When things don't go right, I get cranky. Sounds to me like a perfectly normal, human reaction. "How long will she stay down?"
Derek checked a few displays. "Hal? I estimate four hours?"
"I agree," the AI responded. "Although with this new cross- genetic design implementation such estimates are hard to confirm completely, four hours seems a reasonable estimate."
"And the rest of the report?" I asked, testily.
"Ah," Derek replied, looking at his PADD. "She's clean of the amniotics in her lungs. Upper GI tract seems to be most clogged, followed by the lower. I vote let natural process take care of her. Most of it will filter out through her kidneys eventually. It is reasonably digestible."
I nodded. "Okay, then." I rubbed my face with my hands, feeling four-day-old stubble slide along my palms. "You would say that Vulpins one and two are okay."
I smiled. "Things are looking up. I scheduled three through ten to be decanted the day after tomorrow, providing one and two seem viable when they come to." I looked across the room where number two lay, sleeping peacefully. "At least he didn't seem to be in any distress when we pulled him out."
"No. I can't figure out why her respiratory activation gave her so much trouble." Derek's brow knit together in puzzlement as he examined her readouts. "I suggest we check the other eight right now, starting with number six. He had some developmental trouble in the postfetal stage."
"Oh, Hell," I sighed. "Same as hers?"
"Could be worse. Let's go check now."
I nodded. "Lead the way, Doctor Placton."
Two hours later Derek and I were sitting in the Pindam cafeteria, the only two people on this airless ball of rock other than the Tleil Century of Sapienter Vulpes scheduled to come out of their tanks during the course of the next two weeks. We each had a glass of kfi in our hands and were slowly drinking them down when the alarm klaxon went off.
"Medical, stat. You've got an emergency I can't control."
I was in a dead run for the medlab, charging down the halls unmindful of the one-sixth gravity or the fact that there were several closed doors. "She's up and moving, and I don't think she's fully sentient yet. You two are much closer than any drone I could get to her."
I could hear Derek's feet behind me as we approached Med Lab. "You've got trouble, Ken, she's just swallowed something I can't identify. It came from the bathroom, I haven't got a camera there."
"I don't know."
"Great," I said, reaching out and grabbing one of the many recessed handholds situated along the corridor, this one by the door to Medical. I felt the tendons in my shoulder object, ignored them, released the handhold as I came to a stop and palmed the doorlock.
The door opened and I looked inside. There was a loud, yowling screech as something, the Vulpin, struck me at the side. I reacted with equal violence, tempering it with the knowledge that she wasn't responsible for her actions. Hair-trigger martial arts can be funny that way. I felt pain along my left side, ignored it as blocked with the left, responded with my right in a vicious grab that she dodged.
She took two blurringly fast steps backwards and then leapt at me. I prepared to dodge when a high-pitched whine reached my ears from behind me. The leap turned into a painfully slow fall as she slumped unconscious in midair; In the one-fifth gravity she would hit her head on the far wall. I jumped between her and the wall and took the brunt of her velocity between her shoulders and my arms. "Ooof!"
"What happened?" Derek asked as I tried to clear my head from the impact between the body and the wall.
"She woke up without us, I guess." I looked down and heard a strange gurguling noise coming from her throat. "Go into the bathroom and find out what she was going through in there!" I ordered immediately, picking her up and dropping her on the platform she'd originally been lying on. "Derek! She's having trouble breathing again!"
"It's worse than that," he said, running out of the bathroom. "She did get into the cleaning supplies. I think she drank some sodium hydroxide. I found it spilled over."
"Ohmifah," I said, ignoring the self-reference and grabbing hardware. "Derek, get me some amniotics, now. If we flood her system we can dilute."
He nodded and ran to get the equipment. She started convulsing, and I started praying.
Thirty hours later, I blinked into the darkened space of Medical. Although Hal was a sufficient watcher, both Derek and I had agreed to take up positions on either side of her bed, so we'd moved her platform into slot number three and I'd taken two, he'd taken four.
The male half of the first two Tleils was also sleeping soundly according to the readout I could see, but he wasn't in the room anymore. Hal had assured me he'd alert me when he woke up even though he was in P'nyssa and Loash's hands now. They were over in the secondary Medical center, which had more privatized spaces and access to better interactive materials.
