"Huh?" Jofuran said, picking up her head and looking over her shoulder. "It wasn't a dream." She turned in bed to face him, pulling him close and kissing his cheek. He slid closer to her, pressing his thigh between her legs and kissing her nose. "Good morning," she said.
"Hi," he said shyly. "I'm not sure it isn't a dream still. I can't believe I'm here." His hand stroked her fur, caressing the soft sides of her body. The grey fur ruffled under his touch. His emotions all roiled to the surface, feeling surprised at the qualities about her that held him to her. It wasn't just that she looked inhuman, but that she possessed qualities few humans would have considered "attractive," such as her wide hips or small breasts or small eyes. But for some reason, he couldn't help but think of her as beautiful. And from his reading on personal grooming and appearance standards, Furry was very beautiful... for a Markal.
"Just thinking, Furry. I'm still surprised at how beautiful I think you are."
"I can tell," she giggled, and Nickolai felt her hands stroking between his thighs, caressing his morning erection. "Or are you going to tell me again that this is just because you have to pee?"
"Well, I do have to go," Nickolai admitted. "But I could always give you some attention before I go."
Jofuran pretended to be shocked. "Some attention?" she said. "You better give me more than just 'some,' buster."
He rolled on top of her and she parted her thighs slightly. "Is this the kind of attention you want?"
Jofuran opened her legs further and her slid down the open V between them, his cock sliding up against her cunt. "That's it," she said. "Undivided and unconditional." He pressed his cock to her opening and slid in easily.
"I was dreaming about you."
He smiled and pressed down until he was buried between her grey-furred lips to the hilt entirely. She held his cock within her and he leaned over to kiss her. "I'm glad. I dreamed about you." His hips moved even though he didn't think about them, his cock withdrawing and reentering her gently. She closed her eyes as a small smile traced its way across her muzzle, a sigh escaping her. He leaned over and kissed the tip of her nose again, and without opening her eyes she opened her muzzle and they kissed, tongues intertwining as they made love. He moaned as he slowly pumped his shaft within her; he could feel her tightening and loosing her muscles, gripping and massaging him as they made love. There was nothing else to be needed from either of them.
Furry moaned, "I want you to come inside me, Nickolai." He began stroking her a little faster, looking down between their bodies to see his cock disappearing into her.
"You definitely have my attention," he breathed to her as he felt his climax gaining strength within him. "And I love you, Furry." He stroked her cunt a little faster; for some reason, he didn't want to be forceful this morning. He wanted to be able to look down at her every second of their lovemaking. He wanted to watch her face, her ears and her whiskers as her head rolled back and forth slowly. His orgasm grew more apparent as it tickled the base of his cock and the base of his brain, and he kept his eyes opened and watched her a whimper escaped him and his orgasm wiped away any thought at all but that he loved her.
Garth awoke to gritty eyes and bright sunlight streaming in from overhead. He wondered if Pendorians thought of natural-setting image technology as chic, or did they really enjoy waking up to having an unlicensed and uncontrolled fusion source blazing overhead twenty-four hours a day? Thirty hours, Garth reminded himself. Thirty long hours.
It suddenly occurred to him that in Pendor's case the sun might not be entirely uncontrolled. After all, didn't they have a huge, potentially electromagnetic coil wrapped all the way around the star? They could do anything they wanted with that, including tame that star if they so felt.
Garth felt oddly displaced; it was hard to imagine being here, even though "here" was only 6.38 light years from Earth. He smiled to himself as he crawled out of bed. "Only." Hah; if he had a telescope he could go back in time and look at what he was like back when he was just twelve. "Can you dim that?" he asked, pointing up at the ceiling. The AI didn't answer, and nothing happened. Remembering dimly that sometime before bed he had asked the AI last night for "a little privacy," he hit the "service restore" button it had indicated and repeated his request. The skylight dimmed appreciably, and Garth flopped back down into bed.
But sleep wouldn't come and his back, already complaining about his sleeping in yet another different bed from his own, finally forced him to stand up and stagger into the bathroom. His reflection in the mirror was an unhappy one; his fur went in every direction, and he had apparently bent his ear in the night and it wouldn't stay up this morning. He sighed and stepped into the shower.
Liquid soap was a standard for furries in all of explored space, and he was happy to find a bottle waiting for him. It wasn't until after he was soaking wet, though, when he remembered that his furbrush and his toothbrush were still in his carrybag. Struggling again to remember the AI's name, he finally said "Lex, can you bring my bag to me?"
"The little red one I was carrying around."
"This one?" Lex asked. "I left it outside the shower door."
Garth opened the magnetically-sealed door and looked down. "Yeah, that one. Thanks."
"You're welcome." Garth was beginning to like this, having an AI at his beck and call. It certainly beat getting out of the warm shower and tracking water everywhere. He soaped himself up, starting at his shoulders and working his way down his body. As he washed himself, his cock slowly slid out of its sheath and became erect. He smiled, looking down at it. Most guys awoke with an erection, but his always came several minutes after waking up, which seemed to defeat the theory that such erections were caused by needing to urinate.
The soap felt silky on his hands as he reached down and closed around his cock. He leaned back against the shower wall and closed his eyes. Stroking his cock slowly, He felt the skin of his sheath peel around and away from the head. He sighed; he had always enjoyed masturbating first thing in the morning. His hand curled around the head of his cock rapidly, sliding the soap along the length. He had started doing this a long time ago as a means of cleaning under his sheath, and when puberty hit it just seemed to take him longer to clean himself.
