High on a hill, with a single tree leaping out of it, I am still painfully aware of just how overwhelming the ring of Pendor is as it rises and wraps itself around the sun. An enormous symbol of beauty and power, I like to feel small and insignificant here on Abornia plain. I deserve it. Far to the north stands the steel glint of the Arc rising from the lake it's situated over, and much closer, down below the hill, lies the tomb of Donna Lewis Shardik.
I guess that after a while the pain should fade, but it doesn't and I hope it never does. I'll never forget the blond hair of her father or the hazel eyes of her mother. I'll never forget her soft voice and her innocent smile.
I wiped the tear that had formed in my eye and sighed, leaning back against the tree and taking a slow bite from my sandwich. I was here for more fun things than reminding myself of my lost children, because playing down at the bottom of the hill were my latest. Karen and Yorik rolled in the grass, fighting like cubs will. Molly sat to my left, watching them with an amused expression. "They're silly," she said.
"Think so?" I asked with my mouth full.
"I wouldn't play in the grass like that."
"Why not?" I asked, adding, "I would."
That got a startled look from Molly, who said, "You would? Why?"
"Why not? I mean, it's fun."
"Look who's talking," I said, amused at her "I'm mature" attitude. "You're only two years old yourself."
"I am a adult Pamthreat and I should live up to that."
"Then you've a lot to learn." I saw that we were about to be joined by Adriano, who was charging across the countryside at nearly sixty klick, his four powerful rear legs kicking up huge gouts of grass and soil as he ran. He hadn't learned to stop nearly as well, and tumbled to a halt as he attempted to carry the charge up the hill. I laughed; Molly gave him her disdainful look. He picked himself up, shook the grass of his broad back and head and with a sheepish grin walked the rest of the way up the hill towards us.
"You okay?" I asked as he approached. I offered a hand to brush some of the grass off of his head, and he let me, still grinning with painful embarrassment.
"I'll be okay," he said. I laughed, and finally, he laughed along. I crooked a finger at him and he came closer. I gave him a hug.
The feeling of insignificance came back to me as I realized that I was sitting next to what appeared to be four of the most dangerous predators on Pendor. Normal Pamthreats sometimes weigh in at 200 Kilograms and average 2.4 meters in length, so they're not as large as tigers (still the largest of the big cats) but they're more powerful. Instead of one pelvis, they have two, one in front of the other, and therefore four rear legs that deliver incredible amounts of running power. They come in two colors- summer black and winter white, and in either guise they're beautiful and they're deadly. But what's worse about Pamthreats is that the prides form psionic gestalts; what one member knows, they all know. Combat with a Pamthreat Pride is just plain stupid outside of Powered Armor, and when one learns the taste of sentient flesh, the entire pride has to be wiped out.
When Karen and Yorik first came out of their tanks, I felt more than a little guilty about their creation. You see, although officially Karen and Yorik are "Sentient Pamthreat Tleils Numbers One And Two" they aren't the first. Karri had been a sentient Pamthreat with two bodies; I'd made the mistake of using the same genetic sample for both of them, and they'd formed a gestalt. When one of those bodies was killed during my absence with the crew of the erstwhile SS Minnow, Karri took the other body to suicide.
And it hurt, too. Knowing that I'd made mistakes with her that were just plain stupid. Selfish. And I'd promised her that when I got back to Pendor I would make a Tleil run of Pamthreats. Only now, Karri wasn't here to see it.
Anyway, Karen and Yorik ceased their tumbling and joined us at the top of the hill. "Hiya," I said.
Karen giggled gleefully, the sounds forming from deep inside her throat. "Have fun?" I asked.
"Tired," Yorik offered. "And dirty," he said. "I'm gonna go wash." He bounded around to the other side of the tree and vanished in a flash.
"I think I'll join him," Adriano said. Molly rose, yawned, and said, "I'll go too." The two of them disappeared into the SDisk. I turned to Karen and said, "What about you?"
"I want to relax in the shade first. And I want to talk to you."
I resisted the urge to pet her. After all these years, I still want to pet her, treat her like an animal. She's as sentient as I am, or P'nyssa, or M'Ress. But she countered, saying, "Please. I like when you touch me."
I smiled and reached out to stroke her the length of her body. She purred, a deep and satisfied sound. "Ken?"
"You know I can't help it when I read you like that. I'm trying to damp it down, and I'm taking lessons. But sometimes I just pick up on things."
"I know. It's okay."
"I know you still feel sad sometimes when you're with us. And I know that you've been spending more time with us than you did with the Mustela, watching us and talking to us. To me. Can you tell me something?"
"Karen, if you ask me the question, you'll know the answer."
"No. I promise."
"Did you make me with Karri Walton's genes?"
I thought for a few seconds. "Yes."
Karen's head, for that matter all Pamthreat's heads, are closest to the leopard's in design, if not in coloration or size, and she gave the Pamthreat's equivalent of a smile. "You don't feel guilty about that?"
"Not about that. I little... melancholy, maybe."
She nodded. "Ken, if I tell you something important, will you promise to not 'fly off the handle?'"
I laughed. "Where did you learn that expression?"
"From the person who asked me to tell you this secret."
"I promise I'll try."
"That's fair. Carroll is pregnant again."
"What!?" I said, nearly shouting. "That's great! Why would that be a secret?"
"Because she didn't do the same thing you did."
It took nearly a full minute for that to sink in. "Why would that make a difference?"
"Ken... You do not know how much I want to say 'Father' sometimes... Carroll hasn't had another child in so long because she's afraid of what happened the last time. I'm only two years old, but I think I know what incorporation shock means, now."
I nodded. "You're right. It does make a difference. I restored something I had lost." I sat for a few seconds and then said, "Did Carroll ask you to tell me?"
Time passed as we sat, my hand idly stroking her back. She crawled forward in the grass and lay her head in my lap. I smiled and kept petting her, feeling her body thrum with that outrageous purring.
"Ken" she asked, "is it too much to ask you to scratch my belly?"
"Of course not," I said, and she turned over, all six paws splayed into the air. I rubbed her belly gently with my fingers, stroking up to her throat and then back down between her nipples and down between her legs. "Feel good?"
