Travellogue, Day 6

Aldea, Yavar 16, 0916

Dawn came to Nickolai with the crow of a cock outside their window. As he shook the weariness from his eyes and groaned, he saw Furry wrapped up in a little ball and curled around a pillow. He stared at her for a few minutes, looking over every curve and bend of her body, enjoying the view. Not for the first time, the two thoughts of "God, she's beautiful," and "What am I doing with this creature?" collided in his brain, and the answer to the second was now as before "I don't really know."

"But I'm in love," he spoke quietly, leaning over to kiss her on the muzzle. She did not stir, so he kissed her again on the shoulder. Then her hip. She moaned softly in her sleep. He finally decided waking her would be a bad idea if she was that deeply into a sleep cycle, so he crawled out of bed. 'Crawl' was a good word for it, he mused, since they had both apparently rolled towards the wall in their sleep, and he was now almost two meters from the edge of the bed. Once out, he dressed quickly and departed.

"Good morning!" the Centaur named Tacha said brightly. "And how are you?"

"Fine," he said, worried if his accent might give him away. He spoke almost perfect Quen, but his accent was most certainly Terran.

"Good to hear," he replied. "Care for breakfast?"

"What have you got?"

"Scrambled eggs, mostly goose."

He shrugged and said, "Sure."

Tacha smiled and served up a plate of the runny yellow things, and he debated a moment before tasting them. He decided they were edible and downed most of the plate. As he was finishing the last of a glass of water the Centaur had set on the table, Furry, dressed only in his other shirt, came down the stairs, her arms extended in a full stretching yawn. "'Mornin'" she managed to groan.

"Hi!" he responded, walking over and hugging her close. "How are you?"

"Tired," she admitted. "I just realized that this is the first time you've ever seen me wake up; usually I'm awake a long time before you are. Now you get to see how grumpy I am." She blinked her eyes and looked up at him. He laughed and kissed her.

"Ugh," she said. "Morning breath."

"Mine?" he asked.

"No, mine," she replied.

"I don't care. I still love you."

"Love you too, silly." She wandered over to the bar and said, "I'll have what he had."

After breakfast, she said, "So, let's go get some food and head out."

"Are you ready for this?" he asked.

"Kolya, I used to wander around the sands of Egypt for hours, days on end. I think I can handle a walk down the road."

"Okay. Let's go." They grabbed their packs and wandered out, thanking Tacha for his kindness as they left. They hit a small General Market before heading for the edge of town furthest from the lake.

"What is this road?" he asked.

"This?" she asked. "This road is called the Spinward March. Nobody really knows why; Shardik said it was a joke. It runs all the way from Shardik Castle to Tangent Arcology."

"Five million kilometres?" he asked.

"Something like that," she said.

"Anybody ever traveled the whole thing?"

"Every fifty years they hold a vehicle race. The rules are simple. It has to be an internal combustion vehicle, it has to have an organic driver, although drive by wire is permitted, and it has to cross the finish line with one component the same as when it began."

"Sounds crazy."

"I'm told it is. It took two years last time to run the race."

"Two years?"

"Lotta klicks," she said as they walked.

"Furry?" he asked quietly, "What was that your father said about you learning the SDisk system early in life?"

She blushed, gently. He thought it was the cutest thing he'd seen in a long time. "When I was three, I figured out how SDisks worked and began SDisk-tripping. Dad hadn't asked the AI's to restrict my usage since he didn't think I knew how to use them. By the time they realized I was missing, I was so far away from my original transit point that it took twenty minutes for the AI's to transfer my image and identify me. By that time I was on a beach on Pandora, throwing rocks into the ocean. They figure I set a record for being the most 'lost' person on all of Pendor."

"Wow. A celebrity," he said, laughing.

She slapped him playfully on the arm. "It wasn't funny!" Her face turned down in a pout and she said, "Dad grounded me for a week."

"Aw," he said. "Come here." He leaned over and kissed her gently. They momentarily lost the pace of their steps, stopped, and kissed again. "I love you, Furry."

She smiled, blushed again. "Did you tell your Mom you weren't doing the tour?"

"Nope," he said. "I don't really care what she thinks anymore."

"I know I haven't exactly been nice when talking about your mother, but I think that's a little sad."

"Why?"

"Because parents and children should care about each other. When I have kids, I plan on being there all the time when they need. Always accessible. Always. Otherwise there's no point."

"What are you going to do? For a career, I mean."

"I haven't decided. I like what my folks do, so I might go into archeology." She smiled for a second and said, "But not on Earth. I don't think I could back there. But I really like the old stuff."

"Yeah, but digging around in the sand?"

"Hey, it's not that bad," she said quietly. "It's fun to be slowly brushing down layer after layer, to suddenly hit upon a shard or a whole item, especially when it's inscribed. That's really great. To really see what people were like centuries ago by the stuff they left behind."

They stopped at a stream to refill their water bottles and continued on down the road. Out of habit Nickolai kept to the side of the road for fear a vehicle might come barreling out of nowhere. But the road was straight, flat, and deserted, at the end of which was the Marbletop mountain ridge, he recalled. He could see it from here; it was only 20 kilometres from Rocchodain to the entrance to Marbletop gate according to Furry, and he estimated they had already done about half of that, figuring on a walking pace of about 4 klicks an hour. The road was, as far as he could see, perfectly flat. He knew that there was a curvature to the land, but he couldn't perceive it at 20 km, and that was all the distance he had to go on.

"Furry?" he asked, "What's the point of this trip?"

"Well, it'll make you the first Terran in decades to visit Shardik Castle."

"Really?"

"Uh-huh."

"Is there a problem with my going to Shardik Castle? I mean, we both know how Shardik feels about Terrans."

"Do you?"

"We know that he has never forgiven the Terrans who killed Donna Lewis."

"But those were those Terrans. Look, if it's a problem, I'm taking responsibility for it. I want to visit Shardik Castle, and I want you to come with me."

"You're sure?"

"It's a little late to turn around now."

"Not really," Nickolai said. "It only a few hours back to Rocchodain."

"How would you get the SDisk back?"

"I guess I'd ask someone."

"But would that help?" she ask. "Come on. Please?"

He thought for a second, adjusted his pack and said, "Okay."

"Good!" she smiled. They kept walking.

Two hours later they came to the gateway to Marbletop, a forbidding tunnel entrance cut into the mountainside. "Ready?" she asked as they approached.

Nickolai glanced around quickly, then said "Ready." They walked into the tunnel. Lights overhead came on as they walked, going out behind them progressively as they left the area illuminated. They passed a pair of doors marked "Vehicle Bay," and a sign further down. Nickolai paused to read it.

This is a private residence. Any individual or group of individuals who do not immediately leave when asked to do so will be forcibly ejected without restraint on the part of the residents.

"Standard privacy warning for larger compounds," Furry said.

"But we could get in trouble, and I don't like the sound of that," Nickolai replied.

"If they ask us to leave and we don't, then they shoot us," she said, shrugging. "So if they ask us to leave, we leave. Sounds simple to me."

Nickolai gulped as he realized that he was trusting her to take him into a situation where everybody usually carried a weapon of some sort. And that they were perfectly willing to use them on him.

