Garth felt something soft and warm stir against his belly, then opened his eyes in time to see Kiza turning over. "Hmph," he said to himself, smiling, then bent forward to kiss her on the back of the neck. She gave a small, high-pitched moan, and otherwise didn't respond. "Thank you," he whispered to her. He rose from the bed carefully, being sure not to disturb her, then bent over to find the kilt Kiza had brought him. Instead, he found a set of clothes that looked suspiciously like they had come from his luggage; they hadn't been there when he had gone to sleep, and he suspected Kiza's mother had come in early in the morning to leave them. It bothered him a little to think that Kiza's mother had come in and seem them together. The strange container that Kiza had pulled his kilt out of earlier he recognized now from ancient videos about the pre-industrial Americas as a saddlebag.
He put his clothes on, trying to make as little noise as possible. He managed to sneak out the door without, as far as he could tell, waking Kiza and made his way down the stairs. Naiza was already at work in the kitchen. "Garth, you are awake!"
"Yeah," he smiled.
"Kiza was kind to you last night, I take it? A good friend?"
Garth nodded, blushing slightly. The smell of food grabbed his attention and Naiza noticed. "You want some breakfast?"
"Of course I can!" she said. "Here, you sit. I will get."
Garth pulled one of the old wooden chairs out from under the table and sat down. Naiza rummaged through a variety of cabinets, at least one of which was visibly refrigerated. Ten minutes later she dropped a plate in front of him, complete with some pinkish meat and a mass of yellow that he assumed to be eggs. Overcoming some initial hesitation, he began eating with gusto, feeling suddenly hungry and enjoying the taste Naiza had prepared. As he ate, Kiza walked through the door, yawning. "G'morning."
"Ah, child!" Naiza placed another plate on the table so quickly Garth had the sneaking suspicion she had had advanced warning that Kiza was already awake. "You sleep well?"
"Momma?" Kiza said. "I have something to tell you."
"Is father around?"
"He is attending a failing pump, Kiza. You can tell me."
"Momma, I think I'm erolie."
Naiza paused. "You think, Kiza?"
Kiza nodded. "I'm pretty sure. It only works with fems, Momma."
"But what about Garth here? He seems such a nice mel."
Kiza leaned over, resting her head on his shoulder and squeezing his arm. "Garth is a nice mel, Momma. One of the nicest I've ever met." Garth felt a small surge of pride run through him. "But when I think about settling down, or sharing, or loving, it's a fem, Momma."
Naiza nodded. "You still want children, then?"
"Of course I want children, Momma. What does that have to do with my being erolie?"
"I was just wondering. I remember hearing that erolie sometimes don't have children."
"Momma, entalie sometimes don't have children. Shardik has never had a child, for example. I'm only sixteen, Momma. Give me a little time and I'll be having as many children as you!"
Naiza walked around the table, pulled Kiza away from Garth and gave her a big hug. "Kiza, whoever and whatever you decide to settle down with, you know How and I will always love you."
"I know, Momma." Kiza wrapped her arms around her mother's and the two of them held each other tight for a moment. "Now let me eat. You were always worried I didn't eat enough."
Naiza released Kiza and returned to her cleaning of the kitchen. Kiza smiled at Garth. "That wasn't so bad."
"You didn't tell me you were going to tell them today," he said.
She smiled at him abashedly over her fork, then shrugged. "I needed to let her know."
Garth nodded. "I don't know how to deal with parents. I never had any."
"I thought you still had people who raised you."
"Yeah, I had, um, patrons," Garth said, downing the last of a glass of milk that had been set before him. Naiza moved to refill it, but he placed his hand over it. "That's enough, thank you. But they weren't biologically related to me, if that's what you mean. They were paid by my parent's estate." Kiza nodded.
"That system is going to be in a lot of trouble," Naiza said.
Garth looked at Kiza. "You're right, you know. The political implications of rendering the Right of Replacement tradition null and void are incredible."
