Brian W. Antoine
May 19, 1994
Not Hardly Deja Vu
The mining tug Incontinent swung a wide arc around Luna, and prepared to dock with the SaudiExxon orbital industrial complex. The modular cargo containers that Incontinent was dragging held over half a million metric tons of ferro-sidrite ore, and getting them from the Belt to Terra had been a six month journey.
On the way out, Bob had been excited as always when starting a new mission, but now that the nine months out and back were coming to an end, all he was thinking about was thinking about was gallon-sized Seven and Sevens and a long and luxurious roll in the hay with his well-apportioned wife.
"Four, five, six and seven. Five more hours and into tit heaven." he sang to himself as his fingers punched away at the ship's controls. In the viewscreen in front of the ship, earth was looming large like a shining blue and white ball, and to his left was the angular matrix of the SaudiExxon. It looked as though a child had gone psychotic while playing with his Leggos. The huge orbiting station was maze of boxes and spheres, interconnected by fragile looking tubes.
"Incontinent, this is Saudi-E control. That you Kirkpatrick?" said a growling voice over the intercom.
"Guilty" replied the rock jack. "It's me alright. Gimme the numbers and I'll send in the dirt." His reply was a series of beeps and squawks from the comm that he couldn't understand. No matter, the computer did, and Bob heard the loud clang as the latches of the tug disconnected and the payload drifted free, heading for the station.
"Looks good" said the intercom. "You did remember to arm the retros this time, didn't you? I'd hate to see you lose your commission like you did last trip."
"Yeah, yeah. It's all set. Besides, that wasn't my fault. My goddamn engineer was the one responsible for that. Hey... looks like they got the recreational center rebuilt."
"It opened a month ago. Be glad you didn't get back before then. All the Patrol Cops in the galaxy couldn't have saved your miserable ass if you did. That screw up totaled every damn Erobot we had."
"It's not my fault you guys are sproinging cyborgs. If you had real women on that barge they'd have been in the crew quarters, and y'all would have been getting laid on schedule."
"Fuck you, Kirkpatrick. --Oh, speaking of getting laid, guess who's on board and waiting for you?"
"Let me guess... President Clinton?"
"Naw, man. Don't you ever listen to HyperNews? She got knocked off right after you left by a group of terrorists just after you left. Nobody knows who did it either. They found her body with a note saying 'To Hellary with Hillary.' Anyway, nobody cares about that now."
"So who's waiting for me?"
"Your wife caught the afternoon shuttle yesterday. She's on her way to the truck stop right now."
Bob smiled to himself. This was going to be better than he thought. In his mind's eye, he could see her curvaceous figure, her long flowing hair, and wondered what she would --or wouldn't-- be wearing. "Roger that, control. I'm about five minutes out."
Incontinent slowed and fetched sideways with a short burst of the maneuvering thrusters. The station, which had been looming larger and larger as he approached was now dead ahead. Its docking latches were held open like the arms of a child waiting for a hug from daddy. A hug he'd be giving the SaudiExxon shortly.
"Ok, cat. Are you ready for lock?" Bob asked his engineer. His answer came echoing up through the passage tubes that led aft to where the tugs powerful engines were mounted.
"Is ready." There was a moment of silence, then the forward thrusters sputtered twice. Another few seconds of silence past and then the ka-chung of the docking latches as they grappled onto Incontinent. "Engine off, we docked now."
That was all Bob needed to hear. He cast off the seat restraints and pushed off the console, gliding in zero gee to neatly flit down the tube to the airlock amidships. Grabbing a handhold, he waited for the hiss and gurgles of the airlock to finish, and cycled the hatch.
Standing on the antigrav pad of the gangway was his wife. Bob's eyes bulged as they drank in the scene. Karen had the physique of a Dallas Cowboys Fullback and wore a black leather jumpsuit. Through a hold cut in the chest, a flabby breast protruded. The nipple was pierced with a silver ring that was attached to a chain, connecting the flabby orb to a similar ring piercing her nose. A tattoo emblazoned the words "Back Off, Rock Jacks" across the stretch-marked teat. It was underlined by the likeness of a personal mass driver weapon.
"Omigod." gulped Bob. "Jab! Come here, cat. JAB!"
"We don't need no fuggin shitty kitty." said the hulk as she grabbed his crotch with a viselike grip. "Let's us lay some pipe. Hey! Ya like my new doo?" she asked. She ran her free hand over the nub hairs of her crew cut.
The cat appeared from the tube aft and immediately arched his back and hissed. With a loud 'rowwwrrr,' the cat leapt onto the side of beef and began to screech and claw at it. Bob reached out, grabbed his engineer by the scruff of his neck and hugged him close...
The beast sat down in the darkcyl and began to shake. "We try again?" asked the cat.
The Blood Test
Even without Bob's enhancements I figured I still had to be an impressive sight. Naldantis was the largest Velan I'd ever seen and I topped him by almost 8 inches now. The few people I'd passed as I walked along the road to Wythdantis' house had all stopped to stare when they figured I was safely by them. That, coupled with the beautiful day, had my mood riding so high I should have been floating above the ground. I'd have been whistling except there was no way my muzzle would allow it, so I contented myself with humming a tune as I walked up the path to my destination.
I had to knock twice before I heard someone moving around inside the house. They didn't sound very happy either as the door opened. "I've told you people I don't... want... to..." and the rest faded away into a whisper. Wythdantis had answered the door and had found herself staring into my chest. Her voice had faded as she had raised her head to stare up at me.
"Excuse me milady, I would like to speak with the Healer Wythdantis if she is at home." I had to force myself not to laugh as Wyth just stood there and blinked a couple of times. "Is anything wrong milady?"
"Wrong? Uh no, nothing is wrong" she answered as she pulled herself together. "I am Wythdantis, but I don't believe I've met you before."
"Surly not!" I exclaimed. "You are much to young to be the honorable healer herself. Perhaps you are her daughter?" I was laying in on thick and enjoying every minute of it. I'd been living on Velar more then long enough to pick up on their body language. You can't blush with fur, but her ears gave away exactly what she was feeling.
"Flattery will get you no where young man" she said with a smile.
"No even the tiny amount of time I need to explain my problem to the most respected healer ever to study genetic morphology?" I tried to look forlorn and lost as I watched her struggle with herself. She'd been telling everyone to leave her alone now that she was retired. I was gambling that her natural curiosity and interest would change her mind. I did though feel ever so slightly uncomfortable as she gave me the once over.
"Perhaps I might spare a few minutes" she said as she stepped to the side. "Enter and tell me your story." Walking behind me, she gave me directions through her home to the workroom she maintained in the back. After I hopped up on the table she indicated, she sat down and stared up at me again. "OK, entertain me with your story."
"My name is Bresandid and I am one of three sons born to my parents. As you have perhaps noticed I am also some what taller then might be considered normal."
"I believe I might have noticed that" she replied with a slight grin.
"I have been to many healers the last two years in the hopes of finding out the cause of my size. Though I am the tallest, my brothers are not much shorter than I. No one has been able to explain the cause and I wish to know whether it is genetic or environmental. If genetic and inheritable, I wish to know the truth before I am taken as mate." I caught Wyth's glance at my ear and gave thanks I'd removed the ruby I normally wore. I wasn't sure though what the expression she then gave me might have meant. I had the odd feeling that checking the ear was about as automatic a gesture as looking for a wedding ring would be for a Human.
"Why do you bother me?"
"All of the healers I have been to expressed their regret in being unable to answer my question. They also all recommended that I seek you as the best source for my answer. Knowing your wish to be left in peace, I have tried to exhaust all other avenues before coming before you."
I had my story and my excuse for a genetic scan. The chance to play a little joke on Wythdantis in the pursuit of the test results had been too good a chance to pass up. If she refused me, I'd have to tell her the truth and take my lumps for the botched joke. It was up to her now so I just sat and waited for her to speak.
"Your story interests me and I believe I will help you" she said with a nod. Getting up from her seat she crossed by me to open a sterile container and begin removing instruments. I wasn't paying attention to what she was doing because as she walked by me my sinuses registered the most enticing odor I'd ever smelled. I was still trying to identify it when I heard her ask me something.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention. Could you please repeat that?"
"I asked you to please remove your shirt" she grinned. "I need some blood and tissue samples for the tests."
Bingo! The scent I was smelling registered. 'You horny old healer' I thought to myself as I removed my shirt. I know damn well all you need is a blood sample and I don't need to remove my shirt for that. I swear her hand wavered slightly as she drew the blood and fed it to the gene scanner in the corner. While the scanner clucked to itself she gave me a physical exam and tried her best to keep her voice steady as she talked to me.
"You have never had problems with coordination or balance?"
"No, not that I recall."
"At what age did your parents notice your increased size?" She was poking around my back playing with my spine. She was also taking the chance to run her fingers through the fur on my sides and it tickled.
"About age eight" I answered as I moved to avoid her hands. "My parents tell me I just kept growing instead of slowing down as other kits my age did. The same is true of my brothers as well." It was my turn to have trouble concentrating now. If this was what the normal 'musty' smell I got from Kalindra translated to for Velan males. I was pretty sure I knew just how they knew when they were being courted. The conflicting signals I was feeling were not going to settle for being ignored for long. When the scanner beeped to itself, I almost gave out an audible sigh as Wythdantis went over to attend to it.
'Get it together Brian. Who's teasing who here?' I pulled myself back to my senses and decided to fight fire with fire. I needed to know what she was seeing on that scan. I had a wild hope that my ability to shapeshift had expanded to let me truly become the form I imagined. My sense of self had changed considerably since that meeting with infinity I'd risked. I could feel it and Penny had confirmed that something of what I was had become more flexible. Turning to face Wythdantis, I was either going to hear her scream in outrage at seeing a Human DNA strand, or was going to have the perfect surprise for Kalindra's upcoming birthday.
"Are you able to see anything of interest?" I asked as I walked up and stood behind her. Instead of turning and slapping me silly, she was reading the genetic charts with her normal interest when she was immersed in a puzzle. Closing my eyes, I gave silent thanks to whatever power in the universe had seen fit to grant Kalindra her hearts wish. I then got jolted back to the present by Wythdantis' tail as it curled around my leg and held me close to her chair.
"I see nothing in the scan that looks abnormal, and nothing that might explain your larger then average size. This is however only the first level of detail. The scanner will continue to refine the structure and should give me the final results in a few hours. I will then study them and give you the answer you seek."
OK, time to fight back. The body was Velan, but the mind within was Human. Wythdantis was still looking through the preliminary results when I began to massage her neck. "I thank you for your time and the lending of your skill. I am honored that you find my plight interesting enough to lend your talents to its explanation." As she relaxed backwards into my hands, Wythdantis looked up at me and smiled in a way that scared me silly inside.
"As I said, the final results will take several hours to compile. Do you have anything important planned for this evening that would keep you from spending that time with me?"
Jesus! Human mind or not I was going into a low orbit. Even as I worked the knots out of her neck her tail was teasing its way between my legs. "Ummmm... I'm not sure what you mean milady?" was all I managed to stammer.
"It has been many years since I enjoyed the attention of an attractive young male. Would you consider helping me recall some of the wilder days of my youth?"
I let my hands drop and backed away from her. It ranked up there as one of the hardest things I've ever done. "Wythdantis, I have a small confession to make." Reaching into my pocket I pulled the symbol of my family from it and fastened it in my ear. "I am already mated to one who might not understand my acceptance."
"She does not believe in sharing such a prize as you?"
"I understand that it is allowed, but I've never asked Kalindra about it to know how to answer you." At the mention of Kal's name, Wythdantis' eyes dilated almost completely and she turned to look at the scanner as it clucked to itself, then back at me.
"I'm sorry, it was supposed to be a joke" I answered weakly.
After another close look at the scanner, she stood up and walked over to where I stood and looked up at me. "You have changed since the last time I saw you."
"More than you'll ever believe. Please believe me though when I say that..." and she reached up to hold my muzzle closed with her hand.
"It was a good joke" she said with a smile. "But it is not yet over." As I stood there and watched, she went to the vid-station and made a call. I almost choked when Kalindra answered and said hello. "Kalindra, with your permission I would..." and I didn't understand the word she used, "your mate for the evening."
Understand it or not, I suddenly felt like I was the special of the day on a menu. Kal's reaction left me even more puzzled.
"Do not let him cause you any trouble" answered Kalindra. "If he does, give him a swat and send him home."
"Don't worry, I think I know how to keep him out of trouble" snickered Wythdantis. "He may be a little tired though when I return him to you." I swear I saw Kalindra's ears twitch, I know mine sure did. "With the nal Kan's permission I might even return him slightly better trained then before." I saw Kalindra hesitate for just a second, then smile at the lady we both owed our lives to several times over.
"Leave something for me to nurse back to health" she laughed as she signed off.
"Well, that resolves that problem. Now I believe we were discussing payment for my services?"
"Training?" I squeaked.
"And a little research into the stamina of shapeshifters" she answered with a smile as she nestled herself into my arms.
"Your little surprise will remain our secret until you are ready. Until then, let her think I have developed some small interest in furless mammals and their mating rituals..."
The results of the scan were waiting for us the next morning when we woke up. Or rather when Wythdantis woke up since I was still out like a light. I was so tired I could hardly move as I dressed, and I spent even more time just thinking about what I'd learned since the previous evening. After she had made sure I knew that she too was ticklish just above the base of her tail. Wythdantis had proceeded to teach me just what was allowed and would be expected of me if I was going to show up in public someday as a proper Velan Klizach. It made the strict rules of magic seem like a vague set of guidelines that you were just supposed to keep in mind. There was one other piece of information that I needed to see first hand though so I went to see what the scanner had made of my DNA.
The results of the scan made everything worth it. With allowances for normal variation, I was as Velan as the gentle healer who handed me the paper showing the results. As tired as I was, I whistled the entire way home. I hardly even noticed as Sten greeted me at the door and brushed the reddish strands of fur from my white hair.
"Long night?" he asked with a grin.
"Research is always tiring" I replied as I returned his grin and patted the paper in my pocket.
Around The Blocks
"I'm sorry, Bobby. You know better than to bring an animal here." said the kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Dougal was a lithe and shapely young woman with long cascading auburn hair. She wore a granny dress with lace bodice and gold wire frame glasses. "Class is where we come to learn."