They walked down a little further, and after another hour a light appeared in front of them. "The light at the end of the tunnel," Furry said. She smiled. "Could be an oncoming Dragon." Nickolai gave her a quick glance. "Just kidding."

"Uh huh," he said, smiling. Inside he felt his stomach knotting in nervousness; for a people who could live forever, Pendorians seemed to take life pretty casually. It frightened him to be this close to what a lot of people, especially Terrans, regarded as the center of the universe. Castle Shardik.

They reached the opening, which led out into a large bowl-shaped lagoon cut into the side of Marbletop. To his right a waterfall fell from the stream... what was it called? He struggled with the memory. Marblerun River, the only geological item visible on Marbletop. The waterfall dropped into one end of the lagoon, which filled most of the bottom of the bowl. The sand at the edge of the lagoon was white, blending into thick tropical vegetation that ran about three-quarters up the sides of the bowl.

Above the center of the lagoon, hovering in the air with no visible means of support, at a height of about ten meters, hung Castle Shardik. It was a cube apparently made of yellow sandstone, interspersed almost equally with glass. At the top he could see a short fence running along the roof. There were spaces in the sandstone that were inset; porches for the residential sections. And at the center of the bottom face of the cube, water fell in regular streams, not as voluminous as the water from Marblerun, but still substantial. They were still staring when a voice from above them cried "Ho!"

Nickolai whipped around to search for the source of the voice. An arm waved deep in the vegetation high above the opening to the tunnel. "I said, Hello!" It was a feminine voice, and the face that accompanied it was feminine as well, and apparently human. Then she moved, and Nickolai saw that she was a Centaur. Next to her a black and white shape stood up slowly and resolved into a Mephit. Apparently male, Nickolai recognized the Mephit from video articles as Aaden Shardik.

"Hello?" Furry shouted back, unsurely.

The Centaur bounded down the hillside in a blur of hooves and dust, a wide smile on her face. "Hi! How're you doing? I'm Michelle." She held out her hand.

Furry shook it gently, saying "I'm Jofuran Shigokai. This is my friend, Nickolai."

"Hello," the Centaur said. Nickolai held out his hand in a similar gesture and the Centaur shook it. "Nice to meet you. You two just walk in from Rocchodain?"

"Uh-huh," Furry replied.

"Why? Did you want to take the walk, or what?"

"Well, we couldn't SDisk in here just like this."

"Why not?" Michelle asked. "Dave let you in through the tunnel, seems to me he'd let you get in through the SDisk."

Nickolai laughed for a second and then turned to Furry. "We walked all that way for nothing?"

"Not for nothing," Michelle interrupted her response. "Walking with someone is a wonderful way to spend a day. And it teaches you a lot about what that someone is like." Michelle looked up at Nickolai and said, "You're not a Pendorian, are you?"

"My accent gives me away?" he asked.

"Not really. More just the way you stand." There was a crashing sound above them and the Mephit came down onto the sand. "Aaden, come here and meet Jofuran and Nickolai."

The Mephit walked over and stood next to the Centaur. "Hi," he said, a little abashedly.

"Don't mind him. He's not used to visitors."

"Ken's fault," he said.

"Is not," the Centaur shot back. The both exchanged smiles, as if sharing a common joke. Nickolai was a little embarrassed by the display, as if he were watching something private and personal. He also felt a little surprised by how normal these two Pendorians seemed. Aaden was exceptionally muscular, the apparent result of regular exercise, but both he and Michelle struck him as "just people".

"So," Aaden said, "Are you two thirsty?"

"I am," Michelle said. "So one way or another I'm going to get a drink." She took a few steps down the beach, looked back, waved an arm and said, "Well? Come on!"

Aaden looked at the two of them, shrugged and said "Let's go." He followed the steps of the Centaur, and Nickolai and Furry followed. She walked over to the lake and sighed. "You know," she said, turning to Aaden, "I hate this part." Taking a deep breath, she splashed into the water and disappeared under the surface. Aaden followed.

"Well?" Furry asked.

"Well, what?"

"You first."

"Me?" he complained. "Why me?"

"Because I want to make sure you go."

Nickolai looked around and dropped his pack on the ground. He debated taking off his clothes, but he recalled that neither Aaden or Michelle had taken off anything they had been wearing. He shrugged and dove in.

The water was cool, but not uncomfortably so. In front of him he saw a white circle, glowing faintly. He swam forward into it, and suddenly he found himself standing in a room with Aaden and Michelle. He was also completely dry. "Where... Where did the water go?"

"Where do you think the waterfall underneath is from?" Michelle responded. There was a blink and Furry was standing next to him. She looked equally surprised.

"Let's go get a drink." She wandered down the wood-floored hallway which opened into a larger, five-sided room. It wasn't a perfect pentagon, but a square cut through with a fifth side to the right of the hallway. There was also a hole set into both the ceiling and floor, with four broad bars running through it. A gray-furred Felinzi came floating down the hole as they walked through, grabbed the bar and vaulted into the room. "Hi guys. Who are they?"

"N'Skii, meet Jofuran and Nickolai. Guys, meet Skii Narrone." There was a brief exchange of greetings, and Michelle said, "Excuse me. I'm dying of thirst." Nickolai could well believe it in her case; Centaurs were known to have a great number of physical problems relating to heat and water.

"Which is correct?" Nickolai asked. "N'Skii, or just Skii?"

"Either one is fine," the Felinzi responded. "I'm not worried. You're from Terra, right?"

"My accent?"

"Yeah. Hey, it's okay. I don't care. I like Earth."

"You do?"

"Yeah. I'd rather deal with Terra then, say, the Nydoe. Besides, Pendorians all know that our Vatare' came from Earth, that our culture comes from him and his culture and his peculiar way of looking at things."

A new voice interrupted. "Are you talking about me behind my back again?" The combination of the voice and the words made every hair on Nickolai's head stand on end.

"Only a little. Hi, Granfa."

"Hiya, Skii. How was class today?" Nickolai was almost unwilling to turn around. He felt more than anything else the man behind him step up.

"Dull, dull, dull. Is there really a point to learning how many ergs it takes to disassociate hydrogen atoms?"

"But you have to know that if you want to build reliable nanotech. It takes a lot of skill to build good nanochine. Besides, the knowledge can also help you re-associate hydrogen atoms. I thought you had Terran History Elective today, too."

"That's not so bad. It's kinda fun. Although it gets depressing to hear how much they kept killing each other." Skii paused for a second, turned to Nickolai and said, "Sorry."

"Are you going to introduce me?"

"Oh, sorry, Granfa. Nickolai, this is Ken Shardik," and Skii rolled his eyes to say 'as if he needs introduction,' "and Granfa, this is Nickolai..."

"Dittrich."

"As in Talia Dittrich, the artist?"

Nickolai groaned. He was really starting to hate that. "Yes, as in Talia Dittrich."

"You don't like being known that way?"

Nickolai looked at Shardik for a moment, noting that he was dressed pretty comfortably: Skirt, T-shirt, sandals. "I'm sorry, Sir. I know most Pendorians don't agree with me, but having a mother is a pain."

