"So, you're Lisanne," said the Felinzi standing on top of the squat, crab-like aircraft. He wore a pair of dirty, grey coveralls, and held in his hand a dripping rag. Where she could see it, his fur was a mottled black and white, more black than white. "The AIs said you were looking to go out into the wilderness."
"Yep, that's right," Lisanne said, hoping that her French accent didn't throw off the Felinzi's understanding.
"Well, take a look," he said, pointing up in the direction of the ringworld's spin. "Unlike your little mudball, Pendor's still wilderness in every direction. Is there anything in particular you'd like to see?" He spoke in short, blunt tones, as if her presence slightly annoyed him.
"Everything!" Lisanne said with a grin. "But let's start with something the people back home want to see. What have you got that's sexy? Very large animals, very cute animals. Any big cats we can look at?"
"Most of what we've got is variants of what you've got. But if you want me to take you someplace particular, I've got a few places that I can show you. Come on in." He swung out over a ladder mounted to the outside frame and slid down to the ground. He held out a paw and said, "Ahamo."
He was shorter than she, this Felinzi. She suppressed an urge to giggle; he was the first one she'd met that actually looked like a cat she knew, her neighbor's cat from back home. He was broad of shoulders and had that pinched, perpetually mad at the world look that only cats can manage.
"I know who you are, Miss Geographic" he said without a smile. "Come on in." He let the door open, standing back as a step dropped down from underneath to grant them both better access. "Welcome to my bug."
Inside, the 'bug' was a long, boxy room filled with the orderly life of someone who had been described to her as "one of Pendor's few official hermits." Through an open door she could see a small cockpit big enough to hold two people but no standing room. The room she stood in had a bed and a desk, both mounted to the far wall, a collection of clothes neatly hung off a rail near the ceiling to her right, and a kitchen to her left. It reminded her of the van she had lived in near the base of Kilimanjaro.
"Now, don't touch anything. This is just an overnight trip, understand? I've got more interesting things to do than ferry some Earthling around Pendor looking for something 'sexy.'" The sarcasm in his voice was unmistakable. That was no accent. Well, she'd been warned. "You had better sit up here with me. It can get bumpy. And this way I can make sure you're not poking through my stuff."
Lisanne bit down absently on her lip, trying not to think of sharp responses. He was deliberately setting himself up to be disliked, to be rid of her. Well, she'd show him anyway. She was in no hurry to be liked. She was in no hurry to go anywhere at all. Of the last, she knew she was lying to herself.
She took the chair he indicated and chose to chew on a pen. It was her one nasty habit; more than once she had had a pen explode in her mouth, the inkwell drawn up by the regular action of her chewing until finally it leaked over the cap. Sometimes she wouldn't notice it until someone said, "Hey, your teeth are blue," or some other color depending on the pen of the day. She usually noticed green ink; it had a strange, plastic taste.
He took a pair of handgrips into his hands and started the ship. It rose smoothly, making very little sound as it did. A louder whine began in the back sounding suspiciously like a propeller, and soon they were soaring through the air. More sounds of the landing gear being drawn up and soon the wedge-shaped ship was soaring through the sky. "How does it manage to be so quiet?" she asked.
"Magnetics," Ahamo responded. "I don't understand it much myself. I know how to fix it if it breaks. And there's a pusher-propeller in the rear, an ultra-high bypass fan that can get us up to about five hundred kilometers an hour. All fusion powered."
That seemed to settle it. Lisanne changed the subject. "I was told that you're something of a rarity on Pendor, a long-range adventurer."
"Too many people are busy checking out what's close by. That's probably for the best. They need to know what's nearby that's gonna eat them, or what they can eat, than care about what's in the next terr. Settle back for a few hours. It'll take a while."
Lisanne took his advice and his sudden quiet as a sign. He was clear that he wasn't interested in talking to her. She leaned back, pulled out the PADD she had been given, and began looking up different animals to photograph and send back.
What frustrated her most was that Pendor, for all of its size, was not exotic. There were big cats and they were definitely alien-looking, but even the Pendorians pointed out that those cats were descended from some Terran model only a couple million years old. The same was true of other animals, from birds to insects to large mammals. There was a rhinoceros-like creature with a blunt head and short, blunt tusks in front like a boar's; there was a huge cat, not unlike a sabre-tooth, with jet-black fur that made it clear: this monster hunted at night.
She had hoped for something else, something a little... weirder. And there were some, but they weren't close. Ahamo had found a sector where the animals were what the Pendorians called "hexapedal"; all of the mammals had six legs, or two front and four rear, and had adapted these six legs for all manner of reasons. One that lived in an inland ocean had become and extreme example, extending the pelvis that held the four legs into an armored torso that protected many of the internal organs.
That's where they were going today. To an entire ecosystem that had become trapped behind an amazing mountainous ridge that isolated them from other mammalian courses. That they had survived without interference for so many millions of years was one of the more amazing aspects to Pendor. It was a pressure cooker of alien development, but the AIs had rigidly enforced that one requirement, that the life be compatible with the people who would come after it. Edible, at least.
Ahamo was nudging her. "Hey, we're here."
Lisanne blinked. Had she fallen asleep? She had not yet become used to the Pendorian day/night schedule and after six months she didn't think she ever would be. She had caught herself falling asleep at odd moments, usually just the lulls in activity. "Where are we?"