I'm not sure what had woken me up. A sound, maybe, or a smell. I don't usually come to full alertness like I had tonight, so I tried to figure out exactly what had alerted me.
Then I heard a noise come from her bed. A shifting sound, like she was moving again. It wasn't convulsions, or Hal would have awoken me. Fitful sleep? Or was she coming around?
We had been lucky; she hadn't drunk all that much bleach and we had gotten to her early. Between immediate medical attention and the new generation of blood-borne biomechanicals, she had healed almost completely before we'd even gone to sleep.
And then I heard a whimper. A painful sound. I got out of bed slowly and walked over to where she lay on her side, tossing. I examined her in the almost dark of Medical; the only lights came from displays over her bed or scattered about the room. She was beautiful in ways I hadn't anticipated. I'd almost built the Vulpin out of capitulation to a series of articles asking, out of all the species I could have worked with, why I hadn't worked with "man's best friend," namely, the dog?
Because dogs are nearly impossible to work with. Out of all the species that I find attractive, dogs are very far down on my list and genetically, dogs are a mess. I've even used some relevant parts of their code in my own species, but on their own dogs are a disaster. So much pressure has been put on them to rearrange their shape, from breeds weighing under two kilos to breeds weighing over a hundred, that the idea of actually trying to fit that mold to a sentient race drove me buggy. I refused to go along.
But after examining foxes, I decided that there was at least on family of canid I could work with. I may also end up examining the Lupus, or wolf family, some day. But the Vulpins appeared to be easy to work with as a genepool, so I decided to try them instead.
I ran into trouble when I decided to change my usual method of engineering and instead attempted to build a unified new form of life incorporating self-installing nanotech bridging across given generations. As it is, earlier species have to have their nanotech scavengers tuned externally and then installed after birth.
I reached down and stroked the side of her cheek with the back of my hand, feeling the soft downy fur and following the curve where her snout joined skull, smiling at my artwork and hoping, like I always did, that this species didn't hate me for what I'd done. So far, none had.
I felt her move again, and I felt something come down on my hand. Her paw. I smiled down at her and whispered, "Hi. What's your name?"
Her eyes opened, blinking and staring up at me. She was still holding my hand to the side of her face. "Hi," I repeated. "Can you tell me your name?"
"Rrrrr...." she growled, releasing my hand and shaking her head. "Tarsha."
"Repeat it?" I asked.
"Tasha," she said, dropping the 'r' I had heard the first time.
"Tasha," she sighed, sagging back against the cushion she lay on. "What is... where... what... "
"Easy," I said softly. "Calm down. Do you remember anything before now?"
"Tasha... do you have any memories before right now?"
She stared up at me, her eyes concentrated. "No... wait... yes. I remember being confused, and feeling bad, and you-- I fought you." She started to scoot away from me. "Are you a... an enemy?"
"Tasha, do you have any enemies?" I asked.
She thought for a moment. "No. But why was I fighting you?"
"Because you were confused and sick. You tried to get some water and drank bleach instead."
"Bleach. That's sodium hydroxide, a caustic agent."
"I can understand why I was sick then. Who are you?"
I sighed quietly. "My name is Kennet Shardik. Please, call me Ken. I'm your... father."
She reached up and touched my face with one hand, caressing her own face with the other. "I though families all were the same species."
"Not with me," I said softly. "When I have children, I make them in the shapes I choose."
"So you... made me, instead of giving birth the way I thought it was done." I nodded. "Why?"
"Why what? Why make you? Because I want children. Because the more genetic types there are, the more disease-resistant you are as a whole. And because your shape, your species' beauty is something wonderful that the world was less without."
"How old am I?"
"About a day," I smiled. "Your... brother is being handled by my coimelin, Dr. Traken."
"I have a brother?"
"Yes, sort of. Tleils are made in pairs, one male, one female. Although this isn't necessary or efficient-- a species that is female top-heavy would be better off-- I tend to have some set ideas that, so far, have worked out pretty well. He's the male first Vulpin."
