Geographic: Family Photos

Erwer, Hiss 23, 00100

“So, Wolf, I take it you’re enjoying your first day here on Pendor?”

The other gentlemen, an older Terran with greying hair, goatee and mustache, turned to Ken Shardik. “I am, thank you. The Ring was quite a shock! And thank you for not calling me ‘Zebediah.’ It seems it took me forever to convince Sh’Vah to call me something other than that.”

“‘Appointed by God.’ That’s what it means, you know.”

“I know.” Wolf smiled. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. I just prefer the nickname.”

“I can understand,” Ken replied. “I’ve been meaning to ask you– have you decided what you’re going to shoot? I was surprised to hear that Christiane had already embarked on a fascinating subject– she wants to talk to the oldest Pendorians, to illustrate how time changes us, if it does at all. Apparently the news that we’re unaging hit her pretty hard.”

“It hit us all rather hard. Do you know what it means to know that I’m going to die in, if the averages are to be believed, in twenty years or so, and you’ll still be young and handsome and strong?” Ken bit his lip. “Ah, I see it makes you uncomfortable too.”

“Immortality is something that a species needs to earn, Wolf,” he said. “I can’t say that it’s going to be any better for us to live longer.”

Wolf nodded. He’d done a lot of thinking on the subject but it wasn’t what he was interested in– Christiane already had that subject.

A voice interrupted his musing. “Hey, Grandpa?” He turned his head and was surprised to see a Centaur walking across the room. She was small for what Wolf had seen in Centaurs and her face didn’t show even the scant physical maturity many Pendorians carried with them. Ken extended his hands and greeted her warmly with a hug and a kiss. “Donna, my Hyzen. Good to see you again.”

“You were gone for so long! And I couldn’t get away from classes until today.” She kissed his face quickly, giggling. Ken turned towards Wolf. “Donna, meet Wolf. Wolf, meet my granddaughter, Donna Lewis.”

“The daughter of Paul and Carroll, right?”

Donna nodded. “You’re from Earth!”

It was Wolf’s turn to nod. “I’m here to photograph Pendor and its people.”

“Well, there aren’t a lot of those compared to what you have on Earth!” she said with a smile.

“You have a lot more land,” Wolf said. “I wonder what secrets are out there, waiting to be discovered.”

“Well,” Donna said. “For that you’ll want to talk to Maha. He’s the mapmaker.”

Wolf filed that name away but he already had an idea forming for his first photo shoot. He suddenly wondered if he wouldn’t be better off at this point shooting for Life instead of Geographic, but he had his career chosen and sometimes the articles in Geo were almost Life-like anyway. “You called him ‘grandpa’?”

“Yeah!” Donna said with a grin. “He is my grandpa.”

“And I spoil her,” Ken said with a grin. “Sweetie, go see if you can find Ress and Ember and find out if dinner’s going to be ready.”

“‘Kay,” she said, clopping out on her four hooves.

“This is a bit presumptuous of me, Kennet,” Wolf said, looking up with a grin, “But I was wondering if you would mind being my first photographic subject while I’m here?”

“How so?”

“Well, I’d like to photograph Pendorian families,” he said. “It sounds to me like you mix it up quite a lot here. A Centaur calls you grandpa; your wife– excuse me, your partner– is a Tindal. I’d like to photograph that.”

“You can do more than that. This has been a busy decade for new species. This year the Ssphynx were released; you can still find new families just formed of a tliel Ssphynx and the family that has chosen to guide him or her through incorporation shock. If you happen to be rather unlucky you might end up the adoptive parent yourself, guiding a Ssphynx, Mephit, or a Markal through that awkward stage yourself.”

“Why ‘unlucky?’“

“Because I can’t imagine it’s the kind of complication you’re looking for in your life right now. It would happen entirely by accident. You’d meet someone of one of those species and they’d start talking to you and you would need to find someone else to take care of this person who has suddenly become your charge. You’re not one of us; you’re not under that kind of obligation. Besides, you don’t speak the language.”

“Annolea linte,” Wolf said with a grin.

“Yes,” Ken said, surprised. “You are indeed learning quickly, apparently. I hope it proves useful to you.”

“Ath.”