"I parked us up high on a ridge overlooking the hexaped zone. You asked if we could see it. This is a pretty safe place, although lower down you'll me in the immediate reach of the pamthreats."
"The nastiest beast that ever lived on Pendor. At least, the nastiest I've ever seen. Cunning beasts, hunt in packs, use decoys, stage chases... black as night and all six legs are tuned to run like the wind. I saw once, in the snow, a pack of them, six in all, chase down a herd of stags. It was nasty. Two started them running in one direction, then ran until the two of them were spent. It was like a relay race. Then one comes out of the woods and keeps the beasts running, and a fourth took up when she got tired. Herded 'em towards a wide gap in the woods and then, like two missiles outta nowhere, two of the pamthreats exploded out of the woods and just cut down two stragglers. Absolutely amazing. Scared me outta my fur." He shook his head. "Come on. Let's take some pictures."
She took out a series of lenses, some for wide shot, just to get photographs of the land. She dictated into a recorder what she was seeing. "From where I stand, the land stretches out in front of me, clouded over as it goes further away. It's so hard to describe the Pendorian terrain because it's not what we're used to seeing; there is no horizon. Instead, it is a brooding land that stretches away forever. Here, I'm looking at a 90 degree angle to the ring, and it's just an expanse of land that wanders away from me, onward into a haze that's pure weather. There is not a hint of pollution in the Pendorian atmosphere. My colleague, Wolf Christiansen, has documented just how clean Pendorian technology is, and where it is not, the waste products are dumped into the sun and rendered into their harmless components, mere atoms.
"Far below this mountainous cliff on which my guide, Ahamo, has placed us, I can see three dark shapes moving. The photographs I've just taken are of an animal Ahamo calls the pamthreat. He says it's the meanest, most effective predator on the Ring. When I ask him if that includes the people, he just nods." She took several photographs of the pamthreats, finding in them the quality of sexiness she had been looking for. She hoped there was more like this.
To her surprise, Ahamo was also taking photographs. His camera neither clicked nor whined, but it was clear that he was focusing the lens and taking images all the same. She figured that he was storing them in the computer system that seemed to be everywhere the Pendorians were.
"Let's go down into the terr," Ahamo said after a while. "Got enough pictures?"
"No," she said with a grin. "But it'll do for now."
"Those beasts sexy enough for ya?" he said.
"Yeah," she replied.
"Good enough. Get in." He gestured back to his bug.
He floated down into the terrain and, an hour later, set down in a heavily wooded area. "Now, if you're real careful..." A loud thunk came from above their heads. "I let a couple of drones loose. We're gonna look for something we call the hezz. It's a huge animal, sometimes weighs half a ton. Covered in fur, with a mouth you wouldn't believe. It's got six legs like everything in this region, and you don't want to be anywhere near it."
"And you want us to look for it."
"You want pictures of it, don't you?"
"Hell, yes!" Lisanne replied. He nodded, satisfied that they both had the same spirit together, and turned back to a bank of video screens showing what his drones were looking at. Occasionally they would shift color schemes and Lisanne recognized infra-red or something like it at work.
"There's one," he said, pulling the picture into view. It was more or less as he described, a six-legged bear with a face that came to more of a point than on a bear, like a mouse scaled up to a bear's size. The fur was obviously bear-like.
"Where is it?"
"About eight kilometers that way, by the river." He looked at the display. "I've been out there. It's not a hard walk, but I don't think we'd want to be face-to-face with an angry hezz." He stood up and walked back into the cabin, exchanging his shoes for a pair of hiking boots, a coat, and a large, bulky rifle. "Come on."
Lisanne followed his example. "What's the temperature outside?"
"About 17," Ahamo read. "Ready?"
Lisanne fought to get the light jacket over her shoulders. "Ready," she said.
"Let's go, then." He opened the door and stepped out. Lisanne followed him and stepped out into the wilds of Pendor. It was as pristine and pure a forest as any she could imagine, a dense forest of what were obviously pines, a small cluster of ceders in view of sight and smell. The sound of a stream trickling nearby caught her attention, as did the call of a bird overhead. The air was so clear she wished she could drink it, hold it in her lungs and keep it with her, a reminder of the kind of air mankind had enjoyed for millennia before discovering industrial fires. An insistent wind blew at her back, pushing her towards a meeting with the hezz, pushing around a few clouds under a grey, overcast sky.
The walked out into a welcome mat of thick underbrush, bushes that grew to head-height, and moss that trickled and oozed when she accidentally stepped on it. Little creatures jumped and hopped and buzzed about. To her, the incongruity here was Ahamo, who played the part of alien quite well, not the insects, who could have come from anywhere on Earth. Underneath, she understood that the bugs were the different ones, that Ahamo was really another person in a genetically engineered skin.
"Stop," Ahamo whispered, putting his hand on her shoulder. "Get a picture of those." He pointed. There were three squirrels playing in a tree. Squirrels? She grabbed her camera and quickly adjusted the lens. They were almost squirrels; their ears were long with very delicate hairs that hung out from the tip at some length, and like the hezz and the pamthreats, the squirrels had six legs, two in the front, four in the rear. And like their terrestrial counterparts, these squirrels could jump. She photographed one brown-furred gymnast crossing a distance of almost three meters.