She nodded, but I didn't feel her understanding yet. "Tasha," I said softly. "You're in a state known as incorporation shock. You're spending your first day alive, and you don't know how to handle it. Can you understand that?"
She tilted her head slightly to the left, confused. "I think so."
"Just think so?"
"I think I understand what you're telling me, if you're telling me the truth."
"You have no reason to doubt me. But that's about as good an answer as I could have hoped for, under the circumstances." I heard a shuffling over past both of us. She turned around to look. "Tasha, meet Derek. He helped me with you."
"Hi," he said gently, reaching down to touch her hand. "I'm glad you're all right. You had us worried there for a while."
She held his hand. "I'm glad you were worried for me. You are Derek. Does this mean you're my father too, since you were here?"
Derek smiled over at me, then down at her. She was starting to look less confrontational and more like a lost little girl. "No," he said gently. "Because he's my father."
I smiled over at the Felinzi across the table from me. "No, I was father to your great great grandfather. I'm not taking responsibility for you, you rakeheart."
He smiled and reached out with his free hand to beep my nose. "Oh, come on. You feel responsibility for everything, Ken, whether you say you will or not."
"Yeah," I said, smiling down at Tasha. "So, are you ready to stand. Hal? Is she ready to meet her brother?"
"Her brother has chosen the name Theodore. And yes, he is quite anxious to meet his sister."
"Who was that?" Tasha asked.
"The AI. Check your memories."
"An AI is an artificial life form capable of emotion, feeling and intuition, and is to be given the full accord and respect worthy of a fellow sentient," she repeated dutifully from her memory.
"Pretty much," I replied, smiling. "Ready?"
"I think so," she replied, still bewildered. "There so much you want me to try and take in at once."
"That's just because it's all new to you. Once you've been around for a while, you start to fit into your surroundings, and they stop demanding so much attention of you. You'll figure it out. Come on," I said, reaching a hand out and lowering the protective bars on my side of the bed. She nodded and I slowly eased her down from the bed to her feet.
"I can stand," she said.
"Yes you can," I replied, smiling. "Did you think you couldn't?"
"I didn't know until now," she replied unsteadily. "I guessed that I could, but I didn't know."
"Well, what do you think?"
"It feels pretty strange," she admitted, smiling widely.
"You have a very beautiful smile," I told her softly. "Come, let's go meet your brother." Derek and I led her down the hallway to Theo's room. About halfway there she figured out skipping. At the end of the hallway she learned, painfully, about stopping.
The wind whipped through her fur, ruffling it and making it fly across her body in strangely beautiful patterns that attracted my eye like little else that day had. She stared across the great plain that receded aspin from Marbletop range with eyes that spoke of great strength and long trial. I wandered up behind her and hugged her tightly. "It's done for you, Tasha. The others will take over now."
She reached up and placed her hand on mine, like she had the day she had first awakened. "It was a long year, Father."
"I know, Tasha, but you did well. You did better than I could have asked of anyone."
She sighed gently. "Only a hundred of us to start out with, and I had to be responsible for them all."
"Only ten. You were supposed to reach one, then ten. The ten were supposed to reach the hundred."
"But somehow they all kept coming back and asking me, Ken. There were just so many questions, as if I had any more answers than they did."
"You did your best, Tasha, and you held it all together. I was impressed. You did wonderfully." I slid my hands down her shoulders and around her waist, holding her against me. She no longer fought me as she had once, a year ago.
She patted my hands as I laced fingers about her waist. "Do you think I'm still in IS?" she asked, turning to look at me.
"I'm not sure. It's not something I can really, objectively determine. I wish I could, but it's something I just feel. I think in some ways you are, but for the most part you've got it together."
She smiled. "Can we go somewhere, Ken. Just you and I?"
"North Point. I like it there."
I blinked, considering. There were only two people who I thought even know of North Point-- me, and Oenone. Actually, I'm sure there are many many "North Points" scattered around Pendor, one for every local map and town. But for us, Shardik Castle, North Point is just one place. One of the two edges of MarbleTop ridge. "Sure, we can go," I said finally. "How do you want to go?"
"We can SDisk to Suvrahvain and fly from there. It shouldn't take more than an hour."