A granola freak, I thought to myself as I looked at her. Jab was wiggling a little, and was making it hard to keep a hold of him. "I don't go anywhere without my cat, lady." I told her.
"Well, we can't really say that now, can we? You didn't have it yesterday or anytime before that. No, your new kitty can't be here, dear." I turned away from her to keep her outstretched hands from taking the cat from me.
"Who we?" asked Jab. "She by self!" I clapped a hand over the cats muzzle and hissed at him to shut up.
"What did you say, dear?"
"Now, now. It's not polite to keep secrets. We have to learn to speak up and speak truthfully" said the teacher. She pulled me around so that she could take the cat.
"I wouldn't do that..." I started to say, but it was too late. Jab saw the long red-painted fingernails coming at him and wriggled from my arms and hopped to the floor. When the teacher reached for him, he swelled in size so that he was a full hand taller than the post eighties hippie.
"Back off, bitch." he snarled through eight inch incisors. Mrs. Dougal's legs wavered for a second and then refused to hold her up anymore. She collapsed in a heap to the carpeted floor of the classroom. As if some unseen person gave a signal, the other twenty children began to cry simultaneously. It took two minutes before teachers from the adjoining rooms came hurriedly in to see what the noise was about.
"Oh my GOD!" screamed the rather plump Miss Stiph. Her eyes were fixed on the Meenzal that was looking proudly on his work with Mrs. Dougal. "Call 9-1-1!" she barked. Nobody was about to leave the classroom though. Everyone was either transfixed by the monster that had magically appeared in their midst, or too frightened to move. That is, all but Miss Stiph who felt it was her duty to protect the children from what she had decided was some kind of lab experiment gone terribly wrong. She dove for the big cat, but as she neared it, the Meenzal shrunk back to its normal size and the blimp like lady soared over him to collide with the paint table. The table was not designed to support anything near the 300 pound bulk of a teacher, and proved it by shattering into splinters. She came to rest adorned in a Picasso-esque mixture of Tempra Color. As she rose to her feet, the kids in the class increased their cacophony by a few orders of magnitude. Why not? The large lady, with blue face and green hair was infinitely more frightening than a cat. To prove it, one of the children threw a wooden block that struck her in an ample bosom.
"Oh, boy." I said.
"...finds you guilty of Murder in the First Degree, and Orders that you be taken to a place specified by the Attorney General where you shall be hung by the neck until dead. --Why is there a cat in my courtroom?"
"I love you so much" said the youthful looking blonde. She was next to me in the front seat of a red Mustang convertible. She snaked a hand to my leg, and running it up my thigh, began to stroke my crotch. "Mom and Dad won't like it, but we can go to Maryland. There's no age limit for marriage there."
"Maryland?" I asked her? "Say, how old are you, anyway?"
"Thirteen. Why?" My eyes widened and I reached over her shoulder to get my cat from the back seat. Doing so pressed me against her. "Ohhh, yeah. Let's do it right now. Here in the school parking lot. It would be sooo cool to have the Principal watch us doing it."
"You want Jab should drive?" asked the cat.
A Picture Is Worth ...
I checked my watch again and snorted with disgust. "Kalindra! What is the problem now?" I yelled as I stood in the doorway. The look on her face as she peeked out of her workroom at the end of the hall was almost comical.
"You are sure I cannot talk you out of this?"
"You promised me you'd pose for your picture" I answered as I shifted the bundles I was holding. "Or are you going back on your word now?" I could see her bristle even in the dim lighting of the hallway.
"I will keep my promise" she said, "but I expected you to wait until AFTER the birth of our son! A painting of me now is a waste of material."
"That's your opinion" I said with a smile. "Throughout our lives I will always be able to see you as you want to be remembered, but how often will I get a chance to remember you and our first son together like this?"
"Have I told you lately that you are crazy?"
"Not in the last half hour or so" I laughed with a glance at my watch. "Now grab your cloak and come on. We are suppose to meet the artist at the booth in about an hour."
"I'm coming" she grumbled as she waddled out of her workroom and down the hall towards me. "I'm not real fast at the moment."
"That's why I allowed so much time for the trip into town." Stacking my bundles on the floor for a moment, I held her cloak for her while she fastened the clasp. "We can take it as slow as you need to."
"That's going to be pretty slow I'm afraid."
"Well, if it gets too bad I can always tie a rope to you and levitate you. Then I can haul you into town like a big furry balloon with..." I never saw the fist that caught me in the gut. Kal might be slow walking but she was quick as ever to keep me in line. "Maybe not" I wheezed.
"Maybe not" she said with a smile as she stepped through the doorway. Gathering up the various bundles laying at my feet I followed behind her and closed the door. "That's what you ought to be levitating" she snickered as she watched me trying to balance the load I was carrying. I stopped, realized she had a point, and cast a 'follow me please' on the entire pile. We had to have been quite a sight as we stepped off the path leading to the house and into the road. One very pregnant Velan, one Human and a train of packages floating in the air behind us. That we got as few odd looks as we did said loads about what our neighbors thought was normal for our family.
About halfway into town though it was becoming obvious that Kal was not enjoying the walk. "Are you sure you..." and I ducked faster this time.
"I am not floating into town on a leash!"
"Hummm..." I thought about it for a moment, then grinned. "Ok, how about a ride since I doubt you'd let me 'port us into town either."
"You got that right, I'm not taking any chances anymore. What do you intend that I should ride in? Are you going to create one of those smelly cars you Humans are so fond of?"
"Nope" and I left her wondering as I did a rough calculation in my head of her weight and my carrying capacity. Stepping to the side of the road I shapeshifted into my wolf form, but scaled up so that I was about five feet tall at the shoulders. Kneeling down so she could climb on my back I howled and snapped at her ankles. *Think you can hold on?*
"Don't worry about that" she laughed as she buried her hands in my fur. "I'm not sure this is much more dignified then being towed on a rope though!" I took off at an easy lope and tried to keep from bouncing her around. It took a minute before I found a good pace that didn't jostle her too much and let me not have to think about what I was doing. Now we got the looks from our fellow travelers as we passed them at a steady pace with our packages floating along behind us. Kalindra just waved at those we knew and laughed at the reaction of those we didn't. By the time I stopped at the edge of town she was feeling much better and was almost happy about my dragging her out of the house.
"That was more fun than I expected it to be."
"I hope our son thinks so too. I want him to learn how to ride and I'm a lot safer then a horse would be when he first starts out." I checked my clothing to make sure it had come back correctly and then waited for Kal to start out. That got another chuckle out of her because I usually led the way with her following along behind.
"I see you remember some of your lessons."
"When in formal settings the Klizan and Klizach shall appear side by side" I recited. "The rest of the time we're just supposed to avoid stepping on each others tail" I added as I looked behind me like I'd lost something.
"That could be a problem then if I get in front of you. You tend to be about as graceful as a drunk Glanth when you get distracted."
"Then I will have to pay attention to where my mate is at all times" I spouted with wounded pride. "Not that she's very hard to spot at the moment as large as she is." We glared at each other for a second then broke out laughing. With my arm around her and our packages playing tag along we walked over the bridge that marked the official boundary and headed for the market in the center.
Our first stop was supposed to be with the painter I had commissioned to paint Kalindra's portrait, but both of us managed to get distracted a number of times by things that caught our eye. The time we'd made up in getting to town quickly got eaten by the stops we made just working our way through the marketplace. Finally though we both stood in front of the little booth of artwork that had caught my eye earlier in the week when I'd been in town. Kal and I were standing there and admiring the paintings when the artist stuck his head out of the curtain in back to see who was there.
"Ah, it is a pleasure to meet the lovely lady of whom I've heard so much. The Klizach claims you are the light that causes the sun to hide in shame once a day." Kal took that in and threw me a 'what the?' look. I just smiled and dared her put her foot in her mouth. "I was given to understand though that this was to be a picture of the mother and her son. Did you perhaps change your mind?"
I started laughing as Kalindra stepped around the shelf at the front of the booth so he could see her profile. "Trust my mate to forget to mention all the facts" she said with a glare at me. The artist looked at Kalindra, then at me with a slightly puzzled expression which vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
"Truly a mother and her child portrait then" and he began to clear an area for Kalindra. "You have a pose in mind that you prefer?"
"Nothing in particular as long as she is comfortable and isn't holding a weapon in her hands. I've more then enough memories of her wielding death and destruction and this is suppose to be something more peaceful." That got me another puzzled look and glare. I just looked my innocent best and smiled.
"I believe I can manage that" and he ducked into the rear of the booth to get his equipment. While he was busy I held out my arm and waited.
"You will regret that last remark" grinned Kalindra as she handed me first her cloak, and then the rest of her clothing. I was still trying to keep from spilling the odds and ends she carried around in her skirt pockets when the artist came back with his easel and the canvas.
"How anyone can walk around with all this junk weighing them down is beyond me" I muttered as I laid her folded clothes on one of the shelves under the front counter. "No wonder I thought you were heavier then normal." When I looked back up the artist was positioning Kal on the chair. "Can you swap sides? I kind of wanted to see the family gem in the picture."
"No problem" and he had Kalindra twist around the other way. "You understand this will take some time?"
"That's why we got here early in the morning. If you can't get the preliminary work done today, we can come back again later."
"No, no... That should not be necessary" he replied as he started to sketch the general outline on the canvas. I wasn't in any particular hurry to get to my next destination so I folded myself into a comfortable position and watched as he worked. The odd comment I threw in from time to time soon had both the artist and Kalindra laughing.
"You are going to have to let me work in peace I'm afraid or I will not be able to guarantee the results" he laughed as he erased a goof and started again. "And you are going to have to hold still" he told Kal as she got this odd look on her face.
"Something wrong?" I asked.
"No, just your son kicking me in the gut again."
I stepped over and started shaking my finger at her belly. "Hey you, I'm the only one allowed to pick on Kal. No more kicking, you hear me?"
"He isn't paying much attention I'm afraid."
"So what else is new? I'm almost getting used to being ignored by my entire family." I ducked the expected swipe of Kal's tail and buried my face in her neck ruff. "Take care of yourself" I told her. "I'll be back later when I get the rest of my obligations taken care of."
"Do try to stay out of trouble this time" she told me as I gathered up the bundles that I was going to need. I could hear the artist telling her to hold still again as I headed to my next stop, the shop where Kal had bought my cloak.
What do you do with a drunken Archmage
"That should be more then enough to create the effect you want" said the shopkeeper, "but how did you come by that much fur? Surely it could not have been gotten with her permission."
"I'll will admit that she did not always appreciate my timing, but then she wasn't the only donor. The white is mine and the rest comes from both my Klizan and another member of the family."
I grinned at the expression on the shopkeepers face. "You remember that large animal she asked you to use as a model? He's a VERY close friend of mine."
"I believe I understand. It must be an interesting life being a Mage."
"Half fun and half terror" I agreed as I watched him sorting the small sacks of fur I'd accumulated over the last few months. Most of it I'd gotten by cleaning the furniture and such since both Kal and Lythandi shed like mad in the warm environment of the Sunbeam. Orienting the fur and attaching it to the cloak was going to be a lot of work, but the compensation I'd offered had the shopkeeper more then happy. "You have the design details recorded?"
"Right here" he answered and showed me the work order. "White around the cowl and the red around the bottom."
"Good enough, I'll see you in about a month" and I grabbed what remained of my baggage. I had one stop left to make and it would be the final one of the day even though it was still early afternoon. It was also the only stop that had me worried about how silly I was going to look.
"Ah, you did not forget" said Binlaster as I stepped through the doors of his inn.
"And I would forget a promise? Maybe I should burn this place to the ground and go into hiding."
"Then you would never know how the 'ale' turned out" he laughed as I set my case down in the corner.
"Well, maybe I can burn it down later" I laughed as I replied. "There are priorities to everything." The inn was still pretty empty at this time of day. It didn't really begin to get busy until after dark when the open air market outside began to close down. During a visit a few months back I had approached Binlaster about a possible deal. As an innkeeper he tended to brew his own drink where possible. I'd brought along a bottle of Terran Scotch Ale to see what he thought of it and it had been an instant hit. In exchange for brewing me some I'd agreed to get him the formula. Translating the ingredients into the Velan equivalents had proven to more trouble than either of us had expected, but the final results were aging in his basement.
"You want to remind me again how you talked me into this?" I asked as I followed him down the stairs.
"Easy. Take one alien Mage, agree to help him with his pet project and make sure he's drunk when the deal is being discussed."
"Yeah, that's what I thought I remembered. Remember though that I only agreed to try. I make no claims as to how well I can even play that silly thing after all these years, much less play what passes for music around here."
"If your skill is not up to the task I will not insist. Better that I not embarrass you and my clients then make both of us look silly." When we rounded a corner, Binlaster stopped and pointed at a couple of large casks on a shelf of their own. "What do you think? One for you and one for my inn to sample."
Sitting on the shelf were two roughly twenty gallon wooden casks. "I'm going to be sick for a month if that comes out right. I can resist anything except temptation."
"So I have heard" he laughed. "Would you help me carry mine upstairs?"
"No, remember the sediment that forms at the bottom. If we try to carry that up those stairs its going to get mixed with the ale and ruin the taste. I think this needs something more delicate." Stepping to the first cask I ran through the short spell to levitate it from its cradle. "Grab the cradle and I'll follow you."
"That is a handy trick. I don't suppose you could teach it to my son?"
"If he has the talent, it's easy to learn" I replied as I gently guided the cask up the stairs without rolling or tipping it. When the cradle was in place near the bar I lowered the cask and let it settle. "There, as safe as in a mothers arms."
"Human or Velan?" came the question from the kitchen doorway.
"Velan of course" I answered with a nod to the Klizan. "I can't think of anything safer."
"Are you two going to make sure that you haven't created the fastest acting poison ever brewed?" she asked with a grin.
I looked at Binlaster and watched his expression mimic mine. "In the interest of inter-world relations and for the safety of the public I think we need to sample the results, don't you?" His answer was to hand me a mug from under the counter and duck between me and the cask.
"I'm first!" and he popped the airlock from the bung and attached the spigot. When we both had a mug ready I held mine to the light streaming through one of the windows.
