"You cannot hide from Eva Francisquo forever, Rath," Jady suddenly said to him as he was looking over his daily opportunities and picking assignments. "She is a member of the crew, just like the rest of us." Rath pointedly ignored her as he worked his way through the list. But he could not ignore the hand an his arm as she interrupted him again. "Rath," she said.
"I'm listening to you, Jady."
"No, you are hearing me. You are not listening to me. Rath, what is going on in you?"
Rath knew what Jady was talking about. The empathic Tindal didn't need to project to make herself clear. He said, "She makes me uncomfortable, Jady. I can't help that."
"If you didn't want to work with Terrans why did you agree to be part of the protocol group going with the Terran Mars Team?"
"I expected to work with Terrans, Jady. Just not..."
"Not disabled Terrans, and Eva is disabled."
"Yes," he agreed. "Not just disabled. She's... maimed."
"Is that your only problem with her?"
"That and that she seems so angry all the time. Maybe she has reason to be angry"
"Oh, that. That's just her nose and eyes. Her face is always crinkled up like that. I think it makes her look cute in an arrogant and adolescent sort of way. But she doesn't mean it, Rath. Really she does not. You should spend some time with her. Get to know her. You will like her, I think."
"She makes me nervous."
"Then tell her, not me!" Jady responded. "You have to spend the next ten months with her and the rest of the Terrans. If the last three weeks are any sign, you cannot spend the entire mission avoiding her and still be on her protocol detail."
Rath sighed, pulled up his schedule, and consulted the details. "Very well, Jady," he said, deferring to the more experienced member of the team. He searched and found an event that day where he would be in the same room as Miss (he remembered that it was 'Miss', very deliberately in her case) Francisquo.
It wasn't until the hour came that he began to appreciate the seriousness of his mistake. He had wanted to avoid the issue of her disability, and he had rationalized that the swimming pool would be a good place to do that. But, at least in her wheelchair she kept covered those... he did not even know what they were called. "Stanislauv?" he whispered to the ship's AI. "Is there a term for what one has left after an amputation?"
"It has the unpleasant name of 'stump'."
He nodded, trying not to think too much on the matter, as he watched her swim laps, her deformity apparent to the world. She was driving herself hard in the water, attacking it with her downstrokes, pulling herself through with outstanding athletic power. He wondered why she bothered. He realized the question was probably unfair. She bothered because she wanted to be healthy, like everyone with an exercise regimen. But Eva would never be healthy, he thought. She would always be...
He sighed with frustration. There would never be any getting away from her disability.
There were other members of the Terran team here, including the Russian, Pavel Hyacinthus, the team leader and the front runner among his teammates to be the first one to step onto the surface of Mars.
Even the people at NASA had been shocked, at first, and then appreciative, to learn that the Pendorian flight plans for the past hadn't been to Mars yet. Compared to the Terrans, though, Pendorians had the first and most important part of space travel down-- easy access to escape velocity thanks to their fusion-fired scramjets and ion engines. So when the Pendorians had announced that they were going to Mars, and that they would be leaving from Earth, they had also announced that it would be right and proper if a team of Terrans went with them.
Twenty people who had spent their lives in one way or another studying the surface of Mars had been chosen to take the journey. Compared to the plans the Terrans had had to get to Mars, their trip would be one of exceptional comfort, even luxury. A half-Olympic swimming pool, gradients of gravity from zero to slightly less than half of Earth's, and an actual galley in which, occasionally, fresh bread and vegetables would be available.
"Rath!" He looked up to see another member of the Terran team waving to him from across the swimming room. Brione was an older femHuman from Germany, one of the biological specialists, and he waved back, smiling. She had the typical Terran idea that the Pendorians would have sex with anything that moved and had been surprised the first time he had turned her down, but she kept trying, although now appreciative of the fact that it was his choice, not an automatic assumption she could make. In the three weeks since she had boarded the Magellan Mission he had come to like her, as he had most of the crew.
His thoughts turned back to the girl sliding through the water with grace and power, leaving behind herself a shorter wake than most humans. He couldn't stop thinking of her as a girl despite the fact that she was considered well past maturity in Terran thinking. For Terrans, maturity was arbitrary, a magical event that happened on their eighteenth birthday. He understood that some countries had different standards about when it really happened, but the United Nations Charter on Human Rights mentioned eighteen, and it was the standard adopted by most of the more developed nations. Eva was five years past that, a first-year graduate student who understood more about Martian geology than any dozen other Terrans put together.
And, thinking about it, maybe Jady was right. She did have exceptionally cute features, for a human, with her pouty lips and upturned nose. She looked younger than her years, but one needed only to hear her talk to her colleagues to realize that she was truly gifted, or perhaps obsessed, in her field.
Eva stopped and pulled herself up to the edge of the pool right next to where he stood. With a quick thrust of her muscled arms she dropped herself onto the plastic deck. She wore a simple, light-blue modesty suit that fit snugly against her body. "Excuse me," she said, "that's my towel. Could you get it for me?"
Rath looked behind himself. He handed the towel to her and watched, or tried not to watch, as she dried off her face and hair. "I'm so glad this pool is here," she said. "I was afraid that I was gonna get so out of shape!" She looked up at him. "What are you doing here?"
"It's my job to be where the AI says a large group of Terrans is publicly congregated. Except in the library or labs, of course, where it's supposed to be quiet and you don't need my help."
"That's what it says about the protocol team. I mean you, specifically."
"Yeah. You've been avoiding me ever since the shuttle launch." She pulled the rubber cap off her head and let her wet hair plop down onto her back. "I figured I made you uncomfortable. I do that with some people."
"It's my job to learn how to get along with humans. All kinds," he added quickly.
"Even the crippled kind?" she asked. "Or the assertive female kind. Maybe it's my muscles," she added, hefting one arm and enlarging the bicep to show it off. She had substantial musculature in her arms, the kind of thing that wouldn't fade away when she relaxed them. While it was not unpleasant to look at it was definitely more pronounced than would be found on the average American woman.
"I admire those," he said. "I mean, I..."
"You really like them?" she asked suddenly.
He nodded briefly. "Uncia are strong by nature," he said. "So it's what I look at in other people."
She stared at him. "But you were still avoiding me." He nodded. "Jady put you up to this, didn't she?" He nodded again. "You don't really want to talk to me, do you?"
"I don't know."
She laughed, a harsh and sarcastic laugh. "Why not? You don't know anything about me other than that I like to work out and that I'm a geologist and that I'm smart enough to have earned a slot on the Mars mission."
"Crippled. Yep. I'm used to it. I had better be after all these years. I might even live longer without them. Less of a burden on my heart and lungs."
Rath's discomfort had been growing with every sentence. He looked across the water and found no one to rescue him from this awkward conversation, and no way to extract himself without help.
"Rath," she said. "If you don't want to be near me, go on, get out of here."
He looked at her, then nodded. Without another word, he turned and walked away. "Fine," he heard her say, low and probably to herself. She probably didn't appreciate just how much better Uncia heard compared to Terrans. "Be a shit. Just like half of Earth. I don't know why I expected Pendorians to be any different about it."
He almost turned around but decided better of it.
But she wouldn't leave him alone. It wasn't just that his job was to help the Terrans get along in this dangerous and unfamiliar environment. He found himself thinking about her, wondering what she would have been like if she had been whole. He hated to think of her in those terms. His brief encounters with her had taught him that she was a powerful woman in many ways.
"I want to like her," he found himself telling Jady morning three days later. She bit into a grapefruit with unalloyed pleasure as he spoke, trying to put to words what he was thinking. "I just don't know if I feel comfortable around someone who is so deformed."
"She is not deformed, she had an accident. You have not talked to her. It is not her fault that Terrans haven't put regeneration into their germlines and it is not her fault that they do not have medical techniques to fix her. They will in a few years. In the meantime, she has to live with what she has. She seems to be doing well for herself. She is going to Mars, is she not?"
Rath agreed and resolved to try again. He consulted his schedule and saw that Eva had again scheduled some time at the pool that day.
He decided to get into the pool this time. Brione and another member of the crew whose name he recalled as Sam, swam over to him. "Hey, Rath. It is you, right?" Rath nodded. "The pool is crowded today."
"It can get this way sometimes," Rath replied lamely. "It's the second most popular space on the ship, and there's only one of it."
"What's the most popular?"
"The zero-g sunrooms in the core," he said. "There are three of them, there about the same size as the pool itself, and they can be well-lit with fiber-optics, if you want. A lack of gravity is easy to find in space, unlike a few million gallons of water." He watched Eva going back and forth.
Brione noticed where his eyes were going. "I heard you had a tiff with her," she said.
"I would not label it that," he said. "It was a... conflict of personalities." Rath decided that he should deal with his problem, for it was his problem and not Eva's, directly. "Brione, what do you see in Eva? I mean, doesn't her... condition... bother you?"
Brione replied in a soft voice lilted with her Germanic accent, "It only bothers me when it's hard for her to get someplace we both have to be, and that isn't her fault. It bothers me that she can't be everything she wants to be in a world made for walking. And yes, she reminds me that what happened to her could happen to me someday. But I'm not about to take my discomfort out on her. After I knew her for a while I knew that she was not her handicap, and that I should get to know Eva." She emphasized the last word, as if daring Rath to come up with something else about the athletic blond that was "not Eva."
Sam laughed. "Get used to it, Rath. Terrans are lucky if they make it to old age in one piece. There are a hundred and fifty cyborg replacements for parts of the eye, mouth, bones, and organs. Eva's case is an extreme one, but I'm got a couple of fake teeth in here," he said, tapping on his cheek momentarily with one finger. "She chose not to get fit for prosthetic legs. Maybe they wouldn't work for her. I don't know what it takes to use them."
"Besides," Brione added, "You can't be much of a people person if there's a class of people you can't be comfortable with."
Rath could think of a few classes of people he most certainly could not be comfortable with, but those were all emotional choices those people made. Physical disabilities were not choices. As much as he tried to run it through his head, he couldn't get over the raw fact of it. Eva was an amputee. Halfway down her thighs, there was nothing more to her. And that bothered him.
He sighed. "I know. Perhaps I'm not as well-suited to this task as I thought I was."
Brione touched his arm, but it was not the direct and seductive tack she had attempted a few weeks ago. "Or perhaps you will get over your discomfort by knowing her. She is a fragile girl in some ways. She is the youngest member of the team, and she is working so hard to prove that she really does deserve to be on this trip. We know she does, however, and we wish that she would just accept our judgment and move on with her life. But she has not. Maybe you could help her." Brione glanced across the pool. "She is coming this way."
"Hey, guys," she said. "I'm glad that's done."
Sam asked the rhetorical question. "If you don't like it, why do you do it?"
"I didn't say I don't like it. I do. I'm just glad when it's over, too. The last few laps are just... ouch." She held onto the side of the pool with one arm to keep herself from sinking where the rest of them could just stand. She hopped out of the pool and sat next to them. "Anything interesting scheduled for this week?"
"Not that I have seen," Brione said. "I'm very pleased with how well-stocked the ship's library is."
"I thought it was funny that there's no media distinction in the catalog," Eva said. "Most libraries have a video collection, a book collection and a CD collection. You just have a collection."
"It's all bits," Rath said. "Everything is digitized. We don't carry paper or tape or anything like that. It's just stored in high-density optical storage."
Brione reached to the edge of the pool and grabbed her uPADD. Rath watched with amazement as she manipulated the device as if she had been born with one in her hand. "There's not much happening today. There's a zero-gravity handball tournament starting soon in the core. How is that played?"
"With a lot of effort," Rath said. "I don't really know."
"Not much for sports?"
"No," Rath agreed. "Not the kind they have out here in space."
"Oh," Eva said. "You have those Uncia rituals, right?"
Rath nodded. "I've only been a support and training person. I'm not big enough or mean enough to actually go into the compound myself and fight for the territory the way my cousins are. It is ritual, and we always recover from it, thanks to our Pendorian heritage, but it can be very brutal. In the last fight, my cousin lost an eye. It took two years to grow back and after it did it still took additional medicine to make it work correctly." He suddenly looked away from Eva. "Sorry."
"Rath," Eva said, "I don't mind. Really. I don't. Stop being angry because you have something I don't."
"I'm not angry," he snapped.
"It sure looks like anger! Maybe it's just the way Uncia show embarrassment, but it sure looks like you're angry."
Rath felt the muscles in his neck and jaw tense as if in combative response, and forced himself to take a deep breath and relax. He was in the water, cooling off, he should have been calm and collected. There was no reason for him to be so stressed out. He shut off his sarcastic answer and his anger and took a deep breath. "Maybe," he growled.
"We were still trying to find something to do tonight."
"There must be something we can do," Brione said. "There are over a hundred people on this ship. Someone has to be doing something." She smiled. "I know everyone by name by now." She pointed out into the pool. "Ariel. N'Rowi. Zintle. Kanna," she rattled off, pointing out a Tindal, a Felinzi, a Mephit and a Human who were talking in another small cluster in the other corner of the shallow end.
"Wow," Eva said. "I couldn't do that."
"You don't get out enough. You're such a geek," Sam said.
"Always and forever," she replied, smiling. "I've just never been much for a social life."
"Well, get one," Brione said. "Why don't you take Rath here to tonight's movie? It's 'Young Frankenstein.'"
"The Gene Wilder flick? Oh, I love that movie!" Eva said, clapping her hands together. "Either of you going?"
"I've got a game," Sam said, meaning his current love, some role playing monstrosity played with pencil, paper, dice, and wild imaginings of vampires and werewolves.
Brione demurred as well. "Rath?" Eva said. "Would you like to go see it?"
"What is it about?"
"It's a comedy about a man who brings a monster to life. Sews him up from dead bodies. Scales him up so the surgery is easier." Her hands moved to mend invisible cloth.
Rath thought about it. A comedy about death? Terrans were the most peculiar people. He was torn again between wanting to get away from her and wanting to do his job, to get to know her, and, really, to get comfortable with her. He didn't know if that were possible. He did know that he hadn't given it enough of a a try. Finally he nodded. "Sure. I'll pick you up at your cabin."
"My... cabin?" Eva seemed surprised. "You mean, like make this a, a date?"
Rath suddenly realized that his offer had been misinterpreted, but he wasn't quite sure how. "No. I mean, well... Not really. But I thought that if we were going to go together that we should meet somewhere first. Would you like to meet me somewhere else?"
"No, no. My cabin is fine," she said, a smile crossing her face. She gestured behind her and her wheelchair rolled toward her. "I don't know if I'm going to miss this or not when we get home. It's nice to have something so useful, but I'm afraid that it's going to turn me into a wimp. Think about that. A wimpy Eva." She hauled herself into the chair with a single pull on the frame. She pulled on a pair of black, fingerless gloves and gathered her towel into her lap.
Sam chuckled. "When primates take wing from my sphincter," he said.
Rath gave him a curious look. He would have to ask the AI later what that meant, exactly. The tone was clearly sarcastic, but discerning any other meaning from it was beyond him.
Eva laughed. "See you guys later. One twenty, Rath?"
He nodded. "What have I gotten myself into?" he asked.
At one-ten he found out. To his surprise, Eva's cabin was not with the rest of the Terran team's. It wasn't even in the same section of the ship. It was in one of the unused Dolphin cabins in the core. "Stanislauv?" he asked the AI, who had provided the cabin number. "When did this happen?"
"Approximately two weeks ago," the AI replied. "Someone pointed out to her that she could probably do well in a zero-G cabin so long as she was consistent in her daily exercise. As you can imagine she is the sort of person for whom that condition presented no problem whatsoever, and a dolphin cabin was refitted rapidly to accommodate a zero-g-adapted humanoid. It is designed to do that for medical cases."
"I did not know that," he mused. "That must be a rare condition."
"It depends upon the medical condition," the AI said. "Sometimes healing is accelerated by the relief of even the minor stresses found outside the core. And obviously, for someone who has lost the use of his legs, the mobility of such a room has its advantages."
"Obviously," Rath said.
Rath used a bulkhead spindle to get into the core. They were easily accessible; the carousel, which made up nearly half of the ship's volume but much less of its mass, did not spin all that fast around the zero-gravity core. He floated into one of the hallways and eased his way into the core crew area. There were no 'Phin on this trip so finding Eva's room was easy; it was the first one down the hall. He knocked.
She opened the door and smiled at him. "How do I look?" she asked.
Rath didn't know quite how to answer that. She had done herself up, Terran style, with perfectly applied red, glistening lipstick and sculpted eyebrows that must have demanded too much attention. Her face was an image of loveliness, and her hair, now dry and free, formed a mass of tiny, golden ringlets that surrounded her face like a halo. Her dress was a sheer bolt of loveliness, a body-length thing of red silk with a high neckline and short sleeves. A vest of slightly paler red bulged slightly in places, concessions to her uPADD and personal communicator.
"You... look beautiful." He glanced down at his own outfit. It was an off-duty thing of black and white, painfully informal next to what clearly was, for a human, a stunning array of sexual cues. "I didn't know I was supposed to dress up."
"You weren't," she said. "I did this because I wanted to." She smiled. "Do you want to come in, or head to the auditorium?"
"Let's go watch the movie," he said, trying not to sound stiff. He wasn't sure if he succeeded. It was still hard being near her. But he was getting use to being near Eva, rather than being near "the handicapped girl."
She was down the hallway like a shot, the length of her dress fluttering behind her like a comet's tail. Rath tried to keep up with her but found himself outmatched. She had lived in this environment for two weeks and was in far better shape than he was. She could probably take him on in a fight and win.