"Go a little further down," she said. I my strokes ran the length of her body, and stopped just short of her vulva. "Further," she growled.
"If I stroke further, I'll be-"
"I know," she whispered, opening her eyes and looking at me.
"Karen... Not now, okay?"
She lay her head back against my leg and closed her eyes. "Okay," she whispered. "But don't stop scratching. Still feels good anyway."
There is no better place to get a tan than the beach, especially a beach on Pendor, where the sun is always at peak, where the water is warm, and where there's a shower mere meters away. I lay on a towel with a copy of The Dominion of Katorri, a rather trashy translation of a rather trashy novel from one of the less friendly Terran colonies. Despite this, it was fun summertime reading, full of strong women making poor choices, which is the typical theme of the trashy novel no matter what planet you're from.
The sound of waves, wind, and seagulls combined to hide from me Karen's approach, so the first I knew of her presence was a "Hi, Ken."
I turned and looked back the length of the towel to see her staring at me with a quizzical expression on her face, a small smile playing on her thin, pink lips. "Hi," I said, returning the greeting cheerfully.
"I came to talk."
"You know, Karen, of all the Pamthreats, you are the most inquisitive and sometimes the questions you ask are embarrassing as Hell. What now?"
She settled onto the sound and said, calmly, "Why won't you make love with me?"
"Why won't I... what?"
"'I think you heard me,' to use your own expression, Ken. I'm annoyed at you. Three times I have made serious passes at you, and while the first two were a little indirect, yesterday you out-and-out refused me, and I'm just a little annoyed."
"Karen, you can't just walk up to me and say, 'I'd like to jump into bed with you,' and expect me to respond. It's not as if I want fuck every woman I meet."
Her stare was frightening in it's intensity. "Ken, that is not your problem right now and you know it. If I were anything else, you would sleep with me, and you know it. There's something about Pamthreats, and there's something about me, that you're... I don't know. But I can feel it. Sometimes I think you're afraid of me, sometimes you're too guilty about me, I can't tell. But it's starting to really get on my nerves."
I sat up on the towel and brushed some sand off with the loose pages of the paperback. Finally, I nodded, sighing. "Karen, in all the centuries I have been doing this, I have never once excluded someone from my bed simply as a matter of species. Human, Mephit, Felinzi, whatever. It's never mattered to me."
I nodded. "Until now. Karen, I have tried; Odin knows, I have tried to find something in you to excite me, to arouse me. But if I'm to be honest to you, I can't. I don't." I rubbed my forehead with my open hand. "I want to. I do."
She nodded. "Do you still feel a little guilty about us?"
I shook my head. "It's not that. I reconciled that a long time ago; you're no worse off than the dolphins. Both species need cybernetics to do what I consider basic things, but you're both species that wouldn't exist without tech anyway, so I don't let it bother me. You're Pendorians, and that's all. I need biocybe to do some things I consider necessary."
"I told my problem to a friend. He suggested I close my eyes and concentrate on the voice, and try to find something there. But Karen, the fact that we're speaking Felin right now is part of the problem. It's the only language you can really speak- it and Unciati. Quen just doesn't come to you without hardware, and I know you've mostly avoided biomods. So I'm stuck with this reminder that you... you look like, you are, a Pamthreat."
"Are you afraid?"
"If I was afraid, would I have stroked your belly yesterday? No, it's not that. It's just that I'm not turned on by your kind."
"Can I say something that you're going to take very personally, Ken? And I think you should? You're a bastard. Of all the Pendorian races, we're the only ones you didn't make because you wanted to. You made us because you thought you had to. You had to hold up a promise, and in holding up that promise you didn't make what was wrong... you didn't make it right. And before you make one more move, you should ask yourself why you made Karri. Because until you know that, you're not fit to be Vatare'." She rose slowly. "I'll be going." And with that she walked off slowly.
The piano in the far corner of the bar tinkled slowly, the player taking his time on a rather long and depressing piece I recognized as something by Sakamoto. It fit my mood perfectly as I sat in the selfsame booth P'nyssa had sat in all those years ago in when I had had to go in and drag her out. I wasn't in a suicidal mood; I was far too angry for that. It was time to get drunk, to get stinking, falling down, ralfing drunk. To overwhelm the nanotech scavengers and saturate my cerebellum with enough ethanol to stun a good-sized Centaur. I was well on my way when a finger tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey, you," the finger said.
I followed the finger up the hand, arm and shoulder to look into the eyes of Carroll Lewis. "Hiya," I said, the world taking on a distinct counter-clockwise spin as I tried to focus on her.
"Can I take a seat?"
"Ish a free universh." The slur was far more pronounced than it should have been. My diction is perfect until the point of unconsciousness. But people expect drunks to slur their word to the point where speech is one long vowel movement.
She settled to the floor next to the booth, her Centaur bulk providing a wonderful barrier to keep me in. "What's up?" she asked in that playful voice she reserves for occasions like this.
"I'm gettin' drunk! Whas i'look like?"
"It looks like you're getting drunk." Her smile was dazzling. "So, you want to tell me why?"
"Because I wanna, thash why."
"It won't help you," she said.
"Wash tha mean?"
"Karen will still be here tomorrow."
"Fuck you," I said, slowly and with clarity.
"It's why you're getting drunk, isn't it? You spoke to her today, on the beach. I saw you two from the Castle balcony. So, do you want to tell Carroll what you were talking about?"
Carroll's face took on a look of mock confusion. "But that shouldn't be a problem. You're good at that."
"But I don't wanna."
"Don't wanna what, Ken? Make love?"
"Not with her. I mean, I do, but I can't." The piano picked up it's tempo significantly. "I mean, I want to, but I... I don't get excited by her, or any of the Pamthreats. It's so... I'm so fucked up, Carroll. I've made so many mistakes."
"Quite a few. I remember Cammi, all those years ago..."
"Don' remind me," I said, her image bobbing back and forth.
"'If I get one more word from you, it's back to the tanks for the lot of you!'"
"I asked y' not t' remind me!" I said, raising my voice.
"But they're still here, aren't they? The Uncia are still here. It's the past, Ken, and it was a mistake that's been corrected. Cammi is still himself, and you're still yourself."