"Most Pendorians would agree with you, Nickolai, but that's because of your background. I can only imagine what you've gone through, being the 'odd man out.' You're probably as miserable as a neorat your age, the only difference being that some groups would keep a neorat around because it would be a status symbol." Shardik held out his hand and said, "Glad to meet you."

Nickolai looked into Shardik's face and said, "Thank you, sir," taking the hand and shaking it.

"Please, not 'sir.' Call me Ken. If you say 'Shardik' around here, most people will answer you. It's the family name."

"Yes..." He paused. "Ken. Second time I've had to do that."

"Do what?"

"Remember not to say 'sir.' I did it with Furry's father."

"Furry? Who's Furry?" Shardik asked.

"That must be your ladyfriend, Jofuran," Skii answered.

"Why do you call her 'Furry?' That's a pretty generic thing to call her."

"Not when she lived on Earth..." He bit down on the 'sir' he had been going to say.

"Oh. Did you know this lady on Earth?"

"No..." Again. He took a deep breath and said, "We met on the cruise ship over from Terra."

"Ah, a shipboard romance," Shardik said, smiling. "The best kind."

"Since none of you planned to come into the commons for a drink, we figured we'd bring you some," Michelle interrupted their discussion. "Here," she said, holding out glasses for Shardik and Skii. Furry stood to her left and said, "Dave you said you were here. Take this," holding one for Nickolai. He took it, and drank deep.

"Darjeeling and Matein," Shardik said appreciatively. "You've lived with me too long. And you must be Jofuran."

She blushed. "Yes sir."

"Very happy to meet you."

"It's only been four centuries," the Centaur interrupted, smiling. She crooked a finger in his direction; he leaned over as she whispered something in his ear.

He nodded. "You folks walked all the way from Rocchodain?"

"Uh-huh," Furry admitted.

"Well, you're probably tired. If you like, you can spend the night here before making the trek back. There's nothing planned for the evening except the dusk swim, and I think there's a common dinner tonight?" He glanced at Michelle, who nodded.

The Mephit who had accompanied them in came sneaking up behind Shardik; Nickolai couldn't see what he did, but suddenly Shardik let out a screeching "Yowch! Aaden, don't pinch me like that! Especially not in front of guests."

"Oh, you love it," the Mephit smiled, wrapping his arms around Shardik gently and hugging.

"No, I just love you," Shardik replied, reaching up over his shoulder to scratch Aaden behind the ears. He glanced over at Michelle and said, "Should be a T-shirt."

"What?"

"'I spent the night at Shardik Castle and, stars, was I bored!'"

"I'm sure we can find something to do tonight," Michelle said.

"I'm sure we can," Aaden murmured suggestively, turning his head to nuzzle Shardik's neck.

Shardik closed his eyes and sighed. "I meant," he said, "with the visitors."

"Hey, Ken?" Skii asked suddenly. "Have you seen my Dad?"

"Haven't seen Nance all day. Why?"

"We were supposed to go out later. Just wondered."

Nickolai stood absorbing the household conversation with an emotion approaching boredom. Realizing he was bored then surprised him. He was lost in thought when a voice startled him. "Come on."

Michelle and Furry were standing behind him. "Let's go upstairs."

Nickolai followed her to the hole, and watched as she stepped out into the center of it, apparently floating in midair. As he followed her out into the hole, all sensations of gravity or it's perception ceased, but he was surprised not to feel the common nausea that usually went with sudden weightlessness. She smiled and grabbed one of the four bars, pulling herself up easily. He helped Furry into the weightless well and pulled himself as he had watched the Centaur do. "Whee!" he heard behind him as Furry went sailing past.

"Careful!" he heard from above him, immediately followed by an "Ouch!"

"I told you to be careful," he heard Michelle say. "It's harder to stop than you think. And if someone else is in the well while you're doing that, you could have a collision."

"Sorry," Furry said as he came to the top level. She was rubbing the top of her head. She looked at him with a pout and said, "I bumped myself."

"I heard," he said. "Let me kiss it and make it better." He pushed carefully off the bar he was holding to where she stood, leaned over and kissed her head gently. "Better?"

She smiled. "Uh-huh. I appreciate it." She turned her head and kissed his lips.

"Come on, you two," Michelle said. "Let's go upstairs."

"To where?"

"Well, I have to get back to work. Aaden and I were clearing out some vegetation that had overgrown one of the monitor stations. And I like to make sure they're working right. We also found some weird plant up there; its leaves glow when you crush or crack them. You can hang out on the beach or something."

Nickolai smiled and said, "Sure. Wouldn't mind that."

"What?" Furry asked.

"Come on," Nickolai said. They followed Michelle up a flight of stairs that lead to a wide walkway. Michelle walked a short distance to the edge of the castle and said, "Jump!"

Which she did, falling slowly out of sight. "More gravitics," Furry said. They followed the drifting Centaur, who put down just on the edge of the lagoon.

"Through there's the Vinyare' sea," she said, pointing out to a crack in the bowl that the lagoon flowed through. "Have fun. Make sure you're back by the first flash."

"First flash?" Nickolai asked.

"I'll explain," Furry said, retrieving their packs and handing his to him. "Come on." They walked down to the crack, easing their way along the narrow path of sand that led alongside stream, out to the beach. "The 'flashes' are what happens around nightfall. The shadow squares are pretty close to Pendor; I guess Shardik could have built them further away, and bigger, but he didn't. The flashes are the refraction effect at the edge of the rectangles."

Nickolai nodded. "That's pretty easy."

"See?" she said. "Nothing to it. Which way do you want to walk?"

"Does it make a difference?"

"Not as far as I know," she said. She pointed to their right to a small island a short distance off the coast. "That's Monastery island, and that must be The Succubus, Shardik's boat. We can't get to either, so we may as well just walk."

Nickolai agreed, and taking her hand they walked down the beach. Bleached driftwood occasionally blocked their path and they had to walk around, but other than that the day was clear, warm, and wonderful. Nickolai would sometimes pause, just to close his eyes and absorb the sensations going through him. Furry looked up at him and said, "Are you okay?"

"Do you realize, Furry, that this is the first time I've ever been to a beach that wasn't noisy, crowded, and policed? I'm not fighting for a space for my towel, I'm not dealing with a million people telling me where to sit and when I can go swimming? I can hear the surf, not a radio." He opened his eyes and said, "I don't believe how good this all feels."

"I know; I'm just surprised at how... happy you seem."

He smiled and sat down on the sand. "Why shouldn't I be happy?" He held out a hand; she took it and he pulled her down with him, into his lap. "I'm with someone special on a beach that's completely deserted. Compared to this, a beach on Terra would be Hell." He smiled; her eyes sparkled as he closed the distance between them, his lips touching her muzzle.

As their tongues wrestled gently, his hands roamed over her shirt, finding individual buttons and opening them as he worked his way down. He felt empowered, as if they had all the time in the world to themselves. He opened her shirt all the way and pressed his hand against her belly, then slid up against the grain of her fur to caress her nipples. She sighed softly. "You, sir, are the most seductive mel I've ever known."

"You're just saying that because you love me."