"Well, we at least averted the war," Kiza said. "Come on. I'll show you around my family's farm."
"Wait one second, young lady," Naiza said. "Garth is a guest, but you are my daughter. You will clean your place at the table and help me put away dishes."
Half an hour later, Kiza led Garth out onto the porch. "This is one of four FTS farms in this sector. This is ours, and if you look way over there you can probably see Piot's. See where those foothills begin, before the mountains take shape?"
Garth nodded. "A little."
"That's Piot's. He grows grapes on the hillland, and mostly grains on the valley floor. He's one of the finest vineyards on the ring, too. He's been there forever."
"Forever is a long time."
"He's been there long enough," Kiza said, smiling. "You know who Kitty Moran is?"
"She's the Dragon lady, isn't she? The first human to walk through the Hall and come out the other side the same, right?"
Kiza nodded. "Piot and she are good friends. I've seen the Dragons flying around his house sometimes. It's beautiful to watch them; they're so big and you can't believe that they could be graceful, but they are. Momma would wake me up sometimes to watch them fly around."
Garth didn't reply. The enormous expanse of yellow before him was almost more than his mind could handle; the grain seemed to go on forever under the blaze of the Pendorian sun high in the daylit sky. The smell overwhelmed his sensitive Katckin nose, and he could barely make out the distinctive smell of animals over the incredible pollen that swept past them. The whitewashed porch made mostly of wood seemed to glow before his eyes. "Wow."
"You like it here?" she asked.
"It's so... big." He shivered. "It looks like it goes on forever."
"It's not like Earth," Kiza said. "There, your horizon is 100 kilometers away. Here, you can see Piot's house even though it's like, forty klicks away, but if you look out over the valley that way, it goes on for hundreds and hundreds of klicks. Almost a thousand. You really lose perspective after a while."
"I'm part of this now..." Garth said softly.
"What?" Kiza asked, leaning against the railing and inhaling deeply. "Pendor?"
"Yeah," Garth said. He jumped up on the railing and sat down. "I feel so weird today."
"I don't know."
A bird flew by, black as night, and Kiza hissed. "Damn crows," she said. "What is there to feel weird about?"
"I guess I'm not used to being told I can get someone pregnant." He laughed. "Pregnant. That's a condition dogs get into." He remembered who he was talking to, turned and looked at Kiza. As he had thought, she was glaring at him. "Sorry."
"Damn you, Garth. I want to get pregnant someday." She took a deep breath, then let it out. "Oh, well. Can't expect you to get better instantly."
"Thanks for the benefit of the doubt." He hopped off the railing. "So, what else can you show me?"
Kiza took his hand and led him down and around to the side of the house, where a wide canal flowed by. The canal seemed to be entirely artificial, laid with cement from side to side and for as far as Garth could see. "Irrigation," she said. "We get most of our water from a snowpack above Piot's land. It's huge, fortunately, and Piot says that in the thousand years or so that he's been here he's never seen a year that didn't have enough water for the valley."
Garth listened, nodding politely. As she led him around the corner and began showing him the huge machines that actually did most of the work on the farm, a niggling thought that kept recurring in the back of his mind finally became clear. "Kiza, mind if I ask you something?"
"I don't mind if you ask me anything," she said.
"A... thousand years. I know Pendorians are long-lived, but Piot has lived there for a thousand years? I don't think I can imagine anyone staying in the same place for ten years, never mind ten centuries."
"My parents are the third family to live in this house. They moved here after the family before them moved on." Kiza smiled. "What a phrase. 'Moved on.' I mean they killed themselves. They have lived here for three hundred years. I think that's something you have to learn about us, Garth. Pendorian's come in different flavors, but the two most common are those that don't live forever, and those that just don't move. Piot's the second kind. He's a kind, loving, gentle soul. He tends farm, writes poetry and paints the most beautiful things. There's a painting he did of me in the living room."
"I didn't see it."
