, about one of the four-horned antelope-like creature that had been killed yesterday and their group of explorers was returning to their home caves with today. The other three were being hauled the way Taurger had come up with the day before, but today Taurger had hefted his behind his head and held the legs in front of him.
"Feels a littl' heavier," Taurger said. "But if what I read's right, it won't wear me out so fast."
"A backpacking manual?" Sarge Evens asked. "About higher centers of gravity?"
"Boy Scouts, but yeah."
Evens, who had a great deal of experience with the whys and wherefores of carrying field gear, was starting to wonder just how many of the conventional methods would hold up on this new world. "Wouldn't take you for a Scout," shi said. "But that kind of carry's for two legs. We'll have to find out if it's better to concentrate things up front or spread it out over all four."
"The usual way. Field trials. We'll just keep coming up with new rigs and trying them out until we find what works best. How'd you like to help? The bigger the load the sooner we know."
Taurger shook his head. "No thanks. I've carried stuff every day we've been here. Won't volunteer to carry more."
Evens chuckled. "You may be a civvie, but you've got the right attitude for a grunt."
"Never underestimate management in the private sector. Some probably wish they could buy slaves instead of pay salaries."
"So what'll you do if you don't carry things?"
Taurger sighed. "Dunno. Maybe make a griddle."
"Chunk of sandstone."
Evens was doubtful. "A stone griddle?"
"Sandstone. 'Cording to what I read its the only stuff that'll take th' heat without cracking or worse. 'Course it'll have to be polished, and that'll take a week after I figure out how. But it'll be something until we get better."
"Instead of hanging it over a fire."
"Or burying it in coals, or hide pots."
"You lost me again."
"Indian method," Taurger explained, "like the griddle. Line a hole with clean hide, anchor it, fill it with water and stuff, then add hot stones for cooking."
"Oh, I've heard of that. Stone boiling. Heat the stones in a fire and use a stick basket to lower them in so you don't burn the hide."
"And get 'em out again. Think we can get somebody to carry a rock back?"
"We'll need a good hide first."
"Griddle stone. This's sandstone, isn't it?" asked Taurger as he stepped away from the path to look at a nearby large, flat stone.
"Don't . . ." Sarge Evens' warning came too late. With eyes only for the slab of stone, Taurger felt a sharp pain in his right foreleg as soon as he realized Evens had spoken. He looked down to see a brown insect-like creature bigger than his hand scuttling away near him.
His first impulse was to knock it away, but his leg stung terribly where he'd been bitten. He'd cried out when attacked and Pat and the others were around him before he could do anything else. One, upon seeing the the creature, immediately pierced it with hir bamboo spear.
"Did it sting you?"
"It bit me."
"Shi was stung, I saw it."
"Oh God! Look at the size of that thing!"
"What do we do?"
Someone took the carcass from his shoulders and he was urged to lie down and let his leg be examined. Goldeneye took charge, describing the possible effects of a scorpion sting. A tourniquet was suggested, but Goldeneye said it wouldn't matter. Instead shi sent Pat, who seemed on the verge of panic, to fetch a moistened wad of leaves to use as a cooling compress.
At first I was thinking they were making a big to-do over a bug bite, but after Goldeneye started talking and I started getting dizzy I didn't make a fuss . . .
Professor Heinrich "Henry" Van Peer was frustrated. Shi'd wanted to go outside and look around, but that ridiculous "drawing of lots" White Tip insisted on the day before had left hir stuck at the cave. Not that anyone seemed to care what someone important wanted. Even DiVargin was kowtowing to these people, and shi should know better. So instead of leading the way, shi'd spent the day watching the transformees going about their business. It was almost disquieting that there seemed to be no panic or hysteria after what would otherwise be considered a traumatic experience.
The next morning shi'd settled hirself just outside the cave entrance and watched some of the children playing. Their behavior included not only typical responses from someone being raised in an "industrial society" but also those more appropriate to a less technological upbringing and a few significant aberrations. *They're all military brats, could that be a factor?* shi wondered, wishing yet again for a pen and notebook. It was infuriating to be observing what might prove to be groundbreaking research and have no way to document it.
The morning games and his studies of it were interrupted by the sudden arrival of an adult who came running up and disappeared into the cave. Moments later several adults came out, as a group of seven more approached from the same direction as the runner, all but one carrying burdens at least as big as they. Other activity stopped as the two groups merged and some sort of commotion ensued.