"Well, you can't see through it."
"That is a good sign?"
"That is a prime requirement!" I looked at the head that had formed and sniffed lightly as I swirled the ale in my mug. "It smells kind of odd to me though." With a silent prayer that I could always heal the damage afterwards I took a small sip and swirled it in my mouth.
I ignored him and took another sip. It was different, but then the stuff that had gone into its making had never come within a thousand light-years of the world that the recipe had come from. Even so, it wasn't half bad. "It's terrible, I'll take both casks from you and make sure it never kills any of your customers."
"And drink it all yourself" he laughed as I took a larger pull from my mug.
"It's the only way to be safe" I exclaimed. "It's that or we'll have to 'nuke' the site from orbit." It didn't translate, but he got the idea anyway and took a drink from his own mug. I tried not to laugh at the look on his face, but failed. "Take it easy with that stuff. If it's anything like the potency of the real thing, you're going to get pleasant just on that single mug!"
"I'm going to be rich! <burp>"
"You're going to be sick" I grinned as I polished off the last of my own mug.
"I'm going to string both of you up by your ears" said the Klizan from her spot in the doorway. "You are supposed to be practicing with that 'harp' of yours" she said pointing at me. "And you are supposed to be getting ready for business" she said with a glare at her mate.
I put my mug on the counter and ducked around the bar to grab my case. Binlaster took a few seconds to tease his mate and then followed me. "They believe they know everything" I muttered to him as his mate glared at us.
"And we let them believe it even if it isn't true" he answered with a twinkle in his eye. "Ok, let me hear the results of my bargain" he said somewhat louder so his mate could hear. As I pulled my autoharp from its case she nodded and went back into the kitchen.
Actually I'd spend the last week practicing like crazy using the same kind of trance I used for spell memorization. The fact that my spells used musical mnemonics had helped quite a bit. I double checked the tuning and found a comfortable place to sit as Binlaster looked over the instrument I was holding.
"And you make music with that?"
"Better than I sing I hope" and I grabbed a cloth to polish the woodwork and clean the lint from the strings. "It has been many years since I played this with any regularity, but with luck the skill will return enough to keep your customers from throwing produce at me." Selecting a pick from the case, I slipped it on my hand and launched into a folksong I'd learned more years ago then I liked to remember. Within the first few seconds Binlasters ears perked up and he listened intently as I worked my way through the piece. I wasn't bad, but I wasn't good either. I was lucky Binlaster didn't know how many chords I botched as I finished and let the last chord die away.
"That selection was of your world?"
"Yeah, it's called 'What do you do with a drunken Archmage'. Of course the words to my version don't match the original very closely."
"There are words that go with it?"
"Of course, although translating them into Velan would ruin the effect and would never sound right."
He thought about that and nodded. "I was afraid that would be the case. I don't suppose you have learned anything from my world?"
"Perhaps..." And I launched into something I'd memorized during my searches of the Central Libraries music archives. I'd barely gotten started when Bin stopped me.
"Wait one moment... Lis, come out here please" he yelled over his shoulder. A moment later one of his daughters stuck her head out of the kitchen. "Yes?"
"Come here and listen to this please" and he pointed to a spot next to where I sat. "Begin again please" he asked me when she was ready. Shrugging my shoulders I started the piece once more. I was intent enough on playing that I flubbed several chords when Lis started singing along with the song I was playing. Once I caught on though I tried to make sure it was the only mistake I made. The ending of the song was a rift that climbed to the top of the scale and my autoharp gave out long before Lis's voice threatened to break every window in the inn.
"Well?" asked Binlaster as he looked at his daughter.
"I am afraid the Klizach will never live on the earnings of his skill with his instrument, but he is far from the worst you have asked to play for us." Bin nodded and turned to face me.
"How many of our songs do you know?"
"I memorized about six that the library said were popular."
"That is not very many I'm afraid" he said with a frown.
"I can always just play the instrumental pieces of my own world as background music or something."
"Possibly, can you learn more of ours though?"
"If you are serious about this, yes. One of the advantages of being a Mage is that I memorize stuff easily."
"Then why did you forget to come get me?" came a familiar voice from the entrance of the inn. "You were supposed to come get me and accompany me as I did my shopping" said Kalindra as she glared at me.
"Oh shit..." I mumbled under my breath. "Maybe we better continue this later" I whispered to Binlaster as Kal waddled over to where we sat. He gave me a quick nod and found an excuse to duck behind the bar.
"Hi! Is it that time already?" I pulled my watch from my pocket. "My how the time flies when your busy working."
"Don't give me that shit! You forgot!" yelled Kal in English.
"Hey, you got it right!" I replied with a hopeful grin on my face. It didn't work and Kal proceeded to read me the riot act in from of Bin and his mate. It was in English thank god, but I don't doubt that they both knew exactly what was being said. The fact that Bin's mate kept yelling encouragement's to Kalindra just added to the fun.
Spontaneous ArchMage Combustion
It was bad enough that I bombed in front of the entire crowd, but the fact that Kalindra had asked both Tanindra and Wythdantis to come and cheer me along just added to the humiliation. I was less then half way through the second song that Lis had known the words to when the crowd had began to debate whether sacrificing someone to Kalindra was worth it to get me to stop. The only bright point of the evening was when a musician in the crowd figured out why I had sounded so bad.
"Please strike that chord one more time." I did and he winced even worse than the first time. "And you can't hear the difference?" he asked.
"It sounds correct to me."
"Ok, play each note that makes up the chord." I began to pluck each note and we found the problem quickly. "Your musical scale is different than ours" he told me as I flicked the third note with my pick. It took a little experimenting but when we finished testing my autoharp we figured about half the notes were off as compared to the Velan scale.
"So much for that idea then" and I started putting the harp away. "If I tune it for your music I can't stand to listen to my own playing." I looked at Binlaster who was nodding his head.
"You did try though and that was all I asked of you."
"Then we can eat in peace?" asked some clown on the other side of the room. "Good" he exclaimed to the nods of his friends when I continued to pack up my harp. "I was volunteered to ask your mate to get you to quit and I would much rather have another mug of this odd ale you brewed."
"Drink in good health and save your skin for another day then." Grabbing my own mug I started seeing how fast I could drain it. With a little luck I would forget this whole episode had ever happened. Though it would have been a shame to forget the excellent dinner that was laid before us.
"I take it we will be staying a while yet?"
"You can be embarrassed later" said Kalindra with a wink. "I however am hungry and intend to see how much damage I can do to this table of food."
"Ok, it would be the honorable thing to do since they went to the trouble to prepare your favorite..." <whap> and my ear stung where Kal had taken a swipe at it. "Ok, it would be the dis-honorable thing to..." <whap> went my ear again. "Do that again and I will spank you right here and now" I muttered in English as she got ready to whack my ear again. "That damn well hurts!"
*Then kindly remember that this is what you call a formal setting and you are suppose to defer to me*
*Oh yeah...* and I sat back and proceeded to sulk.
"The dinner looks excellent and our family is honored that you feel us worthy of your efforts."
*What she said* I 'pathed to Kal as she glared at me.
The food was even better than it looked, but my mood for the evening was pretty well shot. Getting as comfortable as I could I leaned my chair back and tried to tune out my surroundings. I was definitely in 'grin and bear it' mode and everything would have been fine had the group a couple of tables over stayed quiet enough so that I couldn't over hear them. I was sipping at a mug of Ale when I heard one of them raise his voice enough so that I could hear his words clearly.
"I wonder who the real Klizach is?"
I blew Ale all over myself and damn near lost my balance. Everyone at our table was staring at me in shock as I sat the mug down gently and stood up. Even as I stood I heard the conversation at the table behind us cease also. When I turned around they were all looking at me the way someone looks at a rattlesnake that has just announced its presence around the next corner. Before I managed to start walking though Kal reached out and touched my arm to get my attention.
"Yes, I heard it also" she said to answer the question she saw in my eyes. "The insult is yours, but the honor is the families. Try not to leave too large a crater since we will be obligated to pay for the damage."
"As my Klizan wishes..." and I walked over to the table the comment had come from. "Greetings. I understand you have some question about the manner in which my family is configured? I am willing to make things perfectly clear for those who might not understand." There were five at the table and none of them spoke a word. They just stared at me while I stood there trembling slightly with the anger that was burning away the effects of the Ale. "Come now, I heard someone at this table question the parentage of my son."
I heard a chair scrape behind me and Kalindra telling Tanindra to sit down. Something clicked in my mind and I made a note to thank him later on when I could talk to him alone. If being a Mage was hereditary, my son was going to be one of the strongest ever seen. "Hummm... Am I then to understand that no one here has the courage to repeat their remark to my face?"
"Who is the..." and the words died in his throat as I buried my knife in the table between his hands. I'd taken to carrying it the last time I'd had to visit Meenzeii just to have something visible to show I was armed. It was a wicked looking thing forged out of hull metal and was curved and notched like a large claw. Now it quivered in the table top beneath my hand as I leaned over to stare at the idiot who had spoken.
"The son my mate carries is mine and the next person to question that will become the cloak he wears at his naming rite. I will do the skinning myself!" and I leaned back to stand up. As I drew back I pulled my knife through the table like it was soft butter. The edge that measured only atoms thick sliced the table neatly in half. "If any of you have any questions I will be more than happy to discuss this with you outside." The only movement was from the two sitting at the sides of the table as they grabbed the sections that fell into their laps. When I decided I'd made my point I backed away until I was clear of the area, then turned and walked back to my table. Nobody said a word as I sat back down and continued to seethe in my anger.
It was a couple of hours later when Kals gentle touch on my shoulder brought me back to my surroundings. "If you are ready, it is time for us to leave."
"As my Klizan orders." It was cold, cruel and Kalindra ignored it.
"There is the small matter of the table you seem to have rendered non-functional" she said in a quiet voice pitched for my ears only.
Turning around I saw the two halves of the table lying on the floor where the occupants had left them. With a single rumbling bass note that I took joy in knowing was off key to the ears around me I sang the two halves back into position. "Please let me know if the repairs are unsuitable" I told Binlaster although I knew he'd never even be able to locate the seam. When I turned back Kalindra was holding her arm out for me to take.
"It is a beautiful night outside. Would my mate enjoy a quiet walk beneath the stars?"
I looked at her and the edge of my anger began to soften. "Better beneath them than inside them" and the two of us stepped into the night.
His vision cleared and pierced the darkness just before the impact of the tiny fighter thrust him back into blackness.
When he woke, the dual suns beat upon the desert sands, heating the hullmetal of the small ship enough to grill meat. The canopy had been shattered and thrown from the wreckage, and Bob lay half out of the cockpit with one arm cooking on the dark skin of the fighter.
He forced himself to sit back using muscles which complained with such searing pain that he screamed through a dry throat which ruptured and split, oozing blood up and into his mouth. He sucked the liquid in his mouth with an odd gratitude, and tried to collect his thoughts.
Lolling his head forward, he took stock of his situation. The ship was bent and splintered, and there was something holding his feet in place somewhere beneath the unfamiliar instrument panel. With great effort, he managed to pull a single foot back, and saw yellow fur --matted with blood-- wedging his other foot. Leaning forward, he grabbed at it and pulled on it in an attempt to free himself. The pain caused him to pass out.
When he next awoke it was cooler. A bright moon illuminated the site where his ship had crashed. It also illuminated the movements of whatever the fur mass was that had trapped his feet so tightly. Movement, he surmised, that had wakened him.
"So, it seems you aren't a coat." he said hoarsely. Speaking made his dry lips crack and complain with pain. There was no reply from the thing, but he grabbed at it again, and this time pulled it from the floor of the ship, up onto his lap. Bob looked at it with confusion. It was familiar and strange at once, and a word came to mind he didn't recognize. "Cat." he said aloud, and then wondered at the sound of the word. The little animal seemed to relax, and then went limp as if it too had fallen unconscious like Bob had done earlier. He would have wondered about it more, but he was too tired. So leaning back again into the contoured seat, he fell asleep in spite of the aches which radiated from all over his body. His sleep was haunted by a dream.
* * *
"Ish yal tu merc. Ya seh meh tow."
"N'ish tuk. Ya'qui!"
Looking left and right, he saw the attack force stretch away to either side of his ship. He smiled at the attack. He had planned it for so many months, it was dreamlike the way it was all happening now.
"Mak Ni!" he said to his flight computer, and the squadron began to peel off in rolling turns and dive towards the planet below. From the blind side of the world came a stream of enemy fighters. They came in clusters, and so outnumbered his squadron, that there was a cluster of enemy ships for each of his ships. Taking up the rear, Bob's ship was the last to take fire. But like the rest of his force, he hit repeatedly and rolled out of control towards the planet before he could get off a single shot.
* * *
He'd rolled from the ship, and the fall to the still warm sand was enough to knock him unconscious again. When he came to three hours later, the suns had blistered all of his exposed skin.
When he tried to sit, he hadn't the strength. A weight on his chest held him firmly on the ground. Squinting against the suns, he saw the animal was the cause of his pinning to the ground.
"You stay. Not to move. Many bone broken." It said. Bob laughed at the thought of a talking animal, but grew serious when he decided that he was delirious. He believed he was dying, so he rested his head on the sand and waited for it. A light blow caused him to snap his eyes open again. "No sleep!" commanded the animal. "You can take we away from now."
Bob screwed his face in confusion. The mirage or hallucination could not only talk, it could touch him, and he it.
If he only knew what it was the tiny beast was saying.
"Dah mi teh, sa vik zi?" he asked.
"What you say?" replied the little yellow animal. He looked at it again, and still the alien word came to mind.
"Cat?" said Bob weakly. "Is du meesa Cat?"
"Yes! I cat." said the animal. "I cat, you Bob."
His eyes closed again in thought. There was something familiar in the noises made by Cat. Was it a child of the enemy? If he could have, Bob would have sat bolt upright. The enemy! He was on their planet, or at least one of them. The Cat felt him trying to sit up and frowned at him, but it stepped off his chest and moved around to help Bob raise his head. When he was elevated, he looked at his surroundings to see if the enemy was about. There was no one. He was alone with Cat. A shiver ran through his body, and he was awake enough to know that he was in trouble. He was dehydrating, and the way he felt, he knew that his injuries were serious. Serious enough that if he didn't get medical attention he would die. Dizziness was working its way from his head down into his stomach, and he felt like he would vomit. So, lowering himself slowly back, he tried to think of what he could do.
