Wolf spotted Lisanne just as she entered the square. He raised a hand and waved to her, and she immediately recognized him and walked over to where he sat.
Grinning to show that he didn't mean it, he said, "You're late."
"I've been busy."
"So I understand," Wolf replied. "I hear you have a great collection, though. The editors back on Earth are going apeshit over the images you sent them. You have a scoop."
Lisanne smiled from ear to ear. "I was hoping to do something more than photograph the wildlife." She touched his wrist briefly. "Did you know that they have mammoths out there, Wolf? Huge, elephantine creatures with white fur and enormous tusks. The head is shaped a little bit differently, but it's still the same basic idea. It's hard to imagine what's hiding out there!"
"Instead, you end up photographing the emergence of a new Pendorian. What did they call it? 'Incorporation Shock?'"
"That's it," Lisanne agreed. "It means to suddenly realize you're a new person, on your own, ready to deal with the world. I've been talking to them a lot, Wolf. I'm beginning to understand them. The Llorow family has taken me in and made me part of them for the past six months, and working with R'Chriss has been a wonderful part of that. And he's so willing to let me take pictures of him. He loves to pose. It's like dealing with a child, Wolf, a child who understands quantum mechanics but is only now beginning to understand the subtleties of Pendorian morality." She paused. "Which is nothing like Terran morality."
"I've noticed," Wolf said. Someone dressed in the universal uniform of a waiter walked over. Wolf pointed to something on the menu, and the waiter nodded. Lisanne, to his shock, spoke. "Metten oldora, melli, i hraza calameni, illi."
"My God, you speak it better than I do!"
"I've had to. The Llorow don't know much Anglic, except for their little girl, and she's picking it up from me. We practice with each other every day."
Wolf grinned. Food came; he had a sandwich with something in the middle that might have been cheese, might have been meat, and might have been vegetables, but he didn't dare inquire to closely. Lisanne, in contrast, received a bowl with an assemblage of fruit, a roll on the side, and a glass of red wine. They ate for a while, then Wolf said between swallows, "Your comment about morality has me thinking, Lisa. What is going on here? I mean, the Pendorians... don't they seem friendlier than you would begin to suspect?"
She gave him a sly smile. "Like you're objecting." He returned the smile. "No, not really. I mean, sure, they've agreed by consensus to treat us openly and honestly, but have you ever seen one of them act any different towards each other? Rarely, Wolf." She paused. "But I know what they're doing."
"What?" Wolf asked around a mouthful.
"They're colonizing your brain."
That made Wolf look up, finally. "They're WHAT?"
"They're colonizing your brain. Not with their nanotechnology or their genetically engineered viruses, but with something far more effective, Wolf. They're colonizing your brain with ideas. About how life should be lived.
"Admittedly, they've taken some of the thrills out of life, like the frission we get from walking through Central Park in the middle of the night and making it out the other side alive. They've killed the joy of meaninglessly bedding someone and then telling them to get lost in the morning, another notch in the belt. And they've never had the pleasure of watching a bomb blow up their enemies." Lisanne grinned. "I suppose some people think those things add color to our existence. Instead, they've replaced it all with a calm, rational, upward-looking philosophy that treats the individual as a core component in a society, regardless of position. They have taken what works without suffering from us and tossed the suffering overboard. They view everything not from the grim perspective of acquire-or-else, like we always have, but from the perspective of a people who have everything they need, and now they're going to get the things they want. Have you noticed that their homes are smaller than ours, on average? Clustered, but spaced further apart? Have you ever wondered why some of them live in what could best be described as condominiums when they have all this land? It's cultural, Wolf. These people aren't Terran. They think in different terms. Acquisition means very little to them. Terrain means little to them. Respect is what keeps them going.
"They want you to take back to Earth the idea that life can be lived this way. Sure, Earth will have to do a million things to get here, like drop its population by at least a third, and start treating human beings like human beings and not 'human resources.' But Earth can do it. Pendor is here to set a good example." She gestured around. "This is what you can do with the right technologies, the right people, the right attitude."
"I don't know," Wolf said. "The whole idea... I mean, back home folks get into power because they're cunning, and they stay there because they're survivors. People like Kaddafi, or Khomeni, even Idi Amin survive because they're not stupid and they know how to make the system work for them."
"But that's the point. Here, there is no system. Here, cunning is not admired unless it improves lives, and the admiration ends the second the emotional capital earned is spent somewhere it doesn't belong. If you don't agree with the way the consensus went on a project, you have two choices: work within the majority view or get out. People who can't do either are pushed to the margins so fast it'll make your head spin. And if they don't stay there, they'll soon be planted there, two meters down."
Wolf shivered. "That's another thing."
"It's no worse than on Earth, Wolf. It's not meant to be perfect. It's meant to be better. It's meant to be about individual freedom, about relationships that have meaning and dissolve when they don't anymore. It's about the greater society actually having a say in how life is lived."
