The next day Nickolai awoke to find Furry already up and out. He showered alone, dressed and asked Dave where he could find her. "She is up on the roof talking to Ken," the AI replied.
Nickolai thanked the computer and made his way upfloors by the grav tube, carefully this time. He passed a femFelinzi in the tube he hadn't met yet; he thought she was attractive, but her chaotic black-and-white fur made his eyes hurt. She waved as she went by.
Up on the roof he found Furry, Shardik, and P'nyssa Traken eating breakfast together. "Nickolai," Shardik said cheerfully, "Come, join us. Steak and eggs. Come, satisfy your carnivore heart." He laughed as if to say "I have a secret" (which, Nickolai was sure, he did), and motioned Nickolai into a chair, which he accepted.
Nickolai dug into the dubious slab of meat, tasting it carefully before deciding he could live with it. "So, have you two kids been enjoying yourselves? I've already asked your date, but how about you?"
"It's been interesting," Nickolai asked, not feeling the 'sir' quite so much. "And we've been finding way to occupy ourselves."
"I'm sure," Shardik commented, smiling. "Listen, I don't want to pressure you into anything, so take your time, take the day easy."
Furry leaned back in her chair and stretched, making Nickolai's heart jump a little faster as she did so. He noticed Shardik give a small chuckle at his discomfort and try to cover it.
Shardik noticed that as well. "Don't bother, Nickolai. Trust a man who's approaching his millenial year... It's hard to imagine a better-looking woman than one who's taking her morning stretch. Muscles defined, chest out, shoulders back, eyes closed. Truly one of the most appealing sights in the universe."
Furry visibly blushed at the compliment, then picked up her glass. Before taking a drink, she did manage to say "Thank you, sir."
"Nonsense... You're a fine looking femMark, Furry. Your young mel here is very lucky."
P'nyssa leaned over and whispered something into Shardik's ear. He looked uncomfortable for a moment, then nodded. "I have to apologize," he said to Furry. "I have this sometimes annoying habit of being too convincing. I've been told it's very seductive, and I have no intention of seducing either of you. Forgive me."
Furry seemed to take the information calmly. "My Father warned me about that."
"Did he?" Ken said, taken aback. "That's odd... I don't particularly remember attempting to seduce him."
"You did," a new voice said. Aaden came around the corner and sat down, a small sandwich on his tray. "You made the attempt. It was my turn to correct you then."
"That was different. He was alone."
"Still, Ken... I don't think you really wanted to seduce Furry's father. It's just your circuitry is wired that way."
"I know, I know." Shardik leaned over and kissed Aaden on the muzzle, softly, with a long pause. "See you later, lover."
"You're leaving, and I just got here?" the Mephit asked, chidingly.
"Aw, I've got work. And so do you. See you both in bed," he said cheerfully as he disappeared down the catwalk.
"I assume he meant you and me, and not those two," Aaden said, talking to P'nyssa.
"I hope that's what he meant. G'morning, torren."
As Aaden sat down, he leaned over and kissed P'nyssa. Nickolai was fascinated by the gesture; as far as he knew, Aaden was a homosexual with no driving interest in females whatsoever.
"So," the big Mephit said, "What have you got planned for today?"
Nickolai shrugged. "I don't know. Have anything to suggest?"
"We could try it this way," P'nyssa said. "Nickolai, why did you come to Pendor?"
"That's a good question," Nickolai admitted. "I'm here because my mother thought that 'getting a good look at Pendor was a good idea.'" He smiled. "I bet she's eating those words right now."
"What do you mean?" P'nyssa inquired.
"My mother is one of those people who views Pendor as 'the enemy.' I didn't tell you this," he said, turning to Furry, "because I didn't understand it until you explained it to me. But now I see." He returned his expression to P'nyssa. "Mom's one of those people who hates Pendor because every time Terra gets something Pendor has, Terrans give up something that makes them... Terran, I guess."