*No give up!*
Bob's eyes opened wide and he rolled his head back and forth to see who spoke to him. There was no one except Cat --but Cat made gibberish, not words.
*No give up. We go from this now to other now.*
The animal looked at him intensely. Bob looked back at it, confused. "Dah mi teh, sa vik zi?" he asked. Cat looked at him again, and then moved its face close to Bob's. There was depth in its eyes that Bob saw for the first time. He also saw the needle like incisors which peeked from the soft yellow muzzle of the animal's mouth. He didn't fear them, something in the eyes of the feline said another word he didn't recognize. "Friend?"
*No move.* said Cat, and moved even closer, and then it touched its head to his. *KNOW* screamed a voice from deep inside Bob's brain, and then pictures, sounds, textures and smells began to strobe and explode in his brain. Faster and faster they came, pulling at his thoughts and focusing them with such force and violence that in moments he lost consciousness and slept.
* * *
"You shouldn't call her 'Kal,' Bob" said Brian. "It's too familiar."
"Now, wait a minute. Her name IS Kal, and the 'indra' part is just a moniker for what she is. You told me that yourself."
"That's true. But the name and the suffix are always joined, you can't separate them. It's considered rude."
"As rude as her calling me 'Robert?" Bob shuddered at the name.
"Should she call you 'Bobby?'" Brian smiled broadly.
"That would cause some really big problems, Brian."
"Well, if it's so bad for her to misuse your name, why shouldn't it be bad for you to misuse hers?"
"Because..." Bob's voice faded. There was a reason, he was sure. But he was damned if he could put a finger on it.
* * *
The sting of the sandbug jolted Bob awake, and again he tried to sit up quickly --only to have his body complain. The pain caused nausea to sweep through him and he rolled his head to the side and was sick.
"You alive still" said the cat. Bob looked at it.
"What the hell happened?" he asked it. A wry smile mottled the cat's muzzle.
"You crash ship. Shitty pilot." said Jab, and then he placed his paws on Bob's chest and rested his head on them. When he did, Bob felt strength coming back in greater and greater waves. In a moment, a large and muscular beast rose to its feet and surveyed the shifting sands with chromium eyes.
"What a pimple on the ass of the universe this dump is." it said.
"Then we leave now?" he said to himself.
"No." Inside his mind, the cat said he somehow knew that was the case, and resigned to go along. There was never any sense in arguing with Bob these days, he did what he pleased and why not. There was nothing in the universe that could stop him. Or...?
The beast looked at the crumpled fighter. In a few days it would be another dune among the sea of them. A lump of history in the sands of time.
"Time." he said the word aloud. "Time." he said again, and looked down. The body of the pilot was at his feet, and dull eyes looked at the sky from darkened pockets in the skull. The face was familiar. Bob had seen it every time he looked at his reflection. "Time. There's that word again." he mumbled.
"We bury us?" he asked himself.
"No. We don't. That wasn't to happen here." he answered. "I think we should leave well enough alone."
"I don't know. Something about... I don't know." The conversation might have continued if not for crashing noise that lightly echoed across the desert. A noise like garbage men dropping the cans after emptying the refuse. Through the sand, the beast felt the shock wave of impact with his feet as 100 yards away another small fighter struck the sand.
The beast that thought of itself as 'we' looked for a moment, and then started walking towards the crash site. "Have bad feeling for this." he said to himself.
"No we don't." he answered. He didn't smile.
Finale - I
The beast approached the crashed fighter slowly. It felt no need for caution, but chose to take the safe approach for the benefit for the pilot --if he was still alive.
Tendrils of smoke twisted and rose from breaks in the fuselage, and through some of the more gaping wounds, the beast could see the orange glow of fire within. Unlike his own crash, this one didn't dislodge the canopy, and testing it with all his strength failed to move it. The bending of structure had wedged it tight.
His hand fell to his thigh and retrieved the weapon which was slung there, gunfighter style. Aiming carefully so as not to shoot the pilot, the beast fired twice and the canopy flew from the ship in a spiraling arc and thudded into the sand fifty feet away. The beast watched it fly and fall, and then turned his attention to the inert pilot.
Whoever (whatever?) was flying the ship was encased in some sort of exoskeleton, reminiscent of the one they who were the beast had worn in another place, another time. It encased the pilot completely. The helmet had seams, unlike their own had. One on each side, and one in the center. The seams ran from top to bottom, and the beast looked to see if they could find a release of some sort. It found none. "We'll have to see who (what?) we've found later. For now, let's get them out of there and away from the ship."
The pilot was light, an easy lift for the beast once the restraints had been released. No sound emanated from the suit as it and what was inside it was plucked from the cockpit. The beast held it like a load of logs and turned and strode away from the ship. It was a timely move, when it was just twelve steps away, the small fighter growled lowly and then roared an explosion. Shards of metal flew from the ship in all directions, and some passed through the beast, ripping at it and the pilot it carried like a load of logs across its arms.
The pilot was light, an easy lift for the beast once the restraints had been released. No sound emanated from the suit as it and what was inside it was plucked from the cockpit. The beast held it like a load of logs and turned and strode away from the ship. It was a timely move, when it was just twelve steps away, the small fighter growled lowly and then roared an explosion. Before the shrapnel of the disintegrating ship reached the beast, a wall of darkness appeared behind it, and the shards of metal disappeared inside the wall, not to emerge from the other. Fifty yards later, the beast laid the pilot on the ground.
The beast took a step sideways, and then Bob and his cat looked down on the prone form. Dropping to his knee, Bob closely surveyed the armor, trying to find some way to release it. With a clack, the helmet was suddenly open, revealing the face of the crash victim. Instinctively, he jumped back and away from the pilot without taking his eyes from him (it!) for a second. The face was reptilian, and a forked tongue hung limply to the side between multiple rows of needle sharp teeth.
"Fuckin' A." said Bob. The Meenzal beside him nodded.
"What it is?" asked the cat.
"Beats the hell out of me. Looks like a lizard or a snake or something." As if by cue, slanted oval eyes opened and stared at him from their place on the scaled head of the pilot. Their amber color glowed as if they were absorbing all of the light from the twin suns above, and holding it inside them. Bob looked at the thing on the ground and then turned to the cat. "Go back to the ship and get the flask of water from inside it."
"Water in ship?" questioned the feline. "How you know there water in ship?"
"Don't know, cat. I just know it's there." The Meenzal took off at an easy trot, and covered the distance to the crashed fighter in short order. He returned with a soft sided water bag slung across his shoulder.
Bob took the bag and opened it. Carefully, he dribbled water into the mouth of the pilot thing. The forked tongue quivered and then lashed out. At first Bob pulled away, but then leaned back and continued to pour gently. The tongue again sprung to life, but slashed at the tiny stream of liquid, guiding it in. When it had drunk enough, the reptile turned its head slightly so that water ran across a scaly cheek. Bob closed the water bag and stood back. The amber eyes followed his movement. For a while, the two stood looking at each other, and Bob saw something new in the eyes of the pilot. It was gratitude.
Bob stepped sideways towards his cat, and an instant later the beast looked down at the pilot-lizard. Now the eyes showed surprise, but the also showed no fear. Reaching out a hand, the beast nodded to the pilot who took the hand offered. His grip was a strong one, and the two looked at each other for a moment before the beast pulled, and the reptile stood up to face him.
*Can you speak with your thoughts?* echoed an unfamiliar voice in the beast's mind.
"Zi tul zsha soos kih?"
*I do not understand your words* 'pathed the beast.
*It is of no matter. I owe to you a debt, how may I repay it?*
*You owe me nothing. You would have done the same for me.*
*I would not. How may I repay the debt? I can not let it stand*
*You can and will. I accept nothing for giving you water.*
*You have given me my life and you must let me pay you for it*
*And if I do not?*
*Then I shall kill you here, and I shall kill you now.*
*And if I do?*
*Then I shall go my way in honor, and will leave you to go yours*
*I understand. To pay your debt, you will reveal yourself to me*
The pilot regarded the beast for a moment, and then nodded. With a quick motion, the reptile engaged some sore of release, and the armor it wore fell to the ground dully. As soon as the armor was off, the reptile flexed himself at the shoulders, and held talon-like claws out to each side, palms forward. With a rustle that sounded like new leather, wings unfolded from the back of the reptile as a spiked tail fell from where it had been folded up the spine of the creature.
*Now, reveal the rest* 'pathed the beast.
*I am Smaug. Leader of the Velarini, rightful inheritors of the known worlds*
The dragon stood still and allowed the beast to look him over. Then without a word, it reached down and picked up the breastplate of his armor. The rest followed as though attached by invisible thread. When the dragon held the plate to his breast, his armor made a snapping sound. As quickly as the armor fell, it was again worn. Amber eyes looked coldly at the beast from the shade of the helmet, then with a clack, the plates closed so that none of the pilot's skin was visible.
*I have given my bond and paid my due.*
*You have. But may I ask one single question?*
The dragon turned away from the beast and started to step off and away. With sudden speed, it whirled back, a sword of light gripped in one clawed hand. The blade passed through the beast without harm.
*You owe me a new boon* said the beast. *I have not killed you for that*
But instead of killing the dragon pilot, the beast laughed at it and fell through the planet in a cylinder of darkness. Had they looked back to the dragon, they would have seen him make a sign to the heavens before he fell upon his own sword.
Finale - II
Blackness gave way to light, and with the light came the cold and difficulty breathing. The beast's chest worked hard, gulping air as it looked about.
The beast opened its mouth to speak, and clamped it shut immediately. Its tongue had a coating of thin ice almost as soon the frigid air came into contact with it.
Blackness gave way to light, and with the light came the cold and difficulty breathing. The beast's chest worked hard, gulping air as it made small adjustments to the apparatus that would provide the air it needed to breathe properly. Another adjustment brought the temperature of the armor up to reasonable limits.
"Look at this place," said the beast to itself. The surface of the planet was a dull gray of rock, dotted by ragged brown patches of dirt. Wind pressed hard on the beast as it surveyed the land through a mist of freezing dust, causing it to face and lean into the moving air.
"What this place is?" it asked itself, but no reply was forthcoming. Instead, the beast set off in a slow trudge towards a ridge some three miles ahead. It took an hour and a half to cover the distance, and start the trek up the ridge. With a rise of two thousand feet, the climb took another four hours of muscle tearing work. A lesser creature wouldn't have made it.
After resting for fifteen minutes, shielding itself by sitting in the lee of a large rock, the beast stood atop the ridge and looked out at the expanse of desolation. To the left was the remnant of a city, its buildings broken or fallen into the streets. No activity was visible, but the beast decided to explore the remains of the ghost town anyway. When it finally took refuge from the wind in the wreckage of a building, the entire day had been used in the trip. The beast lay down and slept, its plan was to explore the area on the morrow.
A heavy blow to the armor woke it. The beast was jarred but unhurt by the impact, and it rose to its feet to face whatever attacked it. What it saw was a cowering humanoid that was in much the same condition as the city was. It wore clothing made of old cloth and animal hides that raggedly covered its body. A hose went from some sort of tank attached to its back up to a sort of mouthpiece which the man held between clenched teeth. In its hand was a club that appeared to be a metal table leg. When the beast took a step towards it, the humanoid stepped backwards to keep the distance between them. "I will not harm you." said the beast, and it held its arms out to each side to show that the hands carried no weapon. It was a gesture of peace.
The humanoid was having none of it, and turned and darted quickly away. The beast followed as it ran from the building and careened around the corner. When the beast rounded the corner itself, the humanoid was nowhere to be seen. But a clank to the left caught its attention, and through peripheral vision, the beast saw a manhole cover in the street seat itself.
The cat thing crossed to the manhole and lifted the cover with little effort, casting it aside to peer down into the sewer system. It turned a full circle to see if it was being watched, then hopped through the hole to drop into a cavern below. Through its chrome like eyes it saw through the darkness, and saw figures scurrying away down the tubes and out of sight. "Wait!" it yelled, but none of the subterranean creatures did.
"If the mountain won't come to Mohammed" mumbled the beast and set off in the direction the humanoids had gone. It followed the twists and turns of the sewers for a number of minutes and then came to an intersection. It stood for a moment trying to decide which way to go when the big rock struck it in the chest, driving it backwards and knocking it down. In the armor, the beast was unhurt, but intent on finding what had propelled the football sized rock that hit it. It wasn't a long search, a catapult sat in the tube ahead, and there were a group of humanoids loading it for a second shot. The beast drew its weapon and destroyed the catapult before the humanoids even knew a shot had been fired. Ten quick strides and the beast had a firm hold on one of the humanoids.
*Do you hear my words?* 'pathed the beast. The shaking humanoid wet itself as its eyes darted back and forth as if looking for some way to escape. There was none. *Do you hear my words?* the beast repeated, and the humanoid looked with terror into the shining eyes.
"Uh hear yuh." he replied. There was hysteria in his voice. "Don kilt muh. Pleece. Don kilt muh."
"I don't wish to kill you. I wish to speak to you."
The man looked at him with fading panic and increasing curiosity. "Whut ayre yuh?" he asked.
"I'm a... I'm a man."
"Yunno man. Muh, isa man. Yunno man."
"I am. I wear special armor, that's all."
"Yuh be uh teknik? Duh teknik sall dehd. Kilt umsefs dehd. Kannit be uh teknik." The man looked suspicious now.
"I don't know what a technic is. I do know I'm a man though." The human shook his head from side to side.
"Yunno man. Muh be uh man, muh famblie day be mans. Yuh teknik. Canna be uh man."
The beast released his grip on the human and stepped back. Again it told the man it was human, and this time the man didn't protest --but still regarded the beast with suspicious eyes. "What happened to this place? What happened to you --and the technics... I want to know."
The human's eyes opened wide at that, and with rising ire he told the beast it must be crazy. "Yuh be no man. Man whud knows of the fantim wurld an duh tekniks worzay fite." The beast was going to ask what he meant, but the human wheeled and ran up the tube and was lost in the murk and then gone.
"We're alone again, Jab" said the beast.