When they reached the elevator, her chair was waiting for her. She settled into it, and the door closed. Magnetic brakes released; the elevator floated free from the core and magnets on the carousel slowly began pulling the elevator, accelerating it until its speed matched that of the outer section. It settled into its slot and began its descent toward the lower floors. On the third floor, they stepped or rolled onto the crew deck. "It's this way, I think," Eva said, leading them down a hallway.
They reached the theater with plenty of time to spare. "It was really sweet of your people to make room for my chair," she said as she slid into a spot about halfway up the aisle. "Although I feel guilty about making them put into storage something that's just taking up weight or space."
"I'm sure they've been accommodating," he said. "It's not a problem. Pendorians like Terrans in general."
The movie ran on and Rath wished repeatedly for someone to explain the jokes to him. He understood the basic premise of the movie and he readily grasped that many of the jokes were about sex or bodily functions. He knew the scattered laughter came from other Terrans in the room.
Afterward, Eva asked if he would accompany her to the lounge on the fifth ring, and Rath agreed.
"I have to admit," Eva said, "Your people know how to make space look luxurious." The lounge was decorated in subdued earth-tones, the colors of dark forests and coffee. It was a place for quiet contemplation. The one thing that set it off from the rest of the ship was the floor-- which was one giant pane of transparent material, looking out onto space, where stars slowly turned past relative to the carousel's rotation. "The first time I came here, I expected to see the stars whizzing by, like in Star Trek. Then I wondered why they didn't just stand still, like in 2001."
A Pendorian, a Markal, she recalled, walked up. "Can I get you anything?" he asked.
"Do you have coffee?"
"Is it real?"
"It is not," he said with apologetic tones.
"I'll have it anyway. Latte'." The Markal wandered away and came back a minute later. She tasted it and said, "It's not real. But it's close. Thanks."
"You're welcome," he said and left them alone again.
"You haven't said a word to me since the movie."
"I'm trying not to say anything wrong," he replied.
"That means you won't say anything right, either," she said. "Rath, do I really bother you so much?" He nodded. "Why? It's not like you're a TAB, a temporarily able-bodied person. If you had my problem, they would grow back, right?"
He nodded. "They would need medical guidance to grow back correctly, but they would grow back."
"So, for you, any injury like mine is, well, temporary. Why should my condition bother you so much?"
Rath thought for a while. "Maybe it's an atavism. My genes are based on yours. When Pendorians have a reaction that's based on our genetic heritage but that makes no sense in our technological world, we call it an atavism. Maybe I'm having one of those." And then he added, "Or maybe I just think it's such a shame that a beautiful girl like you is in such a terrible position."
Eva frowned. "It's not terrible. It just is."
"You don't call that contraption you're in terrible?"
"I call it all sorts of nasty names," Eva said with a grin. "But I know there's nothing that can be done about it yet. Maybe in a few years we'll be able to do what you guys do. Maybe not. I don't care. In the meantime, I just have to live with myself. I like what I do have. I could have been killed in the car accident that did this to me, like my dad was. I'm thankful that I wasn't."
"Is that why you push yourself so hard?"
"You mean, in the pool?"
He nodded. "And in your studies. It must have been hard work to do both."
"Maybe I'm overcompensating. I've been accused of it. I don't see that there's anything wrong with it, though. I like what I am." She held up one arm and tensed her bicep. "I like being strong. Strong and smart." She sipped her coffee. "And did you say I was beautiful?"
"Are you trying to get a compliment out of me?"
"Better than listening to you grunt responses. Yeah, I'm fishing."
"Then I think you are beautiful in that outfit."
She grinned. "Coming from a big, fuzzy alien, I don't know if I should accept the compliment or wonder what it means from your perspective."
"It means I have a good grasp of what humans like. I think most of them would like you."
Eva's smile was dazzling, even threatening, in its white intensity. "What did you think of the movie?" she asked.
"Death, dead bodies, and blind men are not subjects for comedy," Rath said stiffly.
"Sure they are. I hate to tell you this, Rath, but all humans end up dead. You have two choices about how to deal with it-- you can wring your hands or you can laugh about it and leave it. That movie helps us do the second. Maybe you didn't get it."
"I didn't get many of the jokes. I don't understand why that one woman said, 'Thank you' in response to 'Nice knockers,' for example. Why was complimenting the door's decorations funny?"
"Explaining a joke always takes the fun out of it," Eva sighed. "'Knockers' is also slang for breasts."
Rath turned that over in his head. "I get it," he said, smiling.
"That's the first time I've seen you smile. It looks good on you. You should do it more often." She reached across the table and touched his hand. "Somewhere in there is a warm person, Rath. You should let him out now and then."
Rath fought to keep his hand still. "I'll try."
He wheeled her back to the elevator, then floated behind her back to her room. He saw that she used what remained of her legs effectively when pitching and maneuvering along the hallways. When she reached her cabin, she turned around. "Thanks for trying, Rath. Did you succeed?"
"I haven't decided yet," he said.
She grinned. "I like the way you say that. It's honest." She pushed forward with one arm, her other hand on his chest to slow her down. She kissed his cheek right next to his whiskers, then pushed away. "See you later?"
"Probably," he said.
"Good." She let the door close between them.
Rath discovered, to his frustration, that he liked Eva's personality even as he fought to deal with the revulsion he felt over her condition. It was not a subject that came up often, however, and he was able to forget about it most of the time, even when participating in an event alongside her.
He was personally responsible for all twenty Terrans on board from time to time, and most of his afternoons were spent at one venue or another with at least a half-dozen of them. Six of the Terrans had announced that they were "night people" and had started sleeping through the busier, 'daylight' shifts, making appearances with the whole staff only when needed, and there were other members of the crew ready to take up the responsibility of making sure these people didn't get sucked out an airlock.
In the galley the screen perpetually labeled "Where's Mars?" counted down the hours until they arrived.
Rath didn't know if he should call his date with Eva a 'reconciliation.' It had felt more like something he had been obliged to try. But he had given it his best and to his surprise felt that he had succeeded, somewhat, at getting to know her. Jady, to his surprise, had suggested that part of his problem was Eva's alien nature. "Pendorians take bodies very seriously, Rath. It's part of who we are. The way people are shaped makes a big difference, and injuries are fought so that the person we knew can be put right afterward. You might be having trouble with Eva because she isn't wholly human, to our thinking." She had paused for a moment then added, "I have that feeling myself about her."
What Jady had suggested had rung true to him. But he didn't want to make Eva out to be less than what she could have been as a person, and so he tried to think of her as different. It helped to think of her as alien; familiar with humans, but not one of them. The fact she lived in the zero-g section of the ship added to that impression.
They were only thirteen days out from Mars when a loud and alarming chime dragged him from a satisfyingly deep sleep. "What?" he said, groggily, as he tried to sit up in bed.
"Protocol ambassador K'Rath, you are needed in rec room two immediately."
"What's it about, Stanislauv?"
"One of the Terrans is acting very dangerously, even aggressively, and is quite possibly intoxicated."
"'Possibly?' Don't you know?"
"He was one of the Terrans who protested my observation capacity in his room. I have not been watching him."
Rath ran for the recreation room with only a housecoat thrown over his shoulders. Inside the rec-room one of the Terrans, an American named Grant, was crouched in a corner and appeared to be crying. "I want to go home! I want to go home!" he wailed. Rath stepped around a table that had been thrown over and approached him. "Don't touch me, you freakin' alien!" Grant screamed.
"Grant, we're going home," Rath said.
"We... we are?"
"It's in the plan. We're going to turn around and head right home after we get to Mars."
"No!" Grant shouted, his voice high-pitched and hoarse. "I want to go home now! I hate this fuckin' tin can! I hate the fuckin' fuzzy aliens I'm living with. I hate the flat, boring, food from a can! I want to go home!"
Stanislauv whispered in his ear. "Confirmed. Traces of methamphetamine have been identified in a small container in his room."
"Grant," Rath said, "Let me help you." He searched his limited memory for what he knew about methamphetamine. There wasn't much there. He knew it was called 'meth' and he knew it was a central nervous system stimulant, but that was about it.
"You don't want to help me," Grant said. "You want to brainwash me. Make me into a good boy like you all are. Push my brain cells around until I'm a good little trooper." Then he screamed, "No WAY!"
"Grant, you promised you were off shit," said Pavel Hyacinthus as he walked through the door.
"Hey, Doc Flower," Grant said. "Yeah, well. I took just a little with me. Figured I'd use it when I got bored. It made me see the light, Doc! Look, Doc! What the Hell are we doing with these furry things, anyway? I hear you're fucking one of them. Is it good, doc? Is it? Better than the girls is Belarus? How about it? Better than commie poontang?"
Rath admired Pavel's control. Not a trace of anger hinted in his voice as he said, "Grant, let us go to sickbay. Come with me."
"No way, Doc, no way. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever." He shouted, "You hear me? You're not taking me, you motherfuckers! You're not taking me down!" He aimed his words directly at Rath.
Rath made a gesture with his hand. "He can't hear us, Pavel, but he can see us talking. What do you want to do?"
"To come down, how long will it take?"
"Six to ten hours," Stanislauv responded. "If he's a normal human being."
"He is much worse than that," Pavel said. "Shit. I cannot believe this happen.."
"I must offer an apology as well," Stanislauv responded. "I was much amiss in my duties to not detect the substance or report it. Such indulgence is permitted on Pendor, but absolutely not on a starship this small."
"Worry about the blame later," Rath growled. "How do we deal with this?"
"We cannot rush him. He could hurt himself," Pavel said.
"Physician Odelina has an antagonist that could bring him back to normal very quickly, but we must get it into him somehow. It must be injected," Stanislauv pointed out.
"What are you guys talking about?" Grant demanded.
"Stanislauv, allow me talk to him." The field fell. "Your safety. Shut the fuck up," Pavel said.
"Yes, sir, Doc, sir," Grant muttered, and crawled back into the corner.
"We could just wait. He'll get thirsty. We can put a sedative in his drink and when he's relaxed enough, give him the antagonist," Rath said.
"Let's do that, then," Pavel agreed.
It took only an hour for Grant to get thirsty enough to demand something to drink. It was ten minutes later that the medical crew was hauling him down to sickbay. "Shit," Pavel groaned.
"At least nobody was hurt," Rath said.
"Stanislauv," Pavel said. "You are authorized to go through every square millimeter of crew's possessions and discover if any illicit materials on them."
"I would if I could, Pavel, but I do not have a working definition for that term. We permit beer and similar relaxants. Do you mean substances that might cause the user to pose an immediate and positive danger to themselves or others?"
"If that is definition you need, yes."
"I will be right to it," the AI replied.
The search turned up nothing extra, although quite a few Terrans were upset by the proverbial midnight knock on the door. When they learned of the incident, however, most of them were far more compliant than Rath would have thought. The question of what to do about Grant, though, was a difficult one to answer. "We are six light-minutes from Earth," Pavel said. "I must go draft some email."
The Terrans' sudden congregation in the lounge broke up. Rath was not all that surprised at how quickly everyone returned to their cabins. It was the middle of the night; the emergency was over, and there was no reason to stay awake. The morning would bring time and clarity to current events. Eva rolled over to him. "Would you like to head out for a swim?" she asked.
"Aren't you going back to bed?"
"After that?" she asked. "I don't think I'll be able to sleep after having learning that one of the people I entrusted my life to was taking methamphetamines. That is one of the most terrible drugs, Rath. It does awful things to your mind and body."
Rath shrugged. On Pendor, recreational chemicals weren't used for escape. There was too much of Pendor to escape to anyway. They were strictly for recreation; you used them when you were happy to feel happier. At least, that was the theory. Rath had barely used the social drugs, such as alcohol, and the recreational ones didn't interest him. His mind wandered back to her request. "Sure," he said, "I'll go with you to the pool."
Eva tossed off her clothes and didn't even bother with a modesty suit this time. She eased herself out of the chair and then rolled into the swimming pool backwards much as Rath had seen divers with heavy equipment. Rath tossed the housecoat he had worn onto a chair and eased in at the shallow end.
He commented on her lack of suit. "I didn't come down here to exercise," she said pointedly. "I came here to relax. My brain won't stop trying to figure out what to do with Grant short of tossing him out an airlock."
"He might go on cryogenics for the rest of the trip."
"You can do that?"
Rath nodded. "Then again, it might not work for Terrans. It might need the Pendorian healing capacity to perform correctly."
She nodded, lying on her back, looking up at the ceiling. The glowstrips were dimmed significantly, giving the entire room an eerie feeling. Eva giggled. "They should show Cat People in the auditorium. It has this really creepy scene where this woman thinks she might be being followed by a big cat in a swimming pool room just like this one, but the sound effects are so ambiguous it might just be a malfunctioning water pump."
Rath tried not to look at her, but he couldn't help his eyes drifting down the length of her body to her... He looked away. He heard her swimming toward them. "Rath, you know I don't care."
"Rath, would you like to touch them?" she asked.
"What?" he said, loudly, his voice echoing off the walls of the large room.
"I don't know, maybe you would get over this thing you have if you could see that there's nothing weird about them, that they're just these stumps of mine."
"You're serious." She nodded. It took a few seconds for his brain to start up again, the suggestion had been so odd. "Okay," he said.
She sat on the concrete steps that made for an easy exit. Rath found the idea that he was about to touch a naked, Terran girl rather exciting until he had a look at what it was he was going to touch. From the hips down, she seemed normal, until about halfway down her thighs-- and then there was nothing. "How did it happen?" he asked.
"I told you, it was an automobile accident. My father was driving and someone swerved and came at us head on. This was in 1982 and I was seven. I was standing in the passenger well of the car instead of being buckled up. I don't know if booster seats even existed that year. Someone crossed the freeway divider and rammed us head-on. We later found out that the driver of the other car had had a heart attack and died while driving. The accident pushed the engine and part of the frame into the cabin and crushed my legs." She shrugged.
"And killed your father, you said."
Eva sighed, her bottom lip trembling. "Yeah," she croaked. "That's the worst part. I miss him. I wish I'd gotten to know him as an adult."
"It was a long time ago. I keep telling myself that. It shouldn't hurt so much anymore." She looked down. "Go ahead."
He followed her gaze. Through the shimmering water he could see the stumps of her legs against the concrete. Finally, screwing up his courage, he placed one hand against her left leg.
It was an odd sensation, but not physically different from touching a knee or shoulder. Whatever the doctors had done for her had not left a mass of scar tissue, just a smooth terminus to what once had been a leg. He was trying to be detached and analytical, but he didn't want to seem cold and distant to Eva. The line between exploring and caressing was a narrow one.
"See?" she said, her voice soft with reconciliation. "It's not so bad."
"It's still a tragedy, especially in a woman so beautiful, strong, and intelligent."
"You're a flatterer," she said. "You'll spin my head."
"Not a word I said was a lie," he responded.
Suddenly her demeanor changed. "You should stop."
He took his hand away. "Did I do something wrong?"
She shook her head just a little too quickly. "No. It's just, I wanted you to stop." She pushed herself into the water and swam a short distance away. "I'm going to do a few laps to tire myself and then go to bed."
Rath watched, convinced that he had done something wrong, helpless to know what it was. Eva was friendly but brusque as she said her goodnight and wheeled away.
He didn't see her at all that day. This in itself did not surprise him; much of the Terran staff was gathered up in a meeting all day with Captain Asdin and members of her staff, and when they were out and about they seemed somehow embarrassed. Rath could understand their feelings but only in a vague and distant way. Terran instinctual tribalism made them feel responsible for Grant's actions and only intellectually did the Terrans understand that not to be the case.
Her knock on his door late that evening came as a great surprise. He opened it to find her sitting in her more casual clothes, looking a bit wan and rumpled. "Can I come in?" she asked.
Rath wore only a pair of loose-fitting cotton pants with an elastic band, the kind most humans thought of as sweatpants, even if Uncia rarely sweat. He nodded. "Yes, yes, please. I've been wondering what happened to you," he said. "You had me worried."
"Why?" she asked.
"I didn't see you all day. I had hoped you wouldn't have been too upset by whatever it was I did last night."
She shrugged her head. "That wasn't you, that was me. I haven't had much time to think about it. I'm surprised you weren't at the meeting today."
"I'll be briefed on the content and allowed to decide what to do next," Rath said, matter-of-factly. "I'm not involved in what the Terrans think is a criminal incident and what we think is a serious breach of the trust of this crew. Not on your part, just Grant's."
She nodded. "Is it true you're going to try the cryogenics option?" she asked.
"I don't see that we have any other. We have fifteen tubes for emergency medical needs, and none of them are in use. Four of them are optioned to handle Terrans although it won't be very pleasant for Grant. He is going to be put under by a Tindal, so that he'll be coming out of what appears to be a deep sleep at the same time that he's thawed, but it's only a partial solution." He sighed.
She nodded. "I'm sorry, Rath."
"You have nothing to be sorry, Eva. It was Grant's irresponsibility that got him into this position. It only means that he'll be missing from the group that touches down on Mars."
"A sad price to pay," she said. "Still, I agree. There aren't any other wise options." She looked up. "About last night... Rath, can I ask you a very serious question?"
"Yes, I suppose you can. I don't see why not."
"Rath, do my stumps turn you on in any way?"
Rath looked at her sharply. "Fah, no," he said. "Why would you ask such a thing?"
Eva looked up at him, and then turned away to stare at the videowall Rath had in his room. The view was of a Pendorian deep forest at night, and only the wind moved the trees. Finally, she spoke. "Rath, I just wanted to say I'm sorry about how I reacted last night. You're the first person I've ever invited to do that. I don't know why. Maybe I just wanted you to get over whatever it is about me that repels you so much. Did it help?"
He nodded. "A little. It's not... horrifying anymore. It just makes me sad. A beautiful woman like you should not be in a wheelchair."