"Why would someone like that come to Pendor?" P'nyssa asked, confused.
"To get a good look at the enemy," Aaden replied.
"The enemy now has her child," P'nyssa said, darkly. "She must be going out of her mind with worry. I mean, not only are you actually enjoying Pendor, not only are you friends with Pendorians, but it's pretty clear you're in love with Jofuran here." Her eyes widened. "Not only that, but you're a guest of the Shardiks. What was Ken thinking of when he brought you here?"
There was a pause, and Furry said "Does it matter?"
"I think it does," P'nyssa replied.
"No, I mean, does it matter? The point is, Nickolai is here. Other than coming to Shardik Castle, everything that's happened, happened of Nickolai's free will. In fact, coming here did too."
"Does my mother know that?" Nickolai asked.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Furry replied.
"My mother also feels that Pendorians have such an advanced science that if you had wanted to, you could have convinced me to come here and made me believe it was of my own free will, even if I had never wanted to in the first place. I know how I feel. I want to be with Furry. I love her. Or, at least, I think I do."
"That's youthful idealism for you," P'nyssa said, smiling.
"Whatever. She convinced me to try this silly trek, to come out here and see what happened. I got a wonderful walk in the woods with her. I found a lively, happy home. I've had great walks on the beach, swum in your pool, gone flying out to the Rowan tree. The sheer honor at being one of the few Terrans ever to actually touch the Rowan... and the stone... is incredible.
"But that's how I feel. I mean, I love this trip, more than I can possibly describe. But would there be any way to possibly explain it all to my mother, other than having her say you all did something to my mind?"
"Do you really think she'll feel that way?"
"I don't know," Nickolai admitted. "I'm sure she thinks it's a big deal, me being here and all. And I'm sure she doesn't think it's an honor."
"I think it's an honor, your being here," Furry said. "I'm honored to be with you."
Nickolai blushed. "Thanks, sweetheart."
Furry sighed, her eyes fluttering. "I love when he calls me that."
"I can tell," Aaden replied smiling. "If you two would like, we have a pair of Jialani's you can use. They're not skyspeeders like the type you went flying in yesterday- they're ground effect gravitics. But from here you could drive to Rocchodain or Carraraug... both are easily within two hours of here by bike.
"Carraraug... isn't that where the dancing is that Shardik- I mean, Ken- recommended?"
"There is a place there that Skii's really fond of. In fact, if you two wouldn't mind waiting until about five, I think I could talk Skii into showing you two around."
"Do you want to?" Nickolai asked Furry.
"Sounds like fun."
"Dave, could you?" Aaden asked.
"Tell Skii? Of course. Excuse me, Aaden?"
"I should alert you that Carraraug is also on the Pendor Tours route, and Nickolai's tourgroup will be in Carraraug tonight."
"Small universe," Aaden said.
"Not at all," Dave said. "It's Skii's favorite place for precisely that reason. Lonely Terran males looking for companionship."
"I didn't know that," Aaden said thoughtfully. "I wonder how long it'll take him to outgrow that."
"Probably as long as you and Ken did," P'nyssa growled.
"It only took Ken four years."
"It took you four centuries."
"Mea culpa," Aaden said. "Did I say that right?"
"I have no idea," P'nyssa replied, throwing her mitts into the air.
"You pronounced the phrase correctly," Dave informed him. "However, it's use in this particular instance is questionable, since there is nothing to blame you for."
"Oh, well," Aaden said. "Win some, lose some. I'm not the linguist in this house."
"That's funny," P'nyssa replied. "You know more languages than I do at this point."
"Hi, guys," N'Skii said as he came down the grilled walkway. "What can I do for you?"
"Going to Carraraug tonight?" Aaden asked
"I was thinking about it. Why?"
"Like to take our guests with you?"
Skii looked over Nickolai and Furry and said, "Sure. What's the catch?"
"You go by Jialani."