"Maybe," she admitted. "But that doesn't mean you aren't seductive. Is this how you got those other women into bed?"

He laughed, a little embarrassed by the question. "Actually, I was usually a lot faster with them."

"Faster?"

"Yeah; I didn't bother to take off their shirts to get at their teats." He blushed.

"I'm embarrassing you."

"I'm not used to talking about my..."

"Conquests," she offered.

"I guess. My 'conquests' with girls. Especially not very pretty alien ones that I've slept with."

She nestled up close to him and said, "That's okay; I understand." She paused for a second. "Tell me, what did you think of Castle Shardik?"

"It was boring."

"Boring?"

"Yeah, boring. I mean, I hate to say it, but they all seem so normal."

"What did you expect? Lights, sirens, and magic tricks?"

"No... I don't know. I just didn't expect them all to be so... domestic. Worrying about what was for dinner, what did you study today in class, things like that. Even watching him and Aaden didn't bother me at all; I've gotten a lot more used to the idea of lovers of different species." He smiled; she returned it with a grin.

"Good," she said, wrapping her arms around him and pressing her head to his chest. Her hand strayed down his back and around his waist, coming to a rest on his crotch. "I see you also lust after me."

"Just a little."

"Want to make love?" she said straightforwardly.

"Here?" he asked.

"Uh-huh."

"It's in the wide open!"

"So? It's not like anybody's watching us. You said it yourself- this beach is deserted. It's a short walk to Shardik Castle, but it's also behind that bend in the rock," she said, pointing. "We're alone. And I think it would be great to try it in the sunlight."

"We'll get sand in everything."

"I thought ahead," she said, reaching into her pack to pull out an large, thin folded blanket.

"You brought that just for this reason."

"What make you say that?" she said, grinning wider.

"Because it's too thin to keep us warm, and it's big enough to move around on without getting sand everywhere."

"Good deduction," she said, spreading the blanket down on the sand. She sat on the edge, brushed the sand off her feet and bottom, and moved towards the center. "Now brush yourself off and come here."

He rolled his eyes heavenward for a moment, and joined her. She tore at his clothing with a ferocity that stunned him momentarily. "Furry, calm down."

"Sorry," she said, "but I've wanted to do this since I met you."

"What?"

"Get you out in the sunlight," she said breathlessly. "There's something about the way you look in the bright sun that I like. A lot."

"Okay," he said with a ready smile. He helped her get out of her own clothing after she'd successfully stripped his pants off. "No," she said as he reached for his shirt. "Leave your shirt on- Open, but on. I like the way you look like that."

He shrugged, smiled, and grabbed her by the knees, toppling her. "Whoops!" he said as she went over. She hit the yielding blanket with a loud "Oof!" and he crawled over her. "This time," he said, "I'm going to watch you come."

"Kolya," she said.

"Hush," he said, giving her a quick lick on the nose before sliding down between her thighs and giving her cunny a playful lick. She moaned softly as parted her thick outer lips with his fingers, sliding his tongue in between her smaller labia, kissing her clitoris. She shook at his touch, and the feeling of satisfaction that gave him was immeasurable. He smiled and kissed her sweet outer labia, actually gathering them with his lips as he ran his tongue around her vulva.

"Ohhh..." she sighed gently, leaning her head back. As he looked up the length of her body, her grey-white fur seemed to flash in the bright sunlight as she twisted gently, as if in effort to escape. He slid his tongue in deeper, trying to actually taste the juices as they seemed to slowly trickle from her. He used the juices on the tip of his tongue to slick her clitoris before he stroked it. She cooed and groaned "Not so much, please, Kolya." He backed off, running his tongue instead over the hood and around it, playing with her labia. The sound in his ears was the gentle washing of the surf. Her hands were in his hair, she was literally holding him in place, and as she came her hands tightened, threatening to pull out his hair.

He crawled over her to look down at her, and said "Did you lose interest?"

She was gasping for air, her eyes wide with pleasure and... fright? "Furry? Are you okay?"

"I don't know. Oh, Kolya! That was the most powerful orgasm I've ever had! I didn't know it could be that... that good!"

"Was it the first one you ever had with another person?"

She nodded.

"I know the feeling," he said, crawling back down between her legs. "Let's see if I can do it again."

"Again?"

"Or did you lose interest?" he asked with a sly smile.

"No! No! Go ahead, please!"

He laughed and slid down between her legs, licking her again. She was sharply sensitized, and he was much gentler this time. When she had come her juices had flowed free, and he spent quite a time licking her clean. He was beginning to find her taste undeniably addictive. As he licked at her sweet pink lips she moaned louder, and the love he felt for her washed over him so strongly it had a physical factor as he felt his face get hot. He went again for her clitoris, and she moaned as she came again, almost instantly.

Without pause, he kept licking at her lips, keeping her near that fine edge of sensitivity before she could take direct friction again. She twisted and moaned like she did when being tickled. He smiled at the memory, then redoubled his efforts. He noticed that his cock had hardened and was pressing into the warmth of the sand through the blanket, but ignored it in favor of her third climax. One single stroke directly over her clitoris did it for her in the end, a single tensing of every muscle in the body as she came.

Without pause, Nickolai slid up her body and plunged his cock into her liquid cunny. She gasped, her eyes fluttering open. "Yes, Kolya, yes!"

"Happy?" he asked as he began a gentle stroking, pressing deep the way she had said she liked.

"Oh, yes, Nickolai. Love me, fuck me!" she reached up to touch his face, his chest, as he slowly stroked her cunny with his shaft. Her own climaxes had so excited him that he was having trouble holding back from his almost immediately. "Don't fight it, Kolya, come for me."

He closed his eyes and let it happen, stroking just a few more times before his entire groin tensed to the point of pain and he came, roaring with his release.

"Better?" he asked.

"Oh, much better," she sighed. "The bump on my head doesn't hurt anymore."

"What?" he asked, trying to control his laughter. She joined in, and the two of them lay together giggling. Finally, his shrinking cock slid out of her and they cuddled on the beach. As they did, a wave of shadow, followed by a wave of sunlight, washed over them. "First flash," Furry said, looking up.

"We have to go back, don't we?"

"Uh-huh," she said. She tossed his pants to him and said, "I hope we didn't get a sunburn."

"You don't burn, do you?"

"Don't you believe it. I've got a light fur, and my fell has been burned before."

"Your what?"

"My fell. It's the skin under my fur."

"Oh." He smiled, but he also felt a little frustrated.

Furry noticed. "You're learning a lot, aren't you?" she asked. "It can be hard. I'm so used to dealing with things like fells, pelts, SDisks..." She shrugged. "Welcome to Pendor."

"At least," he said as he pulled his clothes back on and helped her repack the blanket, "I've the prettiest guide anyone could ever ask for."

"Flattery will get you everywhere," she said as they closed the distance to fold the blanket. She kissed him as they came together; he took the blanket. "Ready?" she asked.

"Yup."

"Let's go." They walked back, running occasionally along the packed wet sand near the surf, laughing. Nickolai's chest felt tight sometimes, but he enjoyed it. He didn't know how to put into words how he felt about her. 'I love you' just wasn't sufficient anymore.