"But that... Carroll, what if I'd been serious? I mean, that goes against everything I said I believed in." The adrenaline was starting to kick in. I took another slug of scotch. "Am I that hypocritical? Am I that callous and stupid?"
She smiled gently and said, "I don't think it makes a difference anymore. Pendorians are having babies and going on with their lives, and where they came from doesn't matter anymore. I mean, I know I'm never going to be a great skier, but then I haven't got the legs for it, and maybe you shaped that, but what I do with myself now is my business."
I smiled for a moment at the image of a Centaur on waterskis, and the smile carried weakly as I said, "I heard you're going to have a colt."
She smiled back and said, "Yeah. Ten months, Dr. Adnil says. A girl."
"Really?" I asked. "And why can't you just call him 'Rhys' like everybody else? He's almost family."
"Because... I don't know. I'm just used to calling him 'Dr. Adnil.'" She paused for a second and said, "Why did you make Karri?"
"Because I wanted to, I really did. All that power, all that strength, and I wanted to talk to it, to her... to touch her." The words just fell from my lips, and I was shocked as my muddled brain played them back for me. The shock must have been pretty clear on my face because Carroll's smile just got a little wider. "Carroll..."
She shook her head and said, "You made every Pendorian species for the same reason. Because you wanted to touch them, and you can't do that without their permission, and you can't get their permission unless they can talk to you. Now, selfish or not, you're smart enough to know that you're not going to get permission unless they've a reason for liking you and trusting you and loving you. And if everything around us is an expression of that kind of ethic, then I'm glad you're my father, Ken."
"The only difference here is that, while you made the Pamthreats originally for all the right reasons, you made the present Tleil Pamthreats out of guilt- Guilt at not fulfilling your demiurge the way you should have, they way you always did. I mean, you even made the Dragons because you wanted to be in the same world as they, and you made a hundred, and then ten thousand."
I stopped her with a hand and said, "So what do I do now? I feel... I need to go find Karen, I need to..."
"You need to sit down and sober up," Carroll said. "You need to go home to P'nyssa and Aaden, who're well suited to caring for you. P'nyssa, at least, has seen this problem before." Her smile was beautiful. I leaned over and awkwardly wrapped my arms around her shoulders, tears forming in my eyes.
"Carroll... Thank you. Again. And again." I leaned into her, and kissed her lips. In my drunken state I forgot about how I thought I was supposed to feel around Carroll, and opened my lips gently. Her response was the same, as our tongues met and touched softly, sliding over each other. It all suddenly came back to me in a flash, and I reeled away from her. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do that."
There was a sad expression on her face, and she said, "Ken, you've never kissed me like that before. What's there to be sorry about?"
"Nothing," I growled. She let it drop; I doubted much I could handle a second confession that night. "No, wait."
"Carroll, I'm going to tell you something important. Something that's sort of strange, and sort of sick." She waited. "A long time ago, before I made Pendor, before I had Fawn, even, I was just a plain human being, wandering through human life. I had a crush on a girl about my age, her name was Lisa. I can't tell you much about her, except that I was sixteen and so was she, and was as infatuated and what have you as a sixteen-year-old can get.
"And we started to get along. I can't tell you what that was like, suddenly discovering girls, suddenly having a friend, suddenly having a girlfriend. It's like nothing Pendorians, or Tleils especially, ever go through.
"She was in an auto with a friend of mine, and they'd gone to a store just to get something to eat. They were coming back and Mark, that was his name, decided to take the auto up as fast as it could go, and nobody was ever able to tell me what happened then, but the right side of the car lurched down and struck the road, and the car rolled and flipped over. Neither one was wearing any restraint, and they both went flying from it as it spun down the road. Lisa landed near me.
"And all I remember is holding her, begging her not to die, and she did anyway, and I remember having to listen to it."
Carroll was totally silent as I told her this story. "And you, Carroll, are her from the waist up. Same long black hair, same hazel eyes, same perfect teeth."
Her response was anger. "And you went through the same thing when Donna died, and you didn't tell me?" she said, her voice raising.
"You had problems of your own."
"And that makes it better?" she shouted, surprising me. I've never seen Carroll get angry.
"It doesn't make a difference now anyway," I said.
"It certainly does!"
"Carroll, she was just some girl."
"You cared enough about her that fifty years later you made me in her image!"
"And why the Hell did I do that? What kind of Freudian screwball idea leads me to take that image and put it on a Centaur?"
"Because you can't fuck one," she said sarcastically.
"Yeah. Because I can't fuck one. Okay? There, you happy? We've psychoanalyzed me enough to know that I made you because I wanted to turn some childhood crush into a virginal madonna image. Because I will never be able to treat you as just another friend, just another Tleil, just another child. Because you were my first Centaur, my first sentient at all. Because your first child died in my arms. Because I though Lisa Ann Lewis pretty enough to be given a second chance." I paused for a second, then snarled, "There. Are you finally satisfied, Carroll Lewis Shardik? Are you happy with the answers you've gotten?" I rose from the bench and took a step for the door.
She grabbed my arm and said, "I was satisfied when I came in here." Her smiled had become a little saddened. "But now I know why you've always treated me differently."
I nodded in shame and said, "Carroll, you're so different up here," I said, pointing to my temple, "from what I expected you to be. All the Centaurs were- Hell, all the Tleils were, really, but you, you were the worst. Argumentative, inquisitive. I never got a fair shot with you people. I really thought that the way you were going you were all going to hate me. And if you had, I'd've deserved it. But you, you were on my case all the time. 'What's this', and 'What's that,' and 'Tell me why.'"
"Ken... " She settled to the floor so that we were again eye-to- eye. "I love you."
"I know," I said, the tears forming in my eyes again. "I know," and I threw my arms around her shoulders and cried helplessly. "Oh, Gods, I know."
She held me close as I stood there, crying against her shoulder, and she stroked my long hair. I smiled when I felt that. "You know," I said, "I can never stop. I'll never be able to stop. There will always be one more touch I want, and I'll begin writing it down, and you know it will end up in the lab. There's nothing I can do. And it's just going to keep on fucking up your lives, Carroll, yours and everybody elses."