He chuckled softly, his other hand reaching down to grasp his sac, tugging it downwards, pulling the sheath down further and stretching his foreskin a little more. His imagination brought him images of Kiza kneeling before him, sucking his cock with wild, uncontrolled abandon, and of him with his mouth shoved deep between her legs. He imagined fucking Kiza in any one of a dozen positions, each flashing before his eyes like a high-speed slide show. He imagined her underneath him, kneeling with her ass in the air, his cock slamming in and out of her cunt. His hand stroked faster in the hot water, and as the soap wore off from the friction, he started grabbing his foreskin and tugging it up over the head of his cock and then back down. He stroked harder, knowing he was close to coming, and finally he gasped softly as his semen shot out of him. He opened his eyes finally, breathing deeply in the steam-filled space. He looked down at the little puddles of come on the floor, and grabbed the showerhead to spray it down the drain.
"What the?" he said as the showerhead came free of the wall, no pipe or hose attaching it to any source of water, and it continued to spray water everywhere. "Oh," he said, finding the small dial at the back. Everything he knew about Pendor was becoming useful to him, but seeing that book learning put into practice was still an experience. He turned it down and rinsed the floor of the shower clean, then finished washing himself off, taking extra care of his teeth. Actually, having the showerhead portable like this was pretty useful. He wondered if he could spray someone outside the shower stall, or was it programmed to not allow that? It was certainly possible to program it that way, and if that was the case it was probably possible to turn that feature on and off.
He put the showerhead back on its mounting. "If you like," the AI's comforting voice suggested, "instead of towels we have full-body blowdriers installed in the showers."
"You mean, like a furmatic?" Garth had had a chance to use a furmatic once, in a hotel during a trip to Moscow. The experience had been sheer heaven.
"Exactly," Lex responded. The air began to whirl around Garth's body, and he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and propped himself up on the walls of the shower as the warm air swirled and spun about him. He felt the heat penetrate his fur and his fell, and with one hand he rubbed himself to let the air get deep under his pelt to where the water would sometimes hide. The air died down a little, and he took another breath, and then it came back up to speed.
After two minutes, he was much drier and felt much better. He sighed and looked around. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Garth dressed simply, a white denim skirt and oversized cotton pullover accentuating his brown fur. The sleeves on the pullover were cut to de-emphasize the length of his arms, which some Terrans found Katckinkind's most unappealing feature. Not that he cared, really.
He walked out into the hallway, and approached the door to the Shigokai's house. It opened for him, and he strode in. Kiza was already there, sitting at the dining table with a plate in front of her. "Hi!" she said, waving.
Garth waved back, feeling a little ashamed because of the fantasies he had enjoyed just minutes ago, and he hoped his guilt didn't show on his face because he did want to get to know her better as a person. "Hello there," he replied, trying to sound casual. He hoped it succeeded.
"Want breakfast? I'm just having some fruit. It's honeydew."
"Sure," Garth replied. "How?"
"In the kitchen. Feel free to serve yourself."
"Why not have the AI do it?" Garth asked.
"Because that's rude. It's a demonstration of laziness. You can do it, and I bet Lex would do it for you, but it's rude if you do."
"Oh," Garth said. Nickolai had confirmed many of the tourbook warnings about Pendor's weird customs, especially when it came to AIs. He guessed that this was just one of them. He walked into the kitchen, found some oranges and the melon Kiza had sliced into, and made himself breakfast. "Kiza, do you want a refill on your OJ?"
She came hopping into the kitchen with a smile and handed him her glass. "Would you?" She hopped out again.
Garth blinked; he wasn't quite sure what to make of that, but he wasn't going to ask. A few minutes later he returned to the table with his meal and began eating. Kiza had already finished most of her meal, and so watched him intently as he ate. He looked across the table at her once in a while, and she giggled and looked away when he did. Her actions left him feeling a little uncomfortable, but not much. "Kiza?" he asked.
"Look, um, I'm sure our roommates are going to be busy all day, and I've been separated from my tour group. I don't know what your schedule looks like, but if you have some time, maybe you could, well, show me around?"
She nearly squealed with delight. "Of course! I'm sorry, I didn't think about you being separated from your group. I'd love to show you around! Where do you want to go?"
Garth suddenly blinked. Where did he want to go? What were his usual stops when he was in other cities on Earth? He paused for a moment and realized that he generally hit tourist traps and shopping centers, neither of which were in much abundance here on Pendor. "I'm not sure. Where can you suggest?"
Kiza shrugged. "I'm not sure either. I don't know many places; this is the first time I've ever been here. There's the university where I go to school, and there's my town. I guess I could show you that."
The door to the bedroom opened, and Nickolai and Furry stepped out, happy and partly abashed smiles on their faces. "G'morning," Furry said, bouncing into the kitchen. Nickolai sighed and sat down at the table next to Garth. "How you doin'?" he asked.
"Good question," Garth said. "I was just about to ask Kiza what there was to do around here for the next month."
"Nickolai?" Lexander's voice interrupted their conversation. "I have three messages waiting for you."
"Messages?" Nickolai asked. "From who?"
"From Molly Shardik, Skii Narrone, and Ken Shardik."
Garth blinked and looked at Nickolai, wondering. "You weren't kidding, were you? You really do know Ken Shardik."
"Sort of," Nickolai agreed. "Molly first."
"Hello!" the voice came from a screen that appeared at the edge of the table. "Welcome home, Nickolai! I'm going to be home for the next month, so if you call, I'll definitely get your message." Molly's Vulpin smile grinned out of the screen. "Look, um, things haven't really changed for me, but I would still like to get together with you two and your friends."
Garth's eyes looked surprised. "You know her?"
"Yeah," Nickolai said, smiling. "She's a nice girl. I showed her to you in the photographs, remember?"
"It's been a while since I saw those photographs, and you didn't say how well you knew her."
"Well, you'll get to meet her later. Skii next."
"Hey, Nickolai," Skii blared out of the screen next. "I got your message about the raincheck. Are you still serious? Dave knows where to find me, so if you want to talk, I'm always willing. I'm serious about the offer if you are. And... I'd love it if you brought Furry too."
"Shardik last, please."