"Okay," I said. "Do you want to pack up the supplies, since this appears to be a day-long outing?"
She smiled and nodded. "Can I meet you at the hanger in twenty minutes?"
I glanced at my watch and nodded. "Of course."
Marbletop gets its name because that's exactly what it is. Imagine, if you can, a mountain range rising up from sea level, and then slicing it cleanly off at around 30 meters, disposing of all that rock, and polishing the exposed surface until it was nearly reflecting, and you'll have Marbletop. At it's narrowest Marbletop ridge is six kilometers wide, at it's widest it's about thirty. It runs nearly 25,000 kilometers along the Vinyare coastline. Shardik Castle is nearer to the southern edge than the northern.
The northern tip is called, of course, North Point. It's an apex point that curls slightly outwards into the water, a spit of rock with no beach around it. The ocean isn't that far away... 30 meters, to be exact. It still seems like a long fall.
"So what are we doing here?" I asked her dubiously as I put my helmet into the seat of my Solo IV flitter.
"I wanted to take you somewhere where we could be alone. To talk with you, ask you questions."
I looked over her very round, reddish-gold eyes and smiled. "What's for lunch?"
"Egg salad sandwiches. I hope you don't mind."
"Mind?" I asked. "I love the things." She laughed as I spread out the blanket and handed me one. "So what are your questions?"
She finished chewing a mouthful of sandwich before answering. "Actually, I have just one question." She rose and walked over to a spot about fifteen meters from where we had set down. "What does this mean?"
"What does what mean?"
"This writing. I asked Dave about it and he said he was unaware it was even here."
I stood up and walked over to see something I hadn't seen in centuries. I smiled as I knelt to trace the letters with my hands. "You don't read Anglic, do you?"
"No," she said, sighing. "I've barely learned how to speak it. It's a very complicated language. What does it say?"
I traced the letters carved into the Marbletop again, remembering Oenone say them.
With no reference point there is no date
To tell you exactly when I stand
Upon this bleak and barren stone by sea
And order life to commence in this land.
I looked over my shoulder to smile at her, and she stared down at me. "It's one thing to terraform a planet and then drop the right kind of bacteria everywhere. You program them with the right genetics and everything should work out fine. It's quite another to have someone who can program the ebb and flow of the very sea itself to ensure that those bacteria have the best of everything they need to grow up into good little mammals like you and me."
She nodded as I stood up, taking another bite from the sandwich I held in my left hand. I took her hand and led her back to the blanket, sitting down. "How long have those words been there?" she asked.
"Millions of years," I replied. "You forget I had a time machine once."
"No I didn't. Why aren't they worn away by the weather? North Point has a very poor history for weather."
"Because Oenone said they won't." I smiled and shrugged. "Ask her."
"Nobody's heard from her in ages."
"I know. The rumors are flying. I saved her life once, but that was probably enough, even for her. Someday soon I'll sail over to her home and see if she's still around."
"A few months," I smiled, looking over at her. "Tasha, can I ask you a question now?"
"Of course," she replied.
"Of all the fems that I know, you are the most quiet, the most reserved, the most... private. You never raise your voice above the gentlest of volumes. You handle everyone who comes to you fairly and maturely, but I've never seen you really have a strong relationship with anyone. Why?"
She ate quietly for a moment. "I don't know," she answered. "I just haven't had the kind of time I'd need to dedicate to a relationship."
"What kind of time? They just happen, really."
"For you, they do. But I'm not so sure that could happen for me. I'd want to spend a long time with someone, to learn about them. To study them, almost."
"You've spent a lot of time studying me," I replied. "What kind of conclusions have you drawn about me?"
"That you're fair and obstinate. That to prove to you that you're wrong takes the facts and to ten decimal places. Once you've been proven wrong, you take the countering argument to heart like a zealot. You're a lousy chess player, a loving parent, and a good bedmate."
"Wait a second. What makes 'a good bedmate?'" I asked, suddenly curious as to who could be talking about me that way.
"I don't know," she replied fairly. "I do know that most of the females I've spoken with who have spent the night in bed with you told me the experience was a positive one and that they'd like to repeat it."
"Did you ask them about me, or about that in specific?"