"Amazing," she said.
Ahamo grumbled. "Come on. We have a hezz to see."
She followed him for over an hour, deeper into the woods. She knew he had a reputation as the outdoorsman on Pendor, but even she worried that he might get them lost somewhere deep in the woods out here.
The sound of a river reached her ears, the incessant running of water. The sound grew louder until they came upon it, a wide, flat, fast-flowing river that streamed around bleached rocks that stuck up at odd angles, monoliths to an aging geology. She wondered briefly how there was any geology at all on a ringworld, a world completely crafted by artificial hands. Was there any activity that could be considered "geologic?" She would ask Xing to find out.
"Follow me close," he said. "We're downwind so we're not likely to have her sniff us out. That means that we could startle her when we come into view. I would hate to see you killed on your second day outside of the territories."
They worked they way through the tangle quietly. Ahamo had that strange woodsman's skill of being able to walk without making much noise at all. She followed him along as best she could but couldn't help stepping on twigs, fallen leaves, crunching the ground underfoot, at one point stifling a yelp as a rock she though was solid gave way.
"You have all the grace of a mammoth!" he hissed, obviously annoyed at her. "Come on. There." He pointed through the trees. "See her? It's a her. They have darker fur than the males."
She looked. Up the river about two hundred meters she saw the creature he indicated. It moved with bearlike deliberation, although it was more like a polar bear than anything found below the arctic circle. It was certainly a deadly-looking beast, she thought, probably capable of killing and eating the both of them. Ahamo had his rifle unslung and by his side but he, like her, was aiming his camera at it.
She killed three entire rolls of film watching this creature more or less loll in the sun, occasionally raising her head to take a sniff of the air for threats or dangers. Either she didn't scent the two of them or she didn't care to investigate.
Something quietly beeped on Ahamo's vest. He said something in his native language that she didn't catch, but it obviously wasn't something good. He took out a box small enough to hold in his hand and began manipulating buttons on its side. "We have trouble."
"There's something big sniffing around my ship," he whispered. "Let's go." He led the way back into the woods, following the little computer he held in his hands. "It's a pamthreat. That's not good. Either we're in its territory, or we're in the hezz's territory and she's going to come check out both intruders. Either way, we're going to need to get inside the ship. And stay away from the pamthreat."
He was not the quiet woodsman anymore. Instead, he was scared, more scared than she would have thought possible from a male who just hours ago had been radiating a confidence that bordered on arrogance. "Stop," he whispered once while examining his little box. "Let's go that way." She followed him in the direction he pointed, a little off the perpendicular from the direction they had been headed, and then again he corrected their course through the woods. "We're almost there," he said forty minutes later. "Less than a hundred meters. The pamthreat's about a klick that way... run!"
She took his advice almost instantly, following after him as he crashed through the woods. He was going all out, outdistancing her easily as he made his way through the brush. She would have lost him if he hadn't had to blaze the trail himself. He broke out into the clearing and literally jumped into the ship, ignoring the need for the ladder completely. "Come on!" he shouted.
The air burned in her lungs. She was going to black out. She made it to the steps; his hands were on her wrists, hauling her inside; the door close behind her. "What... What happened?"
"The computer said it was coming for us." He gestured to a monitor. "Take a look."
She looked. One of the pamthreats was right outside the door, sniffing around, looking for the meal it had been denied. Up close, it was a terrifying beast, over two meters long, somehow lean and overmuscled at the same time, a panther built to military specifications, four legs in the rear that looked like they could propel a bullet train.
She took out her camera and ran into the cockpit, where there were real windows. Opening up a small air inlet window, she stuck the lens out. The noise got it's attention. It circled around to the front of the craft and sniffed at the air, looking for the source of the noise. She shot a dozen frames of it as it circled, looking for her, trying to find the intruder, the food, whatever it thought she was. "Amazing," she said again. She marveled at its rear legs; they didn't look deformed or stuck on; instead it looked perfectly natural that this creature should have four legs mounted in a pelvis wrapped in muscle.
"Let's go find someplace quiet," Ahamo said. "Get out of my seat."
Sighing, Lisanne stepped away from the window and took her own seat again. She took a moment to stow her camera before he turned the ship back on, taking to the air in one smooth move without a jolt. He waited until they were high in the air to turn on the rear motor and start the propeller, by which time they had drifted a kilometer or so on the wind.
"I never saw it. When we were running, I mean."
"I can't imagine you would until it was just a little too late. It is strange how that one was alone," he mused. "I wonder what happened to its pack?"
"Pride," she offered, assuming his English-- Anglic, she reminded herself-- was incomplete in places.
"That's lions. It's a pack. There's a difference. pamthreats form packs."
"I'll have to look up the difference."
"You do that," he agreed as they flew on. It had been a long day, so he announced they were going to a campsite for the night. She didn't argue with him. She was still tired. Her mouth and body hurt from the effort.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "You don't sound good."
"I don't feel too good. Give me a second. I need to catch my breath." She panted hard. "Whew."
"I had the drones scout me out a region to set down for the night. I don't usually sleep in this thing. I like being outside where I can hear the woods. It's nice."
