Dave voice percolated slowly through his sleep-laden brain. He groaned for a moment, then turned over and said, "What is it, Dave?"
"I hate to disturb you, but Ken is at the door."
"What? Mph. Let him in." He rose from the bed, noting that Furry was still fast asleep, grabbed a robe and floated up through the grav tube.
"Morning," Shardik said. Nickolai waved, tired. "You look tired."
"I overslept," Nickolai admitted, painfully. He walked into the kitchen and grabbed a pitcher of orange juice, fumbling for a glass. While he was pouring, Shardik sat down opposite the bar and said, "I'd like to talk to you."
"I'm sure Furry told you last night about the offer I made." Nickolai nodded. "I mean it. You're welcome, too. No questions asked, no expectations."
"I have to go home," Nickolai said.
"I know," Shardik replied. "I kinda figured you would say that. So here's my next offer. When you return, you walk the Hall. And you stay the same. No change, unless you want to change."
"I'm changing the Hall. You walk the Hall, you're a resident of Pendor. It's that simple. You and Furry don't have to move to an outcolony or anything like that. You don't get changed by the Hall, except you become a Pendorian design."
"What do you mean?"
"You talked to Skii about Pendorian nanobiology. That gets substituted for Saman Transfer. And that goes for anybody, Humans, Katkin, Rats, llerkendi. So far. They're the only ones this deal is good for."
"What about my Right of Replacement?"
"It becomes null and void. Your reproductive ability will go down a lot, because Pendorians don't breed nearly as fast as Terrans do."
"My reproductive ability is zero," Nickolai pointed out.
"Well, yes," Shardik replied. "So I guess it's a benefit. I was talking about in comparison to original Homo Sapiens. You still get full reproductive control, of course."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Because I've been away from Terra too long," Shardik admitted. "There's never been, as far as I know, an interstellar empire based on respect. I think we could make one. You've proven it, Nickolai... you want to be part of it."
"I'm not so sure I want to be 'part of it'," Nickolai said. "All I know is, I've found things in it worth living for, and that makes me want to give to it. Does that make any sense?"
"All the sense in the world," Shardik replied. "It proves to me the basic idea I had when Dave first told me about you. It tells me that Terra has forgotten the ultimate adventure, except in a few people, people like you, Nickolai."
"People," Nickolai said. "Aaden told me that, a few days ago. People are the ultimate adventure."
"Right. Your mother makes art for artificial reasons. She makes it to hear applause, and to see money. She doesn't do it to see pleasure in another person's eyes, even if that pleasure is through the vicarious experience of whatever the art conveys, be it love, lust, hatred, whatever. That's what being alive is all about. No deity, no higher goal exists, than to bring joy to another person. Skii doesn't see that, but he's getting there, with every disappointment, with every physical pleasure, he gets a little closer. Aaden and I have known it for a long time, funny as it sounds. Almost from the first time we met, we knew it in each other- and if that joy comes in pushing the mystical boundaries of ourselves through... through whatever it is that Aaden and I do, so be it. P'nyssa and I are like you and Jofuran... we just have it. We just have to be there for each other, and we're happy."
Nickolai nodded. "So what happens now?"
"Now?" Shardik asked. "Well, we go on hold for two years. And you're right. You have to go home... back to Terra. You have to find out for yourself if everything you've learned is true. If you're ready to take responsibility for what I'm putting on you."
"I don't think that's much of a problem."
"Because it gets you Jofuran?"
"Because it allows me Jofuran," Nickolai corrected after a pause.
"Good..." Shardik seemed surprised. "Wow. You came around a lot faster than even I would have thought possible." He stopped and bit his lip. "Look, I took the liberty of having everything of yours packed away and ready to go, and had a few pictures of the picnic I especially liked set aside in an album. You don't mind?" Nickolai shook his head. "Also, I've cooked breakfast. If you want, come and join us in my home."
"I will. Let me go wake Furry?"
"See you in a few minutes."
Nickolai floated back down the tube. "Furry?" he whispered gently into her ear.
"Whuzza?" she asked groggily.
"Time to get up," he said gently. "Ken's invited us to breakfast."
She scowled gently, licking the taste in her mouth like she did every morning, apparently, and said, "Okay. Help me dress?"
He smiled and helped her into the clothing she had set aside for the day, a modest pair of Felin-cut silk pants, and a shirt of the same material, all in a gentle grey with wide pink trim that looked good on her.
For himself, Nickolai chose to wear his "Discrimination..." T-shirt and a pair of blue denim pants. He wanted to look as nondescript as possible, and the T-shirt covered by the leather jacket... he stopped. The leather jacket. Nobody wore leather anymore on Terra. He shrugged. There was no way he was going to get away with "nondescript" now, and he didn't give a damn either way. "How do I look?"
"Beautiful," she replied, suddenly grasping him and hugging him tightly. "I love you."
"I know," he replied, blink a tear. "I wish... Well, we'll see. I love you, Jofuran." They held each other, almost silent for minutes. "Come on," he said. "Breakfast is getting cold."
They found Shardik, P'nyssa and Aaden at home, waiting for them to arrive. Shardik distributed plates, glassware and silverware, and people were encouraged to eat wherever they chose. Nickolai and Furry took the couch, Shardik took the chair opposite, Aaden at his feet, and P'nyssa took the chair to Furry's right. They ate in relative quiet. After they had all finished their meals and Shardik put the plates aside, he said, "There didn't seem to be much to say, Nickolai, except 'goodbye.'"
"I know," Nickolai replied gently. "I couldn't think of anything I really wanted to tell you, either, except maybe 'thank you... sir.'"
Shardik laughed gently. "Good man."
P'nyssa held out her mitten. "Come back, Nickolai," she said. "Although I didn't get to talk to you much, I did like what I did see. I'd love to have more time to just sit and talk."
