He awoke with garish lights shining through painful eyelids. The lights dimmed as he blinked into them, and his surrounding resolved into a hotel room... no, a hospital room? "Welcome back to the living," a voice he hadn't heard before said. The owner of the voice was a Felinzi, another housecat, this one with a lush, reddish fur. "I'm Nance Narrone, Skii's father. I'm also your nurse, imagine that."
"What happened to me?"
"You've been stabbed, dear boy. Your lady friend is quite worried about you. Don't worry, Rhys Adnil stitched you back up good as new, and P'nyssa and I made sure that your guts will stay in place."
"Stabbed?" Nickolai asked, confused. "I don't understand."
"Stabbed. You know, given the shiv. Stuck up. According to the report, you did quite a lot of bleeding all over the floor in the hotel."
"I mean, who? Why?"
"That I'm not sure about," the Felinzi admitted. "You'll have to ask whoever's in charge of the investigation, not that there was much of one."
"I don't understand."
"Nickolai!" he heard from the door. Shardik stood there, as did Furry and his mother. Shardik spoke first. "You have this surprising talent for firsts. First Terran to be stabbed by another Terran on Pendorian soil. We've had a few Pendorians assaulted, usually for sleeping with someone else's companion of the moment. But stabbings? That's so archaic I doubt the Uncia do it anymore."
"What... what was I stabbed with?"
"A meat knife."
"Not really." Shardik spread his hands apart several centimeters. Nickolai tried to imagine that much metal being shoved into his side, and paled visibly. Shardik smiled and said, "Don't worry. You're in the finest medical facility in the galaxy, as far as we know."
"How... How long was I out?"
"Well, the accident only happened at two Lome', and it's about six Arie' now... about nineteen hours?"
"Oh." He was silent for a moment, then looked over Shardik's shoulder and out the door. "Hello, Mother."
"Kolya, are you alright?"
"He's perfectly healthy, Ms Dittrich. There's not a thing wrong with him."
"Well, that's good. What's going to happen to that boy?"
"Wait a minute," Nickolai shouted. "Just wait, okay? What happened? Who stabbed me?"
"Matseh," Furry replied.
Nickolai absorbed the first word she'd uttered since he'd woken with a dull sense of surprise. "The kid from the mechforce game?" he asked.
She nodded. "Not even the AI was sure at first, because there were a lot of people in there. But he left fingerprints on the knife, not to mention a dozen other clues."
"Actually," Shardik said, "his worst mistake was bragging about it to his friends. Not only did one of his friend turn him in, but the AI heard him. Stupid people shouldn't breathe."
"Shouldn't breed?" Nance asked, as if unsure of what he'd heard.
"Presumably, if they're not breathing, they'll have a hard time doing that, too."
"Kolya..." Furry said, gently. "Your mother and have been having a long conversation."
"Yes, Kolya," his mother said, picking up the conversation. "I owe you an apology. At first I did not want to sit in the same room with her. But she is a remarkably strong and determined person, and I was wrong. Of all the people on this voyage you could be spending time with, she is a good choice."
"Mom... what made you change your mind?"
"I'm ashamed to admit it, but you had to get stabbed for me to see it. That book I gave you told me that Pendorians do not care what happens to Terrans, and watching how they took care of you I saw that just wasn't true. And seeing how concerned she was convinced me of her honesty."
Furry took two steps forward and leapt the full meter and a half to the bed, landing smoothly on both feet. Nickolai was still surprised by the sheer strength she demonstrated when she wanted to. She turned and sat down next to him. "And I've managed to convince her that you're not a little boy anymore."
"I did not say that," Ms Dittrich said.
"Ms Dittrich. We agreed that he is sixteen years old, and therefore he, like me, is capable of making his own decisions."
Nickolai's mother smiled an embarrassed smile. "Perhaps it is sometimes difficult to accept that he is not my little boy, anymore."
Nickolai's face flushed with embarrassment as he stared at his mother. He almost failed to notice Furry coming in from the side; he turned just in time for her lips to meet his. There was a sudden burst of applause, at first from two pairs of hands, then three. Furry backed away from him, her nose as dark as his face. They both fell back onto the hospital bed, giggling.
"You know," Shardik said, "I think they're gonna be okay."
"Come," Nickolai heard his mother say. "Let us leave them alone."
"When you two are ready, we'll be back at Shardik Castle."
"What was that line, Ken? The one from Uncle Robert?" N'Nance asked.
"What? 'Never crowd a child about his privacy? Sure, they'll make mistakes, but so did you' ?"
"But is it not the role of a parent to teach his child what decisions he should make in private?" his mother asked.
"Well, yes," Shardik replied. "But after a while we as parents have to realize-" the door shut, and he missed the rest of the conversation.
Furry burst out giggling. "I don't believe him!"
"What?" Nickolai asked.
"Ken! He's just so... so... convincing! He had your mother hanging on his every word in less than half an hour."
"Must be a talent. Tell me, Furry, what's going to happen to Matseh?"
"At the moment, he's being held in anticipation of the next cruiser back to Terra. His parents are going haywire- they're insisting he could never do any such thing. According to Ken, they were shown vid of him bragging, and they insisted it was a forgery."