She smiled. "But I am. I'm used to it. It's not going to change for a while, so you should too." She looked at the 'window' again. "Rath, I've never been physically intimate with anyone."
The change of subject took him by surprise. "Why are you telling me this?"
She didn't look at him as she spoke. "Because nobody has ever been interested in me. I mean, there have been two or three, but I found out that they wanted me not because they liked me but because I was an amputee and they found that exciting."
"They were excited by your disability?" Rath asked, finding the idea disturbing. "Why?"
Eva shrugged. "I don't know. I read once that it's a fantasy about my helplessness or something like that. I can't get away. They call it being a devotee, can you believe it? Because it rhymes with amputee." She grinned, crinkling up her nose. "Maybe I can't get away, but I could sure slug 'em hard in the jaw!"
Rath laughed. "That you probably could. No, Eva, I have no particular fantasy about your helplessness. My experiences around you have shown you to be anything but helpless. But that doesn't answer my question. Why are you telling me about your..." He struggled, looking for the right Terran word. One came with embarrassing connotations attached, he chose another: "... innocence?"
Eva's laugh was loud, sudden, and prolonged. "Oh, if only I could pretend to be innocent!" She rocked her wheelchair back and forth. "Rath, this thing doesn't let me be innocent. From the moment they stick you in a wheelchair, you're on the receiving end of an education in reality. How people will treat you, how to take care of your body, all the irritating little details that people learn unconsciously, I had to learn directly, consciously."
"I meant about intimacy."
"Even that," she admitted. "How to fend off perverts, how to not scare off TABs, shit like that, all the time." She sighed. "And I spent a lot of my time reading romance novels. Which was probably not a good thing; probably gave me a terrible view of what the world is like."
Rath had never read a romance novel and didn't know how to comment on that. But he found that he liked Eva more now than at any time. "So, am I no longer being a shit?"
"You heard me?"
He touched his ears. "We have better hearing than humans. I'm based on a predator model. We have to hear well."
She smiled. "You're not being a shit anymore," she agreed.
He walked over to where she was and sat down beside her. "Good. Is there anything you'd like to do tonight? I'm off-duty, but I'd gladly take you anywhere on the ship you'd like to go."
She Eva took her time thinking. "I don't know," she said, finally.
"It sounds like you have an idea."
"No, not really."
"Are you sure?" Rath asked.
She looked at him and Rath thought he could lightning flashing in those elegant gray eyes of hers. "I... " She smiled. "I was thinking I could be in a romance novel, and you could sweep me away, have your way with me, give me bliss and ecstasy and joy, and make me a fairy princess." She grinned. "Not going to happen, is it?"
Rath surprised both of them by leaning over, placing both hands on her thighs, and kissing her. It wasn't a good fit; he wasn't large for an Uncia, but for a human Eva was on the small side, and the difference in scale between them was great. Still, she seemed to let the fantasy take her away, kissing him hard in response, reaching out with her arms and hugging him, her hands grabbing at his fur and holding on as if for her life. Rath didn't know if he was good at kissing, and Eva didn't object, and somewhere in the middle of it all it stopped being something he was thinking about and became something he simply wanted to keep doing.
But everyone must come up for air sometime, and when they did he saw tears running down her eyes. "You didn't slug me in the jaw," he said softly.
"That was the best thing that's happened to me this whole trip," she said, as if on the verge of complete crying.
Rath closed the distance between them again. This time, they both slowed down to feel it, rather than merely do it; this time, Rath kissed her cheeks, lips, and chin, while she ran her hands through the fur of his arms and chest. Her kisses warmed him like a hot cider in winter, relaxing and intoxicating all at the same, long, time.
Eva tried kissing his cheek and got a mouthful of fur. "Whoops," she said, giggling and picking at the fur now stuck to her tongue.
"It's okay. Every Human who sleeps with a furry does that once in a while." He touched her cheeks with his hands. "What are we doing?"
"Admitting what we've known for a while?" she said. "That we want each other, once we get past all the crap that comes between people."
Rath wondered if she meant that. He was sure that he hadn't wanted her intimately when they first met. It was only later, after he had gotten to know the driven, smart, strong, and romantic Eva that he had wanted to see her more often, know her better. Intimacy had been the last thing on his conscious mind. But that didn't mean she wasn't right. Underneath every person's civilized thought there was always more.
Rath smiled. "You're a good kisser."
"I'm glad you think so. It's been a long time since I've done it that way, and I never went any further. No, that's not true. I let Jack feel me up once."
"Actually," Rath said after figuring out what that particular slang meant, "I have a confession to make. There is something about you that I like. Something physical. Maybe it's an anti-fetish." Eva looked at him sharply. "I like the fact that you're flat-chested."
"And here I thought that was going to be a problem!" she giggled.
"Well," he said in his defense, "Uncia fems don't have them. I always wonder how fems with them remain standing. They look so out of balance. Sorry."
"Stop it," she said, striking him playfully on the arm. "I don't resent the fact that the rest of the world can walk, you know. And I'm glad you like my lack of attributes."
The spell that had arisen between them had ebbed, and they were back to talking, Rath felt. But something had opened, a space where they could be more themselves.
Eva seemed not to notice. Instead, she yawned. "Sorry. It's been a rough day."
Rath nodded. "I'll take you back to your cabin. Let me find a shirt first."
"I'd appreciate that."
Rath looked at his PADD curiously, reading the message twice before confirming what it said. The Captain and Pavel had both issued messages ordering all crew not absolutely essential to ongoing tasks to take today off. They were now ten days out from Mars orbital insertion and today would be the last stress-free day they would have for some time. Rath understood it, but the notion that there should be an enforced "day off" was a uniquely Terran concept. Still, he supposed it had its merits and enforcing it for both crews would mean that nobody felt left out.
Checking further through his daily messages, Rath found one from Eva saying she'd be in the pool that morning and she'd love to see him any time that day.
He made it a point to show up at the pool halfway through her workout, and thanks to the ship's AI he was able to do so with precision. The pool was busy; all four lanes were full, a water volleyball game was in full-swing in the off-side middle, and Terrans and Pendorians milled about in the shallow entry. Rath noticed Brione all over some hapless Satryl and smiled. At least she had found the man of her short-term fantasies.
Eva busily hammered at the water in the farthest lane. Rath noticed that she didn't use what remained of her legs as a swimmer with legs might out of habit but recalled that she had lost her legs before puberty and might well have learned to swim after the accident.
"Hi!" she said, waving, as he slipped into the water. She quickly shucked her bathing suit, as most of the Terran team did these days, and swam over to him. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek as she sidled up next to him. "I was hoping to see you today."
"Is that why you outlined your schedule to me in the mail?"
"Of course," she said. "I guess it's not of a schedule if there's nothing on it. Call it an itinerary. That implies something less formal." She rolled over onto her back and floated, breathing deeply. "Whoof. I'm worn out from all that."
"Too worn out?" he asked.
"To do what?" Eva replied, her voice sliding into conspiratorial tones.
"Oh, anything you had planned later," he said. "I can't imagine how. You haven't missed a day in this pool since you came on board."
"Yes I have," she said. "I've missed four days. One because I was sick... remember?" He did remember when a cold had made the rounds, very early in the flight. That had been during the time he avoided her, so he didn't recall that Eva specifically was ill. "And in the last week I missed two days being so busy with the geo data. I think that's why I'm feeling it so much. Although I might be spending less time in here in the next couple of weeks."
"Because of Mars?" he asked. "The pool will be drained for the deceleration week."
"Strength training," she said. "Don't you hate it when the advice you're getting changes constantly? Now I'm hearing that strength training in addition to aerobics gets better results. More muscle mass and all that. I'm going to Bulk Out Like Arnie," she said in a curious accent referring to some lesser Terran actor.
"How will that work with your legs?"
She shrugged. "Dunno. I've made a post to Usenet asking for help on that. I really must thank your people for maintaining such an excellent Internet connection with Terra."
"Stanislauv, make a note."
"Done," the AI responded.
They were soon set upon by Brione, her new Pendorian interest Kay'ak, and another Terran fem named Sophie. "So," Brione said, eying Eva curiously. "Is it true?"
"Is what true?" Eva asked, innocently.
"Is it true that you two are now... involved."
"No," Rath said calmly. "It is not true. Eva and I are not 'involved'. Nor are we sleeping together."
Eva shrugged. "I'm afraid he's telling the truth. You can keep the rumors and strange fantasies to yourself, Brione."
"Darn," she said, snapping her fingers in an exaggerated fashion. "And here I wanted to find out just how well-hung he is." Rath, usually unfazed by Brione's teasing, felt himself blushing hard, the blood running to his ears and his whiskers rising uncontrollably. "Well, if anything changes, you'll be sure to let me know, right?"
"Not likely," Eva said.
"Which? That anything will change, or that you'll tell me."
Eva glanced at Rath, who merely smiled back. "That I'll tell you," Eva said.
"I guess I'll just have to keep using my imagination," Brione said.
Rath, not for the first time, regretted that he was so poor at sarcasm. There was something in that line that just begged him to respond. He let it go and decided to play at being his sanguine, diplomatic self.
He had contemplated the idea of intimacy with Eva since the night of their kiss. It brought mixed feelings in him, about being with a non-Uncia, a smaller humanoid, Terran, disabled. He had thought too much about it in the past few days and come close to dismissing the idea. Yet, here she was, seeming to admit that she wanted to get more serious with him. He had thought the kiss a fluke, a moment to be forgotten. She had been tired; he had been dealing with a confusion of emotions since confronting Grant, and both of them had been trying hard to understand the other. It had not been "real," somehow.
Eva lounged in the pool, on her back, admitting to them both, "You know, I really don't have anything planned for today at all."
"Is there a movie tonight?" It was the first time the other Terran fem, Sophie, had said anything.
"There's something every night. I think tonight it's something called 'Muriel's Wedding'."
"I saw that," Eva said. "It's good if you like mushy romances. It trails off at the end. No real plot structure. Americans don't seem to get it. Really romantic."
"Maybe we should go see it," Rath said. "It might give us the ideas that Brione is hoping to hear about."
"You don't need the movie's help," Brione laughed.
"No," Eva agreed. "We probably don't." She was still lying back in the water, looking up at the ceiling. "I'm surprised that's not one giant videowall showing pictures of blue sky and bright sun. I'm sure your engineers could cook up something that felt like a hot summer day."
"An idea is born," said a voice that Rath recognized as Stanislauv's. "I'll make a note of it. We probably don't have enough replacement vidplastic to do it this trip, but it would certainly be a fine addition in the future."
"See?" Eva said. "I'm good for something other than contemplating rocks.
"Nobody ever believed otherwise," Stanislauv replied.
"I think of more ways that I can indulge myself in pointless luxuries. If you do do that, Stanislauv, make the sky more like the French Riviera than San Diego."
"And what is the difference, Miss Eva?" the AI asked.
"Oh, humidity. Sound... things other than the quality of light, I suppose." She sighed. "I miss Earth."
"I'd be surprised if you didn't," said Brione's Pendorian partner. "I miss Aizalyaznay, my home town." The Felinzi growl contained sounds that didn't exist in English, Quen, German, or French. "It's a beautiful mountain town, much like the way Brione describes the German hunderlands."
"Hinterlands," Brione replied with a grin.
"I'm getting waterlogged," Eva announced finally. She pulled herself out of the water and into her wheelchair. Rath had to admit that she looked quite lovely, and he was getting used to looking at her. "See you around."
"Bye," a small chorus replied. Rath found himself without much to say after that, and no one to say it to. He headed back to his cabin, dried off, and went into the main lounge to play backgammon with the Terran physician, Garibaldi, who complained the entire game of feeling out of place since the Pendorian physician was so well equipped.
His PADD beeped at him. "Hmm?" he asked, looking at it. The screen cleared to show a photo of Eva and a written email underneath. "Want to have dinner tonight?" it said.
"Sure," he replied back, talking to the PADD.
"In the lounge or the galley?" came back a written reply.
"How about my place?" he said. "I can have it delivered."
"Great. Surprise me. See you at lome'?"
His PADD readily cleared to show his schedule. He could be free. "I can be ready. But the food might take a while."
"See you there. Out!"
"Out?" he asked, but she wasn't at the other end anymore. A note from Stanislauv showed that 'out' was a common Terran expression for breaking an electronically mediated conversation.
He managed to find time in an automat and locate a more formal outfit before she showed up. He met her at the door and she rolled in calmly. "Hi," she said.
"You look wonderful," he complimented her, enjoying the simple summer dress and the carefully applied makeup. Her skin had the appearance of peaches, her lips the red of a perfect apple. "I hope Indian is all right. I asked them to make a curry."
"Curry! Mmm..." Eva sighed. "Are you a mind reader along with your other talents?"
"My talents haven't been serving me too well this trip. And no, that's not an ability that shows up in Uncia. We're not lucky like the Tindals."
"What are the Tindals?" she asked suddenly. "Or is that an inappropriate question?"
Rath chose his words carefully. "Shardik's comment is that the Tindals are an... experiment. One that became more successful as he worked, and so they were put into the tanks and let be. He was trying to pack as many changes into the human code as possible without altering their conscious abilities. It worked, more or less. It would seem that what he discovered was very relevant to making the non-human species, like Dolphins or Sspyhnx."
"Oh. They just... look odd."
"They look odd to everyone. It's okay. You get used to them. You... accommodate." He sighed.
"You mean, like you did with me," she said. "Like everyone does with me."
He knelt beside her. "Is that so bad?"
"No," she said. "It just makes getting over the hump of introduction that much harder." He saw in her gaze the years of loneliness cast between her and the rest of the world by her disability and he wanted to hold her, assure her that she would be fine. But the real fact was that he could change nothing about her condition and she couldn't either. She was due to be famous in just a few short weeks, the first disabled person to walk on Mars, one of the first people to ever walk on Mars. There was some grumbling from Earth that this wasn't as big a deal as it might seem since they had gotten help from "the aliens," but most of the crew were having none of that. They were going to Mars. That was what was important.
A loud, almost intimidating rumbling interrupted them. "I think my stomach is trying to tell me something," Rath said.
Eva giggled. "I guess so. But we're still waiting for..." The door-chime rang. "Probably that."
Rath stood up and walked over to the door, returning a moment later with a cloth bag. Inside were plastic containers, some with red tops, some with blue. He set to work on the meager counter with some plates, dishing out their dinner as quickly as he could. "Can you get to the table?" he asked.
"Of course I can," she said, hopping out of her wheelchair and easing onto the dining chair. "Especially in the low-G."
He placed a plate in front of her, then retrieved one of his own. He also found a red wine. "I'm not sure what this all tastes like, but it was in a menu selection I found."
"I'm sure it tastes good," she said. Rath tried it himself. The bright yellow sauce was moderately spiced, the chicken still moist, the apples and raisins complementing the hot chili and cumin well. He liked the wine, too; it felt good, going down his throat and warming him inside.
Eva ate with slow, deliberate action. She took her time to smell the wine first before drinking and took small bites as she ate. "I would have thought that someone who exercises as much as you do would eat more."
She grinned. "I've always eaten slowly. I do get it all, though."
"Good. When I was on Terra I heard the phrase 'fast food.' That sounded to me like 'fast lovemaking.' Who wants to do that?"
"Some people do, I guess," Eva replied, then blushed. "I wouldn't know." She put her fork down. "Why am I doing this?"
"Doing what?" Rath asked, concerned.
"Forcing myself on you like this. You didn't want me around in the beginning, and you probably don't want me around now. Like you said, you 'accommodated' to me. That's not what I want. I want to be liked for who I am."
"Who you are includes your body, which includes your mobility, that wheelchair," Rath said. "It took a little getting used to. But, Eva, I like you. Your teammates like you. They respect your skills and more than one has said that they were glad you and I managed to crack our shells open. You've been more sociable in the past month. And I've really started to lo... like you." As he said it, Rath wondered if he'd said too much, if he'd really meant what he had been about to say, and why he hadn't admitted it before now, even to himself.
Eva was staring at him, her lower lip trembling slightly. "You were going to say 'love,' weren't you?"
Rath's answer caught in his throat. He couldn't find words that would get him out of acknowledging her question. He nodded. "Sorry. I don't know what it is. You're so... fascinating. And beautiful. Especially when you take time with your hair and your lips like that. I think it's because I've forced myself to look at you so much that I finally saw someone I truly enjoyed being with."
She looked back at her wheelchair, then to him. "Rath, thank you."
He chuckled, wishing he could hide his face with his embarrassment. "I guess this is the risk that comes with the job. Meeting people, I finally meet one I like too much."
She looked down at her plate. It was mostly empty. She bounced herself over to her wheelchair and then pushed it over to where he sat. She held out with her arms, asking in an almost childlike gesture to be held. He put his hand on her arm, and with a simple tug pulled her into his lap. "I like your ship," she giggled. "At twenty kilos I can almost go anywhere just with my arms."
"You do not mass sixty kilos," he growled. "Fifty, at most."
"Okay," she said. "I 'mass' fifty-two kilos and weigh something around twenty dekanewtons. Is that more accurate?"
"You're the geologist. You're supposed to know these things better than I do," he replied.
"Shut up and kiss me," she said.
Rath looked into her emerald-green eyes, then closed his own to lean down and kiss her mouth. His hands touched her back, sliding up under her long, golden hair. She was holding onto his arms, her hands almost painfully tight on his bicep, as his muzzle brushed against her lips so gently he wasn't sure if they had touched. For the first second, neither moved, and then Rath opened his mouth slightly, kissing her in a way that he felt was right, kissing her honestly, letting his tongue touch her lips. He felt Eva's shiver in her grip and under his fingers. He didn't know if it was the kiss or his hands under her hair, but as long as neither asked the spell this time would not be broken.
