The Colony - Taurger by the Tale
Book 1 - I of the Taurger
Chapter 3 - Lyiní and Taurger and Bare (Oh My!)
By Wayne Cook (aka EarlWerks) © 2004
Set in The Colony by Verina Ducain
Based on Forest Tales by Bernard Doove
Taurger lay curled up in his den, tears dried on his furry face. Heíd wanted to try to figure things out, but alone, scared, upset, and angry with himself he fell into an exhausted sleep instead. As he slowly returned to consciousness, he entered the lucid dream of his Ďconversationsí for the third time since being transformed into a chakat and dumped with over five hundred other former humans onto an alien world.
"Iím not in the mood."
"Donít try to make nice with me! Where have you been?"
"No, donít change the subject! First, thereís you, a Ďnew personí to go with this Ďnew bodyí. Then you show up twice in three days. Now you wait four days to come back! Whatís your problem?"
"Well, youíve got lousy timing. Iíve needed somebody to talk to lately."
"No, I just canít talk with hir. This is kinda about hir."
"I guess Iím gonna have to tell you about the last four days..."
Taurger awoke in darkness. For chakats, darkness doesnít have the same meaning it does for humans. But it was before sunrise, and the small, pear-shaped chamber heíd claimed for his den was quite dark. He was about to get up when he remembered where he was. Pitty-Pat, the calico chakat whoíd been staying near him since the day theyíd arrived, lay half beneath him, embracing him with both arms as shi used hir body as a cushion for his head and shoulders. Hir right foreleg was lying across him, not quite touching his own right foreleg. That reminded him of what had happened to that limb.
The previous day (*Assuming I havenít been out longer*, he qualified) heíd been stupid enough to be stung by a local vermin that could pass for a scorpion. His leg had swollen up, pained him as if it was being cooked, and heíd ended up sleeping off some very sick feelings. He wasnít feeling sick right now, and his leg didnít hurt so much as feel just... odd. *Iíve been turned into a chakat, is this another transformation starting?* he wondered.
Experimentally he tried to raise his injured leg. It moved, but it felt like it weighed too much and it definitely didnít feel good to do it. *Still, I can feel it. Guess Iím not going to lose it. Maybe itís just aftereffects.* He experimented, this time moving the fingers on the handpaw. They worked too. Too bad it set his entire leg to aching again.
*Go back to sleep,* he chided himself. *Youíre not going anywhere until Pat gets up and lets go, anyway.* Closing his eyes, he tried to drift off. It didnít work. His thoughts wouldnít quiet down, and they began to wander over his situation. *Why am I still thinking of myself as a guy? I know Iím a chakat, I know chakats are herms, so why...?*
*Could be rut, I suppose. Donít feel any different, though, so probíly not. Gad, what would I do in rut? Are we even gonna have rut, or heat? I mean, we seem to be chakats, but how close are we, really? Over five hundred of us, twenty-four day cycle, two days each rut and heat, say twenty, no, twenty-one people each in twenty-four groups... forty-two in a two-day group... There should be eighty-four of us in rut or heat at any time. Thatís what, one in six? Why isnít anybody going off yet? Are we all in sync? Everybody goes in rut and heat at the same time? Thatíd be a mess!*
*Whadda we gonna do about heat, anyway? Weíre gonna almost beg for sex, and thatís when weíre most fertile. More than a dozen times a year. Gonna be hard to resist. No contraceptives, so... No latex Ė means condoms from animal parts... Whatíd they use? Sheep intestine? Yuck! Maybe some plant or something thatíll change the hormones... ĎThe pillí in natural form... Like weíd be so lucky.*
*All those babies. Cubs. No, kittens. Cub is when theyíre older. So when do they become adults? Put Ďem through a right of passage? Trials? It could justify making Ďcitizenshipí something to be earned. So then who decides the conditions?*
*Stupid leg. Whadda I do if it doesnít heal? Leg brace? Wheelchair? Not on rough terrain. And no way theyíd make a litter for me and carry me around. So whadda we do about cripples? This ainít exactly farmland. Plenty of dangers. Weíre gonna lose fingers, hands, legs... What happens to them?*
*Oh man. My mouth feels like its growing fur. No toothbrush. So we chew on bones? Rawhide? Oh, what was it they did in Ancient Egypt? Yeah, they chewed on sticks. Tip feathered... Thatíll do until I figure something out. How to fluff the end... Hand claws are too small... Maybe I can use a handpaw claw...*
*So much stuff weíll need just to take care of ourselves. Toothbrushes, combs, claw trimmers... mirrors, I suppose. Scissors, if we want a haircut. Maybe I should call it a Ďmane cutí. Heh. Pat would laugh at that, call it a pun.*
*Canít believe Patís a punster. Marine Ė what was shi Ė office clerk? Canít imagine a Marine tossing puns. Did they let hir on duty?*
*So much to do. Where do we start? Guess we got shelter, sort of. So water, salt Ė got that, food Ė I suppose, defense... Really need a source of metal. Iron, at least. Copper might do, if we can make bronze. Whadda ya mix to make bronze? Zinc? Tin? How we gonna find Ďem?*
*What else is there to find? Coal? Wood? Geez, what if we find gold? Or diamonds? Everybodyís gonna think of them as valuable, but what can we really do with Ďem? Would diamonds make good points, or would they be too hard to work? Gold would make a good weight. Too soft for a knife, except maybe as an alloy. Cups? Mirrors? Silveríd be better. How low do they melt? Where did I read about a gold frying pan? Not much practical use for soft metals, and not much point in decorations until weíre sure we can survive here long-term...*
In time, he noticed his den brightening, and he opened his eyes. The light was coming in from overhead. Not a direct shaft of light, but a glow reflecting out of a hole at the top. It must have originally let water in and hollowed out the chamber.
"Pretty, isnít it?"
Taurger started when Pat spoke, because he hadnít realized shi was awake. "Uh... sorry. Did I wake you?"
Pat chuckled. "No, our private alarm clock did that," shi said, gesturing to the glowing hole above them.
"Didnít do that before."
"Yes it did, two days ago. We werenít here to see it yesterday."
Taurger turned his head. "It did?"
"Yep. But you were out... looking for a bathroom, wasnít it?"
"Ah... yeah." Taurger settled back against Pat, embarrassed by the results of that search.
Pat chuckled again. "I wonder how long itíll do that? Maybe we should tell someone." But shi lay still, with no indication shi meant to get up.
"Somebodyís already sun gazing. Saw Ďem when I was... uh..."
"You saw hir while you were missing this show, right?"
"Yeah," he said. He felt like he wanted to curl into a ball and turn invisible.
Pat hugged her denmate with one arm while playing with Taurgerís unruly mane with the other hand. Shi put hir nose in his hair and whuffed softly, trying to be comforting. He relaxed for a few minutes, and then stiffened suddenly.
"I gotta go."
"I gotta go!"
"Oh... oh!" Pat helped Taurger roll upright to his belly then scrambled to hir feet. "Howís your leg feeling? Think you can stand?"
"Better. Not gonna get carried out." But when he tried to stand, he quickly dropped back to his belly. His injured leg had refused to bear his weight.
"You wait right here," Pat admonished, waving a finger at him. "Donít try it on your own!" Then she squeezed out the denís narrow entrance.
Alone for at least the moment, Taurger realized something else he needed to do. His first attempt to clean himself ended abruptly when, while trying to double over, he pinched his aching foreleg. The second try was more successful, and quickly finished. *Better not try to clean under my tail just yet,* he thought. *Hope somebodyís found something to wipe with. Hope Pat gets back soon!*
By the time Pitty-Pat returned, leading Katherine, the former veterinarian now in charge of all medicine for the group, the sunrise glow had faded and Taurger had a chance to compose himself. All three squeezed in to the small den, which left little room for anything else. It was so close, in fact, that Katherine had to walk with her forelegs over Patís back just to turn around and face Taurgerís injury, which prompted hir to tell Pat, "Maybe youíd better wait outside."
Once Pat had exited, Katherine examined the suffering leg. "Still slightly swollen. How does it feel?"
"Kinda aches, Ďspecially if Iíve moved it."
"Everything moves, though?"
"Yeah. Screams about it, but it moves."
"Letís try putting some weight on it." Katherine helped Taurger to stand without using his injured foreleg. Then, keeping him supported, shi had him carefully shift his weight. Shi stopped him almost immediately.
"No, Iím okay," Taurger hissed through gritted teeth.
"No youíre not. Itís pretty obvious that still hurts too much." *The talk about chakat Ďempathyí canít be a complete fiction,* the former veterinarian thought. *I could almost feel that pain myself. I donít know how shi kept from crying out.* "I donít want you putting any weight on that leg yet," Katherine admonished him.
"But I gotta go, Doc."
"Then youíre going to need a crutch." *A forked tree limb would be a ready-made crutch, but I donít think weíve found anything like that, yet. Maybe we could make one out of bamboo?* Then shi saw Pitty-Patís anxious expression as shi peered into the den. "Pat, do you think you can be a crutch?"
"Yes!" Pat replied eagerly as she immediately began to re-enter the den.
"No, stay out there. Iíll pass hir to you."
With surprisingly few complications Katherine and Pat got Taurger through the narrow entrance to the den. Pat, who was average in size for an adult chakat, found hir shoulders came only slightly higher than hir bigger denmateís armpit. By tilting a bit, shi was able to support the entire length of hir denmateís arm, keeping him upright as he limped slowly forward. Side by side, they went to the Main Cavern, Katherine trailing after. *Those two make a nice couple,* shi thought, watching as their tails played an intricate, if unconscious, game of tag.
"Pat stopped for directions to the latrine on the way out. That was really embarrassing."
"Yeah, I made it. Then Pat walked me back in and the day got worse..."
Breakfast consisted of a couple small fruits and a slice of some sort of melon. Not what Taurger would have preferred, but it seemed eggs over hard with grated cheese, wheat toast and fish sticks were going to be in short supply. Not to mention milk. Sausage, maybe. In fact, the kinds of things Taurger liked for breakfast required...
"What are you looking for, tiger?" Pitty-Pat asked.
"Just wondering what I missed yesterday." Slightly disgusted with himself, he noted some people next to what was apparently becoming the kitchen. They were working on polishing some sandstone blocks. *Have ta come up with something else to do,* he decided. *Whyíd I think theyíd leave it to me, anyway?*
May, whoíd originally been a flight attendant and now was part of White Tipís inner circle, had joined them for breakfast. Between bites and comments, shi and Pat were talking like office workers. Shelves, supplies, procedures...
"Youíre talking Ďbout a library, right?" Taurger asked.
"Yes," Pat answered.
Pat grinned. "Because if we plan it out now weíll be ready for when we have paper and ink."
"I know that," Taurger said testily. "I mean why you?"
May answered. "Because White Tip asked, on Colonel Deeringís recommendation."
"Remember, I told you I was a Marine headquarters clerk. I do know something about managing paperwork."
Taurger said to Pat, "So youíll run the office." Turning to May, he asked, "And youíll be the librarian?"
Pat laid hir arm across Taurgerís withers in an intimate gesture. "More like Iím the staff and Mayís the boss. With hir memory shi doesnít really need a library."
Taurger sought a good analogy. "That makes you librarian, and May minister of information."
"I never thought of it like that," May said, surprised.
Chuckling, Pat grinned at Taurger and said to May, "Donít worry about it. Everythingís can stay pretty informal as long as itís just volunteers. Besides, we canít do too much until we get something to write with."
"Parchment and ink," Taurger commented, nodding.
"Probably paper," Pat said. "Somebody was looking into that yesterday."
"Night Runner," May said. "He ran it past White Tip after supper."
"Might do better with parchment," Taurger said, for once too preoccupied to correct the use of a gendered pronoun. "I think it keeps longer, and weíre already getting hides. Weíll wanna be tanning, anyway. And it didnít look to me like there was a lot of wood around here."
"Iíll mention it," May said. "Iím sure someone knows how to tan leather."
"Sorry, tiger," Pat said, "But I donít think weíll be using much parchment."
"Why not?" he asked.
Pat ticked off counter-arguments on hir fingers. "First, leather and parchment are slightly different processes."
"Anything we do here is going to be a new process, at least as far as doing it here is concerned."
"True," Pat agreed, "but thereís a big difference between trying to recreate something youíve done before and doing something youíve only had described to you, even if we have to find out what does and doesnít work here. Weíre more like to have someone who knows about making leather than making parchment. Second, paper can be produced in quantity, parchment canít. Itís limited by the supply of appropriate hides, because you canít make parchment out of just any hide. Third, parchment is actually more sensitive to moisture than paper. And lastly, weíll probably be able to start making paper in about the same time it would take to start making parchment." Shi put her arm around Taurger and gave a little hug. "Now if you know how to make parchment already, Iíll get you whatever you need."
Taurger shook his head, trying to put yet another idea out of his thoughts.
"Then letís let May pass it on as a suggestion. You already have a job." At Taurgerís puzzled look, Pat nuzzled him and said, "Getting better."
Before Taurger could react to his embarrassment the moment was broken by the exuberant Blue bounding up and all but pouncing on Pitty-Patís back. "Good to see you up and about!" shi said, hugging both of hir friends.
"And what have you been doing?" Pat asked.
"Out with Goldie." Seeing the last of the trioís breakfast, shi said, "Ooo, those blue ones are good!"
Although he wasnít very fond of the bluish fruits himself Taurger held his last piece of breakfast aside, afraid the grey chakat might think of snatching it away. "Doing what?" he asked.
"Out at hir target range," Blue said. Seeing Taurgerís blank expression, she grinned and said, "You know, Ďwatching the submarine racesí."
Taurger opened his mouth to ask, "What submarines?" when he suddenly realized what Blue meant. His mouth snapped shut as he winced and turned his face away.
Blue giggled briefly until shi saw Patís silent head shake Ďnoí. Retreating to a more polite position in front of the others, shi asked, "So what are you three doing, besides breakfast?"
"Theyíre planning a library," Taurger said. "And Iím just supposed to sit here."
"Library, huh?" Blue said. "Sounds like you need to talk to Rodney."
"Who?" Pat asked.
"Rodney Davies," Blue explained. "He was a grad-ass handling records for Doctor Shing when DiVargin tapped him to do that for the whole expedition."
"And shi knows library science?"
"Well, it wasnít hir minor or anything, but yeah, shi knows it. A bit of an attitude with new people, but shi figures out who shi can trust pretty quick." Conspiratorially Blue leaned in and whispered, "And you gotta take a look at hir. You wonít believe it." Shi refused to elaborate, but offered to send Rodney over when shi found hir.
"Then Blue went off to find this Rodney, and May and Pat excused themselves when Doctor Wong stopped by to check my leg."
"The whole morning went that way. A whole string of people stopping by to see my leg, say Ďhií, ask me if I wanted anything... I thought everybodyíd seen my leg the day before..."
"Since they were coming by anyway, I got a few of them to bring me some stuff. Had an idea for something thatíd be useful in the back caves, so I wanted to try aní make one. All I needed was something like a bowl, a barrier, some cord, and some kinda oil, maybe a stone or two for a hammer to shape it. Had no idea where to get oil just then, but Iíd knew thereíd be some eventually, probably by the time I had everything else done. Was gonna use a skull to make the bowl, maybe some small spine bone for a neck, and I figured I already had the wick on me."
"ĎCourse I hadda do that between people interrupting and asking questions or telling me what they were doing. And when I finally got a break from the gawking and gabbing, somebody else showed up..."