"Capitalism and democracy do that, too," Wolf offered.
"The fuck they do," Lisanne said, enjoying the shocked look on his face from her language. It wasn't language she would have willingly used a year ago. "If the mechanism of the marketplace 'decides' what is best, than what's best for families in America right now is a household where nobody is at home because both parents are at work, where everyday is a turmoil about money, where serial monogamy and torn family structures is the norm, where people change jobs frequently, and where stability is a dirty word. It's not healthy, Wolf. I don't want to live in a culture where most children spend most of their time being raised by 'employees' rather than loving parents. I'm getting out."
"I'm getting out. I've discussed it with Bahr Llorow and I'm staying."
"You know what that means, don't you?" he asked, distressed. "You have to go through that Great Hall thing. It'll change you, turn you into, well, into something other than a human being. That's even if it works the way they think it does. They don't even know. And a lot of them are unwilling to talk about it because it's so radical, even for them. Is that what you really want?"
"I think it is," she said. "I think I belong here, among these people. They've treated me with respect and dignity. I have nothing to go home to, Wolf. Why shouldn't I stay here? I'll be Geographic's first local correspondent. They can even short my pay." She grinned. "I won't be needing it." She looked at him. "Don't look at me that way, Wolf. I'm not dying. I'm being born again, in ways so profound religions can't possibly wrap meaning around it, except perhaps in a negative way."
"There's a reason for that, Lisanne." Wolf paused. "I don't think we're meant to be like these people. Not yet."
"In whose philosophy?" she shot back. "Wolf, I could not give a rat's ass about what Terrans will think of my decision. I'm going to be a different person in a couple of weeks. I want it that way."
Wolf shivered. "It sounds..."
"It sounds like a real decision. We all make decisions, Wolf, about our lives. It's time I made this one. It's time I began living a life for a family and a world that cares about me. Even if I don't come out an Uncia, I'll still be whole and I'll still love the Llorow family." She sighed. "Anyway, Wolf, I just wanted to stop by and let you know." She stood up. "Thanks for lunch."
A smile fleeted across his face. "Just..." She stood up, then waited for him to finish. "Just don't forget to write us, okay?"
She grinned. "Write you? I could never forget you! If the Hall doesn't do bizarre things to me-- well, no more bizarre than what I think it could do-- I'll still be working for the magazine. I like what I do. There's nothing wrong with it. I want to be a part of Geographic for as long as I live; it's what I do, it's what I've always done." She took a deep breath. "Bye, Wolf. See you on the other side."
"And you, Lisanne. We'll miss you. An empty berth on the ship will be hard to ignore."
"You'll manage. You, at least, always have." She walked away, wondering if that was the kind of goodbye she would have wanted to leave Wolf with. She hadn't known him except by reputation when they had first met on the ship two years ago, but now he seemed like an old friend. Goodbye, she thought. I will miss you.
She leapt onto the SDisk like she meant to leave it cracked and broken behind her. She had no illusions about what she was about to go through. I'm going to die, she thought, and then someone with my memories is going to step out onto the Ring's surface sometime later-- a day, week, a month, even the Pendorians didn't know-- and that person will have all my memories. But will she-- was it even guaranteed that it would be a she?-- will she be me?
"She will be convinced that she is." Llorow had told her that. "Just like the woman who wakes up in what you think of as you bed tomorrow will think she's the same you as this one here."
The sky, which above the glassed-in restaurant had been a brilliant blue, gave way to dark stormclouds that she thought perfectly reflected her mood. How odd, she thought, that I should be depressed. There was no reason for it. It was not as if she were leaving anything behind.
But that wasn't quite true, no. She was leaving plenty behind. She had nephews and nieces back on Earth, a sister, a brother, a family that she heard from less often these days. Out of touch, they said. Out of mind, she preferred to think. It kept them at a distance, away from her attentions, in a place where she wouldn't worry about them.
"I'll write more," she said to nobody as she stepped of the SDisk and into the snow, down towards a collection of houses built of stone, wood, and now paper. The Uncia she had come to think of as family were incorporating different construction styles as fast as they could learn them, as fast as she could specify them. Their use of paper in windows had become a way of softening the harsh winter glare, the direct sun of Pin as it slammed into the mountainside and burned into the little village, which in one respect wasted not a single beam of it in the wintertime. Today, though, there was no sunlight, and the fires were going.
She trudged through the snow, following the one set of prints that had headed towards it this morning, her prints, marring the perfect whiteness that had covered the land last night. She wondered how R'Chriss was doing.
He answered her worries by leaping out of one of the small clusters of wooden buildings and bounding across the snow towards her. "You came back!" he said.