She smiled and said, "But that's what you're here for, Ken. To make our lives more interesting. It's not a curse, It's a blessing."
"I only wish I felt like it sometimes."
I hugged her close to me and she responded, holding my tightly. Then she said, "Well, what do you think?"
I blinked, wondering who she meant. She couldn't have been talking to me. Then I heard a voice behind me say, "You're right. He can be redeemed. It just takes the right person."
I turned around to find myself staring at Karen Walton's big brown eyes. I let go of Carroll and sank down to the floor, pulling her close and wrapping my arms around her neck, this time concentrating on the feelings of soft black fur against my cheek and throat and the sound of her heartbeat. "You set me up, didn't you?"
She growled gently and said, "Not me. Her." I looked back up at Carroll and she nodded. I hugged Karen just a little more fiercely with one arm, the other trailing under her torso and scratching her lightly. "Tomorrow," she said. "Under the trees, just like yesterday."
I nodded against her head, burying my face into the fur of her shoulder, feeling her against me and just feeling relieved. Then I finally eased back and stood, going back and hugging Carroll. "Thank you," I said.
There was a pause, the sort where I felt out of control again, and I said. "Wait here." I walked to the edge of the bar, got Mikhail's attention, and whispered something in his ear. He nodded, went into the back room and walked out a minute later, handing me a small recording chip. I carried it back and handed it to Carroll. "Here."
"What's this?" she asked as she took it.
"Carroll, twice now I've made the wrong decision about restoring things I wanted and couldn't have. I don't ever want to make that mistake again, and since you've taken your production into your own hands, I want you to have that option. Donna's code."
The look was shock. "You really want me to have this?"
"You still have to wait at least a year to make that decision."
"But I can... ?"
"If you want."
"And you won't be upset?"
"Carroll, to be honest, I have no idea how I'll feel. All I know is that this is a decision you should make, and for me to withhold the chip from you for five centuries is an error of truly Shardik-ian proportions." She laughed, and I laughed along. "Come on, let's go." I turned for the door, and just then that last massive glass of scotch decided it was time to take another stranglehold on my brain. "Woah!" I said, starting to fall backwards. Carroll caught me just in time.
"Thanks," I said.
"Let's get you home." She helped me to the door, Karen following us closely. The three of us stepped into the SDisk at the edge of town and Carroll said "Castle Shardik, please."
The lights were low inside as we appeared inside the castle, and Carroll against helped me along to my home. "I can stand," I said.
"Not very well," Carroll observed.
"No, but I can stand. Karen, would you like to come in?"
She looked off for a moment, thinking, then said, "I think I will. You need the company."
I smiled as the door opened and we walked in as a trio. The lights were off, but they came up slowly as we entered. "Hello, Dave!" I said.
There was the snap of a silence barrier going up over the access to the bedroom. "Shhh...!" he said, "They're sleeping."
"Where?" I slurred.
"P'nyssa's in here, Aaden's over in the other one."
"Okay," I said, whispering. "Sorry." Hand over hand across the furniture for balance, I made my way to the refrigerator and poured myself nearly a quart of apple juice, downing about half that in one long draught.
"Thirsty?" Karen asked.
"Very. Alcohol does that."
"Must be why I never drink," Carroll said. "Goodnight, kids. I'm off to bed."
"Goodnight," I said in return. She waved as she left through the door and it shut behind her. I walked into the living room and sat on the floor. Despite all the furniture I have or could have, I prefer sitting on floors. Don't ask me why, because I don't understand it either. Karen walked over to me and said, "Are you okay?"
"I will be."
"Do you still feel uncomfortable?"
"Very. But I want to be sober when we at least try. Because I do love you, and I do care for you. But right now I'm very drunk and very tired, and I'd just like to get some sleep. Would you like to join me?"
"Would P'nyssa object?"
"I doubt it; she likes company."
"Even in bed? I mean, I may be only two years old, but I know enough to figure that getting into bed with one of your coimelin without an introduction is pretty rude."
"Come on; you can keep her back from getting cold."
She smiled and said, "Okay." I figured it would be; the bed's big enough to sleep a small army.
Today's dawn was already a part of history when I came to consciousness. The room had been darkened, and for that I was grateful. I crawled out of the bed with all the enthusiasm lizards reserve for the dead of winter, stomping slowly to the bathroom to relieve myself. I grabbed two painkillers I was at it and then fell back into bed. I groaned.
From upstairs I heard two voices speaking in Felinzi and deduced that Nyss and Karen must have awakened much earlier and were now talking like the old friends they were becoming. I heard a shuffling noise from upstairs and figured they were on their way down.
They were. P'nyssa's feet appeared first, followed by the rest of her. She landed easily on the floor next to the bed. Karen followed head first, plummeting in slow-motion towards the bed. I groaned as she disturbed the bed further, making my head rock in pain. "G'morning," I croaked, feeling my vocal chords vibrate painfully.
"Karen," P'nyssa said cheerfully, "What you are looking at is a miserable example of a hangover."
"I dunno about you," I croaked, "but I think I'm an excellent example of a hangover."
"That's what I mean. You look miserable." I groaned again.
"What's wrong with him?"
"His body's getting back at him for ingesting all that ethanol last night. Don't worry. In an hour or so he'll be fine. Ken? Drink this."
I turned over and looked up. She was handing me a liter-sized glass full of murky water. "Water and lots of vitamins?" I asked.
She nodded. I took the glass and proceeded to drain it as best as I could. My body had such a craving need for water that I nearly succeeded in getting all of it into me.
I sat up painfully, cursing the stiffness that was amplified by the pain in my head. "I feel terrible," I said.
"You look terrible," Karen replied. "Does alcohol always do this to you?"
"Always. Depends on how much I drink, though. Diphenhydramine is worse, though. Takes two days to recover from that."
"Then why would you want to drink alcohol?" Karen asked. "There must be better ways of getting intoxicated."
"There are," I said, "but there are good, traditional reasons for enjoying alcohol. Don't ask me to name them. Maybe when you're older."
"'Maybe when I'm older'," Karen said with a smile. How many times had I said that to her?