Taurger dropped the bowl heíd trimmed from a skull and nearly jumped to his paws when somebody surprised him by brushing hir fingers just under his tail, but his sore leg reminded him to stay down. Instead, he tucked his tail down and turned to the prankster. Expecting Blue, Pat, or someone else he knew teasing him again, he planned to chastise them by saying, "Thatís not funny," but when he turned, he was looking at a nearly pure white longhaired chakat heíd never seen before.
"Well!" the newcomer said. "I thought youíd never be left alone." Shi actually slinked along Taurgerís left side until they were nose to nose. "Youíre pretty popular. I can see why."
Taurger shied back. The white chakat slipped a little closer and settled down beside him, one foreleg over his withers. *Whatís going on?* Taurger thought. He leaned away from hir until his swollen leg complained.
"Big, too," the white said, smiling and leaning into him. "I like big." Shi brushed back a disobedient lock of hair from Taurgerís face, and then reached across to pull him closer. Hir breast pressed into his side and shi licked hir lips. "Mmm," shi murmured as shi began to purr.
Too stunned at first to say anything, Taurger could only listen as the white chakat whispered, "I heard youíve found yourself a cozy little den. Nice and Ė private."
Then the white chakat raised hir other hand toward Taurgerís breasts. That ended it. Taurger blocked the move with his own upraised arm, fist clenched. "Get off me," he said, enunciating each word strongly.
"Oh, donít be like that," the white chakat said, trying to brush Taurgerís arm aside.
He could feel the small claws on his fingers digging into his palm, so he opened his hand. His finger claws seemed longer for some reason. "I said," he growled, "ĎGet Ė off Ė me!í"
The white chakat pulled back slightly, but didnít move away. "Whatís wrong? Iím only suggesting we have a little fun." When Taurger didnít respond immediately, shi leaned in again and whispered, "A little Ďexplorationí, finding out what we can..." Then shi saw the look in Taurgerís eyes and stopped.
Taurgerís eyes were narrowed angrily. His ears were flat, and his lip began to twitch into a fang-baring snarl. His tail snapped from side to side in agitation. More and more people were turning to look at the disturbance, as they found it harder to ignore the agitated feelings flowing from the pair.
The white chakat was just beginning to rise when shi yelped and sprang away. Pitty-Pat had charged in and stood over Taurgerís back, snarling. Hir hands were spread, claws extended, and shi was even angrier than Taurger. Shi glared at the white chakat, who cowered belly-down a full length away.
"What is your problem?" the white chakat asked.
"Keep away from Taurger!" Pat spat. "Shiís still recovering!"
"Shi can be with anybody shi wants!"
"Shi doesnít want you!"
"You just donít want to share!"
Pat would have attacked the white chakat at that point, but Taurger put a hand on hir foreleg. "No," was all he said, but it wasnít clear to whom because he wasnít looking at either.
The white chakat stood up. "There, you see? I..."
"Go Ė away," Taurger said, and this time there was no misunderstanding that he meant the white chakat.
"But..." shi started to say. One glance at Taurgerís face silenced hir. Shi looked at Pitty-Pat, then back at Taurger. With a "humf" and a toss of hir mane shi walked stiffly away.
May, whoíd trotted up during the confrontation, dispersed the small crowd whoíd gathered to watch. "All over now," shi admonished them. "Nothing to see. Go back to what you were doing."
Pat had immediately wrapped hir arms around hir denmate and buried hir nose in his hair. Shi could feel him trembling, as shi asked, "Are you okay?"
Taurger, his eyes squeezed shut, nodded. "I... who..." he tried to say.
"That," May explained, "was Purrsia."
Pat lifted hir head. "Purrsia? The one who..."
May nodded. "She seems to have taken a real liking to being a chakat. Especially to being hermaphrodite."
Taurger groaned and slid forward from Patís arms. He dropped his face into his hands and propped his head up with his elbows, once again not correcting Mayís pronouns.
"Whatís wrong?" Pat asked, gently stroking hir denmateís shoulders.
Through his hands, Taurger said, "First day out and Iím molested by the local perv."
May couldnít keep from smiling. "Donít worry about it," shi said. "There are a couple others who have chased her off, too. Just growl at her if she gets too close again."
Pat grinned. "Shiís a stickler on the new pronouns. Hang around hir long enough and shiíll drill them into your head." Leaning down to hir denmate, shi said quietly, "Blue said shiíd be around all day. Iíll ask hir to keep an eye out. Make sure Purrsia doesnít come back."
Taurger sighed and lowered his hands, but still leaned forward on his elbows. "Thanks."
"In fact," Pat added, "here shi comes with Goldeneye and what looks like lunch. But whoís that with... oh my!"
Taurger hung his head with eyes closed until Pat gave him a little shake. He looked up at hir, but shi was watching something else with a peculiar expression. When he turned, he saw Blue and Goldeneye, and someone else with gold-in-black spots on a dark red coat. When he took a closer look at the spots, he could only stare at their intricate, twisted-teardrop shapes.
"People, Iíd like to introduce you to Rodney Davies," Blue said, gesturing. "Rodney, this is May, Pitty-Pat and Taurger."
Taurger blinked and looked up to Rodneyís face to say, "Uh, hi," then back down at hir coat.
Rodney, for hir part, seemed resigned to the looks shi was getting. The six chakats made themselves comfortable and shared out the food Goldeneye had brought. "Well," Rodney said, "Isnít anyone going to say it?"
"Say what?" Pat asked, avoiding looking directly at Rodney. Taurger, once heíd put his little project aside and been handed his meal, had stopped staring and devoted himself to eating.
"Theyíre being polite, Rodney," May said.
Rodney sighed. "Itís kind of like waiting for the other shoe to drop," shi said. "Everybody ends up saying something. I look likeó"
"Paisley," Taurger said without looking up. He continued as if he was reading it from a book. "Pattern named for the British city that originated it in the nineteenth century. Probably one of the first patterns to take full advantage of programmable looms. Based on Arabic designs. Real popular with the Victorians." He showed he was finished by stuffing a roasted tuber in his mouth, whole.
After a moment of stunned silence, Goldeneye quipped, "That was succinct."
Rodney snorted in amusement. "I was going to say I look like upholstery."
Everyone relaxed for the rest of the meal.
"Blue told us you know something about libraries," Pitty-Pat said to Rodney later, as the sextet was finishing.
"Iíd been keeping Doctor DiVarginís records organized," Rodney said. "Heís already told me Iíll have to handle any documents here."
"Shi," Taurger said, as May and Pat exchanged looks.
"What? Oh," Rodney shrugged. "I suppose. Kind of a silly word, if you ask me."
"You got something better?" Taurger asked.
"You feel female?"
"Ah..." Rodney said, squirming slightly. "Guess not."
"Back to libraries," Pat said. "Do you have a KOS in mind?"
"A..." Rodney said, unsure what Pat meant.
Pat grinned, and then explained. "Knowledge Organization System. Weíll want to be able to archive and retrieve not only what we learn about where and what we are now, but everything we can remember about Earth and science. Plus pictures, samples, maps..."
"Okay, so maybe Iím not a Library Science major. But itís not like weíve got anybody else to do it."
"Maybe we can help," May said.
"White Tipís relying on May for information because of her memory," Pat said. "And the Colonel offered me to help hir because I was a Headquarters clerk, effectively the office manager."
"Lots of information flow and yes, a small library," Pat explained.
"So you were what, a sergeant?"
"Marine corporal. My promotion was in process." Pat shrugged. "The Colonel wanted me to take over the office, so shi was fast-tracking me through the ranks. One of the few perks about doing a good job in the military."
"I donít know if DiVargin would like a military records system."
"We were talking about that this morning," May said.
*Theyíre double-teaming hir,* Taurger thought, having seen this before during endless years of office politics. *Theyíll keep going back and forth so shi canít concentrate on either of them.*
Pat nodded to Mayís comment. "The Marine system is pretty specific, and not well suited for exploration or scientific experimentation. We also realized weíd need to store models and samples as well as written or drawn records. Neither of us could think of a perfect match, so weíll probably develop our own KOS."
"But we can start with one of the standard systems," May said.
"Have you ever worked with UDC?" Pat asked.
"Uh... I donít think so," Rodney said hesitantly.
"Dewey Decimal?" May asked.
"Library of Congress?" Pat asked.
Rodney chuckled. "I think DiVargin would throw a hissy if we did anything Congress."
"Too bad," Pat said, deciding that the dirty pun shiíd immediately thought of should be left unsaid, at least around Taurger. "They managed to include a sizeable collection of artifacts using their system."
"It shouldnít be too much of a loss. Like you said," May told Pat, "weíll probably end up making our own."
"Maybe we can adapt just that much into Dewey."
Rodney seemed a little less sure of hirself now. "Maybe," shi said. "But I think shelves and furniture will be a bigger problem. At least somebodyís working on paper."
Pat grinned and glanced at Taurger, who was the only one oblivious to hir expression. "Oh, Iím sure weíll come up with answers to everything. Weíre a very creative lot."
"Weíll be making furniture, sure," Rodney said. "But where will we put it? I mean, have you looked around? Thereís no way to put up shelves in a place like this."
"Why not?" Taurger asked.
Rodney gestured to the wall. "Just look around! All curves and odd shapes. Not a straight vertical anywhere to put a shelf."
"So donít put Ďem on walls."
Rodney looked at Taurger as if he were an idiot. "I may not know much about knowledge systems, but I do know that weíll need shelves on walls."
Pat waved Rodney to silence. "What are you thinking?" shi asked Taurger.
"Well, thereís a big chamber back in a ways," said Taurger. "And if you..." He paused, trying to work out a shape with his hands.
"The one we saw while looking for a den?" Pat asked.
"Yeah," answered Taurger. "Itís... here," he said, and he swiped a hand over the sparse dirt on the floor of the cavern to smooth it. With a finger claw, he started to sketch out his idea. "Itís a big, oval kinda shape. The floorís not perfectly flat, but that can be fixed with dirt, or concrete, or whatever. But thereís plenty of room in the middle for free-standing shelves."
Rodney pointed to the edge of Taurgerís drawing, where the oval separated from the lines showing where shelves would go. "And just waste all the irregular space out here, right?"
"No," Taurger said, and began drawing small rectangles to line the inside of the oval. "Here you put desks, chairs, workspaces, reading pits Ė anything you want near the stacks. So you go in, get your books, come out of the stacks, and read. No corners to get stuck in, you can rearrange the shelves anytime you want, and all the weird shapes are in stuff that doesnít have to be so organized."
"The furniture would have to be custom built to the walls, maybe even permanent," Rodney said, still doubtful but beginning to appreciate the ideaís potential.
"Weíre not going to be mass producing for a while," Pat countered, "so no problem there. And I can see some real possibilities with this." Shi made some marks of hir own at one end of Taurgerís oval. "Reception, book return, check-out, maybe reading and viewing rooms in side chambers. Or a conference room, if thereís something big enough. And if itís the one Iím thinking of, itís tall enough inside for a balcony or second level, and a natural depression that would make a very nice public meeting pit." Almost to hirself, shi added, "Probably should have Ramirez look it over."
May pointed to the boxes on the edge of the oval and said, "Some of those could be display cases."
"Yeah," said Rodney, leaning in for a closer look. "And maybe..." Shi glanced up and noticed Pitty-Pat beaming at Taurger, who was staring thoughtfully at his sketch in the dirt. Shi righted hirself and said, "Iíd like to see this big room."
Still grinning, Pat turned to Rodney and said, "No problem. Is now good?"
Rodney blinked. "Nowís fine."
"Iíve got to get back to the practice fields," Goldeneye said. Before he headed out, he asked Taurger, "When youíre walking again, will you come out there?"
Taurger looked dubious. "You really donít want me throwing or shooting things."
"Well, some of us are mentoring anybody who doesnít have outdoor experience," Goldeneye explained. "Even if you donít shoot, Iíd like you to come out. Thereís some things Iíd like to show you."
"Iíll think about it," said Taurger.
Pat put a hand on hir denmateís shoulder. "Iíll walk you, if you want," shi told him.
Taurger looked at hir. "Learn something so I donít do something stupid again, right?"
Pat hugged him and whispered, "Youíre not stupid. Youíre just not used to living outside a city." Stepping back shi asked, "Do you need anything?"
"No, Iím going to try and nap."
"Iíll be in earshot if shi does," Blue said. Shi grinned as shi gestured over hir shoulder toward the cooking area and, rolling hir eyes, told them, "They think theyíre going to build an oven today."
As May, Pitty-Pat and Rodney walked toward the back of the main cavern, Rodney caught Pat looking back at Taurger. "So you two are an item?" Rodney asked.
"Sort of," Pat said, grinning as shi led the other two through one of the passages deeper into the ridge.
"How can you be Ďsort ofí an item?"
"Well, Taurgerís... not too sure about some things." Pat sighed.
"But you like her."
"Hir. And yes, I knew how I felt the moment I saw hir."
"You realize that on the plane Taurger wasó" May began.
Pat cut hir off. "Iíve got a pretty good idea what Taurger was before. I donít think thatís the problem, but if it is, weíll deal with it."
Rodney said, "But you said you were a Marine. I thought there werenít any women posted at that base."
"We had female Marines, but I was Corporal William Patterson," Pat told hir. "And before you ask, no, I wasnít. But from the moment I saw Taurger three days ago, I couldnít care less. I canít imagine how Iíd have felt if we met as humans, but as chakats..."
"Isnít Ďdenmateí supposed to mean youíre lovers?" May asked.
"In the stories," Pat explained, "or so Taurger says. But weíre sharing a den, so what else would we call ourselves?"
"Maybe Ďroommatesí?" Rodney offered.
Pat grinned. "Tell that to Taurger. Shiís the one who scratched ĎTaurgerís Dení in the wall. Thereís the place we want, on the right."
As the approached the large archway into the proposed library chamber, May had a last question. "I saw a Sergeant Ramirez on the passenger list. Why would you want him Ė hir Ė to see this?"
"Ramirez is what they called a Ďtunnel ratí back during Vietnam," explained Pat. "A lot of experience with underground areas and small spaces. Amateur spelunker, too, although shiís Ďamateurí like the old Soviet Olympians."
"A good person to have around in this place," Rodney said. "So letís see this big room."
The three chakats entered the large chamber Taurger suggested for a library. Even in what little light managed to reach so deep it looked big enough to serve their needs for their lifetime. And when Pitty-Pat decided to check the acoustics shi gave them a completely different surprise.
"I managed to go to sleep after lunch. Got back on my four-nap schedule again. People may say Iím weird for taking long naps, but now that Iím a chakat itís better than trying to sleep a full night, or stay awake all day. It gets kinda hot right after lunch, aní itís almost impossible to see in twilight, despite chakat night vision."
"Of course I wasnít thrilled about what I woke up to Ė or what woke me up..."
A sudden pain in his right leg brought Taurger awake with a start. Something was weighing him down and had disturbed the lingering swelling. He tried to turn to push it off, but whatever was on top of him was still there. *Pat,* he reasoned. *Shi always ends up using me as a pillow or something.* So when he heard multiple voices and separate movements from at least three different people he was quite surprised.
"Whaí happen?" someone asked groggily.
"Shi moved," was the answer from someone else.
"Somebodyís on my sore leg," Taurger told the voices testily.
"Sorry," a voice on his right said, and the weight vanished.
The weight on his shoulders moved, too. It felt like someone had shifted lower across his withers. Whatever the reason, he was now able to come upright and see what was going on.
Taurger was surrounded by several lounging chakats ranging from cubs to adults, with one kitten curled up on his broad back, all piled together with him in the middle. It was obvious theyíd all been sleeping, although most seemed to be waking up. Comments of "that was good" and "God bless the siesta" mingled with the yawns and stretches. The person to his right, a traditionally colored tiger-pattern chakat, said, "Sorry about that. Is your leg okay?"