Curious about what was happening and put off that shi wasn't included, Van Peer went closer. When shi heard someone may have been poisoned by the sting of something like a scorpion shi was terribly concerned, having seen the suffering of several victims and at least one child's death from scorpion venom back on Earth. When shi learned who was stung shi didn't know what to think. That pop-culture educated, self-important, attractive . . . *ahem* . . . was injured by one of the local hazards? Confused and uncertain, shi saw Taurger being lifted and carried inside. As they approached hir position beside the entrance a sneer formed on hir face.
Taurger had arrived at the home caves carried on the back of Goldeneye, who insisted he not exert himself walking. By then his leg felt like it had been stuck in a fire and he appreciated the help. The wet leaves Pat still held to the wound actually seemed to be doing some good.
Sarge Evens had run ahead to find Katherine, the veterinarian who'd become their head doctor. Shi and a few others came out to examine both Taurger and the remains of the thing that stung him. After complimenting Goldeneye on hir first aid response, and noting a slight fever and the growing swelling of the leg, shi ordered Taurger be carried to where he could rest quietly while the toxins ran their course. Without antivenin there was little else they could do.
Pat was walking beside those who carried hir denmate when shi heard Van Peer say, "I guess all that 'knowledge' didn't help you much, did it?"
The calico almost struck the Professor in outrage, who could only cower belly down and ears back. "How dare you talk like that! Anybody could have been stung! Shi could be dying right now, and you act like you're happy about it!"
"Pat . . ."
"What's wrong vampire? Not getting enough attention? Nobody thinks you're smart now? Can't flash a diploma to shut people up when you're wrong anymore?"
"PAT!" Taurger nearly shouted, his voice echoing through the main cavern. His denmate snapped hir head around in alarm. He motioned hir to come over. When shi hesitated, torn between rage and concern, he said, "That wad a leaves feels better on my leg then over there."
Chagrined at leaving hir denmate in pain, Pitty-Pat returned to his side and gently put the still damp compress to his swelling wound. Shi turned to glare at Van Peer, but turned back when Taurger put his hand on hirs. A slight shake of his head as he looked directly in hir eyes and shi didn't even glance back at the now trembling Professor as they entered the caverns.
Blue, who'd stood by during the whole confrontation, managed to place hirself behind and a little to the side of Van Peer unnoticed. The "tuxedo" chakat jumped when shi said, "You'd better learn to behave yourself, 'Professor'."
Turning to hir, Van Peer asked, "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean this isn't a university and you don't have tenure to hide behind. There's no research grants you can threaten to leave with. Nobody you can blackmail into protecting you. And the closest thing you've got to an old boys' network are a few others, who have little more support than you now."
Van Peer stared wide-eyed at the grey chakat who spoke with enough certainty that shi must be familiar with hir past career. "I . . . I . . ." he sputtered.
"For someone with a psychologist's license," Blue continued, turning one of Van Peer's favorite bludgeons against hir, "you sure don't know much about people. That tiger's going to be a lot more important around here than you. So you'd better figure out how to get along with hir right away." As Blue stepped past hir, shi added, "And if you don't, I doubt you'll get much help should Doctor DiVargin finds out how you got that award shi was so impressed with."
Now desperately afraid in addition to the internal conflicts shi'd been facing, Van Peer bolted away from the cave and everyone else.
Since there wasn't anything else they could do, they put me back in the "den" I'd already staked out. Pat made me lay back against hir and just held me. I tried to sleep but my leg hurt! And it really swelled up, too. They kept bringin' wet, mashed-up leaves to try and keep it cool, and they helped, but it still mighta felt better if it'd been cut off.
Lotsa people came by that morning to take a peek at my leg, mostly to put a good scare into cubs. Summa them were little bigger than my leg, and I kept thinking what woulda happened if wunna them'd been stuck.
Some tried to talk to me, but I was pretty out of it. Every time I tried to sit up, it was like my eyes sloshed around in my head. Pat would just put hir arms around me and pull me back down. Now I'm wonderin' were exactly shi put my head when shi did that.
'Bout noon I was feeling better, and I think that's why I fell asleep. I still didn' feel like getting up, but at least I managed to get my noon nap . . .
With Taurger finally asleep, Blue and Katherine managed to coax Pitty-Pat out to the main cavern after promising someone -- someone they trusted -- would look in on the big chakat. Shi was included in a light meal as White Tip, Deering, DiVargin (who was as far from Deering as possible by mutual arrangement) and others were told what happened on their expedition. Taurger became a major topic.
"What was Taurger doing out there, anyway?" Deering asked when he heard Pat's denmate claimed to be completely inexperienced with the outdoors.