She nodded. It did sound nice, as long as no pamthreats were on the loose. She watched him as he watched the display screens, peered out his window, and manipulated the controls. He seemed to be very much in his element here high in the sky. "Hmm. We're off the map."
"Meaning that we're heading into territory that I've never been to before, territory that I haven't mapped myself. The territorial maps cover the area, but there's no survey." He glanced at the displays. "I think we're going to have to just find a place to put down. Do you mind hiking a bit?"
She shook her head. "I've got stamina. Just don't ask me to run like that again."
"I'll keep it in mind." He banked the bug to the right and then began easing down into the forest. He found a clearing large enough and dropped onto the ground again. Lisanne waited to hear the machine shutting down and found herself again surprised to realize that the noisiest component, the propeller, had shut down long ago. It was another thing about the Pendorians that she actively admired; their silence. They lived in a post-industrial world; the idea of 'city noise' was completely unknown to them. Living immersed in a world of constant sound would probably have driven one of them crazy.
"Come on," he said. The door opened with a barely audible hum, and again the beauty of Pendor poured into view. "It's a bit of a hike up that way," he said. "There's a ridge up there that I can cover with the drones and seccors I have with me."
"Security drones. Armed." He picked up a backpack and pointed to a bundle. "Can you carry that?"
"Good," he said. She shouldered the bundle, finding it surprisingly light. They set out into the forest.
Ahamo was pretty sure of his path and they soon found the clearing he had indicated. He handed her a small hand axe. "Here. Clear out some of the brush. If you find a rock you don't want to sleep on, hack it out with that claw on the back."
An hour later, Ahamo had put together two sleeping bags, a lean-to big enough for the two of them with room to spare, and a firepit. Lisanne felt a bit guilty about. She hadn't done very much after all. Ahamo had done most of the work. He reminded her, for some reason, of a guide she had known many years ago in Tibet, a man who knew the land but didn't care about the people. She had once thought, facetiously, that people like that came from America. It was nice to know they could be found everywhere.
"Soup tonight," he said, astounding her as he opened his own pack and let spill all manner of vegetables. She counted a squash, tomato, onion, celery... "What is this?" she asked.
"Just watch," he said as he took out a knife. A cutting board that had to be just a millimeter thick seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and she had no idea where he had stored a pot big enough for all the food he had brought but that, too, emerged from his pack. An onion and a smaller vegetable that smelled like a local variant on garlic, despite its deep red color, went in first, followed by a squash and two other vegetables that were not familiar to Earthlings like herself. He dripped some water in from his canteen. "Now just sit back and wait."
Ahamo sat back with his handheld terminal. "What do you think of these?" he asked, handing it over to her. On it were clear, precise photographs of the pamthreat pack they had been photographing that afternoon. The image was as sharp as anything she could have managed with her film and a pang of jealousy shot through her to realize that the Pendorians had even made the art of photographic development obsolete. She found the controls easy enough to understand and flipped through what had to be hundreds of images, all shot with different levels of zoom.
"They're nice. I hope the ones I send to Earth will be this clear," she said, handing the terminal back.
"If they aren't, you can always get some of mine." He stroked the screen for a moment. "There. Now you can get access to them yourself. Just ask any AI."
She nodded. "Thanks. And thanks for being so kind to 'Miss Geographic.'"
"Yeah, well." His big, furry head turned away. "Sorry about the misanthropic act. I don't get along with most people, so I don't try to get along with anybody." He looked at the pot. "Dinner's ready." He handed her a deep cup with a spoon, and she ate gratefully.
"This is good. Really good. What's in it?"
He shrugged at the compliment. "I have no idea. Some spices a friend gave me back at one of the towns, a few vegetables that have been domesticated. I just throw 'em together and boil them down."
She gratefully accepted more from him, surprised at how hungry she was. He offered her two biscuits of a kind she would have associated with breakfast, and was somewhat let down by their staleness. It was rare that anything on Pendor tasted less than optimum. When she was finally sated, she put the cup down next to the fire and waited for him to continue the conversation. When he didn't, she looked up and said, "So, why the misanthrope act anyway?"
"Ah, you don't want to hear it."
"Sure I do. It's my job. What is it about you that makes you want to get away from the rest of civilization?"
"If you call that civilization. You've been to Shardik castle, right?" Lisanne nodded. "Then you've met Ember?"
"I vaguely remember her. She was talking to Wolf, one of the other Geographic people."
"She's my daughter." Lisanne felt there was more to it than that, so she waited for a minute. He finally finished with, "I've never met her."
"I don't understand."
Ahamo drew a deep sigh. "Ember's mom was my lover. I never knew that she wanted children. I know I didn't want them. But Ress did, and without telling me she had her birth control reversed. When she told me she was going to have a baby, I thought that was kind of interesting. When I asked her who the father was, she said it was me and hoped I didn't mind." He glanced up through the trees. Lisanne was surprised at how many stars she could see. She had never appreciated just how little of the sky the sun really occupied, or what it would take to cause such a comprehensive eclipse.
"And you left."
Ahamo nodded. "I was going wild anyway at the time, spending months out here. I guess she finally decided for me that I didn't want to come back to the towns."
"Were you angry?"