They walked back to find the Lagoon a mass of activity; about two dozen people of all shapes, sizes, colors and species splashed in the lagoon enthusiastically. "Nickolai! Jofuran!" a voice called from the water. "Hi! Come on in!" Nickolai recognized it as Skii. He walked to the edge of the lagoon and said "How cold is it?"

"It's not bad. Come on in!"

Nickolai looked over at Furry, who smiled and shrugged. He nodded, stripped off his clothes and jumped in. "Don't go too close to the SDisk," Skii warned as he swam over. "You could appear in the Castle, dry and naked." Skii glanced Nickolai over and said, "Then again, that might not be such a bad thing."

Nickolai blushed at the uncommon compliment and said, "Sorry, Skii, but I'm pretty taken right now."

"Yes, I see. You both seem rather taken with each other. Are you enjoying your visit to Pendor?"

Nickolai nodded, grinning wide. "A lot," he offered.

"Good!" the Felinzi replied. "Oh, by the way, if you were to jump into the SDisk down under right now, it would take you to the Castle pool on the roof."

Nickolai waved at him as a pair of arms wrapped around his shoulders and legs about his waist. "Hi," said a sultry but familiar voice behind him.

"Hi," he replied, reaching back under the water to run his fingers along Furry's thigh.

"What was that all about?" she asked.

"I think he made a pass at me," he replied.

"Really? Did you take him up on it?"

"No; I want to spend my time with you." A sudden thought struck him and he said, "Is there something wrong with that?"

"No, no. I'm glad you want me."

"I'm also not into men that much," Nickolai replied thoughtfully.

"So, if Skii had been a femFel you would've accepted?" she asked.

"No," he replied. "Just sorting out a few things."

She cuddled him closer and said, "Am I one of those things?"

"Yeah," he admitted. "Sometimes I still think I'm in over my head. This whole trip has been one long dream, and I worry I'm going to wake up soon."

"You're really going to hurt when you leave for Terra, aren't you?"

"Yeah," he admitted.

"Me too. I'm getting cold. Wanna get out?"

"You're only cold because you aren't exercising," he said.

"I did enough of that about an hour ago," she joked. A sudden bright orange flash distracted both of them; someone had lit a large fire on the shore, apparently for cooking. "Dinner," she said.

"This is the part I really don't believe," he said.

"What?"

"I'm really going to sit down with Ken Shardik at a family picnic?"

"You really are," she said. "I don't believe it much, either."

"I feel like I'm in a Greek play, or a Norm Henderson novel."

"You mean the kind of story where the main character is sitting at a bar or something and a god walks in and changes the course of his life?"

"Yeah."

"Well, it apparently is going to happen," she said, gently nipping on his ear. The sensations made him shiver worse than the cold water. "I'm getting out."

"Me too," he said, following her to the shore. "Hi!" said a golden femFelinzi standing on the sand. Nickolai watched her carefully, surprised by how calm and assured she seemed to be, as if nothing could perturb her. "Need a towel?" she asked.

"Please," Furry said. As if from nowhere, the femFel tossed two towels from behind her back and said, "Here you are. I'm M'Ress, by the way."

"Jofuran Shigokai," Furry said as she toweled off. Nickolai seized the towel from her and proceeded to dry her off himself. "And Mr. Subtle here is Nickolai Dittrich."

"Hello," Nickolai managed to say, still racking in his brain the number of dei he had met so far.

"Well, I've got to get moving," M'Ress said, "More people coming out from the cold. Don't let Paul make your hamburgers."

"Paul?" Furry asked.

"Big Centaur over there. He likes horseradish- started the tradition in fact." The Felinzi stuck out her tongue, completely out of character with the nine-century of age Nickolai knew her to have. He followed her with his eyes as she walked along the beach.

"Let's go eat," Furry said. They wandered over to the barbecue, where the "big Centaur" M'Ress had pointed out to them was serving dinner. "What'll ya have?"

"A hamburger," Furry said.

"And you?" Paul asked.

"The same. With no horseradish," Nickolai replied, not quite sure what a "hamburger" was.

"Ress!" Paul shouted over his shoulder. The Felinzi wandered over from the shoreline and waited. The Centaur looked down at her and with a voice as if he were a teacher correcting a student said, "Are you telling lies about me, dear heart?"

"Only in your best interest, Paul."

"My best interest does not include implying that I would poison friends of the Castle."

"Paul, horseradish is a vile substance, but it is hardly a poison. We're not discussing putting chocolate on the open table. Besides," she smiled, "You're going to burn Nickolai's burger."

"Yikes!" the Centaur exclaimed, grabbing the piece of meat with a wide-paddled pair of tongs and sliding it between two bits of bread. "Here ya go," he said, "Vegetables and stuff over there." He pointed with the tongs.

Nickolai wandered over to the table Paul had indicated and watched what Furry put on hers, to make sure he put the right things on his. "Furry," he asked as they met at the end of the table, "What is this I'm going to be eating?"

"Hamburger. Ground beef."

"Beef?" he asked. "As in cows?"

"Yeah, as in cows," she replied. "Why, haven't you ever had beef before?"

"Not often," he admitted. "It's too expensive."

"Really?" she asked. "Wow. Never thought of it that way. Not a big fan of meat myself, but it'll do in this case." She smiled and said, "There is some meat I've grown fond of recently."

"What's that-" Nickolai asked before catching the joke. "Very funny."

She grinned wide. "So, where do you want to sit?"

"What's that over there?"

"Looks like a chess game," she said. "Let's go see." They wandered over to where Shardik and a femVulpin sat at opposite ends of chess board dyed into a large blanket; despite the soft and variable quality of the sand the blanket sat on, none of the pieces on the board seemed inclined to tip over. Nickolai guessed that the board was about two metres on a side.

"Hi, kids," Shardik said. "Meet my opponent and daughter, the lovely Molinar Shardik. Molly, this is Furry, and this is Kolya. They're visiting."

The Vulpin looked up just long enough to smile and wave, then went back to examining the chess set. Shardik said, "She's a Cyon Fox; you can tell by the width of the head and the slant of the eyes. It's very distracting." He smiled for a second, then said, "It doesn't help that she's not wearing anything. Sorry, sometimes I get a little egotistical about my work, and like to point out the subtleties. She seems to have me in a bind, kids. Her delay's just for show; she knows she has me in three moves."

"Your move was a little unexpected, Dad," the fox replied. "I still have checkmate in three moves. You can consult with your friends if you want."

"Nickolai? Are you from Russia, then?" Shardik asked. "I understand it's very chic to resurrect traditional names nowadays."

"That fad hadn't quite hit when I was born..." Again, he bit down on a 'sir.' "Ken. I'm afraid I was born of American parents at Saman Facility number eleven in Kansas."

"Oh, well. I was hoping you might also be a fan of their traditional sport. And you, Miss Shigokai?"

"I was born at Tangent Arcology," she smiled. "But I do know a good bit of chess; an Israeli gardener named Imahd and I used to play quite often."

"You've been to Israel, then?"

"Yes..." Nickolai laughed as he watched her do the same thing he had. "I spent ten years there."