"I've never done this before," she said.
"I know. You told me," he replied. "But, then, I've never done this either with anyone other than an Uncia."
She looked at him. "I know we're supposed to be compatible, but how does that work, really?"
He laughed. "Tab 'T' fits in slot 'P'," he said. "Slot 'C', too, if you're gay. For all species. It's obvious from the beginning that there would be fraternizing, and Shardik wanted to be part of that, too. You can't really blame the man. Obviously, body size comes into account, but that's..."
She was looking at him with eyes full somewhere between hope and terror. He said, "Are you asking me because you want to, or..."
"I want to. I have always wanted to. You don't know what it's like, going through high school, listening to your friends talk about how good falling in love is, how good making love can be when done right, and knowing that you'll never be part of that."
Rath held her tightly, wishing he could erase her years of pain, knowing that he couldn't do anything except comfort her here and now. "Shh..." he whispered, and then tilted his head down to kiss her again.
Eva took the lead this time, putting one arm around his back, pulling him to her, pressing her mouth to his muzzle. She was awkward and unsure but that didn't make any difference to either one of them. She licked at his muzzle and their tongues intertwined, mixing tastes of wine and curry and desire. Rath wondered if moments like these could last forever.
"Rath? Could we move to your bed?" she asked.
"Aren't you moving too fast?" he said.
"No," she said. "I've made up my mind. I'm not going to drag this out any longer."
He nodded, then lifted her and carried her from the dining table to his bed, leaving the food out to be cleaned up later. He put her down and knelt on the floor before her, looking into her eyes and wondering what he should expect to see there now.
"What are we doing this for?" he asked her.
"Because we want to," she said. "Don't you?"
"I- I do. But I'm nervous. Scared, really. Uncia aren't supposed to get scared."
"If you're scared," she said, "I'm terrified. Completely. I don't know what I'm getting myself into." She chuckled. "Or what I'm getting into myself." She reached out with both hands and put one on each cheek, just under the ruff, and pulled them together.
The fur on the back of his neck seemed to tingle as his muzzle met her lips. Their tongues touched, a wet, slick taste of paradise. Her hands reached back behind his head, ruffling his fur. She reached up to the tiny spots behind his ears that were so sensitive that he whimpered softly. She repeated the gesture and he couldn't hold back the noises he didn't want her to hear.
"You like that," she whispered.
"It's strong. I don't know if you could call it 'like.'"
She smiled and let him go. "What would you like to do?" she asked.
"This." He settled back onto the floor, looking up again. "I think this dress looks wonderful on you," he said, reaching down with both hands to hold the hem of it. "It's just the right color. It looks like it should be part of you."
"I'm glad you like it," she admitted with a whisper. "I chose it just for you."
He looked into her face, watched the anticipation and anxiety grow in her eyes as his hands gathered up the material just a few centimeters, pushing it up over her legs, halfway up what remained of her thighs. She was barely moving, as if a breath might blow away the magic that they had made here for one another. He let go of the dress, felt it flutter past his fingers with a soft, ruffling sound. He was still watching her face as the exposed pads of his fingertips came down on her skin, touching her.
She took a deep breath and sighed. "Oh..."
He smiled. "If that's the reaction I get out of you for just that, maybe we should wait a while before trying something else."
"Nuh-uh!" Eva said. "More."
He let his fingers roam up her thighs, making invisible patterns that meant nothing to anyone except the two of them. He let himself look down at her bronze skin now and then, saw the tiny, golden hairs scattered evenly across her thighs, and tickled her with them. Eva made little cooing noises as his fingers stroked across that intimate skin. He even let his fingers trail across the smooth skin at the ends of her thighs even as he avoided thinking the only, ugly word he knew for them.
His hands traced along the outsides of her thighs, under her dress and over the solid mass of her hipbone, skipping over the fabric of her panties, and up her sides.
She pushed herself up enough to let him scoot her dress under her. She was about to just pull it off when he stopped her with a hand on hers. "Let me," he said, taking the dress in his hands and gathering it up slowly, watching as her lithe body was exposed. He finally stood to reach her shoulders, and she raised her arms to let him pull the dress up over her head and put it to one side. In the reduced gravity, it seemed to float away like some sleepy ghost.
Her panties were white, cotton with a lace trim about the waist, and that was all. "At least you don't have to wear a bra," he commented.
"I wish I had something to fill one with," Eva griped.
"You don't need anything," he replied. "Nothing at all." He leaned down to kiss her, and this time she tilted her head back to receive him. He felt her lips brush against his muzzle and nose and welcomed her tongue into his mouth, touching it with his own. They both sighed with pleasure.
Rath knelt back down on the floor, where he had been before. "See?" he said.
She grinned. "I suppose I had to wait this long for someone who wouldn't mind me being flat."
"It would have been nice if you hadn't," he said as he placed his palms on her thighs. "Had to wait, I mean."
"And then where would we be? Suspicion and worry because I left a boyfriend back home. I'm much happier things turned out this way."
Rath raised his fingers and resumed his gentle touching. On an impulse, he leaned down and kissed her on her inner thigh close to her panties. "Mmm," she sighed, and he found a scent coming from her there that made him tremble with desire.
He gave in and kissed her again. This time, the sigh was louder. Experimentally, he kissed her white panties, right above her mound, and the sigh became a moan. She leaned back on the bed and parted her legs slightly. Through the thin material Rath could see her labia, obscured only partly by her pubic hair, daring him. She had leaned back to offer herself to him and he was not about to refuse. He kissed her mound through the fabric. A shiver ran through her thighs.
He kissed her again, letting his tongue press against the white cotton, hinting at things to come. "I've never..." she gasped.
"It's not like playing with myself. God, I never knew it could be so strong!"
He smiled. "We've barely begun," he said, kissing her thighs again. He peppered her with kisses, on her mound, her belly, the exposed skin of her thighs. He reached forward and with his bare teeth tugged at the fabric that hid a prize worthy of his heart. She lifted her hips again and he pulled back with his head, pulling the tiny, white scrap of cloth away and exposing her gloriously lovely labia for him to see. Her lips were full and wet, her pubic hair a shade of gold only a little darker than that on her head. She had large, inner labia that seemed to be reaching out to him. "You're beautiful," he said as he lowered his head to her lips.
He saw her hold her breath again as his mouth came close to her. He licked at her pubic hair gently, caressing, stroking it away from her opening. Her hair parted as if it too knew what was coming next and had no wish to get in the way. He nibbled softly at her outer lips, enjoying the gasps he could hear coming from her.
"You're a tease!" she protested as his mouth licked around the outside edges of her mound, only occasionally tasting the soft flesh of her pouting inner lips. He was too absorbed to respond with words as he licked and caressed her vulva, circling in. He kissed her tiny, hardened clit directly, slid down the length of her vulva to her opening, then back up again, making a catalog of all the spots that made her gasp or moan or whimper.
As he went around her beautiful vulva again, he started to focus in on those little places-- the one right underneath her clitoris, the two just to the sides of it, others here and there, licking those wet, wrinkled lips. He loved the taste of her, the taste of her juices against his tongue, every time he pressed down to her opening. She spread her legs sightly further apart. Her hands were free and she ran them through his fur, dedicating him to his task of making love to her with his mouth.
Eva's body shook with desire. She dropped completely to the bed, her arms no longer capable of holding herself up. She put her hands on his shoulders, holding him without force, willing him to stay where he was. He had both hands on her thighs and with his thumbs gently pulled her labia a little further apart.
"Rath," she gasped. "I can feel... I can.. Oh, God, Rath!" she gasped, her whole body tightening before she came, a loud moan escaping from her, her body shaking with pleasure. "Oh, God, Rath..." she whispered.
He pushed himself up slowly along the length of her body, planting kisses on her belly and chest before coming eye-to-eye with her. "You were wonderful," he whispered.
"Me?" she moaned. "Come here you big kitty and I'll show you who was wonderful! I've never felt anything like that in my whole life."
"Maybe we can make it happen again."
"Promise me you will!" she moaned.
"I promise," he said solemnly. "I do." He sat on the bed and gathered her into his arms, holding her closely for a while. His body made sure that he knew every place where her skin touched his fur, his flesh whispering things to hers, telling them both about the pleasures they had for one another.
Eva looked up into his face and said, "You... What did I do to deserve you?"
"You fought," he said. "For the right to be acknowledged as a person in your own right." He kissed her nose. "And you were beautiful, and sexy, and smart, and strong, and all of the other things that mels say they want in a fem, even when they really don't."
Her hands caressed him through his outfit. "I can't believe you're still dressed. I love the feel of your clothes, though. I have ever since you first held me."
Rath snorted. "I can't tell you how hard that was."
"You're stronger than Jady. Someone had to carry me into the shuttlecraft. It's not like I could get up that ladder myself."
He grinned. "I'm glad I got over it."
"Me, too." She said. "But you're ignoring my hint. Take that thing off. Here, let me help." She reached up and began untying the carefully made knots that held shut the floor-length, body-hugging outfit that he had worn. "I would never have expected a dress to look good on you," she giggled.
"It's not a dress," he said. Then he considered. "Well, okay. I happen to like the cut, though. It's Chinese, I think." She pushed open the part covering his chest, then began pulling on the ties at his waist and further down to his legs. "There this is garb for both males and females, or at least it was at one time. I'm sure there's a more masculine name for it than a 'dress'."
"It's a one-piece formal outfit that goes from shoulders to ankles," she said. "That's a dress."
It fit more like a robe, and having untied the dozen short ties that held it closed Eva pushed it aside. Her hands were on his chest, touching him, setting him on fire. He moaned, his chest tight with anticipation. She was playing with him, and he liked the way she did it. He whispered her name.
"Rath," she whispered. "If I do something wrong..."
"You won't. And if you did, I forgive you already."
"It's just that I've never done this before with anyone. And I don't know what you're going to do when I... do whatever."
He smiled. "Just do what you think I would like."
"Oh, I think I know what you'll like. Romance novels and smut have enough of that in them," she said. Her hands slipped down to his legs, her delicate fingers sliding around his half-hard erection to encircle his balls, holding them delicately, touching them. He whimpered as the beautiful girl in his lap stroked the fur of his testicles, teasing him, telling him wordless things about what she could do to him, things great and terrible, as she ran her fingers over his furry pouch with its delicate cargo.
He was watching her face, but she was watching her hands as they found their way up the front of his balls, up the thin line that joined them to his sheath, and up over the sheath to his exposed erection. She grinned. "This is what I get for watching too much smut with my sister," she said.
"You don't look as large as some of the men in them."
"Isn't that a special effect? Or at least judicious choice of 'talent?'" He laughed. "Besides, I'm supposed to be compatible with you, but Uncias mass more than humans, so the proportions are different."
"That must be it," she agreed with a great smile, slipping one hand completely around his solid erection. He gasped, the promise of her attention taking his completely. "Eva..." he whispered.
"Rath," she said, sliding her hand slowly up and down his cock. "I want to to see you be happy."
"I already am. If... you want... to see me... in ecstasy, keep doing that!" He was gasping for air, desperate to come already, desperate to hold back. He didn't want her to be disappointed, but then it occurred to him that maybe this was what she wanted. It seemed so direct, so physical. But all of lovemaking was physical in some way. And her hand was so soft, slow, and insistent, so constant. She leaned against him, her warmth seeping through his fur, her hand still stroking, stroking. She was still staring up into his face, her fascination clear in her shining eyes. She was gentle, perhaps too gentle. "Is it your... turn... to to tease me?" he gasped.
"It can be," she whispered. "I've never done anything like this, Rath. I'm not even sure what I'm doing."
"You're driving me insane!" he said. "That's what!" He felt his muscles tense without him willing them to, felt his lungs burning before he realized he was holding his breath. His cock was a mass of pleasure, his body taut with desire. The sweet touch of her hand on his erection was too much, too much, and he came hard, shooting a stream of whiteness onto his fur and over her hand.
"Wow," Eva gasped. "I didn't know I could do that."
"I did," he gasped. "Oh, Fah, Eva, you... incredible..." Rath fought to catch his breath. His head was spinning and he felt exhausted, even though she had been doing most of the work.
Eva snuggled close. "What a bundle of pleasure you are," he gasped. "I want to never have to let you go."
She giggled. "I don't know why I felt safe with you, Rath. Usually your species scares mine. But with you, I didn't care about what you were. I knew you didn't care about what I am."
"We can't escape it, can we?"
"My legs? Or lack thereof?"
He nodded, stroking her hair absently. "You have beautiful hair, Eva. Yeah, your disability."
"Don't worry about it, Rath. We can't escape it because it's a part of me, a fact of me. You may as well complain about being unable to escape the color of my eyes."
"Or the smell of your skin," he murmured, lowering his head to press his muzzle to her shoulder. "You're a dream, Eva."
"A good one," she responded. "A good one." She giggled. "You're a mess."
"And it's all your fault," he said, feeling happier than he had in months. Not only had the biggest conflict in his life been resolved, it had brought him someone who made him feel... loved. A feeling not all that common in the Uncia, he admitted. Maybe not all that common among people in general.
"Will it last?" he asked her.
"Does it matter?" she asked. "Go clean yourself. I'm going to assume you don't lick yourself to wash?"
"If I could lick myself down there, Eva, we would have never met. I wouldn't be leaving my cabin very often!"
She giggled as he sat up, turning over on his bed to lie on her belly. Rath looked at her like that and sighed. "It's a shame you don't have legs," he said.
"What makes you say that this time?"
"You have a very beautiful bottom," he said as he walked to his bath. "And that wheelchair does not let you show it off at all."
When he came back, she was still lying on the bed, that lovely bottom prominently displayed. He reached down and touched one cheek lovingly with his fingertips. "You should head to bed," he said softly.
"If you wish," he said. "But I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with it."
Eva wrinkled her nose. "Me either. Walk me back to my room, then?"
"Let me grab some pants to wear. It would be terrible to shock the Terrans, if there are any-- others-- out there."
She giggled as pushed herself off the bed and reached for her dress. Rath recovered it for her, then lifted her to put her back into her wheelchair. Instead, she threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "More," she said.
"More," he agreed.
But 'more' was not to happen for some days. While Rath slept the swimming pool was pumped clean. First thing that morning, the expected alarm sounded, rousing even the late sleepers, followed by Captain Asdin's voice saying, "Attention all hands. Attention all hands. Free fall, all decks, in six hours. Free fall, all decks, in six hours. You have six hours to prepare for free fall. All displays, show next event. Stanislauv, begin room check. Terrans, see your protocol officers."
Rath groaned. It was going to be a long day.
And the most frustrating part of it for Rath was that the one person he was not going to see was Eva. Her room was already rigged for no acceleration, being in the core. He wished for an excuse to see her as he helped each Terran in turn secure belongings, lock down furniture, and rig up the webbing that would keep things from floating about during the free-fall phase. He knew that he would have to do this all again in two days, and undo it all again five days after that. It came with the job.
Carousel deceleration took three long hours as the braking system slowly bled the energy out of the larger, spherical segment while attitude jets burned fuel to keep the core from spinning in the opposite direction. "Free fall," a voice said. "All hands, free fall."
He was pleasantly surprised when Eva found him as he took a "lunch" of food bars and a handful of nuts. "Hi," he said.
She grinned at him, yawning at the same time. "It's good to see you. I didn't have anything to do. I've already secured my room with crash webbing for the deceleration phase, but you're welcome to inspect it if you feel the need." She grinned at him.
"I'm not scheduled to do crash web inspections until tomorrow," he said, pulling out his PADD. "But I'll make sure you're last on my list."
"Last?" she asked. "Why last?"
"So I don't have anything else to do afterward. Nothing official, that is."
She grinned and pushed herself toward him, giving him a kiss on the cheek. Then she stopped. "Do you not want me to do that in public?" she asked.
"Only if you don't feel comfortable doing it," he said, wrapping an arm around her waist. "Do you feel self-conscious about it?"
She looked at him. "A little, yeah. A few of these people have known me for almost four years, and I've never dated or gone out with anyone. I'm not the socializing type."
"So you've told me. It's your decision, Eva. I like you. I'm not going to push you into anything you don't want."
She smiled. "I know. And I appreciate it." Rath heard noise down the hallway. "Someone's coming."
To his surprise, Eva stayed where she was, hovering quite close to him. "Oh!" she said. "Look!" She rotated in place away from him until he could see her thighs. "I asked Stanislauv for these and he found someone who could make them for me." She wore what looked like kneepads over the soft ends of her thighs. "Touch one." He did, and felt that they were covered in the hook part of velcro. "They're so useful in zero-g! I can hold in place with them or kick off without injuring myself. I'm more mobile than ever!"
He smiled at her joyous enthusiasm and raw physicality. It was part of what he liked most about her. Despite her disability, she was glad to be alive and showed it in so many different ways that he thought he would never run out of surprises from her.
"Hello," said a voice down the hallway. Two Pendorians, a Satryl and a Mephit, made their careful way hand-over-hand along the walls, using the recessed handgrips to propel and guide themselves. "You must be Eva," the Mephit said.
She nodded. "Yes, I am."
"You don't know me but I'm a friend of Erlin's."
"The one who made my legpads!" she said. "I was just trying them out."
"Are they working?" She gave him a big smile and an even bigger nod. "I'll be sure to let him know. Anyway, what I wanted to ask you was if you wanted to learn how to use a mobile suit when we were down on the planet?"
She looked over at him. "Mobile suit?"
"Powered armor. Only without the guns or most of the armor."
Eva looked at him. "You mean the... the robots you people use?"
"Most of them aren't robots," Rath said. "They're vehicles. People are actually inside them, driving them. And for the larger ones you don't need legs to drive them," he said. He looked at the Mephit. "You'd have to modify the cabin, though, wouldn't you?"