"No," Ahamo said, and his voice told her everything else. But he put it into words anyway. "I was sad. Sad that anyone who I had trusted into my bed that much could use me so easily. Without even asking. 'Would I mind?'," he snorted. "If I'd wanted to be a father..." He let the thought trail off. "I guess if I really hadn't wanted to be a father, I would have had the operation, right?"
"But that's permanent."
"On your world, maybe," he said. "Here, a vasectomy involves installing a shunt with a valve. Just take a small magnet to the valve and you can pull it open or shut it at will." He shrugged. "So, here I am. Exiling myself to the middle of nowhere because I don't want to get used like that again."
"Sounds so lonely."
"It is," he muttered, looking down. "But every time I think about going back, I can't find the heart to want to. I've gotten used to being out here. Being lonely. You're more company than I'm used to." He took a deep breath again, let it out audibly. "And it's really hard that there's someone out there who I think I should meet, but I'm afraid of what she'll expect of me if I do meet her."
"You mean your daughter."
He nodded. "I don't want to be her father. But I'd like to meet her. Get to know her. It's funny how we like to talk about how distant we Pendorians are from you Terrans, but now that I'm starting to read what you Terrans have to say and comparing it to our own way of living, we're not so far apart. I like it here. I don't think I'd like it on Earth. But that doesn't mean we're so different."
Lisanne nodded. "I'm starting to like it here myself." She leaned back against the tree she had been using as a rest. "Not like you, though. Not out in the middle of nowhere."
He held out his hand. "Hamo Agrusso." The 'g' sound came out as the kind of strangled noise only a cat could make. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Lisanne Keck."
"I'm pleased to make yours," she said.
In the morning, they flew to another location and decided to walk up a riverbed filled with stones and no real river flowing in it, although here and there Lisanne could hear water trickling under the sun-bleached white stones and bone-pale branches that littered the bed. "It must be a dry year," Ahamo said, pointing to the edge of the river. "If you look up there, you'll see how high this can get when the water really gets flowing."
Lisanne followed his finger and saw where the treeline suddenly veered upwards, roots and branches exposed underneath by the eroding action of a violent spring stream.
They walked for four hours. Coming around a corner, Ahamo muttered, "Or, there could be an alternate explanation for why the stream doesn't run much at all."
The mountain here had given way, an avalanche of rust-colored shale that now stood frozen in half-tumble down the hillside. The stream had been something of a victim of the action, torn away with the avalanche. Only a tiny fraction of it still reached the old bed that Ahamo and she had been climbing along.
Crossing the shale field was one of the most harrowing experiences Lisanne could remember. At any second the ground threatened to give way underneath her feet and carry her down a hundred meters to the trough where the avalanche had halted. It took them nearly an hour to cross the two hundred metres or so of ground, and when they got to the other side they kept going. The stream ran strong here, but still many of the rocks were exposed. She could cross it without getting wet. Or she could find a large gap and dive in.
"Stop," Ahamo said, putting his hand behind him. He eased his rifle off of his shoulder as the two of the melted back into the brush alongside the stream. "Another hezz." He pointed. "They live along streams like this, but my probes didn't detect this one. We need to head in."
She nodded. "Let me take pictures," she whispered.
"Be careful about it."
She unstrapped the camera and pointed it up the river. The hezz had his (her?) head down between two rocks and was pawing at the river. Its paw came back up and Lisanne saw a furred animal hooked on the end. "Does it have an opposable thumb?" she asked.
"I've never gotten close enough to look. You'd have to ask the fellow who first found this region if he knows any more than I do."
"I thought you found it." She was taking pictures like mad, sure that she saw not one, but two opposable digits on opposite sides of the hezz's main paw.
"I'm not the only one who comes out here," he said. "I'm just the only one who stays out here." He chuckled low.
"Oh." She took a few more photos, killing the roll of film, and then said, "Let's get out of here."
He nodded. The headed through the brush, picking their way uphill. There was nothing in the way of a trail; this was the most virgin country that Lisanne had ever picked her way through and she was glad that she had brought clothes for the occasion. "This is all within a day's flight of the center of Pendorian civilization," she said aloud.
"Yep. We're just in the next Terr over from Tinko Terr."
"But the course of evolution here is so different."
"No, not really. Just means that a hexapedal mutation occurred early on in the progress of some small animal and has been an advantage here ever since." He pointed at the sky. "For all we know, Crete wanted it that way."
"Crete is what people call the AI that ran Pendor during the Great Sleep. Some people think Dave or Hal was Crete, but there's some hints in Shardik's notes that say elsewise." Lisanne nodded, familiar with the story of The Great Sleep, when Pendor was seeded and allowed to blossom into a fully evolved world. "Crete did a lot of things to keep Pendor the way it is. Crete, according to Shardik, knows that there's no conscious life on Pendor except for what Shardik put here."
"Does Shardik call it Crete?"
"No. He doesn't even say it's an AI. Most people think it was Hal, though."
They walked through the day. Lisanne took photos of six-legged deer that could jump with amazing power, more six-legged squirrels, even a six-legged lizard-like creature two feet long. "The birds aren't hexapeds. Why?"
"Are you hungry?" Ahamo asked.
"Well, to answer your question we'd have to shoot one down and cut it up to see if it's got vestiges of six limbs or if the birds came over the mountains by themselves."