"Welcome back to Pendor," Ken Shardik smiled out of the screen, as large as life. "Don't be surprised that I've been looking forward to your return to Pendor for some time now, because you mark the start of something big, kiddo. While relationships between Pendorians and Terrans have occurred before in history, you mark something really new, and I think that you two have the strength to do it. I don't expect you to be examples for the rest of the universe, just to be the first and then to be yourselves.
"I want you two over my home sometime today, the earlier the better, so we can go over old times. Today's cerenya, and you should know by now that we have our outdoor picnics on those days, weather permitting. Probably won't be any Dragons out today, but that shouldn't stop you from showing up, right? Besides, Molly and Skii were really bouncing off the walls to see you guys."
"Remember that first sight is easy, Nickolai, but love is tough. Take care of yourselves. See you later today, right?"
Garth stared at the screen as it reduced to a point and then winked out. "Wow. He's real."
"As real as it gets," Furry said, coming out of the kitchen. "That didn't sound like a request; more like an order."
"When Shardik says he wants you to stop by for dinner, you eat," Garth said. "You guys made it through there in one piece, right?"
Furry nodded, as did Nickolai. "I actually got bored there. It's a house, and if you don't find ways to amuse yourself you sort of get shuffled out in the whirlwind of children and grownups."
"Are we done eating?" Furry asked, starting to clean up plates. "We could head over. Nickolai and I still need showers, but after that we can just take a SDisk to the Castle." She grinned at Nickolai. "I wonder if the lockout was ever revised."
"We'll find out. If it wasn't, well, we can always try all the other ones, right?"
Furry nodded. "I'd like to see you end up on the one that takes your clothes off."
"I don't know if that's possible," Nickolai said. "Remember, Dave said he gets to choose where people go when using that SDisk."
"I remember," she said. "Still like to see it though." She leaned over his chair and gave him a hug. "I love you, my brave Nickolai."
"And my brilliant Jofuran. I'm going to go jump into the shower. Would you care to join me?"
She pulled him up out of the chair by his hand. "You're on! Excuse us!" She hauled him out of Garth and Kiza's sight.
Nickolai grinned at his friend, able to finally turn the tables. "Nervous?"
"Yeah," Garth admitted. "You can't call me a liar for that one!"
Nickolai snapped his fingers and laughed. "No, guess I can't."
"You're worrying too much, Garth," Furry said. "There's nothing to it. You just walk up to him and say 'Hi. I'm Garth, and you must be Ken Shardik.'"
"Something like that, anyway," Nickolai said, patting him on the back before pulling Furry close again for another hug. Garth found himself envying the simple ease with which Nickolai touched and held her and her total attention to him every time he did. Worse still, the flutter in his gut just wouldn't give way to calm. She was right, wasn't she? There wasn't anything to it all. It was just another roadtrip. He'd met important people before, right? Ken Shardik was just another one of those.
"Okay, everybody, onto the SDisk," Nickolai said. Kiza stepped first, then Furry. Garth went third and Nickolai last. "Lex, I want to go the Shardik Castle."
The world blinked. Garth was never going to get used to that.
And resolved itself into a beach. Garth looked down to find himself standing on water. "Come on," Kiza said. "Before the circle disappears." She ran for the beach; Garth recovered her wits enough to follow her. "Made it!" she said.
"Sometimes people program those things to fade on you," she said, pointing to the SDisk that hovered, then vanished into the water. "It's a nasty trick because you'll find yourself floating on the water one second, swimming in it the next."
Garth nodded, then looked around. The shadow behind him first caught his eye; it had been what he had been expecting when they had first arrived. Shardik Castle hovered overhead without visible means of support, a column of water falling from the center of the bottom face to the small body of water underneath. Shardik Lagoon. Or, when on the Castle Grounds, just "The Lagoon." The Castle itself looked made from segmented rectangles of sandstone intermixed with dramatic pieces of some silvered metal or glass. Here and there were the open porches of residencies, but they didn't stand out quite like the general color of earthen yellow and steel.
The lagoon itself was covered in pale yellow sand, similar in color to that of the Castle. Where they stood was the largest patch, a wide expanse of sand that ended in the stone walls of the crater in which Shardik Castle sat. Garth knew that few of the plants and short, stubby trees that lived in or lined the walls of the crater were native to either Pendor or Terra; The popular news media seemed eternally entranced by Aaden Shardik's "alien garden." Across the lagoon the walls were bare and sheer and Garth could see a hollow of sand that disappeared under the walls into a shallow natural cave. As his eyes traced around the rim of the crater, he found the crack that led to the ocean, providing an drain for the water that collected in the lagoon.
Nobody was immediately visible except his three friends and then a voice overhead shouted "Nickolai!" Garth's head snapped to see who was shouting and saw a Felinzi, the Pendorian "housecat" variant (and, Garth thought sourly, far more "successful" at being both feline and humanoid than Katckins would ever be) leap off the edge of the castle. Horrified and convinced that the Felinzi was risking death, Garth was stunned when he fell to the ground in a completely controlled fashion after falling maybe 30 or 40 meters, rolled forward, and stood up. "Ta-dah!"
"Skii!" Nickolai said, running forward and grabbing the Felinzi about the shoulders. "It's good to see you!"
"And you, Nickolai," Skii replied, grinning crazily. "How have you been?"
"Oh, you know," Nickolai replied. "This and that. Good and bad. Now that Furry and I are together again, I'm doing much better. That didn't look like you had any gravitics help at all."
"Didn't," Skii replied. "Ever hear of the Shatha line of nanochine?"
"Yeah," Nickolai said. "Didn't your dad develop those?"
Skii nodded. "You remember! Pulsive, Kolya. Yeah, he did."
"Aren't they dangerous?"
"Only when abused. And I can't visit Earth. Gee, like I'm missing something." Skii gestured in the air, twirling one finger carelessly. "Meanwhile, I'm completely reinforced. I can jump nearly ten meters straight up! I can survive a fall from nearly any height as long as I'm ready to land. I can lift my powered armor as easily as it can lift me!" He grinned.