"I'll show it to you when we go back inside. But even though Piot adjusts... to having children in his house, to having Dragons outside, to having me bounce around as he draws me... his essential... soul, I guess... was filled when he built that house there with his own two hands. He's never needed anything more than that."
Garth nodded. "He adjusts, but he doesn't change."
"Right. Essentially, he lives there." Kiza pointed out across the valley. "If he had to move, he wouldn't be the same person anymore."
"And what about your parents?"
"I dunno," Kiza admitted. "Maybe someday they'll want to move on, too. Maybe I will. On the other hand, maybe they'll still be here in a thousand years. Who knows? Maybe I'll be living here then instead."
"Yeah, me," Kiza said, looking down the length of the long, narrow valley. "I grew up here, and maybe I'll want to settle down here. You never know." She took his hand and led him completely around the house again until they were back at the front porch. The dizzying sight of miles and miles of growing green and gold made Garth feel small, but also secure, as if he knew he were inside something safe and protective. It was a familiar feeling he had been having for most of his trip.
As they re-entered the house, Kiza looked around. "You know, I think it's time we moved on. Come on, I'll get the horses and we'll go find Parynn."
"Local Centaur boy. Lives a few miles away. In fact... Sine?"
"Geez, Kiza, I was wondering if you were ever going to even say Hello to me."
"Sorry, Sine. Can you call Parynn and tell him to blip over here? We're going to want his company back to the SDisk."
"I did that two minutes ago," the voice from nowhere said. Garth realized she was addressing a local AI, and wondered if this place had a Castle associated with it. He asked.
"Sort of," Kiza answered. "Piot's place is sometimes called the Castle of Dragons, and Sine is stored in the basement somewhere. If there's a point of authority in the Loa'imlad, he's it. Speaking of which, there's the painting I wanted to show you."
It was a rather complicated picture, Garth realized. It showed the front of Kiza's house, just as he had seen it when they had walked around outside. There were several people in the picture he didn't recognize, but he knew the three short Martens must have been Naiza, Kiza, and How. He asked about the others, and Kiza recited the names of the people in the painting. "That's Parynn. The big human in the back with the wrench and all the muscles is Piot."
"Does he really look like that, or does he just paint himself that way?"
"In reality?" Kiza asked. "I remember him being bigger."
"I was younger when he painted it. You know how things start to look smaller as you get older. He was probably about that big."
A knock at the door a few minutes revealed a panting Centaur male standing there. "You didn't have to run," Kiza told him.
"Well, from the way Sine said, it sounded like you wanted me over here quick."
"I wanted you over here, yeah, but not so's you'd kill yourself on the way!" She laughed. "Anyway, Parynn, I want you to meet Garth. Garth, this is my old friend Parynn."
Garth reached up. Parynn shook his hand warmly. "You're a Katckin."
"And you're very observant," Garth shot back, immediately regretting the reflexive answer. On Terra, he could reasonably expect to have his species recognized, but on Pendor he was the alien. "Sorry."
"Hey, no problem," Parynn said, standing up straight again and nearly hitting his head on the doorframe. "Whoa. That's lower than I remember."
"The last time you were here was two years ago," Kiza said. "I bet you're still growing."
"I hope not," Parynn said. "Hey, you missed Piot's barbecue this year."
"I did?" Kiza. "Damn." She turned to Garth and said "Every once in a while, Piot throws these huge barbecues. Slaughters a few dozen cows, has about a dozen dragons overhead. It's very exciting." She smiled. "I miss those. I miss a lot of things about not living out here. I think if I get the chance, I'll move back out here. It would be nice. Or... Hey, Sine, do you think you could tell me when there's going to be a party?"
"Of course," the AI replied. "I'm surprised you didn't ask for that in the first place."
"I wasn't thinking," Kiza sighed. "Come on, you two. Let's get the horses." She walked out of the house, and Garth and Parynn followed. They walked around to the stables, where two horses stood quietly waiting. "Those aren't real, are they?" Parynn asked.