He flexed his right foreleg experimentally, and felt a twinge as the abused tissues objected. "No worse than before," he said.
The other tiger-stripe sighed with relief and said, "Thatís good. Iím Tigris, by the way."
Taurger took the offered hand and shook it. "Taurger," he told hir. Turned to see the sleeping kitten, he could see the empty space where heíd put his bone project before lunch. Someone had walked off with everything, probably to throw it out.
Looking over the slowly dispersing sleepers as shi hirself stood up, Tigris said, "Looks like you started quite a pile."
"You sound pretty bummed out. Because of your leg, or getting buried?"
"No... kinda." Taurger sighed. Tigris was silent, but somehow encouraged him to continue. "Trying to find something I can do, but everything Iíve come up withís being done or I canít."
"Yeah. Thinking too much again, I suppose. Been warned about that."
Tigris tried to keep from smiling. "Iím sure thereís something that needs to be done that will come to you," shi said. Then Taurgerís comment registered. "Who said you think too much?"
"Besides my boss? Therapist. Long time ago." He closed his eyes and recited what heíd sometimes used as a chant when things got rough. "ĎThinking becomes frustration. Frustration becomes anger. Anger becomes violence. Violence becomes blood.í Said when I get frustrated I should just stop thinking."
That didnít seem right to Tigris. "Your therapist isnít here, I take it," shi said.
Taurger sighed. "Havenít seen anybody since those first few sessions."
"No money. Company dropped coverage right after I started. Which was stupid, because they sent me."
*Before they were finished,* Tigris guessed. *Thereís no way any ethical therapist would leave a patient thinking like that.* Aloud shi said, "Well, donít worry about it anymore. If you donít have something to do, you think about what you can do when your legís better. Or what someone else can do right now."
Taurger gave an amused snort and pulled yet another lock of hair from his face. "Looks like right now my job is Ďmattressí," he said, looking over his shoulder at the kitten still curled up on his back. When he turned back his mane was in the way again. Angrily, he took both hands and pulled all of it back then held it there, his eyes squeezed shut. Eventually resigning himself to the inevitable, he sighed and let go. Some of his mane fell across his face again.
"Quite a mop youíve got," Tigris commented, amused.
"I think Iíd feel better maneless."
"I can fix that," someone to his left said.
Both Taurger and Tigris turned to the speaker, a young reddish-brown chakat with black markings. Taurger took the offending hair between two fingers and held it out as he asked, "You got a pair of scissors?"
"No," the young chakat said, laughing. "Braid it."
Taurger looked at Tigris, who shrugged. He looked back at the young chakat and said, "Show me."
As the cub (a teenager, if hir size was any indication) started to work on the left side of his mane, Tigris said to Taurger, "Iíll leave you two," glanced at the kitten still on Taurgerís back, then continued, grinning, "three alone. Thereís somebody I want to check on."
"Bye, Tigris," said Taurger.
"Iíll stop by for another nap sometime," shi said as shi walked away. "And you better have some ideas to tell me!"
Taurger would have shaken his head, but the young chakat was holding a fair chunk of his mane. Instead, he closed his eyes and let hir work. When it seemed to be taking some time, he asked, "Iím Taurger. Whatíre you called?"
"Black Tail." Shi continued braiding, uninterrupted.
Taurger opened one eye and looked squarely at Black Tailís face. "Your parents let you change your name?" he asked.
Black Tail paused a beat, then continued braiding and said, "My parentís werenít on the plane."
"Oh. Sorry." He closed his eyes again.
Black Tail braided for a while in silence, and then said, "White Tip said shiíd take care of us."
"Good. Better than having everybody on your case."
"Yeah. But I still have to deal with the pest."
"My little sister, Melissa."
Taurger made an amused noise and said, "Iíve heard they can be a real problem."
"Youíve heard?" Black Tail said, and paused.
"I was an only child."
"Oh." And Black Tail went back to braiding. A moment later shi said, "White Tip wonít call me Black Tail."
"What does shi call you?"
"That was your name before?"
"Yeah," Brandy said.
"Can I call you Black Tail?"
Brandy grinned. "Really?"
Taurger nodded, just a little. With his eyes still closed, he couldnít see Black Tailís smile.
Black Tail tied off the braid and cheerfully said, "Finished."
Taurger opened his eyes and looked for his mane. There were a few stray hairs on his right, but his left was completely clear. He shook his head, something that always brought hair to his face, but it only appeared on the right.
The broad grin on the big chakatís face spoke volumes to Black Tail. "Iíll do the other side, too," shi said.
"Please! Just donít step on the leg," Taurger warned hir as he closed his eyes again, a habit heíd picked up during haircuts as a human.
"Thatís the one the scorpion got, right?" Black tail asked.
"They made me come in and look. Made me smell one of those things, too. Did it hurt?"
"Like a needle when it happened. By the time they got me back it hurt a lot."
"Howíd you keep from smelling it?"
"I didnít even know it was out there!"
Black Tail braided in silence for a moment, and then said, "Theyíre talking about starting classes about living outdoors. Maybe you should go, too."
"Think I was already asked."
Just then, another young chakat came trotting up. "Whatcha doiní, Brandy?" shi asked.
"Shiís helping me with my hair," Taurger said.
"It was falling all over hir face," Black Tail said. "Taurger, this is Buffy. Buffy, Taurger. Taurger said shiíd call me Black Tail."
Taurger opened his eyes and waved at the tan chakat with red tail and mane. "Hi."
Buffy bobbed hir head and said, "Hi," then flopped down beside Black Tail. "I thought chakats were supposed to hug when they said hi," shi asked.
"Not while my hairís being knotted," Taurger said, closing his eyes again. "And some people arenít gonna be ready for that. And Iíve got this leg."
"Eww," Buffy complained, "Itís still swollen? Does it hurt?"
"Twinges if I move it."
"Ya know, that Katherine doctor said if itíd been one of us, weídía been killed."
"Unlike me, who just wanted to die."
"Yeah, I guess!" Buffy watched Black Tail work on the braid, then said, "Uh oh. Pest alert."
"Your sister?" Taurger asked.
"No," Black Tail said, "the Vampire."
"Shiís cub-sitting again," Buffy said with a giggle. "Shiís got Michelle with hir. Hurry up, Brandy!"
Taurger peeked out of one eye and saw Professor Van Peer approaching, hand in hand with a small cub. The little cub had very similar coloring to Buffy, only a little darker. Shi was also a lot less animated, hir tail almost dragging on the ground.
"Done!" Black Tail said.
"Letís get out of here!" Buffy said, and the two older cubs scrambled away.
"Brandy! Buffy!" Van Peer called after them. When they didnít respond shi shook hir head and stepped up to Taurger.
Taurger looked up at Van Peer and, trying to be civil, said, "Hello, Professor. Something I can do for you?" Van Peer stopped in front of him, an odd expression on hir face. *Sometimes these feline faces seem so strange,* Taurger thought.
"I donít suppose you would know where those two were headed, would you?" Van Peer asked.
"Sorry," Taurger said. Van Peer was looking down at the cub beside hir now, hir expression different but just as confusing to Taurger. "You gonna go look for them?" Taurger asked.
"White Tip..." Van Peer started, but shi fell silent as shi turned to stare in the direction Buffy and Black Tail had left.
Taurger sympathized with the Professor. "Not exactly a great start for either of us, is it?" he said.
"What do you mean by that?" Van Peer asked coldly.
Taurger shrugged. "First you and I go head to head. Now Iím out with this leg and theyíve got you cubsitting." Without looking at Van Peer he added, "Your background is at least of some use. All I ever learned was computers. Even if I were walking I wouldnít be of much use."
Van Peer opened hir mouth to say something, but couldnít think of anything. *Damn you! You embarrass me in front of everyone, and now youíre commiserating! I canít even make myself say something to cut you down! Why canít I say something to hurt you?* Shi knew several appropriate slights that had proven very reliable in the past, but here in front of the big chakat shi could only stand and watch as he shifted slightly to try and make himself comfortable. *Those braids do frame your face nicely,* shi thought. *No! Stop that! This is the opposition, not a prospective date!*
Taurger looked up at the Professor. Mistaking the meaning of hir frustrated expression, he offered, "Why donít you leave hir with me? Maybe you can catch those other two." To the cub he asked, "Whatís your name?"
"Michelle," was the quiet reply.
Coming to a decision, Van Peer started, "Stay with..." before realizing shi would normally use a pronoun, something shi was loathe to do in front of the person who embarrassed hir on that very topic. "Stay with Taurger," shi finally managed. Shi headed off after Brandy and Buffy, trying to decide exactly what it was that was affecting hir.
Michelle sat on Taurgerís left, staring at the ground. Taurger took this to mean shi was sad about something, but wasnít sure he should bother hir for the reason. Instead, he twisted around to check on the kitten that was still curled up on his rather extensive back. *Somebody once told me, ĎDonít talk down to children.í And that doesnít mean height,* he reminded himself, glancing at the top of Michelleís head.
"Iím surprised anybody cín sleep in this place," he said as he gently stroked the kittenís mane. Shi seemed to enjoy it, and shifted slightly but didnít wake up.
"Itís not so bad," Michelle replied.
Taurger stopped and looked directly at Michelle. "Would be for me, if I hadnít found a den of my own."
"Ya know, I read some of the chakat stories, and they had a saying. ĎTail high.í I only mention it Ďcause yours seemed ta be dragginí a bit."
Michelle still didnít speak, but shi sighed and leaned against Taurger.
He reached around hir and put his hand on hir shoulder. "I suppose for a little wisp like you it gets pretty boring."
"Yeah." Taurger didnít press the issue. If the cub wanted to talk, shiíd talk. If not, it was none of his business.
After a long moment of silence, Michelle asked, "What do you do when youíre bored?"
"Oh, Iíd watch a video, or play a game on my computer, or surf the web."
"What kind of games?"
"I liked the world-building strategy ones. You know, Ďbuild up your country, take over the worldí. Stuff I could do differently when I came back to it next time."
Michelle was quiet a moment, and then said, "I liked to draw. Canít do that, either."
"Oh? Why not?"
Michelle looked down again, scratching a finger claw idly in the dirt. "Theyíre going to keep all the paper for the grownups."
"Well then, weíll find you somethiní else."
Taurger inhaled, and let it out slowly, thinking. "Well... the Indians would paint on leather. And the Egyptians made papyrus out of reeds. And I think the Chinese did something with bamboo. Of course, I saw slate out there before I got this." He gestured idly to his injured leg. "And thereís the Seminolesí solution."
"Whoís the Seminoles?"
"They were a tribe of American Indians who came out of Florida. They were the only tribe that came up with their own written language, and they didnít have any paper."
"Whatíd they do?" asked Michelle, a lot more interested than when shi arrived.
"They used birch bark."
"Yep. They peeled it off trees, flattened it out, and it was almost as good as paper. Oh, Indians used it for lots of stuff. Canoes, buildings, baskets..."
Professor Van Peer chose that moment to return, alone. As if on cue, the kitten on Taurgerís back woke up at the same time. Shi stretched and jumped down, but the Professor caught hir before shi could scamper off. "Oh, no you donít," shi said as shi lifted the kitten to hir shoulder. Shi held hir hand out to Michelle and said, "Time to go."
As Van Peer and Michelle left, the cub turned back and waved, a grin on hir face, hir tail waving proudly behind hir. Taurger could also see the kittenís face peering over the Professorís shoulder.
"The rest of the afternoon went pretty much the same as the morning, but without Purrsia, and a few times I could just try to think things through. I did a kinda crude abacus with pebbles and circles on the ground, but it didnít take much for the numbers to get outa hand, since I didnít have too many pebbles. Really need a spreadsheet to do that kinda population projection. Then my pebbles walked off with somebody for some game or somethiní. But I did manage to get some stuff I took back to the den after supper."
"Pat noticed my new braids and said they were Ďcuteí. Shi kept tapping them, making them swing. Blue called hir a real feline for doing it."
"On the way back to my den I realized we were getting better at hobbling. Didnít hurt as much as it did in the morning."
"Oh, yeah. Right. The stuff I took back with me..."
True to his "four nap" schedule, Taurger was awake a few hours after he and Pitty-Pat had laid down. The calico had cradled his head in hir arms again, so he didnít want to disturb hir by moving around too much. Otherwise, heíd have shifted to the other side of the small chamber to work.
In the scant light of his den at night, Taurger fiddled and twiddled with what someone had told him were bamboo leaves. Long, thin, and surprisingly flexible for having been off the plant for at least a day, heíd made sure to get some when he found out they were being used to weave baskets. But a basket was not what he had in mind.
*The problemís the middle limbs,* he pondered. *Arms are just a crossbar, head a loop, split the back three ways for legs and tail... Right angle in the middle? Can the legs come down from that? How to make the bend stay put...*
Somewhere around midnight, he napped again. After he awoke he found the answer. *Start with the hind legs. Inverted "U" to the fronts. Double over straight up to the head and loop back. Bend at the withers and... Yeah, thatíll hold. And if I donít make it too big, Iíll have plenty left for the tail, and hold the rear legs down against that! Hmm, maybe too much tail. But if I trim it right... Thatís too long for the arms... Ties. Nope, too short. Stick with the stuff Iíd set aside when I started. Make paws, hold it together, feather the top for... No, has to be just the back. How? Ah, the scraps. Stick it in and feather it out for a nice mane. Yeah. Check that everythingís tight... and...*
Feeling like heíd finally accomplished something, even if it didnít have a practical use, Taurger carefully used his tail to put his little chakat figure out of the way on one of the narrow stone ledges his den had been carved through and went back to sleep until dawn.
"The sun lit up that roof hole again, so I guess Pat was right. Nobodyíd sleep late in that den. Not that you could fit anybody else without making a second layer."
"The next morning I limped back into the big room, where I eventually found out somebodyíd pulled a nasty trick on me..."
Pitty-Pat had gone off to see if shi could help on the papermaking project after a quick breakfast, leaving Taurger to rest in a different part of the main cavern than the day before. At first, he didnít realize others were gathering around him. Then White Tip, Katherine and May settled in next to him.
"You should have heard him," May was saying. "It reminded me of how different your roar was from your speaking voice."
"Weíll have to ask hir to perform for the rest of us sometime," White Tip replied, with only the slightest emphasis on the pronoun. To Taurger shi said, "Hello. You must be Taurger." The white tiger chakat just nodded and shook the offered hand.
"Howís your leg feeling?" Katherine asked, placing hirself between Taurger and White Tip.
"Better, I think," Taurger told hir.
"Iím glad you feel up to joining us," said White Tip, settling in. "I think everybody should attend at least once."
Taurger shrugged, blinked, and asked, "Whadda ya mean, Ďattendí?"
The other three chakats looked at each other, mystified. White Tip turned to the big chakat and said, "Youíre here for the morning meeting, right?"
"No, I..." Taurger started. His expression changed from confusion to surprise to disgust as White Tipís words registered. "Oh, geez."
"You donít like meetings?" May asked, grinning.
"Meetings donít do anything. Itís just bosses ragging on staff."
"That sounds like too many organizations Iíve seen," White Tip said.
Taurger closed his eyes and turned away. "Iíll... keep my mouth shut."
"If thereís something you think needs to be said, I expect you to speak up," said White Tip. Shi wasnít convinced by Taurgerís automatic nod. Another thing shiíd seen too often in hir previous career.