"How old are you, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Sixteen."

"Then you moved there when you were six, seven, right?"

"Uh-huh."

"Wow. Welcome home, my dear." His whole demeanor seemed to soften in Nickolai's eyes. There was something profound in the way he treated Furry, in the way he treated everyone. "How do you like it?"

"I know I'm never going back to Terra again."

"Don't say that. Maybe you'll want to go back someday. It won't be so bad then, after the bad memories have faded. Then again, maybe they won't. Childhood cruelties are the worst to forget."

Furry nodded.

"Sit, sit down. You're burgers are getting cold." They sat down in the sand, and Furry leaned over and whispered something into Shardik's ear. He looked a little startled for a moment, then said, "You think so?"

"It'll at least defuse her present strategy."

The fox looked up from the blanket and said, "Queen to King's Bishop six." The black queen lifted as if of it's own violition and moved to the suggested square.

Shardik paused for a second, countered the move, apparently with Furry's suggestion because the calm composure of the fox seemed to crumble. "Didn't see that move, did ya, Molly?"

The fox looked over at him and said, "No, I didn't. Furry, was it? Are you going to be here tomorrow?"

"I'm afraid not," Furry replied. "We're walking back to Rocchodain tomorrow morning."

"If you stay long enough for a round of Chess, I'll fly you there on Dragonback."

Furry looked over at Nickolai, who gave a wide-eyed "I don't know" gesture. "Very well," Furry said, "I accept."

"Quite a challenge there," Shardik said to Furry. "Molly's been know to defeat AI's with surprise strategies."

"I'll take that as a dare," Furry said, smiling to the fox. Molly's return smile was open, yet self-assured.

The game progressed, and Shardik eventually won, with Furry's help. "Thank you," he said afterwards. "That was the first game I've won in nearly a decade."

"Then why do you play?" Furry asked around a mouthful of potato salad.

"To provide amusement for other people. Besides, incompetent people like me often come up with unpredictable results."

After they had eaten, Shardik piled all the chess pieces and the blanket into a denim sack and threw it over his shoulder. "Come on, let's all go inside. It's getting a little chilly." As they began walking towards the lagoon and the SDisk, a femTindal walked up from over by the barbecue and said "Ken! Molly!"

"Mom!" Molly replied, turning.

"P'nyssa!" Ken shouted back. "Just a second," he told the three he had been talking to. "Where've you been?"

"I'm sorry, beloved," she said, walking up and wrapping her tentacles around him. "But I've been wrist-deep in a case all afternoon, and I couldn't close until just about an hour ago."

"So, how's the case?"

"He'll live," she offered, giving Molly a tight hug. "Just won't be able to sit down comfortably for a few days, maybe a week. I did good today. Who are your friends?"

"P'nyssa, these are Furry and Kolya. They walked up the 'March this afternoon."

"Really?" she asked. "Nice to meet you." She extended a mitt, which Nickolai shook calmly. He was almost getting used to meeting all these people who had just been names in history books. "I'm dead, beloved," she said, turning back to Shardik. "Do you think you or Aaden could give me a rub?"

"Probably," he said, smiling. "Come on." The five of them dove into the water, and they re-appeared in the Castle, warm and dry. "Dave, can you find a room for the kids here?"

"Of course," a voice that seemed to come from nowhere replied. Nickolai realized he was hearing David Majors, the AI of Castle Shardik. "The room across hallway Y is open."

"The one next to mine on the North wall?"

"Yes," the AI replied. "Is that a problem?"

"Not at all," Shardik replied. "Come on, I'll show you where it is." He lead them down the hallway, made a right, down another hallway, and they came to a 'T' in the hallway. At the end of the hallway they were walking down was a large window that faced out over Marbletop ridge; to the left was a single door, to the right the hallway stretched down apparently the length of the castle. To Nickolai's immediate right was a heavy steel door of airlock construction. There were two symbols on it; a five-square checkerboard, and a yellow triangle. The nameplate by the side read "David Majors." Shardik pointed down the long hallway and said, "First door there on the left is yours. That door there is mine. Once you get settled in, feel free to stop by. I'm sure Molly will want to talk chess."

"Dad," the fox said quietly.

"Okay, sweetheart, I'll stop teasing you. It's just that that's the first time I've ever beaten you."

"With help," she reminded him playfully. "I can't wait to face her off. We'll use the big board."

"You mean the one we were using on the beach?" Furry asked.

"That's the medium one," Shardik said. "The big one uses as big a chunk of Marbletop as we can fit a square on."

"Wow," Furry said, her eyes lighting up. "I think we'll go settle into our room now."

"Stop by," Shardik said.

"We will," Furry promised. They walked down the hallway and took the room Shardik had pointed out to them.

They walked into what looked like a comfortable guest-room. "I don't believe this," Nickolai said, sitting down on the couch and holding his head between his hands.

"Don't believe what?" Furry asked.

"I don't believe that I'm spending the night in Shardik Castle. I have to call my mother."

"Do you?"

"Yeah, I do. Mr. Majors?"

"Please call me Dave," the mellifluous voice replied. "What can I do for you?"

"Can you locate my mother?"

"I can; she is presently in her cabin at Arc Tangent. Would you like me to place a visual call?"

"Please."

A screen appeared, hanging in the air before him. It cleared after a moment, and his mother appeared on it. "Kolya!" she said.

"Hello, Mother."

"Where are you, Kolya? I have been worrying about you all day. You did not show up for the tour. I was sick!"

"I'm okay Mom. I'm spending the day with friends."

"What kind of friends do you have on Pendor?" she asked suspiciously.

"I'm at Shardik Castle, Mom."

"Do not joke with me, Kolya. We were told at the travel agency that Shardik Castle was private property; we weren't allowed to go near it."

"Unless we were invited, Mom."

"Invited? By whom?"

"Excuse me," Dave said quietly, "But I invited them here."

"And who are you, that you do not appear on the screen?"

"My name is David Majors Shardik, Mrs. Dittrich, and I am the AI of Shardik Castle."

Apparently, invoking Shardik's name had a great effect on his mother. She calmed visibly. "You be careful, Kolya. Be very careful there. Is that girl with you?"

Nickolai decided not to lie. "Yes, Mom, she's here. Want to speak to her?"

"No! Just reminding you to take care."

"I will, Mom. I just wanted to make sure you knew I was okay."

"Well, now I know how okay you are. Take care, Nickolai."

"I will, Mom. G'night." The screen went dark. He felt quite sure that she didn't think he was "okay." And for some reason, he had similar feelings.

"Furry?" he asked.

She looked up from the terminal she had been staring at. "Yeah?" she said quietly.

"Why are we here?"

She looked around for a moment. "I don't know," she admitted. "I've been trying to figure that out myself. Lex didn't stop us, Dave didn't stop us. Shardik has been a lot friendlier than I would have expected. Molly... She invites us on a Dragonride. Skii seemed to be nice to you. And that was Paul Lewis who served us dinner!" She shook her head. "Maybe the press has got it wrong."

"Or maybe we're a special case?" he asked.

"There is one solution. David."

"Dave, please, Jofuran. May I call you Furry?"