"Nah, they're not," Kiza admitted. "Pretty good robots, though, you have to admit."
Parynn nodded. "Why do you use robots, though? You can handle real horses well enough, Kiza. I've watched you."
"He can't," she said, pointing back at Garth.
"I don't know if I could with a perfectly compliant robot, either," Garth said. Kiza showed him how to climb up into the saddle, and Garth attempted to emulate her. Much to his pleasure he managed and was surprised when he found himself astride a horse, looking around at the world. He was eye-level with Parynn and Kiza, and the world looked hazardously far away.
"Come on," Parynn said. He started walking away, and Kiza followed him. "I don't understand why you called me, Kiza. You should know where the SDisk is by now."
"I know," she said. "I could probably find it without help. But I wanted to catch up on old times and local gossip, and you always were so good at that, Parynn." The centaur laughed and began relating local stories. Garth found the news unexciting, much as he had the conversation last night; it was simply part of a world he didn't participate in. His mind wandered.
What was he going to do now? He didn't feel any different; it was kind of like a birthday. A year had gone by since the last one, and something was supposed to be different, but it never really felt like that. Not on the day before, and not on the day after. Everything felt the same.
They rode, following the canal for several kilometers, and then turned on one of many paths leading into a wide, green field of corn. Parynn led them for what seemed like another hour, and then the field broke open to reveal a white circle. "It's plain!" Garth announced.
"What did you expect?"
"I've just seen a few weird ones recently."
Kiza nodded. "Well, we don't go for anything fancy out here. It's just a plain old SDisk, like any other." She smiled. "Come on. Off the horse. They know how to get by on their own, and I don't think they'll be very welcome in the halls of Shardik Castle."
Garth dismounted, awkwardly, and Kiza waved to Parynn. "G'bye! Thanks for the talk!"
"My pleasure, Kiza. Call me earlier the next time you're around!"
"I will, I promise!" The world vanished.
To be replaced with the familiar hallway of Shardik Castle. "You know, Garth, your tour ends in only two more days.
Garth nodded. "That was one of the risks of jumping the Hall."
They reached Nickolai and Jofuran's room and threw the door open to find her and Nickolai sitting on the floor, playing chess. "Hi, guys!"
"Garth!" Nickolai said, rising. "You made it!"
"Yeah, I guess I did." Garth stepped forward and walked into Nickolai's offered hug. He then stepped back and smiled awkwardly. "Homo felinxus pendorii numero uno." He laughed. "Doesn't do me much good to be the only one."
"No, it doesn't." Nickolai laughed. "But there will be others soon enough. I don't know if Kiza told you, but today's cerenya, and according to Ken they have that picnic every week here. I assume you want to go."
"Sure, why shouldn't I?"
"I don't know," Nickolai said. "Why shouldn't you?"
"Is that, like, going to become the theme of my life?"
"'Garth, according to his own Id,' by Garth." Nickolai laughed. "I can think of worse rules to live by."
"I guess," Garth said, shrugging.
Shardik looked up, squinting into the fading daylight. "Hello... Garth!" Ken rose up and gave the Katckin a welcome hug. "You made it!"
"I thought you would all know by now."
Ken nodded. "Well, I did, but that shouldn't stop me from being pleased to see you again. I didn't know what your reaction to the Hall was going to be, whether you liked or disliked the trip or what. I'm glad to see you're still the same."
"I am too, s..." Garth stopped, blushed, and smiled.
Ken roared with laughter instead. "We managed to break Nickolai of that habit. I think. Have we, Nickolai?"
"I hope you won't get too upset if I fall back on it occasionally."
"Details! Exceptions! You haven't changed, Nickolai. Still fighting the same old fears you always had. So, tell me, both of you. What are you plans now? I can think of a dozen schools and colleges that would have you as a student if you want, Nickolai, and I'm sure Jofuran's is only one of them. And you, Garth, you're still planning on returning to Terra, right?"