Others were still gathering as Katherine leaned over to Taurger and said quietly, "I thought you were going to close your mouth." When Taurger gave hir a questioning look, she said, "You were going to try breathing through your nose."
"You really donít know how bad this place smells, do you?" Taurger muttered.
"Five hundred felines in even this big space is going to leave an odor," said Katherine. "Youíll get used to it."
Taurger continued breathing through his mouth, although he tried to keep it open only a slit so people wouldnít stare. He also tried to ignore the discussions that passed in front of him, concentrating instead on coming up with something he could do himself. A couple hours later and the third time people from DiVarginís and Deeringís camps had a disagreement that, despite efforts to change the subject quietly, began to devolve into political or religious ideologies, his restraint failed.
"Give it a rest!" Taurger interrupted.
"Youíve had nothing to say all morning, so I donít see how this..." one of the debaters started.
"Iím right here!" said Taurger, cutting hir off before White Tip was able to intervene. "I donít have earplugs, so youíre making it my business."
White Tip stopped Katherine from getting Taurgerís attention.
"Then why donít you leave?" the second debater said.
In the awkward silence that followed, Taurgerís head turned slowly until he was staring directly into the eyes of the offending speaker, who was immediately uncomfortable. The person next to hir elbowed hir and whispered something that made hir look down. Taurgerís right foreleg, while seemingly normal on its own, was still visibly swollen when side by side with his healthy leg. Hir embarrassed blush showed on the inside of hir ears.
"There wonít be enough of us for anything but staying alive to be top priority for years," Taurger was saying, a dangerous growl in his voice, "so drop it! If youíre so worried about politics," and he spat out the word as if it could contaminate his mouth, "then plan ahead, for the next generation. Design a system thatís gonna work. Not just could, if everybody supports it, but will, because it uses what we want anyway to make us do whatís right."
"Youíre talking about a utopia," someone countered.
"Iím talking about getting it right the first time! It took eleven years to come up with the U.S. Constitution, and that was the second try, and just something they could agree on, and that from the best and brightest from nearly four million colonists! You want a government? Go design one. Donít argue. Just go work on it. Weíre small enough that we donít need one right away, so youíve got time. And when youíre done, itíd better be good, because if we donít want it, youíre out! You can go off with your friends and form your own little tribe, and live any way you want. But remember this. If we want anything to survive us, we have to think hard and fast, because right now, these first years, is going to define everything that comes later, and we get only one chance at it. And we arenít going to get that far if we donít deal with whatís right in front of us first! Iím... sorry," Taurger finished, ducking his head and covering his eyes with one hand. "I said I was gonna keep quiet. Sorry."
"No, youíre right," said White Tip, whoíd been watching everyone cringe in the face of Taurgerís outburst. Shi had noticed it building in the big chakat, but when it happened, it was as if everyone had felt it personally. Addressing those assembled, shi said, "We need to deal with the problems facing us, not create more with pointless bickering. As Taurger said, eventually we will need a formal government, but donít let speculation blind you to our current issues. Such as disposal of waste ..."
Shortly, after White Tip resumed the meeting on a more productive topic, Katherine leaned over to Taurger and whispered, "See, you do have something to offer."
Taurger, however, was watching the meeting with unfocused eyes, as if he were trying to see all of them at once. "Weíre over the limit," he murmured.
"What limit?" Katherine asked.
"The..." Taurger started to say, and then focused on Doctor DiVargin. He bit back a question and looked away.
Katherine, sensing a lull, spoke up. "Doctor DiVargin, can you answer a question?"
DiVargin opened hir mouth before realizing the question would probably be coming from Taurger. Remembering what shiíd been told of Van Peerís encounter with the big chakat, she quickly rephrased hir response. "If I know the answer, of course."
As DiVargin expected, Katherine nudged Taurger. Still stinging from his earlier embarrassment, Taurger asked quietly, "How big do hunter-gatherer groups get?"
"Yeah. You do anthropology, right? Youíve studied those types of societies? How large did they get on Earth before they starting splitting up?"
*Why did shi have to bring this up? I was hoping to spring it on White Tip later,* DiVargin thought, and tried to hedge hir answer. "Well, that would depend on the fertility of the area, the efficiency of the hunters..."
"Just ballpark figures, Doctor," interrupted Taurger. "Fifty? A hundred?"
Realizing Taurger already knew the answer, DiVargin sighed. "Among humans, most tribal societies fragmented into smaller groups and new hunting grounds when they exceed fifty to a hundred people, including children," shi admitted.
"And weíre an order of magnitude over that already," Taurger said. A murmur passed through those listening. "And as chakats we need more food than a human?" he asked Katherine.
Katherine nodded. "Apparently, from what Iíve seen. Although Iím told we can also cover more ground."
"Youíre thinking we need to split up into smaller groups," said White Tip.
"We could," Taurger admitted. "Or we change strategies."
"No matter what we do we canít have communities bigger than an area can support, because we donít have a way to distribute food from supply to demand. But if we start farming, we increase the number of people an area can support by up to two orders of magnitude, giving us the excess weíre gonna need."
"Excess food for lean seasons."
"No, Iím not talking about supply fluctuations. I mean non-producing population."
"You want to encourage people to be unproductive?" Colonel Deering snapped.
"Well, I donít really know the right word for it," Taurger admitted. "Iím remembering something I read about why there were so few ancient inventors. It was because mostly everybody was working to stay alive. If everybodyís needed to get enough to eat, raise cubs, and fend off threats, then thereís nothing and nobody to spare to try something new. You have to have more than you need if youíre going to risk doing experiments, and that means supporting people who arenít producing food or survival, as well as resources beyond that for use in the experiments. Now I donít know about anybody else, but I donít want to live in the dirt the rest of my life." Several people laughed at Taurgerís last comment.
"But weíre not trying to invent anything new, are we?" someone asked.
"Yes, we are," countered White Tip. "We are working with unknown plants and animals. We are rediscovering skills that we know about, but may not have actually used. And we are hoping to recreate over three thousand years of technological development. Even learning is a form of experimentation."
Colonel Deering spoke up again. "I hope youíre not saying itís going to take us three thousand years."
"Probíly Eighteenth Century," Taurger said.
"No, Eighteenth Century."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"You asked how fast, right?" Taurger asked. When Deering nodded, he continued, "We can probíly recreate anything they had in the 1700ís in... maybe the time it takes a new cub to grow up. Nothing with a big labor force, like canals, and we have to find the stuff to make it with. But I bet we can figure out how to make the tech, at least. That leaves only about three centuries, and we know most of that pretty well."
"Why the Eighteenth Century? Why not the Nineteenth?" White Tip asked.
"íCause after that you kinda lost the ĎRenaissance Maní who could go from what he dug up or cut down to a finished product. Once the Industrial Revolution hit, people started relying on what someone else made to make their own stuff, and that kinda production needs infrastructures, and has to be supported by people feeding a lot more than their family. Thatís also when shipping started to haul more than luxuries. We build up our resources and maybe we can start doing summa that."
"So you want to become a farmer," said DiVargin.
"Shiíd make a pretty poor one," Pitty-Pat snorted, surprising Taurger, who hadnít noticed hir circling the group to come in behind him. Pat reached around and held up hir denmateís hands to show off the stripes. "Look. Black thumbs."
That pun elicited a chorus of groans and laughs, and a disgusted look from Taurger. Doctor DiVargin winced as if in pain, and Colonel Deering just rolled hir eyes and sighed, suppressing a grin.
As they laughed, Pitty-Pat squeezed in beside Taurger, placing him between hir and Katherine, and gave him a quick hug as shi whispered, "Sorry." Shi used hir interruption to ask a question of hir own. "Speaking of food, has anyone found substitutes for cows and chickens yet?"
"Not that I have heard," White Tip replied.
"Tired of wild game already, Sergeant?" Deering asked.
"Thinking dairy, Colonel," Pat said. "Uh, donít you mean Corporal, Shir?"
"Call it a field promotion. Not that it means much here, but anybody in charge of a library should have some rank."
Before DiVargin or anyone else could voice an objection to Deeringís words, Pat corrected hir. "Weíve formed a coalition, Shir. Rodneyís going to manage the archives and Iíll make order out of chaos from the desk. And then Mayís going to point people to us if they have something or need something." With a nod to hir denmate, shi grinned and added, "Taurgerís dubbed hir ĎMinister of Informationí."
Deering raised an eyebrow, but on seeing the big chakat wince, didnít pursue the subject. Instead, shi asked, "Who is Rodney?"
"Rodney Davies, one of the graduate assistants. Shi kept their records."
While not pleased with having one of DiVarginís people involved, Deering said, "Sounds like youíre on top of things." DiVargin, too, seemed ready to accept the fiat accompli.
"Yes, Shir," Pat said with a grin. "Anyway, getting back to food, I was wondering where weíll get calcium without dairy."
"If the plants are enough like Earth, from leafy greens," one of DiVarginís people answered. "Barring that, organ meats."
Katherine offered hir own opinion. "If we actually end up lacking any nutrients, I expect we will get cravings for foods that have them, and then our noses will lead us. Right now, Iím more concerned about carbohydrates. We have not found any proper grains yet and precious few types of nuts. We may have to make tubers a staple, or eat a chakat version of Atkins."
This spawned speculation about diets and which plants might be domesticated Ė and would grow in the badlands immediately around them Ė before drifting to other topics and eventually the end of the meeting. As the group began breaking up, White Tip addressed Taurger.
"So what did you think? Not as bad as you feared, was it?"
"Except for those politicians, Iíd say it was almost productive." Taurger replied in a weary voice. Pat tried to cheer him by stroking his back.
"Still, I am glad you were here, and hope you can sit in on more. That is the first time somebody has kept those political debates from coming back."
"Wasnít me," Taurger said, and then sighed. "Foodís always more popular than politics, except to hacks. I wouldnít be much use anyway. Iím at least a couple days behind."
"That is not useless. Sometimes it only takes fresh eyes to see what everyone else is missing."
"Iím a tech, not a Ďconsultantí."
*And yet you have been offering suggestions to anyone who would listen,* White Tip thought. "Would you mind testing that assumption? Look around. What would you change?"
"You gotta be kidding!"
"No, I would like to know."
"Look, first of all, I was a tech, not a manager. I wasnít supposed to think. I wasnít supposed to have ideas. And as Iíve been repeatedly reminded, what few ideas I do have either canít work or require someone else to put a lot of effort into finishing them." Almost to himself, Taurger added, "I havenít even found anything I can do yet. Iíve just been useless."
"Thatís not true!" Pitty-Pat said, defending hir denmate against his own bad attitude. "You were making something yesterday."
"With the bones. You must have finished it, because you didnít bring it back to the den with you."
"Oh, that. Itís gone."
"It got thrown out, okay?"
"What were you working on?" White Tip asked.
"A lamp," Taurger said quietly.
"Yes, a controlled flame! Good for illuminating, or heating something youíre working on, or..." Taurger closed his eyes and sighed. *Not good! Just stop thinking. Thinking becomes frustration... frustration becomes anger...*
"You havenít gone through the back caverns," Pitty-Pat told White Tip. "There are plenty of places where thereís no light at all, and our ears and noses can only do so much."
White Tip was looking at nothing, considering the idea as shi mused aloud, "And as shi said, there are other uses for a small, controlled flame." Touching the big chakatís shoulder to get his attention, shi asked, "What would you need to start over?"
Caught off guard, Taurger hesitated. "I... uh... A lampís just bowl, wick, and something to keep the flame and fuel separate, like a collar or neck. I, uh, was trying to turn part of a skull into the bowl."
"Wouldnít clay be better?"
"Probably, but I havenít seen any."
"I saw that somebody was working on a kiln. They should know where to find clay. Would you rather work with that?"
Taurger sighed. "Maybe youíd just better give them the whole thing. Itís not like I was getting very far with it anyway."
"What was the problem?"
"I spent a whole morning tryiní to trim down a skull to just a bowl. The edge was still pretty sharp, so I was gonna hafta find somethiní to file it with."
"What about the wick and Ė what did you call it, a collar?"
"Had some small animal vertebras I was gonna string on the wick to make a neck. Hadnít found anything to act as a shield."
"And the wick?"
Taurger held out one of his braids. "Figured to make it outa hair. Probíly woulda burned like a fuse insteada being a wick."
"What did you have in mind for fuel?" asked Katherine.
Taurger shrugged. "Vegetable, nut, animal... Weíd find something oily enough. Or maybe just render fat for tallow candles."
"That sounds like another use for the griddles," White Tip said, and couldnít understand why Taurgerís reaction was not the sense of pride shi expected from a mention of one of the big chakatís ideas. "Are you sure you want to let someone else make a lamp?"
"Yeah, Iíd only mess it up."
Rising, White Tip said, "Then Iíll be interested to hear what you come up with next."
As White Tip, Katherine and May walked away, May whispered, "I told you."
"You did," White Tip replied. "But not at the meetings. Not until shi is a little more willing to speak up. And maybe some lessons in public speaking. Shi tends to let hir topics wander, and shi has some serious confidence issues."
"Right now is when shiíll sit still for the meetings," Katherine said. When White Tip gave hir a questioning look, shi added, "Pitty-Pat said Taurgerís restless. No one would have faulted hir for staying in hir den and recovering, but shiís trying to find something to do. I doubt youíll get hir to stay in one place when shi can walk again. Shi seems the type."
"I noticed that, too. DaVinci was the same way, always moving on to the next idea instead of finishing the first. Tell that to Pitty-Pat. Suggest shi try to break hir of that habit."
"Iíll tell Goldeneye, too," May said. "He seems the grounded one in that foursome."
"Not you, too!"
Elsewhere others were also discussing Taurger. Professor Van Peer was watching cubs again when Doctor DiVargin approached hir. "I need you to do something for me, Henry," DiVargin said.
"Of course," Van Peer replied, eager for an excuse to avoid more cub watching.
"I need you to make friends with Taurger."
"You canít be serious! The two of us..."
"Youíve had the most contact with hir, Henry. Moreover, youíre a psychologist. Youíll have a better idea how to do it than anyone else."
"I can advise Doctor Shing..."
"Itíll have to be you, Henry. Everyone else is busy."
DiVargin shook hir head. "No, Iíve got a project of my own. This is important, Henry."
"Taurger is not that important."
"Shiís a thinker, Henry. I want hir on our side when White Tipís song and dance comes crashing down."
"I... Iíll do what I can."
*Can this get any worse?* Henry Van Peer thought as shi watched DiVargin leave. *Now Iím supposed to be near hir? And shi used my name like that! I have to do it!* With that thought, Van Peer turned to look at the black striped white chakat and hir calico partner across the cavern. A queasy feeling shi was afraid to try and identify made hir close hir eyes and turn back to the cubs when shi realized Taurger was looking back.
Beside Taurger, Pitty-Pat followed hir denmateís gaze. "Thatís Vampire," shi said with a bitter tone. "Stuck cub watching. Serves hir right. What do you want with hir?"
"Nothiní," Taurger said. "Shi stopped by yesterday morning, looking for a couple of the older cubs."
"Iím surprised the two of you didnít go at it claws out."
Taurger shook his head. The fact that he didnít have to brush hair from his face afterward delighted him. "Arguments are one thing," he explained, "but thereís not enough of us to survive having a real enemy. We have to at least be civil."
"Youíre more charitable than Iíd be in your place." Pat cuddled against hir denmate, who tensed for just an instant, as usual. *Get used to it, tiger. Iím going to be beside you a long time!* Then shi remembered something shiíd seen on waking up.
"Where did that little figure come from?"
"The chakat; the one in the den. Did you make that out of the bamboo leaves you brought with you last night?"