"Did you think I wouldn't?" she asked as he slammed into her arms, all two hundred and fifty kilos of him. He was a Ssphynx, the newest Pendorian species, and the loveliest being she had ever seen in her life. He was a magnificent creature, a vision of masculine beauty that had burned himself onto her imagination, possibly forever. It hadn't helped that the first words out of his mouth had been, "Please. Help me."
It was one of those things that Shardik hadn't told them. The truth was that the tliel, the first century, the first hundred people to wake up from an incorporation, were the most tested, the most stable, the most completely analyzed from top to bottom examples of their species that would ever exist. Their genes were nigh-perfect; their brains were filled to the top with information.
It was their later siblings that were given less. Not in physical terms, but in what they were given to know. They didn't have the benefit of the complete programming that the tliel got. And they didn't get the benefit of having a family instantly. They had to find one. It was a Pendorian duty, almost a religious rite, to find a new Pendorian and help them through Incorporation Shock.
Chriss had found her on a mountainside and at first she had thought she was the victim of some kind of practical joke. Perhaps she was, but it was not entirely on her. Chriss had to put up with the fact that the first person he'd met, the one he'd hoped would guide him into his new life, was not a Pendorian at all. She had been told that Hal made almost random decisions about where to place the decants. She had her doubts. It was almost too perfect that she, of all people, should wind up mothering a decant.
Chriss was still speaking. "I never know. You never tell me if you are or not. And you're not a Pendorian. Really, you don't have any reason to stay."
"Except for you," she said, hugging him as if he were a grown son. "It's cold out here. Let's get inside."
"I like it out here."
"I know you do. So do the Llorow. But I don't have fur and I think my nose is going to freeze off and fall on the ground."
He looked at her for a moment as if he were consulting the card catalog in his head, which for all she knew was exactly what he was doing. "That doesn't really happen," he insisted.
"No," she agreed. "It doesn't really happen."
"I guess it could," he sad as he turned around, offering her an arm. She had taught him that gesture and he used in whenever he could. "I mean, it would have to be really cold."
"Yes, it would," she agreed as she took the offered elbow. "But I don't think it'll ever get that cold out here."
"You never know." He led her down the hillside and into the knot of two dozen wooden houses, each with a chimney from which curls of smoke ascended into the sky. She wondered if it was even possible for Pendor to have a pollution layer, given the volume of atmosphere that Pendor had at its disposal. And the Pendorians were also religious in their recycling and cleanliness. All food that they exchanged with other people moved in non-disposable containers that got passed back and forth. There was no such thing as plastic wrap out here.
They walked inside. "K'Lisa!"
"L'Mahr!" she said, scooping the kitten into her arms and hugging her. "I'm back!"
"To stay?" Mahr asked.
"For a day or two. Then..."
Mahr pouted. "You have to walk the Hall."
She nodded. "I'll only be gone for a while."
R'Chriss responded, "But you don't know how long."
"No, she does not," said Bahr Llorow, patriarch of the family in which she had found herself. "Nobody does. The Hall has never been used before. Nobody quite knows how it works." He frowned, the whiskers of his face turning downwards. "The Hall is one of those places on Pendor where the unpredictable world of the supernatural intrudes on the sensible life of Pendorians. I'm afraid that I can't approve of the requirement."
Lisanne said, "You said yourself that Pendorians were so different in their outlook that there had to be a genetic component. Something that we can only know by going through the change. I feel like part of your family, Llorow, you have been so welcoming. But I can't be a Pendorian without the change."
Llorow, a tall, grey-furred mel with handsome features and an impressive collection of thick, white whiskers that expressed his feelings openly, nodded.
"But you don't have to go now, right?" R'Chriss asked.
"No, I don't have to go now," she said, slipping one arm around R'Chriss waist even as she held Mahr in the other arm. He pressed his cheek to her shoulder. "I can wait for a day. But I'm told that if I don't go soon, I'll find myself there eventually no matter what I do."
Mahr pouted. "I'm afraid that what you turn into won't want to come back."
"Oh, Mahr," she sighed, "I will always want to come back. Will you still love me if I'm a Tindal, though? Or still a Human?"
Bahr held out his arm and touched her shoulder. The four of them stood in a small knot with Lisanne in the center. Lisanne looked up into Bahr's eyes, those grey, wise eyes, the eyes of a mel who had seen a century go by, raised a family, survived the primitive colony conditions, and who looked forward to an interesting future nonetheless. Bahr was a mel Lisanne trusted with her life. He trusted the Hall. He just didn't like it.
"We will love you," he said. "No matter what."
"Yeah," Mahr sighed. "No matter what."
Lisanne giggled. "Where's my camera?"
That afternoon, she stood outside with R'Chriss, watching as he confidently swung an axe, splitting logs. She couldn't keep her eyes, or her camera, off of him. He shamed any actor or model the mass media of Terra tossed in front of her eyes. His had changed in the months she had known him, had grown from the little boy lost in the woods quite literally, into the confident mel who looked forward to an existence in a universe that did not love him but among people who did.