I decided it was time to stand again, feeling a little better as the water seeped into my brain and relieved the perceived pain of dehydration. "So," I said, "who's up for a shower?"
"I've already taken mine," P'nyssa said, "and I'm late heading over to Cutter's."
"Okay, sweetheart." I stepped over to her and gave her a close hug, feeling her soft and furry body against mine. She wrapped her tens around me and ran the pads up and down my spine, sending wonderfully relaxing signals up into my head. "See ya later," I said.
She nodded, took a step back and jumped up slightly. The gravitics carried her up into the main room of my domicile.
"So," I said, looking down at Karen, who had curled up around one of the pillows on the bed, "Would you care to join me in the shower?"
She smiled and said, "I could use an extra pair of hands while I'm bathing."
"Karen, everybody could. That's what P'nyssa and Aaden are for. And that's what I'm for, for them, too." She smiled as I led her into the shower, opening the glass door for her and closing it behind me. "How do you like your water?" I asked.
"Hot," she replied.
"Hot it is." I dialed the pressure up low, then slowly adjusted the temperature until it was nearly scalding to me. "How's that?"
"Fine," she said. "That's just how I like it." She dove under the needles of steam and growled, a deep and satisfied sound, as the water dug in under her fur. The downside was that she now looked bedraggled. I laughed and offered her soap. She nodded.
I stood up momentarily to re-direct the stream towards the far wall. Pouring some soap onto my fingers, I started at her shoulders as she lay down on the floor of the shower. She growled softly as my fingers dug in deep, massaging the soap into her fur with strong strokes. Her muscles bunched and rippled under my touch. "Eyes closed," I said as I did the top of her head and under her chin. In the back of my mind I remembered scenes from my childhood of watching circus animal-handlers washing the big cats the same way, feeding them full to make them tired and then taking the water to them. But this was different, because Karen was a sentient and literate individual.
As I worked my ways along her paws, images of the day Luccas and I had gone, alone, into the woods to deal with a 'small' pride came into my head. What had we been thinking, just two humans against six Pamthreats? It had been the rage of the little Centaur girl they'd mauled to near-death, I guess. We should have formed a party, we should have worn powered armor, for Thor's sake. Still, we had won, but almost at the expense of my life. Luccas came away without a scratch.
I worked my way down the flanks of her torso to her first pair of hindlegs, working the soap between her toes and under her claws. She growled softly. I made my way to the second pair, admiring the gleam that water gave her fur. My hands stroked in small circles over the fur of her rump, then onto her tail, working my way down it's length to the small puff-ball at the very end, now a wet and drooping rat of fur.
"Turn over? On your side." She complied, easing over to her right. I stroked her neck and between her forelegs, taking care not to catch her tiny nipples under my fingernails as I did so. She purred softly as I slid my fingers over the thinner fur of her belly, and as my fingers slid between her rear legs the purring grew louder, a distinct sound over the running water.
"Ken," she said, "turn the heat up."
"Up?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said. I reached behind me and turned the cold to 'OFF,' which turned the heat up as far as it could go. The temperature soared, and I moved out of the stream of water to avoid getting scalded. I returned to her and said, "Why?"
"I dunno," she replied, breathlessly. "I just want to feel the heat."
I shrugged and returned to stroking between her hindlegs, working my way closer and closer to her vulva. She smiled and stretched, and the way she did so was so erotic I found my cock responding immediately. Which as a good sign, as far as I was concerned.
I was so busy paying attention to her I almost didn't notice her shifting weight until she had her head in my lap. Her now less-than- cold nose nuzzled against my erection, which tickled and I giggled. Her tongue slid out of her muzzle and against my cock, and I steeled myself for a rasp that never came. Instead, her long, pink tongue wrapped itself around my cock softly.
"Hmmm?" she said, her mouth closing around my cock. Her teeth were as sharp as expected, and the little prickles they sent into me filled me with lust.
"What have you done to your tongue?" I asked.
Isn't nanotech wonderful? she 'pathed at me, her mouth too busy to be a useful form of communication.
"You variformed your tongue?"
"Mm-hmm," she growled, adding I can put it back with just a thought, too.
I sighed and tried to concentrate on what I was doing, but her tongue was literally wrapped around my cock and rather effectively stroking me. I was going to climax real soon if she kept that up, and said so.
That's what I want. I laughed and leaned back, accidentally dropping one hand into the stream of water from the wall to the drain. I pulled it back quickly.
I closed my eyes, trying not to imagine what this looked like, then reveling in the image of this big cat with her head in my lap and my erection very obviously in her mouth. I knew I was in no danger from her but the very illusion thrilled me. She stroked with her head, pulling her sharp teeth, designed to take down large animals, over the head of my cock. The fibers of my body strained and hummed as she took me to the edge of ecstasy and I went over, screaming, shooting into her throat.
She growled softly and fell into a coughing fit. "You okay?" I asked.
"Uh-huh," she coughed. "Just... went down the wrong tube."
I laughed and leaned over further, wrapping my arms around her head, sighing. "Thank you," I asked.
"You're not done, Ken. Not yet."
"I know. But at least you've shown that my dick and my heart are both in agreement today."
"I always thought they were," she said. "Let's get cleaned up." I smiled and turned the heat back down to a tolerable level, rinsing off as she stepped out of the shower to dry off.
We walked out onto the carefully tended roof of Castle Shardik a while later. Ember and Rahan sat around the Oak Ring, the huge table set against the starboard edge of the garden, playing a game of backgammon. "Hiya," I said as I set my tray down. Breakfast for both Karen and I consisted of steak and eggs- My eggs scrambled dry and my steak rare, her steak well-done and her eggs raw.
"Hi, Dad," Ember said, leaning over and giving me a friendly kiss on the cheek. I returned the kiss, laying a hand on her very large and pregnant belly. "So how're they doing?"
"Doing good," she said cheerfully. "Just four more weeks."
"Really?" I said.
"Yep," she replied, smiling widely. I've started to realize that Ember likes being pregnant. Not as much as Rachel, but sometimes it seems close.
We ate quickly. Karen didn't so much eat her food as she did make it go away. Under her tongue, restored to it's normal raspiness, the meat just vanished. "Ready to go?" I asked Karen. She assented, and we rose. I kissed Ember on the cheek as I left, and she purred and stroked my cheek.