"I thought... when things like this happened..."
"People just disappeared?"
"Something like that."
"Not really. It's more like... People who are dangerous, who can't control themselves, are dangerous in general, and the general public is within it right to remove that threat. We're removing that threat. Imagine being under a life sentence to never have dealing with Pendor again. To never ride in a Pendorian starship. In fact, to have trouble from Terran starships with Pendorian AI's installed. To never be in a business where Pendor is a major trade partner. Life sucks for Matseh right now."
"Oh." Nickolai was quiet with his own thoughts for a long time. "Furry... could that happen to me?"
Jofuran didn't answer the question. Instead she replied "You're scared of me again." Nickolai could hear tears in her voice.
She turned, kneeling before him, straddling his body. "Nickolai, unless underneath it all you're a crazy maniac waiting to kill me, nothing is going to happen to you that you don't want to happen to you."
"I didn't want to fall in love with you."
Furry's eyes widened. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean... I mean when I first met you, I just wanted to get to know you. And then... that kiss in the game room.
"Furry," he said, continuing, "You, yourself... you're so fast, so strong, so powerful. And then you've got all this," he gestured widely, "behind you. Two days ago, I felt like I couldn't say 'I love you' because that didn't say enough, you know what I mean? And now... Now I don't know what to feel. I want you, I want you so much. But I can't make that click with the thought that the.. the 'you' I want is a meter- and-a-half-tall Pendorian mouse."
"You look like a mouse, sweetheart."
"You called me sweetheart again," she said, teasingly, even through the sadness and pain in her voice.
"Yeah, I guess I did," he said, pulling her down gently and hugging her close. "Are you upset by what I just said?"
Furry was silent for almost a minute. "A little," she finally answered. "But not really. I'd like to think I understand how hard it is for you to understand. But when I'm with you, I never feel in doubt. I just know that I want you, and I love you. Remember when I said 'let's just be friends'?" He nodded again. "The worst four words in the vocabulary of relationships," she chuckled, "and I said them. But I meant it. When we talked in the pool, I knew I needed you, just as a friend, and you would just be my friend, I would be happy. For as long as I knew you, however long that was."
He felt his chest tighten again, and hugged her closer. "Furry?"
"No, Nickolai," she replied, "let me say it." She rose back up onto her knees and stared him in the eyes. "I love you."
"I love you too, Jofuran," he whispered back. She fell on him, her muzzle open, her tongue in his. She kissed his cheeks, his eyes, his forehead. He laughed in response, feeling the pressure of yesterday lift from him. With a lunge, he grabbed her by the waist and rolled her down onto the bed, descending on her with equal enthusiasm, nipping and biting her neck before trailing down her left side, eliciting delightful squeals and screams as she protested his tickling her.
"Kolya!" she begged, "please!"
"What's wrong?" he asked, smiling. "Can't take a little friendly tickling, sweetheart?"
"Oh, you're so silly!" she shouted, grabbing him and holding him close. He wrapped his arms around her in response and held her tightly.
They were quiet for awhile before Jofuran said, "You owe me something."
"What?" Nickolai asked, confused.
"We didn't get to make love last night." She smiled suggestively.
"According to Nance, I was busy almost dying last night."
"Yeah," she said soberly. "You did. You know you pulled the knife out, making the wound worse."
"I did? I remember reaching for it, but I don't recall pulling it out."
"Trust me, you did. Ugly thing, too... serrated edge and wooden handle."
"Yech." Nickolai again had trouble believing he'd been as badly wounded as everyone was saying. It hadn't really hurt that much, and he didn't feel poorly now. In fact, he felt pretty good.
"Now then," she said, the smile returning to her face, "about that little debt."
"You want to make love right here?"
Her hands reached into his hospital gown and told him his answer as she found his cock and began stroking it gently. "Right here," she said, "Right now."
"Jean, lock the door," Furry asked aloud. There was an audible click. "Ever read 'Stardiver Accidents'?"
"Yeah," Nickolai admitted, smiling. His cock had surged to its full length under her fingers. "Untie this damned thing."
She reached behind his back and pulled on the clasps holding it in place, tossing it aside once it was free. "Much better," she sighed. "Fa, but you look good. Don't bother with the skirt... just push it up and get inside me, Kolya, please."
He smiled, complying with her instructions eagerly, descending between her spread thighs and sliding his full length into her cunt easily. She cooed in pleasure. "Kolya," she sighed.
"I love you."
"I love you, too," she replied, smiling through nearly-closed eyelids.
He stopped supporting himself, laying his full weight on top of her and driving into her with his hips. She scratched at his back gently as they made love, his cock sliding in and out easily. He was surprised at how wet she seemed to be. He never sped up, and he knew he didn't need to. His pleasure, his climax was rushing forward even without his help; just being with her, inside her, excited him. Furry..."
"I'm close, Kolya, oh yes-"
"I love you."
"I love you... oh!" she closed her eyes and hugged him close; he could feel her body tremble underneath him. He began loving her faster, harder, and his climax was almost instantaneous thereafter.
He took three deep breaths and pushed himself up onto his arms. "There," he asked, "feel better?"