"I'd like that too," he said, suddenly finding himself intensely curious about her. "I'll be back."
"Better be," Aaden said, smiling, "Or else I think this young lady will be coming after you with a loaded weapon."
"And seeing the way she shot out there," Shardik commented, "That's not something you want."
"No, it isn't," Nickolai admitted.
"I wouldn't shoot him," Jofuran said quietly. "I can think of things far more nasty to do to him, most of which involve sending mail to his roommates." She laughed. "I'm only kidding, Kolya... I wouldn't do any such thing."
"That's good," he commented, feeling a little better.
"There's still this nagging in the back of your mind about what Pendorians do, isn't there? You hear all these stories about 'what we do' and you become very uncomfortable. Nickolai, you worry too much. Think about it this way... you're not a Pendorian, but you have every right to say 'Nickolai Shardik,' if you want to. Here." Shardik flipped a small plastic card in his direction. "It's an offworld ident card. You're right handed, correct?" Nickolai nodded. "It the one used by the Pendorian Diplomatic Corp. If you hand it someone with your left hand, it'll read 'Nickolai Shardik,' and will list your address here. You're under Pendorian Aegis, if you so request.
"If you think I'm pressuring you, maybe I am. I'm trying to make it as easy as you want to come back, whenever you want."
"But..." Nickolai frowned.
"This is an order, Nickolai. You're going home. That's your decision. You already have travel tickets made out for the day after your eighteenth birthday, and you know how to use the SDisk system once you get here. So, from now until then, I want you to decide. It's not an easy choice." He stepped two steps forward and put his hand on Furry's shoulder. "But there are reasons you should come back. Decide what it is you plan on doing with your life. In the meantime, I expect Furry to be doing the same."
"I have to make a promise to an order?" Nickolai chided Shardik.
"No," Shardik said. "I want one anyway."
"I promise," Nickolai replied.
"Good. Come on, boarding starts in one hour, and there are people there I want to meet, and you want to meet."
"People... ? Like who?"
"Well, the Shigokais, for one thing, and your mother for another."
Nickolai sighed. "I suppose." He felt... saddened, but he couldn't quite say why. A lot of it was that he was leaving Furry, but there was more to it than that. He supposed it was just depression, and responsibility, creeping up on him.
He recovered his bag, which Aaden immediately snatched from him. "I'll carry it," he offered.
"Thank you," Nickolai said. "Aaden?"
"Where's Skii this morning?"
"He has class until about six."
"Oh. I guess I won't see him to say goodbye. And Molly?"
"She and Rainy are off again."
"Oh. Aaden?" he asked again.
"Hmm?" the big Mephit replied, smiling.
"If I give you a hug, will you pass it on to Skii for me?"
Aaden smiled, then nodded. He put down the bag and opened his arms wide. Nickolai walked into his open arms and hugged him tightly, fiercely. And as he stepped away, he said "Give Skii this message for me, will you? Tell him... tell him I think the ticket's still good."
Aaden looked confused, then nodded. "Not sure what it's about, but I'll deliver it."
They all stepped on the SDisk together and appeared inside the foreign outbound terminal in Parma. "There go my sinuses," Shardik commented. Nickolai looked around for a moment, then said "There's my mother." They walked together as a group, five people, and the humans in the terminal gave them a very wide berth.
"Kolya," his mother said.
"Hi, Mom," he replied, stepping forward and giving her a hug.
"Kolya," she exclaimed. "What was that for?"
"Just because, Mom," he replied. "Mom, I think you've met Ken Shardik, and this is Aaden and P'nyssa Shardik."
She looked flustered for a moment, then turned to Aaden and said, "I've not met you. Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir."
Aaden smiled; although to most people it probably looked like a polite smile, Nickolai thought he could see a hint of amusement there, probably at her use of the word 'sir.' "Thank you, Ms Dittrich. It's been a pleasure having your son as our houseguest. As you can see, we're returning him to you just as he left."
Nickolai distinctly saw Shardik roll his eyes, lean over and whisper something into Aaden's ear. Aaden's public reply was "That's you."
"Mom!" he heard Furry say.
"Hello, Joey," her mother replied, stepping through the crowd waiting to board. "How have you been?"
"Great, Mom, just great. And you?"
"Very well. Your father has another section of the universe for us to gallivant off to."
"Do you want me to..."
"Only if you wish, dear. Although I understand you do want to follow in his path."
"I'll think about it, Mom. Hi, Dad."
"Hiya, Little One. How've you been?"
"Uhm, Sir, Miss, may I speak to you both for a moment?" Shardik interrupted. He pulled them aside. The conversation was very short, followed immediately by handshakes from much both of the Shigokais.
Her father returned and said, "Congratulation, sweetheart. I'll let you in on a little secret- I've had that for a long time too."
"Yes," he replied. "It's not a secret between your mother and I. You probably got the same room I've taken."
A voice from the intercom broke over the conversation. "The gangway has been cleared. Boarding is now starting."
"I have to go," Nickolai said. Tears were forming in his eyes. "I really have to go," he repeated.
"Give her a hug good-bye, then," Shardik said gently.
Nickolai looked down at Jofuran, who had tears to match his. "Good-bye, Kolya."
"I'll be back," he whispered as he hugged her close.
"I love you."
"I love you. Oh, God, how I love you." The universe seemed to hold still as they held each other. Then slowly, it came to speed as they tore apart from each other.
"Good-bye," she whispered.
He smiled through his tears, and an old line went through his mind. He formed his thumb and forefinger in a circle, held it to his eye and tipped it away. "Be seeing you," he shouted as he walked backwards towards the gangway, crying. The crowd pressed in and closed around him, and he couldn't see the six people he was leaving behind, especially the one.