"So?" I asked Karen as we leapt off the side of the castle and were gently lowered to the sand of the lagoon.
"What?" she asked.
"Well, what do you want to do?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. That's up to you."
I sighed. "You're going to force me to make the decisions, aren't you?"
"Sure." Her eyes smiled mischievously.
I thought for a moment, then said, "Have you ever been on a rollercoaster?"
High summer brings the midyear holidays, and quite possibly the biggest is the Lithe Carnival. The place was a constant explosion of sound- cheap little bellows-horns, barkers playing roles, seducing people into the Tunnel of Love or the Chamber of Horrors. Children screaming as the eight-armed monster twists and turns, a little box on the end of it, kids securely strapped in. "Once you've been to the Moon, you can't go back to Tilt-O-Whirl," John Glenn once said. Maybe so, but even on as spacefaring a planet as Pendor, literally billions of people have never been anywhere but the surface of our world. In fact, with our transporter technologies, most people have never gone much faster than the speed of their own feet.
Which is why carnival rides are so popular around here. Combining the sheer physical violence so well perfected by Terra with the safety of Pendorian engineering, the carnival if terrifyingly fun.
People gave Karen and I a wide berth. Actually, they gave Karen a wide berth. Despite the common knowledge that there was a Tleil of sentient Pamthreats, there was still the common fear of the big cat.
"What do we do here?" Karen shouted above the din.
"We have fun!" I said. "What do you think we do? Come here!" She followed me over to the rides section at the port end of the place. "That's a rollercoaster."
Actually, it was the local equivalent. It had no rails, just a cabin. It was a gravitics-only vehicle, with a pre-programmed course and no compensation for the passengers. Same effect. And it was open- air.
"What's it do?"
"Come on!" We walked over to the barker.
The barker, a Mephit who had been looking slightly bored, started up. "You sir, and the lovely..."
"Lady," I said.
"Yes, the lovely young lady, would you care to take a death-defying ride through the air?" He opened his mouth a little wider, his tail shaking with the force of his bellow. "Who would like to join them?" A crowd was growing. I got the feeling that the graviroll was an unpopular ride- probably looked too dangerous. "Come one, come all! Dare to join these two as they take the thrilling ride!"
I helped Karen into my lap and held on tight around her belly. "Ready!" I asked.
"Sure!" she snarled back.
We were joined by another couple, two Felinzi, behind us. They didn't look too comfortable. I smiled.
The ride started out traditionally slow. "Is this all?" Karen asked.
"Wait," I whispered into her ear, nipping it gently. She shivered.
The car reached the top of the loop and began screaming down in a long, rollicking dive. A loop rocked the car up and left. I shouted a loud "Wheee!" as the was pulled left and right. A motor in the car growled, adding the sensations of vibration and the hum of power to the motion. Karen's claws dug into the vinyl covering of the seat, pushing her back against me. I gripped her closer, laying my chin on her shoulder. The car skimmed the grass set aside for its path, flew in a violent corkscrew high over the Lithe field, took a few more slow dips and turns, and slowed to a stop back in the berth next to the Mephit.
"You okay, sweetheart?" I asked.
"I... I think so." She stepped out of the car carefully, wobbling on all six legs. The two Felinzi behind us in the car looked liked they would survive. I was grateful neither one had gotten sick.
"So tell me, sir," the barker began again, "another ride?"
"Naaah," I said casually. "Get them." I pointed to the crowd that had stopped to watch us. Karen walked down the steps carefully, and when she reached the slightly tramped grass she stopped and said, "You really like that?"
"Are you kidding?" I said, my smile wider than Rael Canyon. "That was great!" I stopped for a second, my smile diminishing. "Are you going to be sick?"
"No..." she said. "Just want to stop... want the world to stop spinning so much."
I bit back a quick joke about ringworlds and the lousy side effects that would result if one were to stop spinning. "Take it easy," I said. "Take deep, slow breaths."
She took my advice and finally said, "I feel better."
"I thinks so. What's that?" she asked, pointing to a building labeled 'The Hall of Mirrors.'
"Ah, that. Well, it's the sort of thing that has to be seen to be believed. Come on."
The Hall of Mirrors was patently unfair, especially compared to the more traditional types. Holograms, SDisks installed under the mirrorslats, gessler suggestion fields, the works. The maze changed every time we walked through it, the images shifted. Sometimes I think the AI in charge of this built image-clean pairs and teleported the walkers, because at least twice I found myself walking out through the 'in' door. We went through five times, the last two times playing games of tag. "Gotcha," Karen growled as she pounced, rearing up and putting her paws on my chest, shoving me back against a mirror and licking my face. Her tongue was what I had originally expected, hot and raspy, and after she licked my cheek I checked for blood.
"You're okay," she insisted. "Besides, you didn't shave today- I should check the same for my tongue."
I laughed. "Let's find our way out of here." She agreed. This time was easy, more suggestion that the AI was paying close attention to what was going on in there.
We had a great day together. At lunch we had corndogs. We rode a few rides and spent the day, talking and getting along better than we ever had. I introduced Karen to cotton candy, a serious mistake, as she fell in love with it instantly and proceeded to spend the better part of an hour licking the stuff out of the fur of her paws.
"Having fun?" I asked.
"The best," she insisted. Some children came over to us as I sat under one of the concession tents sipping a pop and said, "Father?"
There were four of them, a Human boy of about nine, a female Ssphynx I'd've put a little younger, and two male Mustela. I looked them over and said "Can I help you guys?"
"We was wondering," said the Human, "Can we touch him?" It actually took me a few seconds to realize they were talking about Karen.
"Well, her name is Karen, and why don't you ask her?"
"I can do that?" He looked a little surprised. Karen looked up with a smile on her face and said, "Why don't you come over here and try it?"
Trouble was, she said it in Felin. But the Ssphynxgirl recognized it and spoke back. I had no trouble following the conversation, and eventually she did reach out and touch Karen on her head. The others crowded around, and I smiled as I watched them. I looked around and managed to find the parents of the Mustelakins, and the look on their faces was a classic "Oh-no-but-Father's-there-it-must-be-okay" look, and I turned my head away to laugh, not wanting to embarrass them. I was interrupted from my private musing by a hand being waved over my shoulder. "Ken!"