"Is so." it replied.
The beast searched the tubes for hours trying to locate the man --or another human to tell him about the world and the city, but never saw anyone else. It picked its way back the way it came, until it found the ladder which would take it back up to the street. Taking hold, the beast climbed the ladder and climbed back into the light of day.
Mindgames and Chaos
I'd been setup and I walked into the thing freely. Oh hell, I'd ran into it begging to be nailed. It had been a week since the incident in the inn and I was hearing things that scared me silly because of what they might mean to Kalindra and I.
Normally when on-world, Kalindra and I took turns handling those tasks which fell into the realm of the ArchMage. It had been that way for years and had been well understood and even seen as a benefit of my continued presence on Velar. We each had areas where we were better than the other and we usually let the one best qualified take the job. During the last week I'd been politely told I wasn't needed when the caller found out Kal wasn't available. The final straw had come earlier in the day when I'd been told not so politely, "Sorry, I can't take the chance that you may harm one of my family." I'd told him I was sorry he felt that way, wished him luck with his problem, then blown my stack after hanging up.
The worst part was that I didn't know who to go after, or even have a good idea of the rules of the game. I'd tracked down the idiot in the inn and gotten what little he knew from him. He been contacted by courier and paid a good sum to wait for me to show up in public with Kalindra and try to get me to lose my cool. It also explained something I'd been puzzled about afterwards. While Velan's would only attack one of their own kind under extreme circumstances, Kalindra had proven over and over again that the same wasn't true of aliens in general and me in particular. The clown that had been hired to set me up had been under strict instructions to not get into a fight with me, no matter what the provocation. If he had done anything except sit there, his pay would have vanished before he could wonder what happened. Naturally he had been reluctant to discuss this with me, but I 'persuaded' him to come clean. The courier had been just as clueless and the payment had been in coin via an arranged drop.
So here I sat, with my mate three weeks from giving birth to our son and about as coherent as a cup of lime jello, and a world that was having second thoughts about the 'alien' that had once helped save their world from destruction. "Short term memory strikes again..." I muttered to myself as I sat in my turret and watched the sun set. Kalindra was burrowed into our bed like a wild animal and looked at everyone that visited like they were out get her the moment she wasn't watching them. When I'd asked Wythdantis what the hell was going on she'd just handed me a book for expectant fathers and told me to start reading. The book explained everything and the next three weeks were going to be hell to live through. "Why does everyone wait until after the last minute to tell me this shit" and I picked up the book to read another chapter before hitting the sack.
Kalindra was going to be out of things until after the birth of our son. It was obvious to anyone who looked at her and even clearer to me every time I checked our link. The mind that could play with worlds when needed was now turning inwards to focus on her child. That focus would only intensify until the child was actually born. One of the things I'd noted with a sigh was that if everything went normally, the only person she would even let near her towards the end was her mate. That meant I got to act as mid-wife if things went normally and got to try to restrain her physically so the healer could help if things went wrong.
What all this meant to my problem was that Kalindra was in no shape to help me battle the stories that were now making the rounds and the only other family member that might have been able to help was a couple of hundred lightyears away on the Sunbeam.
"This just gets better all the time!" I grumble to myself as my thoughts kept bouncing between the shit hitting the fan around us and the book I was trying to finish. When I saw the title of the next chapter I forgot all about the shit and ran for the video link. *Wythdantis, answer the fucking phone!* I 'pathed after she failed to answer. A moment later the screen shimmered and resolved itself into her annoyed face.
"This had better be good!"
I held the book up to the screen and started yelling. "Tell me this is one of your jokes!" She glanced at the book and her expression softened.
"Oh, I was expecting you to have gotten to that a little earlier."
"I've been kind of busy lately" I said as I pointed at the book. "Now is this a joke or not?"
"No, that is how it works on our world" she said with a grin.
If I'd had her close at hand I'd have strangled her. "How the hell am I suppose to help nurse the kid? I hate to break it to you but my plumbing just doesn't include that kind of attachment!"
"Then use different plumbing as you call it. As I recall, you have shown the ability to become the required form."
I flashed on the memory of the crazy night I'd spent with her and felt my stomach drop through my feet. "You knew this was going to happen, didn't you."
"I had planned on helping you arrange for a wet-nurse to assist after the birth. Since you are capable of performing the job yourself now I let the matter drop until you discovered the problem for yourself." She grinned at me and reached for the video link. "Never play jokes on your family Healer young Human. Especially one as cranky as I am" and the screen went dark.
"Oh shit..." and I sat down and started reading. When I'd finished the chapter I was trembling. "The whole damn planet is crazy!" I yelled to the walls as I threw the book onto the table. It slid off the end and skittered across the floor as I paced back and forth. Whoever was screwing with my mind and the honor of our family was put on hold at least short term.
According to that damn book the male partner didn't get to just sit around and watch his mate go through hell. Had I been Velan I'd have started to notice the changes in my breasts about a week ago as Kalindra's changing scent triggered changes in my body. While she carried the kid, both parents were capable of nursing the child after its birth. Call it nature's way of lowering the stress on the mother after giving birth.
I was now a week late and the wrong damn species. "Christ, I can just see this now! Bob is never going to let me live it down and Karen it going to laugh herself sick!" I sat back down in my chair and buried my head in my hands. I had the whole house to myself as I sat there and alternately screamed inwardly and trembled. Lythandi was the only one who might have understood, but she was on the Sunbeam. Sten was back at his apprenticeship, and Kalindra was huddled in her makeshift den in our bedroom. "Where are the damn Maal when you need them..."
Finally I managed to exhaust myself between the adrenaline surges that kept threatening to blow the top of my skull off and my mind racing around madly in circles. I hoped I'd think of a way out of this whole mess in the morning, but that was a pretty damn slim hope at this point. When I doused the last light and wandered though the house with just a tiny blue magelight floating above me I got kicked in the teeth once again by the fates. As I stepped through the door into our bedroom I was frozen in place by the low growl I heard coming from the bed.
"Kalindra?" I stayed absolutely still, but didn't hear an answer. When I checked our link I found out why, she was still asleep. The next step I took towards her the growl returned and I could feel her reacting to my presence though the link.
She was sound asleep and her sub-conscious was reacting to me standing there. I didn't want to find out what it planned on doing about it if I got closer, so I backed out of the room. When I stopped outside the door I could feel her relaxing slightly. "Shit, what else can go wrong tonight!" I must have stood there for a good ten minutes before all the random thoughts running pell mell through my head actually had two that went together run into each other head on.
"I wonder..." and even as I thought about it I was shifting to my Velan form. Taking it as slowly as I could, I stepped back into the room and waited for Kal to react to my standing there. I didn't have long to wait and the change was dramatic.
I could feel her relaxing even as I stood there. Between the link and listening to her breathing I felt her become calmer then she'd been in weeks. "Well, now what?" I asked myself. Myself had gone on vacation for the duration was the only answer I came up with. "It's either move out until after the kid is born, or get used to being furry." As I stood there and watched Kal in the flickering magelight the answer was simple and I lay down in our bed while trying not to wake her.
I completely forgot the conversation I'd had with Wythdantis and what I'd read in that damn book until I woke up the next morning. I was lying there wondering why my nipples hurt so much when Kal turned over and looked at me in shock.
"I've just got to hear you try and explain this" she muttered as she snuggled into my arms.
The Nose Knows ...
"And then what will you do?" I yelled as Kalindra stood in the doorway searching for her cloak. "Hope they hold still so you can sit on them and crush them? You can barely make it around the house here, much less run around this whole damn planet looking for whoever is out to get us."
"If you wanted me to ignore what was going on, you should never have told me about it."
"I don't want you to ignore it! I want you to help me figure out who's doing it." I mumbled something about obstinate females under my breath. "I've spent the last week searching for clues and have come up empty. I just don't have the background to track down whoever is doing this to us."
"So what else is new? You made it plain you didn't think the same way we do when you threatened to skin that pawn alive in front of witnesses!"
"And that's another thing" I yelled back. "Stop looking at me like I'm two steps away from being a Meenzal meal! I refuse to walk around like a mobile fur coat just to keep that damn nose of yours happy. You're suppose to be a sentient race, start acting like one!"
It had been a constant battle ever since the morning she'd woken up to find a Velan laying beside her. When I told her why she laughed it off as a joke. A joke that turned sour when I'd switched back to Human form. I'd barely gotten out of the room intact and it had taken me an hour to calm her down. Since then I'd had to keep an eye on her to avoid being close when she reacted on instinct instead of conscious thought.
"I told you I was sorry about that" she said as her ears rose up from where they had been resting against her head. "I'm am trying, but it is not easy."
"Yeah, evolution is a bitch..." and in this case her programming was fucked about as bad as it could be. As a rough guess, I figured it had been a racial survival trait that had gone a little off course. Somewhere in their history the Velans had gotten savage enough that they were killing each other faster then the replacement rate could keep up with. Digging through some of the archives in the central library, I'd come across some obscure theories about how the instinctive reaction to a threat to a child had developed. The scientists of the time had laughed the researcher out of the field. They should have kept their muzzles shut.
As a way to insure the young stayed alive long enough to defend themselves against their elders. The Velan race had mutated and then reinforced the trait of killing anything that threatened their children. It had also served to blur the lines between the fighting adults because the reaction didn't care about things like political alliances. Over tens of thousands of years the trait had spread amongst the gene pool until it was firmly entrenched in the race. When a child was threatened, every adult within range of the scent given off would react without thinking.
One of the side benefits was that it had reduced the amount of fighting in general, or at least I assumed that was what happened. The specific safeguard against harming a child had applied social pressure to reduce the amount of fighting going on in general. Whether by social convention or an expanding of the original genetic trait, the only fighting amongst adult Velans in modern history always involved a mental defect in one of the combatants. Unfortunately for me, the trigger and safeguard involved scent and Humans just didn't smell right. The night I'd gotten far enough in my research to figure that out, I'd spent the rest of in my cabin on the Sunbeam. I knew first hand how violent and capable of killing a Velan could be and a measurable percentage of the planet I thought of as my second home had taken a dislike to my existence.
"So what do we do now?" asked Kal as she closed the front door and watched me.
"You sit down in front of the library terminal and start figuring out who doesn't like us. I find a good place to hide and do a little snooping of my own."
"So you will hide like a scared animal?"
I heard the scorn in her voice and hated it. "Kalindra, would you rather I was forced to defend myself and wind up killing someone? I'm willing to bet that most Velan's don't even realize what's going on. They've just heard or read that the Human they thought was such a nice person because of something that happened years ago, is now proving to be a threat to their world."
"So what do you intend to do?"
"Teach and search. Your people may not like the truth, but they better learn it while it doesn't involve a war with another world." I watched as Kal thought about what I'd said, then relaxed as she did. With a nod she waddled by me as she headed towards her lab and the library access terminal. As she passed me though she caught me by surprise when she stopped and buried her muzzle in my hair.
"You are family and my mate..." she muttered to herself. I wasn't sure who she was trying to convince. Then she caught my eyes and stared at me.
"You've also been hiding some lemon drops from me" she grinned as she inhaled again.
"Later, if you behave yourself" I replied as I swatted her and headed for the computer setup I'd installed in my own lab. I had to laugh to myself as I saw the expression on her face as I walked away.
It took me most of the night to put in words what I had found in my research and what I thought it meant both to our family and Velar as a whole. Kalindra proof read the article and signed her name above mine just before I sent it to the library news service. We made page one and started something that neither of us could predict the ending for.
* * *
Velan Central Library News Service
Day 217 of the year 5123
Report on progress towards ... Page 1
Revised launch date for ... Page 1
Editorial: Velans and Galactic Society - Page 1
Who's the larger threat to who?
Brian and Kalindra nas Kan
Production Forecasts ... Page 3
A Life Begins, A life Ends ...
From the up roar we'd caused you'd have thought we'd insulted the honor of the entire planet. Of course in a way, we had done just that. In the weeks since that editorial had hit the news networks both Kal and I had been buried in requests for interviews and meetings. Given Kal's current state we'd both told all of them to 'go fuck yourselves', and I'd been the more polite of the two of us. We couldn't stay hidden forever though and I had spent the last three hours in an interview with the local network office and the scientist who was turning into the leader of the 'they are full of shit' faction.
"Give me a break you moron!" I yelled as my opposite number glared at me. "If you're so peaceful and mild, explain what you're doing to that poor chair!" Both the interviewer and the scientist looked at the arms of the chair he was sitting in while I started laughing. "Your race may not take it out on each other any more, but you're anything but peaceful. Kalindra has proven more than once that she can be more blood thirsty than any other two members of my crew when someone threatens us."
"What I do to a chair cannot be taken as a sign of what I might do to a sentient being. Our race gave up violence as a way..."
"Right, and you would sit quietly by and watch as I cooked one of your children." The right armrest his chair snapped from the force of his grip as he started to come out of his chair towards me. I had been pushing him and ready for his leap. My estimation of his self control went up several notches as he sat back in his chair and handed the armrest to one of the interviewers' assistants.
"You are trying to goad me."
"Yep, and you're reacting exactly as I figured. Every safeguard your race has against violence is out the window because at some level you don't recognize me as a person. The only reason you're holding back even now is because you know you wouldn't live past the second step if you attacked me."
"You presume a lot, human."
"Maybe, but even if you got lucky, Kalindra would parade your insides in the town square while I healed. And that is the point my editorial made that you idiots have been ignoring. Yes, you may be the most dangerous race our tiny trading alliance might include, but you can control yourselves if you think about it. Kalindra may not like what I've shown her about her tendencies toward kicking the shit out of me, but she can control it if she wishes." I muttered a silent prayer that 'she wish' a little more often as I remembered the last argument we had. "Your whole race can control it, but only if they know about it. And THAT was the reason Kalindra and I wrote..."
I double over in my chair as it felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach by a horse. The moment the pain had hit I'd let the shield I'd been holding flicker into existence. A quick check showed that whatever the source of the pain, it wasn't caused by anything local and I let the shield fade back into the background. The source though wasn't going to be ignored and the pain continued to lance through my skull as I touched the link I shared with Kalindra.
%Kal?% What I got back was the mental equivalent of a growl and a mixture of Meenzal and Human curses.