She had been taking pictures in the valley on the other side of this mountain ridge, a valley populated by a variety of dog-like predators that looked like they had evolved from something much more docile. It was hard to take serious their huge, cow-like eyes, until you watched a pack of them shred to pieces one of the animals that migrated through the valley as part of a herd. And there he had been. Lying on the ground, naked, cold, alone.
She had brought him back to the Llorow's, who had put her up for a couple of days while she took photos. She had ended up staying for the next six months. Now it looked likely that, in some sense, she would be staying forever. She didn't object.
His body had developed too. When she had found him, he had been soft in many places, fat. Now, a winter of chopping wood, fixing the houses, and hauling supplies had turned him into a lean, powerful creature that deserved the camera's attention. She wondered if she should send some of her photos to Playgirl. The idea made her giggle.
"Argh," he grunted as a small chip of wood flew off a log and the axe landed soundly in the stump. He glanced over at her. "Are you still taking pictures of me?"
"It's what I do. I take pictures, and an editor and I agree on which ones are best."
"How many people will see these pictures?"
"Three million, at least," she said.
"I know that supposed to be a lot of people," he responded, "but I can't imagine it. How many people are three million? I mean, if that were on Pendor, that means that every other person I met, anywhere, would know who I was, right?"
"Well, they would have seen your picture. Whether or not they would know who you were is another question. I mean, a month will go by and another set of pictures will come out to be seen by those three million people." She grinned. "Besides, I think pictures of you will be seen by a lot more than just the three million people who subscribe to Geographic. When the news breaks out that I'm staying, every news source on the planet will be showing my picture." She looked up at the sky. "The others will all be doing the talk shows for the rest of their lives. I wonder what they're going to say about me."
"You could always ask Ed to record it all for you." Ed was the village AI. For all the appearance of a quite chalet in the woods, this place was also part of a world of technology unimaginably ahead of Earth. Computers here were invisible. The only thing that seemed "electronic" were the ubiquitous Personal Access to Data Displays, or PADDs, which were as easy to use as a newspaper.
"I guess I could, couldn't I?" she mused as she fumbled with a new roll of film. She was used to film, and the Pendorian offer to replace it with one of their high-quality computer cameras had been interesting, but she'd refused. She wondered what she would do when she ran out of film. The Pendorians had told her that they could make more, but she wasn't sure she would want to use it when the quality of the graphic images was just as good if not better. And the monitors on Pendor could render color that was just impossible on Earth.
"Why are you staying?" he asked. "It's not just me, is it?" He put the axe down and walked towards her. "I'm not sure I'm going to stay with the Llorow forever. I have to meet other Ssphynx, I mean, more than just the ones we've visited. And I want to visit Earth some day."
She grinned. "There's a lot there. No, Chriss, it's not just you, but you're a big part of it. I do like being around you, being a part of your world, but I also just want to stay. Pendor makes sense to me. I've seen a lot of different places on Earth, and what I've seen tells me that people are generally torn in half. Most people are happy today, but everyone is convinced that they could be happier tomorrow. If you're happy, why screw it up by wanting even more?"
"Because it could make you more happy?" he asked, not entirely sure that that was the right answer.
"How do you quantify that?" she asked.
Chriss stopped. "This is one of those 'wisdom' questions you keep bugging me about, isn't it?"
"It is," she replied with a smile. "You have to tell me what makes you happy, and do you want more of it, or do you want more happiness, if there is such a thing, or do you want something else? Do you wake up every morning thinking about the things you will do or the things you won't do but want?"
He paused for a moment. "I think I see what you're saying. If I'm happy, then wanting more of it doesn't make me happy in the short term. And if I get it, will I really be happy then, or will I want yet more?"
"See? Every morning I wake up and look out a window and think to myself, 'Any place else wouldn't make me happier.'" I could probably be just as happy in other places, but happier?" She sighed. "It's what I like about Pendorians. They measure their happiness against the gains of change and only make the change if the equation balances out in their favor."
He ruffled the fur on his arms with his hands. "It's cold out here," he commented.
"You've stopped working. And you don't have your coat."
"Let's go inside, then."
"Good idea." He gave her a quick hug, then ran ahead of her, his long body loping through the snow, his tail bouncing wildly. By god, he was gorgeous.
Lisanne shook her head. She shouldn't have been thinking about him that way. In many ways, Chriss was just a child, fully grown, clear in his thinking, but poorly equipped with the tools, the ingrained reactions and understandings that made Pendor work.
On the other hand, she wondered, maybe she should be thinking about him that way. Ken had said that Pendorians are either family, neighbors, coworkers, or lovers. Chriss was family, but she wasn't his mother. She was... what? Not a surrogate; nothing so ugly. Not an alternative. Bahr had referred to her as a guide, as a person who existed to show Chriss through this first step of life.