"You'll let me take one of the Jialani's?" Skii asked, his voice full of wonder. "That's a catch?"
"And wash it when you get home," Aaden said, lacing his fingers. "This one time."
"It's a deal!"
"They're all yours. Will you two be staying here, or in Carraraug tonight?" Aaden asked.
"Uhm, if it's all right with you, I think we'd like to stay the night in Rocchodain again."
"It's all right with me," Aaden replied gracefully. "Just make sure to make reservations ahead of time. Something wrong, Skii?"
"Huh? No, no, just trying to figure something out."
"May I ask what?"
Skii looked embarrassed for a moment. "Well, if I find someone there, and I get separated..."
"I'm sure Nickolai and Jofuran can find their own way home," Aaden said calmly. Nickolai was impressed with Aaden's... presence was the only word he could find to describe it.
"Guess they can. Okay, guys, let's go see your Jialani's."
Nickolai and Furry excused themselves and followed Skii out. "What's the big deal about your being allowed to drive a Jialani?" Furry asked. Skii looked embarrassed for a second, then pointed out over the railing on the edge of the Castle. "See that dark spot in the ocean over there?"
"About two hundred meters from shore. Sorta triangular?"
"Dad's fusion-drive F1Ja. I put it there."
"Accident. I was trying to get the engines into a ground-effect mode and then roll her. I didn't make it."
"Wow. Glad to see your okay. So what's the deal with the bike?"
"I'm grounded. No vehicles for a year. It's SDisks and my own two feet."
"I thought you were 'of age' on Pendor."
Skii shot Nickolai a scowl. "Technically, I am. But that doesn't stop Granfa from telling Dave I can't use anything in the house."
"You could move out."
"No... I don't think so."
"How long ago did the accident happen?"
"It's been about nine months now." The Felinzi looked a little uncomfortable; his tail lay on the ground and his ears matted. "So this is a little surprising. I'm glad you guys are here."
"We are too," Furry said, squeezing Nickolai's hand gently as they fell down the long tractor to the sands of the lagoon.
Skii led them down the long tunnel they had originally walked to get to the castle. "Vehicle bay number two for Shardik Castle," Skii said. "Ground based stuff. Well, there they are. Five Jialanis."
"What's that?" Furry asked, pointing at a conglomeration of steel in one corner. Two wheeled, it looked a bit like a Jialani or a skybike, only much cruder.
"That's P'raine's internal combustion engined Harley Davidson. It's supposed to be nearly eight hundred years old and still in prime condition."
"It looks like it would be difficult to ride."
"It's complicated. And riding it hurts."
"Hurts?" Furry asked, confused.
"It's an ICE," Skii replied. "It's power comes from exploding fuel in control chambers. The thing rumbles and rattles and basically hurts. It has no ergonomics at all."
"Then why does she ride it?" Furry asked.
"Because she likes it," Skii replied. "She doesn't need another reason. Now these," he said, pointing to the brightly-colored Jialani's, "are much nicer. They're Jialani sixes. Full gravitics, including personnel support. You can do nearly three hundred kph in these things."
"I think we'll stay below a hundred," Furry said.
"Of course," Skii said, smiling to indicate he didn't think he would be doing any such thing. "Wish I had a Jialani seven, though."
"What's better about a seven?"
"You can carry one in your pocket. Well, if you've got big pockets."
"They're fully virtual vehicles. It's just a pair of handlegrips. That and a PFusion microcell. Lasts about six months."
"How does that work?"
"Well, here, let me show you." He walked through the bay to a set of shelves in the back, coming back with three cylinders, two with handgrips set into them. "You take this cylinder," indicating the smooth one, "And clip these onto either end." He attached the two handlegripped cylinders to the sides of the larger one, rotating them to lock them together. "And that's it. The center here is the microcell and projectors." He flipped open a small panel in the center. "When you activate it, one of those appears. It's all forcefields and illusions, but it looks and feels just like one of those," he said, pointing to the Jialani bikes. "This one doesn't have any power, so I can't show you."