%Your son is early!%
I looked up at the interviewer and her crew. "I'm sorry but I am going to have to leave. My son has decided to bless us with his arrival a couple of days early." The looks on their faces were almost comical, but the guy I'd been arguing with seconds earlier looked worried.
"You cannot be considering being present."
"I am Klizach and it is my place and my honor. Besides which I intend on proving that the mind is stronger then the instinct."
"I hope you have a good healer handy then" he said as he shook his furry head at me.
"The best on the planet" I said with a grin. "We can continue this later if you wish" I told the interviewer.
"I will contact you if we need anything else." I just nodded and with my destination in mind, 'ported to the front door of the place I now called home. I about flattened Wythdantis as she flittered about in the doorway.
"Jesus! You trying to get us both killed?"
"Just you, here is the stuff you will need" she yelled as she pushed a bag full of stuff into my arms and herded me towards the bedrooms in the second sub-level.
"Where is the anesthetic?" I yelled over the scream that echoed up the stairway.
I heard Kalindra scream both in my mind and in the air around us. "Yeah, a large mallet should be good for starters."
"Is it for you or your mate" she said with a laugh as we stopped outside the door.
"Both" and I waited until she backed away from the doorway before I got ready to open the door. "Did you call for Lythandi?" I asked as I reached for the latch.
"She is on her way..." was the reply behind me as I opened the door and put my life in Kalindra's claws.
* * *
"You should see the look on your face" laughed Lythandi as she poked her head around the door to peek inside.
"You mention a word of this to anyone and I'll bob your ears to the second ankle joint" I growled as I thumped my son on the muzzle. "And you quit biting you little monster!" but it was an empty threat. With a kind of half awareness, he looked up at me and continued as before. Staring down into those golden eyes that had only opened a few hours ago I forgave him everything. Milk teeth or no, I was feeling more at peace with the universe than any other time in recent history.
"Shall we keep him around?"
I looked up, startled from trance I'd been falling into, to see Kal standing in the doorway next to Lythandi. "You feeling more sociable now?"
"And thinner too!" she giggled as she watched us.
"Good, now maybe I can work the dent out of the middle of our bed. It will be nice not to roll into the center all the time." Lythandi tried to hide her laugh, but failed and turned to sneak away.
"I have been reading the interview you did and catching up on what happened afterwards."
"Anything I should know about?" I asked as I watched my son yawn and curl up in my arms to go to sleep.
"The scientific community is starting to admit that there may be something to our story. The healers of course are making sure everyone knows that they knew we were right from the beginning."
"That's a start at least."
"And a good one" she answered in agreement. "Are you going to be ready to leave on time. I'd hate to be late for our appointment at the library."
"I'm not the one who needs an hour to comb the tangles out of her fur before she will leave the house."
"Oh," and she snickered as I handed our son to her to hold while I tried to fluff my own fur.
"Screw it" I muttered and reverted to Human form. "I'm going to give myself a hairball at this rate and I'll bet Wythdantis would laugh herself sick. Of course there are times when it's worth it" I said with a leer at Kal. She at least had the decency to be embarrassed as Lythandi returned with the sling Kalindra used to carry my son around in.
It had taken the normal two days after birth for our son's eyes to open. As was the custom we now would take him to the local annex of the central library to register his birth and give him his name. Kalindra and Lythandi were adjusting the sling around Kal's stomach while I straightened my cloak around my shoulders and opened the front door.
"It looks like a beautiful day..." and my reflexes kicked in as I felt the energy buildup in the woods in front of the house. The first energy bolt glanced off my shield and deflected upwards into the sky, the second into the ground where it detonated. When I heard my son start to cry in fear behind me all hell broke loose for real.
I could sense the surprise from my attacker as I stepped to the side of the doorway and the fear when he saw who was behind me. Kalindra 'ported directly behind him in her rage and grabbed him by the neck. Lythandi wasn't a Mage, but still ran by me like a furry photon torpedo. Even as he tried to generate a third energy bolt I was pulling the magic from the area and pouring it into the heart of the star above. When he tried to launch his attack, the spell fizzled in mid-air as it hit the void I had created. Before I got a chance to even move I heard Kal's scream and the hedge wizards neck snap. Even as he died both she and Lythandi were making sure there wasn't going to be enough left of him to identify.
Before he died though I focused everything I had into a mental probe that vaporized the remains of his mental shields. Shields that were fading even as his mind realized it was dying. As his body was torn apart, I did the same to his mind. When there was nothing left to probe I released the remains of his mind to fade away. Standing there in the doorway with my son crying behind me I watched as Kalindra and Lythandi were sick at the sight of their handiwork. I wasn't feeling real good myself, but I had one thing to be grateful for. I didn't know why he wanted me dead, but I now had a name for the Velan who had wanted me dis-honored or gone from his world. He'd had to hire the hedge wizard personally to find one he had thought was strong enough to kill me. It was going to be his last mistake.
Now it was my turn...
Guess who's coming to dinner?
It was quiet as a tomb on-board the Sunbeam. Since Bob was still out discovering what he was, and the Tipkatz were busy modifying the old ship we had 'sold' them. I'd thrown the Gate's open, authorized shuttle service for those who needed it, and given everyone a vacation. The crew members from Earth had picked their jaws off the floor and jumped through the Gate's before I had a chance to change my mind. They had signed on under the idea that they might not see home again for years. My offer to let them return with no strings attached had them stumbling over themselves to get to the embassy on the Tipkatz station. I didn't have much to worry about. They had all proven under fire that they believed in the idea we were trying to make reality. That, and they had damn well earned a vacation after the chaos we'd gone through with the Zulm.
The only person left onboard was Dave and he was not willing to talk about his reasons for not going home. Ok, that was his private life and I intended to butt-out. I'd raised bloody hell when someone had fucked with my privacy enough to know when someone needed their time to work things out in their mind without being annoyed by others. Besides, I had more than enough on my mind as I popped the seals on Penny's vault and waited for the door to open.
"Like I'm going to forget my sister's birthday?" I answered as the door slid shut behind me.
"You forget everyone else's birthday" came the accusation from the speaker on the wall.
"Penny, I don't celebrate my birthday, and I ask others to understand when I forget when their birthday's are. Some things though have a way of stamping themselves into my memory in a way I'll never forget."
"Such as the first time that silly robot woke you up by grabbing you by the..."
"Don't remind me!" I yelled with a chuckle. "You wouldn't believe the thoughts I had that morning."
"Don't bet on it. Those memories are some of the ones I cherish most."
"From which point of view?"
I just laughed and set the bag I'd been carrying around down on the floor beside the chair I dropped into. Staring at the huge crystal that sat in the framework before me, I skipped through the memories that spanned the last dozen years of my life. From that first moment when Penny had demonstrated she was something more than a program glitch, to the being that still though of herself as my sister and friend. Nobody in my whole life had ever shown me the love that she had. The fact that the closest friend I had wasn't even human caused a brief flash of pain, but I pushed it to the side. If no one else in the universe ever knew me as well as Penny, I still counted myself lucky for having known her.
"You're getting depressed again, I can see it in your face."
"Yep, and this isn't the day for it."
"Then we need to find something exciting to distract you."
"Well...," I drawled. "That was kind of the idea of this little get together, wasn't it?"
"Oh, I thought we were going to have a night on the town and paint the town red?"
"Is that what you want?"
I didn't get an answer and I didn't expect one. More times than I cared to count during the last few years, we had discussed what it was like to be who we were. To anyone who listened to us it would seem to be a joke. At least once though I'd been inside Penny's mind, and she inside mine. That more than anything had proved to both of us that while we might have something in common, we also were more different than the other could ever imagine.
"What is it like to see what might be?" I asked.
"What is it like to touch another person?" came the answer that over the years had become almost automatic.
"Want to find out?" I answered, and with that single question I shattered what had become almost a ritual. I wasn't at all surprised when Penny didn't answer me back immediately.
"What's in the bag?"
I grinned. "Would you believe clothing for someone who gets to discover what it's like to be human for a night?" She still didn't answer right away and when someone who thinks at the speed Penny does pauses, it's because she can't think of what to say. "I made sure is was about the right size to fit that hologram you seem to use most often."
"Brian, please tell me this isn't an attempt to emulate Velan humor."
"Do you think so little of me now days that you would believe me capable of such a sick joke?"
"No, I'm sorry" came the voice from the wall in what I remembered as the first sound I had ever heard from her. "You really think you can do it now?"
"You haven't been watching close the last few months." I thought about the forms I'd assumed with ease the last few months and frowned. "What I've become has me wondering just how important form is. Give me at least the basic information about a lifeform and I can become it. In all that changing though, what has become of the original Brian? I sure can't tell anymore. I can look at a picture and recognize myself, but would anyone in my family recognize me now?" I wiggled the ears that Kalindra had given me at my return from infinity. "I am who I am, and the form is a convenience for those around me." I looked at the crystal before me instead of the sensor array on the wall. "I can become whatever I need to be" and I let go of my physical form.
@Change places with me and happy birthday!@
What I had been now became a glowing collection of energy centered on chair I'd been sitting in. That collection though knew what it was to take on physical form and that was my present to Penny. As we exchanged places I could of swore that I felt a kiss from her as I entered and became what she had been, just as she became what I knew of.
I'd been here before so I at least had a vague idea of how things worked. But, I'd also had someone helping me who knew her way around. By the time I figure out how to 'see' the outside world on my own, Penny was sitting naked in the chair trying to keep from falling over.
"Blat fargle keptlting!*$%@$%" came the blare from the speaker as I tried to talk for the first time. Penny's response as she tried to answer me was almost as bad. The energy matrix that was my physical existence might know what shape to take given guidance, but making that form do something useful took practice and Penny only had my memories to use as a guide. I had the easier time of the two of us.
"You are going to get cold sitting there like that" I managed to get out correctly through the hardware I could feel at the boundaries of what I was.
"Noooossss... Shhiiiiiiisssssttt..." came the stuttering reply.
For almost a half hour I split my time between watching Penny learn how to use her new body and exploring the limits of my new senses. The only thing I learned for certain was that I would probably never learn to 'see' the way Penny did. I did however take an unsettling pleasure in watching Penny figure how how to get dressed.
"I've never asked before, but how did you decide on what you wanted to look like?" I asked as she zipped up the front of her jumpsuit.
"Uh, would you believe I used the memories of some of the dreams you remembered after you woke up?"
I looked at the figure, the red hair and listened to what I hoped was an accurate translation of the sound of her voice. "Yeah, and you should be ashamed for ever saving those memories."
"Be careful what you wish for then" she laughed. Rummaging around in the bottom of the bag, Penny found the small pouch of cards and such that I'd created ahead of time. "You were sure this would work, weren't you" she said as she looked at the credit cards and such the pouch contained.
"Pretty sure" I answered as I experimented with tying into the hundreds of remotes that floated around the ship. "What ever you do to explore who you are. I made sure you weren't going to run into any artificial limits that I could eliminate. Swiss banks are so accommodating when you want to open an account using precious metals and such. Those are the the same cards that Cali and Gregor got when they left."
"I like the logo. Have you shown these to Kal?"
"No, and the bank didn't bat an eye when I told them I wanted it put on the cards. I just told them to think of it as a corporate card and keep their questions to themselves."
"She isn't going to find it funny."
"Now who has the sick sense of humor" I laughed.
I knew what it was like. I had felt Penny doing it from the fringes when she'd been caring for me. Try as I might though I couldn't seem to split myself and do two things at once. I was still trying to access the remotes that she had stationed back on the moon, and watch her at the same time, when the sound of her cussing got my attention.
"Well, that blows that theory" she fumed as she made a gesture at the vault door that was almost instinctive for me. "Would you open this damn door?"
"Say please" I answered, while I thought of the implications of what I'd just seen.
"Where's my hammer? I'm going to take up gemology and crystalline fracture studies in my spare time."
"Uh right" and I tried to locate the mental twist that controlled the door.
"Wait a second, the controls aren't exactly labeled around here." I had located the interface to the primary systems, but didn't have a clue as to how to utilize them. I didn't want to just play around at random either because I was real sure that things like the plasma fusion controls for the secondary powerplant and other deadlier things were lurking around in there. "Oh hell, lets see if this works" and I ignored the interface and just did mentally what I'd have done if I'd been standing there. A second later the door slid open and I'd learned something new. "Don't expect to play Mage while you're gone. Magic seems to follow the mind, not for physical form."
"You're just now figuring that out?"
I blew Penny a raspberry and ordered a remote to tag along behind her as she stumbled down the corridor. "Someone who walks like she is drunk shouldn't talk about other peoples lack of knowledge." I watched as she stopped and then started walking again with more care.
"Anything that has a memory like this body seems to have shouldn't talk about how I walk. How do you survive with a memory this fragile? I'm having to think about what I'm doing just to keep from bouncing off the walls."
"Chalk it up to the difference between existing as a multi-dimensional energy point and a single-dimensional physical being then. Maybe us poor humans just can't think of several hundred things at the same time." That I said that at the same time as I managed to think about watching the remote feed from the bridge was the first solid proof that our two forms had limitations that were absolute. Even as I began to multiplex my awareness of my surroundings, Penny was having to learn to deal with linear existence.
I was so busy playing with what I was discovering around me that I almost missed the part of me that was tracking Penny as she explored the Sunbeam. When she stopped outside the galley where Dave was sitting and eating his lunch in silence, I brought all my attention back to focus on her. From at least three different angles I watched as he glanced up and saw her in the doorway. From his expression, I guess he dismissed her as being a hologram again because he turned back to his food. The fact that she made noise as she walked never even seemed to register on him, even when she came to a stop behind him. It wasn't until she just stood there that he put down the spoon and turned to look at her.
"Yeah, so what is the problem? You bored or something?"
I didn't have a lot of control yet, but the next three seconds seemed to take minutes. Using the high resolution sensors in the security systems I watched as Penny started to bend over. I was playing with looking at her and Dave's internal structure with the scanner and watching their heartbeats when I realized what Penny was doing. Coming back to real-time I had to work hard to suppress the laugh that wanted to escape as Penny took Dave's face in her hands and kissed him.
Dave was frozen in shock and just stared at Penny as she backed away and winked at him. "Thanks for staying behind to keep me company" she said as she waltzed out of the galley. I have to admit that I got more than a little annoyed when some part of my mind computed the angle his eyes where at.