She needed a guide of her own. She sought out Bahr.
He was in his basement, a room so hot she thought of classic claims of Hellfile. Bahr was holding an arc welder in one hand and two steel plates in another as two apprentices held back two large plates of iron. Bahr made wood stoves, and people around the Ring called on him to provide them with more. He had a waiting list that, as he described it, would keep him busy "for centuries." He sometimes worried that he was contributing to forest depletion and had already arranged with a group of Uncia to start up a foresting rotation and management system. As he put it, "I intend to be here in a thousand years. I'm not going to be like the Americans and deplete the entire landmass of 95% of its forestry in the first two hundred.
The bright, hot light of the weld strike gave the room a surreal glow, as if she had walked into a disco where an epileptic DJ kept his finger on the strobe button. It gave a strange cast to the three Uncia males working in one corner, building the base of yet another of Bahr's creations. "It's good," said Bahr, standing back and pushing up the protective mask that covered his face. A soft hum that she hadn't noticed before now began to fade away. The capacitors that ran the welder were discharging.
He turned. "K'Lisanne!" he said with a grin. "What brings you to my little corner of joy?"
"Do you have a minute, Bahr? I would like to ask you for a little advice."
"Surely, I have time for you," he said, gesturing to the other two that he would like to be alone. "What do you need?"
"It's about R'Chriss. I... I worry that I may take advantage of him." She sighed. "Every time he touches me I get this thrill, like I would want more of that. Actually, every time anyone touches me I get that feeling, which is really starting to bother me."
"Sounds to me like you need a little more attention than you're getting. Even humans have a need to get touched once in a while. And you probably more than most. You've got stress, K'Lisanne. You're something of a parent now. I know how it feels, trying to keep a houseload of kids shepherded myself." The image of 'herding cats' went through Lisanne's mind, causing her to smile. "I was barely out of the tanks myself. But I don't think you'd be taking advantage of Chriss. It's not in you. But still, Chriss might not be a bad choice. You are physically compatible, although it looks to me like you might have to do some thinking to get into a position that works. If you're really interested in finding someone to treat your body as nicely as you treat your mind, I'm sure one of my apprentices is more than up to the task"
More imagination that threatened to make her smile uncontrollably. "Tell you what," Bahr continued, "I'll talk to Chriss, too. See if there's something you two have in common and can work out. If it comes from me, he might not suspect that you and I colluded. It'll just be the Old Man trying to make harmony in his little village."
"You don't want to tell him..."
"Sure I do. Whatever else you feel about R'Chriss, he is not a child. He's a fully grown Pendorian. His hormones work as well as anyone's, and his need for physical affection is as strong as yours, maybe moreso. Kids, even after puberty need physical attention. Maybe not sex, but attention. From everybody. You Terrans confuse me terribly by taking those people who need that the most and denying it to them, at least in your laws, for years. And the law scares you so much you don't even hug them. Maybe it's what your culture evolved to produce people who will work in assembly lines."
Lisanne bristled at the notion of "her culture." She was not an American. Hopefully soon nobody would even think of her as a Terran. But she relented. This was Bahr after all. You couldn't stay mad at him for very long. It just didn't work. There was an enduring contentment about him that affected everyone nearby.
She sighed. "All right, you win, Bahr. Go ahead and talk to him and see what you can do."
Breakfast at the Llorow house was a communal affair, usually served with the same food. In the winter, the Llorows rotated some sort of grain through their diet, and today was no different-- a kind of wheat gruel with little bits of meat in it, bacon she suspected. Mahr was cheerfully glomming down the contents of her bowl, while Bahr, his mate, and Chriss ate with more refinement. Lisanne had endured worse, and had actually come to appreciate just how effective the meal was at sustaining her energy through the morning. Beside, she mused, with such a wonderful family to share the meal with, it was hard to find fault with the food. The felines, of course, reacted with mock horror to her adding honey to her bowl, as well as her habit of morning coffee. They all drank some kind of herbal tea that Lisanne thought stank wretchedly.
After she had helped clear away the remains of the meal and gives Mahr the hug she so eagerly demanded, Lisanne grabbed her camera and pulled out a map of the area to the 'starboard' or north of where the village lay. Bahr had said that there were a few migratory routes in there, and as winter was already starting to warm into spring it was likely that the smaller herds of 'pelk,' as he called them, would be wandering through. She wondered what 'pelk' were, other than some kind of herd animal.
She realized that she was putting all of this effort into this today because tomorrow, tomorrow morning she reminded herself, she was going to the Great Hall of Pendor, a term that meant nothing to anybody except Ed, the AI, who only told her that he knew where it was. There she would be turned into a Pendorian. She had been told that it wouldn't be painful, just disorienting. She didn't know what to make of that.