“Good,” Ken said, refusing to be drawn into Quen. Wolf had heard him speak it clearly and profusely among his own people. He imagined that Ken had few opportunities to use English, although it was clear that at least half the people living at Castle Shardik spoke it with precision. Ken spoke at least three local languages, apparently: English, Quen, and Felin, the easier of the two feline tongues. Wolf suspected that he spoke Unci just as well, and Christiane had mentioned that while he may not speak it he clearly understood the whistles and clicks of the sentient Dolphins.

“Ken? Mr. Christiensen? Dinner is ready.”

“You’re lucky, Wolf. Tonight is the one night of the week where the whole family gets together. Either on the roof or in the commons room. Sometimes we take care of family business, especially on nights like tonight where there’s a lot to talk about since I’ve been away. But you’ll get to see everyone. And if that’s what you want to shoot, tonight might be a good place to start.”

“I’ll take my camera, then.”

Donna led the two men through Ken’s home, out into the hallway to the grav tube that led to the roof. “Who’s cooking anyway?” Ken asked.

“Mom,” Donna replied. “I think she went with something complicated.”

“Hopefully not too complicated,” Ken replied. Donna laughed and Wolf found himself fascinated by the simple and commonplace banter. It was as if he were still on Earth, except that this somewhat father-and-daughter conversation was happening between a Human and a Centaur and that if one looked too far towards the horizon it curved upwards.

“It’s not too bad,” said a larger femCentaur with black hair, white skin, and the most dazzling smile Wolf had encountered in years. “You must be Mr. Christiansen. I’m confused. You’re not related to Christiane, are you?”

Wolf shook his head rapidly. It had never occurred to him that Pendorians might make a connection between the two admittedly similar names. “No, not at all. Christiansen is my familial name; Christiane is her given name. I don’t think her parents knew mine at all, at any time.”

“I see. I’m Carroll.”

She held her hand out awkwardly, as if she rarely shook hands. Wolf supposed that might even be the case. Pendorians didn’t seem to be the kind of people who shook hands; they either kept a polite distance or they were instantly embracing. “You don’t have to shake my hand if you’d rather not,” he offered.

She grinned, knelt, and pulled him close into an intimate embrace. Wolf found himself buffeted by her substantial strength and comfortably large breasts. “Then you’ll have to take this,” she replied. “I’m afraid we don’t have much in between.”

Ken smiled. “Around here, you either work together, play together, or sleep together. Anything else is just bad manners.”

“And around here there’s a lot of playing, I take it,” Wolf said.

“Has to be. We live together. Play defines us and takes off the tension at the same time.”

“Eat,” Carroll said. “There’s something in the bowl, it’s a salad. It has some seaweed in it, I know you don’t like that too much Ken, but it’s there. The dinner is some bird on a bed of rice. And the spices I mixed myself.”

Wolf sampled the offered meal and found it quite delicious. He dug into the offering until he was stuffed, all the while listening to the conversations around him. He wondered if he was oddly privileged or if the Pendorians thought of the conversation as strictly banal. It wasn’t the kind of stuff spies would slather over, he imagined. Carroll and another male Centaur, Paul, handed him a pair of flat pads about the size of a large book. The three of them were talking about Ssphynx and a species he hadn’t heard of yet called “Markals.” He wasn’t sure what to make of the discussion.

“Would you care for some desert?” a new voice said, interrupted his observations.

He looked up to see a Felinzi leaning over and offering him a large plate on which he saw two small paper bags. “It’s a hot fruit pie. The fruit is called a wirr around here. It’s similar to your apple.” She smiled. “May I sit with you?”

Wolf looked at her closely. She was half black, half white, with a shaft of white down the middle of her muzzle. She had small breasts that the loose shirt she wore did nothing to hide as she bent over. Wolf had the distinct impression she knew exactly what she was displaying. “If you tell me your name,” he replied.

“Ember,” she murred softly. “You must be Wolf.”

He took the bag from her and was surprised to find it still hot on the outside. “Ouch!”

“They were baked in the bag. I did tell you they were hot.”

“Yes, I guess you did.” He shook his burned fingers and dipped them into the glass of water he had at his side. “Do you always do this? Picnic outside?”

She nodded. “When it’s not raining.”

It was another of those banal little details that Wolf found so fascinating. He had no idea how these people worked together so well, or even if this was the normal state of affairs. Wolf looked around and found Ken playfully nuzzling another Felinzi, a tawny-colored creature with a curious air of maturity to her, a smile that seemed to echo more years than even Ken carried with him. “Who’s that?”