Lisanne nodded. "Think you can hit one?"
He picked up his rifle. "Are you kidding? I can't miss." His rifle emitted a soft, low tone as he scanned the sky. A row of birds flying in a straight line flew by, off in the distance. The tone rose in pitch and then beeped. He fired.
Silently, one of the birds tumbled from the sky. "Come on. Before some scavenger finds it." They took off through the brush, crashing over bushes and brambles. Ahamo kept looking at the same small box in his hand that he seemed to use to keep track of everything. "Right up ahead."
They came upon a six-legged animal with greenish-brown fur and a humped back sniffing the bird with interest. "Shoo," Ahamo said. The animal hissed at him. Ahamo hooked his boot under the creature's midsection and sent it sprawling. The creature turned and hissed again, apparently unhurt by Ahamo's gesture, and then, deciding that it was on the losing side of a battle with two large predators, took off.
Ahamo picked up the bird and examined it closely. He sniffed it, waggling his whiskers. "Smells okay."
He bled the bird carefully and then hung the creature off his pack. "We need to put a few klicks between us and the blood," he explained. "In case the hezz scents it." He pulled out that small handset he had examined earlier and ran his finger over it carefully. "The drones will tell me if we're getting close to one. It was foolish of me to not release the drones earlier. Shoulda known there'd be a hezz on the river."
They walked on until first flash, what the Pendorians registered as dusk, and decided to make camp. Again, Ahamo did most of the work, but soon they were eating roasted... Lisanne didn't know if this bird had a name. It didn't have any real resemblance to anything she knew from Earth. It didn't look like a goose or a duck. The color was all wrong, an almost grass-green color that must have made it invisible if it roosted in trees. There wasn't much meat on it; enough to feed the both of them, but that was about it, especially after Ahamo tossed some more of those vegetables he carried with him into a flat pan and roasted them up as well.
Ahamo examined the bones he had extracted from the bird carefully after dinner. "Nope, must be a migratory animal. See? No evidence that there were ever more than four limbs to this critter."
Lisanne took photos of the entire operation, and more of her guide. Ahamo seemed to enjoy the attention she gave him as she documented their camp life and the autopsy of their dinner. She made notes in her notebook, wondering what Ahamo would think of her assessments of him when he finally read the finished report that went out to the hands of millions of readers.
She liked looking at him. He wore loose pants and the kind of vest typically found on Terran fisherman, the kind with a dozen pockets, not all of them visible. The vest did nothing to cover his upper torso, which was handsomely apportioned and muscular in all the right places, for a human or a Felinzi. His ears flickered only occasionally, he did it deliberately when speaking whenever he was making a point. He had this little tic, though, where he would tilt his head to the right and push his chin out just a hint. She had yet to see him smile, though. She knew what a Felinzi smile looked like, but not on him.
He saw her looking, and gave her a grin. "I don't suppose you're looking at me with a camera eye."
She blushed. "Sorry."
"That's okay. It's just been a long time since I saw anyone giving me that kind of eye in a while."
"That's what happens when you live out in the middle of nowhere," Lisanne said with a grin. Then her smile faltered. "Sorry."
Ahamo sat back down, this time closer to her. Lisanne felt like she would melt in his direction, fall into this reassuring woodsman and just become a part of him. It was a peculiar sensation for her. She wasn't the sort of person to get romantically involved with the one person she had access to, but Ahamo was a combination of reassurance and loneliness that spoke to her and to which she wanted to respond.
But he just smiled and offered her a cup of something warm. "Tea?" he offered.
It wasn't like anything that passed for 'tea' on Earth, but it was tasty, and as she drank it she felt a curious warmth easing into her limbs. "What is this?"
"It's a sleeper's tea that someone found a couple of years ago. There are people near the town who do nothing but go out, grab a few leaves, test it for obvious poisons, feed it to their rabbits and such, and if it's safe, they try it for themselves. It's a little more scientific than the way you Terrans went about finding useful herbs, but it works."
"Just for sleep?"
"Just for sleep. It's calming. You looked like you needed it. It doesn't work very fast, though, and when you finally do fall asleep it burns out of your system very fast so you can work up quickly. Just in case a hezz or pamthreat walks by." He grinned. "You walked the whole trail pretty strongly for a human who almost blacked out after that run yesterday."
"Maybe it was just all the time we spent in space. I didn't do enough exercising." She sighed. "I keep forgetting to do the important things."
"Like?" Ahamo asked, innocently enough.
She was silent for a few minutes. Did she really want to tell him? Well, she'd gotten herself into this. "I forgot to have children. I was so busy doing my career, taking pictures, that I entered menopause without ever having kids."
"You couldn't have them now? How about a gift child?"
"Gift child? What's that?"
"Did you know that we're genetically engineered?" She nodded. "Well, there are weird behavioral patterns in human beings. Take the difference between males and females. Males are programmed to have sex and love their children, but they're not really programmed to have children. Does that make sense?" She nodded. "Women are different. They have an instinct to 'have children,' probably because there's no question that those children are theirs. Pendorians are different. The instinct to 'have children' is actually very rare in Pendorian females. It's a mechanism that keeps Pendorians having sex and using birth control." He grinned at the obvious irony.