Chriss knocked on the door the small room she called her own. "K'Lisa?" he asked. Her emotions split every time he said her name that way; part of her resented the plaintive and needful tone, but the larger part thrilled to know that he did need her, that she was shaping him to be a whole, real person. She wondered if she was doing the right thing. She hoped so. Nobody ever actually got a teaching manual on how to be a parent, after all. Or a century's guide.
"Chriss?" she asked. "Is that you?"
"It's me," he said, opening the door further. "I wondered if I could talk to you."
"Well, tonight. You're leaving tomorrow, aren't you?"
"Only for a little while. Why does everyone make such a big deal out of the whole thing? I didn't know everyone was going to get so crazy about it just because I was going to walk the Hall."
"I don't understand it either, but I kinda do understand that you're going to have a different body and that's a big change, isn't it? I mean, will you still be you?"
She grinned. "Yes, Chriss, I will still be me." She reached out to touch his face. "You're afraid of losing me." He nodded. "I'm afraid of losing me, too. Will the K'Lisanne who comes out of the Hall, she'll have my memories, but will she be the K'Lisanne who loves you, loves Mahr, and loves to take pictures? I don't know, Chriss. I really don't."
"You feel it too."
She nodded. "It's not like I couldn't, Chriss. This is me we're talking about. I talked to one of my Terran friends yesterday and I couldn't convince him that I hadn't chosen an exotic means of suicide. I haven't. I promise. But I want to be realistic about this."
"I feel sad that I'll never know you again. Never get to talk to the Human K'Lisanne."
"Well, you never know. Maybe I'll come out as a Ssphynx, like you."
He smiled. "Now that would be interesting!" But then the frown returned. "Change is hard."
"And it has to be measured. But change is usually a good thing by itself. Since it can be measured, we can decide if the change is better or worse and, usually, go back if it's worse and try again."
"Not this time," he pointed out.
"No," she said. "Not this time. But, we'll see. Life will go on." She paused for a moment, biting her lip at the awful, trite cliche that had just come out of her mouth. "Remember what I said about happiness?"
He nodded. "I just wish..."
"I wish I had known you differently while you were human. I wish I had had a chance to know you as something more..."
"Did Bahr talk to you last night?" He nodded just slightly. "Damn. I wish he hadn't," she lied. "I guess he was just trying to, well, find a common ground."
"That's what he said!"
Lisanne smiled. As a conspiracy, was this working, or was it becoming ridiculous? "That's what he said to me, too, when I talked to him about it. But I didn't think he'd talk to you about it."
"You didn't tell him not to, did you?"
"No," she said. "And maybe it's a good thing that I didn't." She brushed the back of her hand against his cheek. "Tell you what. Since I'm leaving this body behind, I guess we could put it through it's paces one last time before that. Chriss?" He looked up into her eyes. "Do you really want this K'Lisanne, the one you'll never know again, to be the first one you make love to?"
"Yes," he said, trying not to sound too eager and failing. "Yes, K'Lisa, I do."
"Then I'm not going to take pictures today." She put the camera down. "Want to help me put this away? Since it might be months, I want to make sure that the equipment is well-preserved."
"I'll make sure it stays safe," he promised as they loaded the camera into her little steel case and put it away on a low shelf under the table.
She walked out into the main room of the cabin. From a distance she could hear the sounds of hammering, metal upon metal, the sound of Bahr making yet another thing of beauty. He never stopped working. There didn't seem to be any need to. It was one of the things about Pendor that really spoke to Lisanne, the joy of doing what you were good at.
She led him into the little room that Bahr had loaned to her. It had become her home over the past three months, the months that had flown by in a blur of work... and love. She had fallen in love with Bahr, Mahr, and Chriss; she had let herself be colonized, as she had put it, by the standards of the Pendorians, and she treasured every moment she had with them. She even like Ahamo, the first mel she had met alone out here, and the one who had introduced her to Bahr at first.
The room, like the house, smelled of finished wood treated to keep the cold and the damp outside. A roof, floor, and walls of wide, thick beams, fitted together so strongly that Lisanne was sure nothing could damage them. The door on iron hinges that Mahr or one of his apprentices had probably made locally did not creak at all. The bed, again wrought iron and flush with the ground, was a thing of masculine beauty, a description of strength in blackened metal. When she had first seen the bed, she had thought it so huge that she might get lost amidst its folds. But now she knew why Mahr had given in to her. Mahr had anticipated this day. And maybe he anticipated her walking the Hall and coming back as a Ssphynx, too.
No, that couldn't have been it. She had gotten the bed before meeting Chriss, before her decision to stay. It was just a coincidence, then, the Pendorian tradition of large beds at work.
Chriss was tugging at her hand, pulling her along. "Woah," she said, "Slow down a minute." He turned to look at her, puzzlement on his face, but the tug continued. "Chriss, you need to take my clothes off first!" she insisted.