“Mom!” Ember said. The Felinzi he had been asking about looked up, disentangled herself from Ken’s grasp, and walked over, giving the mottled Felinzi a kiss on her muzzle. “And how is my daughter today?” the older one asked.

“Pretty good. How’s work?”

“Work is work.”

“Oh,” Ember said. “Not good?”

The other shrugged. “It’s always good or I wouldn’t do it. But I can’t seem to get a behavior pattern down in the hardware. Do you want a go at it?”

“I’m no good at reading your work, Mom. But I’ll try. Mom, this is Wolf Christiansen from Terra. Wolf, this is my mother, M’Ress.” She pronounced it ‘em-ress.’

“Pleased to meet you.”

“And to meet you,” M’Ress replied. “Bawr, don’t be too hard him.”

“I won’t, Mom.” She grinned as the other walked back to where Ken was sitting, now with someone who was clearly P’nyssa Traken.

Wolf wasn’t sure what to make of that exchange. “What did she mean, ‘Don’t be too hard on me?’“

Ember smiled secretly. “Maybe she expects me to invite you home tonight.”

Wolf nearly choked on his dessert. “She expects that?”

“It’s possible. I might if you were a Pendorian and I liked you. But you’re not a Pendorian, are you?”

Wolf shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He had chosen to take a table by himself and to just watch the ebb and flow of people eating and talking. It seemed a close-knit group of about twenty people, although when a dog walked through he wondered if that was part of the family or just a pet. He had never had a pet himself; being constantly on the move from assignment to assignment, having a dog would have been a cruelty. “Ember, how do you feel about dogs?”

The change in conversation startled her for a moment but she took it calmly. “Ken has a dog. His name is Ozymandias, but everyone just calls him Ozzi.” She shrugged. “He’s a dog.”

“But he could just as well be a cat.”

“I have a cat.” She looked puzzled, then her face brightened. “Oh! I see where you’re going. No, pets are just pets. They’re not people. To be people, I guess, we have a good feel for it. Dogs and cats aren’t people.”

“But doesn’t it seem weird, I mean, looking at a cat and seeing yourself?”

“I don’t see myself any more than you would looking at a monkey. And besides, I think my genetics are closer to yours than they are to a cat’s. There are a lot of physical difference because of our heat requirements, but my mind is more like yours than a cat’s.”

“Heat requirements?” Wolf asked. “You mean, you go into heat?”

“No, silly, I have fur!” She bapped him playfully on the arm. “So managing my body temperature without my constantly panting is something Ken worked hard to get right.”

“Oh,” Wolf said, grinning abashedly.

A tall figure walked around Wolf and into his field of vision. “Hi. Mind if I sit here?”

Although Wolf had gotten used to the sheer loveliness of the people around him, he was not prepared for this human girl. She stood at least as tall as he, with hair halfway between red and blond that framed her face in a long, flowing fall behind her shoulders. She had full breasts that didn’t seem to get in her way and a face of high cheekbones, green eyes, and a lush mouth. Wolf felt that at his age he should be over such things but there he was, stuttering like a schoolboy. “Uh, uh, yeah. Sure.”

Ember laughed. At least, Wolf hoped that yowl was a laugh. “Chaz, if you’re going to do that to the poor man, you should at least explain yourself,” Ember suggested.

“Explain what?” the other woman said casually.

“Chaz Stearmin, meet Wolf Christiansen. Wolf, this is Chaz. She doesn’t live at the Castle anymore. I bet you came over just to meet Wolf.”

“Of course,” Chaz said with a laugh that may have been the sirens singing a chorus. She was drinking from what looked like a stein. She didn’t have any dinner. “I hope you don’t mind my crashing.”

“Nobody minds you crashing, Chaz,” said the now familiar voice of Ken Shardik. “But, panta nai nwalya Wolf nae, vistali.” Wolf recognized his name and the verb ‘to be,’ but not much more.

Chaz blushed and nodded. “He’s right. I’m sorry. Excuse me for a moment. Ken? Would you make my apology more, um, coire?” Clear, understandable.

“Nathen.” Of course. “Ember? Would you give us a moment?”