"Oh, Kolya," she sighed. "I feel much better!" She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him down. He landed with an "oof! Careful, you don't want me to crush you."
"So I die in the arms of love," she said, laughing. "You won't crush me, Kolya. Trust me."
He laughed gently and said, "I trust you. Come on. They're probably waiting for us outside."
"Probably," she said.
After making love as quickly as they had, Nickolai had to admit (to himself, at any rate) that he really didn't feel all that wonderful. "Furry, is it all right if we just take today easy?"
"Like, sit in at Shardik Castle and not do anything?"
"Fine with me," she said. "You okay?"
"I just realized I'm not in as great a shape as I thought."
"Come on." She found the clothes that had been set aside for him. "Oh, Kolya, they ruined your jacket."
"He stabbed you through the jacket. There was a big hole, so Ken promised he'd get it fixed before he gave it back to you. I hope you don't mind."
He shook his head. "It's okay... just so long as I don't need it anytime soon."
"I liked the smell of it."
"We'll get it back," he said, hugging her shoulders. They walked out of the bedroom together, following the blue line on the floor to the SDisk, and back to Shardik Castle.
"Nickolai," Shardik announced loudly as they walked together into his domicile. "Good to see you on your feet."
"Thank you," Nickolai replied abashedly. "It's good to be walking again."
"How are you feeling?" P'nyssa asked gently.
"A little queasy, but I'm okay, I think," he admitted.
"That's the result of the scavengers we used to clean out your GI tract," she said. "Perotinitis was one of your major problems. I recommend you eat... David, order me a GI special, would you?"
"Of course, Nyss," the AI replied gracefully. P'nyssa began digging around in the kitchen. "Just a minute, and I'll have lunch ready. I hope everybody's up for salads."
Shardik shrugged. "It'll do. Come in, don't stand in the doorway and keep it open. You'll let bugs into the rest of the house."
"Where's Molly?" Furry asked Shardik.
"Molly is in High Pressure Test Facility seven, in orbit around Saturn, Sol, Province of Terra."
"Oh well. I was hoping to have another game with her."
"Well," Shardik said, "You can always play me. If you can beat her, you can certainly defeat me... I'm no expert. But I like playing."
"I don't see why not. No time limit on moves. And I can consult."
"P'nyssa," Shardik said, turning towards the Tindal in the kitchen, "Remind me not to take this young lady to Rhysh. She catches on far far too quickly. I think even Borodir would be impressed with her negotiating." He turned back to Furry. "With Nickolai, P'nyssa, and Aaden if he returns."
"Deal," Furry said. "Where's your set?"
"In the next room," Shardik said. "I'll get it."
"Lunch is ready," P'nyssa announced. "Here," she said, handing Furry a large wooden bowl. "One for each of you. You," she said, pointing a mitten at Nickolai, "Make sure you eat it all."
"What is it?"
"Mostly spinach, with a yogurt, blue cheese and onion dressing. You need the fiber, and the active cultures, to get your system back in action again. Otherwise you'll be spending the rest of your vacation in the bathroom."
Nickolai regarded that as more than adequate reason to eat. Despite his slight nausea, he found himself hungry. "Don't eat so fast," P'nyssa said. "I said you had to eat it all, I didn't say in a minute flat."
"I'm back," Shardik announced as he walked back. "With the old set." He placed the chessboard down on the table carefully and pulled the dark-blue cloth off the top.
Furry whistled gently. "That's an Ebby, isn't it?"
"On the money, Jofuran. How can you tell?"
"Ebberd Winslow is the only person on Pendor who does watercarvings like that with crystal glass. And those Centaurs are definitely watercarvings."
"I'm impressed. For someone who hasn't lived on Pendor for ten years, you've got a lot of background."
The door to the home opened and Aaden stepped through, his eyes twinkling and his face smiling. "I did it!" he announced. "You don't want to know what I did to the soil on the western face of the bowl, but I did it!"
"Taste," he said, holding out a blue slab of cut fruit to Shardik. Shardik looked at it dubiously, then took a bite, chewing carefully.
"Not bad. What is it?"
"Emani, from the planet Rohetori." He put the bowl he was carrying down and rubbed his hands together. "And Myk said it couldn't be done. 'Not in our atmosphere.' This'll show him." He leaned over and kissed Shardik on the cheek. "How you doing?"
"Hello, again, Nickolai, Jofuran. I see you're doing much better, Nickolai. I'm sorry; that should never have happened."
"There's no reason for you to apologize, Aaden," Nickolai said.
"I think there is. I suggested the trip."
"You couldn't know that he had enemies, even apparently insignificant ones, in that particular tour," Shardik replied quietly.
"I guess not. Still, I'm happy to see you up and moving again."
"Want a bite?" he asked, holding out the fruit to Nickolai, who looked at it, then shook his head. "I don't think it's a good idea."
"Sure," she replied, taking the morsel from Aaden's paw and popping it into her own mouth. After a few seconds she said, "It's... interesting. Not really very sweet, is it?"
"I was kind of surprised about that myself. It has an almost herb-like flavor to it, for such a large, flowering fruit. It'll probably end up in Ken's chili."
"That's it! Thank you, sweetheart, for that wonderful suggestion." Shardik jumped up and ran into the kitchen. "Jofuran," he said over his shoulder, "could you finish setting up the chessboard?"