Garth nodded. "That's what I planned all along."
"Good. I'm afraid the war has heated up a little, though, so we're going to be sneaking you in under the wire."
Nickolai looked up. "What? Again?"
A tall Centaur who had been standing behind Ken for some time said "The colonies are hot for the New Reproductive Technologies. The Samans are angered because of the lost income, as well as the lost power, represented by independent reproduction. The Samans are saying that that kind of irresponsibility will destroy the Human race and the colonies are all saying that they could never survive if the Samans went under."
"That's insane," Furry said, shaking her head.
"Right now," the Centaur, who Garth recognized as Paul Lewis, continued, "It's infighting between factions, those who believe in the 'old ways' and those who are championing the Brave New World, that has such people in it."
Ken flashed a feral grin. "Hmph. The Brave New World is much like my old world, the world Pendor's always been. Zero-maintenance."
"What do we do in the meantime?" Garth asked.
"Just like before, you go home. There's nothing stopping you from doing so; in fact, Terra is again requesting that all Terran natives head home as soon as possible. It's playing hell with people's vacation schedules, and their howling mad. Which, you can bet, generates some damned significant interest when forty percent of Terra's operating budget comes in the form of levies on tourism."
"But... won't I look suspicious?"
Ken made a throwing-away gesture. "Don't worry about it. Nobody will know a thing, and it's none of their business anyway."
Garth nodded uneasily. "I suppose."
Shardik pointed to an open place on the blanket and indicated for them to all sit down. "Fire's not going yet, so we may as well wait. Unless you're thirsty-- there are drinks over there, like last time." He pointed to a table. "Look, we all knew this was going to be ugly. Terra considered its own position, then settled. Then it remembered the colonies, and it'll settle again. This will all blow over soon."
Nickolai looked at his companions, then sat down. Furry followed, then Garth and Kiza. "In any event, there's nothing to worry about. Garth, you want to return home, and I can provide passage."
Ken paused for a second to drink from a glass. "So, are you enjoying your life as a Pendorian, Garth?"
"It doesn't feel much different."
"It shouldn't," Ken agreed. "You'll be fine, even when you return to Terra."
"Ken, something has been bothering me. It's a little weird, a bit of a non-sequitur."
"Tell me about it."
"Why do we say 'on the ring' about Pendor, but 'in the world' about Terra?"
"You know, I've never been able to figure that out myself. It's an expression, Garth, conveying a meaning other than what's in the words. At least, that's how I look at it."
"But, I mean, on Terra, you're really on something. The gravity holds you to the outside skin of the planet, just like it holds the air 'on the world.' But on Pendor, you're really in something. The airwalls hold the atmosphere inside, the ring goes around the sun to close itself in."
Ken grinned. "That's a great piece of observation, Garth, but you're missing an important piece that I've only now understood myself. The minds of the people involved."
"When you talk about being 'in' something, you're talking about a sense of insulation and protection. To say 'in' the world is to imply that the world has limit. 'Inside' implies a known set of borders. 'On' simply talks about a place on a plain, limits or intersecting plains undefined. The majority of Terrans dislike being told they're on the business end of a... you know what a ray is in mathematics?"
Garth nodded. "An initial starting point and a direction."
"Right. The majority of Terrans dislike being told they're on the business end of a ray starting at the center of the Earth and heading for the stars. To compensate, they reduce the size of their world by talking about being 'in' it."
Nickolai interrupted. "Whereas the 'in-ness' of Pendorians is reinforced by just looking up, and the 'on the ring' emphasized by their being on a flat, large plain that's part of an artificial construct."
"Very good," Ken said. "Great observation. Make any sense, Garth?"
"Mostly," he admitted.
A loud, metallic ringing erupted. "Dinner's ready," Ken said. "Come on, let's get something to eat. All this talking has made me empty my glass."