Pat bristled, but Goldeneye answered before shi could say anything. "We're not exactly in civilization, Colonel. Shi's got to learn how to deal with this environment, and the sooner the better. Shi's too big to always have somebody watching over hir like a cub, and besides, shi was a lot more helpful than I expected."
"How so?" White Tip asked.
"Aside from hir strength, shi's the one who realized where the salt was coming from. Shi's not stupid by a long shot, shi just doesn't know what shi's looking at out there. And from the things shi said, shi's not thinking about where our next meal is coming from, but where we go from here. Or maybe where we should be trying to go."
"Shi also stopped us when we were all working up a good funk last night," Blue said.
"But shi's also the reason you didn't bring back more game, correct?" asked Deering.
"Yes, shir," Goldeneye admitted. "Shi probably never had to sneak in hir life. But hunting's something that can be taught."
"Shir," Deering repeated. "That still doesn't sound right to me."
Goldeneye grinned at hir former commanding officer. "I stumbled over it too, Colonel," shi said, "but Taurger got me caught up pretty quick."
"Shi read the Internet site," added Pitty-Pat.
"Interesting," White Tip said. "I thought we'd already found everybody who knew about chakats."
"Shi knows more than that," Sarge Evens told hir. "Shi was looking for a slab of sandstone to make a griddle when shi was stung. An Indian thing."
"Shi's from India?" DiVargin asked.
"No," said Goldeneye. "Apparently it's something Native Americans did. They'd polish up a sandstone slab and use it as a cooking surface. But that's the kind of thing I'm talking about. One minute shi'll be oblivious to what's right in front of hir, the next shi's come up with something shi heard about that's not only useful, but might actually carry us forward. I'd swear shi's studied history, but shi denies it."
"That stone griddle sounds like anthropology to me," DiVargin said.
"I think it's more history, Doctor DiVargin," Pat countered. "Maybe just old technology or how people lived back then, but Taurger doesn't seem to want much to do with people themselves, despite what shi did last night." Having finished hir food shi was becoming restless and added, "I should be getting back to hir."
Katherine put a hand on hir shoulder. "You stay here, I'll go check on hir." But shi didn't leave immediately. As shi got up, White Tip asked how hir patient was doing. "Shi seems over the worst of it. The fever's gone and the swelling's down a bit. Shi's sleeping now, which I don't think shi could if shi were still dizzy. The compresses seemed to help, but other than that and their appearance this hasn't been much like a scorpion attack."
"That's what I thought," Goldeneye said. "There was no reaction in breathing, vision, or muscle control."
"It also may have been a less than full dose," Katherine warned. "The wound didn't look like a clean strike. I'd prefer to assume they're dangerous than guess they aren't." With that Katherine excused hirself and went to check on Taurger.
It was probably late afternoon when I woke up. Not a lot of light in my den. Pat was gone, too, but the Doc came by pretty soon with somebody else in tow. They checked my leg, but I had a few questions for the Doc, too . . .
Katherine watched as Doctor Wong secured the wet compress shi'd prepared to Taurger's swollen leg. Shi wasn't convinced the herbalist could have identified medicinal properties in the local plants this quickly, but shi gave hir the benefit of the doubt. It wasn't as if Wong would be careless with a patient, and somehow Katherine knew the herbalist sincerely believed this would help. If nothing else it was better prepared than the messy wads of leaves they'd been using. "It smells nice, too," shi commented.
"When know plants better maybe make cure, draw poison out," Doctor Wong said in a heavy accent that sounded like it belonged in an old Charlie Chan movie. Taurger growled. "Sorry," said Wong, mispronouncing the "r"s.
"You don't have the coat for that voice," Taurger complained. "Give it to Goldeneye."
Doctor Wong chuckled. "You're right," he said in excellent English. "But a lot of people expect a Chinese herbalist to sound like that."
"I heard you before you came in, so don't bother," Taurger told hir.
As shi gave the herbal compress a final tug, Wong told Taurger, "Just relax and breathe normally. The smells are part of the treatment, like aromatherapy."
"Oh goody," Taurger said sarcastically through a muzzle wrinkled in disgust.
Wong and Katherine grinned at their patient's reaction. Katherine, who'd heard the story from Pitty-Pat, was sympathetic. After seeing Doctor Wong off, shi asked, "Taurger, have you ever heard of anosmia?"
"No," he started, but remembered something from an old rule book. "Oh, is that 'can't smell'?"