"I didnít see you do it."
"You were asleep."
After a long moment, Pat asked, "How much are you sleeping at night?"
Taurger shrugged. "Couple hours, I think, when we first lay down. Couple hours just before sunup, and a couple more in the middle."
"Youíre awake a few hours at night... twice?" When Taurger gave hir an uncomprehending look, Pat understood. "Your naps! Youíre taking long naps four times a day, instead of one long sleep at night!"
"Yeah. I said that, didnít I?"
"It didnít really sink in until now. So what do you do at night when you wake up?"
"Think. Between this," and Taurger gestured at his leg again, "and you half on top of me I canít exactly go anywhere or do anything."
"Well, not anymore. From now on when you nap, I nap. When youíre awake, Iím awake."
"To do what?"
"Weíll think of something."
"Like what?" Taurger insisted, worried about the tone he heard in hir voice.
"Right now, lunch," Pat said, waving someone over. It was Blue and Goldeneye. The Siamese-colored chakat waved back with a non-food object shi was carrying.
When they were closer, Taurger saw what Goldeneye was holding was a heavy stick. Shi offered it to Taurger. "Whatís this for?" he asked.
"A cane," Goldeneye explained. "Should let you get around on your own. Katherine gave hir approval."
"Thanks," Taurger said sarcastically. "Now all I need is somewhere to go."
"Got that, too," Blue said as shi passed out chunks of melon and cooked meat. "Youíve got class with me this afternoon."
Puzzled, Taurger asked, "For what?"
"Outdoor training," Goldeneye explained. "You and some of the others whoíve lived in cities all your lives and the older cubs. Not survival training," shi added, seeing the look on Taurgerís face. "Just some warnings about living outdoors. Although..."
"Idea?" Blue asked.
"Well, it wouldnít hurt to introduce them to some survival skills. Just to see if any of them have some natural talent, and so theyíre not scared to try if they have to. Thereís always the chance of something sneaking in and catching us napping."
"Ah, you just want to get more people to the target range."
"That, and a little tracking. Maybe even try their hand at butchering and cooking."
"Iíll wait Ďtil somebody builds a real stove," said Taurger.
"Afraid to cook?" Pat asked.
Taurger shook his head. "Cooked for myself all my life," he explained. "Just used a kitchen, not a fire pit. And itís not like weíve got anything to work with."
"Weíve got more than you think," Blue said. "And I can teach you camp cooking."
"Brought a cookbook with you?" Taurger asked, challenging hir. Blue just grinned back.
"So you cook?" Pat asked. "I figured you as a microwave and diner eater."
"On my income? Yeah, right! Learning to cook was the only way I could eat cheap enough."
"I thought computer people made good money?"
Taurger almost answered, but caught himself. "Look, thatís getting into a whole lot of things I donít want to remember. Iím out of there, and Iím better off, even if it did mean giving up beds and floors and clothes and bathrooms."
"Bad?" Goldeneye asked.
"Yeah. Kept trying to find a way out and this did it."
"Then letís hope we werenít just brain-copied, like youíd suggested, or thereís a Ďyouí still stuck back there."
For a moment, Taurger was stunned to realize someone had remembered something heíd said. Then he grunted and said, "Hope they left replacements, then. Serve Ďem right to get stuck where I was."
"Replacements?" said Blue. "You mean like a Ďweíll send our people snooping disguised as localsí infiltration from a sci-fi movie?"
"Probably not," Pat disagreed. "I canít imagine what theyíd hope to accomplish with any of the people who were on board. None of us had unmonitored access to sensitive information, not even the Colonel. And itís not like we can do anything about it now. So whatís this afternoonís class going to be on, Goldie?"
Goldeneye grinned in response to the nickname Pat had saddled hir with shortly after the two Marines had met. "Well, itís not exactly a formal class, yet, mostly one-on-one mentoring. Some of DiVarginís Ďexpertsí are lost causes. But once we get some of the grad-asses up to speed..."
"After lunch, Pat did exactly what shi said. Shi lay right next to me and we went to sleep. Woke up in the middle of another pile. Probíly should have gone back to the den. Least nobody lay on my leg."
"Goldeneyeís cane seemed to work okay. I was at least able to limp on my own, instead of having Pat pawing me. ĎCourse Pat tagged along for Ďclassí that afternoon, so it wasnít much different."
"Class turned out to be me being dragged around outside by Goldeneye and Pat while they talked about plants and animals and tracks and a lot of other stuff, when they werenít making me smell something or other. Blue was off doing something, but shiíd come bouncing in and out for no reason to add hir own two bits. ĎCourse we also gathered stuff. Mostly roots and such. Nobody was going outside just to wander about. At least my limp meant I wasnít Ďpack muleí again."
"Anyway, I made it through that, and supper. Then when I woke up that night, Pat woke up, too. Shi dragged me outside and did what shi called Ďnight schoolí. Said shi was trying to get me up to speed. So I limped around, smelling things, looking at things, trying to give hir the answers shi wanted. And bringing back more stuff."
"It wasnít until the next day I got to do anything on my own again..."
Now that Taurger had a cane, Pat had excused hirself, saying there were some people shi needed to meet with. Taurger took the opportunity to go back to his den and clean himself, working thoroughly to make up for missing his last two planned sessions. *Probably can miss sometimes without causing problems,* he decided. *Did that with showers. Donít want it to become habit, though. Doc said I should rinse my coat once a week, too. Donít look forward to trying to dry off, though. Wonder if we can do anything with shed fur?*
The first thing he wanted to do today was go see the doctor. With the cane, he seemed to be putting more weight on his leg, and he wanted to be sure that it was okay, despite Goldeneyeís claim. There was something else he wanted to ask, too; something stemming from yesterdayís meeting.
He eventually found Katherine in a side cavern, using a big, heavy, feathery leaf as a sort of crude broom to sweep out wind-blown debris. "Hey, Doc, got a moment?" he called out.
"Hello, Taurger," Katherine said. "Welcome to the hospital. I see Goldeneye came through with a cane. How is it working?"
"Well, I donít have to be carried anymore. Could you check my leg, though? Make sure Iím not putting too much weight on it?"
Katherine grinned at Taurgerís caution. Aside from a slight limp, the big chakat hadnít seemed to have any trouble when he came in to the chamber Katherine had selected as their center of medicine. Dutifully shi ran hir fingers over the leg, noting that not only had the swelling nearly vanished, but the impression shiíd had of pain the last time shiíd examined it was gone as well. "Could you sit belly down, please?" shi asked. "Iíd like to compare both forelegs."
From a couchant position, shi had Taurger push against hir hands first with one leg and then the other, and then checked the grip of his handpaws. In what shi though would be a good "bedside manner" shi tried to make conversation with hir patient, something shi rarely had cause to do while working on animals.
"I see you have solved your hair problem. Did Pitty-Pat braid those?"
"No, Bl... uh, Brandy did."
"Iíll be sure to tell White Tip. Go ahead and push hard, now."
His face screwed up in anticipation of pain, Taurger pushed.
"Now the other one. Pitty-Pat said you had read what was on the Internet about chakats."
"Looked it over. I was looking for hippocentaurs, really." In response to Katherineís questioning expression, he explained, "Horse centaurs. Classical Greek. Half human, half horse. Theyíre called equitaurs if theyíve got horse heads." When the doctor nodded, he added, "Nobody remembers the word, but everybody knows what they are."
"Okay. So did you read about chakat empathy?"
"The stories had several psychic powers."
"Other power? Such as?"
Taurger shrugged. "Telepathy, telekinesis... the stuff people usually think of as psychic."
"And chakats could do all of them?"
"Naw, just empathy. Why?"
"Iím wondering what we are supposed to be able to do with it. Now squeeze my fingers."
"Oh. Well... theyíre supposed to be able to sense the emotions of almost any animal, or at least people. Different people would have it to different levels, and some of them were supposed to be able to project feelings, too. Stronger empaths could even send physical sensations. All pretty short range stuff. Iíve been thinkiní Ďbout that."
"And what have you decided?"
"Maybe itís not psychic. Maybe itís pheromones."
"I know a lot of people are saying stuff about being turned into Ďfictional creaturesí. Figure theyíd really hit the roof if anybody started talking psychic powers. So what if we donít feel emotions, but smell Ďem with these fancy noses?"
Katherine paused, looking thoughtful. "It is possible. Body chemistry is supposed to change with emotional state. That should affect scent, too. And it would certainly be short range." Shi smiled at Taurger. "You may have found a way to make some of the more incredulous treat empathy seriously. And your leg is doing fine. A little weak, maybe, but as you start using it again it should regain its strength."
"So no more laying about?"
"No," shi said with a laugh. "Get up and do something, unless you sit in on one of the meetings."
"Could you..." Taurger started to say, and then halted.
"What is it?"
*Nobodyís around, stupid,* Taurger told himself. *Better ask now.* Aloud, he asked, "Could you check something else, too?"
Katherine looked over the black-striped body of hir patient. "What is the problem?"
"Under my tail. My, uh..."
*Embarrassed, maybe just a little prudish. But shi did manage to ask,* thought Katherine. "Of course," shi said. Taurger was helpfully keeping his tail out of the way. The outside of his vagina appeared clean and healthy. "I donít see anything wrong."
"Do you know whatís normal inside?"
"You want me to look?"
Katherine paused a moment, hir fingers on the skin surrounding Taurgerís vaginal sphincter. Finally shi said, "You will have to open it for me."
"That is better. A little wider, if you can."
"Donít be. You have not done this before, have you?"
*Not very dissimilar to a big catís vagina,* Katherine thought. "I donít see anything abnormal. What were you feeling?"
*Now or never,* Taurger decided. "If you had to, do you think you could do an abortion?"
Surprised, Katherine took hir hands away from Taurger. "Abortion?"
"Itís... ah..." Taurger stammered, still trying to decide how to explain. Then it all came spilling out. "Ya see, Chakats are supposed to go in heat two days out of twenty-four, all year long. We donít have the pill, or condoms, or anything to stop it."
"You are worried about a population explosion."
"I donít think weíll starve, if thatís what you mean." Taurger gave a snorting laugh. "Weíve got predator bodies, omnivore digestion, and sentient minds. Weíll out-fight, out-eat, or out-think almost anything. But if we have more cubs than we can feed or care for as a group, theyíll go off and go wild. And thatíll make it even harder to get technology back, Ďcause weíll have competition."
"You think we will have to practice abortion to avoid that."
"Theyíll like feral cubs or drowning kittens even less. Ask Doc Wong to look for something, would ya? The Romans were supposed to have something herbal that was so good they used it to extinction. Maybe thereís something like that here."
"I will think about it. Donít mention this to White Tip."
"I... yeah. Itís a hot potato on Earth. Wonít be much better here. No point in dumping hir in the middle aí that."
*Worse, I have the feeling White Tip would be offended by having it suggested,* Katherine thought. "Is there anything else?" shi asked.
"Well, mentioning Doc Wong, I was wondering if thereís any sticks safe to put in your mouth."
"I just remembered that, uh, they used to beat the end of some kind of stick into shreds and use it like a toothbrush. Only not too many people know that because everybody thinks of toothbrushes as plastic."
"And you thought that a flayed stick would be good enough until we can make proper brushes."
"Yeah, kinda. Sometimes it seems like everybodyís forgotten people did without plastic and metal for thousands of years. Youíd think none of them had ever seen a tortoise shell brush or an ivory comb. Heck, the first real toothbrushes were made in Ancient China with boarís hair bristles and bamboo handles."
"Really?" Katherine said, remembering when, as a child, shi would explore hir grandmotherís vanity table and all the fascinating things on it.
"I read that someplace. Donít know if itís really true. Not that itíd do my mop any good. Iím tempted to cut it all off and give it to somebody for rope," Taurger said, getting to his feet.
As the big chakat began to make his way out, Katherine considered his question. *A wandering mind, but shi touches on some very practical topics. Besides, shi wasnít asking if I would, only if I could. Should I tell hir?* Taurger was almost in the passage back to the main cavern when Katherine said, "To answer your question. Yes, I believe I could."
Taurger nodded. He left without any other reply.
"Didnít have much of a plan after seeing the Doc. No project, no goal."
"Didnít really feel right, either. First day, after I remembered about the safety muscle under the tail, I tried it out; just to be sure it was there. It worked pretty easy, but just then with the Doc Iíd had some real problems with it. If Iíd known why, Iídíve gone back to my den, crawled in, and stayed there. Instead I wanted some fresh air."
"I donít know where I was going. I just went back to the main cavern and headed outside. Thatís when I got ambushed..."
Van Peer had just sent several cubs scampering after an inedible dry gourd standing in as a ball when shi saw Taurger coming out of the cave. Shi also saw an all-white chakat catch up to the white tiger from behind. The bigger chakatís anger was almost palpable, and the other quickly retreated. *Youíve soured things with that one, Purrsia,* Van Peer mused. *The right approach now would be to... No! I will not think like that!*
Shi shook hir head to be rid of the thought, which is how shi spotted the kitten whoíd strayed. Scooping up the six-limbed bundle of fur, shi set it on hir shoulder and made a decision. *Iíll have to try at some time, or DiVargin will throw a fit. May as well be now.*
Taurger had limped out into the open after chasing off Purrsia, but hadnít seen Van Peer because he was watching for uneven ground under his cane.
"Still having trouble with Purrsia?" Van Peer asked.
"Wha...? Oh, hi. Uh, still?" Taurger asked in reply.
"I heard about the first time."
"Yeah," Taurger scowled. He continued limping away from the cave, Van Peer walking beside him.
"An interesting reaction to becoming a chakat. Possibly the most extreme Iíve seen. Iím still surprised nobodyís panicked or attempted suicide. With some of the religious fanatics among us, Iíd have expected at least a dozen."
"Itís been almost a week, long enough that it doesnít seem strange anymore. I think weíve all calmed down now."
"Yes, and much more quickly than Iíd have expected from a human group this size. Even plastic surgery doesnít have responses this reserved, and patients are expecting the changes! No, whoever did this to us definitely tampered with our minds."
"Kinda had to, didnít they?"
"What do you mean?"
Taurger shrugged. "Far as we know itís us in new bodies. But soon as we wake up we can see, hear, talk, walk... Somebody has a big accident or something aní they gotta relearn that kinda stuff, donít they?"
"I see what youíre getting at. Yes, it takes a great deal of physical therapy to relearn even basic motor skills. And, if I remember the results of certain sensory experiments correctly, on the order of days to acclimate to a change in eyesight. So a certain amount of mind alteration had to have occurred." Van Peer sighed. "I wish I had proper documentation tools. Even just a notebook would help. There are so many small signs Iím certain Iím misinterpreting."
"Maybe talk to somebody who knows cats?"
"You mean like the veterinarian, Katherine? I doubt Iíd be welcome after what happened when they brought you back. I had a student assistant who liked cats, but I havenít found her yet. Hir, I suppose sheíd be, now. Wouldnít she... ah, shi?"
Stopping, Taurger just stared at the tuxedo chakat. Hearing hir use the new pronouns was like a warning flag. Van Peer looked back, nervously stroking the kitten on hir shoulder. Taurger sighed. "Okay, whadda ya want, Professor?"
"What do you mean?" Van Peer asked. Inwardly shi cringed. *I blew it! Shiís on to me!*
"I mean first we try to shut each other down. Then its keep your distance. Now youíre talking like weíre buddies or somethiní."
"I... ah..." Van Peer stammered. *Calm down! This time you have the truth on your side!* Taking a deep breath, shi said, "Last time we talked you made a gesture of peace. I decided to reciprocate."