"A bit. Medical foam and some extra webbing should take care of most of that, though. I would need for your beautiful friend here to spend a few hours getting a brace alignment tape made."
"That's not like reading my mind, is it?" Eva said.
"A little. For this, we're not interested in your personality, just your proprioception, so that's all we record. And it's not as bad as it used to be. The headset is small these days. Since you don't walk that could be a problem, but now that you're using the muscles in your legs more your brain's walking skills could probably be remapped to those of a mobile suit in short order."
Eva took a long time to answer, "Let me think about it."
"My name's Henenu," said the Mephit. "You can ask Stanislauv about me any time." He reached out to shake a hand, and Eva responded with agility in the low gravity. "It was very nice to meet you."
Eva made her own parting noises then watched silently as they left. "I don't know..." she said.
"I don't understand why you wouldn't grab the opportunity with both hands," Rath said. "You could be on Mars in a self-contained laboratory with a week's worth of life support, on-board spectrography equipment, and you would be walking."
"That's just it," she said. "The freedom I feel in zero G is enough to make me wish I never have to go back to Earth. What will I do when I finally have to get out of the suit, Rath, and back to my old self, the self who is stuck in a wheelchair?" She sighed. "It wouldn't be fair."
"Fair to who? Eva, think of it as a gift. Treat it with respect, but don't pass it up."
She sighed. His PADD beeped. "I have more work," he said.
"And I have nothing to do," she sighed. "See you in a few hours?"
"You know it."
Reality had a way of interfering. Rath called her to say that he wouldn't be able to see her that night; reconfiguration of the ship was taking longer than expected and they didn't have enough time for him to take any off. She said she understood and hoped he would come by tomorrow.
Rath spent the next day helping the Terrans to lock down. When he finally got to Eva's cabin he had been working nonstop for nearly sixteen hours and the burning feeling around his eyes only served to emphasize the fuzziness in his head. "I'm not going to be much of anything," he groaned as he looked around her cabin.
She had successfully and accurately configured it for one-gravity. The divisions in the core were oriented perpendicular to the travel of the ship. Under acceleration, it was the only part of the ship that could be navigated "normally," but it was also too small to hold the entire contingent of four hundred crew. Most people spent thrust phases trapped in their rooms, groaning at the sudden imposition of gravity or something very much like it, wishing that they had exercised more when the carousel had been turning and knowing that maneuvering around inside their part of the ship was a hazardous duty anyway. And there was no respite for it, either. The Pendorians had explained that the acceleration cores had a dependable but limited number of on/off phases and that they couldn't afford to turn them off during the orbital insertion phase.
"Just so long as you showed up," she said. "You look tired."
"I am," he said, checking things off on his PADD as he maneuvered about the room. "Are you ready for one tomorrow?"
"I'm more ready than anyone else. My room's in the core, my wheelchair's locked down but I could free it at any time, and I'm in better shape that ninety-nine percent of you." She made a muscle with her bicep. "See?"
He grinned. "You're amazing," he said, floating toward her. She caught him with one hand and hugged him tight.
"I missed you," she said as she let him fold his arms about her. Not for the first time he saw how big he was compared to her.
"I missed you too," he sighed. "Do you ever worry that you're just going to disappear inside my fur?"
"If I do," she said, "Then I know I'll always be a part of you."
He laughed and tilted his head down to kiss her. Eva closed her eyes and waited for him. He pressed his muzzle to her mouth gently, easily. Eva's lips were as sweet as the apples whose color they echoed. She held onto him, her arms trembling slightly.
Rath looked at her and could see his feelings in her eyes. He wanted to say something, tell her how he felt, but he couldn't and, he realized, neither would she. "Rath?" she asked.
"Stay here with me?"
"Yeah. Just for tonight. I feel like soon I won't have time to spend with you. I'll be on Mars, working my ass off, and you'll be busy doing other things, and we're not going to see each other for the whole five months we're downplanet."
He chuckled. "'Downplanet.' Since when did you become such a spacer?" he asked.
"Since I realized that it's what I want to be, and that I'm equipped to be part of a starship crew like few others are."
"Don't be so sure," he said. "But I understand you." He nodded. "Eva, I'll gladly stay the night with you in your sleepweb."
She grinned and then yawned. "Have you had dinner yet?" she asked. "I have."
"Me too. Although if you count soup in a bag sucked through a straw dinner, you have a weird notion of cooking."
She laughed. "Your people are very proud of their cooking, aren't they?"
"It's an important skill," he said. "Food, music, math, language, drawing... I forget the other ones. They're all domain skills, things people should be able to do because they give you different tools for perceiving the world."
She smiled at him. "And you're good at all of them, right?"
"Of course not," he said. "I can't cook all that well, and I don't draw at all." He tried to stifle another yawn, failed, laughed behind his hand. "Sorry."
"Let's go to bed," she said.
"Another good idea," he said, following her to one end of her cabin where a large bed sat mounted to the nominal floor. Tomorrow it really would be the floor. Over it was a stretchy web of fine cotton secured at four points along each of three sides that provided enough room for the head to stick out and not be secured. He shed his clothes without much fanfare and watched as she did the same.
She floated over to him, completely naked, and held him. He caressed her back gently with his fingertips, pushing the claws out just enough to scratch her. "Oh, Rath..." she groaned. "Do that for a while and I shall be yours forever."
"Who am I to refuse a gift such as that?" he murmured into her golden hair. He lightly stroked her back with his claws, leaving little trails of white in her skin, listening to her moaning with every pass as if she had been possessed by some aroused angel. As he scratched her, she began almost to pant with pleasure. He hadn't seen this in her the last time they had been together, and as his hands reached down to scratch that beautiful bottom that he had complimented her on before, she trembled in his arms.
"Eva?" he asked.
"Rath?" she said. "Don't stop!"
He continued his scratching, criss-crossing the golden skin of her sweet bottom with his nails, scratching harder, making her moan louder, making her bury her face in the deep fur of his chest as she shuddered. The scent of her sex was rich in the air suddenly; he could smell her desire, feel her want. Her fingers held onto his fur so strongly he almost asked her to stop, but he, too, was wrapped up in her moment, her pleasure.
Eva fell silent, her whole body tense as his claws lovingly raked down across the taut skin of her cheeks, the trails deeper now, deep and red, not quite drawing blood. Eva trembled, let loose a low, powerful, animal moan, and shook once more, hard. "Eva?" he asked.
"Rath," she gasped. "I- I just came. I think."
"But I was just scratching you."
"I- I know!" she said. "I don't know how that happened!"
He leaned down and kissed her, kissed away a tear that had formed in one corner of her eye and threatened to float away. "It happened because you need more pleasure than you've gotten. You have a decade of frustration to overcome."
She smiled weakly, opening and closing her hands. "They're stuck."
"That happens when you hold them tight in one position too long." He held her away at arm's length, turned her around. "Your bottom looks like a highway map."
"It feels like a construction site," she said, touching herself back there in a way that made Rath wish he weren't quite so exhausted. "It'll heal by morning. I hope."
"It's a good thing you don't... You do have to sit on it tomorrow, don't you?"
She grinned. "Later in the day. I'm one of the few who are mobile. I'll live, Rath."
"So much for being so tired we should just go to bed."
She crawled under the web, which also covered a light blanket and a bedsheet. Rath crawled in beside her. It was nothing like an Uncia sleeping shell, but he didn't care. He was next to Eva. He had given her strange pleasures once again. And, he admitted, he loved her. He wasn't sure why. But he did love her.
As he drifted off to sleep, he asked himself why he couldn't find the courage to tell Eva that.
Rath watched from the observation center. The delay at this distance was less than two seconds, almost real-time.
He could see Pavel waiting with his crew as the airlock cycled. An indicator on the display screen showed him that the door had just begun to open and would take a full three minutes to deploy into a ramp.
The doors opened and the red, glaring light of the sun poured in through the break. The door came down, like a landing ramp on an amphibious craft. The team waited for it to deploy fully, giving them access to the soil of Mars.
Without saying a word, Pavel stepped back behind Eva and began pushing her toward the ramp.
"Pavel! No!" she said. "Stop!" Even as he began wheeling her to the ramp, she grabbed the brakes and steered to the left, trying to break his grip. "Dammit, Pavel, no!" She succeeded in breaking free, turned and looked at him. "Don't do it, Pavel. We agreed months ago. Please. Nobody remembers the second person to step on the moon."
"Buzz Aldrin," he said.
"You're a space geek like the rest of us," Rath heard her say.
"It is just... It would be so correct that the first person to touch the soil of Mars be handicapped. It would have so much to mean to people like you back home."
"Pavel, we've been over this. I will be remembered as the first cripple to, well, roll over the Martian surface. But you were supposed to go first. It's your mission. You're the leader. And the Americans stepped on the Moon. Let the Russians have Mars. Nobody else is going to take your place. Besides, some people don't care anyway because we hitched a ride." The ramp was fully deployed. "The cameras will all be on me and this silly contraption anyway, but this moment is yours, Pavel. Take it."
Rath could see clearly on the camera as Pavel bit his lip, thinking, but finally he nodded. He walked to the ramp and stepped down. One step away from the actual sand of Mars he stopped and looked back up at the team, waiting for him. And then he stepped down. He said, "On behalf of all humanity, I open a new era of exploration and walk upon a new world."
There was shouts and cheers from the team, and then Eva rolled down. Everyone watched her, buoyed by her perseverance and her strength. Rath felt tears in his eyes. She deserved this success more than anyone. He watched as the rest of the team bounded out onto the surface of the red planet, a world they all knew they would soon call home.
Eva accepted the offer of the powered armor. The first three days of her using it were the subject of much amusement among the Pendorian field team and the crew in general. But she surprised everyone by getting up, running and jumping by the third day. Rath called her at the end of the first week to ask her how it was working.
"It's not hard. I have to forget about my legs, though. I keep wanting to use them. I've spent so much of my life thinking about walking in terms of having legs. How do you do it? Forget that those things which are so important to you must not be used?"
"I'm not a Shirow driver, so you'd have to ask one of your teammates."
She nodded. "That one, M'Ertan, keeps making passes at me. I think he views Terrans the way Brione views Pendorians. Easy marks since we can't exchange germs or get pregnant."
"Do you want me to say something appropriately male and Uncia to him?"
Eva giggled. "No, no. If he becomes a problem I'll just break his face for him."
"I have no doubt that you could," he said, smiling at her. He reached out and touched the screen. "I miss you."
Eva touched her own display, the image of her smaller hand engulfed by his. "I miss you too, Rath." The display faded, and Rath sighed quietly. Another opportunity missed.
It wasn't for another seven weeks before Rath saw Eva again. She was cycled up to the ship for a medical assessment and a week's rest before being allowed down onto the Martian surface again, and he took the opportunity to meet her at the airlock. "Hi!" he said as she came sailing out into receiving center.
Eva pushed off a handgrip and sailed into his waiting arms, and for a moment Rath felt fires burning against his skin that he had not felt in some months. "Rath!" she said. "Oh, I missed you so much!" She reached up with her arms to touch his cheeks, guiding her mouth to his, their bodies hovering in the middle of the receiving center.
"Maybe I should be first to congratulate you both," Rath heard someone say. He turned to find Pavel looking at him with an amused expression. "I thought you two might get over whatever it was made it unpleasant to be in same room, but this was not expected."
"I didn't expect it either," Rath replied.
"Me neither," Eva giggled.
"Just do not forget, young lady, you have five days rest, and I mean rest. Do not exercise too much."
"Hmph," Eva said. "I'll have you know that exercise is restful for me, you lummox. How am I going to prove my moral superiority to you if I get fat and lazy?"
Pavel laughed. "You? Fat and lazy? Never. Fine, Eva. For you I make exception. Exercise as you see fit. Just be sure to do right kind of exercise," he said, eying Rath.
Eva was suddenly flustered. "Pavel, we haven't... I mean, I never... "
"No?" he said. "My mistake. I thought was more serious. I'm very sorry."
"No, no, it's all right. I can see how you can make that mistake. It's just, we haven't had the... something, yet."
"Then now, you have time," Pavel said. "I'll leave before I make bigger ass of myself."
Eva giggled, blushing hard, as Pavel floated away. "I should expect that. Oh, God, Brione's not on board, is she? Stanislauv?"
"Your nemesis is safely down on the planet, pulling her hair out."
"Still no sign of life, huh?"
"I am afraid not," Stanislauv said.
Eva sighed. "The geology isn't as surprising as one might think, either. There are a lot of fascinating sites, but they're fascinating the same way that some Earth sites are fascinating. Biggest, oldest, oddest, that kind of thing."
"I hope you're not finding Mars boring?" Rath said as he began leading her back toward her room.
"Not at all!" Eva insisted. "I'm thrilled to be here. At least I get to look at these details first. I just wish there had been something about Mars that was completely unpredictable. Layering not seen on Earth, impact damage, biological activity the way we have oil deposits. Can you imagine the rush if we'd said we found oil on Mars? But no, nothing like that anywhere. Just rock, sand, and everything in between. At least I get to use my favorite sport."
He chuckled. "How does that work for you?"
"Pretty good," she said. "That bow Erlin made for me works great. I can put ranged sensors on the arrows and with the powered armor's muscles throw them almost two kilometers."
Rath blinked. "That sounds like a lot. So, how was the shuttle trip up?"
"Long," she said. "I've been going solid for eighteen hours again, and I haven't been sleeping well in the field. And, you know, I don't regret using the Shirow. Maybe I'll change my mind when I'm back on Earth, trapped in one G and my wheelchair, but for now, I can live with it." She palmed open the door to her cabin and floated in. Everything was just where she left it. "But I can't sleep right in the suit. And the tents are too cold."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I could offer to warm you up."
"I know you could," she said. "But right now, I just want to sleep."
"Would you like me to stay?"
"You know I would," she said softly. "Hold me?"
He held her tight, feeling her lithe body through the thin fabric of her ship's uniform, specially sewn with the pads on her thighs to help her navigate the ship's free fall areas. She sighed. "I've needed this. I never did slug M'Ertan, but I came close. I think bawling him out in front of a few other members of his staff did the trick. The meritocracy method of yours works so well, Rath."
"It does, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it doesn't work for humans."
"Really," he said. "Your instincts are much more aligned toward hierarchies than ours are. Human are much more likely to forgive the peccadilloes of their leaders, even back them in shameful moments like the one I can imagine between you and M'Ertan, if they represent a stable past source of personal power."
"That explains the Democrats in America."
Rath laughed. "Have you been following that too down on the surface? We're all astounded by it up here. We can't believe that such a little thing is such a big deal, nor do we understand why there's so much deception going on around it."
"It's very unreal," she admitted. "But it's not surprising. We knew what we were getting when we elected him to office." She yawned again, her body shaking in a delicious fashion against his. "I need sleep."
"Then let's get some," he agreed, leading her to her bed. She let him unzip her suit, and he enjoyed the slow revelation of her body to his eyes. Her skin was as lovely as ever, but there were bruises under her arms and against her hips. He pointed. "Hurt yourself?"
"Every once in a while. I'm still falling down. I'll never do ballet in one of those things."
"Nobody does ballet in Shirow," Rath commented as he pushed the material off her shoulders. He removed the rest of her suit and tucked it into a laundry bag secured to the floor. "You look beautiful."
"Even with my bruises?" she asked.
"Even then," he agreed, smiling at her. "Truly, you're the loveliest sight in a billion miles."
"Is Earth a billion miles away?" she giggled.
"You're lovelier than anything on Earth," he said.
"And more tired," she sighed, putting a hand over her mouth to hide another yawn.
"I'm keeping you awake." He let her go and she eased herself under the sleep web, pulling the sheets and blankets up. He slipped in next to her, and she kissed him on the cheek. He held her to his chest, feeling her bottom press against his belly and smiling, wonderingly, at the way his body seemed to be confused as to where the rest of her was. Her breathing slowed and she became quiet, making peaceful little sleeping noises, turning gently against him. "Goodnight, my love," he whispered.
"When will I be able to say that to you when you're awake?" he said to the ceiling, closing his eyes. "Lights out, Stanislauv."
"You have no idea how much pleasure there is in this," Eva sighed as she stared up at the ceiling. "Mars is a desert wasteland." A small clutch of Terran and Pendorians rested once more in the swimming pool.
The Terran hydrologist, Larry, objected. "There's water there. Lots of it. It just happens to be buried underground. But there's enough water on Mars to make it a water planet again. Might have to do a few tricky things, like smash some ice asteroids into it-- quite a few, I think-- and raise the hydrocarbon level quite a bit to keep the air warm. Mars would be a high-maintenance world; you couldn't afford not to have a space program because it's not big enough to hold its own air without help. You'd have to replenish it regularly."
Eva sighed. Rath had heard her argue this a couple of times already today. It would seem that she was one of the few members of the Terran team not entirely ready to set up residence on the Red Planet. She had expressed several desires, none of which had made the other members of the Mars Team change their minds. "Beaches, truffles, palm trees, daquiris..." She sighed again.
"Since when have you become a hedonist?" asked her.
"I was always a hedonist, Larry. Usually as a guilty pleasure."
"But I've never heard you talk this way."
"Blame him," Eva said, pointing at Rath, who only gave both of them a grin.
"What did he do?" Larry said.
"I'm not sure. But I don't feel guilty anymore!" She giggled and swished at the water with her hand, pushing her up to where Rath stood by the edge of the pool.
"That is only because you've taken to thinking like one of us," Rath said. "Throwing away your guilt is not a license to irresponsibility, it is a reminder that you must finally become responsible. Your emotions will not save you anymore from doing the things that can harm you. You have to think now."