"Anyway, there are just as many people who think they want children but who realize after they've dropped one that they can't handle the responsibility. That's where gift children come from. People who want to raise children put their names into the gift child registry, and people who make children put their children into the registry. It all works out."
Lisanne said, "So it's something like adoption?"
"I guess that's the word you humans would use for it. Something like that, anyway. We're a lot less formal about it than you Terrans. No laws get in our way, just good common sense."
"Hmm." With curious pleasure she let her head drop down onto his shoulder. "Sounds nice. Thanks for the trip, Ahamo."
She felt his hand in her hair, tousling it gently. A loose strand fell into her mouth and she blew it out of the way. "What a curious pair we've turned into."
"Ah," he said, "You're nice enough."
"Here we are, the lonely hearts. You not wanting to give up your sense of freedom to a full-grown daughter, me a failure at not getting children when the getting was possible."
She felt his head turn, kiss her hair. "Are we lonely tonight?"
"We don't have to be," she sighed. "We're not all that lonely right now."
His hand caressed her arm, and she felt that wonderful urge to sink into his embrace again overtake her. She let it happen, let his arms surround her. The feel of his muzzle on the back of her neck felt so good that already her belly was warming, preparing her.
His body was a mass of muscle covered by short, black fur with splotches of white, and she thought she could feel each and every fiber of it tighten and relax with his movements. Every movement communicated reassurance to her even as his tongue licked at her ears. "I shouldn't be doing this," he growled softly.
"I can't get you into trouble," she whispered.
"You can't. But you can lead me back to it."
She turned in his arms to face him. "Is that what you're really afraid of? That if you let yourself feel intimate just one more time, you'll be ready to let someone like Ember's mother take advantage of you again?" She reached up and touched his cheek. "I'm not her."
"I know you're not her. That doesn't make it better." His hands gestured in the air but Lisanne couldn't make out what he was trying to communicate with them. "I just want to be left alone."
"No you don't. You just don't want to get hurt again." She laughed. "I hope you won't take it as an insult when I say that's very human."
He looked up at her, his muzzle parted in a big smile. "That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me in a long time," he said. "You wouldn't believe..."
"No, I probably wouldn't." She reached up with both hands and pulled him close to her, pressing her mouth to his muzzle. It was a gesture that surprised both of them, Lisanne mostly because she would never have consciously thought of trying to kiss a cat like this.
But both of them relaxed into the kiss almost immediately, and seconds later they were exchanging kisses of the sloppier kind. Ahamo hadn't forgotten how to kiss, Lisanne noticed as warm desire seeped into her. The kiss made her desperate to know what was under that jumpsuit.
She learned quickly that he was expecting her to lead. "We'll need a bedroll," she said.
Silently, Ahamo reached behind the log they had been sitting on and pulled out one of the rolls.. With a casual pull on the strings it rolled out onto the ground, and after running a finger along the seam it opened up into a blanket big enough for the two of them.
Lisanne pounced on him then, pushing him down onto the blanket, her mouth on his, her body pressed against his. The surprised look on his face gave her a moment's pause, but the grin that followed told her that she was doing just the right thing. She pulled down on his zipper, from his left shoulder down to his right knee, peeling him like a prawn as he shrugged off the outer layer of his clothes. "You wear boxers," she said with a grin.
"Yeah. I don't like the heat you get with briefs." In the light of their fire he was a beautiful animal of a man. His broad chest and muscular biceps were like nothing she had seen in Felinzi yet, but for a man who lived out in the wild, she reasoned, there must have been a lot of opportunity to build muscle. As he pushed off the briefs as well she got her first good look at his cock. If anything, its normalcy was off-putting; she had expected an alien penis on an alien cat, but Ahamo was hung normally both in size and in shape. The head of his cock was, if anything, a little narrower and flush with the shaft than on a human, but there was nothing about it to suggest that they would be incompatible.
Ahamo stripped off the last of his clothes and, completely naked, turned over and rose to sit beside her. He wasn't quite as agile as a full-bodied cat, nor was he as awkward as the average man she had known through her life. But she had a glimpse of his broad, powerful back and the slim build of his waist and reflected that even on Pendor there were degrees of perfection.
He was watching her and she realized that he wanted her to take her own clothes off. She sat down to place her boots is his lap. "Untie me?" she asked as she pulled her t-shirt off over her head and opened the buttons of her jeans. Ahamo pulled at the laces and had her boots off in a flash. She took her bra off and tossed it aside. The two of them pulled off her jeans together, and then she tossed aside her panties.
The fire crackled and somewhere in the distance an owl, or the local equivalent, hooted. For a second the dim firelight and the sound of the wind filled the space between them, the warm night not quite warm enough on her skin.
She reached out for his hand and the two of them pulled close to one another. She looked into those big, slitted eyes, those beautiful, feline eyes, and then she heard another noise, the sound of purring, purring on the scale of a lion, a jaguar, a predator. Another sound became her own heartbeat, loud in her ears.