She smiled. "Of course, Dave. You know, I'm starting to really like that nickname again. Dave, why are we here?"

"Because you walked here from Rocchodain."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know. As an AI, I can't tell you many of the details; I warned Ken that you would be attempting to reach Shardik Castle by the Spinward March and that Sean Majors had requested that you be permitted to visit the Castle. Ken and I had nearly half an hour of conversation, much of it facilitated by biocybernetics, so even if I were permitted to reveal the particulars much of it would be meaningless. The end result was that Ken said 'It would be nice to have visitors,' and arrangements were made for you. Arrangements that were conditional on your not disrupting household events. So no special conditions were made on the evening dinner, or the swim, and no one went out of their way to occupy your time prior to the evening meal. I take it your walk down the beach was refreshing?"

Furry shot a look at Nickolai, who tried and failed to suppress a smile. "It was enjoyable," she told the computer.

"Good," Dave said. "I'd also like to repeat that Ken's offer that you visit him tonight is mostly unconditional. He doesn't want you to come over if you don't feel up to it. He does want you to visit if you want, at least before most of the household goes to bed. He usually does around six."

"Late sleeper," Furry commented. "So," she said, turning to Nickolai, "Want to go visit Ken Shardik in his home?"

A dozen reasons why he shouldn't ran through his mind before he said, "Sure." Even as he said it, he felt the weight of decision removed from him. To be replaced with the weight of responsibility.

"I've taken the liberty, if you don't mind, of providing you with suitable clothing," David interrupted their conversation. "The clothing you've been wearing is a little dirty."

Nickolai sniffed himself and agreed. "Where?" he asked the air, not sure where to look.

"They are in the dresser next to the bed."

"Great," Nickolai said. "Where's the bed?"

"Downstairs, silly," Furry said. "Come on. And Dave, while were here, please open the window."

"How's this?" the AI answered as the window seemed to vanish, replaced with the gleaming view of Marbletop. Looking to his left, Nickolai could see the ocean; to his right the forest of Rocchodain stretched, the mountain range being mostly what he could see. The less topographical part of the forest, he knew, was to the south of the Castle.

"Perfect," Furry said. "Come on," she said to Nickolai, jumping down the hole in the floor. He followed her to the bedroom, which had a large bed of wooden construction, a dresser, a desk, and a door leading to the bathroom. Furry disappeared into the bathroom for a moment, and as she came out, she was holding a small grey sphere with a handgrip extending tangentially from it. "Look what I found," she said with a mischievous tone.

"What is it?"

"The famous Shardik Castle showerhead." She blushed suddenly and returned to the bathroom. While she was in there, he dug through the dresser to find the clothes Dave had indicated. He found a pair of cotton pants, slippers that enclosed his entire foot, a T-shirt and a grey overshirt. He shrugged and put them on; he was no longer surprised that they fit perfectly. With AI's watching his every move, he figured they had his every measure. His choices were to become paranoid about it or ignore it, and everybody around him seemed comfortable with the second choice.

Furry returned from the bathroom and dressed quietly. "Furry?" he asked. "Something wrong?"

"No," she said, shaking her head and lying to him.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing," she insisted.

He stepped over to her and hugged her close. "Tell me what's wrong."

"I..." She hesitated. "I almost asked you to watch me use the showerhead."

"That sounds like fun," he said with enthusiasm.

"Kolya, I've never... masturbated in front of anyone. I was embarrassed. Isn't that silly of me?"

"I've never done it when anyone was watching either. Want to try it later?"

"I don't know," she said quietly. "I don't think I could."

"Never know until we try," he said.

"You're really interested, aren't you?" she asked.

"Of course. Furry, you're beautiful. Why would I be upset watching you masturbate, especially for me?"

She smiled and said, "You wouldn't be upset?"

"At what?" he asked, laughing. He kissed her on the forehead and said "You worry too much, sweetheart."

She looked up at him with wide, open eyes and said, "Call me that again."

"What?"

"Sweetheart. That's the first time you've ever called me that. Do it again."

"Okay, sweetheart," he said, kissing her forehead again, then her nose, her chin. He shifted to the left and kissed the inside of her ear; she shivered. "How's that, sweetheart?" he whispered. She sighed.

"Perfect," she whispered back, her eyes closed. "Come on, let's go visit Shardik."

"It all seems so easy," he said as they separated and he pulled the T-shirt on.

"What?" she asked. "Nice shirt, by the way."

"Huh?" He looked down. The shirt was blue, printed with what appeared to be a grid on it. Across the top and down the side were the names of the Pendorian Species; at the far right and at the bottom were the words "Terran Human." Each cell of the grid held a number represented as a percent. At the top of the shirt were the words "Genetic Diversity" and at the bottom "Discrimination doesn't stand up to the numbers." The percentages were all in the 90%-100% range. The lowest percentage rate was 94%, and that one was comparing a Dragon to a Dolphin. The back of the shirt read, "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? - Wm. Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act III, scene i, line 60"

"This is a neat shirt," Nickolai admitted. "I wonder if I'd be allowed to keep it."

"You may," Dave replied.

"Really?" Nickolai asked. "Thanks. I meant, being here. I still feel like I was supposed to go through some sort of trial to get to Shardik Castle. We walked through the back door."

She smiled and hugged him; her T-shirt, he noted, was rather more mundane: a concert shirt from the Madhsenger Consort, one of the few musical groups to be popular on both Pendor and Terra. "Come on," she said. "Let's go."

They walked together to Shardik's door. "Do we knock?" Nickolai asked. Furry rolled her eyes and said, "Dave, we're here."

The door opened. "Come in, come in," they heard from within. They walked in to find Shardik and Molly staring at each other over a holo game. "Just a sec," Shardik said. He held a joystick in each hand; Nickolai couldn't see what it was they were playing, but it ended quickly with Shardik cheering. "Gotcha," he said to the Vulpin across the table.

"Hiya, kids, come in, sit down. Can I get you anything? I've even got icecream." He smiled wide; Nickolai's anxiety level was screaming into the ceiling. He felt very uncomfortable. He shook his head. "Not even an iced tea or something?"

Furry finally relented and said, "I wouldn't mind some ice- cream."

"How about a float?"

"That'll do," she said, grinning. He rose and wandered into a kitchen set behind a bar on the innermost wall. "Nickolai, Molly?"

"I need to preserve my foxy figure," the Vulpin replied. Shardik laughed. "Oh, hell with it, Dad. Give me a Shardik special."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah." He smiled and disappeared behind the counter, returning with two glass bottles, then again with cardboard cylinders. He proceeded to mix and match sodas and ice-creams, coming out a few minutes later with glasses for Furry and Molly, then returning for the others for himself and Nickolai. He sat down in a large leather chair to the right of the large couch, and offered the couch to the two. "You're probably wondering what you're doing here."

"I was," Furry offered.

"I'm sure you're friend there was as well."

Nickolai nodded.

"Good. You're curious... that's a survival trait, you know. Curiosity may well have killed the cat, but it was satisfaction that brought him back. Okay, here's the scoop. No, wait, I think I'm going to reveal a secret of the universe to you first.