She smiled and glanced around. "Females talk about these things in specific, Ken."
I laughed. "Actually, I think it's the subject that causes the directness of the conversation."
"I think when we're talking about men, both sexes get very specific. I feel comfortable talking about exactly what my male lovers do in bed, but my female partners... I just like to say they're worthwhile."
She nodded. "There is a difference in the sexes."
"Of course there is. As much as there are certain differences between different species. The catch being we're all sentient, so we all choose the courses of action we take. I don't excuse anyone, of any species, for being violent just because he's more capable as an individual of violence than any other species."
She nodded. "We don't have interspecies violence. Why do you think that is?"
I shrugged. "People's needs are met here. People are taught to respect each other. Besides, there's always someplace to go to. We don't crowd each other."
"Father?" she asked softly, reaching a slim hand to rest on my arm. "Do you love me?"
"Tash... Of course I love you."
"You've never told me that before," she sighed, turning slowly to lay back and place her head in my lap. She curled on her side on the blanket.
I ran my hand gently along the curve of her jaw, touching her. She murred softly, shifting a little. "I should say it more, then," I replied. "You're very beautiful."
"Does that make you want to love me?" she asked softly. "I haven't figured that part out yet."
I laughed as I stroked her fur. "Have you figured out what beauty is, first?"
"No," she admitted. "I used to think there were definitions, but beauty appears to be different from person to person. In the eye of the beholder, I believe the phrase is."
"That's about it," I said. "To my eyes, you are very beautiful."
She murred softly. "You made me, Father, so of course you'd think I'm beautiful."
"I don't know about that," I said, leaning over and kissing her cheek lightly. "Some artists hate their work. Some artists create beautiful work that they love at first and come to hate later."
She turned to look up at me, raising her head to kiss me back. "You wouldn't do that to me, would you?"
"Never," I whispered. She reached up and held my face in her hands, holding me in place while we kissed, warmly, upon that picnic blanket and that cold place by the sea.
I ran my fingers along her chest, feeling her fur slide under my fingertips, my fingertips coming to rest at her nipples. She pushed up, rolling me over, rolling on top of me, her muzzle running down my neck until she was poking her muzzle down my shirt. "Don't tear the buttons," I laughed softly, ruffling the fur on top of her head.
"Why shouldn't I?" she asked, looking up to smile at me.
"Because I like this shirt."
"Good enough reason," she announced, slowly undoing each button as she worked her way down, humming to herself canine fashion. She pulled the tails out of my kilt and tossed it open, straddling my hips to run her hands over my chest. "Skin is so fascinating," she said.
"You and Aaden. Always saying that."
"It is!" she insisted. "There's something so interesting about smooth, hairless skin. The way fingers slide over it, the way lips can touch it. Why do you like fur so much?"
"Good question, and the answer is 'I don't know.' I just enjoy the feeling of it, the silky quality of it."
"Even of the heavier mustelakin?" she asked.
"Even then. They're fascinating, to use your word, in their own way." I reached up to slowly stroke the fur along her thighs and up her hips. "I love you, Tasha."
She smiled then and leaned over. "I love you, too, Father." She parted her muzzle just enough to lick my cheek, then sat back up. She giggled slightly, and a quick survey of my extremities revealed what had been so funny; she'd sat down over my hips to find something poking her in the rear.
"Don't apologize, father, for a very natural reaction to a very natural situation."
I laughed. "What's natural about this?"
"Everything," she replied, bending over to run her soft tongue over one of my nipples. That familiar almost-choking sensation ran through my throat, a curious phenomenon I'd actually had mapped once, but had decided not to remove. I closed my eyes instead, laced my fingers behind my head and let out a long, soft sigh. She nipped at my nipple softly, and the sudden sensation made my back arch. "Careful," I said, smiling.
The wind had brought clouds overhead, and a sudden roar brought thunder, and with it lightning, to our attention. "We should go," I said.
"No," she said, holding me down. "Please, Father... make love to me in the rain."
"Are you crazy?" I said. "Tasha, we're the highest thing for miles around. We've also got a better chance of attracting lightning than the stone around us. We could get killed out here!"
"That's part of the excitement, Ken!" She was pulling at the cord holding my kilt shut.