"Oh!" he said.
"Let's take this slow. We have all morning." She touched the side of his face with one hand and, slowly, leaned forward to kiss him. He closed his eyes and waited for the kiss, and when she touched his muzzle with her lips she was gently surprised that he opened his mouth slightly. Maybe it was the only way that Ssphynx could achieve the intimacy of kissing, with an open mouth, but she didn't object. She kissed him hard and let her hands fall on his chest.
For the first time, she felt the strength within him as a sexual thing, as something other than the development of her ward. Instead, she felt in him the powerful sexuality of a mature, adult male, even if he was wearing a fur coat.
He fumbled at her shirt, and she helped him take it off, tossing and her bra aside. The room was a little cooler than she would have liked. "Just a second," she said.
Chriss let her go long enough for her to go to the corner opposite the bed and toss in a few more logs, opening an airway to make the fire hotter. "It was too cold in here for us naked humans."
"You're not naked," he said.
"But I will be soon," she replied with a smile. Chriss grinned and watched as she undressed next to the stove. "How do I look?" she asked.
"Different," he said. "Not like anyone I've ever seen before."
"That's called age," she said. "C'mere."
He stepped closer and she took his hands, leading him to the bed. She knelt as she got to it, crawling backwards awkwardly, on her knees, pulling him onto the bed beside her. He followed eagerly, hunkering down onto the bed. This way, the two of them were nearly the same height.
She took his hands and placed them on her breasts. "Touch me, Chriss. This will be the last time this body gets this kind of attention before it becomes something else, and I want to remember this the way I was, before the change."
He looked down at his hands, at her breasts, and squeezed them delicately. To Lisanne, it was a touch she had missed desperately. The sensation of his hands on her body warmed her. "Harder," she said. The hands squeezed harder, moving over her skin.
It was her turn. The fur of his chest was short, but thick, and the bright white she had seen on Indian tigers. It covered a powerful, masculine body that could be devastating when he finally overcame this shyness with strangers. This was a man made to woo women, Lisanne thought.
She touched him all over his front. She thought it felt strange reaching below his belly, between his thighs only to find nothing there. She knew that his cock was elsewhere, further down that strong form, and she wondered for a moment if she were really up to the task she had put for herself. After all, she didn't know what a Ssphynx cock looked like, and it was a little late to ask Ed.
His hands were still squeezing and mashing her breasts, and although there were moments where she thought he might hurt her, she didn't stop him. It was enough that he was touching her, him, this gorgeous boy that she had been living with for months.
Their kisses were equally awkward; he was unskilled and she was unsure, but they managed in their own way. Finally, though, she had to stop him and see for herself. "Chriss," she whispered. "Lie down."
He did as she asked, his large Ssphynx body sprawling out onto the bed. She pounced on him, laying atop his form. "Wow," she sighed. "I didn't realize how big you were."
"I didn't, either," Chriss replied. "We always talk to each other standing up, and the size of my lower half doesn't really factor into that. I don't rear up much."
"You did that one time when I asked you to help me get that jar off the top shelf," she said, recalling a moment in the kitchen two weeks back. "I was surprised then, too. I guess I'm not done being surprised."
He kissed her cheek. "I like the way you feel."
"I like the way you feel, too," she said, letting one foot slide down his torso until it was between his lower legs. Her toes touched something solid and she grinned at the way his face froze. She let her toes stray along that solid bar of flesh. It didn't seem to be that big. "Hmm..." she sighed.
"What?" he asked.
"It feels pretty big," she said, deliberately moving her toes over the length of it. "Let me go see." She slid down off of his body and turned around. He lifted one leg at the suggestion of her hand. His erection lay against his inner thigh, firm and large, but not unreasonably so. She had had a lover about that size and never complained. Size wasn't an issue with her so long as it didn't hurt.
She touched it with her hand, wrapping one hand around it. It wasn't a color she was used to, but it wasn't an unpleasant thing. Penises were silly looking no matter how one looked at them. In that regard Chriss was normal.
The smell of a clean and domesticated cat reached her nostrils as she lowered her head to his groin to take his cock into her mouth. It didn't have a human smell and it didn't excite her the way human scent, engrained in her through millions of years of evolution, should have, but that didn't bother her all that much.
She took half the length in one clean swallow, letting her hand do the job of the other half. The leg he held up pawed the air in response, and both a purr and a moan came out of him. She wasn't an expert at this and didn't pretend to be. It was all she could do just to keep him inside her mouth without gagging and she used her hands as much as her mouth. His ballsac hung just behind the base of his cock, where it should be, she thought, and as she caressed it she appreciated the feel of the thin, fine layer of fur that covered his jewels.
"Lisanne...!" he groaned. She knew what a groan like that meant and she wanted to save him for something else so she relented, letting go of his erection, which was throbbing in time to his hearts. She crawled back up onto his body even as he lifted his head from the bed. "You stopped!" he protested.