The two fems– Wolf remembered the term– moved away as Ken had asked. “You didn’t encounter this much on the ship because the ship is full of professionals of one kind, Wolf, but I guess I should have warned you before we landed. Earlier I mentioned that we don’t have much fake intimacy around here– you either work together, in which case personal space is respected and observed– or you play together, in which case physical contact is the norm. Around here, without the social controls Terra went through, there’s a lot of playing and, sometimes, the quickest way to get to know someone, to know if you want to play with them, is to sleep with them. People reveal things in bed that they wouldn’t anywhere else.”

Wolf wasn’t sure where to take the conversation. “And they would like to–“

“Well, that and something else. You’re a Terran. They want to know what’s different about you from Pendorians, if anything. And you have stories to tell that they want to hear. All they’ve ever heard about Earth has been from me and from books, and the books aren’t really enough. So much as been published that we don’t have, so much has happened we know nothing about. They want to hear everything. You’re as much a resource to them as they are to you.”

“So if I’m asked–“

“Accept!” Ken said, spreading his arms wide and smiling. “I mean, if the asker is interesting to you. Don’t be fooled by Chaz, though. Oh, she’s delicious, make no mistake, but that’s her job. She specializes in vanwa maile, as we call it here on Pendor. Sex is her profession.”

“She’s a prostitute?”

“More or less. Around here, making people happy is a high and honorable calling. And she’s damned good at it. And there’s no reason not to call on her services, but you’re hardly the sort of man who needs them, I imagine. She a sort of therapist that way. She works mostly for people who need her, rather than those who just want her. And if I know her, she was working hard to seduce you. Her hair is rarely that well done for casual meetings, and that perfume, a maile vista’atan, works best on you and me because it’s made specifically for human males. A powerful and effective pheromone.”

“She was trying to–“

“So was Ember, except Ember was being a little more coy about it and listening to you. I like that in her. It’s one of her better features, her patience.”

Wolf suddenly saw the entire room in a different light. These weren’t humans in costume. They had certain freedoms– and taboos– different from what he had become accustomed to back on Earth. “I’ll keep it in mind. If I should, with, um, Ember…”

“Have a good time,” Ken suggested. “Just remember that, to Ember, a love-bed is a place to cut loose.”

“She’s not, um, dangerous, is she?”

A wistful look crossed Ken’s face. Wolf wanted to ask about it but decided to hold back. “If you’re just right you’ll get a few scratches.”

“I see.”

“I’ll tell her it’s okay to come back. And if you run into Chaz again, hopefully she’ll be a little more polite.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Wolf said as Ken stood up, taking his glass and leaving him alone again.

A minute later Ember sat down in the seat Ken had vacated. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Wolf asked. “I understand now what you were doing. I don’t think you were doing anything to apologize for.” He looked at her, still unable to get out of his mind the idea of her having a cat. “You said you have a cat? Can I see her?”

“She’s in my cabin, but I don’t see why not. Follow me.”

Wolf followed her down into the castle. Ember lived just a few doors down from Ken’s own residence. Hers had a window that likewise looked eastward, or spinward as the Pendorians preferred to call it. Oddly, they still felt comfortable with North and South for the edges of the ring, the walls that kept all the air from flying off into space. As she opened to door, she walked across to a low, flat platform covered with a black mattress. “There you are,” she said, picking up the effectively camouflaged black cat. Like herself, the cat was a long-hair, but where Ember was a mottled black and white, the cat was all black. “This is Ulgundo.”

“I don’t know that word.”

“It means ‘hideous beast’ in Quen.” She grinned again. “And sometimes she can be.”

“Could I get some photos of you with Ulgundo?”

“Sure!” Ember said, smile widening. “If it helps with your work, I think that would be wonderful! Where do you want me to sit? Or stand? Or “

Wolf laughed. “Sit on that–” He looked for a descriptive word.

“It’s just a futon,” Ember offered.

“Oh,” Wolf said, feeling abashed. He knew what a futon was. He just hadn’t been prepared for so mundane an item in an alien household. Ember had taken up a position on the couch with her legs crossed in front of her, the cat in her lap. Wolf knelt down on one knee and took a picture.

It was almost an hour later when he’d finished shooting the whole roll. “Thank you,” he said. It had grown dark outside during the simple session. It had been a long time since he’d shot an entire roll on one person, but for some reason his camera eye kept coming back to Ember, wanting to take more of her. It was a rare occasion when he was alone with a Pendorian who wasn’t Sh’Vah, his translator and assistant. He was extremely grateful that the Shardik household habitually spoke English, or ‘Anglic,’ as they called it.