"Aaden, hon, how much of that fruit do you have left?"
"I've got a total of four full-grown fruits. Why?"
"How big are they?" Aaden held his hands about twenty centimeters apart. "Spherical?" The Mephit nodded. "I'll need just one. Uh... waitasecond. How much is seed, and how much is body?"
"Just rind and fruit. The rind's about a half-centimeter."
"One will do. I'll cook them for tomorrow."
"Why tomorrow?" P'nyssa asked.
"Because tonight, sweetheart, I'm going to cook the prosciutto before it goes bad. And if I cook chili tomorrow, I can get rid of it at the family dinner the day after that."
Nickolai found himself easily distracted by the view out on the porch. Chess, he realized, was not a spectator sport, especially not the way it was being played. He knew the rules of chess, but except for an occasional battle with a computer opponent to while away the time, he had never played much. Instead, the view of the ring rising up attracted his eyes.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Aaden said, startling him slightly.
"It is," Nickolai agreed. "Maybe you can answer this question. Why?"
"Why the Ring?" Aaden asked. Nickolai nodded. "Does there need to be a reason?"
"Well, he built it- doesn't he have a reason?" Nickolai asked, pointing in through the glass to where Shardik and Furry sat, staring over the chessboard.
"Do you know the hows, first, Nickolai. That's the important question."
"They say that Shardik used to be able to travel in time."
"That's almost true. No, what happened is that he had a companion, and AI named Fawn, and she could travel in time. Not only that, but she knew how to build ringworlds and genetically engineer sentient lifeforms. Actually, she knew much more than that, as you can see. We sprang up from virtually nothing because of Fawn."
"What happened to her?"
"You see, that's the important question. Fawn knew everything, but she lacked something important. Will. Ken was her will. He took a look at what she could do, and decided that he wanted to do this. He could have taken over the Earth, I suppose, or any other of a dozen things, but he chose this path. Ken has often mentioned that 'raising children is the grandest form of adventure.' That's why he does it, and that's why he never gets tired of being what he is. There's too much to feel attached to.
"Once Pendor was built and all, Fawn and Ken built Halloran Eldar and The Library. There were eight duplicates of the library built back before Paul was born. There are ten now. One resides with Halloran, six are scattered about the Ring. The others are in safe places. They're mostly duplicates of Fawn's knowledge base, her expert system. And then Ken did something very important.
"He returned Fawn to himself. Fawn could time travel, and he went back and handed Fawn to himself. That's how he got Fawn in the first place, by a visit from Ken Shardik. He closed the loop, or spiral, or whatever."
"Aaden," Nickolai asked, "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because it's not supposed to be a secret. It's not a big deal anymore. Ken doesn't know how to time travel anymore, and he's personally not interested in learning how. Neither am I. Time moves the way it's supposed to, as far as I'm concerned."
"Why a ringworld? Why not a Dyson sphere?"
"I'll let you in on a secret. Ken Shardik hates Dyson spheres. Actually, it's a phobia of sorts. Ringworlds are monstrously complicated devices, but they can easily be made redundant. I think the redundancy on the primary orbital maintenance is something like nine thousand percent, and the secondary is twelve thousand. The same is true of everything else. The shadowring is a solid band of alternating transparent and opaque materials, because ringworlds have no naturally occurring ozone, so the transparent stuff is actually somewhat absorbative.
"Dyson spheres need technology to keep your feet on the ground. Ken doesn't trust gravitics- it's a delicate technology that has the potential to break down far too easily. One breakdown on a Dyson sphere and woosh! You're flown out into space. Spinning accomplishes the same effect without technology. So Ken uses it instead."
"This is going to sound dumb," Nickolai said, "but-"
"But isn't Shardik Castle held up by gravitics?" Nickolai nodded, and Aaden smiled in response. "I'll tell you another secret- everything I've told you is pretty much a prepared speech. One of the things I didn't expect when I signed on with this crew was to become a spokesMephit for Ken or Alpha, but I did. People live in Shardik Castle of their own free will. Ken included. He didn't want to bring people into a world that was as unsafe as he makes Dyson spheres sound. But he's perfectly willing to let those people choose for themselves how they want to live."
Nickolai stared along the ocean again. "It still doesn't explain why. Why this? Why didn't he decide to take over Earth?"
"Do you want the speech, or my personal version?" Aaden asked, pulling up a wicker chair to sit in.
Nickolai took the cue and pulled up his own chair. "What's your version?"
"My version is 'I don't know anymore.' Honestly. I used to think it was because he's such a sensualist, but that didn't equate with M'Ress's telling me that he never went beyond hugs with any of his kids for a whole decade after the decanting of the Centaurs. For a while, I thought it was because he had Eros, the desire to create. That doesn't explain him now. If it was ego, why is he so... well... normal? Every time I think I come up with a good reason for Why Ken Built Pendor, it goes away with a reasoned argument."
Aaden turned his head to peer in through the glass. "I mean, look at him. Silly, intelligent, directed, absent-minded, arrogant, unassuming, loud, silent, loveable, unliveable, you can attach any adjective you want to him, and you can find a situation where it fits him. All I know is that I love him, and apparently in a way that nobody else can, and he fills something in me that nobody else does either, and it has nothing at all to do with his being Vatare'.