"Hey, just what are your intentions towards me sister?" I yelled from the speaker in the wall behind him. I was still yelling at him when he screamed and ran from the galley towards his cabin.
At the same time I followed Penny with one of her/my remotes as she headed towards the hatchway that led to the Tipkatz platform. "Are we going somewhere?" I asked as she stepped through the doorway into the area that had become the Terran embassy.
"I'm going to learn what it's like to be a human female, right?"
"Yeah" I answered as I tried to imagine what she was thinking of. "I believed I could pull it off and wanted to see what the universe was like from your point of view. You would in turn get to see what my world is like using more than the memories you inherited from me."
"Well, I also intend to take the chance to say hello in person to people I might never meet again in physical form, so open this damn Gate!" she snickered as she stood in front of the portal. "I'm going to start with Karen because I want to talk to her about Bob. Then though I'm heading to Velar to talk with Kalindra and I don't want you following me!"
I thought about it all of three femto-seconds and triggered the sequence that opened the Gate to K1. The only warning Karen got was the message that I flashed on every screen on K1 as Penny stepped through the Gate...
[Guess who's coming to dinner?]
It was supposed to have been the first time I'd ever really been AT the controls of the Sunbeam. Instead, Dave was standing in spacedock and laughing his ass off as the Sunbeam slowly tumble in space.
I'd needed a way to visualize the operation of the ship. However Penny did it, I needed something that I could relate to and so had began to clone my awareness for each system that I discovered needed attention during normal operation. Then I'd sat down in a virtual reconstruction of the flightdeck and waited for the Tipkatz to release me from their station. Within nano-seconds of trying to move under my own power the entire affair had degenerated into Brian and the 300 stooges. Sitting in dock I'd let the automatic controls that Penny had put in place handle the moment to moment balance that kept the ship operational. I should have left them alone and spent the time comptemplating my navel.
"It's your fault!" yelled half of the Brian's in the room.
"Fuck off asshole!" yelled the other half.
And I just sat in the captain's chair and defied any of my other selves to try prying me out of it again. The last three that had rushed me were spattered all over the walls. "Will all of you just shut the hell up!"
"Make us!" was the unanimous reply.
Ok, I'd used the idea of a parent spawning a child process in a computer to create my helpers. Now the parent was about to slaughter his entire brood with glee. It was a good idea, too bad I wasn't the only one that thought of it. Even as I started getting rid of my 'kids', about a third of them started in on each other and the rest decided to overthrow 'father'. It made the fights Kalindra and I had look like a Sunday lunch in the park. What made things worse was that every time someone vanished, the systems they'd been assigned to control shutdown completely. The entire battle took less than a nano-second in real-time. Dave later told me that the Sunbeam just seemed to 'turn off' as he watched it floating outside the docking bay.
Penny was going to kill me when she saw what I'd done to her home. I suspect most of what I had seen when I first arrived had been created for my benefit. There had been the park I'd spend a virtual year in pulling myself back together and around it had been buildings that represented concepts that meshed with my mindset. Chief amongst those had been a massive library that represented the knowledge and memories that were her life's work. My little disagreement had quickly spilled out of the small building I'd added that held the flightdeck simulation and several hundred Mages throwing small stars at each other had pretty much just erased everything in the area.
"Think Antoine, this can't be right. This was all a construct to give me a frame of reference. The information is all still here, I just can't see it because I think I've destroyed it." I tried to sound convincing as I floated in the void talking to myself. "The first thing I need is the park. Yeah, a nice quiet park with NOBODY ELSE AROUND!" Ok, one of the few things that I had figured out was how to remember something with perfect recall. Now I used it to remember the park as it had looked when I'd first arrived. I didn't feel anything change, but when I peeked out of one eye the park was back. "Thank god" I sighed as I floated down to land in the grass.
Next on the list was the Sunbeam, but that was going to be a problem. I had no memory of how it operated to recreate from. The knowledge though had to be available and I knew where to start looking. "Right, the library!" I yelled as I snapped my fingers and started running up the steps. I was hardly through the door when someone yelled at me.
"Hey, no running!" and I skidded to a stop in front of a large desk labeled 'Information'. Behind it sat this small gnome like creature who glared up at me. "Whata ya want now dummy?"
"A library gnome, right... Are you Penny's idea or mine?"
"No talking in the library!" he yelled as he slapped me along side the head with a yardstick. "You gotta be quite!" he screeched as I ducked the second swing. "The index is at the end of the hall now go bother someone else." I watched him heft the yardstick again and quietly turned and ran down the hallway. At the very end was a large array of old style index card cases, all labeled in neat handwritten script. The fact that it wasn't my handwriting gave me hope that I had just re-established my reference frame to Penny's memories, instead of recreating a fictional database of my own.
"Ok, Starships or Sunbeam, where the hell are the S's?" I don't know how long it took real-time, but I spent almost 4 hours looking before I found located the section I wanted. "Starships, basic maintenance and operation. What? There are how many?" I pulled out a handful of cards and started to yell. There were close to a hundred books on the shelves about starships and all with the same title. When I found the rack of books in question it turned out that Penny wasn't real picky about the type of starship being referenced. There were books about Meenzal ship, Terran ships, Tipkatz ships... "Oh ho, been raiding the Tipkatz databases already have we" I chuckled as I paged through the book. It took me another twenty minutes before I found the ones for the various versions of the Sunbeam that I'd created.
"Oh shit!" and I started cussing all over again. Yeah, the complete specs of the ship were there, but nothing on how it operated under her control. "Fuck!" and I put all the books back on the shelf before I tromped back to see the gnome. "Ok, I want information!" He started to raise his yardstick and I cocked my fist as I aimed at his nose.
"Much better" he grinned. "What kind of information?"
"Where does my sister keep the stuff on how she interfaces with the external universe? I need to know how she operates my starship."
"Level 37, corridor 17, shelf 9. There are three sections on basic maintenance and operating subroutines for the external interfaces."
"Thank you" and I turned to head for the stairs.
"There is a snack bar on the same level, you're going to need it" he laughed before he vanished into thin air. When I wheezed my way through the door onto level 37 he was sitting behind the counter of an old fashioned burger bar and grinning like a fool.
"I feel like Alice in Blunderland..." I sighed as I started counting my way down the corridors. When I found the section in question I grabbed the first book I found and flipped to the index. Sure enough, it was what I needed, but the title on the book's spine made me pale. "Number one of seventy two? Oh shit..."
I got to be good friends with the gnome after the first week I spent camped on that level reading. By the end of the second I was even doing some of the cooking as we experimented with different ways of cooking hamburgers. By the end of the third we both hated hamburger, buns and anything else that you might ever put on a burger.
"We need a change of menu I complained as I closed volume sixty two and placed it on the counter top."
"I hear that you might know something about chili?"
"That uses hamburger!"
"Not unless we stick with the mundane kind" he grinned.
It took another week to finish my reading and make sense of what I'd learned. It was just in time too as there are only so many things you can do to chili. Standing in the middle of the park I called into being a huge control panel that was my way of visualizing the systems of the Sunbeam. Starting in the upper left corner I started throwing switches and verifying that the little green light came on. About half way through the panel a pop-up window appeared and Dave grinned back at me.
"That didn't take very long. You must be getting the hang of operating that hunk of scrap. You going to try again?"
I didn't bother to reply as I continued restoring systems. It was real hard to resist the temptation though of targeting the Tipkatz station with the weapons systems when I got them back on-line. When I finally got around to checking the real-time clock that was quietly ticking to itself in the corner of the window, I almost broke down and cried when it only showed about 30 minutes since I'd started this whole mess a month ago.
"Dave, ask the Tipkatz to tow the Sunbeam back into dock please."
"Huh, I thought you were going to..."
"Dave, just ask them. I think I've had enough fun for this lifetime. The next screwup may circumvent the safeguards on the main powerplant or something equally fatal to the local solar system." I saw him swallow hard and turn to talk to the crowd that was standing behind him.
As the Sunbeam was guided back into its docking clamps I told Dave to head for Earth and enjoy his vacation. I wasn't going anywhere and was just going to entertain myself until Penny returned. "With luck, I may just be able to avoid fucking up everything beyond her ability to repair it."
"I hope you have plenty to read then."
I looked over my shoulder at the library behind me. "That isn't going to be a problem" and I watched the window shrink and fade away.
Two months later I found another reason to look forward to Penny's return. "She told me she erased this!" I screamed as I shook the book in front of the gnomes face. "That lying, no good, miserable..." and I sat down in the middle of the floor and began ripping pages out of the book I held.
"That isn't going to work" said the gnome as he watched me incinerating a page with a fusion cage. "That particular book is a copy of the master volume at the main repository."
"Yeah, this is just a branch office" he laughed as he waved his hand at our surroundings.
I looked at the pages I'd scattered around the floor and the binding that was still burning over in the corner of the room and started screaming again. Even the unicorn on the front cover of the burning binding seemed to be laughing at me as I ran out the front door of the library and into the park beyond.
What you survive makes you stronger
It was good to relax without having to be ready to jump to alert at a moments notice. The Klizach nas Kan had not been joking when he had told us that life aboard his starship would be interesting. The last few months had alternated between absolute boredom during flights between systems, and brain numbing terror during the initial attacks against the Zulm. The vacation he had given us to let us unwind from that ordeal had been more than welcome.
We had all expected to spend several years away from home during the initial exploration flights of our part of the spiral arm. The best planned journey though must give way to reality. Nestled back into the soft cushion of the sub-shuttle chair, I chuckled quietly to myself as I thought about what kind of vacation it had to be for the nas Kan. The Klizan had looked very pregnant the last time I had examined her and was well into the phase where she would be unpleasant to be around for any length of time. All I had needed to endure was Marlanda's constant stream of questions and attempts to 'explain' some fine point of alien physics to me during the short trip through the Gate and the walk to the local shuttle station. The little physicist planned on spending his entire vacation buried in the memory crystals he had brought back with him. He'd still been talking to himself and anyone in hearing range when we had gone our separate ways.
My plans were much simpler and I hoped more relaxing. First and foremost on that list was a visit to the family of my birth. They had all gone to a great deal of trouble to find me a place in life, more than they needed to. Life hadn't been easy since I'd finished my apprenticeship with the honored healer Glidantis and discovered that my problems were only starting. I had the knowledge and the skill to use it, but what I also had was a body who's size made others wary of coming to me.
The first year I had been on my own had been the loneliest of my life. If it hadn't been for my birth family deciding to help me get started, I might still be sitting in that small office I'd now abandoned for the stars. The least I could do is return to show them their faith in me was well founded. Whatever else the crew of the Sunbeam might worry about, my size wasn't a problem. That I knew what I was doing and could be trusted to help when needed was all that counted. That simple trust had been the light that showed me what I might become.
Another thing I needed to remember was to find some small gift for Cali. For whatever reason, she had decided I needed a friend and that she was the logical choice. I'd asked Brian if he knew why Humans seemed to find Velans so fascinating. He'd given me two answers, but only one had made sense. "Humans tend to be very tactile people and for whatever reason we find the feel of fur enticing" he'd told me. The second reason had made no sense at all and I was still unsure what the meaning of closing one eye and smiling meant among Humans.
Whatever the reason though, Cali had spent more than a little time just sitting and talking with me while running her hands through my fur. I was sure she had no idea what that would have meant had she been a female of my own race, but my ego enjoyed it anyway. I was still thinking about what I might get her as a gift when the shuttle car began to decelerate and announce that my home town was its next stop. Standing in the doorway with my gear as the shuttle came to a stop I noticed the stares I was getting from my fellow passengers. For just a second, old habits kicked in and I started to slouch to try to hide my height. When I caught myself I straightened to my full height and waited for the door to open. I'd spent too much of my life trying to be something I wasn't. Now I had proof that it had been a prison of my own building and it was time to tear down the walls and replace them with something better. Less than a dozen steps from the shuttle I got reminded that walls like that don't vanish over night.
"Hey it's little Nali!" came the snicker from behind me. "Did your silly Terran friend send you home to get you out of the way?"
I didn't even have to turn to know exactly who was behind me. The voice alone told me that the chief antagonist of my youth had returned to plague me once again. As I had so many times before I froze and tried to vanish from his sight. I was almost as surprised as he was when my next impulse was to turn and face him. Raising to my full height I stared down at him and smiled.
"Hello Jini, loose your mother in the crowd again?" Jinastin was about average height for our race, which meant I was more than a foot taller then he was. The look on his face as he was forced to stare up at me helped to firm my resolve to end his habit of having his fun at my expense. Then I noticed the young fem standing behind him.
"And hello to you too!" I said with a smile. "Are you watching Jini while his parents are away?" She did her best to hide her smile while Jinastin's ears dropped flat.
"So you are the Naldantis that I've been told about. You don't seem to match the stories I've heard about you very well. Traveling the stars seems to have agreed with you" she laughed as Jinastin got this confused look on his face.
"It has been interesting, I'll admit that. It's also been a learning experience that has taught me a lot about myself." I looked back down at Jini as he tried to figure out what had gone wrong. "Hiding in terror inside a star and attacking something the size of our solar system has a way of making you believe in yourself when you survive it all." I didn't bother to try to keep my ears from dropping as I stared at Jini to make sure he got my point.
"Hiding inside a star?" the young lady exclaimed.
"While we waited for the nas Kan to sort out who was dead and who was only thought to be dead."
"I would love to hear more" and she reached over to take me by the arm. "Would you have the time to have lunch with me and let me share more of your stories?"
I turned my back on Jinastin and followed the young lady as she led me away towards an Inn she knew about. I knew exactly how he felt about being left standing alone in the crowd. Listening to the young lady asking me what it was like in space, I felt satisfaction that honor had at long last found a way to balance an old debt.
And in the end ...
It wasn't a darkcyl, but a flash of brilliant light and an explosive thunderclap that heralded the arrival of the beast. Nor did it step from the then into the now as usual, this time it flew head over heels and landed on its back with a thud on the grassy knoll on K1. It lay there a moment and then rolled over twice. When it stopped, Jab and Bob were laying face up and side by side on the grass.
"That was goddamn close."