Taurger closed his eyes and sighed. *Shiís right,* he thought. *I said to Pat we could at least keep from bating each other.* Opening his eyes and looking at Van Peer, he relented. "Okay. Truce?"
"Truce," agreed Van Peer, smiling. *Step one in establishing a relationship, open a dialogue. Done.*
The kitten in Van Peerís arms chose that moment to squirm. Restoring hir hold on the tiny chakat, Van Peer said, "Iíd like to pursue this further, but at the moment it seems I have other priorities. Look, if you find my student assistant, would you have her Ė hir Ė find me?"
"Whatís shi called?"
"Louise. Louise Bridger. She Ė shiís a good typist and an expert camper, which is why I had hir along. Plus shi likes cats."
"Louise. Iíll remember." *Sounds a lot like Blue, except for the typing. Better ask hir before I say anything about it.*
"...Then I poked around a bit, trying to come up with something to do. Eventually I decided to try and find where that hole in my denís ceiling went, so I found myself a path up to the top of the ridge. Marked it, Ďcause I didnít have a map..."
The small pile of stones heíd made would probably be okay so long as nobody tried to come through the bush heíd put it beside, Taurger had decided, when a voice startled him. "Thatís interesting," the voice asked. "Whatís it for?"
"Oh, just a... cairn, I suppose," Taurger said as he turned unevenly with his cane. "Marks where I got up here so I can get back down." When heíd turned far enough, he could see the speaker was a dark-coated, cougar-marked redheaded chakat heíd never seen before.
"Thatís not a bad idea, but you might want a second one to frame the head of your path," said a second chakat, coming up from behind the redhead. This one looked more familiar.
"Youíre, uh..." Taurger said, trying to remember the name of the second chakat.
"Call me Sungazer," shi said, offering a hand.
"Thatís where Iíve seen you! You were up here two days ago, watching the sunrise!" exclaimed Taurger. "Oh! uh..." He hesitated upon noticing Sungazerís hand, until he realized shiíd extended hir left in deference to the cane in his right. He laughed nervously as he gave a cursory shake and offered his own name.
"Iím Copperhead," the redhead said, making the same gesture. "So, why are you up here, Taurger? You canít be just going for a stroll with that limp."
"Picked a den with a hole in the roof," Taurger explained. "Figured Iíd find where it went."
Copperhead shook hir head. "That wonít be easy," shi said. "With all the caves and holes around here how are you going to tell which is yours? Assuming, of course, that it even comes out somewhere."
"Yeah, itís pretty Karst, isnít it?"
"So, you know something about geology. How do you plan to find your particular hole?"
"Well, itís kinda glowed Ďbout sunrise every day so far."
Copperhead and Sungazer exchanged looks. "Really?" Sungazer said. "Whereís this?"
"Thought itíd be over here somewhere," said Taurger, as he hobbled over to the east part of the ridge top. "Assuming I got my proportions right, which is pretty rare without a map."
As the three of them looked for any obvious holes, Sungazer asked, "I know Iím going to sound ignorant, but what did you mean by ĎKarstí?"
"Cave regions usually have whatís called a Karst landscape," Copperhead explained.
Taurger elaborated as he tested the ground with his cane. "Sinkholes, disappearing streams, arches... anything to do with the kind of erosion that makes caves. Except ice and volcanoes. Named after a German guy."
"Oh," Sungazer said. "So weíre probably looking for a water inlet."
"Not if itís only showing morning sun," Copperhead theorized. "Itís more likely to be on an eastern face."
"Iím not even going to try and check there, but itíd explain why it hasnít leaked in the rain." Taurger said.
"So the light comes through a crack?" asked Sungazer.
"No, more like a drip hole." Taurger answered. "Looks like where the water came down to hollow the whole thing out."
"When can we see it?"
Taurger stopped and looked up. "I donít think weíd all fit. Itís pretty small."
"Yeah, but if itís a natural solar position..."
"Thatís the spot you marked as ĎTaurgerís Dení, isnít it?" Copperhead interrupted.
"Yeah," admitted Taurger.
"But..." Sungazer began.
"But," Copperhead interrupted again, "its hir bedroom. Of course, if you ever want to move, I hope youíll offer it to us first."
Shrugging, Taurger agreed, "Sure. So, what are you two doing up here?"
"Solar observations," Sungazer said.
"For a calendar?"
"Got it in one."
"That your medicine wheel?" Taurger asked, gesturing to an unnatural arrangement of stones on a large area of bare ground.
"Same thing, isnít it?"
"Geology and astronomy?" asked Copperhead.
"Bits and pieces," Taurger countered. "Trivia, mostly. Donít touch, keep out of the light. Youíll be doing more Stonehenge then Palomar, though."
"Our telescope hasnít arrived yet," Sungazer joked.
Taurger snorted dismissively. "People have been measuring the stars since they could see. Egypt, Persia, India, China; Incas, Aztecs, Greeks, Arabs... Everything from Indian medicine wheels to Kepler and Brahe. Those two did a lot with not much of a telescope. Youíll know about how long a year is in a little over half that."
"Half a telescope?"
"Half a year."
Copperhead nudged Sungazer and winked at hir. "And how would that work?"
Taurger raised his head with a puzzled look. Sungazer seemed confused, too, but Copperhead had a different expression he couldnít read. "Solstice and equinox; Ďbout a quarter year apart. Canít take more than half a year to find one of each, even if you start right after one. ĎCourse youíve probably got some kinda fancy equation to figure it early."
"Well, maybe," Copperhead conceded, with another wink to Sungazer, "if we had some accurate instruments."
*I get it!* Sungazer realized. *This is who Copperhead said was rattling off comments on everything the past two days. If we keep Taurger talking, we might get some ideas we can use!*
Taurger shrugged. "Youíre only measuring angles for now, so the bigger the better."
"Do you know how hard it is to make a big circle accurately? Itís not like anybodyís made more than some short strings so far. And itís not much use without level ground," Sungazer complained, trying to follow Copperheadís lead.
"Oh, come on. The digging may be slow, but you could have level ground and an artificial horizon before you know the length of the year! They could do that back in Ancient Babylon!"
Taurger was starting to wonder just how much these two actually knew. So he tried to explain some of how the Ancients did things, with a few twists of his own. "A filled water channel will give you a level. Build a short wall in a circle with a channel on top and youíd have a level horizon; better than all those hills. And if you want level ground, just grid out some connected channels, pour in some water, and dig down to it."
"Thatís a lot of water channels if we want to level everything," said Copperhead.
"It would be if you donít use a straightedge."
"Youíve got one?"
"No, but itíd be pretty easy to make. Just trim a long branch to a plumb line. Be easier with a chalk line, but we donít have any chalk yet."
"Same question. Whatís a plumb line? And how does drawing freehand with chalk make a straight line?"
"How old are you two? Never mind." Taurger rubbed his forehead and muttered, "Take it out of the store for a year and itís like it never existed." He looked back up and tried to explain. "Okay, a chalk line is a string rubbed with chalk. Stretch it tight across a surface and snap it and it marks a pretty straight line. Now a plumb line Ė ever heard of a plumb bob?"
"Plum Ė bob? I think I saw one once, in a hardware store," Sungazer said. "Metal, with a knob on one end and a point on the other?"
"Yeah. The knobís made to fit around a knot on the end of a string, so the point hangs down directly in line. But all you wantís a straight line, so you can use almost anything for the weight."
"Which would not only give us a straight line, but a vertical one. Parallel to gravity, and the waterís perpendicular. Not bad. Now all we need is to measure out a circle."
"Measuring positions in space is statistical, right? Lots of measurements and you average them out? Sort of like the uncertainty principle, right?"
Sungazer spoke to Copperheadís raised eyebrow. "It can work like that, especially when dealing with crude instruments like ours will be. The more measurements, the more accurate the estimate."
"So do the same thing for a circle." Now both Copperhead and Sungazer appeared uncomprehending, so Taurger said, "Thereís an old saying in construction. ĎMeasure twice, cut once.í Measure your circle a whole lot of times, and build on the average."
Copperhead asked, "That easy to say, but what would we measure with?"
"Anything. Itís not like you gotta meet some kinda standard. Use yourself."
"Use yourself as the measure. You can start your outside level trench at the same time."
Honestly unable to follow Taurgerís idea, Copperhead and Sungazer exchanged shrugs. "Maybe youíd better show us," Copperhead said.
"Itís simple," said Taurger, looking around. Spotting a fist-sized stone, he picked it up. "Here. What do you want for a center?"
"Somewhere around here, maybe," Sungazer suggested.
"Hm. Put your hand here. No, palm down, arm up. Like that. Now..." Stone in hand, Taurger stepped a few limps away from Sungazer, then, hooking the tip end of his tail around Sungazerís wrist, he stretched out to get the maximum distance from tail to stone. As he rapped his stone on the hard ground, he said, "It shouldnít matter if youíre perfectly straight, because itíll take a lot of blows to leave a decent mark. Arm arc, body arc, everything should blur together and give you a big circle."
"And by using the outer edge, we can be pretty sure weíve got it reasonably accurate," Copperhead agreed.
"Still a little small," Sungazer noted. "Big enough to walk around in, but weíd do better with something even bigger. And weíd better do our own measuring."
Taurger looked up. "Huh? Why?"
Copperhead gestured for the stone. "Let me try and youíll see."
Relinquishing the hammer stone, Taurger hobbled back a few steps, leaning heavily on his cane. His leg was throbbing from the unusual effort. Then he saw what Copperhead and Sungazer meant.
Copperhead was just as stretched out as Taurgeríd been, but hir reach was significantly shorter. When Copperhead and Sungazer traded places, their reaches were almost identical. Taurger was just too big.
"If you want bigger, that should be easy," said Taurger, trying to recover from his earlier gaffe. "Just measure out from the first circle."
"Weíll want some stakes, first," Copperhead noted, rubbing hir arm as shi stood.
"A lot of them, if we want to measure a second circle," Sungazer added. "A length of cord would be faster, though. And I still wish we could make a decent ruler."
"So make one," Taurger said. "Itís not like anybody can argue with you about how accurate it is."
"Maybe not, but the more accurate it is, the better our measurements will be."
"And how longís a meter?"
"No, you said accurate. Whatís the definition of a meter?"
"The distance light travels, in a vacuum, in just over three and a third nanoseconds," Copperhead recited. "I can quote you the exact figure, if you want."
"And how are you going to measure that kind of distance, or that kind of time?"
"Sounds like a Catch-22," said Sungzer. "We canít measure a meter without good electronics, and we arenít going to make good electronics without accurate measurements."
"It gets worse," Taurger told them. "A meter was supposed to be based on the Earthís circumference."
"Which isnít really consistent," Copperhead said.
"And which they got wrong," added Taurger. "The good news is it doesnít matter."
"Why not?" Sungazer asked.
"ĎCause this isnít Earth. And until we meet humans, all we need is something consistent and useful."
"Youíre saying we donít need to know how long something is?"
"No, we just donít need to know how many meters it is." Taurger saw the two blank looks facing him. "It doesnít matter what unit of measure we use, so long as we can understand it. And since we canít recreate an exact meter right away, whatís wrong with coming up with our own definitions? Something to measure a dayís travel. Something to measure the size of a room. Something for body size, or making tools, or cooking, or hunting, or any of the other stuff weíve gotta do. We call it a meter and weíll confuse ourselves when we can actually measure one out. So we make something new, and save the definition of meters and miles and everything else for later."
Copperhead chuckled. "I can think of a few people whoíd complain every time they measured something if we did that."
"So can I," Sungazer agreed. "But itís a good argument."
"Iíll tell you something else, then," Taurger said as he began to limp back to his way down. "You two are going to be defining it."
"Whoa! Donít volunteer us!" Copperhead objected.
"Iím not, you are. Youíre taking the measurements. And observatories are usually where good mapping gets started, Ďcause they have to be accurate. Youíve got a good spot for it, here. Youíll have this whole area mapped out before long, and this circle youíre gonna makeís gonna define it."
Once more, Copperhead and Sungazer exchanged looks. This was a lot more responsibility than theyíd expected when theyíd started.
"I was expecting Pat to be tracking me down by then, but it was Blue who found me. I told hir about Van Peer asking for Louise Badger or whoever. Guess itís not hir, Ďcause shi blew it off."
"No, I wasnít making a pun. I told you, I didnít see Pat then."
"Look, do you want me to tell you, or do we call it quits?"
"No, I mean quits. As in permanently! Itís not like youíve been much help!"
Pitty-Pat, Goldeneye, First Pilot Folson, and at least a dozen others were gathered in one of the larger chambers of the upper caverns. The late morning sun seeped in through convoluted ceiling openings, giving their sensitive eyes enough light to recognize each other. Yet each of them stood with their head bowed and their eyes closed. They stood in a circle, hand in hand, reciting in unison.
"...For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen."
The prayer complete, they raised their heads to look at David and Helen Millhouse, the two whoíd called them together. David addressed the group.
"Itís good to know that Godís word continues to bring comfort in even these trying times."
"Thatís putting it mildly," someone quipped.
David let everyone relax with a brief laugh. "Well, we didnít ask you here to revisit things weíre all constantly aware of already." Taking Helenís hand, shi continued, "Rather, my wife and I wish to look to the future. Our future."
"What exactly do you have in mind?" asked Goldeneye warily.
"Nothing untoward, I assure you," David said. "Iíve heard White Tipís words, and believe shi has all our best interests at heart, even if shi hasnít openly professed hir faith. Shi will not ask us to stop celebrating Christ, and will prevent others from stopping us as well, just as shi would ask us not to stop others. But that protection will not be enough. We need to establish a church."
"There arenít exactly that many of us," Goldeneye commented.
The speaker grinned. "My wife and I were missionaries before we boarded the plane. We know something about starting churches. We know itís not a question of how many."
"How are we going to build it?" someone asked.
"A church isnít so much the building, as the people that gather in it. If need be we can hold services on a hilltop. The important thing is to come together."
"That might be a problem," said Pitty-Pat. "I donít know about the university people or the others, but I know just how theologically diverse the Marines were. Between Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists,... well, Chaplain Simmons was very busy keeping up with them all. Maybe if you tried to gather all the Protestants..."
"Iím hoping we can do better than that, because in addition to Catholics and Protestants, I know we have a number of people who follow Judaism or Islam. We are presented here with a rare opportunity to start over, to avoid the misunderstandings and exclusions that have resulted in the religious intolerance we were raised in. Weíd like to find a way to bring all the faiths together, in place if not in belief."
"Youíre asking for a lot," Goldeneye said.
"Yes, but if we donít try, it will remain impossible. Who among you will help?" David asked.
"...Blue dragged me over to where thereíd been some fire pits set up for cooking and put me to work..."
"You gotta be kidding!" Taurger said in exasperation.
Blue stood hir ground. "You said youíve cooked before, right?"
"Yeah, but that was in a kitchen..."
The grey chakat gestured expansively. "This is a kitchen." Taurger could see the sorry excuse for an oven that someone had started two days earlier. The rest of the area was dotted with cooking fires, most with crude spits either staked in the ground beside them or supported on simple frames above. Everywhere there were chakats tending fires, cleaning kills, sorting harvest, and generally seeing to the preparation and preservation of food for over five hundred people.
"...a proper kitchen, with a stove and oven and spice rack and pots and pans and cookbooks..."
"Hold it," said Blue, holding up a hand. "Now, youíve cooked before."
"No buts, just yes or no. Youíve cooked."
Taurger sighed. "Yes."
"And you can follow directions."
"Yes or no. You can follow directions."