"Nickolai, can I ask you a question?"
Nickolai looked up for a second, coming back from his thoughts after listening to Aaden. "What?"
"You have... what, four years of schooling left, as I understand it?"
"Yeah," Nickolai admitted. "I can terminate at two if I want, but four is the standard. How did you know that?"
"I asked Dave last night."
"What I wanted to ask you was, what are you going to tell your friends when you get home?"
"I don't know. I mean, I am going home, there's no question of that. And I'm going back to school with my roommate Michael."
"'But, what did you while you were there?'" Aaden said in a mock, Anglic accent.
"Yeah," Nickolai smiled. "What am I going to tell him?"
"Tell him the truth."
"I got stabbed by another Terran. I fell in love with a Markal named Jofuran. I was the first Terran to visit Shardik Castle in a century, and I spent my vacation there. I spent a night in Rocchodain, and I got to visit The Rowan."
"And you've got three nights left to go."
They were interrupted by a voice from inside. "Checkmate!" Furry shouted. "Gotcha."
Shardik rose and disappeared into the kitchen. "I'll have dinner on the table at 1 lome', guys. Don't be late."
"Hi," Furry said, sticking her head out the sliding glass door. "What's going out here?"
"Guy talk," Aaden said.
"Oh. You two want some privacy?"
"No, no, come on out. We were just figuring out what we were going to be doing with the rest of our day."
"Actually, there is something I wanted to ask you," Nickolai said, turning to Furry. "Could you show me how to shoot?"
"I thought... I thought you didn't like guns."
Shardik seemed to blink in behind Furry. "Guns? Did I hear someone mention guns?"
"Uhm, Nickolai just asked me to show him how to shoot. Is there a place where I could do that?"
"There's the gallery downstairs, or you could use the floating target set out by the beach. Aaden, would you show them where it is?"
"Sure. C'mon." He leapt over the railing of the porch and fell the apparent twenty meters or so to the ground. Nickolai looked at Furry, who shrugged, and followed him. When they reached the ground, Aaden looked up and said, "I thought your ladyfriend was coming with us."
"I think she went to get her gun."
"You mean she wasn't carrying it with her?" Aaden asked, seemingly surprised.
"I asked her not to."
"Is that because you don't trust her, or because you're a Terran and don't like guns?"
"I don't like guns."
"Getting stabbed changes one's outlook pretty fast."
"It was a pretty cowardly sneak attack," Aaden said. "Knowing how to shoot wouldn't have helped you there."
"It's also the Pendorian thing to do," Nickolai said. "If I'm going to... love... Furry the way I want to, I should at least know how to handle her gun."
"Good attitude," Aaden said. "And here she comes."
"Had to get my pistol," Furry said.
"We figured." Aaden led them down towards the beach, stopping by a small wooden shack to recover some hardware. "Okay, may I see what it is you're carrying?" he asked Jofuran. She pulled her small pistol out of it's case and handed it to the much taller Mephit, who looked it over carefully. "Nine?" he asked her. She nodded. "I like a ten myself," the Mephit said.
"If I could shoot a ten, I would. But practice leaves my hands bruised." Aaden nodded and handed his gun to Jofuran, who looked it over with equal care. "Very nice."
"Yeah," Aaden smiled. "Okay, the first targets are at fifteen meters, then forty. You can see them right there-" he pointed out over the ocean. There were paper targets hanging visibly in the air. "You'll have to deal with windspeed on your own. Stand to my right," he said. "I'll take that one there at forty." There was a pause. "Call go."
Furry paused for a second, then said "Go!" Aaden's hand was a blur as it disappeared into his vest, reappeared, and he shot off seven rounds in quick succession.
"Half a magazine."
"What was the score?" Aaden asked.
Dave's voice, from quite literally out of nowhere, replied, "Of seven, three 'T' shots, head target, three 'T' shots, torso, one 'P' shot, torso."
"Now you, Nickolai. With hers."
"First rule. Never point it at anyone unless you plan on shooting them, and that includes yourself." Furry handed him her pistol, with the muzzle pointing out over the ocean. "The second rule is never put your finger inside the trigger guard unless you're actually going to fire the weapon. So hold your finger like this," Aaden indicated, placing his trigger finger along the line of the barrel. "Third rule, the gun is always loaded. That means that no matter what, unless that gun is completely disassembled and you can see every working part that might come in contact with a bullet and you don't see one, then that gun is to be treated as if it were loaded. Got it?"
Nickolai gulped and nodded. He was still absorbing the knowledge that he had a gun (a gun!) in his hand. "Good. We'll take a target at fifteen. That one. See it?" Nickolai nodded, discomfited by the fact that the target was a humanoid silhouette. "Okay. Take the hand you're going to shoot with and hold the pistol at arm's length. Now, back it off a little and put the other hand over it. Right. Now push out with your right hand and pull in with the left. The tension should help you steady it." Aaden turned to Furry and said "Nine light caseless, right?"
"Uh-huh," Furry replied.