Somehow, they got separated, and Nickolai and Furry ended up near the back of the line. By the time they got their food, the others had already collected back at the blanket. Ken was telling Garth and Kiza a story that Nickolai recognized as something involving a broken arm and the initial investigation of Hyzen, the abandoned double Dyson sphere that had been discovered nearly eight centuries ago. Research and archeological teams had failed to dig up anything reliable on the people who had lived there, but there was little surprise in that; the surface of Hyzen was thousands of times that of Pendor, and much of it was constantly abraded by violent winds.
"Furry?" he asked. "What did you plan on doing for your internship?"
"I don't know. I was thinking about a couple of the more popular known digs. Say Wesau or Hyzen. Why?"
"I've always been curious about Hyzen. Could we go there?"
"I'm coming up on the time when I'll need some off-world credit, and from what you told me, you could qualify in about a year." She looked at him.
"Would you like to do that? I mean, go for study?" The look in her eyes was enough for him; he felt warmth spread through him from her smile when he realized he had echoed thoughts she had probably been having for months.
"Nickolai," she sighed, saying what didn't need to be said, "I'd love to spend a year of my life on Hyzen with you."
He grinned, and in his best scary-video voice he said, "It'll mean terrible hardships."
She swatted him on the shoulder. "And making love every night in Zero-G."
"That can be difficult at first, and the novelty wears off after a while," Ken intoned from across the blankets. His eyes seemed to unfocus for a moment, then he blinked and looked up at them. "Nickolai, you'll need eight months of in-house training here before you'll be eligible to ship. Furry can go now, but she can always take more of those Xenolinguistics classes she professes to hate but does so well at. Tell me, Furry, Nalatadafefetidetah Copotonitadefenah?"
"Coponatedfeneh Topofaletanicatah Sopacafefetidah!" she replied just as quickly.
"What did you just say?" Nickolai asked, looking back and forth from Ken to Furry.
"He asked me if you were the person I wanted to go through life with. I said I couldn't imagine anyone else I would want to go through life with." Furry raised her eyes and smiled at him.
"And you, Nickolai? How do you feel?"
"Sir," he said, looking down at Ken defiantly, "I can't imagine anyone else I would want to go through life with either."
Ken rose from his sand seat, dusted off his pants, and walked over to them. "Witnesses, people! I need witnesses!" A crowd grew around them, and Furry and Nickolai glanced back and forth uncomfortably. Ken cleared his throat carefully. "Now then, Nickolai. Jofuran. Listen closely."
He paused for a moment. "People of Shardik Castle and honored guests, we have gathered here to witness the coimeliniel of Nickolai and Jofuran." He leaned over and out of the side of his mouth muttered to the two, "Speak now or forever hold your peace, kids."
Nickolai took a deep breath, then said "No objection."
Furry's smile threatened to reach her ears. "None here."
"Very well," Ken intoned, sounding so serious even Kiza giggled. "Nickolai, do you take Jofuran Shigokai as your coimelin?"
Nickolai nodded. "Yes."
"And Jofuran, do you take Nickolai Dittrich as your coimelin?"
Jofuran sighed. "Yes."
"Very well. By the power invested in me by these witness, Goddess only knows why they would give me such power, I pronounce you Coimelinos, a great marriage." He grinned, reached into a pocket, and handed them a small box. "Wedding presents."
Jofuran took the box and opened it. Small, glittering shapes appeared within. "Fah!"
"No, not you," she said. "I mean, well... "
"It's only jewelry," Ken said.
"Are these what I think they are?" Furry asked, pulling out one of the small rings. She handed the box to Nickolai, who pulled out the other ring.
"Yes," Ken said. "Don't ask me how they work, either," he said. "I'm not a telepath, much less a mage. But they are black diamonds mined from Jupiter's heart. Thank Molly for them. The cutter who did them had a virtual heart attack when he heard what I was going to be asking him for. Fortunately for us Pendorians, we can't have heart attacks. Well, we can, but they're not serious."