"Dillion!" I said, looking up. I wasn't surprised that he'd managed to sneak up on me like that. The tent held at least two dozens strangers, reeking of the fear and excitements of the rides, eating foods that they would otherwise never have touched in centuries. "How are you doing, old man?"
"Old man," he snorted. "You're older than I am, by at least a century."
"So how have you been? Still working for Richard?"
"Of course. What could be more exciting? The best engineer on the planet needs the best robotocist, doesn't he? And we are the best."
"Glad to see you still have your ego intact."
"And good to see yours is still going strong," he laughed, shaking my hand with that huge, meaty mitten of his. For a Tindal, Dillion's strong. "That one," he said, pointing to Karen, "one of the new ones?"
"Tliel," I agreed, "just like you."
Karen wandered over and said, "Hello. Who's this? Smells good."
"She never says that about me," I said.
Dillion chuckled and knelt down. "How do you do?"
I made introductions. "Dillion, meet Karen Walton. Karen, Dillion."
"It's a pleasure to meet a fellow Tleil, especially one so pretty," he said. "I hate to meet you only to run, but I've got a project to get to work on, and I promised Fradrake I'd have it done by tomorrow."
"It was nice to meet you, Dillion."
"And you, Karen. Make sure you watch him, though. A lovely young lady like yourself running around with Ken Shardik should be careful. The man's oversexed."
"That's what I'm hoping," Karen said.
I must have turned several shades of bright red, because Dillion looked at me and said, "What was that you said, 'If you can still blush, your immortal soul is in no particular danger'?"
"I said that a long time ago. Besides, I didn't know you believed in souls, Dillion."
"Don't, necessarily. But you do. Take care."
"You too." He gave Karen a half-wink and a wave as he walked out of the tent.
"So," I said, "What happened to the children?"
"Their parents came and took them?"
"Away from you?"
"Away from the carnival, I think. It is getting late."
"But carnivals are always at their best at night!"
"I know," she said, yawning. "But after a whole day, I've also learned that they're very tiring, and I think I'd like to go home."
"Sounds good to me," I said. Truth to tell, my feet were killing me. We headed for the nearest SDisk, and Castle Shardik.
When the lagoon SDisk deposited us on the beach, I said, "Do you want to take the stairs, or the local SDisk?"
"The stairs," she said. "I'm in no mood to go swimming."
I nodded and summoned the stairway, a force-field construct. We climbed up to the roof of the Castle and made our way to the entrance to the first floor. From there we descended the grav-tube to the second floor, where most of the residentials were. The tube opens up onto the second-floor commons, where a lone maintenance drone cleaned up the shattered remains of crayons strewn across the wooden floor. I shook my head quietly, thinking that having two three-year-olds in the Castle at the same time was almost too much for one cranky Shardik to have to bear in the morning, but I do love them with all my heart. All the Castle children are wonderful, and they always have been.
We passed the bright yellow door to Dave's room, across the hall from the door that opens up on Rainy and Richard's old bedroom, and reached my home. The door opened easily and I said, "Hi, Dave!"
"Evening, Ken, and you too, Miss Walton."
"Thank you, Dave," she replied politely.
"Ken, P'nyssa and Aaden have both said that you and Karen would probably want the evening to yourselves and have made arrangements to sleep elsewhere."
I smiled. "Well," I said, "I hope the two of them have fun." Inside, though, there was just a twinge of jealousy; not enough to make me angry or sad; I'm far too old for that kind of nonsense. Just enough to acknowledge that after all these years together I still want to be the most important person in their lives, as they are in mine.
I turned to Karen and said, "Can I get you anything?"
She looked up and said, "Water?"
"Just water?" She nodded, and I walked into the kitchen to dig out a bowl appropriate for her. I figured the large salad bowl would do for now, but it occurred to me that if I was regularly going to have Pamthreats as guests I was going to need some appropriate dishware. "Do you want a straw?"
"No, thanks," she said as she dipped her muzzle into the bowl, slurping up large gouts of water as she drank. Some splashed over the side onto the carpet. "Sorry."
"S'Okay," I said. "The Carpet Monster will take care of it."
"The Carpet Monster?" she said.
I laughed. "When kids are growing up, they spill stuff onto the floor all the time. When we have children, we put in a much thinner, flat carpeting that's easier to clean, not this thick shag. Anyway, I used to tell them that when they spilled things they were feeding the carpet monster, and when it was fed enough and had grown enough, it would get hungry, and would come and eat them!"
She laughed along, then said, "I wish..."
I walked around and sat down on the floor next to her. "Wish what?"
"I wish I had children. I mean, I understand now what you meant back when you told us to wait, to get to know what it meant to be alive before adding to the world, but I want kids now."
I smiled and said, "You'll have to choose a father."
"Oh, I don't know that that will be that hard. I have a lot of males pawing over me." She rubbed her head gently against my chest, and I reached up to touch her forehead gently, with just the fingertips. "Ken," she whispered softly. "I want this to work."
"I know," I said in the same low voice. "Me too."
She looked up, and I kissed her on her black nose softly. Her tongue slid out and licked my chin, rough and feline. I hugged her close. "I love you, Karen."
She chuckled softly, "Love you, too. And I'm sorry... you do smell good, at least, when you don't have alcohol on your breath." I laughed.
There was a pause, and then I felt an odd bunching of the muscles in her legs, as if she were about to pounce. She shoved me down onto my back and straddled me, standing over me. "Karen, what..."
"Shhh..." she growled, rubbing her nose against mine. "Lie down."
I did as she said. I rarely argue with mischievous carnivores. She stepped back, walking down my supine body. She turned around over my legs and sat down, square over my knees. "Karen, what are you doing?"
Instead of a verbal reply, she attacked my sneakers, pulling at the laces with her teeth, trying to get a good grip and shredding the canvas somewhat. She managed to get it free and with a toss of her head threw it across the room. She pulled off the sock, tossed it in the same direction. Then she went to work on the other foot. "If you think I'm going to kiss you after you've eaten my shoes, you've got another thing coming!" I said.