"You really want to make love like this?" I shouted as the winds began to pick up faster and harder. Her fur ruffled where it was exposed, flying about almost completely without control. Just then the rain began falling.
"Yes!" she laughed, almost maniacally, as she tore my kilt off and left my boots on. A strange combination, but her fervor was infectious and when she bent over to kiss me I kissed her back, the heat and light of her passion reverberating through me.
I was losing control fast, my hands swirling over the loose-fitting sweater she wore, tearing at the clasp that held her skirt on. The weather was hot today, and the rain, with the lightning, was becoming hotter. The sweater came free; only weight of water from the burgeoning downpour kept it from flying away from the hillside and down to the sea. Her skirt was gone just as quickly.
Her muzzle pressed against my mouth, now that we were both virtually naked. Her tongue pressed against my lips, and my tongue attacked hers in kind. We rolled over on the blanket, the rain coming down in sheets. A white slice of lightning crackled seaward to my right as she pressed herself to me, grinding her crotch against mine.
I snarled and reached up, pulling her down on top of me and rolling her over; a split-second of thought made me slide my hand under her head as we rolled onto the slick stone surface of Marbletop, her furry back pressed against the polished surface. I slid my erection into her without pause, feeling her matted fur and slickened body under me as we began to fuck each other with abandon. Her claws raked along my sides, not quite tearing skin, and I looked down into her face to find her panting along with me, squinting rain from her eyes.
"Enough!" she shouted, throwing her wait to turn me over onto my back. She was on top, grinding her hips against my pubic bone. I grabbed her hands; she used my hands for support as stroked herself up and down along my shaft forcefully, never letting up. I was getting close, and I tried to tell her so, but she didn't hear me over the crackle of lightning so close it made the hair on my arms and the fur on her face stand on edge. The air around us sizzled with ozone as I heard her let loose a howl of pleasure and I came along with her, shooting my come into her body with such force I barely knew where to begin even thinking about it.
The rain kept coming down, even harder than before, as she collapsed on top of me, holding herself up by her arms to stare down at me, her eyes still wild. "You okay, Tasha?"
"That was great!" she snarled down at me. Her hips kept grinding against mine, my shrinking erection threatening to slide out of her with every rotation. "You were great!"
"I'm glad you think so, but we're either going to die of electrocution or pneumonia before we get back home!"
She laughed. "What a way to go, though. You're right; let's go!" She rolled over to the side and shielded her eyes from the falling spray and rain. "Get the picnic gear! Should we dress?"
"Will it do us any good?" I asked.
"Probably not!" she shouted back as another thunderclap exploded overhead. We collected our clothes, tossed them into the blanket, bundled it all into a sack and threw it into my Solo.
We got home in one piece; once the forcefield is up a Solo is pretty indestructible. It was coming down even harder at the Castle than it had been at North Point. After drying off, I made my way up to the first floor and a room mislabeled Mission Control to take a look at the map. Tasha found me after a few minutes. I heard her coming; she sneezed. "Getting that cold I warned you about?"
"Either that or I've just got lots of water of my nose."
"Always possible," I said, handing her a warm cup of tea. "Take a look. The winds are getting up around 80 klicks. I've ordered Dave to lower the Castle into the lagoon-locks, to get the protection from the bowl. It's going to be ugly. Aaden's not going to like it; summer gales tear up his gardens a lot."
Tasha nodded and wrapped her arms around me from the back. "I don't think I'll ever understand you, Father," she sighed softly. "At least, not as much as P'nyssa or Aaden or Ress do. But I want you to know that I love you, and I understand how much you love me, too."
I turned around to face her; she was wearing a white terrycloth robe with a big, fuzzy hood that I found surprisingly appealing. "All you have to know," I said softly, "is that, whether I need you now or not, whether I want you now or not, whether I'm even paying attention to you now or not... no matter how distracted, no matter how disinterested I seem to be-- when you need me, I'll be there. I'll do my damnedest for you."
She hugged me tight and rested her head on my shoulder. "I know. And that's all you need to say." I hugged her back, running my hand along the back of her head, holding her to me like the daughter she was and the lover she had become.