Eva sighed. "Such is life. Every new joy is bittersweet."
"Including that robot they gave you?" Larry asked.
"Are you kidding?" Eva said. "That thing sucks! It's much stronger than I am; I'll give it an order to turn and it'll do it so hard the restraining straps bite into my shoulders. I'm not used to 'standing' on my stumps at all but that's the way the cabin is configured, for a standing person. I think I'm getting callouses on the ends! And I can't sleep in the damn thing. I don't care that the Pendorians do it all the time."
"What would you rather have?" Rath asked.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Eva grinned. "Well, okay, I'd rather there be some kind of saddle, like a bicycle saddle, for those of us who don't have the structures for standing. Something to hold my butt up. And some padding around the crash webbing. I know, it's a safety risk."
Rath knew that it was-- the suits had not been tested with it, and there was some agreement that a person using padding around the straps could slip out more easily and hit their head on the inside of the suit's cabin. "I think you should live with it for now," he said.
Eva lazed around in the pool. Rath found it hard to take his eyes off her; her nipples and stray strands of pubic hair broke the surface and presented themselves. He reached down and touched her cheek. She smiled at him. "You have a week off," he said. "What are you going to do?"
"Not break my routine," she said. "Catch up on my mail from home, eat a lot of decent food, work out, swim, and read up on the literature. I must have a million articles backed up on Usenet."
"Didn't you have net access on the planet's surface? I know we set up intelligent routes."
"Yeah, but who had the time?" Eva asked.
"Ten minute packet timeouts," the Terran computer expert, Abbot, was saying. "Triply redundant packets, even. And still we manage the transmission rate of 640 kilobits." He shook his head. "I actually had a few hits request alt.binaries.erotica on the leaf server."
"What's wrong with that?" Rath asked.
"Nothing, except that it would prevent anything else from coming through."
Rath nodded. Usenet and email were the Terran crew's lifeline. Neither the Terrans nor the Pendorians had the technology to set up what the Pendorians described as a 'hyperspace fault-line gravitic radio' to cover such a short distance as from Mars to Earth; the Pendorians admitted to having one in orbit around Earth that provided them with real-time communications with their homeworld, but apparently it had more trouble operating over the shorter distances.
So a laser link had been set up with Terra. It was blissfully full-duplex; it could be used full-speed in both directions at the same time, and it was fast enough that people could ask for things from the Terran Internet. But the sixteen-minute turn-around for many of the requests meant that much of what they did went through proxies, and that limited the tools they had access to. Essentially everything came through email; you asked for it and eventually it showed up.
But it provided fodder for the crew. Although the amount of news coming through was limited, everyone knew that the American president was in trouble for having sex with someone other than his supposed, committed partner. The Pendorians were inclined to wonder why it was such a big deal that he had felt compelled to hide it in the first place, and the Terrans, who were for the most part inclined to be rational alongside the Pendorians, had trouble explaining it.
Rath had taken a much stronger interest in the ways Terrans and Pendorians related. He had been watching Abbott's relationship with a Mephit named Shiyori closely. They seemed to be doing well together, if a bit tempestuous at times, especially from Shiyori's side. She would get angry when he didn't understand her in some obscure way and then come back a day later, apologizing and asking him to explain to her what he had meant, trying to explain to him what she had been feeling. They were conveniently playing their drama out in public, regularly, and Pavel had voiced to Rath the opinion that he would be glad when it was over. He seemed sure that it would be.
Eva got out of the swimming pool, announcing to anyone who cared to hear that she would be in the gym and that Rath should call her in a little bit to make plans for dinner. He felt his ears warm but accepted it as a sign of her affection, then waved as she rolled out of the room.
"Abbott?" he asked, walking over to where the other human stood, sipping a glass of something that might have been iced tea on another planet.
"Rath! What can I do for you?" Abbott was a solid egg of a man, round in the belly but surprisingly firm-looking. His bushy, gray beard flared out from his face, and his awkward teeth grinned. "Not having any problems with trn, are you?"
"No, I've switched to having Stanislauv vet and sort for me, then presenting it in a custom fashion. I wanted to ask you about Shiyori." Abbott waited. "About how that works from your point of view."
Abbott looked at him curiously. "What do you mean? I thought you knew. Aren't you an Eva...?"
"No. I know everyone seems to think that we're a couple, but we aren't. Not yet. I think both of us are thinking in that direction, but I don't know how it feels from your point of view. Doesn't it bother you, knowing that she's immortal?"
Abbott shrugged. "It's not love with Shiyori and I. It's just sex. She thinks I'm hot in the sack, and I think she's fucking incredible." He shrugged. "Or incredible... Never mind. Watching you and Eva, though, there's something else there. I'm afraid you guys are probably on your own with this one."
"Do you want it straight?"
"Isn't that the best way?"
"Not always. Okay. Rath, you and Eva look at each other like long-lost lovers out of a French romance movie. I have trouble believing that you two haven't jumped in the sack yet since it's so obvious you two like each other. I mean, sure, there are some Terrans doing it with your people, but none of it's serious. It's just to let off steam. Have fun. We're million miles from home, Rath."
Rath sighed. "So," Abbott said, "Have you told her you love her yet?"
Rath stared straight ahead, not daring to turn one way or the other. "No," he said finally. "No, I haven't."
"Then maybe it's time you should," Abbott said. "Before she heads back to the surface of Mars for another two months."
Rath sighed. "I don't know that I can do that."
"Because... Because if I did, I'd be committing us both to a future..."
"That she gets to choose if she wants to be a part of it. Look, I'm lousy at relationships. Got two vengeful ex-wives and a daughter who hates my guts because she thinks I walked out on her. I like Shiyori because she doesn't ask much more of me than a good roll in the hay every now and then. But even I know that you guys should do something other than moon at each other like what you've got can never be."
Rath nodded. "Well, thanks anyway."
"Hey," Abbott said, "I'm a network engineer. My life is putting stuff together. Even people. Even when I'm bad at it."
They chose to eat in the main dining room that night. Rath invited her to the second shift, where they dined on something that pretended to be whitefish, corn, and mashed potatoes-- real Terran fare. Eva talked, and Rath listened, about Mars, about dirt, gravel, rocks, thrusts, faults, and lines. About the mobile suit, the training, and her encounter with M'Ertan. "I think I scared him," she commented.
Rath merely smiled, trying to cover up the almost painful confusion he was feeling. He was so poorly equipped for what he thought he should do next, and he didn't know how to go about it. Every time he felt the urge to say something rise within him, another urge swept it away and told him to wait for later. Under the table, he clenched and unclenched his fists, wishing he could say something. But his fear paralyzed him.
"Rath?" Eva said, touching him on the arm.
"Hrr?" he said, looking up.
"Have you been listening?"
"Something wrong?" she asked.
"I- I don't know."
"Would you like to tell me about it? I noticed that you were a little distant this morning-- and now."
"I have a lot on my mind," he said. "I'm sorry, Eva."
Her voice grew small and childlike. "You're not rethinking our friendship, are you?"
"I don't know."
"Rath..." she said softly.
"I'm sorry, Eva. I..." He clenched his teeth hard. "I think I need some time." He rose from the table suddenly. "I'll call you in a little bit."
She watched him, her face clearly stunned, as he walked away.
He walked back to his cabin and closed the door. "Why did I do that?" he swore at the walls.
"Do you want the answer?" Stanislauv's voice said from nowhere in particular.
"Because if she accepts your affection, both of your lives will change. And every change you have made in your life up until now has been of your choosing and without much emotion. There has been little risk in your life, Rath. Eva presents great risk. You are afraid of accepting the challenge that risk represents."
Rath stopped. He opened to mouth to argue, then shut it, defeated. "You're right."
"I am what I am," Stanislauv replied, "And more honest than some of my kind."
The chime on the door rang. "It is Eva," Stanislauv said.
Rath walked over to the door and opened it. "Don't just walk out on me, Rath!" she swore at him, rolling her wheelchair into the middle of his cabin. "Why... you... tell me... Rath..." Her anger softened into tears. "Don't do this to me, Rath. I had just learned to trust you." Little streaks of water streamed down her cheeks. Rath thought his chest would crack open with the pain of seeing her cry.
He walked to her, knelt before her, took her hands in his massive, furred paws. "Eva..."
"It can't be the chair. Can it?"
He smiled. "It has nothing to do with the chair."
"Then what?" she asked.
"Eva, that first night, when we were talking to each other... I slipped."
She smiled. It looked odd on her wet cheeks. "You almost said you loved me. I remember. You haven't said anything like that since."
He nodded. "I've wanted to," he mumbled.
Eva leaned forward. "What?"
"I've wanted to. Every time we have been together, I have had a battle going on inside me, to say it or not say it. Everyone else on this ship seems to think we're lovers but you and I, and I can't make up my mind."
"Rath..." Eva said.
"And it's not like I can't say the word. Of course I can. I love my steak rare. I love my home. I love my parents. See? But if I say it to you, I worry that I'm setting us both up for... for problems."
"Rath," Eva repeated.
"Because you're a Terran and I'm a Pendorian, and the differences between us are so great, and I don't know if I can bear to make that kind of commitment when I know that you're going to get old, and die, and I'm not going to get old, and death is an abstract notion that never really occurs to me unless I worry about accident-- which can happen on a starship, but..."
He looked up at her, his own eyes wet now. She said, "Rath, even before I met you, I had my life charted, at least with respect to this. I plan on living a full and healthy life, Rath. Someday, maybe, I'll get my legs back. The technology is improving fast. If it does, I'll take it. If I can get robotic legs in the meantime, I'll take it. There's not enough here for me to use two artificial limbs now, but nobody knows how good the engineering can get. And when I'm old, and toothless, and gray... I've already decided I'm going to walk the Hall. Even if the antiHalls on Earth are right and what comes out won't really be 'me', so what? I'll be old. Someone else who remembers you the way I do walking around Pendor is better than no one."
Rath stared at her, unmoving. "If it's in you, Rath, say it."
"Eva," he said softly, "I love you."
She pulled one hand free of his and placed it on his cheek. "Rath, my Rath, I love you too. I can't believe you made it so hard to say something so obvious."
"Saying it has consequences. If it gets out in the open, then we, we have to live with it. If we didn't say anything and let it die, then, no hurt feelings, right?"
"Rath, I told you early on that I didn't want you to save me from hurt feelings. I'm used to hurt feelings. I wanted to stop just feeling plain and feel more!" She grinned at him. "That's what you did. And then you scared me by..."
He reached down into her chair, pulling her to him, gathering her once more into his strong arms and hugging her hight, feeling the small slip of her body against his own, hearing her heart beat louder in his ears than his own. "I'm sorry," he said.
"Talk, Rath. Talk. Talk until you think my ears are going to fall off. Let me know. Isn't that a Pendorian thing, that more information is better than less?"
"Isn't that American, too? That's what your first law is all about, right? Saying more?"
She laughed. "I guess it is," she admitted. "I never thought about it that way. I guess that's what happens when I don't spend enough time studying in History." She looked up at him, and he turned his head down to look at her. "Kiss me?"
"Ask, my love, and the whole universe shall be yours."
"I don't think that's something even Shard..." Her voice was cut off by the soft whisper of Rath's muzzle against hers, the touch of his tongue, the soft feel of his teeth bumping gently against her lips. He felt he own tongue slide against his, tasted her for the first time in six weeks and wondered what kind of fool he would have become if he'd really turned her down forever.
A delicate hand found the edge of his shirt and pulled it up, sliding underneath, touching him, making him breath hard with anticipation at more of her touch. "Eva," he whispered, "It's early."
"I know..." she said. And then she giggled. "And we shouldn't..."
Curious, Rath asked, "Why?"
"Because... " She blushed. "Because I'm in my..." She fumbled for the words.
"All your honesty and you can't say, 'I'm menstruating?'" he asked.
"It's embarrassing!" she said. "I was so looking forward to this week with you, and I wanted to... to... do it with you." She looked up. "I've been thinking about it for a month and a half! I was looking forward to losing my..." She laughed. "... innocence with you. I don't want to do it when I'm a bloody mess, though." She sighed. "I thought it would wait a while longer, but the weird day/night thing must be throwing me off."
He held her. "I'm not impatient."
"No, if anything, you're too patient," she said. "You made me wonder if you really liked me."
"I like you," he affirmed simply. "But, you're right. It's early. Want to go watch tonight's movie?"
"What is it?"
"It is 'Titanic'," Stanislauv replied. "And it starts in twenty minutes."
Eva grinned. "I guess it pretends to be romantic. But it's three hours long!"
"And are you doing anything else for the next few hours?" Rath asked.
"I guess not," she sighed. "Okay. Let's go watch Leo and Winslet do the wild thing."
Rath awoke to the sound of a fan and the swish of an interior door. He tried to turn over and realized that he was in Eva's room. They had come back here after the movie and gone straight to sleep. He had understood Titanic more than he had Young Frankenstein, he reflected, but only because it wasn't meant to be a comedy. He could grasp, at least intellectually, the way the young and vibrant artist had challenged the worth of the elite snob. It was a straight evolutionary version of a morality play, he reflected, nothing like his current own relationship.
For one thing, he was not nearly as attractive as the boy, and Eva was more pretty than the girl. At least, Rath thought so. Still, he reflected, Eva's life in low gravity was not always a thing of beauty when it did weird things to her hair. She had too much of it for a spacer, and he liked it too much to ask her to do the sensible thing and trim it down. She would look very odd without her hair.
The door to the bathroom opened and Eva came floating out, aimed straight for the bed. With a casual gesture she reached out for one of the mount-points, grabbed it, pulled herself to a stop, and sat, one hand between her thighs holding onto the sleepweb that prevented them both from floating out of bed in the middle of the night.
"Good morning," she said cheerfully.
"Good morning," Rath said, smiling. He reached up with one hand, found himself foiled by the web, and regrouped to try again, this time reaching over the web to touch her thigh and stroke her skin. "Sleep well?"
"Yes, thank you," she said, yawning. Her hand reached out to stroke the back of his arm. "I dreamed about you."
"What did you dream?" he asked.
"I dreamed that we were doing things that required gravity," she said with a smile. "Probably."
He grinned back at her, his hand touching higher on her thigh, sneaking up to her hip and onto the small expanse of her belly. She closed her eyes and whispered, "Why do I like it so much when you touch me?"
"I don't know," he said. "Can you tell me?"
"No," she whispered. "All I know is that I do."
"I'm glad you do," he said. "I like touching you. And I like it when you touch me."
"It's so intense," she said. "It's so... I don't know. Is this just something I had to wait for until my body was ready? Or is it you?"
"Maybe it's both," he said. "I don't think I would like to be a convenience."
She pulled herself closer to him. "You aren't, Rath. Don't ever think that you are." She leaned down, her mouth hovering millimeters from his muzzle. "Because you're the most important mel in the universe to me right now." Her lips brushed his muzzle delicately, her tongue caressing the short fur that halted just above his mouth. He opened his muzzle and reached out with his own, and soon they were pressed into one of those tender kisses he had come to treasure so very much.
He missed gravity. He would have preferred to feel the weight of her body against his own. But here there was none, and bodies only pressed together of their own accord, when they wanted to, not when it was necessary that they do so.
Her hands were on is chest, her fingers digging into his fur. He felt with anticipation as one hand glided down the length of his body and, through the web and clean sheets, caressed his hard cock. He could hardly believe how hot she made him with such a simple kiss, but there was also no denying the intensity of her affection.
He kissed her back, letting his tongue touch hers, letting his tastebuds wander over her lips and her chin, taking in the taste of her skin wherever her could find it. "With you, I am in paradise," he whispered.
"Good," she whispered. "Because my period also seems to have stopped early. Tonight... Tonight would feel right."
"Why not now?" he asked softly.
"I don't think I'm ready," she said. "I feel like I have other things to do. And... I'm hungry. I want breakfast. A workout and a swim. I want to read my email, my news, and see my friends."
"Come on, then," he said. "Let's make that happen." He crawled out from under the webbing. For moment, she held onto him as they floated free of the floor and into the center of the room. For a moment, Rath felt that everything was perfect.
Rath had other duties that day to attend to and did not get to see Eva much until later that afternoon. By then she had worked her way through most of her regular routine and was now poring over reams of data collected from the Martian regions by probes that had to cover where the small crew of the ship could not. "You're not taking your vacation very seriously," he said to her as he walked into the library.
"I can't afford to fall very far behind," she replied. "I would be lost if I didn't read up at least the daily summaries."
"Even those can be very long."
"Stanislauv is very good at shortening them even further," she said with a grin. "Besides, this is relaxing. Even Pavel does his homework when he's up here."
Rath nodded, understanding her point. "If you want to eat something other than cold rations, you should come with me to the mess. It's almost one."
"Ohmifah," Eva said, then giggled as she realized what she had said. "I'm starting to talk like you. Should I talk in Quen then? Call you my coimelin?"
"Only if you mean it," he said.
"I mean it," she said, trying to pitch her voice low and sultry and succeeding only in sounding giggling. She gestured for him to come closer and he did, giving her a soft kiss. "I still don't know how I fell in love with such a big, sexy kitty."
"Dumb luck," Rath replied.
"We'd better go to dinner," she said. "What is it tonight?"
"The meals offered include a meatloaf round sealed with bacon, a vegetarian dish of pasta and spinach for those of you who care about your hearts, and a salmon dinner with broccoli and rice."
"Salmon sounds good," Eva said. "Let's go."
After dinner they agreed, at Rath's request, to go back to his cabin. Eva even consented to his logic that gravity would assist them in their plans for the evening in incalculable ways. But as she walked through the door of his cabin, she said, "It seems so weird."
"Why?" Rath asked.
"It shouldn't be so... planned."