"Yes." wheezed the cat with lungs recovering from having the wind knocked out of them. "I want go lay down now."
"You are laying down, cat."
It made no difference, without saying anything else, the cat dragged himself off towards his digs on the asteroid station. Bob lay there on his back and closed his eyes. The thought that he might again be in the wrong timeline skittered through his mind, but he was too tired to care. When something cast a shadow over him he sat bolt upright, his right hand finding purchase on the sidearm at his hip.
The woman casting the shadow was lovely. Long red hair cascaded over creamy shoulders with slightly curved tips pointing towards her ample bosom. "Hello, Bob." she said.
"I'm afraid you have the advantage." said Bob, trying to be suave. A difficult feat considering he was pointing a weapon at her. It was slid into the holster again quickly as he rose to face the woman.
"We've known each other way too long for you to be pulling a gun on me." she said through a smile. Bob's face screwed up in confusion and he unconsciously leaned forward as he looked closely at her face and eyes.
"Yes, we have. Of course, the last time you saw me, I was much shorter and I was waving to you from Brian's vault." Bob paled.
"In the flesh --as you'd say." Her smile widened to a grin. They both just looked at each other for a few moments, then Penny took a step closer and held her arms out. Bob returned the gesture and they hugged tightly. "Come on, let's sit down and chat."
They walked a short ways up the knoll and then sat down, legs crossed. "Ok," said Bob. "I'm in the wrong timeline again, right?"
"Oh no. You're in the right place, and you're right on time." Bob got a laugh out of the terminology.
"Then I guess I don't get it." he said.
"A present from Brian... I get a whole day as a human. Right now, he's on the Sunbeam learning what it's like to be me."
"That's Brian's body I just hugged?" Penny laughed hard at the look of horror on Bob's face.
"Don't worry, it'll be our secret."
"Thank god for that... Say. If you only have a day, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be somewhere else? I don't mean that unkindly, kiddo. I mean, if I was you I could think of a whole lot of places where I could get a better feel for being a human."
Penny looked seriously at him. "You can do better than that. Haven't you learned anything?" Bob gave that a millisecond of thought.
"It doesn't matter where, it matters what."
"That's better." she said nodding. "I'm here because it's necessary. There are a few things you and I need to clear up." This time Bob nodded. "Ok, so tell me." she said.
"I exist exactly the same as I always did. There's never been a difference." Penny beamed beautifully at him.
It was true she'd agreed. He was Bob and always would be. There was a difference, and on one hand it was inconsequential and on the other, it meant everything. But the bottom line was that he was the person he'd always been.
"You were on the right track on the Sunbeam when you started to talk about souls." she said. "But I would also say that's bad terminology. Too much religious baggage attached to it. But who you are has nothing to do with what you are, where you are or when you are.
Time and space are static, it's individuality which moves. Einstein was almost right. Had he reversed a couple of concepts, he'd have had his particle theory. But he'd also have been burned at a stake somewhere as some kind of heretic. Individuality has the skills and defines the perceptions for itself."
"I think I get that. It's how I move from timeline to timeline." Bob answered.
"Yes, but not, I think, in the way that you're envisioning it. That's why it's so important that you and I talk this through and why I'm here on K1 instead of Terra or Velar or anywhere else.
It was no fluke that you, Brian, Jab and Kalindra ended up in the same scenario. You are all kind of birds of a feather. Some part of your minds, and I could show you which one, are the same --and those parts in you are how you're different from anyone else. It's why you all are together and why so many things have unfolded for you the way they have."
"Are you telling me that destiny is a real concept?"
"Of course. I don't know why you'd ask me that, you know it already. It's why you feel out of place in other timelines and why you've all found each other."
Bob was confused. If it was true that there was destiny, then each act of every person place or thing was prewritten. It also meant that none of them really had an identity of their own. If everything was predestined, then their thoughts, actions and accomplishments weren't theirs at all, but those of some higher --thing.
"I can't accept that." said Bob.
"You're thinking that you're a puppet. No, that isn't it at all. Each of us has the ability to choose which timeline we are part of, and so we all have the ability to control which of the infinite number of destinies we'll be a part of. The only real difference between you four and everyone else is that you're aware that you can step through the realities. Brian and Kalindra call it magic, and you call it time shifting. What you do that nobody else does is eliminate the haphazard shifts. In that way, you have the sense of power or skill which elevates you --or at least differentiates you from others. So, you are very special."
"Now wait a minute. You just said something incredibly obvious, even to someone who isn't part of the Gang of Four." said Bob. "All you did was alter the perspective that we..." Bob stopped and snapped his fingers. "God damn."
"See? You knew it all along. When you spoke to Brian about perspective you were right on the money. If you know that you can do a thing, then you can. If you don't, then doubt will prevent you from trying and imprison you in the timeline."
"So what? We're smarter than the others?"
"Of course you are. If you weren't, you couldn't have accomplished the things you've accomplished."
"Now you have a flaw, Penny. If timelines are infinite and constant, then we aren't smarter and we aren't accomplishing anything. We just get to decide which of the premade accomplishments we're going to experience."
"That would have been true but for one thing, and that's something I find hard to believe myself."
"And that is?"
"You've all exceeded the realities you exist in."
"According to what we've been talking about, that's impossible."
"Yes, it is. But the facts are there. When you four combine your talents and skills you surpass the sum totals of yourselves. That's a premise I wouldn't have believed if it hadn't happened to me when I joined with the Guardian."
"Well, I hate to say it, but that's always been the case, and I find it a little difficult to believe that you'd think that was profound. Anytime people combine their skills they achieve more than they could by themselves."
"On a quantitative level, yes. On a substantive level, no. Very often, the life forms which combine to accomplish something do so because it has to be that way in order for the physical requirements of the timelines to be satisfied. A reality distortion would occur if they didn't achieve what history in the future demonstrates happened."
"I can't believe that this is sounding like a valid discussion."
Penny giggled. "You wouldn't if you hadn't been a part of it. But I'm going to get to the heart of the matter. Time has been distorted, and that's why you're all together. It's why I'm here too."
"Doesn't that blow your theory about predestination?"
"In a way, yes it does. But in other ways, no it doesn't. In the way that it doesn't is the reason that you're here with me today. You see, you DID die when you and Jab detonated the ship. It was the only way that time could be satisfied. The physical nature of time and space required a change, and that change had to come from outside the planes of reality. That meant that someone had to both exist in the 'real world' but be able to effect it at the same time. That turned out to be you. I knew it, and that's why I sent you and Jab off the Sunbeam to die."
"YOU KILLED US? --No wait. You didn't kill us, I'm here. Shit, Penny. I don't get this. I thought the Zulm killed us. I mean, didn't ki... FUCK!"
"I removed the self protective mechanisms from you and Jab so that you'd do what the Zulm asked you to do. Time showed you wouldn't. So I sort of helped it along. You had to be where you went, and wouldn't have gone on your own." Bob shook his head to clear it.
"What are you saying?"
"Time isn't what it was, and it's my job --our job, to put it back the way it should be. Except, of course, we have a certain amount of say in what 'should' means."
"Well, for the moment let's say I believe this. Why is it our job? I mean, why not the Zulm, the Tipkatz, or someone else?"
"Because the Zulm caused the distortion, and and no other species has the necessary skills to do the job."
"But why is it our job?"
"You and Brian made it that way."
"Speak in terms I can understand, Penny. What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the Guardian. It was you and Brian that had me get the knowledge it had, and so you have the responsibility for making this our job."
"I still don't get it."
"The Guardians were a species whose whole function in the universe was to ensure that time was allowed to continue in the way it was constructed. I don't have more information than that, the history goes back too far for any records."
"Are you telling me that time is a construct?" The impact of that idea had Bob reeling.
"Yes. Time and space was created. The old questions of what the universe is, and who made it are valid."
"You're talking about God here."
"No, just something slightly larger than those who occupy this space and time."
"You know the old stories about the universe being nothing more than the atomic structures of some larger plane? Well, that's about it. It's true. I have to base this on things I surmise --but I don't see any other choice as far as answers are concerned. Just as earth science has created and mutated matter and life --playing with DNA and all that, something way back in time built this universe."
"Great jumping Christ. A god. What a concept."
"No more a god than Linus Pauling, Stephen Hawkings or Issac Newton. For all I can tell, this all may be a discarded science experiment from some higher plane elementary school."
"I don't even want to think about that." said Bob. "So what's this about a time distortion?"
"The Zulm, in what I assume to be a natural course, transmogrified a little. They became a threat to the universe and the Guardians, the protective mechanism of the universe, went into action. But just as man has found a number of ways to overrule nature, the Zulm managed to overrule the Guardians. They brought about their destruction. Since then, those things which the Guardians did to keep time on track haven't been done."
"And so, we are the Guardians."
"What does Brian know of this?"
"Only what he might be guessing at. I haven't told him because you had to know first."
"Because yours is the skill that will be necessary to build from. Brian is capable of all that you are --so is Kalindra and Jab. But the skill is currently most pronounced in you --especially by virtue of your latest uh, experiments. I'm going to help them to pick your brain and then together all of you will hone those skills."
"What if we don't want to do this?"
"Then I'll kill you and get someone else. It would take longer to achieve the same results, but it could be done."
"Nice choice. I like the way you practice friendship and family." Bob's tone was laced with acid.
"You don't object and you know it. That's why it's not a worry. But if that ever came up, I'd have to take the action necessary to make it come out right. There are too many planets, too many civilizations whose existence depends on it. That has to supersede any concepts of friendship or family. It doesn't have to supersede the desire to manifest those concepts though."
"I need time to think this over." Bob thought for a second and started to laugh. An edge of hysteria was noticeable above the mirth.
"You have all the time you need. I, on the other hand, don't. I have to get back to Brian."
Bob nodded and stood up. "I guess I'll see you later."
"Yes. You will."
The Ghost In The Machine
Reaching up to the top of the control panel I zoomed in and got a close look at Penny's eye's as she sat in the chair talking to me. It was without a doubt the worst allergic reaction I'd ever seen, and I'd been a victim of some of the worst.
"I lasted about 30 minutes before I figured dying was better than sticking around any longer" she said as she sneezed again.
"I should have figured something like this might happen. It's become almost automatic for me to filter my allergies from the energy matrix when I shapeshift. I had hoped that would have become part of the basic structure by now."
"Well it didn't" she answered as she sneezed again. "I can't think correctly, I feel miserable and I HURT!"
I looked down at the bandage around her hand and laughed, but only to myself. "Yeah, Lan Louis is starting to teeth."
"I could put up with that, but the little monster seemed to like the taste! I've never felt so much pain in my life!"
"You've never felt pain at all the way human's do" I reminded her. "It wasn't one of the things I wanted you to feel when I figured out what to give you for your birthday, but maybe it will give you a little better idea of just how fragile we can be."
"Thank you, but I've had enough. I want to be able to think of more than a single thing at a time and feel safe again."
"Are you sure? I was going to try taking the Sunbeam out again. I think I've figured out how to jury-rig the automatic controls so I don't have to be watching several hundred things at once."
"You screw up and run my home into a star and I'll never forgive you."
"Bitch, bitch, bitch... I'm not the female driver."
"I might just let you live to regret that" she laughed before she sneezed again and grabbed another tissue from the box. "I was worth it to see my god-son, but next year just give me birthday cake and call it good."
"That's all you learned?" I asked as I started running through the transformation sequence in my mind.
"That, that you and Bob still don't know your destiny..."
@, and why you like touching Kalindra so much@ she finished as her form desolved into the base energy matrix that was my physical self.
@You kept your mouth shut I hope?@
@That's for you and her to explore in your own good time@ answered my sister as we passed each other and returned to our true homes. @Lord but Velans have soft fur!@ she giggled as I began to build the image in my mind that would define my shape. An instant later I found myself sitting in the chair Penny had vacated and watched as the Sunbeam slowly came back to life around me.
"You really didn't have much luck operating her did you?" came the question from the speaker overhead.
"Nope, I finally just let the automatics take over and hope that nothing when wrong until you got back." Standing up, I walked over the huge crystal that glowed with its own life as it rested in the interface brackets. "You might want to turn up the ventilation in here a little. You're getting kind of dusty" I snickered as I flicked an imaginary dust particle from the top of my sister.
"So, what do you want for your birthday?"
"Huh?" It took me a moment to change gears. "What do you mean?"
"What do you want for your birthday?"
"Oh no... You know I don't celebrate my birthday." The silence that followed told me I was going to this year whether I wanted to or not. "I mean it, NO PARTY!"
"We'll see" came the laughing reply. "Until then go make yourself useful."
"What do you mean?"
"Kalindra and Lan Louis are waiting outside the vault for you. I believe it's your turn to watch the rug-rat while Kal takes a break."
I froze for just an instant and thought furiously. This was something I hadn't counted on, but I would just have to act fast. "A Mages work is never done" I sighed as I walked up to the vault door.
"You're going to need a spell to clean diapers" came the giggle from behind me. In front of me the massive doors that protected Penny began to open in sections. I waited until they were completely open and then jumped through them.
"Hello my mate... WHAT?" shrieked Kalindra as I grabbed her and 'ported all three of us to the gate in our embassy. Even as we vanished I heard Penny start to scream.
"What have you done!"
The remotes stationed around the embassy were swinging in our direction even as I keyed the Gate and stepped through. Fast as I was though, one of them ducked through the Gate before I could close it behind me.
"What is going on!" yelled Kalindra as she held Lan Louis and glared at me.
"How many of these damn things are there?" came the screech of rage from the remote hovering above us.
"One for ever copy of that damn book you told me you had destroyed. I subverted your gnome and inserted the code in the library core routines. You can't erase it, and they are going to stick to you like glue until you erase every last copy."
"What are you talking about?" asked Kal as we both listened to Penny cuss.
"My sister told me she had deleted every copy of a story I once wrote when I was very drunk and very hurting. She lied."
"I did not! Get away from me you stupid beast!"
"For every copy in her library and memory systems, there is now a quite large, brilliant purple and very amorous Unicorn following her around."
Kalindra thought about it for a second and started laughing with me.
"It's not funny Damnit" came the wail from above us. "Don't you look at me like that you stupid joke. <ohhh> Hey, watch where your putting that damn horn!"