"Nickolai, give me your left hand." He reached out; Jofuran slipped the ring she held onto his ring finger. It fit perfectly. "Now put that one on me."
Nickolai fumbled; the simple band of silver metal seemed to glow with a curious light that wasn't reflected from fire or distant sectors of Pendor. On the top, a small row of five black stones glowed with their own, otherworldly light. It finally slipped onto Jofuran's hand, and Nickolai felt something enter his mind, a strange sense of... direction? "What?"
"Paired black diamonds have this peculiar telepathic effect," Ken said. "A mage tried to explain it to me, but it became so much mumbo jumbo after about three seconds. You will always know in what direction to travel to find Jofuran, and she you. I hope you don't mind them as gifts. After a while, you'll find that you don't notice it, just as you don't really notice the temperature or the humidity on a nice day. It's just there."
"Do you... ?"
"No," Ken said. "P'nyssa gave me my wedding band years before we could mine Jupiter, and I have no intention of refitting this." He turned the ring slowly around on his hand.
"Thank you, Ken," Nickolai said. Ken reached out a hand as if to shake, but when Nickolai closed his grasp, Ken pulled them both into a hug. "Thank you two," he said. "You two are spectacular people."
He released them. "Now then, let's eat!" The crowd cheered, as celebration of the ceremony or to welcome the call to food, Nickolai wasn't sure and didn't care. He looked down at Furry, a tear sliding down his cheek slowly. "I love you."
"Oh, Nickolai!" She grabbed him and held him tight. "I never doubted it for a second. I love you too." He grinned and held her tight.
They sat together, watching the crowd flow past them, enjoying each other's company quietly. It was the sort of reassurance that Nickolai felt he could fall asleep with, in her arms, holding her. "Hey, Nickolai," Ken's voice said in his ear.
"We're going to go play ultimate out on the beach. Want to join us?"
The Markal looked up. "Sure. I'd love to."
"Good," Ken said, standing up. "Okay, boys and girls. Ultimate, on the beach. Dave, assign teams in your usual unfair fashion!"
Nickolai found himself on Shardik's team, accompanied by about twenty other Pendorians of various species. The game began. The toss-off started and the disk headed straight for him. He caught it easily and was suddenly surrounded by four big felines. He tossed it off through an opening; a paw slapped it to the ground. He joined the pile to recover it. "Oof!"
That was when Nickolai met the current incarnation of the referee. "Break it up, you savages," a high-pitched and peevish male voice spoke to him. He looked up, brushing off a faceful of sand in the process, and came to face the silliest-looking image he had seen in months. It had the face of a vaguely demonic cartoon cow, glowed pink, and had the body of an equally cartoonish dragon, one wing dangling sadly. "Who is that?" he asked.
"That's Dave," Ken answered. "That's one of his sillier ELFs."
"Okay, the blues have the ball," Dave said, pointing with one wing. The voice was all wrong for the AI of Shardik Castle. "Go!"
The game was running again. Nickolai found himself often running back and forth, providing interference. He was neither as big as an Uncia or as fast as a Pamthreat and it didn't seem to matter. He was personally responsible for at least one goal, and that pleased him.
They were into the fourth quarter of the game, each quarter fifteen minutes long, a number which confused him since a Pendorian hour was only forty minutes long, although each hour was also as long as Terran hour; the Pendorian minute had been stretched significantly to make room for that discrepancy. He was running down the field; Aaden, on the other team, had gotten control of the disk and was looking for someone to throw it to. The disk sailed into the air; the entirety of both teams began converging on where they thought it would land. Two Ssphynxes ran in from the sides, and suddenly there was a loud crunch, and an even louder scream.
"Hold!" The cry went up from every corner of the beach. People froze, then scattered to make room for whoever had been hurt. He recognized her immediately. "Furry!"
"Medical!" A tall Ssphynx shouted from where he stood over her.
Nickolai ran to her, but the look on her face was one more of anger than pain. "Furry?"
"Damned ankle," she snarled. "I think it's broken."