“What time do you usually go to sleep?” he asked around a large yawn. Although he had adjusted to the Pendorian day surprisingly well, he still seemed to feel sleep earlier than most Pendorians, although he had also noticed that he was typically awake earlier than most of them. And like most Pendorians, he appreciated the seraren, the Pendorian word for siesta, a mid-day nap.

“I usually go to sleep around six,” she said. “It’s only one now. Are you tired already?”

“I think my Pendor schedule is going to be ‘early to bed, early to rise.”

Ember twitched her whiskers. “Like P’nyssa or Paul. Morning people.”

Wolf grinned. “That’s not what I’m like back on Earth,” he tried to assure her. “Really.”

“I guess being on a new world would cause some changes,” Ember sighed.

“Something wrong?”

Ember scooted across the futon to where he sat and casually reached out to touch his cheek. “My Mom was right. You’re welcome to spend the night here if you like.”

Wolf trembled slightly, at the tickle of her touch against his beard or at his own inner fears he wasn’t sure. “Ken told me that if I was offered I should accept. What would be worse– accepting and doing poorly, or not accepting at all?”

“I think,” Ember purred in replied, “That you should accept.” Her hand caressed his cheek, the fur gently playing along the exposed skin. “What could be wrong?”

“I’m not like you, Ember. I’m an old man. My I’m not as strong as I used to be. I don’t know if I can keep up with someone as strong as you. As young as you are.”

“Trrrry.” Her voice was so sweetly feline Wolf felt his resistance crumble as she kissed him. He felt her muzzle press against his mouth, her tongue flickered out against his lips. It wasn’t rough the way he would have expected from a cat’s. It was warm and thin and almost human. It had been a long time since he’d been with a woman, a long time not even counting the voyage from Earth into the numbers. Like having a pet, having a girlfriend would have been a kind of cruelty, and he had long ago given up buying favors from women. He found that he couldn’t respond. No, that wasn’t it. Ember noticed his withdrawal and pulled back herself. “What’s wrong?”

“I think… I think I’ve forgotten how to do this.”

She smiled. “Nobody ever really forgets how! You just have to learn how to feel it with someone new.” Her paw touched his chest gently and he felt himself being pushed down onto the bed. He went willingly.

She straddled his hips, her body lengthwise over his, and for the first time the reality of the Pendorians hit him full force. For the past four months he had been treating Ember, and Ken, and the whole trip as some sort of abstraction, something over there, something he wasn’t involved in. Suddenly the weight of this very feminine body on top of his own made his breath catch in his throat and his stomach tense in ways familiar to a much younger memory of himself.

He reached up with one hand behind her shoulders and pulled her down to his mouth. He kissed her, his tongue reaching out as hers had a minute ago. As he kissed her he reached up into her shirt with that schoolboy enthusiasm he had felt a few hours ago, confronted with Chaz. But now, it wasn’t artificial, driven by scents and hints. He didn’t even know if he should be naturally attracted to Ember’s scent. He knew that the purr that came from between her collarbones was as real as any kitten’s and just as convincing. “Ember?” he asked, looking up.

“Yes, Wolf?” she asked, grinning. “I like the way you kiss.”

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Fifty-two.”

“Oh,” he said. He tilted his head in a suggestion and she took to it immediately, kissing his lips once more. He felt his mouth get used to the geometry of hers quickly enough, found the texture of her lips and her whiskers against his skin fascinating. His hand finally found and closed around one of her furred breasts and squeezed gently. Her purring crested like a wave as his fingertips brushed over her tiny nipple and a gasp erupted from her when he pinched it. “Careful,” she breathed. “I’ll like that more when I’m more excited.”

“Then let’s get you more excited,” he suggested.

“I’ll start,” she agreed, undoing the buttons of his shirt and opening it up, exposing his skin underneath. “Oooh,” she purred, “You’re almost furry.” She dipped her head and ran her tongue over one of his nipples. He moaned with his own pleasure.

“I hope humans aren’t too unusual for you,” he said, reaching out to pull her closer after she had tossed the wrap-around shirt she wore onto the floor.

“Not at all. I like humans. Especially Terrans.”