"Isn't technology wonderful?" Skii asked. Nickolai thought the tone of his voice was vaguely sarcastic, but decided not to comment on it. "Okay, now then. Sit in here. Where are we going first?"
"Rocchodain for lunch."
"Rocchodain it is, then," Skii agreed. "Come on." They mounted their respective bikes and sped out of the bay, the doors closing behind them. Skii immediately accelerated away from them, apparently at the limits of the Jialani's capacity.
"We'll be there in eight minutes," Furry said gently.
"And he'll in three!" Nickolai commented over the intercom.
"So he'll wait five," Furry said. "It gives me a chance to be with you alone."
"You know, we could run into my mother tonight."
"I was kinda hoping we would."
"Call it curiosity. I want to see how she reacts to you, to me, to Skii."
"Are you sure?"
"Not really," Furry replied. "But I guess I want to make sure that I'm not destroying any chance of you and her reconciling your differences."
"I know what you're going to say, Kolya, and if there's any chance of you and your mother getting along, and me still being a part of your life, I want to see it happen."
"I'd like to see it happen too. But I think I know my mother."
A few minutes later they slowed down as they entered the town limits of Rocchodain. "What took you guys so long?" Skii asked.
"We wanted to talk. And we didn't go roaring off at three hundred kph."
"Fair enough. I'm not a patient Fel."
"I noticed," Furry replied. This time, Nickolai was sure he heard sarcasm in her voice.
"Hey, come on. There's this great sandwich shop over here."
Skii's idea of a "sandwich" turned out to be meats and vegetables rolled into a stretched slab of raw dough and then baked. Nickolai eyed his carefully before taking a bite. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Who?" Furry asked.
"Either of you. Why do you all eat such rich, heavy food? I don't think I've seen a really fat Pendorian yet."
"It would take a lot," Skii answered.
"What do you mean?"
"Nickolai, I'm going to let you in on a secret. A few Terrans know it, but it's never been a widely advertised thing on Terra. Pendorians don't have Saman transfer."
"Not impossible. What is the Saman transfer, anyway?"
"It's... well, as I understand it, it's a repeated reencoding of a person's DNA. The viral mechanism examines sets of DNA in a grouping of cells, and after a while it goes into a sort of predator mode, where it causes cells with a given 'Failure to reproduce true' percentage to self-destruct. The other parts are repair mechanisms, especially the neurological ones."
"That's not what happens in us. Our 'reproduce true' mechanism isn't viral, it's mechanical. The... 'predators,' like you called them, talk to each other, keeping a constant record of our DNA. They never have a sampling period, and are encoded as an exocelluar process during pregnancy by the mother's system. The ability of our brain cells to reproduce is part of the primal encoding that went with our being genetically engineered. We eat a lot because that mechanism, while it functions like any other bodily function, and is in fact a part of the blood system, is a heavy-load system, and it needs a lot of fuel."
"It's all... nanotech?"
"Every last drop of it."
"No wonder they don't talk a lot about it at home."
"The grey goo accident," Furry growled.
"Yeah. A lot of Bamenda had already disappeared before they dropped the nukes on it."
"But if Terra learned to control nanotech the way we do, they wouldn't have those problems."
"I know," Nickolai said. "But I guess we Terrans get to go on the way we're going. As the saying goes, it works for us."
"I guess," Furry said.
After lunch, the three went shopping. Furry stopped at the town Inn and reserved their room for the night. Tacha seemed honestly pleased to see them again.
They loaded up their bikes, Nickolai particularily pleased with a leather jacket he had picked up from a custom leatherworker who had an overstock. "I like the way that jacket smells," Furry commented as they started their bikes.