"But you have to eat more," Nickolai said.
"Only a little more if I don't use it, and a LOT more if I do. Speaking of which, I'm hungry." He glanced at Nickolai. "Are you game?"
Nickolai laughed. "We ate less than two hours ago."
"So? No reason not to have more."
"Why don't we just watch you," Nickolai offered, shading his eyes. "And we can head inside rather than baking under this sun."
"It's nice out, Nickolai! How could you say such cruel things about our Pin?" Skii laughed. "Who are you friends, anyway?"
"Oh, pooh," Furry said. "You know damn well who I am, you boy-crazy Felinzi!" She walked forward and hugged Skii. "It's good seeing you again."
"You never left, lady," Skii said. "You could have always given me a call."
"I had school. And you had trouble to raise."
"Yeah, yeah, excuses, excuses."
"Are you still banned from driving?"
"Nope. Who's this?" Skii asked, surprising Garth by pointing at him.
"Garth, meet Skii Narrone. Skii, meet Garth, my roommate from Terra."
"Really?" Skii said. "Pulse. And this lovely fem?"
"Kiza, this is Skii. Watch him," Furry said. "He's a letch."
"And I'm good at it, too!" Skii laughed. "Come on, let's go inside." The SDisk reappeared in the lagoon and Skii leapt upon it. Everyone followed him and teleported.
Garth hoped that the constantly changing scenery would stop soon. Things were progressing far too damned fast for him. He could barely remember the name of the Felinzi he had just met. Now they found themselves in a large, almost-square room with a hole in the center of both the ceiling and the floor. "We opened up the grav-tubes a little," Skii was saying. "It seems to be working. Nobody's gotten hurt yet, and the Centaurs and Ssphynxes seem to be able to get around better."
The Felinzi disappeared through a pair of swinging doors to their right, and everyone seemed to be following, so Garth did as well. Inside, Skii disappeared behind a large metal table and rummaged about inside some cabinets, returning with a round sandwich in his hand. "Corned beef. Anyone want something?"
Nickolai shook his head. Furry, though, asked for a ham sandwich, which Skii promptly tossed her. "How about you two?"
Garth admitted to himself that he was hungry despite breakfast but he didn't know if it was polite to accept or refuse an offer of food on Pendor. Furry was already halfway through hers. "What have you got?"
"Name it," Skii asked.
"Pastrami with sauerkraut."
"Not only do we have that," Skii laughed, disappearing into the cabinet again, "But it's one of Ken's favorites." He tossed the requested sandwich, wrapped in waxed paper, to Garth, who caught it easily. "Nice catch."
"Thanks," Garth said, smiling up at Skii despite himself. Although he knew already that much of Skii's talents were the results of nanotech microsurgery, there was an openness to him that Garth found refreshing. He tore open the paper and found exactly what he had asked for; the sauerkraut was even sharp the way he liked it, although the pastrami tasted strong and a little unusual. He commented on that to Skii.
"That's because it's real beef," Nickolai explained. "Not that artificial stuff we get at school."
"You mean, grown from cows?"
"Depends," Skii said. "There are cattle ranchers around, mostly just to keep the breed alive more than anything else, and to supply people who want to go out and attend the slaughtering themselves. But that's rare; few people have the strong stomachs it takes to do something like that. Ken does, sometimes. He goes back and forth between being queasy and being barbaric." Skii laughed. "Most beef is grown in tanks, though. It allows us to control both the quality of the meat and to get a good ratio of nutrients-to-meat. You be amazed what a good LSAP/nanotech farming facility can achieve with sunlight and a pound of dirt. The really strange thing is that most vegetable processes are still best when grown the old-fashioned way. A few things can improve the process, like nutrient delivery systems and stuff like that. But in the end it's all optimized photosynthesis and when it comes to sunlight, we're still looking for ways to improve that ugly green molecule."
"Sounds to me like you've got a hobby, maybe?" Jofuran asked.
"Me? A farmer?" Skii asked. "I doubt it. Come on, you guys know me. I'm a rock-and-roll, starship-driving kinda guy."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Nickolai said. "We all know about your driving."
Skii smiled. "Okay, okay, enough. Let's go take you guys up to talk to the folks."
"Sounds good," Nickolai said. "I know the way."
"Guess you do," Skii mentioned, his mouth full. "But I want to go with you guys. So..." He led them out again and up the grav tube to the top floor. "This is just a hallway that leads upstairs. There's nothing really here. I can't figure out why they don't just fill this space in and make the grav-tube go straight up to the center of the roof." Up a ramp, around a switchback, and they walked out into blinding sunlight once more.
"Is it always so bright?" Garth complained.
"Sun's always directly overhead," Furry pointed out. "What do you expect? It's either cloudy, or it's bright. Even in winter. And believe me, you can go blind much faster in winter."
"Yeah, from all the glare. It'll drive your eyes craz--"
"Nickolai!" The voice made Garth's head snap up and look down the metallic-grate walkway. "You made it!"
Nickolai smiled and walked into the bearhug of a man barely taller than he was. Wearing a loose-fitting shirt of thick, off-white cloth that fell about his waist and pants made of some dark, vaguely reflective material, Ken Shardik held Nickolai out at arm's length and examined him. "You've gotten taller."
"I certainly hope so, s... Ken."
Shardik roared with laughter. "You still haven't gotten used to that, Nickolai. Come on, learn! So, who are these people you've brought with you?"
"You don't remember me?" Furry sounded positively indignant.
"Of course I remember you, Jofuran. How could I forget the beautiful smile that so wonderfully graced my household two years ago? Surely you'll stay longer this time?"
"If it pleases you," Furry replied.