"Okay, now I want you to sight along the barrel. You can see a little yellow spot at the end there... you want to put that between the two orange sights here, and over your target, in this case the chest of the person in that silhouette. Got it?"
"Yeah." Nickolai gulped.
"Okay... where's the safety on this thing?"
"Sig design," Furry replied. "Pistolgrip safety only."
"You mean it's always charged?"
"Ick. Okay, you'll have to learn about safeties later. With your left hand, reach up and pull that top part, the slide, all the way back, and let go." Nickolai pulled as instructed, surprised by how much strength he had to put into it. "Good," Aaden said. "Hand back, and tension on. Now then, put your finger in the guard, aim, and squeeze in a steady pull." Nickolai pulled, waiting for the moment, and then suddenly the gun kicked in his hand, a loud -pop- resounding in his ears.
"Not bad," Aaden said. "P-zone. Okay, try it again. You've already charged the weapon, so just aim and pull."
After a while, his shots were getting worse and worse. "There are two things happening there," Aaden said. "One is that you're learning to anticipate the recoil, which is bad. You have to work through the recoil, let it happen, and bring the gun back to bear afterwards. The other is that your arm is getting tired, which happens during practice. Here, try mine." Aaden handed him his much larger pistol. "Okay, this is a ten millimeter magnum caseless. The loads are Ken's own. They're pretty powerful. I want to watch you fire the magazine empty. There are fourteen rounds."
Nickolai stood in the position Aaden had shown him, charged the weapon, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. "Safety's on," Aaden said. "That lever there, towards the top. Push it down, with one thumb if you can."
Nickolai found it and managed. "Okay, now try it."
Nickolai fired one round, and was stunned by just how powerful the pistol was. "Ouch!"
"See? A lot stronger than the nines. Keep going."
Nickolai re-aimed and fired, putting nine more rounds downrange before the gun went click and nothing happened. "You know what that was?"
"Dud round. I put it in there deliberately. Notice that the gun jerked around anyway? That's because you're learning to feel the recoil. Now that you know it's there, you have to unlearn it again."
Nickolai smiled, chagrined. "Okay, now pull back on the slide to eject the dud round and fire off the last three." Nickolai complied until the slide locked back, the chamber smoking. Aaden took the pistol from his hand and said, "Not bad, not bad at all. You're pretty much a natural at this."
"It's pretty scary."
"On Terra, the gun's a sort of totem, a symbol. Having one almost implies that you have to use it, which is just plain dumb. Imagine what would have happened to Terra if people had felt the same way about nuclear weapons."
"Some people did feel that way about nuclear weapons," Nickolai pointed out.
"Then you should be grateful that those people were the minority," Aaden said thoughtfully. "Come on, it's almost nightfall, and Ken promised to have dinner ready."
"Welcome back," Shardik said as they walked in. "How did it go?"
"He's almost as good as you are."
"Really?" Shardik said, smiling. "A natural?"
"He was pretty impressive. He's got recoil reflex, but that's pretty common in beginners."
"Yeah. So, what do you two have planned for tonight?"
"Nothing," Furry replied, scratching herself behind one ear. Nickolai took over for her, and she closed her eyes and sighed as he did so.
"Well, in that case, you're hired."
"Yeah. We need baby-sitters tonight."
"You did say you were willing to do a stint. It's only between three and seven; Oedipus at Polonus is being done tonight in the Farside theatre, and a lot of the household is going. There are only five kids right now, the youngest is two, the eldest is... seven, I think. It's not a big deal."
"We did say we could," Furry said to Nickolai in a voice that indicated she was not at all thrilled with the idea.
"Yeah, we did," he replied, smiling. "C'mon, it'll be fun."
"I suppose. So, what do we do?"
"Well, since they're going to be here, alone, with SDisk lockout on all of them, your job is to see to it that they all fall asleep in the right beds, and that they don't kill themselves or each other before bedtime. Like I said, it's not a difficult task. Kids can usually find ways of entertaining themselves."
"Sounds easy enough," Nickolai said.
"Good! Come, eat," he said. "You'll have to come up here to get your plates. Dave, tell P'nyssa we're ready for dinner."
"She's already on her way," Dave replied. As if on cue, P'nyssa walked through the side door to the rest of the domicile and into the kitchen. She was immediately swept up by Shardik, who nuzzled her close and scratched her back in a way that Nickolai immediately labled as 'lascivious.' The thought made him smile. "How ya doin', lover?" Shardik asked her quietly.
"Pretty good. Are you really taking me out tonight?"
"It's a deal. Aaden's taking Sufi, right, Aaden?"
"As far as I know. He hasn't called me yet. I can't believe he accepted... he's more of a stay-at-home than you are."
"Well, we'll see," Shardik said, smiling and handing plates onto the counter. "Eat, eat, it's good for you."
"Uh, Ken," Nickolai asked, "What do we eat this with?"
"You've got two choices," Shardik replied. "Forks, or chopsticks. I prefer chopsticks, but that's just me. Remember that history shows that the Italians got quite a number of their cooking ideas from the Chinese, so it's no surprise that a lot of Italian food is accessible with chopsticks. Tortellini is just one of those many things." He smiled wide and handed out a pair of sticks to Nickolai, and another to Furry. "I know, I know, you'll use a fork," he said, handing one to P'nyssa. "Aaden?"