"So donít worry. Youíre not going to be in charge of anything. Youíre just going to help where someone asks."
"Help what? Gimp around? Iíve only got one hand free!"
"Youíve been looking for something to do. Well, this is something."
Blue pointed to a spot next to two other chakats who were working on something they passed between baskets. "The only Ďbutí I want you to do something with is the one you plant right there."
Sighing, the big chakat sat where he was told then eased himself the rest of the way down so he wouldnít need his cane.
"Now donít be like that," Blue chided him. "Itís only until lunch, and the more you help, the sooner we eat. Besides, itís better than moping about because you havenít come up with anything on your own. Iíll bet if we get you busy youíll have an idea in no time."
"Iíll keep an eye on hir, Blue," a familiar voice said. Looking across, Taurger saw one of the two chakats was the orange and black Tigris.
When Blue had thanked Tigris and gone to correct a couple of would-be cooks struggling with a hide pot, Taurger was introduced to their third coworker, a cream-coated chakat whoíd kept hir human name of Elizabeth. Shi handed him a thick stem from one of the baskets. "Whadda I do with this?" Taurger asked.
"Peel and slice it for stuffing," Elizabeth told him, gesturing to a collection of medium-small birds that were being plucked. Shi offered a sharp piece of flint, saying, "Here, use this."
After a moment examining the stone Ďparingí knife, then observing the efforts of Elizabeth and Tigris, Taurger began carving off the inedible surface of the stem as well, dropping the peelings onto a woven mat being used for clean-up. A second, smaller basket would take the finished slices.
"So, what have you come up with?" Tigris asked.
"Huh?" Taurger grunted, distracted from the peeling.
"You were going to be thinking of things you could do, werenít you?"
"Ah... yeah. Well I havenít."
"You couldnít think of anything?"
"Nothing thatíd work."
"Youíre starting to sound like someone else I know."
"Whoís that?" asked Elizabeth as shi held a peeled stem over a basket and began slicing it up.
"Jamie," Tigris said, grinning.
"That woodcarver you were with earlier?" To Tigrisí nod, Elizabeth replied, "Sheís cute!"
"Shi," Taurger corrected.
"Oh... caught me! Iím still having trouble with those new pronouns."
"Youíre forgiven," said Tigris, "so long as you donít go chasing after Jamie. Shiís my project."
"Donít worry, Iíve got my own Ďprojectí," Elizabeth laughed. Turning to Taurger shi asked, "So whoís that calico Iíve seen you with?"
"Pat," Taurger answered testily without looking up from his peeling. "Pitty-Pat. And I donít appreciate the implication that Iím somebodyís Ďprojectí."
Elizabeth and Tigris exchanged knowing glances. "Sorry," Elizabeth said, winking at Tigris. "Didnít mean anything."
Taurger wasnít listening. Instead, he was staring at the half-peeled stem and the fragile flint blade. "Got any of those claws?" he asked suddenly.
"What claws?" Tigris wanted to know.
"The ones from Ė I dunno what you call Ďem. Saw Ďem a couple days ago with all the bones." Turning to a nearby chakat, Taurger asked, "Could you go over to the bone pile and get me one of those big, curved claws, if thereís any left?"
"Sure," the other chakat said. "Could you turn this spit once in a while?"
"Yeah. Thanks," Taurger said, eyeing the crude crank someone had fashioned on one end of the spit.
Elizabeth watched as Taurger shifted his tailend closer to the spit. "What are you going to do with a claw?" shi asked.
Hooking the tip of his tail around the handle, Taurger slowly cranked the spit as he resumed peeling. "Gonna try it on this thing," he told Elizabeth. He missed the wink and grin Tigris gave hir.
Peeling the stems with even a sharp flint knife was slow for Taurger, and heíd just finished his first when the spit-watcher came back with a wickedly hooked claw removed from a hunterís kill. Before giving it to the big chakat, the spit-watcher stared bemusedly at the labors of Taurgerís tail. "Hey, could you keep turning that?" shi asked.
"Sure," Taurger answered, putting down the flint and examining the claw.
Holding out a fresh stem, Elizabeth said, "Here, try the claw. Iíll slice that one."
After a precautionary cleaning, the claw proved to have kept a good edge. It was also curved only slightly less than the shape of the edible stems, which made for quick work. Elizabeth had barely sliced more than half a stem by the time Taurger had scraped the next piece clean.
"Trade," Tigris said, holding out hir half-peeled piece. As shi set to slicing, shi glanced at Taurger. "No ideas, huh?"
"Huh?" Taurger asked, looking up.
"Nothing. Keep peeling."
Elizabeth gave Tigris a quick grin, who replied with one of hir own. A moment later, while Taurger was taking another piece of stem from the basket, Elizabeth asked, "Why didnít you want to use the flint?"
Taurger shrugged. "Flint flakes, thatís how you shape it. No good for scraping, unless you like eating bits of rock."
"So why didnít you want to peel them, like we were already doing?"
"Have to dig in to get the skin off. Stuff wasnít that hard or thick, so I figured theyíd scrape better than peel. Kinda like carrots."
The three of them made short work of the pile of edible stems. Both Elizabeth and Tigris found themselves hard pressed to keep pace with Taurgerís scraping innovation.
And by supper there was a tail-cranked spit over almost every cooking fire.
"I donít know what was wrong with me the rest of the day. At lunch, Pat sat right next to me, but shi was real quiet. And I kept thinking, ĎWhatíd I do wrong now?í"
"Blue, on the other hand, talked hir head off. About getting me into the kitchen, sending people for leaves or somethiní for padding for people who were bugged about sleeping on the ground, chasing off Purrsia... Sounded like shi was running a hotel or somethiní."
"After lunch was another nap. Pat just leaned in to me and nodded off."
"No! I didnít! I put my arm around hir just so shi wouldnít fall over!"
"Iím getting to that!..."
Taurger awoke early with the strangest sensations since first awakening as a chakat. It was the middle of the night, and Pitty-Pat was still asleep. Shi was less on top of him than usual, and he managed to extricate himself without disturbing hir. Carefully limping down to the main cavern on his cane, he stepped over and around chakat piles and past small groups beside banked fires, heading for outside.
Two sentries, armed with a stone-tipped spear, challenged him from where they were lounging just inside the cave. "You sure you should be up?" one asked. "That leg probably needs some rest."
"I need some air," Taurger replied. "Itís really starting to stink around here."
The sentry shrugged. "Yeah, I noticed. But what can you do about it?"
"I guess. Well, watch yourself. And donít be afraid to howl if you get in trouble. Thereís plenty of others out and about, too."
Thanking the sentries, and then nodding to their counterpart standing outside, Taurger made his way into the open air. He paused, inhaling deeply. He inhaled again, this time deliberately through his nose.
He could still smell the unwelcome odor of the main cavern, dispersed as it was. There were other smells, too. A couple of animals that hadnít been scared off by all the activity, or perhaps had been attracted to it. Plants, soil, the latrine Ė and one more.
It was this last odor that worried him. There was something... exciting about it, something that dredged up unpleasant memories. Like the bar girl whoíd made him walk out on the only time heíd agreed to "hang" with some coworkers. Or Carol Deiter from high school. Cruel girl.
Remembering what Goldeneye had said about scents following air currents, Taurger tried to walk perpendicular to the wind. *Not upwind,* he reasoned. *Thatís where itís coming from. Maybe up there.*
ĎUp thereí was a low, small platform of bare rock left behind as the ridge above the caves had eroded back. As Taurger had hoped, it was out of the path of the disgusting smell of the main cavern. But as he approached, he heard something from the far side, apparently where the new smell was coming from. Curious, he had begun to step around when he saw a fluffy white tail waiving in the air. A sleeker, darker tail swung beneath it. They moved in a sort of rhythm with each other and the sounds, a mixture of low growls and something that vaguely reminded Taurger of stepping repeatedly in wet, sloppy mud, or maybe smearing petroleum jelly. Now slightly obsessed, he took another step.
Then he inhaled, and odors hammered into his brain. An image appeared in his mind of an all-white chakatís face. *Purrsia! Itís the Ďvillage slutí! Whatís shi...* The pieces came together suddenly. *Odors... Rhythm... Wet sounds and grunting... Purrsia... Theyíre...* And then he noticed his own bodyís reaction.
Taurger took off as if heíd been stung, oblivious to the weakness of his slowly healing leg, trying to escape the crushing weight of understanding. He spent the rest of the night outside, trying his best to stay away from others and regain some measure of control over his body. His knew that the Ďexcitingí odor was the heat-scent from the chakat under Purrsia, but that wasnít what he feared. He couldnít Ė he wouldnít Ė go back to the den while Pitty-Pat was there.
Because he knew heíd begun his first rut.
"íWhy not?í Are you nuts? Do you have any idea what I might try to do in rut?"
"Yes thatís a problem!"
"No Pat wonít want that! Shi..."
"Oh... Oh no! No! No! Oh my... You might be right. Shi might want... That might be all shi wants..."
As soon as Pitty-Pat was awoken by the morning light, shi knew something was wrong. At first shi thought it was just that Taurger had taken off without waking hir, but a few sniffs revealed something else. Their scents had changed. Taurger smelled Ė well Ė muskier maybe, and even more appealing, in a way shiíd never considered. Hir own scent...
A sensual grin spread across Patís face as shi considered the possibilities. The disappointment that it hadnít happened the other way around (something shi was sure would have helped hir denmate with several of hir issues) was quickly forgotten. Hir denmate wanted a chase? Good! At least Taurger couldnít complain about being on the bottom this time.
Shi hadnít expected to find hir denmate before reaching the main cavern, and wasnít surprised to learn the big chakat had gone outside. Shi was halfway to the exit when shi realized shi was being followed.
"Now donít you smell nice," Purrsia said, slinking up.
"Go away," Pat said flatly.
"Really?" the white chakat asked. "You donít need any Ė help?" Pat stopped suddenly, making Purrsia sidestep to avoid colliding with hir. Shi was beginning to realize that being in heat was not going to influence the calico one bit. "Okay! Okay! You want Taurger! I get the point!"
"Have you seen hir?"
"No." Patís glare made Purrsia add, "Iím telling you the truth! I havenít seen hir!"
Convinced, Pat started for the exit again, ignoring Purrsia.
The white, however, began to follow. "Hey, if the two of you need any advice or anything, I..." The calicoís flattened ears brought hir up short. "...ím just going to stay in here out of the way. Maybe tell Taurger youíre looking for hir. Or not! Or not." Watching Pitty-Pat walk away, Purrsia thought, *Some people! Those two had better hook up quick or they wonít be fit to live around!*
Outside, Pat saw Blue showing a few others how to make a wilderness mattress. As shi turned to approach and ask if shiíd seen hir denmate, Blue saw hir, came over, and led hir away.
"Better not get too close to that lot, Pat," Blue told hir. "I donít think theyíre ready for someone in heat."
"Oh, sorry," Pat said.
"Oh, donít be sorry. Itís their problem, not yours. I bet youíre looking for Taurger."
Excited at the prospect of finding hir denmate, Pat said, "Yes! Have you seen hir?"
"Sorry, no. I take it shiís not in your den."
Pat visibly deflated. "No. Shi snuck out some time last night. I slept right through hir post-midnight prowl."
"Well, shi hasnít been back on hir feet long enough to have a pattern yet. I just donít have any idea where shiíd have gone. Deering and the patrols set out this morning. Any chance shi tagged along with them?"
"Definitely not! The Colonel knows Taurger has no experience. And, ah..."
In a low voice, Pat confided, "Taurgerís in rut."
"Really? Are you sure?"
Pat nodded. "I could smell it in the den."
"Well, congratulations! The timing couldnít be better."
"I hope so. Shiís so..."
"Nonsense," insisted Blue. "Shi loves you. Shi doesnít let anybody else climb over hir like you do, except maybe a kitten, and saying Ďnoí to them doesnít do any good. This just overrides the uncertainties."
"Oh, I hope youíre right."
"Of course I am. Now you just go and find hir." Giving the calico a gentle push, Blue turned back to hir mattress makers but a sudden thought made hir excuse hirself from the project. Shi headed for one of the small ancillary caves which shi saw Doctor DiVargin enter earlier that morning. Shi found DiVargin working over makeshift bowls on something that smelled bad, even in the well-ventilated chamber shiíd selected.
Without taking hir attention from hir project, DiVargin asked, "Is there something I can do for you? I am rather busy."
"I was wondering if youíd seen Taurger today," Blue asked. "White with black tiger stripes, hair like a mop, big..."
"Yes, I know what Taurger looks like. No, I havenít seen hir. Why?"
Curious, Blue tried unsuccessfully to sneak a peek at what DiVargin was working on. Shi shrugged. "I saw one of your people bothering hir yesterday, and thought shi might have come to you about it."
*Bothering Taurger? Does shi mean Van Peer?* DiVargin wondered, pausing. "Do you know who?"
"The cubs are calling hir ĎVampireí."
*That is the nickname being used for Van Peer.* DiVargin set down the bowl shi was holding. "And you say shi was bothering Taurger."
Blue shrugged again. "I assume so. Those two have argued before, so I canít imagine them getting along now."
Something didnít seem right to DiVargin about what the grey chakat was telling hir, but shi didnít seem to be lying and what shi was saying was all too plausible. "And youíre sure they werenít just talking things out?" shi asked.
"Hey, I just saw them. Didnít hear anything. Why donít you go ask Taurger?"
Turning back to hir bowls, DiVargin said, "Or maybe I should ask Van Peer."
Blue snorted. "Yeah, right. Like anybodyíd believe what ĎVampí says."
The reply surprised DiVargin. "Are you trying to say Van Peer would lie to me?"
"Well..." Blue drawled out. "Letís just say I know what shouldnít have been on hir resume."
"Why donít you ask hir?" Blue parried. "Itís not like shi can lie to you now Ė if youíre paying attention."
"Meaning this Ďempathyí weíre supposed to have."
Blue shrugged and turned to leave. "Itís working for me, so it canít be that hard to figure out. Well, I have to find Taurger. Bye."
DiVargin stared after the departing grey chakat, reviewing hir visit. *That was not just a casual stop looking for Taurger. Shi wants me to ask Henry about his qualifications. Moreover, shi is right; it is much easier to catch someone lying. That is what is so disturbing about what shi said. Saying Henry was bothering Taurger was just an excuse; but when shi implied that there is something wrong with Henryís qualifications, shi knew!*
In any event, DiVargin now knew Van Peer had made overtures to befriending Taurger, and shi wanted to know how it had gone. Hir own project would be safe enough under the untanned hide shiíd claimed, and the wicks were still softening, so shi covered the bowls and set off to find Van Peer.
Professor Henry Van Peer was, at that moment, on the receiving end of an irate motherís tirade.
"How could you just ignore hir like that?!?"
Trying to calm the outraged chakat, Van Peer said, "Madam, I assure you..."
"Donít Ďmadamí me, you... vampire! The cubs are right, thatís exactly what you are! Itís a wonder we have any cubs left at all with you watching them! Whereís my Alex?!?"
"There are harvesting groups all about," White Tip interrupted. Taking the distraught mother by the shoulders shi steered hir away from Van Peer. "One of them will find hir. Also, just to be sure, we have organized search parties. Katherine is heading out with another right now, if you would like to join them."
Freed from the confrontation, Van Peer all but collapsed to the ground. Shi looked up when White Tip returned.
"You probably shouldnít be kitten watching while you are so... distracted, Vamp Ė Professor," White Tip said, sniffing the air.
Still upset, Van Peer sobbed, "I didnít ask to watch them in the first place!"