"If it pleases you, you mean," Shardik said, pointing back at her. "I would hardly keep you here if you were miserable. Come, come, you two. Introduce your friends."
Nickolai reached back and with one hand grabbed Garth by the shoulder. "Come here, you. You did this to me a year ago. Now it's my turn. Garth, this is Ken Shardik. Ken, this is Garth El Baum, my roommate."
Shardik extended a hand. Garth reached out and shook it carefully, trembling. "Garth," Shardik said in a voice that seemed to flow over his nervous twitch and calm him, "You have nothing to worry about."
"Tell that to my nerves!" the Katckin replied, laughing.
"I tried," Shardik replied. "And who's this?" He indicated Kiza.
Furry answered for her. "Kiza Lessap, Ken Shardik. Ken, this is my roommate, Kiza."
"Pleased to meet you," Ken said. He stood up and clapped his hands together. "So, you are all going to stay for dinner?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Furry said. "Where is everybody?"
"'Everybody' is out at the moment. Um, I hate to tell you two this, but Molly got called away unexpectedly. She won't be back for a while. Don't know when. It's weird, too. We have days like this, when there's absolutely nobody around. Right now I've got my political hat on, so I'm going to be busy until around eleven with these papers I have to read. So I'll apologize if I ask that y'all give me that time to myself today. Meanwhile, feel free to have the run of the Castle. Garth, how would you like to spend your vacation here?"
"Seriously, Garth. Right now this Castle is almost empty. With ten residences in place I've only got six families living here right now. It's Shardik, Mahn, and Lewis... you know, the usual gang on the one hand, and Carver, Traken, and Majors on the other. Four open doubles for anyone who wants them. You up for it?"
"Uh... Yeah, I guess I would," Garth said, forcing a smile.
"You don't have to, you know," Shardik said. "It's not like nobody ever said 'no' to me, and I won't be upset. I can understand how you could be a little intimidated by the place, but I assure you I have no intention of forcing you into anything you're not interested in."
"I'd like to stay, sir."
"Good!" Shardik said. "Stop calling me 'sir,' too, dammit. You're my guest, not my prisoner. Skii, give them the room next to the guest room."
"Dad, that's where P'maya and Termo are staying."
"So it is. How about the one next to that?"
"That one's empty. Has been for nearly twenty years, too, and you know why..."
"Oh." Ken nodded. "Still, it's the one closest to the guest space. Tell Dave to clean them both up and then show them to their guests. Look, I'm really busy. Nickolai, Furry, you can show your friends where everything is and I'll be down around twelve to start setting up for dinner. There's nobody here so you may as well take advantage of that fact and go swimming or something. Aaden will be back around ten, P'nyssa around twelve. Skii, start set-up at twelve whether I'm here or not."
"Got it. Dave, don't let me forget."
"Have I ever let you forget?" a voice from nowhere replied dryly. "I will remind you. Their rooms will take half an hour to prepare. In the meantime, there are towels and such in the commons."
"Thanks," Skii said earnestly. "Come on, you four. Let's go." He led them back into the castle.
Several hours later, Garth rejoined Nickolai on the beach. He had been swimming in the lagoon until the chill had reached through his fur and proven unbearable. He marveled at Nickolai's ability to fit in. Sitting naked under a tree that looked like nothing less than a blue- leafed palm with his legs bent at the knees to prop up a PADD, Nickolai looked calm and content.
"Hey yourself," Nickolai replied, smiling up at his roommate. "Good swim?"
"Yeah. Kinda strange, though. I'm used to having a lot of people hanging around. Especially at ocean beaches."
"I know. I felt it too the first time I was here." Nickolai put his PADD down and stretched his legs out. "Oof. I'm stiff."
"Interesting reading?" Garth asked, gesturing to the PADD.
"Oh, sure. I'm reading about some of the voluntary biographies of people who have gone through the Great Hall."
Garth looked puzzled for a moment. "Any reason why?"
"Yeah." Nickolai smiled. "I'm going to walk it soon."
Garth nearly exploded. "WHAT?" He stared at Nickolai, unbelieving. "What about all that talk about loving Furry as she is and as you are? What about all that about finding someplace to live that didn't require that you change?"
"Calm down, Garth." Nickolai gestured to the sand, and Garth took the hint and sat down. "Nothing's going to change."
"You don't know that! You could come out as... as..."
"As Nickolai Dittrich, Human."
"The rules have been changed," Nickolai stated, repeating the words as Shardik had told them to him. "People going through the Hall don't change."
"You're kidding. That means... "
"That means that you go into the Hall and come out the other side the same shape as you went in. Now, you can choose to change, but if you do the Hall determines what you come out as. Then the old rules apply."
"That's weird. Wait a sec. If you're going through the Hall and nothing's going to change, why do it at all?"
"Because I didn't say that nothing was going to change. I will get some of the Pendorian benefits, like the nanotech healing factor and the language implants and stuff like that. And I'll be fertile."
"Yeah." Nickolai glanced across the sand to where Furry and Kiza were sitting and talking to Skii. He was apparently telling them some outrageous story replete with expansive hand gestures of swooping vehicles and dramatic explosions. The fems were giggling. "Not that it does me much good."
"Yeah," Garth agreed, looking in the same direction. He was so busy looking back and forth between the fems and Nickolai that he failed to notice the low, black shape creeping through the underbrush a few meters away.
Nickolai did notice it. "Garth! Look out!"
"Wha--- IEEE!" Garth screamed as a huge, powerful feline creature leapt out of the bushes and sailed at least five meters through the air to land in front of him, snarling. The snarl died down, the head tilted to the left slightly, and then the jaws parted open to erupt in what had to have been laughter although it felt to Garth as if someone were pulling a catgut bowstring across his feline ribs, his heart inside providing the percussion counter- rhythm. "Shit!"
"Karin!" Skii's voice cut through his recovering terror, making the six-legged black Pamthreat look up, laughter redoubled. "That was not funny!"