Rath smiled. "Yes it should. Otherwise, what would you do? Fumble around and not know if I really mean it, if you really mean it? I know that humans have odd ideas about courtship, Eva, but I have my doubts about the value of lovemaking by accident."
He reached down for her and picked her up out of her wheelchair, carrying her to his bed. She trembled in his arm, fear giving her shakes that she wouldn't have been feeling otherwise. "I... I'm scared," she admitted.
"And if we did it in one big rush you wouldn't have time to be scared," he said. "But you wouldn't have time to enjoy it. Or to call stop, if you really want to."
"If I said stop, would you?"
"Yes," he promised.
"Even then," he said. "I mean it."
"Kiss me," she said, her voice as soft as feathers. "Kiss me and make me feel it."
He guided her down to the bed, hovering over her lips, looking down into her eyes. "Eva... I've never done this with a human. But I know I want to do it with you." He let his muzzle press against her lips, caressing her mouth with his own. She let go a light sigh that told him everything would be all right, and let his tongue out to touch her mouth, her full, sweet lips. Her breath came a little louder. He slowly let his weight down against her side, pressing her to the mattress. It was not a conscious decision; he simply had other things he needed his arms for.
Eva's ardor was as ready as his own; her hands touched the material of his blouse and fingers eased between where the fabric overlapped, opening the material, letting her hand in. "I love your fur," she said softly. "So thick and soft." Her fingers curled and reached through the fur, finding the tender fell underneath and scratching lightly with those ridiculous things Humans called nails. From her it was still an intense sensation, one that sent his mind reeling with its power, and Rath wondered if he would be able to keep his balance through all of the things she would be doing to him.
He reached down for the hem of her dress, pulling it up slowly. She wore it long, so it went all the way down to where her legs would be if she had them. He gathered up a lot of the material before he found his way underneath. His fingertips briefly made contact with the rounded ends of her thighs and he touched her there, simply, reassuringly, trying to say without words that he was neither aroused nor upset by them, but that he wanted to please her and he would touch her anywhere that had that effect.
Eva whimpered as his hand worked its way up one thigh, touching, caressing, crossing the skin back and forth, touching with his fleshed pads and not his claws, touching her until his fingers made contact with the fabric of her panties.
Eva's body became rigid for a moment, then relaxed, as his fingers slipped between her leg and the cloth. He could feel her pubic hairs rustling against his fingertips and he could feel the wetness of her body coming from her. He knew what she tasted like, smelled like, and he knew that he wanted her more than had ever imagined wanting anything before in his entire life. He would never be fit for the tourney, and it was never something he had wanted. He had gone into space because it had felt like the right thing to do, but there was no real passion behind it. Eva, though, Eva was fire and he wanted to play with her until he immolated himself inside her.
His heart burned with a need to touch her more, to caress her all over, to touch her in ways that would tell her he loved her impossibly much. Their mouths were still pressed together, tongues in touch, lips caressing his muzzle. "If you don't stop," she gasped, "I think I'm going to go crazy."
"Is that bad?" he asked.
"No!" she gasped. "Just... much. You're heavy."
He nodded, understanding. He carefully removed his fingers from the band of her panties and rolled just off of her, allowing her to extricate herself. She pushed herself over and sat up. "Even in one-third G, you're a big mel," she said.
"I don't know if that's a compliment or not," he said.
"It's just fact," she said. She turned over to get close to him. She slid a hand under his shirt and began peeling away the layers of his tunic. Each parting of a button exposed more of his fur to her eyes, his whitish-gray fur ruffling through the gap she created as she moved, methodically, from his throat to his crotch, and then down one leg to his knee. "On Earth, only children wear jumpsuits that go down this far."
"The adults don't know what they're missing," Rath commented with a grin. "It's just clothes. It's just what we wear on board. Easy to clean."
She smiled and nodded and she hooked her hands under his knee, pulling his leg out of the outfit. He helped her, placing it aside, and then pulling the other one out just as readily. "Now," she said, "How do I get this off of you?"
"I could turn over," he suggested. "Then you could pull it off my arms."
"You could do that," she agreed, and he readily complied. He felt her hands ball up the bottom half of the jumpsuit and push it up to his buttocks... and then pause. "You have a nice butt," she giggled. Rath felt the touch of her fingers upon his tail, stroking the fur of it from the base all the way to the tip, both hands holding it, turning it, manipulating his tail. "Soft," she said, and he knew she was caressing her own cheek with it.
He felt his tail flop down onto his leg and it started to flick back and forth, uncontrolled, happy. Her fingers touched his butt again, caressing his fur. She giggled again, poking and probing his rounded buttocks. "It's a trampoline!"
She went back to what she had been doing originally, taking off his clothes. She kept pushing up the fabric until it bunched up and resting on his shoulders. Her hands caressed his back. "So big," she said. "You're so big."
"Mmm," he sighed. "There are Uncia bigger than me."
"I know. But you're the one I love." Her fingernails scratched in his fur, caressing him through the layers, reaching his tender fell. Rath hadn't known that such things could be so pleasurable. Most of the Uncia fems he had been with had been so perfunctory in many ways. Maybe it was the kind of fem he attracted.
"Arm," she said, tapping him on his left shoulder. He helped her take the jumpsuit off that side of his body. Now it hung just by his right arm, and a second later she had him completely out of his clothes.
He turned over to look at her. She giggled. "I see you're interested." She reached down with one hand and stroked his intense erection, stoking the fire that was his need for her. "Yours is the first real live penis I've been this close to."
He laughed. "Look closer," he urged.
"I'm sure you'd like that." She maneuvered to his side and looked up the length of his body. Rath watched with anticipation as she dropped her head, slowly, down to his lap, her eyes flickering constantly back and forth between his eyes and his cock. "You smell good," she said.
"Now there's something I would never have thought to compliment a mel on," he said. "I know I've told you how wonderful I think you smell, but I think mels just smell like, well, mels."
She giggled. "You just aren't interested in mels," she said. "But I'm interested in you!" She lowered her head further, looking at his cock, holding it in her hand like a small pet animal, something she might break if she played with it too much. But then she closed her eyes and Rath felt the touch of her lips upon the glans of his cock. He lay back on the bed and sighed.
Eva's delicate tongue flickered out and touched his cock, playing with the wrinkled gathering of skin that rolled out to cover the head when he was sheathed, then up to the head over the dark-purple dome and down the other side. Her nimble fingers played with him like a joystick, presenting all sides of his cock to her attentive mouth. She moaned softly, and finally she took the head of it into her pretty mouth.
Rath groaned. The sensations were more intense than he would have imagined. He wanted to tell her, but all that would come out of him were gasps of pleasure. She slowly took more into her mouth, took almost two thirds of it before she stopped, unable to take more. She curled her fingers around the base and began to slide up, then back. Rath's desire for her was hotter than ever; he was boiling in his own need and about to erupt. "Eva," he gasped, "I'm coming..."
She hesitated for just a moment, but then went back to her slow, torturous suckling on his cock, perhaps a little more timidly than before. This frustrated Rath, made it harder to reach his climax, but finally his desire and pleasure burst out of his body in an exclamation of ecstasy and a torrent of come.
He was still coming down when he heard her cough, gagging on his come, trying to control her reaction as she swallowed it. "Are you okay?"
She nodded, her face red with both the effort and embarrassment. She worked her throat a few times, trying to get it all down, before she took a breath. "I've never done that before," she said. "I didn't know what to expect."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I should have warned you."
"You did," she pointed out. "I just wasn't ready for it. I'm sorry."
He pulled her into his lap, realizing that she was still fully dressed. "It's okay," he said. "I don't expect expertise from you. If you want, you can practice on me every... other day."
She giggled. "I might like that."
"It wasn't hard to do, was it?"
"My jaw is a little tired. But it wasn't hard to do, no." She massaged her jaw with both hands, working her tired mouth muscles. "Oh, Rath, that was wonderful!"
"Do you want to do more?"
"Yes, yes," she sighed. "Yes, I want more."
"Give me a minute, then," he said, "To recover. Why don't I get us both water?"
"I'd like that."
He reluctantly let go of her sweet, small body, and rose from the bed. He found two squeeze bottles that were the commonplace water carriers on the ship, each with the Pendorian logo and the name of the ship on them, and filled them from the sink, handing one to Eva. She drank gratefully, trying to wash down the taste of him from her lips. "What does it taste like?" he asked.
"Salty. Maybe a little slimy," she said. "Not bitter, though. Most of the women I know who have done it say that it tastes bitter. I didn't taste any of that."
"Maybe I'm different from humans. Or have a different diet. I don't know. I'm just glad you didn't choke."
"I felt like I might," she said. "I might need to do that more often to get over it."
"I don't think I would complain if you wanted to practice on me."
"Nah," Eva said. "A zucchini or banana would do just as well."
"You are a tease!" Rath said, hugging her to him. They sat for a while, holding one another. "You are still dressed," he observed.
"Curious, that," she agreed. "Should I take it off, or do you want to?"
"I'd like to," he said, reaching down for the hem. He didn't take quite so much time, just gathered up the material and pulled it over her head. She put her arms up to help, then nestled against his chest with a happy sigh.
Rath looked down the length of her body to the tangle of golden pubes nestled between her thighs. He placed one hand on her belly and felt her tense. "Don't tickle," she said softly.
"I won't," he promised. He caressed her smooth tummy, his fingers about her navel slowly, tracing the outlines of her ribcage, then up over her chest, circling her nipples in a complex orbit. Touching her, Rath realized that Eva had breasts after all; they were just so small that they barely registered, just flat expanses of slightly fatter flesh behind her nipples.
Eva whimpered as he let his fingers brush over one nipple. She didn't try to stop him and he figured it was a happy sound, so he did it again. She arched her back slightly. "You're making me wet," she sighed. Then a giggle. "Wetter."
"More wet?" he asked, his fingers concentrating more on her nipples, distracting her from a response both knew was pointless. If they really wanted to know they could ask Stanislauv later.
Rath let his claws out a bit, raking them over her skin. "Did you ever figure out what it was about my scratching you that one night that made you climax?" he asked.
"Mmm... nope," Eva sighed. "I liked it though. We could try it again."
"Some other time," he said. He closed in on one nipple again, pulling in the claw and pinching her instead. She let out a high-pitched gasp, her back arched, and then settled back into his lap. He kissed the top of her head. "How are you doing?"
"Horny," she said. "I've never used that word before. No, maybe I have. I've never used it to describe me, though."
Rath chuckled. "I'm nervous about doing more," he whispered. "I don't know if I'm going to hurt you or not."
"If you do, it'll only be for a little while," she said. "I'm expecting it."
"I hope you're not expecting too much."
"I hope not either," Eva replied.
Rath released her nipples and slowly eased her onto the bed, on her back. She looked up at him with trust in her eyes and he felt his heart melt at the sight of her. "I love you," he said, simply, honestly, feeling every word.
"I love you too," she said.
Rath leaned down and pressed his muzzle to one of her nipples, letting his tongue touch and caress her. She moaned softly as he began flicking back and forth over the tiny, hard nubbin. "That's... intense!" she said.
"It'll only get worse," Rath said with a smile as he kissed her flat belly, pausing to tickle her bellybutton with his tongue. Eva panted with anticipation, and he was anxious to reach that flowing river of sweet wine he could smell between her thighs. But he managed to control himself just enough to kiss the hollows of her thighs and then the top of her mound, working his way southward, easing down between her thighs to her pot of sweet honey that begged for him to lick her clean.
He finally slipped his tongue between the lips of her sex, down into her opening, lapping at her juices. "Ohh..." Eva moaned. "My kitty."
Rath grinned and turned his attention a centimeter higher, finding that other precious little nub of hers, hard and obvious, demanding his attention like no other. He kissed her hood, his tongue tracing the outlines of the two large inner labia that descended from it. He went around her clitoris several times without touching it, enjoying the squirming and moaning it was causing in Eva.
He homed in on her clit, licking it slowly, gently at first, then building the pitch higher until she was gasping for air. He would hold a steady pace against her hard little clit, drop down to taste his reward, then return to pleasure her more. She gathered up the sheets of his bedcover in clenched fists, her body twisting, her hands pulling downward, pushing her cunt up against his muzzle, demanding more out of him. "Rath, please!" she gasped. "Please!"
He didn't have the time to answer her. He pressed his muzzle down against her clitoris, his teeth pressed to the top of her mound, his tongue wild against her clitoris. "Yes!" Eva gasped. "Oh, yes. Oh yes. Ohh.... YES!" Eva's cries of pleasure were muffled as she covered her mouth with her forearm.
Her body slowly subsided, her mind just as slowly returning to her. "Oh, fuck, Rath, that was... that was the most powerful thing I've ever felt."
He grinned. "I hope there's more where that came from."
"Oh, I'm sure there is!" she moaned. "I'm sure there is." She looked at her arm. "Ouch. I bit myself." Clear indentations of teethmarks pocked deep into the tender flesh under her forearm.
"Don't do that," Rath said. "Nobody can hear, no matter how loud you get. And if you bit your arm off, it would be hard to push your chair around."
She laughed, sitting up in the bed. "That's the first time you've made a joke about my disability." She reached over and pulled him toward her, kissing him on the muzzle. "You taste like me."
"You taste good," he said. "Is the joke bad?"
"No, it's good!" she said. "It means you're getting over it as something awful and just accepting that it's a part of me that we have to live with. If you're going to live with me."
"I would love to face the challenges of living with you."
"What challenges are those?" Eva asked.
"There's the challenge of living with such a beautiful woman, always fending off other suitors. We Uncia are very serious about that sort of business you know. And there's your insatiable appetite, when it is awakened." Eva's smile grew wide. "And then there's your excessively healthy habit of being physically stronger than everyone around you. You can't imagine the kind of challenge that would represent among Uncia."
"I can't live on Pendor."
"Not yet," he agreed. "But there are opportunities coming." He held her.
"Rath?" she said, looking up at him. "Would you really want to live with me?"
"Eva," he said, "I don't know how I would live without you right now. You have so much to offer and there's nothing holding me back. How do you feel about it?"
She sighed. "I don't know. I'd like to try. I just don't know where we could do the trying."
"We'll ask Stanislauv later. I'm sure he can come up with something."
She pushed off the bed and flew into his arms, hugging him tightly. "I love you," she said.
He held her, his arms around her back, his hands down her bottom. The feel of her body aroused intense feelings in him that he was finally beginning to understand and appreciate. "He was a smart man."
"Who?" Eva asked.
"Shardik. Human instincts-- your instincts-- are usually driven by the need to reproduce. To make more of yourself. Pleasure and the satisfaction of personal connection are side-effects. Ours are driven by the pleasure and personal connection, and the reproduction is a consciously accepted side-effect. I don't know what goes on in your head, but in mine, I am as excited by your body as you would think I should be for an Uncia fem. When I say you're beautiful, Eva, I mean it."
She giggled. "Have I ever told you that I think you're incredibly sexy, and I think everything you just said is complete bullshit?"
"Even the part about you being beautiful?"
"Well... For that, I'll accept that you're blinded by your love for me."
"But you do believe that I love you?" he asked.
She nodded. "As much as I love you," she whispered. He noticed her hand stroking down the fur of his belly, reaching for the root of his cock. Those slim fingers wrapped around the shaft and held him firmly, stroking up and down.
She pushed out of his lap and dropped down onto the bed, next to him, looking at his erection in her hand. She was staring at it intently. "You've already seen it, haven't you?" he asked.
"Seen it and tasted it," she said, her voice quietly introspective. "But... I'm still wondering if it will fit inside me."
"Do you want to find out?" he asked.
"Yes," she breathed. "Yes." Rath kissed her mouth softly and lowered her to the bed, laying her on her back, her thighs comfortably apart the way they might drift when there was no gravity at all. He was thrilled with the opportunity, afraid with the responsibility, satisfied with his love for her and honored with her trust for him. He kissed her thighs again, tasting the fluids that still dribbled from her. "You're soaking wet," he said.
"I hope that helps," she said, looking at him, her face crossed with expectation hopeful and fearful. He crawled between her thighs and she parted them. He kissed her neck, her chin. "I won't... be able to kiss you when I'm inside you," he said.
"I'll be able to touch you," she said, pressing her hands to his chest. "It'll be okay."
He nodded and slid up, looking down into her face. She arched her neck back to look up at him, her fingers between her legs. He felt her fingers on his erection, guiding him. There was a moment of truth as the tip of his cock touched her labia, slid against the slick skin, pressed between two folds, and nuzzled up against her opening. Her eyes were wide. "Do it," she whispered.
Rath pushed into her, felt her hymen give way. Her back arched, a whimper of clear pain came from her throat. He slid completely into her, felt her cunt close down around him, felt the slick walls of her body grab hold as if she would never release him. It was a bondage he could live with.
"Ow!" she said sharply. "After all that I can't believe how much that hurt."
"Should I come out?" he asked, all his desire fled.
"Yes," she said simply.
He slid out, his erection fading already. "I'm sorry."
"I did tell you to do it," she said as he lay down beside her, cuddling her. "I guess I didn't anticipate how much it would hurt. The romance novels always say the pain is over fast, especially when you're in love. That felt more like amateur surgery with a blunt object."
"I'm so sorry," Rath said.
She held him close. "Don't be!" she said. "You'll have a chance later to really make love to me. It's what we both want, so you know it'll happen."
He nodded. "I just want you," he said.
She pressed her face to his chest, and for a while she was silent. Rath felt her body heave softly. "Eva?" he asked. "Are you crying?"
"Because... because I'm so disappointed. I wanted to make this special for both of us."
Rath stroked her long, golden hair. He loved the feel of it, so unlike fur. "It is special. It's just not the kind of memory we're going to treasure. Tomorrow's will be better."