"You said you wanted to make love to me." She was letting her Australian accent loose. Normally she kept it tightly under control and tried to sound like another generic American. "Let's make whoopee."
He looked up at her puzzled. Her attempt at a joke hadn't worked, and it hadn't worked precisely because he had no idea what she meant. She kissed his mouth softly. "I want you to get inside me."
She slid off of him again and lay down on the bed. "Come here," she said.
He crept up over her, positioning his erection over her vulva. "I can't see where I'm going," he said.
"I can," she replied. "Wait. You're right. This isn't going to work." She crawled out from underneath him and said, "Let's try this another way. I've seen how you bend. Turn over. Onto you back."
He did as she instructed, and she straddled him right above his cock, her thighs resting in the crooks of his own. He grabbed a pillow so he could watch as she lowered herself above his erection. She could feel it touching her vulva, and then, staring into his eyes, she lowered herself onto it.
It filled her like nothing she had felt in months, not since her night with Ahamo, and that had been something that had not repeated itself, no matter how wonderful it had been the first time. She moaned, falling forward, letting her hands fall on the ribcage that protected his large, main heart. She could feel it thudding fast under her hands as she let that cock fill her completely to the top. It was the best thing she'd felt in months.
She fucked him, or tried to, but he kept lifting his hips to fuck her back. They kept losing the rhythm, but neither of them really cared. For Lisanne, it was the consummation of the relationship they had been building for months and the best goodbye she could ever have felt. His cock filled her and emptied her, striking all of the good places inside as it did so, making her feel lightheaded that she thought she was seeing stars. Her hips were warm with the effort but she didn't care. It felt so good!
And he was barely keeping up with her. After her mouth. he wouldn't last long. "Oh, Lisa... You feel... so... oh... fah!"
She held still above him, feeling his cock pulsing inside her. His body lay beneath her, trembling with their final effort, vibrating with the release.
"Chriss?" she asked, giving him a smile. "Oh, Chriss... When I get back, we have to do that again!"
He smiled, but there was that sadness in his eyes again. "I'm going to miss you."
"I'll be back."
"I'm going to miss you," he repeated, emphasizing the last word.
She crawled up the length of his body, which to her was something of an expedition, and curled up next to him, her feet somewhere around the ribcage of his felinoid half. "It will be me. I promise."
"I hope so," he said. "But I'm still going to miss part of you. You scars, even if you keep them, will be covered by fur. Your breasts won't droop so much anymore. Your belly will be young and firm. It won't be you. It won't be the woman with her history on her body anymore."
He turned over suddenly, his forelegs lying on her shins. "K'Lisanne, I understand the... some people call it the 'taboo'... now. I do. No matter how much she remembers, the person who comes out of the Hall will be tempted by her new body, and temptation that strong always changes a person, even when they resist."
Lisanne felt tears rise in her eyes, and for a moment the utter sadness of what she was about to do-- to him, to herself, to L'Mahr, to this whole village that had welcomed and loved her-- was more than she could bear. It was a kind of suicide. She had known that from the beginning. She stroked one of his prominent ears gently. "When did you get to be so wise?" she murmured softly.
"I had the best teacher," he replied, kissing her cheek. "I love you, K'Lisanne. I do not want to lose you."
"I hope you don't," she replied.
They lay together, resting.
Lisanne looked around. The entire village, all thirty people, had come out to wish her well. She wondered if anyone else would ever have this advantage behind them, the goodwill of an entire Pendorian population on her side as she stepped on the SDisk. Breath steamed into the crisp, morning winter air. Many of them had worn coats over their fur; it was that cold.
They formed a semi-circle around her. To some, it might have seemed that they had cornered her with her back to the SDisk, and in some small corner of her mind she wondered what they would do if, at the last moment, she changed her mind. She was not a coward, and she wouldn't fail herself, or them. This promise was one she would keep.
Mahr stepped forward. "Goodbye, Lisanne."
Lisanne knelt in the snow and hugged her tightly. "Goodbye, L'Mahr."
"Come back soon."
A comment like that and Lisanne didn't want to let the little girl go. That was the kind of sentiment she wanted more than any other. "Come back soon."
"I will," she said. She looked up at Chriss, then to Bahr. He was the spiritual leader of this so common-sense community. Even more strongly, she said, "I will."
"We know you will," Bahr said.
She turned to Chriss, gave him a hug and a kiss. Such a real person, such a strong man in there. "Take care of yourself until I get back."
"I will. Come back soon."
The others surprised her by saying the same thing. With one voice if not entirely in unison, thirty Uncia crowded a little closer and said, "Come back soon."
Lisanne tried not to cry, and failed. With a weak smile and a wave, she stepped back, said, "Be seeing you," and stepped away.