"I know," Karin giggled, her voice sounding oddly hollow, "But I just couldn't resist. The Pamthreat looked up at Garth. "I'm sorry. I just saw new people sitting on the beach and had to sneak up on you. You should have seen your face! I've never seen someone so terrified in a long time!"
"Ken's warned you about that. If someone has a cardiac because of your mischief he'll have your head, you know that."
"Aw, Skii. Besides, even if they have a cardiac they've always got back-up."
"The two gentlemen here do not."
"Oh!" Karin's head picked up and she looked at Garth. "You're Terrans! I'm so sorry. I didn't know! I could have killed you!"
"I think... I'll live," Garth said, looking at the Pamthreat. "Besides, now that I think about it, it was kinda funny."
"Speak for yourself!" Nickolai said. "Even though I knew it was coming I was still scared out of my wits!"
"Anyway," Garth said, "Hi."
"Hi," the Pamthreat replied quietly. "Karin Mahn."
"Garth El Baum." Garth held out his hand, not sure if Pamthreats shook hands or what, but Karin approached it and nuzzled it with her large, blunt head anyway. "Pleased to meet ya."
"Actually, Karin, you've showed up at a good time. Do you have a drone under your command, or is it just hands today?"
"I can get one," Karin said. "What do you need?"
"Everything," Skii said. "Ken said to start set-up at twelve and it's twelve-twenty now. I need the firepit opened up, the tables and baskets dragged out, everything. I assume that Paul and Carroll are going to be handling the food today since they're the ones on the schedule but I'm still responsible for the physicals."
"Gotcha," Karin said. "Garth, would you and your friend there--"
"Nickolai," Nickolai said, smiling. "I was hoping to be introduced."
"Ooops. Sorry." Garth blushed.
"Nickolai-- like to help me move some tables?"
"Sure. I've done this before."
As they were setting out the baskets of picnic cloths and the drying racks for used towels, people started assembling. Although he didn't know all of them, Nickolai did his best to introduce those he did know to Garth and Kiza. When he got to Aaden and P'nyssa, Garth felt genuinely dwarfed by the huge Mephit and even by the smaller Tindal standing next to him. The skunk's short, smiling muzzle and penetrating stare made him aware of just how much history stood before him. "Garth, this is P'nyssa Traken," Nickolai said, indicating the female Tindal. About the same height as he (he measured 173 cms), she had indigo-blue fur except for the whites rings about her eyes.
"How do you do?" she asked, holding out one of her tentacles that Tindals called "tens" and were in approximately the same place humans kept their arms. He took the fingerless mitten in hand and shook gently. "Come on, Garth, you can shake hands more securely than that, can't you?" she asked, smiling. He shook harder, watching the shake ripple up her arm. He had the distinct feeling she did that deliberately. "Pleased to meet you."
"Uh... I'm please to meet you as well."
"And I'm Aaden, but you knew that." The enormous Mephit reached out a hand and Garth took it, shaking just as firmly. Although he knew intellectually that Aaden Satpulov was only one centimeter taller than Ken Shardik and only twelve centimeters taller than himself, he felt tiny compared to the physical and emotional mountain that Aaden seemed to be.
"Since you're our guests for the evening, why don't you come sit with us?" P'nyssa offered.
"You mean that?" Garth asked.
"Of course they mean it," Nickolai said.
"Nickolai, he asked me," P'nyssa chided him.
Nickolai seemed genuinely abashed. "Oh... Uh... I'm sorry?"
P'nyssa laughed. "You're trying to get into the feel of being a Pendorian too hard, Nickolai. On the one hand, I do mean everything I say, so if I invite you to eat with us, Garth, I mean it. On the other, I like to take care of inquiries directed at me by myself. It took me a century to break Ken of the habit of interrupting me."
Nickolai nodded, apologetic.
"Come on," P'nyssa said. "Grab your two friends and--" P'nyssa rolled her eyes-- "Skii, I guess." She smiled. "He has too much energy, even for his age. Meet us over there. You won't be alone; I imagine Ken and Aaden will have their usual crowd of friends and followers."
"I'll get them," Garth offered.
"Would you? I want to ask P'nyssa something," Nickolai said.
"Sure thing." Garth trotted away across the sands in search of Furry and Kiza in what had rapidly become a loose crowd of bodies.
"Now then, what did you want to ask me, Kolya?" P'nyssa said after they watched Garth disappear between two Centaur and continued on their walk down the sands towards Ken Shardik.
Nickolai felt a touch of reassurance at her calling him "Kolya." it was a note of familiarity, and indicator that she wasn't still upset with him. And while he tried to be equal-handed, it meant a lot to him that P'nyssa Shardik liked him. "You said Ken and Aaden have 'followers.' Don't you?"
Aaden chuckled quietly. "She does, but not here."
"I still haven't broken him of it," P'nyssa grumbled softly. "What he means is that Ken and Aaden have hobbies and activities that encourage amateur adherents. There are 'professional' sadomasochists, pilots, botanists, writers, and the like, but many more aren't. So they tend to prefer meeting in non-professional settings, like picnics and the like. Medicine doesn't have that kind of leeway and so is rarely seen as a 'hobby.' And as for my other hobbies, they're generally quieter. Sometimes I write a book review for something I read that I enjoyed and sometimes I go to readercons and sometimes I submit articles on interspecies adoption and mothering, but these aren't the sorts of things that one has loud discussions about it." She laughed softly. "You know, for such a distinctive family, we have such traditional roles sometimes."
"Speak for yourself," Aaden chuckled. "The first time I sent an article to Interspecies Parenting Digest I was terrified. My reputation was about to be ruined!"
"Somehow, Aaden, I doubt anyone really thought you were losing your s/m touch."
Aaden's reply was interrupted by Shardik shouting "Hi!"