"You know you how think?" he asked. "You know how, when you want to judge how someone else will do something, anything, and you have no data on how they've acted in that situation before, what do you fall back on?"

There was a pause. Furry spoke finally, saying, "What other people did in that situation?"

"That works for historically familiar situations, like battlefield conditions. Sure you can fall back on statistics, but what do you really do?"

Nickolai racked his brains, trying to figure the answer and what Shardik was driving at. Finally, something clicked. "What you would do."

"What I would do?" Shardik asked, surprised.

"No, what, well, what I would do."

"Good! Right! Okay, I bet you two assumed that I get lots of potential visitors every day." They both nodded. "I don't," he said. "Humans are told that, one, they don't know how to use the SDisksystem and two, I don't want visitors. Pendorians are told the second anyway. So I don't get many uninvited visitors. You're the first ones to try in about eight months. The last time I had visitors, I treated them the way I'm treating you. But there's a difference this time.

"You see, you made that assumption because your brain's operating system said 'everybody else would be trying too.' But they're not. This is going to sound kind of silly, but there are two kinds of people. There are people who give a damn, and there's everybody else. You know, Furry, your father made the trek here a couple of centuries back." Nickolai saw Furry's look of surprise. "Yes, he did. I'm glad to see his daughter has the same drives.

"Basically, I'm just glad you two are here; it shows me that both Terra and Pendor have people out to make a difference, who want to get offworld and see the sights, who want to go places nobody else is supposed to go. So I'll tell you what... You can keep that room across the hall for the next week or so."

"Sir?" Furry said, surprised.

"I believe you heard me. You're welcome to stay in my home for the next six days. Both of you. Come and go as you please. Visit with the family. Play with the kids. I hope you don't mind if we draft you one night for baby-sitting?"

Neither one moved. Nickolai was still stunned by the offer. "Good," Shardik continued. "Dave, make it so."

"Already done. SDisk lockout is off for both of them."

"Which means," Shardik continued, "That you have access to the Castle, to Monastery Island... that's about it. Two SDisks you couldn't use before." He smiled. "Hey, don't worry. You're safer here than almost anywhere else on the Ring. Well?"

"I... I don't understand," Nickolai hesitated.

"What's not to understand?" Shardik asked.

"I think, father," Molly interrupted, "That you've stunned both of them."

Shardik turned back to the fox. "Think so?"

"Ken," Furry said slowly, "Can I call my father?"

"Sure," Shardik replied. "Dave?"

A Screen came up in front of Furry; she paused a second until her mother's image resolved on the screen. "Mom?"

"Jofuran! Hello, dear, how've you been?"

"Mom, I'm at Shardik Castle."

Furry's mother blinked for a second. "Really?"

"Yes, Miss Shigokai," Shardik said, stepping behind Furry. "I've invited the two of them to be my guests for the next two weeks, with your permission."

Furry's mother looked up and said, "If you can assure their safety," she said.

"I can as long as they're on my property."

"That's fair. Very well. I'll inform my mate when he awakes. Thank you for calling."

"It was my pleasure," Shardik replied. "Good night."

"Good night, Father." The screen went dark.

"Dave," Shardik said, "Is Miss Dittrich available?"

"She is," the AI responded.

"Connect me with her, if she would allow."

The screen tilted slightly; the image resolved into his mother. "Good evening, Miss Dittrich. I am Kennet Shardik."

"Good evening... sir," she replied slowly. "How can I help you?"

"I wanted to call you to assure you that Nickolai is quite all right; I have invited him to be my guest for a short while, if you don't mind."

"For how long?" she asked, still not recovered from her surprise.

"Until you board the cruise liner back to Terra. Until then he has free use of both the SDisk system and my house. I must ask, however, that you not reveal this to any of your fellow travel guests."

"Uh, uh, yes, I will do that. Thank you."

Shardik smiled slightly and said, "You're welcome. Good night." He waved his hand and the screen dissolved. He muttered something under his breath; Nickolai thought it sounded like "sheep."

"So," he said, quietly, looking up, "What can I do for you two until tomorrow? Need anything? I'm afraid my mates have gone to bed; both were very tired." He shrugged and said, "So?"

Nickolai and Furry turned towards each other. Nickolai thought she looked like he felt; 'stunned.' He turned back to Shardik and said, "There isn't anything we need..." And again he bit down on a 'sir.' "We'd just like to go to bed."

"Well, feel free," he said, with a small smile. "I'll see you tomorrow. And if not, well... whenever."

They both stood and walked out of the room quickly, leaving their untouched milkshakes on the table. As the door shut behind them, Nickolai turned to Furry and said, "I've said this before, but... I don't believe this!"

"You're not the only one," Furry said, her eyebrows inching up towards her ears.

"Something's up," Nickolai said. "What was all that about there being two kinds of people?"

"I don't know," she said. "I wish I did. Do you think, maybe, it's a test?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, how often do you hear about Terran/Pendorian love affairs?"

"A lot."

"Not lust. Love. Remember, on Terra, people fall in love because they want to have kids, but they can't have kids with Pendorians. When was the last time this happened," she said, gesturing between them as they walked into their room.

"Oh. Not a lot, really."

"Do you love me?"

"Yes. What kind of question is that?" he asked.

"It's important. I think... I think he's watching us."

"For what?"

"To see if it works. To see if Humans and Pendorians are really ready to get along."

"Terrans hate Pendor today more than ever," he pointed out.

"You don't" she said, shyly. Nickolai worried he may have frightened her. "What if..." she continued. "What if he's ready to give Terra what it really wants."

"What?"

"In vivo Saman transfer."

Nickolai blinked and said, "You think so?"

"It's possible. Why not? What else could he offer?"

"And we're to prove that it can work?" he asked.

She nodded her head.

Nickolai thought about it for a second, then reached out for her hands, took them. "Furry, I'm not a test animal. If he wants me to stay in his house, fine. Babysit his kids once, fine. But I'm not going to act any differently towards you because of what he wants."

"I don't think he wants you to act any differently. That's the point," she said.

"But I would anyway if I cared. I don't. Look, in vivo Saman transfer isn't going to do me any good, I'm already born. I want you."

She blushed gently; her nose darkened, her ear tips lowered gently. "I was hoping you'd say that," she said, kissing him. "Nickolai, I love you."

"Furry," he said, swallowing hard. "If I had the right, I'd walk the Hall for you."

"No," she said sharply. "I don't want you to. I want you just the way you are."

He nodded, pulling her close. "Let's go downstairs." They floated down to the bedroom, where they began a slow, almost magickal ritual of taking off each other's clothing; as their fingers crossed over each other's body their eyes would lock momentarily; Nickolai felt like his heart was made of light, and tears formed in his eyes as they tumbled gently down into the bed and he slid inside her.

Her gasp of pleasure was joined by one of his own; they made love slowly, gently, in the huge bed in what some people thought of as the center of the universe. His climax followed hers with a soft and loving moan, and as he dropped by her side, exhausted, she snuggled close to him, rubbing her nose against his with a smile, even as their tears mixed on the pillow.

Travellogue, Day 6
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is copyright © December 30, 1991 Elf Mathieu Sternberg and is available under a Creative Commons License.