“Have you had many Terrans before?” he asked, kissing her cheek.

“You’re my second,” she breathed.

Wolf wondered who the first could have been. He was distracted by the feel of her hands at his fly, pulling open his belt. When she unzipped his pants, his erection popped out at full staff. “Wow,” she said. “I thought you said you couldn’t keep up?”

“It changed my mind,” he said, waving one hand towards his erect sex casually.

Ember grinned and then lowered her head to his crotch. Wolf felt the warmth of her mouth against the head of his cock and then felt the entire length of it disappear into her. Her thin tongue caressed one side of it as she turned her head back and forth, sucking the length of it. It had been so long since Wolf had had the attention of any woman, human or otherwise, that he felt his excitement rising with a speed he would almost have been annoyed at. But instead it simply overwhelmed him and he came with a shout and a gush inside her mouth. Ember gave a loud pant but swallowed every last drop he had to give. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know. It’s just been a long time.”

She looked up at him with that predatory grin. “Can you do it again?”

“At my age?” he said. “I might have a heart attack first. But I’m determined to try.”

“Good,” she said. “Just take a break, then.” She kissed his cheek. “Take those pants all the way off.” Her hands stroked the hair that grew in a thatch on his chest. “And if you have a heart attack, one of the best doctors on the Ring is right next door.”

“Ken?”

“P’nyssa. Ken isn’t a doctor.” She rose to walk into what looked like a small kitchen. He complied with her wish and took his pants off, folding them in half carefully and placing them with his shirt, which he also folded. He had never been a particularly neat person, either, but ironing rarely appealed to him. The longer he could keep his clothes pressed the happier he would be. Naked, he surveyed the apartment.

It looked like a small studio apartment. A table in one corner near the door was covered with what looked like small electronics components. The woven rug, over which the futon covered about a quarter, had an intense, geometric pattern on in it brown, red, gold and white. One wall had another apparent rug tacked to it, this one with some kind of illustration. He wanted to get close and look at it; from this distance it appeared to be some kind of hunting scene. Another wall had a complex diagram that looked like the kind of thing one would expect in a programmer’s quarters. He noticed on one wall a photograph of a Felinzi with coloration similar to Ember’s.

As she returned from the kitchen with a pair of coffee mugs he pointed at the photograph. “Who’s that?”

She looked up, took a deep breath, and sighed. “Maha Oren. My dad.”

“Something wrong?”

“He wasn’t much of a father. Both mels and fems can choose to be made sterile, which is fully reversible. Maha never had; he relied on Mom’s choices. Mom decided she wanted a child. I guess it wasn’t fair of her to spring it on him but when he found out he left. I’ve never actually met him.”

“I’m… I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be!” she said. “I had a great family growing up. Mom loved me, and so did Paul and Carroll, and Ken was here, and Chaz and Rick always wanted to play with me. I grew up with a lot of people who loved me very much.”

“But, to have your father abandon you…”

“He didn’t abandon me,” Ember replied. “He abandoned my Mom. But it was her choice to get pregnant and keep me, so if I feel sorry for her I guess I can understand how he felt, too. He didn’t know me.”

“But you were his child,” Wolf protested.

“So what? He didn’t know me. He didn’t want me. He didn’t have a relationship with me and he didn’t want one. I think he did me a favor by leaving. Better that than to have an angry and resentful mel around all the time. You haven’t tried the drink I brought you.”

“What is it? Some kind of aphrodisiac?”

“It’s just a tea,” she said. “No thylleine. You said you wanted to go to sleep soon.”

He nodded and sipped at it. It was agreeable; he’d had worse in some supposedly “civilized” cities. He also found his strength slowly returning to his limbs as he rested. “I still can’t believe I’m sitting here, having civilized tea with a lovely girl who’s just given me my first blowjob in nearly five years, and she’s all covered in beautiful fur, has a tail and a muzzle and lovely green eyes that are slitted vertically. I feel as if I’ve wandered into a well-done version of Fritz the Cat.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Ember replied.

“Be grateful. It’s not that good a movie. Very violent, very sad. The artists responsible chose to use cartoon animals because it made the violence seem more distant. It took longer for the message to sink in that way, but when it did was very effective for exactly that reason.”

“Oh,” Ember said seriously, sipping her tea. “It’s maybe not a movie I want to see, then.”