"I know," said White Tip, although shi was just trying to be sympathetic and actually hadnít. "But it would probably be better for you to keep some distance from the younger cubs for a couple of days, if only to pacify the parents."
"Is there a problem?" Doctor DiVargin asked as shi approached the pair.
"One of the younger cubs got away from the Professor, here," White Tip replied. "We are searching for hir now."
"Oh. Then this would not be a good time to take Professor Van Peer away on another matter."
"Actually, this might be a very good time for that."
"Ah, I see," said DiVargin, hir nose twitching. Looking about, shi gestured to a spot downwind and said to Van Peer, "Will you join me over there, Henry?"
At the appointed place, Van Peer stood silently under DiVarginís steady gaze. Eyes downcast, ears drooping, tail tucked under, shi exuded embarrassment, shame and distress, along with a very insistent odor. DiVargin stood slightly back.
DiVargin broke the awkward silence. "What..."
"Iím in heat!" Van Peer blurted out. "I woke up this morning and... I didnít try to lose the kitten! But... Iíll get..."
"No!" DiVargin interrupted. "Henry, calm down." Shi blinked, realizing shi wanted to hold the black-and-white chakat, wanted to comfort hir, wanted to... *Better take your own advice,* shi told hirself, and took a half-step back. "Donít worry about the kitten. Iím not here about that."
"Taurger," Van Peer said, babbling slightly. "Iím making progress. We talked yesterday, buried the hatchet, as it were. I think..."
"Thatís fine, Henry," interrupted DiVargin, trying to give Van Peer more time to calm down. "I donít expect you to bring hir around in a single day. And you have answered at least one question."
DiVargin sighed. "Someone tried to tell me that you were bothering Taurger. Apparently they just misunderstood what happened." Shi couldnít figure out why Van Peer seemed more agitated, instead of less. "You were just talking, werenít you?"
"Yes!" Van Peer blushed. "I mean, we just talked, nothing else."
*Poor Henry,* thought DiVargin. *This Ďheatí must be terrible! Itís as if everything I say is heard as suggestive. I should change the subject.* Shi nodded. "Good, then I probably donít have to bother with the rest."
DiVargin tried to dismiss the idea with a wave of hir hand. "I was told to ask you about your resume. But if your conversation with Taurger could be described as... Henry?"
The black and white chakat had taken a step back, eyes wide with fear. "Oh, of course. No, nothing to bother with. Right." Shi struggled against the turmoil of unsatisfied heat to keep hir emotions under control, as shi had done back on Earth whenever hir credentials were challenged.
"Henry, is there something you want to tell me?"
Now highly suspicious, DiVargin persisted. "Professor Van Peer, were there any irregularities with your credentials?"
"Of c-course not! Thatís s-silly! H-how could I d-do that? Iídíve b-been d-discovered immediately!"
Looking down at the cowering chakat, DiVargin weighed the truth of hir statement, and what was not said. "And there were no irregularities in how you earned them?"
"What did you do, Professor? What did you do?"
Weeping again, Van Peer broke down and confessed to everything. The plagiarism of student work. The blackmail of rivals for awards and grants. Misappropriation of funds, used to buy stolen research from competitors. Threats. Bribes. Everything.
DiVargin listened in silence. Van Peerís emotions were too bare, too raw for this to be an exaggeration. Back on Earth, even one of these acts would have ended his career. Some would have landed the psychologist in prison. All carried a taint of corruption that would invalidate anything accomplished by it, including... "You did this? To my team? To my research? Do you know what would have happened to us if you had been discovered on Earth? Do you? We would have lost everything! Colonel Deering and his kind would have created more bases! Exploited more innocents! They would have been invited in! Because you wanted what you hadnít earned! You disgust me!"
Through hir tears, Van Peer could see DiVargin storming off, chakats scrambling to get out of hir way. Hir world collapsing, hir body rebelling, shi tried to find something Ė anything Ė to hold on to. And then shi saw what shi thought might be hir last hope.
Shi saw a large, black-striped, white chakat sneaking back into the caves. Shi had forgiven hir, had gone from enemy to friend. Shi was strong. Handsome. Shi wanted to be with hir. Ached to be touched. Held. Given succor from the raging fire inside hir. Told everything would be all right, even if it was a lie.
Van Peer stumbled after the other chakat, a name echoing in hir mind. *Taurger! Taurger!*
Taurger felt wound tight. Heíd stayed outside as long as he could stand, watching new patrols of explorers head out. When he caught himself too interested in their appearance instead of where they might be going, he tried to find somewhere isolated.
That had failed. Hunters leaving, harvesters gathering, cubs playing, anyone and everyone out exploring, he couldnít find anywhere to be alone. The lovers were the worst. It seemed everywhere he turned he was hearing, seeing, or smelling someone having sex. Or just had sex. Or going to have sex. Even during puberty, heíd never thought about sex so much. Now every swaying tail or strutting posterior made the ache at the back of his belly worse. His one attempt to clean himself had been a disaster, nearly making him expose himself to a group of harvesters. He had to find somewhere to be alone and think things through.
Finally, unwilling to leave the safety of seeing the way back, he decided to brave the caves and hole up in his den. Maybe he could find a way to block the entrance and keep Pitty-Pat out. If he was lucky, shi wasnít already there. Using his cane as little as possible in an effort to walk faster, he made his way in.
Hungry, he claimed a piece of fruit as he passed a harvesterís pile. The chakat next to it smiled at him. He almost stopped, wondering if shi would let him stay, but managed to turn away. Concentrating on the fruit, he devoured it as he fought to be rational, to think his way through this, and analyze it as he would a problem with a computer. A flash of white at the corner of his eye was the only warning he had of Purrsiaís approach.
The all-white chakat never got a word out. Cane raised to club or jab, ears flat, tail lashing, weight on his good foreleg, Taurger snarled and brought his other foreleg out and down, claws extended, in a move almost too fast to follow.
Purrsia jumped back so suddenly shi toppled. The deep rumble of Taurgerís snarl, so unlike a normal chakat scream, drew the attention of nearly everyone as it echoed through the cavern.
Trembling from the effort, Taurger restrained himself. Slowly, he stood upright and limped away, his eyes on nothing but the path to his den.
Van Peer caught up with Taurger in the branching passages rising from the side of the main cavern that led to his den. Shiíd witnessed Purrsiaís retreat with a mixture of awe and desire. To imagine being near someone so commanding, so powerful, and yet so willing to accept a person a fallen as hirself, filled hir with an admiration bordering on hero worship. The fact that Taurger managed not to snarl at hir only served to confirm hir opinion.
"Iím not in a very good mood, Professor," Taurger growled. "Whaddaya want?"
Suddenly shy, Van Peer stammered, "I, uh... was hoping, maybe..."
Knowing it was an impulse and therefore something heíd regret later, Taurger took Van Peer by the upper arm and nearly dragged hir into a twisted side-chamber nobody had found useful yet. Without letting go, he demanded, "This better be good, Professor, because I really need to spend some time alone."
Pressing closer, Van Peer said, "Oh, let me stay with you!"
"Please!" begged Van Peer, trying to cling to the larger chakat.
Shifting his grip to both arms so he could turn hir to face away, Taurger was unmovable. "No! Now what do you want?"
Van Peer sidestepped with hir hind legs, pressing the length of hir body against the coarse fur of the white tiger chakat. Shi didnít mind at all that shi seemed to be sliding under. "Oh, please!" shi sobbed. "I just need you to hold me! Just for a while!"
Angry, Taurger pushed the smaller chakat forward, pinning hir against the wall. His hind foot slipped, and he planted it wide against one of the wallís convolutions to brace himself. "This better not be what you wanted, Vampire," he growled in hir ear, his own ears buzzing.
Trapped beneath Taurger greater mass, Van Peer squirmed and sobbed. *Is shi abandoning me, too? How could shi...* Despair turned to delight when shi felt something press against hir tail. "Please!" shi begged.
Oblivious to Van Peerís sudden emotional reversal, Taurger swung a forepaw over the wriggling chakat to keep hir pinned. "Is this what you want? Trapped? Helpless?" he asked. His hearts pounded as his lungs heaved, drinking in the intoxicating air of the cave. This time it would be him dictating terms.
Fire flowed through Van Peerís veins from hir tail forward. Shifting slightly, shi felt Taurgerís sheath slide off hir tail, letting the big chakatís full weight press down. *Yes! Right there!* shi thought as a moan escaped hir mouth.
Taurger, however, couldnít focus. Something was wrong, but he was too angry to be bothered. Van Ė no Ė Vampire, a problem since day one, was under his control, but he couldnít think of what to do next. Feeling powerful for the first time in his life, he let hir squirm beneath him, growling menacingly in hir ear and pressing down with his entire body.
Van Peer inhaled, letting the cool air hiss through hir teeth, as shi thrilled at feeling Taurgerís weight. Shiíd found a nearly perfect position, using the base of hir tail to keep the tip of the big sheath pressed against the fire that threatened to consume hir. Shi needed only one more thing...
There was no reason Taurger could think of for Van Peerís tail to curl around like it did, so he ignored it. Shi wasnít doing anything until he let hir, so what did it matter? Let hir try to lift hir off!
"Yes, yes! Yes!" Van Peer cried in triumph as Taurgerís shaft slipped free of its sheath and directly into hir waiting slit. Pressing back with hir hips and pulling with hir tail, shi hungrily received all that emerged.
*Whatís shi so happy about?* was all Taurger could think as his vision blurred and shiver ran the length of his body. He felt dizzy, like he was in a racing roller coaster he couldnít anticipate. So he clenched his jaw and inhaled deeply, trying to calm himself. It didnít work. The world reeled around him, and he pressed down to keep from staggering.
Lust was not a new sensation for Van Peer, but not like this and not for many, many years. More of Taurgerís shaft emerged, and shi clamped hir tail over his rump, trying to squeeze more inside hir. Muscles twitched involuntarily, which felt so good shi squeezed deliberately.
The sensation of pressure finally forced its way through Taurgerís rut-addled thoughts, the haze of Van Peerís heat scent, and the lust flooding from hir mind. Confused, he tried to rise, but found himself bearing the weight of the Professorís back end. His shaft slid out only slightly.
Friction made new delights inside Van Peer. Shi pushed back and up, squeezing with hir tail again, and was rewarded as the final, full length of the big chakatís shaft filled hir. Shi yowled in ecstasy.
Understanding fought with hormones, emotional echos, and chakat instincts in Taurgerís brain. *How did this happen?* he wondered, as he softly repeated "No". He tried to push himself away. This time he felt Van Peer clamp on to his shaft. A wet sucking sound reminded him of when heíd discovered Purrsia outside the night before, and he began to panic.
Van Peer pushed back again. Memories of youthful romps Ė so long ago Ė mingled with modern lust. Shi knew that somehow shi had wanted this from the first moment shiíd seen those black and white stripes that first day. Hir arms free, shi reached up and back, pulling hir lover down on top of hir as another yowling moan escaped hir lungs.
Panic became frustration as Taurger struggled unsuccessfully to separate himself from Van Peer. He cursed under his breath before demanding, "Let go!" Beneath him, the Professor bucked and thrust.
Now anger returned. Grabbing under Van Peerís raised arms, he pushed with all his weight, pinning hir against the wall and floor. Both of them shivered as Taurger plunged hard into hir. "Is this what you want?" he hissed, pushing himself up and carrying hir body with him. He rammed down again, slamming hir against the rock. The sensations from re-entering left him stunned as Van Peer wriggled on his shaft.
This was no slow, prolonged, pleasurable mating between chakats in love. It was a violent mixture of heat, rut, lust, and anger that neither had anticipated and was finished quickly. Orgasm left both staggered. Taurger, finally released from Van Peerís grip, rose shakily to his feet and stared down at where shi laid spent, hir lungs heaving.
His body sated, Taurger could think again, and his thoughts terrified him. He limped into the main passage, turning blindly for his den. By some miracle, he met no one before he was curled up in the tiny chamber. Tears soaked his fur. One word repeated over and over in his tortured thoughts.
"How could I have done that? Iíve been obsessing about population and not breeding for days! Yet I go and do that to someone in heat Ė right when theyíre most likely to get pregnant!"
"Donít give me that! It is my fault! Everything I do is my fault! Every time I do something, I get something wrong! I canít finish anything! I canít fix anything! Somewhere, somehow, something gets done wrong! Every time!"
"I thought Purrsia was bad, but what are people going to think of me? I... Oh my... What is Pat going to think! Shi..."
"Weíve got that Ďvisitorí again! Of all the times..."
"Right now I donít care who it is!"
"Because right now all I want to do is avoid Pat!"
"Donít you get it? If rut can make me do that to somebody I donít like, what would I do to..."
Taurger was completely awake. He looked around his small den, wiping crusts from his eyes. He was alone. *I could have sworn I saw Pat...*
There was nothing in his den but himself and the bamboo-leaf figure heíd made, still sitting on its ledge. Nobody but him and his thoughts. *Not supposed to be able to rape a chakat. Guess I proved that wrong. What are they gonna do to me? Whatís Pat gonna do? Damn those dreams! I used to be able to talk through things. Now all I get is questions. Whatís happening to me? What do I do? How did Pat end up in my dream?*
Lying on his side, he recognized hir scent an instant before hir face appeared in the entry heíd forgotten to block. "There you are!" Pitty-Pat said, slipping inside.
There was something changed about hir. Shi moved differently, with an incredible grace he hadnít seen before. His hearts raced as shi turned around and made to settle next to him. It was like watching a goddess, impossible to turn away, impossible to interrupt. Shi smelled...
"Iíve been looking all over for you," Pat purred as shi cuddled up to hir denmate. "You left early. I missed you."
Taurgerís mind raged, commanding him to run, to escape, but his body refused. As Pat pressed close, he could feel his sheath releasing its contents once again. He wanted this; he wanted it so much. For the first time he could remember, he really, physically wanted someone. But he knew it was wrong. Pat was in heat, and the small band of transformees could ill afford too many pregnancies. Still he lay as if paralyzed. He couldnít even open his mouth, and so flooded his sensitive nose with Patís heat with every heaving breath.
"Oh, youíve been crying. Why have you been crying, tiger?" Patís voice was husky with desire, and shi rumbled with a deep, throaty purr. Shi stroked his face and leaned close, proceeding to lick his face clean of dried tears with hir gentle tongue.
With a will of their own, his arms and forelegs embraced his calico denmate. Their tails entwined in a loverís double helix as they slowly rolled over in the small den. "Let me make it better," shi offered, as hir hot breath tickled his nostrils. Hir tongue parted his lips as their mouths joined in a deep, lingering kiss.
Shi held him atop hir, embraced their entire length. Unable Ė or maybe just unwilling Ė to resist, he descended into the lust of rut and slowly, joyously joined with the chakat that had refused to give up on him. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else existed. Not even time.
Pitty-Pat awoke many hours later, alone.
To be continued in
Chapter 4 - The Lady or the Taurger?
This setting is © Verina Ducain.
Chakats are © Bernard Doove.
All characters and this story are © 2005 Wayne Cook.
VD: Katherine, May, White Tip, Doctor Wong, Brandy/Black Tail, Buffy, Doctor DiVargin, Colonel Deering, Copperhead, First Pilot Folson, the Colony setting (mentioned Doctor Shing)
BD: Tigris, Michelle, Sungazer, chakats (mentioned Jamie)
WC: Taurger, Pitty-Pat, Blue, Purrsia, Rodney Davies, Goldeneye, Professor Henry "Vamp" Van Peer, David & Helen Millhouse, Elizabeth (mentioned Chaplain Simmons, Ramirez)
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