"Promise?" Eva asked.
"If you go to Physician Odelina and have her make sure you're healed properly."
Eva looked up at him, the tears on her cheeks. "I'll do that," she said. "First thing in the morning. I promise."
"Then I do too." He glanced over at the clock. "Fah, I can't believe how late it is!"
She giggled. "We've been busy."
He nodded. "Thank you, Eva. For letting me be a part of your life."
"I love you," she said.
"I love you, too."
Eva reminded Rath the next morning that this would be their last day and night together for a while; she was scheduled to take a shuttle down to the surface the day after this sometime around lunch. Rath nodded, understanding her meaning, before each headed off to their respective showers and duties.
It was not until nearly dinner that either was free to visit one another. Eva arrived at the main galley with a smile, Rath with a frown. "What's wrong?" Eva asked.
"You didn't hear?" he said.
"I heard about Pearline's freak-out, if that's what you mean."
Rath nodded. "I can't discuss that since I'm the one caring for her, but Odelina thinks she'll be okay. A little rest is what she needs, some intense contact with the people back home. Your people aren't used to many-year voyages where the option to get on a plane and go back home isn't available."
"We'll live. We're a pretty strong species," Eva said, quoting back to him a line she had heard him use. "And people did stuff like this before the invention of the airplane."
Rath nodded. "No, it's about Brione."
"What's upsetting about that? She found evidence of life, didn't she?"
Rath nodded. "She's also in sickbay."
"What?" Eva asked. "What happened?"
"She tore her suit and decompressed while caving to get more samples."
"Oh, no! Is she going to be okay?"
"Physician Arij thinks so. She is down on the surface with Brione, and Brione will be coming back on the next shuttle."
Eva sighed. "I... We were catty with each other, but I like her. I hope she's okay."
"We all hope she'll come out of this without serious injury," Rath said. "It's just that that's the second Human casualty on my watch, and I don't like what I see as blots on my record. Among the Pendorians, there have been two broken bones and a fistfight on this trip, but that's about average."
"A fistfight?" Eva asked. "I'm surprised. I never thought that Pendorians would fight over anything."
"We're just like you in some respects," Rath said. "And even among Pendorians, mels will sometimes fight over a fem both of them like." He shrugged. "Fortunately no one was injured. Not all mels like to share. I don't know if I would want to share you, after all."
She put her hand over his. "You don't have to."
Pavel Hyacinthus walked up behind Eva. Rath waved. "Good evening. Is not so good, yes?"
"It's been better," Rath agreed. "But everyone is alive."
"Yes. I have word from Arij that Brione will be up and well in days. That is good. She will be more careful in future, I think." He looked down where Eva's hand covered Rath's. "Is official now?" he asked with a grin.
"Pavel, if you want to gossip that Rath and I are officially dating, you can do so."
"Good. But I am team leader. I would never gossip. Bad for morale. Even when news is good."
Eva giggled. "Sure you wouldn't."
Pavel patted her gently on the shoulder. "You be safe on Martian surface tomorrow."
"I will be. Thanks for worrying about me, Doc."
"Is my job," he assured her. "And I have always liked you." He walked over to some other Terrans at another table to update them with the good news about Brione, leaving Eva to watch him with a curious expression on her face.
Rath made a querying noise and Eva shrugged. "He's never said anything like that about me before. 'I have always liked you.'" She said it with a poor imitation of Pavel's accent. "Am I just blind to the people around me who do like me?"
"Maybe he thinks it's safe to say such things now that you're with someone," Rath pointed out.
"Maybe," Eva said, "although I'm not sure I like the conclusion that leads me to. I mean, what if he was afraid I might think of it as a come-on and he didn't want to get the hopes up of the disabled chick?"
"You're being paranoid again," he said.
She frowned. "I guess."
"Did you see Odelina this morning?"
She nodded, then grinned. "I did. The doctor assured me that I was fine, that I had already healed more or less completely. She wanted to know why I didn't just come in and get clasisted with anesthetic rather than do things the old-fashioned way, and I think if I'd known I had the option I might have taken it. She gave me a lecture on what to do..." Eva blushed. "And she gave me a bottle of something to make it easier tonight."
"It's not an anesthetic, is it?" Rath asked.
"No, it's just something slippery."
"You don't need it," Rath said. "You were soaking last night."
Eva giggled. "Is that good or bad?"
"Good, I think," he said. "Tasty."
"You're terrible," Eva replied with a wide smile. She looked up from her plate. "Sometimes the dinners aren't nearly realistic. But they're better than field rations. Want some dessert?"
Rath shook his head. "Just you."
"Well, I'm going to have some," she said.
They wheeled out to Rath's room once more, the ice cream nestled in a cupholder on Eva's wheel chair. Rath pushed, and Eva ate. By the time they got to his cabin, it was gone. "Was somebody complaining about her girlish figure the other day?" he asked.
"I was not!" she said. "I was complaining about the lack of facilities on the surface. But the lack of food down there compensates."
The door closed behind them and Rath looked down at her diminutive figure. "I will never understand why just looking at you makes me feel so good."
She blushed. "And I don't know why I get turned on by you either," Eva said. "But I do. I've been rubbing my thighs together all day since Odelina looked down there, wondering what it would be like with you inside me. For real." She giggled. "Odelina said we should take it slowly. Let me adjust."
"Then I will listen to the doctor's advice," Rath said. Eve held up her arms it that almost childlike manner, arms splayed, fingers opened, asking him to pick her up. He did, and she nestled into his grasp easily. "I won't be able to hold you like this in one G," he said.
"Then we have to find a way to make sure we spend the rest of our lives in one-third," she giggled. "Oh, Rath, I'm going to love being down on the surface, and I'm going to hate every day I'm without you." She looked up at him, and he couldn't help himself, leaning down to kiss her mouth, to press his muzzle to those pouting lips and draw from her the pleasures of the flesh. She moaned softly. "You're so good," she sighed.
"I just do what feels good to me."
"Then making you feel good must automatically make me feel good. Or something like that." She kissed the underside of his muzzle. "My big kitty."
"My little girl," he sighed.
"Ew!" Eva protested. "Makes you sound like a pervert."
"My little human, then?"
"Better," she giggled. "Mine doesn't mention gender either."
"Would it matter if it did? Many people have trouble telling the genders of Uncia apart. It's not obvious at first glance."
"I don't know. I couldn't say either way. I'm not attracted to women. I look at men and I can tell which ones are handsome and not. With women, it's much more mechanical, a lot more about the clothes and are they doing it right and things like that. If you were a girl, I don't know if I would have tried quite so hard to get to know you more."
"I might have tried to get to know you, though," he said.
She shrugged. "That doesn't mean much. We might have been friends. But lovers? I can't say."
"Me neither," he said, carrying her to the bed and setting her down. "Can I get you something?" he asked.
"Just water," she said. He turned around to get a pair of water bottles and when he turned back, she had taken off her clothes completely. She was sitting on the bed, looking at him, her head tilted to one side suggestively, the way Uncia sometimes do.
"Is this a hint?"
"Rath," she said. "I want you to make love to me so much I'll feel it for the next six weeks."
He sat down next to her and took her hand in his. "I don't want to hurt you."
"If we start slow, you won't," she said, caressing his arm with her other hand. "Don't let last night slow you down at all," she whispered. "Make love to me like we'll be together forever. I mean it."
He tilted his head downwards to kiss her. By now, the feeling should have grown familiar, but to him it was as powerful and as precious as that first time, only a few months ago, months in which they had only grown closer, learned so much about one another, and, at least as far as he knew, come to care about one another in a way that he wished would never end. "Forever," he whispered as her lips brushed his muzzle gently, her hand on his cheekruff gently tousling his whiskers. It was a feel he knew well now and yet it thrilled him like no other.
He touched her chest with the back of an open hand, stroking her nipples with the fur there, caressing her. He turned his hand over and touched one nipple with the fingertips, feeling its stiff form under his hand, feeling her arousal. He could feel her heartbeat just as readily through his palm. It was fast, as fast as his maybe. He could hear his own heartbeat in his ears.
Eva's hands pulled at him, pulling him down to the bed, down on top of her. He kissed her mouth, their tongues caressing, passing over lips and teeth, hot breath out the sides, too much air needed for anything else. He was already erect and it felt as if he had been for hours. He let his hand drop onto her belly. She shivered. "Rath..." she whispered.
"I love you," he said, kissing her cheek, her shoulder. He wanted to see her flower, for that's what it looked like to him, before he made love to her. He paused at one nipple, nipping it with his teeth. Her back arched in response to push more of her into his mouth even though he already had all he could take without biting her.
He kissed the smooth perfection of her belly, kissing the short hairs that grew there, licking at them with his nimble tongue. He paused at her navel, exploring it. He had one, he knew dimly, underneath all his fur; finding it would be a difficult trick. But hers was right out in the open, obvious, and he found it fascinating.
He slid his tongue over the soft pad of her lower belly, the only suggestion of underlying softness anywhere on Eva's body, and then over the ridge of her pelvis, down into the tangle of gold that hid her sex from the view of mere mortals. Her thighs were parted, inviting him in, letting him have a good look at her pink inside. Her outer lips pouted, her inner lips lay aside, glistening with a moisture he knew to be the juice of the gods. He kissed those inner lips, licking at them. Her juices were on his tongue, the heady smell and taste making him feel high. Eva held completely still with anticipation. He licked her cunt in one long stroke, from bottom to top, cresting over the hood of her clitoris without touching it directly, and she moaned with need.
Rath slid his hands under her bottom and held it with his palms, lifting her sex to his mouth like some holy offering, opening his muzzle wide to cover her entire mound, and licking at her lips with his tongue, probing and tasting, circling in on her clitoris until Eva started gasping for air. "Breathe," he whispered. "Breathe."
"I'm trying!" she moaned. "Oh, Rath..."
He flicked his tongue across her clit and she tensed as if hit by lightning. He tried a few more, experimentally, getting the feel for her arousal. He wouldn't have to do much more to make her explode, he realized. He kissed her mound hard, teeth pressing suggestively into the fleshy top, his tongue dancing across her clitoris madly. Eva's body tossed with fits of ecstasy and she screamed her climax, her fists pounding the bed, her juices flowing down the cleft of her bottom and over his thumbs.
Rath eased back but this time did not stop entirely. He had read much on human sexual response in the past couple of months and knew that he was very lucky to have a lover as sensitive as Eva.
"Rath... Oh, Rath... How did you, how do you..." She moaned his name again and again, and as he paid closer attention to her needs he could feel her body awakening again in his hands. He squeezed her bottom suggestively as his tongue dipped and weaved among the fluid lips of her sex, lapping up the flavors that she made for him. "Again?" she whispered, have surprised as if again would be too much.
"Again," he murmured, kissing and licking around her clitoris gently, bringing it back to life. His tongue traveled over the tiny landscape of her vulva, over the outer lips, down into her precious opening, over her trembling clitoris. Eva's thighs, for all the inherent weakness that came with her condition, pressed against the sides of his head and her hands were on his ears, touching his head, holding him in place. Her moans became louder and her hands more demanding, pulling him against her mound, pressing her cunt to his mouth.
Her screams were louder the second time.
"I don't- I don't believe how good you can make me feel!" she exclaimed.
He looked up from between her thighs. "I could probably do it again."
"No," she said. "No, I want you inside me, Rath. I want to feel you inside me. I want to make you a part of me."
He knelt between her thighs, his erection in his paw, looking down at the expanse of her belly and chest and face and hair, looking down at the tiny opening that last night had accepted him grudgingly, almost ritualistically, and now he hoped would let them come together with joy.
He lay forward, between her thighs, his cock nestled up against her opening. He sensed his cock nose up to her labia, which by their own magic seemed to guide him into her. He pressed in, feeling her opening to him. He looked down into her eyes. She was looking up at him. Wordlessly, he pressed in further until the head of him cock was hidden inside her, her opening stretched around the sensitive flesh just behind. "Rath..." she whispered. "More."
He pressed in. She was as slick and wet as she had been yesterday, and he felt the depths of her sex accommodate his cock, a perfect nestling of male and female, a union created to be unquestionably right. When he touched bottom, when he felt his hips firmly against her things and the root of his cock nestled against the warmth of her body, they both let out a long, satisfied sigh.
"There's no more," he whispered.
"Yes, there is," she said. "There will always be more with you." She reached up and touched his face, and he could see tears flowing from her eyes and down the sides of her face. With one free hand, he wiped one away. "You're incredible," he sighed.
"Make love to me, Rath. Let me see you come the way a woman is supposed to."
Rath pulled out just a little, then back in. The slick tunnel of her sex closed down around him, caressing him. It was a sensation like nothing he had ever experienced before. "I love you," he gasped, his heart swelling with joy as she made little happy noises in time with his gentle thrusts.
Eva tilted her hips up to meet his on every stroke, her arms wrapped around his, her body responding to his every movement. "Oh, God, Rath, I love you, I love you," she moaned as he began to feel her body tensing underneath him, his own climax desperately close.
The tingling started in his toes and worked its way up his legs, and when it reached his belly he exploded in a roar of pleasure that he knew would have frightened an unknowing bystander. He could feel the love in his body streaming into her, knowing there would always be more. He held her close and felt her own trembling in his arms as she came on her own, from what he couldn't even be sure. It wasn't something he had done deliberately. It was just... wonderful.
He took a deep breath and pushed down, sliding out of her, feeling a dribbling of fluid following him as he left her. He dropped down beside her and looked into her eyes. He saw a wild kind of light in there, a bright, shining ecstasy in her face that he imagined must have been echoed on his own.
"Oh, fuck!" she shouted, her smile so wide he thought it must have hurt. "Will it be like that every time?"
"I hope so," he said. "Maybe even better?"
"Better?" she asked. "I don't believe anything will ever be better than... than that! Oh, my God, Rath, I think... I think I've seen Heaven. It's in your eyes."
He grinned. "You should see what you look like," he said. "Words could not do you justice, Eva. You're incredible."
"Rath," she gasped, holding his hand. "I love you. I'm going to miss you so much. I'm going to have to masturbate every day just to get faint echos of what you do to me, and even then it will just be to take the edge off missing you every day."
"I hope I don't wear my cock off thinking about you," he said.
"Better not!" she said.
He laughed, and she laughed with him.
For a few moments, life was perfect.
"How's it going?" he asked her. She had her hair pulled back and looked odd with it that way, as if she had somehow made her head smaller. Maybe it was just an effect of the camera.
"It could be worse," she said. "We found Larry's water deposits, lots of them. It looks like there's much more water on Mars than even he accounted for." She gave him a huge grin. "I'd love to build myself a swimming pool."
"There's one up here, waiting for you," he said.
"I know," she sighed. "Three weeks. It's a long time to wait."
He nodded. "I miss you," he said.
"I miss you too. It's not so bad, is it?"
"I'm chafing," he said.
"I left you that bottle. That should help, doesn't it?"
"I couldn't find it after you were down on the surface. Where did you leave it?"
She thought for a moment. "If it's not near the bed, look in the back pockets of my chair. I left it in your cabin."
"I folded it up and put it away in a closet." He laughed. "All this for a bottle of lubricant. What I really want is you."
"And I really want to see you, too," she sighed. "I never thought I'd be this kind of lovebird. It's nice though. Even M'Ertan is leaving me alone now that it's official, more or less."
"That is good news," he said. "Brione is complaining that she wants to go back to the surface, and Quentin is telling her he needs her to say on the ship to analyze what they've found. It's life, Rath. It's really alive. And it's DNA-based. Which means..."
"Which means that Terra colonized Mars, or the other way around."
Eva nodded. Then shrugged. "Most of the theories say it wasn't deliberate; just a convenient coincidence of timing. If there's life on Europa, though..."
Rath grinned. "Would you like to go to Europa?"
Eva's face froze. "When?"
"About three years from now. When we get back to Earth, we're going to Pendor for a refit and crew change, then coming back to Earth to pick up another Terran crew and going to Europa. I've already talked to Pavel and Aeka Goldmin about it. About half of the team is Mars-specific, but the other half is chomping at the bit to go to Europa. Goldmin complained that NASA would like to have a different team get the opportunity, but I've talked to Stanislauv and the Captain. She would have no trouble with you coming along for the ride. To Pendor, or to Europa."
Eva rubbed her chin. "If I smile any harder my face will break. Oh, Rath, that's... that's incredible. Do you know what you're giving me?"
"A ride?" he asked. "We have plenty of room. I know Terra thinks it's going through hoops to get people onto our ships, but word has come that we're to encourage Terrans who want to learn what it's like to live among us."
"I... Oh, Rath. We can be together!"
"That was my cynical take on it, yes!" he laughed, and she did too. "Thank you, Eva, for bringing excitement to my life."
"All I did," she said, "was be around you."
"Sometimes, that's enough." He touched the screen. "I have to go. I'm getting bandwith allocation warnings."
She grinned. "Someone has to fix that."
"Some other trip," he agreed. "Bye. I love you."
"Love you, too." She smiled before logging off.
Rath leaned back in his chair. "It's a good life afterall."
Stanislauv chuckled. "I'm pleased to hear you say that."
"What comes next?" he asked.
"In your schedule, you have an eleven o'clock meeting with Louis Polona, and then at thirteen you were going to make an appearance with the Terrans so that Cosmo could teach you to play the piano, I believe. At one, you have to put four Terrans through a two-hour refresher in life support failure response, and then you're free for the evening." Stanislauv paused. "In your life, Rath? Is that what you meant?"
"I was being rhetorical."
"Indeed," Stanislauv said. "That is something we can only be."
"Even me. Like me, you and Eva will just have to see what comes next. I think it will be interesting."
Rath chuckled. "Me, too."