P'nyssa's voice replied almost instantly, "Good diagnosis. It's broken, all right. Two places, in fact." A ripping sound and an inflated cuff wrapped around Furry's calf above the ankle. "How's that?"
"Better," Furry gasped. "Pain is gone."
"So is all feeling," P'nyssa warned her. "Okay, hold on. I'm going to put these bones back together. It's not going to hurt, you can't feel anything, but it's going to sound gross. Ready?"
She wasn't lying, either, Nickolai said. The grinding noise made his stomach churn horribly, and then the two snapping sounds as the bones fell back into place, broken end butted to broken end. "Okay," P'nyssa continued. "Don't move a thing. Just hold your leg still. That's hard because you can't feel anything. But just don't try to move anything." She reached into a tall, black bag and pulled out another cuff that looked like it would fit Furry's ankle perfectly. P'nyssa opened several of the clasps and fit it around the broken ankle. Then, with a small hand-held control, programmed it to rigidity. It seemed to inflate, flexed a little to get the fit perfectly, and then molded itself about Furry's leg.
"Okay," P'nyssa said. "Now, this is going to hurt."
"What?" Furry asked, looking up, concerned.
"I can't leave the cuff on. I'd rather have you out of pain than in, but I can't leave you without feeling in your foot. You need it to walk, at any rate. So I'm going to turn the neural suppresser off. Do you want it gradual or fast?"
"Depends," P'nyssa said. "Some people prefer one over the other. Neither is really 'better.' Both hurt."
"Go with the fast version," Ken suggested. "Get it over with."
"Okay," Furry said. "Do that."
"Ready?" P'nyssa asked, her hand grasping the velcro seal.
P'nyssa tugged, ripping the cuff. Nickolai gritted her teeth as Furry's face convulsed in pain, her teeth biting her lower lip and a small squeal escaping her muzzle. Her eyes opened and stared into hers, and as he watched they glazed over slightly, her body shuddering again and her mouth opening to pant heavily. "Yeah," Ken said, smiling. "You'll be okay, Furry. You really will. Not a recommended way of getting endorphins, but it works. Nickolai, do you think you can carry her back to your room?"
He nodded, reaching down underneath her shoulders and knees to lift her up. He was surprised at how easy it felt; he had apparently gotten stronger in the past couple of weeks. She wrapped her arms around him, sniffing softly. "You okay."
"Mmm-hmm," she gasped softly. "With you I am."
"You two have got to stop doing this," Ken said. "Every time you come down here, one of you gets hurt."
"It was just an accident. And nobody could predict that Nickolai would get stabbed," Furry replied.
"Yeah, but still. I hate feeling like bad luck."
"It was just an accident," Furry replied.
"You're stoned, dear."
"Yeah. And my foot hurts." They reached the SDisk and teleported back inside the Castle, walking back to their room. She grimaced slightly as Nickolai put her down. "I think I'm going to go to sleep now," she said. "I feel fuzzy."
"I hope so," Nickolai said, caressing her head softly.
"I mean, in my head. I'm tired."
"Then go to sleep."
"Okay," she said. She was out. Nickolai checked her again, dragged the covers over her, and went back upstairs to the living room. "How is she?" Ken asked when he returned.
"I think she'll be okay."
"Good," Ken sighed. "I was really worried about her."
Nickolai nodded. "Where are Garth and Kiza?"
"I think they went back to her parent's farm," Ken replied. "I asked Dave that myself a few minutes ago when I realized they weren't around."
"You're trembling!" Nickolai observed.
"I do that," Ken said. "I hate when my friends get hurt, especially at something that's supposed to be a friendly sport."
"People get hurt in sports sometimes, Ken."
"You're taking an amazingly mature attitude towards the whole situation. I'd be pissed. Maybe that's why I like you, Nickolai."
Nickolai grinned. "I don't know what your reasons are, but I'm glad you've got them."
Ken nodded. "Goodnight, Nickolai."