"Not your shoes," she growled around the other sneaker as she threw it, "your feet."
"Like this," she said, curling around my feet and opening her jaw wide. Her breath was hot and humid as her teeth closed, sharp and delicate, on my right foot. Her tongue reached out and ran across the sole of my foot.
I exploded with laughter. "No!" I shouted, and she ignored me, tickling me mercilessly with her variable and soft tongue, making me shake and scream. "Karen! Please!" I begged as she dug in further, shifting her toothy grip a little so her tongue could get at the very sensitive parts of my arch, between the toes.
"KARRRREENNNN!!!!" I screamed. "DAMN YOU!!!!" I squirmed, reaching for her, but what I could reach was unticklish. I had to find something to distract her! She shifted feet, working on the other, which wasn't quite so numb. "PLEEAAASSSEE!" I screamed, shaking and trying to kick, but her massive weight effectively held me down. I was half-afraid I was going to wake up the whole household.
Finally she stopped. Even without stimulus, my giggles went on for at least a minute, maybe two. She looked up over herself and smiled at me.
I raised myself up on my elbows and looked her in the eye. "That was MEAN!" I said.
"But it was FUN!" she replied, giving my foot a playful lick. I groaned in response. She stood up and walked over so we were face to face, nuzzling my cheek with her cold nose. "It wasn't that bad, was it?"
My response was to grab her by the shoulders and wrestle her to the ground, onto her back, straddling her quickly. She looked up at me as I said, "There must be something on this side of you that's ticklish!"
"I wouldn't do that," she said, waving her left forepaw at me, all four major claws extended.
"Aw, you wouldn't claw me, Karen. After all, who would you find to do this?" I asked, pushing myself back a little and taking one of her tiny nipples in my mouth and sucking down, gently. She growled with pleasure, the sound thrumming through her body and into my groin. I smiled, nipping her gently, playing with the tiny bud of flesh with my tongue and teeth. Her growls grew into a deep purr. I pushed back further, until my butt hit her first pair of rearlegs. I realized this wasn't going to work, and said so.
"Get those big pillows on your couch," Karen said. I got up off of her, walked over to the couch and grabbed all of the pillows, not just the big ones. I stuffed them under her, making a small cradle of cushions for her to lie on. I kneeled next to her and said, "Now what?"
"Take off your clothes." I complied, throwing them aside to join my sneakers. "Now," she said, "touch me like you did at the tree."
I smiled, slowly stroking along the length of her body, from her throat down between her legs to just short of her cunny. She growled as I teased her with my fingertips. I had to sway my whole torso to reach down between her rearlegs.
I cuddled up close to her, my knees and thighs pressing against her middle, feeling her hard pants and deep growls through my skin. I leaned over and found a different nipple this time, pressing my chest against her as I did so. Her forepaw awkwardly fell on my back and caressed me slowly, the pads feeling special and new against my skin. My right hand explored all the way down between her legs, running over the ruff of fur that surrounded her vulva, trailing down to her anus and up the base of her tail. I couldn't reach much beyond a few cents of the tail, but on the way back, I stopped over her cunny, just as I had tried this morning in the shower, sliding my index finger past the criss-crossed fur and sliding into her almost circular vulva, diving into her and coming back wet.
I crawled further up onto her body, working my way down her length, nipping her gently through the fur as I did so. She growled louder, as I slid down, between her four rearlegs, in what would have been a classic '69' position had we been even remotely proportional.
As it was, when I ran my tongue over her small and swollen cunt, her head was at least half a meter from my sex. But I didn't mind- my attention was on her, and my intent was to make her growl louder. Her body underneath me purred like a motorcycle, the fur and vibration tickling my balls and sending waves of satisfaction through me. Her legs shuddered with every lick, and her breathing sped up as I dove into her cunny, licking and nibbling. She growled "Get inside me, please," as I licked. I turned to look down the length of her body and said, "Now?"
"Now," she said. "Like this."
I slid off of her, crawling around to her butt. I cupped her rump with both hands, stroking and caressing her. My erection was more than ready this time, and I said, "Ready?"
"Yeah..." she hissed. I leaned forward, taking my cock in hand to correct the aim, and slid forward, pressing the head against her vulva. She growled as I pressed, and when it slid past her lips and home she let out a roar that must have awoken the rest of the castle. I leaned forward, pressing myself against her, wrapping my arms around her middle again. She growled, her body arching, twisting in response to my thrusts. Her paws quivered as I pounded her, my sex slick with her Pamthreat juices, the air thick with Pamthreat growls.
I was pounding harder, my cock feeling like stone, so hard it almost hurt as it slid into her tightness. Her size was so great that even though I was lying atop her, my knees where on the ground, providing leverage and force. She had long since stopped purring, occasionally letting small growls escape her, mewlings almost, and as I got closer to my orgasm I could see her head whipping back and forth.
Her mewls got louder and closer together, until they were one long whimper of pleasure as I kept my steady rhythm, feeling that familiar rise in my groin, that pressure. She let out one long peal and followed it with a loud roar, her body shuddering ever more violently as she came.
That did it for me, and I roared out my success as I came inside her, feeling my cock pulse into her, against the warm and textured walls of her cunt.
I collapsed on top of her. She rolled to her left, unceremoniously dumping me onto the carpet. A thought came to my mind as I lay there, trying to recover, and I giggled.
"What's... so... funny?" she asked between pants.
"Here we are," I said into the shag, "Easy pickin's for the Carpet Monster."
She laughed, and I laughed along as I crawled up to her head, kissing her on the forehead. Her tongue, raspy and hotter than usual, licked my throat as I did. "I did good?" I asked.
"You were wonderful. Thank you, father."
I laughed. "You're very welcome. Feel up to moving downstairs?"
"Grrr.... Yeah," she said, groggily rising to her feet. "If we're going to take shower," she said. "I don't like sleeping with this sticky feeling, and I've still got cotton candy on my paws!" The last part came out in this pitiful mewl, and I laughed.
"Okay, gorgeous. Let's go clean up." She led the way down the gravwell, to the shower and to bed.