It was still her turn to lead. She guided him back down to the blanket, his body now stretched out before her. His body was firm and strong, and not at all what she would expect in a mel older than she. She reached down and touched his thigh, and he quivered in anticipation. She watched his erection grow in anticipation of her touch, and she did not disappoint him. She touched his balls, her fingers sliding under the sac and lifting it, touching the soft, furred bag that held his testicles. Her hand slip up, feeling a ring of spongy, furred flesh at the base of his cock that must have been the retracted sheath she had read about. But his cock was an ordinary six or so inches of pale, white skin, bobbing before her eyes, throbbing in time with his heartbeat.
She lowered her head to his cock. His smell was strong and pleasant, the way cats should be, and there was nothing to suggest that he hadn't taken a shower since yesterday. She wouldn't have cared anyway.
The taste of his cock in her mouth was a sudden jolt of unreality. She wasn't sure if it was the sudden feel of it or the proximity but suddenly she was completely enraptured with the idea of sucking him off. His cock slipped along her tongue and effortlessly she took most of the length of it into her mouth, gagging only as she got within reach of the base. She pulled off of it, letting her tongue play along the length of his shaft, caressing the tip, before plunging down again, sucking him into her throat. His whole body was already wound up. "Lisanne," he moaned. "It has been so long. I'm going to come soon."
She rose off of his cock and wrapped her hand around it, stroking it slowly. "This soon?"
Ahamo didn't reply with words but instead, to her surprise, arched his back and came with a grunt, dribbling white semen to flow over her fingers. "You were close!"
"I told you. Tried to, anyway." He gave her a weak grin. "Give me a minute and we can do something else."
"Promise?" she said.
"Yeah." He sat up and reached into his backpack for a small washcloth. He handed it to her so that she could clean herself first, then proceeded to wipe down his own fur, getting up as much as he could.
They sat for a while, he with his arms around her, holding her as they faced the slowly ebbing fire. Sparks flew up into the night, past the tall pine trees that did not successfully block her view of the stars. "Stars."
"What about them?"
"When I heard this was a ringworld, I thought I might not see the stars. But the shadow ring only blocks out the sun, and the sun takes up only a little bit of the sky. But why doesn't the sunlight wash out around the shadows?"
"Because there's no air at the shadow ring, Lisanne," Ahamo said in a voice that conveyed patience. "Air is what causes the washout inside the atmosphere; it's something for the light to reflect off of. Without it, the blackness of the shadow is perfect."
"Oh," she said. That explained the brilliance of the stars overhead, even as they seemed to twinkle ever more fiercely than the stars on Earth. "Is the atmosphere thicker here?"
"A bit," Ahamo said. "Quite a bit, I think. You might be at double Earth's pressure here. But don't worry. We got to your planet without any trouble; I'm sure that you'll be able to return without any either."
Lisanne nodded. She squirmed against him; the cool night air on her shoulders, the warmth of him against her back and the heat of the fire against her breasts and face were all so stimulating. His hands reached up idly to touch her small, drooping breasts. His fingertips, surprisingly soft, stroked at her nipples and made her feel lightheaded. "Ahamo?" she asked. "Do you think you're ready for me?"
"I could be," he said, and even as he said it her suggestive hint had reached down between his legs and encouraged his cock to stand up and be noticed. She felt something familiar prodding against her lower back. She turned to face him, her hand on his shoulders guiding him as she lay down on her back. His cock slipped into her with only token resistance.
Lisanne moaned as her cunt enveloped him. His cock was just the right size. Ahamo began a gentle in and out motion. The right side of his body was in darkness; the left illuminated by the fire, the whole waving above as his cock repeatedly thrust within her. It had been too long since she had had a lover, and she knew that it was the same for Ahamo too, but the thrusts were sweet and skilled. She didn't want him to go harder or faster, she just wanted him to keep on going until he had had his pleasure. For her, the tingling in her fingers and at the tip of her nose were enough to tell her that she was going to come soon, too, the gentle kind of climax she always had. It would be more than enough.
Ahamo surprised her by dipping his head down. His body was pressed against hers now, his fur stroking the length of her body, her breasts, her nipples; he was purring loudly, satisfaction and the quest for release all in that single sound. His head was by hers. He licked her cheek.
She wrapped her legs around his torso and encouraged him into her. "You are the most wonderful..." he gasped softly, leaving the words unfinished. Lisanne made noises of her own, sounds to spur him on, ask him for more. And he gave more, making love to her body with the kind of gentleness she wouldn't have expected from a carnivore. But he was more than just a carnivore.
Lisanne's own climax sneaked up on her as it always did. She had but a second to recognize it before it washed over her, expressed in a gasp and a tremble and, always, tears. Ahamo came a few seconds later, a loud growl of pleasure and a release of strength that was, like his lovemaking, reined in to keep from hurting her, not that he would have done that with twice his strength.
Ahamo withdrew. They lay together next to the fire, his head on her shoulder, his face towards the light. "Thank you," he said in soft, earnest tones. "I don't know why I avoided that for so long."
"You had your reasons," she whispered. "But that was wonderful, Ahamo."
"I'm glad. I'd hate to think I was bad at it. Or out of practice."
"You were neither," she sighed, looking back up at the sky and the stars. There were so many, and they were so clear. It would take a long time for her to visit all of them, she thought, and part of her wanted to do just that. "Thanks for being so kind to me during my first days here." She kissed his furred cheek just below one ear. "I'm starting to like it here."
He grinned. "Good. I might even come to like having you here."