"I'll try the chopsticks... again." Aaden smiled an exasperated smile.
Shardik tossed him a pair. "You'll get it this time."
"It's not that I can't get it. It's just that every time I try and eat those things with these things, I get sauce all in my fur."
"I'll lick it off."
"And if I have to feed you petroleum jelly so you can cough up a furball of my fur, forget it."
Shardik laughed gently. "What are friends for?" He joined them out in the living room, sitting casually on the floor in front of Aaden's chair. "Like this, Nickolai," he said, demonstrating the sticks and how they worked. Nickolai was gratified to find Furry having just as much trouble as he was with the seemingly simple implements.
Nickolai was also intrigued to notice the common gesture of Shardik and Aaden's symbolic relationship... the fact that one of them sometimes sat above the other. He wondered if it would have been less disturbing if Aaden had been the one sitting on the floor, or would it have made any difference?
He looked up and noticed P'nyssa staring at Aaden, who then looked at the ceiling. Shardik turned to look at Aaden. Aaden then spoke, to Nickolai- "What do you think?"
"What do I think about what?" Nickolai asked.
P'nyssa replied. "I'm sorry if you feel I invaded your privacy, but that much curiosity is hard not to notice. Do you think it would make a difference if it were Ken sitting in the chair, and Aaden on the floor?"
Nickolai gulped, considered his answer, and said, "I don't know. I mean, I would like to say 'Yes,' but that's only because Ken is supposed to be the..."
"The word is 'Vatare','" Shardik offered. "What works about my relationship with Aaden is that neither one of us has any pretense about who I am or who he is. He isn't interested in me because I'm Vatare', any more than I'm interested in him for whatever reason that might be."
"I thought it was because I was the gardener," Aaden said, suppressing a laugh. "Isn't that what you said? How Chatterlyish?" Aaden leaned over and kissed Shardik, who returned the kiss with a passion that made Nickolai feel hot with discomfort. A feeling which grew when Aaden reached down into Shardik's shirt and did something that made Shardik squeal into the kiss with pain.
"I hate when you embarrass me like that!" Shardik said, blushing.
"You do it to me all the time," Aaden replied. "Eat your dinner."
Shardik shrugged and returned to fumbling with his chopsticks.
After dinner, all three of their hosts disappeared into the bedroom to get dressed, leaving Nickolai and Furry alone in the main room. "Are you ready for this?"
"I don't know," Furry replied, smiling. "If they're good children, we'll probably end up spending the entire night playing computer games or something. If they're not, we could end up needing to wash the food and dirt off of us later."
"Well, guys, whaddya think?" Shardik said, rising out of the bedroom gravwell. Dressed entirely in white with a green trim, Nickolai recognized it as the dress uniform of the Pendor Fleet. The only slight change in it from what Nickolai remembered as the standard was the white two-centimeter-wide choker he wore around his throat. Aaden followed in a suit of the same cut, only cast entirely in black leather. P'nyssa's outfit was equally outrageous, a slinky, golden, floor-length dress that barely reached up to cover her breasts and apparently stayed up by capricious whim. Along with the dress, her hair had been straightened out into a cascading cut with bangs, and accompanied by a golden tiara made of two twisted braids and a black cloth that descended from it, starched and folded as if to resemble a pair of wings.
"I think we've stunned them with out decadence," Aaden said. "You two go on. I'll introduce them to the children. Kolya, Furry, ready?"
"As I'll ever be," Furry replied dryly.
"Come on, it's not that bad. I do this all the time. I'm still alive." He led them into the central meeting chamber, where they had originally met Shardik and such, and said, "Well, here they are. This is N'Fort, Melanie, Tria, Logan, Calli, Traf, and... Traf, where's Calffn?"
Traf, a male Centaur, said "I da know. She was with Mom."
"You'll have to watch Calffn," Aaden said, smiling. "She's the oldest, and a bit of a ringleader. If you're going to have trouble, it'll come from her."
"Wonderful," Furry said. "I wonder if I can find a way to keep her occupied."
"You can," Aaden said. "The one thing she absolutely wants to learn about is Earth. Just sit her down with Nickolai. Of course," Aaden smiled, "that means that you can't have him until we get back, because he'll have the attentions of another woman."
Nickolai thought the look on Furry's face was so exaggeratedly serious that he broke out laughing. "What's so funny?" she demanded.
"I'm sorry, Furry, but you look so... so... serious! Really, I'm sorry. Look, we did promise them."
"I know," she sighed. "Okay. Where is this kid?"
"Aaden?" a new voice broke in through the noise.
"Michelle! Where's Calffn?"
"I'm right here," said a new voice rising from the Castle's grav tube. "What do you need?"
"These are your sitters for the night," Aaden said. "Nickolai, and Jofuran."
"Which is which?" said the Uncia stepping out of the tube. Nickolai started at her, wondering. She was nearly as tall as Furry!
"The boy is Nickolai," Aaden said. "Easy enough?"
"Got it," Calffn replied.
"Ready to go?" Michelle asked Aaden.
"Ready as I'll ever be," Aaden replied. "Say, where's your date?"