“I don’t think you’d get it,” Wolf agreed. He reached out and with one hand began idly stroking the fur of her thigh, touching her with ease. “I wonder if I’d be so comfortable if you were human.”

“Comfortable doing what?”

“Touching you,” he said, running his hand up along her thigh almost to her groin.

“Oh,” Ember said, thinking. “Do you think I’m less human, then? I don’t deserve the same kind of respect a human fem would?”

“Would it be respectful to not touch you?” he asked. “After all you’ve told me, I think it would be preferable to you if I were touching you. I think it makes you more touchable. Approachable. If you weren’t, you’d tell me, right? You’ve got claws, after all.”

She flexed her fingers, causing her small but sharp claws to splay as she did so. “I’d tell you. I like it when people want to approach me. Most Pendorians do. But now I’m curious. Why wouldn’t you want to touch a human afterwards?”

Wolf thought. “I don’t know. It’s weird. People are like that. The barriers go up after intimacy, like they’re reacting to opening up so completely by shutting down again hard. Maybe we’re ashamed of the animals we become when we’re making love. I’ve never been proud of that part of myself.”

She touched his face. “You were nice to me afterwards.”

“Being nice is easy. It’s maintaining the connection that’s hard.” He reached up and gestured with his hand for her to come join him. He did and their kiss was warmer and more friendly this time, less frantic in the buildup of something new. He took his time enjoying her fur and her warmth; she responded by stroking his stomach and his sex with her paw, scratching at his thighs gently with her claws and causing him to tense. He could feel her smile when she did that.

Wolf pushed himself up with one arm, guiding Ember down to the bed. Stretched out, she was a lovely vision; her belly had longer strands of fur than her chest, and the blending of white and dark patches that swirled around her shoulders and up the sides of her neck made her look somehow innocent. Wolf realized these were just his impression, but he couldn’t help but wonder if Pendorian standards of beauty somehow didn’t approximate his own. She had small breasts that flattened out under gravity the way breasts should (and rarely did on some of the human women whose services he had once purchased). Wolf was reluctant to label her beautiful, but ‘cute’, ‘lovely’, and ‘desirable’ all came to mind. It was funny how easily his mind accepted the idea that he was about to have sex with an alien from another world. He’d never been a fan of science fiction, after all.

He kissed her shoulders and made his way down between her legs. He suddenly realized that he didn’t know what she looked like down there or if he would be able to recognize any of the usual parts. “I can always ask,” he muttered.

“If?” she said, raising her head.

“If I don’t know what I’m doing,” he replied with a grin as he pressed against her thighs with his fingertips, pushing them apart. She took his hint and opened her legs for him.

“You’ll know what you’re doing,” she assured him.

“Apparently,” he said, spotting familiar shapes cast in unfamiliar textures. He had rarely gone down on women; it wasn’t the sort of privilege one looked for in a whore, and Ember was hardly a whore. He somehow realized that Chaz might have appreciated this gesture as much as any woman would have; her “prostitution” had a different flavor when she did it for free.

He stretched out on the bed to bring his head level with her sex and inhaled. She smelled delightful. He didn’t know what he had been expecting; she didn’t smell like a human but she surely smelled good. He felt his heartbeat quickening and his cock surging with desire as he lowered his mouth to her sex and licked at it gently, parting the lips eagerly with his tongue and seeking out her clitoris. “Oh, Fah,” she moaned softly, turning her head as he licked his way between her lips, pressing upwards against her clitoris and the spot above her hood. “Yes…”

She tasted like no woman he’d known, and he’d known a few, if none recently. He pressed his lips to her sex firmly, trying to encase her warmth with his mouth, dipping his tongue between her lips and lapping at the flavors he found there. He found her taste entrancing. She apparently found his fumblings effective; her hands found his arms where they rested in his thighs and she held him tight as he licked at her sex. “Oh, oh… Oh!” she moaned loudly as her hips jerked downwards, her body suddenly tense and then released.

Wolf looked up, wiping her juices from his beard with one hand, and grinned. “More?”

“Come here,” she said, her hands on his arms pulling him up the length of her body. He went willingly, his body covering hers now. His sex, hard again after her excitement, batted between her thighs. He felt the silky sensation of her fur on the underside of his cock and he wondered what it would feel like to actually be inside her, to feel that furred body completely against his. “I want you,” she said. “For tonight.” She parted her legs again in invitation.