"Hi yourself!" Aaden fell to his knees and gave Ken a hug, rolling across the blanket.
"Careful! There's an open jar of mustard with no base on the blanket!" Ken shouted.
"Whoa," Aaden agreed, stopping short just in time. "How was your day?"
"Hairy." Ken proceeded to complain to Aaden, P'nyssa, and anyone else who would listen about how uncompromising the new interstellar conglomeration of four worlds that called itself jokingly "The Empire" was and how he could never get in touch with their ambassadors. "They're such prima donnas! I thought we were bad!"
Aaden laughed and tousled Ken's hair. "We are bad. They're just worse."
"Yeah, yeah. So, Nickolai, are you ready to walk the Hall?"
"I think so. Tomorrow I want to do it."
"I can't think of a single reason not to." He glanced around and found Furry standing next to him. He reached out a hand and took hers in his. "And I have all the reason in three worlds to."
"Good man!" Ken said. "That's the power of love for you. Makes men into fools and fools into men. Don't ask which category you fall into, Nickolai, because either way you won't like the answer. Trust me on this one."
Nickolai laughed. "Yes, sir."
"So, Garth, tell me while we have a quiet moment. What do you think of Pendor?"
"It's very... hospitable."
"By Horus, I hope so!" Ken laughed. "But what else? Tell me, are you bored yet?"
"Bored?" Garth felt surprised by the question. "How could I possibly be bored?"
"It's very possible," Ken replied. "You've been sitting on a beach relatively alone all day. Eventually you must get bored."
"Sir, after an entire year of grinding at textbooks and doing biocybe lessons and physical exercise, I can think of nothing more pleasant than lying on a deserted beach and absorbing sunlight."
Ken laughed. "Good lad! What else have you noticed?"
"Well, I'd like a chance to look around, honestly. See what I can see. I need a tour guide for that, and Kiza's offered."
"I'll do it," Skii said.
"Skii... " Ken growled softly.
"No, really. I mean it. If I'm not his type I understand completely and I'll keep my hands off. But I like the Terrans you find, Father. They're really con and I appreciate having them around."
"What do you mean, 'If you're not my type?'" Garth asked.
"Just that. I happen to like mels and I'm not ashamed of admitting to being a little predatory." Skii grinned.
"Oh. Well, I don't know. It's been a long time since I thought about that. I don't know."
"Hey, no pressure," Skii asserted, waving his hands as if to push away the suggestion. "I just wanted to point two things out, Garth. I'd like to be your tour guide because I happen to like Terrans, and I'd like to get to know you better because I think you're good-looking."
"Me?" Garth asked, surprised.
"Yeah, you," Skii replied. "You find that surprising?"
"A little," Garth said.
"Well, it's true. In fact, let's take a survey. Okay, there are..." Skii paused to count his way around the several blankets closest to him. "Fifteen people around here." He stood up. "Okay, how many people here think Garth here is handsome?" A small forest of arms and tentacles went up.
"Hey!" a voice Garth remembered from earlier that day rang out. "I don't have a hand to raise!"
"Then we'll count you as a 'yes' vote," Skii told Karin. "Anyway, Garth, there you have it. You're good looking."
"It's still hard to believe."
"Believe it," Aaden said over Skii's disagreement. "On Pendor, 'beauty' is a real issue. Too many people start out with the assumption that because they're Pendorians they're automatically beautiful people. But beauty is different to us here, in this Lagoon, at least I like to think so. It comes from inside. I know, that's a funny, touchy-feely kind of thing to hear me saying. But it's true. You have a youthful kind of handsomeness to you, Garth, that you shouldn't underestimate just because you're a Katckin."
"But I'm so gangly," Garth protested, turning to Skii. "Look at you. Your head and face are so much more feline-looking than mine, but your arms are at least in proportion to your body compared to most of the Humanoid races in the galaxy."
Skii thought for a moment. "Differences in design and the skills of the designer. Look at Karin. She's not humanoid-looking at all. But she manages."
"I do better than manage, you mangy..."
"Okay, okay, enough!" Ken's hand came down between Skii and the Pamthreat. "If I must break up this fight one more time between you two! Skii, you're nineteen years old, and that's old enough to stop needling your sister. Karin, you too."
"I'm only thirteen."
"And old enough to stop picking fights with your brother. Now then, let's get food since I see that it's ready."
A half-hour later and around a mouthful of something that had been referred to as 'beefalo,' Garth turned to Ken and asked "Is there a reason why I shouldn't walk through the Great Hall?"
Ken nearly choked on his sandwich. But then he stopped, thought, turned to Garth and said "As a changeling or as yourself?"
"As myself," Garth replied.
"You were talking about how you didn't like your Katckin body just a short while ago."
"I think that was different," Garth replied. "I... I don't know if I believe all of you that I'm handsome, but that's different from not liking my body. I'm used to my body. I don't know if I would adjust to having it changed. The idea that I could go through the Great Hall and get all the benefits and none of the disadvantages is powerful incentive."
"It is indeed," Ken agreed. "You know, there is no disadvantage to it if you go through at all. You could retain your Terran registration, your Right of Replacement, everything. There is nothing about you after the Hallwalk that's obvious to observers. Nothing at all. A close physical might find some things."
"What about that... the heart implant?"
"You can get that during or after the Hallwalk. The difference is that after the Hallwalk it's surgery. During the Hallwalk, well, you're sorta trusting the magic of the Great Hall, aren't you? And don't ask me what that is. It's a secret." Ken smiled.
"What about my fertility?"
"What about it?" Ken asked. "Who's gonna notice? You certainly can't get any femKatckins on Terra pregnant; they're all sterile, remember? And if you're really worried about pregnancy, there's always the tiny contraceptive implants. We perfected those centuries ago."
"What are they?"
"Furry, you explain. My sandwich is getting cold."
Furry accepted Shardik's offer. "They're tiny valves about six millimeters on a side. They get placed over... what are those things called in males?"