"Specifically any reduction of the sense of smell," Katherine explained. "And since they're so closely tied to each other, usually a loss in the sense of taste, too. Pat told me what you've said about smelling and tasting things."
"And you think I couldn't smell things when I was human? Bull. I could smell."
"So what's the faintest scent you remember?"
Taurger looked up at his doctor's face and knew shi was serious. He looked away and let his eyes unfocus as he usually did when thinking hard. *Shi can't be right. I could taste chili. But I could eat the hot stuff nobody else liked. And nobody ever said I smelled. But nobody ever came into my place, and I always had to look to see if the toilet was flushed. Or was that because I kept the lid down and it trapped the odors?* He shook his head to clear it, brushed his disobedient hair from his face, and concentrated on the question shi asked.
"How about just the faintest flower you remember smelling?" Katherine asked.
"A . . . rose," he finally said.
"Did you ever smell a periwinkle? A violet? A daisy?" To each of these Taurger shook his head. He brushed back another lock of hair.
Katherine settled to the floor of the den facing hir patient. "I think you had partial anosmia, or at least no recognition of scents. I'll bet you chose your favorite foods because of the way they felt in your mouth, too." Taurger couldn't answer hir, it seemed too close to the mark. "If you were telling even a little truth about having sinus reactions to allergies back on Earth that was probably a large part of it. And I think there were probably more people on Earth like that than anybody realized. Even if it wasn't a medical problem you were at least desensitized to smells and tastes. What's happening to you now isn't that you can smell or taste more than the rest of us, it's that you're finally aware of them. You've gone from very little for a human to normal for a chakat. The rest of us started with normal for a human."
As he swept his mane from his forehead back he considered what shi said. If shi was right, it made sense, and it seemed to fit what was going on. What he couldn't think of was what to do now that he knew.
"Try breathing through your nose for a while," Katherine said, almost as if shi could read his thoughts. "Stop if you have to, but keep trying. When you can breathe normally again then try smelling a few things. In my experience if an animal has a strong sense, it's because they need it, and that means you're going to be crippled if you don't learn to use your nose."
As shi started to get up Taurger stopped hir. "Doc, can I ask you about something else?"
"You see, I don't know anything about cats, and you're a vet. And . . . well . . . when I was human I got this book, sort of an 'owner's manual' for the human body." Katherine nodded so Taurger forged on. "So I guess I'd like something like that now." He held up a hand to keep the Doc from objecting and continued. "I know you don't have anything like that -- yet -- and I'm willing to be kind of a Guinea pig to help you figure it out, but I'm really stuck here. Anything you can tell me would help."
"Like maybe . . . how do I keep myself clean?"
I think I shook up the Doc with that one, but shi talked with me anyway. We came up with some basics, and as soon as I can I'm going to try them. It'll be weird, acting that much like an animal, but the Doc says we're flexible enough. At least I haven't messed up that yet.
I tried what the Doc suggested. Breathing through my nose. Not so bad in my den, not so much to smell. Don't know what all I did smell but when I closed my eyes I saw Pat.
Hey, over there.
Yeah, over there!
I tell you there was someone else in here with us!
Fine don't believe me. That's all I've got for you this time.
Because I hurt, that's why. My leg's sore and I've got a headache.
Yeah, and you aren't as nice as the guy I dreamed with before I got on that stupid plane . . .
He woke up to Pitty-Pat trying to settle hirself underneath him again. "Hey," he said to hir.
"Hey yourself," shi said, brushing his beautiful mane from his face. "Katherine says you're supposed to rest."
"Got a headache."
Pat made hirself comfortable an eased Taurger's head back until it rested against the bottom of hir breasts and wrapped hir arms loosely about his neck. Shi also stretched a handpaw across him, careful not to touch his still swollen leg or disturb the herbal compress. "You just tell that headache we've no room for uninvited guests in here," shi told hir denmate.
Shi could feel Taurger softly purring as he relax against hir. Shi began humming a quiet tune to him and thought about how easily shi'd known this big cat shi'd met only two days ago was the person shi wanted to spend the rest of hir life with. And as shi softly sang him the words of a lover's lullaby, shi could feel his happiness as he fell asleep in hir embrace.
Chapter 3 - Lyin' and Taurger and Bare (oh my)
1"What a Wonderful World" lyrics © George Weiss / Bob Thiele.
The characters Colonel Deering, Doctor DiVargin, Sarge Evens, "Doc" Katherine, May, Doctor Wong, White Tip and the setting are © Verina Ducain.
The character Redtuft and chakats are © Bernard Doove.
All other characters and this story are © 2004 Wayne Cook.