“I’ll stay,” he assured her as he found his way against her mound and then, slowly, he entered her. The sensation around his cock was familiar, the excitement a kind of old friend long missed. But the rest of her, the feel of her fur underneath his skin, the glassy sweet sensation of her thighs and the delicate brushes of the fur on her arms surprised and distracted him.

But years of evolution would hardly give way to distraction. His body knew pleasure, and Ember was certainly giving that to him. She would meet his thrusts with her own, her hips pressing up as he pressed down. When he looked down into her eyes she would nod in time with his lovemaking. Her eyes were wide and her smile obvious. She caressed his arms as he loved her. He could feel it somehow, in her body, her purring, her smile– she was enjoying this as much as he. This was the kind of pleasure her body knew.

But it wouldn’t last forever. As he held himself up and kept to a steady, gentle rhythm, even his release earlier that night did little to delay the climax that seemed very close suddenly. He moaned softly as his climax rolled through his body.

His energy spent, Wolf rolled to one side. “Sorry. I couldn’t keep going,” he gasped.

She rolled with him, until she was lying on her side next to him. He was still trying to catch his breath. He hadn’t worked so hard in months. Certainly not in the exercise program Sh’Vah has insisted he take on the starship. She touched his nose gently and said, “You were great.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Really. Now, for bed… Do you want to spend them in your quarters or here?”

“They’re both unfamiliar beds. This one has company.” He let his hand stroke down between her ears and was rewarded with that lovely purr of hers again.

“Then you’re welcome to stay,” she said. She reached under a low table and pulled out a blanket and a pillow. “I’ll have to get another one for you. Stay there.” She rose, then seemed to sink into the floor. Wolf shook his head and watched in amazement as she reappeared with a new pillow in hand.

“Where did you go?”

“There’s a whole second floor to these rooms, but I don’t think I need that much space so I just use it as storage.”

“Oh,” Wolf said, deciding not to inquiry too closely about how she’d gone down there and returned. He was sure he’d find out soon enough.

He snuggled next to her and found her fur distracting again. It took him a while to get to sleep, and when he did he had strange dreams. But they were good dreams too.

He awoke sometime in night. Easing himself out of bed, he made his way to what he thought would be the bathroom and was gratified to discover that not only was he correct but that the fixtures were recognizable. After closing the door and making use of the facilities, he glanced around. “Dave?”

“I’m here, Mr. Christiansen.”

Wolf shivered at the immediacy of the AI’s response. “What time is it?”

“A clear answer would be that you have been asleep for nearly eleven hours. Another clear answer would be that it is an hour and a half until dawn. The exact time is thirteen twenty.”

Eleven hours! Wolf wondered if he’d been slipped something in his drink, or if Ember had just worn him completely out with what had seemed quite gentle lovemaking despite his being out of shape. He left the bathroom as silently as he could manage, then Ember’s room to return to his own. He took out a notebook and opened it to the first blank page.

Pendorians live in a state of intimacy that one could find seductive– or stifling. Nothing holds them back from making new friends in the most intimate manners possible– no fear of disease or pregnancy or rejection by family. They all believe they are physically invulnerable, so emotional vulnerability comes easier to them. Their first needs are already met. Pendorians live in a Garden of Eden where the world gives them everything they want. I can’t help but wonder, though, if they have yet to taste of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. How will they react when Cain murders Abel? Will all this openness, this friendliness, this intimacy, disappear in a haze of anger and new-found fear? I can’t help but suddenly wish them well.

I remember that if you ask a class of kindergarten kids how many of them can draw, they all raise their hands. If you ask a class of six graders, though, only one or two will. The rest of them have had it beaten into their souls that what they used to call “drawing” isn’t good enough for adults. Only a few have the courage to keep trying. Pendorians are like those kindergarteners when it comes to love and intimacy. They know how to do it. I hope nobody ever tells them otherwise.

Wolf closed the notebook and wondered where such thoughts came from. He slipped the spiral-bound sheets back into his pack and left the room, watching with amusement as the room registered his leaving and shut the lights off even as the door closed. He sneaked back into Ember’s home and, just as carefully, back into the bed they had shared. She didn’t stir at all, which he thought unusual for a cat. Despite the long night of sleep, he floated comfortably in a drowsy aze until Ember awoke and the day began.