They arrived at Carraraug just before dusk. The first flash had just passed over and night was falling quickly. Skii stopped his bike in front of a building that was very obviously a hotel. Nickolai thought it should have had the word "HILTON" sprayed across the front in big letters. "All the comforts of home," he said under his breath.
"What was that?"
Nickolai repeated his statement, then said "I mean, It looks just like any other Terran hotel. What's the point of coming to Pendor if you're going to stay in places that look this... generic?"
"You're an adventurer, Kolya," Furry said. "And a romantic. Must be why I love you." She pulled him close and kissed him. "You're like me... you like sleeping in- " she smiled a mischievous smile, "and with- the real thing. Most people don't... they want to see it, maybe get near it, but they want to be as comfortable as possible while they're there."
"Sounds like an expensive version of video."
"Well," Skii said, "There are somethings they can't get on Earth. Not easily, at any rate."
"Like what?" Nickolai asked.
"Like me," he smiled. "C'mon."
They followed him through the doors and lobby into a large nightclub. It would have been exactly like any other danceclub anywhere on Earth, except for the rather dense scattering of Pendorians in evidence.
Skii led them to a table in one corner, out of the direct line of the speakers. "We can talk here," he shouted.
"Well, sort of," Furry said, leaning over to whisper into Nickolai's ear. Skii departed to the dancefloor as the music changed. He was immediately surrounded by a crowd of humans, mostly female but at least two males in evidence. He took an apparent liking to one.
"There's a word for that, in any language," Furry said, smiling. "He's a slut." She pressed a few buttons on the display inset to the table. "Hope he has a good time."
Nickolai wondered what she meant by that, since on Terra the word 'slut' was a considerable insult. "What do you mean?"
"His criteria for who he sleeps with is simple to fill."
"Isn't it mean to say that?"
"Not really. It just means he's acting immaturely... Oh, I see. No, it's not a moral judgment. He isn't doing anything that risks his partner or anyone else."
"Sounds like you don't approve," Furry said, thanking the waitress who brought her drinks. She handed one to Nickolai, who looked at it dubiously. "It's iced tea."
"I don't know. It's so hard to understand sometimes. Look, in that book my mother gave me, there's a section that says that Pendorians are 'indiscriminate' about who they... sleep with."
"Kolya," Furry said, cuddling up close to him. He felt a little uncomfortable with her this close, and that discomfort by itself bothered him more. He had said "I love you," to this... woman... and now he was discomfited by her presence? What kind of reaction was that?
She took his head in her hands and turned his face to her. "Before you, I'd never slept with anyone," she smiled momentarily, "or made love with anyone. But Skii is one of those people who's discrimination is apparently limited to looks and enthusiasm. I agree... that's pretty indiscriminate. But Pendorians are much quicker to face... reality, I guess. For us, SANS was never a problem. For you, SANS is no longer a real problem, but you don't use logic to arrive at that conclusion. My dad was right... Terrans use guilt, shame- emotion- to control themselves."
He wrapped his arms around her awkwardly. She leaned up against him. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know," he said.
"You're bothered by something."
"Can we go sit somewhere?"
"Yeah." They rose together to walk out, filtering past the erratic and enthusiastic dancers lining the floor. The entire room was packed wall-to-wall with Terrans and Pendorians. Nickolai was stepping through a particularly dense crowd of people when he felt a sudden, confusing pain in his side, followed by an intense wave of nausea. He stumbled and fell.
"Nickolai?" he heard Furry call over the music. He reached behind himself and felt something cold in his back. He tugged at it, and it came out painfully.
"Kolya, are you okay?"
"Furry..." he gasped, looking up.
"Oh.mi.fa," she said slowly. She shouted something in Pendorian so fast he couldn't make it out at all, but the music immediately stopped and the room was floodlit with white. "Medical emergency, to the Carraraug hotel, stat! Cutters authorized, I take responsibility."
Nickolai wondered what she was talking about. His cramps weren't bad enough to warrant an emergency? He'd feel so much better if he'd just