"Don't know," the Centaur said. Nickolai thought she looked beautiful. "And where's yours?" They began walking out the door.
"Good question," Aaden admitted. "I guess you'll have to be my date, and hope they show up at the play."
"Sounds like a good idea," Michelle admitted. She looped an arm through his and their voices faded, finally disappearing, Nickolai guessed, when they used the SDisk.
"So," Calffn said, "Whaddya wanna do?"
"I dunno," Furry said, "Whadda you wanna do?" Nickolai was impressed by how quickly and easily Furry seemed to slide into the slang Calffn was using.
"I dunno," Calffn replied. "Hey, you're new here, aren'cha? Where'd Ken pick you guys up?"
"I'm from Israel," Furry said, trying to latch onto Aaden's suggested subject material.
"Never heard of it," Calffn replied.
"It's a country on Earth."
"Really?" Calffn seemed to light up. "Hey, but you're a Markal."
"Yeah, so? I lived there with my folks for the past ten years."
"Really? What about your boyfriend?"
"I never did nail that down. Where do you live, exactly?"
"Huh?" Nickolai asked, caught unawares. "Well, half the year I lived near London, the other half I lived in New York."
"I know where those are," Calffn said. "You really lived there?"
"I really did."
Once he had her attention, Nickolai realized that dealing with Calffn would be no trouble. And without their nominal "ringleader," the rest of the children were exceedingly well behaved. And the rapt attention that Calffn and Logan, a male Tindal about a year younger than the Uncia, gave him was so endearing that he was actually disappointed when Aaden and another male Uncia he hadn't met before came walking into the center room. "Evening," Aaden said. "I see you had no trouble."
"None at all," Nickolai admitted.
"Where's Furry?" Aaden asked.
"She's putting Tria to bed."
"This, by the way, is Sufi. Sufi, meet Nickolai Dittrich."
"The young Terran who was stabbed yesterday?" he asked, genuinely curious. "Glad to meet you."
"Good to meet you, too." Furry came around a corner, and after herding the last two children off to bed, Aaden and Sufi said their goodnights and headed off into their home, leaving Nickolai and Furry to do the same.
After the door closed behind them, Furry said "You did that pretty well."
"It was easy," Nickolai replied, jumping into the gravwell and descending into the bedroom, Furry right behind him.
"Still," she admitted. "Can I ask you something?"
"You can ask me anything," Nickolai replied, suddenly realizing what it might be that she would ask him and feeling his anxiety increase slightly.
"It's not something you Terrans think about anymore, but would you like to have children of your own?"
"I was afraid you were going to ask something like that," he replied smiling. She took off the skirt and blouse she had been wearing for most of the day and sat down on the bed, leaning up against a pile of pillows, her tail draped across and down her thighs. Although Nickolai didn't think she'd meant to, the sight of her naked like that made his mouth go dry; he debated taking off his pants with his hardening erection.
"But have you?" she asked.
He turned his back and stripped off his pants, throwing them aside and sliding under the covers before turning to face her again. "Not really," he said. "Like you said, it's not something I've been trained to think about."
"But, I mean, if... if we were still together, you know, in a few years... would you want to?"
His anxiety level rose a little more, and he squirmed uncomfortably. He didn't like where this conversation was leading. "Furry, we can't have children. We're not the same species, and I'm sterile anyway."
"That's not an issue on Pendor, and you know it."
"Also, Terrans aren't allowed to stay on Pendor for more than thirty days without diplomatic passes anyway."
"We could go to a Pendor colony," she said.
He turned over, turning his back to her. "I couldn't."
She curled up against his back; he closed his eyes and tried to fight his feelings for her as she lay one arm over his side and kissed his back; he could feel her whiskers tickling him slightly as she did. "Nickolai, don't be angry at me because I'm just doing what I know I want to do."
"But Furry... " He turned over. "I'm... I'm sorry. I mean, I really don't know. All my life I've been taught about the way things work on Terra, and that's the way it's meant to be."
"But Kolya, I'm not a Terran. I can have children, right now if I want. And maybe, someday soon, I will want. And right now, I want the person who helps me raise those children to be you. I know, that silly and stupid of me, but I'm lying in bed next to you because that's what I want. I'm not like Skii... I don't jump into bed with someone to have a good time. I do it because you mean something special to me."
"I know Furry," he replied. "And you mean something special to me. But I don't know what that is yet."
"Kolya, this may sound like a dumb question, but would expect... monogamy out of me?"
"Good god, no," he replied, smiling. "I'd like to hope I'm too smart for that."
"But would you want me to be yours, I mean, forever?"
He nodded, feeling a tear in his eye, but he didn't feel sad. There was a smile on his face, a smile he couldn't make go away no matter what he thought about. She returned the same, silly smile, and hugged him close. "Oh, Kolya, I love you."
"And I love you," he replied. "Let's go to sleep."
"Then you'll owe me two tomorrow."
"Then I'll owe you two tomorrow," he replied, smiling. "I think I'm healthy enough for that." He reached over and slid his fingers over the light controls, then found the controls for the window, bringing it to full transparency. As he cuddled her close, the rough crags of Marblerange Northmount glittered in the ever-changing reflected light of other sectors.