"The vas deferens," P'nyssa supplied.
"Them. Anyway, they block off sperm flow from the testicles to the penis. In females they block off the fallopian tubes."
"How do you get them open?" Garth asked.
"Magnets," P'nyssa replied, picking up the medical part of the thread. "We have a small electromagnet. It's about the size of a writing pen." She pulled one out of a pocket on the jumpsuit she wore. "It's a little thicker, but about the same length. There's a little switch labeled 'open' or 'closed' and a small light. You run the round end over the skin until the light comes to full brightness. It's just a simple magnetometer. Then you put the switch in the direction you want the valves to be. The thing gives off a small hum and the valves get changed."
"That easy?" Garth asked. "I'm surprised we don't have anything like them on Earth."
"You do," P'nyssa replied. "Your species haven't needed them for the past four centuries because Saman Transfer has made you all sterile. But even on Pendor they're called 'Dutch Valves' because they were invented in Holland."
"Nothing surprising about that," P'nyssa said. "Most of the truly important things on Pendor were discovered on Earth."
"Like consciousness," Ken said. "Like symbolic language. Like mathematics. Like theatre. Romance. Everything around you here, Garth, is a combination of ideas, all of which existed on Terra for years before Pendor existed."
"But doesn't it matter that someone with the tools to make it happen did?"
"Of course. But I think people give too much credit to some artists and not enough to others. Anyway, all this philosophy makes me hungry. I'm gonna get some cake." He stood up and left abruptly.
Aaden leaned over and in a conspiratorial whisper told Garth and Nickolai, "He does that when he realizes he talking about himself nowadays. I figure it'll last a year or so."
"Guilt?" Nickolai asked.
"I think he just hates being the topic of conversation. He knows he is every day everywhere in the galaxy." Aaden sat back up. "So, Garth, are you going to walk the Hall?"
"I'm thinking about it," the Katckin replied. "I'm not sure what to do with the idea yet."
"Well, I'm sure you can make up your mind in the month you're here. So, who's going to be your tourguide?"
"What are my choices?"
"Well, both Kiza and Skii have agreed to it."
"Why can't I have both of them?"
"That," Ken Shardik interjected, returning from the dessert table, "Has to be the most Pendorian thing I think I've heard come out of anybody's mouth since the Terrans got here. Polite, selfish, self- indulgent and utterly harmless. Well, Skii, would you be willing to have both Kiza and Garth as company for a month? Kiza, would you be willing to live at Shardik Castle for a month with Garth and Skii?"
"I'd like to very much!" Kiza replied.
"I don't think I'd have a problem with it," Skii continued.
"Nor would I," Garth finished. "It's a deal then."
"And Nickolai... would you and Jofuran be willing to spend a while here while Nickolai gets his head on straight?"
"I think I'd like that." Nickolai kissed Jofuran's head. "What about you?"
"I don't have a problem with it," Furry said. "I'm on a break right now."
"Then it's settled. Good! The house was getting empty and full of fuddy-duddies anyway."
"You're the only fuddy-duddy we have, Ken," Aaden said sweetly.
"You're just jealous."
"I have my own place," Skii was saying, "over there."
"Skii?" Garth asked. "Ken acted really strangely when he suggested mine and Kiza's bedroom be in here. For one thing, he was making one serious assumption. Kiza and I aren't sleeping together."
"Oh. Oh! Damn, what do I do with that? Dave!"
"I was already aware of the situation thanks to Lexander. There are two smaller beds in the bedroom."
"I guess that'll be okay. But it was more than that. What was all that about twenty years ago..."
Skii laid his hand on the bridge of his snout and rubbed downwards, deforming his small whiskers slightly as he did so. "You're probably running into this on Terra a lot nowadays, but... we've always been immortal. Unaging and hard to kill, anyway. The most common form of death on Pendor is suicide." He took a deep breath. "P'lissane, P'nyssa's first daughter, committed suicide in here." The door opened as Skii led the way inside.
"I know it's just supposed to be another room," Skii said, "But it was the second death ever in Shardik Castle, and it really made a lot of people weird. I don't know. I don't really want to think about it."
"That was the year before you were born, right?"
"Right," Skii agreed. "In a way, I'm glad I didn't know P'lissane. It must have been very hard on people."
"They just found her in here, right?"
"Right. Sitting at the table. All the furniture's been changed, the rug and ceiling tiles, even. The entire room was changed to avoid reminding people about her. But even with all that..."
Garth nodded. "Look, um, I guess this is goodnight?"
"Looks that way." Skii held out his hand and Garth shook it. "Nice to meet you, and I'm glad we'll have more time together."
"Me too. See you tomorrow."
She held out her hand and he shook that as well. "Thank you, Skii."
"You're welcome. See you guys later." He waved and walked out.
After the door had closed behind Skii's retreating back, Garth sighed. "Well, he certainly seemed to change a lot when he was talking about P'lissane."
"It's hard on people, Garth. We try not to admit that we know people who are going to die, especially by their own hand. I'm not in a very happy spirit right this minute either, after that. I'm just going to head to bed."
"That sounds like a good idea."
She nodded and disappeared down a hole like Alice's Rabbit, and Garth remembered that bedrooms in Shardik Castle were on the floor below the living quarters. He walked over to the hole, steeled himself, and stepped over it. He fell slowly, landing calmly on the floor of the bedroom. Kiza walked out of the bathroom and crawled into one of the two beds.
Looking at his bed, set into an almost-blackened wooden frame, he wondered what a bed for two people was like if a bed for one was this large.
He made use of the bathroom. Tiled in bright white and illuminated with indirect lighting, it was a masterpiece of comfortable design. Stepping out into the bedroom, he realized Kiza was already dead asleep. With a smile he stripped off his clothing and crawled under the apparently hand-quilted comforter. He fell asleep just as quickly.